The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy… but I have come that they might have life! – Jesus the Christ
Some weeks feel darker than others, exposing the confusion, despair, and unanswered questions that are always there. Usually we can distract ourselves with a good IPA, maybe a little recreation, or a cheer for our team. But when Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade both commit suicide, our surface pursuits are stripped away, for a few moments at least, and we’re reminded that no amount of travel, wealth, fame, or physical comfort, can assure us of a sense that life’s worth living.
Each untimely loss is tragic, but the fame of these two not only creates a breadth of grief, it highlights the untidy reality that suicide rates are on the rise, dramatically. 45,000 take their own lives each year, twice the number as deaths by homicide. It’s the 2nd leading cause of death among the 15-34 demographic. As a pastor I know the devastation it leaves behind and can tell you its like no other.
We’re fools if we don’t pause, at least for a moment, to acknowledge that the world we’ve created isn’t working very well. When you add gun violence, death as the byproduct of addiction, and untimely death as the byproduct of our inability to access medical treatments into the mix, the picture becomes even darker.
It’s at this point in my writing that I get frustrated these days. I know that if I talk about the systemic problems of our culture’s obsession with personal freedom, some on the right will label me a liberal anti-Christian. When I offer the truth that, no matter how unjust one’s circumstances, no matter how bleak one’s situation, there’s a hope and healing, in Christ, available to every person, without cost, I’ll be labelled a religious fanatic by some on the left. The need for systemic change and the call to individual responsibility/opportunity have somehow become adversaries in this highly polarized world. We’re polarized, shooting each other over either/or straw men erected by ministries and political parties desperately in need of the “other” to be vilified.
But meanwhile, a world class chef, whose travel and friendships seemed exemplary to most of us, commits suicide. A couple stuck in poverty and wracked with health challenges poison themselves by lighting their BBQ in their bedroom letting their cats out while they choke on carbon monoxide. Another young gay man commits suicide. To the theological left, who believe these problems are systemic, and to the right, who believe the problems are personal, I offer the same answer: yes.
In a world of death, Christ makes the audacious claim that he has come to give “life for the ages” to anyone who’ll turn to him. This is the promise of a personal transformation, whereby our spirits are united with the resurrected Christ, so that we’re empowered with wisdom, grace, strength, joy, and peace that is beyond our capacity to realize on our own. “Jesus is the answer” has powerful truth in it. There are people, around the world, whose faith in Christ fills them with a vibrancy and joy that can only be described as otherworldly. I’ve seen this with my own eyes on every continent: Tibetan refugees filled with joy in spite of losing their homeland, survivors of the Rwandan genocide with broad smiles speaking of the power of Christ to reconcile, families trapped in systemic poverty finding strength in worship and generosity – in each case, people whose lives have been transformed by Christ radiated a joy that was beyond comprehension. Yes, the people on the theological right are on to something. A personal relationship with Jesus makes a difference, which should come as no surprise, since Jesus spoke of it himself.
On the other hand, Rwandans do work for systemic change. Victims of the #metoo movement who’ve found power in Christ also work to change the culture so that sexual predation doesn’t continue to steal childhoods, and livelihoods, and dignity. Brian Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” powerfully articulates the reality that the fulness of God’s vision for humanity includes not only inward renewal, but systemic change – that lynching is not OK, nor restricting voting rights for certain classes, nor any of a host of other oppressive tactics that scar our national story. It’s no good calling the oppressed “other” to simply be born again while closing our hearts to their needs for justice right here – right now. Jesus didn’t say, “I was hungry and you gave me a sermon…” Yes – the people on the theological left are also on to something: Systems need changing, and they need changing in Jesus’ name.
So why, in God’s name, are we shooting each other, hating each other, arguing with each other, and defending our limited understanding of issues? Meanwhile, the world continues to reel as the systemic principalities and powers, and the personal sins of each human conspire to create a world that is so dark, so hopeless, so disturbing, that the number of people choosing to exit early is rising rapidly enough that suicide is now officially declared a public health crisis.
Would to God that this becomes a wake up call to churches everywhere. There’s a meaning crisis behind the health crisis that is suicide – and the church would do well to demonstrate the power of Christ to fill human hearts with meaning, hope, and contentment – while at the same time prophetically investing its voice and strength in addressing systemic issues of poverty, lack of access to health care, school shootings, racism, and sexism that are choking our vitality.
We need the Jesus who says “come unto me all you who labor and are weighed down…and I will give you rest” as much as we need the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind” all because God’s good reign has arrived through Jesus.
Kierkegaard wrote “Either-Or” in 1843. Maybe my next book should be “Both-And” because one thing I know for certain. Shooting each other, and over-identifying our faith with particular political parties is simply not working.
