Stoking the flames of Advent [excerpt]

We’d rather talk about the easier and safer things. What do we do when we come face to face with the raw pain present in many lives? Such pain and grief may be all around us — behind us in the checkout line, in front of us at a stoplight, beside us in church.

In my living room, we also have a fireplace that we like to use in the winter. Just several feet from the artificial lights on our tree that eventually burn out is a place for God’s natural gift of light and heat that will burn for as long as it has wood and oxygen. Fire is a much more apt image and one that is used in scripture for God. Throughout centuries of Christian tradition, a simple flame on a candle has symbolized the presence of Christ. If God is indeed “a consuming fire,” it is God who provides the light; we simply allow our lives to be consumed.

I have to wonder if we sometimes have expectations of ourselves and others that are too much like the artificial lights. We’re expected to shine bright, so long as we’re plugged in. We are expected to produce our own light, and if not, we could get discarded and replaced.


Hope is for the Hopeless

Years ago, I was asked to provide a special song for a "memory tree" service, a gathering time done every December at a local hospice for the families of patients who had passed away within the last year. I was told to choose something that I thought would speak to that kind of an audience.

I had a problem. I couldn't find anything. I couldn't find a song that I thought truly expressed the depth of their grief while still offering a word of hope. I still remember being in the room for the memory tree service. It was oppressively solemn. The small room was full; roughly 75 people. No matter who you looked at, you saw the same expression: a grief-sick, staring-into-nothing kind of look that's hard to describe. Every person in that room had lost a loved one, a piece of their heart, within the last year, and the dread in the room was palpable: the dread of facing the holiday season in the midst of their loss.

There are plenty of Christmas songs that try to cheer the listener up or have all the touchy-feely sentiment. I actually like such songs. I've always loved Christmas time, but I've also never lost someone I was truly close to or someone I couldn't imagine my life without. In my work as a pastor, I've seen the grief people go through. Although I use my training to minister to them and help them through it, it is more often a learning opportunity for me; a chance to let them try to teach me what it's like to be in that place.

I think "awful" may start to get at it. The thing is, grief on its own terms is hard enough, but the pain feels ignored and unacknowledged by the rest of the world seeming to rush by with their own busy lives, or friends and family who mean well but say things that make a grieving person feel guilty for grieving. "You have to be strong." "At least you have this or that." "You've got to move on."

So, it is particularly sobering to think about what the Christmas season must be like for someone who is going to have to go through it, for the first time, without a loved one who recently passed.

I have not been able to find a song that expresses this kind of grief with brutal honesty, yet at the same time offers some word of hope to go forward. The closest I know of is the hymn "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," which is a very good and under-appreciated hymn, but still didn't quite seem to capture it.

So, I guess someone had to write one. A song dedicated to those who grieve at Christmastime. The grief expressed in the song is a best attempt at giving voice to what people experience.

But as I thought about what the word of hope might be, I thought about the Advent candles that are lit in Christian churches everywhere this season. In most settings, the four candles we light during Advent (before the white Christ candle) represent 1) hope, 2) peace, 3) joy, and 4) love. As I thought about those candles and what they mean, it struck me that the Advent wreath should stand in opposition to the songs, festivities, and decorations that can seem like they are geared towards people who are already there/have already arrived.

When we light the Advent candle of hope, do we light it because we all live with a sense of hope and are simply celebrating that, or do we light it especially for those who feel hopeless? When we light the candle of peace, do we light it because we celebrate our peaceful world, or do we light it precisely because we are still desperate for peace? When we light the candle of joy, do we do so because we're all bubbling over, or is it lit especially for those who can't seem to find any? And don't we light the candle of love as a reminder that even when we feel loved and understood by no one else, the love of God "never fails" (1 Cor 13:8)?

Hope is for the hopeless. Peace is for the heart that is war-torn. Love has never left us. And joy, one day, will return.

If you are one of the grieving ones this Christmas, I pray it will speak to you in some way. For the rest of us, I pray that it will awaken our spirits to the pain that may be right behind us in the checkout line, right in front of us in the car, or right beside us in the church pew.


Guest Post: Confessions

The following was written by Jeff Nelson, a United Methodist pastor in Redford, Michigan and is reblogged here with his permission.


A Sorrow For All Seasons from Flickr via Wylio
© 2010 Don, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
I am a preacher
And I am tired of preaching

I am tired of trying to figure out what to say
About school shootings
And movie theatre massacres

I am tired
Of gasping for the breath to breathe
I am fresh out of peaceful platitudes
And saccharine sentiments
I cannot offer a nimble nicety
In face of Paris bombings
And twisted winds that tornado towns into trash heaps

And when levitical codes are hurled
Like hand grenades
At young boys who hang
Themselves behind closeted doors
And mothers of hooded sons
Are told their boys can be target practice
On suburban streets
Brown skins bleed on black concrete
As if no lives really matter

So Forgive me if I get tired
Because I am beyond tired

Preachers and pastors are supposed
To provide answers to these things
Wide eyes stare form pews at pulpits
Praying for even the most bland of reassurances

"Just serve me up some of that supermarket-sheet-cake pastor
So sweet in the moment that it makes our fillings hurt...."
only to leave you ten minutes later starved
emptier than before you ever swallowed it

Makes sense of this senselessness preacher

Give meaning to this meaninglessness

Comfort us in the chaos

Well I am tired
I am tired of event after event gripping my heart
Daring me to impart some sort of good news
To tie it all up with a nice red bow
To place it under the tree to be opened
When you show up at my door with the shattered pieces
Of your lives

See suddenly I am a shepherd
Just wanting
Just wanting to be a part of the flock

Can I tell you that I am scared?
Do you want to know that I am confused?
Is there any comfort for you that I too become numb
Dumbfounded by the voices that promise us protection

Wrap yourself in the flag or cynicism or conspiracy
Tighten the boarders or let everybody in
Take away all the guns or arm them all
The swirling sensation of 24 hours of cycling news
Or to escape into food or booze or sex or Netflix streaming
All leaves me screaming for answers I simply cannot find

I once had silver bullet solutions
To all your questions and queries
Potions and prayers, magic tricks and slight of hand illusions
To spin death and disaster into better tomorrows
and I have used them
Used them all
And I have nothing left
Nothing fits

So I sit at our symbol
Where it was said God once bled himself dry
Emptied of answers, divinity in humanity
Stark and naked, beaten and broken
Unable to articulate any grand solution
Or to fashion an escape hatch to an easier way out of this
Just a word of mercy and a scream of fear
This is a near as I can get
I am sorry I am too tired to preach
This all I got
This is my best
Just to sit with you
by this symbol
And rest


The preceding was written by Jeff Nelson, a United Methodist pastor in Redford, Michigan and is reblogged here with his permission.


