On July 10, 2014

Translation: Getting Closer

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” -Nelson Mandela

The people stood at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” -Exodus 19

Translation Picture

Did you ever wonder why Paul in 1st Corinthians makes such a big deal about speaking in tongues? The rest of the New Testament mentions tongues about 6 times, in just 2 chapters of 1st Corinthians Paul talks about “tongues” over a dozen times.

Why does Paul, this early Church planter, care so much about what people in the church say and how they say it?

Our Moral Tongue

A couple of weeks ago I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about an unusual thing scientist have recently discovered in researching ethics. That is, how people decide what is right and wrong.

Turns out people don’t just decide what is right and wrong in a vacuum, and so what they decide is based on who they are, how they’ve been taught and in what language they think in. 

The classic example used to introduce people to the world of Ethics is a story that goes like this. Imagine you are a railroad conductor and you see a train coming fast down the tracks that has five people on it. The five people will be killed, but you happen to be standing next to a lever that will divert the track in another direction.

The problem is that there is one person on the other track and by saving the five, you will now have made yourself responsible for the death of one. What do you do?

If you say you’ll pull the lever, the line of questioning goes on, finally it winds up not being a lever, but a fat man who’s hanging over the tracks, and if you just give him a push it will save the five and kill the one.This is called the “Utilitarian Ethics” argument (sacrificing the one for the many) and it’s a great ice-breaker for parties.

Or so I’ve been told, for some reason I don’t get invited to very many parties.

The interesting thing about this question, is that the closer people get to the consequences of their decision the more it changes what their decision is. Turns out that people are more likely to pull the lever than actually push a person, even though both bring out the exact same consequences, because pushing a person makes it less abstract.

But what was interesting about this Times article is that apparently research has recently uncovered that when you pose this question to people who are bi-lingual, their answer changes based on what language you ask them in.

If you ask people from Mexico whether or not they would push the fat man onto the tracks, they say “yes” if you ask them in English, and “No” if you ask them in Spanish.

Speaking in Tongues

I had the privilege of spending the better part of last month traveling around Israel and Jordan, It’s an incredible experience that I highly recommend.* You can’t throw a rock in Israel without hitting a Bible story…also you’re not supposed to throw rocks, they could be a part of a Bible story.

But, for me, one of the best parts of the trip came when we worshipped with a small church in Nazareth. Because they are a church that often have tourists come through, and such a high percentage of the church comes from different backgrounds and has different first languages (Hebrew and Aramaic) they often will try to speak and worship throughout the service in several different languages.The Garden Tomb

During this same trip our group took a trip to the Garden Tomb and we heard a Korean group singing “Rock of Ages” in Korean, and I immediately knew that this was an indication of shoddy mission work. Not to critique the Korean group, but I was taught to think like a missionary, and I knew that someone, somewhere had planted a church that shared the Gospel as an idea, instead of sharing the Gospel the way the Gospel shares itself. 

Worshipping with that church in Nazareth, passages in 1st Corinthians started making so much more sense. Remember, most of the time when the New Testament talks about speaking in Tongues, it’s not referring to a personal prayer language (sometimes it is), it’s referring to the actual language people spoke.

This might be hard for us, chances are if you live in America, you probably are only fluent in one language and rarely are put in situations where you can’t communicate with people around you, but in that world it was incredibly common, and actually language was a good way to reinforce the socio-economic systems of the day. (Poor people didn’t have the access to education that wealthier people did, this is also why Paul, a highly educated world-travelling male is able to say “I speak in tongues more than all of you”).

But what do you do when the Gospel creates a new humanity, and you find yourself in a church with people who you would previously not be caught dead with? Before you called them an enemy or foreigner or beneath you, and now you call them brother.

This is what I think Paul is getting at in 1st Corinthians, he’s trying to deal with this incredibly complex situation where all these different cultures/backgrounds are coming together, he’s trying to speak into the spirit of elitism and condescension and his biggest request is just this:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.

Chances are, most of these people could’ve picked up on what was going on. Corinth was a metropolitan city, and they would’ve grown up hearing different languages spoken, but Paul knows what we don’t, it’s not enough to talk about the Gospel, we’ve got to talk like the Gospel. 

When most Christians talk about Orthodox Christian doctrine, we talk about abstract ideas, but if the Gospel is that God entered the world, in a specific time, culture and place, and then told his disciples to go all over the world doing the same, then is it really orthodox Christian theology if it doesn’t look like the culture it’s in?

This is what that Times article is getting at, it’s what drives Paul in 1st Corinthians, each of us have a heart language, a “moral tongue” and the closer we get to that, the closer we reach the heart.

