Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Jesus is not my Snuggie

Remember last year when Snuggies were on everyone's Christmas list? I know...I didn't get it either. Twenty million Snuggies were sold by January of 2009 and four million were sold in 2009. They were a cultural phenomenon that were initially mocked and parodied on TV, yet come Christmas time everyone wanted one. My mother even knit Snuggies for all my nieces. Personally, I was repulsed by this marketing gimmick that infested us like a plague. It's a blanket with ARMS!!!

I think what makes these Snuggies so attractive is they are a comfort blanket. When we've had a bad day or there's horrible weather outside we love to curl up in a blanket and escape into a book or TV show. They are our "safe place." My comfort blanket is a blanket I've had since I was an infant. I affectionately call it my "cold blanket."

In a recent coffee conversation with a friend I made the statement "Jesus is not our Snuggie!" The problem is that we tend to treat him that way. We keep Jesus neatly folded up on the shelf of our life and reserve him for those bad days. On those bad days we haul him down and wrap ourselves in the promises of "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1) or " all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Both of these promises are true and need to be anchors of our faith, however, we cannot reduce Jesus to our Snuggie, to our comfort blanket.

When we look at Scripture we do see that Christ is our source of comfort and strength. We also see that life in Christ is not safe. When we look at the lives of Christ and his Apostles where did we ever get the idea that life in Christ is comfortable let alone safe? Christ was born into a world with a bounty on his head, he was led into the desert to be challenged by satan. Eleven of the Apostles were killed for following Christ. For the first 3 centuries of our faith the church met surrounded by corpses in the catacombs under the city of Rome. So why are we surprised when our lives are uncomfortable, or when we experience more than we can bare? These are the times that we learn what it truly means for Christ to be our comfort and our strength. It is in these times that we come to know the truth of Christ's promises.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Finding God in a Forrest

Flipping through the channels last night I stumbled across the tail end of Forrest Gump. It made phrases such as "Life is like a box of chocolates," "that's all I got to say about that," and "stupid is as stupid does" were made famous. As I turned to the channel Jenny, Forrest's childhood friend and lifelong love, was laying on a bed dieing from AIDS, while Forrest sat at her bedside retelling the tales of his adventures during their time apart. It was at this point I was struck with how Forrest's love for Jenny parallels God's love for us.

The uniqueness of this relationship is that Jenny was one of the first people to demonstrate kindness to Forrest. While it is clear that Jenny is the only girl for Forrest, it is also clear that Jenny never even entertains the idea of being with Forrest. Through a series of events Jenny begins to fade in and out of Forrest's life. Until, one night Jenny tells Forrest to stay away from her Forrest says, "just like that, she was gone."

Jenny's life is full of poor choices and circumstances that lead her into a downward spiral. Later on in life Jenny contacts Forrest and asks him to come see her. He does so and we discover Jenny is dieing. Forrest moves Jenny into his home and they eventually get married, despite her impending death.

Many of us are like Jenny in one way or another. For some of us, we see God as a nice guy, but we would never entertain the idea of entering into a intimate relationship with him. Others, we have told God we want him to stay away from us. There are those of us who are friends with God, but we don't always treat him the way he deserves to be treated. Then some of us are going down a self-destructive path.

In whatever way we may identify with Jenny, God's response to us is the same as Forrest's response to Jenny; unwavering devotion and love. Throughout the movie Forrest is faithful to Jenny and we never see his love for her falter, regardless of how long she's gone, what she does, or how she treats him. Forrest embodies the agape of God, whose love for us is totally independent of our actions, but is an outpouring of his being.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Heaven: Transitional Housing

In researching for my thesis I have been thinking about heaven and humanity. At Christ’s return he will usher in what is known in theological circles as the eschaton.

While some believe that Christ will reign on earth for a 1000 years and then take all the Christians off to heaven and leave the earth to be destroyed, I have come to believe that when Christ returns all of creation, including the earth, will be redeemed and heaven and earth will be married together as one. The distinction between heaven and earth will be no more. Thus, humanity’s ultimate destination is not heaven, but heaven and earth.

One interesting observation I am indebted to NT Wright for is how little is mentioned in scripture about heaven, and how much is mentioned about the new heaven and new earth (which some have translated as referring only to heaven). One of the few verses that does refer to just heaven is John 14:2-3; this is the infamous “Behold, I go to prepare a place for you” passage. The Greek word (monai), which is often translated as “mansions” or “rooms”, communicates a temporary dwelling rather than a long time or eternal. The inference we can draw from this is that these rooms are transitional housing for humanity, as we wait for the eschaton to be ushered in and heaven and earth to become one. Consequently, we need to stop dreaming of heaven as our escape to an eternal paradise, and recognize it as a foretaste of the glorious paradise that will be inaugurated with Christ’s return. When, as David Crowder sings, “Heaven meets earth like an unforeseen kiss.”

