Friday, November 21, 2008

"Tanzania" by Alli Rogers

Wendy and I went to hear Derek Webb last Sunday evening at Eddie's Attic with Eric & Veronica, two new and really good friends. What a blessing that night was! Webb is a prophet after the order of Micah or maybe even Jeremiah. Sandra McCracken's music (she and Derek are married) was incredibly moving. The surprise of the evening for me, however, was the music of Alli Rogers. Most intriguing lyrics and vocals Check out the video (lyrics supplied below).

It’s eight hours later in Tanzania.
When Jen lays down
Mary’s just opening her eyes.
Her child’s feet land on the ground
and dirt scatters,
And she feels left out in the open,
always left out in the open.
She says, “son, wear my shoes to school today”.
He turns and smiles and walks away,
and she thinks to herself…

Someday I will wake
where the earth is clean and safe.
My children have a place to play,
not here in Tanzania.
And someday I will live
in a house that’s built by
hands that hold the world.

It’s eight hours earlier in Chattanooga.
Mary sits down and Jen’s just put the coffee on.
Katie Couric is talking news and fashion,
and Jen feels pushed into a corner,
always pushed into a corner, she says
“Baby I know what girls at school are like”.
And her daughter rides off on her bike,
and Jen thinks to herself…

Someday I will wake
where my children get a break,
And there are chances that they’ll take,
not here in Chattanooga.
Someday I will live
in a house that’s built by
hands that hold the world.

Well it’s hard to be mother,
and it’s hard to be a woman,
and it’s hard to live in Africa sometimes.
It’s hard to be mother,
and it’s hard to be a woman,
and it’s hard to live in America sometimes.

But someday I will wake
in a body that won’t break,
On ground that doesn’t shake, not here.
And someday I will live
in a house that’s built by
hands that hold the world.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quotation of the Week

If the very nature of the church is to confront evil with suffering, cross-carrying love, and if the very nature of the state is to confront evil with threat and if necessary to confront violence with violence, how can a person be involved in both at the same time? Can a person simultaneously pull out the sword and "turn the other cheek"? --John Howard Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility (p. 26)
Pretty decent questions.

The Cross is Not a Totem Pole

"In the beginning God created human beings in his own image, and we've been returning the favor ever since." I'm not sure who said that, but shut up!

Tough as it is to be told that we often create God in our own image, I suppose it's true. It's probably true of everyone, including Christians. We Jesus followers seem to be in a never ending struggle against "creeping totemism." You know what totemism is; it's a system of belief centered around a totem. Duh. A totem is a representation of an animal or object thought to possess those attributes that a clan or tribe most appreciates in itself. If the clan cherishes wisdom, the owl may be the totem. Wise as an owl. If power or majesty are cherished traits, the eagle or lion may be the totem. Soars like an eagle or strong as a lion. You get the picture.

I've never seen a totem pole in person. Sure, I've seen pictures of them in books and on TV, but never in real life. As a kid I always imagined them to be about the size of an average human being, maybe a little taller. The first time I ever saw a cigar store Indian I thought it was a totem pole (Is that politically correct? 'Cause I'm all about political correctness). When I finally saw a picture of people standing next to a Native American totem pole I was shocked. It was at least twice their height, a broad heavy thing. Mysterious, colorful, imaginative. People obviously put a great deal of energy and devotion into the making of their totems. Problem is, with a totem they end up worshiping a representation of themselves - powerless to protect. "God is not man said in a loud voice" (thank you, K. Barth).

Hopefully this will not come as a surprise, but the Bible takes issue with all that stuff. God did not create us in His own image so we would return the favor. It seems recently, however, many of us have been doing just that - fashioning a Jesus that looks strangely, well, like us. Compile the traits and values that Americans admire. What is on the list? We certainly commend those on top, people who bring something to the table. People whose hands are full, not empty. Winners, not losers are the stuff of Americana. Ladders are for climbing; any fool can see that. Climb or be climbed over. That's how we do it. It's how success is made. It's how we make ourselves. It's the rugged individualist. Applause is for the strong. He is the man who needs no help. She is the Type A who cannot be stopped.

Maybe the recent election got to us or maybe our misplaced investment in this world's power struggles brings what is already there to the surface. In any event, when Jesus begins to sound more like a CEO than a Galilean peasant, when he sounds like Nancy Pelosi or Rick Santorum, or when Jesus is wrapped in the flag or if he's burning one, I begin to wonder if we haven't taken our most cherished traits, attributed them to Christ and set him up on a totem pole of our own devising. Derek Webb is certainly on point with his song, A King & A Kingdom:

"There are two great lies that I have heard: 'the day you eat of the fruit of that tree, you will not surely die' and that Jesus Christ was a white, middle-class Republican. And if you want to be saved you have to learn to be like Him."

Jesus was a Jew. He was poor. He loved God. He had almost no stuff. He live the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. He did not put his family first. He loved his enemies. He prayed for his persecutors. He welcomed sinners. He inexorably pursued outcasts. He refused to draw the sword and forbade it of his followers. He chose death over a violent self-defense. All you politicians who are born again, put that in your campaign ads. You'll get my vote.

(Wendy and I are going to see Derek this Sunday evening at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, btw. Here's a link for tickets. Come join us!)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Now, if the church will only follow suit...

We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this. Now, I'm sure that if the church had taken a stronger stand all along, we wouldn't have many of the problems that we have. The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body. Now, I'm not saying that society must sit down and wait on a spiritual and moribund church as we've so often seen. I think it should have started in the church, but since it didn't start in the church, our society needed to move on. The church, itself, will stand under the judgment of God. ~Dr. Martin Luther King, 1963
Dr. King's words would almost be funny if they weren't so terribly tragic: "I'm not saying that society must sit down and wait on [the] church..." It's a darn good thing society hasn't waited on us. In our defense, however, we've been busy considering some really critical issues like coffee cups in the sanctuary.
Prophets have always been a royal pain in the behind.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Only two more days! Saturday will be another wonderful MORE Hands for God Day as Disciples of Christ churches from all over Metro Atlanta meet at the City of Refuge in downtown Atlanta to share the love of Christ through service to our neighbors.

