March 31, 2008

The Eroticization of Worship

Yes, it can be that bad. What happens when you get everybody into church, face them forward towards screens and a band (or a choir, or an organ, or an alter - whatever) and then sing songs about being "in love with Jesus"? Incidentally, church is the only place that this whole facing-forward-and-singing happens anyway, but are we really singing what we mean? My thanks to Al Hirsch and Matt Stone for pointing me towards this video of an interview with Matt Redman; watch it and think long and hard about this.

March 24, 2008

Minor Government Bureaucrats

I'm studying for my eastern religions test tomorrow (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confusianism, Taoism). I don't mean any disrespect, but what I've learned officially begs the question: what is it with minor government bureaucrats and new religions? They're drawn to them like flies to honey! Buddha, Mahavira, Guru Nanak, Lau Tzu, and Confucius were all minor government bureaucrats who decided that the prevailing religion wouldn't work, so they founded their own. It's like if you're not important in any way, you decide to become important by creating a religion. It makes you wonder if some guy buried in the archives section of the National Science Museum or some lady wallowing away behind a library desk is inventing some new religion involving a comet, a squiggle, and a carrot as we speak.

Ah well. Best get back to studying ...

[UPDATE: The test kicked my patootie pretty badly, but it's over, and I'm still left wondering why it is that the guy who works in archives decided to start a new religion; could it have something to do with the tedium and having lots of time to think? If so, I think the next new religion might come out of the Coldstone in Brannon Crossing where I used to work ...]

March 22, 2008

Heard in Wilmore

Chris (holding Rori): "Feel the wrath of the BABY!!!!"
Liz: "Baby wrath? We'll have to get some cream for that ..."

March 20, 2008

Back to Eden

I think it's hilarious that some ministers love to pull out the Great Commission only when it's convenient, like when talking about how we shouldn't be worrying about environmentalism or taking care of our planet. In the rest of church life, the Great Commission is a statement to which they pay lip-service, evangelism a means of garnering new church members for their tithe than the restoration of human beings. I had one of those "shake your head and laugh because if you didn't you'd cry" sort of moments today in Doctrine, during a discussion on the very issue of creation-care. It inevitably happened that a few people brought up the "well it's too much of a distraction from our God-ordained mission to evangelize the world" comment that comes up in these situations.

"Too much of a distraction."

Words cannot express how angry I got at that moment. I did a decent job of restraining myself, though Dan helped too. I found something stirred within me that I've been noticing a lot lately. When I returned from India, my thoughts dwelled on the environmental damage I saw there, the garbage everywhere, the brick and mortar torn down and tossed into piles, the fires burning plastics into the air. I returned to my daily life, and on my drive to work, began noticing the new land being cleared for a wider route 68 into Lexington (to handle the growing traffic as the suburbs expand). And I just felt sad. Not that we don't need a wider road - we do - but the way in which it's being done. Instead of working WITH the land, the engineers decided instead to cut down old, ancient trees that were "in the way" (though I'm pretty sure they could've worked around most of them) and then burn them. They didn't even have the decency to use the wood for something useful, they burned it in massive bonfires.

And I felt sad.

Sometimes, when I'm too tired on my way to (or from) work, I get close to tears as I think of the waste. I'm not saying that life doesn't have its seasons, that sometimes the tree really does have to come down, but when it's avoidable?

And some people still find this irrelevant, "too much of a distraction." The very place they live is a place to exploit, rather than see the wonders of God's creative hand. They'll sing "God of Wonders" but only insofar as they don't yet need to use those wonders, insofar as their use and abuse of those wonders doesn't affect their quality of life. And the Great Commission is used as the excuse. "Go and make disciples of all nations …" is used to tell the Christian community that they don't have to be responsible with the way they live.

It bastardizes the Great Commission by saying this. What is a disciple but a person who learns at the feet of Jesus? If Jesus is the guy who walked from place to place, taking times of solitude in Gardens and on hillsides overlooking lakes, the picture of a God who creates everything good, from nothing, then I'm not sure that I'm reading the same scriptures they are. When I see Jesus care for others, for the lowest of humanity, it is never at the expense of creation. Creation is worked, improved, pruned, but never destroyed. Yes, creation is a resource for the survival of humanity; but Adam was given dominion over creation. If Jesus is the second Adam, then dominion implies servanthood, and to serve others is also to serve and maintain our planet. Where would we be without the delicate balance that is found in the created order?

