Category: theology

“…in trouble most of the time.”

The language of prayer occurs primarily at one level, the personal, and for one purpose, salvation. The human condition teeters on the edge of disaster. Human beings are in trouble most of the time. Those who don’t know they are in trouble are in the worst trouble. Prayer is the language of the people who are in trouble and know it, and who believe or hope that God can get them out. As prayer is practiced, it moves into other levels and develops other forms, but trouble – being in the wrong, being in danger, realizing that the foes are too many for us to handle – is the basic provocation for prayer. Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time, and so I pray all the time.” The recipe for obeying St. Paul’s “Pray without ceasing” is not a strict ascetical regimen but a watchful recognition of the trouble we are in.

-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (1989).

Life in the City: Why not Give Up?

A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.

There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.

I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.

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State St & 35th St, looking south.

In The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”

There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how cities intend to (de)form them.

Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.

God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]

This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.

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Mural across from Reavis Elementary School.

Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands. We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.

Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.

There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation. Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.

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Promontory Point, looking north.

In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”

In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.

Marriage Limits Us

IMG_0024Maggie and I were married fifteen years ago today. After the ceremony in the beautiful stone chapel on our college campus, we receded down the aisle and into the muggy night air. The Blue Ridge Mountains – so beautiful  in that western corner of North Carolina – guided our pick up truck and twenty-one year old bodies away from the friends and family who’d gathered to bear witness. We drove into the dark night, toward something new.

All these years later it’s hard to remember what we thought we were moving toward, but I’m sure we imagined more. Somewhere wrapped within our expectations and desires was the sense that marriage opened doors and expanded horizons. And in so many ways it has. On Monday evening I tossed fresh asparagus in  olive oil and reminded Maggie that she’s responsible for my much expanded palate. Too trivial? Well then, you must not understand the sacramental goodness of springtime vegetables- but I’ll indulge your skepticism nonetheless. How about this? I care more about people than I did before marriage. My wife delights in people. If you take photos on your vacation, she will be genuinely interested in seeing the pictures and hearing your stories. You get the idea. And over these fifteen years her interest in friends and neighbors has begun to capture my own, more introverted affections.

But what we couldn’t have expected, not with any imaginative clarity at least, was how we’d each be limited by marriage. Such a grating word to our American ears, limited. But there it is, and there it’s been- a real part of our marriage. Simply, there are things she and I have not done and do not do because we are married to the other. This is partly practical. Take Maggie’s social nature for example. Though I’ve come a long way in enjoying the act of  hospitality, I’m still tired by it. And so we host less than Maggie would on her own. She knows fewer of our neighbors than she would had she remained single or married an extrovert.

But the limitations of marriage are more than practical. For us, and I suspect many others, marriage is a place of weakness. I imagine it must be similar to those who accept a monastic vocation in which they are bound in covenant to others. Such covenant relationship is sure to expose my weaknesses because I cannot walk away. I cannot leave. How much of what we perceive to be strength is just avoiding the people who bring out our worst? This isn’t possible for two people committed to moving into the deeper waters of trust and faithfulness. We remain with each other in our weakness and so we cannot deny that such weaknesses are a part of us. As the years pile up the vows we made in the chapel in front of the congregation begin to make more sense: an anchor is needed if we are to remain present and vulnerable despite the wounding potential of our weaknesses.

In all of this has been a gift that I wouldn’t trade for any American dream of a life without limits. Because, in the end, that dream is a delusion. To be human is to be limited, weak even. There’s no need to pile up examples of this- we bump into these parts of our humanity as often as we’re actually paying attention. But more than simply accepting reality, the limiting nature of marriage has shown me the flourishing that limits can nurture. Living within limits opens up possibilities of faithfulness and longevity. Remaining cognizant of my weaknesses gives the Christian practices of repentance and forgiveness an immediacy that slowly redeems.

Is such flourishing only available to the married? It’s a question that deserves a thoughtful answer but briefly, no. Like the married person, the single person will benefit from relationships that aren’t subject to transience. But unlike the married person – and I’m thinking here of Christians – the single person is free to pursue a vocation with a single-mindedness that will bring about its own encounters with limitations and weakness.

I’ve reached the concluding portion of this short essay where I should say sweet things about these fifteen years of marriage, but if you were paying attention earlier you’ll remember that I’m an introvert and so am not given to saying personal things publicly. But they have been and will again be said to the woman who stays with me and loves me in my weaknesses and despite my limits.

“…a truly magnificent possible world.”

