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Although Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center has now cancelled his plan to burn Qur’ans, the general outline of the situation as it unfolded over the last few days is disturbingly familiar. Here is yet another leader of a small religious fringe group who threatened to commit an extreme act unless his demands were met (meeting with the leaders of the Islamic cultural center in New York and/or negotiating its relocation). Change the details, and that could describe any number of terrorist groups rather than a Christian one.

 I don’t think we should be surprised that the 9/11 attacks, committed by those on the radical fringes of Islam, would elicit a mirror response from someone on the fringes of Christianity. The point is, Christians who vehemently disagree with Jones’s stance toward Islam and his plan to burn the Qur’an now know something of what most Muslims feel when terrorist acts are committed in the name of Islam.

 May such empathy help lay a foundation for understanding that leads to peace in the face of the fear and tension felt by so many around the country.

I’ve just started Patrick Miller’s new book on the Ten Commandments. I’m still in the first chapter on the first and second commandments, but one of the aspects of the book I appreciate already is that, beyond merely explicating its meaning, Miller surveys how each commandment is picked up and used throughout the rest of the biblical literature beyond its appearance in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

For example, Miller notes that Jesus affirms the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me”) by quoting Deut. 6:13 when tempted by the devil to bow down and worship him: “The Lord your God you shall fear/worship; him [alone] you shall serve.” For Miller, the significance of this is that, even—or especially—as the Son of God, Jesus’ relationship to God is not marked by special privilege that exempts him from giving ultimate allegiance to God; rather, the opposite is true. For Jesus’ disciples, this means that

Following Jesus is not to replace the object of our worship but is a commitment to follow no other gods, however tempting they may be, and to worship the Lord your God and the Lord alone. Whatever identity is made between Jesus and God, whether in the language of “Son of God” or of “Lord,” the incarnate one embodies a faithfulness to the First Commandment that shows the way for all who follow him. (44)

I don’t think the significance of this can be overstated. The point can be made in many ways, but it’s especially obvious in the story of Jesus’ temptation: Jesus (and the early church) saw himself as being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God do something unprecedented in raising Jesus from the dead? Yes. But for those early Jewish Christians, Jesus’ resurrection meant not the beginning of a new religion but the affirmation of the faithfulness/righteousness of the God the Jews had known from of old.

As Christians learn to follow Jesus, we learn that we are part of a story that stretches back to and begins with God’s creative intentions for the world, and includes the way God chose a people to embody those intentions. If some of our earlier ancestors in the faith had remembered this, perhaps some of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism could have been avoided.

Easter is. Joan Chittister makes this point perfectly clear in The Liturgical Year:

Christmas simply commemorates, not celebrates, the historical birth of Jesus, whenever that might have been. Because of Christmas, the life of Jesus was possible. Because of Christmas, the Incarnation can be fulfilled at Easter. Because of Christmas, the humanity of Jesus is fact. But the birth of Jesus is not the central meaning of the faith. On the contrary, it is the death and Resurrection of Jesus that are the core of Christianity. The liturgical year is, then, actually about Easter. (53-54)

One reason this is important is that it reveals just how profoundly distorted the secular glorification of Christmas actually is. Sure, the media covers Easter when it rolls around, but let’s face it—when it comes to American culture at large, Christmas is where it’s at. The crass commercialization of the holiday is just the surface representation of a much deeper—and I would argue, willful—misunderstanding of the Christ story.

Our culture is more than happy to give Jesus face time at Christmas because Baby Jesus is a safe Jesus. A cute Jesus. A gentle Jesus. A domesticated Jesus. A Jesus that makes no demands. Never mind that the infancy narratives of the Gospels (especially Matthew) anticipate Jesus’ own suffering when Herod orders the baby boys in Bethlehem to be murdered (an event remembered during the Feast of the Holy Innocents in the liturgical year).

Christmas, as it’s generally understood, is not the focus of the Christian faith. It’s merely the first stop on the way to Easter, a path that takes us through Jesus’ Passion and on to the Resurrection, an event that asks us to reexamine Jesus’ life and our lives in light of God’s radical in-breaking into the world. But make no mistake—amid all the bell jingling and toy buying, that’s the last thing the culture wants you to think about.

