through the wardrobe

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

animal blessings

St. Francis of Assisi

October 4th every year is the feast day of St. Francis, a day set aside to remember and celebrate the life of the beloved Christ-follower and patron saint of animals. (A "feast day" is the formal term for a Church holiday; for instance, Easter is also known as the Feast of the Resurrection. For more traditional churches there are feast days all over the year, commemorating dozens of saints and events.)

At Grace UMC we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis each year with our annual Blessing of the Animals service, a fun, unique service that's held near or on the feast day, depending on how the weekend falls. For this service, folks are invited to bring their pets (or other domesticated critters) to the church for a little prayer and singing, followed by a chance for each animal to receive an individual blessing. In the United Methodist Church, we generally say something like 'Bless, O Lord, this creature, and fill our hearts with thanksgiving for its life'. We just had the service this past Saturday, and you can read a bit about it and see some pictures here.

While I was getting ready for an afternoon of asking God's blessing on these animals, I couldn't help thinking of how, so often in scripture, it works the other way around: God uses the animals as a blessing to us. Elijah would have starved without those ravens (1 Kgs 17:2-6); Jonah would have drowned without that big fish (Jon 1:15, 17); Balaam would have been toast without his famous talking ass (Num 22:21-33).
The circumstances may be a little less dramatic, but this is really still the case today, isn't it? The Lord frequently uses animals to bless us. And that's something to celebrate and give thanks for. So I'm wondering: how have you seen animals be a blessing to you or to others? Please share - don't keep God's works hidden from the rest of us!

I stumbled onto a story of animal blessings last week that really is of almost biblical proportions. In Tanzania, one organization is training rats (yes, rats) to sniff out old land mines. You read that right. These rats are busy detecting the lethal explosives in places like Mozambique, where there are still innumerable land mines unaccounted for after a 15 year civil war that ended in the early 90s. The rats can clear a 200 square-foot area in less than an hour - a human working to detect the mines in the same area would be at work for about 50 hours. There are some pictures, as well as details on how rats are being trained to identify people who test positive for TB (!), in a news article here.

You'd be surprised at the stories about gorillas and pigs I heard this week too. But what stories have you got to share? How has God used his creatures as a blessing in your life or the life of someone you know?

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

is faith obsolete?

We were sitting in a sea of nerds.

Dressed up like superheroes, elves, Jedi, and Hogwarts students, they were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of the five panelists, actors and actresses from the recent hit TV show Battlestar Galactica.
'We were all eagerly awaiting', I should say, because Emily and I were just as excited as the rest. We weren't in costume, but we did wait in line an hour and half to get good seats, close to the stars. That's what you do at DragonCon, Atlanta's annual, Labor Day weekend convention celebrating all things nerdy and geeky.

Some of the stars of Battlestar Galatica at DragonCon.

This particular panel was meant focus on faith and religion in the sci-fi series. On the one hand, that makes sense, because God/the gods and faith are huge issues on the show. On the other hand, it seemed a little silly that we were expecting these performers to have an hour's worth of thoughtful things to say about religion, and they didn't seem all that comfortable with the task themselves.

In a room of about a thousand, mostly-younger folks, many of whom are deeply engaged in science and many of whom spent the weekend going to panels and discussions about skepticism or atheism, in that room it wasn't really surprising when the question finally came: 'do you think the major world religions might soon be obsolete, in the next 100 years or 200 years?'

After a brief silence, one of the actors, in his characteristically gruff tone just said, "... Pardon?"

The question was passed to another actor, who is a pretty thoughtful person, and he spoke for a minute about how, he hopes, the adversarial, us-versus-them, character of some religious beliefs will disappear in the coming decades and centuries; everyone clapped; the panel moved on.

But the question stuck with me: are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, are these faiths soon going to be obsolete? The young speaker seemed to be assuming the correct answer is 'yes'.

I think the idea that these faiths will prove obsolete and just disappear is ludicrous. And I think this man's question and his assumptions about the future of faith are based on some equally ludicrous and sadly uninformed notions. Of course I can't read his mind, I don't know exactly what he was thinking, but these questions and these ideas are all over the place - and if he wasn't thinking this, plenty of people in that room were.
You see, it seems like a lot of people expect faith to go away because they're confused about the role it plays in a person's life, and they're confused about the foundation it's built on. 

