344. reboot the bot (part 2) – a (Ru)Pauline theology of love

I’ve been writing lately (here and here) about how I’ve been reworking the way that I relate to myself and to other people. In short, I’m trying to unlearn some really bad ideas that I was raised with – ideas that have been with me for decades and are deeply ingrained and hard to unlearn. The last two posts were about one of these wrong ideas – the idea that denying myself means neglecting myself and only focusing on the needs of those around me.

Another bad idea that I learned in church while growing up is this one: “You get love by giving love.”

I don’t believe that anymore. I think it’s a really poor way to read the Golden Rule.

Wanna know who I think has a much better theology of love?
Continue reading “344. reboot the bot (part 2) – a (Ru)Pauline theology of love”

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330. extraterrestrials and the Body of Christ

A few weeks ago on MSNBC’s show, Hardball, there was a discussion between atheist Christopher Hitchens (who wrote God is Not Great) and senior fellow at the Family Research Council (a conservative, christian organization), Ken Blackwell. The discussion was about whether America is having a crisis of faith – a Newsweek poll shows that 68 percent of those surveyed believe that religion is losing its influence in America.

At one point, the host asked why it is that religion (particularly Christianity) is losing its hold on growing swaths of the American landscape. Blackwell said that faith in America has always gone up and down. Hitchens suggested that people’s skepticism towards faith may have to do with the fact that one of the greatest threats to global peace and stability is terrorism which is itself driven by faith.

If I had to answer the question of why Christianity is losing its influence in America, I have a few ideas but the one I want to talk about here is this: The church really needs to make peace with science. In particular, the whole anti-evolution thing just needs to be dropped.

Crack open any book critiquing the theory of evolution (Google “intelligent design” for examples) and there’s one word that you’ll see over and over again and it’s the word, “impossible.” For example, they’ll say that it’s impossible for evolution to account for the flagellum of certain kinds of bacteria. Or they’ll say that while microevolution happens all the time, it’s impossible to find the sorts of transitional species required to prove the existence of macroevolution. Most commonly, they’ll say that it’s impossible for random mutation alone to account for the exquisite intricacy of even the most basic unicellular organism.

I won’t go into countering those “impossibles” here because that’s already been done in many books. One book in particular that I’ll point out is The Language of God by Dr. Francis S. Collins – a christian biologist who headed up the Human Genome Project (when it comes to biological street cred, it doesn’t get much better than that). If you want to see those “impossibles” I listed above dismantled, check out Dr. Collins’ book.

In this post, I want to argue the more general point that christians need not fear the claims of science – that the church needs to make peace with the scientific world. Now I won’t go so far as to say that we need to embrace all of science because just as there are questions and issues that the Bible isn’t designed to take on (what’s the atomic weight of helium?), there are questions and issues that science cannot tackle (what’s my purpose in life?). What I am going to try to say is that religion and science cover two different aspects of the world and they both have a lot that they can learn from one another if they could just get along. I’m no scientist so I’m ill equipped to make the case that science needs to learn from religion, but as a christian, I do want to make a plea to the church to listen to and learn from our friends, the scientists.

Because I believe that there is much that God is trying to show us through them.

I suppose there are a lot of ways I could make the case for the church needing to accept the claims of evolution and other areas of science but I want to try a route that hasn’t been tried before – at least I’ve never heard of anyone taking this tack.

I want to make my case by talking about…

Extraterrestrial life.

Now before you think I’ve gone all Coast to Coast AM and resign me to the lunatic fringe, conspiracy shelf, I’ll have you know that a great many scientists across different fields believe that finding life outside of earth is just a matter of time.

Two reasons why I believe we’ll find life outside of earth in the near future:

  1. Turns out the universe is teeming with planets.

    Planets orbiting around stars other than our own sun used to be just a theoretical possibility but today, with scientific tools specifically designed to detect them, planets and solar systems outside of our own are being found with increasing regularity.

    According to the Drake equation, the greater the number of planets circling stars, the greater the possibility of there being life outside our own planet. And so as we continue to find planets, the chances of finding life goes up as well.

  2. Used to be that scientists thought life outside of earth would be rare because twenty or thirty years ago, they thought that life was delicate and required a cushy environment in order to survive. For example, marine biologists used to think that the deep sea was a desolate, underwater dead zone, completely devoid of life because of the lack of light and the extremely high pressures. Then they started sending probes and cameras down and started finding hundreds of new species lurking in the deep. Similarly, scientists have found entire ecosystems living next to hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor – a highly acidic environment where temperatures can reach 750 degrees F. In fact, biologists have found so many creatures living in extreme environments that they’ve created a category for them called extremophiles.

    The fact that life can be found in such extreme environments makes it all the more likely that life may exist in some of the extreme environments found in our very own solar system.

Just these two factors alone lead me to believe that it’s very likely that we will find evidence of life in our own solar system in the very near future and by that I mean in the next few decades if not sooner.

My guess is that we’ll find evidence of past life on Mars or one of Jupiter’s moons and this life will likely be simple in nature. I suppose it’s entirely possible that we will find complex multi-cellular life and/or creatures that are living, but that’s almost too good to hope for.

And what will the church say when such life is found?

I’m sure some in the church will do their best to deny the findings as long as they can and as more and more evidence pours in, they’ll finally they join in with the Flat Earth Society.

But what if, between now and the then when extraterrestrial life is found, the church were to make peace with science?

Because here’s the thing. I’m having trouble finding links to back this up but I know that many of the first scientists were christians. For them, studying the world was a way to learn about God. Romans 1:20 tells us that “God’s invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. . .” In other words, God has revealed himself not just in his Word, the Bible, but also in the universe he created. The first scientists saw this and figured that if they could better understand the world that he created, they might learn more about God.

Then somewhere along the way science and religion began to drift apart. And when Darwinian evolution entered the scene, things really went ape snatch. Some people in the church got it into their heads that scientists were conspiring to debunk the Bible and once their guard when up, all kinds of scientific claims became suspect. I’ve known christians who railed against quantum mechanics, claiming that the random, chaotic universe it describes is an affront to God who created an ordered, rational universe.

With all due respect to christians who fear science, the fact of the matter is that we have to live in the world that is, not the world that we think the Bible paints for us. Christians have nothing to fear from the theory of evolution because there’s nothing in the theory that contradicts the creation account of the Bible. The important thing to realize about the first few chapters of Genesis is that it is NOT meant to be a step by step, blow by blow account of how God created life, the universe, and everything. The main point of those chapters is to show that it was God who did the creating – how he did it is nowhere near as important as the idea that he was the one doing it. At the same time, the Bible does describe God as being wise and in control of what’s going on. That doesn’t mean that randomness and strangeness at the quantum scale is any threat to God’s sovereignty.

