Thursday, January 31, 2013

Incarnational Ministry

       Even  though the New Testament is written in Greek, it is a thoroughly Jewish collection of writings.  It was written by Jews, to a largely Jewish Christian audience, and, of course, the central character was a Jew.  That means that the Bible, from start to finish, reflects Jewish thinking, Jewish theology, a Jewish mindset.  I mention this because a lot of present-day Christian thinking reflects not a Jewish mindset but a Greek one, and that colors—and sometimes distorts—the biblical message.
     Western culture is shaped by Greek philosophy, beginning in the Renaissance and carrying through the great Enlightenment thinkers who created our country and embodied Enlightenment philosophy in our founding documents.  Arguably the two greatest Greek philosophers were Plato and his student Aristotle, and though Enlightenment thinking incorporates both in its philosophy, the two had fundamentally different  worldviews.  Plato taught that the physical world was a mere shadow of the perfect spiritual world, and we should learn to transcend or even overcome the physical in order to attain the higher spiritual plane where all things were ideal and flawless.  Aristotle reversed the priority, saying that the spiritual world was merely a world of ideas, and that the only real world was the physical world.  You can see how both of these are manifested in modern thinking.  Aristotle’s philosophy is embodied in science, which elevates the physical—what can be measured, weighed, observed or otherwise subjected to the scientific method.  Much of our religious sense is influenced by Plato.  The earth is obviously flawed and getting worse.  Our bodies, beginning somewhere in our twenties, begins the slow and inexorable deterioration toward death (albeit hastened by our love of burgers and fries), after which we leave them behind and enter into a purely spiritual state of perfection.  At some point in the future the earth and everything in it will be no more and there will just be the spiritual.
Neither reflects either Jewish or Christian thinking.
Both modes of thinking go against the theology of the incarnation, in which God became Human in order to redeem humanity.  Jesus is not spirit with a physical veneer in which the spirit trumps the body, but he is One: 100% God, 100% Human.  Both.  He was raised both spirit and body, and he ascended back to the Father both spirit and body.  And the church, as the ongoing incarnation of Christ, exists in the world as body filled with the Spirit.  Both.  And both the Jewish and the Christian teaching about our resurrection is that it is both physical as well as spiritual.  Our bodies will be transformed, not replaced or obliterated.
True, Paul spoke of the battle between the Spirit and the flesh, but by “flesh” Paul wasn’t referring to our bodies but rather to those natural urges and inclinations, good in and of themselves when used in the proper context and in the proper way, that must be harnessed in other contexts and other uses.  And Paul’s point isn’t just that in not harnessing “the flesh” isn't just that it hurts us spiritually but that it hurts us both physically and spiritually, as well as relationally.  (Not for nothing, but relationships involve both a physicality as well as a spirituality.)
Incarnational theology is rooted in a proper theology of Creation.  In Genesis 1 God concludes each day of creating activity with the judgment that it was good, and when it was all completed, he said it was very good.  Platonic thinking says that creation is, if not bad, at the very least it is less than, but that’s not what the Bible says.  And if now the creation is fallen, the biblical answer is not to destroy it for all time, but to restore it for all time.  Paul talks about the redemption of God’s creation, and this redemption is both spiritual as well as physical.  So also are we to understand that our redemption is not just spiritual, but there is a physical element to it as well—hence the transformation of the body at the resurrection.
So while it may be handy to talk about ministering to people’s physical needs as opposed to their spiritual needs, incarnational theology says there is no opposition.  Feed the body, you touch the soul.  Feed the soul, the body grows in health.  Even science backs this up, but so does observation.  A good hug is healing to the soul, and non-physical things like faith, hope and love strengthen the body.  (If you doubt this, remove a person from the experience of faith, hope, and/or love and watch what happens to them physically.
God tells us to minister to people, and a person is both a body and a spirit.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Properly Aged

