Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Day (Almost) Everyone Got Wrong

"That's just how it is."

We humans are interpretive beings. We make meaning, add meaning, ignore meaning and search for meaning. Over time, if our interpretations prove true time and time again, we figure that our interpretation is reality (or at least really close to reality). And reality is a high-stakes game. Wars are fought over interpretations of reality, everything from slavery to a master race spawn wars and rumors of wars.

In the Christian faith, interpreting reality is a very high-stakes games. We Christians give our lives to the reality that Jesus is Lord, reigning in the cosmos as risen King. Whether or not we say it out loud, we also believe that Jesus' lordship is a reality which impacts every single human life. It's tough to get more high stakes than that.

So it is no wonder that Christians argue so vigorously about interpretation of Scripture, nature, God, etc. Being wrong could be high stakes. But being wrong is also the first step to learning.

This season is Advent. We often remember Advent as the approach of Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy and the rescue of humanity. Advent is also a humbling experience. Consider this: Virtually no one predicted Jesus' coming in the way it happened. In fact, the people who knew the Scriptures best were also the people who wrote Jesus off a Christ-imposter, an anti-Christ. Jesus is the One who would defy the "plain meaning" of prophecy and would even say "You have heard... but I say..." about basic Scriptural passages. Jesus defies any attempt to control or master the truth- declaring in one swift motion that truth is not an idea, Truth is a person.

So much of life is about domination and control. This season betrays a predisposition for control: "Keep Christ in Christmas," "Come to our Christmas Eve service, not another church's," "Have the perfect Pinterest house and throw the best parties..." and other messages keep the desire for domination in the forefront of our minds. Add to that the Church's ongoing dialogue about gender equality, homosexuality, race, civic disobedience, and other topics and there is much which can be said about wanting to dominate the conversation.

But what if Advent can teach us some humility? After all, if centuries of faithful observers could be wrong about the coming of Christ, if the experts in the law could be wrong about the ways of God, certainly we can joyously embrace the notion that we can be wrong. And if we can be wrong, and still belong in Christ, then perhaps we can truly love as Christ loved us.

Friday, August 22, 2014

I Picked Up a Thrashing Porcupine... See what happened next!

(Sorry, couldn't help the clickbait title)

A couple years ago, I was driving down a narrow driveway through the woods, and came upon a porcupine in the middle of the driveway. It was clearly sick or wounded, thrashing around. So I did what any sensible person would do. I walked over to the porcupine, told it I was not going to hurt it, picked it up and set it to the side of the road...

Right. No, I stayed in my car and let the porcupine get to the side of the road and then drove off. You don't pick up a porcupine. You don't get close to a wounded porcupine. To the wounded porcupine, the world is dangerous, including helpful folk. The same thing is true of human beings.

Being wounded means that we are ready to defend ourselves. We hide our vulnerability behind respectability or anger or mockery, but we are wounded just the same. The events of Ferguson, Missouri, highlight what it means to be wounded. I choose not to comment on the shooting except to say that it is horrific, no matter what happened, that someone is dead today.

The hyper-escalation which followed revealed the deep wounds of society; not just Ferguson, but the entire nation. A cursory search on the Internet would reveal that wounded people do what wounded people do when their wounds are exposed. Mike Brown has been thoroughly demonized in the search for a way for the shooting to have meaning. Looting has occurred, as anger has turned to senseless rage. The Ferguson police have turned to military weapons and riot control tactics which ought to shake every one of us to the core. We are a wounded people, seeing our fellow human as dangerous and evil.

Justice must be done. Peaceful protest must ensure that due process is followed. What happens in Ferguson is up to those in Ferguson. But what about the rest of us, trying to have a dialogue about what these wounds mean for a cultural psyche? Two days ago, I witnessed a two-person conversation turn into a twelve person argument about these events. We are wounded, and I cannot fully trust my wound to guide me down the right path.

I follow a wounded God. In the resurrection, God chose not to erase the scars of crucifixion. Jesus in Revelation is described as the Lamb having been slain, even slain from the foundation of the world. It is only at the cross where my wounds can make sense, and perhaps even be used for healing. It is time to let the truest Human who ever walked the earth to re-humanize us, and even to re-humanize our opponents, maybe even our enemies. I am not sure how to walk this path but to start in deep lament, letting healing lead the way forward.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I Stand With Israel. But wait... there's more.

One of the best stories in the Old Testament is 1 Kings 22. Ahab (king of Israel) wants to go to war. Jehoshaphat (king of Judah) doesn't mind the idea, but wants an expert opinion. The royal prophets are marching to Ahab's drum, and so Jehoshaphat calls in an outsider- Micaiah the prophet.  Micaiah is informed that it is in his best interest to comply with Ahab. Read on to find out what happens next- it's comically tragic.

