Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I love road trips. There's a sense of adventure that attaches itself to a tank full of gas and an open road. I used to drive a lot between Abilene, Texas and Dallas. Not the greatest drive in the world. But the past few times I did it, I stayed off the interstate driving back roads through small towns. Very memorable drives. Those old highways make you think anything can happen, that very oddity of the world is just a few paces off the road that cuts through the middle of our lives.

So, for all of those who went over the river and through the woods this week, Dylan's, Highway 61 Revisited, is our Sunday selection, a truly fun song.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61."

Well Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn't give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there's only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Ol' Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61.

Well Mack the Finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don't ring
Do you know where I can get rid of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.

Now the fifth daughter on the twelfth night
Told the first father that things weren't right
My complexion she said is much too white
He said come here and step into the light he says hmm you're right
Let me tell the second mother this has been done
But the second mother was with the seventh son
And they were both out on Highway 61.

Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ministry Maxim, 1

I spent 17 years in fulltime congregational ministry. There are no laws for ministry. It is an interpretative art. Wisdom does, however, develop over time around certain themes. These themes, in turn, produce maxims. Maxims admit to perspective and allow for exceptions, but they still provide a certain amount of orienting guidance. I developed a few through the years. Thought I'd share them over the next few weeks.

Maxim #1. The one way to make sure you don't get what you want in ministry is to preach a series on it.

Most ministers work contrary to this all the time. They think the pulpit is the most effective tool for change they have. And it can be, over time, in a fairly indirect way. But its a lousy way to marshall congregational support around an immediate congregational issue, especially if it is a controversial one. There are reasons for this, I think.

For starters, ministers have to understand the symbolic role they play in the congregation, which is another way of saying that they represent a certain power relationship in relation to the congregation. Congregations resist the power of the one over against the many. And they should. They don't do this consciously, mind you, but one expression of power tends to create a counter expression.

I think this resistance is connected to a natural resistance to being "fixed" by the preacher. A congregation refuses to behave. It is not simply the extension of a preacher's fantasies of glory no matter how spiritual or theologically apropriate those fantasies might be. It took me a long time to stop thinking of the congregation as an object to be acted upon, or even manipulated.

I think the congregation should resist a preacher who thinks of the sermon as the primary way to advance the goals of the institution. There should be an independence of the Word from the institution, a very difficult thing to do when the one doing the preaching is also constantly securing his position in relation to insitutional health. I am convinced, however, that instutional health is best served by a non-anxious presence, and that the pulpit best feeds a congregation through a disciplined use of texts over time.

This does not mean that the sermon should never broach the issues facing a congregation. Of course it should, and because the Word of God is relevant, it will. I am simply saying that the starting place of the sermon should nearly always be from a place indepedent of their immediate circumstance. The sermon here is part of creating an ecology of the Word rather than an informational strategy for programmatic change.

We have noted before, new information is typically inadequate in producing change. People don't change much just because they have received new information. Neither do they change much by an appeal to the will, e.g. "try harder, do better." Preaching can help to effect change, but only so far as it helps a congregation tell a new story about itself. And this kind of narrative therapy takes time and care. A sermon, or even a series, can be a powerful moment where momentum around change collects. But this is different than deciding a congregation needs a different style of music and preaching toward that end.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Gospel, Reign, and Sacrifice

My series, "Believe the Good News," is designed primarily to use biblical definitions of "gospel" to inform our understandings of salvation in a way that we typically gloss. What I'm trying to do is move our understanding of salvation away from a perception that it is only interested in the eternal destiny of an individual. There is good news here, to be sure, but it is not the sole focus of the gospel, and in my view not even the primary one. In moving away from an individual horizon of interpretation, I am also trying to move toward a theological one. That is, salvation is primarily about what God is achieving--his final purposes for all of creation--in which we are invited to participate.

Our participation in God's emerging reign is transformative. It saves us, and saves us together with all creation. This transformation comes by participating in God's established reign, his way of ordering life which is not only about "God and me," but also about a new life with my neighbor. And what I am trying to show is that the death and resurrection of Jesus is the demonstration of this new human ordering. It is not simply a necessary act to assuage God's wrath and grant us a new status before God. It is a way of life, offered to us by God, manifest in the love of Jesus, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit (God's love poured into our hearts). We cannot participate in this way of life without being changed, and without everything around us changing as well.

