Tag Archives: Christianity

God is NoWHere…

There is an old story that is often used in sermons. It’s one of those “brilliant Christian student embarrasses the evil snooty professor” type stories. In the story the professor writes “God is Nowhere” on the chalk board. Somewhere by the end of it the clever student rearranges the letters so that it says, “God is Now Here.”

But often it seems to me that both of them miss the boat. Somehow it seems to me that there is a tension between the two notions. Because there are times when I cannot deny the presence of God. There are times when God is so real and vibrant and true that I cannot imagine how anyone could ever deny that God is right here among us. But on the other hand, there are times when I wonder how I could have been so blindly optimistic. I look around at the pain and suffering in the world and I just don’t see how God could be so close. And to be honest I can sometimes get a bit resentful that God seems to be hiding.

But I read something online. It was another of those cheesy sermon illustrations. In this story there is a couple and the husband is dying. And the wife says, “I love you so much, what will I ever do without you.” And the husband replies, “Take that love you feel for me and give it out to the world.”

And suddenly it makes a bit of sense. If God, the Ultimate, the object of ultimate Love, were physically right here with us in the same sense as you and I are sitting in this room, then we would miss out on the very thing that God seems most interested in. God is all about our relationship with God, yes, but also with others.

So, perhaps this absence we often feel from God is God’s way of saying, “Take that love, that hope, and that devotion that you would pour out on me and spread it to everyone you meet.” Because somehow, in some strange way, that is the way that we can best experience the presence of God.

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reboot your brain…

So, the other day I got an ad that popped up on my cell phone. It was the first time I’d seen anything like this. And now it does it all the time. It used to be that in the top I’d get a little bug of a notification. But now I get ads that hijack my phone and throw full screen pictures up of games and junk that it wants me to buy. It gets all glitchy, and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it because I don’t know which app I installed that is causing the problem.

It looks like I have nothing left to do but to reformat the thing.

Now this is a pain. It means that I will have to rethink everything that I have done with my phone up to this point. I will have to decide which things I used and which I didn’t. I will have to decide which things wasted my time, and which things got in the way of my doing things that were more important. I will have to decide which things were useful and necessary, and which things were just like a lead weight slowing down the proper working order of the phone.

It’s a pain, but really, it’s kind of exciting too. I get to start over. It’s like new year’s eve for my phone.

And it’s got me to thinking, how often might it be useful to do something really similar with our ideas about God?

Because let’s look at the way things have gone from the start. Let’s look at the Christian creation narrative. God creates Adam and then Eve. They walk together with God in the cool of the evening. They have a deep and loving relationship. There is one basic rule. God says, “Don’t eat the fruit from that tree over there.”

Now, I don’t know why. It never made much sense to me why God would bother putting the tree there. I mean, I get the discussions about free will, and that sort of thing. But to me the tree seems like entrapment. But I guess that’s why I’m not God.

Anyway. Like I say, there’s this one rule. Don’t eat that fruit. And then comes this snake. And this snake says, “Aww, come on. One bite won’t hurt.” And Eve says, “Nope. God said don’t eat from the tree. DON’T EVEN TOUCH IT.”

Did you catch that? God never said not to touch the tree. Eve has added a rule to the rule.

But before we string her up for being such an idiot. I have to say, I think that there wasn’t much wrong with her extra rule. Given that she didn’t eat the fruit until this snake talked her into it, it would seem that her rule was helping her to stay away from the tree. You know, it had fruit that was pleasing to the eye and everything. Probably not a bad idea to just draw that line a little farther back and to decide, “yep…better not even touch that tree.” I mean if you’re an alcoholic, you don’t hang out in the bar.

So we don’t really have a huge problem yet, but then as we continue to read on we see people constantly adding one more rule to the rule. Installing one more app on the phone, so-to-speak, until we find something like 614 rules about the rules. And things start to get a bit glitchy.

So, God comes along in the form of Jesus. And Jesus tells us, “Look, you’re getting off base. Let’s reformat this thing. And here is what you need to reinstall. Love. That’s your starting point, and if you have to start over again, it always comes back to Love.”

