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Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.


Then we have Genesis 38. Wow. If you aren’t familiar with this story…well, I’m not going to recap it here. Take a minute and read it yourself. Don’t worry, the post will still be here when you get back…

The story of Judah and Tamar is disturbing to begin with…but the conclusion? Judah basically says, “Oh, I see, I should have taken care of her. My bad.” Then the laugh track kicks in and we cut to commercial. (Or so it seems.) If this were on TV there would be Christian groups in an uproar demanding that it be removed – and for good reason.

Here we have Judah, son of Jacob – who was the twin brother of Esau. This is the same Jacob who robbed his brother Esau of his birthright and blessing. And Esau…well, his other name is Edom, as in the father of the Edomites…you guessed it, another enemy of Israel.

Judah’s mother was Leah, Jacob’s first wife – who he married because his uncle Laban (Leah’s father) was as deceptive as he was…and because he apparently wasn’t too concerned with confirming the identity of the person with whom he was crawling into bed.

Leah is actually presented in the narrative as a good person. Unfortunately, she is a good person trying unsuccessfully to get her husband to love her – a fact of which her children were undoubtedly aware. Judah’s father was deceptive, manipulative and not all that great with the whole concept of treating women (or people in general) very well…of course he learned a good deal of his deception from his mother Rebekah, but I digress.

So Judah probably had both Daddy and Mommy issues. So what? Guess who else had those same issues? Joseph.

Joseph’s mother was Rachel – Leah’s younger sister – the one that Jacob wanted to marry (and did eventually). My wife, whose name is also Rachel, was the first one to point out to me that the only really positive thing the narrative ever says about Rachel is that she was “lovely in form and beautiful.”

We certainly don’t get any indication that she was much of a role model for young Joseph. Being Daddy’s favorite – with 10 older brothers – didn’t help matters. Why bring all this up? Well, the thing about Judah and Tamar’s story in Genesis 38 is that it is preceded by Genesis 37 and followed by Genesis 39 (funny how that happens.)

Genesis 38 was an abrupt change of setting in the narrative. This isn’t Judah’s story, its Joseph’s. Chapter 37 ends with young Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers. Then we all get grossed out, and hopefully enraged, with Judah’s actions (which ends with a birth story strangely reminiscent of good ole Poppa Jacob and his brother Esau…generational and system brokenness anyone?) But then we abruptly transition back to Joseph…imprisoned in Egypt (curse you Ham!).

And with what is Joseph, the prisoner, immediately faced? Well, sex of course… But not in the way you might think given that this is prison story. No, it’s a beautiful (married and powerful) woman throwing herself at him.

So, what does the brother of Judah, son of Jacob do? He runs away. His brother behaved awfully and had no immediate repercussions – though the people pay for it down the road. Joseph behaves nobly and it almost kills him – but it saves his people down the road.

The juxtaposition of these stories is not accidental. Again, these stories are part of a larger tapestry. Taking them out individually and dissecting them destroys them…as dissecting things tends to do.

When we talk about Scripture as a missional text, we are not saying that there is a missional principle at work in every individual piece of the narrative. However, when we step back and view the larger plotline we see that all along God is at work to reconcile creation and form his people into those who will join in this mission.

Conclusion:

Words are words; a jumble of sounds to which we’ve collectively assigned meaning. The words themselves matter little. We talk about fancy words, bad words, loaded words. Words aren’t really any of those things. They are just sounds. But the meaning – the agreed upon usage – that’s a different story.

The word missional means little to me. It is a helpful point of reference in conversation. It is also popular, which means that it has a limited shelf life in our culture – its biological clock is ticking so to speak. But I still believe that the meaning assigned to this word missional is of great importance.

And I also believe that this word serves as an important reminder when used in conjunction with Scripture.

Perhaps I’m not the best one to answer the “who cares” question. I obviously care about this topic. I am committed to instilling this way of approaching Scripture in my boys, encouraging it among my faith community, teaching it in my courses and interactions in the Missional Wisdom Foundation. Its obvious that I have decided it is a topic worthy of consideration. But what say you? What do you see – or fail to see – of worth in this discussion?

How does this resonate within your own heart? What do we gain by approaching the Bible as a missional text? What do we lose? What does it matter?

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Streams of Missional Thought pt 2

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.


In my last post I described 2 streams of thought – as distilled by George Hunsberger – that describe what we mean when we say the Bible is a missional text. These next two turn the perspective toward us – the readers. What does it mean for the missional orientation to inform our reading, and is that appropriate?

Probably an unnecessary spoiler, but… yes, it is appropriate.

Stream 3: The Bible is meant to be read BY a missional people

These Are Missional People

A missional perspective is the most appropriate posture for the Christian community to engage a faithful reading of the Bible. The text is intended to be received by – is addressed to – people who already understand themselves to have been called to join the mission of God…even if they aren’t always sure what the means.

The first two streams have looked at our hermeneutic (method of Biblical interpretation) from the perspective of the text’s work in describing a missional God and forming a missional people. This theme looks at the issue from the perspective of the missional people being formed.

A missional hermeneutic involves “an approach to the biblical text rooted in the basic conviction that God has a mission in the world and that we read Scripture as a community called into and caught up by those divine purposes.”

This is similar to the previous theme. The primary difference is that theme #2 refers to the way the Scriptures forms people and now we consider that we don’t read as just interested bystanders. We’re interested, yes, but as participants who have received and who share the calling that was being cultivated in the people we read about. We are in community with those who originally received these texts.

If that is the case, we “self-consciously, intentionally, and persistently bring to the biblical text a range of focused, critical, and located questions regarding church’s purpose in order to discern the faith community’s calling and task within the missio Dei.”

It is not just our right, but our responsibility as the missional community to read, ask hard questions, come to conclusions and move forward in faith. We are the interpreting community. We come to this text with questions that arise from living the message in our whole life. So, of course we must approach this as a missional text…because we’re a missional people, God is a missional God and this is the story of relationship between us.

