How to Vote with God – an election day message from Jeremiah

Tomorrow is the big day. We will all vote and bring to fruition this 18 month-long election season, which has been divisive, anxiety-inducing, disturbing, and unnerving. We’ve seen the worst in each other, the worst in ourselves, and will have to come terms with the outcome; which, at this point, very few will be able to take any satisfaction in. I wish I could say that this will all come to an end tomorrow, but I think we all know that’s not true. There will be some fall-out, some hard feelings, and backlash.

I’ve been fairly opinionated on who and what I support, and I understand if some of you are coming into reading this with suspicion, that I’m going to lay out a biblical argument for the candidate I have chosen, or particular propositions. But this post is not for that. This post is something of a sermon about what should be on the minds and hearts of the Christian who walks into a voting booth tomorrow. It’s a sermon about how to live in a place and participate in its well-being. As the reader, it is up to you to interpret how this applies to your own ballot, to your local elections and measures, and ultimately to your candidate. I don’t seek to change anyone’s mind or anyone’s vote with this sermon. If anything, I hope that it will only change your posture: the way you see yourself as participating in the process of voting, in engaging with the world in a political way. If we agree on nothing else, I hope we can all agree that we want to vote in Christian kinds of ways; ways that make this world that God loves more like the one God is reconciling us to become. Voting is only one tiny part of how we do that, but it is a valuable one.

As we anxiously enter our polling places, maybe the comforting words of scripture come to our minds. I know that many of us, when we need a verse of comfort, often turn to Jeremiah 29:11. Most of us can quote this on command:

 “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

This is great news for a country in a state like ours, and no one could blame you for quoting this to yourself this week, or at any other period of stress in your life individually or in our shared life politically. It’s important to remember that God is pulling us toward a better future, and that there is always hope. God is not crumpling us up like a failed art project to start over, but is always finding new ways to work with the mess we’ve made to bring a hope and a future.

What is a huge bummer, in my opinion, is that everyone quotes Jeremiah 29:11 and never reads the rest of Jeremiah 29. It’s common Christian practice to take a single verse and make it into a mantra or “life-verse”, and I do think this has some value. But often it robs the verse of much of its meaning, because the Bible is not a collection of helpful sayings and sentences, but a dynamic collection of various writings that bear witness in hundreds of different ways to the work of God in history. When we take out a sentence, we sometimes take it from the middle of a poem, from a letter written to a specific audience, from a history book or a parable. At worst, we can end up believing some terrible things because we don’t do diligence to the source of our “verse”. (This is called proof-texting, and has done immeasurable damage to Christians and those they encountered for thousands of years.)

Reading Jeremiah 29:11 in its context is so much better. You find out who it was originally intended for, what it meant to them, and you can see yourself even better in it. And then you come to discover that these promises of God have been fulfilled in the past, and you learn exactly what it is that God expects out of us in order to find this “plan” that God has laid out for us.

What does this have to do with voting? Well, Jeremiah 29 is a letter written to the people of God who are in exile. And I have come to believe, and suspect that you might too, that our current situation as Christians in America can best be described by this same narrative: exile. We are strangers in a land where we once had a foothold, a primary seat at the table, and now we are all scattered and disillusioned and fiercely divided. Now, we can argue about how we got here. (I’ll save that sermon for another time, but if you want my thoughts, read the book of Micah.) But at the present moment, in America, we Christians are in Exile! There are conservative Christians and liberal Christians and everything in between, none of whom can really get along at all, and our leaders don’t really stand for any of us. As many news sources have announced, (and many great scholars have been saying for fifty years,) the Evangelical political machine has all but died, and we’re all left not knowing quite how we got here or what to do about it. It’s a horrible situation. It’s what has caused our churches to die, for young people to leave church altogether, and for an election like this one to even be possible. Something is dying.

But the news is not all bad. For one thing, we’re not the first people to go through this, and now more than ever we can look to the part of our Bibles we’ve been neglecting and see teachings that have long been forgotten. (Trust me, those pages aren’t as crinkly as the other ones in American Bibles.) Secondly, it’s okay not to be afraid that something is dying, because we happen to be people who believe in a God that brings things back from the dead. (Your mind might jump to the Resurrection of Jesus, but you can stay in the prophets and read Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones and get a sense that God can even bring Exiles back.)

And Jeremiah 29 is specifically written to those in Exile who are asking this important question: “How do we live, as people of God, in a place and a time when being the people of God doesn’t carry as much weight anymore?” I think if we’re honest, this is the question of this election.

If you feel so bold, take a moment to read Jeremiah 29:4-14. If you want, read all of Jeremiah 29, or read all of Jeremiah! It won’t disappoint. But I want to highlight a few messages for Exiles like us from this letter of Jeremiah, from the words of God to God’s people who found themselves in a similar situation. Each one will first be a word of what to do as people who find themselves in exile, and the second one will be a word of how to participate in that by how we vote.

1.  Get Comfortable, and Be Present. God says to those in Exile that it’s going to be a while. Verse 5 says to build houses and plant gardens. In other words, this Exile might be for a while, and you’re not going anywhere. One thing you will learn if you spend time in the prophets is that, for God’s purposes, the Exile was not an accident. It was a judgment, and the Bible bears witness to God letting the Exile happen as part of the journey of the people of God. It’s not a time to get angry or cast blame as to how we got here. It’s a time to build houses and plant gardens. Get comfortable in this place that God has led us to. We may not be a “Christian nation” anymore, but God is still God, and God is just as much God in Sweden, in Iran, in Russia, in Australia and Austria as God is God here today, yesterday, and tomorrow, and God has led us here. 

To be honest and obedient in where God has led us is to be present and local in our participation. It means that where we have found ourselves matters, both in place, and in time. Don’t spend your time longing for a bygone era, wishing to go back there. Don’t flee to another place where you think God might be more God in. Be where you are, be when you are, and seek God there. Pay attention to local elections and measures, and seek God’s best in the minutiae. Chances are that more of your neighbors’ lives be be affected by the Propositions that you didn’t research than by who gets to live in the White House.

