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A Sacrificial View…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgins name was Mary. And he came to her and said, Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. Mary said to the angel, How can this be, since I am a virgin? The angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God. Then Mary said, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Then the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-35, NRSV)

One of the most under appreciated roles in our society are the roles of parents. Parenting is one of the most difficult, rewarding, confusing, enlightening, perplexing and stressful positions any human being can undertake. For many of us, parenting is a job that we didn’t sign up for (at least when we intended) and when it was thrust upon us, there was never any clear manual to of ‘dos and don’ts.’ Many more of us (those who planned and those who did not) felt, and feel totally ill-equipped for the position of parent. Having a life depend on your reasonable decision-making, responsible actions, and moral guidance 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 18 or more years is a level of stress and microscopic supervision that can overwhelm.

The work of parenting on the whole is most fully realized in the office of mother. This is not to say that the father is somehow ‘less than’ mother in the life of a child. Fathers and father/mother figures make up a half of the parental unit that contributes to a stable and balance upbringing. Yet, the mother is so often the one who experiences the full brunt of parenting even before the child is born. It is the mother that first makes the sacrifices that are indicative of parenting, when she gives of her nutrients and gives her body over to the child growing in her body. The mother is first among parents to intuit her child’s feelings and pains. She is also the first to be present when that child is realized in the world. Sadly, mom is often the one who is there when tragedy strikes her child and feels the agony in her very being when her child suffers.

Sure, there are many parents and mothers who fall far short of this exercise of the best of the office. But it does not mean that those delinquent mothers are somehow less in the experiences of carrying another human being for 9 months and living with someone for 18+ years.

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At the heart of motherhood (and parenting) is sacrifice. Parents must give of themselves from the beginning, for the sake of their children. Biologically they give genetic material. Emotionally, the give their tears, joys and hope. Physically, they make space, room and provision. Financially, they give all they have to ensure stability and well-being. Psychologically, they give their fears and their psyche. These actions of giving are not just characterized by simple sharing, but sacrifice. As a parent, you give your ALL to your children, for the sake of your children. So many parents and mothers give up or defer their hopes and dreams for the sake of their children. So many parents and mothers give up ‘themselves’ so their children might be greater than they.

The lens of parental sacrifice is the frame through which I approach the above text. What was the life Mary gave up to be the mother of Jesus? She (and we) shall never know. We usually glorify Mary’s faithfulness to God and her ready willingness to serve. However, like all of us in the journey of faith, what we choose in God comes with unintended effects and consequences. Choosing God always results in many actions and events that were not foreseen when you made the initial decision (see Moses, Isaiah, Peter, etc.). So to, being a parent also comes with that same ‘hidden portfolio’. Debt, sadness, happiness, disappointment and gratitude are all parts of the portfolio that you never fully know as emotions until you become a parent. So then, imagine Mary making this choice for God, to be a parent. A child that has never been born before and never will be again. A special class of motherhood that comes with all the stresses of being a parent PLUS working with and by a mysterious and powerful God.

Mary gave up more than we will ever know to be the mother of Jesus. She gave up her life to see that child grow into the fullness of being that we know as God incarnate. She gave attention, time and energy as any parent would. She would give up all of her hopes and dreams for him so much so that she would suffer as he suffered at Calvary’s cross. Now celebrated as chief among mothers we cannot know the agony of the loss she experienced or the joy of reward she felt because of what her child is to the world.

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I simply offer the following vision of truth: We do not know what many of our mother’s have given up for the sake of (or in spite) of their children. We blame wayward mothers for the indiscretions of their choices. Challenge unwed mothers and unconventional motherhood as being ‘bad for the child’. We undermine the work mothers do by limiting time off of work and limiting places for motherly activity (breastfeeding, play and growth, etc.). We even somehow lessen the experience of a mother when she makes a decision that does not line up with our view of parenting.

The simple truth is we don’t know what was given for the sake of being a mother. Only a select few of our parents in our society understand the power of such a choice. Let us celebrate our mothers/parents for what they gave up and what we are. Not just because of what they did, but because of who they are.

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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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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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Claims to Legitimacy

 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. (John 9:24-30, NRSV)

The struggle for a voice in society is normative. The differences between people who have access and make things happen, versus the people who lack that access are part of the fabric of human relationships. That access, (or the lack thereof), often means that an individual does not have a ‘presence’ in the society. They are physically present, but have no active influence on the community in which they are merely existing in. Having a voice or being voiceless can be determined by many different factors. Gender, religion, race, ethnicity, creed, and sexual orientation all can be used to elevate ones voice or to deny ones right to be heard. Thats what makes it a struggle…. one must push through the community to have their voice heard.