Important questions for the interpreting community:

– Does our reading of the text challenge or baptize our assumptions and blind spots?

– How does the text help to clarify appropriate Christian behavior–not only in terms of conduct but also in terms of intentionality and motive?

– Does our reading emphasize the triumph of Christ’s resurrection to the exclusion of the kenotic (self-emptying), cruciform character of his ministry?

– In what ways does this text proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, and how might our own social locations make it difficult to hear that news as good?

– Does our reading of this text acknowledge and confess our complicity and culpability in personal as well as structural sin?

– How does this text clarify what God is doing in our world, in our nation, in our cities, and in our neighborhoods–and how may we be called to be involved in those purposes?

Stream 4: The missional engagement with cultures.

The Bible itself (particularly the New Testament) provides us with a matrix for missionally engaging our own culture with the text of scripture…in other words, applying it directly to our context, drawing from our own metaphors, recognizing the uniqueness of this place and this time.

This one is probably the most challenging, but is also empowering and recognizes how we are equipped to do that to which we’ve been called. There are scores of passages throughout the Old Testament, but specifically in the New Testament, where the writers engage older texts and read them through the lens of Jesus and their present situation – sometimes changing the way the text was used in the first place!

Think about this: when they did so, the result of became part of the biblical tradition passed on to us. What happens in the New Testament, in other words, is a model for our own regular engagement of the gospel with our own culture today. This encounter is the stuff of the church’s calling and mission.

Now to be very clear: that doesn’t mean we have license to take passages and make them mean whatever we need them to at the moment – there’s been quite enough of that already!

“As told to us in the New Testament, the gospel exhibits these structural features: It summons to allegiance and decision. (It makes a claim.) It presupposes a public horizon and universal scope. (It presents itself as world news.) It regards death and resurrection as paradigmatic. (It opens up a way.) These function as criteria that must guide every fresh interpretation of biblical message anywhere and at any time.”

More specifically, if our “fresh interpretation of the biblical message” serves a purpose other proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God; if it doesn’t equip us to live missionally or call others to take up the challenge; if it doesn’t remain true to the storyline of scripture – then we aren’t contextualizing the message, we’re changing it.

Taken together, these four streams lay out a holistic reading of scripture which recognize that as the missional people of a missional God, we can’t help but read scripture from a missional perspective. But this isn’t something we have to use our imagination to find, the text itself carries the mark of the missional life for our community. To summarize these four streams even further: the text of scripture presents a missional narrative which is meant to cultivate and be received by a missional people and provides the proper lens for missionally and incarnationally engaging the surrounding culture.

The “holistic” reading thing is important. After considering these 4 streams you may be thinking, “Does this apply to every passage in the Bible? Because I can think of a few that would need some pretty amazing acrobatics to fit this missional orientation.”

And that is what we’ll discuss in the next post.

What Difference Does it Make?

This post is part of a series on the Bible as a missional text, to catch up see the intro post here.

I am grateful for the friends, old and new, who read this blog and dialog with me on Facebook, in coffee shops, via email, on the phone or over dinner. And I love that you are such an incredibly eclectic group. Conservative evangelical, bleeding-heart liberal, and everywhere in between; agnostic, atheist, and those who are part of other religious traditions; academics and practitioners (and even a few academic practitioners); clergy and laity; country folks and hipsters; Republicans and Democrats; missional monastics and back-row pew dwellers.

I’ve received numerous questions about this issue of the Bible being a missional text; questions I’ll try to address in this series. The struggle has been that the questions, like my conversation partners, are all over the place.

“I still have no idea what this missional word means…now you want to use it to describe the Bible. What the heck are you talking about?” (I only touch on this one briefly in this series – for a longer answer to that question see this post).

“How exactly is the Bible a missional text?”

“Okay, so what does a missional engagement with Scripture look like in practice?”

“Are you trying to say that every passage has a missional orientation?”

Who Freaking Cares?

There is at least one more group of questions. Simply and eloquently stated, these are versions of, “So what?” and “Who cares?”

And those are honest, practical questions we need to be asking. Why does any of this matter? Does it change anything in real life? Does it actually help us or just give us another context for rambling speeches and blog posts? (As if I needed an excuse?)

On a fundamental level I believe that missional is a theological principle rather than a strategy for church planting, church renewal, or something else. And not simply a theological sidebar, but an aspect of understanding the revealed nature of God. The word missional is simply a tool. Yet it is one that helps us address what we see in the relationship of the Trinity; the calling of Israel and the formation of the church…so it’s a pretty useful tool. It helps us recognize that the Incarnation of Jesus wasn’t a new thing for God, but the seminal expression of how God has been operating since the act of creation.

Appreciating Scripture as a missional text is, in part, a needed corrective to perspectives that have allowed us to develop a culture that sees faith as an individualistic and privatized practice; which describes discipleship in terms of membership (and that, merely in terms of attendance and contribution)…or else views discipleship as a feature which only applies to the paid version of the faith app…and who pays for apps when the free “lite” version is sufficiently awesome?

It matters because we can no longer afford to miss how from beginning to end the Bible is about God making space for the Other and then pursuing the Other to invite them into that space…and then calling the Other to become agents of that same space making adventure.

A missional engagement with Scripture matters because it reminds us that we do not read as detached voyeurs. We are invited into the Story as active participants – even if we considered ourselves outsiders when we started reading.

It matters because we are too quick to view the Bible as a list of ways that we can keep people out, keep ourselves in, and somehow feel good about it in the process.

And honestly, the missional nature of Scripture matters because it grounds our sending in something more substantial and sustaining than a fleeting desire for activism.

When the mystique and glamor of actively connecting with broken and hurting people begins to wear thin – and make no mistake, it will…right about the time you realize that “broken and hurting” kinda sucks – what keeps us moving forward? Obviously the first answer is the Holy Spirit. Next comes our community…wait, you are only attempting in this in community, right? Seriously, that’s important. But what happens when we begin to doubt if we ever heard the Spirit to begin with? (Yes, this too is going to happen. Here’s a description of one such time for me.) What happens when circumstances cause you to question whether your community sees you as anything more than another commodity to be consumed or traded? (…yep, that one’s real too.)

