Monday, December 21, 2009

Singing Mary’s Revolutionary Song

The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.

Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood. This has given rise to various understandings about Mary, most notably differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of her.

Yet, while Mary remains a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The Song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke chapter one, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.

Mary’s song is a very personal song expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.

But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. Indeed, it is a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.

She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.

Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and to overturn the normal politics of her world that were based on status.

This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.

Mary may have understood, however, that it would be through the good acts done by God’s people that the values of her society would radically shift. In other words, because she knew that she and her community could not directly challenge the religious authorities or the Roman powers, she instead believed that through radical living by doing good to those around them, God’s justice would prevail. It would be through living out the ethics of the rule of God in living together as a faithful community that God would reverse the values that shaped her secular society.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.

Although we might piously think that Jesus came into the world programmed to know what God desired, I suggest that Mary shaped his way of thinking about God and the world more than any other source. Given what we find in Mary’s song, we cannot help but consider her impact on his thinking, his message, and his actions.

But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies? How would this alter our American values so that we would instead embrace the values of God and of God’s son Jesus?

Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. More importantly, it is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Incarnation of God Redefines Our Human Existence

The season of Advent is almost over, and the anticipated arrival of Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, is coming. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, for centuries Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, like the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus.

Moreover, a later 4th century movement that originated with a bishop named Arius also did not hold to a divine understanding of Jesus. But for the most part, earlier Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many of these early Christians was accepting that he was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we also struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus was existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity.

In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

There are obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity, and I think two are significant. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.

The key to solving this, I think, is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God became not only human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle.
Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loves the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Greed that Steals Christmas

The Christmas Season is once again upon us and that means that we will again have the annual chance to view some of the old-time favorite holiday specials on TV. Whether one prefers “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” or “The Year without a Santa Claus,” these and other programs have become yearly symbols of the season.

Yet, perhaps the most famous of these programs is the 1966 Dr. Seuss classic, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” The story is so familiar to us that we can perhaps recite the plot from memory and even quote verbatim some of the famous lines spoken by the narrator, the Grinch, or Cindy Lou Who.

But as we think about this holiday season, we must be reminded that though the Grinch is a fictional character who could never really steal Christmas from the people of Whoville, there is another, and indeed more subtle and more powerful enemy of the season of Christmas than the Grinch. It is greed, and it seems that it does not take a holiday from its power to create the desire for us to want more, to buy more, and to neglect Jesus call to give up all we have and give to the poor.

Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper use of them, and indeed his message speaks clearly to us during this season of “Black Fridays”, crowded malls, and overspending. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. At the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down. But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept if we see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy, that is when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. Santa and a cuddly baby Jesus become our gods, marginalizing the Jesus that warns us against the dangers of trying to serve both God and mammon. One will always come before the other in receiving our devotion.

It is this vertical plane of greed we may find convicting, but nonetheless manageable. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy?

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings. Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments to love both God and our neighbors are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more.

For sure we give gifts to others at Christmas and many of us give things to those less fortunate than ourselves. But is this enough? Does this express the true meaning of the season we call Christmas, the time we reflect on the incarnation of God? Should not Christmas be the one time each year when we overturn the norms of our culture that beg us to buy more, so that we can imitate the authentic meaning of Jesus emptying himself?

If we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover this view of possessions and the proper use of them can also save us from the horizontal direction of greed. When we see the central value of possessions as meeting our basic needs, we can find the strength to repent of our lives of hoarding and self-indulgence and we can be free to practice lives of generosity through which we seek God’s justice for the poor.

A fictional character like the Grinch cannot steal the meaning of Christmas. But the very real force of greed can lay hold of us and cause us to lose sight of what this season really signifies, emptying ourselves of anything we cling to in order to be more faithful followers of Jesus and more generous sharers of God’s blessings.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beware of the False Prophets of End-Time Delusions

I thought Hal Lindsey was dead, but I discovered he is quite alive when I ran into him on TV the other night. But not only is he very much alive, the end-times prophecy that forms the basis of his theological and political perspective on the world is also very much alive.

While Lindsey is a senior figure of this movement, perhaps the most prolific prophet of end-time theology is John Hagee. Hagee is a master at using charts and graphs to offer exactly how things are going to happen in the end.

But by reaching many more people than what Lindsey and Hagee could ever reach, the Left Behind Series has done more to popularize end-time theology. This series of books has contributed greatly to the growing fascination that many Christians have with the end-times.

The basic teaching of end-time theology has several key points that are important to understand. First, those who preach this message believe that a person known as the anti-Christ will rise up and rule the world. The problem is that for decades now, many have pointed to various historical figures as the anti-Christ.

Second, there is the idea of a rapture, which will take place at a point in time in which Christians will somehow disappear from earth, apparently teleporting to heaven much like a scene out of Star Trek. The idea is that Christians will be taken from earth before things get really bad.

Third, Israel plays a significant role in Christian end-time theology. Indeed, these prophets equate ancient Israel directly with the State of Israel. They preach that America must support Israel’s desire to hold on to confiscated land in order to be on God’s side, despite the atrocities the Israeli government may carry out against the Palestinians.

