The_Holy_TrinityNext Sunday we kick-off our September sermon series which will be devoted exclusively to God, the Holy Spirit.

Even if you sleep through most of my sermons, pay no attention to anything I say and glaze over these blog posts, you’ve probably noticed an apparent absence of the Holy Spirit in my work and speech. Or, if not absence then, like my heroes Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas, I tend to be so Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) that I leave little room for the role of God the Spirit.

Some of that’s intentional while some of it no doubt says more about me and my prejudices than I realize.

I hardly alone though.

Non-charismatics; that is, Catholics and mainline Protestants, often have no idea how to speak or think of the Holy Spirit and do not understand what others mean when they talk about ‘experiencing’ the Spirit.

So I thought it would be best to begin a month-long sermon series on the Holy Spirit by finding out what questions you or your friends have about the Holy Spirit.

This is how it’ll go:

- Leave a question here below or email (jamicheli@mac.com)

- Submit ANY question about the Holy Spirit (who the Spirit is, what the Spirit does, how we can experience the Spirit etc). Doubt and skepticism welcome.

- I will tackle them at random, in the moment, during the sermon time on Sunday, 9/7 and post the audio here.

- The person who submits the most ‘challenging’ question will receive a free copy of Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book, ‘The Kingdom Conspiracy.’

Props to Andrew DiAntonio for the art.

sign_of_jonahMy colleague, Hedy Collver, has been posting her thoughts and illustrations on the Book of Jonah lately.

You can and should check out her blog here

Given its size, it’s surprising how much I’ve preached from Jonah over the years.

Here’s a very old sermon from Jonah 1.11-2.1: 

I once pastored in the same small town as a man named Robert. His was the Presbyterian church three blocks down. It was a typical small town in that there was a small church on every corner, a church for every two or three who might want to gather.

Robert and I didnʼt have much in common at first. Except- we were the only two pastors in town who werenʼt fundamentalists. He was older than me. Where

Iʼd just graduated from seminary, ministry was a second-career for him. Where he had twin daughters and a minivan, I had a dog and still ate ramen noodles for most meals.

 

Even so, we became friends. We confided in each other. We commiserated with each other. We advised one another.

As I said, we were at small churches in small towns, where week-to-week, no matter our effort or our skill, our churches were just barely getting by. The margins for error were thin. One bad Sunday or one light offering plate were enough to sink our churches.

 

During the time I pastored in that town, Robert went through a dark, turbulent period. A series of deaths in his congregation had eroded his attendance. His younger families had moved away. Giving fell, and the church soon couldnʼt pay its bills.

 

As congregations sometimes do, they took it out on Robert. They cut his already low salary. They blamed him for the churchʼs decline and for everything the church wasnʼt.

 

We had lunch one day at a smokey BBQ joint. Rain beat against the windows so hard it was difficult to hear. He looked terrible. His eyes looked tired. Heʼd lost weight. His hair had thinned. He looked like anxiety had swallowed him up.

He picked at his food and told me he was afraid he was going to lose his job.

He was afraid that even if he kept it, he couldnʼt afford to feed his family. Things

at home werenʼt good because he never was home. He said he was overwhelmed. All he could see were problems with no solutions. He felt battered from every direction.

 

I listened and didnʼt really know what to say. I offered something bland like:

ʻHave faith. Youʼll get through it.ʼ

ʻThatʼs just it,ʼ he said.

And he had genuine, honest-to-goodness fear in his eyes.

ʻAll this has shown that I donʼt really have the faith I thought I did. I thought I did, I thought I trusted God, but that was because I didnʼt have to.

Everything was going great.

Now itʼs not and Iʼm scared to death.ʼ

 

Thereʼs a story in the Gospel-

 

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat sailing across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus falls asleep in the boat and a storm sweeps down on the lake. The boat fills water. The waves batter it from all sides. The disciples are frantic, convinced theyʼre going to die.

And Jesus keeps on sleeping.

They shake him awake and scream: ʻMaster, weʼre going to die!ʼ

Jesus yawns and calmly stretches. Then he rebukes the wind and he tells the waves to cease their raging. Then he turns to the disciples and he says: ʻWhy are you so afraid? Where is your faith?ʼ

Storms drag things to the surface.

Lack of faith.

Anxiety that hides underneath when things are calm.

The truth about ourselves.

Storms drag things to the surface.

Just about two weeks ago I jogged up the stairs to the ICU at Mt Vernon to see Ray Pace, a friend of many of you. When I got there, a nurse was sitting at the bedside with files and papers on her lap, consulting with Mary, his wife.

 

She was asking Mary questions about feeding tubes and do-not-resuscitate orders and gently walking Mary through the likelihoods and probabilities of the coming days.

 

After the nurse left, I sat down next to Ray and I rubbed his shoulder and I talked to Mary. She told me about Ray, about what he was like before I met him, before illness took much of him away.

Iʼve been there many times when families have had to make hard choices about how to care for and how to say goodbye to someone they love. And because theyʼre hard decisions to make, oftentimes families donʼt make the right ones, or the best ones.

And I told Mary I respected her choices, that their love was strong enough for Mary to do what seemed hard so that Ray could enter the next life with the same dignity heʼd lived this one.

 

Mary wiped her eyes and she said: ʻYou know, Jason, it is hard, but heʼs been with me.ʼ

ʻHeʼs been with me.ʼ

And when she said it she didnʼt point next to her, to Ray. She pointed up, straight up.

