Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Voyage of the Dawn Treader, reviewed.

My girlfriend is going to have some words for me. Mostly kind ones I'm sure. But if she slipped in a knowing "I told you so" I'd have no right to hold it against her. Just the other day I upset her by panning the latest Narnia film sight unseen. The first one disappointed, I said. The second one reportedly murdered the book, I said. This one apparently added some mystical macguffin to spruce up the adventure with a chase, I said. Humbug, I said. And so she gave me the third degree about how they were decent movies and can't you just go along with the big budget adventure movie and darnit Mike you haven't even seen the thing. The conversation was long distance, but I imagined her face at the time to be scrunched in a cute twist of pouty insistence.

I went with my mom this evening to see Voyage of the Dawn Treader, begrudgingly but not wanting to stay in the house any longer. I came out of the theater pestering my mom because she didn't seem to enjoy it quite as much as I did. VotDT is no triumphant success of thrilling movie excitement, but it is an excellent kids' movie and fun enough to win over a skeptic.

If you don't already know, VotDT recounts a sea-faring adventure involving three British schoolchildren magically whisked away from wartime Britain into a parallel universe filled with mythical creatures and gallantry and adventure. It's adapted from one of a series of seven books by the wildly popular mid-century evangelical writer C.S. Lewis, a Cambridge professor of medieval literature turned lay theologian. The Chronicles of Narnia, as these seven books are known collectively, detail the adventures of English schoolchildren mostly from the same family and decade who live full lives in this alternate universe before returning to the same age in the "real" world. The disjunction in the passage of time might these days cause one to wonder whether someone wasn't trying to convince Leonardo DiCaprio he was a magical king. But enough of that.

Edmund & Lucy have spent decades in Narnia previously and are thrilled when the seascape in their bedroom begins to gush saltwater and hurtle them back into adventure. Their boorish young cousin Eustace, however, is not. The film wrings some laughs from the brat's fussy adjustment to a life of excitement and danger, some pathos from his growing up through the experience.

VotDT does mostly well by their story as known from the book, fleshing details here and there, twisting bits of one adventure and another together. But the book VotDT already suffered from having too episodic a structure, so I actually found (to my surprise) that the plot alterations served both the movie and the spirit of the text. Fancy that! Seen in the right cinematic light, the Dawn Treader's various adventurous episodes start pushing towards the delirious "why not?" fun I remember from moments like Up's dogfighting dogs and King Kong's thrice tyrannosaurus-laden throwdown. Well, it's not that exciting, but the point is I had fun when I didn't expect to.

The acting is serviceable, though Edgar Wright's Reepicheep is fantastic and Georgie Henley still rocks as Lucy, even if she's not the same intensely adorable waif of five years ago. Liam Neeson (or the sound engineer digitally modifying his voice) sounds better as Aslan, and the character is used to better effect. Personally, I would have liked Eustace's deliverance scene* to have been put together differently, but what's on screen works and they managed to retain the meaning. The FX are also serviceable, but nothing so refined as what has been put to work in most blockbusters the past several years. It doesn't look bad, but it also doesn't look good next to something like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter--it takes little imagination to think that the franchise's loss of Disney backing had something to do with this. But, in the end, it all holds together.

So Rachel, you were right. The movie doesn't suck. It's pretty good, actually. And I think most of the people who bother enough to casually skim my writings would enjoy it, though probably not for top dollar.

*Not to be mistaken with Eustace's Deliverance scene, although several creatures do refer to him as a pig.

He Is Able

From the office readings for the first Sunday after Christmas, year one.

"Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested." 

~ Hebrews 2:14-18

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Love that Moves the Sun

Just so was I on seeing this new vision
I wanted to see how our image fuses
Into the circle and finds its place in it,

Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

Here powers failed my high imagination:
But by now my desire and will were turned,
Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

~conclusion to Dante's Paradiso

God Loves Naked People

The following is a transcript of my wedding sermon written as my final Homiletics assignment. The psalm referred to here is Psalm 139. I used the names Paul and Thekla as my fictional married couple--props to you if you get my church history joke.

God loves naked people. God created us naked. We’re not born with suit and tie (or skirt and heels), right? Most of us remember from Sunday school that Adam and Eve went about those primordial years au naturale, blissfully unconcerned about it. Adam never looked at Eve in those days to say, “Eden feel a bit drafty today?” Rather, Genesis tells us that “the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.”[1]   Our creational account is packed with so many firsts and prototypes, and one of them is the first marriage. We see in the unfallen Adam and Eve an effortless vulnerability and self-exposure, doubtless a powerful context for incredibly deep interpersonal knowledge. For the kind of fellowship God intended humans to have, even as he said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.”[2]   Imagine what friendship and romance would be like without selfishness, without distrust, without lies and violations. That’s the holy peace, the blessing God desires for all the families of the earth.

Of course we know that it didn’t stay that way. Our lives are deeply complicated by the problem of sin and human failure; our relationships so often broken and hurting. We long for peace and deep sharing with others, but we’re our own worst enemies. And just as sin originally drove Adam and Eve to cover their nether-regions, the brokenness, pain and transgressions in our lives cause us to cover ourselves. I am not, this afternoon, advocating public nudity or anything so crass. I am merely pointing out what most of us at least intuitively know—we just don’t share our deepest selves, our figurative nether regions, with everyone. Sometimes with anyone. We’re afraid to be fully known, because in our nakedness we are ashamed.

In our psalm today, the composer says to God, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”[3]   That’s some intense x-ray vision. Sort of like a cosmic full-body scanner like they have at airport security. As uncomfortable as those contraptions make us, the God of heaven and earth sees way more than the TSA.

But the psalmist isn’t boycotting this divine invasion of privacy! He sings, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it is so high that I cannot attain it.” And rather than squirm uncomfortably at the thought of exposure, he invites God’s penetrating gaze: “Search me, O God, and know my heart… See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” This should surprise us because it’s not normal human behavior to want our wickedness exposed. We hide. We run for cover. Just as the first husband and wife did all those millenia ago. But the psalmist understands God in a way Adam and Eve didn’t grasp, or were deceived into doubting. If God knows everything, why not let him deal with you? And if God is good, holy, just, merciful and omnipotent, who wouldn’t want his involvement?

So what does this have to do with marriage? Believe it or not, marriage involves nudity. Shocking, I know. The way our secularized culture treats marriage, however, dilutes the point I’m about to make. Through pre-marital sex, people expose themselves physically to one another without the concordant psychological, emotional and spiritual exposure that a lifelong commitment to another person entails. Its sinful precisely because it divorces body from mind, separates our beings in ways never meant to happen. Sexual “liberation” is sexual slavery. My point here now is that Christian marriage in a very sober sense means a lifelong commitment to someone before seeing them naked, figuratively and literally. Marital faithfulness means not running away when you begin to encounter the depths of the person you love—when they begin to encounter yours. It’s an intentionally intrusive set up—listen to this Paul and Thekla—designed by God to refine and sanctify you. It will not always be fun, but, with the Lord’s help, it will ultimately be good.

The liturgy we hear today tells us that marriage “signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.”[4]   The marriage covenant speaks of a higher covenant, a commitment made by God to humans without the stipulation that they take off their clothes. In other words, God doesn’t commit to us based liking what he sees when he looks at our true selves. If he did, we’d never make the cut.

Paul and Thekla marry today knowing some things about each other. They know that they both enjoy backpacking in the mountains. They know that they both enjoy old movies and good wine. They know that they both love serving and loving others as part of God’s people. And we, as their community at Church of the Resurrection, can attest to the good things they share as well. We have witnessed their love and commitment grow and mature this last year, and it is because of this that we have gathered together with them today.

