Thursday, December 27, 2012

Merry Christmas

I hope that everyone has enjoyed a wonderful holiday and a chance to celebrate the birth of our Lord!

There's been little time for blogging in the Hixon home lately, on account of special Christmas services and sermons, holiday traveling, a spouse having her wisdom teeth out, and, I'm sorry to say, a death in the family (and I truly appreciate everyone's concern and prayers over the last few weeks).

So, for those of you looking for something to read, until next week all I can say is: 1) the previous post, about some holiday practices that are mindful of God's creation, is more relevant now than when it was posted, so please scroll down and check it out if you have not; and 2) I was one of three pastors featured in an article in the Natchez Democrat (our local paper) about the meaning of the Christmas story, and you can check it out online here.

May this Christmas season continue to bless you and fill us all with the love, joy, peace, and hope of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

a green Christmas

Apparently, Christmas wrapping paper is not very recyclable.

I learned that just recently. According to Earth911, the lamination, dyes, non-paper additives that often show up, and some other factors make wrapping paper "typically non-recyclable." This might not be a big deal, except that we use millions of tons of gift wrapping material every year in the US! Suddenly the cool Frosty the Snowman paper Emily and I picked up on sale last year is much less exciting.

Christians should care about recycling. This planet is God's creation. He took pleasure in it long before humanity came along (Gen 1:12), and when we finally did come on the scene, God charged us with tending the Earth (Gen 2:15). So we can't think of the world as simply a resource at our disposal, to use as we will--that's certainly not a biblical perspective. I've written about these questions before, and I'm not going into it all again here.
Instead, let's skip straight to the next question: what can we do? What steps can Christians take to ensure that our celebrations of Christ's coming don't do further harm to the world Jesus made?
Well, surprise, surprise: you can find all sorts of creative, alternative wrapping ideas online. Some of them we're all familiar with--for instance, newspaper wrapping. This is what I usually did in college, not because I was environmentally conscientious, but because there were always free copies of The Daily Reveille available on campus, and that meant free wrapping paper. I'm sure saving money on gift-wrapping would still be prudent for a lot of us, but this is also a great way to make sure you're not just adding to the landfills.
Another obvious trick (...I never think of the obvious ones myself) is to reuse wrapping paper. Yes, that means you can't just rip it to shreds when you open your presents. But that's a pretty small price to pay for a more creation-friendly practice.

For some more wrapping options, check out Eco-Chick.

Of course there's one terrific option for those of you who really want to use wrapping paper and really want to rip it to shreds: you can find recyclable wrapping paper. Only watch for the little recycle emblem on the packaging; we can't just assume that this stuff is recyclable. Sure, eco-friendly paper is going to cost a little more. But with Christmas only a week away, we're eight days from the post-Christmas shopping season and the great wrapping paper sale. When you go to stock for next year's holiday season, search out the recyclable stuff--a little more expensive, but still a bargain.

And wrapping paper isn't the only thing we can think about! I saw an ad in the Natchez local paper just the other day highlighting all sorts of recyclable holiday waste: Christmas lights, boxes, cans from Christmas meals. Even old Christmas trees are accepted!

For tips on recycling your tree, check here.

So this holiday season, let's think before we trash. White, blue, whatever color your Christmas turns out to be, with a little planning and consideration, you can make the celebration green. That's one important way we can be faithful to Christ this Christmas.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

some tips for surviving the war on Christmas


Last week on the blog we talked about finding Christmas peace. But "peace" isn’t the only buzzword this time of year—“war” is a big one too. Just about the time the Christmas music starts to play, the “war on Christmas” hits the news. ‘Tis the season.

 If I’m understanding everybody correctly, the “war on Christmas” is the perceived efforts on the parts of certain groups—atheists and other secularists, Muslims, whomever—to eliminate explicitly Christian forms of Christmas observance from the public sphere. For the most part this is done by complaining against government-sponsored Christmas events or decorations: a “holiday tree” is okay; a “Christmas tree” is bad, because it has the word “Christ” in it, that sort of thing. This, they would argue, amounts to government support of a particular religion, and it violates the rights of non-Christian Americans. Christian Americans respond to all of this in force, rallying the troops to protest generic ‘holiday’ celebrations, making their own, faith-centered observances bolder and more visible, and just generally ‘putting Christ back in Christmas’.
This is all on a lot of people’s minds this time of year, and there are earnest concerns on both sides of the battle. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like much of the attention this 'war' is getting in the news is very helpful, or very Christian. So I thought I'd offer a few, quick tips of my own for people who feel like they're caught in the line of fire in all of this.

  • If you want to 'put Christ back in Christmas', you should start by going to church. I simply can’t think of a better way to center your Christmas celebrations around Jesus than gathering together with other members of Christ’s body and worshipping the one whose birth you’re supposed to be celebrating. A lot of people will drop in at church this time of year, but if you're really concerned about the Christian message of Christmas, maybe more than the bare minimum would be in order. Why not look at your church’s schedule, and go to every service you can? Normal Sunday services during December will probably be full of Christmas hymns and scripture readings and sermons about the coming of Jesus—that’ll be a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. There will probably be special services on Christmas Eve or Christmas day you can attend too. What better way to focus your family’s Christmas celebration on Jesus? There will be a live nativity or two in your area, maybe a Christmas cantata: go! Take your kids, take your spouse, go with some friends, just go, immerse yourself in the story and message of the season. And tell everyone you know! If you want to share the reason for the season with the world, the best way to do it isn’t by putting a Nativity scene in front of the local court house; it’s by telling friends and acquaintances what Christmas means to you and inviting them to come be a part of that with you. 

  • If you’re worried that the Christian celebration of Christmas is being taken over by secular, consumerist interests and being reduced to a generic time of ‘joy’ and ‘peace’, winter, and presents, then do something different in your household. Some people refuse to let Santa Claus or songs about him in their home; I guess that’s one way of doing it. I had something more drastic, and arguably more appropriate, in mind. Downplay Christmas gifts. If you want your children to see the meaning of Christmas and take that meaning with them to the Christmas celebrations of the next generation, don’t cloud their vision with presents. Keep it simple: just give one or two things. Don’t let the Walmart or Toys’R’Us catalogs that come in the mail rule your December. Gifts are fun, but if they’re distracting get rid of them. Or reorient them. There are plenty of ways you can give during Christmas time while also reflecting God’s purposes in sending Jesus. Watch for angel trees and a chance to give to people who don’t have the financial means to celebrate Christmas this year. Trade your Target catalog for a World Vision catalog: in it you’ll find the opportunity to give livestock, clean water, jackets, or school supplies (among other things!) to people around the planet who need them. Practices like that can change the way Christmas is celebrated in your life. 

  • If you're worried about the holiday losing it's holiness, one safeguard is don’t listen to anyone in the media, left-wing or right-wing, talking about this. Some conservative voices will just make you afraid of vague threats to the future of society and paint over-simplified targets on large, diverse groups of people who aren’t actually all out to get you. On the other hand, some liberal voices, like a Jon Stewart, will only make you callous to so many people’s honest concerns and cynical about their supposed naivety. None of this is good; none of this is Christian. If you really want to spend time concerning yourself with this issue, spend your time praying about it. Or maybe try to find someone who has a different view than you and be his friend, ask him what he thinks about it and why. Having differences and not going to war over them may offer him the best Christmas witness he’ll ever see.

Monday, December 03, 2012

peace and the Christmas crazies


8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 
      14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth
           peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Luke 2:8-15

Peace is one of those holiday buzzwords. You’ll find it on the front of countless Christmas cards; you’ll see it in big, red, inflatable letters in your neighbor’s yard. It’s from the story of the angel appearing the shepherds in Luke 2, but it’s vague enough when taken out of context that everyone, Christian or not, can get on board with it. Peace on earth, goodwill towards men! That’s something we can all agree on.

And sometimes it really seems like the Christmas season can bring out the best, most peaceable qualities in all of us. You hear stories about Christmas time in the trenches of World War I, when soldiers, for just one day, would stop fighting, maybe even share some rations together. Of course, on December 26th the bullets would start flying again, and the blood would start flowing again. Maybe the world hasn’t seen the kind of peace the angels were talking about yet.