ʻHeʼs been with me,ʼ she said, ʻand heʼs been closer to me than ever before.

Heʼs really there and thatʼs been wonderful.ʼ

When Jesus preaches on the mountaintop, he tells the crowds that those who hear the Gospel and donʼt act on it, donʼt make it a part of their life, donʼt ingest it and embody it- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on sand. And the rain falls and the flood comes and the wind blows and beats against it and the house…falls apart.

 

But those who hear the Gospel and act on it, those who make it a part of their everyday- theyʼre like someone who builds their house on solid rock. And the rain can fall and the floods can come and the wind can blow and beat against it but the house will hold.

Storms-

Storms reveal what weʼve built our foundation on.

I once had a lawyer in my congregation.

That by itself is no small hardship.

But Pete was an alcoholic, a severe one. Heʼd been drowning himself with a bottle for nearly forty years. His addiction was so bad that his skin had grown sallow. His eyes were yellowed, and his belly was distended.

 

He was the kind of guy whoʼd always demanded to go in his own direction no matter how destructive it might prove.

 

Heʼd thrown everything important in his life overboard just to hold on to the one thing that was killing him. His drinking had left marriages and children and friends in its wake. It eventually sunk his career and wrecked his reputation.

Rehab after rehab, intervention after intervention and his friendsʼ desperate pleading- none of it had persuaded him to change. Because of what alcoholism had done to my own family, I always found it hard to minister to him.

 

I went to see him one day in Charlottesville where he was in the hospital. His body was slowly shutting down after a lifetime of abuse. He kept the curtains in his room pulled tightly shut and the lights turned off, and it took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness that surrounded him.

 

That visit- it was one of the only lucid conversations I ever had with him. We talked about UVA and about baseball. Just as Iʼd learned to do as a boy in my own family, we danced around the obvious.

 

I was surprised when Pete cut me off and asked me to pray. Heʼd never asked me to pray before. In fact, when Iʼd offered at other times heʼd refused. He gave substantial amounts of money to the church but that was it. He didnʼt want to let God into his heart or into any other part of his life.

 

I started to pray and he interrupted me. He stopped me. He looked at me ferociously and he said: ʻDonʼt you dare pray that I get out of here.ʼ

I asked him why and he told me that, there in the hospital, it was the longest heʼd ever been without drinking, that it was the first time he could remember that heʼd talked to his wife and his daughter sober, that even if it meant he died it was the best thing that couldʼve happened to him.

 

If you read carefully, after he disobeys God- after he runs away from God-

Jonahʼs story is a series of descents:

Jonah goes DOWN to Joppa to charter a boat.

Jonah goes DOWN into the ship.

Jonah falls DOWN to sleep.

 

And when they throw him overboard, Jonah sinks DOWN into the depths of the sea.

In other words, the more he tries to control his life, the further Jonah falls, the deeper he sinks.

Hereʼs the thing-

When Jonah hits bottom, when he sinks down to the roots of mountains and he gets swallowed whole- when Jonah hits bottom, he prays for the first time.

 

He prays the long prayer you find in chapter 2, and the prayer is not composed from his own words. Itʼs made up of snippets from the Psalms.

And if you go back and connect the dots and read those Psalms Jonah prays from, the surprise is that theyʼre Psalms of Thanksgiving. Every one of them.

When the storm strikes, when Jonah sinks and hits bottom, when Jonah gets swallowed up and is surrounded by darkness- he responds by saying: ʻThank

You.ʼ

 

We think Jonah needs to be saved from the storm and from the fish, but the storm and the fish are what saves Jonah.

 

Sometimes the only thing that can save us is to be thrown overboard, to hit

bottom, to experience darkness, to lose everything we thought was important.

We resist storms in our lives. We do everything we can to avoid them. We come to places like this and we pray for God to rescue us from them. But sometimes…sometimes the storms can be our rescue.

 

Thereʼs a scene in the Gospels-

The crowds are pressing in on Jesus, and they ask Jesus for a sign.

For something that will make it easier to believe.

For something they can hold on to that will make following him worth it.

For something they can point back to later on…when the storms come.

Jesus, give us a sign, the crowds ask.

And Jesus sighs and he says: The only sign Iʼll give you is the sign of Jonah, who was swallowed up in death and darkness for three days and three nights and yet was saved to live again.

Thatʼs the sign Iʼll give you, Jesus says. Thatʼs the only sign you need.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that victory can come from what looks like defeat.

The sign that you can never sink so low or fall so far that God canʼt lift you up.

The sign of Jonah:

The sign that light can still shine in the darkest of nights.

The sign that when all hope seems lost God will still provide.

The sign that, sometimes, what looks like a storm can be our rescue.

 

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#14: The Centurion’s Confession

“Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

(Mark 15.39 NRSV)

Adam Lewis Greene is a graphic artist who specializes in book design. Greene recently began a kickstarter campaign to produce an elegant, readable, novelized version of the Bible.

‘Bibliotheca’ as he calls it struck a chord, quickly exceeding Greene’s initial fundraising goal of $30K by almost $1.5 million.

Evidently others saw in the Bible what Greene sees: an unreadable book.

As a book designer, Greene notes that the encyclopedic format of most Bibles, with thin pages, small fonts, tight margins, lack of white space, unfriendly chapter breaks, distracting verse and footnote citations obscure what scripture fundamentally is: a narrative.

A story.

Meant to be read as you would a novel or a memoir from the beginning to the end.

