I recently attended the Big Orange Book Fair at Chapman University in Orange, California. It was great fun and I had the opportunity to interact with several authors and also to enjoy their panel discussions.
One young writer spoke of her reluctance to do any marketing for her work (fortunately for her, her father thought otherwise) because she could only think of writing. For her, it was a thing she loved and the idea of publishing her work for the benefit of others hadn’t really occurred to her.
I had a nice conversation with her, and I must say I appreciated her focus on the love of her craft, even though I’m all for sharing one’s work with others, at least at some level.
This morning I ran across this quote from Rainer Maria Rilke (cited in Henri Nouwen’s book Reaching Out (p. 40). She is speaking to a young man who has asked her if he should become a poet:
“Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places o f your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.” (Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Norton, 1954, 18-19)
This is helpful wisdom for anything that we feel compelled to do, whether in the arts, business, religion, medicine, law, sports, or whatever. Do we do this because of a hopeful outcome, such as recognition, money, prestige, or power? Or do we put our hands to this work out of love—love for the thing itself, love for the power that compels us, love for what it sparks within us?
People sometimes ask how a religious guy like me can be interested in writing horror stories (“He seemed so nice and normal, although he kept to himself. We never imagined that he . . .”). So I share my “Author’s Note” that I wrote a year ago for my novel A Body Given (part 2 in a three-part series):
While I’ve been a fan of vampire stories since I was a kid, I didn’t start writing about the undead until my grandchildren attempted to convince me that these soulless monsters were just a race of unfortunate and misunderstood beings. Seeking to correct their misperceptions, I set out to write a short story that became my novel This Side of Death, which continues to remain largely undiscovered and, at least by my grandchildren’s reckoning, largely underappreciated.
Nevertheless, the story still wants to tell itself, as these things often do. I’ve discovered along the way that a vampire story is a great vehicle for exploring the depths of evil that plague the human race. My vampires try to be true to the traditional legends, so they are unkind and unmerciful along with being undead. They also expose the darkness that often lies dormant (and too often not dormant) in the hearts of living, breathing, human beings.
The vampire genre also allows for explorations of faith. Since the legends themselves are a reversal of the Christian Eucharist (the blood of the many for the one versus the blood of the One for the many), there are numerous parallels and metaphors that allow a writer to move between the horrors of death and the mysteries of faith.
There is a third book in the making that will probably end this series of vampiric journeys. It too wrestles with horror and faith, moving the story to a new location through the lives of both new and familiar characters.
Stories never emerge in a vacuum, but are an accumulation of experiences, imaginings, influences, and relationships. I am indebted to writers whose wonderfully chilling books have offered me inspiration and pleasure, especially Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, and Elizabeth Kostova. Their stories continue to creep at the margins of my imagination.
I am also indebted to those who have been my helpers along the way, those whose input and correction kept me from going too far off the rails in my storytelling. I am grateful for the excellent editing job done by the skilled hands and eyes of my daughter, Laurelin Varieur, who is not shy about correcting my errors but also seems to know how my mind works. I was given hope that my story might hook readers when an early manuscript was read by my friend Lydia Van Hoff, who likes a creepy story as much as I do, and may have actually met a vampire or two in Northern Ireland. And I was expertly guided through the description of the effects of type-1 diabetes by my fine grandson Jacob Karnofel, who made sure I got all the highs and lows right and, like his siblings and cousins, did not hesitate to set his grandfather straight.
And I am thankful that you are about to read this book. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
There’s an interesting piece today in the Washington Post about the challenges facing the possible emergence of a progressive religious movement. Once again, this causes me to think about what we (and, by we, I’m speaking mostly to those who follow Jesus) mean when we use the categorical terms conservative and progressive.
As I’ve written before, I would like for us to challenge our own categories by asking questions like: What are the things that we desire to conserve? Do those things have lasting value? What are we trying to conserve that is merely culture-bound? And how is it that we see ourselves progressing? What are we progressing from, and what direction are we progressing? By what motivation, energy, and power do we progress? Is our progress energized by the Spirit of God, or by the power of cultural voices?
When I wrestle with these questions, I wonder if we can’t be both of those things at the same time, given some legitimate answers to those questions. If we act conservatively with the assumption that everything we cherish has ultimate value, then we risk an arrogance that can blind us to what God is doing in the world (biblical example: The Holy Spirit falls on Peter’s gentile friends [Acts 10-11], and the conservative value of Jewish exclusiveness is rattled, and a progression revealed by God emerges). If we act progressively with the movement of culture, we risk losing our basis for theological and biblical reflection and end up getting swept up by every societal shift that claims to be progressive.
If conservatism is characterized by safety, and if progressivism is characterized by new risks, then the only things I can think of that adequately hold both in tension are new cars.
Think about it: The safety features in cars today are a quantum leap from what existed 40 years ago. Airbags, seat belts, braking systems, and overall construction all help to create cocoons of safety for human beings. At the same time, theses cars have the capacity for face-distorting speed, with a mechanical responsiveness that would dazzle the minds of stunt drivers of past generations. A new car has the capacity to create joy in the hearts of both conservatives and progressives. They might even take a ride together.
On top of that, these cars are expensive. Conservative or progressive, both will dive deeply into our capitalist economic system in order to purchase new automobiles. That’s just how it is. Banks who offer car loans could care less about our politics.
I would love to see us all quit screaming at one another, caricaturing one another (and then skewering the caricature), and condemning one another. Now might be a good time to start listening, talking and reflecting. We have to question the things we think need to be conserved. We have a long Christian tradition of conserving the wrong things and ignoring the right things. We also have to question our progressive leanings. If culture is our only criteria for interpreting Scripture, theology, and ethics, then any cultural shift will do.
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11b-13)
People groups often adapt to change in fits and starts. Some people like fresh inventions and innovations; other people find the new expressions difficult or substandard, and long for things as they used to be.
The people of Israel had been in exile, and had recently been released to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city under the watchful of King Cyrus of Persia. The city walls were repaired, taunting enemies were chased off, and—with great anticipation and fanfare—the foundation of the new Temple was laid.
The former Temple—a glorious structure built by King Solomon—had long been destroyed. The new Temple would bring joy to the people as a worshipping community, but it would be a different structure than the one that preceded it.
So there was both rejoicing and weeping when the foundation was completed. Perhaps the older folks wept, not only because the Temple was returning to Jerusalem, but also because it would be different from the one they remembered from their youth. For the younger people, who had no memory of the former Temple, it was a new and exciting project, one that would finally ground their identity in their homeland.
We’re told that all the voices—the weeping, the laughing, the mourning, the rejoicing—all came together as one voice.
We who follow Jesus do so in a culture that is characterized by rapid, discontinuous change. It’s not just that the world around us changes—technology, international relations, social and legal boundaries—but also that the life of the church keeps changing. New expressions of worship and mission emerge, sometimes on their own, and other times in the midst of congregations that have been immersed in many years of tradition. People often rejoice when these changes come. Others, however, weep.
The older I get, the more I appreciate this tension. It’s difficult to distinguish between traditions that have deep and lasting value and those that are just temporary cultural preferences. It’s both exciting and frightening to pursue innovations in worship and communal life. It’s too bad, however, when the response of the church is to divide and separate, draw lines in the sand and create boundaries that alienate.
It is a joy, however, when all come together and search for the fingerprints of God in what seems to be emerging in our midst—not new expressions for the sake of newness, but fresh engagements with the Spirit of God that capture new images and songs, revitalizing ancient traditions and creating new ones. And within all the tension that comes with new things, the voices that cry out do so as one voice, a voice that rejoices before God.
Right now I’m hearing the prayer of Jesus—a prayer that anticipates even us—that might help us think about this:
“I ask not only on behalf of these [disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
When the Bible uses the term “sin,” it isn’t just talking about people misbehaving. Sin is a bigger, darker concept than just the idea of being naughty. Sin is an orientation away from God—essentially forgetting about God—and looking for meaning and identity in other things. Ancient Israel did that when they abandoned God and chased after numerous fertility gods, idols that seemed sexier and more functional than the God who had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt.
