Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Reflection

My friend Chris Backert, who is co-pastor of a church at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, and also leads The Ecclesia Network, sent out this reflection last week.  I couldn't have said it better, but I am posting it because I have been saying it in sermons and articles, and it's good to see people I respect who are thinking along the same lines.  (And to show you that I'm not out here in left field just making this stuff up. Lol.)

An Advent Reflection
In 9 BC the following inscription was written on a stone in the area of Priene …

The providence, which has ordered the whole of our life, showing concern and zeal, has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving to it Augustus, by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor among men, and by sending him, as it were, a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere.  The birthday of the GOD AUGUSTUS – was the beginning of the good news of glad tidings that have come to men through him.

Just a few years later, a group of shepherds received this message on one particular illuminating night …

Do not be afraid, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For today in the city of David, there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  This will be a sign for you.  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.  And suddenly, there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  “glory to God in the highest and on earth peace with men of good will”. 

It’s impossible for me to read these two statements, and walk away without a clear sense that from it’s beginning, the announcement of the good news of the coming of God in Christ, came as a direct challenge to the perceived gods of the world.  Caesar was in charge – it was his world – and though the wrong seemed oft so strong – he was the ruler yet.  And in Caesar they had hope.  Yet, the good news of Jesus proclaimed tidings of joy for all people in a way that Caesar’s never could.  Today, we still proclaim Christ’s tiding in this Advent Season … the world thinks of Caesar very little.

But Caesar is not gone. 

As I think about Advent I wonder “what is the challenge of Christ’s news today?”  There are still plenty of things (and also perhaps people) that promise salvation.  We place our hopes at their feet.  Some of then speak to us through the walkways of the local up-scale Mall Center … others call out to us from a podium in front of a White House.  The work that we do (especially the work of ministry) has a sneaky way of disguising its Caesar-like identity.  I know it has captured me more than once. 

But, Jesus is still here too – and still challenging Caesar.

Our Advent faith is an Easter faith.  It is grounded in the reality of a moment where the powers of sin, death, and evil all ganged up together and still met their match.  Jesus stands over and above all Caesar’s … it is to Him we look … it is in Him we hope. 

All Hail King Jesus!!!

- Chris Backert, Advent 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

All We Need for Christmas

There’s a story in Genesis that tells how humans tried to go where God was.  It’s in the 11th chapter.  The beginning of Genesis, as a matter of fact, tells how we all got into this mess.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve saw that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was attractive fruit.  And they saw that they could be like God, knowing good and evil.  So they ate, and they knew, and, wanting to be like God, were cast out of the garden, away from his presence.  And then Cain decided to take upon himself the decision which belonged only to God: deciding who deserved to live and who deserved to die.  With the flood God tried to start all over again with a whole new set of people, but what we learned was that the problem wasn’t with the individual people themselves, as if this set was bad but a new set would be better.   

We learned that the heart of humans was a mess.  We all fall.  Wipe out this set, another set just like them will take their place.

Then, in the 11th chapter, the humans had an interesting idea: the problem, they saw, was that we are here, on earth, and God is there, up in Heaven, and if we could just get up to Heaven where God lived, then everything would be all right.  So they started building a city, and at the center of the city they builta tower that would reach up into the heavens.  A Stairway to Heaven, as it were.  If we build it, we can come and climb and go to where God is, and everything will be all right.

We can leave this mess on earth behind us and we can go up to Heaven where everything is great, and nothing is impossible, and there will be no more tears and no more sorrows.
So God had to do something.  And sometimes a punishment is not a punishment as much as it is a correction, and a correction points you in the right direction, so watch what happens.  God confuses their language so that they can’t understand each other—that’s the punishment—with the result being that instead of reaching heaven they were scattered over the face of the earth. 

And then we have the rest of the Old Testament, where humans encounter God over and over and over.  The Lord speaks to Abram.  To Jacob, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos.  All these people have encounters with God.  And none of them take place in heaven.  All of them take place on earth, usually as they were going about their business, sometimes in the midst of great stress, but rarely in a special place.  Sure, Moses spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, but that was before Mt. Sinai was Mt. Sinai.  Before that, Mt. Sinai was just a mountain in the desert.  And besides, Moses’ first encounter with God was while he was watching his father-in-law’s sheep in the wilderness.
In the wilderness, God came to Moses.

Work with me here, but maybe at the tower, God was saying, “You can’t come to me; but I will come to you.”  Maybe he scattered them over the face of the earth because that is where you will find God—all over the face of the earth, in the midst of the mess.
Where the hurt is.  Where the disappointment is.  Where dreams have been broken, and hope extinguished, there you will find God.  The most God-forsaken places have not been forsaken by God.  That’s exactly where you will find God.

Where the mess is, there you will find God.

It’s not the way we would have done it, but that’s the point, isn’t it?  We’ve tried every which way out of this mess, and it just seems to make it worse.  There comes a time when you just have to stop trying to fix the mess, admit that it’s bigger than you, and let go.
And in that moment, when you let go, you give God space to walk in.  And when God walks in, things start to happen.  Now, what God does may surprise you.  It must have seemed strange that God would be born in a manger.  But that’s part of the wonderful mystery of God.

A God who told us to call him “I AM” because, he said, “I am what I am, I will be what I will be.”  In other words, “I’m not merely what you want me to be.  I am what I am, which is exactly what you need.”

And who is God, and what do we need?  He is Immanuel.  “God is With Us.”  That is exactly what we need, and I hope it is all we really, really want.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wright's Right: Really Knowing the Real Jesus

"It's not enough to say you feel something, even the presence of Jesus, very strongly. Lots of people feel all sorts of things very strongly. In order to know that you're not just making it up, not fooling yourself--and if you don't think that's a danger, your skeptical friends ought to tell you--you must be able to say that this Jesus, who we know in prayer, this Jesus we meet when we are ministering to the poorest of the poor, this Jesus we recognize in the breaking of the bread, this Jesus is the same Jesus who lived and taught and loved and died and rose again in the first century. We must believe and confess that he did indeed inaugurate God's kingdom, die to bring it about and rise again to launch the consequent new creation. We must know who Jesus himself actually was and is."

