Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Not of this world

In the March 5 issue of TIME, Jon Meacham offers an interesting take on faith (Christianity in particular) and politics ("A Time to Compromise"). He writes,

". . . The ferociously religious are doing religion no favors at the moment, and it's beginning to feel as though we may need to save faith from the extreme pronouncements of the faithful. Believers should remember that when he was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. It still isn't."

I agree with Meacham, if what he means by "it still isn't" is that the kingdom to which Jesus refers does not have its origins among the kingdoms of the world. It's not that the kingdom of God is of another world or sphere (like Mars or Heaven), but rather that it does not share, at its heart, a competitive commonality with other kingdoms.

At the time when Pilate was interrogating Jesus (see John 18), the power and domination of the Roman Empire was a present reality. That empire shared much in common with other empires (like the Babylonians and Persians who came before): Domination, acquisition, and forced acculturation. Jesus, however, says that his kingdom does not originate with the others.

Jesus proclaimed the present and impending reality of God's kingdom by teaching through parables and explaining how different God was from the characterizations of the religious elite. He demonstrated the authenticity of the kingdom by casting out demons, raising the dead, and healing the sick. In both proclamation and demonstration he showed that the kingdom of God is like no other. The kingdom of God brings the desires and intentions of God to bear in the real world, deflating the power of evil and death. Yes, there is power in this kingdom, but not the kind that is seen in other kingdoms. It is the power to set all things right, and not just in one country.

I wonder if we American Christians are getting this mixed up. There's too much rhetoric out there that suggests that the kingdom of America (as some wish it would be) is somehow concurrent with the kingdom of God. But America, as unique and fine a place as it can be, is still a kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God transcends all kingdoms, including this one.

We don't help our country by either hating it or deifying it. We help it by seeing it clearly, warts and all. We who follow Jesus also proclaim and demonstrate the reality of God's kingdom when we live faithfully, speak truthfully, care compassionately, and suffer willingly. Political power and domination are not our missions in the world, but they are the context in which we live out the realities of God's kingdom.

When Catholics and Evangelicals are reduced to a voting block; when Christianity is viewed as a religious philosophy that must be forcibly injected into society; when the language of power and control replace the words of compassion and justice; then we may have mixed up our kingdoms. And calling the work of God something that it isn't is to stand on dangerous ground. It should be sacred ground that we seek.

The kingdom of God may not be of this world, but it is still at hand.

God help us.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

New Requirements and New Enemies

As the GOP continues its journey toward a presidential nominee, I've observed some new requirements for a candidate's acceptability and some enemies that we apparently need to fear.

Here are the new requirements:

A candidate must be able to

1. Prove to be the most conservative of all.

The Republican candidates have dueled over this requirement, as if the most desirable brand of conservatism is the one that is furthest away from the center. There are certainly important things to conserve, and I would think that an open table of debate would be one of them. I'm unclear about how fighting over who's the most conservative accomplishes that.

2. Endorse a faith system that is the most acceptable to the evangelical voting block.

Rick Santorum seems to be doing well in this one. It's interesting to me that when John F. Kennedy was running for office, people feared that a Roman Catholic would allow the US to be run by the Vatican. Now the fear seems to be transferred to the Temple in Salt Lake City. What would we have done if Joe Lieberman had become President? Would it have been Tel Aviv or Yahweh in charge? Would Joe's faith have been enough for evangelicals?

Here are the new enemies:

1. Moderates.

From what I've been hearing, the Liberals are not the only enemy to fear. Now the Moderates are under suspicion. Is it now undesirable to have someone in office who serves the entire country? Standing firmly in one extreme or the other is better, right? Bad, bad Moderates.

2. Candidates who can't make us evangelicals happy.

Disturbingly, we evangelicals (whoever we really are) come off as a grumpy bunch. The Bible says a lot about joy (the kind that is grounded in Jesus, not the kind that is the result of getting what we want), and it appears that our joy is complete when we get the right candidate in office. So we seem to demand a candidate that bellies up to the bar and meets our demands (and, as one Christian leader has suggested, to awaken "the sleeping giant" of Christianity).

I get worried about this sort of thing. I would hope that USAmerican Christians (and it's a pretty diverse bunch, hardly unified sufficiently to be a sleeping giant) would continue to press upon issues that need to be addressed in our country—like poverty, injustice, immigration—without characterizing ourselves as a powerful political force that can make or break elections.

