We Are What We Pretend To Be

What does it take, what does it mean, to be a Christian?

This is a worthy question for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, particularly during the time we call Lent. Lent, after all, is a season of repentance, or turning back to the Lord who came to dwell among us. Lent is that wondrous opportunity to reflect on what it is we are doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the one who breathed life into us.

And yet, most of us believe, even though we confess ourselves to be sinners, that we are actually good enough. We know we are not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). It is therefore not at all clear to us that we are sinful creatures in need of a Savior who can make something of our nothing.

As Christians, thankfully, we believe that we must be taught what it means to be sinners. That training comes by being confronted by Jesus Christ who, as Karl Barth puts it: “has accused us by turning and taking to Himself the accusation which is laid properly against us, against all people. He pronounced sentence on us by taking our place, by unreservedly allowing that God is in the right against Himself – Himself the bearer of our guilt. This is the humility of the act of God which has taken our place for us in Jesus Christ.”

Just as we must be taught what it means to be sinners, we must be taught what it means to be disciples – and this is a teaching that takes a lifetime.

So we need not worry about whether or not we are really Christians. During Lent (or any other liturgical time) we may think we are only pretending to be Christian, going through the motions of faith. 

But, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be.

Here are some tunes to get in a Lenten mood…

Kevin Morby’s “Wander” has been on repeat in my house over the last few months if only because my four year old loves to pound his chest when the kick-drum shakes our bookshelves as it mirrors a heart beat midway through the song. The lyrics, though, feel perfectly Lenten as it conveys a journey into the stormy weather of the wilderness. 

The Strokes’ “Under Control” is one of my all time favorite songs and Rostam’s cover pays homage to the teen angst of the original while putting it inside of a more reflective and ethereal feel. As one of the founding members of Vampire Weekend, Rostam excels in creating atmospheric melodies and what he does with “Under Control” keeps the song stuck in my head for hours. Lent, to me, is a season where we wrestle back and forth between being in, and out of, control which is what this song is all about.

Wilco’s “On and on and On” is remarkably apt this lenten season as it feels like we never really left Lent last year because of the pandemic. Jeff Tweedy has this uncanny ability to craft songs that speak these tremendous truths, and the lyrics in this song are both hopeful and frightening (in the best way) at the same time: “On and on and on we’ll be together, yeah / please don’t cry, we’re designed to die.” 

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

In The Beginning Was The Verb

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [B] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the proleptic tense, Christmas unicorns, reconciliation, peaceful borders, God’s grammar, feeling the feels in worship, theological adoption, Herbert McCabe, letting in the riff-raff, and reading from the margins. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: In The Beginning Was The Verb

The (Christian) Problem with The Death Penalty or: Why “An Eye For An Eye” Leaves Everyone Blind

The Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18 years old.

Bernard was the ninth man killed by the federal government since July and he spent more than half of his life waiting on death row.

While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.

Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.

Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though it has only recently come back into practice by the Federal Government. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence others away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered. 

There are roughly 2,620 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.

And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur, it is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the long term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death. 

And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell. 

And even among these statistics and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.

And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with and rape his wife.

We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.

One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.

The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system. 

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when Brandon Bernard was killed yesterday, it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.

But we are murdering people for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”

Violence only begets violence.

An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. 

God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.

God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.

And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. 

Election Playlist

The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays and sermons from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for Election Day below…

Sufjan Stevens – America

The Strokes – Bad Decisions

Kevin Morby & Waxahatchee – Farewell Transmission

“America” is the lead single from Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album The Ascension. It is a 12.5 minute protest song against the sickness of American culture and it crescendos into a rather cathartic reflection on disillusionment and the loss of faith in the nation. It contains all of the classic Sufjan-esque elements that have made his career what it is from pulsing synths to layered recorders to an ear worm of a chorus.

On the morning of the presidential election in 2016, I drove to my local polling station (a Seventh Day Adventist Church) and after depositing my vote into the machine I looked up to see a mural of Jesus laughing his ass off; it was perfect. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that we get the politicians we deserve and that, in spite of our best and even worst attempts, democracy is a highly coercive way to do things – particularly when 50.1% of people get to tell 49.9% of people what to do. “Bad Decisions” from The Strokes reminds me of this problem. 

Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield’s (Waxahatchee) cover of Jason Molina’s “Farewell Transmission” is a haunting and holy tribute to a great songwriter who died at the age of 39 from alcohol abuse-related organ failure. My favorite lyric comes about midway through the song, and I think the words are particularly fitting for the time we find ourselves in: “The real truth about it is no one get it right / The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.”

Not My Party

“’Trump says all the things we’ve always wanted to say.’ Really? Then what does it say about us as Americans if Trump’s outer monologue is our inner monologue?”

The Crackers & Grape Juice crew got together (online) last week and we were fortunate to have a conversation with Gretchen Purser about the changes that have happened to the Republican Party throughout her career and how it has reshaped the way she understands her faith.

Gretchen spent 20 years in politics, raised ~1 billion dollars for the Republican Party, worked for the Christian Coalition, and retired from politics in 2009.

