Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Word Made Flesh

The Christmas season (which does not end with Christmas day but continues until the Epiphany on January 6th) is a time to ponder the glory of the incarnation. There are few passages of scripture that can help us contemplate this mystery better than John 1:1-18. This passage serves as a prologue or a kind of overture to John's gospel as he alludes here to many of the major themes on which he will elaborate in the chapters that follow.

Of course, as a gospel, one of the book's major themes is christology; that is, to explain who Jesus is. John wastes no time in doing exactly that. Immediately, he introduces Jesus as "the Word" or "logos" in Greek. This term was used extensively in both Greek and Jewish philosophical discussions about God leading up to the time of John's writing. While scholars debate which, if any, of those philosophical notions John is drawing upon here to describe Christ, it can at least be said that John wishes to make the point that Christ is the one who reveals the one true God just as God's word had been his revelation to Israel in the past. Therefore, by designating Jesus as "the Word", John is proclaiming that Jesus is now the revelation of God.

However, John also wishes to make clear that Jesus does not reveal God in the same way that the Law or the prophets revealed God. Jesus is not simply a messenger sent by God. John proclaimes that Jesus is God himself by saying that he existed from the beginning and was always with God and is himself, God (v.1). John has simultaneously distinguished Jesus from God by designating him as "the Word" rather than simply as God but has also resolutely identified Jesus with God by saying that "the Word was God". Therefore, this first verse in the Gospel of John is a forerunner to the doctrine of the Trinity which the Church would not completely spell out until 321 A.D. at the Council of Nicea.

However, even this nuanced statement about "the Word" does not capture everything John wishes to tell us about Jesus. John says in v.14 that this Word also became flesh and dwelt among us. This is perhaps the most remarkable statement of all. The word translated in this verse as "dwelt" is the same root word that the Greek Old Testament (also known as the Septuagint) uses to describe the tabernacle (or tent) in which God traveled with the Israelites before Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. Therefore, John is saying that in Jesus God has tabernacled among us. God has made human flesh his dwelling place in the way that the tabernacle and the Temple had previously been. Jesus is the full revelation of the God who has made himself present among us.

John uses other metaphors in this prologue that will extend throughout his Gospel as well; primarily those of light and life. Of course, it is fitting to think of these metaphors along with the incarnation of God in human flesh for wherever God's presence goes there darkness will be driven away, what was previously hidden will be exposed to the light, and life will reign. Despite the presence of God's light in the world, John tells us that not everyone recognized Jesus as the light. In fact, many people, even his own people rejected him.

Scattered throughout this intense theological discussion of light and life and the God who has become flesh are intermittent references to John the baptist. In some ways this is to be expected since the other three gospels also mention John near the beginning of the story. However, these mentions of John in v.6-7 and v.15 seem out of place to me. It seems like this passage would read much more smoothly and coherently if these references to the baptist were simply taken out and placed somewhere after v. 19.

Nevertheless, I have to imagine that John the gospel writer had some reason to include these snippets about John the baptist where he did. If nothing else, perhaps these references are placed within the discussion about the Word just to draw a sharper contrast between them. Maybe John wants to proclaim as distinctly as he can that even though John and Jesus are both prophets from God, they are in no way equal. Although Jesus was truly human, there is some sense in which John and Jesus do not exist on the same plane of existence. Both historically and as a literary device in the Gospel of John, John the baptist serves only as a witness to the light. He is not the light himself.

In this way, John the baptist probably serves as a much needed model for the Church today. We likely need to repeat this mantra to ourselves: "We are not the light. We are witnesses to the light." Too often, churches today exist soley for themselves and don't witness or point to anything other than their own growth. Instead, we should have a prophetic voice like John's which constantly points people to the one who is greater than we are. The Church is not going to solve all the world's problems or enforce God's will in the world. We were never meant to do that. We are only meant to be an icon, an embodied witness to the God who loves us so intensely that he took on our own flesh and dwelt among us.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Garments of Salvation

Trying to enter into this week's sermon text (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) is like going back to visit the rapidly changing city where I grew up after having been gone for a while; everything looks familiar but it's surprisingly difficult to find my way around and make sense of it all. The words of this passage are ones used throughout scripture (salvation, righteousness, praise) but they are used in odd ways. The prophet speaks of being clothed in garments of salvation and a robe of righteousness. What exactly does that mean?

Of course, the language here is relatively poetic in nature and therefore, to some degree, refuses to be pinned down to any precise meaning. Instead, this prophetic poetry invites the listeners to expand their concepts of these important biblical words to include a variety of meanings that may not have been considered previously.

In this passage, Isaiah creatively invites his audience to envision salvation and righteousness as clothes that an engaged couple would wear on their wedding day. This is an interesting metaphor considering what follows because those wedding clothes are a symbol of the new reality that will soon exist for that couple. Similiarly, Isaiah says that he has been clothed with salvation and righteousness "For...the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations." The prophet's message, perhaps even his own calling and presence as God's messenger, is a precursor of the salvation that God is about to accomplish. As a result, the prophet can not keep silent until God has established his righteousness and Israel becomes a symbol of God's royalty.

In the context of this passage, this salvation and righteousness has to do with God's deliverance of Israel from exile. Although 62:1 says that it is "her righteousness" and "her salvation", referring to Jerusalem, the context indicates that this has little to do with anything that Israel possesses. Instead, it has everything to do with God's glory which will be revealed when Israel is delivered from captivity. The nations will see Israel's righteousness and glory (62:2) but ultimately this is all to God's glory. It is not Israel's moral qualities that are on display but rather God's ability to deliver.

We too, simultaneously proclaim God's deliverance in Jesus Christ while awaiting that final deliverance upon his return. What might it mean for the Chuch today to raise it's prophetic voice and put on the "garments of salvation"? How might we adorn ourselves in preparation for and proclamation of our day of deliverance? How might our life togheter become a royal diadem in the hand of our God? To answer those questions sincerely will probably mean that we have to think of salvation and righteousness in broader terms, as the prophet invites us to do in this passage.

Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a house?

In 2 Samuel 7, King David desires to build a house for God. This desire seems reasonable enough. It even seems good and holy on David's part. After all, the passage says that God has given David rest from all of his enemies and David himself dwells in a luxurious palace. So it only seems right that David would want to honor God in some way and one of the normal things a king could do in the ancient world in order to honor a god was to build that god a temple. We often speak with similar language today, believing that the honor we show to our church buildings, which we sometimes refer to as God's house, is one reflection of how highly we honor God. Even the prophet Nathan seems to agree that this is a good idea. God has been with David in everything else he has done so why wouldn't God approve of a pious action like this one? It seems that David can do no wrong.

But then the passage tells us that on that very same night God told Nathan to say to David "Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in?" God reminds David through Nathan that he has dwelt in a tent ever since he miraculously delivered the people from their oppression in Egypt and never once did he ask anyone to build a house for him. Furthermore, God is the one who has built up David. Why does David now think that he can build up God? God seems almost angry with David for having even considered the idea of building a house for God. Why does something that appeared to be such a holy and pious act now appear to be almost offensive to God?

Consider what a house represents: permanence, stability, settling down. Jess and I will become home owners tomorrow morning and when we do our fate as a family will be that much more closely tied to the fate of this community. Owning a home is a very physical and financial demonstration that we intend to be here for a while and that the problems and prosperity of Clinton, IL will be our problems and prosperity. We already had a vested interest in this town but now we will in an even more immediate and intimate way.

David knows of all this when he proclaims that he is going to build a house for God. David knows that if he can build a temple for Yahweh in his capital city then this will in some way bind God's honor with the level of peace and prosperity that exists in Israel. What may appear to be a purely sacrificial act to the glory and honor of God may, in fact, be an attempt to tie God down, to bind God's fate with the fate of David's kingdom, even to legitimate David's reign. And God sees right through it. On the one hand, this passage portrays Yahweh as a radically free God who refuses to be limited by a building.

