Archives For Stanley Hauerwas

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.

Therefore-

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.

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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.

Cross-bearing.

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.

Breathe.

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.

Blessings,

Jason

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.

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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.

 

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here’s a Memorial Day weekend sermon from the vault. The text was a smattering of verses from Colossians 1 and 2.

The argument I attempted to make in the sermon is indebted to two books I recommend:

 Lt Col Dave Grossman’s On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society  

Stanley Hauerwas’ War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity

Central to Hauerwas’ work is the assertion that war presents a powerful counter-liturgy to the Cross that the Church must always reframe in light of the Cross and Resurrection. Such reframing is what I attempted to do in the sermon.

My Grandpa died this spring, just before Holy Week.

Maybe it’s because I preach so many funerals, but I’ve learned that when it comes to death this paradox is true: while no amount of words can ever do justice to a person’s life, sometimes a single sentence can encapsulate the essence of a person.

The paradox is true in my Grandpa’s case.

If you want to get a sense of my Grandpa, a sense of who he was and how he was to the world around him, then really you just need to learn my Grandpa’s favorite joke.

     “Why don’t they send donkeys to college?”

Answer: “Because no one likes a smart-ass.”

That my Grandpa had occasion to repeatedly tell this joke to me will probably not surprise anyone.

I remember once when I was a boy we were eating burgers at a diner near the stockyard where my Grandpa had been buying some cattle, and I remember I’d said something snarky and sarcastic, and my Grandpa responded by saying ‘Remember, Jason, why they don’t send donkeys to college.”

And little elementary-aged me replied innocently: ‘Gee, Grandpa, did they come up with that policy after you went to college?’

And my Grandpa stared at me and then slowly knit his eyebrows and then like a tire with too much air he suddenly burst out laughing and pounded the table as if to say:

Like Grandfather, like grandson.

My Grandpa went to Drexel in Philadelphia for college, an opportunity made possible by the GI Bill. My Grandpa was part of what Tom Brokaw called the ‘greatest generation,’ a description that embarrassed my Grandpa.

My Grandpa fought in the Pacific in World War II.

He never spoke about the war, which sort of taught me never to ask about it.

He only spoke about it to me once, in fact. So rare was it that the memory has always stuck with me.

I was in Middle School and, after my Grandma moved into a nursing home, my Grandpa moved out of their big, brick Georgian in Downtown Norfolk and into a condo .

The moves rearranged all the familiar furniture and knick-knacks. Thus, hanging on the wall in the new condo was something I’d never seen before. A medal.

‘How’d you get that?’ I asked him, pointing to the medal.

‘Ah,’ he waved it off, not saying anything

I just stood there, waiting for more of an explanation behind the medal. But none was coming.

So I asked him- what it was like, being in the war.

And I remember, he looked at me like you do when you want to warn a little kid away from touching a hot stove and he said:

‘What was it like? Scary as hell.’

chagall

In his Letter to the Colossians, St Paul makes the audacious claim that on the Cross Christ has made peace.

That the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross was a sacrifice not simply for our individual sin but rather the Cross was a triumph- a Roman military term- over all the Powers of Sin and Death (with a capital P, S and D).

Paul says here in Colossians what the Book of Hebrews means when it says that the blood of the Cross is a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice that eliminates the necessity for any further, future sacrifices.

Including the sacrifice of war.

In other words, what Paul and Hebrews are getting at is the counter-intuitive claim that Christians are people who believe that war has been abolished- a claim that would seem to be rendered false by something as simple as that medal on my Grandpa’s wall, whatever he earned it for.

     Christians, Paul is claiming, believe that war has been abolished.

The grammar of that is very important; the past tense is the point.

It’s not that Christians work for the end of war. It’s that Christians live recognizing that in the Cross of Christ war has already been abolished, that Christ has made peace.

But what does that even mean?

After all, many of you know first hand as my Grandpa did that war is anything but absent from our world and sometimes its presence is unavoidable.

So what does it mean to believe that on the Cross Christ abolished war?

To believe that on the Cross Christ has made peace once-and-for-all means that we live as faithfully as we can to that reality even though the “real world” doesn’t seem to corroborate what we confess.

But to live and believe what scripture tells us about Christ’s Cross begs the question, especially this weekend:

 How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has abolished war?

Notice- the suggestion is not that it’s wrong for Christians to observe Memorial Day.

Instead the suggestion is that how we observe Memorial Day should be different from how others observe it.

Others who haven’t pledged allegiance to Christ the King.

A King who established his Kingdom by giving his life rather than resort to taking life.

How we observe Memorial Day should be different from how non-Christians celebrate it.

Because non-Christians are not caught in the tension between remembering those who’ve died in war and remembering that we believe on the Cross Christ has won a once-for-all peace.

That tension- it’s been with Christians from the very beginning.

For instance, for the first 3 1/2 centuries of the Church’s history soldiers could not be baptized until after they resigned their commission, a position the Church changed when they decided that sometimes responsible citizenship demands war as a last resort.

The tension has been with the Church from the very beginning.

For example, in the Middle Ages the Church recognized that one of the dangers of war is that we forget who and whose we are.

