Thursday, July 31, 2008

I Converted This Morning...Again!

I was watching a video recently on If one of the videos some conservative guy that had the appearance of a man more likely to sale you a vacuum cleaner than try to trap some "Emergent Scholar" (Tony Jones) in a line of questioning asks Tony..."When were you born again?" Tony's reply was brilliant..."this morning". Tony went on to explain something I feel is universal in those who follow Jesus. The choice of who will rule my life is a daily choice at least...perhaps hourly and sometimes for me it is a minute by minute decision. With each fork in the road my day presents I am confronted with the decision to "convert" or "be born again". If I have learned anything in my time walking with God, it is that my faithfulness in surrender today does nothing to imply or facilitate submission tomorrow.

That line of thought lead me back to something I had been wrestling with in advance let me tell you that I don't question my salvation, I am not using the phrase "born again" or the word "convert" to imply any aspect of soteriological with that said, I have been wrestling with the whole idea of converting as being an ongoing process. I am thinking of it as an ongoing sense of becoming. Thinking of submission, surrender and even conversion as an ongoing, daily process opens things up for some crazy cool possibilities and some chances to consider faith in some new ways. It is exciting...what say you?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lost...Yet Finding

While at the Church Basement Roadshow, while in the restroom of all places, I saw someone I had not seen in a while. I use to attend church with this older gentleman though I haven’t been to that church in over a year. He remarked that he hadn’t seen me in a while but had asked someone about me recently. I asked what the person said and he replied that they didn’t know. Ok timeout! Let me deconstruct the conversation to that point…this person cared enough about me to ask others about me but never picked up the phone and called me or emailed me or come by my house, etc. Second, the person he was asking shared this gentleman’s level of concern. I must also remark that the level of concern these two shared is rampant in our former church as our phone hasn’t exactly been ringing off the hook since we defected from that church “silently in the night”…well, unless you consider 2 emails “ringing off the hook”.
Ok so now back to the conversation in progress…I told him that I had just been living life and enjoying God’s goodness to which he replied. “Yeah, I figured you were out trying to find yourself”. At this point I just smiled…as opposed to break the door off the hinges. It’s a good thing I had already gone to the bathroom or I may have indeed pissed myself before leaving the restroom.
I thought, “Dude you have no clue that I WAS NOT trying to FIND anything…especially myself. In fact, I was trying to LOSE MYSELF…in so far as that means lose the baggage of “religiosity” and “churchianity”…in so far as that means being free from the shackles of legalism, the removed from under the heavy blanket of insignificant and boring faith and to the degree that losing myself means finding the God I am finally growing to love.” My amazement at such a comment very quickly changed to understanding. For one thing, I know this guy and he is a good guy. I am sure he meant nothing bad by is comments. It just isn’t his nature. For another thing, I realized that he just doesn’t get it…or at least he doesn’t get me. Then my anger-turned understanding went immediately to a book title and idea (as many of my thoughts do). You see, I am finally coming into a place of peace, security and spiritual freedom…not in the presence of church membership, cool Bible studies or predictable organized religion. I am finally finding comfort in the uncomfortable Words of God found in scripture. I am finally finding solace in the inconsolable life of Jesus. I am finally finding security in the foundations of God’s mercy. I am finally learning about the man, husband and father I am to be through time with God…finding myself is the last thing I am doing. I have never been so lost in my whole life…yet I know the path on which walk is highlighted by the grace, mercy and love of God. I have never been so far away from conventional wisdom…yet I know the voice I hear, and am following is the voice of my Shepherd, the same voice previously drowned out by functions, services and committee meetings. I have never been so blind…but the only light I care to see is His anyway…what else is worth seeing? So indeed, I am “Lost, Yet Finding”

If being found means returning to my personal "Egypt"…I hope I stay lost in the wilderness of God forever. May we all be so lost!

Emergent and The Critics of Emergent

For some reason I had a chance yesterday to listen to a plethora of videos...some from the better known Emergent folks like Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones and others from people who seem to think that anything Emergent or even remotely similar to Emergent is evil, heretical and is directly from the pit of hell.

In fairness and in the name of full-disclosure I must say that I don't completely fit into the Emergent camp...However, I think it to maintain a sense of intellectual integrity I have to mention that my beliefs and interpretations/experiences of faith line up MUCH closer with the Emergent crowd than that of the more conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist crowd.

So with that, I simply wanted to mention a few observations from my adventure yesterday.

1. The Emergent Christians (EC) and the Fundamentalist Christians (FC) speak different languages. Additionally I think the ways in which the two sides dialogue is different to a degree that makes communication extremely difficult.
It seems that it is difficult for them to even have conversations because the language used and the ways in which it is used is so different from one another. For example, the FCs seem to be asking questions that they feel like they answered a long time ago. This kind of "questioning" is designed to drive someone to what they think is a logical conclusion. The problems with this method of manipulation are numerous. One problem is that it is fraudulent. The purpose and intent of a conversation is to share, discuss and mutually understand...the stance taken by FCs in the videos are arrogant and presumptuous at best. Another problem is that through the ever changing culture, the "logical conclusions" the FCs assume to exist are not logical nor conclusive to the Emergent crowd. Therefore extreme frustration and outright anger seems to overcome the FCs when someone doesn't find "logical" what they do. Again, this is arrogant and less than insightful in my opinion.
The EC's seem to be engaged in more ethical conversations. I personally don't sense that a specific conclusion is the motivation in the questions asked by the ECs. The conversations seem to be genuine. The interaction of two people sharing lives, to me anyway, seem to mirror the conversations had by Jesus in the Gospels. Jesus seemed to only "trap" people or lead people to some preconceived conclusion when he was dealing with the Pharisees or Teachers of the Law...not with those truly seeking.
I also sense that the more ECs are fine with not having answers. It isn't that they enjoy ambiguity...I sense that instead they enjoy serving and honoring a God that is so much larger than canned answers, a God who extends a love to His creation beyond what some systematic theology can explain. Having answers and providing them to people is fine...but when the answers aren't universal or when the answers aren't comprehensive, they may be more divisive and confusing than simply marveling at mystery of God.

