There are some interesting, unexpected twists in the Bible. For example:
Jesus defies theological tradition and heals people on the Sabbath, claiming that the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.
Peter and the council in Jerusalem accept the idea that uncircumcised Gentiles are as favored by God as the Jews, after Peter shares his story of witnessing the Holy Spirit fall on his new, non-Jewish, God-fearing friends. (Acts 10-11)
Paul pushes against multiple religious sensibilities when he tells both Jewish and Gentile Christians to let their convictions guide them regarding eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols.
These are examples of how theology is impacted when preceded by ministry.
Jesus preferred people over theological tradition and scandalized his opponents. Peter engaged with the Gentiles in Antioch long before Paul developed a theological framework for what had happened there. Paul’s concern for how Jews and Gentiles were going to live as one people as followers of Jesus formed his thinking about religious dietary regulations.
I’ve been talking to some people (again) about the various controversies regarding same-sex marriage and the place (or even the possibility) of gay people in the life of the church. The polarizations that have resulted from the larger discussions out there have done little except to fragment churches, denominations, and people.
We in the west tend to sort things out by starting with the abstract (theories and theologies) and then moving toward some sort of ministry practice or standard of behavior. But what might happen if we began by engaging with real, live people instead? That isn’t to say that having theological convictions isn’t important; it’s that theological convictions should arise out of our engagement with Scripture and with what we believe that God is doing in the world.
Denominations have crafted two polarized responses to same-sex marriage, with any number of variations in between them. One pole is grounded in particular texts of Scripture and denies gay people membership in the church. The other operates out of a conviction of God’s love for all people and fully embraces gay people and affirms gay marriage. They both begin with a theological standard and follow with a standard of behavior.
I am curious about what would happen if some of the leaders in these various groups sat down with some gay people who claimed to be followers of Jesus, and asked them to talk about how they saw the spirit of Jesus at work in their lives? If there were couples at the table, they could be asked how they were experiencing and demonstrating the presence of Jesus in their relationships. Then others in the room could offer their own testimonies. I wonder if the people would be challenged in the way that Peter was challenged when he saw the Holy Spirit at work among the Gentiles? Or would the room just be silent?
I’ve had such an experience. I have spent quite a bit of time with some devout Christian friends who were also gay. I have heard their testimonies and stories, of encounter and faithfulness, of deep struggle and pain, of joy found in salvation and in the presence of Jesus. We have prayed together and prayed for others together.
At the same time, I was raised with some very traditional and negative views about homosexuality. A long time ago I had to start living between the tension of my received convictions and what I was seeing in the lives of my friends. This has not been abstract for me—the process began in earnest when I became a pastor and there were gay people who came to my church. These were not people with some kind of political agenda. They were, like me, people who wanted to orient their lives around Jesus.
I’m hoping that some folks will rise up—people like the apostle Paul—who will help us with a responsible, theological way forward. We need someone who is willing to revisit our Scriptures without simply editing out the parts that offend. We need someone who is willing to take on the risky task of exploring what God might be doing in some unexpected places (there’s a lot of that in the New Testament, as I recall) without simply declaring that all is okay, everyone is okay, and let’s all just get along (I’m pretty sure that none of us is okay. That’s why we trust in a lot of things about God’s grace, mercy, forgiveness, and the need for reconciliation).
There are precedents for this kind of thing throughout church history. It’s never been easy and it won’t be easy now. That is, if anyone is willing to do it.
In the gospel of John, chapter 7, the issue of belief in Jesus appears three times. The first is in reference to Jesus’ brothers, who think he needs to do some serious self-promotion:
So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) (7:3-5)
The second refers to the crowds who concluded that Jesus must be the Messiah, regardless of the religious leaders’ antagonism toward him:
Yet many in the crowd believed in him and were saying, “When the Messiah comes, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (7:31)
The last comment about belief comes directly from Jesus, who stands up and makes an impassioned plea to the crowds on the final day of the festival:
“Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” (7:37b-38)
When we speak of belief in Jesus today, we are usually talking about belief in the historicity of Jesus, his virgin birth, the atonement, the resurrection, and so on. We can wrap our beliefs in various creeds and theologies, and pledge allegiance to them and say that we are Christians.
But what was it that the people in John 7 were expected to believe in? It doesn’t appear that the virgin birth was a point of discussion, and there was not yet a death, resurrection, or ascension to believe in. There were no New Testament texts of Scripture to claim as authoritative and the creeds were yet to be written. They weren’t asked to believe in Jesus as though he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, because he was right there in the flesh. So, what did belief look like for those people?
Somewhere in his writings I seem to remember N. T. Wright talking about what it might have meant in the first century CE to believe in someone. He cites a document written by Josephus who asks that people believe in him—that is, to believe that what he was saying was true and must be heeded.
That makes sense for the people of John 7, since Jesus was standing right there among them, speaking and acting. But I wonder if his call for people to believe in him goes even a bit further than just embracing the veracity of his words.
In the New Testament, the Greek word that is typically translated as belief is pistis, a word that is a sort of noun-verb mixture and able to convey a whole assortment of ideas, including faith, loyalty, fidelity, and—very importantly, I think—trust. With our western brains we seem to be most comfortable with the translation belief because we like to keep ideas and concepts confined to our brains where they belong. But those early witnesses to Jesus would not suffer such limitations. For them to believe in Jesus was not to have a grasp of an orthodox Christian belief system. It was to trust in a real person, to trust that his words were true, that his miraculous works came from the hand of God and were signs of God’s kingdom that was on its way.
This is, I think, an important distinction. Belief has the ability to remain abstract and propositional. Trust, however, is relational. Trust comes from a shared experience of reliability and faithfulness. For those ancient people to believe in Jesus was to trust in him as a person, someone real they could touch and experience just as real people do. They would have to trust in him before there would be the benefit (or, in some cases, the distraction) of theological interpretation and creedal affirmations.
There are some folks wandering around who still think that believing in Jesus is to trust him as one who is still present and at work in the world. Sure, we get fuzzy at times about how in the world this whole idea of the Trinity works out—whether it is the Father, the Spirit, or the Son at work—but these people care less about that kind of theological clarity and more about the real presence of the real Jesus.
I think we all have something to learn from those folks. I’ve been with people who will fight to the death over a point of theology, and even break relationship over such disagreements (it’s a core Protestant value, it seems. Luther and Zwingli parted company over the nature of the Eucharist even though they agreed on most everything else). But what would we do if we were standing near Jesus when he healed the sick, or raised the dead, or cast out a mob of demons? If he then turned to us and claimed that the kingdom of God was at hand, would we trust that he was being truthful with us?
We seem to live in a culture (a world, maybe?) that swirls in polarization and separation. Our politicians can’t seem to talk to one other in order to actually do their jobs. Special interest groups, each one insisting that the rights they demand are the true, inalienable ones, scream at one other with their hands over their ears. Speak one word of criticism, concern, or even as a question, and the label of bigot, hater, or heretic will be slapped on your shirt faster than you can say Hester Prynne.
This can all be seen in Christian circles as well. A lot of lines get drawn in the sand, separating people claiming to be followers of Jesus from one another. It appears that you can have “Jesus and . . .” as long as whatever follows the and is acceptable to others.
“I am a Christian and a Democrat.” (No, say the Republicans. Jesus would never vote with you)
“I am a Christian and a Republican.” (Horrors, claim the Democrats. You all hate the poor. Jesus loves the poor)
“I am a Christian and a biblical literalist.” (You are a Bible worshipper, sneer the liberals)
“I am a Christian and believe that Genesis 1-3 is metaphorical.” (You hate God’s word, scream the fundamentalists)
“I am a Christian and believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” (You are mean spirited, yell the progressives)
“I am a Christian and I am gay.” (You may as well say that God and the devil are one, cry the conservatives)
And so on. It seems to be the and that gets us into trouble. I used to hear it said that you can’t have Jesus and something else. You can’t have Jesus and continue to lay unchallenged claim to wealth, prestige, and other props of success. You have to be content with Jesus.
