Today, if you hear his voice

Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Category: biblical observations (page 1 of 2)

Bible Verse for When I’m Feeling Down?

Many people turn to the Bible when they don’t know where else to turn. Even my friends who haven’t been to a church meeting in years, or maybe ever, often revere the power of this holy book. That’s one benefit of living in a culturally Christian country. The Bible is everywhere, and that’s not such a bad thing. I think God has done amazing things with the Bible. It’s incredible. I love it, and I would love it if all my friends loved it too. If you’re feeling down, depressed, anxious, grieved, hopeless or tired, the Bible is a great tool. But how do you use it? How does God use it? How can you find some comfort or relief in the Bible?

What are these words going to do?

It’s a tool. It’s not just the words that change you it’s what we (us and God) do with them. If you google the title of this post you will get 100’s of sites with lists like this one. I think that’s a pretty great place to start. But it’s not like just reading through 100 verses will make me feel any better. It might actually make me feel even more discouraged. I might be like “Yeah, I know that this is how it’s supposed to be. But it does not feel like that right now!” And what if it hasn’t felt like that for a long time? What if you have never read the Bible? How are these words supposed to mean anything?

We can’t just cram our head with new thoughts and expect the old ones to fade out. There’s no such thing as “believing enough.” When the darkness of our lives seems to crowd out the light we used to love, words alone are weak. It has been easier for me to do something with the Bible. I need to get it into me as a way to relate to God. I don’t need the Bible. I need God. One way God has used  the Bible to good end with me (and many others) is with a meditative prayer.

Bible mantras

Breathe by McKayla Smitson

I suggest taking just a little bite. Whether you are new to this or coming back for forty-thirds, one way to read the Bible is to breathe it. Sure, start at “100 Bible Verses About When You Feel Down and Out” on google. Or some paper Bibles have suggestions like that in the back. A lot of different passages can work, follow whatever you’re drawn to. If it strikes you it might be the right word for you. All that really matters is that it resonates with you.  Maybe whatever you remember from when you were a kid. John 3:16? “For God so loved the world” ? The Lord’s Prayer? “Our Father in Heaven”?

Slice off a little nub of Bible and chew on it. Make it into a little mantra that you can put on repeat. One of my favorites is from Romans 8:38 “Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.” It’s a mantra if you can breathe it. Breathe in “Nothing can ever separate us.” Breathe out “From the love of God.” When I’m feeling down I need something that does not require me just to change my mind. A Bible mantra is something I can just do. When I’m not in such a tough spot, I keep at the mantra, building a foundation to stand on for when the darkness returns. There’s a recording at wayofjesus.circleofhope.net I made that might help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about.

You’re life is bigger than the Bible

It might seem counter intuitive that taking just a little bite of the Bible actually makes it bigger, but it does. And if you’re like many of the people I know, the Bible needs to be bigger for you. Not like more important but bigger, more expansive, more pervasive. The Bible needs to fill you up and it can’t do that if it’s just a book. It can’t even do that if it’s just better ideas than the ones you have. The Bible is usually too small.

And it’s too small because it’s just a book and you are a human being. You are in possession of a vessel that the creator of the universe chose to use to communicate infinite love to humanity. Jesus had a body a lot like yours. And Jesus’ bodily life couldn’t even fit in any book (John 21:25) let alone his resurrection life that lives to include all of humanity in it. Your bodily life is too big for a book too. It’s hard to even explain everything that happened in one dream you had to anybody else. You feel me?

The quest of the poets is to try to say one true thing about the essence of the human experience, and they’ve spent thousands of years and billions of words trying. One human life is bigger than the Bible. So the Bible needs to be brought into your life to be rightly sized. It fits you by filling you. Breathe it, live it, do it, love it. Then it will be big enough for you when you need it.

This is hard to do of course, especially when your motivation to do anything is sapped, or you’re on the edge, or you’re desperate for relief. Bring the Bible to your breath, or maybe even a song (try out our songs at Circle of Hope Audio Art). Give yourself something to do with the Bible that could be as big as you are.

Just reading, or trying to change your mind by wrestling with the cognitive dissonance doesn’t often do the trick. Try this practice and let me know how it goes. Or if you’re a regular practitioner, fill in what I missed!

 

Jesus Was Really a Stand Up Comedian

I’m not the first to articulate that stand up comedians are some of the most influential people in our culture. They perform the important function of saying what is deemed inappropriate to say. Like the court jester who might be able to speak truth to the king (I’m thinking of the fool in King Lear), stand up comedians find a way to say the most horrible things without being destroyed or destroying others (well, the best ones do). Like the poet who sees the world through different lenses, the stand up comedian sees the world as it is but unencumbered by the fatalism of any notion of things being “just how they are.” He or she brings a novelty to the mundane and often the terrible that makes us laugh. And that laughter feels good. It is a cathartic response to the steamrolling pressure of the status quo — an obstinate refusal to accept things just as they are — a glimpse into another story even if the characters and events are similar to or even exactly the same as the one we usually see. And their stories are punctuated by the glory of shared laughter, breeding a generosity and mutuality that is hardly rivaled elsewhere.

