Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"the last enemy to be destroyed"

Christus Victor (1450) by Fra Angelico

Not long ago, I was at a funeral where a minister shared a poem called "Go Down, Death." It tells the story of the death of a woman of faith named Caroline. It begins: "Weep not, weep not, she is not dead;/ she's resting in the bosom of Jesus." God, the poems reveals, saw Sister Caroline in great pain and, taking pity, summoned Death and commanded "Go down, Death, go down... and find Sister Caroline." When the pale, white horse and its rider found her, "Death didn't frighten Sister Caroline;/ He looked to her like a welcome friend." Death then carried her off to Jesus.

I'm sure a lot of people at the service took comfort from Sister Caroline's story.

I, however, was not one of them.
Instead, I was stunned by how the poem's depiction of death runs so counter to the biblical picture, particularly the role death plays in Paul's gospel. According to Paul, death isn't "a welcome friend" or a dutiful servant carrying out the will of God. According to Paul, death is the enemy.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul is retelling the past and forecasting the future of redemption. He first tells of Jesus's death and resurrection, and the apostles' mission to take that good news to the world (15:3-8). Then he begins to correct those in his Corinthian audience who reject the very idea of resurrection—"if the dead are not raised," he writes, "then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins!" (15:16-17) Not only has Christ in fact been raised from the dead, but, Paul points out, he is just "the first fruits of those who have died" (15:20). This is when Paul shifts gears and, instead of reminding the Corinthians of what God has already done, he starts to pull back the curtain and reveal some of the promises still to be fulfilled. Those who belong to Christ will also be raised when he comes again (15:23; see also Rom 6:5). And then
comes the end, when he [Jesus] hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (15:24-26)
Death is an enemy—the final enemy!—that Jesus will destroy. "Death will be no more" (Rev 21:4). Obviously, Christ's work isn't done yet, but already, because of the resurrection, "Death has been swallowed up in victory!" (15:54; see also Isa 25:7-8) For Paul, death isn't a faithful servant of God. Death is the enemy. It's the wages of sin (Rom 6:23). We know this.

And yet, when we come face to face with death, we often tell ourselves a different story. We try to downplay the horror of what has happened by dismissing death as no more than a bridge to eternal bliss. When we come face to face with death, suddenly we cling to a different gospel that is all about rest in the hereafter and misses the whole plot of the Bible: the story of a God who sees how the devil and sin have wrecked this world and refuses to let that stand, a God who is doing something about it.  Death would have locked us all in its dark pit, forever, and Jesus needed to beat that door down to set us free—so that's exactly what he did. (That's what I love about Fra Angelico's painting up top: the risen Jesus has knocked down the door to death's prison, and there's even an unlucky demon squished under the door.)

Even at funerals we try to get around the terrible reality of death, but in the process we misrepresent the gospel. We even inadvertently lay the blame for tragedies at God's feet! "God just wanted another little angel" doesn't put the Lord in a very good light in the eyes of a grieving parent. What a grieving parent needs to hear is the truth: 'This is awful. This is the most awful thing imaginable. It's wrong, and Jesus is crying with you right now. But he conquered death for your baby. He hung on the cross to win eternal life for your baby, to make sure this isn't how things end'. That is what we have to proclaim in the face of death.

I don't find comfort at funerals from being told that death is really no big deal, that it's a friend, carrying out God's will. Anyone who knows how much the death of a loved one hurts knows that death is no friend. Anyone who's felt the shockwaves of a suicide, a murder, an overdose, a car wreck, or cancer can tell you that death has nothing to do with God's good will for our lives.

What gives me comfort at a funeral is hearing that death is not what God wants for this world, and so our Father sent Jesus, who conquered death and sin, and "thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!" (1 Cor 15:57) What gives me comfort is hearing the gospel.
We don't have to dodge the awful reality and the hurt, because Jesus stood in between us and the very worst that death can do. We can face our losses and our tragedies because Jesus is our Savior. We don't have to misrepresent the gospel, because it's still good news, even in the face of death.

In fact, it's exactly the good news that we need to hear.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Shape of Water and the Image of God

This year’s Academy Award nominees were just announced, and The Shape of Water from Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy; Pan’s Labyrinth) led the field with a whopping 13 nominations. My wife and I decided to go see The Shape of Water last weekend because of all the buzz: it’s a visually striking Beauty-and-the-Beast tale about isolation and love, as well as a fine example of magical realism, where things enchanted and incredible live alongside things everyday and unremarkable— amphibious men and healing powers rubbing shoulders with car salesmen and Jell-O ads.

But it’s also more than that.
The movie is also an explicit meditation on biblical stories (the story of Samson primarily, but also Ruth) and themes, particularly the theme of the image of God.

[Warning: there will be spoilers below, but they will be clearly marked.]