To take this idea even further, what if God is trying to teach us things about himself through the things we are learning about his creation? For example, what if through the ideas of evolution God’s trying to show us that change isn’t such a bad thing after all and that maybe we should be a bit more generous in our orthodoxy – allowing time and “natural selection” sort good theology from bad? Similarly, what if the chaotic nature at the quantum scale is God’s way of showing us that even though christianity can get messy and strange on the personal scale, the body of Christ (his church) as a whole can remain solid and firm in the same way that quantum messiness is all but transparent to us.

If the church makes peace with science, it need not be embarrassed when evidence of life is found outside of earth. And mark my words, this will happen whether the church is ready for it or not. If the church sees science as a partner and an ally, it will be able to celebrate with the rest of the world at the discovery that our universe is thriving with life – glory be to God!

And okay, here’s where I get really wacky – way outside the box and off the reservation. What if many, many years from now we make contact with intelligent, sentient beings – an entire civilization of them somewhere out there? Wanna know what I think might happen?

While I suppose it’s possible that their religious ideas might line up neatly with ours (perhaps with their own visitation from Jesus) I think it’s more likely that God (yes, the same God that we know, love, and worship) will have revealed himself to that civilization in a way uniquely suited to them just as he uniquely reveals himself to us here, today. And my speculation is that while elements of their idea of God will differ from ours, the main points will be the same – that God created everything, God loves us and is trying to help us (our unruly selves) to live and thrive in his creation – to right wrongs and to help the needy, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Hopefully, by the time we get to this point in our own civilization, the various denominations of our own churches will have learned to get along and accept one another. Because if we’re as divided and divisive amongst ourselves then as we are today, that’s going to make for very thorny inter-galactic ecumenical communications.

In closing, I just want to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we should get some of our best theologians together to think and talk a bit about how our understanding of our place in the universe as informed by the Bible will change if/when evidence for life outside earth is found. I suggest this not just so that the church can be better prepared to respond to such a discovery, I also suggest this because by viewing theology in this broader context, we may find some clues as to how to be the Body of Christ here, today, now. But even without this extraterrestrial theology conference, the church as a whole really needs to make peace with science.

315. the body of Christ (part 2) – that crazy uncle

(you can find part one of this series here)

One of the striking differences between the way the Jews related to one another in the Old Testament and the way followers of Christ related to one another has to do with (for lack of a better term) social structure. In the Old Testament, there was a clearly laid out chain of command for both religious and social settings. In the New Testament, followers of Jesus had a much more egalitarian, communal, flat social structure.

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and posessions to give to anyone who had need.

Acts 2:44-45

That’s not to say that there wasn’t any kind of leadership in the first century Christian church. Early on the need to appoint people into organizational positions was dealt with (Acts 6:1-6). However, these positions were meant more to maintain order and fairness than to create structures of hierarchy and power. In my previous post about the church, I talked about one common metaphor the Bible uses in reference to those who follow the example and teachings of Christ – the body of Christ. Another common metaphor is that of a family.

Jesus constantly referred to God as father. Not just that, Jesus instructed his followers to refer to God as father as seen in the Lord’s Prayer. On top of that, in Mark 14:36, Jesus uses the Aramaic word, “abba,” when addressing God – a word that basically translates as, “daddy.”

This is a radical shift from the Old Testament (and orthodox Jewish practice today) where writing or speaking the word for God is taken very seriously. There’s a hilarious story told by Shalom Auslander on NPR’s amazing, excellent show, This American Life. In his story, he is told by his rabbi that his name, Shalom, is one of the names of God (there are dozens of them) and that he must never write it again. According to orthodox Jewish teaching, any piece of paper with any of the names of God on it is considered sacred – it “must never be thrown away, it must never touch the ground, it must never be covered.” Instead, he is instructed to henceforth write his name, Shalo’, with an apostrophe in place of the final letter.

Shalo”s is a contemporary story set somewhere in the US. Can you imagine how much more seriously Jews in Israel in the time of Jesus took the name(s) of God? It’s easy to understand why the religious leaders went nuts, started pulling their hair out when they heard Jesus refer to God as his father, his dad. And I don’t think Jesus did that just to taunt the rabbis. He was modeling a new way of relating to God and to one another – a way that looked a lot less like a political power structure and more like a family.

One more item before I get to what I want to get at. Take a look at this bit from John 17:20-23:

My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Some say that this is the only recorded prayer of Jesus that has yet to be answered. Because if you look at the church at large today, I’d say it’s pretty clear that we are not unified or one. And I wonder if many parts of the US (and the world) do not believe in Jesus because of our lack of unity.

Anyone who has been in the church for any length of time knows what this disunity looks like. Couple examples from my own experiences:

Before I started attending the house church I was a part of before moving to Seattle, I attended a couple different churches that belonged to the Foursquare denomination. Churches in Hawaii that were a part of Foursquare fell into two broad camps: the Hope Chapels and the New Hopes. Both camps were very successful – lots of people came (and continue to come) to know Christ through these churches. But the pastors who were at the head of these two camps had very different leadership styles.

In general, the Hope Chapel churches were very bottom-up. They believed in raising up leaders from within the church by helping them discover what their gifts were and helping them find ways to use those gifts in the church. The New Hopes were more top-down. They believed in recruiting top talent in various fields because they believed that the people of God deserved the best.

Both styles of Foursquare church had explosive growth in Hawaii – both leadership models turned out to be wildly successful. So much so that Foursquare headquarters wanted to make Hawaii into its own district but when it came time to decide who would head up this district, the head Hope Chapel pastor and the head New Hope pastor were both candidates for the position.

Long story short, they created two divisions in Hawaii – one for the Hope Chapels and one for the New Hopes. I’ve been away from Hawaii for two years now and away from Foursquare churches for even longer than that so I don’t know how much collaboration and reconciliation has taken place since then but looking at the Foursquare website, I see that there is a Mid-Pacific Division with Hope Chapels under them and a Pacific Rim Division that has the New Hopes. Of course I don’t know all the details but come on, Hawaii is not that big of a place – the Foursquare churches there should be able to fit under one umbrella.

Okay, example number two:

One of the largest churches (if not the largest) in and around Seattle is Mars Hill Church. The lead pastor of this church is Mark Driscoll and he’s been known to be something of a lightning rod. He’s got strong opinions on a wide range of topics and he’s not afraid to voice them. Of particular note is his emphasis on his own brand of Christian masculinity which he has called, Ultimate Fighting Jesus. Driscoll’s hardline stance on this and other topics has made him a target of harsh criticism from churches near and far.

Both these examples show the lack of unity within the Body of Christ and there are tons of others out there. And this is unfortunate because this is not what he had prayed for on the night before he was crucified.

But how do we wo
rk towards this unity?

That’s a huge and complicated question but there’s one answer I know is wrong. We don’t work towards unity by striving for conformity.

