Monday, October 4, 2010

Reflections on a High School Reunion

High school reunions have a particular character about them, depending on the attendee's phase of life. Since the members of the class are roughly the same age, the phases are, to some degree, shared in common. Life passages such as marriage, having and raising children, and building careers mark these reunions, either making us feel satisfied with our station in life or wondering if we might have missed the train to prosperity-ville.

A forty-year reunion however (such as the one I attended this weekend), has a unique character. We're pretty much past the career-building stage (some have even retired—early, of course!), and if we have children, might even be able to brag about our amazing grandchildren. Few of us care or remember our former level of popularity (for the record, mine was fairly low and now happily forgotten) or our academic achievements (another low for me since my high school studies interfered with my adolescent Idiot Phase). Life now tends to have a more settled, reflective character to it.

While I'm sure there were folks at our gathering who carried the weight of sadness and pain, a general mood of happiness dominated the evening. It was interesting to see the dance floor fairly deserted because people were gathering in groups, reconnecting and sharing stories about life. I found great joy in rekindling some old friendships and even making some new ones (Facebook, of course, will save us from disconnection). With age there seems to be a willingness to be more vulnerable than we might have been in the past. The people I spoke with seemed willing to open up their lives in ways that were very meaningful.

The impending approach of this particular reunion has caused me to wonder: Why does this brief slice of our shared history remain so significant to us? We've all had other seasons of life, from college to military service to jobs, yet it is the high school experience that draws us like moths to a porch light.

I suspect that we come back because, unlike other life experiences, high school is our transition from childhood to adulthood. We enter as nervous, gangly kids and exit as adults-in-waiting, perhaps still nervous and maybe a bit confused, but now eligible to vote, get married, and fight wars. The high school experience imprints us deeply.

Above all, however, I think that reconnecting with our high school classmates in our old hometown drops a kind of historic anchor for us. Regardless of what we've done (or not done), no matter where we've traveled (or not traveled), we come together and remember that we lived in a particular time and place; that, in a company of aging witnesses, we can declare that we grew from childhood to adulthood and were known by others. Whether we accomplished great things during that brief splash of time or if we just coasted through, we were there and we matter.

We also come together to offer evidence that we've moved on. We're no longer stuck in whatever category framed us a young people, but we've moved from that place to something different. For that, most of us are grateful.

Gratitude. That's what I was feeling. As a religious sort of guy, I was grateful to God for the gift of life and the evidence that it is a life that I share with others. And I was grateful for the people with whom I've journeyed, those who arrived on Saturday night to let the journeys intersect for another brief moment in time.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Sin and Nations

In his book Justification, N. T. Wright points out that in ancient Jewish thinking,

"'Transgression . . . is the actual breaking of the law, whereas 'sin' is any missing-of-the-mark, any failure to live as a genuine human being, whether or not the law is there to point it out." (p. 119)

The modern nation-states of our world, by their nature, focus on self-interest. Survival and prosperity are the highest priorities of nations, and the citizens of those nations expect their governments to pursue those ends.

Some nation-states are global transgressors, violating human rights and intentionally flaunting their perceived sovereignty to the detriment of other people groups. But all nation-states are subject to sin.

Because of the focus on self-interest, all nation-states will inevitably fall into sin. When the ultimate priority is self, whether as individual persons or as nations—sin will result. It misses the mark of God's intention.

But modern nation-states are organized that way, and that's just the way it is. Only one body of people in the history of the world has come into existence for the sake of the rest of the world rather than itself: The People of God. God's call to Abram in Genesis 12 sets the stage for that new people, and results in the creation of ancient Israel and, ultimately, the dispersed people we call followers of Jesus:

"Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’" (Genesis 12:1-3)

Followers of Jesus dispersed throughout all the nations of the world can love their respective countries without deifying them, because they are free to recognized the inherent sin in the construct of nation-states. More importantly, followers of Jesus can remember that they remain, primarily, citizens of another kind of people, a people destined to bless all the families of the earth. We are, as pointed out in the New Testament book of First Peter, ". . . a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light" (I Peter 2:9).