I think Jesus is a stand up comedian more than a preacher. He inspires laughter, breeds generosity and makes his stories about the things we all know, especially if we were actually his contemporaries. He is oh so topical.  His task is not evaluation. It is description. He wants to awaken us to how things are, that we might see it all from a new angle. More than how things should be or even could be, Jesus invites us to see as he sees. That’s where he starts and how it will be in the end.  ” For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” – 1 Corinthians 13 the part that comes after the wedding part.

One of Jesus’ best bits

Here’s an example from the Sermon on the Mount “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23)

When Jesus is talking you might be tempted to default to your evaluation. Am I healthy or unhealthy? Light or dark? Did I do it right or wrong. Religion has corralled the conversation into moralism for too long for us to do anything else. So don’t feel bad about that if that’s where you always go like the rest of us. The alternative path is to see with Jesus what he’s seeing — to be in on the joke — so to speak. What he’s saying is so true you might just have to laugh, but it’s couched in some old stuff that might be a little confounding. let’s unpack it a little.

We project what’s on the inside

Doesn’t this make sense? The eye is the lamp of the body. We project what’s inside out onto the world. Our perspective matters in how we perceive. If you’re dark on the inside, the world is going to look dark to you. Ancient thinking about how light works actually corresponded to this. Some thought that light came out in a beam from the eyes as opposed to entering it from an outside source. We know a lot more about the physics of light now, but the old thinking adds to the validity of Jesus’ description. Healthy, generous, abundant, enoughed eyes see the world differently than unhealthy, stingy, divided, never enough eyes.

You might be tempted to hear, “Get your eyes right, okay? — Don’t have bad eyes.” But, remember, Jesus is really just making an observation. These words that get translated as “healthy” and “unhealthy” also have the connotation of “generous” and “stingy.” This sense of the word is amplified by the surrounding illustrations in Matthew 6. Just before this little reflection on eyes Jesus is observing that our heart and treasure are located in the same place. “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also.” And just after, he is observing that “you can’t serve both God and money.” It’s a whole little section on generosity and sharing in Jesus’ biggest special (😉).

Enough isn’t always enough

The fact is, our sense of security and value so easily comes from wealth. It is very easy to go to material goods for comfort and relief because they so concretely provide comfort and relief, but if we are dependent on things we can lose our basic sense of safety and self worth. We are in a very precarious position because our basic sense of enough is dependent upon external circumstances. There’s no moral lesson here at all. If you are enoughed by money you will organize around keeping it, plain and simple. If your sense of enoughness comes from material possessions they will begin to possess you, like a master. And how we choose to see the world affects our experience of it. If our eyes are enoughed, there will be enough.

Receive the invitation to see how you work without judgment. Step around the evaluative first instinct. See with Jesus, have a laugh about it and gently make the moves you need to make the changes you know will make a difference — in your seeing and sharing.

Epiphany in Not New Words

Washed by Jan L. Richardson paintedprayerbook.com

There’s this amazing moment in the gospels when Jesus comes up out of the water after John baptizes him and heaven is torn open. The veil between this world and another world is lifted. Such a glimpse beyond the ordinary is an epiphany — a strike of lightning pulsing with inspiration, clarity or God.  From the ripped seam in the sky above Jesus in the water something like a dove descends to alight upon him. And then a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 

Last week when we were celebrating Epiphany I heard another translation of this voice from heaven that struck me as its own epiphany. I caught a glimmer of that shimmering dove and heard the voice afresh in my own ears . “This is my beloved son in whom I delight.”  Not too much of a difference, really, but this new language opened a sort of lock in my heart that let the water flow to a new level. I had probably heard this translation before, but something new happened this time, so I had to write it down.

The various translation of the verb eudokeō εὐδοκέω are the operative elements of my epiphany. Is it “with him I am well pleased” or “in whom I delight”? A beautiful thing about language, and especially Greek, is that it’s both! What we say and what we communicate are two things entirely. That which we hear travels through our hearts and histories before it comes to our comprehension. That which we say can never anticipate the circuitous route between every set of ears and the mind of their owner. Layers and layers of meaning pile up in each individual, and in the collective mind of any one people group. The process of translation brings these often unconscious trails to brighter light.