Personal peace can be hard to find in the Christmas season too. Shopping, decorating, travelling—it can all be pretty stressful, pretty crazy. I’m sure a lot of children miss the peace of Christmas day while they’re speeding from Christmas lunch with Mom’s side of the family to try and catch Christmas dinner with Dad’s folks. Or the kids won’t leave you at peace until they know that you know the difference between this video game and that one, this doll and the other one. There can be all sorts of pressure on us around Christmas.
And maybe it’s not the family and friends we’re celebrating with who deflate our peace. It could be the ones we aren’t celebrating with, the people we’ve already had our last Christmas with. The ghosts seem to wake up around the holidays, stirring memories and making old woes new again. There’s just no peace to be had.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…
Where’s the peace to be found?

I have no doubt that the peace we couldn’t find in the trenches is going to elude us until Christ’s second Advent to the world, when all things are made new, and all wars cease. That’s the day when the ghosts and loss will finally fall silent too—when we’ll know the peace of eternal life, with no more mourning or crying or pain, and all of God’s people will worship Him together in the Kingdom. There is some peace that only Jesus can really bring. And he will.

But what about that special Christmas busyness and anxiety? What about the personal peace this holiday above all can wrestle away from us?

One of the great devotional books in all Church history is The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. In the book, during a long, imaginary dialogue between Jesus and a disciple, Christ offers to teach “the way of true peace” to his followers. He goes on:
Try, my child, to do the will of another rather than your own. Always choose to have fewer riches rather than more. Always seek the lowest place and desire to be subject to all. Always wish for and pray that the will of God be accomplished in you. Such a person enters into the abode of true peace and inward rest.

This Christmas season, I hope you can find some peace. Not in presents or good food, or even in loving company, but in following Jesus—denying yourself, taking up the cross, and following. On that road, whatever else happens, you can know that your real aims and desires are being fulfilled. God’s using you as a light to the world. Give all your other worries and fears and anxieties to Jesus. Then you can rest easy in the busyness and hurry because none of the Christmas crazy will keep the Father from using you to shine that light of his love and peace to others.

Monday, November 26, 2012

God is actually quite Great: Father Damien

This series is my attempt to show the online world something I believe wholeheartedly: the Christian life can be quite beautiful. Despite what you've heard, religion does not poison everything, and I can believe this so confidently because of stories like this one.

At age 18, Jozef De Veuster declared his intention to enter the priesthood. Five years later, in the midst of his seminary studies, Jozef, who had taken the name Damien, saw the answer to a long-time prayer: he had the opportunity to enter the mission field. The following year, 1864, Damien completed the long trip from his homeland of Belgium to Hawaii.

After years of working on the island of Oahu, Damien was one of four priests who volunteered to serve on the island on Molokai, on the Kalaupapa peninsula, where for several years Hawaiians afflicted with Hansen's disease, leprosy, were forcibly relocated to live in quarantine, isolated from the general population of the islands. From the 1860s to the 1960s, thousands were torn from their families and homes to live here, without much assistance from the government, without law enforcement or schools, many without housing. Damien soon requested a permanent assignment in Molokai.
During his time there, Father Damien dedicated himself wholly to serving this suffering, discarded people. During the day he traveled the peninsula, seeing to its 800 residents who usually had no doctors and no nurses--Damien performed operations on those who needed them, dressed wounds, washed bandages (because there were no clean ones), and dug graves. At night Father Damien continued construction of a church building begun earlier by a visiting priest, hoping to provide shelter to the many in danger of catching pneumonia, because they had no refuge during the rainy season. He also rescued many children from forced servitude and prostitution in this area, where isolation had often resulted in lawlessness and abuse within the community.

More remarkable than all of this, however, was Father Damien's embrace of those whom society had feared and rejected. His home was always open to whomever would visit. Individuals who were deemed both physically and morally unclean--'afflicted with this disease because of their sins'--he treated as brothers and sisters, sharing meals together, enjoying one another's company. Damien saw these lepers as human beings, something many had failed to recognize. He erected no barriers between himself and them, allowed for no distinctions or division.
After of twelve years of such openness and friendship, Damien discovered what he had long suspected, that he himself had contracted leprosy. In the five years left to him, the priest saw many of his building projects in the villages of Kalaupapa completed and was comforted in the knowledge that several individuals who had joined his work would carry it on in his stead. In 1889, at the age of 49, Father Damien died of leprosy. Before his death, Damien requested that his remains be interred at the parish church in his new homeland of Molokai.

Damien's 25 years of service in Hawaii has, in the century since, inspired thousands around the globe to seek out and serve outcasts who suffered from stigmatized diseases. In 2009, Damien himself would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church: Saint Damien of Molokai.

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Earlier profiles in the "God is actually quite Great" series:

Maria Skobtsova
Churches that raided slave ships
Annalena Tonelli

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

a Thanksgiving prayer


O Lord our God, the author and giver of all good things,
  we thank you for all your mercies,
  and for your loving care over all your creatures.
We bless you for the gift of life, for your protection round about us,
  for your guiding hand upon us,
  and for the tokens of your love within us.
We thank you for friendship and duty,
  for good hopes and precious memories, for the joys that cheer us,
  and the trials that teach us to trust in you.
Most of all we thank you
  for the saving knowledge of your Son our Savior,
  for the living presence of your Spirit, the Comforter,
  for your Church, the body of Christ,
  for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and all the means of grace.
In all these things, O heavenly Father,
  make us wise for a right use of your benefits,
  that we may render an acceptable thanksgiving unto you all the days of our lives;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(The United Methodist Book of Worship, 553)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Whose gospel? Which version?


Does any remember the hubbub in the news a couple of months back about the ancient papyrus that was discovered that seemed to refer to Jesus having a wife? That was all the rage in the media for a week or so. I think one or two church-goers asked me about it before we all collectively forgot it ever happened.

Frankly, this sort of news is hardly new. In the decades after Jesus was crucified and resurrected and the church emerged on the scene, the gospels we know well--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--were written. A few decades later, John was written. For the New Testament, that's the end of the story, but the gospel-writing industry was really just getting started. The second century AD (the 100s) saw a host of extra gospels that were to be rejected by orthodox Christians, like the 'infancy gospels' that describe Jesus as a child, the "Gospel of Thomas," or the "Gospel of Judas" that made its own splash in the news a few years back.

This mess of non-canonical gospels that has turned up over the years gives some people the jitters. After all, who's to say which ones are more accurate? Maybe some of these other writings give us a truer picture of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings than the gospels in the New Testament--however different the picture may be. A lot of people will argue that, and the folks covering it in the news eat this kind of thing up.

Well, like my pastor growing up used to say, there's a Greek word for that: bologna.

Philip Jenkins, a well-respected church historian, has written a great, short piece on why this is bologna. Jenkins offers a quick discussion of why the early Christians acknowledged the authority of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but slighted these other writings about Jesus.
I'll give you a hint: it's not because they were trying to cover up the fact that Jesus had a wife.

Check it out over at The Anxious Bench. Here I'll just leave you with a bit from Jenkins:

[T]hese early Christian texts vary enormously in authority, and in date... the reason early church leaders privileged those particular four gospels was that they were so evidently the earliest and most authoritative texts, without serious competition. No body of cranky patriarchs sat around and said, “Well, we have to vote out Mary because it’s, um, a tad sexual. John can stay because it spiritualizes everything, and that’ll be useful in a century or so when we get political power.” If you read the actual church debates over which texts should be canonized or excluded, you will be deeply impressed by the historical logic and good sense they demonstrate, and their powerful sense of history and chronology.

Monday, November 05, 2012

a prayer for election day

A prayer for the US elections tomorrow, from Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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Almighty and gracious God:
You are the source of every blessing, the judge of every nation and the hope of earth and heaven.
We pray to you on the eve of this important national election.

Call to mind the best that is within us: that we live under God, that we are indivisible, that out of many, we are one, that liberty and justice extend to all.

We acknowledge the sin that runs through our history as a nation: the displacement of native peoples, the disregard for life, racial injustice, economic inequity, regional separation.