We are the only people on earth who exist not for our own sake, but for the sake of others.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thinking about "Clean Fiction"

I just finished editing my manuscript for a novel I have written called The Dead Cry Out. It's a supernatural mystery novel with some underlying theological questions. There is a murder or two, some ghosts, and a smattering of cussing. There's no sex, so is my novel "clean?" My publisher now has the manuscript, so I guess I'll find out soon enough.

I understand the avoidance of gratuitous sex, violence, and coarse language in a novel. On the other hand, if you are writing about a couple of thugs planning to kill someone, making one of them say "Phooey" or "Merciful heavens" might just kick the reader right out of the story. They would probably talk like dirty-mouthed tough guys, and the reader would expect that. It doesn't need to be gratuitous, but it should be somewhat realistic.

I've attempted to get some of my undisciplined characters to talk and act nicely, but they won't cooperate. They do tend to take on a life of their own, and you know this if you've done any writing of fiction.

Some websites and blogs that I've read suggest that "clean fiction" is specifically for Christians because Christians can't tolerate profanity, violence, or sex in their novels. I don't think that's right. Almost all Christians I know routinely read about gang rape that results in death, murder by impalement, sex with prostitutes, and some of the most graphic and violent executions imaginable. It's all there in the Bible, so I'm sure that I'm right about this.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Lord of All

Historically, Christians have often gotten in trouble for being lawbreakers. I'm not referring to those who proclaimed faith in Christ and then embezzled money or ran off with someone else's spouse. I'm talking about those who violated the laws of their nation by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not.

The earliest Christians were persecuted based on allegations that they were cannibalistic (consuming body and blood of Christ), incestuous (evidenced by calling one another "brother" or "sister"), and subversive (proclaiming that there could possibly be another Lord of the world besides Caesar). That last crime of subversion was the only allegation that was true.

Christians who loved and cherished their countries have sometimes had to violate the laws of those nations. Free African-American Christians in the late 1700's in the US violated US law by rescuing newly-arriving slaves in Savanah, Georgia, and helping them escape to the North. Although their church (The First African Baptist Church--the oldest church of its type in the US, and built to hide rescued slaves in hidden underground rooms) was raided a number of times, the crimes were never revealed until many years after slavery became illegal. Had they been caught in their rescue attempt, they would have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We see more recent examples in how Christians reached out to rescue Jews from the claws of Hitler and his demonic Nazi regime. Those who were caught violating the law against aiding and abetting Jews were arrested and imprisoned and/or executed (think of Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as examples).

While these acts would be seen by the respective nations as illegal, the Christians committing those acts would have seen them as obedience to the true Lord of all. The present realities of the Kingdom of God demand an obedience that puts all other lords in their rightful places. It's a hard road for Christians to travel, but they've been traveling that road for a long time now. It's not only hard because of the consequences of that proclamation, but it's also hard because we can attempt to validate our own acts of lawlessness in the name of Jesus.

In the US, I could stand on the street corner all day and yell "Jesus is Lord!" and no one would really care as long as I didn't obstruct traffic or keep people from shopping. It's not illegal to do that here (thankfully). But the proclamation itself is a reminder to me that national leaders, governments, nation/states, and so on, are not Lord. Only Jesus is Lord. With a national US holiday coming up, it's important to remember that.

Does proclaiming Jesus as Lord mean that one is anti-country? I hope not, because a country is more than land surrounded by borders; it is a body of people, made in the image of God. However, if I proclaim that Caesar is Lord (identifying my own personal Caesar as a favored political leader or party), then I may run the risk of being anti-Jesus. Proclaiming Jesus as Lord, however, requires me to look past all the boundaries and walls and political values that separate human beings from one another, and recognize that God's love, made evident to us in the real, historic person of Jesus and continuously poured out by his Spirit, is for the world.