So my challenge for you and for me and for all of us is to face the anxiety of a reformat. Take your images, take your ideas, take the things that you have been wasting time with and that have been getting in your way and delete them. It is terrifying. It will cause a great deal of anxiety. But ultimately it is freedom. It will set you free from the things that keep your faith from functioning the way it was designed to function. Hit the reset. You’ll be glad you did.

Love,

-Andrew


The Grammar of the Reformation…

On October 31, 1517, a young man named Martin Luther wrote a letter. The purpose of this letter was to speak against the selling of indulgences. In other words, Luther felt that it was wrong for the church to ask people to give them money for a certificate to show that they bought their deceased loved ones way out of purgatory. Obviously this was a very unbiblical practice, and Luther courageously asked the hierarchy of his church whether they might stop doing this.

Enclosed in this letter Luther added a copy of a writing called, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Luther’s purpose in writing this was to offer scholarly reasons why this practice ought to end. However, those who held those positions of power were not impressed. They did not feel that it was Luther’s place to challenge the practices of the church. And as Robert Wilson said, “Most people live in a myth and grow violently angry if anyone dares tell them the truth about themselves.” When Luther held up his mirror to the corrupt leaders of the church, they grew violently angry with him.

Copies of Luther’s Disputation were translated and circulated widely. This Disputation came to be known as Luther’s “95 Theses.” A legend formed around the writing that Luther had nailed it to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. The writing sparked what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation. In 1520 Luther was brought before Pope Leo X and in 1521 he came before the Roman Emperor Charles V. In both accounts Luther refused to recant. He stood in the face of these men who were entrenched in their clout and power and refused to submit to anything other than his conscience and understanding of God. He was excommunicated from the church and declared an outlaw of the state.

Now, as you go out into some circles of church life today you may hear people every Halloween saying, “Happy Reformation Day!” This is the history of why you may hear that. It is not exactly a happy day, but many Christians do choose to commemorate Luther’s brave challenge of the established order of the church on October 31st.

The reformation is a period in church history in which the church had to correct itself to get back into line with the teachings of Jesus. It is something that we ought to appreciate. But there is one danger. Often we look back at this time and we say that after the Reformation, we became “Reformed.” And we can draw new lines and build new walls that establish a wholly new hierarchy. I consider the reformation to be for the corporate church something like our own individual sanctification. It is not something that should ever end with “-ed.” It ought never be put into past tense. Instead it ought to always end with “-ing.” We ought to always be becoming, but never arriving.

When we put the reformation of the church in the past tense and say that we are now “reformed” then we allow ourselves to stagnate. We establish a new hierarchy that centers around arguments that are on the cutting edge of the 1500’s. This is true of both sides of the coin when it comes to “reformed” or non-“reformed” theology. May we always be reforming. May our reformation never be complete. And may we celebrate the corrections that the church has made while knowing that we will always have more ways in which we need to change.

If each individual making up the church is constantly growing into a more Christ-like person, then it stands to reason that the church will have to constantly grow into a more Christ-like group. Sometimes that means embracing the past. Sometimes that means jettisoning things that we have made more important that the one thing we are told to cling to. Love God, Love each other.

Love is the Word.  Believe. Amen.


A Vampire in a World of Zombies (another Zombie Parable)…

Once there was a vampire.  Obviously he had no mirror to prove it, but he was beautiful.  He could never see his own face, but most people treated him as though he were the most beautiful man on earth.

Some people recoiled in horror from him.  But he was convinced that these people were jealous of his beauty.

All around him he was surrounded by another type of undead.  These undead were terrible, stinking, decaying zombies.  They would stagger around grunting and looking for any sign of living flesh to devour.  The Vampire was repulsed by them.  Instead he tried to surround himself with other vampires.  He wanted to surround himself with things that looked like him.

All the while his thirst for blood was insatiable.

One day he met a stranger.  This stranger was undead as well.  But he was different than the Vampire, or the Zombies.  He had all the signs of life, but he insisted that he had died.  This undead one spoke in strange riddles.  He spoke of dying in order to live.  This was strange to the Vampire.  He was the living dead, but this did not in any way resemble the life he had once known.  Yet this stranger kept speaking of living *after* death, not simply existing as the living dead.