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Romans 1:20 where Paul says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” I find this verse striking because part of what it is saying is that God reveals aspects of himself through the world that he created. And this makes sense because just as one can learn things about an artist by examining the art that he/she makes, one can learn bits of what God is like by examining his artistry as displayed in the world around us.

Any cursory survey of the universe will certainly have this to say about God: he loves diversity. Nothing comes in just one shape or size or color. Stars, rocks, clouds, trees, birds, atoms – they all come in variations: yellow giants/red dwarfs (stars), granite/obsidian (rocks), stratocumulus/cirrostratus (clouds), oak/maple/fir (trees), lark/swallow (birds), lead/gold (atoms). There are over 900,000 known insect species and it’s estimated that that’s probably only about one or two percent of what’s actually out there (stat source). Should I go on? On the grand scale of things, some theoretical physicists think that there are multiple universes (and there are multiple versions of this multiverse theory). Then on the smallest scales of things, there’s a whole orchestra of elementary particles that make up any one of the 7*10^27 atoms in the average human body. It seems that God never makes anything in just one form or kind. Even God himself is understood as the Trinity – three in one.

All that to make the case that the way towards unity in the church is not through conformity. The goal is not for us to all look, think, worship, believe the same. The twelve disciples started their ministries after the resurrection of Jesus with their unique identities intact – they were free to be who God had made them to be – but they still worked together. They had their disagreements but the Gospel continued to be spread.

So if not through conformity then how does the Body of Christ work towards unity?

In the past, I’ve suggested that maybe we should “see the differing ideas within Christianity the way a botanist sees a garden – as a thriving system of bio-diversity. . .” (post 216). But that can be problematic because then you have to deal with the whole food chain thing – churches aren’t meant to eat one another.

I think the metaphor of the body and that of the family are more useful.

I won’t say a lot about the church as body because Paul has already worked that out in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31.

But the family metaphor is a really useful one because it’s ripe for analogies. But it’s also useful in the sense that perhaps one promising way towards unity is a kind of feigned civility – that face we put on at family reunions where we need to share a table with family members with whom we have some deep disagreement(s).

This idea of just putting our differences aside and just getting along is a nice one but the reality of the matter is far messier and more difficult.

A few months ago on my pastor’s blog, he put up a post about Supporting Women In Ministry. And of course there are churches on both sides of the debate. Speaking for myself, for most of my life I’ve been in churches that allowed women to serve at all levels of leadership. But there are churches and denominations that do not support this view.

I won’t lay out arguments on either side of the theological debate here. I site the example because it’s one area where advocating for unity and body and family is particularly tricky.

See, as I often do when the topic of conflict and/or disunity in the church comes up, I try to make the God-loves-diversity-and-variety case I made above. I try to make a case for unity in the body of Christ. And so in the comments section of the blog I wrote the following:

I believe there’s room enough in the Body of Christ for both positions. Does this mean I believe scripture has no meaning? Well on foundational issues like the divinity of Christ, I believe the Bible speaks clearly and those choose to believe something else are probably outside of what it is to be a Christian. But on secondary issues I think there should be much grace and healthy debate. Maybe some will disagree, but I think the issue of women serving in ministry is a secondary issue that well meaning, sincere Christians can agree to disagree on.

Looking back now, I see that it was a pretty naive, insensitive remark – one that I could make without much thought because of the privileges I have been born with as a male. This point was driven home for me by some of the responses left by others (men and women) highlighting the dehumanizing, unjust nature of the position against women in church leadership. For example one of the other pastors at my church left this comment:

it always amazes me that so many men weigh in on whether or not women should be allowed in ministry. That you who are able to take for granted that you are called by God find it necessary to determine whether or not another person created in the image of God could possibly be given the same calling strikes me as astonishingly hubristic. That it could be said without exception or discussion that women are never gifted or called to lead a congregation is not a theological view that reflects any sort of care for women, or openness to the outpouring of the Spirit. To those who hold the opposite view, and claim to care for the women in their congregation, or to those who believe there is room for both views, I respectfully disagree. You have absolutely no idea, speaking of men here, what it feels like to have your very identity the subject of continual challenge and discussion. When I speak with someone who does not believe women should be in leadership, I feel that my humanity before God is not recognized, that my calling is invalidated, and that my ministry is seen as ‘less than’. I relate to the exhaustion of Catherine and others, and wonder if there will be a day before the Day of the Lord when we in the Evangelical church won’t have to have this discussion any longer.

I felt pretty stupid and small after reading that and deservedly so. Mine was a comment born out of the convenience of privilege. It was easy for me to put out there because neither side of the debate affected any part of my life.

And I don’t know how to advocate for unity in this debate. I don’t know that there is a unifying position.

And I wonder if that is what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 (a continuation of the church as body passage I pointed to above). Until Christ returns and renews all of creation, we will see only partially, incompletely, dimly. And in this incompleteness, perhaps the only way forward is love – messy and awkward and broken.

M
aybe it’s like sitting at a large table at a family reunion. Maybe we put the relatives who vote Republican on one end of the table and those who vote Democratic on the other side. But we put them at the same table. Thanksgiving is coming up soon and I’m sure there will be tables around the nation where family members are dreading seeing that crazy uncle who smells like sour cabbage or the vegan aunt who will make everyone at least try a slice of tofurkey or the niece who’s going to try and lure people into her latest multi-level marketing scheme or the cousin who’s a registered sex offender or the in-law who just made it out of detox and so no one can have beer or wine. Do we make room for them? Do we not invite them? Or do we put them at opposite ends of the table (and do we keep the kids safely in another room)? Do we steer conversations away from minefields?

I use the table as an example because even as we are all divided and disagree, we all come to the table and take communion – a table separated by geography as well as ideology but somehow still the same table.

A few weeks ago Shane Claiborne came to my church and one of the things he shared was how he has disagreements with people in the Seattle area, alluding to Mark Driscoll who I mentioned above. He said that before coming into Seattle for this talk, he called Mark and spoke to him on the phone. Shane had wanted to have dinner with him while in the area but Mark was busy. However, he did assure Shane that he would let him know if he were ever in the Philadelphia area and that he’d make room in his schedule to have dinner then.

Driscoll and Claiborne are on opposite ends of the spectrum on a wide range of topics. I’d imagine that one of the few things they have in common is a love for Christ. If asked, they would both paint very different pictures of how they viewed Christ, but they’d be referring to the same person. Both see Christ incompletely – incompletely in different ways – but they are both looking at Christ. And I don’t know what they’ll talk about or not talk about if/when they ever sit across from one another at dinner (I’d love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation) but the fact that the two are open to the idea fills me with hope.

312. the body of Christ (part 1) – a radical hypothetical

[VERY IMPORTANT PREFACE]

Make note of that word in the title, “hypothetical.”