But the most egregious theological error these prophets preach is that the world will end in an apocalyptic battle in the Middle East, when Muslim nations will attack Israel and the world will erupt in a cataclysmic war to end all wars. Indeed, many of them express joy as they salivate over the prospects of an end-time war.

What are we to make of these teachings that are not just harmless ramblings from crazy street preachers? How are we to understand their messages, and better yet, critique them in light of the gospel of peace that Jesus proclaimed?

A starting point for us might be to look at what Jesus says in Mark 13, where we hear him speak about one of the most catastrophic events to take place in Jerusalem during the first century; the destruction of the temple.

As Mark 13 begins, we find Jesus and his disciples coming out of the temple. As they come out, one of the disciples points to the temple saying, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

Did Jesus not know that the temple was large and magnificent? Had this fact escaped him? No, Jesus knew very well how large and magnificent the temple was; everyone did. Thus, a reasonable explanation as to why the disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnitude of the building is to remind Jesus of the significance of the temple for the faithful in and around Jerusalem.

Indeed, for the Jews, and for Jewish followers of Jesus who continued to frequent the temple, the temple was a constant reminder of God’s presence among them despite the oppression of Roman rule. The temple was the one sure foundation in the religious life of the people. This is perhaps why the disciple points out the large stones to Jesus. But this is also why Jesus takes this moment to talk about the temple’s destruction.

But the response of the four disciples to Jesus’ words about the temple is very revealing. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"

Notice the emphasis of their query. When will this happen? What will be the sign that this is about to happen? These followers of Jesus sound much like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and the rest of the false prophets of end-time doom. Focused on the signs of the end, they try to see these signs in significant historical events. But Jesus uses this as a teaching moment to warn them, and to warn them particularly against false prophets who come in his name.

In his warning about the false prophets, Jesus says to these sign-seeking disciples that the events we interpret as signs of the end are always happening and will continue to happen. They are not signs that the end is here, and if some are preaching this, they are false prophets who will lead us astray.

The message that these false prophets have is that the world is ending, so let’s not only look for the signs, let’s also hurry things along. Let’s forget about seeking good in the world, making peace in the world, and improving our world. Let’s instead focus our attention on how quickly we can get to the end.

Jesus is not unaware that catastrophic events like natural disasters, famines, and wars cause us to think things are getting worse in the world. But he is not calling us to see them as signs that the end is near. Jesus is telling us that these events should call us to action as his followers; they should move us to live the gospel more faithfully until the end.

Living the gospel faithfully expresses a lasting hope that does not need to look for signs of what is to come. The events that unfold in our world that cause those false prophets to preach their doomsday gospel about the end, are really the events that ought to continually shake us into action as Christ’s ambassadors who are called to live and proclaim the good news, not the bad news.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Transformative Power of Forgiveness

Each Sunday Christians across the world recite in communal worship the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet, like many of the recitations we memorize and repeat, especially those that proclaim what we believe, reciting the Lord’s Prayer can become a somewhat inattentive practice. This does not mean that we should end this important part of worship. Rather, it means that we must become more conscious of what we are praying when we pray the prayer Jesus gave his followers to pray.

But being conscious of what we are praying when we recite the model prayer means that we realize we are not simply casting a wish list before God as if something magical will happen. Instead, praying the Lord’s Prayer is an act through which we are confessing what we believe about the gospel and how we are committing ourselves to living that gospel.

There are several lines within the prayer that deserve our attention, but perhaps the one that is most troubling for many of us is the portion in which we not only ask God to forgive us, but more seriously, we commit ourselves to forgiving others. It is comforting to believe that God forgives us, and many of us would have wanted Jesus to leave it at that. But to confess that we must also forgive others is uncomfortable, especially when we think about what that really means.

The key to understanding Matthew’s version of the prayer is found in his use of the term debts. Matthew’s “debts” might be viewed as a stronger term than Luke’s “sins”, although they are essentially making the same basic point. Yet, in Matthew’s account, the statement expresses the idea that our sins against God are debts that we owe to God; debts that have become so large that we can never repay them. Thus, with the weight of such debt, we find ourselves hopeless to find any relief, and we have no choice but to turn to God and ask for forgiveness.

Yet, we must be careful when praying this portion of the prayer, for to pray for God’s forgiveness of our debts is inextricably linked to our forgiving others of their debts. In fact, the wording of Jesus’ prayer may imply that we must first forgive others of the debts they owe to us before, or at least simultaneous to our seeking God’s forgiveness.

The serious question for us, then, is what does it mean to forgive our debtors, those who sin against us? It means that we must not only forgive those who sin against us in minor ways, but perhaps more importantly, we must also forgive those who commit the most horrendous acts against us. In forgiving others who sin against us we express the character of God, who extends forgiveness to all. If God’s forgiveness has no limits, then the forgiveness we must offer to others should have no boundaries.

