Walking in Footsteps of Footsteps: When Birthdays Make You Way Too Sentimental on the Internet

About a week ago, right after getting home from work, Liesl wanted to go for a walk to push her toy lawn mower around the neighborhood. So, she and I headed up the street, pretend-mowing the concrete sidewalk. There I was, a 6-feet tall middle-aged guy walking with a 2-year-old toddler up the street. She was smiling, laughing, and enjoying the progress she was making cutting the invisible grass. That moment triggered one of my earliest childhood memories, of me being 3 and my grandfather walking to the park near the house we lived in in Colorado. I remember next to nothing about it other than walking and being happy to be with my grandfather. He would have been the same age as I am turning tomorrow.

As such thoughts are, it was both sad and sweet. My grandfather died 5 years ago. He walked a long life and part of it included helping take care of me and my older brother. He had a whole lot of work, difficulties, hopes, dreams, disappointments, failures, and successes. In other words, he lived a life. And eventually it was over. And I and our family continue to remember and miss him. The premature sense of haunting that hit me on the sidewalk, of course, was that someday I will be gone and this kind of walk, which Lord willing will be one of many more to come, will someday be a bittersweet memory for my daughter. I certainly hope I get nearly 40 more years like my grandfather got, for my own sake and for hers.

But that cheesy goth-poetry-like thought of gloom was not the only one I had. I also realized how ineffably grateful I was to be there in that moment. It was surreal to be walking in my grandfather’s footsteps and to finally be able to see something like what he saw and feel something like what he must have felt. I remember being in elementary school, junior high, high school, and beyond and having my grandfather recount stories about when I was a 3 or 4 and how he would be making me food and I would be standing there watching with my hands on my knees swaying back and forth with excitement and joy. He would tear up every time he would picture that moment and would try to explain how beautiful it was to him and how sad he was that such moments were now mere memories. I had thought I had understood what he was saying, but I am not sure I ever fully did get it. Until now. My daughter when she eats a treat or snack smiles, laughs, and dances around not out of intention, but of impulse from the joy and happiness of enjoying food and that moment of life and company that surrounds it. It is an amazing thing to see every time. Those moments are little gifts from God.

I love my daughter and son more than I can explain or even understand myself. That is a beautiful and scary mystery. And equally a mystery and hard to believe is something I think all of us who have such love for their children are confronted with: maybe, just maybe someone else felt the same way about me once, too. Because I know my own crap and shortcomings and faults, that is hard to believe. And yet there are my grandparents and my mother who were there for me when I was a toddler. And, of course, the even bigger extrapolation in this thought is that God cares for and loves all of us even more than the boundless love I feel for my kids. That is also easy to forget in such a beautiful and f-ed up world. But I believe it must be true and I will spend the rest of my life catching glimpses and reflections of that truth in my children lives lived out with and before me. My grandfather was not here forever and neither will I be. But I am so blessed and grateful that he was here and that I was there and that I am now here with my gift of a wife and our children. I did not expect any of this, but I would not trade it or these sehnsucht moments for anything ever.

Is America a “New Israel” or a “New Babylon”?: Knowing the Difference Makes All of the Difference

As a practicing Christian, there are few seasons in America more dangerous for the life and witness of the Church than a presidential election cycle.  Every four years latent disagreements turn into a religious civil war with Christian sisters and brothers turning against one another.  Many line up in Camp Republican, while others march to Camp Democrat.  Religious conservatives speak and act as though God is on their side.  And  though liberals may not be crass enough to say the same thing back, but what they say and do suggests they are thinking it.  In all of this, both sides make missteps in the way they engage with each other and the broader society in governmental politics.

While I could offer myriad critiques of the ways Christians politick in America, perhaps one of the most significant mistakes made is the most subtle: using the wrong scriptural metaphor to understand the relationship between the Church and the United States.  Bluntly speaking, too many Christians either tacitly or explicitly assume that the U.S. is like a new Israel, a Christian nation, when in reality the better metaphor is America as Babylon.  Operating in the wrong metaphor frustrates Christian expectations and hopes for the land they live in and also leads to us at times harming our neighbors who have different beliefs, values, and perspectives from our own.  Of course, seeing this land as a place for a Christian country is as old as the early European settlers.

The view of America having a special destiny before God can be seen in the earliest days of the English Puritan colonies on the East Coast.  In 1630, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, famously described their new endeavor in a sermon he wrote on the ship Arbella while heading to the New World.  He  referenced a phrase from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, saying, “For we must consider that we shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”  Winthrop immediately went on to describe the wager before the new colony explicitly in the covenantal terms applied to Israel in the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 30: If you as a people are faithful to God’s commands in Scripture, as a people you will prosper; if you are disobedient as a people “I (God) declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (Winthrop intentionally re-words the end of this scriptural quote, taking out the Jordan River verbiage replacing it with, “the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it”).  Historian Mark Noll notes, “Most of the Puritans who came to New England…held that the Bible teaches a congregational organization, albeit an organization in league with the state (i.e. that churches are organized individually but cooperate with godly magistrates to promote the total reformation of society).” (A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, p. 33)

This sense of America having an Israel-like calling from and relationship with the Judeo-Christian god is something that has held, going into the creation of the United States and beyond.  It is not uncommon for evangelical Christian leaders to speak of America as a “Christian nation” and to desire that the leaders they vote for reflect their particular values and social agendas; the interests here are not just in how various people’s churches exist, live, and function in society, but whether Christians values, perspectives, and interested get to remain those of the state.  Fearing the growing secularization of U.S. society, such Christians not only want to “make America great again,” but to lead it back in line with God’s call to be a faithful society.  In election years, this means finding and choosing leaders that will reflect and assert their social moral values as particularly understood in Christian tradition.

There is just one problem with the model of the United States as a new Israel or as a Christian nation: America’s founding documents make such a model unintelligible. Plainly stated, nowhere in the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution does it state the purpose and call of the United States of America as being to recognize and worship Jesus Christ as Lord of the universe and as the second person of the Trinity.  Nor do these documents reference that the cause of this new government is to proclaim and embody the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom on this earth.  Given that Thomas Jefferson was a deist who famously made his own version of the New Testament that cut out all of the miracles and supernatural elements within it, his references to a “Creator” and “Providence,” point more to a generic god than one that resembles the god of Christian faith.  Jefferson aside, having myriad Christians involved in the founding of the country or having a populace that was or still is largely Christian does not make the U.S. government or its interests Christian.  One can argue that Christian-influenced ethics and concerns influences the nation as its beginning and still hold sway, but Christian-influenced and being Christian are not the same thing.  The United States is something else.