So during the Middle Ages the Church insisted that during feudal wars certain days on the calendar be set aside- called the Truce of God- when the warring parties would cease and desist, abstain from all violence.

The Truce of God was the Church’s way of reminding Christians that even when war is a necessity and peace is not possible our ultimate identity and loyalty remains.

To the Prince of Peace.

I remember my Grandpa giving me that ‘don’t get too close to the fire’ look when I asked him what it was like, being in war.

And in an almost confessional tone he said: ‘Scary as hell.’

‘Scary because you thought you might die?’ stupid, Middle School-aged me asked.

‘No’ he said ‘scary because I thought I might have to kill.’

Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the fear my Grandpa gave voice to was the same aversion General SLA Marshall observed in his study of men in battle in the Second World War.

 

General Marshall discovered that of every hundred men along a line of fire, during battle only about 15-20 of them would take part by actually firing their weapons at another human being.

The other 80-85% would do everything they could (short of betray their comrades) to not kill.

This led General Marshall to conclude that the average, healthy individual has:

“such an inner and usually unrealized resistance to killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life if it is at all possible to turn away from that responsibility.”

General Marshall’s observation is not, I think, a psychological insight- at least, it’s not only a psychological insight.

It is, I think, a theological one.

I believe it’s a theological insight that we heard confirmed in scripture today.

Many assume that the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is the sacrifice of their lives, to lay down their lives for us, and, obviously, that is a great and grave sacrifice.

But I think the argument of scripture and General Marshall’s study invites us to see it differently.

The Book of Genesis tells us that each of us- we’re made in the image of God.

But then Colossians 1 tells us what the prologue of John’s Gospel tells us:

That Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

Jesus is the logic, John says, of God made flesh.

Speaking of logic, scripture gives us a simple formula:

We are made in God’s image

Jesus is the image of the invisible God

Therefore:

We are made in Jesus’ image.

We’re made, created, hard-wired, meant to be like Jesus.

That’s what St. Paul means he calls Jesus the 2nd Adam. We’re created with a family resemblance to Christ. We’re made in Jesus’ image.

And Jesus would rather die than kill. And so would we.

You see,

If we believe the Bible, if we believe that we’re made in Christ’s image then that means the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is not the sacrifice of their lives, great as such a sacrifice may be.

No, if we’re made in Christ’s image, then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops is to sacrifice their innate unwillingness to kill.

For us.

If we’re made in Christ’s image then the ultimate sacrifice we ask of our troops isn’t the giving of their lives, it’s to sacrifice their God-given unwillingness to take life.

Too often liberals use Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies and turning cheeks and putting away swords for moralistic, finger-wagging.

That we should oppose this or that war because we should be more like Jesus.

But- politics aside- that kind of finger-wagging, I think, is to get it exactly wrong. Or backwards.

Because the claim of St. Paul and the Gospel isn’t that we should be like Jesus.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are like Jesus. Already. More so than we believe. We’re made in his image.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we are not natural born killers.

We’re created to bless those who curse us, and to love our enemies.

It’s in the family DNA.

The claim of St. Paul and the Gospel is that we’re made in Christ’s image. We’re designed to lay down our lives rather than take life.

And so when we ask our fellow citizens, when we ask our children, to (potentially) take life, we’re asking for a far greater sacrifice than just their lives.

We’re asking them to sacrifice what it means for them to be made in God’s image; we’re asking them to sacrifice their Christ-like unwillingness to kill.

For us.

And that’s a sacrifice whose tragedy is only compounded when our soldiers return home from war and we expect them to allow us to applaud them at baseball games but not to tell us about we’ve asked them to do.

That our troops are willing to make such a sacrifice for us is what the Church calls grace- a gift not one of us deserves.

That we perpetuate a world that makes such a sacrifice necessary- when the message of the Cross is that it’s not– that’s what the Church calls sin.

But I still haven’t answered my original question:

How should we observe Memorial Day as followers of Christ?

How do we observe Memorial Day such that we neither dishonor those who’ve died nor dilute our commitment to the King we believe has already won peace?

During the Crusades, wars in which the Church played no small part, when soldiers returned home from the Holy Land they would abstain from the sacrament of holy communion for a year or more.

Even during the Crusades there was an understanding that though the act of war may be necessary and justified, the actions of war nonetheless harm our humanity.

They do damage- not just to the enemy- but to the image of Christ within us.

And so before returning soldiers would receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the sacrament of communion, they would undergo the sacrament of reconciliation in order to restore the image of Christ within them.

The Crusades are seldom cited as a good example of anything, but, in this case, I believe they have something to teach us, particularly when it comes to thinking Christianly about Memorial Day.

Because the Crusaders- for all their other faults- understood that our God-given, Christ-like unwillingness to take life is the ultimate sacrifice of war.

But they also understood that that ultimate sacrifice is not ultimate.

As in, it’s not final.

It can be healed. Reconciled. Restored.

And, as Christians, that’s what we should remember when we remember those who’ve died in war.

Because, after all, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to an abstract ideal (like ‘Freedom’) nor by pointing to something finite and temporal (like a nation).

Nor do Christians even make sense of death by saying the dead are ‘in a better place now.’

No.

Christians make sense of death by pointing to the promise of Resurrection.