Reading John’s Gospel, say, in one sitting from start to finish can reveal more about John’s message than any scholarly commentary.

We miss something of the original intent, Greene argues, when we divvy John’s Gospel up into discrete units that we then bloodlessly cross-reference with a hundred other small units of scripture.

The Bible’s encyclopedic form lulls us into forgetting that the evangelists weren’t writing numbered verses. They were creating art; that is, they composed their narratives in such a way as to have an affect upon us.

The bad design of most editions of the Bible, encouraging us to read scattershot as we would a reference book, leads to bad readers of the Bible.

Perhaps no verse of scripture makes Greene’s point as clearly as the centurion’s ‘confession’ at the end of Mark’s Gospel:

‘Truly, this man was the Son of God.’

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Crucified, Jesus has just cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!’ which itself is a verse from Psalm 22, a prayer the Roman centurion would not have known.

Seeing the would-be King nailed naked to a tree and ostensibly crying out in anguish, this soldier says ‘Obviously, this was the Son of God!’

Son of God? Based on what exactly?

As far as he knows this rabble-rousing rabbi has died an indignant death, abandoned by his followers and by his God, with his movement in tatters.

What would compel a Roman centurion suddenly now to see Jesus as the Son of God?

It doesn’t jive with what Mark’s just told us nor with how he’s unfolding his story.

In spite of the incongruity, Christians persist in interpreting this soldier’s statement as a noble, sincere profession of faith. The centurion thus becomes the Gospel’s first reader, modeling the reaction we should have to encountering the crucified Christ.

On a baser level, the centurion becomes exhibit A for how even a Gentile can see what the Jews do not see: ‘Duh, this was the Son of God.’

Such an interpretation, I believe, reduces Mark’s sophisticated narrative to the kind of unsubtle ‘art’ you’d expect of a Kirk Cameron movie.

Instead the centurion’s ‘confession of faith’ in 15.39 is yet another instance of the irony that thematically unites Mark’s entire Gospel.

Take Adam Greene’s advice.

Read Mark straight through, it’s short. You’ll see: irony abounds.

Only demons recognize Jesus’ authority.

The man who can exorcize demons is accused of having one.

The blind see what the seeing cannot.

He says to give to Caesar what belongs to him, but he’s just implied everything belongs to God.

The mock title above his head (‘The King of the Jews’) turns out to be true.

The ones who charge him with blasphemy commit it in doing so.

When he cries out to God, the crowd thinks he’s soliciting Elijah.

God condescending to be God-with-us in Christ results in us condescending to sin so that we can be me-without-God.

The ‘vindication’ of resurrection results in fear that produces a final failure when Mark concludes his Gospel by telling us the Easter witnesses ran away scared and didn’t say anything to anyone.

There’s a good grammatical reason not to read 15.39 as a confession of faith in Jesus as the Son of God, but the simpler reason is just to read Mark, from start to finish.

“You are the King of the Jews?” Pilate sneers at Jesus.

“Hail, the King of the Jews!” the soliders taunt.

“So, you are the King of Israel?” the bystanders mock and laugh at the Cross.

And “Truly, this was the Son of God” says the centurion.

Marc-Chagall-1887-1985-Apocalypse-en-Lilas-Capriccio-194547

In other words:

“Yeah right, this was the Son of God” is the better interpretation.

“Truly, this was the Son of God…Not” best captures how Mark thinks the world  responds to the foolishness of the Gospel.

The centurion’s comments are part and parcel of a story festering with cynicism and sarcasm.

The centurion’s ‘confession’ at the foot of the Cross is but another instance of the irony Mark employs in telling a Gospel that he believes can only be received properly as a scandal and offense.

That we persist in hearing the centurion’s confession as sincere only implicates us in the irony.

inigo_montoya

In preaching, I work hard never to make myself the hero of a story. The rules of rhetoric require it. Even with those anecdotes where I did say or do the right, bold thing, I will instead labor to make myself sound like a d@#$, putting those right, bold words in to someone else’s mouth. I don’t want listeners to think I have a messiah complex and thus miss the message of the actual Messiah.

But that doesn’t mean someone else can’t flatter me in a sermon.

My friend, Taylor Mertins, recently shared a story about me and my family in his sermon on Exodus 2. While embarrassing, it was warmly intended and warmly received. You can check out his blog here, and here’s a post he wrote this summer for Tamed Cynic on what he learned during his first year of ministry.

Without permission, here it is:

newjudaicia4

Can you imagine what was going through the mother’s mind when she placed her little son in the papyrus basket? Can you see her tears flowing down on to the boy who would change the course of history because she was forbidden to let him live?

Everything had changed in Egypt. Joseph had been sold into slavery but saved the Egyptian people by storing up food for the coming famine. He was widely respected and his people were held in safety because of his actions. But eventually a new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph. He feared the Israelites, their power, and their numbers.

The Israelites quickly went from being a powerful force within another nation, to a group of subjugated slaves who feared for their lives. They were forced to work in hard service in every kind of field labor, they were oppressed and belittled, and their family lives were slowly brought into jeopardy. Pharaoh commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill all the males born to Hebrew women, but when they resisted, he changed the decree so that “every boy that is born to the Hebrews shall be thrown into the Nile, but every girl shall live.

Once a prosperous and faithful people, the Israelites had lost everything. Yet, even in the times of greatest distress, people continue to live and press forward… A Levite man married a Levite woman and she conceived and bore a son. When he was born and she saw that he was good, she kept him hidden for three months. But a time came when she could no longer hide the child and she found herself making a basket to send her baby boy into the Nile.