The question then, pressed by some of you (trouble makers) in the comments section is what to do with the language of atonement and forgiveness.What is this business about the blood of Jesus continually covering our sins? How does that work? Can this be understood in ways other than penal substitutionary atonement?

The short answer is yes. Atonement can be understood in ways different than the way Charles Hodge and Billy Graham and Jimmy Allen, and most of us, have come to know it and express it. But what I don't want to do is replace one totalizing image with another. So, I'm not that interested in formulating another theory for you.

And I want to distinguish here between a picture and a theory. I'm all for pictures of salvation. These open up understanding, are an invitation to greater conceptual clairty, but in an open, playful way (play here in the Gadamerian sense). Theories are meant to limit meaning, to close it down, capture it. And sometimes this is necesary and helpful, especially when in dialogue with a local culture. But we should be clear that this move is always a reduction, a bracketing for the time being.

That said, I do want to say a few things about sacrifice in relation to my larger ambitions. Let's go back to my two horizons if interpretation. The first is individualistic. It is anthropocentric. It is about the eternal status of individuals. The qeustion is, "how does the blood of Jesus do away with my personal guilt?"

The second horizon is theological. What is God accomplishing in relation to the fullness of time? How is God bringing his order to things? The question related to sacrifice is "how does the blood of Jesus introduce a new order?" This is a very different question.

Let me sharpen the distinction. The first horizon is interested in the question of sins. How do I get forgiven for my personal sins? The second horizon is interested in the question of Sin as an organizing power. The question is "how does the death of Jesus overcome the world ordering power of Sin?" Both questions might be legitimate, but the second is by far the greater concern, biblically speaking. I want to push atonement to this second question.

Two more observations for today, and then I have to get some reading done. I think it is absolutely unbiblical to think of forgiveness of individual sins as something God can do only if someone is punished. His holiness is defined in the Old Testament precisely by his capacity to forgive when and where humans can't. We have made holiness about God's sense of justice and have understood justice in a retributive sense (this is wholly Western. We have a lot to learn here from our African brothers and sisters). But time and again in Scripture, God is seen as holy (read different or other) precisely in his ability to forgive. It is true to his nature. The larger issue is how to break the stranglehold that Sin has on human lives and structures the way it orders things.

I think forgiveness of sins is a mark of the new age inaugurated by the the coming of Jesus. It is simply the biproduct of God's establishing his good ordering, and it has to do with Jesus' very coming, not only with his death.. It is precisely the way that sin locks us into self-preoccupation that requires an act that proclaims his forgiving intent. We can only be for and with others truly if we are not self-possessed by guilt and shame. The death of Jesus is not some causative trigger that allows God to forgive. It might be the ultimate sign of his forgiving intentions, a part of the reign established in and with Jesus, but not the exclusive meaning of his death.

At that point, we bring in a larger discussion. How does the death of Jesus overcome Sin? How does it bring a new ordering related to Sin? And why would we refer to it as a sacrifice? Here I do want to refer our question to the work of Mark Heim. Heim, following the work of Rene Girard, shows how the myth of the scapegoat is being reinterpreted throughout the biblical witness. Scapegoating is one way of maintaining social order. It is a violent act that keeps a greater violence at bay. It is a way of maintaining peace at the expense of another, typically the weak. Heim argues that the death of Jesus is precisely a way of God's entering this story as a way to overcome it. Jesus' death is not the ultimate sacrifice, but our salvation from sacrifice. God establishes peace in another way, a way only made visible in the scapegoat death of Jesus and his subsequent resurrection. This is a way of overcoming the way human principalities and powers would keep peace.

For a great summary of Heim, I would point you to Richard Beck's blog ( But for now notice that the death of Jesus here is an overcoming of Sin, a way of ordering our life together rooted in violence toward the weak. I want to pick this up at some point again, and talk about the blood of Jesus specifically. (It is primarily a positive image in Scripture, life giving, a transfusion if you will, rather than a shaming kind of thing). But for now (I know I say that a lot), I want us to see that the primary shift I'm making changes the way we talk about everything related to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

(If I believed in this kind of thing, I would say that I just had a providential moment. Lois Malcolm, a theologian here at Luther Seminary, just sat down next to me in the coffee shop where I do most of my studying. She is working on a book on atonement and we had a brief conversation about my project, and therefore, about this blog post. I asked her what she thought of Heim and said she liked the basic direction, but thinks there's a deeper insight to be gained that emphasizes precisely the blood of Jesus and its atoning significance, but not in a psa kind of way. She is sending me a manuscript for an article she just finished and I will summarize it for you when I get it).

