Wait on the Posse…

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord (Psalm 27:13-14, NRSV)

We live in an age of instant gratification. Constantly, we seek to decrease the time between ‘pushing the button’ and ‘engaging the device.’ Whether it is commuting to work, waiting for your computer to ‘boot’ up, sending a text, making a call, or just standing in line, we HATE to be found waiting. For many, anytime spent waiting is time wasted. After all, time is one area of human life that is irredeemable. As a result, we find all manner of ways to ‘fill the time’ so that we maximize our usage of time.

I would suspect that this obsessive fixation on time came with the march of technology, progress and ingenuity. (More specifically that fixation is unique element of most Western societies. But more on the that later…) Much of the technology revolutions of the Renaissance, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution and the Modern eras all came about as ways to save time and increase efficiency. In fact we measure an object, institution or person based upon their ability to move swiftly and (perhaps secondarily) effectively. Everything from fast food restaurants, Emergency Rooms, airlines and even your local dry cleaners tout their ability to minimize waiting times and delays. Ultimately however, this fixation has created a high level of impatience among many of us.

In the Christian life, waiting has also become annoying. The disease of impatience has crept into the life of discipleship. Instant gratification has grabbed hold of many of us in the faith to our detriment. We expect prayers answered immediately, preaching to be brief, worship to be ‘efficient’ and our purpose to be instantly clear. Essentially, we as Christians want our faith to conform to the fast paced, hectic and aggressive schedules that we all keep. We expect to multitask our faith with all of the other elements of work, family, and recreation that define the competition of so many of our lives.

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In my vocation as a Pastor, I run into so many Christians (and others) who wrestle with patience. They pray for it, and use mantras to govern their mind while they are forced to wait. The loathe the moments when they have to wait on spouses, traffic and all of the mundane moments of life that seem to lead ‘nowhere’. Consequently, they find horrifying, the moments of wrestling and contemplation that characterize the Christian faith and discipleship. “You mean I have to wait”, or, “I know I should be more patient”, comes the reply to the task of discipleship. Most frightening for even more us is the idea that we have to wait on God.

This simple admonition of the power and purpose of waiting in our above passage is often lost on many of us. The Psalmist pens this as a song of confidence and boasting in God. Posing the question of “Whom shall I fear?”, the writer is clearly strengthened in the power of God. However, what seems to be subtly present, is that the revelation of the Psalm have come through an intense wrestling of faith, or spirituality, or strength or some other existential struggle. Verses 13 and 14 puts forth the faith of what he believes he shall see in his life: The vindication of his hurt and pain, if he can just……..wait. The most powerful revelation of the Psalm is that in waiting, he found peace in the midst of struggle.

The psalmist seems to fly in the face of much of our conceptions of time and waiting. Western cultural mores are built around the clock. Everything we do is governed by time and its infinite worth as a commodity (which never devalues). Trains, planes, and careers run on the clock. However, in other cultures, time is a construct of the community. African (and African Diaspora) communities embody a culture of ‘communal time’ as one historian suggested. In our collective experience, we experience ‘beginnings and endings’. An event or activity does not begin until all the necessary parties have assembled, which may be later than the clock. The emphasis is placed on the assembly and the power of the community as opposed to the abstraction that is time. (Of course this is problematic when it comes to bus schedules, airplanes and other aspects of modern living.) 

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The worldview of the Psalmist might be similar to our African brothers and sisters in that the importance of waiting on the ‘necessary participant’ is critical to the journey of life. In other words, the psalmist might be offering us the challenge of communal formation with God while we are waiting. Said differently, your journey is not worth its goal if you leave ‘before time’ and without all of the proper personnel. Being mindful of God and God’s plans in the midst of the journey is worth the wait, as God’s actions are critical and directions are essential to the life of faith and success. Anything less is just ‘keeping time’.