Malcolm Guite
malcolmguite.wordpress.com

It was in the words of a poet whom I love, Malcolm Guite (in him I delight), that I had this great experience with an ever so slight shift in linguistic direction. Poets spend their lives searching for new paths of meaning in ordinary words and experiences. They specialize in epiphanies. And though these new words were not his nor really new, I credit his trustworthy tongue (it was his mouth in which the newness of these words were found by me).  At least a few translations of the New Testament land on delight for eudokeō (Weymouth, Darby and Young’s) and Malcolm had found them for me!

“I am well pleased” is but two steps to the left or right of “I delight”, but the difference was significant to me.  I grew up with the New International Version translation of the Bible — not for any particular reason, but for the “Thinline” NIV edition embossed with my name in gold letters that my parents gave me when I was twelve. I had read the story so many times that “in whom I am well pleased” had worked its way into my heart track. Partly thus, “pleasing” and “being pleased” are part of the ground on which I stand whenever I cast my eyes to the sky in search of seams that might shutter with heavenly light from other worlds, and words of love from any heavenly father.

There are many reasons “pleasing” and “being pleased” are elemental to my psychological make up, and I haven’t identified all of them yet, but I have definitely observed this pattern of thought and heart when I relate to God. Are you pleased with me, father? Am I pleased with what you have given me, Dad? Have I done all that is required of me? Am I satisfied with this moment? These questions often come to mind when I try to settle into God’s presence, or whenever I am prompted to consider the state of my soul (Every time we gather, following after Wesley and his Holy Club, the pastors in Circle of Hope ask each other “What is the state of your soul?”). It seems I always aim to please and I’m always hoping to please myself and for my life to please me. My mind and heart are stuck on a hook of evaluation. Is this good enough? Am I good enough? I know some of you feel me on this.

But delight! “Delight” is different than “please.” I mean, not really too much though. “Please” and “delight” both have to do with pleasure or desire, but for the twists and turns that “please” took through the English language and the tiny part my life played in the meaning of the word, “please” has acquired an air of approbation resultant from evaluation. That gets me on that same evaluative hook. Please, no.

“Delight” is more effusive — more joyous. Jesus himself delights the Father. I, myself, delight the Father. Something about Jesus and me (and you) is so beautiful and lovely that just the sight of us brings a smile to heaven’s lips. God really likes Jesus, not for what he has done (which by the way is nothing of much import at least to the gospel writers at this point in their stories save being born and maybe learning scripture), but for who he is. I’m sure “I please God” could be trying to get at the same thing, but “God delights in me” is so much better. Plus it is something God is doing, not me, which sounds right. God’s delight is not dependent on me. That frees me up to be and do my best even more than the striving for satisfaction that often drives me.

May you have an epiphany today — in a poem, a new reading of the gospel, a pile of snowflakes, a shimmering sky, a fantastic melody, a good cry, a sincere prayer, your child’s tears, a winter landscape, a soapy dish, the perfect bite, a warm bed.  Pay attention. Look again. See. Hear. Delight.

People are better than ideas

People change people, much more than ideas do. The best way to bridge divides is bringing people who are different form one another together in love. An idea is a powerful tool but it is limited, I think, to political power. Jesus was most interested in people’s allegiance to him as a person not to his ideas. He was not creating a political movement, he was creating a Jesus movement. He himself was at the center of it, and he still is.

Jesus ‘ plan was to be with us

That’s why I hate the term “biblical principles.” It is a reduction of Jesus’ personhood to ideas, and that was not his purpose in becoming a human being as far as I can tell. He wanted a relationship. He wanted us to rely on him for who we are and what we think. he wanted to renew our minds and transform our thinking. He does this as a person. He expected to be with us always, and he is.  When he was with people in a more immediate sense, walking around ancient Palestine, he was always trying to undo ideas that were too concrete. He confounded people on purpose. He refused to weigh in on the established debates. Here’s an example from Mark 12:

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?”

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

And they were amazed at him.

And they were amazed at him

Folks have been wondering what exactly Jesus meant ever since. We are still amazed, confounded, perplexed. Jesus’ inherent answer is, “I am doing something deeper than Caesar and his Empire. I am God’s. You are mine if you are with me. And then we all belong to God.” In John 18, he says to Pilate,

“My kingdom is not of this world” and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Jesus wanted us to know that he is it.  Jesus, himself is the solution. I believe this, but I am still wondering with Pilate, “What are you talking about, Jesus?” I think that’s right where Jesus wants me to land.

This amazement points me toward another way. It leads me to reject simple answers and almost every binary. Many of the ideas we still hold dear are at least as old as the gospels, and they have always been unsatisfactory. Jesus thinks we know this, deep down, and he’s still doing everything he can to wake us up to that dissatisfaction. To his disciples in John 14 Jesus says,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

The world gives you coins with emperors’ faces on them who deliver “peace” through war, “law and order” through militarized police with not enough accountability. Our money today ironically says “In God we trust” on the back of portraits of our dead emperors. Jesus does not confront these emperors the way the world does. His peace comes through another way. He offers us himself. His resurrected body that was once killed for the kind of peace the world gives.