When the little church in Nazareth would sing in English for us visiting tourists, our group would light up, and when we sang the songs in Aramaic they would come alive, and even though we had no idea what we were singing, but we tried to sing along because we learned our worship was helping them worship in their native heart language.

Because the Gospel means God is not abstract, He’s getting closer.

*If you’re interested in going to Israel, I highly recommend Dr. Evrett Huffard’s annual tour. Dr. Huffard grew up in Nazareth as a missionary kid, and was an archeologist there for several years.

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view.” -St. Paul

Screen-shot-2011-01-25-at-7.52.40-AMRecently I was having a conversation with Brad McCoy, he and his wife are members at Highland, and all around good people. He’s also the dad of Case and Colt McCoy, and if you live in Texas or care about football (those two things overlap significantly) you know that’s a big deal. Both of his sons have been the starting quarterbacks for the University of Texas, and in all those years Brad only missed one of their games. He loved to watch them play, but that’s not to say it was always fun.

Many of the games Brad went to, he was around fans for the opposing teams, and it turns out when you want a team to lose, you talk trash to their most visible player. So over the years, there has been a few times where Brad has had to turn around and say something like, “Hey, I know this is a game, and I’m fine with you booing, but that QB down there is a 19 year old boy who happens to be my son, could you please be a bit more respectful about how you route for your team?”

Turns out they can.

Everyone’s Got a Story

A couple of weeks ago, on The This American Life podcast, a reporter told the story about getting a phone call from the U.S. Senator Alan Simpson. It had nothing to do with the national debt, or anything else he was known for in politics. He wanted to talk to her about her ex-boyfriend.

Turns out she had broken up her boyfriend last month because she lived in New York, and he was a wildlife researcher for the state of Wyoming. The distance was too stressful for their relationship and they called it off. But her boyfriend couldn’t let her go, he was a mess, and he knew that he couldn’t convince her to give it another try…so he wrote a Hail Mary kind of letter to the Senator of Wyoming and asked him to give his girlfriend a call.

And he did.

If you’ve got a few minutes, I highly recommend you listen to this story, it’s poetic and sweet and romantic, and it does the one thing that I think the world could use a little more of. It made someone with a public persona a little more human.

I think that is the greatest problem facing our increasingly pluralistic society. We all have causes and concerns that we are willing to give our life for, but, if you are a Christian there is no cause that you are willing to dehumanize another person for.

Before every genocide in world history, the first thing that changes is the language. Nazi’s couldn’t kill a person, but they could kill a rat, or a pig. It’s hard to hate a person, but much easier to hate a politician, or an athlete, or a Republican, or any of the labels that we’ve invented that helps us create a gap between the person and the role they play in society.

This is what the church should do for the world, make everyone a little more human. One of the greatest gifts that the Jewish/Christian faith has given to the world is the idea that God made people in His own image.

What seems like common sense to us today, was revolutionary in the day it was written. Genesis 1 & 2 is a story about why life matters, and why humanity is something much too precious to be taken for granted.

Today this is seen as common sense. It’s commonly assumed that life matters, and the people who take it should be held responsible and punished. It’s commonly assumed that this is self-evident and only something that Captain Obvious would have to point out…That is, until we argue.

Watch Your Mouth

Whenever people in a pluralistic society argue, watch what happens, people begin to rationalize the other person’s humanity away. They aren’t just Muslims, they are terrorists, they aren’t just pro-life, they are anti-choice tyrants, they aren’t just Democrats, they are an anathema.

The strong language that we use to describe those we disagree is more than just rhetoric, it tells us what we really believe about who they really are.

When Jesus was here, he actually faced this quite a bit. People brought him “sinners” and “tax-collectors” and “prostitutes” but He always had this knack of being able to see more in them than their roles. From the religious leaders to the powerful politicians of the day, Jesus seems almost casual, dealing with them as comfortably as he does those who have no societal standing.

And at one point in the Gospel of Luke, we get a glimpse into how Jesus expects His followers to do the same.
Jesus has just sent out 72 disciples to do ministry and to serve people in the name of the Kingdom of God the way He had been doing, and when they get back Jesus tells them this:

 “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”

And then the very next story in Luke is the story of the Good Samaritan. Probably the most humanizing story in the history of the world. It’s a story about racism and bigotry and what happens when a label becomes a human, and a “they” becomes an “us”

This is a story about the way Jesus saw the world, and how He wants His Church to as well.

Maybe you saw this video a few years ago, It’s a monologue that Craig Ferguson did on CBS “Late, Late Show” explaining why he wouldn’t be making fun at the expense of Brittany Spears, I’ve never seen anything quite like this on television before, but I’m lucky enough to work in a Church where I see it all the time.