On the other hand, in this passage God practically gives back with one hand what he has taken with the other. God repudiates David for even a hint of trying to manipulate God by building a temple. But even as God says that he will not be held captive by a temple, he makes David another promise. God tells David that he will build a house for David, meaning not a physical structure but a dynasty of descendants who will rule over David's kingdom forever. God has turned the tables on David and instead of allowing David to build a house for God, God is going to build a house for David. Furthermore, God promises that his loving-kindness will never depart from David's descendants. The irony is that in many ways, this promise to David may be just as or even more binding on God than if David had built a temple for God. All in the same word to Nathan, God refuses to be limited by a building but promises to be eternally bound to a people.

Certainly, this is one of the most beautiful realities of the incarnation, of the Christmas story. It is so much more than an adorable little story about a new born in a manger. It is the reality that the almighty God of everything has chosen to be limited by human flesh, to be forever bound to the fate of his creation by becoming one of us. Our radically free God who is capable and free to do whatever he wants, who refuses even the hint of manipulation by his own anointed king, who will not and can not be limited by any power other than his own free choice, freely chooses to be forever constrained by the birth of this child 2000 years ago. The boundless God has forever bound himself to the fate of his people.

What can we say?

other than a humble

"Thanks be to God!"

Saturday, December 13, 2008

16 Random Things About Me

This post has been prompted by a similar note of the same title which I recieved on facebook from a friend. Usually, I'm not inclined to do things like this because I am not particularly clever at thinking up random things about myself that I think other people will find interesting and I usually don't want to put in the extra effort and time to try to make them interesting. At the current time, I definitely have plenty of other things I should be working on: we are in the process of closing on a house and getting ready to move, it is nearing Christmas time and I am pastor, well the list could go on and on. Ironically, it is probably due to the current chaos of my life that I am taking time to do something like this since it gives me some small measure of respite on a Saturday afternoon. Besides, I haven't written anything of a more personal nature on my blog for several weeks now. So here it goes...

1. I love being a daddy. I say this first of all just to reinforce what I said above about not being all that clever when it comes to being random. After all, this is something that all fathers are supposed to say. Nevertheless, there is a bit of randomness to this statement about myself mostly because it was unexpected for me. I never had any idea how much I would love being a father. Of course, I always thought there would be good things about having kids but I knew there would be not such great things too and overall, I was more or less ambivalent about the idea of kids. I wasn't against it. I just figured it would happen eventually and I was in no rush to get there. But now, I look forward to coming home every evening to find out what new and entertaining thing my daughter will do tonight. I love being her daddy.

2. I hate cliches. This comes to mind mostly because I realize how much of a cliche #1 is. But I really, really hate cliches. (I also hate that I don't know how to put the little accent line over the e in that word, only adding to my frustration with the word itself.) I especially hate it when people offer a cliche as if it is the most profound wisdom that has ever been uttered or as the final word on the matter. I find life to be messy, complex, chaotic, and disorganized and it annoys me when people either pretend that its not or just don't recognize it as such.

3. I love hiking but my wife is better at it than I am and we don't get to go nearly enough. I love being outside, especially in relatively remote and peaceful places. I think it is safe to say that I even regard such experiences as a spiritual discipline of sorts. The great thing about hiking is that it is the one athletic thing that my wife absolutely kicks my butt at. I don't know why. I just can't keep up with her. Although, there was this one time when we were hiking and Jess' shoes were hurting her feet so badly that I had to carry her half way down the mountain. I consider that one of the greatest physical feats of my life. Unfortunately, we don't get nearly enough chances to go on real mountainous hikes.

4. I might be the least musical person you'll ever meet. I can't sing. The only instrument I play is my iPod and I probably have fewer songs on it than most people you know. I tried piano when I was a kid but ulitmately decided that music speaks a language that I can barely understand.

5. I am discovering the shaping power of communities. The importance of community and its ability to shape people to be more like Christ is something that I have affirmed theologically for several years now. It was a major theme of my education at Eastern Nazarene College and Nazarene Theological Seminary. But now I feel its importance. I am experiencing the importance of community because I can feel how my current community is shaping me to be a different person than I have been up to this point in my life. Of course, the other communities I've been a part of have shaped me profoundly. Its not that Clinton First Church of the Nazarne is shaping me any more than my family, my home church, ENC, or NTS did although it is shaping me in very determinative ways. Its simply that now having been a part of these different communities I can see how each one has redirected my life and reshaped me as a person immensely. Of course, some of the influence of these communities has to do with other aspects of my life only tangentially related to those communities themselves. For example, being married influenced my time at ENC and NTS, having a daughter has influenced me since being here in Clinton, and my role in each of those communities has been an important factor as well(student vs. pastor). But apart from these life changing factors, I can see how the communities themselves have had and are having a profound impact on who I am.

6. I really enjoy taking pictures, mostly of nature. Although, I can't really say I'm a photographer, not even an amateur one. In that sense, the digital camera, along with its editing software is a good friend of mine. My wife says I have an obsession with taking pictures of the sky.
7. I like pizza, cheeseburgers, and Chipotle burritos way too much. As a result, I am about 40 pounds heavier than I was when I got married. I used to balance my bad eating habits with ridiculous amounts of exercise but as there are more and more demands on my time I find it difficult to exercise as much as I used to. I guess that means my eating habits will have to change eventually.

8. Only half way there and I'm already having trouble thinking of things. My wife is the one who should really be doing this. She just said "I think I would need more than 16."

9. I would really like to see Israel, Greece, and Rome someday. For now, my travel records include only places between Toronto and Belize, the East Coast and Kansas. However, those records will soon include a trip to the Western Carribean which I am excited about.

10. I am unwittingly like a ninja. Completely by accident, I am constantly entering rooms so quietly that I scare people out of their skin when they suddenly realize I am there. My wife and my church secretary are my most frequent victims. If I ever leave the ministry maybe....

11. Actually, if for some strange reason I ever did leave the ministry I have no idea what other career I would find. I've spent the last 8 years of my life studying theology. I don't have any other skills! Good thing I like what I do and I believe its what God has called me to.

12. I can throw a frisbee further than you would think a frisbee could be thrown.

13. I enjoy reading and learning for learning's sake. I don't feel like everything I learn has to be immediately relevant or pragmatic, especially when it comes to theology. I think the most profoundly true thoughts that I've read or heard are the ones that may initially apear to be esoteric abstractions but actually turn out to have vast implications for the Church and the Christian life. Of course, some of those esoteric abstractions are just worthless distractions and vain words that have to be sifted through to find the real gems. Often, I enjoy the process of sifting as much as the gems themselves because there is learning in both.

14. I once averaged 19 points a game in a pretty competitive January term basketball league in college. The next year I was horrible but I was on a really good team and we won the championship. Both experiences were fun.

15. I hate Wal-mart! For a lot of different reasons too. Unfortunately, I find it to be a necessary part of my existence.

16. Every year, it seems like I feel more and more acutely aware of how badly our world needs for God's kingdom to come.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Church and Social Justice

I won't be preaching this week because we are having the children's Christmas musical in our morning service. However, if I were preaching this week the sermon text would be Isaiah 61. One of the very last papers I wrote while I was in seminary was on this passage along with its quotation in Luke 4. In this paper, I elaborate on how I believe these passages should inform the participation of the Church in causes of social justice in our world. I have decided to post that paper here in place of my usual reflections on the sermon text for the week. You can download the paper at the link below.

An Anointed, Spirit Filled Community of Righteousness

Monday, December 1, 2008

Deliver Us From Exile

The words of Isaiah 40:1-11 are a message of comfort and hope in a time of tragedy and exile. The people of Israel and Judah have been deported from their homeland by the nations of Assyria and Babylon. However, more than merely a military-political act of the nations, the prophets tell us that this exile was a theological matter, brought about by God because of the sins of his people. In Isaiah 40, we find that this time of exile is coming to an end. God seeks to comfort his people and he tells them that their punishment is over; their penalty has been paid.

