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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Podiatric Gospel

       While the recent commercials from The Good Feet Store are amusing, I still find them instructive.   The store’s representative ends one advertisement by saying, “I helped a person deal with a problem he’s suffered with for thirty years.  How do you not go home and talk about that?”
       We talk about what helps.  I have a friend who recently purchased some shoe inserts that delivered him from a great deal of pain.  He is able to effectively walk again; and though he knows most people don’t normally want to talk about podiatric care, he just can’t help himself.  He has to share his joy at finding relief.
       Christian witness is like this. Christ shares our grief in a way that makes our burdens meaningful.   As the woman on the commercial asks, “How do you not go home and talk about that?”
       Most people appreciate their friends sharing with them what helps.  It’s the impersonal street preachers doing bad impersonations of John the Baptist who give Christian evangelism a bad rap. I have been shocked by the insensitivity these types sometimes display toward race fans who are just trying to enjoy a day at the track.  I understand there’s always been some lude behavior that sometimes accompanies the race, but I’m more offended by representatives of the Christian faith who do far more to dampen the party by defensively airing grievances rather than joyfully sharing help.

       I’d much rather have street preachers this May performing something like Bob Dillon’s When the Ship Comes In.  The folk song celebrates the hope that uncaring systems will not ultimately win over us. That’s not mere proselytizing; that’s just suggesting someone try good medicine.   In Isaiah’s day, God sent messengers to announce that Assyrian overlords would not oppress people forever.  This kind of hope can help.  And most people appreciate someone trying to offer hope, even if they choose not to pay much attention.  It is as God says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those people” who are just trying to share what helps them—“who bring good news.”  (Isaiah 52:7)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Can You Spell Grace?

        The late Gerald Strauss, Indiana University’s wonderful professor of Reformation history, once asked me, “How can you go through life not knowing how to spell?”  The answer turned out to be that Microsoft Word saved my academic career.  Still, to this day, when I don’t have the foggiest idea of how to spell “badminton” the computer may correct my imaginary word into “bad mitten,” and I may not have the sense in the moment to catch the difference.   
      Most people don’t recognize the depth of my handicap and naturally assume my spelling problems can be corrected with greater effort. I have tried to implement their suggestions, often spending more time proofing my work than I have writing it, only to find my writing still littered with silly mistakes.   All this is especially painful because once upon a time I was a certified, award-winning teacher of English. My spelling problem threatens things central to my identity, and the business world doesn’t care about my handicaps.  It just measures competence. 
        Jesus, however, collected a crowd that was considered a bunch of lame, leprous, prostituted, tax cheats.  He said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus seems to think that human brokenness precedes real accomplishment.   Christ’s esteem for the least is considered a “scandal” because Christ’s love doesn’t guarantee his followers a decent salary.  In my case, parents prefer English teachers who can spell.
        What do we do for people whose whole life’s work seems shattered by their failure?  How do we value the builder who can no longer work because of injury?  Do we trust that God can use the spiritual director who is having panic attacks? The counselor who has been divorced?  What should we do for a bankrupt financial planner besides suggest a career change?  Can we trust a depressed interior designer to create a happy space?  Can judgmental people, who lack the self-awareness necessary to see how they also violate their own ideals and aspirations, still feel our gracious welcome?

       Do our lives spell grace? 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ressurrection and Plausibility

        Yes, I think Jesus’ tomb was really found empty.
      And, yes, I know dead people usually don’t rise. Rumors of the raising of Lazarus and the widow of Nain’s Son, like the previous stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth’s boy, are as rare in the Bible as today’s own resurrection reports continue to be comparatively rare.
       Yet, when I was in Chiapas, Mexico in 2009 a Presbyterian missionary shared how his experience there had changed what Peter Berger calls this man’s “plausibility structures.” The idea is that relationships and fundamental assumptions tend to make something seem more or less plausible.  This missionary came to trust a village who confirmed a mother’s story about her dead two-year-old being raised to life!  
      This should not be shocking.  Historically such stories have generally seemed quite possible.  They come from a variety of religious traditions, mirroring world-wide archetypal hopes. Earliest Christianity proclaimed that the mythical dying and rising God had entered history. Universal aspirations, written on the collective mind for millennia, were acted out in the history of Israel in a way that unleashed a newly creative power into the world.
      This seems implausible to secular people because of their mechanistic assumptions about the world.  The church needs to listen better to contemporary science, but I think some scientists need to realize that they are using dead metaphors to describe a world which is mysteriously conscious and open to renewal.   Rodney Brooks, a noted MIT scientist, who works in the field of robotics, for instance, thinks that human beings are “biochemical robots.” 
     That’s what I find implausible.  Brooks is a smart guy, but I think he suffers from what is a widespread crisis of imagination that can’t tell human consciousness apart from a robot because it’s been trained to see what is alive and pervaded by consciousness as merely a dead, chemical machine.  Surely at some level Brooks knows his thoughts are more than chemical reactions.   Surely he knows the processes he observes are open to surprise, and that he’s ignoring any testimony that doesn’t give his dead machine-world the last word.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

