Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus,
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."

I've been thinking about this great hymn from Paul's letter to the Philippian church for a while now. And most of my thinking has had to do with what is fashionably called the "pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus" question. There is a pervasive attitude that, largely thanks to Paul, Christianity is based on the whim of a few evangelists who turn Jesus into something more than he really was--made him divine when he was really just a great guy. This attitude is not limited to the unchurched, or historical Jesus bent.
And while it is generally accompanied with a less-than-vague disdain for orthodox Christianity (in particular the doctrine of the Trinity), I admit that it is not entirely unfounded. There are places in Scripture--in particular the Gospels, though in the Hebrew Scriptures too--that must give even the most orthodox among us pause. Passages that almost seem to deny Jesus' divinity; even John, the gospel most devoted to Jesus' unity with God ("If you know me you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him." [Jn 14:7]), also quotes Jesus as saying: "If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I" (Jn 14:28). In the same passage, no less. And thus the debate rages on.
And yet, if we remain fixated on what appears to be a contradiction, or simply ignore it, we miss out on something profoundly important to the Christian faith. Fortunately, the hymn from Philippians 2 can bring us back to this point. (It also stands, I think, in glaring opposition to the notion that Paul made the whole thing up, if it is indeed a hymn that he borrowed from an outside source). Here's the point: Jesus himself wasn't all that concerned with divinity, one way or the other.
To take a step back, put the hymn in conversation with the Genesis story of Adam and Eve and the apple. Regardless of whether or not we read this story literally, or as a complete fiction, it's meaning comes out at rather the same spot: things went wrong when the temptation to be like God entered in (Gen 3:4). The relationship that worked in the beginning, where God was God, and we were people--the relationship that is still the completion of our Joy (I Jn 1:4)--was damaged. From the third chapter of Genesis, a consistent thread throughout Scripture is God's people choosing to do it differently than God; people putting in God's place either themselves or some other idol.
From a theological standpoint, that is fallen creation in my mind. The creation that is unable to be in relationship with God, because of our inability to recognize, or allow ourselves to be who we are in that relationship. Our own self-idolatry is, as far as I can tell, the foundation of sinfulness. It is not that we are inately bad--in fact, as someone who believes that we are indeed created for holy relationship with God and creation, I have to conclude that we are, at least at the start, good--but that we don't understand who we are. We rail against the idea of submission, we loathe the idea turning our lives over to God's plans, we cannot abide the possibility that we aren't in control, and so we cannot be the people we are meant to be, in relation to the God who is.
Here is where the hymn finds it's footing. Because Jesus, the one who was with God in the beginning, who was equal to God shrugs at that power. Disregards it completely. While we, who are meant for holiness but not divinity, struggle to grasp at and work hard to feign equality with God, Jesus lets it go. Lets it go so completely that we sometimes have to look awfully hard to see the remnants of it. Even those closest to him had a hard time seeing it. Jesus embraced the human part of the relationship, entered so fully into our experience that he reconstituted the relationship that was in the beginning. And only the one who was/is divine could have made that happen; only the one who was divine could completely disregard divinity in favor of obedience, even unto death on a cross.
In that humiliation we can come to recognize what is so easily missed. The way to God is through the proper relationship. We're going to keep getting it wrong, but God is Grace, and so we can try again. But Jesus got it right, and so he is exalted to the name that is above every name--for a Jew like Paul that can only mean one thing: Jesus is co-equal with God. And yet it is still to God's glory. The Trinitarian relationship is one of constant submission and Lordship, just as Jesus revealed the paradoxical relationship between servitude and power.
If we could stop grasping after equality with God, if we could get the relationship right--not begrudginly like whiny children, but gleefully because it is right--our Joy would be complete. In the moments that we manage it, fleeting as they may be, we see the Kingdom of God. Thanks be.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Indeed, he is going ahead of you

But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raise, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.'" Matt 28:5-7

In his formative book (which I recommend to any and all pastors and pastors-to-be) "Under the Unpredictable Plant: Explorations in Vocational Holiness," Eugene Peterson writes of the importance of this verse from the end of Matthew for his life as a pastor. When setting out on pastoral calls, he repeats to himself, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to ----------- ; there you will see him." This is profoundly perspective-altering--at least, I have found it to be so.