Some people think faith mainly plays an explanatory role in someone's life, like 'Q: where does lightning come from? A: angry gods'. Of course, now that we know more about the meteorological phenomena behind lightning, you don't need gods to answer that question any more. Faith is an answer, and now we see it's a bad answer, so it's obsolete.
Some people also think that faith - say, Christianity - is built on a foundation of claims that are obviously and demonstrably wrong. Christianity is all about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection; science and history disprove all of that, therefore the faith is wrong and obsolete.

Of course the problem is that this isn't really true.

I don't know anyone who is a Christian only because, or even mainly because, she needed an explanation for rainbows, or even an explanation for why the universe exists at all. No doubt some people fall into this category, but not very many.
People follow Jesus for a lot of other reasons: because we think the Christian message about God and the world and sin and redemption is true; because we think it's compelling and beautiful; because we've experienced the Holy Spirit's presence and work in our lives; because we decided the church is a body we wanted to be a part of; because we've seen things we can only attribute to the hand of God. People believe in all of this because they've developed a meaningful relationship with this Jesus - he's helped us find meaning and hope in life. You might as well say spouses or friendship or life aspirations are going to become obsolete.

And anyone who has actually studied the history of the New Testament can tell you that history hardly 'disproves all of this stuff'.
I love this radio interview with historian Bart Ehrman (who is himself not a Christian), where he struggles to make the atheist interviewer understand that Jesus was a real, historical person. Check it out if you have a few minutes:

The young man takes for granted that history has done away with Jesus, but it's simply not true. Unfortunately, most of the people who periodically declare to the internet that Jesus didn't exist have never actually read or listened to any of the historians and experts.

If faith was just a set of outdated explanations for the weather or the seasons, if it was built on a slab of superstitious legends and myths, then I'm sure it's days would be numbered.
But what if it's not? What if faith has a future, and it's not going anywhere?

"Obsolete"? ... Pardon?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Christian perfection

Rev. John Wesley
"Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." - Matthew 5:48


Several years back, while I was gathering books for the LSU Baptist Collegiate Ministry's new library - really more of a 'resource shelf', but 'library' sounds nice - I was browsing through a series of inexpensive, trendy-looking Christian classics, and I found a short book by John Wesley (oh, cool!). It was called "A Plain Account of Christian Perfection" (... huh?).
I never really got past the title. "Perfection"? No thanks. I'd met some Christians in college who believed once they had faith they never did sin again, but I'm not sure how well that was working out for them. And I knew the scriptures: "there is none righteous, no, not one" (Rom 3:10).
I'll pass on the 'perfection' talk, thanks.

Fast forward three years: I'm in seminary, and I'm a United Methodist (long story). Suddenly, not only am I reading a lot of John Wesley (you might call him the 'father of Methodism'), but I'm entering into an ordination process at the end of which I'm going to be asked, "Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?"

And they expect me to answer 'yes'.

So "Christian perfection" isn't any longer some weird, foreign teaching I can just set aside and move on with my day. Christian perfection is now central to the gospel tradition that I've identified with.

And you know what? Now that I've been forced to study it and actually learn what Wesley meant by 'perfection', I have a very different opinion on the matter than I once did.

Wesley's classic sermon "The Scripture Way of Salvation" provides a summary that's as simple and clear as they come:

'Go on to perfection.' But what is perfection? ... it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul... For as long as love takes up the whole heart, what room is there for sin therein? (I.9, III.14)

Here is my dry-erase doodle interpretation of Wesley's doctrine of perfection:

God's love fills your heart up, and there's just no room left in there for sin. That's the hope of Christian perfection.

But why would any realistic believer hope for something like that? I know me. You know you. Nobody's perfect - there's none righteous! We're not going to be free from sin in this lifetime. Where did Wesley even get an idea like that from?

