Wrapping Up Advent – The Whole Damned Thing

This has been the most interesting Advent I have ever participated in.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Between the High Gravity class following the lectionary texts and the Loft LA delving deep into the season, I have learned and experienced a lot of things that are heavy on my mind as we head into the final week of Advent.

Far As The Curse Is Found

The hymn ‘Joy To The World‘ has some amazing lines in it:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Far as the curse is found is one of the most poignant lines in any hymn ever. Think about it … Romans 5 is about the same theme:

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Unfortunately, many have been taught to read the Bible in a way that makes Adam way more powerful than Jesus. Ouch.

Far as the curse is found means that God is interested in redeeming the whole damned thing. 

There is no other way to say it.

In fact, this past weekend we tackled the genealogy of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel and I was struck again with how shocking and scandalous Jesus’ family tree is. It’s not just the unorthodox inclusion of those with dubious reputations and questionable qualifications – and that’s not even including that women! It is the fact that God is involved in the whole damned thing.

It all belongs. God is active in redeeming the whole thing.

It’s not just that Jesus leaves behind his family tree or simply overcomes his heritage to become an exalted figure … he is both the outcome of God’s activity IN his family and the result OF his heritage.

Speaking of which: here is an amazing rendition of Jesus’ genealogy sung to the tune of R.E.M.’s ‘its the end of the world as we know it’ by Brad Hooks

Genealogy of Jesus (and I feel fine) from Bo Sanders on Vimeo.

Lyrics:

That’s great it starts with the birthday
Of the very first man, yeah his name was Adam
Skip a couple thousand years, there was a dude
Who was looking for the Promise Land,

call him Father Abraham, Abraham had a kid, Isaac had a kid
Judah had a kid, Perez he did too
No I’m not talking Perez Hilton
But the one who had a son named Hezron

Ram, Amminadab, Nashon, Salmon,
Boaz, Obed, Jesse, David, right, right
Don’t forget Solomon, He was a wise man,
Who had a son named Rehoboam

Abijah, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joram
Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, more then
That brings us to Hezekiah, Hezekiah
Manasseh, Amon, Josiah

 

Here is the good news and the bad: 

Good – God is interested in redeeming your family tree, heritage, history and the entire road that has led up to this point in your story!

Bad – God loves them too … the things you regret, the people you would distant yourself from, the choices you would change …. the whole damn thing.

There is no ‘us/them’. It is a facade – an illusion. We are all us. We are all in this together. The slave is our brother – we are all God’s family.

  • The good and the bad.
  • The oppressed and the privileged.
  • The sacred and the secular.
  • The holy and the profane.

The hard truth is that our apparent divisions are but an illusion. God is in the process of redeeming the whole damned thing.

More On Miracles (Q&R)

Yesterday I got a comment on blog post from 2 years ago. Since this subject comes up frequently, I thought it would be good to respond.

I hope you get some sort of update from comments posted on old posts.

Indeed I do! Thank you so much for taking the time to write in.

I’ve been trying to work through how I understand God working in the world and have felt pretty comfortable with saying that God doesn’t make things happen in this world. For me, that still allows for relational interaction with God but the one place that I am getting stumped on is miracles or even just praying for things that may be outside of personal introspection or transformation. I have never seen any miracles like the ones I’ve heard about by several very close people I know. When I say miracles I mean things like paralyzed people being healed and even people’s limbs growing back. I know it sounds crazy but I hear really sound people that I respect telling about how they have done these things. Now, I don’t want to discredit it just because I personally haven’t seen it. Then there are things like Jesus healing a blind man with mud and spit, was it psychosomatic? I don’t know how to approach these things.

The one thing I would say is that we have not taken the gospel stories about Jesus seriously enough. We look at them from a very mechanistic point of view: What was the product? What was the process? Can it be replicated? Are there measurable outcomes?
We get very focused on the byproduct or the outcome (healing) and miss the rich narrative and literary emphasis of the story itself. “Jesus healed a guy” I hear people say … “Yes but notice how and where” I want to respond.

