Monday, December 11, 2017

"He is coming to judge the earth"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the judgment is supposed to be good news.

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

Judgment is supposed to be good news. As N.T. Wright likes to point out, that’s why we see things like Psalm 96:11-13:

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

"scatter away our time"

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

Friday, November 03, 2017

Exit West and the stories of refugees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

re-reading the "boring parts"


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

O God, I love thee...

A poem for Good Friday:

"O deus, ego amo te"

O God, I love thee, I love thee
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
   In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
   Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance
Mocked and marred countenance,
   Sorrows passing number,
   Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
   And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu so much in love with me?
Not for heaven's sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my king and God. Amen.

- Gerard Manley Hopkins

(I encountered the poem this week in Sarah Arthur's Between Midnight and Dawn: A Literary Guide to Prayer for Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

not by bread alone

This Lent, I'm learning to trust.

That wasn't the plan when Lent began, not exactly. I decided on a few daily changes to make, plus some new weekly routines, ways to commemorate Jesus' sacrifice on Fridays. I also decided to commit to some traditional fasting, abstaining from food, one day a week. All in all, nothing remarkablejust more engagement with the season than I've done in the past. I wanted to experience Lent more deeply this year.

Then I got the call: I'm leaving the church I've been serving in Natchez for the last five years and being reappointed to a congregation in Sumrall, MS.

Not surprisingly, this has been both exciting and heartbreaking. It's the first move for me, so this is all new, but I still knew there would be these mixed emotions, the bittersweet quality to it all.

What I didn't know was the trouble I'd have trusting.

It's not a question of whether I ought to go to Sumrall. I have absolutely no doubt that the bishop and the cabinet made the right choice in sending me to Natchez in the first place, and I trust them to listen to the Spirit and to recognize where God could use me next. Some more seasoned United Methodist ministers may chuckle, but I have faith in the process.

The trouble is entrusting this church to someone new.
Don't get me wrong. I don't have any reservations in the world about the pastor who is taking my place. She seems great.

... So, on second thought, maybe the trouble isn't entrusting the church to someone new.
Maybe the trouble is letting go of my sense of control and entrusting the church to God.

As I've been fasting each week during this Lenten season, I've frequently been reminded of Jesus' words to Satan in the wilderness, when he was tempted to break his fast and turn some dusty rocks into fresh loaves of bread. Jesus told the tempter, "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God" (Matt 4:4).

With those words echoing in my head over the last couple of weeks, I've started to see that, in my ministry, particularly as a preacher, I've been trying to "live by" relevant topics, solid research, clever analogies, appropriate injections of humor, and practical takeaways. I've been trying to live by hard work and skill.

But those things are bread.

And man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. A minister of all people cannot live by bread alone, but must live by the words that come from God and set an example and guide the church to do the same. After all, don't we believe that "neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth"? (1 Cor 3:7) Don't we trust in that?

Or would we rather hold on to our bread?

Fasting is supposed to teach us that, ultimately, we depend on God for our lives, not on anything elseeven the food that we eat. Fasting is supposed to teach us that if we let go of the bread, everything will still be ok. Fasting's supposed to teach us to trust.
And now that I'm faced with the terrifying reality of actually trusting God with things that are beyond my control, I see how far I still have to go.

So I'm grateful for Lent. I'm grateful for the fast. Because right now, while I'm trying to learn to trust, I need to remember those words. I need Jesus to whisper to me again and again about living by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Friday, March 17, 2017

the Bible and the ban

"What would Jesus say about our immigration policies and problems?"

It was 'question night' at the church, a risky (some would say stupid) thing for a young pastor to do. Most of the questions stayed away from anything that smelled of politics, but as I pulled this slip of paper from the glass bowl and unfolded it, I was in for a surprise.

Now, I don't actually think of that as a political question. I think of it as a biblical question and a question of how to live out our faith in the world. But once politicians and pundits latch on to an issue, we all start to think of it as a political topic. Unfortunately, the result is often that ministers feel helpless to speak out on things that the Bible speaks out on because--you shouldn't go there preacher. That's political.

But it was question night, and someone had asked, so I went there.

What would Jesus say? I told them that, in my opinion, Jesus did say something that speaks to the issues surrounding immigration in the US today. Then I read from Matthew 25: When you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or welcome the stranger, you're doing it for Christ. And when you turn away people in need, when you turn away those who need some place to go, you're turning Jesus away (25:44-45).

