Saturday, May 20, 2006

Da Vinci Silliness

You know, it seems strange to me all the Christians who are so up in arms about the Da Vinci Code. It's as if no one had ever suggested before that Jesus was not the son of God. I wonder whether the ultra-defensive reaction on the part of the church can be attributed to a lack of true belief on the part of the Christians. After all, if the book and movie had suggested that Jesus was not Jewish, but Chinese, I doubt anyone would care, because we're all fairly certain about Jesus' ethnicity.

But are we all certain about our core belief that Jesus was more than a mere human? Do we feel confident that he was an unprecedented expression of the nature of God? If we did, I'm not sure we'd be having so many sermons, classes, discussions, and lectures explaining why we're right and Dan Brown is wrong. It's almost as if the Christian community is trying to reassure itself by cramming its collective fingers in its ears and yelling "We're right, we're right, we're right!"

It's odd when something or someone threatens our insecurities. We go into fight or flight mode. The whole Da Vinci Code controversy has, in my opinion, exposed some of the church's insecurities. We're terrified that Jesus was not who we've always said he was. And if someone suggests that, it brings our insecurities to the surface, and we fight like mad to shove them back into the subconscious. (Sunday mornings help us do that, I think). Whatever this reaction is, I do not believe it is faith. It may be religion, wishful thinking, or group think, but it is not true faith. I am reminded of the old quote by Marx(?) that religion is the opiate of the masses. It gets people through the night. It appears Marx was right. I am also reminded of Paul's writing that the kingdom of God exists not in words, but in power. As I consider the church's response to the Da Vinci Code, unfortunately I see alot of the former and not enough of the latter.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Our God Reigns?

Last Wednesday night I had one of my angst-filled moments during the Evening Prayers service. Problem was, I was leading singing. We sang:
Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow
Praise Him All Creatures Here Below

Then we sang:
All Creatures That On Earth Do Dwell
Sing to the Lord With Cheerful Voice

A group of young guys played guitars and sang:
Our God Reigns
Our God Reigns
Forever Your Kingdom Reigns

While I was singing and observing, I had one of those moments where it all felt like crap. It's easy to sing about all earthly creatures praising a God who reigns when you're sitting on a padded pew in an affulent American church. But how about the people being slaughtered in Darfur? Or the boys being pressed into military service in Uganda? Or the kids on the streets of Nairobi? Should they praise God, from whom all blessings flow? I thought to myself, "What a crock. God reigns? How naive."

Looking back, maybe I was right. From all outward appearances, God is not reigning in Sudan or Kenya or Uganda or downtown.

But then I thought to myself, "How arrogant you are. As if the days in which you live are the only ones in which atrocities have occurred." It didn't seem as though God was reigning when Hitler gassed 6 million Jews, or during the Salem witch trials, or the Crusades, or when Jesus was on the cross, or John's head was being used as a party favor.

Most of the time I believe that God is somehow enjoying His reign. And if it doesn't look that way, it must be because some people and some powers have not accepted it. Thus, the church becomes an agent of God's reign, expressing to the world that His reign is sovereign and good. Tragedies become opportunities for God's people to step up and make God's reign known, much like when Jesus was questioned about the tragedy of the blind man, and he instead viewed it as an opportunity for God to receive glory.

It's interesting to me that in this model, God's reign is to some extent dependant on His people making it known. If we tend toward either pride or despair, God's reign may not be manifest in the tragedy/opportunity. But if we answer the call, we can make the ways of God more clear to a world gone mad.

Monday, April 24, 2006

So Much Work Left To Do

Many things have been rolling around in my head lately. I will attempt to force them out in this post. For anyone who happens to read this, first let me commit to you the April 21 post and ensuing discussion on Church Growth at Phil Wilson's blog. (www.jphilwilson.blogspot.com). Much of the conversation is a useful backdrop for my comments, though they are not directly related. Also, I thought Tony's comments about resources were particularly insightful.

I fear that the church is not doing a very good job of training disciples. To put it another way, I am afraid that the church is not effectively deploying Christians (little Christs) into the world. Again, I am worried that people in the church are not being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

Now for some specifics. I've already mentioned in a prior post the hurtful things that a few people said in response to a video that was shown at my church that apparently offended their preferences. Such comments coming from people who wear the name of Christ make me wonder whether the church is training people in how to speak like Jesus.

I am similarly concerned when I hear that a member at my church has expressed some deep reservations about the fact that some individuals in the church are trying to minister to a homosexual, impoverished crack addict. This person seemed to think that the man should not be welcomed until he had been baptized and changed his lifestyle. The member wanted to make sure that our church was doing its part to convict this man of his sin, as though the Spirit of God were not up to the task. When did Jesus ever condition his welcome on someone changing his or her behavior? It seems that repentance came after Jesus' acceptance.