Melodious reflections

Music - Day 13 of 50 Project from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Austin Kirk, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
I describe myself as just enough of a musician to get by. Nevertheless, music has always been a huge part of my spiritual life, among my top influences and ways that I feel I connect to the divine presence.

I grew up singing in church choir. When I was a teenager, youth group friends got me into contemporary Christian music (CCM), and I never turned back. I listened to it my car and bedroom all the time. I filled my ears and headspace with Petra's eschatological lyrics set to rock music, Steven Curtis Chapman's encouraging lyrics set to acoustic guitar, and Avalon's platitudes set to soaring, stacked harmonies (to name just a few). CCM was there during some transformational times. My first time profession of faith was made at a concert by the little-known Al Denson. DC Talk was all the rage and proved Christians could be cool. And I still remember the transformative prayer time I had after a break-up with a girlfriend. "Abba, Father" by Rebecca St. James was on repeat that night.

Later in life, I came to appreciate the theological treasure trove in the lyrics of bands like Caedmon's Call, Jars of Clay, and Rich Mullins. I also came to appreciate the lyrical depth of hymns. Although a fair number of them strike me as self-righteous or convey more confidence than I can relate to, their history and message are invaluable and are achieving more appreciation among millennials; the children of those now middle-aged adults who grew up with seeker services and praise music. I too have grown impatient with praise and worship music. So much of it is uninteresting, musically as well as lyrically. It tends to repeat over and over using near-romantic language to describe one's adoration (enamoration?) with God. It doesn't fit my experience and some of it would scare off any human love interest.

Lyrics I find most meaningful are ones that richly express one's heart, wherever it may be, not shying away from things like pain and doubt. Some of the most powerful prayers I have ever heard put to music are songs that were not necessarily written by a confessing Christian for a Christian record label. Regardless of the original intent of such songs, many have become prayers for me.

There have been days when nothing expresses my heart to God better than "Bring Me to Life" by Evanescence. "Build Me Up From Bones" by Sarah Jarosz, perhaps unbeknownst to her, contains biblical imagery from Ezekiel and, if heard as a dialogue between oneself and God, can give you the chills. "What I've Done" by Linkin Park, particularly its visuals in the music video, is a more theologically articulate expression of sin, fallen humanity, and repentance than anything done for a Christian music label. I've used their song "Castle of Glass" to go along with the theme of human frailty in Ash Wednesday services. Indie artist Paul Dateh nails the experience of second guessing and trying to move on from the past in his song "Another Chance." Though it's only known to some as the theme song for Dawson's Creek, Paula Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" is a great soundtrack for praying that God would make me more present to the here and now. "Better Days" by the Goo Goo Dolls is the prayer that's on my lips every December 31 as the ball drops. Even dark and depressing bands like Breaking Benjamin can produce songs that connect with me and my ministry, like "Anthem of the Angels," a song that reminds me of the pain and anxieties expressed by the loved ones of people who are in their last days.

But I'm also one of these people who can sometimes get just as much meaning out of an instrumental song. I know that's not everyone. I chuckle every time I think of a certain colleague who wiggles and squirms during such numbers and has been known to ask, "Why do we spoil a good worship service with a prelude?" But for me, some instrumental songs can communicate more than words can. One of my favorite instrumental artists these days is Buckethead. Yes, I know, he's weird. I have no idea what's behind his getup. But that guy can play the guitar. Some of his stuff is grungy, experimental rock, but his album Electric Tears is downright transcendent. Brian Carroll (his real name) is no Christian, but lately I've been using music from Electric Tears for prayer and meditation, both for myself and with groups. When I listen to his guitar pieces on that album, I could swear I know exactly what he was thinking and feeling as he wrote it.

Music prays. For me, anyway. The Spirit may intercede for me when my prayers don't have words (Romans 8:26), but music does a little bit of that too.

Every once in a while I sit down at the piano and piddle. Usually, when a song comes out, it's gone and I don't remember how I played it. Absent having the right technology and time to put it to paper, I recently recorded one and uploaded it. I'm sure my low-quality, ambient recordings are going to impress no one in the SoundCloud community, but below you'll find my short instrumental piece called "Contemplating." The song is saying something...although I couldn't explain it with words.

Whether you're a music person or not, may you know that anything that comes straight from your soul can be a prayer to God, and counts as "sacred music."


"Just stuff we're supposed to do": Pope Francis' message

"A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

That was one of the many zinging one-liners in Pope Francis' speech to the United States Congress on September 24, 2015. He organized his remarks around the highlighting of four American figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. 

I had been looking forward to it since it was announced earlier in the year. Admittedly, I was watching not just for the content of the speech itself but for the image of lawmakers—wined, dined, and bribed by special interests—squirming in their seats at the sound of his words; words which combined dominant and non-sectarian Judeo-Christian themes with the highest principles of a free and democratic society.

What should most disturb us is how deeply fundamental are the principles which the Pope mentions compared to how controversial or political they are now considered, and how much we have forgotten them. Fox News's Shepard Smith, during an interview the day before, bemoaned how issues like economic opportunity for all and stewardship of the environment have now somehow become political and controversial. As he said, that is "just stuff we're supposed to do."


The Pope began by reminding Congress of what their job is:
You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
It's hard to find bills that are advanced "based on care for the people" and lawmakers who are in a "tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good." We function out of a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. If our federal budget is any indication, we are in a position of debilitating fear, our proverbial fists clenched, spending unspeakable amounts of money on weapons and defense while we penny-pinch and cut our education system, infrastructure, and other things that we once knew made us prosperous and secure. The Pope mentioned this reality at the end of his speech, calling out our endless selling of the tools of destruction:
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade. 
If our goal was to destroy terrorists, we would be hearing just as much about Central Africa as the Middle East, perhaps more. Or consider that Saudi Arabia, one of the most religiously extremist countries in the Middle East and from which 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came, is one of the U.S.'s closest allies. Their government possibly beheads more people than ISIS. They are rich in Islamic extremism, but also rich in oil, and are willing to flood the market when we tell them to. National security and fighting terrorism, as the Pope seems to know, are only a small part of what is actually going on.

Be it individuals or nations, fear and insecurity drives us to try to take over or control situations that are not going our way. But as Pope Francis brilliantly put it, "A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

The Pope lifted up, in less forceful words than I would have preferred, the daily struggle of the working poor. But he did more than just call attention to them; he told the truth about them, that they "sustain the life of society." It is here that he could/should have explicitly called for a living wage to be paid to all workers. He did, however, express appreciation for both the elderly and the young, two segments of the population that are more likely to be poor. In a largely unnoticed but great line, he encouraged visionary and ambitious young people whom he said "face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults."

The Pope also lifted up the dangers of religious extremism and fundamentalism...of any type. He did away with our culture's persistent narrative that a certain religion is necessarily bad or good:
We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.
This "balance" he mentions is highly elusive but was nevertheless the vision of our country's founders who, having their own deep religious commitments, penned a religiously neutral Constitution that never mentions God or Jesus, never quotes from the Bible, forbids religious tests for office in its sixth article, and establishes a religiously neutral government in its first amendment.