Monday, November 24, 2008

Believe the Good News, 6

So, what is the good news?

In the last post we suggested that for both Paul and Jesus (in the synoptic gospels), the good news is the announcement of an event, a dramatic turning of the ages. God's future day of salvation has broken into the present, and it is possible for us to belong to that day now and participate in its reality, even if only partially.

Let me note here two things about this before I move on to another aspect of the gospel. Salvation here belongs to God. It is his realm in which we participate, not a status that we own as our private possession. This is a pretty big distinction, the implications of which would change the way we do a lot of things in Christian practice. Tied to this is the idea that salvation encompasses more than just individuals. Salvation is intended for all of creation. As Paul points out in Romans 8, "for the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God." The salvation of God is big, and includes more than just my skinny rear end getting to heaven.

But back to our question, what is the gospel? While both Mark 1:15 and 1 Cor 15 see the gospel as the announcement of an event, they use different language to talk about it. In Mark, Jesus proclaims the "gospel of God," namely the nearness of God's kingdom, or his reign. In 1 Cor 15, the event Paul proclaims as gospel is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Are these two different things?

Let's start on the gospels side of things (and here I mean the synoptics, John's gospel being yet another expression). The kingdom of God is a different way of ordering reality, and specifically it is another way of understanding power. It is a way of establishing order through self-giving, not through the politics of preservation and privilege. The way of the kingdom, the path on which it emerges, is precisely the way of the cross.

Think about this. It is possible to tell the story of Jesus without telling an infancy narrative. Neither Mark or John include one. But it is not possible to tell the story apart from the death and resurection. Several have referred to the gospels as passion stories with introductions. In the case of Mark, the narrative is brisk and spare until we get to Jerusalem for the final episodes in Jesus' life. Luke leaves no doubt that Jesus is going to Jerusalem, that this is the payoff of the story. His death and resurrection is not simply an event on his horizon, it is the event that allows to understand everything he does.

This is why followers are called to take up their crosses and follow Jesus. This way, the way of the last becoming the first, the least becoming the greatest, children being received and the rich sent away empty, is the way that the reign of God becomes visible, manifest in the world. This is not an abdication of power on the part of Jesus. It is the very demonstration of God's redeeming power. Humility is power. It makes things happen and in certain ways: the same for meekness, peacemaking, mourning, etc. The sign that this way of life will endure in the age to come is the resurrection. This is the life that God honors.

So, in the gospels, the kingdom of God and the death and resurrection are inseparably linked. But what about in Paul's account of the gospel? Is the account of Jesus' death and resurrection about a new ordering of reality?

in 1 Cor 15, Paul insists that the gospel he proclaimed is that which they "received, in which they stand, through which they are being saved." That's a lot to claim for the gospel. It is not simply a message for outsiders to "receive." It is also that which allows believers to "stand," a reality in which "they are being saved." This language of "being saved" echoes 1 Cor 1:18, "the word of the cross is foolishness to those who perishing, but to those of us who are being saved, it is the power of God."

Notice, this word (logos) of the cross is defined by Paul as the power of God. It creates a certain kind of world. It is operational. I like the language or Romans 5 where Paul compares the "dominion" of sin and death to the "dominion of grace." We tend to think of grace as simply God's willingness to overlook our shortcomings. But its much bigger than that for Paul. It is an environment, a dominion, a way of ordering the world, through which a whole new human community emerges. The logic of the cross, a script of radical trust in God, allows us to consider others ahead of ourselves, to love one another with deep affection, to contribute to the needs of the saints. These are the actions of those who trust in the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead. The fruit of the Spirit are not simply prerequisites for power: they are God's power and the produce a different kind of ordering where faith works itself out in love.

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is a continuing event. For those who participate in this event, there is a new creation, a new ordering of God's world established by self-giving love. It is a dominion, a reign, a kingdom.

One last word. It is important that we remember that this reign comes to us from the future. It is done. It is accomplished. There is nothing we can do to extend it, increase its borders, or put it at risk. As such, it is a gift. While it involves a way of life (repent and believe the good news), this is no works salvation. It belongs to God. It is his future. We cannot build it, we can only receive it. This is grace.

