• THIS

    This is what God would want those who claim his name to hear today. Like really today. Right here in the reality that is June 2014. Don’t worry, I’m not claiming to have some “prophetic word” for y’all. Although maybe more people would pay attention if I did. I’m just repeating things God has made clear to those who put trust in his word. You know, all the stuff in between the 50 verses you can use to win an argument:

    God is God. God needs nothing from us. He takes no satisfaction in people who will make any sacrifice imaginable to protect the Christian faith but refuse to be moved by the site of despair all around them. Who claim that their way really is loving, no matter how much our neighbors say that it hurts.

    Really they are just refusing to be broken by the site of God’s suffering children. What kind of father is happy that his kid claims to be sweeping the floor as they’ve been asked while listening as their brother begs them to stop hitting him with a broom? What kind of Father do you think we serve? One who doesn’t give a crap about one of his children just so long as his orders are followed. One who elevates service to him above any other concern? If that’s what you think, either you are under the mistaken impression that God is far less good than you are or I feel sorry for your kids. Continue reading

  • babel

    The New Reformation

    It occurred to me this morning that perhaps Christianity has been going through a Tower of Babel experience. If you recall your kiddie bible stories, the tower of Babel tells us why there are many languages and peoples. If you don’t recall the details, after the flood, all the men got together to build a great tower. They were able to do this because they had gathered themselves together and all spoke one language. But God saw what they were doing and was alarmed at the potential of what man could accomplish working together. So he confused their speech and they stopped building and scattered themselves across the world. And that’s why we all speak different languages.

    The Jewish Midrash (the collection of ponderings, stories and explanations of Jewish rabbis which dates back to before the time of Jesus) held that the tower builders were motivated by a desire to defy or confront God. One writer claimed that they intended to put an idol with a sword on the top to wage battle with God. Josephus said that they had made the tower very tall and waterproof. Perhaps they were all still peeved at God for drowning everyone in the flood a few generations back?

    At any rate, ages ago I read an explanation of the Tower of Babel which claimed that the Tower of Babel can be understood as foreshadowing the Temple in Jerusalem. It was meant to create an identity for the people (“that we may make a name for ourselves”). It would be a point where heaven and earth met (“a tower that reaches to the heavens”). And it was meant to be a permanent focal point for the group to orient itself around (“otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth”). 

    So, the tower was meant to serve purposes which would later be filled by the Temple in Jerusalem. We don’t actually know what motivated the tower builders, but clearly God is not willing to sit by and let them do this thing. And this is why I’m inclined to accept that the tower was basically humanity’s feint at creating what the Temple in Jerusalem would later be.

    The problem with it being that their vision of what this object could be was an impoverished version of the real thing. Beyond their stated objectives, we have no idea what they planned to actually do with the tower. There’s no mention of reconciliation, worship or learning God’s ways. The old rabbis seemed to think the whole purpose of the thing was to serve as a big middle finger from humanity going up towards God.

    Or to put it another way, if the tower represents the center of human religion, their religion sucked too bad to be allowed to grow into fruition. God caused confusion and division which is why were are not only so many languages, but also so many religions. (Also, people united by a common language usually shared a common religion.)

    Immediately after the story of the Tower of Babel, you get an account of the lineage leading up to Abram, later Abraham, father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim people. I don’t have the patience to add up all the years, but clearly a great deal of time passed between the tower and the arrival of Abram.

    In Hosea, God describes finding Abram and his line as “like finding wild grapes in the dessert”. Too many people seem to think that God found this bronze age people to teach his ways and rules to so that all of mankind could be bound by them. God’s purposes were much bigger than that. Wild grapes make lousy wine. But over the course of time, with cultivation, pruning, breeding and care, wild grapes give rise to grapes that makes the best new wines.

    In a way, the confusion and division of united humanity turned out to be creative destruction. Over the course of a great deal of time, a man and through him a people arose who God could work with to bring about a real temple, worthy of God’s purposes. And through that religion, the salvation of the world would eventually occur.

    Now, consider the history of Christianity. A bit like the tower of Babel, Christianity is mostly a man-made construct, using materials provided by God, Jesus and scripture. Jesus really didn’t leave any instructions behind. We had to figure out the way forward after he was gone. But unlike the tower of Babel, the people building Christianity were supposed to have a better idea of what they were doing than the ancient tower builders. Start with the foundation of Christ, build from there.