The two things people often fail to notice is that:

  • It was almost never in the same way twice. That signals to me that healing is neither formulaic nor is it reproducible. Something was going on in those stories that is tailored to that person and that time. I love the gospel stories of Jesus’ healings … almost as much as I hate it when people try to make healing standard and ritualistic.
  • Those stories play a role in the gospels that they are found in. These accounts in John 9 and Mark 8 function in the narrative that both John and Mark give us. Synoptic studies are one of my favorite hobbies and one of the things you quickly learn is that those stories can not be lifted out of their gospel and simply cut & pasted into another gospel. The story is told a certain way and plays a unique role within the larger text.

The stories of Jesus’ healings don’t happen in a vacuum. That play a performative function with the gospel narrative and must be read within that context.

One of my first clues that this was true is that no one – even those of us who believe in healing – spit on the ground and put mud on people. Why? Because it is not a formula! Something unique was happening in that story and we all sort of secretly know that.

Just because Jesus walked on water doesn’t mean that you don’t need a boat!

The gospel stories about healing had to do with Jesus’ messianic claims and that is why the Bible is not a how-to play book or manual. The formulaic mentality around healing today is a disastrous byproduct of the Industrial Revolution … oddly the same era (thanks to Gutenberg) that allowed for mass-produced Bibles so that we can all read it for ourselves! But that is a different blog post.
The Secret Message of Jesus is the best book I have ever found for talking respectfully about the role that these healings play in their unique gospel accounts.

I have much more to say about this … but I need to get to your real question!

With this being said, if miraculous healing through prayer is possible (which I sort of hope is) my question would now be why does God only choose to heal some people and let others who are being prayed for suffer? Or why would we have to pray for certain sufferings to stop? Why isn’t it enough for a certain person to be suffering and need God’s healing? Do our prayers make God’s intervention possible in a way that he couldn’t do without? Let me know what you think and thanks for giving your time!

Let me begin by saying that you have perfectly asked the central questions of this difficult issue. This is why some people walk away from the subject all together and dismiss any accounts of modern-day healing. Even those of us who try to practice the way of Jesus and follow his example are often baffled and left either shaking our heads or shrugging our shoulders.

If God can heal and doesn’t …
If we have to be good enough …
or believe hard enough …
or pray long enough …
or pray good enough …
If this is in any way based on our merit … this seems like a problem.

On the other hand – if God can do something and doesn’t …
maybe it is for a larger purpose …
or maybe it is just ‘not yet’ …
or maybe we just look forward to our heavenly bodies on the other side …
or maybe God is really finicky.
These are all possibilities and actual things that I have heard people say.

Here is where I am on the issue: God is doing the best that God can do. I don’t believe that God is holding out or that God’s goodness will run out.

I have said before that I have become very comfortable with the possibility that the world as it exists is the best that God can do. I’m not saying that I believe that – just that I am open to that possibility.

  • What if God is doing all that God can do in the world right now?
  • What if God isn’t all-powerful but only very powerful?
  • Or that God’s power is a different kind of power?
  • What if God isn’t pretending or self-limiting?
  • What if God is giving all that God has to the moment?

Once you move on from an ‘interventionist’ notion of God the whole world looks different. The word ‘supernatural’ is one of the worst concessions that modern christians have made. I believe in miracles (outside the ordinary expected) and I remind folks that the Biblical formulation of ‘signs and wonders’ is not the same as ‘super-natural’. These phrases get all mashed together by those who have taught this way. We need to take the Gospel accounts seriously enough to slow down and reexamine our assumptions.

There is no such thing as ‘super-natural’.
God’s work is the most natural thing in the world.

I do not believe in a realm (the natural) that is without God. As a Christian, I believe that God’s work is the most natural thing in the world. I am unwilling to concede the natural-spiritual split and then leave less and less room for God as science is able to explain more and more. The church is foolish to accept the dualism (natural-supernatural) and then superintend only the spiritual part.

Thank you so much for writing in! It has been fun to revisit this concept. You may want to check out my post on Prayer and Poetry and Dealing with Demons as well.