Why does this part of Jesus’ prayer seem so difficult for us? The simple answer is that when we are wronged it is our human nature to seek punishment and even revenge. We rightly desire justice, but we wrongly assume that justice is better served through vengeance and punishment. From our perspectives, we view justice as making someone pay for what they have done.

But such a view misses the transformative power of forgiveness. By commanding us to forgive, Jesus was calling us to wield the power of forgiveness to transform enemies into friends. Moreover, Jesus understood that to forgive someone, especially to forgive them of a heinous action, is to free one’s self from the debilitating power of hatred and revenge.

This kind of forgiveness seeks the justice that is centered in the gospel of grace. It is not justice that seeks to make the other pay for their sins. Rather, it is justice that forgives them of their sins, thereby offering freedom to both the perpetrator and the victim. It is restorative justice.

Many of us are aware of what took place in the African country of Rwanda in 1994. Tribal clashes between Hutus and Tutsis led to the genocidal killings of almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus within 100 days. Armed mostly with machetes, the killers ravaged villages, killing any Tutsis or moderate Hutu without regard to age or gender. In fact, many of those who killed took the lives of those who were once their neighbors and their friends.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the perpetrators were imprisoned for their crimes. Yet, due to the overwhelming backlog of court cases, in 2003 the government of Rwanda began releasing those prisoners who confessed their crimes. Instead of seeking justice through punitive actions, Rwanda set itself on a path of reconciliation and restoration, with the liberating power of forgiveness as the force behind restorative justice.

On Wednesday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m., the Center for International Programs at Henderson State University, over which I am the director, will be screening the documentary, “As We Forgive,” in the Lecture Hall of the Garrison Center. This film tells the story of Rwanda’s tragic past, but more importantly shows the power of forgiveness and reconciliation that is currently restoring and strengthening this country.

I invite those in the Arkadelphia area to attend the viewing of this film that expresses the transformative power of forgiveness. If you are not in the area, I invite you to visit the website for the film at to find out more about how forgiveness and reconciliation are helping to restore a nation once torn by the tragedy of genocide.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What does it Really Mean to Love Our Enemies?

Perhaps one of the most troubling and ignored commands of Jesus is the order to love our enemies. Spoken in the same context as Jesus’ recognition that we are called to love our neighbors, i.e. those easier to love, Jesus’ command to love our enemies must find equal authority in our lives if we seek to be faithful followers.

Indeed, in the context of Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus reverses an original command, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ to reflect what he believed about the new rule of God, “But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These words must have been shocking to his original hearers, as they are shocking even to us who hear them today. Perhaps they tried to explain his command away or simply ignored it all together, much like we do in both intellectual and practical ways. After all, it is perhaps the most difficult command to live.

But we must ask the more practical question, “How are we to love our enemies?” In other words, in what realistic ways are we to express the transformative and redemptive love of God to those who have wronged us? If Jesus has commanded his followers to love their enemies, then such love must be authenticated through tangible action. But through what actions do we express this kind of love?

There are many good deeds we could view as actions of love, but there are some foundational actions that are at the core of the gospel message that God loves the world. In fact, while many acts of goodness could be discussed, it seems to me that Jesus modeled for us three primary actions and reactions towards those who were his enemies.

First, we must respond to the harm that is done to us by our enemies with actions that are nonviolent. When Jesus was arrested in the garden, the height of conflict between him and his enemies, he responded with nonviolence and called his disciples to do the same. While those who came to seize him carried swords and clubs, Jesus reacted to their aggression with peacefulness. Thus, a reaction to a wrong done to us by our enemies that is both an authentic and transformative expression of Christ’s love is always nonviolent.

This does not prevent us from seeking justice, but it does call us to seek true justice that breaks a cycle of hatred and violence. Moreover, Jesus’ command for us to turn the other cheek is not a command for us to become weak in the face of evil done against us. Rather, through our turning our cheek, we express a strength that epitomizes the actions of Christ and opens the possibility for authentic love and lasting peace between us and our enemies.

Second, in loving our enemies we must express to them an unconditional forgiveness for the wrongs they have committed against us. God’s forgiveness for us is not based on our own action of confession and repentance. God’s forgiveness is unconditional and extends to those who have committed the most gravest of sins. Thus, if we are to reveal the character of God to others, then we must extend the same kind of forgiveness that God has so graciously extended to us.

Yet, forgiveness is not simply the overlooking of a wrong that has been committed. Those who commit wrongs against others and against society should be brought to justice. There are offenses and crimes that cannot be excused. However, the justice we seek is not a condition for the forgiveness we are called to offer. We are not commanded to forgive when someone serves their penalty for a wrong. We are called to forgive apart from that penalty.

Third, through the strength Christ gives us to love our enemies, we must be moved to the point of welcoming and embracing our enemies. We can look to Jesus’ experience with Judas, the one who would betray him, to see this very action. Jesus remained in table fellowship with Judas to the very end; an act which served as an expression of hospitality and intimacy. Serving as host, Jesus not only shared a meal with Judas, he also washed the feet of his would be enemy.

