Thursday, June 9, 2016

Righteous Intransigence, or Yellowstone and Politics, or Yellowstone and the Church

After a long absence, I am returning to a series of musings that will include war, evil, hell, inspiration, and other fun things (maybe). For tonight, a thought from National Geographic.

The May 2016 edition of the National Geographic magazine was about Yellowstone Park. One author wrote the entire issue, covering the history of Yellowstone National Park, the pre-history (i.e., why it looks like it does), the wildlife, and the controversies--which are many. It was in the context of the controversies that the author used the phrase "righteous intransigence." Before diving into my point, here is some background on the issues at hand. Most of the issues revolve around the wildlife of Yellowstone, and particularly the large mammals that reside in (and around) the park. In fact, this last parenthetical statement is part of the problem. Almost one hundred years ago, scientists realized that, if the goal was to preserve the wild nature of the west, Yellowstone was entirely too small. Hence the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem came into being. The elk, bear, bison, and wolves travel outside the park regularly, with many making annual migrations out of the park. This brings them into contact with ranchers, cattle, sheep, hunters, and neighborhoods. Who should decide what to do with bison on the ranch? Who should decide if the grizzly bear should be removed from the endangered species list? Are we sure that bringing wolves back was a good idea? Should we be killing off lake trout just to save cutthroat trout? Should private landowners be forced to keep migration routes open for thousands of elk? Many people are very passionate about all of these issues. You can read the magazine if you are interested in the topic. I was interested in this statement, near the end of the magazine. The author argued that passionate people need to realize that "righteous intransigence is not a strategy, it is just a satisfying attitude." Amen to that!

As the 2016 presidential race winds down to the two primary candidates, I think that we can see this quote fully at work. As President Obama has said, democracy can only work if people compromise, even if they are 100% right. Many of us have lost the ability to compromise. We have made everything that we believe into a hill on which to die. We have few strategies, but we have a lot of intransigence. We believe it, so we won't compromise on it. Ted Cruz's actions in the Senate are one example of this. Whether his position was right or wrong is not the issue. The issue is that he had no strategy, only intransigence and the ability to make sure that nothing happened. Now there are hills on which to die, but if you run a government there are compromises to be made so that the nation can move forward. (Honestly, I am not sure that either of our candidates can move us forward, but I guess we shall see!)

I also fear that "righteous intransigence" is alive and well in the Christian church. I have experienced those of liberal theological traditions belittling their congregants and other leaders who are less "enlightened" than they are, when the real issue is that they read their sacred text in a different way. I also see evangelicals who are running scared of any new idea. Richard Foster tries to connect the evangelical church with long-established traditions of spiritual formation, and he is vilified for bringing non-Christian traditions into the church (without considering that the traditions he is re-introducing were in the church long before Christians and Buddhists had any conversations). Lesslie Newbigin and those after him call the church to missional living, believing that we are all called to be on mission for God. The kingdom of God is alive in us as we live incarnationally for Jesus through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is certainly about personal salvation, but it is also about reconciling the world to God, and we have a role to play in that reconciliation. And the missional movement is accused of being too psychological or being too works-oriented. "Righteous intransigence" at work! When will we be willing to hear the "other," whoever that might be? When will we love our neighbor, even if that neighbor is a Muslim (I mean a Samaritan!)? When will be driven by faith in God, love of neighbor, care for widows, orphans, and aliens (immigrants?), repaying evil with good instead of evil with evil, and listening before we speak instead of being driven by "righteous intransigence"? Hmmm, I personally think that is a good question.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Funny Thing Happened at the Jonny Lang Concert

Tonight was an unexpected experience. Perhaps it should not have been unexpected. After all, I find many concerts to be spiritually uplifting experiences. But tonight was different. I went with some friends to see Jonny Lang at the House of Blues. At the House of Blues, I always buy general admission tickets so that I can get up close. I was about eight feet from Jonny tonight. Standing on the floor with hundreds of other people crammed in front of stage is always interesting. You make friends with a lot of interesting people when they have had a little too much to drink. And it's amazing what they will do and say. And there I was with my new friends at the Jonny Lang concert. 

