Archives For Stanley Hauerwas

rp_Untitled101111-683x1024.jpgI’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. The reason being I’m convinced 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.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

25. What is the Gospel? 

The Gospel is Jesus.

The Gospel is the life of the 2nd Person of the Trinity made flesh in Jesus Christ and made known to us through the community constituted by the narrative which witnesses to him, what we call the Gospels.

In that narrative we hear the good news of how the God who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt has raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s Kingdom, defeating the kingdoms which had crucified him, and inaugurating a New Age in which Jesus is Lord and we are called to witness to the God who refuses to let our violence and sin determine our relationship to him.

The Gospel is not the effect of the Gospel.

It is not atonement. It is not justification. It is not salvation. It is neither being forgiven your sin nor is it going to heaven when you die.

The Gospel is the entire story of Jesus Christ, for the person and work of Christ cannot be separated or abstracted from one another; that is, there is no meaning to what we mean by Gospel- no universal human dilemma- that can be known prior tom or without submission under, the story we call Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

The Gospel is the entire narrative about Jesus Christ because there is no way to know Jesus apart from discipleship, apprenticing under him through this story in which he reveals himself to us.

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel.” 

– 2 Timothy 2.8

14721514_10207107287831567_5379723068154767442_nFor my church’s 60th Anniversary this weekend, Stanley Hauerwas preached on the lectionary Gospel text from Luke 18, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. I also got to baptize my good friend Taylor Mertins’ son.

You can listen to the audio of Stanley’s sermon below as well as read my introduction of him. Given my adoration of his work, perhaps I should point out that he is a warm and generous man and spending a few days with him will no doubt be a highlight of my work.

When I was a student at Princeton, I had a number of different jobs to pay for my schooling, including working as a waiter at the weekly faculty lunch. At one of those lunches near the beginning of my second semester, around the time I was considering dropping out of seminary, Professor Max Stackhouse got worked up into a red-faced, PO’d lather ranting to his colleagues about this reckless and profane Methodist theologian named Stanley Hauerwas.

Even though I’d gone to UVA for undergraduate and had been taught by many of Stanley Hauerwas’ students, classmates, and colleagues, at the time I wasn’t aware of a Stanley Hauerwas. But I figured anyone who could arouse such animus at a normally tight-sphinctered faculty lunch was worth reading. So as soon as I washed the dishes, I headed over to the library and checked out a book called A Community of Character along with a set of audio cassettes of lectures he’d delivered entitled Discipleship as Craft. Without exaggeration, they changed my life.

If Dennis Perry is the one who made me a Christian, then Stanley Hauerwas is the person who has sustained me as a Christian.

I’ve read everything he’s ever written several times over- and he’s written alot of freaking books. I’ve given many of you several of his books. He’s often in my earbuds when I exercise. His book on suffering helped get me through my near death experience with cancer. I know his work so well to know that when I interviewed him for my podcast, I knew I wasn’t successful in getting him off his familiar talking points.

I also know his work well enough to know that he would judge an introduction of him in a service of worship to be inappropriate. Because more so than any theologian of the last 50 years, Stanley Hauerwas has reminded the Church that what we do here on Sunday morning is about God.

Not us. Certainly not him.

Nonetheless, here’s what you need to know about the person whom Time Magazine called America’s Best Theologian:

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the awareness that if Jesus is Lord then Christianity can never be reduced to the private or the personal, In other words, he’s responsible for most of the things I’ve preached that have caused you to write to anonymous complaints to the bishop over the years. Today’s your chance to take it up with him.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering the knowledge that Christianity is like baseball (and by baseball I mean National League baseball): That is, you can’t just do Christianity. You must be coached, apprenticed, by those with wisdom, whom we call the saints.

Stanley Hauerwas is responsible for recovering theology as a servant of the Church (as opposed to just another university discipline). And on that account alone he’s been fruitful, for I cannot imagine my vocation apart from his work and even though this is his first time preaching at Aldersgate it’s not the first time you’ve heard him. You’ve been hearing me speak Hauerwas- or speak Christian like Hauerwas- for a dozen years now.

He is the perfect person to preach Aldersgate’s 60th Anniversary for as we look forward to the next 60 years, without a doubt, the clergy and congregants who come after us- whether they know it or not- will in large measure be shaped by his work.

Having said all of that, Stanley would be the first person to say that it’s time to get on with the Word of God. So listen for it, the Word of God, found in…

Stanley Hauerwas, one of my Mt. Rushmore theologians, is our guest preacher this weekend for my church’s 60th Anniversary. Hauerwas, variously described as either an angry, happy man or a happy, angry man, is the master of dense, loaded quips and asides.

To introduce him to my church, I collected these choice quotes:

“The church doesn’t have a politics, the church is a politics.”


“Christians are called to live nonviolently not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but in a world of war as faithful followers of Christ, we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent.”


“The basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works, but rather who God is.


“When Christianity is assumed to be an ‘answer’ that makes the world intelligible, it reflects an accommodated church committed to maintaining the status quo.”


“Never think that you need to protect God. Because anytime you think you need to protect God, you can be sure that you are worshipping an idol.”


“I always say I represent the “Tonto principle of Christian ethics.” When Tonto and the Lone Ranger found themselves surrounded by 20,000 Sioux, the Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said, “This looks pretty tough; what do you think we ought to do, Tonto?” Tonto replied, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”


“Our sin is exactly the presumption that we can know God or ourselves through our own capacities.”


“Christian salvation consists in works. To be saved is to be made holy. To be saved requires our being made part of a people separated from the world so that we can be united in spite of – or perhaps better, because of – the world’s fragmentation and divisions.”


“Christians are nonviolent not, therefore, because we believe that nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but as followers of Jesus in a world of war we cannot be anything other than nonviolent. Christians, then, do not work for the abolition of war, but rather Christians live recognizing that in the cross of Christ, war has been abolished.”

Hauerwas in 30 Seconds

Jason Micheli —  October 19, 2016 — 3 Comments

maxresdefaultStanley Hauerwas, one of my Mt. Rushmore theologians, is our guest preacher this weekend for my church’s 60th Anniversary. Hauerwas, variously described as either an angry, happy man or a happy, angry man, is the master of dense, loaded quips and asides.

To introduce him to my church, I collected these choice quotes:

“The first task of the Church is not to make the world more just; the first task of the Church is to be the Church for only then might the world know that it’s the world.”

“Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his twelve year old in a sermon. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some bullshit.”

“I say I’m a pacifist because I am a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it’s too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what is true.”

“You can’t have a personal relationship with God and correctly speak Christian.”

“The story of modernity is that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Notice, this is a story you didn’t get to choose. We call this ‘freedom’ and it alone can produce bullshit such as “I believe Jesus is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion.”

“American Protestants do not have to believe in God because they believe in belief. That is why we have never been able to produce an interesting atheist in America.”

“A social order bent on producing wealth as an end in itself cannot avoid the creation of a people whose souls are superficial and whose daily life is captured by sentimentalities. Such a society produces people who ask questions like “Why do bad things happen to good people? ”

“Christians do not place their hope in their children”

“Christianity is not ‘all about love.’”

“Conservatives and liberals understand the Christian faith as a set of ideas because, so understood, Christianity seems to be a set of beliefs accessible to anyone upon reflection, which is but a way of maintaining the status quo.”

“Christians are nonviolent not, therefore, because we believe that nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but as followers of Jesus in a world of war we cannot be anything other than nonviolent. Christians, then, do not work for the abolition of war, but rather Christians live recognizing that in the cross of Christ, war has been abolished.”

“You never marry the right person.”

38681_1409539809500_674056_nIn most Methodist churches the mere uttering of the syllables that come together to form the word ‘money’ gets people’s panties in a bunch to an extent no partisan disputes over sex and politics can. Some may want to “Make America Great Again” and others may want to “Lean Forward” but all agree that our Adjusted Gross Income is our own damn business.

Like it or not (usually not unless you’re unembarrassed by your giving) ‘giving’ calls us to the mat of whether we really believe all we have belongs to God. Or not.

As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues: rp_faith4.jpg

If you give Christians the choice to turn to their neighbor in the pew and tell them who they’re screwing or how much they earn in salary…almost everyone will opt for Door #1 to the boudoir.

We’re even more reticent to be called out for our recalcitrance regarding Door #2.

Recently, my friend and apprentice-turned-colleague Rev. Taylor Mertins wrote a blog post (you should subscribe) on Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith…” In the post, Taylor asserted, with a blandness necessitated by the obviousness of the observation, that clergy are not immune from being captivated by and captive to the Mammon. As an example, Taylor cited the “Appointment Workbook.” It’s available for viewing on the website devoted to the United Methodist Church in Virginia.

Said Taylor:

“If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.”

Taylor promptly was bombarded with complaints that clergy are immune to the idolatry scripture says is at root in all of us and that, regardless, he should never criticize or cast aspersions upon the capital C Church.

To channel Stanley Hauerwas, I call bulls#$% on such bulls@#$.

One would think the Gospels themselves, where the clergymen-called-Pharisees plot Jesus’ undoing and one of his disciples betray him to that end for a bag full of cash, should be sufficient corroboration of Taylor’s point. After all, if Jesus was fully human it stands to reason Jesus’ people, preachers included, are less human than Jesus and, so, susceptible to sin. Indeed since in those same Gospels Satan shows himself most acutely wherever Jesus is at work, it stands to reason that the Church especially, where Jesus is at work, more so than any other place or institution in the world, would be ground zero for the Enemy’s infections.

Never mind how the refusal to criticize the Church, honestly and in love, smacks of the very institutional inauthenticity for which so many of Taylor’s generation (and mine) have written off the Church.

There is a problem with Taylor’s post, however, deserving of a rejoinder, but the problem with his argument is not his assertion that clergy can be captive to idolatry of Mammon (we are) or that the Church is sinful (it is). We are, all of us, sinners who apart from Paul’s mighty “yet” of Christ’s cruciform love deserve God’s wrath. Of course, our s#$% stinks.