Notice here that we have talked about the gospel and salvation without talking about a theory of the atonement. Yet for many people, the gospel is equal to penal substitutionary atonement without remainder. I want to continue to push on this, because it's a big deal. I think without pushing on this, the attempt to become missional churches will falter. We define mission in relation to our understanding of salvation, and a theory of atonement, any theory of the atonement, simply won't get us to missional.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday, After All

This is not guilt. This is sudden inspiration.

I was running on the treadmill this evening and had the ipod on random and Dylan's, The Levee's Gonna Break, came on.

And here's the craziness of inspiration. It took me to the new James Bond movie I saw yesterday. I know, how does that happen? Anyway, here's the thing about the latest Bond movies. They're darker in mood. Don't get me wrong, we're not dealing here with Love in the Age of Cholera or The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but this Bond is a bit of a three dimensional character. And this depth comes from love, betrayal and loss. Ok, I admit you still go to see Bond for the action scenes, and this latest movie has amazing ones, but this Bond is so much more interesting than Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore. (I'm exempting Sean Connery from comparison).

So, what does this have to do with Dylan? For Dylan, love is primal. It's connected to the core of life, and therefore is connected to both joy and pain. It is triumph and tragedy. It's both what makes us resilient and fragile. And when you hear Dylan sing about love, you sometimes can't tell when he's singing about human or divine love. Love is akin to grace for Dylan, and, therefore it exists independent of a lover's response. So, in The Levee's Gonna Break, you have life and work and love threatened by the constant dripping of the rain. There are no safe places for life or love, and even the threat of the levee breach is part of what makes it all thick and meaningful.

And I for one will take thick and meaningful over thin and satisfied.

If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
Everybody saying this is a day only the Lord could make

Well, I worked on the levee, mama, both night and day
I worked on the levee, mama, both night and day
I got to the river and I threw my clothes away

I paid my time and now I'm good as new,
I paid my time and now I'm as good as new.
They can't take me back unless I want them to

If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
Some of these people gonna strip you of all they can take

I can't stop here I ain't ready to unload
I can't stop here I ain't ready to unload
Riches and salvation can be waiting behind the next bend in the road

I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
I picked you up from the gutter and this is the thanks I get
You say you want me to quit you, I told you, 'No, not just yet.'

Well, I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me
I look in your eyes, I see nobody other than me
I see all that I am and all I hope to be

If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
Some of these people don't know which road to take

When I'm with you, I forget I was ever blue
When I'm with you, I forget I was ever blue
Without you there's no meaning in anything I do

Some people on the road carrying everything that they own
Some people on the road carrying everything they own
Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones

Put on your cat clothes, mama, put on your evening dress
Put on your cat clothes, mama, put on your evening dress
Few more years of hard work, then there'll be a 1,000 years of happiness

If it keep on raining, the levee gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
I tried to get you to love me, but I won't repeat that mistake

If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break
Plenty of cheap stuff out there and still around that you take

I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I woke up this morning, butter and eggs in my bed
I ain't got enough room to even raise my head.

Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Come back, baby, say we never more will part
Don't be a stranger with no brain or heart

If it keep on raining, the levee's gonna break.

Blog Fatigue

No Dylan on a Sunday today, which follows an entire week without posts. And here's the thing: I feel guilty. And this is kind of what I feared most when I started this thing, that if I didn't keep the thing current, it would feel like a burden.

Having said that, it feels worth it to be burdened by it, because I am constantly finding readers, people who are interested in the things I am, some of them ahead of me, some of them with me, some hoping to figure out where this thing is going. So, I'm committed to continuing, you may just have to be patient with me.

It's not like I'm not writing. It's just that my writing is for class and not digestible enough for a general audience. I can't wait to figure out how to say what I'm working on in ways that are intelligible. I have the sense that I am on a frontier, and that's exciting. I'm combining theology, philosophy, and social science methodology in what I think are some unique ways.

I'm also working on a paper on contextual missiology, which sounds great (too geeks like me it sounds great). But its frustrating to me because the way we are being asked to conceive the paper runs so counter to my approach in the other class. The assignment assumes that I can define a context in the safe confines of the library. And it assumes that contextualization is something I can achieve through the force of a methodology, like a context will hold still long enough for me to master it, or that theology is this fixed content that just needs to be tweaked for the situation. Ugh.

So, the writing I'm doing is sapping me, and thinking about posting on my blog makes me tired.