There's a reason over 100 evangelical leaders, including Timothy Keller, Max Lucado, and Bill Hybels, took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post last month, in the wake of the President's first attempted moratorium on immigrants and refugees from several Muslim nations, to call on Mr. Trump and the vice-president to support refugees. They were faithfully witnessing to Jesus' teaching.

There have been, unfortunately, many other evangelical voices supporting the President's actions. These voices argue that the call for Christians to love and care for others does not apply to the state. They point out that even the city of God in the book of Revelation has walls to keep "undocumented intruders" out (though they don't wrestle with every detail in Revelation). Or, as Franklin Graham did, they act as if the Bible doesn't really say anything about our situation. Meanwhile, many more evangelical readers have cheered these voices on, thanking them for offering a clear, 'biblical' response to the naysayers.

Of course, technically, they're correct: the Bible does not that say that the United States of America has to receive refugees from Syria, or welcome anyone else into the country. As long as you don't want to call America "a Christian nation," the US can ignore Jesus' teachings and turn away strangers left and right.

Those of us who call Jesus our Lord, however, don't have that luxury.

As a pastor, my biggest concern isn't that the most powerful nation in the world would turn away people in need to whom we could easily offer relief (though, obviously, that is a concern). What worries me the most is seeing Christians embrace this position and rejoice in the evangelical support for it, even though it flies in the face of God's expectations for the faithful.

For instance, listen to Deuteronomy 10:17-19:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The word of God for the people of God - thanks be to God. Right?

As Rev. Mark Wingfield pointed out for Baptist News Global, this passage in Deuteronomy is "one of 92 times the Hebrew word we would translate to “immigrant” in English appears in the Old Testament. And in every case, the admonition is for acceptance and welcome and kindness."

I'd say the teaching of the Bible on this issue is pretty straightforward.

So, since when are evangelicals the people who do their best to explain away scripture's demands?

The arguments I've heard against welcoming immigrants and refugees remind me of the arguments (which evangelicals usually chafe against) for non-traditional views of sexuality:
  • Biblical comments on caring for strangers don't apply to us today - this is a very different situation (because of terrorist threats, US law, separation of church and state, etc.).
  • Biblical comments on homosexuality don't apply to us today - this is a very different situation (because of modern understandings of sexual orientation, committed, life-long same-sex relationships, etc.).
  • There are verses that might suggest we don't have to welcome these foreigners, if you read them the right way - after all, John says not to receive into your house or welcome anyone who doesn't confess Jesus (2 John 7-11).
  • There are verses that might suggest we aren't limited to heterosexual intimacy, if you read them the right way - after all, Paul says that in Christ there is no more "male and female" (Gal 3:28).
  • Surely it was never God's intention to command something that might put my family or my neighbors in danger.
  • Surely it was never God's intention to command something that would leave me/my child alone and unhappy for the rest of my/his/her life.
Frankly, the biggest difference that I can see between these two lines of thinking is that the arguments against welcoming refugees are much weaker than the arguments for affirming same-sex relationships. After all, there are only about a half a dozen verses in the Bible that speak directly to the question of homosexuality, but there are dozens and dozens of verses about welcoming "aliens" and "sojourners." And while advocates of full inclusion of LGBT couples into the life of the church frequently point out that Jesus never says a word on the topic*, the same cannot be said for the issue of welcoming the stranger.
Yet in the face of arguments like these, evangelicals have always insisted that faithful Christians must resist the cultural tide and the emotional tug and resolutely affirm the clear teaching of the Bible.

Until now.

There are probably all kinds of factors contributing to this evangelical rejection of biblical teaching.

Part of the problem is surely that we simply don't know that the Bible calls God's people, over and over, to welcome immigrants. After all, that's probably never seemed like an important topic to preach on. The preachers themselves know what the Bible says (Why else would 86% of Protestant pastors say that Christians should "care sacrificially for refugees and foreigners"?), but they haven't been teaching it. (Why else would 76% of white evangelicals have approved of the ban?)
Another part of the problem is that evangelical Christianity in the US has become so aligned with Republican politics that it's probably difficult for many to believe or accept that the party-line would diverge so dramatically from biblical teaching.