As a result, a voice calls out saying "Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness". This path is being cleared in the desert that lies between Israel's homeland and their current residence in Babylon. It will be the path of God's coming to their rescue as well as the path of exodus for the people from their captivity. V.5-8 say that "Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed" and that "all flesh is like grass...the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever". In other words, the return of God's people from exile is a testament to God's glory and God's faithfulness. It shows that his promises to his people were not thwarted when Assyria and Babylon took Israel and Judah into exile. Although it appeared that these kingdoms were in control of Israel's fate, these nations actually sprout up and then fade away like grass or flowers that are here one day and gone the next. These nations, the most powerful in the region at that time, were only serving God's word which stands forever. His promises to his people far out live the lifespan of these kingdoms and nations. Therefore, Israel is now to proclaim the good news that God reigns and that he will once again guide and care for his people like a shepherd.

V.3 of this passage (combined with a verse from Malachi) is quoted in the gospel reading for this week (Mark 1:1-8), the second Sunday of Advent. The way that Mark uses this quotation at the beginning of his gospel is extremely significant. This is because Mark clearly intends for John the Baptist to be understood as the one who is preparing the way for the Lord since he goes on to talk about John preaching in the wilderness immediately after the quotation. This, in turn, is significant not so much because of what it says about John the Baptist but because of what it says about Jesus since Jesus is the one for whom John is preparing the way. Therefore, by quoting this verse from Isaiah (along with the one from Malachi), Mark has already called Jesus Lord, a titled reserved for Yahweh, the one true God of Israel, within the first few verses of his gospel. Mark has proclaimed Jesus as "the Lord" of Isaiah 40, the Lord who delivered Israel from exile, without stating it in such explicit terms. Instead, he has invited those in his audience who know the story of Israel to see Jesus in light of that story; even to see Jesus as the one who delivers Israel from its exile under Rome in his own time.

In many ways, God's people continue to live in a kind of exile today. For some Christians around the world, this exile takes on a very real, political form in that they are a small minority in their own nation and they often suffer for their faith as a result. However, even here in America, when the Church is truly being the Church, we find ourselves in a certain kind of exile. That exile certainly does not come in the political form that it does for others since we hold a considerable influence as a large constituency within our democracy. But when we refuse to be defined by the politics of our nation and instead commit ourselves to being defined by our life in Christ, we begin to realize that the values of our nation, our culture, and our political parties are not and will never be Christian values. Compared to our culture, Christ has some very strange things to say about how we should use our money, live out our sexuality, and spend our time. So in this way, even the Church in America finds itself in exile. Like Israel, we are in need of deliverance from a land that is not our true home.

Therefore, we can take the words of Isaiah 40 to heart. Although they were written as words of comfort to a people in exile about 2500 years ago, they speak words of hope to our current exile as well. The same God whose word did not fail then is still faithful to deliver us today as well. So we continue to look forward to his coming kingdom and the deliverance of all of creation from its exile in sin.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Thy Kingdom Come?

"Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down." Isaiah 64 begins as an earnest plea for God to show up and do something. It is a call for God to exercise his mighty power as he had done in the past. The next several verses continue on with similar language asking God to come down and make his name known to his adversaries. Isaiah assures us that God acts on behalf of the righteous, the ones who remember the ways of God. Up to this point, you can almost hear Isaiah's audience cheering Isaiah on. Perhaps they even shout out "Amen" a few times or whatever the ancient Israelite equivalent of that would be. Certainly, God's people would get excited as the prophet Isaiah begins to talk about God doing mighty things on their behalf once again just as he did at the Exodus.

But then this passage takes a sharp turn. In the second half of verse 5, we hear about God being angry because Israel has sinned. There is even doubt expressed as to whether or not Israel will be saved. Isaiah says that they have become unclean; so unclean in fact that even the deeds they consider to be righteous are like mentrual rags. The people wither like a leaf and are blown away by the wind.

The crowd that was just cheering Isaiah on has received a punch to the gut. The wind has been knocked out of their sails. Just moments earlier they had been excited and adament about God showing up in their presence so that God's righteousness might vindicate them. But now they have realized what's God's righteous presence will mean for them as well. They themselves are not without sin. Therefore, if God comes to them as they have asked, it will mean that their sin will have to be dealt with as well.

However, this fact does not cause Isaiah to rescind his appeal to God. He continues to earnestly seek God's coming but he does so with the recognition that it will involve judgment for he and his fellow Israelites as well. Therefore, Isaiah calls upon God as a father and asks him to deal with Israel's sin but to do it mercifully and not with anger beyond measure. He describes God as the one who shapes the clay which is Israel; meaning that God has the right to do whatever he pleases with Israel but also that this God would no more discard this sinful and flawed people than an artist would discard a work of art into which she has poured much time and energy. God will deal with Israel's sin but Isaiah believes that he will do it in a way that will not destroy but salvage the damaged vessel.

There could hardly be a more appropriate message for the Church as we begin the season of Advent. In this season, we remember Israel's long and expectant waiting for a messiah while also looking forward to the final establishment of Christ's kingdom upon his return to earth. We will talk much over the coming weeks about how we long for God's kingdom to come so that all the wrongs of our world might be righted. But even as we hope for that kingdom, we must be reminded that the Church will not be excluded from the light of God's presence which will expose all sin and unrighteousness. When that day comes, we too will find that many of the actions that we regarded as our most righteous and pious acts are actually more like filthy rags in God's sight and that we may well have neglected the weightier matters of God's law. Therefore, we must continually look back to that man, Jesus Christ, in which God did rend the heavens and come down among us and take on our flesh. The same Spirit which lived in him must also rend our world and dwell among us so that we might become more and more like him now as we anxiously await the arrival of his kingdom.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

My Daughter Can Dance

At less than 10 months old, my daughter already has more rhythm than I do.

Looks like she is working on driving a little early too.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lord, Be My Everything

I saw this video on Eugene Cho's blog and thought it was worth passing on. (The link to his blog is on my list of blogs on the right side of this page. It is the one entitled beauty and depravity. Eugene consistently does some excellent writing on some important issues.)

Everything from justin pae on Vimeo.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Remarkable Confidence

Psalm 90 appears to break down into four distinct but closely related sections. The first section (V.1-2) celebrates the eternal nature of God. This God has been Israel's dwelling place in all generations and existed before the mountains. This section of the Psalm even uses a feminine image for God, saying that God gave birth to the mountains. We often think of God as Father and Scripture repeatedly portrays God with masculine imagery but this is one of the rare places in Scripture that shows us that the analogy of a mother to her child can also serve as a fitting metaphor for the relationship between God and God's creation.

The second section (v.3-6) of this Psalm constrasts God's everlasting nature with the transitory nature of humanity. We are reminded that human beings simply return to the dust and that a thousand of our years are like yesterday to God. Humanity is also compared to grass which sprouts anew in the morning but is already fading by evening of the same day.

As if the life described in the second section of the Psalm were not short enough, the third section (v.7-12) of the Psalm compounds the problem. Not only is life short but in addition to this the Psalmist says "we have been consumed by your anger". God knows all of the sins and failings of Israel which leads thier short life to be filled with God's wrath.

What is probably most interesting is the Psalmist response to all of this. One might easily conclude that despair is the only proper response if the everlasting God knows all the sins of our short, almost insignificant lives. But that is not the Psalmist's response. Instead, Moses (this is the only Psalm attributed to him) cries out to God for deliverance. He does not despair that God knows all his sins and the sins of his people. Instead, he asks God how long it will be before God does something about it. He asks for God's loving-kindness and favor and that God's works would once again be evident to God's servants. He asks even that the work of their hands might be confirmed.

