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.

The Business of a Better World

This week I did an interview with Martin Reed of Blue Sea Labs.

Martin Reed

He is doing incredible work with the seafood industry and the distribution logistics that are necessary for sustainable food and mom-and-pop businesses to survive in an era of globalization.

Here’s a taste:

Sustainable seafood is an issue that addresses both environmental and social atrocities. 90% of our seafood is imported, and much of it comes from Southeast Asia where there is slave labor on fishing boats, and where there are few standards in place to help ensure sustainability.

Read the rest at Field Notes Magazine.

John Caputo: The Insistence of Hospitality

This is the third stop in a book tour of John Caputo’s The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps. Stop one was was hosted by Todd Littleton, and stop two was hosted by Julie Clawson. CaputoCover

My task is to jump into the chapter entitled “Insistence and Hospitality.”

What Caputo has already established in chs. 1 & 2 is this: when we say God, we are not speaking of some being who exists, but of an acting, an event that demands human response.

Aside: Does anyone else hear the echoes of Rudolf Bultmann here? Or, on the more conservative side, of pietistic revivalism that calls people to recognize a moment in which God manages to break in and demand a response?

Here’s a quote that sums up the chapter in a nutshell:

Hospitality means to say “come” in response to what is calling, and that may well be trouble.

We are insufficiently accustomed to the dangers of “hospitality” to instinctively appreciate where Caputo is driving us here. Hospitality is not inviting our best friends over for a meal or opening our home to family for the holidays.

Hospitality as Caputo articulates it, following Derrida, is about saying “yes” and saying “come” to the unknown stranger who is seeking shelter. “If you already know who is on the other side of the door, it is not hospitality. Or, only half.”

Where is God in this? God is in need. In need of our hospitality. This is not to say that God is the stranger at the door, but it is to say that God is insisting on the hospitality in the event of its being requested.

If this all makes us nervous, then we’re en route to understanding Caputo’s point.

His depiction of God intends not only to turn our attention to the insistences of the world in order that the God who needs us might find in us the existence of faithful response, but to turn away the God who is easily controlled by the dogma surrounding the church’s traditional descriptions of the God who is.

At the heart of this chapter is a delightfully revisionist reading of the Mary and Martha story inspired by Meister Eckhart.

JohnCaputoIn short, Jesus’ “Martha, Martha” is the pronouncement of a double blessing on the woman who understood that Jesus came in full need. He stood in all the scandalous need of incarnation: needing food, needing drink, needing rest, needing to relieve himself. The “peace” of Jesus’ presence cannot be purchased without the very real threat of his physicality–a threat both to him and to those in whose need he stands.

And with this recognition that God is found in the insistence of hospitality, our interpretation of the weakness of the flesh is rewritten: they co-constitute life, intensifying life to a fever pitch, providing opportunity to respond to the name of God.

Throughout the book, Caputo’s theological concerns shine through: he wants to disempower the bully God in whose name power is wielded to the detriment of the many. With a God who insists rather than exists, Caputo wants it crystal clear that the actions of religious faith are the actions of humans responding to the insistence of God–with no danger of being confused for God themselves.

Random Thoughts that the Book Generated

1. I have a tremendous amount of affinity for the notion that God is bound to the story of the humans who enact it. I posted a week or so ago the scandalous idea that God might, actually, need us. (Cf. the subtitle of my blog: telling the story of the story-bound God.)

2. In advocating a storied theology, in which God is intimately entailed in the unfolding narrative, I have been driven by the concerns that the dogma of the church (what some of my readers have told me goes by the label “analytic theology”) is a source of power whose use in practice is often contraindicated by the cross of Christ.

In both of these trajectories of my own, I find myself resonating a great deal with Caputo’s work. But, having said that…

3. To this point, the book is not Christian in any significant sense. It uses some biblical, and New Testament, imagery as a reflection of Caputo’s native tongue, but not as anything more than husk that might be cast away in favor of wheat. It is a “radical theology” in the sense of being a way to speak about God that demonstrates its positioning in a pluralistic world.

I hold out for a more robust Christian theology, and I think that a theology of the cross as the lens for making sense of the Biblical narrative as a whole holds promise for such a theology from within the Christian tradition in an explicit fashion.