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Christians make sense of death by pointing to Resurrection promise that what God does with Jesus at Easter, God will one day do with each of us, with all who have died and with all of creation.

All will be raised. All will be redeemed. All will be restored.

Such that, on that Resurrection Day, scripture tells us ‘mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

In other words, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day all the harm done to our humanity will be healed, even- especially- the damage done by the sacrifice of war.

You see, the process of restoration that the Crusaders practiced when they returned home- it was a snapshot of our larger Resurrection hope.

Because, of course, Christians make sense of death not by pointing to a faraway Heaven we’ll fly away to some glad morning.

No, Christians make sense of death by pointing to the Resurrection promise that one day, the last day, Heaven will come down to Earth. God will dwell with us. And all of creation will be restored.

All things will be made new. Not all new things will be made.

All things will be made new again.

That means the promise of Resurrection is not just that the sacrifice we’ve asked our soldiers to endure will be restored.

It also means that whatever measures they took in this life for justice or peace are not lost but will be taken up by God and used as building blocks for the City of God.

And so, really, the best way for Christians to observe Memorial Day is to do so the same way we celebrate every Sunday- in the mystery of faith:

Christ has died– making peace on his Cross.

Christ is Risen– to be a sign of the restoration God will bring to all of us.

Christ will come again– when the good we’ve done in this world will become a part of God’s New Creation.

10298920_755385354493797_5903881420284807_nTo my surprise, the fall out from Chris Christie’s recent exuberantly bootlicking comments about vaccinations has stuck in my craw. Never a science guy, issues of public health do not normally get my blood flowing nor am I even riled by the staggering incongruity between the current measles (note: not ebola) epidemic and Christie’s claptrap.

No, what’s vexed me, even before I came across the FB pic above, is the repeated insinuation by some many that abstention from vaccination is justifiable on the grounds that vaccinations cause autism. Never mind that this is a bogeyman belief has about as much science behind as creationism, such ‘justification’ in no small way implies that the spread of deadly, agonizing, possibly pandemic diseases is to be preferred to children with cognitive disabilities.

For a number of years my girlfriend now wife worked with children with autism so perhaps I’m especially sensitive, but I don’t think so.

I don’t think so though. I am, after all, a Christian.

You’d never know it from the Red/Blue, Left/Right soundbites we trade over issues like abortion, but the Christian ethic is distinct. Christians do not simply take positions, weigh means and ends, or obey moral prohibitions.

Christians are called to make visible an alternative reality we term in our tribal jargon ‘The Kingdom.’

Christians are to embody something that is otherwise invisible to the Chris Christies and __________________ (insert bloviating liberal’s name) of the world.

What too often gets mirco-focused as Christianity’s opposition to abortion is only the negative side to a more positive, comprehensive and theological ethic: the community’s openness to new life and welcome of all life as gift .

Christianity’s welcome of children is a way that the Christian community makes visible our belief in God’s faithfulness.

No matter how the Republican platform reads, it’s not simply that Christian are required to obey moral prohibitions- scripture contains no explicit prohibition on abortion. Rather, the Christian community is one that is always open and ready to the possibility of new life, not simply because abortion is wrong but because our openness and willingness to accept all life as gift makes visible the invisible, ongoing power of the Resurrection.

Christians have no illusions about how difficult much of life can be. Such illusions are an impossibility if Christians are truly engaged on behalf of the marginalized and forgotten. Nonetheless, Christians persists in welcoming- all- children because such openness becomes our sign of hope that the God of Easter is a God who refuses to abandon creation to its present darkness.

Indeed our openness to all forms of life owes to our recognition that:

The God who took flesh in Jesus is a God who most often reveals himself to us through the stranger.

And to us ‘normal’ people, there is often no stranger person than the person with autism.

Contrary to the hysteria, then, Christians do not see persons with autism as people to be pitied. As much as the Samaritan or Christ himself, they are strangers bearing the grace of God.

Christians believe they bear the gifts of God because it’s most precisely with those we cannot control, anticipate or manipulate that we best learn how to love. People with autism and other disabilities bear gifts exactly because they force us to learn how to love on terms other than our own. In this way, our love, even more so than our welcoming posture, becomes a sign of God’s fidelity.

As Stanley Hauerwas states with great beauty: rp_faith4.jpg

“Children, the weak, the ill, the dispossessed provide a particularly intense occasion for such love, as they are beings we cannot control. We must love them for what they are rather than what we want or wish them to be, and as a result we discover that we are capable of love…the different between the non-Christian and the Christian is only that what is a possibility for the non-Christian is a duty for the Christian.”

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

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

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

4. What Does ‘Christ’ Mean?

Christ is Jesus’ last name.

No.

To the extent people hear ‘Christ’ as Jesus’ last name, they’re unable to decipher the Gospel story the way the evangelists intended it to be received.

‘Christós’ is the Greek for which the Hebrew is מָשִׁ֫יחַ (mashiach) for which the Latin is ‘Caesar’ for which our English is ‘King.’

To call Jesus ‘Christ’ therefore is to obey him over and against the kingdoms and nations of this world.