Jesus undoes our debates

This is a hard teaching still, because we are still afraid. For the most part, conventional wisdom teaches us that to not fear is to be a fool. Paul has something to say about that in 1 Corinthians 3 but you can follow up on that later. Jesus’ peace comes in the form of question marks behind the assumptions that have define who we are. This side or that side. Up or down. Left or right. Safe or in danger. Jesus undoes our debates and asks better questions. Our worldly identities are only as real as the world makes them. Let us let Jesus define us. Let us attempt to answer his questions which will most likely end in amazement. And in our confusion — in our “I don’t know” — in the wonderful wake of another Jesus zinger, let us be content to be next to him. This will change us.

His answers didn’t satisfy many of the established sides of his day. He is the solution, himself, and that looks different for different people in different contexts. We bring that wonder and that expectation of fresh answers to our own time and place, to each of our relationships. the goal is being next to Jesus together. The truth is a person who is available here and now. Paul kept going with this single minded flexibility throughout his evangelical efforts. He would literally say one thing to one group and another thing to another group (This post on wayofjesus.circleofhope.net gets at how we imagine following his footsteps as we do theology in our context). Paul wanted people to get next to Jesus and then see what happens. The presumption is that Holy Spirit is actually alive and active convincing people. Jesus is present and he will make more of a difference if we let him than we often give him credit for.

Let’s be together next to Jesus and see what he does next

So our goal is to keep people together, especially people who are different form one another. Teaching dialogue and speaking the truth in love is the work we must do. You actually have to love the person you disagree with. You have to have a strategy for their transformation, not winning the argument. I am still learning to do this in every situation, but I have already seen it work, so I persist.

The folks who are stuck in a talking point, stirred up to follow their worst instincts by a corporate media machine need to prejudice their togetherness in Christ over their ideas. We die to those allegiances to follow Christ. The most practical way to do it is to love a real person. That media machine, which a friend of mine recently described as a means of demon possession, is designed solely for making money — not for truth or love or even solving the worlds problems. My hope is in creating a viable alternative to those lucrative lies. To do this I trust Jesus among us to do miracles in our relationships. I am banking on his living presence to move people where they need to go. I don’t think we will ever have worldly power over the machines (media, military, politics) but I think we already are an alternative to that power. The church is oriented around a deeper power that we can rest assured will triumph in the end. For now, we are faithful to it — to Him — and persevere even if it often seems to be failing. We lead people to claim the freedom Jesus gives us over those machine powers. It doesn’t always look like it is working. It’s like yeast or a seed — as Jesus said — unseen expansion, underground growth.

Our personal relationships are the foundation of our prophecy

I don’t think this means we ignore those machine powers. This is not a push toward individuality. Our love for neighbor compels us to speak. Those we will never know still matter to us and our voice may help. We address evil in the world with our prophecy in creative ways. We ally with movements that seem to be the best options for the poor and the oppressed. We mock the powers with subversive alternatives. We tell the war machine to stop killing in our name. But we create at least as much as we tear down. We must have a real alternative from which we speak. We must be already doing in micro what we call for in macro. I believe we have that place to stand together with Jesus. We are making an environment where it is safe to lay down the burden of being right all the time. We kindle a fire of bewilderment that opens us up to new possibilities. Our new vision gives us more imagination, offering us insight into better criticism of the powers, asking those better questions that Jesus loves. But our first work is being the alternative, making love and discipleship happen, building a foundation of intimacy with the living Lord that incites those open hearts that can see a different world and bring it closer to fruition with different questions. If we don’t share the best thing we have with those immediately around us, why would we share anything with those beyond?

A Paean to “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” on Netflix

They Cancelled This Show in 2015
…but I Just Found Out

When NBC cancelled A.D. The Bible Continues, I had no idea it was a thing, but now, three years later, I’m heartbroken. Now I have watched all 12 episodes of A.D. Kingdom and Empire (it got renamed for it’s Netflix Release) and I am very sad that the Roma Downey and Mark Burnett produced adaptation of the book of Acts is not continuing.

So this is my eulogy for “A.D. Kingdom and Empire” AKA “A.D. The Bible Continues” and my contribution to the googleverse in hopes of a reboot some day soon, and a motivational essay to read the book of Acts again this week. If you live in the Philadelphia area, come live it with us in Circle of Hope.