To be sure, these are challenging steps for us to take. But loving our enemies is part of the gospel of discipleship. If we only voice an insincere and distant love for enemies in an attempt to convince ourselves that we are right with God, then we have failed to love our enemies and we have failed to live the gospel.

Faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a mental assent to a set of propositions about who Jesus was. Authentic faith can only be expressed by taking up the cross and following Jesus. Discipleship is a call to die to ourselves, including our need for vengeance against our enemies. Discipleship is a call to enact God’s redemptive and transformative love for all people through nonviolence, forgiveness, and embrace of those we see as our enemies.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jesus’ Life Offers a Model of Contentment

We live in a restless and discontented age. Each day we are confronted with problems and circumstances that test our peace and contentment. We worry about financial problems, health problems, and family problems. We are anxious about raising our children, succeeding at work, and maintaining a certain standard of living.

Moreover, the pace of our daily lives, the demands of nanosecond technology, and the drive to outdo others are only a few of the factors that contribute to our anxiety and restlessness. We never have enough time or enough money to do and buy all we think we need. We are a discontented and stressed out generation.

Why are we discontented? Why are we restless? Perhaps the most challenging obstacle to finding satisfaction in life is that we are constantly in want. We live in what someone has called the “prison of want”. We always want what is bigger, nicer, faster, and newer. We want a new job, a new car, a new house, a new gadget, and new clothes because we believe that such things will provide lasting contentment.

We want because we live lives of comparison. We see what others have and we want something better. We see what others become and we want to become something better. We are in a constant pace to keep up with and even out do our neighbors.

We also want because the illusion of comfort convinces us that we will be happier with more stuff, with a new job, with a new car, and many other things we desire. We want possessions and prestige because we have the false impression that these will take away the pains and disappointments we experience in life. Yet, unhealthy wanting only leads to lust, jealousy, anger, resentment, failure, and sadly, a life that never finds contentment.

So what is the secret of contentment? How can we live lives free of anxiety and filled with satisfaction? How can we overcome the desire to want? We find the answer in the model of living that Jesus gave to us. Never wanting or desiring that which was not given by God, Jesus, though continually living in the shadow of death, found contentment in his relationship with God and others. Three primary characteristics of Jesus’ life demonstrate this very idea.

First Jesus found contentment through living in God’s presence. He was in constant communion with God, being led by God’s Spirit to do the will of God. Through living in presence of God, Jesus found satisfaction and peace. The famous Psalm 23 captures the essence of what Jesus knew to be true; living in God’s presence and looking to God for the needs and blessings of life leads to a life of peace and contentment.

Second, Jesus found contentment by living in God’s present. We are always looking past today to tomorrow, and we rush through life without appreciating the present that God has given to us. Jesus’ life, however, reflected his command, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” He embraced the present time that God had given him as an opportunity to embrace the will of God for him. In this he found peace.

The Psalmist of Psalm 118 reminds us that each day is “the day that the Lord has made” and we should “rejoice and be glad in it.” Instead of rushing through our lives of stress and strain, hoping that each day will be better than the previous one, we ought to live in the present that God has given us, finding God’s grace for today even if our circumstances are painful.

Lastly, Jesus found contentment in relationships with others. Though spending much time alone in communion with God, Jesus was not insular. Indeed, we might say that his time alone with God resulted in his intentional act of creating relationships with others. In those relationships, though sometimes disappointing, Jesus found friendship, community, and contentment.

To find peace and contentment, we must cherish our fellowship with others, whether they are family, friends, or even strangers. We must reject our relationships with things, and embrace the people God leads in our lives. The greatest gift we have is not the things, the possessions, the prestige, or the popularity we find in life. The greatest gifts we have in life are the relationships God has given us. Instead of replacing these relationships with busyness, superficiality, and isolation, we should ensure that we give priority to building loving relationships with the people God has placed in our lives.

We will never find contentment in the things of this world that rust and decay. Nor will we experience peace through the things of this world that bring fleeting pleasure. True contentment is experienced through living in the presence of God, the present God has given us, and with the people God has led into our lives, even as we live in a world that is so discontented.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What Would My Perfect Church Look Like?

I’ll be the first to admit that I do not attend church every Sunday. In fact, there are many Sundays when I find greater respite and spiritual renewal as I sip on a cup of coffee and think about life, God, and our place in this world. I know, I know, this is not the ideal situation for a believer, for we are certainly given commands to gather for worship with God’s people on the Lord’s Day.

It’s not that I am against church as a whole, or against certain churches. And I am certainly not against worship, for worship is central to our faith. It’s just that I find many congregations to be either too formal and structured in their worship or too informal and touchy-feely in their worship. Honestly, I do prefer the former to the latter, but worship can become so rigid in these settings that we fail to appreciate the emotional aspect of an encounter with the divine.

Of course, I have my own ideas about what church should be like, and my ideas may differ from many folks. Moreover, my ideas may be too utopian to be realistic; but aren’t we all at least looking for the perfect church?

