Monthly Archives: February 2012

Reshaping Values

’21 I hate, I despise your festivals,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,

I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

I will not look upon.

23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;

I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

24 But let justice roll down like waters,

and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ (Amos 5:21-24)

I am continually perplexed and dazed at the rapid digression of ‘Election 2012’. I call it digression because of the sense that we are arguing over the same controversial issues of the past 40 years. Abortion, gay rights, individual rights and the societal responsibility all seem to be issues that rise to the surface whenever we are faced as a nation with particular hard decisions that no one wants to make. In this case, deficits, wars and a global recession have led America to an unwillingness to talk about any of those issues and instead focus on ‘values’. (Whatever that means)

Whenever the ‘values’ politicians and issues enter into the public arena, they always seem to bring the Bible and (cue big voice narrator). ‘The Christian Faith’. I mentioned in an earlier blog the problem of the so-called Christian position of these politicians in the face of what Christian tradition actually says. In this week’s blog, I want to bring the Bible into clarity in the face of these so-called values oters and values politicians. Specifically, the Bible is not the uniform and in singular doctrinal (and more relevantly ideological) book that can be counted on as a source for national policy.

The challenge of the 2012 election is to cut through the rhetoric of the ‘values’ argument to get at the root of the argument in our society. At the core of most values arguments in this arena are essentially religious. Opposition to abortion, gay marriage and the support for policies that “strengthen families” are both rooted in Biblical interpretation. The difficulty for persons of faith seems to be the degree to which the ideals of the faith are being assailed, while at the same time being co-opted and redefined. The rhetoric and atmosphere that surrounds certain campaigns is one that is misleading and counter-productive to much of what Christianity stands for. Often, what constitutes the conservative position on some of these issues stands at odds with a critical reading of the Biblical text. Likewise, the liberal and progressive movements are portrayed as solely non-religious or even humanist positions. Let me just say here that I am a values voter, and I believe that every single person that votes is a values voter. Regardless of what party and position they hold, if you cast a vote, you are a values voter!

To begin, the Bible is not a singular document written by one individual who stayed up all night in a monolithic cultural context to offer his/her perspective on all the issues we would talk about in 2012 in the United States. The Bible has multiple worldviews, theologies, and a diversity of opinion that makes it more of a multifold witness to the nature and move of God in the lives of the people compiling the text. Its content and composition span nearly two millennia and intersects nearly a dozen empires that shape world civilizations. Each book is born in unique environmental and contextual situation that it addresses in its own unique way. This perspective does not deaden the power of God communicated in the text, but instead, strengthens my belief that God is speaking in/through/with/ these multiple voices. Same song with diversity in the choir.

All of this is to say that the way we have understood and read our Bibles (particularly in the Protestant tradition) is wholly disconnected from the faith that we say we believe as Christians. The Bible is a religious text with political implications, not a political text with religious inferences. Further, our politics have become so enmeshed in many of our lives that we cease to be recognized as the ‘followers of the way’ that would have gotten us ridiculed and even martyred in the 1st century (or in many countries in the 21st century). Instead, Christianity in this country is the norm to which all others religions are idolatrous or evil. Regardless of the fact that roughly 50% of this nation identifies as Christian practicing, we hold to the rhetoric of being a Christian nation. If that statement is true, then we should be the least willing to make war, the least violent and the most willing to aid the suffering of others. I believe the Christianity which the political climate and the ‘values’ campaigners speak are a cop-opted and undermined Christianity. It isn’t the way of Christ.

I want to offer a different perspective of the relationship of our Christian faith to the culture. This interaction is best viewed through the Biblical worldview of the prophets of Israel. The prophetic texts exemplify a wholesale rejection of the state co-opted religion that is part of the practice of 7th and 8th century Judaism. The prophet’s indictment is levied against the ‘haves’ of the society. The institutional religion and the governing institutions are both maintained by the same upper crusts in the society. The prophet Amos’s charge of hypocrisy and God’s rejection of the worship of Israel is because of the failure of the ‘elites’ to honor the Mosaic code of communal relations and protection. Quite simply: To take care of the widow, the poor and the orphan.