On False Certainties

       As a minister I hate to admit this: Jesus died of clergy abuse.  
      Preachers in flowing robes put him through a mock trial. Priests “all condemned him as deserving death.” Religious scholars were falsely certain he had blasphemed their Temple.   
       For Jesus’ accusers, the Temple had ceased to be a poetic portal into the Transcendent; it’s architecture no longer thrilled them with visions of mercy.  Rather, the Temple was just a symbol of their rigid dogma which justified their prejudices.  
       Jesus died turning the tables on such religion.  My grandfather never looked more like Jesus than when he stood up to a similar religious bunch by helping a divorced woman they had shunned.  He told me, “It’s a terrifying thing to tell anyone they are not fit for the Kingdom of God.”  I have no doubt the woman my grandfather welcomed had accusers who were as sincere as those who crucified Jesus.  They thought they were preserving the dignity of the church-temple which Jesus said he would rebuild.  Yet, unexamined certitudes like theirs trained people to quit coming to congregations. 

       But leaving church didn’t make Americans more patient.  Shedding the yoke of organized religion didn’t make us nice.  Peter Beinart in a piece in the Atlantic does an analysis that strongly suggests that as we leave the church, believe it or not, we sometimes can become even more abrasive.  On all sides of the political spectrum we now make uncritical and uncompromising demands of other people and institutions with a coarseness which would have shocked my grandfather.   It turns out that abusiveness isn’t caused by church attendance.  The capacity for self-righteousness runs deep within us all.  And, since nobody lives without making moral claims, can we be so sure that being part of a community which scrutinizes moral inquiry is a narrow thing?  Believing their Lord was killed by toxic religion might produce a church full of mercy. Is it possible a faith community might even serve as a check on the very meanness so many of us thought we were leaving when we quit church?

Friday, March 31, 2017


      Players who keep hitting impossible shots during March Madness occasionally speak of being “in the zone.”  Ever wondered what that “zone” actually is?
      Last month my friend, Sam, told me he’d inexplicably dreamed of Carnival in Rio.   The next morning on a whim he decided to google Carnival, and he discovered it started that very morning.  I’m not a math wizard, but I think the chances of this happening at random are 365 to 1.   
       Late in 1998 my wife and I prayerfully decided to adopt a child.  The next morning I received an email from Families Thru International Adoption, and our middle daughter is the rest of the story.
       Carl Jung described this spectacular timing of dreams and events as “synchronicity.” I do not know how to calculate the likelihood of the perfect timing of emails.  But this synchronicity is such a widespread phenomenon as to suggest the world is alive with a mysterious providence. 
       The famous theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg was raised as an atheist under the Nazi regime. Yet, at age 16, as World War II was nearing its end, he had a life-changing experience walking home from a piano lesson:
“The sun was setting, and, though I had experienced many sunsets before, there was a moment when there was no difference between myself and the light surrounding me. This is not easy to describe…  It made me think. It opened me to the mystery of reality.”
        Dreams, synchronous events, the feeling of being united to light—such things beg for attention. When I was ten my Dad stood over a 35 foot golf putt.  He looked up at me, saying, “I’m going to make it.”   As the ball dropped in the cup he began talking about this mysterious sense of alignment and confidence that occasionally overtook him.
        Such things fire my imagination.  Others ignore my friend’s dream, my daughter’s adoption story, and Pannenberg’s vision. They can stand on the green with my father or watch athletes perform at inexplicable levels and repeatedly have nothing more to say besides, “Lucky shot.”

        I wonder if they are bored.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Post-Election Missionaries

     Ours is a  missionary calling.  Members Christ's body are sent into the world as aliens and ambassadors to a foreign culture. (Php 3:20; 2 Cor 5:20; 1 Pet 2:11) Let me state this negatively.  We are not primarily administrators of Caesars domain.  As most people in my subculture know, the church is not a co-dependent arm of pan-theistic governing powers who stir up the mob with the promise of bread and circus.  The handouts these powers impersonally offer shame their recipients and support a vicious bureaucracy which is a cruel substitute for real covenantal presence in and with the poor.   We get it, even if a large percentage of the country does not. 

