02 October 2015

hate and american christianity

Every now and then you end up saying something which you feel deeply compelled to share, only to find that there are many who will disagree with you – either silently or loudly. This is one of those times, and there will be no shortage of people who will want to tell me that I shouldn't share my thoughts on this. Such is the life of a preacher, especially when you stand in the midst of a hostile culture (sometimes even within the walls of the church).

This most recent shooting has grabbed our national attention. Most of these shootings do, even though our national conscience has no problem sleeping at night with much more horrific violence happening across our country every day. (To say this, of course, I can not limit myself to gun violence because it is not the majority violence according to the actual crime statistics, not the barrage of wanna-be-stats regurgitated by certain media outlets.) What perpetuates this imbalance of outrage and response to social violence is when our national leaders make these moments into opportunities to further their own agenda, even before we have time to hurt and heal. But, then again, we can only act this way around the "big events" rather than the disease of hate that is filling our streets this very hour.

Within moments of this news breaking the president said openly that he wants to "politicize" these tragedies. Since this is what has been happening for some time, at least he has been able to state his intentions openly. But if you wish to drag this into the national political discussion, then you ought to be prepared to do so fully. This means that we must talk about the raging violence that happens every day and night in our nation. And, especially for a man who feels that our country should submit to the world order, let us also think about the violence of hate that is happening around the world.

And this brings me to the point I wish to make quite loudly . . .

We have a problem with hate running rampant in the streets, without the challenging presence of love to stop it.

Our nation simply can not rely on our national government to make any progress on this matter, for every branch (and both parties) have shown a willingness to act on their own behalf, and not on the good of our Republic. And we can not rely on the media to help the national conversation, for these organizations have proven themselves to be more in search of high ratings and one-upmanship to be more shocking that what you will find elsewhere – when they are not simply producing out of the back pocket of the rich, powerful and political.

I find damning evidence in the fact that the loud voices are calling Christians out as hate-filled bigots, when the truth is precisely the opposite. It appears to be Open Season on Christians in our culture, for nothing will be said about the victims of Umpqua being targeted for their Christian faith, or that Charleston was a church (more than it was historic and black). Further, we are given very little information about the atrocities that are being committed by ISIS, targeting Christians, using brutal and inhuman methods of wiping out a people for their belief. But, if a single believer claims that moral conscience will not allow her to validate another person's lifestyle choices ... If a pizza company expresses their concerns about morality ... Well, then, damn these Christian haters to their own fiery hell!

Some will immediately claim that violence has been done by people who are Christians. In other words, my point must be softened by some asterisk that proves that every group has their issues. But, I'm not making an exclusive claim here, so I do not feel compelled to concede a point in order to make someone feel less of the challenge that the Christian faith is under fire in our culture (and in the world). If you are angry at this perspective, then read something else. (Or, choose to reply to me with angry words that will undoubtedly "prove" your point that I am hateful and you are not.)

Since there is no national leadership that can be deemed trustworthy or responsible on this issue, we need to stop thinking that our leaders in Washington will have the right answers. I am tired of people in the church trying to debate the Second Amendment issue, when there is so much hate and violence that we are ignoring in our own neighborhoods. I do not wish to say that mass violence is unimportant, but only that it gets more attention because there are those who will turn these situations in to opportunities to serve themselves. And this is not the church. We are called to serve others, and to bring love into the world through the transformational power of the gospel.

If our culture has turned against the presence of the church – and it has – then we must not abandon our call to share the love of Christ, but be mindful about how we will do so. As of now, we still have a voice in this nation, which allows me to say these words so publicly. But this will not last if our present course is not diverted. You may think of me as an extremist on this position, in which case I will hope you are right. But while I am hoping for you to be right, perhaps you should be preparing in case I am right. For as long as their has been a Christian message, the world have responded violently to it. We have often assumed our national borders have been protecting us from this harsh reality, even when we should have been trusting in God for our security. Now that we see an increase in what is being done to people of faith – in everything from calculated legislation to senseless murder – we must respond ... with love.

This post isn't about guns and politics. Not really. It is about love being stronger than hate, and it includes yet another call for the church to wake up and be the church – to bring the power of the gospel into a world that has grown so dark. For we can still move, even these mountains.

21 September 2015

hearing Qohelet

It starts with a man who is clearly frustrated. He is disillusioned and nearing the end of his rope. He has grown tired of the daily routines. He is over it – done. He would like to find comfort in some sort of deeper meaning to life, but he has come to think that perhaps there isn't one.

