Tag Archives: jesus

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.


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.


Some Thoughts on Church Discipline…

Okay, I know I’m a bit late.  The Driscoll hysteria has passed.  But I was asked in a final exam for one of my seminary classes about the concept of Church Discipline.  And having been on the pointy end of that stick myself in the last year or so, I thought I might share my two cents here as well.

There are many varying views of the subject, and, in my opinion, there are many abuses of the idea going around in the contemporary church.  Let us begin with the words most commonly used to describe how we ought to carry out discipline in the church.  Those words are the words of Jesus in Matthew 18.  Jesus says,

“If your brother or sister sins,go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

So, what we see here is that Jesus tells us a sort of hierarchy for how to carry out Church Discipline.  We first go individually.  Then we take one or two others.  Then we tell it to the church.  Then we treat them as the pagan or the tax collector.  In contemporary church circles – specifically that of the neo-reformed movement exemplified by Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill in Seattle – this has come to mean that we ought to call people out harshly.  If that doesn’t work, we send in the church’s elders in to beat them up a bit tag-team style.  If that doesn’t work we kick them out of the church and tell anyone who is a member that they ought not talk to them anymore.

Instead of this scenario, I think we ought to approach this subject by taking these verses in their context.  Prior to Jesus speaking these words he had been talking about who will be first in the Kingdom.  He says that children will be first.  He says that whoever wants to be first in the Kingdom ought to become like a child.  And he then continues to say that anyone who causes one of these children to stumble, it would be better for that one if they had never been born.  Then he further gives a parable that illustrates God’s love for those children.  He shows God pursuing the lost child like a shepherd pursues the one lost sheep while leaving behind the 99 to do so.

Then he gives the statement of “church discipline” as a way of preventing abuse by religious leaders.  He lays out a way of dealing with those who “offend” by doing it in a loving and kind way.  After laying out the loving way to deal with “one who sins against you” Peter – apparently looking for a loophole – asks, “how many times do I have to forgive one who sins against me?”  And Jesus answers by telling the parable of the unmerciful servant.  In this parable a servant of the King is forgiven an unpayable debt.  The servant then goes out and demands payment by one of his fellow servants for a minor debt.  The unmerciful servant is then punished because he would not forgive little when he had been forgiven much.

So, the idea of Church Discipline, in this light, consists of lovingly and privately calling out the offense.  Then taking a few people as witnesses if that doesn’t work.  If that doesn’t work, we then involve the church community.  If that doesn’t work we treat them as tax collectors and pagans.  However, this doesn’t mean we kick them out and avoid all contact.  Instead we treat them the way Jesus treated tax collectors and pagans.  We leave the 99 and pursue the 1 who is astray.  We love them and love them and love them no matter what.  We have dinner at their house.  We ask them to change their ways.  But we also never stop inviting them into community.  In no way do we shun them until they get on board with our way.  It is not our job to convict of sin.  That is the job of the Spirit.  It is our job to show love and forgiveness.  And if we must call out sin, then we do so in a loving and forgiving and understanding way.

So, instead of kicking people out who disagree or offend, we love them back into the group.  One of the greatest offenses that Christianity has committed against a dying and lost world is that we have systematically removed ourselves from society by segregating ourselves, and by kicking out anyone who doesn’t fit the mold.  If we follow the model of Jesus then we will draw people to us.  Without compromising Truth, we can at the same time not compromise Love.  Our witness to the world consists in our being the type of Christians who the watching world will see and say, “Wow…look at how they love…I need some of that!”  Instead I’m afraid that they know us by who and what we oppose.  When Jesus ascended into heaven he left us one final legacy.  He said that the world would know we are his and that he was sent by God if we love one another.  At one time the Roman historian Tertullian said, “See how these Christians love one another!”  When you ask someone today what they think of when they think of Christians, that is not the first answer you will get!

So, the challenge I issue today to you and to myself is to make an intentional effort to love someone you disagree with.  Find someone who has harmed you and make an effort to forgive them.  Make every effort to reconcile with them.  And even if you can’t, make every effort to let go of the hate.  Make every effort to be the sort of person who others will look at and say, “Wow!  Look how that person loves!”

Love is the Word,

Believe,

-a


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.


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


Uniformity vs unity…

There’s a story we tell in churches.  Maybe not in all churches, but in most.