This Psalm demonstrates the remarkable confidence that Moses has in God. And why wouldn't Moses have that kind of confidence in God? Moses knew all too painfully of his own short-comings. He knew also of Israel's failings. And yet he had watched God deliver Israel through him with amazing power and unthinkable love. Even though God is infinite and we are finite, even though God knows all of our sins and failings, we can still call upon God to work in us and among us because his love for us and his power to work in us are that great.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I want to encourage anyone who is reading this to take some time to pray for Christians around the world who suffer for the sake of Christ. You can also learn more about the persecuted church and how you can take action by following the Voice of the Martyrs and International Christian Concern links below on the right sidebar of this blog. The situation in India is especially intense right now and is deserving of special attention.

Heavenly Father, who has all power to save, deliver your Church. Deliver from harm and oppression those who suffer for your name. Deliver those who rarely suffer for your name from complacency and indifference. Unite your Church as the one body of your Son, broken for the sake of the world. Whatever our fate, may we know the power of the resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in Christ's suffering as we are conformed to the image of his death by the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Prayer for Election Day

Heavenly Father, who reigns over all the earth, we give you thanks that this day has come and will go and that you are still our King. Whatever happens today, may your Church be a people who value and embody life, justice, and peace. Forgive us for the times that we have misplaced our allegiance that belongs only to you. Rid us of the illusion that our feeble attempts at government could ever bring about your Kingdom. May your light and your truth lead us to your place of worship. Amen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

A Prayer for Deliverance (from the election)

I have to admit that I find Psalm 70 quite difficult. Like many of the others Psalms I have preached from lately, I find it difficult not because its message is hard to understand but because its words can seem so unlike Christ. The point of the Psalm seems pretty simple. It is a prayer for God to deliver the Psalmist from his enemies and to do it quickly. However, what is so troubling is the repeated call for the Psalmist's enemies to be put to shame. He asks God to let them be ashamed and humiliated, let them be turned back and dishonored, and let them be turned back because of their shame. A considerable portion of this Psalm is devoted not just to the Psalmist's deliverance but explicitely to seeing the Psalmist's enemies publicly shamed. Jesus certainly prays for his own deliverance (Lord, let this cup pass from me...) but even then he insists on the Father's will and not his own and never calls on God to shame his enemies. Quite to the contrary, he asks for their forgiveness even as he hangs dying on the cross.

Perhaps this language is only troubling to me because I am a privileged, relatively wealthy (by global standards), educated, white male who hasn't really had many experiences that would cause me to cry out to God with this kind of urgent need for deliverance. There have certainly been times in my life when I've felt somewhat mistreated or taken advantage of but for the most part, I have not been the victim of any kind of systemic injustice or outright persecution. I imagine that for our brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced those things, the words of this Psalm and others like it must be very dear to their hearts.

I have to imagine that the current election has some play in the way that I read this Psalm as well. I am so thoroughly disgusted and disheartened by the dehuminization that has taken place throughout the campaign and has only intensified with the election now being so near. I think anyone who knows me knows that I thoroughly enjoy a vigorous debate over issues of substance and I am happy to enter into these kinds of conversations even with those I know will disagree with me and whom I will likely never persuade to share my position. It is not the civil disagreements that bother me. It is the exalting of one party or candidate to the status of righteous defender of God's will while demonizing the other party that sickens me. It is the saying anything to get your candidate eleceted, no matter how untrue, unfair, or uncharitable those words might be. It is allowing our loyalties to Christ to be blurred by our loyalties to a certain understanding of American politics that makes we want to vomit. And it is the constant assumption that I must be right and that my political positions must also be God's political positions and that anyone who disagrees with me must be either lazy or stupid that pushes me towards an unhealthy anger. This kind of incivility carries a certain kind of dissapointment with it when you find it in your average Joe (a phrase which itself has become another victim of sloganeering) but it takes on a whole other level of disgrace when you find it in your brothers and sisters in Christ. (I give much thanks to God and to the members of our congregation for keeping these shallow practices out of our local church and maintaining a Christ-like attitude in political conversations throughout this election season.) So when I come to a Psalm like this one which calls for the shaming of one's enemies, it is easy for me to hear the words of those who have done everything they can to try to bring shame upon their political enemies.

Even setting that baggage aside, there seems to be a terribly strong tension between the words of this Psalm that call for God to shame the Psalmist's enemies and Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)." Is this a place where we must allow Jesus' words to outright trump those of the Old Testament? Possibly. After all, this is one those "You have heard it said...but I say to you..." sayings of Jesus in the sermon on the mount in which Jesus does some serious re-interpreting of the Law. Maybe Jesus is saying that Psalms like this one just didn't quite get it right and he is the only one who has the authority to correct the error. Is that the only possible resolution to this tension?

We have been studying Paul's letter to the Philippians here on Monday nights. Of course, any discussion of Philippians is often dominated by the Christ hymn found in 2:5-11. This hymn exhibits a movement from high status (being in the form of God) to progressively lower status and even shame and humiliation (he emptied himself, took the form of a slave, became obedient to death, even death on a cross). However, this humilation and shame eventually leads to vindication and exaltation (therefore, God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name). This exaltation in turn means that all others now have a lower status in relation to the one who has been exalted (so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord). This a pattern that repeats itself in Paul's letters as he describes the ministry of Christ as well as his own ministry in emulation of Christ.

Perhaps this pattern of shame leading to exaltation can be seen in Psalm 70 as well. After all, if the Psalmist finds himself in need of deliverance, this likely means that he is in a lowly and shameful position. This might take on even more significance if this Psalm, which is credited to King David, was written as he flees his enemies even after he has been anointed as King of Israel. If this is true, then the Psalmist's own situation would reflect the pattern of movement in the Christ hymn; he is the anointed but is forced into the lowly, shameful position of fleeing but is eventually exalted to the highest position in the land because of his complete obedience to God. Additionally, like the Christ hymn which ends by saying that this pattern of shame and exaltation is "to the glory of God the Father", so also Psalm 70 declares "Let God be magnified".

Maybe if we read Psalm 70 in this light then the call for shame upon one's enemies can be seen less as a vindicative demand for vengeance against one's adversaries and more as a trust in God to restore the justice of his reign. Practically speaking then we might say that the Christian should pray for his or her enemies as Jesus says while also praying that the wrongs those enemies perpetrate might be righted and their injustices judged justly. We can love our enemies while simultaneously asking God to make both us and them more just people so that we might be enemies no longer. That, indeed, seems to be a piece of what we ask when we pray "thy kingdom come."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Trunk or Treat

Tonight, we had the annual Halloween event known as Trunk or Treat at our church. Several members of our church decorate the trunks of their cars and fill them with candy for the kids from the neighborhood and from our church to enjoy as they trick or treat. We decorated and handed out candy from the foyer and hallway as well.

You can see the line up of trunks on the right. The trunk above on the left certainly won for the scariest. It was on the bed of Jim Wade's truck with only his hands exposed beyound the sheet. He lay motionless waiting for an unexpecting victim to reach in the bowl for some candy at which time he would reach out and grab them. There was one blood curdling scream loud enough to be heard inside the church.

There were a variety of costumes, some of which were camera shy and became bowl heads.

One of my personal favorites was Jordan Hendricker's costume. He was ME! You can see him here with jacket and tie and Bible in hand. And in case you can't read it, that name tag says "Rev. David Young (NO - I'm not still in college)".

Jess and I were pirates for Halloween and Hannah was our pirate monkey. However, by the time we got home, she had developed into a full blown pirate herself.

Now to preparing to preach my sermon all in "pirate". "Aye matey, make Jesus ye capin' or ye will find ye self adrift at sea. Ayyyeee!!!

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Prayer for Vindication

"Vindicate me, O God, and plead my case against an ungodly nation" begins Psalm 43. This is an entreaty in the courtroom of God by one who has been abused and neglected. To use modern courtroom parlance, the Psalmist calls upon God to be both lawyer (plead my case) and judge (the word translated "vindicate" means to judge). The Psalmist trusts that God will intervene and uphold justice as a righteous judge by finding in favor of the Psalmist and thereby defending him against the attacks of his enemies. In v.3, the Psalmist asks God to send out God's light and truth, as if they are the ones who will carry God's verdict into the world, as if they are the messengers of God's just verdict. This is turn leads the Psalmist to worship God and to have his hope in God revived because he trusts that God will be the righteous judge who will vindicate him against his enemies.