I think the biggest part of the problem, though, is fear.
That's why evangelical commenters are so grateful at the end of an article assuring them that Syrian refugees aren't their problem. We are afraid of these people. I get that. We're thinking about those plumes of smoke coming out of the Twin Towers, the police lights flashing outside the Pulse nightclub, and we're afraid of what's going to happen next. Fear keeps us from accepting that refugees are already well vetted and pushes us to ignore the uncomfortable call of Christ.

I don't think that we have much to fear from these people who are running for their lives and their families' lives, thankful for any safety and stability they can find. A study last year determined that Americans have a 1 in 3.6 billion chance of being killed by a refugee in the US in any given year. 1 in 3.6 billion!

But even if the threat were greater, that wouldn't be an excuse for those of us who follow Jesus. After all, taking up your cross isn't safe. It means you're walking to your death. But that's the kind of love Jesus modeled for us, and "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

-
*Though Jesus never addresses homosexuality directly, many do argue that his reference to Genesis in Matthew 19:4-5/Mark 10:6-7 is an indirect affirmation of traditional, exclusively-heterosexual marriage.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Lady Gaga and Jesus

In honor of Lady Gaga's amazing Super Bowl halftime show this week, I wanted to share an old post from Richard Beck's blog: "The Gospel According to Lady Gaga."

Dr. Beck is never short on interesting, fresh perspectives, and this piece is no exception. He uses the lyrics of one of Gaga's songs to highlight her "passionate engagement with the "little monsters" of society, her attempt to welcome them and show them warmth, understanding, and respect." Beck describes how her music and her community of fans has been a source of comfort and strength to outcasts, people like 14 year-old Jamey Rodemeyer, a bisexual boy from New York who took his own life after years of bullying at school.
And in this, I can't help but wonder if Lady Gaga isn't shaming the church. Because here's the deal. If kids like Jamey aren't being welcomed by churches or by their schools where are they supposed to go?
 You can check out the whole post over at Experimental Theology.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

DB2017: New Beginnings

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If you've been following the blog much in the last year, you know I've been working my way through a daily devotional based on the writings of George MacDonald, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love. Well, I finished the book last week, and I enjoyed it so much that now, with the new year, I'm starting a new daily reader: I Want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotions, taken from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

If you aren't familiar with Bonhoeffer, he was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian in the 20th century (1906-1945) who was eventually executed by the Nazis for his work to oppose Adolf Hitler. Many of his writings have become classics in the decades since his death, like his book The Cost of Discipleship: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die..."

I want to begin the new year on the blog by sharing one of the first readings in I Want to Live These Days with You. Even in Bonhoeffer's day, folks saw the new year as a chance to start over, to do things differently than they did the year before. But he asked,
How can we make a fresh start? "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back..." (Luke 9:62). One who guides a plow does not look back - or into the immense distance - but to the next step that must be taken. Backward glances are not a Christian thing to do. Leave fear, anxiety, and guilt behind. And look to the one who gives you a new beginning.
Bonhoeffer doesn't believe we can carve new beginnings out of our regrets, our guilt, or even our good intentions. Instead, we should look for our new beginnings from the Lord, like David asking God to put a new and right spirit within him (Ps 51:10). We can't let the past control who we are or who we can become with God's help. Obviously, sometimes moving forward does mean making amends for old wrongs or trying to heal relationships that have been broken for a long time, but we shouldn't let the past weigh us down, because in Christ "The old life is gone; the new life has begun!" (2 Cor 5:17 NLT)

When you decide to make a change, whether it's a New Year's resolution or just a Wednesday morning resolution, don't let your mistakes or shame drive you. Let your hope and trust in God propel you forward, because all our "new beginnings" are a chance to embrace the new life God has for us, the transformation the Holy Spirit can work within us.

And for big change, maybe we need to think small: about the next step that must be taken, and then the step after that, then the step after that. Instead of being discouraged when we don't see a miraculous, instant make-over for our heart or our habits, maybe we need to seek after (and acknowledge and give thanks for!) the small miracles, the little changes that God creates in us along the road on our journey of faith. If we take it one step at a time, we may come to realize that God has been slowly, incrementally turning our lives upside down. The Spirit may be quietly working right under your nose to give you a new beginning.