Tag Archives: religion

O Church, how limited you can be sometimes…

The Church is in constant need of reform. Recently, a fascinating conversation took place on my facebook page about the Independent Baptist Church movement. I am a product of that movement. I went to those schools, I was trained in that hermeneutic and learned my homiletics there as well. Like most who leave an all-encompassing movement like that, I did so because of intense personal hurt. When I needed grace, I got law. When I needed love and acceptance, I got rejection and judgement.

As a chaplain and pastor now for well over a decade, I have come to realize that this phenomenon is common to all institutions in the Kingdom of God. Heck, it’s not even unique to the Kingdom! Its an institutional thing. I’ve watched it happen in the Army and in other types of organizations.

Just as predictable as the cycle is, so to is the reality that reformation will come along as those involved follow Christ. At it’s best, the Church is a community that provides encouragement and support for everyone. It’s the whole, “no difference between the Jew/Greek/Male/Female/slave/free idea. I was so angry for so long at fundamentalism. Now, I accept them for who they are. I hope they grow. I hope they experience grace. I am sad often when I experience them bound by their rigidity. It is no more fair for me to judge them for their paradigm (limited though it be) then it is for them to judge me for mine.

I’m a believer that there is room for ALL of us in the Kingdom.

That said, I do not have time or space in my life for mean people. And I’ve experienced mean people everywhere.

Christianity, at it’s best, will be about love and authenticity.

During my CPE residency, I was given this illustration. It was very helpful to me.

Imagine you needed 75 cents for a coke and you went to your dad for that 75 cents. He reaches into his pocket and produces 50 cents. He offers it to you. You get angry, 50 cents is not enough! You need 75. Your father gets angry and says, “but this is all I have, I don’t have any more!” Hurt and pain ensues. You keep demanding 75 and your father only has 50 cents. It’s all he can give. You storm off determined to find it elsewhere. Your father sighs and collapses into his chair, broken that he did not have what you needed.

Later, you realize this reality and give grace to your father. He gave you what he had.

It’s how I now feel about fundamentalism. It gave me what it had. Admittedly, it was not enough and I was so hurt in the process and I’ve seen others very hurt. I’ve also seen great good in people. They try hard. Perhaps they could do  more. But then, who am i to judge. People would not be fundamentalists if it did not fill a need (or assuage a fear) in their lives. I hope they experience some grace. At least, they will get it from me.

In the prison context that I currently minister in, I minister to unchurched and barely churched most of the time. I often get the question, “why are there so many denominations?” There are many answers to that question but last night I drew this on the board to illustrate how movements become institutions in need of reform become movements that become institutions in need of reform, become movements….

Cycle of the Church

I hope my children extend the grace I need someday when they are experiencing the limitation of my theology…

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Post Christmas Feelings

My daughter was looking pensively out the window and my wife asked her what she was thinking, “Well,” she said, “sometimes Christmas just doesn’t feel the way I thought it would feel.” 

That happens sometimes doesn’t it. Sometimes, good things don’t entirely feel the way we thought it would feel or should feel or could feel. All those “coulds” and “shoulds” tend to just beat us up. Here’s the thing, Christmas is always best experienced in giving to others. The Holiday, at its best, celebrates the giving of the Divine to us humans. Thus, if a person really want to experience Christmas, it needs to get out of indulgence and into serving.
So, this, is Christmas.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Not that there is not a blessing in receiving; it’s that the greater blessing comes through giving.

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Dangerous Wealth and Encouragement

The Kingdom of God will bring balance to the world. This is a story of both encouragement and caution. Encouragement that no matter the pain we suffer in the present, we are not forgotten by God. God cares for the poor and suffering. If we find ourselves in great wealth, we are to use that wealth for others. Wealth is responsibility.

Throughout the NT, we see images of how God’s order of the world is not the same as our order of the world. “God chose the foolishness of preaching to confound the wise…” “The first shall be last and the last shall be first…” “To be great in the Kingdom is to serve others…”

Here, God brings balance to the world. 

Luke 16:19-21 “There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.

22-24 “Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’

25-26 “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’

27-28 “The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’

30 “‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’

31 “Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”

What did you see?

What did you experience and observe?

It is fascinating to me that Jesus mentions “Hades” in this passage. Hades is a Greek term. It refers to the god of the dead. It was used in the NT period to refer to some kind of place of suffering where those not fit for the “bosom of Abraham” would go. It was a place that brought balance to the world as a place where the evil suffered. Often the term “Sheol” would also be translated as “Hades.” It’s description is often like “Gehenna” which was a real place in Jewish antiquity. It’s thought to be the “valley of Hinnom” which would be located immediately southwest of Jerusalem. Here, it’s surmised that the worship of Molech took place by Israelite kings Ahaz and Manasseh. Here, a huge, hollow brass alter was erected and, according to some traditions, infants were placed in the arms of the idol to be burned to death. However terrible the means of execution, it is certain that the worship of Molech involved sacrificing children with fire. It was a time of grave sadness and pain. Gehenna, forever associated with this dark time in Israel is also associated with the great trash heap of Jerusalem where the garbage of the city would go to be burned. This term of pain and suffering became, over time, Hades. It is used in the NT to describe a place of great torment.

Recall who Jesus is talking to in this text. The Pharisees have come at Jesus and he is calling them out for their love of money. He is very much saying that they are like this rich man and deserve Gehenna, Hades, Sheol. The poor have been resigned to the trash heap in life and in death, God would bring the balance to this world. This is offensive Jesus. He’s not being nice. Everybody knows it and it’s not a friendly scene.

Hades is a place of torment and in Revelation, it is cast into hell. Forever.

It seems that God has no use for those that abuse the wealth to which they are entrusted.