2. The FCs seem to be very angry. I don't know if it is frustration or just a sense of becoming irrelevant or what. To give the FCs benefit of the doubt I do think that they really believe that their faith has been hijacked by some liberal agenda and it angers them. To give my cynicism a voice and the benefit of the doubt I think some portion of their anger is due to the shifting of their relevance, which means their voice is diminishing which means they are losing control and power. To meet in the middle on these thoughts I think it is safe to mention that any suggestion that another way exists doesn't fit the FCs paradigm. To them, if another way exists they must have been wrong all of this time. The FCs have for so long operated under the assumption that "Truth" is mutually exclusive of anything other than the way they believe and practice their faith...the mere suggestion of another idea, viewpoint or theology is a personal attack on their faith and on God. To me, this seems again, rather arrogant and myopic at best.
The ECs on the other hand seem to be more calm and inclusive when discussing their thoughts about God and more importantly, when listening to the opinions, experiences and thoughts of others. I don't see any ground being gained from showing disdain, disappointment or resentment toward those who share experiences or opinions that aren't mainstream or popular. One thing I am confident about when looking at scripture is that God's story is woven through the lives of us all. The ways in which God chooses to weave and the ways in which God is manifested in our worlds is up to God and God alone. In my opinion it is disrespectful of God to place limitations and parameters on the work of God in the lives of others.

3. Both sides have staunch supporters. The Emergent Cohort I get to hangout with monthly is in no way interested in a return to the camps of the FC. I also sensed yesterday in watching the videos that many people line up behind those who hate the ambiguity and openness found in the camps of the ECs. I will say that while many people, including me, have no plans of returning to a more dogmatic, closed interpretation of God and His Word, I don't think those who choose to stay in the FC traditions are evil or "hell-bound". The same can't be said for the FCs. They are not bashful at all when it comes to mocking, belittling and being downright hateful toward those who identify more in the EC direction. It seems that for many in the more FC group, people who are EC are either from hell or will quickly be heading there. That's say the least.

I had other impressions and may share those at some point. I guess the issue in my mind is that at the end of the day...not to mention the end of my life...I am responsible for the ways in which I have been faithful to God's call in my life. That's enough...nothing less should matter and nothing more is important.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Community and Communion

So last night I am hanging out on my patio with Tyler and Brian, a few La Flor Dominicanas and a few Brooklyn Pennant Ales. I guess we were hanging out for several hours...I didn't keep track of time. At some point during the evening we turned our attention to a custom Brian took part in while he was in Fiji. It reminded us all of communion...people sitting around, sharing a drink and thinking of ways in which our actions and interactions intersect with God. That reminded me of my time as an intern in Mwanza, Tanzania learning from Greg.

The people of the Sukuma Tribe in Mwanza have no idea what a grape is. That means they have no idea what wine is or grape that makes more traditional communion very difficult. They were encouraged by Greg to think about communion...what it is...what it should like for them and how they may go about doing it. They came to a really cool conclusion. In their minds the Body and Blood of Jesus is so wonderful that they should only use the best things to symbolize them. So they chose rather expensive items...Coca-cola and English Tea Cookies. In my mind that was so fitting.

I know from a traditional Eucharist perspective it isn't the same but last night was refreshing to spend time with Brothers. It was good to have some laughs and some deeper theological discussion. In so many ways I imagine how I will one day feel when my three boys are all gathered together in a common place and in a common love...God must absolutely love times like last night. If He delights in his sons so much more than I can imagine, and He does, I know God had to be smiling and enjoying His sons spending time together and just sharing their lives. Man time is awesome and God is even more amazing than that. Long live Monday night Man Time on the patio!!!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Teaching Scripture...WORD of God part 3

Good Morning...before I move on to the Pauline Epistles portion of this conversation I want to share an excerpt from a newspaper in Columbus, Ohio. I received a link to this article by someone mentioned in the article who has recently moved to that area. This couple was previously associated with an emergent community with which I have many connections here in Birmingham. Here is the link to the article should you want to read the whole thing.

The portion I find particularly concerning is a statement by someone concerned with the ways in which scripture is interpreted:
"Leaders at the church are concerned that the upstarts are too loose in their biblical interpretation. "Many times the Bible becomes the meaning derived from the reader's interaction with it," Reilly said. "There is a meaning in the text that can be found, a unique meaning that's not dependent on the reader."

As I read that quote I almost swallowed my tongue. I thought, "GOOD GRACIOUS!!!" And that is a negative, disappointed "good gracious", not an excited, glorious "good gracious". That is the precise premise that has caused my recent writings and in large part lead me to the point of disillusionment with the typical "churches".

Let's look at "loose...biblical interpretation". What does that mean? I think most of us know what the guy is saying but what is the deeper intent? To me it seems that God is powerful enough to provide any sincere seeker with a meaning of a given text. It also seems plausible and even probable to me that God can, should he so choose, use the same scripture to bring about intimacy with numerous people through various revelation. To my more traditional ears that sounds a slippery slope. As soon as I start to consider that aspect I am reminded that the slope is no more dangerous than our current slope.

Current slope? Yes...the slope that presents scripture as static...less than dynamic...and holds that through tight interpretation, behavior can be modified, institutionalized faith can flourish and most importantly, through labels, definitions and creeds we can pretend to have some control. That is a horribly pretentious and deadly slope. I prefer a slope of freedom over one of shackles any day. I say that because if someone is genuinely seeking God...nothing else matters. If someone is not seeking God and is instead just seeking moral code, static rules or cognitive knowledge...nothing else matters.

It seems to me that this issue is largely summed up as an issue of trust. Do we trust God to reveal Himself to us? Do we trust ourselves to seek God's revelation? Do we trust others to do the same? If we do...then there is no problem. If we don't...there is a problem...but that problem isn't mine.

