Monday, October 21, 2013

Good Endings

Our lives are filled with celebrations marking the beginning of things:  marriage, births, commencements, house warmings, inaugurations.  And, we have several ways of tracking life in the meantime:  birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, job promotions.  But, we really don't seem to have a handle on how to make sense of endings:  divorce, death, bankruptcy, retirement, chronic disease.  It's like we spend much energy at the beginning--party!--trying to keep the party going as it slowly fizzles--who wants cake and ice cream?--all the while knowing the end is coming.  To use a travel metaphor, we get worked up preparing for the trip, try to enjoy the journey, but have no idea when we've arrived.  It's almost as if we've heard the mantra so long--it's not the destination that matters but the journey--endings feel like failure.

Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that we cut against the grain of disappointing loss by offering some contrived celebration:  "yippee, I'm divorced;" or "ding, dong the witch is dead!"  That's why the recent trend of "designer funerals" appears so foolish.  A guy's coffin is made to look like the car of his favorite NASCAR driver, or a football fan's wake is attended by faux-cheerleaders of the NFL team he spent every Sunday rooting for.  I see what they're doing. They're trying to celebrate the end.  But it just comes off as campy and downright disrespectful.  Repeating the line, "Harry would have loved this!", doesn't make it any better.  Such arrogant words can only be spoken by the living, and they work like a hammer driving the last nail in the coffin.

Those of us who attend Christian funerals don't fare much better.  We try hard to say something nice, something important, hoping to sum up the life of a man in thirty minutes.  But, I always leave these funerals feeling like something's undone, like we forgot something, as if there was so much more to do, so much more to say.  Indeed, death always feels like a bad ending to a good story.

Then I think of Good Friday.  How the disciples walking away from the crowd that day must have felt the same way.  How the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus seems to capture much of what I'm feeling as I walk away from the funeral, needing to mark the end of things with a celebration.

Then we gather for food around a table.  We talk.  We eat.  We even laugh at the funny stories of our shared life.  But that makes me long ever more for the day when we will celebrate the good ending.

I wish we knew how to celebrate the end of things.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dear Reader

I've received several letters from readers of my books.  Few things excite me more than when a reader has read carefully my work and then offered a response.  For an author, it doesn't get much better.  Here's my response to a letter received last week:


Thanks so much for the kind, hand-written note regarding Spirituality according to Paul.  Please forgive my letter in print form; my handwriting is atrociously illegible, especially when compared to your beautiful cursive script.  I blame my poor penmanship on fast-talking professors during my studies at the university and seminary.  But, to be fair, my writing was in pretty bad shape before I started college.

 

Thanks for picking up a copy and reading the book.  I hope what I wrote is both fair to St. Paul and helpful to the Church.  There’s so much to say about our apostle, and so many excellent minds have devoted much study to unpacking his ideas.  No one, of course, will ever be able to say they’ve offered the last word on Paul.  To say that we shall study his letters until the end of the world is not a statement of resignation but a sincere and promising hope.  There’s still much work to be done.

 

Thanks also for including notes from your talk about homosexuality and the Bible.  To be sure, this is a complex and sensitive subject.  As a culture, we’ve certainly witnessed a revolution in the way we think and talk about homosexuality.  And, there’s no way a little letter will capture the way I read the Bible, and especially Paul, on this matter.  But, I will say this:  for the most part, I agree with your statement, “There can be no question Paul condemns homosexual acts, but he does not condemn homosexuality as such.”  But, allow me to parse your words a little in light of my reading of the Bible.

 

Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is a modern construct.  In New Testament times, they only knew of homoeroticism.  No one in Paul’s day would claim a psychological identity “gay” or “straight.”  So, to say that Paul condemns homosexuality in our terms is anachronistic (as your notes seem to point out).  That’s why I like to use (along with other NT scholars) the more descriptive term, homoeroticism.  Paul does condemn homoerotic acts, both man to man and woman to woman.  This is to be expected because as a first-century Jew who’s very concerned about holiness—especially as it applies to the behavior of his converts—Paul wants to present the obedience of the Gentiles to Christ as the ultimate proof of his apostleship.