God’s plans for our lives, and even our own plans for our lives take time, effort and energy to come to fruition. Efficiency and fast don’t seem to be good partners when it comes to discipleship. A hallmark of discipleship is patience. A willingness to wait after done all you could do is incredibly difficult but worthwhile. For in the ‘sacrament’ of waiting, we will find a reason to boast in the power of God to see God’s plan through. Patience for you and patience for me is a vision of truth that we could all use. Again I say, WAIT!!!

 

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Seeing the Mission with Fresh Eyes

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:16-20, NRSV)

After a four week hiatus from blogging to meditate and reflect (provide some creative restoration), I am resuming our weekly reflections with revisiting the work of the church and the mandate of Christ to his church. 

As Christians I often think that we have misunderstood the mandate of Christ that was given to the church. Much work has been done around the doctrines and beliefs that come about from the self-disclosure of Christ in the Gospels. Ideas about ministry, education, faith and belief are all shaped by the infinite number of teachings that elucidate on the ‘Great Commission’.

Depending on the millennia in which a Christian found themselves, those teachings on the church’s work of proclamation, education and expansion varied and shifted. In the early days of the church, it was “the blood of the martyrs that served as the seeds for the growth of the church”, said the 2nd century church father Tertullian. In the middle ages it was the sword that served as the way to expand, with teaching and proclamation being secondary concerns of the leadership of the church. Later, post reformation, this teaching was the motivation for Christian colonial ambitions and the work of the western (and purportedly Christian) nations to conquer the world.

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The thing that all of this interpretations have in common are the cultural underpinnings that guide any understanding of the commission. For better (and usually for worse), the church interpreted its mandate through the cultural mores of the time in which it existed (often meaning the validation of destructive practices and beliefs). So then, in the age of the martyrdom, it was martyrdom that Christ ‘meant’ when he spreading the church. When the age of sword was dominate, then Christ ‘spread’ the faith on the edge of the sword. When colonialism was the source of strength and power, Christ ‘used’ colonial powers to bring the Gospel to the “savages” in the New World.

But what if the above commission that Christ extends had little to do with verbal proclamation and actively “forcing” the expansion of the faith? It seems to me that the vague emphasis of method of expansion has little to do with a lack of concern of Jesus’ part. Instead, this commission occurs at the end of a Gospel where Jesus has spent all of his life, death and resurrection demonstrating the effects of the kingdom of God……IN HIS BEING!  What if the command of Christ was about BEING the church to the world? Instead of forcing the issue, what if expansion occurs through a witness of BEING the Christ to the world and therefore expanding the kingdom?

What if the church spent more time ‘being’ in the world? A church that is anti-abortion ‘proclaims’ the kingdom through stable loving homes for struggling mothers and “unwanted” children. A church that is pacifist, develops ways to engage adversaries around the things that divide, instead of being divisive itself. A church that provides this witness is not concerned about growth in an active sense, but instead is concerned about the ways the church can BE the church in the world, which achieves growth in the end. A church that lives out the commission in this way is not doctrinally focused, but mission driven. In this case, the mission is TO BE and NOT TO GROW. In the end, Christ is the one that grows the church, by virtue of the authority given to him in verse 18, (thus a COmmission and not just a mission).

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I recently spent a week in the island nation of Haiti. Much of what has gone in Haiti has been ignored by the International media despite a slow but steady attempt at readjusting and stabilizing the nation’s governance and infrastructure. (There will be a series of blog postings that will cover the lessons learned from Haiti.)

Much of the progress that has happened in Haiti has occurred through the work and witness of the Christian church. The church is the integral partner between the government and the work of restoration and healing that is taking place on the ground in Haiti. The church is rebuilding homes and communities and offering permanent housing for people. In being the church, the people of the church can teach and make disciples for Christ in the world.

In the end, the Commission teaches us the importance of being  a vision of truth for the “transformation of the world”!

 

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‘Biblical’ Challenges…

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NRSV)

Unless you have been under a rock for the last month or so, you have missed one of the most controversial and yet ‘trendiest’ topics in pop culture……The Bible. This 13-part miniseries seeks to cover some of the pivotal and definitive stories of the Biblical text. Unlike most History channel programming about the Bible, this series contains little to no scholarship or commentary (in fact very little narration). Instead this series seeks to ‘tell the story’ with, according to the series, a fervor and vibrancy that “bring the Bible to life.”