Peter praying to stay the Holy Spirit’s hand

The Holy Spirit is No Joke

In Acts 5 we find the troubling story of Ananias (Peter De Jersey) and Sapphira (Indra Ové) who held back some of the money they got from selling their house but said that they gave it all to the newly born church. In A.D. Kingdom and Empire blood comes out of their eyes and they die for lying to the Holy Spirit in a very scary scene. How could any TV producer skip such a gruesome moment in history? Acts 5:11 says “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

Um… yeah! Great fear seized me when I first heard this story, too. If I’m honest, there’s still a tinge of fear in me as I reflect on it now. The Holy Spirit is no joke. God was trying to do something that required the utmost seriousness. The new movement was not for spiritual tourists who could move on to what’s next after the high wore off. This movement could not peter out (poor Peter!). If the Church of Jesus’ first followers didn’t survive, thrive and bust out of the confines of Jerusalem, God’s plan would not have happened. Desperate times call for desperate measures, it seems — even the confounding sudden death of two would-be-followers. The way this story is portrayed in the show brings the immediacy and the meagerness of the movement to light in a compelling way. Peter (Adam Levy) gets why they are dying but he is freaked out, too. I love the confusion that streaks through the faces of the main characters. They are not yet saints, wise in their remote spaces in history. They are living, failing, God-trusting people just like us. In a later episode of the show, the Holy Spirit almost kills Simon Magus (Stephen Walterswho tries to pay Peter for the Holy Spirit but Peter begs God in the thundercloud to spare the foolish new disciple. It didn’t happen just like that in Acts, but it made for good TV, and it communicated the live-wire wildness of the moment.

Procla, Pilate’s wife (as the story goes), is a Saint in the Greek Orthodox Church

The Resurrection Had Political Consequences

Four of the main characters of the show are Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan), his wife Claudia (Joanne Whalley), Caiaphas (Richard Coyle), the high priest, and his wife, Leah (Jodhi May). They are not just the evil ones, they are real people with real pressures of their own. Each are tempted to believe in Jesus’ resurrection, especially Claudia and Caiaphas. The political intrigue is not historically accurate, but it could have been! How would the Jesus movement know that Pilate’s wife had dreams about Jesus (as in Matthew 27:19) if she did not one day become a Christian and tell them her story?

From Wikipedia: “In the 3rd century, Origen suggested in his Homilies on Matthew that the wife of Pilate had become a Christian,or at least that God sent her the dream mentioned by Matthew so that she would convert. This interpretation was shared by several theologians of Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The apocryphal Letter of Pilate to Herod, dating from around the 3rd–4th century, names Pilate’s wife as Procla and connects to the story of Matthew 27:19.”

The show writers had a lot of opportunities to incorporate other legends and speculations from the early church but didn’t do so, however, they did take the opportunity to highlight the political consequences of the resurrection. Jesus disrupted the political potentates of his day, and he continues to do so. The power to kill is the source of all political power. When you boil it down, that’s it. The state’s ability to kill and the permission the people give it to kill is the only real ultimatum. Violence is the source of state power. Read the first two chapters of William Cavanaugh’s book “Migrations of the Holy” if you need to be convinced of this. There are other places to find this argument too. But, for now, it suffices to say that the foundation of any governmental power is death. And if Jesus rose form the dead then he is not subject to any power. Pilate and Caiaphas, and Claudia and Leah, as portrayed in the show, are obviously threatened by this. How we respond to Jesus’ anarchic resurrection will dictate how we relate to government. Are we subjects of the Kingdom or the empire(s)?

Chipo Chung as Mary Magdalene

They Don’t Know What They’re Doing Either (But the Women Knew Better)

After Jesus’ death, the disciples have no idea what to do. Only Mary, Jesus’ mother (Greta Scacchi), remembers what Jesus said. She is stone-faced and sad after watching her son die but she refuses to give up as many of the men are doing. She is waiting for the third day. Mary Magdalene (played by Chipo Chung), who is the first apostle of the resurrection in the Bible, also gets her proper place in the show. She sees Jesus, and we get to see her as one of the most important characters in the show (because she IS one of the most important people in history). The men defer to her, she makes converts, and she’s always part of the dialogue about what they need to do. Twelve disciples would be too many characters for drama so only a few disciples are dramatized. It’s unclear what happened to the rest of the twelve in the show, but Mary Magdalene takes one of their places.

They muddle through the amazing things that happen. From the resurrection, to Pentecost, to persecution, to new believers who aren’t Jewish, they are stumbling through an incredibly disorienting ordeal. Can you imagine what it would be like? I can, but not so well as they creators of this show have done for us!

It is helpful to read through scripture with our imaginations. What was it like? What were the smells? What did you see? How did you feel? Art like this show, all the many, many paintings, and the other films that were made about these stories from the Bible help us feel our way into the story even more. John, the Beloved disciple, may always be a slow to speak, dark skinned African man (Babou Ceesay) in my imagination. And I am forever grateful for that. 