 

Now, to claim that Paul would therefore affirm homosexual (a modern construct) relationships or unions (whether civil or religious) is purely speculative.  I think the burden of proof falls on anyone who would argue that Paul would support gay marriage.  Just because a more accurate reading of Paul’s arguments—based on the culture of his time—helps us see the difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Paul would support gay marriage.  The most that could be said is that he would oppose it because he believed homoerotic acts did not glorify God (and gay couples certainly have every opportunity to engage in homoerotic behavior).  And, the least that could be said is that we don’t know whether Paul would support gay marriage.  One would have to weigh the arguments—plotting a trajectory from Paul’s letters to our context—to see whether we’re being fair to Paul (and especially) the full revelation of God’s Word.

 

Of course, some don’t feel obliged to read Paul carefully; claiming to be “red-letter” Christians they base their support of gay relationships on the silence of Jesus.  But, I’m afraid such an argument from silence is pretty shaky ground.  Besides, Jesus does have much to say about human sexuality and practice that needs to be more carefully considered, for example his teaching about lust, the abuse of divorce, and the importance of “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom.  I don’t hear many people fretting over what Jesus meant about becoming a eunuch.  Why not?  Sometimes it feels like the “marquis” issues of our day dominate our reading of the Bible.  Our selective reading of the Scriptures has more to do with what we’re trying to prove.  I would like to turn the hermeneutic around.  Perhaps a more careful reading of the Bible should inform the issues we choose to discuss?  Is that na├»ve?  Maybe so.

 

I hope my little note helps explain what I wrote in the conclusion of the book, where I speculate on what St. Paul would say to us today.  It was offered as a “thought experiment” and not a definitive word.  But, you certainly read my comments correctly.  I don’t believe Paul would come down hard one way or the other on the politics of gay marriage.  I do, however, believe that Paul would continue to condemn homoerotic behavior and would have much to teach us about sacrificing ourselves for one another—even Christians who are attracted to the same sex.

 

Thanks again for your kind remarks about the book.

 
Blessings to you, my brother.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The loneliness of friendship

I've been thinking a lot lately about friendship.  It may have something to do with the convergence of things that have happened this summer:  my son and daughter's move to "the big city," the death of my father-in-law, time spent camping with my youngest daughter and her soon-to-leave-for-college life.  Friendship is an elusive reality.  We all want friends.  We all need friends.  But, I'm not sure I've found very many--you know, the kind of friend that loves you unconditionally.  Of course, we find friends in expected places (family, work, school), but even then I've come to realize that my friends over the years have been few and far between.

Not counting my immediate family, I've had three or four friends.  In high school, my best friend, Rick, was my constant companion.  Wherever he went, I went and vice versa.  We worked at the same place (Orange Julius at the Battlefield Mall), we enjoyed the same movies (Monty Python's "Quest" and Mel Brooks "Blazing Saddles" nearly made us pee in our pants for laughter), and went to the prom together (with appropriate dates, of course).  Our 40 year high school reunion is coming up.  I haven't attended a single one.  But, if I were to attend this one, it would only be because Rick was going.  And, I'm sure we'd pick up the conversation were we left it over 10 years ago.

I made a couple of friends in college--guys that I haven't kept up with but I know that if we were to talk, it would feel like time travel.  Jimmy, "Bib", and Tim--even though the four of us didn't hang out together--these three guys made college feel like home.  But, again, I've only seen them every once in a while, when they're drawn back to Bolivar for various reasons.

During seminary, I became acquainted with several guys, but only three--Gerald, Randy, and David--have become good friends.  There was this immediate connection, this automatic fellowship, that made me feel like I've known them all my life.  I've seen all three over the years for a variety of reasons, but I don't know them as well as I ought if they are truly "friends."

In different jobs, under different circumstances, I've found friends for the same reasons:  a sense that somehow we share a deeper affection, a raison d'etre, that pulled us together for a time.  Jeph, Ken, Ric, Martin--I knew as soon as I met these guys that we would be friends.  I think about them every once in a while--wonder how they're doing, finding out tidbits via social media--but since I don't spend time with them, it doesn't feel like we have a lasting friendship.

So, when it all comes down to it, my best friends are only four:  Sheri, Andrew, Emma, and Grace.  I need them in my life.  I crave spending time with them.  I think about them all the time.  I pray more for them than anyone else.  I trust them completely.  I can't imagine treating them like I have all of my other friends--only getting by with random updates and "hey, how are you doing" encounters.  I drink up the times we are together--now more than ever--because the centrifugal force of life is sending two of them away, with one yet to part.  The older I get the more I realize that time is the constant of friendship, and this irrepressible force we call "time" will leave me lonely for them.