The better and more accurate metaphor for Christians living in America would be to see their situation as akin to living in Babylon.  For those unfamiliar with the biblical narrative, Babylon was a superpower in the ancient Near East that forcibly made the Kingdom of Judah a client state in the late 7th century BC, and eventually between 597-582 BC deported masses of Judahites out of Judah and into Babylon (and significant to Jewish history, Solomon’s temple was destroyed); historians refer to this as the Babylonian Captivity. Until the Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews return to home in 536 BC, they lived as “strangers in a foreign land.”  Certainly Christians as Christians did not have their homeland destroyed and get dragged off into  captivity in North America; that is not where the comparison lies and I would not want to disrespect the experience that was Israel’s.  Instead the idea is that Christians already have a political and “peopled” identity and it is called the Church.  The Church is a people that is spread all across the world in many nations whose allegiance is to the God of Israel.  This “politic” is more ultimate than any national identity or destiny.  And the Church’s call is to proclaim a King and a Kingdom more determinative than a liberal democracy.  With such a citizenship and allegiance, Christians cannot help but be like strangers in America and any other land in which they live.  Trying to usher in a Christian kingdom via the means, mechanism, and force of a secular state becomes unintelligible, particularly when one worships a crucified God who willingly eschewed and absorbed the violence and domination of the state rather than adopting them as legitimate.

Such a model is not a call for Christians to withdraw from political or social engagement in America.  In a pluralistic society such as ours, it is simply the recognition that America invites us to the political table, but that table is not ours or something that we should try to use to coerce others to worship our god.  It is a secular table that invites us and many others to it.  And as long as we are allowed at that table and are not asked or expected to violate what God calls us to as a people, then we should be there with everyone else. Perhaps one of the better scriptural paradigms for this is the Book of Daniel.  In it, the prophet Daniel and Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego, all were Judahites that had been forced to go to Babylon.  The head of the Babylonian King Nebechadnezzar’s palace selected them to be educated and in order to serve in the pagan king’s court (1.3-7).  Though they were not in a country of their own that they controlled, they did get training and tried to serve the royal court to the best of their abilities.  In this, they did not abandon their identities as Judahites and their worship of their god.  When the King’s orders and decrees functionally asked them to abandon who they were for the state’s way, they did not.  In several instances in the story, Daniel and his compatriots were threatened with death for not betraying their convictions and were miraculously saved from death each time.  In all of this, they were able to serve and try to help the larger, foreign land that they were in without trying to take it over or even avoid the consequences of sticking to their convictions when those went against their host culture.  To use a Christian cliche, they were able to be in Babylon without being of Babylon.

Because Christians already have a king and are a part of a political body (the Church) that determines and instantiates how they should live in the world with one another as well as others, they cannot claim the United States of America with its Enlightenment values as something of ultimate importance or that it is of Jesus.  In a society like America where there are large numbers of Christians living with and among people of all kind of creeds, beliefs, and philosophies, this should ideally help mitigate some of the difficulties of not agreeing in important ways of constitutes “the good life.”  For instance, though Christians can continue to argue with each other about the legitimacy and morality of committed same-sex relationships in the Church, when the state determines that it cannot and should not exclude gay and lesbian couples from entering into the same contractual relationships that come with legal benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual couples do (i.e. a marriage license), that should not be particularly problematic for the Church.  Christian communities that are supportive of same-sex relationships can offer marriage rites and have it also be so that such couples can be legally married in the eyes of the state.  And those churches that believe same-sex sexual relationships are sinful can continue to teach that, not allow gay marriages in their churches, and still offer hetereosexual marriage rites.  The state allowing gay marriage is the same as it is allowing marriage for heterosexual couples, which is to say in both cases it is an act of Babylon.   In either case, whether for or against “gay marriage,” from a Christian point of view, the power and authority of the state does not legitimate or make a “Christian” marriage, so a wedding license theologically is a ultimately a matter of indifference.

Undoubtedly the next four years in the U.S. will be full of argument and acrimony when it comes to politics.  As far as Christians go, I fear the infighting that will occur will make the Bush and Obama years look like child’s play.  Perhaps one of the saddest parts about that will not be the disagreeing (disagreements are a normal part of community life), but the character, harshness, suspicion and cruelty of how the disagreeing will take place.   My hope is that during this time, though, there will be voices in the Church that will both argue for civility and remind one another that any great hope placed in a government for bringing ultimate change or justice is a misplaced and idolatrous hope. I am in no way suggesting that churches should not call governments to do right or not call out wrongdoing.   I am simply saying that in doing so we need to be aware of whom we are dealing with and to temper our expectations accordingly (“better” is worth striving for even if “perfect” is not a possibility). Governments can do plenty of good in the world and should be asked and compelled to do so.  But they will always only be bandages–even if some are really good ones–in a world that cannot help but continually cut itself.  Any ultimate healing will only come from somewhere/Someone else and that healing and its proclamation are the Church’s first obligation to embody and proclaim.  In the case of America, Christians will only do this well when they acknowledge and accept that they are “resident aliens” within America, not synonymous or coterminous with it.

Disagreements in the Church on Women in Pastoral Roles

The disagreement is not ultimately rooted in Scripture, but in how different people see Scripture functioning in the life of the Church

Recently I listened to a sermon that, in part, covered the topic of whether women can serve as elders and have pastoral roles with authority over men in the Church.  The pastor, whom I have a great deal of rdeborah-iconespect for and who is a brilliant preacher and teacher, concluded that Scripture–and thus God–do not allow women in these capacities.  I did not agree with this part of the sermon at all.  I used to reluctantly hold the same position, because the Christian tradition in which I was raised saw the Bible verses against women speaking or teaching in the Church and concluded that that was simply how God designed the relationship of the two genders to each other.  I knew plenty of women who were brilliant gifted teachers and leaders, but if God did not want them to exercise those gifts in the capacity of Church leadership, who was I to argue with God.  However, during my first year of seminary, I had my own Damascus Road experience on the relationship between women and men, authority and gender roles.   I came to believe that while, speaking generally, women and men do complement each other, there is not a God-ordained hierarchy in place that has husbands or men by way of their genders exercising authority or power over their wives or women, whether in the Church, marriage, or anywhere else; women and men are “co-regents” with equal authority called to be caretakers of the earth.   And I am someone who does believe that Scripture is sacred and that God exercises God’s authority in great part through it; I came to my beliefs on this through wrestling with Scripture. (For a quick overview of how I approach Scripture and doing theology, click here.)

