Public Service Announcement: Poverty Isn’t Seasonal

2 (7)‘Tis the season to carry spare change, right?

At my faith community we raised over $2000 this week for the hunger advocacy center we helped to start a few years ago.  We made over 200 meals for gay/bi/trans/queer teens and served them in Boystown on Thursday.  And we packed up over 40 complete Thanksgiving meals for the food insecure in our neighborhood.

Oh, and we fed ourselves that night, too.  Five turkeys, every side-dish you might imagine, wine, cider, and a partridge in a pear tree (extra delicious).

It was awesome.

But the sad thing is that with exception for the 200 meals (we do that monthly), we only do this once a year.

I mean, we do other things in other seasons, but we only do this particular type of feasting once a year.

And, despite what we might want to think, poverty isn’t seasonal.

Do we donate at this time of year so that people can have a “nice Christmas”?  What about making sure that people have a nice life?


Thank God we can reach into our pockets once a year to donate a little more…how generous of the haves…

(and I’m a have)

Dave Ramsey had this terrible list out about a year ago, and it caused a little stink.  In it he lists the 20 habits of the rich (that, the not-so-subtle inference is, keeps them rich) and pits them against what he calls “the poor.”

It’s at this moment that I encourage you to look up Luke 6:20.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  You know that word “poor” the Gospel writer uses there?  It’s an economic term, not a spiritual term (though Matthew makes it a spiritual term, perhaps to soften the blow).

And how nice of Ramsey to pit the rich against the poor.  No need to draw such lines, Ramsey. Life does it well enough without your help, but thanks for contributing.

It caused such a stink, though, that Ramsey followed it up with an explanation (keep scrolling in the article to see what I’m talking about).  He defends himself by saying that what he posted “is a simple list outlining the habits of the poor versus the habits of the rich.”

The problem is that the list isn’t simple at all (and that there are serious philosophical problems with the whole thing).

It’s not simple because Ramsey imagines that the discussion is just about behavior.  But poverty is not simply about behavior.  I know out of work men and women who work harder than those of us with jobs, and for much less reward.

It’s not about behavior; it’s about systems.

And if there’s one big mistake that I think Ramsey makes it’s that he mistakes privilege for what he presents as “common sense.”

How lovely that you are wealthy enough to eat fresh fruits and vegetables.  How nice that you have the ability to focus on “one goal” in your day.  It probably means that you have access to a supermarket and only one job.

And you read for pleasure?! Bully!

I’m relatively wealthy; no denying that.  I have a bank account, savings, and we have a college plan set up for our children.  I have investments and disposable income.  We have a car, and when it needs fixing we can usually fix it right away. I never wonder how I’m going to eat, and I am (for the most part) not worried about how I’m going to keep the roof over our heads. Our son goes to daycare twice a week, and we fully pay for it. I read for pleasure and for work and spend more a week on coffee than any reasonable human being should (I’m working on it…).

I say all of the above not to make anyone feel bad, but to give myself…and you, reader…a gently disturbing thought: one of the fears that I have is that our participation in the systems of poverty is given a nice little exclamation point by our sense of generosity at “this time of year.”

I’m looking forward to giving a little more this Christmas.  More to my neighbor and more to God.

And then I’m hopeful that in doing so I might one day learn to give more on December 26th, too.  And May 9th.  And July 12th.  And…

Because poverty isn’t seasonal, and I want to remember that a Merry Christmas isn’t the same as a merry life.

It Would Be a Mistake to Give Up Sharing the Peace in Church

kids-high-fivingThom Rainer posted an article on Saturday entitled “The Top 10 Ways Churches Drive Away First-Time Guests.”

It was a Twitter poll that he conducted.  The compiled answers drew some surprising, and not so surprising, responses.  I kind of love these polls because they’re largely a practice in the discipline of, “See?  Someone will hate something…”

The people are too pushy or too distant.  They’re not sincere enough (subjective anyone?).  Or the building is poorly laid out and poorly marked.

Actually, that last one is a real issue…

I mean, there is no way to please everyone.

But one of the surprising responses is what Rainer calls “The stand up and greet everyone time.”

Which is an un-fancy way of saying, “The sharing of the peace of Christ.”

And here is where we see what happens when practices lose their roots.

Because the practice of sharing the peace is not a “stand up and greet everyone time.”  It is not done to make friends, and it is not done to welcome guests or visitors.

It is not done to chat about your week, and it not done to make you feel uncomfortable.

The sharing of the peace is a rite as old as the first church where (and you can read about it in the books of 1 Peter, Romans, 2 Corinthians) the church is instructed to greet one another with a “holy kiss.”

In fact, ancient Roman authorities called Christians a “kissing cult” because of this practice.

Now, don’t expect a kiss from me on a Sunday morning unless you’re my grandmother’s age, my child, or my wife.  That being said, you could get lucky 😉

But back to the point at hand, this is a liturgical act.  It has deep meaning which we can see in many ways as being Christ breathing on the disciples in the hours after his resurrection where he gives them his peace.  You can see it as a redemption of the kiss of condemnation that Judas gives Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

And yes it involves touching.  We’re a touch-starved humanity these days.