I used to look forward to birthdays, the marking of time with presents.  Now all I want for my birthday is time--time with my friends.  And then I think of God.  Time.  Never ending.  Always together.  Never parting.  And I weep for the end of loneliness we call friendship.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Buffets and Television

I was an indiscriminate eater of buffet food when I was younger.  I'd plow through the line and grab most everything I liked, what looked good to me.  These days I can't stomach the thought of grazing at the buffet.  It all looks nasty to me.  High fat, deep fried, starch-city, warmed over, preservative-drenched mush.  Even if I closed my eyes and dove in, I'd regret it throughout the night.  My body would rebel, "What in the world have you thrown down here, you numbskull?"  Indigestion, tossing and turning, fat-induced coma the next day.  Bleary-eyed and stumbling through the work day, I would question my foolish consumption.  I have become an old man.  "I can't believe what people eat these days."

I was an indiscriminate consumer of television programs when I was younger.  I'd watch just about anything, no matter how mind-numbing or senseless.  These days I can't tolerate the nonsense that passes for entertainment.  It all looks ridiculous to me.  Low ball, over hyped, idiot-city, warmed over, commercial-drenched pabulum.  Even if I closed my mind and took it in, I'd regret it throughout the night.  My soul would rebel, "What in the world have you thrown in here, you fool?"  Easily distracted, rambling and wandering, short-attention span waste the next day.  Foggy-headed and uncreative through the work day, I would question my foolish consumption.  I have become an old man.  "I can't believe what people watch these days."

If you've ever visited (or lived) outside the U.S., you know what this feels like.  Turn the television on and the whole world is foreign.  None of the personalities are recognizable.  None of the programs are familiar.  That's what it feels like when I flash through television programs these days.  It's all foreign to me.  No matter how many people rave about "Duck Dynasty," I can't get through two minutes.  No matter how many people talk about "Honey Boo Boo," I can't even tolerate the commercials for it.  It feels like we're living the apocalyptic scenario predicted by the movie, "Idiocracy."

I've often said to my wife (sounding like an old man), "I honestly don't know anymore.  None of this makes any sense to me.  Why do people watch this stuff?  Have we become a nation of idiots?"  She offers a more perceptive take on this ever-increasing mountain of television mush, "I think I know why.  People love to make fun of other people.  They're not watching 'Honey Boo Boo' because they like it.  They're watching it because it feeds this dark place where we enjoy being cruel to others."

Well, that may be true.  But, we still have to live with the indigestion that results from the indiscriminate consumption of what is served at the buffet.

So, here's some advice from a curmudgeonly old man, "Watch what you watch, for goodness sake.  We are what we eat.  (As he turns to the television) are the Cardinals playing tonight?"

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Traitor

When I think through the implications of Jesus' teaching about how to love our enemies (Mt. 5:38-48), I realize once again how provocative he was.  In certain respects, I wish he would have been more vague about what it means to "love."  It would've helped us justify ourselves with empty expressions like, "hate the sin, love the sinner," for who could deny that we are "loving" someone when we tell the truth about sin?  But, Jesus won't let us get off so easy.  He doesn't leave the definition of "love" to us.  Rather, he offers a startling example that forces us to do things that don't come so easy.

When we think about loving our enemies, we often center on the "turning the other cheek" part of his advice.  And, that teaching is provocation enough to make us rethink whether we are truly loving our enemies.  But, recently I've been thinking through the other bit, the part about "going the extra mile," as an even more scandalous teaching--for Jesus' day and for ours.

Think about what it meant for his day.  He's making a clear reference to the practice of Roman soldiers to "force" imperial subjects to carry their armor, swords, provisions for a mile.  Since Rome didn't pay their armies enough to live on (some things never change), the Senate made provisions for Roman soldiers to exact help from the people they were ruling, e.g., extorting provisions for a journey, procuring goods for an expedition, or forcing locals to carry anything for a mile.  Of course, Roman soldiers abused the law and often took more than they should.  Think about how many times Jesus witnessed the scene growing up in Nazareth (a little town located a few miles from a major Roman highway).

