Category Archives: Church

Patriarchy and Worth

Last summer I gave a talk entitled, “Patriarchy and Worth: The Gospel’s Challenge to an Ancient System” at the Christians for Biblical Equality annual meeting in Pittsburgh.

The bottom line: once you’ve said that men and women are fundamentally equal, you have ceased to participate in the ancient worldview that undergirds male headship and every other incarnation of patriarchy.

And, of course, once you’ve said as a Christian that men and women are equal in the new life we participate in Christ, you’ve undermined the fundamental belief in inequality that demands male leadership in the church and in the home.

Here’s the video. About halfway through it moves from lecture to sermon. Enjoy.

World Vision and Being a Disciple

This week, as the World Vision kerffufel was unfolding, I saw a phrase from Denny Burk that caught my eye. He concluded from his survey of scripture:

Thus it is impossible to be a “follower of Christ” while endorsing or participating in a same-sex marriage.

The idea of being a follower of Christ caught my attention. Immediately I began to think of this in terms of discipleship. And I slowly began to see that it might truly be impossible to be a disciple and continue to support an agency that allows for homosexual marriage as it brings relief to needy children.

What does it look like to be a disciple? Three stories run almost back to back, demonstrating what being a disciple might look like in such a situation.

In Mark 9, Jesus has just predicted his death (vv. 30-32). Not understanding what Jesus was saying, what kind of Messiah they were following, the disciples rambled off on their own conversation.

An embarrassing conversation.

A conversation about which of them is greatest.

Not seeing the crucified messiah before them, they did not see the mirror of the Cruficied that was showing them what the life of following must entail.

And so Jesus had to show them. The kingdom of God is not like they think it is. “Being first,” says Jesus, “entails being last, and servant of all.”

Jesus then takes a child: the low person on the ancient totem pole of social hierarchy. His words are stunning: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me isn’t welcoming me but God, who sent me.”

To reject World Vision is to play the part of the disciples: to place ourselves in the place of being rebuked by Jesus for pursuing greatness through power. To find ourselves rejecting the Jesus who is in the child for the sake of our own attempts to build the kingdom of God in our own image.

The story continues.

John hopes to clarify that the disciples as a group provide the boundary markers, protecting the name of Jesus, and the kingdom it brings.

“Teacher!” says John. (BTW: in Mark, if you want to find someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, look for the person who calls Jesus “teacher.”) “We saw someone casting out demons in your name, but we forbid him because he doesn’t follow us.”

To be a disciple is to think that our group circumscribes the sphere where God’s blessings are known. Clearly if you’re not with us, you cannot truly be a follower of Jesus.

Right?

Wrong.

Jesus says, “Don’t stop him! … Whoever isn’t against us is for us.”

To pull out of supporting an organization that is doing the work of God in the name of Jesus because they do not follow us in the particular way that we are following Jesus–this is to play the role of the disciples.

And the disciples are rebuked by Jesus for placing themselves at the center of the kingdom of God, remaking its upside down nature after their own image.

In the wake of these two rebukes, the third story is all the more shocking.

It’s only 20 verses later. In Mark 10.

The people are bringing children to Jesus for him to bless them (Mark 10:13-16). The children. The ones about whom Jesus has said, “If you receive one of these, you receive me, which isn’t receiving me, but the One who sent me.”

The disciples, the ones who were just rebuked for thinking that they form the wall of partition between Jesus and the world, they hindered the children.

The disciples missed their chance.

In striving to protect Jesus, they refused to embrace the children.

They missed Jesus.

And they placed themselves in the mortal danger of causing one of the little ones to stumble (that’s at the end of ch. 9).

Withdrawing from support of World Vision in order to faithfully follow Jesus, in order to keep those children from the mercy being offered in the name of Jesus, this might truly be the only way to be a disciple.

Because being a disciple looks like playing power games that blind us to the upside down nature of the kingdom of God.

Because being a disciple looks like establishing our own Jesus-follower bona fides while spurning the notion that Jesus is present in the children standing in front of us, coming through us to find the blessing of Christ.

The roller coaster of the week gone by will be forgotten by most of us in a few weeks time. But what it managed to do for a brief instant was lay bare the tendency that resides deep within us.

