Category Archives: Christian living

Would You Invite Jesus To A Party?

Would you be comfortable with a celebrating savior?

The Jesus Christians often portray is not someone who would be considered enjoyable to be around.

Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights.
Cal Naughton Jr. and Ricky Bobby praying in Talladega Nights. For the “Jesus Laughing” image feat. above, see here.

We portray Jesus in many ways: the wise teacher, the comforting healer, the zealous prophet, the suffering servant.

But do we preach, pray, and share Jesus as someone we would actually enjoy being around?

Dallas Willard notes,

“…the currently accepted image of Jesus all but makes it impossible to find him interesting and attractive, lovable. The responses of common people to him throughout the pages of the gospel show how false that image is. He was such an attractive person and such a powerful speaker that, from the human point of view, the leaders of the day killed him out of envy of his popularity (Matt. 27:18). He was a master of humor and often used it to drive home the truths he imparted, as any good speaker does. But few today would put him on their guest list for a party – if it were really going to be a party.  Just as we don’t think of Jesus as intelligent, so we don’t think of him as pleasant company, someone to enjoy being around. Is it any wonder that someone would rather not be his student?” (The Divine Conspiracy, 239)

This doesn’t mean going the Cal Naughton, Jr. route and picturing Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt (“I wanna be formal, but I’m here to party!“- see below).  But, following Dallas Willard’s observation, it suggests we should take seriously just how Jesus attracted so many followers (and detractors).

Jesus ate and drank with sinners; he comforted those in distress, he fit in with outcasts, and was a physician for the sick of body and spirit.  In fact, the only folks that weren’t that comfortable around Jesus – the only people who wouldn’t invite Jesus to party – were the religious.

Can you worship a Jesus who would go to a party?

What would you say to Jesus at a party?  Are our churches full of people who would talk to Jesus at a party, or would they condemn him for being under the same roof as a keg? Leave a comment below!

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Orthodoxy as the “Authority of All”

Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.
Icon of John Cassian, courtesy wikimedia commons.

John Cassian, who had a profound impact on monasticism thanks to his influence on Benedict, comments on the universality of the orthodox consensus:

“The consensus of all ought of itself to be enough to refute heresy; for the authority of all shows indubitable truth, and a perfect reason results where no one disputes it. Therefore if a [person] seeks to hold opinions contrary to these, we should, at the very outset, condemn his perversity rather than listen to his assertions. For someone who impugns the judgment of all announces his [or her] own condemnation beforehand, and a [person] who disturbs what had been determined by all is not even given a hearing. For when the truth has been established by all [people] once and for all, whatever arises contrary to it is by this very fact to be recognized at once as a falsehood, because it differs from the truth.”

Cassian’s insight is similar to what would later be called the Vincentian Canon, named after its progenitor St. Vincent of Lerins.  He argued, “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”

The early church, led by the apostles and their successors, saw themselves as in continuity with the teaching of Jesus handed on by the disciples.  They determined to hold “the authority of all,” led by the Holy Spirit, above any individual or regional variations.

In an age where atheist preachers are fighting to keep their pulpits, this insight is more important than ever.  The Christian movement is not subject to my personal whims but is, in Jude’s language, the “faith once delivered,” and the health of the Body is not possible unless we hold fast to that deposit of faith and practice held authoritative everywhere, by everyone, and for all time.

Source: Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: Volume 1, 338-339.

Who Are We? [video]

local byteThe good folks The Local Byte, a new online magazine here in Central North Carolina, were kind enough to have me back in studio for another installment of An Inspirational Moment.

This one deals with a basic question we all have: “Who are we?”

What does it mean to be human? I tackle that question, referencing Jesus, Peter Singer, and the gnostics in the video here.

Let me know what you think! Please share with anyone who might find these questions interesting.

(My previous appearance, “Give More to Have More,” can be viewed here.)