Roman soldiers enter Nazareth.  They need food, water, perhaps tools, equipment, beasts of burden, etc.  Going house to house, the soldiers take what they need, what they want.  A Jewish man objects; they can't take his ox!  It's the only one he's got.  It took a year's pay to get it.  How will he plow his field without it?  The man resists.  The soldier gives him the usual warning, a back-handed slap across the face.  What can the man do?  He relents.  But, it gets worse.  The soldier has decided that he will not only take the man's ox, he will conscript the Jew to carry his armor.  That's the last thing the man from Nazareth would want to do:  help his enemy with Roman occupation.  As he carries the weapons and armor, imagine what would go through his mind:  "I wonder how many Jewish brothers and sisters this pagan has killed with his sword.  And I'm helping him get to the next Jewish village!"  They reach the end of the mile.  According to Roman law, that's as far as the subject should have to go.  But, the soldier keeps walking.  The Jewish man says, "That's it.  I'm going no further."  The soldier returns, slaps the man across the face again, and says, "Keep moving."  This was a common scene repeated thousands of times, not only in Palestine but throughout all imperial provinces of the Roman Empire.

Going "the second mile" not only meant willfully accepting the injustice of the enemy but also "aiding and abetting" the perpetrators.  Imagine what it looked like to fellow Jews when one of Jesus' disciples helped Roman soldiers rule the land promised by God to Israel.  By any standard, such action would be treason:  treason against fellow Jews, treason against God.

And, now we've come to the litmus test of what it means to love our enemies.  If our friends can accuse us of helping our opponents to the point that we are acting like traitors, then we might be living up to what Jesus taught.

But, we don't do this for two reasons:  we refuse to admit we have enemies (we Christians love everyone, right?), and our enemies know we hate them.  It's no wonder we don't know how to love them.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Job's God

Recently, 12 million viewers heard a man continuously pray to Jesus while walking a tightrope across a narrow stretch of the Grand Canyon.  He's being hailed by many Christians as the perfect example of what it means to "walk by faith and not by sight" (from the Apostle Paul).  But, I don't think that's what Paul had in mind at all.  Rather, the man was walking by sight.  He had his eyes open.  He had a balancing pole.  He had practiced the stunt in Florida.  Indeed, all of his sensory apparati were in full operation when he traversed the metal cable.  The stunt was a carefully choreographed event to be seen (not believed).  When Paul was talking about "walking by faith not sight," he was trying to explain why he believed in the resurrection of our bodies, that one day we will "put on immortality."  I've never seen this happen--when death loses its grip and resurrection swallows our mortal flesh.  Neither had Paul.  Rather, like him all that I see around me is life (the colors green and blue are everywhere) and death peaking it's ugly head out every once in a while.  But, whenever death shows his ugly face--I see it--it's strangely hard to believe what I don't see:  resurrection.

I hate death.

I've never been fond of Job's God.  Job, I like, even admire, but God doesn't come off very good to me in the ancient story.  Job is the epitome of what Paul meant:  despite everything he sees, he still believes.  Death shows up and ruins everything.  God tries to make amends:  telling everyone that Job didn't deserve what happened to him, giving Job a new family, new house, new possessions.  But, I don't like that part of the story at all.  It makes it sound like Job could be satisfied with another family, that he could be "bought off", that he would simply "thank God" for restoring what he lost.  But, read the story carefully:  that's not what Job says because that's not what God does.  Job didn't thank God.  God didn't restore what was lost.  That would be resurrection.

A week ago I watched my father-in-law die.  It was ugly.

Death, I hate you.

When we gathered for the funeral, my brother-in-law recounted what his father said when he found out he had terminal cancer, "Well, God never promised us we wouldn't have trouble on this side--only that we wouldn't have it on the other side."  And that was it.  My father-in-law never spoke of his illness again.  Every time we asked, "How are you doing?"  He would say, "Not very good."  He never complained.  Never lashed out at God.  Rather, he simply stated what we all could see.

Now, we are left to believe what we cannot see, what my father-in-law said:  we won't have trouble on the other side.  The only way God will restore what was lost is resurrection.  The ending of Job's story is not enough for me.

"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?"

Yes, Lord, though it's hard to see.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Everyone wants to be heard, literally

Have you noticed how often people are injecting the word "literally" into their conversations?

It's happening all the time, or at least it seems to me.  Perhaps it's like the word "like," but for different reasons. 