For those who do not know, Jonny Lang is a blues guitar player who has been playing professionally for almost 20 years, and he is only 32 years old! He is a phenomenal player with a unique singing voice and music that blends rock, blues, and gospel. In 2006, he wrote and recorded  a song called, "On That Great Day." This brings me to the point of this blog. He started singing "On That Great Day" and a strange thing happened at the Jonny Lang concert. The B-3 was playing. The singers were singing harmonies. And then the audience starting singing along. I closed my eyes in praise of God. I found myself raising my hands to worship. Yes, we had church! I did not expect to have church at a Jonny Lang concert, but we did. My eyes teared up as I, and a couple of thousand new friends, sang the last chorus to the song. Here are the lyrics to "On That Great Day":

"That Great Day"

We'll meet at the river
We'll be delivered of every chain
Down into the water, children
Mothers and fathers in His sweet name

To drown all our sins
And come up again forever changed
Never to return to the people we were
Before that great day

We'll patiently wait 'til we see His face
And when He appears to wipe all our tears forever away
Then we'll be together in Heaven forever
On that great day, on that great day

We'll patiently wait 'til we see His face
And when He appears to wipe all our tears forever away
Then we'll be together in Heaven forever
On that great day, on that great day

We sang that last chorus together several times until it faded to almost acapella. There Jonny was, leading the church--uh, I mean audience--in worship of his Savior Jesus. True, Jesus is not named in the song. But  who else will we see face-to-face? Who else will wipe all our tears forever away? What amazing to me was that most likely none of these people came to the concert to worship God, or to express faith in God for their futures. 

What really struck me as I worshiped God tonight was that here was a truly missional moment. At Houston Graduate School of Theology and Cypress Oaks Church, two places that I love and at which I spend a good deal of waking hours, we talk about being missional, about being incarnational in the unsuspecting world. Here was a group of people--many drunk, boisterous, and vulgar just moments before--singing praise to God. Jesus was there in our midst. I could feel God's presence. (OK, I can't prove that, but I did experience it.) Jesus was there in that unsuspecting crowd. How often to we have services of worship and struggle to find God's presence. Yet, here it was at the Jonny Lang concert. 

I felt like I was being reminded that almost everyone knows that it is a good thing for sins to be forgiven, binding chains to be removed, and lives to be turned around for better. I think that's why everyone joined it and sang. They were expressing their faith that God will wipe away tears forever. There is a great day awaiting. And all these people are waiting for us to say, "Jesus loves you." People are waiting for us to care for them as much as Jesus does. People are looking for hope, for faith, and for peace. There was a little piece of it tonight at the Jonny Lang concert. 

We'll be together in Heaven forever on that great day. Yes, we will! 

Finally, check out this video of the song. I think you'll like it! 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

"All Things for Good"

Today, I preached on Romans 8:28, tentatively in a series of studies on the most misused texts in the Bible. I started last year with these studies of Jeremiah 29:11 and Psalm 8. Here is the application portion of my sermon today. I thought that I would post these thoughts here.

What do I think Romans 8:28 means for us?

I think that the verse means that every follower of Christ has a role to play in the redemption of the world—of people and of creation itself. When Jesus lived incarnationally—pouring himself out for the world that he loved, thinking of others and not himself, and loving and serving those who he encountered in his life—he met opposition. We meet most of our opposition in the faith because we are trying to push our agendas on people who don’t want them—especially in the world in which we now live. We face opposition because we want to put nativity scenes in front of city hall like we once did. We face opposition because we fight Planned Parenthood and gay marriage. We do not face opposition because we love those in need, serve other sacrificially, fight for the cause of the oppressed in society, or even witness to our neighbors about the love of Jesus. (This is not a political statement or a statement about my opinions on these issues.) If Jesus faced opposition, we will, too. In fact, in John 17, Jesus said that we would. 

I think that this verse tells us that when we face opposition to our faith, when the struggles of this life slap in the face, or when we fall to the ground and can step no further, our lives in Christ and our service for Jesus and world are not in vain. They serve to move this world a step closer to God’s ultimate goal—the redemption of souls and the renewal of all creation (which we see at the end of the Bible). We have a role to play, and nothing can stop God’s purposes, no matter what appears in front of us. We will overcome, even if I do not! Did you hear me? I said, “We will overcome, even if I do not!” This may sound silly, but let me make a conclusion on this thought.

We have in our culture a “cult of self.” Everything is about the individual. While human tendency has always been to care about the self first, this cult of self is not always the driving force. For example, reading about those living in Israel in 1948, you can see a sense of purpose that transcended the individual. Everyone had a role to play, even if they could not see it. And even if people died, their role did not end, and “the good” for them would come when victory was won at the end of the war. We have missed that sense of community today, because we read this verse as speaking about me. We think it means that if I love God enough and follow his plan for my life, then I am guaranteed of God giving me “the good” (which we typically translate into happiness and prosperity—we can hardly do anything else in our culture!), even if it may take a while to get here. This is sometimes true. But this vision is much too small! We are part of a huge story—a story that began in a garden in Genesis, ran through Abraham and Moses and David, and then culminated with the work and teachings of Jesus, then moved on through Paul, James, and Peter, through Clement, Jerome, Aquinas, Wyclif, Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. What a grand mission we have, in God’s kingdom. Can you see it? Our work is important, if only you and I can move beyond the pettiness of self! The pettiness of self keeps our vision far too small, when God wants us to be a part of this amazing, enormous, grand narrative of history! We must be counter-cultural to the cult of self and serve God's kingdom! 