It laid bear the rut that is easiest to fall into for those of us who follow Jesus most closely.

It is the danger of being a disciple. It is the danger of being of the company of disciples who fail to see that the cross changes everything.

It is to bring ourselves under the words of Jesus’ rebuke.

It is to be sent out from the presence of Jesus with the calling to relearn to find him: not in the world circumscribed by people like ourselves, but in the face of the child who comes to us in order to find Jesus.

Homebrew

Last week I sat down with Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity fame. He had told me that we were going to talk Reza Aslan, so out of stark fear and an overwhelming instinct of self-preservation, I highjacked the entire conversation, keeping him talking about progressive theology, God being as nice as Jesus, and how to be a Process theologizing youth pastor.

Really, Kirk, God’s love is at LEAST this big!

The proof of the pudding can be found here: “Kirk Have I Loved, but Tripp?

On Blowing Up the Narrative of Blowing Things Up

I was talking with a friend today. She relayed a conversation with another friend. The radical, change-the-world kind of friend. The kind of people I like. (Well, most of the time…)

They had been debating the ethics of destruction of property when the target in view is the bad guys: the animal torturers, the people killers.

Why not demonstrate that there is power arrayed against them?

I was reading a book the other day. It embodied a deep critique of male-dominated religious literature. It put starkly before my eyes the ways that the women in the Bible were assumed to be desirous of whatever man they were given to, that they were treated as appendages to stories and commodified for the boys’ power games.

And it put starkly before my eyes the ease with which we can take up the power we’d been excluded from and turn it on our oppressors. It’s easy to retell the story by reassigning the roles in the same script.

I was watching the Syria situation unfold. It was a situation of horror (actually, it has been for quite some time before chemical weapons were used).

Then we decided to get involved. Someone else was killing and torturing with weapons that we’re not allowed to use. Unless you kill and torture people in another hemisphere while seated in the comfort of Nevada, you’re not allowed to act that way.

So we were going to kill and destroy and torment. Not even for the purpose of changing the characters in the script, but only for the purpose of momentarily playing, “More able to kill than thou.” That was the intended message.

In each, the story of imposition of will by show of force was affirmed as the story by which value, virtue, and place are determined. The narrative of “if I can blow you up, destroy you, I will secure my place and the world be better off” seeps into every crevice because it’s the very water of the ocean in which we live.

When Christians place the cross at the front of our sanctuaries, it is supposed to be a reminder of those great words of Jesus:

It Shall Not Be So Among You

The cross was Rome’s little way of saying that it had sufficient force to keep its power.

The resurrection was God’s little way of saying that God has a different story to tell. God has a power story that overthrows the power stories of the world by refusing to retell them in God’s name.

In a beautiful refusal to play the “I can blow you up” game, the earliest Christians created a new standard of power: walking the way of the cross.

In a stunning escape from the “I can blow you up game,” they did not fall in the colonized people’s trap of striving for the same power and means to power but with themselves in charge.

They surrendered that game to Rome, and claimed different rules altogether. They blew up the narrative of blowing things up.

They saw in Christ the inscribing of a new narrative, and called others to join it: in faith, entrust yourself to God, even to the point of death. See our hopes fulfilled by the God who gives life to the dead.

The Christian calling is nothing if not a relearning in every generation how to tell the story of the Crucified in our personal lives, in our life together, and in the public sphere that will always, it seems, strive for its place by the power of the sword.

Manna

Manna. Bread from heaven.

This is what God gives the hungry Israelites in the wilderness. It is bread from heaven. It is life.

Yes, it’s life.

But only if it’s treated properly.

There are a couple of things you can do with Manna: (1) You can eat what you’ve gathered that day. Or, (2) you can put it in a jar to remember the times when God was faithful in the past.

There’s one thing you can never, ever do with manna: you can’t keep it around. You can’t gather on Monday, hoard what you’ve gathered, and eat off it for the rest of the week. Keep leftovers, and you’ll be looking at maggots in the morning.

Manna is good. Manna is divine provision. Manna is life.Manna

But it is only good for the day on which it is given. To honor the reality of manna given by God is not to try to keep living off of what God gave the day before, but to be stirred to confidence that God will act, again, today.

