Archive for July, 2010

“Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.” –William Willimon as quoted on the White Horse Inn, June 15, 2009

Isn’t this the truth?

A Love Story Remix

Some of you know, because I updated my Facebook status, that I have spent the last hour or so sitting on my patio with a nice cup of hot tea and a nice book of Wendell Berry. I had no idea what would happen.

I scribbled in my journal a few words, incoherent; illegible. I listened to rattling cicadas, barking dogs, chirping birds, clapping leaves, and tried to discern the flapping of the butterfly’s wings as the marvelous, glorious swallowtail flitted by scarcely able to control its trajectory because of the breeze waltzing through my backyard. I sipped my tea, breathed the summer air, and slowly, deliberately, lovingly caressed the pages of the book with my eyes.

I can’t read poetry straight through like a novel. Instead I skip around from page to page and read wherever the page stays open long enough for me to fix my gaze. I did so today and then I saw it, devoured it, made bare words my flesh and bone. Wendell Berry surprised me with words that quelled my anxiety, squashed my inner turmoil, and rushed new life into my failing heart.

“The way of love leads all ways

to life beyond words, silent

and secret. To serve that triumph

I have done all the rest.”

–Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir

That’s enough. I just want you to know, or hear, again from love. Maybe you needed to hear from love as much as I do and did.

A Love Story

I confess I have a singular television pleasure (Pawn Stars doesn’t count): The Office. I cannot help myself. If you have watched The Office you know how incredibly absurd Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, is, but you are willing to look through him because even in absurdity there can be wisdom.

Blockbuster Video, the place I call my Office, has previous seasons of The Office on DVD and I can and do watch them while I am working. It’s not a matter of sitting around with popcorn and Coke on a couch. It is a matter of hearing the dialogue–which is often all you really need when watching the office. There is some physical humor, but it’s not really the most important thing. I prefer to say I am listening to The Office.

On the DVD’s one can access deleted scenes and every so often I do just that. I did just that after several episodes during season 2 and in particular I watched the deleted scenes after episode 8, “Performance Review.” Sometimes the best wisdom comes from the places we might easily overlook and I think it is easy to overlook the wisdom of Michael Scott. Here’s what Michael said in one deleted scene:

Michael: What is an office? Is it a group of people? Maybe. Is it an idea? Of course, yes. Is it a living organism? Exactly, yes. And any single cell organism has to have a spine, and that’s me. But the spine is always controlled by a brain, and that is Jan. But the brain needs a heart, and that is me again. So ironic. You know what? The heart is smarter than the brain. But the brain is so effing hot.

I know that won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched The Office, but all you need to read is the part couched in between the absurdity and the vulgarity. It’s kind of like the High Priest making a statement and having no idea what it means, how true it is, or what the ramifications would be for the entire population of the earth (John 11:49-50). But there it is. He said it. The ridiculous and absurd Michael Scott: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” It’s easy to overlook the utter brilliance of this sentence because it is surrounded by typical Michael and because it is only found in the deleted scenes files. I can’t believe this paragraph didn’t make the cut.

The thing about The Office is that, in my opinion, it’s not really about the office at all. I’m no sentimentalist, but I know that what attracts me to The Office is not Michael’s wisdom, Dwight’s antics, or Toby or Stanley or Angela or Kevin or anyone else in The Office. I watch The Office because of Jim and Pam. There it is, I confess: I watch The Office because the love story between Jim and Pam is majestic, grand, beautiful…in my opinion, it’s the only reason to watch The Office.

So I’m a sap. I’m captivated by this love story. The cat and mouse. The come and go. The give and take. The near and the far. The love story that is the central story to The Office is perfectly written. It is a story that perfectly illustrates what Michael said in the deleted scene: “The heart is smarter than the brain.” The heart finds a way. I wish I could tell you that while I sit here and write this I am not crying. I can’t. I’m thinking about the last year of my life and how I have played the mouse to Jesus’ cat, how he has been near and I have been far, how he has given and I haven’t taken. I can’t tell you how I am waiting for our break-up to be over and how I’m anxious to kiss once again for the first time. My heart cries out: Yes! My brain still dwells in the land of Meshek and Kedar. My brain is in the way, even if my heart knows the truth. I want to skip ahead to episode 4 of season 6. Again. But there are many episodes in between.

