Archive for January, 2006

unsettling read

So to begin with “Paul and Empire” today — tricky stuff. The obvious place to start is with the challenge of contemporary empire. Here I cannot avoid speaking, as a “friendly foreigner,” about the defacto world empire which your country symbolizes and embodies to much of the rest of the world.

But let me begin with my own perspective. We British have some experience with “empire” — and of rebels within it. We had an empire on which the sun never set. For a hundred or more years British ruled the waves, proclaiming loudly our belief in British justice, in the Pax Britannica, in the freedom which we enjoyed and which was our duty, privilege and indeed burden to bring to other parts of the world. Of course, as we gave them these noble gifts, we took care that they payed for them. It doesn’t do to inquire too closely into the sources of the wealth which enabled the great flowering of the arts and architecture and culture in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that once the slave trade was abolished, there was perhaps slightly less money flowing in that direction.

We have now spent a century counting the cost of empire. Kipling saw it coming: The arrogance which assumed the effortless superiority of our way of life was bound to lead, as hubris always does, to a terrifying fall — two world wars and then multiple aftermaths has left Britain a confused and puzzled ex-imperial power.

What then could I say to my friend and ally across the Atlantic? Simply this: That all the signs are that America as a whole, despite the wisdom and insight of so many of her people, is currently in much the same position vis a vis the rest of the world as Britain was 150 years ago and Rome was in the first century. Of course there are many differences, but the rhetoric of empire, the assumption of automatic moral superiority, of being the bringer of justice and freedom and peace to the world looks remarkably similar, and like those earlier claims is bound to appear to most of the world remarkably hollow.

The similarity is obvious to the historian not least when we reflect that the reason that Rome was so bothered about the Middle East was to protect the corn supply. And the reason the West — well, you can fill in the rest of it, can’t you.

The hollowness is apparent to anyone who studies the financial and economic institutions set up after the second war to regulate world trade, and now operated obviously and catastrophically so that they serve the interests of the very rich at the continuing expense of the very poor, while at the same time, the political institutions which were established at that moment which as the framework within which that economic activity could make sense — namely the United Nations and International Courts of Justice — have been emasculated by the refusal of the most powerful to support them, except on the rare occasion that it suits.

We must affirm that, yes, God has done great things through this nation, and let’s continue so to do. Let us be grown-up and nuanced with our critiques. While at the same time with Britain as with America, there is a huge danger in imagining that because we were and you are somehow “Christian nations,” this somehow legitimates all that we want to do and all that will be to our national advantage. The minute we go that route, I hear Paul saying what he said with tears of his own countrymen, “They are ignorant of God’s righteousness and seek to establish their own, and so have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

And when I see a great and overtly Christian nation withdrawing unilaterally from treaties, insisting on the justice of its own cause in one part of the Middle East while continuing to support massive, flagrant, and barbaric wickedness in another part, I want to say with all my power that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t,” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow,” not least those who invoke him in support of convenient policies, but to ignore him as soon as economic or political interests make that inconvenient.

Further than this I cannot go today, but want to urge you to some joined-up theological and practical thinking at this critical time and to stand up for the Pauline gospel of the Lordship of Jesus over against all arrogant empires of whatever kind.

The Dean of Lichfield, one of England’s oldest cathedrals, N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian who has taught New Testatment Studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill Universities. His monographs on Jesus and Paul within their Jewish and pagan contexts include: The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (1991); The New Testament and the People of God (1992); and Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). Popular studies include: Who Was Jesus? (1993); The Crown and the Fire (1992); Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (1995); The Lord and His Prayer (1996); The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (1996); and What St. Paul Really Said (1997).

An mp3 of Wright’s short speach can be heard by clicking here.

Advertisements

unsettling read

So to begin with “Paul and Empire” today — tricky stuff. The obvious place to start is with the challenge of contemporary empire. Here I cannot avoid speaking, as a “friendly foreigner,” about the defacto world empire which your country symbolizes and embodies to much of the rest of the world.

But let me begin with my own perspective. We British have some experience with “empire” — and of rebels within it. We had an empire on which the sun never set. For a hundred or more years British ruled the waves, proclaiming loudly our belief in British justice, in the Pax Britannica, in the freedom which we enjoyed and which was our duty, privilege and indeed burden to bring to other parts of the world. Of course, as we gave them these noble gifts, we took care that they payed for them. It doesn’t do to inquire too closely into the sources of the wealth which enabled the great flowering of the arts and architecture and culture in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Suffice it to say that once the slave trade was abolished, there was perhaps slightly less money flowing in that direction.