    Eventually, it became apparent that we Christians weren’t doing such a hot job with our building either. It wasn’t awful. There were a lot of good things about it and its influence in the world was a net big positive. But what we’d built was dangerously imperfect. As time went on, these imperfections became harder and harder to ignore. It could not be allowed to continue.

    This time, it didn’t take an act of God to bring about creative destruction. We did it ourselves. First through Luther and then through tens of thousands of his spiritual descendants. All taking a crack at building a tower worthy of uniting mankind around a common identity, bringing heaven and earth together and serving as a permanent focal point that unites us.

    Last time this process played out, it was God who found the fruit he could use to advance his redemptive purposes. This time, I think it’s going to be up to us to recognize and choose which fruit from this long process of creative destruction we’re going to use to build our tower. And I further think that there is a widespread, emerging consensus as to what that is.

    But before I share that, let me tell you a funny story from the Jewish Midrash about Abram which I think reveals the model for how this works. According to tradition, Abram’s father made idols for a living. He had a shop where people could come purchase idols for their homes, personal altars and other purposes common in that part of the world at the time. Abram thought the whole business of idols was nonsense and that his father and his customers were fools for worshiping bits of clay and metal that he himself helped to make. So one day when Abram was left alone in charge of his father’s shop, he took a hammer and destroyed all the idols in the shop but one. He put the hammer in that idol’s hand and waited for his father’s return. When his father came back, he was understandably upset to see his merchandise in ruins. He turned on Abram in fury, demanding to know why he had done this. Abram calmly explained that he had nothing to do with the destruction of the idols. That idol over there holding the hammer had done it. And that explains why Abram was so willing to pack up and leave when God asked him to. He was in such big doo-doo at home that leaving was probably a good life choice at that point.

    The story is apocryphal and almost certainly untrue, but it does provide an excellent explanation of exactly what Abram’s role was in the history of human religions. Through him, God brought about the destruction of the pantheistic idol worship common to man. For a very long time prior to Abram, all religions recognized many gods. Today, the overwhelming majority of humans follow religions which recognize only one God. At its simplest, most basic level, Abram was the man who exchanged many gods for the one, true God with humanity eventually following suit. (Yes, there was that one Pharaoh, but his attempt was about as successful as the tower builders at Babel.)

    So out of the creative destruction of the tower of Babel and the religion it represented, we eventually get:

    Many gods ->Abram->One God

    I think that we are seeing a similar process at work today. Only instead of many gods, we have many teachings. In the ancient world, it was the gods which were in conflict with each other. But today, it’s our beliefs. We have a zillion different ideas about God and Jesus and the Christian life. Of course, none of them are correct. They can’t be. It’s impossible to fully understand God and his ways, so inevitably each theology we come up with will fail to contain the Truth.

    But there is one teaching we should be able to agree on. As mushy and unsubstantial as it seems, love is that one thing. Basically, what I think we’re seeing in Christianity right now echo’s what happened with Abram:

    Many teachings ->Christianity ->Love

    It’s not that none of the other teachings, customs, traditions or practices of Christianity have any merit. Many of them absolutely do. However, consider that worshiping the One God who is spirit was a prerequisite for God to reconcile mankind to himself. I believe that Love is the prerequisite for us to bring the best of Christianity to fruition. No amount of study, teaching, rule making and keeping, social pressure, governmental power or church participation can do what Love can do.

    Some will protest that Love is too generic. Every religion and no religion teaches love. If love is the center, then what do we need Christianity for? But the thing is that while it is true that love is a common teaching, the Christian vision of what love looks like, what it acts like and what it does is utterly unique. It’s a picture of love as sacrificial, selfless, but not self destructive, enduring through all manner of hardships, universally extended to both friend and enemy without regard for outward appearances.

    Further, the ultimate destination in Christianity is utterly unique. Instead of merely personal gain or enlightenment, an enjoyable afterlife, or a final judgment which brings destruction, the end game for Christianity is a new heaven and new earth. It’s the restoration of all things. Of God to man and man with each other and all of creation. A reign of peace and beauty which goes on and on in the here and now as well as after death.

