Saturday, November 18, 2006

Here comes...Grace Claus?

It's a Christmas song we all know well: "Santa Claus is Coming to Town". Santa is a fun event for children, right? And that's why we think nothing of mixing the message of Santa Claus with the message of Jesus' birth, right? I mean, they are both about gifts, aren't they?

Let's take a look at the lyrics to this song:

You'd better watch out!
You'd better not cry!
You'd better not pout!
I'm telling you why,
Santa Claus is comin' to town.
He's making a list
and checking it twice.
He's going to find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town.


He sees when you are sleeping.
He knows when you're awake.
He knows if you've been bad or good.
So be good for goodness sake!

It actually sounds like someone to be afraid of--he's always watching me? I have to be good all the time because he knows if I am not? What if I make a mistake?

Again, we Christians participate in Santa Claus just as much as anybody. But is it really something that coincides with our Biblical beliefs? Receiving presents from Santa is dependent on whether we are good or bad--dependent on what we do. Yet we are taught that our God is a God of love and grace who gives to us simply because He loves us and not because we have earned what we receive.

Isn't it a mixed message we're sending? How can both messages fit together on the same day? Does anyone else find it as confusing as I do? I have to be good to receive presents from Santa and there isn't a grace clause (ha! no pun intended, but it gives me a good title for this posting!) when it comes to him, is there? It's either presents or coal; that's it.

Yet when it comes to God, He is all about grace. His love and gifts are never dependent on what we do. They are only dependent on His love for us.

So who would you rather visit you this Christmas? Santa Claus? Or Grace Claus?

What would Jesus want for Christmas?

Ah, the Christmas season. The decorations go up, the presents get wrapped, people are in a mad frenzy to get everything done. We eat too much, stay up late, hope for snow. The house smells of cinnamon and pumpkin pie and the stores start early with Christmas carols and one can't help whistling or humming or singing along. Such a happy, joyful season, isn't it?

But amid those hoped-for happy feelings there lies the stress of shopping and wish lists and trying to please everyone. We agonize over what presents to buy each person and most often, instead of putting much thought into them, we simply ask them what they want and we buy it. There is little surprise, and, often the gifts are forgotten within weeks, if not days. Do you remember what you bought or were given three years ago? I didn't think so.

So why do we give these gifts that do not last? Well, because it's Jesus' birthday! We give gifts because the wise men gave him gifts! Right? That's what I've always heard, anyway. But something doesn't sit right with me about this explanation. Let's take a look at the Bible.

In the four gospels, Jesus' birth is mentioned in only two of them: Matthew and Luke. Of those two, it is only Matthew that mentions the wise men. Matthew 2:1-12 reads as follows:

1In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'" 7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

One of the first things we notice is that nobody knows where exactly Jesus is, only that the messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. The wise men are told to "search diligently" for the child. Secondly, we later see in verse 16 that Herod has all children aged two and under killed. From this we can see that the wise men probably did not arrive on the day of Jesus' birth (which probably wasn't anywhere near December 25th anyway, but that's a different story).

When the wise men enter the house (not a stable, mind you; that is in Luke's gospel) they do give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11). We also have no idea how many wise men there are--only that they give three gifts.

So, from this text on Jesus' birth, we see that Jesus was given three gifts, all unasked for. But what do we do on Christmas? We make out wish lists. We buy people all kinds of gifts, more and more and more, not just three. All "in honor of Jesus' birthday". But is it really? How does it honor Jesus? If we give gifts because the wise men did, then wouldn't it make more sense to maybe give gifts to the same person they gave them to? What would Jesus want for Christmas? Something tells me he doesn't have an wish list like I do. What did he ask for from people? I can't really find anything.

What did he give to people? He gave gifts of healing, of comfort, of hope. But he didn't limit it to one day of the year; it was year-round work for him.

So I ask you: why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on giving presents on one day of the year when the basis for it is so slim? We Christians are just as guilty of buying into the materialistic mentality of the "Christmas season" as anyone, even though we like to satisfy ourselves by saying that it is about Jesus. Is that what Jesus would want for Christmas?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

You're a mean one, Mr. Grinch...

Tonight as I flipped through the television channels, I happened to catch the original cartoon of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. It was cute and funny, just as I'd remembered, and the message was still the same--that Christmas would still come without any presents. And then we learn how the Grinch's heart grew three sizes that day (it was two sizes too small to begin with) and he returns the presents he'd stolen and even carves the roast beast.

It made me wonder what a Christmas without presents would be like. Would we still think of it as Christmas? Would our hearts shrink to the size of the Grinch's, or would we allow them to also grow three sizes? Christmas is SO commercial--lists of wants and decorations going up as early as makes me cranky each year.

But what if we had a Christmas where we did something odd like read and discussed the Biblical Christmas story, where we didn't worry about getting someone the perfect present that would be forgotten about in two weeks, or really pondered the meaning of what it means to have Jesus come into our lives unexpectedly? What would that kind of Christmas be like? And so that is the challenge this year--how can we focus more on the true meaning and less on the meanings we have come to attribute to it?

Perhaps we should become Grinches ourselves and take away the trees and decorations and presents and see what happens. Would Christmas still come?

Monday, September 25, 2006

True Vocation

The following is the text of the homily I gave at chapel this morning. It was my first one.

We tend to think of vocation as the job we want or the career we have. We often, upon meeting people for the first time, ask "what do you do?". Our identity may may be so entwined in what we do for a living that if we suddenly were not able to perform our job, we would feel lost, uncertain of who we are. And there are others of us who may have no idea what we want to do with our lives in this respect. People often change jobs four or five times during their lives. I myself have had numerous jobs–a waitress, a legal assistant, and a church secretary, among others.

Yet we each have a vocation that runs deeper than and supercedes all of that, and that is our vocation as Christians. It is this, the calling of Jesus, that is our primary vocation, and everything else comes second.