While teaching a series currently about women in the Bible, I’m mindful that the notion that women empowered by God to lead in settings where there are men isn’t a concept on which all good people of faith agree. Someone recently wrote me who is clearly a student of the Bible, conversant in original languages and texts. She draws a dramatically different conclusion from mine. As I shared last week in my preaching about women in leadership, my views on the matter aren’t a matter of cultural convenience; they’re a matter of submission to my understanding of the Biblical witness. To explain what I mean, I’d like to address my understanding of a highly controversial passage from I Timothy 2:12. (It’s so controversial it has its own Wikipedia post) Here’s how it reads: I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man. She must be quiet.
On the surface of things, it appears simple enough right? Women can’t teach or have authority over men. Done.
On the other hand. The obvious interpretation isn’t always necessarily the most accurate interpretation, especially when:
1. We don’t apply the next section literally – ever.
2. The literal interpretation conflicts with Paul’s own teaching, since he assumes women are prophesying here.
So we need to dig deeper and ask some questions:
1. Why does Paul move from plural in earlier verses to singular in this passage? He’s telling Timothy some things that apply to all women, using the plural pronoun in v9,10, and then he suddenly shifts to the singular when he writes (v11,12), “but I do not permit a woman to teach, or have authority over a man”. This is a highly unusual shift in grammar, often made as a move from a universal principle to a specific situation.
2. Why does Paul use the word he does for what we translate “authority” – One scholar writes: The most problematic issue is the rendering of the verb authentein as a simply “authority”, implying it has to do with normative relationships in the church or marriage. This unusual Greek verb is found only here in scripture and rarely in extrabiblical texts, where it is associated with aggression. Authentein is translated as “domineer” in the Latin Vulgate and New English Bible and as “usurp authority” in the Geneva and King James Bibles.
A study of Paul’s letters shows that he regularly used a different word (“exousia”) when referring to the use of authority in the church (see 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 1 Cor 6:12, 7:4, 9:4-6, 9:12, 11:10, 2 Cor 2:8, 10:8, 13:10, Col. 1:13, 2 Thess 3:12, Rom 6:15, 9:21). So it is strange that many versions translate “authentein” simply as “authority”. Considering the context of I Timothy 2:12, it is likely that Paul was objecting to some sort of abusive authority. One scholar notes, regarding the use of “authentein”: “The verb authenteō refers to a range of actions that … involve an imposition of the subject’s will, ranging from dishonour to lethal force”, which is a very different conversation than “Who gets to preach this Sunday?”
3. Why does Paul, in v15, say that a woman will be saved through childbirth? Those who appeal to v12 as applicable today (I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man) never apply v13-15 literally, for it would mean that infertile women are not saved, a ludicrous and shameful notion.
4. Why, in spite of this word, do women have, authority over men in the Bible? Why is Junia, a woman, named as notable among the Apostles if women can’t have authority over men? Why is Huldah, the prophetess, the one who Josiah seeks out for interpretation from God regarding God’s word? Why do Priscilla and Aquila, both women, correct Apollos, a man, in Acts 18? All of these are clear instances of violating I Timothy 2:12 if it’s an absolute injunction against women having authority over men.
The answers to these questions lead to a seemingly more plausible conclusion:
1. I Timothy 2:12 is writing about a particular woman in a particular congregation. Timothy was dealing with some specific heresies in the Ephesian church and Paul is writing in order to address them.
2. The region of Ephesus was party to a feminist movement which marginalized men and reduced them to slaves. This is precisely the kind of authority Paul is referring to in this passage. Historians Ferguson and Farnell write about the religious traditions of a female-dominated culture that worshiped “the mother of the gods,” whose oldest name was Cybele. When the Greeks immigrated to Ephesus in Asia Minor, they began to call her by the name of one of their own deities; Artemis. The hierarchy of her priesthood was dominated by women. Men could become priests, but only if they first renounced their masculinity, through the act of ritual castration. These men also were required to abstain from certain foods and, of course, could not marry. Interestingly, Paul addresses all these ascetic practices as heresy in his first letter to Timothy, because Timothy was a leader of the church in Ephesus. (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21).
3. Paul is writing to prevent the abusive “authority by force” because false women teachers requiring male castration as a precondition for leadership, as was happening in the Artemis cult, would qualify as “authentein” – abusive authority.
4. Paul, in the same text, is writing to remind people of the true nature of salvation. As one scholar declares: In the religious culture of Ephesus, life had its origin in Cybele, a woman, and sin originated with various male gods, including Cybele’s unfaithful consort, Attis. There is evidence that by the second century A.D. these beliefs had begun to distort the creation narrative in some faith communities. So Paul reminds the church that Adam–the first man–was also a source of life; and that Eve–the first woman–also played a role in humanity’s downfall. What’s more, women who worshiped Artemis called upon her to “save them in childbirth.” For centuries, the church has wrestled with Paul’s reference to being “saved in child-bearing” in 1 Timothy 2:15. Understanding the language and context of Paul’s letter sheds light on this mystery.
