May 2011


While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?”  In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question.  However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.

After You Believe starts with this basic premise:

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed.  The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.

Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven.  Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal.  But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God.  And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue.  What follows are some of my thoughts.

After You Believe

I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation.  Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is.  Does it take place at salvation?  To a certain extent.  Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit?  Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation.  Will it only occur upon death/new life?  Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize.  Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation?  Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer.  Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves.  And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation.  I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this.  Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch.  We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.

This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book.  It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life.  Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle.  I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success.  I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us.  The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea.   Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?

Another quote from the book jumped out at me:  “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.”  I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point.  Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive.  Where did we get so off track?  His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests.  Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.

In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue.  But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays.  It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth.  True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.

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Since arriving back from my trip to Uganda about two weeks ago, I have been unpacking, wading through pictures, and reliving experiences.  It was a wonderful trip.  I have found processing the trip difficult, however.  I am having the same difficulty putting my observations into words as I did when my brother, Mark, asked each of us for our thoughts over pizza on the shores of Lake Victoria the last night of our trip.  I think one reason is that the trip had so many paradoxical aspects to it: it was part missions, part family vacation, part remote villages, part safari lodges, part observation, and part rolling up the sleeves.  Missions trips usually involve a lot of work; fact-finding trips necessitate many meetings; vacations require simply having fun.  This trip was a bit of all three.  So if my thoughts seem somewhat incongruous, the trip was as well.  Let me share three pictures with you.

Picture #1: Each morning at Good Shepherds Fold, I got up early, made some coffee and sat out on a porch overlooking the orphanage.  My brother, J.R., and my mom often joined me in conversation before the day got started.  Each morning I was repeatedly struck both by the unspoiled beauty of the landscape, as well as the poor economic conditions of the countryside.  I would watch people “slash” grass or plant and weed fields by hand for hours.  Children were busy playing or going to school, yet they called Good Shepherd’s Fold their home because their family could not afford to take care of them or treat things such as HIV and malaria.  Sometimes the electricity worked, sometimes it didn’t.  I marveled at the bounty of the gardens yielding mangos, tomatoes, squash, and papaya.  We counted more species of birds each morning than you would normally see in a month.  And all this from the back porch.

The back porch at GSF

There was a constant tension between the natural beauty and bounty of the land, and the socioeconomic conditions that prevented the people from utilizing those resources to better themselves.  My brother and I frequently noted how often good intentions, preconceived notions, and even tangible donations would fail to address the real issues of a place like Uganda.  We did a lot of brainstorming about what might actually address some core issues and make a difference.  I was reminded about my trip to Rwanda in 2007, where we heard aid organizations tell us, “People think that the problem in Africa is a lack of food and water.  It is actually a lack of ways to preserve the food they grow and means to capture and store the water during the rainy season.  Africa does not need more food.”  I was also fascinated by a small but increasingly vocal sentiment that aid from the West is actually doing more harm than good.  I came home and ordered the book, Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa.  There is a desperate need to be smarter with our good intentions!

Picture #2: On Good Friday, the local village church held a Good Friday service.  I confess that I was not exactly pumped to sit through a worship service that was sometimes difficult to follow and understand.  But the church is closely tied to the orphanage, and it would be another chance to play with the kids, as well as remember the events of Good Friday.  Local villagers made their way to the church. The service was filled with singing, some dancing, and testimonies.  Being the guests, kids often climbed on your lap or wanted your attention.  This was followed by the Easter Sunday service and a meal complete with roasted pig and goat.  The meal was delicious!  It was our last day at Good Shepherd’s Fold before going on safari, so we used lunch as an opportunity to say our goodbyes and get pictures with the kids we had gotten to know during the week.

Good Friday at GSF

I had a moment in that Good Friday service, listening to the singing and watching the locals, where I thought, “Here I am celebrating Good Friday in a small church in a village in Uganda.”  And then the thought struck me, “This place is not out of God’s way.”  I may have had to travel 9,000 miles via airplanes, busy streets, and bumpy dirt roads, but it was no effort for God to be present in that church at that moment.  In fact, God was just as present there as he was in any American church celebrating Good Friday.  Then my mind took it one step further, “I wonder which service Jesus would rather attend?”  I reflected back on some of the big, slick Easter productions that would be taking place in churches everywhere back in the States.  I won’t presume to answer that question for Jesus, but I can tell you that I was quite content worshipping in that little remote village church that evening.  It was a perfect way to celebrate Easter!

Picture #3: The last five days of our trip were spend on safari in Murchison National Park, taking in some of the most spectacular scenery and wildlife you will ever see – early morning game tracks, brilliant sunsets, elephants, rhinos, lions, giraffe, and cape buffalo, just to name a few.  Each day presented us with more than we could possibly take in.  We took an evening hike through part of the park – guided of course, because the park is full of wildlife.  We witnessed a lion with a kill, a hyena making a kill, and giraffes fighting.  Murchison Falls is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world.  I could go on and on.

Murchison National Park

I have been on a one-day safari before in Rwanda, and I remember a similar feeling of just being in awe.  I will share some of what I wrote in my journal after that experience because it sums this experience up nicely: “I think I understand being in God’s creation a little better now.  I am part of the animals’ world; unlike zoos, I am the one on display; I am confined to a truck on a dirt road traveling through their world.  It reminded me that all I can do is travel through creation taking one moment at a time, never being certain what is around the next corner.  There is no sense of being in control here – it is dangerous.  Living life from God’s perspective would be to live that same way: knowing that I am in God’s world, that I am not in control, traveling with a sense of awe and exhilaration, always anticipating what God has for me around the corner.”