A proposition or statement of, based on, or serving as a hypothesis; supposed but not necessarily true

I stress that word because I’ve been reluctant to put up this post because while it does serve as an extremely good, very fruitful thought exercise, it’s NOT TRUE! As good as it is in stirring the imagination, it’s theologically borderline heretical so please, please, please remember that I’m merely posing a hypothetical to make you think.

Maybe “hypothetical” is the wrong word. Maybe there’s a better one for what I’m trying to do with this idea but I don’t know it (feel free to leave suggestions in the comment box).

One last bit. I doubt I’m the first one to suggest something like this so if anyone knows of books or articles that share a similar idea, please let me know. Thanks.

[end preface]

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 1 Corinthians 12:27 (TNIV)

One of the central teachings of Christianity is the idea that Christ will come again. It’s in the Nicene Creed: “He will come again in glory. . .” And Jesus himself speaks of his return in Matthew 25 and 26 (among other places).

Unfortunately, because of a particular brand of end times teachings known as dispensationalism, starting with the teachings of 19th Century preacher, John Darby and later popularized by the Left Behind series of books, the traditional view of the second coming of Christ has been upended. I won’t attempt to take on dispensationalism in this post but if you want to read an excellent critique I’d recommend Barbara Rossing’s excellent book, The Rapture Exposed (if you want the gist of it you can read her entertaining interview here).

Anyway, for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that when I speak of the second coming of Christ, I mean it in the more traditional sense: that he will return once back to this earth to judge and redeem all of creation.

In the New Testament, Paul often refers to the church as the body of Christ. There are many examples but here’s one clear one:

Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. Colossians 1:24

Do you see where I’m going with this?

What if…

What if the idea of the second coming of Christ actually meant that the church (as his body) is supposed to be his second coming? What if that was what was meant by Jesus’ return to earth? What if Paul wasn’t using a metaphor when he called the church the body of Christ?

Let me state again that I don’t believe this to be the case – I believe that the actual person Jesus will return in person “. . .to judge the living and the dead” (to complete the Nicene Creed quote I began above).

But.

But what if the church as the body of Christ was to be the re-incarnation, the second coming if Christ? What if we (as the church) were solely responsible to bring about the redemption and reconciliation spoken of by the prophets? How would that change the way we thought about church and how churches prioritized their budgets and their mission statements?

See here’s the thing. I think there are segments of today’s church who are playing a kind of waiting game. They think that because Christ will return one day that all they have to do is wait for that to happen. The only job to be done in the mean time is to save as many people as possible by getting them to ascent to the Four Spiritual Laws and pray the Salvation Prayer. After that, all that’s left to be done is to hone their personal spirituality and to try and get their friends and family saved as well.

And I don’t want to dismiss the importance of those things with my little thought exercise. I just want to point out that there are other aspects of being the church that are just as important as salvation – that the FSL and SP are not the end all and be all of Christianity, that there’s more to be done before Christ returns.

By thinking about what the church would look like if it were the only bodily second coming of Christ we were ever going to have, I wonder if we can get a more holistic idea about what the church is supposed to be (even though he is, in fact, returning).

A few examples would do well here.

If the church were the second bodily return of Christ…

  • We wouldn’t be trying to create an alternate Christian entertainment subculture. Instead, we would be working to create viable works of art (in all forms) that existed and competed in the marketplace at large.
  • We wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the claims of environmentalists by citing our mandate to subdue the earth. Instead, we would do our best to preserve the goodness of God’s creation for all time and all generations.
  • We would be far more active in trying to combat issues of poverty and suffering and injustice both locally and globally – because there’s no way around the fact that they are our neighbor.
  • We might see the church down the street as collaborators (instead of competition) and might work more closely with them by sharing resources and ideas. Because the task of being the body is far bigger than any one church or even one denomination can handle on its own.
  • Despite the divisive nature of topics like abortion and same sex marriage, the church might work a bit harder at amicable solutions that do the most good for the people individually affected by these issues and work a bit less at shouting about which side is right.

Those are just a few examples and I honestly don’t know how things would look in practical terms if my hypothetical were true (which, again, it’s not) but here’s the thing: I think the church would do well to organize its values and priorities as if it were true. Because we aren’t called to sit and wait for the second coming. We’re called to live our lives as citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now.

I’ve been saying over and over that my hypothetical isn’t true but here’s the thing. We really ought to be living as if it were true on both a large, church-wide scale as well as on an individual basis.

This is what it is to bring about the Kingdom of God. Being a Christian means representing the future, redeemed world today, here, now in this broken world.

Take a look at this bit from 2 Corinthians:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! . . .We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors. . . 2 Corinthians 5: 17 and 20a

Take note of the phrases
, “the new creation has come” and “the new is here!” Paul is speaking in the present tense. These things have already happened. When a person becomes a Christian, they become ambassadors of God’s new creation. N.T. Wright puts it succinctly in the appendix of his new book, Surprised by Hope: “Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”

And that’s an amazing way to put it – “to colonize earth with the life of heaven.”

But one very important thing needs to be made very clear if we aren’t to misunderstand this way of reading the Gospel or what Bishop Wright is trying to say about it.

According to conventional wisdom, if you have a kingdom that you think is good and great and gosh, wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone were a part of it, the way you spread your kingdom is through force, violent and bloody. This is where the crusades missed the point entirely. According to what Jesus taught and the way he lived his life, the Kingdom of God spreads, not by force but by loving example – by turning the other cheek, by going the extra mile, by loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:38-44).

In a way, part of this hypothetical case is true. Part of the mission of the church is to become, in every way possible, the physical presence of Christ here and now on earth. But though we, as parts of the church, are citizens of heaven we are not yet wholely redeemed – we still only see part of the picture, not the whole. And so we’ll mess up and we’ll get parts of it wrong. We’ll swing from being too strict to being too lenient when it comes to the law. We’ll emphasize certain bits of scripture while ignoring other bits (because when’s the last time you heard a teaching about wearing hats in church?). We are redeemed and made new but not entirely, not yet. And so we’ll never get it all completely right.

And that’s where my idea breaks down. But that’s where the truth of the matter comes in and rescues me (us). One day Jesus WILL return to fix things front to back, top to bottom. And so while we’ll get things wrong, he’ll make all things right again.

Well, someone might ask, why not just wait ’til Jesus gets it right – why get it wrong in the meantime?

There’s a parable in Matthew (21:33-44) that tells of a landowner who plants a vineyard. He puts some farmers in charge and then goes away to other business. When harvest time came, he sent some of his servants to get the fruits his vineyard had produced. Well the farmers greedily come to the conclusion that if they beat up and kill the servants that the will be able to keep the profits for themselves. The landowner sends more servants but the farmers do the same thing again. Finally he sends his own son thinking that they will have no choise but to listen to him but the farmers kill him instead. Jesus asks his disciples what they think the owner will do at this point. They respond that he will go himself to the farmers and dole out a beat down.

