Monday, December 20, 2010

Sufjan Eschatology

I am amazed by Sufjan Steven's latest, "The Age of Adz." I'm still taking in all of the complexities and intricacies of this incredibly rich work. As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to part from my usual ways on this blog and offer a theological response to this cd.

I'll start with the title. Given the "end times" motif of the record, I'm pretty sure "Adz" means "in the year of our Lord Z." A.D., of course, comes from the Latin phrase, "anno domini," which means, "in the year of our Lord." Since we don't know the last number (they are infinite, after all), I think Stevens used the last letter of our alphabet to signal the last day. Where infinity seems to run forever, the end is still in sight: thus, we "rot" and experience "eternal living" (two themes Stevens mashes together in the title track). Like most of his work, Stevens loves to explore the paradox of our faith.

Gloria and Victoria.

More theological ramblings (mine and his?) to come.

Friday, December 10, 2010

For Buck

I’ve been thinking a lot about you lately, and I don’t know why.

You died last May. It still hurts to think about it. When you were on your death bed—just a few days before you died—I called you and told you that you were one of the best Christians I’ve ever known; I wanted to say more. But, you were tired, and I could tell, in your usual humble way, you didn’t want to hear it. You simply said, “That’s very nice,” and then asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine and that I had been thinking a lot about you, that many of your friends had been praying for you—that God would heal you from the cancer that eventually took your life. You told me how much your friends had helped you in your last days, how your sweet wife, Pam, was there for you, that you appreciated every thing. You didn’t know it, but I was weeping uncontrollably. I said, “You’re almost there.” Then you said, “Yes. But I still have a ways to go.”

When you died I felt lonely. That’s because I always thought of you as the one Christian I could count on to be all about the Kingdom. That was you—the man who was all about the Kingdom. Of course, many knew you as a fine surgeon—the guy who single-handedly brought “laproscopy” (did I spell it right? You’d probably laugh that I asked) to Mongolia. You and Pam were always on one of your mission trips—to Africa, to Mongolia. You both loved the Mongolian people, and they loved you, too. To others, you were the guy who started the “In His Steps” ministry on the poor side of town (but you wouldn’t like it that I called it that). But that’s what it was—these were people who had little. You taught the Bible and shared your life with them. To them you weren’t “Dr. Rusher.” They called you “Buck” and “my Bible study teacher.” They loved you, too.

I miss you, Buck. I know I’m not the only one. Your lovely wife, daughter and son, son-in-law and daughter-in-law—and especially your grandchildren—they miss you more. I know once I moved to Bolivar we didn’t have much time to talk. You invited me several times to come down and duck hunt with you. I wish now I would have come every time you offered. I’ll miss your emails, too. Whenever you’d ask questions about the Bible, it reminded of the times we’d talk about our faith—your insatiable desire to know the Word of God was so refreshing. Many Christians don’t know the Bible; when I try to inspire them to read it more, their eyes glaze over, like I’m boring them to tears. But you couldn’t get enough. I loved that about you.

There’s so much more I want to say. When I think about you now—enjoying the things we wondered about—I feel better. But, I still miss you. I guess I’m still grieving. I just had to tell you these things.

I feel like I should say,”Merry Christmas!” But, that doesn’t sound right. So, instead I’ll say, “Glory to God in the Highest!” (I think you’d like that better anyway.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A Christmas Story

The Word became flesh and lived among us. Words embodied. Ideas becoming reality. Poetry in motion. Truth seen. Mystery felt. Verbal and nonverbal. Thought and action. Axis and praxis. A metaphor that tastes good.

Unto you a child is born. Predictions fulfilled. God becoming a baby. Heaven on earth. Singing stars. Wise guys. Common folk. Sorrow and joy. Good news and bad news. Dreams and visions. A story that never gets old.

Jesus is the reason for the season. Economies stimulated. Christians becoming defensive. Living in America. Worn out cliches. Trivial pursuits. Carols and cars. Glitter and gold. Food and drink. A holiday that takes more than it gives.

Friday, November 05, 2010

My secret heresy

I'm color blind. I don't think about it much except during this time of year in the Ozarks. Many times I hear, "aren't the colors wonderful this time of year." I know what they mean; they're talking about the reds and oranges and yellows (and variations of the same?) that color the fall foliage. Most of the time I simply say, "yes. It's beautiful." But what I really mean is: "I don't agree with you because I don't see the world like you do."

I dread what usually happens when others find out I'm color blind. It's the endless, "what color is this? . . . and this? . . . and this?" Sometimes they laugh, amused by my answers. Others (the more sensitive types) empathize, or speculate, "I wonder what it would be like to see the world through your eyes." My children once mused, "Maybe Dad is the only one to see colors as they really are, and we're the ones who are confused . . . . Nah!"

I used to make comments about the colors of the world. (For example, when our folks visited us in the U.K. years ago, we took them to Scotland during winter. I made the comment, "Aren't the green hills beautiful?" Later, my family confessed they said to each other [under their breath], "poor guy. He doesn't see that everything's dead and brown."

I can't tell the difference between blue and purple, green and brown, pink and grey, red and brown. I'm told my "rods" are misproportioned--we see color through the triangularization of the RGB color scheme--each rod (Red, Green, and Blue) must be equal length to see color "correctly"). Some of my "rods" are shorter than others. So my color vision is imperfect, slightly eschewed, off color--if you will.