OK, on to Pauline Epistles tomorrow...or perhaps Monday.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Teaching Scripture in the Gospels...Word of God part 2

Here is something I have taken some time to research a bit so as to avoid putting erroneous info out there. There should be more to come.

My idea of the Holy Spirit being the lone being to teach us the meaning, application and heart of Biblical text raised a question in the mind of my lovely wife, Brook. Basically the issue, or question she had regarding such thoughts had to do with the "gift of teaching" as it is outlined in scripture (Romans 12:7). I think that is a great much so that I had to address it for myself and here it what I have found.

In the new testament there are many examples of the word "teaching". The Gospels are full of references...give or take 43 to be exact. In 40 of the 43 examples in the Gospels, Jesus is the one teaching. I think that is cool because it substantiates my thoughts on God, via His Spirit, teaching us still. Remember the words of Jesus, "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father". In the 3 verses that don't directly point to Jesus as "teacher", we are really talking about 2 examples because Mark 7:7 is a parallel verse to Matthew 15:9. These verses are actually Jesus quoting Isaiah in saying that the teachings:
"you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: " 'These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules."

I was excited about that verse too...and yes, I admit that I was looking for verses that could possibly be understood in a new way that may better present the idea of the Word of God being powerful when taught by God alone and when God transforms people with it.
I think one of the precise problems with humans instructing other humans is that it is so easy to, purposefully or otherwise, remove the heart from the analyzing and dissecting and end up teaching or learning "merely human rules". Especially that could be true in the case of what Jesus was upset about...forsaking the Word of God for the sake of tradition...enough said.

The other verse in the Gospels not dealing directly with Jesus teaching is Matthew 16:12:
"Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. "
AMEN! Preach it Jesus!
I want to deal with the other aspects of teaching scripture or even teaching doctrine that is found in the rest of the New Testament...but time requires me to end for today. So far though, I must say that when it comes to "teaching" scripture or laws or morals or what not in the Gospels, it seems best if we leave it up to Jesus. First of all, God is capable of teaching anyone who is seeking exactly what He wants them to know and anyway, Jesus wasn't pleased with what others were was diluted in the areas of transformation yet very concentrated in the ways of control and behavioral modification. Boooooo! Bad Pharisees! Bad teachers of the law!
I can't wait to have a bit more time to deal with some Pauline Epistles. Until then...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The WORD of God

Sometimes God reveal things to us in some amazing ways that changes everything...I have had such an experience in the past 2 days...I wanted to blog about it yesterday but I wasn't sure how to write about it...and frankly, I still have no clue exactly how to word my new thoughts. Since I haven't let that small obstacle restrain me in the past, I will give it a go anyway.

My traditional understanding of the Bible, scripture, the Holy Text or whatever else it can be called is that it is sort of an owner's manual for the follower of Jesus. If the words were dissected, analyzed and otherwise parsed, truth could be revealed. If enough time was spent with scripture and if enough time was spent with someone formally educated in the text for them to explain it to you, your spiritual life would prosper. Largely I saw "church" time each week as a time that people got together to sing songs, pray and be educated by the preacher explaining how some verses fit together, the "real" meaning of a particularly difficult to understand text or whatever.

At some point over the past few years I began to see the Bible less as an owner's manual and more as a love letter...some divine Hallmark Card to reveal the heart of God to people. The part about God ordering the death of someone, or directly causing the death of someone like Uzzah was a bit troubling but for the most part I began to think that God's heart, and unifying presence could be found through a good understanding of scripture. I mean, doesn't it make sense that properly understanding the cultural and spiritual implications of the Word of God lead to knowing God better? In some ways my desire to memorize scripture to somehow come to a better spiritual life through the text as mentioned above gave way to teaching others how to "properly" analyze and interpret the so far as I understood it to order to enrich their spiritual lives through a good understanding and knowledge of scripture.

And now that has given way to a new thought...indeed, a revolutionary thought to me. And like a revolution so often does, I have started to feel and experience great freedom because of this new revelation. In fairness, I have to give out props to Peter Rollins as his latest book has helped facilitate some of my new thoughts.

So check this out...Does the power of God's Word rest in the words? I don't think so. Does the power of God's word rest in the mental and academic exercises we undertake to stretch our faith and perhaps, even prove our devotion to God by reading, memorizing and dissecting the words? I don't think so. I think the power of God's Word exists because it has the power to transform lives. If the Bible is just about understanding a text it is no better than other great literary works. Why study Pauline Epistles when you can get some great lessons for life from Twain? Why try to change your life because of words and sentences spoken by Jesus? Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar and Dave Ramsey have made fortunes by helping millions correct their negative behavior. So if it isn't about behavioral modification and if it isn't about reading cool literary works...we are kind of left with transformation as the power and legitimacy of scripture, no?

If true, this thought changes almost everything...think about it...
***When a teacher in Bible Class or a preacher/pastor stands up in church to explain a passage to people does it not remove the very teeth of the text if he/she try to explain the scriptures to you in a prefabricated and overly analyzed way?
***Does it not shift the responsibility of reading and surrendering to the text from the "clergy" to the individual?
***Should Bible studies not be less about trying to figure out some cryptic code, hermeneutic or exegesis as a group and more about being transformed by the text?
***Should we not be open to new interpretations of the text...considering that the text is dynamic and that through a very much less-than-static Word, God may reveal new ways to understand and new ways to be changed to be deeper in relationship with him?
*** Does the idea of doctrines and specific, often divisive, theology not seem useless and worthless in reaction to the revelation?