Kneeling on the banks of the river, she kissed her son goodbye, placed him in the crude basket, and released him to the unknown. The boy’s sister, who was allowed to live in this new regime, sat along the dunes and watched her baby brother float down the river toward where a group of women we beginning to gather.

Exodus-Chapter-2-The-Child-Moses-on-the-Nile

Pharaoh’s daughter saw the basket among the reeds, and when she opened it she saw the boy, and took pity on him. She recognized that he was one of the Hebrew boys but she was compelled to be compassionate toward him. The sister, with a stroke of genius, realized that she had the opportunity to save her brother and stepped forward from her hiding place to address the princess. “Shall I go and find a nurse from the Hebrew woman to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to the young slave, “Yes.” So the girl went and found her mother, the mother of the child she had just released into the Nile, and brought her to the princess. Pharaoh’s daughter charged her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages for doing so.” So the mother received back her own son and nursed him. However, when the child grew up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she adopted him as her son, and she called him Moses because “I drew him out of the water.”

This story about the birth and the childhood of Moses is one of the most familiar texts from the Old Testament. It has just the right amount of suspense, intrigue, serendipity, divine irony, human compassion, intervention, and it concludes with a happy ending. Moses’ birth has captivated faithful people for millennia and offers hope even amidst the most hopeless situations.

One of the greatest pastors I have ever known serves a new congregation in Northern Virginia. Jason Micheli has inspired countless Christians to envision a new life of faithfulness previously undiscovered. He played a pivotal role in my call to ministry, we have traveled on countless mission trips together, he presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding, but above all he is my friend.

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Jason and his wife Ali embody, for me, what a Christian relationship looks like. They support one another in their different ventures without overstepping their boundaries, they challenge each other to work for a better kingdom, and they believe in the Good News.

For a long time Jason and Ali knew that they wanted to adopt a child and they traveled to Guatemala when Gabriel was 15 months old to bring him home. As a young pastor and lawyer, Jason and Ali had busy schedules that were filled with numerous responsibilities that all dramatically changed the moment Gabriel entered their lives. They went from understanding and responding to the rhythms of one another to having a 15 month old living with them, a child who they were responsible for clothing, feeding, nurturing, and loving. I know that the first months must have been tough, but Ali and Jason are faithful people, they made mistakes and learned from them, they loved that precious child, and they continued to serve the needs of the community the entire time.

Jason and Gabriel

A year and a half later, just when the new patterns of life were finally becoming second nature, a lawyer who helped them find Gabriel contacted them. There was another family in the area who had adopted a 5 year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander, but they no longer wanted him. The lawyer recognized that Jason and Ali had recently adopted a child but wanted to find out if they would adopt another. However, the lawyer explained that this 5 year-old was supposedly very difficult, his adoptive family was ready to get rid of him, and he didn’t speak any English. Jason and Ali had a choice: lift this child out of the Nile, or let him continue to float down the river?

The story of Moses’ adoption by the Egyptian princess is filled with irony:

Pharaoh chose the Nile as the place where all Hebrew boys would be killed, and it became the means of salvation for the baby Moses.

The unnamed Levite mother saves her precious baby boy by doing precisely what Pharaoh commanded her to do.

The daughters of the Hebrews are allowed to live, and they are the one who subvert the plans of the mighty Pharaoh.

A member of the royal family, the Pharaoh’s daughter, ignores his policy, and saves the life of the one who will free the Hebrew people and destroy the Egyptian dynasty.

The Egyptian princess listens to the advice of the baby’s sister, a young slave girl.

The mother gets paid to do exactly what she wants to do most of all.

The princess gives the baby boy a name and in so doing says more than she could possibly know. Moses, the one who draws out, will draw God’s people out of slavery and lead them to the Promised Land.

Divine Irony! God loves to use the weak and the least to achieve greatness and change the world. God believes in using the low and despised to shame the strong and the powerful. God, in scripture and in life, works through people who have no obvious power and strengthens them with his grace.

How fitting that God’s plan for the future and the safety of the Hebrew children rests squarely on the shoulders of a helpless baby boy, a child placed in a basket, an infant released into the unknown. How fitting that God promised to make Abraham, a childless man with a barren wife, a father of more nations than stars in the sky? How fitting that God chose to deliver Noah from the flood on an ark, and young Moses from death in a basket floating on a river? God inverts the expectations of the world and brings about new life and new opportunities through the most unlikely of people and situations.

Jason and Ali prayed and prayed about the five-year old Guatemalan boy named Alexander. What would happen to them if they brought him into their lives? Everything was finally getting settled with Gabriel and they believed they had their lives figured out. They had planned everything perfectly, yet they we now being asked about bring a completely unknown, and perhaps devastating, element into their lives.

What would you have done? If you knew that there was a child, even with an unknown disposition, that was being abandoned by his adoptive family how would you react? Would you respond with open arms?

Alexander is now 11, soon to turn 12, and is without a doubt one of the most mature and incredible human beings I have ever met. After Jason and Ali met him for the first time they knew that God was calling them to bring him into their family, to love him with all that they had, and they responded like the faithful people they are, with open arms.

Jason, Ali, Alexander, and Gabriel

When Alexander arrived at Jason and Ali’s home, he came with the clothes on his back and nothing else. A five year old Guatemalan boy with little English was dropped off at their home; I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for him.Yet, Jason and Ali brought him into their family and they never looked back. 