And yes it is intimidating for introverts and too opportunistic for extroverts.  But community is as much about being stretched in our comfortability as it is being stretched in our restraint.

And yes it is time-consuming.  I’m not a big fan of extended periods of handshaking.  I’m usually a two to three person shaker/hugger/kisser, and then I’m all for moving on.

But, and let me be clear on this, I think it’s something that we can’t afford to do without.

Because in a world where you get shot at for wearing a hoodie in the wrong neighborhood, we need to learn how to approach people we don’t know in peace.  Because in a world where you won’t let your child play in the yard or talk to people they don’t know, we need a space where it is safe for us to interact in holy ways.

Because in a world where you might wonder if peace actually exists anywhere, what with the 24 hour news cycles of violence and the constant trumpeting of the next terrorist threat, there must be a place where we can embody the peace that Christ calls us to.

We need to be respectful.  We need to honor that some people can’t be touched for whatever reason, that safe touch is on the hand, that not everyone likes hugs.  We have to understand that.

But we can’t not share the peace just because it’s not comfortable.

And I don’t care if it is flu season.  Bow toward the person if you don’t want to make contact.  But realize that your hand may be the only hand that person touches that week.  If you don’t think that’s true, imagine the widow, or the homeless, or the person with a deformity that keeps people away, and then imagine you withdrawing your hand during a time where we greet one another with the peace of Christ.

You might be the embodiment of grace they need.

We’ll high-five at the bar but not at church?  We’ll high-five in the sports arena but not in the pew?

I’m sorry folks, but if sharing the peace of Christ will keep you away from church, I’m not sure you’re ready for community.

By God, share the peace.

“Jesus Wouldn’t Like That…” and “What Would Jesus Do” Shouldn’t Be Uttered Anymore

I once had a teaimagescher in High School tell me that Jesus wouldn’t like that I told a kid to kiss my ass.

He was probably right, I guess, if I thought Jesus had an opinion on my language when there are wars to be fought and bellies to be fed and slavery to be abolished and the kid in my theater class was getting picked on by another teacher because he had good hair and he liked  to shop more than he liked shop class, and nobody said anything about it.

Not to mention that the kid I had cursed at had been picking on me mercilessly for two years, and I finally had gotten the nerve to tell him that I wasn’t interested in being a chew toy for him to throw around to impress his friends anymore.

I wonder if Jesus has an opinion about that.

We talk about Jesus all the time as if Jesus is opining about our every move, and while part of me thinks this is a healthy response to a theology that reinforces the nearness of God, it can sometimes just be plain stupid.

As catch-22 as “What Would Jesus Do,” when we imagine that Jesus wouldn’t “like” a particular action, I wonder what kind of guilt we think we’re laying on the person.  I think that they’re “Rubik’s Cube” questions.  We puzzle them about, except that with these cubes, there’s no solution.

I think we ask these questions and make these statements because we’re trying to escape the fact that we don’t like it and we don’t know what to do (or we do, but we’d like to pretend we don’t so that we can justify our actions by saying we prayed on it).

When we’re held up a mirror and the truth about ourselves is exposed, we don’t like it.

Truth is, that teacher saw that kid pick on me about 10 times a week for two years.  I wonder if Jesus has an opinion on that.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t like me telling the kid to kiss my ass; I had gotten the guts that the teacher had lacked.

Or maybe the teacher didn’t care.  I don’t know.

What I do know is that we don’t like mirrors. We rebel against them.

Like when I read a little blog the other day where a pastor goes off on Hollywood for flaunting what he calls “anti-Christian propaganda.” It’s a preview about a kid’s movie that talks about how some families have a mom and a dad, while others have two mommies and two daddies, or one parent, or a whole bunch of relatives in one house. Movie looks cute.

Apparently this is propaganda and oppressive for this particular parent.

God forbid that his children hear that families come in all sorts of forms (as if the kid can’t look around and see that).  How dare Hollywood expose his children so such truth?!  The bubble of brainwashing is burst in such ways; that’s not what he wants as a parent, I guess.

I imagine he doesn’t think Jesus would like that.

So I wonder what he’ll do when his kids get invited over to a classmate’s house who has two mommies.  And I wonder if he’ll consider, before uttering “Jesus wouldn’t like that,”  how one of those mommies was forced by society into a loveless marriage at a young age because she had been told that Jesus wouldn’t like her acting on her attraction to women.  And she had broken free of those societal chains that were killing her insides, speaking up in a way that society couldn’t or wouldn’t and found a way to be more whole.

And then I wonder if he might consider that Jesus wouldn’t like his child turning down an invitation to celebrate another child’s birth just because the sight of two mommies might cause some cognitive dissonance for that young kid being raised in a bubble full of half-truths.

Because, as much as the father doesn’t want to believe it, the child will be living in a world where there are two mommy families and two daddy families and divorced families and all sorts of families.  And to pretend that they won’t, well, I wonder if Jesus would like that sort of ignorance…

See the kind of bind we get in when we think like this? We pretend to pit Jesus against these situations when really all we’re doing is crashing the mirror set up in front of us because we don’t like being shown truth and our own inabilities to deal with life situations.