Conclusion: These texts are interpreted in various ways and divide the church for a reason. The most obvious literal reading of I Timothy 2:12 leads to a conclusion which has been reinforced in both the Roman Catholic church and most of Protestantism for nearly 2000 years: Women are not allowed to teach or lead.
The reason there’s division though, is because of the unanswered questions surrounding the literal reading, for it is clear that the Bible isn’t always to be taken at literal face value. Literal application has led to the justification of slavery, genocide, and colonialism, all of which have become scars on church history. There are times to challenge the literal meaning, and without questioning the faith of good people who disagree, I’d suggest that this text is one of those times.
Jesus’ treatment of women, the fact that the first evangelist was a woman, and that the first witnesses to the resurrection were women both point to the fact that Jesus has no problem allowing women to be voices of hope, instruction, correction, or authority. Neither should we.
Every time I travel in Europe I try to read some European history, especially as it relates to the intersection of faith and culture. In the past I’ve shared stories of Sophie Scholl (regarding her martyrdom for the distribution of resistance literature against the Nazis in Bavaria), and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (regarding his denouncement of Hitler from the pulpit and his underground seminary). Knowing that I’d be in France this spring, I recently read “Village of Secrets”, which is the account of the people living Le Chambon-sur-Lignon during WWII. These remarkable people sheltered thousands of Jewish children, hiding them throughout farms in this high mountain plateau.
Theirs is a story of courageously resisting the powers and offering radical hospitality, qualities which, for them, weren’t seen as exceptional, but rather “to be expected – it’s what God’s people do.” As I read the book, I knew I needed to go there and see it for myself. I wasn’t disappointed.
Donna and I made a three hour pilgrimage up to Le Chambon yesterday through pouring rain, wet snow, and periodic bursts of sunshine. We arrived mid-day, and soon found the Protestant “Temple” where Andre Trocme taught non-violent resistance of state powers and was instrumental in mobilizing people to hide condemned Jews.
There are far too many details in the story to explain it all here, but I must say, while it is still fresh in my heart, that this story matters as much today as it did then, for never in my lifetime has the need for spiritual and moral courage among God’s people been both so evident, and so lacking. Trocme and others warned against “the slow asphyxiation of our consciences” and called God’s people to absolute obedience to God alone, warning against the idolatrous seductions of power and personal safety. I see three qualities as vital in enabling the people of the plateau to do what they did.
1. Intellectual Leadership: Courageous convictions only germinate in the right soil though, and as it turns out, there were some French pastors in 1941 who were thoughtfully engaging with the questions of how to respond to the Reich. A fictional book had been written at the time called “The Village on the Hill” about a pastor who refused to proclaim that Hitler was the creator of an eternal and indestructible Reich. Eventually a Nazi mayor had him removed and he took his meetings into the forest. This work of fiction was digested by pastors wrestling with their responses to the times. In the end, these pastors declared it to be a spiritual necessity that they resist all idolatrous and totalitarian influences.
2. Thoughtful Ethics: The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in France had produced a movement called “Social Christianity” which fundamentally declared that the value of our faith is determined by the extent to which God’s people care for the weakest and most vulnerable in a community. That would include the unborn, young single mothers, immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and of course in 1941 France, all Jews. Pastor Trocme added a deep conviction that non-violence is the way of Christ, and that it was therefore the antithesis of the word “Christian” (which means “little Christ”), to use weapons as a means of bringing about God’s will.
3. Brokenness: The people of the plateau were, themselves, offspring of families persecuted for their Protestant faith since the seventeenth century. They’d had their church buildings burnt to the ground, family members executed, properties lost. And what fruit did this suffering create generations later? A solidarity with “the least of these” and a willingness to risk everything to shelter them from harm.
Trocme ran a school, and the museum commemorating this rich history is adjacent to the school. As we finished our tour, I was looking at a certificate given to Le-Chambon which honors them as righteous Gentiles. At that moment, children poured into the adjacent play-yard for recess, with the sounds of laughter and play, and jumping on an old pile of snow.
I was filled with gratitude for that time, for this place, for those people, for the tens of thousands living today because of their courage.
I left, though, with an ache in my heart because intellectual leadership, thoughtful ethics, and brokenness are, to put it mildly, in short supply today. As a result we’re collectively rudderless, ready prey for any leader willing to make vain promises of power and greatness while silencing all detractors and thoughtful discourse through petty name calling. I for one, can only pray that I’ll find the blend of courage and prudence, grace and truth, and commitment to non-violence and caring for the weak, that I’ll be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.