With a multi-racial cast and a eye toward an interpretative acting, the series offers insight into an angle on the scriptures that a segment of our Christian family affirms. Retelling the stories of pivotal stores of Creation in Genesis, Samson in Judges, Moses in Exodus and David in the history texts among others, the series hopes to bring the Bible and its narratives into the mainstream of the public consciousness and conversation. To that end, the series has been widely successful. It has trended on Twitter, been followed closely by TV personalities like TJ Holmes and Roland Martin and has been featured on several news networks. The series has also been deeply criticized by biblical scholars, feminists, and Christians from all over the world. I too, add my voice to that criticism of the series…

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I have watched the series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, (both avowed evangelical Christians), each week with excitement and bitter resentment. Excitement to see the stories of my Christian heritage brought to life and resentment as to how they would be butchered and skewered in the grinder of cultural, social and contextual blindness. They have selected the stories, chosen what was relevant and used their multi racial cast in such a narrowed view that Egyptians are white and Jews are British. Their choices have left no doubt about their intentions, directions and purposes in telling their narratives about the bible.

In watching last night, I found myself repulsed by the brunette Brit that was supposed to represent my Jesus. Weirdly, I previously tolerated a British Moses and Pharaoh, a peculiarly black Samson (with a thing for white women), the gross mischaracterization of David’s ‘rape’ of Bathsheba and the casting of President Obama’s twin as the devil in the earlier installments of the series. Yet, I found this week that this interpretation of Jesus was a bridge too far….

The truth of the matter is that the casting of colonial Jesus essentially completes a ‘whitewashing’ of the continual portrayal of the Biblical narrative. For centuries, the truths of the African and ‘colored’ heritage of the text has been undermined by colonial powers and forces that sought to rewrite and patronize the what the ancient writers sought to convey. Many folks have said that the color of Jesus shouldn’t matter as long as we appreciate and believe what he did for us. If Jesus’ color doesn’t matter, then why are nearly all of the depictions of Jesus in western culture of a white man? The ‘color’ of our stories matters because they help us to inculcate and in grain the narratives in our lives. Culture, context, gender roles and power all matter in the telling of sacred narratives because they help to expose the continual truth of God’s engagement in the culture, context and power of our present lives.

One colleague commented on reviewing one of the episodes that I, “should not be surprised or astonished, because Burnett and Downey could not be expected to do multicultural telling of the Bible.” My reply was that “my expectations were not unrealistic and in fact were even more normative given that this is the 21st century and we have a broader view of the text and the messages of the text.” Expecting Abraham to be middle eastern and speak something other than English (with a British accent) is not an unreasonable expectation in the 21st century. Expecting a culturally and textually appropriate portrayal of any Biblical character is not an unreasonable expectation of white producers or of the History Channel. Expecting that critical elements of the narratives of Christian heritage not be redacting or edited is also a reasonable expectation.

Unknown-1The text for this week is a passage that I often struggle with. In and of itself, this passage (which has been used by many preachers to support the efficacy of the Bible), on its surface validates the use of scripture because ‘scripture says so’! However, the more nuanced understanding of the text offers a view that the Bible is relevant for teaching because of the inherent truth of the witness of God throughout all generations in the totality of scripture. I believe the writers of the biblical text told the truth of the stories with an awareness of God’s action in and through and by and with the messiness of our human existence. That truth of the text is what makes  the text “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

In my vocation as a pastor and religious educator, I plan to use the series and all of its flaws. I plan to use it to teach the power of hermeneutics and enculturation in reading the bible. The History Channel series is no different than many of the other portrayals of the Bible (see ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘One Night with the King’, ‘Prince of Egypt’, etc.). All of these movies and shows tell the stories of the Bible in ways that are intentional in leading us to believe what they want us to. In many ways, these tellings reinforce cultural mores and norms that continually oppress and undermine the real meaning of the text. In teaching about this form of redaction, I hope to empower many in our faith to counteract these tendencies when we see it so that we may be empowered in our views of pop cultural representations of our faith.