Early in the film, our mute protagonist, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), and her co-worker and friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) are talking with Michael Shannon’s brutal government man Richard Strickland about the creature (Doug Jones), who is being held in a top-secret facility where the women work as janitors. Strickland insists that the creature is an ‘it’, not a ‘him’, a thing, not a person, because the creature, he explains, is not made in the image of God. ‘God’s a person,’ Strickland tells Zelda, ‘he looks like me, or even you… Well, maybe more like me’.
This question of who is and who is not made in the image of God rears its ugly head again in one particular scene which briefly, but forcefully, reveals that African Americans like Zelda, as well as gay men like Giles (Richard Jenkins), are not seen as divine image bearers by everyone in this early 1960s America.


Strickland’s failure to recognize the image of God in the Amphibian Man inevitably leads to violence, and, as in any version of Beauty and the Beast (and as The Shape of Water hints from the start), in the end it’s the relentless hunter who is the true beast, who sheds something of his own God-given shape along the way. In the film’s final scene, Strickland catches Elisa and the Amphibian Man at the docks, just before the creature can escape to freedom, and shoots and kills both. However, the creature’s miraculous healing powers eventually revive him, and suddenly the one whom we were told was not made in the image of God becomes the film’s Christ-figure, dying and rising again like Jesus, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3). Like Christ, the Amphibian Man also grants resurrection and new life to those who love him, in this case, Elisa. Even Strickland himself, before the tide of violence turns his direction, utters a confession reminiscent of the centurion standing by the cross on Good Friday. If anyone in the movie, this scene suggests, is a reflection of God, it may have been the “creature” all along. Strickland, in insisting otherwise, had been as blind as Samson.


Perhaps, The Shape of Water proposes, perhaps we need a more expansive definition of “the image of God.”

Perhaps our understanding of the divine image doesn’t need a guard at the door but rather a lookout, someone watching for those who’ve been excluded, so they can be welcomed in.

Perhaps—just as we recognize that these characters were wrong to question the black woman’s or the gay man’s having been made in the image of God—perhaps there are those still today whom we, consciously or unconsciously, actively or passively, by our words or by our actions, insist are not divine image bearers. Enemies, “Philistines,” outsiders, pagan Moabites like Ruth, a child in the womb, a transgender woman, those who look different than us, who look different than our mental picture of God, anyone to whom we can show mercy, but instead pass by on the other side.

Perhaps precisely that person is the neighbor we’re called to love.

The film closes with narration by Richard Jenkins which unlocks the meaning of the title with a few lines, probably inspired by the Sufi poet Rumi:
Unable to perceive the shape of You,
I find You all around me.
Your presence fills my eyes with Your love,
It humbles my heart,
For You are everywhere.
This movie tells the story of a woman who finds the humanity in a “beast” and sees the shape of her love everywhere she looks, every time she sees the rain outside her bus window. But it’s also about a world and characters who are challenged and often fail to see the shape of the invisible God everywhere they look, in the lives of those all around them—even in the most unlikely faces.

In a lot of ways, we live in a very different age than the 1960s the film depicts, and yet this challenge persists. May God’s people today have eyes to see.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

genealogies and the gospel

I was reading Timothy Keller's Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ recently, when I came across a powerful discussion of—of all things!—the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew chapter 1. This is the kind of stuff you usually want to skip over, the pinnacle of boring Bible readings, right?

Maybe not.
Keller takes a closer look at some of the names Matthew chose to include (and exclude) and the stories behind these names, and uses this list to paint a beautiful picture of the gospel.

Here's how he wraps up:
      There is no one, then, not even the greatest human being, who does not need the grace of Jesus Christ. And there is no one, not even the worst human being, who can fail to receive the grace of Jesus Christ if there is repentance and faith.
      In Jesus Christ, prostitute and king, male and female, Jew and Gentile, one race and another race, moral and immoral - all sit down as equals. Equally sinful and lost, equally accepted and loved. In the old King James Bible, this chapter is filled with "the begats" - "So and so begat so and so. . . ." Boring? No. The grace of God is so pervasive that even the begats of the Bible are dripping with God's mercy.
(Hidden Christmas, 33)

Monday, December 11, 2017

"He is coming to judge the earth"

It's Advent, and so it should come as no surprise when Sunday's gospel reading introduces John the Baptist.

Mark chapter 1 doesn't tell us all that much about John—Mark's not known for being long-winded—but the other gospels paint a fuller picture and fill in some of those details. Like in Luke, where you get a taste of John’s preaching: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?... the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire!” (3:7,9) John's the fire and brimstone type. We used to have people like that on campus at LSU at least once a week, preaching at you as you walked by, handing out their pamphlets outside the student union. They all came from a church called (I kid you not) Consuming Fire Fellowship.