In that same section of the speech, the Pope also smacked down a "simplistic reductionism" that separates the world's people into two categories of good and evil: "The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps." Then, in a nod to the many biblical passages that forbid revenge and the repaying of evil with evil, the Pope uttered a great line: "We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within."

The Pope's speech-as-prepared included a reference to the Declaration of Independence's affirmation of "inalienable rights." For whatever reason, he skipped these two sentences in his oral delivery, but picked it up with this affirmation: "If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good." Packed into these words are many allusions, including Jesus' teaching that we cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24) and the "social contract" felt and affirmed by our country's early leaders, summarized in the final words of the Declaration of Independence: "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor."

As he held up Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis called us to remember and repent of the ways in which we have built our wealth on the backs of others, and said that "when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past." Warnings against oppressing foreigners are many in the Scriptures. He spoke of the current refugee crisis, and pleaded with us not to be scared away by the numbers but to "view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation." Then he said, "Let us remember the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would...'" But the assembled lawmakers started applauding before he could finish reciting it. I found it ironic that the applause started and interrupted the quote right at the point at which it is a much more accurate reflection of our practice: "Do unto others as you would." Might the whole thing just be too hard to hear? He started over and got the whole quote out. "If we want security, let us give security;," he went on to say. "If we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities."

He briefly mentioned that "the Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." This surely is a nod toward the Church's ongoing opposition to abortion. I've heard more than a few progressive folks express disappointment that the Pope takes this stance, but it is absolutely in line with a focus on protection and justice for the vulnerable. It has always been curious to me that progressives, who otherwise stand for many causes related to vulnerable populations, do not seem very interested in protecting the most vulnerable form of life there is: an unborn child.

But before anyone could think the Pope was only on their side, he immediately took this principle of the value of all life and applied it to the death penalty, calling for its abolition. He also gave a nod to the idea of restorative justice (without using that exact term), and said that "a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This is another point at which I wish the Pope had been more forceful. He missed an opportunity to call out the United States for incarcerating more of its population than any other country, and the practice of locking people up with no other goal than to get them out of "civilized society."

The Pope mentioned the crisis of "environmental deterioration caused by human activity," a reality about which the science is clear and the predictions apocalyptic. Quoting from his work Laudato Si', he put forth the apparently crazy idea that we can both "develop" and "limit" our power. "In this regard," he said, "I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead." In other words, we have the necessary tools to pull it off! It is amazing that the concept of caring for and preserving the earth has become controversial, but it is not a mystery why. Energy companies have much to gain and much to lose, and they are a strong lobbying force in Washington.

Pope's mention of Thomas Merton as a man who encouraged dialogue and peacemaking included a very important but easily missed line: The Pope said Merton was "a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons..." Some today see the Catholic Church, and often religion in general, as being too certain about the unknowable. Here, the leader of the Catholic Church just praised a philosopher who very much embraced mystery and challenged some long-held assumptions.

Finally, the Pope ended by affirming marriage and family. "How essential the family has been to the building of this country!" he said. He lamented that "fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family." He did not further explain this, but this presumably includes the Church's opposition to gay marriage. But here's what's important to note: instead of going on a tirade against the redefinition of marriage, he instead focused on the increasing dysfunction, abuse, and neglect seen in today's families..."traditional" or not. Even in the midst of his belief in "traditional marriage," he has his priorities straight and knows what the true problems are. The Pope seems to realize that there is more to be condemned about the Duggar family than about Jack and George.


It was a profound and historical speech. Of course, many will talk in the coming days about what he did and didn't say. Some have criticized him for being tone deaf on the priest abuse scandal of his Church, which was not mentioned at all in his speech to Congress. I wish he had been more explicit or forceful on certain things. But overall, the speech served a very important purpose, and I can only hope it was enough to make both lawmakers and citizens pause and think. I share his hope and prayer: "...that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream."

He ended by saying, "God bless America." I dare say that among the many who have uttered those same words from that same podium, he is among the few who know the meaning and purpose of being "blessed."


How a children's novel tells the truth about politics

Last year, my son was really into the "My Weird School" book series written by Dan Gutman. I used to read some of these books with him, alternating pages. They are very lighthearted and funny. The titles, which all rhyme, give you a sense: Miss Daisy is Crazy, Mrs. Roopy is Loopy, Mr. Docker is Off His Rocker, etc.

One of the books, Mr. Burke is Berserk, features a character named Mayor Hubble who at one point announces his plans for balancing the budget. Little did my son know as we were reading this part how true to life this piece of fiction is. Considering especially some state governments in our country right now, it's almost too true to life to be laughed at as satire or fiction. Depressingly, shockingly, amazingly true to life. Here is an excerpt.


"Cuts!" Mayor Hubble shouted into the microphone. "We need to cut the amount of money we spend so we can balance the budget!"
Just saying the word "cut" seemed to make Mayor Hubble's eyes light up with excitement. He had a crazy look on his face, the kind of look that evil geniuses in the movies have when they explain how they're going to take over the world.
"The first things we're going to cut," Mayor Hubble told us, "are the art and music programs."... "You kids are here to learn," said the mayor, "not to sit around drawing pictures and singing silly songs"...
"From now on the teachers will have their pay cut in half," the mayor continued. "You teachers make way too much money"...
"But we hardly make any money as it is!" yelled Mrs. Yonkers, our computer teacher.
"What do you teach?" Mayor Hubble asked Mrs. Yonkers.
"I'm the computer teacher."
"Well, you're fired," said the mayor. "I'm replacing you with a computer. A computer should be able to teach a computer class much better than a human being anyway"...
"You crybaby teachers should be thankful you have jobs at all," said the mayor. "Oh, and I want the coffee machine and the hot tub removed from the teachers' lounge."
"We don't have a hot tub in the teachers' lounge!" said Mrs. Jafee.
"You don't?" said the mayor. "Hmm. Then put a hot tub in the teachers' lounge and then take it out...After we get rid of the hot tub in the teachers' lounge," he said, "get rid of the tables and chairs in there and sell them on eBay."
"Do you expect the teachers to sit on the floor?" asked Mr. Granite.
"Yes!" said Mayor Hubble. "It will be like a picnic every day. You like picnics, don't you?...Come to think of it, why do you teachers need a lounge anyway? You don't have time for lounging around in hot tubs and having picnics. This is a school, not some beach resort."
"But we don't have a hot tub!" yelled Miss Laney, our speech teacher.
"Not anymore you won't," said the mayor. "Not after I get rid of the one we're putting in. All these cuts will help us balance the budget. And when the voters see how much money I saved, they'll vote to reelect me in November."
"Are you going to take a pay cut too?" asked Mrs. Jafee.
"Don't be silly," said Mayor Hubble. "I'm giving myself a raise for coming up with these great ideas to save money!"