And yet we profess a deep and abiding gratitude for the goodness of ordinary people who have made sacrifices, who have sought opportunities, who have journeyed to this land as immigrants
and strengthened its promise in successive generations, who have found freedom on these shores, and defended this freedom at tremendous cost.

Be with us in the days that are near.
Remind us that your ways are not our ways, that your power and might transcend every nation, that you are not mocked.

Let those who follow your Son Jesus Christ be a peaceable people in the midst of division.
Give us a passion for peace, justice and freedom that breaks down walls of political partisanship.

Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour and the living of these days.

Amen.

Monday, October 29, 2012

C. S. Lewis says: Give

I have a C. S. Lewis Bible.

Yes, like the Young Mother's Bible or the Golfer's Bible or the Wesley Study Bible... well hopefully more like the Wesley Study Bible.

Throughout the C. S. Lewis Bible are selections from Lewis's writing that are meant to compliment the scripture passages, so that he can serve as your "companion" as you read and spur on some reflection on what you're reading. Sometimes the Lewis excerpts are duds; sometimes they dazzle like fireworks and ignite your imagination.

As I was reading 2 Corinthians recently, I stumbled onto a nice selection from Mere Christianity that I wanted to pass along. It is meant to accompany 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, where we hear the familiar words, "God loves a cheerful giver." Read the passage, and then let Mr. Lewis challenge you and stimulate your own reflections.

I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them. I am speaking not of "charities" in the common way. Particular cases of distress among your own relatives, friends, neighbours, or employees, which God, as it were, forces upon your notice, may demand much more: even to the crippling and endangering of your own position. For many of us, the great obstacle to charity lies not in our luxurious living or desire for more money, but in our fear--fear of insecurity. This must often be recognised as a temptation. Sometimes our pride also hinders our charity; we are tempted to spend more than we ought on the showy forms of generosity (tipping, hospitality) and less than we ought on those who really need our help.

Mere Christianity, book 3, chapter 3

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why are we talking about animals?


I thought it might be helpful to follow up last week's post on "eating mercifully" with a straightforward explanation of why I'm dedicating so much time on the blog and in the church right now to animals. After all, this isn't something that many Christians talk about--in fact, this probably isn't even on the radar for most of the serious, dedicated believers I know. Why, then, am I placing such an emphasis on the issue on the wardrobe and in the ministries at Grace UMC?
I've gone into these questions before, but this time I hope to be a little more direct and clearer than I have been up to now.

One of the best places to start thinking about all of this, in my mind, is with Isaiah, particularly his descriptions of the culmination of all God's saving work in the coming restoration of Israel (Isa 11) and the new heavens and new earth (Isa 65). According to the prophet, God's final victory doesn't just concern humanity but the animals as well. The point is illustrated clearly in 65:25, but 11:6-8 offers the most striking picture. In this coming kingdom:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

I remember the first time I taught a Bible study on this passage with a group of Southern Baptist students at LSU:  everyone was more or less dumbfounded. When all you're told growing up is that human souls will go to heaven or hell after death, depending on how they responded to the gospel of Jesus in this life--and this is the fundamental message of the Christian faith--the sudden suggestion that God desires to redeem the animals too seems... well, strange. Yet this is the picture Isaiah paints so vividly. The animals have been reconciled to one another, with predator and prey living together in peace. And there is reconciliation between these creatures and their human neighbors--even the enmity between humanity and the serpent that has existed ever since the Fall (Gen 3:14-15) has been healed. God's plan is to end the fear and violence that drive creaturely co-existence in our world, to heal all of the broken relationships between all of his creatures. That's Isaiah's vision.

Moving to the New Testament, another important passage to consider in all of this is Colossians 1:15-20. At the close of this hymn on Christ, Paul declares, "through [Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross." God has acted to reconcile all things to himself, it says. Some Christians believe that this is talking about universalism--that this means God is going to save every man, woman, and child who ever lived. "All." I can't go that far, because that idea seems to contradict a lot of other things in the Bible, but the universalists are right about one thing: this has to mean something, and we need to take Paul's words seriously. In light of Isaiah, I think at very least we need to acknowledge that 'all things in heaven or on earth' surely includes the animals. Paul captures Isaiah's grand vision in a phrase; animals have a place in God's saving and reconciling plan. As the psalmist writes, "you save man and beast alike, O Lord" (Ps 36:6).
Paul's discussion of the groaning of creation in Romans 8:18-25 is another clear indicator of God's plan for his other creatures, but I'll leave that one for you to explore on your own. Even without looking at that (or the talk about God's other creatures in the Psalms, or the role of animals in the book of Jonah, or Jesus' teachings on animals--I could go on), it's clear from scripture that God has a plan for the animals--there is more to them than you might be tempted to think. Animals are important to God.

And they ought to be important to us too.

I don't just mean our pets or the critters at the local shelter we can try and help. I mean any and all animals: beasts of burden (Proverbs 12:10), the creatures living in your yard, the pets we take into our homes, the animals who die so you can have meat for dinner. Christians need to learn to living in the world with these animals in ways that reflect God's plan and God's love for them. Wherever animals are abused or cruelly treated, Christians must be ready to act, whether that's in our own living room or in the factory 'farms' that produce our steaks. The gospel calls us to faithfulness here, no less than in the areas we're used to hearing about, like helping our neighbors in need, honoring our parents, speaking the truth, or resisting violence.

It would be easier to just overlook the implications of all this for our eating habits. Taking the animals you eat into consideration, thinking about how they lived, how they were treated, requires a lot of research and intentionality. And it takes money--milk from happy cows costs a lot more than your average gallon of milk. Yet we cannot simply ignore the issue. As theologian Norman Wirzba writes:
If the scope of God's reconciling work extends to the whole creation, then it becomes evident that eating, understood as our most intimate joining with the bodies of creation, must be a primary site and means through which this reconciliation becomes visible. In our eating we are not simply to be reconciled to fellow human eaters. We must also be reconciled to what we eat. How we prepare to eat, as well as the character of the eating itself, demonstrates whether or not we appreciate the wide scope of God's reconciling ways with the world.

Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, 175 (italics added)

Every action you take in life can either be an expression of your faith... or not. What you eat can say a lot about what you believe. So how are we going to live? What are we going to eat? Will our lives testify to the gospel of the God who is reconciling all things to himself? These are questions we must ask ourselves. Because our Lord is calling, and however surprising it might be, all of this is a part of that call to follow Christ. God cares about the animals, and we should too.

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For another nice piece on faithful treatment of the Earth's animals, check out Scott Higgins's "How We Treat Animals Matters."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Eating Mercifully in practice

 
A few months back I wrote a post about eating--more specifically about the creatures that provide us with meat, how they are treated, and why we should care. I think it's safe to say the average American consumer today is totally disconnected from the process that brings him food: we simply go to the store and bring home some meat. In this system, animals are really nothing more than a commodity, there to meet our demand for 99¢ hamburgers or discount chicken. The problem with this is that animals are not a commodity; they're creatures, just like we are (Job 40:15). They were fashioned by the Creator who called them "good" (Gen 1:20-25) and whom they worship in their own ways (Ps 96:11-13; 98:7; 148:7-12). Christians ought to acknowledge and reflect this truth in the way we relate to animals, especially the animals we eat. This isn't an issue of animal rights; they have none, and so it is entirely up to us to exercise our power over them in appropriate, merciful ways.

[The video from the Humane Society of the United States that inspired the first post, "Eating Mercifully," can be viewed in full on their website here.]

But how do we 'eat mercifully'? How can we practice being more gracious and grateful eaters--doing right by these fellow creatures that sacrifice their lives to sustain us?
These are questions I hoped you might come away from the first post considering. Now I want to offer a few suggestions. Emily and I are still new to all of this ourselves. But, we have learned a few things in the months since we started thinking seriously about what kind of food products we wanted to consume, and what follows are four of the most basic and most important things that we've learned along the way.