Give More to Have More [video]

local byteSomething cool happened last week: I learned to use a teleprompter.  I’ll never make fun of a politician again!

There is a new online magazine here in Randolph County, NC called The Local Byte.  I was invited to be the first guest on a show they have called An Inspirational Moment.  I really appreciate Mike, Terry, and the team letting me do this, and I look forward to more in the future.  This installment is called, “Give More to Have More.”

You can watch at this link.  (Note: some people have reported trouble viewing via Mac products, so you might need to try a smart phone or tablet.)

As this is something new for me, I would appreciate any feedback you have to offer.  Thanks for reading, listening, and (I can now add) watching!

Avoiding Conversation is No Way to Advance the Debate

Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Tin Can Telephone, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

How do have the conversations that matter most?  Like many things in life, most of it is just showing up.

We United Methodists just came through Annual Conference season; this is the yearly gathering of United Methodists in a given region, represented by clergy and laity, where budgets are set, legislation debated, and an array of training, lectures, studies, worship, and mission opportunities are offered.  Here in Western North Carolina, we had an interesting afternoon at Annual Conference (AC) last Friday.  Let me explain.

We voted on two pieces of legislation on that afternoon.  The first of these, from our Justice & Reconciliation team, asked the Bishop to form a team to begin a series of holy conversations around controversial topics in the UMC (the unstated chief of which centers around questions of sexuality).  A couple of laity spoke against this measure, trotting out some pretty unsophisticated arguments for why this should be a settled question, but all in all it passed easily.

Next up was a proposal that has been attempted at all of our recent Annual Conferences in recent memory: a petition to ask the General Conference to change the language about sexuality in our denominational rules, the collection of which is called the Book of Discipline.  Over a dozen ACs passed similar petitions this year, none of which are binding, because only the General Conference (meeting every four years) speaks for the whole church.

Here’s where things got interesting.  As soon as this petition was introduced, a pastor from one of our Reconciling Ministries Network (a caucus that advocates for changes in UM policy) churches asked for a suspension of the rules to move toward an immediate vote.  This was approved, and we began the painstaking process of voting, which took a while because we had to be counted by hand as we stood to either vote for, against, or abstain.

A friend of mine, afterwards, asked a question to the Bishop which I had myself wondered (and tweeted):

I’m still not sure of the motivations behind the motion to go straight to a vote.  It may have been that the sponsors thought they had a better chance of ‘winning’ without the debate, or that the discussion would be offensive (most of my friends’ responses to my tweet indicated the latter concern).  But regardless, it was a strange juxtaposition.  Conversations do not become easier by avoiding them.  Even unpleasant comments (of which we hear too many at AC, as we did last year) are helpful, in that they tell us how much more work remains in advancing the conversation.  This general trend towards avoiding difficult or painful dialogue is troubling.  Our society has become so dominated by the therapeutic mindset that sometimes it seems that even hearing an alternative or critical view of something is considered damaging.  Should we be concerned about the prevalence of such rhetorical moves?

Hanna Rosin argued in The Atlantic,

“A proper argument takes intellectual vigor, nimbleness, and sustained attention. If carried on long enough, it can push both parties to a deeper level of understanding. Oxford debaters hack away at each other for something like two hours. Socrates could sometimes go on for weeks. But who has that kind of time anymore? Better to just shut things down quickly, using one of a new array of trump cards.

Want to avoid a debate? Just tell your opponent to check his privilege. Or tell him he’s slut-shaming or victim-blaming, or racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, or cisphobic, or some other creative term conveying that you are simply too outraged by the argument to actually engage it. Or, on the other side of the coin, accuse him of being the PC thought police and then snap your laptop smugly.

In the art of debate avoidance, each political camp has honed a particular style. Conservatives generally aim for the prenup approach, to preempt any messy showdowns. If you want to join the club, then you have to sign a contract or make a pledge—no new taxes, no abortions, no gay marriage—and thereafter recite from a common script. Progressives indulge a shouting match of competing identities that resembles an argument but is in fact the opposite, because its real aim is to rule certain debates out of bounds.”