Well, he got it from the Bible.
Jesus, in Matthew 5, calls his followers to "be perfect." Is this some impossible burden Jesus has placed on us, or is it a real option for a Christian?
And in 1 John (one of John Wesley's go-to books), we read: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin" (2:1). Maybe it is possible, at least for a time, to be free from sin's power, to be able to not sin.

That's something to hope for, at least.

This is what John Wesley meant and what United Methodists mean when we talk about 'perfection'. If it still sounds a little strange, a little different, I understand. And I understand if you're thinking 'that probably won't happen to me'.
But, who's to say God couldn't transform your life, won't fill your heart up to the brim with love through the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5:5)? Wesley never claimed to reach perfection himself, and he was routinely skeptical of of those who did claim it - but don't we say that for God all things are possible (Matt 19:26)?

So maybe, just maybe, if we open our hearts up to Spirit's work, you might, one day, just for a minute, feel like you're answering Jesus's call to be perfect as the Father is perfect, like your heart is so full of God's love there's no room for anything else.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

a trip to the storage room

This weekend we spent some time helping clean out our family storage unit.

We had a lifetime of random objects - a dresser, a bed frame, a desk, clothes, old toys, VHS tapes, and so much more - efficiently crammed in the metal storage unit. We'd stacked and squeezed things in so well it was hard to tell how much there was... until we got it out, and you could barely get through the corridor of units for all of our stuff. Don't even bother trying to get into one of the units around us; those were totally blocked. A hallway filled with boxes on boxes of things we needed so badly that we'd pay rent every month to keep them, things we needed so badly we could go almost a decade without using them or even seeing them. (And of course our homes are full of things too.)
How did we get all of this stuff?

But it's not just us. The sterile, while halls of this climate controlled storage warehouse are so narrow it's hard to tell just how big the place is. The units are all numbered, though: I found number 327, so there are at least that many. In this place. There are other storage facilities around town. And other towns. And other states.
Just how much stuff do we have?

Sometimes it's fun to look through everything, maybe find some hidden treasures, definitely take a walk or two down memory lane. And sometimes it's just sad, remembering buying this or that, so important at the time, now in the pile for Goodwill. What a waste. If I could only do some things over - we could have ended up with a smaller storage unit.

A few quick facts from the Self Storage Association:

  • There are over 50,000 self storage facilities in the United States.
  • By comparison, there are over 3,000 in Canada and over 1,000 in Australia.
  • Close to 11 million US households rent a self storage unit.
  • There is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman, and child in the nation.
Of course there are times in life when you might really need a storage unit. Military personnel serving overseas, or a missionary; someone moving to go back to college; your house is having major renovations, and you have to clear out; you name it. 

But we sure do have a lot of stuff. So much that we have to build bigger barns to hold it all.
You know that story? It's one of Jesus':
Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12:16-21)

We know we store up some treasures for ourselves, but what about being rich towards God? How are we doing on that front?

Jesus prefaced the parable with another important word: "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (12:15). Sometimes, at the rate we go (read: acquire), you'd think life must consist in the abundance of the things we possess. Why else would we race to own more and better stuff? 
... Why do we? 
Maybe we need to be on our guard.

Of course, sometimes you might really need a storage unit.

But what about all of the stuff we put in it?


Saturday, August 02, 2014

the community of creation

one of Edward Hick's "Peaceable Kingdom" paintings

I love the lyrics of the old hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King." They reflect the picture in Psalm 148, which depicts the whole creation offering praise to its Creator:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! (148:7-10) 

And on it goes. This is a different way than many of us are probably used to thinking about the animals and the natural world around us. The hymn echos these lines and gives us a chance to join in creation's song of praise.

But, the lyrics get a little weird when you start singing about "O brother sun," "O sister moon," "O sister water," and, of course, "dear mother earth." When a pastor is already afraid his congregation will blow off his emphasis on creation care as liberal, hippy gibberish, this doesn't help. (I noticed David Crowder left all of that out of his nice version of the tune.)

Of course, just because something seems weird doesn't mean it isn't true. Christians of all people should know that. ("Turn the other cheek"? "Seventy times seven"? "The Word became flesh"??)
So before we roll our eyes at St. Francis's song, we should ask if there's perhaps something to all this talk of sisters, brothers, and mothers.