Isn't our vocation as followers of Jesus different from that? Or is the term "evangelical" now indistinguishable from "conservative Republican?"

I'm not suggested that "liberal Democrat" or "moderate whatevers" would be better. I'm suggesting that we American Christians—particularly the most vocal evangelicals—slow down and revisit the true vocation of followers of Jesus. That's a label that should stand on its own.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"It is not so among you."

A little over a year ago I taught a course at Tabor College in Adelaide, Australia. At one point I brought up the topic of nationalism—the equating of Christian faith with national interests and values—and the class members laughed. They said that Australians would never put up a national flag in their churches or equate faith with politics, and that nationalism must be a distinctive American phenomenon.

Maybe they were right.

According to CNN, Newt Gingrich was the morning speaker yesterday at First Redeemer Church in Cumming, Georgia. A glimpse at the church's website shows a strong emphasis on both Christian faith and a particular brand of American patriotism. Mr. Gingrich was invited to the 10:30 service to "share his testimony" (as stated in the "Events" section of the church's website). According to the CNN report, however, the message carried a bit more than a testimony—it seemed to include a call to arms. You can read the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

The call for Christians to stand strong and firm is truly a biblical call and permeates the New Testament texts. It is not, however, a call to political power, but rather a call to stand firm in Jesus Christ, to hold to faith and confidence in him. It is a call to resist evil, religious slavery, and capitulation to forces—including those of the ruling empire—that might seek to destroy the faith. It is a call to suffer and, on occasion, die in the process of living faithfully to Jesus. But it isn't a call to political power or domination.

In Mark 10, when James and John reveal their misunderstanding about Jesus, and ask for positions of power when he embraces his full Messianic role, expels the Romans, and restores Israel to its glory, Jesus tells them that they don't even know what they're asking. They're completely off track. And when the other disciples get angry at the request of the two brothers (probably because they didn't think to ask first), Jesus makes this astounding statement:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

I'm not advocating for political passivity. But I believe we need to stop and think very carefully before we start rattling our religious sabers and organizing ourselves in such a way that we cease to be the people of God (who exist for the sake of the world) and devolve into a voting block that wields political power.

It is not so among us. Or, at least, it shouldn't be.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Journey to Atonement

I have written a book that should be published sometime in the Spring. The title is Atonement at Ground Zero: Revisiting the Epicenter of Salvation. Here are some thoughts from the introduction:

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.

It is my hope that, during this season of the church year, we all engage more deeply with the mystery of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

We Need The Table of Jesus

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about the Lord’s Supper, titled Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist. After doing some speaking engagements on the book and trying to promote it (as authors have to do), I discovered something interesting:

It was more attractive to Catholics than to Protestants.

This is strange to me because the book is both personal and theological. It’s about my own journey as someone raised up in low church (as in non-liturgical/non-sacramental), trying to figure out why the Lord’s Supper has meaning. Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, was kind enough to write the foreword, and in it he spoke of his own similar journey. It seems that I’m not alone.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word Eucharist. It’s a very un-Protestant word, and maybe was off-putting to some. Even though it means Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, we Protestants don’t use the word as much as do our Catholic friends. But I’m thinking these days that we need to put it on again, and start exploring why the Lord’s Supper is still important for the church. And I don’t mean in the age-old debates about the nature of the bread and wine.

I mean the nature of the table of Jesus.

I believe that we who follow Jesus need a revitalized theology of The Table. I think it would help all of our arguments about doctrine, sexuality, gender, and all the other topics that divide and alienate us from one another. There are reasons, I believe, that a new theology of The Table might help us:

We don’t get to say who comes to dine. The invitation comes from Jesus, and he characteristically invites scandalous people to join him.

At The Table, all are side by side, shoulder to shoulder, allowing their humanness to physically engage. That’s why we ought to share the elements of Eucharist in a setting where we stand or kneel together.

When we consume bread and wine, we share together the most common activity of people: Eating. All must eat to live, and the need for nourishment transcends socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, and politics.

And at The Table, we shed all of our pretenses and illusions of superiority because we are suddenly laid bare: We all need Jesus, and it is only Jesus who sustains us.

After that, we can re-engage in all of our debates. But I believe they will be different, once having dined at Jesus’ table, responding to his summons to come together to share his body and blood.