I recall an interview with N.T. Wright, the retired Anglican bishop and eminent New Testament scholar, in which he was asked about the same-sex marriage debate.  His comment was telling: “Our problem at the moment is that we aren’t having the debate, we are simply having bits and pieces of a shouting match.”

Too often we are content with “bits and pieces of a shouting match” rather than deep engagement.  Whether it is about sexuality, doctrine, race, liturgics, immigration, or creation care, too often we Christians fall into the world’s ways of doing – or, in this case, avoiding – things.  We can do better.  But it requires a commitment on all parties to a) a hermeneutic of charity, b) arguing against ideas and not people, and c) dedicating ourselves to hearing the best version of the opposing view, and not merely extreme examples or straw men easily dismissed.

In the church and in our national conversation, it is always easier to retreat into echo-chambers, eschewing critics and alternative viewpoints.  The gnostic church of our own imaginations is always a neater, less challenging place than the flesh-and-blood church of Jesus Christ.  But maturity doesn’t come by disengagement.  I’ll let Rosin have the last word – a word of warning about this cultural malaise:

“The tactic has lately proved surprisingly effective, but it comes with a high cost…empathy, or humility, or actually hearing out your opponents.”

“The Spitting Image of God”: Our Life’s Goal and the Lord’s Prayer

smith bookThe world of Christian publishing is rife with material about “purpose.”  Everyone wants to read about their life and someone else’s opinion of what it should be about.  Much of this is based on a misreading of Jeremiah 29:11, which was never a word of the Lord to every individual for all time, but a promise to the exiled Jewish community that the God of the covenant would not abandon them.  So I don’t know that we have much reason to believe that God has a “plan” for each an every one of us; I find little reason Scripturally to believe that God has designed us genetically to be butchers or marketers or writers or actresses or what have you.  The most we can say (and this is enough) about God’s purpose for each of us is that we were designed for fellowship and union with God.

For many Christians, the Lord’s Prayer is a regular and powerful part of their spiritual journey.  It is for me and for many of my friends and colleagues.  The prayer that Jesus gave us is not only a pattern for prayer but a  rich prayer in its own right.  Even aspects of the prayer than are often overlooked provide an amazing fount of insight into life with God.

As Warren Smith, who teaches historical theology at Duke Divinity School, suggests, when we pray “hallowed be Thy name,” we are remembering the holiness of God and thus the true purpose for our life:

So the confession “hallowed by thy name” grounds our lives in the knowledge of who God is and what God has done for us. This daily confession focuses our mind upon the end or purpose of our journey – that is, fellowship with God – and the quality of our life – that is, holiness – necessary to attain that God. But when we confess that God is holy we also confess that we cannot become holy on our own. We cannot be holy apart from the Holy Spirit. Our thinking and speaking and acting become holy when we cultivate holy habits by living in the company of the Spirit. By inviting us to share his name, by calling us to be saints, God has set a high bar for his children. But he has given us the Holy Spirit as our companion who helps us gradually replace unholy habits of thought, speech, and action with holy thoughts, holy conversation, and holy actions as we grow into the likeness of our heavenly Father, becoming the spitting image of God. (The Lord’s Prayer: Confessing the New Covenant, 46)

This is a small example of how a deceptively simple line such as “hallowed be thy name” works on us over time.  The Lord’s Prayer is full of such wisdom and beauty – a treasure too often ignored, and too little appreciated.

You want purpose? Pray and work, die to self daily so that you might become “the spitting image of God.”  There’s plenty of room to grow there for several lifetimes.   And thanks be to God, he never stops his gracious, other-regarding, self-giving through the Spirit so that we might become who he made us to be:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

-2 Cor. 3:18 (NRSV)

What role does the Lord’s Prayer have in your spiritual life? How does your faith community make use of it? I’d love to hear about your experience below.