I bring up the story of Micaiah because he is warned by Ahab's right hand man to be pro-Israel. And to be pro-Israel is to encourage war. Micaiah is undoubtedly pro-Israel, but that means disagreeing with the prevailing war-mongering opinions.

I stand with Israel today in the same way that Micaiah stood with Israel then. The history of modern Israel is brief but incredibly complicated. They feel threatened a lot, and with good reason. There is also no excuse for the escalation of war to the degree Israel has. Consider the facts on the ground, as compiled by the NY Times. Israel has killed 50x more people than rocket attacks. Israel has demanded Gaza's disarmament without flinching on the settlement process. To #standwithIsrael now is to turn a blind eye toward this terror campaign.

Gaza is not without fault. The Hamas-led government ought to answer for the sponsoring of terror attacks, although it has become clear that the catalyst for this invasion is not Hamas but some folks acting on their own (who ought to be brought to clear justice). Terrorism, whether done by a person with a rocket launcher or a person in a uniform or a jet bomber, is never going to bring about lasting peace.

Christians ought to think deeply about the story of Micaiah, lest we fall into Ahab's trap of believing that God's stamp of approval is a rubber stamp. We ought to consider that the best way to stand with Israel is to stop endorsing the aggression which will only end in more violence. There is no us vs them in this battle, only the struggle for peace. And if you believe that peace is impossible, consider this Facebook group. Peace is possible, if only we open our eyes and our imagination to find it.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Shaky Business of Changing My Mind

On Friday, I will post a blog post through "That Reformed Blog" in which I will out myself as a conditionalist. Conditionalism means that I believe the Biblical language of hell best describes nonexistance, not eternal conscious torment. I will let my Friday post share why that is. Today, I want to reflect on the transformational journey. How does someone change their mind? Often, I run into the belief that people change their minds because of major life experiences, and thus changing one's mind is weakness. I had no life-changing experience which made the shift. It was slow, methodical, and based on boring research.

But I did change. First came new information. Scot McKnight's "Jesus Creed" blog was very helpful. But then I had to put the information into practice. What do I lose when I lose "Eternal, conscious, torment?" At first, the loss presented itself as fear- fear of the slippery slope, fear of the loss of evangelistic urgency, fear of losing the Gospel. As I articulated and practiced my new belief, I discoverd that my fears were for naught. If anything, my passion for the Gospel increased as I focused on what Jesus brought, not the nightmarish scenes of hell. Christ is still the center of my life and of my theology. The slippery slope is a lot stickier than I would have thought. If anything, upon reflection, my change in belief makes me much more present to the hell-on-earth people experience today (in those places where the Gospel can do some great and liberating work). I can listen to a person express doubt and wrestle with real faith questions without the anxiety of "DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHAT IS COMING IF YOU ASK THOSE QUESTIONS???"

How does a person change their mind? Typically, it is a cognitive and an emotional issue. I am not going to say that any part of me was absent in the process. Behavior, emotion, will, logic, faith all combine in one human person. But the change process took time by necessity and design. First came information, then came practice, last came reflection. And I survived the change, at least in my mind. You will have to see on Friday if you think I emerged free from heresy or not. Today, I want to communicate that change is possible, even in a polarized age like today. It takes courage to question oneself and long-standing tradition. It takes grace to hear the opposition and the warnings. Hopefully, even a simple change like the one I made will help me love God and neighbor more, and isn't that what this life is all about?

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why I'm Doing It.

Tomorrow is the 4th of July. I will spend most of the day with family and friends, but there's something I need to do first. I need to open the annual flag raising service with prayer.

I am not the best candidate for leading the prayer. I don't believe the Revolutionary War was a holy war, I don't believe most of the founders would be considered Christian, I am nearly a pacifist in my understanding of force and how it should be applied, and I don't believe that the United States has ever been a Christian nation (nor that the US is a special part of God's plan). I have a deep and profound respect for all those who wear the uniform of the armed and emergency services, and would never besmirch their sacrifice for the sake of others. And yet... I also question the ease and willingness with which those young souls can be thrown into combat and have serious reservations about the narratives used to justify such sacrifice. I am glad to be a citizen of the United States, and realize that my citizenship makes me complicit in the sins of commission and omission of the nation. Thus, every year (five years running), this day is... complicated for me.

And yet, every year, I stand before the crowd and pray. I am filled with neither jaded cynicism or bitterness, nor bright-eyed idealism. I pray for the country as I pray for the world, for justice in the face of injustice, love in the face of hate.

