What is true?

May 14, 2009

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what is true.

After all, quite a few gospels are floating around out there, either teaching people about the life and ministry of Jesus or substituting the cross for a message of comfort and health. These two gospels are poles on a continuum. All sorts of doctrines and dogmas make up the gradations in between.

I don’t claim to have the answer—the true Gospel.

I’m still making my way with the help of the Spirit, the Scriptures, the Church, and the cloud of witnesses who surround me with their writings, conversations, and physical presence in my life.

From what I can tell, faith is made up of both propositional truths and a narrative that draws us in. What I mean is that to walk the narrow way, we must tread certain flagstones. For example, if you don’t believe that Jesus was a real flesh-and-blood man who lived, died, was resurrected, and now sits at the Father’s right hand, then looking to Jesus to help you make sense of human existence doesn’t make much sense. He was either a liar, a lunatic, or God’s son. Let’s say for a moment that he wasn’t God’s only son. Why would you study his teachings? Talk about delusions of grandeur! Who makes that kind of claim? A crazy person.

I believe that Jesus of Nazareth lived in 1st-century Palestine, and I believe that he is alive right now. He told his followers a love story about the Creator and his creation. He told this story with stories. His parables and sermons were often elliptical. He rarely told his audiences, “Here’s exactly what you are supposed to do to be holy.” Rather, he invited his apostles and disciples to walk with him, live with him, and watch what he did. By watching him, they would know how to live. He didn’t give them a new law to replace the old law. He fulfilled Mosaic law, and in that fulfillment, he gave them freedom from it. He still asked them to keep the Ten Commandments, but he covered them with grace, so that they were no longer guilty before God for their failures and trespasses.

Jesus invites us into a story. We give intellectual assent to certain truths—“Jesus is God’s son”—and we follow him on the Way.

To make a subtle drift into feeling justified by what we believe is easy. Of course, we fail to realize what we are doing. No man says to himself, “I am in good standing before God because I give my assent to these propositional truths found in Scripture.” No, we express this self-righteousness—believing we are saved because we say yes to the right doctrines and follow through with the right checklist of good behaviors—when we sit in judgment on other Christians who have different beliefs, who clutch to their chests a different sheaf of papers. On these papers are written their interpretations of what scripture says about the roles that women can and cannot fulfill in corporate worship or the exegesis of passages concerning baptism—Is water baptism a salvific act? Do people need full immersion or will sprinkling suffice?—or the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality and abortion. Christians cannot even agree which are the foundational doctrines of our faith and which are of secondary importance!

We can also err in thinking that what we believe doesn’t matter so long as we remember that God loves us. His grace is sufficient, right? I sense a trend in my generation—the twenty somethings—in particular: lots of young Christians who have only a cursory knowledge of scripture. They don’t know the classic statements of Christianity, such as the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. They are passionate about social justice but are liable to embrace the latest cause and proclaim the latest buzz book and its thesis as their newest manifesto. Jesus is cool and relevant. Let’s get caught up in his story and change the world. We are blown about by our passion and our feelings: ”Jesus, we will follow you to the death, but we’re unsure of what you actually said. Jesus, I love you so much that I’ll sleep around, dabble in illegal drugs, accept no responsibility, and submit to no one.”

These two camps, the proposition and narrative camps, face one another across the battlefields of theology and church.

I don’t have the answers. I just assume that my knowledge of God will always be incomplete. My understanding of scripture will always be skewed by the culture in which I am immersed and the pain that I have endured. My faith and theology will always be imperfect.

Propositional and narrative theology advocates need one another.None of us has all the answers. Claiming to have the “right” theology is like claiming you’ve got God preserved in a jar of formaldehyde: “Look here and observe all the characteristics of the Creator God.”

A God who often defines himself as Mystery won’t capitulate to such treatment on the part of his earthen vessels. We depend on him to teach us about Himself, and He will often smash the jars of our old assumptions and misconceptions without replacing them with new jars for capturing him. Romans 12:2 says that we will be transformed by the renewing of your minds. I pick up trash along the way, and God must clean out my mind again and again. He must cleanse and renew my beliefs in and posture towards Him again and again.