There’s another vital component. One that reminds us of the Spirit’s guidance when we forget and points us back to our community even if they’ll likely burn us again…and we them. This piece is so important that its actually the point and process of the entire book of Deuteronomy.

Story. Like the rabbits in Watership Down (such a great story), our Story sustains us because it reminds us of who we are and why we are; where we come from and where we’re headed. The Bible tells us the story of the God of Mission inviting humanity into the mission of God, transforming those who are sent into ambassadors of transformation wherever they go.

A narrative has several characteristics. It comprises a story that is moving somewhere; it gives a social group a story that tells where it is going and what the group will look like when it arrives. There is purpose and quest within the narrative calling a group in a specific direction and toward a particular goal…Because narrative creates and sustains social community, it’s the glue, the atmosphere of all social life. The key to innovating missional community is formation of a people within a specific memory and narrative. – Alan Roxburgh, The Missional Leader, 70-71.

If we can keep our minds wrapped around that aspect of Scripture, then I don’t care if we ever use the word missional again.

…but you’ll probably encounter the word a few more times in this series at least.

A Missional Post on Missional Scripture Composed on my Missional Laptop.

Missional.

For many, the word has become like a Katy Perry song: love it or hate it, you can’t go 10 minutes without hearing it…and catching yourself singing along unconsciously. Others may think that the word is owned by Apple, because it shows up in front of absolutely everything the same way their lower-case “i” does.

Speaking of which, yes, there is an iMissional.org.

Missional Coffee

And as often as I use the word, I admit, even I get tired of hearing about missional toasters, missional coffee, missional songbooks, missional underwear (wait, no, that one could be interesting). There’s even a Missional Study Bible. Perhaps I’m just bitter because I wasn’t asked to contribute anything, and in fairness, it looks pretty cool, but I believe we already have a missional Bible – the Bible.

That’s what I want to address in this series of blog posts. It wasn’t actually inspired by the publication of the Mission of God Bible – that’s just a happy coincidence – instead it has come about for several reasons. First of all, I believe that those of us who are committed to (or even just considering) missional and incarnational approaches to faith should wrestle with the deeper theological realities that accompany this orientation. They’re there, they have been ignored too often and for too long – and they transcend, “this just works better.”

I’ve written here, and lots of other places, that missional is first a theological, rather than pragmatic or strategic, issue. Theology is the practice of thinking, contemplating and talking about God. So when I say this is a theological issue, my claim is that saying something about missional is actually saying something about God – not just the strategies, practices or attitudes of Christians.

Therefore, it makes a great deal of sense to look more carefully at the relationship between missional theology and scripture. Is the Bible a missional text? What does that mean? What does it look like? This question is not just about putting missional in front of yet another aspect of Christianity. Frankly, I hope that we will someday reach a point where it is (as it should be) redundant to even use the word missional in relation to our faith.

Unfortunately, given that our society tends to devour words and ideas voraciously until they become bitter in our collective mouth, there is a good chance it will fall out of use long before it becomes unnecessary.

In one sense, I’m already seeing the trend begin. Mike Breen’s post, Why the Missional Movement Will Fail is one example. In fairness, what I take Breen to be saying in his post is that we cannot focus on “doing” mission if we are not first pursuing discipleship – without discipleship our missional efforts will be empty, short-lived, and will ultimately fail, cut-off as they are from the source of our calling.

Perhaps our thoughts on this depend on what we mean by, and how we’re using, the word missional. Stated very briefly, missional means that the whole community of faith, not just a few special standouts, is called to live on mission with God. The concept is meaningless without discipleship – just as discipleship can easily become individualistic and theoretical without a missional orientation. Missional isn’t a doing focus – it is essentially about who we are; who we are called to be and formed into being by the one we want to be with and be like. We can’t really claim to BE these people if we fail to DO what such people are called to do…but the doing is a result of being, not the other way around.

We live this way, on mission with God, because we are the people of God. In this way our actions are in response to our calling and thus originate, not in our own awesomeness, but in the Divine Awesomitude.

Missional is more than a call to personal piety, activism, social justice, evangelism or discipleship – it encompasses all these aspects in a holistic call to the Way of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit in the midst of God’s mission of reconciliation…together, as the Body of Christ. Each disciple of Jesus, each person who bears the name “Christian,” is included in this call – not just those who attended seminary, have tons of free time to volunteer, enjoy teaching Sunday School, or set aside time in the summer for a mission trip to Mexico.

Sadly, as we consider the state of the Church in North America, missional is not yet a redundancy.

So what about the Bible? Is it right to refer to it as a missional text? Are we saying that every passage is a “missional passage?” What does that mean?

When I refer to the Bible as a missional text I’m claiming that:

– The metanarrative (overall story) of Scripture is about a missional God who creates as an act of love and hospitality. The brokenness and separation experienced in creation are not God’s doing – they are precisely that which God is undoing. As those created in God’s image, God is (and has been all along) inviting humanity to collaborate as junior co-creators in this mission of reconciliation. Make no mistake, it is God’s mission – but we are called to participation.

– The purpose of Scripture is to equip God’s people as those being called and sent together. This Story, like all truly great stories, aims to change those who hear it. But our transformation goes beyond personal piety or eternal destination…we are being pulled into the Story that transforms everything.

– Basically, I’m saying that God is actually up to something in this world; we – all of us – are called to play an active role in that something, and the Bible is the story of that something.

In this series of posts we’ll address: (these titles will become links once the posts are live)

What Difference Does it Make?

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 1

Streams of Missional Thought, pt 2

Really? Scripture is Missional? Have You Actually Read It?

Still…Judah and Tamar?? What the What?!?

I hope that this series will be helpful for ongoing conversations – and that you’ll be willing to engage some of that here on this page.