This story, which I first saw reported a couple of months ago, makes me simultaneously want to puke, weep, and punch my fist through a wall. Some Christian churches and pastors throughout Africa, and it seems particularly in Nigeria, have taken to accusing children of being witches and prescribing horrific forms of exorcism, up to and including murder.

Why? The report ascribes blame to a potent mixture of poverty, conflict, and poor education. Families and communities under great pressure seem to be seeking scapegoats for their misfortune, and children have become targets. The report also describes the rapid growth of “evangelical Christianity” in Africa. Churches with names like “Born 2 Rule” and “Winner’s Chapel” apparently dot the landscape. Appallingly, part of what seems to be happening is that these churches see themselves as in competition with each other; and a49909443ccusing children of witchcraft is a tactic some of these pastors are using to gain spiritual credibility (and, no doubt, followers). Further, churches often charge money for so-called exorcisms, resulting in further debilitating financial ruin for families.

Lest we think this is an “African” problem, the article points out that at least one of these churches has its origins in an American (California) church—but, it seems, the U.S. church hasn’t had contact with its African plant in some time. 

This situation is sickening in so many ways. Just a couple of rather obvious observations. (1) This is a prime example of what happens when bad theology and literalistic, wooden interpretation of the Bible is allowed to run amok in a situation of extreme poverty. American churches who have evangelized Africa in the past and are doing so presently need to wake up to the consequences of their actions, particularly if, like the church named in the article, they’ve disengaged from the African churches they planted. (2) Early Christians were known for adopting abandoned children—an extraordinarily countercultural move. Here we have the exact opposite.

And now a couple of declarations. (1) If you’re a Christian who thinks social justice issues like poverty and education are for liberals, it’s time to get real. (2) We keep hearing how quickly Christianity is growing in the global South. Any form of Christianity that does this to children needs to die, and quickly.

May God have mercy on the children of Nigeria being abused in this way.

Growing up in church, I tended to think of Christian faith in terms of intimidating lists of do’s and don’ts. Do go to church on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to the wrong kind of movies. “Obeying the gospel” was another way of saying “be baptized,” which was itself the final item in a list of things to do to be saved: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. It took many years before I understood that faith was a radical reorientation of one’s life toward God and others out of which one did or did not do certain things.

“Living justly” can often feel like “living legalistically”—like a return to those days when I felt shame and fear for my sins of commission and omission. The sheer number of ways a typical American’s lifestyle contributes to injustice—as well as the vast number of recommendations out there for how to live a green or sustainable lifestyle—can be overwhelming.

That’s why I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that Julie Clawson begins her book Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices (IVP, 2009) with the words “Don’t panic.” Julie knows that the biggest risk of writing a book like this is that the reader will be so paralyzed that she will do nothing. So she addresses 7 specific areas from our everyday lives (coffee, chocolate, cars, food, clothes, waste, debt) where we can make small but significant changes, but in the process shows how living justly (or not) in these areas connects us to other people from around the world. EJ

Everyday Justice encourages us to take seriously the two greatest commandments according to Jesus: loving God and loving our neighbors. First John 4:20 puts it this way: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” The problem is, as Julie points out, that many of the things that Americans consume are produced by the poorest people on the planet in horrifying conditions. The fact that we do not see these people, except when the occasional scandal exposes their plight,  is no excuse for supporting the systems that keep them poor or otherwise endangered by their working conditions. But we do precisely that with our consumption patterns. Many of the things we buy support companies that treat their workers unethically. And many of the things we consume were produced in ways that deplete the earth of natural resources or were made with dangerous chemicals.

But Everyday Justice is a light shining in this darkness. Yes, it exposes the darkness, causing me to be depressed. But it also gave me hope by showing how I can alter my lifestyle and love my unseen brothers or sisters around the world by supporting companies that pay their workers fair wages or make their products without wasteful plastics or dangerous pesticides.

