Monday, December 17, 2012

The Preposition of Hope

The seasons of Advent and Christmas create environments of joy, celebration, and anticipation for many people. In churches we light candles that symbolize different aspects of the nativity story and sing about the arrival of the child who will change everything. It can be a warm, wonderful, time of the year.

But it won’t be that way for many families in Newtown, Connecticut. Religious or not, the month of December will never be the same for them. Not ever.

Within short order we’ve been offered reasons for this horrible tragedy: Lousy gun control laws, say some. The removal of prayer from public schools, say others. One has to marvel at the swiftness of the conclusions drawn that bring such certainty to a place where deep, fathomless grief is the only real and present experience.

And we, who follow Jesus, have the audacity in this season to announce,

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Matthew 1:23)

God is with us. What an odd thing to consider when a young man, barely out of his teens, guns down twenty-two first graders and six adults in one tragic day. What an outrageous thing to declare when people inevitably ask why God didn’t stop the gunman in the first place. What a potentially empty thing to say when people immersed in grief feel as though they have been dropped into a black hole of pain.

But we still say it and we still believe it. God is with us.

There is something unnerving about the idea that God would enter into the reality, grittiness, and danger of human existence and experience it from start to finish. But we believe that God has done exactly that in the person of Jesus, in whom

. . . all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell . . . (Colossians 1:19)

In Jesus, God entered into human birth, life, suffering, and death—the whole range of human existence. And he remains with us, alongside us, in all aspects of life and death.

I have no answers to the question of why? when it comes to tragedies like this. The apparent randomness of evil and suffering might conjure up multiple speculations, but in the end the adverb why truly remains unanswered. It is only the preposition with that can help us.

I believe that God is with us. And I still grieve.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Brian McLaren and his Son’s Same-Sex Wedding

The story of Brian McLaren officiating at a “Commitment Ceremony” appeared recently on a Christianity Today blog.

Comments on some other blogs I’ve read expressed, predictably, some varied responses to this story. I’ve seen Brian called both a heretic and an infidel for doing this, and I’ve also read of people sympathizing with his actions.

Without addressing whether or not I agree with Brian’s decision to officiate at this ceremony, I do want to say this: There is something important about standing up with the people you love, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

When Rev. Jeremiah Wright caused a stir awhile back because of his public remarks about America, Barack Obama was not quick to denounce his former pastor. He was disapproving of the statements made by Wright, but also said he refused to turn his back on the pastor in whose church Obama came to faith in Christ (you can read about this experience in Obama’s autobiography).

Many people were angry at Obama’s words, and felt he should cut Wright out of his life. But Obama kept love in tact while denouncing Wright’s comments. I saw integrity in that position. Political expediency did not win out this time.

I’ve spent some time with Brian McLaren over the last few years, and I like him very much. His writings have helped me in my own journey, and I’m grateful for his thoughtful responses to challenging issues. I view him as a brother in Christ. That doesn’t mean that he and I would agree on all things, but universal agreement is not necessarily a prerequisite for love (my Mom and I disagree on a number of things, but we still love each other).

I wonder what I would have done if one of my children had come to me and revealed their attraction to members of the same sex. And what would I have done if one of them announced a plan to wed a same sex partner? If I stood up and walked them through a ceremony of commitment (perhaps one that called them to faithfulness, challenging them to embrace the full ramifications of what it means to be married), would that be tantamount to an endorsement? Or would I be doing what a father who loves his children does, even if such an act ran cross-grain to my own convictions?

I do not find easy answers in these kinds of situations. But I do believe that love requires responses that violate the sensibilities of many people (the Gospels reveal many stories about Jesus that support this). The world in which we Christians minister is more complex than many people imagine.

And love often gets us in trouble.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What is "Conservative"?

Now, to be fair, what do we mean when we use the term “conservative”?

In current US culture, the term has fallen on hard times, too often equating it with some form of radical fundamentalism or hard line obstructionism. Whether referring to religion or politics, it seems to be a term, like “progressive,” that has lost its way.

At its heart, conservatism seeks to maintain things of value, whether those things are traditions, practices, institutions, or beliefs. Even the most liberal of people are conservative somewhere in their lives (go into a liberal church and change the paint color or the seating, and watch the fur fly; or alter the way a liberal family celebrates certain holiday traditions and watch the children and grandchildren howl in protest).

People who seek to protect the environment are usually referred to as liberals, and yet their official label is “conservationalists.” Pretty crazy.

Right now, in the US, what is it that we are attempting to conserve?

In the political arena, it seems to be something that is grounded in economics. I do find myself a bit stunned by the increased revelation that many of our conservative politicians over the last few decades have claimed an allegiance to Ayn Rand’s so-called objectivism, illustrated in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Yet, even that staunch, conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr., felt that Rand’s dismissal of all things charitable was unacceptable. Recently Paul Ryan (who has been characterized as a Rand devotee) was chastised by the Roman Catholic Church for embracing a Randian social and economic policy that turned its back on the poor.

The problem for people of faith (like Paul Ryan) is that while Ayn Rand left her oppressive communism behind, she brought her atheism with her. So is that progressive or conservative?

I find too many of my Christian brothers and sisters morphing religious conservatism with American conservatism, and seeing it as one thing. That is, in my view, a very dangerous and possibly poisonous cocktail.

Are there things to conserve? Probably so. Do we dare seek to conserve those things we have come to value without some form of theological reflection? Can we read the “conservative” works of people like Ayn Rand (and her contemporary followers like Ronald Reagan, Paul Ryan, Ron Paul, and others) and then turn and read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and draw the conclusion that they are compatible?

In my book, it’s unthinkable.

What is "Progressive"?

When we speak of being (or others being) progressive, what do we mean?

Historically, at least in the US, progressivism was associated with social reform that addressed working conditions, child labor, fair housing, and so on. Presently, however, the terms “progressive” and “liberal” appear to have become conflated.

Progressivism today seems to have more to do with the demand for individual rights than it does with social reform (although some might point out that the various legislations that emerge from those demands create reform). As new interest groups rise up to demand rights, their causes are typically championed by those who identify themselves as progressive.

There are also followers of Jesus who consider themselves to be progressive. From my experience, they seem to line up with those who live in the progressive political world.

As I consider this, I have to ask a question: What is the force that causes the progression in the first place? In other words, from what, to what, and by what do we progress? Is it some sort of evolutionary power that pushes us along? Is it popular consensus? Is it the mounting demands of various interest groups? What is it that moves us along?

There’s a great story in the New Testament (Acts 10-11) about something progressive taking place. The emerging followers of Jesus were seeing their experience as a uniquely Jewish story (can’t blame them, really). When Peter ended up meeting with a group on non-Jewish, God-fearing gentiles, the Spirit of God fell upon them. Peter realized that something he never anticipated was happening, and he reported it to his co-leaders in the Jerusalem church. They agreed (at least initially) that the Jesus experience was a much bigger story than they had ever imagined.

I think those folks would have claimed a progressivism that was caused by the movement of the Holy Spirit. But it wasn’t simply grounded in cultural or social preference. They (Paul, actually) would go back to their own Scriptures and discover that the grand preferences of God for the world were there all the time, but they had missed them. In that sense, they were actually becoming conservative, as they sought to conserve what they now believed was God’s true desires for all people.

We need to think about this whole idea of being progressive. I think we ought to pause for moment and think about the power that pushes us to progress through history.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

More on Marriage and Rights

Attentive reader and friend Brian (see his comment on my post of September 8) rightly points out that the Supreme Court of the US has indeed declared marriage to be a basic civil right. That is true, and probably will provide the basis for the eventual approval of same-sex marriage throughout the United States.

But my question is this: For we people of faith—Christian faith in particular—does the Supreme Court (or any judicial or legislative body of the state) have the ability to declare how we view reality within the contrast society we call the church? In other words, if the Supreme Court says that marriage is a civil right, does that provide us the only basis for talking about marriage?