But, I have new strings on my guitar these days. And that's luxury. So, give me a few weeks of guitar playing, and I'll see if we can pick up some of these threads.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

I for one am glad that Dylan plugged in and turned the folk world on its ear. I can be a purist, and so understand at one level the outrage felt by the folkies when Dylan went electric. Truth is, however, no single musical idiom could've captured Dylan. His diversity is part of what makes him great, and it has been particularly revealed in his later work. The dark tones of Time Out of Mind, for instance, stand in contrast to the sunny, swinging feel of Love and Theft. Most days I'm more of a Time Out of Mind kinda guy. But today I heard the great little swing song, Bye and Bye, off of Love and Theft, and just knew that this is today's song.

Bye and bye, I'm breathin' a lover's sigh
I'm sittin' on my watch so I can be on time
I'm singin' love's praises with sugar-coated rhyme
Bye and bye, on you I'm casting my eye

I'm paintin' the town - swinging my partner around
I know who I can depend on, I know who to trust
I'm watchin' the roads, I'm studying the dust
I'm paintin' the town, making my last go-round

Well, I'm scufflin' and I'm shufflin' and I'm walkin' on briars
I'm not even acquainted with my own desires

I'm rollin' slow - I'm doing all I know
I'm tellin' myself I found true happiness
That I've still got a dream that hasn't been repossessed
I'm rollin' slow, goin' where the wild roses grow

Well the future for me is already a thing of the past
You were my first love and you will be my last

Papa gone mad, mamma, she's feeling sad
I'm gonna baptize you in fire so you can sin no more
I'm gonna establish my rule through civil war
Gonna make you see just how loyal and true a man can be

Monday, November 10, 2008

Resurrection, Glory, and Post-Election Speech

I was with a group of people from ten different congregations in the Pacific Northwest who are working together on missional transformation. Many of them have found my blog, and a few let me know that they didn't agree with my decision to vote for Obama. There was a look of disappointment in some of their eyes. This is the way of elections. They have a tendency to push us into camps that have fairly exclusive views of the world.

Part of this exclusivism is the result of the use of language in elections. While we may disagree on the right candidate, we have broad agreement that we are glad the commercials, punditry, robocalls, etc, are over. Our elections are a season of debased speech, which cheapens discourse and calls into question the promise of language to convey truth. It is a thin season that will not sustain civil discourse.

I was in class the night of the election. This particular class is dominated by international students and on a break we had an interesting conversation about the US election. The three Koreans in the class all were stunned by the negative campaigning. To them, it's like these otherwise sensible Americans lose it for a season.

So, the post-election question for me is how to speak in a world of debased speech. And we have little choice about the matter. We are a Word faith. We believe that God creates through speaking, and that his work of redemption comes through a Word made flesh. How can we speak in a world that is weary of empty speech?

There is much to say here, but I simply want to point out some things that Paul is doing in 2 Corinthians. On at least three occasions he talks about his conduct in speech related to his experience of the resurrection. In the opening chapter he talks about circumstances in Asia, where he was "utterly, unbearably crushed, " "despaired of life that we might rely on God who raised Jesus from the dead." Just a few verses after the report of his deliverance, he writes about "our boast, the testimony of our conscience, that we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity... ." Paul's experience of deliverance, of the one who raised Jesus from the dead, results in a certain kind of speech.

In the next chapter, Paul explains his travel patterns to the Corinthians through the image of being a captive in Christ's victory procession. Paul is a death and resurrection man, the aroma of Christ "from life to life." Connected to this image of death and resurrection we again find language about speech. "We are not peddler's of God's word like so many, but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God."

Chapter four includes the most striking phrases in which Paul describes his life in terms of the death and resurrection. Paul knows life as "hard pressed, but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair...always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might be seen in my mortal flesh...While we live, we are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake so that his life might be seen in us." This chapter begins with a description of speech. "We have renounced the shameful things one hides, we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to everyone... ."

Later in the chapter, Paul quotes from Psalm 116. "In the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with Scripture, 'I believe, therefore, I speak,' we also believe and therefore we speak." What is this spirit of faith? Pslam 116 is a psalm of deliverance. The psalmist rejoices that God has heard his cry for mercy. The chords of death entangled him, the anguish of the grave surrounded him. He was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Yet, God delivered him.