Sin also creates victims. Along with all of us sinners, there are those who are the sinned against. These are people who have been abused, neglected, oppressed, used, and discarded. This victimization often results in an identity grounded in pain, and pain always demands medication.
The biblical imagery of sin includes one of a person walking along a path that is sure to end up in a proper destination. And then the person decides to wander off that well-worn trail and do some exploring. Once off the path, the person becomes disoriented and loses all sense of direction. Fear and desperation emerge and the person embraces a new identity: A person who is lost.
Wilderness experts often caution people about what to do when they get lost in the woods, because too many people do the wrong things when they lose their way. Once off the trail, they panic, exhaust themselves, get dehydrated, and get even more lost than they were in the first place.
That’s a good biblical image for sin. And, as a wise man once said: Sin makes you stupid.
When followers of Jesus start following other desires, stupidity isn’t far from the scene. When our identity as kin to Jesus changes into something else—as lonely people, misunderstood people, needy people, addictive people, suffering people—our desires demand fulfillment from a source that is other than God. There are all kinds of stories of extra-marital affairs, substance abuse, thievery—you name it—that take place within the shared life of churches when people’s identities shift and wander off the path, the way, that is Jesus.
Psalm 73 says it well:
“When I was beleaguered and bitter, totally consumed by envy, I was totally ignorant, a dumb ox in your very presence. I’m still in your presence, but you’ve taken my hand. You wisely and tenderly lead me, and then you bless me.
You’re all I want in heaven! You’re all I want on earth! When my skin sags and my bones get brittle, God is rock-firm and faithful.” (vv. 21-25, The Message)
“The recurrent error of our technologically conditioned age is to look for what’s wrong in our lives so that we can fix it, or what needs doing so that we can have something worthwhile to do. There are things wrong that need fixing; and there are jobs that need doing. But the Christian life starts at the other end—not with us but with God: What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?” (Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 138-9)
This week I had the privilege of teaching the first of a two-week intensive course on the subject of the church and mission in a global context. At one point we began talking about how the church’s mission begins, not with a question about historical tradition (“we’ve always done it this way”) or cultural preference (“what do people like?”), but rather with an inquiry about what God is doing in this time and place. The church’s role, we decided, was to participate in what God was doing in the world around us.
So I asked for examples of how we’ve seen this work in our respective faith communities. It took a while (for me, too), but we did have stories of people coming together in prayer and conversation, seeking to grasp, even in weakness, fear, and trembling, God’s ongoing activity and preferences, and then taking the risk to join into the missional party that was already going on.
I came home from that first week in Phoenix on Saturday night, and jumped right into a full, life-giving day on Sunday. After a rich and reorienting worship gathering, my wife and I had lunch with friends, sharing stories of joy and pain, hope and faithfulness. In the evening we hosted some young Venezuelan friends—children of the partner churches in South America who had grown into adulthood and were now making their respective ways here in the States. It was a day of fullness and life.
As I take a little time to reflect on these past days (without that time of reflection, the days often just melt together, blending with the mundane and routine, losing their significance and meaning, becoming part of the purée of time), I am asking the two questions that Peterson poses: “What is God doing that I can respond to? How is God expressing his love and grace so that I can live appreciatively and in obedience?”
Every pleasant relational experience is not necessarily a signal that one’s life direction has to change or that a new vocation must be embraced. But reflecting on experiences that bring life and joy allows for the consideration that the Spirit of God—the source of life—is always at work, and that work is seen in the lives of real human beings, all struggling to find their place in the world.
So, on this, day, I ask those questions on a personal level, not just for the church. Maybe you are asking them as well. May God surprise us with his mysterious responses.
This is nothing new. Multiple generations of mockingbirds have staked out their territories here. I’ve lived in this house for almost 20 years and there’s always been a mockingbird squawking and flying around, acting like it owns the place. Snotty little creatures, they are.
Mockingbirds also seem to be insomniacs because I hear them singing all through the night (I just read that they are particularly noisy during full moons, thereby revealing their affinity with vampires and werewolves). They are also copycats (okay, copybirds) because they mimic the sounds that other birds make.
I often sit on my back porch to read. The resident mockingbird would sit up on a telephone wire and scold me once in a while, but mostly it would ignore me. But this weekend, I experimented with a little bit of mockery of my own.
I stood under the wire where the bird was perched and did my humanly best to mimic the call that I heard. I noticed that it started looking at me in the weird bird way that they do, with their heads moving back and forth so that their sideways eyes can see you. Every time I copied the bird’s call, it would give me that look and then make another sound, which I would feed back to it. After a while, I retreated to my cherished spot on the porch and continued my reading.
In just a few minutes, the bird landed on the railing near to where I was sitting and gave me its look. We exchanged bird talk for a while, and then it flew under my porch, flapped around, and took off. We’ve continued this little human-avian exchange several times over the past couple of days.
I wondered: Is the bird trying to connect with me? Is it seeking to establish a unique bond with me that would draw us both into the complexities and wonders of the created order? So I did some Internet investigation and explored the various calls of the mockingbird.
As it turns out, the bird’s call to me was an aggressive one, telling me, in bird essence, to get off of his lawn. It could be that, in its astonishment that one of the large, clumsy, land dwellers would speak in bird language, it still wanted to poke its sharp little beak into my eyes and then snip my aorta so that I would cease to be a threat to its territorial claim. Or, it could just have been having fun with me.
I choose to believe the latter theory. It occurs to me that if I would figure out how to do a non-aggressive call, the bird and I might become friends (after all, it probably did sound like I was picking a fight). And I’d better be sure that I don’t attempt something that could be interpreted as a mating call. That could have difficult ramifications.
I tend to worry too much about global things. There’s a lot going on all around us—politically, socially, economically, and even religiously—and I’m concerned with how we Christians are or are not responding to these things. I worry about how dramatic and rapid cultural shifts will affect Christian communities of faith and their role of ministry in the world. I struggle with how reactive we can all be and how we aren’t very good at listening to one another, looking one another in the eye even as we disagree. These things trouble me.
It was a life-giving respite to share a conversation with a bird. Yes, as it turns out, we were speaking aggressively to each other. But the bird came close and we made eye contact, two mortal subjects sharing the breath of God in our bodies. In that contact, annoyance turned into communication, and aggression turned into curiosity. I am coming to like this bird.
I can’t determine exactly what the bird thinks of me, but I’m appreciative that it came close and looked me in the eye. And, to be clear, the lawn is mine.
Nahari: I'm going to Hell! I killed a child! I smashed his head against a wall.
Nahari: Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
[indicates boy's height]
Gandhi: I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed and raise him as your own.
[indicates same height]
Gandhi: Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.
(from the movie, Gandhi, 1982)
A large group gathered outside City Hall to express their protests regarding a significant social and political issue. Ten of the protesters got into a fight, five against five. They were arrested and brought before the magistrate.
The judge heard the defenses and then ordered each protester to meet privately with him, one at a time. Each person, after being interrogated, left the judge’s chambers looking puzzled, perplexed shoulders shrugging one after the other.
After a few hours, the judge returned to the bench.
“I have learned many things about each of you today, and I have a verdict to render and penalty to impose.
“You are guilty of unlawful assembly and disturbing the peace. You may choose one of two consequences.
“I have discovered that four of your number—two from each side—are talented at cooking. Two of your number—one from each side—are musicians. One week from today, you will turn yourselves in at the homeless shelter on Main Street. You will prepare a dinner party for a group of children who have recently been rescued from the streets. Those of you who do not cook or play music will serve, help with games, and clean up.