Young people, share your passion and ruthless trust and radical hospitality with the old guard. Mature people, share your experiences and long commitments and obedience with the younger crowd. We need each other, and even more, we need God to open our eyes to the planks in them and to reconcile and unify the different, and necessary, parts of the Body, the church universal.

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Peace is proactive

April 9, 2009

Scripture is full of our agency, our walking and working.

God does not call us to idleness or to frenetic activity. He says both, “Be still and know that I am God,” and “For we are God’s fellow works.”

What does that look like—grace in action, activated grace?

Paul talks less about specific vocations or schedules and more about the fruits of the Spirit, which are our fuel and our destination.

Paul writes that humility, gentleness, and loving patience put the right swing in our gaits. We do not walk too fast or with an inflated sense of self-importance. We are not too focused on our pace or what others say when we seem to slow down. In fact, we have to slow down to notice the countryside or a lonely person who could use a brief conversation and a smile.

Yet, we must walk with eagerness, with bright and peaceful urgency, because we open our arms to unity with the Spirit at every step. Christ walks with us, yet we also journey to meet him face to face. The Prince of Peace glues everything together; peace preserves the unity. You can’t be too concerned with winning arguments and sue for peace at the same time. You can’t make signs of peace with a closed fist. You cannot talk about Sarah’s unscrupulous boyfriend on Saturday night and greet him with a holy kiss in the sanctuary on Sunday morning.

Peace is proactive.

Fullness in Christ and the ability to speak truth in love that comes with maturity depend on how we walk, rather than how far we walk.

We build the kingdom of God through grace activated in humility, gentleness, loving patience, and peacemaking.

My junior year of college, I read Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, and one particular passage still haunts me: 

The truth was that Samantha didn’t want to go to Lourdes and I didn’t want to take her. Why not? I don’t know Samantha’s reasons, but I was afraid she might be cured. What then? Suppose you ask God for a miracle and God says yes, very well. How do you live the rest of your life? (374)

We pray to see God. We pray for signs, wonders, and miracles to confirm that He is real and sovereign. We ask for an experience like Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus—something dramatic and irrevocable.

Let the scales fall from our eyes, and let us witness resurrections and restore sight to the blind. Allow us to speak in the tongues of angels, to cast mountains into the sea, to walk through fire unscathed. Make us freaks of faith. Sear true belief into our souls.

Tom Moore, Walker Percy’s protagonist, knew us better than we know ourselves. He didn’t deceive himself. His daughter’s miraculous healing would destroy his complacency. He wasn’t ready, and he knew it. Consumed with fear of change, he avoided an encounter with the Living God.

Do I truly desire authenticity? Am I ready for the many forms of martyrdom that follow miracles?

Jesus will wreck my comfortable life even as he saves my soul. Do I want the risen Son of God or a fairy tale?

Am I willing to take my cross and watch suffering turn my life to ash or do I want the easy hell of lukewarm faith?

If I let Samantha die, I never have to change.

Easter Hallelujah

April 7, 2009

God the Father desires to forgive us.

He loves redemption and restoration. He looks for ways to withhold His righteous judgment, as evident in this passage from 2 Peter 3: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The story of Hosea illustrates that God’s love always precedes his wrath. 

He looks for ways to satisfy his holy wrath and set us free from bondage. In the death and resurrection of Jesus—in Easter and everything it represents—two facets of God’s character emerge.

Think of the seasons. Spring follows winter, rebirth follows death. Summer, harvest, and feasting follow rebirth. Though different, ice and snow and warm rain and sweat both bring cleansing.

God does not send his children out into the desert to die. He plans to call them back into his gardens better prepared to choose a life by his die.sunset

I also think of the cities of refuge in the Old Testament where fugitives could seek refuge. I think of fields left fallow so that the nutrients in the soil might replenish and the celebration of Jubilee every fifty years to forgive debts and redistribute wealth—to give everyone a clean start. 

God has woven into every process and practice of the natural world and Judeo-Christian culture ornate designs of death, cleansing, and rebirth. We will see baptism in every minute detail of our existence if God opens our eyes.