I've recently wondered whether my color "world view" has colored my theological "world view." That is to say, I seem to have the same feelings when I hear others speak rather confidently about the inherent beauty of certain theological ideas. Sometimes I say, "Yes. It is wonderful." But most of the time I feel like saying, "I don't agree because I don't see the world like you do."

I'm rediscovering a simple idea: there are many things about God that I don't want to believe about Him; but I do anyway. Like, I don't want to believe in a God who said, "Kill the Amalekites." But, I do. I don't want to believe in a God who didn't spare His own Son from the horrendous evil of crucifixion. But, I do. I don't want to believe in a God who shows mercy to my enemies. But, I do. I don't want to believe in a God who made imperfect "rods" so as not to see the "natural" beauty of what has been made. But, I do. I don't want to believe in a God who gives sight to some and not others. But, I do.

Perhaps it's because I can't see things "as they really are." But, I do.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Why I am not a cynic

“All the world’s a stage, and we are merely the actors.” The genius of Shakespeare is that he knew there was more to life than meets the eye. His plays about life would tell a story even better than life, enticing his audience to live vicariously through the actors. He used the invisible wall of the theater as a window through which an audience could play God for a day. To see everything that happens, hearing all private conversations, knowing all intimate thoughts, to look upon a world of movement, watching a plot unfold toward its inevitable conclusion, essentially, to be omniscient was to any audience a divine ability reserved only for deity. That invisible wall, however, was more than a window gaining access to a world full of actors. Shakespeare knew the wall was a mirror, making the audience take in the full reflection of their own image—the undeniable weakness of humanity, the perpetual problem of the human condition, the complicated web of human relationships, lies masked by flattery, deception concealed by mock friendships, ulterior motives, feigned sincerity. In an unforgettable scene from Hamlet, the prince hopes to prove his theory that his uncle murdered his father in order to get the crown as well as the queen. He hires a theatrical troop to perform his hastily written play that frames the new king. Before the play is performed for the benefit of Hamlet’s mother and her new husband, the prince gives last minute advice to the actors:

“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now, this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theater of others.”

Shakespeare revealed to all—with eyes to see and ears to hear—that the world really is a great stage of players.

“What’s going on here?” Alarming revelations wake us up to the reality that what you see is not necessarily what you get. Most of us move to the steady drum of daily routines, comfortable habits, weekly schedules that lull us to sleep. We carry on without suspicions, mostly taking things as they come. Then, something terrible happens. A crime has been committed. A good person has done a bad thing. Embarrassing details reveal the difference between a man and his reputation. Shocked and disappointed, the majority opinion is repeated over and over again, “I never would have suspected him of doing something like that,” trying to come to terms with the unacceptable. Conspiratorialists rush in with their complicated theories of sinister forces and the underworld. Alarmists jump to the conclusion of widespread abuse. The intelligentsia debate whither and whence. The naïve refuse to believe that life can really be that bad. The cynics laugh from a distance, chuckling to themselves, “we told you so.”

So, in the play called life, what part are we playing? Well, who likes the choices? The sleepy masses, the rabid conspirator, the chicken little prophet, the pretentious pundit, the naïve fool, the self-righteous cynic—these modern-day Shakespearean parts are not very appealing. We may all, at one time or another, belong to the sleepy masses—but who wants to admit it? Conspiracies reveal more about the theorist than the real world. Prophets of doom are predictable. Pundits speak as if everyone values their opinions (but who’s listening?). Everyone knows that ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. The only part that seems to have any actors competing for the same role these days is the one played by the cynic. To rise above the rest, never taken in by surprise, untouched by tragic twists in the plot of life, never to be fooled by duplicity—to play the cynic—this seems to be the favorite role of many today. And, I can see why, since it is easier to be against something than for something else.

The world is filled with injustice, the problem of evil and suffering persists, and no one seems to have any answers. But, does it mean that we have to accept things as they are? Aren’t we supposed to make the world a better place? We know we must live with tragedy, but do we have to put up with evil run amok? Who will save us from this hour? Enter stage right: the problem solvers of our world—politicians, scientists, educators, preachers. Politicians appeal to the noble desire of “everyman” for the public good to encourage citizens to service the needs of the community. Scientists harness the power of nature using technological advances in their germ warfare against sickness, disease, and death. Educators seek to silence prejudice, bigotry, hatred, and intolerance fueled by ignorance by reminding all of us of what we know. Preachers persist in announcing “good news” from their pulpits, with sermons about the love of God, the faith of believers, and hope for the world.

Enter stage left: the cynic. With his diatribe, the cynic mocks humanity’s futile attempt to change the world. He delights in reminding us that heroes rarely live up to the expectations of their admirers. Crusaders eventually reveal selfish motives in their campaign for change. Power always corrupts. Notoriety drives discovery. Knowledge breeds arrogance. There is no cure for the common cold much less for what ails the world. Viruses mutate, anti-bodies become impotent. Death rules over life. There will always be wars and rumors of wars. History rarely teaches us anything. Personal ambition always takes precedence over the greatest good. And, in a world that cannot be saved, faith looks more like hype, and hope is the great pretender. The cynic won’t let anyone be fooled by the pretense of those who say they have the answer. No man is sovereign. No woman controls her own destiny. There is no Savior. This may all sound pretty dark, but the cynic claims that he’s the only honest person who has the courage to tell the truth, to unmask the hypocrisy of the human heart. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee.