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays, (p. 119) Kindle Edition.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Cleaning Up a Royal Mess

God never wanted there to be a king in Israel.  Never.  He was kind of forced into it, but it wasn’t his idea, didn’t think it was necessary, didn’t think it was a good idea, in fact was sure that it was a pretty bad idea and that it was going to end pretty badly.  But the people thought they needed a king, they were tired of getting whipped by the Philistines, even though it was their own fault, so they whined and whined about getting a king until they just basically wore God down.
    Parents, you know what that sounds like, don’t you?  “We want a king, why can’t we have a king, everybody else has a king, we promise if you’ll give us a king we’ll play with him every day and give him a bath every week, brush him and poop-scoop after him and pleeeeassse!”  Samuel, God’s spokesman, kept saying to them, “You don’t need a king; you’ve got God.”  And they said, “We want God and a king.  We want a king to fight our battles and God to make our lives easier.” 
    So God told Samuel, “What are you going to do?  You try to tell them, but they just won’t listen.  But make sure they know what they are getting themselves into, so when it all blows up in their faces, we won’t have to say, ‘I told you so.’”  So Samuel went to the people and said, “Look, do you really understand what having a king means?  He’s going to take your sons from your fields and your farms, and he’s going to make them serve him, and fight for him.  When there’s a battle, they’ll run in front of his chariots; they’ll be on the front lines, he’ll be in back where it’s safer.  Those of your sons he doesn’t make soldiers he’ll make plow his fields and reap his harvest, and others will become sword-makers and chariot-builders, and he’s not going to let this war-machine sit around, so he’s going to use it and go to war and your sons will be killed.  And he’ll take your daughters to be his perfumers and his cooks and his bakers.  Then he’ll take the best of your fields and your vineyards and he’ll nationalize them and give them to his attendants as patronage.  And then, with whatever fields and vineyards you have left over, whatever harvest you are able to get without your sons to help you—he’ll take 10% right off the top.  As his kingdom grows he will need more servants and animals, so he will take your servants and animals—your cows, your donkeys will become his cows and donkeys, all in the name of patriotism.  He’ll take 10% of your sheep, and when there’s nothing left to take, he’ll take you and make you his slaves.  And when you cry out for relief from this pharaoh you yourselves have chosen against God’s advice, God will not listen to your cries.  Is this what you want?”
    And the people said, “A king will win us battles.  We want a king.”  Samuel went back to God, and God said, “Look, don’t feel bad.  They aren’t rejecting you as a prophet; they’re rejecting me as their ruler.”  So God let them have a king.  Samuel anointed Saul king.  And Saul was a failure.  They all were.  The monarchy in Israel didn’t work out too well.  The best of the bunch, David, was an adulterer and murderer.   Most of the rest were worse.
    It was a royal mess.  God warned them what would happen if he let them have a king, but they wanted a king anyway.  They rejected God because they wanted a king who would wage war, and they got everything they asked for, and more.  And it was into this world and this mess that Jesus was born.  He was born to be a king because God didn’t want a king in the first place.  He was supposed to rule over Israel.  So he sent his son rule for him.
    Jesus was born a king.  That’s what Matthew and Luke were both saying in their birth narratives.  We say that the Jews wanted an earthly king, but that Jesus came to set up a spiritual kingdom, a heavenly kingdom, when in fact Jesus came to set up a heavenly kingdom on earth with God as king, and all peoples—Jews, Romans, Greeks, etc.—as his subjects.  Read Acts, see if this isn’t what’s being done.  His kingdom would be characterized by true peace, not the absence of war but the presence of reconciliation.  It would be brought about, not by conquering other nations, but by recognizing that we are all children of God.  There would be no illegal aliens because there would be no borders and no distinctions among peoples—neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, all one in King Jesus.  And if we reject this, either by dismissing it as pie-in-the-sky, never-going-to-happen, this-is-the-real-world kind of thinking, or by over-spiritualizing it so that it’s just about me and my personal forgiveness and relationship with God, then God will say of us what he said to Samuel of the Israelites: they haven’t rejected you, they have rejected me.
    Christian worship is an act of allegiance to the kingdom of God.  Every Sunday morning we pledge allegiance to King Jesus, and to the kingdom of God, for which he stands, one people, one Lord, one baptism, one faith, indivisible, with grace and mercy for all.
    All Hail King Jesus.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wright's Right: Between the Cradle and the Cross Matters Too

This is the problem. The church has often colluded with shallow, one-dimensional readings of the canon and shallow, one-dimensional readings of who Jesus really was. For many traditional Christians it would be quite enough if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin and died on a cross (and perhaps risen again). But this leaves us with the baffling question, Why then did he go about doing all those things in between? Why did the canonical Evangelists take the trouble to collect and record them? Merely to provide the back story for the cross-based theology of salvation? Merely to show what the incarnate Son of God looked like and got up to? Simply to demonstrate, by his powerful deeds, that he was the second person of the Trinity? Was he, at that point, simply a great ethical teacher (and if so, how does that relate to his saving death?)? Or was he living a sinless life in order that his sacrifice, when eventually offered, would be valid? All these have been proposed within "the tradition" as ways of filling the blanks left by the great traditional omission of what the Gospels are actually talking about, namely, the inauguration of God's kingdom.

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays, (p. 131) Kindle Edition.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

RG3 to D.C.

Robert Griffin III became the first Baylor player ever to win the Heisman Trophy as the NCAA's top player.

It's amazing how he and head coach Art Briles have resurrected the Baylor football program.

In case you haven't seen him play, here is a video:

RG3 will probably enter the draft and be one of the top quarterbacks chosen.

The Redskins need a quarterback.  Badly.  

The Redskins are bad, so they will have one of the top picks in the draft.

I'm just sayin'.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Wright's Right: Salvation Without Followship

For some traditional Christians, Paul is everything (at least, a particular reading of Paul is everything), and the kingdom of God (on earth as in heaven!) is nothing, or next to nothing. The dangerous possibility that Jesus might want us to do things and thereby justify ourselves by our works has led generations of cross-centered Protestants to be very wary of the Gospels with their detailed kingdom agenda and kingdom ethic. Think of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25: Is "eternal life" and its horrid alternative really to be decided by what people do? Thus, in many churches the canonical Gospels, or rather their dismembered fragments, are relentlessly translated into narratives which are "really" about Jesus' salvific death. This of course is not a complete travesty, since the Evangelists do indeed recount many of the incidents in Jesus' public career in such a way as to point forward to Calvary. But the strong tendency in this cross-centered reading of the Gospels is to ignore, for instance, Jesus' bracing Jubilee agenda in Luke 4, or the striking commands about hospitality to strangers in Luke 14, or the cup of cold water in Mark 10, or (again) the "inasmuch" of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.