4. For all its universality, I think that most people will find it sufficiently incomprehensible that Caputo’s project holds little hope of being the wave of the future. (Cf. Tony Jones’ “Walmart Test,” and his claim that Caputo’s theology fails on this basic level: it can’t be explained to someone with whom you’re standing in line at Walmart for 3 minutes.) What is it to say that God does not exist but that God insists? There is a great deal to learn from here, but one wonders whether the miracle of trickle-down economics will ever allow the theology of insistence to increase to the account of the religiously would-be-faithful.

For my own part, I’m not ready to give up on the God project as traditionally conceived. I want there to be a God–not to uphold my power, but to call me to account.

Perhaps more seriously, I fear that the notion that the only “existence” is of our actions in response to “God’s” insistence might well backfire: rather than the human reception dethroning the identification of humans with God, it might make inevitable that the human quest for God will land on nothing more than the human at work.

This book pays back rereading for its stimulating depiction of God at work in the realities in which we find ourselves.

**
The Federal Government, though currently shut down, continues in its theology of insistence by demanding that I disclose to you that I received this book on promise of reviewing it here, and for no payment in cash or kind.

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.

Doctrine of Scripture

I was mulling for a few minutes what I might say if I had to write a statement of faith that included something about scripture. I was thinking I’d go straight for the 2 Timothy 3 jugular and start with something like this:

I believe that scripture is God’s word, given for the purpose of giving us the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith, in Christ Jesus (1 Tim 3:15). Therefore, any interpretation of scripture that points to Christ (John 5; in particular to Christ’s suffering and subsequent glory, Luke 24, 1 Peter 1), demands that we understand God as God has been revealed in Christ, or that demands of us that we walk in the way of Christ, is to be received as the authoritative word of God that will lead us into faithful belief and practice.

Do you have some doctrine of scripture that you work with? How does it influence how you do or don’t read the biblical texts?

Does God Need You?

I remember the moment. The painful moment.

The pastor hadn’t been expecting the VBS coordinator to be giving a special announcement, but he looked up and saw her standing at the back of the sanctuary, waving her recruitment sign.

Vacation Bible Study was right around the corner, and she needed help.

So the pastor invited her up to make her announcement. After enumerating the myriad tasks that needed to be done, the VBS coordinator concluded: “We need you. The kids need you. And God needs you.”

The pastor was in a bind. He rightly hated manipulative appeals for help, and he was afraid we’d just been given one. And so, the theological reinterpretation commenced:

“God doesn’t need you. The kids might need you….” probably followed by a reframing of the plea to consider serving our kids.

It was a Presbyterian church, with strong Reformed theology. And at the heart of it lay this deep conviction about the sovereignty of God.

“God doesn’t need you.”

There is a sense in which I have to agree with the idea that God doesn’t need us. The crucifixion-resurrection complex stands as an eternal judgment upon the self-righteous religious who become so convinced that we are at the center of things that we rise up against God’s plans and inadvertently destroy them.

In that sense, then, God doesn’t need us, because God can raise the dead. God can call the things that are not so that they are.

“Don’t think to say to yourself, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones!”

The Radical Vulnerability of God. Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Artur84 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Ah… there’s the rub. God might not need me to be a child of Abraham, but God still needs children of Abraham–or else God and God’s story are a failure.

God might not need the first century law-keeping religious leaders to bring about God’s promised salvation, but God still needs a faithful human king–and that risen king’s only remaining item of business before leaving the place was to send out a handful of folks on mission.

When I started writing this blog, I called it “Storied Theology: Telling the Story of the Story-Bound God.” The sub-title was a nod in the direction of deconstructing the idea that God’s “otherness” leaves God completely free to act as God will.

God has chosen a different path.

God has chosen humanity, Israel, David, and Christ. God has chosen the apostles, prophets, preachers, and servants.

Recently, Andy Crouch gave a talk in which he outlined the main thesis of his new book; namely, that right use of power only comes when we properly embrace both the gift of power and of vulnerability.

God, of course, embraced the vulnerability of power in not only becoming human but even in the death of the Beloved Son.