Credit: Los Angeles Times

The point here is this: the continual political practice of thumping Bible verses and Christian ‘orthodoxy’ to motivate ‘values voters’ shouldn’t be enough for us. I don’t want my politicians doing theology because I don’t trust them to arrive at a consistent and reliable (or universally applicable) conclusion. However, I do expect theologians and practitioners to do politics. We as Christians need to engage in the political discourse in the public sphere. That engagement needs to center on what really matters in connection to our faith and society. Ironically, these matters are the same issues that matter to the Biblical prophets: poverty, class and equality.

Let me be clear, I do not expect my president or congressperson to be Christian (or any particular religion). Nor, do I expect my government to be crafted in Christian image (or even a religious one). That is a theocracy and we live in a democracy. Besides, if the president or government was truly Christian, then war could no longer be an option in national policy, the second amendment would have to be repealed, there would no need for banks and economic inequality, and the vanquishing of poverty would be a singular priority. (On second thought, maybe I need to rethink my position!!). I do expect my politicians to be moral and grounded in some sense of social and ethical responsibility to the larger human experience. I don’t expect government to solve all human problems; I expect it to take care of its citizens, all of them. Where government can’t or won’t do, then we fellow citizens (neighbors in Biblical language) assist through direct action. The partnership for a better work in society is government and religious institutions, (church and state), it is the idea that God works through each of us. Here are some values to consider:

If I can help somebody, as I pass along,

If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song,
If I can show somebody, how they’re travelling wrong,
Then my living shall not be in vain.

O, wouldn’t that be a vision of truth….

2 Comments

Filed under 2012 Election, Christianity, Civil Religion, Discipleship, Old Testament, Prophetic Accountability

One Way to the Tomb…

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18, NIV)

 

I had the most interesting conversation with a pastor friend of mine a few weeks ago. The conversation centered on the challenges of preaching to modern congregations while being true to an authentic representation of the Gospel. His frustrations were summed up in his statement, “Jesus don’t preach no more.” He talked about how (while he cannot compromise on the message of the Gospel), preaching Jesus, and him crucified, no longer seems to move people as it once did. This claim is often been explored by theologians, preachers and scholars alike, and the truth is that the central story of the crucifixion and resurrection is no longer received in the same way by congregations.

This conversation gave me pause as to why the current age needing someone preach the cross. The real question is “why I need to preach the cross?” In answering that question, I have to come to grips with the meaning of the cross in the Christian faith and more directly in my life. The cross of Christ is the real crux of Christianity (pun intended). The birth, life and death of Christ is recorded because of the cross. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the cross is the reason for the gospels, the mission and the entire Christian faith. It is the middle move, or “new beginning” in the story of God’s plan for humanity’s redemption.

The cross however, had a more pragmatic meaning in the worldview of the gospels. The cross was a means of corporal punishment and execution. It served a macabre function in the society of first century Palestine. Convicted criminals were hung from its branches until they died and were left in the view of travelers along the road until their bodies rotted. It was used as a deterrent against criminal behavior and was extensively used for the poor and not rich in society. The cross was a place of gore and horrific human carnage. The irony is that Christianity celebrates this object of death and destruction as the means through which God acts on behalf of humanity. How can God use such a clearly horrific human construction as God’s instrument in salvation?

The truth of the matter is that we will never know why God chose the cross; that is indeed the mystery of the faith. Many preachers and theologians make claims of knowing, but I prefer to live with the uneasy mystery of the paradox of the cross: its history as an object of death and its symbol as an emblem for life. We have to live in the knowledge of the bloody history of the cross, yet that is not the end of the story. Since the cross is just a station on the road to salvation, it must be put in its proper place. The cross is the agent of Jesus’ death. Those facts are unavoidable if we believe the witness of the Gospels. The cross serves a function in executing Jesus, and if you believe he had to die as a part of that function, then its purpose has to be seen as part of the larger narrative.