Now, to be moderately fair, one of the students on that side of this discussion did mention that we owed a great deal to the environmental movement of the 1960's and '70's … but … (and there's always a "but") he thinks that the church is jumping on the "bandwagon" thirty years too late. I'm well aware that environmentalism can be a bandwagon, just like wearing crosses or attending protest rallies. But if Christians are starting to realize that they still have just the one planet, and want to take care of it, then this is a good thing! Not to mention the fact that the environment is STILL a priority in popular culture (perhaps more so, with the Global Warming debate as important as it is). If these Christians (the ones who all of a sudden seem so into the Great Commission) want to relate Jesus to this culture, then maybe working alongside those in the environmental movement (rather than against them) is a wise idea; it's like making important to you what is important to us (instead of telling them to find important only what you find important). Failing this, perhaps being concerned about the environment needs to be in the interests of self-preservation; it doesn't get any better unless you WORK at it.

But in my mind, the only real reason to take care of our planet IS God. Think of Him as a parent; a parent takes care of his kids for a while, and through their adult years as well (though in a different capacity). But in that, He teaches them to also take care of themselves. In this case, creation - both the Earth AND Humanity - must take care of itself. The environment naturally seeks balance, so the problem lies not with the earth, but with human beings. And this is what we see with God's command to Adam.

It seems significant to me that Jesus, after He was resurrected, first appeared as a gardener. If God is the creator and works with His creation as a parent, then it makes sense that Jesus is tending the Garden of His creation. Jesus died and rose not just for sinners, but for those who were sinned against - including creation. Someday, scripture writes, Jesus will return again and restore His Kingdom. But this is not simply the restoration of rule; it is a restoration of creation. Jesus moves us all back towards Eden, both body and soul, mind and flesh, man and beast, creation. As much the Coming Kingdom is the restoration of the relationship between God and Humanity, it is also the restoration of harmony between the creation and those that live in it.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need
He lets me see a country of justice and peace
And directs my steps toward his land
[Zephania Kameeta, Adaptation of Psalm 23]

UPDATE: Found this video at the Onion on this very topic! How convenient!

March 19, 2008

What Would You Say?

I wrote this as an allegory for my Doctrine class. No, the character is not me, but I was answering a question involving what I might say in similar circumstances. I have actually been in conversations a bit like this, but the circumstances were a tad different. Anyway, I hope you like it. Enjoy.

* * *

I checked my watch as I pulled into the Abuelos parking lot; half an hour late was too late for my taste. John and Mary knew I had a tendency to show up a bit off schedule, but this was pushing it, even with my lame “my cell is dead” excuse. Especially on today, of all days; the anniversary of their son’s tragic football injury, paralyzing him from the waist down. I wondered if I’d see Mark today. I expected so, since Mexican was his favorite, but then again, travel with a paraplegic is never easy, even with the new vehicle they’d had to purchase since Mark’s accident. I parked, tossed my useless cell phone onto the passenger seat, and made my way into the restaurant. The hostess smiled at me warmly; Wendy was one of my parishioners, and it seemed appropriate that she would be working here today – after all, she was Mark’s girlfriend. I tried to push thoughts of unequal yokes out of my head. She’d stuck with him after she’d been baptized, and if anyone was to reach the Smiths, it was her.

“They’re waiting for you in the back,” she said, “over there.” I thanked her, always surprised by her warmth and genuineness – she always made you feel as though you were the most important person there.

Mary waved me over and I sat down. Mark smirked as I picked up the menu and then handed it to the waiter who’d appeared promptly; I already knew what I wanted. After I’d ordered, John raised his Margarita and said “to friends, who stick with us through trouble.” He took a swig and then gave me a pointed look. “You know,” he started, “it’s polite to call. But that’s ok – they have free chips here.” I mumbled an embarrassed apology.

“No worries mate,” he said – he was Australian – “we’ll put it on your tab.” After some more polite conversation, we sat in silence for a minute, sipping our drinks, when suddenly John’s fist hit the table, hard, making water slosh around the rim of my glass. “I just don't get it,” he barked, “How could your god let something like this happen? What’s he on about?” I’d known that this was coming – he’d been hinting at it for a while now – but the force of his question worried me a little; I still wasn’t sure what to say to him.