The prostitute Rahab is in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Moses killed an Egyptian in a fit of rage then led the Hebrews to the Promised Land. David seduced Bathsheba, had her husband Uriah, one of David’s Mighty Men, killed, and then conceived Solomon with her. Solomon built the temple. 

God redeems prostitutes, murderers, and adulterers. His power is most evident when he restores those people with the most rotten souls. Every one of us is “the worst of sinners,” and every one of us has hope. 

God can turn pedophiles, rapists, and cannibals into saints. He loves pornographers, pimps, and you.

Accepting Jesus is a lifelong confession of our sins, our bloody hands and our need of a sacrificial lamb and a joyful surrender to God’s ineffable love, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the sweet grace of an empty tomb.

Hallelujah.

ace of spades

March 19, 2009

Faith is peeling onions, layers beneath layers, questions beneath questions. 

Faith is a palimpsest where the old words are read with the new.  As soon as I formulate questions, lick the seal, and send them to God for a reply, I find myself in another season of waiting. Patience is also called “long suffering.”  Uncertainty condenses on the surface of my faith. The questions we ask make us who we are.

Why did melanoma kill my grandfather?

I want God to explain why cancer reduced this man’s body to grotesque angles under a white sheet. At the visitation, the line to look into the casket stretched across several rooms. Friends came out in droves to pay their respects.  I have never visited his grave since the burial. Why?

My family continues to make comparisons. They call me “Little Roger.” They point out the shape of my face, my lips and my gregariousness. They say people are drawn to me the way they were drawn to him.  Some shoes to fill.

Why take Roger Church, a man who did the things he said he would do? 

He might have helped me understand myself.  Where is he, Jesus?  Lazarus walked out of the tomb two thousand years ago. What has his blinking in the sun to do with me? Where is Roger Church? Paradise or Abraham’s Side? Purgatory or writhing in Hell?

That side of my family gets together less often now. I wish Jesus Christ would breathe my grandfather’s spirit back into his rotten body. People would scream, seeing an old man claw his way up from six feet under. Maybe he would hitch a ride down Thompson Lane to his house on Belmont Avenue. Would I believe in Jesus’ resurrection, his healings and his miracles, if I got a call on my cell phone from my grandfather?  Would I believe if I touched his hands across the old cribbage board we used?  If he handed me the deck of cards we buried with him? I still have the ace of spade I took out of the deck when no one was paying attention.

People tell me, the have told me my whole life, that I should imitate Jesus. Preachers toss abstract concepts and neat formulas out over the audience.  They travel back to Isaiah to fill in the Gospels’ gaps:

For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty That we should look upon Him, Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.¹

I believe Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, but I have questions. 

I need to know what Jesus would whisper in my ear if I were about to attack some pervert who touched my wife or my daughter.

I need to know what Jesus would think of voting, sex, and capitalism. Yes, when Lazarus died, Jesus called him back from death. I believe it. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He quoted Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”²  He made an immediate and physical impact on people’s lives. He gave people their health. He gave purpose to their souls. He returned their dignity. He restored them to their communities.

Can I raise men from the dead?

Lord, help me with my unbelief. I am a product of my environment. Perhaps no one I have ever known believed anyone in this day and age would be raised from the dead without defibulators or a blood transfusion. My younger sister and her boyfriend discovered one of the maintenance personnel, Zacharias Sbathu, dead in his truck. His family depended on him for their well-being. Our prayers did not raise him from the dead. Is it true? Is prayer powerful? Why didn’t it work? Zacharias worked two jobs for seventy or eighty hours a week to build a life for his family. Where was Jesus to raise this man from the dead?

Jesus wept. Jesus prayed: “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.”³

If I cannot raise people from the dead, what is the faithful response for a man of God when faced with death and violence?

 


¹ Isaiah 53:2-5 (NASV).

 

² Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2 (NASV).

³ John 11:41-42 (NASV).

an end to hurting

March 15, 2009

I am convinced that few people reject Christ after an arduous journey in search of truth.