I will write more about this in the coming days...probably critiquing my own thoughts and answering some rebuttals that will surely follow. My wife has already provided the first one...
If teaching scripture isn't needed, why is teaching listed as a gift? Good thought Brook! You always make me think...I love that about you.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Write It On A Rock...While You Can

Job may be one of my favorite men found in scripture. He is a good man...even God applauds his righteousness and it doesn't get any better than that. Yet he suffered mightily for his righteousness. It isn't fair, it isn't right but it is reality. Perhaps God suggested Job to Satan so that we could see how a man of God suffers. Job says some words in the 19 chapter of the book that bears his name that gives great insight as to how we might best suffer in a Godly way. Whether it be death, disease, poverty or fractured relationships...Job dealt with it and he has this to say...
"Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
What is he saying there? He has had to face the death of his children, the rebuke of his wife, the harsh accusations from his friends and the apparent abandonment from his God...all for being blameless in the eyes of God.
Job has been in a literal storm of emotions, spiritual battles and even poor health. In these all storms, visibility is decreased and memories of better times fade. It is hard to see past current circumstances when those circumstances are saturated in the scars and wounds of loss and regret. Job knows that being able to see well is not always available to those of us with limited human sight. Job knows that even the best theology, the most refined doctrine and the best apologetic arguments don't hold up under the weight of wounds. So what did he do?
He essentially said, "right now...while I'm thinking in my right mind let me write these good thoughts on a rock...let me write it in stone. Let me engrave it in granite so that when the winds pick up again, as the rain pours and as destruction happens all about me, I can cling to the rock. I can be reminded by something not tossed about and not subject to circumstance of what is real...what is true."
He went on to say what it is that he would write on a rock to carry him through the tough times.
Father God,
As is always the case, you are more than enough to sustain us through the storms. You are good, God...always and forever. Write your words on the rocks of our world. May it be so!!!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Spawn Where You Are...Leave the Travel to Expedia

I am reminded today about crazy little critters like the North American Eel or the Salmon. These things live their "real lives" in one place and then, on cue and in mass, they take off to some other place. The place to which they go is typically hundreds of miles away...maybe thousands. They go there usually at great risk...think about bears grabbing those tired fish from the streams. They also are dead tired when they get through jumping up stream literally. They leave where they normally live, risk life and limb (or fin as the case may be), become tired beyond belief...and for what? TO SPAWN!!!

I think about how stupid that is on so many levels. I mean, why risk your life just to spawn? Don't get me wrong, I like spawning as much as the next guy, but risk death? No thanks. How stupid is it that they wear themselves out...for spawning? These eels and fish must not be able to communicate in their primitive language, "honey, I'm just too tired". The thing that really sucks because of it's high degree of insanity is that this male eel and female eel are right beside each other but they both leave, both swim "upstream" if you will, both risk being killed and then if and when they arrive at their destinations they get together to spawn...something they could have done a few hundred miles ago...where they live every day anyway. And what of their young? If they live to spawn and if the eggs actually hatch and if the young critters actually make it back past the predators, down the rock walls do you know where they end up? In the same damn place their parents left months ago. Stupid? Yes! Moronic? Absolutely! Special simply for the few animals who do such stupid things? Sadly, no!

Think about another animal that thinks life has to happen in only one location. Think about an organism that leaves the emotional comfort of home and community to travel to another place so that something could happen that in all actuality could have and should have happened where they were before traveling. Can you imagine some critter that risks traveling dangers, wears themselves thin and grows oh, so tired and weary...for the sake of "life"? I would say that perhaps those who travel to do something they could do within their communities, neighborhoods, villages or otherwise aren't as stupid as it seems...maybe they are just confused. Maybe like salmon, no one ever told them that life doesn't have to happen at another place? Maybe like that poor eel, these other critters think that it is less safe to branch out into new territory than to risk everything just to do what tradition dictates?

In case you aren't following me, let me help. If you are driving out of your neighborhood of friends, driving through crazy traffic, risking life and limb by speeding (because God only shows up from 9:00am-11:30am on Sunday mornings) and attempting to get to a location where you believe life happens...well, you may be more like eels and the poor salmon than you are like those who first followed Jesus.

Some of you may be horrified and so you are asking, "what must I do? I don't want to be a christian eel or a religious salmon!". I'm glad you asked. Why not turn your minivan, SUV or sedan at a slower pace back to your home...get out of said on your children...pray together...sing songs together...tell your family of the love of God...make up songs if you want...make up some skits to act out really cool stories of scripture if you want...and here is when life (REAL LIFE) begins to multiply...invite your neighbors over and do the same. It is amazing to see what could happen if those who follow Jesus simply spawn where they already live. Leave the traveling for another day...After all, Jesus did not say "I came to give you a schedule, an order of worship and a Pastor to spew sermons in your direction". Jesus DID say, "I have come that you may have life...and abundantly so".


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Theological Diversity as Evidence of God?

I have seen God in different ways throughout my life. Some have been erroneous but most of my thoughts about God and His very essence have been accurate...and very different from one another.

For example, I have often identified of the God that shows up in Joshua 7. This God gave some strict rules to his people and when Achan deviated from it, God only turned his anger from Israel after Joshua ordered that people take Achan, his entire family and even his animals out, stone them to death and then burn their remains. That's a God of discipline and a God of predictability...don't screw with God!

At other times I identified more so with the God revealed in the actions of Jesus when the woman was caught in adultery (something I wrote about and posted a few days ago). The "right" thing to do according to scripture itself was to stone this whore. This woman had brought shame on herself and should be killed...but Jesus had other ideas. Her life, and presumably her soul, were saved through the mercy, grace and goodness of God.

So God is a God or order, laws and holiness. Yet God is a God or mercy, grace, love and compassion. John 1 says that Jesus was God in the flesh and that he was "full of grace and truth". So which is it?

Isn't it strange that some denominations are known for a more strict moral code (please don't confuse morality with Godliness, but that's a post for another day) while others are known for a more compassionate approach to people? How much fighting has taken place in the name of doctrine? Do we not often pretend that our views of God are mutually exclusive with any other view of God and therefore have to fight like hell to prove how right we are, how good our doctrine is or how correct our Biblical interpretation happens to be?

I am increasingly convinced that we are all wrong and all some degree. We are all wrong if we conclude with any degree of certainty to have a comprehensive understanding of God. I also think we are all right when we base our views on Biblical text. The amazing aspect of God is that He is so huge and so complex that to assume any single view can accurately encompass God is blasphemy. Of course God is holy, righteous and omnipotent...among other things. My thought though is that my ideas of holiness falls short. My attempts at righteousness and understanding righteousness is laughable. My theology of God's ominpotence is lacking beyond belief.