 I suppose your thinking is that it is suffering and sin that make this world less than perfect. But then your question makes sense only if the best possible worlds contain no sin or suffering. And is that true? Maybe the best worlds contain free creatures some of whom sometimes do what is wrong. Indeed, maybe the best worlds contain a scenario very like the Christian story.

Think about it: The first being of the universe, perfect in goodness, power and knowledge, creates free creatures. These free creatures turn their backs on him, rebel against him and get involved in sin and evil. Rather than treat them as some ancient potentate might — e.g., having them boiled in oil — God responds by sending his son into the world to suffer and die so that human beings might once more be in a right relationship to God. God himself undergoes the enormous suffering involved in seeing his son mocked, ridiculed, beaten and crucified. And all this for the sake of these sinful creatures.

I’d say a world in which this story is true would be a truly magnificent possible world. It would be so good that no world could be appreciably better. But then the best worlds contain sin and suffering.

- “Is Atheism Irrational?” Interview with Alvin Plantinga in The New York Times.

A Sermon: Reading the Bible Together

Here’s a lightly edited version of this past Sunday’s sermon at New Community Covenant Church.

As a church we say that, “We desire to listen and submit to the Scripture, God’s revealed Word for His beloved children.” There are at least two important assumptions within this statement. The first is that God reveals himself through the Bible. God, being God, is so different from us that anything we know about God must be revealed by God. And though we don’t believe God has showed us everything about himself, as Christians we believe he has revealed enough for us to know him and experience his love and salvation. He has done this most importantly through his son. John’s gospel records Jesus’ praying,

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” [John 17:25-26]

Jesus, we believe, reveals God’s love and destroys every barrier to our knowing that love.

In addition to revealing himself through Jesus, Christians also believe that God is revealed through the Bible. Now, before describing what this means it’s important to note what this doesn’t mean. I said before that there are two assumptions within our statement about Scripture. These are not proofs. Attempting to objectively prove the Bible as God’s revelation can quickly devolve to a circular logic that may comfort the convinced but does little to convince the skeptical. History, archeology, and biblical studies can make the case the Bible should be taken seriously, but none of these can prove definitely that it is in fact God’s revelation. And for most of Christian history this hasn’t been a concern. It’s only in the more recent decades that Christians have felt the pressure to play on the field of enlightenment skepticism. In the past, and hopefully still, Christians were mostly concerned with living the sorts of surprising lives that made plausible the Bible’s claim of revelation. So again, as we consider the Bible as God’s revelation I’m not setting out to prove anything.

In 2 Peter 1:20-21 we read,

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Christians use different words to talk about the dynamic Peter is describing, but the critical thing to see is the presence of the Holy Spirit. We simply cannot talk about the Bible without talking about the Holy Spirit. The authors of Scripture, says Peter, were carried along by the Spirit. The Spirit inspired their writings. And the same Spirit inspires our reading.

Yale professor of history Lamin Sanneh has pointed out that one of the unique attributes of the Christianity is how its holy scriptures are so frequently translated. Few of us are fluent in the Bible’s original languages, and that’s OK. Sanneh points out that Christian translation of the Bible into people’s indigenous language is what allows the Bible to speak particularly to that people. The Spirit translates the Bible – whether it’s into an entire language or into the context of our lives.

12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

One of the many historical accuracies represented in 12 Years a Slave is how the slave masters (or the pastors on their payrolls) used the Bible to preach a message of submission by the slave to the master. Professor Brian K. Blount writes about this in Then the Whisper Put on Flesh.

“Their owners wanted them to perceive reality as they had constructed it; the slave lot in life was not only mandated by law, but was foreordained by God. God backed the bonds that held their lives in check. God made white folks free and gave them stewardship over any and every black person they could afford. In an attempt to draw God’s role as an accomplice even more sharply, slave owners and the theologians who supported them offered the Bible as the state’s primary piece of evidence for the secondary status of black Africans and, therefore, the divine prerogative of white Americans.”

We understand this abhorrent tactic. The ones with power manipulated a supposedly holy book for oppressive means. Yet, as Blount goes on to recount, something else happened. The message heard by the enslaved women and men was different than the one they heard preached.

“Jesus is an even closer companion to the slave believer because Jesus suffered as the slave suffers; Jesus can understand the pain, the tragedy, the hopelessness, the sorrow, and most important, the hope. Only one who has suffered as much can hope as steadfastly, and, if given the power that Jesus has been given, drive that hope toward a transformed – that is, liberated – reality. All of a sudden, Jesus’ monumental death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave, while continuing to signal human liberation from sin, take on the added significance of breaking the authority of the principalities and powers who preside over the institution of slavery.”