The parable ends with this ominous warning from Jesus: “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” (Matthew 21:43). This statement is given to the Pharisees but I don’t see why anything Jesus says to the Pharisees shouldn’t apply to everyone else. Besides, earlier in Matthew Jesus says that our righteousness is to “surpass that of the Pharisees.” So I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that those who aren’t working to produce the fruit of the kingdom are doing so at their own risk.

And I know this gets into the thorny arena of faith vs works and other really theologically overworked issues. I have my own thoughts about this (which I suppose are hinted at in the above paragraph) but a fuller treatment will have to wait for another post. Suffice it to say that I would personally rather err on the works side of the debate.

310. "sermon" on the Kingdom of God

[preface]

So a couple weeks ago I spent a few days in Hawaii visiting friends and family and stuffing myself full of poi and lau lau and katsu curry and ramen and other foods I missed. One thing I was really looking forward to was visiting the house church I used to attend before moving to Seattle. And a few days before the Sunday service, Blake, the guy who heads up the church, asked me to give a little message to the house church about what I’d learned since moving away – what had God been showing me about Christ and church and Christianity.

And I was stoked that he asked me because before I left the house church, we had been wrestling with a lot of big questions about what it meant to be a follower of Christ and what it meant to be the church and what it was that we were supposed to be doing with ourselves here on earth. And I felt as if I’ve been able to come up with…not exactly answers but some really promising and interesting ideas along those lines and was eager to share it all with them.

Anyway, what follows are from the notes I took for myself in preparing for what I shared that night at house church.

And it’s a good way for me to get back to the Layman’s Theology series I started more than a year ago.

[end preface]

I remember a bit before I left for Seattle, we as the house church were talking a lot about the Kingdom of God or as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven.

I remember we spent many nights talking about this kingdom – what does it look like, how does it work, is it already here or is it yet to come, what’s our role or place in this kingdom?

I remember that we spent a lot of time thinking about the Kingdom because Jesus seemed to speak about it all the time. Almost all of his parables are about this kingdom in one way or another but he’s often frustratingly open ended when talking about it. He calls it a pearl, a party, a net, like seeds and like virgins. And all of the metaphors seem to be pointing towards something that Jesus sees quite clearly but either because we can’t understand or because he can’t put it into words that we can understand, these metaphors aren’t entirely clear to us (and the gospels tell us that they weren’t clear to many he was speaking to at the time – even to his disciples).

And I remember being frustrated by this because I was in search of a new understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. See, I was raised with the idea that Christianity and being a Christian was only and all about getting people to accept Christ as savior so that they would spend eternity in heaven instead of hell. And while I understood the importance of that, I couldn’t help but think that there was more to Christianity than that – a lot more. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were somehow missing the point of the Gospel.

And so I remember being frustrated with this whole Kingdom of God idea because I felt that it was pointing us towards something vital and important – something that could expand our ideas of what it meant to be a Christian. But at the house church, although we had lots of discussions about it, we never seemed to be able to get at what this Kingdom was about – how it works for us today.

I ended up taking all of these Kingdom questions with me up to Seattle and partly because of an amazing church that I found there and partly because of some really key books1, I finally came to a new kind of understanding about what being a Christian is about and how this Kingdom metaphor works.

And so here it is – my thoughts so far on what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God.

First of all, it helps to get into the mind of the people Jesus was speaking to when he spoke about this kingdom. See, part of the reason it’s hard for us to understand the Kingdom of God is because here in America, we’ve grown up in a democratic republic. On top of that, because of contemporary critiques of colonialism and imperialism, we’ve come to view the word “kingdom” (and the ideas of conquest and oppression that it implies) with a great deal of skepticism.

But put yourself, for a moment, into the feet of those in first century Israel. For them, being a citizen of a kingdom was all they knew. Their entire history was made up of good kings and bad kings and being taken over by other nations and living under the thumb of foreign kings. In fact, as we begin this story, Israel is yet again living under the rule of a foreign, pagan nation – this time, it was the Romans. And so while it’s hard for us to understand what life was like in these (earthly) kingdoms, it’s important for us to try to keep this in mind if we are to see the radical, revolutionary nature of the Kingdom of God. More importantly, it’s only in this context that we can begin to talk/think about how this Kingdom metaphor works for us today. But more on this later.

Now as an extremely religious nation, there were various segments of the Jewish religious leadership who had different ideas about why it was that Israel was being ruled by the Romans. They also had different ideas about why God wasn’t getting them out of this situation.

Some, like the Pharisees, thought that the reason Israel was under foreign dictatorship was because Israel was not living up to the standards of God – they were failing to obey the laws of the Bible. There were others, like the Saducees, who thought that the best we could do in this situation was to coddle the Romans – to try and work them as best we could. Then there were others like the Zealots (some of the twelve disciples were Zealots) who wanted to band together and take back Israel by force and bloody revolution. And there were the Essenes who moved out to the desert and isolated themselves from society – they were the ones who wrote and hid away the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This is the immediate social/historical context of Jesus’ time, but before I get into what Jesus did when he entered the scene, I want to bring up one other bit of history. This time, we go all the way back to Genesis 12:1-3.

1 The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. 3 I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” (NLT)

This is basically the moment that the nation of Israel is born. It is because of this promise that Abram leaves his home and sets in motion the events that will lead to the nation of Israel. To me, the key parts of this promise to Abram are the lines about blessing – at the end of verse 2 God says, “I will make you a blessing to others. . .” and then again at the end of verse 3, “All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

I mention t
his because I think the main reason Israel got taken over so many times in the past and the reason why they were being ruled by Rome in Jesus’ day was because they had forgotten this part of the blessing. They knew that they were God’s chosen people but they had forgotten that they were chosen so that they could be a blessing to the other nations…but again, more on this later.

So then, Jesus enters the scene and some believed that he was the Messiah – the one who would deliver Israel from the Romans and return Israel to a place of power in the world. These people are looking for an earthly, political revolutionary. What Jesus preached instead was an entirely different sort of world order. They wanted someone who would kick some Roman ass. What they found was someone who told them that if someone (like a Roman soldier) told you to carry their pack one mile, that they should carry it two miles. He told them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecuted them.

And then just when he made his way to Jerusalem and people thought that he was finally going to take his rightful place on the throne and oust the Romans, he died on a cross.

Three days later, he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples as well as to other witnesses. Some were still looking for a political Jesus – a Jesus to overthrow the Romans. Instead, Jesus tells them two basic things. Wait for the Holy Sprit and then tell everybody about me. And then he’s gone again.