         Yet, neither is the one true and universal Church of Christ a mob supporting a coercive insurgency—even if that pagan insurgency pretends to champion some of our values, and it won big yesterday.  Jesus is not Bar Kokhba trying to throw off the Roman establishment and make God’s chosen nation great again.  At the same time, Jesus is most certainly not Constantine, who in a fragmenting world, chooses to double down on the resentments of a culturally-Christian minority in order to prop up a newer version of an outdated regime. The results of yesterday suggest that that gig may be over, anyway.
        Again, primitive Christianity, if consumer religion will let us be interested in such a thing, insists that Christians are foreigners. The point is not merely that our greatest loyalties ought not to lie with the host culture.   Our primary function is to be an embassy representing a different Kingdom.   The point is that even if Christians are granted the rights of Roman citizenship, our political engagement must be entered into as if we are missionary diplomats, guests of Caesar’s regime, making sensitive suggestions about how to love and die for saint and sinner alike.  The church stands as an alternative temple to competitive politics, exhibiting the power of personal engagement and deferential love.   This bears witness to the lordship of the true King of all ethnicities who is busy, himself, personally welcoming the stranger, personally coaching the poor, empowering men and honoring women, healing the sick, renouncing coercion, and freeing the addicted of every nation.  Christian politicians, if that expression is not an oxymoron and an abandonment of our ambassadorial role, must seek the flourishing of the whole rather than agitate stronger factions who intend to stick it to the other sides.

      This ought to be basic ecclesiology.  But for those of us raised in the lap of Pharaoh, it’s hard to stop defending our position as the sons of Pharaoh’s daughter, and become a powerless ambassador for a nation of slaves.    

Friday, July 31, 2015

Trinitarian Love Beneath as well as Within the Rock

This article appeared in this past Sunday's Indianapolis Star.

      Percy B. Shelley in his poem, Mont Blanc, writes, “Thou hast a voice, Great Mountain, to repeal large codes of fraud and woe…”  With such faith I’m off to summit Mount Shasta in California.  Summer is a time for such things.  It’s a time for visiting a National Park, walking in the woods, or simply resting by the local creek.  We speak of such a time as a “get-away” with a kind of escapist excitement.  William Wordsworth, for instance, admitted that as a younger person he would climb the hills above Tintern Abbey, “more like a man flying from something he dreads, than one who sought the thing he loved…”  We need to escape the technical demands of contemporary life even though we may not always have the courage to leave the cell phone at home.  “Retreats” help us attend to our deepest selves.
        Yet, Wordsworth’s mountain-climbing became a way of actively seeking in nature “the thing he loved.”  The word “recreation,” suggests that we might be “re-created” while at leisure. Many religious traditions testify to a restorative experience of our own smallness in nature that cuts against the narcissistic grain of our age.  George Hartzog, the former director of the National Park Service, suggested this kind of experience can be universal.  He said of being among Sequoia trees, “You can’t stand there, all alone, without understanding there’s a power in the world that is far greater than anything you’ve ever imagined… and that you are connected to that power…”
           Since I was a boy I have felt such power as Van Gogh painted in his hills; I’ve sought to see beyond sensory horizons like the Psalmist, who felt the throb of mountains, “skipping like rams.”   Such poetics point not merely to the Psalmist’s subjective state, but to what is most real in the Mountain--the disturbing Mystery which Wordsworth said was “deeply interfused” within all things.  The Apostle Paul spoke to Athenians, some of whom had built an altar to an unknown numinous presence, when he declared that this God was in fact knowable in Christ: “in him we live and move and have our being.” It is this God that I seek to encounter on the mountain.    
           I know that for many today this personal God, heard about in Sunday-school texts, seems like a flannel-graph reduction of their experience of the sublime.   But if the Divine does not have a personality, then god becomes by default an indifferent and indistinct force, no more predictable than the weather.  This, for me, has always been the real reductionism.  For if God is responsible for our own conscious and relational existence, God must be at least personal.  The God of Trinitarian Mystery is certainly far more than what we can quantify as a knowable personality, but any God responsible for our personal experience cannot be less.  There is a sense within each of us that recoils at the raw and often murderous power of the Mountain.   This raging force renews us about as much as cancer, parasites and childhood disease.  And so I flee to the Mountain, not merely to get away from all the sickness of society—but to connect deeply with the Spirit of Love that mysteriously beats beneath as well as within so many square miles of rock.
      It’s good to make time for such things.