I believe that loving Jesus and serving him as Lord allows people to love their respective countries without worshipping them. The call to Abram in Genesis 12, that through his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed, is lived out in the power of the Holy Spirit when we proclaim that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not.

Friday, June 25, 2010

What Paul might teach us about illegal immigration

I have made a stumbling attempt in some prior postings about thinking, as Christians, about illegal immigration in ways that transcend the various political views that seem to dominate these kinds of discussions. So, after a phone call this morning with one of my daughters, I was inspired to consider how a very short letter in the New Testament might help with this conversation.

The letter of Paul to Philemon is quite short, and it's a wonder that it was ever preserved in the first place. Paul is in prison in Rome and he is appealing to a fellow Christian, a man named Philemon, to receive his slave Onesimus in a way that transcends the requirements of Roman law.

Most scholars would say that Onesimus was a runaway and had become a Christian in Rome, where he was somehow connected with Paul. Roman law permitted severe punishment for the slave when returned to the master, and strong penalties for those who had harbored such runaways. Paul was in a ticklish situation.

Paul's letter reorients the issue away from the requirements and benefits of Roman law to the requirement of love. Paul would have likely held in tension three strains of thought: Roman law (he was a Roman citizen), Jewish law (which allowed the harboring and protection of runaway slaves), and the new ethic of love based in Jesus Christ (which would shift all perspectives and transcend all other laws).

Not only would Philemon (and his church, also addressed in this letter) be called upon to live out the implications of Christian love in showing mercy to Onesimus, but he would also need to live in a reoriented relationship with his slave, receiving him as a brother in Christ. This theme is picked up by Paul elsewhere, where he speaks of a life in Christ in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (see I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11 for examples).

As Roman citizens, both Paul and Philemon could have taken politically-based opinions: Philemon could say that conforming to Roman law was an obedient action and therefore the right Christian response. Paul could say that Roman law was wrong and it should simply be violated. We don't know how Philemon responded, but we do know that Paul didn't take either route.

Paul not only doesn't challenge any sort of legal claim that Philemon might have, he also doesn't address the issue of slavery at all. He seems to accept it as a social reality. Instead, he calls upon Philemon to respond to Onesimus in a new, transformed way. Their reunion is not to be characterized by harsh punishment, but rather by forgiveness and love. Onesimus might still be a slave (we don’t know if he was an indentured servant or a spoil of war), but he would have a new relationship with his master because both had new relationships in Christ.

As we ponder our own contemporary issues, including illegal immigration, Paul's call to live out human relationships in the ethic of the kingdom of God is important to us. Our response has to transcend either the baptizing of our preferred political positions or the embracing of lawlessness. As followers of Jesus, we have to recognize that our relationships to other human beings cannot be limited by national borders or boundaries. Nation-states may be compelled to guard and secure their borders, and perhaps with good reason. But Christians are not in that business. We are not in the business of political/military power, of fostering fear, or of lawlessness. We are in the business of love.

Like the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus--master and slave, now brothers in Christ--we also have sibling relationships with people beyond our borders. Are there illegal immigrants in the US who are our brothers and sisters in Christ? Does that change anything for us? That is not to limit our love to only those who share our faith, but it should cause us to stop and reflect on how Paul might advise us in this situation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

First Review of Shadow Meal


A Review of Michael McNichols, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
by Gregory Holmes Singleton, PhD, OFR
Community of St. Francis, Chicago

Just as C.S. Lewis presented Mere Christianity by transcending denominational and theological fine distinctions (or flew under their radar—choose the image that works for you), so Michael McNichols wisely brings us into reflective encounters with Eucharist as experienced rather than wrangle with dead-end debates on how real “Real Presence” really is. In place of static definitions, McNichols places the Eucharist in the context of the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of daily life. Conversely he also puts the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of daily life in the context of the Eucharist. In so doing, he invites us to think about this “Shadow Meal” as a place where we meet one another in Christ, a place where we meet Christ in one another, and where we experience a foretaste of the feast to come.