Can we today pray with Jesus that his Kingdom would come and that we could live that kingdom? Yes, we can, if we will open our eyes to the work that God is already doing and the work that we have been called to do. Will you make that your prayer today—to be a part of God’s huge vision for his Kingdom? 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Living Friday

In two days, I will lead our church in a "Good" Friday service. It's the day that we remember the death of Jesus. We remember the suffering of Jesus. We remember the love that led Jesus to die that death--and the Father to allow that death. It's a dark day. The cloth on the cross is black. The sanctuary is normally dark--or almost dark. "Good" is an interesting adjective for the day. It's the Friday of death that precedes the Sunday of resurrection. 

For the first time in my life, I feel like I am living that Friday--three funerals in 10 days, with the first being my father, the second a sweet woman from the church, and the third a close friend and ministry partner who died at 51 years old, not to mention my "second mama" losing her brother three weeks ago, my cousin losing her husband of 46 years in February, and a best friend whose father is dying of cancer. 

Last week, in an email to a friend, I quoted Theoden, from "Lord of the Rings," who felt despair deep in Helm's Deep and moaned painfully, "So       much         death!" Then I remembered Aragorn, who encouraged Theoden, "Ride out with me." We all need Aragorns in times like this--friends to encourage us to keep putting one foot in front of another! 

I also happen to be teaching Psalms right now, and the subject of the past three weeks has been the lament psalms. These psalms contain statements like these (all from The Voice):

  • My soul is drowning in darkness. How long can You, the Eternal, let things go on like this? (Ps. 6:3)
  • How long must I agonize, grieving Your absence in my heart every day? How long will You let my enemies win? (Ps. 13:2)
  • My God, my God, why have You turned Your back on me? Your ears are deaf to my groans. O my God, I cry all day and You are silent; my tears in the night bring no relief. (Ps. 22:1-2)
  • Do not allow my enemies to boast over me. Do not allow them to gloat over me, “Aha, we have won! We got what we wanted!” Do not allow them to brag, “We chewed him up and spit him out.” (Ps. 35:24-25)
  • The waters have risen to my neck; I am going down! My feet are swallowed in this murky bog; I am sinking—there is no sturdy ground. I am in the deep; the floods are crashing in! I am weary of howling; my throat is scratched dry. (Ps. 69:1-3)

And, yet, if you read these psalms in their entirety, you will find in them also statements of faith in God--statements of trust that God has heard in the past and will hear in the future. These psalms talk of God as "My Lord" and "My God," speaking of a relationship between psalmist and God. There is hope, even in deep darkness. However, there is one exception. Psalm 88 offers no word of hope, no word of trust, no word of faithfulness. The psalmist is forsaken and forgotten, "in the lowest pits of the earth, in the darkest canyons of the ocean" (v. 6). 

This brings me back to Friday. There is no suggestion in the gospel texts that the friends and followers of Jesus were hoping for a miracle. They had watched Jesus die--and he was dead! Friday, and Psalm 88, should remind us that there are times when we feel hopeless. There are times when the darkness overwhelms us and we see no glimmer of light. Death does this to us. And Friday is a day to think of death. Yes, we know that Sunday is coming, but I do not think that the disciples on Saturday were looking forward to Sunday. So, I suggest that on "Good" Friday, we consider the darkness of that night, and the darkness of some of our own days. 

I do have one word of hope here, however. I am so glad that Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Jesus understood grief. He understood Friday. I have listened to a song by the artist Eli several times in the past few weeks. The song is entitled, "God Weeps, Too." It give me comfort and hope. It includes this line, "This is for the widow, who now must sleep alone, when the memory of a kiss will have to do. Every night when she lay down, you can almost hear, when God weeps, too." (You can hear the song here.) I believe that God wept on Friday. I think I will, too, as I long for Sunday! 

Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is Man? Really!