The Community

I preached this sermon originally in 2009. In its initial form it began with a shorter version of the poetic retelling of the story of creation, fall and redemption. This rewrite was an assignment for the class I took in January, 2011. The intent of this message is to remind the hearers/readers that Scripture is telling a story we’re all struggling to hear naturally and to call us to share that meaningful story of belonging with others.

Before the beginning there was Community. God, the Community of Love, which we refer to as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit had a perfect relationship of mutual love and respect. This isn’t to say that there were three gods – there is One God and this God is the essence of Love. Love neither exists in, nor is expressed in isolation; it is expressed in community. This God, this Community of Love is not incomplete; the Trinity is the definition of completion. Community needs nothing, Love lacks nothing. Love is eternally expressed within the Community of the One God in Three Persons.

While the Community of Love is not incomplete, neither is God static. The nature of True Community is expansive. It is dynamic. It is always growing and bringing into itself everything around it. The relationship of the Community, being rooted and established in a deep, indescribable love, is creative. For that is what love is and what love does, it continually creates opportunity for love to be expressed and to give itself away. Trinitarian love is essentially self-emptying.

So God, the Community of Love, created. God brushed away the darkness, stepped into the midst of chaos and brought forth solid foundations. God molded and formed an indescribable, advancing universe, and in an inconspicuous section of all that began to paint, with beautiful strokes, a landscape that was begging to be enjoyed.

God walked in the garden. The Lord knelt down and from the same material that formed mountains, deserts and jungles; the same material that made up the fish and birds and lions and bugs, began to mold something new; something that would see and know and laugh and love. God began to form something that would walk with The Community, that God could teach and love. With The Community’s image as a mold and model, a new thing was brought into being.

This new thing would be the pinnacle of everything God had created. The Lord would be able to point out the sunrise and this new thing’s breath would catch. When a thunderstorm would pass through, it was God to whom this new thing would come running for protection. The Community of Love would hold this small creature and explain that everything would be okay.

God formed this living being. The Community breathed its own life into this thing. The Community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the relationship that was full, complete and needed nothing – invited these new small frail children to share this powerful community. And it was so very good.

God could have formed these creatures without the ability to choose their course. That decision had been made with the stars and planets and mountains and streams. None of these had been given the freedom to choose – planets and moons are in their orbit and have no ability to choose to do otherwise. Mountains are tall and strong, but they will never think, “I want to be a valley now.” Gravity does not choose whether it will influence objects or not.

This decision allowed the universe to be orderly, but it also ensured that no planet would ever write a song about the Creator. True, God created great beauty in the planet, a beauty which is itself a kind of song, but it isn’t a song that the planet created. In humanity, God has created something which is able to create as God creates – not on the same level; neither as equal nor rival, but as something which understands, as God does, that when love is present beautiful things result. The children could not be like the stars or the trees, they had to be able to choose.

But with the ability to choose, came the ability to choose isolation over Community. Some say that God was disobeyed and so God’s wrath was stirred. I think it’s much more sad and tragic than that. The Lord had created these children to live in the trusting, loving relationship that The Community enjoyed; God had created room for the Community of Love to be experienced. In the moment of choice, the creation rejected both Community and Love. The course of the Story was altered from its intended trajectory.

This crisis was devastating and cataclysmic, but it would not have the last word. It WILL not have the last word. Even in the midst of great crisis, when Creation rejected the relationship of love and community and instead launched into selfishness and isolation…The Creator continued going to creation.

God called a man named Abram and made a covenant with him. The Lord God blessed Abram, changing his name to Abraham (meaning “father of a multitude”) and promised that through him all people groups on earth would be blessed.

As the children of Israel continued year after year to cycle through seasons of confusion and clarity, The Lord kept returning to them, seeking to restore and reconcile community with creation. God patiently taught and corrected and reminded and invited and urged and groaned and pleaded. Community could not stand to see humanity languishing in isolation.

The Lord raised up judges and priests, kings and prophets to speak to the people. Some of these leaders saw relative success in their ministry of calling the hearts and minds of the people back to God. But the success was always short-lived at best.

The prophet Jeremiah spoke of a coming day when there would no longer be any need to teach one another about God, for the covenant would be written on our hearts. When the time came, The Community of Love yet again stepped into the midst of creation to walk in the garden with creation. Once more the missionary God self-sent, and Jesus the Christ lived among us. Jesus modeled a view of full humanity in full view of humanity.

Jesus gathered a community around himself and continually invited the broken, overlooked, forgotten and oppressed to rejoice because the Community of God was at hand; it was here and they were invited in. Jesus came to reclaim the lost things, restore the broken things and to set into motion the putting to rights of ALL things. Jesus proclaimed the good news that once again God would dwell with creation. And Jesus invited humanity to experience the power of thunderstorms, the beauty of mountains and the joy of life in the arms the Community of Love.

Those who heard this joyous pronouncement were not ushered off into isolation. They were sent to invite others to join the work of reclaiming, restoring and remaking. Jesus didn’t merely come to invite us to the feast, the Word of God called us to join in the mission of preparing the table!

Some say that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection provide the substitutionary atonement for our sins. It is much more beautiful and powerful than just that. To be sure, whatever atonement is required is fulfilled by Christ, but that is only part of the story.

Jesus stepped right into the midst of a continual, systemic, generational and seemingly unstoppable cycle of violence, retribution, greed, power, sin…

And stopped it dead in its tracks.

Never before had anyone had such a singular claim on the right for retribution and justice. Rather than lay claim to these rights, Jesus laid them aside in order to stop the cycle of revenge. Sin and death would no longer have a strangle-hold on the status quo. The deception which had been plaguing creation since the first garden was finally brought to full light. There is hope. There is light. There is Life.

When the time came for Jesus to return to the Father, the Spirit was promised…and then sent. The Spirit wasn’t sent to wander aimlessly, but rather came to form and cultivate community in anticipation of experiencing Community on earth as it is in heaven. The Spirit called for the community of believers to be sent to the ends of the earth; continuing the ministry to which Jesus had dedicated himself, continuing the ministry to which God had called Abraham, continuing the ministry which God initiated in the first garden, continuing the Act that began in the beginning, continuing the character of the One who was Community before the beginning. The missionary God who comes near as Love has sent us as well.