In the beginning, they had to sleep with him in his bed night after night, in attempts to comfort him and let him know that they were never going to leave him. That no matter what he did, no matter how far he fell, there was nothing that would ever separate their love for him. For a child that had been passed from person to family to family, Alexander had no roots, he had little comfort, and he had not experienced love.

Jason and Ali stepped into his life just as Alexander stepped into theirs. Perhaps filled with fear about what the future would hold for their little family Jason and Ali’s faithfulness shines brilliantly through the life of a young man named Alexander who I believe can, and will, change the world.

I imagine that for some time Jason and Ali believed that they, like Pharaoh’s daughter, had drawn Alexander out of the river of abandoned life. But I know that now when they look back, when they think about that fear of the unknown, they realize that Alexander was the one who drew them out of the water into new life. Divine Irony. 

In the story of Moses’ adoption out of the Nile, God is never mentioned. There are no divine moments when God appears on the clouds commanding his people to do something incredible, there are no decrees from a burning bush (not yet at least), and there are no examples of holy power coming from the heavens. Yet, God is the one working in and through the people to preserve Moses’ life and eventually the life of God’s people. God, like a divine conductor, orchestrates the music of life with changing movements and tempos that bring about transformation in the life of God’s people.

I believe that most of you, if not all of you, would take up a new and precious child into your lives. Whether you feel that you are too young, too old, too poor, too broken, you would accept that child into your family and raise it as your own. We are people of compassion, we are filled with such love that we can do incredible and beautiful things.

But it becomes that much harder when you look around and understand what we have become through baptism. Every child, youth, or adult, that it baptized into the body of Christ has been lifted out of the Nile of life into a new family. The people in the pews have truly become your brothers and sister in the faith through God’s powerful baptism. The Divine Irony is that we might feel we are called to save the people in church, when in fact they might be the ones called to save us. 

The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is beloved. It contains just enough power to elicit emotional responses from those of us lucky enough to know the narrative. It is a reminder of God’s grace and love through the powerful and the powerless. But above all it is a reminder that like a great and loving parent, Moses has been taken into the fold of God’s merciful love and grace. That we, through our baptisms and commitments to being disciples of Jesus Christ, have been brought out of the frightening waters of life into the adoptive love and care of God almighty. That we, though unsure of our future and plans, are known by the God of beginning and end.

Just as Jason and Ali held Alexander every evening, just as Pharaoh’s daughter cradled Moses in her arms, we have a God who loves us, who holds us close, and will never let us go. 

Amen.

 

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will feel about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

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“Beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought: all that theology says of the triune life of God, the gratuity of creation, the incarnation of the Word, and the salvation of the world makes room for us a thought, and a narrative, of the beautiful.”

 

“The kerygma that Christ enjoins his disciples to preach is not some timeless wisdom, an ethical or spiritual creed fortified by the edifying example of its propagator, but a particular story, a particular Jew; a particular form, which we call the beautiful…The Christian use of the word ‘beauty’ refers most properly to a relationship of donation and transfiguration, a handing over and return of the riches of being.”

 

“It is what one loves- what one desires- that determines to what kingdom one belongs.”

 

“Beauty’s authority, within Christianity, guards against any tendency toward gnosticism, for two reasons: on the one hand, worldly beauty shows creation to be the real theater of divine glory- good, gracious, lovely, and desirable, participating in God’s splendor- and on the other hand, it shows the world to be absolutely unnecessary, an expression of divine glory that is free, framed for God’s pleasure.”

 

“The gnostic impulse belongs not only to antiquity: it has haunted every age. Wherever theology seeks to soothe those who are offended by the particularity of Christ or struggles to extract a universally valid wisdom from the parochialism of the Gospels, a gnosis begins to take shape at the expense of the Christian kerygma.”

 

“The real danger that liberal Protestantism represents is a gnostic etiolation of the gospel:

Its transformation into a fable of the soul, whose true meaning is a wisdom and peace vouchsafed inwardly, in the intactile depths of the self. Liberal Protestantism demonstrates with extraordinary clarity that to demythologize is not to demystify; its ultimate effect is not to ground faith in history or the worldliness of creaturely being, but to de-historicize, to unworld the soul, to make faith the experience of a mystical eschaton in perpetual advent, in the inner core of the present, imparted to the self in its most inviolable subjectivity, The church as a society in time (and society, therefore, as potentially the church) is displaced from the center of faith by the story of the self as a homeless wanderer seeking escape from history.”

“It is of course good to acknowledge that the geocentric view of the universe is incorrect, or that the spheres of the heavens do not physically separate the realm of the Most High from the world below, but Liberal Protestantism goes farther; it brings the entire weight of faith to rest upon a transcendental interiority by annihilating all aesthetic continuity between God and creation.”

And I’m only on page 26.

Untitled10111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts (questions 1-32 of section I) here.

II. The Witness

1. What is the Bible?

The Bible is the witness of Israel, the prophets and the Church to the Logos, the One Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

Like John the Baptist pointing to Christ, the Bible is testimony which points to the One Word God speaks to us in Jesus.

Therefore, we do not believe in the Bible; we believe in the One to whom the Bible bears witness.

We do not have faith in the Bible; we trust that the Bible’s words are reliable- not inerrant- testimony about the Word of God, Jesus Christ, in whom we have faith.

He Scripture came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him scripture. He scripture himself itself was not the light, but he it came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” 

- John 1.7-9

2. What does the Bible say about the First Human?

The Bible says that Jesus is the first human.