That’s the beauty of the Church, it’s filled with Spirit giving power to see people. In fact, about 15 chapters later Luke tells us about Pentecost, the birth of the Church, about how God pours out His Spirit on all people.

And then Luke gives us the count. Before Pentecost the Bible counted crowds by how many men were there. After Pentecost were told how many women and children are there too.

In a pluralistic society, one of the greatest gifts the Church can give the world is to keep humanizing people and reminding the world that no one is exempt from being made in the image of God. From Donald Sterling to Jesse Jackson, from Rush Limbaugh to Hillary Clinton.

Jesus has taught me that the whole world is filled with neighbors, and He’s showing me how to treat them, and then he said:
“Go and do likewise.”

On June 24, 2014

Orthodoxy: A Haunted World

“A sad saint is a sad sort of saint.” —St. Frances de Sales

“I don’t believe in God, but I sure do miss Him.” -Julian Barnes

g-k-chesterton-900x670

Last month I started trying to introduce readers to one of the best books I’ve read in years. It’s by the often-quoted Chesterton, and it’s one of his best works. The book is called “Orthodoxy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I think Christians today are very guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls chronological snobbery, we assume that if anything was written earlier than last week it probably isn’t relevant to today, but reading this 80 year old book I found it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs.

I’ve already read 2 other Chesterton books, and have bought a few more, it’s hard for me to describe how deeply I resonate with Chesterton’s writing and specifically the way he sees the world as bathed in the glory and joy of God.

The Rush of Life

Remember Chesterton is writing in a time of great scientific revolution, and far from being anti-intellectual, Chesteton seems to embrace the pursuit of truth, but adamantly refuses one that tries to shut God out of the world He made and sustains. Chesterton prophetically looks ahead at trajectory that a secular society is leading toward and the dis-enchantment that comes when we reduce the stars to balls of gas and people to accidents.

His beef isn’t against the idea of evolution, his strongest disagreement is with the assumption that God isn’t involved in something because we think we can figure out how it works.

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance.. It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life.

Chesterton’s most important word to his day needs to be repeated constantly in this one. Just because we can understand something doesn’t mean we know what causes it and sustains it. In some of Chesterton’s most famous words:

It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may Daisybe that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. Heaven may encore the bird who laid an egg.

An Enchanted, Magical, Joy-Filled World

Do you see how different this way of seeing our universe is? So many of the stories and movies that we entertain ourselves with today our filled with a kind of modern malaise. God is dead, we killed him and now we are left to try and make meaning out of our lives all by ourselves.

From the movie Garden State to the great American Novelist David Foster Wallace to Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed book “Freedom” we are telling more and more stories about what it means to live a life without God, which is to live a life without magic.

And yet there is a sense that our world is haunted with the presence of a God who is still there, and who still holds the universe together with great joy.

Chesterton makes a point that is incredibly important to me as a preacher and pastor. He points out that for well over a thousand years humanity was miserable in the small bits of life like health and comfort, while insanely happy about their general position in relationship with the Universe. But today, humanity is entirely happy (or believes they should be) with the small bits of life, while mostly in despair about the bigger things.

Then Chesterton says this:

Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.

This is what Chesterton closes his book with, and what he says haunts him, and ever since I read it, it’s haunted me too.

He closes his great book, with a picture of what orthodox Jesus is like.

Great men throughout history have thought they needed to stand above others. Great leaders have always tried to build their name by diminishing others. But not Jesus. Unlike other would be great men Jesus doesn’t try to tower over people, his pathos was casual…yet he towers over all “great” men.

Throughout history, there was the idea that truly great men don’t cry. Stoics had this idea that one should fight to conceal their tears…don’t let the world see you bleed. Jesus weeps openly, over common things like the sight of a city, or a friend who’s sick.

Throughout history we’ve been told that great men conceal their negative emotions. Diplomats, after all, must restrain their anger. Jesus doesn’t do that either. He throws furniture around in the Temple filled with religious people and then asks them how they will escape the wrath of God.

But Chesterton says there was one thing that Jesus did restrain. It was something so hard to hold back that Jesus had to go spend time alone away from the crowds. It was what drove him to spend time isolated on mountains. It was the one thing that “was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth.”

It was His Joy.

Newsworthy

So I’m away for the next couple of weeks on study break, and wouldn’t have time to write for a few days. So this past week, I sat down with my friend Luke Norsworthy for his podcast to talk about this blog series. Luke is a great interviewer and I highly recommend subscribing to his podcast. He has interviewed Scot Mcknight,  Francis Spufford, John Ortberg, Barbara Brown Taylor, Ian Cron, and me (I obviously belong in such an elite list of authors).

Seriously, every week Luke has a great new podcast, and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, this last week Luke and I talked about my new book How to Start a Riot, along with several other things that are close to our heart, like why we think the local church matters so much and why.

