November 15, 2013

Recently my Patheos colleague, Dr. Marcus Borg, wrote a piece entitled “What is the Gospel?“, which invited a much needed discussion in regards to the nature of the Gospel of Jesus.  The question of “why is the message of Jesus good news?” is perhaps one of the most worthy questions in theology to wrestle with, so I welcome the question and dialogue on the subject.

Dr. Borg’s piece correctly points out that the Gospel of Jesus has, over time, been diluted and simmered down into something that is good news for the afterlife but often, little more. This concept of reducing the message of Jesus is the central theme of my upcoming book, Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, which comes out next August (and has an entire chapter on the Kingdom of God). Dr. Borg correctly argues, I believe, that we often place a hyper focus on the afterlife– escaping hell and achieving heaven. Such an understanding of the Gospel, he and I agree, is a reduced understanding at best.

Certainly, this was the “Gospel” I, like Dr. Borg, grew up with.

The solution he presents (If I have understood his argument correctly), is to return to a here-and-now understanding of the “Kingdom of God” as a present reality and as central to the teachings of Christ. To this, I could not agree more. The Kingdom of God is absolutely central to the teachings of Jesus, and is a present reality. In fact, we see both John the Baptist mention it as he paves the way for Jesus, and see Jesus himself start his ministry immediately by talking about the “Kingdom of God”. Further along in the ministry of Jesus, we see him enter a stage of his ministry where he taught mostly in parables– something that usually began with the statement: “The Kingdom of God is like…” Even at the end of his life, standing before Pilate, Jesus talks of his “Kingdom” as if it were present at that very moment.

I even view the Hebrew Scriptures as having a theme of “Announcing the Kingdom” as discussed by Glasser, et. al, in their book of the same name.

How did we arrive at this reduced understanding of the Kingdom? I think part of the problem in American Christianity is that often Kingdom statements are translated as “Kingdom of Heaven” and without a deeper wrestling with the text, we have for too long assumed that Jesus was talking about heaven– as in a place we go to when we die. Like Dr. Borg, I don’t believe he was. Jesus came to inaugurate a Kingdom that begins right here, right now. Like us, many of Jesus’ contemporaries completely missed this point of the Kingdom being “now”, to which Jesus warns them in Matthew 21 that, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God ahead of you”.

Of this present reality, Dr. Borg writes:

“Importantly, “the kingdom of God” was not about life in the next world, not about heaven, but life on earth. Though Christians have not always recognized this, they should not be surprised by it. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. To use one of Dom Crossan’s great one-liners: heaven’s in great shape – earth is where the problems are.

The coming of the kingdom of God on earth was about justice and peace. Justice: that everybody should have enough (“daily bread”) of the material basis of life. Peace: the end of war and violence. Jesus’s passion – what he was passionate about – was God and the kingdom of God. It involves a twofold transformation: of ourselves and of “this world.”

The above quote, is where I’d like to enter into the dialogue on the issue of the “Kingdom” and the Gospel.

If I understand the above quote correctly (this is dialogue, not a critique), I fear that we could over compensate and arrive at an equally diluted view on Kingdom, albeit from the opposite end. Specifically, when Borg says it was “not about life in the next world”, I fear that our understanding of Kingdom could be reduced to a present reality, and only a present reality. I agree in principle (clearly when Jesus talks of the “Kingdom” and “Eternal Life” he is speaking of the present) and I agree that a return to a proper understanding of Kingdom is crucially important. However, I hope we won’t dilute it to an “either or” proposition on either end– because I believe the Kingdom and Good News are not only about now, but of a future reality as well.

Personally, I prefer embracing the Kingdom as many others have, with a “now but not yet”, “inaugurated but not fully realized” understanding. Certainly, the Kingdom of God is a present reality– but clearly it is not something that has been fully realized (something Borg seems to affirm in his piece). Life in the Kingdom–the message of the Gospel– gives me hope because it is a “both and” not an “either or” proposition. The Good News can be about this world, and the next. Christ, I believe, came to establish his Kingdom, defeat the works of the Devil, and reconcile “all things” to himself. The Good News is that I am invited to become an agent of God’s reconciliation to the world around me, and that I can begin living in, and participating in, the Kingdom right here, right now.

However, the Good News is also that one day, Christ will return and make this Kingdom one, as the prophet Isaiah said, that will have “no end”. The Good News is not simply that I can live in the Kingdom now, but that I will also live in the Kingdom then.

 Seeing the Kingdom as a present reality is an invitation, as Borg writes, of “transformation”– something I think we are all invited to participate in.

Seeing the Kingdom as a future reality, is an invitation to embrace the hope that our transformational work will have eternal significance, one day being completed.

And so, I invite my readers to dialogue with his.

Why is the Gospel “Good News”? Is it Good News for now, Good News for then, or is it perhaps, both?

 

October 25, 2013

I’ve been condemned to hell twice in the last week and a half, and I still have the weekend ahead of me. I’m sure I’ll get another 6-7 emails from readers who think I’m doomed, so it’s not shaping up to be a good week for my eternal salvation. In case you weren’t on the internet over this past week, an interesting thing happened. First, John MacArthur condemned thousands of charismatic Christians to hell for blasphemy of the holy spirit at his conference, Strange Fire. Our good ole friend, Mark Driscoll crashed the party in a publicity stunt for his new book, while clothing the stunt as an effort for peace.

Apparently, Mark wasn’t upset that MacArthur was condemning thousands of Christians to hell– he was just pissed because he didn’t think of it first.

Mark, deciding to get in on the send-people-to-hell action, went home and penned a blog post that also condemned thousands of Christians to an eternity of getting snapped with rubber bands wile listening to fingernails on a chalk board and being slow roasted over an open fire. Not to be outdone, Mark stamped an interesting group of Christians hellbound– one that would include some shocking names, including: Jesus, his disciples, all the Christians in the first 400 years of Christianity, Martin Luther King, nearly every Christian martyr in history, and well, me too.

At least I got lumped in with good company this time.

Those Mark thinks are going to be slaughtered by Jesus?

People who teach nonviolent love of enemies.