I found the following at a University of Missouri website:

“Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 hotly debated the issue of slavery. George Mason of Virginia argued eloquently against slavery, warning his fellow delegates:

‘Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins by national calamities.’

Southern delegates, on the other hand, argued strenuously that the new government should not be allowed to interfere with the institution of slavery. Delegate John Rutledge of South Carolina, for example, told delegates that ‘religion and humanity have nothing to do with the questions’ of whether the Constitution should protect slavery—it was simply a question of property rights.

“The Supreme Court, in its infamous decision in Dred Scott v Sandford (1857), ruled that Congress lacked the power to prohibit slavery in its territories. In so doing, Scott v Sandford invited slave owners to pour into the territories and pass pro-slavery constitutions.”

At one time in US history, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of slavery, making the forced labor of human beings an act that was considered legal and the right of slaveholders. Others declared that what the Court had ruled, while a social and economic reality, was a fundamental violation of human dignity.

Just because the Court says its so doesn’t make it so. It might be the law of the land, but it doesn’t necessarily create the only boundaries within which followers of Jesus form their thinking and practice.

I’m not advocating lawlessness, nor am I, in this posting, advocating one way or the other regarding same-sex marriage. What I am saying is that we people of faith have to process these kinds of issues from a standpoint that assumes something bigger than the Court can rule upon.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Disagreeing with Rachel Held Evans, but loving her anyway

One of the blogs I enjoy reading belongs to Rachel Held Evans. She’s a terrific writer and I like her take on things in the world of faith in general and Christianity in particular.

She made a brief remark recently, however, about which I disagree. She said, “I believe that marriage is a civil right in this country.” I am not, in this limited space, attempting to address the larger issue of same-sex marriage, except to the extent that I think its proponents base their arguments on a faulty assumption.

Marriage is not a civil right.

Let me explain: When I got married a zillion years ago, there were certain requirements I had to meet in order to marry my fiancé. First, we had to affirm that we were not already married to someone else. Even back in 19blah blah blah, polygamy was frowned upon in US society. Second, we had to get blood tests to prove that we didn’t carry communicable diseases and end up spawning mutants and then infecting all our neighbors. Third—and this is the one that still outrages me—I had to get written permission from my parents in order to get married. Back in the olden days, you see, a woman could get married without parental consent at age 18. Men had to be 21. My fiancé was 19 and I was 20, so I had to get a note from Mom and Dad. Nevermind that I was in the US Navy at the time and could, theoretically, defend the nation for the sake of democracy; I still had to get a note. If my folks said no, then I’d have to wait a year.

Once we satisfied those requirements, we could get married. But it was not because it was a civil right; it was the recognition by the state of California (and also our church) that something existed between my fiancé and me that could be recognized and declared as a union called “marriage.”

We didn’t have a right to get married. We did, however, have a right to request that our life together be affirmed as such. And we could, potentially, be refused.

Two ten-year-olds can walk into the County Recorder’s office, pick up the form that requests a marriage license, fill it out, and submit it. It will, of course, be turned down. In our society, even children can ask to get married, but we won’t let them do it. It’s their right to ask, but not their right to actually tie the knot.

While the requirements are not quite as rigid today, the point, I believe, still stands. I’m wondering what would happen if the debate about marriage moved away from the assumption of a “right” to the exploration of marriage that is recognized and declared by the communities in which we live. This is not just an issued related to same-sex couples; it has to do with the whole idea of marriage in a culture that can deconstruct and reconstruct lives via medical technology in ways that were unthinkable a hundred years ago. Marriage and sex assumed, at one time, procreation. No longer is that assumed, even with heterosexuals (read this interesting blog on the topic). On top of that, we heterosexuals have pretty much redefined marriage as something that only works half the time anyway, so maybe some fresh and new reflection is in order.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Remembering Ray Bradbury

I met Ray Bradbury three times.

The first was in 1977 at the college where I was a student. He was the special speaker in an English Department sponsored event and my wife and I were there. Most of us were delighted when Bradbury started to swear eloquently as he called us to pursue our dreams and not be squashed by the machinery of respectability. The fun was enhanced by the withering of the faculty who, as teachers at a conservative Christian college, would normally not tolerate such language. I went up to chat with him afterward, probably saying the kind of ridiculous things that people like me say to famous authors.

The other two times were in my home town of Upland, California. He must have had some connections there because he served once as the marshall of our little town parade, and then returned to sign books at our tiny bookstore, comfortingly known as The Bookworm.

I took my older daughter to one of those book signing events when she was in junior high school. He chatted with us, then signed her book, intentionally spelling her name incorrectly. Then he crossed out his error, spelled her name the right way, and handed it to her with a grin on his face.

“There,” he said. “Now it’ll be worth more when I’m dead.”

But when I think about it, I met Ray many times in my life. Every time I read one of his stories, whether when I was ten years old or now, fifty years later, I have heard his voice narrating life and wonder in the poetic ways that were uniquely his. I hear his voice in my head when I write my own tales, shouting, “No, no no! Too sterile, too organized. Find your heart, you idiot! There’s a poet in you somewhere!”

Bradbury revealed both real-time accuracy and prophetic insight in his work. He anticipated the imprisoning of the imagination in giant TV screens (Fahrenheit 451) and mesmerizing video games (The Martian Chronicles). He even offered the occasional critique of popular religion, as in this brief quotation, spoken by the character Faber, from Fahrenheit 451. The main character, Montag, has just given Faber a book, an item that is now forbidden in this future world:

“It’s been a long time. I’m not a religious man. But it’s been a long time.” Faber turned the pages, stopping here and there to read. “It’s as good as I remember. Lord, how they’ve changed it in our ‘parlors’ these days. Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder if God recognizes His own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs.”

The book, of course, was a Bible.

I am going to return to my Bradbury books. Some are seasonal: Something Wicked This Way Comes should be read in the Fall. Dandelion Wine is for the Summer. Fahrenheit 451 could be reserved for Winter, as the roaring fires from burning books warm the chilled evenings. Death is a Lonely Business is a good one for the Spring, when Venice Beach is drifting slowly toward Summer.

Some of my Bradbury books have disappeared. I’ve given some to my grandsons who, unlike their mothers before them, have taken up the mantle of Bradbury studies. I think I’ll systematically replace my old paperbacks, and find good old hardcovers that attract dust and smell like nutmeg and old coffee. I’ll not put any on my Kindle, if that’s even possible. I don’t think Ray would go for that.

In Memory of Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

Friday, June 1, 2012

Going Crazy about New York

When I recently heard about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban the sale of sugared soft drinks of more than 16 ounces in certain venues, I was irritated that something so ridiculous as regulating soda intake could not only waste people’s time and energy, but also require the rest of us to talk about the subject as though it deserved being talked about in the first place. I was convinced that the world had, indeed, gone insane.

However, I then heard a psychologist on the radio talk about the other side of things. He pointed out that the world of marketing tends to continually reset the standard of normalcy for consumers. At one time, an 8-ounce glass bottle of soda would have been considered a reasonable serving. Today, 32-ounces in a large, plastic, refillable cup is the baseline for consumption. If a small plate of food at one time satisfied human hunger and provided sufficient nutrition, food marketers then reset the standard to a plate twice the size with more fat, salt, and MSG. We consumers tend to accept those new standards without question.

It occurs to me that we often find ourselves living between two external forces. On one side is the formation that we experience through marketing. We are told that we need soda, chips, electronics, luxury cars, etc., and we allow our standards to be set for us, often without reflection, critique, or resistance. On the other side is legislation that seeks to limit the seemingly boundless power of marketing by requiring the printing of nutrition facts, hidden costs, estimated gas mileage, or limits on purchasing (as in the New York proposal). We live between those forces and let them have their way with us.

Do we really have no choice here? Must we succumb to the siren song of marketing over here, and then trust that legislation will save us from ourselves over there? Please, say it ain’t so, Joe.