The cross must be preached because of the inherent contradictions it conveys. Because the cross is not the end of the narrative, neither is death in the larger story of salvation. Recognizing that death has a place as the cross has a role, means you put the cross in context in the narrative. God through Jesus Christ dies on a cross and in so doing, the God in Christ identifies with the suffering of humanity and the systems of suffering that are part of human existence. Yet, because we believe there is a continuation to the story, we preach the ending as well; and it ends with an empty tomb. We can never get to that empty tomb without going through that ‘old rugged cross’. Through the cross, Jesus identifies and takes on our suffering and the horror of human domination and oppression. He claims it as His own though he didn’t have to. This act of love changes the meaning of the cross for Christians from not just being a place of punishment, but ironically, also of triumph. Through the light of the tomb, the cross is no longer a place of punishment, but instead a place that reminds us of perpetual victory.

Many of us seek a cross-less tomb that avoids the convicting and horrifying judgment that the cross forces us to confront. This theology is reflected in the Sunday celebrations without the “Good Friday mourning.” But in this day and age of prosperity and an oft watered down Gospel, the message of the cross has been lost on the present generation in the church. Triumph is real and available for those of us under the banner of the cross, but we need to always remember what it took to have the victory over sin, death and the grave. Remember that we have victory over the systems of dominance, oppression and violence. The empty cross constantly reminds us that we have the power to be better than what we are.

It wasn’t just a cross that paved the way for us, but there was a life and a model for living in a new kingdom in Jesus Christ. The signs of that kingdom are all around us if we choose to see them. Love is available for all of us living this life, so let’s live like we have not just encountered Jesus, but also encountered a cross along the way. For I believe that is the only way to get to an empty tomb.

This Lenten season, a vision of truth includes a recognition that abundant life had a price, and it was paid on hill far away, on an old rugged cross.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Discipleship, Gosepls, Prophetic Accountability, Redemption

Where Broken Hearts Go…

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:21-24 NIV)

I was listening to a radio commercial a few days ago for a credit repair agency. The service advertised counseling and financial advising as part of their package. While I could definitely appreciate the services this company provided, the commercial began by saying that, “this nation is built on the belief that everyone deserve a second chances.” In reflecting on the commercial, I struggled with the underlying principle, especially since I didn’t agree with the statement on the surface (particularly that this nation actually believes in second chances for “everyone”). Yet I struggled with the commercial, because at the heart of this statement is an idea of redemption- something in which I say I believe. This agency is marketing the ideas that your financial personhood is redeemable if you use their services and that this redeem-ability is foundational ethos of the nation. Both of these I find problematic…

The failure of many in our society, (particularly Christians), to appreciate the real nature of redemption is exposed during some of the most sensitive moments in our communal life together. Case in point, the news from this past weekend. I, just like the rest of the world, was stunned to hear of the death of pop superstar Whitney Houston at the age of 48. Starting at an early age in her church, her career and talent spanned three decades. Her voice and poise served to redefine both the music industry and the role of a Diva in the entertainment industry. She set the stage for the Mariah’s and Beyonce’s of the world. Her awards are numerous (upwards of 400 by one estimate) and her abilities unquestioned in the industry.

Sadly, in the name of ‘journalistic responsibility’, accounts of her demise were almost immediately connected and categorized as being induced by her erratic and occasionally addictive behavior. Despite any evidence, inference or official position on the death, commentators from CNN to Fox to Facebook and Twitter were all interviewing doctors, psychologists or offering answers to questions that have not even been asked (nor was it their business to answer in the first place). Others attempted to analyze, dissect and connect the reports of her death to her already widely reported addiction and the effects of her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown.

In watching the news reports of her death, I found myself being more and more angered at the lack of sensitivity and reflection on the life a human being. A human being who, like many, has flaws and is often challenged. A human being that succeeded at great things but also failed in some things. Ms. Houston was a woman, a mother, daughter, wife and friend. Like any of us in those very mundane roles, she had some success and she had some failures.