Here’s the thing: In the ancient Mediterranean world, there is no concept of “coming out” of poverty. Jesus lives in a world where people believed that all the good in life (land, wealth, honor, blood etc) had already been distributed. It was limited in quantity. There was no more to be had. This is the opposite of the Western American viewpoint that hold that there is always more and it’s available to whoever works hard and has the pluck to go and get it. To “get ahead,” to improve one’s lot in life is really unthinkable. This is why it was so remarkable that Jesus chose who he did to serve him – the disciples are not leadership material – they are blue collar fishermen, necessary for life but no one is inviting them to any parties…

The rich man does not work. To be rich in this culture means that you were born into wealth and working was not in your lot. However, in Jewish culture, wealth came with the responsibility to care for others. This man clearly did not.

I wonder what the relationship was here. It is remarkable that the rich man knows the name of the destitute. He knows him. I wonder if Lazarus was the rich man’s servant at one time. This wealthy man had a servant who became injured which prevented him from doing his job. Now, he just sat at the gate of the house – not begging (an actual occupation) – eating table scraps. I wonder if this rich man prided himself on the fact that Lazarus was not just any poor man, he was his poor man. I wonder if he greeted him by name from time to time. I wonder if he tossed some scraps from time to time. I wonder if he came home from important meetings and gave some alms in front of his friends (remember Jesus is making a stinging relationship to the Pharisees here) to demonstrate that he practiced those ritual associated with caring for the poor.

But it was all for show.

I wonder if he ever said of this man, “Hello Laz, how is today? Good old Lazarus, you never see him down or depressed. I don’t know how he does it. He’s an inspiration to us all…” Then leaves him there, at the gate, this man entrusted to his care, suffering so that the dogs lick the puss out of his wounds.

We live in a world that has always been knit together in an intricate web of relationships where we respond to one another. We relate. It’s one of those things that make us human.

Response – ability.

Now, we leave that to someone else. We leave the response to suffering on the shoulders of governmental agencies. We pay others to keep those with whom we are uncomfortable away, far away from us. “Put them at the gate” we say. Let them work for their welfare check. Don’t let them abuse the $200 a month food stamp benefit. Let them pay for their own health care. If they  need so much, let them work for it. Put them at the gate. Don’t let them inside. I don’t want to be made unclean with their suffering…

This ritual continues day after day. Week after week. These two souls connected together. Then, death.

The ritual changes.

The scene opens with the rich man in torment. Suffering in the burning garbage heap. Across a great divide, he sees Abraham and Lazarus. Even in torment, he gives command. Even in torment, he is still entitled. Even in torment, he is proud. Even in suffering, he holds to a world that no longer exists.

“Father Abraham, Send Lazarus…”

But there is a problem. Abraham points it out. In life, you had it all and did not share. In death, the tables have turned. There does not seem to be vindictiveness in the voice, just an explanation of the facts. You experienced good in life and now, in death, Lazarus is being “comforted.”

This word translated comforted is “parakaleo” You can see how the translators got to comfort here. If this is a story about reversals, then the rich man’s enjoyment is turned to “torment” (a word originally contrived to describe the process where a coin was tested – scratched by a hard rock – to determine it’s genuineness) and Lazarus’ suffering was turned to _______. Comfort right? However, this word does not mean that. This word is put together words using words that mean something like, “call on.” If you check the lexicon for the meaning of that word, you’ll see a variety of words that flow in the channel of comfort, encourage, and exhort. If someone is worn out or weary, you might encourage or exhort that person. But think of what that might look like – we’re not talking about feather beds here – we’re talking about something much more active. What sort of thing requires this “call upon?” I think of runners who have hit the wall. Warriors that are weary from the fight, athletes with their hands on their knees wondering if they have it in them for “one more…”

I remember going out for soccer in college. I walked on the field that day during tryouts and coach Whitecar said, “Fisher, you want to play?” YES! I replied. He motioned to the waiting bus which took us to Mount Baldy. This was a sand dune on the shore of Lake Michigan. Up and down is one time. Do 25.

I didn’t need a lazy boy, I needed coach behind me yelling, “come on! You can do it! Make it happen! You want to play?? Get some!”

Call upon.

Deeper translations of the word can have the connotation, “I am called upon as a witness.” Perhaps Lazarus is called upon to witness that the world has been set right. Either way, what I love about this is that no matter if we are worn out in this life and seek comfort in the Kingdom to come or need the “kick in the pants” here on earth – encouragement from our God is in the form of service! We are always useful to God. We don’t retire to a life of leisure – we retire to be useful, purposeful, always in the fight! Whether our need is to be reminded that we are not forgotten in this world – no matter the suffering, no matter how much it feels like it’s over – we are not forgotten!! Keep going! Get some! You have a purpose! You have meaning! You matter to God!!

If it’s your time to enter rest, know that our rest is eternal worship of God. Forever. Worship. You can make it.

The rich man sees his situation in full focus. It’s ugly. Abraham was not mean. He even responds with “my child!” The rich man has, perhaps for the first time in his life, a thought of others. In a scene that Dickens ripped off for Jacob Marley, he cries out, asking that someone be sent back to warn his brothers. Someone needs to go! Surely, if they could see the pain! Surely, if they could smell the sulfur, feel the heat… they would repent! They would change.

Here, the passage is, I think, at it’s darkest. Abraham looks at the suffering man.

“They know.”

“Yes but…”

“They have Moses and the prophets – let them hear them. If they will not – they will not hear anyone.”

Abraham’s response to the rich man’s second request is that the brothers have Moses and the prophets. Did not Moses say, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor” (Deut 15:7)? And are not the words of Isaiah clear enough?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa 58:6-7)

I believe when Jesus finished this story, he ended by looking hard at the Pharisees that surrounded them. Silence. No one had anything whatsoever to say. Jesus literally says, referring to them, that if a rotting corpse should rise from the dead to tell them their future, they would not hear, they would not have ears to hear, they would not listen.