Too often in my life Derek Webb's haunting lyrics ring true:
Who's your brother, who's your sister
You just walked passed him
I think you missed her.
Together we resolve no longer to pass by or miss our brother and sister. Please keep praying that God will use our work to His glory and for His purposes. See you Saturday morning at MORE Hands for God Day. NOTE: Registration and Breakfast are at 8:30 AM!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Quotation of the Week

We do not have a blue print for what a new world of peaceful and just relationships with one another will look like. We do not know for sure how we will survive in a world yet conditioned by the logic of race. But we know that the only place where we will have the power to figure these things out is in the resurrected body of Jesus. And He is going ahead of us into Galilee. So, we follow the lead of the women – Mary, Mary and Salome – and chase after God’s new world, assured that our identity as disciples offers us a better hope than the cultural identities that we are leaving behind.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Free to Be Bound: Church Beyond the Color Line, 192.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Just Once

The laws of the United States provide an alternative to combat for the person who believes that all war is wrong. For our purposes, anyone who is convinced that as a follower of Jesus Christ, he or she should never take part in the violence of war may be excused from that "duty." This is to say, the laws provide for the pacifist conscientious objector. It is an altogether different situation for the person, Christian or otherwise, who adheres to the just war tradition. The person who holds that war may be morally justified under specific and limited circumstances has no legal recourse if, in fact, he or she determines that any given war fails to meet Just War criteria. Such a person will either participate in the military or face criminal prosecution. It matters not to the law that one's Christian faith may have something to say about the unjust nature of a conflict and that one is being asked to fight against religious principles. There is no legal provision for a selective conscientious objection to wars of the United States.

Most Christians in the USA, however, hold to precisely that view. Most claim not to be pacifists (despite the fact that the earliest Christians appear to have been almost universally pacifist), but rather Christians in this nation are almost all "just warriors" -- holding the position that if the nation's conflicts meet the criteria of a just war they may participate righteously.

That surely raises a serious practical question. When do the nation's wars not meet the criteria? When was the last time we saw conservative, "pro-America" Christians come to the conclusion that any armed conflict of the United States was "unjust"? When did we last hear evangelical leaders cry out against war? Oh, sure, we heard whines sounding eerily similar to just war rhetoric when Bill Clinton bombed an aspirin factory to divert attention from Monica-gate (though I suspect the real reason conservatives were upset was not the reckless use of force, but their inability to keep the nation's attention on the President's cigar collection). The point is, those who claim to be faithful to the Bible, who claim to follow the Prince of Peace, almost never find their own nation's wars unjustified. It is impossible to believe that all our armed conflicts have been a last resort -- and that is to name but one of the criteria for a just war. Yet evangelical Christians almost never protest against let alone refuse to take part in this nation's wars. They rally, wear ribbons, fly flags, preach sermons and enlist by the thousands. What we almost never hear is serious reflection from evangelical leaders on when Christians cannot participate in the war plans of the nation.
If the tradition which claims that war may be justified does not also admit that it could be unjustified, the affirmation is not morally serious. A Christian who prepares the case for a justified war without being equally prepared for the negative case has not soberly weighed the prima facie presumption that any violence is wrong until the case for an exception has been made. We honor the moral seriousness of the nonpacifist Christian when we spell out the criteria by which the credibility of that seriousness must be judged. (John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking, p. 82).
Two things I am waiting to see. I am waiting to see one single war waged by the US that is judged unjust by my "Just War" friends, and then I want to see a Church exploring Scripture and Tradition to determine what it means to follow the Crucified God in light of that judgment. When I see that -- just once -- it will be easier to take Just War tradition more seriously.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

Poem by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador
Martyred on March 24, 1980 while saying Mass

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen

On Not Being Content with ‘Going to Church’

When he returned from a “mission trip” to Brazil, one church member said this: “The church in Brazil behaved as if it were a mission church, which made sense to me while I was there, because they are in a foreign field. It was only later, and I admit this to my embarrassment, it was only later that it dawned on me that Brazil isn’t a foreign field to them! All they were being was what they are called to be.”

That the church has a God-given mission is clear to most of us. What is not always so clear is this: the church doesn’t just have a mission; the church IS a mission. No matter where an authentic Christian community is located, be it Beverly Hills, downtown Atlanta, or Port-au-Prince, it is a mission: sent, empowered, and directed by Christ Jesus himself.

Poverty is clearly greater in some places than in others, but the need for the gospel of Jesus Christ is great everywhere. Thus it is no exaggeration to say that Brazil is no more of a mission field than Atlanta. Haiti is no more of a mission field than Buckhead (there’s a head-scratcher for you). You can go on a mission trip without ever leaving town – because God has set you and this church in a mission field.

I visited a church once that had a large sign at the parking lot entrance which said “Welcome.” Nothing remarkable about that. The thing about this sign was it had another message on the back, turned in toward the church so that you could read it only when leaving the property. It said simply, “You are now entering the mission field.”

It’s possible we’ve contented ourselves with just “going to church” when our number one priority is to “be” the church, i.e., God’s mission to the last, the least, the lost. Faithfulness begins when we discover that, while we have a mission, it is just as important to see that we are a mission.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted

I am so tempted to help this stuff make sense. Surely you can see why. On its face this beatitude is absurd. "Blessed are those who mourn." What the heck does that mean? Happy are the sad? How fortunate are those who are weeping? Congratulations to you with broken hearts? If that makes sense to you, then please take a seat at the head of the class and leave me here with my dunce cap because to me it seems the exact opposite would be true.

I might expect to hear Jesus say, "Go and comfort those who mourn," or "Tough break all you mourners," or "Keep your chin up, mourners," or even "What a rotten thing it is to mourn." But no, Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed. They are fortunate and have reason to be glad. And just what is the reason mourners are blessed? Help is coming. They will be comforted.

Now, that's a divine passive if ever there was one. God is the great Comforter. It's a reminder that God never abandons the grieving. Though He may seem distant, silent, even cold -- Mathew says He sees our grief and he will make it right. Thus, mourners are fortunate and even they -- no, especially they have reason to be glad.

Commentators seem drawn to tell us what the mourning is all about. Mourning over personal failures, or over the state of the world, over sin, decay , disease. Mourning over lost persons. But Jesus doesn't complete the painting, he merely makes a broad stroke. "Blessed are those who mourn." If He doesn't qualify its meaning, then perhaps we shouldn't either.
Mourning cannot be limited exclusively to expressing sorrow for one's sin... or grief surrounding death.... Rather, "those who mourn" has the more comprehensive sense of Isaiah 61:2-3, an inclusive grief that refers to the disenfranchised, contrite, and bereaved. It is an expression of the intense sense of loss, helplessness, and despair. --Robert A. Guelich, The Sermon on the Mount.
Sometimes when we are filled with gladness and life is easy, we feel less need for God and have less room for Him in our lives. Maybe, and I imagine you've experienced this before, maybe suffering and pain, mourning and grief are blessing, even cause for gladness at times because they hollow out in us a space for God and his comfort. Blessed are those whose grief reveals in them the God-void, for God Himself will fill their deepest need.

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?

A world filled with love is a wonderful sight.
Being in love is what's heart's delight.
But that look of love isn't on my face;
That enchanted feeling has been replaced.