The story of Jim and Pam is a love story that captivates the heart and the mind. I have watched the relationship grow and grow…anyone who watches The Office knew from the very first time they watched the show that Jim and Pam were in love. We waited and watched and hoped and imagined the day when Pam and Roy would break-up and Jim would be the one and Pam would be the one. We never knew how they would come together. Jim got transferred. Pam was a little stand-offish. Roy got in the way. Jim had Karen. Pam went back to Roy. There was tension. There was chasing. There was flirting. There was danger. There was awkward situations and grand announcements. There was the Kiss. There was the fight. Still we hoped. We even hoped the friendship wouldn’t get in the way! We dared to think that in the end Jim and Pam would be one. We knew they loved each other, but how and when would they be together? At one time Pam told Jim she couldn’t imagine her life without his friendship, but Jim wanted more. We suspected Pam did too, but so much clutter was in the way.

So we watched. We waited. We wanted to see each episode unfold and what new twist or turn their love would take. We feared for Jim lest Roy find out and bash in his face. We wondered how long Pam would hold on to Roy. So we watched. And waited.

And then it happened…

There in the midst of the absurdity of the office, love blossomed and bloomed. There in the midst of every sort of dysfunction and sin, a pure love became. There in the midst of every sort of suffering and turmoil and trial and misery and uncertainty, love reached out its hands and took hold of two hearts and bound them together as one. There in the midst of friendship, surrounded by idiots, suffering, pain, and the every day tedium of mindless work: two people found each other and love won. There in the midst of the 6 billion inhabitants of this planet, two people looked across their desks, their eyes met, and they saw the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. There in the midst of the murkiness and drudgery that is life, love was revealed and exposed and confessed and announced and bound and consummated.

There, of all places, love. There, of all things, love. There, of all people, love.

Do not our hearts long for this? Even when our minds rebel and scream and shout and rage against all that is right and good and pure and holy do we not know love? Are we are not all desirous of love? In the end, Paul said, all that really matters is love because all that remains is love.

I know it’s only television. I know it isn’t real. I know that love doesn’t really work…but then again, it does, doesn’t it? Isn’t that why I watch the show? Isn’t it because love is that way, it is like Jim’s and Pam’s? Isn’t it because we know that is exactly how it is, even with Jesus? That is exactly how love becomes. Love grows in the soil of adversity. Love becomes in the midst of the near and the far. Love takes hold in the midst of absurdity and uncertainty. Love is two becoming one.

And ours is a love story. In the midst of all that life is–the wrath, the uncertainty, the unholiness, the unhappiness, the tedium, the dysfunction, the crudeness, the awkwardness, the turmoil, the trials, the suffering–in the midst of it all, there is a love story. Many will write this off as mere fiction–the product of someone’s imagination, entertainment via cable television; and nothing more. But some of us are in on the secret…some of us are privy to the mystery…some of us have been given the key…and we know it is true. Despite out misgivings and our fears that the break-up and tension will never be resolved, that Jim and Pam might never get together, that there are too many obstacles in the way, we are guided by our hearts and our hearts tell us the truth. And we know the episodes that follow. We know there is a marriage and we watch all the previous episodes knowing and waiting with anticipation for the episode when finally, for the first time, the marriage takes place.

We are people who will endure season after season of disappointment because we know in the end, there is a love that will find a way and a love that will not be broken. No chicane will stand. Love wins. And season after season of disappointment will not disuade us from believing.

Then an entirely new life begins.

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.”–Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter

PittsburghI did something this past week that I haven’t done for quite some time: I took some time off from life and went to Pittsburgh with my wife and sons. We have wanted to see the fireworks from Point State Park for quite a while and this year we were finally able to do so.

We stayed in a small hotel in Oakland, which is a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, and where The University of Pittsburgh is located. We were in a fourth floor room that had one window with a spectacular view of the mountains and Monongahela River. It was quite exhilarating to look out the window and see the river, the mountains, the bridges, the freeways, and all the cars moving along without a thought to the fact that those roads are being held in the air by nothing but concrete and rebar.

