Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Identifying with fellow humans (though not Christians) and the trouble that brings

Last week, my Twitter friend Morgan Guyton wrote a provocatively titled post, Is damnation of the other a cornerstone of evangelical belief?, with a provocative hypothesis in regards to Larycia Hawkins firing by the private Christian college in Illinois, Wheaton. I think he is right. I think there is also a bigger issue going on, centered set vs. bounded set theology, a concept I wrestled with a couple years ago here on the blog. Dave Schmelzer of Blue Ocean Faith has developed this concept very well for me. I think it influenced me deeply in my commitment to open handed faith. I was reminded of this and made the connection to Prof. Hawkins situation with Wheaton while listening to the podcast of the Unquiet Life.

Professor Hawkins wanted to identify with her fellow humans, Muslim women, by wearing a hijab during Advent and affirming their shared belief in God. She has also been in trouble for being at a party with gay humans. She has affirmed Wheaton's statement of faith, but for whatever reason, which I will speculate on, Wheaton's administration was not satisfied. Guyton suspects Wheaton's financial donors of influence have a definition of Christianity that necessarily condemns to hell those who don't believe. Condemnation is a line to cross over in a bounded set theology. One must be in or out. But the other issues Hawkins drew attention indicate other boundaries she crossed or blurred. Here is why I think the bigger issue is that Prof. Hawkins has a centered set theology but works at a bounded set school.

Her center, her example is Jesus himself. His religious opponents constantly criticized him for breaking and blurring boundaries. He did not maintain their Biblical purity laws. His rule boiled down to love. He was motivated by his love for the world. He kept company with the outcasts. He identified with them. He wooed them with love, not with threats. His warnings were for religious rule makers and self-appointed officials.

Boundaries make one feel safer, but Jesus led a wild life of reckless love, always looking for the lost, and whole-heartedly embracing the prodigal and welcoming all to the party. Prof. Hawkins paid a high price for living the Jesus lifestyle out as she did. To affirm their pursuit of God, was not an attempt to convert them by condemning them but to love them. Love is evangelism. It is spreading the good news in action. It opens lines of communication. It allows the beginning of shared life and community. It is a product of a deep faith which trusts in God to fill all the gaps in our inadequate understanding not just in the other but in herself as well. It no longer deals with "us" and "them" but just us. We are all children of God in various stages of a journey into understanding of that love for us...But I'm speaking as someone whose theology is centered set or open handed.

Friday, January 15, 2016

John 2 and better wine

In this morning's reading from the Book of Common Prayer, in John 2, Jesus, his posse, and his mother, Mary, are at a wedding when the wine runs out. Mary immediately turns to Jesus, bringing this crisis to his attention.

Now this conversation is highly stylized. St. John is making a much bigger point than Jesus is capable of bringing the party or that Jesus is pro-alcohol. One thing St. John is doing is showing Mary's expectation for Jesus to do something, and it was not a package store run she had in mind, as his answer is also highly stylized, "My time is not yet come."

Mary apparently disagrees because she tells the house slaves to follow Jesus' instructions. Six large stone jars are noted, much bigger than beer keg size. Jesus tells the slaves to fill these empty jars to the brim with water.

Again, St. John is highly styling this story. Seven is used as the number of completeness and perfection in the Bible going back to Genesis when God rested from his creation. Six is the day when God made man. It's a step down, not perfect. The party is at a standstill. The jars for ceremonial hand washing are empty. They can no longer ritually cleanse people. This wedding is turning into a disaster. The night for consummation and uniting of families is going down in shame. These parties are public and the host needs to prepare for everyone and anyone. But he did not have enough either because of his poverty or short sightedness.

After they fill the jars, Jesus tells the slaves to bring a sample from the newly filled with water to the banquet master. Miraculously, the master tastes wine, and not the cheap stuff he was serving everyone earlier. He is tasting the top shelf stuff. the banquet master pulls the groom aside and scolds him for getting the order wrong. It should have been really good stuff then the cheap stuff. Instead he started cheap, not knowing the groom only had the cheap stuff.

St. John stylizes the banquet master's scolding to wake readers like myself up. However, I've only noticed the miracle, not the bigger story until now. “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” John 3:10

Here is what I heard from reading St. John this morning, which was new for me coming from a tradition that tended to focus on the trees and misses the forest. What I hear St. John saying is the old way from Moses is empty, the party is coming to a screeching halt. The old way's inadequacy is shameful. It can't even clean hands anymore. Jesus comes to the rescue. Mary knows this. His disciples get a whiff of it.