“If you choose not to participate in this, you will be taken immediately to jail where you will remain for six months, and then pay a fine of $10,000. Your choice.”
All the defendants chose the party.
On the day of the event, the cooks immediately began to argue about the issue that started the trouble in the first place. The musicians each bragged about the protest songs they had written against their enemies. The others just folded their arms and glared. The guard assigned to them reminded them all that the children would be arriving in a few hours and failure to serve them would result in a renewal of punishment number two.
So, the cooks began to talk together, sharing recipe ideas and sorting through the supplies that had been arranged for them. The musicians shared ideas about songs that would bring joy to these lost children, and even co-wrote one just for the event. The others began setting up chairs and tables, discussing the best way to create an environment of safety and fun for the children.
The children arrived on time, the last child followed into the room by the judge. The prisoners looked at one another and gulped nervously.
The party came off beautifully. The downcast, fearful faces of the children were transformed into beacons of light and hope. The food was delicious, the music glorious, the service attentive and fun. Once the children left and the room was cleaned and put back in order, the judge informed the prisoners that they had served their sentences well and were now released, free to return back to their former lives.
“May we stay a little while longer, judge?” said one of the cooks. “There’s a bit of food left, and we’d like to eat it together.”
“And we wrote a song together about our day,” said one of the musicians. “You might want to stay and hear it.”
“We’ve got an idea for another party for the children,” said one of the servers. “There are plans to make.”
The judge stayed and dined with the protesters. After the food was eaten, the song applauded, and the plans blessed, he asked them a question.
“So, are you no longer protesting against each other?”
“Oh, no,” said one of them. “There is much on which we disagree. But today we became human and real to one another. I still protest about the issue, but I no longer have enemies to protest against. I protest now among friends.”
The above story, sadly enough, is a work of fiction.
I once knew a man who set his wristwatch alarm to go off (quietly, so that only he could hear it) every hour on the hour. When the tone sounded, he would stop what he was doing and become attentive to what was going on around him. He would pay close attention to the people near to him and would watch for signs of what God was doing in that time and place.
I think it’s time for followers of Jesus to listen for the tone, stop what they are doing, and pay attention to what is going on.
We live in a highly reactive society, and Christians seem quick to mirror that cultural reactivity. So when things happen around us—new rules on marriage, new standards for immigration, new economic policies, and so on—we react and draw lines so that we know who “they” are and who “we” are. After all: “We” are the good guys, and “they” are the bad guys. It’s important to know your enemies, right?
There is a two-fold problem with this for followers of Jesus: First, there is no “we” or “they.” There is only “us.” Second, we are not to deal with “enemies” in the traditional way of hatred.
In the midst of all the national and international turmoil, we Christians are missing a golden opportunity. We are missing the opportunity to look at the drama in our society and see our own complicity in it. We are missing the opportunity to see the one’s we have labeled the “other” and see ourselves in those people, regardless of their sexuality, their national origin, or their politics.
The apostle Paul nails this:
“. . . you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (Romans 2:1)
Paul was working to get the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians to learn to live together as one spiritual family. They seem to have been quick to draw lines of separation between them, judging one another and allowing each side to think it had moral superiority over the other. Paul just doesn’t go for that. In fact, he claims that all human beings stand in solidarity with one another, not only in their universal access to God but also in their brokenness:
“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Romans 3:22b-23)
All human beings stand side by side in the reality of God’s love but also in the reality of sin and brokenness. In that sense, there is no one but “us” in the room.
So, when we are confronted with the social and political issues of our day, rather than beginning at the lines of division, we need to begin at the beginning: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. All. That means all. Including you and me and all those “others” out there.
I’m not suggesting that everything is okay because we’re all screwed up (that would be no different, in effect, than saying that everything is okay because nobody is screwed up). I’m saying that the recognition of our solidarity with the rest of the world must draw us into humility and repentance before it allows us to consider standing in the place of judgment. And if, by “judgment,” we mean standing above others in a spirit of condemnation, then we have taken on a role that does not belong to us. If, however, we mean that there is a judgment to be made between was is life and what is death, what is helpful and what is hurtful, then we just might be able to pursue that course for the sake and the good of the world. Remember: It’s a world that God loves.
As far as having enemies goes, we who follow Jesus are not called to have enemies at all. We might have to recognize that there are people who don’t like us, who wish us harm, who categorize themselves as our enemies, but we don’t seek to have enemies. In fact, people should expect that the best enemy to have is a follower of Jesus. That’s because, as Jesus said,
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . .” (Matthew 5:44-45)
We in “the church” have missed so many golden opportunities throughout history. If we miss the opportunity to see ourselves in the same mirror of brokenness that we think reflects only the image of the “other,” then we miss seeing what God is really doing all around us, and what he desires to do within us.
“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” (Ephesians 5:15-17)
Last week I read, with a combination of interest and dismay, the story of the florist in Washington who refused to sell flowers to a gay customer for his wedding. She is being sued over that decision, and also being characterized as either a religious bigot or as a hero, depending on one’s point of view.
The CNN article goes on to describe how some Christian groups have accepted gay marriage as a social and legal inevitability, while others have vowed to continue to fight against it. I suppose we can appreciate that, in the USA, we are able to have the freedom to battle each other without necessarily drawing blood (I’m hoping that doesn’t happen).
I recently heard a pastor, in a church service where I was a visitor, insist that it is the job of Christian people to preserve “the moral high ground.” From what I could tell, most everyone there seemed pleased with his declaration.
But I think he was wrong.
While I’m all for being moral (depending, of course, on what basis morality is grounded), demanding that particular moral standards be upheld by the larger society is not our job. Enforcing a certain “moral high ground” (which can be based on cultural preferences just as much on religious convictions), as if we Christians are the nation’s moral police, is not our job.
Bearing witness to Jesus is our job.
Being a people who are being formed in his image is our reality. And we do all of that in a context that we do not control. We live in a dominant culture, but we are not the dominant culture. “American” and “Christian” are not euphemisms. Like it or not, we are exiles. Our host nation is, for the most part, a friendly one, be we are still exiles, citizens of another kingdom where Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.
Having said that, it still matters how we live. In fact, it matters more how we live than it does how we declare what we think. If someone asks our view on same-sex marriage, our answer will either label us as bigoted haters or as compromising heretics. You just can’t come out unscathed with your answer.
But I’m not so sure that anyone needs to know what I think about a topic like that. I think it matters more how I live and how I interact with others. My views end up creating artificial categories and assumptions that deepen the divisions we seem to be creating on a daily basis. But my actions will reveal more of my heart than will my words.
More than one non-religious writer (like Roy Hattersley, in this 2005 Guardian UK article) has confessed that religious people, while having views about things that trouble skeptics, tend to be the ones who behave charitably. During disasters like Hurricane Katrina, churches mobilized all through the Gulf Coast and Christians from all over the US and Canada descended on the region to bring help and care to the people who were suffering. This kind of thing happens all the time, and even an atheist like Roy Hattersley can marvel at the phenomenon.
Maybe there were folks there (I happen to have been among them) who differed in their views about why the disaster happened, whether or not the government had failed, etc., but none of those views really mattered. What mattered was the care given to those who suffered. What people thought was trumped by what they did.
I wonder what would happen if, when asked our views on topics like same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and so on, our answer was “Watch what I do. Then you might know what I think.”
Or, to put it another way:
“Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18)
Tomorrow is July 4, the day that USAmericans celebrate Independence Day—the day in 1776 when the American colonies declared, in writing, their independence from Britain (although, in 1964, the Beatles came over and took our hearts back to England, but that’s a different story).
Churches all over the US, either last Sunday or on the Sunday coming up, will include patriotic songs, pledges of allegiances, honoring of veterans, and the lifting up of the United States of America as a land to be celebrated in the midst of a service of worship.
This is, in my view, a very bad idea.