In his post (which you can read in entirety, here) Mark engages in some of the worst exegesis I’ve ever seen regarding the issue of nonviolence in an attempt to throw some red meat to his audience, arguing that those of us who believe in Christian nonviolence have made Jesus into a “pansy and a pacifist”. Mark builds his argument through citing Old Testament violence, completely skipping the nonviolent commands of Jesus and Paul, and moves straight to a horrible exegesis of the end times.

Which, really isn’t his fault– he’s just a product of a violent education. Mark attended a seminary where all professors are required to sign that they believe in a violent eschatological sequence, a theological framework that I’ve covered at great length in previous posts. Jesus taught that violence only begets more violence, so it naturally flows that pro-violent seminaries produce violent Bible teachers.

Instead of simply stating that he rejects this aspect of the teachings of Jesus, Mark takes it a step further– condemning those of us who affirm and teach this hallmark of God’s kingdom as false teachers who will one day be slaughtered by the Prince of Peace himself.

Mark writes:

“Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist; he’s patient. He has a long wick, but the anger of his wrath is burning. Once the wick is burned up, he is saddling up on a white horse and coming to slaughter his enemies and usher in his kingdom. Blood will flow… Some of those whose blood will flow as high as the bit in a horse’s mouth for 184 miles will be those who did not repent of their sin but did wrongly teach that Jesus was a pacifist. Jesus is no one to mess with.

Apparently Pastor Mark is a go-big-or-go-home kinda guy, because by his argument, when Jesus comes back he’d have to slay himself– because Jesus not only taught nonviolence but said that embracing nonviolence is necessary in order to be called “children of your father in heaven”.

I guess that would make Jesus the false teacher of all false teachers.

Thankfully, some of the other “false teachers” out there didn’t take Mark’s post lightly, and have responded with some fantastic pieces that are a little more intellectually honest than Mark’s (ok, a lot more). Here’s a quick plug of the two best responses, which I hope you’ll read each entirely:

Greg Boyd: Greg is basically the most brilliant Bible teacher I know. If you only read one of the resources here, this is the one. In it, Greg reminds us of what I’ve written about previously: Jesus overturned the OT laws on violence, and replaced them with a new ethic of total nonviolence:

“In fact, this “eye for eye” principle is called the lex tallionis (law of retaliation), and it’s at the foundation of all the laws of the OT that require violence against perpetrators. Yet Jesus repudiates this principle and replaces it with his teaching to never “resist [anthistēmi] an evil person” (which, by the way, means that we aren’t to respond to aggression with aggression, not that we’re to do nothing).”
Secondly, Preston Sprinkle from Eternity Bible College who recently wrote a book on Christian Nonviolence, wrote an especially solid piece. Sprinkle in part, says:

“Mark rightly distinguishes between “killing” and “murder” in the Old Testament, but then he heroically leaps over biblical books in a single bound. After summarizing the “bloody Old Testament” as supporting “lawful taking of life, such as self-defense, capital punishment, and just war,” Mark jumps past the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, Jesus’s prohibitions against violence in the gospels, and Paul’s commands against violence in Romans 12, finally landing on Romans 13 for a quick touch and go before he flies over the rest of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, ultimately arriving to the book of Revelation.”

I find it ironic that Mark would show up at the Strange Fire conference in apparent protest over the condemnation of thousands of Christians to hell– and then ran home to condemn thousands of Christians to hell.

I guess Mark and Johny Mac agree on principle, but just disagree on which Christians should be consigned to the eternal torment of the Evangelical version of hell.

Pastor Marky Mark would do well to re-check his scriptures re-discover the radical message of Jesus– where embracing nonviolence doesn’t make one a “pansy”, but a “child of our father in heaven”.

In the end, Mark and I do agree on something. In a follow up piece he released today regarding the publicity stunt, he said that we live in a culture that is progressively opposed to biblical truth. I agree.

Biblical truth is that we are called to emulate Jesus through a radical, nonviolent love of enemies, and the vast majority of American Christianity is diabolically opposed to that truth.

I pray Pastor Mark, and all those who reject this essential teaching of Jesus, will repent.

 

September 11, 2013

end_times_

Like many of you, I grew up as an end-times believer.

I mean pre-tribulation rapture, antichrist, battle of Armageddon, and the whole nine yards.

While other kids were thinking about where they were going to go to college, I was worried that the rapture would come before I had sex.

Or worse, that I would actually have sex but that the rapture would happen while I was having sex… and well, that would certainly be disappointing and awkward all at the same time.

Thankfully, none of that happened. Even better is the fact that it’s not going to, because the rapture is a hoax.

Walking away from a belief in the “end times” and all the baggage that comes with it wasn’t easy. Strangely enough, it was actually quite frightening to let go of such a pessimistic view of the future in lieu of a healthy, optimistic, eschatology. You’d think such a trade would be easy, but it wasn’t.

Back in 2007, my wife took me on a weekend get-away to Boston because she wanted me to meet her friend Joe who had done two master’s at Gordon-Conwell and was getting ready to do his PhD in Theology at the University of Aberdeen. She was hoping that introducing us would gently prod me into going to seminary, but at least temporarily, the plan backfired.

The conversation with Joe went great, until he started talking about the rapture being a joke. I still remember walking back to the car when we left dinner, telling my wife what a heretic the guy was… shocked that she would have friends like that. I mean, he was only a theologian who went to one of the top seminaries in the world, and I was a punk who went to Word of Life and Liberty University… so what did he know? (flash forward: he’s now one of my best mates)

The world was ending and the rapture was imminent, I steadfastly believed.

Until I didn’t anymore.

When I ended up in seminary, no less than a week went by before I realized that end-times believers were actually the minority in Christianity and believed an entire worldview that wasn’t in the Bible (go look– there’s no falling planes, no taxi cabs going off the road, no scenes where millions of people missing… it’s NOT there. I can’t even refute a passage about it, because there aren’t any passages to refute.)

Ultimately, I realized that while everyone else had been busy improving the world, I had wasted my time worrying that Jesus was going to walk in on me having sex.

It was so disappointing to find out I had been duped all those years.

I felt like I had just found out there was no Santa Clause, no Easter Bunny, and got kicked in the groin, all in the same day.

It was horrible.