The question that gets asked all of the time when Christians strongly disagree with one another on a theological issue arises here as well: how can two Christians read the same Scripture, the same words inked onto the page, and come to two completely opposite conclusions?  In the case of women in pastoral leadership roles and the way Protestants argue about it (and, frankly, many other divisive issues as well), the difference is not in whether they are reading the same Bible, but rather in the often-unnoticed realm of how each actually believes Scripture functions and is appropriated in the life of the Church. Though it would arguably take volumes and volumes of books to thoroughly explain the difference, there is one way basic way to show the differences that captures a lot of what is likely happening.  The place I saw this explicated well was in New Testament professor, Craig C. Hill’s book on reading Revelation, called In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans, 2002, pp. 22-29).  As I found them helpful, I will apply Hill’s categories and verbiage to the women-in-pastoral-leadership issue to show the difference.

In essence, many Christians that argue for what is called “male headship” over women use  what Hill calls a “conforming” approach to Scripture, whereas some Christians who argue that there is no gender hierarchy in God’s economy have a “modeling” approach instead.  Though this is admittedly a gross over-generalization, the “conforming” approach believes that the way Scripture works in the Church is that the Church is to read it, try to understand what it is saying, and then do/conform to what it says.  As the Christian cliché goes, it is seen as life’s instruction manual for how to live, given by God.  Or some may see it as like a rule book or a constitution.  If the Scripture says you should not murder, you do not murder.  If it says women should be silent in church and not have authority over a man, then it is saying so as a propositional truth about how church life should be structured.  So you go with that no matter what the surrounding culture’s ethos or circumstances may be.  One guiding principle that those with the conforming approach put forth is that in Scripture there are both timeless teachings and principles that exist alongside those that are culturally bounded and only meant for the time that the texts were first written; a key reading skill in this perspective is to learn to recognize the difference.

The problem with the conforming approach when examined is that it does not really work in the particulars.  It can be difficult to simply embody the statement, “I just do what the Bible says,” because as Hill notes Scripture contains multiple perspectives within it on all sorts of topics (he gives the example of the Gospel of Mark dealing with the question of handwashing and concluding that all foods are clean for Christ-followers, whereas Matthew–written from a Jewish-Christian persuasion–concludes that such Christians do not have to worry about handwashing but are not free to abandon Jewish dietary restrictions, cf. Matt 15.1-20 and Mark 7.1-23 [p. 24]).  What ends up happening then is that people take the verses they tend to already agree with and use those to explain away the ones they do not (everyone does this in any approach to reading Scripture; the key is to be aware that you do so and understand why).  And the idea that there are universal principles embedded in Scripture that can clearly be separated from culturally-conditioned and culturally-bounded ones is not actually a way of reading Scripture that the Bible itself expresses or suggests.  It does not say in parts, “What I am about to say here is for all places forever, but over here what I say is just for now.”  For those arguing against women in pastoral teaching roles over men, they point to 1 Tim 2.9 where it says women should not have their hair braided or wear expensive clothes, gold, or pearls and say that relates to a cultural situation that is bounded to that time and a timeless principle should be looked at there.  However, two verses later the text says women should not speak in church or have authority over a man and they say that is timeless and universal.  The verses are right by each other and there are no marking transitions to suggest one is going from cultural to universal principles and situations and yet that is the leap these contemporary readers make.  I would argue instead that it is not that there are universal teachings and then cultural ones that themselves have some universal principle embedded in them; it is ALL cultural.

The approach to reading and appropriating Scripture that I would argue is more faithful is one of “modeling.”  Rather than coming to the text as if it were a timeless rule book or a script to be conformed to over and over, the modeling view sees Scripture as telling the story of God and his relationship to people showing the shape and character of God through time, at various points of revelation, and in various differing circumstances leading up to God’s self-revelation in the incarnation of Christ.  Oddly, I have found that the easiest way to explain what the model approach means is from a quote that I heard in….a teen movie years ago (an Amanda Bynes one actually;  OK, you can stop laughing now).  The main character’s dad says to her, “Following in someone’s footsteps does not mean trying to relive their life; it means trying to be the kind of person they were.”  The conforming approach often seems to be about trying to relive the first-century Church’s life, idealizing it, even though a majority of the letters in the NT exist as criticisms and corrections of those communities.  The problem with is we are not in a 1st-century context with 1st-century assumptions trying to deal with 1st-century situations.  The Bible is not a script to be enacted.  Instead, the modeling approach suggests that in reading Scripture with all of its interesting, puzzling, and differing perspectives, we look for the kind of God shown there and the kind of human community God has called people into.  For instances, in many places the Bible assumes slavery as a part of the world and in some contexts talks about better ways of living with it.  However, to see such verses and to conclude that the God of Scripture is OK with slavery is to miss the overall character of God conveyed in the text and the trajectory of the overarching story toward freedom.  This is the same with the way women are portrayed in Scripture.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will try to further my point about the equality of women and men in authority bestowed upon them by God by concluding here with a letter I wrote several years ago to a couple of friends.  They did not believe that women should be ordained as pastors and suggested my arguing against them was an example of me going along with secular culture rather than Scripture; they were using arguments made by pastors like John Piper and Mark Driscoll.   Here is my response, which in some places contains redundancies with what I wrote above, but should show an example of how the modeling perspective works on the women-in-church-leadership issue:

It is important to try to discern what God has called humanity to rather than making arguments rooted in secular ideology or what is considered acceptable in contemporary culture (Since I believe that sometime at the beginning of humanity something went wrong and God’s good creation got warped, I am generally leery of arguments that go from “is” to “ought,” meaning because things are a certain way means they ought to be that way.) As Christian people, I think the “logic” that we should operate under is one that is determined and constituted by the narrative of the God of Israel, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as told in Scripture and passed down and interpreted by the Church. While this is not to say that secular perspectives or those brought to us by other faiths are not helpful in introducing questions and circumstances that we might not otherwise see or pay attention to, even in those things we have to weigh such encounters and questions against the God of Israel as revealed in Scripture and interpreted by the Israel and the Church (I know I am being a bit redundant, but I just want to be as clear as possible).

So, with all of that said, I agree that as Christians we need to ask what God desires for our lives and how we live them. The problem I have is that I do not think that what is reflected in complementarianism (the belief that women and men are different, the differences complement each other, AND men have authority over women in teaching and pastoring contexts in the Church and in marriage) and the perspectives of folks like Moore, Piper, Driscoll, and Grudem, is what God ultimately desires for humanity and I will argue that with Scripture as it gets read by the Church. I will say upfront that I do not think that everyone that is a complementarian is one because they are somehow a sexist, hate women, etc. (Of course there are those types of people out there, but most complementarians I know are not such people. They are people that love their spouses and really want to do what is right by God and be faithful to what God has said). I will also concede that the burden of proof in such a discussion is on folks with my perspective since the interpretations that the Church has largely had throughout its history have affirmed more patriarchal perspectives. The Church has been wrong about plenty of things in its history (think endorsements of slavery or using state power to execute people for theological heresy), so longevity of a held belief does not in itself make it right. In my mind, this simply means it needs to be taken seriously and disproved rather than assumed up front carte blanche to be wrong.

