Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Importance of "YA'LL"

One of the unfortunate problems of the English Language is how the word “you” can be either singular or plural.  This usually doesn’t present itself as much of a problem in our daily lives but can really skew our understanding of many verses in the Bible and thus cause a lot of misunderstanding of important passages.   For instance, most of the times that Paul uses “you” in his letters to various churches it is of the “you” plural variety.  This means that Paul was addressing people in community.  He was speaking not simply to individuals privately trying to work out their faith alone but to a community of people who were following Christ together.  There is a big difference between these two approaches! 

So when Paul says “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own (1Cor 6:19)” he is saying “you community of people in Corinth who are following Jesus together are the temple of the Holy Spirit.”  Shane Hipps, author of Flickering Pixels, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, offers a great solution to this problem, a solution which is right in front of our faces, at least here in the South—YA’LL.  People in the South have come up with a way of differentiating between you singular and you plural by using ya’ll (I use it all the time myself without thinking much about it).  “Ya’ll” hasn’t really caught on in the rest of the country but I think it should.  In fact I think it would do us good to have all of the “you” plurals of the Bible changed to “ya’lls”.  It seems that this would do a lot more for helping us to live a faith that is connected with others in the journey.  So if any Bible translators out there are reading this blog, that’s my vote!  Ya’ll come back and read this blog again!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Helping Jesus by Killing Policemen... Really?

Today I came across a story about the FBI and DHS roundup of certain members of a so called "Christian" militia group named Hutaree that were planning to start killing policemen with justification of warring for Jesus.  I checked the group’s website and was shocked by the amount of scriptures and scriptural justifications they use to defend their plans of violence in the name of Jesus.  This seems particularly disturbing during Holy Week when, as Christians, we are reflecting on the week of Passover when Jesus willingly laid his life down to save the world.  One thing that struck me as absolutely insane on their website was the quoting of the words of Jesus from John 15:13, “Greater love has no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  How does one make the jump from laying down ones life for friends to preparing to go on a killing spree?

This last weekend I gave a message at our church called “Broken and Poured Out”.  The main point of the message is how Jesus overthrew the evil of the world not by inciting a revolution with swords and soldiers nor by politics or money but by being broken and poured out.  In fact the night that Jesus said the words quoted by the Hutaree found in John 15:13 was the very night that he instituted the “Lord’s Supper” (Communion, Eucharist).  That evening as he shared the bread and the wine with his disciples he spoke of a new covenant which would come by his body being broken and his blood being poured out.  It was in this context that he said “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.”  These words weren’t some kind of cryptic call to arms on the contrary Jesus was preparing them for what he was about to do.  Later that evening in the garden of Gethsemane when the angry mob came to get Jesus, Peter, one of his disciples, drew a sword, cutting the ear off of one of the servants.  Peter, obviously not getting the point of what Jesus had shared earlier at dinner, thought that Jesus needed defending, that he could help God out by fighting the world’s way.  Did Jesus thank Peter for coming to his rescue?  Did he congratulate him on his courage?  No.  Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and then he healed the servant’s ear.  What a picture of love in the face of evil.

Jesus overcame evil not by perpetuating more evil, not by violence, not by force but by brokenness, by laying his life very life down.  Jesus may have appeared weak to the world around him yet he was demonstrating the very power of God.  When the kingdom of God comes it looks like Jesus laying his life down for his friends, doing good to those who are evil, and loving the very ones who were crucifying him.  We, as Christ-followers are called to do the same.  Woe to us when we think, like Peter, that we can help God by taking up arms, that Jesus needs our help defending him. 

I will close this blog post with some words of Jesus that have been messing me up for years.  I have not yet learned to consistently live in their truth but I am convinced that this is the path on which the very kingdom of God breaks into our world.  Lets us consider these words as we consider Jesus this Holy Week.