The lack and error in Taylor’s argument, vis a vis the Appointment Workbook, is not in accusing Christ’s clergy and Christ’s Church of being comprised of sinners. Not only is that not news it’s the freaking good news! No, the strike against Taylor is that he doesn’t go full monty on the Hauerwas. He doesn’t connect how odd and dysfunctional it is that clergy salaries in the United Methodist Church are available to the public but the salaries of laypeople in the United Methodist Church, who determine the salaries of their pastors, are a secret not even Donald Trump’s Russian Hackers can ferret out. Taylor’s correct that our Appointment Workbook betrays a captivity but he doesn’t go far enough in smashing the idols.

The problem isn’t (simply) that pastors measure themselves and their future appointments according to pay; the problem is that those whom the pastors serve in those appointments do not have to make themselves accountable in like fashion.

What Taylor’s post missed is the lack of mutual vulnerability in our congregations when it comes to money. Pastors’ salaries and the appointment process are but the rattling chains of a deeper captivity. Christians in the Church think that how much they make and what they give should be “between them and God” which is to say “It’s none of your damn business. It’s mine.”

Every fall United Methodist clergy gather in “Charge Conferences” where their clergy’s salary is discussed, debated, and voted upon by a committee of (not necessarily informed) lay people. Even in the best of church settings (like my own, for example) it’s an awkward experience, having your worth sized up in front of everyone like you’re a 4-H cow or the #2 pitcher who might not be worth ace money next hot stove league.

Considering the circumstances- even making modest salaries- clergy feel compelled (if only in their head) to justify their pay and prove their usefulness. But no other church persons gathered there for such conferences ever get asked to stand, a la Hauerwas, and reveal their own income. And that’s the problem Taylor missed.

The red-faced shame among clergy about the Appointment Workbook is but a symptom of the larger secrecy which exists in our churches around money.

The problem exposed by the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals the Church’s possible idolatry; it’s that it reinforces the extent to which, in every other part of the Church’s life, clergy aid and abet their congregations’ secrecy about money.

The “wandering away” Taylor points out isn’t that we know this about clergy and their income; it’s that very often this is the only thing we know about money and income in our churches.

What I mean is –

In most mainline churches, congregations convey and clergy uncritically receive the mandate that pastors should not know what their parishioners give to the church.

The thinking always goes…If I know who gives what then I might not minister to people equitably.

This is a rationale whose obtuseness, I think, could only be produced by a latent idolatry to Mammon. Having served in the same place for 12 years, I know, for example, the parishioners who’ve cheated on their spouses, who’re alcoholics and drug addicts, who don’t talk to their kids or whose kids don’t talk to them, who suffer from PTSD or who inflicted it. I know the Democrats and the Republicans, the abused and the abusers, and who thumps their bible to keep their doubts at bay. I recognize the hand-writing on anonymous notes and I’ve trimmed the grape vine so it’s as fast as my iPhone.

I minister to all of them. It doesn’t even occur to me to triage them according to merit.

No one would ever suggest I shouldn’t know the addicts in my congregation because then I might treat them differently. Why should addiction to Mammon be any different? The many pastors who espouse a “see no evil” attitude over their congregants’ giving would never likewise argue that they should remain ignorant of all of their congregants’ other imperfections and particularities for fear of ministering to them inequitably. So what does it say about us our relationship to money that we don’t believe our pastor should know how much we’ve got and how much we’ve given? If learning every other secret about our flock makes us better shepherds, what does it reveal about us that we think money is the one secret better left alone?

The problem with Taylor’s post then is that he didn’t go far enough. The problem with the Appointment Workbook isn’t that it reveals a secret; it’s that it helps perpetuate a different one.

Cancer is Funny: Blurbs

Jason Micheli —  September 17, 2016 — 5 Comments

MicheliCover_FINALOther than a headshot for the dust jacket, my book with Fortress Press, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo,  is all finished and due out 12/1. Stay tuned and, if you’ve not already, you can pre-order it here. And if you know someone touched by cancer in some way, make sure they get one too.

One of the humbling humiliating experiences of book publishing, I’ve discovered, is asking other people not only to read your book but also to blurb it. I can only liken it thus: “Will you take me out on a multi-hour date? Oh, and pay for it, too?”

I realize there’s no way to share these without humble-bragging, but some of my reviewers went out of their way to provide not only thoughtful but emotional blurbs for Cancer is Funny. I thought I would thank them by giving them a shout-out here on the blog before you can see them on and in the cover of the book.


“What gets lost in all the stories about the decline of religion is how many people have left church because they find its leaders uninspired and institutionally minded. Jason Micheli is neither. He is as funny as he is smart and both come through in refreshing, irreverent ways in Cancer is Funny. If you’re spiritual but not religious or if you’re religious but have forgotten how to be spiritual, Jason Micheli reminds us that God can be found in the world beyond the Church, even in incurable cancer. And Jason shows us with raw candor that wherever God is to be found, joy and laughter are possible.”

—Diana Butler Bass, author of Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution

“Jason Micheli is one of the most hip, funny, deeply-theological-without-being-boring pastors in my church today.  Jason is an engaging, always substantive-without-being-showy communicator of the faith.  Now that he’s got Stage Dangerous Cancer Jason’s wit, faith, and genius turns even that tough journey into a pilgrimage toward God.  Only Jason could transform cancer into a source of comedy but also a great occasion to teach the rest of us how to think like Christians about life, sickness, death, and God.  Jason is able to do this because he, as much as anyone I know, believes in a living, redemptive God who is with us, in good times and bad. A funny, faithful book.”

– Will Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry and United Methodist Bishop, retired.

“Jason Micheli is the bravest motherfucker I’ve ever met. It takes a lot of courage to keep faith with God while you’re saying, “Fuck you cancer, and your little tumor Toto too.” But not only does he keep faith; it deepens because he becomes a theologian of the only theology that matters—the theology of death and life, you know, the theology of when shit gets real. Writing with the wit and brutal honesty of Annie Lamott, Michelli takes his readers on a shakedown cruise of pain, suffering, and discovery where we all meet God, perhaps for the first time. Get this book, bitches.”

– Dr. Jeffrey Pugh, Professor of Religion, Elon University

“Illness creates loneliness but Micheli resists that development by sharing his struggle with cancer. He does so with good humor which is not only a gift because, as he suggests, cancer is only funny in a tragic way, but also the most fundamental quality for a well-lived and faithful life.”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Emeritus Professor of Divinity and Law at Duke University

If smart-ass humor is the best evidence of fighting spirit, Jason Micheli is Charles Bronson of cancer patients. He disrupts all the cliches of cancer chronicles: he’s not old or saintly and peddling comfort or resolution. He’s a preacher who’s not at peace, a GenXer who acknowledges that irony is his security blanket. Staring down the barrel of a life-threatening disease, he proves that irreverence can be the flip side of faith.

— JC Herz, author of Learning to Breathe Fire

“Sometimes you read a book you have to finish. Sometimes you know you have to read it again. On occasions you read a book that makes you think, laugh, drop some tears, & want to grab a drink with the author. Jason has done that, plus I have a list of people who will be getting this book as a gift. If you love solid theology, powerful testimony, & a text you will ruminate over, you will love this book.”

– Tripp Fuller, author of The Home-brewed Christianity Guide to Jesus

“Coming to terms with death ain’t easy. And yet, as Jason Micheli says, none of us is getting out of life alive. Thankfully Jason Micheli has given us a surprising book like Cancer is Funny, which, it so happens, is as hilarious as it is thoughtful and deeply faithful. Cancer is Funny is funny. It’s also personal and reflective, urgently so. It will not only teach you about yourself, it will teach you about God too. A riveting journey through the suffering that, as he puts, God may or may not be doing to him- a question everyone of us has asked, or will some day soon. Don’t be fooled by the title. Suffering, it turns out, can lead to laughter because you can’t face death without rediscovering the wonder of life.”

– David Fitch, BR Linder Chair of Evangelical Theology, Northern Seminary and Author of Faithful Presence

“Don’t let the title of this book fool you.  It’s about cancer, and it’s funny, but it’s also profound, honest, and deeply faithful.  Jason Micheli is one of the best theological communicators I know.  This book will move and instruct everyone who has a mortal body and a questioning spirit.”

– Dr. Kendall Souled, Professor of Systematic Theology, Emory University

“Cancer Is Funny is a stunning monument to human perseverance and divine grace amid the specter of finitude. The very fact of its construction, like that of the ancient pyramids or the Taj Mahal, is as improbable as it is awe-inspiring and beautiful. The result is a wonder to behold. Jason Micheli is that rare Christian minister who serves up truth unvarnished, live-blogging with graphic honesty his experience of ingesting deadly poisons designed to spare his young life, against sobering odds, from an unforgiving cancer. Fasten your seatbelts, dear readers. There is turbulence ahead. Prepare to laugh and cry. Prepare to live and die.”

– Robert C. Dykstra
Charlotte W. Newcombe Professor of Pastoral Theology
Princeton Theological Seminary

“Put down that outdated magazine in your oncologists office! Cancer is Funny will take you on a journey from Jason’s mind all the way to the inner parts of his body that ends up revealing his soul.   Jason lays himself bare so that you can look, laugh and feel better during the often faith-testing, twisted ride that is cancer. What is funniest is that this book will grab you and remind you of what matters in life.”

– Brian Stolarz, Attorney and Author of Grace and Justice on Death Row



Most Common Heresies: #9

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

heresy_GMSI’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.

Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #9: Arianism

What Is It

The belief that the God the Son is subordinate to God the Father, effectively dismantling any coherent doctrine of the Trinity.

Arianism was the provocation for and is the context behind all that ‘begotten not made…one being with the Father’ jargon in the otherwise beautiful Nicene Creed.

Arianism was also the provocation for the real St Nick to pimp-slap another delegate at the Council of Nicea.

Who Screwed Up First

Attributed to Arius, a Christian leader from Alexander, Egypt (250-360). Arius taught that the Son of God was neither pre-existent nor eternal despite what John 1 and Colossians 1 testify.

Rather, Arius held, the Son was created by the Father for God’s redemptive purposes; therefore, the God Christians worship is not an eternal community of coequal persons exchanging self-emptying love, otherwise known as the Trinity. The God Christians worship is just God.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you woodenly think ‘the Trinity is not in the Bible’ and instead insist, conspiratorially, that it’s a doctrine invented by ancient Church bureaucrats then you’re most definitely an Arian.