Unprofitable Conversation

Don't cast your pearls before swine, friends.
Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

Sometimes I have to remind myself not to converse with people who are allergic to insight.  This is hard for me, as I enjoy conversation, dialogue, and argument.  But we all know people who seek conversation not out of a genuine search for truth or honest curiosity, but rather out of a desire for power, influence, and self-aggrandizement.  These temptations are there for me also, of course. Only the holiest of saints are totally immune.  But I try to admit when I’m wrong, when I’ve said something poorly or ill-thought.  “Whoever hates correction is stupid,” says Proverbs 12:1.  I’ve learned much from Henry Cloud on how to handle the foolish and the evil (though I’m sometimes better at it in theory than in practice).

So, after wading into conversation with evil fools who despise correction, after giving too much of my attention and energy to those whose only truth is power, whose only language is manipulation, I found these words from John Wesley helpful.  Perhaps you need these words today as well.  And I thank you, dear readers, for correcting me when I am wrong, for offering critique when I could be more clear, and for joining your own reflections to mine that we all might grow in the knowledge and love of God.

From Sermon 81, In What Sense We Are to Leave the World (emphasis added):

8. Here is the sum of this prohibition to have any more intercourse with unholy men than is absolutely necessary. There can be no profitable fellowship between the righteous and the unrighteous; as there can be no communion between light and darkness, — whether you understand this of natural or of spiritual darkness. As Christ can have no concord with Belial; so a believer in him can have no concord with an unbeliever. It is absurd to imagine that any true union or concord should be between two persons, while one of them remains in darkness, and the other walks in the light. They are subjects, not only of two separate, but of two opposite kingdoms. They act upon quite different principles; they aim at quite different ends. It will necessarily follow, that frequently, if not always, they will walk in different paths. How can they walk together, till they are agreed? — until they both serve either Christ or Belial?

9. And what are the consequences of our not obeying this direction? Of our not coming out from among unholy men? Of not being separate from them, but contracting or continuing a familiar intercourse with them? It is probable it will not immediately have any apparent, visible ill consequences. It is hardly to be expected, that it will immediately lead us into any outward sin. Perhaps it may not presently occasion our neglect of any outward duty. It will first sap the foundations of our religion: It will, by little and little damp our zeal for God; it will gently cool that fervency of spirit which attended our first love. If they do not openly oppose anything we say or do, yet their very spirit will, by insensible degrees, affect our spirit, and transfuse into it the same lukewarmness and indifference toward God and the things of God. It will weaken all the springs of our soul, destroy the vigour of our spirit, and cause us more and more to slacken our pace in running the race that is set before us.

10. By the same degrees all needless intercourse with unholy men will weaken our divine evidence and conviction of things unseen: It will dim the eyes of the soul whereby we see Him that is invisible, and weaken our confidence in him. It will gradually abate our “taste of the powers of the world to come;” and deaden that hope which before made us “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.” It will imperceptibly cool that flame of love which before enabled us to say, “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee!” Thus it strikes at the root of all vital religion; of our fellowship with the Father and with the Son.

What you share (or RT) is what you love

Courtesy Galleryhip.com.
Courtesy Galleryhip.com.

Have you ever met a new parent or grandparent? They are almost always chomping at the bit to show you pictures.  And it’s not just proud moms and granddads.  All of us share, promote, and defend that which we value, worship, and love.  The ability to “+1,” “like,” share, or RT a post, status,  or article is only the newest way we do this.  What we share is what we love.  St. Augustine notes:

“In the theatre – that den of wickedness – someone who loves an actor and revels in his skill as if it were a great good, or even the supreme one, also loves all those who share his love, not on their account, but on account of the one they equally love. The more passionate he is in his love, the more he tries by whatever methods he can to make his hero loved by a greater number of people, and the more he desires to point him out to a greater number of people.  If he sees someone unenthusiastic he rouses him with his praises as much as he can. If he finds anyone antagonistic, he violently hate that person’s hatred of his hero and goes all out to remove it by whatever methods he can.”

