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.

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).

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.

Lazarus: Part III

February 27, 2009

 

She starts to cry. Inside her the wine is leaking. She tries to look down, but his finger catches her chin. He locks her eyes. She says it: “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”  She says “have believed” because her belief is becoming a relic.  They had sent for him, but he had not come.  Jesus lets her go.  She walks back to the house.  She can say nothing else.

Mary goes to meet Jesus at the same place. She repeats what her sister said.  Jesus is deeply moved in spirit and is troubled.  The Spirit grows full within him, and he begins to sweat.  He says, “Where have you laid him?  Some of the Jews who escorted Mary say, “Come and see.” Jesus weeps.  A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to weep and a time to laugh. A time to mourn and a time to dance.

The Jews, Mary, even Martha, they all seem to stand the same way, skeptical, a little way off, all the weight on one leg, one hip cocked. Their faces pulse heat, and they fight the push of tears. Their eyes burn. They squint and sweat through their mourning clothes.  Jesus is weeping. That is what they all want from him.  They want his humanity to be so close like the road dust in his hair. They want to see the individual hairs in his beard and to inhale his odor. He had not come when they sent for him, and their friendship will never be the same. But, at least, he is here now, and he is crying. He joins the ranks of their tears.

They whisper, “See how He loved him!” “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?” Questions and astonishment. Those are always the two currents of reaction that run through the crowds.  And anger.  Jesus says, “Remove the stone.” Martha worries about the smell.  Jesus reassures her.  He raises his arms to heaven.  He feels the ribbons of the Spirit twine his body.  He closes his eyes, tilts his face upwards.

“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.”

He cries out; “Lazarus, come forth.”

Then Holy God Almighty, Lazarus comes forth, bound hand and foot.  His face is wrapped with a cloth. Jesus says to those standing nearby, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Everything has changed.

 


Verses taken from John 11 (NASV).

Lazarus: Part II

February 26, 2009

Jesus waits two days longer before he divulges his plans to return to Judea. The apostles cannot believe it. During the Feast of the Dedication, some Jews in the temple picked up stones because Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.”  They wanted to kill him for blasphemy.  And here the crazy man wants to walk right back into the net of their accusations. First, he sharpens a stick and aggravates the brood of vipers, and now he plans to stick his hand in their nest.

They glance at one another, shrug, and bend to pack up their waterskins. Jesus watches how slowly they move.  “Are there not twelve hours in the day?” he says.  “If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

Thanks, Jesus, they mutter. Thanks for clearing everything up. Our fears are assuaged, and our bones are ready to receive the shock of Mosaic justice.  “The man’s a genius,” Peter thinks, “the Son of God Messiah.  But why does he always talk in code?”

Now here Jesus is saying they are going to awaken Lazarus out of sleep. Why travel all the way to Bethany to interrupt a man’s rest?  Confusion ensues. Jesus tells them to put down their water skins and cloaks, and he says, “Lazarus is dead.” Oh, they say, then why did you say he was asleep?  Jesus’ face spreads into his quiet smile, the one mourning their incomprehension but rejoicing at their simplicity.  He is silent for a moment then says, “I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe.” He stands up. “Let us go to him.” Enough chitter-chatter. You’ll understand when we get there. You’ll see what I mean when you see what I do.  They follow, kicking rocks.

Thomas lets Jesus get far enough ahead then calls a huddle, as though Jesus were unaware that people always coalesced into groups as soon as he turned his back-not always to plot his destruction but sometimes to feel camaraderie, to agree amongst friends that Jesus’ words are difficult to understand. They want to understand.  Jesus speaks word whose meanings they know, but they seem to be arranged into another language.

Thomas questions the rest. They all shake their heads, No, we have no idea what he is talking about.  Thomas furrows his brow but resolves, “Let us also go, so that we may die with him.”  We all must die someday, he thinks, and what a way to go. Going down in glory, becoming legend amongst comrades, dying that the Rabbi might be saved. Their eyes share the shrewd squint now of secret purpose. They march after Jesus, nervous but determined. They are men, after all, and willing to die for a worthy cause.