And I’m not sure how exactly it happened (perhaps this is part of what happened at Pentecost?), but eventually the disciples and the followers of Jesus came to understand that this Kingdom that Jesus kept talking about wasn’t a political sort of Kingdom. It was, indeed, unlike any kingdom that had ever come before it.

His is a kingdom, not of physical, political power but a kingdom of love and forgiveness and reconciliation…wait, let me expand on that. The Kingdom of God can/should/will have physical, political effects but these effects do not come about through physical power (war). It isn’t a kingdom that comes about by force or violence but by sacrificing one’s self.

So then, finally, I can begin to talk about what I’ve come to understand about this Kingdom of God.

If you want a quick glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like, there are three places where it is especially clear. You can look to Eden before the fall of Man or you can look to the prophets when they talk about what the world will look like once God returns and redeems all of his creation. However, the clearest example of what this kingdom looks like is found in Matthew 5 – 7 (the sermon on the Mount). In those three chapters, Jesus outlines a radical new outlook on what it is to be a human being, on what our priorities should be and how it is that we live out our kingdom citizenship.

I said earlier that although it’s difficult, the Gospels must be read through the lens of those for whom monarchy was the only political structure they knew. For them, if they were living under the rule of an unjust king, they had two choices – live with it or overthrow it. In the Gospels, Jesus offers a fascinating, new alternative. Jesus offers his followers citizenship in a kingdom not of this world but a Kingdom of God/Heaven. And Jesus spends his time on earth teaching and modeling how a citizen of this Kingdom behaves here, today, now.

What does that mean for us? As followers of Christ in America, although we live in and pay taxes to our government, we are actually citizens of the Kingdom of God – our lives, are to be lived out as citizens of God’s Kingdom. And for me, the easiest way to understand what this means is to live now the way we would if the fall had never happened or the way we will when God returns to redeem his creation. The more we live this way, the more the Kingdom of God enters into, redeems, and blesses today’s world.

And that last bit about blessing is especially important. Remember earlier when I talked about how I thought the reason Israel had so much trouble through its history is because they forgot that they were chosen so that they could be a blessing to all the nations? In a sense, part of what happened through the cross and the resurrection is this task of blessing got transfered from the one specific nation of Israel onto all who called Jesus Lord – we Christians.

And while this will probably get me into trouble, I really want to emphasize this idea of being a blessing to all nations because I think large segments of the church today are in a similar position to that of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ time who thought too much about being God’s people and not enough about being a blessing to those around them.

There are segments of today’s church that, like the Pharisees, think that the reason why Christianity isn’t the force they think it should be is because our nation has lost its moral compass. Then there are other segments (I’m thinking of the Christian entertainment industry here) who, somewhat like the Essenes, seem to think that what we need to do is to withdraw into a subculture – in this case, it’s not a geographic withdrawal, but it is still an escape from or alternative to the culture at large. And then there are those like the Zealots who use the language of war when talking about the duty of Christians (think of those who wave those “God hates fags” signs or those portrayed in the movie Jesus Camp). Other parallels can be made but those most readily come to mind.

These segments (and, really, the church at large) can be seen as putting too much emphasis on being God’s people and not enough on remembering that we are God’s people so that we can be a blessing to all the nations. What I’m trying to say is that while it is true that Christians are God’s people, our task as the people of God is to be a blessing. And this blessing comes about most naturally and readily as we live the kind of sacrificial life that Jesus taught and modeled for us – as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

1N.T. Wright, Simply Christian
N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope
Brian McLaren, The Secret Message of Jesus
Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution

287. thoughts on the trajectory of the Bible

[preface]

How’s that for a fun, provocative title?

When I first started my Layman’s Theology Series, I originally planned on starting with foundational ideas like salvation and communion and then work my way up to some really big, crazy, likely controversial thoughts I’ve been having recently about God and the Bible and christianity.

And there are still some basic tenets that I want to write about like sin and prayer and worship, but I can’t wait anymore and I want to fast forward to get some of the more crazy ideas out before I forget about them or get too scared to put them up.

I think most of what I’ve written before about my take on theological ideas has been well within the realm of orthodoxy – the ideas were gleaned from books I’d already read by authors like Brian McLaren, Anne Lamott, N.T. Wright, Lauren F. Winner, and others.

But I’ve never read anything like what I’m going to share below. It may have been hinted at and that’s probably where I got the idea, but still, it feels a bit scary to post because I’m not one to just speculate wildly about the nature of God because, well, God is GOD, you know?

As always, I’d love to hear from you – what do you think, am I completely off in left field on this one?

[end preface]

So one of the things that’s always puzzled me about the Bible is, if God doesn’t change, then why does he seem so mean and mad in the Old Testament and so warm and full of grace and love in the New Testament?

Well what if God seems to change between the OT and the NT not because he is different but because society and social systems changed and so the way he related to them changed?

The best way to explain this idea is to think of parenting. The way parents treat and relate to an infant is far different than the way they behave when their son/daughter is a teenager or when they become an adult. And this is understandable because the needs and abilities of their kids change as they age. More and different responsibilities are relinquished to them as they are able to handle them.

What if the same thing is happening between the end of the OT and the beginning of the NT? Think about the nation of Israel back when Abraham and Sarah gave birth to it. It was helpless and small and undefined. Israel was very much like an infant at this point. Then think of the Exodus – the wandering in the desert and the complaining and the time when Israel entered the promised land. This could be seen as the early adolescence of Israel when it tested boundaries and struggled to find its identity. The rest of the OT can be seen as Israel’s late adolescence and early adulthood where it was trying to find meaning and purpose while sometimes shirking responsibilities and suffering the consequences.

Now think of the way God interacted with Israel during these periods. During this formative time, God was pretty hands-on and brutal because he had to be because perhaps the young nation of Israel needed this kind of discipline and guidance.

Take the OT dietary and cleanliness laws (Leviticus 11 and on). On a pragmatic level, what if they were there to keep the Israelites from getting food poisoning and keeping them sanitary? I mean, think about it. They didn’t know anything about microbes or how diseases spread the same way a young person doesn’t know that fire burns or that too much candy leads to indigestion and bad teeth. Because they don’t know any better, we grab kids’ arms away from the flame and hide treats up where they can’t get to them. And they don’t get it – they think we’re being cruel and arbitrary. When they grow and come to understand why we’ve kept things from them, we let them restrain themselves.

This idea could help explain why God loosened up on the dietary laws in the NT (Acts 10:9-16). What if his change took place because enough was known about how to properly handle and cook meats?

I don’t know nearly enough about culinary customs of the time so I have no idea if this way of looking at dietary laws holds any water, so maybe that’s a bad example. How about this one.

The heavy-handed nature of God in the OT can be likened to old-school parenting. I’m talking spankings and no-TV, no-phone, no-internet groundings style parenting. Children need discipline and because they can’t understand the long-term consequences (growing up to be an asshole) of bad behavior, a firm hand is needed to keep them in line.