For some, this idea of ambiguity will cause you some anxiety. Humans have some innate drive to completely understand, label and define. Take heart though. Ambiguity was anticipated by God and I think He is cool with it. I think God, like us all, enjoys a good game of hide and seek. I think God enjoys being a mystery and enjoys our attempts to search his depths. He knows we will never explore Him completely or know Him comprehensively...but as long as we are focused on Him I think He honors that with allowing us to know Him to the degree we can and to be blessed beyond belief with the theological crumbs and idealistic scraps that fall from His amazing abundance. But that's just my opinion...and we all have them. So celebrate our diversity in theology and cherish the fact that we serve a God who is too large to be contained. If the grave couldn't hold him, my feeble mind doesn't stand a chance.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Relationships, Struggle and God

As is typically the case, the books I read help focus my thoughts on specific topics. Peter Rollins' most recent book is no different. It seems thus far that we agree about God being relational to the degree that he encourages interaction...even anger, questions and struggles.

Any married person knows that even in the best marriages there are times of anger, selfishness, compromise and power struggles. I don't think the analogy of God's relationship with us as a marriage is accidental. I think it is accurate and fair to say that true intimacy is only forged through conflict. How true is that in our walk with God? For me...and perhaps for many relationship with God grows in love and depth during and after periods of intense stress, relational strain and unusually frank prayer times. God isn't fragile and I am afraid that many times His followers confuse respect and reverence with relational dynamics.

For example, recently some dear friends celebrated their first anniversay (Congrats Ben and Jamie). If the next time Ben and I are at "Thirsty Thursday", our local minor league baseball team promo event, he said something like, "man, marriage is great. Jamie and I have made it through our first year without a single argument" I would think 1. Ben has had too much $1 beer; or 2. Ben has had so much $1 beer that he has started telling crazy lies; or 3. Ben and Jamie have a horrible marriage and one of them is always giving in or giving up. Perhaps the same could be said for the follower of Jesus that has never dealt with God in a way that seems to push the envelope.

I think God will be pleased with us as we begin to struggle with him and invest more than soft and surface-deep sentiments with our King. If you doubt what God thinks about this I can tell you that once, after an all night struggle with God, a man was blessed beyond belief...perhaps as we struggle with God we too will recieve a new name and new identities. How cool would that be?

Friday, July 11, 2008

Caught In Adultery, Caught Up In A Moment

She is more available than desirable, more open than inviting and more used than experienced. She is the person you visit, the thing you do when there is no one or anything else going. She is, well, disposable. Too many before me have called her, “special” for it to be true. She really was “a nobody” compared to someone with my status and credibility. She had someone once, a husband, a modest man, who truly thought she was special but he too soon realized her ability to please was limited to the physical as she continually disappointed in the area of, let’s say, fidelity. She is the one you run to in the secrecy of night and deny her existence and your union with her while the sun is up. Very ordinary, she just isn’t worth much.

The last time I saw her was the day in which my life changed. It was a cool, cloudy day. It was the kind of day where a blanket and an open schedule are more appealing than accomplishments and tasks. I ventured out about the town, bored with the blanket and the open schedule…oh, and my wife…oh, and my placement in the community. I would be lying if I claimed my wife satisfied me. Don’t get me wrong, she is a good lady but she seems incapable of stirring the man within me, you know, making me feel like a man. I would be lying if I claimed the social pressures placed on a man in my position could be anything but daunting and burdensome. I would also be lying if I claimed the other woman hadn’t crossed my mind, especially since she asks so little in return and seems to be a respite from my everyday life. I might just happen to “be in her neck of the woods” and drop in. It wouldn’t be the first time, for me…or others. “Dropping in” is almost expected for a woman like her. She will be pleased with someone like me returning for “a next time”. She has long ago surrendered the hope that the promises made at midnight would bear fruit in her future. I am not even sure she heard the words anymore. She seemed hollow, numb and void of emotion. In retrospect I can’t blame her and in fact I now have pity on her. At that time though, her voids and numbness presented more as opportunities for me than they did as shame and pain for her. Once I had greeted several about town and caught up a bit with the social scene, I knocked on the threshold of my old acquaintance.

I was so happy she was there, elated really. She smiled her obligatory smile and I entered quickly while no one was watching. I knew our appointment assignments in life and that I had no business being with someone like her, married or not. But, but, well, she was good for me? Good with me? Maybe she made me good for me or with me…I simply don’t know why I returned again and again. She felt good, her arms around me usual, her lips familiar and her body comfortable. Our times together had never been Earth changing but had always quenched a thirst. It was the thirst for the easy, the drink of the unattached. No real emotional depth, no true emotional connection and no authentic love…yes that is it. She made it easy for me to be the hero. She didn’t require me to court her, swoon, communicate, share my day-much less my life, be romantic…she only required that I be present when I wanted to, available for myself and loyal to my own whims. What a woman! Completely without concern for her own desires, wants and needs and seemingly infatuated with me. Of course, she wasn’t. She couldn’t be infatuated with a different man so often and though one part of me knew that, the dominant part of me wasn’t going to let little things like truth, intimacy or love get in the way of my easy release valve.

I quickly found my way back to our usual place, embraced as real lovers do. I say “Quickly”, because no pretense existed about why I was there and also because our little soirĂ©es had to be secretive. What if the other leaders knew about my real life? I would be eliminated from leadership, maybe even from life. Such disgraces aren’t taken so well in my town and I knew the call of the woman and the seeking of pseudo-validation wasn’t without risks.