My dismay at this ongoing practice has nothing to do with patriotism or national loyalty. It does not suggest a dismissal of the sacrifice of veterans or the disparaging of freedom. It has to do with the risk of exchanging the centrality of Jesus Christ as the focus of Christian worship and replacing him with a particular form of nationalism. When we conflate patriotism with faith, we get confused about our objects of worship.
There are two negative historical precedents for this kind of thing (there are certainly more, but I’ll just consider these two for now):
The first is found in the history of Israel as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). Israel (and Judah) became a monarchy and suffered through generations of kings that ultimately led to its destruction and the exiling of most of the people. Up to that point, however, the nation began to find its core identity, not in God, but in the lineage of the king. As long as there was a king on the throne, the nation, it was thought, lived forever (a number of the Psalms even suggest that). Nation, king, and God morphed into one muddled identity, and God was ultimately sidelined.
The second example is seen in the machinations of the Nazi regime in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. Hitler secured the allegiance of the leaders of the state church (the Lutheran Church) and offered his promise of support in exchange for the symbols of the cross and the Bible in the sanctuaries, which he successfully replaced with a sword and his book, Mien Kampf. The Christians who resisted Hitler were exiled or murdered (you can see their names in a display at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC).
Confusing God with the nation is a slippery slope.
This is not to say that the USA is the same kind of nation as ancient Israel, nor is it to overlay the horrors of Nazism on the foibles of America. But it is to say that when the people of God get confused about who or what they worship, trouble is on the horizon.
People all over the world—even those who suffer under their governments—often express love for their nations. Christians all over the world pray for their countries and attempt to live as honorable citizens of their homelands. Christians in the USA are rare in our willingness to love God and country with equal fervor. We are somewhat unique in our willingness to display our nation’s flag in our sanctuaries. Having Caesar and Christ in church together does not seem to be much of a problem for many of us.
I believe that we can love our country (even though none of us loves all of the country—we make that clear every election year) without losing sight of the heart of our worship. The calendar offers us national days of remembrance all through the year, and we are free to enjoy and celebrate them with our fellow citizens. But we need to remember that we are citizens of the Kingdom of God before we are citizens of any nation. There is a priority to our citizenship, and that priority is painted a bloody red—not red, white, and blue.
As a friend of mine once said: We Christians who gather in America to worship are not in that place before God because of our constitution, our flag, or our veterans. We are here because of Jesus. With that, we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world.
Have fun tomorrow. Thank God for the blessings of living in the USA. Shoot off some fireworks. But do not dress Jesus up as Uncle Sam. You won’t like how that turns out.
My daughter brought the above flyer home from the local university where she was studying a number of years ago. She didn’t take it to discourage people from attending the meeting of the Atheists and Agnostics Club (after all, the flyers were everywhere); she took it because she knew I’d be interested. And she was right.
I actually thought the use of the fish image was pretty clever. So, I accessed the contact information at the bottom of the page (blacked out for the sake of anonymity) and emailed the contact person. I said that I was a pastor, explained how I had obtained the flyer, and asked if he would he be willing to have lunch with so that I could hear about his club? It turned out that he was the president and founder of the club, and he agreed to meet.
He was a commuter student and lived 35 or 40 miles away from the campus, so we met at a coffee shop somewhere in between. He was bright and assertive, and I liked him right away. I learned that he had been raised in a very conservative Christian household and was the only member of his family to discard Christianity and embrace atheism. His family and other people had, apparently, challenged him many times about his views of faith, and he figured I would continue that process. He started asking multiple questions, all of which seemed designed to get an argument going.
I’m afraid I disappointed him, at least at first. I said I really didn’t care about debating some of the things that others might desire. I just wanted to know why his atheism was important to him and why he felt he needed a club. Mostly, I just wanted to know about him.
Gradually, our conversation shifted. I asked about his life, what he was studying, what he wanted to do in terms of work, and so on. He had a number of high aspirations in terms of education and, like many college students, was still trying to work out what he would pursue in terms of a career.
The university where he and my daughter were studying had about 30,000 students at the time. I figured that my young friend’s club had a respectable number of members. Imagine my surprise when he told me that there were only eight people who had joined. And they were all his friends.
I couldn’t help but laugh. But it wasn’t a laugh of mockery or disdain. You see, I was a pastor of a church that I had planted, and I constantly wondered where all the people were. So I said to my new friend:
“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. I’m just feeling your pain. I know that it’s really hard work to draw a crowd when the topic is ultimate reality.” We both laughed at that.
After a while, he became quiet, and I could tell he was thinking about something. He said,
“It just occurred to me that you have nothing to gain by talking to me.”
I agreed. I told him that I didn’t come to get him to do anything, or to convince him to come to my church. I just wanted to hear his story and find out about the heart behind the conviction. He said he might surprise me someday and come to a service. I think he actually showed up once.
He did, however, call me a year or so later and asked to have lunch again. This time we met not far from the university, at a favorite pub of mine. He was excited about his next step in life, moving to a respected and prestigious university campus where he would pursue his PhD. I told him I was glad for him.
Then he smiled at me and said, “I have to tell you something: I’m not an atheist anymore.”
This, of course, caught me attention. “What happened?” I asked.
“I’ve decided that I’m really more of an agnostic.” I wondered if our prior conversation had anything to do with that shift in his beliefs.
His face darkened as he spoke. “But,” he said, “when I told my friends in the club about the change in my thinking, they became angry. They voted me out.”
I was sad for him. His friends excommunicated him from fellowship because of an honest shift in his belief system. I was sorry that he had to carry the cloud of abandonment and rejection into this new season of life. But I was glad that he chose to come and tell me about it.
I’ve thought about those conversations a lot over the years. It bothers me that our culture—and I mean the culture as a whole—is short on listening and long on anger. I worry that we are becoming a people that uses terms like love and hate to categorize those who agree with us against those who do not. I am troubled when we see human beings as mere symbols of ideology rather than as real people with stories to tell and hearts that long for meaning and acceptance.
We who claim to follow Jesus ought to be good at listening and caring, but I’m not sure that we’re any better at those things than anyone else. There is something in the Bible about this:
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. (James 1:19-20)
I suspect that most of us who blog on a regular basis are like people who set themselves on fire and then attempt to extinguish the flames with an axe (unless you only blog about puppies and babies, which is probably not a bad idea).
So, yesterday I picked a topic that opened up sensitive areas for people—people about whom I care deeply. I used the NOH8 Campaign as a launching point, not to demean a legitimate vehicle of protest, but rather to look at the larger issue of polarization and anger that seems to permeate our society. The challenge to NOH8 was not about combatting hatred; it was about my concern that opposition in any form might be classified as hatred. The post was not about gay rights; it was about how we as people have come to use caricature and categorization rather than civil discourse to fight our political and religious battles.
This is not a NOH8 issue (it’s just that they are prominent in the news right now). It’s a larger cultural and maybe even global issue. Some examples:
When Christians who embrace the Tea Party Movement are asked how they reconcile the writings of Ayn Rand (her Atlas Shrugged has been called the Tea Party Bible) with the teachings of Jesus, the questioners are sometimes suspected of being “socialists” by merely asking the question.
When political leaders differ with one another, labels of “fascist” or “communist” fly through the air.
When people protest against particular wars, they are often called “unpatriotic” or “un-American,” as if being pro-war (one of the worst evils to be visited upon the planet) is a sign of one’s national loyalty.
When Christian scholars suggest that there might be more than one way to understand certain doctrines, you hear the word “heretic” echoing off the walls.
Once you have labeled and categorized your opponents, you have turned them into objects. Objects are easy to hate.
I have the privilege of working for an academic institution that places a high value on civil discourse. Rather than engaging people of other faiths or other traditions in a combative manner, they seek to listen deeply in order to properly understand the other. They do this, not in an abandonment of their own Christian convictions, but instead with a deep commitment to their faith, and with the expectation that the other will come to the table with a similar sincere commitment to their beliefs. In that environment, caricatures break down, categories unravel, and understanding emerges. Without such willing discourse, people continue to run the risk of bearing false witness against one another. We who are followers of Jesus should tremble at that possibility.