This man has given consideration to all that has been commended to him, and he finds it lacking. What others think of as superlative, he finds hallow and empty. He had once believed in the brighter and better world of tomorrow, but seems trapped in an endless cycle of promises unkept. New leaders and new technology and new directions did not produce their promised peace and prosperity, so he is disenchanted with the guarantees.

He held a rather unique vantage point on the world, sitting in the royal court and speaking regularly with the wisest king of all. Even from that place his search for insight comes up empty, which only drives his consideration of the whole of life that much harder. Among the council of the wise he was known for assembling together those who would listen and ponder. There he would offer his thoughts and vented his frustrations, searching and having great difficulty in finding.

And so it should come as no surprise to us that his collected thoughts begins with a rather harsh (and perhaps disparaging) statement: "Everything is meaningless!" This idea alone has pushed the limits of language, as this Teacher regards it all as worthless ... rubbish ... enigma ... emptiness. We do not have to be perfect in our translation to hear his breaking point being reached. His world has fallen into a comatose state, even though there was plenty of noise being made.

Elsa Tamez says of this Teacher that his future has become bleak; the horizons have closed*.

The Teacher is not afraid to push back against life, and sometimes his readers are taken back by what they see. He declares that everything is meaningless, but he continues to struggle with the meaninglessness of it all. And that is why we ought to hear him again. He doesn't abandon wisdom's quest, and he doesn't give up on life. But everything "under the sun" needs to be called to account, for that is the only way we can make it through the mess.

The big issue the Teacher has with the world is that it has become twisted. Oppression, wickedness, and injustice have taken over his world. Even in his unique perspective over the nation, he can not see that things are getting better. Yes, the horizons have closed because it all has become darker and increasingly corrupt. It is the twisted morality that allows evil to go on unanswered – passed over by the powers put in place to watch over the people.

The Teacher wants more than what he is getting out of this life. Casual readers of Ecclesiastes will think of him as nothing more than a dour pessimist sharing his rants about the world. But this reading can not account for about half of the message. The Teacher believes that God is in control of this world, and that He has created a life that is to be enjoyed to the fullest. But the Teacher remains unsatisfied with that which so often gets passed off as delight. In short, he refuses to accept cheap joy** in this life – desiring much more than worldly pleasure. His utopia is the kingdom which God alone can establish on this earth, where peace and justice and righteousness are established.

In a culture where morality is twisted to the point of the willing dismemberment of unborn children for financial gain can be too-easily dismissed by many consciences, and where the weak and elderly are increasingly ignored for their so-called burden to society, there is no genuine opportunity for genuine joy in this life. The reason, says the Teacher, is that we have become desensitized to life itself, and therefore are unable to go any further than the cheap thrills of momentary and self-centered pleasures.

In such a world, how can eternal life ever be opened to us?

The Teacher, who is deeply dissatisfied with this life, desires much more. He looks for an eternal life, which must originate beyond this present world. He will remind us that God is God and humans are human. As such, we are unable to save ourselves from the peril of lifelessness. The answer must come from outside of the system – outside of our humanity. The Teacher will not witness this in his own lifetime, as the true life from heaven invades the brokenness of earth. Without this assured hope, all is truly meaningless.

*Elsa Tamez, When the Horizons Close (Wipf & Stock, 2006)
**Craig Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Baker, 2014)

20 July 2015

go set a watchman

The recent publication of Go Set a Watchman has left the literary world abuzz, which is quite understandable since it is only the second novel published by famed author Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is a literary classic. It is because of my great love for Mockingbird, along with so many others, that I made it a priority to read Watchman. I have also read a number of articles surrounding the release of Watchman, leaving me wondering if my impressions are more of a minority report on the book's significance.

I confess at the outset that I am not a literary critic, nor do I pretend to be one. I am a thinker and have been trained in my own field, but I readily admit that I do not keep up with the ins and outs of literary criticism to be able to engage a work such as this at the level it probably deserves. My comments are not intended to be an interaction of the book's artistry – other than what I thought was enjoyable and meaningful reading – as much as they are to be a thoughtful engagement of the message and content as best as I understand it.

The context of Watchman is that it is set twenty years after the events of Mockingbird, with a number of changes to the characters that were present in the first book. (I am aware that there are a number of 'inconsistencies' in the plot and story details between the two books but, again, that is not within the scope of this review.) Scout, who now goes by her given name of Jean Louise is returning home to Maycomb from her home in New York City, where she encounters a much different world than the one she remembers leaving. Her brother died a number of years before, Dill is off in Europe, Atticus suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and the entire subculture is trying to move forward in the wake of recent moves of desegregation.