Key to fight against giving audience to all, is the role of power. Powerful people/institutions/organizations play an intricate game of oppression simply to keep the voiceless from gaining an audience and/or being heard. It’s true of dissenting political groups as much as it is true of patriarchal systems that reinforce hierarchy. Systems in power want to keep their power; very often at the expense of the people who simply need the world to hear their pain and suffering, joys and concerns, fears and triumphs. There are subtle ways that these power systems keep the status quo and negate those who seek presence in the larger society.

One way that was on display this past week, was demonstrated in our country’s culture and political wars. Member of Congress Todd Akin’s off the cuff comments regarding “legitimate rape” highlight an example of what power does to keep things in check. You see, legitimacy is a cloak for power players to maintain their status. One way to deny the authenticity of person/being/humanity is make a declaration of legitimacy. African-Americans, at one time in our nation’s history were denied the right to vote, bring a court case or even be a full person…..they were considered illegitimate. Many insurance companies and other businesses invoke clauses within contracts that deny access to certain contractual rights. In so doing, they delegitimize the nature of the contract (and maybe the claims of the person). Legitimacy, is a qualifying term that can easily undermine relationships, stall negotiations and patronize people who are seeking equal voice in any situation (see equality around marriage, equal pay, etc.).

Struggle between power brokers and the powerless is nothing new and in our passage, this dichotomy is undergirding the text. Specifically, in chapter 9, Jesus brings sight to a blinded man. He was known to a great many people and so the healing brings a great deal of attention to the blinded man. So much so, that the power structures of the day, the Pharisees call the man before them an attempt to discern what happened to the man. Their rationale is that, defects are signs of sin and that Jesus is not a healer or prophet of any kind…….he is illegitimate. This blinded man is also a voiceless person in ancient Israel. A former blind person is a bullhorn!!

The resulting confrontation is one in which the miracle that Jesus has performed and demonstrated through this man who was once blind is being negated (or at least trying to be) by the Pharisees. In the end, the blind man, in response to berating of questions of legitimacy decides to simply state the obvious, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.” In other words, “y’all are supposed to be the experts on religious purity and healing and you don’t know what the h@#$ is going on. All I know is he healed me!”.

The former blind man gives us great instruction when it comes to people making claims of legitimate or illegitimate actions……its all legitimate. This man’s healing is just as legitimate as the rest of them. The experiences of the individual cannot be undermined in the eyes of God. They are all credible. Whenever we try to delegitimize the experiences of another, we really show our own insecurities before God and our neighbor. We do not have the power to question legitimacy of the other’s lived experience. For one to claim such authority, means the person making the declaration has ‘power’ over the other individual…..a claim none of us can credibly make.

 

 

Rep. Todd Akin exposed a deep flaw in religious patriarchy (to which religion has been used to cover up). The flaw uses rules and regulations to stifle and undermine and expel many who the power structures deem illegitimate. In today’s world, many Christians feel the need to define the world according to the rules and regulations that have been edited and refined in scripture. Rep. Akin’s comments, while they are his beliefs, expose a power structure’s party line that is rooted in an undermining worldview of women who have both been raped and/or experienced abortion, or both. Those rules are interpreted through the lens of scripture and tradition and enforced to define who is legitimate and who is not. Yet, the Jesus of the scriptures took care to break those same rules when the were applied to him. They called him illegitimate…… what do they call you?

Jesus and this blind man give us a vision of truth that labels us all legitimate sons and daughters of the most high King. Let us be brothers and sisters legitimized by the word and work of the Christ…….

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Discerning the Crowd from Disciples

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Because of the crowd he told his disciples to have a small boat ready for him, to keep the people from crowding him. (Mark 3:7-9 NIV)

As a local pastor serving a congregation, I often run across the most peculiar of human behavior. I’ve seen children fight at funerals and laugh at suffering. I’ve seen church bullies who dominate meetings and intimidate members. I have seen people invited to the parking lot to “continue” contentious conversations. Many years ago, after one particularly aggressive confrontation between two parishioners in which an argument devolved into cursing and threats of bodily harm, I overheard one of them say, “that is not my style, I am a Christian.” To which the other also said they were Christian, but they still were going to “kick their ass”. After some, shall we say, “vigorous and spirited” pastoral intervention, I calmed the parties down and got them to go home. Later, reflecting on the events, I found it curious that both members situated themselves in the Christian experience and validated their behavior because of (or in spite of) the label Christian.

More recently, I have witnessed instances in society in which the behavior of various churches, communities, politicians and commentators are identified as “Christian”. This identification infers that their shenanigans are representative of practitioners of the faith. Whether it is the hatred of the now infamous Westboro Baptist Church or the political ads of Rick Perry, (in which he touts his Christian identity as much as car makers tout the voice recognition software in their latest model vehicles), the behavior tend to range from the extreme to the absurd. Their behavior means I have to spend time explaining to my non-christian friends all the various reasons why they are not really Christian, even though they say they are. These incidents constitute symptoms of an interesting phenomenon that exist our culture. This phenomenon assumes that Christian identity is universally expressed and politically monolithic and yet somehow only personally experienced.