Of course, the image of God as judge carries very different connotations for most 21st century Americans. In our history, it has often been an image used to scare people into believing in God. We are reminded that we hang but by a single weak strand over the fires of hell as "sinners in the hands of angry God". The image of God as judge evokes wrathful images of a God who is eager to violently punish sinners and is only kept from doing so by the violent death of his son.

But this is not what this image meant to the people of Israel. The image of God as a righteous judge was a hopeful image because it meant that the weak and disadvantaged would not be mistreated and abused. Due to God's righteousness, he would not side with the rich and powerful as so many human judges always did. God would defend the cause of the oppressed against the ungodly. Righteous judgment, therefore, means liberation and deliverance from oppression.

The extent to which we fail to see this scriptural image of God as judge and deliverer is testament to the extent that we have failed to understand the social and political dimensions of the gospel. God wants us to seek his justice for our world. The inclusion of this Psalm in the Psalter shows that we can even challenge God on the matter. The Psalmist is an example for us of how we might boldly call upon God to enact his justice in our world. However, it is worth explicitely stating here that is must be his justice and not our own poor attempts at mere retribution. Truly placing our hope in God means that we will live justly but it does not mean that we will violently impose our understanding of justice on others. The Psalmist offers his bold prayer and then allows God's light and truth to lead him back to worship. Likewise, we must continually pray for God's justice to become a reality in our world and allow God's light and truth to lead us to worship him as we patiently await his justice in our world.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Firmly Planted Tree or Wind Blown Chaff?

The righteous faithful or wicked sinners. Blessed or not. A tree firmly planted by streams of water or chaff which is blown away by a simple breeze. Such is the contrast of Psalm 1. And it is not only a contrast of this first Psalm. This is a contrast common to the Psalms as a whole as this Psalm serves as a sort of introduction to the entire Psalter. It is even a contrast common to much of Scripture.

And yet this contrast bothers me. It bothers me because it seems entirely too black and white for the world in which we live. It seems too simple and straightforward to account for my every day experience in this world. Can we really split people into two basic categories; the righteous and the wicked? Doesn't that seem a bit extreme? It seems to me that we encounter varying levels of righteousness in every person we meet whoever they might be. I even find varying levels of righteousness and wickedness within myself from day to day. This simple black and white division of the world between the righteous and the wicked is certainly appealing in some ways. After all, life would be much simpler if everyone just had a sign to designate them as one or the other. This would help tremendously in knowing who we could trust and who we couldn't. But, of course, life just isn't that simple since there seems to be some saint and sinner in each of us.

This contrast also bothers me because it sounds like exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus continually worked against in his own earthly ministry. As the gospels tell the story, it seems that Jesus repeatedly encountered the assumption that misfortune in life (the opposite of the blessedness described in this Psalm) was the result of one's sin. It seems that Jesus' contemporaries were constantly trying to separate the clean and holy from the unclean and unholy. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to be constantly destroying such a simplistic division between righteous and unrighteous. Instead of separating holy from unholy, Jesus continually points out the unholiness of those who think themselves holy and continually goes to those who are seen as unholy and makes them holy. Furthermore, this kind of simplistic attitude which Jesus challenged in his own day seems to be the root of much of the Church's troubles today. When we divide people into the righteous and the wicked, it leads to an arrogance and complaceny among those who considers themselves righteous as well as an animosity or at least condescendence toward those considered wicked. Certainly, these are attitudes which sound very little like those of Christ Jesus.
And yet...

This Psalm speaks a truth that every person who has ever walked with God and meditated on God's instruction knows to be true. There is, indeed, blessing and delight in the law of God, in living the life to which God calls us. Living in God's will firmly roots our lives and places us beside streams of life that sustain us in a way that nothing else can. It does this in a way that is almost inexplicable. It is not that living the life of righteousness guarantees that you will become healthy, wealthy, and wise. But blessedness should also not be relegated to simply a feeling or emotion. There is something real and concrete about God's blessing and yet it is not easily quantifiable by most of the standards that our world uses to measure things.

Perhaps if we see blessedness through the lense of Jesus' life, we will see that even God's blessing can sometimes lead us to the cross. Perhaps we will be less likely to so quickly separate people into the categories of righteous and sinner, seeing that the cross of Christ somehow represents an unexpected uniting of the fates of the righteous and the sinner. Perhaps Psalm 1 can be an invitation to the sinner in each of us to allow God's rightesouness to grow in us so that we might delight in God's law day and night, so that we might be a tree firmly transplated by streams of water, rather than chaff that is blown away in the wind. Perhaps the way of the wicked in each of us can perish even from our own lives which will in itself be a blessing as we anticipate the day when all wickedness will be eliminated from our world. Psalm 1 simultaneously offers an honest portrait of the destructive patterns of our world but contrasts it with an image of what life lived in God's grace can be.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Some Civility and Comedy in Politics

Here are some clips of our presidential candidates setting aside their politics to laugh at themselves and each other. Enjoy!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Fall Fun

A New Song of God's Reign

Psalm 96, like so many psalms, is a call to worship. Repeatedly, its verses call upon Israel and all of creation to sing the praises of Yahweh. Specifically, this new song of praise is to proclaim the good news of God's salvation, to tell of God's glory, and to speak of God's wonderful deeds. All of creation is called upon to worship the Lord because of his unspeakable and unmatchable greatness. Yahweh is proclaimed as the one true God while all other so called gods are nothing but empty idols, "old rags" by one commentators translation. According to Psalm 96, Yahweh is so great that splendor and majesty are not only adjectives used to describe God; they "are before him" (v. 6) as if splendor and majesty were themselves servants of God, preparing the way before him.

This new song of praise is due to God not only because of God's own greatness and majesty but also because of his reign. V. 10 reads "Say among the nations "The Lord reigns; indeed, the world is firmly established, it will not be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity." It seems that the Psalmist sees Yahweh's reign as being connected with the very stability of the creation as well as the upholding of justice. The last verses of the Psalm then call upon specific parts of creation to sing praise to the Lord because God "will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in His faithfulness." This Psalm boldly proclaims the establishment of justice and equality in accordance with God's righteousness and faithfulness as a foundational piece of what it means for God to reign.

This psalm also appears in 1 Chronicles 16:23-33 as a part of a larger psalm of thanksgiving. In that context, the psalm serves to give thanks for the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The Ark had been a symbol of God's continuing presence with Israel and now David had brought the Ark to Jerusalem as a sign of God's presence in David's capital city. Therefore, in the context of 1 Chronicles, this psalm is connecting, at least to some extent, the reign of God with David's reign as king. Although David and all of Israel would have continued to affirm God's reign in all the world apart from David's kingship, the establishment of David's reign in Jerusalem was in some very real ways the manifestation of God's reign. It was up to David to continue to seek God and to seek God's justice and equality in the land of Israel. It was through David's just and equitable reign that God's reign of righteousness and faithfulness would become a reality. That is largely the role of the Messiah, God's annointed, which David was; to bring God's peace and justice to earth.