In this podcast, you’ll hear the story about my friend with down syndrome leading singing and praying for communion. It’s the story that best summarizes why I care about the local Church so much.

We also talk about all the interviews I’ve been doing with Christian Radio stations and the one time I kind of got hung up on in an interview. You’ll have to listen to the podcast for the explanation to that one, it’s hard to describe. {fbbcdd6b-e396-4b47-a8fa-8b5d6e015ef3}Img400

And finally we talk about one of the things that both of us have been wrestling with lately (and something I plan to write more about). It’s just this question: Who is the church for? For churched people? For unchurched people? I’ve said repeatedly that I believe the Church is the only institution in the world that exists for the people who don’t belong to her, and while I still believe that, I’ve changed my mind on what I mean.

 

 

P.S. All the proceeds for How to Start a Riot go to the Highland Church of Christ and her vision for “A Restoration Movement”

Storment’s New Addition from Jonathan Storment on Vimeo.

So a couple of months ago we find out that we were pregnant again. And after having such great kids like Eden, Samuel, and Hannah we couldn’t be happier with the news.

This is a video of our trip to the doctor yesterday. This video is our way of sharing our trip with the people we love. We had a blast doing this, Eden, Samuel and Hannah are pretty excited (as you can see) and we are, as a family, pumped to welcome a new little one into the world. So thanks for being a part of life, and for helping to welcome a new little baby into the world.

Love, the Storment’s.

p.s. please don’t comment about what gender the baby is. Let it be a surprise to everyone else.

“I have always believed that the world involved magic, now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.” -G.K. Chesterton

“Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.” -G.K. Chesterton

These days, whenever I travel to speak somewhere I always take one of our kids with me. The thing I rarely tell people, is that I don’t do this for particularly noble reasons, It’s true I don’t want them to grow up hating the church, but that’s not the only reason I take them.

I do it for me.

I love taking my kids with me because they teach me to be able to really see the world and just how wonderful it is. Watching them gives me the ability to see things for the first time again.

This past January, our (then) 3 year old, Samuel and I went to Florida. One afternoon we went to the local aquarium, it wasn’t a particularly nice aquarium, it was small and crowded, but it was one of the best trips to the aquarium I’ve ever made…because of who the crowd was made up of.

Apparently, right as Samuel and I were getting there, an entire home of mentally handicapped people got there too. As I was paying for the ticket, Samuel tugged at my shorts and whispered,” Dad, I shook her hand.”

When I looked back, I saw an elderly woman in a wheelchair with a mischievous smile who immediately shot her arm out to me for a handshake.  The entire time she was at the aquarium, she shook every person’s hand like she was running for office.

Being at an aquarium with a 3 year old is fun, being there with a three year old and a busload of mentally handicapped people is an entirely different level of wonderful.

I left there realizing that there are lots of ways to be mentally handicapped, and one of the worst is to be what these days we call “normal.”

A World of Fairies and Wizards

One of the things that stood out to me at the aquarium, was how similarly Samuel and the other guests took it all in.

Samuel on seeing a life-size  depiction of a mosquito.

Samuel on seeing a life-size depiction of a mosquito.

They were all filled with wonder. I was so busy trying to rush past each exhibit I was missing out on the mysteries of the deep, just because I had seen something before, I had lost the ability to enjoy it.  Meanwhile, a 3 year old and a bus load of people couldn’t stop pointing and squealing with glee.

And finally it dawned on me…I wish I could see what they did.

Last week I started a small blog series to introduce people to what I think is an incredible little book “Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a novelist and a Christian writing to Post-Christian England back in the 20’s. He’s writing about all the ways we’ve dis-enchanted the world, and shrunk the universe so that it can revolve around us.

Because certainty is something that really is not available to us. It goes beyond the limits of being human, and it robs us of the thing we need the most, wonder.

In one of the best parts of Chesterton’s book, his chapter on “Fairy Tales” this is how he gets at this idea:

Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales—because they find them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.

The Dull Edge of Despair

This is the problem of the modern world that Chesterton saw coming and that each of us experience daily. It is the dull edge of despair that comes with thinking that we’ve figured the universe out, and that it should bend to our whims.

His point is that this is the side effect of the way we’ve been taught to look at the world and our place in it. We’ve been taught to believe in ourselves and that we are special, but if we are a center in a story that makes for a very small story.

In his words:

So you are the Creator and Redeemer of the world: but what a small world it must be! What a little heaven you must inhabit, with angels no bigger than butterflies! How sad it must be to be God; and an inadequate God! Is there really no life fuller and no love more marvelous than yours;…We are all under the same mental calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what we really are.