I take REAL issue with redaction (even in the ancient traditions in the Old Testament). Redaction is a power grab and a selective revisionist view toward telling the truth. Its misleading with intent and purpose. If we are ever going to get a free and fair glimpse of the vision of truth, we are going to need to tell the story of our faith free from redaction, revision and with a healthy wrestling with God in the text.

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Learning to Get Unstuck…

At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7But if you had known what this means, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”, you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.’ (Matthew 12:1-8, NRSV)

In our life together we are so often bound by the traditions, rules and regulations of our own creation. Traditions that shape our familial practice, careers, and religious practices all shape our life. After all, these traditions can help to keep us grounded and focused when the vicissitudes of life keep us in flux. Our morning routines, the rules we follow on our jobs, the expectations and standards that we promote in our lives all serve to create consistency that we rely on in the day-to-day moments of existence. But what happens when those rules that guide become ties that bind? When do our traditions and experiences that so helpfully regulate our lives, become limiting and restrictive to the life?

There are times when our expectations and life traditions do in fact hinder us. The rules we make around dating and relationships, what we will and won’t do, and the circumstances by which we would perform and extraordinary task all have the dangerous propensity for limiting life as much as they define it. I have talked with people who have grown old and bitter because of the rules they have made for themselves. They didn’t get married because they wanted a particular type of spouse. They didn’t work in the field of their heart’s desire because of the traditions that their family assumed about being a musician or artist or teacher. They have limited their lives because of the rules and ideologies they made for themselves.

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Such is the case in the New Testament with respect to the rules and traditions of religious practice. Jesus is born into a religious context that has long been shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition and interpretation. The laws and regulations that shape Jewish religiosity are strict and specifically enforced by the Pharisees. Despite the intense regulation of obedience to the laws (and the traditions), Jesus is countercultural in nearly every respect of those very traditions.

In the above passage, Jesus has finished providing instructions and teaching to the disciples. After he concludes they begin their journey to a new town. Nothing wrong in this except that their travel begins and continues on the sabbath. Traveling on the Sabbath means that he is already in violation of the laws concerning work for Jews during this period. Worse yet, in the middle of the journey, the disciples get hungry and instead of stopping and resting, they decide to keep walking through a grain field and pick off the heads of grains. All is well until the disciples gets caught by the Pharisees.

The interchange that takes place between Jesus and the Pharisees is one in which Jesus critiques the understanding of the purpose of the law and not just a general interpretation. By challenging the very notion of the function of tradition, Jesus exposes the risk of strict adherence to the rules. Rules can be dangerously limiting and deny life when you focus on the rule and not the purpose of the rule. Jesus reminds the Pharisees that rules exist for a reason and to ignore the reason and keep the rules makes the rules irrelevant and legalistic.

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The truth of the matter is that we too, build fortresses of rules and traditions and hide inside. We often forget why we create these rules and what purpose they served in our life. Instead we cling to the rules blindly and watch happiness in life pass us by. Jesus in the passage reminds us that rules have a purpose. Once the purpose has changed, the rules need to be changed (or maybe even omitted). Our hypocrisy, contortions of belief and the undermining of relational happiness emanate from blind allegiance to the rules.

Life is happening all around us. Life is engaging and changing in the brief moments of love, charity and interaction. Traditions are important to shaping and defining life for each one of us. Traditions do not, however, bring life, they merely maintain the status quo. Doing what you always have done because it’s what has been done, is never good enough and will never yield life. Being responsive to the needs of life  and the needs you have means sometimes changing (or breaking) the rules. It’s not the end of the world, but the promise of life. After all, the visions of truth only come outside of the rule box!