I just started reading Richard Bauckham's book, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation. For my money, Bauckham is one of the most brilliant and important biblical scholars in the world today. His close attention to the texts and his encyclopedic knowledge of the contexts consistently yield fresh and utterly compelling interpretations.
This particular book aims to highlight the many, frequently overlooked passages and themes in scripture addressing the wider, non-human creation and how we ought to relate to the rest of God's creatures. One of Bauckham's main arguments from the get-go is that "humans are fellow-creatures with other creatures" (ix). Yes, we have unique capabilities, and God's given humanity a special role in the world, but we are still fellow-creatures with the others, sharing this world in community with them.

This is a point, he suggests, that we might have noticed in the first chapters of Genesis, if we could just see beyond chapter 1's talk of human dominion (1:26-28).
For instance: we all know that God forms Adam "from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (2:7). Sometimes that very personal, physical picture is used to emphasize humanity's uniqueness among the things God made. But maybe we need to notice a few other things here:
  1. You may have heard about the connection in the Hebrew language between the man and the dirt he's formed from. The word for man is 'adam, while the word for ground or soil is 'adamah. There's a connection between the man and the dirt that you miss in translation. God made people out of peat. Or, "God made humans out of humus," as Loren Wilkinson put it. (And that's "humus," not "hummus.") According to Bauckham, "this earthiness of humans signifies a kinship with the Earth itself" (21).
  2. And not just a kinship with the earth, but with the animals too. A few verses after the Lord forms the man, he goes to work again: "out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air" (2:19 - and compare that to 1:24). The man and the animals are cut from the same cloth! They're cousins of some kind, you might say.
  3. Now, the Lord doesn't breathe the breath of life into the animals here in Genesis 2, but, if you look ahead to Genesis 7, notice how the cataclysmic destruction of the Flood is described: "All flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings [that reads like a summary of 1:20-27]; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died" (7:21-22). Verse 22 is simply a reiteration of verse 21, but it makes clear that every creature has received the breath of life from God. Which makes sense. How else would things be alive?
Right there are three connections that Genesis makes between human beings and the other creatures of the earth. Humanity is certainly distinct in several ways and even has "dominion" over the other creatures (whatever exactly that means), but there's a relatedness we can't miss. We're related to the soil; we're related to the animals - we all received the gift of life in our nostrils from the Lord.

Our connection to our fellow-creatures is even implied by our very call to have dominion over them, Bauckham suggests. How is that? "Since Genesis 1 presents this authority as a kind of kingly rule, it is relevant to recall the only kind of human rule over other humans that the Old Testament approves" (32). This takes us to Deuteronomy 17:14-20, where the Lord describes the kind of kingship that will be permitted in Israel. These stipulations begin and end with one particular emphasis: "One of your own community you may set as king over you... [not] exalting himself above other members of the community" (17:15, 20). The vertical relationship of having authority over others must be founded on the horizontal relationship of being members of the same community. That's the sort of authority God approves. And so our dominion "is rightly practiced only when we recognise it to be dominion over fellow-creatures" (33). We are called to have dominion over the creatures of the earth precisely as fellow-creatures of the earth. We are all members of the community of creation together.

Maybe, just maybe, it's not so crazy to talk about "brother sun," "sister moon," or "sister water." Maybe there's a biblical truth there we forget, that all of God's creatures are members of one community of creation, all children of one Creator. 
Maybe, the next time we hear Jesus answer the man's question - "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29) - we need to think more about what that animal is doing in the story.  

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Yay Ascension Sunday!

This morning in our worship service, we heard a beautiful soprano solo rendition of "In the Garden." This song is a favorite for a lot of folks, because it captures a feeling of closeness to Jesus that we long for: he walks with me; he talks with me; he tells me I'm his own. Jesus is that friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus is always with us in our hearts. There's an intimacy there that Christians love to celebrate.

So it seems a little ironic to listen to "In the Garden" on Ascension Sunday - the song about Jesus' nearness on the day that Jesus left. He had been close enough to walk with you and talk with you ("In the Garden" is about Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane with Jesus in John 20), but then he left, ascended back to heaven, no where to be seen, gone.

