Archives For Christianity

On October 21, 2014

In the Flesh: Body Matters

Jesus is the Word made flesh, the truth narrated in bone and bowel, space and time. That is the story He is.” Frederick Buechner

In the Flesh Blog

 

It’s hard to have a newborn baby and a subscription to the New York Times…but sometimes it helps.

Over the past few weeks, it’s begun to seem like a pretty bad timing to bring a baby into the world, I don’t know what you’re take is on the news but I’m overwhelmed by the onslaught of wars and rumors of wars, plagues and politics and riots and racism.

It seems like my newsfeed varies between tragic and hysteria.

I’m also struck by the great irony of the way we live in the world compared to the way we talk about it.

We talk about the color of someone’s skin as if it is irrelevant to their experience in the world, and we talk about Ebola and Isis as if they were the plot points in a chapter of a Tim LaHaye novel.

Body Language

We’re rightfully outraged at ISIS beheading people but have a hard time finding the words to describe why we we find it so disturbing. Christians are rightfully concerned about stopping Ebola (after all there is a reason that so many hospitals were started by or named after Christian Saints)..but why?

Christians today, often come across as quaint and antique, a throwback to another era. In the public spheres we often get hemmed into talking about the Christian view of sexuality as if that was all (or even the main part) of following Jesus. But the only way to understand a Christian view of sexuality is to understand the deeper logic of Christian theology toward the world and our bodies.

Christians have believed for thousands of years that this world matters, which means matter matters. God created the world and thinks it is good, including our bodies. Christian theology believes that our bodies are gifts from a good God. We didn’t make them, we don’t sustain them and ultimately we won’t raise them.

The past few days, I’ve been struck by the beauty of holding a new baby, a tiny little body, complete with all the necessary equipment of fingers, toes and lungs. I’m struck by the realization that in the maternity ward we are aware of something that we pretend isn’t true in the funeral home.

Often at funerals, we hear language about people leaving the “shell” that is their body. That language is fine for someone who is just trying to make sense of death and give people some kind of hope for an afterlife, but it is not Christian language.

Because our bodies matter, and that is a very ancient idea.

Flesh and Faith

A few weeks ago, in the Times. Op-ed pundit David Brooks points out that when secular society talks about life and the physical body, we are forced to reach for words like “sacred” to talk about it:

Well, the human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli.

David Brooks is talking about the recent beheadings of American journalists by ISIS, and the moral outrage that follows. His point is that the outrage is disproportionate to the American narrative. If we are all just ‘spirits’ longing to be freed from our bodies that are prisons (what the first Christians called ‘heresy’) than why does this strike such a deep minor chord in us?

Brooks goes on to say, because this isn’t any form of the Biblical vision of the world or the God who Created it:

Ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam. The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation. These are faiths that love the material world, especially the body. They’re faiths that understand that the high and the low yearn for each other, and that every human body has some piece of the eternal, even if you’re fighting against him.

In other words, Isis is the Muslim flavor of the gnostic Christian “this-world-is-bad” that has been floating around for the past couple of hundred years. They are willing to kill a body, but only because they don’t know it’s worth.

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

Catacombs of St. Callixtus

One of the biggest reasons that the early Christians were persecuted was that they insisted on this strange idea that the their physical bodies would be resurrected.

A little over a decade ago, I got to go explore the catacombs in Rome. It was miles and miles of underground caves dug by Christians because they believed in caring for the bodies of the dead.

Whether you are a Christian or not, you have to admit that this is pretty impressive, and some of the best evidence of an actual resurrection. They risked their lives digging these catacombs because they believed that God had started something in Jesus body that had something to do with their own.

They believed that what God had done for Jesus, would someday happen to them.

Bodies matter, and the body that you have been given is a gift, no matter how you have been taught to feel about it. It’s not a prison (though for some it may feel that way) it’s not a commodity (though others may try to use it as such), it’s a gift from God, in fact, it is even a window into the image of God.

I like the way Jonathan Martin says it:

 Spirituality is not a bad word for [Christianity], but the danger is always that we make it “something more” than the taste of brittle bread and sweet wine, the feel of wet flesh and calloused feet…This way of being human is not for people who don’t like to dance or make love”

Your body is a gift from God and He’s not done with it.

photo-1So this past week, I did another podcast with my good friend Luke Norsworthy (I’m a glutton for punishment) Luke’s podcast has recently cracked the top 100 in religion podcasts on ITunes, so he’s obviously doing something right.

During this podcast, Luke shares his love for Mariah Carey, and how he lacks the ability to encourage, but loves to receive encouragement.

We talk about the great lineup of interviews he had on the show in the month of September, and how it applies to our lives of ministry, and our lives as Jesus followers. This interview spans everything from the way we’ve carved up the world into conservative/liberal to the challenges being parents has brought to our theology.