This Psalm, especially as it relates to David, is once again significant as we think about Jesus. Similar to last week's Psalm, we can see how this Psalm and others like it could have served to shape Jesus' understanding of his own life and mission as well as the early church's understanding of who Jesus was. I am not suggesting that the author of psalm 96 or Asaph (in 1 Chronicles) were setting out to write about Jesus, a future messiah, in some kind of prescriptive way. Asaph does not at all seem to be concerned about a messiah that would come hundred of years later since God's anointed one is already standing before him in the person of David. Instead, I imagine that Jesus, being made aware by the Holy Spirit that he was on a messianic mission, would have found insight into his own mission by reading Psalms like this one. Just as David's reign was seen as the manifestation of God's reign on earth, so also Jesus would come to see his own mission as the manifestation of the kingdom of God. This is, in fact, precisely how Matthew and Mark sum up Jesus' proclamation "Repent, for the kingdom of God (just another way of saying God's reign) is near." Jesus' life and ministry and especially his death did not at all appear as kingly as David's reign did but like David Jesus' presence is the manifestation of God's reign on earth. This reality is indeed worthy of a new song of praise.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Banquet in Death's Shadow

This week I will be preaching from one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture: Psalm 23. Of course, for most of us this Psalm is heard most often (for some, exclusively) in the context of funerals. This is an appropriate setting for this Psalm since it speaks of not being afraid in the valley of death's shadow because God is with us and comforts us. The imagery of the Psalm itself is comforting as it paints the picture of a place filled with life and tranquility, green pastures and quiet waters.
Despite the appropriateness of these words for times of tragedy, this passage should not be relegated to those circumstances alone. The steadfast trust and confident hope that the Psalmist exhibits in this passage is one that should characterize every aspect of the life lived with trust in God. The heart of this passage is not so much the Christian response to tragedy, as it is an appropriate metaphor for understanding who God is, even as we face the large and small calamities of life.

Our God is a shepherd, that is, one who defends us and cares for us in ways that we can not even understand. He is one that leads us to places of life and peace. God is continually turning us (that is the root meaning of the word translated "restore" in v.3), guiding us down his path to proper relationships for his glory. At times those paths may even lead us into death's shadow, as they did for Jesus, but even then there is nothing to fear because God is with us and his rod and staff are more powerful than the things that threaten us. It seems, in verse 5, that even the valley of death's shadow does not prevent God from presenting a banquet so overwhelming in its extravagance that the Psalmist's cup overflows. If God can do this, then certainly God's goodness and faithful loving-kindness will always follow the Psalmist. Even when we find ourselves in a valley filled with fear, we are also, in some sense, in the house of the Lord, since his presence continues with us at all times just as the shepherd remains with his sheep.

This is one of the most remarkable things about Jesus' cross. It demostrates just how far God is willing to go to be with us; even through the valley of the shadow of death. In Jesus, the Psalmist's words about God take on flesh. Jesus celebrates a meal that represents the liberation of Israel even as his looming death on the cross casts its shadow over that meal. Jesus, the anointed one, is able to eat a meal in anticipation of the kingdom banquet even in death's shadow because his confidence and trust in the Father run deeper than any fear or pain this life can offer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hannah's New Hat

The Church's Politics

Politics continues to be on my mind quite a bit these days with the upcoming election. I enjoyed watching the first Presidential debate last Friday and look forward to the Vice Presidential debate this Thursday as well as the other two debates to follow. I find the debates to be one of the most interesting parts of the campaign because, if they are moderated well, they push the candidates toward a more constructive conversation about the issues and away from campaign slogans, stump speeches, and personal attacks. Of course, these things still take place to some degree in a debate but having the person you are running against right next to you able to respond to your comments almost immediately should at least tone down the rhetoric to some degree.

Interestingly enough, as this election approaches, I happen to be leading a Bible study on Paul's letter to the Philippian's on Monday nights. This is a letter that contains a considerable amount of political language. This was not intentional on my part. As those in the Bible study know, they were given many choices as to which book we would study and it just so happened that Philippians received the most votes.

The passage which our Bible study group will be discussing this evening exhibits some of this political language. In Philippians 1:27, Paul writes "Only politic yourselves worthily of the good news of the Messiah" (my own translation). The political nature of this verse is often masked over by most English translations when the Greek word πολιτεύεσθε (politeuesthe) is rendered with something generic like "conduct" or "live your life". The word refers specifically to acting as a citizen or in accordance with one's citizenship, a metaphor that Paul will evoke again in 3:20. Therefore, Paul is calling upon the church at Philippi to have a certain kind of politics; that is, to organize themselves in a way that is representative of the victory that God has won in Jesus Christ. The Philippian church is not to follow the politics of the Roman Empire. They are two have their own politics which are determined by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So then, what might a politics centered around the Messiah look like? Of course, it will take much more than a few verses of Scripture to answer that question. Nonetheless, Paul's elaboration on this point in the verses that follow is instructive. He says that the Christians in Philippi should politic themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that whether Paul himself is able to come and see them or only hears a report about them, the church in Philippi will stand firm in one Spirit, one body striving together in the faith of the gospel, and not fearing those who oppose them (v.27-28). Paul says that they will do this because it has been granted to them not only to put their trust in Christ but also to suffer on behalf of Christ as is Paul himself (v.29-30). In this passage at least, when Paul tells the church at Philippi to have a politics of the gospel, he emphasizes a unity in the Spirit and the ability to face suffering without fear.

For me, this is yet another reminder of what it means to be a Christian in the season of campaigns and elections. It has so little to do with who is elected or what laws are passed. As citizens in a democracy, we have been given a level of influence in the politics of the empire that the Christians in Paul's day did not enjoy and I believe we should exercise that influence recognizing that it is one of the many gifts with which God has entrusted us as stewards of his creation. However, even as we cast our vote, we must remember the American political process is ultimately about the politics of the empire and not the politics of the Church and God's kingdom. Whoever is elected, whatever laws are passed, and whatever happens to America as a nation, the politics of the Church remain relatively unchanged. Our politics, oriented around the good news of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, mean that we must be united by a love that is greater than all the forces that threaten to divide us and that we must be willing to give of ourselves for others just as Christ gave of himself for us. A witness of fearless unity and sacrifice are the party line in the politics of the Church.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


The centennial celebration at our church has been consuming a considerable amount of my attention these days. It takes a lot of planning and coordination by a lot of different people in order for a celebration like this one to take place. So first, let me extend a word of thanks to those many people who have made this celebration what it is.

In addition to thinking about our centennial celebration, I’ve also been doing a lot of reading in the Psalms lately in preparation for my next series of sermons after the centennial. This has been an interesting mixture since so many of the Psalms themselves are little sonnets of celebration. Although celebration is by no means the only note sounded in the great chorus of the Psalms, various tones of celebration do reverberate throughout the Psalter. The Psalms celebrate God, God’s mighty acts of deliverance for his people, God’s glorious artistry in creation, and the work that God does through his people as they follow God’s teaching and instruction. So many of the Psalms are verbal celebrations of life lived in God’s grace.

All of this has served to remind me of the importance of joyous celebration in the life of the Church. Genuine celebration is truly a significant part of the Christian life because when we pause to rejoice in what God has done for us, as the writers of the Psalms do, then we are overwhelmed with the various ways in which God has blessed us beyond measure. Celebration is the natural outpouring of the grace of God in our lives.

Of course, to say that the Christian life is one of celebration does not mean that every moment of the Christian life is set to the tune of angelic harps. It doesn’t mean that we should become a “happy clappy” church, a term Jess and I often use in jest to describe churches which seem to ignore the darker realities of life by just playing more cheerful worship songs. There are genuine tragedies in life, as we all know, and they should not be covered over with a fake smile and religious pretense.

The beauty of the Psalms is that they recognize that genuine happiness and celebration do not come by ignoring life’s tragedies but by embracing them as God embraces us. Celebration takes place among God’s people because we know that we do not face life’s darkest moments alone. Instead, we can give thanks because the one who has himself conquered death walks among us and richly blesses us with his words of life. That new life is what leads to our celebration.

So let us remember that, although the Christian life is a cross-shaped one, this does not make it a somber one. We can carry that cross as a symbol of our celebration because of the kingdom that it represents. Let our life together as a church be a celebration in anticipation of the new creation for which we hope.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty expanse.
Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness.
Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with harp and lyre.
Praise him with timbre and dancing; praise him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise him with loud cymbals; praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Great Interviews

Stephen Colbert, host of the political comedy show The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, recently interviewed two Christian scholars. The first interview was with Anglican Bishop Tom Wright who is one of the most widely respected New Testament scholars in the world and one of my favorite authors personally as well. I actually wrote a very short review of the book Surprised By Hope, which he and Colbert talk about in the interview in an earlier post in my blog (see May 2008).