By perfect church, I am not implying perfection as meaning without problems. I don’t avoid church because of problems. Furthermore, I don’t think I will find a church that meets all my expectations. Churches may have divine missions, and many may carry these out well, but churches are still human institutions, and thus they are imperfect.

But what would my church look like, if I could create one? What would be the characteristics of what I would see as a “perfect” church?

In my mind, there are central characteristics that I find essential for a church that is seeking to be what God intends it to be. This list is not exhaustive, as I could probably make some additions to it. Nevertheless, for me, these attributes are most important.

First, since I am speaking about a Christian church, the church would be one that believes Jesus to be an expression of God to humanity and the life and teachings of Jesus as the model for living as humans created in the image of God. The church would be focused on following Jesus as a way of discovering our common humanity and our relationship to God.

This would not mean that we would have to believe that Christianity is the only true religion, and thus the only true way to know God. Indeed, this church would reject this exclusive mentality and embrace the pluralist idea that all religions, including Christianity, are ways of explaining the divine and how humans relate to the divine, and no one religion is truer than the others.

Second, the church I envision would be progressive. I have already defined in two separate articles what I mean when I say I am a progressive Christian, but to summarize my point, a progressive church would see theology not as a stagnant set of doctrines, but as a practice of engaging with the world. A progressive Christian church would be interested in conversations about God, Jesus, and human existence, and how these conversations serve as transformative for faithful living, rather than focusing on repeating and reinforcing theological doctrines.

And in being a progressive congregation, this church would practice a third vital characteristic: critical reflection. A church that is interested in the conversations about God would reflect and think critically and rationally about faith and practice without resorting to providing preconceived theological answers. It would struggle with the hard questions of life and, though seeking to discover answers to those questions, would be satisfied with living with the mysteries of God.

Yet, this church would also appreciate other ways of knowing and explaining the world. Instead of rejecting such ways of knowing, such as science, this church would incorporate these into the conversations about theology and reflect critically on how the two relate.

The congregation I imagine would be inclusive and welcoming. Accepting the diversity that exists in God’s good creation is a way of recognizing the breadth and depth of God’s love. Welcoming folks from all walks of life, whether they are of a different gender, race, nationality, social class, or sexual orientation is a hallmark to a faithful congregation that values that all have access to a life with God and God’s people.

And, my church would value social justice over spiritual salvation. This does not mean that the gospel is not spiritually transforming, for it certainly is. But the church I hope for would see the rule of God as more than a spiritual presence by returning to the political and social justice message of Jesus.

The church I would like to be a part of would proclaim a message so radical that it would see poverty and simplicity as virtues of faithful living, rather than prosperity as that which is blessed by God. It would see both the value of giving to those in need and also the divine mission to call governments to set policies that are just and fair for the poor. It would be a church that sees the Beatitudes not as high ideals we cannot attain, but as a way of life.

These are the characteristics I believe are vital to the “perfect” church. Perhaps I hope for too much. Perhaps I will not ever see a church like this. Most of the problem lies, however, with my own failures at being what I would hope a church to be. Maybe this is why I often avoid church.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jesus without Borders

Borders are interesting concepts that have been around since the dawn of creation. Borders are those barriers that we construct to keep those we want out, out. Nations have borders, and in our current political climate, there is much discussion about keeping our borders more secure, making sure that not just anyone comes through them.

But nations are not the only entities that create borders. We as individuals create property borders that mark what is ours and what is not. Particularly in societies, like our own, that value personal property, we often build fences around those borders to ensure our privacy and to let those around us know that what is inside the wall belongs to us and not to them.

But societies often create borders within their social structures. We create borders and barriers to prevent us from community with others who are not like us. Race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, class and economics are all borders we have created that keep others at a distance from us.

Yet, perhaps the most entrenched borders that we find in human existence are the borders established by religions. These have a long history dating back to the ancient world when the sacred spaces of a temple represented the barrier between the profane and the sacred.

For example, the Jewish Temple is known for the walls that separated various courts. The court of the Gentiles, the outer most court, was designed for the Gentiles to worship Israel’s God, but they could go no further. The court of the women created places where the women could enter, but they could go no further into the temple. And those with infirmities and diseases were forbidden from any part of the temple due to their impurity.

We also know from reading the stories about Jesus’ encounter with those determined to be unclean, that he was often chastised by the religious leaders of Israel for his association with them. Whether he was in the company of a leper, a person under demonic possession, or a woman of disrepute, Jesus was always condemned by the religious leaders for crossing the religious and social borders that separated what they established as pure and impure.

Indeed, Jesus was confronted with a borders and barriers mentality wherever he went. A society structured on strict class systems, especially those based on religion, is so ingrained in keeping those barriers and restrictions that it finds troubling and threatening a person like Jesus who crosses those barriers to make contact with those on the outside.

Or to put it another way, Jesus faced a religious society in which there were insiders and outsiders, and it was those on the inside who determined not only who was inside the borders, but perhaps most tragically, who must remain outside the borders.