This is why the evangelists all in their way introduce their Gospel (itself a Roman political term) as the Gospel not of Augustus the Christ but of Jesus the Caesar, and this is why they all characterize their narratives as ones of inevitable conflict and confrontation.

Calling Jesus ‘Christ’ is shorthand for recalling how the Passion story depicts a clash of Kingdoms: Jesus the King versus Augustus the Christ- and Herod and Pilate who served him.

In addition, the title ‘King’ points out how the difference between Jesus and Caesar is not one of ends but of means.

After all, according to the heavenly host in Luke’s Gospel, the end signaled by Jesus’ birth is no different than the end won by Caesar: Peace on Earth.

‘Glory in the highest…peace on those whom his favor rests…’ Those words on the angels’ lips were originally an imperial announcement- a Gospel- about Caesar.

Caesar had established peace.

By the sword.

So, to call Jesus ‘Christ’ is to acknowledge that he brings what the nations of this world promise to bring but that Jesus brings it about through very different means.

Mercy not sacrifice. Forgiveness not fear. Enemy love not violence.

In other words, calling Jesus the ‘Christ’ should remind us of the Church’s very first Easter proclamation: that God had vindicated the executed Jesus by raising him from the dead and promoting him to the right hand of the Father.

To call Jesus ‘Christ’ today is to confess his Lordship.

To call Jesus ‘Christ’ is to profess that he is King over all of God’s world and demands from his disciples our pledge of allegiance.

Jesus answered, ‘My Kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to this King’s voice.’ 

– John 18.37

How I’m Voting Tomorrow

Jason Micheli —  November 3, 2014 — 6 Comments

Yeah, sorry for the tease, but I don’t think so.

With the polls closing tomorrow here’s some pastoral, Kingdom-focused wisdom from yours truly….

Every now and then I flirt with the belief that Christians should opt out of campaigns and elections, let the chads and voting booths, the empty soundbites and inane talking points lie fallow for a season.

It’s not that I don’t think certain issues are important. It’s not that I don’t think Christians should be engaged in the concerns of their given context.

It’s that I suspect a mass Christian opt-out on Election Day might be a helpful and cleansing reminder to our politicians that:

A) the means by which they engage political conversation couldn’t be more divergent from our faith convictions and

B) the notion that the teachings of Jesus fit perfectly into either party is what the Church has usually referred to as heresy. Or, even, idolatry.

After all, issues and elections may be important, but only Jesus brings the Kingdom.

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And Jesus’ plan to heal the world is neither the Democratic or Republican platform                but the Church.

The extent to which that notion scares you or strikes you as naive exposes both                Jesus’ unreasonableness and your own lack of faith.

Every election year when well-meaning Christians either ask me voting advice or just post their silliness about ‘voting the bible’ on Facebook, I’m reminded of Martin Luther’s maxim that he’d rather have an effective pagan leader than an incompetent Christian at the reins of government. Since I’ve recently gotten cable once again, I’m painfully aware that the nation has its full of idiot Christians.

When it comes to me, I’ve got conservative Tea Party types in my congregation convinced that I go to sleep at night beneath a portrait of Che, Mao and Jesus arm-in-arm. And I’ve got liberal Democrats who think I’m raging right-to-lifer. There are military folks who think I’m a Mennonite in every way but name, and left-leaning activists who think my reluctance to believe in ‘rights’ language is proof I’m a backwards fascist.

Without trying to sound self-congratulatory, such ambiguity makes me, I think, a Christian.

Or at the very least, a pastor.

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As examples like Pope Benedict and Archbishop Rowan Williams point out, Christian convictions do not easily lend themselves to party affiliation despite those parties’ drooling eagerness to adopt ‘God language’ into their platforms.

Which is to say, as a follower of Jesus, you shouldn’t really care for whom I vote just as I, frankly, do not care for whom you do.

As Jesus might say, ‘render unto Caesar …’ or maybe he would say…’the law and the prophets do not hang on…’ or maybe he would say…’put away the sword…’ or how about ‘the Kingdom of God is like a tiny-not-as-significant-as-your-paid-advertising-mustard seed…or might he warn ‘you cannot serve God and Mammon…’?

Despite what all the campaign crap in the mail and the hyperbolic rhetoric on Fox News and MSNBC would suggest, the best posture for Christians on election day just might be ambivalence.

Because for Christians the word ‘election’ refers to being chosen by God to serve as a witness to others that Jesus is Lord.

For Christians, the word ‘election’ should be a reminder that we’re called to be a People within a people who embody not the Bill of Rights but the more strenuous and life-giving Sermon on the Mount.

 And the more Christians double-down on ‘election day’ and act as though life as we know it will cease to exist if ___________ [doesn’t] gets elected is but proof their faith is in the empire and not the Lordship of Christ. Jesus will continue to reign as Lord over the Earth no matter who wins our elections. Seriously, he will. Just as his Kingdom- not our empires- will continue to be the only hope for the world.

 

 

Was8864155Like many of you I’ve been- in equal measure- transfixed and sickened by the horror ISIS/L has brought to TVs and computer screens all over the world.

Watching martyrdom in the moment all but sanctions an anything goes retaliation, which can be seen in many Democrats’ willingness to jettison their rather clear Constitutional obligation when it comes to declarations of war.