If you believe Jesus was a good teacher of God’s love and compassion but balk at the notion that Jesus always was, is and forever will be God (Col 1) then instead of leaving milk and cookies this Christmas just leave an apology note because Santa just might kick your #%@.

If you (mis)understand the atonement in such a way that you treat Jesus as someone who protects us from God the Father; that is, the Son and the Father’s wills are not one and the same, then even though you probably consider yourself a bible-believing Christian you’re actually a heretic.

If, rather than submitting yourself to a community of fellow sinners and ancient texts, you insist that you ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then you may not be that theologically deft but you’re still an Arian. You’d never discover something like the Trinity in nature nor a God as counter-intuitive as Jesus.

If you dismiss Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (love thy enemy, turn the other cheek) as naive or hopeless ideals rather than to-do’s straight from the lips of the eternal God, then the Nicene Creed was written just for you.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in God after all’ you’re the spawn of Arianism.

If you think Christmas, when we celebrate the infinite becoming finite and taking flesh in Mary’s womb, is for children…heretic.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Readers of Dan Brown

Mark Driscoll and John Piper

Most Contemporary Christian songwriters

Evangelicals who exclusively pray ‘Father God’ prayers

Liberal Democrats

Tea Party Republicans



The unimaginative

Home Remedies

Read Colossians 1 and marvel at the mystery

Memorize the Nicene Creed (this will prove hard for Protestants)

Burn any and all Dan Brown books on your grill

Read the Sermon on the Mount the Gospels and say to yourself: ‘God said this.’

Use ‘Jesus’ in any sentence where ‘God’ would do.


I was told by a friend, whose views I respect, that my previous post on abortion was insufficiently robust. Here’s another pass through my thoughts on this matter that matters:

A paradigmatic text that can inform Christians’ approach to the question of abortion is found in Acts 4.32-35. In Acts, Luke tells us that the power of the resurrection was made manifest in the apostolic community in concrete ways: in common prayer and eucharist celebration, in mutual care and in the sharing of possessions.

For Luke and for the early church, Easter meant that believers had been freed to share their money and resources with one another. Easter had freed them to care for the needs of one another. A community that so shared their possessions was equipped then to care for the needy and for the needy within their faith community.

What does this have to do with abortion? Within the church at least, abortion should not be necessitated by economic hardship or the inability of the mother to care for a child. If an unwanted or an ill-advised pregnancy occurs in a Christian community, the Christian response, according to Luke’s paradigm of the Acts’ church, should not be abortion but the sharing of the community’s resources: the congregation’s money, time and nurture.

Stanley Hauerwas adds to this perspective by noting how Christians share not just our resources but one another. The sacrament of baptism, he points out, quite clearly makes us all the parents of one another’s children. Again, the church’s response to an unwanted or ill-advised pregnancy should not be abortion but a willingness to live into their baptismal identity and assume the role of parent. Hauerwas observes how such expectations for a Christian community often sound far- fetched and idealistic to white, upper and middle-class Christians, but just such an ethic is commonly practiced by African-American congregations.

In reflecting on the issue of abortion, the model of the early church reminds Christians that often our preoccupations with defining whether abortion is right or wrong and at what point life begins are distractions from a more primary calling. How Christians should advocate their abortion convictions in the public square is a separate question. Clearly, however, Luke reminds Christians that if our congregations more closely mirrored the early apostolic community in terms of sharing and mutual care, then there would, at the very least, be fewer abortions among Christians.

In addition, Richard Hays comments that the early church’s example reveals how Christians’ confusion over abortion is indicative of a greater unfaithfulness to the economic ethic of Jesus. If the Church were more faithful in witnessing against poverty and advocating for greater economic justice, then the tragic factors that lead to many abortions would decrease.

The paradigm offered by the early church also provides Christians another contour to guide our thoughts on abortion. The apostolic community was marked not only by sharing but by mutual- and moral- accountability. Too often the cultural and political debates regarding abortion stigmatize the mothers of the unborn. In doing so, opponents of abortion frequently make these women the bearers of the moral burden. Luke’s model of the early church, however, does not allow Christians to resort to this response. A community of genuine accountability and love will insist on holding Christian men accountable to the responsibilities and consequences of their relationships.

Many of these moral reflections suggest Christian-specific responses to the issue of abortion, but if Christians are meant to transform the world, then a necessary first step is for Christian communities to begin looking more transformed themselves. Before Christians can effectively persuade the public square to their ethical perspective, that ethical worldview should be embodied in their communities. The first measure of our faith in the power of the resurrection is not the legislation we advocate but the sharing and accountability we practice with one another.

maxresdefaultTheologian Stanley Hauerwas is the Teddy Roosevelt on my theological Mt. Rushmore. As you’ll hear in the podcast, I first ‘met’ Stanley Hauerwas when I was waiting tables in the dining room of an upscale retirement community in Charlottesville, Virginia. A resident there, the theologian Dr. Julian Hartt, took me under his wing and mentored me the summer before I left for Princeton. Julian encouraged me to prepare by reading some of his former student at Yale’s work. “You’ll find Stanley has something to say” Julian told me.

In the same way that Calvinists can quote C.S. Lewis without thinking about it and can speculate on what Lewis would have said to any new questions, I speak Hauerwas speaking Christian. This is why, I suspect, my interview here with Stanley Hauerwas sucks. It does so because I know his work well enough to know he was falling into offering me his familiar tropes and talking points but I respect far too much to have pushed back on him. Well, he does speak a bit about the atonement, which he has seldom done over the years so there is that little nugget of novelty.

In his fantastic memoir, Hannah’s Child, Hauerwas muses that most people don’t need to become a theologian in order to become a Christian but that he probably did. I can tell you without any hyperbole that I am someone who needed Stanley Hauerwas to be a theologian in order for me to be a Christian.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.

For the love of all that is holy:

Give us a review there in the iTunes store.

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.


lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Memorial Day Weekend is approaching.

Memorial Day, though it’s not a Christian holy day and though we won’t change out the paramant colors to observe it, it’s a tricky time for preachers of the Gospel. It’s tricky not because the valor of the fallen lacks honor but because the story of America, particularly when its cast in terms of those who’ve died in its service, is a story that is more powerfully felt by many Christians than the Gospel story. You don’t need sociological surveys on the Nones to give you a picture of religion in America; the fact is (and maybe always has been) many of us are more moved by the love of those who lay their lives down for their countrymen than we are moved by Christ who lays his life down not for his neighbors and nation but for the ungodly.

War, as Stanley Hauerwas acknowledges, is beautiful in the noble and heroic virtues it can call out of us and therein lies the danger for Christians for it presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the eucharistic liturgy.

Like all liturgy, the liturgy of patriotism forms us. It’s meant to form us. And, especially, our children.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended the Nats home opener with my boys. The entire field was covered, like a funeral pall on a casket, with a giant flag. Wounded warriors were welcomed out and celebrated. Silence was observed. Colors were processed in with priestly soberness. Jets flew overhead and anthems were sung. There was even organ music. People around me in the stands covered their hearts and many, I noticed, had tears in their eyes. If there’d been an altar call my boys, my wife and I, and the Mennonite family 3 rows up would’ve been the only ones left in the stands.

It was a kind of worship service, a liturgy, that was discipling us into being certain kinds of people who view the world through a particular narrative. It was preparing us, equipping us, to respond ourselves in a certain way if/when called upon.

(My friend tells me this ‘liturgy’ is even thicker at NASCAR races, which I take to be ironic since only Southern Baptists go to NASCAR and they’re all on record as loathing liturgy. But maybe it’s just the Christian liturgy they’re against.)

I’m not suggesting (as some might do) that there’s anything wrong with any of the above. I’m instead suggesting that Christians (at least those in America) must be mindful about seeing in it a temptation that is ever before us; namely, the lure to make our national story more keenly felt than our Gospel story. Just because golden calves seem stupid doesn’t mean we’re any more immune than Israel from offering God a qualified obedience. If we can’t serve God and Mammon, as Jesus teaches, then why are we so cavalier about God and Country?

The Christian ‘We’ can include but never necessarily so the American ‘We.’ God has called not our nation but first Israel and now with it the Church to be a light to the nations. The Church, not our nation not any nation, is the means by which God has elected to finish his New Creation. As a leader of the Church, I think it’s a dumb strategy too, more so even than you, but as a preacher in the Church I’m stuck with the message I’ve been given to relay.

Christians, after all, are not, from the vantage of the fullness of time, invested in democracy. We’re not republicans or democrats. We’re theocrats. We live in America, yes, but we belong to a Kingdom. We may vote for a president (or we may not, Christians are free of any ‘duty’ to vote), but by our baptism we pledge allegiance to the Prince of Peace. And that peace, we believe, is wrought not by the sword/gun/battleship/drone but was wrought by the cross.

If you doubt the danger I’ve posed actually exists, consider how no one in our country thinks it unusual to raise their children to love their country, to serve their country and even to die for it- that’s what the ‘liturgy’ of the baseball game intends. They even sing the National Anthem at my boys’ swim meets. Fine.

Except…people do think their kids loving God, serving God and possibly suffering for God should be left up to their own ‘choice.’ The only convictions we’re willing to inculcate into our children for which they might one day have to suffer and die is not our Christian convictions but our American ones. It’s just such a prejudice that produces nonsense like the statement: ‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord…but that’s just my personal opinion.’ And its just such nonsense that makes one rightly wonder if the Church is really the entity the separation of Church of State is meant to protect and serve, for so long as my faith is relegated to the private/personal then the State will always be the beneficiary of any such separation.

The Church is called to reframe everything in light of the Cross and Resurrection, even our patriotism, and then to submit it to the Lordship of Christ, and ‘Lord’ of course isn’t Jesus’ last name or even a religious word.

It’s a title: King.

And so on a day like Memorial Day that call upon us doesn’t mean we dishonor the sacrifices of the fallen or beat our breasts and pretend that America is anything but a unique nation among nations (because no matter what the Huffington Post says, it is).

It instead means we hold fast to our commission to proclaim the Gospel, which in this instance on America’s calendar means we proclaim that the sacrifice offered by the fallen was not, in fact, the “ultimate sacrifice.”