In dealing with this question, I think it is important to start by considering how Scripture actually works to understand or determine anything for Christians. It is not as simple as simply finding one, two, or several passages that say something and then simply applying such things literally. The Church has never operated this way with Scripture. People that think they just do what the Bible says in some literalistic sense are actually not doing what they think they are doing. For instance, Scripture does not specifically condemn slavery, yet most Christians in the world would say that the trajectory of the message of Scripture and the God to whom Scripture points is against human slavery. Or when people see verses about how women should wear headcoverings or not braid their hair or wear jewelry, most Christians dismiss such texts as cultural outworkings of some “universal” truths (Ironically these passages occur right next to passages telling women to be silent in churches and yet some folks say the jewelry and braid admonitions are cultural and the silence thing is a universal event though the text does not suggest any such transition; all the things happening there are occurring within a culture. So, that said, yes, there are verses that talk about women being silent or being submissive to their husbands and how Onesimus should return to his slavemaster in Philemon, but that does not mean that Scripture is meant to function in taking such particular things out of the context of its larger message about God and what God desires for us.

I think that the lens through which to interpret the “complementarian” question is the lens of Jesus, who he was, and what he accomplished. My basic argument is two-fold and fits ultimately under the one Jesus.

First, Gal 3.28 says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” I would argue this passage does not eliminate differences in Christ as much as the differences become relative now to Christ. In other words, such difference become secondary to the ultimately unity and oneness is Jesus. Now, if you look at the particulars listed in this verse and consider how Scripture and its trajectory have played out in the history of the Church, you will see it pointing in the direction of forms of equality of worth and power. In Christ, there are still Jews and Gentiles, but if we take Romans seriously, Jewish Christians do not have authority over Gentile Christians and do not have a hierarchical role above them, though they still have unique things they have done and do as Jews. And with “slave nor free” most of us would argue that in Christ that pattern has been obliterated or should be (While Philemon does not condemn the institution of slavery and seems to endorse it on one level, there are ultimately subversive suggestions in it that hold a gospel logic that goes against slavery). That leaves male and female. If Christ has brought Jew and Gentile together on equal footing before God without one of them having power or authority over the other and yet still remaining Jew and Gentile, and if God has obliterated slavery in the Gospel of Jesus, why would one still argue that men by nature of having penises and certain ratios of brain chemicals get to have power and authority over women/their wives?

Second, if you want a scriptural justification for reading the “male and female” part in Galatians in an egalitarian way, then I would suggest that one considers the Genesis Fall story. Basically, according to the Adam and Eve narrative, wife/woman’s subservience to her husband/man is the result of a curse. Because of the whole forbidden fruit thing, God says, “To the woman he said,‘I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband,and he shall rule over you.’” If God declares such a curse as the result of the fruit incident, that means that prior to the incident the woman’s husband was not meant to rule over her; the woman being ruled by the man is the result of a curse, not the original edenic creation. (When the OT calls Eve a “helpmate” the Hebrew word used there appears 20 times in the OT. Of the 20 times, 18 of those refer to God as a “helpmate” to particular people. I say that because the word helpmate in Hebrew as it is used about Eve does not carry a natural connotation of subservience or “power over.” It simply means someone to come alongside of and help as God often does.) Again, if women are subservient to men as a result of the curse of the Fall, then what did Christ come to do? He came to reverse the effects of the Fall and bring things back into order with what God originally intended. Ergo, the curse of Adam’s sin–which includes the curse placed on Eve–is broken in the new Adam, who is Jesus. Men and women are co-regents in Christ over the world as was God’s original intention. Why Christians would want to continue upholding a curse after Christ death has broken such a thing is puzzling to me.

I get that my reading is newer in the long history of the Church, but that does not make it automatically wrong. I think the horrible abuse that women have endured at the hands of men (and, of course, I know that women are equally sinners just like men) have brought the Church–at least the Church in some parts of the world–to take a look at the living breathing Word of God to see if maybe we have been missing something. And just like we realized that with slavery, I believe we are starting to realize that with women and men and how they relate to each other in marriage and in other context.

So, yes, I think John Piper and folks in his camp are wrong, though I, of course, consider them brothers in Christ.

Bad News: Donald Trump is Not Our Biggest Problem

Trump Tumblr

Source: http://be3n2.tumblr.com/post/127240492773/donald-trump-is-my-favorite-meme

If Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president, the sad and scary part will not be that Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president.  The sad and scary part is that a swath of American voters were willing to make such a thing happen.  As xenophobic and racist as Donald Trump may appear to be, believing that he is the ultimate problem is misplaced and wrong.  Of course if elected, Trump would have very real and negative effects on U.S. political life and engagement, both domestically and abroad; I do not want to underestimate that.  But like any bully, the only power and capability that a President Trump would have is that which we as a society would have handed over to him.  

Donald Trump is really just an avatar for a something very wrong in our society.  Until we figure out what that is–and doing so will require listening and taking seriously each other’s hopes and fears without assuming the worst motivations, whether conservative, liberal, or any other political persuasion–the American situation is only going to devolve into an even greater “Jerry Springer” episode.  Again, while Trump as a candidate is frightening and distasteful to many, he is not our ultimate problem, even if he does become a big problem.  And keeping him from the nomination or the White House in and of itself will not make our deep issues go away.  As the 20th century comic strip, “Pogo,” famously stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Don’t Hate the Church, Hate the Game: Reflections on a Broader Understanding of What Constitutes “Church”

Stoning of St. Stephen

“Stoning of St. Stephen” by Jacobus Buy (Dutch, 1795)

If the Church shoots its wounded, I am pretty sure many of the wounded fire back. One common way is with a good old fashioned “the Church Sucks” diatribe. I have heard and delivered plenty of them. However, like it or not, Christianity intrinsically is not a call or way of life that can be done faithfully alone; it requires the Church (Pope Francis recently made this point well). By its very makeup, claims, and story, it requires worshipping and living life with other believers; Christianity is not a “Lone Ranger” faith. Understandably, this can be a difficult reality for many people, given some of the awful things different church communities have done and continue to do. Perhaps, though, a broader recognition of what actually constitutes “church” might make it easier to both recognize the positives of the Church as well as make entering worship together more possible among the frailty and failings of ourselves and others.

