Wednesday, June 26, 2013

get some sleep

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day...
(Genesis 1:1-8)

And so it begins. This rhythm of creation goes on: dry land, seas, vegetation, the sun and the moon, all the way to human beings. The chapter wraps up with verse 31: "God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day."

Have you ever paid attention to that strange phrase running throughout the story: "there was evening and there was morning, the -- day"? I've heard or read those words hundreds of times, but it wasn't until recently that I really noticed them. Why does it say 'evening and morning, the whatever day'? Why not 'morning and evening'? That's how we'd describe it in the US today. A day goes from morning to evening.
Of course it's pretty well-known that ancient Hebrews didn't think of days the same way we do. A day, for them, began when the sun went down--so a day ran from evening to morning. And in case you'd never learned that about Israel, it's plastered all over the creation account in Genesis 1. Evening and morning, a day.

Still, unless you were hoping to keep a traditional Sabbath, from Friday evening through Saturday 'morning', this little nugget never seemed particularly important to me. Evening to morning, morning to evening, we still sleep and wake at the same times, the meals fall on the same hours, the time clock reads the same--no big deal, right?

Last week it was pointed out to me that this is actually a really big deal.

In his book Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson points out this difference between the Hebrew notion of a 'day' and the way we usually use the word. When we talk about our day or yesterday, we generally aren't including the night hours in that. Night's just a time for sleep; it doesn't really count. Yet, in Genesis, a day

is the unit of God's creative work; evening is the beginning of that day. It is the onset of God speaking light, stars, earth, vegetation, animals, man, woman into being. But is is also the time when we quit our activity and go to sleep. When it is evening "I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep" and drift into unconsciousness for the next six or eight or ten hours, a state in which I am absolutely nonproductive and have no cash value.
Then I wake up... and rush out the door to get things started. The first thing I discover (a great blow to the ego) is that everything was started hours ago.*

For me, night time is pretty unproductive--not much happens, not much is accomplished. But for the God who made the universe, sundown is the beginning of another day, the explosive launch from the start line, when his creating and sustaining works begin their daily race through all creation. When morning comes, and I drag myself back into the land of the living, God's already been at work for hours. God's work always goes ahead of us.
When we in the Church feel like we "get things started"--we 'start' reaching out to people, 'start' a new ministry, 'start' spreading the good news--we forget that God was at work long before we woke up, reaching out, ministering, spreading the gospel. The most sensible thing for us to do, Peterson points out, is to ask, "Where do I fit in? Where do you need an extra hand? What still needs to be done?" God has begun his work, and the Church is invited to join in, "to enjoy and share and develop the work he initiated."

And for Peterson, reflecting on this leads to another discovery:

[W]hen I quit my day's work, nothing essential stops. I prepare for sleep not with a feeling of exhausted frustration because there is so much yet undone and unfinished, but with expectancy. The day is about to begin! God's genesis words are about to be spoken again. During the hours of my sleep, how will he prepare to use my obedience, service, and speech when morning breaks? I go to sleep to get out of the way for awhile.**

There always seems to be more to do, more needs, more service, more opportunities--you can't possibly seize on them all. But that's okay. We're not meant to do it all. God is at work, before us, after us, in spite of us.

So don't worry. Get some sleep; rest from your work. Get out of God's way for a few hours. He doesn't sleep, neither does he slumber (Ps 121:4). Who knows what he'll get done by morning?

* Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Intergrity, p. 68, italics and bold print added.
** p. 69

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review: Man of Steel

This weekend, Superman returned to the big screen in Man of Steel. Directed by Zach Snyder (300, Watchmen), with a story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises), this is DC Comics's latest effort to capture the popularity of Nolan's Batman trilogy (something other recent DC films, like Jonah Hex and Green Lantern, utterly failed to do) while opening the door to a larger film universe, something to rival Marvel's success with the Iron Man films, The Avengers, etc.

And you know what? I think DC has finally done it.

There are a lot of things that need to happen for someone to tell a good Superman story: you need to have villains that are not lame (Toyman anyone? Hellgrammite?) and are actually threatening to Superman. You also need to make the man himself interesting, which can be pretty tough--'truth, justice, and the American way' isn't exactly a recipe for a complex, dynamic character. Besides, that, you'll need to know how to integrate the supporting characters, Lois Lane in particular, into the story well.

And Man of Steel does it all.
Taking a cue from Batman Begins, Man of Steel features a generally lesser-known villain, though one who is formidable and naturally ties into the origin tale. No, more than formidable... more than dangerous... General Zod is seemingly unbeatable. There were several moments during the movie when I wondered how our hero could possibly save the day, and, honestly, I'm still not positive how Superman bested him at all. But this is exactly what you need with a hero as powerful as Superman.
The film also does its best to give Superman himself some complexity, to make him something more than a one-dimensional embodiment of good. They approach this task from several directions. Throughout the film Clark is clearly struggling under the burdens and expectations his Kryptonian and human fathers have placed on him, both of them hoping, in their own ways, that he'll single-handedly save an entire civilization. The movie also tells a deeply personal story: full of family, childhood memories, dogs, and old photo albums. This isn't simply a story about Superman; it's a story about Clark Kent.
And it's a story that takes place in the real world, with IHOPs and 7-Elevens, where governments see a superhero as a potential threat, the villains cause real destruction, and Superman can't always protect Metropolis. In some ways, this movie is a thought experiment: what would happen if a being who was invulnerable, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, who could fly--what would happen if such a being arrived on earth? How would he react? How would we?