I have an old guitar, purchased in 1979, probably built that same year.  There are older guitars out there, but  not by much.  The number of guitars built before World War II that are still around is not that high.  There will never be the guitar equivalent of the 500-year-old Stradivarius violin that is still playable and sounding great.  Steel string guitars aren’t built to last that long; the pull of the strings  (approximately 150 pounds) eventually takes its  toll on the thin softwood soundboard.  I suppose one could build a guitar that would last for 500 years by using a hardwood, making it thicker, or using stiff braces underneath to strengthen the soundboard, but no one would want to play it or hear it.  All those things would dampen and diminish the sound.  So the guitar is built to sound good, and guitar owners accept that they may be passed down to our children, maybe our grandchildren, but probably not our great-grandchildren.
So a 34-year-old guitar is getting up there.  Since I’ve had it I’ve tried to take care of it, keeping it in its protective case or on a stand, not just laying around where it can get knocked over, kicked, or otherwise damaged.  Still, it shows its age, and that it’s been played.  There are some bumps, some nicks, some yellowing of the finish that’s particularly noticeable on the spruce soundboard.  Just about every guitar will have some scratches on the back where it has rubbed against the player’s belt buckle, and mine is no exception.  The fretboard near the top shows some wear and discoloration, particularly in the area where a D-chord is played.  My fingernails have actually scratched the wood and made some small divots in the hard ebony.  Once again this is pretty typical for an old, well-played guitar.
All of these things can be fixed.  I know how to replace the fretboard, or just how to fill in the small divots.  I could sand all the old finish off and spray a new finish on, and there would be no more cracks or yellowing.  I could make this guitar look like it did right out of the factory.
But why would I?  I don’t consider these problems to be fixed.  Rather, they give the guitar character, testimony of hours of practice and performance, of pleasure given and received.  And all of these things contribute to the beauty of the sound.  “Fixing” the guitar would alter that sound in ways subtle but noticeable, even if to no one but me.  It’s taken 34 years for it to get to this sound, why would I want to reverse that even a single year?  It would be like taking a perfectly aged wine and  trying to get it to taste like a recent vintage.
“Youth is wasted on the young,”  George Bernard Shaw said, pointing out a seemingly cruel irony: when our bodies were young, full of energy, strong and flexible, our minds were lacking in wisdom to know what to do with all that strength and energy.  We spent time dealing with surface things like being attractive, popular, successful, and entertained.  By the time we figure out what really matters, our bodies are heading downhill; things are sagging, knees are creaking, hair is falling out of places we want it and sprouting in places we don’t.  We know what to do, but either don’t have the energy to do it the way we want, or the strength, or maybe the time to develop the ability.
But like that old guitar, what a person with an aging body has is character, which isn’t forged through ease, leisure, and success, but through hardship, failure, and pain, the scratches, dings and yellowing of life.  
James Hillman, in The Force of Character and Lasting Life , says that the soul must be properly aged like fine wine in old, cracked barrels.   The last years of our lives are meant to mellow the soul.  Each physical diminishment is designed to mature the soul.   The signs of aging aren’t indications of dying, but initiations into another way of life.   
When we are young, the body is at its peak, while the soul is rather unformed.  When we are old, the body is diminished but the soul is matured and made ready for the next phase.  And that has always been our life’s work.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Loving Jesus Isn't Enough