I wonder if we need to revisit our newer, more ideological ands. Perhaps we can set down for a moment the things that separate us, move back beyond the and stop with “I am a Christian.” Is it possible to stand with others as fellow sojourners trying to make our way on the path that is Jesus?
Frederick Buechner said, “A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”
The term “Christian” was first applied to followers of Jesus in the city of Antioch (Acts 11:26). The word means “little Christ.” Christians were (probably in a mocking way) seen to be miniature Jesuses. Not a bad word, when you think about it.
Not bad unless you start tacking the ands onto it.
I think saying “I am a Christian” means to be on the way with this one called Jesus—but not strictly in imitation, as though trying to copy Socrates or Lincoln or Churchill. I’m referring to the living Jesus, the one raised from the dead and ascended to the Father. But to be on the way with Jesus also seems to mean that we give up the rights to our ands.
Is that even possible for us? Can we give up our demands on our politics, our sexuality, and even our religious ideals? Or can we only follow Jesus if we are shored up by our ands? Do we lose our identity if nothing else keeps Jesus afloat as he walks across the water?
I once had a lengthy conversation with a young Jewish lawyer who was devout in his faith. He told me that he didn’t see people categorically, valuing them based on their adherence to a particular system of belief. He said that he tried to always ask the question, “Is this a righteous person?”
It appears that Pope Francis sees things in a similar way. He is quoted in a recent article in the Huffington Post (thanks to my friend Matt Vlahovich for alerting me to this):
"The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can... "The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!". . . We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
Now, I recognize that the Protestant Reformation has taught us to beware of two assertions: That God’s reconciling work in and through Jesus Christ is for all people, and that good works count for something. The Pope is clearly going to stir us up on this one.
And I’m glad he’s doing it. We need a little shaking up on our transactional concepts of salvation that allow us to feel we can clearly determine who is in and who is out with God. We need to pay better attention to the connection between belief and behavior—not only in how we conduct our lives, but also in how we intentionally do things that can be called good.
So, before the inevitable concerns about universalism and “works righteousness” (I despise that term) hit the blogosphere, let’s stop and think about this:
The Pope claims that believers share something in common with non-believers. We share together our co-humanity, a humanity that the Bible says bears the image of God. When a non-believer—an atheist, even—engages in deeds that could be called good, is that person not expressing a goodness that has God as its source? What other source is there for deeds that are truly good? And is it possible that believers and non-believers alike might come together, not with a dismissal of the importance of Christian faith, but in solidarity with the desire to engage in righteousness? Is there common ground for us to share? I believe there is.
People engaged with sincerity and integrity in interfaith dialogue have learned something about finding common ground with their conversation partners. Christians who desire to listen well with the goal of mutual understanding have learned that there is common ground where the dialogues can begin, rather than separation where only combative debates can happen. For example, conversations among Evangelicals, Mormons, Jews, and Muslims can find common ground in their shared monotheism. They also share a common sense of value about Jesus. It’s not that the lenses through which they view God or the person of Jesus Christ are the same, but that they are starting points of commonality.
Taking the Pope’s view of good works might help us engage with those who embrace atheism. I’ve read two different articles by committed atheists who lament the lack of charity among their fellow non-believers, and admire the good works done by religious people. What if we invited our non-believing friends into our efforts to feed the poor, minister to the sick, assist the needy, and so on? Would we find common ground with them? In the doing, would they begin to recognize the image of God that has always been imprinted upon them?
I long ago wearied of the combative form of so-called “apologetics” that seems to pit Christianity (at least, a certain brand of it) against all comers. I appreciate the long-standing tradition of defending the faith, but using the Bible as a theological rocket launcher has no appeal to me.
I wonder if we could discover an apologetic of charity? Could the defense of our faith be one of demonstration rather than disputation? I think that both the Pope and the apostle James might go for that idea. As James says,
“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” (James 2:17-19)
In a short period of time, following the devastating tornado in Oklahoma, online comments about God’s involvement and intentions in that storm appeared in a variety of places (see Rachel Held Evans’s impassioned comments). Michael Brown cautioned against assigning divine wrath to natural disasters, but also insisted that God’s wrath (not specifically defined or described) was on its way to the USA.
I’m with Rachel on this: Declaring God’s intentions in natural events is both presumptive and theologically misguided. While I appreciate Michael Brown’s concerns, I’m not sure that his insistence on the coming of God’s wrath is significantly different than the claims we hear coming from people like John Piper. How is it that people know what God has in mind in these things?
(This must be difficult for Christian groups that enter into these places of devastation to bring help and comfort. So, God brings hurricanes and tornados, and his faithful people come in to clean up his mess. Really?)
I’m not suggesting that the wrath of God doesn’t exist. But is it expressed in Zeus-like bolts of lightning that wipe out young and old, righteous and unrighteous alike? Or does it come in a way that could be even more terrifying?
The first and most likely candidates for a big dose of God’s wrath would be Adam and Eve. For them, wrath came in them getting what they desired—which was something that was not God. Indeed, they suffered the consequences of their actions, but God did not wipe them out. He met them in a new way, met them in their new, broken reality. And, according to the narrative of Scripture, he has never departed.
In describing the ancient Hebrew people’s sojourn in the wilderness and how they often forgot about the God who had rescued them from Egypt, the psalmist writes,
“He gave them what they asked, but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:15, Book of Common Prayer)
Imagine getting everything you ever wanted, if everything you ever wanted was a life without God. Imagine a life where God’s care, love, and presence were completely removed. Imagine a life where the source of all goodness has been asked to leave the building. That would make a soul pretty lean, even anorexic.
Maybe the best story to illustrate God’s wrath isn’t like the ones about Moses and the poisonous snakes (Numbers 21) or Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19). Maybe it’s found in Luke 15. It starts out this way:
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.”
The younger son wants a life without his father. He wants all the good things that come from his father’s hand, but he wants to enjoy it on his own terms.
And the father gives him what he desires. And, out on his own, the son’s suffering is overwhelming.
The son drags his sorry self back home, hoping to get hired by his father (who, the boy assumes, will not receive him back as a son) to muck the stalls or forever clean out the septic tank. But that isn’t what happens. The father’s reception of the wandering son is almost scandalous in its generosity:
“. . . while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
Israel’s biblical history is summarized in this story. The leaders and the people repeatedly forgot about God and chased after what they really wanted. God let them do that, and they ended up being conquered by foreign invaders and exiled in other lands.
But God never forgot them.
We need to dump our presumptions about God’s role in natural disasters (and maybe quit giving any public attention whatsoever to those who think it’s their calling to do that) and think deeply about God’s heart for the world. But we also need to consider the implications of living as though God is unnecessary to us. And that goes for all of us, especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.
If you want to live a life based strictly on your own desires, forgetting about God, then you’d do just as well to stick your hand into a bag of scorpions.
And I just totally creeped myself out with that mental image.
I was once asked to offer an opening prayer at an event that was attended by several hundred people, and I was aware before I prayed that the group did not hold a common faith. Some were Christians, but a few others were Jewish, and still others considered themselves irreligious. I thought a long time about the prayer, and opened the prayer addressing “God,” and closed the prayer with “Amen.”
A few of my Christian friends were concerned that I didn’t close my prayer with “in the name of Jesus.” While it is true that I was hoping to allow more than just the Christians in the room to enter into the prayer, I argued that all of the prayers that Christians pray, regardless of the closing words, are prayed in the name of the Jesus. Also, to make those words a requirement for each prayer is to cast a bit of shadow on the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray.