But beautiful too, because it led me to a healthy, optimistic, Biblical world-view. Not the crap that had been fed into my mind by fundamentalist preachers, but the real-deal biblical message of hope.

I discovered that the entire end-times movement was new on the scene of Christianity, something created by John Nelson Darby in the 1800’s. He invented the concept of a rapture, that the world was getting progressively worse, and even taught his followers that it was biblical to be pessimistic about the future– admonishing an entire generation who were busy improving society.

And, it worked. Until he arrived on the scene, Christians were incredibly optimistic and were busy trying to make the world the kind of place that Jesus would actually want to come back to. They fought against slavery, poverty, and were engaged in long-term quests to improve the fabric of society.

EndTimesUntil they eventually bought into the idea that the world was ending, so why bother? With the first World War, the pessimistic teachings of Darby started to make sense- the second Word War sealed the deal. A man named Scofield picked up Darby’s teachings and published the Scofield Study Bible with the teachings of Darby mixed into the pages in such a way that the teachings of scripture and teachings of Darby became indistinguishable.

Combine this with the fact that “Bible Schools” began to crop up all around the US for the express purpose of spreading Darby’s teachings throughout the world, the game was over. Darby and Scofield had (or have) single handedly become responsible for creating mulit-generations of American Christians who think the world is ending and act accordingly.

Well, it’s not, and you shouldn’t.

Yes, Jesus is coming back some day- but not in a hail of gunfire. In Matthew 24 Jesus promised his disciples that the tribulation they would experience prior to the destruction of the temple in AD 70 would be the worst in all of human history– that from there, things would always be better. He promised Peter that as we built the church, not even the gates of hell would ever be able to stop us.

But, much of my tribe lives as if that’s untrue and would rather plan for Armageddon than work for healthcare or immigration reform.

the-end-is-nearWhile the Bible doesn’t teach that the world is going to end in a hail of gunfire, end-times believers actually might make that come to a reality all on their own.

Ironically, end-times believers might actually trigger the “end times”.

What my former community has failed to realize (among 9,172 other things according to my records) is that eschatology impacts your worldview, worldview impacts your behavior, and behavior determines the future.

 

The things we believe deep inside (even if we don’t realize we believe them) drive our behavior in the here-and-now, and our behavior in the here-and-now has great bearing on future events.

 For example:

If one chooses to believe in their heart that they are unlovable, they eventually assimilate to that core belief and start behaving in accordance with it– they start behaving as someone who isn’t easy to love, and end up alienated in relationships.

If we believe that a certain situation will never work out the way we would like, eventually we start behaving as if the situation has already failed– and thus, snatch failure from the jaws of success.

Core beliefs drive our behavior, even when we don’t realize it. Behavior simply points to the core belief and gives us a clue as to it’s identity. Behavior is merely a symptom of a deeper disease.

 This is where end times fanaticism gets ironic enough for an Alanis Morissette song.

 If we believe the world is getting progressively worse until the end comes, we will be a people who start behaving that way. If we start behaving that way, we’ll stop investing into long-term multi-generational ways to improve society. If we stop investing into the future and capitulate to our own crappy theology, well…

We might see our belief come true.

We might see Climate Change creep in and begin to destroy our planet.

We might shrug our shoulders at the thought of melting icecaps, drowning polar bears, and decimated ecosystems- chalking it up to some liberal hoax.

If we believe that more war is necessary before Jesus returns, we might just be a people who- at best- welcome war, and at worst, become gleeful and bloodthirsty with every skirmish in the middle east.

If we believe society will move in the path of deterioration instead of wholeness, we might find ourselves acting like separatists, arming our homes like they are military compounds, and disengaging from culture at large.

If we believe that the end is near, well… we might just start acting like it.

This is why end-times theology is so dangerous- it creates underlying belief systems that are contrary to what Jesus teaches us in scripture, and we begin acting upon them instead of following Jesus.

Our forefathers created a mess with this theology, and many of them got rich from peddling it.

We need to return people to the beautiful, hopeful message of Jesus.

We need to be investing in the future as if there is a tomorrow.

We need to be caring for creation as if it were God’s original mandate to humanity (news flash: it was).

We need to work tirelessly as peace makers, believing that we can actually move closer and closer to that realization.

This false theology has hindered the Jesus Revolution in the same way that our false beliefs about ourselves hinder our daily relationships.

It’s time to let go of the pessimism, and embrace an optimistic God.

If we don’t, we just might usher in the end of civilization.

And wouldn’t that be more ironic than anything Alanis sang about?

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September 3, 2013

Screen Shot 2013-09-03 at 11.13.08 AMWhile I broke with fundamentalist religion somewhere around 2007, I still struggle.

As any therapist will tell you, old mental habits take a long time to break.

I’ve been reflecting on this lately during some sleepless hours, and have come to accept something: I still believe that God hates me.

I don’t know why. Intellectually, I reject the notion- but I think emotionally I’ve never fully been freed from it.

I’ve always seen Jesus as being good, loving and accepting… but God? My inner concept of God still sees him as an all-powerful being that is infinite at everything- including being pissed off.

I get that Jesus and God are harmoniously alike, but it sure doesn’t seem that way. Even looking at the cross under old paradigms of thinking, I still see a Jesus who is dying to protect me from his angry dad- letting dad beat him mercilessly so that I can run out of the room to safety.

I’m realizing that this paradigm of thinking doesn’t work for me anymore, and that it’s internal blasphemy against a loving God. It’s caused me to actually want to run from God, because who wants to run towards someone who hates you with every fiber of their being?

What’s even worse, it causes me to see every negative thing that happens in life as being from God- instead of the good things.

I remember when we first realized we were losing our daughter– the situation quickly disintegrated, and we knew that loss was probably inevitable.

Nevermind the fact that we were actually doing what God calls “pure religion” (caring for widows and orphans), the most begging thought that plagued us was: Have we done something to make God angry with us?

Did I not try hard enough?

Did I have a lustful thought that caused God to decide to punish me with the loss of a child?

Did I… did I… did I….

It’s so effed up. This whole line of thinking… there’s no other way to describe it than…

Broken.

It’s broken thinking.