It occurred to me when reflecting on this, that I rarely--if ever--have managed to act in this hope. Whether approaching the bed of a sick person, or the couch of one serving me cookies and tea, my mind has all to frequently been focused on what I'll say, on keeping track of things to pray about before I leave, on looking and sounding the part of the pastor. Even in my attempts to live out the all important sheep-goats passage from Matt 25, I am not sure that I have very often expected to see Jesus; I have been more concerned with what I'm going to do than whom I am going to meet. Instead of going to meet the Christ, risen and working in the life of the one before me, I have secretly been trying to impress Jesus--making sure I have some good work to remind him of the next time I slip up.

How much different the pastoral approach would be if I always anticipated that Jesus had already gone before me, that Jesus has begun to work long before I show up, long before I offer sage advice and spiritual guidance.
Even acknowledging that pastors have a job to do, have been called to minister in particular ways, acknowledging first that Jesus works first, we could live out our vocations in the hope that we work with (not simply for, or sometimes in spite of...) our resurrection God.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I have to do a theological reflection on my experience of being the emergency on-call chaplin at a hospital, and I've been struggling with just what to say. (The following will not be the finished product...). The events in question happened two weeks ago. We had two calls--the first I went with my supervisor, the second I was on my own. Graciously, though tragically too, both times were much the same. Late-middle aged man dead of a heart attack. We were there to greet their widows. Neither one had any church affiliation. But neither kicked us out.
It was strange being present at such a traumatic time, with people I had never seen before and likely won't see again. At times I felt voyeuristic. At times I wondered precisely what I thought I was doing there. And yet, had I/we not been there, it seems quite likely that no one would have offered these women prayer (which both accepted). Perhaps too, it showed them that someone cared about their pain beyond those who were expected by the ties of family and proximity. I hope that occured to them, because I continue to pray for them and wonder quietly how they're coping.
It's trite, but I wonder what carries people through such painful and life-altering times when they don't have faith and a faith community to fall back on. (Not to suggest that the lives of the faithful aren't often wrought with difficulties). Being in the room with a weeping widow to whom I had no communal ties gave me a sense of Jesus' obsessive compassion. His yearning for those like sheep without a shepherd--those mired in pain, made haggard by the uncertainties of the world, who long to have a reason to hope again. I have a hard time not crying with those women.

A scripture passage that's jumped out a lot at me as I learn to negotiate the different challenges of different clinical settings--hospital, nursing home, terminal care, group homes--is Matt 25:36, "...I was sick and you cared for me..." When I don't want to go to the hospital, or the nursing home, I try to repeat that over to myself. It's helped me to look people in the eye, to try to meet them on a level that transcends their physical pain, to see the child of God--sick as they might be. For the most part I've been shocked at the life left in people's eyes. Pity and discomfort can turn into actual care and a longing to restore dignity where it's often been stripped away.

Indeed that whole sheep and goats passage is one that rings loudly as often as I let it. I'll be preaching on it in two weeks and I'm pretty excited about that. It coincides nicely with the Bible study I've been offering on the epistle of James. It reminds us that while what we believe is important, the questions Christ will ask us when we find ourselves in front of him won't have much to do with our theological opinions. "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe--and shudder" (James 2:18-19).
The combination of the Matt 25 passage and that passage from James forces me to submit to the nagging of the Spirit, forces me to take the call of Jesus seriously. It forces me to recognize that the grace of God demands response--we can't truly even begin to understand what God's grace means for us, if we don't live as though we're changed by it. To truly "'believe [in the gospel]means to accept the situation that is created by [the decision of God in Jesus Christ]" (Karl Barth)--that is, to believe is to live as though the Kingdom of God has indeed come near; we are already being made new.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

This may be one of those times when I need to take a breath, and ask for God's grace--so with those two needs in mind, I'm using this as an outlet.