Saints, this passage is both a warning and an encouragement.

What do you need?

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Living It

Living out your faith is going to cost you something; not likely the classic idea of the “lay your life on the line for Jesus”, but a more visceral laying down of pride, rights, justice, money, social status, family – for this new family and life in Christ.

The scene is the prison in Ephesus. It is a dark place but the Old Man is someone of some significance. His importance in the community gives him some creature comforts that other inmates might not have. He has a network of family that will bring him food and drink. He has a cot and a desk on which to write. He has influence in the prison. Guards and inmates alike seek him out for counseling and advice. It might be slightly more comfortable for this minimum inmate, but let there be no doubt, it is still a Roman prison in ancient Ephesus!

Narrator (italics): The Old Man graciously receives a cup of tea from his young associate. The steam rises from the cup and he smells the bittersweet aroma. The Young man is quiet. He has the takes the subservient position of the slave, head slightly bowed, hands folded, he pulls back to the corner.

“You should go back.” The Old Man finally says, after sipping the hot liquid.

The Young man knew this was coming. “My father, how can I? It is a return to slavery. He was not a nice man.”

“It is true.”

“And I am a Christian now, I am your follower, your disciple.”

“Also true.”

“I need to stay with you and learn more of Christ!” The Young Man’s eagerness betrayed his complicated motives.

The Old Man smiled sadly. “My son. It is the law. Roman law requires you to return to your master.”

“But we are subject to a higher law! We are subject to the law of Christ! You said so yourself, the Law of Love. Does not love dictate you keep me here with you?” Desperation crept into his voice. His confused affect betrays the growing anger rising in him. He had reached out to this prophet, this preacher, this teacher who had introduced him to a new faith. Surly, this faith would save him from returning to his master. Law! The law was not helpful! The law separated people into the haves and the have nots! The Law made classes of people. The Law made some rich and some poor. The Young Man’s simmering anger began to move towards rage. How could he just sit there! How could his mentor and leader just sit there, sipping tea, in this prison and speak of following Roman Law! He was here for disobeying Roman Law!!!

The Old Man sat watching the drama play out in the Young Man’s face. He watched the angry thoughts dart back and forth, fighting reason and emotion. His smile drifted away and was replaced by a pained look, he grieved for the Young Man. He knew his baggage. He had heard his story. The Young Man was a tradesman seeking to grow his business. He had a rough go of life. Coming from a distant Roman colony, his parents died early and he had been apprenticed at a spice seller’s shop. Selling spices on a far flung Roman outpost is an unpredictable trade at best. If a ship goes down in a spring storm and the tradesman has not prepared, they are destined for poverty. This was the Young Man’s story. He struck out on his own too soon. He was passionate, full of dreams and vision, he saw himself a wealthy man at a young age and did not adequately prepare for the reality of selling a luxury item in a poor place. Add a particularly vicious storm and soon, he was over his head in debt to creditors. In desperation, he entered the slave market, indenturing himself to a wealthy spice trader in Rome. Philemon paid Onesimus’ debts. In return, Onesimus was now a slave.

Onesimus tried another approach. “My father. When I was captured by the slave hunters and brought to this prison, I thought my life was over. I really believed that when I was sent back, Philemon would exercise his rights. He would have a limb removed or chain me in his kitchens, beat me, or even have me killed. I was so overwhelmed with this thought, I planned to end my life in this prison but then, I met you and…” his voice trailed off, breaking under the strain of his emotions.

Paul, the Old Apostle who had met so many in his journeys recognized that you cannot reason your way out of an emotional decision. He reflected Onesimus’ fears. “My son. Of course. Philemon still has those rights. He can still do all of those things to you. It would still be justice if he did yes?” Onesimus was sobbing by now and nodded. “You do not want to return because you fear that he will do those things to you?”

“Yes! Yes my father! I believe he will.”

“Oh, my son. There is something you do not know about your master. He is as you are. He too is a Christian and he is your brother. I have some sway with him. I will write a letter to take with you. He is my spiritual son as you are. I shall appeal to him on the basis of his obligation to honor the elderly and his obligation to kinship. I shall ask to pay whatever debts you owe. He shall put them on my account. We are all brothers. You, me, and even Philemon. I shall ask if he will take you back and not carry out retribution as is his right.”

“Thank you, oh thank you my father.”

“Onesimus. Hear this. You will still need to work. You will need to be faithful to your master, as a though you were faithful to Christ. Obey him with fear and trembling not only while being watched, in order to please him but, as a save to Christ, do the will of God from the heart. God would have you be a faithful servant. Whatever good you do, you will receive from the Lord, whether you are a slave or a free man.”

SCENE

Philemon is reminded by Paul that when he came to Jesus, he was choosing a life that was challenging. He was choosing a life that would challenge and change him. He chose a life that came with it, some responsibilities. Was he really ready to give something up for Christ?

Was he ready to give up his rights?

He had a right to justice. He had a right to retribution. He had a right to a world he made. Paul calls him to something else. He calls him to fully embrace another way of being – the way of grace. Let God handle the retribution, let God handle justice, let God handle his pride.

I wonder what it was like when Onesimus came back. I wonder what it was like when he walked in and handed Philemon that letter. Did he throw him in the dungeon to wait for justice? Did he stand there and read it while Onesimus knelt before him? At what point in the Onesimus/Philemon relationship did Philemon, the wealthy merchant with the right to kill Onesimus demonstrate that he was a different person? That he had changed? That he actually saw and experienced life differently? How would Onesimus know that Philemon had really, truly changed?