There’s a famous story about Diogenes, the cynic philosopher of the 4th century B.C., and his brief encounter with Alexander the Great that sounds more like the modern tale of the urban male. It is said that Alexander once approached Diogenes, who was basking in the rays of the sun, with the offer, “Ask any favor you wish.” Diogenes simply replied, “Get out of my sunlight.” For the most part, we act the same way. The people we used to look up to are now only standing in our way. We don’t believe anymore in the virtue of public service. Parents don’t want their kids to grow up to be president. The Church has lost touch with the real world. Preachers are passed off as a bad parody of themselves. Institutions of higher learning have turned into big business, where students are treated like consumers and educators are dismissed as bureaucrats of knowledge. Like Diogenes, we prefer to heckle those who stand over us, those who think they have real answers for real problems. We’ve been disappointed too many times to be taken in by these professional hucksters. Too many leaders have fallen, too many scandals have rocked our world, too many gullible people have fallen prey to the manipulation of the masses. Cynical of life, it’s our job to bring them back to reality; never believe the hype; always look for the loop hole; challenge the status quo; never play follow the leader; and above all else, keep our hands clean when “the play” goes wrong. Then, when the world falls apart again, we can say we weren’t surprised, we can say we are not to blame, we can shout from the balcony the words we long to say, “we told you so.”

But, we are Christians; we believe God came down from the balcony and became an actor, part of the human drama. Never missing a cue, delivering the role of a Savior to perfection, God-in-human-flesh showed us all how we are to live, what we are supposed to do. He knew the purpose of the play, the meaning of life. He revealed to us the most excellent way. His heart was pure; His aim was true. He set the standard. Yet, Jesus was everyman. He understands how hard it is down here. He was fully acquainted with our grief. He bore our sorrows. He was pierced through for our transgressions. He corrected our mistakes. “The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.” We believe God made a difference—that we are not left to ourselves to figure things out. Shouts from the balcony won’t do. We needed to see God.

That’s why I am not a cynic. I believe the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. I believe that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins. The cross proves that God doesn’t turn His back on injustice. The cross proves that He understands what hatred feels like. The cross proves that He won’t let evil run amok. The cross proves that God loves. And, he calls every single one of us—those who have ears to hear and eyes to see—to carry that cross, all the way to the end of the play.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Subverting the Cynics
(or, why I didn't hear about faithfulness, salvation,
and the Spirit)

I heard most of what John Caputo and Peter Rollins had to say last Friday evening during an event called "Subverting the Norm," held on the campus of Drury University. Caputo is a philosopher from Syracuse University who wrote (among other things) "What Would Jesus Deconstruct?," and Rollins is an "emergent" leader from Northern Ireland who wrote (among other things) "The Orthodox Heretic." Several speakers were featured during the weekend gabfest, where those disenchanted with traditional forms of Christianity gathered to find encouragement.

Caputo used Hegel's dialectical determinism to make sense of the inexplicable essence of our faith (what Caputo called "the event"), where true hope is found in hopelessness, true forgiveness is only offered when the offense is unforgivable, and faith is grounded in doubt. The binary context of Caputo's symbolic world almost compelled me to offer my profound appreciation for his talk by saying, "I truly understand what you're saying because I misunderstand this event"). But, that would be disingenuous because I think I understand "the event" called "Subverting the Norm."

It dawned on me as I began to take in Rollins' remarks (who spoke after Caputo). There, in large letters projected on the flat screen monitor, was the theme for the gathering, "Subverting the Norm." I thought, "That would be an apt description of the cynics of the first-century, their raison d'etre, the banner for their movement. In fact, if they were to have had a meeting [but they wouldn't--they're cynics after all!] they probably would have given it the same title." Then, Rollins began to sermonize about the failure of traditional Christianity, and the reason his community of faith (called "Eikon") in N. Ireland explored ways of reclaiming Christian faith for the wounded, the doubters, the rebels, the disenfranchised, the hopeless. (By the way, several times--in the midst of Caputo's and Rollins' talk--I almost shouted, "Amen.")

Their's is an impossible task (something both Caputo and Rollins recognize). They're fighting a war on two fronts, taking on two ideological worlds that are worlds apart: the strident atheists and the dogmatic theists. To the power-hungry atheists, ready to disabuse all of us poor souls of our silly notions of God and Spirit, these post-post modern prophets declare hope. And, to the obscurantist Christians, convinced that complexities have no place in genuine faith, these neo-dogmaticians prescribe angst. In other words, sometimes Caputo and Rollins sounded like champions of the disenchanted. And, at other times, they sounded like priests of a new institution.

It's easier to be against something than for something. Reacting against what's wrong (the cynic critic) almost comes naturally to those of us who think we have something to say. And yet, trying to be for something without becoming the very thing you despise (agenda!) is the natural consequence of the human condition. I saw that when Rollins showed pictures of his community back home--the trademarked "Eikon," worship as theatre, the outsiders becoming insiders (and vice versa--"down with those pesky fundamentalists!"). And, I heard it in Caputo's voice, when he spelled out what "the event" must look like: "if it doesn't address issues of justice and inclusion, it's not genuine." Hope and judgment--these ideas are hard to hold onto when you're not trying to sound like something you are.

In other words, they were talking about "faithfulness" and the need for "salvation" and the work of the "Spirit." But, seemed afraid to say so.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Misunderstood Man

Now that I've finished working through Paul's Spirituality (the MS is in the editor's hands now), I've come to a rather predictable (yet at the same time) startling conclusion: next to Jesus, Paul is one of the most misunderstood persons in Christian history.

I think he gets a bad rap for many things, accused of being a misogynist, intransigent theologian, impulsive missionary, pretentious apostle, incoherent thinker, and aimless rebel. (Those who think so have missed the essence of the man.)