We need a new theology of The Table.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Reflection

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. . . (Hebrews 12:1-2b)

Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

I worry about how the large and diverse category of people commonly known as “evangelicals” are perceived by the larger world. At its heart, the word evangelical describes a value placed on the proclamation and demonstration of the good news of the kingdom of God (the word evangelical comes from a Greek word that means good news).

Too often, however, the perception is of bad news rather than of good.

When a body of people is perceived to be characterized by power (as in being viewed as a block of voters that dare not be crossed by politicians) and protest (as in being against many things such as Muslims, gays and lesbians, liberals, and so on), then the characterization is different than being the people of God for the sake of the world.

Jesus claims that humility is to be valued over power and self-righteousness. The parable suggests that the Pharisee had a false perception of himself, but the tax collector (not a popular figure in first-century Jewish culture) saw himself clearly. It was in this painful clarity of sight that he entered into humility.

Could it be that “the sin that clings so closely” includes redefining what it means to follow Jesus, and turning that new life into something that God never intended? Could it be that we’ve lost our way? Have we traded humility for power, and blessing for protest?

Can we really experience holiness without pursuing peace with everyone?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Christian Response to Alarming Issues

We Christians, especially in the US, don’t do well with alarming issues (and in an election year, alarms are going off everywhere). Whether the issue is same-sex marriage, immigration (illegal or otherwise), or any other lightning-rod topic, we tend to react emotionally and then side with our preferred political camp which we think will solve all the problems if just given enough power.

As the Old Testament prophet Isaiah wondered about the people who worshipped idols of their own making:

“No one stops to think.” (Isaiah 44:19)

We do need to stop and think. And it is Jesus who can help us with this.

In Matthew 5, part of what we call “The Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus holds up a mirror so that people can see themselves with new clarity:

“You have heard that is was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’. . . But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister . . .” (5:21-22)

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (5:27-28)

The mirror is held up and we see ourselves standing alongside the murderers, sharing with them the same heart of anger.

The mirror is held up and we find that we are in league with the adulterers, our single heart of lust beating as one.

Should our conversations and debates about current issues start in any other way? Do we solve our problems when we only know how to divide the human race into us and them?

When it is said that gays and lesbians live outside of God’s intentions for human sexuality, perhaps we can begin the discussion by first holding up a mirror and seeing ourselves in our own broken relationships and distorted sexual expressions and fantasies.

When illegal immigrants are described in terms that make them sound less than human, we can enter the conversation by holding up a mirror and seeing ourselves as co-humans, made in the image of God, trying to find our way in a tragic world.

In this way, we see that there is only us.

Certainly there are legitimate issues to be resolved, and I am not advocating that we all roll over and play dead for every new cultural demand that comes our way. But I am advocating that we begin these things in the way of Jesus. And his way always exposes our own hearts.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Children and Free Will

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

This is another text of scripture that will be explored in the retreat I’ll be leading tomorrow. Again, it’s a familiar story, and I’m doing my usual thing of attempting to shed my preconceived ideas and conclusions about it in order to hear something new.

This is another one of those rather cryptic accounts of Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God, which he mostly did through parables and comparisons (hadn’t he ever heard of systematic theology? What’s this story business?). The people wanted their children blessed by this new and engaging rabbi, and so they brought them, and Jesus took the opportunity to drop some more hints about God’s kingdom

I notice that the children didn’t just take it upon themselves to connect with Jesus. Instead, they were guided to him, escorted to him. They didn’t simply make the right decision for themselves; someone else took the initiative on their behalf, and then the kids participated in the process.

When it comes to God’s kingdom, maybe we give this whole free will thing too much weight. After all, our wills aren’t really all that free. They’re formed and framed by all kinds of outward forces throughout our lives. Our wills are not pure, objective mechanisms. So, if receiving the kingdom is like what was happening for those children, then maybe it’s not so much about getting everything right and making the correct choices, but more about responding to God’s initiative on our behalf, to summon us, guide us, escort us to the threshold of his kingdom. We won’t be forced in, but we are led nonetheless.

Maybe some of the kids shied away from Jesus, or put up a fuss like children sometimes do (think of the various reactions that children have to department store Santas). But they all got blessed, just the same—the obedient ones, the responsive ones, the fussy ones, the rebellious ones, the well-scrubbed ones, the stinky ones. All of them.

I wonder whatever happened to those kids. What did their lives look like 20 or thirty years down the road? When Jesus touches and blesses you, what kind of person do you become? What does that do to your so-called free will?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Reflections on Martha

Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

I’m going to be leading a one-day retreat on Saturday, and this is one of the texts that will inform our time together. I’ve been meditating on these words, and have come up with a new conclusion:

Martha gets a bad rap.

