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.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Holy Week Reflection

In Christian tradition, Holy Week retells the story that begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ends in Resurrection Sunday, or Easter.

But it’s really more than just a revisiting of an ancient narrative. It’s an intensely theological journey that speaks deeply about God’s initiating work of love in and through Jesus, for the sake of the world. In a way, this story summarizes God’s mission in the world.

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, inspiring misplaced hope, disillusionment, and disinterest. The ones crying “Hosanna” very likely anticipated a Messiah of their own design, one who would come in the kind of power that would expel the Romans and re-establish Israel as its own nation. Others would catch on, turning away from this would-be Messiah riding humbly on a donkey rather than galloping in with troops and weapons. The Romans seem to be disinterested, because they take no action against this peasant who seems to present no threat to the empire.

Palm Sunday shows that God’s intentions are played out in ways that are counter to what people anticipate. The work of God often scandalizes human expectation.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week are considered days to reflect on a variety of events that lead up to Maundy Thursday, the day that commemorates what we have come to call The Last Supper.

At the table of Jesus on Maundy Thursday, Jesus engages his disciples, first of all, in a very human way—he eats with them. It’s a basic thing that human beings do. In that meal, Jesus shares a common humanity through a common meal. It is also a theologically symbolic meal in two ways. First, it is a meal that takes the symbols of the Jewish Passover and reframes them in what God is about to do in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Second, the meal is celebrated at a table that not only represents all of Israel (12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel), but also represents the entire broken world that God loves. The disciples represent a humanity that is simultaneously devoted, confused, misdirected, cowardly, and treacherous. Yet they are all invited to Jesus’ table, regardless of their lack of pious qualifications.

On Friday Jesus experiences that which is inevitable for all human beings: Death. We recognize that in this death something more is happening than just the expiration of a life. Something in this death changes the landscape of the entire cosmos. Yet, on the surface, it appears that once again sin and death have had their way with another righteous person. And, indeed, they have.

Saturday is when all goes silent. It is the day of sadness and disillusionment. It is a day of doubts and heartbreaks. It is the place where the dark night of the soul is born. It is its own kind of sacred space, one which will, at one time or another, be inhabited by all. And yet it remains part of the week that we call Holy.

On Sunday the tomb opens and Jesus is raised from the grave. Sin and death did their work on Friday, but it was all undone on Sunday. Sin and death continue to do their work in the world, but it is clear that they do not have the last word. In the Resurrection of Jesus he is reborn, so to speak, by the Spirit and in him the people of God are reborn and relaunched into the world. In this new life is the possibility of new life for all, a life where hope trumps fear.

Holy Week is an atonement week, where the events of these last days sum up all that God is doing in the world. God fully identifies with us in the very human life, suffering and death of Jesus. God’s rescue mission for the world comes to us as God’s preferences and intentions rather than in the framework of military or political power. The table of Jesus shows God’s invitation to be broad and generous, preparing places for even the least of the righteous. And in the Resurrection we have new life, in this age and in the age to come.

May God richly bless you in this Holy Week. May the reality of what God has done in and through Jesus Christ be a story that reconstructs the story of your life, and through your new life may God bring blessing to all the families of the earth.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Christians and Muslims: Chrislam? Islianity?

There’s been some new controversy lately about Christians and Muslims doing scandalous things like talking with each other and working on common projects for the good of others. The stir this time is about Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church speaking with a large group of Muslims about working together in peace projects. Some have labeled Warren’s efforts, as well as the efforts of others, to be leading toward a path of syncretism, that is, morphing Christianity and Islam together to form a new, apostate religion called “Chrislam.”

I have friends and colleagues who regularly participate in faith dialogues with both Muslims and Mormons. The unique thing about this kind of dialogue is that the common ground is Jesus—different ways of looking at Jesus, to be sure, but Jesus nonetheless. A lot of criticism as also come their way, primarily from Christians who don’t think this is a good idea.

I heard of a man—a Christian leader—who was asked to speak to a group of non-Christians. They were very interested in Jesus, but had been formed by a religious and social world that was filled with multiple deities, none of which even closely resembled the God of the Bible.