The stars of the film won't let you down. Amy Adams, not surprisingly, gives a fine performance--I've yet to see her give anything less. Her Lois Lane is exactly what you need: curious, intrepid, and determined. And cute. The age difference between her and Cavill seemed a bit strange at times to me (Adams is 8 years his senior), but it didn't detract much.
Casting a relatively-unknown Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel himself was a risk, but it has paid off: not only is he physically spot-on (something we all knew coming in to the movie), but he manages to capture the tensions the character's struggling with: the tension between small town, all-American Clark Kent and extraterrestrial orphan Kal-El; the tension between limitless power and reluctant restraint, lest the world's fear of him be justified. Cavill skillfully communicated the emotions and the conflict.

Of course, the movie's not without weaknesses. One thinks immediately of the scene where Superman and Lois kiss in the middle of the ruins of Metropolis, while thousands of people Superman could be helping are trapped behind rubble, desperately in need of medical attention.
Still, on the whole, this is a really solid superhero movie. It's probably not as good a film as any of Nolan's Batman movies, and it's not as fun as the recent Marvel slate, but it's solid: a classic story re-told well, with a great cast, spectacular effects, and a really nice score from Hans Zimmer

One surprising thing about Man of Steel has been the focus on the 'messianic themes' in the movie. For instance, one piece on CNN's Belief Blog this weekend described Warner Bros.'s efforts to advertise the movie to churches. Director Zach Snyder also discussed some of this on CNN recently. Frankly, I'm not sure why this should garner so much attention. For starters, the parallels all seem pretty superficial to me: a child is born, and this brings people hope; a man (he's 33!!!) has to save the world. Nothing there for me to get too excited about. And, unfortunately, in the film itself, the Jesus-connections are pretty heavy handed--they were not going to let the audience miss this, apparently. But one glimpse of the stained glass window would have done, you know?
Maybe I'm missing something, but I think that, instead of using the movie to say some rather generic things about Jesus, Christians would be better served exploring some of the moral and theological questions the story raised: Is it right to kill to save life? What makes Zod killing humans to save Krypton different from Superman killing Kryptonians to save Earth? What's the difference, if any, between faith and trust? There are plenty of questions Man of Steel raises that Christians could benefit from pondering and wrestling with--I just don't think 'how does Superman remind you of Jesus?' would be the most fruitful one.

I've got to admit, Superman has never been my favorite character, and a lot of my hopes for this movie were tied up with the possibilities it represents, namely, more DC characters on the big screen, a Justice League movie, etc. And given the box office success so far, I'd say a lot of those possibilities will become reality in the years ahead. But, while I walked into the theater thinking about sequels and spin-offs, I walked out thinking about the movie I'd just seen. Like any good superhero movie, Man of Steel is entertaining and action-packed, but it has also situated Superman in the real world, with all of it's troubles and fears and ambiguities. In the end, that's what will make the sequels and spin-offs--and what makes Man of Steel--worth watching.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

this is not business as usual


The bishop of the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, James Swanson--our bishop is a preacher.

Bishop Swanson's supposed to make 'a few opening remarks', and he preaches. Bishop Swanson's supposed to deliver a report, and he preaches. Bishop Swanson's supposed to preach, and oh does he preach. He's just a preacher.

So, when we had our Annual Conference this weekend, and all the Methodist ministers and members of churches across the state gathered for prayer and teaching and business, we heard the bishop preach. Many times.

And it was exciting! Not just because he's an energetic preacher--a fiery preacher!--or because of how he gushes with enthusiasm and conviction. All of that can make for exciting preaching, but I was really excited about something else. The highlight of Bishop Swanson's preaching didn't come when he told a moving story from post-Apartheid South Africa, or when he was screaming and spinning in circles. The highlight came when he was calling the Church in Mississippi mission--to love, to generosity, to justice, and to sanctification--and he said "this is not business as usual."

So much about Annual Conference is business as usual. We're voting on resolutions and constitutional amendments, making recommendations, referring things to committees, administrating--we're following Robert's Rules! But what if the life of the church, the church at mission in our state and our world, weren't just 'business as usual'?

What would that look like for your congregation, in your community? Imagine with me here: if the church could make one change, start doing one thing--anything at all--what would you hope to see?