1) Go to the farmer's market. Almost every community has one, and this is a fantastic way to making sweeping changes to your patterns of consumption. At farmer's markets you get to support local farmers, you have access to meat from animals that lived in more natural settings--away from the oppressive mechanization, apathy, and terror of the factory farming system--and you can learn about your food, how the animals lived and were treated, straight from the people who raised these creatures and cared for them. The advantages are enormous. You can also find eggs and dairy products at the farmer's market, again, with knowledge of the source, instead of the milk that comes from who-knows-where and only God knows what animals that we find in stores.
Make no mistake: the food will be more expensive. Sometimes the difference won't be as much as you expected; sometimes it will be substantial. That's unavoidable if you want to get meat or eggs from chickens that don't live short and painful lives in a space too cramped for moving, standing (if they can stand at all) on trembling legs that were not designed to hold the growth-hormone fueled bulk of their bodies. That's the reality for most chickens we eat. The extra expense is unavoidable if you want to be a more gracious consumer and avoid these kinds of situations.

2) But you don't always have to go to the farmer's market to get more conscientious meat or dairy products. Certain chain stores will also carry some local products. The most obvious example is Whole Foods, though not every community has access to a Whole Foods. That's fine. The local Kroger in Durham, NC carried glass bottles of milk from local dairy farms, the same stuff you get from Whole Foods (not to mention the local strawberries, honey, and all sorts of other things). Check your normal grocercy stores; find out what they have. You may have more choices than you realize.
And local is hardly your only option! There are all sorts of meat companies that are concerned about their animals' well-being and can be found at stores around the country. Dakota Beef is available at Targets and Harris Teeter stores in several states. One of the gems that has turned up at our local Walmart in Natchez, MS is Promised Land milk, that comes from free-ranging Jersey cows. Again, this stuff is more expensive--the milk will usually cost twice as much as the Walmart brand--but that just comes with the territory.

3) A number of meat companies have begun to provide convenient information on the sources of their products. Dakota Beef is a good example: their website has information on the standards for their cattle and the ranches they live on. Other companies go further. Applegate Farms features "Barn Codes" on their meat products which you can enter online and will take you to a video about the source of the meat you purchased. (And you can order Applegate products directly from the company online!)
Opportunities for informed shopping are becoming more and more common. Take advantage of them!

4) The most important practice for eating more graciously that we have learned is also the simplest: reduce the amount of meat that you're eating. Americans eat more meat than we need. On average, we each eat 75 additional pounds of meat a year now compared to 40 years ago--that's about an extra pound and a half a week. It's just unnecessary.
Reducing the amount of meat you're consuming will also help off-set the price of buying the more expensive, more conscientiously produced meat and dairy products. Of course you'll still end up spending more every week on groceries, buying whatever it is that will replace the excess meat you're consuming now, but no one said eating mercifully would mean eating cheaply. Not that these changes have to be expensive! You can get a complete protein from eating beans and rice, and these are two of the cheapest things you can get at the store. And I speak from experience when I say that, with some extra seasoning, red beans and rice is none the worse without sausage.

These four points are only a handful of the things we have learned in the last few months. But rather than going on and on about our own discoveries, I thought I'd leave you with an article from the Huffington Post Emily and I have found extremely helpful: "Avoiding Factory Farm Food: An Eater's Guide." It's a couple of years old now, but this piece is still chock-full of tips, wisdom, and good information. Check it out!

Monday, October 08, 2012

blessing the animals

Sunday at Grace Church in Natchez we held our annual Blessing of the Animals service, where we celebrate all the creatures God has made, and folks are invited to bring their pets to receive a blessing.
I know these services, which seem to be popping up all over the place, can be a little puzzling to a lot of Christians. 'Blessing the animals'? What is that all about? What has that got to do with the gospel or the great commission?
Well, I happen to believe it actually has a lot to do with the gospel--and the great commission!

The gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord, and that one day he will return to heal the world, right all wrongs, make all things new, and sit enthroned as Lord over his creation forever. On the cross and in the resurrection Jesus broke the power of the two great enemies of his reign, sin and death, which have worked throughout history to poison the creatures God made.
One of the ways sin and death have marred the world is in the violence and conflict that has developed between humanity and God's other creatures, especially the animals. According to the book of Genesis, humanity's relation to the animals was meant to be one of peaceful co-existence and interaction (Gen 2:18-20), but after sin entered the world this relationship was eventually destroyed (Gen 3:15; 9:1-3).
As with all the other effects of sin, the gospel teaches us that Jesus came to undo this damage, to repair this relationship. Just as the Old Testament prophets taught (Isaiah 11:1-9; 65:17-25; Hosea 2:18), through Jesus God ultimately intends to restore humanity's relationship to the beasts, to change it from a relationship of strife to one of blessing, like it was between Adam and the other creatures in the beginning. No more conflict or bloodshed, but peace, and companionship.

Like I said in worship Sunday morning, I think that the popular story of Christian the Lion is a beautiful picture of God's intention to heal our relationship with the animals. If you've never heard this tale, see the YouTube video below--it's well worth your time.


Maybe this kind of peace and reconciliation between creatures so often at war with each other--just consider this CNN article from last week--is what Jesus had in mind in Mark 16:15. This is Mark's rendition of the Great Commission, but instead of the "all nations" we're familiar with in Matthew 28, here Jesus tell his disciples to "go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." This is news for all of God's creatures!
Does this mean we should literally preach the gospel to birds, like St. Francis is supposed to have done? I don't know about that... but I do believe that the Blessing of the Animals service (usually held, appropriately, on the feast of St. Francis) is one way that Christians can cling to the gospel promise of a coming healing for all of God's creatures and one way that we can share this good news with the animals, fulfilling the commission in Mark.
The healing work God has in store is still ahead. We can't expect to simply start living differently with wild animals--even heart-warming stories like Christian's are more complicated than they seem--but praying God's blessing over the animals is one thing we can do now, in the midst of this broken relationship, to show our faith in, and dedication to, God's plan.

So this weekend at Grace, in keeping with the scope of God's redeeming work and with Christ's commission to bring good news to all creatures, we did this Blessing of the Animals. And we're doing some more things throughout the month of October! Here on the blog, I'll be offering posts that go along with all of that. I hope that the next few weeks will give the folks at Grace Church a chance to really get their hands dirty with the work of living alongside God's other creatures in a way that is faithful, and these few weeks will give everyone reading the wardrobe an opportunity to think long and hard about what God is up to in the world--because the gospel is bigger than we sometimes think.

Monday, October 01, 2012

God's standard for the political leader

Justin Fung has written a tremendous article for God's Politics on how Christians ought to live during election season. It's a powerful call to grace, humility, civility, careful reflection, and prayer--I encourage everyone to check it out: "6 Suggestions for Christians for Engaging in Politics."

In it, while discussing the relation of politics and the Bible, Justin points to Jeremiah 22, where the prophet delivers a word from the Lord to the king of Judah. There is one, unambiguous imperative for the king: "Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place" (22:3). This is the call of Yhwh that the entire fate of the dynasty rests on--this is the standard for God's kings. If you want to assess a government, you need to look at the foreigners, orphans, and widows in the land, and you need to consider if the poor are oppressed or the weak harmed. That's the measure of a nation's leaders.
Justin suggests that against this standard neither of our major presidential candidates measures up particularly well. You'll have to judge that for yourself... but the point is, you will have to judge that before November. Whatever else you think of the candidates, their visions for caring for the needy and vulnerable in America, their track records in this regard, this is what our God is concerned with above all else, and it ought to be our concern as well.

I'm also grateful that this article brought a new documentary to my attention, The Line, a short film from Sojourners, World Vision, Bread for the World, Oxfam America, and the Christian Community Development Association. The Line seeks to show us that poverty in America is real, and it might look very different than you expect. The movie tells the stories of some normal Americans, folks who could live next door to you, or could be friends of yours, who live at or below the poverty line--and not because they won't take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

You can watch the trailer below, and the full film is online at thelinemovie.com.


As the media milks the upcoming election for all that it's worth and reports on whatever issues it chooses, Christians have a responsibility to consider first of all how their votes will effect the poorest in our country. The issues are complicated and there are a lot of different ways people will try to address them, so take time to read up, listen to different positions, and prayerfully consider your options. To say this is important would be an understatement. This is the Christian life.