The area in which the book challenged me the most was clothing. I pride myself on maintaining a simple, inexpensive wardrobe. But I’ve realized that my inexpensive, colorful t-shirts may have a hidden cost, as they could have been made by people who weren’t paid fairly, and were doubtless made with cotton produced with the use of outrageous amounts of pesticide. Further, I have way too many items of clothing purchased specifically because they are relatively “care-free,” i.e., “wrinkle-resistant” or “unshrinkable.” I bought them even though I knew that it took chemicals to make them that way. Our culture trains us to think that we are successful consumers if we find the best bargain on clothing (or whatever). But cheap clothing, as with cheap food, has other costs that are built into its production from the get-go.

Many readers will be on the same theological page with Julie, as I was. The book’s value for them, as for me, will be to help them put their theological values into practice. Other readers may be a little suspicious of what may appear to be a “liberal social justice agenda.” But I suspect these readers will be moved by Julie’s accounts of the real-life impact of our consumption patterns on those who are considered “the least of these,” and may find their theology shifted in subtle ways. But all of us, if we have ears to hear, will be moved a little closer to truly obeying the gospel. And that’s a good thing.

Bringing It Home

Obviously, there’s no way to say in one post everything that needs to be said about the gospel. And there’s no way I can say in this post everything I’d like to say. But here are some thoughts about the implications of the gospel as I laid it out.

  • The gospel begins and ends with God. That is, the central focus of the gospel is on what God is doing in the world, not what my eternal salvation will be, as important as that is (to me). This is what distinguishes the gospel from other gospels that come to us in culture or other places. The good news isn’t only good news in relation to bad news. The good news doesn’t begin with shame or fear. It begins with God. And it has to do with what God wants for all of creation (and thus us individually as part of that creation).
  • The gospel is rooted in Scripture—all of it, not just the New Testament, and not just Paul. If we miss this point, we risk excising Jesus (and Paul) from his Jewish context, and when we make Jesus the first Christian—that is, picture him as overthrowing, denigrating, or making irrelevant the religious tradition that shaped him—then terrible things happen, and have happened. The center of the gospel is God; and Scripture witnesses to the enduring faithfulness and righteousness of God. Anyone who isolates the New Testament from the Old will miss this basic point, will not come close to understanding the New Testament, and will risk misunderstanding just how good the good news is.
  • When in the last post I said I struggle to believe the gospel, I don’t mean by “believe” simply giving mental assent to it. I mean giving my whole life over to it. As should be clear from that post, I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ is about more than simply adhering to Christianity as opposed to some other religion. I believe it has to do with what it means to be truly human. I believe the gospel is meant to re-form us into the image of God, tying together God’s initial creative purposes with God’s eventual redemptive intentions and giving us a frame in which to live, move, and have our being—or not. The power of sin is still within me, continually tempting me away from the path God would have me walk. A reason to keep asking “What is the gospel?” is so we help each other remember where the path is when we’re tempted to step off it.

Well, there’s so much more to say, and I’ll probably return to this topic explicitly from time to time. But I wanted to kick off this blog with this series because it really provides a frame for what I want to do with the blog, that is, explore where hope is peeking through in the despair around us. In the end, I think the gospel may be the only legitimate reason for hope or faith.

But that leads me to one final point, and one more reason to keep asking “What is the gospel?” That is, the gospel—indeed, God—is always at risk of being drowned out, ignored, overwhelmed, distorted, abused, coopted, misheard, misinterpreted, and on and on. God comes in weakness: in the still, small voice; in the Spirit that hovers over the waters; on a cross; in a box (the ark); through other people, particularly the poor and oppressed; and through Scripture, which does not speak with one voice but many, which tends to obscure rather than clarify, and which offends us on so many fronts (e.g., the violence of Joshua and Judges, the patriarchal attitudes of Paul) that we may be tempted to say, “Umm, no thanks.”

Apparently this is the way God works. God takes the chance that we might be so offended, so hard-hearted, so churched, so educated, so Christian, so righteous, or so fill-in-the-blank that we might miss what’s good about the good news. And so we need as individuals and as churches to keep asking each other “What is the gospel?” in order to hold open the possibility that we haven’t heard all of the good news yet.

So I ask you: What is the gospel?

The Gospel I (Struggle to) Believe

I believe that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the same God who, in love, created all things. I believe that God created human beings in God’s image. I believe that being made in God’s image means that humans were and are meant to live in relational shalom with God, each other, and all of creation.