However, just as we witnesses do not share in the closest and most personal parts of Paul and Thekla’s romance, so also Paul and Thekla have yet to share the deepest and most intimate parts of their selves. Marriage will mean exposure, both figuratively and literally, for our dear friends. I am here to declare today to you, Paul, and to you, Thekla that the dark corners of your souls will be unearthed by your life together. Places of darkness, pain, fear and sadness will inevitably surface. Not because either of you are particularly bad human beings, but precisely because you are normal human beings. Even Christians cannot escape this fate, as being new creations in Christ is a lifelong process of sanctification and not a one-stop, instantaneous transformation. Marriage will be a crucial part of your pilgrimage toward heaven, a process of love and refinement lasting decades.

So don’t be surprised when you find yourselves in your first fight! It’s going to happen! One day you’re going to look at the other person and say, “Surely this isn’t the beautiful creature or the godly adonis that I married!” Watch yourself when those thoughts and feelings come to the fore. Because those are the moments that a strong marriage is made of; because it’s how you respond when your loved ones fail you that determines the strength of your closest relationships.

Let’s turn our thoughts back to God for a moment. Unlike the way Thekla can know Paul or vice versa, God knows our best and brightest attributes as well as our deepest depravities as a matter of fact. So when God makes an offer of commitment and love to you—and he has—it’s demonstrably more astounding than the one you made or may one day make on your wedding day. More astounding than what Paul and Thekla are about to do today. Though we know they are doing a beautiful thing. That’s the marvel and the offense of the gospel, the loving and faithful commitment of God to people who by no means merit such a gift.

How is it that then Christ is the bridegroom, and we are the bride? Women take to this analogy naturally, but men tend to struggle with it. It seems flowery and girly. But when the Bible speaks this way about Christ and the church, we need not picture an iconic and kissy romantic embrace a la The Princess Bride or somesuch. Though it is a profound encouragement that, when asked what he had to live for, Jesus did not mutter “to blave.” True love, he says! For the joy set before him, he endured the cross. And yes, when he returns, he will shame the metaphorical Prince Humperdinck of this world.

But we can think of Christ as the true bridegroom today because we know that he knows us deeply and intimately, yet he has chosen us. That is the gospel. Christ sees us naked, yet he offers redemption to us. God loves naked people. And so I charge you both today—you Paul, and you Thekla—“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[5]   Go thou, and do likewise. Amen.

[1] Genesis 2:25.
[2] Genesis 2:18.
[3] Psalm 139.
[4] BCP, 423.
[5] I Corinthians 13:4-8

Monday, December 13, 2010

2010: 8 Good Movies

2010 was not a good year for movies. I could probably only name one or two films released this year that I regretted missing (Winter's Bone, Let Me In... and that's it).* We had a weak summer for blockbusters--Iron Man 2 was flat, Robin Hood needlessly historicized and overblown (from what I understand), The Sorcerer's Apprentice tepid (also word of mouth). At the end of the summer, one critic had actually proclaimed 2010 the worst year ever for movies. I'm not informed enough to agree or disagree with him, except to say that I usually enjoy a wealth of movies each year and in 2010 I'm unable to put together a round list of 10 favorites.** So here are the eight fun/favorite movies, ranging in quality from "not a waste of your time or money" to "surprisingly good."

8) Unstoppable

This movie is hammily acted, visually overwrought and light on meaning. It's also a "white-knuckle thrill ride" that will have you on the edge of your seat the whole time. Despite its B-movie elements spun from real-life events, I really enjoyed it. A true popcorn movie. Although, unfortunately, this SNL parody is not inaccurate.

7) Tangled

Tangled manages to be a non-irritating, mostly exciting Disney princess movie about Rapunzel, her magical hair and leaving the confines of an over-protective childhood for the world of men. The love interest is given more characterization here, and feels less like an arbitrary stand-in for romantic wish fulfillment (i.e. Prince Charming). Plus, there is a surprisingly dark psychology at work in the film as the heroine must become self-aware of her reclusiveness and own up to her own life rather than being enslaved by the adult expectations of her childhood.

6) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt. 1

A road trip movie into dark woods, dark histories, and dark corners of the soul. Some have complained that it drags, but I was sufficiently invested in the characters to care deeply for the risks and sacrifices they make. I was riveted the whole time. I remembered enough of the book to know when danger was coming, but not always to whom and with what consequence. The movie does have murder, torture and mutilation (mostly off-screen), so I'd say definitely not for kids.

5) How to Train Your Dragon

Perhaps the most exciting and entertaining kids' movie since The Incredibles. It's a rousing and funny adventure involving vikings, dragons and self-actualization. What's not to love?

4) Inception

An exciting and brainy action movie that falls all the way down the rabbit hole. Recent interviews with director Chris Nolan and freeze-frame comparisons from the Blu-Ray now mitigate this take, but I was fairly sure after watching it that the film offered no objective frame of reference. But when the visuals and ideas are flying this fast, one can be forgiven for trying to get a grasp on its reality and just giving in to the fun.

3) Toy Story 3

A fantastic threequel. The film has energy, wit, visual creativity in spades and heart--all hallmarks of the Pixar brand. It's also surprisingly dark--think toys being forced to face the stark dread of existential annihilation. Ingmar Bergman with a rainbow palette, if that makes sense to anyone but me. And it's refreshingly poignant in a way that doesn't feel contrived within the Toy Story universe but also avoids asking you to care too much about possessed action figures.

2) The Social Network

Mike Radcliffe likes this. With enough rapid-fire dialogue to tire Bogart's tongue, a splash of chilled-heart cynicism and the color scheme of an autumnal sweater-wearing English Lit major whose favorite movies are Dead Poets Society and Rushmore, TSN is a dark American fable of careerist techno-prowess and Harvard campus social climbing. The "real" Mark Zuckerberg has derided it as tabloid journalism because it basically says he invented Facebook to get girls (and Jesse Eisenberg brilliantly portrays him as unlikeable dweeb). Everyone knows he's BSing because the site never would have made it off the ground if it weren't for its streamlining of digital connections between oppositely-sexed coeds. Just before the film's release he donated a zillion dollars to a failing New Jersey school system, a PR move that seems just as fake as the Facebook avatars composed of "Likes" and snapshots which his program facilitated and wrings billions of dollars of profit from.

1) Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

SPvtW captures the outsized feeling of personal romantic drama by scrawling the main character's inner world across the screen via the overblown visual signatures of video games and comic books. Michael Cera plays an even more restrained version of himself as Scott Pilgrim, a 22-yr old Canadian layabout and bassist who is caught between the too-young fangirl he's dating (a bubbly sprite of a teenager named "Knives Chau") and the mysterious and alluring girl of his dreams (a dyed-hair, alluring cool girl named "Ramona Flowers"). Pilgrim has to fight Flowers's emotional baggage one-by-one, Dragonball Z-style, in order to be with her and eventually has to own up to his own mistakes and fight as a matter of self-actualization and self-respect rather than trying to earn the respect of the women around him. I'll be the first to admit that romantic twenty-somethings weaned on Super Mario Bros./Duckhunt like myself are the target audience here and those not submerged in our rareified geek culture may not care. But for those of our digitally infused cerebra, SPvtW will have us selecting "Play Again" many times over.

*By contrast, in 2009 I loved Avatar, A Serious Man, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Up and maybe some others I can't remember right now.