Going into Annual Conference, I was pretty underwhelmed (to say the least) by this year's theme: "The POWER of We." Every time the theme came up, it sounded like a celebration of what we can do if we just put our minds/hands to it: 'prepare to be energized by the POWER of We!' 'This world can be transformed by the POWER of We!' 'Think big: we can do it by the POWER of We!' And on and on and on, with lots of exclamations points, lots of 'we's, and zero Jesus, zero Holy Spirit. Pretty disheartening stuff.
And then Bishop Swanson preached: he preached on Acts 2, where the apostles achieved these astonishing and downright heroic acts of faith and love (see 2:42-47), and how all of this was only possible because they had received the power of the Holy Spirit (1:8; 2:1-4). The power, the bishop reminded us, did not belong to the church, but came through there relationship to the Spirit: "There is no 'we' without this power... We cannot do anything without the power of the Holy Spirit." But when we're open to the Spirit, renewal comes in the Church.

What is the Spirit doing in your church now? How else might the Spirit empower your church for mission in the world? What could happen if we were open to the power of the Holy Spirit?

In a series of messages, the Bishop clearly laid out the Church's call to love, to generosity, to justice, and to apprenticeship--helping each other grow. These are four of the fundamental ways in which the Church, United Methodist or otherwise, can make God's love and grace manifest in our world. The Mississippi Conference leadership, we were assured over and over this weekend, aren't going to tell us 'how to do church', how to undertake this mission in our setting; the churches know best about the people and the needs where we are. We need to feel free to listen to our Lord's leadings, to receive the Spirit's power and direction, and to obey, and serve those around us.

So... how are we going to do it? How are you going to do it? How is God calling you and your church to love people, to give generously where there are needs, to insist on justice when you're faced with injustices, and to grow in grace together? The church, in the power of the Spirit, doesn't have to be business as usual. What should it be?

What is your church doing that needs to be celebrated? What does the church need to start doing? Where does the church need to be a presence, be at work, in your community? What would it take to make that happen?

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

reading the Bible

The pollsters at the Barna group just announced the results of a survey about what Americans are reading.

Most of the questions seemed to revolve around a few popular books or books recently adapted into movies, like The Hunger Games, The Hobbit, or Life of Pi, but Barna also asked about the Bible: how many people claim to have read the entire Bible? What generations are these readers from? What faith do they claim?

Honestly, I found the results surprising all around.
20% of American adults claim to have read the Bible all the way through. That would be pretty impressive to me. I've known a lot of folks, evangelicals, who will use a One-Year Bible or a similar reading plan, and so, with a little discipline, they'll get through the book in a matter of time. And I'm sure a lot of other people, like myself, have gotten all the way through the Bible by a more... roundabout... and drawn out process. It was probably eight years of reading here and there--oh! I've never heard of this book, better read it too--and rereading this or that, before I got through the entire Bible. If it took me that long, someone who really enjoys reading and studying scripture and who thinks it's of vital importance to his life, I can't imagine how people who don't enjoy reading the Bible or who don't have a religious impetus for reading it could get through.

A lot of these people are non-Christians. 18% of Americans who claim a faith other than Christianity, and 9% of Americans who claim no faith at all, say they've read the Bible. (Now, I'm assuming Mormons would be 'non-Christian' by Barna's standards--though I could be wrong on that--and so the number of individuals of other faiths who've read the Bible might be less surprising than it looks at first blush.)
My first reaction to this was: 'Huh. And how many Christians have read the Quran?' Or any other non-Christian holy books, for that matter? (And you can't count the Hebrew Bible. That's cheating.) I had to read some things majoring in religion at a public university, but otherwise I'm not so sure I'd have ever read texts like the Bhagavad-Gita or the Yoga Sutra. I'd love to see some more numbers comparing the inter-faith reading of different groups, because this sure leaves me feeling like Christians are going to be the least interested in learning about other beliefs.

You can check out the rest of the results here.

Like I said, these results surprised me. Frankly, the '1 in 5 have read the Bible' actually sounds a little questionable. 1 in 5 Americans have read Leviticus? They've read 1 Chronicles 1-9? 1 in 5 have read every word of the Psalms, of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel? I find this more than a little hard to believe. Surely, surely, there's a degree of  'oh, sure, I've read the Bible!' affecting those results. Sometimes, when a book or author is so influential and so talked-about, I think it's easy to assume you've read them, feel like you must have read them, even if you haven't. But I'm just speculating here--maybe these numbers are right on.

I hope people do read the Bible, though.
One of my aims in preaching and teaching is to get people interested in it and excited about it--because I think it's an interesting and exciting book (which is helpful when it's also very long and absolutely essential!).
I told a group once that I think the Bible is a bit like Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We assume we know the character--we've seen the Disney cartoon, or we've read an abridged, children's version of the tale. Quasimodo is the kindly, lonely, misunderstood bell-ringer of Notre Dame. And he has quite a singing voice. Yet when you read Victor Hugo's classic, you find that the hunchback is much less Disney, much less kid-friendly, than you thought. He's grittier, more real. For instance: not only does he not sing, but he barely speaks, because years of ringing the cathedral bells has left him deaf--he uses sign language.

The Bible's grittier and more real than you'd expect. It's not the collection of brightly-colored kids' stories you learned about in Sunday school. And like Hunchback, the Bible's more stirring and more beautiful than the popular conceptions floating around could ever convey. I hope people read it.

How about you? What do you think of these numbers? Have you read the Bible all the way through? How did you do it? What made it difficult? What could help?
Have you read any sacred books from other faiths?