We see it everyday in a thousand ways. Walking down the fluorescent lit halls of our high school, they’re there…whispering, judging, huddled together like the impenetrable phalanx of Spartan warriors. Enter any public space: a bar, the mall, a dark alley…even most church buildings and there they are again. Notice your friends, yourself even, and perhaps you will recognize with astonishment that they are still present…even in the mirror.

Sometimes they give themselves a name and go to battle against other theys – sometimes with tanks, sometimes with machetes and assault rifles, sometimes with stolen firearms and knives, sometimes with words.

They are us. Humanity. Struggling to find meaning and belonging in the midst of a deeply scarred and broken world. Whether we’re talking about nations, religions, factions, gangs, fraternities or cliques the dynamic is the same. We long for connection and as I once heard someone say, “when we’re dying of thirst we’ll gladly drink water we know is poisonous.”

The story of Scripture – our story – reveals that this longing is natural, it was placed within us in the very act of creation by a God who exists in community. We are the people of this Story. We are the rememberers of the Story of God, the Community of Love. Not only this, we are the story of the Community of Love in action. This understanding of God teaches us how to receive one another, to speak of salvation, to engage in the mission of God and even to praise the God who has come near in order to make community possible.

Life in Suburbia

 

burbs1

This may seem a bit obvious, but Chris and I have been spending a lot of time thinking about the suburbs lately. Its obvious (obviously) because we live and are planting churches in a suburb of Fort Worth, TX. 

A couple months ago we both read a book, Death by Suburb, that we felt addresses many of the issues that we and our community deal with on a regular basis. Toxins like the temptation to for every relationship to be transactional – based on an exchange of goods, services or some perceived benefit. We get our coffee from a drive-thru worker, not a person; we buy our groceries from a corporation and pay a cashier…no names required. Even our interactions with our Christ Journey family runs the risk of becoming transactional – I call you because you volunteered to read Scripture on Sunday or because you are a House Church Leader, not because I wanted to see how your doctor’s appointment went yesterday. That reminds me, I want to call somebody about their doctor’s appointment yesterday….

…Okay I’m back.

Transactional relationships, the inability to slow down, the temptation to define ourselves by what we do or have, the compulsion to have someone else’s life – to compete with our neighbors and define ourselves through “immortality symbols” such as new minivans, community service activities, successful kids, etc, – none of these things are unique to the ‘burbs, but many have unique expressions in suburban life. And we deal with all of them in one way or another.

Of course, our work here in Burleson is interesting in that we aren’t in an exclusively “typical” suburban area. There are sprawling McMansion neighborhoods to be sure, but there are also still plenty of “small town” and even “rural” areas, many of which found in the same zip code.

As we’ve continued to engage this suburban idea in our studies and conversations, we’ve come across some very helpful resources, including this article in Newsweek magazine (thanks for the link Chris!)

I couldn’t help but think of my time in the New Orleans area when reading that article. I typically say New Orleans when folks around here ask where we were in Louisiana. But to the locals, we were well outside of NOLA…we were on the Northshore. New Orleans is situated around the Mississippi River but is also held in place by Lake Pontchartrain (the huge oval shaped water feature on the southeast corner of a LA map). Across the 24 mile Causeway Bridge there is a growing “bedroom” community made up of several towns: Mandeville (where we lived), Madisonville, Covington, Lacombe, Abita Springs…and plenty other small communities.

MANY people drive across that bridge to the Southshore every day. New Orleans would be in serious trouble if it were not for the North Shore. And yet the various discussions of urban renewal and even church planting typically ignore or show mild neglect to the residents of St. Tammany Parish.

The Newsweek article addresses the reality that as the popularity and availability of suburban life increases, so does the existence of social concerns which many suburbanites tried to leave behind. One quote in particular said it well: 

The end of the (traditional) suburbs was inevitable. Hopeful, mobile Americans may once have thought they could leave behind the pressures, demands and compromises of city life. But social concerns inexorably follow society.

One of the things that Chris and I have wanted to be very intentional about in our Navigating the Suburban Wilderness series is to avoid telling people they should move to the country OR to the city. 

It seems that these options are often held up as the true choices for the person who doesn’t want to become a Stepford wife…or husband. “Move to the country and get back to your roots!” “Enjoy small town values with people you can trust.” “Experience the land again.” These are all great things – I come from the country and enjoyed these aspects of my upbringing.

“Return to the cities and stop ignoring the poor!” “Jesus wouldn’t live in the burbs, he’d be in the city where the oppressed and forgotten live.” “If you want real character and personality, you have to experience city life…suburbs are too sterile.” There is a deep pull in my heart for speaking for the voiceless, seeing the invisible and breaking the chains of injustice. And its hard not to like areas like Sundance Square in Fort Worth…

But make no mistake, Jesus is not merely a resident of the city or a friend of the rancher. Jesus is the one who has come near and is the companion of humanity – not just a certain cross-section. Anywhere there are people there is opportunity to know their names – not just in small towns. If you won’t meet your neighbor in the burbs, you aren’t likely to learn the names of shop owners in a rural town either. If you haven’t spoken up for the needs of the oppressed in the suburbs (refer back to the Newsweek article if you think they don’t exist…or better yet, visit Harvest House, Heart for the Kids, or talk to just a couple random people and ask them their story) then why would you be more likely to do the same in the city? 

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that there are people who feel a special calling to show solidarity with the urban poor and I am so glad they are willing to answer that call. There are plenty of people raising their families is small towns, and that is great. But you don’t typically have to go any further than your own neighborhood to find opportunities to love those who are unloved and share hope with those who are trapped in despair.

I believe that the burbs are going to continue to become more and more complex and diverse. We believe that the Kingdom of God is breaking in even here and the Lord Jesus is seeking to proclaim freedom for the captives, even if their prison bars are picket fences and their sentence is self-imposed.