Why do we pray, “In the name of Jesus”? Does God need to hear that, or do we? It isn’t a formulaic command in Scripture, as far as I can tell. What do we think is happening when we pray that way?
I’ve been thinking about this topic again, and reread a paper titled “Prayer in the Name of Jesus” that I wrote for a Systematic Theology course in 1997, when I was a seminary student. I think I still agree with myself, at least on some things. I share excerpts from it now:
“Our perception of God’s greatness and mystery can result in a sense of distance that makes him seem difficult to approach. If Jesus is seen as one who is distinct from God because he seems familiar in his humanness, then he becomes more accessible than God. If prayer is directed to Jesus on that basis, then he has become less than God, slightly more than a man, and an inappropriate target for prayer. In that role Jesus becomes middle-man rather than mediator; if he stands in the middle, separate from humanity and God, then prayer to him is misdirected.
“When prayer is offered to God in the name of Jesus, it is done in the recognition that God has made himself known by revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ. We pray to our Father in Heaven, acknowledging what he has done for us through his son, Jesus. The phrase ‘in the name of Jesus’ is not the equivalent of first-class postage, used as a tag at the end of a prayer to insure it gets priority attention. It reflects the understanding that we, as ones who have been redeemed by Christ, are praying to the loving, compassionate, gracious Father.
“When prayer is rightly directed to Jesus (rather than to God in Jesus’ name) it is done by virtue of God’s revelation to us by his Spirit, that he is the very one we see in Christ. To pray to Jesus is not to lower the hurdle of prayer, but to adore God the Father in his appearance to us in his Son. Such a prayer is directed to God the son, who has come to us as one us to reveal the Father.
“Jesus is God who has become flesh, rather than flesh who has become God. He is, therefore, the legitimate object of our worship and prayer. When we pray in the name of Jesus we are praying to God who has revealed himself to us . . . Prayer to Jesus as the living God is the equivalent of prayer to God the Father in the name of Jesus the Son.”
Speaking of Calvinism, I’ve never been completely comfortable with the theological acronym, TULIP. For those of you new to this topic, here’s what it means:
T – Total Depravity of human beings
U – Unconditional election
L – Limited Atonement
I – Irresistible grace
P – Perseverance of the saints
Since my Arminian-Wesleyan bones often override my Calvinist cartilage, TULIP never quite works for me. I’m fine if it works for you, but I’m just saying . . .
I think it’s the U and the L that bother me. I don’t line up with the idea that God, from the beginning of time, pre-selected (elected) that some would be his eternal children and everyone else would burn for eternity in hell (problematic doctrine of hell—a topic for another day). The missiologist Lesslie Newbigin has helped me with this. In his book The Open Secret, he describes the biblical view of election as the people of God being selected, not to the exclusion of the world, but for the sake of the world:
“ . . . a few are chosen to be the bearers of the purpose; they are chosen, not for themselves, but the sake of all.” (34)
It’s more of the idea that followers of Jesus are called to be the light of the world, to participate in God’s ongoing mission of reconciliation. I find more biblical support for Newbigin’s view than I do for the thinking that has created the U.
Second, I don’t much like the L. This Jesus who died entered death willingly in obedience to God the Father—the same God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16), and who “in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). I see the Atonement as something that has no God-imposed limits. It’s for everyone, including those who want nothing to do with God.
So, in good, reckless, free will-style, I’ve come up with my own acronym: UUP.
U – Universal love of the Father (in other words, God’s love is for the whole creation)
U – Unlimited Atonement (God’s work in and through Jesus is for the whole world)
P – Particular response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit (in other words, not everyone will embrace what God has done on their behalf. People can say “no” to God on both sides of death if they so choose)
Since I’m not a professional theologian (meaning, I don’t actually get paid for messing about theologically), I get to do this sort of thing. You do too, although you probably aren’t foolish enough to put it out on a blog so that you make some people mad at you. But there is a bit of a problem with my theological construction: The acronym doesn’t clearly spell anything.
On the one hand, we could pronounce it like an extended UP (U-U-Up and away!), pointing to the heavens above us.
Or, we could pronounce the double-U as long vowels, making it sound like oop. Some of you might think that’s appropriate.
Last night I attended a gala celebration honoring Dr. Richard Mouw, retiring president of Fuller Theological Seminary. It was great fun, and the love and appreciation that was poured out to the Mouws was delightful. People who know Dr. Mouw enjoyed teasing him publicly about his commitment to Calvinism, but also celebrated him as a generous Calvinist who had a deep love for the whole church and for people of faith in general.
My early church upbringing was in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition. My understanding of that tradition was more about not being other things—not being Catholic, not being Pentecostal, and (heaven and unbridled free will help us all) not being Calvinist—than it was about actually being something in particular. I left that tradition in my early thirties, but found that my bones remained Wesleyan-Arminian.
I took those bones with me when I became a student at Fuller in my early 40s. I took at course from Dr. Mouw and later, after I graduated, participated in a number of seminars that he led over the years when I was a pastor. I’ve worked at Fuller for over seven years now, and Dr. Mouw’s influence on me has continued.
People like Richard Mouw periodically get in trouble now and again with the general Evangelical populace. The trouble comes from their willingness to engage with people that we Evangelicals don’t typically see as appropriate conversation partners. Dr. Mouw has engaged in dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and Mormons, not seeking to syncretize systems of belief, but to look for common ground upon which to begin in discussion and relationship. It is a conversation that can only be had among people who are deeply committed to their own faith. Dr. Mouw comes to the table as a Christian, first and last, and a Calvinist one at that. A lot of listening and new understanding has come from that work.
I was once in a pastors’ seminar with Dr. Mouw, and the topic was the Atonement. Many of the pastors in the room (including me), were reacting against the dominance of the penal substitutionary mode of defining the Atonement, and the way the theory seems to have limited the theological imagination of the Evangelical church. Things were getting pretty rowdy when Dr. Mouw took the microphone and told us, with a bit of consternation in his voice, “I still believe in substitution, but not when it pits the Father against the Son.” Those words stopped us and changed us. I know they changed me. Our perspective grew, and I’m glad for that.
After all these years, I still, for the most part, have Wesleyan-Arminian bones. I understand a bit more about that now, and my skin is comfortable adhering to that rickety theological skeleton. But there’s something new in that anatomical mix, and it’s that I now have some Calvinist cartilage.
I thank Dr. Mouw for that. If he’s an example of what it means to be a Calvinist, then it’s got to be a good thing.
I have had the privilege over the last couple of days of participating in a conference on Christianity and Literature at Azusa Pacific University. I’m a bit out of my league here, among experienced teachers of literature, published poets, and writers whose books are celebrated by the universities where they serve. Most of these folks are professionals.
I, however, am an amateur.
I’m not being self-deprecating here. It’s just a distinction. The word amateur comes from the Latin word amator, meaning lover. Amateurs do certain things for the love of it.
Professionals actually get paid.
Anne Lamott, in her excellent book Bird by Bird, talks about teaching writing courses, and how frequently her students’ first questions are about getting published. She says that she tells them they must start in a different place—they must first love writing.
My wife is a quilter. She’s never made any money at it (just like with my writing. (Hmmm. Maybe we have a trend here), but she feels compelled to start a new project as soon as she finishes one. For the most part, she gives her quilts away. She doesn’t seem to care about the potential profitability of her work. She just loves to do it, and the love compels her to remain engaged with the creative process.
Writing can be like that. You labor over an article, a short story, a book, digging for phrases, juggling words like roaring chainsaws (like I just did), rewriting, rewriting again, wrestling with edits, and then submitting the finished manuscript to a publisher who will take a risk with you.
And then you start again.
You start again because there is another idea, another What if? that needles your brain until you start putting fingers to keys in order to make the transfer from head to readable language. It’s painful and frustrating and agonizing.
But you end up loving it.
Many of us have a tendency to want everything to be instrumental—to be for something. We want what we do to have a purpose beyond itself. That’s okay in some areas of life, but in others there needs to be a love for the thing itself.
There’s a phrase in the Bible that often haunts me: “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us . . .” (1 John 4:10)
We can try to make love instrumental. We want our love for someone else to be for another purpose—in order to get something in return, in order to be appreciated, and so on. Our love for God, however, appears to lack instrumentality. It’s not unimportant, but it is secondary at best to God’s love for us, which precedes any love we can possibly drum up (or, should I have said, any love up which we can possibly drum? Now I’m in agony again). God’s love doesn’t appear to be instrumental. God doesn’t love so that something else will happen. God loves. If God’s love were instrumental then I would behave better than I do.
There are probably other reasons why we do the things we love. Underneath our passions for our avocations are undoubtedly all kinds of insecurities and desires. That’s alright with me—none of us come to the table with clean hands. But that doesn’t mean we can’t grow into the love of the thing itself.
I must confess that I do hope that one of my books will hit the big time. When you write, you really do want to be appreciated and recognized for your work. But, lacking such recognition, I hope the love remains.
Last night I heard a conference speaker talk about the present and future state of the novel. It was really quite interesting. He suggested that, while novel reading has diminished over the years, the need that used to be filled by the reading of fiction is now, in part, satisfied by other activities.
Like playing video games. That’s right—video games.
He pointed out that video games have evolved to be something more than just explosions and shooting. The more recent and sophisticated games develop lengthy (sometimes 1,000 pages or more) “bibles” that track the ongoing story of the game. Players often get together to discuss the various characters, plot points, variations in interpretation, and so on.
This is a fascinating shift. Reading words on a page is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. Prior to the broad availability of text, people’s imaginations were fueled by pictures and stories told over meals and campfires. Now, it seems, many people (research shows that over half the people in the US play video games 13 hours a week or more) desire the fanciful journeys provided by novels, but also want to participate as a character in the story.
The speaker (much to my relief) didn’t pronounce the demise of the novel. Instead, he suggested that the world of creative fiction is expanding and changing. I’m okay with that.
This has caused me to think about how we participate with the expansive narrative we call “The Bible” (heresy alert: I’m not putting Scripture into the category of creative fiction. Relax). Over the years our texts of Scripture have been reduced to propositional statements (limited to verses, as though God intended that in the first place) that stand over and against us, demanding our obedience. But most of the Bible is written as narrative—as a story—rather than as bullet points of command.
I think the video game image is helpful here. What if we engaged with Scripture as participants in the story? What if we allowed ourselves to be drawn in to the narrative, imagining all that is happening, even inserting ourselves into the drama now and again? Martin Luther spoke of the Bible as having hands and feet, pursuing him and grabbing him, alive and dynamic rather than dead and static. Sort of sounds like a video game.
If I had any techno-skill whatsoever (which I don’t), I might invent a video game that tells various stories of the Bible. The player could then enter the story as a character. The player couldn’t alter the outcome, but could engage in conversation, ask questions (think of all the scholars who would line up that job!), and experience the ongoing drama. Maybe you could carry Jesus’ cross, or have a private conversation with Judas. The possibilities are endless.
Lacking that, I’ll probably just stick to reading it from my tattered old print-text Bible. It might also be good to go back to memorizing long sections, and letting the story flow through the mind.
I wonder if Jesus would show up in that? I’ll bet he would.
There are conversations floating around the cyber world about how the more developed theologies of the north and west (mostly Europe and North America) might help inform and shape the church as it emerges in the south and east (Africa, Latin America, Asia). As the historian Mark Noll points out, while the church of the southern hemisphere might have all sorts of denominational affiliations, beneath it all is an underlying Pentecostalism—that is, a belief that the supernatural world is as real as the one we see and touch every day.
The church of Europe and North America has been deeply shaped by the Enlightenment, and belief in things supernatural has fallen on hard times over the last 300 years. It’s not that Christians have no interest in the subject, but it appears to be much less robust than what is seen among Christians in the parts of the world where the church is dramatically growing.
I wonder if the expansion of the church in the southern hemisphere will reshape us in the north and west rather than the other way around? Or will these newly-developing Christian movements become a different kind of Christianity altogether? Will there be, for example, a church in one half of the world that prays for God to heal people’s bodies, and a church in the other half that doesn’t?
It’s interesting to me that the subject of prayer for healing has, for several hundred years, been controversial except among Christians in the southern hemisphere. They seem to take it for granted. The rest of us don’t.
It’s a sketchy thing, this theology of healing. I know it has traveled some rocky roads, with some claiming that it all died out with the last apostle, and others insisting that everyone could get healed if only they could drum up enough faith. Neither of those ways of thinking has been helpful, in my view.
But what if our southern friends are right, and the expectation of God bringing health to sick and injured people is appropriate for us? What will that mean?
Will it mean that medical care should be shunned? I don’t think so. But perhaps we can think about putting medical care in a new perspective. Most cultures offer some sort of care through medical professionals, and perhaps, even without realizing it, such efforts reveal something about the image of God that is imprinted upon all people. As a result, we can’t help but find ways to care for one another. But such care need not be seen as the last word.
Will it mean that we recast healing as an expectation that is embedded in the Atonement? I hope not, although there are still people who make that claim. We might need better theologies of healing, but locking it into some kind of transactional package deal is not the answer.
Will it mean that all people should expect to be healed? No, and for two reasons: First, it just doesn’t work out that way. Second, we all end up dying in the end anyway. Yes, my friends, we are all going to die. Have a nice day. ☺
Here’s a possible way to think about this, a way that could help us dialogue creatively with our friends across the globe: Physical healings that come as a result of prayer are signs of the Kingdom of God. They are not guarantees, they are not based on adequate levels of faith, and they are not the result of neatly organized theologies. They are signs that God’s kingdom is a partial but present earthly reality, a reality to be fully realized when God draws all things together in the new heaven and the new earth.
So, I keep praying for people to be healed. I also go to the doctor (even though I’m in a crummy HMO and supernatural healing is sounding better to me all the time) and try to do things that positively impact my health. I try to expect that God will actually work in people’s physical lives, but I don’t demand it or crumble in disappointment if nothing seems to happen. Whether we live or die, whether we remain wounded or are restored, our lives rest in God’s care.
Healing is a sign of the Kingdom.
Prayer for healing is a sign of the Kingdom.
Caring for one another is a sign of the Kingdom.
Trusting God in all circumstances is a sign of the Kingdom.
And so, we pray: Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Amen.
Over the last few years I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about spiritual formation and how it happens in an educational environment. It’s a fascinating conversation, and in the process I’ve had the opportunity to look at what a number of other churches and institutions do in that area.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that much of what is being practiced (solitude, silence, Scripture meditation, journaling, prayer practices, etc.)—all good things, mind you—seem to be best suited for people who are introverts (see this helpful article for more insights).
Now, I understand that reflective practices are, by nature, quiet and personal. They are ways that we center our consciousness toward God in order to be present to him. I’ve done those kinds of things and found them very helpful.
But they’re also not easy for me. I suppose that’s why they are called spiritual disciplines.
I am an extrovert, but I have come to recognize that I do have an introverted aspect to my personality. As I get older, I appreciate time to be alone more than I did when I was young. But I’m not energized there. I am energized with others, and I think most of my extroverted friends would find that to be true for them as well.
My friends who are introverts say that being with others for too long drains them of energy, and they find that they recharge by being alone. We extroverts are just the opposite. Being alone can be good for us, but being with others is where we come alive.