As preachers have long noted, John the Baptist doesn’t exactly scream ‘Merry Christmas!’. Nobody's sending out Christmas cards with the baptizer on them—you know, This holiday season, bear good fruit or burn. Merry Christmas, the Hixons. He’s a rough guy, with the camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey. He makes me think of bullhorns, sandwich boards, and sand paper—not exactly mistletoe and sugar plum fairies. I used to wonder what John was even doing here, why we have to hear about him during Advent every single year.

Until, one day, I learned why we need John the Baptist during this season.

Thursday, December 14th, will mark the five-year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The 20 students who were killed would be 5th and 6th graders today. Even with all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last few years, that one still stands out; it doesn’t disappear into the crowd. It was a Friday. I had written a clever, cute, Christmas-y sermon that week, but then came Friday, and that weekend I couldn’t think about anything else. That Sunday morning I looked over that sermon in my office, and I knew that we needed to hear something different, that we needed to face this horrific nightmare of a tragedy.

And there in the gospel reading was John the Baptist, talking about the wrath to come and chopping trees down. He said that Jesus was coming to “clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire” (Luke 3:17 NLT).
And as I was trying to wrap my mind around what had happened in Newtown and reading these words, it all suddenly made sense.

We often think of judgment, the final judgment as this terrifying, harsh, dark thing—all that talk about unquenchable fire. Judgment’s uncomfortable, and it's scary.

But the judgment is supposed to be good news.

Because when we’re faced with a Sandy Hook Elementary, or 58 dead and over 500 injured in Las Vegas, or what happened at Sutherland Springs, or the more than 200 murdered during Friday prayers at the Rawdah mosque in Sinai—when we see these tragedies that we don’t even have words for in the news again and again, and the raw heartache and pain and the pure evil that’s in our world, the only thing I know to say is that Jesus sees it too, and he’s coming back; he’s going to clean house. He’s coming to judge that evil, and he’s going to bring healing. He’s the only one who could bring healing, and he’s coming. Sometimes, when we see just unspeakable horrors being perpetrated, the good news we need, the only hope we have, is the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ. Because he can make things right.

Judgment is supposed to be good news. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, that’s why we see things like Psalm 96:11-13:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD;
Why? Why this jubilee?
for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth. 
 The whole earth, all of creation, is dancing for joy because the Lord is coming to judge the world, with righteousness, with truth. And don't we need some righteousness and truth in this world? Well, they’re on their way. The Lord is coming to set things right. Judgment is what gives us hope, even in the face of the darkest evil, because the light is gonna shine in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

It's true, John isn’t very Christmas-y. But he’s not here for Christmas. He’s here for Advent. Because Advent is a season when we’re expecting Jesus, watching for his coming—not just in Bethlehem, but also to his coming back to this world to judge what is evil, heal what is broken, and make things right again.

And in a world of Sandy Hooks, we need that promise and hope of judgment. We need John.

Monday, November 13, 2017

"scatter away our time"

Men are generally lost in the hurry of life, in the business or pleasures of it, and seem to think that their regeneration, their new nature, will spring and grow up within them, with as little care and thought of their own as their bodies were conceived and have attained their full strength and stature; whereas, there is nothing more certain than that the Holy Spirit will not purify our nature, unless we carefully attend to his motions, which are lost upon us while, in the Prophet's language, we "scatter away our time,"while we squander away our thoughts on unnecessary things and leave our spiritual improvement, the one thing needful, quite unthought of and neglected.
John Wesley, Sermon 138, "On Grieving the Holy Spirit" (quoted in Reuben P. Job, 40 Days with Wesley, p. 58)

Friday, November 03, 2017

Exit West and the stories of refugees

“In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet only at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

So begins Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West: A Novel, the story of a couple falling in love in a nameless city slowly overrun by violent insurgents, until an unexpected hope of escape appears. That hope takes the form of the book’s one sci-fi/fantasy element: the doors. Their power is never explained, but countless doors are discovered across the world as the story unfolds—formerly ordinary doorways—which lead, not into the next room or out of the house anymore, but into a closet in a house in a neighboring country, or maybe into a kitchen in a hotel across the world. The doors may take you anywhere.

As the first line of the book hints, this is not simply a story of love in a time of turmoil. This is a story of refugees.

The first appearance of these mysterious doors also marks the first appearance of a refugee in the novel. Hamid sets the scene: night time, a dark room. A fair-skinned young woman sleeps alone, her husband away on business. Wearing only a T-shirt, her bare leg sticks out from under the bedsheets. Her window is cracked open. The home security system is usually set when her husband is away, but not tonight.
Her closet door is open, “a rectangle of complete darkness... And out of this darkness, a man was emerging.” With dark skin and dark hair, the man forces his way through the door into her bedroom, silently, so as not to be heard.

Every detail is fine-tuned to indicate vulnerability and imminent danger—the white woman preyed upon by the dark man.

Once through the doorway, he slips through the window and escapes out into the world.