By calling Jesus the ’2nd Adam’ scripture makes the audacious claim that Jesus, not Adam, is the 1st genuine human.

Jesus is the first one to live a fully human life by always trusting that he was beloved by God, which set Jesus free to love fully and to live faithfully as though the whole world was a new and different creation.

That Jesus’ life met with the Cross reveals not that he wasn’t really human but that we are not human. His faithfulness all the way to the Cross is proof of Jesus’ full humanity and proof of our inhumanity.

Thus, Jesus is the first human in that the word ‘human’ has no content apart from the character of his life.

“God has recapitulated all things in heaven and on earth in Jesus Christ.” 

- Ephesians 1.9-10

 

 

Re-Reading DBH

Jason Micheli —  August 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled31David Bentley Hart (heretofore: DBH) was one of my first professors of theology back when I was a college student at UVA. He was just completing his PhD whilst I had about 24 months of being a Christian under my belt.

I took 3 of his classes.

I had no idea of what he was talking about 93% of the time.

He didn’t betray any indication that he cared even 1%.

I was hooked 100%.

Standing in front of a huge wave that knocks you on your ass on the beach, you get up realizing the ocean is a whole hell of a lot bigger than you thought.

That’s how I felt with DBH. He left me feeling for aches, knowing the Christian intellectual tradition is richer, deeper and broader than I could imagine.

Reading DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite back in 2005- quite literally- changed my (theological) life. My ordination papers that year read today like poorly plagiarized DBH’s frenetic, over-wrought writing style.

Having since devoured all his books and read his most recent twice, I thought it was a good time to blog my sophomore turn through his opus.

For those of you who will about DBH as I did back in the day, I offer you these $$$ quotes:

“Only if the form of Christ can be lived out in the community of the Church is the confession of the Church true; only if Christ can be practiced is Jesus Lord.”

 

“Christian thought has claimed from the first that in a world in bondage to sin, where violence holds sway over hearts and history, the peace of God made present in Christ is unique; the way, the truth, and the life.”

 

“Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace.”

 

“If indeed God became a man, then Truth condescended to become a truth.”

 

“Postmodern IS a meta-narrative, the story of no more stories, so told as to determine definitively how much may or may not be said intelligibly by others who have stories to tell…The truth of no truths becomes, inevitably, truth: a way of being, language, and culture that guards the boundaries of thought against claims it has not validated.”

 

 

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The word to which Inigo Montoya refers in the Princess Bride is ‘inconceivable.’

For many people outside the Kingdom of Florin, it’s inconceivable that another Word doesn’t mean what they think it means.

From the Christmas creche to Christ’s Cross, many of the Bible passages so near and dear to our (the-Lord-laid-it-on-my) hearts don’t mean what we think it means.

Very often it means exactly the opposite of what we think it means- an impressive feat, no? Sometimes Christians read into biblical passages something that is not remotely there at all, what biblical scholars call eisegesis. Other times Christians miss, almost willfully, what is right there in front of them on the page.

From cliched, Christian-speak catch-phrases (‘wherever 2 or 3 are gathered’) to familiar flannel-graphed VBS stories (‘Truly, this was God’s Son’), Christians are guilty of routinely misunderstanding, misquoting, misapplying or just plain MISSING verses of scripture.

So I offer you (in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) the 15 Most Misunderstood Bible Verses.

#15: The Widow’s Mite

“As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Where Can You Find It?

Mark 12.38-44

Luke 21.1-4

What Do You Need to Know First?

The ‘story’ of the widow’s mite (really, Jesus just points to her in the crowd) comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, as a mock Caesar, to a Messiah’s welcome.

2 mites equaled 1 quadron in Jesus’ day, the smallest coin in Roman currency. The widow, in other words, offered the modern day equivalent of 2 half-pennies to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem.

What Jesus says about money and the Temple immediately compel the chief priests and the scribes to ‘search for a way to arrest Jesusby stealth and kill him.’ 

Jesus’ notice of the widow’s offering happens within the larger context of Jesus railing about ecclesial greed, collusion with the Empire and his prediction of the Temple’s imminent destruction by God.

How Is It Always Interpreted?

Bottom Line: This widow gives her last mite to the Temple and Jesus is pleased by this and holds her up as a good example.

This is go-to passage for sentimental children’s sermon, passive aggressive stewardship appeals and slap-yourself-on-the-back sermons against the hypocrisy of the rich, powerful or organized religion.

Almost always this passage guest-starring the widow and her mite is used as an illustration of giving as a leap of faith. The (usually) preacher will put all his or her emphasis on the ‘giving all she had to live on’ clause whilst ignoring the obvious, black-and-white (literally) context within which this pericope falls. Consequently, the widow becomes an example to all of us of someone who so trusted God to provide for her that she gave what she did not have to give: her last 2 half-pennies.

Thus Jesus draws for us a ‘contrast between the religious hypocrisy of the scribes and the genuine piety of the poor woman.’

Insert (fabricated) moral of the story:

It doesn’t matter what you give. What matters is the faith in which your gift is given.

Or:

Our offering should be in proportion to what we possess; wherein, the poor widow upstages the rich for her sacrificial generosity.

Or:

We ought to go and do likewise. Give everything and trust the Lord to provide (Cue: Mount, Sermon on)

Besides being willful misreadings of the passage, it’s never said how all these interpretations are rife with opportunities to exploit the vulnerable.

What are the Problems with this Interpretation?

Jesus doesn’t speak one iota about the widow’s faith, attitude, disposition or motivation in giving. Why? Because, as a widow, she had no freaking choice!

 

Jesus, no stranger to ‘go and do’ exhortations, doesn’t say anything of the like.

 

Right before this oft-cited passage, hidden in plain sight, in 12.40, Jesus directs his ire at the caste of the Temple. With these words:

 ‘They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later Jesus points to a particular widow and says:

‘She out of her poverty has given everything, all she had to live.’

And then 2 painfully obvious verses later, in 13.2, Jesus predicts the destruction of the very Temple to which the widow has given her last penny:

Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

Why would Jesus celebrate a widow’s impoverished giving to the Temple just after condemning those religious leaders who extort widows?

Why would Jesus praise a widow giving to an institution whose destruction he will praise in just 2 short verses?

What Does It Actually Say?

Jesus condemns the scribes for preying upon widows- the most helpless of people in 1st century Israel- and the Temple system which necessitates it.

Then he sees a poor widow coming in to the Temple grounds and forking over her last penny in the scribes’ coffers. And Jesus essentially says:

‘You see?! That’s what I’m talking about! The Temple system doesn’t hurt the rich who have abundance from which to give to it, but this widow has given every last damn thing has because to them.’

So Jesus isn’t praising the widow’s gift to the Temple.

He’s lamenting a system where she must give it rather than feed herself                                (and possibly her children).

She’s still an illustration, just for a different kind of sermon: she’s a widow who’s had her house devoured. And very soon, Jesus promises, God will devour the scribes’ house. Of worship.

Rather than citing the widow in a sermon meant to gin up a pledge drive, she should be mentioned just before exhorting people of faith to examine how they themselves participate in systems (let’s use Walmart as an example) that exploit the poorest among us for the gain of the rest of us.

inigo_montoya

Police Shooting MissouriFor proof that ordination does not confer upon the priest a shiny, new ontological status, you need look no further than the clergy group pages on Facebook. Over the past week I’ve had more than a few occasions to do a double-take of the nasty comments and unsubtle racism posted by clergy (as in, vicars of Jesus) about the violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

One Reverend cited recent black-on-black shootings in Chicago and followed with a Rush-worthy, self-pitying lament:

‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face.’ 

What’s called ‘partisanship’ in politics becomes something worse in a Christian forum: tribalism.

Seeing another as Other. Dividing up the perspectives into Us and Them and then quickly looking around for a scapegoat.

What’s all too evident on clergy pages is seen in larger surveys and polls. Generally, white Americans identify with the white police officer who murdered a black boy while black Americans identify with the boy who was shot 6 times by a white police officer from a nearly all-white police precinct for a crime(s) for which white kids rarely even get hassled.

Whenever a story like Michael Brown’s or Trayvon Martin’s hit the news, we choose sides.

Rally behind our tribe.

Keep our feet planted in our shoes’ perspective and see ‘them’ as ‘other.’

In other words, we violate the first commandment.

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Yep, you read that right.

Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican philosopher, followed Thomas Aquinas in arguing that it’s not so much that God reveals the 10 Commandments to us but rather the 10 Commandments reveal God to us.

McCabe notes how the commandments chief purpose is to distinguish God from the gods.

The gods of the nations in the Old Testament, McCabe argues:                                                        “represents a settling for a partial local identity.”

In giving the first commandment, God identifies himself not as a god but as the God who liberates from the gods: “I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of slavery in the house of Egypt. You shall have no other gods but me.” McCabe notes the irony of a God who identifies himself as a Liberator but quickly sets about giving us rules. This is because the 10 Commandments also reveal a bitter truth about ourselves:

“One of the peculiar things about humanity is that when we are left to do exactly what we like, we straight away look around for someone to enslave ourselves to, and if we cannot find a master nearby we will invent one.

The true God reveals himself as the One who summons humanity out of this degradation we cling to, who summons us to the painful business of being free.”

It’s only when read against the backdrop of Ferguson and the comment threads it provokes that it becomes clear what McCabe means by the painful business of being free.

For its our own preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, nations, _____________ from which the true God seeks to deliver us.

The avoidance of such gods is, the Old Testament makes clear, the basic distinguishing demand made of God’s People.

timothy-radcliffeSays McCabe:

“The important thing is not just to be religious, to worship something somehow. The important thing is to find, or be found by, the right God and to reject and struggle against the others. The worship of any other god is a form of slavery.

To pay homage to the forces of nature, to the spirit of a particular place or people, to a nation or race is to submit to slavery and degradation.

The Old Testament begins by saying to such gods ‘I do not believe and I will not serve.’

The other gods make you feel at home in a place or tribe or group or the country you grew up in and love, with them you know where you are.

But the harsh God of freedom calls you out of all this into a desert where all the old familiar landmarks are gone, where you must wander over the wilderness waiting for what God will bring.

This God of freedom will allow you none of the comforts of religion. Not only does he tear you away from the devotions to your native place and people, but he will not even allow you to worship him in the old way. You are to have no image of God because the only image of God is humanity.”

When you realize, as McCabe does, that the gods of the Old Testament represent our normal proclivity to root our identity in our preferred tribes, races, clans, perspectives, political parties, or nations, you realize why it was so hard for Israel to journey out of Egypt and why it was so tempting for them to return there.

Far be it from me to lecture my fellow clergy, but, as McCabe points out, whenever you hear a tribalistic comment like ‘I guess people only care about evil when it has a white face’ you’re hearing the rattling of very old chains.