Moving into the global realm, why have Christians become so obsessed with heaven and personal piety that they have lost their voice when it comes to social justice? For example, on Oprah last week, she ran a feature on social classes, the disappearance of the middle class, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. According to her show, 40% of the nation's wealth is held by the richest 1% of the population. That's just in the U.S. Forget about countries in Africa where people live on a dollar a day. Now you may read about that in the paper or see it briefly on the news or even watch it on Oprah, but the one place you won't hear about it is church! In fact, ministers who talk too loudly about social issues can quickly be labeled a "social activist," as if that were a bad thing! Didn't Jesus kick off his ministry with a social justice statement? (Luke 4:18-19). How have we departed so far from our Lord that we won't even mention things that would be important to him, such as the inequity between the rich and poor and the genocide in Darfur? If Old Testament prophets are to be believed, isn't this the kind of injustice that YHWH hates? Yet the family of God is largely mute on the subject.

In class at church yesterday, which you can listen to if you follow the link to Phil's blog, someone asked a question about how our faith should inform our position on the issue of immigration. The teacher responded by considering our theology of communion and the Christian discipline of hospitality. We, like Jesus, should welcome people. The knee-jerk response to not welcome people, the teacher pointed out, is rooted in fear and economic self-interest, two of the weapons of the world that Christians do not trouble ourselves with. We seek power that is compassionate, not power that controls.

So why, in my twenty-nine years, have I not been trained so that when I listened to the debate about immigration, my thoughts would go directly to my theology of communion, my practice of hospitality, and Jesus' teaching about the great banquet where all the street people were welcomed at the rich man's table? I've had ears, but I've failed to hear.

Finally, I've been thinking at great lengths lately about the church's obligation to people who've been convicted of crimes. It's one thing to do traditional prison ministry. But how can we go beyond that and seek to truly redeem these people, restore them, and reconcile them to society? After all, these people don't have supportive families or people on the outside to go to bat for them. Government institutions are ill-equipped to dole out true justice, must less restoration and reconciliation. That takes the ethic of Jesus. But have we been adequately trained as disciples to go about the work of reconciliation among the people that our society would just as soon discard?

Having said all of that, I remain hopeful about the future of the church. It seems many people are beginning to take a more honest look at Jesus and see what he demands of his followers, rather than making excuses and trying to explain away his words and deeds. Rich Mullins sang, "There was so much work left to do, but so much You'd already done."

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Final Three Chapters

In Chapter 19, McLaren considers people who use the Bible, specifically a few of Jesus' mysterious statements and Revelation, to construct a timeline for the future of God's kingdom. However, McLaren is of the opinion, and I think he is right, that Jesus and Revelation are not telling the future or predicting the end of time. Rather, they are warning their audience, much as the Old Testament prophets did, that failure to repent will have devastating results. Both Jesus and Revelation use apolcalyptic language to convey a message to their mostly Jewish audience about the Roman occupation to which they were subject. Jesus rightly predicted that if he audience failed to heed his holy message, they would be destroyed, which they were in A.D. 70, after the Zealots, who refused to repent of their militant agenda, staged a revolt against Rome.
For us, Jesus rightly warns that if we do not repent and receive his teaching as children, we will get more of what human history has already borne witness to: violence, greed, lust, disease, pollution, hatred, division, fear, and pain, i.e., weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In Chapter 20 McLaren talks about life after death. His first point is that for Jews, this would have consisted of a physical resurrection. No disembodied souls here. Second, most of Jesus' language that has been interpreted as referring to heaven, such as harvest talk, probably isn't. He's probably still focusing on the situation at hand, how Israel will deal with Roman oppression.
Never the less, some of the harvest imagery is useful for thinking about one day giving an account, both individually and communally, of the good and evil we have done in our lives. Many who seem to be doing nothing will have born much fruit. Many who seem most righteous will have accomplished little.
Using Paul's writings, McLaren surmises that Christ, who has been raised, will one day destroy all of the power systems that have oppressed and burdened people in this world. But then he will relinquish his power to God, so that life will be free from domination.
Mostly, McLaren seems to believe that, while we can't get at hardly any of the practical ins and outs of what the hereafter will be like, we can trust that God will redeem and cause to flourish all that is good, and he will discard whatever is not useful to him, resulting in a new world. Thus, all the life we've been yearning for and trying to live, the sermon on the mount, will be a reality. The best thing McLaren writes is hidden in one of the notes: "[W]e are invited to begin living now the way everyone will someday live in the resurrection, in the world made new."

In the final chapter, McLaren writes that we see glimpses of the kingdom here and there. We have all probably had experiences where it felt like it was especially close. You can't make it happen; it is a gift. But as you become more familiar with it, you begin to see it in places you would not have expected. We can't make the kingdom come about. But we can pray for it to come, as the Teacher did. And we can strive to make room for it in our lives, so that God may bring it about in us, our churches and families and work and schedules. Nothing in this world will be wasted in God's kingdom. It will be saved and transformed into what God always wanted it to be. This world is becoming and will become the kingdom of God. The first step is for us to realize that there is such a thing, that it is hidden in the teachings of Jesus, that we must rearrange ourselves to be part of it, to seek it and work for it and with it.