What a perfect description of how social media works.  Whether what you love is a celebrity (as in Augustine’s example of a famous actor), an idea, or a product, the odds are you find ways to share this.  The Christian word for this is evangelism.

Often, it seems that Christians are willing to share everything but the love we have for God. We put Apple stickers on our car, post about which team(s) we have winning the NCAA tournament, pin to our favorite crafts on Pinterest, or tell our neighbors about the great new fish recipe we just attempted.  But talk about God? That’s only something those “crazy Christians” do.

Augustine would suggest this is precisely backwards:

“So what should we do in sharing the love of God, whose full enjoyment constitutes the happy life? It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward – namely himself, the object of their love.” (On Christian Teaching, Book One, p. 22)

Unlike Justin Bieber or a mobile phone company, the love of God is pure and self-less.  God does not want us to buy anything, but only desires to give.  God has no need of our love, but loves us enough to continually seek us out – the Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson named Him – purely out of a desire to give of Godself, the one pure, unchangeable, and fulfilling object of our love.  If we really believe that God is the most true, good, and beautiful object of our love, how could we not share the Love to which all over loves point?

We share what we love. Whether the thing loved is a cause, a shoe brand, a song, or the Three-Yet-One God through Whom all things were made.

What, or Who, are you sharing today?

“Teachings of Jesus” vs. “Teachings About Jesus”

The resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.
Classic icon of the the resurrected Christ trampling down the doors of death.

As Christians, should we prioritize Jesus’ teachings, or teachings about Jesus himself?  Some Christians (and some Unitarians who consider themselves followers of Jesus) suggest emphasizing the former:

“UU Christians look to the teachings of Jesus (not about Jesus) as a source of wisdom and guidance in building the Beloved Community.”

“…the fundamentalists see Christianity as a religion about Jesus, while I and others understand Christianity to be the religion of Jesus. The key difference here is that a religion about Jesus casts him as a god who(emphasis original)m we worship, whereas seeing Christianity as the religion ofJesus allows us to see him as a brother, as the role model for how we can attain a mystical union with God just as he did.” (emphasis original)

These two examples come from Unitarian Universalist sources, the first from Eno River UU in Durham, NC and the second from a UU Fellowship in Churchville, MD.  More troubling is that I have heard these exact same sentiments shared by Christians, including United Methodists (who, supposedly, have clear doctrinal standards emphasizing particular teachings about Jesus).  Why is this bifurcation problematic? Lesslie Newbigin gives us the answer:

“And indeed it is the very nature of the gospel itself which always defeats these attempts to separate the word from the deed, to give one primacy over the other, because the gospel is precisely the good news of the Word made flesh…to set word and deed against one another, and insist that one or the other has primacy, is futile. The announcing of the good news about the Kingdom is empty verbiage if there is nothing happening to make the news credible. On the other hand, the most admirable program for human welfare does not provide any substitute for the name of Jesus in whom God’s reign has come. At its very best, such a program can be no more than a sign pointing toward the full reality which we encounter only when we encounter Him.” (Signs Amid the Rubble, 99.)

With Newbigin, we see that choosing between the teachings of Jesus (feeding the poor, forgiveness, clothing the naked, etc.) and the apostolic teaching about Jesus as the Word made flesh is ultimately a false choice.  Word and deed, piety and mercy, hang together or not at all.  We don’t have to choose. Jesus did not intend us to.

The message is the Messenger. The Messenger is the message.  To paraphrase an old wedding liturgy, what God hath joined together in Jesus the Christ, let no one put asunder.

Generous Spaciousness [Review]

gen space

“This book has never been about trying to convince you of a particular position on the matter of committed same-sex relationships.”