It’s exactly when we think an enemy deserves no love and no forgiveness, neither compassion nor quarter- that we should submit to Jesus’ command to ‘love our enemies.’

It’s exactly when we’re faced with an evil for which there is no justification and to which any violent response seems justified that we should recall how we are justified- made right with God- by the faith of Jesus Christ alone.

            The faith of the One who died rather than kill unjustly.

The minute we think we’re facing a ‘real world’ situation for which the words and witness of Jesus have no ‘practical’ application is the moment in which we should shed ourselves of the pretense and cease bothering to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ commands are not abstract teachings to which we look for the exceptions; they are teachings to be applied no where else if not to the ‘exceptions.’

While pols and pundits now debate the scope and nature of President Obama’s ‘war’ it may be helpful, I think, for Christians to remind themselves that- speaking Christianly:

action against ISIS cannot rightly be called ‘war.’

The Christian journal Sojourners this week posted an editorial entitled ‘War is Not the Answer’ which seems to me not only cliche but beside the point. Dangerously so, for to accept the use of the term ‘war’ all but forsakes the Christian field of view.

ISIS is a terror group, a criminal network, representing no state (their chosen moniker aside) or government and abiding no exact borders- certainly not massing at our borders.

According to the demands of Christian Just War Tradition, then, war against ISIS cannot be just.

Indeed it cannot be war.

According to the Christian Just War tradition, the just and appropriate response to something like ISIS cannot be narrated in the language of war but only in the language of policing.

ted-cruz-350.gifStopping them. Not, as Joe McCarthy Ted Cruz recently said to cheers, ‘wiping them out.’

This isn’t just semantics or language games, for truthful speech requires that if a war is not just- if it’s not even rightly called a ‘war’- then we must call it something else and how we speak of it will necessarily shape how we prosecute it.

I suppose it’s not surprising (being Catholic and all, where the Just War Tradition has remained robust and urgent) but Pope Francis recently framed the threat posed by ISIS and a potential response in clear Christian terms.

That is, unlike President Obama et al, Pope Francis spoke Christian:

pope-francis-im-not-a-marxist

“Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor…

I underscore the verb ‘to stop. I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated.

Stopping the aggressor is the legitimate [goal].”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lingering barely behind these quotes is a critique of the Christianity that liberal Protestantism inherited from Paul Tillich, which seeks to make the faith ‘relevant’ to modernity by translating it into generalized principles of human experience. It’s this sort of Christianity that turns the resurrection into a metaphor for ‘life after death.’

DBH’s other sparring partner here is post liberalism (perhaps best represented by Stanley Hauerwas) which tends to conceive of Christianity as a particular cultural-linguistic expression as a way of avoiding the sort of all-encompassing metaphysical claims ancient Christianity made. In other words, you don’t know what ‘resurrection’ means until you’ve been part of the community of faith and learned the language we call Christian. Such a move, DBH argues, fails to account for the deep, universal claim about all of creation that resurrection makes.  rp_faith4.jpg

 

Anyway, as always, DBH says it better than me:

 

“The starkly stated alternative between thoroughgoing demythologization and thoroughgoing [biblical] literalism looks altogether too much like simple critical indolence; one must at least have some feel for the difference between a story as openly fabulous as the narrative of Eden and a story as concrete as that of Christ’s Resurrection, which makes a disorienting (and scandalous) claim to historical actuality, with repercussions that can be described in terms of places and times.”

 

“The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus tell us nothing in the abstract about human dereliction or human hope- they are not motifs of a tragic wisdom or goads to an existential resolve- but concern first what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, to whose particular truth and radiance all the general ‘truths’ of human experience must defer.”

 

“I dislike the tendency [postliberals] have of employing ‘narrative’ as such as an antifoundationalist shelter against critique and against the ontological and epistemological questions that theology must address.”

 

Ontological…epistemological…silly words, I know. But they set up this money quote:

“I believe the Christian story is the true story of being, and so speaks of that end toward which all human thought and every natural human act are actually oriented, and so can and must speak out of its story in a way that is not ‘narrative’ only, in a simple sense, and in a way that can find resonances and correspondences in the language and ‘experience’ of those who are not Christian.

 

And, I confess, I believe there is indeed the possibility of a consummation of all reason in a vision and a wisdom that cannot be reached without language.”

 

“Whereas the story of violence [being intrinsic to the universe] simply excludes the Christian story of [ontological] peace, the Christian story can encompass, and indeed heal, the story that rejects it; because that story too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite, and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

10462358_558970827611_2628863336748251575_nOne of the fortuitous charisms of a blog such as this is the community of friends I would not have otherwise had the opportunity to ‘meet.’ It’s the peculiar nature of a blog that I’ve never actually ‘met’ Bobby Ray Hurd in the flesh. Indeed apart from this blog I count it unlikely I would be friends with someone named ‘Bobby Ray Hurd’ from Missouri.

It’s true that ours is an incarnational faith for which virtual things like social media pose a real risk; however, it’s also true that things like blogs make it possible for me to know another’s thoughts and theology better than many of the people I know in the flesh.

Such is the case with Bobby Ray Hurd560364_10151505504791979_1456634000_n

He’s smart as a whip, passionate, speaks the hard, uncomfortable truth and has called this disciple to deeper faithfulness.