In education, learning theory takes seriously the differing learning styles of people, recognizing that one size does not fit all when it comes to education. Perhaps, in a similar way, we can look at how we are spiritually formed—formed by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit—in ways that take our mental wiring into consideration. I know that I struggled for years over my apparent inability to remain focused in prayer for extended periods of time (still do—you can take the boy out of his ADHD, but you can’t entirely remove the ADHD from the boy. Or something like that). But I’ve become more comfortable in appreciating what is natural for me and what must come through disciplined intention and action.
Some years ago, a friend and I spent a couple of days at a Catholic retreat center. We ended up being the only ones in attendance at a morning mass, and the priest was gracious enough to allow us to partake in all aspects, including the Eucharist (imagine!). After we shared the Scripture readings for the day, he said, “Let’s talk about what we’ve just read. I believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us in community.”
That worked for me. I was energized by that.
I like it that, along with Jesus’ admonition to pray in secret (Matt. 6:6), there are lots of “we” and “us” statements in the New Testament. There seems to be a place for both introverts and extroverts in this journey of being formed in the likeness of Jesus. But one size does not fit all.
Yesterday Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted of first-degree murder, found guilty of killing three babies following botched late-term abortions. Prosecutors called Gosnell’s clinic a house of horrors. There will surely follow a great deal of debate about definitions of viable life, the standards of regulation of abortion clinics, and so on.
Will clearer definitions and better regulations really remove the possibility of the butchery uncovered in the Gosnell case? It took Gosnell’s employees quite some time to decide that working in filth, storing fetal body parts in jars and empty cat food cans, and snipping the spines of tiny, squirming, crying babies were bad ideas (one man claims to have done over a hundred snippings himself before his conscience felt compromised). Would a clearer understanding of legal requirements have stopped them before they obeyed their employer?
How does such evil flourish? How can it emerge in the context of a practice that has become, in our culture, so normal—or as Hannah Arendt, in her reflections on the Nazi executioner Adolph Eichmann, suggested: How can evil be so banal?
Over the last forty years or so, activism, science, and government—in a kind of legislative ménage à trois—have successfully spawned a cultural perception of normality when it comes to abortion. Sure, there are protestors in front of clinics, but the word abortion has become more ideological than a description of something real. It is the political dividing line between those claiming loyalty to the yet-to-be born, and those standing for rights of the ones who would have to give birth. It is word that is now included in our growing list of inalienable rights.
And then Gosnell shows up and makes it all real.
But we don’t want it to be real (is that why the press seemed so light on the story over the last two and a half years? Was everyone running around asking, “Is it real? Is it real?”). We have worked so hard in protecting our sensibilities by limiting our in-utero descriptions of life to terms like zygote and fetus, but certainly not baby. We seem to have agreed, overall, that it isn’t viable life until we say it is, and that would be somewhere around 21 weeks after conception.
So quit looking at that sonogram. Stop counting those fingers and toes. Ignore that fluttering butterfly that the technician said was a heartbeat. It’s not a living being. It’s not. It’s not. It’s not.
Unless someone like Dr. Gosnell successfully pulls a few fetuses into the light of day and their labels are magically changed to babies.
Kermit Gosnell is such a benign name. It isn’t a Hannibal Lector name that would automatically conjure of images of horror. It’s almost a warm and fuzzy name because it is shared with one of our favorite frogs. It’s very, very normal, just like the word scissors. With scissors we cut out paper dolls and remove tightly-wound strands of ribbons from wrapped gifts. We also use them, it appears, to sever the spines of tiny babies. After all, seconds earlier, they were only fetuses. Is there a 5-second rule on this?
Critics of Hannah Arendt’s book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, argue that evil does not spring from passive, ignorant people blindly following the orders of their evil leaders; they say it comes from regular, everyday people becoming immersed in evil ideologies, and then acting in accord with those ideologies. Perhaps they are correct.
The Gosnell case has caused me to think anew about how we determine good and evil. If it is by legislation, then we can act morally (does that word even have a definition?) only to the degree that our legislators and judges inform us. At what point do we look around and examine our normals and discover that we’ve adopted a received morality and have slowly cooked in its cultural juices, like little Kermits in a kettle?
There are certain clues that should tip us off here. When various groups begin redefining our terminologies for us, we should put up our anttenae of suspicion. When pressure on legislators results in our lines of morality being shifted, we should ask a few questions.
In the 19th century, there were a number of state and federal supreme court cases related to slavery, several of which declared imported Africans to be under full control of their owners. One case denied protection under the constitution for those slaves and any of their descendants.
We’re all probably happy that someone challenged those views of normalcy. What the law seemed incapable of doing was ultimately accomplished by people with a moral compass.
Sometimes, when our courts rule and slaves are freed, women given equal legal status with men and so on, we might find that our so-called normals really did need to be shifted. But not always. And never without examination.
I’ve referenced this text of Scripture before, but I feel compelled to do it again:
Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you . . .” (Matthew 20:25-26)
When our leaders and the powerful lobbies that influence them inform us about what is good and right and legal, is the conversation over for we who follow Jesus? And I’m not only speaking of abortion (clearly that debate has never abated), but of questions regarding immigration, human trafficking, economic policies, and a number of others. Or, is there a point where we look beyond the lines of legislation and declare,
I read a great article yesterday in TIME by Joel Stein about the Millennial generation. I’ve done some study about generational cohorts and I find all of this stuff very interesting.
However, I also find the ongoing micro-cohorting to be somewhat distressing. The more strictly we define generational cohorts (Builders, Silent Generation, Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, etc.) the more we separate from one another. We already find it natural to separate through technology (isn’t it amazing how someone appearing as a text on your phone is of greater interest than the person sitting across the table from you?), and generational separations increase the distance.
Of course, I shouldn’t talk. I’m a Baby Boomer, and it was my generation that celebrated the “Generation Gap,” claiming that we couldn’t relate to anyone older than us. Nevertheless, the separations continue and the distances increase.
Churches have suffered because of this separation, and not because they are victims of such cultural movement; it’s because they have organized around it. Many churches (particularly Evangelical Protestant churches) separate everyone by age and generation as soon as they walk in the door. It is not uncommon for young people, once they graduate from high school and are no longer able to be in the youth group, to walk away from church because they see no place for them there. No place in what we call The Body of Christ, where diversity is assumed. Wow.
I remember reading in Margaret Wheatley’s book, Leadership and the New Science, that organizational leadership of the future will be about finding new ways to be together. That will be challenging in a world that is struggling to figure out what it really means to be anywhere with anyone, now that space and time have lost their power over us.
I had a long and happy conversation with my mother yesterday (yes, over the telephone, which is unhindered by the distance of miles between us), and I found myself thinking about how the days race past us and we don’t remember much about where we’ve been or what we’ve done. Over time, what will we all remember? Will it be the zillions of text messages we’ve sent and received? Will it be the last minute meet-ups that caused us to leave someone after a few minutes of conversation in order to see if something better is going on elsewhere?
Or will we remember extended conversations with people we love, watching them face-to-face, recalling their laughter, their words, their ideas, hopes and dreams, and how we also found space to share ourselves in those encounters? It’s true that we can do some of that via the Internet (I confess that I love Google Hangout), but I wonder if our memories are imprinted on our brains as effectively when we limit our encounters with others to only certain senses. When proximity, touch, and even smell are eliminated, does our capacity to remember diminish? I don’t know. But maybe.
I think I’ll invite some folks over for dinner at my house. We’ll cook up some good food, share some wine, and talk and laugh late into the evening. Maybe we won’t even look at our phones, because nothing better will be going on except what is happening in those moments in time, when we are present to one another, allowing the experience to be burned into our mental circuitry. Perhaps one day in the future we will call that memory up and cherish it.