**Sadly, the Coen brothers' True Grit doesn't come out until the 22nd. I will be talking someone in Jacksonville into seeing it.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Shouting Through Pain

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday morning, 12/3/2010, at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The lectionary readings were as follows: Psalms 16, 17 & 22; Isaiah 3:8-15; I Thessalonians 4:1-12; Luke 20:27-40.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried these words on the cross right before he died. They are the pained cry of a man who has known great suffering. But even on the cross, Jesus had scripture in mind. He understood that his death has meaning, that even at his most forsaken, the Father is working to bring redemption to mankind.

Psalm 22 begins with that same cry we hear on the cross—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God, why? Why did you let this happen? Why do bad things happen to good people? The psalmist felt that question. Jesus felt that question. “I cry by day,” he says, “but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” This is no brief spell of depression. The psalmist is in major crisis—otherwise, his song would not have been appropriate for history’s greatest crisis, the cross of Jesus Christ.

We see the tension between suffering and faith right away, because the psalmist turns around and says, “Yet you are holy… In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them…” He’s remembering the stories he’s heard, the scripture preached to him, the faith he received from those who came before him. We do and we ought to do the same when hard times are upon us. As the great Christian author C.S. Lewis once said, “God shouts through our pain.”

But then the psalmist takes another right turn. He complains, “But I am a worm, and not human.” “Surely these stories, these truths don’t apply to me!” he seems to be thinking. We wonder the same. How can mere words measure up against the reality of starvation or betrayal or the unforgiving bitter cold of a Pittsburgh winter? It’s all fine and well to talk about what God did with those people back then—a long time ago and far, far away—but what about where I live? What about the boundary line between my life and death? What about my pain? We’re aching for God to answer us.

“But,” he says, turning again, “it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” He remembers. He says, this God wasn’t just around in these old stories. He’s creator God. He saw me through my youth. Now I face hardship, suffering, death—but I remember when God got me through.

I’m going to tell you a story about God getting a family through tough times. Years ago, a young couple in their thirties had one child, a four year old boy. One day the mom walked into the room only to find her one and only son writhing on the floor, his muscles spasming and body contorted in the frightening throes of a full on seizure. He’s rushed to the doctor. The parents are waiting, terrified of what the news might be. The word comes in: your son has a bacterial brain disease, and he’s in a coma. “My God,” they must have thought, “why have you forsaken us?” How could this have happened to our son? How could you take him from us?

Imagine them, sitting up late at night by the hospital bed, worried and grieved to the point of nausea. Then the doctor, a Christian, comes into to talk to them. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but there’s nothing more I can do for your son. We’ve exhausted what medicine has to offer him.” End of story—except, he quickly adds, “But there is one thing I can do—pray.” And they pray fervently in the name of Jesus for the health of this child, and then the doctor leaves. My mom fell asleep by the bed that night, not knowing whether she would ever see her son alive again. The next morning I woke up, healed, unaware anything had gone wrong.

God got me through. I praise him and thank him because if it weren’t for the resurrection power of Jesus, I wouldn’t be standing before you this morning. My parents knew the sharp pang of fear and terror that their son would probably die, knew what forsaken felt like. But God turned it around. The psalmist knew what forsaken felt like, yet he concludes his song proclaiming, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” And Jesus knew what forsaken felt like, yet God raised him from the dead on the third day.

My good news for you today is that you may know what forsaken feels like, but we worship the true God who raises men from the dead. You may know what the long and hard journey feels like, but Jesus is walking that road with you. You may know that place of pain and bitterness, of isolation and danger, but Jesus knew that place, too. He’s all we’ve got--all any of us have.

Have mercy on us, Lord! We need you! We’re nothing without you! We can’t make it down this road on our own! We’re tired—help! Lord Jesus, have mercy on your people. Protect us from all our adversaries, spiritual or physical, and keep us safe in this life and the next. Fill us with hope and joy, with the light of life, with the peace the passes all understanding, because we’re utterly dependent on you and we’ve nowhere else to go. Thank you, Jesus, for the breath you give us, for the death you died, for the salvation you bring. Amen.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Excerpt from Amsterdam

"When at last he directed his attention out the window, a familiar misanthropy had settled on him and he saw in the built landscape sliding by nothing but ugliness and pointless activity.

In his corner of West London, and in his self-preoccupied daily round, it was easy for Clive to think of civilization as the sum of all the arts, along with design, cuisine, good wine, and the like. But now it appeared that this was what it really was--square miles of meager modern houses whose principal purpose was the support of TV aerials and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one had been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after miles, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed? Occasionally, as the train gathered speed and they swung farther away from London, countryside appeared and with it the beginnings of beauty, or the memory of it, until seconds later it dissolved into a river straightened into a concreted sluice or a sudden agricultural wilderness without hedges or trees, as though all that mattered was to be elsewhere. As far as the welfare of every other living form on earth was concerned, the human project was not just a failure, it was a mistake from the very beginning."

from Ian McEwan, Amsterdam (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 68-69.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Holiday (Verbal) Snapshots


I endured an annoying 3 hr delay for what should have been an easy-peasy direct flight from Pittsburgh to Charlotte. We took off from PGH after we were originally slated to arrive at CLT. Some things I noticed:

-A solitary girl--mid-twenties?--keeping her small, chic airport store tidy while Christmas music plays overhead. I am struck by the contrast between the sacred-filial nature of the music and the corporate materialism and isolation of the setting.

-The plane breaks over the clouds, a vast white-gray cotton ball expanse lit from below with patches of orange suburban light. The moon shines high, small and bright above the cloudscape and Orion reaches for it in an eternal, sisyphean freeze-frame.

-The ground far below is black and inscrutable. The Gods-eye view shows thousands of light-points, intersecting curving roads and silhouetted tree tops--all that man has wrought upon the darkened geography. Each light represents--one person? One family? Five families? I think about how God must see us bustling about on this rock, taking note of each of our lives. I'm wondering--what do I amount to in this hill of beans? What will I amount to? Who will notice?


I'm glad to be home with mom and sister. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. We spend a pleasant drive together from Charlotte to Jacksonville. Katie (sister) and I sing songs together, though I hold off on the Disney princess ballads she wants me to back her up on.


A morning walk in the dark—-my first time up before dawn on Thanksgiving in my living memory.

You know you have some form of homesickness when the pungent salt-sulphur aroma of the intracoastal marshes makes you feel like you’ve returned. My uncle's neighborhood is all tall, twisted, moss-covered oaks like the ones around the house and neighborhood I grew up in. I recognize fauna sounds I never realized were unique to home. Chirps and twitters in the branches above; I heard them a long time ago.

It's still dark. The moon, a bright waning gibbous, hangs high and small above—the sky is clear but the ground is wet and water drips from the trees. A pre-dawn mist hangs low and close, and white light from the sparsely placed street lamps pokes Spielbergian rays through leaf-lattices and I wonder can I go anywhere without something reminding me of a movie.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King Sunday

The following is a transcript of my sermon preached Sunday evening, 11/21/2010, at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA.  The lectionary readings were as follows:  Psalm 46; Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:34-43.

Jesus is Lord. Hallelujah. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church calendar year. We’re about to begin advent, or the four weeks leading up to Christmas, which is meant to be a time of repentance and preparation for the coming of the king. That’s what Christmas is about, that’s the beginning of Jesus’s role in history—the incarnation, the virgin birth, there in the stable with the animals in the night. Advent and Christmas will begin the church calendar again. It’s our commemoration of the first coming of Christ. It follows then that on Christ the King Sunday, the end of the church calendar, we should be thinking about his second coming.