Monday, February 23, 2009


In light of my recent blogs that have critiqued the contemporary evangelical church culture, I thought it would be prudent to affirm my loyalty to the evangelical church. As my previous posts have indicated I do have concerns regarding our worship of the system, our passivity in society, and our condemnation (I use this in traditional sense of "damning people to hell") of others. Despite these disagreements I remain committed to the evangelical church.

I have grown up in the evangelical church, it has been my ecclesiological family of orientation for 20+ years. Over those years I have been exposed to other Christian traditions and have developed a deep appreciation for the faith in Christ that they have emulated in their lives and theology. It has been a joy to engage in cross-traditional dialogue. There are many things within these various traditions that are appealing and that we, as evangelicals, can learn from. As a result of this exposure I have found myself having to avoid two extremes of the reactionary pendulum. At one end of the pendulum is an evangeocentrism (evangelical ethnocentrism), where I reject anything that is not common in our evangelical community. At the other end is an unquestioning embrace, where it does not matter what someone believes, as long as they believe something. At one end we find rigidness and 0stracizing, while at the other we find a nebulous of ambiguity.

As I attempt to avoid these extremes I live in relationship with my family. My extended ecclesiological family is much bigger than the evangelical church. My family includes, liberals, conservatives, fundamentalists. It includes Protestant, Mainliners, Catholics, and Orthodoxs. At family reunions I will see this extended family, and in the everyday I live with my ecclesiological family of orientation. As with most families, there will be arguments, perhaps shouting matches. I might even at times storm off to my room and slam the door, but the evangelical church is my family, disagreements and all; and you don't give up on family.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Christless Church

One of the critiques I hear regarding Seminary is that it puts God in a box, or that it reduces God to a set of principles and theories. I have to admit that, unless we guard ourselves, this can become a very immanent hazard. The exposure to various theologies presents the temptation of constructing our own system that enables us to justify what we want. As my brother often says, "The truth is what suits your purpose."

What I continually find myself coming back to is the need to be in relationship with God, not apart from my studies, but through them. I am continually reminded of Brother Lawrence, who made every aspect of his life an opportunity to be in conscious relationship with God. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers have a form of prayer that embodies this concept very well. In this form of prayer one repeats the same prayer in one's head until that prayer becomes so much a part of one's thinking that it is subconscious, like breathing. The premise of life being a continual conscious relationship with God seems to constantly emerge in the various generations of the Church. I was first acquainted with this idea through Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and I've seen it most recently in the writings of culturally savvy Rob Bell with his emphasis on "Everything is Spiritual."

While Seminary, or Christian educational institutions, have bared the brunt of these critiques, I have seen the same hazards permeating in our Church cultural. It is so easy to allow the routine of ritual to become our relationship with God. We go to church every Sunday. We attend bible study. Perhaps we're involved in some other ministry. We even get up an hour before work so we can pray and read our bible. None of these are inherently "bad," just as Seminary is not. The problem emerges when the method replaces the person. Prayer becomes an activity to get through or a gauge for my spirituality. It's as though, we no longer need Christ to be Christians. We just need our system or routine that we walk through each week. This is the Christless Church. While such a possible reality grieves me to the core, I think we need to be introspective about this and ask ourselves: Why do I go to church on Sunday? Why do I pray? What is my motivation for ministry? Is it to be a "good Christian"? Is it to get what I want? In the Old Testament when God's presence left the temple, the people saw the cloud of God's glory leave. I wonder if Christ left our church would we even notice?!

Ironically, one of my greatest lessons in Seminary has been that there is no box that God fits in, or any system that will fully encapsulate God and our relationship with him. There is no equation by which if I do A God will have to do B or if I do Y then X will occur. Our faith is not a sytem , the essence of our faith is us in relationship with YHWH, the one true God.

May our means of relating to God never become our God.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Transforming Culture

A few years back I read an article by Richard Niebuhr entitled Christ and Culture. Niebuhr looks at how the relationship between the Church and the culture has traditionally been viewed. We've all faced this question in some form in our journey. I have to admit that I've adopted a range of responses over the years. Recently, I've come to settle on the position that we, the Church, are immersed in our culture and no matter how hard we may fight it, in one way or another we are an intrinsic part of culture. The question for me then became what does it mean to be in culture. Are we simply mindless sponges absorbing our culture? Are we at war with this culture we live in? Both of these questions represent extreme positions on a vast spectrum of positions. On this spectrum I have found myself becoming more and more firmly planted in the position that the Church is a transforming agent in culture.

