Emerge and Restore

Exploring faith, God, and church in the 21st century...

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Location: Kansas, United States

Friday, December 09, 2005

An illustration

Don't see our inability to unwaveringly focus on and imitate Jesus as a problem? Well...okay...but here's an article that came to me that probably got loud cheers from the church it was written to, but illustrates both Christians' need for "conquest & control" (see Nov. 6 post) and our failure to mold our ethics to Jesus' standard. Here goes:

"You've probably seen the grungy-looking guy on the corner with a hand-lettered cardboard sign that says "Will work for food." (I don't know why, but some people give those guys money instead of offering them a mob. The sign doesn't say "Give me money." Surprisingly enough, I've found that the sign-holders don't respond cheerfully when you seriously propose that you would be willing to pay them for actual physical labor. Oh, well...) I don't know how you respond to such a sight, but how would you react if it was a 14 year old girl holding the sign? Maybe you saw this recent news item:
Edmond, OK - Tasha Henderson got tired of her 14 year old daughter's poor grades, her chronic lateness to class and her talking back to her teachers, so she decided to teach the girl a lesson. She made Coretha stand at a busy Oklahoma City intersection with a cardboard sigh that read: "I don't do my homework and I act up in school, so my parents are preparing me for my future. Will work for food."
There was a flood of calls to talk radio stations either praising the mother or blasting her for publicly humiliating her daughter. On motorist even called the police.
My observations: 1). I'm glad the mother tried, but 14 is a little late to get serious. Respect for teachers, pride in completing a task, and being punctual are virtues that a TWO-year old should be learning. 2). To all the folks upset with the mother, I say we could do with a lot more public humiliation these days. When this country started, folks were put in stocks in the public square for the express purpose of humiliation. 3). Anyone who thinks it is their responsibility to call the police in such a case is seriously confused. The desk sergeant who took the call should have said, "A - it's not your kid, B - She deserves it, C - Don't you have something worthwhile to do with your time?"

Okay, say what? Let's ignore the denigration of the poor at the beginning of the article for now. Did I just hear an ambassador for Christ just say we need to humiliate more people? Really? And the thing is, not too many readers are going to have a problem with this. They have been trained not to see the glaring disparity between this strategy for achieving "Christian" objectives and Jesus' strategy for advancing the kingdom. Didn't Jesus come to defend the poor and helpless (regardless of the reason for their poverty)? Didn't Jesus come and give love and dignity to those from whom the religious institutions would take it away (the religious institutions call them "sinners")? Did the Creator of the Universe ever use his infinite power to force people to do what he wanted them to do? Can we not see that the use of "stocks in the public square" is as sinful now as it ever was, even if we achieve the desired outcome from the person we punished? Why in the world would we ever try to achieve moral behavior from a motivation of fear rather than from a knowledge of God?

I agree that the mom in the story is reasonably clever. It's kind of a funny scene, worth a spot as odd news on some local station, maybe even worth a chuckle. I'm not making a case for this being child abuse. But it is a case of someone using their power and authority to elicit a desired response from someone under their authority by humiliation and threat of further humiliation if the desired outcome is not attained. I'm not here to criticize the mother, but I do criticize the church who has bought into this ends-justifies-the-means mindset. I do criticize those who see this story as a commendable parable of how Christ's followers should behave. Does this pass for Christ-like behavior these days?

Since when do we get to humiliate people into giving us our desired outcome? Why do we get so upset when the secular left (convenient label, not necessarily an accurate one) bullies us by attacking the Ten Commandments or "in God we trust", yet we'd gladly use the same bullying tactics to further our cause if we had the chance. Do we ever think that it might be possible to achieve what we want and still have Jesus disgusted with us?

And why are we fighting for taking "pride in completing a task, and being punctual"? Those things are fine, but their relationship to Christian ethics are shaky, at best. They much more closely resemble American middle class values...maybe something the church needs to work to separate from Christian values. We seem to have a hard time telling the difference.