And, again, you can check out Justin Fung's great little piece here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

comic books and caring for creation

In the Natchez community lately there's been a lot of talk about the need to educate folks about recycling--you hear this call in the newspaper every few days, it seems. Well I'm all for education on environmental issues, and so I've come up with the strangest, most roundabout way I could of talking about it.

In the early 1970s, writers at DC Comics, home of icons like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, created a character called the Swamp Thing.
Swamp Thing, as the story goes, was a brilliant young scientist, Alec Holland, who, through complicated circumstances, an explosion, and a lot of chemicals, was transformed into a giant vegetable-creature. The Swamp Thing led a typical comic book monster life, facing off against vampires, zombies, and the like, rescuing damsels in distress, being misunderstood, and occasionally rubbing shoulders with some proper superheroes.

terrible rubber suit

Over the years this comic monster grew in popularity which blossomed into the absolute low-point of Swamp Thing’s career, a lame 1980s B-film, complete with an awkward beauty-and-the-beast romance and a man in a terrible rubber suit.

Stay with me here.

A couple of years after this cinematic monstrosity, DC decided to give the plant-man a facelift. They offered the writing position on The Saga of The Swamp Thing to a young, talented Brit named Alan Moore, who went on to imagine some of the finest and most interesting stories and characters printed by DC in almost a century of publication. By the mid-80s, Swamp Thing was one of the most respected and popular titles in the comic book world.

One of the more subtle but fundamental changes that Moore made to the comic had to do with the character’s origin story. For years, the Swamp Thing had longed to recover his human form, to return to his life as Alec Holland—this was a running theme in the stories. Under Alan Moore’s pen, however, the character made a startling discovery: he wasn’t actually Alec Holland at all, and he never was. The Swamp Thing was a purely vegetable entity that had absorbed the memories of the long diseased scientist in the sci-fi chemical-explosion scenario mentioned above.
The Swamp Thing was no longer a man trying to cope with life in the body of a vegetable-monster; now the Swamp Thing was a plant trying to understand and endure the habits of the human beings surrounding him. The whole orientation of the character’s experiences was flipped on its head. It was no longer a story about a man—it became the story of a vegetable (still with the occasional vampire, zombie, or superhero, of course).

I really appreciate this move on Moore’s part because, oddly enough, you can find a similar move in the Bible.
What do I mean? Well, take Psalm 104, for example. The psalm-writer goes on for verses about the natural world without much mention of us at all:
You put gushing springs into dry riverbeds. They flow between the mountains, providing water for every wild animal--the wild donkeys quench their thirst. Overhead, the birds in the sky make their home, chirping loudly in the trees. The Lord's trees are well watered--the cedars of Lebanon, which God planted, where the birds make their nests, where the stork has a home in the cypresses. Lord, you have done so many things! You made them all so wisely! The earth is full of your creations! Let the Lord's glory last forever! Let the Lord rejoice in all he has made!
Psalm 104:10-12, 16-17, 24, 31

It's a long psalm, and I had to leave out so much, so check it out for yourself. But the point is, the Lord rejoices in all he has made, all the creatures that fill his earth. He tends to each, supplying the needs of all (104:27-28). Creation has its own relation to God, apart from humanity. The story of this world isn't just a story about men: its a story about vegetables too, and animals--they have their own plot line, their own roles, and their own peculiar importance in the eyes of God. 

It seems to me that Christians, if they talk about it at all, usually talk about the diversity of life on this planet in one of two ways. Either these creatures have been provided by God to meet our needs, as resources for humanity, or they are here under our care, and human beings are stewards of the creatures around us. The problem is, both of these views define creation in terms of humanity. It’s a story about human beings and how we relate to the creatures around us. This is all true, but we can't stop here. As we see in the psalm, this is not the only story the scriptures tell. The trees of the forest shout out for joy before God (Ps 96:12)! The Lord made the great creatures of the ocean, not for us to hunt or domesticate, but just so they could play in the water (Ps. 104:26)!
You don't have to talk about humanity to talk about creation--it’s not all about us. God enjoys the good world that he created, and the creatures of that world worship God in their own ways (see Ps 148:7-12). And it has gone on this way for quite a while. Both the book of Genesis and the natural sciences witness to the truth that the world was full of plants long before humanity came along—we are latecomers to creation, and creation can get along just fine without us. The Creator enjoys his world, and the world enjoys its Creator, with or without us. 

This fact should change the way we treat God’s world. Christians need to live on this planet in ways that don't interrupt the praise the rivers and mountains offer to the Lord (Ps 98:8), ways that won't make the lion's roar a cry of lament (Ps 104:21). Steps we take to preserve the world's ecosystems, recycling, fighting pollution, all of these things you've heard a thousand times, these steps really do matter. The story of God's world isn't just a story of men and women. It's a story about moles and pumpkins, orchids and cypress trees, and their own relationships with their God. As servants of this God we have opportunities--and a responsibility--to acknowledge that story every day, in all of our consumption and habits and the smallest decisions. Yes, including recycling.

Monday, September 17, 2012

B.I.B.L.E.?

In church growing up I remember hearing an acronym that we all thought was pretty good. The Bible is the B.I.B.L.E.: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
It’s catchy—I can remember it now, a decade later. It made good sense, too. We receive guidance through the scriptures for our life on this Earth, until the day God takes us home, away from here. And that was definitely the goal, getting away of here, to be with God. We were heaven-bound.

The problem is, my B.I.B.L.E. tells a very different story than the one we were all caught up in, the story about getting by through the trials of life and looking for God to save us from this temporary, material pit stop.
The message of the Bible isn't about escaping Earth to an eternity in heaven. It's actually just the opposite! At the end of the story, we see the holy city descending out of heaven, and we hear that "the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them" (Rev 21:3). This isn't the story of a rescue from the material universe God made in the beginning, but the restoration of God's good creation so that He might dwell here, amongst His creatures forever.
That's why the hope for salvation in the Old Testament can often take forms that sound so strange to us. For instance, listen to the prophet Isaiah:
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping by heard in it, or the cry of distress... They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

Isaiah 65:17-19, 21-22

This starts off the way you'd expect, new heavens and new earth, no more weeping or distress. That's all well and good. But what's this talk about houses and vineyards?
No, seriously... why the houses and vineyards? Why is Isaiah concerned with economic justice in his vision of eternity? Because spending eternity with God is not about running off to heaven--it's about God dwelling with us on a world made new, a world set right. God is not giving up on the Earth, but making a new heavens and a new Earth, cured of the diseases tormenting our world, even the social injustices we see around us. It's a new Earth. That's Isaiah's vision.
And that's the New Testament vision too: "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying... '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'" (Rev 21:1, 3, 4). We don't leave Earth for heaven: heaven comes to Earth. Earth is made whole.

And the most exciting part is that this new creation work of God's has already begun!
In Jesus' Resurrection we see God's first act of giving new life, of delivering from the power of Death. In Easter Sunday we see the new beginning, the first day of the week, when God is creating again: a new heavens and a new earth. It all starts with Jesus.
And from Jesus the new-creation fire spreads. "If anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Cor 5:17) The Church is the community of people God is making new in Jesus, the people called to put on the new self (Eph 4:24). And as God's ambassadors on Earth, we get to share the news that a very new day has begun to dawn. More than that, as the Holy Spirit works through us, God's new work touches the world even now--the Church is a little colony of newness. Obviously there's still work to be done; that will always be the case until God thunders: "See, I am making all things new" (Rev 21:5). We can't bring in the Kingdom ourselves, but in Christ our work is not in vain either (1 Cor 15:58).

That's what is so treacherous about the idea I grew up with, the idea that God wants to take us to heaven and wash his hands of everything here below: it whispers that the work is in vain. It distracts Christians from, calls them away from, God's new-creation mission, holding before us an other-worldly hope that's so much less than what our Lord has in mind. All the while, the Triune God wants to transform us and to transform the world through us.

That is what my B.I.B.L.E. says.