Before our session was completed but well after it started we heard a commotion and then saw the shadows of several men pan across the mud wall of her bedroom. As we both turned in fear I saw the religious leaders, my fellow leaders standing there, angry, glaring at us with disgust and maybe a touch of jealousy…knowing some of their sandals had also been under her bed and that their hands had felt her warmth. No one was discovering a virgin land with her and we all knew it…but no one had been so blatantly caught in the act before either. As I realized our plight, I returned a promissory glare. Though my heart still raced deep within my sweaty chest, I knew they would be unable to charge me because I would quickly tell everything I knew. If I was indicted, we would all be indicted and they knew it. A close call this was, but it wouldn’t be the death of me…socially or literally.

I assumed we would all be leaving in our separate directions since I wasn’t going to be charged and since it would be foolish to charge only one person with adultery…doesn’t such a crime require two people? Apparently not. They pushed me aside and clamped down on her arms prior to her being able to grab her clothing. I couldn’t believe this…her nudity shown to the world, her obvious reputation made public once and for all, her life coming to an end today…I know the law and I know that her raw body and obvious sin would soon be the very flesh that would draw a hailstorm of rocks, large and small. I didn’t want to think of the jagged edges ripping through her soft skin and the blunt force of the larger stones breaking her bones, bludgeoning her face. In my mind she suddenly had worth…not enough to make me stand up for her, I would die too, but enough that made me quickly dress and follow them to where she would be quickly and partially tried, convicted and the very men who perpetuated her current plight through their willingness to be with her in secret.

I followed the crowd, who were also all too eager to rid the community of this blemish. I realized quickly that it was a setup, a sting operation. Was it aimed at her, me, a general display of religious power? I don’t know but I kept my distance, never knowing if the pack of wolves would turn on me. As the men paraded this woman through the streets she was sobbing…what shame she must have felt, what fear, knowing that her life would soon be over, but not before her dignity was also stripped from her.

Finally the leaders arrived where some man was speaking with others, maybe he was teaching them I don’t know. I think I had heard this man referred to as a religious man…just one more nail in the woman’s coffin, apparently the leaders respected this man’s opinion as they treated him like a stand-in judge. They asked him a very obvious question if he was indeed religious. They explained that she was caught in adultery and they awaited his ruling regarding her guilt…her death pending as only one ruling could be predicted.

I hid behind a wall, only my head peering around the corner, taking it all in, trying to gather my thoughts, trying to better tie my clothes. I wondered when this expert was going to ask who else was involved in this crime, this sin. I wondered how I would explain to my wife that I saw a woman killed and I wondered if she would see right through me, knowing I might as well have thrown the first stone. If implicated would I admit it or would I claim I had been falsely accused? Would I sacrifice the woman to save my own life? I would like to think not, but I know I value my life more than hers…I wouldn’t have been there otherwise. I decided quickly that if it came down to me dying or preserving my life through her death…I would have to live with regret rather than die through more honorable means.

I noticed the delay in him sentencing, as though he was thinking. What’s to think about? The law is the law and who can do anything else. Guilt equals death, the end…no thought, no discussion…death. She is nude, trying to cover up what she can with her hands, bending at the waist to return some sense of modesty to herself…but it wasn’t working. She just stood there, void of glory, she was no longer numb, no longer emotionless. In fact, she now was acutely aware of her plight, her sin, her life and her death. I had never seen emptiness become filled, a void become abundance or numbness become a stinging spectrum of feeling. Being faced with ones death in the shadow of ones failures, ones guilt and ones purposeful disdain for God has a way of returning clarity.

The stand-in rabbi was silent for what seems like an eternity. Just when I thought he was going to pronounce the sentence, he knelt and started writing in the dust. I tried to see between the legs of the hoard crowded around them but I couldn’t make out his writings. The only thing more intriguing than what he was writing was a voice of self-preservation crying out from within. I remained behind the wall, peeking at this event like a child peeking in on an older brother courting a true love. I guess the correct answer wasn’t coming quickly enough for the leaders and they started jeering, really hounding this guy from whom they were seeking an answer to an obvious question. He finally stood, unshaken by the impatience and demands of the crowd. He began to speak and I clinched my teeth and my hands…knowing the punishment would soon commence. “If anyone here is pure, free from sin, without blemish…let that person be the one to initiate the punishment”. What? I mean, huh? Was that the death sentence or not. He didn’t find her innocent but he somehow circumvented the punishment…despite her guilt. Was she not going to pay with her life? Was this going to cost her nothing? Mind you, I don’t want to pay for my participation but her…she doesn’t hold the position I hold, she isn’t self-reliant, self-sustaining. Surely someone will be righteous, do the honorable thing and throw the first stone.

Nothing…not one stone. This man must have known no one would because he still stood near her, close enough to take a rock meant for her should a rock of condemnation be thrown. He squatted again and finished writing what he started earlier. Some of the older men were leaving…where are they going? Has old age made them too weak to fulfill the law or has their experience taught them that no one but God is Righteous? The younger men followed their lead and eventually very few people were there at all. It seems that they were convicted by what this man had said…knowing their own sin, they weren’t willing to use a rock to claim their piety. I saw my sin standing there with her…I took part as well so does this mean I too have been set free, acquitted, pardoned, whatever happened there that day? I don’t think it does mean that. The leader finally stood up and looked into the woman’s eyes…how Holy must he be that his eyes peered into hers, not at her humanness on display for all?…he asked her where everyone was…where is the flurry of stones? What an obvious question…was he seeking an answer or was he seeking dialogue? Was he seeking a relationship with this woman or was he just the kind to ask a question so the one who answers gets the point? She told him…or maybe she was proclaiming it for herself at his direction…that no one was still there who could find her guilty. He then told her that he didn’t condemn her either and that she should go home, get dressed and live a new life…freed, pardoned, not guilty-guilty but without consequence…that was unbelievable. Someone would have to pay for sin right?