Jesus' example is one of love, of giving up power, of radical transformation, but not through power structures. May we learn to turn our backs on our striving for power and embrace the way of Christ.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Isn't Jesus Too Easy?

I'm finding myself a little frustrated by how much difficulty the Christian world has actually emulating Jesus in both their personal lives and in the organizations they build. I often see people pulling some scripture out of Revelation or the Old Testament as scriptural justification for their actions (actions that rarely would be out of step with accepted behavior in society at large or in church culture...why are those things so similar?), and when I inevitably ask, "Let's look at this through the lens of Jesus....can you imagine Jesus doing that?", they look annoyed and hold strongly onto their proof-text from Leviticus.

I consistently teach that the Gospels hold priority for us as we shape our theology and ethics, and that Jesus must always be the first place we look for when we want answers. It's so tempting to want to run to Paul, whose messages are so much more conveniently structured and rational. And frankly, Jesus never taught about church elders. But he did teach about shepherding and how a shepherd treats his sheep. He was very clear about what leaders shouldn't look like. And Jesus never taught about the theological implications of baptism...but he was baptized. I recently preached 20 lessons walking through the Gospel of John, emphasizing how I think we can glean a complete ecclesiology (understanding of the church) from the life of Jesus. He's subtly teaching us how to "do" church. And when we ask who we should be as the church, the first thing that should shape us is the life of Jesus. But oddly, enough, that's a radical message to much of Christianity. As I finished up the lessons from John, a church member came to me privately and we had the following conversation:

HIM: "You've just deconstructed virtually the entire church."
ME: "Do you mean the church Jesus is looking for, our particular congregation, or the current popular understanding of church?"
H: "You've just deconstructed virtually our entire understanding of the church."
M: "Well...yes."
H: "If we do what you're saying, nearly everything will have to change."
M: "Do you think that what I've said inaccurately depicts what Jesus would have the church to be...am I just making it up?"
H: "If we do this, nearly everything will have to change."
M: "Well...yes."

Have we become more afraid of change than of being separated from Christ? Somehow we've managed to admire Jesus, to talk about him a lot, to invoke his name, to call upon his power to fix our problems, but not be transformed by him. It happens in our personal lives, in how we treat people, which I talked about in the last post. It happens in the way we structure our churches (impersonal, hierarchical, Sunday-focused, maintenance mindset, self-focused, counting success by looking only at the 3 B's: budget, buildings, & butts). We unintentionally betray the Gospel when we tell people "You need to come to church." No, you need to get to know Jesus. It happens in the discourse of the larger Christian world. If you ask me, using any of the popular labels Christians use today to identify themselves(conservative/liberal, right vs. left, Democrat/Republican, mainline/evangelical) is an admission that our viewpoint skews heavily in one direction, that we are more concerned with being in a certain camp than aligning ourselves with Jesus (Yes, labels are necessary for convenience's sake, but they help little in pointing toward truth). See Volf's article here:


Maybe we need to get rid of all our agendas that we try to accomplish in Jesus' name, in order to please him, and insist that our entire agenda simply be Jesus himself.

Another person approached me and asked me if I was serious that just Jesus was the answer to everything. I told her that he wouldn't help her learn to change the oil in her car or perform surgery, but spiritually, yes. Our lives and behavior must be formed first and foremost by him. Our churches must be formed first and foremost by him. She asked, "Isn't that just too easy?"

Friday, December 02, 2005

Broken Barriers

I've spent a good portion of my teaching during Advent not just focusing on preparing for the coming of Immanuel, but also in simply adoring the one who inexplicably chose to come and be with us in the first place.

One direction I felt pulled in as I meditated on the Advent passages was to examine the easily overlooked, yet revolutionary fact that God came to us and offered relationship. How does that one part of the Gospel story transform us? Yes, Jesus came and ministered to the sick and needy and leprous and impure. But the fact we use those labels implies self-rightiousness in some sense, because they often cover up the fact that even the best of us are in many ways needy, impure, sick and at least inwardly leprous (the physical disease kills your nerves, your ability to feel). Jesus didn't break down the barriers when he talked to and cared for prostitutes, or when he ate with tax collectors, or when he healed the broken and unclean. By that time, the real barrier had already been destroyed. It was destroyed the minute the infant Christ's flesh touched human skin. When he began to relationship with us "lowly worms"; when he lowered himself to become one of us.