We’re at Shepherd’s Heart Fellowship tonight. It’s a great name for a church because it sums up what Jesus was about. And it says that we here want to, with God’s grace, follow in his footsteps. The bible often uses the word “shepherd” to talk about the leaders of God’s people. Moses was a shepherd. David was a shepherd. Jesus was and is the good shepherd. In our passage from Jeremiah tonight, however, God has some strong words for the “shepherds” of Israel of that time. “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” he says. “It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” That’s a scary thing to hear from the Lord. Sometimes those meant to serve God’s people end up hurting them the most. They don’t love them with the love of Christ and so have the opposite effect of their job description. Those of us who serve and lead in churches ought to tremble at this thought, because we know that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are jealous for their children and will judge those who bring harm to them.

However, in Jeremiah, just after this judgment, however, God promises to them that he will send a good shepherd—a righteous, wise and just king who will save God’s people. It’s Jesus. The pastor of pastors. The king of kings. He is our hope, though all other men may fail us. Church leaders, political leaders, business leaders—but at the end of the day they’re only dust in the wind, withering grass in the field. But the word of the Lord endures forever. Jesus is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever. He's coming back to the earth with justice and love. That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

That’s what the people of Jerusalem wanted, when they crucified him. They were looking for a king who could save them, deliver them from the Roman oppressors and restore God’s kingdom to its former glory. But they were blind to the Messiah standing right before them. Their spirits had become crushed and twisted by oppression and hopelessness, and in demanding a king they destroyed the only one they could have. We read in Luke today how the jeering culprits called for him to save himself—three times we see this. Jesus hangs on the cross, beaten, bloodied and pierced, gasping for air and the Jewish leaders say, “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself!” The Roman soldiers, who have just finished driving the nails into him and the others say, “If he is the King of the Jews, let him save himself!” And a criminal crucified and hanging next to him says, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” Save yourself, save yourself, save yourself! That’s what a king does, right? He’s strong and he rules by might.

We know this plea, though. "Save yourself" is the plea of anyone who has seen the darkness in the world and cried out for a king. All of us who have said "Why did this happen in my childhood?" "Why did that happen to that guy over there?" "Why was that girl sexually abused?" "Why is that man in Asia or this woman in Africa starving to death?" Why, why, why? The injustice and darkness in the world makes us cry out for an answer. It's why were longing for a good and strong king to coming along and sort the mess out.

But our king relinquished his authority and died on the cross that day. And it was written over his head, ironically, “The King of the Jews.”

But one man did recognize him that day. The other criminal did not demand that Jesus leave the cross. He rebuked the first criminal, saying, “Don’t you realize we’re up here because we deserve it, but this man has done nothing wrong? Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That second criminal did not demand that Jesus meet his expectation for what a king should be, but he demonstrated trust that Jesus was king, that he had a kingdom which he could take the criminal to and that he would be successful in reigning there. Many of us already know Jesus’s reply: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus accepted a criminally convicted, dying, shamed man who with his last breaths acknowledged the lordship of the true Messiah. It was like unstrapping a man from the electric chair and sending him on vacation to Hawaii. Because Jesus is a merciful lord, because he accepts all who humbly recognize his authority. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

And we know how the story ends. Jesus didn’t stay dead. He was murdered gruesomely and unjustly but the grave couldn’t hold him. God through the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead three days later and demonstrated that this man really was “King of the Jews.” A man who doesn’t have to save himself because God Almighty vindicates him with surprising strength and power. That’s our king. That’s our savior. That’s the Jesus we worship. Jesus the Messiah has been raised from the dead and is therefore Lord of the whole world. Hallellujah. He’s Christ the King, and he loves you more than you know.

That’s the good news, right? The king God has given us is the good shepherd he promised way back when to Jeremiah. We could have a tyrant, or a selfish monarch, or a timid democratic-republican politician. But because God is merciful, we have Christ the King. Jesus the Messiah. The ruler who is both loving and strong. The lion who lays down with the lamb. And what a lion he is.

Remember our Colossians reading.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross."

We have these two amazing pictures of Jesus today. On the one hand we have the Jesus of ancient Jerusalem, stained with dirt, no place to lay his head, followed by friend and foe everywhere he went and weak and bleeding and dying on the Roman cross. On the other we have the resurrected Lord Christ, revealed as fully God and fully man, the creator of all things and the one who will one day restore all things to the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit always intended them to be—beautiful, whole and full of joy.

We know something very important because of this. The king who rules the world and our lives is also the man who suffered a murder most foul. The gospel is no fairy tale. It is good news about a real event of power and love in the midst of the darkness and evil in this world.

I’m saying this because, by myself, I have nothing to offer you today. I’m just a white kid from suburban Florida—what do I know? I don’t know your lives. I don’t know your pain. And if I did, what could I do? Can one person fix another? I am weak and useless. I have my words and my presence—but what are these in the face of homelessness? In the face of addiction? When people have been abused and abandoned? I can promise you nothing of my own, no good thing I can give you. I’m sorry, but I’m just not that great. I’m not that exciting. Thank God Almighty it doesn’t depend on me.

I can’t give you anything today, but I can point you to Jesus. Ten years ago I was seventeen, and I had walked away from the Lord. I decided I didn’t need this Christian stuff, I didn’t need God to get on with my life--in short I wanted nothing to do with it. But God rescued me from my sin and doubt. For weeks on end I woke up night after night with no reason that I could tell--every night at 3 o’clock in the morning. I told no one. After this had happened many times, a man prophesied to me that God was calling home prodigal sons and that I had been waking up at three in the morning but didn’t know why. God spoke to me through that man, convicted and convinced me he was real, rescued me from my despair.

I don’t know your pain. But he does. I don’t know your story. But he does. I don’t know what’s going on in your life tonight. But God does. I can’t talk to you about walking through great suffering, but I can tell you about the Jesus who spoke to me and delivered me from doubt and unbelief and despair all those years ago. I haven’t been through everything in this world, but Jesus has been there. He lived in a small village of a poor country occupied by an evil superpower. He walked among the sick and the sinful. He worked alongside the ordinary people of his day, working with his hands to eke out a living in first century Palestine. And one day, he walked into the desert, driven there by the Holy Spirit, and came out a man on fire for the purposes of God. And he proclaimed and he healed and he delivered and he spent his life in love on behalf of God’s people. A truly good shepherd, laying down his life, leaving the ninety-nine to go after the one. He became obedient to death on a cross and made it so that we neither have to be judged for our sin nor remain enslaved by it. “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.” That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Remember the thief on the cross. Jesus accepted him into the kingdom solely because he acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, the Lord. The thief didn’t say to Jesus, “Save us, and I’ll believe!” but rather he believed, and trusted Jesus to save him. The thief accepted Jesus on his own terms, dying there next to him on a cross. So as we celebrate Christ the King, we must remember that Jesus is not the kind of king we’re used to. Celebrating the King of kings and Lord of lords means accepting Jesus as the crucified king, as the one who appears weak, as the one who loves the hurting and the broken and not just the rich and the powerful.