2. Invest, and Think Ahead. Verse 6 expands this idea by telling Exiles to get married, to have children, and for those children to have children. It makes this point again that this Exile might be for a while, so put down roots where you are rather than being anxious about where you wish you might be. More so, it is a call to invest in the future. Maybe the hope that you have may not come to fruition in your lifetime, but the choices that you make now will affect how many will experience God in the future.

Thinking ahead means voting in such a way that goes beyond the immediate moment and its needs and asks what kind of world we are creating for our children and our grandchildren. It means not only caring about how candidates and propositions determine the things that we think are the most important, but how they will come to affect multiple generations ahead of us. What world are we creating for them? When they read the history books, what will they think of the decisions we made?

3. Everyone’s welfare is your welfare. This is the most important teaching that I think the prophet Jeremiah has for our political engagement as people of God. When we quote Jeremiah 29:11 out of context, we are hoping for God’s prosperity and welfare. When the verse says, “plans to prosper you”, a better translation is “plans for your prosperity/welfare/peace”. That word is a noun, and it’s the Hebrew word “shalom”. You’ve probably heard of it. It has a wide meaning, but is often translated “peace”. More than that, it means God’s perfect peace realized on Earth. And that is what we’re all after, isn’t it? Well, earlier in the passage, God actually tells us exactly where to find that shalom. Verse 7 says, “Seek the [shalom] of the city to which I have exiled you, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its [shalom] you will find your [shalom].”

Boom. Wow. This is the message of Jeremiah, the hope for participating where we feel exiled. This is fulfillment of Jeremiah 29:11. Every time you’ve quoted this verse seeking God’s plan for your welfare, you were only four verses from its fulfillment. Do you want God’s peace on you, on your family, on your church or on your country? Seek God’s peace for everyone in your city, and you’ll find it. This should come as no surprise for followers of Jesus, and yet it always seems to still catch us by surprise.

As people in Exile, the way we find God’s favor for ourselves and for our country is by seeking welfare for everyone. This is not Welfare with a capital ‘W’, though that may be part of the answer. But as people of God who enter a voting booth tomorrow, please remember this if nothing else: if you vote for your own welfare, for yourself or your own betterment, and you are not also voting for the benefit of everyone who finds themselves in your city – you will not find your welfare there. You will find peace and prosperity for yourself and your family when you seek it for everyone else, especially the least among you. This is the lesson that Israel forgot and brought them to Exile. This is the lesson that America forgets time and time again.

4.  Ignore False Prophets. It’s interesting that when we name the famous prophets of the Bible, we name Jeremiah and Isaiah and Micah and Ezekiel. The truth is there were tons of prophets at that time, and those four were some of the least popular. For the most part, they were hated and despised, because they told the actual word of God, rather than what people wanted to hear. There are prophets who feed into what you already believe and your current prejudices, who stir up things in you to get you riled up for a cause, or distracted from another one. The prophets who are truly from God don’t tend to get much credit until long after their time, and sometimes not even then.

This election, we’ve seen religious leaders, pastors, professors, and candidates spout religion and quote verses in support of their candidates. Both of the major candidates profess Christianity at their convenience, and otherwise fail to uphold anything remotely close to it. You can Google a Christian defense of Trump, Hillary, and everything on the ballot. However much it is possible for you, tune these people out. Seek out Christian leaders who you trust, who you actually know, not just ones who made videos you used to watch or pastors a big fancy church you’ve heard of. If all else fails, seek out true prophets of the past, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, or Jesus. Study them, and see if you don’t find them speaking truth into your ballot.

And finally, remember to hope. Exile may be for a while. Whoever is elected, whatever gets passed or not, God will be God, and God is bending this whole world toward Shalom. This passage brings this message in full force for those of us who need to hear it, that if we heed these words and at the end of our Exile:

“When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will give heed to you. You will search for me and find me, if only you seek me wholeheartedly. I will be at hand for you – declares the Lord – and I will restore your fortunes. And I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places to which I have banished you – declares the Lord – and I will bring you back to the place from which I have exiled you.”

As you vote tomorrow, vote with hope. Vote knowing that however fed up you are with how things are and how they’ve become, that God is still God, and you are here to seek God’s best for where you are. Seek God’s best for your city, and you’ll find God’s best for yourself. Seek God’s best for the generations who will come long after you’re gone, and you’ll find it for yourself. Seek God’s Shalom in the voting booth, and everywhere you go afterwards.

Peace, my friends, and Godspeed.

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The Question

Last week, a coworker of mine asked me a question. Not just any question, “the” Question. I’m talking about the Question that every youth pastor told you was coming, the Question you were begging people to ask you the week after Church camp, and, ultimately, the Question that no-one ever actually asks you.

“Why do you believe in God?”

To be fair… my coworker is a Christian, and she knows I am a theology and ministry student at Fuller. So the question wasn’t loaded in the same way that summer teen camps and evangelism class anticipated it would be. It was simply one Christian experiencing some healthy doubt asking another Christian that is supposed to know how to answer such things for a perspective.

The timing wasn’t great, as we work in a Market, and I asked if I could get back with her, because I tend to be wordy, we were starting to get busy, and because I think through things better by writing them out.

So this is an academic confession, a reflection, and maybe even a testimony. A confession in that I admit to not being able to say much; a reflection in that I will explore the way that answering this question has hurt many people, and a testimony because I am answering what is, at its heart, a personal question.

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Continue reading “The Question”

Homosexuality: An Occasion for Unity

We are in a time of seismic movement in the Church. Many denominations are just now beginning to grapple seriously with a variety of questions surrounding homosexuality.

These are questions I have wrestled with over the last few years. And as of this point, I’m unable and unwilling to answer them definitively. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing on the topic, but I’m a bit stuck. I think, on the conservative side, there are very important issues at stake and hesitation is warranted. On the progressive side, I think there are some very interesting biblical and experiential arguments to be made on the topic that may shape the way we see things.

But this post is not about what I think about homosexuality. This is a post about how we should begin the discussion in a denominational/church setting.

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Why Hymns Are Better

As a result of a Facebook status that got a lot of attention, I’ve decided to write this post. It’s often the case that a status or Tweet is not worthy of the attention and thoughtfulness that certain subjects require. It became evident to me that this particular subject deserved more than 140 characters, as many people “liked” it and some others disagreed, respectfully. After talking it over with some friends and thinking about it more, I discovered there’s more I want to say.