Yet, it’s broken thinking that most days, my heart still can’t over come. I lay awake at 4:00 am frequently wrestling with this, because I feel like a horrible hypocrite.

Here I am, trying to be a voice to the masses- telling them that God is way better than they ever imagined… that he looks like Jesus, the nonviolent lover of enemies… that he isn’t mad at you, but instead has mad love for you…

But I don’t always feel this way in my own life. I still too often feel as if God hates me, and when something bad happens in life, I immediately assume that he’s punishing me.

I want to repent of this broken thinking.

When it comes to the God who hates me, I want to be an atheist.

photoI’ve heard folks like Ray Comfort say the problem is that not enough people are scared of God. I’ve listened to Mark Driscoll’s (if we were superheroes, he’d be my arch nemesis) sermon “God Hates You” (which I think was recorded at Westboro), and my fair share of hell fire preaching. And, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t that people don’t fear God anymore.

The problem is that that too many do.

Too many people have been painted a picture of God that looks more like a jealous boyfriend in a drunken rage than the peaceful, inclusive Rabi who said “if you’re tired and burnt out, come hang with me- because my way is light and not burdensome”.

As a result, our concept of God internalizes into all sorts of other broken thinking, and leads us to see everything bad that happens in life as being a divine punishment from God.

Over time, we actually start to believe that God hates us. The concept gets rooted so deep, that even when we mentally reject it, our “emotional memory” still uses it as a go-to hermeneutic for understanding life events.

I’ve been in relationships before where I couldn’t do anything right and was chronically reminded of my own shortcomings. Unfortunately, these situations don’t often cause us to become better- instead, we eventually start to believe that we’re just as bad as other people think we are.

I can’t have this kind of relationship with God anymore.

I hope that you can’t either.

westboro_baptist_churchLet’s repent together, and stop thinking that God hates us.

Cause honestly, I don’t need anymore enemies (you should see my in-box).

I need friends.

Friends who will stick it out with me, no matter what. Friends who will receive me and just love me- for who I am, and nothing more.

Let’s remind ourselves so often that we are fully and completely loved, that the emotional memory eventually switches from hate to love.

I’m realizing that will take time, but I’m committed to the process… because I can’t bear another moment alone in a room with me and this angry god who hates everything about me.

Thankfully, I’m half way there- because my mind no longer believes in this god.

My mind acknowledges that the real God, looks exactly like Jesus- and that his final words were words of forgiveness… not rejection.

Instead of the god who hates me, I’m trying to embrace the God who would like to have a beer with me sometime.

Let’s keep pressing on together. I know so many of you wrestle with this same thing- I hear it in your letters to me on a daily basis, and I’m committed to walking this journey with you.

As together, we trade anger for an embrace of the divine.

We trade hate for love,

and acceptance instead of rejection.

The god who hates us?

Let’s be a circle of friends who quit believing in him, together.

(take it away, Edie…)

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July 18, 2013

img_money_pocketI don’t know about you, but one of my favorite moments in life is when I put on an old jacket or an old pair of pants, reach into my pocket, and find money I didn’t know I had. It doesn’t matter if it’s a couple bucks, or $20; when you discover something of value that you didn’t realize has been there all along, it’s a great feeling.

 When I was at seminary, learning biblical Greek and how to navigate such a nuanced, yet precise language, it was a process that made me want to pull my hair out. For hours and hours each week over a period of nearly two years, I memorized verb endings, Greek verbal aspect, and vocabulary… the process was something I utterly despised. In hindsight however, attaining an ability to navigate the language and explore the fullness of the semantic range became a window that changed my entire understanding and appreciation for scripture.

Today, some of my favorite moments are when I discover the failure of English to fully express what biblical authors are actually saying. When I stumble upon these words or phrases, it’s like reaching into your pocket and finding out that what you are holding is far more valuable and exciting than you previously realized. This week was one of those weeks when I realized that I had completely missed a valuable linguistic nugget tucked away on the pages of the New Testament. One that properly understood, completely changes our conceptual understanding of what it means to obey the biblical command to show hospitality.

God’s desire that we show others hospitality is a common theme in scripture; in the Old Testament showing hospitality was a cultural norm, much as it is today in shame & honor cultures. The New Testament frequently expresses its central importance as well. However, what does it actually mean to show hospitality? This is where things really get interesting: in English, we typically understand hospitality as a willingness to host, feed, and entertain a guest… something we all do, and especially do this with our personal friends. However, what if the biblical term has a much deeper (and more difficult) meaning?

This is the problem we run into when we read the Bible in English and assume we understand what it’s saying… often, we don’t- or at least we don’t understand it fully. Trying to translate between languages is tricky like that, and the concept of “hospitality” is a prime example of what is missed between one language and another.

RubilevTrinityBased on our English definition, most everyone would consider themselves hospitable. But are we really?

The Greek term that is often translated into the English term “hospitality” is the word φιλόξενος. The word is a combination of two concepts, that break down as follows:

φιλό (pronounced Philao) is one of several words for “love” in Greek. Being a more precise language than English, classical Greek has a few different ways to express the word “love”. In this case, the word that is used means “brotherly love” or “to love like a brother”, and is how we get the name Philadelphia- the City of Brotherly Love.

The word ξενος (Xenos) which makes up the second half of the word we render “hospitality” actually means “stranger” or “immigrant”, and is where we get the word xenophobia which is the fear of strangers/immigrants.

In light of these two words being combined, hospitality as commonly understood, isn’t exactly the best way to express this biblical truth. Instead of simply “entertaining guests” the word becomes “one who loves strangers/immigrants like you would your own brother”. That’s a big difference, and completely changes the way we see this term used in scripture. For example:

In Romans 13 we are told to “practice hospitality”. Whereas a simple reading with a prima facie understanding of the English term would lead us to think we should practice hosting our friends for dinner, we instead see that we are to practice (go out of your way to do it) loving strangers and immigrants as if they were our siblings.

In 1 Timothy 5, we see that widows who received financial support from the early church, needed to have a reputation of loving strangers and immigrants like they were her own siblings.

In both Titus and 1 Timothy, we are told that Elders (church leaders) must be people who are known to love strangers and immigrants as if they are their own siblings.