It is in this spirit of faith that Paul dares to speak. It is from the depths of despair that a Christian word emerges. The experience of deliverance form "utterly, unbearably crushed" provide the conditions for authentic Christian speech.

This is no doubt in part because we are speaking of something we know experientially. But it is also undoubtedly a result of the transformation that comes from experiences of deliverance. Things just change. Life has gravity. In fact, I love the language of weight in 2 Corinthians 4. Paul admits that we are hard pressed, echoing back to his experience related in chapter one of being utterly, unbearably crushed. But chapter four ends with Paul saying "our slight momentary affliction is not worth comparing to the eternal weight of glory." I love that image. Glory is substantial. It is not thin applause or easy victory. It is thick with significance. It doesn't just ignore life's circumstances, but admits all details and finds beauty in the midst of them. Glory.

This week has been a tough week for many of my friends and me. Cindy Wilson, a great friend, died suddenly and without warning of meningitis. I have walked around with heaviness all week. My chest feels like someone set an anvil on it. I am not ready yet to claim resurrection, to move to some kind of good that might come out of this (and I certainly won't ever say this happened for a reason, or was part of God's plan). But I don't have to, because God is present in the death of Jesus. I have been invited again to trust the one who raised Jesus from the dead. The eternal weight of glory won't come apart from this, but precisely through this. Glory weighs a ton.

And because this is the glory I long for, my speech won't be glib or easy or flowery about this. Speech connected to the weight of glory doesn't need adornment. It's not triumphalist. It can admit to circumstances. It doesn't paint a smiley face on everything. I remember hearing Bill Cosby talking about laughter. He contrasted the thin laughter of teenage girls to the deep belly laugh of his father. The difference was life experience. It didn't come as easy or as often, but it was far more meaningful and joy producing. It weighed something. And so should Christian speech.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

It's amazing to me that Dylan's grainy, rasping vocals can produce beautiful. But they do. And one of his recent songs that falls into that category for me is Workingman's Blues #2. No one would say that Dylan has a beautiful voice. But it can be set to lyric and melody in such a way that it produces something beautiful. Workingman's Blues is full of the fatigue of people who work for a living. The song mixes both the enobling and diminishing potential of hard work with the desire for love at the end of the day--a desire which can also be enobling and diminishing. And Dylan's voice fits the bill.

There's an evening haze settling over town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buying power of the proletariat's gone down
Money's getting shallow and weak

Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It's a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad

My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see

While I'm listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping it's way into my gut

Meet me at the bottom, don't lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the frontline
Sing a little bit of these workingman's blues

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A Great Night

I lived in a sundowner town when I was a small boy. This means that if you were black, you couldn't be within the city limits after sundown. Blacks lived literally across the tracks. I remember inviting a black friend to my 7th birthday party, only to have a kid from church drop the "n" bomb on him. I remember my parents and I going to his little apartment to apologize to his family.

My dad, a preacher, visited every room each week in the small hospital across the street from our house. He was the only white preacher who would pray with the black patients. When the black Baptist church dedicated a new building across the tracks, we were invited to come. As I remember it, we were the only white people there. My parents sang duets to an appreciative crowd. It was a very formative moment.

I remember vividly the day Dr. King was assassinated. I was devastated. He was one of my heroes and I cried when I heard the news. The civil rights movement provided much of the formative emotional backdrop of my life.

I could multiply these stories. Because of the courage of my parents, I have had a wealth of boundary crossing experiences along racial lines. To me, racial unity is a first fruit of the gospel. So, needless to say, beyond the policy promise of an Obama administration, I am ecstatic that we have voted an African-American to the highest office in our land.

Tonight I watched the returns with African friends who are colleagues in my PhD program. They had no words to express what it meant to them that the US would elect an African-American. We witnessed history tonight, a game changer not only for our nation, but for the world community. May God's hand be on Barack Obama.

Believe the Good News, 5

Sorry for the gap in posts here, but I've been otherwise occupied. But if you'll remember...

We have seen from both Paul and Jesus (via the gospel of Mark) brief statements about what constitutes gospel. And we have noticed that for both, the gospel is the announcement of an event. In 1 Cor 15, Paul describes that event as the death and resurrection of Jesus. In Mark 1:15, Jesus announces that event as the coming near of the Kingdom of God. At first glance, these announcements don't seem to be exactly the same. And I want to honor that distance a bit, let each have their own unique claim to the definition of gospel. We would find neither of these emphases in the Gospel of John. The diversity of the New Testament is part of its genius, and also part of what makes what Christians bring "good news."