I want to give three reasons that I think hymns are better than contemporary praise songs. I think they are better:

  1. Musically
  2. Lyrically
  3. Theologically

The third one is the one that really matters, and why I chose to write this post. You can chalk the first two up to aesthetics and preferences, but the third one is something I think deeply matters for the church, and perhaps the other two do as well.

A few side notes.

I want to say that I’m only speaking of the songs I know. That means the hymns that have survived this long, not ALL hymns, and it also means only the contemporary songs I’ve heard. That being said, I’ve worshipped in many, many congregations, and have found myself in a “worship leader” position in several churches, youth groups, retreats, camps, etc. So I am quite familiar with the common songs of today.

I’m not talking about YOUR church, and I’m not talking about YOUR songs. I’m speaking of the church generally, and what I recognize to be the popular and oft-heard songs across the evangelical world. I truly believe there are churches doing more than this.

Secondly, I want to emphasize that I don’t fault any churches, worshippers, or worship leaders, and I especially don’t want to take away from anyone’s religious experience in musical worship. If you’ve found God in modern worship songs, then Praise God for that. I wouldn’t dare limit God’s ability to function and bless even if we gathered every week and sang the ABC’s. That being said, I do think there is more to consider.

Let’s jump in, shall we?

 

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Should Christians Support Football?

On Saturday, a young man from Tulane university, a senior studying cellular/molecular biology, suffered a broken neck, damage to his spinal column and a collapsed lung when he collided with a fellow player in a college football game against Tulsa University.

I wrote this post on Friday night, waiting to publish it on Sunday when people would have more time to read it and would maybe read it while watching a game or two. I didn’t anticipate such a devastating example of what I’m writing about. Thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.

Unlike a lot of my posts, I’m not here to make a bold statement, or stir up controversy. I’m here to ask a question, and to open up dialogue. There’s a few reasons why: one is because a recent post on faith and science has shown me that some of my readers are willing to comment and have really great things to say.

But I must confess that the reason that I leave this question very open-ended is because I haven’t decided on an answer yet.

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God, Money, and the Gospel of Shrewdness – Luke 16: 1-13

The relationship between God and money is a tricky one. Some Christians have a LOT of money, and some don’t. There are several murky issues in dealing with charity and wealth and poverty. Which charity do you give to? Do only Christian charities deserve my money? Is it better to donate to a non-profit than to tithe to the Church? How much of tithe money is spent outside of the Church’s walls? Can a person be exceptionally wealthy and a follower of Christ?

These are not issues I think I can resolve. I simply want to add to the conversation with some observations, and a weird parable of Jesus that I think challenges us in a unique way.

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On Mars, Chicken Sandwiches, Creationism and Bill Nye the Science Guy

For those that follow me on Facebook, I was pretty vocal on the Chick-Fil-A scandal a few weeks ago. Basically put, the CEO of Chick-Fil-A made a statement that he supported a biblical definition of marriage, excluding same sex marriage. This, of course, sparked controversy and turned eating (or NOT eating) a chicken sandwich into a political statement. This sparked at least two amusing tweets:

And the always hilarious Conan O’Brien:

But this blog post is not about that. To me this is old news, over and done with, and I’ve already said my peace about it. The reason I am resurfacing this is because of another Tweet that caught my eye that day. I remembered this particular one because it represents a classic rivalry between Religion and Science, a debate that caught my eye again with a video I saw last night. But we’ll sort through all that in a minute. Here’s the Tweet:

Ouch. That stings a bit.

It’s a little unfortunate for us that these events happened at the same time. Sure, this Tweet is one-sided, and at least a little unfair. But it should also be convicting. In the grand scheme of things, we spent a day arguing about chicken while the world watched as unbelievable technology landed on Mars.

I’ll admit outright that I’ve never been all that intrigued by astronomy. I never wanted to be an astronaut, I’m not all that into sci-fi… and along those same lines, science classes were always my least favorite, and my lowest grades.

And this has always come as a surprise to people, considering my last name. From kindergarten to college, people managed to make the connection that I share a last name with the exuberant and brilliant Bill Nye the Science Guy. Funny enough, everyone always thought they were the first person to make that connection.

I do enjoy Bill. I refer to him affectionately as Uncle Bill, even though there is no relation. From his quirky show on PBS to seeing him as a meteorological expert on CNN during the storms in Japan, Bill always had a knack for making science relatable and accessible, all while rocking an amazing bowtie.

A video surfaced within the last couple days where good ol’ Uncle Bill seems to have an agenda. In the video, Bill Nye addresses the age old debate of creationism vs evolution in a way that left many less-than-thrilled.

Watch the video here

Again, harsh! Uncle Bill seems to have an axe to grind!

Now I’m probably going to get in trouble here… but I think Bill Nye is right. But… I also think he’s wrong. Let’s see if we can parse this out.

Continue reading “On Mars, Chicken Sandwiches, Creationism and Bill Nye the Science Guy”

A Fuller Education

I don’t frequently use this blog as a means of sharing personal information. It’s more of an outlet for my thoughts and musings on what I’m learning and experiencing related to God, theology, and life. But since this is something that deserves some explanation and I want to make it available to a large audience (since I know that a lot of people are invested in me and care about my future), this seemed like the best way.

For the last year I’ve been attending Fuller Seminary online from here in Oklahoma City. This was my original school of choice for my Master’s after SNU. The reason I delayed moving out to California, where the school is located, was primarily money-based. I had cheap living and a bankable income at a job I enjoyed here in OK, and had neither of those things lined up for me in CA. In addition, I was nervous about starting over in a new place, with no friends, connections or contacts. I would complete the first year online and move out there in the Fall of 2012.

As the year went by, the inevitable happened. I began to become very attached to OKC. I began building more relationships and loyalties now as a graduate actively involved in culture. I changed churches and began to be a part of OKC First Church of the Nazarene, which has been incredible and life-changing for me. It began to look less and less appealing to say goodbye to all of these things for California. I began to explore the option of transferring to NTS (Nazarene Theological Seminary), which I could do through a module program at SNU, which I still live near.