We have now spent a century counting the cost of empire. Kipling saw it coming: The arrogance which assumed the effortless superiority of our way of life was bound to lead, as hubris always does, to a terrifying fall — two world wars and then multiple aftermaths has left Britain a confused and puzzled ex-imperial power.

What then could I say to my friend and ally across the Atlantic? Simply this: That all the signs are that America as a whole, despite the wisdom and insight of so many of her people, is currently in much the same position vis a vis the rest of the world as Britain was 150 years ago and Rome was in the first century. Of course there are many differences, but the rhetoric of empire, the assumption of automatic moral superiority, of being the bringer of justice and freedom and peace to the world looks remarkably similar, and like those earlier claims is bound to appear to most of the world remarkably hollow.

The similarity is obvious to the historian not least when we reflect that the reason that Rome was so bothered about the Middle East was to protect the corn supply. And the reason the West — well, you can fill in the rest of it, can’t you.

The hollowness is apparent to anyone who studies the financial and economic institutions set up after the second war to regulate world trade, and now operated obviously and catastrophically so that they serve the interests of the very rich at the continuing expense of the very poor, while at the same time, the political institutions which were established at that moment which as the framework within which that economic activity could make sense — namely the United Nations and International Courts of Justice — have been emasculated by the refusal of the most powerful to support them, except on the rare occasion that it suits.

We must affirm that, yes, God has done great things through this nation, and let’s continue so to do. Let us be grown-up and nuanced with our critiques. While at the same time with Britain as with America, there is a huge danger in imagining that because we were and you are somehow “Christian nations,” this somehow legitimates all that we want to do and all that will be to our national advantage. The minute we go that route, I hear Paul saying what he said with tears of his own countrymen, “They are ignorant of God’s righteousness and seek to establish their own, and so have not submitted to God’s righteousness.”

And when I see a great and overtly Christian nation withdrawing unilaterally from treaties, insisting on the justice of its own cause in one part of the Middle East while continuing to support massive, flagrant, and barbaric wickedness in another part, I want to say with all my power that “Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t,” and “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow,” not least those who invoke him in support of convenient policies, but to ignore him as soon as economic or political interests make that inconvenient.

Further than this I cannot go today, but want to urge you to some joined-up theological and practical thinking at this critical time and to stand up for the Pauline gospel of the Lordship of Jesus over against all arrogant empires of whatever kind.

The Dean of Lichfield, one of England’s oldest cathedrals, N.T. Wright is a New Testament theologian who has taught New Testatment Studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and McGill Universities. His monographs on Jesus and Paul within their Jewish and pagan contexts include: The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (1991); The New Testament and the People of God (1992); and Jesus and the Victory of God (1996). Popular studies include: Who Was Jesus? (1993); The Crown and the Fire (1992); Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (1995); The Lord and His Prayer (1996); The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (1996); and What St. Paul Really Said (1997).

An mp3 of Wright’s short speach can be heard by clicking here.

friendship houses

I just got out of a conversation with my Christian Service Center “boss”, Jim Clark, and Joe Almanza, a minister in the Abilene community. It was an inspiring time. Joe works on the “front lines” of ministry in Abilene (get this…he actually works with real, live, lost people!), and he has worked to establish new churches and ministries in Dallas and Mexico. Amazing man of God with an amazing story (think guns, Mexican Mafia…that sorta thing).

He and some others are especially excited about a recent ministry idea, passed along by a minister in Shreveport, La., and Abilene’s mayor, an elder at the Highland Church of Christ. They’re called “Friendship Houses,” and the idea is that Christians live in a house in a depressed area, offering physical and spiritual help to their neighbors on a daily basis, befriending people — that sorta thing. The project may even get some government grants because of its emphasis on community regeneration and social justice.

I am thrilled by the idea of “Friendship Houses.” Thrilled because they really have the potential to change the spiritual and physical landscape of our city. Christians refusing to say “come to us” for help and ministry, but literally landing in the middle of people’s neighborhoods and lives. The house is going to be a “safe place” for neighbors to hang out, talk, eat meals, or seek guidance. Amazing concept.