O Lord Christ –
We who have been given the privilege of voices must speak for those who cannot. We must give voice to your heart for peace, and courage, and love of the other. We must embrace your cross. Forgive us for being seduced by trinkets, honors, and all the glitter that passes for spirit. Grant that we might know your power to love, to serve, to shoot the moon in obedience to your calling. Give us eyes to see your light, ears to hear your voice, and grace to follow both. Amen
There’s a line at the end of Song of Solomon in the 6th chapter that speaks of an old problem. “Come back! Come back, O beautiful woman, that we may admire you!” It appears that some onlookers are enchanted by the beauty of the woman in this love story. She strong, lovely, confident. And she’s courageously in a relationship of real love with her man, a shepherd. Note that in this particular scene, when she’s heading away with her lover, they call her back. Why? “So that we may admire you!”
They would, in other words, rather look on a relationship from the outside, experiencing the hollow thrill of being an observer, rather than jumping into the deep end of real intimacy in their own lives. This is a sort of primitive pornography, not in the sense that they’re viewing explicit love making but in the more critical sense that they’re voyouristic and vicarious rather than involved and intimate. Apparently the escapist fantasy route has always been an option. Today it’s more than just “an option” – it’s become so ubiquitous as to be considered normal. The popularity of video games, fantasy sports league, and pornography have created a destructive trifecta. There’s an entire virtual world now available to emerging generations and both genders, but especially men, are living there in increasing numbers, with increasing regularity. The pathologies arising from this sort of behavior present as everything from academic failure and arrested social skill development (especially with the opposite sex), to erectile dysfunction. Much of this is cataloged here.
Yourbrainonporn.com provides the compelling science behind why the prevalence of porn is so destructive for cultures, for those who value science. The short summary is that you can now encounter more lovers in an hour of the dungeon that is pornography than you would have encountered in one, two, maybe even ten lifetimes, one hundred years ago. You are not physiologically designed for the continual stimulation and variety offered in this fantasy world. What’s worse though, is that it can quickly become an “arousal addiction”, meaning that the addict doesn’t just want more of the same. He/she wants “different”. If this isn’t a recipe for marital disaster, I don’t know what is.
What’s more, porn is only one alternate reality inviting the investment of our time and attention. Why play sports when you can join fantasy leagues and watch sports, no exercise or risk of injury to body or ego required? You could play games demanding social interaction, eye contact, laughter, risk, courage, and wisdom, all of which combine to aid in the both the building of friendships and the development of social skills. But why not play a video game instead? Alone. With no risk of rejection or failure.
In a word: safety. Is this alternate world real? No. Life giving? No. Contributing to a person’s sense of mission? No. Capable of filling the intimacy void we all feel? No. But its safe, and in a world where there’s fear at every turn, safety is appealing.
What’s the way forward?
1. A strong core. If a person sees themselves as capable, having gifts to share with the world, forgiven, called, and empowered, its much more difficult to enjoy disengagement from reality. When people with a strong sense of self retreat into a tiny fantasy world for comfort, the dissonance is often just too much, and they refuse to stay there, in spite of the short term pleasures gained from escaping. You build a strong core by beginning to believe that what God says about you is true – that you’re loved, forgiven, blessed, gifted, and invited, even called, to be a blessing in this world. Keep learning what God says about you and believing it!
2. A sense of call. When it became clear that I wasn’t ever going to win the Alpine Skiing World Cup, or write a symphony, skiing and music took back seats to other things, like preaching, parenting, marriage, church leadership, teaching university students, writing, and helping create outdoor environments and experiences where people can encounter Christ. When I’m at my best, the use of my time, whether exercising, reading, or praying, feeds my sense of call and core identity and, to be blunt, there’s little time left for virtual escapes.
3. A high view of marriage and sexuality. The erectile dysfunction that’s hijacking healthy sexuality among increasingly younger men is happening precisely because the safer fantasy world, which over-promises and under-delivers, is so appealing. In contrast, Song of Solomon shows us that radical monogamy is better. It requires all kinds of things that are wildly beyond the scope of this post, but perhaps the main thing is a foundational belief that the best sexual expressions are mutual rather than one party giving in to the other out of a sense of obligation. They both respect the boundaries of the other, and at times this creates an intensifying of the longings because there’s a confidence in the underlying love, and an obvious playfulness sexually, whether or not it ends in the land of O. All this, of course, requires self-control and the belief that an unfulfilled sexual appetite won’t damage your body or soul, a message rare in our culture.
4. An internal bias toward reality rather than fantasy escapes. Whether porn, Netflix, Facebook, or Ben & Jerry – a chronic preference for these easily accessible and easily stimulating options creates an increasing bias towards the safety, predictability, and risk free nature of the virtual world (or in the case of ben & jerry – the high glycemic world). Such worlds feel good in the moment, but the ensuing crash leaves an emptiness and ache.