On Sunday, July 4th, we walked from our hotel in Oakland down Forbes Avenue through downtown all the way to Point State Park where we joined in with thousands of people, scattered upon the grass and concrete, to watch the fireworks. We sat behind an family of Arabic descent who were sitting next to a young white couple who were sitting next to a black woman and five small children (all boys). We watched sky-divers make a dramatic descent to earth, putting all their faith in a thin piece of silk and a few ropes. We saw people watching from the safety of their hotel rooms behind us. We listened to the thump, thump, thump of the All-America music being played by a DJ a short way off in the distance, “Born in the USA, I was, Born in the USA!” We smelled the BBQ, sweat, cigarette smoke, popcorn, and smoke from expended fireworks.

We saw a stand where we could get our favorite Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken and fried rice. Or, if we preferred, from another stand, popcorn or cotton candy. We watched people squeeze 15 people into a space suitable for maybe 5. We saw people talking on cell phones and others talking face to face. We saw some folks making out. We saw some women dressed like they were going to church and others dressed like they were opposed to the very idea of clothing. We saw men in suits and others in their biker get-up and children in pajamas. We saw entrepreneurs selling glow sticks and others selling bottles of water. There were booths with information and food. There were police and other safety people. There were…people, Americans…and we were all together.

The young white couple that sat in front of my family was especially interesting. Next to them there was a black woman who was tending to five small boys. I don’t know if they were all hers or not, it doesn’t matter. What was amazing is that this young white couple became fast friends with the five small black boys and before long all five boys were sitting on the young couple’s blanket. Then the boys also began partaking of the couple’s chips. They talked as if they hadIMG00514-20100602-0055 been friends forever but when the fireworks began the conversation abated and there was a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the five boys and the young man and woman. It was a beautiful thing–these utter strangers sharing food and blanket space and a song of celebration.

When the fireworks were over, everyone stood up and began the long walk back to wherever they were living that night. Some undoubtedly went to their hotel and others went back to their house. Maybe some went to their cars and others went a walking (like us!). It could be that others went to nowhere as they had nowhere to go or back to their box under a bridge. But for those 25 minutes at Point State Park, we were altogether one people.

It’s sad, really, that it takes something like a colorful recreation of bombs bursting in air is required to bring a people together, as one.

That same Sunday, the fourth, we also attended a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game. It was 9 innings of pure bliss (even my eldest son, who rather despises any and all sports, said the game was his favorite part of the trip.) There was so much going on that day–not least of which was the Pirates coming from behind to win the game against the Phillies. I can only think of one, maybe two, things that I enjoy more than sitting at a baseball game in hot, July heat, but not many more.

There we sat in a crowd of 28,000 people cheering for the home team Bucs! It seemed like the weight an entire city was riding on every pitch. It was so intense that I didn’t even mind the three year old sitting behind me who literally kicked the back of my chair for nine innings. There was the perogi race, the weiner toss, the t-shirt toss, and the perfect coordination of the ground’s crew who came out every three innings to drag the infield. There was the standing and singing of God Bless America in the seventh inning and the follow-up during the stretch of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Have you ever heard 28,000 people singing Take Me out to the Ball Game? It is quite truthfully a sound to behold. There were the fireworks and the roar of 28,000 people in the seventh inning when Pirates rookie Pedro Alvarez walloped a homerun kicking off a rally that eventually gave the Bucs the win.

And of course let’s not forget the view. We sat in the upper deck along the third base line. From there we had a spectacular view of downtown Pittsburgh and the Allegheny River. The accompanying picture does no justice to how wonderful the view was that day–clear sky, downtown, baseball, and 28,000 people who cared about nothing but the outcome of a silly game. And yet I knew beyond doubt that I was automatically friends with everyone in that stadium–joined together by some mystical bond created by the crack of a bat. I was friends with Pirates fans and Phillies fans alike.

While I sat there I was thinking about Scripture. I was thinking about John who, by the end of the Revelation, is also thinking about a city that has come into his view.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)

And also I thought about this one from later on in the same chapter:

IMG00460-20100601-1815“The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.” (Revelation 21:15-17)

I was thinking about all those people in that great city. I was thinking about all those squares and cubes and and geometry and the symmetry of the city. I was thinking about a river flowing through the city. I was thinking about God and whether or not he was King of that city too. I was thinking about that building right near the center that looks like the top of a castle (in the picture). It’s made entirely of glass and does it ever shine in the light. It’s called the Pittsburgh Plate Glass building. I was thinking about the city sparkling in the sunlight and glittering in the moonlight. It’s a veritable city on a hill whose light cannot be hidden.