Let me know your thoughts or any questions you have. This is a difficult topic but a very necessary conversation.

X is for X-ray

Something a little different today. 

100 years ago was the beginning of what became known as World War I. X-Xray
I am fascinated by the changes that have come in that 100 year period.

The transition from the 19th to the 20th century houses a fascinating and rapid shift in both politics and technology (to name just two fields).

The build up to World War I is a study in what seems like not just a different time but wholly different world at points. Like learning the geography of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or the kingdoms and families in The Game of Thrones, the world before the great war seems alien.
You have to get up to speed on such things as the Habsburg Dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Eschatology is an interesting entry point to this conversation. At the beginning of the 20th century, Post-Millenial views were the overwhelming position for protestant churches and denominations. The optimistic view of human progress and societal transformation brought an expectation of ushering in the Kingdom of God and a reign of peace and prosperity that would fill the whole earth. The horrors of the war brought that to an end. There was no ‘war to end all wars’ and by the end of the 20th century (the Christian Century) Post-Milleninial views were as a rare as telegraphs.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw seismic shifts in technology. The telephone, the airplane, vaccines and the radio mark the the era. The Xray illustrates the point as well as any other from this era.

The ability to see into the human body is remarkable. It transforms not just how we practice medicine but how we conceptualize the human body.
I read a passage a while ago, which I can now not find, where an author wondered how the apostle Paul’s writing would have changed if he had been able to take a trans-Atlantic flight or if he had seen that famous picture of the earth as a little blue marble as seen from the moon.

Which brings us to the question at hand as we begin to wrap up this series:

If technology and medicine, communication and psychology, economics and politics – and every other field – get to (and are encouraged to) advance, evolve, adapt and transform … why is religion so bound to the thinking of the pre-moderns and the ancients?

There is something peculiar about religious thought that needs to be examined. I understand those who want to conserve the tradition – I don’t agree but I understand the conservative impulse.
I prefer an approach that is incarnational and contextual. I see christianity as embodied (in-body) in a time and a place. All theology is contextual theology (as folks like Bevans and Shreiter say) and our faith must be re-callibrated, re-formed and re-membered within our cultural context.
Faith, like language, does not happen in a vacuum. It is (in)hereted. There is a given-ness to it. But faith is also in-acted and em-bodied.

This is a delicate dance to both honor the tradition and express in our time and place the truth of what was passed on to us.

The 1500’s had both Copernicus and William Harvey. The former told us that the earth revolved around the sun, the latter that the heart was responsible for blood circulation. In science the telescope and the microscope changed everything.

We live in the nuclear age. The Xray, the nuclear bomb and the microwave are just the tip of the iceberg. I have not even touched on TV, cell-phones, no-fault divorces, Christian-Mingle websites and credit-card giving machines in the pews.

Why, when every area of our lives from medicine to politics to economics to psychology is updating and evolving … why would religion insist on holding to the cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology of the pre-modern world?

When we get sick, even conservative/traditional folks will take an aspirin and get an x-ray.
The Christian faith, based on the story of incarnation, is designed to be embodied in a time and place. To hamper this process of adaptation and adjustment is to not only miss the point of the entire story but to worship an idolized moment in the development of its trajectory.

I would love to address the formerly enchanted world (without supernaturalism)  and the concept of second naiveté – but here is what I really want to leave you with:

The gospel is designed to be (in)carnate and (em)bodied. We have no fear of losing the gospel’s essential character by appropriating it to our time and our place. We live in a world come of age. It is time for a response to nuclear theology.

 Artwork for the series by Jesse Turri

Q is for Quest for the Historical Jesus

The Quest for the Historical Jesus is a topic that I am both annoyed and intrigued by. Chalk this reaction up to my evangelical upbringing but I am like a high-schooler in the midst of drama. Q-Quest

“They drive me nuts, I hate listening to them talk! … What did they say? Tell me everything.”
I am both attracted to and repelled by the work and findings of this movement.

