Why We Need to Wait for Christmas

autumn-19672_1280A few weeks ago, in the middle of October, my five-year-old son and I walked into a store together. He pointed and called my name with a disgust that kiddos usually reserve for carrots and squash.

“What buddy?”
“They have Christmas stuff up and we haven’t even had Halloween!”

When the young ones get it then we surely have a problem.

[Read more…]

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St. Patrick Was Not A Heretic, But His Analogies Are Another Story

This is a great and cheeky little introduction to the doctrine of the Trinity at the expense of our friend, St. Patrick. (As far as I know, the only of these analogies that St. Patrick ever used was that of the clover…and even that is historically questionable.) The doctrine of the Trinity is difficult. I often tell my students that every attempt to make an analogy to the Trinity will result in heresy. St. Patrick was no better.

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God Is NOT With Us: An Advent Sermon

Advent_Reminds2[1]I believe a Christian can give only one response to the difficult question of suffering. This place is not what God had in mind and he will in fact set the whole world to rights one day…we pray that it comes quickly.

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Why Jesus Matters

Recently I had a friend invite me to speak on a panel discussing a pretty basic and essential question: Why does Jesus Matter?



I suppose that as an Assemblies of God minister there is an expectation as to how I would answer this question. In fact, I dare say that those who invited me to speak on the matter invited me for just this reason. They wanted to hear a clear articulation of the traditional answer to the question.


My Assemblies of God argues that “Man’s only hope of redemption is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God. Salvation is received through repentance toward God and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ. By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, being justified by grace through faith, man becomes an heir of God, according to the hope of eternal life.” (http://ag.org/top/Beliefs/Statement_of_Fundamental_Truths/sft_full.cfm#5)


As far as it goes I have not one concern about this position, even though it has come under attack as somehow creating an image of a blood thirsty God who is simply waiting for us to mess up so that we can suffer eternal damnation. These critiques are simply misunderstandings and even a person with an undergraduate degree in theology can respond adequately: God does not desire to punish anyone but God’s holiness demands righteousness. This is not a limit on God, it is a fact of the very condition of holiness. We do not critique darkness because it is unable to accommodate the presence of light. It just is this way as an aspect of the very definition of the thing. And so the traditional argument that the importance of Jesus lies in how he is able to make it possible for unholy people to stand in the presence of God, by taking on their unrighteousness and exchanging it for his righteousness, is part of the message of the cross of Jesus. Jesus, being sinless and in fact even holy, did not suffer the death which is caused by his sin, rather he suffered the death of our sin in our place so that we may live life at its most full. Praise God.


But I simply cannot stop there. To do so would be a little like stopping at the narthex of a great cathedral because you had in fact, “gotten into” Notre Dame or St. Paul’s or the like.


My wife and I have a nerdy pastors’ tradition of making one of our vacation destinations a visit to the nearest cathedral to where we are taking vacation. Maybe the greatest that I have seen is St. Patrick’s in Manhattan but most of the great cathedrals share a common trait: the narthex is built such that when you enter it you are clear that you have not yet entered the greatest part of the cathedral. You can see rich imagery and form just beyond the narthex and you are drawn to keep walking past the narthex and enter the fullness of the cathedral.


I think stopping with the saving work of Jesus for you and me is a bit like stopping in the narthex. It is in fact part of the Gospel, but you and I are not the most important aspect of the Gospel story: God is.


If we were to rub our eyes a bit, as you do in the morning when you haven’t seen clearly in a while, we could begin to see the Gospel story’s significance is about the world which God has and is creating and re-creating. This story is significant not only because it includes the way in which each of us will enjoy God’s presence forever but more importantly because the Gospel is a continuous revelation of who God is independent from and yet imaged by God’s good creation. God made the world that he might enjoy it and that his creatures might properly enjoy him, but also because the way of the Gospel which is told in the story of God’s creation actually reflects the person and being of God. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at the story of creation and joy in the early chapters of Genesis. Look at Moses and the Exodus. Look at David and his salvation from both his enemies and his own sin. Look at Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. And ultimately, look at the redemption of all things in the final chapters of Revelation. That is what God is like. And if the story continues to play out as we are told it will, then we will all see the beauty of a God who makes in his own image.