We human beings should not kid ourselves about hatred. It is not going to go away any time soon. Thousands of years of human history show us that hatred, violence, and inflicted suffering visit us repeatedly. I support any effort to call for an end to hatred, bullying, discrimination, and other violations. But winning political, legislative, and cultural battles will not erase hatred from our planet.
Only love has the power to do that.
Love does not see the “other” as an object to be caricaturized or categorized. Love sees the other as one of deep value, whether or not there is shared agreement on all topics or even when violence and injustice is inflicted. For some of us, hearing the story of Jesus provides an image of such love, when he is unjustly condemned to death and then nailed to a Roman cross to die, yet prays that his killers would be forgiven because they didn’t know what they were doing. NOH8.
The NOH8 folks have graphically illustrated a profound truth: Hatred seeks to silence its detractors. Hatred wants to duct tape any mouth that would speak with a different voice. We humans all run the risk of committing that crime. History shows us that, quite often, the oppressed later become oppressors and the persecuted become the persecutors. It’s an ugly reality, and it isn’t going to go away. All people carry a role of duct tape in their pockets. Not all will use it, but it’s there just in case.
Love, however, doesn’t seek to silence others. Someone has said that love is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude; love doesn’t have to have its own way and doesn’t cheer when others fall, but rather celebrates when things are truthful.
I think that NOH8 is a clever title, and the 30,000-plus photos of people with their mouths taped shut is a creative visual reminder of how oppression works. But I’d like to see if someone could come up with something like that regarding love. Not sure what that would look like.
On this day after the overturning of The Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve been doing a bit of reading about the “No Hate” (cleverly abbreviated as NOH8) Campaign. Here’s what the website declares as its mission statement:
“The NOH8 Campaign is a charitable organization whose mission is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest.”
The campaign illustrates its mission through over 30,000 photographs of people—many of celebrities or politicians—with duct tape over their mouths, symbolizing the silencing of their voices when Proposition 8 was passed in California.
I’ve been thinking about NOH8’s mission statement. I understand the arguments for marriage equality (meaning that marriage should not be limited to one man and one woman. We still seem to deny such equality to underage people, so the opportunity is not entirely equal to all). I appreciate the call for human equality, if what that means is that all human beings are of equal value (of course, such equality shifts a bit based on one’s social status and net worth).
But the call for gender equality puzzles me. I’m just not sure how that works. There is a co-humanity that underlies gender, and a kind of gender equality exists between members of the same sex (as long as size doesn’t matter). I just don’t get how the male gender is equal to the female gender.
I’m all for equality of opportunity, voting rights, etc., when it comes to gender. But, when it comes to comparing women to men, I’m pretty sure that the parts are different (if memory serves). There is a difference of hormonal makeup between men and women. Woman can bear and give birth to children, while men are made to watch TV in their underwear while eating potato chips and drinking beer.
Equality is an important word. You can give me two cookies to eat, and I eat them. Then, even while the crumbs are still dangling from my lips, you can give me two more and I eat them also. Or, you can just give all four cookies at once and watch me eat like a starving pig. Either way, I have eaten four cookies. Two plus two clearly equals four.
But equality and value are not necessarily the same. A dollar bill is different than a stack of a hundred pennies, but the value is the same. A dollar bill has similarity to a hundred dollar bill, but they differ in value (yet neither is value-less).
I have to say that I’m a bit concerned about the movement to flatten all things out to something called equality. From what I’ve seen, if someone has a different view (not necessarily hateful, but just different) about marriage, for example, the word hate is applied to that person. Hate is not equal to love. There is no equality to be had. So is equality only to be found in unanimity of opinion? Does that unanimity equal non-hate? Does it equal love?
There was a notion about equality in Jesus’ day. Long ago, Moses had pushed against the dominant, tribal practices of retribution (as in, you steal my chicken, I kill your entire family) by directing people toward an equality of response: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Punishment and recompense needed to fit the violation.
But Jesus challenged that sense of reactive equality by insisting on an entirely different response to an offense, one that flew in the face of any sane person’s view of equality:
“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:39-41)
Jesus’ words violated the dominant view of the culture. So was he a hater? I don’t think we would say that. Maybe those who espoused equality regarding retribution were the haters. But who makes that call? If the culture at large demands a particular point of view, isn’t anyone who speaks differently a hater? Who now defines hatred? Jesus was condemned to death on the basis of the claim that he was a hater—he hated God’s temple, he hated Caesar, he hated the status quo. They duct taped him to a cross to silence him.
In our time, it seems like disagreement and difference of opinion are tantamount to hatred. This worries me. I am all for standing against hatred. Hatred spawns violence, oppression, and murder. I am just concerned about categorizing any contrary views on a topic as hatred.
In fact, I may now be a hater just because I’m not sure that gender equality makes precise sense. I’d better go find some duct tape.
Okay, time for a break from reflective and devotional stuff, because there’s news that must be considered.
The High Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The Supreme Court has ruled (5-4) that DOMA (signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996), which defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” is unconstitutional.
Here’s my concern, and it’s not what you think it is.
My concern is about the word “one.” What if the limitation of having one spouse is also eliminated in the drive toward proper constitutionality? Is it possible that some form of polygamy will become normative?
I’m not thinking here about the impact on society as a whole. I’m thinking of the impact on me.
Given the opportunity, I don’t think I would go shopping for an additional wife. Some guys might find that to be a great idea, but they really need to stop and think about who is really in charge of their lives. It isn’t them. It’s their wives. Face facts. So, I don’t think it would be helpful for me to have more than one boss. I have enough trouble following orders as it is.
What I’m worried about is my wife bringing in an additional husband. You see, as I get older, I’m less interested in household chores. There are other things that I’d prefer to do, and I’m sure that this annoys my wife. So what if she marries an additional husband who will pick up my slack? What if things get competitive? And where will he sleep?
I suppose it could work out. He and I could become friends, I guess, realizing our solidarity in servitude. We could play two-person video games, go bowling, and even take up hunting. But what if a bromance began to blossom? How awkward would that be? Of course, a new definition of marriage would allow for that, since the three of us would be hitched already.
There’s probably not a lot of danger of this happening, really. My wife has put up with me for a very long time, and I’m betting that she’s not interested in housebreaking another roommate. It’s likely that my sole position in the family is fairly secure.
But maybe I’d better get out there and pull some weeds. It doesn’t hurt to play it safe.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
For me, the gospeller Matthew is a master storyteller. My imagination opens up when I read Matthew’s account of Jesus, and I see in my mind the story as it comes to life, hopefully in a way that comes sort of close to where the author intended.
In the passage just before the one above, Jesus goes around making new friends and inviting them to journey with him—to follow him. Then, he immediately draws them into the work he has come to do—proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and healing the sick, both of which were signs of God’s present and future intentions for the world.
Once he sees crowds of people responding to his work (and why wouldn’t they?), he heads up the side of a mountain and his friends follow him there. At first it seems like a very private meeting, one that is separated from the drama of the crowds below, but then you get to the end of chapter seven and you find out that the people were all astonished at his teachings. Apparently Jesus’ words weren’t limited to just his twelve new friends. Maybe the side of the mountain served as his pulpit as he spoke to the crowds as they gathered below.
The words that Jesus speaks in the text that follows—what we call The Sermon on the Mount—are a message of reorientation. He knows that the people, by and large, come with a preset way of thinking about life, human relationships, God, justice, and so on, but that their mental lenses for looking at reality are flawed, marred by legalism, guilt, shame, misinterpretation, and tribal preferences. So he does quite of bit of “You have heard . . .” contrasted by “But I say to you . . .” stuff in his sermon.