This falls in line with my ongoing series that not everything biblical is Christian. Before Jesus, it was the cheap wine of Mosaic theology. It was inadequate. But Jesus brings the real stuff....I admit I'm not a wine drinker. I know beer much more. So for me, before Jesus, it was a Milwaukee's Best party.

It would get you drunk if you could stand it. Jesus rolls in with kegs of Russian Imperial Stout. I used to think beer is beer. I used to think all verses in the bible are equal. Now I know, the "Beast" is for cheap alcoholics who have no taste buds and the stout is for a complex flavor and an awesome drinking experience.

Jesus' kingdom of love and mercy is far superior to the previous religious kingdom of judgment. Now I know what St. John was getting at with this story.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Advent and collateral damage

I live in a country that accepts a greater than 50% collateral damage from drone strikes. In other words, most drone bombings kill humans, young, old, women, and children, who are guilty of proximity. Less than half of the drone bombings "successfully" kill their intended targets.

This painting is by Alexey Pismenny of the slaughter of the holy innocents, a liturgical feast day, yesterday, in the church calendar. The day before yesterday, the murderer of an innocent black boy playing with a toy gun, was not indicted for his crime, just like Herod.

We live in a militarized culture that tolerates, no, expects collateral damage, the slaughter of innocents, in order to enforce Pax Americana. "Mistakes were made." If it had happened to an innocent white child, most Americans would expect a different outcome. Our highest court gives our peace officers wide berth to make mistakes in the pursuit of self-defense. Just like our military has an extremely high tolerance for collateral damage.

The majority churches in our country seem to hear this story without critical reflection. The story does not lead to calls of repentance from violence and tools of violence. The 2nd amendment is a deadly political third rail. Not even Jesus' teachings can survive encountering it. Systemic racism cannot be acknowledged. Voting rights denied. Affirmative action dismantled. Military and community police are blended. Half of our tax dollars go to support the largest military in the world by far.

Herod's collateral damage did not bring peace. Rome's collateral damage did not bring peace. It is a non-sequitur to expect violence to end violence. Jesus spoke of a new kingdom. He lived out that new kingdom ethics. He received violence and did not return it. There are communities today trying to live this out. The Amish are known not just for pacifism but for complete non-resistance. Yet, somehow, they are a growing and thriving community, not living in fear of the bogey man, or the brown skinned child. They too have known tragedy. They know the experience of Rachel weeping for her children.
There are many cultures, not just Christian ones, that are able to live peacefully. Jesus calls us to this culture of peace and self-sacrifice. These cultures are already living out Isaiah the prophet's vision as those who have turned their swords into plows. It's tragic that so many Christians have their faith in swords instead of their Lord who told them, "that's your enemies...turn the other cheek...give to him who asks."

In 2000 years so much of the church has been too afraid to not be afraid. The church continually forgets that what has begun in the spirit will not be finished in the flesh. Love is the strategy for victory. Justice comes with honesty and repentance, not violence.

I will reflect on the slaughter of the innocents. I will pray for Tamir Rice. I will not hate his killer. I will pray for peace. I will practice a life of love. I will testify to the good news that Jesus brings.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent and the song of the heavenly host

This morning, as I walked the dog, I was thinking about Luke's advent story. An angel appears to shepherds. That right there is a big deal. The angel is God's messenger from heaven and these guys are the dirty low lives of society who are working the only job available to them, cast out by society.

The angel terrifies them so the first thing the angel says is "Fear not." Then the angel tells them the joyful news, a new Davidic king has been born. Ironically, they will find this king in a feeding trough. The new king appears in their area of derision, animal husbandry. Before they go visit the new king a heavenly choir of angels appears singing about peace and God's favor.

Some of our Western cultural milieu makes us ignorant of what words mean. For example, a heavenly host is an army. The greek word means "army." Here is the awesome irony we tend to miss because we think heavenly host means heavenly boys choir. God's "army" does not come with weapons of steel or gunpowder, but of voices of praise and peace and adoration. There is a foreshadowing of this army in the story of Joshua's assault on Jericho. It was an assault of seven days of worship.

Here is the wonderful irony, the great king comes with an army of music who sings of hope and peace. It's the same ironic vision of John's apocalypse, where the conquering lion turns out to be a wounded lamb whose sword is words, not steel or gunpowder.

We can still join the angels and sing along,
Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward all!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Advent for the abundant life

Why did God incarnate himself as the baby Jesus?

