Thursday, November 25, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving.

364 days out of the year, thankfulness seems like a foreign concept. We are inundated with marketing blitzes, commercials, new products, all designed to prey upon a sense of dissatisfaction with our present situation. There is a dark sense of foreboding that Black Friday sales seek to quench any sense of thankfulness with sheer, unabashed, unapologetic materialism. With all of the scheming that Black Friday planning requires, we don't even get a full 24-hours of gratitude before we pick up the chains of consumerism.

Beyond Black Friday, there is a perpetual dissatisfaction with life that we are sold solutions to through newer cars, bigger houses, better appliances, and shinier jewelry. This will come into clearer focus as we enter the Christmas season. Our own bodies are treated as commodities, as we are sold self-improvement techniques, diet plans, gym memberships, and promised a life of perpetual youth. This chase after an aura of affluence is especially apparent in Orange County, but representative of the country as a whole.

To live in a posture of thankfulness is one way in which the life in commitment to the way of Christ is in opposition to the dominant culture. Each week, we gather together and are reminded about how we have been invited into a relationship with God through the life and teaching of Jesus. This grace is nothing that we can earn or improve, but simply accepted with gratitude. The relationship grows deeper, surely, but the commonality between Christians is that they are on the journey together, all undeservedly.

Comparatively, all other blessings are subsidiary and secondary to this relationship. I am thankful for many things today: family, friends, fulfilling work, opportunity tot attend school, our economic situation, a growing community at Rock Harbor Fullerton, and health. I remember these things today for Thanksgiving, but my desire is to remember through the rest of the year and to let this seep into my consciousness and live out of a reality of abundance, relationship, and grace rather than dissatisfaction, competition, or inadequacy.

So today, but more importantly tomorrow, December, and the coming year, what does it look like for us to live in the posture of thankfulness?

Friday, November 12, 2010

To re-orient our identity

We all have had songs stuck in our heads (for Dayann yesterday, it was a medley of Lionel Richie’s All Night Long and Strangelove’s I Want Candy… Her mind is not a playground for the timid) and these songs can seriously affect the way that we think throughout the day. If you have a good song, it is like the soundtrack of your life that keeps you moving.

My brother posted a line from a song that means a lot to me. The simple lyric opens up the rest of the song and the melody keeps replaying through my head. This song re-orients my life to the subject and brings me back into rhythm with the community seeking the kingdom of God. Even though it was written in the 18th century, its simplicity continues to speak powerfully…

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!

Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;

here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

This past week in our life group, we talked about the messages that have shaped our identities. Parents, siblings, teachers – knowingly or not—form the manner in which we view ourselves and that baggage can take years to unpack. Whatever is ingrained in us, especially negative, becomes our default response for interpreting our circumstances. If someone doesn’t return a phone call and I don’t know why, it is probably because they found better friends and moved on from me (or so the rationalizing goes). Maybe my experience of meeting thousands of people over the summer during camps established this thought pattern? That experience is not in itself, negative, but can affect my relationships negatively if I am not consciously aware of it moving forward. What do I think what Dayann doesn’t return my phone call or God is silent in prayer (as is often the case)?

The ongoing work of the spirit of God is in developing us into a people who are utterly renewed into the reality of life in relationship with God. This requires reshaping (and reversing in some cases) those images we have inherited and indulged. This is the reason to study scripture, meditate on the gospel, listen to each other’s stories, pray in earnest, and join a community in song. The combination of lyric and melody allows the penetration into our heart, soul, and mind, allowing us to respond in faithfulness with all of our being.

What has shaped your identity (whether positively or negatively)?

What methods are best suited to re-enforcing your true identity as a child of God?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Crucified Culture

This past Sunday, I was asked to teach at Lake Elsinore Christian Church, in place of my friend, Trevor Smith. He has been teaching through the epistle to the Galatians and I continued his progression into chapter three.

A word about the church in Galatia, reading through the epistle (which doesn't take long. Go do it. I'll wait…), Paul is obviously upset. Something has happened to this church while he is away that has supplanted the message that he taught them when he was present. No small part of this may be the result of what Peter writes about in one of his epistles, "Some things Paul writes are difficult to understand. Irresponsible people who don't know what they are talking about twist them every which way. They do it to the rest of the Scriptures, too, destroying themselves as they do it" (2 Peter 3:16, one of the "other" 3:16's worth memorizing).

After establishing his position as a trustworthy communicator of the Christian message in chapters one and two, Paul begins chapter three with some fire:

"You crazy Galatians! Did someone put a hex on you? Have you taken leave of your senses? Something crazy has happened, for it's obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. His sacrifice on the cross was certainly set before you clearly enough.

"Let me put this question to you: How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up!"

The issue that Paul is taking the Galatians to task for is constructing a different image of Christ than the one which was presented when the originally believed. Specifically, they were now believing in a Jesus who had not been crucified. That is what I want to ponder for a few moments, is what difference it makes to believe in a Jesus sans crucifixion.