So where does Jesus fit into this greater story? All of Christian theology deals with this question in one way or another. For brevity, I will function on only the two most significant aspects of Jesus’ ministry as window into the rest.


We cannot and should not ignore the cross of Christ in this wider and more expansive account of Jesus’ significance. Paul’s emphasis on preaching “Christ crucified” was central to his message, if for no other reason than its absurdity as a way of redeeming the world (I Cor. 1:17-31).


The cross of Christ is significant because it reveals to us our own sinfulness. Even the righteous man will not be spared the violence of sinners. When the truly righteous comes, his death will be the result of a conspiracy between political and religious leaders and even his own friends, all among those whom are expected to be the most holy in the community. Jesus crucifixion reveals to us the depth of humanity’s fallen nature. In the great sermons recorded in the book of Acts “whom you crucified” is spoken of as a word of judgment against those who conspired (Acts 2:36, 3:15, 4:10, 7:52-53). The cross by itself is not the glory of Christ, but the shame of sinful humanity.


The very heart of the Gospel lies in the second movement, “You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead” (Acts 3:15). Paul put it another way, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (I. Cor. 15:17).


Why is the resurrection of Jesus so important? Because his resurrection is the “firstfruit” of our coming resurrection (I Cor. 15:20). When we read the end of the story, those final chapters of Revelation tell a story of God’s city coming down out of heaven to dwell among people. God’s presence no longer will live in temples, but will be among the people. And what will be the great indicator that this has come? There will be no more mourning or death or crying of pain. All these things will give way to the power of resurrection. A power whereby “death has been swallowed up in victory.”


Jesus resurrection matters because it is the first moment of the initiation of the new world. Everything changes on Easter morning.


These different aspects of the Gospel message do not need to be set against one another. There are even a great number of other ways of construing the importance of Jesus. Orthodox Christians would say that the union of human and divine is the beginning of our union with God. Some Christians speculated that Jesus was the “ransom” for a debt owed to Satan. And some Christians have argued that Jesus made possible the path to the righteous kind of life by first living the righteous kind of life.


These are not mutually exclusive. There are some ways in which one of the other might be construed which would be exclusive. Jesus as a moral example has sometimes been proposed as an exclusive because it has been suggested that Jesus was necessarily human to the exclusion of divine. This is a problem for Christian orthodoxy. But most of these other proposals are parallel and not contradictory.


But I do think it matters which of these we try to articulate. The message that Jesus forgives us of our sins because of his sacrifice on the cross is important for persons seeking their life to be reconciled to God. This is the reason that this aspect has been told so many times.


But the proposal that I have just suggested has audiences which are drawn to it as well. Viewing Jesus this way means that you can affirm the place of the world in God’s plan of redemption. It means that you can account for the gross injustices in the world with hope that God cares and will do something about it. If the Kingdom has begun, it can also mean that we have some hope that small pockets of Christians may overcome injustice, even if only temporarily, as a sign and witness that God will finally defeat death in an overwhelming and final victory. That is Good News. And Jesus matters because his story is Good News.

She Said Yes! Why Mary’s Yes Makes Her A Model For Us All

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

This statement is the primary reason that Roman Catholic Christians give such high regard to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The situation was obviously a terrifying one. Engaged to be married and met by an angel who gives word of her pending motherhood. Surely no one would believe the story of an angel’s message of her conception of a child. Would they? [Read more…]

Vulnerability?

So this post is a response to a friend’s request to look at some Bible verses on a related post. I call her a friend, but I have really only met this woman once and exchanged some words on a mutual friend’s thought-provoking blog.