Matt 5:43-47
43"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hear the Soldier Groan “We’ll Go at it Alone”

In recent years the Canadian Alternative Rock band Arcade Fire have come to be one of my favorite bands (though I can only listen to them in moderation because their songs have a way sticking in my head way too long.)  While I have no idea of this band’s spirituality, there are no doubt many religious and spiritual themes woven into the fabric of their last album Neon Bible.   One of my favorite tracks on the album is a song called Intervention.  While many have speculated on the meaning of the song: some read it as a protest song against George W. Bush, some as a protest against war, while others see it as a flight from religion into atheism, I think it’s simply about a pastor whose life is falling apart while he keeps up the fa├žade that everything is okay.   I remember hearing the following lines from the song and being arrested by how true they rang:

Working for the church
While your family dies
You take what they give you
And you keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone"
Been working for the church
While your life falls apart
Singing hallelujah with the fear in your heart
Every spark of friendship and love
Will die without a home
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone"

Many (if not most) who make a conscious decision to become Christians, do so from a place of real brokenness.  They have hit bottom.  The illusions of happiness from money, sex, drugs, power, etc. have been shattered and there is a readiness and openness to the work of Christ.  Like the alcoholic who begins a 12 step program, there is a coming to terms with the fact that one has made his or her life into a complete mess and that there is no power to change things.  This certainly describes my conversion experience.  When I surrendered to Christ I brought everything—my lust, anger, addictions, failures, and hopelessness to the light.  While this is the starting place for many a Christian convert, somewhere along the way many learn how to fake it, to act like things are going well when in reality there are shameful struggles they feel they can share with no one (especially other Christians). 

I think that much of this has to do with misconceptions about how the Christian life is supposed to work.  There is a basic idea perpetuated by American Christian pop culture that goes like this, “Follow Jesus and everything will get better.”  With this idea is the assumption that all struggles with sin will pretty much disappear the moment one gives their life to Jesus.  The problem is that many of these struggles don’t disappear and sometimes following Jesus actually means that things get worse (or at least appears to).  This idea is so entrenched in the way we think about Christianity that a good many Christians just give up when their struggles with sin emerge again.  Those that don’t give up cover up, putting up a good front for the other folks in church or simply resign themselves to a Christianity that is nothing more than cultural. 

In my years as a Christian I have seen more than a few Christian leaders fall in a very public way.  And when they fall, as did Ted Haggart a few years back, we all gasp, wondering how such a thing could happen.  I suspect that what has happened is directly tied to this faulty theological idea – following Jesus and everything will get better.  
Hear the soldier grown we’ll go at it alone!
What if our struggles were not meant to be suffered alone?  What if the healing that God has for us is meant to come in the context of authentic relationships with other Christ-followers?  When I first heard the words to this Arcade Fire song I could so easily relate that I began to tear up.  How many years of my Christian life had I spent going it alone fighting battles with things I was ashamed to admit to those closest to me?

I am convinced that shame is the greatest barrier to Christians experiencing transformation in their spiritual life.  We are like Adam and Eve who hid from God behind fig leaves to cover their shame.  Our fig leaves may be different—our jobs, status symbols, even the way we talk and dress but, whatever the covering, we have become disconnected from God, disconnected from one another, and disconnected from our own heart. 

I think the church could learn a whole lot from Alcoholics Anonymous and other recovery groups.  Those in recovery show up with the understanding that they are broken (one doesn’t go to AA because his life is together).  Not only that but the process of working the 12 Steps is never meant to be an individual pursuit.  It is a communal affair with a sponsor and a sponsee and others who are committed to supporting one another in the journey towards wholeness.