Our king may not lead be leading tanks and helicopters into battle, or making billions on the stock market, or be the most popular man in politics. Strangely enough, to some he might even be the most shamed man in politics. But Jesus loves his people strongly and selflessly. Jesus knows our weakness and he doesn’t try to hide his own. Powerful men are always busy trying to hide their shortcomings, trying to make people forget the times they didn’t succeed. Look at my resume! Look at my accolades! Look what I’ve accomplished! But Jesus said, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all men to himself.” Jesus wants us to look at the cross, wants us to look at the broken, humble, dying man there and learn an important lesson. It’s written above his head: “The King of the Jews.” The true shepherd of the people of God, the man with the power, the king and ruler of the earth is the one who has suffered along with every man, woman and child who ever knew the sting of injustice, abuse and pain. Faith is believing that today we read about the same man in Luke 23 that we did in Colossians 1: the man who died on the cross is also the God-man who is coming back to sort out this mess! He’s coming back to bring freedom and healing to the world and to judge and destroy the wicked! That’s why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

It is my heart’s desire and prayer for you that you would know Christ the King. Moreover, the King himself wants you to know him. If you already belong to him, he wants you to be near him, he wants you to trust him, he wants to bring healing and deliverance in your life. Jesus has walked the hard paths of this world, he has suffered the abuses and injustices which men heap upon each other, and God has raised him from the dead in order to bring us salvation. That's why we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. Amen.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evil, Prayer & the Return of the King

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Thursday, November 18th during Homiletics class at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. The homily is based on the office readings for Friday of Proper 28, year two: Psalms 102 & 107; Malachi 3:1-12; James 5:7-12; Luke 18:1-8.

This life is like living in Gondor under Denethor. Do you know the story? In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga, the great kingdom of men, Gondor, has been without a king for ages. A long line of stewards—provisional administrators—has kept the land in working order in the intervening years. Yet the threat of evil has always lurked just across Pelennor fields and now it threatens to wipe out known human civilization. The steward Denethor has been unwilling and unable to rally other kingdoms to the front line defense and so will stand alone. Denethor and his armies are losing a war of attrition and will surely not survive the onslaught of Mordor’s troops massing behind the black gate.

But then the true king returns. The one king, Aragorn, destined to lead the men of Middle Earth in victorious battle against Sauron and his armies and restore peace. He oversees the defeat of radical evil and the restoration of the good kingdom. The stewards, at best, wielded a provisional authority, a holdover in the absence of true kingship. Aragorn, however, wielded an apocalyptic authority bequeathed to him by prophecy and lineage. For lack of more refined Tolkien-esque language, I’ll call it God-given authority. Anointed authority. Messianic authority.

Our world exists under the reign of provisional rulers, stewards of authority with neither the power nor the inclination to bring messianic peace. They cannot and will not “beat their swords into plow-shares and spears into pruning hooks.”[1] So we live with the unsettling and intractable pains of an ungoverned world. Injustices go unavenged. Suffering goes un-soothed. Tears remain un-wiped. The dead remain in their graves. Our readings for today speak to such a world, for they presuppose it when they discuss God’s arrival on the earth—the true return of the king.

Here’s what they say. God promises in the third chapter of Malachi that he “will be swift to bear witness against” the many evildoers in this world, such as “the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me.” [2] In Luke 18 Jesus makes a tacit indictment of temporal rulers as wicked judges who neither fear God nor care about other people. And the book of James opens with instruction on how to deal with the many and inevitable trials of this life; its fifth chapter with words spoken against the rich who “condemned and murdered the righteous one.” [3]

Yet they hope for an end to this dreadful situation. In Malachi God is coming to judge evil. James promises us that the one we wait for is merciful and compassionate. And in Luke the good God answers the plaintive cries of his people. These passages promise us the advent of apocalyptic authority, when the true king will come on the stage and laugh derisively at the Denethors of the world and dash the nations into pieces like pottery. [4] They are charged with the eschatological hope that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdoms of our lord of his Christ and he shall reign for ever and ever! [5] These authors speak of no fairy tale delusion meant to ignore the suffering and struggle of the present. These men faced it head on, in the Lord, grappling with the messy existential crisis of “Why is this world so messed up? Why are these pagan tyrants ruling the world? Why do so few people acknowledge Jesus as lord and Christ? Why, why, why?” They were there, they lived in it and through it and they were dying in the arena for it.

This is why James has to say in chapter 5 verses 7 and 11, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord… Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Hardly the words of a romantic! Basically we’re warned, “Remember Job’s life? Don’t expect it to be any better than that and you won’t lose your faith.” It sounds dark, but remember that Job’s story ended with a lesson: God is God and you are not. Jesus himself embraced a modified version of this when he said, “Not my will, but yours be done.” [6]

So we who live in this quagmire of provisional authorities must learn the lesson of Job and of Gethsemane or risk rejecting the king who will one day return and sort out this horrifying mess. That lesson? Your life is forfeit and the best thing to do with it is to spend it utterly unto the promise, purpose and command of the creator god and his Messiah, Jesus. This potentially sounds entirely dreadful. However, in Luke 18, Jesus tells “a parable about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.” [7] In it we learn that the god to whom we are indebted is not a capricious perpetrator of chaos but rather one who hears and answers the prayers of his people who cry out to him day and night.

Jesus concludes this parable, asking, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [8] Not all of us here will face the darkest existential terrors this world offers its inhabitants. However, as disciples of Jesus, we cannot expect a fate any better than our master’s. The Jesus pattern—the prototypically Christian one—is constant and continual reliance on Father God through prayer in the midst of an evil world. Did Yahweh forsake Israel forever to Pharaoh’s oppression? No! He heard their cry and sent Moses to deliver them. A deep prayer life exists as a groaning pang in the midst of a suffering world, calling out to the one true king.

As Christians we don’t fully know the “why” of the problem of evil. Even polite discussions of the subject tend to reveal deep theological and philosophical fault lines between denominations and ecclesiological bodies. But we do know the “what then.” Through faith in the good and strong God followed and embodied by our Lord Jesus Christ, and through a life committed to reliance upon him through prayer and devotion we become living testimonies to the reality of a king other than Caesar, a lord other than the banal forces of money, sex and power which dominate the globe. Let us turn to him today and everyday, rest our hearts in his presence and turn our prayers and actions toward his purposes. Amen.

[1] Isaiah 2:4
[2] Malachi 3:5
[3] James 5:6
[4] Psalm 2
[5] Revelation 11:15
[6] Luke 22:42
[7] Luke 18:1
[8] Luke 18:8

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Priest vs. Vampire

This the priest vs. vampire comic I mentioned on Facebook a few weeks ago.  It's not great, but I'm happy with it.  The idea behind it is a rethinking of vampire lore through the lens of biblical/sacramental theology and then posing a priest as a vampire hunter who can only defeat them via sacraments (no stakes, etc.).  If there were to more than this one (who knows?) I would try to end the first several with a sacraments joke or something similar.  You know, seminary humor.  

Scott Bowles and I collaborated on the original concept as well as brainstormed different possible plots for the strip.  I did the drawing, inking and digital editing (using my cheap printer to scan and Microsoft paint to edit--nothing but the best for this project).

Click on the image below to see the whole comic.

Monday, November 15, 2010

J.I. Packer & the Evangelical Mind

"In particular, it is important to insist that obscurantism in all its forms is wholly out of keeping with true Evangelicalism. The Evangelical is not afraid of facts, for he knows that all facts are God's facts; nor is he afraid of thinking, for he knows that all truth is God's truth, and right reason cannot endanger sound faith. He is called to love God with all his mind; and part of what this means is that, when confronted by those who, on professedly rational grounds, take exception to historic Christianity, he must set himself not merely to deplore or denounce them, but to out-think them. It is not his business to argue men into faith, for that cannot be done; but it is his business to demonstrate the intellectual adequacy of the biblical faith and the comparative inadequacy of its rivals, and to show the invalidity of the criticisms that are brought against it. This he seeks to do, not from any motive of intellectual self-justification, but for the glory of God and of His gospel. A confident intellectualism expressive of robust faith in God, whose Word is truth, is part of the historic evangelical tradition. If present-day Evangelicals fall short of this, they are false to their own principles and heritage."