Then the stranger led the Vampire to a mirror.  As expected the Vampire did not see his reflection.  But then the stranger touched him over his cold and lifeless heart.  Gradually the Vampire began to see his reflection.  He was as beautiful as he had always imagined.  But as the stranger lingered with his hand on the Vampire’s heart, he began to see his flesh fall off.  Gaping wounds began to form on his face and his hands.  He became more and more grotesque.  As he looked in horror he began to realize that he had never been able to see his own reflection because he had refused to see it.  The touch of the stranger had allowed him to see himself as he truly was.  Could it be that there was never a Vampire, but only another Zombie who refused to see himself as he was?

The stranger whispered “love can heal  you.” And with that he vanished.


Are We Still Waiting?

Peter Rollins tells a parable in his book The Orthodox Heretic.  In this story Jesus finally makes his second coming.  When he does he goes largely unnoticed.  Finally he decides to approach a group of faithful people who have still followed his teachings.  He goes into a small church where a group of people are weeping over the suffering in the world and working day and night to bring aid and an end to this suffering.

When Jesus goes in to this church and reveals himself to them the people there greet him warmly.  There is much excitement at his return, but the people are left with one nagging question.  They approach Jesus and say, “Lord, we have but one question left to ask of you.”  Jesus, knowing already what their question is, allows them to ask.  They say, “Lord, we have been waiting and watching for your return for many many years.  We have this one last question for you.  When will you arrive?

Upon hearing this question Jesus simply smiles, and then settles in to working with the people in this church on their efforts and tears to rid the world of suffering.

There is a very real sense in which we must face the teachings of this parable.  We have to understand that there is a sense in which everyone who is right here with us is, in some profound way, still yet to come.  In some way we have to recognize the danger we have in assuming that we fully grasp anyone.  This is especially dangerous when we think we fully grasp Jesus.

In many Christian traditions we speak of salvation and the Kingdom as the “already…but not yet.”  This is a beautiful tension to live in.  But often this same way of thinking does not carry over into our understanding of Jesus.  It does not carry over into our understanding of God.  We begin to think of them as a series of propositions that we can affirm or deny, and if we can just do that with just the right phraseology then we will somehow grasp God in a more perfect way.  So often we replace moral legalism with a legalism of right belief.  It is this sort of legalism that Rollins so eloquently counters with this parable.

But there is an opposite danger.  When there is a tension to be lived in, then we can easily come down on either side, throw stones at those opposite us, and pretend to ourselves that our static position is somehow the tension where the Truth lies.  In other words, if I come down on the side of the “not yet” then I miss the truth of the “already” and vice versa.

In The Stages of Life Carl Jung says it this way,

“Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and regresses to the past falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past.  The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past and the other from the future.  In principle both are doing the same thing: they are reinforcing their narrow range of consciousness instead of shattering it in the tension of opposites and building up a state of wider and higher consciousness.”

I say all of that in order to say this…

My family has just begun exploring the liturgy of advent.  For those who, like me, didn’t grow up knowing too much about advent, it is basically a way of experiencing the waiting for Christ to come.  It is the source of all those beautiful minor key Christmas songs like “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”  It speaks of the pangs of longing for a Savior who will come and set things right.

But then comes Christmas.  And it is in Christmas that we celebrate the coming of that Savior.  In advent we allow ourselves to experience the “not yet” but in Christmas we celebrate the “already.”  It’s so easy to lose that in all of the things that Christmas has become.  But leaving aside for now the critique of modern consumerism as it relates to Christmas, I think this is a far more insidious danger that lurks beneath the surface of our holiday celebrations.  We take this one day, and even if we do it right – even if we truly celebrate the joyful news that in Jesus, God became one of us – we somehow lose it by a day or two later.

We go right back to waiting.

I do not ever want to be guilty of saying we shouldn’t think of God as “yet to come.”  Even the Bible teaches that “no one has ever seen God.”  It is an integral part of the Christian faith to acknowledge the fact that we long for the full realization of God’s presence.  There is only the thinnest whisper of a veil between us and God, but that whisper is at the exact same time an iron curtain that is light-years thick.  I do not wish to downplay that.  The health-wealth-prosperity “preachers” will tell you till they are blue in the face that God is so present among us that it must be your fault if you aren’t driving a BMW right now.  That teaching is a lie.