Manna isn’t just about manna. We face the same challenge continually as people who would walk in faithfulness to God.

God does something amazing–in our lives, in our church community, in church history–and the easiest thing in the world for us to do is to keep going back to this old thing in hopes of continuing to draw life and nourishment from it.

Maggots have protein, so yesterday’s manna can sustain us for a long time, but it’s not the divine provision. The divine provision is only found when we faithfully take what is given for the day and move into the next day with humble, faithful expectation that God will provide for us again.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

We will go out looking for manna. We trust you will provide again tomorrow as you did yesterday.

Pete Rollins, speaking at an event recently, made this claim:

The greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our last great experience of God.

If we find ourselves stuck looking back at the manna in the wilderness, we’ll never see when the true bread comes down from heaven in the person of Christ. If we find ourselves looking back to the bread in the wilderness, we’ll miss the bread of life given to us each week on the communion table.

How do we honor yesterday? Not by trying to live today on yesterday’s gifts, but by being stirred to faith that the God who so acted then will so act today as well.

From Faith to Follow

I keep coming back to Confessions of Faith. As I dance around this (repeatedly) there’s one major thing I’m trying go get to: we as Christians have regularly created the impression that being a Christian is defined by thinking/believing the right things.

Thinking the right things isn’t bad. At some level it’s necessary. But I don’t want to say with, say, Philip Schaff, that belief in the content of the creeds is “necessary and sufficient” for salvation.

So what if our recitations of our shared narrative began with a phrase other than, “I believe,” a phrase that was was self-involving in a different way?

What if we recited together, instead, something like this?

I worship God the Father Almighty, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought us up out of the house of bondage, the God who did not spare his own son but delivered him up for us all and raised him from the dead;

And I follow Jesus the Messiah, his only begotten son, who was anointed son of God by the Spirit, taught us with authority, healed the sick, fed the hungry, embraced the outcast and the sinner, cast out demons, beckoned us to follow, took up his cross, loved me and gave himself for me, reconciled the world to God, was raised from the dead and enthroned as Lord and King, and sent his followers and Spirit out into the world;

I receive the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ, given by Christ that I might walk in faithfulness, receive forgiveness, crucify the flesh with its passions and desires, and receive a share in Jesus’ own sonship, speak in God’s name, extend forgiveness, make peace among people, heal the sick, feed the hungry, embrace the outcast and sinner, cast out demons, take up the cross and pour myself out in self-giving love for the good of my neighbor, be raised to newness of life, and thus live and reign with him forever.

That’s what I’m getting at. There are lots of good, true things in our statements. But how do we talk and think about who we are such that we are always remembering that our statements are self-involving? Not merely involving of our minds, or our “hearts,” or our beliefs, but summoning us to participate in the narrative of the coming reign of God?

Thoughts?

Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.

Seriously.

Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

Ritual

From Wayne Meeks:

Ritual is a condensed action that is intended to focus and concentrate meaning so that what is done in this nexus of sacred time and place ripples out onto all prior and subsequent doings, the doings that take place in the “profane” or outside world, resonating in those ordinary affairs with interpretive possibilities. When ritual is working, it helps us to make sense–a special kind of sense–of the other things we do. (The Origins of Christian Morality, 92)

This is a beautiful, succinct statement about ritual, one that has particular implications for sacraments in particular.

But, how do we do it? How do we allow the meaning of the moment of ritual to diffuse out into all of life?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we are too good at compartmentalizing. And, perhaps, the problem lies with those of us who are preachers and teachers, that we do not adequately infuse our rituals with meaning for them to have sufficient power to radiate out into the mundane.

What sorts of interpretive possibilities have rituals created for your world? What sorts of interpretive possibilities might our rituals create for us?

Us and Them?

Genre note: this blog post is about suggestions and questions. It’s about thoughts clanging around that haven’t found a way to resolve in some sort of palatable harmony. Like real life, it’s a mess of happenings and thoughts and interpretations and rightness and wrongness.

Now that the caveat’s behind us…

I’ve been thinking about “us and them” a good bit this past week.