~J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), 34.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Equipping the Called

Sometimes you feel like going to church--other Sundays seem best spent in bed under warm blankets without the messy intrusions of worship and fellowship, though many of them are yet spent in church.  Moreover, there are times you don't feel like leading (or preaching in) church or chapel or morning prayer, because you're tired or weak or timid or fill in the blank.  Leading Sunday morning worship at the Beaver County Jail this morning was somewhere in-between the two for me, and I take no credit for somehow transcending the plain I-don't-want-to-do-this-today mentality.

I was hanging out late with friends last night, first in one location and then at home, and when we decided to call it a night we moaned and gnashed our teeth because only then did we realize it was two in the morning.  I kicked myself (fig.) because I knew I had to be at the jail at 8:30--Idiot!  You put off bed again!  At that point Sunday morning seemed best a time for blankets and shut-eye and all of those lovely things, not clothes and driving and inmates and worship officiating.  I resigned myself to the bed and I can't swear one or the other whether I pleaded with God for mercy in the morning.

Yet mercy came.  I awoke early and with a start--first because I was sleeping light and/or God is gracious and second because I still haven't changed my alarm clock since "fall back" and I had the terrible sensation of Oh no oh no oh no, I slept through the church service I was supposed to lead.  But then I realized--to my great relief--that I hadn't, and rolled over and waited for the alarm.

It went off, I got up and got dressed and drove to the jail, praying halfheartedly for the morning with pleas of "Lord, have mercy" but still wrestling with clinging strands of sleepiness.  I'm over the initial fear of speaking in front of groups, at least at the jail, Shepherd's Heart and in homiletics class.  So I need grace in the area of trembling before God as I go to represent him to his people, because this morning I was more or less going to get the job done.  That's a confession, of sorts, I guess.  Point being, I wasn't nervous about going into lead, but I did feel the nagging absence of spiritual gravitas as I headed into the situation.  Lord, have mercy, I prayed.

Dudley was waiting for me when we got there--he was the preacher for the morning--and we went in and got the chairs set up and waited for the guards to bring the inmates down.  They arrived from all the various housing units in a group and we greeted them and shook their hands as they came in to sit down.  An inmate named Thomas regularly handles the music for us, so we let him pick out the CDs and songs to begin the morning with.  In that moment I had a flash of inspiration to begin with a prayer, even though it wasn't in our prepared liturgy or regular practice from what I could tell from Dudley's actions (he's a regular on Sunday mornings, I usually work at the jail during the week).

I stood before those men and I was totally in the moment.  I felt the full weight of my role as their worship leader and said a prayer that came from beyond me.  I didn't have it in my heart or on my mind and surprised myself with the passion and conviction and holy words I brought to that moment.  I became conscious of the fact that God was giving me the words to say and demonstrating his love for these men by sidestepping my lack of preparation and giving them gospel truth.  The rest of the service I was fully present, whether in song, or in liturgy or in praying one-on-one with inmates at the end.  God showed up and made church happen this morning--I am so thankful its success didn't depend on me.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

15 Albums I Love

I'm no music critic, but I know what I like. I ferreted out these choices by running through my most played songs on iTunes, but I didn't always choose the albums whose songs got the most number of plays.

1) Freewheelin' Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan

Sometimes I think I should have come of age in the sixties, but I'm thankful for the cynical and/or prophetic distance that kept me from becoming a true believer in postwar, anti-establishment romantic idealism. Still, my heart is very much with the man (lowercase m) here, whether it's the pain of lost love ("North Country Girl") or raging protest against the military-industrial complex ("Masters of War"). I only hope that my writing could one day give voice to others' protest against this world but also direct them toward the good news which ultimately provides the basis for a better one.

2) The White Album - The Beatles

I didn't like this at first, as I had just been introduced to the Beatles with the relative thematic unity of Sgt. Pepper's but esp. Abbey Road. However, The White Album has remained that most consistently engaging and entertaining of their corpus (so far). Even if the songs are a scattershot collection, they mix tastefully just as Huck Finn described good food doing in the opening bit of his eponymous adventure.

3) Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

Scott Bowles once pointed out how even this album's busiest parts remain smooth and soothing. The whole thing has an unforced air, Davis's horn lilting jauntily over the ensemble's engaging rhythms.

4) Pan's Labyrinth - Javier Navarette

One of my favorite movies and, by all accounts, favorite scores, Javier Navarette built the score around the bedtime lullaby sung to the young heroine as a frail comfort within a world of terror. That motif, usually played on a rich and lonely cello, is haunting, beautiful and mythical all at once.

5) Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes

Harmonized pastoral laments and ballads accompanied by an Appalachian ensemble of strings and drums.

6) How the West Was Won - Led Zeppelin

A thrilling, 3-disc live album recorded in Los Angeles in these rock Olympians' heyday, HtW3 shows the band stretching their sound both in terms of live-wire intensity and extensive riffing not common to studio produced tracks. The album opener is an aggressive performance of "Immigrant Song"--the highlight a 25 minute "Whole Lotta Love" doubling as a history of rock and roll. Way hardcore!

7) Thriller - Michael Jackson

At least he deserved the title "King of Pop," if not the right to demand to be called it. Except for "The Girl is Mine" (the dreadful collaboration between Jackson & McCartney) the tracks are infectious and engaging. Mama-say mama-sah ma-ma-coo-sah!

8) St. Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley (Cee-Lo Green / DJ Danger Mouse)

Hands down, Cee-Lo has an amazing voice. It's powerful, rich, soulful, piercing and full. Combined with Danger Mouse's skilled genre mash-up approach to music (Google "Gray Album"), the two produced a fantastic pop album.

9) Spirited Away - Joe Hisaishi

Joe Hisaishi is Miyazaki's go to composer, and he has an old fashioned sensibility recalling both classical Hollywood as well as Baroque waltzes. He retains a distinct eastern flavor, however, and his sounds here evoke the excitement, playfulness, terror and mystery of the world the heroine finds herself in.

10) Ratatouille - Michael Giacchino

Giacchino has composed the most memorable scores from the last decade, beginning with his big picture debut in The Incredibles, whose brilliant horns-heavy score was catchy and retro and plain awesome. In Ratatouille he combines playful Parisian melodies with rousing orchestral crescendos to highlight both the joys and dramas of artistic fluorishing. I love love love this score.  (See also Lost, Star Trek, Up)

11) Grace - Jeff Buckley

A fantastic and moody rock album that shifts wildly from contemplative whispers to Zeppelin-esque jams. It is most remembered for his transcendent cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but the ethereal" Dream Brother" and love-drunk "Lilac Wine" will stick with you as well. What could have been a long and fruitful art-rock career was cut short by the artist's untimely death by accidental drowning in 1997.

12) The Doors - The Doors

Energetic, loose and passionate. Morrison sells the whole package with his unhinged vocals, jumping off from a mostly restrained musical background ("Back Door Man" would more or less sound like piddling on the organ without his zeal).

13) Dying Star - Jason Upton

This is the only Christian album I've included on this list, as it's not usually specific worship albums that I love but rather the holy God they point me to. However, Upton's Dying Star has stayed with me for years because of its multi-track metanarrative spanning the journey of faith from disillusionment to calling to running to rest to glory.

14) Crash - Dave Matthews Band

I'm not the unabashed fan I once was, but DMB served as my introduction to secular music after being raised on a Christian-only diet for the first 21 years of my life. Crash is their best album--tight, energetic, bawdy and spiritual. My coming of age with music began with them, and my favorite genres can all be found in their mix-up of rock, blues, jazz, folk and world sounds.