Because my teacher didn’t like being confronted with the fact that I had been picked on in front of him for far too long without him saying a word, and I wasn’t having it from the bully or from the voiceless teacher anymore.  And this father doesn’t like the fact that love comes in a few different forms–even if he doesn’t approve of them–and his speaking out against same-sex couples, his flaunting of his “traditional, Biblical values,” is now being drowned out by other voices of love as he cries out that he is now the oppressed one.

Jesus wouldn’t like that, I think.

And I wonder what Jesus would do in that situation.

And as you sit with those unsolvable Rubik’s Cube questions, perhaps you’ll just come to see, as I see, that they are manipulative ways of trying to get around the fact that we’re sometimes confronted with our own shortsightedness and don’t like it.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get Jesus into the damning business like “Jesus wouldn’t like that” does.  And perhaps we should get Jesus out of the “choose your own Christian adventure” business like “What would Jesus do?” tries to press on us.

Instead, why don’t we live like Jesus lived. Or try to.  And I don’t think you have to ask WWJD in every situation to try to live like the Christ.  We have a pretty good understanding of what Jesus would do: love God and the neighbor as yourself.  Give of yourself for others. Get mad at injustice in the world and act on it, even if it kills you.  Be peaceful. Forgive.

I mean, I guess we can look at the rampant malnutrition in a world full of food and say, “Jesus wouldn’t like that…”  But we won’t, by and large.  Because there’s probably not enough guilt in the world to make us change our economic practices and allow the food insecure to eat well.  We’ll just save Jesus’ damnation for people who use the word ass…

I’m a reluctant Christian sometimes because we’ve confused trying to predict how Jesus would act in the 21st Century and what he’d opine on 21st Century problems without even mastering how to live like he did in ancient Palestine first, and we call it “Christian values” or “the Christian life.”

When you’ve mastered loving your God and your neighbor as yourself, then perhaps we can ponder what Jesus thinks about movie previews and what Jesus would do about it.

My hunch is he’d smile and mark his calendar to go see it.

10 Things You Must Do As a Follower of Jesus

The God Article, a really interesting website/blog/incubator for thought, recently posted “10 Things You Can’t Do as a Follower of Jesus.”  It’s well worth the reaimagesd.  Interesting stuff.

But, as all scholars familiar with the Decalogue (the 10 Commandments) know, it’s not the “Thou Shalt Not’s” that are difficult.

It’s the “Thou Shalt’s” that cause the problems.

I’ll refrain from murdering most weeks, but remembering the Sabbath…that’s tough.

Because the “thou shalt not’s” are about avoiding things, primarily.  And we love to avoid things because then we can tally how many times we’re successful at not doing bad things when given the option.  And this gives us this sense that we truly are our own saviors.  See, that’s the secret behind a lot of Christian piety: it claims Christ as the savior, but then sets up all these other rules by which you actually get the feeling that you’re saving yourself.

And this is why people love to use the word “temptation” when they talk about sin.  We feel that we can beat temptation with enough will power.  With enough sense, we can avoid the bad and do the good.

With the “thou shalt not’s” of life, all sorts of other things are permissible. You can’t covet your neighbor’s house and wife, but you sure as hell can buy one bigger or marry one prettier!  You shall not murder; maim away.  You shall not bear false witness, but what about slightly false witness?

This is exactly how a rules-based society works: let us know what is over the line so that we can avoid that line.

But with the Christian story, with life, the “thou shalt not’s” are not where the meat lies.  And a Christian life is not rules-based…despite what you might have heard.

For this life the meat lies in the “thou shalt’s.”  Because in them there is no exception.

And a careful reading of the Lord’s Prayer in the Scriptures might be helpful because the best translation is not “temptation” but rather “trial.”

And the time of trial is not one where you are avoiding the bad and choosing the good, but rather are in between a situation to the point where you do not know which way is bad and which way is good and you must step out nonetheless.

And the trial portions are the “thou shalt” portions of life…because choosing for something is harder than being against something.

So, I wonder then, what would be the “10 Things You Must Do As a Follower of Jesus”?

Here’s my attempt:

1) Love the Lord your God

2) Love your neighbor as yourself

3) Repeat #’s 1 and 2

4) No, seriously, 1 and 2 again

5) Why do you think there are other ones?

6) You can stop reading

7) Sigh

8) You really want more rules, don’t you?

9) I can’t give you another thing to do, sorry

10) Why the hell can’t you just do 1 and 2?

And perhaps it isn’t even that easy.

Because the minute you make a list, or a rule, and that becomes a “must,” then obeying them is now the god of your life.

This is the problem with much of organized religion.  It has turned a particular philosophy and worldview (it’s own) into the “way the truth and the life” and it then fails to point beyond itself.

This is what happens when anyone thinks they have a direct revelation.  They, then, become more authoritative than the revelation itself.

We try to turn things into gods all the time, especially ourselves.  This is the true “god delusion”…Dawkins got it wrong.  We delude ourselves into thinking our right thoughts, our correct actions, or even ourselves as the bearer of correctness are gods.

I can avoid murder.  I can avoid bearing false witness.  I do those with some success.