In Bethany, Jesus learns that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Martha comes out to meet Jesus.  Should she walk down the road toward him and hold her tongue?  Should she summon her strength and assume a stoic resolve?  She can see the wrinkles from squinting radiate from the corners of his eyes.  She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” while she thinks, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Lord, it is your fault. Lord, you are directly responsible. My brother, your friend, is rotting in a tomb up there in a cave in the hills, because, for all your metaphysical posturing, the fact is you simply did not come. You did not show up when we needed you most.”

Jesus replies to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha feels her frustration and grief, the fermenting emotions of the past week, about to burst her resolve like new wine in old wineskins.  She chokes out, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus puts a hand on each of her shoulders.  His eyes are wet.  Dust swirls around them. The disciples close around to listen.  She wishes they would leave.  Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Lazarus: Part I

February 25, 2009

 

Mary and Martha send word to their friend because they know their brother Lazarus will die if he does not come. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

 

Mary and Martha love Lazarus.  He delights them, spoils them, and makes them laugh.  He helps them forget that they never married and have no children.  They endure the shame.  Other men treat their women like property.  Women have no voice. Silent as the earth, they are tilled and bear fruit.  They bear sons to till and daughters to be tilled.  Mary and Martha are fallow, the same as worthless. Lazarus protects their dignity.

Fear and helplessness drive out other feelings and gum up the everyday machinery of their lives. With their brother bedridden, they remain paralyzed, unable to find pleasure in the work they enjoyed before.  Mary loved pressing her palms into the bread dough and licking the honey from her fingers.  Martha loved the brief interactions with the day laborers from the community.  She asked after their wives and children and gave them a little more money than they expected.  She took them water and, sometimes, figs. 

Now, they seek distraction. Worry brings cotton-mouth, making food difficult to swallow. Their faces roughen with the salt-grit of tears.  Mary and Martha know Jesus well enough to ask him to come, and they know him well enough to think he would want to come.  If Lazarus’s illness were not threatening to take him, they would not have sent for him.  He would know that.

Jesus is a great rabbi and healer, not the country doctor sort one inconveniences with an ordinary cold or fever.  Lazarus has a killer in his body.  Maybe he got it while giving alms to the beggars on the road, maybe he ate some bad meat, or maybe an orphaned evil spirit found a new home—no way to tell. The two sisters sense death slinking around their house and rolling into their brother’s room like a fog. 

The household is as quiet as after a rain.  Mary does not speak of despair’s pull inside their bones.

They do not want a temporary solution; they want to be done with this.  Life must return to normal.  They send a good man to bring back Jesus. It will be a simple enough matter for him, saying a few words.  He does not even have to come.  He can simply utter the prayer from wherever he is and heal Lazarus.  The sisters believe Jesus is able to do this.  Even if he comes to Bethany, his power requires only a glance or a few simple ingredients for a poultice-saliva and dirt, the faith of a mustard seed. Jesus likes to touch and talk.  Even when a laugh breezes across his face, underneath the surface his spirit is quiet and deep and holy.

Jesus sends back Mary and Martha’s man with an confusing message: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  Martha cannot believe this head-in-the-clouds preacher, who helps and heals so many, will hold out on his friends when they need him the most.  This is not like him.  He must sense what Lazarus means to them.  The men in their synagogue come to seek his counsel.  His sisters depend upon him for their livelihood.  If he dies, how will they manage? How will they survive? Will they diminish to subsistence, gleaning from the stubble on the edges of the fields, broken-backed and gray-haired Ruths without any allure, without a Boaz, and without a dove to sacrifice?  Jesus wouldn’t see their lives reduced to rubble, would he?  Surely, he remembers how Mary saved money, purchased a jar of perfume, and anointed his feet.  Is the man’s spiritual chicanery the thanks she gets?