“John,” I started, slowly, “I know it’s been hard. God knows you’ve all been through a lot …”

“Does he now?” retorted John.

“Ah, yes, He does,” I replied, “but I’m just saying, think about where you’ve come from! Your family has grown together so much since Mark … since he fell. You’re at home more, and I bet Mary appreciates that.” Mary nodded, her eyes wide. Mark looked embarrassed, staring into his cup of Pepsi and toying with the straw. John grabbed another chip, his expression turning thoughtful.

“It has been nice,” said Mary, “even if it took this to wake us up.” Mark shrugged. Teenagers.

“But couldn’t he have done something else?” asked John, “Why did it have to be our son?! If God wanted me to stay home, why didn’t he break my back?”

“I couldn’t really say,” I said, “except that … well … you sound a lot like Jesus right now.”

“Pardon?” They all looked surprised.

“Well sure,” I said, sounding the words out carefully. Where was I going with this? “Jesus gave himself up for others all the time. It was kinda his thing.”

“You reckon?”

“Sure. And I think Jesus would be happy with the way your family has come together. A lot of families let this sort of thing tear them apart, but no, not the Smiths. The Smiths don’t let a little thing like pain get in the way, they get back on their feet!” Mark grimaced.

“Sorry mate,” I said, backpedaling a bit, “but let’s face it, your arms are ripped right now.” His eyes glinted devilishly as he smiled. “Let’s face it,” I continued, “your family is a lot more like the sort of family Jesus wants to see since that accident happened. You let something good happen in your life even though it could have been ugly. I think you’re closer to Jesus than you realize.” Mary looked thoughtful. John looked incredulous. Mark turned red. I hadn’t told them that Mark had been reading through scripture with Wendy. John bristled.

“It doesn’t seem fair though; why should a good God tolerate such … evil!”

“God doesn’t like suffering, if that’s what you mean.” I paused, feeling for the words. “But we all knew that accidents were a potential risk when Mark started playing football. Why is it God’s fault if we make a choice to risk our necks – or backs – and then something bad happens? But I again point you towards the good things that have happened. You got your priorities in order, and that takes guts, man. Guts.” John sighed.

“No thanks to you,” he said, “I think that I might have just walked out, as frustrating as it was.”

“Well,” I said, “what are friends for? Besides, you’ve got a wonderful woman here, she deserves to keep you, and you deserve to keep her! Why should a little accident get in the way of stuff that’s important? Sure it’s not as convenient now, but Mark seems to be doing well.” I nodded over at Mark, whose eye had caught Wendy’s. They were grinning at each other like only teenagers could. Ah, I thought, young love.

Our food came. “Care to pray?” I asked. John looked suspicious. After a pause, he slowly nodded.

“Give it a go,” he said, “maybe there’s something to this God of yours. Should I fold my hands?”

March 18, 2008

Unsafe Sax

I had a Jazz rehearsal to night, and I've been feeling spunky all day. Must be the lack of sleep talking ...

March 14, 2008

India, Part 5: What's in a Name?

I think we underestimate the power of names in the West. I know I'm one of the worst offenders, because I can never remember them. Show me a person, and I'll remember their face for a long time, but tell me their name, and I'll be hard pressed the next time we meet to remember what it was. Which was a problem in India. In India, like in Ancient Israel, names mean something more than just an ID number; they tell other people WHO you are. If you know somebody's name, you know that person in an intimate way.

And so when the many children at Bethel started repeating their names to us and asking us if we remembered, I was horribly embarrased every time I forgot. And I forgot quite often.

"Uncle," they'd shout across the courtyard, "good morning! What's my name?" Uncle and Auntie are what they call anybody who comes to work at the compound. It's a term of respect, especially because anyone who comes to work is older than they. I nearly told them to call me Cousin until I realized the respect inherent in the term "Uncle" is very important, culturally speaking. And I also realized that the best answer to the question "what's my name" was to ask the same in return ... until they wised up and actually remembered. There were only twenty of us to remember for them, but for us there were more than 800.

I did remember two girls' names - Anita and Ganga - the former because her name reminded me of my aunt, the latter because she had to spell it for me before I figured out how to pronounce it. Their reaction to my memory was something I'll never forget - beaming, if slightly embarrased smiles. I think it made them feel more human. And why shouldn't it? I had just told them that I knew who they ARE, their very essence.