The good news is that movement away from all of that can happen! Here are a few resources for your consideration.
There’s a class at Bethany Community Church beginning at the end of summer that helps people move out of destructive behavior patterns and into God’s better story. Contact us for details. Here’s a testimony from someone who took the “spiritual journey” class.
The best resource, however, and the most important, is your life with God. You have a calling, a journey yet ahead. Don’t miss it by getting stuck in some fake world, when a real world of adventure awaits you. Yesterday’s gone, and there’s no point wallowing in guilt or shame over failures that are common, when God’s inviting you to move on, into freedom and real intimacy.
What does the pornography problem in the Bible belt, and the appalling lack of generosity among democrats have to do with a burnt/raw pancake? Plenty….
“Ephraim is a cake not turned…”. Hosea 7:8. That’s Hosea’s description of a nation gone wrong, and it’s terribly applicable today.
a cake not turned: Burnt to a coal at the bottom, raw dough at the top: an apt emblem of a character full of inconsistencies (Bishop Horsley).
The prophets were good at painting word pictures, and word pictures are good because, rather than listing specific problems unique to a time and place, they portray a principle. The principle then becomes widely applicable to other cultures, eras, and situations. This is part of what makes the Bible so incredibly relevant, if only we’d take the time to read and ponder.
Today I’m pondering the “cake not turned”. You’ve no doubt eaten a pancake that was burnt on the bottom but raw on the top. It’s wrong; imbalanced; filled with overemphasis and a commensurate underemphasis. God’s complaint with Israel was that they’d lost their devotion to God as their source and their lover, choosing loyalty to surrounding pagan ideals instead.
Israel was, in other words, selective in her loyalty to God, alternately embracing and denying the values of Jehovah based on what they wanted, what they considered to be best for them moment to moment. The result of this was a mixture of bribery, white-collar robbery, neglect of the Sabbath, woven together with lip service given to God, and outward forms of worship often continuing in spite of glaring disobedience to God’s revelation. Light and dark. Burnt and raw. Idolatry wrapped in religion.
Sound familiar? It should! The mixture of political loyalties with faith has long been an example of this burnt pancake phenomenon. Consider mainline churches, which are often largely aligned with left leaning politics and more socialist policies. Their views are, rightly, intent on seeing to it that the poor aren’t left hungry, cold, or naked. It’s hard to argue with those priorities if you take the Bible seriously.
But two complaints arise immediately regarding this seemingly holy affiliation. First, if the left is so intent on caring for the poor, why are they themselves so greedy? The problem of meager charitable giving among liberals is well-known, as seen in this article, which posits that conservatives give 30% more to charity than democrats.
My second complaint is that liberals are selective in their adherence to the Bible, being quick to appeal to verses on caring for the poor, but silent on Jesus’ sexual ethics, including his stringent view of divorce. And by the way, nobody on this planet is more vulnerable than the unborn, who the left seem to regard as nothing more than tissue until they’re born.
Conservative (and many evangelical) churches, provide an opposite, though equally alarming snapshot. They’re all about the sexual ethics, with vocal views on premarital sex, same-sex behavior, masturbation, abortion, and in some places, divorce and remarriage too. Most of these values are derived from the same Bible the left uses to address systemic economic sin.
My complaint is that in the same manner the left is stingy while preaching generosity, the right is sexually dysfunctional while preaching family values. They crucify Bill Clinton for his sexual sins, and then elect a president who is in his third marriage and whose language and behavior would get him fired in most work environments, including FOX NEWS. They even go to some lengths to call him a Christian in spite of the appalling lack of any compelling life evidence.
Further, the right suffers from the same hypocrisy problem as the left. Regarding our nation’s porn addiction, the 4 out of the top 5 states are in the Bible belt (Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia), the very places where God’s sexual ethic thunders from the pulpit weekly. Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas, are three of top four states in per capita abortion rates. Pro Life indeed. Similarly, these same states, so pro-life, seem intent on protecting life in the womb, but once you’re born, you’re on your own. Policies regarding family leave and access to health care and social services for those in poverty are weak.
Let’s summarize. You have a party that preaches generosity, but is stingy, and they elect a man with an exemplary marriage. You have a party that preaches sexual ethics, but elects a womanizer, and whose states are most stridently red also happen to be national leaders in porn use and abortion.
This is the cake not turned problem, and until we see the problem and acknowledge it, we’ll continue talking past each other, advocating that “my partial view of reality is better than your partial view of reality” We can do better.
Why am writing this?
1. So that we can stop wedding political parties with our faith, and begin to recognize that no party has the faith
2. So that we can recognize, all of us, that preaching values does not equal living them.
3. So that we can recognize that it’s in the human heart to view God’s values and directives as a buffet line, where we pick what we want, and leave the rest.