The second interview is with Peter Gomes a professor at Harvard Divinity School. Although I am not personally familiar with Gomes or his writings, I was impressed with this lighthearted interview about a serious subject.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

American Politics: One Christian's Perspective

This is one of those things I probably would be better off not even attempting to write about. I am hardly qualified to write anything about politics. There is truly so much that I don't know about politics and the laws of our country. This is really the first election where I have paid this much attention... but I have been paying attention; watching interviews, listening to speeches, reading the candidates thoughts in books and on their websites. I've never invested so much time and energy in hearing out the candidates as I have in this election. However, suddenly listening to so much political talk over the last nine months or so has really just reminded me that "I have a lot of catching up to do", as one of my friends recently put it.

Furthermore, it seems that a very strong opinion is a prerequisite to making your voice heard in either faith or politics. If you appear to be undecided on any issue in any either realm, then this indecisiveness is often seen as a weakness. If this is true, then I must certainly be accounted among the weak. There are almost no political opinions or party affiliations that I hold onto too dearly and while I hold my faith convictions very strongly, even in these I at least aim to be as gracious as possible in hearing the faith convictions of others, though I often fail to be Christ-like even in this simple task.

Additionally, everyone knows that faith and politics are two combustible topics of conversation that shouldn't be discussed in polite company, much less mixed together. The result of talking about both is that I will almost certainly offend someone, especially since I will speak here in very broad generalizations so as to make a point. What is worse, there are so many people who have written or spoken about the relationship between faith and politics, that I probably can't even say anything that hasn't already been said. So not only will I likely offend many who read this but I will probably do so without even having said anything that was all that provocative; truly the worst of both worlds when it comes to writing and sharing ideas.

Nonetheless, this is a post I have been desiring to write for quite some time. It is one that has been sitting in the back of my brain for at least a month. So despite my lack of qualifications to say anything about politics or even the relationship between faith and politics, I intend to do just that. I do this not so much because I imagine that I will suddenly solve this problem with which I have been wrestling for years now but mostly just so that I can get this stuff out of my head and into writing and invite others into the conversation in the process. So as you read this, I ask that you read it as just that: an invitation to a fair and honest conversation. Please don't see it as any kind of authoritative words from a pastor and certainly not as words from a McCain or Obama supporter. It is largely nothing more than my own personal struggle with what it means to be a Christian in a democracy like ours and I invite others to see if my struggle rings true with their own.
As I survey the political landscape, there is one thing that seems to be obvious to everyone: Democrats and Republicans are on the opposite end of the spectrum concerning pretty much every issue that matters to Americans today. The way in which Democrats and Republicans understand the relationship between faith and politics does not seem to be an exception to this rule. Each party seems to not only disagree about the issues but also about how one's faith should impact how they respond politically to those issues.

If I can speak very generally, even stereotypically, it seems to me that most conservatives see the relationship between faith and politics as a direct line or even an equals sign. That is to say, the conservative approach seems to be a direct correlation between one's faith values and how one votes on certain issues without any kind of intermediary step. For a example, a typical conservative stance in my opinion would be "Abortion is wrong, therefore abortion should be illegal." In this way of thinking, one seeks to make their personal convictions into law by sheer majority force.

As I see it, the downfall of this kind of thinking is that it completely fails to imagine what things would be like if those who shared such convictions were suddenly in the minority. In other words, what would Christians do if the majority of our nation were suddenly Muslim and that Muslim majority then sought to impose its will on the Christianity minority by requiring prayers to Allah in schools? Wouldn't we decry this as a violation of the constitution and all the principles that make our country great? My point here is simply this: while a direct equation between one's values and the law has an attractive simplicity about it, I don't think it is really a viable way of seeing the relationship between the Christian faith and American politics. On the one hand, it seems to me to be un-American in the sense that it does not take seriously the constitutional principles that we would want honored if we were in the minority. However, much more important than that, I do not believe it is a very Christ-like stance to impose our political will on a nation simply because we are in the majority. Rather than asking "How can I get more people to agree with my values so that I can make those values law and thereby enforce those values on those who don't themsleves share my values?" it seems to me that it would be much more Christ-like to ask "What is best for everyone, even those who don't share my values?"

Again, if I can paint with very broad, basically stereotypical, brush strokes, it seems like most liberals check their faith at the political door entirely. While conservatives seem to have too direct of an equation between faith and politics, many liberals seem to want to chop off one side of that equation entirely, not allowing faith to have a voice in the public arena at all. As a result, many liberals appear to be completely faithless. The ones who do have faith don't seem to want to talk about it. And the liberal who does openly speaks about his or her faith seems to want to constantly remind everyone that faith is a personal matter that has no place in a public discussion like politics (this liberal then receives odd looks and glances from other liberals who wonder why this person even brought up the issue of faith in the first place, as if something like that matters in politics).

In my opinion, this view of the relationship between faith and politics is equally deficient though, of course, in ways entirely different from the typical conservative stance. The strength of this view is that it at least acknowledges that everyone does not share my faith values and I should not force them to simply because there are more people in this country who share my faith than those who don't. However, the typical liberal role of faith in the realm of politics fails miserably from a Christian perspective when it relegates the role of faith to a purely personal and individual matter with no political consequences. This apolitical characterization simply can not be true of the faith movement that originated with Jesus when Jesus went around saying that the kingdom of God (thoroughly political language) was near which in turn got him crucified (the death reserved for political revolutionaries). The earliest Christians knew the political character of the gospel to which they had given their lives as well when they refused to offer sacrifices to images of the emperor and acknowledge him as Lord (again, a political term) because there was another, namely Christ, whom they knew to be the true Lord and savior of the world. A thorough read of the New Testament reveals that it abounds with political language to the extent that they can not all be cited here. Therefore, to say that the Christian faith is a private, apolitical matter simply will not do.

Let me take a step back at this point to make a statement specifically about the two candidates who are currently vying for our vote this fall. Both Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama have spoken openly about their faith as Christians throughout the election process. I think that it is important for me to say at this point that I believe both of these men when they make that claim. Although McCain and Obama obviously see the political consequences of their faith in ways that are quite distinct from each other and both are distinct from how I would understand the political consequences of my faith, I still think that both candidates are men of integrity who are seeking to be Christian in a way that they understand to be congruent with the political office that they seek despite how fundamentally different each of their understandings of the relationship between their faith and the presidency seem to be.

I have a considerable amount of respect for Sen. Obama precisely because he seems to have given more thought to the relationship between faith and politics than most other politicians. Obama has broken the liberal mold to some extent by speaking openly about his faith and saying that faith values have a substantial role to play in politics. Now this is not to say or even suggest that I agree with all of Obama's policies or that he is the only acceptable candidate for which a Christian should vote or anything along those ridiculous lines. There are some ways in which I think Obama could be more Christian and less Democrat just as I think there are some ways that McCain could be more Christian and less Republican. Nonetheless, I appreciate the simple fact that Obama seems to have spent some serious time and energy thinking about the relationship between faith and politics.