Few people climb mountains of books, navigate oceans of conversation, endure storms of dogma, doctrine, and opinion. Few people put scripture, spiritual disciplines, and worshipping communities through the strainer of logic and meditation, lived experience and openhearted inquiry.

I am also convinced that most people who actually meet Jesus fall in love with him.

What happens to everybody else?

They get hurt. Rejecting Jesus has very little to do with dimissing Jesus as a lunatic and the Way he preached about as a fable created by a ragtag band of disappointed followers. Rejecting Jesus has everything to do with pain.

Plenty of folks will bring up genocide in the Old Testament, or the death of a child from a birth defect, or the historical inaccuracies, multiple authors, or discrepancies among biblical manuscripts.

You might meet a nonbeliever troubled by the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Salem Witch trials. He may ask, What about sex scandals in the Catholic priesthood or the greed of televangelists? What about hypocrisy and every injustice and atrocity carried out in the name of God?

If God loves us, why do we suffer?

Why does your God allow rape, molestation, slavery, starvation, disease, war, and avarice?

If you listen carefully when someone is building a case for God’s absence or nonexistence, you will hear him or her describe evil – human depravity.

Each person will say in her own way, “The world is not as it should be.”

Underneath all the arguments and counterpoints, you will discover other people’s pain. People want to know whether or not God cares about human suffering. They have been wounded by pastors and preachers, lovers and strangers, who claimed to carry the message of the gospel. They never meet Jesus because they must push through so many broken relationships to find him.

If you think you have something to share with nonbelievers, you first ask about their pain. You must then walk with them to Jesus. They are tired of apologetics. They want your heart and they want his. They want to believe there is an end to hurting.

Sweet freedom

March 13, 2009

When I was leaving my house this morning for work, I noticed a mockingbird in a skirmish with two bluejays. One of the bluejays gave up and flew away over the roof of the Church of God next door. The mockingbird and his other nemesis looped around and through the Blueberry Tree. They would both land as if to catch their breath before the mockingbird would lunge at the larger bluejay and they would begin their aerial combat all over again.

I’m unsure what kind of tree it was that was their battleground. My friend Caroline dubbed it the ”Blueberry Tree” simply because blue berries have begun to appear on the tips of its branches. Spring starts officially on March 21st, the Vernal Equinox.

Everywhere I see splashes of yellow, green, and pink. Delicate flower petals, new grass, and blossoms on the trees.

Rebirth.

We need it. Our moods are tied into the seasons. Sunlight keeps us healthy.

I wonder if the mockingbird feels it and responds in its own way—chasing the intruder around the block. That’s what was intriguing about the spectacle. The numbers were in favor of the bluejays, two to one. They are much larger than the mockingbird. Yet, he was routing them like a couple of amateurs.

He was bold. He was persistent. He was fearless.

He reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy:

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands, for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control. (2 Timothy 1.6-7)

Power and love and self-control. 

Maybe that’s where the metaphor breaks down. The mockingbird wasn’t loving on the bluejays. 

However, I still believe that we are the Blueberry Tree, the Spirit is the mockingbird, and the bluejays are anyone or anything that that tries to convince us that God is aloof, immobile, or impotent.

Again, I think of Paul:

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4.4)

Jesus did more than disarm the dark powers of this world. “He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2.15).

What does that mean for us?

Hope.

We were dead, but now we are alive. We move and breathe in sweet freedom.

We’d taken a road trip to Memphis to hear Guster play at the New Daisy Theater. Rebecca‘s parents offered to let us crash at their house. Driving back to Nashville on Sunday afternoon, I tried to catch up on some homework. My Faith & Fiction class with Dr. Matt Hearn and Dr. Gary Holloway was reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal.

The book is Nouwen’s long mediation on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name. The painting changed Nouwen’s life, and his meditation changed mine.

I’ve spent the better part of my life believing that I am a constant disappointment to God.

He gave his only son to save us, and I repay him by cheating on him, fooling around with other gods. I always imagined him sighing like the parent of a college flunkie:

“Son, your mother and I have made sacrifices so that you could get the best education possible. This is the third semester in a row that you have failed your classes, and frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’ve about had enough. We’re going to give you one more shot, but if you let us down again, you’re on your own. We’re pulling the plug. Do you understand?”