But it’s awfully hard to love God and my neighbor…and even myself, I guess.  And even harder to try and figure out what that means when it comes to buying and selling, ethics and morality, and all sorts of real life issues.

Hell, give me a thou shalt not list any time.  They’re 10 times easier to follow.

But that’s not where the meat lies, and much of the Christian world pretends that the thou shalt not list is super important when it’s really just a way to placate ourselves into thinking we’ve got it all together because we can avoid certain things with success.

Sure.  But can you do #1 and #2 with success?

Call me if you can.  Because I suck at it most days.  And I’m a reluctant Christian because so much of the rest of Christianity pretends they do #1 and #2 well, when really they’re just checking off their “shalt not” lists and patting themselves on their divine backs.

On Why A Christian Community Should Agree to Bury the Body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev

The funeral home can’t place his body anywhere.Coffin

It’s tragic what he did and how it happened.  And he still holds power even after he’s dead.  The power to keep people from offering rest.

See, Tamerlan was sick.  It’s not an excuse by any means.

He was a terrorist.  His brother is a terrorist.

But he’s also human.  And he’s also dead.  And he was sick.

Only sick people do what he did.  And although some would label him an “asshole” as well as sick (which I would agree with), it doesn’t discount the fact that he was sick.

But to let him still hold power like this, to deny a body rest: it’s adding tragedy to tragedy.

We, the Christian community, should bury him.

Thomas Long’s wonderful book Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral provides some good insight on why Christian burial practices are so important as a witness of the faith.  He writes,

Early Christianity inherited (a Jewish understanding of the body) and intensified it with strong convictions about the incarnation and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  Doing so stirred Christians not to idealize bodies (as the Greeks did in their perfect sculptures) or to romanticize them (as Sports Illustrated does in its swimsuit issue), but to care for bodies, real bodies, both living and dead, in ways that perplexed and confused their pagan neighbors….What was even odder to Roman eyes was that the Christians “volunteered to take care of bodies, both living and dead bodies…not just of their own families but also of the poor surrounding them…this immediate almost instinctive urge of Christians to care for the sick, the hungry, the old, and the poor aroused comment from their neighbors.” (Long, 29)

To care for the sick, the hungry, the old, and the poor.

In the stories about Jesus, as Jesus was caring for these people, it doesn’t always mention how they got to be the way they were.  Perhaps they were people who had done terrible things in their lives, things that forced them out of circles of care, forced them into solitude.  Perhaps they were people who were just plain sick, and no one could be around them because they were dangerous.

The Christian’s responsibility isn’t to who the body was, it is to the body as it is now.

And why?

Because Jesus had a body, and bodies are important and good, and need to be buried somehow…even if we wouldn’t necessarily categorize the person as being good.

In antiquity Christians would volunteer to bury the bodies of those around them.  Their own savior was once a body without a tomb for a home…a tomb was donated.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s crimes were horrible and tragic and beyond the pale.

This is not up for debate.

But his body must be buried, and as a witness to self-giving hospitality, as a witness to our hope in redemption, as a witness to embodiment and incarnation, the Christian church should bury him.

And with him, bury some of the power he somehow is still wielding.

And the fact that we’re reluctant to do so because we’re afraid, or because we hold the flag in front of the cross, or because we think it will be unpopular makes me reluctant to call myself Christian.

On Death and Christmas Eve

In those days a decree went IMG_1595out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In “those days…”

Those days.

I wonder when “those days” are supposed to be.

I have “those days.”

Those days when everything seems to be amiss.

Those days when it appears that love has hitchhiked to the next county and isn’t coming back; when loneliness has set in to the point that darkness seems like it will never leave.

Those days when the world has turned all around to the point that up and down are no longer real directions because I don’t recognize where I am in life, let alone which way is positive and which way is negative, which way leads to life and which to death.

In “those days…”

In those days of Jesus’ birth there was peace.  Pax Romana, we call it, the “Roman Peace” brought on through imperial domination.

Rome won all the wars.  It forced people to be peaceful…according to the Roman definition of “peace” which sometimes involved people being hung from crosses or eaten by wild beasts for sport.   Not exactly a Christmasy sentiment…

In those days of Jesus’ birth counting people was the task at hand.  How many are here?  We have to have the numbers if we’re going to assess how much people are worth, after all.  Your taxes were directly dependent upon your citizenship and status.

In those days people’s worth and wealth were directly connected.

That, in many ways, doesn’t only sound like “those days”…it sounds a lot like “to-day.”

Luke’s beginning to this most memorable reading sets us squarely in place.  I imagine he’s expecting us to land in the first century when Quirinius is governor of Syria.

But it also sets us squarely in “those days.”  Those days when it seems like there’s nothing left to us and everything is going cold.  Where we try to force ourselves into a peaceful state, only to fall back into darkness.

Much like the cold of Christmas Eve night.  Much like the darkness of Christmas Eve night.

I’ve spoken about this before, but it’s worth repeating, Christmas Eve reminds me a lot of our other big late-into-the-evening-I’m-so-sleepy-why-am-I-here? service: The Easter Vigil.

Because this, too, is a vigil.

The Easter vigil is where we await the resurrection, where God brings life out of death.

But Christmas Eve is a different sort of vigil.