Jesus says in John's gospel,
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." John 10:10
Jesus continues in this passage, "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd." v. 16
In Luke's gospel, after a tax collector's life changing encounter with Jesus, he says, referring to himself, "For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19:10

The abundant life only begins in this one. It continues in the next. Jesus will accomplish his task, either in this life or the next one. What then are we to do who have already begun this abundant life? Tell the good news, not "turn or burn."

1 Peter 2:1-10  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Advent is about dawn, when the light breaks into darkness. Judgment has been replaced by mercy.

My hope for universal reconciliation begins now, in this life. I'm like someone who found a great new FroYo place. I'm eager to tell all my friends and neighbors about it. I have no financial interest. I'm just really happy to share the good news of the place. I'm very happy about the Advent of Jesus and the abundant life he brings. So I want all my friends and neighbors to hear this good news.

I was enlightened by this great quote on Twitter yesterday.

"The best way to love someone is not to force them to change, but to help them uncover the best version of themselves."  Raju Bhagwat, Holistic Mission Development in CambodiaProfessional Training Coaching, Anglican Diocese of Singapore.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Advent reading - Jeremiah 31

I listened for the second time in my life to a church service of lessons and carols with a trained choir and a serious pipe organ. There are seven lessons, all readings from the Bible to prepare us for the Advent. One of the readings was a mere 4 verses from Jeremiah 31:31-34. But when I read it today, in its totality, I could not believe they only picked these few verses. It's in Jeremiah 31 where Matthew references a fulfillment of Herod's slaughter of the innocents. But the chapter is mostly about God's unilateral restoration of his people despite their failings.
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[g] says the Lord33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
As I heard this read, I thought to myself, God seems to be overlooking everything contrary to his holiness. It's as if his mercy towards his children love as a Father short circuits the judgment. The reading gets even more ambitious after this. God doubles down.
Thus says the Lord,

who gives the sun for light by day
    and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
    the Lord of hosts is his name:

If this fixed order were ever to cease
    from my presence, says the Lord,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
    to be a nation before me forever.
Thus says the Lord:

If the heavens above can be measured,
    and the foundations of the earth below can be explored,
then I will reject all the offspring of Israel
    because of all they have done,
says the Lord.
He can't make this more clear. God will forgive their sins unilaterally, and he will never reject his people. The last view verses though, are the whipped topping of this universalist dessert in my thinking.
38 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when the city shall be rebuilt for the Lord from the tower of Hananel to the Corner Gate. 39 And the measuring line shall go out farther, straight to the hill Gareb, and shall then turn to Goah.40 The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the Wadi Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the Lord. It shall never again be uprooted or overthrown.
Do you know what the valley of the dead bodies is? Gehenna. As the NET  study bible notes say in this passage at verse 40,
 It is generally agreed that this refers to the Hinnom Valley which was on the southwestern and southern side of the city. It was here where the people of Jerusalem had burned their children as sacrifices and where the Lord had said that there would be so many dead bodies when he punished them that they would be unable to bury all of them (cf. Jer 7:31-32). Reference here may be to those dead bodies and to the ashes of the cremated victims. This defiled place would be included within the holy city.
Gehenna, also explained in the NET bible notes, (Gehenna is a transliteration from the Aramaic form of the Hebrew ge-hinnom, "valley of Hinnom") is the place Jesus refers to in the synoptic gospels that is usually translated "hell" in our English bibles. The amazing thing is God will make the valley of the dead sacred.

The early creeds speak of Christ descending to hell between his death and resurrection. It is sometimes referred to as the plundering, or harrowing in old english, of hell.

This post is long, and I'm not writing a book yet, so there are many loose ends here. But I do think this section from Jeremiah adds more evidence to my hope in universal reconciliation.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Advent and John the Baptist

I like John the Baptist. He was an outlier and his job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He did it zealously and successfully. He dressed like a bum and was a freegan, eating bugs and wild honey. He was an ascetic, never drinking wine, nor ever cutting his hair. His parents were old when he was born and were among the religious elite. John did not follow in their footsteps. He called the religious elite a brood of vipers and died young, at the hands of the state, for speaking to power without fear.

Later on, when the early church wrote about Jesus, John's cousin, they recognized John's importance to Jesus' story. When they met each other fetus to fetus, John leapt for joy in his mother's womb. When he was warning people to repent for the kingdom of God is near, baptizing people in the Jordan River as a symbol of their changed lives, they saw in his actions fulfillment of the words of the Hebrew prophets Malachi and Isaiah. He brought mountains low, convicting the elite of their selfishness, and raised up the valleys, bringing hope to the down trodden. John considered himself unworthy of even lacing his cousin's sandals. John only baptized Jesus, knowing Jesus had nothing to repent of, because Jesus insisted on humbling himself in this ritual.