I need to feel my way through these stories and find myself in them because reading the Bible at a distance just doesn’t work. The point of reading the Bible is to relate to Jesus and find myself in his story. Art helps me do that. It will help you, too, especially when the artists assume that these people in the Bible were a lot like us. We don’t know what we’re doing a lot of the time either.

“The Road To Damascus” Episode 108 — Pictured: Joe Dixon as Phillip

Those Baptisms Though

The formula for baptism in the show is backwards into the water for like a three second count — in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is a good ritual! I love that they stay underwater for as long as they do because it is really symbolic of the death they are dying with Christ. When we baptize people in Circle of Hope we do it three times, bowing forward in submission to Christ. Some folks I have baptized are pretty scared about going under, and I assure them that is the point. We are going through death with Christ and coming out on the other side with him. Staying under, though? Holding your breath for a moment until you get pulled up? That is pretty cool.

Paul wrote in Romans 6:3-5

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

This show gets that. These early Christians were serious about what Paul said even before he wrote it. Paul codified the ritual in Romans but it meant something before he said that. It meant death and resurrection, and you can SEE that in the show, even if it isn’t said. That is what ritual is all about. It is an enacted truth that often goes deeper and truer than words ever can.

Saul was initially devastated by Jesus’ appearance to him.

Paul Really Was a Badass from the Start

When Saul has his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus in the show I was unimpressed. Unfortunately I’m not a huge fan of how they portray Jesus in the show at all. But the aftermath of the encounter was awesome. Saul’s agony and redemption mediated by someone who isn’t sure of what they saw (it was an Angel — who is also totally badass). Then Saul comes back to the disciples in Jerusalem and demands forgiveness.

Peter and Saul have a one-on-one conversation. Saul is under tons of suspicion. He is trying to make Peter and the disciples trust him but Peter is slow to do so. Saul says to Peter,

“This is all a bit ridiculous, surely. I know what I’ve done, Peter, but listening to you all downstairs it’s like you had forgot that Jesus taught you forgiveness. I mean you lived with him — you know his message — so, so, sorry but I’m confused.” Saul of Tarsus got swagger! And that is why God chose him! I love how Emmett J Scanlan gets that across in his Irish brogue. Saul’s confidence, his arrogance even, was what God needed! You might have something in you that doesn’t seem like a gift. You might have done things that are hard to forgive. You too are chosen by God for a purpose. And a lot of what you see as useless, God can use. You might not receive such a direct address from Jesus as Saul did, but if you listen you will know.

In Conclusion, Bring it Back For Season Two!

I could go on and on about this show (and I already have), but please, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey of Lightworkers Entertainment, please bring back this show! I hear you’re working on an end times story instead. No thanks. I want more of these characters and the imaginative plot twists that your writers have supplied already. What if the stories of all these unsung heroes really did weave together in this way? Some of my Christian counterpoints are up in arms that you did not “stick to the Bible.” To them I say “p’sha.” You got it. No, it was not exact, but you got it. If they demand some fastidious recreation of only what is in the text 1) it’s bad TV, bad drama, bad art and 2) they are just way too uptight. Jesus likes this show, mkay? Well, I guess he’ll tell us whether or not he does some day, but I really, really like this show, mkay? So can we get a Season Two of A.D Kingdom and Empire? Lord, hear our prayer.

And if you made it this far, you must like to read. So keep reading. Read the book of Acts. Imagine, pray and listen right through the whole epic story. We’re living the 29th Chapter.

The Gospel Must Begin with Love

Where does your gospel start?

The gospel does not begin with condemnation. It begins with God’s love. Why then do I know so many people who really want me to condemn them and the people they know? I have been accused as a pastor of not enforcing the rules effectively. They tell me I let people get away with a lot of stuff. As a pastor I do want to help people see their sins but I do not believe this is my primary purpose as an evangelist. In fact, I think the over emphasis on condemnation among Christians is one of my biggest challenges as an evangelist. Ask an average American who doesn’t regularly attend church what they think of Christians and “condemnation” tops the list. I’ve heard that Christianity’s main tenets are 1) hatred of gay people, 2) hypocrisy and 3) condemnation. Christians make people feel bad way too often (and they take pride in it). Why did we decide it was our job to tell people they are wrong? I take a more, shall we say, patient approach. Like the Mississippi, start small, it’s all downhill to the Gulf of Mexico, if you’ve started flowing with the Spirit. We are going to make it. God is going to move. And that’s not up to us.

Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

There is a strong segment of the Church that spends most of their time being barely saved from their sins. The sweetness of their salvation is mostly confined to Christ’s gruesome death on the cross as their atoning sacrifice. They are unworthy of such a gift, and they are happy that God gave it to them anyway. No falsehood in that narrative — Romans 5:8 “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” But why must we sing about it ad nauseum every week? Why is it gospel (Good News) that I am bad?