Indeed, the more I think about him, the more I've come to the conclusion that Paul may have been the best example of what it means to follow Jesus than anyone else. And, the irony is, of course, that he never followed the historical Jesus. Amazing man. I wish we had someone today who took their faith as seriously as our St. Paul. I would love to see what that looks like.

Here's one Gentile who wants to say: "Thanks, Paul, for showing us what a life compelled by the love of Christ should look like--even today. I'm glad you're our apostle. I'll be standing behind you, with millions of your children in Christ, the day you present us to our Lord (1 Thess. 2:19)."

Friday, October 08, 2010

Prayer is defiance (one last tidbit from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

Because Paul wore Christ’s resurrection like body armor, the apostle was expecting a fight. He wasn’t surprised when he encountered resistance to the gospel (3:10-12). In fact, the armor of God explains why Paul kept returning to the same places where he was nearly killed. When you know you’re going to be raised from the dead on the last day, then no one or nothing can stop the proclamation of the gospel. To march in the army of Christ’s resurrection is an act of war against the devil. This is why Paul kept asking his converts to pray for him and for one another while he was in prison (Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:3-11; 4:6; Col 4:2-4). It wasn’t simply a matter of asking for divine protection in the face of suffering and death. Paul knew Satan wouldn’t give up the battle. If the devil couldn’t threaten Christ believers with fear of suffering and death, then he would use other “schemes” to try to subvert the work of Christ. If he couldn’t win the fight using a frontal assault (worry, fear, suffering, and death cannot penetrate the armor of Christ), then he would get Christ believers to fight one another, stabbing each other in the back. That’s when the devil shows up in Paul’s letters. Paul accused Satan of trying to sneak into the churches as an “angel of light” and create dissension (2 Cor 11:13-15). Paul warned the Corinthians that Satan would exploit the unforgiving spirit of the house churches when a repentant member was excommunicated (2 Cor 2:5-11). Paul told the Ephesians not to “make room for the devil” by lying, cheating, and talking bad about one another (Eph 4:25-29). Embittered and angry, the Ephesians were grieving the Holy Spirit because they weren’t being “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you” (vv. 30-32).

This is why Paul kept reminding his converts to pray; Christ believers overcome Satan through prayer (1 Cor 7:5; 2 Thess 3:1-3). Prayer is confidence, an act of defiance against evil and suffering in a fallen world (2 Thess 1:5-12; Eph 3:8-21). Prayer is a memorial, an act of remembering what God has done (1 Thess 1:2-3; Phil 1:3-5). Prayer is perseverance, an act of thanksgiving knowing God will always be on our side (Eph 6:18-20; Col 4:2-4). When we pray for one another, we’re claiming God’s power is supreme. When we pray for one another, we remember our battle is not against “flesh and blood,” but against the powers of darkness. When we pray, we remind each other that we’re living between the “already” and “not yet” of Christ’s resurrection. When we pray, we contend for what is right. When we pray, we are telling the world we have nothing to fear. When we pray, we prove that we’re still fighting. When we pray, we find peace with God because He “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). When we pray, we are taking on the powers. The fact that we are able to fight proves that we have already won the battle.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Jesus as a middle-aged man?

I wonder what Jesus would have been like as a man in his 40s? Of course, most men didn't even make it to the age of 30 in his day (disease and war insured a high mortality rate--70 was the far end of living). But, I can't help but wonder if Jesus would have calmed down a bit, been a little less driven, a little more withdrawn if he had lived another 10 to 20 years. Would he have ever gotten to the point where he said, "Ah, the heck with it," and decided to go home and live out his years in peace and quiet?

Here's a heads-up for all of you 20-somethings (then again, I'm sure you've already noticed): the older you get, the less your zeal for "making a difference" in the world. As a matter of fact, the older I get, the more I don't care about the world, with all of its cultural trappings. I think I'm turning into an old codger. There's so much "buzz" in our culture I don't hear anymore. All the hype that goes along with the superficiality of what is "hot" has almost become annoying to me. I've been thinking lately about all the programs I don't watch, all of the cultural memes that are irrelevant to my life (it especially shows up during commercials--the idiocy is breathtaking). It's caused me to doubt whether I am a true American, thoroughly soaked in the American way of life: can you be a true American and never have watched a WWF match (or any other pay-per-view sports event), or been to a NASCAR race, or bought anything from the shopping channels, or watched a single reality-tv show all the way through?

There are so many things that are evidently very popular that I've never done. I think I'm turning into a hermit, an old man who prefers to sit on his front porch, stare at the beauty of simple things--grass, cows, trees, birds--and proudly come to the conclusion that the world has passed me by.


Thursday, September 09, 2010

The State Religion of America (excerpt from book on Paul's Spirituality)

A few years ago our youngest daughter, Grace, was trying to explain how she negotiated the daily drama of her social world at middle school. One student was giving his female classmates fits, but Grace was able to dismiss the boy’s antics; she claimed he never got to her because she was able to size him up. “He’s a telepathic liar,” she said confidently. Grinning from ear to ear, Grace’s older brother and sister almost said simultaneously, “You mean, ‘pathological liar.’” But before Grace could agree, I wanted to enjoy her unintentional pun: “You know, I think she’s right. Maybe he is a telepathic liar. He may look like he’s telling the truth. But, Grace knows different: she’s reading his mind.” Then, turning to my thirteen-year-old daughter I said, “Grace. I hope you’re able to keep that ability. It will come in handy when you get older and have to deal with boys on a regular basis,” at which point our son (who majored in philosophy) and our oldest daughter (who majored in biology) playfully began to debate the metaphysical question, “what is real?”, by correlating gender issues and the differences between pathology and telepathy. Comments like, “men are pigs” and “women are trappers,” were bantered about as each combatant relied upon science and reason to score points in the battle of the sexes.