15) Viva la Vida - Coldplay

A grand departure from the somewhat bland but highly listen-able ethereal soft rock of X&Y, VLV mixes metaphors and emotions, apparently saying something about God & politics but mostly ending up really fun. "Yes" has some of the dark longing of "I Want You" (Abbey Road) but is counterpointed by the sweet breeziness of "Strawberry Swing." The title track has energy and inventiveness, even if they might have cribbed a major riff from Joe Satriani.


Additionally, I just downloaded Cee-Lo's new album, The Ladykiller, and it's fantastic.

The Holy Spirit

"Theologians have constantly debated about the starting point of theology: Should we start with God and move from him to man and the problems of human life? Or should we start from the other end, with man and his experience, and from there ascend to God? Indeed the two options have been set against each other as 'theology from above' vs. 'theology from below.' But if we take seriously the fact that God in his Holy Spirit dwells with us, working in us and influencing us, it should be easy to discover even in the midst of our own experiences the reality of that God who as our Lord and Master stands above us with all his authority and power. And if it is really God whom we encounter in our experiences, the 'theology from below' which begins with our needs and desire, our troubles and concerns, will suddenly turn in to a 'theology from above' because in all those things it is he who encounters us, the One who is greater than ourselves and our little world. It ought to be possible to know him as One who in our world--his creation--is strange to us, and accordingly learn to hope for the future consummation of his work."

~Eduard Schweizer, The Holy Spirit (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1980), 8.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Lord is My Shelter

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Friday, November 12th during morning prayer at Shepherd's Heart Fellowship in Pittsburgh, PA. The office readings for Friday were as follows: Psalms 88, 91, 92; Joel 2:28-3:8; James 1:16-27; Luke 16:1-9. The homily is based on Psalm 91.

Our Psalm today, Psalm 91, is a famous psalm, known for its promise of God’s protection from harm. Many people have memorized it, recited it, and have been comforted by the reassurance it provides. Men and women in the dire straits of poverty, sickness, war and disaster have been strengthened and encouraged by its images. It paints an awesome picture: God delivers, covers, sends angels, protects and rescues. It is a powerful litany of salvation.

Salvation, we find here, depends on how we relate to God. Only God can save, and we must turn to him in order to know this for ourselves. “You who live in the shelter of the Most High,” begins the psalm, “who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’” So it’s those who live in God’s shelter who know the powerful salvation of God. In ancient times God made a home for himself, the temple, and those who worshiped there and were part of his covenant people received the benefits of his saving power. They knew victory over their enemies, prosperity and the beauty of holy worship.

Jesus came as the living embodiment of God, and replaced the temple as God’s shelter. “The word became flesh and dwelled among us.” Jesus came, and what happened at the cross? The veil of the temple was torn right down the middle. The barrier between men and the holy of holies—God’s shelter—was removed when Jesus died as the final perfect sacrifice for sin. With arms wide open, he invites all who will call on his name to possess the salvation of God. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… For ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Do you live in the shelter of the Most High? Do you know what it means to stand in the presence of God? If you know Jesus, you do. We who confess Jesus as Lord and believe in the power of his resurrection hope and wait for the glorious day when God will judge evil men and rescue his people from the struggles and suffering of this life. We who live in the shelter of the Most High have a promise from God: “He will deliver you… he will cover you… he will command his angels concerning you…”

Yes, we’re waiting for the last day, but today we can believe that God will seek our best for us. It’s not yet fulfilled, but already God is willing and able to watch over and protect us. Sufferings and testings will and do come. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation…” The gospel does not pretend suffering and pain do not exist, but it’s good news precisely because it proclaims salvation from those things! Therefore we’ve got gospel all over the place in Psalm 91, the effects of God’s good and powerful reign extended to his people. Jesus said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but then he adds, “but be of good cheer—I have overcome the world!”

I am not suggesting that the Christian life is a cake walk. I am not under any delusions that when we follow Christ it’s all sunshine and happy days. But I have seen the Lord move in my life and in the lives of others and I have to say, “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.” You will not fear the dark things and people lurking around corners on cold winter nights. You will not fear the weapons carried by thugs and criminals roaming the streets. Because God himself is your fortress! He is your shield and your deliverer! And if he is for you, who can be against you?

I knew, in my teenage years, the terror of uncertainty and doubt. I didn’t believe in God and had no hope in my life. And the Lord spoke to me and pulled me out of the miry pit. He rescued me and gave me the conviction that I need not fear. And he wants to do the same for you. He’s longing to show favor and grace to you.

Who lives in the shelter of the Most High? Who abides in the shadow of the Almighty? The ones who acknowledge and call on Jesus as Lord. That’s not just a one time thing. Not that you become Christian again, but that part of salvation is calling on the name of our Lord over and over again. Jesus! Jesus, save us! The darkness is great, and we are weak! Call on the Lord Jesus and know what it means to say, “The Lord is my fortress.” Call on the Lord Jesus, and he will satisfy you with long life and show you his salvation. Amen.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Summary/Reflection: Bp. Todd Hunter & Congregations for the Sake of Others

“I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.” ~ Philemon 9

Bishop Hunter’s big success at yesterday’s afternoon lecture at St. Steven’s Church in Sewickley was an act of informed synthesis. Ostensibly, we were there to hear about “Church Planting for the Sake of Others,” but the talk in no way developed that idea as a concise thesis. Don’t misunderstand, Bishop Hunter did address issues of mission and even offer some new ways to think about it, but he delivered information to us scattershot, a shotgun spread of issues ranging from how we tell the Christian story to engaging in an informed way with our culture. Nebulously, however, a coherent big picture for the future of Anglican ecclesiology and mission eventually came into view.

He began with a splash of cold water: evangelical Christianity is on the decline. According to sociologists of religion, he says, we’re bleeding numbers. He chalked this up to the fading currency of dogmatic truth in the post-Christian West, which I’m sure is insightful, but I was wondering about when these sociologists were taking these numbers. If in the aughts (00’s), his interpretation might have overlooked the problem of George W. Bush, who did no small amount of damage to evangelicalism’s reputation.^ He also refused to criticize some “Moral Majority” leaders like Robertson and Falwell—I appreciated his respect for them as people trying to uphold righteousness in a failing culture, but thought he remained too shy of acknowledging great public sins like their 700 Club conversation on September 12, 2001 blaming 9/11 on lesbians and the ACLU.*

The bishop described a familiar cultural situation: most Americans don’t consider Christianity to be our default religion, but rather one of many religious options. Pluralism and tolerance rule public discourse on God. He brought up the New Atheists (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) and told us how they’ve changed the tone of atheism from mere dismissal of religion to an outright denunciation of it as morally bankrupt and necessarily damaging. He countered this with statistics about historically steady church attendance and atheism’s lack of popular appeal.

What’s the zeitgeist then? Is it surprising to say that a mushy, post-confidence pluralism prevails, neither outright denying nor outright affirming the existence and/or relevance of God to human life? I’m not sure he spelled it out just this way, but it represents the sum total of his statements on the subject and is, I think, perceptive and relevant. Think of last year’s blockbuster Avatar and the way it’s pantheist-buddhist mystical interconnectedness and call for us to love and defend the weak and the different enriched its otherwise Dances With Wolves in Space plot. I loved the movie, but recognized it as an epic drama of the Obama age: “We’re sorry about Iraq; everything’s connected; there’s something that gives us hope; we’ll use the best technology to show you.”