Much press surrounding Watchman haphazardly throws out there that Jean Louise returns home to discover that Atticus is a bigot. I caught this blurb just before I began reading the book itself, and was a bit nervous on what I was going to encounter. Those who run with this flat notion want to speak about Atticus being the 'fallen hero' that we all have in our lives, or that he was 'too flat' of a hero in Mockingbird, which is now remedied. It is at the halfway point of the book that Jean Louise runs headfirst into a situation which makes her wonder if racism has taken over her community, most importantly her father. And it takes the remainder of the book for her to work through this, and for Harper Lee to make some powerful points about society as a whole, with desegregation as the vehicle.

There is more power in this novel than is being recognized.

Any discussion of racism in Watchman is proven to be complex; there are no flat renderings of the issue in this novel. There is a spectrum being presented, with some characters going too far and others caught in situations which they most likely do not understand. (It is mentioned that Atticus once attended a KKK rally, but it is explained away in reasonable terms.) But there is more going on as well, and Atticus speaks straightforwardly in distancing himself from other voices that he finds appalling. But, for some reason this isn't being recognized. I wonder how many reviewers have read (and understood) Watchman in the first place.

One of the most significant scenes in the book is a drag-out-verbal-battle between Jean Louise and Atticus towards the end of the book, whereby she conveys her disgust for his 'bigotry' and 'racism,' being further angered by his unwillingness to become emotionally charged. He gives her reason throughout the discussion but she is unwilling to hear it. This is one of life's truisms, you cannot reason with emotion. It matters little to Jean Louise what Atticus says in this moment, in fact it will be Atticus' brother that will have more of a breakthrough moment with her when he is able to exhaust her emotional energy a bit. But there is a lot to commend in Atticus' words that merit closer attention.

In his own defense, Atticus makes a number of points about his belief on the desegregation of races – which has recently been thrust upon the South with Brown v. Board of Education. He speaks of keeping the races in their 'rightful place' which, to Jean Louise and most modern ears, sounds exactly like bigotry. But in his explanation of it he asserts that the Negro population is not yet ready for the many responsibilities that are now available to them, most notably civil leadership and government. He sees a certain equality among all persons but fears the dynamic that would occur if those who have never been in power at all were suddenly given the reigns without learning the responsibility. In this he calls out activism: "The NAACP doesn't care whether a Negro man owns or rents his land, how well he can farm, or whether or not he tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet – oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man's vote."

This point is built upon the shared disappointment that both Atticus and Jean Louise have regarding the method of desegregation – namely, that it was the Supreme Court that issued a ruling without regard for the 10th Amendment. In this there is the feeling of being forced into a belief and way-of-life that comes with a legal decision rather than with the progression/evolution of human reason within the local communities. And Atticus tells Jean Louise that it is his role in this community to be an agent of change, not by condemning the community but by working from within the community itself to facilitate the change of heart and mind. (Just as he did in Mockingbird.) He also believes that it is Jean Louise's place to return to Maycomb and do the same.

It is fascinating to me that Harper Lee completed this novel in 1957, and was so keenly aware of the changes that were to come in generations being pushed by political activism. She was right about the 10th Amendment, and she is right about a forced equality that would never be satisfied (no matter how equal we all became) so long as it was driven by activism. I can not say just how Harper Lee would articulate these views herself, because of health issues and her own preference for silence she will allow her novel to stand on its own. But there is much more to say here than the headline of Atticus Finch being a racist, for it is Scout who discovers her own bigotry by the time all is said and done. (Perhaps the veil is lifted on the rouse that says anyone who disagrees with activism's tactics and rhetoric are automatically filled with hatred.) And maybe the same can be said for those who have seen race as an issue, rather than as about people. We are never as good when we are about a cause as when we are about our fellow man and woman, and this book is a strong statement to that reality.

There are other issues that can, by analogy, be interpreted in light of the discussion had in Watchman, it doesn't take too much for us to be reminded of them. Atticus is not presented as a racist in this story, though it is clear that some modern ears are so conditioned that they can only make such a charge because they don't know what to do with those who dare disagree with the language and ideology of political correctness. In other words, just because he criticizes the work of the NAACP and the like (for turning people into issues), Atticus isn't a bigot. Harper Lee is showing us in this alone how the world was beginning to change in the days that she completed this work, and how it is running amok in our present day.

