Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Beautiful, Ugly World

“Why is our world beautiful, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is beautiful? Why is our world ugly, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is ugly?”
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright asked these questions in a 2005 lecture at Seattle Pacific University.  He’s right, of course, our world is both unbelievably beautiful and unmistakably ugly.  
This is a world of sunrises and sunsets, of graceful deer and playful dolphins, of jonquils in the spring and autumn leaves in the fall; and it is a world of civil war, of terror and fear, of shame and disgrace, of oppressors and oppressed.
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 provides us with a vision of hope in which the ugliness of our world is either redeemed or destroyed:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.  His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.  Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.  The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.  They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
This is a vision of a world in which oppressors live peacefully with the ones they have oppressed, having repented of their oppression.  It is a beautiful picture of repentance and reconciliation.  And it is also a warning: those oppressors who cannot repent, who cannot give up their violence toward innocents, will not be allowed to go one forever.  They have no place in this lion and lamb world, and will be destroyed.  If this seems a harsh word for the oppressor, it is a word of hope for the oppressed.
If all one sees in our world is the ugliness, then it’s hard to see Isaiah’s vision as anything but unrealistic wishful thinking that will never stand up to real-world realities, but when one sees the beauty of the world—not just that which God created, but also that which humans are able to produce in our in-his-image creativity—you realize that there is a real-world reality that is full of the glory of God “as the waters cover the see.”  One of our God-given gifts is imagination, and every work of beauty begins with imagination.  The creative imagination doesn’t accept what others say is real-world reality; it envisions other possibilities, and makes them real-world realities.  Wright provides an example:
There's a work of art which stands at the moment in the great new atrium in the British Museum in London. The director of the British Museum is a practicing Christian, Neil McGregor. And he has with great courage put this work of art there. It speaks volumes about the nature of Christian imagination, taking the great biblical story and making it live again, speaking into and engaging with our culture. It's a sculpture from Mozambique, and it's a sculpture of the Tree of life, the Tree of life which stood there in the Garden of Eden, but was inaccessible, the Tree of Life which now grows on the banks of the Waters of Life coming out of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22. But this tree of life is different, because it is made of decommissioned weapons after the Mozambique civil war. It's composed entirely of military hardware — guns and stuff. It's a very powerful symbol of what Isaiah was talking about. There will come a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, a time of peace.

How do you re-imagine the Christian story after a civil war? Maybe you do it like this. You turn the weapons into a tree of life. What a wonderful symbol of engaging the culture, of taking a theme which spans Genesis to Revelation and of saying, put this in the middle of your world and imagine, imagine what God is like and what the world will one day be like.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Grace Giving