Instead of waiting for resurrection, on Christmas Eve night we await a death.

Now, I know that might be surprising to hear, especially because Christmas is all about babies being born and cookies frosted and ringing bells and warm feelings.

But, trust me: this waiting for a death is a good thing.

Christmas Eve we keep vigil, waiting for the Emmanuel, the God-with-us, once again, so that “those days” can die.

Those days when we feel unloving and unloveable.  Those days when we feel we aren’t worth it.  Those days when we fear that our lives are purposeless, that our existence is accident, that our only hope is in our hands or in our emptying bank accounts or in…nothing.

Those days when we try to force peace upon our lives but fail as we’re devoured by the beasts of greed, fear, anxiety and hung on the cross of our ego…

On Christmas Eve we light a candle, we celebrate the silence of the night as “those days” gives out one last gasping breath and we remember that those days are gone if the Nativity story is true.

Joy to the world.  Joy to you and me.  “Those days” are gone.

God rest ye merry gentlemen and gentlewoman, “those days” have only the power we allow them to have because their real power is gone.

We wish you a merry Christmas because “those days” are impotent.

So forget about whether or not the Nativity is factually real in all its glorious, romantic detail.  Theologically it is real in the most true sense of the word!

Because in “those days” God saw fit to show humanity, show us, that we have purpose enough for God to take on our form and show love.  That we are deliberately and wonderfully made in our existence.  That our hope is not in our hands or our emptying bank accounts, but in the hands of the small babe on that night when heaven was emptied so that the earth might know the fullness of God’s love.

Christmas Eve celebrates that those days are gone, and new day has begun.  A day full of God’s grace shown in the smallness of kicking legs and infant cries; a grace so vulnerable that even you and I can approach it with the assurance that it does not harm but only helps.

Such is God’s nature; such is God’s grace.

That night, light a candle to the death of those days.  And as we pass that flame from one candle to the next, we’ll create new light with all of our waxy ends, reminding us that the darkness of those days is dispelled on Christmas Eve night.

The night of the newborn baby.

The night of the new light.

The death of “those days.”

Merry Christmas.

Dem Bones…

On the eve of All Saints we do what we love to do: play dress-up.

And it is just play.  Theologies and theologians that glorify Halloween as “Satan’s Day” aren’t good students of history.

That being said, the gore that is often associated with this day doesn’t appeal to me.  I’m a fan of horror flicks; I love a good scare.  But I’ve seen enough real blood in hospital rooms, ER’s, and elsewhere to not need the fake stuff.

But Halloween and All Saints also conjure up in me thoughts about life, mortality, death.

I find myself singing the spiritual

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem, dry bones…”

I’ve written previously about the importance of having  funeral at the time of death.  I still feel that it’s supremely important to honor and celebrate life by acknowledging, grieving, and honoring death.

Yes.  Honoring death.

Not as something to revere or worship, but as something to peer into as mystery.

I live with a biologist.  Carbon returns to carbon; it’s nature’s way.  As I’ve said at every funeral liturgy I’ve ever presided at, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  We certainly shouldn’t labor under the delusion that somehow death is unnatural or evil.  I can understand how some people may come to this conclusion reading certain parts of Genesis and Romans.  Yet there are other sections of scripture, the Lazarus story in John for instance, that give another glimpse at death.

In that story Jesus “tarries” a while…not preventing Lazarus’ death.  One wonders why he might want to.  But in raising Lazarus, what Jesus does is dispel the fear of death.

This idea, I think, is something that the religious individual can grasp tightly.  Death is not to be sought; surely we are not masochists (at least, not most of us).

But neither is death to be feared.

The fear of death is all around, though.  In skin-products that promise ageless beauty.  In caskets lined with gold…perhaps because, the thought is, we can take it with us.  In medical procedures that prolong breathing but cannot prolong life.

We fear death, and we have made a market on that fear in the buying and selling of death-killers.  Surely the market is the death of our modern souls.

Hear now from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about the wisdom we can mine from the mystery of death:

The greatest problem is not how to continue (living) but how to exalt our existence.  The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave.  Eterenity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence.  God has planted in us the seed of eternal life.  The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow.

Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return. “How can I repay unto the Lord all his bountiful dealings with me?” (Psalm 116:12)  When life is an answer, death is a home-coming. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of the saints.” (Psalm 116:15)…This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine.  Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for this act of giving away is reciprocity on our part for God’s gift of life.  For the pious…it is a privilege to die.

My wife gave me a note that someone passed her on the street.  It’s in the shape of a “1 million” dollar bill, and it has written on it, “The million dollar question: Where will you be after you die?”

Such conversion tactics are wasteful in the “throw this away for me” sort of way.  Theologies that only point toward heaven are useless.  If the goal of this life is to get somewhere else, why bother?

My response to the giver of that note would be, “The million dollar question isn’t where will I be when I die, but how have I lived?”

And if I have a million dollars, or perhaps one dollar, that might make heaven a reality for someone here in this existence and I fail to do it, then I have been negligent in my life.

I do not fear death, nor do I seek it.  I trust in the promise of heaven, but my home is here.  And may I do my part to bring heaven to this reality, trusting that what awaits me after my last breath is God’s eternal presence…something I’ve never been separate from.