For a while I was entirely 50/50 on these two choices. And honestly, for a while, I was leaning toward NTS. It is definitely the more comfortable choice for me. As I’ve said, I’ve built something of a life out here, and to leave will truly be to tear myself away.

But a lot of things have been swirling around my brain lately. I’ve been praying for clarity, and lately I think I’ve gotten it. I watched as my friends graduated from the same program I graduated from just over one year ago, and I was forced to think about where I am compared to where I was, and to remember what my undergrad education meant to me.

And it occurred to me that I have really been approaching this decision wrongly. I’ve been thinking about which one is best for me in the long run, which I think is how most people approach these kinds of decisions. And that’s what made it so hard – is it better for me to get a better education (Fuller), or to maintain connections, relationships, and comfort (NTS)? – and both seemed to have significant weight and importance to me and my future.

But I was reminded of something Dr. Crutcher told all of us incoming freshman in the theology department five years ago. It was early on, before we were broken in, and while I don’t think I always lived it out, this thought resurfaced many times through my academic career. He told us that, as future ministers, our education mattered most not to us, but to our future parishioners. Every little bit we can manage to learn, every extra book we can read, every class session we can attend, can make a difference later on when a parishioner comes to us with something important, or we struggle to make sense of a text we are preaching on. I remember thinking that our situation was similar to those in the nursing and medical programs – every little bit they learn can save someone’s life.

And frankly, I’d rather have the doctor that went to the better school.. and truly, I’d rather have the Pastor that went to the better Seminary. This is nothing against NTS, I think it’s a great school, and great men and women and pastors have come out of that school. But right now, for me, the kind of student I am and the kind of pastor I want to be, Fuller is the better school. I will be challenged more, I will learn more, I will learn better… and that is why I chose it to begin with.

So for this reason, and lots of others, I will be attending Fuller Theological Seminary as a resident student in September of this year. Thanks to everyone who helped me make this decision, it wasn’t an easy one. My parents were incredibly patient and supportive every time I called home to tell them where I was at with it. They have always helped me think through things clearly and correctly, and even supported me when I wasn’t. My friends were great as well, asking me the tough questions and not letting me get away with any bad thinking or decision-making. Daniel, Carson and Garron have listened to me babble about this decision for far too many hours, from the time that I was 100% going to Fuller, 50-50, 90% going to NTS, and now back to my 100% commitment to Fuller. And Carson single-handedly saved me from turning that 90% NTS into a 100% before I had really thought through it. And I have to thank the professors I’ve stayed in contact with since graduation. Dr. Dunnington and Dr. Michelson have become great friends and pushed me to keep thinking, keep working, and keep stay grounded. And even though we haven’t stayed in great contact, Dr. Crutcher spoke with me at graduation and it was that conversation that brought to mind the conviction that my education was more valuable to me than I had given it credit for. And mostly, I guess I thank God, for giving me some final clarity on this. It took a while… and I felt like I really wrestled with God on this one, and we reached a place we are mutually satisfied with. Thanks to everyone I didn’t mention, and wish me luck. It’s going to be scary. I have no job lined up, no church I’m set on being involved with, no place in mind to live, etc. But that will come. It only gets more and more interesting from here.

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…here I come.

Mark Dris-cult?

If you haven’t read this article, you should

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/faithbased/2012/02/mars_hill_pastor_mark_driscoll_faces_backlash_over_church_discipline_case_.html

For those of you that don’t want to take the time to read it, it basically details an incident at the Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which neo-Calvinist pastor Mark Driscoll leads. The incident in question involves a church member who, it was discovered through his own confession, was engaging in pre-marital sex with his fiance and other sexual acts with another woman. Following this member’s confession, he was, to use the classical church vocabulary on this, excommunicated. What’s more, other church members were instructed to not engage in any contact or fellowship with this man as a part of his punishment.

There has been a lot of outcry on this matter, and rightfully so. Driscoll has always been on my radar because of his authoritarian, over-masculine, and, well, Calvinist beliefs and teachings. But while many agree with him theologically, this incident has put him under scrutiny from even many of his neo-Calvinist followers.

And I think this outrage is rightfully deserved. Our general instinct is that this crossed the line. I think the general public opinion here is that Christians ought to be able to love and entertain and fellowship with people in our churches who have made mistakes. This is why we are upset.

But here’s the thing: do we actually practice this ourselves?

I’ve seen and heard about a few church scandals in my day. Never once have I seen the pastor respond in these situations by telling the church members to ostracize the person.

But most times, the person has been ostracized by the church community. See, this is something we do on our own quite well.

Now, please hear me: I don’t mean to say that Driscoll’s actions were right. By no means. What I would like to point out, however, is that the outrage we express at Driscoll’s actions ought to be reflected in the way we treat these same kinds of people in our own churches without the pastor’s instructions.

I can’t help but think that this particular person would’ve experienced the exact same abandonment and public scorn in most of our churches. The only difference is that at Mars Hill, it was sponsored by the leadership officially.

Is it this way at your church? My hope is no, but my suspicion is yes. And we ought to be at least a little leery of taking the speck out of the other’s eye when we have a big nasty plank in our own. And we ought to pray that protect all of our eyes from a clearly unsafe lumber yard. (Over-extending the metaphor five!)

May we take our outrage on this issue seriously. May we be the kinds of people that when such an issue arises in our own churches, we remember how upset we were that the church was not able to be there for this man, and reach out to those in our congregations who have lost their way. And may we, only with God’s help, be the kinds of churches that show grace and love freely.

What is Faith?

This post has been on my mind for months and months now. I had the basic idea for it way back when, and have been developing it (very) gradually since, but now that I have a functional computer and am reading a book that accelerated the thought process for me, it is time I put this down.

The basic premise for this post comes from countless conversations I’ve had with Christians and non-Christians about the way I’ve come to believe about the world in light of my Christian education. Let’s take a few examples: I have come to believe that the life and teachings of Jesus call me to a life of redemptive non-violence, that therefore war is never justifiable, and that the best way to conquer one’s enemies is through love. I have come to believe that the livelihood of the poor and the disenfranchised in the world falls upon the entire community, especially the Christian, because we are committed to the belief that all are made in the image of God, and that everything I have is not my own (not because I have earned it or even deserve it), but is given to me by God in order to serve the world.