I felt like I was letting God down on the time. I tried and tried to do better, be more disciplined, keep a tight rein on my sins, but as Paul so eloquently explains sin at work within us in Romans 7: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Put simply, the Spirit used Nouwen’s warm, generous words to help me understand and experience my belovedness in God’s sight. He welcomes me into his heart. He tells me that I am worth the blood of Jesus. He calls me by name. He has been watching for me for months, and when he sees my familiar figure in the distance, He lays aside his dignity, picks up his robes like a skirt, and sprints for me. He embraces me, showers me with kisses. He pours out his extravagant love, and I am overwhelmed.

How can YHWH, the Creator God, the Alpha and the Omega, invite me to dine next to him at the wedding feast of the Lamb? When I slip through the door, believing that I am unclean and unwanted, He shouts, “Austin, come over here. I’ve saved you a seat.” He runs over, locks an arm around my shoulders, and introduces me to all the guests, “This is my adopted son, Austin. He is like no one else you will ever meet. He is one of a kind. I am so proud of him.”

The romantic poet William Blake, who is himself one of a kind, talked about bearing up under the ray’s of God’s love for us.

We will spend the rest of our lives learning to receive God’s love.

Nouwen sharing his heart was a turning point on that journey for me.

Riding in the back of that car on the way back to Nashville, I cried tears of joy, for God’s love is true. His love is Reality.

The parable in Luke 15 is really a story about a loving father. The gospel story of our loving father. Jesus is the way home. A phrase from the book put words to a vague ache I’ve felt for as long as I can remember: “the yearning for a final return, an unambiguous sense of safety, a lasting home.” We are all haunted by an existential homesickness. Whether we know it or not, we long to rest in God. He is our true home.

Nouwen understood this, and for that, I am thankful. I look forward to meeting him one day.

Introduction

While I was teaching at David Lipscomb High School, a close friend of mine from college was working as a barista in a Nashville coffeeshop.  Justin is good-looking, intelligent, and creative.  He made mostly As majoring in Communications, minoring in German, and earning quite a few credits in Missions classes.  Why would he be working a job with no potential for advancement?  Why would he be working in, ahem, the food industry? 

Well, because his gentleness, kindness, and true concern for others gave him special clothing of light in a dark corner of a dark industry. 

Yet, when people asked him what he was doing, what he’d been up to, his mention of Fido, the coffeeshop, was a conversation stopper.  Because he wasn’t embarking upon an illustrious career or going to graduate school, his education was somehow a waste.  He had missed the boat to a meaningful, respectable life.  Surely, he was lazy or immature; otherwise, why would he stay on at a dead-end job?  I don’t remember his feelings much pressure from his parents to “get a life”; they are extraordinarily supportive and open-minded, which is probably one of the reasons why Justin was contented to work somewhere he was needed, regardless of his job’s lack of prestige. 

I remember one conversation we had in which Justin expressed his frustration with people who, with a frown or dismissive, mouth-only smile, made him feel like a failure for earning a small income at a place he loved with co-workers who needed his love.  A light bulb went off in my brain:  We really don’t have to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wrote a short reflective piece called “Letting Go of the Desire to be Impressive.” I hope you enjoy it. 

Letting Go of the Desire to Be Impressive

Yesterday afternoon, which was a Sunday, I was buzzing on a double latte from the Frothy Monkey when I decided to shave my head.  We are in the middle of Lent right now.  I like the idea of a season that should be characterized by major changes and major sacrifices in our lives.  Do the people who have everything and do everything they want enjoy greater happiness than other people whose lives are more restricted by jobs and families and even bad health?  My good friend Aron Wright sings a song with a chorus that goes, “I guess some people get to do what they want…I guess some people get to do what they want…while we pay…while we pay.”  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I lead a pretty cushy life.  If I can afford to pay $1.65 for a small cup of coffee on Monday morning during my planning period, then I can’t have too much to complain about.