Monday, September 10, 2012

reflections on a nerdy trip



Emily and I spent Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, at an event called Dragon*Con. Dragon*Con is a gathering of fans from all over the country—nerdy fans. Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek; fans of comic books and fantasy novels; fans of anything nerdy that you can imagine. The convention is filled with special events, like celebrity meet-and-greets, panels featuring the stars of different TV shows, and gladiatorial combat between people’s homemade robots, you name it. Oh, and it’s filled with people, to the tune of 40-50,000, all crammed into four major hotels in downtown Atlanta, when they’re not clogging the sidewalks and restaurants all around. Did I mention that almost half of these people are in costumes? This is the recipe for first-rate nerdy thrills, and Emily and I had a great time.

Since you’re here, you’ll have noticed that I’m a blogger and bloggers can’t go to something like this without turning around and writing about it.
Nien Nunb
So, here we go: Four Things I Learned At Dragon*Con
  1.  At a nerdy convention, you should never be surprised by who you bump into when you turn a corner. Like Nien Nunb.
  2. I have a new appreciation for that phrase you encounter throughout the gospels “the crowds.” The crowds followed him, the crowds pressed in around him, etc. I spent a long weekend walking amongst the crowds. I have a new appreciation for the disciple’s exasperated question: “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” (Mark 5:31) At times, you could barely take two steps without bumping into someone’s lightsaber, tripping over some clown shoes, or stopping with the traffic as people ahead of you paused to have a photo-op with Batman or Professor Snape. Oh, and escalators were not designed for “the crowds.”
  3. Some of the things I learned at Dragon*Con were more surprising. I learned that people want to be involved in something good, something that helps others. There was a blood drive going on during the convention, and people came out in droves to give. Gamers, superheroes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you could find them all at the blood drive center. At last count, over 3,200 people had contributed. People didn’t go to Atlanta to give blood; yet the prospect of helping someone in dire need, of saving a life (up to three lives, they told us), of making a difference, drew a lot of folks. People want to take part in something good, something that can change a life.
  4. And people want to be a part of a community. A lot of people at Dragon*Con talk about how, more than anything else, the community and camaraderie that they experience there really make the event. There’s a very special sense of like-mindedness there. One fellow told me that seeing all of the people come together like that gave him hope for the human race. A lot of people are looking for a community, a place to belong, a place where there’s not division and hostility but honest fellowship.

The last two things really struck me.
It should be pretty clear why. The Church is meant to be a place where people are involved in something good, something that can change lives. The Church is meant to be a community where there’s no division, no hostility, but like-mindedness and sincere fellowship. If people are drawn to these things, crave these things, shouldn’t people be drawn to, crave, the life of the Church?
And while some people are drawn to the Body of Christ like that, many are not—many of the people at Dragon*Con are not.

Why?

Really, why? What is it that the Church is not doing, how is it that we’re falling short of our purpose? What perceptions of the Body do people outside have that obscure or overshadow whatever else we may be and do?

And how can we change this? What do we need to be doing to make apparent the new kind of life that God is calling us to? Because people are drawn to goodness and love, selflessness; people are drawn to authentic welcomes and genuine interest, impartiality—the things the Church is called to be and do. How can we show these people that they can find what they’re looking for in Jesus and in the community he called together, the community God energizes with his Holy Spirit?

Why do you think people are not drawn to your church? What has your congregation done to try and make the Body of Christ more visibly faithful before the world around you? What can you do?

Monday, September 03, 2012

Robin Parry on the church

Worshipping Trinity by Robin Parry, who keeps an interesting (and quirky) blog at Theological Scribbles, is a really insightful little book that is full of good, brief discussions of different issues in Christian belief. As I read the book, though, maybe my favorite moment came when Robin talked about the "John Wayne Christianity" that he grew up with and that so many embrace today. This is a faith that focuses on my relationship with God, my personal Lord and Savior Jesus, my worship experience, and on and on. Christianity is about a man and his God, and the deep intimacy between the two. Church is only for the weaker Christians, who still need encouragement from others. It's certainly not central to what Christianity is.
Maybe you've heard this before.

The only problem is, none of it is true.

This view of the Christian life is up a creek without a paddle and is the spiritual equivalent of handing a drowning man a concrete life jacket! The church is not simply a club of like-minded people who meet until they are strong enough to go it alone. Nor is it about being part of a social club of like-minded individuals. Being a Christian is all about being part of God's community. The church is the family of God sharing one Father, the body and bride of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. God's plan has never been to save lots of individuals who will all relate to him individually with 'Jaayy-zus' as their personal saviour! God's plan has always been to create a human community of people who love God and love each other. That is what humanity was all about in creation. That is what God's new humanity of Israel was all about. That is what the church, God's transformed end-time Israel, is all about. Being a Christian just is being part of that new humanity in Christ. (53-54)

Monday, August 27, 2012

What would Jesus eat?

This past week the news broke that, for the seventh year in a row, the state of Mississippi boasts the highest obesity rate in the nation.

As a pastor, I want to say loud and clear: this is a bad thing. We need to eat better.

I know, I know. If you know me, your first thought was probably: 'easy for you to say, Nance. You weigh like 50 lbs'. It's true, I fall far, far short of the statistical standard for obesity. But that's on account of my zesty, youthful metabolism. My weight doesn't necessarily mean I eat better than everyone else. We're all in this together. One day my metabolism won't be so youthful.

And maybe this was your second thought: but why should Christians care about what they eat?
That's not as obvious as you might think--'thou shalt eat healthy' isn't exactly one of the Ten Commandments. And we need to be careful here: the Bible is not a weight loss plan. Some Christians take the story of Daniel and his companions' refusal to eat the Babylonian meat and wine, opting instead for vegetables (Dan 1:8-16), as a special Bible-diet--apparently Rick Warren is trying his hand at this right now--but I think that's a pretty astonishing misapplication of the scripture. The Bible isn't going to offer us a step-by-step guide to every decision in life the way some people would like.
Still, I do think eating healthy is important, and there are a few reasons that I can see why Christians might want to take this seriously.

  • The Bible takes for granted that you will take care of your body (Eph 5:29).
  • Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). This idea can be used in some pretty odd ways--weight-lifting nuts will talk about 'keeping the temple beautiful', tattoos are rejected as vandalism, and whatever else--but still, I think this can at very least mean that we should care for our temple's health.
  • As a Christian, you are not your own; you are Christ's and you are called to be about his work. Eating tasty junk food is a me-decision. It says 'this tastes good, and I want it. And I don't even care about the consequences'. Christians don't get to make me-decisions. Everything is a kingdom decision. Maybe, from time to time, seeking the kingdom of God will mean delighting in the cocoa bean that God created. Most of the time, it probably won't. It will mean putting your own desires to death, taking of the cross, and following Jesus down a hard road. When we squander our resources and bodies on junk, we're disregarding King who has laid claim to our lives.
  • Bodies matter. A lot of us have been taught to think of our flesh and bones as a prison, an island we've been marooned on, and we look to the future, to heaven, where our souls can finally be rid of these bodies. That's not a Christian view of bodies. As we confess in the Apostles' Creed, "we look for the resurrection of the body." Our bodies and our appetites aren't going anywhere: after his Resurrection, Jesus still ate (Luke 24:42-43; it was broiled fish, for those of you really wondering 'what would Jesus eat?'), and we are looking forward to a heavenly banquet, after all! (Matt 8:11, Luke 14:15) We're not going to just get rid of bodies and everything that goes with them after death. God created bodies; they're good and they matter. We need to treat them accordingly.
  • Food matters too. Food, as a professor at seminary liked to say, is God's love made delectable. The food we eat is a gift of grace. If that's true, then, as an interesting article from Christianity Today suggests, "Food that causes our bodies harm misuses and ultimately abuses his gift of grace."
Okay, fine. Maybe my faith has something to do with a healthy diet. So what do we do about that?