As I walk this land of broken dreams,
I have visions of many things
But happiness is just an illusion
Filled with sadness and confusion

What becomes of the brokenhearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind

The fruits of love grow all around
But for me, they come a-tumblin' down
Every day, heartaches grow a little stronger
I can't stand this pain much longer

I walk in shadows searching for light
Cold and alone, no comfort in sight
Hoping and praying for someone who'll care
Always moving and going nowhere

What becomes of the brokenhearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
Help me

I'm searching though I don't succeed
For someone's look, there's a growing need
All is lost, there's no place for beginning
All that's left is an unhappy ending

Now, what becomes of the brokenhearted
Who had love that's now departed?
I know I've got to find
Some kind of peace of mind
I'll be searching everywhere
Just to find someone to care

I'll be looking every day
I know I'm going to find a way
Nothing's gonna stop me now
I will find a way somehow
I'll be searching everywhere
(fade out)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The kingdom of heaven can be received only by empty hands

It is really only the poor in spirit who can, actually, have anything, because they are the ones who know how to receive gifts. To them everything is a gift. --Simon Tugwell, The Beatitudes: Soundings in Christian Traditions

We are to be spiritually poor only for the sake of becoming spiritually rich, detached from what own so that we can be attached in a different way to what we cannot own, detached from consuming so that we can be consumed by God. --Peter Kreeft, Back to Virtue

Right at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicted all human judgments and all nationalistic expectations of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is given to the poor, not the rich; the feeble, not the mighty; to little children humble enough to accept it, not to soldiers who boast that they can obtain it by their own prowess. --John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit: A verse that puts a smile on the face and a spring in the step!

I think if most of us were really familiar with the text of the Bible we'd soon discover that Matthew 5:3 contains our favorite part of Scripture. Not John 3:16, not Psalm 23. Not the creation stories nor the Passion. I'm not suggesting that this is one of our favorite parts of the Bible, rather I'm saying it is our most favorite part of the Bible, though I think we'll all take umbrage at the idea. But it's not the whole of the verse, mind you, only the particular phrase "in spirit." Blessed are the poor in spirit. "In spirit" is our favorite passage. No need to memorize it because it is already in our hearts. Enjoy it; savor it; own it: in spirit.

All I can say is thank God for the "in spirit" addendum. Jesus really had me going there for a minute. And I bet I'm not the only one. Blessed are the poor? Riiiiiight. You just knew Jesus had to be setting us up with the whole "Blessed are the poor" thing. Startling us a little to get our attention before adding the liberating phrase, "in spirit."

"In spirit" is wonderful. It does everything we need it to do. Frankly, it salvages the whole verse by spiritualizing words of Jesus that were otherwise decidedly unspiritual. "In spirit" completely saves the first beatitude. A rather earthy and, if I may say so, objectionable saying (blessed are the poor) becomes a quite palatable. It allows us to understand that there are a lot of types of poverty all of which can affect our spirit. But mostly, "in spirit" is wonderful because it allows us to remain rich and still be "blessed." Why? Well, because we are "poor... in spirit." God bless us all -- everyone!

What a wonderful thing it is to know that we can still be utterly self-reliant, high achievers living high lifestyles, who need nothing from anyone -- and still receive the blessing of the Kingdom -- because of our rich poverty.

A few heads nod in puzzled agreement.
Nobody laughs.
Very few weep.

But those who do weep know what's up. Rich people, even rich church members are in a heap of trouble. Why? Because we have all we need. We have more than we want. We smile when talking about security. We don't need to rely on others, or even on God -- only on ourselves. Our plates are piled high, our closets are overflowing, our confidence soars. We are blessed!

To the losers, to the abjectly poor, to those whose circumstances beat them down so low that they are forced to turn to the only real Help anyone can get anyway -- to these, but never to the rich Jesus says, "You, my friends, are fortunate indeed. You get the whole kingdom"

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Sermon on the Mount

The Sermon on the Mount is like the "constitution" of the Church according to Emory professor Tom Long. It is the charter document for life in Jesus' Kingdom. Much like the U.S. Constitution sets forth, among other things, the sort of citizens the founders hoped would make up the United States, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus draws a picture of those who belong to His Kingdom. It is Jesus' own understanding of what his followers are, should be, and will be. In our denomination (Disciples of Christ) we often refer newcomers to the wonderful little book Handbook for Today's Disciples by Duane Cummins. If there is a definitive handbook for how to follow Jesus, it is his Sermon on the Mount.

There was a time when the Sermon played a huge role in the life of nearly every believer. For the first few hundred years of the church's existence it was the most often quoted part of the Bible. In preaching and teaching -- allusion to and quotation of the Sermon was central. Today it is mainly ignored and/or interpreted away except maybe in the Anabaptist traditions where they still think Jesus wasn't kidding. I leave it for others to tell us how and why the Sermon went from the center of the church's teaching to the periphery; rather, my concern is to place it once again in the center of my little corner of the church.

So today I'll begin blogging through the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. There are a couple of things that might be helpful to keep in mind, or maybe to use as guidelines in reading the Sermon.
  1. The Sermon on the Mount “is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus” (Hauerwas, 61). That is to say, you will not find in the Sermon rules that must be kept in order to be saved, but a picture of the way those who are saved live. This is what followers of Jesus look like.
  2. The Sermon is not to be dismissed as an impossible ideal that is wonderful to strive for, but cannot ever be reached. Jesus, as we will learn, really expects us to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile. One of my fundamental convictions about Matthew 5-7 is we make very poor disciples apart from the Sermon on the Mount. Converts, yes. Disciples, no. And it is disciples that Jesus commands us to make -- and become.
At the very end of Jesus' time on earth, in the days after his ministry had ended, in the time after Easter but just before he was to ascend back into heaven with His Father, Jesus gathered with his friends on a mountain top to deliver his final instructions (28:18ff): Make disciples, he says. Baptize them. And then Jesus instructs the group...

"Teach the new followers to obey all things I have commanded you."

In telling the story this way, Matthew wants us to hearken back to an earlier time, another mountain -- when Jesus delivered his most famous Sermon, in which Jesus lays out his program, his vision of life in God's Kingdom. It is the single most important passage in the Bible for those who want to know, "What does God want of those who are saved by His grace?"

At the close of the Sermon, Matthew notes that, "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching." They are astonished at Jesus' preaching. I suppose we'll have to wait to see if their astonishment turned into something more substantial.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Encounter

Dawn Husnick was a young nurse in a Chicago Emergency room when she had The Encounter . He was a “lock-down” patient -- violent, with psychotic episodes who had been brought in off the streets one evening. His feet were wrapped in plastic bags, barely disguising their mold-covered, puss-oozing state. Dawn was instructed to take him to the hazmat shower, and though the man desperately needed his feet treated and tended to with antiseptics and antibiotics, the charge nurse's instructions were simply to get him into the shower as a bare minimum.