Did you catch that? Chesterton calls this inability to see the world, to really see it well, a “mental calamity.”

Chesterton says that “of all the world religions, the worst is the worship of the ‘god within’” mainly because it cripples us from being able to see the world the way it really is, and to find God in it.

How much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure; if you could see them walking as they are in their sunny selfishness and their virile indifference! You would begin to be interested in them, because they were not interested in you. You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers… How much happier you would be, how much more of you there would be, if the hammer of a higher God could smash your small cosmos, scattering the stars like spangles, and leave you in the open, free like other men to look up as well as down!”

IMG_2850On the last day in Florida, Samuel and I rode Go-Karts and walked the beach picking up sea-shells. The entire time, I was watching him watch the world, and was listening to the story he was telling about it.

This picture is my desktop background. It’s of Samuel “chasing” the bad guys, and saving the world. I thought we were riding a cheap tourist attraction, but he’s slaying dragons and saving a princess.

I think his story is closer to reality than mine.

The world is larger than any one of us, and more magical than we know, and according to Chesterton that’s not just fairy tales, that’s Orthodoxy.

Why has Christian language been co-opted by corporate America? Partly because the church doesn’t know what to do with her own stuff. We can’t figure out who to use it in this new world…We’ve lost the ability to teach old dogmas new tricks. -Leonard Sweet

Translation Picture

So for the past few months, I’ve been writing about Translation, and the reason that it’s so important for churches and Christians to translate the Gospel into the context and time that we are actually living in.

But now, I’d like to start turning this series by pointing out that translation has it’s limitations. Specifically, there is a sense in which we can over-translate.

In one of his books, Leonard Sweet talks about one of the first times he went to a Starbucks. He tried to order a regular cup of coffee, and the barista just stared back at him blankly, and then he handed Sweet a booklet called Make it Your Drink”

In giant font, the booklet read “Learning the Lingo” But what struck Leonard Sweet was that this book was not a training book for new employees, it was created for the customers of Starbucks.

Not only does Starbucks expect you to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, their genius is that they demanded customers to learn a lingo. Starbucks employees are trained to help new people comprehend a language we do not yet speak. They don’t say, “I won’t serve you until you learn our language.” But they do want us to learn the language of their community, and (here’s the part churches tend to be bad at) they give resources to help teach us.

Veni Sancte Spiritus

A couple of months ago, we had the Anglican priest and author Ian Morgan Cron come preach at the Highland Church. Ian’s written a couple of great books, but the reason I wanted him to come preach was because of something he’d done at a retreat for preachers I’d recently attended. He had taken a 5th century Christian hymn, and turned it into a contemporary song. I wanted him to do this at Highland.

So he did. He came in and preached about communion, and then he lead us in singing an ancient Christian hymn that he, and some songwriters, had translated into a great contemporary style.

The name of it was “Veni Sancte Spiritus”

I know that actually sounds a bit like I’m still talking about Starbucks, but it’s not about coffee. It’s Latin, and it just means “Come Holy Spirit”

But Ian didn’t fully translate that part, he told us what it meant, and then asked us to sing it.  That may just sound incidental, but let me tell you what not translating it did. In singing those three words, not translated, we were subtly reminded that this story isn’t an American one. It didn’t originate in English, or in the 20th century.

In singing those words we were reminded that this Jesus story is a story with some meat on it’s bones. It’s a story we’ve inherited from men and women, who at great personal costs have lived out the Gospel, and they did it in other language.

In singing that song, in that way, we were reminded that we stand in solidarity with the ages that have gone before us and a Gospel that belongs to the whole world.

The Words of God

Eugene Peterson (author of the Message translation of the Bible) once said, “In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true.”  I think that’s right, I”m not asking for us to speak Christianese, but to use the words of God to tell the story of God.

In one of his several recent books, N.T Wright talks about it this way:

The enormously popular worship songs, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaces, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshipers, the steady rhythm and deep soul searching of the Psalms themselves. This I believe, is a great impoverishment. By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymnbook is, to put it bluntly, crazy. There are many ways of singing and praying the Psalms; there are styles to suit all tastes. That, indeed, is part of their enduring charm.

I think that’s right on two levels, one the Church must continually write new songs, but she must also continually reach for the same story.

Some people will read this and immediately begin to grumble that their church doesn’t sing the songs they like, but that’s not my point at all. In fact, singing songs you don’t like, in styles you don’t like,  may be a great way of growing as a Christian, you may come to see your worship as primarily singing songs that really blesses other people.

But the worship songs themselves must always be for, about, and to God.

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

Greek Orthodox Funeral Censer

This past week I went to two very different funerals. They were both deeply Christian, but from very different traditions. One was the first Greek Orthodox funeral I’ve ever attended, it was filled with incense and liturgy that’s been used for thousands of years, the other was in a Church of Christ in the metroplex. The form was incredibly different. The words were not.