What, after all, is marriage?

Love and Marriage 298/366 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Dennis Skley, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
We'll call them John and Lisa. They've been married more than 60 years. He served in World War II, she was a cadet nurse. They've gone through a lot together. He still calls her "dear," she still makes him laugh, and I've caught them holding hands a time or two. John talks fondly of the ways Lisa has cared for him through his many health struggles, some the result of war. He talks about struggling with his purpose and wondering why God chose to keep him here when so many of his brothers died. It was Lisa who brought him to know Jesus Christ and it was through her witness that he found his place in this world. Lisa jokes of John's stubbornness, but you can tell that he has always bent over backwards for her, perhaps more so than he always does for friends and people in need. She values his work and his servant heart. They read scripture together and pray together. They are very open with each other.

Service. Faith. Openness. Respect. Love. Commitment. Perseverance.

Those are the things of a good marriage. John and Lisa have them. Unlike some couples their age, I really think they would be fine going another 60 years together.

In 2013, Morrie and Betty Markoff celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. Betty was asked what their secret was. She said, "You have to speak each other’s language. And I don’t mean French or Spanish. I mean, listen to what they’re saying."

When I lead couples through premarital counseling, we discuss such things. We discuss the tremendous gravity of committing to another person for a lifetime, a person who will undoubtedly change over that amount of time. I tell them the story of one of my seminary professors who always ended our evening class early so he could go eat with his wife, something he did every night even though she stared into space and no longer recognized him. We talk about things like agape love—love as commitment. We talk about mutual submission and this deep mystery of the joining of two souls who promise to walk through life together as one, promising to do so up until the moment one is left standing over the grave of the other.

That is the stuff of marriage.

But there's one thing I never hear. Whether talking to long-married couples or engaged couples, there's something that never comes up. And yet, this one thing that never comes up in substantive conversations about marriage is the one thing that took the question of marriage all the way to the Supreme Court and is dividing the country. This one thing that no couple thinks about with their own marriage is apparently the litmus test for the marriage of others:

A complementary set of genitalia.

Now, make no mistake, I'm not saying that gender doesn't matter in any area of life. It does, and gender identity is arguably a separate issue. But it's not gender per se that precedes falling in love; it's attraction. You don't fall in love with someone to whom you're not attracted—physically, emotionally, or otherwise. I'm attracted to the opposite sex. But for a small portion of the population, that attraction is to the same sex. But we both have deep, inexplicable things going on inside of us when we fall in love. We both long for companionship. We both want intimacy. We both want someone with whom we can share anything and make mistakes and still be loved.

I've wondered: why is the government in the marriage business to begin with? Marriage is a deep spiritual reality woven together by the intangible values I listed above. What has Uncle Sam to do with such things? We could have solved this problem simply a long time ago: have government regulate contracts of joint property ownership, etc., but don't call it marriage. Leave marriage—a spiritual commitment—to the religious institutions, where it belongs. That way, a church can decide who to marry and the government can treat all citizens equally under the law as the Constitution says it must. Instead, our Supreme Court has rendered another decision on marriage which is only going to divide our country further and spur more conflict, hatred, and violence.

Let each church and pastor speak to marriage as they wish. This raises the question that I've never directly addressed in writing until now: How should pastor and church speak of marriage? Allow me to offer a perspective.

There's a widely held assumption about marriage, often repeated but nevertheless false: the notion that by allowing gay couples to marry, we are redefining marriage for the first time in history. When most people use the term "traditional marriage" they are referring to a relationship that is: 1) between only one man and only one woman, and 2) freely chosen by both partners. Defined this way, traditional marriage is not a historical precedent but a recent phenomenon. In biblical times and places, marriage was never chosen by the woman and was little more than the transfer of property for the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying (Gen 1:28). The male's lineage was paramount. Having many wives and concubines, a frequent aspect of Old Testament stories, was a sign of wealth and status; a man could have as many as he could afford. As one bumper sticker facetiously put it: "The fact that you can't sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means that we've already redefined marriage." In the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court said that the institution of marriage must expand to include interracial couples. People used to appeal to scripture and "God's natural law" to argue against interracial marriages. There were even occasions on which the courts did so. Marriage was redefined. In a rarely cited case in 1981, the Supreme Court struck down a law in Louisiana that recognized the man as the "head and master" in a marriage. Throughout history, men always had that status, "for millennia." Marriage was redefined.

Scripture and culture are always in dialogue with each other. We have now allowed biblical principle to speak louder than biblical precedent, and have come to believe that by allowing both the man and the woman a choice, we honor their equal status as being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). By allowing biblical principle to speak louder than biblical precedent, we see that while procreation is certainly a gift from God which many heterosexual couples are endowed with the natural ability to do, there can be many other high purposes. We have seen that marriage can be a prime place for realizing the difficult but blessing-filled work of mutual submission (Eph 5:21), self-sacrificial service (Phil 2:3-4), and loyalty (Rom 12:10). For this reason, few people anymore speak of denying marriage to elderly couples or infertile couples, even though they can no more naturally produce children than a same-sex couple.

We now recognize that deviations from what is "natural" are acceptable, or even necessary, for the nurture and well-being of children. It may be more biologically natural for parents to raise children of their own flesh and blood, but every day children are brought into more God-honoring situations by adoptive parents. When it comes to same-sex couples adopting children, it is often argued that it won't be good for their children because of all the stigma, stereotyping, and bullying they may face. But those negative factors are our fault. Children of gay parents only face such things because we perpetuate that cultural atmosphere. As a TV personality likes to say, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining."

Jack Evans and George Harris have been a couple for 54 years. They have loved and served each other for longer than I've been alive. They never once wanted to damage any heterosexual couple's marriage. They've never been sexually promiscuous or abusive to children, which people long assumed was true of all homosexuals. They've lived life together, paid their taxes, and contributed to society. Such a reality was nowhere in view for any of the biblical authors, even when they appear to discuss homosexuality.

Psalm 137 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Raffaele Esposito, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Leviticus 18:22, in the King James Version, says, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." The same Hebrew word that is here translated "abomination" is also used for other things in the Levitical law that we today consider silly, like the eating of anything from the sea that doesn't have fins and scales (Lev 11:10). This has led to the hilarious website "God Hates Shrimp," in response to the "God Hates F**s" slogan employed by the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church.

Scholars can explain this better than I, but the ancient Hebrew law codes express a profound sense of order and strict categories. Certain things had "their place," and these ancient peoples who lacked any knowledge of biology operated with great caution in the face of things that were "out of place" or didn't belong. For example, blood was highly respected as a person's life source from God. It was not to be handled carelessly or eaten in animals (Lev 7:26-27). Blood belonged in the body, and so men were not to approach women during their menstruation (Lev 18:19). Likewise, in sexual relations, the sense of order dictated that the man was the dominant actor and the female was the passive receiver. Some scholars have convincingly argued that the problem was more about the idea of a male playing a passive role than the two being the same gender, which would explain why there was no correlating command for women.

The infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah is sometimes cited in arguments against homosexuality, but there seem to be much more pressing offenses in this story. First, this was attempted gang rape and sex for sport. "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them" (Gen 19:5). Second, the men who came to Lot were supposedly angels (Hebrew: "messengers"), and for the men of Sodom to do this would have been to "go after strange flesh," as the original Greek of Jude 1:7 says. Thirdly, to allow this act of exploitation would have been a serious violation of their cultural code of hospitality, which Lot expresses: "Don't do this wicked thing...for they have come under the protection of my roof." Ezekiel 16:49 says, "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Of course, don't forget that Lot's solution to this conundrum was to offer up his virgin daughters to be raped instead (Gen 19:8). As hard as it is for us to understand, in that culture, the protection of his male guests was paramount and victimizing his daughters was the lesser of two evils.

One of many reasons you can't just quote Bible verses out of context.

In the New Testament, we meet more unseen cultural factors and translation issues. Paul was writing to Greco-Roman cultures which were highly sexualized, and in which the predominant human sexual object was not the young, skinny woman of today's culture but underage, effeminate boys. Pederasty was common, and it was all jumbled up with Greek philosophy and gods. This is why Paul, in Romans 1:26-27, connects "unnatural" sexual desires as a consequence of idolatry. He was addressing this flaunting and abusive culture of idol worship (and body worship). Americans today are prudes compared to the people of that time. It's also clear that he's talking about the problem of "being inflamed with lust," not love.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, the 1984 NIV says, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?...Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders..." This verse is one of the few cases in which older translations like the King James Version did a better job. The KJV says, "...neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind." Wait a minute. Notice the word "effeminate." What's with that? Well, according to scholars, that's a fair translation of the original Greek word malakoi. The root word means "soft." It was a very common word (which, interestingly, is used in Matthew 11:8 as a euphemism for extravagant clothing). It was dishonorable for men to be "soft" or effeminate. Such men could have been born that way or been eunuchs, and were sometimes exploited as male prostitutes, as the NIV translation suggests.

The word the NIV translates as "homosexual offenders" is arsenokoitai. Unlike malakoi, this was not a common word at all, and some scholars even think that Paul may have coined the term. Its meaning is very unclear, but later, non-biblical Greek documents use the word to describe different forms of abuse and exploitation that are not exclusively sexual in nature. The KJV word choice of "abusers" probably captures the essence. Also, notice that "idolatry" is slipped in the list. What is idolatry doing in a list of sexual sins? Again, the two issues were closely related in Greco-Roman culture.

Based on all of these factors, I believe that the Bible does not address same-sex attraction or same-sex relationships at all. To them, there was no such thing. I can't help but remember then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling an American audience in 2007 that homosexuals don't exist in his country. If a modern leader can say that, it's not hard to imagine the same mindset more than 2000 years ago. There was no such thing as a homosexual. Any such person would have been thought of as a heterosexual who was just deviant or perverted. Some scholars have suggested that ancient societies saw homosexual behavior as an expression of "lust overload," an excess of sexual desire, something people did when heterosexual sex was not enough to satiate them. Ironically, people today are more bothered by constrained homosexual relationships than they are excessive heterosexual expression.

It's hard to see how Jack Evans and George Harris pose the more serious threat to the fabric of our society and our life with God. What the Bible seems to address are situations of abuse, exploitation, or other cultural perversions that don't honor the image of God in a person. The Bible has much more to say about why Josh Duggar is immoral than why Jack and George are immoral. Scripture has much to say about what shows love for God and love for neighbor. Perhaps, if we disagree on what the Bible says about homosexuality, can we at least agree that it shouldn't be a top priority or a linchpin issue, given how infrequently the Bible mentions it? As Dwight A. Moody recently asked, "Where is all this travail at the other signs of the wickedness of the world, the marks of society that run counter to the kingdom of God that have dominated our culture for many years?" Does the issue of homosexuality merit the focus we've given it while we are daily complicit in systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice, issues the Bible mentions hundreds of times?

Jesus was once asked a question about marriage (Matt 19:1-12). Some Pharisees wanted to know if Jesus followed the law of Moses which made it very easy for a man to divorce his wife (Deut 24:1-4). He reaffirmed the Genesis narrative of creation, that God "made them male and female" and that "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Then he said, "What God has joined together, let no one separate."

There are many Christians today who may have softened their viewpoint on homosexual orientation but still cannot affirm same-sex marriage because of this clear reaffirmation from Jesus. I think that's fair and understandable, and no Christian should be called a bigot for echoing this affirmation. But there's a very important part we miss. The Pharisees go on to ask Jesus why Moses gave men permission to divorce their wives for any reason. Jesus essentially explains that it was a concession at the time, but that it was "not this way from the beginning." Then he drops the bombshell: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." After this, Jesus' listeners came to the same exasperated place that Paul did: we might be better off not marrying at all (see 1 Corinthians 7).

The problem with using the Matthew 19 passage to oppose same-sex marriage is that Jesus wasn't talking about same-sex marriage, he was talking about opposite-sex divorce. He clearly and strictly forbids divorce for any reason except infidelity, and says that men who divorce their wives for any other reason commit adultery by remarrying, as does any man who marries the divorced wife.

But you may notice that there are few Christians out there trying to make this part of the Bible the law of the land.

Here's what Jesus did: he taught who God was. He taught what the ideal was. He told people to strive for that ideal. But he also offers as much grace as we need to fill in the huge gaps we leave. We know that life circumstances, imperfection, and even the fallen nature of creation itself (Rom 8:20-22) create a situation where we must do the best we can and offer each other grace along the way. That's why weddings of Christian divorcees happen all over the country without protests, lawsuits or courts despite Jesus' clear teaching. "No fault divorce," a widely accepted legal provision, is not "biblical" either. We often face situations where there is no "right thing" but only "the better thing." We now recognize that divorce and remarriage, though it may have never been God's ideal at the outset, is part of our world and in many instances represents a more God-honoring reality than the alternative. If we can do that with divorce in light of a clear and forceful teaching from Jesus, we're left with the question of why we can't do it for same-sex relationships, a topic Jesus never mentioned.

When it comes to human relationships, there are things Christians watch and support all the time that we consider benign but have been slowly eroding our vision for self-sacrificial relationships of commitment and loyalty. It's hard to find a sitcom, song, or movie that doesn't treat things like marriage and sex casually. We consume this entertainment all the time without a thought. Same-sex couples have been the scapegoat for the breakdown of the American family, even though that breakdown began long ago. If a family is in strife, it's more likely because they don't pray together than because their gay neighbors are together. I see lots of troubled relationships, and they're not troubled because Jack and George want to get married. I see marriages that are cold and distant in which the two barely even talk to each other any more, and I fail to see how that is preferable or morally superior to a joy-filled gay relationship.