She wasn't terribly anxious to treat the man, but reflecting later on the episode Dawn writes: “This poor shell of a man had no one to love him…No one in the ER that day really looked at him and no one wanted to touch him. They wanted to ignore him and his broken life. But as much as I tried…I could not.”

So she laid out all of the tools and supplies to treat his feet, prepared warm towels and a chair, and when he was finished with the shower, she led him to the chair and she knelt down to tend his broken feet: “The room was quiet as the once-mocking security guards started to help by handing me towels. As I patted the last foot dry, I looked up and for the first time [his] eyes looked into mine. For that moment he was alert, aware and weeping as he quietly said, ‘Thank you’. In that moment, I was the one seeing Jesus. He was there all along, right where he said he would be."

It was in a Chicago Emergency room that Dawn Husnick had her Encounter. Where will you have yours?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Jesus Doesn’t Do Hyperbole

It was a moment that could only occur in one of those Bible studies that can only take place among Christians who live privileged lives -- who have a lot invested in the here and now, who have a great deal to lose. We were studying the the Sermon on the Mount. As you know, that’s not the easiest piece of Scripture to swallow, so one has to read it with defenses at the ready. And we were ready. You simply have to be when you know how prone Jesus is to making unworkable, unreasonable demands.

And the timing of the moment was perfect. Someone read Matthew 5:38-48 with all its gristle (which is no problem because you can always spit it out), and before our teacher could even begin the lesson some obviously experienced Christian provided the moment: “Does Jesus really mean to say…?” And with that one move, we emasculated the Sermon and empowered ourselves. Listen. Can't you hear the honesty, the searching, and the humility in the question? “Does Jesus really mean…?” Trouble is, it's not really a question. It is a declaration, and the declaration is this: Long live me.

Of course, we never simply deny that Jesus is Lord, flatly rejecting all his impractical commands (we are Christians, after all). No, instead we simply ask the question that allows us to take Jesus’ Sermon “seriously” without going crazy and having it destroy our lives as we plan to live them.

I remember that someone in the class that day noted, "It’s really hard to tell when Jesus is using hyperbole and when he wants us to take him literally." Heads nodded.

Here's a hard truth to remember for your next Bible study: Jesus doesn’t much deal in hyperbole.

Do not resist an evil person
Turn the other cheek
Go the extra mile
Love your enemies
Pray for those who persecute you

Understatement maybe, but not hyperbole -- even though we’d rather they be. Because if Jesus is just the Great Exaggerator, then I can dismiss what he says and determine the level of "self-sacrifice" I'm comfortable with in my "discipleship." But if he’s speaking literally then, well, he wants my whole life. All of me.

"What do you want from us, Jesus?"
And Jesus sighing, answers, "Take up your cross and follow me."
"Wonder what he could mean by that?" we ask each other with a shrug.

It's a fairly typical day when Jesus comes walking into my home, your office, our church. Just as he had done with the fishermen by the sea of Galilee, Jesus looks us squarely in the eye and challenges, "Follow me."

Some will.
And some won’t.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Take up your... ballot?

Every political season you hear it. Most of the time it comes from the religious (Christian) right, but the left is hardly immune. Shrill. Frantic. Almost panicky they tell us that "this is the most critical election ever..." All sorts of doom is predicted for the United States (and beyond) if their candidate is not elected and if the opposition's candidate is elected. We heard it when Reagan ran against and defeated Carter.
"Carter will destroy the country!"
"Reagan will destroy the world!"

I am hearing the same thing now. I read this on a "Christian" website: "This is the most critical election of our lifetime! What’s at stake? The definition of marriage as one man, one woman. Protection of unborn children, Religious freedom, and so much more!"

Then they tell us (Christians) that we should get out and vote (for their candidate) as though the most important contribution the church can make is to vote the right people into office thus helping make the nation a little more moral. Do they really think that's all this nation needs?

Let me be clear: the church does not exist to make a contribution to society, but to witness to the world's true Lord. The church's political responsibility is to call principalities and powers to repentance, and to model an alternative "politics" (as seen in everyday, ordinary Christian community) in which turning the other cheek, giving up the best seat to others, serving the poor, loving the enemy, and practicing nonviolence are everyday occurrences.

A few thoughts about politics;
  1. Nations do not rule the world; God rules the world. Thus the seat of power is not the White House, the Kremlin or any such place. He who sits in the heavens laughs.
  2. The church does not exist to make the nation a little more ethical. Our concern is death, burial, and resurrection -- a message and a way of living that nations find unhelpful to their cause.
  3. We Christians look to the secular political order to affect lasting change and to "make a difference" in the world precisely to the extent that we despair of the power of the Gospel to make all things new. Christ is "the world's last best hope" with all due respect to Bill Bennett.
  4. Our first allegiance is to Christ. Number two is not even close. There may not be room for a number two. This may be among the toughest lessons to learn for Christians who live in relatively "prosperous," "peaceful" and "free" nations.
  5. If you vote, do so as one who follows Jesus -- and not as one who merely follows his or her own interests. Any narcissistic fool can vote his wallet, and most do. At the very least, baptized citizens of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed have just a little bit more than that to consider.
Take up your ballot and follow me?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Bishop NT Wright: "Life After Life After Death" or "Why We Care About the Poor & the Suffering"

A Rabbi's Penetrating Question

Ever wonder what it might take for the world to consider the church interesting again? Sure, we can offer "contemporary" worship, buy billboards, have great kids' programs, and a cutting edge website. I am willing to go on the record as being in favor of all these things, by the way. I'm also willing to say that none of these things are capable of capturing the interest, let alone the hearts and minds of an unbelieving world.

I came across this question today by a Jewish Rabbi, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. Surveying the American political-religious scene, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi wants to know...

Why is it that people like President Bush, who pledge allegiance to the teachings of the master from Nazareth, ignore the teachings of lovingkindness, of feeding the hungry, of taking care of the sick?

I know some will resent the question even being asked, but President Bush invited such question every time he used his Christian faith to ingratiate himself to the electorate, not to mention the day he acknowledged the Lordship of Christ. We will reasonably ask the same questions of Obama or McCain

If he were to follow those teachings in relationship to health, education, and welfare and follow the tenet that “blessed are the peacemakers” rather than produce the greatest number of weapons of mass destruction on earth, I would believe his religious commitment.

... Someone who simply takes doctrinal clues, rather than those that arise from compassion, will not know what to do in the voting booth.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Savior on Capitol Hill

Turn up the speakers and check this out. The lyrics are supplied below.
I'd love to hear what you think about the song.