For we who, in particular, are interested in the possibility that our lives might actually be formed by the ongoing life of God, can we not learn some new disciplines of critique and reflection? If we are told that we must drink this drink, or watch this show, or drive that car, or eat certain foods in certain volumes, can we not stop and reflect on the potential effects on both our inward and outward lives, and then act in ways that resist the promises of marketing and then render the machinery of consumer legislation unnecessary? If people had resisted the intake of massive amounts of sugary soda, then Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal would have been irrelevant and probably never offered in the first place.

We are not batteries that fuel a giant profit-making machine. We are humans, made in the image of God, called to care for and participate in the world that God loves and intends for his good. That includes caring for ourselves.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Atonement at Ground Zero

From the winter of 2010 through the spring of 2012, I worked on a book that is now titled Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Faith (Wipf and Stock, 2012). It just hit the publisher's catalog yesterday, and should be on Amazon and Barnes & Noble soon.

I wrote this book in an effort to struggle with the question, Why did Jesus die? There is much to found in our various doctrinal grids to attempt to answer that question theologically, but what happens when you attempt to press back to the ground zero of the events surrounding Jesus' death? Would the witnesses to his execution agree with our theological interpretations?

So in Atonement at Ground Zero I look back at the New Testament to help us imagine and hear the responses of the various witnesses. Through Jesus' friends and family, the community of Israel, the Romans, and through Jesus himself, we discover an interesting and surprising weave of experiences and expectations.

My hope is that this is a book that joins in with other (more qualified) voices that want to expand rather than restrict the doctrine of the atonement, but also that it will be a book that helps us communicate the richness of what God has done in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. So it becomes, in essence, a preaching book that seeks to help others to embrace and speak of new images that lead people into the expansive mystery of God's love for the world.

My desire is that it would help followers of Jesus—-pastors, leaders, and others who care about communicating the good news of Jesus Christ--to find new language that launches from the old, and to learn to employ new images that mean as much to our culture as the former ones did in cultures now long past.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is Jesus Reckless?

In reading Luke chapter nine this morning, I was struck by the way Jesus seemed to play a bit fast and loose with the qualifications for joining him in his work. We know that the twelve disciples were pretty sketchy in their understanding of who Jesus was and what he was up to, yet they were sent out in his authority to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. And Jesus sent them out unsupervised!

On top of that, when he was told that someone was out there casting out demons but not as part of the group of disciples, Jesus told his friends that it was okay: If a person isn’t against you, he says, then consider yourselves on the same team.

But what if (I am thinking to myself) that other person doesn’t think rightly about things we consider to be important? James might be wondering, “What if that person thinks that Samaritans are just as good as Jews?” John might ask, “What if that person is like the Sadducees, and doesn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead?” Peter could be asking, “But what if that person hasn’t given up everything like we have?”

If the disciples were to have asked Jesus these kinds of questions, there’s a good chance he would have answered them like he answered Peter much later, described in John 21:22:

“What is that to you? Follow me.”

I wonder if, today, Jesus wanders through the halls of power, up and down the grimy streets of the city, along the corridors of the prisons and the sanctuaries, seeing people acting out their dramas as ones who are sometimes for him and sometimes against him. In those places of turmoil and intrigue, does he continue to whisper the same words over and over to all the broken and misguided people he encounters?

“Come, follow me.”

And when we who call ourselves faithful describe who is in and who is out, whose political posturing constitutes good or evil, whose doctrinal declarations are truthful or heretical, whose worship practices are valid or invalid, does Jesus continue to say to us,

“What is that to you? Follow me.”

Monday, May 7, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage and the Lost Love Between Church and State

The topic of same-sex marriage is still causing a stir in the US, from the White House to every state in the Union to just about every church in every city. It’s a subject that cannot be dodged.

According to this morning’s CNN article, almost of half of US citizens are open to the idea of gay marriage, and even more are fine with the idea of civil unions. When you break down the polls by religious affiliations, the numbers are mixed, with Roman Catholics being considerably more open to gay marriage than are Evangelical Protestants.

I think there might be something important going on here, and I believe it may transcend the arguments about the sanctity of marriage (being evidenced by how the government defines and affirms marriage). Here’s a text of Scripture to consider on the matter:

“. . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

These are the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. The context is about how his followers are to respond when confronted by an “evil doer” (v. 39). Many today would say that those advocating for gay marriage are well within the ranks of the evil doers. Whether or not that is the case, there is, I think, something to consider here.

We have been sued for our coat—the defining of marriage as a union between one man and one woman.

Perhaps we will have to also give up our cloak—our partnership with the state in defining, affirming, and establishing marriage. Think about it:

•Some churches would be uncomfortable (at the least) with a co-habiting, unmarried couple in their midst, but would not typically raise a concern if the couple had obtained a legal marriage license (at City Hall, in Las Vegas, or wherever) prior to applying for membership.

•There is a distinct partnership between church and state in a marriage ceremony. I have officiated at a number of weddings, and when I pronounce the couple “husband and wife,” they are married, and the government takes my word for it. However, if the county recorder’s office doesn’t receive the signed marriage license in due time, there will be no recognizable marriage for that couple, either by the state or by the church.

Let’s face it: The church in the US has been holding hands with the government when it comes to marriage for a very long time. It has been an unquestioned and comfortable partnership because we have operated under the perception that we share a common interest when it comes to marriage. The problem is that we don’t have matching agendas when it comes to marriage. The government affirms marriage because it offers the possibility of safety and stability for the raising up of families (and future citizens), and creates legal boundaries for property rights, child custody, and so on. But the church typically affirms marriage for different reasons. For the church, marriage has something to do with reflecting the image of God and creating nurturing environments for human beings.

The push toward same-sex marriage is clearly deconstructing the concept of marriage as it has traditionally been known. So perhaps the government needs to drop the word entirely and simply grant “civil unions” to any two human beings who qualify for such unions (marriage—even traditional ones—are not rights as people currently claim. Not everyone has the right to get married. You can’t get married to someone if you are already married to another; you can’t get married if you are not of a certain age; etc.). If the government decides that such unions serve the self-interests of the nation, and if sufficient popular (read: voting) support leans that direction, then it will happen, regardless of the label put upon them.

So where does that leave Christian communities? What would happen to us if we separated the sanctity of marriage from the legality of the state? Would marriage really die, or would it be reborn? We might have to consider giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. And very likely, we will have no choice.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Christianity and Angry Critics

I’ve been reading various blog comments regarding Christianity on a number of sites. I find myself perplexed and bothered by the vitriolic responses by some non-religious folks who find the Christian faith to be stupid, violent, evil, repulsive, and dangerous (one commenter even offered the hope that a certain high-profile TV preacher would be “taken out” by some disillusioned parishioner).

One thing I notice is that much of the angry comments are crafted around a lot of popular distortions of Christian faith—including some distortions maintained by Christians themselves. On occasion I read critiques against Christians by atheists and am somewhat disturbed that I don’t entirely disagree with them.

It is rare to see a religious skeptic taking issue with legitimate biblical scholars or theologians. The kind of reasonable reflection that comes from some of those Christians in the academic world is not typically the fuel that lights up the commentator’s fires. Most of the attack is on popular religion and too much of it reeks of deep hatred and even violence.

I worry about this. I don’t mind that some people find Christians to be irrelevant or mistaken—that’s been going on for a couple of thousand years. But I am concerned when the blogosphere carries comments and declarations suggesting that a purging of Christianity from society would be the balm that soothes the wounds of the nation (although people like the Emperor Nero and Adolf Hitler thought the same thing).

I wonder if there aren’t two things going on here:

1. Through the angry words of the critics, should we who follow Jesus take an honest look at ourselves and see if the critiques are, in any way, warranted? Is it possible that God could be speaking through some of the more thoughtful critics, and even through the ones who are rageful?