Not from Jesus, however. Most sermons I’ve heard on the text pit Martha against here sister Mary. Mary chose “the better part,” while Martha was busy with her tasks. Mary is devoted, while Martha is a legalist. Good Mary. Bad Martha.

But I don’t think that’s what is going on here. First of all, it’s Martha who welcomes Jesus into her home (note: Never, never do this with a vampire. Once you’ve invited one of them into your home, you are done for. Just a tip). It appears that Martha is delighted to have Jesus in the household, and she gets busy in the way that is characteristic for a person who is wired for hospitality.

At the risk of being extra-biblical (like that’s my most feared accusation), I’ve often wondered if Luke edited the conversation more than we realize. Maybe it went more like this:

Jesus: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Martha: “Okay, fine, Jesus. I’ll join Mary at your feet and then you can get your own lunch.”

Jesus: “Um, that’s not exactly what I meant.”

We’ll never know what other discussions took place, but it’s clear to me that Martha didn’t choose what was less than “better” because her work of hospitality was out of line. The issue that Jesus points to is her distraction and worry, both of which served to extract her from engaging with Jesus. Mary chose the “better part” (note: it was the better part, not the only part) because being with Jesus was the one thing that was truly needed.

Martha’s hospitality is not the issue here. Her worry and distraction were the things not needed. They were clearly less than the “better” that Mary chose.

I hope that the story went on with Martha joining her sister at Jesus’ feet, and then everyone getting up to make lunch together. Maybe Jesus even helped to dry the dishes.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Thinking Rightly

Of all the battles than can be fought in the world, battles over how people think are the most curious. It is an election year in the US, so candidates are currently blasting one another for the way they think about national issues. Christian-Evangelicals in the US (not the voting-block evangelicals, but rather the religious evangelicals, although there is a distressing overlap with the two) routinely assassinate one another’s character when someone claims to think in new ways about God’s love (as in Bell vs Piper) or challenges traditional ideas about God’s nature (as in the Open Theists vs Classical Theists).

It seems that in the US Christian-Evangelical world, we don’t very often sit across the table from one another and talk through our differences and come away as brothers and sisters. Instead, we have a tendency to condemn from afar, dismiss one another from our fellowships, and threaten our respective careers. At least we’ve knocked off the whole burning-at-the-stake thing, although it all comes from the same kind of heart.

It’s interesting how Jesus dealt with his detractors. His opponents, of course, sought to malign and then kill him for claiming that God was different than they had assumed. But Jesus’ response to them was different. Yes, he chastised them, called them “vipers,” and made them the butts of some of his parabolic jokes.

Take the Sadducees, for example. These were the guys who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. They were clearly at odds with Jesus (and with the Pharisees, who were pro-resurrection), and when they tried to trip him up with goofy resurrection hypotheticals, he set them straight. But he didn’t condemn them to hell for their wrong thinking. In fact, as I recall, when Jesus was harsh with the religious leaders in general, it was because of hypocrisy and their lack of care for the poor.

It was these wrong-thinking religious types who orchestrated Jesus’ death. And yet, when Jesus was dying, he prayed the most unusual prayer:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23-34)

Jesus asks his heavenly Father to forgive the ones who (a) believed wrongly, and (b) were in the act of committing murder. Those people didn’t ask for God’s forgiveness, but Jesus asked on their behalf.

Are they with him now?

Is God really that generous with us?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Evil Wins?

There’s been a lot of blogging activity generated lately about Hell, especially since writers like N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, and Rachel Held Evans (I’m just finishing her book, Evolving in Monkey Town – I highly recommend it) have questioned some of the traditional views about the topic. I know it’s risky even bringing up the subject, since asking questions like these often results in accusations of heresy or universalism. Nevertheless, I’d like to add a question.

If what some people say about Hell—its tortuous environment, its isolation from God, its hopelessness, its eternality—is all true, then in the end, does evil win? Rob Bell says that Love Wins, and I think he’s on to something. But if others are right, then doesn’t evil win as well?