But let’s not be so cynical that we throw away the truth that makes that lie seem real.

Because we can very easily go the other way.  We can spend a day celebrating the arrival of Jesus.  But then we have placed it in a place in our minds where it is so far removed from our lives that it sits right there on the shelf beside of Santa Claus.  It’s a nice story we tell once a year.  There are some shepherds, and there is a baby in a feed-box.  There’s a pregnant lady with a blue thing on her head sitting on a donkey with a very confused carpenter leading her to Bethlehem.

It’s a cute story, but if it’s just something that happened a few thousand years ago in the middle east then I’d rather watch “A Christmas Story.”

It is only in so far as we don’t really believe it that we treat it as a history lesson.  Of course there is a place for understanding that there was a historical person named Jesus.  He was born in a barn in Bethlehem to a teenage girl named Mary and her very confused but supportive teenage husband Joseph.

But we make a fatal leap.

We jump straight from that history into the waiting for the second coming.  And in doing so we treat this entire life as a giant waiting room.  There’s boring muzac on the speakers.  There’s some dull and lifeless conversation between some people who aren’t too introverted to avoid eye contact with strangers.   But the whole point is the waiting for something better (or possibly worse) than what we’re in right now.

So, the point of all of this is to ask you, and me, and everyone else to please, don’t lose track of the point of the story.  It is important to see that this thing happened historically sometime two thousand years ago.  But the point is not the story.  The point is that the baby who was born in that feed-box grew up and said, “I have come to preach the good news to the poor…”  That baby was God come to set things right.  That baby grew into a man who taught us to love each other, and who said that the Kingdom is already here!

If that doesn’t make you want to grab the person next to you by the collar and scream, “Hey!  Have you heard this?!?!” Then maybe the problem is that we keep moving from waiting to waiting, and skipping out on the point of the waiting.  Christmas is about New Year’s!  It is about the coming of the one who starts things over fresh!  We don’t have to wait till next year to start living like the Kingdom is here.  The Kingdom is here!  God is with us.  Love wins.  Death loses.

Now, if you want a New Year’s resolution, let it be this:  Live the rest of your life as if you believe this is true.  And when you see suffering and pain and disease and sadness; expose those liars for what they are!  Work and weep and sweat and pray.  This is your sermon when you go out and preach the good news to the poor.  The Savior has come, and is here.  That pain is real, but when it tells you it will always be, it is a liar.

Love is the Word.

Believe.

Love,

-A


Scripture, perception, and walking in through the out door…

There are many facts which are up for debate.  But one thing is absolutely certain.

Often the way my mind works is a little off…

Now that we all agree to this obvious point, let me explain why I bring that up.

I work in a restaurant.  It is a corporate chain restaurant which will remain nameless.  I stand in front of the grill all night.  Recently the fine folks in the corporate headquarters have begun trying to keep a better handle on the workings of the restaurant.  For example, we aren’t allowed to have drinks on the cook line.  Instead we get 5 oz portions in little sno-cone cups, then wash our hands and return to the line.

Brilliant.

Anyway, another of these rules is that they have decided to post “entrance” and “exit” on the appropriate side of the double doors leading from the front-of-house to the back-of-house.  You know…because no one knows that foot traffic moves like car traffic, and you keep to the right side of your path so you don’t slam into anyone…especially when going through double doors carrying large trays of food.

Okay.  So, far we are at the level of mildly insulting and annoying.

But here’s where my mental issues come into play.  When you start toying around with the idea of perception and preconceived notions, even with the clearly labeled doors, this “entrance” and “exit” conundrum gets a lot weirder.  Say for a minute that you’ve never driven a car.  Say you hire two people who come from a foreign country that has no protocol for which side of the pathway to walk on.  We’ll say one of them is hired to work in the kitchen, and one is hired to work on the waitstaff.

Imagine for a minute you are the person hired to work on the waitstaff.  When you approach double doors that go between the kitchen and the dining room – one saying “entrance” and one saying “exit” – how does your job affect your perception?  Are you exiting the kitchen into the dining room?  Or do you go through the door that says “entrance” because in your mind the dining room is the main part of the restaurant…therefore you are entering the dining room?  And the same with the kitchen staff.  If you walk from the dining room into the kitchen, do you go through the “entrance” door because you are entering the kitchen?  Or do you walk through the “exit” door, because you are leaving the dining room?