The ultimate sacrifice was made by God himself, in Jesus Christ, on Golgotha, a death delivered up by the best and brightest of the Church, and the State, and the Military, for the ungodly.

‘Ungodly’ happens to be a border-breaking (Don’t tell The Donald), multinational, trans-historical catch-all category of humanity.

Thank God.

On Memorial Day Weekend preachers of the Gospel remind adherents of the Gospel that Jesus made is the Ultimate Sacrifice, that he is, as scripture attests, the Sacrifice to End All Sacrifices (including the sacrifice of war), and that Good Friday 33 AD, not all our battles and victory days, is the date that changed the world.

We preach the Gospel and, I think, we search for ways to make that story register as deeply as the story I saw felt in section 136 at Nationals Park.


Untitled101111For the past 18 months, 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. The reason being I’m convinced 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.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

17. What is the Significance of the Sermon on the Mount? 

If Jesus, as Matthews sees him, is the Second Moses, then the Sermon on the Mount is the charter of the New Israel, the Church, whom God elects to be an alternative community in the world witnessing to God’s creative intent for the world.

As Moses received God’s covenant commands upon Mt. Sinai, Jesus stands upon the Mount of Beatitudes and issues new commands. Thus the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of God’s Kingdom People in both senses of the word:

It is the covenant by which Jesus’ People are obligated

And it is the way in which Jesus’ called are formed as a People.

The significance of the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ own significance, for the Sermon is firstly a description of Christ’s own character. In this Sermon, the Word who is the preacher and the word preached are one and the same because the proclaimer of the Kingdom’s nature sits at the right hand of this Kingdom’s throne. Indeed he has established this Kingdom through cross and resurrection.

As such:

The Sermon on the Mount does not describe an impossible ideal achievable only one day in the future.

It describes the way Christ’s People live the future now.

It characterizes the habits born out of the community’s conviction that the future arrived, once for all, on Easter: the Old Age has passed, Death and Sin have been defeated, the Powers and Principalities toppled, Christ’s Lordship has been established, and all those in Christ are and embody a New Creation now. In other words, the Sermon on the Mount does not provide general principles for a generic life. It does not prescribe ethical principles practicable by all. It narrates the practices that constitute the community of Jesus.


It commends a way of life that is unintelligible to those who do not confess that Jesus is Lord and that makes absolutely no sense if that confession is not true.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies.” – Matthew 5.43-44

9781501824753Several years ago the church I serve opened the doors of its youth wing to welcome the members of a local mosque. Their own facility was undergoing construction and they needed a place to offer their Friday Jummah prayers. Even though many of the Muslims who came to pray in our building were the same people who drove cabs in our neighborhood, owned the service stations that inspect our cars, cared for our aging parents in the nursing homes, and cleaned our locker rooms at the gym, many from the community greeted the worshippers with fear.

As the Other.

The members of my church council voted unanimously to show hospitality to our Muslim neighbors; the gesture was not so unanimous in the larger congregation. Many church members and families left over the decision. Few of them spoke with us before leaving. I can say confidently that we are a stronger congregation for having shown such hospitality to our neighbors not only because it taught us, as a congregation, how to experience conflict and work through it together, something our United Methodist itinerant system too often prevents, but also because it reminded us as Christians that, no matter what the church vitality books tell us, not all congregational conflict is bad. By many measures conflict should be an expected consequence of working with Jesus in a world that still seeks to operate as though Christ were not Lord.

I believe our church is stronger too because, with hindsight, we know it was the right, faithful step to take. We’re stronger as a church because we showed courage, which, as Will Willimon writes, “…is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear- fearing, revering, and honoring something more than safety.” In my sermon the Sunday after we decided to welcome our neighbors-who-were-taken-to-be-Other, I said:

Scripture doesn’t teach that after we welcome them the stranger will cease being strange to us or that our differences are insignificant. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies.Scripture doesn’t teach that by visiting the prisoner we’ll convince the prisoner to swear off crime. Scripture doesn’t teach that in feeding the hungry the hungry will show appreciation to us or that in caring for the needy we won’t find the needy a burden to us. Rather, in a world of violence and injustice and poverty and loneliness Jesus has called us to be a people who welcome strangers and love enemies and bring good news to prisoners, feed and cloth the poor and care for those who have no one. We do this because this is the labor Christ has commanded us.

Admitting how the concerns around global terrorism were real and the policies with which to address it best were vague, we attempted to stress that the command of Jesus was stark and clear. We’re to welcome the Other, and, as Christians, we take our marching orders not from our Party’s talking points or Fox News but from the Risen Lord who warned us that one day we’ll judged on just this count.

Will Willimon, in his new book Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, expresses the same sentiment but frames it better than me: “Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others.” In a political culture marked by pervasive and often nasty fear, Christians instead should be afraid that we’re ignoring God, who took flesh, got uncomfortably particular in Jesus of Nazareth, and commanded us very specifically to love our enemies and welcome the stranger.

Says Willimon:

Today we’re more likely to fear for the plight of our bodies than our souls…we ought to fear displeasing God more than we fear the censure of others. Our problem, in regard to fear, is that we fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands, “Love each other.”

If we are not sure that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, I am certain that we cannot worship God who is Jesus Christ without also being under compulsion to encounter and embrace [the Other].

Willimon begins Fear of the Other with a characteristic theme; namely, the peculiarity of our baptismal identify in Christ and the distinctiveness of Christian discipleship. Like Stanley Hauerwas, Willimon reminds his readers that the American We in “We must build walls along our borders” and “We must keep Muslims out of our country” is not a ‘we’ that can include the followers of Jesus Christ.

Keeping the linguistic metaphor, Willimon observes the simple and obvious fact that Christian speech will not allow us to say certain things about strangers, aliens, or enemies. In a climate of fear Christians have no recourse but to remember that the only One whom we’re called to fear, the Lord, commanded us repeatedly “Do not fear.” Accordingly, in the very first paragraph of Fear of the Other, Willimon aims his little book at those presently stoking our fears to their own advantage and to our own tribal satisfaction. Almost as a dedication, Willimon writes:

Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book…Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.

From that TNT of an opening salvo, Willimon approaches Fear of the Other from a Barthian angle, arguing that as residents of the Far Country, the would-be-judged were it not for the Judge judged in our place, we are the Other to God. And by concealing himself in the flesh of a carpenter from Nazareth, God comes to us as the Other. Our posture of welcome and hospitality towards the Other is rooted in the Gospel awareness that apart from Jesus Christ we are all enemies of God.

As Willimon puts it: “Any Christian move toward the Other is based upon Jesus Christ’s move toward us: ‘We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies.’”

That the prejudice towards Other love is incontestable in both testaments leads me to wonder if the fear and xenophobia so rampant today, where majorities of evangelical Christians support Ted Cruz and Donald Trump whose policies defy the very commands of God to Moses on Sinai, is due to a lack of Gospel proclamation in our churches. Are we in the fearful, ugly state we’re in now because we long ago traded the kerygma for an individualized therapeutic gospel for survival in Christendom?

Willimon hints at a connection:

An important function of Christian preaching and church life is to render me into the Other. I am the enemy of God. I am the one who by my lifestyle and choices make myself a stranger to my sisters and brothers. I’m free to admit that because, in spite of my hostility to God, Jesus Christ has received me as friend.

Something must account for the disconnect between what scripture compels of Christians and how how so many of us Christians feel compelled to act in the public square. Unlike so many of the hot-button political issues that divide us, on this issue scripture is univocal. We can honest about the practical challenges our enemies and the Other pose to our society, but “Christians ought to admit that in debates about the Other Christianity’s default position is hospitality, even as we received hospitality on the cross of Christ.” 

In what I take to be the most delightful passage in the book, Willimon skillfully exegetes the word for stranger in scripture, xenoishowing how the New Testament reports Jesus warns us that we will be judged according to how well we welcome and care for xenoi, how Judas, according to Matthew, was buried in a field reserved for xenoi, and how Paul in Ephesians proclaims that what has been accomplished through cross and resurrection is that xenoi are no longer xenoi but family in the household of God.

Only when we recognize ourselves as a Judas at the Table of our Lord can we welcome the xenoi amount us. And that’s a recognition we cannot accomplish by our own lights. Only the Risen Lord’s own work of revelation can so transform us that we see ourselves as a fellow betrayer of Christ. That the welcome we’re commanded to extended is likened to someone such as Judas is echoed by Paul in Romans, the point with which Willimon concludes Fear of the Other.

In Romans 11; Paul uses the phrase para phusin to describe God’s radically offensive act of adopting Gentiles in to the household of Israel. God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God, Paul says, is “against nature.” God’s grace is such that Christians owe their salvation to God’s extravagantly unnatural hospitality.

Christians have been adopted so unnaturally we must be a people of hospitality to both Jews and the Other. Because we are saved by such a strange grace, the welcome of strangers is a necessary posture for Christians. The salvation of Gentile Christians by the God of Israel proves that no work of welcome towards the Other is beyond this God’s unnatural grace.

Willimon’s a hard, needful word in an election season where many Christians seem more captivated by their Party’s story of America than by the Gospel story. Fear of the Other thus strikes the very Barthian chord that not only are Christians required to forgive and love our enemies, we’re expected, by our faithfulness to this Gospel, to create enemies who are worth forgiving and often those enemies will not be the Other outside of the church but those of us inside it.


Near the end of Kurt Vonnegut’s war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator envisions a bombing mission in reverse. Fires go out. Homes are repaired. Bombs that were dropped over towns and cities are raised back up through the sky into the bodies of the American planes. The bombers fly home backwards where they are taken apart rivet by rivet and, eventually, even the soldiers become babies.

Vonnegutt’s vision is one where the violence and death of war is undone. Original beauty is restored.

While Vonnegutt was himself one of the 20th century’s most articulate atheists, he might be chagrined to discover how thoroughly biblical was his version of hope. Slaughterhouse Five reads like it was ripped off of the prophet Isaiah (65) or St John (Revelation 21-22).

Of course, if God did not actually, literally, physically raise Jesus’ cold, dead body from the tomb, then it’s just what Vonnegutt took it to be: fiction.

Somewhere along the way I discovered that the most contentious, disputed doctrine among the every Sunday pew people isn’t homosexuality, abortion, or biblical authority.

It’s belief in the resurrection of the body.