In fact, at one point both funerals sang these words: “Christ is risen from the dead, he’s trampled over death by death.”

These are words from an ancient Christian hymn and one sang it with drums and the other chanted it while swinging incense, but they both sang the same words.

Here’s the thing I don’t think we realize when we are talking about worship. Everyone of us is going to sing someone else’s words…I would love it, if the words were God’s words.

Because if Scripture is right, when God speaks He creates worlds.

I think they still do.

So let’s take a lesson from Starbucks. Don’t translate everything.

g-k-chesterton

G.K Chesterton pictured writing and looking just a little bit grumpy

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’d like to do a short blog series on one of the most important books most of us have probably never read.

Recently, I read G.K. Chesterton’s magical book “Orthodoxy” I’ve heard Chesterton quoted at length my entire life, but I had no idea how wonderful I’d find this book.

After all, Orthodoxy isn’t exactly the sexiest marketing title, and considering that it’s 80 years old, you’d think it would be beyond crusty. Reading it, it was as if he was responding to the latest blogs. And reading him, I get the impression he would be responding to all the latest blogs, with a cheeky defiant joy that makes us realize not just that we are arguing about the wrong things, but we might just be arguing about the in the wrong ways. 

Defiant Joy

Chesterton, names names and calls out people’s positions, but a cursory reading of his life, you find out that these are people he’s friends with, and who he loves. He seems to have the rare gift of disagreeing agreeably, and you can’t help reading him without having a sense of his great and defiant joy.

And the reason that Chesterton writes Orthodoxy, or defends it, is because of the radical nature of it all.  Here’s how he says it:

Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion. The man from the yacht thought he was the first to find England; I thought I was the first to find Europe. I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.

The context of this book, is a world very much like the one I find myself in. He’s writing in early Post-Christian England and he’s trying to explain the history of the Church, the reason She’s done and thought the things she does.

He’s trying to explain the Gospel in a world where moral relativism and secularism is slowing chipping away at the way people view their world.

And he’s not trying to stop it, he’s trying to re-enchant us…by reminding us of just how enchanting the Jesus story has always been.

And then it dawned on me. This is a word that must be brought back to the Christian vocabulary. In a time when Conservative and Progressive are the easiest ink to write someone off with, orthodoxy reaches for a metaphor past politics. It reaches for the metaphor of the wisdom of the ages.

There was something so enchanting about reading Chesterton’s gospel-soaked view of the world. A world where sunrises happen not by some natural law, but by a joy filled God who says each morning “do it again!” There was something disarming about reading someone who doesn’t have an agenda for any of today’s controversies’, but has a whole new light to shed on all of them.

He writes about how the Church has always had to fight to define boundaries and a strong center, against ways of making the Gospel either too worldly or too other-worldly. She’s always working out ways to bring orthodoxy to bear on the day she’s in.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.

Which sounds like a hard claim to back up. Not a lot of people sign up for a lecture on Orthodoxy, but only because they don’t know what Chesterton does.

Christianity: the Lion Tamer

Joy brackets Jesus’s life on earth.

Lion-tamer1At the beginning of his life when Mary goes to Elizabeth, John the Baptist leaps for joy as a baby, and Mary sings, When Jesus has been raised from the dead, the Prodigal Peter sees him from a boat and leaps into the water for joy.

And this is orthodoxy…It is, in the words of Chesterton, “creating boundaries so that good things may run wild.”

Here’s how he describes it:

Let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious…Here it is enough to notice that if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs.

Did you catch that? The Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas…she was a lion tamer! But God and the Church went in anyway. The purpose of Orthodoxy, isn’t to restrict and bind, but for human happiness…not the trivial kinds of happiness that we think of today, but the deep seated kinds of ways we have to find our place in the universe and to find that our place is good.

We live in a time and place that values individual freedom above all, but freedom must not just be from something, it must be for something. And for that to happen we must find the limits of freedom and the purposes of the God who gave them to us.

This is the joy of Orthodoxy. It is finding the walls, so that God’s good things may run wild.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan
and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.

-Psalms 74

Pepperdine picture

I’m spending this week in Malibu. It’s a bit like Heaven, and not because of the view or the weather. I always love coming to the Pepperdine Lectureships, and this year has been exceptionally great. My friend Mike Cope has done a great job putting together a program of incredible people talking about things that are right in their wheelhouse. There’s lots of long meals with good friends and worship…that’s how it’s like Heaven.

But not because of the ocean. Because in Heaven there will be no more sea.

After all, that’s where the monsters are.