If we strip away the cultural context, we are still left with our own personal perception of what is most important, where the priority lies, and into what place we personally find ourselves fitting.

The same thing happens when we go to interpret scripture.

Often we hear people say that the Bible constantly contradicts itself.  They insist that the Bible simply cannot be trusted because of these obvious contradictions.  See Isaac Azimov’s guide to the Bible for a million examples.

Others insist that any contradictions in the Bible are merely apparent.  In other words, if we read one part of the Bible that seems to contradict another part, then we must be misinterpreting the contradictory passage.

That’s fair.

But there’s a problem…

The “all contradictions are merely apparent” faction tends to explain the contradictions with a somewhat misleading phrase.  They say, “scripture interprets scripture.”  To my odd little mind this seems a bit like saying that you can use the entrance door to interpret how you interact with the exit door.  In other words; it works, but only as long as everyone agrees to the same set of rules ahead of time.

And this is where the factions of the Church come into play.

We each come to the scriptures with our own agenda, preconceptions, biases, and preferences.  So, one group favors the Biblical concept of Grace over works.  They favor the idea of Christ as substitute for each of us on the cross.  They favor the idea of the depravity and utter helplessness of humanity against our own broken nature.  Each of these concepts has a very strong Biblical basis.  But then we see another group which favors the Biblical concept that “faith without works is dead.”  They understand the Bible to be a revolutionary book calling for social justice, non-violence, and equality for every living being.  They understand Christ’s death and resurrection as the ultimate victory over sin and death.  Each of these concepts also has a strong Biblical basis.

But then we treat them as mutually exclusive.

So, what if we are finding a group of like minded people who are reading the text in the same way as us?  What if we are having conversations with them to determine the best way to explain away the passages of scripture that contradict our agreed upon conclusions?  Of course we would never say as much.  But it seems to me like this might  be exactly what is happening.

But I would argue that this is counter productive.  The humble, Christian way of looking at this would be to open a space for conversation.  Paul teaches that we can come to a place where we choose a teacher and exhort them above the material they are teaching.  In the context, he tells the Corinthian church not to distinguish between the theology of himself versus a man named Apollos.  He says it is God who makes the faith grow.  And this applies to the debates between Calvin and Armenius, the Pope and Luther, Bell and Driscoll, Piper and McLaren.  What if the question really comes down to whether we are “front of house” or “back of house”?

What if the entire point is for us to wrestle through these questions together?

And what if the sacrifice of Christ…whether is be substitutionary atonement or victory over death and hell…what if that is what actually binds us together?

I argue passionately that it is this very sacrifice…it is this very Love…that binds us all together on this journey of faith.  And it is to our own peril that we lose the conversation in favor of the debate.  It is our own throats that we cut with our swords of truth.

It is my prayer that we can enter into a conversation.  It is my prayer that we can walk together in this journey.  And let those who favor Calvin, and those who favor Armenius, and those who favor Ekhart, and those who favor Schaeffer…let us all take our place in the Body of Christ.  A pinky toe and an ear lobe are equally important, but it is rarely necessary for them to walk side-by side.  But neither the pinky toe nor the ear lobe will ever get more than a few feet if they don’t agree to be in different places, and then move ahead together.

This is my prayer for the Church Universal.  I pray that we walk this path together whenever possible.  And I pray that we separate while maintaining unity.  Let the Love of God be the sinew that binds the bones in the Body of Christ.

Love,

-a


if i kick out my devils, my angels might leave…

“If I kick out my devils, my angels might leave.” – Iggy Pop

I once heard a preacher say that we should deal with our sins like we are weeding a garden. What I think he meant was that we should be diligent in plucking out the weeds one by one.  We ought to constantly be looking for anything that isn’t what we want to cultivate, and we ought to rip it out.  I agree that we ought to approach sin like weeding a garden, but I think that we need to reevaluate how we weed our gardens.