McNichols is an Evangelical theologian with considerable pastoral experience. The theologian is certainly present in these reflections, but the pastoral spirit dominates the substance and the style of this book. Some of McNichols fellow Evangelicals may have some problems with his mystical and downright sacramental perspective on Eucharist. Conversely, some Western Catholics, particularly those with a bent for scholasticism, may have difficulty with the lack of dogmatic definition. This Western Catholic Christian reviewer (with a slight touch of Eastern Orthodoxy in him) found the book both a delight and wonderfully instructive. I found food for thought at every page. Like the “Shadow Meal” itself, I was nourished not only when I partook, but the nourishment remains as I continue to contemplate the varied (and often humorous) reflections offered between the covers of this slim volume with huge implications

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Solution to the Undocumented Worker Presence in the USA

After reading Joel Stein's article on the last page of my current TIME Magazine, I was inspired to come up with a workable solution for dealing with the presence of undocumented workers in this country. I share it with you now.

All undocumented workers would get a special residence card, giving them legal status in the US. They could be hired as employees with no problem, they wouldn't have to fear being stopped by the police for looking like a Central American, a Canadian, or a Lithuanian. They would take a loyalty oath, and then make one crucial and non-negotiable promise:

To spend money like a person possessed by consumeristic, demonic monkeys.

Here's how it would work: In the first year of legality, each person would promise to spend a specific sum of money on non-essentials during that year. So, over and above food, toothpaste and gasoline, they would also have to buy gummy bears, glow-in-the-dark shoelaces, and annual Disneyland passes. Each year, that required sum would increase. So, for example, in the first year, they might have to spend $1,000, $2,000 the next, and so on. Just to make sure they were really serious, along with their special residence card, they would also have to wear an ankle bracelet that kept track of their purchases, like the one Lindsay Lohan has to wear to keep track of her boozing. If they came up short in one year, the deficit would carry over to the next.

After five years, the ankle bracelet would be removed, full citizenship would be granted, and a credit card with a $30,000 limit would be issued. From that point on, consumer spending would be guaranteed, high interest rates would fuel the financial services sector, and the GDP would have new citizens to crank it up, right along with Christmas spending, which of course is what religion is all about (hence the connection to the above image).

I think I've said enough. You can plainly see that this is the best of all possible solutions in the best of all possible worlds.* If you can't chase them out, then suck them into the vortex of spending and debt. Heck, it's the American way! If it works for those of us born here, then it will work for the newcomers.

*With apologies to Voltaire.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Immigration as an electoral catapult

Today is the primary election for governor in the state of California, where I reside. The front-running Democrat is strategically silent about immigration while the Republican candidates spar over who is tougher on the subject. There will be more rhetorical blood on the wall once we get past the primary. The issue has become a catapult to thrust the candidates into the spotlight.

I've posted previously about how churches might consider a response to the immigration issue in a way that doesn't simply sanctify a preferred political position, but rather engages with immigrants (both legal and illegal) with an ethic that reeks of Jesus. See my prior posts for details.

But our country does need to reform its immigration policies. Just building stronger, longer, higher, and more patrolled walls is an insufficient response. Some have suggested amnesty for undocumented workers, and the angry responses make the idea seem as outrageous as recommending euthanasia for people suffering from seasonal allergies (please be disturbed, both my liberal and conservative friends, that the suggestion of amnesty first came from former US President Ronald Reagan in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986).

One thing that needs significant reform is our own nation's self-righteous attitude about the state of undocumented workers in this country (I'm not talking about heinous criminals, so settle down). We have allowed sloppy border security and closed our eyes to the practice of companies hiring illegal immigrants at poverty wages (good, capitalist practice, of course), but then screamed in protest when we suddenly became aware of the millions of people who have taken advantage of the opportunity to crawl out of poverty. We, as a nation, are culpable in this problem, and we need to own up to that. It's a shameful situation, and we Christians ought to be the first to confess the sin, and then offer leadership to our government in responding appropriately.

Neither the words "Democratic" or "Republican" are satisfactory adjectives to precede the word "Christian." And I mean it.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Has the Church lost its redemptive creativity?

The ongoing debates about immigration (fueled most recently by the new Arizona law) are filled with confusing rhetoric (like, confusing the terms "immigration" with "illegal immigration") and high emotion. Those who cry for open borders fail to consider the impact on the resources available to these pilgrims (think: hospitals, police protection, services provided by tax dollars, etc.) and also what happens to towns (especially border towns) when criminals from across the borders make their way in so that they can conduct illegal actions. Those who cry for closed borders come off as harsh and inhumane, forgetting that this is a country formed by immigrants, and that our current processes for legal immigration may be faulty. They also seem to think that building a wall will actually work. Any boy over the age of 10 knows that a wall is made for climbing.

During the disaster created by Hurricane Katrina a few years ago, I went to the Gulf Coast and participated with a network of churches from Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama that had come together (like a bunch of Facebook friends) to share resources, deliver goods, feed the hungry, and shelter the homeless. The government could barely fix the roads, railways, and downed power lines--the devastation was that bad. One sheriff said to me, "I don't know what we would have done without the Christians." I could tell by the big pistols he was carrying that he was a man prone to seriousness.

A vast network of churches in the Gulf Coast area--assisted by volunteers coming from as far away as Ohio, California, and Canada--dropped their denominational distinctives, turned their fellowship halls into food warehouses and their sanctuaries into dormitories, and did what the government could not do: Care for the people. That was redemptive creativity.

What if churches in Arizona (and anywhere else, for that matter), banded together and asked God for a better idea? Do we believe in Jesus? Do we believe that he rose from the dead? Do we believe that when he rose from the dead he had a new body? Did that new body have a new brain? Has that new brain had any new ideas in 2,000 years?* I bet we could ask him and he'd come up with something no one else has thought of.

I wish I had a magic solution to this issue, but I don't. But I'll bet Jesus does. If, as my friend Tim Storey says, the best we can do is baptize a preferred political ideology, then we are truly bankrupt. I think if churches came together and quit expecting the government to solve everything for us, we'd get surprised by the results. Could the governments of nations be blessed by something like this? I suspect so. Would there be some pain and suffering in the process? I suspect so. Prophets are not always welcomed in their home towns.

Hospitals, welfare systems, and schools were, at one time, the realm of the church. The governments of the world liked the ideas enough to co-opt them. Perhaps we should now ask God: "What next?"

*Thanks to the late Dr. Ray Anderson for saying something like this in a systematic theology class. It has always cracked me up.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Arizona Law and the Church

The recent Arizona Law (SB1070) that makes it illegal for undocumented aliens to live in or travel through the state has caused significant reaction across the country. Entire cities have boycotted the state while others celebrate the proactive stance. While Christians might have social and political views that line up on one side versus the other, there is a larger question that must be asked:

What is the church's proper response to these kinds of social realities? Is it sufficient to simply pick a side and join in?

A friend of mine who is a Christian leader in Arizona advises the people he influences to use this situation as an opportunity to bring a new kind of leadership to the table. I think this is appropriate counsel. Rather than Christianize the political posturings of one side or another, a different kind of leadership is required--a leadership that is informed by Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced this in Germany at the beginning of World War II. He was horrified that the state church had submitted itself to Hitler's National Socialist agenda and called upon the "confessing" church to take a new stance of leadership. He insisted that, when the state acted unjustly, the church's role was to confront with state with its wrongdoing. If that did not end the oppression, then the church's next step was to shelter and protect the oppressed. If that failed, then the church had to act, albeit tragically, by shoving a spoke in the wheel of the state. In other words, take steps to stop the machinery of injustice. For Bonhoeffer, that resulted in his (as a pacifist!) joining the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.

