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