I’m constantly amazed at how much we resist grace.  Not in receiving grace, though there is some of that.  There are some people whose guilt is so great that they just can’t handle grace.  They feel so bad about themselves that can’t conceive that they are worthy to receive grace, to receive forgiveness as a gift, free and clear, without them having to do anything.  They would feel much better if they could somehow earn forgiveness; then forgiveness would be justified.  But they never feel justified because by definition no one is worthy of grace.  Forgiveness that comes as a result of the recipient’s worthiness is not grace.  The person has in a sense earned the forgiveness because they are worthy of it.
And that’s not grace.  This is not to say, however, that a person receiving grace is not a person of worth.  This is a mistake that many evangelicals have made all the way back to at least the time of the Reformation: in saying that salvation is by grace and is not earned means ipso facto we humans are worthless, we are utterly depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God, lower than worms.
In my opinion, that’s nonsense.  Our worth as persons was never based on our actions; it’s based on our creation.  Each person is created in the image of God, and that creation imago dei is a fact, a fact which sin cannot change.  Our sin is not greater than God’s creative power.  Nor is it greater than his love or his grace.
But most people don’t have much of a problem receiving grace.  But showing grace and giving grace, that’s another story.  We’re hard on each other. 
When a person hurts us, well, it hurts.  And no one likes to hurt.  We want the hurt to go away, and we don’t want it to come back again.  And the longer the hurt lingers, the harder we tend to work to make sure that it never happens again.
Usually that takes the form of some kind of punishment for the person who hurt us.  Harsh words, a raised voice, yelling and screaming and other forms of non-physical violence become our first refuge.  Sometimes it escalates into physical violence. 
If we are unwilling—or simply unable—to use these methods, we will punish by withdrawal.  We’ll stop talking, or our conversation will be void of any emotional and relational content.  Or we’ll withdraw physically—we’ll just avoid the person who hurt us.  While these may be seen as merely self-protective measures, there is no doubt that there is a punitive aspect to them, even if unintentional.  But as anyone who has been on the receiving end of “the silent treatment”—and who hasn’t?—withdrawal is definitely punitive, and it’s usually consciously so.
But so what?  If someone hurts you, they deserve to be punished, otherwise they’ll just keep doing it and doing it.  You’re actually doing them a favor by punishing them and leading them to change their behavior.
And that’s the rub that most of us have with grace: it feels like we’re just letting the other person get away with bad behavior; not only that, but we’re enabling the bad behavior.  Grace feels like we’re rewarding the bad behavior and guaranteeing that it will be repeated, not just with us but with others.
But to equate grace with permissiveness is to fundamentally misunderstand grace.  True grace doesn’t ignore the gravity of the sin or the reality of the hurt caused; it doesn’t give permission, it doesn’t enable, it doesn’t look the other way.  But it also doesn’t seek to attack or to withdraw.  Just the opposite: grace confronts, but without violence.  Grace not only seeks to change the behavior, but to fundamentally change the attitude behind the behavior as well.  More than anything, grace seeks to maintain the relationship.  Punishment can and often does change the behavior, but often hardens the attitude as well.  It certainly affects the relationship.  Grace changes behavior and attitudes better than punishment.  Neither is foolproof; if that’s what you’re searching for, good luck.  Even God couldn’t find a foolproof way to change the human heart.  Even after offering his son, many hearts remain hardened.
So giving grace is not permissiveness, and confusing the two often leads to people forsaking grace.  But the real reason grace is so often left untried is that it’s hard.  Real hard.
The punishment route is actually easier than the grace route for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is the most natural.  And what comes naturally is always easier.  The harsh words just flow out, and it’s hard work to keep them in.  “Count to ten” is done to keep from saying harsh things.  Withdrawal is easier than grace-full engagement.  Working toward reconciliation so that the behavior is not repeated, forgiveness is given, and the relationship is maintained is hard work.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has never really considered the meaning of the cross.
Grace is hard, but it’s worth it.  Because reconciliation is always better than revenge.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dumb and Dumber

Like most Redskins fans, my two favorite teams are the Redskins and whoever is playing Dallas.

   To me the Dallas Cowboys are in the same category as the New York Yankees.  Teams everybody loves to hate.  They both have fans that can really be obnoxious.  I have referred to the Yankees many times before as the Evil Empire.  But they usually play a good brand of baseball.
   The Cowboys, however, are usually the most overrated team in the NFL.  No matter how good they are predicted to be before the season starts, they almost always fall short.  Yet their fans still like to claim that they are "America's Team."  They talk smack and act like winning a championship is their right.  And then whine like crazy when it doesn't happen.
    Well, it hasn't happened since 1996.  Last year was the first year they even won a playoff game in a looong time.
    This year a lot of people were expecting them to go to the Super Bowl, which just happens to be played in Dallas this year.
   Well, after last night, it ain't going to happen.  They aren't that good.  I know, one game is a pretty small sampling, but I'm telling you: they aren't that good.  This year, they are not only overrated, they are waaaay overrated.
   They might make the playoffs, but they won't go far.  And then their fans will whine.
   Maybe I'm being too gleeful in the wake of the Redskins win last night against the 'Boyz, but I don't care.  It gives me great pleasure to say it.  