I believe that when humans decided to walk a different path, God, in love, did not destroy creation but worked redemptively to preserve it. I believe that one way God did this was to call a particular people to walk in the way God intended all humanity to walk. I believe God delivered Israel from oppression and slavery; God then freely entered into covenant with this people. I believe that when Israel chose a different path, God did not abandon them but continued to speak through prophets, whose messages not only exhorted repentance and return to the one God but also promised that all nations would eventually do the same.

 I believe that when the right time came, God sent one uniquely anointed to proclaim to Israel that God’s kingdom was at hand. I believe that what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God” was that, just as God had been present in Eden, in the wilderness wanderings, in the tabernacle, and in the temple, God would now be present in Israel in such a way that God’s redemptive intent for all humanity would be revealed—that, in fact, it could be seen uniquely in Jesus’ healings, teaching, and ministry.

I believe that the path Jesus walked was the path God intended for all humanity. But the authorities of Jesus’ day, particularly the Roman authorities oppressing Israel, recognized that path as diametrically opposed to their own and crucified Jesus in an attempt maintain their own systems. I believe that God, as the creator of all things, decisively vindicated Jesus’ path and refuted the path of oppression by raising Jesus from the dead.

I believe that in the light of the resurrection and in the experience of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the eyes and hearts of the early Jewish followers of Jesus were opened such that they saw in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection the working of the one God, the God who created all things, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe, with these early followers, that God’s promises of salvation and deliverance were being fulfilled in new and unexpected ways—including the prophetic promise that all nations would feast at God’s banquet. I believe that Jesus’ death atoned for humanity’s sins so that, free from the power of sin and death, humanity would be free to walk in the path God intended.

I believe that God’s promises to Israel have not been negated but that the church, even now in its primarily Gentile form, has been invited to the same task God has always given to God’s people: to proclaim the redemptive intentions of God for creation and to model those intentions by living in shalom with God, each other, and all creation. I believe that the church is empowered to do this by the presence of the Holy Spirit—the presence of the creator God, whose Spirit hovered over the face of the primordial waters.

I believe that the church best proclaims and models God’s redemptive intentions by following the way of Jesus—that is, bringing good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. I believe that the kingdom of God comes partially through this Spirit-empowered work, but only partially; because, finally,

I believe that God will one day redeem all of creation in a decisive way. I believe that the presence of God in Eden, in the tabernacle, in the temple, in the person of Jesus, and in the indwelling Spirit will be consummated by God’s full, complete presence among us and that the image of God in us will be perfected—that we will be like God because we will see God as God is. I believe that in the new creation, all things will live in the relational shalom for which they were intended.

I believe Revelation 21 points us toward this day: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

Jesus Deconstructs Me, This I Know

I want to say, if anyone’s wondering, that my insistence that we keep asking “What is the gospel?” does not mean that we shouldn’t come to some conclusion—and then decide how we’re going to respond to the gospel’s ethical summons (thanks to David Dark for that phrase). I’m not after some wishy-washy, relativistic “pick your own gospel” sort of mind-set. Far from it.

Why keep asking the question? Because we (the church) have gotten it wrong in the past. Too many Christian preachers stepped into the pulpit and proclaimed that “God so loved the world…” Then from that same pulpit they preached sermons that in one way or another sanctioned slavery or the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans or the massacre of European Jews, or that in one way or another sanctioned the abuse of women by men. am_i_not_a_man

Now it’s easier (if not easy) to look back and see where we’ve gotten it wrong in the past. It’s much harder to figure out where we’re getting it wrong now. Who is it that we’re excluding, demonizing, or not loving as God loves, even when we think we’re being “biblical” or in step with the will of God?

The reason we keep asking the question is that none of us has it all right. None of acts, believes, thinks, or knows outside of our own finitude, not to mention the constant temptation to walk our own path rather than in the way of Jesus. We keep asking the question, not because we don’t have an answer, but because the good news may be better than we think. We keep asking the question to remind each other of the gospel, to help each other see as others see so that our blind spots can be overcome. (This, by the way, is why the emerging church conversation is a conversation.)