Monsters of the Deep

One of the more surprising themes in ancient Jewish mythology was the idea of Leviathan. The Monster of the Sea. Leviathan was kind of the Lock-Ness Monster of the ancient world. It was the sea monster of the ocean. In fact, when after the Old Testament character of Job loses everything, he curses the day he was born and invites others to do so as well:

May those who curse days curse that day,
those who are ready to rouse Leviathan.

It’s assumed that all the things that are happening to Job are somehow related to this sea monster. Which would totally have made sense to the Hebrew people reading this. God creates the world in Genesis by holding back the chaos of the sea.

And Leviathan was seen as the Monster of Chaos. As Job looks back over the life and loss he has just suffered the one word that would describe his emotional state and well-being is chaos. His world has been turned upside down and the Monsters seem to be winning.

So I think it’s interesting that when God shows up to comfort and give some perspective to the suffering Job, he mentions the Leviathan in his long list of job responsibilities that come with being God.

In fact all of Chapter 41 is God describing what the sea monster is.

Its snorting throws out flashes of light;
its eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Flames stream from its mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from its nostrils
as from a boiling pot over burning reeds.
21 Its breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from its mouth.
22 Strength resides in its neck;
dismay goes before it.

Iron it treats like straw
and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make it flee;
slingstones are like chaff to it.
29 A club seems to it but a piece of straw;
it laughs at the rattling of the lance.

Nothing on earth is its equal—
a creature without fear.
34 It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.”

Does this sound like a Michael Bay movie waiting to happen or what?

But God’s point to Job isn’t how impressive the Leviathan is, His point is that the monster of chaos has been, or will be, subdued by God.

Ancient depiction of Leviathan

Ancient depiction of Leviathan

I know some days that’s hard to believe.

Easter-Time

So we are in a season of the church calendar called Easter-time. It’s the time of year where all God’s people celebrate that God raised Jesus from the dead. But that’s not the whole point, the main point of Easter was who God raised from the dead. 

Jesus had been going all over having meals, throwing parties with all the wrong kinds of people. He had intentionally chosen the metaphor of a banquet to tell a story.

That sounds strange to most of us, we think of Christianity as a set of ideas that you believe in, or a way of looking at the world. But Jesus’ vision was of the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God is not something that you just talk about. It was something that you ate.

C.S. Lewis once said that the Church doesn’t need better arguments, we need better metaphors. I think he’s right, and I think the banquet is the best one.

Apparently so did Jesus.

In throwing these kinds of parties, Jesus was tapping into something that every Jewish person would have been aware of. The idea of the Messianic banquet, a party that the prophets envisioned as being big enough for the whole world to belong to.

That’s what Jesus was doing…throwing parties and showing what God was like.

But, like Rick Warren, I want to know “what was Jesus eating?” The Gospel rarely tells us details like that, but when they do, we should pay attention.

Here’s how one scholar, Dennis Smith, talks about this:

[One} part of the messianic banquet tradition is the myth of Leviathan, one of the names given to the primordial sea monster representing the power of the sea, whose defeat in a cosmic battle is a constituent part of the combat motif in many ancient Near Eatern creation myths. In the Old Testmaent, the destruction of Leviathian by God represents God’s power over chaos. The idea that Leviathan is not only destroyed but also provided as food becomes a symbol for the provision of divine food for the righteous in the new age. The widespread fish symbolism that occurs in Jewish and Christian art as well as in the New Testament has been interpreted to signify fish as an eschatological food, an idea developed at least partially from the Leviathan myth.

My favorite chapter in the Bible, has got to be John 21. God has just raised Jesus from the dead, and Jesus returns directly to the disciples who had just betrayed him a few days earlier.

They’ve gone back to their previous jobs and lost all hope. The only man who’d ever believed in them had been summarily executed on a Roman cross and there was nothing left for them to do but to despair.

But on this, the morning of the first Easter, Jesus walks up and reveals himself, by once again helping them catch fish. Peter jumps into the water (something that would have terrified the average Jew) and swims to Jesus.

The rest of the disciples catch up “dragging the net ashore. It was full of large fish”

Now John writes his Gospel the way Terrence Malick makes movies. It’s filled with symbolism and signs, darkness and light, monsters and fish.

And now John tells us that they ate fish for breakfast.

Just like the Messianic banquet they’d always dreamed about. Except this time it was no dream. Death had lost the battle. And Jesus eats pieces of fish for breakfast. The thing that has terrorized the world since the Fall, the monster, is just a meal.

Then Jesus tells Peter (who had jumped into the chaos because He had seen Jesus defeat it) to carry on doing the one thing that, in light of the resurrection, meant something totally new, yet had characterized Jesus’ entire ministry:

“Feed my sheep.”