I’m so tired of these mortal men
with their hands on their wallets and their hearts full of sin
scared of their enemies, scared of their friends
and always running for re-election
so come to DC if it be thy will
because we’ve never had a savior on Capitol Hill

you can always trust the devil or a politician
to be the devil or a politician
but beyond that friends you’d best beware
’cause at the Pentagon bar they’re an inseparable pair
and as long as the lobbyists are paying their bills
we’ll never have a savior on Capitol Hill

all of our problems gonna disappear
when we can whisper right in that President’s ear
he could walk right across the reflection pool
in his combat boots and ten thousand dollar suit

you can render unto Caesar everything that’s his
you can trust in his power to come to your defense
it’s the way of the world, the way of the gun
it’s the trading of an evil for a lesser one
so don’t hold your breath or your vote until
you think you’ve finally found a savior up on Capitol Hill

(music and lyrics by Derek Webb)

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Unleash Your Inner Rock Star

Our nephew came over to the house one day last week, and brought his Guitar Hero with him. If you're not familiar with Guitar Hero, it is essentially an interactive game in which the "player" (and I use that word very loosely) is equipped with a "guitar" (another word I use very loosely) that is a linked to a game console (like a PS2) which is also linked to your TV. And as I understand it, the "player" takes the "guitar" thingy, turns it on, and the game console begins to play some classic Rock & Roll song over the TV. As colored notes cascade down the TV screen, the"guitar player" must press the corresponding color-coded fret buttons on the neck of the guitar -- precisely as the notes hit the bottom of the TV screen. Whew! It's all very complicated to anyone over 15 years old -- and apparently not real easy even for kids.

Carl Sandburg once wrote, "Let's be honest now For a couple of minutes Even though we're in Chicago." Maybe we could apply that suggestion to life in the church. Much of what we (note: 1st person plural) do in the church, ostensibly in the name of Jesus, much of what we spend money and time and talent on (meetings and programs and activities and stuff) has very little to do with actually following Jesus. I'm not sure how we got into this, but I am sure that's so. Maybe it's because we forget sometimes that becoming a disciple of Christ is a life-long journey, and not a moment in time when we "give our hearts to Jesus" (and I'm all for giving one's heart to Jesus), and so we mistakenly think we've "arrived." I don't know, maybe. Or maybe we forget that we need to develop certain practices in our lives, practices that take a long time and great effort to learn. And maybe we've found things, good things, religious things, things that are a lot easier than turning the other cheek, feeding the poor, telling others about Jesus, taking up our cross and we've hidden inside these good things instead of abiding in Jesus. Maybe. Let's be honest now for a couple of minutes even though we're in the church. Isn't it possible that we've created a safer, simpler, more socially acceptable version of what Jesus calls us to be and to do. It's close. It's very much like the real thing -- and sometimes, by God's grace it even is the real thing. But not that often, not really.

Benjamin, our 14 year old son, was excitedly telling me about his Guitar Hero experience late the other night.
"Is it hard to do?" I asked.
"Oh yeah. You have to practice for hours and hours to be any good at all."
"And does it teach you how to play a real guitar?" It was an honest question. Promise.
"No, dad. Geez," rolling his eyes. I am so stupid sometimes.
"It doesn't teach you how to play a real guitar?"
"Nope," uttered in pretend exasperation. A playful smile crossed his face.
"So let me get this straight: it's a game which is designed to have a "player" hold a "guitar" or at least something that looks like and functions similarly to a guitar which also requires hours and hours of practice just so the "player" can master the like-a-guitar-thing without ever learning how to actually play a single song on a real instrument? Right?"
"See, dad? Even you can learn new things."
"Ben, here's an idea: instead of practicing for hours on Guitar Hero, why not practice on a real guitar and learn to play, you know, like real songs?"

He just stared at me a few seconds with a blank "does not compute" look on his face and just turned back to whatever he'd been doing.

Now, I'm not against games. I love games. I'm not even really opposed to Guitar Hero (taken in moderation). Lord knows I've spent a few evenings playing Monopoly and am yet to buy my first railroad or hotel.

But isn't there something sad, something empty about spending one's life practicing something that is very much like the real thing? Close. Close, yet not... not quite it.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Imagine This

Poor, starving, war torn, and desperate, they borrow from the wealthiest nations and then cannot repay the loans. Their debt undermines any hope of economic recovery, which means more poverty, more starvation, more war, greater desperation. Sometimes the loans are taken out by tyrants, dictators (often "puppet regimes" placed in power by wealthy Western countries). Long after the dictator de jour is gone, the debt remains and precious monies that could alleviate suffering flow into the hands of the ├╝ber rich.
Just imagine that, when your uncle died, you discovered your family had inherited his debts...

Just imagine that the banks seized your home and much of your parents’ wages, forcing you all to live on a rubbish tip...

Just imagine that you were turned away from school, because the money had been used for debt repayments...

Just imagine that when your sister went to hospital to have her baby, they turned her away too...

Just imagine that, having only polluted stream water to drink, several of your brothers and sisters sickened and died...

Just imagine that you see your parents worn out by work and worry, and you know that you will inherit the debt...

This isn’t imagination! This is the tragic reality of the lives of hundreds of millions of young people in the poorer countries. (from On Dropping the Debt)
You'll have to look high and low to find someone who knows less about third world debt, national economies, and the actual impact of debt-relief than I do. But these things I do know:
The relief of global debt has actually been figured out. There are serious economists and bankers who have worked on this. I'm not an economist or a banker, but I have seen and talked to people in that field. They've got strategies where if you do this now, then you can do that next year, and so on. There would be ways through. Somebody said the sort of broad-brush sums we're talking about would cost, say, America roughly the amount that it spends on going to the movies each year. It would cost roughly that amount to put the whole thing back the right way around. Then we could all proceed together. What really sticks in my throat is that while all this is going on, the American government, along with my own government [UK] and several others, talk about bringing freedom and justice to the world, when we are doing the precise opposite. Use of imperial rhetoric to cover up our own consistent greed … if we have any Christian moral courage, this is what we ought to be talking about. Face it, we are in a world where two-thirds of the people are poor and crying for justice. One-third of the people are rich and wanting more sex. I want to say, what is wrong with this picture? This cannot be the way the Creator-God intended the cosmos to work. (NT Wright in an interview in the National Catholic Reporter, emphasis mine)

Don't miss this wonderful evening!!

Book Discussion this Saturday Night -- August 9
Good Friends and Lively Discussion

Make plans to attend our exploration of
The Shack
by William P. Young

Hosted by the Michael and Jennifer Higgins

Potluck dinner at 6PM

For more information, please email me:

Friday, August 1, 2008

"Hey Dad, I need a [fill in the blank]..."

"And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:19

Big whoop. What American doesn't already know that? If we hadn't been created by such a God, we'd almost surely have created Him. In fact, God (this particular God) is all we ever wanted, and I have serious doubts as to whether we would put up with any other sort. We are served by a God who sees our needs and acts with some serious divine need-meeting. This God is like a Genie in a bottle, and our only wish is, "I wish that my every wish would come true."