N.T. Wright, "Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?" in  Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright, eds. Nicholas Perrin; Richard B. Hays.(p. 140). Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Aspects of Incarnation

There was approximately 33 years between the first Christmas and the first Easter.  Of necessity the annual Christian calendar compresses that distance to about three months.  Tragically, in our understanding of the incarnation we compress it  even further—to about nothing.  There is a tendency with many Christians to put Christmas and Easter almost back-to-back theologically.
The one aspect of the incarnation that we are most familiar with, and the one we most readily accept, is that Jesus became one of us so that he could do what we couldn’t  do—live a perfect, sinless life, and then die on the cross for our sins as a perfect, sinless sacrifice.  This understanding is best embodied in the statement, “Jesus came to die for our sins.”  And that’s a perfectly accurate statement—unless it’s the only statement about the incarnation that we make.  Then it becomes something of a distortion, and part of that distortion is how it puts his birth—”Jesus came”—up next to his crucifixion—“to die for our sins.”  He did come to die for our sins, but he came to do a lot more, and the reasons are all intertwined.  Separating one from the other distorts them.
At Christmas we become more aware of another aspect of the incarnation.  Matthew 1:23 (quoting Isaiah 7:14) says, "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."  For many, this is a nice sentiment that has little bearing on Christ’s work of salvation.  It means that when we have difficult times, God is with us.  But the 23rd Psalm expresses that already (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, thou art with me.”), as does the concept of God’s omnipresence—God is always everywhere, so of course he is with us.  If that’s all that Emmanuel means, then the incarnation isn’t expressing anything unique.  It may be good news, but it’s also old news.  For a people living under foreign occupation, however, a people who experienced exile and not only the silence of God for over 400 years but his absence as well, “God with us” means so much more.  It means that Yahweh is returning to Zion, ready to forgive the nation of its sins, deliver people from slavery and oppression, and establish his everlasting kingdom.  That is certainly Good News, it’s anything but old news, and more than anything, it is a message of salvation.  Jesus’s birth was itself the announcement that the kingdom of God was coming; after his baptism that became the core of his teaching, and his kingdom and the kingdoms of this world clashed in Jerusalem.  At the cross the kingdoms of this world declared victory over Jesus and his kingdom; Easter morning showed who really won.
There is another aspect of the incarnation that we tend to acknowledge in theory but then ignore in practice.  At least we are in good company, for at least one of the 12 didn’t get it either.  In John 14 Jesus tells the 12 disciples, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."  Philip responds, "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied."  Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?”
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  There were a lot of different opinions running around Judea at the time of Jesus concerning what God was like, much like today.  For some he was angry, for some authoritative, for some distant and uncaring, for others he was war-like, or jealous, or vindictive, or even weak, or some combination of all of these.  Some thought they knew for certain what God was like, while many still wondered.  “Show us the Father,” was Philip’s way of saying, “We are confused.  What is God like?”
We understand what Philip is saying, don’t we?  We read the Old Testament, the same writings Philip and the others read, and we see different  images.  We see him angry and violent, and we see him merciful and forgiving.  We see him loving and caring, and we see him cold and distant.  We see him punishing some sin with capital punishment, and we see him letting a murderer—David—live, albeit with severe consequences.  And people today are really good at pointing to different Old Testament passages to support their causes and prejudices,  each one saying, “See?  This is what God is like.”  It is in fact confusing.
God became human to show us what the Father is really like, and that saves us from having to live in fear of an angry or distant God—or a false god.  We don’t learn what God is like by looking at isolated passages from the Old Testament, or through philosophical reasoning or speculation,  or through pop theology and superstition.  We learn what God is like by watching and listening to Jesus. 
To know the Father we look to Jesus first, last—and only.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My alma mater, Baylor University, has had a lot of rough years in football ever since the old Southwest Conference disbanded and Baylor joined the Big 12.  But things have been looking up.  The basketball programs have had a lot of recent success: the woman's team won the national title in 2005, went to the Final Four last year, and is currently the #1 team in the nation with arguably the best player in the country, Britney Griner.  The men's team has been nationally ranked for the last three years and is currently ranked #6 in the country.  Pretty heady territory for a private Baptist university.  But the football team has not enjoyed the same success.

Until RG3 showed up 4 years ago.  Robert Griffin III started at quarterback as a freshman, you could tell he was a unique talent.  A football player who also is a track star, he makes a lot of plays with his running, but unlike a lot of quarterbacks with great running ability i.e. Tim Tebow, RG3 can stand in the pocket and deliver passes with accuracy.  After a knee injury early in his second year led to a medical redshirt, he came back last year and led the Bears to a bowl.  This year, he has led the team to 9 wins, including signature victories over 10-2 TCU, currently ranked 16th in the nation, Oklahoma, and Texas.

And now RG3 is favored to win the Heisman Trophy, given to the best collegiate football player.  No Baylor player has ever won the Heisman; few have even been finalists, and none finished higher than 4th in the voting.

Here's a video of RG3 as he's announced as a finalist:

Sic'em Bears!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Wright's Right: Worship and Allegiance

Kingdom work is rooted in worship. Or, to put it the other way around, worshipping the God we see at work in Jesus is the most politically charged act we can ever perform. Christian worship declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is. What’s more, it doesn’t just declare it as something to be believed, like the fact that the sun is hot or the sea wet. It commits the worshipper to allegiance, to following this Jesus, to being shaped and directed by him. Worshipping the God we see in Jesus orients our whole being, our imagination, our will, our hopes, and our fears away from the world where Mars, Mammon, and Aphrodite (violence, money, and sex) make absolute demands and punish anyone who resists. It orients us instead to a world in which love is stronger than death, the poor are promised the kingdom, and chastity (whether married or single) reflects the holiness and faithfulness of God himself. Acclaiming Jesus as Lord plants a flag that supersedes the flags of the nations, however “free” or “democratic” they may be. It challenges both the tyrants who think they are, in effect, divine and the “secular democracies” that have effectively become, if not divine, at least ecclesial, that is, communities that are trying to do and be what the church was supposed to do and be, but without recourse to the one who sustains the church’s life. Worship creates—or should create, if it is allowed to be truly itself—a community that marches to a different beat, that keeps in step with a different Lord.

Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (p. 217). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Shalom and Sword

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah 9:6
                 Certainly Scripture says Jesus is the Prince of Peace and he has come to establish peace. But could the establishment of peace actually call for a period of unrest? In Matthew 10 Jesus says something that disrupts our assumptions about who he is and why he came.  In verse 34, Jesus says: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
    What are we to make of that? What happened to our Prince of Peace? What happened to "good will toward men"? Jesus says he did not come to bring peace but a sword.  What does he mean?
    First, he's not speaking literally. Jesus is not literally wielding a sword. He never does, at least not anywhere in the Gospels. It's important to put this statement in the context of this chapter. Earlier, starting in verse 5, when Jesus is telling the disciples what they should bring as they go out proclaiming the kingdom, he says don't bring any money, bag to put anything in, don't bring an extra change of clothes, don't bring extra shoes, don't bring a walking stick, don't even bring any food. He certainly doesn't tell them to bring a sword. So Jesus is not speaking literally here. He's using the sword as a metaphor, as a symbol. What does it represent?
    Most of us think of a sword as an instrument of violence. But nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus advocate violence.  Remember, this is also the Jesus who told us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He modeled that for us as he hung upon the cross when he prayed to forgive those who were in the process at that very moment of murdering him. This is also the Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword, because those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Jesus is not advocating violence or war. That's not what this symbol means. So what does it mean?
    The key is in the word peace. Jesus says he has not come to bring peace. The word he uses here is the Hebrew word shalom, a word with nuanced meaning. It doesn't simply mean peace, as in the absence of violence. It's a peace that comes from wholeness, from being complete—completely put together, unified. It's the wholeness that comes when nothing is missing, when everything is one. So what Jesus says is: I have not come to bring wholeness; I've come to bring the opposite. The opposite of wholeness or unity is division. He's using the image of a sword to mean to divide, to cut, to sever in half.  So he’s saying, “I did not come to bring wholeness and unity, but division.”  This fits the context. After all, in the verses immediately before this, Jesus is talking about how the disciples will go throughout the villages and will be persecuted and hated because of him. I've come to bring a sword, division.
    What Jesus is saying is that his mission is to turn the world upside down, and we see him doing that even from the moment of his birth. When King Herod heard that the Messiah, the divine King, had been born in Bethlehem, Herod was greatly disturbed, so he tried to have this child killed.  Also, when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus as an infant to the temple to be dedicated, Simeon held him and said to Mary and Joseph, "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel." In other words, this child is going to turn the world upside down. He is going to bring division.
    This is the first thing we need to correct about our perception of Jesus during this season. At Christmas we don't celebrate the birth of a passive Savior, a pushover Messiah, somebody who just came to make us feel better. Jesus is the most radical person who has ever walked the earth. He did not come to bring peace; he came to bring a sword, to turn the world upside down, to radically alter this world and to dethrone every illegitimate king. The way he did this was by welcoming all people back into communion with God, back into the kingdom of his Father. He invited people who everyone else thought were completely disqualified from being connected to God: the sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and thieves and drunkards and all those who were on the outskirts of society. He welcomed them back into communion with God. And he welcomes us back into communion with God.
    He overturned the world by showing God's radical, lavish love for all people and then invited us to love God just as much, with our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. The reason why this is threatening, the reason why this turns the world upside down, is because to be back in proper relationship with God, to love him with all that we are, means taking something else in our lives out of that place. Every one of us has put something in the place that rightfully belongs to God alone. Just as Herod was threatened by the birth of this rival king, every one of us should be threatened by the birth of Christ, because he has come to dethrone whatever is on the throne of our lives that he alone has authority over. That's why he came to bring a sword; he's here to turn the world and our lives upside down.
Jesus has come to demand our full allegiance, and that will cause division both in us and in our world.           
    Don't be fooled. Don't look at the manger and think only about this innocent, helpless, sweet baby, tender and mild, laying down his sweet head. Jesus is no such thing. He did not come to make us feel better about ourselves, but to demand our allegiance. He came as a threat to every king, ruler, government and nation in this world, including every illegitimate ruler in our own lives, whether that be family or self or career advancement or material gain.  He alone can make such a demand.
    And to him and him alone should we give that allegiance.  For it is then that we find shalom—the true peace that comes from wholeness. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cranky Christians at Christmas

      Well, it’s officially the Christmas Season.  We know that because today is the first Sunday of Advent.  That’s the pastoral answer, anyway.  The real reason we know it’s the Christmas Season is because Thanksgiving is over.  In the United States the Christmas Season officially begins on the day after Thanksgiving—Black Friday.  If anyone wants to know what the official religion of America is, this tells you all you need to know.  Anyway, I’m not going to spend my time complaining about the commercialization of Christmas; it is what it is.  The fact is, I like buying Christmas gifts, and I like receiving Christmas gifts.  So there.  You have my blessing to give and receive Christmas gifts.  As if you were waiting for my blessing.  Just don’t do it all on a credit card.  If you haven’t saved throughout the year for Christmas, or don’t have the cash to buy everybody everything that they want, simplify.  Put more thought and less debt into your gifts.  And less guilt.  If your kids or your spouse don’t already know how much you love them, a new iPad isn’t going to solve anything.  No, I’m going to use my time and this space to address a much more serious issue, one that I have felt compelled to address the last few years at the beginning of the Christmas Season.  This is my annual article about Cranky Christians at Christmastime.  I’m not talking about Christians who are sleep-deprived from too many Christmas parties or frustrated by the lines at the mall.  I’m talking about Christians who work themselves up into a spasm of righteous indignation because non-Christians don’t want to celebrate Christmas the way a Christian does.
Last Spring, a couple of weeks before Easter, Pam and I were invited to the home of one of her hospital chaplain colleagues, a Reform Jew, to celebrate Passover.  Julie invited all the resident chaplains and their spouses/guests to Passover.  None of us were Jews; all were Christians.  Three of us were ordained Christian ministers.  We gathered in her living room, and on the coffee table were all the elements of the Passover.  We took turns reading excerpts from the Hagaddah, asking the four questions and listening to the four answers.  We ate two types of bitter herbs (recalling the bitterness of their slavery in Egypt), drank the four glasses of wine at the appropriate times, ate parsley dipped in salt water (signifying the tears of the Hebrew slaves), and ate charoset, a sweet, brown, pebbly paste of fruits and nuts, representing the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt.  Julie explained each element to us—goyim that we were—so that we could fully enjoy the experience.  Afterward we gathered around her dining room table and ate dinner, which consisted of other traditional Jewish foods, including lamb, which Julie cooked herself.  She was our hostess, we were her guests, and we were treated as such.  I was honored to be there.  Julie made me feel special.  It was a wonderful experience.
Here’s what Julie didn’t do: she didn’t expect me to experience Passover as a Jew.  I’m not Jewish, I’m Christian, and it was as a Christian that I experienced Passover.  Julie didn’t chastise me for celebrating Easter but not Passover.  She wasn’t indignant that we Christians had taken her Passover meal, which means so much to her and her people, and changed it into something completely different, using just one of the cups of wine and a small piece of the bread to symbolize the death of our (false) Messiah.  She didn’t use some lame slogan like, “Don’t Take the Pesach out of Passover.”
She opened her home, and made her Christian friends feel special.  More importantly, she opened her life to us and said, “This is who I am, this is what is important to me, and I want to share it with you, my Christian friends.”
We Christians invite the world to celebrate Christmas.  People who aren’t Christians aren’t going to celebrate it like we do.  It’s not going to have the same meaning to them it has to us.  We shouldn’t expect a Jew working the cash register at Bed, Bath and Beyond to say, “Merry Christmas” (the word is, after all, a shortening of “Christ’s Mass”), and we shouldn’t want a Muslim 2nd grader to be forced in a government-run school to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!”  And when we get indignant when they don’t, we come off looking really, really bad.
We should treat them as guests.  Literally, we should treat them as guests.  Invite them into our homes and churches, let them see how Christians celebrate Jesus’s birth; invite them to listen as we read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.  We should say to them, “This is who I am, this is what is important to me, and I want to share it with you, my Muslim/Jewish/Atheist/Hindu/Christian-in-name-only friends.”  Instead of treating them as intruders, interlopers, or transgressors, let’s treat them all—and one another too—as special guests to Jesus’s party.
No more Cranky Christians at Christmas.  Please?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Wright's Right: Accepting God as King