I instantly was jealous. I also wanted the salve of his words. I wanted him to search deep within me and pronounce a blessing rather than a curse. I want to walk a new path at his direction. How silly, I am the leader around here and I desire childlike affirmation and direction from this stranger. But still I need him to tell me I am O.K. She was forgiven in full…not me. How could she receive it and not me? Oh, because she couldn’t hide it…her sin was placed before everyone prior to forgiveness. I missed the full blessing because I risked nothing. As a coward, I hid behind a wall, not bearing my sin, not bearing my shame, not receiving a pardon for it all. Risking nothing, I gained nothing. Risking it all, she gained it all.
I ran to this man, desperately needing what he had…I fell before him, with no dignity, no status, no credentials, no pretense and asked…to be full, must I be empty? To be whole, must I be broken? To be first, must I be last? To be pure, must I confess my impurity? He looked at me, silent again and smiled.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Socks, Urine, Complacency and Death

I vividly remember my Sr. Drill Sergeant telling a story just prior to my group entering the dreaded gas chamber during Basic Training. It was an unusually warm fact it was probably a balmy 50 degrees in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. or as it is more affectionately and appropriately called, Ft. Lost in the Woods, Misery. We were still relatively new to Basic Training and life was still registering VERY high on the "Suck" scale. The story goes something like this...

"Today you will learn your first lesson about NBC Warfare (Nuclear, Biological and Chemical). Your life and the lives of those around you may very well one day hang in the balance of what you learn about NBC. For example, one lowly officer in WWI saved his entire platoon because he used his head and the limited Chemistry he learned in school. The Germans were killing soldiers by the hundreds and thousands with gas that had not been used before on the battlefield...chlorine. This officer, though he was only a 2Lt, though he was new to the battle and probably not qualified to be in charge of a pair of shoes, much less a platoon of battle-hardened soldiers, remembered that something he studied could render chlorine useless...uric acid.
Seeing the cloud of gas flowing across the field toward them, he quickly ordered his men to remove their socks and place them in a pile in the middle of their trench. He then ordered them all to piss on their the pile of socks. Once this unusual command had been carried out he ordered each soldier to pick two socks each. One was to be tied around their nose and the other was to be tied around their mouth. The men, facing certain death otherwise, did the very thing that seems horribly disgusting. Yet they lived. As they inhaled, the chlorine tainted air flowed through the urine-drenched socks and the urine made sure the air was essentially purified prior to entering their lungs.
Surprised that it worked and surprised that the Germans were apparently having a party in their trenches...certain that they would be attacked by anyone...especially the people they just gassed...the American soldiers quietly went across the field and slaughtered the German soldiers before the Germans could realize they were even under attack.
And so it will be with you men. If you learn how to fight in a chemical environment you will win the battle. If you do will die."

Needless to say, we all were attentive to NBC classes from then on. As disgusting as the urine soaked socks sound, if I thought for a minute that urine would have helped me in the gas chamber training I would have tried to stand on my head and piss in my own nostrils...anything to remove the gas that felt like lava flowing freely in my eyes, nose, sinuses and lungs.

There isn't a huge lesson for me to explain about this story...just a question. As the Army of God...the Army of God, against which the gates of Hell can't defend, are we more like the Germans or the Urine soaked Americans? Have we launched an ineffective attack and now rest and think our jobs have been completed? Have we been under attack yet seek for new ways to fight, live and thrive? Are we using a single weapon? Are we using anything we can think of...even disgusting things?

I don't know the answers for sure but I can't wait to discuss possible answers with you all. So what say you?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Redeemed Culture...Redeemed Church

I am convinced more so than ever that the vast majority of the bad press or negative implications our culture that does not attend or participate in "church" has toward "church" is not only deserved but has been earned many times over. The fact that many will list similar reasons for why they have no interest in being a member or otherwise attending a church isn't coincidence.

Those people are just a bunch of hypocrites. Those people are so hateful. That church is judgemental. People go for show and to be seen more than they go for any other reason. That preacher only cares about my money. I have enough time-consuming activities without going to church. Etc.
I use to think that the people outside of a church fellowship were in error and something had tainted their perspective...but wasn't really anything that should have offended them or caused their rather harsh feelings. I then started thinking more along the lines of these same people having great points but were myopic to think every church or every christian was like the ones they hated. I now think that people do what they do...good or bad...for a reason and it doesn't matter if someones perspective is very is still their perspective and it is still based on their experience.
I say all of that, which is likely very elementary to most of us in "The Bible Belt", to ask the question...with "church" having such a huge influence on our local culture, are we not responsible for cleaning up the cultural messes we have made?
2 quick examples of ways in which we may work toward the redemption of our culture through the redemption of our churches...and ourselves.
I recently heard of a church who fired an employee because she had alcohol at her wedding reception. This immediately stinks to me. First, Jesus not only had wine at a wedding "reception" but he made wine for those at the wedding reception...why would an employee of a church claiming to follow in the steps of Jesus fire someone for a seemingly "Christ-like" event? The excuse given was...well, it could cause someone to stumble. What the hell? (I always mean that literally) Stumble over what?
The truth is that they wouldn't be stumbling over scripture or faith. They would be stumbling over the incredibly poor theology espoused on this culture by "christians" who are and were way more concerned with control, fear and false-piety than with the Word and Spirit of God. So it is insane for someone to essentially say...."we have been so full of unbiblical BS for so long that we have to keep up the act or else people will see us not following our own self-prescribed and self-invented don't drink, so you don't cause someone to stumble over the pile of crap we have placed in their path"....Lord redeem us so we can clean up the pile of crap we have made.
The second example that readily pops in my head is sexuality. In the same ways we have with alcohol, I submit to you that we have walked around like wounded puppies regarding sexuality rather than children of God...with spirits of power, love and a sound mind. That is to say...and again alcohol is no different, we have stood by while a creation of God has been redefined and hijacked by the world and have done nothing...that is nothing other than adopt the worldly definition of God's creation rather than God's definition of his creation. As we think about sex, how can we best realign our ideas, perceptions, theologies and behavior to best encompass the intent of God?
I think as we attempt to reconcile with God, the Light of God will shine through us and into a dark world. The world will recognize the light and will be attracted to it like a moth to flame. Keep in mind that they won't be attracted to piety, presumed righteousness or moral conduct. The world will be attracted to the same things we are...they are humans like us...they will love God's love and cherish God's mercy and crave God's grace and celebrate God's new creation in us. May we embrace the same.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Words, Meanings and French Onions

Jacques Derrida, a French Philosopher, is probably best known for his foundational thoughts regarding "Deconstruction". Deconstruction may be best defined, for my purposes anyway, as "denoting a process by which the texts and languages of Western philosophy appear to shift and complicate in meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves". Derrida's thoughts about phenomenological reduction are particularly interesting to me and is really what I am thinking about today.