Nature (“men are pigs”) versus nurture (“women are trappers”) is the common dialectic by which we make sense of human behavior. We rely upon science to tell us why certain persons do certain things. Social scientists argue that context is key; individuals are conditioned to respond in certain ways due to the sum of their past experiences. Biological scientists maintain that we’re all hard-wired to behave a particular way; our genetic makeup predetermines how we will respond to different situations. In either case, the presumption of our quest—explaining why “men are pigs” or why “women are trappers”—is that science holds all the answers. In fact, it may be safe to say that science is the state religion in the west. Geneticists are prophets who predict our future; physicians are priests who serve in the temple of health. When they are unable to answer our questions, “why did this happen?” or “what is the prognosis?” or “what is the remedy?”, we fall into despair, troubled by the uncertainty of life. We want—we crave—certainty. So, a new “Calvinism” has been developed to make us feel better about our lot. Its theology is biology, where faith is the gift of reason and the doctrine of predestination is sorted out in the lab. We believe because test results are determinative.

What I find most puzzling is how this new “religion” found fertile soil in the land of American individualism.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

One, simple observation

I am amazed how quickly Christians sacrifice the gospel on the altar of their particular political ideology(ies). And, to make matters worse, we don't even realize when we do it.

God help us.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Resurrection Faith

The resurrection of Christ is an unstoppable work of God in the life of every believer. In spite of life’s disappointments—regardless of how things appear—Paul was convinced that God would finish what He started: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). For just as believers experience the death of Christ and are buried with him through baptism, we are also destined to share in his resurrection. But, it isn’t simply a matter of our body—suffering from the effects of sin—being restored, reclaimed, remade after death. As far as Paul was concerned, God had already begun to raise the dead when any person turns to Christ in faith. It was God’s design from the beginning not only to raise a worn-out body from the dead, but also to raise a broken heart from the dead, to raise a contrite spirit from the dead, to raise a corrupt mind from the dead, to raise a troubled soul from the dead. When it comes to Christ’s resurrection, nothing is left behind. When old things pass away, everything becomes new. On the last day, the resurrection will be obvious. Until then, we simply have to wait for time to catch up with the reality of what God has already done through Christ in us. Indeed, if the resurrection of Christ teaches us anything it’s this: death’s days are numbered—it’s only a matter of time till everyone sees the resurrection reign of Christ.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Foolish Generosity (more from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

Paul believed the church was home, where no one operated with a sense of entitlement and everyone knew they were needed. Paul believed his converts were family, where every member worked for the good of everyone and no one could afford to be selfish. That’s why he chose to “work with his own hands.” Although he was entitled to receive pay for preaching the gospel, he set aside the privilege so he wouldn’t be a burden to the Thessalonians (2 Thess. 3:8-9). Even while Paul was in Thessalonica, he accepted financial support from the Philippians (Phil. 4: 15-16; evidently, Paul didn’t find enough work in Thessalonica to support himself, even though he worked “night and day,” 2 Thess. 3:8). So, the Philippians—Christians of some means—sent money while he was laboring in Thessalonica. Evidently, the Thessalonian believers were poor and relied upon each other for economic support. In fact, Paul described the Macedonians (the province that included Philippi and Thessalonica) as churches that had endured a “severe ordeal of affliction” and gave to the relief offering in spite of their “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). Obviously the Philippians were not the impoverished ones; when the Thessalonians were persecuted by their neighbors, it must have included economic reprisals (1 Thess. 2:14; 3:3-7). Ostracized by their community, the Thessalonians looked to each other for food, work, help, and support—they were family. To refuse to work would mean that others would have to work harder to supply bread for the family. Therefore, by refusing to exercise his rights, Paul modeled what church family is supposed to look like: a group of selfless people who put everyone’s interest above their own, just like Christ. It’s no wonder hospitality thrived in an environment like that; and it’s no wonder early Christians were so vulnerable in their generosity. They worked hard and gave much. It would be easy to take advantage of a group like that.

I wish the church today had the same reputation: a group so generous it would be easy to take advantage of us. But, I don’t see that happening for several reasons. We don’t rely upon each other like the church in Paul’s day. That’s because we’re convinced what happened in the early church should never be repeated (Acts 4:32-37). The Acts experiment only created needy people; selling possessions to help others didn’t last long. Isn’t that why Paul had to collect a relief offering in the first place? Second, we believe in self-sufficiency. We’ve been taught the only person you can count on is yourself. To rely upon others for personal resources is failure. Being needy is foolish. But Paul saw the church as a family of needy people, which is why he believed it would take every single one of us to make it through life together—something I learned in the middle of an ice storm. We’ve also lost the first gift of the church: hospitality. The earliest church was “forced” to discover the power of hospitality because they met for worship in homes. “Welcome to church” was the same as “welcome to our family.” But in our day hospitality is something you pay for; those who own hotels are said to be in the “hospitality business” (I owe this insight to Jan Peterson). We’ve limited hospitality to welcoming visitors to our worship services with a smile and a handshake—anything more you have to pay for. Finally, our sense of entitlement steals away any chance for us to be foolishly generous. We are entitled to the money we earn. So, only those who are entitled to our help receive it. How soon we forget that most jobs require able-bodied persons, there are no guarantees to good health, and no one owns their daily bread—all are gifts from a very generous God—something we call “grace.” Indeed, if the power to work is a gift from God, how much more the fruit of our labor?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Focus on which family?