2. Could much of the anger that we hear be grounded in the perception that Christianity—at least in America—is not so much a description of the movement of faithful people who follow Jesus, but instead is a dominant political and social force that is viewed as an oppressor of freedom? Is the fury that we witness a tool for unseating the perceived power of Christendom?

This is disturbing stuff and we ignore it to our peril. Strategizing ways to retain or gain power is not, in my view, the answer. But I think the answer might be found in revisiting our identity as followers of the humble king who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). We may truly end up being pushed to the margins of society (as has happened elsewhere in the history of the world), but it may be that we meet Jesus anew at those places at the edge.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rachel Held Evans and her V-Victory

Rachel Held Evans’ recent campaign to get her publisher to allow the word vagina to remain in her upcoming book was not only funny, but also successful. She correctly describes the concerns and fears of editors and publishers that the use of certain words will offend their popular Christian readership and diminish book sales. Rachel rightly calls for that to change.

But it probably won’t, at least not anytime soon. Publishers of popular Christian books seem to view their audience as ones who don’t want to read things that go too deep, ask too many uncomfortable questions, contain violence, or use offensive language. A visit to one of the few remaining Christian bookstores will offer evidence of the literary Pablum that people seem to want to slurp.

However, I don’t think our publishing friends give their audiences enough credit. I’m not saying that everything has to be heavy-duty academic stuff, but the history of Christianity is hardly bereft of weighty writings or scandalous stories. The first three hundred years of the church alone produced volumes of serious theological thought that still line the shelves of academicians today.

There are popular speakers who add to this illusion. I heard the popular writer Donald Miller (whose first book, Blue Like Jazz, I loved) speak recently and he spent a great deal of time telling people that scholarship was dispensable when it came to being a follower of Jesus. I suspect he was trying to say that lack of theological credentials shouldn’t disqualify a person from being a disciple, but it didn’t come off that way. I’m concerned about how people heard his message. It suggested an anti-intellectualism that isn't helpful to any of us.

As far as scandalous material goes, it’s a good thing that current Christian publishers didn’t have a hand in determining what went into the Bible. Otherwise they might have sanitized

•Jael pounding a tent stake through Sisera’s head (Judges 4)

•Onan terminating intercourse and spilling his semen on the ground (Genesis 38)

•The gang-rape and dismemberment of a woman (Judges 19)

•All kinds of steamy sex talk (Song of Solomon)

You get the idea. Using language gratuitously in order to sell books is no better than sanitizing language for the same reason. But I would hope that some brave editors and publishers would push the envelope a bit and see if their audiences would rise to the occasion. Authenticity, intelligence, and artful use of language are good things.

So, hurray for Rachel and her vagina victory.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Theology and Vampires

Later this month—May 17-19, to be precise—my collection of short stories, Dark Ocean, will be available as a free download through Amazon. A special bonus at the back of the book offers a few chapters from a previous novel, This Side of Death.

This Side of Death is a horror story. It involves vampires. I should probably explain why I like to write theological-type things and also creepy, spooky stories. Both my mother and my wife have their own explanations for my behavior, but I don’t buy into the whole demonic possession thing.

I started writing This Side of Death a few years ago because my grandchildren were reading the Twilight series and trying to convince me that vampires were not evil, but were actually a misunderstood and marginalized race of beings. I set out to show my descendants the truth about the undead.

But the story sort of got away from me and I discovered that it was fertile ground for exploring questions of faith. In This Side of Death, a family has suffered the loss of their husband and father, a good man who died a horrible and violent death. The son, Jay, drifts from anger to disillusionment to a deep sense of responsibility. His sister, Vickie, mostly stays in the anger mode.

They are drawn into a story of violence and horror, seeking to answer the question, What is hell? For them, hell has come to visit them on earth. Vickie declares that God himself should be banished there after what he allowed to happen to their father. A local priest, who keeps appearing at the margins of the family’s life, speaks pastorally to them and offers a way of thinking about life and God that they have not yet considered.

This story will end up being a trilogy. The second book, Morana, should be out this year (if my copyeditor will quit having a life of her own and do what I demand!) and the third is in process. Anglican priests keep popping up in the story, sometimes as key characters. They provide the theological and ethical voices of the stories. In This Side of Death, they offer a perspective on the nature of evil; in Morana they actively confront social injustice that appears in the form of human trafficking, a horror that is orchestrated by—you guessed it—another vampire.

Fiction—especially creepy fiction—is a great way, I believe, to hash out theological ideas. Characters get to wrestle with their doubts and fears in ways that are not always permitted in Christian non-fiction (nevermind that most Christian publishers won’t publish the kind of fictional trash that I write).

The one who used fiction as a theological vehicle better than anyone in the world was Jesus. His parables tell stories that offer characters that walk out the implications of his teachings. The characters don’t always fare well, and sometimes suffer great pain. But the stories make the point, don’t they?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Refreshing Invitation to the Presence of God

Just this morning I finished Dr. Richard Peace's new book, Noticing God. Here is my review.

The title of this book--Noticing God--suggests something astonishing to the average reader: That God is everywhere, and noticing him is a possibility.

Dr. Richard Peace takes a slippery and often miscommunicated topic--the awareness of God's presence and actions in the world--and makes it accessible, reasonable, and hopeful. While there are familiar tours through some classical spiritual disciplines and practices, Dr. Peace also recognizes that God sometimes appears to people in some very ordinary places, such as quiet voices, dreams, worship, and community.

This is no muddled journey through pantheism or foggy mysticism, but rather an embrace of the story of God's engagement with human beings through the narrative of Scripture, the accounts of saints throughout the ages, and experiences of contemporary pilgrims. Dr. Peace confesses his own cautions and concerns about claims made by some people (cautions and concerns that I share as well), and in doing so gives the reader permission to hold loosely to assertions about things God might or might not be doing in the world, and offers tools for processes of discernment within the Christian community.

One does not have to look far for books that tell stories of explosive encounters with God. Whether or not those stories are true, they can sometimes leave people with a sense of personal inadequacy, assuming that their own apparently meager (or non-existent) encounters with God cast them into second-class citizenship in God's kingdom. Dr. Peace heals that wound by considering the diverse and creative ways in which God reveals himself to people, and encourages even the most reluctant Christian mystic to open both eyes and ears to the possibilities of God's movement in both the dramatic and the ordinary.

This is a book designed for real people in real communities of faith. The exercises and questions at the back of the book offer valuable frameworks for group and individual engagement with the text, and also open the expectations of faith that anticipate a life that experiences the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the one so supremely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Church, The State, and Care for the Poor

Rep. Paul Ryan’s recent speech at Georgetown University seems to have caused some of his Catholic brothers and sisters to take issue with Ryan’s budget proposal, viewing it as incompatible with Catholic teachings, especially in relation to care for the poor.

This brings up an interesting set of questions: Does the so-called “Separation of Church and State” doctrine prohibit such connections in the first place? Doesn’t that doctrine make the influences of any religious group unwelcome when it comes to the affairs of state? What is the church’s relationship to the state when it comes to topics like this?

First, as I understand it, the idea of separating church from the state was intended to prohibit the government from establishing a state religion. It was a clear reaction to the power of the Church of England, and the colonial framers of the US Constitution did not want to repeat what they considered to be an inappropriate alignment of power in Europe.

Second, to demand that any persons holding a place of governmental responsibility disallow their religious influences and values as they engage in the processes of policy-making is not reasonable. Whatever has formed a person—religious faith, past experiences, reason, education, and so on—will become part of the lens through which that person sees how things should work in the world. No one comes to the governmental table (or any table, for that matter) as a blank slate.

Having said this, I still have to wonder about the demands that religious groups—specifically Christians—can really make on the government. Certainly, in a culture based on individual rights, religious folks can makes all kinds of demands. But what is the place of Christian communities in the context of the nation?