The word appears over and over again throughout the New Testament, which insist that one of the hallmarks of a Jesus follower is a radical love for immigrants– the same way we would love our own brothers or sisters. This would mean that we don’t withhold from immigrants (legal or undocumented), that we don’t allow them to go homeless, hungry, that we refuse to call them names (something I wrote about for Sojourners that you can find here), and that we actually practice going out of our way to take care of them.

It means that when we pass a stranger on the street, we smile and say “hello” instead of nonchalantly looking at our iPhone and pretending we didn’t actually see them.

It means when we’re at the cash register and have our order messed up by the nameless employee, we show patience and kindness instead of impatience and harsh words.

It means when that guy in the car in front of us cuts us off, we pray a prayer of blessing for that person instead of flipping them off.

These are the things the Bible is talking about when we are told over, and over, and over again, to show hospitality- brotherly love for strangers and immigrants.

Are we actually doing these things, or are we simply having friends over for dinner and calling ourselves good?

But wait, it gets worse:

 Within the semantic range and historical uses of ξενος, we find that it didn’t simply mean stranger or immigrant. Historically, this word has a dual usage that includes “enemy” since some cultures used the same word to refer to both groups. In addition, “strangers” were often seen or assumed to be enemies, giving the word strong connotations of stranger, immigrant and enemy.

So then, in this case the word “hospitality” becomes “one who loves their enemies in the same way they love their brother“… ouch!

Grasping the depths of the flavor of ξενος, we see the New Testament epistles re-affirming the teachings of Jesus in regards to loving our enemies, especially in refraining from violence toward our enemies.

Which one of us would let our brother go hungry? Which one of us would let our brother go homeless? Which one of us would be willing to kill our brother for any reason?

Probably not many, I hope. Both Jesus and Paul say that this is the same way we are to love our enemies: in the same exact way that we would love our own brother or sister.

Hard truth. Inconvenient truth. Truth that’s difficult to follow, even for me.

However, it’s like finding a couple of dollars in your pocket that you didn’t know you had… because Christlike, biblical hospitality is far more beautiful and radical than I had ever imagined.

Blessing instead of cursing.

Love instead of hate.

It’s beautiful. Radical.

This is hospitality.

I hope that you’ll consider the ways in which you do, or perhaps don’t show brotherly love to immigrants, strangers, and enemies. We must remember, whether it is an immigrant, a stranger on the sidewalk, or an enemy who wants to destroy us– these are human beings with unsurpassed worth, so valuable that Jesus gave his life for them. Our job is simply to affirm their worth, and love them like family.

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July 16, 2013

misfit-toys2

Do you ever feel like a character from Rudolph’s Island of Misfit Toys? Feel like an outsider who often finds yourself living on the margins, chronically misunderstood by all the other toys who aren’t on Misfit Island?

Me too.

A lot of the time, I feel like a Jack-In-The-Box named “Charlie”:

It strikes me that central to the human condition is a need/desire to be part of a tribe, to be included, and to be valued for your own uniqueness. As I look back, I can see that through each of the chapters I’ve experienced I have consistently sought feelings of belonging, acceptance, and identity. I’ve always wanted to be part of the tribe.

But, more times than not, I’ve looked to my left and to my right only to realize that I’ve typically found myself pushed to the margins.

Not quite in. Not quite out. Sort of a “no mans land”. The harder I worked to feel “in”, the more I realized I was “out”. Which, only exacerbated the unquenched longings of the soul for someone who doesn’t realize they are a misfit toy in the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps the most freeing moment of my life, was standing in front of the mirror and finally seeing the reality that I’m a jack-in-the-box named Charlie… and that the sooner I quit wishing my name were Jack, the quicker I stopped pretending my name were Jack… the sooner I could get busy figuring out what being a kingdom person is all about.

As I’ve continued to walk this road, I’ve discovered some truths which not only make being a misfit toy in the Kingdom of God more bearable, but actually beautiful and encouraging. I have discovered that people who understand they are misfit toys are Jesus’ favorite kind of people.

The twelve disciples? Misfit toys that included tax collectors who betrayed their own people and violent terrorists (zealots) against the state.

The people Jesus hung out with? Misfit toys that included prostitutes and drunks. In fact, these people were the friends he seemed to hang out with and shared meals with the most… so much so, that he was accused of being a glutton and drunkard.

The people who were fascinated with Jesus and followed him around for the right reasons? It wasn’t those religiously superior, but the misfit toys… a woman who hadn’t left her house in years because she was considered unclean and a cast-off of society, a short tax collector who wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus so badly, he climbed a tree, a member of the religious elite who realized he was a misfit toy and sneaked out to see Jesus in the night, a prostitute who poured an expensive bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet which infuriated the disciples… Jesus loved spending time with misfit toys.

On Saturday afternoon I had to take my daughter’s bike in to have a new tire put on it. The gentleman who helped us was a very interesting person: a one handed bicycle assembler who said he had the “best job ever”. Noticing his thin body, gray hair, missing fingers on his right hand and the absence of a good portion of his teeth, I realized he was someone that many would just pass by. And, I’m sure they do– one of the things he told me as we chatted for a while was “I love this job because they leave me alone”. Yet for some reason, I found him to be a deeply compelling person and inexplicably craved to sit and visit with him… so, I pulled up a chair, and asked him his story. As we talked, and as he completely refurbished a bike tire with one hand, the thought struck me that this is what Jesus felt like sometimes. He just liked hanging out with the misfits, the forgotten, the overlooked… the one handed bicycle assemblers. I must had listened to 10 sermons online that week, and did countless passage studies in Greek, but I felt closer to the heart of Jesus as I listened to his story than I had in a long time.

Society and the religious ruling class have always despised misfit toys… as the saying goes, there’s “nothing new under heaven”. But Jesus? He loved them. He spent all his time with them. He received them and didn’t condemn them… in fact, one of the last times Jesus went to church, he told the conservative religious leaders that “the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of Heaven before you!”

 A crazy claim, both then and now.