Listening From the Hallway

 

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Last week was a really interesting experience for me. I “audited” a grad class at ACU. For those that don’t know, you can sit in on a Bible class at ACU for $35 – you don’t have to take the tests and you don’t get college credit, but you get to participate at learn at whatever level you want. 

I received an M.A. in Christian Ministry from ACU in 2005 – that two year program took me 4.5 years since I was also in full-time ministry through the whole thing. A couple years ago I decided I wanted to pursue a D.Min (doctor of ministry) and that meant I needed some leveling work (my MA was a 54 hour degree and I need an MDiv, which is at least 72 hours). I think I’ve taken all the classes I need (I’ll find out for sure in a couple weeks). So I’m currently in a rare season of NOT being in school! (with the exception of a few semesters here and there, I’ve been in college and then grad school since 97!) 

So…when I found out that Chris was taking a class on Christian Worship, my inner nerd began shouting. I decided that it would be good  to sit in on the class with him so that we could process through the material together. This was a class that I’d wanted to take in grad school but didn’t “need” and never had a free January to squeeze it in.

Overall it was really good. Chris and I spent a lot of time discussing what went on in the class and came away with a few ideas. It was encouraging because we’re already doing   most of what we talked about. 

One component of the course involved the students (many of whom are full-time ministers) being placed in groups and preparing/leading a time of worship for the class. The two that were the most impacting to me were the first and last of the week. The final group led a lament service that did not in any way feel like a group project – it was one of the most profound times of worship I’ve experienced…certainly at ACU and maybe ever.

The first service impacted me in a very different way. Where the last was powerful because of the authentic and transparent nature of entering into communal and personal lament, the first was powerful because I was unable to engage in such a way.

A few of us had lunch with a professor (not the professor teaching our class) and we were late returning. I, being just a lowly auditor, dropped Chris off and went to find a parking place. By the time I got there the worship had already begun, so I stood in the hallway so as not to disturb (afterall, I didn’t know how nervous the group members were and I could hear what was going on anyway.)

Standing in the hallway during a worship gathering was interesting. I found myself, though somewhat self-conscious (since there were other people in the hallway), engaging at points in the singing and silence. I found myself listening intently to the readings. And yet I couldn’t really engage because I wasn’t fully engaged with the community. I found myself wondering what was happening when I could hear the sounds of movement but couldn’t see what people were doing. There were times when I really wanted to participate with them, but simply couldn’t because there was a barrier between me and everyone else (of course, all I had to do was open the door and go in…but I didn’t). At other times the distance and separation led my mind to wander; I found myself distracted by the things going on around me, disengaging because I wasn’t really a part of the proceedings.

And that got me thinking. How many people sit in the midst of our worship gatherings every week and experience precisely what I was going through?

There are times when they are drawn into the worship but even then they feel uncomfortable because they don’t feel like they’re really a part of the community. There are times when they can “hear the sounds of movement” but don’t really understand what’s going on. In other words, because what we do is so foreign to them, they can tell that something significant is taking place but they don’t understand and so feel like they’re listening to things happening on the other side of closed door.

How often do people disengage because they never fully engaged to begin with? And what are we doing or not doing to draw them in and welcome them? I don’t blame anyone in our class for me being outside – it was a choice I made. However, the simple truth is, right though it was, I stood in the hallway because when I approached this worship the door was closed to me.

I was unsure about whether or not I was allowed to open the door and so I stood at a distance. 

My prayer is that Christ Journey, and any gathering of Christ’s disciples, will always be aware of closed doors. Sometimes the door is closed for good reason and that means we need to be aware of anyone who may be on the other side of that door longing to join us. What happens behind the door is important and valuable – and so is what’s happening outside. 

No Doubt or Know Doubt

 

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A large part of college education is to take a group of people who feel that they know everything (college freshmen) and get them to the point where they feel that they don’t know anything. That takes a lot of work in the classroom. The goal is to instill a curious bent to the student’s intellectual character. To get them to see each new experience (ideological and interpersonal) as an opportunity for learning. 

Higher education is good at this. But I wonder how good the church is at this process. Churches, it seems to me, move in the opposite direction: They try to instill certainty. A similar thing happens in political affiliation. You don’t see circumspection when Democrats and Republicans square off. I think this is why we live with the rule to never discuss religion or politics in polite conversation. The “feeling of knowing” infuses those discussions, making them very intense but also very unproductive.

So I wonder, can a church survive if it actually tried to undermine the “feeling of knowing” the way higher education does? Probably not. But I think some persons can make this shift. As a consequence, these person seed the church with question-raisers. The presence of these people infuse the faith community with flexibility and curiosity which prevents ossification and stagnation. A healthy church would be a mix of those who feel they know along with people who feel they don’t know. The real trick is getting these people to get along with each other and to mutually affirm the gifts each brings to the communal setting.

What a great thought from one of my former professors, Dr. Richard Beck. His blog, Experimental Theology is quite challenging for several reasons. First of all, those who think that the content of my blog is too heavy and serious should not even click on his link (though his sarcasm and humor ensure that even his scholarly work is often light-hearted and enjoyable for nerds like me). However the real challenge of Experimental Theology is that Beck is quite comfortable living into the role he suggests in the extended quote above. Challenging not only assumptions but assumptions which entire systems of thought are often built upon.

While I will not cover this topic in any way like Dr. Beck and his very well researched article, I would like to talk a little about the usefulness of doubt and willingness to question assumptions. And since this post is over a thousand words, I’ll post the rest tomorrow.

Telling Better Stories

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Some of those who have responded to my previous post on the wrath of God(primarily in person or by phone) seem to have understood me to say that God is not concerned with sin or that there is no response of wrath.

I understand how they could come to that since my first post on this subject was intended primarily to pull our focus away from the satisfaction of God’s wrath as the primary purpose of the cross. I made a case against this perspective not because I don’t believe it has a part in this story, but because for so many of us it has been the ONLY part of the story that seemed to matter.