Mark picks up on this insider-outsider mentality that humans have toward others, especially when it comes to religion, and makes it an underlying theme in his Gospel. Mark takes this theme, however, and turns it on its head. In other words, Mark communicates through his narrative that those who think they are insiders are actually outsiders, and those who think they are only outsiders become insiders.

Of particular importance for this theme is the way the disciples are often portrayed as outsiders. These twelve men, who seem to be insiders who are privy to some private moments and private teachings of Jesus, appear, at times, not to understand Jesus fully. Though they believe they are insiders, they sometimes act more like outsiders, and at points they express attitudes or superiority and exclusion.

This attitude among the disciples is expressed by John in Mark 9, when he comes to Jesus enthusiastically telling Jesus that he has stopped a rogue exorcist from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. He tells Jesus that he stopped this person because, “He was not following us.”

However, if we read John’s statement carefully, we may determine that John’s concern seems to be whether one can be a legitimate follower of Christ without being part of the group of twelve- the insiders. In other words, John wants a Jesus that has borders; a Jesus whose name and authority is only allowed to be used by those approved by the insiders. John wants a Jesus who prevents just anyone from serving in his name.

In our own Christian pilgrimages, we have all run across this kind of attitude, and perhaps we have occasionally played the role of John in our own relationships with others. It is very easy for us to take positions of theological certitude, construct our religious fences, and designate those on the outside as outsiders in order to make sure they remain outside the borders.

The fact is, however, if we continually draw the borders in such a way as to exclude others because they are not joined to our way of thinking and believing, then we have not truly sought to follow Jesus. Rather, we are seeking to be followed. When we exclude others because they are not following us, we fail just like John. Claiming to be insiders in the Jesus movement, we expose ourselves as outsiders.

John sought to place limits on Jesus in an effort to say who could serve him. By doing so, he drew borders around the community of faith as a way of stating who is inside and who remains outside. But Jesus, by being true to his example of welcoming the young child in this same context, and by declaring that the rule of God is a movement of welcome and embrace, was breaking down the walls and borders of separation that prevented those called outsiders from a life with God.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Between Athens and Jerusalem: Reading Liberal Books at Christian Universities

Blogger's Note: September 26-October 3 is Banned Books Week. The following essay, written in April of 2005, is my telling of my own experience when the administration of a private Christian university at which I taught attempted to ban a book that I had chosen for a course. In reaction, I stood my ground and used the book.

This essay originally appeared in the SBL Forum, an on-line publication of the Society of Biblical Literature. You can find the original post at

"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" These questions, posed by the Patristic theologian Tertullian in The Prescriptions against Heresies, continue to haunt educators at church-related universities. Recent and longstanding controversies at these universities fuel debate about what it means for a liberal arts university to call itself Christian or, vice versa, for a Christian university to call itself a liberal arts university. Certainly the mission of these intuitions is to educate, to spur critical and creative thinking, and to develop lifelong learners. Yet this can become tricky when one takes into account the fact that these institutions have a constituency in the pews of the churches, a constituency that often does not understand the complexities of a true liberal arts education. In this often conflicting context, I have recently dealt with my own controversy.

I currently teach at a small, church-related, liberal arts university in the South, in the so-called Bible Belt. The current curriculum at this university requires students to complete a core of liberal arts and interdisciplinary study courses. The curriculum currently in place requires students to take two one-hour readings courses, one at the sophomore level and the other at the junior level. For these courses, volunteer faculty members, who are paid a stipend, choose a book that they would like to read with a group of about fifteen to twenty students. In general, these books should have some importance and some scholarly merit, but not be too difficult for the average undergraduate student. Students sign up for two books in a semester and read these in rotation, six weeks for the first book and six weeks for the second. Thus a faculty member participating in this venture will read a book with two different groups of students in a semester. While methods for assessing student learning vary, most instructors require students to write response papers for their grades.The current state of the course has allowed each faculty member to choose the book to be read in his or her own course. No specific criteria have been established for the selection of books, giving faculty great freedom to choose important books.

I was asked by the coordinator of the course if I would be interested in teaching the sophomore level course. I had led four different semesters at the junior level, and I had chosen books that were thought provoking for our students, who for the most part are theologically and politically conservative. The books I had selected, though challenging to students' thinking, made it under the radar of those who would be concerned about the general liberal tendencies of parts or all of these books. This changed when I chose a book for the sophomore readings course that would meet in the fall of 2004.

I had spent the summer reading through some books that had sat on my desk for months. Of these books, one struck me as having the potential of challenging students, while written at a level that non-theological majors could understand. The book was Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.

I knew when I chose the book that, like all the others I had read with students before, this book would present a degree of controversy. I did not select the book for this reason, however. I chose the book because it presents some very challenging ideas, many with which I have strong disagreement, but much with which I do agree. I selected the text because it causes the reader to think, which in my mind leads to a better formation of both knowledge and faith. I chose the book because I am convinced that students need to read such books for themselves, albeit with some informative guidance. Little did I know that the selection of this text would create a row.