Bobby Ray has studied theology at George Fox, he currently works at Touchpoint Autism Services and lives in the Ferguson, Missouri neighborhood.

For all the above reasons I asked him if he’d write a post about Michael Brown’s murder and the consequent violence.

Here it is:

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

In the wake of the events that have happened (and continue to happen) because of the shooting death of Michael Brown (and the social unrest in Ferguson, MO), I have become disillusioned from our pluralistic society’s attempts to give a truthful account.

I am disillusioned from the false hope promised by the latest abstract social theories (that is, anthropology without theology) or the latest development in identity politics (that is, politics without theological anthropology).

Such disbelief is the reason why I am disillusioned by the ecclesial left and right’s attempts to reduce the dilemma exposed in Ferguson to the solutions of abstract empiricism typical of what happens when church politics are collapsed into worldly politics.

I am disillusioned because all such abstract accounts I have come to see as vanity and impotency.

They are vain because we are looking for a hero to save society in general rather than the church turning to the particularities of the Gospel that cannot be reduced to a savior of society in general but only to the double grace (justification and sanctification) received as a gift in union with Christ.

Thus, it is only through an embodied way of holy living in union with Christ we may be granted the possibility of prophesying against the unbelief of pluralistic philosophical accounts in a way that can tell the truth.

They are impotent not only because they cannot possibly tell the truth but because all such abstract attempts dismiss having the sort of faith it might require to tell the truth.

rp_faith4.jpgAs Stanley Hauerwas has often said, the first political task of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world the world.

This is precisely why I say racism is a demonic possession. It is not because I lack a better word and must now rely on my religion to comfort the meek and angry who cannot explain what has happened (because, if you live where I live, the black community already knows). It is not so I may “fill in the gaps” of what my rationality and enlightenment cannot yet explain.

It is because I believe that a leap of faith is precisely the sort of foolishness we might need to begin assessing the problem with clarity.

This is because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

It has left the black community re-traumatized, old wounds gaping, a perpetrator (Darren Wilson) who cannot make complete sense of what happened to him, and a victim (and their advocates) who are once again presented with the possibility that they might not be able to prove the demonic force of racism is indeed why another young black man has been executed under the guise of public service and protection.

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

As a demon is well aware, the claim of a demonic possession cannot possibly meet the requirements of empirical evidence necessary to have justice in our world of evidence-based everything. As a demon would be well aware, the modernist abstract disciplines can certainly get into the very important issues of pathology, psychology, and cognitive dissonance.

But as the history of America continues to demonstrate, you cannot prove the occasion of a demon in the moments they prey.

rp_ferguson-police-2-1024x682.jpg

It is a matter of faith.

After all, you can hardly “prove” something that is invisible; and yet, if I am correct, it is precisely this sort of move that might explain what has happened time and time again.

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

We have learned, as part of a Liberal society, you can legislate in the best ways we can against racism with civil rights, special interest groups, and political correctness, but when the particularities of our theology begin their descent into being collapsed into the next abstract social theory with a savior complex, we have then resorted to merely throwing rocks at Goliath from the spiritually anorexic space of our unbelieving world (at worst) or the spiritually bulimic space of the modernist church (at best). But then the demons come to prey again and we are left scrambling for the next impotent explanation. How much longer must the church repeat this failure (I would expect it from the world)?

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

On the other end of the issue, if we learned anything from the puritans it was that we may not be witch hunters and stand for justice either. For while demons are indeed real, they deceive us all.

For it is the craft of a demon to create a culture of fear where we blame each other but cannot explain why with any true conclusivity.

358x242-ferguson-smoke

This is why racism is a demonic possession above all empirical, rationalistic accounts of it. It is an invisible deceiver that cannot be mastered by the tools of mere materialism and empiricism. It is an embodied orientation of deniable evil; a place the human matters of legislation and social theory cannot possibly reach.

Like the nature of all demonic possessions, we know the effects of demonic activity (deception, wrath, fear-mongering) but we are ultimately left numb with no good answers equitable to the lives lost and history marred by it.

We are ultimately left without justice; at least in the holiest sense of it (shalom).

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it

I now turn to what Acts demonstrates as the reality of the world; that is, our idolatrous, pluralistic, pantheist world that has, since the fall, been in a spiritual conflict against Satan and his demons.

Thus, contrary to our modernist sentimentalities, what we encounter in Acts is not myth or metaphor but it is realism in every sense.

In 16:16-24, Paul becomes “annoyed” (Greek: diaponeomai) by a slave girl’s antics who was evidently possessed by a demon. However, the deeper meaning of “annoyed” is not “annoyed” in the sense of “slightly peeved” or “minor inconvenience” but “annoyed” as in “deeply moved” or “grieved.” A similar emotion is found in John 11:33 when Jesus is with the recently deceased Lazarus. Scripture notes that Jesus was “deeply moved” (indignant) at the sight of his death. Thus, Paul is more than a little irritated in this episode with the manic slave girl. It is evident that he is aware of a presence of deniable evil and death; and it has stirred him significantly. Nevertheless, Paul’s emotion of grieving annoyance is ultimately not directed toward the slave girl who is being taken advantage of by greedy pimps but toward the deniable evil called “spirit” as he responds: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”

And so, the truth is clear:

when presented with the evidence of deniable evil, indignant confrontation is in order.

Racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

Police Shooting Missouri

Bonhoeffer once wrote in his letters from prison that it is imperative that:

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

When we see the world as Bonhoeffer would have us see it, we begin to see the truth:

both Darren Wilson and Michael Brown are in fact victims.

Darren Wilson a victim of enslavement to the deniable evil of racism.

Michael Brown the tragic recipient of its scorn.

Thus, victims create more victims; hurt people hurt people.

 

And so, how can there be an account for justice given for Michael Brown? How can Christians be a part of giving such an account?

We carry forward knowing that Darren Wilson is merely a tool. He is a tool because those who have known the demon of racism know that this is what it is; demonic possession.

Wilson is a police officer caught in the middle of the politics of this world that are under the control of Satan and his demons (Lk. 4:5-7, 1 John 5:19).

Darren Wilson is the product of my idolatrous, mammon-worshipping, segregated city ripe for demon possession such as the one that cost Michael Brown his life.

Thus, we carry forward not aiming our scorn for Darren Wilson. Such a thing could be retribution at best. Thus, we carry forward with the confidence that the rite of exorcising this demon comes with the ministry of the double grace of union with Christ and the “one new humanity” that is promised because of it.

This does not mean we excuse Darren Wilson. Far from it! If he is indeed a murderer, he is a murderer that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But as a good Calvinist, I can only believe this to be “mediocre good” at best.

Taking the holy ground will mean taking the leap of faith necessary (despite our modernist unbelief) to confront our demons with the sort of righteous indignation that casts out demons in the name of Jesus Christ.

Because racism is a demonic possession.

I have no other way to explain it.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, draw your strength and might from God. Put on the full armor of God to protect yourselves from the devil and his evil schemes. We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places. And this is why you need to be head-to-toe in the full armor of God: so you can resist during these evil days and be fully prepared to hold your ground. Yes, stand—truth banded around your waist, righteousness as your chest plate, and feet protected in preparation to proclaim the good news of peace” (Ephesians 6:10-15 VOICE).

10687178_10152668205238879_7484344374239755611_nAt Hospitals?

Instead of for Schools?

Stanley Hauerwas often contrasts the loose, a la carte curriculum of most seminaries with the rigorous, defined expectations of medical schools. While seminary students can usually choose whichever courses resonate with them (pastoral care over theology), medical schools afford their students no such luxury.

Why the difference?

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Hauerwas attributes it to the fact that in modern America everyone rightly believes that a poorly trained physician could kill them.

But no one in America any longer thinks an inadequately trained priest might jeopardize their salvation.

Americans give lip service to God, but Death is the reality in which we wholly believe.

We believe in Death- fearfully so- and consequently we revere anyone who can extend Life.

We don’t really believe in God- we certainly don’t fear God- and consequently we devalue those people who form our character such that it’s sufficient for salvation.

I mention this because today is my boys’ first day of school.

I blinked.

And now my youngest, who still tries to scootch in between his mother and me every night, is in the 3rd grade. He knows his times tables and how to slide into second. My oldest is already in the 6th grade. This former AAP student can’t even help his current one with his math homework anymore.

Today is my boys’ first day of school and not until this moment has it ever occurred to me that I should pray for them.

For their studies. For their learning.

For their challenges.

For their wonder, joy and curiosity. rp_augustine.jpg

Today is their first day of school and not until today has it ever struck me that I should pray for their teachers and administrators whose vocation it is to apprentice them into wonder, joy and curiosity.

Today is the first day of school and it’s never occurred to me to pray for my kids and their teachers.

And I wonder if it’s because what Hauerwas says about the contrast between priests and doctors extends to the other vocations too?

Could we paraphrase Hauerwas and say:

‘in modern America everyone rightly believes that a poorly trained physician could kill them, but no one in America any longer thinks an inadequately trained priest teacher might jeopardize their children’s salvation?’

Is it the case we really believe in Death but not Salvation and so the formation of character necessary for our salvation, of which teachers play no small role, gets treated as inconsequential?

Or worse, believing in Death more than God, we treat teachers merely as the ones who can inculcate a certain set of skills in our children which will ultimately net them a certain degree or income in this Life.

What does it reveal about us and our fidelities that we pray so often at hospitals but so seldom for classrooms?

As a pastor, as you would well expect, I routinely go to hospital rooms, ER and Pre-Op units to pray with people before they face whatever procedure awaits them.

But no one has ever asked me to pray for their children’s year in school, their children’s teachers or the love of God and God’s creation they hope will be the result of their children’s education.

I’ve never even done it for my kids or their teachers. Until this morning.

A lot of ink and hot air gets spent every year debating the separation of Church and State and, most particularly, how it plays out in schools.

Hardly ever do Christians(!) acknowledge that sheer learning itself is a Christian discipline.

After all, as one of my old teachers at UVA, Robert Louis Wilken, writes:

“The Christian religion is…uncompromisingly moral (‘be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,’ said Jesus), but also unapologetically intellectual (be ready to give a ‘reason for the hope that is in you,’ in the words of 1 Peter).