But I don’t think it ends there.

God continues to depend on people, to subject Godself to the vulnerability of the fact that people must recognize God’s work in the world, enact God’s work on the world’s behalf, and be the enactment of the saving story God is writing.

God can do whatever God wants.

What God has chosen to do is to enter into a gifting relationship with the world and the church that leaves open the real possibility of being ignored, even of (on the small scale) failure.

This is the vulnerability that is true expression of power in a relationship of love. This is why, I think the VBS coordinator was right.

God needs you. And so do the kids. And so do we.

God Crucified?

On Sunday we were listening to Nadia Bolz Weber doing her “Lutheran theology rocks” thing in an interview at Wild Goose. (Seriously, folks, she is living out the law/gospel, simul justus et peccator thing better than anyone else I’m familiar with in 2013.)

At one point she started talking about the atonement. So much of what she says is so great. She talks about how grace works in a community where we experience brokenness not just in community, but just because the community has wounded us.

Then, circa minute 37:45 or so, she starts talking about God in the midst of tragedy. And, again, she does such a great job because she brings people to Jesus, and God bearing our suffering on the cross.

Then she says this:

… that’s not “God’s little boy, like God is some kind of divine child abuser sending his son (and he only had one!).” Come on, give me a break! “God’s little boy and he only had one, and as this divine child abuser and as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding a pound of flesh, sending his little boy…” What hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, God saying, “I’d rather die than be in the sin-accounting business you’ve put me in.”

I love the theology of this: it’s not God sending some other to die, but Godself doing it. And, I know that there is good, strong Trinitarian theology behind this. The eternal Son who is God dies upon the cross.

Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of nongpimmy / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The problem I keep coming back to is that everywhere and always in scripture, the son who dies is precisely the son who is not the father, and is nowhere the God who, as Godself, is dying to save us.

There is always the son who is not the father who is dying out of obedience to the father.

There is always the father who is not the son who is not sparing his son but delivering him up for us all.

And… “He only had one!”

I don’t dislike the divine on the cross interpretation, but I’m not exactly sure where it leaves us. The only way to get there is to abandon the theological logic of the NT writers and replace it with a particular way of working out the later theological logic of the Trinity.

Is the need for it to be God as such who dies so profound that we simply have to abandon the suffering Human One of the Synoptic Gospels, or the obedient Second Adam of Paul? Or do we simply need to return to the question of why Jesus died to shore up a better answer of why this man, man I say!, goes the way of the cross?

And if we put it all in the divinity, what then of the calling to take up our cross and follow Jesus? Does God love us less than the Son because what God would not call another to do, but does Godself, God nonetheless demands we do?

And what about this bit of the father not sparing? Do we chunk it? What about, “Not what I will but what you will?” do we chunk it?

But if we don’t, how do we articulate atonement in way that doesn’t leave us with a child-abusing loan shark?

I’d love to hear how folks are thinking about what the death of Jesus might teach us about God and/or how you’re working out atonement to deal with the scriptural tradition and concerns such as those NBW raises.

Me & Jesus: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Sometimes things aren’t bad or wrong, sometimes things are good and right in and of themselves, but they take so much of our attention that they have become bad things for us.

How can a good thing, something true about how the world works or how God is at work in the world, become bad?

It happens when one idea so captivates our imagination that it keeps us from even hearing other parts of the story.

One of the most important emphases in evangelical Christianity is the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus (or with God through Jesus, depending on whom you ask). It’s not enough to be around a church or a faith community, we have to own it.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

But then the “personal relationship with Jesus” metaphor starts sinking in its roots.

Once it does, it provides a built-in rubric for assessing our faithfulness to God: am I spending time in a 1-on-1 relationship with God? Am I praying? Am I reading my Bible? Am I feeling connected? Is Jesus Lord of my heart?

All good things, but also a one-dimensional line that does not accurately tell us the shape of the Christian life, precisely because it is insufficient.

Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be co-teaching through the book of Philippians at a church gathering. As I’ve been reading the letter over the past few weeks, one idea keeps jumping out at me:

If we are reading Philippians waiting for Paul to shut his yapper about all his interpersonal relationships so that we can get to the point where I hear God’s word just for me, we are going to miss the entire point of the letter.