There are a lot of issues that play into a problem like obesity, but it's safe to say that how we eat is one of them--a big one.
A lot of the eating tips you always hear are worth repeating: pay attention to the amount of red meat in our diet; cook at home more and eat out less; be intentional about your fruits and veggies.... and veggies. There are lots of really simple changes people can make too, like getting a breakfast cereal made of whole grains instead of marshmallows, or switching from whole milk to 1% (or 2%--baby steps are good!). Exercise is absolutely essential also, of course, but we're talking about food.
Rather than repeat all this sort of stuff that you've heard a hundred times before, I'll pass on a helpful new resource.  The EWG recently produced a guide to getting 'good food on a tight budget', and it's all online here. Their aim is to help people on a $5-6 a day food budget find things that are nutrient rich, free of harmful pesticides, and relatively (very relatively) inexpensive. The price estimates on here don't always seem accurate, but the tips and recommendations are invaluable.
Check it out. Explore the site! It's full of useful information that can help all of us lead a healthier, more Christian, lifestyle.

Do you think Christians need to take care of their bodies and pay attention to what they eat? Why?
What are some ways that you've been able to make your own eating more nutritious?

[For a totally different angle on the question 'what would Jesus eat?', see this older post, "Eating Mercifully." Also, United Methodists might be surprised to learn that health and wellness were an important part of John Wesley's ministry. You can read more about that here.]

Monday, August 20, 2012

billboard wars

I recently saw news of yet another atheist billboard popping up in a major US city, this time Charlotte, NC.

If you missed this one, you can see a picture here. The billboard (with a sister ad which criticizes Mormonism, thereby attacking the faith of both the Republican and the Democratic presidential candidates) describes Christianity briefly: "Sadistic God; Useless Savior; 30,000 + Versions of 'Truth'; Promotes Hate, Calls it 'Love'."
Oh, and there's a picture of a piece of toast with Jesus' face on it.

I'm still not sure what the point of an advertisement like this is. It seems like there are only two things it might accomplish: 1) make Christians angry, or 2) make atheists feel smug and superior to their Christian neighbors. What I don't expect this billboard to accomplish is spur an intelligent and charitable debate about the place of religion in American politics, as seems to be the idea. If there's one thing our political system certainly does not need, it's more vitriol, more mudslinging--no matter how morally or intellectually superior to the opposition you may feel.

The only good that I think might come out of this latest childish display in the atheist billboard-attack on the religions of the world is for Christians to respond by putting up absolutely no billboards of their own. This is our opportunity to exercise turning the other cheek.

You see, I could make a billboard in response. It might say something about atheists lacking any meaningful basis for living an ethical life, or about how hopeless materialism is as a philosophy. Or maybe it might just say that all atheists are ugly booger-faces. (Underneath it could read: "Didn't my billboard make a good point?")
Maybe some Christians will start putting up such billboards--maybe they already have, and it's just not in the news, and I haven't heard about it.

Well, please don't.

Don't join the billboard wars. Let American Atheists (the actual organization sponsoring this and other ads) have a monopoly on the aggressive, simplistic, somewhat confusing (I'm still don't know what "Useless Savior" is supposed to mean--someone help me out here), and offensive billboards. As a follower of Jesus, I don't want any part of it. Frankly, it's too hateful and intellectually dishonest for me. And it's too alluring an opportunity to be sarcastic or just plain unkind.

Instead, let's use our resources--I could do a lot of good with the $15,000 this billboard cost for one month--and our energy to find aggressive and public ways to love the people who are so disgusted by us. Or not so public ways. Jesus' ministry doesn't exactly scream 'billboard' to me. Let's just love them, and bless them. It won't often make the news, but that's okay. It's what the life of faith looks like.

"But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." - Luke 6:27-28

Monday, August 13, 2012

the United Methodist Church on gun control

Unfortunately, it seems like the hubbub about Chick-fil-A lately effectively removed the recent events in Colorado from the public memory. It's not that the one's position on same-sex marriage is unimportant--far from it!--but I think this particular ordeal was blown completely out of proportion on the internet, where everyone's opinions on any topic are usually exaggerated already.
(And, for the record, I don't think this is really the biggest issue Christians need to consider when deciding whether they'll patronize CFA or not. More on that here.)
As a result of all this, we stopped talking about something that's arguably much more important--and something that has already returned to the headlines with last week's shooting at a Sikh temple in Milwaukee. Gun violence is a persistent reality in our country, and we need to face it.

In the wake of bloody killings in Aurora three weeks ago, several voices in the media sought to shine a spotlight on the state of gun control in the US. One of the most insightful pieces I read was by James Martin, a Jesuit, called "Why Gun Control is a Religious Issue." It's an easy read, short and provocative. Basically, Martin wants to make the point that gun control is a "pro-life issue" just as much as abortion, euthanasia, or the death penalty, and so Christians need to "stand for life" on this issue as well.
Another good piece by Fareed Zakaria at CNN, "Time to face facts on gun control," emphasizes the statistics where America leads the world in guns per capita--no one else even comes close--and also boasts a high number of gun homicides. The numbers are not encouraging.

Of course, for a few days, articles arguing one side of the issue or the other were a dime a dozen, and usually (though I don't think this is one of those cases) you can find really compelling cases being made for either side of a polarizing issue like this. Online articles are hardly the end-all in this debate.

So let's turn to a, for some of us, more authoritative voice, and see how it weighs in on the issue. Let's turn to the official statements of the United Methodist Church and see what they have to say about the question of gun control.

One of the most extensive and unambiguous discussions that I found comes from the Book of Resolutions, 2004.
The opening paragraphs feature some strong language, including the call to affirm our faith through "vigorous efforts to curb and eliminate gun violence... A significant total reduction in the numbers of guns in our communities is our goal in ministry." The resolution goes on to argue that "no appeals to individual autonomy are sufficient to justify our church's ignorance of this threat."  The UMC, it goes on to say, is "calling for social policies and personal lifestyles that bring an end to senseless gun violence."
That's all well and good, but what does all of this mean in practice? A look at some of the actual proposals shows us the practical vision behind the more generic statements:

(4) develop advocacy groups within local congregations to advocate for the eventual reduction of the availability of guns in society with a particular emphasis upon handguns, handgun ammunition, assault weapons, automatic weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and guns that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal detection devices. These groups can be linked to community-based, state, and national organizations working on gun and violence issues;
(5) support federal legislation to regulate the importation, manufacturing, sale, and possession of guns and ammunition by the general public. Such legislation should include provisions for the registration and licensing of gun purchasers and owners, appropriate background investigation and waiting periods prior to gun purchase, and regulation of subsequent sale;
(6) call upon all governments of the world in which there is a United Methodist presence to establish national bans on ownership by the general public of handguns, assault weapons, automatic weapon conversion kits, and weapons that cannot be detected by traditionally used metal-detection devices;*

There is more, like talk about education on gun safety, adult responsibility in gun violence prevention, etc. All the same, gun control is clearly the focus. It's also clear that the church is particularly concerned with preventing gun violence among youth, but that doesn't undermine any of the larger practical aims. (You can read all of this and more online here.)

I'm not interested in taking everyone's guns away--and neither is the United Methodist Church. Hunting is a good thing, and you need guns for that. I may not have any use for a handgun in the house, and I may not think Christians ought to have them, but I understand that there are very different philosophies on this, and I certainly wouldn't want to impose my view on this on everyone else through legislation. People should be able to keep a gun in their homes for self-defense, if they like.
But assault rifles? There are limits to my understanding and support of gun ownership, and I honestly can't see why it should be any other way. I find myself in perfect agreement with James Martins when he asks, in the article linked above: "Why would anyone be opposed to firmer gun control, or, to put it more plainly, laws that would make it more difficult for mass murders to occur?"

There's a lot of space for debate and frustration when a denomination offers its official position on a controversial issue. Yet this is one case where I'm really pleased with my own denomination's conclusion, and I echo the UMC's call to faithfulness for believers in America: Christians need to do what they can to reduce the availability of guns in our society.

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* Each of the proposals cited was reaffirmed in the Book of Resolutions, 2008.