This really is a great deal. We have needs (do we ever?!), and God meets every single one of them. I'm not making this up; it's in the Bible and Paul said it. If you have a need, God will meet that need. How do I know I have a need? It's easy. If I want it, I need it.

I need a haircut (and not some $12 hack job).
I need a late model BMW (God's servants must show forth His generosity).
I need new clothes (I'll donate the old stuff to make room in the closet).
I need a hamburger ("give us this day...").
I need to be happy (surely God wants no less for me).

The list goes on and on and on and on. Not to worry, though. God will supply my every need.

The church has to be very careful when it begins to talk about "meeting people's needs." What are needs, and who decides what they are? Given that we live in a fundamentally narcissistic culture driven by ever unquenched desires, um, excuse me, "needs," can we really be trusted to determine what our real needs are?

Jesus doesn't meet our needs; he rearranges them. He cares very little about most things that I assume are my needs, and he gives me needs I would've never had if I hadn't met Jesus. He reorders them.

I used to ask seminarians, "Why are you in seminary?" They'd say, "I like meeting people's needs." And I'd say, "Whoa. Really? If you try that with the people I know, they'll eat you alive."

Now, if you're a pastor in Honduras, it might be okay to define your ministry as meeting needs, because more people in Honduras have interesting biblical needs – food, clothing, housing. But most people in the churches I know get those needs met without prayer. So they've moved on to "needs" like orgasm, a satisfying career, an enjoyable love life, a positive outlook on life, and stuff the Bible has absolutely no interest in. (from an interview with Will Willimon).

It is more than merely possible that most of what we consider needs are not really needs at all. Maybe we have developed some itches that are not worth scratching. And beyond that, maybe one way the church can serve Jesus faithfully is by pointing out those things that are worth wanting and those that are not. In doing that we might even learn not to want them ourselves.

Anyway, I'd write more, but my kids need a PlayStation3 and I need to get to Walmart.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vaya Con Dios

Dearest Jeremy and Tracy,

Nothing very poetic or profound is coming to mind right now. Silly as it is, I'd hoped to write you guys something that sounded a little like Frost wrote it, something with depth but also a little emotional, recalling the last several years and anticipating the great adventure before you. Alas, it's still my fingers at the keyboard, and despite my efforts not to be selfish, I feel a great deal of loss right now. I'd hoped that somehow plans would change, and that you would stay in Atlanta. I've put this letter off for weeks, but it is time to write.

Let me hasten to say that despite my melancholy I am very happy for both of you. Tracy, this move will be a great blessing to Evan and Garrett. I know you already create a wonderful environment for your children, but the benefit of your presence at home will be beyond calculation. I am very happy for the kids, and for you.

In Hauerwas' book, A Community of Character, he wrote: " of the most morally substantive things any of us ever has the opportunity to do is to have children. A child represents our willingness to go on in the face of difficulties, suffering, and the ambiguity of modern life and is thus our claim that we have something worthwhile to pass on." (p. 165)

I read Hauerwas' comment to mean that the bearing of children is a type of ethical dissent from the world's authorities. The world may thunder, "No!" but in Jesus Christ we are made bold to answer, "Yes!" We do more in becoming parents than merely say "there is something worth living for," although that is no small claim. We are also saying there is something worth dying for, something worth teaching, something worth handing down to our children. In short, we have children so that we might make them disciples of Jesus Christ - a mission clearly not lost on you.

Jeremy, do you remember when we were discussing forming a new Sunday school class? When you shared your vision of what the class might become I knew it was going to be tremendous success. By the way, is it possible that was really six years ago? Brother, thank you so much for your faithfulness to the Open Word. I've never seen a better Sunday school teacher, or one who thought more pastorally about his or her class than you. The members of your class have benefited greatly by your teaching and much more so by simply watching you follow Jesus.

It would be difficult to overstate how important the two of you have been in the life of PCC for the last several years. I am certain I couldn't overstate how important you've been in my life. You've been wonderful friends to me. At times when I needed friends, you've been there. The times we've prayed together, studied together and discussed theology and discipleship over lunch have been more important for my life than I let you know. You've both reminded me, and in many ways, that there is no disconnect between true theology and praxis; rather, they are two sides of the same thing. Your thoughtful ways of approaching issues not only helped me clarify my own perspectives, but also enabled me to be a better disciple. Thank you.

May you meet your new opportunities and challenges with the grace and faithfulness that have been yours through Jesus Christ. May your expectations for your lives and those of your children be as high (and as low) as the Father would have them. May your new home be a haven for those shoved to the margins. May your children grow up to be followers of the Way, and may you live to see their professions of faith and baptisms. May your new careers be a source of joy, not only to you and to others, but primarily to your King. And may you, my dearest sister and brother, be always and forever loyal subjects of "the world's true Lord."

Pax Christi,


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My Cheesus, I Love Thee

Apparently not everyone in the "show me" state is as hard to convince as the nickname implies. Kelly Ramey of High Ridge, MO recently opened a bag of Cheetos (presumably looking only for crunchy cheesy delectables) when she discovered the Lord of the Universe revealed therein. A seemingly ordinary sack of snack contained One very special Cheeto -- the Divine Cheeto. Cue organ music. As Mrs. Ramey feasted on the cheesy goodness one unique Cheeto caught her eye. It was wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in her fingers.

Just kidding. I made that part up, and I apologize. There is no need to get silly when discussing Jesus in Cheetos. Actually, Mrs. Ramey nearly ate the aforementioned epiphany when she noticed that her next morsel looked just like Jesus on a cross. She and her husband, unnamed in the report (which makes him the smartest person in the "news" story), named the Cheeto, "Cheesus." Perfect. I don't want you to miss this point (we preachers always have points): Mrs. Ramey actually had the courage to show Cheesus to her friends and neighbors and explain to them what she saw. In my estimation, this makes her, the boldest witness in the history of Christendom. Most agreed with her -- it looks like Jesus. Still others doubted. Go figure.

The story did not say whether Cheesus has healing abilities. You have to wonder, though. The whole thing raises for me another, less exciting question: where should we expect to find Jesus?

Enter the expert. Knowing at least that you can't leave these things in the hands of the untrained, someone in High Ridge, MO summoned the local pastor. When asked, the preacher said he saw nothing "theologically special" about the Cheeto Thank you, Cheesus. What a relief! But, does that mean there could be something theologically ordinary about the Cheeto? It's worth considering.

Anyway, Cheesus, it turns out, is not for sale. The Ramey's intend to put Cheesus in a box (don't we always?) and have him/it on display for all to enjoy. Mrs. Ramey added, "I think the bottom line is the joy that it is bringing; I really do." Maybe she's right, but I disagree. To me, the bottom line is that they are cooked to a crackly crunch and are yummy beyond description.

