Salt of the Earth

“If you salt the water, you won’t taste the salt. But if you don’t, you’ll know something’s not quite right.”

Sage advice about pasta water from Mr. Richard, one of my friendly cooking gurus.

Image courtesy of pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of pakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

It’s the same with the bread we baked up today. If we’d salted it, it wouldn’t have been salty bread, it just would have tasted more like bread. Instead, it was just sort of flat. A floury delivery unit for the dip.

Salt, rightly done, doesn’t make you taste the salt, it makes you taste more of what you’ve added it to.

What if Jesus was after something like this?

“You are the salt of the earth.”

Too often those of us who live on the Evangelical side of the fence envision the message of Jesus as world-denying; or, worse yet, world-escaping.

What’s our job then? To call people out of the world, to get them to leave it behind!

What if, instead, our job as followers of Jesus is to make the world more of what it was supposed to be in the first place?

What if salting the earth isn’t preserving it (just barely!) from destruction at the hands of an angry God, nor being so entirely other in everything we do that people want to suck the salt lick all day?

What if what we’re supposed to do is neither world-denying nor, to be sure, naïvely world-affirming, but instead robustly world-redeeming? What if our calling is to imagine engaging the world so as to make the good things of the world better versions of themselves?

What if the point of shining on the earth wasn’t always to be a beacon to summon people away, but also, and perhaps more basically, to show people who they could truly are, or who we truly could be if we were willing to come in out of the dark?

What if the call to take up our cross and follow Jesus meant not only “losing our life” but entailed a “losing your life for My sake and the Gospel” in order to actually find it?

And what if that “it” was, recognizably, your life?

“You are the salt of the earth.” Might we envision a salty vocation to make the goods of the world with which we come into contact better versions of what they were always meant to be?

Sell Your Stuff, Then We’ll Talk

The story of the rich man who sorta kinda wanted to follow Jesus (Mark 10) is well known. He wants to follow, right up to the point where it starts to hurt: sell all your stuff and come follow.

Not so much.

Here are some thoughts that are leftovers from a Devotional I was writing on that passage:

In the Jewish tradition there were two great commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might, and love your neighbor as yourself. The Ten Commandment summarize how this love is to be enacted. The rich man believes he has kept the commandments, but he is in for a surprise.

We are prepared for this surprise when Jesus confronts the man for calling him “good.” God alone is good. If you are calling Jesus good, are you going to be willing to follow through on the implications? Will you recognize that following Jesus on the way to the cross is what it now looks like to love God with all your heart?

Here we are face to face with a call from Jesus that is just as offensive to us as it was to his initial audience. We want to prosper according to the kingdom of this world and still thrive as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. We want to separate the call to gather and worship and pray from the world’s calling that we go and earn and keep.

But Jesus is Lord of all. His is not a reign that can leave us serving both God and money. His reign takes every bit of the world as we know it and flips it on its head.

Jesus here is not simply calling the man to follow in some general sense. Jesus is calling the man to follow Jesus as Jesus is on his way to die in Jerusalem. The reign of Jesus is not one that leaves our lives in our own hands. Even when we have obeyed every command that God has given, our lives are not our own. Jesus’ call is to “take up your cross and follow,” and that means that the faithfulness that leads to eternal life will always entail listening to the specific call he lays on each one of us.

The World in Miniature

The ancients understood something about the world that we, too often, don’t.

They understood that the patterns of being and interacting in each sphere of the world were establishing ways of being and interacting that affected the others.

When Aristotle wanted to make hay about politics, he started with the most basic political unit: families. More specifically, he started with husbands and wives.

The assumptions he made at one level permeated each other level. In the home, as in society at large, there are people who are given to foresight and planning–who are, in short, superiors. Things would only work well if these superiors ruled their inferiors.

Where does such superiority come from? From the ability of the reason to conquer the passions of the body. From the ability of strength to subdue the weakness that would ruin a home, a city, or a kingdom.