What is this calling? It is a call that echos to us from the very beginning. We all know the story well from our days in children's Sunday School: God created a beautiful perfect Garden of Eden, yet after Adam and Eve sinned, all humankind then lived in a less than perfect world where the inclination to sin often wins out over the inclination to do as God asks.

At first thought, it may seem that all is hopeless–what can be done to change the world? It's too big of a problem. Yet God had something in mind all along to rectify this situation, and it began with a single person.

In Genesis 12, we hear God call to Abram, saying to him: "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-4, NRSV).

In a world filled with idolatry, God chooses one man to follow Him, to start fresh and in which to begin something that will eventually bless the entire world. It's not a quick process. The many descendants promised to Abram take a very long time in coming. Abram even doubts it could happen: he believes he is too old (Genesis 17:17). But eventually he does have a son, Isaac, whose son Jacob becomes the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. They grow exceedingly numerous and maybe start to lose focus a bit. But later on, the prophet Isaiah reminds them of their vocation: they are God's servant whom God has given as "a light to the nations" (Isaiah 42:6). Their vocation, as individuals and collectively as a community, is to light the way to God, to show all people everywhere who the one true God is. They are to show people the life that He gives, the love that He has. Yet they fall short. Over and over again, we read how God's people turn their backs on Him and follow after other gods. They are not living out their calling. They are not being true to their vocation as a light to the rest of the world.

And so, after a time, someone comes to renew God's calling to be a light. Jesus says "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12). He decides that he will fulfill Israel's vocation. He is the one who is stepping up to lead people to knowing God. He is the one who is going to make an impact on the world and be the embodiment of what God told his ancestor Abram so many generations before. The vocation of bringing God to the world has come to the surface again.

And just as God told Abram that he would multiply him, Jesus also cannot do this alone. In the well-known Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his followers "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

Jesus calls his followers to be lights, just as he is a light. It may take different forms for different people, but is spread throughout all of our jobs and careers. A teacher, a nurse, a mechanic, a physicist, an artist, a custodian, a student...these are all secondary callings that can give a disciple of Jesus the opportunity to live out their primary vocation as a light to the rest of the world. We can even see Biblical examples of this. Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila were tentmakers by trade. Jesus himself most likely was a carpenter, trained by his carpenter father.

So the question we must ask ourselves is "am I letting my light shine?" We can do this in so many different ways. Was I short with someone or did I have patience with him? Did I decline to join in the gossip or did I speak freely? Did I eat lunch with the shy person sitting alone or did I join my big group of friends? Am I harboring anger towards a friend or am I trying to reconcile with him? Did I take the time to smile and say hi to the person in the hallway or did I hurry on my way? Am I loving to all people, including my enemies?

These are many small, yet not necessarily easy, ways in which we can let our light shine. But by doing so, we are fulfilling our vocation as Christians, our vocation to bring God's glory and light to the world. It is something we do not have to wait to do until we get an education or a promotion or a raise. It is something we can do right now. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:31, "whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God". If we recognize this as our vocation, we can help fulfill that promise given long ago to Abraham that the entire world will be blessed; we can join together as God's servant, bringing His light to the world. We do this both individually and collectively with other Christians. Our individual light will shine only a certain distance, but combined with many others, it can be as bright as the sun.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Faith in the midst of tragedy...

This blog is an such an example of faith in a tragic and disturbing circumstance.

P.S. I know I have not posted much lately; I have a couple of draft posts but I've been busy.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Why bother?: Introduction

I read an article on that a priest, Father Jonathan Morris, wrote regarding The DaVinci Code. The DaVinci code, is, of course, very controversial among Christians. Some people will preach against it, others will just ignore it, and others have either read it or will see the upcoming movie. What struck me in this article, though, was that Father Morris said:

"Dan Brown is capable of passing fiction for fact because Christians don’t know their faith — what and why they believe. That’s not Mr. Brown’s fault."
This is a statement with which I emphatically agree, yet with my yearning and passion for trying to understand why I believe what I do, I often feel that I am in the minority among Christians. It is probably fairly accurate to say that most Christians have no interest in learning the history or context of Biblical texts or the history of the development of Christianity.

One of my random quotes on the right side of this blog states that "Theology is seeking to understand with the intellect what the heart--a person's central core of character--already believes and to which it is committed". This is the first reason, I believe, why we ought to be more serious about studying different aspects about our Bible and our faith's history. If we only have a belief but do not know very much about that belief, how strong and deep can it truly be?
This post, therefore, is the introductory post to a series (I have no idea how long it will be) of posts in which I will explore different reasons for why this kind of study is important.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Knowing You

There's a song called "Knowing You" that has the following lyrics:

Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you
There is no greater thing
You're my all, you're the best
You're my joy, my righteousness
And I love you Lord

Knowing Jesus is probably what most Christians would say that being a Christian is about--that we really have to know Jesus, not just know about him. I don't disagree with that. What makes me sad though, is that I don't know how many people who say these even do know much about Jesus. There are people who do not know Jesus was Jewish. There are people who do not know that the scriptures that we call the "Old Testament" are the scriptures that Jesus knew, but he knew them in Hebrew. We celebrate his birth and we celebrate his resurrection. But do we know anything about the holidays that he celebrated? when we read about the last supper, and we see that Jesus blessed the bread and the wine, how many people know the words he used to do that?

How can we really come to know Jesus if we do not know anything about him, if we do not study what he did, said, or taught? Doesn't it only give us a superficial knowledge of him if all we can say is that he lives in our hearts?

It takes work to get to know a person. It takes time. But isn't that more of a treasure to find? If we do not work at knowing a person, how deep is the relationship?

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Heaven isn't too far away...