The emerging church interest in our postmodern or late modern context does not serve the purpose of being hip; it is to help us all be more humble. Without creative tension in our thoughts or talk about God (between what we know and what we don’t), it becomes easier to create what Bruce Ellis Benson terms “graven ideologies.” In other words, the idols we’re most likely to create and worship these days are our own conceptions of God and what God wants. And, friends, when the church has gotten this wrong, it’s REALLY gotten it wrong! As our Native American, African American, and Jewish brothers and sisters know all too well, the ultimate consequence of our unacknowledged idolatry is death for those who are not “us” or the same as us.

If we need biblical support for this idea, well, the texts have been there all along. When Jesus says to examine the log in our own eyes before we rail about the splinter in someone else’s, or when he presses the law to unexpected extremes in the Sermon on the Mount, or when he declares that one receives the kingdom like a child, or when Paul says that he sees through a glass darkly, or talks about not having finished the race, we need to have ears to hear. We need to hear that the gospel comes to us where we least expect it, in ways and forms that we didn’t expect, and from persons we thought not to hear it from. Thus, like the woman searching for the lost coin, we rejoice when we receive the gospel, and we invite our friends over to celebrate—and to share the coins they’ve found too.

As an outsider to the Orthodox tradition, I’ve tried reading an occasional book on icons, usually with the hope that the book would help me “get” them. “I just want to know what these things mean” was my thought. nouwen

After reading Henri Nouwen’s Behold the Beauty of the Lord (Ave Maria, 1987), though, I see just how much of a mistake that was. Nouwen admits right away that for each of the four icons he writes about, his insights did not come until after months of living and praying with them. What he’s given us are meditations on the icons rather than analyses of their meaning (although there’s some overlap), and I found that Nouwen’s meditative approach was exactly what I needed from a book about icons. Reading this book is like praying with Nouwen as he prays with the icons.

The book is brief (80 pgs), with one meditation each on Rublev’s Trinity, the Virgin of Vladimir, the Savior of Zvenigorod, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. The icons are reproduced in full color and folded into the front and back of the book in such a way that you can look at the icon at the same time that you’re reading about it.

rublevNouwen draws one primary spiritual lesson from each of the icons. I was most interested in what he had to say about Rublev’s Trinity, since it was a gift from my wife a couple of years ago and has been hanging in my office ever since. Nouwen says that contemplating this icon helped him learn what it means to live in “the house of love.” Introducing this icon, he writes:

Hardly a day passes in our lives without our experience of inner or outer fears, anxieties, apprehensions and preoccupations. These dark powers have pervaded every part of our world to such a degree that we can never fully escape them. Still it is possible not to belong to these powers, not to build our dwelling place among them, but to choose the house of love as our home. This choice is made not just once and for all but by living a spiritual life, praying at all times and thus breathing God’s breath. Through the spiritual life we gradually move from the house of fear to the house of love.

Friends, Nouwen has put his finger on the exact reason I’m blogging: to find hope in the midst of fear. While at times Nouwen focuses on mystical insights he received (and I don’t have nearly enough mysticism in my life), I really appreciated his final reflection—that is, that each of the four icons is connected to the world, whether through the square in the altar in Rublev’s Trinity, representing the four corners of the earth, or the damage done to the icon of the Savior, or the king in the Descent of the Holy Spirit. These icons remind him that heaven and earth are connected, a connection that helps us live in the house of love. I imagine I’ll return to this book many times for that reminder too.

Here’s a story that beautifully illustrates why I started this blog. It concerns the decision of Brian McLaren and some other Christians to join with Muslim partners in fasting during Ramadan. Although the way this story is framed is getting rather old (McLaren vs. whoever; in this case Driscoll and Mohler), it does display two ways of being Christian, one of which is more attractive to me than the other.

I’ll characterize these ways with an image that Brian McLaren uses: clenching fist or open hand. The question is whether the goal (if not the practical result) of walking in the path of Christ is to make us stingier or more generous. Will we decamp to our church buildings and entrenched theological positions and insist that all others join us there in order for us to be in fellowship? Or—with those who’ve thought about what it means to be “missional”—will we, confident in the Lordship of Jesus, open ourselves to others for the sake of our common humanity?ramadan

Is it more Christ-like to remain in places of comfort or to enter into others’ experiences so that “the other” becomes “the neighbor”?

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:5-7).

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