           A few times year, Dr. David Lee from our state convention will host a luncheon for about a dozen or so pastors from around the state and three of the denominational staff .  We will have fellowship, share prayer requests, and then discuss a topic related to pastoring the local church.  We had one last week, and the topic was church health.  In the midst of the discussion, one of the guys quite emphatically said, “We simply need to teach them to love Christ.  Just love Christ.”  Who can have a problem with that?  As the hymn says, “Loving Jesus, that is all.”  It’s hard to object to that.  And while I know this guy, like this guy, and have profound respect for this guy, I found my spirit disturbed within me.  Sometimes I stay silent when I really ought to give voice to my concerns, and this was one of those times.  I wish I would have said something like this:
Loving Jesus?  That is all?  No, I don’t think that is the problem.  I think we have done a good job of teaching people that all they need to do is love Jesus.  And they do.  Go to your churches on Sunday and ask, “How many of you love Jesus?” and I bet everybody will raise their hands.  I bet even the meanest, most irascible, most cantankerous church member will raise his or her hand.  I bet even the non-Christians in your congregation will raise their hands.  I’ve read where non-Christians have said, “I have no problem with Jesus; it’s Christians I have a problem with.”    Loving Jesus?  That’s the easy part. 
What’s not to love?  A little baby lying in a manger, and guy walking around, teaching, healing, raising people from the dead, multiplying loaves and fishes, turning water into wine—what’s not to love?  An innocent man dying on a cross for the sins of humanity, looking down at those who crucified him and saying, “Father, forgive them.”  What’s not to love?
But we have created a system in which it is possible to love Jesus and not do what he says.  Both in our language and in much of our theology we have taught that being saved is the most important thing, and that it is a matter, not of obedience, but of faith and love.  But by faith we mean belief in a set of doctrines about Jesus, not faithfulness to Jesus’ teachings, which sounds too much like works-based salvation.  And similarly, by love we mean a warm personal affection towards Jesus, not a set of actions done on behalf of Jesus, which once again is too close to works-based salvation for our comfort.  The only thing we ask a person to do in order to “accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior” is walk an aisle, pray a prayer, and be baptized.  And then we come here and lament that most of our church people are “educated beyond their level of obedience.”  Well, of course they are, but it’s not their fault, it’s ours!  We’re the ones telling them that loving Jesus and loving the things he told us to do are two different things, rather than part and parcel of the same thing.  We’re the ones who don’t tell them that in the Bible “faith” means both belief and faithfulness, and that “love” means both affection toward but also action on behalf of.  We’re the ones telling them that loving Jesus will get you into Heaven while obeying Jesus just gets you a larger heavenly mansion and some jewels in the heavenly crown.
And because they can read what Jesus tells them to do, and they can see for themselves how difficult if not unreasonable these things are, how they will get in the way of their earthly pleasure if not success, how in some cases they will get them beat up and beat down if not killed, that they will lead to a lower monetary standard of living—well, is it any wonder they decide to risk a smaller mansion in heaven?  (After all, even the smallest mansion is still a mansion.)
Until we teach them that loving Jesus means loving when he says, “Love your enemies” so much that we’ll do it, and loving when he says “Turn the other cheek” so much that we’ll get beat up before we’ll defend ourselves, until then, we’ll continue to have as well as be people who love Jesus but ignore most of what he says.
That’s what I wish I had said.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fresh Eyes

I was born of a long line of Baptists on both sides of my family.  I know that at least four generations of Eubanks and Latimers were every-Sunday-church attenders, and it probably goes back even further than that.  Which means that all of us grew up going to church.  We were brought there as babies, and we continued through childhood, adolescences, and adulthood.  When we married and had children, we continued the line, bringing our babies to church.   And by “church” I don’t just mean the worship services, I mean Sunday School.  And Sunday night services.
Which means that before I knew what was going on, I was hearing the Bible preached and taught.  Every single week.  Many of your experiences are similar if not the same as mine.  Think about what this means: before I could read the Bible for myself, I was told what the Bible said.  I may not have understood what I was being told that the Bible said, but I heard.  And I believed.  I sat in a circle in Sunday school with all the other kids and our Sunday School teacher would tell us a Bible story, usually with pictures, sometimes with flannel boards—remember those?—maybe even with filmstrip projectors—remember those too?  The teachers, all wonderful people, would not only tell us the story, but would tell us what it meant—what it meant about God, or Jesus, or the Bible, or sin, or salvation, or whatever.
When I got old enough to read, then we would spend some time in Sunday School reading the Bible.  Not just having it read to us, but we would read the Bible out loud, each pupil taking his or her turn.  And the Bible we would read was the King James Version.  So on Monday through Friday I would read “See Dick run.  Run, Dick, run!”  And on Sunday I would read, “For she doted upon their paramours, whose flesh is as the flesh of asses, and whose issue is like the issue of horses.”  (Ezekiel 23:20)
Well, OK, maybe not that one, but you get what I mean.  King James English is a little tough for a kid for whom The Hardy Boys and Archie comics are high literature.   So even when I was reading the Bible for myself, I still relied on someone else to tell me what it said and what it meant.  Which means that by the time I was able to read and understand the Bible on my own, I already knew what it said.  So when I did read the Bible on my own, it’s not surprising that I found it saying exactly what I had been told that it said.  We see what we expect to see.
So I never had the opportunity to read the Bible on its own and really hear what it had to say.  I was told what it said, and that’s what I found.  But then I found other Christians who grew up in different Christian traditions, and they said that these same passages meant something different.  Of course, they were doing the same thing I was doing, taking what they had been told that Scripture says and finding that in Scripture.  Still, we were in different places, reading the same Scriptures.
What does all this mean?  Should we not teach the Bible to our children so that when they are old enough they can encounter it fresh and unbiased?  Not at all!  The Ethiopian Eunuch was encountering Scripture fresh, but he still needed Philip to help him understand it.   I am grateful that I was exposed to and taught the Bible from a young age, and I am grateful for the insights that my teachers gave me.  But there comes a time when we must all read Scripture with fresh eyes, recognizing that none of us come unbiased to Scripture.  But the answer isn’t to go hole up someplace all alone and read the Bible a fresh, because our biases as to what it said will come with us to our private study.  No, rather than go off alone, it is far more profitable to realize that the Christian family is larger than tribe in which we grew up, and each tribe (denomination) sees something in Scripture that we might not see.  No tribe is 100% right or wrong, but each have something to say that will help us to understand the Bible more fully.  And that, ultimately, is the goal.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