This is kind of like what happened to the ancient Hebrew people when God, through Moses, rescued them from the Pharaoh’s grasp. They had spent generations as slaves in Egypt, and their identity was completely wrapped up in that categorization. When they are given the Law—not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Levitical code with all of its rules about dietary restrictions, social relationships, worship, and justice—they find a new way to live together that is oriented toward God rather than toward Pharaoh, and it brings life to them.
But by Jesus’ day, that liberating, reorienting Law had become soul-breaking legalism, and he brings a fresh word to the people, revealing God’s intentions as they always had been. This is not a new kind of law that Jesus brings; it is a new and life-giving way to orient one’s life toward God.
I think that we who claim to follow Jesus need to revisit this business of reorientation every so often. I know that I do. It’s easy to get smug and decide that we’ve pretty much got things figured out and then quit thinking too deeply about whether we’re right or not. I think we need to hear Jesus say, “You have heard . . . but I say to you . . .” once in a while so that we remember that our confidence doesn’t come from getting everything right, but rather that it comes from following close to Jesus.
There are a lot of issues right now tearing the Christian church to pieces—like the place of gay people in the life of the church, immigration reform, economic justice, and how we closely we align our faith with our political preferences. Most of us engage in these conversations with perceptions of rightness that come out of our personal histories. We have made past decisions, we’ve studied, we’ve argued, and we’ve heard. We often believe that we’ve got it all right.
But maybe these difficult conversations are an opportunity for us to listen anew to the voice of Jesus say,
“. . . the world of work is the primary context for spirituality—for experiencing God, for obeying Jesus, for receiving the Spirit.”
(Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 31).
My wife, Emily, and I grew up, at least from our early teens, in the same church. Ours was a church in the holiness tradition (it was really the only church I knew, having previously been only an episodic Lutheran and an occasional Presbyterian as I tagged along with my religiously uncertain parents), and there were plenty of colorful and unusual characters to be found there.
One rather ordinary and uncolorful character was a man named Chet Dexter (Chet was short for Chester). He and his wife were very kind people, committed both to Jesus and to our little church community. Chet always went out of his way to be nice to Emily, who often came to worship and youth group alone, her parents finding church in general not to their liking. Chet served for many years on the church board, sometimes voting no on an issue when everyone else voted yes, just in case he was representing someone in the church who would have an objection about repaving the parking lot or getting the brakes fixed on the church bus. Chet took our democratic process very seriously.
Chet was a working man, getting up early every morning to do a job that no longer exists in most places in the US. He was a milkman, delivering dairy products in little metal baskets to his customers all over town. Every so often I’d see Chet driving his white milk truck, wearing his white milkman uniform, making sure that cream and cheese and buttermilk arrived in a timely fashion on the appropriate doorsteps.
I liked Chet very much, but I never thought much about his significance in the world, until he died many years later and my wife and I attended his memorial service.
His adult grandson spoke lovingly, through tears, about how Grandpa Chet would teach his grandchildren to start the day with the Bible, prayer, and cup of coffee. They would sometimes stay at his house and get up when he rose to start his day, sitting on his lap as he read Scripture aloud, prayed with them, and gave them tiny sips of hot coffee. Then off he would go, leaving them to appreciate the relationship between God and caffeine.
The grandson also revealed that Chet kept a paper cup in his milk truck into which he would drop spare change from time to time. Then, when he heard about a young couple who had just had a baby and were scraping to make a living, or the husband who had been unable to work because of an injury, Chet would see to it that they got milk for the baby, and sour cream for their baked potatoes, and cottage cheese for a little protein. He would reach into his cup full of coins and pay for their deliveries from his own meager resources, making sure that his accounts balanced at the end of each day. I imagine that he left a few prayers on those porches as well, tucked in among the bottles and cardboard cartons.
I received an entirely new vision of good old Chet that day. Here was a man who was a faithful follower of Jesus every day, not just on Sundays. His spirituality was not only expressed in slapping on a suit and tie and showing up at church (at least three times a week, in that tradition), but also in the breaking of each new day, navigating the dawn-kissed streets of our town, visiting so many front porches, always attentive to the lives present in those little houses. Chet was like a town deacon, bringing the aroma of Christ to the world of life and work, the fragrance of Jesus hovering over the baskets delivered at the hand of this faithful Christian.
When I read the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews chapter eleven, my mind wants to make a slight change to the text:
“And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David, and Samuel, the prophets—and, of course, Chet Dexter.”
May this day of work be redeemed as it becomes, for all of us, the place where our life in Christ is both nurtured and expressed in a world that is broken, and yet deeply loved by God.
A recent post by Tony Jones (quoting Jamie Wright, who I was delighted to discover through Tony’s blog) has caused me to take a break from my Ordinary Time reflections in order to talk about sex, which in a way is a very ordinary topic (as my dad says, we’re all products of unskilled labor).
Tony wonders if maybe we Christians make too big a deal out of premarital sex. It happens a lot, he says, whether or not we think it should, and we shouldn’t relegate people who have had other sexual partners prior to marriage to the heap of damaged goods. Indeed, I would agree, we do need to think more deeply than we have in the past about redemption and new life and all that comes with following Jesus as new creatures. People shouldn’t have to wear Premarital Sex stickers on their foreheads for the rest of their lives.
Jamie, as she thinks about her sons, advocates for helping young people wait to have sex before marriage. As much as I agree with her, I get the difficulty in this conviction. Cultural pressures aside, we are asking kids to wait a decade or more beyond hitting puberty before they act on one of the most powerful hormonal forces that living creatures can experience.
I’ve also talked to folks who just think the whole conversation is silly. After all, it’s just sex. Big deal. Get over it. It doesn’t matter and people end up doing just fine, assuming they don’t get pregnant or get STDs or whatever. Outside of those common and inconvenient problems (which we now take care of, for the most part, with quick visits to a clinic), it’s just body parts having a good time. Right?
Well, if we say it doesn’t matter, that sex is only a physical release and doesn’t impact us in any other way, that sexuality is incidental to our humanity, then we’d better be right. Especially if we’re in a position to help people figure out how to live well, and if we are considered to be leaders of the Christian type. We’d really better be right.
If not, then we might be committing spiritual malpractice.
There are certain things that are incidental to our humanity, like eye color, physical characteristics, ethnicity, and even race. It’s not that those things are unimportant; it’s that they are not at the heart of who we are as human beings (some would argue against race or ethnicity being incidental, but I would say that both the biblical creation account and evolutionary biology would argue for the emergence of the human race from somewhere in north Africa, making our current racial diversity nothing more than multiple expressions coming from the same family tree).
Gender and sexuality, however, are not incidental to our humanity. They are essential to it. Our maleness and femaleness are not mere social constructs (although our roles often are). To be human as either male or female includes our differing body parts and hormonal chemistries. We can’t extricate our genders from our humanity and still be human. You can lose an appendage or start identifying with a different ethnic group and still retain your humanity, but gender remains essential to being human. And, by association, so does our sexuality.
In the movie Vanilla Sky, a desperate woman (played by Cameron Diaz) tells her cavalier sexual partner (played by Tom Cruise) that, while their ongoing and non-committal sexual relationship means very little to him, it means everything to her. She says,
“When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise.”
I think that’s a profound theological statement. We need to think in new ways about the whole human person, the integration of body, soul, and mind. What we do with our bodies matters, and promises run deeper than mere words. And if a person makes a lot of bodily promises along the way, those promises will be carried into marriage someday (assuming the person actually gets married). That could be a lot of passengers in the marriage bed.
I have a friend who used to tell her young adolescent daughters that faithfulness to their future husbands begins right now. I think she was right about that. Faithfulness doesn’t just magically emerge on someone’s wedding day.
So, there you have it. I’m for people waiting to have sex until they join their lives with a partner in the expectation of lifelong faithfulness (we used to call that “marriage.” Can we still do that?).