Images of Jesus abound, and the manner in which we view him will determine the response that we make to his life and teaching. There are several perspectives that do not require any element of crucifixion. Jesus never actually existed in history, but is the mythological creation of a community, in the same vein as King Arthur or Robin Hood. Jesus was an ethical and moral teacher the demonstrated compassion for the poor and neglected in society. Jesus was a political leader who sought to revolutionize the underclass (meek, poor, etc.). Jesus was a prophet/spiritual leader who taught an understanding of God in relational terms. Jesus was an apocalyptic Jewish rabbi who was mis-identified by his followers as a messianic figure.

To reach the above conclusions is perfectly reasonable, considering the assumptions that one begins with and the basis of evidence which they choose to believe.

The importance of Jesus being a crucified leader is essential to Paul in this instance because it cuts to the heart of the issues disabling the Galatian church. In each chapter of this letter, reference is made to Jewish influence upon the Christian community: Paul's practice of Judaism (1:13), description of Peter's hypocrisy in practicing Jewish customs selectively (2:11ff), reference to Abraham (3:7), reference to Hagar and Sarah (4:21ff), the symbolism of circumcision (chapter 5), and 16 quotations or allusions to Hebrew scripture.

The teachers in the community were teaching a gospel life that had co-opted Jewish cultural values. Jesus was, after all, Jewish, so to follow after him would entail living like him in every way possible. Jesus is presented as one who fulfilled the fullness of Jewish religious/cultural expectations. To be crucified, however, would have repudiated the honorable life that he had built under Jewish practice. To follow after a crucified leader would negate all of the hopes and dreams assumed by the Jewish culture. The execution was a shameful demonstration of the powerlessness of the god of Jewish nationalism to keep his promise to the descendants of Abraham. To call the death of Jesus a disappointment would be an understatement, perhaps debasement would be a better term.

This is why a non-crucified Jesus can be so appealing. It allows us to respect the life and teaching of Jesus without having to confront the difficulty in reconciling that with his demise. In my own development, I spend much more time reading and preaching the gospel of Luke and Jesus' teaching that is directed towards social inequality and oppression.

What is still lurking in our hearts is the desire to replace the call which a crucified Jesus has on our lives with the fulfillment of our cultural values and definitions of success.

This is where an unfortunate translation issue steps in. In verse three, the word sarx is used in contrast to the word numa. Numa is in reference to the Spirit of God, so good Platonist disciples throughout history have translated sarx to be flesh, with a sinister connotation. The New International Version even supplies a note reading: "In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit."

But what if we can translate sarx to mean our particular culture-- culture which is neutral but has the capacity for both positive and negative. This is more in line with the translation of the passage above (which is a reason why a chose the translation to quote, and another example of how every translation is an interpretation) and provides us with a framework to deconstruct our own cultural influences in the attempt to form a coherent, cognizant Christian expression of faith.

A crucified Jesus does not measure up to any culture's expectation of greatness. The images of success in our culture (sports icons, CEOs, politicians, entertainers all) are images of triumph over adversity and exceptionalism. This grandiosity would ridicule the man who was executed shamefully outside the gates of Jerusalem. And so it is appropriate that Jesus developed a "cult following" as acceptance by the mainstream culture was incomprehensible.

And so we can choose to live by the Spirit of God, leading us to a knowledge of God through the roadblock of a crucified leader, or we can live by our culture which demands that we perform continually. But in light of what God has done for us in reconciling us to him, what can we possibly hope to add? God's response to us has already been established in the crucifixion event and the fork in the road that we have is whether we reject this image of Christ or allow him to redefine our values, behaviors, and beliefs that we have inherited in our cultural systems.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Justice Acheived!

There is so much to say on the subject, but I had an incredible reminder of God's faithfulness this week.

We have been praying our sister's brother in-law, John. Details withstanding, he was taken to jail for being involved in a fatal hit and run traffic accident involving multiple vehicles. The kicker in the story is that this took place in Senegal, where there are some differing standards of due process, investigation, and law enforcement. After 6 days of waiting in jail, he was determined by the state prosecutor to be innocent and the pending charges were dropped.

This video is of his homecoming to the international community in which he and his family live and work:

What this brings up in me is an image of God's justice. Not a punitive picture that is deducting from our souls what little we have left, but one who restores back to right, who sees clearly enough to see where we have deceived ourselves and strayed from who were created to be. Even in justice, God's grace and generosity reign supreme, as he renews us into the image of Jesus. Each person is a complex equation of inheritance, experience, and indulgence, but God sees through the layers and understands us. Even more than simply understanding, he sees all of us and responds in love.

Justice was achieved, not by punishing the one guilty of the hit and run, but also in dealing correctly with the life of other people involved. The image of God that we journey after, the one that we want to love with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, the one that Jesus told us about, we have to be able to trust him to make those decisions about us and to see clearly what is true about us.

We are declared innocent. We are set free. We are welcomed home into the community of freedom whose lifeblood is based in the unbounded grace of God. And this flows from the example of accomplishment of Jesus' death and resurrection.