McLaren often inspires me. If you've not read anything by him, this would be a good place to start.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Where's the Love?

Yesterday my preacher talked about the question "who is my neighbor" and the story of the good Samaritan. This came on the heels of an extended discussion I had the day before with my parents regarding that same story. We were talking about a preacher out in Arizona, whose work my parents' church supports financially. This extremely conservative church of christ preacher periodically sends out a publication in which he blasts liberal church of christers, whom he labels change agents. In his opinion, these "change agents" are diverging from the biblical model for the church by having praise teams and/or instruments during their worship, taking communion as part of a meal or on other days besides Sunday, not viewing the New Testament as law, and increasing the role women play in the church.

For obvious reasons, I feel angry toward this preacher. But I also feel very sad for him. It seems he has completely missed out on the good news. Though his knowledge of scripture is impressive, his understanding is miniscule. And remember, he is not condemning atheists or Hindus or Muslims or Buddhists. That would be bad enough. And he is not judging Baptists or Catholics or Methodists, though that would be reprehensible. He is focusing on bashing those within his tiny little group who have the same name on their church sign as he does.

So the next day, my preacher talks about the good Samaritan. Though there were things I wish he had fleshed out a bit, such as how shocking, radical, offensive, and unthinkable it was for Jesus to make a Samaritan - a half-breed, compromiser who worshiped wrong and had no hope of resurrection - the hero of his story, my preacher nailed one point. Jesus was asked by a lawyer, "Who is my neighbor?" But after telling the story, Jesus twisted the question into "Which one acted as a neighbor?" The distinction makes all the difference. Instead of focusing on the status of others, whether they constitute a neighbor, we must focus on ourselves, are we being a neighbor.

The preacher in Arizona is no neighbor, it seems to me. He would rather hate than love, condemn than bless, tear down than build up. His words are poison, divisive and exclusive. But it isn't just conservative preachers who suffer from this perversion of the Christian faith. Recently, a number of people at my large, progressive church got upset to the point of name-calling over a video that was shown prior to a worship service. It featured music, the style and volume of which did not suit their liking. Because their preferences were offended, they spoke mean-spirited words.

Folks, whatever we're doing here, it is not following Jesus. How can we die to self if we can't even die to our preferences? How can we love an enemy if we can't love a brother in Christ? How can we turn the other cheek when we've already got our fists up, ready to strike a blow? How can we experience the freedom and life of the gospel when we'd just as soon have (or impose) judgment and law? How can we present an authentic expression of the life-giving gospel to the world when we are filled with as much division, anger, and pettiness as a political faction?

The challenge for me is not diagnosing the speck in my brother's eye. My problem is ignoring the plank in my own. Whom am I hating and condemning without even knowing it? Most likely the conservative preacher in Arizona. Where's the love?

By the way, I finished the McLaren book. My final review is forthcoming. I've probably read the book two or three times now as I have contemplated what I think he is saying and what I wanted to say about each chapter. Sorry it's taken so long.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Just Terrible

I saw a church sign that read,
"Though trouble may drive you to prayer, prayer will drive away trouble."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

16-18

In Chapter 16, Brian McLaren (BM, ha!) talks about the language that Jesus used to talk about his whole thing, "the kingdom of God." That meant something to his contemporaries, but not so much to us. So McLaren suggests some new language, such as the dream of God, revolution of God, party of God. I like the dream of God best. It kind of captures the idea of God having a will, or a plan, for each of us and all of creation. What we see now is not what he dreamed of, but if we align our dreams with his, we can learn to live the way he always dreamed we would.

Chapter 17 was very relevant and important for me. It is entitled "The Peaceable Kingdom." In it, BM talks about pacifism. I'm also reading the war section of Jim Wallis' "God's Politics," and the two jived well. Christians don't resort to violence. That is what the cross is about, "a radical repudiation of the use of violent force." We will suffer and endure, but we will not be violent.

Well, until Constantine and Rome started taking care of us instead of burning us alive. We're still thriving in America, the new Rome, and we still like it that America's bombs are protecting our right to worship the Prince of Peace. This is unacceptable.

God's dream for the world is peace, and it's got to start with us. Jesus told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We're either going to follow him or we aren't. After all these years of trying war and seeing that it doesn't work, aren't we ready to give something else a try?

In Chapter 18, BM compared Jesus' overall very inclusive message with a few of his very exclusive-sounding teachings. BM concludes that the only people that are excluded from the kingdom of God are those people who are not on board with its radically-inclusive agenda. "[I]f you start expanding the borders and working for a God-centered inclusive and reconciling network of relationships, you will quickly find that there are plenty of people willing to insult you, imprison you, torture you, and kill you." Thus, the kingdom is not for exclusive people who wish to draw lines, form in-groups and out-groups, judge others, and not be full of grace, mercy, love and compassion.