We talked about Dr. Amy Levine new book on the parables and how her interpretations are difficult to preach, but important for Christians to listen to. In the words of one of my preacher friends, Levine serves as a good speed bump for anyone who is tempted to say, “In the first century this is what Jewish people believed” as if anyone could summarize what all Christians believed 2000 years from now.

We talked about Peter Enns new, and somewhat controversial book about the Bible, and I try to hold Luke’s evasive little feet to the fire for a change.

One of the reasons that I appreciate this particular interview, was because I ask myself the question all the time, “Who gets to be conservative?” I believe that in many ways the people who consider themselves the most conservative are the ones who have added the most recent things to the Christian tradition. But to understand that more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.

We talked about Richard Rohr, and his ability to encourage the least of these, and his challenge to Christians who grew up in more rigid Christian homes to not become cynical about their background but learn to appreciate the way you were raised.

And then finally we talked about Scot McKnight’s wonderful new book “Kingdom Conspiracy” (a book I highly recommend) and why the way we talk about the Kingdom of God matters, and how it might not be what we thought it was.

Anyway, Luke’s podcast is one of the best ones out there right now, and one I listen to every week. It’s challenging and funny and one of the best ways to get to know some of our best Christian leaders and thinkers out in the broader Christian world, and if you’d like to subscribe to it, you can find his podcast here.

“On the day of judgment, God will ask only one question: ‘Did you enjoy my world?'” -Ancient Jewish saying

“Like all truly mystical things, love is rooted deeply and rightfully in this world and this flesh.” -Katherine Anne Porter

In the Flesh Blog

 

 

It’s interesting to me that Passion is a marketing buzz word these days for everything from TV shows to cologne. Most of us want passion in our lives, and more of it, but few of us make the kinds of decisions that lead to passion.

Passion after all is first defined (by the dictionary!) as the final 24 hours of Jesus’ life. It is to care about something more than yourself and to find that this care might require all of yourself…including your body.

Sex for Dummies

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a fascinating front page article about a new development in the entertainment industry…the development is people watching video games. At first, you might not think that this is a big deal, because video games have been around for years, but the Times was covering a conference where thousands of people were gathering, not to play, but to watch professionals play video games. 

It’s ironic that the Times ran this front page story, because just a few pages later, on the same day, Philosophy professor Richard Kearney wrote an op-ed piece about what our obsession with technology is doing to us.

Dr. Kearney noted that in his classes when he talks about the body and touch, sex will inevitably come up, but unlike generations in the past, today’s students aren’t having sex to be with a person, they are having sex with an anatomically correct husk.

I was a Singles minister for many years, and I grieve the hook-up culture that we’ve created. I know the kind of damage that it does to a person’s soul. But the real twist in Dr. Kearney’s observation is that he thinks it’s only a symptom of a greater problem. Today’s hook-up culture exists in large part because online dating and mating services like Match.com and Tinder allow people to share messages that signal their level of willingness to have sex, and under what conditions…all almost purely anonymously.

Sex, connecting with a real human being, in the most intimate of ways, is now mediated digitally, replacing the ancient community or the priest, Tinder doesn’t require you to pledge your life in submission to the good of the other and to fight for that person’s soul. It’s just asks you to swipe left.

But, and here is Dr. Kearney’s big observation:

What is often thought of as a “materialist” culture is arguably the most “immaterialist” culture imaginable — vicarious, by proxy, and often voyeuristic…[We] see everything at a distance but [it's] touched by nothing. Are we perhaps entering an age of “excarnation,” where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image. Incarnation invests flesh; excarnation divests it.

It’s not that we are a materialistic culture, we are anything but that. Materialism is the idea that this world is all there is, but we’re not even paying attention to this world that much anymore.

Dr. Kearney goes on to state that in all actuality, pornography is, the flip side of [his interpretation of] Puritanism. Both require an alienation from flesh — one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.

I think he’s right about the pornography and wrong about the Puritans.Puritan Valentines

Hot and Holy

Because contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith doesn’t discount this world or our bodies, in fact, it takes it all the more seriously because we believe that God entered into it.

In fact, and I can’t believe I’m about to write this sentence, Puritans were incredibly sexual, passionate people who did the hard work of channelling that energy toward only one person in their life.

 One unfortunately named Puritan, Thomas Hooker wrote, “The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes.” He adds: 

“She lies in his Bosom, and his heart trusts in her, which forceth all to confess, that the stream of his affection, like a mighty current, runs with full tide and strength.”

Hallmark eat your heart out.

The problem with our society is that we can’t imagine sex like the Puritans. We can’t imagine a world where sexuality doesn’t produce something, where it’s not useful to be turned into a commodity for our self-esteem or money like prostitution or pornography and then sold to the highest bidder. (Today’s pornography industry is larger than the revenues of the top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, and Netflix).