This Is Us from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Sergei Tereschenko, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
The church needs to reclaim its witness to self-sacrificial relationships of fidelity more than it needs to solidify its position on gay marriage. Much time and energy has been spent on shouting that marriage is between a man and a woman, a statement that says nothing about what makes a marriage rich, vital, and lasting. Have you noticed that we seem to focus on the sexual aspect of these relationships, neglecting the fact that in day to day life they look much like our own relationships.

Let's live and prove what we believe about the sanctity of marriage. "Sanctity" comes from a word that means "set apart." We have a grand opportunity to show what this really means. We've lost our credibility. Let's get back to the real deal: Service. Faith. Openness. Respect. Love. Commitment. Perseverance. That's the stuff of "the narrow gate" that few find (Matt 7:13-14). Prejudice, judgment, and suspicion are easy. They seem to come naturally. It's time to reclaim our truly counter-cultural witness on marriage...and all human relationships.


Learning about Jesus and Baptists (I was happy to help)

A bunch of people recently learned a little bit about Baptists and Jesus. I was happy to help.

I write a column for Baptist News Global every 4 weeks. On April 14, 2015, they published my article entitled, "What 'religious freedom' used to mean." In my mind, there was nothing ground-shattering about it. I'm one of many Baptists who know our heritage when it comes to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. My article compared the original context of the fight for religious freedom to the current day climate of Christians using "religious freedom" as a way of securing extra trump cards.

A few days after the column ran, I was scrolling through Facebook and happened to see that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had posted my column to their Facebook page. It must have struck a chord.

Although it's never a good idea to scroll through internet comments, the ones under my article were actually largely positive and non-trollish. What was most striking to me was the number of people who expressed disbelief that a Baptist minister would write such an article. A few examples:

I knew Baptists had a PR problem, but I suppose this was one of my few opportunities to see it all in one place. The above comments are only a small sample.

It is unfortunate that so many people don't know about the historic Baptist commitment to the separation of church and state (including, of course, many Baptists). One of my sources for the article was William M. Pinson, Jr.'s book Baptists and Religious Liberty. There are many such sources on this subject, but Pinson's book is one of the more digestible ones. 

I suppose if I were a Southern Baptist I would represent the tiny minority that people suppose, but especially within my denomination, American Baptist Churches - USA, there is a widespread commitment to what Walter B. Shurden calls the "four fragile freedoms": soul freedom, church freedom, Bible freedom, and religious freedom.

But it has also been a reminder that there are so many people out there who have only encountered the type of Christian who lives with great fear and resentment instead of trying to exemplify the grace-filled life that Jesus lived. The current "religious freedom" debate has revealed how many Christians walk through life blinded by a false narrative of persecution and who show no interest in how to serve and love their neighbor. Jesus did not command us to love our neighbor only when things are as we want them to be. In fact, he preached radical, impossible-seeming commands like "love your enemies" and told his followers to go the extra mile when forced by Roman soldiers to carry their equipment. 

Hyper-individualism, in which people use all means necessary to put up protective fences, has sadly infiltrated a faith that is supposed to be about joining "prostitutes and tax collectors" at the banquet table.

Gandhi's famous quote looms large: "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."


"I Thirst"

On April 3, 2015, I was invited to be one of several guest preachers at an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Good Friday service. Each guest preacher was asked to speak briefly on one of Jesus' seven "sayings from the cross." I was assigned the phrase, "I Thirst." This is the text of my meditation.


John 19:28 - “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’”

Grand Canyon by Helicopter from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Tony Kent, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio
On August 1, 1975, a nurse named Linda Forney was vacationing at the Grand Canyon. She decided to go on a hike by herself—a long and sun-exposed hike that she started at high noon even though rangers strongly urge visitors to start it before dawn. Under the intense Arizona sun, she became disoriented, and took a wrong turn off the trail. Hours turned into days, and she was not able to find her way back to the trail. She had a few snacks with her and one canteen of water. She was sweltering hot during the day, and shivering cold at night.

When she ran out of food and water, it became a desperate attempt at survival. The human body can go for several weeks without food, but only a few days without water. Linda finally found a crevice in a rock that provided shade from the sun and had a slight trickle of water. She placed her canteen under the trickle but it took most of a day to get enough to drink. She had no food. A few times she thought she heard the sounds of people and aircraft, but she could never attract anyone’s attention. 

20 days after she had gone missing, she was found...sun-burned, barely conscious, and out of water. She was quickly taken to a hospital, where she recovered.

When you’re thirsty, you can’t think about anything else. When you’re thirsty, you are going to preoccupied with getting to that which can quench your thirst.

Thirst is a painful wanting. An eager longing-for.

In the original New Testament Greek of this quote from Jesus, it’s just one word. “Dipso.” “I thirst.” The word appears 15 other times in the New Testament, mostly in the gospels. Here are a few of the other occurrences:

Matthew 5:6 - “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Matthew 25:35 - “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…”

John 4:13-14 - “‘Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.’ ‘Please sir,’ the woman said, ‘Please give me this water.’”

And here’s what’s interesting about this word from the cross in the Gospel of John. Listen to what else the verse says: “Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’” Jesus had just about wrapped up his job. Jesus had done what he came to do. Yet, even before he died and was resurrected, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Because even though Jesus had finished his work on earth, the world was not healed. After all, it was the sinfulness of the world that put him there in the first place. From that very moment, Jesus was thirsty for a healed and redeemed world. 

But...we ourselves also come...thirsty.

Thirst is a painful wanting, an eager longing-for. When you’re thirsty, everything else gets blocked out. Your need is desperate. But it's as if Jesus said in Matthew 5:6, ‘When it comes to righteousness, I want you to be like Linda Forney in the blazing sun of the Grand Canyon.’ Jesus says that we should want righteousness so badly hat it consumes our life...every decision we make, every word we speak, every dollar we spend...consumed with our thirst for righteousness. What would that look like?

In the face of our violent world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for peace. In the face of our politically and racially divided world, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for reconciliation. In the face of vast corporate greed and corruption and special interests, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for justice. In the face of individualism, lone rangers, and every man for himself, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for community. In the face of sin, may it be the followers of Christ who live with a consuming thirst for righteousness.  

By the way, I told you that Linda Forney survived getting lost in the Grand Canyon. I told you she was eventually found. But I didn’t tell you who found her. She was finally found by a Native American tribe who lived in the area. She was finally found by people who knew their way around the canyon. She was not found by rangers who looked and called from a safe distance. She was not found by search teams flying high overhead. She was found by those who know what it’s like to live in the canyon.