I think we find perverse comfort in being incapable. I understand this personally. I really thrive when I’m given an assignment. The threat of a bad grade (now given only in my imagination) motivates me more than I would like. My internal motivation ascends as my need for external confirmation and reassurance descends. Do you feel me on this? Isn’t it comfortable not to have any agency? Wouldn’t it be nice to be a kid again and just do what you’re told? In the Church, when it comes to spiritual matters, this often happens. We are encouraged to get in line behind someone else and think the way he (it’s usually a he) does. Some rebels resist this for their own gratification, but I say we must resist it so we can actually enjoy God.

We don’t have to to be so weak that the best we can do is not go to hell.

Some theologians codified it as “utter depravity.” Even after I have a life altering experience with Jesus and decide to follow him, I cannot help but do evil. Sticking in Romans, Paul describes his experience with sin in Chapter 7. He knows what he really wants to do, but there are other desires in him that also have pull. He is aware of the struggle and spends much of his time in all of his letters trying to help his people turn to their deepest desire to follow Jesus — to live as a new creation, to live out of your love for God.

I think Paul believes that we can do this (with God’s help of course). He does not end his argument in chapter 7. “O wretched man that I am (Romans 7:24) is not the end. Only a few verses later in Romans 8:1-2, he takes it a step further saying “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Paul notices the duality inside himself, as I am sure many of you have noticed inside yourselves, but then goes on to declare that one side of the duality has surely won. Christ has the victory inside you, over your sin and death.

It’s bigger than just that one verse

We have a problem with how we often read the Bible. We might pluck out Romans 7:24 to support our argument for feeling bad about ourselves, when in fact Romans 1-8 is one sweeping argument that culminates in the final verses (which you ought to memorize)

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” — Romans 8:37-39

Through Him who loved us

My Gospel starts with God’s love. Yes, I am a sinner, but I am also a saint. Jesus is winning inside of me. I’m getting better. I am not stuck. When I mess up, my friends and partners forgive me and God makes something good out of the best we can muster together. My approach as a pastor is to get people into a relationship with Jesus so he can win in them too. And I trust that he will, as I have seen him do it before, many times! Get into the Body, be with God’s people, use the faith you have and Jesus will help you figure out what to do. I don’t want to be another man you get behind to escape your God given capacity. You can choose what’s best as you listen to the Holy Spirit. I do not want to control your behavior. I want to create an environment in which we have a common project of transformation, and behavior control will inevitably come with that. I give you what I’ve got, my love, and a community that I help keep together which is founded on that love.

 

 

What is the Bible IMHO

The Bible is the story of God’s people and how God has related to them for thousands of years. It is a testament to the work of God in the world throughout time but especially of the people of Israel and we who are grafted into it. It is written by witnesses of God’s work. It is not directly God’s work. God took interest in how the Bible was compiled but the evidence of the complex process all of the texts we now consider sacred have been through is compelling enough for me to conclude that God was channeling a flash flood more than filling a pitcher of water.

The multitude of experiences and perspectives shared in the Bible splash together in a muddy roar. It is not neat. Oral traditions cross with historical revisions for consolidation of power. Theological points subvert chronology. Poetry paints in brush strokes later analyzed with magnifying glasses for new subtext. It’s a mess—but a beautiful mess. The Holy Spirit breathes through it all because those who wrote it were breathing with the Holy Spirit. I choose to trust that the Holy Spirit is satisfied with the finished product as we have codified it, but I have no reason to believe it is complete. It doesn’t need to be exhaustive because the Holy Spirit is still at work in us and we can gain new insight. I don’t think the Holy Spirit will contradict the Bible, however, because God is too invested in this book. It is too useful in binding us together and preserving the wisdom and action of God.

It is rich enough to return to for a lifetime of study and application. But it is a book—the Bible says nothing. God speaks and the Bible testifies. Jesus speaks, and Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record it. Paul writes. Peter writes. John writes. And so on and so on. The Holy Spirit makes these recorded words alive to us by speaking through them. We don’t have a a dead book that has all the answers. Our book is enlivened by the One who has written the universe. It does not stand alone but God stands by it.

The authorship and compilation of what we call the New Testament is much more reliable as a historical document than what we call the Old Testament, and in their class the New Testament writings are fairly trustworthy even historiographically. This is a nice little feather in our cap of faith because the stories of the New Testament inform our understanding of the Old–the central story being that of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Because the New Testament is written Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord, it carries extra weight for those of us who are reading it to gain insight into our life of discipleship to our Lord. Paul famously said in I Corinthians that we see through a glass darkly; the glass was even darker before Jesus.