It would be a gigantic and inaccurate leap to equate Arizona's recent move with the Nazi terror of the last century, and that is not my intent. Instead, I would challenge us to think of a way that the church brings the leadership of God's kingdom to bear in an unjust world. Yes, illegal immigration has problematic social, economic, and legal results. But we do not begin with people as immigrants (or as any other imaginable label). We begin with them, as we do with all people, as co-humans made in the image of God. As such, we are called to bring a new kind of leadership in a broken, unjust world.

I would also add that the instigators of these laws are also co-humans made in the image of God. Redemptive leadership should reach into those places as well.

Is such leadership possible?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Is God really trustworthy?

Recently two of my grandsons have dealt with significant health issues. We have prayed for them, their parents have seen to proper medical attention, and the boys seem to be doing well. We can breathe easier. It seems that God has heard us. All appears to be well. We can trust God.

But what if something goes awry? What if their condition changes and their health deteriorates? What if our prayers do not receive the answers we desire? Can we trust God in that?

Almost twenty years ago, a dear friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. He was a devout Christian, and many of us prayed for his healing. His lovely wife and four young daughters loved and depended upon him for their care. He made it seven months and then died. We trusted God for healing, but got death instead. We found no answers to our questions about why such a good man had to die.

I've prayed for others over the years, including three more people who had cancer. One had a small tumor that concerned his doctor. The other two were given death sentences, but still underwent treatment. All three recovered. I cannot claim with absolute certainty why they recovered. Even with grim prospects for recovery, maybe the medical treatment won the day. Maybe God really did bring healing. All I know is that we prayed and they all got better. We were able to rejoice in God's goodness and trust that he heard our prayers.

Both of my grandsons had either birth difficulties or early-age medical problems that would have probably resulted in their deaths had they lived a hundred years ago. Our medical technology intervened and both have been enjoying robust lives. When I stop to think about it, I am grateful that they are in our lives at all.

So who do I trust in all of this? God? Science? Random flukes of the universe?

I need to mention that one of the three above-mentioned cancer victims did later die. His death was due to an accident in his home, not due to cancer. We prayed, he went through treatment, he recovered, and he died anyway. But that is the way of all people--of all living things--isn't it?

I can sit with my grandsons--talking, laughing, playing--and thank God for his care and love. I am grateful that I can trust God for all this joy. But could I sit at the graves of ones I have loved, and then trust God as well? Or is my trust linked only to the delivery of my expectations through prayer?

I think the answer lies in seeing God as trustworthy regardless of our expectations. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (in Luke's gospel) are disappointed that Jesus didn't turn out to be the liberator that they had expected. They had trusted God, but he seemed to have let them down. The resurrected Jesus--the one who had just recently suffered and died--came alongside them to set them straight. If God is to be trusted, then our expectations and desires have to be subordinate to God's.

I'd like to be in the place where I trust God no matter what. If I (or the ones I love) live, then we trust our lives to God. If we die, then we trust that our lives are fully embraced by this trustworthy God, that we might one day enjoy him in the new heaven and the new earth.

Faith and Trust are interchangeable words in the Greek of the New Testament. But for us, faith can be purely cognitive. We can claim that we have faith just because we've ordered some information systematically in our heads. Trust, however, is relational. It comes out of full engagement with the trustworthiness of another. I can really only trust God within my relationship with him.

In the meantime, I still pray and hope. Within all that, I try to trust.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hitler and Idiots

Yesterday I drove through the post office on my way to work and saw a booth set up on the sidewalk, sufficiently distanced from the post office door to satisfy any regulations about political affiliation. The booth had a nice little umbrella and several large signs around the sides inviting people to come and sign a petition to impeach the President.

Adjacent to each of those signs were large posters featuring a photograph of Mr. Obama and another man (I couldn't tell, from my car, who he was), both sporting Hitler-esque moustaches.