The barrier that was broken was between human and God and Jesus wiped it out. The barriers between sick and well, pure and impure, needy and wealthy, etc. are largely of our own making, because we are all in the same boat. And for us to erect barriers is an affront to the Christ who tore them down. He came to open the gate...but we sure love our gates. To be able to close people out, to say that we won't relationship with them, they are not good enough is a precious ability to us. But it's not Christlike.

I'm not very good at predicting what the people in my congregation will respond to and what will offend them. At times I've shook with trepidation as I've preached something I knew would step on toes, only to be greeted with applause and congratulations. Other times I ram something home with confidence, expecting to be cheered, only to be met by icy silence and offense. This was one of those times. Although one good friend literally slapped the pew in front of him in agreement, I also saw several gaping jaws, many people turn away in disgust, and a few outright angry glares as I said something along the lines of this:

"We love hierarchies. All of us operate by them. You do, I do. We learn it through 'cultural transmission', but we all rank people. Somewhere in our heads exist some sort of list that ranks people from most valuable to least valuable. Our lists may vary a little, but I think if we wrote them down, we'd find that they are very, very similar, with celebrities and athletes, wealthy business men and politicians, maybe doctors and lawyers at the top. And at the bottom would be the homeless, the disabled, the elderly, the addict (at this point I at least have the full attention of our homeless addict, with whom I am good friends, and whom I will blog about sometime...we met him in our jail ministry). These hierarchies of human worth exist, but they are sinful. Jesus destroyed these destinctions, and left us an example that teaches us to root them out of our lives, too.

"Many of our problems of 'self-esteem' stem from these hierarchies, our feelings of inferiority. We fume and stew because some nobody treated us like we occupy a lower place on the totem pole than they do. We get upset because our current situation in life puts us on a lower rung on life's ladder than we deserve.

"I challenge you to start paying attention to how these hierarchies of worth play out in your life. Pay attention as you talk to people who are both higher than you and lower than you on your personal continuum of value. See how your entire attitude and habits and mannerisms change between people you encounter who are different sides of the scale. Force yourself to see and admit that which we all do...we assign value to people and treat them differently according to how those values make us feel about them. Then force yourself to admit that it's wrong.

"I challenge you to speak the exact same way to the lawyer you know and the next guy that you meet who is begging for money. Feel the same about them, value their God-given worth equally, I dare you. Treat the person who is not the same race you are the exact same way you'd treat someone who shares the same skin color with you. Talk to the person who speaks with an accent with the same amount of patience you'd show someone speaking English. Don't speak to the caretaker of the disabled person in the wheelchair, speak to them. Feel just as comfortable when someone with torn, dirty clothes steps onto a elevator with you as you would if they were wearing a suit. Treat a criminal like a human, Jesus did. Treat everybody the same. I promise you...if you haven't been practicing, you can't do it. You are too well trained. Too used to listening to the world's system of values and not to God's. Too used to valuing what looks and acts and speaks just like you and too used to being afraid of what's different.

Jesus came and when he came he broke down the barriers. Barriers between us and God, but also races, tribes, communities, economic groups, age groups, everything. And he challenges us to live like it. Can you?"

People didn't like it, can you believe it? :-) Well, I understand why now that I think about it...but it's one of the things that makes me love him more and convinces me that His is the true way.

Aliens and Advent

I was one of the first customers to score the new War Of The Worlds DVD from Netflix this week and we watched it tonight. Anybody else disappointed?