This takes us to Luke 14. From the New Interpreters

14:28-32. The twin parables that follow might aptly be entitled “Fools at Work and at War.” These parables have no parallel in the other Gospels. Jesus draws attention to a simple observation: A prudent person would not begin a project until being sure it can be finished. A man would not lay the foundation for a tower unless he was sure he could finish it. A king would not go to war unless he had enough soldiers to resist the opposing force. By the same token, God has not entered a redemptive process without being prepared to complete it, and Jesus did not set his face for Jerusalem without being prepared to face the sacrifice that would be required of him there. Thus no one should step forward as a disciple without being prepared to forsake everything for the sake of following Jesus.

The two parables move from the lesser to the greater consequence. In the first, the threat is merely that one may be embarrassed before one’s neighbors. In the second, the consequence may be defeat at the hands of an enemy. The parable does not advocate building stronger armies; it illustrates the folly of embarking on a venture without being sure one can see it through.

14:33. The parables lead to the third condition (v. 33); they demand that one be ready to give up everything to be a disciple. If you seek to follow Jesus, then understand first that what is required is all you have.

Applying this principle in the area of one’s material possessions, as Luke often does, v. 33 concludes with a return to the refrain found in vv. 26-27: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The verb translated “renounce” or “give up” (ajpota”ssomai apotassomai) literally means “to say farewell to” or “to take leave of.” The descriptions of the sharing of goods in the early church in Acts 2:44; 4:32 probably illustrate what Luke understood this demand to mean.

14:34-35. Sayings on salt also appear in Matt 5:13 and Mark 9:49-50. Although Luke uses these aphorisms as the conclusion to this section of warnings, the sayings actually make a different point from the preceding sayings, which were directed to the crowd of would-be disciples. The sayings on salt are more appropriate as warnings to those who are already disciples. The value of salt lies in its salinity. If it loses its saltiness, it cannot be restored. The point of the analogy is that the disciple is defined by his or her relationship to Jesus. If one gives up that relationship, one is like salt that has lost its saltiness.

Real salt cannot lose its flavor, but the complex minerals found around the Dead Sea were not pure salt and could, therefore, become tasteless. The taste, once lost, could not be restored. Jesus observed that this tasteless salt was not even good for fertilizing or killing weeds; “it is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile” (14:35). The point seems to be that salt that has lost its saltiness is not even good for menial, alternative uses.

The call for those who have ears to hear is a call to decision. The reversals of the coming kingdom have been dramatically illustrated, the conditions of discipleship have been set forth, and the consequences of rejecting the call to discipleship have been made clear. Now is the time for decision.

Some churches, preachers, and TV programs present the gospel as though they were selling a used car. They make it sound as easy as possible, as though no real commitment were required. Jesus’ call was far different. He was not looking for superficial commitment or a crowd of tagalongs. Instead, he required his followers to be totally committed if they were going to follow at all.

The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just to a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.

In a sense, no one can know whether he or she will be able to fulfill a commitment to discipleship. Jesus was not asking for a guarantee of complete fidelity in advance, however. If he had, no one would qualify to be a disciple. Through these parables, Jesus was simply calling for each person who would be a disciple to consider in advance what that commitment requires.

Cultural accommodation of the Christian faith has progressed steadily in recent years. As a result, many see no tension between the teachings of Jesus and the common aspirations of middle-class Americans. On the contrary, a complete change of priorities, values, and pursuits is required. Paul wrote that in Christ we become not just nice people but new creations (see 2 Cor 5:17). When Jesus turned and saw the crowd following him, he was not impressed by his own success. He was not interested in the casual, easy acceptance the crowd offered.

The cost of discipleship is paid in many different kinds of currency. For some persons a redirection of time and energy is required, for others a change in personal relationships, a change in vocation, or a commitment of financial resources; but for each person the call to discipleship is all consuming. A complete change in priorities is required of all would-be disciples. No part-time disciples are needed. No partial commitments are accepted.

Are you ready?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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George Washington on Religious Freedom

“Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind, those which are caused by a difference of sentiments in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing, and ought to be deprecated. I was in hopes that the enlightened and liberal policy, which has marked the present age, would at least have reconciled Christians of every denomination so far that we should never again see the religious disputes carried to such a pitch as to endanger the peace of society.”
~George Washington, letter to Edward Newenham, October 20, 1792

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Tribal Love.

We came up in tribes. We naturally divide into tribes. Some scholars suppose that the human brain can only recognize about 150 people as fully developed relationships. Beyond 150, we need to resort to “hierarchical schemes and stereotypes” to make sense of the world around us.

150 people is alot of people!                                    … and hardly any. Look at your facebook…

Our natural state in the “hunter/gatherer” society was to divide up into tribes. Our tribes were social in nature. Inclusive. In your tribe, you wouldn’t meet many new people. You would stay in the same basic place for weeks, months, years – maybe your whole life.

In New Guinea, anthropologists have studied similar cultures that still operate this way. In fact, if two men meet out in the jungle, they will sit down and go through their entire family history looking for a connection, looking for some common thread – if they can find one, they don’t have to fight! There might be a lesson there. I wonder what it would be like if we spent, oh I don’t know, 5 minutes seeking to understand one another, seeking for what we have in common – before we unload on other another!

Tribes help us make sense of the world. If we just hang out with people like us, we’ll be comfortable, we’ll be more at ease with our world. But then, it’s a global world so we often have to interact with the “other.” The one who isn’t in our tribe, they are not in our little world. What is different, what feels different, what looks different, is a threat to the integrity of our tribe. It’s a threat to our worldview. It’s  a threat to the way we understand the world.

What does your tribe look like? Who gets to be “in” and who gets pushed “out?” What are the significant features of your tribe? What does the language sound like? What are the symbols? The rituals? The artifacts and ceremonies?