That the church at large would call the state to act justly and fairly is a good thing. However, is it right that we would expect the state to act as though it is the church? Again, I’m all for the state being called to justice and fairness, but in the end isn’t it still appropriate that faithful communities of Jesus continue to enact the realities of the kingdom of God, regardless of the acts of the state?

In the CNN article about Rep. Ryan’s speech, a recent survey among American Catholics is cited that shows a decrease in concern for the poor. Could that be a result of the expectation that care for the poor is more a function of the state than it is a core expression of the church’s love for Jesus? If the state, even appropriately, enacts programs to care for the poor, does the church begin acquiesce its own identity in the world?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Finding a bridge between consumption and production

In his book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, William Cavanaugh writes, “Consumerism is an important subject for theology because it is a spiritual disposition, a way of looking at the world around us that is deeply formative.” And, “The problem is a much larger one: changes in the economy and society in general have detached us from material production, producers, and even the products we buy.” There’s a way to test this out: Ask a child where fruits and vegetables come from. If the child names a grocery store rather than a farm or an orchard, then there is probably a disconnection between consumption and production. Ask the same child where your church came from. In fact, ask yourself the same question. How many people know that a number of thriving churches started out as small group Bible studies or as church plants struggling with meager resources? I have an idea. Let’s give this a shot and see what happens. 1. Start buying produce from local growers rather than from big-chain grocery stores. Take your kids and grandkids along and help them see where things come from. Plant a garden and participate directly in the production process. Share the produce with your neighbors. 2. Connect with an organization that supports fair trade exchanges and buy things from places where you can actually see who made the item you are buying. Learn to see that real human beings dirty their hands making the things we enjoy. 3. Interview someone from your church who was involved in its beginnings, or at least who knows the church’s history. Help you and your loved ones to appreciate where buildings, parking lots, children’s ministries, etc. actually come from. None of these things will entirely break us from the ravages of rampant consumerism, but they might be ways to rebridge the gap between what we consume and the people and processes involved in production.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Resolving the Evolution Question for Good

An NPR story (dated today, April 19, 2012) highlights the growing tension between evolutionary science and politics. However, to keep religion in the mix, I now share some personal family archival material that will put the matter to rest.

My great-grandfather, F. M. Lehman, was a traveling evangelist and hymn writer (he died when I was an infant, but I knew my great-grandmother well; she died at age 102, when I was 18). Among more well known songs, such as The Love of God, No Disappointment in heaven, and Old Time Religion, he also wrote major hits like King Nicotine Must Die, The Royal Telephone, and A String of Empties (I am not making this up).

One of my favorites was written in 1924, in an effort to put the emerging evolution controversy to rest. Here are the words to Up a Cocoanut Tree:

The “wise and prudent” tell me just what once I used to be—
A “germ” and then “tadpole;” then a “monkey up a tree.
But just because a cocoanut fell on their poor old head
Should be no reason I believe what disbelief has said.

A monkey never yet evolved to be a real man,
But man can be a monkey, just deny it if you can.
If on their head there fell a nut dropt from a cocoa tree,
I’m sure that that shall never make a monkey man of me.

Some ignoramus of the schools in mortorboard and gown
Declares this “monkey” business has been ably sifted down.
He guessed because a cocoanut fell on his hollow head
That evolution must be true; that Christ the Lord is dead.


They’re guessing! Just guessing—only guessing!
God made you and me. We’re no relation to the monkey up a cocoanut tree.

© Kansas City MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1952

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Biggest Threat to the American Way of Life

I’ve just discovered a very dangerous group of subversives who threaten the consumer demand, free-market capitalism system that makes America great. Forget the Socialists, the Communists, the Green Party or any other group that seeks to undermine all that is great about western civilization. This group is more potentially devastating than any other.

They are called followers of Jesus.

I avoid the terms Christian, Protestant, Catholic, or any other moniker that seeks to create a definable and predictable category. These people can be found throughout those faith systems and probably wouldn’t be accepted by their own religious tribes if their values and actions were popularly known. They are clearly a minority group, but one whose potential influence could undermine our preferred way of life.

Here’s why they are dangerous.

They are refusing to buy things without knowing their origin. If a shirt at a megastore has a label that says “Made in ¬¬¬¬____________” (fill in the blank with any country in the southern hemisphere or in Asia), they want to know the conditions of the factory and the quality of the treatment of the workers. They claim that these invisible weavers of expensive clothing are kin to them, co-humans made in the image of God, and the relationship between production and consumption matters. If they don’t get a satisfactory answer, then they won’t buy the product. Such activity limits the power of consumer shopping and potentially diminishes corporate profits.

They do the same thing with food. They see some strange connection between their faith and the natural (or as they call it, “created”) order, and have either started growing their own fruits and vegetables, buying only from local producers, or at least only buying from larger markets that guarantee to have “fair trade” products.

One the most potentially deadly plans of this group is to stop spending large amounts of money and refusing to dive deeply into credit card debt during the holidays—especially Christmas. A diminishing of holiday binge spending would have a disastrous effect on retailers and their end of the year numbers. The stock market would reel if the trend expanded to larger groups, such as the Evangelical voting block or Roman Catholics.

There is more, of course, such as caring for the poor (an obvious bleeding-heart, socialist move), shunning violence (a potential threat to national security), loving one’s enemy (a denial of the nation’s manifest destiny and sovereignty). But it’s the financial impact of this group that is the most immediate threat.

These people are our enemies (of course, they are difficult enemies to have since they claim to love us) and cannot be ignored. They seem to have forgotten what happened to their namesake—Jesus—and the way he was dispatched for attempting to disrupt the dominant culture. The same thing could happen to them. They probably never factored in suffering and death in their commitments to follow their Messiah.

Let’s hope this never catches on with other religious people. Keeping things as they are is the highest priority.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Political Correctness for All

In a recent CNN article, the focus is on the actor Kirk Cameron, who has recently produced and starred in the documentary movie, Monumental. The movie seeks to investigate the Christian faith of America’s founding fathers and attempts to draw attention to a historically revised culture whose soul, he claims, is sick.

In response to challenges to the veracity of his claims and the accuracy of the historical work done by his colleagues, Cameron insists that his detractors are the ones who “bow to the god of political correctness.” I suspect that the historians who have critiqued the movie—some from Christian academic institutions—might see their motivations differently.

I think, however, that there really is such a thing as the attitude popularly known as “political correctness.” I’ve been in settings where the mere mention of a different way of looking at an issue raises cries of horror and claims about personal offense. I find that such hyper-sensitivity does not allow for creative, thoughtful dialogue, regardless of the issue.

I wonder if there aren’t really two sources of this attitude: Fear, and the desire for power. The desire for power is easy to understand. Propaganda has been used for a long time to re-create the thinking of a culture and to vilify those who see things differently. Creating a new “political correctness” that caricatures one’s enemies and produces popular support is a mechanism of power.

But political correctness can also be generated by fear—mostly by the fear of loss. Certain topics are off-limits or instant fields of battle because of the fear of losing position, orthodoxy, or allegiances.

And we religious folks are not immune to this. I’ve been in settings where questions are raised about the nature of the atonement or the language that properly describes the authority of Scripture, and things get pretty nasty after awhile. Once someone has decided that there is a lot to lose in the conversation, certain things cannot be discussed.

Jesus, clearly, took on a politically incorrect posture, and it resulted in his murder. But Jesus wasn’t the only politically incorrect player in the story; the Sadducees also ran against certain dominant views. The Sadducees were known for their disbelief in the resurrection of the dead, and stood in theological opposition to the Pharisees. I find it interesting that Jesus was willing to engage both parties in dialogue—setting them straight, to be sure, but without allowing their differences to exclude anyone from the conversation.

Let’s face it—we all do the political correctness thing at one time or another. Dumping that descriptor doesn’t mean we have to roll over and play dead for every view that comes our way, but it could mean that we don’t have to be driven by fear or the need for power. When we fall into those traps, any evidence—real or fabricated—that supports our preferred views is often considered acceptable.