The literal, physical, historic and material resurrection of Jesus from the tomb as the first fruits of our eventual literal, physical, historic and material resurrection from our tombs, caskets and urns.

I know many more Christians who cross their fingers during that part of the creed (‘…and the resurrection of the body…’) and who are willing to argue with me about it than I do Christians willing to debate the ‘social issues dividing the church.’

The (mainline at least) Christians get their panties in a bunch like no else when you suggest that belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy.

Except…it is.

Don’t believe me read the Book of Acts. Every sermon of the first church revolves around the resurrection. Peel away your penal substitution prejudice and read Paul again- it’s resurrection through and through.

Times may change but you can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us).

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but- think about it- we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

If there’s no high Christology, there’s no intelligible ‘way’ of Jesus, and if there’s no Easter, there’s no Eschaton.

maxresdefaultStanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

In my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I increasingly hear ‘the need to be prophetic’ as we near our General Conference, in which our delegates from the larger Church will debate our tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is simply to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything on MSNBC. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

I remember leaving seminary thinking, for some reason, that my every sermon needed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. What I’ve learned over the years is that brute prophetic rhetoric only shuts down your listeners’ openness. If actual transformation is the desired end then a certain charity in your preaching is required and faith- trust- that the only thing keeping preaching from being a waste of everyone’s time is that when the Risen Christ so chooses our words become the living word of God.

It’s our call only to proclaim the Gospel; it’s up to God what our listeners hear and how (if) they apply it to their lives.


descentMy friend, Tony Jones, recently featured a guest post on his blog from someone who advocated altering the traditional serving words for the eucharist (The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ shed for you.) to:

‘Christ is here, in your brokenness. Christ is here, bringing you to life.’

Or, ‘Christ broken, with us in our brokenness. Christ’s life, flowing through our lives.’

Such redactions just won’t do the heavy lifting if one is committed to taking seriously the language of scripture. While the traditional imagery of blood sacrifice may make some squeamish, Fleming Rutledge, in her new book The Crucifixion, insists it is ‘central to the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, and without this theme the Christian proclamation loses much of its power, becoming both theologically and ethically undernourished.’ 

Mainline and progressive Christians frequently express disdain for the blood imagery of scripture. We judge it, snobbishly Rutledge thinks, to be primitive; meanwhile, we let our kids play Black Ops 3, we fill the theaters for American Sniper, and we refer to those innocents killed by our drones as ‘bugsplat.’ That is, if we care about the droned dead at all. We exult in gore and violence in our entertainments, but we feign that we’re too fastidious to exalt God by singing ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

Rare is the Christmas preacher bold enough take the Slaughter of the Innocents as his text while the Washington Post app on my iPhone makes it uncomfortably obvious that the slaughter of innocents goes on every day.

In our disinclination towards the language of blood and sacrifice, treating it as a detachable option in atonement theology, Christians today could not be more different from the writers of the Old Testament who held that humanity is distant from God in its sin and atonement is possible only by way of blood. Viewed from the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures, we make the very error Anselm cautions against in Cur Deus Homo. We’ve not truly considered the weight of sin.

Editing out blood sacrifice commits the very act is intended to avoid, violence.

It commits violence agains the text of scripture by eviscerating the language of the bible.

Scripture speaks of the blood of Christ 3 times more often than it speaks of the death of Christ. Such a statistic alone reveals the extent to which blood sacrifice is a dominant theme in extrapolating the meaning of Christ’s death. Scripture gives the witness repeatedly: God comes under God’s judgement as a blood sacrifice for sin. Put in the logic of the Old Testament’s sacrificial system: something of precious value is relinquished in exchange for something of even greater gain. Blood for peace.

We might find such language repellent. Many do. Perhaps we should recoil at it considering how its an indictment upon our own sinfulness. We might wish to alter the words we say when handing the host to a communicant.

What we cannot do is pretend blood sacrifice is not the way scripture itself speaks.

Not only is blood sacrifice a dominant motif in scripture, Fleming Rutledge demonstrates how its a theme upon which many other atonement motifs rely, such as representation, substitution, propitiation, vicarious suffering, and exchange. Something as simple as switching from ‘The blood of Christ shed for you’ to ‘The cup of love’ effectively mutes the polyvalence of scripture’s voice.

And what does lie behind our resistance to blood sacrifice?

Reading The Crucifixion, I can’t help but wonder if the popular disdain for blood sacrifice owes less to our concern for the violence of the century past (and the ways our theological language underwrote it) and if it has more to do with the way that the worldview of blood sacrifice contradicts our contemporary gospel of inclusivity along with its charitable appraisal of human nature and its ever progressing evolution. The self-image we derive from American culture is that I’m okay and you’re okay. We translate grace according to culture so that Paul’s message of rectification becomes ‘accept that you are accepted.’ God loves you just as you are, we preach, Because of course, God loves us. How could a good God not love wonderful people like us?  As Stanley Hauerwas jokes, we make the doctrine of the incarnation ‘God put on our humanity and declared ‘Isn’t this nice?!’

The governing assumption behind blood sacrifice could not be more divergent. ‘The basic presupposition here [in Leviticus],’ says Rutledge,

‘is that we aren’t acceptable before the Lord just the way we are. Something has to transpire before we are counted as acceptable…the gap between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings is assumed to be so great that the sacrificial offering has to be made on a regular basis.’

The self-satisfied smile we see in Joel Osteen is a reflection of our own. Our glib view of ourselves is such that we cannot imagine why God would not want to come near us. Scripture’s sober view of us is that we cannot come near God, in our guilt, without God providing the means for us to live in God’s presence. Another life in place of our own, a blameless and unblemished one.

Whatever our reason for spurning blood sacrifice, our disdain for it raises an even more pernicious problem, for, as Fleming Rutledge implies, if we refuse to interpret Christ’s death as a blood sacrifice, ruling such imagery as out of bounds, what connection remains between Jesus and Jesus’ own scriptures? To jettison blood sacrifice is to unmoor Jesus from the bible by which he would have understood his own deeds and death, making it unclear in what sense it makes any sense to say, as we must, that Jesus was and is a Jew.

Disdain for blood sacrifice becomes a kind of supercessionism.

Desiring to cleanse our view of God of any violence we unwittingly commit a far worse sort of (theological) violence: cleansing God of God’s People.

Which begs the question, my own not Fleming’s, if progressive Christians in America today are substantively different than the Christian European sophisticates of the late 19th century who viewed the ethnic, cultic faith of the Jews with similar disdain.

If we profess the conviction that a crucified Jewish Messiah is Lord, then we must submit to understanding him according to the terms by which he would’ve understood himself.

Portrait Karl BarthI’m not a liberal, I said in a post last week, in which I attempted to distinguish between theological liberalism and political liberalism. People tend to see the earring, tattoo, and beard and make assumptions about me.

But I’m a post-liberal.

I don’t believe anyone can simply be a Christian nor do I think anyone can cleanly subscribe to any of the theologies of the ancient Church Fathers or even to more contemporary founders of Protestant strains like Martin Luther or John Wesley. Everything that comes to us does so by being filtered through particular lens and schools of thought, to say nothing of cultural prejudice. So, I happily acknowledge my Christianity is filtered through the lens of postliberalism.

Postliberalism was first articulated by Hans Frei, who was inspired by the work of the theologian Karl Barth (above), in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative.

Frei argued that modern conservative and liberal approaches to the Bible undermine the authority of scripture by locating the meaning of biblical teaching in some doctrine or worldview that is more foundational than scripture itself.

Prior to the Enlightenment, Christians read the Bible primarily as a “realistic” narrative that told the story of the world. That is, the coherence of the scripture story made figural interpretation possible. Jews and Christians made sense of their lives by viewing themselves as participating within the story told in scripture.

Frei argued that during the Enlightenment this sense of scripture as realistic narrative was lost. People’s own rational experience increasingly defined for them what was “real.” As a result, theologians sought to understand scripture by relating it to their own supposedly universal “reality.” They sought to determine the truth within scripture by translating it into the truer language of their own world.

Frei argued that because of the Enlightenment, Christians overlooked the narrative character of scripture.

Liberals looked for the real meaning of the Bible in the eternal truths about God and humanity, while conservative evangelicals looked for the real meaning in the Bible’s factual references.

Both lost sight of the priority of scripture as narrative. Scripture was no longer a story by which Christians narrated their lives. The Bible was turned into a source of support for modern narratives of progress or for doctrinal propositions.

As Frei writes:

”Interpretation was a matter of fitting the biblical story into another world with another story rather than incorporating that world into the biblical story.”

Postliberalism seeks a third way, apart from Protestant liberalism and from conservative evangelicalism, which itself is also theologically liberal.

Postliberalism asserts the the primacy of scriptural narrative for theology. The word narrative is key.

Scripture, after all, is primarily told through story not propositions; therefore, the truth conveyed in scripture isn’t rational- or rather its non-rational.

We’re story-telling animals made in the image of a God who communicates narratively and ‘truth’ is best apprehended through story not ‘fundamentals’ (Evangelicals) or rational facts universally accessible to all (Mainline Liberals). The ‘universally accessible’ point is key too. Postliberalism denies that such a thing as universal reason exists.

Religion is like language not math.

Christians and Muslims speak two different languages in which the words we use signify different things not the same, universal reality. The word ‘God’ for example connotes something much different to a Hindu than it does to a Jew.

This stress on language comes from George Lindbeck, who argued for a “cultural-linguistic” understanding of religion as opposed to the “cognitive-propositional” (Evangelical) and “experiential-expressive” (Mainline Liberal) approaches that have, he said, dominated theology during the modern age.

Liberal theologies are experiential-expressive in that they seek to ground religious language upon universal claims of human experience.

Evangelical theologies are cognitive-propositional; they claim that doctrinal statements directly or “literally” refer to reality.

Lindbeck pointed out how no religion can actually be understood in those terms. Religious traditions are historically shaped and culturally conditioned. They function instead, he said, more like language. So, christian doctrines should not be understood as universalistic propositions or as interpretations of a universal religious experience.

Doctrines are more like the rules of grammar that govern the way we use language to describe the world. Christian doctrine identifies the rules by which Christians use faith language to define the world in which we live. Quite simply, a non-Christian has no idea what Christians mean by the word ‘grace’ until they’ve been taught to speak Christian.