Maybe Satan and his minions don’t conquer God, but in some scenarios he gets his own kingdom in the end. Evil doesn’t get destroyed after all—it just gets its own eternal territory. In that everlasting house of horrors, evil has its way with all who have not qualified for Heaven, either because they prayed wrongly (or not at all), they believed wrongly (or not at all), they were born on the wrong side of the planet or at the wrong time in history, or because they were just hideous and evil in their crummy 65 years or so on earth. If those are the ways people get damned forever, then one would expect some irony in the smoky gathering in Hades. After all, Hitler (who was clearly hideous and evil) must be there right along with all the Jewish people he slaughtered, since they didn’t believe rightly. Right?

Hell appears to be a place where the heavenly cry in Revelation 21 does not apply. It’s only in the new heaven and the new earth where God “. . .will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev 21:4). Not all the first things, of course. Evil gets to stick around. In Hell, evil wins. Forever. And ever. In it’s own private kingdom. And God can’t interfere. Those are the rules.

So does God lose? If you win some and lose some, you still lose something. Right?

In spite of the fact that it is dangerous to question these kinds of things in the evangelical community, I recommend we do it anyway. I’m not suggesting that we acquiesce to our own discomforts or play fast and loose with orthodox faith, but I am suggesting that we re-examine what is orthodox in the first place. Is it ever possible that we might get things wrong?

There is something wrong with our orthodoxy if evil wins in the end.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Loving America?

It is once again an election year and people are talking about who does and who does not love America. I recently read an article about a very wealthy man in Nevada who loves America and will donate huge sums of money to candidates who share his love. On Friday I saw a website of a religious writer who loves America to the extent that America is dominated by his brand of religion. Politicians are quick to point out who doesn’t love America because that’s how elections are played out here.

Most folks, however, would express more of a general love for America. Lately I’ve been thinking about what that really means. How does one love a nation? How is me loving America any different from my friends in other countries loving their homelands? And when a person claims to love a country, upon what or whom is that love focused?

What should I love about my country? Is it the government? Hmmmm. In an election year, each candidate swears that the others are despicable and will ruin the nation. Voters project hostility toward the politicians they don’t prefer. If we don’t love our politicians and the governments they run, do we still love our country?

If I voice my opposition to a particular war in which my nation is engaged, do I stop loving America? In order to properly love my country, do I have to be pro-war? Aren’t only insane people pro-war? Wouldn’t a stand against war in general and any war in particular show some kind of love?

What about the people? Now we’re getting somewhere. Love is a people thing, so loving the nation must have something to do with loving the people. However, as a percentage of the overall population, the people I actually know make up a very small group. I don’t know how to love people I don’t know and have never met.

Maybe it’s the actual land (“This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to the New York Island”). I’ve always lived in California, and I can say that I love this particular land. Except for parts of LA. Or Barstow. Or the parts I’ve never seen. Hard to love the parts of the great state of California that I’ve never visited. It would be like loving the moon.

Take South Dakota, for example. I don’t love South Dakota or anyone who lives there. I have nothing against South Dakota, but I’ve never been there and am acquainted with none of its residents. As far as I know, South Dakota doesn’t even exist, except on maps that are designed to deceive us. I do believe in South Dakota, however, because a friend of mine grew up there and has told me her story. She mostly tells the truth, so I believe her. But I still don’t love South Dakota. Can’t do it.

Does everyone who claims to love America love all of America, really? Do we love the people who disagree with us, or whose customs are foreign to us, those who speak languages that we don’t know and eat foods that we can’t even identify? Do we love the unknown places and places we’d never visit again? Do we love the government no matter how screwed up it gets and even when the wrong candidates get elected? Do we? Really?

Maybe we’d say that we love America’s values and what it stands for. Of course, those things have always been a matter of debate within our own nation, and get more complex as the nation ages. What America valued as a relatively small body of people in the late 18th century can be very different in the early 21st century.

But even if we do say we love America’s values, we’re talking about a love that is abstract. It’s a love focused on ideas rather than on people, and that’s a tricky thing. It’s also easier to condemn others when we crash against ideas. It’s harder to do that when we look eye-to-eye and come to know one another. Many people who have started out as enemies have become friends once real relationships were allowed to emerge.

I do love America, and if you live in this country, you would probably say the same. It’s helpful to think about what that means, and recognize the limitations and conditionality of our kind of love. When I think of America, I think of what I know: People and familiar landscapes; symbols and sounds; food and enjoyment; memories and hopes. That kind of love isn’t entirely unique to America—I have friends in England, Australia, New Zealand, and Venezuela who would say the same thing about their countries.