In this month's United Church Observer, there were a series of articles about prayer--how we pray, its efficacy, how it changes us, etc etc. As per usual, Gretta Vosper has found a place to voice her thoughts. For some reason, people continue to ask Ms. Vosper's opinion regarding things theological, without recognizing her utter theological ineptitude. I don't get it, and I don't understand why so little is said about her absolute disregard for the United Church, let alone the Christian faith it supposedly represents. It's mind-boggling.
In her article about faith, she undermines and belittles those of us poor Christians who pray to a "theistic interventionist God," claiming that our continued prayer to such a God is simply indicative of our lack of inclusivity (another word she continues to abuse). She points to the lives of non-Christian people who's lives have been meaningful and purposeful as proof that we can't say that God is the basis for life-giving work.
Her principle problem is that she doesn't understand that God is not confined to the Christian church, nor does God require Christians to do his (or her or whatever) work--if that were the case, the world might well have been doomed from the get-go. This is not to say that Christians aren't called to live as examples of the full life God longs for every human being. We are indeed. That's what the Gospel is all about.
She also notes that praying to an interventionist God means that we are unable to live strong courageous lives, or to "find meaning in our lives without God's added effort."
The humanistic project has alread failed dramatically, and perhaps someone should point that out to Ms Vosper. The desire to live life that affirms whatever we claim is good is at the root of most of the world's problems. Setting up idealistic goals, or values, or ethics and assuming that people are able and indeed willing to meet them by their own power and sustained by their own sense of self-worth is as unfair as the Pharisees who loaded their listeners with heavy burdens and refused to lift a hand to help them carry them. To insist that the only way to do good works is by understanding your own self-worth and responding to it, is demand something that most people at best struggle with, and in many cases are completely unable to do.
She's exactly right that God's call to relationship--with God and with each other--is what gives my life meaning. Not the fact that God will do something for me, but that God sustains me, God calls me to love all of his creation, and God is the reason to do it. Though many people, including Ms Vosper, don't recognize that the thrust towards life is part of God's plan for all creation, that doesn't make it not so. Indeed it's true that many people are much closer to doing the work of Christ unbeknownst to them. Jesus even claims that many who don't think they know him, are in fact much closer to him than many who think they know him.
The final thing that bugs me in the article, is the claim of inclusivism, which is actually a denial of our differences and an insistence that we are all beige, vauge, life-lovers, and that that is a sufficient reason to do nice things. The "radical ethics" that she proposes are nothing more than the call of the Gospel without the inconveniences of discipleship and service to God. Unfortunately, the end result is that "I" become God. This masturbatory understanding of life ends consistently in a confused mess.

I think that this post is beginning to spiral out of control and may be nothing more than senseless rambling. Perhaps that's because it's in response to an article that says little, written by someone who understands less about the Gospel of Christ, and the faith to which we are called. Nevertheless, I'm sure Gretta wants to do good work. For this I can't fault her. And hopefully, despite the fact that she doesn't understand why she's doing it, she'll find herself with the sheep--as one who clothed and sated and visited and healed and did the work of the One who loves us all beyond measure, and by whose will our lives have meaning.
May God grant us all grace and wisdom.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dancing Fools

The following is a reflection on Luke 5:17-26, "Jesus Heals a Paralytic."

I was struck when I read this passage by the phrase, "and the power of the Lord was with him to heal" (vs17). Less because of the possible implication that at times the power of the Lord to heal was not with him, but because of the strange image it conjured up of a televangelist-type character filled with the Holy Spirit, jumping up and down on stage, sweating in the most embarrassing places, knocking people out of their wheelchairs. Factor in verse 26 and we got ourselves a genuine revival! I wondered at this for a moment, and it occurred to me that perhaps it was more the image of Jesus dancing around, acting a fool in front of the Pharisees that struck me as particularly odd. This is not the Jesus from Sunday School pictures, not the Jesus flipping tables in a fiery rage, not the Jesus we generally invite into our comfortable, mainline churches.