It is interesting to me that the Eucharist is always shared in person. We stand or kneel with others, we take bread and wine, and in that experiential moment, Jesus says,
Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. You can learn all about this special day by going into any number of gift shops and see that it’s all about loving and grateful sentiments toward our moms. It’s a day to give our mothers (and wives, and daughters, and sisters, and so on) a break from their routines and show them that they are special.
Yes, that is exactly what Mother’s Day is about. Except it’s not. Not really.
Sure, we’ve made it that way. But at it’s inception, Mother’s Day had nothing to do with sentiment. It was not about expensive cards and flowers and days off and special church services that honored The Mother of the Year.
Mother’s Day began as a social activism movement. It was a social activism movement led by mothers.
A woman named Ann Jarvis, whose father was a Methodist minister, organized mothers in the mid-1800s in West Virginia to work toward improving sanitary conditions in their local communities where diseases like tuberculosis were common. When the American Civil War broke out, Ann encouraged her mothers groups to declare neutrality, and they committed themselves to bringing care to sick and wounded soldiers from both sides. After the war, her groups reached out to mothers from both the north and south, helping them to put aside old animosities and heal the deep wounds from the war.
In 1870 a woman named Julia Ward Howe, inspired by Jarvis’s work, wrote a proclamation calling on mothers throughout the US to demand an end to all war. Mothers had long tired of giving up their children to bloody battlefields, and Howe’s influence spread to groups in 20 different cities before dissipating due to lack of financial support.
By the early 20th century, Mother’s Day became a recognized holiday through the efforts of Jarvis’s daughter, Anna. Soon however, it lost its original purpose and became highly commercialized and sentimentalized. Anna spent the rest of her life attempting to fight that trend, and was even arrested in 1948 for staging a protest against the now-culturally-sanitized Mother’s Day.
Anna, of course, lost that fight, and we lost the real power of Mother’s Day, just like we’ve lost the real power of things like Christmas, Easter, and virtually all the seasons of the Church year. It’s tragic how the overall cultural acceptance of important celebrations and remembrances often result in commercialization, sanitization, and the evisceration of meaning. And we—followers of Jesus, who ought to know better—often join in.
Sure, I’ll call my mother tomorrow and wish her a happy Mother’s Day. But I’m not buying a card or flowers or anything like that. I think, instead, that I’ll get her some blank signboards, a few marking pens, and maybe even a bullhorn, and encourage her to go out and protest against something like war or poverty. No police officer would have the courage to go toe-to-toe with my mom. She could reduce any burly cop to tears in about three seconds.
Of course, I do run the risk of having her protest that it’s Mother’s Day, and all she got was my lousy phone call.
Some years ago my friend, Todd Hunter, invited my wife and me to join him and a few other pastors for lunch with Dallas Willard. It was during a conference in Phoenix that Todd and Dallas were leading, and I was excited to meet Dallas and spend a little time talking with him.
The conversation around the lunch table touched on a number of interesting topics. I asked Dallas if he thought that the concept of formal church membership was dying in the US. He said, “If we don’t give people a way to belong, then we leave them to the ravages of consumerism.” How does someone come up with a statement so memorable over a club sandwich and iced tea?
After a while, a young church planter at the table told a remarkable story. He was working with a team to plant a church in Beirut, Lebanon. They had two kinds of gatherings: One for Muslim inquirers who wanted to engage in conversations about faith, and one exclusively for their small group of Christians, where they could talk, pray, and worship freely.
One of the members of his team had become acquainted with a Muslim woman who was a high-profile Lebanese journalist. She expressed interest in hearing more about Jesus, so he invited her to a gathering.
But it was the wrong gathering.
When she arrived on the appointed evening—an evening reserved for prayer and worship—the young pastor was understandably nervous. What would be the consequences of this well-educated Muslim woman experiencing Christian, charismatic worship? It was too late to make any changes in the agenda, so a CD of worship music was popped into the player (no one apparently had a guitar), and the time of worship began.
He said that, initially, the woman just watched the others as they stood, kneeled, lifted hands in the air, and worshipped Jesus with abandon. He closed his eyes and prayed that the Lord would protect them from trouble. When he opened his eyes a song or two later, he saw the woman standing on her feet, hands raised in the air, and tears streaming down her face.
Most of us thought this was a great conversion story. But then the young pastor asked a question that revealed his purpose in telling the story in the first place. He said,
“The thing is, Dallas, that this woman now considers herself to be a Muslim who follows Jesus.”
Before anyone else could respond, Dallas firmly declared,
“How could she be anything other than that?”
After my head quit spinning, I was able to give deeper consideration to his statement. He wasn’t, as some might assume, allowing the woman to conflate Christianity and Islam, creating her own private mix of religions. Nor was he diminishing the lordship of Jesus. He was opening our minds to something that I’ve come to understand a little better over the years: That religion is, for many people, as deeply imbedded in culture as it is in a formal belief system.
For the woman in that story, to stop being Muslim might have been the equivalent of turning in her Lebanese citizenship. It is very likely that her relationship to Islam was tied as deeply to her relationships with family, friends, and culture as it was to her system of belief.
When you stop and think about it, we in the Christian world have our own versions of cultural embeddedness. Perhaps we can understand how our faith becomes much more to us than adherence to a creed. We have traditions, practices, memories, language, and relationships that are deeply entwined in our belief systems.
I continue to be grateful to Dallas for his gift of time on that day. I’ve shared this story many times over the years, especially with my seminary students, and most have found it helpful.
Sometimes I’ve wondered about the intellectual and spiritual loss that occurs when someone like Dallas Willard leaves us. Where does it all go? I’ve decided that it goes into those of us who remain, and our responsibility is to be, to even the smallest degree, that same kind of person for the benefit of others.
Sometimes we speak of God as though he is strangely self-thwarting. We talk and sing about how we deserve God’s wrath, how we ought to die because of our sins, and how God rages against our transgressions. We speak about God loving the sinner but hating the sin, which doesn’t make good theological sense in the first place. If God is only mad about sin, then his wrath is only directed at something that is separate from us. But that’s not how we speak. We speak of God’s anger being directly and specifically toward us.
God is strange, indeed. It seems that he is self-thwarting—he stops himself from doing what he is inclined to do, which is to wipe us out. He sends Jesus to us because someone has got to die or God is going to lose control. Fortunately, Jesus pulls it off and God doesn’t kill everyone. He’s still mad, of course, but Jesus runs interference for us and keeps God at bay.
Sometimes we speak that way. We need better ways to speak of God.
Dallas Willard, who passed away yesterday, had some helpful words in this regard (thanks to Rachel Held Evans for posting this quotation from The Divine Conspiracy):
“We must understand that God does not 'love' us without liking us - through gritted teeth - as 'Christian' love is sometimes thought to do. Rather, out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core - which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word 'love'.”
There are a number of instances in the Bible where God’s wrath is the equivalent of allowing people to suffer the consequences of their actions. For example:
Adam and Eve crash, and the consequences are dire and irreversible. But God meets them in their hiddenness and shame, fashioning new garments for them.
The people of Israel want a king other than God, and God lets them have what they want. As a result, the nation fractures and then collapses, and the people are exiled. But God still brings them home again.
Young Saul (soon to be Paul) persecutes Christians, becoming guilty, in effect, of persecuting Jesus. But Jesus comes to him and conscripts him into friendship, launching him into his famous missional/theological life. But Paul would always carry the memory of his past offenses.
We should not speak of a bi-polar God who is shifts eternally between rage and love. The Bible does not teach us that the core of God’s being is anger. God’s essence is love. That does not mean that God does not react negatively toward the power and effects of sin. But we dare not caricature him so that he looks to us like a petty despot who needs suffering and death in order to be appeased.