Now, the many objections I have received to these suggestions typically sound something like this: “That’s nice and all, Kevin, but that’s not the way the world works. It’s just not practical to believe that way.” It’s chalked up to being nothing more than naive optimism, and I’m usually told that when I’m older, I’ll understand better. It is believed by what I would suggest is the vast majority of the population that violence can be redemptive, and is sometimes the only option in a given situation. President Bush was criticized for his “bring the fight to them” tactic in response to 9/11, and yet shortly after entering office, President Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan, giving his own speech about war being necessary and redemptive.

With that as the backdrop, I want to take a look at a brief verse I think most of us are familiar with. Hebrews 11:1 reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” I want to ask the question then, What is it that we hope for, and yet do not see?

Typically, this verse is interpreted to be talking about a general belief in God. We don’t see God, and yet we believe anyway. Therefore we have faith. Allow me to suggest, however, that in the eleventh chapter of a long discourse detailing the nature of salvation, the identity of Christ, among many other topics, the author of Hebrews is not seizing the opportunity to make a Sunday School argument that we ought to believe in God even though we don’t see God. Especially since the community being written to is already an assembly of believing Christians.

What I would like to suggest, then, is that the things that we hope for and do not see, are those same tenets that Jesus taught and yet we have written off as being “impractical”. Jesus taught that we are to love our enemies, and that rather than retaliation we should more willingly be struck again. He taught that the poor among us are to be treated as if they were Christ himself, and that the way we deal with them has implications for eternity (Matthew 6). And yet we have written off such ideas as pacifism or socialism (gasp!) as being impractical and impossible.

But I think it all boils down to what kind of world we believe in. If we believe that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, and that we are merely trying to get through this life to get to heaven later, then I would tend to agree with these fatalistic, pessimistic views on social action. However, if you believe that through Christ, God is reconciling the world unto Godself, that the Kingdom of God is bursting forth in the midst of this one, that we live in a world of abundance in which the birds and the lillies never want or need, and where love truly, truly conquers all, then EVERYTHING changes.

This thing we call faith, then, is not simply about believing in God rather than not. Faith is believing that the world really is the way Jesus taught that it is, even though it doesn’t appear to be that way. Faith is believing that responding to violence with redemptive love and humility is actually the best way, even though the world tells us that retaliation is justified. Faith is believing that the destiny of the poor among us falls on our shoulders, even though the world tells us that it is not our burden or responsibility. Faith is being sure that the world we hope for (the Kingdom of God) is real and among us, and certain that the world can be that way, even though we don’t see it fully realized right now.

I will finish with a quote from a phenomenal book I’m reading called How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins: “Faith, although not born at the crucifixion, is put on trial there.” The crucifixion was the point where all who had followed Jesus believed that it was over, that the movement had died. All practical belief that Jesus was the Messiah ended at the crucifixion, and would not be revitalized until the Resurrection. Crucifixion is where our faith is tested, where what we see is devastation and the death of an “optimistic” view of the world, and we are given the opportunity to either forget all we have learned or to believe that Resurrection is around the corner. I choose to believe that even though the world looks like a place of violence, poverty, greed, and hatred, Resurrection is coming.

So I Was Thinking About Hell Today…

With the flurry of discussion per the publishing of Love Wins, and the subsequent publishing of evangelical responses, hell has been on my mind. I haven’t hidden the fact that I support Bell’s book and the ideas found in it. But today I was thinking about these things while I was in the shower, which is where most of my brilliant thought happens, and something hit me.

When evangelicals defend the concept of eternal hell, they do so by making a case that many people deserve hell. One thing I’ve often heard is, “So if there’s no hell, does that mean Hitler is in heaven?”

Because not many people want to share heaven with Hitler. And that seems reasonable. If anyone deserves to go to hell, it’s Hitler right? We are quite comfortable with a doctrine of hell because it matches our sense of justice.

But the same doctrine that says Hitler is burning in hell for torturing and killing Jews also holds that anyone who has not accepted Christ will burn in hell along with Hitler.

What we are forced to accept, then, is that the very same Jews who we hold Hitler in the utmost contempt for torturing and killing are burning in hell right along with him.

And can we really believe that? Because frankly, I have a hard time with that.

Hell doesn’t fit our sense of justice anymore.

Furthermore, how can we suggest that Hitler is deserving of hell for the earthly torture of the Jewish people and in the same breath believe in a God that would send those same people to torture for eternity?

That’s a tough thing to swallow. Can we really believe in a God like that?

Now I know that IF God is truly like that, then it doesn’t matter whether we want to believe in that God. I don’t want to suggest that we construct God based on how we wish God to be.

However, I do wish to suggest that a God that would do such a thing as we have suggested with our doctrine of hell is not consistent with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. A God of boundless love, quick to forgive, willing to sacrifice his own self to overcome that which had overcome us. I wish to suggest that those are not the same God, and that if I must choose, I will choose Jesus, who is the fullest revelation of the nature and character of God.

Just some food for thought.

The Most Holy Irreverence

On Facebook I’ve had a bit of a running status series called “Only at Penn Avenue”. I post one of these whenever something happens at my church (Penn Avenue Church of the Nazarene) that is shocking, hilarious, unorthodox, or all the above. Some of my favorites include:

Only at Penn Avenue would you try to point out the guy that looks like Morgan Freeman by saying “It’s the guy sitting behind the woman holding the puppy!”

Only at Penn, a big guy, easily 250, gets up onstage at CR and says ‘Hi my name is flynn, and i struggle with anorexia and confusion’. Brilliant!

Only at Penn Avenue… a woman walked up to me while I was on stage talking, in the middle of a service, and handed me a half-eaten ice cream cone, hugged me and walked away

Only at Penn, a guy just stole two garbage bags of kfc donated for dinner tonight. He is being pursued on foot by several church members.

Now, aside from the theft described in the last one, these statuses describe for me a kind of church without any presuppositions. Penn has something that not many churches have, but a lot of churches badly need: the ability to walk in the door, as you are, and for that to be okay.