How the Church acts and reacts toward those who share this culture with us has had a profound impact on defining the perception of the Church and her relationship with others. I have found those who have adopted the "at war with culture" approach have produced significant damage to culture and to the Church. Conversely, I have found those who unquestioningly embrace everything our culture embraces have only perpetuated the goods and evils of culture. I have found those who have adopted the position of being transforming agents in culture, however, have produced significant beneficial growth in our culture. John Wesley, John Newton, William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, and Granville Sharp were all members of "The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade," This committee was the vocal voice in society that changed the cultural perspective of slavery, which applied the necessary political pressure to abolish the slave trade. William Booth, and other members of the evolving Salvation Army, bought the freedom of hundreds of teenage girls who were being victimized in the 19th century European sex slave trade. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has been iconisized as the person who mobilized millions to peaceably pursue civil rights in America. The list goes on and on.

What I notice about this list, besides that they're all "Christians," is that for the most part these transforming agents in culture brought about the change through peaceful action. Rather than being passive members of culture or militant aggressors towards culture, they pursued these changes by being active members of their cultures. The second thing I notice about these examples is that they are a voice for the silent victims of society. This would come as no surprise for those of us familiar with Wesley's famous quote, "there is no holiness apart from social holiness." Those of us who are not familiar with this quote, are likely familiar with the words of Isaiah, "Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows" (Isaiah 1:17).

As I consider these historical examples, I am left wondering how we, the Church, are seeking social justice. How are we being a voice for the marginalized, and oppressed? This question has become even more personal for me as I prepare to go back into full time ministry. When I look at my old philosophy of ministry I notice that it is primarily inward focused, and consumeristic. I gave a great deal of attention to giving teens "the answers" while they have fun. Realizing how my perception of who the Church is and who she is to be, I am now thinking through: How can I ensure that in my life I am being a transforming agent and encouraging others to do the same?

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Cosmic Conversation

Over Christmas I read Peter Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God. It gave me some things to think about, one of which is the nature of theology. Rollins is a continental or postmodern philosopher and one doesn't have to spend much time reading in this field before they come across the terms "object" and "subject." An object is acted upon and the subject acts (i.e. Bill [subject] poured the water [object]) . A great deal of postmodern philosophy is spent turning objects into subjects and subjects into objects.

Rollins writes about how in the Enlightenment God was treated as an object that we dissect and categorize. In this era, theology was all about defining God and getting all the answers. With the dawn of postmodernity theology a new way of "doing" theology has emerged. Now humanity has become the object that is being acted upon. Theology is humanity experiencing God acting upon it. As limited begins, we must recognize that our experience is not necessarily the way it is or the way God is.

I'm not content with either of the views Rollins offers. The first one puts God in a petri dish to be examined, while the second view does the same thing to humanity. I think our relationship with God is so much more than a scientific experiment. Thanks to Rollins I have come to refine my view of theology. I have come to understand theology as a cosmic conversation that spans history. Throughout history God has been speaking to us through revelation and we have been speaking back to God, and speaking to each other, what we understand him to be saying through religion. In turn he responds back to us and we respond back to him. In this cosmic conversation no one is solely object or solely subject but we are all both. For when God speaks to us he is the subject and we are the object, but when we speak to God we are the subject and he is the object.

The purpose of the cosmic conversation is for us to enter into a more intimate relationship with God, by coming to know him more fully. This knowledge is not the kind of knowledge that comes by memorizing the facts. It is birthed out of relationship. The most intimate marriage was born out of and nurtured through long conversations and time spent together. The french language makes a strong distinction between "head knowledge" and "relational knowledge." In french there are two forms of "to know." The first one, "savoir," is a head knowledge, like knowing 2+2=4. The second one, "connaitre," is a personal knowledge, like knowing your best friend. Both of Rollins definitions of theology views are focused on the the savoir knowing, expecting it to lead to the connaitre knowing. However, I believe it is only through the connaitre that anyone (Christian or non-Christian) knows anything about God. Although we may not realize it, God is speaking, revealing himself, to all humanity, and it is through responding to his speaking that we become an active voice in this cosmic conversation. True theology is not birthed out of a petri dish it is birthed out of our relationship with God.