I have been reading Mark Noll’s very helpful book, The New Shape of World Christianity. As he describes the character of the global Christian church as decreasingly European and North American, and increasingly African, Asian, and Latin American, he asks the question, “How much are the supernatural events that fill the pages of Scripture to be considered normative examples for what happens right now?” (p. 36) This is a question that is often answered differently in places like Africa than in Europe or the US.
Theology in the western world often remains abstract. For example, people still argue (to a lesser degree than in the 1980s) about the “inerrancy” of the Bible. People who stand for use of that word in relation to Scripture are seen by their detractors as narrow in their thinking, while those on the other side are often characterized as having a low view of Scripture.
But the debate isn’t typically about whether or not Scripture is authoritative; it’s about what language best describes that authority. The problem with our use of language is that it can only approximate reality and can allow us to remain abstract in our thinking.
When the view of inerrancy is examined, it is usually a claim that only the original manuscripts of the Bible are inerrant—without any errors regarding theology, distances between cities, number of soldiers on the battlefield, and so on. Most people recognize that the ancient manuscripts we have today show variances in them, so the focus is only on the original documents—the ones with the fingerprints of Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul and all their friends on them.
Except that we don’t have those documents.
So “inerrancy” can remain only a theory. It is not possible to verify the claim. Yet, most of us still believe in the authority and inspiration of the biblical texts. Some of us just don’t think that “inerrancy” is the right word to describe the character of those texts.
But we can get really tangled up in the abstractness of the conversation, separating ourselves into camps based on theory, debating about the character of Scripture and missing something that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world seem to grasp: That Scripture tells a story that is living, and we live today in the ongoing reality of that story. The language that describes that story doesn’t alter its character or its effect.
And many of our non-western friends claim that supernatural occurrences still happen—things like healings, exorcisms, the raising of the dead, and so on. For them, the Scriptures are not, for the most part, abstract at all. Noll comments,
“With only some hyperbole, we might say that although some of the world’s new Christian communities are Roman Catholic, some Anglican, some Baptist, some Presbyterian and many independent, almost all are Pentecostal in a broad sense of the term.” (p. 34)
Pentecostal and Charismatic folks in our culture have also made claims about the ongoing activities of the supernatural world, but in our theological work most of us can stay in the world of theories—whether about the nature of Scripture, proper images of the Atonement, creation and science, etc.—and never move into the work and activity of God in the world. Our brothers and sisters in the south and east haven’t separated theory from purposeful practice.
Yesterday was May 5, also known as Cinco de Mayo. Like other occasions (St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween, New Year’s Day, for example), the original significance is mostly lost on us and we conflate the days as episodic excuses for getting plastered and eating piles of food. Like we need an excuse for doing that.
Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day (which is September 16), but rather the celebration of the underdog Mexican army whipping the tar out of the French in 1861. The French came back in victory a year later and took charge of Mexico until the US joined in and chased the invaders back to France a few years later, which was a smart thing to do since the French aren’t good at making beer and their food would have made the southwestern part of the US a boring place to eat (what—like people would buy fast food at Escargot Bell?
The occasion that really intrigues me is El Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2). I’ve learned some things about it and it’s more than rowdy partying and sugary skeleton heads. It’s about remembering all those who have gone before us. It’s about not letting the memory of our ancestors die over time. I like that idea. And I wish that our culture had a better oral tradition (I talked about this a few posts ago).
A friend explained to me the inner logic of this celebration, and I incorporated it into my novel, A Body Given, as a conversation between a women who is helping to care for a young girl rescued from slavery in Guatemala as she spoke to her Anglican priest:
Father Mora opened the door of his bedroom and stepped into the hallway. He saw Reina leaving the room she shared with Ana, carefully shutting the door behind her. She smiled when she saw the priest.
“Buenos diás, Padre,” whispered Reina.
“Buenos diás.” Father Mora motioned toward the kitchen, and followed Reina there.
He often spoke with Reina in English, helping her to become fluent in the language. His frequent visits from church leaders from England and the US made it important for her to be able to speak to them. “How is Ana doing, Reina?”
Reina went to the sink and started making the morning coffee. “She is better, I think, Father. She still holds tightly to me, and she sleeps much. I think she smiled a little last night when she was sleeping. I pray that God heals her dreams.”
“I pray that also. Does she eat well?”
“She eats as though she wants to grow up to be a man.” Reina laughed at her own joke. “Everything I make for her, she eats, and then eats more.”
“Your food is a comfort to all of us, Reina.”
“Where is Father Alec? Will he have coffee?”
“He joined me for prayers early this morning,” said Father Mora. “I think he’ll sleep just a bit more. No coffee for him—only tea.”
As the coffee brewed, Reina made preparations for breakfast. She set plates and silverware on the table where the priest sat, and then paused to speak to him.
“Father, do you think that Ana will really heal? That she will have a good life now?”
Father Mora reached for the plates and arranged them around the table. “God will heal her, Reina. She will always bear the scars of her abuse, but there is great hope for her. It is our privilege to be God’s hands to care for her, and God’s heart to love her.”
Reina nodded as she placed knives and forks around the table. “But there are still others, Father, others that we will not find, ones that will suffer and die, and be forgotten.” Her eyes filled with tears. He remained silent, honoring her grief. After a few moments, she spoke again.
“Father, in a little while we will celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, yes?”
“Yes, of course. The Day of the Dead.” While Father Mora tried to help the people of his parish elevate All Saints Day above the practice of remembering the dead, he couldn’t help but look forward to the mass celebrations that he had enjoyed his entire life. He recognized that he was like everyone else—a product of his own culture.
“My grandmother was from Mexico,” said Reina, “and she used to tell me that we have that day so that we will always remember those who have died—so that we will not forget them. I still know stories of uncles and aunts, grandparents and great-grandparents and even the ones who lived before them. The stories helped me to see that I was part of a larger family than I could ever know. My grandmother taught me something else that I have never forgotten. She taught me that there is not one death, but three. The first is when your body dies and you can no longer share life with the living. It is the death that comes to us all. The second is when you are buried in the ground and your body returns to the earth. There is always sadness when these two deaths happen. But the third is the saddest of them all: It is when you are forgotten, and there is no one left to remember you.” She paused, carefully arranging a place setting next to a colorful ceramic plate. “For many of us, the third death is really the first.”
“You and Ana are here now,” said Father Mora. “God has not forgotten you. You are remembered.
I appreciated Rachel Held Evens thoughtful post regarding her evolving views regarding abortion. It continues to be a difficult and painful debate (it is rarely a conversation, and I appreciate Rachel’s attempts at civil discourse), especially with the recent discovery of the horrors inside Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s abortion clinic.
As the Gosnell case unfolded, I began thinking how the arguments for “ pro-choice” (which have actually devolved into arguments that are “pro-abortion”) have successfully altered the public perception of life by segmenting and depersonalizing the early stages of human life in order to turn the discussion to things abstract and legally categorical.
So, zygotes, embryos and fetuses end up having little or no relationship to the human beings that will emerge at birth. It’s a handy way to win the argument, and it has been fairly successful in the western world in altering people’s thinking about the acceptability of abortion.
How do we who follow Jesus respond to this? Christians are not unified on the subject. We easily fall into the same public categories of pro-life and pro-choice, the former being conservative, the latter progressive.
The securing of victory for pro-choice proponents has been found in the law. The law has offered legality to the practice of abortion even while setting boundaries to the timing of the procedure—boundaries that are often pushed.