4. So that we can repent of the buffet line mentality, our divisions into self referential and self-righteous little communities, and our arrogance – instead asking God to give us ears to hear what the spirit is saying, especially through those with whom we disagree, and so move toward the unity of the faith that will better represent God’s heart.
In a world filled with burnt/raw pancakes, it would be refreshing to find a few that are properly cooked. Perhaps you can help cook one!
We live in an increasingly tribal world, where white supremacists feel empowered in new ways, European nations are finding xenophobic voices on the rise, and whole people groups, like the Kurds, find themselves at risk wherever they turn. In spite of all the good work God has done in Rwanda, tensions still brew just under the surface there, and the developed world is dealing with an exponential increase in refugees, precisely because of tribalism.
With fears of “the other” on the rise, a look at Jesus life, from beginning to end, is like a drink of fresh cold water in the midst of the desert. This is because Jesus loved all, breaking the normal social and tribal walls that so often isolate and divide. Consider:
1. The wise men were from the east, not Jewish, and among the first worshippers, along with shepherds who, by virtue of their work, were considered ceremonially unclean by the religious elite.
2. Early in his ministry, he goes out of his way “pass through Samaria” and engage with a woman who, by any standard of Jewish religious propriety, would have been an outsider. She was a) a Samaritan, and Jews have no dealing with Samaritans b) a woman, and men have no dealings with women and c) living with a man ‘not her husband’, which would have rendered her unclean. And yet here he is, talking theology with her, and eventually revealing his identity as Messiah. She becomes an evangelist, telling others what she’d seen and heard, just like the shepherds before her.
3. Jesus heals a Greek woman’s daughter, commending her for her faith, and later, heals the child of a Roman soldier.
4. He calls a despised “tax collector” to become one of his disciples.
5. The complaint leveled against him by the religious establishment is that he spends time with “tax collectors and sinners”.
6. He advocates for a woman caught in “the very act of adultery” saving her life, forgiving her, and telling her to “sin no more”.
7. He tells a thief dying on the cross that he’ll be joining Jesus in paradise.
7. He even has a heartfelt and compassionate conversation with “a ruler of the Jews” who is part of the religious establishment
All these things offend the sensibilities of basically everyone, because Jesus refused to be confined to a single people group or party. Rich or poor. Jew or Gentile. Slave or free. Man or woman. Married or those with failed marriages. Undeniable sinner, or sinner covered in a veneer of religion – Jesus loved them all.
This is a great gift this Christmas season, because the reality is that those who love this way receive a much needed gift as a result of crossing social divides and loving those different than them – they receive the gift of joy!
I know lots of Christians, lots of religious people. One thing I’ve learned is that its the people who “cross over” who find an element of joy in their lives unavailable to those who remain confined within the walls of “their own kind”. This isn’t because crossing over is easy. It’s not. It’s because crossing over is “the life for which we’ve been created” and when we cross over, we become aligned with the deepest part of our soul.
The gift of crossing over began early, as shepherds, judged as unclean, received a message from an angel and “crossed over” into the presence of a holiness that the religious establishment would have forbidden to them. God, far from forbidding, initiated the invitation! Jesus, we are told in Ephesians 2, has broken down the dividing wall. This is a gift.
Have you unwrapped this gift, and begun enjoying relationships with those across the way – racially, economically, socially, politically? There’s joy “over there” friends, for those willing to follow Jesus and cross the divides.
Here’s the deal, as announced in Luke 2:10:
For all people!
There’ll be a banquet in the end, and most folks at the table won’t look like you; they maybe didn’t even vote like you. But though the banquet’s still to come, the party’s started, so enter in – by crossing over!
But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”
(This will take a few minutes to read, and maybe create more questions than answers. So at the outset, please know: I believe in just war – I believe in the right of governments to carry the sword in order curb evil as seen in Romans 13. And, I believe in that the path of the cross is our calling as Christ followers. May God give us wisdom)
Of course it happened again. We all knew it was just a matter of time before another bomb went off, this time in Belgium. The explosion and shrapnel, though, is never, never the end of the story. Rather it’s a beginning. It sets off another round of fear, profiling, stereotyping, and hatred. It becomes the soil in which the human heart is tempted or incited to match violence with violence. It mobilizes armies, entrenches already held ideologies, and loads lives down with anxiety over the future. Fear of neighbors. Fear of burkas. Fear of travel. And worse than fear; hate. And worse than hate; the threat of violence in retaliation. And worse than the threat of violence; actual violence.
It’s nothing new. And further, it’s nothing new to note that it’s all being done in God’s name by both sides. Giving a soldier a Bible though, or a suicide bomber the Koran doesn’t sanctify the cause, and there’s no better time to be reminded of this than Holy Week because while wounded people are treated in hospitals, while victim’s families mourn, millions will spend time this week pondering the path of Jesus walking to the cross. That cross, and then one who went there, still speaks and lives today, imploring us to follow him on a different path than the one that matches violence for violence, fear for fear, hate for hate.