-Wendy VanderWall-Gritter

It is no secret that the church is consumed by debates about sexuality.  Further, it is widely known that Christians are often no better at debating sexuality than Congress is at crafting budgets, approving nominees, or making laws.  The sexuality debate, which demands our best resources, often brings out the lesser angels of our nature.

It is in that context that I greatly appreciate Wendy VanderWall-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness.  While it possesses some flaws, it is a valuable contribution to a dialogue that is too often as shallow as it is vitriolic.  Much of this has to do with the author’s own background.

VanderWall-Gritter spent many years in what is called the “Ex-Gay Movement,” a loose association of evangelical Christian parachurch organizations that sought to minister to gays and lesbians, though often in ways that were more de-humanizing than caring.  Probably the best known of such organizations is the now defunct Exodus International, an umbrella organization notorious for its affiliates’  attempts to re-orient gay and lesbians persons.  The author began her ministry following seminary in this kind of environs, but over time began to question some basic tenets.  She eventually changed her approach, and that of the ministry (New Directions Canada) she led.

Relationship is central to her ministry, and to the approach of Generous Spaciousness.  Thus VanderWall-Gritter is at her best here when sharing the experiences and stories gleaned over a career in ministry with gay and lesbian Christians.  Many of them are gut-wrenching.  She is also not afraid to discuss taboo areas of this debate, such as reorientation (“praying away the gay” in common parlance), the hypocrisy of conservative Christians who are disgusted by LGBT sexuality but repeatedly fail to live up to their own standards, and the varied views within the gay Christian community itself (which is often taken to be, or presented as, monolithic).  She has stories to tell of gay Christians who choose celibacy, and gay Christians who live partnered, and still others who agonize over their sexuality for whole lifetimes.  For those of us – like myself – who have a dearth of experience with same-sex attracted Christians, Generous Spaciousness contains a wealth of anecdotes and personal accounts.

Indeed, this would have been a better book if the author focused on stories, which play to her experience, and set aside matters out of her depth – such as exegesis.  This would have been a stronger work if it were about 75 pages shorter, shorn of some material that was simply not interesting or outside the range of the author’s expertise.  The chapter on Scripture is especially stultifying, and I was immensely frustrated at the butchered reference to the (unnamed and, yes, so-called) Wesleyan Quadrilateral in the chapter on interpretation, which made all the classic errors one is not supposed to make using that particular hermeneutic lens.

Nevertheless, if the strengths and the weaknesses played see-saw, the weaknesses would remain far up in the sky.  I especially resonate with VanderWall-Gritter’s desire to adjust what she calls the “posture” of those who participate in this conversation.  In most corners of the church, postures about sexuality are rigid, set, and borderline hostile (regardless of which end of the conservative-progressive spectrum one identifies with).  But Generous Spaciousness calls us to a different, caritas-shaped posture, one built on respect for the other, for their story, and for our shared need for and love of Jesus Christ.

The quote above, taken from the concluding pages, is especially instructive.  While VanderWall-Gritter certainly has her own views and the book leans in a certain way, it doesn’t read like the usual echo-chamber propaganda.  Instead, it represents what is for her a very personal journey, some of which may be familiar to her readers and some not.  But who else has written a book on this white-hot topic without trying to convince the reader of a particular answer?

If this is book is widely read, as I believe it should be, then I believe the church can move a long way towards a better posture regarding her LGBT children, and a better discussion along the way.  Sexuality is a complex and powerful reality, and confronting it demands our best efforts and resources.  Generous Spaciousness is one such resource.  I’ll let some of the author’s concluding words finish this review:

“I believe it to be crucial that…we focus our hearts on Christ, on his desire that a unified church would be a witness to the world of his reconciling love, and on being the extension of that love to all our neighbors. I believe that hospitality is central to the heart and ministry of Jesus and that to the extent we fail to extend this hospitality to gay people, the church will fail to walk in the way of Jesus.”