I think that the Bible would put that in the category of Bearing False Witness.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Christian Leadership as Missional Construction

I’ve been reading and grading some very interesting papers that deal with Christian leadership. As always, the students cause me to learn new things, and here’s what I’m thinking about this morning.

The interplay between Christian leaders and those they lead might be analogous to a team building a house for Habitat for Humanity. Christian communities often have seminary-trained leaders among them, whose counterparts would be seen as the professional builders who guide the projects for Habitat. In each case, the role of the leaders is to use training and expertise to draw people together into a common mission. Not everyone has to be a specialist, but without the leaders there is a lack of direction, focus, and skill.

For the builders, the end product is a habitable dwelling. For the Christian leaders, the end is a missional community. In both cases, neither the leaders nor those being led do what they do for their own sake. The builders will not live in the house; the house is for someone else. The Christians will have a community, but it is not primarily for them; it is for the sake of the world.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Monkey Bill, Creation, and Evolution

Rachel Held Evans has written a passionate post on her blog that addresses Tennessee's "Monkey Bill" and the need for Christians to engage intelligently with science, particularly in the young earth/evolution concerns. It’s worth reading. I really like her work.

It caused me to think about something this morning: The destruction to the Bible’s creation account in Genesis 1-2 was not brought about by scientists; it was brought about by the folks who demanded that these opening chapters of the Bible were intended to scientifically explain where everything came from. In other words, it came from the very religious folks who intended to preserve the faith.

I say this because the creation account in Genesis is not scientific; it is theological. It takes a fairly common, iron-age view of the cosmos (with the earth as relatively flat, covered by a celestial dome punctuated by greater and lesser lights) and reframes it as a theological narrative.

Keep in mind that the first hearers of this story were not ancient biology students trying to understand first beginnings. They were people formed generationally by the slave culture of Egypt, a place where the dominant deity was the sun god, Ra (personified by the Pharaoh). In the Exodus story, the ancient Hebrews encounter Yahweh as their redeemer. Through Moses, this mysterious God rescues the people from the bonds of the Pharaoh.

The Genesis creation account then makes a startling claim: This redeemer God is no territorial deity, not the toughest of the pantheon who was able to beat the god of Egypt. No, this redeemer God is also the creator God—and there is only one God. To make the point even sharper, the sun itself is demoted to the fourth day of creation. Things actually get along pretty well in the emerging world before the sun even shows up on the scene.

The screaming and yelling about the need for Genesis 1-2 to be a literal, cosmological description of creation, one that trumps all scientific inquiry and discovery, allows the theological significance and beauty of the text to be ignored. This is a tragic loss.

The argument actually rests on the demand that the account in Genesis must be taken literally, or else the Bible isn’t the real word of God. People really need to work on this demand. Truth is not necessarily conveyed in terms of scientific fact; it is often conveyed in story (think of Jesus’ parables) and song (think of the Psalms). The biblical creation account is part of that great, ancient genre of story telling.

We really need to think about what we’re trading off in these debates.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

New Names and the Aroma of Christ

Some followers of Jesus look back on their lives and carry regrets about decisions made and not made, obediences abandoned, and calls unfulfilled. Sometimes we wonder if we let God down along the way and if our wrong turns—innocent or not—have put us on a paths that make us, at best, second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

I was helped in my own struggle in this area while reading a familiar text in 2 Corinthians. Here it is:

When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord; my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 2:12-13)

I suddenly realized that Paul stepped back out of the door that the Lord had opened. Was this a confessional statement? Was Paul sharing a hint of regret about abandoning the work in Troas because he was lonely for his friend Titus? Maybe so.

But in the next statements, Paul offers a reframing of the situation and paints a much larger picture of God’s work in the world and how followers of Jesus participate in that work:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. (v. 14)

For Paul, getting things right all the time was not the most important thing. The most important thing was, no matter the time or place, to carry the fragrance of Christ.

The most important thing is to smell like Jesus.

We’ve all turned one way when God seemed to be leading the other way. We’ve all lost heart and changed direction, more out of pain and fear than out of the conviction of God’s direction. And we’ve all carried the regrets that remind us of what should have been, what might have been, and where we’ve failed.

But none of those things are the most important. What is important is that we continue, even in our failures, to smell like Jesus.

In yesterday’s post I suggested that Evangelicals need a new name. What if Evangelicals were no longer known by the world because of their political power base, their particular doctrinal convictions, or their perceived knowledge of who is in or out with God? What if they were know as the one who carried with them, in all circumstances, the fragrance of Christ?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Evangelicals Need a New Definition

And maybe even a new name.

I once asked a group of Catholic friends how they defined the term evangelical, and they saw it as identical to fundamentalist. Each one had a story of an evangelical cousin or uncle who hammered them at every family gathering, insisting that Catholics were on a sure pathway to Hell. For these folks, evangelical brought up descriptors such as judgmental, condemning, and mean.

If I’m reading the political pundits correctly, evangelical is a term that refers to a block of USAmerican voters that conflates nation and religion, lining up with the extreme right of the political spectrum. Evangelicals appear to hold a great deal of power in making or breaking particular political campaigns.

I’ve heard others say that evangelicals are the folks who hold to a wooden and hyper-literal view of all aspects of the Bible, see the theory of penal substitutionary atonement as a theological hill to die on, and have a clear understanding of who is in and who is out with God.

I am saddened by what I see in these descriptors. If these are what define evangelical, then I don’t want to be one.

But none of these are proper definitions of the word. The word evangelical comes from a Greek word (used in the New Testament) that means good news. When Jesus, in Mark 1:15 says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news,” the term “good news” utilizes that Greek word.

It’s actually an ancient term with military implications. After a battle, a runner would leave the front lines and bring news of the outcome to the military leaders. If the battle had been won, then it was good news. The messenger was the good news bringer. The messenger was the person who bore witness to the good thing that had happened.

This meaning is at the heart of the word that we now call evangelical. To be evangelical is to be the bearer of the same good news that Jesus brought: That the kingdom of God is at hand. It is to speak of a reality that has already come to pass. Keeping in mind that those folks who don’t like the idea of God’s rule and reign (perhaps like the army who lost the ancient battle) might not hear the message as good news, it is proclaimed nonetheless because it is believed by the messenger to be true.

The message granted to us is not one of political power or domination; it is not about who has been assigned to heaven or to hell; it is not license to stand in judgment over anyone. It is a message that is intended for the good of all, and it is one to be both proclaimed and demonstrated.

If the earlier definitions I offered hold sway, then I suggest we find a different word with a proper definition. It would be a shame to lose a word that is rich with meaning and purpose, but it might have to happen. There is some biblical precedent for such a change: The ancient Hebrews became Jews; the followers of The Way became Christians. It has happened before.

I don’t have a replacement term. But maybe one might emerge if we Christians, rather than being known by our political preferences, or by our tendency toward judgmentalism, or by our rigid theologies, we were known by our love. I wonder what would happen then. Maybe those who are impacted by that love would hear that good news and offer a new name to us.

Let’s give it a shot.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Taking the Candidates' Religious Temperature

There is more news these days about why evangelicals should be wary of voting for Mitt Romney. The basis of this wariness is found in the doctrinal differences between Mormons and Christians (the fact that Mormon’s consider themselves to be Christians notwithstanding).

Clearly there are doctrines and teachings that separate Evangelicals from Mormons, such as, for example, the doctrine of God as Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity. Of course, neither do Jewish people. So does that mean that Evangelicals should not vote for someone who is Jewish? Don’t our divergent views about Jesus cause us problems here?

But a Roman Catholic, like John F. Kennedy or Rick Santorum, would be okay, right? After all, they are committed to Trinitarian theology and the divinity of Jesus. Oh, but wait: There’s all that other stuff about saints and papal authority and transubstantiation. Those are all things that Evangelicals in general do not endorse.