How is it that misfit toys discover and embrace life in the Kingdom of God before the religious elite? I think it’s for three reasons:

1. Misfit toys know we are misfit toys… we’re already aware we are outsiders and don’t need a lot of convincing.

We already know we’re outsiders; we’ve already processed the grief of exclusion and have learned to be at peace with it. However, being at peace with being an outsider at the margins has better prepared us to accept the invitation to follow Jesus- misfit toys wait and wait to be invited into the party, to be included and embraced, and when Jesus extends such an invitation, they naturally respond to the offer they always wanted.

Religious elite, on the other hand, are lulled into an intoxicated religious state which causes them to completely miss the invitation, and completely miss their need to accept it.Parable of the Banquet

One day, Jesus was having lunch at the house of a religious conservative. While they were eating, Jesus expressed to him this very truth when he told him a story about a man who threw a big party. In the story, the host of the party sent out a bunch of invitations to all the people he thought were his friends, but none of them showed up to the party. Instead, the man rescinded his invitation to friends, and instead went out into the alleys and streets, inviting in the “poor, crippled, blind, and lame”, who all responded to the invitation, and came to the party.

The people you thought would be in, were out- and the people you thought would be out, were in. This is because misfit toys are primed and ready to be a part of the Kingdom of God, and are often first to accept the invitation.

2. Misfit toys tend grasp the message of Jesus easier than the religious elite.

As St. Paul wrote:

“Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.”

But why is it that misfit toys seem to grasp the depths of the Jesus message more naturally than the religious elites? I contend that while the highly religious tend to latch onto the “eternal salvation” concept of the message of Jesus, it is the misfits who realize the “good news” gets even better than that.

Misfit ToysReligious elites? They’re typically “all set” in the here-and-now, reducing Jesus to a figure who will one day save us from hell. But misfits? Misfits are driven by a deeper need: they don’t just need a Jesus who can save them later… misfits want a Jesus who can save them right now. Misfits long, not for the status quo, but for a richer and fuller experience today– they are dissatisfied in a very healthy way, and crave the “abundant life” Jesus promised in John 10:10. Others? Well, many of them don’t realize they’re actually missing the party.

Unfortunately in the West, the concept of the Kingdom of God isn’t taught very much- or very well. Instead, Christianity has often been reduced to an individualistic transaction which will benefit someone after they die- thinking that “eternal life” is a term referring only to an event in the future, when in reality it is always used in the present tense. We are able to enter into, and experience eternal life right here and right now. We are able to bless the world with a little more heaven, or curse it with a little more hell, right here and right now.

Misfit toys get this- we want not only a Jesus who can help us later; we want a Jesus who can help us right now. We want to experience the Kingdom of God right here, and right now… touches of heaven, right here and right now… and this unquenchable thirst drives us to discover that Jesus offers exactly that.

3. Misfit toys have less to lose when joining the Kingdom.

The way of Jesus isn’t popular, and the Kingdom of God he inaugurated is so radically different than the accepted ways of this world, that actually living like Jesus and embracing the ways of the Kingdom of God, will include an element of loss.

The way of Jesus and the ways of the Kingdom of God, aren’t popular to the world because they are completely upside down to everything that culture teaches us. Instead of a Kingdom that favors the rich and powerful, this is a Kingdom that invites in the poor, blind, crippled and lame– a Kingdom which doesn’t say the greatest is the most powerful, or the most served, but rather claims the greatest to be the one who is most busy doing the serving. The last, is the greatest. The least, is the greatest.

Living by these principles, isn’t a ticket to popularity. It might even make you unpopular within your own particular Christian tribe- because just as the world doesn’t look very much like Jesus, the Church doesn’t always look like him either.

If you try to live your life in a way that looks like Jesus, you WILL be a misfit toy.

Speaking up for the poor? Not always popular.

Speaking up for the rights of the marginalized? Not always popular.

Speaking up for immigrants? Not always popular.

Radical nonviolent love of enemies? Not always popular.

Calling the Church to repent of corporate sins? Not just unpopular–  this literally and figuratively could be the kiss of death.

The more I think of it, the more I realize that Jesus was the first Misfit Toy in the Kingdom of God, because he looked totally different than anyone who ever lived. And, if you decide to follow him by living a life that looks like him, you’ll surely be a misfit toy as well.

Being a Misfit Toy in the Kingdom of God won’t earn you a lot of popularity, anywhere.

Like Jesus, it might even get you killed.

But I promise, being a Misfit Toy in the Kingdom of God is the place to be. It’s where you’ll find peace; it’s where you’ll find an abundant life that is different from anything you could experience anywhere else.

In time you might even discover that you’re content to forever be, a jack-in-the-box named Charlie.

 charlie in the box

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July 11, 2013

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The other night, a friend from our adoption small group posted a link on Facebook that practically gave my wife and I palpitations. The link was to the “Head Covering Movement”, which is a new Christian Fundamentalist movement attempting to stave off the movement of gender equality within Christianity.

Instead of sticking to traditional fundamentalist methods of persuasion by force and shaming within their own congregations, this movement is beginning to utilize the full-force of modern media with a relatively well-made website, Facebook account, twitter handle, and YouTube channel.

The “Head Covering Movement” (yes, it’s a real movement) is calling for all Christian women to return to the ancient practice of covering their heads during worship, calling this a “neglected doctrine”. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be your ordinary rogue movement as they are able to boast of the theological support of popular teacher R.C Sproul on their front page. Sproul states:

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…”

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Which is where we see what this is really about: a growing number of fundamentalists are concerned that perhaps, women are beginning to be accepted as somehow co-equal (some Trinitarian lingo for you) to men. Gender equality, especially gender equality in church, presents a threat to male dominated power and control… and well, we certainly can’t have that, can we?

Just think of the madness that would occur if we started letting women serve in roles commensurate with their calling, talents, and gifting. All hell would break loose. Before you know it they might even want to start having a voice in their home finances, have a career of their own, or actually teach adult Sunday School instead of being relegated to the nursery. There’s no telling what could happen.

Best way to swash the movement in some churches? Bring back archaic practices that re-enforce the notion that they are inferior to men, and remind them of their inferiority every time they step into church by forcing them to dress differently than the men.

Brilliant idea. Although, deeply, deeply broken (a subtle Steve McCoy reference).