Yes, I did just say “entire” point. And I mean it.

Yes, of course, the letter is all about Jesus–the crucified and exalted Jesus. But here we are right up to the point where this personal relationship with Jesus starts to break down.

To be in “personal relationship with Jesus” is nothing other than to be “in Christ.” And to be “in Christ” is to be in a space occupied by others who are “in Christ.” Here is the place where there is to be encouragement, where there is consoling love, where there is like-mindedness, where we become parts of a body that is Christ’s–or is it Christ himself?

Joy is found not only in Christ, but in people who make each others’ joy complete.

Salvation is found not only in Christ’s death for us, but in people’s coming together to pray and God acting to send the saving Spirit and deliverance.

The ideal way of life is found not only in Jesus’ self-giving love, but in those who follow after Jesus along the same path and therefore can summon others, with integrity, to follow and imitate them.

And then, all of a sudden, whether or not I’m having my quiet time recedes in its ability to tell me whether I’m being a good Christian.

All of a sudden when I want to know how I’m doing with the Lord I’m called to look not simply “up” into the mystical heavens or “in” to the depths of my heart, but left and right to the people with whom I am supposed to be faithfully living in Christian community.

And now, whether or not I’m connecting with Jesus becomes tangible. Am I living in unity with the people in my community? Am I in reconciled relationship? Am I not thinking about myself, but embodying the cruciform life of Jesus in pursuit of the flourishing of my sister and brother?

Me and Jesus. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. But it is a powerful metaphor that needs to be treated carefully. It might just make us look in all the wrong places, and it might keep us from finding the better life that Jesus has to offer, just because he delights to call me his friend.

The [choose 1: Eagle / Dove] Has Landed

Once upon a time there was a people of tremendous military might. Their strength and ferocity was marked by the king of birds–the eagle.

romanstandards 220px-USGreatSeal1904DieDrawing

This great people proclaimed itself to be the bringer of the Great Peace.

where they make a desert, they call it peace. (Tacitus)

e pluribus unum

The earliest Christians were not naïve about how power worked. They were not blind to the brutal realities of tyranny and the need to stand against it.

That’s precisely why the earliest followers of Jesus lived in eager anticipation of the time when Jesus would overthrow their Roman overlords. That’s precisely why they literally could not hear Jesus’ promise that he was going to die as messiah. That’s precisely why they wanted to call down fire from heaven on those who rejected them. That’s precisely why they thought Jesus a failure after he was crucified.

“But we had thought he was the one who was going to redeem Israel?”

The temptation didn’t go away. The temptation to imagine that true peace, true freedom, could only be had if someone came who acted like Rome but out Romed Rome–better deployment of troops, better handling of swords.

The next generation of Jesus followers faced it to.

That’s what Mark 13 is about: false Christs will arise saying, “I’m the guy!” What’s the context? The time when Jerusalem’s stones will be thrown down. The time when Rome executes its next devastating act of military victory over Judea in AD 70.

The time when Christians are not to get carried away, thinking that the way to the reign of God, of peace, of justice upon the earth is to be had by way of the sword.

The temptation didn’t go away.

The idea that the transformation of the economy of power in the world might happen by something other than the sword has never caught on. Rome’s been gone for over a thousand years, Jesus is still proclaimed as Lord long after such an acclamation has ever been given to a Caesar, but still we do not believe it.

The innocence of the dove alludes us, even as we call ourselves Christians.

The subversive alternative of the Dove to the Eagle alludes us, despite its descent upon Jesus at his anointing to his messianic office (HT: Peppard).

Dore, Baptism

The way of peace, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus, probably doesn’t make for good Empire building. But maybe Empire building isn’t our calling in the first place?

Maybe our calling is, instead, to embody a witness to an alternative economy, an economy in which self-giving love has a Divine power to overcome even the life-taking hatred of the world’s superpower.

“He rose again on the third day.”

To stand in the faith of the Christian church is to attest to this one great fact: the military power of the world cannot overcome the life-giving power of God.

Has military power been, can it ever be, the conduit of that life-giving power?

The disciples sure thought so…

Telling the story of the story-bound God