Those words are from the chorus to a song called "Heaven" by the group Warrant. The next line says "...closer to it every day". It's such a different view of the idea of heaven than we typically tend to think, isn't it? We usually think of heaven as a place we go after we die, not a present reality. Sure, maybe there are glimpses of it at times, but overall, it does seem pretty far-off and evasive. But is the idea of a far-off place to go consistent with Jesus' message?

It intrigues me that the idea of heaven that most people generally have has to do with life after death, but when we look at Jesus' first words of his public ministry as recorded by the author of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Matthew 4:17). Has come near. I wrote about this in a previous post so for this one I want to go in a different direction. Let's talk a little bit about this future place, and see just how far into the future it is.

We all probably tend to think, at some point or another, of sitting on fluffy white clouds playing harps. That's the image we've gotten over time, isn't it? It's also kind of boring, if you ask me. The idea probably comes from different images of worship in the Book of Revelation, but there is one image in particular that sticks with me. Let's take a look at it:

"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, 'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'" (7:9-10)
The part of these verses that strikes me is that this multitude is infinite; nobody can count it, and that it is people from all nations, all cultures. They are all worshiping together; they are all acknowledging God together. I also noticed it says they cried out in a loud voice, not in loud voices. There is no division among them, only unity. It's a beautiful image, isn't it?

Yet we don't have this yet. We have divisions between religions and within religions. We have our own ideas of how and what church and worship should be. Have we made it all too complicated? What would it be like if people could come together and worship God together? What would it be like if, instead of going to your regular church, you visited with and worshiped with people of a different denomination and/or culture for a short time, to see what it was like?

Perhaps, if we focused more on uniting with people worldwide, and less on "our church", more people would be influenced to turn to and worship God, and as Jesus and Warrant say, heaven will come just a little bit closer.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Have I Got a Gift for You...

A few months ago, I took a spiritual gifts survery again (well, actually, I took two of them, but more about that in a minute). For those of you who don't know, spiritual gifts surveys are used for Christians to find out what their spiritual gifts are so they can know in what capacity they can best do the work of the church. Good idea, right?

I used to think so. I'm not so sure anymore. I decided that I would take two of these surveys: one from the church I currently attend, and another that I had from a church that I used to attend. I'm glad I did this, because it showed me that spiritual gift surveys are not the best way to find out where one belongs. I had different gifts show up on each survey, and one that was high on one survey was low on the other.

And if they are all written down on a list, at which point in the list does one draw the line to show which are a person's gifts and which are not? At 11? 8?

Although Paul does mention spiritual gifts on a couple of different occassions, I think that with these surveys, we really are putting too much emphasis on it. Without them, sure, there are people who are volunteering in a capacity that perhaps they should not be. But with them, people may never try different areas because they feel locked into what the survey told them of their spiritual gifts.

Do I think there are spiritual gifts? Sure. But I think that the surveys can make it too boxed in. Find out what you love to do and what you are good at, and go from there. Use your talents and abilities to bring glory to God, and to bring God to others. Whether or not it is something that shows up on a spiritual gift survery doesn't really matter. Isn't that what we should be doing with what God gave us anyway?

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Statement of Faith

I subscribe to an e-mail newsletter from Emergent Village . They are usually very thought provoking, and this last one was especially thought provoking to me, so I thought I'd share a bit with you.

The topic of the newsletter was that this Emergent movement does not have a statement of faith, and that rattles some of the critics. Everyone should have a creed, right?

According to the newsletter, the idea of having a statement of faith is uncessary. It states:
Why is such a move unnecessary? Jesus did not have a "statement of faith." He called others into faithful relation to God through life in the Spirit. As with the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, he was not concerned primarily with whether individuals gave cognitive assent to abstract propositions but with calling persons into trustworthy community through embodied and concrete acts of faithfulness. The writers of the New Testament were not obsessed with finding a final set of propositions the assent to which marks off true believers. Paul, Luke and John all talked much more about the mission to which we should commit ourselves than they did about the propositions to which we should assent.

I always find it refreshing when people compare what we do in Christianity today with what Jesus did, because often, they are quite different. Jesus told people to go out into the world and make disciples; we bring them into our mega churches. Jesus made a radical statement about selling all that one has; we have to have lots of stuff. So is it really that surprising that there's a difference when it comes to having a statement of faith? I'd imagine that Jesus' statement of faith would be something like "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength...[and] your neighbor as yourself" (Mark 12:30, 31). Jesus didn't seem to be anywhere near as concerned with what people believed as he was with how they related to God and to each other.

Yet it seems that we are often so focused on making sure a person believes the "right" way, and there sometimes are a lot of apologetics to "prove" that a person's or organization's statement of faith is correct. I'm sure you may have seen them--long statements of "What We Believe" peppered with a handful of Bible verses after each statement. [Have you ever actually compared the verses to the statements to see if they match up? I have. Sometimes they are a big stretch and taken out of context].

The biggest problem that I see is that if one must subscribe to a statement of faith, then that person can feel very alone and left out if they disagree with any part of it. They may feel they have to keep quiet. They may feel that they are not a True Christian after all, or that people will think they are in Big Trouble with God.

It seems to me that we might have a lot more Christians if we were more encouraging in exploring and discussing different ideas rather than having them set in a creed.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Get your inflatable nativity set here!

--The following was written in October 2005--

An inflatable nativity set--just what I need!
In today's mail was a catalogue that advertised on the front cover an inflatable, 9 foot, light up nativity scene. The slogan next to it? "Over 220 new items to inspire faith!"

Hmmmm. How, exactly, is this supposed to inspire my faith? Maybe, as I am blowing it up, I am supposed to thank God for the breath He gave me, for the air to breathe. Oh, wait, no, that can't be it--the nativity scene comes "with built-in electric air blower for quick and easy inflation." I'll have to think some more. In the meantime, I wonder what other items are in here that could inspire my faith.