Plenty of Christians, alas, have imagined that a “divine Jesus” had come to earth simply to reveal his divinity and save people away from earth for a distant “heaven.” (Some have even imagined, absurdly, that the point of “proving that Jesus really did all those things” is to show that the Bible is true—as though Jesus came to witness to the Bible rather than the other way around.) It has been all too possible to use the doctrine of the incarnation or even the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture as a way of protecting oneself and one’s worldview and political agenda against having to face the far greater challenge of God taking charge, of God becoming king, on earth as in heaven. But that is what the stories in the Bible are all about. That’s what the story of Jesus was, and is, all about. That is the real challenge, and skeptics aren’t the only ones who find clever ways to avoid it.

Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (p. 149). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Warren Haynes Singing and Playing

Here's the video I promised the other day.  It will give you a taste of Hayne's music, his voice, his virtuosity.  A quick apology about the video, which was shot with my phone.  When I turn the phone from horizontal to vertical--or portrait to landscape, if you will--the image on my screen adjusts, but apparently the recording doesn't change.  So there will be a portion when I turn the phone horizontal when the video will turn sideways.  Sorry about that.  Maybe just lay down to watch, or close your eyes and listen.  In my opinion, it's worth it.

Wright's Right: The Second Coming and Patience

Believing in the second coming itself is anything but arrogant. The whole point of it is to insist, over against not only the wider pagan world, but against all self-delusion or pretension within the church, that Jesus remains sovereign and will return at last to put everything right. This putting right (the biblical word for it is “justice”) is the sort of sigh-of-relief event that the whole world, at its best and at many other times too, longs for most deeply. All sorts of things are out of joint, both on a large and a small scale, in the world; and God the creator will put them straight. All sorts of things are still going wrong, corrupting the lives of human beings and the larger life of the environment, the planet itself; God the creator will put them right. All sorts of things are still wrong with us, Jesus’s followers; Jesus, when he comes, will put us right as well. That may not be comfortable, but it’s what we need. Believing he will do it is part of Christian humility. Waiting for it is part of Christian patience: 

When the king is revealed (and he is your life, remember), then you too will be revealed with him in glory. (Col. 3:4) 

Beloved ones, we are now, already, God’s children; it hasn’t yet been revealed what we are going to be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (p. 201). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Haynes Alive

For years I had read about Warren Haynes and his band Gov't Mule in guitar magazines, but this past January I decided to give a listen to him.  I listened to some previews on iTunes and really liked what I heard, so I downloaded the Gov't Mule album, Deja Voodoo--and proceeded to listen to nothing else for two whole months.  Then I downloaded one of his solo projects, Tales of Ordinary Madness--and listened to nothing else for another couple of months.  Since then I have downloaded a few more albums, and Warren Haynes is pretty much all that I've been listening to all year.  (Exceptions being a little country music recommended by a friend--Jason Aldean, "My Kinda Party"; James Wesley, "Didn't I"; and some blues by Joe Bonamassa.) 

Haynes has long been known for his work with the Allman Brothers, but his Gov't Mule and solo projects, while not cut out for Top 40 radio play, are what has garnered him a very loyal following.  His is the kind of music I really enjoy--guitar-driven, blues-based classic and southern rock.

For Christmas Pam wanted to get me tickets to one of his concerts and asked Clark Briggs, for whom I built guitar #3, to find out if and when Haynes was going to be in the area.  Clark found out that Haynes was going to be in Silver Spring at the Fillmore on November 19, but asked Pam if he could take me there as a birthday gift.  She graciously said yes.

Last night was November 19.  The Fillmore is not a large venue, but it is very cool.  The concert was general admission, standing-only.  Clark and I were 20 in line, which means we were able to get right on the rail in front of the stage.

Oh. My. Goodness.  All I wanted was to be close enough to be able to watch Warren play, but I was within just a few feet.  It was all better than I expected.  An amazing night of music.  It was the last night of the tour, and they seemed energized.  They had fun.  There was joy on the stage and in the audience.

Here's some pics from the concert.

Haynes recently switched from a Gibson Les Paul to a Gibson hollow body, not sure if it's a 335 or maybe a 333.
This girl could sing!  There was soul all through her voice.
Here is my favorite picture.  Warren isn't in pain, he's just bending the heck out of that string.  When you bend a string you are squeezing every ounce of feeling from the note.  No other look is possible when getting that much blues out of your guitar.  Trust me on this.
After two sets and an encore that was almost as long as the second set, a final goodbye at the end of the tour.