Years ago, when teenagers dominated our home, we had a "like" tax at our house.  When one of the kids would tell their story (interjecting the simile-marker), I would hold up my hand, raising a finger with every "like" word (heh, heh, get it?).  Usually that provoked rolled eyes and exasperated gasps, but it worked.  My teenage children policed their diction and then would add, "This is just the way my friends talk.  I can't help it."  Of course, we adults would laugh with derision at the nonsensical word filler, knowing our conversation skills were far superior.

That was until the new "like" word began to pop up in adult conversation.  Listen carefully.  Adults love to throw in the word "literally" like a valley girl (did it again).  Indeed, "literally" seems like the anti-valley girl filler, literally (somebody stop me).  When teenagers in southern California had a hard time gathering their thoughts, they threw in a simile now and then, perhaps to avoid the dim-witted "uhhhhh" (I'm probably giving too much credit to valley girls to explain the phenomenon that lasted for decades).  Adults, on the other hand, with all of our mental faculties, have taken a different tact.  Rather than rely upon similes to fill in the gaps, we throw in a word to be heard.

In the space of a half hour, I heard it three times this morning.  Watching the news about the devastation in Moore, Oklahoma caused by a tornado, one of the reporters said, "The tornado literally mowed down everything in its path like a lawn-mower."  One of my family members used the word, literally.  Then, on my way to work, I no sooner turned on the radio when I heard a reporter on NPR say (referring to a new "quantum mechanics" computer), "It's literally a black box."

I think I'm literally getting tired of hearing the word.  So, why do we do it?

I have a hunch that it has something to do with the volume of words we try to take in everyday, the cacophony of voices that clamor for our attention.  Everybody has something to say.  Everyone has an opinion about everything, literally.  But, we all have a sneaky suspicion that no one's listening.  Think of how many words are spoken per day.  Thousands?  Millions?  Zillions?  Really, are there enough ears in the world to hear it all?  Besides, in a world where metaphors and similes dominate the landscape of everyday speech, throwing in another "like" won't help.  So, what do we do to be heard?  Shouting seems to be the recourse of political pundits and angry citizens.  Sound bytes are fading in their appeal (television is wearing them out).  Seems our latest strategy is to pique the interest of our listeners by appealing to what we say "literally."

So, here's an approach that I hope will become fashionable (I can dream, can't I?).  Perhaps we should use silence to get others to listen.  Rather than add to the madness, where everyone is talking at once, maybe the best approach to being heard is to say nothing.  Rather than assume that just because it passes through the gray matter between our ears people must hear it, maybe we should keep our mouths shut for a change. Then, when we speak, people might listen to what we have to say.

Wouldn't that be a welcome change, especially after the latest disaster that brings out every opinion--crazy or not--from every corner of the world, literally?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Jesus we'll never know

Among several enigmatic moments in the gospels, there are two stories that I don't understand, two times when Jesus doesn't make sense to me at all.

1. After sending out the twelve to recover the "lost sheep of Israel" in Matthew's gospel, Jesus offers a blistering critique of the town and villages he (and the twelve?) had visited because they didn't repent after seeing his miracles.  Then he offers a prayer, thanking God for the situation by adding, "Nobody gets me and nobody gets you; I'm the only one who knows you and you're the only one who knows me" (obviously my paraphrase).

2.  At the peak of his career, Jesus asks the twelve about the scuttlebutt, "What are people saying about me?"  They dutifully report what they've heard, "Some say you're Jeremiah, some say John the Baptizer come back from the dead, others say you're the reincarnation of somebody famous, like one of the prophets."  To which Jesus makes no reply other than to ask, "What about you?  Who do you think I am?" (again my paraphrase).  And in Matthew's version, when Peter blurts out the right answer ("you're the One"), Jesus falls all over Peter as if he's just won the final question in Jeopardy.

One moment, Jesus is convinced nobody understands him.  Later, he wants to know what people think.  At first, Jesus doesn't care about his reputation.  The next he seems to act like a nervous teenager, obsessing over what others are saying about him.  Or, another way of looking at it, in the beginning Jesus didn't care what people thought.  But, toward the end, he seems oblivious to the implications of how wrong people can be--even when it comes to their opinions about him.  In other words, I don't understand Jesus' response to these two episodes regarding public opinion.  Rather, I would've expected something like this:

1. What Jesus should have said was, "You don't know me now.  But one day you'll understand."

2.  What Jesus should have said was, "How ridiculous is that?  Now, you all know by now that I'm not Jeremiah, or the Baptizer, or even one of the great prophets reincarnated, right?"