As I peruse the catalogue, I come across some foam footballs with a reindeer on them that say "Jesus is deer to me". Deer to me? I thought he was the Lamb of God.

Oh, here's what everyone needs: a "worry stone" to carry in your pocket that says "God Rocks" on it. God rocks? I thought God was the rock. Maybe I'll have better luck on another page.

Colors of faith candy jewelry? Gingerbread church kit? "Smile! Jesus Loves You! Kick Balls" (hacky sacks)? I'm supposed to kick around something that tells me Jesus loves me? That seems a little odd.

So I guess there isn't anything inspiring about this cataloge. Oh wait, there is...I'm inspired to read where Jesus got angry at the moneychangers in the Temple for possibly taking advantage of people who needed to buy blemish-free animals for sacrifice. It's a story many Christians love, isn't it? Oh, those bad moneychangers--using God's house as a marketplace.

So tell me how this catalogue is any different.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Seek and you shall find?

I'm currently re-reading The Callby Os Guinness. Since I decided that seminary was not going to work out at this point in time, I need to re-evaluate some things. But one thing that caught my attention is Guinness' discussion on seekers in Chaper 2. In Christianity the term commonly describes someone with no religious background who is attracted to "seeker services" where Christianity is made relevant through entertaining music and dramas and exciting preaching. Guinness writes that these people are described as "conversion prone". They are somewhat aimless when it comes to spiritual or religious direction. They are the ones who will go to that service and emotionally respond to the altar call.

Guinness has a different definition of a seeker. He believes that a true seeker is different from this, that they have purpose, energy, idealism. They have questions and want answers. He writes that "they have become seekers because something has spured their quest for meaning, and they have to find an answer. True seekers are looking for something" (10).

It is this kind of a seeker with which I identify. While I do not at all discount the "conversion prone" type of seeker, because I am sure that with their conversion new life is forthcoming, that kind of experience does not really resonate with me. I know that many people are happy to have a conversion experience and feel that they now know what life is all about. Their faith has come alive and that is a wonderful thing.

I, however, need more than that. Singing hymns or praise songs and listening to a sermon each week really does not do that much for me. I love to delve deep into the Bible and ask the questions that the majority of Christians would probably never think about. Things like why is there a specific way to wear clothing in Exodus 12:11? Or how did "choose life" in Deuteronomy 30, which originally meant to follow God's commands, get co-opted as the pro-life slogan? Or why do the synoptic gospels have different lists of the 12 disciples?

These are some of the things I wonder about, and many people would think I am probably too particular or nitpicky in wanting to know these details. But to me, pondering these things and getting into the details is like opening a gift or finding a hidden treasure. It forces me to think, to question, to doubt, to have faith. And in all of this, I grow. Sometimes it is a great struggle; sometimes nothing makes sense at all. But the less it makes sense, I think the more I have to depend on trusting God.

Sometimes my thoughts have to be radically revised. Sometimes I question some of the very tenets of Christianity and it's origins. But it is exciting too, because I learn more and more. And I think that the more I read the Bible and seek to understand it's history, it's context, it's culture, it's worldview, the more amazing I find what is contained within.

I'm also reading another book (yeah, I'm reading two--okay, three or four, actually--books at once. It's complicated.) called The Secret Message of Jesus by Brian McLaren, which was just released this month. At the end of Chapter 4, he writes the following:

"Is it possible that the message ofJesus was less like an advertising slogan--obvious and loud--and more like a poem whose meaning only comes subtly and quietly to those who read slowly, think long and deeply, and refuse to give up?" (34).

As I read that, I thought, "hey, that's me!" With the more and more questions that I have had as time has gone by, I think many people would have given up by now. But I continue my quest, my search, and I seek to find the different messages God has for me.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Where would Jesus go... church?

When I think about the myriad of denominations and houses of worship there are, I wonder if Jesus would feel at home in them. When we read the stories of Jesus' life, although we know he went to synagogue, it's not a main point. It's more of an aside. He spent time with people in their homes, on a hillside, in boats, etc. He went to where people were; he didn't bring them to where he was. It seems we maybe have it backwards today. We try to figure out ways to draw people in so we can convince them that they need Jesus. We want them to think church is not some weird place; that it is culturally relevant. So we have powerpoint presentations with the lyrics to songs, we build gymnasiums, we even have Starbucks and ATMs. We want everything to go perfectly, so that people will come back again and again.

Would Jesus feel comfortable there?

Did Jesus care about making people say "wow!"? On the contrary, he told people not to talk about the miracles he did. Did Jesus care about everything going perfectly? Probably not, since he had a group of more than 5000 and there was not enough food. That's not good planning, now, is it?

But these are the things we have to deal with and think about in Christianity today. And I wonder if maybe we're missing the point.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"Be a lion, not a mowess..."

We all know the lion in The Wizard of Oz--the supposed king of the beasts lacked a little something to enable him to do well in his position--courage. It was the one thing that he desired from the wizard, and Dorothy and Company agreed to take him with them.

The idea of courage came to me recently as I read though the gospel of John, most specifically, in chapter 18. Let's back up a little bit though. Previously, in chapter 13, Jesus had identified Judas as the one who would betray him1 and Judas left the meal. Throughout the next few chapters, the author of this gospel relates many of Jesus' sermons. We hear about the vine and branches, the persecution to come, glorification of God, and other ideas. After Jesus speaks of these things, he and the disciples leave and go to a garden across the Kidron valley, and that is where we see the first instance of courage. We are told that "Jesus often met there with his disciples" (verse 2). Often met there. It was a place he often went. Do you understand where I am going with this? Jesus, knowing that Judas was going to betray him, did not choose to hide out in an obscure location, but went to a place where Judas would know to find him!