So the man accepted the invitation and quickly came to the conclusion that these people had found favor with God, in spite of the fact that they had no understanding of orthodox Christianity and had certainly not gone through any of the steps that this man had undertaken to show a commitment to Christian faith.

When word got out, his fellow leaders called him on the carpet and wanted to know what this was about. It was scandalous, this thing he had done. It was the equivalent of someone going into a mosque full of devout and prayerful Muslims and, out of a perceived obedience to God, declaring that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus had found favor with them and had accepted them before they could quote the Apostles’ Creed or get baptized.

Anyway, the man declared that the very Spirit of God—the Holy Spirit—had visited these people and that he had seen evidence of this. So the leaders marveled at what God seemed to be doing, even though it would be quite some time before someone actually scoured the Bible to figure out how it all fit in God’s plan for the world.

You can read that story for yourself. It’s in the Bible—Acts chapters 10 and 11, to be precise. The event didn’t start a new religion, but it did morph the emerging Christian church from a distinctively Jewish movement to one that brought Jews and Gentiles together as one people—the people of God. It would be Paul who would later give biblical and theology reasons for all of this. The book of Romans is mostly about that.

I wonder how things might have looked if Peter and the rest of the early Christian leaders had taken a combative stance against the Gentiles rather than taking the risk to see what God was doing? I wonder what would happen if we who claim to follow Jesus could take the risk of following him into some places that we deem to be scandalous? What if, upon going into those scandalous places, we were to find that God was already there, at work among the people that comprise the world that he loves?

Monday, April 2, 2012


When I use the word “exiles,” I mean outsiders—outsiders to the world of church. The kind of outsiders to which I refer are not, generally speaking, ones who have been excluded by others, but are rather those who can’t seem to find where they fit any more.

With those kinds of outsiders there are three groups. The first the group of people that shop for church as religious consumers. Their disconnection from church tends to come from the perceived desire for a particular kind of music, an acceptable morning speaker, programs for the kids, and few demands on an otherwise busy life. Attempting to keep the religious life alive in a demanding, consumer-based culture is a difficult and sometimes noble task, but does not necessarily qualify, in my estimation, as the life of an exile. The second is also based in consumerism, but of a theological kind. The people in this group have very specific ideas about what constitutes an acceptable and orthodox system of Christian belief. They often seek to carefully read statements of faith and, if possible, to interview the church leaders to make sure they have the correct doctrinal positions. While a concern about doctrine is not unimportant, it is a concern that the kind of exiles I have in mind wouldn’t consider to be primary.

There is, as I see it, a third group of outsiders. These are the ones who would say that they have trusted Jesus with their lives, that they have an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence, and a confidence in God’s generous and expansive love. For any number of reasons, however, this authentic inner life of faith has difficulty in finding expression and nurture in that most common of Christian gatherings that we call the church. These are the ones I call exiles.

Unlike other exiles, these are not outsiders because of deportation, political oppression, or banishment. They find the reasons for their isolation to be within themselves and they don’t know how to find a remedy. Yes, they might have any number of critiques about the way church is done (at least in the ways that are familiar to them), but they know that there is something within them that is real, and it doesn’t seem to fit well in church.

Within this group of exiles there is a sub-group. These are people like me who have served as pastors and leaders in the church. They have given their vocational life to Christian leadership but are no longer serving in that role. For them, attending a church service can become a dislocating experience, a sense of displacement that requires them to become observers to something that they had come to cherish. It’s a handicap of sorts, but a real one nonetheless.

Musicians experience this same sensation with frequency. It is difficult for a musician to sit in the audience during a concert without watching the way the performers play their instruments and listening to every note with a critical ear. They can’t help themselves from doing it; after all, they’ve been up on that stage, and perhaps could even play the music more proficiently than those who are currently capturing everyone’s attention. The rest of the audience is simply enjoying the concert, but the musician suffers.

What do you think? Do you know such a person? Are you one? Do you feel like you are, in a sense, a person without a country? I'd love to hear from you to see how you are dealing with this life of exile and where you think it will go.