The Church Has Got 99 Problems and Scandals are One
If you think people do not have legitimate reasons to be angry with the Church, you have not been paying attention. Over the past decade the Roman Catholic Church has been forced to own up to decades of cases of child molestations by priests around the world whom the system protected. And Protestants seem to subconsciously relish trying to out do Catholic bishops who are corrupt.  Consider the natural disasters that come along followed by public statements from prominent pastors suggesting the massive death scales were part of God’s punishment of sinful people. Flip on a Christian television station and you are likely to find a “prosperity gospel” preacher suggesting that God wants you to be materially rich, but to get this process going, you need to give a huge chunk of change to the church (how else will the prosperity gospel come true for these leaders preaching it, if you do not hand off a “blessing” of tens and twenties to them. BMWs do not pay for themselves, after all). Add to these the stories nearly every Christian has about being guilted, shamed, and intimidated by some faith group and you end up with a lot of anger and hurt.

But here is the thing. In God’s economy, the Church may be a part of the problem of a warped and imperfect world, but it is also a part of God’s solution for healing and repairing what is broken and hurts. Consider Scripture. Nearly every letter in the New Testament exists as some kind of damage control for followers of Jesus that seem to be missing the point and hurting each other (1 Thessalonians is perhaps the exception). However, within these letters exists a logic that through Christ, God is remaking the entire universe (Romans 8), and part of that process involves those who are in Christ–AKA the Church–being part of the newness that is coming (1 Cor 15.20-28).

Dealing with a Dysfunctional Church
If you do not want to end up hating the Church wholesale, maybe it would help to recognize that the Church is not just its institutional structures and its officially appointed leadership, though these are undeniable aspects of it (and these are hardly all bad, but more on that later). It is made up of the entire body of baptized believers and their children. In Greek, the word for “church,” ekklesia, means assembly. Those who are assembling are not just bishops, pastors, or other authority figures, but rather all of the believers. And they are not only assembling for formal worship gatherings, but also for the most mundane moments to share the gifts that God has given them in life itself and in each other. 1 Corinthians 12 argues that a body is not just made up of a foot or a hand, but of many different parts. In particular Paul notes, “(T)he members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable (v. 22).” The Church is not just those in it who teach or are in official leadership roles. The Church is everybody who is baptized into Christ and follows him. The great value is not in the different areas or positions we do or do not occupy, but rather it is in God. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (12.4-7)

Is that hard to believe that the Church is more than just how it organizes in locales? Stop and think about it. When you are talking to other Christians about how bad the Church sucks and they are there comforting and affirming you, trying to help heal your wounds, ironically the “who” and “what” of that situation is still the Church helping and taking care of you. In these cases, the notion of “Church” should not be surrendered to those who are harming it. To paraphrase one of my musical heroes, Ian MacKaye, if the NFL does not own all sports and major record labels do not own all music–kids still play football in parks and guitars in garages–then certainly institutional structures do not own all of the Church even if they are a part of them. The body of Christ is made up in part of leaders, teachers, polity structures, in many cases property, and the like, but it is more than that. It is all of us that follow Jesus.

A while back, TheOtherJournal.com had a well-written article about John Howard Yoder, a theologian whose work wonderfully articulates a compelling and faithful vision of the Church and the Christian faith. In it, though, the writers faced head on the reality that Yoder was a serial sexual predator that harmed numerous women, and because of his prominent stature and writings in academic circles, Church and academic leaders looked the other way for decades while women suffered. But poetically, the article captures a truth in its description of Yoder’s victims, “Stymied by hushed and impotent institutions, Yoder’s victims banded together and became the church Yoder could, apparently, only write about.” In some circumstances, believers come together in living rooms or in coffee shops to become the Church that their particular churches can only preach and talk about.

“Organized Religion” is a Good Thing
Of course, being anti-structure or anti-organization seems silly to me, too. Churches without some kind of structure or leaders and leadership are impossible; even the most organic of house churches and gatherings cannot function without them. People organize and pull together. That is how roads, hospitals, universities, and farms are pulled together, built, and maintained. Being “anti-organized” religion on some level is a delusion. All forms of spirituality are passed along and maintained through systems of organization and people taking charge to pass along ideas, understandings, and habits. Like it or not, while hardly perfect, organized religion is ultimately a good thing.

And I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge what some understandably hurt and angry people may not want to about the Church and its institutions and leaders: they are hardly all bad all of the time. There are numerous imperfect churches that have wonderful faithful people guiding and leading them. In my experience, most church leaders are really trying to serve and be faithful before the people they are charged to take care of. Sometimes dealing with all of us is no bowl of cherries. Church congregations, leadership, and polity structures exist not in a binary of good and bad, but rather on an ever-shifting continuum with areas and aspects of greater and lesser actions, seasons, and moments of faithfulness and unfaithfulness. That is how life works.

Of course, not every church or situation is like this and I do not want to suggest at all that people should stick with abusive churches or church leaders; there are times to walk away. But for those who do need to walk away, my hope is that they do not walk away from worshipping God with other people and living out their lives in Christ intentionally with other believers (i.e. in common parlance, I hope they seek out another church group to be a part of). Bad churches do not own the Church, God does.

So, do not give up calling out evil and dysfunction in the Church; covering anything up or pretending like it is not happening is not helpful or faithful. And neither are “the Church sucks” speeches. Part of the people of God will hurt you and part of the people of God will comfort you when this happens. To paraphrase a quote often attributed to St. Augustine (though perhaps it actually came from Dorothy Day), the Church may be a whore, but she is still our mother.

Reminders that Carry: The Gift of the Freedom to Be Imperfect

Charlie Brown gangstaI was recently talking with a friend who was struggling with feeling like he was not a good enough follower of Jesus.  He had been listening to someone who was trying to encourage other Christians to get more involved in church work and outreach.  That talk apparently took a scarcity approach to love, pointing out all that is lacking in us with the hope that that might guilt or pressure us into doing more to fill the void.  What was meant to be motivating had the opposite effect; it backfired.  My friend went introspective with the words he heard, internalized them, and they became the weight of guilt, shame, and failure.

The only words I had to offer here were ones that I believe are true, but that I have struggled to accept for most of my life.  Being that this is an age of gadgets that theoretically enhance the ability to communicate, I texted my friend these words:

The good news is you are not called to save the world; that job is already taken.  Your job is to be a witness in words, actions, and the very way you live your life to the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ.  And this side of the Second Coming, you will never do any of that perfectly.  Recognizing that does not mean you should not take seriously any shortcomings you may discover about yourself along the way.  But it also does not mean that you should give those shortcomings any  more weight or merit than they deserve.  God has already won, so you are free to learn how to be more faithful, make mistakes, and learn how to work through shortcomings without getting trapped in the lie that it all depends upon you.