Besides the obvious motivation to combat the impacts of gender equality, this movement is deeply flawed theologically- making some of the same critical mistakes so many people do when reading scripture. Here’s where they missed the boat:

First, the head covering movement presupposes that all of the Pauline letters were written as “open letters”, as if they were addressed:

“To All Christians: both now, and in generations to come, this letter is for you- a blanket decree for all cultures”

This, simply isn’t the case. All of the epistles in the New Testament were written by a specific author to a specific audience. The primary meaning of the text is what it meant to them. However, aspects of American culture which tell us “it’s all about me” have blended into our way of reading scripture in such a way that we approach the text as if it were written directly to us- in our time, in our culture. To read scripture in this way, misses the depth and beauty of it, and makes idolatrous use of the text by placing “me” at the center.

timthumbIf you read the text from an American mindset without doing any historical exegesis, you end up with crappy theology. Not just crappy theology, but crappy theology which subjugates women.

However, if we stop placing ourselves at the center of the text and dig a little deeper, we discover that this passage commanding head covering might have actually been practical and pro-woman in the original context.

While there are certainly scholars on opposite ends of the spectrum, I have found the most compelling historical exegesis to be the following:

The culture Paul was speaking into, hair and head coverings had massively different connotations than in our current culture almost 2,000 years later. In this culture, a woman’s hair was a sexual symbol with links to pagan beliefs on fertility. Covering one’s hair would have been seen as a sign of self-respect and modesty, as one was modestly covering a part of their body that had sexual connotations. Additionally, some scholars argue that the only women in this culture who didn’t cover their heads were prostitutes, or slaves.

 In light of historical and cultural considerations, we could conclude:

Head covering helped people focus in church on what mattered, instead of getting distracted- a theme Paul takes on several times in the NT and fits nicely within a proper understanding of Pauline theology. If hair really was a compelling sexual symbol, as some have argued it was, covering it in church would make as much sense as asking women not to show up to church today topless. In this regard, it becomes completely reasonable and practical- I would have a hard time paying attention in church if I looked across the room to see everyone topless. What appears to be a verse that subjugates women may be as simple as a rule that, 2,000 years ago, made having a corporate worship service practical without distractions.

Additionally, if not wearing a head covering was common among prostitutes, this verse becomes even more beautiful. Prostitutes, in all cultures, tend to be treated like subhuman, consumable products, instead of people. In that light, this verse becomes:

“Hey Ladies- you are wonderfully, and beautifully made. You are not a product, but a person. Please don’t even dress like a consumable product, because I don’t want anyone to treat you that way.”

This new movement, completely disregards any historical context to the Corinthians passage. As a result, this verse is being misapplied to a new cultural context in an abusive, demeaning way in an attempt to squash the modern gender-equality movement. All we need do is look to their own “testimonials” to see the type of mentality they are trying to create.

 Meet Melissa Walker, one of the movement’s happy converts.

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Unfortunately, by way of introduction, we see where the ethos of this movement is headed. Melissa’s self introduction is: “Hello, my name is Melissa. I am a help-meet to my wonderful husband Jason…”

Yes, her primary identity is “help-meet”. Other testimonials begin similar ways- their identity coming from their husbands and not their own selves.

I’m not knocking the idea of being a help-meet. My wife and I are partners in life, and I’m a help-meet to her, and she’s a help-meet to me. But I would be mortified if she were simply introduced as my “help-meet”, because she’s MORE than that. She’s a wonderful clinician, program manager, family manager, financial manager… she’s full of all kinds of wonderful qualities, abilities, and God-given gifting.

And, I’m sure Melissa is too. But we don’t see that from her introduction- because this movement is clearly aimed at beating back the tide of biblical gender-equality, and they’re willing to use whatever crappy theology will enable them to do it.

I’m sure my readers haven’t been duped by this new movement, but if you have- or know someone who has (please share this with them) as a reminder that:

You are wonderfully and beautifully made. You are nobody’s product, you are a person. You have unique talents, abilities, and God-given gifting– and I want you to go out there and use those talents and abilities to love the world.

Because that’s what Jesus would tell you.

________________

 

 

June 26, 2013

housatonic-railroad-train-wreck-crash

Do you suffer from church related trauma? This is a post for those who do, and those who don’t.

Maybe the extent of your church trauma is having to sit through stuff like this:

Or, maybe your church related trauma is a little more serious.

When we were dating, one of the things my wife used to say that infuriated me was “I don’t like Christians”.

“How can you not like Christians? That’s what you are, you’re a Christian!” I’d respond with total disgust.

She’d further infuriate me by reading authors I was convinced were influenced by Satan himself, and would frequently laugh and yell out “yes! That’s so true!” while reading books like Blue Like Jazz. I couldn’t figure out how she could both be a Christian yet also express such hostile feelings toward expressions of American Christianity. She wholeheartedly was on board with Jesus, but was a lot more rough around the edges when it came to church, and other Christians.

That didn’t make sense to me- Jesus, and his followers, seemed mutually exclusive. It simply wasn’t possible to adore one, and yet want to jab the other in the eye with a hot stick.

Or so I thought.

I was convinced that she was spiritually rebellious, and had a serious “heart issue” that she needed to repent of. But, the truth I couldn’t yet see was that she was wounded, guarded, and in a protective mode around other Christians because of traumatic religious experiences in her past- like having the demon of rebellion prayed out of her (which from my observation, clearly didn’t work).

After breaking up with her for six months because I felt we were spiritually incompatible (she recoiled in horror at the mere mention of the word “submit” which was more evidence of her lingering rebellious spirit), I came to finally realize that she didn’t have a sin issue after all… she just had Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.

Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, or PTCS for short, doesn’t appear in the DSM IV and I’m quite sure it won’t make the DSM V either, no matter how controversial the new manual will be. However, I am convinced that thousands of Americans have experienced some level of PTCS as a result of church related trauma.

What is PTCS? Well, it’s not an official illness, so there’s not an official definition. If I were to develop a working definition for the concept however, I would describe it as the “normal and natural reaction to church trauma of any kind.” Which really means, everyone’s trauma reaction looks differently. People with PTCS have in one way or another, been wounded by the very place they went to seek healing. These wounds, create an emotional barrier for a person to engage in church, create barriers for them to connect with God, and create barriers for people to develop authentic community with other followers of Jesus.