So, that might be the minority report on those talking about Go Set a Watchman, and I'm all right with that. These were my observations of the book, and how the black community has been let down in so many ways by such activist groups these past few generations. Today's lack of equality is less about the pursuit of happiness in our country and more to do with the work of running ramshod over a people and culture to achieve a short-sighted political agenda ... at the expense of people, who too share the imago Dei.

15 July 2015

continue in him 3

In the correspondence given to the ancient believers in Ephesus, there are a number of words given as pastoral instruction to the church. There is a certain tone in one pastor speaking to another that shapes and colors these letters, for of central concern is the well-being of the community as it seeks to put its theology into practice. Those who have been called to leadership among such groups have an important role in setting the tone for the church. The pastor's voice speaking to Timothy comes in this context, which elevates the language from simple Christian idealism to a pragmatic expression of the gospel.

"I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:1–2).

In all godliness and holiness

One of the key words in this passage is what many English Bibles translate as godliness. According to Trebilco's in-depth study, this concept was used widely in popular Hellenistic culture (361). I find this sort of claim interesting, although not in a way that makes me doubt its accuracy. There is a tendency among cultures to carry a concern for what is spiritual and mysterious, often described in terms of what is godly, or even holy. We can not say that the Hellenistic culture of ancient Ephesus was compatible with the ethics of the Christian message – the letters written to the believers in this community are clear that such is not the case. But there is ample evidence from all sides that the Hellenistic culture was quite enamored with deities and spiritualities, which led to the inevitable clash of cultures once the exclusivist claims of Christ came to town.

The spiritualized culture prized those who were able to demonstrate a certain piety which was deemed acceptable in their world. Congratulations were bestowed on those who were faithfully committed to the idealism of which society approved. The words of the pastor into this context was aware of this tension of definitions, which is why he emphasizes peace and encourages the believers here to demonstrate the gospel to everyone, regardless of disposition or devotion. And, in a world where ethics and laws were most-often (if not exclusively) dictated from the ruling class to the ordinary citizen, these petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings are to also begin there.

And so we have here a clash of meanings, both linguistically and morally, though this is not the primary concern of the pastor's heart. Though his command of language shows that he is quite able to debate the meaning of words, here he instead keeps his focus on the behavior of the believer. Words, like concepts and lives, can be redeemed if we have the humility, strength and courage to demonstrate the gospel. While the world applauds those who exemplify the approved morality of the day, the believer is called to demonstrate godliness as a means of life before the God who is revealed in the gospel. Such lives show the true meaning of holiness in a world filled with hallow parodies.

Furthermore, it is important that we recognize that there is a season for every activity under heaven in this context. The voice of the pastor is not ignorant to the reality of suffering and martyrdom that so often comes as a result of this clash of cultures – his world had its fair share of dangers the he could not ignore such a possibility. But here he speaks of living peaceful and quiet lives, which is a powerful message for the riots in Ephesus that had accompanied the gospel's work in the community. At this moment it was time for those who were expecting the church community to be a difficult group to get along with to be met with the love and grace and peace of a gospel of life.

Societies will have their own popular barometer of what is right and wrong, which comes along with a set of ethics that will hand out its own merit badges of self-righteousness. Along with this are the alternate definitions of words, phrases and concepts. This does not change the truth of the gospel, nor does it derail its mission. But it sets its work into a context that must be recognized, lest having found the words of eternal life lack the ability to point anyone to them. The strange and dark days that presently fill our culture are not too far from those things that made Hellenistic Ephesus what it was. If we can still hear the voice of the pastor, we might find that a more dedicated lifestyle to the true meaning of what truly represents godliness might be more powerful than all of the debates and riots we could ever initiate.

13 July 2015

on that which is natural

Over the course of the last ten years or so, I have come to think that one of the major problems with modern Christian theology is that we lack in our understanding of creation. For many, especially American evangelicals, the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to show little more (perhaps no more) than a proof that God made this world and did not rely on evolution. But that is not only a wholesale misrepresentation of the text as it stands, it fails to open up the message to the depth of understanding of God's creation. In short reminder: creation is not a scientific proposition, it is a theological statement.