Many times the selfish way in which our society approaches the lives of the people who ‘entertain us’, so often includes a deification and ownership that they neither deserve or that society has standing to confer. As a result, when they die we attempt to conduct one of two absurd extremes: we either emphasize the failures of these ‘stars’ in a warped attempt at being fair in their biographical reflection; or we simply create a mythology that we hope illumines the their life even brighter. Isn’t that why we call them stars? Still no excuse…

I think both approaches fail to account for the Christian idea of redemption. True, expecting this nation to ever live up to its purportedly Christian ideals is a bit far-fetched. But if this nation (or at least the referenced commercial) claims redemption as part of its identity (specifically, the idea that anyone can make it in this country regardless of their past), then surely we can account for the failures and successes of individual’s lives in the light of redemption. This is true of someone at the end of life as much as it is during their life. Remembering that the life of any human being is redeemable because of their humanity is an important quality in being a member of the global community. Recognizing that Christ redeems all creation (including entertainers) is to truly live in the light of the Christ.

Redemption is one of the core principles of the Christian faith. The Christian witness centers on Jesus’ ministry that validates the outcasts, restores the lost and heals the broken. Redemption is the power principle that liberates the captive and offers a new way of being in the world. That is what the parable of the prodigal is all about in the cited passage. Another chance is part of kingdom living and Jesus sets that standard as a mandate of the faith. This redeeming principle is the strength of the Christianity as it co-opts the status quo and redefines it through the lens of God’s love.

In fact, the real element in redemption is love. Surprise!! Love recognizes the need for redemption despite one’s condition or circumstance. Love is willing to provide the time and space for people to grow and be better as well as the voice of accountability to prod and nurture. And when we fall, love seeks opportunities to heal and restore. This ethic is true of the prisoner and the least among us, as much as it is true for Whitney. Whitney had a hit that included a line that speaks to a redemptive love when we fail to be all we can:

Where do broken hearts go?
Can they find their way home?
Back to the open arms,
Of a love that’s waiting there?
And if somebody loves you,
Won’t they always love you?
I look in your eyes,
And I know that you still care for me.

Real Love that is present in the heart of someone can never fully depart, and when failure becomes reality, real love is redeeming love. It makes a home for us when we fail or others fail us. Society’s behavior toward all of us who live through the failures of life demonstrates that we have yet to embody the answer to the questions of the above chorus.

The vision of truth for all of us includes remembering and behaving towards all of God’s people always appreciating and honoring the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. We should look for the redeem-ability of one another. In doing so, we can see ourselves in the other and respect the other for the love of God. Remember this when Valentine’s Day has passed and its you who needs redeeming…

2 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Discipleship, Gosepls, Redemption, Sacred Memory

How Can We Know the Church????

You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by the Lord?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously, so do not be alarmed. (Deuteronomy 18:21, 22 NIV)

There is a video that has now gone viral that features the pastor of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Atlanta, Bishop Eddie Long being “crowned” as king (See it here). This video features a Messianic Jew and suspect Rabbi, Ralph Messer, acting as a Rabbi with some sort of authority to act as spokesperson for the entire Jewish corpus and Israeli nation. The video was shot during the Sunday morning worship in which the now fractured community of New Birth gathers to witness (and condone) acts of utter absurdity in the name of who knows what religion and what God.

A friend on Facebook sent this to me with utter confusion in his message. In his message he said,

“I need for someone to explain to me W T H this is and WHY it was done? I am not being messy. I just have A LOT OF QUESTIONS!!!!!!!!! A LOOOOOOT OF QUESTIONS!”

 The truth of the matter is I was just as confused as he was after watching this……travesty. At the core of his concern lay a conundrum of what this disturbing exercise meant to the innocent Christians who are still sitting under Bishop Long’s leadership in ministry. I responded to him with some words talking about the foolishness of the events portrayed in the video and the circus that ensued during worship. Later, a colleague (also on Facebook) offered a link to a Biblical scholar (Rev. Dr. Will Gafney) who accurately challenges the authenticity of the actions in the video. Both my response to my friend and the responses contained in the Biblical scholar’s response are enough right???Wrong.