What does your god look like? Tribal gods. Everyone has them. Its that attribute of God that makes the most sense to the tribe. Its that part of God that  gives meaning and a sense of “rightness” to the tribe. Thats a tribal god.

Tribal gods are a reflection of the culture. They are reflections of the values, principles, and prejudices of the culture. They reflect us. For better and for worse.

Of course, as a Christian believer, I hold to the theology that there is only One God. This God transcends other gods. This God is understood through the sacred writings known as the Bible, through the testimony of professed followers, and through the very Nature around us. Clearly, my God isn’t tribal.

Except when I start to define God as such.

When I make God in my image, when I speak for God, when I get to say what God hates and what God loves, I am starting to define what my tribal god looks like. Herein is the rub, how do I follow my calling to preach and avoid painting God in my image?

I grew up in West Michigan. A place “settled” and certainly shaped by the influence of the Dutch. Grand Rapids oozes the Dutch influence. The religion is strongly reformed. I like to joke that everyone in Grand Rapids is at least a little Calvinist. The Methodists lean that way, the Baptists lean that way, even the Catholics are not without the influence of the god of the Reformation!

Here’s the thing – it’s not that somehow my tribal god is not the Almighty I grew up worshipping – it’s that we Christians tend to shape our tribal god by emphasizing the parts that we like, the parts we relate most to. If we relate to the god of the Old Testament, we tend to shape our God in that fashion. Our New Testament God seen through Christ is still vengeful, still angry, still desiring of our fear – our worship reflects this, our stories reflect this, our preaching reflects this.

The God that some worship is still a violent God. A god of wrath and thunder. A warlike, masculine god that sends armies of angels to fight our battles. The remnant that remains struggles to survive the onslaught of the Wicked One and we fight in great spiritual battles. Everything become shaped by this idea and soon simple conversations about what to decorate the county courthouse lawn become moments of epic battle! A conversation about who gets to “marry” (whatever that means) gets painted in terms of the great apocalyptic battles in Revelation. Cause that’s not tribal at all…

Saints, are we even making an attempt to understand the Other? Are we even trying to see life from another tribes point of view? What exactly are we fighting for? How are we being known? Is this what our god looks like?

John writes to brand new, baby movement. It has grown out of the singular teachings and traditions established by Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples. The story of the earliest Church is the story of a transformation of a tribal God into something bigger, something grander, something different than the world had know to this point. When John writes his gospel, he calls to memory what is important for this group to know. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke write their stories into the collective memory of Christ, John aims squarely at the problems that are coming to the front of this burgeoning faith. He, having the benefit of hindsight, is able to emphasize the parts of the story he believes this new religion needs to remember.

A main theme throughout his Gospel? Love. “For God so loved the word (cosmos) that he gave…” This is not the traditional Jewish view. This is not the Roman view or the Hellenistic view. This is something different. John himself is a sufferer at the hands of the growing persecution. He does not have a good reason to be inclusive. He is in a real battle – not some perceived threat to culture – a very real struggle that violates his very person.

And he writes of love.

Thinking through everything that the new Church needs to remember about Jesus, thinking through everything that this Body needs, through what Paul has been writing, through what the missions movement has accomplished, thinking through Peter, James, Judas, Thomas, Philip, Junia – what his brother and sister Apostles have endured – he recalls to mind Jesus’ imperative to them:

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Read the entire chapter if you can. I envision John leaning up against a rough door frame somewhere on the Island of Patmos, an eager scribe sits next to him writing down what the revered Apostle can remember of his time with Jesus. John is the oldest, the last remaining Apostle who walked and talked with Jesus. Already, Jesus was becoming the stuff of legend and tales. Already, there were battles about who Jesus was and what Jesus taught and what it meant to follow the prophet from Nazareth. But here, leaning against door, sipping water from a clay cup sits one who actually knew what was important to Jesus. He begins the chapter as the narrator:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” I love this. What does the old man remember? Jesus loved him and all the rest “till the end.” John associates what Jesus does with the love that God showed to the world by sending his Son. John, who started the Gospel by declaring Jesus as the “logos” the “very expression of God” in human form, remembers the Jesus loved them right to the Cross.

The next two stories that precede our text are expressions of that Love. Jesus, coming from God and going to God, knowing the everything has been given to him, takes the place of a servant, takes off his outer robe, puts the towel on his shoulder and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus loved them unto the end. He showed by service.

Then, he prophesies that Judas would betray him. As a master storyteller, John puts us there, we feel the tension in the room – “what you are going to do, do quickly.” The disciples are shocked, angry, and afraid as Judas leaves. Then our text picks up:

“When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.   If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.  Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

What is to be the new artifact? What is to be the symbol of this new religion? Right doctrine? Right actions? Earnestly contending for the faith? Getting it all correct? Having the right answers? Protecting the judeo/christian culture? Is that what the disciples will be remembered for?

It is certainly not what John remembers Jesus wanting.

Love.

Later, John would ask Peter, not “is your doctrine correct Peter?” Not, “do you love my church Peter?” Not, “do you love the liturgy Peter?” Not, “have you the right apologetic to defend me to atheists Peter?”

He asks, “do you love me?”

Saints, it is so easy to give in to the god of violence and power. It is so easy to emphasize the parts of God that are most like us. It is so easy to declare that God is on my side and everyone who is against me and my perception of reality is clearly against God – but that is so small. It’s so limited.  God is SO much bigger than the stunted little world a barely understand.

Jesus calls us to something far more difficult than learning and defending dogma. Something far more difficult and challenging than picketing or voting or screaming in an online forum battle – Christ calls us to love.