Men were to rule at home for the same reason that Alexander the Great should be the great emperor over all the inhabited world: each epitomizes reason, virtue, and physical power.

At a conference recently, some folks were wrestling with why male power in the church is such a difficult thing to dislodge in America–a place with enough theological education that we should know better.

If we look around we see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: when we say “all men are created equal” we actually have to mean all human beings, not just all males. Once we’ve said and meant such a thing, there is no longer any basis for ascribing rule to men alone.

If we look “down” we can see the seeds of undoing the models of society that uphold the power of patriarchy: we strive, now, to have our children settle their disputes without fighting. We call exercise of physical power of intimidation “bullying,” not “manliness.” Our change in vocabulary says that we refuse to be a society governed by physical might as though this is some demonstration of the superiority that gives you the right to lead.

But when we look “up,” it’s an entirely different picture.

While we bemoan gun violence at home, our country is perhaps the greatest perpetrator of gun violence around the world–through exporting of not only arms but also of persons to pull the triggers.

While we righteously deplore the justice of human rights violations in places like North Korea, we violate the human rights of our own political prisoners either in Guantanamo Bay or through extraordinary rendition.

A couple of thoughts about all this.

First, the ancients were right. And, we will not be able to have the microcosms of safe and flourishing communities we desire while we are creating a cosmos of danger and destruction. As long as the national narrative is one of power through violence, that will be the micronarrative of our communities as well.

Second, in the United States, Christians are the greatest hindrance to the alternative economy of peace coming to fruition on the national stage. This is because Christianity is the strongest perpetuation of the narrative of patriarchy in our country.

Patriarchy is about a way of understanding rule through power. And Christians are the boldest, loudest group of people who still maintain that the power of the man (which is always a power of physical might and of a presumption of fundamental inequality and of exceptionalism) as the order of the cosmos.

There is a power in the narrative we teach our children, that simple narrative whose mandate is, “Use your words.” I.e., don’t use the coercion of your fists.

That microcosm has the power to create a different kind of cosmos. Here, I would argue, the power comes not from any inherent power in words, but in the economy of the kingdom of God as put on display in the cross of Christ.

Peace has a chance, not because weakness is inherently better than power, but because of the promise of the power of the God who gives life to the dead.

“Deutsches Requiem”

On vacation last week, I did what vacating people do: I read. Short stories, mostly. (Pro Tip: when the most free time you’ll ever have to read ever in your whole life is 30 minutes or less due to the parenting of little people, go with short stories rather than novels.) Ok, it was short stories entirely. And it was a steady diet of Borges, Labyrinths.

“Deutsches Requiem” is a first-person narration of the death of the Third Reich and its dream. As the teller recounts his tale, he is spared from lamenting this death by one central conviction: the downfall of Hitler’s Germany is a martyrdom of sorts, the death of the first grain of wheat that is necessary for a truly new world to be brought into being.

This appreciative resignation is only possible because the narrator has been deeply transformed.

“I will say little of my years of apprenticeship. They were more difficult for me than for others, since, although I do not lack courage, I am repelled by violence. I understood, however, that we were on the verge of a new era, and that this era, comparable to the initial epochs of Islam and Christianity, demanded a new kind of man.”

It would be hard to imagine a more succinct distillation of the frightening theology of National Socialism. The idea that a new era, with a new humanity, was being brought into existence by the violence of Hitler’s wars and concentration camps was a devastatingly powerful metanarrative.

Violence, in fact, is how our narrator typifies the coming era he has, in the end, helped bring into existence:

“An inexorable epoch is spreading over the world. We forged it, we who are already its victim. What matters if England is the hammer and we the anvil, so long as violence reigns and not servile Christian timidity?”

Borges has captured something so profound, so utterly basic to Christianity, that it is to the perpetual shame of Jesus’ followers that we have not taken hold of it. Borges

Whenever violence is victorious, Christianity is defeated. Whenever we play the part of the crucifying centurions rather than the crucified Christ, our profession of faith is undone.