The Cowboys are overrated.  They aren't that good.  They're good, but not great.

And as much as it gives me pleasure to say that, I get even more pleasure in saying this:

The Cowboys are dumb.  
   I mean, they are just dumb.  They are a dumb team.
   They would have won last night if they weren't so dumb.  But they didn't.  Because they are.
   They are that dumb.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony Dumb.  You know: dumb dumb dumb DUMBBBBB.   dumb dumb dumb DUMBBBBBBBBBBBBBBB.

Yeah, the Yankees may be The Evil Empire.

But the Cowboys are Dumb and Dumber.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Different Way

Man, Terry Jones knows how to get people’s attention.
Jones is the Florida pastor who was planning to burn copies of the Qu’ran on the anniversary of 9-11.  Right now it doesn’t look like he’s going to go through with it, but not because he realized that it runs counter to the teachings of Jesus, but because he’s hoping to broker a deal concerning the mosque near Ground Zero.
I’m not sure what he wants to accomplish, but he sure has had some important people dialing his number.  The heads of two large Evangelical groups, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the World Evangelical Alliance, have called him.  Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gen. David H. Petraeus, conservative commentator Glenn Beck, even Angelina Jolie have all reached out to him.  Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, has called him twice, and only got voice mail.  I mean, how busy (or self-important) are you that you blow off a call from Billy Graham’s son? 
He’s been asked to consider the way this act could endanger U.S. troops serving in Muslim countries.  He’s been asked to consider how much harm this would do to Christian missionary efforts around the world.  I just want to ask him when’s the last time he read the red letters in his Bible.  This is the kind of thing that seems so obviously antithetical to the teachings of Jesus—you know, the guy who said, “Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you”—that it’s hard to believe anyone could honestly read the New Testament and come away thinking that this represents Christ in any fashion.
Well, it does, but not in a good way.  What’s ironic is that in Pakistan protestors have taken to the streets, burning the American flag and effigies of Uncle Sam; doesn’t Jones see that there is really no difference between the two actions?  In trying to draw a distinction between “Christian America” and the Muslim world, he’s demonstrating that religious extremists are all the same, whether Christian or Muslim.
Most people understand that this doesn’t put Christianity in a good light.  The president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Leith Anderson, issued a statement Wednesday asking Muslims not to judge "all Christians by the behavior of one extremist. One person with 30 silent followers does not speak for 300 million Americans who will never burn a Koran."
Anderson is right, and I hope that the majority of Christians realize that the same holds true for Islam.  I bring this up because of the negative reaction of so many people toward the plan to build a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero.  I don’t know how far “a few blocks” is, but I like what one very insightful young woman in our church’s youth group said: “Well, how far away is far enough?  A mile?  Five miles?  Outside the city?”
I understand those who say that these plans are insensitive to the feelings of Americans in general and New Yorkers in particular, especially those who lost friends and family members in the Twin Towers attack, and just as Terry Jones should respect the sensitivities of Muslims, so should the planners of the community center respect the feelings of others.  Fair point.
But what if we took this as an opportunity to show the world what Americans in general and Christians in particular can be when we are at our best?  What if we let them build the center as a way of saying, “This is what we do: when religious extremists attack us and kill innocent people, we don’t respond with fear, with hate, with revenge, with flag- or Qu’ran-burning; we don’t even respond with mere tolerance.  We respond with love.”  It seems to me that a Muslim community center within sight of Ground Zero is not an affront to either American or Christian values, but rather that in allowing it, we embody the values of religious freedom and freedom of expression.  Let other countries and other faiths persecute those of differing viewpoints, burning their flags or their sacred texts. 
We can offer the world a different way.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Angela ran in--and finished--a half-marathon on Sunday in Virginia Beach.  13.1 miles.

She hasn't ever been a big runner, logging tons of miles each week, but she set a goal to do this, and she trained hard and she trained regularly.