When our tribe comes out and interacts with all the other tribes in the world, let us be known, not by what we are against, what we hate, what we declare that God hates, but by who we love; how we love; the overwhelming concreteness of our love.

Its simple. Its profound. Its so challenging because it demands so much of us.

They will know that we are Christians by our love.

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Wherein I shake my head….

So, this happened.

Seems a pastor that prayed alongside leaders of other religions (to include scary Muslims and Jews) was reprimanded by his church and apologized. I’m guessing because he committed that awful sin of attempting to participate in the communal grief of his hometown.

That’s his journey. My frustration would lie more with the bishop or regional minister rather than the local pastor. He’s trying to keep his job.

Several years ago, I was endorsed by a fundamentalist organization. Fine people. Didn’t actually have much to do with me. I guess as long as I paid my dues, they were happy to take them (to the tune of 160 bucks a month. Yes, I paid this group $160 a month for the privilege of ministering in the military. There’s something wrong with that, but hey, that’s another post when I’m feeling particularly froggy…).

They didn’t call. They sent a card once in a while. They didn’t keep up with me. I sent in reports and heard nothing back.

Till I dared use this phrase in my blog at the time: “I’m becoming more open and ecumenical.” Within weeks, this group, who had not interacted with me for years in a real way, sent two men (there would only be men in leadership of this group) to meet with me to test my orthodoxy. We sat at in a Golden Coral and they asked me questions relating to the substitutionary atonement. I gave them the answers they needed to assuage their conscience. After all, if I answered wrongly, they could pull my endorsement and I’d be a civilian again. When your jobs on the line…

They left telling me that no chaplain in their organization should ever “share the stage” with a Mormon and Catholics should be understood to be kind but hell-bound.

I started searching for a new endorser that day.

At a time when Christianity itself is losing relevancy; when in a 200 member demographic, 60+ will be “No Religious Preference,” we’re still going back and forth over whose the “real Christians” among us.

So, I shake my head…

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Relevancy. A rant. Well, sort of…

Warning. There is a mid-western, moderate, reserved rant ahead.

You’ve been warned.

Apparently, I’m an old codger. Not the “Dennis the Menace Mr. Wilson yell-at-everything-he-hates” codger, just a, “I’m not sure how relevant I am and how relevant I need to be” codger.

I try to keep up with what my faith (Christianity) is doing, what is popular, what is moving – call it a professional awareness. Mostly, it’s discouraging. Clearly, I’m not very relevant and am not a part of main stream. Of course, reading “Christianity Today” and “Relevant” magazines as well as a host of blogs and websites might not actually be the clearest of pictures but at least I’m giving it a shot.

Christianity Today tells me I am not nearly conservative enough.

Relevant tells me I am not nearly cool enough.

“But, but” I sputter, “but I’m only 33! (soon to be 34 so, if you want to say happy birthday, I’ll take that…) I read. ALOT. My influences are people like NT Wright, Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, Mclaren, Compolo, Tickle… those people! I’m surrounded by the 18-24 age group. I’m daily getting blasted by cultural references I don’t get and literally have to google just to know what’s going on! I use google as a verb! I sometimes watch tv shows for the very purpose of being able to know what people are talking about. I vote *progressively*. I’m so down with change. Resiliency is my middle name. I’m up for whatever works. Pragmatic…..

Why do I feel so uncool when I read “Relevant?”

Maybe its my church. I’m a chaplain. My congregation changes. I have two at the moment. One is a congregation of 50 or so inmates at a military prison. Actually, I consider myself the pastor to them all but weekly, services range between 40-55 (out of 200+) on a regular basis. So, after writing that, I’ll own the 40 number. My other congregation is the Liturgical Service on Ft. Leavenworth. We meet in a historic chapel that literally has memorial markers (ok, they are like gravestones attached to the wall) surrounding the pews. We use the old Lutheran Book of Worship, setting Two for the service. I preach through the Revised Common Lectionary. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s all the old school stuff.

Problem is. I like it. In fact, I really like it. It feeds me. It feeds my closeness to God. I feel more at home in that setting then the last time I was at Mars Hill (though I really like the podcast).

Maybe it’s that I wear a clerical collar on Sundays. I would wear it daily but really, in the Army, it’s a weekend thing. My uniform throughout the week has a cross on it highlighting my role as chaplain, pastor. I didn’t grow up with the clerical collar, I certainly didn’t experience that in my clerical training but here I am anyway. Of course, the business suit is as much clerical garb in my experience as the collar is in my current ministry. Maybe its the Army. Because of my uniform, I am accustomed to people recognizing me as clergy and therefore, I might be (in a neurotic sort of way) in need of that even on the weekends. Hmm. I’ll look into that. Either way, for all my progressive tendencies, I find myself actually quite conservative when it comes to worship, preaching, teaching etc. My style keeps getting more old school.

I should probably chalk it up to my need to be a contrarian. Whatever is cool and hip I find myself emphatically NOT wanting to do. So, I suppose, if what I’m doing became the hip thing, than I would probably start wearing slim-fit suits.

What is relevancy anyway?

Last Sunday, I preached about Colossians 3:12-17. It’s all about wearing the love of Christ. It’s the Church at it’s best. It’s about NOT wearing our pride, violence, anger, and consumption and instead being very intentional about wearing compassion, kindness, humility, and patience. It’s about forgiveness.

I think that’s relevant. It’s always relevant.

When I became a chaplain in the Army, I was very taken with getting to the “hooah schools” where I would get badges and tabs to wear on my uniform highlighting how awesome I was as a Soldier. I was consumed with it actually. I, very much, attached worth and honor to those external symbols of achievement in the Army. I grew out of it. Now, I’m not sure I want to even do those schools – I’d have to really up my physical training and who wants to do that – I also understand that, as cool as those symbols are (and they are cool), they are not the marks of a Chaplain, the are the marks of a Soldier.