I was thinking about the church. I was thinking about all those people and how many of them knew about Jesus. I was thinking that my experience in Pittsburgh was so unlike my experience in the church.

“I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)

I was thinking that I wish church could be like that baseball game–where everything we disagree about and hate each other for is forgotten because we are overwhelmed by what is right in front of us. Nothing else mattered that day except baseball. I wish I could say that in the church the only thing we truly cared about was Jesus–that we were truly overwhelmed by Him.

I was thinking that I wish church could be like those fireworks–where everyone from every different walk of life and culture is brought together under one banner and celebrates. I wish I could say that in the church the only banner we unite together under is Jesus. And I wish we didn’t have to wait so long for it to be a reality.

I was thinking that I wish church could be like that city–where everything is in balance and shines and sparkles and glows and radiates unity in the sun. Where strangers walk together and every tribe and tongue is united under one Name. I wish I could say that the church glows and shines in the Son. I wish I could say we truly were that City coming down from heaven.

I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place where…

I was thinking that I wish the church could be a place….

I was thinking that I wish the church could be…

I was thinking that I wish the church could…

I was thinking that I wish I could love the church, and all of the stupid people that make up the church, half as much as I loved the people in PNC Park that day or in Pittsburgh that night. I think if I could learn to love again the church then maybe I would see that I don’t need to spend so much time wishing the church was something other than what it is and instead I could concentrate on being what the church is: loved by God. IMG00466-20100601-1947

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)

I don’t know if that makes sense or not. I probably should have just said, at the outset, that I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to love the church the way Jesus does. Or, I wish I could love the church the way I love Pittsburgh–a city full of strangers.

I was thinking I spend too much time wishing and not enough time doing.

I am, and have been, reading Mere Churchianity by the late Michael Smere churchianitypencer, aka the Internet Monk. I really do not think it is possible at this point to write how much I love this book. Michael had a way with words and it continued in this book.

The funny thing about the world is what the church is and what the church does. Churches are strange creatures and, likely, more often reflect the character of the preacher than that of the Head, Jesus. Frankly, I do not know which I dislike more: the church or preachers. Having been a preacher myself for the better part of fifteen years I am erring on the side of caution and disliking the church more.

Preachers are not far behind though.

There’s a relatively new congregation in my community. They are putting the finishing touches on a nice, shiny new building. They are also having a big fair to attract new people–I’m assuming children who will be brought by their screaming parents. Whatever.

I know of another church that proudly announced on its marquee: New Contemporary Service–as if that is the honey needed for the flies. Whatever.

I know another church that, now that there’s a healthy and substantial flow of cash, is fixing a hole in a roof–as if fixing a hole in a roof will suddenly convert the world to Jesus. Whatever.

I can be critical of the church now–as if I was soft on it before. I haven’t had a church home for nearly a year. I’m not altogether happy about that; nor I am altogether sad either. friend3Like I said, church is a funny thing and laying low for a while has given me an opportunity to spy. I’m not so sure I like Big Church (as in Big Oil, Big Money). Church is way too much of a chore, far too much aggravation, and not nearly enough of what I am looking for. That’s not arrogance; that’s reality. What I’m looking for is a church that has a big sign out front that simply says: Friends of Jesus, Friends of People. Welcome.

Here’s what Michael Spencer wrote, “There is little need for large churches stuffed with satisfied audiences. There is a great need for a movement of disciples going into the overlooked places of the world to see and serve the Kingdom of God” (101). I could not possibly agree more. But this will not be the experience of the church so long as the church is comfortable inside itself.

For far too many people church is what we do on Sunday with little regard for actual discipleship created by Jesus. Comfort is the key. The role of the preacher, at least so far as I can see, is to preach the world of God with such power of the Spirit that the comfortable people become agitated and the agitated people are comforted. The Scripture is, after all, a double-edged sword.

I’m still looking for a church that is all about Jesus–by that I mean, of course, that there is a deliberate focus on what Jesus is doing, who Jesus is, and how these two things collaborate and inform, shape and conform, empower and reform the steps we take as disciples of Jesus. I’m looking for a church that is not satisfied.

I am not looking for a church that ‘meets my needs.’ Only Jesus can meet my needs. I’m not looking for a church where I can get helpful hints for living a better life or having a better marriage or anything of that sort. I’m looking for a church where Jesus is the first and last word each week and where Jesus is the substance we meet in the middle. I’m looking for a church where the preacher insists and expects that I open my Bible when the Scripture is read. I’m looking for a church where the preacher, the elders, the communion, the worship–everything–says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When I go to church I do not need to see myself, I need to see Jesus.