I do believe that sin and injustice matter to God. I believe that violence and oppression certainly bring about the wrath of God; my friend Luke pointed out the story of Sodom and Gomorra…another good example would be the plagues on Egypt. I have said before, and still believe, that mercy taken to an extreme is injustice to those offended.

I believe that our obstinate desire to continue in sin when faced with the Truth of God, is something which does bring guilt and potentially wrath.

I’d like to talk more about what that means. When we read about the wrath of God being poured out or threatened to be poured out there are two basic categories: 1) evil and violent cultures/people groups and 2) God’s chosen people who continue generation after generation to refuse to worship God alone; who fail to be the people they’re called to be.

Notice that if the evil communities – such as Sodom and Gomora or Egypt – would have repented, then God would have withheld his wrath. Look at Ninevah – Jonah preaches the worst sermon in history and boom, the whole city repents and then, double boom God relents. No sacrifice needed to appease his wrath other than the sacrifice of a broken and contrite heart.

Regarding the wrath poured out on God’s people – a story which is repeated throughout Israel’s history – let’s not forget how often they were given the chance to repent and turn back to God. The message of Jeremiah was that God’s wrath would come in the form of exile and control by a foreign power unless the people turned back to God. God’s wrath was NOT inescapable, it only came about after repeated refusals by His people to listen.

I’m not arguing that Jesus’ crucifixion didn’t serve as the final sacrifice for sin – I think that is absolutely part of what happened. However, I believe that it is false to assert that God is bound by his justice to require a sacrifice and therefore that must have been the primary reason for the cross. If God is bound to satisfy justice, then God is subservient to justice…we should worship justice because it is more powerful than God. But God is love. Love certainly involves seeking justice for others, but love also forgives offenses against itself.

I believe that there are some serious holes in the position that God is bound by his justice and so the pouring out of his wrath on someone (be it on us or Jesus) is central to his nature. While God is certainly just, God is not subject to anything – if so then, again, we should worship that. It is not okay to say that God IS justice and thus he is bound by himself. First of all, while Scripture says that God is just (an adjective) it does not say that God IS Justice (noun) – we’re told that God is Love…not Justice.

One response I’ve heard to this is that love must be just. Love certainly contains a component of justice yet it is also filled with mercy, long-suffering, forgiveness and grace.

Substitutionary atonement fails to acknowledge God’s longstanding history of offering forgiveness to those who have offended him without requiring the taking of life. Hosea 6 reminds us that God“desires mercy, not sacrifice.” In that passage God, through through the prophet, is urging his people to turn back and acknowledge him – they had ALREADY broken their covenant with God and thus justice demanded that they be put out. The entire point of Hosea’s life and ministry was that God is not bound by this expectation of justice. God is willing to set all that aside if his people will remember and return.

Isn’t that precisely what we are called to as well? Paul confronts the church in Corinth for their insistence on getting justice when they’ve been wronged: “The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?(1 Corinthians 6:7)”

Demanding justice for yourself does not seem to carry the same weight as demanding justice for the weak and the oppressed (assuming you aren’t the weak and oppressed). God is the One who speaks up for justice on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and yet where God is concerned he extends mercy and forgiveness.

When God is finally forced to pour out his wrath, he tells the people he will not remain angry forever – God’s wrath is redemptive rather than merely retributive (thanks Nate); God’s wrath is a means rather than an end.

How does Jesus describe God in relation to our “lostness”? Well, most of us are familiar with the three parables of lost things. The lost coin, lost sheep and prodigal son are important parables where Jesus stresses heavily the nature of God – hence three similar stories in quick succession. In these stories we find not a vengeful God of righteous wrath, but a compassionate caretaker, shepherd and father. The shepherd does not require the sheep to be sacrificed and the father does not require the son to become a slave – apparently being lost was punishment enough.

HOWEVER (Galatians 6:7) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” God does take sin very seriously because sin is a component of the larger brokenness that plagues all of creation – a creation that is beloved by God and which God is even now working to restore and heal. Sin, brokenness and evil are true enemies of life, if that is what we sow then that is what we will reap.

What if that is what the wrath of God really is? Eventually God allows us to remain in the lostness we brought on ourselves. It isn’t that God brings about some vicious torture because his sense of honor has been accosted. He invites us to return but if we continue to refuse; if we continue to willingly sow evil, then how can we not reap destruction?

This shift in understanding does is not devalue the damage of sin or the need for a Savior. However, it does demand that we recognize how we’ve made sin the point for too long. Sin is only the point if our genesis (beginning) was in Genesis 3. But the fall of humanity is not the foundation of this story, the point is the power of a good creator God speaking all things into existence and being very pleased with his good creation (Genesis 1). The point is that this God desires to be in close communion with that which he has made and he will cross any chasm to rescue us from death.

Sin is a character in this story, but it is not the main character. The wrath of God is a potential subplot, but not the climax or the resolution. The wrath of God is no more central to this story than not failing a class is the central reason to study in school or gaining nutrients for physical survival is the primary reason to share a meal with friends.

God is a just God; he demands justice for those who are oppressed and he will not allow those who continue to defy him to remain unpunished. But God IS love. God is the One who is at work in healing broken lives and restoring damaged relationships. This is the central message of the cross – a new power and a new kingdom are available. No longer will the oppressive regimes of this world define power. The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is for everyone and it has a whole new definition of life.

The barriers have been torn down; the enemy has been vanquished and the invitation to enter into life has been given. This is not primarily about a loan shark collecting a debt, this is about a father running to meet his child on the road. Falling on his knees, kissing and embracing his beloved, putting rings on fingers and coats on shoulders and throwing a feast to celebrate the restoration of the father’s broken heart.

That is a much better story.

So, This Story is a Little Long…

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I just finished 5 weeks of preaching at Christ Journey on the topic of Sabbath. My suspicion going into this series was that very few of us, particularly here in our faith community, really understand, appreciate or practice any type of Sabbath rhythm.