The next thing Jesus does is that he comes forward and asks the soldiers and police who they are looking for. They tell him they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth and he says "I am he" (verse 6). The text then tells us that "they stepped back and fell to the ground" (verse 6). Can you just see the confusion on their faces? The person they have come to arrest is the one asking them who they want and admitting who he is? It's not exactly a scenario we'd see on the television show Cops, is it?

It's hard to imagine, isn't it? Knowing that he had caused enough of an uproar to be arrested and that it would lead to his death, he basically says "hey, here I am". I'm not sure I have that kind of courage in me. What must he have thought at that time? Did he wonder if it was all really worth it? Did he wonder if his disciples would ever really understand the things he had tried to teach him?

While I can't identify with the courage he had, I can identify with the possibility of these thoughts. How often do we wonder if we have had an impact on people when we hope we did? We may never know. If we are teachers, we wonder if our students understand what we teach, or if they just don't care.

And, in the face of those possible questions, he still had the courage to admit who he was, knowing his death would be imminent. How many of us possess this kind of courage? The strength that Jesus had to face this had to have come from somewhere, and that somewhere was from the Father. Jesus believed he was doing God's will; that he was being totally obedient to God. And that is what we also ought to strive for, and in doing so, can have the same kind of strength and courage.

1 It appears from my reading of the text that only Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved were privy to hearing this conversation.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

All dogs go to heaven...

Ok, so I've never actually seen the movie All Dogs Go To Heaven, but I liked the title of it for this entry. According to the summary, a dog named Charlie is murdered and goes to Heaven "by default since all dogs go to heaven".

"Going to heaven" is a big preoccupation for many people. Yet, "in fact, there is almost nothing about 'going to heaven when you die' in the whole New Testament. Being 'citizens of heaven' (Philippians 3.20) doesn't mean you're supposed to end up there. Many of the Philippians were Roman citizens, but Rome didn't want them back when they retired. Their job was to bring Roman culture to Philippi."1 What? But...but...isn't that what our entire faith is about? Making sure we believe the right thing so we can go to heaven when we die?

Is that all we're concerned about? Is the only important thing to get our butts into Heaven? (I picked up that phrase from Brian McLaren's book A New Kind of Christian). He wonders if God really wants a heaven full of people who only want to make sure they get there, rather than making sure they are good people. But, you may say, them's the rules...God said to believe in Jesus and that's it. That's the ticket in. All one's good works won't get a person to heaven.

I think, though, we're forgetting something. In the beginnng of the Gospel of Matthew, both John the Baptist and Jesus are telling people to repent because the kingdom of heaven has come near. Has come near. The kingdom of heaven. They aren't saying repent so you can some day go to heaven if you believe Jesus died for your sins and was resurrected. None of that had even happened yet and nobody was even thinking about it yet. Maybe Jesus wasn't even thinking about it yet.

So what is going on here?

We're not talking about simply saying "oh, I'm sorry I did such and such". It's so much more than that. Repentance is about not only being sorry, but turning one's life around in a way that one is going in a different direction. In this case, the direction one should go is toward God. He's not "out there somewhere", but is nearby. What they are saying is that we can turn our lives around to meet God right here, right now, and our lives can be surrendered to Him. He's the one in charge of our lives. He is our king. His kingdom can be present right now.

Maybe that is a letdown for some of you. Maybe you're just itching to escape this life so you can have a heavenly one later on. But is that what it's all about? If Jesus came so that we could have abundant life (John 10:10), wouldn't that mean that life could be abundant now as well as later? Earlier, I mentioned a quotation from N.T. Wright that said being a citizen of Rome that lived in Philip didn't mean Rome wanted them back, but that they were to bring Roman culture to Philipi. If that is the case, then doesn't it mean that as a citizen of Heaven, we are to bring God's culture to where we are, rather than waiting to go somewhere later on?

When we are so preoccupied about where we're going when we die, not only do we miss out on living an abundant life right now, but we then can become fixated on where other people are going when they die. And then it gets really sticky. You may say that a person won't go unless they "accept Jesus as their personal savior". So then what happens when a child dies unexpectedly? Or a mentally challenged adult who does not have the ability to understand? Or someone who may just be starting to get their life together and wonder about God but then has a heart attack? In these instances, we often may believe more in God's grace that He'll take care of these people. So why do we not extend that grace to other people just because they haven't "accepted Jesus"? What do we know of their stories? How do we know that they haven't been so hurt by a Christian that they want nothing to do with anything related to that person? Or maybe their questions have been brushed aside and they've been made to feel dumb for asking. When we pronounce our judgment on a person based on what we think they are saying, we are not seeing the whole picture. We are not seeing the confusion or pain a person may be feeling, and when we say they're going to hell, we're contributing to it.

And then we have the Christians who may believe the right thing, but you would never know it by their actions. They may know the extact date and time, right down to the second, of their conversion to Christianity. But how has it changed them?

The idea of "going to Heaven" is one that is much more complicated, I think, then we might led to believe. There are many questions, and, I suspect, many more opportunities for grace than we can imagine.

1Wright, N.T. "Easter: Wright and Wrong"

What interests us about Jesus?

In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Louis Wilken writes that "One of the persistent criticism of the Christology of the early church is that the church fathers, particularly those who were associated with Alexandria in Egypt, were interested in the fact of the Incarnation, not in the things that were done by the incarnate Son of God during his sojurn on earth" (page 117).

What Wilken is trying to say is that there is this criticism that these early church fathers were more interested in the Incarnation happening that they seem to forget about anything else Jesus did in his lifetime.

In some ways, I don't think much has changed. As Christians, our two biggest holidays are Christmas, celebrating Jesus' birth, and Easter, celebrating his resurrection. We don't have any holidays celebrating the rest of his life. It's almost like it is an afterthought at times. But it really should not be that way. If it was supposed to be that way, our New Testament would be an awful lot shorter than it is, wouldn't it?