Everyone knows you shouldn’t take marital advice from a single man. But it is an undeniable fact that both the founder of our faith and the apostle to the Gentiles were single men. And, to make matters worse, Jesus had some pretty harsh things to say about family relations (Lu. 9:57-62; 12:51-53; 14:26). In a radical departure from the norms of his day (where family identity meant everything), Jesus redefined his earthly family in light of his kingdom mission: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (8:21). His behavior proved he meant it; he treated his disciples more like brothers than his own family. Paul certainly believed the same. He acted like his converts were his family; he was especially fond of using familial terms to describe their relationship (“Though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me,” 1 Cor. 4:15-16). So, when Paul gave advice to his converts about marriage, he thought he was acting like their family father, arranging marriages (or discouraging them) for their own good—being completely devoted to Christ. Marriage that compromised such devotion would be nothing but trouble, “and I would spare you that” (7:28). One more reason why he sent his “son” Timothy to remind his Corinthian children of “his ways” in Christ, “as I teach them everywhere in every church” (4:17).

But what would Paul say to us, two thousand years later? Would he give us the same advice? Some might say, “absolutely, because the American family has become an idol in the church,” and in certain respects, I can see why. We know families have been in crisis for quite some time: Christian marriages end in divorce about the same rate as the national average. One can draw the startling inference that our faith makes no difference when it comes to husbands and wives living together (or could it be Paul was right? Perhaps these Christian couples should have remained single). This led some, especially in the evangelical world, to “focus on the family,” to save the institution from adversarial forces, making it our number one priority. Parachurch ministries were launched, political alliances were formed, enemies were targeted, problems were addressed, and resources were gathered to preserve family values. Marquis issues (abortion, euthanasia, ERA, teenage pregnancy, public versus private education, school curricula, gay marriage) came and went in order to rally the troops during the battle to protect the family. Other countermeasures were installed to make sure the church was doing everything it could to make Christian marriages strong: pre-marital counseling, pre-school programs, parenting classes, marriage seminars, men’s ministries, women’s ministries. The implication was unmistakable: the American family was under assault and we should do whatever it takes to save this sacred institution. But, in our attempts to make Christian families ideal, we forgot our most important obligation: devotion to Christ (not the family) is what makes a man or a woman a Christian.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Artists make me think about the Holy Spirit

More and more I've come to love artists--not just for their craft, but for their heart. Whether visual or literary, musical or pictorial, artists help me see the work of God in ways I could never get from academia. To be sure, most people already know this; I admit that I'm a slow learner.

There can be no creativity without God--the Master Creator. The evil one has created nothing. He will never create anything (and I think that drives him mad). But we, made in God's image, create. What a generous God we worship.

Why would He share such power with us? Why would the Holy Spirit inspire such beauty? Why did Jesus prefer fiction? Because He is God. He can't help it. He is beauty. He is creativity. He is the story. Creation reveals the glory of God. We are the creative work of God so that we can do the creative work of God. Receiving and giving. Being and becoming. Art and artist.

I am overwhelmed by the sheer joy of art because God is.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Sermon in the Valley (aka the Sermon on the Mount upside down)

Last Sunday I broke from conventional wisdom and preached an "anti-sermon." I took Jeff Foxworthy's bit ("you may be a redneck if . . .") and used it to recover the provocation of Jesus' famous Sermon in Matthew 5-7. (BTW, have you noticed Foxworthy's audience is composed primarily of rednecks laughing at each other?). What most people miss (especially at the end) is that the entire sermon was directed against the scribes and the Pharisees. So, I went through the sermon--hitting the highlights (an impossible task!)--and tried to turn Jesus' teaching upside down, rendering the following monologue (a few examples):

You might be a Pharisee if you believe people get what they deserve.

You might be a Pharisee if you believe the world would be a better place if everyone kept the ten commandments (or especially if you believe it's your job to enforce the decalogue).

You might be a Pharisee if you believe God hates your political enemies as much as you do.

You might be a Pharisee if you're convinced people love to hear you pray.

You might be a Pharisee if you ask God, "why me?" when bad things happen to you.

You might be a Pharisee if you believe you're on the "straight on narrow."

Before I ended the sermon by following Jesus' lead (there are two paths, two choices: either you enter the broad way that many righteous people find [Pharisaism] or the narrow path which is the Jesus way [mercy!]), I asked the congregation to add to the list. Here are a few zingers they offered:

You might be a Pharisee if you think God cares what you think.

You might be a Pharisee if you believe your denomination is theologically correct.

The anti-sermon seemed to inspire the congregation more than I anticipated. It's the most fun I've had preaching a sermon in a long time. And, I didn't like it at all--left me very conflicted.