Because I really believe that is the kind of church that embodies the Kingdom. Why is it that when we walk into church we feel that we have to have our best face on? Isn’t the Church supposed to be a people of honesty? Of transformation? Of transparency? And yet we’re more comfortable showing our true selves in every other place but the church. We feel the need to fit into some “churchy” mold and not stand out, and we never realize the kind of community we were created to be.

And the saddest part is that we do it in the name of “worshiping God”. What kind of God are we worshiping that we restrict ourselves to solemnity and dishonesty in the house of the Lord? If we are truly made in the image of God, why do we hide our most sincere image when we gather to worship that God?

At Penn, there is no such “reverence”. People often shout out things during sermons. The people with the worst voices tend to sing the loudest. People bring pets and make jokes. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because the same “irreverence” that produces some of these awkward experiences often results in some of the most authentic community I’ve ever seen. In my first month, a man who I had just recently become friends with leaned over to me in the middle of a sermon to confess to me that he had relapsed on drugs. I was able to pray for him right then and our friendship grew from then on. Another time, I heard a man say once, “On Tuesday nights I used to drive down to the crack house and spend all my money on drugs. Now on Tuesdays I drive my kids to soccer practice.”  If that isn’t the Kingdom of God in action I don’t know what is.

I don’t mean to say that Penn is perfect. Nor do I mean to suggest that all churches should have no reverence in worship and just do whatever they want on Sundays. All I mean to say is that at Penn Avenue, I have tasted and seen a church with no presumptions or requirements for dress, behavior, or social standing; and I have seen that it is beautiful.

To finish off this post, I will quote two more statuses about Penn from the past, in the knowledge that it is only because we are the kind of church that produces statuses like those earlier that we are able to produce statuses like these.

A guest speaker at Penn: “If Jesus were to come back today, I believe we would find him sitting there, across the parking lot, eating with people like you.”

“We are just a bunch of unlovely people, serving a very lovely God, who is making us better.”

A Brief Thought about Genesis 3

I’m reading through Genesis 3 thoroughly alongside a terrific commentary (Interpretation Series, Genesis, Walter Brueggemann), and something just struck me that I thought I should write about.

The function of the serpent in Genesis 3 is fascinating. The way that the serpent specifically “tempts” humanity is not how Christians today I think would expect. As Brueggemann writes, “The serpent says back God’s speech in just enough of a twist to miss the point. The serpent grossly misrepresents God in 3:1 and is corrected by the woman in verses 2-3. But by then the misquotation has opened up to consciousness the possibility of an alternative to the way of God. From that point on, things become distorted.”

See, in Genesis 2, regarding the boundaries and prohibition of the trees, death is mentioned, but it is not highlighted. The trees becomes a symbol for the way God created the world to function in structured ways of freedom and vocation and boundaries, for the purpose of life. The serpent presents an alternate view, that God is a God of crime and punishment, of prohibition alone, of death. But God is a God of freedom, allowance, and love as demonstrated in the creation poetry thus far.

Why do so many of us view God in the way of the serpent? We fear a God who judges, punishes, and condemns based on the law, not realizing that the God of creation is Love, and has made all that is for the flourishing of life!

Most interesting, though, is that Christians so often see the biggest threat as atheism. We fear that those who proclaim there is no God are the enemy, and that a world that doesn’t believe in God is taking over.

But the temptation of the serpent is not to deny the existence of God, but to change our view of the character of God. The serpent convinces humanity that God is not one of Love, life, and active participation, but of punishment, law and distance. I think what we learn from this is that far more dangerous than not believing in God at all is falling for a deception of what God’s character is. Perhaps this is why Jesus is so important for a “new creation”: Jesus is the fullest reflection of God’s character, and Jesus was full of love, acceptance, and sacrificial peacemaking.

Any image of God that does not look like Jesus is a distortion, the ultimate temptation. What we believe about the nature and character of God will change EVERYTHING.

May we not be deceived by poor theologies and teachings that show us a character of God other than what we see in Jesus, lest we be tempted just like those in the story of Genesis 3.

Imago Dei

One of the more interesting ways we can understand better the meaning of a biblical text is to look at when it was written, why it was written and to whom it was written. Getting the context of a book or passage reveals so much more about its character and meaning than just a straight reading. Imagine reading or seeing “The Crucible” without understanding that it was written as an allegory to McCarthyism. It’s still an interesting, engaging story about the Salem Witch Trials, but it loses its edge entirely without understanding its historical context.

I want to look at Genesis for this post. I was reading a Genesis commentary by the amazing Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, you know, like normal people do for fun. I was reading about Genesis 1:26, the verse where God declares, “Let us make man in our own image” and then does. There is SO much heavy theological meaning in this passage, even through a simple reading of it, but the context shows what a radical and dangerous statement this really is.

The early writings of the Old Testament survived centuries not through writing, btu through oral tradition, spoken word passed down. (This doesn’t challenge its validity persay; you can find various studies and historical data that shows how significant details and strict memorization were in oral tradition to the early Mesopotamian cultures). Most scholars agree that much of the Pentateuch, and the most probably these creation stories, were finally written down and circulated during the time of the Exile.

During the darkest time in early Jewish history, as the people of God were subject to the rule and authority of a foreign, pagan nation, the circulation of the Genesis stories and how God rescued them in the Exodus reminded the people who they were, and whose they were, and gave them hope in the midst of that dark time.

The reason that the imago dei was so dangerous and radical was because of the very nature of “graven images”. It was obviously part of their Law that they make no idols or false images of God. A lot of times we think that the Israelites were always making images of other gods, and a lot of times that was the case, but even the idea of making their God, Yahweh, into a statue or a graven image was offensive and degrading. This was one of the paganistic tendencies of the Babylonians, whose rule they were now under in Exile. The Babylonians were notoroious for making statues, images and idols to try and “contain” God or gods, to limit deity to something they can see and control. To try and capture the image of God, the imago dei, was blasphemy.

And the daring, risky, radical declaration of this Genesis passage, in the midst of this context, is that there is one thing that can reflect the image of God on earth, one thing that had the stamp of the imago dei: man and woman. Humanity.

Man (as a gender-inclusive term, as it is in the text) is the only “image” of God on the earth. This image is not perfect, of course. Christian theology of all spectrums affirms some degree of loss of this image with sin, but the image is still there.