Well maybe I’m going on too much about this. It’s easy to be critical of the church and terribly difficult to jump in and be so much a part of the church that these complaints are overwhelmed with love. The church cannot be what I want the church to be, the church can only be what the church is and is becoming by the grace of God. And in this I believe is the lesson Jesus has been teaching me for the past year: love the church regardless of what the church may appear to be in your myopic vision. Love the church like Jesus does.

 

Simply put, what the church doesn’t need is me and all my bitterness, whatevers, and criticism. What the church needs is Jesus.

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“We are born not to prosper but to be redeemed.”

PT Forsyth, The Justification of God 54

“To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in his own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God.”

–DA Carson, Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus, 29

 

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I happened across the blog of an author tonight whom I had never heard of before. I recognized some of the names associated in one way or another with the author so I hung around for a bit and did some reading. I discovered this author had recently published a new book he calls Rediscovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity.

The author is Jonathan Brink. I have never heard of him before, as I said, but I did recognize the names of his endorsers and his detractors. Having had my own issues in the past with Ken Silva, I can say that to an extent Mr Brink has my sympathies. I suppose one could say that, as a rule, if Ken Silva is one of your detractors then I will give you the benefit of the doubt and welcome to the club.

The problem is that Silva is an equal opportunity judge and jury and Brink set himself up by using the words ‘reconstructing’ and ‘new’ alongside the word ‘christianity.’ I’d like to give a balanced, quick review of the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his blog.

I took the time to read Brink’s 26-page sample chapter* that he has graciously posted at his website because, well, that’s what I do. I read. I’m a little on the fence regarding some of what I read (and I was also a little taken aback when I read in the comment section that he hadn’t read The Everlasting Man by GK Chesterton–even though that comment was written, evidently, two years ago) and I’m not able to make a complete judgment about the contents of the book. He begins by reminding us that we live in an age of questions–questions about the very traditions upon which we have nursed as Christians. He opens by writing this:

But what is the inherent nature of the Gospel? What actually happened in the Garden of Eden? In order to follow Jesus, it would seem obvious that we would want to know exactly what Jesus is doing on the cross, what problem he is solving, and what it means to humanity. Yet there is no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel. Scholars and theologians have been wrestling with this tension within the Christian tradition for roughly 1,700 years.

I think people are going to have problems with this. I really do. I strongly disagree there is ‘no clear, historical agreement regarding our basic understanding of the Gospel.’ Yes, indeed, scholars have wrestled (and rightly so) with Scripture and definitions. And yes, indeed, there are a lot of theories about the implications of these beliefs. But the basic suppositions of the Gospel, even at the most basic, creedal level, are not really challenged (and probably shouldn’t be). Christians still believe Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the grave (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-11).

I am not so sure, and even Brink equivocates just a bit, that we need to seriously rethink 1,700 years worth of theological reflection. He has questions about whether or not many of the theological formulas that have been created during this period of time actually address the correct question. Thus he writes:

This book suggests a provocative possibility: much of our historical understanding of the problem is wrong. The basic assumptions we make about what is happening in the Garden of Eden are skewed by the very nature of the problem. We locate the problem in the wrong place and end up trying to resolve a problem, which doesn’t actually exist. (p 6 of the pdf sample chapter)

I suppose that in order for new theories to be put forward, the historical understandings have to be cast in this light. We cannot suggest a better way forward unless we cast aspersion on all that has led to this point. This is a very post-modern way of going about things and it is very popular among many so-called emergent theologians and preachers (although I don’t think Brink categorizes himself as either). Challenging ideas is fine; I do so all the time. Suggesting that they are altogether wrong–well, there are a lot of preachers and theologians who will abandon Brink at this point.

Brink also has to do some re-working of the first three chapters of Genesis–which he does (see p 16-19 of the downloadable pdf). Here I believe Brink asks some important questions, and I am curious as to how he will answer them. I have no problem with questions being asked and, to be sure, I am always thrilled when someone, anyone, actually opens their Bible and wrestles with the story–a chore that many who are firmly ensconced in those 1,700 years of theological strictures refuse to undertake since it is much easier to whip out a quote from Calvin or Spurgeon to bolster one’s position: Calvin said it; I believe it; that settles it.