Jesus' Sermon on the Mount was more provocative than I expected.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Church as Family (another excerpt)

Paul never talked about his immediate family in his letters. As far as we can tell, he never mentioned his parents, or his brothers or sisters if he had them; he never referred to his grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, or nieces. That is startling to me. That’s because, like all of us, I can’t help but talk about my family. They come up in daily conversation all the time. Much to their chagrin, they even pop up in my sermons and writing (most of the time, I get their prior approval; but sometimes I’m inspired, in the moment, I can’t help it). On the other hand, I rarely talk about our church. And predictably, when I do, it normally has something to do with what’s happening on Sundays—the worship service, different programs, Sunday school classes, musical events. I never think about what my church is doing on Monday, or Tuesday, or any other day of the week (unless there is a special activity). In other words, I see the world through the eyes of my family—“wonder how the day is going for Sheri”—and church is ancillary to my life, something that supports my life, my family. And, many churches gladly assume this assigned role; they even market themselves as “family friendly.”

Paul would have us view things the other way around. To him church is family, a people that consumes our daily thoughts and conversations. What if we saw the world like he did? What if we acted as if church were family? What if talked about members as if they were our brothers and sisters? What if the welfare of the church were the most important concern in our lives—more than our work, more than our friends, more than our spouses or children or parents? In other words, what if we were to imitate Paul? What would that look like today? Some of us might be tempted to dismiss the idea as “cultic.” But, then again, if church is supposed to be more than a time and a place, then what are we supposed to do? If church is our family, how should that affect our every-day lives? If Paul, the apostle to Gentiles, is our father in the faith, then how should we behave as his children?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Baptism as burial (excerpts from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

For some reason, Paul thought baptism was a way of participating in the burial of Christ (Ro. 6:4; Col. 2:12). That idea is found nowhere else in the New Testament. Of course, almost all of the other writers mention baptism—Luke, Peter, John, Matthew, even the author of Hebrews. And, in most places baptism is referenced as a given, as if readers didn’t need a description of the practice or its significance. Indeed, we are left to infer the logistics (who? where? what? when? how?) and theology (why?) of the ritual. And, when it comes to Paul, things get more complicated. That’s because Paul used baptism—with all of its vagaries and mystifying qualities—in order to make a point about something else. In fact, in every case but one (Ro. 6:1-4), Paul referred to baptism when he was trying to get his converts to learn how to get along with each other (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor. 1:13-17; 12:13; 15:29; Col. 2:12; Eph. 4:5). In other words, Paul never tried to put on paper his theology of baptism; he never felt obliged to explain it. And yet, baptism was a very important touchstone for Paul—especially when he wanted to remind his converts of what they had already committed themselves to from the beginning.

If a man like Paul died in the big city he had to rely upon friends to make sure he received an honorable burial (cf. Matt. 27:57-60). That’s because most merchants and craftsmen who worked in the city left their hometowns in order to ply their trade (notice how often we hear of Paul’s associates in one city, then the next, e.g., Prisca and Aquila lived and worked in Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome). In fact, in most cities there were burial clubs, a volunteer society of poor working class members who promised to bury their dead friends with honors, even holding memorial services on the birthday of the deceased. Sometimes they would gather at the tomb of their dead friend to share a drink or even a memorial meal. To the Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians and Romans, the church probably sounded like another burial society, what with all of its talk about members being buried with Christ and sharing table in memorial. In fact, within a century early Christians began the practice of being buried together in shared tombs—having “died in Christ” they were therefore “buried with Christ.” Or, it could also be that to some of Paul’s contemporaries, baptism may have resembled certain pagan rituals that were performed in order to insure safe passage in the afterlife for the deceased. Some scholars suggest such influences from their religious past may explain the bizarre Corinthian practice of baptizing for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29). In that case, Paul’s converts had simply misunderstood the significance of the ritual, i.e., even though baptism was a rite of passage from death to life, Paul was talking about a different kind of death and life at a different time. Indeed, according to Paul, buried with Christ through baptism pictured both the death and new life of the convert in Christ before the grave. Some of the Corinthians thought they could help their friends after the grave by being baptized for them (like the Mormons do). But, when it came to his Corinthian converts, what concerned Paul more than the misapplied ritual was their confusion over what they died to and who they were to live for when they were buried with Christ.

Paul often used the rite of baptism to explain how the rights of an individual are sacrificed for the welfare of the church. We often speak of Christ’s death and resurrection as a theological starting place for understanding our spirituality. Indeed, most books on Paul’s spirituality skip over the significance of being buried with Christ. That’s because we tend to emphasize our personal experience as the locus of spiritual formation. So, individual preferences end up governing spiritual development. I determine what is vital and what is harmful; my experiences govern what is useful and what is irrelevant. In such an individualistic pursuit, church becomes a place (not a people!) where my spiritual palate is satisfied, where I get what I think I need to grow spiritually. Thus, my experience of the Spirit is determined by my choices, my desires, my expectations, my efforts. I really don’t need anyone else (especially if they try to tell me what to do—as if I don’t know what’s best for me). If a church doesn’t give me what I think I need, I’ll find another that will. But Paul would have us consider the implications of Christ’s burial through baptism as the initiatory experience of the Spirit-led life—something that must be developed within the community of faith. We received the Spirit from others, so we can’t walk in the Spirit alone. Indeed, Paul was convinced that none of us can be Christians by ourselves.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Movies as Scripture

As some of you know, I've taught a course the last few years called, "The Bible and American Culture." We spend time reading cultural "texts" (movies, plays, songs, novels) to see how scripture functions as both a protagonist (informing culture) and antagonist (how cultural texts interpret scripture). Recently, my wife and I led a marriage retreat for our church where I tried to apply an abbreviated form of this "hermeneutic" to analyze different relationships in television and the movies: marriage, family (including in-laws!), and friendships. This was not your usual marriage retreat--what with all the "fill-in-the-blank" workbooks and nice, easy lessons to learn. Instead, we had open-ended discussions about how cultural texts operate with embedded scripts, teaching us how we're supposed to relate to each other.