The biggest problem with pornography is that it divorces sex from the act of giving. Sex becomes all about experiencing, receiving, trying to understand the mystery…in a word, sex becomes a commodity to consume.  But the Puritans talked about sex as benevolence to the other.

"Sexology" book by Puritan Press for a Happy Marriage

“Sexology” book by Puritan Press for a Happy Marriage

The Puritans took sex so seriously that if either spouse didn’t give “due benevolence” it could be grounds for church discipline! There is actually an example on record, where a husband was kicked out of fellowship with the church for “neglecting his wife” by not making love with her for a long period of time!  

Because the Puritans knew that sex is a gift that you give and are given.

In her memoir Grace, the preacher Mary Cartledgehayes recounts her final year with her husband as he was dying of cancer. She writes about how they decided to savor every moment of life they had left together, and ultimately how they decided to make love every day until he died. Here’s how she talks about it:

To breathe, to laugh, to curse, to praise, to weep, to sit in the midst of perfect order, to stand in the center of perfect chaos, to bread bread, to eat three strawberries, to touch a piano’s keys, to kiss a lover’s skin, to birth, to baptize, to bless, to bury, to live , to die – either it is all holy or none of it is holy”

And then she closes her book with these words:

“And this is what I know. It is all holy.

On August 12, 2014

The Adventure Of Life

Tinkerbell: “So… your adventures are over?”

“Oh, no. To live… to live would be an awfully big adventure.” -Peter Pan/Robin Williams from the movie “Hook”

Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

 

Almost everything I needed to know in life I learned in a Robin Williams movie.

Every role he played carried a certain kind of pathos with it that made you think that this person was really alive, and somehow the world was better for it. Williams gave me a glimpse into what it meant to be a good husband (Good Will Hunting) and showed me what it looked like to be a good dad (Mrs. Doubtfire/Hook) He showed us what it looked like to love our neighbor (Patch Adams) and how to love our life. (Dead Poet’s Society)

And so it was a bit like being kicked in the gut when I heard the news last night that Robin Williams had died….presumably by taking his own life.

I know from personal experience, that often comedy originates from a place of pain. After all, those who know death are often the best at really knowing the value of life. But so much of Williams work actually dealt with the very tragic kind of story that his own ended with. I’m thinking of the Dead Poets Society, and those scenes in the movie when Williams helps his students deal with the tragic suicide of one of their friends. Or the scenes in the movie, What Things May Come, watching Williams deal with his wife committing suicide and him going to Hell and back to save her.

If you’re looking for a parable for the human condition, Robin Williams has given us more than his share.

Throughout his personal life, Williams struggled with his own relationships and demons, addicted to cocaine (which he said was God’s way of saying “You’re making too much money”) He checked himself into rehab more than once for alcoholism. All of this was public knowledge, and maybe it was what made us relate to his characters so well. Robin Williams brought all of his humanity into his work.

But why am I writing about this?

We’re Not Alone

A few months ago, we had a prayer and response time at Highland (the church I serve) where we invited people to go to the tables that were placed around the worship space and write down different things that they were dealing with as a way of prayer and confession. Later that week, I heard something from a friend of mine that broke my heart. My friend is a recovering alcoholic and to say he has lead a difficult life would be an understatement. He was in the worship service on that day we all wrote prayers down and he told me that later he snuck back in our auditorium to read the cards…he wanted to see what people had written down.

Because he said, “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t alone.”

In my experience, most of the people who come to church are “fine.” Williams himself was a member of the Episcopal church (he called it “Catholic Lite: All the rites, half the guilt”) And as someone who has done the funerals of friends who have taken their own lives, I happen to know that suicide is not something that religious people are exempt from.

The love of God will not keep us from mental illness or depression.

But that’s not to say nothing can help.

Did you know that Robin Williams and Christopher Reeves were old friends from college? And while it’s easy to be friends with Superman, it’s another story to be friends with a quadriplegic washed-up actor. Williams was both. After Reeve’s tragic horse-riding accident, Robin went to visit him several times, pretending to be a zanier version of Patch Adams just to cheer him up.

For my money, one of the best scenes of any movie that’s ever been made, is in Good Will Hunting. Will Hunting is this abused, orphan genius, who’s good at everything but apparently good for nothing. He pushes people away before they can get too close and when the psychologist played by Robin Williams starts to get at the source of the real pain in Will’s life, Will begins to push back. Literally. He becomes violent, yelling swear words at Williams character, and finally Robin Williams just says “It’s not your fault”Good Will Hunting

All the abuse, all the pain, all the secrets…”It’s not your fault” He just says that over and over and over.

When I heard the news last night about Robin Williams, one of the first thoughts to come to me was I wish he would have had someone like that to hug him and hold onto him, and just keep saying “It’s not your fault”

Sick With Secrets

My alcoholic friends in recovery often tell me that “We’re only as sick as our secrets” and Jesus keeps persisting to me throughout the Gospel that it’s possible to have all our junk in order on the outside and still just be a shell of a person. The word Jesus uses for this is “Hypocrite” or actor. And it’s a word that’s so captivated the world’s imagination that even people who don’t believe in Jesus use it as a critique of those who follow him (and those who don’t).