And you and I, brothers and sisters, can only bring the living water of Christ to those who hunger and thirst when we ourselves bear their burdens and meet them where they are.


[Simmering sermon] I once was blind, but now I'm blinded

In some of the old hymnals, there's a song called "Stepping in the Light" (I've always found the title humorous and have joked, "Well, if I'm going to step in something I'd rather step in light"). My congregation's most senior members love to sing it at our weekly potluck luncheon. Here's the chorus:

How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Stepping in the light, stepping in the light,
How beautiful to walk in the steps of the Savior,
Led in paths of light.

It has a very light and peppy feel, and I visualize skipping or dancing, something like what Dorothy and friends did as they sang "Follow the Yellow Brick Road."

It's interesting: there are lots of songs and hymns that have as their context a "before and after" picture of finding faith in Christ. Hank Williams' song "I Saw the Light" proclaims, "Now I'm so happy, no sorrow in sight; praise the Lord, I saw the light." Of course, there is the most well-known of all, "Amazing Grace." "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." 

The interesting thing about this is that whenever the biblical narrative describes human encounters with God—i.e., seeing the light—it actually often results not in happiness or tranquility but in "fear and trembling." Moses' encounter with God found him being asked to do something he didn't want to do (Exodus 4:13). Isaiah's encounter left him crying out, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips..." (Isaiah 6:5). The tax collector in Jesus' parable beat his breast and pleaded for mercy when he found his way to prayer (Luke 18:13). Paul's encounter made him totally lose his appetite and left him blinded for a time (Acts 9:9). I thought blindness was the "before" condition?

What happens when we come into God's light, find God's salvation, and open ourselves to God's Spirit? Spiritually speaking, what if it's not so much going from blindness to sight but from unknown blindness to known blindness?

The New Testament lectionary texts for this week include some familiar passages: "For it is by grace you have been saved..." (Ephesians 2:8), and, "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). As is usually the case, the most well-known passages are often the most misinterpreted.

For example, the Ephesians passage says that grace is the prerequisite of salvation, and faith is the conduit. Most evangelical preaching gets that backwards.

John 3:16, too, is far too often preached without reference to context. It should be at least notable that the most oft-used verse today for preaching to those outside religious circles was originally spoken to someone very much IN religious circles (Nicodemus). But besides that, the encounter has many other fascinating yet unexplored themes. The lectionary designates 3:14-21, which includes a mention of John's characteristic theme of light. 
This is the verdict: 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, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)
Behind Each Hope, Lies a Doubt from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 Cristian V., Flickr | CC-BY-ND
Here, light is credited with doing what light does best: helping us see. It shows us what we may not see without it. In cases where there are undesirable things present, it "exposes." I'm reminded of a meme I once saw circulating around Facebook: "Those who turn on the light can't be blamed for the mess it exposes."

This is particularly powerful when paired with the imagery of rebirth earlier in the John 3 conversation. Jesus tells Nicodemus, "You must be born again" (John 3:7). I don't think we take this metaphor seriously enough. Think about the condition of a newborn or very young child. Helpless. Unlearned. Trying to move without help. Experimenting with many unfamiliar things. Fascinated with the new.

Yet, some of the most self-assured, authoritative, I-know-the-answers people I have known are those who have adopted the identity of a born-again Christian.

All the imagery in John—birth and light—is describing quite a different experience. Finding God is an experience of being "exposed," of having to lay bare all that which we would prefer to keep hidden. We are "seen plainly" in God's light, and none of us measure up. Coming to faith in Christ is supposed to be an experience of learning to see the world as God sees it—in God's light—and it looks so different from that viewpoint that it's as if we're having to learn how to walk and talk all over again. With our own prejudices and expectations stripped away, we fumble at best. The problem is that, too often, Christianity is presented as merely a confessional belief system instead of a beautiful yet traumatic reordering of our life. As it did with Nicodemus, it should leave us saying, "How can this be?" (John 3:9)

As I considered in a post several years ago, we take too much credit. Am I reduced to humility when I think I have a special revelation from God, or do I flaunt it and revel in new-found self-vindication? We don't see light; light allows us to see.1 We don't know God; God allows us to know.

Later in John's gospel, Jesus heals a blind man. When he is questioned about Jesus, he famously says, "Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Able to see he was, but imagine the journey he had ahead of him. He had been born blind. So everything he had ever heard of—every object, every person, every place—had looked a certain way in his mind's eye, but upon "seeing the light," he would have begun the long, arduous journey of having to recontextualize everything.

A journey that surely requires much patience, humility, and stumbling around. 

1 I'll give credit to Peter Rollins for this quote. I first heard it from him, but I don't think it's original to him.


[Simmering sermon] "Only A Fool"

On their 1997 album "Threads," Geoff Moore and the Distance have a song called "Only a Fool." It tells two parabolic stories: one of a man who quit a well-paying and upwardly mobile job to work with disadvantaged kids, and another of a beauty queen who could have made a career with her looks and charisma but gave it up in similar fashion. They are both described as "taking the job only a fool could do."

The last chorus says:

Show me the big in the small
Show me the wonder of my call
Even when no one else approves
I'll take the job for only a fool

This song came to mind as I read the epistle reading for this coming Sunday. From Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: 
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe...For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
Does this world need more fools, or less? It depends on what you're talking about.

Such passages are sometimes used to justify a false narrative of persecution or to shield any belief or action from critique. Similar to the passage in which Jesus warns his followers that they may be hated for preaching his message (Luke 6:22), Paul warns that those who promote the gospel may be considered foolish. But neither of these passages should be used to justify anything that is called foolish or engenders hatred. We have to get it in the right order. The passages teach that those who faithfully follow Christ may be hated or considered foolish, not that anytime you are hated or considered foolish, you are following Christ.

An extreme or all-too-easy example is the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, who quite often feel vindicated in their preaching of hate because of such biblical passages. But perhaps harder to see is the way in which the "fools to the world" narrative is used to justify Christian endeavors that are quite the opposite of the self-sacrificial, "losing your life" calling of Jesus. Christians have been known to use political power and money to fight culture wars, secure a place of privilege for their worldview, and disenfranchise those to whom they object. The ensuing criticism is expected and thus used for self-vindication. This is not what we're talking about. The prophetic tradition of the Bible has harsh words for those who forget which side of privilege and the power structure they're on.

Foolishness for the gospel is not self-aggrandizing or power-seeking. Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Mother Theresa, who begged and pleaded to go to a despised and forsaken place to minister on the streets and be a "saint of darkness." Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Saint Francis of Assisi who abandoned a life of luxury to take the message of Christ to ordinary people forgotten by the very rich and powerful church of his day. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Redeemer Lutheran Church of Minneapolis who decided to stay in a struggling neighborhood when other churches had moved out to the suburbs. Foolishness for the gospel is seen in Northern Lighthouse Ministries on the edge of Lincoln, NE, a congregation that intentionally welcomes (actually, goes and gets) prisoners, ex-prisoners, and the homeless into their worship and ministry.1 Foolishness for the gospel was seen in Kayla Mueller, the American humanitarian worker in Syria who was killed by ISIS. We've learned through her letters that she had a deep faith in Christ and that her love of God and neighbor had taken her to this dangerous place to serve.