One of the most common scripts that we talked about was the "domestication of the male/girl power" text that seems to run through nearly every sitcom and romantic comedy film. The "strong, leading man" model that dominated films a generation ago has been replaced by the "I'm-a-man-but-I-can't-figure-out-my-life-without-a-woman" hero that is ubiquitous. Of course, the presumption is that a "real" man wouldn't choose to marry a woman simply because he wanted to. He must be schmoozed, coaxed, lured by the irresistible wiles of womanhood. What I found fascinating in our discussions was how many women were vociferous in their opposition to the new hollywood stereotype. It wasn't the men in the crowd who rose up and said, "what a bunch of hooey." (And, what does that reveal?) Instead, it was the women who piped up and said, "No thanks!" As a matter of fact, one distraught mother said, "I hope my daughters can learn to respect men in spite of what they see on film or on tv."

It makes one wonder: what is a respectable man?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Modern Religion

My wife tivoed the closing ceremony of the Vancouver Games, wanting me to see the comedic routine accompanying the presentation of the Olympic torch (it was funny). But, what caught my attention was the ritual celebration that officially closes the winter games for 2010. I said offhandedly, "A visitor from the first-century Mediterranean world would see this and ask, 'What god are you worshiping?'"

Indeed, the celebration had all the necessary parts: the fiery altar in the center, the priests serving, the celebrants parading, songs lifted in praise to the Spirit of the Olympics, the stadium filled with joyous revelers. Talk of sacrifice and the offering of much money would convince any first-century visitor that this god was worthy of veneration.

What's fascinating to me is how many of us would never describe these athletic games in religious terms. In fact, it would be downright offensive to most of us to suggest that all of this was nothing more than a modern form of idolatry. Perhaps it would take a visitor from the first-century to point out the obvious.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Problem with Law (more from my work on Paul's Spirituality)

“There is a path to freedom. Its milestones are: obedience, honesty, cleanliness, sobriety, hard work, discipline, sacrifice, truthfulness, love of your homeland.” Words to live by. Some might even say, words to die by. The first time I read them, I was struck by the strength of these words, the soundness of these words, the rightness of these words. “Many people might find their life’s purpose in this creed,” I muttered to myself. “You could build a nation on these ideals then teach citizens to defend them at all costs.” Then I thought of how many people died under the banner of these words.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened to thousands of people—they died with these words hanging over their heads. That’s because this saying was painted on the roof of the long, narrow maintenance building at the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Every sighted prisoner saw it as they entered the building—the beginning of horrors of what we call the holocaust. The maintenance building housed the Schubraum (literally, “shoving room”), where new prisoners were stripped of their clothes and dignity, where humans were treated like animals prepared for torture and slaughter. The victims were Jews, German priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals. The Nazis rounded up these “misfits” and imprisoned them in their concentration camps all over Germany in order to clean up the neighborhood and reorient these prisoners to the “proper” way of life. What happened behind those prison walls is well-known. The atrocities suffered by Jews, priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals at the hands of their tormentors were hell on earth. What I couldn’t understand, as I stood there one summer day in front of the maintenance building at this notorious concentration camp, was how the men who did such horrible things could believe they were living up to this creed. Why not be honest, tell the truth? The sign should have read: “Obey or not: we will kill you anyway.” Instead, these murderers acted like they were doing something noble, something virtuous, something lawful—the sign proved it. How could words that sound so right lead men to do so wrong?

It must have seemed like a cruel joke to the prisoners inside. The ultimate “bait-and-switch.” The big lie. “Work hard and you will find freedom.” Instead, what these prisoners were forced to do was not “work,” and the end for most of them was not “freedom.” Even the entrance to the camp—a gate through which every prisoner passed—had iron bars bent to shape the words, “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes freedom”). Such words may have made sense when they entered the prison. Yet, viewed from inside the concentration camp, the words must have appeared completely backwards—figuratively and literally. No matter how hard the prisoners tried, regardless of how much they obeyed their taskmasters, all they got was more slavery, more abuse, more death. Inside the prison, “work makes freedom” makes no sense at all, no matter how many times you read the sign.

How do we explain the atrocities that took place behind these prison walls? The starvation, the torture, the sadistic experiments, the barbaric treatment. How could one human being treat another with such hatred, such heartless cruelty, such hellish intention? Evil. We blame evil. We blame sinister forces. We blame the devil. But, Paul wouldn’t. Paul didn’t blame the horrendous evil of sinful man on Satan—especially when he considered his own horrible past. A onetime persecutor, Paul never said, “The devil made me do it.” He never shifted the blame of his sinful behavior to the evil one. Rather, when dealing with the unrelenting power of sin, Paul blamed two agents. First of all, sin resides in the flesh—the baser appetites of humanity. For Paul the root of the problem of human sin is the flesh. And yet, as pervasive as Paul’s talk is about the flesh, he will not attribute the cause of all sin to human selfishness. The flesh has a partner in crime, a co-conspirator. As a divine agent of such great potential, many have been fooled by its universal appeal. It is a power that was supposed to make things better but actually made things worse. Rather than curb sin, it increases it. Instead of taming the flesh, it provokes it. Paul saw the law as the main instigator, a manipulated tool, the provocateur of human sin. In fact, Paul goes so far as to suggest that “apart from the law sin lies dead” (Rom. 7:8). That which was supposed to be the solution turned out to be the problem.