The God Of…

The Crackers & Grape Juice crew got together (online) a few weeks ago to talk about James McClendon’s essay “The God of Theologians and the God of Jesus Christ” for our podcast titled You Are Not Accepted.

Typically, the pod looks at a sermon/essay written by Stanley Hauerwas, and though this one was put forth by someone else, the Hauerwasian themes are all there.

Central to McClendon’s argument is the fact that whoever the “God of the Theologians” is, that God is most certainly White, Male, and Racist. Whereas the God of Jesus Christ, that is the God of Scripture, is not. McClendon can make a claim like that because no matter how much we go looking for Jesus, most of the time its just like looking at the bottom of a well – we think we see Him down there but all we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves. God, on the other hand, doesn’t wait for us to come looking; God finds us.

If you’d like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The God of the Theologians and the God of Jesus Christ

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

Churches Should Not Have The American Flag In The Sanctuary

Romans 7.24-25

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! 

Churches should NOT have the American Flag in the sanctuary.

That was the tweet I sent out into the twitterverse, not thinking too much about what I had done. I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the American Flag and the Cross of Christ hanging as if equals in places of worship. I have written about it at length and preached about it on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that Christians’ truest citizenship can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus and not from a nation.

But, writing one sentence about the subject for Twitter doesn’t amount to much.

Or, at least, I didn’t think it did…

As of the moment of writing this, the tweet has been seen over 550,000 times and over 70,000 people have interacted with it.

In a matter of two days, my one sentence about the flag in church has become more “popular” than anything I have ever done.

And, the responses have been fairly predictable. 

On one side people have been deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from a sanctuary. They have implored me to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice, the nation it represents was founded on religious freedom, and that to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).

On the other side, Christians have expressed their concern with the proximity of the flag to the worship of God. They have remarked that we cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to a particular nation-state, and a great number of Christians from other parts of the globe have remarked that they’ve never seen their own nation’s flag in church (demonstrating how this is a uniquely American phenomenon).

I’ve received more private messages than I can count both thanking me for the tweet and damning me for it. I’ve been labeled a prophet and a traitor. I’ve searched through so many of the responses that it started to feel like “doom-scrolling” where it left me feeling hollow.

Today is the 4th of July – a day for Americans to celebrate the nation’s independence. And yet, for Christians (who happen to be American) it’s important to remember that our independence came long before George Washington and the Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence.

Our truest freedom comes from and through Jesus.

Can we still fly American Flags on our homes? Sure – though we should remember and recognize that there is a slippery slope between patriotism and nationalism that often leads to xenophobia and violence.

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

Can we celebrate and enjoy fireworks today? Definitely – though we cannot let them blind us to the injustices that our taking place within, and right on, our nation’s borders.

Which leads me back to the American Flag in church… 

America is not synonymous with the Kingdom of God and when we put the American Flag in the sanctuary we equate the two together. Our obsession with patriotism, such that we fly a nation’s flag in places of worship, is a sign of what Jesus calls idolatry. 

The 4th of July is not independence day for Christians. It certainly marks the beginning of a new kind of freedom for a nationstate and a particular people in a particular way – but our realest independence came through the cross and the empty tomb 2,000 years ago.

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

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 come and go like the wind. We depend on the Lord to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

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

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

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the end of all sacrifices.

Jesus Christ is the One in whom we live and move and have our being so much so that we can rejoice in the presence of others without hatred, fear, or bitterness.

Jesus Christ is the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead has set us free from the truest tyrannies of all – sin and death.

Lies We Wrap In Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to pray in the midst of a time like this. A time when all you have to do is get on Twitter or television and you’re bombarded with images and videos from our local community and across the nation of people in anguish and fear, and the ways others are responding to it.

This morning, I arrived at church and went to the sanctuary to pray as I always do and I was at a loss for what to share with the Lord. I felt like I had no words to offer in regard to everything being experienced.

From protestors being hit by police cars, to the President tear-gassing a church so that he could have a photo opportunity with a Bible in his hands, to the countless images of violence being perpetrated against those who are demonstrating peacefully.

It’s difficult to know how to put into words how I’m feeling, how to communicate it to God, and how we should (perhaps) all be feeling about this. And I was reminded this morning, particularly as a pastor who feels like I always have to be coming up with new, fresh, and insightful things to say, that I can rely on the words of others.

And, in particular, I can rely on the prayers of others.

Karl Barth once said, “To clasp hands together in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That’s how I try to think of prayer whenever I pray whether it’s individually or corporately.

Therefore, I would like to share a prayer from someone else, a prayer that has meant a lot to me, and feels even more important considering the condition of our current condition:

Lies We Wrap in Love – Stanley Hauerwas

Lord, we often ask you to invade our lives,

To plumb the secrets of our hearts unknown even to ourselves.

But in fact we do not desire that.

What we really want to scream,

If only to ourselves, 

Is “Do not reveal to us who we are!”

We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions.

Yes, we know another word for a life of illusion is hell. 

But we are surrounded by many caught up in such a hell – 

People too deficient of soul even to be capable of lying, 

But only of self-deceit.

Dear God, we ask for your mercy on all those so caught,

Particularly if we are among them.

The loneliness of such a life is terrifying.

Remind us, compel us to be truthful, painful as that is.

For without the truth, without you, we die.

Save us from the pleasantness which too often is but a name for ambition.

Save us from the temptation to say to another what we think he/she wants to hear

Rather than what we both need to hear.

The regimen of living your truth is hard,

But help us remember that any love but truthful love is cursed.

The lie wrapped in love is just another word for violence.

For God’s sake, for the world’s sake, give us the courage to speak truthfully,

So that we might be at peace with one another and with you. Amen. 

So, whether it’s with your own prayers, or the prayers of those who came before, I pray that today you find a way to clasp your hands in prayer such that is a beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. 

Don’t Use God As An Explanation

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“If we ask the elderly to commit suicide in order to shore up the economy for their grandchildren, then their grandchildren won’t have lives worth living.”

That’s what Stanley Hauerwas said to Jason Micheli and myself yesterday over the phone. We had a brief conversation about what it means to be the church in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic and how to make sense of it theologically. Additionally, we addressed the lack of analogies for the current situation, what it means to be really connected, and the pulpit of America. If you would like to listen to the conversation, you can do so here: Don’t Use God As An Explanation

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

Devotional:

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.