Her knee was a little balky as the race approached, but she pushed through it.  Big goals like this are never without complications, and the difference between people who accomplish big things vs. those who don't is the willingness to persevere when faced with obstacles.

Big goals always have obstacles.  There is always some pain involved.  Deal with it.

As you can tell, I'm proud of my baby girl.

Always have been; this is just one more reason.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

To the Root

I’ve always been cautious about using the word “radical” in any of its forms to describe Jesus and/or his followers.  I’ve done it at times, but I’ve never been completely comfortable with it.
For many people, “radical” means far-out, overly-zealous, extreme, fanatical.  There are Fundamentalists, and then there are “radical Fundamentalists.”  I have friends who are Fundamentalists, but “radical Fundamentalists” are not the kind of people you have over for dinner.  Conversation tends to get a little uncomfortable at some point.
“Radical” is akin to an adolescent stage of rebellion against the establishment order; it’s a phase that some people go through on their way to maturity, after they’ve had a dose of living in the real world and had their idealism tempered by life.  Something radical is thus something to be discounted, something not to be taken seriously in a mature world of responsible adults.
So to describe Jesus as radical is to give people permission to do what most of us are wont to do anyway, which is to dismiss the things that Jesus appeared to be telling us to do.  A Jesus who commands us to love our enemies or share our provisions or practice unilateral forgiveness is to be admired, but not really followed.  I mean, c’mon, we have to live in the real world.  Such radical claims are looked upon as idealistic, unrelated to the pragmatic concerns of those who are trying to make a difference.  So we create a form of following Jesus that mainly involves going to churches that offer the following: services that are either reverent and respectful or energetic and exciting; basic religious instruction to our children and teenagers; and theological bromides intended to assure us of our eternal reward and a life filled with meaning and purpose.
But the basic meaning of the word “radical” simply means “to the root,” as in something that affects every part of the plant.  It is in this sense that we need to embrace the radical nature of Jesus and the Christian faith.  Faith in Christ was never intended as an add-on to the life that you are already living; it demands thoroughgoing conversion and transformation of every realm of human endeavor, in personal relations, economics, and politics, in homes, culture and social order. 
Such conversion and transformation is not just for those followers of Jesus whose lives are pretty rotten and in need of great improvement.  It is for every follower of Jesus; not just for those who are unsatisfied with their lives but also for those who are especially satisfied with their life trajectories.  In fact, it may be that the latter are most in need of transformation, even while they are least likely to seek it.  The unsatisfied have little to lose and much to gain by changing their lives, but the satisfied have to give up lives that are bringing them much satisfaction and even pleasure, and for what?  All Jesus can offer in return is life in abundance, and they already have both.  Once they secure life after death, what else is really needed?  Why give up an abundant life in order to receive abundant life—especially one that involves picking up a cross.
We’d much prefer a cross-less abundant life, thank you very much.
Jesus demands a radical discipleship, a to-the-root conversion.  There is no other way to follow him, because there is no other life that is worth living in the Kingdom of God.  Any other life, including the so-called abundant yet cross-less life, is too puny for the Kingdom.


Jesus was not just a moralist whose teachings had some political implications; he was not primarily a teacher of spirituality whose public ministry unfortunately was seen in a political light; he was not just a sacrificial lamb preparing for his immolation, or a God-Man whose divine status calls us to disregard his humanity.  Jesus was, in his divinely mandated prophethood, priesthood, and kingship, the bearer of a new possibility of human, social, and therefore political relationships.  His baptism is the inauguration and his cross is the culmination of that new regime in which his disciples are called to share.  Hearers or readers may choose to consider that kingdom as not real, or not relevant, or not possible, or not inviting; but…in no such slicing can avoid his call to an ethic marked by the cross, a cross identified as the punishment of a man who threatens society by creating a new kind of community leading a radically new kind of life.
--John Howard Yoder in The Politics of Jesus