My wife hates it when I use words not everyone has studied so for the sake of clarity, allow me to provide an operational definition for Phenomenological Reduction: "systematically peeling away their symbolic meanings like layers of an onion until only the thing-in-itself remains. Thusly, one's subjective perception of the bracketed phenomenon is the truest form of experience one can have in perceiving it."

So with all of that said, one of Derrida's most popular quotes is, "Nothing exists outside the text". That is to say, contextualization determines experience...largely based on previous experience. For a crude and rather elementary example, is the picture of someone fishing in a stream peaceful? Exciting? Interesting? Maddening? It all depends on the way in which you interpret that scene. If you are an avid fisherman you will likely have a positive emotion or response after viewing the picture. If your husband spends all of his time fishing rather than with you and your children, the response is likely to remind you of pain or disappointment and therefore will likely be negative. So despite the intent of the photographer, the author or the speaker; the way in which communication is "taken" or received is based solely on the contextualization (or text) of the receiver.

So why does this matter? I'm glad you asked. It seems that recently I have had contextualization conversations...specifically regarding faith, religion and theology. If you will allow me to do so, I want to briefly remove the layers of several "onions" for thought provocation more than anything else.

1. As many of you know, Greg Newton and I are working together to plant a church in the Trade Towers Community on the Southside of Birmingham. This particular Onion is interesting for a number of reasons...some of which I have covered in previous posts. The interesting aspect of particular interest today though is the "receiver". You see, the large majority of the residents of this community have not a single fiber in their bodies that smack of postmodernism. The shift has traditionally been for "more modern" communicators to learn how to redirect and reform thoughts, approaches and conversations to fit a more post-modern receiver. Greg and I are now involved in something that requires our "more postmodern", or at least hypermodern, patterns to manifest in ways that seem to be very much in line with modernity. Moreover, we have had a difficult time explaining or labeling what we are doing because of the generalized and rather negative interpretations others would have if we use words like church, worship service or anything particularly religious. While Greg and I are very intent on planting a "church", the meaning of the word church as we use it and as the people of trade towers would understand it that greatly differ. I wonder how a word like usual and presumably good as it is, can't be used without fear of what will be intuited?

2. In our most recent Men's Group meeting we discussed a topic that also recently was discussed at the Monthly Emergent Cohort meeting...conversion. It seems that this Onion, or word as the case may be, is used in a contemporary sense to identify some soteriological event or phenomena. Traditionally the idea was much more of a process...something that is never complete but is worked toward or progressed to nonetheless. So why is such a prominent idea of christianity so varied? Perhaps it is due to an unintentional skewing between ontological realities of a relationship with Christ and the expectations of epistemological proof found thoroughly embedded in our modern culture? What is the true or best meaning of "conversion" and how might we go about discussing what it should be rather than what it has come to mean to some?

3. The idea of "the mystery of Christ" also was discussed in our most recent Men's Group. I find it remarkable that this Onion...mystery...can be either incredibly comforting to some and absolutely terrifying to others. That is to say, when I ponder the vastness of God, the depth of His love, the wisdom and motives of his teleonomical actions and interventions, etc...I find great comfort in knowing that I can't begin to know it all...therefore I can take great comfort in knowing some gigantically capable and omnibenevolent Deity "has my back". In the same way, knowing that I can't know exactly what it is that God will do with me or perhaps will allow to happen in my world is not at all comforting...just ask Job. So how is the Mystery placed in some text of our lives to a degree that it becomes a useful tool in our maturation of faith? Can we learn or at least be encouraged to embrace the very thing that scares us?

OK, enough for now. I do look forward to your thoughts and opinions. I will do my best to peel away any onions you send to a degree to read accurately what it is you intend to say. I hope you extend the same grace in my direction.

Have a great 4th of July!!! (BTW, how do you intuit this national holiday in lieu of your faith? :) )

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Kiss

Matthew 26:48-49 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: "The one I kiss is the man; arrest him." 49Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, "Greetings, Rabbi!" and kissed him.

Much has been said about the kiss of betrayal. How cruel...why a kiss...the list could go on. I don't know why Judas decided to point a finger at Jesus with a kiss but I do know that similar greetings are found in scripture. In four separate texts Paul tells people to "Greet one another with a Holy Kiss" and once he gives the same direction but calls it a "kiss of love".

Now I have heard the explanation that people always greeted one another with a kiss in those times. I don't buy it though. If it was always done, why would Paul have to tell them to do it? I don't know for sure and I won't claim that my opinion is even correct but what if...? What if the whole idea of the kiss isn't the usual social norm alone but is also about something redemptive?

The kiss, a hug and even human sexuality were all God's ideas...God's creations. Since every creation of God is mimicked by Satan with a fake version it is safe to say that human sexuality has been hijacked by evil. Human affection has been stolen and redefined and equally, the kiss was robbed of purity through betrayal. Much in the same way an extramarital affair destroys trust and confidence in one another, the kiss was an act of destruction used by Judas.

Is it remotely possible that God is concerned with redemptive work in our lives down to the detail of a kiss or a hug? Is is possible that Jesus, as a new Adam, did indeed come to restore everything lost in the fall of man and as such, God refuses to leave the adulterated aspects of his creation in darkness? I believe with great confidence that scripture points to that very plan and mission of God.

I could offer a guess as to the areas in which we all need to have redemption work performed. However, I think it is best to seek the Father individually and see which areas God is attempting to reclaim, rework, redefine and ultimately redeem in our lives. May God's redemptive hand be gentle yet thorough.