And at my last breath, I imagine I’ll pray the same prayer that I’ve prayed at every funeral I’ve presided at with all “dem bones” in my body,

May God support us all the day long till the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over and our work is done.  Then in mercy may God give us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last.


“An Invitation to Trust” or “An Invitation Not to Believe”

The Script has a song, Breakeven, that starts out,

I’m still alive but I’m barely breathing
Just prayin’ to a God that I don’t believe in

When this song first came out, I had a friend call me up and ask if I’d heard it.  “You’ll like the first two lines,” he said.  I was in seminary at the time, and while this friend would be someone who would probably identify as skeptical, he would always come and hear me when I preached or taught.

He knew my theology, my style, my leanings.

He knew that I think that many people pray to a God that they don’t believe in.  Perhaps he is one of them.

Perhaps we all are at one time or another.

We must remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is certainty.  Somewhere down the line of history we’ve lost sight of this, to the detriment of those of us who identify as religious and spiritual.

I’m a big proponent of changing the word “believe” into “trust” when we’re reading the scriptures.  Our post-enlightenment habits have tended toward making everything that happens in this world begin in the brain.  We use the words “belief” and “believe” in all ways as if it can be equated to “mental assent.”

But in the ancient world, no such corollary existed.  Diana Butler Bass notes this in her most recent work Christianity After Religion.  She writes,

Although Western Christianity would eventually be defined as a belief system about God, throughout its first five centuries people understood it primarily as spiritual practices that offered a meaningful way of life in this world-not as a neat set of doctrines, an esoteric belief, or the promise of heaven.  By practicing Jesus’s teachings, followers of the way discovered that their lives were made better on a practical spiritual path…members of the community were not held accountable for their opinions about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor. (p 149)

When I was going through my first wrestling period with faith, I felt terrible.  I felt as if I had been fed these lies that I was supposed to mentally assent to and that I was finally coming out of a deep hole…only to find the world around me disordered and frightening.  It felt as if I was breaking a relationship with someone.

It felt as if I couldn’t breathe.

But I still attended services.  I still attended church.  I still contributed in religious discussions.

I still prayed to a God that I didn’t believe in.

And those practices brought me back around to faith.  Those practices, and some meaningful discussions with people who took faith seriously enough to fight with it, brought me back around to a space in this world where I could once again interact with God.

But it wasn’t belief, per se.  It was much more powerful than belief.

It was trust.

This is why, when Rick Warren the pastor of the mega-church Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, writes in an article published early last year that “change always starts in the mind,” and “to help people change, we must change their beliefs,” I think he’s ridiculously lost in the post-enlightenment mindset that has led the church to this place where people are leaving in droves.

He goes on to write that, “trying to change behavior (without) changing belief is a waste of time.”  I couldn’t disagree more.  My story wouldn’t make sense if trying to change behavior without changing beliefs is a waste of time. Warren obviously doesn’t understand lex orandi, lex credendi…

Sometimes I think these pastors that go for the “belief then behavior” theory of Christianity are no more than self-help gurus that insert the word “God” where it’s convenient. “You can change your behavior.  You can do it.  God will help you, if only you believe…”

Take out the God wording in that sentence, and I think it exposes what they’re really saying.

I don’t want to invite people to believe in God.  I want to invite people to trust in God.

We can believe all sorts of things about God, about God’s nature, about God’s action in the world.  We can believe all sorts of things about God’s authority, about what God expects of us.

But if “belief” is equal to “mental assent,” then everything rests on whether or not I believe what you believe about God.

If not, we end up fighting or not talking.

But if we trust God, we can trust enough to ask questions about God, of God, of one another without being threatened.

And then trust enough to invite people into those questions as well.  And trust is, I think, indicated through activities and practices.

I think that as we head into this next phase as people of faith, practices…activities of trust…will become more and more important.

I’m not sure how to invite Jesus into my heart, or even what that phrase means.  But I strive to live as if God is already present inside of me. And you, too.  And in the stranger, regardless of what they believe.

And I find it important to gather with other people who trust in that way, too.  Or who want to trust.  Or who don’t trust but think it’d be interesting to see what it looks like.  We teach one another.

And as someone who has been there in the deep hole of not making sense of whats up or down because not everything that you’ve been taught to believe lines up with reality, it’s really important, when you find yourself barely breathing, to pray to God…even if you don’t believe.

Doing so you’re embodying something more powerful than belief.  You’re trusting.

And trusting can change things.

“Scripture and Responsibility,” or “Someone Stole My God and Put a Bible in It’s Place!”

I got a message on one of my social media sites from someone I don’t know.  They were upset with some of the blog posts that I had written.  They wrote,

All due respect, I get what you’re trying to do with your blog, but you are irresponsible with your perspective. You are pitting the world against Christians in the name of reaching them. That said, there is very little that is explicitly biblical in your blogs. You rely on opinion and hope. The scriptures themselves are the only hope we have, and I would suggest that your addition (or subtraction of their authority) are dangerous and, again, irresponsible to say the least.