Before we go any further, lets see how Justo L. González introduces it:

Historical Jesus: Often contrasted with “the Christ of faith,” the phrase “historical Jesus” is somewhat ambiguous, for sometimes it refers to those things about Jesus that can be proved through rigorous historical research, and sometimes it simply means the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The phrase itself, “historical Jesus,” was popularized by the title of the English translation of a hook by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910). In this book, Schweitzer reviewed a process, begun by Hermann S. Reimarus (1694-1768), which sought to discover the Jesus behind the Gospels by means of the newly developed tools of historical research. After reviewing this quest of almost two centuries, Schweitzer concluded that what each of the scholars involved had discovered was not in fact Jesus of Nazareth as he lived in the first century, but rather a modern image of Jesus, as much informed by modern bourgeois perspectives as by historical research itself.

Essential Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1905-1916). Kindle Edition.

González goes on to explain that much of the quest was abandoned after Schweitzer’s findings but has recently reappeared in a minimalist expression (what are the bare facts that can be validated?).

Grenz is clear about this historical quest – that its proponents think Jesus:

  • never made any messianic claim
  • never predicted his death or resurrection
  • never instituted the *sacraments now followed by the church.

All of this was “projected onto him by his disciples, the Gospel writers and the early church. The true historical Jesus, in contrast, preached a simple, largely ethical message as capsulized in the dictum of the “fatherhood of God” and the “brotherhood of humankind.”

Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Kindle Locations 1089-1093). Kindle Edition.

A modern manifestation of this quest is seen in the Jesus Seminar.
You can hear our podcast about with John Dominic Crossan from this past May.

I am deeply indebted to those in Historical Jesus research. I never knew any of this stuff (like Empire) as an evangelical pastor. It has been both eye-opening and disorienting (not to mention the theological whiplash).
I have problems with so many of the conclusions reached but am so grateful for the depth of engagement and sincerity of scholarship. My faith has been enriched and informed in ways I could never have imagined.

There is just something about the whole enterprise that gets under my skin and rubs me the wrong way. It is possible to be grateful for a pebble in your shoe as you journey?

Even as I write this I am thinking, “I don’t like where y’all  take this… but I need to know what you know. I just want to draw different conclusions than you do.”

This, of course, is the danger of venturing outside your comfort zone.

Artwork for this series by Jesse Turri

Day 3: Betrayed by a Kiss

 

I am uncomfortable in my own body. Not that I want to be. It just kind of happens in our culture.Neighbors & Wisemen

 

When I was a senior in High School I still kissed my dad on the lips. I had done since I was a kid and it had never dawned on my to stop.

One night I was going out with a couple of new friends I had just met and they came over to my house to pick me up. As was my custom, the last thing I did before leaving was report to my parents when I would be home (or at least where I was going) and then kiss each of my folks on the lips.

As we exited the house, my new friends walking in front of me, one of them made a disparaging remark about the oddness that I still kissed my dad. I was instantly filled with embarrassment – and maybe shame for not thinking of this myself – and I did not know what to do with my body and the surge of emotions that I was feeling.

I did what many teenage boys do when they are frustrated … I punched my new friend in the back of the head.

It doesn’t make any more sense to me now then it did that night – but it was my response to the situation none the less. 

 

The cross-cultural nature of Neighbors and Wisemen is one of my favorite aspects. The writing is terrific too.  This is simply one of the best paragraphs I have read:

Touch was stolen from me. It was stolen from me by the American story. It was stolen from

me by our puritanical religious roots, and by an entertainment culture that turns affection into sensuality. It was stolen from me by a thousand church scandals that have left pastors afraid to even talk to a parishioner behind closed doors. And it has been stolen from me by a generation of homophobia that calls all same-gender affection into question.

Society and religion have bedded together to relegate touch to either the sexual or the inappropriate, with little in between.

This probably would not bother me so much if I hadn’t bought into the gospel. The problem for us a Western christians is that our gospel is one of incarnation. It is supposed to be about being fully embodied.

As the Message puts it: The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.