“Friendship Houses” also sadden me a little bit as well. Not the concept, per se, but the fact that the concept is considered “radical” or “out of the box” compared to the traditional ministry forms in Abilene and in many places. Shouldn’t every Christian home be a “Friendship House? Shouldn’t the concept of being “salt and light” in our neighborhoods be embedded in each believer from “new birth”? Shouldn’t service to the needy around us be a natural part of the Christ-life? Isn’t “radical hospitality” (the radical openness of ourselves and our homes to those around us) a virtue that all Christians should espouse?

Yes.

But I believe truly “Incarnated Christians” (who imitate Christ’s relationship with the lost world: “…the Word became flesh and dwelled among us…”) are outnumbered in North America today by “safe Christians,” “Bedroom/Gated Community Christians,” “Fearful Christians,” “Ignorant Christians” or just plain “Nominal [by name only] Christians.”

That’s the sad part.

Because of this we view “Friendship Houses” and all they entail as radical. We see them as out-of-the-box. We leave them to the outreach minister or the young, “more evangelistic” people. They are, in a sense, different from our traditional “come to us” approach to ministry and social justice. But what if every Christian home became a lighthouse, a “Friendship House”? What if we were prayer-walking our neighborhoods and praying for our neighbors? What if we were serving them extravagantly and freely opening our lives and homes to them? I’m not talking about moving away from your neighborhood to the “slum” of your city (though you may be called to do just that); I’m talking about being “the church” right where you live.

Would it change our nation? Would it change the way we view “ministry” and “church”?

Of course it would.

Lord, raise up a “vibrant family of Jesus Christ within close reach — culturally and geographically — of every North American.” May every Christian home in Abilene and elsewhere be a “Friendship House,” espousing all the virtues that your son espoused and called his church to espouse. Expand our limited minds to see what you are doing in our town and in the world and to join you in that work. Wherever we are. Amen.

missional churches and headless squirrels

Please keep commenting on Son of Man or The End of the Spear on the post below if you want, but I had to share quick two things with the blogging community this beautiful Monday morning.

First, I know many of the readers of this blog are interested in emergent/missional/whatever church, so here’s a gem of a blog post over on Ryan Bolger’s cyber-home: “The Marks of a Missional Church”. I’d love your thoughts.

————————-

Also, I just got this e-mail from my wife regarding our 9-month-old poodle, and I’m re-printing it without her permission. It really has nothing to do with anything, except for the fact that it’s funny to visualize (and I’m bored with reading David Naugle’s mesmerizing book, Worldview: The History of a Concept).

so…Damon just found a headless squirell. I chased him around the yard but he wouldn’t give up the rodent with its spinal cord hanging out. Final solution…offer Damon something better…an orange. 🙂 He accepted, and I lured him into the office and quickly shut the door. Now…dispose of the carcass. I found two sticks (Damon’s of course) and stretched them out far before balancing the furry remains and flinging it over the fence…success! Except that Damon touched that rodent…uggg.

Son of Man

Chrissy and I had a conversation with some friends last night about how we weren’t all jazzed up about seeing End of the Spear, the upcoming feature film about missionary Jim Elliot and the cannibalistic tribes that murdered him. We were intrigued, however, by a film that is debuting Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival called Son of Man.

It’s a modern-day story about Jesus. A Jesus that is black. A Jesus born in an occupied African nation and into turmoil. A Jesus who preached peace. Here’s the beginning of a story CNN.com ran on the independent film:

Black Jesus film aims to start talk
‘Son of Man’ premieres Sunday at Sundance

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (Reuters) — Billed as the world’s first black Jesus movie, “Son of Man” portrays Christ as a modern African revolutionary and aims to shatter the Western image of a placid savior with fair hair and blue eyes.

The South African film, which premieres on Sunday at the Sundance festival in Utah, transports the life and death of Christ from first century Palestine to a contemporary African state racked by war and poverty.

Jesus is born in a shanty-town shed, a far cry from a manger in a Bethlehem stable. His mother Mary is a virgin, though feisty enough to argue with the angels. Gun-wielding authorities fear his message of equality and he ends up hanging on a cross.

“We wanted to look at the gospels as if they were written by spin doctors and to strip that away and look at the truth,” director Mark Dornford-May told Reuters in an interview.

“The truth is that Christ was born in an occupied state and preached equality at a time when that wasn’t very acceptable.”

By portraying Jesus as a black African, Dornford-May hopes to sharpen the political context of the gospels, when Israel was under Roman occupation, and challenge Western perceptions of Christ as meek, mild and European.