Let me explain…

Most people I know charge into their garden with pesticide.  They take these chemicals that are formulated to kill off the weeds, but let the plants grow, and they spray them all over everything.  And the chemicals do their job.  Don’t get me wrong.  These chemicals will choke down every single unwanted weed in your garden, and they will allow your vegetables to grow up big and strong.  This is especially true if you use them in conjunction with a few chemical fertilizers.

So now we’ve got no weeds, and we’ve got giant tomatoes…what on earth could my left-wing hippie mind find wrong with that?  Well, if you have to ask, then you obviously don’t know any left-wing hippies…we can find something wrong with anything.

Here’s the problem:

Most of the weeds we have killed are medicinal or are better for food than the plants we are putting in their place.  The lambs quarters you sprayed down and ripped up are way better for you than the spinach you planted in their place.  And the chemicals we spray on the weeds are now in our food.  The soil we are growing the plants in has been monocropped for so long that it has no nutrients left.  The chemical fertilizer we sprinkle on the ground will make the plants grow, but it won’t give back those nutrients.  So, we can make perfect little flavorless, nutrient-free tomatoes that look nice on the vine, but that beyond that will do nothing but cause heartburn and cancer.

And once…

several thousand years ago…

this hippie named Jesus said that a plant is known by its fruit.

So, what if we are doing something very similar in our churches today?  What if we are monocropping in dead soil?  What if we are spraying down and ripping up weeds that might just be better for us than the plants we are trying to force to grow?  What if the fertilizer we are putting down is just making pretty fruits that are flavorless and devoid of nutrition?  What if these fruits that we are growing look perfect on the outside, but they’re really causing heartburn and cancer?

I would argue that this is exactly what we are doing.  We are monocropping in dead soil.  Our denominational politics are seeing to it that nobody with a different viewpoint can speak up in any church.  When they do, they are sent out to find a church where people agree with the things they are saying.  This is not good for the people, and it is not good for the the churches.  It turns churches into echo chambers in which everyone sings the same tune, or at least they learn to fake it really well.

We are spraying down and ripping up weeds that are better for us than what we are trying to grow.  We discourage questioning, doubt, and ambiguity in favor of answers, facts, and rules.  By doing so we cram God into a box.  Anytime God climbs out of that box, we explain it away.  If we are in a “spirit” church, and something intellectual comes along that challenges our thinking, we chalk it up to the devil making those who claim to be wise into fools.  And if we are in a more reformed, cessationist church, then when the Spirit shows up we say, “um…excuse me…can you go sit in the back…it’s just that we have an order of worship here, and you make it difficult to stay on task…”  Sometimes it is the very thing that challenges the core of all the we believe and cling to that we ought to be embracing.

And this fertilizer we put down is making pretty fruit that is empty.  We study all the books that affirm our beliefs.  We listen to music that always has an uplifting message.  We say things like, “scripture interprets scripture.”  But what we really mean is that the scriptures we believe are used to interpret the scriptures we don’t really believe.  Everything is set up so that what we are growing in is pure, bright, white, and clean.  And we produce fruit that is as bland and flavorless as those genetically modified, chemically grown tomatoes.

In actuality what makes a real, delicious, nutritious fruit is something completely different.  We take heirloom seeds, passed down from generation to generation.  Seeds that have seen abundance, but also drought.  Seeds that have survived through good times and through times when it looked like those seeds could never grow.  And we put them in soil that is full of death and decay.  Soil that is mixed in with rotten, decaying, used up things.  These are the things that give the soil its substance.  The things that have been sacrificed.  We give them pure water and bright sunshine.

And sometimes we pray for rain.

And there are “weeds” we allow to grow.  We mix flowers in amongst the plants.  We don’t put things in straight lines, because that’s what the predators are looking for.  We let things be messy and sloppy, and not technically correct.  And the fruit we produce may be ugly.  It may have lumps and dark spots.  It may have a place where a worm had lunch.  So be it.  Cut it off, and enjoy the rest!

This imperfectly perfect fruit will be the greatest you have ever tasted.  It will give you life which springs forth out of death.  It will give you joy that springs out of the pain of labor.  It will surprise you.  It will shock you.  It will leave you standing in gape-mouthed wonder at the beautiful flavors that can come from something so plain.

But it will never…

ever…

be bland.

Love,

-a