You’re hearing the echo of Israel’s lament to return to Pharaoh.

It’s the sound of exactly the sort of bondage from which the true God frees us, a point Jesus reiterates when he takes bread and wine and declares himself our Passover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Police Shooting Missouri

Over the past week I received not a few emails from the likes of you, dear readers, asking why I had not posted any reflections, missives or rhetorical theo-bombs over the shooting and ensuing violence in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, Missouri.

One email asked (with- in my imagination- forked tongue) if I only cared about the poor and dispossessed in Guatemala.

A European subscriber asked if homosexuality was the only current ‘issue’ over which I could muster any passion.

More than several pressed me, wondering if my silence on Ferguson was actually reticence, fear to comment on a story on which my congregation would disagree.

On that point, let me just add here that I serve a largely military community that long ago learned how to integrate its ranks and to do it- comparatively- well, and that the soldiers in my community have sacrificed much so that we could be the kind of nation where OUR POLICE don’t walk the streets dressed like soldiers. 

Allow another aside: Our soldiers sacrifices are for naught if we’ve created a society where our police must walk our streets as soldiers. 

Back to the emailed interrogatories on my radio silence re: Ferguson-

Short Answer: I took a few days off to pass my kids off to their grandparents.

Long Answer: I’m not sure social media contributes anything meaningful to the media feeding frenzy. I don’t trust my own motives in posting, as it will surely just lead to ‘clickable’ post titles and tags. Race relations in America are owed more than 800 word thoughts. I’m not there. I, we, don’t know exactly what happened so better to wait than retract.Write what you know.

But then President Obama et al kept serving up a cliche I do feel warrants a (theological response):

‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

This in the wake of the nightly looting and violence. In the wake of the shooting (6x) to an unarmed black boy: ‘Now is the time for calm and peace.’

You know our society has jumped the shark when Rand Paul offers the most prophetic word. I hardly condone base, mindless looting, but after living 10 years in DC I know that ‘now is the time for calm and peace’ translates roughly to:

‘Everyone- stop being so angry. Return to your normal lives and wait for change which you will quickly forget until the next Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.’

‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ means stop agitating in a way that a nearly all-white, militarized police force will be forced to retaliate. Instead, patiently wait for your do-nothing Congress to never deliver any meaningful change and wait for your press to likewise do nothing until the next headline-grabbing story.’

Even if necessary, even if offered by a black President ‘Now is the time for calm and peace’ is a prescription offered by someone who is not ill themselves. It’s the proposal from someone in power.

It’s the suggestion from the status quo to keep everyone’s status, quo.

My real quibble, however, is how President Obama and other pols and pundits mindlessly throw around ‘peace’ as though it’s their word to (mis)use at their pleasure.

Quibble isn’t really the right word.

I’m righteously angry that so many, for whom the status quo serves their status, use OUR word ‘peace’ to maintain the world the way it is- or was 5 minutes ago.

I’m angry because in both Testaments the word ‘‘peace” is shalom. What we hear with the English word ‘peace’ is only a partial definition of ‘shalom.’

It doesn’t mean the absence of violence.

 

Shalom means total well-being. 358x242-ferguson-smoke

Wholeness.

 

Shalom is when/where all things are reconciled.

Set right.

 

Shalom is the final product of God’s very first promise never to abandon God’s creation.

As Brian Zahnd points out, Hebrew-English dictionaries define shalom as the state where ‘nothing is missing and nothing is broken.’

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word that motivates the Word that breathes all things into existence.

It’s the word behind the words to the promise to Abraham to (re)bless the whole world.

It’s the word that sums up what God is doing in and through the Word, Jesus Christ.

 

Peace.

Shalom.

It’s the word ministry given to Jesus followers right before the Cross.

And it’s the first word ministry given to them right after Easter.

 

I don’t care how you parse the events in Ferguson over the past week or whose side you take in the altercation that led to the boy’s murder.

It doesn’t matter.

Because calm or not, returning to what was prior IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Even if Michael Brown had returned home unharmed, ‘peace’ is not what he would’ve enjoyed. Protesters ceasing and desisting and returning to their homes to scratch out meager wages in an unfair, segregated context IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Reporters moving on to the next feeding frenzy IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’ Affluent you and me returning to our normally scheduled TV programming, FB likes or Social Media postings IS NOT what the Bible refers to as ‘peace.’

Shalom.

 

Peace, according to God, according to the Easter Jesus, is when a black President can speak out on a racial issue without half the country reflexively chalking it up to being ‘racially motivated.’

Peace, according to Yahweh, is where there is no death row much less one where 9/10 are black and from neighborhoods even worse than Ferguson and sent there by jurors, judges and lawyers who look like me.

Biblical peace is when you ask someone in a city where is the white school and where is the black school and they have no  freaking idea what you’re talking about.

Biblical peace is where we- police and citizens- don’t fear the ‘other’ because we’ve pushed them and ostracized them and segregated them into hopeless neighborhoods, failing schools and dead-end futures.

Peace, Jesus’ kind of peace, is where America can finally repentantly confront that it is a nation whose prosperity was built upon the blood of slaves, a sin whose effects fester even today.

Peace is where we can confess that sin and seek reconciliation all the while without a need to justify ourselves.

There’s a lot more needed to even come close to that word ‘peace’ but I thought that’s a start.

At least, President Obama is right on one part of his sentence. Ever since Easter, ‘now’ IS the time.