One of the phrases that I think humanity should abandon, in general, is “all due respect.”  It pretty much ensures that what they say won’t be very respectful…

I’m not offended or anything.  People are welcome to have their own opinions, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis.  I don’t think it’s irresponsible to come into conversation with scripture, and I don’t find my writings based on “opinions and hope.”  There is much scholarship (and late nights with beer and granola bars) that inform these posts.  Hence why I don’t post every day…sometimes I have to sleep.

And I don’t think I’m pitting the world against Christians (what does that even mean?).  Although I’m uncertain exactly what the writer is trying to say there, I’m pretty sure that Christians are doing a pretty good job of pitting people against them on their own…

But I think that the writer makes one substantial claim that can be enlightening in teasing out the reason (or, at least one of the reasons) why certain parts of the faith/a-faith community talk over one another.  Did you double-take at the line, “the scriptures themselves are the only hope” that humanity has?


I’m a Christian, a person of faith, and I have to say that my hope is not in the scriptures.

The story of Jesus that is told in the scriptures is the most intriguing story I’ve ever read.  I believe that God has revealed something in the Christ that can’t be ignored for it’s importance and life-changing ability.  I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God started something new in the world.  So new, in fact, that people had to write about it in haste.

But you see, that’s just it.  My hope is in God’s work through Jesus.  The scriptures contain that story, but they aren’t the object of my hope itself.  Somewhere along the line we’ve turned the scriptures into God…and then everyone who begins to question them, to delve into their historical context to weed out discrepancies and cultural trappings becomes “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

In short, my question is: “If the Bible isn’t God, why are so many people worshiping it?”

As a Christian, a person of faith, a pastor, the Bible informs my faith.  It is the feedbox of faith; not the fence nor the object of faith.

But we’ve turned it into the idol on a pedestal.  We’ve claimed it as “infallible” and “inerrant.”  My favorite variation of this claim is that it is “inerrant in it’s original languages.”  Nice dodge, people.  I hate to say it, but that’s not exactly how language works.  It is not intellectually honest to claim that something is perfect in its original but long-lost form.  It’s a quaint way of acknowledging that there are internal inconsistencies with the scriptures while escaping any need to take them seriously.

Infallibility and inerrancy are traits commonly ascribed to the Divine itself.   But because we can’t see the Divine in the ways we want to, we’ve created this lovely Bible-calf out of the gold of our desire for concrete things, and think that full “authority” rests in it instead of the God it points to.

As an interesting test-study, let’s look at some scripture passages (as the person who wrote to me doesn’t think I use enough) that are commonly held up as proofs for the Bible’s inerrant nature and infallibility to engage the heart of the issue.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 the writer says, “All scripture is God breathed.”  This has commonly been used as a defense for the Bible’s infallibility and inerrant nature.

Unfortunately, the writer of 2 Timothy didn’t have a Bible.  They only had the Torah, the Psalms, and some wisdom writings.  In fact, they may not have even had all of those, depending on where they were in the world.  So, unless the writer of 2 Timothy was indeed projecting 300 years into the future to when the scriptures were canonized, the writer was talking about some other books.

On the face, to say that “all scripture is God-breathed” seems pretty cut and dry.  It can very easily be understood as talking about the canonized Bible because, for the last 1700 years, that’s exactly what most people have been talking about when they say the word “scripture.”

But I think it is irresponsible to allow that line of thinking to go on without some good questions like, “What writings did the author have?” and “What was the understanding of ‘God-breathed’ that they may have been working with?”  Too often we imagine these writers like they are sitting in Cleveland using the same dictionary we have on our shelves.

Another example that deserves a spin on the old turn-table of critical thought: Revelation 22:19, “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from (them) a share of the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described therein.”

I love Revelation.  It’s a book of unending interest to me.  A great treatment on the subject was written by my seminary professor Barbara Rossing entitled, “The Rapture Exposed.” (Spoiler alert: the “rapture” is exposed as a bunch of leviathan dung…)

But one of the problems with this verse from Revelation’s 22nd chapter is that, for years I’ve heard preachers who haven’t done their homework take this line and apply it to the whole canon.  I mean, not only is it clear that John the Diviner (the name we’ve given to the writer of Revelation) didn’t intend for that to be the case, it’s absolutely reprehensible to suggest that notion to someone interested in the faith because it automatically cuts off any ability to question or wrestle with scripture.

If the result of wrestling, questioning, and even saying, “hey, that’s a little nuts…” is being cut off from God’s grace, do you think people are going to do it?  Instead people start yelling “false prophet!” or “anti-Christ” or…well, other things that people begin to yell when they feel like their faith is threatened.  It cuts off conversation at it’s core.

There are other verses and proof-texts, of course.  Many.  You know of some, too.

The person who wrote to me said that my suggestions are irresponsible, and that my thoughts are dangerous.  I want to say, quite plainly, that I think that reading the Bible without taking note of its historical context is irresponsible for a pastor/theologian leading a faith community, and that I think its dangerous for the faith to continue along this anti-intellectual trajectory that we’ve been heading down since the Enlightenment.