Despite the slave master’s best attempt to use the Bible to keep the slave in her place, history shows a different result: the slave encounters a liberating God who once led the Hebrew children from slavery in Egypt and who, through the power of his crucified and resurrected Son, would lead her from this new Egypt. Here we see Gods promise in Isaiah 55:11 come to miraculous fruition:” [M]y word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

It is the Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical authors and the Spirit who makes possible our reading and understanding. Which brings us to the second assumption: The Bible is for our good. We can see this in Paul’s letter to the younger Timothy.  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” [2 Timothy 3:16-17]

To be clear, the Bible doesn’t always seem that is for our good. The Bible is God’s story; one that has many twists and turns, one that we won’t always understand. It is a collection of books of ancient history, epic poetry, and narrative set within contexts that could not be more different than Chicago in 2014. It is a book that contains multiple perspectives on the same events, perspectives on God that make us squirm, and literary genres that have little comparison in our day. Despite the attempts by some to make the Bible a handy collection of answers to hard questions or inspirational sayings to help get you through a hard day, the Bible is ultimately not about us; it is about God. It is his story and is as surprising, beautiful, complicated, frustrating, and convicting as any story about God must be.

Despite the discomfort, squirming, and confusing bits, the Bible is still for our good: teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training. And there is an end to this good. Paul writes that we are equipped for every good work. In other words, the only proper Bible study is one that leads to righteous action.

So what is our action – our response – to these two assumptions about the Bible? As a church we say that we desire to listen and submit to the Scripture. Here we find at least two right responses. First, we listen to God’s story together. Hear the language Paul uses in Colossians 3:16

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.”

There are many ways people respond to the Bible. Some attempt to master its content. Others pull it out during a spiritual emergency. Many of us simply feel guilty for not reading it enough, whatever enough might me. In contrast to these responses we use the word listen. After all, Paul’s language is relational: the word dwells among us; we respond to this word with words of our own: teaching, admonishing, and singing. Given our two assumptions, we expect God to speak through the Bible, so we listen. And we listen together.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr on their way to prison.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr on their way to prison.

Fifty years ago Rev. Martin Luther King wrote is now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He was responding to group of white clergymen who had publically questioned King’s tactics and – though they may not have realized it – his theology. In response to their criticism of his presence in Birmingham King wrote,

“But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”

What if those white ministers had regularly sat around a table with their African American colleagues and simply listened to the Bible together. They never would have written that letter. Their understanding of what God was doing would have been very different. They would have realized that their singular translation of the Bible was missing some critical elements.

Baked into the a Christian understanding of God’s revelation through the Bible is the implication that we will always have a fuller understanding of God’s revelation when we hear others whose backgrounds differ from our own read and interpret the Bible.

But here’s the challenge: In America it has been assumed that the readings and interpretations of the majority culture – typically white, male, and middle class – is the normal way to read & interpret the Bible. This has many implications as we’ve seen already. One of those is that those of you who are not white, male, and middle class have been told that your reading of the Bible must conform to mine. That’s a lie! For our church to be fully whom God has called us, we need you to listen to the Bible from the particularities of your own story: our experience of gender; race; cultural foundations; the length of time you’ve been in this country. All of these matter and we need you to speak from these places. Lord knows we don’t need more white, male perspectives unless – like me – you are a white man. In which case – like me- you’d do well to listen well to your sisters and brothers who have experienced the world in very different ways.

Our second response to God’s revealed word in the Bible is that we submit. In 2 Peter 3:14-16 the church is told, in response to the Scripture, to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” Because this is God’s story we can expect to be challenged by it again and again. So Peter writes that we are to make every effort as we respond to the Scripture, despite the difficulties and challenges we encounter.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s role in the Bible’s writing and even our understanding. But when it comes to applying – to submitting – we act as though this is up to us, on our shoulders. But it’s not and this is why even a hard word – submit – a word few of us like, is a good word. For it is God who gives us the wisdom, strength, and stamina to live new and better lives in response to the Bible.

The Bible is for our good, so we can trust that our submission to it leads to healing, joy, and abundant life. Submission to the Bible by those women & men of African descent did not mean submission to the slave master’s twisted theology. Submission to the Holy Spirit-fired scriptures meant dignity; it meant resistance; it meant subversive songs; it meant escape; it even meant revolt.

The call to submit our stories to God’s story should not overwhelm us. After all, the same Spirit who inspired the writing of the Bible and our reading of the Bible is the Spirit who inspires our action, our response, and our submission.

Where is God’s Word calling you to submit to God’s Story?