Yay Ascension Sunday, right?

But Jesus seemed to think it was a good thing for him to go. In John 16, while warning the disciples that soon they won't see him anymore, Jesus said, "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (16:7).

It's to your advantage that I go away, that I leave you and return to heaven.

How's that now?

Well, who is this "Advocate" (or "Helper") he's talking about?
It's the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1, Jesus commissions the disciples to go and preach in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth - then he jets. Jesus ascends to the heavens, and he's gone. In Acts chapter 2, the day of Pentecost arrives, and the Holy Spirit descends from the heavens, alights on the apostles, and the Church is born.

Why is this to our advantage? Why couldn't Jesus just stay?
Jesus was so close to his companions that he could touch them, speak with them, eat with them, pray with them. "The Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelled among us" (John 1:14). But the Spirit doesn't dwell among us; the Spirit dwells within us. God's people, the Church, are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), the place where God lives on earth today. (That's not to say God isn't out and about and at work beyond the Church. God wasn't imprisoned in the Jerusalem temple: that was just the one place God had committed to dwell, where you knew you could encounter the Lord.) The Spirit has committed to dwell within us - not just walking with us and talking with us, but closer, living inside of us!

And while Jesus could teach his followers (with varying degrees of success) about the life God intends for us, the Spirit doesn't try to tell us how to live, but transforms us from within. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: these the are the fruit the Spirit would cultivate in our lives (Gal 5:22-23). These things don't always come naturally, and just because you've heard Jesus say to turn the other cheek doesn't mean you've learned the art of peace (for instance), but the Spirit is at work within us, growing these fruit in the Spirit's territory, transforming us from within.

And even though Jesus did leave and return to the Father's right hand in heaven, even though Jesus is gone, the Spirit connects us to Christ still. Jesus left, but he is united with the Spirit and the Father, one God, and so the Spirit dwelling in us is the link connecting us to Jesus. It may sound backwards, but Jesus leaving made it possible for us to draw closer to him than ever, through the Holy Spirit living in us.

So... the Ascension isn't the day God leaves. It's the prelude to God's arrival, to dwell within us, nearer than any friend or brother. It means God can work in us in new and deeper ways, and we can be connected to Jesus even more intimately than before.

Yay Ascension Sunday!

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Monday, April 28, 2014

the least of these: Jesus the Homeless

A few weeks back NPR covered the installation of a new statue of Jesus at an Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

Big news, right? A statue of Jesus. At a church.

But this is unlike most--maybe any--statues of Christ you'll ever see. The piece is called simply "Jesus the Homeless," and it depicts Jesus wrapped up in a blanket, sleeping on a bench. He's only identifiable by his nail-scared bare feet that the blanket couldn't cover. The statue, according to NPR's report, is "intended as a visual translation" of a line in Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the day of judgment, when 'the Son of Man' (a title Jesus uses for himself) will return and reign as king over the world. Jesus then explains for us why the king will call some "blessed by my Father" and invite them to "inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world":
'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'. (25:35-40)

As the passage goes on, the wicked are likewise puzzled, unsure when it was that they turned Jesus away, refusing to give him food or drink or clothing... only to find out that they turned Jesus away every time they ignored the needs of "the least of these." The homeless guy, sleeping on the bench, whom you can either help or ignore--that's Jesus.

The statue has received some strong reactions. According to NPR,
Some loved it; some didn't.

"One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by," says David Boraks, editor of "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

"Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out," Boraks added.

Some neighbors felt it was an insulting depiction of the Son of God, and what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.

I personally think it's a beautiful piece, and it communicates the force of the passage in Matthew more powerfully than anything I've seen before. Of course, there's also a striking irony in a church erecting a $22,000 bronze statue to teach that Jesus expected us to care for the poor, but I don't really care to get into that debate.

Instead, I just wanted to bring this "visual translation" to your attention, so maybe those of us trying to be disciples can encounter Jesus' call in a new way.

What do you think of "Jesus the Homeless"? Is it a good interpretation of Matthew 25? How would it go over at your church?

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