Monday, August 06, 2012

marriage advice from a monk


Today marks Emily and my one-year wedding anniversary, and what would anniversary festivities be without a commemorative blog post?
So, in honor of our first year of marriage, I thought I'd share this passage from John Chrysostom's Homily 20 on Ephesians 5. This sermon comes from a little collection called On Marriage and Family Life, which is one of the books Emily and I read together in the months leading up to the wedding. This passage in particular is one that has come back to mind for both of us on more than one occasion over the last 12 months. For a monk, Saint John has some surprisingly important words for married couples.

Throughout these sermons, he has been trying to cast a new vision of marriage for his people, to help them re-imagine what it means and how two people are related to each other in marriage. Here, he begins by describing a scenario: a man has married a rich woman, and now the couple are quarreling with each other over finances--whether she has been spending his money on new clothes, or the money she brought into the marriage. I've heard this kind of conversation before. Apparently Saint John has too, and he'll have none of it:

What are you saying, woman? Still wearing your own clothes? What can be worse than this sort of language? You no longer have a body of your own (since you gave it away in marriage), yet you have money of your own? After marriage you are no longer two, but one flesh, and are your possessions still divided? Love of money! You have both become one person, one organism, and can you still say, "my own"? This cursed and abominable phrase comes from the devil!

Monday, July 30, 2012

who really wrote the Bible?

Recently a friend asked me a good question.

She had been reading a book by an Old Testament scholar and was surprised when he suggested that Moses did not write the first five books of the Bible. That's how the authorship of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) has traditionally been understood--since before the time of Jesus. Yet today scholars demur. In the last two hundred years, 'historical-critical' studies of scripture have revolutionized our understanding of who wrote different parts of the Bible and when. Now scholars almost universally agree that the Pentateuch was compiled from a number of sources which preserved different traditional stories, about creation, the Exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land, and so on, and these different sources were all eventually edited together into the books that we find in the Bible today. The process is supposed to have taken centuries to complete and was the product of numerous authors.
For some people, such a move from the traditional understanding of biblical authorship is pretty unsettling. After all, Jesus talks about these books as if Moses wrote them (e.g. Luke 5:14). At very least, it seems that this kind of claim--'Moses didn't write these books'--raises some serious questions about how you want to understand the Bible.

Now there's a lot that could be said about how reliable different scholarly arguments are or are not, about how much of Moses might be in those books even if they were edited together by someone else later on. But some of the most interesting comments on all of this that I've ever heard are a little different, and they come from, of all places, U2 frontman Bono. Several years ago Bono wrote an introduction to a pocket edition of the book of Psalms. Because many Old Testament scholars maintain that David himself did not write the 'psalms of David', he decided to address the subject in this introduction.
But to get back to David, it is not clear how many, if any, of these psalms David or his son Solomon really wrote. Some scholars suggest the royals never dampened their nibs and that there was a host of Holy Ghost writers ... Who cares? I didn't buy Leiber and Stoller ... they were just his songwriters ... I bought Elvis.

I don't know that I'd say 'who cares?', but I do wonder if the issue is as earth-shaking as some people suggest. If the Psalms were indeed edited together by some person or persons with material from a variety of sources only later attributed to David, I think the traditional attribution would still be absolutely essential. After all, the only Bible we have is this final, edited version. If we want to read this book, we need to take seriously and explore the connections the people responsible for it were trying to forge. Can you really say you've heard "Hound Dog" if you haven't heard Elvis sing it? Regardless of who wrote it, there's something of Elvis inextricably tied to the song, and you have to go through him to get to it. And if you want to get to Psalm 51 or Psalm 3, you have to go through David. The attribution, 'a psalm of David', whatever else it might mean in these cases, is a crucial lens through which you can really behold these texts and encounter them fully.
Whomever wrote them, you're buying David.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: **SPOILERS** AHEAD.
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"The Legend Ends."
For months the marketing for The Dark Knight Rises has prepared fans for the fact that this film definitively concludes Christopher Nolan's Batman-trilogy. After the immense success of the second film, The Dark Knight, expectations have been high and the pressure has mounted to offer the world a conclusion fit for the series.

The Dark Knight Rises is not The Dark Knight, but it's an incredible comic-book film and, to my mind, it offers a fitting end to this superb series.

So many things in the film are done well. Perhaps its two greatest successes came with the new characters of Bane (Tom Hardy) and Selina Kyle, more popularly known as Catwoman (Anne Hathaway). Movie-goers already knew what to expect from Christian Bale, Michael Caine, & co., while Heath Ledger's role in the second film was critically acclaimed long before its release, so with Bane and Catwoman fans faced an unprecedented and critical X factor. Hardy and Hathaway (and casting director John Papsidera) do not disappoint.

Without a doubt, Bane lacks anything of the presence and dynamism of Ledger's Joker--but this comes as no surprise, given the difference between the two characters and the fact that Hardy spends the film encased in a nearly-full facial mask. There's only so much an actor can do with his eyes and cheekbones. His voice was also heavily modulated, which I'd imagine limited Hardy even more. (And those of you who saw Conan O'Brien's parody of Bane a few months back can relax; the filmmakers clearly took notice.) All of that aside, Hardy made an excellent Bane. He was massive and, correcting one of many, many errors in Batman and Robin (1997), clearly intelligent. There was also a ferocity to him which came out most clearly in his final confrontation with Batman, in a brief moment when all of his strength and speed were unleashed with a snarl and fury, and you realized just how terrifying this villain was.
The initial decision to cast Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle left many fans skeptical, but I'd be surprised if most of the doubters haven't been converted now. Her relationship with Wayne/Batman was playful, yet kept sight of the hard realities of their world. She was simultaneously credible as a cat burglar, as a maximum-security inmate, and as a subtle and crafty schemer, a nomad getting by with her wits. The filmmakers also managed to make her combat sequences believable, and they captured the spirit of traditional Catwoman garb in the dark, sleek, and functional style of these films--as they've done so successfully with so many characters throughout. There was so much room for error here, and the film delivers at every point.

Still, on the whole, I felt that the movie suffered from over-ambitious writing. Clocking in at 2 hours and 44 minutes, The Dark Knight Rises was filled to the brim and, at times, spilling over. Several issues in the film, such as what purpose Bane's mask serves or why the villains even implement this plan in Gotham at all, are explained briefly and by characters with odd voices, leaving many things less than clear as the movie goes on. Much of it is well done--I was entirely surprised by the sudden reveal of Talia al Ghul, for instance--yet too much of it is done at all, too many plot lines, too many characters, and the film is consequently much less coherent than its predecessors. That's not to say that it is incoherent, but simply that it's difficult for an audience to make all of the connections in one viewing.
I'm also left wondering at the film's ending, namely the last two or three minutes. I had just acclimated myself to the idea that Bruce Wayne was killed in the final battle when Alfred sits at that table and spies Bruce across the crowd. It wasn't until much later that I realized why this scene didn't sit well with me: Bruce Wayne would not run off to Florence to enjoy life as long as Gotham City exists. He hadn't given Gotham everything yet--he'd only staged what appeared to be the final, greatest sacrifice. I think the vision of an aged Wayne, still obsessing over the safety of his city, fighting crime vicariously through a young protege, that we saw in the cartoon series Batman Beyond actually captured this character much better. Perhaps that glimpse of Bruce and Selina at the restaurant was just Alfred's wishful thinking; with this series wrapped up, we'll never know.

Despite its faults, I have to say, again, that The Dark Knight Rises is as fine an ending to the Batman-trilogy as I could have hoped for. It brings resolution to both of the previous films--some resolution that I didn't even realize I was waiting on. In some ways it played the same role as Return of the Jedi in the Star Wars-trilogy: it followed immediately on the developments of the second installment, settling the accounts, while also reviving and finally resolving the dangers of the first film (and all of this without musical sequences or Ewoks!). In both cases I was left satisfied. The merciless judgment of Ra's al Ghul and the murderous chaos of the Joker are visited on Gotham once again, like a tidal wave sweeping across the city, and the Dark Knight, presses on relentlessly against all the fury and destruction, broken yet unbending, and utterly captivating, as these films have taught us to expect.

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The Dark Knight Rises is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language. There is certainly violence throughout the film, but it is not gruesome like the knives, pencils, and burn victims of the previous installment--this is more akin to the hand-to-hand combat featured prominently in the recent Bourne films.