I do it because I believe the Church in the United States is in desperate need of renewal- not to the values of the Founders, nor so that the US can prosper, but because we are called to be the light of the world. I believe that the Church has a prophetic role in every sphere, including the public spheres, in which we can be light in the world. I believe that authentic prayer is an invitation to the experience of God, and that if one person is transformed, a community and nation can be transformed. And so I will pray.  That's why I'm doing it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Help: Not Just Another Beatles Song

I am not the monk I thought I would be at the end of seminary. Then again, I am also not the exorcist I thought I would be at the end of high school. I am not the astronaut I thought I would be at the end of elementary school, either. Clearly, I am not terrific at predicting my own future. That won't stop me from trying, though. Now I set my sights a little more realistically- I want to be a constant learner when I grow up.

I love learning. I love a good book, will indulge the occasional documentary, and am even learning to take good notes at conferences and workshops. I commit myself to reading every day, even if I have to wait until my newborn son and wife go to sleep. There is a kind of learning, however, that I do not enjoy as much. Unfortunately, that is the kind of learning that happens the most often.

One thing I am learning about is what it means to ask for help. I don't like asking for help, nor acknowledging that I need to ask for help. The me I want people to see is confident, competent and smart... someone who has overcome a lack of experience and years by sheer willpower. Perhaps you know the experience of wanting to look like an expert, of wanting others to see you as self-sufficient.

For me, asking for help is a spiritual discipline. Asking for help is a lived theology: 1) No human is self-sufficient, 2) The Body of Christ needs one another, 3) Leaders are first those who serve and embrace humility as a journey and destination. Asking for help is a way to experience grace and to let others grow.

In one of the books I am reading right now, "The Liberating Image" by J. Richard Middleton, the author describes the history of the question "What is the image of God?" One of the things Middleton points out is that theologians and philosophers have wrestled with the meaning of the image of God, while Old Testament scholars were virtually unified and settled. The problem is that the two camps weren't talking to one another, and so the Church has continued to go in circles on a fairly simple issue. Imagine the power of asking for help!

In my life, as in the life of the Church, there is freedom in asking for help. There is mercy and love, relationship and encouragement, truth and grace. I can only pray that for me, asking for help becomes a way of life, so that I might possibly grow up into a constant learner.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I Just Have a Lot of Feelings... and Why it Matters

You're welcome for that clip from 2004's "Mean Girls," in which a high school Truth and Reconciliation Commission is set up in a context of bullying.  The girl in question is much-needed levity to point out how absurd a ten minute reconciliation process can be, but brings up a great question:  Do we all have a lot of feelings?  And what do we do with them?

In my recent contribution to That Reformed Blog, a post called "That Could Have Gone Better," I called out the controversies around the Noah film and World Vision as being more about emotional processes than theological processes.

But does it matter?  Do feelings matter in cases of justice and injustice, morality and immorality?  Absolutely.  All of our thinking comes from core values, core desires, systemic/relational pressures and emotions.  Emotions give us drive and passion.  They help us respond to potential threats, and release us to experience joy.  Lest we join the world of Equilibrium, we want to keep our feelings.

We also need our emotional processes to stay in their place.  When emotions drive the bus, they steer it toward suppressing negative feelings or achieving positive feelings.  Emotional immaturity typically doesn't consider core values, it focuses on the (potential) threat.

Reflective people will see emotional processes for what they are- the check engine light on a dashboard.  Something is wrong.  What is wrong? How do I respond?  If the check engine light on a car is blinking or the oil light comes on, you do not put tape over the light and expect that the problem is solved (and if you do... good luck on keeping your engine).  Instead, you get the car to a shop and fix the real problem.

I look at Jesus when I consider emotional maturity.  Here was a fella who could eat at a Pharisee's house, denounce the injustice of the same Pharisee and remain connected.  Even the moment where it looked like Jesus lost emotional control (the cleansing of the Temple) is muddied by ambiguity in the Gospels- did Jesus respond to injustice right away, or did He go home and sleep on it?  Either way, Jesus remained in control of His emotions, certainly feeling them and acknowledging them, and also using them to fuel His core desires and not distract from them.

And so what leads to emotional maturity and emotional control?  Certainly, we need to admit and affirm our emotions.  There is no room for "Man up!" here.  We certainly need to share our emotions (re-denounce "Man up!" and "You're just being too emotional").  We certainly need to lift our emotions before God (Read Psalm 139 carefully).  And most importantly, we need ways of regularly affirming that there are legitimate and illegitimate ways to respond to those emotions.  Hopefully we can all help each other walk the path of emotional maturity together.