For Evangelical voters, is doctrinal correctness (however that might be defined) the litmus test for presidential suitability? In the USA it is legal to be affiliated with any religious group that one desires. People are free to be Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim (yes, even Muslim) or of any other religious persuasion. We have this whole freedom of religion thing going for us, and I’m glad for that.

This freedom also means that a presidential candidate can be any or none of those things. While the USA probably wouldn’t elect an outspoken atheist to the presidency any time in the near future, it is not illegal for a candidate to disbelieve in God.

I wonder if, rather than asking about how a candidate’s religious faith (or lack of it) lines up with a certain brand of orthodoxy, we should be asking how that faith (or lack of it) informs their view of the world and the way they make decisions. Does a candidate’s religious orientation produce the kind of leadership that serves a huge and diverse nation like the USA? Does the candidate find an ethical and moral basis in a life of faith that gives voters confidence in the way that decisions will be made and how this country will engage with the rest of the world?

While our candidates typically enter office as Democrats or Republicans, once elected they must serve the entire nation and not just members of the party that elected them. Would a Mormon or Catholic or Jewish or Muslim president be able to serve the entire nation, or just adherents to that president’s preferred faith tradition? Would such a president be a leader to all, or just to a select few?

I think that we are often asking the wrong questions. Are we asking about a candidate’s faith because we want to know how our particular interest group will be served, or because we want to know how that nation at large will be served? Are our questions about acquiring a political power base for ourselves, or about the well-being of our neighbor?

The wrong answer to the questions would be that faith doesn’t matter, or that it can be set aside as though it is irrelevant to leadership. Of course it matters, and of course it forms people at a very deep level. How that faith produces a leader who can lead well is what we should try to discover.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Finding Our Story Anew

My church experience for many years was, for the most part, based in low-church evangelical settings. I am grateful for much of the formation that occurred in my life during those years, but over time I have found myself drawn to more liturgical settings in worship. Even as a pastor in a non-liturgical church tradition, I found myself adopting a number of liturgical practices (to the consternation of some of the fine folks who were part of my congregation) into our weekly gatherings.

I thought about this transition as my wife and I drove to the university campus chapel where our church gathers on Sundays. We had a challenging time getting there because of the traffic jam caused by people flocking to the Easter event at the fair grounds across the street. Lots of folks were attempting to get to that large and highly publicized service, and I hope it was an important and meaningful time for them.

The service I attended, by contrast, was comparatively small and quiet. The chapel was adorned with the traditional colors of Easter, and people entered the room quietly and with a sense of reverence. The music drew us into a time of worship, provided by musicians who were not only skilled but also attentive to the environment of praise and adoration that was emerging as they sang and played.

There were prayers and readings shared by all, and a time of passing hope to one another with the words “peace be with you.” All were participants, and none could be mere spectators. This was truly a work of the people. The priest offered a homily rich with content, reflection, and personal challenge. Each person attached flowers to a wooden cross at the front of the chapel, transforming it from a flat, non-descript symbol to a 3-D explosion of real and substantial color. At the end, we gathered around the table of Jesus, confident that we were responding to his invitation to come and dine.

I’ve been to several highly-produced Easter services over the years. Some of them were meaningful events, but they tended to stay that way for me—as events. Not much was different once I had lunch and took a nap (that probably says more about me than it does the services I attended). What is different for me now is that in a setting such as the one I experienced yesterday I am drawn anew into the story of God’s mission in the world, a mission that comes to us in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And I remember that it is a story that I share with people all over the planet.

I have come to believe that the continuous rehearsal of this great story is crucial, not only because it keeps the memory alive in our minds, but also because my ongoing story continues to find meaning there. It is not a story informed by the scripts of dead actors, but rather a story alive with the presence of the author himself. It is in this constant re-engagement that Jesus meets me, along with my brothers and sisters, as our stories become centered in his story.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Guarding of the Tomb

The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia is guarded by sentinels twenty-four hours a day. The highly structured requirements of the guards convey a deep sense of reverence and symbolism that recognizes the many soldiers who have died in battle but were never identified. The guards are monitored closely and can lose the privilege of serving in that capacity if they fail in keeping the required standards.

As with similar monuments in a variety of nations, the tomb encases the remains of an anonymous warrior that fell in battle while serving his nation. The body serves as an honorific symbol for all soldiers who died in the tragedy of war but were never given a proper burial. These unnamed, unrecognized dead were absorbed into the earth upon which they fell. The guards have no acquaintance with this fallen comrade of a long-ago war, yet they protect that tomb because the assignment has been given and the service is perceived as an act of honor.

The guarding of Jesus’ tomb, however, came about not out of honor but rather through fear. This was not to be a guard that kept a memory alive; it was a guard sent to ensure that the memory would vanish from history. The Jewish leaders requested the guard from Pilate, concerned that the disciples would steal the body and claim that Jesus had risen from the dead (see Matt 27:62-66). They anticipated a disaster should that happen. After all, the only thing worse than a failed Messiah was a resurrected one. To have their public believe such a fabrication would mark the end of their doctrine of control. Their demand for a guard of Roman soldiers caused Pilate to comply without question.

Whether the guards took their assignment seriously or not is a matter of speculation; the protection of the tomb of an executed Jewish peasant probably wasn’t high on their list of key assignments. However, that their governor would demand such action would suggest that insurrection might be a concern—there were, after all, Jews who would love to see the Romans washed out of Israel in a river of their own blood. Even if the guards dismissed the talk of Jesus rising from the dead as religious superstition, they would have been on alert for those who would try to force the prophecy by their own devices.

Matthew tells us that the guards did indeed witness a disturbance of Jesus’ grave, but not in the way they had expected. We are told that an earthquake shook the ground just after the two Marys arrived at the tomb and that an angel appeared, rolling the heavy stone away from the entrance. The guards did not seem to respond to this event like hardened Roman soldiers:

For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid . . .” (Matt 28:4-5)

The angel ignored the soldiers completely, leaving them to their terror, and turned his attention to the women, inviting them out of their fear into a place of trusting what God was doing. Once the women responded to the angel’s instructions to communicate what had happened to the other disciples, the soldiers recovered from their shock sufficiently to report what had taken place. Interestingly, they did not go to their own military superiors; they went to the religious leaders, who immediately bribed the soldiers in order to buy their silence. The soldiers must have told, with some truthfulness, what they had seen. Had they lied and claimed that they had been overpowered by a band a Jews who had raided the tomb and stolen Jesus’ body, then there would have been no need for their silence to be purchased.

The Bible bears witness to God’s work, at particular times and places in history, in and through his people. The stories, prayers, words of wisdom, letters, and prophetic declarations all point to God and his mission in the world. The guards at the tomb would be witnesses of a different kind. Years later they might have confessed to their comrades that they saw strange, terrifying things during that night of sentry duty. Some might have written the experience off as a result of fatigue or the capricious teasings of some lesser god or goddess. Others, however, might have remembered something different. Perhaps, while assisting at later executions of some early Christians, one of the soldiers would have remembered that awful night and considered the connection between that experience and the death of ones who claimed allegiance to the Jesus of that cold tomb. Either way, such an encounter would not leave even the most stoic warrior unchanged.

At this point in the story, the tomb breaks open, the terrifying angel appears, and two sets of witnesses are dispatched. The women, addressed directly and comfortingly by the angel, are sent to the other disciples. Their testimony would erupt in hope, astonishment, and joy. The guards, shaken from their catatonia, escape with their lives to tell a similar story. This act of witness, however, would result in a cover-up and a denial of the experience; it would be good news for some, and bad news for others.

The apostle Paul understood this counter-dynamic of witness, and said it well:

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Cor. 2:15-16a)

For the faithful, the empty tomb would smell like the freshness of new life. For the others, it would only carry the stink of decay and the weight of fear that comes with the possibility that one’s dominant story of control and certainty is about to be torn to shreds. The report of the guards revealed their recognition that this routine time of execution and burial was like no other they had experienced. For those receiving the report, it would no longer be the death that concerned them; it would be the unraveling of their preferred reality of control that would come with the insistence that in Jesus—the failed, crucified, cursed, would-be Messiah—there was new life.