There is an old practice, dating back ages and ages, where you name your child for the meaning of the name as much as how you like it to sound. We named our daughter Aurora Eve, which means "Dawn of New Life." It's fitting, given that she's our first child, but it also is meant to signify the new stage of our journey that Liz and I have entered; parenthood, adulthood, new schools, new jobs, new communities. Rori's birth coincided with this new season. But for her it will also mean something; she is a new life, and her life is important. I love the imagery of her first name; the Aurora is that first glimpse of the sun as it dashes over the horizon, spilling its light across everything, illuminating everything in its path. I want my daughter to be like that; illuminating those around her with the love of God that burns within her. I want her to know compassion for others, to show mercy and grace, kindness and justice. And all of this can be found in her name. To know the name Aurora is to know my daughter.

What's in a name? We are formed and shaped by how we are named, both by our parents and by those around us. If we are told we are worthy of respect, we begin to feel as though we are. If we are told we are worthless, we believe that as well, and act accordingly. I hope my daughter knows that she is dearly loved, and I pray that she in turn bestows that love upon all she meets. A name is given, but it is also something to live up to.

* * *

I want to thank my Grandparents for their generosity in providing the funds to send me to India. It's from them that my love of travel comes; when I broached the subject, Grandpa said "ah, another year, another country." So true. But to Grandma and Grandpa - thank you.

I'd also like to thank all of you who were praying for our team. God certainly honors the prayers of his children, and we were so blessed to have those prayers interceding for us. Nearly everybody (save me and a couple others) got sick while we were there, but every single one of them recovered remarkably quickly. And it wasn't the food that helped them. So thanks to all of you.

And thank you for reading my fumbling words during this series.

March 13, 2008

The Tao of Jesus

I'm in a class this semester about world religions, and it's been a very enlightening experience so far. We hit up Hinduism first, and it gave me some good insights into those few weeks in India, some good further explanations of what we were dealing with. Then we went to Buddhism and Sikhism, both interesting religions that arose from the Hindu tradition thare are now making their own distinct impacts on western culture.

But today we talked about Taoism, and I think I've found my favorite for the semester.

Taoism is more of a philosophy than a "religion" as such, but combine it with traditional Chinese culture and you get a religious system. There are plenty of problems when it meets up with Jesus - the ancester veneration borders on worship, the divination and astrology can be problematic - but I couldn't help but notice that its worldview has a lot of distinctly missional elements to it, stuff about which I think Jesus would have some good stuff to say.

The first thing we started with was the yin/yang. My South Korean colleages say it in a way I can't, but I really like their pronunciation the best. Anyway, basically the idea is the unity of opposites; the yang (the light, hot, active, type-A side) and the yin (the dark, cool, passive, type-B side). The two compliment and reinforce one another, existing in a perpetual dynamic equilibrium. I have to stress that yin and yang are not "good" and "evil" as such; it is my understanding that the Chinese do not understand that such extremes as pure good or pure evil DO exist, more that creatures have elements of both within them.

Then we turned to the Tao, the spiritual path. According to the Taoist, the Tao is like a road; we walk the path even if we don't know it, in the same way that a fish doesn't usually think about living in water (to paraphrase Zuang zi a Taoist philosopher). Where the path originates and where it culminates are mysterious, but what is important is the way we walk the path.

It struck me that this describes, in a way that is uncanny, both the human condition and culture. Human beings are neither pure good nor pure evil; they are a functional hybrid of potential towards either end, and the way they walk the path both influences what they become and determines who they are. C.S. Lewis writes that human beings are a synthesis of flesh and spirit, neither one nor the other yet fully both. Likewise, Jesus was an intermediary between worlds, both fully human and fully God. The concept of yin and yang works harmoniously within the Christian framework.

In the same way, the human condition is basically one of movement in time. We move along a path of our own making, of our own free decisions, interacting with other free beings in a world where sometimes things just don't make sense. We don't realize it most of the time, but we are cultural beings, born and raised in a history that has changed and morphed over thousands upon thousands of years, each culture unique and distinct and yet flowing from their roots in Eden. Culture isn't good or bad either, but it has elements of both light and dark, elements of Godliness and elements that will require redemption and transformation.