A retiring chaplain said to my CHOBC class, “when it hits the fan, when people are dying and suffering, they do not call for an Airborne Ranger, they call for you. Chaplain. Servant of God.” That’s relevancy.

I think I’ll just keep putting on love every day. I’ll keep being intentional about being vulnerable and as authentic as I can. It’ll keep my humble. It’ll keep me authentic. It’ll keep me relevant I think.

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Christ the King and how we fail to live that truth.

Procurator Pontius Pilate was a career statesman. His star was rising when he got the assignment to Palestine. He was the fifth prefect to oversee the land and after a brief stumble early in his career had shown some talent in leadership. Legend has it that his mother was a pictish girl from Scotland and his father a minor Roman official. Whatever the story, getting the assignment to rule in Palestine was potentially a step towards greater things in the Empire. I wonder how coming from humble stock, scrapping your way to the top of the heap impacted his style of rule. What little we have of his leadership show a man who is capable of exercising force though not the shrewdest of politicians.

Pilate was the leader of an occupying force in an occupied land. He was sent by Rome for one purpose, rule the little known, little understood, but somewhat important little land of Palestine. He was the face of the mighty Roman empire. He spoke for the Emperor, Tiberius. His hold on the land was not strong. Only a foolish leader would think that they could rule in that area without some struggles but so far it had not been terrible. As occupied lands went, Israel was not the best nor the worst that he had been involved with over his rising career as a statesman.

Our text this morning finds him in Jerusalem, overseeing the chaos that was Passover. Thousands descended upon the city from all over the world making it a melting pot of potential danger. Last year had been a bit of a disaster. There had been unrest during the celebration which had boiled over into violence. The Procurator, dealt with it as he had the power to, putting it down with the force he was comfortable wielding. It was not remembered kindly by the populace, Luke would remember it as the day that the “blood mixed with the sacrifices…” It would become the signature event of Pilate’s time as Prefect – insurrection put down with violence. He has to do so several times, each with more energy until finally, it was an insurrection put down with such force in Samaria that resulted in his getting called back to Rome.

There would be no such bloodshed this time. He was convinced that he could hold the city from itself. These Jews were a volatile people. Why couldn’t they just settle down and become Roman? Others had. It seemed like those that he served with, the other prefects, none of their lands had the kind of unrest that his had. Every year it was something else. Someone else. Rising up and rebelling. All they had to do was pay their taxes. Really. That’s it. At the end of the day, Rome was not interested in the Jews becoming Roman, of worshiping their gods and taking their traditions. Tiberius, as all Caesars before, was interested in one thing – money. Bring home the tribute. In exchange, we’ll give you peace. The Pax Romana – Roman Peace – was to be the payoff.

To accomplish this, Pilate had been given several Legions to command but most of his forces were auxiliary forces who, scorned by their brethren, served the occupying Empire. He had brought them with him to Jerusalem. He would have Romans by his side. He was not confident in the Auxiliaries to do exactly what they were told. He had paid a political price for that last year when the riot was put down during Passover. The Jewish face of the Empire, Herod, had smeared his name a bit in court as a brutal man though his rule was no more or less violent than the last. He wished Herod would get it into his head – Tiberius would never trust a non-Italian to speak for him. So Herod served Pilate and Pilate served the Prefect of Syria and he served Tiberius. This is the way of Empire. This is the way of the kingdom of the world. Everyone serves someone and everyone serves themselves.

Peace and money. This is all. This is all anyone ever wants. Money to do as they will and the peace to pursue it. The way of the world, the way of kings and kingdoms. So had it been for centuries and so it would remain for eons to come. Money and peace. The latter to be thrown to the side in pursuit of the former.

It was that peace that was threatened the day that the Sanhedrin came into his hall to condemn this peasant carpenter from Nazareth. They knew his weakness. They knew that his hold on the city was tenuous at best – in they came with their accusations of zealot, rabal rouser, and rebel. What was he to do? He had heard the reports. This Jesus, Yeshua they called him, had been notorious for some time. He had spies and informants moving with this crowds as he had drawn closer to Jerusalem. Herod had some dealings with another prophet of sorts, John the Baptist, and it had not gone well so Pilate was understandably treating this Yeshua thing with kid gloves.

He had stood by and allowed the Prophet to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He had heard the back brief from his centurion about how the poor and slave class saw in the peasant carpenter some kind of King. He heard how they brought out branches and even threw their coats – the only outer garment they owned – on the ground so that the feet of the donkey would not touch the ground. Such was their devotion. Perhaps there was something to what the Sanhedrin was saying. He never trusted them. They claimed allegiance to Caesar and the Empire but he knew better. They cursed the ground he walked. It was always like this. In trying to maintain some semblance of “what used to be” they tried theological arguments, trickery, archaic legal arguments under their religious law, character assassination but in the end, they capitulated to the only real power in the world. Roman power. They brought their theological issue into the very seat of secularity to be judged by a secular Prefect. What little respect he might have had for their monotheism, their puritanism, their law-abiding, was blasted as they called upon all sorts of arguments to get him to “do something about that carpenter.”

And what had Jesus done? Healed some people? Called them names? Pointed out their hypocrisy? How did Jesus’ teachings hurt them in any way? People were paying their taxes – not just to Rome but also to the Temple. They were getting theirs. What they were not getting was respect. Yeshua was calling them out for what they were – power hungry, greedy, abusive. People liked Jesus. It threatened their power. It threatened their place in society.