And yet something about the movie sticks with me. I think it has more to do with the story than with this most current telling of it. Maybe I expected too much from the duo of Spielberg and Cruise after enjoying Minority Report so much. This version does better when it approaches things with a detached, epic disaster-movie feel; humans trapped like ants, being destroyed by forces beyond their control. When it starts to focus on people, letting them talk, things start to get ugly. Let's face it, Tom Cruise has spent too much time inhabiting his charismatic Top Gun persona to be convincing as a loser dad. And Dakota Fanning is hardly believable as a human. She's TOO precocious, too mature, too prescient, and has too much presence to come off as more than a realistic special effect. Then there's the guy that plays Cruise's son. He probably does a fine job, but his character is poorly written and annoying. I don't believe ANYTHING he does. He is inserted into the weak script to provide convenient conflict, transparent emotional manipulation, and a shameful warm fuzzy at the end.

I'm usually drawn to character-driven movies, but this one is at its best when it's clinical. To be sure, there are some great Spielbergian scenes: the river of death, the train, most of the Tim Robbins basement sequence (although part of it is a reworked Jurassic Park raptor-in-the-kitchen scene, and Robbins' character himself is a contrived annoyance). But by far the most powerful scenes are one of human helplessness, where people are hunted and slaughtered by an unstoppable malevolent force. Those were powerful to me, not because of any pornographic need for bloodshed, or of any lingering junior high sense of what's cool, but because it serves as a reminder. This story is still being told 107 years after being written because it reminds us that in spite of our need for an illusion of control over our lives, we are in a cosmic sense, helpless. We surround ourselves with stuff and technology to make our lives stable and safe, but one alien-induced burst of electro-magnetic energy (or one earthquake, or hurricane, or tsunami), and we lose those things, we are lost. Sometimes the realization that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control is as threatening as the force that stripped us of our illusion in the first place.

I preached on the first Sunday of Advent the sheer unbelievable-ness of a God who would come and be with us, of a God who would dirty himself to associate with us. A God like that is not unheard of outside scripture, but the manner in which Jesus did it is mind-blowing. Zeus occasionally came down off Mt. Olympus, but only as a powerful warrior, impervious to any human threats against him, unable to be hurt. He only came in power, knowing that he would be safe anywhere he went. But not Jesus. Jesus lived for nine months inside a human. He was born an infant, simply incomprehensible. I have a ten month old daughter. She's amazing to me, but she would die within hours if not for the care of her mother and I. She is not powerful; in fact, she is so very delicate, so very easily injured. My three year old might last a matter of days on her own, but she too would die if not cared for. If I don't wrap her in the walls of our house and carry her where she can't go, and hold her hand as we cross the street...the world would crush her. She is not protected, except by her parents. Jesus threw off not just the power of the creator of the universe, but also the power to protect himself, and placed himself in the care of humans. It didn't have to be this way, but he came in a form where viruses could make him ill, where splinters could get infected, and where a whip wouldn't just bounce harmlessly off his back, but instead would shred and tear. He gave up not just comfort and security, but also invincibility...he gave up the reality of the illusion we strive for so mightily.

We may convince ourselves we are invincible and in control by molding and shaping our bodies to be strong and powerful. But a simple gunshot can relieve us of that fantasy. Most of us do it by acquiring plenty of stuff and technology, which boils down to money. Want to know why we live in a disgracefully materialistic society? Our stuff gives us the illusion of control. We surround ourselves with it for security. The bigger the house, the larger the SUV, the more state-of-the-art technology, the more impenetrable we feel. And War Of The Worlds illustrates what happens when we lose all that. We fall on the mercy of a mysterious other (this story also serves as a metaphor and condemnation of imperialism, looking at it from the losing side), and suddenly the always-available supplies of food, water, electricity, and other comforts are cut off. We can almost envision those for whom the alien death ray would be a welcome release from living (like much of the world does) without those things we take for granted. This story exposes the illusion for what it really is. We are so helpless that only God can get us through, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

At the end of the movie, humans prevail, sort of. But even that just illustrates our true impotence. Those who subdued us and met every force we threw at them, are subdued by the smallest and most inconsequential organisms on the planet: bacteria. The irony is almost biblical. Just like the coming of Jesus, when the power of sin threatened to destroy us...we were saved by the powerless, the unimportant, the vulnerable...a baby.