New Year's Prayer

My prayers for you in 2013:

  •  I pray that you will be known as a person for whom forgiveness comes as naturally as breathing.  That you won’t fear that people will thus take advantage of you—though some small souls undoubtedly will—but realize that good people are drawn to  those who accept them as they are, flaws and all.

  • I pray that you will realize that there are things in this life that are worth striving for perfection, some that are worth striving for excellence, some that are worth striving for good enough, and some that aren’t worth striving for at all.  And that you’ll get everything sorted out in the right categories.

  • I pray that when you strive for perfection and fall short, you’ll realize that God will cut you some slack.  And that you will cut yourself the same measure as God—but with a contrite heart.  God doesn’t appreciate it when his slack-cutting is taken for granted or leads to arrogance.

  • I pray that you will realize that a God of forgiveness views punishment differently  than humans do; that for God the goal is never revenge, or satisfying some sense of justice that has more in common with the concept of karma, i.e. that every deed has its just reward or punishment; that for God the goal of punishment is always reconciliation and restoration, and if those goals can best be accomplished without punishment, then so be it.

  • I pray that if you ever feel like you are being punished by God that it isn’t because he is angry or vengeful but because he believes in you more than you believe in yourself, and he is trying to awaken you to that fact.

  • I pray that you realize that when you fall, God does not merely wait for you to come to your senses, but comes searching for you, full of understanding and care.

  • I pray that you will know that God is not a God who is calculating and stingy in his gifts, but a crazy-farmer God who sows seeds everywhere without regard for waste or worthiness.

  • I pray that you will sow the seeds of love and goodness without regard for waste or worthiness.

  • I pray you will see God less as being immutable and more as being consistent.  Immutability implies rigid, unbending, incapable of adjusting to new circumstances.  But a habit that a person will not break for any reason is just an obsession.  Scripture reveals God to be anything but rigid, unbending, and inflexible;  it does reveal him to be consistently loving, consistently forgiving, consistently faithful, consistently reconciling.  All these (and more) mean that he can’t be rigid, unbending, and inflexible. 

  • I pray that you will come to trust in a God in whose hands and in whose promise you are far safer than if you rely on yourself, or arms, or armies, or governments.

  • I pray that you come to believe in a God who, if he is able to raise dead bodies to new life, is able, not merely to destroy what is evil and hopeless, but to redeem what is evil and hopeless.
  • I pray that you will trust that a God who fashioned the depth of the universe and the deepest recesses of the human psyche is able to comprehend your life and all its complexity.

 All of these things and more I will pray for you in this new year.  And while I am praying for them for you, I will also be praying them for myself.