    For a Christian to use love as the starting point and touchstone by which all other things can be judged and through which all of creation should be viewed is in no way a capitulation to some generic, wishy-washy religion. It’s the ultimate fulfillment of the faith we have received. And I trust that the fruit of a Christianity which is oriented and ruled by love will be the long awaited revelation of the Bride of Christ whose beauty will cause all mankind to marvel and praise God.

    I apologize that this is super long, but I want to go back for a moment to something God said in the story of the Tower of Babel:

    “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

    From a religious perspective, when we are all united together, nothing is impossible for us. God said so. Way back in the day, the people were united around an impoverished vision. Today, we know better. We can choose to unite around a vision which is utterly obedient to God, yet one that each man, woman and child can freely embrace, regardless of what other beliefs they hold. We can choose to unite around Love.

    If that’s the right plan, the right way to build the tower, we will be impossible to stop. And do you really see God stepping in and saying, “that’s enough of this love nonsense. Get back to your old way of doing church”? After telling us that everything hangs on the command to love God, neighbor and self? I don’t think so.

    Abram had a choice to make. Stay where he was or follow God. He chose to turn his back on many gods to follow the One True God. I think we have a choice to make as well. We can stay in the rubble of Christianity’s Tower of Babel experience, continuing to attempt to piece together a tower worthy of our faith. Or we can chose to turn our backs on our many teachings and ideas in order to follow the One True Teaching which is Love.

  • Love and Balance

     

    One of the habits of Christians which has always been baffling to me is the tendency to seek balance. So, they might try to find the balance between God’s love and his holiness. Or mercy and judgment. Forgiveness and wrath. Sin and freedom.

    This approach shares a good deal in common with the Eastern religious concept of yin and yang. The idea is that there are two opposing forces which when brought together in the right balance create a whole.

    However, the idea of balance is completely missing from scripture. Which is remarkable when you consider just how widespread the concept of balance has been in religious thought. Many religion’s creation stories were built around the idea of balance between competing forces. Some religions such as the Aztec religion saw their religious rituals and practices as essential to maintaining the balance of the universe. And of course, the concept of yin and yang in Eastern religions.

    In contrast, the only time balance is mentioned in the bible is in the context of using a balance to weigh things. Instead of balance, the holy grail in scriptures could be said to be wholeness. The goal isn’t to bring all things into balance. Rather, the vision of scriptures is oneness. Continue reading

  • The Hardest, Best Spiritual Practice I’ve Ever Tried

    Learning how not to judge has been the most demanding, arduous and painful spiritual discipline I have ever undertaken. It’s also been the most fruitful. I could probably write books and books filled with stories and lessons I would never have encountered if I had not made a commitment to practicing this discipline.

    While most people probably don’t think of not judging as a spiritual discipline, this is exactly how I’ve practiced it. It’s something I do out of obedience and discipline, even when I don’t feel like it or it seems pointless. It’s a conscious practice I have chosen to engage in and must make an effort to do.

    Not judging is like loving unconditionally in that people who have never really tried doing it assume it’s an easy, comfortable and safe thing to do. The truth is it’s unbelievably challenging. Most people can’t even manage it when someone cuts them off in traffic. Continue reading

  • Men, Sex and Love

    I would really, really like to quote the entirity of Micah Murray’s post on the idea that men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love. But doing that is frowned upon here on the internets, so I’m just going to quote a couple juicy bits. But these are no better than the rest of the post.

    It seemed reasonable enough. And it fit neatly with the gender stereotypes I’d heard all my life: Men think about sex every seven seconds. Women aren’t visual. Men are like microwaves; women are like crockpots.

    But, as a newly married man, I soon discovered that these ideas were both inaccurate and damaging in our relationship. Beneath the glib cliché was an economic model of sex-bartering that undermines the very essence of love.

    If it’s true that men give love to get sex, then our shared sexuality is simply a business arrangement, a deal brokered in flowers and kisses. My wife is a deluxe call girl with a long-term contract, marriage is sheer capitalism, and love is a filthy currency.