And yet this philosophy also requires some nuance. The Chinese do not believe in a God who transcends the yin and yang; the Christians do. The Chinese understanding of spirits makes for an interesting problem as well, since the spirits must regularly be appeased. This is a place for cultural transformation; since Jesus came, the spirits no longer need to be appeased as they once did. However, add these elements in a way that is culturally relevant (harder than it sounds, for example, there is a longstanding debate about what word to use for "God" in Chinese), and I wonder how well it might contextualize into Chinese culture.

The paradox of the yin and yang is the same flavor as the many paradoxes of our faith; judgment yet grace, leader yet servant, poor yet rich ... three yet one. Think of how the trinity seems to fit so well into the idea of Yin and Yang: the Father, dark and mysterious; the Son, God's bright incarnate Word; and the Spirit, the whispering vapour holding it all together through its very presence. I know it's not quite perfect, but what model of the trinity actually is?

I think that my favorite bit of wisdom was this quote from the religion's founder, Lao Tzu:
"A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you; but of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say 'We did this ourselves.' "
I was surprised to find my own philosophy of missions buried within Chinese culture. The missionary - the leader - should not really be seen, but it is God who is seen. The missionary is an agent of change, but also a tour guide, pointing out where God has been at work in the peoples' culture through its history. For change to happen, though, the people must decide themselves, or else it will never catch on. The missionary can't force them into it; they have to learn and grow through their mistakes as well as their successes.

I know that this tends to walk a fine line, and so I thought I'd put it out there for inspection. I'd especially love to hear from anyone who's Chinese, or has lived or worked there; does this make any sort of remote sense? I think it might work in Western culture (the bit that, like me, is fascinated with the East), but could it work in Eastern as well?

Expanding Earth

Ok, how crazy an idea is this really? I'm curious for those of you who may have gone further in your scientific training than I have if this is entirely preposterous or if it has any weight to it at all. All I'm asking is that you suspend disbelief and give it some consideration. I have no idea if this is right, but it's certainly interesting.

March 12, 2008

Has You The Answer?


I passed my BCE today! For those of you who aren't familiar with Asbury jargon, the BCE - Bible Content Exam - is an exam to be taken by any M.A. or M.Div. student half-way through their time at Asbury. It's a collection of 100 questions in a number of categories (Biblical themes, general knowledge, identifying scripture passages, geography, etc.). The questions are selected randomly from each category, and then the computer tabulates your score right in front of you. A passing grade is 80.

I got an 85.

I actually got an 86, but for some reason it said that I said that Moses' wife was named Paul. Whatever, I know it was Zipporah, and it's over now and I passed.

This calls for some Thank God You're Here and perhaps lunch. Or I could celebrate by starting work on my paper that's due tomorrow.

Decisions, decisions ...

March 7, 2008

A Prayer of Adoration

Dear Father in Heaven,

Words fail me as I look towards You. It isn’t that I don’t want to say anything, but Your majesty, Your splendor, Your very essence seem to remove the breath from my lungs and the words from my lips. A melody could perhaps better articulate the way I feel; something soothing, full of bass and quiet harmonies, then swelling into rapturous, ecstatic peaks full of strings and brass, and finally diminishing into a lingering silence. And yet it still would not be enough. You are too big for mere music! Your presence surrounds me even now!

Pictures can’t capture your image either. A thousand photos of a thousand sunsets, or a million paintings of a million mountains will never portray the grandeur or the beauty or the sheer volume of You. But You don’t sit still; You move, like wind in the trees and over the grass in a meadow; I can’t predict You! With every new flower that spawns a field of flowers, with every squirrel that raises a family, with the birth of a child who will give rise to nations, You are at work doing what You do best: giving life to Your creation.

I will admit, Father, that this is all a bit intimidating. You are so perfect, so good, and I am so small; how can I do anything but gaze at you, dumbstruck, the words stolen from my mouth by Your grace, Your brilliance, Your magnificence. You hold me in your hand, and I am dwarfed beyond recognition – I disappear into the folds of your fingerprint. And yet You knew me even before I knew me; You know me even now, a speck on your palm, and You love me.

Oh for a thousand, ten thousand, a million words to speak of your glory! But my words are nothing; You speak in one whisper what I would spend my whole life shouting. And so Father, I have only four words to give to You, four words that might capture what I want to say:

I love You too.