Which got me to thinking:  is it possible that Matthew 11:27 is still true today, that none of us really get him?  Is it probable that our ideas about him are just as ludicrous as the scuttlebutt reported by the twelve at Caesarea-Philippi?

On the one hand, I want to say, "no," because we have the Spirit to guide us in all truth.  On the other hand, I'm wondering if our view of Jesus, our perceptions of "who he really is," are in fact skewed, slightly off, a bit over-worked, a little myopic, perhaps even provincial.  In other words, we may not know him as well as we think.  Maybe there's a part of him we'll never know, never figure out, never understand.  And, perhaps Jesus, knowing our misperceptions, would say the same thing today, "Nobody really gets me."

That sentiment certainly cuts against the grain of our inclination to speak infallibly about him, as if no one understands Jesus like we do--especially when someone tells us their ideas about Jesus that sound so wrong.  Indeed, we tend to think we've got him right and many others don't get him at all.  And, I wonder what Jesus would say about that.  Would he encourage us to pray, "Father, no one understands Jesus and therefore no one understands you."  Or, would he remain silent when we tell him how wrong people can be?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pretending and Pretense

I was following a truck yesterday that had a decal on the rear window, similar to what I've seen before:  the #3 with a halo hovering above the number.  I'm not a fan of NASCAR, but just about anyone can piece together the meaning of the symbol:  Dale Earnhardt Sr. is in heaven.

Several questions came to mind, the first being:  why would anyone want to put a sticker like that on their truck?  Is the driver making a theological claim?  Probably not.  Is he a devoted fan of Mr. Earnhardt?  Probably so.  But, the man is dead.  Why continue to conjure up the memory of the racecar driver? Is it because he can no longer watch his favorite driver on Sundays?  Since Mr. Earnhardt died tragically due to a rather harmless looking crash during a race (everyone says they've seen much worse), is the truck driver having a hard time finding closure?  Is he still grieving over the death of a celebrity he probably didn't know and perhaps never met?  Even so, why assume Mr. Earnhardt is in heaven (if that's what the halo suggests)?  Wasn't the notorious NASCAR driver known to be "hell on wheels"?  Wouldn't it be truer to Earnhardt's memory to have the number of his racecar attended by a pitchfork and flames?  Some might say, "How horrible.  Why would you even suggest such a thing.  The man's dead after all."

Then it dawned on me.  The driver of this particular truck with the #3 and halo decal on the window is making a theological claim.  For some reason, he believes Dale Earnhardt Sr. is in heaven because he was a great NASCAR driver.

But, there are two problems with the decal. 

First, the truck driver is pretending like he knew the dead man.  (Why do we do that?  Why do we act like we know intimately the people we see on television or in the movies?  We call them by their first name.  We talk about them as if they were just as important to us as any other friend or family member--even though we've never met them.  Think about it.  Just because we see their faces on an electronic screen--perhaps every day--we pretend as if we know them.  As if they would recognize us in public.  As if they care about what we think, or how we live, or what we drive, or what we'd put on the back windows of our trucks.  At best this is a peculiarly common behavior.  At worst this is delusional.  Who do we think we're fooling?)

Second, the decal is pretentious on so many levels.  Was Mr. Earnhardt an angel?  Even though he's a dead man, does he currently live in a place called "heaven"?  (And many would dare to ask, is there even such a place?)  If heaven does exist, how does one get there?  Who decides?  How will any of us know before we die if it exists much less who makes it there?  Something so serious--we're talking about death here--seems trivial when compared to the banality of a number and a halo.

At that very moment, with all of these questions buzzing through my head, I wondered what music the truck driver was playing.  Staring at the decal, the truck, the driver, I imagined Greg Allman's song blasting through the speakers, "I'm no angel."

I love that song, even though I'm not a fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Jesus we don't want

Here are a few of the opening lines of a chapter (The Apocalyptic Jesus) from the book we (David Capes, Randy Richards, and I) are working on, "Rediscovering Jesus."

If Jesus were a cartoon character, what would he look like?  That question may seem a little odd since most of what has been written about Jesus (whether canonical or extracanonical) is set before the reader as “the real Jesus.”  This is what he said.  This is where he lived.  This is what he did.  Therefore this is what he means.  These writers try to make Jesus come alive, giving a human face to his ancient voice so that readers would know him, admire him, follow him, perhaps even worship him.  We all seem to be looking for a recognizable Jesus, one that matches our mental images of him with the power of his personality.  He will always say the right words, always do the right things.  He must be charming, endearing, witty, smart, passionate, gentle, warm, and downright embraceable.  In other words, we want a likeable Jesus, a familiar Jesus, a “take-him-home-for-dinner-to-meet-mom” Jesus.  Everyone should be able to relate to the real, flesh-and-blood Jesus because, after all, he is one of us. 