“We have to accept that Christ has been hijacked a bit — he’s gone very blond-haired and blue-eyed,” he said. “The important thing about the message of Christ was that it is universal. It doesn’t matter what he looked like.” (read the entire story here.

I’m excited about this film. I’m excited about a portrayal of a non-white Jesus. I’m excited about a Jesus who, like the real Jesus, is portrayed as subversive and controversial. I’m excited about a story portraying the life of Christ — a radical life — instead of just his death (no disrespect to The Passion of the Christ, but I wonder if we think the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion is so self-evident that anyone who sees it will be convicted and become a Christian…).

What are your thoughts about this film?

train and release.

We have our poodle, Damon, in advanced obedience school (the link is to an old photo of the little guy). Every Thursday night, German Shepherds, Schnauzers (sp?), big dogs, little dogs, and everything in between gather at a local recreation center to heel, sit, stay, turn around, and generally learn how to recognize and obey our commands more effectively.

We’ve already seen great improvement in Damon &emdash; with the help of a little treat, Damon will sit and stay for a few seconds while Chrissy or I stand out in front of him. A month ago, he would have run to one of us immediately and jumped up if we stepped out in front of him. Many of the other dogs are seeing the same improvement. For now, however, we are under strict orders to keep our pups on a tight leash.

Eventually, the leash will go away. Damon will (hopefully) sit and stay without a leash or a treat. He will do it because he recognizes our voice commands and knows to obey them. He will also enjoy another level of freedom with other dogs — once he learns how to play nicely (and vice versa) with his peers.

Train and release. That’s really the principle behind dog training. Not releasing into the wild, but giving more and more freedom as freedom is earned. The same is true in discipleship, as my friend Joe Almanza reminded me last night. But how many times have we seen a leader who is afraid to release. Questions like, “What if they aren’t ready?” or, unfortunately, “What happens when I’m not in control anymore?” keep many church leaders from truly releasing new disciples. Attendance might go down as we release new disciples into the world to train even more disciples.

But this is precisely the method Jesus used with the twelve, and the method the twelve used with the multitudes that became the church in those exciting first days. What if Christians renewed our commitment to Christ’s evangelism method? What if church leaders thought more about the expansion of the kingdom of God than church attendance? Could we have another “Book of Acts” experience if every Christian practiced “training” and “releasing”?

Brethren (I’ve always wanted to use that word…), it’s happening. On nearly every continent. China is exploding. Muslims are coming to the Lord in droves. Entire parts of India are rejecting the Hindu religion. Ordinary folks are training and releasing, and they didn’t even have to read The Master Plan of Evangelism to know how to do it.

Lord of the harvest, raise up harvesters in North America &emdash; to train and release!

how we remember.

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, readers. Today we remember the April day in 1968 on which the minister and Civil Rights leader was shot in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, way before “his time.” More importantly, we also remember the life he lived. King spent much of his life fighting for equality and fair recognition for minorities in America, dreaming of a better way. He preached peace. He motivated and raised up a grassroots movement of blacks and whites who believed in King’s dream (and many of whom paid the ultimate price — death).

If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, I think we’re on the right track — King’s life was reminiscent of another revolutionary who lived for a “different way” and stirred a movement. This revolutionary, who walked the earth and began his movement roughly 2,000 years ago, also was killed for what he stood for (at an early age, like King). Of course, the revolutionary 2,000 years ago was Jesus Christ, and his importance to those who followed him (including King, a devout disciple) was certainly more profound than Civil Rights or non-violence. Christ’s legacy remains as one who gives hope for a different way of living, and his death paved a way for the reconciliation of the entire cosmos to God.

What if we just remembered the death of Martin Luther King, Jr? What if we only pondered the circumstances surrounding the assassination, the subsequent investigation, and the reactions of the black community? What if we forgot or failed to mention the life of King? Don’t we often do this with Jesus?

I was surprised to be convicted of this in Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By In America, because author Barbara Eherenreich is an athiest. She writes about getting off work one Saturday evening and deciding to attend a local Gospel Revival for “entertainment.” Here are some of her reflections:

The preaching goes on, interrupted with dutiful “amens.” It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth. I would like to stay around for the speaking in tongues, should it occur, but the misquitoes, worked into a frenzy by all this talk of His blood, are launching a full-scale attack. I get up to leave, timing my exit for when the preacher’s metronomic head movements have him looking the other way, and walk out to search for my car, half expecting to find Jesus out there in the dark, gagged and tethered to a tent pole.

Tough to read. But it’s often true, though, isn’t it?