Goldingay asserts, "'The beginning' of Israel's story was not David, or Joshua, or Moses, or Abraham (or Jesus), but creation" (Israel's Gospel, 76). The Jewish scripture demonstrate this high view of creation, a developed understanding that permeates their entire understanding of the world and its Creator God. This will be the basis for understanding the idea of covenant, for it is God's act as Creator which gives him ownership and right over the cosmos – he is the one who has ordered it and shaped it to operate by his will. "The foundations of Judah's life have collapsed, but each day people still see day and night alternating, and this actually provides a basis for believing that the foundations of their life remain intact. Things are still the way they were at the beginning" (Israel's Gospel, 92, emphasis mine).

Within this framework of understanding the fuller theology of creation is presented. The theological statement of God's activity in creation is seen in the purpose that is infused with his work. Walton points to the notion of God giving functionality to the world (Lost World, 47–71), and voices such as Fretheim unpack the relational quality of the creation narrative (God and World, 29–68). These, amidst other perspectives that could be listed here, serve to demonstrate the richness of God's character in creation. This is the story about the one Creator God establishing his one created universe – the specifics of how he accomplishes this are not drawn out in this text, the account of Genesis is unconcerned with such questions as our modern minds wish to impose.

The world which God makes is declared good, once he has set it in its proper place and motion. The final piece of this is the creation of humanity, where God first sees its incompleteness and remedies the situation in the creation of both woman and man. "In underlying structure and fleshly covering, man and woman are the same" (Israel's Gospel, 107). That is to say, there is commonality in humanity that bears the image of God, and this is what Adam recognizes in the woman, even as he recognizes that she is also different from him. In the singular universe that God has made, the world that has been brought forth, it is the complimentary nature of creation that makes a complete whole. It is, as The Bishop will often remind us, that "heaven and earth were never intended to be far apart" – indeed, they are to overlap one another in God's design.

A day is made complete by both light and darkness, the earth by both land and water. Humanity is completed in that there is both man and woman, instinctively drawn together by divine design and intention. This is the embedded story of creation, and it underlies the story of Israel from beginning to end, with the culmination of God's work to be the restoration of heaven and earth the way he intended it to be.

So when we reference Paul's words on the exchanging of natural relations for unnatural ones (Romans 1:28), there is more at stake than simple cultural engagement. He makes reference to the deeply embedded theology that reflects the Creator's intention for the universe. Paul speaks of the 'mystery' of this union – man and woman as reflective of Christ and the church – because it is a reflection of the way God made the world (Ephesians 5).

It is important that we keep in mind that Paul was not a modern American speaking to modern Americans. His world was different than ours – sometimes dramatically, other times overlapping, but all in its own context that ought not be ignored. The attempts by some to reread his language fall short because of the larger narrative from which he speaks. Some will suggest that Paul's language of natural relations is referring to the freedom to live out the desires that have been placed within the individual – 'natural heterosexuality' in contrast to 'natural homosexuality,' and the two should not be confused. Such a reading tries to read Paul through the lens of postmodern politically-corrected speech, but fails to understand Paul's theology. He speaks from the grand narrative that began with creation, to which the Creator will bring to its rightful fulfillment – a world that exists naturally according to its intended creation. In short, Paul is not talking genetically, but ethically and theologically.

Paul's context was made up of many overt sexual images and practices – such was the life of ancient Greece and Rome. It was prevalent and inescapable, and undoubtedly found itself coming through the doors of the church. The early believers thought this was a good thing, however, because they knew that whatever was dragged into the community of faith could be met with the overwhelming love of God through Christ Jesus. The alternative was disaster – the kind that could be described as the wrath of God being experienced upon a culture that had so distorted those things natural and unnatural – and this went far beyond the singular issue of homosexuality.

Missing a right understanding of God's creation has brought about a society in which all sorts of ungodly behavior occurs, according to Paul. Removing the important foundation of creation has dramatic effects, for both church and culture. Perhaps evangelicalism's apparent obsession with pseudo-scientific discussions about evolution have made its own contribution to the lack of understanding of what is natural in our world today. The church has forgotten to tell the gospel that begins with creation and culminates with a renewed heaven and earth being restored at long last. It is a story that gives us the foundation for what is natural and unnatural – right and wrong. For we must remember that everything that we do against the natural ordering of God's creation will be judged and made right as he makes his restored creation a reality.

The people of God fail to be ministers of the gospel if we do not explain God's grand narrative and design, for we allow the world to continue on a path which has been given dire warnings. This is why Paul's language can be so difficult for our ears to hear – these are words that we have been told by our culture are not 'loving' and caring and graceful. In reality they are loving, for in the story to which he invites all humanity, regardless of their struggles, shortcomings, or sins, it is God's story of creation which begins to explain what a life more abundant – a life of blessing – truly is.