    I have to be perfectly honest and say that this view of men as base creature who want sex more than they want anything was a real problem for me. I suspect it’s been a problem for a lot of people and the church isn’t doing any favors peddling this sort of outdated stereotyping of men and women.

    I like sex. My husband says I’m good at it. But I don’t like sex so much that I’d put it above love. Frankly, I can’t imagine what sort of person “gives love” in order to get sex. At the worst, such a person is someone who uses me for his own enjoyment. At best, such a person is not someone I can really trust. What if the sex is bad? What if I’m sick or injured and can’t have sex? What if I’m upset or angry or busy? I can’t trust in a person’s love for me if it’s dependant on the quality of our sex life. How can I even understand such a person? They’re like some weird, alien being to me.

    And really, that was long how I viewed men. How I viewed my husband. I thought of them as untrustworthy, alien beings who I would never be able to really understand. Which is a horrendous perspective to bring into a situation where two people are expected to “become one”! How can I become one with someone whose love resides in their genitals and not in their heart? How could I trust their heart? Did they really have one or did everything run through their little head instead? How could I raise my boys if this were an immutable part of their mental make up?

    Of course, as Micah points out, and I’ve been learning, this isn’t actually the reality of men, love and sex. Or at least it shouldn’t be true. Any ways. You should go read the article. And pass it on!

  • Christians and Interracial Marriage

    Guys, what is this world coming to? Aljezeera America recently used the parable of the talents to explain current events. Christianity Today, the flagship publication of conservative, Evangelical Christianity, is promoting interracial marriage. And discussing racism. And even relying on the voice of a black women to explain the theology of the whole thing. The world’s going all off kilter here. 

    I know the rest of the world (and many of us) find it ridiculous that the church still struggles with these things. But we are a people whose founder said he’d go back for the one sheep dumb enough to get left behind. So perhaps it’s part of being church in the world to be a sanctuary for those who just can’t keep up with the pace of change in the world. That doesn’t mean they need to become the sanctuary’s leaders and spokespeople, of course. It’s still a work in progress.

    But look at this fruit. Doesn’t it make your heart sing?

    God abhors racism. Miriam’s skin was turned “leprous, like snow.” Her punishment was directly related to her sinful prejudice against the dark skin of the Cushite people. I did a quick search to examine the effects of leprosy. (Not recommended.) Her punishment would change the way peopleviewed her. It would not affect the way they thought of her per se, but the way they looked at her. As Miriam once looked at the Cushite woman with distain, she would now know exactly what that was like.

    What Miriam forgot, and what so many others still forget, is that all people are made in the image of God, we are all from the same Adam, and now we are all redeemed equally through Christ. Interracial marriage isn’t merely acceptable; it reflects the beauty and glory of the gospel.

    Through the gospel, we are reconciled first to God, then to one another. We are made brothers and sisters in Christ. We are counted as righteous. The gospel breaks the barriers that once divided us.

    You can read the whole post by Trillia Newbell here. Her book Union can be purchased here.

    For the last several decades we’ve heard that we ought to accept interracial relationships for two reasons. One is that we can’t tell other people what to do or who to love. The other is that all races are equal. And those are fine things. Except “everyone should be able to do what they want to do” is something a 7 year old would say. And equal does not mean the same. We still have to figure out how to deal with those differences.

    On the other hand, Newbell’s vision of interracial marriage is built around reconciliation and our true identity. She challenges us to see interracial marriage not only as an acceptable thing, but a good thing. A reflection of God’s Kingdom, in fact.

    Perhaps this is why research has found that among people who attend highly segregated churches (read: among people who attend church), those who report praying and reading their bible frequently are more likely to date outside their race. Wouldn’t it be funny if being in an interracial relationship started being on of those easily recognized markers for being Christian? I mean, we can be induced to wear cheesy and often offensive T-shirts as a way to show what super, duper, committed Christians we are. Picking a dating/marriage partner from another race in order to look like a good Christian could become a thing in our hypercompetitive church culture.

    Of course, wearing a t-shirt doesn’t grow or change you. Interracial marriage most certainly will. So maybe we should start spreading the word that interracial marriage is a thing that super committed Christians do. It’s got to be a better plan/witness than a “God’s Gym” t-shirt!