The goal of Jesus seems to be to get us all to realize that each of us have both an outside and an inside and what we do with our inside matters just as much, if not more, than what we show on the outside.

Which leads me, in a rambling kind of way, to say this. I’ve had to go through counseling several times throughout the past few years. Sometimes for my own addictions, sometimes to work through my own pain, and always to work through my own sin and idols. I  imagine I’ll always need counseling in some form, and I realize as I type this that I don’t talk about that piece of my life that much. I’ve never tried to hide it, but I haven’t been broadcasting it as much as other parts of my life.

But this is not the way of Jesus, and if each of us start trying to live out what’s going on inside of us with a bit more integrity, it might just be one last gift that Williams gives the world.

In a statement released yesterday, Robin’s wife said

On behalf of Robin’s family, we are asking for privacy during our time of profound grief. As he is remembered, it is our hope the focus will not be on Robin’s death, but on the countless moments of joy and laughter he gave to millions.”

And so I hope we can. Because in the words of Peter Pan, “To die will be a great adventure, but to live…to live would be the greatest adventure of all.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), and if you live in Abilene, or belong to the Highland Church we have a licensed counseling center that I highly recommend (from personal experience) that can be reached at 325-201-3030.

On July 27, 2014

The Good Samaritan

Picture from the NY Times of Dr. Brantly in Liberia

Picture from the NY Times of Dr. Brantly in Liberia

I don’t know Kent Brantly, but judging from my social media feeds most of my friends do. And from what they’re saying about him, I wish I did.

Kent and I are the same age, we both went to ACU, a Christian University in town, where he started working toward becoming a doctor.

A few months ago, Kent was working in a private medical practice in Texas, but he left that to be a medical missionary working with Samaritan’s Purse.  Just last week he was pictured in the New York times story on the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Liberia. When the outbreak occurred, his wife and two kids came back to Texas, but Kent didn’t. He stayed because he couldn’t abandon these people who needed him, in the moments that they needed him most.

And then Kent contracted Ebola.

All over my little world, I’m reading status’ shared and prayers offered for the Brantly family and specifically for Kent’s healing. It’s a heartbreaking story of a young father who gets the very disease he’s sacrificed so much to stop.

As a father, with children the same age, I’ve had a dull ache in the pit of stomach since I heard this story. I hope, along with lots of other people, for nothing less than a full recovery for them. I noticed last night, as I was reading through all the different prayer requests on Facebook for their family, it seems like most of us are reaching for the same language to pray for them.

We are asking for a miracle.

Miracle is an interesting word, because it’s actually not in the Bible that much…just a couple of dozen times, mostly in the New Testament. And it’s almost always referring to signs that point to the Kingdom of God, sometimes they were signs that involved things like impossible healings.

But when most of us American Christians think about a miracle what we are thinking about is really another word: “Super-natural”

We are wanting something that is outside of the natural realm of experience.

Survival of the Fittest

Charles Darwin’s great contribution to the world was his revelation about the way the world, and the species in it, have developed. His research helped to explain how death and survival were tied together, and helped us understand a little better how the universe worked.

This is a crude shorthand sketch of what Darwin taught us, but it basically was that the weakest, most vulnerable species, were the ones who death would eventually sort out of the gene pool.

You’ve heard of this as the survival of the fittest. It just means that death and disease force adaptation and change, sickness is something to be avoided or overcome, but ultimately (and hopefully later rather than sooner) each of us will die and our little experience of life will be a part of the grand thing that everything and everyone is progressing toward.

Some people like Nietzche saw the outworking of this theory very clearly. This is why Nietzche hailed the upcoming Uber-man that would develop because all the sick, weak, and poor people would be weeded out by natural selection.

That’s natural.

Dr. Brantly caring for patients in his Hazmat suit

Dr. Brantly caring for patients in his Hazmat suit

But throughout Christian history Jesus followers have chosen the most un-Darwinian like subjects to love. All because of the bizarre things that Jesus’ said 2000 years ago, Things like “Whatever you do for the sick, poor and needy, you’ve actually done for Me” To those of us in the Bible Belt, they are little phrases sound like they belong stitched and framed in a calligraphy font or on a porcelain commemorative plate.

But this is exactly what the earliest Christians were famous for.

In the mid 3rd century a plague broke out in the city of Rome that was so severe it killed 5,000 people in just one day. It wasn’t Ebola this time, but in it’s day it was just as deadly.

People responded, just like you’d imagine, with great panic. Everyone fled as quickly as possible, they abandoned the city in such a hurry that they actually left people dying in the streets and dead bodies unburied throughout the city. They had learned through thousands of years of experience that to touch these bodies would be risking the transfer of the disease.