The push back I experienced from my wife around issues in American Christianity and church, were simply a result of previous church related trauma. They weren’t evidence of anything that was wrong with her, but were evidence of wrong things that were done to her.

Perhaps the strangest realization was that I had PTCS too; we simply expressed our wounds in different ways. Her reaction was fight, flight, or flee and my equally broken expression of trauma was more similar to concepts of abuser loyalty, where I worked to assimilate my thinking to that of the oppressor in hopes that one day I’d be good enough… that one day I’d be accepted… that one day I’d be included and embraced.

Same syndrome, different expressions. She was having the demon of rebellion prayed out of her at church while I was sitting in the office of the Dean of Men at Word of Life Bible Institute being accused of practicing witchcraft on campus, because I was “rebellious” and “rebellion is the same as witchcraft“.

Ironically, neither one of us were actually rebellious, we were just individuals with inquisitive minds who questioned things… and let’s just say, that’s sorta frowned upon in fundamentalist circles.

Church trauma runs deep, because it cuts into our identity. When we want to be “good”, when we legitimately want to do the right thing and when we deeply want to be authentic Jesus followers, and someone tries to show us that we’re not very good at it, it messes with our concept of self.

Given enough experiential trauma or even one serious incident, people walk away. They get discouraged, depressed, and hurt, and they walk away.

Sometimes, they appear to walk away from Jesus entirely- which only encourages people to “lovingly” point out all over again that they suck at being a Christian (which, those of us who embrace authenticity, already know). However, usually the case isn’t at all that they’ve walked way from Jesus- it’s simply that they’ve just walked away from the organization associated with the people who have harmed them. People who have walked away because of church trauma will often externally appear resentful or even hostile toward anything that feels too “religious” to them, while internally they still want to follow Jesus and long to connect with God in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Church, ironically, becomes the barrier when in reality it should be the gateway.

So, if this describes you– if you’re someone who’s been wounded by people in church to such a degree that you’ve walked away, please know that my heart is with you. I have been there, and I completely get it. I took years off from church because I was so turned off and so wounded by previous experiences. Ironically, when I finally took a risk and went to church one Sunday, the sermon was titled “Why Mother Teresa is in Hell Today”. Lets just say, I took another church vacation…

I get why walking away seems to make sense. But, I also know that walking away entirely doesn’t solve the problem. The path of Jesus was never one intended to be walked in isolation, but rather is one intended to be walked in the context of community– messy, bumpy, community. Sometimes it’s your lifeblood, and other times it’s a blood-sucker- but the alternative of isolation doesn’t look much better.

If you have church related trauma, let me encourage you in two ways:

1. While it is good and healthy to shed off all of the nonsense American Christian Culture often associates with Jesus, please don’t throw the baby Jesus out with the Church’s dirty bathwater. It’s easy to do, and often understandable. However, please know that the people who have hurt you did not actually represent the real Jesus. The real Jesus is loving beyond belief and preferred to spend his time with drunks, prostitutes, and tax collectors instead of people in church. He is patient and kind; he has reconciled you through the cross and is not holding your sin against you. Jesus is sooo different than what you have experienced.

In fact, Jesus reserved his harshest words for religious people who hurt and oppressed others in the name of God. It actually got him killed.

2. Please, consider giving a faith community another chance. Understand that as long as the Church is made up of broken people like you and me, we’re going to hurt each other. That doesn’t make it okay, and doesn’t mean we have to allow ourselves to be mistreated and abused, but it also doesn’t mean that we should walk away completely. Be willing to give things another chance, and seek out a loving Christian community. I’m not saying it is always easy to find- but I do know this: once you find one that is truly loving and understands the importance of community, it will be a life-giving experience. You may even see past wounds slowly closing and healing until there’s just a scar. That’s where I am at, and ironically, it was only through a re-engagement of a faith community that I found my deepest levels of healing.

3. Consider forgiving those who have hurt you. We often misunderstand forgiveness, thinking that it is an endorsement of the harmful behavior. In reality, forgiveness exists for the benefit of the one wounded, not the one who did the wounding. Forgiveness means you are unwilling to carry the heavy bag of resentment someone else put on your shoulders. Forgiveness flings it off, and helps your walk become a little easier.

If everything I’ve said until this point sounds like nonsense, great! That means you probably don’t have PTCS or church related trauma. I don’t expect you to understand it, but you do need to know the following:

Know that a miracle happens at your church each week, one that you simply don’t see. There are people sitting next to you who are only sitting in church because it’s an absolute miracle they are there. They have been so deeply wounded in their past, often in the name and representation of God, that it would be understandable if they never sat beneath a steeple again. These people have pushed beyond the hurt, beyond the fear, beyond the anxiety, so that they could have an opportunity to connect to God in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Their presence in the seat beside you, in front of you, or behind you is nothing short of a miracle. Which means…

You have the opportunity to partner with Jesus to be a part of their healing process.

You have the opportunity to help remove the barriers that others have placed between them and God.

Or, you can mess them up even worse. Your choice.

 Your judgement, gossip, and conditional love will further traumatize them to such a degree that it may result in them walking away completely. Or, your unconditional love, friendship and support can be the tool Jesus uses to bring radical healing in their life. Jesus weighed in on this issue many times. Perhaps the most dramatically was the cleansing of the temple, when he threw the moneychangers out. The system of money exchange, buying and selling, had created barriers to people being able to connect with God. These man made dams between humanity and the living water that flows from God, infuriated him. As a result, Jesus went to great lengths to remove these barriers between people, and God.

Church related trauma is a barrier between individuals, and the fulness of life Jesus promised in John 10.

We are called to remove these barriers at all cost. We are called to kick the tables over, to love our neighbors in the pew next to us, and to be agents of reconciliation for their healing.

So, please- if you’ve been wounded, don’t give up and walk away. There is hope and healing in continuing to press forward in pursuit of the Jesus who is better than you ever imagined.

Finally, if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced church related trauma, please remember the words of Jesus, and take them seriously:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” – Matthew 5:9

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