While these statements are not exactly the same, neither are they opposed to one another. And in fact, they carry many shared commitments. I will argue in a later post (its not like I have a plan here, but the nature of a blog is bite-sized portions and so there's always left-overs) that the announcement of the Kingdom in the synoptic gospels necessarily points us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, Paul's emphasis. But first, I want us to notice the eschatological dimensions that Jesus and Paul share.

in Mark 1:14-15, Jesus comes proclaiming the gospel of God, and the first bit of that gospel is "the time is fulfilled." This is an announcement of a dramatic turning of the ages. The great day of God's salvation is coming into view. Now we can see a world not given to us by the reign of Herod or Caesar or even Moses. This is a world not given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, but a world according to the ultimate purposes of God. With the announcement of the fullness of time, it is possible in the present age to participate in the realities of the age to come when God's reign will be complete and fully enjoyed.

It is this perspective, that the coming of Jesus marks a dramatic turn of the ages, that may hold the diverse literature of the NT together more than any other. For Paul, the eschatological announcement is not so much in the language of the Kingdom of God, but the new creation. Christians for Paul are "those upon whom the end of the ages has fallen" (2 Cor 10:11). As Richard Hays puts it, "(Paul) believes himself, along with his churches, to stand in a privileged moment in which the random clutter of past texts and experiences assumes a configuration of eschatological significance, because all has been ordered by God to proclaim the gospel to those who read what Paul writes" (Echoes of Scripture in Paul, 165).

We see this sense of eschatological privilege in other NT texts as well. The familiar opening words of Hebrews tell us that God spoke previously in many and various ways, "but in these last days he has spoken to us through his Son" (1:2). Or, we read in 1 Peter about the salvation now being revealed specifically to us, "things in which angels long to look" (1:12). The coming of Jesus has inaugurated a new age.

And this new age is not simply the logical outcome of everything that has gone before. It is not simply a matter of human enlightenment, the God-inspired culmination of the best of humanity. This new age is an alternative to the one offered by the principalities and powers of this age. It is an invasion from the future, a dramatic reordering of life. The Kingdom of God is about a reign, a way of life, an alternative to the status quo. Jesus' announcement of the fullness of time bears the possibility of life under new management, of regime change, of a changing of all the labels. The first will be last, and the last first. The hungry will be filled, and the satisfied sent away.

Because our life is always negotiated in relation to powers, the effective reign of God can only come in God's power, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. Salvation is the offer of God to belong to his future reign, and to live in it now through the power of the Spirit.

This announcement is not always easy to believe. Mark let's us know that Jesus makes his announcement of God's Kingdom in the backwaters of Galilee (not in Jerusalem or Rome) while John the Baptist is shut up in Herod's prison. It takes a different way of seeing to discern the presence of the Kingdom. After all, the victory of God is hidden in the death of a peasant on a shameful Roman cross. And we cannot recognize the way of God's alternative future if our lives are facing in the opposite direction. This is why Jesus' announcement of the good news includes the words "repent and believe the good news."

All this to say, eschatology is an essential aspect of anything that passes for gospel in the New Testament. It is at the heart of both Jesus and Paul's notions of the gospel. The gospel is the announcement of a dramatic turn of the ages, and we have the opportunity in light of that announcement to belong to God's glorious future. The implications of this are numerous. At the very least, we have a dynamic sense of salvation. It is not simply a status, but an ordering, an unfolding, a way of life. We have salvation as a participation in the life and pusposes of God.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Dylan on a Sunday

The greatest lyrics ever. Dylan knows mad, crazy love.

When the rain is blowing in your face
And the whole world is on your case
I could offer you a warm embrace
To make you feel my love

When the evening shadows and the stars appear
And there is no one there to dry your tears
I could hold you for a million years
To make you feel my love

I know you haven't made your mind up yet
But I would never do you wrong
I've known it from the moment that we met
No doubt in my mind where you belong

I'd go hungry, I'd go black and blue
I'd go crawling down the avenue
There's nothing that I wouldn't do
To make you feel my love

The storms are raging on the rollin' sea
And on the highway of regret
The winds of change are blowing wild and free
You ain't seen nothing like me yet

I could make you happy, make your dreams come true
Nothing that I wouldn't do
Go to the ends of the earth for you
To make you feel my love