But…

In that city, there was a small community who followed a man who would touch lepers while they were unclean; and who expected his disciples to take care of the sick.

One early church father, a guy named Dionysius wrote about what these early Christians did during moments like the great plagues:

“Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need, and ministering to them in Christ. And with them departed this life seemingly happy, for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

Un-Natural Selection

Last night when I was praying over this little family and the turmoil they must be going through I wondered if they knew just what they were doing when they went over there, I wonder if we know what we’re doing when we’re praying for them.

I see all my friends asking for a miracle, and I want what we all want too, for this family to be restored and whole.

But don’t get so caught up asking for a miracle that you fail to see the one that’s right in front of you. Someone who didn’t have to, left a life of privilege to bear in the suffering of the world. Someone who’s very education depended on learning about natural selection, said something wildly unnatural like “I’m not going to leave these dying people when they need me the most.”

Our wounded world needs some good Samaritans, and it turns out she’s still got a few.

That a family who didn’t have to, would have a heart so un-naturally attuned to bearing in the suffering of the world, and even daring to draw some of it to themselves…That’s more than just humanitarian aid.

It’s a miracle.

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

On April 1, 2014

Am I Leading a Rebellion?

“The world has only seen One Christian and they killed Him.” -Nietzsche

Protest the Status QuoRecently in the New York Times, Ross Douthat asked the question that’s been haunting me for years. Honestly, it was a question that I was surprised to see asked in the NY Times, because it seems like the evidence is piling up to that it is a question that has already been answered.

Here’s the question: “Is the Church good for the world?”

Douthat, is a Christian, he’s also an articulate conservative columnist for the Times, and I appreciate the way he consistently engages with the larger ideas and questions that are floating around the Western culture. But this one struck pretty close to home.

Here’s what he said:

Here is a seeming paradox of American life. One the one hand, there is a broad social-science correlation between religious faith and various social goods — health and happiness, upward mobility, social trust, charitable work and civic participation. Yet at the same time, some of the most religious areas of the country — the Bible Belt, the deepest South — struggle mightily with poverty, poor health, political corruption and social disarray.

In my experience, this observation is spot on.

I see the local Church as the hope of the world. But I have so many days and weeks where I realize that we are just as much a part of the problem as we are the solution.

Working With Jesus

The past few weeks, I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Mark, studying for a future sermon series, and one of the more striking things about Mark is how often the disciples get it wrong. In ways that are eerily familiar. They struggle with power and greed and racism and fear of the stranger and violent rage toward people they don’t like.

But Jesus continually keeps correcting and rebuking and challenging their whole notion of what it means to be a people of God. Until…

Toward the end of the Gospel of Mark, Judas betrays Jesus, he comes up to Jesus with a few Roman soldiers in tow and gives him the most treacherous of betrayals. He gives Jesus a kiss, and Jesus gives him a question.

“Am I leading a rebellion? That you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?”

Jesus’ question to Judas is pretty practical. Basically, he’s asking Judas, “is this really necessary? Name one time, you’ve seen me angry…Okay, name two.”

But I think the reason Judas brought the National Guard along with him wasn’t so much because of Jesus…I think it was because he knew the other guys he’d spent the last few years with. And rightfully so, the first thing Peter does is reach for what everyone else in that day would have reached for in that situation…the hilt of a sword.

Which means that Jesus’ question to Judas is also one a question for Peter.

“Peter, am I leading a rebellion or not?”

Because make no mistake about it, no matter how rebellious Peter’s swift move to action looks, it’s not a rebellion of the status quo, just an attempt at realigning it.

It is the exact opposite of all the things that Jesus has spent the last 3 years teaching Peter and in a moment of crisis his default move is back to the place he started.

Which is why it’s a question I’ve been asking a lot lately too.

To Live in Protest

Jesus people tend to buy into the same cultural idols and values, we divorce at the same rates, we are more segregated than almost any other sector of society, we use money the same way, we think of power, prestige just as much as other people.

Nietzsche once said that the world has only seen One Christian and they killed him. I get that. It’s easy to look around and see the inconstancy between Jesus and the people who follow Him. And the question seems to raise itself more and more often. “Is the Church really good for the world?”

But Douthat’s article didn’t just raise the question, he also gave a hopeful answer.Christian Protest

Just like the way Dr. King fought the racism of Southern America in the 60’s and Bishop Tutu fought apartheid in South Africa last decade, the answer isn’t to jettison the Christian faith it is to lean more into it.

The problem, according to Douthat, is that Christianity names all the flawed attempts that we have for living a good life, it gives us a vision for what the life in the Kingdom of God looks like and then the resources in which to live into that kind of life.

But if we just take the prescription and not the medicine we are in the words of the book of James “like someone who looked in a mirror and then just walked away without making the necessary adjustments.”