That’s why the seer’s view of Jesus in the Apocalypse is so shocking, so disturbing, so disorienting.  In this “revelation of Jesus Christ,” Jesus doesn’t appear to be human at all.  Instead, John sees a heavenly man with eyes of fire and a sword-like tongue—a terrifying figure who is not pleased with the Church.  He sees a comic-book lamb with seven eyes and seven horns—a silent creature who stoically unleashes devastation on earth.  This is not the Jesus we have come to know and love.  Rather, John’s vision of Jesus seems like a nightmare, and many of us would rather look away and pretend as if that Jesus never existed.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Dry Bones Dance Podcast

Several years ago, my friend Tom Jones decided to produce a podcast that would encourage listeners to engage the Scriptures through thoughtful questions.  The goal was to help us see that sometimes having good, unanswered questions is just as helpful to our faith as well-crafted sermons that pose to solve every riddle of the Christian life.

Tom loves a good conversation, especially about the Bible.  He invited me to join him in this venture, focusing our conversation on the gospel of Mark.  I'm really proud of Tom's work.  I think the podcast captures the spirit of what we wanted:  two guys wrestling with the ambiquities and teasing nuances of the loaded story that we call "the gospel according to Mark."

Anyway, we got about halfway through the gospel when Tom had to set the podcast aside for more pressing, important matters (he told me it takes several hours--I think he said at least 6 hours--to edit every half-hour episode).  Now, after a five-year hiatus, the podcast is back.  We've already recorded several conversations and Tom has posted two newly edited episodes.  I've included the link in the lower right-hand corner of this blog in case you want to take a listen.  You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes as well.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cruiseship Faith

It's easy to throw stones at people when things are going wrong.  If we're not happy, no one's going to be happy.  So, it doesn't surprise any of us that passengers enjoying a floating vacation became irate when the boat went dead in the water.  No more buffet.  No more ports of call.  No more entertainment.  Not even a working toilet.  These are not the things that make for an enjoyable, well-deserved holiday.  You pay good money and expect to be treated like royality for a few days at sea.  They have good food in a fancy dining room always waiting for you.  They turn down your bed and make strange animals out of towels, leaving a mint on your pillow.  They spoil you into believing that this is the way life should be.  In fact, if you've ever been on a cruise, you know the common refrain of passengers on the day of disembarking is, "Back to life.  Back to reality."

In the midst of this "American tragedy" that received headline coverage, I said to my wife, "Their insufferable condition is similar to daily life of the third world.  In fact, most people of the majority world would find life on a cruise ship without power a step up, a better life, perhaps even a vacation."  And then it hit me.  I talk a lot about following Jesus.  But, I don't think I could follow him if I lived in the squallor of New Testament times (not to mention the daily life of most Christians of the majority world).  This is not a self-imposed guilt trip.  This is not an attempt to throw stones at our American way of life.  This is gut-level, honest assessment.  I couldn't have followed Jesus in his day.

Think of all the walking.  Miles and miles and miles (wouldn't you be tempted to cry out in saracastic tones, "are we there yet?").  Think of sleeping without a mattress, often out in the "wild," without showers and toilets and extra change of clothes (often, when I take a refreshing hot shower in the morning, I think to myself, "Jesus never experienced this").  Think of living on week-old bread and pickled fish.  Think of endless days, sleepless nights.  Think of all the dreadful odors--sweaty people, stinky handmade latrines, rotting flesh of lepers and smelly, diseased persons with oozing wounds and horrible dysentery.

Yeah, I know it would be exciting to see all the miracles and what not.  But, I'm not sure that would be enough to keep me going.  Honestly, after a while--knees and feet aching from all the walking, no place to call home, nothing of what we call "the creaturely comforts"--I would pack it in.  Go home.  Following Jesus back then would be too tough for me.

In fact, I would also find it rather difficult to follow Jesus on a dead-in-the-water cruiseship.  I probably would have been miserable, constantly grumbling to myself about the horrible conditions, never even giving it a second thought that the great majority of the world's population deal with far worse every day.  Every day.  Every day.  Every.  Day.