Like all the major religions of the world, Christianity is more than a set of devotional practices and a moral code: it is also a way of thinking about God, about human beings, about the world and history.”

The Resurrection of Jesus, Wilken says, is not only the central fact of Christian worship but also the ground of all Christian thinking “about God, about human beings, about the world and history.”

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It’s the Christian’s calling not just to worship Christ but to think about and interpret the world in light of Christ.

Math, science, literature, music: everything in Creation is bathed in the light of Christ.

Sure, it takes faith to see that light- the Church’s task-but it also takes a well-formed mind to understand and articulate it- our teachers task.

Education in this world is a matter of salvation because salvation is NOT escape from this world for heaven. Just as Jesus said to Zaccheus, salvation is something that starts now. It’s living fully, as fully human as Jesus lived, as creature of God in the creation of God.

Salvation is learning to live with joy and wonder and awe and passion and advocacy in this beautiful but broken world that God has graciously brought into existence and sustains at every moment of existence.

And learning Pi is surely as necessary to that awe and wonder as learning Trinity.

And so today, for the first time, with the same urgency I’d muster in the ER, I’m praying for my boys’ school year and the teachers et al who will make it possible.

Their salvation depends on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Untitled9Here’s my sermon from this weekend. While we’ve been taking a look this summer at how Paul uses the Psalms in his letter to the Romans, I thought the Psalm he uses in Romans 11, Psalm 94, warranted exclusive focus.

It ends with the verse ‘The Lord our God, the Lord will wipe our enemies out’ for goodness sake.

You can listen to the sermon here below, on the sidebar to the right or download it in iTunes here.

 

‘Just what the hell is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

     It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th.

The day after.

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Linvale Methodist Episcopal Church - Linvale

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems not present at all.

The other scripture passage I used as the opening prayer: Psalm 94, a clench-fisted communal cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I remember I had to print the psalm in the bulletin because the United Methodist Hymnal Committee chose not to include it in the hymnal.

Because I used it as the opening prayer not the scripture reading, we didn’t follow the final verse ‘the Lord our God will wipe our enemies out’ with ‘This the Word of God for the People of God/Thanks be to God.’

But we did say ‘Amen.’

As in: ‘May it be so.’

 

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: ‘What in the…is your problem?!’

‘Um, excuse me?’ I replied.

     ‘Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!’

I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘wipe out’ in the psalm, daka, it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

‘Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!’ she shouted softly. ‘They’re supposed to love everybody.’

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

     ‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?’

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She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like this? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

We believe in Jesus, the one who in his Magna Carter on the Mount commanded us to LOVE our enemies.

 

Would Jesus really approve of this psalm?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Psalm 94.

Dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Psalm 94- we could say it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Psalm 94, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who prayed this weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like this.

 

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Psalm 94 isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it. That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they: ‘The Lord our God will wipe them out.’

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy. It’s hard to imagine the Jesus who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the defeat of our enemies.

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

She asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say. Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

      “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Pat Robertson or Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 psalm. At the very least, Jesus prayed this prayer every 50 days. At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

So when you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed ‘Lord, how long shall the wicked exult’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, ‘they crush your people, Lord’ had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed ‘God will repay our enemies for their sin; the Lord our God will wipe them out.’ 

     Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had it memorized.

     210 times.

     So when Jesus throws his Temple tantrum and screams ‘you’ve turned my Father’s House into a den of thieves,’ it wasn’t too long previous that he’d prayed ‘the proud and wicked say ‘the Lord does not see.’

     And when Jesus takes bread and wine and tells the 12 that he’s like Moses delivering the slaves from Pharaoh, it couldn’t have been that long since all 13 of them had prayed ‘O Lord, you God of vengeance, shine forth!’

    It hadn’t been very long. At the most: 50 days.

    Maybe that day Jesus prayed this prayer.

    For the defeat of his enemies.

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    “Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed that prayer.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed this prayer, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

     Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed this psalm?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

     It’s the better question.

     Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

     I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

     Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation. Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

    So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

     To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed Psalm 94?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

    For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

     You see, it’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

     Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

     And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

    And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

     It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

     But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

     Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

     For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

     And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

     He doesn’t retaliate.

     He turns the other cheek.

     And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

     He dies rather than kill.

     He doesn’t resist evil with evil. He suffers it. He dies to it.

     And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them. Destroys them, scripture says. Triumphs over them.

     When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Psalm 94.

     We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New. But the confusion we feel about a passage like Psalm 94 is really our confusion about Jesus.

     Because it’s not that the prayer in Psalm 94 is antithetical to Jesus. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the prayer in Psalm 94.

     Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Psalm 94.

     Jesus enacts it.

     It’s not that the prayer for our enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that love of enemies is the way we defeat them.

     We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

     Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

     The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

     The way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the way we ‘wipe them out.’

     And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

     But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

     And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

     So you tell me what’s more effective.

Poster

     After the woman with the short hair and glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

     His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

     When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

    And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

    ‘Here we go again’ I thought.

     ‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

     ‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

     He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

     And he stormed out.

     I wonder-

     If our discomfort with a psalm like #94, if our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

      I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

     Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus.