Symbols of Life

"The dollhouse isn't finished."

That's how the patient responded when I asked him what his biggest concern is right now.  This man, whom I'll call Carl, has a wife and two teenage daughters.  He had just recently discovered that he had malignant tumors spread throughout his chest cavity.  He had been as healthy as a horse his whole life and often joked that the only time he had been in the hospital was when he was born.  His wife described their family to me as "very close," doing a lot of things together.  Carl had been working for a long time on a large dollhouse for one or both of his daughters.  As I visited him in his hospital room and asked him what his biggest concern is, he responded, through sobs, "The dollhouse isn't finished."

His wife all but scolded him for the response.  "Oh Carl, come on."  Carl shakes his head and puts his hand up, saying, "I know, I know...I know it sounds crazy, I know there are more important things, but that's what came to mind."  As Carl's wife continued to make him feel guilty for that response, I tried to explain something to her.

Humans have an incredible need for tangible things that can serve as a symbol for something that is otherwise intangible.  We wear wedding rings.  We freak out when we lose them not because we're unmarried without them but because they are important symbols of a deeper reality.  We keep pictures of friends and family in our home and office.  Not because the pictures make them any more present with us, but because they serve as important reminders of their reality and the relationship.  We decorate at Christmastime and light advent candles.  We wear crosses around our necks.  We build churches and temples.  We put tombstones at burial sites.  We also use symbols in our minds - metaphors - to understand things.  The next time you read your Bible, sing a hymn, or listen to a spoken prayer, pay attention to how many metaphors are used to try to describe or grasp the mystery of God (hand, throne, eye, garden, heart, etc.). The ancient Israelites used an ark to symbolize God's presence with them.  The only problem is when the image or symbol is equated with God or is used as an attempt to domesticate or replace God (as was the problem in Exodus 32:1-8, for example).

Carl was not being materialistic or trivial in his focus on the dollhouse, as his wife clearly assumed.  Rather, the dollhouse for him was a powerful symbol of his relationship with his daughters, and its unfinished status was now a heart-wrenching representation of the prospect of not getting to see them grow up and have grandchildren.  For him, the dollhouse is a symbol of life; a representation of something even more real than the thing itself.

Materialism is rampant in our society, to be sure, and people seem to put things before others.  But the next time you notice yourself or someone else fixated on a certain object or tangible symbol, remember that there may be much to learn by exploring what that thing represents.  It might stand for something...and that something might be very important.


Syncretism and the "War on Christmas"

One of the nasty words in certain Christian circles is syncretism. This basically refers to the merging of outside, non-Christian influences with the worship, mission, and beliefs of the church. This is strictly guarded against, and it is said that syncretizing Christianity with other practices and philosophies is dangerous and dilutes the Christian faith and message. (The whole idea, by the way, is based on the false assumption that there is such a thing as pure, culture-less Christianity; that it is somehow possible to view and practice the Christian faith - or any faith - in a cultural vacuum).

A careful observer, however, will realize that Christmas has gotten a complete pass - a get-out-of-jail-free card - when it comes to syncretism. For almost all Christians, the Christmas holiday has become inextricably intertwined with shopping, gift-giving, decorated houses, candy canes and other treats, and of course, Santa Claus. Oh sure, we still hear the cliche: "Jesus is the reason for the season." But look around your church. Lights, greenery, candles, candy, pageants, and in some churches, even Santa. Now go read the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Notice some things missing?

None of this extra stuff is harmful, of course. But then you hear about this "war on Christmas." It's a term used by some Christians to refer to what they see as an organized effort among the minority of non-religious people to strip the Christian holiday from the public square. Commentators pick up on it every year, tickling the ears of those who don't want to share space with people who are different from them. At some point along the way, political correctness became a mortal sin, and many Christians are all up in arms about the fact that the government, retail stores, and others are trading Christmas in for the neutered term "holidays." "We are being persecuted," they seem to say, "and we are being stripped of our right to celebrate Christmas."

Now, a quick disclaimer. There is such a thing as anti-Christian paranoia that exists out there. There have been some public schools who recognize every holiday BUT Christmas. There are incidents of students being asked to remove religious clothing or jewelry. I've known several teachers who mistakenly believe that they are forbidden from talking to students about religion at all. But these are isolated incidents, and there is nothing audacious about government and retail stores recognizing that Christmas is not the only holiday celebrated in December.

But here's the point I want to make to all my fellow Christians who think there's a "war on Christmas": Are you sure this is Christmas - the Christian holiday - that you're defending here? What is actually happening is that the same Christians who are so against syncretism actually end up defending and fighting for the highest form of it in these culture wars at Christmas time.

Let's start with the most basic part: the time of year. We have no idea what time of year Jesus was born, but his birth was not celebrated in winter until long after his time when it was merged with pagan celebrations associated with the winter solstice. Large feasts and Christmas meals? That didn't become prominent until King Richard II in the 1300s, and even then it was only an indulgence of royalty. Caroling didn't come around that same time either, and when it first started it consisted mostly of lewd dancing. Greenery? That wasn't until the middle ages either. The Puritans of New England were against celebrating Christmas and tried to ban it. No Christmas trees or nativity scenes in America until the Moravians in the 1700s. Many of the symbols and traditions that we associate with Christmas came from Victorian era traditions, and this holiday as it is celebrated in America today did not take on its full and current form until the 1950s.

And yet what does the protest of the "war on Christmas" center around? We're fighting for all these things that have nothing to do with the biblical Christmas story. We hear about retail employees saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." But if we're truly celebrating the birth of Christ, why are we shopping in the first place...unless we're picking up an extra bottle of myrrh? (All the way back in 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote The First Christmas in New England in which a character complains that the true meaning of Christmas was lost in a shopping spree). We hear about school pageants and parties not honoring Christmas, but if we're doing the birth of Christ without the syncretism, no pageants! We fight to display nativity scenes, and yet every nativity scene on the market is nothing but an inaccurate, Victorian recreation of many semi-related stories (for example, the "wise men" didn't visit that night, and I'm pretty sure Jesus and his family weren't Caucasian). We get mad about "holiday trees," saying they should be called "Christmas trees," as if the name really matters (there's an isolated reference in Jeremiah 10:3-4 in which the prophet criticizes a practice that sounds eerily familiar to Christmas trees...). We Christians, who claim to be bringing the good news of God's love, do little more than draw people's ire with antics such as the song "It's Called Christmas with a Capital C" by Go Fish. It was telling when I read an article in a paper that dealt with supposed discrimination against a certain student for her celebration of Christmas, and the title of the article said, "Ho Ho No: Santa Not Welcome at [such and such] School."

Santa, huh? Darn that religious discrimination.

If syncretism is bad and we want to celebrate Christmas in a biblically-faithful way, what would we be doing?
  • We would be taking a stance of humility, instead of grabbing people by the necks and shouting, "Say Merry Christmas, you infidel!" Jesus always took last place, and it started with his birth. A dirty stable, out of sight and out of mind.
  • We would be praising God and celebrating what we have the humble privilege to be a part of, just as Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:67-79) did.  We would recognize, like Mary did, that the way in which God chose to come to earth signaled a dramatic reversal in which rulers will be brought down and the rich sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53).  Around Jesus, you want to be found last, not first (Luke 13:30) or grabbing for power (Luke 22:25-26).
  • We would be welcoming and inviting towards those among us who are different, despised, or rejected, just as it was the dirty people (shepherds) and the pagan people (Magi) who were first privy to the good news.
I remember one year some talking head on the news said: "I'm all for free speech and free rights, just not on December 25th."  Gee, happy birthday, Jesus.


O, That You Would Remain in Your Slumber

O, that you would remain in your slumber
The sun rises soon and the sparring will resume
How at peace you are
How close to what I intended as you sleep in stillness
No task, no consciousness
Helpless, asleep, and quiet
Even before your rest, you yourself chose the time that this bliss will end

You rise to come at anything standing in your way
Before even a knock had come at your door
You burst forth to conquer and compete
So afraid of yourself
So unaware of the peace and stillness that had taken you by necessity
As if rest were erased, you rise to aggress

You leave me with no choice
My eyes and my eyes alone see the innocent toward which you unabashedly barrel
How I want - just for a moment - to take your hand
Lead you, heal you
I stand in your way so that you will trample over me instead
My own reputation I put on the line for the sake of your prey
I must protect those who have done you no wrong
Other than to exist without your consent

What pointless pursuits have brought you to exhaustion
What damage you have done in your fight for your want
I hang, battered and bruised
I am put away; you know it not
You think only of the hours of rest, seemingly wasted
Until you start again

O, that you would remain in your slumber


Call this what you will; a poem, creative writing piece, I don't know. The speaker is God.  It came to me as I was on an early morning walk in my neighborhood. 5:00 a.m. Everything is so peaceful and everyone is asleep, and I was deeply struck by the stark difference between the world at rest and the world at work. Each new day brings more fighting and discord, more selfish pursuits. The closest we get to what God intended for us and our society is when we are asleep.


An Open Letter to the Polarized Camps of the Abortion Debate

Dear pro-life crowd: it would be irresponsible and disastrous to legally define when "personhood" begins or to ban all abortions with no exceptions.

Dear pro-choice crowd: it is dishonest and immoral to discretely stick abortion under the label "women's health" or "reproductive rights."


Dear pro-life crowd: there's a mother involved too. The fetus is hard-wired to her.

Dear pro-choice crowd: there's a baby involved too. Stop talking as if the "choice" only affects the woman.


Dear pro-life crowd: you are rightly criticized when you fill up a room with men and Catholic priests to talk about issues that directly affect women.

Dear pro-choice crowd: you are rightly criticized when you dismiss those with religious convictions about a fetus as somehow "anti-woman" or when you act as if questions about the value of unborn life are not at stake.


Dear pro-life crowd: you are rightly criticized if you can be found in other forums supporting things that are not pro-life at all, like guns, the death penalty, or harsh immigration laws.

Dear pro-choice crowd: you are rightly criticized if you talk in other forums about defending the cause of the helpless and vulnerable but don't apply that principle to an unborn baby.


Dear pro-life crowd: you're not helping your case if you can be found in other forums opposing practices that have been statistically shown to decrease unintended pregnancies, like access to contraception and publicly-funded sex education.

Dear pro-choice crowd: you're not helping your case if you stubbornly avoid discussion about how to decrease unintended pregnancies for fear of appearing pro-life. The other side already thinks that you're out there looking for more babies to abort, so don't be afraid to make it clear that you ideally don't want women to be faced with the choice to begin with.


Dear pro-life crowd: you're not helping your case if you try to change laws and policy by appealing to religion and scripture. If you really want to make it about saving the unborn, don't alienate people by using a platform that sounds like an attempt to entangle church and state.

Dear pro-choice crowd: you're not helping your case if you try to talk about a broad range of women's rights and issues when the abortion question is on the table. If you yourselves lump abortion in with other women's issues and things like Planned Parenthood, don't be surprised when the other side does the same thing and demonizes the whole package.


Dear pro-life crowd: pay attention to testimonies that could stretch your position, like a rape victim who could not bear the psychological trauma of giving birth to the rapist's baby.

Dear pro-choice crowd: pay attention to testimonies that could stretch your position, like those who put a face on the issue by sharing that their mother considered abortion but changed her mind.


Dear everyone: we need a reasonable, inclusive, honest discussion about abortion that honors all who are involved and is focused on the real issue where we still generally agree: the need to reduce unintended pregnancies.


I Am Not Exceptional

I've noticed a trend with a lot of nonfiction books.  I'm talking about the ones that are considered resource books for your particular field, be it business, church leadership, sports, etc.  Have you ever noticed what most of them do?  The author will relate these fascinating (but possibly exaggerated) true stories of success, and then from those stories and observations the author will put forth a model or framework that all of us should adopt in order to be successful as well.  The trouble is, these fascinating stories are in fact the exceptions to the rule.  Within these success stories, there is often an unacknowledged complex web of circumstances that came together to make it happen.  So you can take these fascinating exceptions in life and create a model or framework around them and you can become a published author. But we your readers are likely just going to come away more frustrated.  Why?  Because we're in the majority.  We're somewhere in that big, fat lump of the bell curve, and we don't measure up to the exceptional.   And if you're in the "religion business" like me, it's even worse.  The authors in my field do the same thing with these exceptions to the rule but then imply that God is more powerfully at work in their setting, making the rest of us feel like spiritual failures.

I most recently encountered this in a book called Walk Out, Walk On by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.  I have to say it was a very interesting read.  It communicates, in narrative form, concepts found in another influential book I've read called Cultivating Communities of Practice. The authors of Walk Out, Walk On write about their journeys to communities around the world - in places like Zimbabwe, India, and Mexico - and their experience with communities that are breaking the mold and finding very creative, group-based solutions to problems without the help of imperialistic, bureaucratic solutions from the West. These people have "walked out" of the systems that aren't working and have "walked on" to help create their own future and solutions. The book contains actual pictures of the places/people the authors encountered. The point of the book is that these kinds of community-based, creative solutions come about organically and are not imposed or transplanted. The authors spend a good portion of the book criticizing the West for being a know-it-all and importing solutions into other countries and communities that have ended up causing more harm (e.g., the Green Revolution). Their point is argued convincingly, albeit condescendingly, and I totally agree that we in the West are often very arrogant that our way is the best way and that we fail to take context into account.  But the authors seem to miss the point that the communities about which they write represent the exceptions; a tiny minority. They relate these stories and then create a whole new, over-arching model or framework for the rest of us to follow from these exceptions. In this case, the authors witness these fascinating, community-based solutions in different spots of the world, and then conclude that every community can be just as innovative. Look at what these people did!  But the vast majority of communities have NOT come up with their own solutions nor do they always seem motivated or able to do so.

It's the same thing when I read about something a pastor did in his or her (but usually "his") church that got them growing like weeds, and he or she writes a book that is supposed to "encourage" other pastors.  It doesn't.  It promulgates this idea that we can all be exceptional, that we will all come up with some earth-shattering idea or strategy.  I doubt I will.  The odds are against me.  I fall somewhere in the large hump of the bell curve.  Pastor and blogger Morgan Guyton touched on this very honestly and eloquently in an August 21 blog post:
"I enjoy everything about being a pastor except the pressure to be 'successful'...I love sitting down with people one-on-one to talk about their lives and their questions about God. I love the challenge of wrestling with God’s mysteries and sharing the epiphanies God reveals to me when I preach. I love the entrepreneurial process of spinning out new ministries under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But I feel like a failure because those damn numbers won’t go up no matter how many cards I send out to people, no matter how many times I 'like' their Facebook photos, no matter how many 'I’m not calling to nag about your coming back to church; just to see how you’re doing' phone calls that I make."
That's why I like the Bible - we try to idealize its people and stories, but they're all very messy - the way they're supposed to be if they're true.  And In many different ways, the writers of the Bible try to tell all of us that being exceptional in God's sight has nothing to do with being on the far end of the bell curve.  God has gifted each of us to do certain things.  And even that doesn't mean that we're going to be "exceptional" or revered for the gifts we have.  It merely means that all of us are going to be passionate about something.  Not the best at it, but passionate about it.  God implanted in all of us a drum to which we march, a default to which we return, something that makes us tick.  In religious circles we use the phrase "spiritual gifts."  The apostle Paul mentions them on several occasions.  In the following passage from Romans 12, Paul gently puts us in our place and then tells us to 'get out there and use our gifts!'
"For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully." (Romans 12:3-8)
These spiritual gifts, Paul reminds us, are not just given to us willy-nilly with no particular purpose in mind, but are meant to be used in service to God and others (Eph 4:12, 1 Cor 14:12, Rom 14:19)

That same Paul, human just like the rest of us, expresses his vulnerability and feelings of inferiority in a very interesting way near the end of his second letter to the Corinthians.  The people of that church had apparently come to admire and shift allegiance to a group of "super apostles" (as Paul derogatorily calls them) who were much more charismatic and better at public speaking than Paul was.  Paul brings out in the open what some are saying about him:  "For some say, 'His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.'” (2 Corinthians 10:10).  These "super apostles" were apparently doing some effective one-upmanship on Paul in the eyes of the people.  Maybe they had more converts.  Maybe they were rich.  Maybe they had planted more churches.  Clearly they were skilled in areas that endeared them to the church at Corinth.  Paul is clearly self-conscious, and though he recognizes that he shouldn't stoop to their level and boast about himself, he submits to the urge and does so anyway:
"Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.  Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again." (2 Cor 11:21-23).
This is where Paul mentions his "thorn in the flesh" (scholars still debate what this was referring to) and says that he had asked God to take it away.  The answer he felt from God is a well-known verse:  "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor 12:9).  Paul comes to a place of acknowledging that even one's weaknesses - areas in which we are not gifted - can be seen as a gift from God, an opportunity for God's glory to be revealed:  "That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Cor 12:10).

Perhaps the problem is that we forget that we're not the ones doing this.  We forget that we are not the movers and shakers but that we are like clay in the potter's hands (Jer 18:1-6), mere vessels used by God for His work (2 Cor 4:7).  I'm reminded of something that Warren Wiersbe wrote in his little book On Being a Servant of God.  It has stuck with me ever since I first heard it in college.  "The trouble with too many of us is that we think God called us to be manufacturers when He really called us to be distributors.  He alone has the resources to meet human needs; all we can do is receive His riches and share them with others" (p.5).

So, am I exceptional?  It depends on what you mean.  I buckle under the pressure to "succeed," always be innovative, or stay ahead of the curve.  But I am "fearfully and wonderfully made."  (Psalm 139:14).


How to Encourage a Young Pastor

I have been blessed, not only as a full-time pastor but for most of life so far, to have had many compliments and encouraging remarks from adults I look up to.  Much of the credit for my self-confidence and my clarity about my calling is owed to all of those who have encouraged me.  Even though full-time ministry has its challenges and is not for the faint of heart, I currently serve a congregation full of awesome people who never hesitate to tell me how much I am appreciated and what I have done well.  Not only does it continually help me clarify where my gifts are and where to focus, but it also just plain feels good!  I don't remember to return the favor often enough.

But every once in a while, mixed in with those compliments and affirmations are comments that may be meant as an encouragement but are a little disconcerting for a young pastor.  Before I name some of the compliments and affirmations that have meant so much to me as a young and inexperienced pastor, let me first mention those few comments that rub the wrong way and that I would suggest avoiding if you have your own young pastor to help and affirm.

How NOT to Encourage a Young Pastor:
  • "You have a lot of great things ahead of you" or "You're going to go places."  We appreciate the sentiment and know that it means you think we're talented, but we want you to know that we are pouring our heart and soul into our current ministry; we're not just career building.  This comment sometimes makes me wonder if you think I value you and this current setting.  You're not a step on my ladder, and I want you to think we're doing "big things" now, together.
  • "You're getting lots of good experience/practice."  This kind of makes us feel like we're in a lab still getting ready for the "real thing."  What is it we're practicing for?  We know that we're still learning and getting better at what we do, but we also want to feel that you accept us as a real pastor with valuable things to offer, inexperience notwithstanding.  We "practiced" in seminary with our peers, professors, and internship supervisors.  How long until we get to do the real thing?
  • "You're going to have your own church someday."  This is said to young associate pastors on multi-staff churches with senior pastors.  Again, I know it's well-meaning, but this one doesn't work well either. To imply that any pastor has any kind of ownership of the church makes us think that you haven't been listening to our practice sermons. But this is also another that can make us feel like we're in a lab and that we don't "count."
Now on to the good stuff.

How TO Encourage a Young Pastor:
  • "You really encouraged/inspired me (and/or) made me think."  We love knowing that we're having some kind of an effect. To put a cherry on top, tell us why. You may actually find that I will follow this compliment up by asking "Why?" or "How so?" The times I've felt like a million bucks is when someone calls, emails, or comes to the office and tells me something specific and concrete that I have taught them or encouraged them to do. It doesn't happen often.  I'm not going to complain about the generic "good job" comment, but I love knowing what lasting effect it will have.  It's why we're in this business.
  • "I really appreciated the way you..."  Again, specific and concrete is very helpful to us. Tell me what I'm doing right so that I can do more of it. Also, your specific feedback gives me insight into how I'm coming across, and can teach me a lot about myself as well as you.
  • "I disagreed with you because..."  You probably weren't expecting that one, and some of my colleagues dread it. But if you come to me after a sermon, Bible study, or meeting and tell me what you disagreed with and why, you show me that you were listening and give me a chance to respond. Often, you simply misunderstood me and I can clarify. Please, do this instead of taking it to the hallway where I can't do anything about it or learn from you. This goes for any kind of constructive criticism. Pastors worth their salt can take it.  Just avoid doing it in front of others or behind our backs. Come and talk to me one on one, face to face.  I will thank you for it.  (On the way out the door on Sunday morning doesn't count. We pastors call that a "jab" and quickly dismiss it).
Of course, too many compliments aren't good either.  Jordan Easley was probably right when he wrote this to young pastors:
"The scariest thing about experiencing success happens when young pastors start believing the compliments they receive and begin thinking they're more impressive than they really are. If God is blessing your ministry, He's blessing it despite you. Stay humble if you want to continue experiencing His favor, because He makes it pretty clear in 1 Peter 5:5 that he opposes the proud. You don't want that."
So, if you're a layperson reading this, what does this look like in reverse? What are the most helpful ways that a pastor can encourage YOU, and what do we say or do that is unhelpful?


On Grieving, Preaching and Being

Despite my A-game of theology and philosophy, one of the reasons I'm in ministry is because I seek to know how it all translates on the ground.  One of my passions in ministry has to do with funeral times and grieving.  I believe that everyone deserves a well-done funeral.  If there's ever a time that a minister should put in extra hours and effort, it's funeral time. Also, I know that grieving families have needs that are unknown or misunderstood.  They often get a lot of well-meaning but unhelpful messages and gestures from others.  My hope is that the following reflection will connect with you in some meaningful way and provide another lens through which to understand grief - either yours or someone else's.

Today I had the hard experience of attending (not officiating) the funeral of a 3-year-old boy.  It is every parent's nightmare and something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy.  As Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" began to play and the family was escorted in, the flood that then entered the room was enough to knock me over.  The mother's heart-wrenching sobs, the father's grief-sick face, the siblings' look of bewilderment and fear.  In fact, the entire family looked as if they had just taken 39 lashes and were having to use every ounce of energy they had just to walk on two feet.  Just trying to imagine what they're going through makes me sick to my stomach.

When I attend a funeral at which I'm not officiating, a prayer for the family flashes through my brain as the minister stands up to speak.  Not just because they are grieving and in pain, but also because I've heard too many bad funerals.  Some are drawn out and exhausting.  Some sound like they were purchased from "Funeral Sermons R Us," or at least it's clear that the last person got roughly the same thing.  Others are more or less a 40-60 minute anxiety mitigation session for the minister or others speaking.  I've left some funerals wondering who we were gathered to remember, having heard little about the deceased.  And then, worst of all, some funerals feature a minister with an agenda, a message to preach, and he or she is determined to exploit a family's time of pain and loss for the sermon he or she thinks all these people need to hear.  After all, some of them are in a pew for the first time in a while.

I was relieved.  My prayer for the family was answered.  I didn't know this minister from Adam, but he did a fantastic job.  He offered no empty platitudes and he did not come to preach.  Instead, he gave a powerful and biblical voice to the family's pain.  He affirmed that he cannot begin to imagine what the family is going through.  He quoted from some of the psalms in which the writer screams in anger at God and beats His chest saying, "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1)  'Why, God, why?'  He told the family that their confusion and anger with God is not only understandable but justified (like what Job affirms, Job 10:1-2 for example), and that God is big enough to handle it.  He gave them space to offer whatever emotions they have as a sacrifice of worship at the throne of God.  He told heart-warming and descriptive stories of the deceased boy, enough that I almost felt like I had met him by the time I left.  His prayers did not sound like a speech to or about God but he brought the family with him to God, praying on their behalf, asking God, as the psalmists do, to "look upon their pain" and "be merciful" to them.  His use of scripture was very appropriate.  He read the words of hope from Isaiah about the new heaven and new earth: "Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; the one who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere child..." (Isaiah 65:20).

To my colleagues who think that funerals are a time to preach a revival, give this some thought: if God's best and most effective sermon to us was in the incarnation - when he "took on flesh" - wouldn't your best opportunity be to show some solidarity with these people and be present to them, rather than to your ego or your stock message?  When it comes to be your time, don't you want to be remembered for who YOU are, instead of who the minister is?

After the service, the family and their friends gathered at my church where we had made a room available for them.  As it normally happens, especially with a tragedy like this, the immediate family was flooded with hugs and condolences.  One woman was literally hanging around the mother's neck as she was trying to talk to someone else.  In any case, you couldn't always tell who was having to support and console who.  The mother was overwhelmed with offers to help, hang out, etc.  But there is a tragedy and irony to all of it:  nearly everyone in this crowd will have dispersed and gone back to their normal lives when the pain of this loss hits the family the hardest.  It's how it always happens, and as a pastor I find myself wishing I could change it.  People are flooded at the beginning - at funeral time - when they are often still very numb and have to concentrate on details and logistics.  The real pain of the death of a loved one hits weeks later when you are running out of things to keep you busy, and grieving families often find themselves alone and unconsoled in the stage of deep depression.

As I spoke with the deceased boy's maternal grandfather, he said something that struck me.  "You know, I hear a lot of people utter the words 'it's not fair' when talking about things like a parking ticket or losing a game.  But let me tell you: THIS is not fair."  Indeed.  As people grieve, it's not that they don't need to know the hope and grace of God, but they have to come to it in their own time.  Many well-meaning people try to rush people through their grief, largely because it makes them uncomfortable.  But grief  must run its course, and what many of us don't like to hear is that grieving families must accept the blow and face the pain.  You can delay it (by "keeping busy"), but there's no way around it.  Mini-sermons about how God is with them and that the deceased person is "in a better place" are not helpful if that's not where they are emotionally at the time.  Let them be the first to say it.  One way or another, they will have to "walk through the valley of the shadow of death," (Psalm 23:4) and it's important to hear what that boy's grandfather said:  "It's not fair."  No, it's not.  It sucks.  It's awful and unthinkable.  We must leave room for that to express itself.  I was once the giver of the platitudes myself.  If you've done it too, don't beat yourself up.  I meant well, you meant well, and the family probably knew you meant well.  It's understandable, because what is needed feels too simple but is so powerful - your presence, your loving support, a hug saying "I'm so sorry," and perhaps most importantly, space and a listening ear for whatever they're feeling and wherever they are right now.

Now, at the risk of making you think I was eavesdropping the whole time, I have to share one more overheard conversation.  It was when members of my church who had lost a child themselves went up to the mother to greet her.  There was an immediate look of relief on the mother's face when Annie (names have been changed) told her that she too had lost a child.  The mother said, "Oh my gosh, so you understand.  I keep having people come up to me and say, 'I know how you feel,' but I'm sorry, they don't."   I remember a few years ago talking to Annie's husband George, shortly after the loss of their son Anthony.  I had given him a book called Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff, in which he writes about his own experience of losing a son.  George had thanked me for the book and said that it was very powerful to read.  Without much thought, I simply said, "You're welcome, I hope it has helped."  I'll never forget George's response:  "Nothing helps."

Sometimes people ask me what to do or say for grieving people.  They ask, "What do they want or need?"  Especially in the case of this family who lost a 3-year-old, the answer to that question is simple:  they want him back.  As obvious as that may seem, I think that fact escapes us, and remembering it might help us realize that there is nothing we can say or do to fix it, make things better, or take away the pain.  It can be both demoralizing and empowering to realize this, but all we have the power to do is walk with them and love them through it.

I was especially touched by something Annie mentioned to me today:  "I think many people were afraid to mention Anthony after he died for fear that they would open old wounds.  But it was really the opposite.  We loved it when people talked about him because it helped us to know that people had not forgotten him and that they loved him."

I want to recognize the colleagues and teachers that have helped me learn to be a minister to people in their time of loss. I am deeply grateful to all those people, including grieving families themselves, who have helped me understand and have shared their life with me in their time of deepest need.

May we love and provide space for each other when our time of loss comes.  And as the officiating minister prayed today, I say for that family of the 3-year-old boy, "Lord, look upon their pain, and have mercy on them."


Being "Biblical": Principle or Precedent?

There is a word we Christians (myself included) throw around a lot in our discussions of how we are to live and think.  The word is "biblical."  "Is this biblical?" we ask, about anything from a doctrine like the Trinity to laws and policies to everyday personal decisions.

Should Christians be "biblical?"  Yes. Like any good Baptist, I affirm that the Bible is our only written authority for faith and practice. The question is how, and what that means. Many who use the word are using it in the sense of precedent; that is, any given passage or story in the Bible can serve as a guide for life today. We need only look to see what was done or what it says somewhere (anywhere) in the Bible, and that's what we should do. But I argue that the concern of Christians today is not what the biblical precedent is but what the biblical principle is, which is also precisely how Jesus interpreted the scriptures (more on that in a moment).

The difference is our approach. Biblical precedent treats the Bible as a constitution, a book in which we can find an immediate applicable answer to a problem or question. It pays little or no attention to historical/cultural context and ignores the human elements of scriptures. As long as the Bible passage in question deals with the topic in question, plug it in. The immediate and clear problem with the precedent approach is that the Bible is a product of its time. For some, saying that the Bible is "inspired" requires that we believe its authors transcended their time and limitations in order to write (and then went back when finished?). 

On many topics of concern today, if we look to biblical precedent, we immediately run into problems. The Bible reflects values and practices that are often foreign (and sometimes illegal) today but were common in those days.  For example, take the issue of marriages and families. The way some talk, you would think the Bible is a shining beacon and example of the happy, stable, one man and one woman headed nuclear family. Far from it. The Bible permits and condones family arrangements that even today's most conservative Christians would find hideous. There's no way around it. Women did not have rights; they were the property of their husband as part of the grander hierarchy of society. It all revolved around the man, and the biggest concern (even of the women; see for example Hannah in 1 Samuel 1:1-11) was producing as many males as possible to continue the man's lineage (thus the reason for multiple wives and the perception of being punished by God if one could not conceive).

The biblical precedent approach doesn't work. Most people know it; the trouble is getting them to realize they know it.

Our approach needs to be one of biblical principle, not biblical precedent. The biblical principle approach involves a careful, reasoned, and systematic approach to the Bible that respects things like culture, context, and our own interpretive limitations. This approach recognizes the observable truth that the Bible does not speak with unity and clarity to every issue. This approach shows the Bible much more honor and respect because it gives it the critical and careful examination that it deserves instead of approaching it carelessly and "with the naked eye." We must do more work to look for what we can call the "hermeneutical direction" which means looking at the Bible as holistically and deeply as possible and seeking to find the direction in which the narrative travels.  What is the more overall thrust?

We can start simply with this question: does the narrative flow of the Bible as a whole go in the direction of liberation or oppression?  Does it travel in the direction of condemnation or forgiveness? Love or hate? As the scriptural narrative moves along, do doors seem to be opening, or closing?

For example, the book of Deuteronomy, which is thought to have been written later than the rest of the Torah, repeats some of the commands/laws found in the previous books but in edited form, at times even repealing some of the more oppressive aspects of the codes. It becomes clear that people had been interpreting the laws in ways that benefited only them and had begun to treat foreigners exactly the way they were treated in Egypt.  Thus Deuteronomy's repeated injunction: "Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt."  We also see many of the prophets in the Bible lambasting God's people for other ways in which they may have obeyed certain commandments but were ultimately guilty of much greater sins: idolatry and injustice (the inverses of the two greatest commandments, Matt 22:37-40).  Also, as the biblical narrative moves along, we see more and more openness and inclusiveness towards "outsiders" (i.e., Gentiles), culminating in Peter's declaration in front of Cornelius, "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right" (Acts 10:34-35).  These are a just a few of many examples.

So the question is, what is my justification for this kind of interpretation?  What is my corroborating authority in my claim that this is a more correct way to interpret scripture?


The modern evangelical belief that all of scripture is equally applicable or authoritative would have been foreign to Jesus.  In fact, as hard as it is for some to imagine, this idolization of scripture and holding it up as the foundation of Christianity is a relatively recent development (think about the advent of "Bible churches").  Fundamentalist, precedent-oriented views of scripture have made us forget what theologians have said for a long time and was reflected in the Baptist Faith and Message from 1963 to 2000: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ" (http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfmcomparison.asp). This recognizes that there are certain things in scripture that are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus (around whom the Christian faith is centered). For Jesus, like any good Jew of his day, the scriptures were the beginning of the conversation, not the end, and the question was what the principle is, not the precedent. If we know where and how to look, we can clearly see this in his method of interpreting scripture (what scripture they had at the time, of course).

One thing we notice is that Jesus had absolutely no problem placing one scripture passage above another. On more than one occasion, he held up one particular scripture passage and seemed to say, 'This more clearly communicates the heart of God.'

For example, in the passages known as "The Sermon on the Mount," Jesus repeatedly uses the formula, "You have heard it said before...but I say to you..."  The things that followed the first phrase "you have heard it said..." were not just mean, distorted views that people had managed to come up with but were often direct quotes from scripture.  "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth,'" Jesus began in Matthew 5:38.  But the "eye for an eye" stuff is straight from the Old Testament (Ex 21:24, Lev 24:20, Deut 19:21).

When Jesus named what the "two greatest commandments" were, he wasn't giving his own abstract summary; he quoted two individual passages. "Love the Lord your God..." is Deuteronomy 6:5 and "love your neighbor..." is Leviticus 19:18.  But he was doing more than just his own "picking and choosing." He was trying to show the people what the thrust - the hermeneutical direction - of scripture was. "All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt 22:40). At times, it was almost as if he was saying that the religious leaders of the day were applying scripture in "micro" form rather than "macro."  After mentioning the Golden Rule (a moral code that long predates the writing of the Bible), Jesus said, "This sums up the law and the prophets" (Matt 7:12).

In a dialogue about divorce, when Jesus declared that marriage should be permanent, the Pharisees asked, "Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matt 19:7). The Pharisees were making a direct reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus' response, that the command was given because of their "hard hearts," almost seems to say that it was meant only to satisfy the demands of the culture at the time, but overall, he said, "It was not this way from the beginning" (Matt 19:8). In other words, "temporary relationship" is not the overall thrust - the hermeneutical direction - of scripture. One other notable place where Jesus made the overall thrust and direction of scripture particularly clear was to the woman at the well: "A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem...when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth." (John 4:21-23)

All of this must be shrouded in a careful study of the history and context in question.  Other examples of Jesus discussing scripture with religious leaders make little sense without considering the historical context and practices of the time (Matt 15:1-11 / Mark 7:1-13, for example). Other times, an understanding of the context can dramatically alter the meaning of a passage. For example, where Jesus said that his "yoke is easy" and his "burden is light" (Matt 11:30), few modern readers understand the meaning of this.  In 1st century Judaism, an ancient rabbi's "yoke" was his own particular interpretation of scripture, and the "burden" was the set of requirements that were imposed by his interpretation.  Most modern readers assume that Jesus is making some kind of statement about how comforting his presence is, but he was actually saying something that could infuriate modern religious leaders as much as it did those of his day:  'My interpretation of scripture,' Jesus was suggesting, 'is not burdensome, legalistic, or exclusive.'  Along with his all-call for anyone to "come to him" (rabbis of those days had strict criteria for who could be disciples), he could have easily been accused of playing fast and loose with scripture.  His call in this well-known passage was not necessarily to those who were burdened by life, but those who were burdened by religion.

Perhaps the most important thing to glean from this is that whenever our walk with God, interpretation of scripture, etc. results in the exclusion of more people (instead of less) or closes doors instead of opening them, we are traveling against the direction of scripture as a whole and the message of Jesus.  That is not the kind of flow that followers of Jesus are to be swimming against.


What Does the Lord Require: Another Look at Micah 6

In a well-known passage, the prophet Micah writes in chapter 6 of his book, verses 6-8:
With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Of course, we hardly ever hear the rest of the passage in which God levels a charge against his people for dishonest gain, violence, and deceit.  These days, Christians can be seen defending such things in an appeal to a "free market," capitalism, or national defense.  This is despite the fact that the Bible has hundreds of warnings against such things and calls for a just and merciful society.  Such passages are often directed at the powers that be, holding them accountable for how the most vulnerable are treated.  Here's just a sampling:  Exodus 23:1-12, Nehemiah 5:1-6, Isaiah 58:1-10, Jeremiah 22:3-5, Lamentations 3:34-36, Amos 5:10-24.  I'll return to this shortly.

In Micah 6:8, we have what I call the "triple play."  The three things Micah mentions that "the Lord requires" of us can be thought of as the three major aspects of our discipleship as Christians.  It's our universal call to ministry, given alongside the warning that our worship is meaningless if we are not actually obeying God (Micah 6:6).  However, the order in which Micah lists them is the opposite of the priority that they are often given.

What Micah mentions last is to "walk humbly with your God," that is, personal devotion and spirituality:  our scripture reading and prayer, church attendance, spiritual disciplines, being attuned to God's presence, etc.  This would also include the necessity of Christian community in our lives for support, accountability, etc (Hebrews 10:24-25).  However, it is unfortunate how often the Christian life is reduced to this aspect alone.  We seem to spend a lot of time on this area, which is certainly not a bad thing, as long as it's not to the detriment of the other two areas.  But one can immediately see the problem when walking into Christian bookstores, or perusing the "Christian living" section of any bookstore.  It's all about our own personal walk with God, our own spirituality.  Again, this is certainly important, and perhaps even a starting point, but it's only one part of our discipleship.  (Our "walk with God" is not always that "humble," either).

In the middle, Micah calls us to "love mercy."  The Hebrew word translated "mercy" is hesed, one of those words that is notoriously difficult to translate because of its rich meaning.  The most common lexicon definition is "loving-kindness," that is, actions that spring out of love and concern.  The word is commonly used in reference to God and his stance towards his people.  A good correlate in the New Testament Greek would be splagnizomai, the word for "compassion."  So this is the area of our life as Christians that concerns acts of mercy and helping those who need help.  Jesus gave one of the more famous examples in the story of The Good Samaritan when he was asked, "Who is my neighbor?"  "Loving mercy" would include things like sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, helping a community hit by a natural disaster, foster parenting, cooking meals for bereaved families, or anything else that addresses the needs of the vulnerable.  The possible list is long.

But listed first is Micah's call to "act justly" or to "do justice" (either translation is correct).  This is the stuff that Glenn Beck once told his minions to run from.  As I pointed out above, concerns about social justice are all over the Bible.  But it is in this area of our discipleship that so many individual Christians and churches face a dismal deficit.  Not only is this aspect of our faith and scripture largely neglected, I've found that many believers don't even know what it is.  We don't have a context for it, and we have to be taught to see it (just as I was).

Social justice, in my view, is a two-sided coin.  The first side is empowerment.  You may have heard the old proverb:  "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."  Empowerment is not only a part of doing justice but it's also an essential partner to "loving mercy."  Acts of charity and mercy, if not accompanied by a justice ministry of empowerment, can actually make the problem worse by creating a cycle of dependency.  While we certainly must work to meet immediate needs, those needs will just keep recycling if people are not given the tools necessary to break the cycle.  There is a tremendous need in most communities for mentoring relationships in which people can learn things like cooking, budgeting, parenting, job interview skills, etc.

The other side of the justice coin is that of fair societal structures; working on the policy level for fairness and equal opportunity.  This is where we have to take the proverb about the fish further:  "...teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime...but only if the people who own the water are putting fish in it."  Most churches totally neglect this area of ministry.  As I said, many don't even have a mental framework for what this is, and to make matters worse, conservative media outlets are working hard to convince people that social justice = communism or that it is a partisan, democratic agenda.  No.  It's a biblical agenda.  There also seems to be an effort to spread hatred and contempt for the poor, and people seem to think that poor = lazy (I address this fully in a different blog post).  This Micah passage, after verse 8, goes on to address some of the things the people were doing that were creating an unfair society and putting the poor or vulnerable at a disadvantage.  Justice issues are on a macro-level.  They are systemic problems and blame cannot often be placed on one individual or isolated group.  There are many examples of such problems in society, some of which I address in other blog posts as well as a page dedicated to such issues.  Examples include: wages and the income gap, predatory financial practices, immigration, equal access to things like education and healthcare, etc.

Here's a helpful illustration I gleaned from The DART Center that explains not only why justice ministry is needed but also why it requires cooperation and the efforts of many people together.  We all have personal relationships.  This includes our family and friends.  When we are being treated unfairly in these relationships, we have quite a bit of say and power to correct it.  At least, we have access to the source of the problem.  We also have voluntary relationships; groups and organizations we relate to by choice.  This includes church, civic organizations, businesses that deal in products or services, etc.  In these relationships, we don't have as much power and influence to demand that we are treated fairly, but we still have some.  If nothing else, we can withdraw our business or otherwise remove ourselves from the situation.  But we can't do this in our relationships of necessity, the third category.  Relationships of necessity would include government, schools, utility companies, the healthcare system and, perhaps to some extent, Wall Street and our place of employment.  These are the entities with which we must be associated if we want to survive in society.  However, if we are being treated unfairly by these groups, we are powerless to correct it.  We must gain a position of power ourselves to correct injustice in these areas, but it's virtually impossible for those being oppressed to do so on their own.  That's where we come in.  Christians are called to come together and speak truth to power.  One of the best and most famous examples of how this can happen is the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never has, and it never will."

This is Micah's "triple play."  May we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.  May we become well-rounded disciples in holistic ministry, not neglecting any of these three.


Faith Has Feet

What follows are two different versions of a conversation between Jesus and a rich man.  Only one of them actually appears in the Bible.  Do you know which one it is?

Version #1

A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”  “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Version #2

A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “I'm not just good," Jesus said, "my name is really above the name 'God' when you get down to it.  If you want to have eternal life, accept me as your Lord and Savior.”  “I do believe in you!" the ruler replied.  "I accepted you into my life when I was young!”  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Well, we have to be sure about this.  You need to be sure you have a 'saving knowledge' of me.  You can't be Catholic or Episcopalian or anything like that, and certainly not Mormon.  You have to be a Bible-believing Christian, using and insisting on words that don't appear in the Bible like 'inerrancy' and 'Trinity.'  You have to have prayed the 'sinners prayer,' and you have to affirm that you have a 'personal relationship' with me."  "Sounds great!" the man said.  "I'm a true believer!  By the way, I don't have to give my hard-earned money away to the poor, do I?"

Version #1, of course, is the version that actually appears in scripture.  So why does version #2 sound so familiar?  This story appears in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), and you will search in vain for the place where Jesus gives the common, evangelical answer: "Accept me as your Lord and Savior."  Not only that, but there is another passage in Luke 10:25-37 where a different man asks the same question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Greek: zoen aionion.  Literally, "life age").  In this instance, Jesus asks the man what he reads in the law.  The man answers in the way any good Jewish "expert in the law" would by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 ("Love the Lord your God...") and Leviticus 19:18 ("Love your neighbor...").  Jesus says, "You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live."  When the man presses him further and asks, "Who is my neighbor," Jesus proceeds to tell him the well-known story of the Good Samaritan.  Today, this is a beloved story, but for Jesus' Jewish listeners, it would have been an appalling story.  Samaritans were not just disliked for religious differences; there had been bloodshed.  They were the enemy (Amy-Jill Levine, Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2011).  If Jesus were here to tell the story today, it might well have been called "The Good Terrorist."

This idea that Christianity is about what we believe has gone unchallenged for too long.  Western Evangelicalism continues to relegate Christianity to the realm of abstract belief.  Being a Christian, we're taught, boils down to what you believe and know.  If you believe and know the right things about Jesus, you are "sanctified" by God and "justified" before God, something that you prove has happened by knowing the right religious lingo, listening to Christian music, and going to church more often.  After one "gets saved," it is assumed that they now live with certainty regarding God and their beliefs (instead of the experience of wrestling with God, like Jacob, when God actually messes up our life and has us let go of things once dearly held).

One day I was looking around at different church websites, and ran across a bio for a senior pastor of a non-denominational mega-church.  It talked about how he had grown up in the Catholic Church but, through an experience at camp, came to a "saving knowledge" of Jesus Christ.  He had found the right version of Christianity.

Let me be very clear:  there is no such thing as "saving knowledge."  At least, not according to Jesus.  No amount or type of knowledge saves us.

First of all, it's a tad arrogant - if not ignorant - to take one small version of Christianity out of the 2000 years and hundreds of denominations of the Christian faith and suggest that you finally got it right.

But the bigger problem is this:  Jesus, as he is presented in the gospels, painted a much different and more shocking picture of what "faith" is; what it meant to follow him.  His theology (or the lack thereof?) shook up the religious establishment of his day, and it needs to do the same thing in the 21st century.

Faith is not what we believe; it is not intellectual assent to a doctrine.  There is no faith but embodied faith.  Faith has feet.  There have been a lot of debates through the history of the church about the relationship between faith and works.  Even the biblical authors appear to disagree on whether people like Abraham were saved by faith (Hebrews 11) or by works (James 2:14-26).  But upon closer inspection, and especially upon considering the life and teachings of Jesus, I believe it becomes clear that "faith" and "works" are not even separate concepts that we can consider individually or debate the role of.  It's not even that the two "go together" but that they are one thing.  This is revealed even in the language:  in the New Testament Greek, the word pistos meant both "faith" and "faithfulness."  The verb form is often translated "believe."  If you believed, you were faithful; and if you were faithful, you believed.  In fact, it was the separation of religious belief and action that Jesus constantly criticized among the religious leaders of his day (see especially Matthew 23:1-32).  There is no faith but embodied faith.  If I have faith, that means that my real, material, everyday existence is being transformed by the ways of Christ.  And if my real, material, everyday existence is being transformed by the ways of Christ, that means I have faith.  Thus, when people say that they have "lost their faith," they usually mean that they have found themselves unable to give assent to certain propositions or doctrines.  They rarely, if ever, mean that they've lost the kind of faith Jesus called for, and quite ironically, many people I know who have lost belief in some religious doctrine often simultaneously began to live more faithfully; more like Jesus.

Before I argue my case from scripture, let's consider this by way of simple examples.  If I told you that I believe a chair will hold me up but refuse to sit in it, do I really believe it?  If I said that I trust my wife and believe she is faithful to me but I constantly check her phone and email or insist on knowing where she is at all times, do I really trust her?  In the same vein, when it comes to faith and belief, scripture puts it quite crudely:
"We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did."  (1 John 2:3-6)
The distinction here is between abstract or intellectual belief versus manifest belief.  Such a disparity is not uncommon in us humans and we are sometimes not aware of it ourselves.  It makes for good humor, too.  There's a peanuts comic strip in which Linus says, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand."  We may even consciously and sincerely think that we believe one thing, but the real belief - the real truth - can be found in our lived life.  I can say that I don't support large corporations that neglect human rights and ethical production, but if I say it while strolling the aisles at Walmart, my actual belief is on display, even though it may escape even me.  (Or I'm also reminded of all the people covered by Medicare who showed up at the rallies a few years ago saying, "No government healthcare").  Abstract or intellectual belief is meaningless.  Jesus was only interested in manifest belief.  For him there was no faith but embodied faith.  And he made this clear again and again.

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus told a parable of two sons, both of whom were told to go work in the field that day.  One said he would but did not, and other said he would not but did; the point being that the one who actually worked in the field was obedient.  It's almost as if Jesus says in this parable, "You could say no to me to my face and claim you don't believe in me, but if you turn around and follow my ways, you do believe."  Does Christianity boil down to our confessional belief?  Such passages suggest that it does not.  Unbeknownst to many, C.S. Lewis's theology gravitated in this direction later in his life.  The clearest example, funny enough, is a quote from Aslan in the The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia:
"Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me...if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves."
In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven."  On several occasions, Jesus used the analogy of a tree and its fruit, saying that you know what something is by what it produces (Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19, 12:33).  In John 13:35, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."  When Jesus called his first followers, he said to them..."Believe in me"?  No, he said, "Follow me."  These examples only begin to scratch the surface.  Perhaps the most disturbing is Jesus' discourse about "the sheep and the goats" in Matthew 25:31-46.  Here, Jesus seems to be referring to the end of the age or his return, and he says that he will separate the sheep from the goats; putting some people on his right and some on his left.  How are they separated?  By who was a Christian and who wasn't?  No, there is not a single mention of anyone's confessional beliefs.  They are separated according to who fed the hungry, quenched the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned.

Goodness gracious.  Jesus doesn't even know his 4 spiritual laws.

Over and over again, all of scripture - and Jesus in particular - tries to pound home the idea that there is no faith but embodied faith.  We are what we produce.  Jesus showed no interest in confessional belief; in fact, he often seemed worried it would get in the way.  When Peter confessed that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, one of the things Jesus charged him to do was to keep it a secret (Matthew 16:20).

How often does our Christian faith really transform our material existence?  How does it affect what kind of car or house we buy?  Does it affect how we budget our time and money?  Who we associate with?  Are Christians known by our radical self-sacrificial lifestyle or the way we love our enemies?  As Thomas A. Tarrants III of the C.S. Lewis Institute put it, "Reams of research confirm the simple observation that in many ways the lives of most professing Christians are not much different from their nonbelieving neighbors."

Some may accuse me of preaching "works righteousness" or "salvation by works."  Not at all.  The scriptures are clear that this is not true as well.  Paul was right in Ephesians 2:8-10 that "it is by grace we are saved, through faith..."  The problem is in how we have defined "faith" as confessional belief.  We've also, through the old revivalism, switched the order of Ephesians 2:8.  Look carefully:  the only prerequisite for salvation is God's "grace."  "Faith" is the conduit; the means by which.  Evangelicals have long preached it the other way.  We also have to keep reading to verse 10:  "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works..."  Some may quote to me other verses which seem to call for the confessional belief type of faith - "believing in God's son."  One might be John 3:16.  The first thing to remember about John 3:16 is that, when Jesus said it, he was talking to a well-established Jewish leader - a religious insider - not some prostitute by the side of the road.  It was in the context of "being born again" (John 3:3).  Nicodemus's problem was not that he didn't believe, but that he didn't have real, transformative faith that had flipped his world upside down. We also have to make sure we keep reading past John 3:16:  "Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light..." (John 3:19-21, emphasis mine).  Or someone might quote John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me."  This verse is often used to argue the exclusiveness of the religion of Christianity when it actually merely asserts the authority and deciding power of Jesus (a key difference).  But again, we have to keep reading.  Look at verse 12:  "Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing..."

Faith has feet.

In Romans 10:9, Paul writes: "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  Clearly, this is a call for confessional belief, right?  Not so fast.  Context and language are important.  The word for "saved" (Greek: sodzo) had a much more literal meaning than it has in Christian theology today.  It was the word you would have used to describe someone being "saved" from drowning, for example.  Salvation was something to be experienced - beginning in the here and now.  Plus, this verse was written to the Christians in Rome, and in Rome, it was very politically dangerous to say something like "Jesus is Lord," because such a title was reserved for Caesar.  "Caesar is Lord" was a common greeting, and to say that anyone else was Lord was seditious.  Thus, this verse in Romans 10:9 is not a prescription of the elements necessary for eternal salvation but a promise of protection for the Roman believers as they proclaimed their allegiance to Christ.

It's not that confessional belief is not important. In fact, it's important to name our faith and our allegiance. It keeps us grounded. But the problem comes when we use confessional belief as the definition or proof of faith.

Faith has feet.  There is no faith but embodied faith.  Salvation begins today.  The call of Christ is to lose our life in order to find it (Matthew 10:39), to find the joy and purpose in following the one who taught radical love and grace.  That's what faith is.  And I don't know about you, but I don't want to be among the crowd of Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “Woe to you...hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)


This post is adapted from its original version as a spoken sermon, and the ideas expressed herein were influenced by the work of theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins.


Prayer for Dummies

Yeah, somebody actually wrote the book...

As a pastor, I hear a lot of people say that they don't know how to pray.  Sometimes you hear it when people are asked to pray out loud (is that a Baptist thing that people from other denominations don't have to worry about?).  In this case, I can only assume that prayer is seen as oratory; an exercise of public speaking.  If that's the case, then the hesitation makes sense because public speaking is said to be one of the top fears of humans. Other times you hear people bemoan their inability to pray in reference to life pain and struggles, stating something about not knowing how to address God, not wanting to address God, or not being able to find the right words.  Again, prayer is seen as something that does not come naturally and requires skill or training.

Interestingly, prayer remains a more popular idea than God.  There are people who don't have any belief in God but believe in the power of prayer and/or meditation.  Even more interestingly, you can find apathy towards prayer among both believers and non-believers.  In these cases, I assume, prayer is seen as being just as childish as writing a letter to Santa Claus.  Something isn't prayer, so the thinking goes, unless you are in a particular physical position, consciously directing your prayers "upward," and begin the thought with "Dear God" or something of the sort.  To some (including me), it all seems pretentious and amateur.

Why does prayer have to have boundaries?  Why does it have to have a start and end point?  Why does it have to be something profound within itself rather than something that recognizes the profundity and validity of our more natural expressions?

As far as I'm concerned, if you have ever......
  • said or thought, "How am I going to get through this?"
  • desperately wanted peace or revenge
  • wondered why God feels absent
  • said or thought, "What does this mean?"
  • put your emotions into a song, a poem, a journal, or a piece of art
  • pounded your fist in anger, cried in sorrow, or leapt for joy
  • said, "Why does this day have to end?" or "Why can't this day be over?"
  • felt thankful
  • longed for the past or worried about the future
  • wished for something or someone you didn't have
......you have prayed.

"Everybody prays whether [you think] of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else's joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world."  -Frederick Buechner