I'm grateful to God that I get to follow Jesus in America because we have warm beds and hot food, handy transportation and working toilets, and the prospect of taking a vacation from the daily pressures of life on a cruise ship.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

"The Flash" of Inspiration

As a few of you know, my partners in crime (David Capes and Randy Richards) and I are working on a new writing project, "Rediscovering Jesus" (IVP).  We're trying to offer a perspectival view of Jesus in two parts, canonical and non-canonical.  We're currently writing part one, the canonical Jesus, taking a descriptive approach to each biblical author's take on Jesus.  At the moment, I'm reading/thinking about the Apocalyptic Jesus in the Revelation of John, toying with the problem:  how do I begin to explain why this Jesus is so different from the other "Jesuses" in the New Testament?  Then it hit me:  Jesus is a cartoon character in the Apocalypse and the Revelation is the first comic book.

I like the implications.  What do you think?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

An Excruciating Life

"[The Revelation of John's] theology of the cross cannot sustain a utopian political vision," Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology.

I've always wondered why I'm drawn to dystopian literature.  And, until recently, it never occurred to me that's why I've always liked the Revelation.  It's dystopian to the core.  The seer's vision is both disturbing and strangely comforting, deconstructive and constructive, violent and peaceful, beautiful and gory.  In other words, John's Revelation is refreshingly honest about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ.  Lost on outsiders, the slaughtered Lamb is power to those of us who long for a better world.  Indeed, when we cry out to God, "Why are you letting this happen?," such lamentation proves that we are believers.  For Jesus himself offered the excruciating cry, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?"

Excruciating, from the latin crux, the word for "cross."  Excruciating pain and sorrow bear witness to life experience "from the cross," i.e., excruciating.  This is not some sadistic ploy--pain for the sake of painful pleasure.  This is no martyr complex--a pious staging for the faithful.  No, the cross is the eternal witness that things are not the way they are supposed to be, while at the same time--ironically--it is the very answer to how things are supposed to be.  The cross proves what's wrong and right with the world all at the same time.  And, only when one sees the world from the cross of Jesus Christ--an excruciating life--will we be able to set aside any foolish notion of utopia.  In fact, I'm beginning to think the very idea of "utopia" is the devil's lie:  bow down to me and I will give you everything you want.

No thank you.  I'll take the dystopia of a crucified world, for therein lies my only honest hope.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Swearing to God

Symbols are powerful things.  It becomes ever more apparent when someone suggests removing a symbol (or replacing it with another).  As soon as that happens, we begin the process of rethinking what may have become a presumption, a given, a taken-for-granted gesture that has lost its meaning (or at least a misplaced meaning).

I read an article yesterday that questioned whether the President of the U.S. should be sworn into office by placing his (or her?  maybe one day) hand on the Christian Bible.  Since we are a nation that believes in the separation of church and state--that is, we have no state-sponsored religion--then why do we require this symbolic gesture?  In light of the subject of the presidential oath, the article suggested that the President should place his hand on the U.S. constitution since that is what he is swearing to "uphold, defend, protect."

I think that is a good idea.  Here's why.

Let's not pretend that the President is swearing an oath to God by placing his hand on the Bible.  If he were, he would be in a heap of trouble.  For it says in the book that he's supposed to love his enemies, turn the other cheek, and give sole allegiance to Jesus Christ.  That automatically compromises our American leader.  Imagine what would happen if he actually kept such an oath?  How could the U.S. protect our national interests by loving our enemies?  Instead, we kill our enemies to protect our rights, our freedom, our way of life.  By swearing an oath to God by placing his hand on the Word of God, the President would automatically place the priority of the Bible over the U.S. consitution.  And, I suspect, the great majority of U.S. citizens wouldn't like that one bit.

Now, I get the objection by those who say such a move (substituting the constitution in place of the Bible) is another sign of the creeping secularization of our country.  But, like most symbols, it takes time for the gesture to catch up with the reality.  We are already (and have been for quite some time) a secular nation.  Is there any doubt that American ideals trump the way of Jesus in our government, among our citizenry, in our every-day lives?

So, I say, let's make it official.  I don't want our President to pretend like he's swearing an oath to God.  In fact, he's swearing an oath to us.  And, we believe we are the ones to decide whether he's kept his promise.