This scene, while revealing the capabilities of the doors, also serves to define a “refugee” in this story: it is someone—generally someone who is brown—who, though likely feared by the reader and the characters, is probably just looking for an exit, an escape. We’re thinking about what they can do to us, but they’re only thinking about fleeing violence, fear, and oppression, finding safety, hope, and a future. This scene forecasts the reception these immigrants will receive from the rest of the world as the novel continues, while also forcing you, the reader, to examine your own prejudices and judgments. A refugee is not to be defined by your perception of them, recently arrived in your setting, but by their perceptions of themselves, coming from their settings. Too often we don’t know their stories and don’t care to know their stories, but we’re happy to come up with a story for them, a story framed by our own fears and biases.

Well, Exit West is their story. Hopefully it’s a book that will help readers like me pay more attention to the real stories of refugees in the future.

The book is most powerful when it plays with your expectations. The way the young couple grapples with life surrounded by other refugees—characters we perceive as other than us, surrounded by characters they perceive as other than themselves. The brief appearance of Native Americans and how they are understood in this world. Things do not always go the way, are not always described the way, one expects. The magic is in how, each time, Hamid uses these moments to shine a light on the reader.
For the most part, Exit West doesn’t moralize. It simply tells a very human story, about people whom circumstance turns into refugees, a story which you may catch yourself reading in very particular ways... ways you may not be proud of. The novel’s lesson is found not in the pages, but in yourself.

Though occasionally it’s more direct. One of the several destinations this couple arrives at on their journey through the doors in search of stability and opportunity, after resisting the influx of immigrants long and hard, finally decides to adapt and create a space for the refugees. “Perhaps,” the fairy tale-like narration suggests, “they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process.”

The doors in our world aren’t closing, either. So, as we continue to hear, ignore, or disdain the stories of refugees in the news and receive, welcome, or reject them at our borders, I wonder how we are being transformed?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

re-reading the "boring parts"

When I was ordained this summer, someoneI don't remember whoplaced a Bible in my hands, The Wesley Study Bible, a CEB (Common English Bible). Having never read the CEB or the Wesley Study Bible, I decided to give it a go. I've been jumping around, but I'm reading through Isaiah right now.

Isaiah, like many of the other prophets, includes a generous helping of "oracles against the nations" (Isaiah 13-23)"Moab is undone," "Wail, O ships of Tarshish," that sort of thing.
I feel like, for the average Joe picking up a Bible, this stuff must be some of the most mind-numbing material in the book, just a little better than a genealogy or Levitical legal minutia. Chapter after chapter of accusations and judgments passed on ancient nations you've probably never heard of. How are people supposed to get through this? What are they supposed to glean from all these accounts of distant, dusty, national transgressions?

And yet, as I've been reading, the scriptures have been surprising me. (Imagine that.)

Like in Isaiah 16:
The daughters of Moab
at the fords of the Arnon
are like orphaned birds
pushed from the nest.
Consider carefully, act justly;
at high noon
provide your shade like night.
Hide the outcasts;
keep the fugitives hidden.
Let the outcasts of Moab live among you.
Be a hiding place for them
from the destroyer. (16:2-4)
"My heart cries out for Moab. Its fugitives flee to Zoar..." says the prophet of the Lord God of Israel (15:5). God's concern for these Moabite refugees may be the most urgent picture of God's love for immigrants in the Old Testament.

A love the Church in America has largely forgotten.
How many refugees are there now, I wonder, who are running for their lives and their families lives, living in camps, praying to their gods that the "Christian nation" across the Atlantic would "act justly" and be their shade from the noon sun, from the radicals and terror cooking them alive in their homelands?

Perhaps these oracles against the nations in Isaiah can speak to other nations, later nations, today.

Then I was reading Isaiah's judgment on Damascus, in the next chaptera judgment that touches Israel too (17:4-6)where the prophet says:
On that day, people will have regard
for their maker,
and their eyes will look
to the holy one of Israel.
They will have no regard for altars,
the work of their hands,
or look to what their fingers made:
sacred poles and incense stands. (17:7-8)
The work of our hands, the things our fingers have made that we look to.
Today, those are aren't altars, sacred poles, and incense stands. Not literally, at least. Today Isaiah's warning might sound something like this:
On that day, people will have regard
for their maker,
and their eyes will look
to the holy one of Israel.
They will have no regard for smartphones and 401Ks,
the work of their hands,
or look to what their fingers made:
goal posts and Valentino flats and Netflix Original Series.
Idolatry may look different now, but where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).

It's easy to label scripture and dismiss itmind-numbing, irrelevant, boringbut, you know... maybe all scripture really is God-breathed and useful (1 Tim 3:16). Maybe we need to leave no stone unturned and mine this sacred book for precious jewels. Maybe what the Church really needs today is the "boring parts" of Isaiah.