I have some video that I will post but that will have to wait.  I first have to upload video to YouTube, and my DSL here at home can't handle the bandwidth required.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wright's Right

I'm going to start a new series of posts that I am calling "Wright's Right."  These will be quotes, mostly without commentary from me, from his writings.  Wright is the biblical writer who has been very influential in my own thinking--and I am not alone.  He is among the most prolific of writers, and writes at different times for scholarly, pastoral, and popular audiences.  I just finished his latest book, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, and I highlighted a number of passages that I'll be interspersing among my other posts in the near future.  Here's the first: 

The disciples wanted a kingdom without a cross. Many would-be “orthodox” or “conservative” Christians in our world have wanted a cross without a kingdom, an abstract “atonement” that would have nothing to do with this world except to provide the means of escaping it. Many too have wanted a “divine” Jesus as a kind of “superman” figure, a heavenly hero come to rescue them, but not to act as Israel’s Messiah, establishing God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. Jesus’s shocking combination of scriptural models into a single vocation makes excellent historical sense; that is, it explains at a stroke why he did and said what he did and said. remains as challenging in our world, and indeed in our churches, as it was in Jesus’s own day.

Wright, N. T. (2011-10-25). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (pp. 173-174). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Consumerism Aftermath, Pt. 1: Tearing Down the Walls

     Consumerism has hit Christianity in the United States, and brand loyalty is fast eroding.  I wrote about this last week, and while it is fashionable for commentators on Christianity to bemoan the way that consumerism has hurt the church and diluted its message, I want to assert, without denying the corrosive effects, that there are some positive trends that we are seeing in the landscape of Christianity that are a direct result of this consumerist attitude that people are bringing to the church.  Just off the top of my head, I see these things happening:
· As denominational distinctives get blurred, denominational walls get torn down
· As denominational walls get torn down, denominational theology becomes more democratic
· As theology becomes more democratic, Christians from different backgrounds and points of view talk to and learn from each other.
· As Christians talk to and learn from each other, we learn to respect and admire the totality of the 2000 year history of Christianity.
· As we re-claim all of Christian history, we enter into dialogue with Christians from different ages and epochs.
     All of these are positive developments, and need to be more fully explored.  Let me tackle the first one.  Historically, each denomination has some key elements that distinguish it from other denominations.  Presbyterians, for instance, are the spiritual descendants of John Calvin and hold to some form of Calvinism—the total depravity of humans, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  In other words, God chooses who He wants to save, and there’s not much we can do about it.  Methodists, on the other hand, believe that humans are free to accept or reject God’s call or election to salvation, but that is really not the thing that historically has distinguished Methodists from other denominations, but rather their belief that the Christian is to pursue holiness or perfection as our chief object, and this through the method (hence the name) of small accountability groups.  This, of course, is an over-simplification; both Presbyterians and Methodists would point to other aspects as distinctives as well.  For Baptists, this issue of predestination vs. free will is not distinctive; there are Calvinist Baptists and free-will Baptists—right in our congregation.  Historically, Baptist distinctives are as follows: Believer’s Baptism by immersion—it’s in our name, after all; soul competency—the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply Scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit ; the priesthood of all believers—the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without imposition of creed or control of clergy or government; the autonomy of the local Baptist church—that Baptist churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whomever they perceive as gifted for ministry, and to participate as they deem appropriate in the larger Body of Christ; and religious freedom—the principle of separation of church and state. 
The thing is—these things aren’t that distinctive anymore.  There are other Christian denominations that are strong advocates for religious freedom in the way that Baptists have historically advocated.  Similarly, there are more and more denominations that practice Believer’s Baptism by immersion, more and more that believe in soul competency, the priesthood of believers.  Similarly, we are all learning from the Methodist’s emphasis on holiness through accountability, and the Presbyterian emphasis on God’s sovereignty, the Pentecostal emphasis that the Holy Spirit is active in visible ways in the lives of believers, the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on the mystery and beauty of God, etc.  As the lines between denomination get blurred, the walls between believers get torn down.  Actually, to be honest, the denominational institutions still insist on their distinctives.  The institutional walls still exist; it’s just that individual believer’s no longer pay much attention to them.  And that’s a good thing.  Jesus never intended that his followers would rebuild new walls to replace the wall between Jew and Gentile that he tore down.  Disciples of Jesus build bridges, not walls.

That’s our distinctive.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Throughout most of the history of Christianity, brand loyalty has been strong.  Whatever brand of church you were born into, that’s where you stayed.  Of course changing brands wasn’t that simple back in the day—there were no options.  First, there was just the Church.  Then, there was the Coptic Church, which split away from  everyone else, and the Church.  Then there was the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which went their separate way.  But even then a person didn’t really have a choice, given that these churches were geographically—and therefore socially—restricted.  If you were a Christian in Egypt you went to the Coptic Church; if you lived in Greece or Eastern Europe, you went to the Orthodox Church; in Western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church.  A Christian living in Gaul really didn’t have the choice to go to the Orthodox Church down the road—unless by “down the road” you meant a few thousand miles down the road.
In the West, the Protestant Reformation brought new brands of Christianity, and choices somewhat increased.  In Germany, for instance, your choices were the Catholic Church or the Lutheran Church, and that’s pretty much it.  But after a generation or two of the Reformation there really wasn’t that much crossover, if any.  If you were born Catholic, which meant your entire family was Catholic, you stayed Catholic.  To change would cut you off , not only from your family, but your entire social structure.  Same if you were born Lutheran.
This is an over-simplification to a degree, but not by much, and certainly not by comparison to what followed as religious groups, seeking religious freedom, came to the New World.  Within a few generations you had Congregationalists, Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics living in the same state, same city, same township.  You may have been a Lutheran farmer whose nearest neighbor a mile or so away was a Mennonite.
But while all these different brands came in close proximity to each other in the United States, brand loyalty was still extremely strong.  People just didn’t switch brands that often, and there was a high cost for doing so.  Then came television, and with TV came advertising to an extent not seen before, even in the days of radio.  As the years went by marketing became more and more sophisticated.  Consumers began having more choices of cars, toothpaste, laundry detergent, etc.  The shopping mall came along and it flourished, giving people choices of stores and products under one large, climate-controlled roof.  Brand loyalty was still high.  Among the WWII generation you would still hear men call themselves Ford men or Chevy men.  And Baptists were always Baptists, Lutherans were always Lutherans, etc.
Not so for their children.  This generation, the Baby Boomers, came of age alongside the television, and they were the first generation that grew up marketed to.  Brand loyalty began eroding.  If the toothpaste they were using didn’t include fluoride, brand loyalty didn’t keep them from switching to a new brand that did.  Or that promised whiter teeth and fresher breath.  Companies could no longer rely on brand loyalty to keep their customers; they had to always be better than the rest.  And the bar kept rising.
So it shouldn’t be any surprise that when the Boomers came of age and started having children and returning to church in the 1970’s and 1980’s we began seeing the erosion of brand loyalty in church life as well.  If a husband and wife who grew up Baptist moved to a new town with their kids (or because they had kids decided to go back to church after a long-layoff that started in college), the Baptist church or churches might be the first churches they visit, but they likely visited other brands as well.  And the determining factor of where they eventually joined probably had little to do with the brand—it was almost solely based on the quality of the children’s and youth programs.
The result in this shift in mentality to a consumerist approach to church shopping is a marketing culture it created in churches that sought to gain the greatest numbers of religious consumers.  And while this is not new, and the weaknesses and flaws are apparent, what is new is that some very positive trends are coming out of this consumerist/marketing culture in church life.  I’ll explore some of those exciting trends in the next few posts.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