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Following a Different Policy

Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel? He said, “I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brothers blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)

This past week a stunning thing took place at a assisted Living facility in Bakersfield, California. A woman had gone into cardiac arrest and had stopped breathing. A nurse (remember that) on staff called 911 and was waiting for instructions. The operator on the line stated quite clearly that CPR was needed and that it needed to be performed immediately. The nurse’s response is bone chillingly inhumane and robotic. The exchange went as follows:

911 dispatcher: Are we just going to wait and let this lady die?

Nurse: Well, that’s why we’re calling 911.

911:  We need to get CPR started

Nurse: They’re refusing CPR. They’re going to let her just die.

911: I understand your boss is telling you you can’t do it but if there’s anybody, a      human being, I don’t…. is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?

Nurse: Um, not at this time.

I must admit that when I first heard this I was struck by the irony of it all. A woman who is a nurse, and is trained to help people, quotes company protocol and policy when someone has a heart attack. In a “Assisted Living” facility no less!!(Worse yet, it has been reported that the deceased daughter is “satisfied with the treatment” her mother received.)

Apparently, the company that owns the “assisted living” facility has a policy that does not assist people in active medical distress other than calling 911. This company has effectively enshrined into company policy the phenomenon that we occasionally see from people in the streets. You see it through the hidden camera footage when people see someone on the streets in distress and then do little to nothing to aid that person. Sometimes they don’t even call 911 or reach out for anyone.

Cain and Abel

This behavior is not new. If we trust the witness of the scriptures, we find the first such incident in our above text. Often called the first incident of murder in creation, the above passage seems bigger than just sibling rivalry gone awry. Likewise, this tale is not merely about what happens when we are not forthright in our feelings. All of those explanations can be found in the text but Cain’s response to God’s prompt seems to be particularly telling.

When God “stumbles” upon the scene of fratricide, God asks,Where is your brother Abel?”, to which Cain offers a stunningly blunt and sarcastic retort, ““I do not know; am I my brothers keeper?” The response seems on the surface to be both disingenuous and pompous. At a deeper level, the writers of the passage are placing a double entendre into Cain’s mouth. The retort is both a denial of Cain’s familial responsibility for his brother and is a passive slap in the proverbial face of God. In other words, when God poses the question of Abel’s whereabouts, Cain’s response in our vernacular is, Don’t know what you are talking about. Keeping people isn’t my job, it’s yours!!

More importantly in the passage, Cain’s response reveals a truth of our own human shortcomings. When we fall short of expected behavior and fail to be human in our behaviors to our fellow sojourner, we resort to hiding behind the ‘policies’ we craft for ourselves. Whether it’s Cain hiding behind the witness of God’s character as humanity’s caretaker; the Pharisees being scolded by the Jesus for hiding behind the sabbath; or a nurse in Bakersfield, we use the convenience of policy to cover our ineptitude or inhumane practices to one another.

Beloved, we are made to be connected to one another. We cannot live a part from each other and thrive. We are meant to live in community and even though communities don’t always get along we are called to do it together. Resorting to legalistic interpretations of ‘policy’ stifles what has always been intended for each one of us. ‘Policy’ has a place in so far as it helps us to understand our relationship with one another and the ways we relate to God. However, our heavenly mandate is always answer yes when the question is asked, “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?”. The 911 operator almost seems to be asking that very prophetic question of the nurse when she simply asks, “is there anybody that’s willing to help this lady and not let her die?” In the same way that Cain killed his brother Abel, this nurse willful inaction stole the chance for life for that woman. The nurse’s response to the operator says it all: “Um, not at this time.”

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We are better than what this nurse and this company offered this dying woman. It is insufficient for the company to say that they let all of their residents know of the CPR policy in advance. There is still a human standard, a basic standard or life. This standard applies to all areas of our life together. We can do better in our conversations about guns and violence and not hide behind a policy that “guns don’t kill people”. We can do better in our policies toward war, healthcare, poverty and all the ways that we should be “keeping” our brothers and sisters. God requires more and Abel’s blood cries out for me. We should demand better from each other and from those who lead us.