Yeah, that works.

As I neared the end of Brink’s 26 pages, I came across this paragraph:

And finally the story presents the atonement – how God is actually reconciling humanity to God. To understand the human story means confronting our traditional notions of what is happening on the cross, to ask, “Where is the problem located?” Once we answer this question, a new understanding of the atonement opens up. We are invited to discover the depth of what is happening, to shudder at the sheer magnitude of love it reveals, and embrace it with open arms. The story reveals God’s central concern is not a punitive sense of justice for breaking a law, but an overriding concern for the consequence of death. (p 21 of the downloadable pdf)

There’s more to it than this, and I don’t want to be unfair to Brink, but here I might be disinclined to go all the way with his idea. The problem as I see it is that we don’t necessarily need to confront the traditional understandings of the cross and we do not need a new understanding of the atonement. I have no problems with the idea that there is more than one ‘theory of atonement’. Nor, for that matter, do I mind someone opening our eyes to another aspect of God’s work in Jesus. What I object to is the idea that all those theories that went before need replacing or scuttling. Maybe Brink is not being so drastic, but it’s hard not to think he is. And, to be sure, he will have a lot of work to do in order to convince people that 1,700 years of theological reflection have been wrong and that, aha!, he suddenly has it all figured out.

That’s a tall order for anyone. I’m genuinely interested to see how he pulls it off, and how he resolves it for a new generation of pilgrims.

A better approach, I think, is to see all those theories (of atonement) that went before as bits and parts of a comprehensive atonement that God enacted in Christ. None of them is comprehensive, none is exclusive of the others. Together they all help explain what God was doing in Jesus and what he is doing in us. I agree wholeheartedly with Brink that the cross expresses God’s concern for the consequences of death; yes, say it so. But the cross dealt with what caused death (sin); resurrection dealt with death. Or, so says the apostle,

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. 16So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:14-21, NIV)

I will be interested to see how Brink treats the Resurrection of Jesus since it was only mentioned once in the 26 pages I read and even then it had nothing, necessarily, to do with Jesus’s Resurrection. I hope he has a very large section on Resurrection because in the sort of undertaking he is proposing it will surely be necessary.

I also agree with Brink that we need to be set free from religion. Too many Christians are far too content to live in a scripted religious experience where everything is contained inside neat little compartments that never ever mix together and share ideas or educate or inform one another. Religion is typically what destroys preachers who have been called by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel, who have been called to tell and retell the story.

Frankly, I’m not sure we need a new Christianity–maybe, better, we just need people who are willing to live the story already there (you know, the ‘take up your cross, deny yourself, follow me’ kind of stuff). Frankly, I am not so sure we need to reconstruct a new anything since we are utterly incapable of doing so anyhow (no mention of the Holy Spirit in those 26 pages either; I realize he couldn’t include everything in 26 pages so I am not being overly critical, I’m just saying…)

Brink seems rather intent on redefining some of the terms we use in the church, but I don’t know that such redefining is necessary either. And don’t get me wrong, I understand there is a disconnect between what the Bible says and the way many Christians live. I get it; really I do. I was fired by a church in whom that very disconnect was incarnate in an unimaginable, undeniable, and epic way.

I also understand that suffering and pain and injustice need to be addressed at a much deeper level than preachers have dared to think necessary and possible in the past. The so-called tried and true Sunday school clichés first uttered by John Calvin and perpetuated by the Neo-Reformed scholars of this age no longer work on a people who have questioned and will continue to question everything. One of the great aspects of my generation’s rebelliousness towards authority is the freedom to question, challenge, everything. In other words, you will not control me, you will not tell me what to do or believe; I will figure it out for myself, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, thank you very much.

It may be that I’ll end up agreeing with you or Calvin. It may be that I will reject you and Calvin (especially Calvin). But I will work that out on my own in the company of fellow pilgrims–if only I could find a group of pilgrims willing to live in the turmoil of the doubt that we call faith (see Matthew 28:17).

Brink will have no problem convincing some, will reap the scorn and hatred of others who are already convinced he is a heretic, and will, hopefully, find even more who will read what he says and shout ‘hooray!’ when they read something brilliant, will weep when they read something silly, and will search the Scripture when they come across something that challenges their understanding of Jesus, Christianity, and faith.