God on the Brain

In their book, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings from a Leading Neuroscientist, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and therapist Mark Robert Waldman  conclude that believing in God is good for your health.  Based on evidence culled from brain-scan studies, a wide-reaching survey of people’s religious and spiritual experiences, and the authors’ analyses of adult drawings of God, they made the following discoveries:
· Not only do prayer and spiritual practice reduce stress, but just twelve minutes of meditation per day may slow down the aging process.
· Intense prayer and meditation permanently change numerous structures and functions in the brain, altering your values and the way you perceive reality.
· Contemplating a loving God rather than a punitive God reduces anxiety and depression and increases feelings of security, compassion, and love.
 It’s the last one that is interesting to me, not because it’s surprising—I imagine a having a strong belief in a punitive God would indeed result in increased anxiety and depression while believing in a loving God would naturally result in feelings of security, compassion, and love.  I didn’t need a neuroscientist to tell me that.  What makes it interesting is that so few people believe in such a God.
According to the authors, Americans view God four ways.  “Whether we are conscious of it or not, we all assign a personality to God.”  These personalities are as follows:
· The authoritarian god (32% of us)
· The critical god (16% of us)
· The distant god (24% of us)
· The benevolent god (23% of us)
So only 23% of religious people have increased feelings of security, compassion, and love.   Put another way, at least 48% of religious people have heightened feelings of anxiety and depression.  (I’m assuming, of course, that both an authoritarian and a critical god would be punitive, but I think that’s a pretty safe assumption.  I didn’t include in that 48% a distant God, since punishment would seem to entail engagement.  Nonetheless, one could argue that being distant and unengaged is a form of abuse if not punishment, but at the very least no one would describe a distant god as being warm, compassionate, and loving any more than we would call a distant father those things.)  That doesn’t surprise me, I’ve worked in churches all my adult life  and have seen and read enough about church life to know that they are often very anxiety-ridden places. 
If this is in fact true, that only 23% of religious people believe that God is principally benevolent and loving, we all ought to be concerned.  My favorite theologian, N.T. Wright, tells of the time when he was talking to an Old Testament professor when a student approached and said to the professor that she didn’t like the God of the Old Testament, that he was mean and wrathful and judgmental; that she preferred the God of the New Testament, full of grace and mercy and forgiveness.  (It strikes me that this was not a very graceful thing to say to a Christian professor of the Old Testament, but I digress.)  She went on to say that as a Christian she was obligated to follow the New Testament God, not the Old Testament God, to which the professor pointed out, quite calmly and gently, that the Old Testament God was the God of Jesus Christ.  There is only one God in the Bible, and, sure, there is fire and brimstone in the Old Testament, no doubt, but Jesus didn’t just show up and introduce a whole new way of viewing God that was different from the God revealed in Scripture.  This loving, benevolent God is found from Genesis through Malachi; Jesus just pointed it out.  Drawing from the Law and the Prophets—and principally from Deuteronomy and Isaiah—Jesus taught that the nature of God is to love and forgive and be merciful, and that he, Jesus, was the fulfillment or pinnacle of that understanding of God.
Jesus himself was the epitome of compassion and love. 
So why do only 23% of us believe in his God?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Marlin's Fingers

In July I decided to take some guitar lessons to break out of a rut in my soloing, so I signed up with Marlin King at Make N Music.  Marlin has been playing and singing in bands since he was a teenager, and he's in his sixties now.  He shows me so much stuff that I end up forgetting much of it before I can get home, practice it and solidify it in my memory, but a friend of mine suggested videoing some of it with my phone.  What a great idea!

This video is Marlin playing against a blues backing track.  He's showing me stuff, but mainly I'm just enjoying watching him play, and thought you might enjoy it also.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