On the other hand, we do need to help people who have danced with other partners, so to speak, to find healing and restoration in their lives, and not label another non-preferred violation as the “unforgiveable sin.”
And we’d better stop saying that things like sex don’t matter. Because our bodies do indeed make promises.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)
Every family has a bit of scandal in its history—a cousin abandoned her family and ran off with the milk man, an uncle took up counterfeiting and did time in Joliet, a great-great-grandfather stole horses for a living and got hanged in Tucson, and so on. Some folks in the lineage just seemed bound and determined to besmirch the family name, not caring what it would do to future generations.
But they’re probably not the first characters that come to mind when your kids want you to tell them a story. You wouldn’t start out with, “Well, did I ever tell you about your great-great-great-aunt Alice, who ran a whorehouse in Pittsburgh?” No, probably not.
However, that’s exactly what the psalmist does here. He warns everyone that he’s about to speak dark sayings, and that the intention is that these stories (or songs, in this case) will be passed on from generation to generation. It’s a scandalous family history of a people who had experienced the faithfulness and goodness of God, only to turn away from him over and over, suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness, running back in sorrow, then doing it all over again. It’s a mess, really. And the psalmist wants the kids and the grandkids to hear it straight.
If I had been around when this Psalm was written, I probably would have suggested editing out the long list of national failures (maybe replacing them with the simple phrase, “Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but . . .”) and focusing on the deeds of derring-do, the grand successes, the amazing discoveries, and the profiles of piety. Now, that’s how you write a résumé.
The stories, however, were passed on, and they remain in our Scriptures. They aren’t just stories of an unfortunate past; they are stories that include us and speak to all of our possibilities. I can find myself in the ancient accounts of a people forgetting about God. I am confronted with my own amnesia when it comes to God’s goodness and provision in my life. I have way too many times where I have taken matters into my own hands and ordered God to the margins so that I could show him how things are done. I have dark sayings of my own.
It’s a good thing to recall where we’ve been and where we have the potential to go. When our confidence rests in ourselves, humility is usually abandoned, and we edit our memories. When our confidence rests in God, humility comes to life and we recognize who we really are and appreciate our potential for disaster. We have a shared family history that reminds us of that possibility.
I am comforted as I read the dark sayings of Psalm 78, because the story is not without redemption. There is faithfulness to be found, but it doesn’t come from our ancestors of the faith. It comes from God:
Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again. (38-39)
It might be difficult for us to remember who we are, but God remembers. I’m glad for that, but it should still cause us to tremble just a bit.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)
Simon the Pharisee doesn’t appear to have just a friendly interest in Jesus. He’s a bit suspicious about him, and his concerns crystalize when the scandalous woman shows up invited.
Wealthier citizens in that time would keep their homes open—at least the outside patios—so that people could drop in and pay their respects, get counsel, or beg for alms. Simon probably didn’t expect that a prostitute would show up. A whore would be the worst of the unclean sinners (right along with lepers), and someone as respectable and religiously correct as Simon wouldn’t want any of her sin to get on him (ritually or literally).
But Simon feels that it’s acceptable for him to be in the company of Jesus. Jesus might be a spurious prophet, but he’s a religious type, and Simon has a responsibility to make sure that newcomers to the work of religion get vetted.
It appears that the woman also feels that it’s acceptable for her to be with Jesus, but for different reasons. Somewhere along the way she has come to understand something deep about him, something that has changed her life. She has no need to approve or vet him. She has come to love him, as she has been loved.
Simon, of course, is scandalized that Jesus allows the woman to even come near him. Jesus might have scandalized Simon even further by not only affirming her devotion over that of the Pharisee’s, but also by declaring their common need for forgiveness. The idea that he would share such common ground with a prostitute must have troubled Simon. I wonder what he thought of Jesus’ prophetic powers when he heard that.
Jesus would eventually go on his way, his stomach satisfied, but the details of the meal forgotten. But he would not be able to forget the woman any time soon. The ointment that she poured on his feet—a perfume that was very likely a tool of her trade, a scent that she had been using to allure men to her bed—would stay with Jesus for quite some time. The aroma of forgiveness would emanate from him, maybe even to the moment of his death.
Simon didn’t want the woman’s sin anywhere near him. Jesus carried the woman’s touch to the cross.
As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it . . . (Luke 19:41)
One of the things that evangelical Protestants lack is geographical specificity. Other religious groups have centers: Roman Catholics have Rome; Orthodox Catholics have Constantinople; Muslims have Mecca; Jews have Jerusalem. Evangelical Protestants are, by and large, decentered. We have no holy city, no particular place of pilgrimage. Some might say, in a theological sense, that we are, as a scattered people, God’s own dwelling, and we need no earthly city to give us an identity.
So, it’s possible that Jesus occasionally stops and weeps over Rome, Constantinople, Mecca, and Jerusalem. It could be that those cities are occasionally washed in his tears.
And maybe he pauses now and again to weep over us.
In Luke’s story, right after Jesus’ time of weeping, he went into the Temple and chased out the moneychangers and sellers of animals intended for sacrifice. Yes, these people had turned the Temple courts into a religious strip mall, but they had also wiped out the purpose of those courts: To allow non-Jews to come close to the Temple and engage in worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In effect, the people of God were eliminating their witness to the world. They had closed their doors to those who should have drawn close to the light that Israel was created to be. They had divorced themselves from their very destiny.
I worry about this. Protestants emerged a few hundred years ago as ones seeking to reform a broken church. Evangelicals emerged later to give their lives to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now we’re seen by others as more about what we’re against than what we’re for. And I think that Jesus might be weeping.
Our so-called studies in apologetics (the tradition of defending the faith) is more combative than clarifying. Our relationships with people of other religious traditions involves much more accusation than it does mutual understanding. Our response to the surrounding culture, when it seems to offend us, is too often to hunker down and heighten our walls rather than to engage and try to see what God is doing.
I think I would rather have Jesus weeping over a holy city far, far away rather than weeping on me. But I suspect that we are drenched in his tears and don’t even know it. As painful as it might be, maybe Jesus will come along and clear out the rubbish and the drama from our Temple courts and remind us who we were meant to be as the people of God—a people who exist, not for themselves, but for the sake of the world.
If Jesus does that, will we repent and respond? Or will we haul him up on charges of heresy and nail him to a cross again? I don’t want to think too long on the answer to that question.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” (Luke 19:29-31)
There is some important symbolism going on with the colt in this story. It is a fairly young animal and has yet to be ridden or required to be a beast of burden. Just as the implements of worship in the temple were not given over to common use, so would the colt serve as a pure vessel that would carry Jesus into Jerusalem, where he would first be hailed as the Messiah, and then soon after sentenced to death and crucified.
The symbolism will continue later on when Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb that had never been occupied. Jesus was the first to be laid there.
It might be good for us to think about how Jesus occupies these new, unused places. We go to these kinds of places all the time. We enter into new phases of life, new jobs, new relationships, new challenges, and any number of other new things. We usually believe that we are receiving God’s guidance as we go. But do we think about God actually being present in those new places—even going before us there?
And what if the new place is not a good place? What if it is a self-destructive place?
Years ago a woman in my church told me her story. As a young girl, she had already suffered a number of painful, abusive experiences at the hands of people who should have been protecting her—including people in her church. At age thirteen she made a conscious decision to start drinking and to engage in a lifestyle that could easily lead to her destruction.
On the day that she made her decision, she informed God of her plan. She told me that she heard him say to her, “All right. I’ll go with you.”
She said that, in all the years of drinking heavily and partying hard, she never lost a sense of God’s presence. She didn’t claim to have his approval, but she felt that he had gone with her to this new, destructive place in her life, and had not abandoned her.