Brink claims to have gone back to Scripture in order to write this book. He also claims that much of what he saw in Scripture just didn’t seem to line up with some of the traditional teachings. Therefore I believe it is equally fair and important for those who read this book to go back to Scripture also and see if what Brink has written squares up with what Scripture, the Bible, says. From what I read in 26 sample pages, I think there are going to be some issues.

But we can give him a read and test that for ourselves.

*my reflections concern only the 26 page sample chapter Brink posted at his website.

“I suspect that Jesus spoke many of his parables as a kind of sad and holy joke and that that may be part of why he seemed reluctant to explain them because if you have to explain a joke, you might as well save your breath.”

–Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 63*

*This is a book you really should acquire and read. Buechner is simply brilliant when it comes to helping us understand the role of preacher.

Some Thoughts

In the church we are fond of a lot of things that, let’s be honest, have little or nothing to do with Jesus. I’m looking for something in the church I haven’t yet found. After spending the better part of fifteen years preaching in the church and being spiritually beaten to death by God’s people, I can honestly say that something about the church leaves a lot to be desired. It’s a wonder that anyone wants to join up with this club, pay dues, and attend regular meetings.

But church, despite my criticisms, is not meant to be, nor will it ever temporally be, a place of perfection. And the reason people get so bent out of shape is because they expect the church to operate like the local retail outlet: the customer is always right and we must do whatever it takes to keep the customer happy and returning and parting with their money. When the church doesn’t operate that way it’s time for something to change. Churchtopia is what some look for instead of simply a place where everyone who has been beaten, broken, hurt, and undone can meet with like living and treated people.

The church isn’t perfect; duh. What we haven’t figured out yet is this: it’s OK that the church isn’t perfect.

Quote

Does what we say resemble what Jesus said? With four Gospels to work with, the words and teachings of Jesus are not hard to find. If Christians really do believe what Jesus said, do we sound anything like him? Do books written by Christians sound anything like Jesus’ appearances in the Gospels? Did he even once mention our need to receive him as our personal Savior? Did he constantly talk about ‘discovering your destiny through your dreams?’ Was church growth a major Jesus topic? If not, why not? And where did we come up with all the things we love to devote conferences to? (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 54-55)

The Readings

Today’s readings, July 2, 2010, are as follows: Numbers 24:1-13, Romans 8:12-17, Matthew 22:15-22, Psalm 142.

Of all the things his enemies chose to trap Jesus, politics was the best. Even I could have figured out that one. We can trap anyone in a conversation about politics. I’ve know people who would sell out their own mother because of politics, or, worse, their own child. It was a perfect trap for Jesus–because everyone knows that the Pharisees and Herodians were perfectly innocent when it came to politics!

I’ve often marveled at Jesus’s ability to come up with these so-called one liners that effectively silenced his critics with one fell swoop. “When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.” When you come up against someone who knows all too well the tactics of the enemy, and he destroys you with thirteen words (probably less in Greek), what else can you do but leave? I wish I had that power, that wit, that ability to think so quickly.

Usually I think of the good stuff after the person leaves in anger. I wish just once I could say something so witty and thoughtful that a person left me because they were amazed.

The image we have, sometimes, in church and amongst Christians in general, is that being curt is unacceptable, undoing your enemies with words is beyond the pale. What we expect is courtesy and manners. I detect in Jesus’s words to the Herodians a great big, giant, massive, “Shut up already” or “Take this back to the Pharisees and let them smoke this for a while.” Jesus rules!

I know you’re thinking something like, ‘Well, he was Jesus and he could do what he wanted. With us, us saved people, we have to be nice to one another.’ Sure. Whatever.

Personally I think we put too much stock in being nice and having manners. When someone is acting stupid, asking stupid questions designed to do nothing but trap another, the other should be quick to be as witty and thoughtful as Jesus–to silence them and, perhaps, save them from further embarrassment. The problem is that we do not have time to be witty and thoughtful. All we have time for is the jugular. That is, Jesus wasn’t witty and thoughtful for the sake of destroying his enemies, but for the sake of truth.

If we cared about truth, and I suppose many Christians think they do, we would put more time into being witty and thoughtful and saying more with less. A beautiful thirteen word sermon was all it took to shut up stupid people. I like that about Jesus. (*smile*)

 

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