I think this suspicion was confirmed and (hopefully) overcome. Over the past month I’ve had people come to me and say, “I’m glad we did this, I never knew that Sabbath had anything at all to do with Christianity – I thought it was just an Old Testament thing like Passover or Kosher laws.” Another told me, “I was always taught that Sabbath was going to church and NOT GOING to movies or the mall on Sunday.”

What we spent this entire month considering were the ways in which a Sabbath rhythm could be cultivated (which basically means that we have an intentional time set aside each week to cease from work and the compulsion to produce and prove ourselves and instead embrace other things like rest, worship, feasting, remembering, celebrating and storytelling).

I admit fully that while I have a great affinity for the concept of Sabbath I am not always very good at practice. I can see the areas in my life that would be healthier and more satisfying were I to center myself in the practice of remembering God is God and I am not…but I do not do the thing I want to do and what I do not what to do, I do.

One concept which has come up quite a bit lately, through our Sabbath discussions as well as in other (seemingly) unrelated settings is the importance of story. Being good storytellers and story-hearers is important to our spiritual formation and it is also a reenactment of the Gospel of Jesus. 

We discussed in a couple of the sermons that Sabbath itself is rooted in story – we are first introduced to Sabbath in the narrative of creation. It does not simply show up out of the blue in the middle of the Ten Commandments. In fact the command issued in Exodus 20 is to REMEMBER the Sabbath day. This story is formative.

Later when the Ten Commandments are retold to Israel in Deuteronomy 5 Sabbath is set within another story. Here the people are told to remember the Sabbath day as a way to remember that they were captives in Egypt and God rescued them and brought them to freedom. The Exodus story is central to understanding God’s relationship to humanity. We, the captives, cried out to God and he came near in order to set us free. He is not a God demanding constant production, like the Egyptian masters. He invites his people to rest in Him. 

Jesus would later say that He came so that we might have life and have it to the fullest. He said, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest.”

The hearing and telling of these stories – our stories in scripture – is central to participation in the life of faith. But that isn’t where the importance of story ends.

In the midst of one of our worship gatherings we had an opportunity for several couples to share stories. They were asked to talk about how God had worked in their lives in the past or where they were hoping to see God at work in the future.

I thought it was a great moment for our family when one couple shared what they thought were two unrelated stories. However after they shared their two stories we helped them to reinterpret their story. In fact the two were so closely connected that it was quite powerful – one talking about the struggle to find balance between providing for his family and spending time with them and the other talking about her struggle to forgive a father that failed to maintain that very balance.

We are a community that tells, retells and sometimes, reinterprets stories. It is what we do because it is precisely what God has done for us. The story of human existence was one of brokenness and despair. Sin, unchecked, destroys life after life with no compassion or mercy. God in his greatness did not allow this story to define us forever. Instead he stepped into the story and began redeeming and reconciling the characters. Humanity and all creation are in the process of being healed and restored by the Great Storyteller who was not happy with this tale ending in tragedy.

Where there are chapters of brokenness, God is editing and rewriting to include restoration. Where there is pain, God writes in healing; where there is chaos, God speaks a narrative of peace.

We too have that ability. We are able to tell the story in a new light. This isn’t to say that we stick our head in the sand and pretend that everything is okay. No, we step into the midst of a story that says everything is doomed and proclaim that in fact, there is hope. (Which was part of what happened at Marvelous Light)

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Paul stepped into the midst of total relativism in Athens (Acts 17) and said, “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Paul was able to reinterpret this story for the Athenians because he was willing to enter into their story in the first place. Had he simply stood outside the Areopagus and denounced their idolatry he would have had no impact whatsoever.

I recently heard a Christian say that they were unable to participate in Christmas activities because December 25 was an ancient pagan holiday associated with the Winter Solstice and the practices of Christmas originate in the worship of Saturnalia and other pagan gods. 

It may be jarring to learn for the first time that there were religious celebrations associated with winter and even December 25 prior to Christ. While this may be difficult if you didn’t know about it, it isn’t a great deception.

In (I believe) 350, Pope Julius declared that the celebration of the birth of Christ would take place on December 25. This happened when many pagans were being forced to convert to Christianity. The move, while certainly containing the risk of syncretism, retold  this story – which was always one of hope. 

And theirs was a good story. The worship may have been false, but the concept was one of hope in a higher power that could rescue humanity from the powers of nature which were so threatening.

In fact, the practice of bringing an evergreen tree into one’s home was meant as a reminder that life would return even though the harsh cold winter seemed an unstoppable ally of death. 

And Christianity retold this story. “Yes” we were able to say, “there is hope in the darkest of times; yes we can look forward to resurrection of life from the dead – but not because we’ve properly coerced the pagan gods but rather because the One True God has become one of us in order to be life and light in this darkness.” In other words, “So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

Granted, the early church’s use of power and coercion was not something I believe to be Christlike. There were probably many pagans who simply used Christian language while maintaining their pagan beliefs – just as there are many Africans today who struggle with syncretism…and many Americans who baptize their consumerism and greed.

For Christians not to celebrate Christmas – at a time when the whole world is just a little more receptive to hearing the story of God coming near – seems to me to be a tragic missed opportunity to engage in this story. This story has been reinterpreted, retold and redeemed. For those who used (or use) the winter solstice to worship gods which are unable to actually save, we say, “Do not be afraid. We bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And because this story has been redeemed we can claim it as our story…because that it what it has become, it is a new creation!

I love the season of Advent – which is focused on anticipation of God coming near; the season of Christmas – which is focused on the arrival of our hope in the form of a Savior; the season of Easter – which is the fulfillment of our hope through the victory of Christ over sin and death. These seasons are filled with storytelling cues which can be incredibly powerful…and they can also prime the pump for the story to be told to those who’ve never heard.

I love the music, the decorations, the preparation for Christmas…there is no denying that something is happening. This story is just begging to not only be told, but to be experienced and entered into.

Now if we want to have a conversation about letting Christmas be an excuse to become self-centered materialists…well that’s an altogether different story.

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