If you could design the ideal world and the ideal society, what would it look like?  Let me take a stab at it.
         First, there would be Enough.  There would be Enough for everyone.  Enough food, first of all.  There wouldn’t be starving children anywhere in the world, certainly not while others eat their fill plus some, and then throw away Enough leftovers to feed a child for a couple of days.  There would be Enough housing.  No one would live in cardboard boxes or leaky shacks cobbled together from pieces of plywood and drywall scavenged from the building sites of enormous mansions.    There would be Enough clothing that everyone would be cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and no one would be embarrassed by the poor condition of their only shirt.  There would just simply be Enough of the things that people need to live.  Those that have wouldn’t worry about More.  More food, More rooms in our houses, More clothes, More stuff.  We wouldn’t concern ourselves about More.  We’d concern ourselves with Enough, and realize that until everyone has Enough, our More is their Enough.
 There would be Peace.  That means first of all that we would stop killing each other, either in the drug wars of the city or the “love” wars of domestic violence (spouse abuse, child abuse, revenge for infidelity) or the oil wars of developed countries or the religious wars of the Middle East or the border wars over territory in much of the world.  But as Jesus pointed out, you don't have to murder someone to be violent against them.  Anger in itself is often expressed violently if non-physically.  (Ever been on the receiving end of a person’s angry harangue?  Then you know that there is a physical effect—you feel the violation.)  A marriage can be void of abuse but also void of closeness and intimacy.  A child that is ignored by their parents is being scarred significantly, and finds little comfort that at least they are not being beaten. True Peace is not the absence of violence but the presence of love.  It produces a feeling that each moment of now is right and true  and holy. 
 There would be a bounty of Grace and Forgiveness.  And both would be needed, because in my ideal world people would be freed from the tyranny of Perfection.  Can you imagine going through school knowing that you would be punished if you didn’t get a 100 on every homework assignment, every quiz, every test?  That your parents would not only be angry with you but would kick you out of the family until you somehow made it up?  Yet somehow we have constructed a view of God that has him treating his children the same way.  Only God is Perfect, and I don’t believe that he expects Perfection from any of us, not in the sense of flawlessness.  The biblical concept of perfection isn’t about flawlessness, it’s about being a complete person, a whole person, having everything that is essential to being a child of God.  So we wouldn’t have to get a 100 on every action,  in every thought, every word.  Which means that we would cut each other a lot of slack.  We’d give each other a lot of Grace, and when true offense occurred we’d so value the Peace that we have in our relationship that we would fight for Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  Just as God did and does.   Think I’m overly idealistic?  Well, don’t blame me, because this really isn’t my dream.  It’s Jesus’.  I took it straight from the Lord’s prayer:
Enough: “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Peace: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”
Grace and Forgiveness: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God includes all three of these and more.  What gets me is how easily people, including Christians, dismiss these things as unrealistic in the real world.  “Sure, it would be great if everyone had Enough food, but it’s unrealistic.  It’s unrealistic to think that we won’t resort to any kind of violence to settle our differences.  It’s unrealistic to think that in the real world when people are offended that they wouldn’t seek punishment and even revenge but rather would offer Grace and seek Forgiveness.  The real world doesn’t work like that.  It’s unrealistic.”
 But this is Jesus’ vision, which means it is God’s vision.  So I have to ask: This is unrealistic for whom?  Of course it’s unrealistic for humans to do.  We’re addicted  to More, addicted to Non-Peace, addicted to Punishment.  We’re too scared to try another way.
 But this is God’s dream, and it’s Unrealistic to think that, in the end, he won’t get his way.

Friday, October 21, 2011

When Converting from the Perfect to the Imperfect is a Good Thing

Last week I asked the question, “When was Peter saved?” and invited you to answer the question for yourself.  So when was it?  When he was first introduced to Jesus and started following him?  When he confesses that Jesus is the messiah, the son of the living God?  After the resurrection, when he professes his love for Jesus three times?  Or maybe at Pentecost when he received the Holy Spirit?  Or maybe, as some have suggested, Peter was saved the moment God chose him as one of the elect, before the foundations of the world were laid. 
There is no doubt about the moment of Paul’s conversion: on the road to Damascus.  But there is no clear-cut event like that in Peter’s life.  Part of the problem is in our choice of language, which is not to say that it’s merely an issue of language and not theology, for in fact our choice of language shapes our theology.  So when we subsume the entire event of salvation  into the event of conversion, there is a problem.  Conversion is an initial event; salvation stems from that event, just as birth is the initial event of life but is not the totality of that life.  No one says of their birthday, “I lived on August 30, 1959,” but “My life began on August 30, 1959.”  Yet we often point to the moment of conversion and say, “I was saved when I was ten-years-old.” 
But even then there is a problem, for life doesn’t really begin; rather life is passed on in a complex process in which a living  sperm of a living father and a living egg of a living mother combine to produce a living zygote which becomes a living fetus which becomes a living baby which grows into a living toddler etc.  That life is present at each stage is indisputable; when it began is trickier to pin down.  So also with the conversion event, which often isn’t an event at all.  The moment of decision is often an event, but there is a sense in which conversion has been going on before that decision as a person  over time becomes convinced that Jesus is savior and Lord.  Perhaps more importantly, conversion continues after the moment of decision.  I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was ten, but I can firmly say that I am more convinced now that Jesus is the savior and Lord of the world than I was then.  I have accepted more of Jesus’ teachings as being trustworthy enough to pattern my life after than ever before.  I understand more about Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God and seek it more than ever before.  I am being converted more and more into a Kingdom person.  Does that mean I am more saved than I was before?  No, but I am more converted than I was before, no question.
The biggest difference is that at 10 I was committed to Jesus being the way to life in heaven after death, while today, in addition to that, I am more—though perhaps not completely—committed to Jesus being the way to life on earth before death.  The caveat is because I know that I’m not fully committed to turning the other cheek, for instance.  Slap me, and my first reaction—and maybe last reaction—is probably still to slap back.  Though I know I am supposed to love my enemies, I don’t yet really want to do it and am therefore not fully committed to doing it.  My want-to still needs converting.  Though I know I am supposed to present my life to God as a living sacrifice, there are things in my life that I am still not yet willing to sacrifice to God—including my life, or should I say my death.  As I recently heard a friend say, “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar.”  That’s me: I keep trying to crawl off the altar.  That part of me is not converted yet. 
Maybe the biggest problem is that we equate salvation with forgiveness of sins.  Forgiveness of our sins is part of our salvation, but, like the moment of decision, is not the sum total of salvation.  Salvation cannot occur without the forgiveness of sins, but it is more than the forgiveness of sins.  We are saved from our sins, but we are also saved to a new way of living that is fit for the kingdom of God. 
So it’s different to ask, “When was Peter forgiven,” than to ask, “When was Peter saved?” or “When was he converted?”  When was he forgiven?   I’d say before the foundations of the world.  When was he saved and/or converted?  Well, I have found for me that it’s a life-long process, and it appears to be that way for Peter as well. Maybe we ought to forget that past-perfect tense when speaking of salvation and conversion and move to the past-imperfect tense.  The difference between the two is that with the past perfect tense an action is seen as having been completed in the past, while with the past imperfect the action is seen as begun in the past but not completed; it is seen as continuing into the present.  It's the difference between "I was saved" (perfect) and "My salvation began back on..." (imperfect); between "I was converted" and "My conversion began...."  
And then we will all realize that we still have work that needs to be done, and it's not optional work.  It is the ongoing necessary work of salvation, of converting to a person who knows full well how to thrive in the kingdom of God.