Of course, people have seen Jesus in a lot of things over the years. I once served in a church camp where kids were encouraged to see Jesus in everything -- Jesus in the bark of a tree, Jesus in the dung left by wild animals (it was a raccoon), Jesus in the gravel dumped the day before by a big truck, and Jesus in weeds winding their way up a pole. So, to me, seeing Jesus in Cheesus is not so big a stretch. Isn't that the way God works? Always surprising us and appearing where we'd expect him least.

Call me a fundy and hand me a big black Bible, but my suggestion is that, instead of looking for Jesus in Cheetos and raccoon poo, we might try seeing him in the poor. Take the Cheeto (or maybe something a tad more nutritious) and hand it to the homeless man sitting by the curb. Make some sandwiches and deliver them to a shelter. You may well be surprised whose face you see there. While we're at it, maybe we should also look to see Jesus in the word of Scripture. It is a dusty, archaic old book, but it has served us well for a long time and delivers far more nutrition at funerals than Cheetos.

Someone said of the whole Cheeto ordeal, "This is not a divine discovery, but some good could come from all of this." Um, I'm not so sure. Especially not if you swallow it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Open House?

"If they so much as start toward the bedrooms I will tackle them on the stair case or yell, 'Fire! Fire!' and run out of the house."

Wendy knew I wasn't kidding. It had been one of those weeks (or one of those months) in which we'd had meetings or ballgames every night, and ballgames all day on Saturdays. No one had done any laundry or made a bed or picked up a stitch off the floor. The last thing we wanted was for anyone to see what pigs we were, so of course, you know precisely where this story is going.

The phone rang; I answered, and the conversation went something like this:

"Hey Rev.! We're right around the corner, and just wanted to make sure you were at home. We'll be there in a couple of minutes. We can't stay long. I hope it suits..."

"Well, as a matter of fact, this is not a good... [click! bzzzzz]. Hello? Hello!!?? Awww @#$%! Wendy!"

The next two minutes were spent trying to close bedroom doors, tidy up the downstairs bathroom, which was hopeless because we have two boys who, when they were younger, thought using the toilet was sort of like horse shoes. Just get it close... Thank goodness the kitchen and downstairs were semi-respectable.

The doorbell rang roughly 30 seconds after the phone call ended. I swear they were already in the driveway when they called. Panicked that someone might just see us as we really are or at least as we are when we haven't cleaned up for company, I turned to Wendy with a big smile (because our "guests" could see me through the glass on the front door): "If they so much as start toward the bedrooms I will tackle them on the stair case or yell, 'Fire! Fire!' and run out of the house."

Like Adam and Eve covering themselves with fig leaves and hiding from God, we spend much of our lives not wanting anyone, not anyone, to see us as we really are. How far removed we are from Eden.
[As Christians,] we aren't meant simply to invite people into our homes, but into our lives as well. Having guests and visitors, if we do it right, isn't an imposition because we aren't meant to rearrange our lives for our guests—we're meant to invite our guests to enter into our lives as they are. It is this forging of relationships that transforms entertaining (i.e., deadly dull parties at the country club) into hospitality (i.e., a simple pizza on my floor). As writer Karen Burton Mains puts it, "Visitors may be more than guests in our home. If they like, they may be friends."

I don't find inviting people into my life much easier than inviting them into my apartment. At its core, I think, cultivating an intimacy in which people can know and be known requires being honest—practicing that other Christian discipline of telling the truth about where we live and how we got there. Often, I'd rather dissemble. Often, just as I'd rather welcome guests into a cozy apartment worthy of Southern Living, I'd rather show them a Lauren who is perfect and put together and serene. Often, telling the truth feels absurd (Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Bath, p. 50f).

So you see, asking people into my life isn't so different from asking them into my apartment. Like my apartment, my interior life never is going to be wholly respectable, cleaned up, and gleaming. But that's where I live. In the certitude of God, I ought to be able to risk issuing the occasional invitation (Mudhouse Bath, 53).

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Axe Murderers, Angels and Alex

"Dad, pull over and pick him up! He's just a kid."

I had seen the hitchhiker way over on the right side of the highway, but since we were in the far left HOV lane and moving sort of fast, and since I knew it would be dangerous even to try to stop, I had not considered it. The fact that I don't want a knife planted in the back of my neck may have also played a role in my decision to keep going.

"He's probably an axe murderer," I said. "Plus, I am needed at the hospice," - a beautifully played religion card.

"Dad!" Andrew would have none of it. "Pull over."

"Ugh. " I said, the love of Jesus evident in my groan. Pulling over I promised Andrew that when this guy drew his knife or gun or whatever he surely had in store for us, he would need kill only me because the first thing I was going to do was dive for Andrew's neck! Andrew smiled as if happy at making the old man live up to all that Jesus stuff he's endured since birth.

So, at great peril to myself (not unlike St. Paul enduring raging seas en route to share the gospel in new territory, I might add), I cut across four lanes of I-75 and pulled over to a stop - about 200 yards past the hitchhiker. I could see him running toward us and I sized him up all the way. My car was still in gear. He had one small blue duffel bag and an extra long skateboard that was nearly as big as he was. He stood all of 5'6" and weighed no more than 100 lbs. Red, unkempt hair and pimples. He wore tattered jeans and a green tank top. A checkered scarf lay round his neck. It looked like it needed a broach on it. A very skinny kid, he looked real young - 15, 16 maybe.

"Where you headed?" I asked as he got to the car. "Please say 'next exit'. Please say 'next exit'," I thought.

"Far as you can take me," he said.

"But specifically where are you going?"

"Salt Lake City, Utah" he said with the faint sound of resignation in his voice.

Relieved that we were going different directions - soon - and that we thus couldn't take him very far at all, I replied, "Well, we'll be heading East on I-285," gesturing toward the large green sign above us. "That's only about two miles, but I guess we can take you that far." I must have sounded quite chipper. It feels good to help people.

"Every little bit helps," he replied, quoting the hitchhiker creed.

Turns out he was actually 18 years old though he did not look it. He'd been on vacation in West Palm Beach with his (soon to be former) roommate and some "friends." Three mornings earlier he'd awakened to find the room empty and his wallet gone. He had four bucks on him. Hitchhiking for three days, sleeping in the woods, eating whatever he could, he was now in my car. Ugh.

We hadn't traveled 100 yards together when I knew we were going places I would not choose. I hate admitting it, but I wasn't really excited about helping this kid. No warm feeling of the good volunteer swept over me. This was an interruption. I had important God-business to do. I was on my way to the PCC Hospice to visit a dying friend and I was in a hurry to get there. Further, I was delighted that my college sophomore son Andrew had been willing to accompany me, and I was looking forward to some rare time alone with him. But this hitchhiker kid was small, frail looking, and had the proverbial deer-in-headlights look. Ugh. Every once in a while Jesus gets in the way of my serving Jesus.

