Like A Virgin

I was a young and naive pastor. In fact I still am. But at the time it was worse than it is now. I decided to dedicate a sermon series to doubt and encouraged the congregation, anonymously, to submit anything they were wrestling with regarding their faith. The idea was to compile the doubts and preach a series on the respective topics in such a way that people could sit in and with their questions, rather than trying to make their doubts vanish into thin air.

I prepared myself for some of the doubts that would no doubt come across my desk. I assumed there would be questions about the resurrection from the dead, and the walking on the water, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. And I got a few of those, including some questions about whether heaven was real and debates about the existence of the devil. But as the doubts came in, and I started tallying them all up, there was one biblical component that people struggled with more than anything else, by a long shot – The Virgin Birth.

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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 virgin’s name was Mary. 

Mary will receive unbelievable news from the divine messenger that she, of all people, will be the one to bring the Lamb of God into the world and that she will do so as a virgin. Thus the incarnation of God takes place in a virgin’s womb against all odds and against all the rules of the universe.

We don’t hear much about the virgin birth in the mainline protestant church today, perhaps out of fear of sounding too Catholic. We’ve relegated Mary to being a bystander throughout the whole ordeal and though we might lift up her Magnificat, she is not the main character in the story as we tell it. But her birthing the Messiah into the world as a virgin is biblical, it is true, and it makes all the difference.

Years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was invited to preach at a wedding during the season of Advent. As someone committed to the great breadth of scripture, Hauerwas preached on the assigned lectionary texts for the following Sunday which included Mary’s remarkable “Here am I” to the news from Gabriel. 

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In it Hauerwas says, “When I first began to think about this sermon, I kept thinking, ‘If I am to be true to the text I ought to start with an announcement: Scott, old buddy, I have some astounding news – you are pregnant, and Demery is going to take care of you anyway.’ Not a bad way for us to begin, if we are to have some slight appreciation of what it meant for Mary to say, ‘Here I am.’” (Hauerwas, “How The Virgin Birth Makes Marriage Possible” Disrupting Time)

In this rather jarring remark Hauerwas points to that which is essential, particularly for those of us for whom the virgin birth is something we don’t want to think about or even believe – Mary shouldn’t have believed it either! It’s impossible for a virgin to become pregnant, and even more so for one of the least of these to be the one to bring God’s Son into the world! And yet, Mary doesn’t receive the news as such. Instead she, without having any real reason to, believes that God does God’s best work in the realm of impossibilities.

Again Hauerwas notes, “For us, that is, us moderns, the virgin birth is often used as a test case for how far we are willing to go in believing what most people think is unbelievable.” 

This is a strange and notable case to make considering the fact that the Bible is one big impossible reality: God makes everything out of nothing. God floods the earth and then promises never to do it again. God guarantees an elderly woman that she will finally have a son, and then she does. God divides the sea to save the people Israel. God brings victory to a nation time and time again even though they should’ve lost. And that’s just a sampling from the Old Testament. Time and time again, God does what we could not and would not do and it comes to a beautiful and wondrous fruition in the womb of Mary. 

The one knit together in her impossible belly is the one whose life will be defined by impossibility – he will preach and teach and heal and save in ways that people couldn’t wrap their heads around. And then, in the end, he will do the most impossible thing of all – rise from the dead. 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation upon which everything else is made intelligible about our faith. If Jesus is not raised from the dead then we are wasting our time and we are fools. But we Christians, each and every one of us, are tiny testaments to the power of the resurrection for our lives have been changed forever and we had nothing to do with it.

Which is all to say, if God could raise Jesus from the dead then God could certainly make a virgin pregnant. God loves to work in the realm of impossible possibilities and upend everything we thought we knew. So perhaps the best way to approach the virgin birth isn’t by making scientific claims or qualifications, it’s not about pointing to differing translations about what it all really means. Instead, maybe we do as Hauerwas notes in another place, we come to the virgin birth in silence. For “by learning to be silent we have learned to be present to one another and the world as witnesses to the God who has made us a people who once were no people – such a people have no need to pretend we know more about our God than we do.” (Hauerwas, “The Sound of Silence” Preaching Radical & Orthodox) 

In the end, the best news of all is that the virgin birth is not contingent on our believing it. Even if we struggle with the idea, even if we doubt its rationality, God is in the business of making a way where there is no way. Like a virgin who brings a baby into the world, God raises Jesus from the dead, and that’s the best news of all. 

Our Independence Day

Psalm 30.4

Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. 