In our society, people are free to voice their opposition to all kinds of things, including presidential administrations, acts of Congress and decisions made by the Supreme Court. People can satirize our governmental leaders without fear of being arrested during the night or being banished to the wilderness of Iceland. We are free to voice our opinions, right or wrong, and that's okay with me.

I wonder why, every time a president does something people don't like, that president is equated with Adolf Hitler. You remember him, right? He's the German (Austrian, actually) dictator whose close followers revered as God, who took over the State Church, replacing crosses with swords and Bibles with copies of Mien Kampf. He orchestrated the deaths of six million Jews and thousands of others he considered ethnically impure. He invaded neighboring nations, absorbing them into his empire and planned to take over much of western Europe, if not the world, launching a world war that cost between 50 and 80 million human lives.

I have seen caricatures of US Presidents--both Democrat and Republican--with little Hitler moustaches on them. How is it that we equate our Presidents with someone like Hitler? How is it that being the President of a country like the US can instantly be the same as being a deranged European dictator? Given our system of government, is that even possible?

This is not a new thing. After shooting President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth leaped onto the stage of the Ford Theater, breaking his leg, and shouting (in Latin), "Thus always to tyrants!" It seems that, when we don't like our presidents, we equate them with tyrants and dictators. When you have demonized your opponents, you no longer have to debate reasonably. Raw emotion will do nicely.

The issue is summed up nicely in an exchange between six-year-old Karen and her parents in a clip from the UK comedy Outnumbered. Karen's father has just explained to her that it is important to respect and be tolerant of other people's views about life. Her response is thoughtful and helpful:

"What, even idiots? Even if they want to stab you in the eye with a pencil?"

Well said, Karen.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Love Hurts

"Love hurts, love scars,
Love wounds, and mars . . ."

I like this Bryant and Boudleaux song (my favorite version is by Emmylou Harris). It sounds ironic, since love is supposed to be happy and joyful rather than painful.

But it's true. Love hurts.

Yesterday morning, just before stepping into a day full of meetings, Emily called me to say that our 12-year-old grandson just had a seizure and was being rushed to the hospital. Jacob is diabetic, and it turns out that he had a severe drop in blood sugar and his insulin pump wasn't connected. All his tests came out normal and he was home that afternoon.

But the news that morning disrupted everything inside of me. I dearly love my kids and grandkids. Jacob is the firstborn grandchild and was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes at age 3. He's a strong and brave kid, and all of the medical stuff he's had to endure gives him a special place of concern in the hearts of all the family members. Hearing that he had become helpless--even for a few minutes--and was at risk caused a physical sensation in me. It actually hurt. Love hurts.

I am reminded in this that we can avoid things like broken relationships, loss of loved ones, betrayal and so on if we could just not love. Without love, those things have no fertile ground. Without love, people cannot harm us. They cannot betray us. We won't feel the pain of loss when they leave or die. For those things to happen, love has to exist.

The pain that we all felt yesterday at the news of Jacob's plight was medicated in the afternoon by the sound of his voice on a phone, through our visits to see him at home, and a return to some kind of normalcy that let us rest for a while. But even this morning, the residual pain is still there.

We're told in the Bible that love is found, not in how we love, but in how God loves. All of the pain and loss we can endure and inflict comes after God has already loved. Much of what I've learned in studying the Bible can be summed up this way:

Love hurts.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday and the Atonement

In our observance of Good Friday (also known as Great Friday, Holy Friday, and Black Friday), we solemnly view the suffering and death of Jesus with an eye to Sunday--the day that we celebrate his resurrection. We would never observe Good Friday and then skip Easter. Without Easter Sunday, Good Friday is just another day that a good person dies a bad death.

It is interesting to me that, in our debates about the Atonement (trying to answer the question, Why did Jesus die?), we sometimes act as though Good Friday is the most important part of the story. If the death of Jesus, by itself, accomplishes something for God (assuaging his anger toward sinful humanity, setting the scales of justice right, relieving the offense against God's holiness, etc.), then the cross is really where the story ends. The death of the Innocent One somehow fixes everything that has gone wrong. The resurrection is just a bonus.