Of course, everything I said in that text was not original with me.  I have received this re-orienting narrative reality from others when I have struggle to remember who and how I am in the world and what time it is.  That makes me hopeful.  For every guilt-ridden message I have received that got labeled “gospel” (AKA good news), God has sent some person or book my way to remind me that the Good News should really be good news. Though I am way imperfect, my hope is to return the favor to someone else.  I hope this text message was a part of that.


Poetic Lives in a Material World: Why Genesis 1 & 2s’ Creation Story Should Not Be Taken Literally

I originally wrote this post and put up on my old blog on Friday, February 10, 2012. I am putting it here with the purpose of ultimately having all of the interesting content from my old site available here.

NOTE: This is a post from a couple of years ago that I had up on Facebook. A friend recently asked me a question about Genesis and creation, so I thought it might be helpful and interesting to have this post available on my blog as well. This bit came about March 10, 2010, when I posted a link on Facebook to my friend, Matt Rundio’s blog that had three video clips on why the creation stories in Genesis do not have to be taken as “literal” history in the modern sense of the word. In particular, I suggested people watch the video on Matt’s page of N.T. Wright on Adam and Eve. After doing this, another friend of mine responded concerned that N.T. Wright was making some logical errors in this video and that the notion of symbols in a story did not mean that the story could not also be true in a literal sense. I started to address his concern, but my response got so long that I thought it would make a better note on Facebook (and not blog entry) then it would a long comment on a chat thread. Keep in mind that when you start reading it, it will feel like jumping into the middle of the conversation. It should not be too difficult to follow, though. So, here it is. It is not polished so please forgive any typos. Cheers!


Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)

Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)

My response:

I completely agree with you that recognizing or finding symbolism in a narrative does not disqualify it from also being historical. I cannot even think of a true story that could be told that would not have symbolism attached to it. In the case of Wright and Genesis 1 & 2, his beliefs and arguments on the matter are certainly more complex and nuanced than what a short video clip could allow for. He would definitely not make the equation that the telling of a story fraught with symbolism equals not historical (In fact, he wrote a 738 page book against liberal theologians/biblical scholars, arguing that the bodily resurrection of Jesus was an historical event and not just some type of spiritual metaphor).

I think a big part of what is going on in this discussion is that people like Wright are making the point that there is more than one faithful way for a faithful Christian to read Genesis 1 & 2 and that there are some pretty compelling reasons to not read it as scientifically-oriented descriptions of how the universe and the first human beings were made. Of course, how one ends up reading and interpreting the Bible depends in great part upon what one assumes going into the reading upfront. One assumption I would argue against is the one that fundamentalist Christians and some conservative Evangelicals hold, which is that the entire Bible should be read as if it were conveying all historical facts (i.e. If one had videotaped the events referenced in the Bible, those events would correspond directly and almost exactly with the Bible’s descriptive stories). People saying, “Either it is all literally true or it is all literally not true,” is really problematic because that does not take seriously the fact that the Bible is full of different types of literary genres and that different literary genres have their own rules for being read. The Bible has narrative, poetry (and within its poetry different types of poems), prophecy, history, gospels, epistles, apocalyptic (i.e. Daniel and the Book of Revelation), parables, etc. (Of course, history in a modern sense of the word may or may not be present in each of these genre types). And certainly you do not read apocalyptic literature the same way you read narrative history.

In essence, when you asked how Wright could say on one hand Genesis 1 is not an historical description of how creation happened, but then say that he believes Genesis 1 is true, perhaps the best answer to that would be the analogy of Revelation as apocalyptic literature (In biblical studies, “apocalyptic” is the name of a particular genre of Jewish writing during the intertestamental period). Most orthodox Christians would read Revelation and say that it is completely true and yet are not expecting to see wicked-huge wasps and dragons flying around killing people in the last days. The reason for this is they recognize that the nature of the writing style and genre is not meant to be taken as literally conveying what will happen even though all of the symbols are referencing expected aspects or events at the end of this age. The same type of thing can be said of the creation stories. Genesis 1 & 2 say that God created all things that exist and that God created the first human beings and that they broke faith with God and that changed their fate, relationship with God, each other, and the world. I do not think N.T. Wright, you, fundamentalist Christians, Evangelicals, or I would disagree with that being the truth that Genesis is telling. That is absolutely true. The difference is folks like Wright and I do not think that the way these creation narratives in Genesis 1 & 2 have to be read is as literal descriptions of what materially happened in the creation process or of how the first humans, Adam and Eve screwed up (Keep in mind that one thing English Bibles do not show well is that in Hebrew the word “Adam” gets interchangably used as a proper name and as a way of saying human. We just always seem to read it as a proper name, but that is not how it works consistently in Hebrew. And, also, Eve’s name “Chava” in Hebrew also means “mother of life,” which is a great name for the first human woman, whoever she was, whether the proper named woman, Eve, that conservatives believe in, or symbolically as the character in the story that references the first human woman.) .

One reason for not feeling the need to read Genesis 1 & 2 as literal “video camera” descriptions of what happened is that it would not make sense for these stories to be trying to answer scientific questions about the material creation process, since no Hebrew or Israelite back when these stories were told and written down would have even thought to ask such questions. The scientific method as we know it with all of its questions and concerns for how the material world materially functions (physics, biology, geology and all of that good stuff) is a product of the Western world well after Christ. So, to expect that God would even be trying to answer questions for the Hebrews/Israelites in these stories–questions that they did not even have, know to have, or even would have cared about–about how scientifically long it took the universe and the planet to be made, the order things were done, and how people were made seems a little stretching it. In fact, most biblical scholars recognize that Genesis 1 & 2 are actually two different creation narratives arguably told and written in different periods that were later put together (This can be seen in that God is consistently referred to by name differently in chapter one versus chapter two, that the stories seem some what redundant in what they cover and yet are different, they use vocabulary that seems to come from different periods of the development of Hebrew language, and Genesis 1 reads more like a sub-genre type called Priestly literature that is akin to the type of writing in Leviticus in that it cares about demonstrating order and ordering, whereas Genesis 2 reads more like a standard narrative.) So, one can see arguably that even early on in Israelite history that there was not one version of the creation story that Israelites had and that they must have thought them both true–even though taken literally they would have some contradictions in them–because they honored both stories as the Word of God and sowed them together in the form that we now have them today. I think it would be egocentric of people today to assume that God would have really be leading the authors of Genesis to be answering our modern questions about the astrophysics of creation even though the early Hebrews would have known nothing of such things. Why should our perspectives and concerns be more important than theirs, especially since there concerns would arguably still be a part of ours today.