(This is an excerpt from Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Faith, to be released in late 2012 (Wipf and Stock Publishers)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Day of the Second Death

On the Friday of Holy Week, evil has its way. The forces that seek power, domination, and predictability have carried the day, silencing the one who challenged their dominance.

On the Saturday of Holy Week it is apparent that death, too, has had its way. Jesus lies cold in a donated tomb, inhabiting the space that all people will ultimately occupy. The grave makes commoners of us all, giving no preference to any in the end. Jesus, it appears, was just another good person who met the same end as all other people.

And Saturday is a silent day, a day of grief, a day that marks the loss of hope.

In some Hispanic cultures, there is an annual celebration called El Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead. Amidst all the celebration and candy skeletons and music, there is a core purpose to this day. It is a day to remember the loved ones who have preceded us to the grave.

People in these cultures sometimes say that they celebrate this day because there are three deaths. The first is when your body stops functioning and you breathe your last. The second is when your body is lowered into the ground and you are buried.

The third death is when you are forgotten.

Holy Saturday is a second-death day. For some, it is the day that the challenge to religious, political, and military dominance is buried. For others, it is the day that hope and wonder find their place in the grave. For still others, it is the day that another nuisance is covered with dirt and the process of forgetting begins so that everything can return to normal.

But on this second-death day, Jesus takes normal to the grave with him.

The players in this ancient drama all stand in the same place. Their world is now one without Jesus. While some rejoice and others mourn, they all await the third death. They all know that their memories will ultimately decline. And with that third death, all will affirm that the grave does, indeed, have the last word.

And on the third day, there will be a third death, as memory begins its decay like the organisms that slowly consume a corpse.

And on the third day, there will be a third death . . .

And on the third day . . .

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Good Friday Reflection on Death

Why does anyone have to die?

The obvious answer is that all people must ultimately die. The joyful celebration of birth is always shadowed by the grim reality of death. For every new human life that appears, a corresponding grave will be dug. The end of life is a surety, and it is guaranteed that each will have a trajectory of its own.

But the general and abstract acceptance of death is not what really troubles us. It is the death of someone who matters, someone we have come to love and value. It is the death of a cherished person that tears at our hearts and causes us to ask,
Why this one? Does this death mean something?

We look for meaning in death because we have a difficult time believing that death just happens. We project intentions and purposes onto God in order to explain why our loved one left us too soon, why thousands were swept away by natural disasters, why a person who has contributed generously to others would suffer a wasting disease and then disappear from our midst. We look for answers when we experience these losses, and the rationales offered by well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people do not generally bring comfort.

It is common for people of faith to attempt theological responses to these questions. Some of these answers suggest things about God that might cause us to wonder if this God is different than Jesus described as the one “who so loved the world” (John 3:16), or as the one characterized in First John as the very essence of love (1 John 4:7-8). We sometimes hear of a God who allows a beloved child to die so that the family will learn some important lessons, or that the death of thousands by tsunami or earthquake is a result of God’s retributive wrath, or that God has in mind a greater good that requires the taking of a human life. These responses are often the product of a narrative that is unable to tolerate mystery or to accept the randomness of evil and suffering.

In Luke chapter 13 there is a scene involving some people who ask Jesus about the deaths of some local Jews—one violent episode that occurred at the hands of the local Roman governor, and another tragic accident involving the collapse of a tower. Jesus’ response suggests that his questioners were looking for the meaning behind the tragedies:

He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? . . . Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:2-4)

Jesus refuses to assign to these losses the deeper meaning that his questioners desire. He merely tells them, in effect, that they too should watch their steps.

It is difficult for us to imagine that the God of the Bible—the God who is filled with love and mission and purpose—would allow anything to occur without reason. After all, either God is in control or he is not. All things must have meaning, otherwise we would be living in a random, chaotic universe, and our lives—lives that we have come to believe are precious to God—are subject to forces that are not God. We have trouble with this, and so we should. Rarely can we get away from the conviction that the cause of something has to be related to its meaning.

That people will one day die is a scientific certainty that we can affirm. It is the art that confounds us—in the deaths that matter to us, there has to be some kind of meaning.

There is a theme that the Bible appears to embrace: We humans live in a dangerous, broken world. The desire of God—that all of creation would live in open, unhindered relationship with him—has been countered by humanity’s preference for other things. By our own devices we have opened ourselves to all that the forces of the universe can deliver: Natural disasters, hostile environs, the horrors of human sin, the fear of death. In the end we find only the conviction that this state of affairs is not as it should be. There is clearly something wrong with the world.

When it comes to Jesus, the question of his death has fueled theological debates for centuries. The death of one so important, one so pivotal in our perception of human history, cannot easily be explained away as another random and tragic occurrence, especially since there is resurrection to follow. We long for reasons and our reasons craft our theologies about what it means to find the new life that we believe defines us as the people of God. What we conclude about this particular death matters because it speaks significantly about how we see the character of God, his mission in the world, and his destiny for the human race and all of creation.

Holy Week is a time when we reimagine the story in fresh and new ways and rehearse it within our ancient traditions. My hope is that we would continue to wonder and marvel at this great mystery that we have come to call The Atonement, seeing it not merely as a theological concept but also as a living reality that defies our categories and unravels our attempts at simplification. It is also a story that must continue to be told.

(This is an excerpt from Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Faith, to be released in late 2012 (Wipf and Stock Publishers)

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Messiness of Dining with Jesus

Maundy Thursday is the day that calls to the church’s memory the last meal that Jesus shared with his disciples prior to his arrest. It started out as a traditional Passover meal, but Jesus reframed it as he anticipated what was about to happen. We call that meal the Last Supper, but for us it really becomes the First Supper, one that the church has re-enacted for centuries. It now goes by different names—Communion, the Lord’s Supper—but the most traditional term is Eucharist, formed from a Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

I’ve always been fascinated, and sometimes perplexed, by the battles and boundaries that have emerged around the Eucharist. Christians have argued, divided, and even brought persecutions over the nature of the bread and wine. Most Christian groups have created boundaries designating who is eligible to participate in the Eucharistic celebration—boundaries that include church membership, baptism, right doctrine, proper confession of faith, and purity of heart.

It is interesting to me how both battles and boundaries seem to be absent from that original table of Jesus.

In the gospel accounts Jesus doesn’t offer much interpretation when it comes to the bread and wine. He simply declares, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” No one debates with him, even though such a reframing would change the meaning of the Passover elements. They seem to merely accept what he says at face value.

And while it’s true that the invitation was limited to his twelve disciples, they came as people sadly lacking in anything resembling solid doctrinal understanding, unity, or purity of heart. Around that table the disciples exhibited the weaknesses and sins that are common to all of us—fear, false expectations, cowardice, treachery. The one thing they all seemed to have in common was their response to the summons of Jesus. They wanted to be with him.

They came because he invited them.

I wonder if it is possible for us, with all of our weakness, our unbelief, our sin, our confusion, to begin to receive the elements of The Table in a new and fresh way. Rather than seeing ourselves as either qualified or unqualified, insiders or outsiders, good guys or bad guys, we start seeing ourselves as people sharing a common brokenness, yet still receiving Jesus’ invitation to come and dine. I wonder how that might change us.

There is a danger in this, I know. Some might come out of wrong motives. Some might not even be believers in Jesus. Others might be confused about orthodox faith. Still others could be harboring secret crimes. This can and does happen on a regular basis.

But when it does, we can take comfort in recognizing that each person still pulls up a chair and sits next to Peter, and Thomas, and Judas, and the others, and we can see that we’re all in good company. Like the original twelve disciples, we can only come to that table because Jesus has sent us his invitation.

And when Jesus calls, things change.