Christians have faced off with both abortion and infanticide in the past. In the earliest years of the emerging Christian movement, one Christian writer highlighted the common cultural practice of abandoning unwanted infants outside the city limits where they would either die of exposure or be killed by wild animals. He indicated that neither Jews nor Christians discarded their children that way, and were even known to rescue abandoned babies and take them into their own families.
Until the late fourth century, infanticide was an accepted practice in both Greek and Roman societies. But there was a technicality: To avoid actually committing murder, the unwanted infant would be left out in the wilderness, where it would either die of exposure (a natural process) or be rescued by the gods or a kind traveler. One defender of the faith remarks:
“First of all, you [pagans] expose your children, so that they may be taken by any compassionate passer-by, to whom they are quite unknown!” Tertullian (c. 197, W) 3.26.
His response to his pagan detractor? We don’t do that.
We’ve created a lot of technicalities in our culture as well. We have legal lines that we think offer us protection and justification. That might work in the public square, but it shouldn’t work for we who follow Jesus. There’s an artificiality to that perceived safety zone that is proven every time the law is changed. The law of the land may be important, but it often speaks more about majority preference than it does ethics and morals (for example, in the mid-1800’s, the Supreme Court ruled that states were able to enslave human beings imported from the southern hemisphere. We’re all probably glad that there were people who claimed that the law didn’t speak for them).
Rather than thinking about human life (or any life, for that matter) as a series of disconnected phases, I prefer to think of life as a unified trajectory that starts with conception. There is an inevitability to the cellular creation that we call a zygote: It’s destiny is to emerge into the light of day and become present to the world.
And, for we who follow Jesus, we might also say that such a life is intended to affirm and nurture the life it encounters in the world. If we are going to use the term “pro-life,” then it ought to relate to more than the denial of the practice of abortion. It should relate to how we view war, capital punishment, and poverty for starters.
I’ve spoken of this before in relation to gay marriage. If we fall into the pre-created categories of discourse that come to us from the public square, then we stop short of thoughtful theological reflection on issues of tremendous importance. We in the church seem to be particularly short on that kind of reflection these days.
When people oppose us, take views that are not only different from ours but offensive to our religious/political/social sensibilities, there are so many incredible things we can say about them:
Conservatives! Close-minded bigots!
Evolutionists! Despisers of God!
Creationists! Head-in-the-sand morons!
Catholics! Pope lovers!
Reformers! Protest lovers!
And on and on and on. Incredible, in the strictest sense of the word: So implausible as to elicit unbelief (Free Online Dictionary). But we must believe it because it is happening all around us.
But once, in a moment of weakness, we might stop talking, stop crafting our objections in our heads, stop doing our defensive self-talk that says we have to argue down all comers, and
We hear how fear and pain have formed the views of the other. We hear how the other has thought about the issue that divides us and learn that the one sitting before us may not be a fool or a heretic, but instead, has approached a difficult topic from a perspective that we hadn’t considered.
And sometimes—just sometimes—we learn that we sit across from a co-human who struggles with life like we do. We sometimes discover that our so-called opponent also claims to share with us a common faith
(can it be so? Can you belong to Jesus and be a . . . . and believe that . . . . and be aligned there . . . . and here . . . . and be that kind of person . . . .
and, and, and.
And sometimes, we learn that the one we have categorized, vilified, demonized, and ostracized
has a name. A name that we can speak as though speaking with a human
a co-human, one made in the image of God.
And our ears ring with familiarity, and revelation, and illumination. And sometimes we get up from the table still marked by disagreement but possibly also marked
And we turn and see Jesus, the Friend of Sinners. Our Friend.
And together we come to his table to share bread and wine, body and blood, and we come not out of worthiness but because we have been invited by Jesus himself
who hears us argue, hears us malign, hears us condemn, hears us reduce and categorize. And he listens to us.
On Saturday I will officiate at the memorial and graveside services for a dear friend who died a few weeks ago. He was loved and honored by the people in his life—many were his faithful church family.
I visited him several times before he slipped away from us. I came straight from church on one visit and brought in the order of service that contained the morning written prayers and scriptures. As I read them to him, he gripped my hand and closed his eyes, and then thanked me for those few minutes of shared worship.
He was a man who relished his friendships and loved his life of faith in Christ. While he continued to grieve the loss of his wife, who died a few years earlier, he found great comfort in his relationships with friends and fellow worshippers.
There is a fine graciousness in that kind of life.
In contrast, I find myself flipping through Facebook posts today that make sure we Christians know exactly who we are supposed to despise and who we are allowed to accept. People still want to excommunicate Rob Bell, flush the church down the toilet, mock theological education, and smash those who are on one side or the other of the gay marriage debate.
Please hear me sighing very loudly right now.
Social media, blogs, websites, etc. are fine places to share ideas. However, they have also provided uncontrolled environments for saying anything we want about anyone we want, and making sure it goes out to our zillions of cyber-friends.
This church (universal) of ours is supposed to look something like a light in relationship to the rest of the world, as I recall. Those who identify with Jesus are ones who are to be marked by love. I worry about how that is going for us.
A picture comes to mind: A stunningly beautiful cathedral—a structure whose very architectural design bears witness to the glory of God—defaced by a blanket of graffiti. After a while, you quit seeing the essence of the building. You only see the rantings of those whose only contribution came out of the can of cheap spray paint.
I guess it would be too much to ask us to quit throwing accusations (isn’t Accuser one of the translations of the word Satan? That job has been taken, friends!) and instead start talking to one another. After all, we might actually hear other people and either learn something new (which for some, is the slippery slope toward heresy) or find that what we thought about them was in need of correction.
In doing so, we might learn that we are engaging with real people, people loved by God, and people trying to orient their lives around God.
We need to rediscover graciousness. My friend, whose life we will celebrate on Saturday, reminds me of that.
I’ve been thinking, since writing yesterday’s post, about the relationship between certainty and confidence (I hope that alert readers caught the ironic closure). There is, I think, certainty that results from experience and observation, and certainty that is born of confidence.
We see the first kind of certainty expressed in a biblical declaration of first-hand experience:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18)
It’s there again in another account:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard . . . (1 John 1:1-3a)
Both of these statements of certainty are offered to those who were not there when it all happened. And if the witnesses are trustworthy, if the next generation of hearers have confidence in the ones giving the accounts, then a second-hand kind of certainty can emerge. It isn’t a certainty grounded in personal observation, but one born of confidence in the messenger.
What we lack in the contemporary western world is an appreciation for what is called “oral tradition.” In the Latin American celebration of El Dia de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), people gather to tell stories of their ancestors, seeking to keep their memory alive. That’s an oral tradition. That’s how the gospels were originally passed on before people decided to start documenting them in writing.
But we tend to frame truth with news stories, videos, tweets, and posts (like this one). We also are learning to mistrust those sources, since they do not guarantee authenticity (Photoshop has taught us to not believe our eyes). Just because something claims to be true doesn’t make it true.
In a very important way, our certainties of faith come to us as an oral tradition. Yes, we are people of the Book (i.e., the Bible), but it is our texts of scripture that bear witness to people and events that we do not get to see first-hand (even the apostle Paul missed seeing Jesus in the flesh). The church, over 2,000 years, has passed down the stories, trusting in the veracity of the original witnesses.
Most of us, however, find that simply hearing the stories is not enough (after all, just because someone says that an unjustly executed man rose from the dead doesn’t mean that it really happened, right? Just ask Thomas). We claim that our faith comes out of something more than information we have chosen to believe. We claim that something has happened to us, that we have been encountered, changed, turned around. We insist that there is a new presence with us and we are at a loss to quantify it.
We keep matching up this mysterious experience in our lives—an experience that we seem to share with scores of other people—to the stories that have been given to us in our scriptures, and we believe.
We have confidence.
And others think we’re completely nuts, until it happens to them. Pretty crazy stuff.