As a young adult, she entered into a recovery program and got sober. Her life found some level of harmony and she never lost the sense of God’s presence in her life. She still had a lot of emotional and psychological baggage, and she was aware of that. But she never ceased to marvel that God had not forsaken her, even in her darkest time.
I’ve thought a lot about her story over the years. I know people who have spiraled down into very damaging lifestyles and who were certain that God had turned his back on them. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I doubt that the sins we choose—whether out of deep pain, rebellion, or just plain stupidity—somehow catch God off guard. He’s pretty much seen it all.
The father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) didn’t physically travel with his younger son on his journey to disaster, but in a way his love remained present to the son. And when the son came home, the father was fully prepared to receive him. His love was a continuum that preceded the son’s departure, followed him to the far off land, and gathered him home when he returned. In a very profound way, the heart of the father went with the son into a very dark place. The father’s love accompanied the son as he travelled to Hell.
I don’t recommend the choosing of new places in life that are destructive. Choosing Hell is very unwise. But when we go to those places, we might not be going alone.
Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight.
Let the arrogant be put to shame, because they have subverted me with guile; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts. (Psalm 119:76-78)
It’s puzzling to imagine why someone would luxuriate in law. In our society, laws are important, and they serve as both protections and boundaries. They bring order and provide a basis for governance.
But laws, in general, do not bring us joy. They are just laws and are often subject to change. We’re glad they’re around, but we don’t really need to think about them all the time.
The psalmist, however, speaks of the Jewish Law lovingly and with devotion. The Law is portrayed as something that brings delight, something that draws the worshipper into meditation.
How can this be? Most of us have some idea of the ancient Jewish Law. It was formed around what we call the Ten Commandments, but there were also many other laws in the Old Testament pertaining to justice, dietary restrictions, and social interactions. We might see devotion to the Law as legalism, something we Christians believe has no hold on us. We see legalism as a bad deal.
But for the ancient Hebrew people, it was probably different. Their ancestors had come out of Egypt where they had been a slave population for generations. Their identity was wrapped up in oppression and servitude, confused and complicated by the religious mythologies of the Egyptians. The Law was, for them, not simply boundaries and restrictions—it was something that formed a new identity for them, an identity as a special people, loved by God, rescued by God, and gathered into a nation so that they would be the light of the world.
Jesus didn’t speak disparagingly about the Law. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) He summed up the entire Jewish Law and the declarations of the ancient prophets of Israel in one word: Love. Love for God, love for others. (Matthew 22:34-40) For followers of Jesus, true identity is found in that love.
People usually get in trouble when they base their identities in some other place or thing. If my identity is my work or my career, then I have to do everything I can to protect it. And when it goes away, I don’t know who I am anymore. If my identity is found in my loneliness, then medicating that pain is my highest priority. If my identity is in a past hurt, then I will forever try to nurture my pain, because without it, I am nothing.
But if my identity is in Jesus, as a broken person loved and redeemed by God, then those other sub-identities have no final hold on my life. Protectionism loses its power. Loneliness can no longer demand acts of adultery or promiscuity. Past offenses remain real, but they can no longer drag us back into a history that is no more, but must release us into a future that comes from the preferences of God.
Everyone has some kind of identity. Ours is in Jesus.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your love is my delight.
I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:1-4)
In Genesis chapter one, God creates human beings, “. . . in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And ever since, it seems, we humans have been re-creating God.
It’s been done with statues and idols, stars and planets, pantheons and mythologies. We even do it with Jesus, seeing him as the kinder and gentler version of that crazy, violent, Old Testament God that Jesus called “Father.” Jesus can be reduced down to the low-hurdle version of God, the one who took the heat from the wrathful heavenly Father because of our sins, and now stays God’s hand lest he smite us for our rottenness, destroy of because of our total depravity.
Of course, we need to say that this isn’t right. We’re told in Scripture that, in Jesus, the fullness of God dwells, that he is the Word of God made flesh, that he is the very image of the invisible God. If we really want to know what God is like, then just look at Jesus.
Unless we reinvent Jesus as well.
We do this all the time, you know. Someone has a private revelation and swears that Jesus has given new and secret instructions, and everyone gathers on a hilltop waiting to be whisked away to glory. Others decide that there isn’t enough good work going on in the nation and the world, and they characterize Jesus as the embodiment of their political preferences, wrapping him in a national flag. We decide that he’ll heal everyone of their diseases if they’ll just believe rightly, and we turn him into a capricious wizard. We dismiss the idea that he’ll heal anyone and we make him the vice president of quality control for the American Medical Association.
It’s difficult to reinvent a person you actually know. We can know all about Jesus and project any number of new personalities onto him. But knowing him—really knowing him, as a real person—doesn’t allow for such projections. When Jesus is limited to our interpretations of him through our texts of Scripture, he can become valued and yet abstract to us; he can be one to be imitated, but not necessarily one to know and to follow.
I marvel at how often our appropriate response to the summons of Jesus is simply the acceptance of an invitation.
“Come unto me . . .”
“Come, follow me.”
I wonder, if in our constant struggle to know Jesus by crafting him into images of ourselves, we miss his invitation to come to him, to find rest, to learn new rhythms of living, and to dine with him at his table. We might be surprised at the others who are already gathered there, taking and eating, drinking and following, ones we would have never expected to be invited in the first place. Then we realize that it’s a wonder that even we received an invitation.
And in the midst of our surprise, we might really know Jesus.
As [Jesus] approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God. (Luke 18:35-43)
In some Christian circles, salvation is an act of precision. The requirements are often made clear—the prayer must be specific, the confession sufficiently sincere, the understanding adequately orthodox, the membership in the community of faith prompt and participative.
In the Bible, however, salvation is often quite a sloppy event. Jesus, in particular, who you think might know better, often brought healing to people and forgave their sins, getting in trouble with all the local religious stakeholders. Jesus didn’t seem overly concerned about religious specificity when it came to salvation.
The blind man had limited sensory resources. He must have heard about Jesus at some point, because he referred to him in a way that suggested prior knowledge. He couldn’t find his way to Jesus as he passed by, so he used his voice and called out. The only thing close to a confession of faith that the man could offer was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ kinship with the great Israelite king, David. The man’s only request was that he would regain his sight.
Luke doesn’t describe a scene that is heavy with process. There aren’t any interviews conducted, no theological exams, no huddles with Jesus and his disciples to see if the man is worthy of a healing touch. Jesus just does it. The man’s sight is restored faster than you can Tweet what you had for breakfast today.
There is, however, a qualifier. Jesus says that the man’s faith saved him, but he makes that declaration after he commands the healing to take place. The man had faith in Jesus, trusted him to be able to restore his life to him. Without sight, the man had become a helpless beggar. With his sight restored, he could re-enter the society that had marginalized him. He trusted that Jesus could do that for him. And it seems to have been enough.
It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Your faith has resulted in your eyes getting fixed.” Instead, he says that the man has been saved, he has been rescued. For the formerly blind man, salvation was not merely theological or positional or eschatological. It was existential. It had immediate effect in his life and would launch him into a whole world of restoration.
The man became a saved person because of his faith in Jesus, yet it was a faith that was not grounded in doctrines or creeds. For that matter, it wasn’t grounded in belief in Jesus’ death, resurrection, or any of the things that would happen later. It was grounded only in the person of Jesus, and in his authority to make all things right.
Our doctrines and creeds are important to us because, on this side of history, they tell us about our own story, a story that emerges from Scripture and the long-standing (and sometimes wrong-headed) traditions of the Christian Church. But untethered from the real person of Jesus—not just the memory of Jesus, but the true, living presence of Jesus—they’re just another set of religious boundaries, embraced not by faith, but by personal preference.
The formerly blind man and the people in the crowd had the right response to this act of healing. They glorified God and praised him. They seemed to understand right away that this was God at work through this wandering prophet named Jesus. If salvation came along, then God’s fingerprints had to be there.