I think that many Christians today are similar to the early church fathers (though I am sure many would recoil at that idea). It seems that we could re-write Wilken's statement to say that a criticism of Christians today is that they are more [interested in the factof going to Heaven after one dies and not in the things that were done by the incarnate Son of God during his sojurn on earth].

Yet while I believe that most Christians would agree that Jesus' life is important, I also find there to be a disconnect between what we would agree is important and what is stressed as important.

Sometimes it seems that Jesus' life is secondary to making sure that a person goes to heaven after death. But we are not God. We do not know exactly what is in store for anyone. We also then have the problem that there are Christians who will then be somewhat paranoid that a person did not really believe the exact right way, or say the exact right prayer, or, in other words, was not a "True Christian".

I find this all to be rather sad and disturbing, for a variety of reasons. By thinking this way, we put ourselves in God's place. Who are we to judge the faith of another person? We also give the impression that a person's life here on earth is fairly irrelevant in the big scheme of things. I know that a response to that is that eternity is a long time and so our life now is minor.

I don't mean to be too cynical, and most of the churches I have attended have not made it a point to offer "altar calls" at each service and actually have not spoken a lot about going to heaven. But I also know that the idea is out there and I think it deserves some attention, especially with Easter fast approaching.

So stay tuned...

Friday, March 17, 2006

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD...

I recently saw this phrase, a verse from Psalm 33, on a church bulletin cover in a catalogue. There was an array of patriotic themes, showing pictures of the statue of liberty or various buildings in Washington, D.C. I've also seen the statue of liberty shown with the words "proclaim liberty throughout the land" (that one is from Leviticus 25).

There is a big danger in tying together our faith and our country of citizenship. By doing so, not only does the line between them blur, but we also then can start to think that any Bible verses about God's nation or God's people is really about the country in which we live.

So by now, you might be starting to think "you are so unpatriotic!" or "but this is a Christian nation". Before you get too upset, hear me out.

While we may be a nation in which a majority of people identify themselves as Christians, that does not mean that we are a Christian nation. We do not have a state religion, and that is a very good thing. It means that we are all free to worship as we please. It means that identify as Christians we are not doing so because that is just what our country has picked as its religion, but because we believe it. It might also be beneficial to try to look at our country with an outsider's eyes. Does "Christian nation" match up with what this country stands for? If someone only today became aware of our country and heard that it was a Christian nation, what would they learn about what it means to be a Christian? Would they learn that a Christian is one who is told to sell all his possessions and follow Jesus?1 Or would they learn a Christian is one who accumulates many possessions--car, house, computers, tvs...? Is this a nation whose God is the Lord? Or is this a nation whose God is consumerism?

The phrase "God bless America" is one that easily rolls off of the tongues of many. But what does it mean to be a nation that is blessed? Does it mean that we have everything we want and are powerful and that life is perfect? It does not. Remember Abraham? In Genesis 12, God told him to leave his country and family and go to wherever God would lead him. He told Abraham (still named Abram at the time) that He would bless him and make him a great nation "so that you will be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2). Being blessed by God was not something Abraham "earned" or "deserved", but rather, it was something that brought great responsibility with it. Abraham and his descendents were to be a blessing to "all the families of the earth" (Genesis 12:3).

So when we say we are a nation that is blessed by God, do we understand the ramifications of being blessed? Do we take that blessing and in turn, bless others? How?

So to get back to the problem with mixing patriotism and faith. When we mix the two together, what happens when there is a conflict between the two? Which one wins out? If patriotism demanded that one give up practicing what one believed, is that acceptable? Or if faith demanded that one give up believing in one's country, could that be done? If we had a state religion, then wouldn't what we practiced be dictated to by the laws that were made? How many Christians would like it if the state religion decreed that the sabbath2 would no longer be observed on Sunday but rather they were going to switch it to Wednesday instead? I think this is one of the things that proponents of a "Christian nation" do not think about. I think that while they want Christianity to influence government decisions, they do not realize that it would have to work both ways and that government decisions would also influence Christianity.3

Often, we hear about laws that need to be instituted or we need to have Ten Commandments monuments or nativity scenes on display because "this is a Christian nation". But why do we? Why do we need to have secular agreement with how we already practice our faith? Shouldn't our faith be practiced no matter what decisions the government does or does not make? If we are not practicing our faith in our own homes and in our own lives, why should we demand that the entire nation submit to it?

1 "'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the por, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions."--Matthew 19:21-22

2 Sabbath in this context refers to the Christian sabbath that takes place on Sunday. The Biblical Sabbath takes place from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.

3 Isn't this how we ended up calling Sunday the sabbath anyway? When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, didn't Constantine declare Sunday would be the sabbath?

Friday, March 10, 2006

Ok. So you're a believer. Now what?

My sister Sarah informed me yesterday that I hadn't updated my blog in a few days [note to Sarah: see, I specifically wrote about you. Check.]. Although I'm sure she knew that I had definitely noticed that I hadn't posted anything, because, well, it is my blog, I don't think that was her point. I think what she actually meant was that she was disappointed that I hadn't posted anything in five days. I've had a couple of ideas for posts floating around in my head and I have one post that I've been working on but haven't finished yet, so there really is stuff going on in the background. But I didn't want to go too long without writing something, so here is today's entry.

Let's talk about being a believer. Many Christians often get concerned if their friends or family members are not believers. This causes great concern for them, especially when the topic of death comes up. However, using the term "believer" really falls in the Christianese language, and even moreso, I think, in the Evangelical1 Christianese language. Other people will think, "Am I a believer? A believe in what, the trustworthyness of tabloids? Or that jellyfish really hurt when they sting?" There's often no context for the term. But for the gung-ho Evangelical, it typically comes down to one thing: does this person believe the right stuff about Jesus so he or she can go to heaven after death? This is an idea that many people find offensive--that there is only one right way to believe. "Offensive?" the evangelical might say. "Sure it's offensive. Jesus wasn't worried about offending people so neither am I". [Note to the evangelical saying this: Jesus wasn't worried about being offensive to the religious people. Think on that a little bit.]