Getting the lesson from the Cain and Abel narrative without the death of another one of our brother’s and sister is a vision of truth…

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Relatively Triumphant

A Song of Ascents. Of David.
1 If it had not been the Lord who was on our side
—let Israel now say—
2 if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,
when our enemies attacked us,
3 then they would have swallowed us up alive,
when their anger was kindled against us;
4 then the flood would have swept us away,
the torrent would have gone over us;
5 then over us would have gone
the raging waters.
6 Blessed be the Lord,
who has not given us
as prey to their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
from the snare of the fowlers;
the snare is broken,
and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who made heaven and earth
(Psalm 124, NRSV)

A few weeks ago we were all riveted to our televisions to watch the Super Bowl XLVII ( Forty-seven for us ordinary folks. Why do they still use Roman numerals anyway??). Regardless of what our regular team was, we watched the Baltimore Ravens battle the San Francisco 49ers. An exciting game complete with the drama of a blackout in the Superdome no doubt! Of particular interest to many was the subplot of the retiring Ray Lewis who in his final appearance in the pinnacle game of any football player’s career, helped to put the Ravens over the top to win.

Ray Lewis has been an interesting figure in athletics (not that there is a lack of any). A highly gifted athlete with a passion for the game he was surrounded with scandal in the early part of his career in the NFL. In 2000, he was charged with the murder of Richard Lollar at a night club in Atlanta. Eventually, he struck a plea bargain in exchange for testifying against the other persons who were involved. Prior to this incident, Lewis’s life was marked by intense partying, showmanship and a generally embracing of the culture that is so stereotypical of the NFL in the 21st century.

After this incident, Lewis “found” (or rediscovered) the Lord and sought to live a life that was (at least by public expression) dedicated to the Lord. He continued to play but began to be a great deal more outspoken about his faith. He could be seen before and after games in intense prayer and praise. None of this is bad in any way. He obviously has had an experience that changed his life and as a result that has changed his view of the world. Of interest to me are the underpinnings of his proclamations for winning and losing…..

Ray Lewis Triumphant

We live in a culture that is so often shaped and defined by winners and losers. Political winners and losers, cultural winners and losers and ever-present sports winners and losers define all of us in our life together. There are times when we are celebrated for being on the winning side, and derided when “our team” has lost. Winning and losing is everything in our society. So much so that we have placed God into our obsession of winning. Triumphalism is essentially the exuberance for victory to the point of devaluing the loser (an all others who identify against you). Triumphalism celebrates the winner at all costs and associates all things ‘right’ and ‘good’ with the winner. All things wrong and bad are associated with the loser. (Triumphalism is at work when we say “God Bless America” with the intent to elevate the blessings of the Almighty as  being fully expressed in the United State of America.)

One of the things that happened as the Ravens advanced from the playoffs to the Superbowl is that each time the mic was put in front of Ray Lewis, he would proclaim that God was “on his side”. Many of his statements would infer that God had chosen a side in a football game and that was the reason for the win. Time and again, his attempts at attribution for the win devolved into triumphalism. Ray Lewis’s isn’t special in this regard, for we can all very easily move to a triumphant position when we believe that our cause is somehow greater than our adversary’s.

Our text today is a Psalm of Ascents, that means that this was often sung as Israel would prepare itself to enter Jerusalem or the place of worship. This is a celebratory Psalm, acknowledging the power of God in Israel’s history and all the ways that God has been faithful in delivering the people from traps, snares and danger. However, in its celebratory context, the Psalm appears to be a form of triumphalist pronouncement. The text speaks in such a way as to suggest that our triumph over the enemy comes from God’s deliberate choice to pick a side, (“If it had not been for the Lord who was on OUR side). While this was true in the Old Testament when it was believed that when two nations fought, two gods were fighting, what happens when in today’s world when two Christians are in conflict, (Or even broader when people fight each other)?