Despite all this, while John was in prison, he doubted. Jesus had not overthrown Rome. Jesus was hanging out with the valley people, drunks, whores, Roman civil servants. John, who had been so certain, doubted. He had talked of the coming king who would take his axe to those bad trees who did not show fruits of repentance. Yet the religious and political elite were still in power. Yet his life was still in danger.

Jesus was doing it wrong in John's eyes. John sent his students to ask Jesus if he had made a mistake hoping in Jesus. Jesus replied, look at what's happening around me, miracles and healing. But Jesus' students were not ascetics. Jesus did not fulfill his cousin's expectations. Jesus' unconventional methods were not successful with the elite, but with the outcasts. He took the side of the poor and the oppressed. He met them at their parties. He met them in territory where good Jews did not go. Jesus compared himself to new wine which can only be poured into new wineskins, which are able to expand with the fermentation process.

Advent is a time for me to remember that Jesus does things unconventionally. He is active in the margins. He can be found among Muslim refugees. He can be found among church refugees, those cast out for their non-conformity or non-elite status. He is for the minority, whether in skin color, heritage, gender, sexual orientation, etc.

In America, at the beginning of the 20th century, Jesus energized the margins among poor church folk who were African-American and white American. That Pentecostal movement has grown into the biggest Christian movement apart from the Catholic church in this century. Churches in Germany are seeing an influx of Syrian refugees today. They are the wrong religion to many Americans today, but Jesus is there with them.

The valleys are filled in with the rubble of the mountains. It's scary to be undermined by Jesus when you are up high. To resist him is to miss out on the elevation of all those in the dark valleys that he comes to give light to. He will not do it in conformity with our expectations, unless we expect it to happen in reckless love. He is light for dark places. He is love for the hated and despised. He is our brother who wants to unite us into one family.

John the Baptist already knew Jesus was doing all sorts of miracles, yet he still doubted. Ultimately, his doubts were unfounded. Jesus' reckless love is still changing the world.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

an Advent Psalm in difficult times

Today's Advent reading in the Daily Office includes Psalm 37. I think it's a great Psalm for all american Christians today who are worried about their siblings who think politically different from themselves. So for those who fear I put this here. I'm sure this Psalm also brought comfort to those who were waiting for their Messiah while under Roman occupation. I'm sure it brought comfort to those believers who hid in the Roman catacombs. I'm sure it brought comfort to those who suffered in concentration camps or the communist gulags. I'm sure it brought comfort to African-American slaves. It is a Psalm of hope beyond what we can see with our own eyes.

Don’t worry about the wicked
    or envy those who do wrong.
For like grass, they soon fade away.
    Like spring flowers, they soon wither.
Trust in the Lord and do good.
    Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you your heart’s desires.
Commit everything you do to the Lord.
    Trust him, and he will help you.
He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn,
    and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.
Be still in the presence of the Lord,
    and wait patiently for him to act.
Don’t worry about evil people who prosper
    or fret about their wicked schemes.
Stop being angry!
    Turn from your rage!
Do not lose your temper—
    it only leads to harm.
For the wicked will be destroyed,
    but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land.
10 Soon the wicked will disappear.
    Though you look for them, they will be gone.
11 The lowly will possess the land
    and will live in peace and prosperity.
12 The wicked plot against the godly;
    they snarl at them in defiance.
13 But the Lord just laughs,
    for he sees their day of judgment coming.
14 The wicked draw their swords
    and string their bows
to kill the poor and the oppressed,
    to slaughter those who do right.
15 But their swords will stab their own hearts,
    and their bows will be broken.
16 It is better to be godly and have little
    than to be evil and rich.
17 For the strength of the wicked will be shattered,
    but the Lord takes care of the godly.
18 Day by day the Lord takes care of the innocent,
    and they will receive an inheritance that lasts forever.
19 They will not be disgraced in hard times;
    even in famine they will have more than enough.
20 But the wicked will die.
    The Lord’s enemies are like flowers in a field—
    they will disappear like smoke.
21 The wicked borrow and never repay,
    but the godly are generous givers.
22 Those the Lord blesses will possess the land,
    but those he curses will die.
23 The Lord directs the steps of the godly.
    He delights in every detail of their lives.
24 Though they stumble, they will never fall,
    for the Lord holds them by the hand.
25 Once I was young, and now I am old.
    Yet I have never seen the godly abandoned
    or their children begging for bread.
26 The godly always give generous loans to others,
    and their children are a blessing.
27 Turn from evil and do good,
    and you will live in the land forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice,
    and he will never abandon the godly.
He will keep them safe forever,
    but the children of the wicked will die.
29 The godly will possess the land
    and will live there forever.
30 The godly offer good counsel;
    they teach right from wrong.
31 They have made God’s law their own,
    so they will never slip from his path.
32 The wicked wait in ambush for the godly,
    looking for an excuse to kill them.
33 But the Lord will not let the wicked succeed
    or let the godly be condemned when they are put on trial.
34 Put your hope in the Lord.
    Travel steadily along his path.
He will honor you by giving you the land.
    You will see the wicked destroyed.
35 I have seen wicked and ruthless people
    flourishing like a tree in its native soil.
36 But when I looked again, they were gone!
    Though I searched for them, I could not find them!
37 Look at those who are honest and good,
    for a wonderful future awaits those who love peace.
38 But the rebellious will be destroyed;
    they have no future.
39 The Lord rescues the godly;
    he is their fortress in times of trouble.
40 The Lord helps them,
    rescuing them from the wicked.
He saves them,
    and they find shelter in him. (NLT)