I call her friend because in spite of our minimal relationship I can easily see that she is an absolutely delightful person, the kind that wears her heart on her sleeve and that heart is made of pure gold. The thing about wearing such a precious thing out in the open is, some people just want to steal it. This is the dilemma of the human condition. A golden heart is even more beautiful when it is held close by another. Have you ever noticed that gold is even more brilliant when it is around your finger or around your neck or wrist? It is as if gold is just meant to be held close to the skin. Such a precious heart should be as well.

But we all have this deep abiding corruption of sin, says the Christian tradition. We were created good and in the core of our being we still are. But sin has invaded every part, like yeast in dough, as the Scripture says. So if we are to witness to redemption by living with honesty and openness, how does my friend know that her golden heart won’t be stolen or just simply vandalized like so many other precious things are? Sinful people do sinful things.

Really, that is what this post is about. Can my friend wear her heart on her sleeve safely? Maybe she is only so open and honest with me because she knows that she can trust the chaplain. I don’t think so, I think this is just the way she is. What will be the consequences of this openness?

In our previous blogging conversation, we agreed that Christians should make it a goal of having open and honest conversations without any hidden agenda. The question is: With whom should we have those kind of relationships? Can we simply live that way with everyone as a witness to our faith and a desire to life virtuously and be willing to take the injury that might come from that? Is that even a goal? Or, do we find a close group of friends that can be trusted and live that openness with them? Like most things, I think the answer is somewhere in between. We live with as much openness as the maturity of a person or relationship can handle. But that is still a judgment call and we need some guidance.

My friend said we need to look to the Bible for our guidance. I probably should have thought of that.

How about Matthew 7:6? “Do not give to dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.”

I guess Jesus thought some people’s sin was pretty bad. “Dogs?” “Pigs?” Wow.

Honestly, the passage isn’t easy to interpret. It is right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount and the passage right before it is about pulling the plank out of your own eye. Not sure what that’s about. So I have to say that just reading it for what it is, we would probably have to say that Jesus is instructing that the most precious things must be protected from those who would take no regard for them. Dogs and pigs can’t appreciate the value. Ever had a puppy, you shut the bedroom doors to avoid shoes getting chewed and you set anything really valuable just high enough to not be reached. That should give us some advice about what to do with our hearts with people who have no regard.

What about Jesus? What did he do? Well I think he was willing to say the hard thing when he needed to, regardless of what it would cost him. That is obvious from his frequent exchanges with the religious leaders.

But Jesus also had a keen ability to hide his answers among little parables and riddles. He didn’t just say things exactly as they are. “Hey temple administration, your sacrificial practices are keeping poor people from being able to eat AND worship; they have to choose one or the other.” But then again, he did turn tables in the temple and called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” when he didn’t like their evangelism practices.

I tend to think that Jesus’s tendency to hide the truth in parables had more to do with the conversation and teaching practices of his period than a prescription of a way of being. I had a great philosophy prof in undergrad that ALWAYS defended every philosopher that we studied as if he agreed with them. He is a Platonist and I dare say that he thinks Enlightenment rationality is bankrupt, but he defended them nonetheless. It was a teaching tool. Jesus did the same thing. That doesn’t make him dishonest. It made him a good Rabbi.

Paul was a little more straightforward with people. Read the Corinthians correspondence and his harsh rebuke in places which is often preceded by a sincere expression of his deepest love. His introduction to most of his letters expresses deep love and respect for his spiritual “children”. But, then he also tells them what he thinks when he needs to. And when he is in prison, he doesn’t hide his emotions or his pains. Paul wasn’t a Rabbi and he wasn’t speaking primarily with Jewish people. He talked like a Greek to Greeks, which is exactly what he said he would do.

Generation X/Y/millenial/busters, or whatever I and my colleagues are called, tend to be sick of slick advertising and slicker productions on television and at church. We like reality TV because the drama there at least pretends to be real dilemmas of real people trying to achieve a real goal (remember that most of them are games and a game is real!). We also are not interested in our leadership giving us half facts to get us to do what they want or media contriving a false dilemma to make us mad at something that doesn’t matter. This is what made me so angry at Karl Rove’s work in the 2004 presidential campaign. That election should not have been about gay marriage, but he made it about gay marriage to rock the vote. Gay marriage matters, but a lot of other things should have mattered more in that election. That lacks honesty, but it wins elections.