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I was 8 years old when the movie Independence Day was released in theaters. At the time it was all anyone could talk about – the special effects, the story-telling, Will Smith saving the world. And yet, the thing I remember most about seeing the movie back in 1996 was Bill Pullman’s rallying speech as the President and his now infamous line: “Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”

I know for a fact that I, along with every young person in the theater, lifted my fist into the air in patriotic solidarity.

In a few days, Americans across the country will bring out all the red, white, and blue that we can muster and we will fill the sky with fireworks. We will be celebrating our declared independence from the monarch of Britain which inevitably led to the Revolutionary War and the  foundation of the United States of America.

The 4th of July is always a spectacle to behold because it encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, fireworks, and food!

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And behind all of the three-color-coded outfits, the backyard barbecues, and the displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th is all about strength. It’s all about displaying and rejoicing in our strength in the realms of economy, military, and even freedom itself.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in the community celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that our truest independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.

Out truest freedom comes from Jesus.

Can we get all dressed up in red, white, and blue this week? Of course – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often results in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Or course – though we cannot forget or ignore how America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately through the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Or course – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our borders.

The 4th of July is not the independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate, but the real independence day for Christians took places 2,000 years ago on the cross.

The 4th of July, therefore, does not really belong to Christians. We can participate and enjoy the day as much as everyone else but we do so know that our hopes and dreams have been formed by the Lord, not by a document declaring our freedom from monarchy.

What we experience across the country as we mark a new year in the life of the nation is fun and full of power, but it will never ever compare to the grace of Jesus Christ made manifest in the bread and wine of communion and in the water of baptism.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us so that we wouldn’t have to.

The 4th of July is not our independence day. In fact, if it is anything, it is our dependence day. It is our dependence day because it shows how much faith and hope we put in things made by human hands which, to use the psalmist words, can come and go like the wind. 

We can absolutely enjoy the 4th of July and rejoice in our celebrations, but if what we do this week is more compelling and life-giving that the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that outshines all fireworks.

We’re God’s Joke On The World

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Psalm 72.11

May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.

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I am sitting in my office after being gone from the church since Christmas Eve. I flew to visit family in the midwest and did my best to find some recreation during my time away. But, of course, living in another’s person house, sleeping in a different bed, driving in different cars, it begins to take a toll on you. It’s as if the disorder from our normal order just gets under our skin and there isn’t much we can do about it.

And then, having avoided the news media for more than a week, I made the foolish decision to turn on the TV to find out what I had been missing!

Some things never change.

Which led me to one of my favorite books from Stanley Hauerwas: Prayers Plainly Spoken. The book is a collection of prayers written without the pretenses often found in prayers that are prayed on Sunday morning. And, over the years, I’ve found myself drawn to this ragtag collection when I am at a loss for words. 

And this was the first prayer I read having returned to my office:

“Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Of course we get tired, bored, worn down by the stupidity that surrounds us. But then that stupid person does something, says something that is wonderful, funny, insightful. How we hate for that to happen. But, thank God, you have given us one another, ensuring we will never be able to get our lives in order. Order finally is no fun, and you are intent on forcing us to see the humor of your kingdom. I mean really, Lord, the Jews! But there you have it. You insist on being known through such a funny people. And now us – part of your joke on the world. Make us your laughter. Make us laugh, and in the laughter may the world be so enthralled by your entertaining presence that we lose the fear that fuels our violence. Funny Lord, how we love this life you have given us. Amen.”

As Christians, the new year for us began 5 weeks ago, but I also find it fitting to think about entering the secular new year with a prayer for laughter. For what could be closer to the voice of God than the sound of laughter?

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The Problem With American Christianity

Psalm 9.19

Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.

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Inside of an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children are being held in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage has 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips, and large foil sheets that are supped to be used as blankets.

This is how the scene was described yesterday when the U.S. Border patrol allowed reporters into the warehouse where they are currently holding people arrested at the southern US border. All across the country churches and civil rights activists have been responding to the news of the government’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting separation of families.

As a Christian leader there is much that I can say about this kind of policy, but it is limited by the fact that we chose these particular politicians to lead us; further complicating the issue is how often people make it known to me that they don’t want to hear about politics in church. However, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently responded to criticisms about the nearly 2,000 children that have been taken from their parents by saying, “I would cite the apostle Paul who clearly and wisely said in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

And when politicians start citing bible verses, when they bring the church into politics, then it becomes something else entirely.