This ideological myth furthers the idea that all American Christians share the same “values driven” motivation and subsequently share the same politics. The myth is furthered through the various coded mainstream cultural dictates that prescribe proper Christian behavior. You know, Christians are loving and soft. Christians will convert you at all costs. Christians don’t believe science. According to those dictates, Christians think with their hearts (to the exclusion of their minds), are fiercely patriotic (almost xenophobic), promote American theocratic structures, vote solidly Republican, and unequivocally support Israel. This monolithic portrayal of the faith is born in the modern political Conservative Christian movements of the 1970’s and 1980’s (Google Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson). With intense political interest and a dogged determination, the Christian Right, as it is known, rebranded Christianity for the mainstream culture.

The issue is not that the nation is religious (because it is and yes I said it), but instead it is that the mainstream culture of the society goes to great lengths to categorize everything in the society- to which religion has become a victim. People, ethnicities, economic classes, geographic origins are all subject to pop culture and media classifications like black upper-middle class or young-urban-chic. Those societal dictates also regularly define what the appropriate expression is in the Christian tradition. In spite of this caricature, history tells us of a long tradition of Christian activism that encompassed a whole host of ideas- liberal and conservative. Many abolitionists were Christians. Educational reformers were often rooted in Christian ideology. The civil rights movements that lasted throughout the 19th and 20th century are rooted in Christian ideals, but were historically criticized at the time as being leftist, and Communist. It wasn’t until the rise of the Christian Right that the rebranding of American Christianity was packaged as an exclusively right-wing phenomenon. To be Christian is to be Republican and to be liberal is to be atheist (or at the very least agnostic).

Fundamentally at the heart of the Christian identity myth is the idea that religion is a private and personal decision that is not open to communal interpretation except when it comes to political discourse. Promulgated by the media, portrayals of American Christianity have often been caricatures of political extremes or extraordinary examples of religious bigotry and bias (see Quran burning pastor or Westboro Baptist, etc.). The hundreds of thousands of Christians that are not gun-toting, conservative minded, Creationist, Biblical-Fundamentalists rarely get a hearing in the mainstream culture and media. These Christians abhor the politics of the religious right as a litmus test for true faith in Jesus Christ.

If there is a litmus test for the Christian, then perhaps the passage from Mark sheds light on what it might look like. The gospel of Mark mentions a nameless, faceless crowd that follows Jesus wherever he goes. Whenever he enters a town or performs a miracle, this crowd shows up. Sometimes clamoring for more, sometimes cheering him on, the crowd lives and breathes on Jesus’ activity. Jesus on several occasions even tries to escape the crowd, (as in the above passage) often to no avail. The gospel writer Mark however makes two interesting suppositions. First, there is a distinction between the crowd and the disciples. We see intimate activity and teaching occurring with the disciples. We are privy to all of the emotions and connections that occur with relationship in Jesus, because of the disciples. The crowd gets none of this Jesus. The crowd is kept at a distance and receives some teaching, but not necessarily the intimacy of relationship with the Christ. Secondly, Mark portrays the crowd as being present in a different form at the foot of the cross. When the climate changes and the political winds shift against Jesus, the crowd shows its fickle nature and turns violent. The crowd becomes the mob that chants, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” (Mark 15).

What is my point? Everyone that follows Jesus is not a disciple. Everyone that claims Christian identity does not intimately know his ways. Some folks are just in the crowd. The identity of a Christian manifests in the behavior of the proclaimed Christian. There are many church members who are members of the crowd and not disciples. There are many folk outside of churches who are disciples because they think the church is the crowd. Disciples seek understanding and are looking for deeper relationship. Crowds go where the action is. Disciples may not get it right but they grasp a life with Jesus as being a member of purposeful community. The crowd goes along to get along. Disciples are characterized by their love and compassion for all God’s creation. Crowds are fickle and can quickly turn in on those who do not meet their expectations.

Visions of truth can appear once we become self-critical and reflective as individuals in faith communities, neighborhoods and families. This reflectivity helps us to always examine our position in relationship to Christ. When politicians, celebrities, laymen, clergy, (or even when we), proclaim our faith, the Marcan dichotomy between crowds and disciples is present. Instead of being static in our relationships with Jesus, maybe we drift in and out of the Marcan crowd that follows Christ. Sometimes we are as close as the women with the issue of blood; other times we are far and distant as the north star. And for that reason, we must take care in looking at our behavior and the behavior of any of those who claim to be part of the Christian tradition. We are not vigilant so that we may judge or exclude, but we are vigilant so that we can do better. So be mindful of who you call a Christian and who calls you one. Somebody is just in the crowd and somebody’s stealing away with Jesus…


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