While this is pretty much a cliche now, perhaps a good way to look at science’s description of creation with a big bang and the Bible’s creation story is analogous to how a poet and an engineer could witness the same car accident and yet would describe them completely differently. A poet would use big flowering language and metaphors, whereas an engineer might describe things “literally” in terms of velocity, impact, the way in which the metal crunches together, etc. If one were to look at their two descriptions and ask which one is true, the answer depend upon what you were actually wanting to know in asking the question. If you want to know an answer laden with physics than you will want to read the engineers description and you will say that is true. But if you want the aesthetic sense of what happened, than you want the poets answer. In this way, both are true.

Now, I am sure this non-literal way of reading Genesis 1 & 2 may sound like some creative new liberal way to gut the Bible in the name of science. I would say this is not new at all. In fact, many of the early Church Fathers who knew nothing of contemporary theories of evolution or the Big Bang, did not read Genesis 1 & 2 in the same literalistic sense that fundamentalist Christians seem to think is the time-tested faithful way to read. (Here is a link to an article that lists several quotes from Church Fathers on this. Look particularly at St. Augustine’s. http://www.catholic.com/tracts/creation-and-genesis). Also, C.S. Lewis, himself, a figure beloved by Evangelicals and considered a faithful and noble Christian did not read Genesis 1 & 2 literally (He talks about this rather extensively in his book “Reflections on the Psalms,” in chapter 11; this chapter is well worth reading). Of course, quoting popular respected Christian figures does not prove in and of itself that Genesis 1 & 2 should not be taken literally, but it does show that among people that the Church universal has accepted as faithful orthodox believers, that there are different possible ways to faithful read the creation stories and that non-literalistic approaches are older than many conservative Christians may think.

So, I do not take Genesis 1 & 2 as literal scientific-esque descriptions of creation and I do not see the necessity for doing so. I think such readings are well-intentioned mistakes that create a level, amount, and quality of tension and animosity between Christians and the scientific community that I think is for the most part unnecessary in this particular matter. There are plenty of issues I might argue with scientists about, but I am not so much interested in this one. The point to me is that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” I believe that with all of my heart.

A Universalist Pope?: Catholic Theology & the “Atheists in Heaven” Question

Note: For the sake of full disclosure, I am not Roman Catholic.  To be weaselly, in this piece I am neither saying I fully agree nor fully disagree with Catholic theology as I understand it in these matters.

Photo by Bryant Arnold (http://www.cartoonaday.com)

Photo by Bryant Arnold (http://www.cartoonaday.com)

On May 22 when Pope Francis delivered a homily at the weekly Wednesday Mass, media outlets took notice. The attention grabber was his saying this:

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!”

What made this news was that many reporters thought that Francis was saying something new within Catholicism, that atheists “will be saved” when they die. Well, bad news. That is not what he was saying.  And what he did say about redemption and what it may or may not suggest about atheists afterlife status was not actually new in terms of Catholic thought.

If you want a good basic understanding of what the Catholic Church teaches about life after death, salvation, and damnation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a good simple place to start (This book is an official summary of the Catholic Church’s teachings). If there is one thing it does not do, it is speak with absolute certainty on which groups of people will live for eternity with God in the redeemed and restored universe and which will not. It speaks of salvation—God’s rescue and restoration of humanity and the world from its brokenness—and of how people may ultimately participate in that, but it does not do so with clear absolutes in relation to the decisions that God will make.

Certainly the institution of the Catholic Church believes in the actuality of hell as an eternal punishment that some may receive, but interestingly the Catechism remains relatively ambiguous on the particulars of it. Catechism 1035 (the Catechism is made up of 2865 numbered paragraphs) states:

“The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”

A surface reading of this may seem clear. There is a hell, unrepentant people will go there, and it will be eternal and painful. However, the Catechism qualifies very little of what hell itself actually is or is like beyond saying it is eternal separation from God (i.e. It does not specify whether it is eternal conscious torment, some existence that is a loss of self-awareness and unconscious, or even eternal non-existence) (1033-1036). It also does not offer absolute ways of knowing whom God will determine as being in a state of mortal sin upon death.

Given what is commonly said by many Christians—Catholic and Protestant—it would be understandable to assume that the Catholic Church would think that if a person is not an explicit follower of Jesus who has been baptized, s/he will go to hell when s/he dies (again, the fact that the Pope’s homily made the news speaks to the fact that many folks do assume this and, therefore, thought Francis made some radical break from it). After all, Catechism 1257 does say, “The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.” So, there is the answer, right? No baptism, no dice. Well…no. It goes on to say, “Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.” That suggests that there are people who have not heard the Gospel proclaimed, have not therefore been baptized, and yet may still spend eternity in God’s kingdom. In fact, Catechism 1260 says, “Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly, if they had known its necessity.”

At the heart of Catholic thought on salvation is both the belief in “the great mercy of God who desires that all men be saved” (Catechism 1261, cf. 1 Tim 2.4) and in the human freewill capacity to reject God. Catholic tradition did not follow St. Augustine’s direction on believing in predestination and therefore almost has the opposite perspective of a staunch Calvinist; they do not believe God has predetermined who spends eternity with him and who goes to hell. “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary and persistence in it till the end” (Catechism 1037).

The rub for Christians trying to figure out whether atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, various Jesus people, or anyone else will be saved in the end, is that from the official Catholic point of view, God only knows. The Catholic Church’s teachings seem to suggest that those who explicitly know and follow Jesus are not the only one’s who will be rescued by his life, death, and resurrection. The one who gets to determine where an individual’s will was at, how much that person knew and acted in faith according to what s/he knew, and whether there was “persistence in it till the end” is God. In fact, in all of the talk of the necessity of baptism and repentance for salvation, the Catechism still points to God’s ultimate paradoxical “out clause”: “God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but He himself is not bound by his sacraments” (Catechism 1257).  In other words, God will do what God wants to do in regards to rescuing people.

In a Catholic economy of God’s love and work and human freewill, there is a difference between Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection redeeming all of humanity and some human beings considering that freely offered redemption and saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The Pope was noting the universal breadth of Christ’s redemption and also encouraging all people, regardless of their faith, at least to meet together in doing good works in the world. But if people were hoping that the new Pope was declaring a theology of universalism, I am afraid they will be disappointed. If folks want that belief, they are not going to find it—at least not today—in the official teachings of Rome.

What a Communist Taught Me About St. Paul & the Resurrection of Jesus

Note: This is a post that I originally wrote and put up on my old blog on Saturday, December 2, 2006. Over the next several weeks, in addition to posting new content, I will also be adding previous pieces I have written so as to have ultimately the interesting content from my old site available on this one.

Paul and MarxRecently for a class on Pauline anthropology–how Paul understands the nature of human beings–I had to read a book about the apostle written by an atheist communist French philosopher named Alain Badiou. Given such a description of the author of Saint Paul: Foundations of Universalism (trans. Ray Brassier, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003) you might think that it would be a book ready to make the old Marxist case that “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Oddly enough, it was a book that took next to no interest in religion and instead praised Paul as a model for revolutionary action.