This is why surveys show that people who are invested in Christian community fare much better at the expectations of what a Jesus-following person should be like in the world. But people who are raised with a Christian way of thinking (like mercy, empathy, fidelity) but become dis-enfranchised from a local Christian community, or just nominally attached to it, find themselves doing much worse than people who have no faith at all.

Here’s how Douthat points it out:

For nonbelievers inclined to look down on the alleged backwardness of the Bible Belt, it would be helpful to recognize that at least some of the problems they see at work reflect traditional religion’s growing weakness rather than its potency.

Is the Church good for the world? In a word: Yes.

But only when she is different from the world. When She rebels against the way things are, in the ways that Jesus would.

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One of the more interesting things about the Bible is what happens when God reveals Himself to people. They are always terrified, they say things like “Go away…or I will die.” And then they say something  peculiar like”Who am I?” When God reveals Himself to people, the people always become acutely aware of how broken they are.

They become in a word…modest.

When we talk about modesty, immediately what probably comes to our minds is cleavage or short skirts…I notice we rarely apply it to shirtless, or provocatively dressed men. As a person who struggles with self-delusion, I’ve made the personal commitment to never wear tight clothes or short shorts, you know, just to keep others from stumbling.

But when the Bible talks about modesty, much of the time it’s not talking about the same things we talk about. For example, go back and read Paul’s letter to Timothy, or Peter’s letter to the church of his day.

Most of the time, when they are talking about modesty (in a world very much like ours) they are talking about economic modesty. The word they have for the women of their day is not to feel the need to showcase how much you have…in other words, because of God, you shouldn’t dress to show how well off you are.

But modesty also has another meaning in Bible, and by this meaning, Christians today are rarely modest.

Which is not a new thing.

I Know You Are, But What Am I

In the 17th century, the Quakers and the Puritans were locked in a pretty intense debate. One of the most famous Puritan preachers, a guy named Richard Baxter, wrote a pamphlet where he called those Quakers “ drunkards, swearers, whore mongers, and sensual wretches…miserable creatures .” And then, just in case they didn’t get how serious their theological error was, he said they were no better than “Papists.”

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter aka “Child of the Devil”

So a Quaker preacher, James Naylor, responded to these harsh accusations and names…with more accusations and names. Naylor called Baxter “a Serpent,” a “Liar,” a “Child of the Devil,” a “Cursed Hypocrite,” and a “Dumb Dog .”

Naylor actually said he was responding because he had been compelled by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which may be true. But he most certainly wasn’t responding with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. 

The problem with these arguments is that they do the opposite of what they are hoping to accomplish. When we demonize the other, we rarely have healthy conversations about the issue of disagreement. We divide up the world into right and wrong, and lose the ability to learn and grow from each other.

Last year, on NPR, I heard about a city where the Pro-Life leaders and the Pro-Choice leaders had started secretly meeting for lunch once a week. They had to keep it a secret because the war had already been clearly defined by talking points and hostile speech, but these women still wanted to learn where the other was coming from.

Have you ever noticed how we talk about war? Pascifists argue against all war, Just war people argue that there are some wars that are justifiable. But both sides are starting with the assumption that violence has to be held in check by some moral-limits. They don’t believe most wars are justified. 

But they rarely talk about what those limits are, because they can’t talk about much past what defines them in their opposition.

It seems like every day there is another conflict that has broken out between another faction of people. Politics, Corporations, Churches, Atheist Groups.

Language as Dress

Growing up, modesty was something that the Christians around me talked about a lot. It was always assumed that even though it wasn’t in the ten commandments that girls should dress modestly, it was at least a footnote.

We understood that it was important to not dress in a way that dehumanized yourself.

I think it’s time we learned to speak that way too.

Think about the way the Bible refers to dress, it often isn’t talking about specific clothing instructions, it’s speaking more with a putting on of a certain kind of character.

Like in 1st Peter:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self,the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

The early Christians cared a lot living a quiet, gentle lives, even while having passionate convictions.

I wish we talked about that when we talk about modesty.

Modesty basically means to not over-estimate ourselves, it is the virtue of knowing and embracing our limitations. We don’t know everything, we don’t know for certain what’s best for the world, and no human should find themselves so certain that they can dehumanize another because they disagree with them.

I like the way Richard Mouw talks about this:

Our efforts at public righteousness must be modest ones. Now this is a dangerous point to emphasize . The call to modesty can easily be interpreted as giving Christians permission to be unconcerned about the issues of public life . “Poverty is always with us, so why worry about injustices?” “You’re never really going to do away with prejudice and conflict—at least not until Jesus returns! No compromise is acceptable. Those who adopt our variety of Christianity are possessors of the truth, and everyone else is caught up in error!” We may hear statements like these when we start encouraging modesty . But the risk is necessary, especially in the light of the immodesty that has often characterized Christian forays into the public arena.