But a row did arise. The stir was not created by the book per se; rather, the controversy arose over the fact that a book authored by Marcus Borg, an infamous figure in the Jesus Seminar, was in our campus bookstore, much less assigned as required reading for a course. This caused great consternation among some of the administrators, who feared that the reading of such a text would become known to those in the churches. The fear was that pastors and laypeople would not understand why we were reading a text by a well-known liberal thinker who doubts that most of what is written about Jesus in the canonical Gospels actually happened. This all came to a boiling point when I was asked to defend my choice of the text to the administration, which I was happy to do, not out of obligation to the administration, but out of a desire to argue that reading such texts is part and parcel of our being a liberal arts university.

I have now come to understand that the issue was not necessarily Borg's book in particular. The content of the book is not the biggest problem here. The book only points to the larger issue of whether any liberal-minded books should be read at church-related universities and what the answer to this question means for true liberal arts education. Can a Christian university permit students to read such books and yet remain true to its mission as Christian? If the answer to this questions is no, then it begs the question as to whether that university can continue to call itself a liberal arts university.

If we Christian educators, or perhaps better, if we educators who happen to be Christian see our mission as developing lifelong learners and critical thinkers, then we need to guide students on how to learn and how to think critically. This may mean reading uncomfortable books as we guide them to think critically about the issues they raise. Such work does not demand that we advocate every idea written in these books, nor does it insist that we dismiss scholars like Borg a priori just because we disagree with some of their thoughts and writings.

I am convinced that students should read scholars like Borg because their knowledge of more liberal thinkers should not be solely left to the interpretations of others. I shudder to think that we have come to the point where self-appointed answer-giving professors must shield undiscerning students. This is an insult to students and is not the mission of education where independent critical thinking is the hallmark.

My intention in reading this book with students was to prod them to think more about their faith, which I think is precipitated by reading those who think differently. Churches and Christian universities have done a poor job at teaching people to think theologically. We preach theology. We teach theology. We even indoctrinate theology. But rarely do we take up the hard task of helping students learn to think theologically. These respective methodologies are vastly different. As theological educators, we are compelled to guide students to develop a practice of thinking critically about their faith. Our goal is never to tear down what students believe, but to help them grasp a faith that is truly their own. The goal is to dialogue and to help them find their own way of thinking through the complex issues of our faith, thereby setting them on a path toward wisdom.

I imagine that at most state universities one would find a predisposition against books written from a faith perspective. Would we not, as Christian liberal arts institutions, want to rise above the increasingly entrenched dichotomy between conservative and liberal, offering opportunities to hear various voices speak? And in doing so, should we not be humble enough to admit that there are positive contributions made by those who think differently from us, even when such difference is vast? And if we can come to this point, have we not reached the true goal of education, which is to consider all the evidence and to draw thoughtful and critical conclusions from that evidence? This to me is the essence of learning in a liberal arts tradition.

There seems to be a theological issue at stake here as well. Jesus tells us very clearly that the whole law is summed up in the commandment to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and your entire mind. Love implies openness to God that requires us to open our hearts, our souls, and indeed our very minds to God. Yet, Jesus also reminds us that the second commandment is just as important as the first: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If love for God is openness to God, then love for our neighbor is openness to our neighbor and what our neighbor has to say. This does not mean that we will agree with our neighbor, but it does mean that we ought to be good listeners of what our neighbor has to say. This, in my opinion, is not only the essence of education; it is our call from God.

While the row over this book caused trepidation for me—as I felt vulnerable to attacks by those who disagreed with my choice—the journey through reading this book with students gave me a peace about this choice and a confirmation that students can think for themselves. In leading each discussion over the assigned reading, I intentionally asked open-ended questions so that each student could respond from her or his own perspective and interpretation of Borg. If students struggled to understand a particular argument or if I felt they might have been misinterpreting Borg on some point, I gently guided them to discover for themselves a fuller understanding. In this way, I tried to ensure my goals were met—that each student would read and grasp Borg's argument apart from an authority figure who interprets for them.

Although most of the students vigorously disagreed with Borg on many points, they did allow Borg to challenge, and sometimes even change, their thinking. Perhaps what I hoped for was what others feared. Regardless of whether the students agreed in part or disagreed wholly with Borg, they did engage him and they responded with thoughtful questions, critical responses, and well-written papers clarifying both their understanding of his arguments and their agreement or disagreement with him. One student candidly shared with me how he had become so disgusted with Christianity that he had seriously thought of becoming a Buddhist. However, as he expressed in his response paper, Borg gave him a place to be Christian. I still wonder how my critics would have responded to this student's openness.

There was a response, however, that I did not fully anticipate. Unlike my critics, not one student suggested or hinted that there was a problem in reading this book. Each of them volunteered to read this book, and the majority of them engaged it thoughtfully regardless of whether they agreed with Borg or not. Moreover, and this to me was a strong vindication of reading this book, when some students got wind that some faculty and some among the administration were on the verge of censorship, these students voiced their opposition to the administration, arguing that these are the kinds of books they should be reading in college. One parent of a student wrote to a top administrator giving his support to the reading of such books as well as asserting his support of an institution that still values education and not indoctrination.