Because of this, rational arguments for Christian truth claims aren’t possible until one has learned through spiritual training how to speak the language of Christianity.

Incidentally, this is why my children’s sermons are never ‘object lessons’ but always a retelling of the scripture text.

They’ve got to learn the language before they can extrapolate ‘lessons’ from it.

Rather ‘translating’ scripture into secular categories- as liberalism does- postliberalism seeks to redescribe reality “within the scriptural framework.” If Christians allowed the story of the Bible to become their own story, says postliberalism, they would be less preoccupied with making Christianity relevant to the non-Christian world on non-Christian terms.

Like liberal theology, postliberalism takes for granted that the Bible is not infallible and that historical criticism of the bible is legitimate. Like evangelical theology, postliberalism emphasizes the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Because of its stress on the particularity of the scripture narrative, postliberalism emphasizes the role of the Church in forming people according to the story.

Because of its stress on the absolute saving uniqueness of Jesus Christ, postliberalism emphasizes the inherently peculiar, countercultural nature and mission of the church.

And this retrieval of the inherently counter-cultural nature of the church is how someone who is not a theological liberal may occasionally end up advancing what sounds like a politically liberal position. Put another way, it’s how someone who is not a theological liberal is not always reliably politically conservative.

To put it in post liberal terms:

Christians are people who speak a different language than the rest of the culture and country; therefore, it’s impossible for us to consistently fit into the categories culture and country give us.

Unless you were premature preparing for the coming snowstorm by drinking yourself into oblivion, chances are you already know the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, sent students at Liberty University into a spate of self-congratulatory titters this week by flubbing his wantonly staged zeal for scripture.

“Two Corinthians, 3:17, that’s the whole ballgame,” Trump said, not, as it’s said in nearly every congregation in North America, second Corinthians 3.17.

The verse in question says: ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’

Freedom, as in, liberty. Jerry Falwell’s school’s namesake.

Much gleeful criticism has been piled upon Donald Trump for unintentionally outing himself as an inauthentic evangelical, for so clumsily attempting ‘to close the sale’ among fundamentalists.

That all of the critique of Trump’s citation has centered around his mis-speaking a verse from Corinthians and exposing his pretense at piety speaks volumes, not about him but about the compromises American Christians make in order to have access to power (or normalcy).

Never mind for a second that the distinction between second Corinthians and two Corinthians gets at every thing I hate about the Christian subculture, who cares, really, whether Trump says ‘two’ or ‘second’ Corinthians? Its like laughing at him for not knowing how to hold his hands for communion or not knowing when to clap during ‘Lord, I Lift Your Name on High.’

I’m not usually sympathetic for The Donald but shouldn’t it be more cringe-worthy that so many political candidates, who aspire to lead the most powerful nation in the world, feel the need to speak at a school founded after a savior who was executed by the most powerful nation in the world?

What’s worse, really, a candidate who mis-states an epistle (that means letter) from the New Testament or a candidate whose surface gestures at Christian discipleship go unchallenged?

Snickers follow Trump’s profession of Presbyterianism, after all Trump is wealthy, pompous, possibly racist, and thrice married. But nothing- silence- follows those candidates who court Christians even though those candidates’ positions in no way correspond to the larger Church. Hillary supports both abortion in contradiction to her United Methodist faith. Marco, Kasich, Christie, and Jeb support the death penalty contrary to their Catholic Church. Don’t get me started on Ted, whose entire ‘carpet bomb ‘em,’ see-the-worst-in-everyone tone is dissonant to every strain of the gospel; meanwhile, all of the candidates minus Bernie and Rand espouse a preemptive militarism at odds with all of the Christian just war tradition.

I’ve read many conspiracy theories about how Trump is really a trojan horse for the Democrats, undermining the Republicans from the inside when, truly, his are just exaggerated versions of the falsehoods and pretenses that Christians accept from all candidates of both parties.

The giggles induced by Trump’s ‘Two Corinthians’ reveals more about us than it does The Donald.

rp_faith4.jpgStanley Hauerwas says the privatization of Christian faith, the reduction of it to belief and feeling, leads to absurd, unintelligible comments like:

‘I believe Jesus Christ is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’

More cringe-worthy than The Donald’s mispronunciation is how we expect little evidence other than the personal opinions of those candidates who cater votes by claiming Jesus as their Lord.

The thin veneer of discipleship with which we’re satisfied in candidates reveals much about the depth of our own.

Sticking to just the text in question, the back-patting cackling and self-satisfied criticism shouldn’t be about how Donald introduced II Corinthians 3.17 but about the fact that any politico in a place like Liberty would cite any verse from those 2 letters of Paul.

In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul sees a serious threat in the way their life and faith are oriented to what Fleming Rutledge calls ‘the wrong center.’ The verse Donald cited sounds nice and probably it did to Jerry Falwell too, but in that larger letter Paul is critiquing two states of mind.

On the one hand, Paul rails against the religiosity of the church-going Christians in Corinth. Paul accuses them of preferring religious experiences, sentimentality and kitsch, uplifting spiritual teachings, and practical, reasonable faith-based lessons. In other words, Paul chastises them for making discipleship about privatized feelings and beliefs rather than a contrary way of life.

On the other hand, Paul critiques the secular Corinthian culture, in which the church found itself, which privileged materialistic values, common-sense demonstrations of fact and the proofs of science.

I don’t think I’m off-base in suggesting that the former corresponds to Liberty’s civll-religion ethos while the former more pretty well captures the worldview of both Trump and his critics in the media.

Fleming Rutldge BandWhiteBoth rub against the grain of the cross. Against both, Fleming Rutledge suggests, Paul puts forth his argument that the word of the cross is a stumbling block (standalone) and foolishness to both the religious and the secular way of seeing the world,

Says Rutledge:

‘The cross is not a suitable object of devotion for religious people, and the claims made for it are too extreme to be acceptable to secular people.

It is the paradox of present-day American culture to be both religious and irreligious. We are secular and materialistic most of the time, but also so pious that candidates for president must stage photo-ops of themselves coming out of church. Paul’s word of the cross opposes all of this.’

imrs.phpThe theologian Robert Jenson complains:

‘The institution we call the church has been and usually still is one of the chief bulwarks we erect to defend our status quo against the threat of God.’

‘But,’ Jenson happily notes, ‘it is the oddity of the church that the communication- namely, the word of God, by which it lives fights against the stasis to which the church, like all communities and nations tend.’ 

As if to provide Jenson with anecdotal illustration of his critique, since this weekend’s terrorist attack in Paris a gaggle of governors and ostensible presidential candidates have volunteered to disqualify any refugees from being welcomed into our borders. Never mind that America could barely field a football team with the paltry number of refugees we’ve allowed up to this point.

That most of these politicos self-identify as conservative Christians and, in particular, cater to conservative Christians lead me to wonder these past few days exactly what bible they’re reading.

And then it dawned on me. Duh!

These governors been reading the Christmas story:

13 Now after the magi had departed, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee as refugees to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for the despot in your own land, Herod, is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’

14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and they sought refuge in Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod where, considering the violence in their homeland, they were viewed with suspicion, as dangerous and potential threats, and, though they were fleeing the very terror of which they were accused, were turned away in the name of security. This was would have been to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

16 When the despot Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he was infuriated, and he sent soldiers and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the magi. Tragic, to be sure, but since it took place faraway in a land far different from theirs most Egyptians could ignore the story, their consciences untroubled by having done nothing. ‘Those people’ are simply violent.

17 Then was would have been fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, but the Egyptians, by refusing to obey their obligations to their neighbors resisted the work of God in their midst. But God reconsidered, seeing things from the perspective of Egypt, and declared: ‘I see your point. What good is fidelity if you’re not alive to enjoy it?’

With Advent upon us and, with it, this text of terror, it would behoove Christians to recall that the God who commanded his People to care for the poor and the refugee among them (Exodus 23) became, in Jesus Christ, both poor and a refugee.

Of course, the rub is with that modifier ‘his People’ because those of us who count ourselves among God’s People have other obligations upon us than what the constitution permits and goals other than the pursuit of material happiness.

Sure, I’m no different than any of those red meat eating governors. Like Bobby Jindal, I’d prefer to feel secure in my community and, because I’m a sinner, aside from token expressions of concern, I’d rather remain safely distant from the problems and pain of the world. But, as Robert Jenson notes, I cannot because of the bible I read.

Perhaps it’s so obvious it doesn’t require comment, but the real tension exposed by the refugee question is the extent to which, for many of us, we’ve made being an ‘American’ equivalent to being a ‘Christian.’ If we’ve not made them equivalent, then the refugee crisis also reveals how, really, the former is more important to us than the latter. When push comes to shove, its the logic of country, not the gospel, that determines our speech and actions. In the name of security and ‘realism’ we excuse views contrary to the commandments. We do not declare that, because Christ is Risen, God will ultimately beat all our swords into ploughshares; therefore, we can take risks and welcome the stranger among us.

Not only are ‘American’ and ‘Christian’ not equivalent identities, they are, on more occasions than we care to countenance, conflictual identities.

While Americans have no primary task other than, each, the pursuit of our individual autonomy, the primary task of the baptized, as Stanley Hauerwas writes, is ‘to stand within the [violent] world witnessing to a peaceable Kingdom which reflects the right understanding of that very world.’ Even more important to our task as Christians is to remember that the peace to which we witness ‘is not something to be achieved by our power. Rather peace is a gift of God that comes only by our being a community formed around a crucified savior.’ 

Many Christians will object, as many of our presidential candidates do, that in the quote end quote real world we cannot afford the luxury of heeding the demands of our baptisms. Such objectors, however, forget, as only the comfortable can, that:

There is no morality that does not require others, including ourselves, to suffer for our convictions.

Christians who happen to live in America, then, seem to face an impossible dilemma between a posture of hospitality towards the stranger who may also be an enemy and a political crisis that seems to have no simple remedy beyond the nativist one. Fortunately, scripture does not ever command Christians to accomplish anything, for, if Jesus is Risen, it’s not up to us to make the world come out right. So the choice for Christians is not between doing nothing or attempting to do everything. The choice is the one put to the first disciples: ‘Follow me.’