I know that modesty can sound quaint and the ways that we’ve talked about it have been sexist. Still, as  parents of three children, Leslie and I are going to talk about modesty with them….and it is going to involve more than clothes.

Underneath modesty is the virtue of humility. You don’t have to prove yourself or justify your existence with your looks, or your clothes or your ideas or your words. God has justified you.

So let’s talk like it.

On February 25, 2014

Civil Religion: Better Than You

“Don’t you know that sinners are the only kind of people Jesus can love?”-William Still

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Christina Cleveland is a social psychologist and professor at St. Catherine’s University. She’s also a relatively new Christian. And when Christina first became a Jesus follower, she says that felt an immediate connection with any other kind of Christian she met. It didn’t matter what “brand” of Christian they were, conservative, charismatic, liberal, Catholic, it didn’t matter they were family.

But over time, Cleveland noticed that something began to happen. Somehow her growth started to entail having stronger and stronger opinions about what the right ways to follow Jesus were. She started keeping people who she disagreed with or didn’t enjoy at arm’s length. And over time, Christianity for her, the story about how God was reconciling the whole world, just got smaller and smaller, until it was about reconciling the people who were like her, and who she liked.

Us and Them

In her great book, “Dis-Unity In Christ” Christina Cleveland talks about this problem. She says the real problem is how well it works.  Let her tell it:

“I know that this is a tad bit dark, but if someone approached me confessing an uncomfortable bout of low self-esteem and asking for a quick and dirty boost to their self-esteem, I would advise that person to put someone else down. The unfortunate truth is that the easiest and most effective way to boost your own image is to lower someone else’s.

I think we religious people are guilty of this so much of the time.

It seems to me we’ve gotten in the habit of defining ourselves over and against other people and their behavior. We define ourselves by not we are not, more to the point, we define ourselves as better than those who do or do not do certain things.

What those specific things are varies from group to group, but the one constant is that we our better than they are.

It’s interesting to me that the chapter that is quoted most often about Homosexuality being a sin is Romans 1. Because to quote that chapter to single out a particular sin as unique is very ironic.

See, in Romans, Paul is writing to a church community that is mixed with Jewish and Gentile Christians, and they are having a really difficult time worshipping and fellowshipping together. They have such different backgrounds and different outlooks on life. Some of them eat meat bought down at the local pagan temple, some of them think that’s blasphemy, some of them observe the pagan holidays as a cultural affair, some of them think you should only observe the Jewish ones.

And Paul’s answer is a bit of a race to the bottom.

The League of the GuiltyCathedral

He starts off in chapter one by reminding the Jews just how bad the Gentiles are. He reminds them of all the the ways they are broken, they’re sexually depraved, they gossip, they hate God, they disobey their parents, they do homosexual acts, they invent ways of doing evil. (They’re like Adolf Edison)

At the end of chapter one, the Jewish people would have been worked up.

And then he turns against them.

He starts talking to the Gentiles about the Jews. In Romans 2, he goes on to talking about how bad the religious people are. They preach against stealing…but they steal. They think just because they go to church, or do some ritual, that they are nice, squeaky, clean “good people” But they’re not, Paul talks to the Gentiles about how selfish, and self-important, and self-righteous these religious people are.

At the end of chapter two, the Gentiles would be the ones saying, “Amen!’

And then Paul says this, “There is no one righteous. No one…..For all have sinned, and fallen short of the Glory of God”

Paul’s answer to the us and them problem, to the arguments that break out in church and through Christians is to remind them why they came to this story in the first place.

There is an itch you can’t scratch, a dirt you can’t rub off, a stain that won’t go away, and just because you can see it more clearly in someone else, doesn’t mean that you can ignore it. Because at the end of the day, you’re just as much a part of the problem as they are.

One of my favorite books last year, was a book by Francis Spufford, he’s an Anglican Christian writing in England to a Post-Christian culture. Spufford is trying to explain why Christianity makes good emotional sense to people who think it’s a bit like believing in fairies and wizards. And instead of turning to conventional apologetics about evidence that demands verdicts, he talks about the one thing that needs no proof. What’s wrong inside of each one of us:

So of all things, Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people. Not that can be securely designated as such. It can’t be about circling the wagons of virtue out in the suburbs and keeping the unruly inner city at bay. This, I realize, goes flat contrary to the present predominant image of it as something existing in prissy, fastidious little enclaves, far from life’s messier zones and inclined to get all “judgmental” about them. Again, of course there are Christians like that…The religion certainly can slip into being a club or a cozy affinity group or a wall against the world. But it isn’t supposed to be. What it’s supposed to be is a league of the guilty. Not all guilty of the same things, or in the same way, or to the same degree, but enough for us to recognize each other.