Now, we might well think that Borges is ridiculous to think that “servile” Christianity was the norm before the 1930s or ’40s. We might find ourselves wishing he were right!

But in the worlds created by Borges, time does not move in a straight line. The narrator himself recounts the glorious deaths of his forebears in the opening lines of the story.

If there is incongruity between reality and the narrator’s words, it comes from an irony that Borges has deeply planted.

Borges has told a story of anti-Christ, something that is only possible when once you’ve grasped well who the Christ is. The irony continues as the narrator goes on:

If victory and injustice and happiness are not for Germany, let them be for other nations. Let Heaven exist, even though our dwelling place is Hell.”

“Heaven” is the world of happiness–happiness that comes to pass not only through violence, but injustice. Hell is simply to be on the wrong side of the violent wielding of power.

The beauty of the story is that it draws us into a loathsome rejection of the narrator’s view of the world, a place where wielding the sword is the great new era, only to send us back to the reality that this, truly, is the world in which we live and the means by which we judge it.

The words of Jesus that the world is least willing to hear have always been, “It shall not be so among you.”

Where’s This Manna Coming From?

I imagine that I will continue playing with this manna metaphor (see here and here) for a little bit. It’s really another way of attacking the “Storied Theology” project: a way of articulating the idea that our shared Christian story has defining, definitive moments that determine the shape of our current life, to a certain degree, while yet needing to be reborn in our own times and places.

Manna is a pliable metaphor, as is the narrative metaphor for Christianity and theology. It’s a way of getting my mind around what breathes new life into Christianity wherever that’s found. In other words, this is not a theological model whose goal is to control a certain content.

It is, instead, a posture of life and theology that can function within any number of theological worlds.

The manna idea is coming from an accidental collision.

First, I was doing my Deaconal service and listening to the Homebrewed Christianity podcast. Somehow those guys got Barry Taylor and Peter Rollins into the same episode (warning: Rated R for language), and it was mind-blowing. Barry Taylor

The journey that those guys want you to take in exploring the world of ever-new faithfulness to God is exhilarating and frightening.

But I also realized that their world isn’t mine. I recognize that Barry T. was being provocative when he said this, but as an example, here’s how his description of the Lord’s Supper went down. Taylor said that “remembering” had nothing to do with what happened 2,000 years ago, it has to do with being the people who live now the life of light and love that Jesus himself lived.

Of course, in saying that, Barry indicated that we have to remember what happened 2,000 years ago if we’re going to get today right.

He’s absolutely right that receiving Christ has as its goal the creation of persons and a community that look like Jesus now. But in order to get that story right, we have to know what Jesus looked like then.

That’s when manna came in…

Second, at some point I remember not when, I was part of overhearing a story of manna being told to kids (maybe as a debrief of my kids’ Sunday lessons?).

That’s when I started to put this thing together.

I need the both/and. I need the definitive, defining moment of what God did in Christ 2,000 years ago to provide the determining narrative, the definitive shape, of who God is and how God is at work in the world.

I cannot say that 2,000 years ago is rubbish, but I do want to say, with Barry, “nostalgia smalgia”–desire to live off of nostalgic notions of faith and faithfulness to God are a longing for a world that never existed. Those longings will never lead us to life. They will create communities of death.

I cannot say, as it seems to me Rollins is saying, that the experience itself is the thing, and we’re just calling “God” some human experience that we rediscover in new ways. But the notion that the true and living God who is not us must be rediscovered rings true.

So that’s where the manna’s coming from. It’s (as Barry T. says at one point in an interview) honoring your grandfather by having grandchildren rather than honoring him by wearing his hat.

It’s honoring God by trusting that God can be Father to a new generation within the same family, and not merely noted as a great-grandfather on their family tree.

Manna and Christ

As I mentioned on Monday, I’ve been playing with the imagery of Manna for a bit. Manna–that bread from heaven, given to sustain the people in the wilderness, but only as it was received afresh every day.

Such provision can create problems.

It can create the problem of hoarding–attempting to seize the abundance of the kingdom of God for ourselves because we think that God’s kingdom operates on the same economy of scarcity as our own.