On April 21, 2014

Seeing Noah

Russell Crowe in Noah

Last week, the Abilene Reporter News asked me and another area pastor (and one of my good friends) Cliff Stewart to review the movie Noah. But since I wrote this blog a few weeks ago, I’ve had quite a few conversations and several emails asking what I thought about it.

And since I’ve written publicly about why I think Christians should give the movie Noah a fair shake, I thought it would be appropriate to share just what I thought about it now that I’ve seen it. Here’s an expanded version of what I wrote for the ARN:

When they asked Cliff and I to tell us what we thought about the movie Noah we figured that meant we had better go see it first. I’m in the season of life with 3 young kids where the DVD release is when the movie comes out for my wife and me.

But we made a date. We saw the movie. We liked it.

So we’re no Siskel and Ebert, but here’s our best shot at telling what we liked about it and why…

It’s tough being a Bible character.

Sometimes I think we forget that. We romanticize people in the lion den’s or rainbow colored coats and lose the ability to hear the story the way it was first heard by the people who were originally telling it.

I’ll never forget watching Noah in this movie sit in the Ark hearing the people outside. When we read that story in a coffee shop during our quiet time, or in a sermon safely in some church building we forget just how disturbing some of the Bible stories really are.

Turns out the story of Noah is darker than most of us who grew up in religious settings remember. It’s a story of a God who takes evil very seriously. In a time when we replace words like “sin” with softer words like “mistakes” it’s important to remember that God thinks what we do in His good world has consequences.

I didn’t expect to like Noah as much as I did. I thought it was visually stunning and it did the one thing that I needed. It made the familiar story strange to me again. I’ve grown up hearing this story, I’ve read/preached/and heard this story a thousand times, and last night I felt like I was hearing it for the first time again.

I didn’t expect I would find the movie Noah as wonderful as I did.. I use that word intentionally. This movie was full of something that our world seems to be sorely lacking…Wonder. There were several scenes that were just breathtaking. Like the way Creation was pictured or how the animals seemed to be almost magically drawn to the Ark.

What I loved about this movie was that it portrayed the world as enchanted…and anything seemed possible.

It would be easy to argue about the interpretation that the director took, and I could find plenty to critique, but It’s an imaginative retelling of the story of Noah, sure a lot of it very imaginative, but the story of Noah is definitely in there.

The Failure of the Flood

But…God feels distant in Noah, He comes in dreams and not very often. It would be easy to walk out of this movie and complain that God doesn’t have a starring role, but that misses the point of the original story of Noah.

The point of the flood in Noah is that it doesn’t work. God purges the world of evil…only to find Noah a few days later drunk, naked and passed out. As if the ark washed up on the Jersey Shore.

The point of the Noah story in Genesis is that this kind of force doesn’t work. That’s why a few chapters later God calls Abraham, creates a people and tells them He wants them to be a blessing to the world.

That’s how God is going to deal with evil now.

If you’ve ever watched the news, and wondered where God is, why he doesn’t act. If you’ve ever wondered where God was in the Holocaust or when tragedies happen like the school stabbing last week, or the systemic poverty you see around you. Noah is a movie for you.

If you’ve ever wished we could just vote the right legislation in to force everyone to act right, if you’ve ever wished we could get rid of the bad people and purge the world of evil…Noah’s story is a story for you. Because ultimately God’s way of dealing with evil here doesn’t work.

Turns out evil is even in the people on the boat, and they bring it into the new world with them.

So God’s not going to flood the world again. But he’s still just as concerned about evil, and still wanting to do something about it. Turns out God is very present these days. He just might be wearing your shoes and trying to bless people through you.Russell Crowe as Noah in Darren Aranofsky's biblical epic

I’m glad I went to see Noah, it reminded me of how seriously God takes His creation and just how God plans to deal with evil these days. Through His people.

Stained Glass Theaters

It’s important to remember that historically the Church around the world has embraced this kind of cultural translation. Stained Glass windows were the original movies, and throughout Christian history, Noah has always been a story that our artists have been drawn to. Whether it’s Noah being portrayed as a Cucumber in Veggietales, or Eugene Peterson translation of the story into the Message, when we translate a story into a different format there is something that happens. You don’t have to agree with it, but if you are a Christian I think you’d be well served to see the movie.

I think that the first people who heard this story would have had more questions than answers. I think this movie does that well. If you’d like to talk to someone drop by a church somewhere, or meet up with a friend, and start a conversation.

You may not think the movie was as Biblical as it should have been, or you may not even care, but we hope you appreciate that we, at least went to see it a Biblical way…two by two.

I just wish Brother Cliff wouldn’t have hogged all the popcorn.

*The section Failure of the Flood did not appear in the newspaper for brevity’s sake