My own context, Lutheranism, has always understood scripture to be read in three ways: for devotion (spiritual edification), proclamation (faith formation), and study (critical learning).  I like that we uphold (at least) three ways…it’s very Trinitarian. And they each inform the other and have elements of the other within them.  My own faith has been edified and formed through critical study.  My devotional life has been formed and developed by hearing the scriptures and ancient texts read with other people gathered around.

But having a multivariant approach to scripture is important.  It’s important because the scriptures are not one monolithic writing, but contain myths, legends, histories, testimonies, letters, and all sorts of type of writings, and that variance should be acknowledged through a lens that allows for it.  It’s important because it prevents the reader from putting the Bible, as words on a page, on a pedestal because each approach informs and critiques the other.

Martin Luther himself, who took the Bible more seriously than most in an age where reading wasn’t exactly in vogue and questioning authority wasn’t encouraged (remember what happened to Hus?), even argued with scripture.  He opined that the book of James and the book of Revelation should be cut from the canon (at least, in his younger less angry years).  Was that irresponsible?

Or was it him taking scripture and what it is seriously?

I take scripture seriously, not literally. For me it is not some fable nor is it a golden book that fell from the sky. It holds the most intriguing story I’ve ever heard in which I put my hope…but it’s not the story itself, and is certainly not the hope.

So, read your Bibles, preferably with other people.  Don’t worship them.  And if you’re a pastor, introduce some critical thinking into your instruction…the world will be better for it.

“Trayvon Martin and Liturgy” or “We Have Tools To Counteract This…”

I live in Chicago, not Sanford.

And yet, I find myself in Sanford a lot lately.  Not physically, of course.  Just mentally.

I find myself there because, well, the streets of Chicago can be scary, too.  There are times when I’m walking around my neighborhood and I’m looking for the suspicious character…and find myself being the suspicious character in some neighborhoods.

But luckily, I have a tool that counteracts the fear of suspicious characters.  I’m not talking about a gun, a baton, a taser, or some other self-defense tool or technique.

I don’t have those.

I have “The Peace.”

“The Peace” is what I share every Sunday morning at my church, where I go around to shake the hands of people I know, and people I don’t know.  And as I do it, I say, “The peace of God be with you!”  It’s a peace that I extend with my hand.  It’s a peace that I, sometimes, extend with a kiss.

It’s a peace that I extend to everyone.  Everyone there.

And I do it, week after week, first and foremost, to teach myself.  To teach myself how to be the peace, to live in the peace of God, that peace that I’m extending.

Secondarily, I do it to receive the peace of the other person.  To allow myself to be vulnerable to them, to receive their blessing, that we hold to be the tangible blessing of God.

My hope is that in living in this rhythm of intentionally greeting people I don’t know on a weekly basis, I might be shaped and formed into a person who doesn’t fear the stranger, the “other” in front of me.

Some weeks I feel it “takes” better than others.  But I go back, week after week, believing that the process is teaching me a spiritual muscle memory that will pay off.

And why?

Because otherwise we end up worshiping idols.  Like the idol of security.  Security that comes with packing a firearm with you.  And as a good friend said recently, “The idol of false security always demands blood.”

And that’s what we saw in Sanford: the idol of false security taking its blood payment.

But for those of us who profess to be Christian, we have a different model, a different norm that we practice week after week in the liturgy.  The Peace can teach us, if we pay attention, that vulnerability leads to relationship, that openness leads to community.

The Peace can teach us how to act with courage, and not to seek out false security.  Courage, as I see it, is holding the appropriate amount of fear, but stepping forward nonetheless.

If Christians profess the faith of a Christ who is calling the universe toward unity (read Ephesians 1 if you’re wondering what that mystery might look like), then why are we so silent on this issue?  Why are we not lifting up the tools that we have, that we use, that we practice to counteract this issue?!

I think we are inactive, and largely silent, because we fail to take The Peace seriously.  We don’t reflect on the liturgy anymore; it’s simply the bridge between the sermon and communion.

That, or worse, it’s a time to greet our friends. Exclusively.

But what if that time, in every community, could be a time when we actively counteract the violence around us?  Where we reach out to the other not with a sword (or gun), but with an open hand?

Of course it appears as if other things muddy these particular waters.  Racial tensions are very present (and very real).  Policies and laws that glorify the individual rather than the community provide for troubling legal escapes.  But the fact remains that the church has a wealth of knowledge in the communal practice of our liturgical gathering to speak about this issue, and even those that muddy the waters!

Where is that voice?

This is one of the reasons that I’m a reluctant Christian.  We’ve become so numb to our own worship practices that we can’t see them as tools for daily living.  We might as well get in line at at our local chain coffee shop, put in our ipods (and, isn’t it funny that all of those products begin with “i”…we’ve stripped the community out of everything), and never greet those around us.

What does it mean to participate in a meal where all are invited forward and none leave without something?  What does it mean to bathe a person in the waters of grace and tell them, definitively, that we affirm their existence as a child of God?  What does it mean to weekly greet people we do not know, to welcome them into our personal space without asking them for something?  What does it mean to sing corporately songs of longing, songs of peace, songs of lament, shunning our ipods, iphones, i-gadgets for just a while?

You’d think such practices, if internalized, could be life changing.

Or, in this case, life-saving.

We have tools for this.  We’ve just forgotten how to use them.