Perhaps Tertullian was prophetic by asking the questions, "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?" The dichotomy still exists in our current theological and political environment. My story is one of many. My story, however, has further reminded me that Christian liberal arts colleges, and particularly those open-minded educators who teach at them, do not have an easy road to travel. The difficulty is in fulfilling both aspects of the mission of these institutions, to be Christian and liberal arts. Neglecting or abandoning one will cause said institutions to become less than what they can be. No one says it will be easy. Yet, those institutions that call themselves Christian and liberal arts, and those who teach at them, must travel the sometimes treacherous road between Athens and Jerusalem.

Why I am a Progressive Christian (Part 2)

In my last column, I told briefly my story of being a progressive Christian by first describing why I am a Christian and why I continue to choose to be a Christian. The thing that has been my saving grace, that which has kept me from abandoning my faith, is that I have chosen to identify myself as a progressive Christian.

As a way of describing what I mean when I say that I am a progressive Christian, it might be helpful to begin by differentiating, at least from my perspective, how being a progressive Christian is dissimilar to being a conservative or liberal Christian. I do not consider myself either a conservative or a liberal, although I might identify more with the liberal side if I was forced to choose between only these two. Yet, neither of these is satisfactory as a label I apply to myself.

In my effort to describe my impressions of conservative and liberal Christians in such a short space, I will inevitably stereotype both groups. My intention, however, is not to suggest the either group is homogeneous. Rather, I am attempting to highlight what I view as basic characteristics of each perspective.

Conservative Christians remain resolute in holding onto the traditional beliefs of the Christian faith and typically believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible. They are rarely, if ever, open to new ways of understanding the faith and they are usually resistant to seeing the truth in other religions. Moreover, they tend to exclude others who think differently from them. In their minds, if the Bible says it, that settles it, and no one should question it. I reject this perspective as being too rigid and antiquated.

Liberal Christians, for the most part, tend to reject any notion of the supernatural. Many liberals discard the notion that the Bible has any real influence on our faith. Their approach to faith is very individualistic and they tend to promote the idea that whatever one wants to believe is acceptable. They may also view all religions as essentially the same, which they are not. I find this approach to faith too weak and to some extent unthinking.

For me, the term progressive Christianity suggests a faith that is moving forward; a faith that is progressing toward what God desires from and for humanity. Yet, at the same time, progressive Christians do not negate the value of the past, and especially the sacred text of that past. Indeed, when it comes to the Bible, progressive Christians are different from both conservatives, who place too much authority on the Bible, and from liberals, who reject the Bible as having much validity at all.

Instead, progressive Christians take the Bible seriously, but not always literally. As a progressive Christian, I am interested in doing the serious work of biblical interpretation that values the Bible as a sacred text, but that also understands these texts as having a human origin. In this limited space, I cannot detail my thoughts on the Bible here, but anyone interested in my ideas might read my essays at and

Progressive Christianity is not about intellectually accepting a set of propositions about God, Jesus, and the Bible in order that we might go to a place called heaven when we die. In fact, being a Christian is not about life after death, whether in a place called heaven or a place called hell, if these even really exist. Rather, being a progressive Christian is about being transformed by Jesus’ teachings and way of life. It is about finding one’s existence as a follower of Christ in this life. It is about living one’s life here and now.

Moreover, the idea of being a progressive Christian implies one who is open minded to new and different ways of knowing and experiencing God. Instead of simply declaring that this or that religious idea is truth, as a progressive, I am more interested in the conversations about what truth is and how we find it. I am more interested in the journey on the path that will lead to truth than in saying I have found that truth.

Thus, as a progressive Christian, I cannot assume that the way I think about God or the way my religion tells me to think about God is definitive. Human knowledge about the divine and the language we use to describe the divine are limited, and any revelation a religion may claim to have about God is also limited. No sacred text is any more valid than the other in the claims it makes about God, for all of them, including the sacred text of Christianity, are human ways of expressing how humans understand God.

But perhaps the greatest reason I am a progressive Christian is that I find at the heart of Jesus’ teachings not a message of forensic salvation from one’s sins, but rather a message of transformation that leads me to deny myself, take up my cross and follow him in self-giving service to others.

Thus, as a progressive Christian I accept the reality that it is humanly difficult to love, serve and embrace others. But instead of being a conservative who judges, rejects and condemns others, and instead of being a liberal who preaches an ineffective message of tolerance, I must struggle in my journey of faith to be more inclusive and embracing of those I am called to serve.

In this sense, progressive Christianity is certainly about spiritual transformation, the transformation of the self. But it is also about social transformation; transforming our societies in ways that reflect the central ideas of Jesus: love, compassion, inclusion, justice and peace.

Thus, I make no apologies for being a progressive Christian. I am happy in my own skin. But more importantly, as I continually reflect on the central teachings of Jesus, I find progressive Christianity to be a more faithful reflection of Jesus and more realistically relevant for our world.