Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Trouble in Mind, Dealing With Laments in Scripture

As one who has had the opportunity to preach/teach most weekends for almost 6 years now I decided to shake things up in the material we dig into on the weekends by using the Revised Common Lectionary for the passages in our Sunday services.  The Revised Common Lectionary is basically a collection of scripture readings that follow the church calendar and covers much of the Bible in a 3 year period. Why this shakes things up a bit for me is that it causes me to deal with passages that I would not normally choose if I was simply doing a topical series or teaching through a book of the Bible of my choice. Two of the passages for this weekend - Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-5 are definitely passages I’d rather not try to teach mainly because they seem so utterly hopeless.  As I wrestle through these laments I am reminded of a couple of things.

  1. The Psalms as a place of intercession - In Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God, The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he notes that the practice of praying the Psalms will often move us into passages that do not speak to us as individuals at all. This is no doubt a byproduct of our way of reading the Bible which only values the way it speaks to us in our own personal relationship with God. But Peterson sees these passages as a great place to enter into the suffering of others through prayer. So, for instance, the passages I mentioned above don’t really speak to the realities in my life at the moment but they do speak to the realities of friends of mine who are facing terminal illness, unemployment, and loss of loved ones.  So one approach to these types of passages is that they can create a space for intercession when they don’t speak directly to us. So for this Sunday I may set aside a time for folks to write down prayers for others who are going through very difficult times.  
  2. Singing the blues so the blues don’t get on you - I heard an interview with an old bluesman recently where he talked about the function of blues music. He basically said that you sing the blues so that the blues don’t get on you and take you down. I think that blues music is the closest thing that we have in the modern world to the laments of the Psalms (and Job). Blues songs rarely end with any type of resolve and yet they oddly don’t seem without hope. There is something about vocalizing and naming the pain, the frustration, the sadness that actually works to push back the clouds a bit. There’s an old blues song called Trouble in Mind that has been covered countless times by the likes of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Snooks Eaglin to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke. It very much reminds me of the types of sentiments in the passages for this week:
Trouble in mind, I'm blue
But I won't be blue always,
'cause the sun's gonna shine
In my backdoor some day.

I'm all alone at midnight
And my lamp is burnin' low
Ain't never had so much
Trouble in my life before.

Trouble in mind, that's true
I have almost lost my mind,
Life ain't worth livin,
Sometimes I feel like dyin’.

Goin' down to the river
Gonna take my ol' rockin' chair
And if the blues don't leave me
I'll rock away from there.

I'm gonna lay my head down
On some lonesome railroad line
And let the two nineteen
Pacify my mind.

Well it's trouble, oh trouble
Trouble on my worried mind,
When you see me laughin'
I'm laughin' just to keep from cryin’.

3. Laments give us permission to be honest with our feelings - For so many years of my Christian journey I would hide negative feelings and try to push past pain, grief and sadness. This was partly due to the types of churches I initially attended as a new Christian. I remember looking around at folks on Sundays and feeling like a complete failure because it seemed everybody had it all together. It wasn’t until I attended my first Vineyard Worship Leader Retreat back in 2003 (I think) that I really began to hear folks being honest about their struggles and hardships. And what that did for me was give me permission to be honest about my struggles, failures and disappointments. The passages for this weekend allow us a great place to communicate to people that “you are not alone” and it is okay to feel frustrated with your circumstances and with God right now because you stand in line of a tradition going back thousands of years of people who have felt and expressed the same feelings.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Why I Don't Blog Much Anymore

For many years I was blogging on a pretty regular basis, but in the past couple of years it has dwindled down to just a handful of posts a year.  There is a reason for this, or should I say a few reasons for this:  

First off, I find that it is easier to have conversations on issues via social media than on blog comments.  The conversational aspect of social media can be much more stimulating than the blog comment/response format (though it can frequently get pretty ugly as well). 

Secondly, if I am being honest, I have to admit that I am just not disciplined enough to take the time it takes to write something of the level of quality that would justify a blog post.  Over the years my best posts have often taken several hours and gone through multiple revisions before I published them. Though I would like to be disciplined enough to devote time to quality posts, I have dedicated that time to other important activities like watching Netflix.  

Thirdly, the more I read and learn, the less confident I am that I have anything unique to say that isn’t already being said better somewhere else. I don’t think this will always be the case. In fact I hope to someday write a book when I am a little older and wiser. 

Finally, I don’t blog much anymore because I got tired of having to have an opinion on every issue and to voice it publicly while the issue was hot.  I think this is the worst kind tyranny that bloggers face. When stories break about racial violence, corrupt politicians, terrorism, Monsanto, police brutality, moral issues, fallen church leaders etc. I have knee jerk opinions like everybody else. However, I have come to learn that my knee jerk reactions are often not the most insightful ways to deal with issues in a way that will bring justice, healing and reconciliation. With many of the hot button issues in our world today I find that it takes me many days or even weeks of reading, prayer, and dialogue with others who are connected to the issues to get to a point where I can genuinely speak something of grace and truth into a situation. The tyranny of having to voice one’s opinion on every hot button issue is something that is not terribly helpful to me at this point in life. I admit that I am a very opinionated person, but I want to be a more thoughtful person particularly when it comes to how I communicate. I want to be the type of person that communicates in a way that doesn’t just stir up controversy but invites people in to conversation where we can all learn something from each other. While there are bloggers out there that do this, many are simply writing from a reactionary place. Reactionary blogs get lots of traffic but I am not sure that our world is a better place because of them. 

So for now my blog will limp along with a post or two every few months but it’s not because I don’t like blogging, it’s just that I need to find what I want to say and how to say it better.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Image of God at the Heart of Religious Violence

It seems every day that we are confronted with news of horrible acts of terror and destruction perpetrated by people who claim to follow God.  For months now groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have captured global attention with their sadistic version of Islam that has led them to brutally execute and enslave people of various groups, even other Muslims.  But it’s not just Islamic extremists who are engaging in violence in the name of God.  I just read a heartbreaking article today about Christianmilitias in the Central African Republic who are engaging in brutal acts against Muslims to the extent that there are now 50,000 Muslims who are fleeing the country rather than face being hacked up with machetes by Christians.

Here in America Evangelicals are more and more frequently calling for the U.S. to wage war against ISIS.  This week I watched a video clip from Pastor Robert Jefress, Dallas First Baptist, who somehow twisted the teachings of Jesus on being salt and light into a justification of why we need to go to war in the name of Jesus. 

While I agree with the desire to protect the innocent and to stand up to evil, I am very disturbed by how easily American Christians are willing to appeal to Jesus as a justification to use violence against other religious groups.  It seems to me that as much as American Evangelicals may hate what ISIS is doing, their answer as to how to deal with ISIS is simply to answer violence with violence, hate with hate, and destruction with destruction, and all of this from the moral high ground that God is on OUR side.  Though this way of responding to tyrannical groups may make sense in terms of national defense, this position cannot be defended by way of the example or teachings of Jesus.

As New Testament Scholar Richard Hays has noted,
“From Matthew to Revelation we find a consistent witness against violence and a calling to the community to follow the example of Jesus in accepting suffering rather than inflicting it … Nowhere does the New Testament provide any positive model of Jesus or his followers employing violence in defense of justice.” 

I am becoming more and more convinced that much of what is called Christianity in modern America is little more than tribalism, nationalism, and patriotism covered in a “Christian” veneer.  This type of Christianity doesn’t show forth the good news of the gospel rooted in enemy love, forgiveness, peacemaking and reconciliation but instead keeps recycling the same old story of retributive violence. 

N.T. Wright has noted that humans become like the god(s) they worship.  When I look at religiously motivated violence whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic I see that under the surface they all have in common a vision a violent, retributive God who is “on our side” against others.   It takes nothing to believe in a violent and retributive god who is on our side.  Why? Because he looks just like us! 

But Jesus reveals the God who is utterly different than anything we could come up with.  In Jesus we see "God with us", the God who will step into our world and get his hands dirty, the one who taught us to love our enemies, to seek peace, to show mercy and compassion to the sick, poor, and those living on the margins of society. In the cross of Christ we see the overthrow of the vindictive and violent picture of God as Jesus prays with his dying breath "Father forgive them, they don't even know what they are doing."  As the author of Hebrews wrote, “[We come to] Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24.) The blood of Abel is at the foundation of civilization crying out for vengeance but the blood of Christ, the Lamb slain at the foundation of the world, announces forgiveness.  This is the good news!

Isn’t it interesting that the most prolific writer in the New Testament was a former religious, fundamentalist terrorist? Before his encounter with Jesus, Paul had terrorized the early church through persecution and even lethal force.  Imagine Paul’s shock when he bumped into Jesus on the Road to Damascus, realizing that rather than fighting for God he was actually fighting God himself.  Paul would never again see violence as a legitimate way to live out his faith because the image of God behind his worship had been radically changed.  Paul went on to spend of much of the rest of his life being persecuted and imprisoned for his faith in Jesus, but even in persecution he did not resist or fight back but rather followed the example of Jesus to the very end. 

The question of how to deal with ISIS is a tricky one, especially for those of us who follow Christ and live here in the west with no fear of persecution. While I do not know what we should do concerning ISIS, I do know religiously motivated violence from Christians will not bring about the righteousness of God. 

Friday, February 06, 2015

Our Religious Violence is Better than Your Religious Violence

Yesterday President Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast and within no time various political sites/blogs were already condemning his words, or should I say about 50 of his words.  Here are the “inflammatory” words for which he has been criticized:

“Lest we get on our high horse and think that this (religious violence) is unique to some other place, remember that during the crusades and the inquisitions people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ… In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow was all too often justified in the name of Christ.”

All day I have seen one anti-Obama post after another on Facebook about how the violence perpetrated by Christians in the Crusades was not nearly as bad as what Muslims did, and that Christian violence during the Crusades was at least justified.  In other words, “our religious violence is better than your religious violence.”

But the truth is that Christians did commit some horrible acts of violence during the Crusades and the inquisitions not to mention what “Christians” have done in this country towards Native Americans and African slaves among others.  Have Muslims done horrible things in the name of their religion?  Yes, and certain extremists are committing horrible atrocities to this day.  Religious violence, no matter what brand, is wrong!

I watched the controversial clip of President Obama from the prayer breakfast and honestly couldn’t find anything in that clip with which I remotely disagreed.  So I decided to watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast for context thinking that I must have missed something.  To my surprise President Obama spent most of his speech condemning religious acts of violence and calling for humility in how we live out our faith.  His closing words  were a call to practice the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 7:12 “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” 

I did not vote for Obama nor do I support many of his policies, but these latest attacks on him for condemning religious violence and calling for humility are truly disheartening.  I highly recommend that folks watch the entire speech from the prayer breakfast instead of getting a 30 second sound byte spun by political blogs/news sites, and see if you really think his speech was as crazy as it is being made out to be.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Different Way of Making New Years Resolutions

Here we find ourselves at the beginning of another new year and the time when we resolve to be better people for the coming year.  So often we come into the New Year longing to change—a longing that is helped because it often comes with a few added pounds from the holidays, credit card bills from the Christmas season, and a workout routine that has been sufficiently interrupted to be nonexistent.  And so we decide to be different people because we think that it is just a matter of making the choice to change.  But at some point in adult life we finally come to terms with our inability to change ourselves and thus we resolve to never make New Year’s resolutions again.  After all who needs to add the self-loathing that comes with breaking resolutions to the long list of things to change about oneself.

But I wonder if one of the reasons we are so lousy at actually keeping these resolutions is because we give very little attention to changing the context of our lives.  We deal with our unhealthy behaviors as people trying to solve the problem of weeds with a weed-eater, cutting away at the top without ever getting down to the roots. 

I heard it said a once that we are inter-dividuals.  As much as we might like to think we are not isolated individuals but rather people connected and formed by our relationships with others.  It is these relationships more than anything else that constitute the context of our lives.  Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous figured this out a long time ago.  Recovery in AA isn’t about pulling oneself up by the boot-straps and trying harder not to drink but rather working on recovery in a community of people in recovery.  The alcoholic who swears off drinking and commits to sobriety on his own will rarely make it very far, but the one who joins a community of recovery and gets a sponsor is on a much better path to freedom because, with the help of others, he will be getting at the root issues that manifest in addictive behavior.

One of my resolutions for last year was to write more songs.  In the last couple of years I have not written as many songs in the past and really wanted to see things change.  Looking back on last year I realize that it was one of my most prolific years of song-writing in a long time.  So why all the new songs?  I believe it is because rather than simply trying to write more songs I changed the relational context of my life.  For me this meant being a part of an online songwriting group as well as setting aside more time for working on songs with others in person.  The reality is that most of the songs I wrote didn’t happen within the songwriting group yet being a part of a community that was working to create new songs kept me more attuned to the gift of songwriting within me.  What’s more is that I saw an improvement not only in quantity of songs but also in the quality of songs I wrote.

New Year’s resolutions aren’t bad but I think we can start in a better place to experience real change in the coming year.  So here’s a few ideas on a different way to approach resolutions that gets more at the context of life rather than behavior modification. Instead of resolving to run 3 times a week, try resolving to build relationships with folks who are runners.  Resolve to find a community of runners of which you can be a part.  Instead of resolving to get out of debt, resolve to make time in your life to build relationships with others who are currently working to live debt-free.  Instead of resolving to be a better husband or wife, resolve as a couple to spend time in the coming year with people who have walked through tough times in their marriage and who love each other.  I think these types of resolutions have the potential to help create a healthy context in which good things can grow. 

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

When Our Ideas of Repentance Need to Repent

“Repent” is a word that I can’t help but hear in my head with an angry southern accent.  This no doubt goes back to a few brief months I spent attending a fundamentalists Baptist school in Midland Texas during my sixth grade year.  I had begged my parents to let me go to a Christian school thinking that it would help me in my growing faith, because at that time I had felt the call of God to become a preacher when I grew up.  Those few months at that school proved otherwise.  Rather than help me into a deeper relationship with God they exposed me to a rigid fundamentalist religion that had me in detention nearly every day of the week for the smallest of offenses (one time I got detention for mentioning the band The Beatles in a conversation).  One of the regularly scheduled gatherings at that school was a chapel service that frequently featured preachers who would describe in morbid detail the horrors of hell that awaited anyone who did not say the sinner’s prayer.  So week after week I would hear “repent!”  As a sixth grader I didn’t have a very big list of sins of which to repent but I got “saved” every week because wanted to make sure I didn’t end up in hell.  Looking back I see that my initial understanding of repentance was not very conducive to following Jesus or spiritual growth because it was entirely rooted in fear.  

I suspect that many in our world share a similar aversion to this popular idea of repentance.  But what if repentance was actually something different.  I have come to believe that it is and that in fact our ideas of repentance need to repent and come to Jesus.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son we see the classical picture of repentance:
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20).

The younger son had squandered everything that the father had given him.  He had followed the path of sinful living to its destructive conclusion.  Destitute, hungry and tired he came to his senses and remembered his father.  The Greek word for repentance – metanoia means to rethink or reconsider.  The younger son began to reconsider his life as contrasted to life in the father’s house and began the long journey of returning home no doubt wondering how he was going to get back in his father’s good graces.  "I’m not worthy to be called his son, maybe he will let me have a job where I can work to pay my debts off.  Maybe I can at least survive better there than I am now."

I think most of us turn to the Lord in this way.  We see where our choices have led us.  We see how we have hurt ourselves and let others down.  Yet this first stage of repentance isn’t based on our love for the Father but rather the mess we’ve made of our lives.  While this is an important part of rethinking our lives it is certainly not the end of repentance because what we read next in the story dismantles all of our preconceived ideas of God as being punitive, angry, or even willing to let us work for his blessings.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:21-24)

This father was not interested in the son’s idea of hiring him as a servant and doesn’t even seem interested in acknowledging his remorse over how he had wasted everything the father gave him.  The father showed a scandalous mercy towards the wayward son.  He reconciled him instantly with all of the privileges of being a son, and not only that but with a party, barbecue and a band.  And this is precisely where a whole other type of rethinking (repentance) is going to be required of the son. 

After the reconciliation to the father and the community, after the long night of celebration, when the music has faded and the last scraps of smoked meat have been cleaned from the tables this son will now have to learn a new way of life based on the father’s love.  Thus begins the life-long journey of repentance, the continued rethinking of everything based on the new reality of being reconciled and in relationship with the father.  This second stage of repentance is not about self-preservation or objectifying the father to get his blessings but rather being ruthless with every thought and action within that stands against the truth of God’s reconciling love.    

The book of Acts recounts the apostle Paul’s conversion.  He was riding on the road to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus when he actually bumped into the risen Lord.  The Jesus he met on that road was not vindictive or punitive but rather the God of grace and truth.  Jesus lets him in on the fact that while Paul had been thinking that he was fighting for God all of those years he was actually fighting God himself.  Like the younger son, Paul re-though the path that he was on and embraced Christ.  What we see in the writings of Paul throughout the New Testament is the continual rethinking of everything in the world in the light of Jesus and the kingdom of God: relationships, culture, social order, government, etc.

Why is it that we so often limit repentance to a one time act, a prayer, or an altar call at the end of a service.  True repentance must involved rethinking everything in our lives from politics to sex to business to how we see others and ourselves in the light of the resurrected king.  It won’t do to get back in the father’s house if we just go on trying to earn his love because then we will just take up the ways of the older brother who was in the house and every bit as alienated from the father as the younger son had been yet all dressed up in performance, religion, and objectification.  Better to get on believing the outrageously good news of the gospel and let it free us from everything that has kept us from that reality.

I spent most of my teenage years running, like the prodigal son, from the father's house.  When I surrendered to Christ 20 years ago it was much like the young son of that parable.  I tried for a few years to work for God, to gain his approval with my discipline and service but as the years went on began to experience a different kind of repentance of which I will never finish 'til I meet Jesus face to face.  This repentance has meant that I have had to rethink the way I read the Bible, the way I view justice, the way I treat others, as well as my doctrine, culture and how I engage with the world.  This rethinking is scary as I see how attached I am to certain ideas that oppose the ways of Jesus, yet I am held in the midst of it by the ruthless love of Christ in which there is no fear.  I know not where all of this rethinking life in the light of Christ will take me, but I suspect I am in good company, because who of those original followers of Christ would have imagined where the master would take them.  So here's to rethinking, to repenting, to wrestling through muck and mire with the love and truth of Jesus.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut Pt. 1

Her Gates Will Never Be Shut – A Review
Pt. 1. Presumptions and Possibilities

In the coming weeks I will be reviewing Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem by Brad Jersak.   While the book was published back in 2009, I find that many of the questions that it raises are just beginning to make their way into the public conversations of Christians.  Questions about eternal destiny—heaven and hell are important because the way we answer them says much about how we see God and his purposes as well as our place in the story. 

Jersak sees several factors that contribute to a person’s idea.  The first and most obvious is the particular scriptures that a person wishes to use.  Beyond that he cites 4 other contributing factors:

1.    Our View of God: Is God primarily a God of love, justice, and mercy or righteous anger.
2.    Our View of the Atonement: Was the atonement about final payment for sin-debts or final forgiveness of sin debts?  Does the cross save us from God, the devil, sin, death, or ourselves?
3.    Our Approach to Scripture: Do we tend to interpret  the images of the Bible literally or metaphorically?  Do we feel we are more faithful to the text when we take it as literally as the language allow or when we are most sensitive to the author’s use of symbols?
4.    Our Personal Need: Do we feel the need to ignore, minimize, or do away with hell because we cannot allow that a loving God could conceive, create, or implement such a monstrosity?  Or do we desperately need hell, because in this world of atrocities, God could not be considered holy, righteous, and just without it?

Brad Jersak writes as a former infernalist (believer in conscious eternal torment of hell) who has come to be biased towards hope.  He writes in the opening chapter:

We all have a bias.  The important thing is to recognize your bias and be able to defend or explain it.  As a “critical realist,” I spend a good deal of time and energy studying my biases—how they emerged, and how they influence my thinking.  Rather than pretending to be perfectly objective, I confess that since my early days as a terrified infernalist, I have developed a strong preference for hope.  I hope in the Good News that God’s love rectifies every injustice through forgiveness and reconciliation.  The Gospel of hope that I can preach boldly is this:

God is not angry with you and never has been.  He loves you with and everlasting love.  Salvation is not a question of “Turn or burn.”  We’re burning already, but we don’t have to be!  Redemption!  The life and death of Christ showed us how far God would go to extend forgiveness and invitation.  His resurrection marked the death of death and the evacuation of Hades.  My hope is in Christ, who rightfully earned his judgment seat and whose verdict is restorative justice, that is to say, mercy.

…This book will address the central problem of this “heated” debate: not infernalism versus annihilationism versus universalism, but rather, authentic, biblical Christian hope vis-à-vis the error of dogmatic presumption (of any view).  Hope presumes nothing but is rooted in a deeper confidence: the love and mercy of an openhearted and relentlessly kind God. (P.9-10)

I guess one of the reasons I found this book so interesting was that it starts from a place of wrestling through our own beliefs.  Many years ago I began to realize that so many of the things I believed about Christianity had little or nothing to do with thoughtful and prayerful reflection on the scriptures but were rather the product of my own baggage: a mixture of religious, political and economic ideas filtered through the lens of a middle class American white dude.   Few topics come with as much religious baggage as the topic of hell.  We will get into some of that baggage in later posts but for now I will close with a question.

Think about your own view of hell.  What does your view of hell say about your view of God?