It started with a blog post: There Is No They. I was wrestling with my own tendency, more broadly observed in others as well, to distance myself from the folks to whom I’m joined.

No, there is no “they” that is the Evangelical church, for example, that’s doing it all wrong. It’s we. It’s I.

Sunday I gave a little talk on sexuality for a church group. Again, I found myself compelled to give a word of warning: despite our tendencies to adopt such a posture, there is no “they” who fail to live up to the gold standard in contrast to the “us” who attain to it.

When we gather to talk about sexual brokenness and sin, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are all people whose lives are touched in every realm by some measure of brokenness and shame, failure and guilt. This includes our sexuality. And it includes even people who have only ever had sex with the one spouse to whom they’ve ever been married.

When we talk as Christians about homosexuality, there is no “they” about whom we are speaking. We are speaking about us, Christians, among whose number and in whose body are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered sisters(-)and(-)brothers.

No, there is no “they” that are the sexual failures in contrast to the “we” who have our stuff all together.

Yesterday in the car a conversation with my seven-year-old went something like this:

    “Who’s more important, Jesus or God?”

    “Well, Jesus shows us how much God loves us. Like that Bible verse we sing about.”

    [Insert the singing of John 3:16 here.]

    “Did Oma believe in God?”

    “Yes.”

    “She died.”

    “Well, this is die in a different sense. John’s talking about life as knowing God forever.”

    “So people who don’t believe won’t get to go to heaven and know God forever?”

What kind of “us” are we talking about, what kind of “them” do I want my 7-year-old to carry in mind?

I started thinking about how people act in the world–not just the love God part, but the love neighbor part. If only “they” lived down to the lists of vices that pepper the pages of the Bible, and if only “we” lived up to the lists of Spirit-empowered virtues.

In the middle of all this messifying of the world, I was driving home today and debriefing the Mountain Goats concert I missed by being in Cambridge at the end of June. John Darnielle sang 1 Samuel 15:23:

The song lyrics sit in tantalizing disjunction to 1 Samuel 15:23. A crystal healer who, as AKMA put it,

is not a maleficent enchanter dedicated to a degraded deity, nor a mere charlatan; he provides clothing and shelter for outcasts, and heals the sick. His account of himself sounds more like the description of the works of the Messiah in Matthew 11:1-6, on the basis of which one might (biblically) say regarding the healer, “Blessed is whoever takes no offence at him.”(“‘What These Cryptic Symbols Mean’”, BibInterp 19 (2011): 124

“They” are sometimes more “us” than we are–a surprise reflected in the scene of Matt 25 as much as anywhere. “Lord, lord, whenever did we?” “Lord, lord, whenever did we not?”

“Us and them” can be a dangerous and self-serving weapon. For the most part, even if not always, we might want to put it away before someone gets hurt.

Gleanings in Pacifism

I have a couple of thoughts about pacifism. The first is my own:

I am not a pacifist, but I do not believe that there is any killing which does not require forgiveness.

I would like to be a pacifist. But then there’s the real world. I hate living in this tension. I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved.

I do believe that the Christian’s place in society is always to bear witness to another economy: an economy where defeat of the gravest powers of the world came by the defeat, rather than military victory, of a marginalized people’s prophet-king.

Within this story, I do not know that it is possible to ever claim that a war is just.

Claiming to be a part of this story, Christians must actively work for peace: blessed are the peacemakers. That should typify kingdom people.

Then sometimes you’ve got Russia and China keeping the Security Council from doing justice. What then?

Thought two. This time, a quote from Stanley Hauerwas:

I’m not a pacifist because I’m so nice. I’m a pacifist because I’m such a mean sonofabitch I need the community to keep me accountable.

Confessing the demands of the gospel story is not, at its best, to issue a claim that faithful expression of this religion is to be like I am. We confess the demands of the gospel story to set out the impossible, glorious vision of the Kingdom of God so that we can, as a people, work toward embodying that vision and seeing that vision reflected in the world.

I talk about the economy of the cross all the time–not because my life looks like one of self-denial, but because that’s how it should look in every relationship, every dollar spent, every minute blown in front of this computer screen.

Ok, so maybe that’s a good argument for being a pacifist after all…