And in following, in our ordinary attitudes and deeds and within our communities of faith, we trust that the world of violence might have its imagination freed for a Kingdom that, if Jesus is Risen, is in fact the ‘real world.’

Just as the kingdom of Egypt welcomed the holy family who were strangers among them, we witness to the Kingdom of God by welcoming strangers as if they were the holy family.

Or, I suppose, we could just complain about coffee cups on social media.

Letter to Seminary Me

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2015 — 4 Comments

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111111.jpgSeptember 10, 2015

Dear Jason,

The leaves are beginning to yellow and the morning air starting to cool, which means you still have years to go. You’re only a few weeks into your seminary experience and already- trust me, I know- you’re overwhelmed.

By feelings of inadequacy. Suspicions fed by the fact that all of your classmates appear to hail from either Texas or Wheaton (sometimes both, in succession) and, thus, were called by God to the ordained ministry when they were still carrying their Hardy Boys lunch boxes with them to the second grade.

And you- I won’t tell anyone- you’re still not sure if you’re called.

In fact, the word itself, ‘called,’ secretly embarrasses you, smacking as it does of certainty and solid conviction.

I won’t lie, Jason, and tell you you’re more than adequate for the ministry. You’re not, truth be told and the intervening years between you and me will only bear that out in sometimes painful ways. In the years to come that sense of inadequacy will revisit you every time you catch the congregation’s reflection in the rounded edge of the brass communion cup or whenever you realize how fleeting and short-lived are sermons. Ministry will strike you often as ill-fitting as your oatmeal colored robe which weekly will make you feel like an imposter, play-acting at someone with more faith and virtue than you.

The truth is, however, you’re more adequate for ministry than you are for Teach for America, law school, or working on a dude ranch out west- endeavors for which you’ll be submitting applications before your first semester of seminary comes to a close. No seriously you will, convinced as you are that ministry is a terrible mistake, either God’s or your’s.

I may not know you as well as I think I do (you’ll soon discover that’s painfully true of almost all clergy), but I do know you better than any other creature so I know you’re going to be less eager to hear this than I am to confess it: you’re not perfect. And here’s the deeper cut: you’re not nearly as smart as you think.

You’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them.

It’s the furthest thing from your radar now, given that in a few weeks you’ll be checking to see if your LSAT scores remain viable, but in a few months time the bishop, who will be up shit creek without any other options, will ask you to pastor a small but actual church.

Doubtless you’ve already heard the cliche about seminary, about how seminary doesn’t prepare you for ministry. It’s true in the spirit in which the critique is made. Seminary equips you to parse pistis Christou and to unpack bold-faced but dusty terms like perichoresis, yet seminary is surprisingly mum about the practical, nuts and bolts of herding a church and, more vexing, church people to the next step in their life.

Allow me.

Perhaps you can learn from and avoid the gaffes I’ve made. 

For example, if kindly old ladies with good intentions but palsied hands insist on filling those ridiculous little communion cups themselves, then suggest they need to do so at the altar instead of far away in the sacristy. Their shakey hands carrying stacks of tiny cups from such a distance all but guarantees that some of the wine- I mean, grape juice- will spill, sealing the heavy brass lid to the trays containing the cups.

When you preside at the table the next morning and solemnly attempt to lift the lid from the blood or our savior you will, for a chilling second or four, lift high both the cross-topped lid and 5 brass trays of thimble sized chalices until the collective weight of the messiah’s blood breaks the sugary seal, spilling red off-brand Welch’s all over the embroidered white altar cloth and making it appear as though you’d just repeated a once-for-all sacrifice and desanguinated Christ on that very table.

Speaking of the sacrament-

When you allow your congregation to don bathrobes and perform a Holy Thursday drama ‘for the community’ (i.e., their wives and grandchildren) against your instincts (it is a bad idea) then at the very least insure that the bread if not unleavened is not from the crunchy, dreadlocked, organic bakery adjacent to your church. For when Jesus, the soon-to-be-fatally-betrayed Passover, takes that bread and delivers his lines and breaks the bread, the somber mood of self-sacrifice easily will be ruined by the ping, ping, ping BB sound of 15 varieties of seeds, nuts and flax falling from the honey lacquered crust onto the silver tray.

You’re going to make mistakes.

When you get to be my age, Jason, you’ll realize that some of your missteps aren’t so much mistakes as things just look different with a longer view of them.

Give it a dozen years and you’ll see how an even bigger cliche than the one about seminary not preparing students for ministry is the cliched anti-institutionalism that determines so much of your cynical posture towards the big-C Church.

By the time you’re my age the curtain will have been pulled back and you’ll be forced to admit that the big-C Church is led by people no different than you and who may be even more well-meaning than you. Of course, don’t tell anyone I told you. The last thing the big-C Church needs is more accommodating company men who mistake the organization for the mission.

Even some of what seminary does teach you, it does so only partially.

Seminary will prepare you to offer words other than ‘it’s going to okay’ the first time you encounter a sobbing mother holding her third grade boy in his hospital bed as the reassuring beeps on his monitors grow ever longer.

Seminary will teach you even how to reflect on why ‘it’s going to be okay’ is a profoundly unChristian lie to tell, but seminary won’t prepare you for how overpowering will be the temptation to offer some such lie that will at least comfort you.

If even this warning isn’t enough to avoid the lie when the moment comes to you, then brace yourself for the slap that mother rightly will deliver across your scared, shit-eating grin. Really, maybe its best if you don’t avoid what I could not, such humbling I suspect is necessary if you’re to depend upon what you insist your parishioners give in their own lives: grace, a mercy and kindness that’s in no way deserved.

Don’t worry. Not all your gaffes will be so heavy.

For instance, when the psych test required by the ordination process raises a so-called ‘red flag’ by implying that you ‘may have difficulty working with women’ its probably best if you not reply to the ordination committee that you ‘get along great with chicks and can work fine with the dames so long as you don’t have to beat them off with a stick.’ 

And when you see the equal parts horror and disgust register across their collective gasp, don’t try to make it better by opining that ‘a self-serious lack of sense of humor could also be a red flag…’

I’m giving you pearls here, Jason.

And when you’re inspired to write a blog post one day (you’ll learn what a blog is) about the audacity of the doctrine of the incarnation entitled ‘Jesus Farts,’ don’t.

Even if the offense taken and the pious outrage feigned registers all the way up to the bishop and only goes to prove your point that docetism is a heresy alive and well in American Christendom, the juice is not worth the squeeze.

And when an exiting worshipper smiles and, for the first time in your ministry, tells you ‘Your sermon was great…you remind me of Joel Osteen…I just love him’ I’d suggest you just smile and thank her.

Just like Joel O would do.

As ridiculous as the comparison is (I hope), it won’t be the only time you’ll receive such feedback and, take it from me, most people don’t know how to react when you respond with ‘Joel Osteen is a crypto-pagan, heretical snake oil salesman only the worship of America could produce.’ 

Live and learn, Jason, but don’t kid yourself about the big mistakes.

They’re not seminary’s fault.

The truth is you’ll become a pastor not long after you became a Christian. You’ll still be working out your faith even as people look to you for answers and, more ridiculously, pay you to sound like you know what the hell you’re saying.

As a result, in the beginning at least, you’ll put on the role of pastor like an ill-fitting costume and play at someone you think you’re expected to be rather than be yourself.

You’ll search for a pulpit voice to go with that robe and underneath both you’ll stash away your authenticity. You’ll avoid expressing your actual thoughts and opinions. You’ll bite your tongue on the words, four lettered and all, that come quickest to you. You’ll hide the scars that could be lessons to teach others. Because, you’ll presume, that’s what pastors do.

Pastors put on Christ and, in putting him on, they cover up their true selves.

Only after you’ve spent enough time in one place, where of course the real you eventually will seep out, will you realize how people (even- especially- church people) seem to prefer the real you. Prefer pastors being real.

I’m not sure the world needs more pastors, no matter what the demographics say, but I am convinced the world does not need more inauthentic ones. I’ve learned that the hard way. Perhaps you won’t need to now.

Another result of your ordination following so soon after your confirmation is that it’s only after you’ve lived for a dozen years or so as a Christian that you’ll begin to have the appropriate patience for others who’ve done the same or longer. Only then will you cease being so judgmental and uncompromising about the faith (you are), for you will have learned that if Christianity could be lived in this world fully and without compromise or corner-cutting then we wouldn’t need Christ.

In that due time you’ll realize that when Christ commands you to love your enemies he’s not primarily speaking of those abstract enemies on the far side of the world whom you’ll only ever encounter on the pages of the Washington Post.

I think he’s meaning someone like the parishioner who will write complaints about you to the bishop and pass around petitions against for the bishop but who nevertheless will put one hand in the other and reach out to receive the host from your hand. The former form of enemy love requires only finger-wagging moralism and maybe a political ideology that’s already comfortable for you. The latter, to your chagrin,  requires discipleship.


But in time you’ll discover a willingness to carry it because you’ll accept that, as Stanley Hauerwas says:

‘…the church is constituted by ordinary people. By ordinary I simply mean people who [attempt to] keep their promises. They are ordinary people keeping ordinary promises, and it is just such people who make the church the church.’

It wouldn’t be my plan for the salvation of the world, but it’s apparently God’s plan and it requires patience, on his end and ours.

Knowing you as well as I do, Jason, I’d say patience isn’t a bad catch all bit of advice for you as I have it on good authority (your future wife) that you can be a know-it-all jackass.

One of the effects of your smarty pants bearing, of believing you always have the right answer and thinking you know how best to express it, is that in the years to come you’ll be impatient with those unlike you. And in ministry you’ll often grouse about how so few church people can articulate what they believe about God and where God’s work (aka: the Holy Spirit) intersects with their own lives.

Let’s be honest, Jason, the last place you’d ever want to work is a church where people are aggressively articulate about their faith, where they hyperventilate ‘Fatherweejus’ prayers and volunteer how ‘the Lord laid it on my heart…’

And, regardless, eventually you’ll wonder if maybe all this time you’ve mistaken people’s reticence about their faith for a lack of thoughtfulness or conviction. Maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe all those people you judged to be inarticulate already knew something you will only learn once you learn you have cancer. Maybe, as Peter DeVries writes:

‘…only the superficial and the slipshod have ready answers’ when it comes to suffering and God and his evidently incomplete work in the world.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘WTF? Did he just drop the C-word on me and then move on, without comment, to a cryptic quote from an obscure book I’ve never read?!’ 