As I said at the start, it’s an election year again. It’s a good time to examine our own claims about love. If you can, watch the candidates debate on TV, and then pick the one you dislike the most. Imagine sharing a meal with that person, and hearing about his or her life. If you are a follower of Jesus, imagine praying for that person, right on the spot. Imagine leaving that time together, still standing opposed to that person’s political agenda but now sharing a relationship that holds the possibility for love.

In a recent interview, Bono (of U2 fame) said that Americans are too hard on themselves. He’s probably right, but that’s not a bad thing. When you have as much freedom and resource as we have here, we should be hard on ourselves. We should challenge our own loves on a regular basis and ask ourselves what that love really means. If we don’t examine our loves, then we run the risk of thinking that the world is all about us. It isn’t. It really, really isn’t. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our home. But let’s do it honestly.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Thoughts on "Masculine Christianity"

Masculine Christianity. It’s something we’re hearing about from some church leaders, a call to recognize that God intended the faith to have a masculine character. It also comes with the conviction that the headship of men is vital to adherence to scriptural fidelity. It’s all there in our book, some would say, and if we take another view, we do so at our own peril.

I appreciate the desire to be faithful to the scriptures. However, that faithfulness has to be engaged with the larger narrative of our biblical story, a story that has a tendency to turn most of our preferences on their heads.

Our story opens up in a garden, where the first humans and the entire created order live in the unhindered presence of God. There is no hint of dominance or superiority, but instead the two humans are “one flesh” (Gen 2:24). The woman is initially referred to as a “helper,” but that doesn’t necessarily imply subservience. After all, God will later be called the helper of Israel.

Our story ends in a city—the new Jerusalem—where the tree of life of Genesis 2 reappears, this time in the center of the new creation of Revelation 21 and 22. All the drama and intrigue of the city have been transformed into the place of God’s intentions—intentions for the entire creation that were demonstrated in Genesis 1 and 2.

But everything in between goes to hell in a handbag.

In Genesis 3 the sanctity and protection of the garden is destroyed, resulting in a curse upon the world. Now dominance emerges, with the man bowed by the burden of his labors and the woman bowed to the man. But, as Jesus would later say, when questioned about the flagrancy of divorce,

“. . . From the beginning is was not so.” (Matt 19:8b)

The Bible’s entire context is the brokenness of Genesis 3. From the roller-coaster ride of the men who ruled Israel to the religious and military oppression of Jesus’ day, we see the people of God and the entire world living outside of God’s intentions.

The story, however, repeatedly runs cross-grain to the brokenness of the world that is partially characterized by the dominance of men over women:

•A woman rises to judge Israel (Judges 4)

•The faithfulness is Israel is demonstrated through the lives of two women (Ruth)

•The exiled Jews are saved from genocide by the faithful efforts of a young woman (Esther)

•A woman is the first to hear that the Messiah will be born, and she will be his mother (Luke 1)

•Women are the first to discover that Jesus’ tomb is empty, and the first to encounter him as the resurrected Lord (Matt 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20)

•One of the earliest Christian outposts established by the apostle Paul was led by Lydia, a businesswoman in Philippi (Acts 16)

Paul is often credited with asserting the masculinity of the Christian faith. However, Paul is also the master of contrast. In Romans 1 he contrasts the open revelation of God with the rebellion of human beings. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-11 he describes the status quo of the Jewish traditions, with women required to cover their heads and to submit to the headship of men. He even speaks of a priority of creation, with man created before the woman.

But, characteristically, Paul takes a quick turn with the word “nevertheless” (v. 12), and offers another contrast:

Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman. For just as woman came from man, so man comes through woman; but all things come from God. (1 Cor 11:11-12)

Paul gives us a picture of the world as it is—a Genesis 3 reality. Then he offers up the preferences of God—a trip back to the garden of Genesis 1 and 2. It is this same, masculine Paul who would also write,

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Perhaps Paul would look at our story and recognize that the reality of our Genesis 3 existence would tragically accommodate and allow a Christianity that is dominated by the masculine. But he might also, along with Jesus, declare that it was not so from the beginning.

Our story does not call us to languish in the reality of Genesis 3, but rather to flourish in the intentions of God in Genesis 1 and 2. God’s intentions for men and women is that they would both bear his image:

So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27)

The call is not for a masculine Christianity, but instead for a Christianity that is fully human. It is a call to refuse the brokenness of Genesis 3 to dominate our story. It is a call to embrace the larger, expansive, redeeming preferences of God.