As Jesus stood at the outskirts of Jerusalem on the last week of his life, his poignant cry is telling. We read that “…he saw the city and wept over it saying, ‘If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace!…” And then he entered the city, spoke truth to power, was arrested, unjustly tried, forgave his accusers, and died.
Why did he say that? Evangelicals might have been happier if he’d said, “If you had known the prayer to pray so that you can get to heaven when you die…” Or, “If you had known the right sexual ethic or aligned with the right (or further right) political party.” Or, “If only you had armed yourselves and exercised your 2nd amendment rights.” Don’t misunderstand, please. Prayer, sexual ethics, and one’s views on gun control matter. But Jesus wept because the people who studied, defended, and sought to protect the ancient texts, never knew the things which make for peace:
They never understood, not really, that monotheism is, at the core, about peace. The God of the Bible was distressed in the early parts of Genesis because of the violence which had filled the earth, and monotheism began in the midst of polytheistic world views characterized by violence, tribalism, and slavery. In such cultures, religion was the mask used to cover the pursuit of power for the few at the cost of oppression for the many. So it has always been. So it is to this day.
But the God of Abraham, who by the way, is the God at the headwaters of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, posits an entirely different path. Jonathan Sacks, in his marvelous and timely book, “Not in God’s Name” writes:
Not all at once but ultimately it made extraordinary claims. It said that every human being, regardless of color, culture, class or creed, was in the image and likeness of God. The supreme power intervened in history to liberate the supremely powerless. (According to this God)….A society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members. Life is sacred. Murder is both a crime and a sin. Between people there should be a covenantal bond of righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion, forgiveness and love. Abraham himself, the man revered by 2.4 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims and 13 million Jews, ruled no empire, commanded no army, conquered no territory, performed no miracles and delivered no prophecies. Though he lived differently from his neighbours, he fought for them and prayed for them in some of the most audacious language ever uttered by a human to God –‘Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?’ (Gen. 18:25) He sought to be true to his faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith.
Things turned out differently of course. Judaism became marked by a terrible superiority complex of self righteousness. Christianity quickly became wedded with state power, and we’re still bearing the ugly fruits of violent colonialism, crusades, and violence carried out in Jesus’ name. And Islam mutated too, presenting itself as overflowing with hate and a lust to destroy, as seen yet again in Belgium this week. Boom!
Jesus words are haunting. “if you’d known the things which make for peace…” Though we hate what happened this week, and in Paris, and in Istanbul, and in Egypt, and in Syria, I wonder: Do I know the things which make for peace? Or have I baptized my lust for comfort and control in Bible words, and continued to wander in the deep ditch that is violence done in God’s name, matching hate for hate, threat for threat, bomb for bomb?
The answer comes as I walk with Jesus to the cross this Holy Week, and perhaps in light of all that’s happening, this Holy Week is the most important week of our lives. When I walk with Jesus with a goal, not just of feeling bad about how much he suffered FOR me, but rather, through the lens of seeing him as the prototype of what it means to be a person of peace, I’m struck with some profound and radical realities:
I learn that retaliation isn’t God’s way. Peter pulls out a sword and is ready to take on the army, but after cutting off a guy’s ear, Jesus heals him (the very soldier who’s come to arrest him) and tells Peter to put away the sword, reminding him that the one “who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” Sure, if you want to get all pragmatic about it, the fact is that if someone’s dead, they’re no longer a threat to you. But their family? Their tribe? Their government? All of them will make sure that, by god, “you will pay.” All the way back in Genesis 4, a man named Lamech boasts, “I have killed a man for wounding me…and a boy for striking me” and goes on to say that if anyone tries to extract retaliation he’ll pay them back 77x greater! Yes. This is our world.
No. This is never. Ever. The way of the cross. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
I learn that forgiveness IS God’s way. Later, after Jesus has been beaten, spit on, humiliated, and nailed to a cross, a crowd is mocking him. Jesus’ response is to pray, asking God to “forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Wow. If I’m going to walk with Jesus, rather than just appropriating him for my own political ends, I’m going to need to lay down my weapons, lay down my life, and pray for my enemies. I’m going to need to learn how to forgive the very people who aren’t even aware they’re wrong. As Jesus warned the disciples, “an hour is coming when people will think they are doing God’s will by killing you.” That hour is here.
Those who did that to Christ were forgiven. Without confession. Without acknowledgement of guilt. Read it here. Forgiven. In a world where bitterness is the norm, and prevailing ‘wisdom’ teaches us that a scorched earth policy will eventually solve the problem, this notion of forgiving is hard to swallow, and surely leads to more questions than answers. I know because I have the questions too. It seems nonsensical and too idealistic.