It is significant to me that the church has traditionally tied the events of Holy Week together, culminating in Easter, then moving toward the observance of Pentecost and the movement into Ordinary Time, where we live out the implications of God's work in the world, one day at a time.

The death of Jesus is truly significant, but not when it is seen as an isolated, transactional event that satisfies a need that exists in the heart of God. The story is bigger than that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Institutions and Idolatry

Isaiah 44 speaks of the irony that is revealed when a man cuts down a tree to create fuel for his fire and an idol for his worship:

"Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it." (Isaiah 44:15)

The wood offers a reasonable service to the man--the wood can be used to build a fire for warmth and for cooking. The wood becomes a servant, giving of itself for the blessing of the man. But the wood then becomes the master, fashioned in a shape that the man deems worthy of worship.

Even though the Bible sometimes refers to idols as "nothings" (see, for example, Isaiah 44:10), they become demonic when they are given the power of mastery. The wooden idol is nothing; and yet, it has power over the man when he grants that power, permitting himself to orient his life around that which is nothing.

There is an application here, I believe, to the power of institutions.

Institutions are constructed to give shape and organization to something organic and alive. In their best contexts, institutions serve human beings in a variety of ways. Over time, however, institutions often morph from servanthood to mastery, and serving the institution becomes the primary interest of the people connected to it. When that which was initiated as a servant becomes a master, the demonic becomes real. The idol is no longer a nothing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Shadow Meal

My new book, Shadow Meal, is now in print and available here.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Motif of the Eucharist

Interesting how there have been different motifs when it comes to the Eucharist. One is the altar, which makes one think of sacrifice. Another is the passing of the elements across rows of people, each looking straight ahead, suggesting a context of solemnity and minimal interaction. Still another is the Eucharist offered at stations throughout the sanctuary, where people come, take, eat and drink at their own instigation, remaining isolated as individuals and free as choosers.

More and more I am seeing the Eucharist as the table of Jesus, a table around which people may gather. It was given to us as a meal, shared with one another, a sharing that comes at the invitation of Jesus and in which the people look across at one another, meeting the eyes and touching the hands of those who are intimately gathered.

How does the shared meal motif speak into our celebration of the Eucharist? What would that look like in the worshipping life of the church?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Death of Movements?

Interesting conversation stemming from Jason Clark's post here. Of particular interest to me were the links to both Tony Jones and Jason Coker.

I'm currently reading How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins. Movements and organizations go through various phases that precede their collapse. I'm wondering: In movements and institutions that we label "Christian," do we experience the same cycles of growth, success and then decline that for-profit corporations go through because we continue to organize by contemporary business models? Is there another way for us, with different expectations and measures of "success"?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Coming to the Table

Is the table of Jesus about being qualified and certified? Or is it about hospitality and wonder--welcoming the awestruck stranger?

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Table in Time

Is the Table of the Lord - the place of Eucharist - a memory of the past, a realization of the present, or a foretaste of the future? Or all?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Worthiness at the Table of Jesus

By the early second century, according to Justin Martyr, the Eucharist was already limited to people who affirmed the tenets of the faith and had been baptized. Just 100 years earlier, Jesus served that Last Supper (and first Eucharist) to twelve friends who didn't get it, had deep reservations about Jesus, were about to cut and run, and included one who was selling Jesus out to his murderers. Yet Jesus served them all. Interesting how the boundaries of right belief and proper membership emerged so quickly.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Eucharist-Shaped Church

The evangelical church has, in my view, made a mistake by either marginalizing the Eucharist or using it as ancient/future window dressing. If we dare explore the Lord's Supper as a narrative/eschatological expression, we might find that we unstick ourselves from our desperate need to produce, perform and sustain the props of a western Christendom that may be gasping its last.