When Jesus gave his most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount, he started off by saying, “Blessed are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Perhaps the creators of the twelve steps had this in mind as the first step is strikingly similar to Jesus’ first beatitude - We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable.  This “poverty of Spirit” isn’t simply dealt with at the point of conversion but is a reality that we must continually keep in front of us if we are to experience the kingdom of God on a regular basis.  There is no point that one in recovery is encouraged to leave the first step behind.  It is the entry way but it is also the path.  Those who have spent years struggling with alcohol and drugs or other addictions live with a healthy understanding that they can always pick that addiction back up. This type of thinking doesn’t deny victory in the Christian life as some might think but rather creates a receptiveness for the kingdom of God in our hearts.  We are all broken and in need of healing.  My prayer is that this understanding could begin framing more of our relationships in the church, that instead of folks learning how to fake their way through Christianity, they could actually experience the transformation that comes from brokenness, openness, and vulnerability with other Christ-followers.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith - A Review

Shane Hipps was an up-and-coming talent in the world of advertising where he worked on marketing strategies for clients as notable as Porsche. But Shane came to a crisis of belief in the very industry in which he was working. Ironically this crisis came as he was trying to better himself at his craft by studying some of the fundamentals of communication and advertising. His studies caused him to stumble across some writings by Marshall McLuhan who he refers to in Flickering Pixels as “the most important thinker you’ve never heard of.” Hipps refers to his encounter with McLuhan’s writings as a wake-up as profound as Neo’s becoming aware of The Matrix.   As he delved into McLuhan’s writings he committed what he called career suicide thus stepping away from marketing and advertising and enrolling in seminary. Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith is the result of that journey.

Marshall McLuhan’s writings no doubt play a very important role in the ideas discussed in this book most notably his quote, “The medium is the message.” Hipps uses this quote as the springboard into discussing how the medium whether print, image, audio, or electronic is just as powerful as the message it carries.

I found fascinating the points he brought up about which part of your brain is engaged with various forms of media and how this has played a major role in what has been emphasized in Christianity over the years. For example he makes the case that prior to the printing press cultures processed information much more from the right side of the brain, which is geared towards story, community, and connection. This meant that prior to the printing press churches emphasized much more of the stories of Jesus rather than the writings of Paul. But with the printing press and resulting mass literacy all of the sudden the writings of Paul came to the forefront (this was a huge factor in what helped Luther towards Paul’s writings and thus the protestant reformation.) Hipps makes the case that with the advent of the medium of books and literacy the culture began to shift to more left-brain understandings of theology and spirituality. Thus things became much more linear and logical in the way people approached doctrine and theology as well as Christian activities. This also led to an emphasis on individual spirituality rather than communal spirituality. Shane Hipps discern that we are now in the midst of another great shift with the advent of the internet, blogs, cell phones, text messages and so on. Things are becoming less linear as the world becomes connected in vast webs of information. This has big ramifications for faith and understanding the cultural climate the church now finds itself in.

Hipps doesn’t come out for or against technology in this book (though he is certainly a bit suspicious of it) but is a strong advocate for awareness as we use technology because we are shaped by the very technological tools we use. Hipps saves his most profound chapters for the end of the book when he begins to discuss the message and medium of Jesus (God become flesh) and what God was saying to humanity as well as the medium of the church to communicate God’s message to the world. I will no doubt ponder the insights from his closing chapters for days to come.

Flickering Pixels is a great read and a refreshing reminder to wake up and pay attention to many of the things we don’t even think about that fill so much of our daily lives and I would recommend it to anyone wrestling with faith in the digital age.

That Unreliable Tooth Fairy

Years ago when my daughter Tevia, the oldest of our two kids, began losing her first baby teeth it was so fun to play the part of the tooth fairy. I loved sneaking in her room when she was asleep to place a dollar in exchange for her little tooth. What I loved even more than that was the sense of wonder the next morning as she pondered what the tooth fairy looked like and how the tooth fairy got in her room. But as she got older and began to lose more teeth, the tooth fairy didn’t seem to be nearly as trustworthy, sometimes showing up days after the tooth was placed under the pillow. Eventually the tooth fairy’s lack of consistency finally confirmed what my daughter had begun to expect—the tooth fairy wasn’t real.

These days my son Ezra is just starting to lose his first baby teeth and so here we go again. But unlike with my daughter the tooth fairy has already got off to a bad start. When Ezra lost his first tooth it just happened to be on an evening when there was no cash in the house. It took the tooth fairy 2 days to get the money to him on that first tooth. Then his most recent tooth somehow slipped by the tooth-fairy which meant that it took 3 days before the tooth fairy was able to drop a dollar under his pillow.