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Not My Party

This Shall Be A Sign To You

Psalm 107.1

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

On Sunday countless churches across the world (at least those who follow the Revised Common Lectionary) were treated to the Gospel reading when Jesus reminds those with ears to hear that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor.

Jesus does so in the Gospel of Matthew as a response to a lawyer who was seeking to trap him in his words. And Jesus, being Jesus, not only responds with an answer that left everyone speechless (“No one dared ask him another question”) but he stole his answer from other parts of the Bible. 

Which is to say, Jesus’ pronouncement about loving God and neighbor isn’t unique to Jesus. 

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might,” come straight from Deuteronomy 6:5. And “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is from Leviticus 19:18. 

The more you read the scriptures, the more you enter the strange new world of the Bible, the more you realize that it is indeed strange because it is constantly repeating and re-interpreting itself. Karl Barth put it this way: “The Old Testament does not end in the New Testament but continues in it, just as the New Testament is already present in the Old Testament.” 

The whole of the revealed Word of God is a living and confounding witness to the repetition of God with God’s people.

A few days ago, after putting the finishing touches on my sermon about Jesus’ treatise on love, I came across an image that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Some enterprising Christians took the time to diagram out all the chapters in the Bible (from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22) and draw connections backwards and forwards between all the cross-references. In the end, they produced an image with 63,779 connections throughout the entirety of the scriptures and, in God’s strange and wonderful way of doing things, the image came out looking like a rainbow.

How perfect.

The sign of the first rainbow in Genesis after the flood was and is a sign for us of the covenant God has made with God’s creation. And now, seeing another rainbow connecting scriptures, we are reminded of God’s promise to dwell among us, to redeem us, and to love us in spite of us.

The Bible is complex and diverse. It is not something to be consumed just like any other book from front to back. It is a mine that never stops producing incredible gems.

The Bible also contains just about every kind of literary genre from poetry to pose to genealogies to aphorisms and on and on. It can remind us of the same things over and over again or it can smack us in the head with a new insight for the very first time.

The Bible is alive and ever new even though the canon was finished a long time ago. That it is alive and ever new is indicative of the Spirit’s power to bring forth light on something previously shadowed.

Basically, the Bible is awesome. 

Vulnerable

Readers of this blog will know that I have a complicated relationship with the American Flag and the rampant forms of nationalism that are all too present in the church today (and have been for some time).

Part of the challenge stems from the non-existent separation of Church and State such that many American Christians consider themselves Americans first and Christians second. Which runs counter to the Pauline affirmation that our (that is, Christians’) truest citizenship is in heaven.

And yet, no matter how I may feel theologically about the state of American Christianity, today is a day when it feels like no matter what I might say, it will get interpreted the wrong way.

Which is just another way of saying: Americans aren’t allowed to speak ill of America on September 11th.

I was in the 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in our living room watching the towers fall over and over again on television. I can remember my father saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.

In the weeks that followed everything felt like a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of nationalism and patriotism to that degree since the end of World War II.

Everything about September 11th was discussed in a rigid binary: We are right, and they are wrong – we are innocent, and they are guilty – America is pure, the Middle East is wicked.

It was only later, after countless books and conversations with people from other parts of the world, that I discovered how much more of a complicated situation the whole thing was. My public school education, television diet, and conversations with my parents never taught me about what the US was up to in other nations across the planet. I assumed, as an 8th grader, that what was done to us on September 11th was without cause. But now, as an adult, I know that America is not as innocent as she portends to be.

My own transformation took place over time, but I can trace a lot of it back to a particular moment; when I came across a prayer written by Stanley Hauerwas 30 minutes after the destruction of the World Trade Center. For, rather than praying for God to strike down our enemies, or to bring swift justice, or whatever else filled so many prayers that day, he prayed with a sense of honesty that I had yet to encounter up to that point.

So, on this September 11th, as it becomes harder and harder to think theologically about what it means to be a Christian who happens to live in the US, I offer this prayer written 19 years ago today as a helpful reminder that we (Americans) are not as innocent as we might think we are.

A Prayer Written 30 Minutes After the Destruction Of The World Trade Center – Stanley Hauerwas

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 no 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 seems platitudinous in this time. Yet, of course, when we pray you make us your prayer to the world. So, Lord of peace, make 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. 

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

Quarantunes

“Sing lustily and with good courage.” John Wesley wrote those words in the Hymnbook for Methodists in 1761. We at Crackers and Grape Juice take those words seriously!

Therefore we decided to bring you some of our current “Quarantunes” for our latest podcast. They are the songs that have inspired, enlightened, and even enraged us as of recent. Here’s the playlist:

1. Thoughts And Prayers – Drive-By Truckers (Jason Micheli)
2. Sea of Love – Langhorne Slim & Jill Andrews (Teer Hardy)
3. What If I Never Get Over You – Lady A (Johanna Hartelius)
4. Cowboy Take Me Away – The Chicks (Tommie Marshell)
5. Moon River – Jacob Collier (David King)
6. Beautiful Strangers – Kevin Morby (Taylor Mertins)

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Quarantunes