But the one answer it does lead to is this: those who have the courage to forgive will break the cycle of retaliation and hatred. They’ll break it rather than escalate it, and those are the only options, friend. Either the cycle of retaliation is broken, or it’s escalated. Will I be part of the problem or part of the solution?
I learn that fear must be overcome. The way of the cross is exactly the opposite of the way of upward mobility, or comfort, or expansion, or matching violence for violence. It’s the way of fidelity to God’s vision for peace, by being peace in the midst of a violent world.
If you think that path was easy for Jesus, consider his sweating drops of blood in the garden on the last night before crucifixion and his prayer that if there were any other way to bring peace, would God please offer a way out, because this way resides far from our instincts for self-preservation! In the end though, those instincts went to the cross too, because the way of peace is the way of losing one’s life to find it, the way of turning the other cheek, the way of letting God make things right through God’s means and timetable rather than taking things into our own hands.
Bombs go off and we’re afraid, especially in proportion to their proximity. But in this global village, every bomb is a cause for fear, a cause for retreating into our cocoon of tribalism or racism or religious retaliation.
It was Machiavelli, not Moses or Mohammed, who said “It is better to be feared than to be loved”: the creed of the terrorist and the suicide bomber. (Jonathan Sacks)
Yes, and it was Jesus who said, “he who seeks to save his life will lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake, will keep it.” If you think that doesn’t require courage, just ask:
Now it’s our turn, and in the midst of all the political rhetoric inciting violence and hate, my prayer is that you and I will have the courage to walk the way of the cross. That’s what makes this week so special this year. It’s not just for me. It’s my path too. To make it on this path, though, I’ll need to take both fear and retaliation out of my pack, and exchange them for an eagerness to forgive and love. It’s the way of Jesus, and his load is the right one.
I pray I’ll have the courage to go there.
The latest shooting is over. Very soon it will fade like invisible ink, further hardening our collective consciousness against a despicable form of violence against innocence.
By now, unless the shooting is personal, we Americans know the drill quite well. Our president will stand up and talk about the need for a change in gun policy. The president of the NRA will get up and talk about the 2nd ammendment, and mental health. The press and internet will explode with arguments and stats, and mentions of Australia and Honduras. The left and right will talk loudly, with lots of inflammatory language, but neither side will do much listening. There will be news clips about the victims, the shooter, his mental health (it’s almost always a male), and his family (in this case his mother was a gun rights advocate who kept a loaded AR 15 and AK 47 in her house. There’ll be stirring pictures of the memorial service, and a nod to some heroic figure who put themselves in harm’s way.
Then, after a week, everyone will get back to living their lives as if nothing happened. Then it will happen again. And again. And again. This one appears like it will be #298 on the list once it’s updated; more than one a day, in the most civilized nation in the world.
All this is tragedy enough. But the bigger tragedy, in my opinion, is the peace we’ve made with this ongoing scar and tragedy, so visible to the rest of the world, and yet becoming an increasingly evident blind spot in our collective national consciousness. We seem to “get over it” in short order, so that this will become just one more thing to which we adapt. Like late term abortion, food policies that are killing both people and the land, childhood obesity, and homelessness, human trafficking, and mass shootings are quickly becoming the new normal.
According Walter Brueggeman, the prophetic role during the time of the Old Testament was to awaken hope for something different. This was important than, as now, because dysfunction had become the new normal. Without such hope, we accept our new normal, and then we retreat into tiny survivalist mentalities whereby our personal safety, long life, and well being become paramount. Of course we all know what Jesus had to say about that kind of mind set right?
I don’t have solutions. I know the challenge of putting the genie back in the bottle, even if our country wanted things to change. I understand a belief in self defense and defense of family. I understand the rhetoric for both sides, and have been around this discussion long enough now to know that there’s no simple way forward. The right and left and mostly preaching to echo chambers. But most of all, I understand that the violence is systemic, and the status quo isn’t changing a thing.
For the love of God (and I choose the words, not as a saying, but intentionally because they mean something) I have a suggestion: Can we please pray that the trend line of becoming numb to this kind of violence ends, and that we’re shaken awake to the tragedy this is? I say this because mourning is the soil out from which a vision for change will someday occur.
There’s much that’s right with our nation, and against the backdrop of Syria, Nigeria, Ukraine, and dozens of other locales, our challenge pales. Still, this is our challenge, and it’s important that, as was prayed decades ago by the founder of World Vision, that “our hearts be broken by the things that break the heart of God”
Can we at least start there?
With the train station closed in Budapest, over 70 dead in a truck on the side of the road in Austria, millions in refugee camps, and talk of building a wall between the United States and Mexico, perhaps one thing the entire world can agree on is that we have an immigration problem.