Creativity. Love. Compassion. Forgiveness. Salvation. Redemption. All of these characteristics that mark the imago dei are alive and dying to burst forth in humanity. That anything could be an image of God on earth would have been a bold, dangerous statement for any good Jew to read and affirm, especially during the Exile, and yet it is there. Just like a lot of the biblical text would have done originally, it would have caused the readers to say, “Really? REEEAAALLLLYYY???” (Shout out to Dr. Michelson on that one.)

Obviously there are a lot of implications for this, and I will be blogging very soon about one of them, and probably more later. But I wonder what sort of confidence, love, and comfort we would find if we contemplated the radical nature of this verse, that we bear the image of God, however distorted, and have the calling to reflect it in the world. I’m convinced, as I heard from another professor, that the whole point of all this, the idea of holiness, is the recovery of the imago dei, the perfect reflection of that character, on earth as it is in heaven. What does this mean for the world?

Mother/God

Today is Mother’s Day… and in a Church that’s very comfortable with masculine, fatherly language about God, and on a day like today, it’s important to hear the other side that the Bible pays direct witness to: God as a loving mother.

When God creates in the Genesis poem, God creates them male and female in God’s own image. Right from the very beginning of scripture, what it means to be human, what it means to be male and female, is encapsulated in the Being of God. Rob Bell puts it best when he says, “God transcends and yet includes what we understand as male and female.” God’s image is upon both male and female and that image of God is realized in their relation to each other and to God as a community.

In the poetic drama of Job, as Job finally gets his audience with God, as Job cries out to God saying, “Why have you done this to me? What did I do to deserve this?”, God replies with a startling declaration: “From whose womb has come the ice? And the frost of heaven, who has given it birth?” In the very creative impulse of God is this feminine quality. God has given birth from God’s womb? This radically rejects our overly-masculine imagery of God, saying that deeply ingrained in the way God creates and relates with this earth is a feminine aspect, a motherly instinct that creates and sustains.

In the prophesies of Isaiah, as the prophet is delivering the good news of God’s reconciliation and promise, Isaiah writes the declaration of God, that “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you, Jerusalem.” Inextricably linked with the ways God provides salvation, restoration and covenant is the imagery of a mother as she nourishes, provides and comforts her own child.

But what is most indicative of this feminine, motherly God is the Hebrew word for compassion. The Hebrew word raham that is used countless times in the Old Testament to describe God’s intimate compassion is the same word in the Hebrew language for “womb”. When God is described as compassionate, God is really being described as “like a mother’s womb”. At the very core of the Hebrew scriptures is the idea that God as the creator, sustainer, comforter and compassionate lover, is like a mother.

Mom, when you went through the pain of my birth, and perhaps the even greater pain of my childhood; when you took care of me when I was sick, when you took care of me when you were sick; when you taught me how to read, when you taught me how to live; when you punished me when I did wrong, when you celebrated when I did right; when you helped me dream about my future, when you helped me learn from the past; when you sent me to my first day of full-day kindergarten, when you dropped me off for my first year of college: you were more like God to me than you will ever know.

You taught me what God’s love looks like every moment you spent loving me even when I was a pain. You teach me what it means for God to love me and what it means to love God back every time we talk on the phone, whether I’m telling you about exciting things that are happening or whether I’m bumming money off you because I spend too much at Taco Bell.

Thank you, mom, for being so like God. I love you, and Happy Mother’s Day.

The Judas Theory

While reading John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, (a book which every human should read, immediately,) I stumbled upon a brief mention of a theory about Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, that I found very interesting and insightful. My first response was, of course, to blog about it. In thinking about how to approach it, I thought it might be really cool to do it in a first-person, fiction, short-story form, from the perspective of Judas himself. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that I suck at fiction writing. It is definitely not for me. I wrote the first post, thought it was corny, but posted it anyway with the hope of improving. I didn’t. I wrote the second one and it never got past “Save Draft” on account of sheer lameness.

So this is my reconciliation. I’m going to present the idea and the implications of it like every other blog post. I’m going to leave the more creative writing to the Jon Platters of the world and just do my thing and be happy with it.

The theory about Judas comes in a few parts. The first, foundational part of the theory is the Judas was a zealot. In first century Judaism, there were various sects within Judaism, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. In the gospels, we hear primarily of Jesus clashing with the Pharisees, but Jesus was clearly in opposition to all of these forms of response to Roman rule; in fact, authors like Yoder and Claiborne do an excellent job in explaining Jesus’ ministry through the lens of these groups and its implications. Fascinating stuff. The Zealots were the group that chose to respond to Jewish rule violently. They rallied people together, attacked Roman soldiers, vandalized, pillaged, all for the sake of subversion, and all in the name of the Lord. This sounds extreme, but how extreme is it really? With an Old Testament full of tales of battle and triumph, David of Goliath, Gideon’s small army over the Mideonites, would it be that odd to believe that God was on your side against a violent, oppressive, pagan Roman Empire?

A few things support this theory. In the biblical witness, we are told Judas’ fuller name, Judas Iscariot. Many scholars translate “Iscariot” literally as “Dagger-man”. Iscariot wasn’t a surname; 1st century Judaism didn’t operate under our framework of first name/last name. Even his primary name, Judas, is evidence of this theory. In intertestamental literature, (books written between the Old and New Testaments,) Jewish history speaks of man Judas Maccabeus, a war hero for Israel who fought bravely, boldly and most successfully against the enemies of God’s people. Judas Maccabeus  was of high historical importance, and it was rather recent history; less than 200 years before Jesus. To name a child Judas would’ve carried strong significance, and when you combine it with “the dagger-man”, it seems difficult to separate him from the expectations and fulfillment of a war hero. Its probable that “dagger-man” was an earned name.

Apart from the etymological evidence, the gospel of Matthew pairs Judas with Simon,who is listed specifically as a Zealot. By association, Matthew may have been implying a connection. The works of the first-century historian Josephus, though not “biblical”, speak of Judas in these ways.