None of this really mattered. Who really cared whether or not some widow put money into the temple tax box? So what if these men in their clerical class lived off the poor? As long as the tribute was paid to Rome, peace would come by the sword. Peace would remain in Jerusalem. These Sanhedrin only mattered to Pilate as they stood in the way of another peaceful Passover. They would play their part in the pageantry was was Jerusalem and he would play his – at the end of the day, money went into the chest and the chest went to Rome. If religion was a part than fine, whatever gets the job done. That is the kingdom of the world. That is the kingdom of mankind. That is life. So be it. Jesus would come to court.

He had tried to pawn his problem off on Herod but the crafty politician would have none of it. He could not pass the issue up the chain or the Prefect of Syria would put a bad word before the Emperor. Perhaps Pilate could not do the job, perhaps he should be replaced. No, he would deal with it. Here. Now.

Jesus enters the court. Pilate saw the abuse. He saw the blood, the bruises. Whatever had taken place last night had not been kind to the peasant. He looked exhausted. Caiaphas had been clear in his accusation – Jesus had threatened the rule of Roman Law. They could not execute him, only the Romans could do that. Pilate saw through it, he knew their charges were bogus and false. He called them out, “Judge him according to your laws.” But they would have none of it. They wanted death. Death was to be the price of peace.

Pilate goes straight for the jugular – “Are you king of the Jews?” Silence reigns. Everyone hears the real question – are you a rebel? Are you a zealot? Do you claim leadership of the Jews? Jesus looked at him in the silence. Quietly, through bruised lips he says, “Are you asking me this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate smiles. Only these people would respond like that. You can’t get a clear answer from anyone in this miserable land.

“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” Pilate is annoyed. There is no danger in this man, give me something, anything and I can toss him in jail for a little while, protect him from these priests who want to kill him and wait till the whole thing blows over. He didn’t bite.

“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king. not the world’s kind of king.” Pilate stares at him. What was he talking about? Two kingdoms? Man’s kingdom? What other kind of kingdom could their be? Money, power, land, respect – that’s the only kind of kingdom there was and everyone, including these religious leaders, wanted a piece of it. But he wasn’t a part of that? He didn’t want money or power? What?

“Are you a king or not?”
“You tell me. Because I am King (not a king), I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for truth, recognizes my voice.”

More opaque comments. What is wrong with these people? Why kill? Why did he ever want to be a leader? He could have been a farmer, comfortable on his land in middle Italy, sending grain to Rome for festival but no, here he is in dirty, dusty, smelly Jerusalem discussing truth with a poor Jewish carpenter prophet.

Exasperation. “What is truth?”

There was no saving this man. He wouldn’t even save himself. In a last ditch effort he offers the crowd a murder or the harmless Jesus but they take Jesus. Let him die than. Let him die for peace.

Two kingdoms. Pilate is king of one. It’s the sexy one. The grasping one. The one people dream and work toward. Its the one where you work hard, please who you have to please, pay your dues and maybe one day, you too can retire to the beach somewhere and tell your stories. This kingdom is marked by constantly searching and seeking for wealth and glory. It is temporal. It is subjective. It is here. Now.

The Jewish leaders wanted it. They wanted it to remain status quo. They had abandoned (as Jesus was so fond of pointing out) their obligation to care for the community, the poor, the widow, the orphan, to establish a high caste. A learned caste of scholars and clergy. A class separate from the poor they were supposed to serve and instead very focused on how many miles a person could walk on the Sabbath. What? healing a man on the Sabbath? This has never been done – it does not matter that it helps people, it violates some obscure interpretation of an ancient law – anathema. “Kill him,” they said. What threat was he to them? When had he ever threatened their lives? Perhaps their livelihood but never them, never their families. They had tried to get rid of him through theological arguments. They planted people to question him publicly, they called him out, drug his name through the mud but in the end, they couldn’t stop him. They couldn’t change what was clearly changing. Life, as they knew it, was never going to be the same. They were becoming irrelevant. “Kill him,” they said. So they went to the Law. If all else fails, we can use the secular courts to maintain the past. We’ll lobby congress, we’ll throw money at it, we’ll make laws and change laws and throw out the bums that won’t get it done. We’ll make mountains out of molehills and destroy whoever stands in our way. But their heart showed out. Their hatred marked them and instead of their legacy being that they cared for those around them, that they represented the best of the Kingdom of God, that they showed the world what it was like for a people to commit to God, they demonstrated that they were just like everyone else. They were just as corrupt. They were just as depraved. The lusted for power and killed to hang on to it.

Have you made the connection yet? The Church does the same. At it’s best, it is the kingdom of God. At it’s best, it cares for those that are in need, for all that is holy and right. At it’s best it is the body of Christ in the world. When people come into contact with a Christian, they come into contact with Christ. But then, they get lost. They get entranced. They get sucked into the lie that money means influence and influence means power. They take the calling of God to serve and twist it to be that by making money on the backs of others I am serving them. By having power, I am serving them. All is fair if Abortion is at stake. I can hate others, be spiteful and destructive if it just keeps two people of the same gender from “getting married.” (contracting with each other for tax benefits etc) What are we doing? What is truth? What kingdom are we serving?

Who are you serving? Live your convictions. Live what God has called you to be and do but my friend, do so in the reality of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love, care, peace, joy, patience, gentleness… – do so in a kingdom marked by sacrifice and love rather than hate and animosity.

Christ is the King. We are his servants. Let our service be marked by the fruit of the spirit rather than the fruit of the world.

Amen.

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Hindu Army Chaplain

In this world of changing times and culture, I love how this video highlights how there are no boxes. The Army Chaplaincy does have many evangelical protestants but it also has a Hindu Chaplain. The Army has always been a micorcasm of the greater society and the chaplaincy is a microcasm of the greater clerical world. Religion exists in the same marketplace that everything does in this country. Thats what the “free exercise of religion” is all about.

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