So where was I? Oh, yes, being a believer. So we have people out there who are determined to make believers out of non-believers, and non-believers who are just as determined to not become as narrow-minded and judgemental as they see in the personalities of the believers. Lovely situation, is it not? Ghandi commented on this too. He said, or so I hear, that he liked Jesus, but didn't think much of Jesus' followers. Ouch.

So what are we to do? Here's an idea. Why don't we stop focusing so much on what a person believes about Jesus and more on how to become a disciple of Jesus? After all, Jesus did say "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19), which I think is actually much more difficult than simply being a believer. After all, I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't believe. But I know for sure that I was not always a disciple.

And that's where I see a disconnect come in. Sometimes it seems that there is so much focus on getting people to believe something so they can go to heaven someday that their life here on earth is virtually counted as meaningless. "But isn't that really what is important?", one might say. "After all, the length of this life is nothing compared to the length of eternity." And that's true. But I think our lives here do mean something, and I think that "eternal life" is not limited to some future, faraway place called Heaven. This idea came to me some time ago when I was reading a commentary on the Gospel of John [note to Sarah, who doesn't like "documented" writing--this won't take too long]. In it, the author writes that the Greek word for eternal, aionios, does not necessarily mean "for a long span of time", but rather, the kind of life that God would live (I have been looking and looking for a direct quotation, but I can't find it. I'll update this post if I ever do find it). So it's more than just something that we are supposed to look forward to some day down the road. It's a kind of fulfillment we can have now, here on earth, in this life. Isn't that something that will make more of a difference to a person? That life here can be so much better than one ever thought? If an afterlife is something that we can't really fathom, and also is something the Bible actually does not spend a lot of time discussing, why then, is it such a focus for us?

This isn't to say that belief is unimportant. But rather than being the finish line, I think it is just the beginning of the journey, and it is discipleship that will lead us on.

1Please note that I think the word evangelical is difficult to define. If you're really interested in exploring the topic further, I refer you to an article called "Evangelical Theology Today" in Volume 51, 1994-1995, January issue, of Theology Today. For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to use one of the categories from the article, which quotes George Marsden saying an evangelical is one with "a zeal to proclaim the biblically revealed gospel of salvation from sin through the atoning work of Christ" (496). I think when most people hear the word "evangelical" it is associated with those Christians who are of a more vocal nature in their beliefs about Jesus and their beliefs about getting everyone saved.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Bible--important because...?

Ah, the Bible. I've heard it is the bestselling book of all time. It comes in many different translations or paraphrases. It comes in different sizes and colors. There are Bibles for men, Bibles for women, Bible for small-group study, Bibles for children, and even Bibles that look like magazines that are made especially for teenagers (one must make the Bible look cool to carry around, right?). There is even a Bible for text-messaging. We've heard of Bible-thumpers, Bible study groups, and Bible colleges. So what is it about this book that it is of importance to people around the world?

For some people, it's nothing more than a literature book. It has some stories that may or may not be true, some poetry, and way too many begats to count.

Is the Bible an easy read? No. There are many passages that are difficult because of language issues or translation issues or because the reader does not have the requisite background to understand the context of the passage. Picture this: "What? I need some pigeons? Aaron? Who is Aaron? That guy I knew from work? But his sons weren't priests; they weren't even Catholic. No, maybe I need grain. It says if this is prepared on a griddle...pancakes? Well, I am kind of hungry. Maybe I'll go to IHOP". And the person puts the Bible down, likely to not bother picking it up again because he or she did not understand the history, culture, and context of those verses in Leviticus (they are in chapters 1 and 2, in case you were wondering).

But for many people, the Bible is the the place to go for answers to life's questions, to read about how God has interacted with the world throughout time, and to learn how to apply its truths to one's life. This is something that takes time, and in our world of fast food, video on demand, and instant everything, time is something that many of us do not have because we are constantly on the go. Even those of us who profess its importance often do not open it up regularly. I know I have bouts of time where I do read and study it, and bouts of time where I can't remember the last time I read from it.

One of the amazing things about the Bible is that it can speak to us in different ways at different times in different stages of our lives. In an earlier post, I wrote of hearing Psalm 103 at the Ash Wednesday service I attended. Have I read this psalm before? Yes. I'd read through all of them sometime this past summer. Had I noticed anything about it then? Not that I can recall. But this time was different. This time, the psalm spoke to me where I needed to hear something. And that is something that is so powerful about the Bible that cannot really be explained without experiencing it.

So get into the Bible. Don't think that just because you've read the Gospel of Mark 37 times that you can't find anything new in it on the 38th read. You never know what you'll find that will encourage you, strengthen you, or even confuse you.

One final note. It's good to have a study group or partner to read and discuss your findings. Don't have time to go to a meeting? Study something with a friend online or by telephone. Take as long as you need; there's no reason to rush through it.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Topics, topics, and more topics

While I have a list of topics started that I'd like to write about as the mood strikes me, if you have any suggestions about what you would like to read about, feel free to post them here!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash Wednesday--Part III

I've been thinking all evening about the ashes on my forehead. Well, not all evening, because at times I have completely forgotten about them. But that forgetting is a way of thinking. After they were put on my forehead at church, I really didn't think too much of it until I was in the restroom after the service. I looked in the mirror and saw them--a dark, smudged cross, and I was reminded there was something different about today; there was something different about me celebrating this day. I left, and promptly forgot about them again. I arrived at Bible Study, and a friend said, "oh, you went to the service tonight". For a second I wondered how he knew that, and then I remembered--my ashes. It got me to thinking about marks or symbols of belonging. In her book Girl Meets God, Lauren Winner writes about the boldness of ashes, that they are "a bold proclamation of death and resurrection all at once", that this cross on our foreheads is not a "polite, small slice of silver dangling around [her] nceck but easily slipped behind [her] blouse. The ash cross is bold, and undeniable" (121).