This is so because Jesus is the full revelation of God. Anyone who has seen him has seen the Father (John 14). He redefines and re-centers the whole conversation about God’s action in the world. Behold he is the new thing! And so we read all of scripture with Jesus as our lens. The logic follows: if Jesus and the Old Testament seem to be at odds, then we need to redefine what’s going on in the Old Testament. The narrative needs to be re-interpreted. Terry Brensinger wrote a great analysis of violence in the Old Testament that demonstrates this sort of interpretation brilliantly.

But the interpretation of scripture as a project is important primarily for the personal and communal instruction of the Church. Reading scripture is not about knowing only in the cognitive sense, though that is useful, it is about knowing in the intimate sense. It is a way for us to commune with God and be transformed by the stories that God has helped preserve for us. The Holy Spirit uses scripture to form us into the agents we need to be to continue the story and to include others in the flood.

Jesus is always messing things up

Disruption is the norm for anyone who is following Jesus. He will eventually disrupt any of the plans we make without him.

Source: Jesus is always messing things up

Three Ways to Find Refuge and Safety

When we live out of the promises like this one, we will be a part of creating the refuge and safety for others, even if it’s in very tiny ways.

Source: Three Ways to Find Refuge and Safety

The Popacalypse, Canon Law and Belonging to Jesus

The Pope is coming to town here in Philadelphia and with it he is bringing a bunch of speculation on canon law and whether the Catholic church will change to reflect our evolving cultural values. Recently he announced a year of mercy that extended the capacity to absolve women of the sin of abortion from bishops and their special designees to all priests all over the world. The media heard the word “abortion” and put it on blast. They thought maybe the Pope was going to come out in favor of Roe v. Wade. In actuality this was a technical expansion of the rights of priests to extend the absolution of God to people more conveniently. Without this measure women still marked with ritual uncleanliness would have to submit a claim of sorts to the bishop whom they didn’t even know. What the what?

As far as Popes go, Francis is a great one. But he is still head of the Catholic church which is built on a system that adjudicates the absolution of people based on 1752 canon laws. The media likes the Pope. They like the frenzy of 4 million people in Philly, but they treat his faith as an artifact. And why shouldn’t they? Whatever piety the pontiff has is shrouded in that system of laws that undermines the gospel which inspires it. Building and maintaining a system of laws make’s what Paul says in Romans 7 sound ridiculous. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” Do we belong to Jesus, the other who was raised form the dead, or do we belong to the law? I think Francis belongs to Jesus. I think many Catholics do too, but I think the church is built on an anti-gospel law that breeds a lot of law abiding citizens who never get to belong to Jesus.

On Monday night at the cell leader training, Jonny Rashid, one of our pastors, reminded us of Circle of Hope’s proverb, “One doesn’t need to be smart or completely trained to be a fulfilled Christian.” We need to say this a lot more because we all seem to be idealists who cannot live up to our own expectations. I certainly am prone to an “all or nothing” mentality that is self-defeating a lot of the time. So hear it again in a different way: We don’t need to live up to a perfect law to belong to Jesus. We need to say this a lot because the Catholics aren’t the only ones who are producing law abiding citizens. My “all or nothing” mentality is another law that often stands in opposition to belonging to Jesus.

My “all or nothing” process isn’t unique either. I don’t know how often I hear my friends say that they are uncomfortable telling someone about their belonging to Jesus because they fear that they don’t live up to Jesus’ standards. I think they don’t live up to their own vague ideas of what they think Jesus might be thinking of them. The legacy of canon law mixes in our collective understanding with all the other laws of the land- from Roe v. Wade, to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. There are so many laws and rules and regulations! A result of this is what our pastor, Rod White, described in his dissertation as “The Great Other.” We all live an atmosphere dominated by huge unknown forces that seem to demand huge responses. There is a glut of information about the calamities of our age, and the shortcomings of the church and its leaders over the years. Many individual Christians take this collection of sins on the chin. Everyone knows how much you suck and the “Great Other” threatens to highlight that fact yet again. One of the patent responses to the hugeness of this problem is staying in your lane and finding very specific places in which we can claim some level of expertise. For example I might say, “I can’t deal with all that big stuff, but if you want to know about 21st century cat memes I have a blog about them and I think I’ve seen all the ones that have legitimately achieved viral status.”

The problem is that Jesus is not interested in expertise. We can’t use that method of security. Expertise is just another law that is thrown in the mix. But one does not become an expert in Jesus. One can become an expert on canon law which is why it is so comforting for so many people. It is manageable. It stands up to the vagueness that plagues us. But Jesus wants us to belong to him. Our faith is not quantifiable. It is story. It is heart song. It is relationship. It doesn’t match up to the law that many people use to protect themselves from this big threat that we have internalized and live by without really knowing it. Jesus, save us from the power of that law. I’m praying that Francis’ big show awakens the region to Jesus despite the interwoven law and that many people end up belonging to Jesus anyway, and hopefully partnering with Circle of Hope.

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