This whole tooth-fairy thing is a mess lately but I just can’t let myself drop it… no yet at least. I feel compelled to keep trying as if I can maybe salvage some bit of magic in it while Ezra is still at that wonderful age where magical thinking is still common. Unfortunately my salvage efforts have come off more as one trying to make excuses for some deadbeat relative that keeps telling us their coming for the holidays with presents in hand only to cancel at the last minute each time.

Here are some of my excuses:
1. There must have been a whole lot of kids in the world who lost teeth the last few days. She will probably be here in another day or two.
2. Son, there’s this thing we call the recession and times are tough right now. The tooth fairy is probably having to cut back on hours and the amount of fairy’s she employs but she’ll be here any day.
3. The tooth fairy didn’t come because you were grounded last night (actually Ezra asked if this was why the tooth fairy didn’t come and well, I couldn’t pass it up.)
4. The tooth fairy didn’t leave any money because you slept in a sleeping bag on the floor and she normally finds the tooth under the pillow on your bed.
5. We forgot to send the tooth fairy a “change of address” when we moved to our new house.
6. The tooth fairy caught that cold that’s been going around but she should be better any day now.

I could sure use some more help on this one if any of you have any other great excuses that have come in handy before.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gardening Blog #2 Sowing Seeds

So here is the next installment of my gardening blog, one man's quest for home-grown salsa. In this high-action episode watch as Crispin and his kid's plant the first seeds of what is hoped to be a flourishing garden. Camera work by Tevia. Seed planting and silliness by Ezra.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Here’s to Wisdom and Innocence

Jesus said some pretty crazy things as recorded in the gospels, but one line in particular has got me thinking a lot lately. In Matthew 10:16 Jesus said, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” These words of Jesus are not the typical stuff of daily devotionals or inspirational calendars but really tell us a lot about the battle that we are in.

I find that the older I get, the easier it is to become cynical whether about politics, church, or just dealing with people in general. Why is this? Because living is hard! As one song put it “Living will be the death of me!” None of us make it through life without disappointments, failures, relationship break-ups and break-downs, and pain of all varieties. These disappointments and trials have a way of wounding us and as a result poisoning our perception of life or at least lingering as dull pain inside. However, those who are Christ-followers, those who take the words of Jesus seriously, should not be surprised that life is hard, that people fail us and disappoint us, that bad things happen to good people, after all Jesus said as much in this verse.

Jesus makes it clear in these words that we should expect hardship, that we should expect evil. How does he make drive this point home? By using a picture of sheep being sent out among wolves. Of all of the comforting things Jesus said this was not one of them. It’s like saying “I’m sending you like steak into the lion cage.” A sheep is no match for a wolf. There is just no way of making that fight work out to the sheep’s advantage… that is unless there is a shepherd. Fortunately for us Jesus makes it clear elsewhere that he is that shepherd.

However, it is the final words of this verse that have really been speaking to me lately, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” While our tendency in the trials of life is to get cynical and bitter and to close our hearts off for fear of being hurt again, Jesus calls us to walk in such a way that expects trials and hard times, that learns from trials and hard times, and yet still maintains innocence and a child-like faith and wonder.

I could certainly use more child-like faith and wonder in my life these days. To be honest, sometimes I annoy myself with all my cynical thoughts and statements. I hate that when I encounter certain people or situations that I am so quick to make snap judgments or to filter things through my own bad experiences. I don’t want to be a grumpy old man or a grumpy young man, for that matter. I am asking God to help me to keep an innocent heart no matter what kinds of things I’ve been through or what kinds of trials I will go through. If we take Jesus at his words this seems like very real possibility.

So here’s to wisdom, the kind of wisdom that only comes through hard times and trials and testing. But here’s also to innocence, wide-eyed, open-hearted innocence that is looking expectantly for God even where one would least expect to find him.