I have been intrigued for quite some time with how we (Christians, atheists, liberals, conservatives, etc.) tend to misuse scripture for our own purposes. We so seldom see that our culture, history, family, theology, church, etc., affect how we read scripture. I have tentatively entitled my series of thoughts, "The Most Misused Texts in the Bible" (I know, not very original). My first foray into the topic was a look at Jer. 29:11. (See my earlier blog.) We often read Jer. 29:11 as a promise that God has a specific, detailed, individualized plan for each of our lives (One our doctoral students recently called this concept, "The White Board God"). Maybe God has that plan, maybe God doesn't, but Jer. 29:11 is about something else. Let me move on. 

Along the same lines, I am intrigued by our interpretations of Psalm 8:4. I first thought about this a few years ago when I realized that three current contemporary worship songs included the line "Who am I?," followed by some allusion to Psalm 8:4, something like "Who am I that God is mindful of me?" (from Israel Houghton and Michael Gungor, "Friend of God," ©2003 Integrity's Praise! Music and Vertical Worship Songs). Now, I am not trying to insult these songs (the others were by Mark Hall (Who Am I?") and Mary MacLean ("Creator King," sung by Kathryn Scott), not lightweights in Christian music). I actually like the songs, songwriters, and singers. In fact, "Creator King" is a great statement about the Creator God. These songs simply reflect how we read the Bible. We read the Bible through the eyes of individuals, while the Bible was typically written from community eyes. But that should be a different blog. Here are my thoughts on Ps. 8:4. 

Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise to the majestic creator of heavens and earth. The psalmist marvels at the wonders of creation. In the face of the heavens and earth, the moon and stars, the psalmist asks why has God placed humanity in the important place in creation--in God's image, a "little lower than the heavenly beings" (Ps. 8:5). The ESV translates Ps. 8:4, "What is man that you are mindful of him?," which is similar to King James and NASB. NIV does better with "What is mankind that you are mindful of them?" In his new commentary on Psalms, Bruce Waltke translates the verse, "What is a mere mortal that you are mindful of him?" This is a nice translation, that seems to me to address the point of the verse. A bit freer translation can be found in The Voice, which reads: "I can’t help but wonder why You care about mortals—sons and daughters of men—specks of dust floating about the cosmos." While some literal purists might scoff at the freedoms taken in the translation, particularly the italicized text that was added for clarity of meaning, I think that The Voice gets exactly to the point of the verse. 

You see, when we stare out at the skies at night, when we consider the majesty of the cosmos, when we reflect upon our seeming insignificance in the universe, we should exclaim, "WOW! And God loves us!" This psalm is about God, not about humans. It is about the great majesty of God, and also the amazing choice of God to place humans at the top of the food chain. When we consider the creator God, we should think not of our privilege, but of God's choice--God's sovereignty--God's love. And then, we will conclude with the psalmist, "O Eternal, our Lord, Your majestic name is heard throughout the earth" (The Voice).

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Great job, kid! Lessons from the Stanley Cup!

This is my favorite time of the year. The Stanley Cup! When the cup was in Duluth one day while we lived there, the line to see it was several hours long. And, some of my southern friends--right now--are asking, "What's the Stanley Cup?" While some of my friends may disagree (if they like), the Stanley Cup is the greatest sport tradition in the world! OK, at least in North America. It was first awarded to the top amateur hockey team in Canada in 1893, and it has been awarded all but two years since, for the past 70 years to the National Hockey League (NHL) champion. 

You might ask, "What's so great about it?" Well, here are a few things. First, the same cup is used every year. The winning team keeps it for one year. Oh yeah, and each person on the team gets his name inscribed on the trophy. Second, there's a tradition in the presentation ceremony. I will never forget when Ray Borque was finally on a cup winning team. The captain of the Avalance, Joe Sakic, deferred his right to hoist the cup over his head for the first victory lap and let Borque skate first with the cup in honor of his many years of greatness in the league. I watched that ceremony on TV live. It was an unprecedented act of deference. Even if the visiting team wins, the fans stay for the presentation. It's that important to the hockey fans. Everyone wants to see the Cup presented. Third, there is the hand-shaking tradition. After each playoff game, both teams line up and shake hands. Some hug. Some give congratulatory words. 

This brings me to the point of this blog. Last night, after the Washington Capitols dispatched the defending champion Boston Bruins in overtime, Boston goalie Tim Thomas said to the Caps' goalie Braden Holtby, "Great job, kid." Tim Thomas is 38 years old, and voted the best goalie in the league more than once in his career. Holtby is 22 years old. This is his first season of significant playing time. Even this year, he spent much of the year in the minor league (AHL). It was an interesting moment. You could actually hear Thomas say, "great job, kid," in the camera microphone. There is a tradition of appreciation for great play in the NHL. There is the unexpected. But after pushing, fighting, and smashing each other up, the players line up, shake hands, congratulate the winners, and console the losers. It can actually be quite moving. It is a sincere act of honor and appreciation for the game of hockey and for each other as hockey players. 

Many of you are wondering where this is going. Well, here it is. Jesus said, "Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (NIV). If NHL players can appreciate, congratulate, and console the other team's players, even after a hard-fought seven-game playoff series, surely we could learn to appreciate, congratulate, and console each other in the church. Followers of Christ beat each other up (usually emotionally, psychological, and spiritually, rather than physically), insult each other, and leave brothers and sisters lying in the gutter. I'm sure this should not be so. So, even if we see things differently than others, let's say, "Great job, kid," to encourage the good qualities and hard work of others. Let's learn a lesson from Lord Stanley! (Lord Stanley is the person for whom the cup was named.)

Just thinking! 

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter clothes

I wonder how many of you bought new clothes for Easter. I know that many people do. Grandmas (and great-grandmas) always buy the grandchildren new clothes for Easter. It seems to be a time to put on new clothes. I happened to be reading Ephesians during Easter week, and ran across one of the passages where the apostle Paul tells his readers to take off the old and put on the new. Here is Ephesians 4:20-24 (see also Colossians 3) from The Voice

      But this is not the path of the Anointed One, which you have learned. If you have
      heard Jesus and have been taught by Him according to the truth that is in Him, then
      you know to take off your former way of life, your crumpled old self—that dark blot of a
      soul corrupted by deceitful desire and lust—to take a fresh breath and to let God renew
      your attitude and spirit. Then you are ready to put on your new self, modeled after the
      very likeness of God: truthful, righteous, and holy.

These texts have always fascinated me. Just like we change clothes each day, we are to take off the old and put on the new. In these texts, the object of taking off is a variety of unacceptable behaviors, such as lust, immorality, wicked thoughts, greed, slander, and the like. I dare say that we all have a few things worth taking off. And, what do we put on: love, peace, compassion, patience, and truthfulness. We take off the clothes of the old life and put on the new life in Christ. OK, there is the nice clean spiritual discussion of these verses. But what about the ugly, hard-to-discard, old clothes. 

As always, for me, this comes back to a song, and not surprisingly, a song by Randy Stonehill. He recorded a song in 1990 called "Old Clothes." Here are part of the lyrics. 



So often we wear the old clothes of hurt, anger, and frustration. Because we have moved on to a new place, those old clothes don't fit. In fact, we know that they don't fit, but we wear them anyway. Sara Groves spoke of this same phenomenon in her song, "Painting Pictures of Egypt."  The song includes these lyrics

      I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt, leaving out what it lacked 
      The future seems so hard and I want to go back 
      But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I"ve learned 
      And those roads closed off to me while my back was turned. 

We escape an old life that we longed to leave, but we hold onto the old clothes--the things that keep us from moving forward into the brave new world that God has for us.We cling to the old because it is comfortable, even if it is outdated, dirty, and full of holes. 

But sometimes, it becomes even worse. On the CD "Second Hand Clothing," Eli laments the clothes left behind by his father, found in an old box. These lyrics are painfully poignant to many people that I know: 
      I'm looking through a box my dad just sent me
      Filled with hand me downs and things he once wore
      He passed along his blessings and his curses
      But mainly scraps and nothing more ... no nothing more
      And I pray to God his shoes will never fit me
      And I pray this isn't my inheritance

      I've spent my lifetime dancing with his demons
      They're constantly comparing him with me
      They tell their lies as they look into my eyes and say
      The apple doesn't fall far from it's tree ... and I pray oh Lord not me

      Old man didn't gimme much more than second hand clothing
      But Jesus wants more for me than second hand clothing, second hand clothing

Our world--whether our former way of life, our addictions, our choices, our failures, others' failures, our parents' failures, or just the challenge of the present and the future--leaves us a lot of second-hand clothing. But, we don't have to wear them! That is the miracle of Easter, isn't it? Jesus said, "Not my will, but yours be done," then he died, and then he rose from the death. He threw off the grave clothes, and now we can wear new clothes. 

We can wear the new clothes of new life. The problem is that we often must peel off layers of the old clothes--layers of hurt, disappointment, abuse, pain, betrayal, and self-inflicted destruction. Let's make that our prayer this year. Let's live in our new resurrection lives. Let's leave behind the old, ragged, dirty clothes to wear the new clothes that Jesus has for us. Let's refuse to put the old clothes back on. Let's remember the pain, the stench, the suffering of the old clothes and leave them off, wearing the new clothes of Jesus instead. Will you join me?