This is what Paul is doing in Romans, and Cleveland is getting at in her book. Christianity is not about being better than someone else, it is among many things, the recognition that we are better than no one else.

This is not a rhetorical move, it is reality.

It is to look deep into our hearts/mirrors and souls to see our own sin. And if you have, then welcome to the International League of the Guilty.

We call it Church.

 

On January 16, 2014

Translation: Dirty Bibles

So, [O Muhammad], We have only made Qur’an easy in the Arabic language that you may give good tidings thereby to the righteous and warn thereby a hostile people.-the Qur’an

“Next to the blessed Sacrament (Communion) itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If they are your Christian neighbor, they are holy in almost the same way, for in them Christ, glorified Himself, is truly hidden.” -C.S. Lewis

Leadership with education

When Leslie and I were in college, we got a chance to spend a few weeks in countries that were predominately Muslim like Turkey and Egypt. At one part of the trip, I had to go to the bathroom and I took my Bible with me. That’s all I’ll say about that, other than the fact that this shocked the people around me.

The bathroom attendant was especially surprised and asked something like, “Isn’t this a sacred book to you?”

For the last several months, I (along with a few others) have been studying the Gospel of Mark with some young Muslim men from West Africa. It’s been fascinating to read the Gospels with people who grew up in a culture much closer to Jesus’ world than the one I did.

But one of the interesting things about studying with them is trying to explain all the different Bible translations. Each week, it seems like everyone brings a different version of the Bible, we’ve got some NKJV, NIV, TNIV, NRSV and every other kind of acronym.

Which is a peculiarly Christian problem.

The Gospel According To…

Because that’s the nature of the Gospel.

I like the way Andy Crouch makes this point in his book “Culture Making”

Consider the four gospels of the Bible each one a cultural product designed to introduce the good news in a culturally relevant way. Matthew begins his Gospel this way: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…Mark, while just as aware of Jesus’ Jewish heritage, seems much more engaged with the cultural heritage of Rome. He begins with “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” – the Greek word euangelion, here translated “good news “but commonly galled “Gospel” (making Mark the only Gospel writer to actually call his work a “gospel”) Luke meanwhile takes on the mantel of a Greek historian, beginning his stately and rhythmic account with the epistolary preface that Greek readers expected….John takes up the Jewish philosophical tradition of a thinker like Philo.

In other words, the original story tellers for Jesus told the story in the same way that Jesus lived His life.

They translated it.

Did you know you can’t buy an English Qur’an? You can only buy an English translation of the Qur’an. According to Muslim tradition, no matter how literal the translation is, it is not the same thing. Because the word of Allah came to Mohammed in Arabic, so in order to understand it fully, you must learn Arabic.

Now I’ve studied the original languages that the Bible was written in. There’s been lots of times that I’ve discovered something that I would have missed if I wouldn’t have known the original Greek , but just as often as not, I’ve learned as much from how the Gospel translates into other cultures.

Tablets Made of Skin

Which brings me back to the Bible study we’ve got and my Bible in the Bathroom.

Martin Luther...pictured not on toilet

Martin Luther…pictured not on toilet

Did you know that the Protestant Reformation started on the potty? I kid you not.

Martin Luther was wrestling with profound feelings of condemnation and was in the bathroom reading and medicating on Romans  (like you do) when it struck him that we really are saved by Grace through Faith. And he wrote about this experience as God’s salvation for Him.

Paul got saved on a road, Luther was on the commode.

One of the more intriguing things about most religions, is their great respect for the actual book. Not just the words that are in it, but the physical manuscript.

I once was at a Sikh worship service where their sacred text was resting on a pillow and being fanned while the community prayed and listened to a teaching….The Muslim tradition says that you should not touch an actual Qur’an (the one in the Arabic language) unless you’ve gone through a cleaning, and have put your faith in Allah as revealed by Mohammed. Jewish people used to insist on cleaning your hands and purifying your heart before reading Torah.

And all of these things are fine…but distinct from Christianity.

Because Christianity loves dirty Bibles.

It insists upon it.

The assumption the Gospel makes is that Holiness, because of Jesus, now works differently than any other religion. Translating the Gospel doesn’t pollute it, it enhances it. With every culture distinction and different perspective brought to bear on the Jesus story, we don’t dilute the story, we understand it even better.

There is a time in one of the parts of the Bible where Paul writes about the nature of the the message of the Bible. It’s not static and cut off from normal human existence, it actually sanctifies it.

Here’s what Paul tells his little church plant:

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

This is not to say the Bible shouldn’t be respected. It is a Sacred text, but it is to point out that the Bible wants to be a different kind of Sacred text. Not a book to be worshipped, but a story to be lived out.

This is what it means for the Word to become Flesh. The Bible enters into this world made of mud and dirt and blood and spit, in fact some of it’s best stories involve these things.

So by all means take your bible to the bathroom, Martin Luther did.

Because that’s sacred too.