It’s a story about belief.

Often we stand together, and we read off a list of things we believe.  We read an apostle’s creed.  We read puritan prayers.  We run down lists of propositions, and we nod our heads and affirm each item on the list.

Now, I’m not saying that these creeds and prayers and lists are bad.  It is deeply important for us to take stock of what we believe.  We are dealing with infinity.  We are dealing with a being so vast that every aspect of the universe was created by this being’s word.  We are dealing with a being so intimate that you cannot split open even the tiniest molecule without this being’s love rushing over you like the ocean’s crashing waves.  Without some sort of system of knowledge to make some sense of this, we’d never be able to digest any of it.

But there’s a danger.

Too often we take these propositions – we take these tools – and we make them into a yard stick by which we can measure our faith.  We take these propositions and we tell everyone, “You need to agree to each of these, or else you are not fully a part of the club.”

And so we play a game.

In order to avoid being excluded from the club, we stand together and we say, “I affirm this belief.  I believe each point on this list.”  But in our minds we might actually struggle with some of it.  Maybe we even disbelieve some of it completely.  And most shockingly…maybe we’re not alone.  What if there is a whole lineage of Christians who have wrestled with the delicate balance between doubt and faith?  What if even your pastor or your worship leader or your Sunday school teacher have questions and doubts?  What if they even sit down and discuss those doubts with each other, and it is a beautiful and deep part of their Christian life?  But then they stand up on Sunday morning and say, “I affirm these beliefs.”  Doesn’t that in some way reduce faith?

Jacob’s name is changed to Israel because he wrestled with God, and with men and prevailed.  And then Israel becomes the name of God’s chosen people.  God chose a people who would wrestle, who would ask questions, who would push back.  This is what a relationship is like.

So in the church when we use our doctrines and creeds as ways of saying, “I’m in because I will intellectually affirm each point (whether I truly believe it in my heart or not), and you’re out because you doubt,” then we do a disservice to God.  We dissect God into tiny parts leaving only the corpse of an idol in God’s place.  Meanwhile the world looks at these parts of God that we are holding up and saying, “you need to worship this,” and they say, “Why?  You’re only showing me a corpse.”

In reality we are talking about a God that won’t fit inside a creed or a doctrine.  Our creeds and doctrines tell us a lot about who God is, but they are not God themselves.  The menu is not the meal.  The map is not the road.  So we can stand together, link arms, recite our creeds, and talk about how this is unity.  We can exclude anyone who does not get on board with that so-called unity.  But we are not talking about unity anymore.  When we deny our real and honest questions, doubts, and disagreements, we have moved past unity and into uniformity.  When you put on the uniform it doesn’t matter what’s inside.  We all look alike on the outside, and we keep any disagreement carefully concealed.

If this is faith, you can have my share.  If this is Christianity, I’ll pass.

But it isn’t.  Faith is a vibrant, living, breathing thing.  Christianity is a relationship.  There has never been a lasting relationship that had no room for doubts and questions.  There has never been a true relationship that couldn’t survive some real, honest discussion.  In fact there has never been a true relationship that could survive without it.

So, I ask my fellow Christians – and beyond that, I ask my fellow humans – can we please keep our doctrines and beliefs where they belong?  I would love to sit down with anyone and have a conversation that says, “In my experience, and to my understanding, this is how God seems to be…” Then we can offer feedback to each other.  But can we please stop picking up those beliefs and smashing them over each other’s heads?

And specifically to my Christian family…

Can we learn the difference between unity and uniformity?  The world does not need to see a band of robots swallowing orders and towing the party line.  If they want that, they can get into politics.  What the world needs to see is real people being real.  They need to see a different sort of society in which we can disagree.  We can even disagree about some very fundamental things.  But those disagreements do not have to be a source of division.  Maybe we can maintain our disagreements in love.  We can disagree without saying, “You are no longer welcome here” or “You have no more valid opinions because we disagree on this.”

My heart breaks with longing for a time in which we can disagree with love and respect because we know that God is bigger than our ideas about God.  Grace is stronger than legalism.  Love is stronger than hate.  And as Rob Bell says, “The Good News is better than that.”

I love you,

-A

P.s.- as usual, I am indebted to Peter Rollins for much of my thought here. If any of this strikes you, I’d suggest you check him out asap. http://www.peterrollins.net