Triumphant Jesus

Put simply, we should have a problem when allow others to suggest that God chooses sides. Jewish theology can handle such a God. The election of Israel is without question in the Exodus narrative and God is overt in his choice of Israel OVER the gods of Egypt or anywhere else. However, Christian theology suggests that the only side God chooses is oppressed humanity. In the context of Jesus Christ, God makes a choice to be on the side of humanity and specifically oppressed humanity. Wherever Jesus goes and whatever Jesus does, God does and chooses to do.

Let’s be clear: Our victories come as a result of God beneficence but not because God didn’t bless our adversaries. Winning a earthly victory doesn’t equate to being on God’s side. God’s being and sovereignty means that our human victories and losses are part of a larger plan that bring us closer to God. Simply put, our winning and our triumph is not God’s winning. God is not concerned with blessing one group and against the other. God blesses one to be a blessing to the other. Zero sum games are not in the plan, knowing that gets us closer to a vision of truth this week.

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Triumph Over the Test

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 3:16-4:1)

I am an educator by vocation and by profession. I teach several classes at local colleges and work with others in teaching at a Seminary and in the parish. I enjoy my work and in fact I get a deep sense of purpose in doing it.

Despite this satisfaction, one of the struggles of the teaching profession is test administration. There is a great deal of work and study that goes into developing a test for your students. You have to review the material and condense the material into a “package” that can be learned  by the students. Additionally, once the instruction of the package has been completed, you then have to assess how well your students have integrated the material that you have presented. The challenge of testing involves the nature of the test in relationship to assessing what a student has learned. That is to say, you have to ensure that the test allows the student demonstrate the knowledge that you have designed it to. All of us have taken tests that were not relevant to the material that we studied and that we were totally unprepared to deal with.

A good teacher however, spends a great deal of time preparing the students for the upcoming test. And a great teacher spends a good deal of time crafting a test that ‘fits’ the student in order that the student can be who they are while demonstrating what the teacher has intended for them to know. (This is part of the intrinsic problems of the standardized tests. The test is so generic and the information so broad that they are not as effective at assessing certain student populations or even the materials that they purport to assess.)

Testing

Our text for today is considered one of the two places where Jesus is tested (the other is the cross). Known as the temptation of Christ, this passage in Matthew (Matt 4:1-11) is a perplexing one for many Christians. Jesus is baptized and then pushed into the wilderness “to be tested.” If you believe in the power of the Christ and his divinity, then the obvious question arises, “How an the incarnate God be tested?” and “What purpose does it serve?”.

Traditional Christian teaching has so often hinged on the temptation passage as a model for resisting the tempting of the satan. So often looking at the superficial questions ans answers between Devil and Jesus was thought to reveal how the enemy attacks and the ways we ought to successfully resist. Through this lens, the text is about God’s refining of Jesus and in the test as one might put a car or plane through ‘testing’ to guarantee reliability. This makes God a bit like a tester or puppet master that designs test to get us to continually prove our worth in the work of the kingdom.

However, I want to view the testing of Jesus through the lens of an educator and that of a great teacher. In starting the temptation narrative where Jesus is baptized (as opposed to the beginning of chapter 4), we find a clear moment of instruction. Specifically, God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” This statement is both instruction and reminder. God establishes Jesus’ identity and God’s satisfaction with that identity. Jesus in turn learns something about himself that will most likely assures and guarantees his self-identity before  the test. Through this lens, God confirms the lesson that Jesus will be tested on. The test is not about proving readiness, but affirming identity. God is pleased and assured of who you are, the test is about whether or not you know for yourself.

Temptations

We have for so long interpreted the trials and tests of our life as mere tricks of the devil. Sometimes we have even interpreted them as punishment for disobedience to God and so we have to prove ourselves as being faithful again to being “God’s will.” I submit to you this week, that the test may not be either of these things. Instead, the test is the sign of God’s pleasure and assurance of your identity. The test is not about God’s proving your worth, but an acknowledgment of it. The teacher already knows who you are, the test is to find out whether you do.

It is time to see the test as a vision of truth. The truth that God has already found something that makes God pleased. The test is to affirm that you are all the things God has already said about you. Now go and pass your tests…..

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