I see him, dancing around the front of the room, maybe stuck in a circle, surrounded by as many people as could be crammed into one space, cheered on like a teenager in a dance-off at prom. He's on a roll--the sick, the lame, the blind, they're all being healed. He hears the raspy cough of a man with a cold that's been hanging on for weeks and in his excitement, reaches behind himself and touches the cougher's throat, adding some flare to the scene with an around the back healing. The room is pulsing with excitement, songs have risen spontaneously from various corners of the room, everyone outside the inner circle straining to see what's going to happen next.
All of a sudden a piece of roof hits Jesus in the shoulder. There's so much going on he pays it no attention. He's startled though, when a rather larger piece smashes at his feet. And suddenly, the brightness and warmth of the midday sun fills the room through a makeshift skylight. A shadow emerges through it. A silhouetted rectangle that descends, barely discernible for the light behind it. And as abruptly as the sun had filled the room, a deafening hush joins it and at Jesus' feet lies a paralyzed man. The songs have stopped with the harshness of a needle pulled across a record. All eyes waver between Jesus and this intruder.
Jesus' eyes though, are only on the man, not an intruder but a guest. And as he's reflected in the eyes of the newcomer, he sees the pain of one who has been told that all his problems are self-imposed, who has been abandoned by colleagues and family because of the shame of his affliction, cared for by a few low-life buddies who don't even have the manners to wait their turn, who have punched a hole in someone else's roof in an act of desperation. Jesus sees the need for acceptance and love before he sees the man's need of physical healing. He sees the faith of those who still love this man and hope beyond hope for him. And Jesus gives him the assurance he needs. "Friend, your sins are forgiven." In one phrase Jesus hits the man in the deepest part of his heart. He is called friend by a Rabbi, he is freed from his supposed shame.
As so regularly happens, Jesus' acts of love go unrecognized and all that is seen by the religious leaders is the disruption of the status quo. "Who is he to forgive sins?! Who does he think he is just ignoring this guy's obviously shameful state?" Jesus hears the grumblings and irritation screws up his face. They just don't get it. They still see the man lying on the ground, separated from society, ostracized from the temple, a disgusting embodiment of all that they are terrified of. So Jesus goes one step further and denies all those precious boundaries. If the simple assurance of humanity is insufficient, then we'll just have to dance the party-poopers out of here! The truly paralyzed need a lesson in movin' and shakin'! "Get up and go home." And as suddenly as the music had stopped, it starts again and a conga line of the formerly sick, lame, blind, coughing and paralyzed circles the room and leads the way out the door, dancing with everything they got.

Jesus, the dancing, foolishly loving Christ is the opposite of our paralyzed selves--we who are stuck in our ways, bound by decorum and social graces, rendered immobile by our selfish concern. And yet, he continues to call us to join the dance, to let go of our limited expectations, to thrash about, madly in love with our God and each other. Like Paul said, Jesus wants us to be fools for him, to be seized by amazement and filled with awe and the ridiculous joy of our own freedom.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A New Song

"O, sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth." (Psalm 96:1)

For the first time the other day, I was struck by the hope and power of this verse. Perhaps I had never really read the "new" part. Perhaps I've become so accustomed to the image of the earth singing praises to God, that its revolutionary sting has been numbed. The fact is though, that I think we sing the same old songs an awful lot. Even our most ardent attempts to sing something new tends to have a very familiar rhythm, beat, and melody.
This is one of the struggles we face when we hear the gospel, when we trust in the truth it offers, when we see ourselves and our neighbors in the fresh light that it casts. "How can we who died to sin, go on living in it?" Paul cries (Rom 6:2). How, once we've experienced the sweetness of new life in Christ, can we return to the now bitter taste of the past? How, once we've heard truth, can we return to what we now see as lies? Even Paul knew just how easily this happens: "for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Rom 7:19).
Those old familiar songs provide us with the temporary comfort we seek to get us through a difficult day; they allow us to sing words that we know we can live out (if for no other reason than the fact that we have to try desperately not to); our old songs welcome us back with open arms, enveloping us like a warm blanket.
But we soon recognize that that blanket is full of fleas. It's once soft fibers turn sharp as barbed wire. The tune we once loved is dissonant and painful. It's comfort indeed, is temporary.