When I first read those words, I thought, "yeah, so?" But I think I understand them now, even after only having worn the ashes for a few hours. It's a mark that is undeniable. It is there for all to see. It is there for the one wearing it to see. There are some people who probably think symbols or traditional things such as this are outdated and irrelevant to living a Christian life today. But are they? How many other days does a Christian look in the mirror and immediately remember that he or she is a Christian? Or is it something that is set aside, forgotten, like when I forgot my ashes were there?

It's easy to go through daily life forgetting about faith. It is easy to go through daily life without a distinction of who we are. But today is different. Today we are reminded of who we are when we are told there's dirt on our face, or people look at us in a funny way when we go to the store, or we simply look in the mirror.

I think it's the mirror that is the most important. In that mirror, we can remind ourselves who we are. We can be think about what this means to us, what our faith means to us. We can, at the very least, have some time of introspection that we may not set aside any other day of the year.

And so this season of prayer, this season of repentance, begins with a simple act of boldness, a simple, silent proclamation to all who see us. And in that simplicity we can find multitudes of meaning.

Ash Wednesday--Part II

I can't remember the last time I went to an Ash Wednesday service. But I went tonight, and I have a dark cross smudged on my forehead to show for it. I also have more than that, but what is more is internal, with no outer expression to show. So instead what follows are my thoughts on some of the things I heard tonight.

It was a solemn occassion. The lights had been dimmed, and a candelabra with three candles was lit. Tiny glasses of grape juice were lined up on the altar rail; communion bread on small plates placed every so often.

The pastor spoke of forgiveness. He read Psalm 103, a psalm of praise, a psalm of God's blessing and love. A psalm of God's forgiveness. We had the cross placed on our foreheads, ate the bread, and drank the grape juice. We sang "Amazing Grace". We left, greeting each other with a traditional greeting, "Peace be with you...and also with you". It was a short service, no more than half an hour.

To me, the idea of forgiveness seemed to follow from a sermon from a couple of weeks ago. We were challenged to forgive those that had hurt us the most. People can hang on to this kind of pain for so very long, weeks...months...years...decades. Yet it does not bring healing. It stays under the surface and festers, and nobody but the person harboring the pain can know what it does. Sometimes, it isn't even another person that has caused the pain. It is oneself.

But what does Psalm 103 tell us? That God forgives all of our iniquity (verse 3), that He redeems our lives (verse 4), that he will not keep his anger forever (verse 9). And then, amazingly, it says:

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. (verses 10-12)

God can forgive us. His love is so strong, so powerful enough that He can forgive what we do. Yet we have such a problem offering that same love to others and to ourselves. Perhaps Lent is not something you have ever given much thought to, have never observed. But perhaps it is also a time to try something new. Spend this time reflecting on God's love. Think about the freedom to be felt when it is time to let go of the hurt you have endured. And let it go. Put down the heavy burden that is dragging you down, and soar.

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, the inaugural day for the Christian season of Lent. In many ways, Lent is not much of a thought for most people, and in many churches, its significance is not discussed too much. Some people may go to church and have ashes put on their foreheads, others will not give it a second thought.

Lent is supposed to be a time of repentance, prayer, and self-denial, and the ashes signify mortality and repentance.

I've never really felt a connection to this season. I have some memories of not being able to eat meat on Fridays when I was a kid, and I probably gave something up, but nothing really sticks out to me. In the last few years, I did give up a couple of things for Lent. One year, it was chocolate. Another year, it was Starbucks. It definitely was not easy, and I guess that is the point of Lent--to understand that the things we give up, no matter how difficult, is really nothing compared to Jesus giving up his life. But I have a difficult time connecting a minor sacrifice like giving up chocolate with that.

So perhaps this year I will try to focus on prayer. I often fluctuate between spending a decent amount of time in prayer and forgetting all about it. I did try it once--I thought I'd get up and pray for the first fifteen minutes each morning. Not being a morning person, this did not work out very well at all. I'll have to do something different this time, but the details may have to be worked out as I go. It sounds like a good idea though--there can't be anything wrong with prayer, and who wouldn't want to benefit from spending more time with God?

"Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today"--1 Kings 8:28

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

So what kind of a Christian are you?

I suppose you could call me ecumenical or interdenominational. I grew up going to two different churches--Catholic and Congregational. I remember when we would say the Nicene Creed I would leave out the "catholic" part when I was at the Catholic church because I couldn't in good conscience say there was only the catholic church. Of course, now that I know it doesn't mean Catholic, I have to laugh about it. But it does make me wonder how much we do or recite without really knowing why we do it or what it means.

I gave up on church for a while, and when I went back, I ended up at a Presbyterian (USA) church. I also have attended a Baptist church and I currently attend a United Methodist church. The seminary where I have been working on my M.Div is of the Wesleyan tradition. I've also been greatly influenced by what I've learned from my Jewish friends. So I'm fairly well-rounded, and I like looking at things from these different perspectives.

Monday, February 27, 2006

And so it begins...

I've now joined the ranks of millions of other people who, for one reason or another, have created a blog. Some use them to write about current events such as politics, some write about conspiracy ideas, some use them to keep friends and family members updated on life events. Still others write very personal journal entries to anonymously share with the world. Whatever the reason, one's blog is one's own place to write about anything.

And so with my blog, I've scratched the itch to put my thoughts into (hopefully) coherent words. I invite you to join me on this journey of exploration of topics of faith and the Bible.