We crave real relationships (and leaders) that don’t hold back info so that we don’t have to interact with each other.
Ever had this conversation:
“How are you doing?”
“I’m fine” — when really you have had a horrible day and your most precious relationships are on the rocks and you aren’t sure how you are going to make your next month’s bills.

We want honesty. I think Jesus would have sat down and told us how he hurt for us. I think he would have told us directly what he thought we should do next. He would have journeyed with us in exploring how others would react to our choices.

At least I imagine that is how Jesus would have taught us and discipled us and been in relationship with us. But of course I may be wrong. But my thinking Jesus would be in relationship that way today is why I conduct all my relationships that way. I try to say exactly what I am thinking and try never to manipulate people with half truths or deflections. Some people tell me that this just means that I lack tact. Maybe I’m not kind enough in soft-pedaling hard opinions. I have heard that in recent years. But, for me that can only go so far because I value this kind of openness so much. One of the ways that this has worked itself out is my refusal to go by titles like Reverend/Pastor/Professor/Chaplain. I am Jeremiah, a person struggling to serve Christ who has had some experiences on this journey…many of them on what not to do.

I should put a good quote up that would give guidance away from how I want myself and others to live. It should challenge my proposal here. And as part of my honesty/full disclosure policy, here it is. This is from Henry Nouwen:

“There is a false form of honesty that suggests that nothing should remain hidden and that everything should be said, expressed and communicated. This honesty can be very harmful, and if it does not harm, it at least makes the relationship flat, superficial, empty and often very boring. when we try to shake off our loneliness by creating a milieu without limiting boundaries, we may become entangled in a stagnating closeness. It is our vocation to prevent the harmful exposure of our inner sanctuary, not only for our own protection but also as a service to our fellow human beings with whom we want to enter in a creative communion. Just as words lose their power when they are not born out of silence, so openness loses its meaning when there is no ability to be clsoed. our world is full of empty chatter, easy confessions, hollow talk, senseless compliments, poor praise, and boring confidentialities” (Reaching Out, 32).

Nouwen thinks that we need to protect ourselves from being too open because we need some things private to be able to engage in honest community. Uhhh…maybe he is right. I just don’t think so. Notice that his concern is too much idle talk and poor praise.

I agree with him on this, and I get the sense that my earlier colleagues in this discussion would as well, which is precisely why the three of us want to have open and honest dialogue and heartfelt discussion. I intentionally don’t give free compliments. I don’t try to flatter people. In fact, I am tired of people telling me nice sermon without telling me how they were changed. I am tired of every other senseless compliments without substance as well.

And you know what I have noticed? People that have known me very long know that I don’t try to flatter people and I don’t give away compliments that I don’t mean. They learn that my compliments come from the heart. And then these words have power because they are honest words. My new friends at UIndy have not known my long enough to know that I don’t pull punches. But my longtime friends know that I can be trusted, if nothing else. I know that my honesty has hurt people in the past. Some of those pains have stuck with them for a long time. But, unlike Nouwen, I think the answer is not to close one’s self off from the other. I also don’t think the answer is to return to empty compliments. For me, the answer is complete and open honesty. That doesn’t mean you say everything that you think, but it does mean that you mean what you do say.

That makes you vulnearble. Returning to my friend. I happen to believe that if someone takes her beautiful heart and steals it away or vandalizes it, her practice of opening herself to others will mean that she has a community around her to give her strength and endurance. More importantly, the grace of God will give her strength and healing from what others have done. At least, this will be my prayer. I think the rewards are greater than the costs.

But, I may be wrong. That is the reason I have included Jesus’ words and Nouwen’s words here. Maybe you have some words to add that I need to hear. What do you think, honestly?