Maggots took care of that problem (Exodus 16:21).

Lambert Lombard, Feeding the Five ThousandAnother problem is that it can become an idol. We create idols when we look to the thing itself rather than to God the giver as the source of life. When we fashion dead idols, the living God is set to the margins and we are poised to reject the new thing that God might do to bring us into God’s life.

This was the problem Jesus encountered.

He could feed people in the wilderness, he could reenact the divine display of abundance in a deserted place. But the problem was that people thought the bread was, itself, the point.

Not so!

The great provision in the wilderness, the great feeding of the people on heavenly bread to sustain them after they had been redeemed, was a bread from heaven that found its counterpart in Jesus who is the Bread of Life.

When we are sure we have our hands around what it looks like for God to act, we are immediately in danger of rejecting the acts of the God who lives and is therefore free to surprise us.

When we are sure of what divine provision looks like, we are in greatest danger of rejecting the provision that is made for us in the crucified and risen Christ.

Before breaking the news that bread in the wilderness was only a shadow of the life he had to offer, Jesus warned his interlocutors:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life–yet it is these that testify about me!

When I say that manna, as a picture of divine provision, should stir us up in faith for today rather than creating a disposition to live on yesterday’s grace, I mean this to point us always to Christ.

We, too, have our scripture that we think gives us life–and too often we use it without reference to the life-giving Christ to whom it refers.

Scripture, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

We, too, have faithful articulations of the truth from our rich tradition–and too often we use these as indicators of faith without reference to the life-giving Christ whose fellowship they promise.

Doctrine, that great divine provision, can become an idol.

If the resurrection means anything, it means that the resurrected Christ stands ready to provide for us afresh today–and warns us that holding too tightly to our expectations and knowledge of how God works are likely to make us the last to see when God is, yet again, at work in our world.

Funded New Testament / Christian Origins Ph.D.

For aspiring doctoral students: here is a recent announcement about a funded Ph.D. program in New Testament and Early Christianity.

The Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki invites applicants for a doctoral student position in the field of New Testament / Early Christian Studies for a period of 3-4 years, beginning on January 1, 2014 at the latest. The appointed doctoral student will be situated at the Faculty of Theology and will enter into an employment relationship with the University of Helsinki.

The dissertation project will be carried out as part of the collective research project “Ritual and the Emergence of Early Christian Religion: A Socio-Cognitive Analysis,” funded by the Academy of Finland and directed by Risto Uro. The doctoral student will be part of this interdisciplinary team and the project’s working language is English. For more information on the project’s aims and scope, visit the project’s website http://blogs.helsinki.fi/ritual-earlychristianity/. Univ of Helsinki

The University of Helsinki is among the leading multidisciplinary research universities in the world. The mission of the Faculty of Theology is to conduct research in religion and its various manifestations, provide teaching based on this research and participate in societal discourse on both a national and international scale. The Faculty has received excellent marks in international research evaluations. The faculty hosts two Centres of Excellence in Research (2014-2019) funded by the Academy of Finland.

Interested candidates are asked to acquaint themselves with the complete job announcement and application process guidelines at http://www.helsinki.fi/teol/tdk/english/administration/vacancies.htm. The deadline for applications is October 1, 2013.

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.

Lost Again?

It’s been a year since we parted
Lost
For months, you were lost
I should have looked
But I did not know
I should have asked
You were silent
I misunderstood
I thought you were busy
I thought you were settling
I thought you’d call
But then I asked
And then I found
You were lost
Yes, you were lost

You should not be lost anymore
But it has been a year since we parted
I have missed you
I miss your words
I miss your insight
I miss your potential to change the world
I hope you are thriving
I hope you are bringing life to those you meet
I hope you are not withering under the cruelties of blistering criticism
I hope you are a small beam of light in the darkness you encounter
I hope, most of all, to see you soon.

jrdk, “Ode to the Article I Sent Off For Peer Review”

Telling the story of the story-bound God