I was thinking about how I need a haircut.  I was also thinking about how I get tired of trying to look good or presentable or attractive, really just pouring energy into maintaining appearance.  Physical appearance.  Girls have it worse, I know, but that doesn’t mean guys don’t get sick of the expectations placed on them to be charming or smooth or powerful, any variety of stereotypical masculine characteristics we choose to build our facades.  I can’t speak for all the men I know, but I can speak for myself.  I say “facades” because most of the time my braggadocio, sarcasm, and striving to be funny are a cover-up. 

Most of the time, I feel like a wreck. I’m not saying I’m about to hyperventilate and have a nervous break-down. Guys get tired of jockeying for attention from girls.  Of dreading work and longing for vacations only to have them tainted by the dread of going home to the daily grind.  Of cultivating some degree of physical strength while knowing that our bodies will eventually weaken and finally fail.

I think we all get tired of looking like we have it all together.  Adjust your tie, fix your cuffs, put on your most convincing, fakest smile, and shake everybody’s hand.  “Oh yes, Bill, the golf game’s great.  Family’s great.  Business is great.”  But, Bill, let’s not talk about my daughter’s anorexia.  Or my wife’s depression.  My own struggle with pornography.  Let’s not talk about how tired you are because the burden of caring for your parents fell to you.  Let’s not talk about the rumors: you’re having an affair and your son has a drinking problem.”

I get so tired of having to be “impressive.”  Maybe I put this pressure on myself:  to make something of myself, to choose a career, to fulfill my potential.  Yes, God gave me certain talents and abilities.  People tell me they enjoy reading what I have written.  In the past, I have taken the compliment as a firebrand. 

It’s as if I am riding a horse at a comfortable trot, and somebody comes along and says I have a natural ability.  I am a good rider.  What do I do?  I put that firebrand to the flank of the horse, and off we go at a helter-skelter gallop.  I work so hard at trying to be brilliant at what I’m doing that the horse starts frothing at the mouth.  I’m killing the horse, I don’t notice the flowers’ perfume or the magnificent old trees on the edges of the pasture.  I don’t appreciate the sweetness of the breeze, the touch of the sun on my skin, or the immense power of the animal underneath me. 

I stop enjoying myself because I strive to earn a compliment that was given as a gift. 

Last night at a Spirituality Practice Group at Bongo Java, I realized how much I strive to earn grace.  Scott Owings, the Minister of Spiritual Formation at Otter Creek Church, has been leading us in some Ignatian Contemplation exercises, that is, St. Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuit order in the Roman Catholic Church.  St. Ignatius believed in the importance of “imagination” in the Christian disciplines.

This particular exercise involved imagining that an artist had sculpted my likeness for public exhibition.  The artist gave me a key and as much time as I wanted to examine the statue.  I imagined an old fashioned key with two teeth on it and a trefoil handle.  It let me into a room with hardwood floors.  Each step echoed in the dark.  In the middle, illuminated by light coming through the windows, was my statue.  I tugged the sheet, and it slipped to the floor.  I looked at the statue.  Exaggerated cheekbones; prominent, blade-like nose; deep eye sockets; a mouth opened and hard with effort.  I was naked above the waist and flinging a spear. I talked to the statue.  The statue talked to me.  Jesus came into the room and asked me why I was filled with so much rage, why I felt the need to take power for myself and use it.  “Why won’t you sit at my feet?”  

Why won’t we just sit at his feet? We can no more earn or lose his love than we can stop the sun from shining or change the tides. I’m learning to sit still and receive God’s love for me as the extravagant gift that it is.

 

Christians fall into two categories-those who relish talking about hell, wrath, and sin and those who beg one’s pardon for having any opinion whatsoever. We’ve probably all had experiences with the bible-thumping street-corner evangelist whose inflammatory rhetoric would make Jonathan Edwards proud—God dangles nonbeliever over an open fire like spiders on the end of an existential thread.

I was sitting on the outside patio at Urban Bar in the Old City one night, and watched as a thirty-something preacher screamed, “You are wicked!” at a group of young men. In response, one of the men hopped up on another, wrapped his legs around his waist, and the two started kissing to the applause of many passers-by and the indignation of the preacher.