My grandmother was a piano teacher. Somehow it always seemed, that when she was at our house, it was time for me to practice. Rather than practice though, I preferred to display my mastery of "Chopsticks," that most familiar tune that everyone who can't play piano knows at least part of. Few tunes are more irritating to piano teachers. Every ten-year-old child who walks through their doors sits on the bench and promptly begins to bang it out. It nearly sent my poor grandmother through the roof. With the first notes, she would be at the piano-room door rebuking me. Comparatively, my butchery of Chopin was transcendent next to my mastery of Chopsticks.
My grandmother knew that even the most preliminary muddling through something new, something more challenging, something inevitably more beautiful was of greater value than the familiar, the simplistic, the ultimately irritating. I've started to see her point.

Something important lies within the seemingly duplicitous points that Paul makes. Once we can play--even once we have heard--Chopin, how can we go back to Chopsticks? But isn't it fun to bang that old song out once more? I often waiver between these two places . The Psalmist reminds us however, that we are called not to return to the easy comfort of old songs, but to strive to belt out a new one. We are called to stop going back to the songs that keep us mired in apathy, keep us bound by self-imposed limitations, the songs that hurt the ears of those around us and stop their feet from dancing. Instead, learn the new song. Play and sing the song that expands possibilities. Join the song that inspires instead of limits. Let the earth sing the song that frees all people to dance, to leap, to love. Let the earth sing the song that Jesus sings, a song of radical newness, of abundant life.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Who's In?

Recently, I have been talking with a friend at my church about salvation (broadly speaking). Sometimes I find it difficult to address this issue and its salient points in ways that don't reveal the esoteric language and insulated nature of life as a seminarian. Tonight, we're watching a movie at church called "The Fourth Wise Man," which I have not seen, but which I have been told questions the stringent boundaries which the church has often put on salvation. (Essentially, a Zoroastrian lives out the life that Jesus calls all people to in the gospels--in particular Matthew, I believe--and thus the question is raised as to his salvation, given that his faith is not specifically in Christ, but he lives a Christlike life, so far as is possible. Again, I haven't seen this movie yet, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in my synopsis).

I have been asked to speak briefly after the movie. I think that the following is what I intend to say. It's surely incomplete, but hopefully it will entice conversation. Beforehand, I will read I John 1:1-4.

Many people have found reason to argue that faith in Christ, according to Christian doctrine, is the only way to get to Heaven, the only way to be saved, based on Scripture. But such a claim is a rather risky one for Christians to make. And it’s risky not because it is necessarily untrue, but because such a claim can allow us to separate ourselves from those who are not “saved,” from those who by our measures, won’t get into Heaven. It is easy to get Jesus’ claim that he is “the way, the truth and the life” confused with “Christianity (or the Church) is the way, the truth and the life.” Rarely, I think, are out thoughts and actions subtle enough to make this distinction and live within it’s light.

Regardless, we must remember that the Church, whose responsibility it is to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, is not evidence of our salvation, but a response to the grace through which we understand, experience and know our salvation. When we recognize this, we recognize first, that God reveals Godself to us, that God seeks and finds us, that God desires a relationship with us before we even begin to understand this—let alone how it is possible. In turn we can come to understand that we are not, as Christians, somehow moving towards God, or closer to God than others, or have a greater claim to God, but that God has come eternally to us. In God’s freedom, God has chosen to bind himself in loving relationship to all of creation, in and through the Cross event, the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is the joy we proclaim.

In the light of this good news, as it is revealed to us in Scripture we recognize our freedom from the things that separate us from God, that keep us living as though we are not saved, as though the incarnation of the living God whom we know, love and worship, does not matter. We recognize the worthiness of Christ as the focus and foundation of our faith. What we do not find in Scripture is our right to decide who’s in and who’s out—only that Christ came because all creation is loved beyond our capacity to understand and we are called to live lives that reflect this radical truth.