So, instead of pulling off the road at the junction of 75 and 285, I continued north. "We'll get you just a few exits up the road, but then I have places to be," still lying to myself about how this was going to turn out. I immediately dialed FREE-411 and got the 800 number for Greyhound. After pushing a few buttons, I discovered that it would cost 183 bucks to put this kid on a bus to Salt Lake City.

"You interested in a bus ticket to Utah?" I asked.

"Sure!" he said, "but I've only got four dollars to my name." He was unable to suppress his smile.

"Well you're going to have to ride with us for a while, because I have to visit someone in a hospice," I said. I wanted him to know my visit was more important than whatever business he might have. "Then we'll see about a bus ticket. By the way, what's your name?"


We made it to the hospice and I spent about a half an hour there. A wonderful saint has leukemia; she's dying. We talked about that a little, though I'm not sure how much she really understood. She was pleasant as she has always been. I prayed with her, and then we left.

We drove straight to the bus station in downtown Atlanta. If you've ever been to the Greyhound station, you know the scene: a lot of people milled about on the sidewalks, both sides of the street. Talking, smoking, some sharing brown bags. Weather beaten faces and dirty clothes. A guy asked me for my spare change. Alex and I walked into the station and waited in line for about thirty minutes before he got his ticket. The bus was going to leave at 12:45AM (Monday morning), and in just under two days, he'd be home. He felt good. I felt good. And just as I was about to shake Alex's hand and wish him well, I got the impression that Jesus was not done yet. Next thing I knew I heard this voice that sounded strangely like mine saying, "You need to come home with us until time for your bus." Ugh. We stopped at WalMart to buy Alex some snacks for the trip. Two days is a long time when you've got four bucks, and Alex loaded up on drinks, cookies, crackers, trail mix and slim-jims.

Wendy has always been pure gold when I pull these stunts, and Sunday night was no different. Sh had an unmistakable delight in her voice when I informed her I was bringing Alex home for a few hours. I know you're thinking that I should have asked Wendy first, but I know her. It was a gamble, but not much of one. She got out ham for sandwiches along with all the trappings. A bag of those little baby carrots, a couple of bottles of water. She kept shoving food at Alex until he said, "Ma'am, I don't have anywhere else to put any food."

Alex took a shower (his first in three days) , and Wendy found him a pair of fresh socks. He plopped down on the sofa and watched TV. It turns out Alex was a really bright kid who made good grades in high school, graduated early, and even had a year of college under his belt. At eighteen, however, he was completely on his own in the world. We chatted a bit about life, religion, his family -- such as it was. He had, as he put it, "lots of 'dads' that were [his] mother's friends." His birth father abandoned them when Alex was about 5 years old. Alex said he had reached out to him in recent years only to hear, "I'm not your father. I just got your mother pregnant a long time ago." Alex just stared out the window a while after telling me that.

When the time came for me to drive Alex to the station he thanked everyone in the family. Wendy slipped him a twenty, and he gathered his few things. We drove in silence for a while until I could bear it no more. I began the parent routine: do not leave the Greyhound station for any reason. Do not leave your bag unattended for any reason. Do not look anyone in the eye, and if you do, don't lock in on them. Did he still have that twenty? I forgot to tell him not to accept candy from strangers. I was very caring and quite impressed with myself.

Alex's response was perfect: "Do you mind sitting in the car while I stand just outside to smoke a cigarette? This doesn't look like a safe place."


A man came up to Alex while he smoked and offered to sell him something. I think he was selling crack, but neither of us could understand him. Alex finished his cigarette in a hurry, and opened the back door. Before he got all of his stuff out of the car, I asked him if I could pray with him.

"Oh yes," he said, "would you please?" I was surprised to hear that.

We bowed our heads, held hands, and prayed a long time, street toughs just a few feet away, watching. I squeezed his hands when I finished. When we finished praying Alex looked me in the eye and said as sincerely as I can imagine it being said, "Thanks." And with that he was gone -- the 183 dollar Greyhound ticket in his hand.

I believe that was gospel money well spent. I hope you do, too. But this was no good Samaritan type story. Rather, looking back, it gives me the odd impression of having been oblivious to an angel in my presence.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Monday, July 7, 2008

Whether we realize it or not -- and we need to realize it! -- we are more intimately connected to those with whom we share worship and prayer -- rich and poor, black and white, American, Asian, African, the immigrant crossing the border, the victims of violence, the reviled, the outcast, and the pariahs, heterosexuals and homosexuals -- than to partisan allies or compatriots. That might sound like a dangerous notion, but Christian discipleship is a venture filled with difficult risks and demands. The love that is perfectly lived and share in God is the same love felt, tasted and celebrated in the church, and because that is true, the members of the body of Christ, citizens in the Kingdom of God, live according to a different standard than political loyalty and personal preferences. (Charles Marsh, Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity, 118)

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Who Will Be Saved? (Continuing our discussion of Will Willimon's book)

Chapter 4 -- Christ Triumphant

Will Willimon wants to believe that everyone, believer and unbeliever, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, agnostic and all those in between will be saved. I join him in that hope.

We don't know the fate of those who reject Jesus. I'm aware it doesn't take even a modicum of humility to write that sentence, so I don't offer it looking for admiration. Only those who claim to know what God knows may profess also to know who will be "in" and who will be "out" in the end. But the sentence above says more than just that. It's not that we don't know the fate of this or that individual. Of course that's true. Rather, we do not know if any human beings who decide not to follow Jesus will be damned. Yes, the Bible teaches there is a place or state of eternal punishment, but we do not know if it will be populated by any human
beings. We do know it wasn't made for humanity. We do know that "with God all things are possible," and that we serve a God who is, it appears, less than impressed with our failures and utterly determined to be triumphant in his effort to redeem all of creation -- human beings included.
To reject the salvation that is offered in Jesus Christ would be a tragic decision, a slap in God's face. Yet it is hard to know just what such a human decision means, in the final scheme of things. Scripture is clear that our human decisions are relative to all the decisions God is making for us (55).
God's "yes" may, in the end, trump our every, "no." Over and again the God of the Bible demonstrates his determination to have his way with us, not because of us, but because of His nature, His love, His prodigal nature. Ultimately, Willimon concludes "something like 'universal salvation' is a fair implication of what we know of Jesus as well as what he taught" (66).

Will God save everyone? There is an awful lot in the Christian scripture and tradition which indicates otherwise even if the good Bishop chooses not to dwell on it in his book. As much as Willimon hopes
(as do I) that in the end God welcomes everyone, receives and saves everyone, I'm not so sure that is the most complete reading of the Bible. I admit, however, it is the most appealing.