However, having said all that, I often find myself thinking that even Obama's nuanced articulation of the relationship between faith and politics is insufficient. Obama often talks about the need to "translate" our faith values into values and arguments for the common good that will make sense even to the person who does not share our faith. This approach has some susbtantial advantages over the two extremes I articulated earilier. On the one hand, it takes seriously the constitutional rights of others as well as our Christian responsibility to be gracious toward others who disagree with us thus righting the sterotypical conservative shortcoming. On the other hand, it does not exclude faith from the political discussion as a purely individual and personal conviction thus righting the stereotypical liberal shortcoming. Despite this substantial improvement on the two extremes, I still wonder if this is a truly Christian position for the relationship between faith and politics. I find myself wondering "If I have to "translate" my Christian values into secular ones, then isn't that just another way of eliminating faith from the public discourse? If I can't make a purely secular argument for a conviction I hold because of the way my faith causes me to see the world, does that mean I shouldn't bother entering the conversation at all?" Of course, I do not think that it is Obama's intent to eliminate faith from the public discourse. I believe that he intends just the opposite; to allow faith back into the liberal side of the conversation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Obama's idea of "translation" still does not allow for a genuine dialogue between faith and politics. It seems that even in Obama's genuine attempt to take a legitimate step forward in the dialogue between faith and politics, the faith is still getting trumped by the politics.

So then, where does that leave us? As Christians, how can we be certain that our faith is not relegated to the sidelines of public discourse as an apolitical, purely "spiritual" and individual matter while also showing a Christ-like love and genuine respect to those who do not share our faith? Perhaps, like a bad science experiment, the way that I have posed the question has already revealed my biases. The answer is obviously not in being Democrat or Republican since both parties fail to be Christian in one way or another. However, to just give up on politics entirely because of the failures of both parties would not be a proper Christian response in my opinion either. After all, God expects us to exercise the power and freedom that he has granted us, even through political means, in a responsibly Christ-like way. However, I think the key here is that we not use those powers and freedoms to try to create God's kingdom here on earth since we can never do that anyway. Instead, it is our role to use those powers and freedoms to witness to the kingdom that will one day be a reality.

The ironic thing about being a witness, at least in the way that word is used in Scripture, is that it combines elements of bold proclamation with elements of weakness and vulnerability. The Christian witness does not abandon the grammar of his or her faith in the public square even when it fails to translate into secular values but neither does the witness impose his or her faith on others. Or to put it more concretely; the vote that a Christian casts in a given election or concerning a specific issue, while a necessary part of Christian stewardship and witness, will probably not be the most important political act for any Christian. This is because the end result of the voting process is not ultimately the Christian's concern which is in turn true because the Christian knows that it is ultimately God's kingdom and not the American political system which will set things right in our world. Again, this is not some kind of predeterminism that says it doesn't matter what we do because God has already determined everything anyway and it is not some kind of escapism that says that this world doesn't really matter so why bother anyway. It is just the tension in which we constantly live as Christians, as people who believe that we have been entrusted with the care of this world while also recognizing that we can not right all of its wrongs since only God can do that in the establishment of his kingdom.

Of course, in so many ways, this kind of stance toward politics is still painfully incomplete (but to be fair, I warned you at the beginning of this that I shouldn't be writing about politics in the first place). There are so many questions that it leaves unanswered. It says nothing about which candidate a Christian should vote for or how a Christian should vote on certain issues. But in some ways, I guess that's partially the point. In order to be something that is worthy of my ultimate allegiance, the kingdom of God has got to be something that transcends our petty partisan squabbling. It has got to be something that relativizes any other commitments or allegiances that I have in this world. It relativizes those allegiances to such an extent that I begin to wonder if, from a Christian perspective, the many conversations that I have had and will have about politics over the course of my life might be a more substantial political act within the kingdom of God than my vote in the American political system ever will be. Perhaps the Church's public proclamation of the values of the kingdom is actually more politically significant than whether or not those values are ever codified into American law. Maybe the only proper approach to the American political system for a Christian is that of critically distanced participation; seeking to witness to God's kingdom through the political process while recognizing that God's kingdom alone is our ultimate political hope.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Relevance of Romans 14

In Romans 14, Paul has a rather lengthy speech for the Church in Rome about eating meat and eating vegetables. Paul says in 14:2. "One person has faith that he may eat all things but he who is weak eats only vegetables." For us, who are so separated from Paul's cultural and historical context, it is easy to wonder what eating meat or vegetables could possibly have to do with faith. Neither does Paul give us much help in this passage so that we might understand why those who eat vegetables are weak but another person has the faith to eat all things. Presumably, Paul has no need of explaining this because his audience is already well aware of their own reasons for what they eat or don't eat. Paul is simply trying to address the division that has arisen from these differences.

One very likely scenario for understanding this passage is to read it in light of what Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. In that letter, Paul spells out clearly that the issue is not just meat but meat that has been sacrificed to idols. As nearly any commentary on 1st Century Greco-Roman culture will point out, much of the meat that one could buy at the local market was meat that had been used in pagan worship practices. Many markets of that day probably had kosher sections designed specifically to do business with Jews who would not eat meat that had been used in the worship of a false god. However, changing circumstances may have lead to these kosher meats being unavailable in some locations at a given time. As a result, someone who wanted to avoid meat sacrificed to idols had no choice but to avoid meat all together, at least until kosher meats became available in the local market once again.

In Corinth, the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a point of potential division in the Christian community. Apparently, some Christians believed that they were free to eat meat, even if it had been sacrificed to an idol because they knew that the idol was really nothing. It had no power and therefore could cause them no harm. On the other hand, it seems there were some Christians who believed that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols because by doing so they would be participating in the worship of that false God. It seems very likely that this is the same issue that Paul is addressing in Romans 14. There is the threat of division in the church at Rome because when these Christians sit down to eat together (which was probably a common practice in the early church) some feel as though others are breaking the faith by what they eat.

Paul responds to this by saying that those who are strong enough in their faith to eat meat must not look down on those who are weak and eat only vegetables. (Isn't it interesting that it is those who follow more rules are considered "weak" in the faith?) Likewise, those who eat vegetables must not have contempt for those who eat meat. Paul says this is because the one who eats, eats to the Lord and the one who does not eat meat also does so to the Lord. For each person, the choice that they have made is an act of obedience and praise to God. Paul sees the issue of eating meat as a non-essential issue in the Christian life and therefore allows for a great variety of opinion on the matter and asks the Church at Rome to take the same approach. (As a side note, this should demonstrate just how much God's action in Jesus Christ and the dawning of the new age relativized everything in Paul's world view. It is difficult to imagine Saul, the strict Pharisaic Jew, making any allowance for meat sacrificed to idols since foods laws were one of the primary markers of Israel's identity.)

Of course, just because Paul allowed for a wide spectrum of behavior regarding the eating of meat does not mean that there is absolutely no rule of behavior in the Christian life and that anything goes as long as one is personally convinced of one's own actions. It should be obvious from everything that Paul has written up to this point in this letter and in his other letters that Paul believes in Christians holding each other accountable in the faith to certain non-negotiable beliefs and behaviors. However, it is alo equally clear from this passage that Paul is willing to allow for a considerable amount of liberty in how those beliefs and behaviors are actually lived out in each faith community and each person of faith.

I think the way that Paul addresses the issue of eating meat in this passage is tremendously significant for the Church today. Although meat that has been sacrificed to idols is not exactly one of the most pressing issues that the church faces today, dialoguing with one another about where we can allow for a liberty of opinion is and always will be. The kind of approach that Paul takes in this passage is actually very dear to me personally as I reflect on my own experiences in the Church and continue to minister as a pastor in the Church. There are so many petty things that threaten to divide us: worship styles, the color of carpet or paint, pews or chairs, Democrat or Republican (yes, even though I think politics are important, in comparison to God's kingdom, they are virtually inconsequential), social drinker or teetotaler (oh, does that one hit too close to home for us Nazarenes?). The list of "meat eating" issues that we have, at times, allowed to become the things that define us is nearly endless. We often forget that "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (13:17). And this is no small matter because when we impose our own personal preferences and opinions on the gospel message, we often drive people away unnecesarily from its life giving hope. When we don't allow for this diversity of opinion in the non-essentials, we make it extremely difficult for those who don't fit our preconcieved notions of what it means to be a Christian to make the journey of discipleship with Jesus. Therefore, it is imperative for the Church today to truly wrestle with what it means to be the Church and to allow for diversity, as Paul did, in the things that are not essential to this identity.