Granted, I don’t believe offering one intentional offense for another opens up lines of conversation and moves both parties towards better understanding and deeper compassion, but what happened at night was a colorful example of what often happens in Western culture as a result of fire-and-brimstone tactics on the part of well-meaning Christians. They wouldn’t expose themselves to the type of harassment that the preacher did in his knee-length overcoat and tasteful tie if they didn’t believe they were making a contribution to the betterment of their communities. However, they can’t chalk it up to a costly faithfulness and taking up Jesus’ cross if nobody is listening and those people who do hear react with firepower of their own.

Too often it seems that a negative response, or even open hatred, convinces certain Christians that they are on the right track. They are being good disciples. Jesus came to bring a sword and division, right? A double-edged love? If it doesn’t make people angry then it’s not the gospel, right? Up to a point. The Pharisees certainly found Jesus difficult to stomach; they wanted him dead long before they succeeded in bringing off the charge of treason.

Yet, many other people, especially the dregs of first-century Palestine, flocked to Jesus like he was a cold beer on a muggy day. They listened to him preach then invited him to dinner, introduced him to their friends. They offered him gratitude and felt deep gladness.

Jesus did cause division in that his followers often became outcasts in their own families. More particularly, he polarized people along religious lines. Those religious fat cats who enjoyed positions of wealth, prestige, or power in the then status quo saw him as a threat to their long-established traditions and their status. They could lose their jobs if they let this nut from some podunk town in Galilee have his way.

Jesus always offended people who stood to gain from the religious cash cow, people whose livelihood often necessitated brushing aside the spirit of the law safeguarding humanity and dignity in favor of the law’s letter, rules and regulations they themselves generated and enforced. So, who are the contemporary Pharisees? Who continues to bring home a regular paycheck and maintain a good reputation if churches worry less about meeting people’s daily, concrete needs and more about tradition, propriety, or “the way things are”? Certainly not two gay men in the Old City.

I’ve heard most of the arguments suggesting that sermons on damnation are a kind of tough love. Rubbish. I have a hard time believing that Jesus’ idea of loving people included killing them, I find it hard to believe that loving them includes elaborate arguments about their filthiness and fiery future. People must ultimately make a decision about whether or not Jesus is who he says he is or was some charlatan with sensational genius and an acting troupe willing to die excruciating deaths so that the show could go on, enough to make Shakespeare envious.

How many people leave off destructive behaviors on account of the consequences anyway?

Life is a destructive behavior, and if human beings have been creative in anything, they’ve found myriad ways to hasten their own demise. From whiskey and cigarettes to automobiles and firearms, we’re really good a coming up with ways to kill ourselves.

Despite the research, statistics, and warning labels, cigarette companies make billions year after year. Don’t these people realize cigarettes are bad for them? Of course they do! And you know what, they don’t care!benandjerrys

That’s the funny thing about being human. Despite the size of our brains and our invention of opera and chewing gum, our “progress” has never taken out of us the tendency peculair to humankind of sabotaging the self-preservation instinct in all animals in favor of some fleeting pleasure.

We continue to develop quantum physics and particle theory while eating McDonald’s. Don’t these people realize that cheeseburgers are bad for them? Of course they do! And they’ll dedicate most of their time to amusing themselves to death, quite literally.

Rational arguments move very few people into more wholesome lives. You don’t get people to stop eating apocalyptic cheeseburgers by reminding them of the fat content. You get them to stop eating unhealthy foods by giving them something that tastes better and by helping them change what they wanted out of food in the first place.

Faith is the same way. These days, people just don’t respond well to warnings or reasonable arguments. Tallying up an audience’s apathy as yet another token of one’s own uncompromising faith is ignoring the fact that people have difficulty listening when they’re hungry, or angry, or maybe they dislike the speaker’s nasal monotone, his hair, or his posture.

You want people to come to Jesus? Pointing out their bad habits isn’t convincing most of the time. If people recognize the danger in having no faith, the danger is rarely enough to spark a catalyst. A lot of Christians love pointing out the danger, and that’s a safe way to put a lot of distance between themselves and people who make them uncomfortable.