Think about the early years of Israel. Before being delivered from Egypt, they didn’t have any kind of governmental structure, they didn’t have written laws, and little in the way of customs – basically, no culture. In a way, the only defining characteristic of the people of Israel was circumcision. That sounds to me like a pretty wooly, loosly organized band of people – hardly the stuff out of which to birth a nation.

So God intervenes and literally lays down the law. The Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) are where God lays down rules and customs for the people of Israel. And there are lots of them and if your use your imagination, doesn’t it read a bit like a parents laying down the rules of the house and chores for their children?

But kids don’t like to follow rules or do chores so a firm hand is required to impose order. This need for parents to be firm helps me understand the way God acted out the way he did during the Exodus where over and over again, he comes down hard on the Israelites. For example, there’s this episode where the people of Israel are tired of eating manna day after day (forgetting that manna was a gift, appearing miraculously every morning) and they yearn for the taste of meat (Numbers11:4-35). And God gives it to them along with a plague that killed many – the story seems to suggest that it was the ones who complained about wanting meat that died there.

And there are lots of stories like this in the OT.

Maybe this picture of God violates our modern sense of justice and compassion because the punishment seems excessive in the extreme but the brutal fact of the matter is that the birthing of a nation is a messy, bloody, painful process (take a look at any political revolution of the past century). For me, reframing God’s heavy hand as the discipline of a loving parent towards an unruly, young nation helps me see the Bible as a seamless work rather than one that portrays two different, unreconcilable Gods.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Fast forward a couple hundred years or so and we see the birth of Christ. By this time, Israel is a fully fledged nation (albeit, one that is under the thumb of the Romans). They have a robust culture and identity as well as social structures that do their best to keep everything in line. But they seem to have forgotten something. Perhaps afraid of invoking the wrath of God, they have become all about following the law. They have forgotten that they were called to be a blessing to all nations.

And so Jesus enters the scene to remind them. But because Israel is older and wiser now
, the reminder comes not in the form of fire and brimstone but as a man who walked around, healed people, and challenged religious leaders.

Once a child becomes an adult – gets a job, starts making his/her own decisions, takes responsibility for their mistakes – the relationship between parent and child becomes less top down and becomes more peer to peer or mentor to mentee. The parents will always be older and have more life experience and so retains the right to offer guidance and advice but when advice is not heeded, it’s allowed to happen – they don’t get out the old spanking paddle.

And that’s how I see the move from the OT to the NT. It’s not that God changed, he just changed the way he related to his people – a shift that occurs because of the “maturity” of the nation of Israel.

Well one might object, what about the NT story where God strikes down a couple in the early church after they lie about how much of their possessions they donated (Acts 5:1-11)? Well I see the same parallels I outlined earlier. Just as the early, less organized nation of Israel needed a more firm hand from God, the early, less organized church needed to be reminded that this was a serious business they were involved in. And to my knowledge, it’s the only story in the NT of people being struck down like this for sinning.

Of course the parenting metaphor is not a tight fit. I only use it to provide a kind of framework to talk about why God seems so different between the OT and the NT, but why do I do this? Why do I try to justify and make sense of God’s behavior? Is there a point to this or is this just some intellectual exercise?

The reason I share these ideas is because for me, they help make the Bible real and relevant for today. Because if God changes the way he relates and reveals himself to his people based on how they are able to receive him, then this shift continues today and we need to be sensitive to and aware of and looking for the way that God is relating to us as we are here and now.

See, some christians are still trying to experience God as he expressed himself in the Old and New Testaments. They want to see healings happen, they want to hear the taingible, audible voice of God, they want radical intervention. And let me say now before I get flamed that I don’t discount such desires – I do believe God still heals and that he does choose to express himself more palpably to some people – but I also think that in general, God is choosing to relate to us today in a different way than he did even in the NT.

Why? Because we as a society have grown and changed and matured.

Here’s what I mean. Some christians lament the fact that God doesn’t seem to be healing people the way he did in the Bible but here’s what I think. I think God has given us the gift of medicine and science and he is waiting for us to use these gifts to bring healing to the sick, the poor, and the needy.

I have a friend (let’s call him D) who used to live in Hawaii who was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Now this is a guy who has experienced big miracles in his life. For example, when he first moved to Hawaii, he didn’t have a car and started praying for one. Lo and behold, someone walks up to him after church that week and says to him, “God told me you needed transportation so here are the keys to my old car.” But that’s not the crazy part. See, D drives this car around for a week and discovers that it’s a piece of shit. So he gives it back to the guy saying, “I don’t think this is the car God has for me.” Then a couple weeks later, someone else from the church gives him a car – this time an old (but fully functioning) Cadillac!

I share that story to show that this is a guy who’s not unfamiliar with God’s provision. So last year he gets diagnosed with a brain tumor and the prayer chain goes into overdrive. He’s got lots of Pentecostal-type friends so they pray for radical intervention and complete healing but that doesn’t happen. He has an operation and recovers completely. But he didn’t have medical insurance so he got stuck with a mega-buck bill from the hospital. However, donations and support checks start appearing from friends and long story short, he’s able to cover all medical costs.

The point I’m trying to make is that maybe a hundred years ago, prayers for God to heal D’s tumor would have been answered because there was no other way for D to survive but now that the technology is available, God let the tumor remain so that he could let the church step up and provide the financial support D needed for the operation.

Today, I think that praying for medical miracles in cases where there are already treatments available is like an adult asking his parents to continue giving him an allowance instead of getting a job using the college education that his parents paid for.

Let me try and say this another way.

Take a look at this bit from John 14:11-14:

Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

Some look at verse 12 and conclude that by doing “even greater things than these,” Jesus meant that christians will be able to heal the sick and the blind and the possessed. And Jesus does mean that, but not necessarily in the sense of laying hands on a lame person and seeing his/her legs instantly made well again. What if by “greater things” he was referring to modern advances in prosthetics technology and the opportunity to help victims of land-mines in places like Cambodia and Afghanistan and Burma?

Maybe that isn’t as sexy as a flesh and bone healing but while some christians are waiting on God to provide healing power, I would argue that God is actually waiting on us to use the knowledge and technology that he’s already given us.

Because some still expect an OT/NT God, they point fingers at him when he doesn’t provide relief in Indonesia or New Orleans or Sudan. What we don’t see is God pointing his finger back at the excesses of Las Vegas, at outrageous CEO salaries and corporate profits, at all the money our government is throwing at the war in Iraq. More ominously, God is pointing his finger at mega-church ministries that fly their pastors around in church-owned lear jets and provide $23,000 commodes (NPR story).