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Only 3 things about God

Here is the provocative assertion by Caleb Miller.
So how do we begin this reconstructive process then? I’ve discussed  the notion that there are only three axiomatic statements made about God in the bible.       
• God is love       
• God is light       
• God is father
There is so much in these thee statements to cogitate on for the rest of my life yet more immediately in this Advent season.

When I am angry or hateful - God is love.
When I fear the darkness - God is light.
When I feel vulnerable and unprotected and in need - God is father.

It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world full of loud selfish people and quiet generous people. I want to be someone who is love, light, and parental. I want to advocate for those who lack love, light, and affection. In this Advent season I want to celebrate love, light, and universal siblinghood.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

religious extremism in the US

Religious books from the ancient Near East can be dangerous in the hands of some people. Have you heard of the Hutaree? They were an apocalyptic group in the US that planned on starting a terrorist war in order to facilitate God's return and imposition of justice in the world.
In the most diabolical scenario, the Hutaree would murder an unsuspecting police officer to lure others from around the state and country to the fallen officer's funeral. Then these ... warriors would spring into action, attacking the funeral procession with improvised explosive devices. After the surprise attack, Hutaree militia members would retreat to "rally points." From these locations, "the Hutaree would wage war against the government and be prepared to defend in depth with trip-wired and command detonated anti-personnel improvised explosive devices, ambushes, and prepared fighting positions", the indictment alleges. The Guardian, 2010.
Who was their spiritual guide in all this? Not some Imam linked to Al Queda, but Jack Van Impe. I used to read his stuff back in the late 90's. He's an end-times-Jesus-countdown-clock sort of guy. the Guardian article continues,
The most conspicuous is a link to Jack Van Impe ministries, a noxious example of the Christian supremacist demagogue. Despite the stench of charlatanism, the Hutaree list Jack Van Impe's website as one of their major sources of information. It's this kind of gullibility that provokes the question of how anyone could believe this nonsense, much less kill for it. But the Christian warriors supply the simple answer: "For we live by faith and cannot see nor understand what we believe, entirely, but nevertheless the reward is worth it in the end."
Supremacist demagoguery, end times apocalyptic fear mongering, revolution, taking over the world for God, ending the evil government...

Because these guys were infiltrated before they could execute their plans, they were eventually let off the most serious charges because they were exercising their free speech rights.

Muslim extremists do not represent modern Islam, just as these Christian militias do not represent modern Christianity. There are ways to read the Quran and be a peaceful neighbor. There are ways to read the Bible and be a murderous terrorist. Bad ideas can have terrible consequences. Good law enforcement can stop these ideas before practiced. Good ideas can also prevail.

Minimal gun control is a bad idea. Paranoid militias are not well regulated and are a bad idea. Any gun owner who thinks it is their job to prevent bad government by their personal weapons cache is a bad actor. I was going to write about the foolishness of thinking a militia will stop the US govt. but a better writer has just done that, You Are Not Going to Resist the Government With Your Guns by Marc Randazza. As far as Christian militias, I'll use this quote from the extremely conservative Christian ministry of R.C. Sproul, "The church is not to maintain a standing army, and the state is not to do evangelism or to administer the sacraments."

Apparently other "biblical" Christians think differently. Maybe the Christ-like part (love your neighbor, bless your enemy, sermon on the mount stuff) falls toward the end of the Libertarian, 2nd Amendment-adoring, white-privilege-enjoying American priority list.