I did, sorry.

But you will. Read it. After you learn you have it.

You’ll read just about every cancer book you can find. You’ll pore over them like you’ve just made an unexpected career change from ministry to cancer because as soon as you hear you’re stage serious sick and just after your oncologist tells you for the first time ‘There’s no cure…the best we can hope for is a long remission’ it will seem as though you’ve been given a job you’re completely unqualified and unprepared to perform.

Actually, there’s no ‘as thoughs.’ That’s exactly how it feels.

I know. As Rob complains to his Mom in High Fidelity: ‘That’s some cold shit.’ Sorry to bear bad news to you, but I think it’s better if you hear it from me first than from the kindly, clumsy doctor who first broke the news to me in stuttering, half-step sentences that set off weeks of panic attacks in me.


And then try not to worry too much about it. You’ve got plenty of time before then. Besides the doctors all tell me there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent your particular brand of cancer; trust me, I must’ve asked them a hundred times by now. So don’t go raiding the vitamin aisle or eating organic.

It’s just one of those things. Explain it how you will: a defect ground down deep in the DNA, the will of God, bad luck or bad karma, shit happens. Either way, the game of life has dealt you a piss poor card, but yours can still be a winning hand.

Silver lining-

When the sword does fall and the C-word jumbles all the puzzle pieces that comprise life as you will know it, you will meet that day with few meaningful regrets. If not now then later that will strike you as gravy.

More so than the stab of regret, what cancer will inject into your life is perspective, as fresh as it is swift.

The philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, perhaps the ablest critic of Christianity, charged that we view God through the eyes of our tribe, our culture and tradition, and our personal wants and needs; so that, God becomes the personal projection of our id in the sky, believing what we believe, blessing those causes we support, cursing those we curse, abiding the contours of our independently achieved ideology.

Karl Barth, who by next semester will become one of your Mt Rushmore theologians, found Feuerbach’s critique sound. Sinful as we are, when Christians speak of God, Barth concurred, we’re most often speaking of ourselves in a loud voice.

Like Barth, Feuerbach’s criticism will strike you immediately as revealing more truth about Christianity than Christians would like to confess.

There is much self-love (to say nothing of self-justification) disguised beneath much of our love of God talk.

Feuerbach is right to charge that much of our theology is actually anthropology, and Barth is right to thunder that in remaking God according to our image we forsake the true God who loves in freedom, whose power is weakness, and who cannot be found but must find us.

They’re both right so far as it goes, yet lately I wonder if there’s weakness latent in both their indictments.

I wonder if a more positive construal of Feuerbach’s critique could be to say that our personal experience gives us a vantage onto God to which we wouldn’t be privy otherwise. A view that others from their perch maybe cannot see.

Rather than fashioning God in our image, I wonder if you could argue instead that each of us sees a piece of God from our patch of the world he’s created and from the front seat of the life he’s unfolding for us.

Cancer, in other words, gives me a perspective on my faith I didn’t have prior to it.

Rather than remaking God in my likeness (though I’m with Barth- I do that plenty), I think my experience these past 8 months, 7 nadirs and 40 odd days of chemo-poison allow me to see something of God I could not have seen before.

Something you cannot see yet, Jason.

Without intending it, in the years to come, you will shortchange the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, emphasizing in its place the prophetic, social justice work that landed Jesus there.

If you’re honest (you won’t be) your selective focus will owe in part to the fact that you don’t think the world or the Church needs another preacher preaching ad tedium on the blood of the cross, and, less defensible, your emphasis will owe to the most loathsome sort of tribalism. You won’t want to be counted among those kinds of preachers. Those kinds of Christians.

The be-all of discipleship isn’t inviting Christ in to your heart. Its end-all isn’t your personal salvation. The means to get there, discipleship or heaven, isn’t by contemplating the suffering of Christ…you will preach in some form nearly every Sunday.

Discipleship, you will press and not let up, is about doing the things that Jesus did in the way that Jesus did them: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, lifting up the lowly and forgiving the enemy, dispensing grace and speaking the truth to power and using words (only) when necessary.

Discipleship, you will preach and teach, requires rolled-up sleeves and dirty hands, for following Jesus is all about stooped-over foot washing. And you’ll emphasize this definition of discipleship not just in your preaching but in how you allot your time, how you design programs for the church and how you conceive of its mission.

Now that I feel a shell of myself, with thinned out blood and an off balance brain and verities I once took for granted gone, I can see how incomplete and partial has been my take on the faith.

In admitting I’ve shortchanged the significance of Christ’s suffering on the cross, I’m not suggesting that Christ’s cross is a symbol for the ineffable mystery of suffering. I don’t believe there’s anything inexplicable at all about the cross.

It is simple. He lived a fully human life, the life God desires of each of us, and we- the world, the Principalities and Powers, humanity, you and me- killed him for it. There’s no mystery there, or, at least, not the mystery we like to ponder before the cross while quieting exonerating ourselves from it.

Here’s what I mean when I say that I’ve shortchanged Christ’s suffering and here’s what I can see from the chemo chair:

How do the ill participate in the ministry of Christ?

Or the dying?

Because if we take seriously the fact that we’re baptized into Christ’s suffering and death- not just deputized to continue his earthly (healthy) ministry- then those 3 hours on the cross are every bit as integral to discipleship as the compassionate, prophetic ministry that landed him there.

Only now, with stage-serious cancer, do I recognize how for over a dozen years I’ve circumscribed discipleship in such a way that excludes people like the person I presently am.

When it comes to you, Jason, this question will hit with the equal and opposite force of that aforementioned mother’s slap:

How do the sick participate in Christ’s ministry?

Never say Jesus lacks a sense of humor- even if his followers frequently do- because I think the answer for how we think of discipleship lies in your least favorite chunk of scripture: 1 Corinthians 12 and 13.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body…For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…”

In the years to come, you will spend considerable time attempting to dissuade brides and grooms from using this passage in their wedding ceremonies, especially the ‘love is patient…’ pericope which concludes it. You’ll point out how Paul’s not speaking to individuals in 1 Corinthinans and especially not to love stuck couples about to be married. Paul’s addressing the gathered community, the church, the Body of Christ.

When it comes headstrong brides and indifferent grooms, 9 times out of 10 your persuasive efforts will prove futile.

But as much time as you will expend steering people away from this passage, you will spend surprisingly little time reflecting on it, which I can now see is a shame. Because if each of us are parts of Christ’s Body only, individual, discrete parts- a hand here, an ear there, an eye- then it stands to reason that we’re called to, responsible for, just a part of Christ’s ministry, imitating that part of Jesus’ life our situation in life allows.

Let someone else speak Truth to Power.

Someone else can roll up their sleeves and clothe the naked.

I’ve freaking got cancer.

I don’t have the energy to feed the hungry.

And, frankly, I don’t have the peace of mind right now to be a peacemaker.

But if Paul’s right, then me facing my illness and suffering with my imperfect approximation of Jesus’ ‘Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit’ is every bit an authentic expression of discipleship as serving at a homeless shelter or extending grace to a prodigal.

Instead of saying we’re only responsible for a part of Christ’s ministry, perhaps its better to put it this way: God doesn’t need us to live Jesus’ life; Jesus already lived the life God gave him. We’re called to live this life, our particular life, the life God’s given us, as Jesus might live it if he were us.

The question is not: how can I be just like Jesus given the particularities and pressures of my life?

The question is: who would you be if Jesus were you, with all the particularities and pressures of your life?

Who would you be if your life (with cancer and fear, pain and panic attacks) was the life God gave Jesus to live?

In time, Jason, you’ll discover how that’s as relevant a question for pastors as it is for every one else.



Of the disciples fleeing Jesus’ execution, theologian Stanley Hauerwas writes:

‘The disciples have not yet understood the radical character of Jesus’ Kingdom that would challenge the violence of the world by refusing to respond to it on the world’s own terms…What they failed to understand was that Jesus is more radical than those who rebel against Rome or other empires using the force of arms. Rome knows how to deal with those who oppose it on its own terms. What Rome and all empires fear are those who refuse its terms of battle.

Jesus has more time than Rome to engage in the world of calling into existence a people who have learned to live trusting in the righteousness of God.’

Faithfulness, Hauetwas argues, is fundamentally about patience, a commitment to work in this world confident that, in Jesus Christ, God has already disclosed to us the way of the world.

My friend, Brian Stolarz, knows about patience; consequently, whether he’d own up to it or not, he knows more than most about faithfulness to God’s righteousness. He also knows, thanks to yours truly, that in scripture righteousness is just another word for justice. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that I count Brian one of those gifts with whom cancer has given me the chance to nurture a deeper friendship; he’s been there for me.

Just as he’s been there for others:

As I’ve blogged about before, Brian spent a decade working to free an innocent man, Alfred Dwayne Brown, from death row in Texas.

Alfred Dewayne Brown had been convicted of a cop-killing in Houston. Despite a lack of any forensic evidence, he was sentenced to be killed by the State on death row.

Brown’s IQ of 67, qualifying him as mentally handicapped, was ginned up to 70 by the state doctor in order to qualify him for execution. This wasn’t the only example of prosecutorial abuse in the case.

You can read the previous posts about Brian’s work and watch our dialogue sermon from last summer here here and here.


Since the analytics tell me that many of you followed the story on the blog, I’m happy to post that Brian sent me giddy texts yesterday afternoon letting me know his patience had finally paid off. After having his conviction dismissed earlier this year, Texas finally released Alfred to his family last evening.


And what’s amazing, and fitting to Hauerwas’ observation above, is that Alfred is not angry. Despite the time lost for him and the time sacrificed by Brian, God has given us more time in resurrection to live lives worthy of the Kingdom.

You can read last night’s story about Brown’s release here.

The reporter for the Houston Chronicle, by the way, who helped bring publicity to Alfred’s case by relying on Brian’s work, won a Pulitzer this year.

Here’s a video of Alfred’s release. If you understood Hauerwas’ quote above, then you’ll know it’s an Easter video.