Most scholars, whether they affirm it or not, certainly recognize the probability of Judas having been a Zealot. The next part of the theory is much more speculation than historical conclusion, but I submit it nonetheless. The theory says that Judas, when he betrayed Jesus, was not just giving Jesus up for the sake of the money, not because Satan made him do it, not because he was possessed by a demon, and certainly not because God made him do it. Rather, they think that Judas was trying to initiate a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities so that the war could begin.

Think about it: Around this time, having rode into Jerusalem (on a donkey?) and predicting his own death, Jesus would have very much frustrated Judas’ perception of a royal, military Messiah. Judas had witnessed Jesus perform ridiculous healings and miracles, and was there when Peter professed him to be the Christ, the Messiah. Judas would have had the expectation that Jesus would be a military hero, and that Judas himself would have a starring role as one of Jesus’ closest companions. General Judas. Has a nice ring to it.

I wonder if when Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek if he whispered something in his ear, like, “It’s time” or “Here we go”. But like everyone at the time of Jesus, he misunderstood Jesus’ mission. Judas must have been really confused when Jesus taught to love your enemy. Maybe he missed that teaching… And he would’ve been especially upset to hear that Jesus was going to die at the hands of his enemies. The Jewish people had enough dead heroes. Like Judas Maccabeus.

The story also demonstrates that one person got the “violent revolution” memo. Simon Peter pulls out a dagger and cuts off the ear of a guard. But Jesus immediately rebukes him and demonstrates the kind of radical enemy love that is so subversive that it doesn’t make any sense. I can’t imagine the look on Judas’ face when Jesus immediately stopped the impending battle, helped his enemies, and allowed himself to be beaten and taken. Is it any surprise, for a man who had staked his whole life on the idea that God wanted to wage a Holy War on Rome, in the midst of the enemies of God proving victorious even over the Messiah, that Judas would hang himself. The whole purpose of his life seemed for nothing in that moment. Through Judas’ eyes, Rome had finally proved that it was more powerful than even God. The Caesars had claimed Lordship long before, but for the first time, for Judas, they were right.

What do you think are the implications of this? Any critiques?

Inveighing

I am part of a denomination that takes a strong stand on the consumption of alcohol. The stand of the denomination is not moderation, but rather abstinence. It attempts to draw on human experience, scientific findings and social responsibility for justification, since obviously the Bible has nothing against non-abusive alcohol consumption.

The most interesting argument was expressed today in my 8 am class. While it is usually the case that no deep or productive thinking happens so early for me, our class took place in the cafeteria, and coffee was indeed a factor.

The argument went like this: the alcohol industry spends more per year on advertising than the United States spends on education. The alcohol industry is (at least in some way) responsible for the death of minors who consume it and then have fatal car accidents. For these reasons, alcohol as an industry is to be opposed vehemently. Our manual has more to say about alcohol than any other contemporary social issue, and much of the justification is moving toward an opposition to the industry and not necessarily the product.

But using this logic causes some problems. First of all, how are we to justify our support of the gun industry by this reasoning? However you feel about gun laws, it seems to me that we allow ourselves to emphasize personal responsibility when opposing gun control, but throw it out the window when it comes to alcohol. “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” And from the same lips we hear “Alcohol kills people.” Hypocrisy? I prefer the words of a usually less-than-funny comedian: “Guns don’t kill people. Husbands who come home early do.”

Secondly, how we can take such a “Christian” stance against the industry of alcohol but remain silent when large corporations use abusive child labor to make their product cheaply overseas? How can we object to consuming alcohol but have no moral issue with wearing Nike shoes? How can we object to the negative societal effect of Budweiser and their advertising and then turn a blind eye to the ways that Wal-Mart causes and capitalizes on the failure of small businesses?

If we would like to take a strong stance on alcohol, by means of the effects of it as an industry, we have no right to reverse the logic for products we wish to defend, or to remain silent on industries that violate human rights or subvert progressive and fair economics.

Do We Still Need Evangelism?

I had a thought while I was at Starbucks today. I was reading a book for Doctrine of Holiness, and this thought that has nothing at all to do with the book came into my head. Do we still need evangelism?

My reasoning is this: in the great commission, which is the primary biblical justification for evangelism, Jesus commands the disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. Many missionaries have used this as a battle cry, and we’ve taken Christianity basically everywhere. So now what? It seems like Christians have infiltrated nearly every occupation, race, political affiliation, and really every geographical location. (There was even a Christian on the Lost island, but unfortunately he was killed by the Smoke Monster in season 3…)

So it seems like the original idea of evangelism worked. I don’t know to much about Christianity oversees, but it seems like everyone in America knows about Christianity, about Jesus and the Church. I would bet that a high percentage of everyday Americans could give a pretty basic theology of Christianity and be fairly accurate. So if the definition of evangelism is “telling the world about Jesus”, then why do we still need evangelism? It sure seems like people who stand on street corners with a bullhorn or handing out tracts or going door to door aren’t telling anybody anything new.

I believe we either have to redefine evangelism or do away with it all together. Because the problem is, the people that are still evangelizing are really annoying and not doing so great for our image. Evangelism as we know it must fundamentally change, because everybody already knows who Jesus is, or at least they know about the Jesus that has been presented to them. Whether or not this portrayal is correct is incredibly important, but I don’t want to address it at length. here…another time, perhaps.

But what I will say is this: as cliche as it sounds, the Church in America no longer needs to tell people about Jesus, the Church needs to show people Jesus. And I’m not talking about just the little things like helping people move or sitting by the awkward guy at lunch. I mean corporally, the Church needs to show the world who Jesus is by feeding the hungry, eradicating poverty, clothing the naked, caring for creation, etc. You know, the kind of world change things we could accomplish if we cared enough to try. The way I see it, the Church is an enormous body of people that are supposed to be united around one Person, who taught compassion, love, and peace. If any group in the world has the potential to fix the world’s problems, it’s the Church.

To quote a favorite author of mine, or rather to paraphrase him, people who “evangelize” typically ask two questions: “If you died tonight, do you know where you would go?” and “If the world ended today, what would happen to you?” When really, the better questions are,  “If you lived for 50 more years, what kind of person would you want to become?” and “If the earth was around for another 500 years, what kind of world do we want to create?” That’s the kind of evangelism that the world needs, if you can call it that.

But that’s just me. What do you think?