Badiou argues that Paul could be considered an “anti-philosopher” of sorts. He says that Paul’s central conviction was not about proclaiming a particular philosophy or rationality, but was rather an event, plain and simple. The event itself was not a system of philosophy and was not contingent upon some abstract system of thought that could be linked with the particularities of culture, ethnicity, education or philosophy (If this sounds crazy read 1 Corinthians, chapters 1, 2, and 15). It was “happenedness” itself. A dead man was raised. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ–not an encounter with ten steps to a better, moral life–on the road to Damascus changed who he was at his core and propelled him to proclaim this event. Badiou claims that Paul recognized that the resurrection of Christ was not pointing to some philosophy that could be bound to a particular group or particular way of thinking. It was pure event devoid of such particularities and was therefore a universal truth in Paul’s mind. Hence, the “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female” of Galatians 3.28. The event leveled all differences in terms of ultimate significance (of course, differences on a penultimate level are quite wonderful, but do not give one favor in relation to the truth that the event happened and transforms). And Badiou believes that as people encountered Paul’s proclamation of the event, the event would grasp them as well.

“So what?” you ask. Well, the “so what” for Badiou–who thinks the resurrection of Christ is a fable–is that there can be singular moments or events that can completely grasp a person in ways beyond rationality and change the course of their life and actions. For a communist like himself, that event was the communist student riots of 1968. Though the riots were in France and made up of the French, the revolutionary action itself said something universal about love to him (in this case, perhaps a love to counter the intrinsic dominance and control of class and capitalism).

The “so what” for me of Badiou’s reading of Paul is a little different then it is for Badiou. For me, it reminded me that the Paul and his epistles that have been domesticated and made respectable by 1700 years of Christendom are at their core revolutionary. What Paul was saying was “craziness” in his own time of Roman dominance and religious class stratification and is still “craziness” now. For me the resurrection of Christ is a real event that ruptured history and has changed the direction of all reality. The resurrection cannot be explained from some other “rational” starting point; it is itself a foundation of explanation (e.g. If there is a measuring stick that exists as the standard of measurement itself, there is no other measuring stick to use to measure it; it is the starting point). It is an event beyond my education and ability to comprehend it. In fact, it doesn’t require much of anything other than an encounter with the proclamation of the Good News itself and the Spirit of God working through the proclamation to transform and bring you into the very Body of Christ. Funny that it took a French atheist communist to remind me of that.




The Significance of Insignificance: Why Little Moments Matter

web 2-23-2013 Chaplain meThis April, having just finished an 8-month internship as a chaplain at the Durham VA Medical Center, a basic important question struck me: did what I had done matter? Part of the implicit doubt comes from the very nature of the visits themselves. There were some folks that I would meet on Saturday and then go by and visit again on Sunday, but those cases were the exception. A majority of the patients I visited were people I would only see once. I did my hospital hours on Saturdays and Sundays, spending most of my time on different intensive care units (cardiac, medical, and surgical). Being that there were often only two or three of us chaplains for the entire hospital, there were always different people to see.

Usually the visits would be somewhere between a half-hour and an hour. A variety of issues would surface around areas such as family, faith, friendships, jobs, fear, and boredom. While those are all weighty subject matters, most conversations did not have an heir of intensity to them. They were generally just people in bad health situations getting to shoot the breeze with somebody who was not there to take their blood pressure or give them pills.

In essence, in the 569,400 hours that a 65-year-old patient has lived on this earth, 0.0002% of that time was spent talking to me, someone they had never met before and likely will never meet again. And, given that neither the patients nor me would likely remember each other’s names or the substance of the conversations too far beyond the visits—do not worry, there are definitely exceptions for me in this regard; there are some patients and circumstance I will never forget—can I really say that they actually mattered or were important in any meaningful sense of the word? For that matter, are any of the momentary encounters that we have significant? Is there some greatness in the fact that you gave the person ahead of you in the grocery store line the 8 cents they were short on checkout? When you were frazzled and annoyed in the DMV line and the person next to you made humorous friendly small talk and lightened the mood, was there something significant happening there? I still say yes.

Moments matter because they are the gifts that God gives us, one after another, that constitute our very being and existence. Each of our lives is made up of innumerable moments that make up our stories, which are all intertwined with the stories of other people; we contribute to and help make up each other’s story. Even the most brief of encounters become part of our lives that in one way or another keep the story going. If one moment does not lead to another, we call that death.

Now, given that the only moment you can act in is the present one and it will affect and effect the ones that follow, your presence in the present moment most certainly can be important for another. People can be lonely in the moment. Or scared. Or hurt. Or tired. Or confused. Or feel unloved. Being there with a word of encouragement, a smile, to listen, or sit together in silence matters. The moment will happen for them with or without you, but you—even as a stranger–being there may be the difference between a bearable time and a living hell.

Interestingly, Scripture in its own way valorizes the bit-player stranger who helps save the day or adds a crucial meaningful presence or point in its stories. For instance, in the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament, we find a prostitute named Rahab living in Jericho (Joshua 2 & 6). She is a Canaanite woman who helps hide two Israelite spies, which ultimately makes it possible for Israel to take the city. To the spies, Rahab is a stranger and a foreigner whom they have never met until this crucial moment when their lives are in danger. Her actions not only save their lives and the lives of her own family, but in doing so they help take the broader story of God forward. In fact, while she only appears in these brief two chapters in the Old Testament, she is remembered much later in history as a person of faith in Hebrews 11.31 and James 2.25.

There are also many examples of momentary players in the story of Jesus that were significant enough to be written down and incorporated into the good news of God. There is the unnamed woman who appears in all four Gospels anointing Jesus with her tears and expensive perfume (Mt 26, Mk 14, Lk 7, Jn 12). There is no indication in the narrative that he knew her before or after the incident. Still, Jesus described the significance of this momentary encounter, saying, “She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”(Mk 14.8-9). This unknown woman’s one act of love and kindness mattered to Jesus immensely and it now matters to all of us; her act will be remembered forever.

In a world that is obsessed with hype, fame, and larger-than-life heroics, it is easy to feel like small acts of kindness are meaningless in the big scheme of things. And in the case of a hospital visit when you will not even be remembered a week later by the person you were there for, it is easy to lose sight of how much single moments of love and faithfulness matter. No story is possible without a series of consecutive moments and each one adds to and carries on a quality to the next. Brief acts of kindness and presence to a stranger can transform that person’s existence in the now to a glimpse, reflection, or sliver of the presence of God that is ultimately connected to eternity. So, please. Be nice in the grocery store.