To finish off the parenting analogy, I believe that today in these modern, technological, scientific times, our society can be likened to a highly skilled adult and maybe God seems to be more hands-off today because he wants to see what we will do with the skills he’s blessed us with. As a social species, he’s moved us through birth, adolescence, young-adulthood and now that we are older, wiser, and better able to navigate this tricky planet, God wants to see what we will do.

The resources exist today to eradicate diseases like malaria and tuberculosis that are still ravaging developing countries. It would take a fraction of the current military budget in the US to provide clean water and sanitation for the 1.1 billion without it (2000 WHO report). Can’t get your head around a number that big? The UN
estimates
that the global population topped 6 billion in October of 1999. That means about one in six people on this planet do not have access to clean, safe water. Think of six of your closest friends. Now pick one of them and contaminate his/her lifetime water supply with parasites, pesticides, and industrial waste chemicals. Then watch them waste away while you go on with your own comfortable life.

I mention the problem of clean water because I’m excited about something that my pastor is working on. He’s blogged recently about a non-profit that he wants to set up and while I’m not exactly sure what it is yet, it seems to be exactly the kind of work that pastors and churches should be doing – helping to redeploy the gifts that God has blessed us and our country with to those truly in need.

Not to dis on any others, but my church is the bomb, yo.

Here’s the deal.

It’s easy to read the headlines and to be overwhelmed by all of the problems out there. But those problems aren’t the problem. The solutions to those problems exist today, now. The problem is $25,000 desserts, perfumes that retail for $2,150 an ounce, a military budget that is looking to spend $439.3 billion this year (that’s about 1.3 billion per day) – a fact that wouldn’t be so bad (because defense is a priority) if the money were being used wisely but sadly, it isn’t (warning, this story will make your blood boil).

God is not aloof or ambivalent. He wants desperately to take loving care of this world he’s created and the people he’s populated it with but he’s not going to go in and fix things – not when we already have what we need to fix them ourselves. The reading of the Bible that I’m putting forward suggests a trajectory where God is placing more and more responsibility and expectation on us as we are able to handle it. Again, not because he’s lazy or doesn’t care but just as a parent of talented children wants to see them thrive with the talents they have, I picture God in anxious expectation just waiting to see the “greater things” that we will do with the resources he has equipped us with.

But he’s not going to wait forever.

281. tell me about love (part 1)

You know, it’s happened twice already. I write about some frustrating situation at work and through the process of venting on the page, I come to some epiphany that helps make sense of what I do (see blog 267 and 277). But you know, despite these new insights, somehow my coworker seems to find innovative new ways to just plain piss me off.

I don’t really want to get into the latest ways he’s been getting on my nerves. I want to delve a bit deeper into what I wrote about in my last post about work. In that entry, I talked about how I decided to try my best to treat Harold as a hard-working peer even though he’s actually a hardly-working one. And for a couple weeks, it went really well. I mean, he didn’t work any harder or faster but he seemed to be in a better mood. As for myself, because I wasn’t always scrutinizing Harold – watching him out of the corner of my eye to catalog all the ways he wasn’t working – I was able to relax as well and just do my job.

But you know, just when I think I’ve seen the limits of his poor work ethic and lack of empathy for the amount of work I put in, Harold somehow manages to find a new way to just frustrate the hell out of me.

But that’s not what I want to talk about because it’s really just more of the same ole situation.

There’s something else I’ve been thinking about. See, the reason I decided to try and treat Harold as a peer was because I took a fresh look at some of the things Jesus said in the Gospels – in particular, the bit where he talks about loving your neighbor as yourself and loving the less than perfect the way God loves us.

And the bit that’s tripping me up is that word, “love.”

In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Paul talks about how doing what seems like holy work without love is equivalent to banging a cheap cymbal. And then he goes on to describe love in that passage you hear at so many weddings (appropriately so, I might add):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Now if those are the elements of love then how am I doing at work with Harold?

1. patient – most of the time (1).
2. kind – try to be (1).
3. does not envy – there are times when I wish I could just sit around instead of breaking my back lifting boxes but besides that, there’s not a whole lot about Harold that I envy (1).
4. does not boast, is not proud – I sometimes complain to one of our drivers, telling him how much work I’ve done that day compared to Harold so I guess I fail on this one (0).
5. is not rude – nope, not me (1).
6. is not self-seeking – nah…although I’m hoping for a generous raise once my yearly review comes around (1).
7. not easily angered – that’s me (1).
8. keeps no record of wrongs – I try to forgive and forget but it’s hard when Harold keeps reminding me (0).
9. does not delight in evil – I don’t like evil (1).
10. rejoices with the truth – that’s why I blog (1).
11. always protects – well, I haven’t reported my complaints about Harold to my boss yet, does that count as protecting him (0)?
12. always trusts – I don’t trust Harold (0).
13. always hopes – I do hope he’ll do better (1).
14. always perseveres – well, I’m still working there…(1)

Ten out of fourteen ain’t bad right?

But here’s the thing I’ve been thinking about. Is living out the qualities of love that Paul lays out really love? I don’t think so. The qualities that Paul lists are like signposts or indicators that show that a person is motivated by love. In this way, I think it’s an all or nothing list.

Here’s what I mean. Pregnancy tests work not by going in and verifying that an egg has been fertilized and has attached itself successfully to the uterine wall, they work by detecting the chemical/hormonal changes that take place once those things have happened. In other words, the test doesn’t verify actual conception, it tests for signs that conception has occurred. Now in order to weed out false positives, the tests look for a multitude of indicators. If it doesn’t find all the right signs, it returns a negative result. (Don’t ask me how I know this.)

So I picture Paul writing this letter to the Corinthians and he comes up with this list of qualities that describe someone motivated by love. This is the last thing he writes in this letter and it’s pretty long already so I’m thinking he’s not all that interested in compiling a comprehensive inventory. Instead, he highlights the sure-things, the things that have to be there if someone is truly motivated by love. So these are the essentials, the bare minimums, and like the pregnancy test, if you ain’t got all the signs, you ain’t really lovin’.

There’s another reason I know I don’t treat Harold with love. I have zero respect for the guy. I don’t know how to respect someone who consistently takes on the lightest workload possible (leaving me to do the heavy lifting), someone who doesn’t check his work (twice in the past couple months I’ve had to hunt through the shelves to find boxes that Harold scanned in wrong), someone who complains when a rush order comes in because it means he’ll have to get up out of his chair and actually do something (since I’m probably already out in the racks working on something else).

But he’s my neighbor and Jesus wants me to be Jesus to Harold.

It’s so hard to remember that Harold has been fearfully and lovingly made by God, that he is not beyond redemption. It’s so hard to look past all the sin that’s distorting the beauty God gave him. But that is my job as a christian.

I don’t know.

Tell me about love. How do I love this guy? Does going through the motions of love count for anything? What would loving Harold look like?