There is a larger idea at stake in the video. This is not about Bishop Long’s ego, or his abuse of the trust parishioners should have with their pastors. This idea is not about the fraud perpetrated by an individual who makes grandiose false claims about traditions that have a rich history of accounting the acts of -and relationship with- God. It isn’t even about whether or not the people in the pews are being manipulated and brainwashed by a cultic figure. There is a twofold problem here: first, the video exemplifies the failure of the church as the place of communal and spiritual accountability. Secondly, the behavior contained in the video contributes to the continual eroding  the credibility of the Christian church in the marketplace of religions.

To begin with, Bishop Long’s behavior over the past twenty-five years of his ministry at New Birth is enabled, in part, by congregational behavior that lost its roots in prophetic accountability and good ol’ Baptist polity. Specifically, Bishop Long’s behavior, and that of the people, is empowered by ‘willful ignorance’. I use this term, willful ignorance, to describe the behavior of individuals (and communities alike) that choose to ignore the facts of a situation in order that they can claim (or feign) innocence. In its use, I try to capture the difference between one not being able to know or one choosing not to be informed. In forsaking rules of accountability, shared ministry and genuine Godly love, the New Birth church (either through manipulation by Long or through negligence by leaders) chose to give their authority over to one man in the early 90’s thus shirking the congregational responsibility for governance that defines a Baptist congregation. The church literally ceases to be the church when that happens

The results of the last few years are the by-products of that decision so long ago. Those who chose to stay in the pews over the years became party to what Long was doing. Particularly after the scandal broke, those who remain must make a clear decision. By the time you arrive at the events of the last week, the people  that remain in the pews as Bishop Long is raised above their heads  as a king  of “God’s Government” (whatever that means), employ at best, willful ignorance (or at worst are totally complicit in his behavior).  But New Birth is not alone….

The church universal suffers from this disease. Christian tradition teaches us that the church is an agency of God’s love and kingdom. (Yes, with its many flaws and shortcomings, this is a declaration of faith).  The church is a vehicle through which the love of God is experienced and shared for all. Depending on your theology, your view of the church is the exclusive agent of God’s love or an agent of God’s love. Regardless of your perspective, the effectiveness of the church exists in its ability to address the communities, individuals and societal systems for the love of God. Instead, it has been the willful ignorance of Christians the world over, that has entangled us in discussions that led to denials and refusals to be relevant and thus be the church. This stagnation has been instrumental in the failure of the church to speak to Civil Rights, AIDS, hyper-partisanship, sexual orientation, sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and a whole host of other issues.   We have allowed everything from doctrine, sexual orientation, partisanship and secularism to pick apart the prophetic edge that has been integral to the church’s witness.

The second issue deals with the image of the church in the world. Admittedly, this has always been a problem for the church throughout history. From the clergy sexual abuse of the Roman Catholic Church to the history of sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination that is still present in many denominations, the Christian church struggles, at times, to be credible in the marketplace of religions. Foolishness like creating a coronation service for ‘King Long’, only serves to validate the corrupting, abusive and manipulative behavior that many non-Christians (and Christians alike) see as defining the church of the 21st century. For many, New Birth is the face of 21st Century Protestant Christian Church and when that face is so far from what the norm is, it can cause such devastating effects for the rest of the Christian witness. It further destroys the message of the thousands of Christian worshipping communities and the millions of Christians that are seeking to help humanity in faithful witness to Christian practice.

Bishop Long’s behavior after this scandal (and sometime prior to that) has been of an egregious nature. Fostering a cult of personality that rivals many cults, he abused his power and insulted his parishioner’s intelligence. He owes his family and his congregation an apology. If that wasn’t enough, his most recent behavior shows a deep arrogance and disregard for the religious beliefs of monotheists everywhere. The millions of Christians and Jews are owed a deep apology for the embarrassment and disrespect displayed last week.

Perhaps the Bishop Long Coronation is just symptomatic of the larger problem of the church becoming complacent with its domestication. In that way, The church may simply be another place of belonging and conformity. However, what results is the loss of the prophet’s voice in the life of the church. My vision of truth this week centers on doing my part to ignite the passions of our people and reclaim the prophetic edge that holds all of us accountable to God’s loving agency in Christ. Will you join me?…..

2 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Church, Discipleship, Old Testament, Prophetic Accountability