Romans 13, and in particular the verse crudely quoted by our Attorney General, is often used to justify all kinds of acts committed by the government. And, as Stanley Hauerwas often points out, we never think about how Romans 13 was exactly the text the German Christians used to serve Hitler. And, to make matters even worse, it is a text taken out of context and we fail to read in in light of the verses that lead up to it!

Romans 12 is all about the marks of Christianity predicated on blessing those who are marginalized. It is fundamentally a list about what it means to exist in a world full of evil by not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good. Then, and only then, shall we be subject to the governing authorities.

However, instead of reading Romans 12 into Romans 13 so many people separate these thoughts from one another in order to justify political rules that don’t expect Caesar (leaders) to be repentant. Separating these theological convictions from one another is exactly the kind of move that produces Christians who blindly submit to the will of the nation-state instead of calling the nation-state into question.

If we read Romans 13 like Jeff Sessions then we will fail to see that that verse also applies to Caesar! Far too many Christians today no longer know how to read scripture, and how to read it well. Again, to quote Hauerwas, “American Christians don’t know how to read the bible well. They don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re Christians.”

Caesar, in whatever form of leadership, is only divinely instituted when he/she is also held accountable to a world made possible by a 1st century Jew who was murdered on a cross. We are only bound by Caesar when Caesar is bound by an ethic that believes in extending hospitality to strangers, feeding the hungry, and hating what is evil. Romans 13 is nothing without Romans 12.

We don’t like to talk about divine judgment in the church these days. Most of us are far more comfortable with a God of peace and mercy and justice if it doesn’t require anything on our part. But the psalmist is frighteningly wise to call for the Lord to judge the nations and to not let mortals prevail. Whether we like to think about it, or even admit it, the Lord will judge us for how we treat the least of these.

Devotional – Psalm 103.8

Devotional:

Psalm 103.8

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

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16 years ago I was sitting in my 8th grade band class when an announcement came over the PA system that I was needed at the main office. I walked down the hallway wondering why in the world they needed me in the main office of my middle school when I saw my father standing outside the doors beckoning me to hurry up. We quickly dashed toward the car where my sisters were already waiting and all I remember my dad saying was, “So many people have already died.”

It was September 11, 2001 and my father somehow got us out of school before they went under lockdown. I spent the entire day sitting on the living room floor at my parents’ house watching the World Trade Centers fall to the ground over and over again. And I was angry.

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Thinking back on that day 16 years ago, I can remember the anger I felt, but I can’t tell you who or what that anger was directed toward. The television contained images of violence I never thought possible in the world and it created in me a frustration and an anger that remained for a long time.

It was only years later that I came across a prayer written by one of my professors 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Dr. Hauerwas’ words articulate a feeling that I believe most Americans felt 16 years ago, but he was also bold enough to speak the truth in a time of fear, anger, and violence. This is the prayer he wrote 16 years ago today:

“Vulnerable – we feel vulnerable, God, and we are not used to feeling vulnerable. We are Americans. Nor are we used to anyone hating us this much. Such terrible acts. Killing civilians. We are dumbfounded. Lost. We are good people. We are a nation of peace. We do not seek war. We do not seek violence. Try to help us remember that how we feel may be how the people of Iraq have felt while we have been bombing them. It is hard for us to acknowledge the “we” in “We bombed them.” What are we to do? We not only feel vulnerable, but we also feel helpless. We are not sure what to feel except shock, which will quickly turn to anger and even more suddenly to vengeance. We are Christians. What are we to do as Christians? We know that anger will come to us. It does us not good for us to tell ourselves not to be angry. To try not to be angry just makes us all the more furious. You, however, have given us something to do. We can pray, but we wonder for what we can pray. To pray for peace, to pray for the end of hate, to pray for the end of war seem platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, makes us what you will. This may be one of the first times we have prayed that prayer with an inkling of how frightening prayer is. Help us.” (Dr. Stanley Hauerwas – Disrupting Time)

So today, 16 years later, we still pray for God’s will to be done. We pray that we might become God’s prayer for the world. And, perhaps most boldly, we remember that while the world is consumed by fear and terror, we worship the God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

The Christian Problem With (Nuclear) War

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen. And in response to President Trump’s words, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

The Most Hipster Passage From The Old Testament

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice went down to Durham, NC a couple weeks ago to interview Stanley Hauerwas for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the fourth Sunday of Lent during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Dr. Hauerwas gave us a lot to chew on. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn about the most hipster passage from the Old Testament, you can check out the podcast here: Year A – Lent 4

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