So what? Bishop Hunter contended that we must recognize this situation as de facto and respond appropriately. “There’s no way into mission apart from reality,” he said. And mission “only happens by understanding and facing reality.” Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17 serves as the model—we make a bridge from their reality (“unknown god”) to ours (“the God who made the world and everything in it”). We don’t preach the gospel by relativizing our story: “It was the particularity of Jehovah that liberated human beings.” Our hardest job, as he puts it, is “lovingly contending” for the uniqueness of Christ. It’s anathema to our culture, yet we can’t shout them into agreement with us. There has to be another way.

“How do we,” he asked, “take the particularity of Jehovah and be his people in this time and place?” In his view, we can neither rely on the strength of dollars or implicit social capital** and must rethink church and mission in terms of loving our neighbor as ourself.*** And that’s where the idea of “Congregations for the Sake of Others” creeps in, as it commends Christians to love people into Christ rather than seeing them as numbers to be secured as the spoils of evangelistic combat. Rather than think of church as one hour a week on Sunday, let’s think of it as all week long, where ambassadors for Christ are living gospel lives among the lost and then bringing them into community and worship on the basis of love.

He commended, almost apologizing for fear of offending Anglican tradition, an instrumentalist view of the church suggesting that Sunday worship is not an end in itself. I guess that’s a sacramental theology debate to be had another day. But he insisted that nothing ought to get in the way of gospel proclamation and gospel living, and that traditions which do need to be reconsidered in light of this imperative. He mediated, however, saying that “Worship was never meant to be in opposition to mission.” There are ways, he said hopefully, of bringing together a robust and historical sacramental theology with an urgent and nimble evangelical mission. He did emphasize that we need a leadership culture that celebrates risk and can deal with failure, the opposite of which is a “paralyzing conservatism.”

Bishop Hunter proposed many things that I, with a strong background in free church evangelicalism, have long been familiar with. In essence, that we need to recapture a biblically Christ-like model of being and doing Church because resting on an institutional legacy does not foster the God-dependence essential to incarnational ministry. His best advice: “Find a reckless abandon to the person and work of the Holy Spirit.” Sounds like the bread and butter of my childhood charismatic evangelicalism—-no surprise since Hunter spent many years with Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Church. His great success yesterday was not in presenting something new, but rather in presenting something ancient: the apostolic witness of Christ’s life and Paul’s commands (esp. Romans 12:1-2) as the ultimate models for church life. Hunter practices what he preaches, as his talk took the particularity of YHWH known in the life and times of Christ and the early church and demonstrated how it speaks to our contemporary American cultural landscape.

*Such jeremiads have tempting parallels in scripture, but they betray a total ignorance of America’s toxic foreign policy towards Muslim countries since World War I.

**Here "social capital" implies a broad cultural assumption that the church and/or bible hold recognizable moral authority.

***For a non-professional historical take on this idea, see Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997). For a biblical take on this idea, see the bible, especially Matthew 22:37-40.

^Addition, 11/13/2010: I should add to this the problematic fallout from 9/11 in general and the cultural polarization which made evangelicalism seem a Christian doppelganger of violent Islamic fundamentalism.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Philemon: The Power of Love

The following is a transcript of my homily preached Thursday, November 4th during Homiletics class at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.  The homily is based on the whole book of Philemon. The jokes are intentionally corny--please don't think I consider this homily to double as an outstanding work of comedy.

All you need is love.  Love is all you need.  You don’t need money, fame, credit cards to ride this train.  It’s not just a second class emotion.  Love hopes you don’t mind that it put down in words how wonderful life is now you’re in the world.  It’s enough to make kings from vagabonds.  Can you feel the love—this afternoon?  Because love doesn’t want to close it’s eyes, doesn’t want to miss a thing.  So pay attention, O Theophilus—my fellow God-lovers—because I’m going to talk about the love tucked away in Philemon, that little discussed book squeezed between the pastoral epistles and Hebrews.  Philemon is a book that’s usually far from my mind when I think about instruction on love in the New Testament.  But baby, Philemon’s got the love we need, and, maybe, more than enough.

Philemon is a short letter, twenty five verses, written from Paul to the leader of a Colossian house church named Philemon along with a handful of others associated with him.  The occasion for the letter is a runaway slave named Onesimus, who has sought asylum through association with the imprisoned Paul and has been converted to Christianity in the process.  Paul had that effect on people, it seems.  The book of Philemon grants us a rare insight into Paul handling a pastoral situation, a complex one where gospel values and social values are tangled and competing.  In the end, we’re given a stunning example of how the gospel works in real life and what it looks like when people live under the authority of the selfless servant king rather than the tyranny of the psycho-socio-economic-political web we call “the world.”

Philemon begins with a standard Pauline introduction, “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, etc., etc.” and immediately segues into lavish praise of the main recipient.  Paul is thanking God for Philemon, his faith, his love, his reputation for spiritually refreshing others.  So, Paul reasons, Philemon ought to be willing to extend this same spirited generosity to Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave.  Nevermind that running away was punishable by flogging or worse.  Nevermind the social normality of treating slaves as property—that nagging question, “What will the slave-holding neighbors think?”  Nevermind that Onesimus not only ran away, but also, uh, crossed the Red Sea laden with more than shirt and sandals, if you get my drift.  He took the money and ran.

But now Onesimus has converted and repented of his theft.  Reconciliation is appropriate, even necessary to make a true gospel witness of this situation.  What must Philemon have been thinking?  Something like, “Headlines read, ‘Master and thieving-runaway slave reunite peacefully!’”  The shame!  Yet Paul refrains from commanding Philemon.  “I would rather,” he says, “appeal to you on the basis of love.”  This basis of love shows itself in several ways.

First, I have already mentioned Paul’s gushing praise of Philemon.  He clearly respects the man and hopes that he will do the right thing.  His refrain from command him to obey only further highlights that trust.  Near the end of his petition he pleads with Philemon to do for him what he has done for others:  “Let me have this benefit from you in the Lord!  Refresh my heart in Christ.  Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”  A declaration more than demonstrating  Paul’s love and trust for Philemon.

Secondly, Paul clearly loves Onesimus and says as much.  He calls the slave “my child” and “my own heart,” emphasizing how useful he is to Paul and how much he wants him to be on the church planting team.  He vows to take upon himself whatever debts or crimes Onesimus owes Philemon.  He loves him by praise and by purpose—the whole letter is a testament to Paul’s loving concern for the runaway slave.

Finally, the undercurrent of Christ’s love runs through the entirety of this brief correspondence.  The letter presumes the power of the gospel as a direct shaping force on each of these lives, and Paul reminds everyone of this by modeling Christ throug his actions.  Having been a criminal and slave under the power of the law and without recourse, Paul knows the love and freedom of Christ through the good news of his life, death and resurrection.  Now he intercedes on behalf of a criminal and slave without recourse in order that Philemon “might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”  And, even though Paul hopes Philemon will respond redemptively, he secures his commitment to Onesimus with what might seem as a threat to Philemon:  “Prepare a guest room for me.  I’m coming.”

When was the last time you loved people so well that others were inspired to love more?  I’m preaching to myself here, too.  Our ministry, our lives ought to be marked by sacrificial love inspiring sacrificial love.  We’ve been loved by Jesus and so we love him and then others and then they love Jesus and then others.  It’s meant to be a glorious and holy cycle of redemption.  And when we live this way, we see another small piece of God’s kingdom come to earth.  We see another part of this world not dominated by sin and manipulation but rather by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ our Lord.  And that’s the power of love.  Amen.