Foolishness for the gospel is relinquishing self-preservation (or even church preservation?) to be a part of God's bigger story. It is giving up whatever obstacle there may be within us to extending God's love, grace, and forgiveness to the other...particularly those from whom rationality might tell us to steer clear.

1 Credit to Elizabeth Turman-Bryant whose work on "radically hospitable churches" introduced me to this ministry.


Praying By Giving Up on Prayer

prayer at night from Flickr via Wylio
© 2009 mrehan, Flickr | CC-BY-SA
I've long struggled with traditional understandings of prayer.

Especially in terms of the things or people we "pray for." All you have to do is listen carefully and then think through the implications, and you may see my problem.

Most of our talk about "the power of prayer" actually places a lot of the power in our hands: If enough people pray hard enough, God will act. Intervention requires action on our part; if we fail to act, a disaster may occur unabated.

Think about it. Some of us hear it all the time. So and so was sick, needed a job, etc. They amassed a huge network of pray-ers and, if and when things work out favorably, we say that "God answers prayer" or "prayer works."

I've never understood this. To me, the implication is that God sits, hands folded, waiting for enough people to pray, and if we finally manage to get God's attention, God will act.

We wouldn't say it that way, but that's what the language implies to me. It makes me think of flipping a car over. If enough people get on the right side and coordinate their efforts, it can be done.

Many churches, especially internationally, have prayer services for healing. People have been miraculously healed because they...were with the right people at the right place and the right time? Maybe it happens. I'm not really in a place to deny their experience. I can't explain it, which I guess is the point of miracles. But personally, I just can't get on board. I hate to say it, because I don't want to be mean, but it honestly strikes me as Christian voodoo.

I once had someone tell me that she worried she and her friends had once "prayed for the wrong thing." There was a crisis, they all prayed fervently for a certain outcome, and their desired outcome came about. But now they question it all. "Did we pray for the wrong thing?"

That one really twisted my brain into knots. So what you're telling me is that God is willing to do the wrong thing or answer a prayer in a way that goes against God's will if enough people are praying for it?

If my above critique is not connecting with you, don't worry about it. If you see no problem with traditional understandings of prayer, and if they bring you hope, I actually have no interest in stripping you of it. But this is a post for me and others like me. I think some of the traditional understandings of prayer paint a theologically problematic picture of God. If you don't agree, that's fine, and you can proceed in your prayer life with my blessing. But I personally need something else.

At the very least, our theology of prayer must return the power and initiative to its rightful place.

In 1960, Catherine Marshall wrote a piece in Guideposts called "The Prayer of Relinquishment." She basically suggests that we're praying all wrong. She tells stories of people, including herself, frantically praying for something in the midst of a crisis, but then realizing that the way in which they were praying may have actually been hindering things.
One afternoon I read the story of a missionary who had been an invalid for eight years. Constantly she had prayed that God would make her well, so that she might do his work. Finally, worn out with futile petition, she prayed, "All right. I give up. If you want me to be an invalid, that’s your business. Anyway, I want you even more than I want health. You decide." In two weeks the woman was out of bed, completely well.
Understand: I'm always skeptical of these stories, and even if true, they potentially set the rest of us up for disappointment when we don't get the miracle. But beneath all that, Marshall is onto something. The Prayer of Relinquishment is, "I give up. You decide." The old school evangelicals might call this "letting go and letting God." There's genius to this.

As Marshall puts it, "A demanding spirit, with self-will as its rudder, blocks prayer."

In other words, whenever we pray as if the outcome depends on our prayer, we're actually blocking God out.

Part of why the Prayer of Relinquishment is effective is because it relates to our stress response. There's a reason that contemplative authors have spoken of and practiced prayer in a way that involved the body as much as the spirit and mind. Think of being in water. When you're tense, you sink. When you relax, you float. Marshall's key insight is the fact that our prayers may at times be the religious equivalent of clenched fists. We have to "give up" on this kind of prayer to be open to real prayer.

The effect of our stress response on our body and mind is well documented. Physically, our muscles tighten, our digestion slows down and our immune system is compromised. We can literally keep ourselves sick. Emotionally and mentally, we get less sleep, we make rash decisions, and are more irritable. But it's not just us. The stress response has a negative effect on those around us, keeping them tense and more focused on abating the stress than being well.

Perhaps this is a lot of what "letting go and letting God" is all about. God hard-wired us this way. We can actually find great solace and relief when we come to a place of relinquishment. "OK fine, God." Or, perhaps, "I can't control or fix this." We must not see this as synonymous with acceptance or passively saying, "I'm OK with any outcome." What if one's child is deathly ill? What if one has been falsely accused of a crime? We're not talking about acceptance. We're talking about peace. We can't be open to "the peace that passes all understanding" (Philippians 4:7) if we believe the outcome of prayer depends on us. Jesus told the weary to come to him (Matthew 11:28) for rest. Any theology of prayer that is not restful is probably off base.

Certainly, when we're facing a crisis, the prayer of "please, fix this" is natural and understandable. I'm not suggesting that we suppress our "in-the-moment" thoughts and prayers (the biblical authors didn't). But, if it remains long-term, it's a posture that produces adverse affects.

I am not totally on board with Catherine Marshall's article, but it's a step in the right direction. It brings us closer to where I think we need to be with prayer.

I'd like to ask why prayer has to be an activity I engage in rather than a description of how I engage in all activities. Is prayer a thing, or the way in which I do all things? What if I'm supposed to pray through God rather to God?

This is not a new idea. The apostle Paul actually spoke of prayer as something God engages in with us, rather than just being a recipient. "We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans...the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God" (Romans 8:26-27).

In a guest post on this blog, Joe Kutter reflected on prayer in terms of "priesthood" and the need that we have, when we find ourselves in a difficult situation, for someone to come alongside us. Not necessarily to "pray for us" but to pray with us, voicing our concerns and suffering to God, something that is very powerful. "The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor...When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me."

This is closer to something that makes sense to me. Because, let's face it, even those who claim to believe that God will fix things will still call 911 in an emergency or take their broken down car to a mechanic rather than praying over it.

As a pastor, I've seen some people experience healing and restoration and some people not, and it has never made sense to attribute the outcomes to who was praying how.

But it has been my experience that when people are sick, depressed, stressed, or a host of other things when life is beating them up, they need people to come alongside them, take their hand and say, "Let's approach the throne of God together."

It may be disconcerting not to have certainty about what the outcome will be. But it's downright terrifying to think that I and my friends have to come up with the right prayer.

Luckily, I don't think we do.