In the original language it says that God ‘tabernacled’ with us. God set up a tent and camped with us … in body.

 

I try to take the Bible seriously. When I was an Evangelical pastor I ran into a problem. Passages like Romans 16:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:2 say “Greet each other with a holy kiss”.   I tried to encourage people to do this … but it wasn’t received that well.

If you live in a culture that does not greet with a kiss … it can be quite uncomfortable to start just because you believe in Jesus. 

This problem betrays a much larger issue. We have developed an elaborate matrix of interpretation to weed out things that were ‘cultural’.

Here is the stinker of the situation though – the people who take the Bible the most seriously (according to themselves) don’t realize that the whole thing is cultural! That is what the Bible is: a collection of cultural expressions that are all deeply embedded in time and place.

The result is that people who say that they read the Bible literally don’t great each other with a holy kiss even thought they are explicitly instructed to in the Bible.  Why?  Because that part was cultural.

Stuff like this became my undoing. It may seem silly now, but it used to really gnaw at me. It was like a rock in my shoe and I just had to stop, sit down, and deal with it.

 

There are so many aspects to this. Several years ago I was with my dad in Malaysia for a global conference and all week I would see young leaders from Africa walking with him holding hands. We had a great talk culture and body.

I have been blessed to be an uncle of lots of nephews and nieces. Without daughters of my own, I never know – at what age do you stop holding hands with your nephews and nieces? Is it 11 or 15 or 18 or … I’ve decided that it is never. As long as they are OK with it, I am OK with it.  But the question itself exposes the bigger problem.

Why is this even an issue? The answer is not a good one for the gospel.

 

Tony takes this to the exact place I was planning to go – church.

Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. We have been betrayed by our not greeting each other with a holy kiss. The problem is that the gospel is, at its core, an embodied truth. We are the body. We are the body of Christ.

Does anyone else see this as a problem?
Does anyone else struggle with the physical practices of church tradition and specifically Lent?
Is it just my or is central to christianity to em-body the gospel? 

I would love your feedback.

 

Day 1: Foreign Concepts

There are two things that I really connected with in this chapter. The first is the description of rolling into Albania with all of its foreignness and intrigue. Neighbors & Wisemen

I have been privileged to be able to travel a lot over the last 20 years. I went Germany and to Russia soon after the fall of communism. I have been to Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines and Malaysia among other places. But I have never been anywhere like the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia captured a special place in my heart. It is tough to describe exactly what it is about that place and its people that gives it an amazing mix of alien and hospitable.

The second thing was the way that both Cheryl (his friend in Portland) and the women on the phone at the sending agency talked about Albania ‘opening up’.

I grew up in a missionary denomination where both domestic evangelism and foreign missions were heavily emphasized and celebrated.  There is a mystique about countries that have not been open to foreign missions before. We even had a big color-coded map on the wall that let us know which countries were ‘open’ and which were ‘closed’. It was a sincere matter of prayer.

Like spice merchants scheming about the Far East or timber barons staring out at a vast virgin-forest … there was something tantalizing about the prospect of being the first wave of folks to ‘take the gospel’ into a country.

It is odd to think about this now. This concept of one-way mission is something that I have lost along the way.

My journey has relieved me of the impression that we go to them … that we take something to them only.

The cold war has been over for a virtual-generation now. The world has changed a little bit.

  • The internet has changed communications and awareness.
  • Globalization has changed travel and access.
  • Our age of pluralism has changed how we conceptualize and relate to the other.

 

Internet – Globalization – Pluralism are a formidable triad for one-way missions. I now go to an inter-religious university that has me listening to and talking with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and others on a fairly regular basis. We have much to learn from each other. It doesn’t mean we cease to be sincere Christians. It means that we hold a Christianity a little differently.

This concept is one of the things I really like about Neighbors and Wisemen. It is going to challenge us to listen to stories that we may not be used to hearing and it is going to ask us to reconsider how we treat an-other.

 The early days of Lent for me are about loss. I have lost my zeal for one-way missions. What have you lost along your journey?