A word from 2 Corinthians 5:

Our firm decision is to work from this focused center: One man died for everyone. That puts everyone in the same boat. He included everyone in his death so that everyone could also be included in his life, a resurrection life, a far better life than people ever lived on their own.

Because of this decision we don't evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don't look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We're Christ's representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God's work of making things right between them. We're speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he's already a friend with you.

How? you ask. In Christ. God put the wrong on him who never did anything wrong, so we could be put right with God.

Today we celebrate justice with the Van't Land family, Dakar Academy in Senegal, the Wolfe family, and all those brothers and sisters around the world who have been mindful and prayerful concerning John this past week.

"Christian" Military Service: A Possibility?

A friend posted a link to this article by Greg Boyd, "Does Following Jesus Rule Out Serving in the Military if a War is Just?" and I happened to have a sleepless night.

I recommend reading the article, but for those with no time to spare, but enough time to spare to read my journal, here is a quick synopsis (with apologies to Dr. Boyd). Two opposing sentiments in the New Testament: teaching regarding non-violence, presence of military personnel but no clear denunciation of their career. After reviewing the pertinent texts, he writes "The above cited texts show that the Gospel can reach people who serve in the military. They also reveal that John the Baptist, Jesus and the earliest Christians gave military personal “space,” as it were, to work out the implications of their faith vis-à-vis their military service." This ambiguity should be respected by those who are prone to make declarative statements regarding Christian ethics.

Boyd continues to ask "what about just wars?", which is an issue which I will not take up at this time, but deserves the attention of any thoughtful Christian.

The section entitled "How do we know when a war is 'just'?" is the most revealing to me. After describing the complexities involved in determining whether a war and its component parts are justified, he posits that due to the unknowable nature of motivations, tactics, and outcomes, it is better to abstain.

Forgive the block quote, but he writes better than me:

"Do you know – can you know – the myriad of personal, social, political and historical factors that have led to any particular conflict and that bear upon whether or not it is “justified?” For example, do you truly understand all the reasons your enemy gives for going to war against your nation, and are you certain they are altogether illegitimate? Are you certain your government has sought out all possible non-violent means of resolving the conflict before deciding to take up arms? Are you certain the information you’ve been given about a war is complete, accurate and objective? Do you know the real motivation of the leaders who will be commanding you to kill or be killed for “the cause” (as opposed to what the national propaganda may have communicated)? Are you certain that the ultimate motivation isn’t financial or political gain for certain people in high places? Are you certain that the war isn’t in part motivated by personal grievances and/or isn’t being done simply to support or advance the already extravagant lifestyle of most Americans? Given what we know about the corrupting influence of demonic powers in all nations, and given what we know about how the American government (like all other governments) has at times mislead the public about what was “really” going on in the past (e.g. the Vietnam war), these questions must be wrestled with seriously."

The assumption throughout this article is that participation in the military is an individual decision made by a potential enlistee. Although the nuance of "not resisting being drafted into war" attempts to widen the scope of inclusion, our modern military is a form of incentivized volunteerism that can serve to preclude the ethical dilemma from those who choose not to participate. The military-industrial complex, however, touches almost all aspect of our culture. To engage in any commerce involves interacting with companies that supply, market, employ, or benefit from military action overseas and domestically. By participating within our American culture, each person tacitly supports the acts of military aggression funded by our governmental representatives. As participants within our culture, we all share responsibility for the actions of our enlisted forces overseas. Our culture has decided the criteria for which wars are justified, and the cultures criteria most certainly would not coincide with what is taught by Christ. The question, then, is how to live an ethical life in imitation of Jesus our teacher within a culture that does not honor his teaching.

For many, including most professional ethicists and myself (an armchair ethicist), military engagement is a hypothetical situation. As followers of Christ, we are called to be faithful to God within our lived reality, not a hypothetical situation. (A different note for a different day may discuss what non-violence means in my context.) This is where the culture of the Kingdom subverts the kingdoms of this world. If we exist within a cultural framework that persists in military force, is there any way to remain innocent? I do not think that there is. As such, we need to acknowledge our complicity and ask God and our neighbors for forgiveness. It would also serve propriety to discontinue the "Christian" modifier to this or any country. This is not to suggest a nihilistic fatalism in regard to military force, but to own our role as participants in and shapers of our culture and respond faithfully and appropriately within our immediate context. This may mean voting, demonstrating, abstaining, or acting.

Lastly, I do not think that "bearing the sword" is an adequate descriptor of violent force. The standard issue rifle for the American military is the M4, a "gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective fire firearms with a multi-position telescoping stock" . In contrast, "A sword is a long, edged piece of forged metal, used in many civilizations throughout the world, primarily as a cutting or thrusting weapon and occasionally for clubbing". Both are designed to efficiently minimize an opponents muscle use while causing the interior blood level to decrease beyond a lethal limit. The difference between these two forces are the effective range. Modern warfare has depersonalized the use of violent force and turned people (with the shared, full range of life experience) into targets, enemy combatants, terrorists, and other ambiguous, unidimensional terms. "Us" vs. "Them", for control of the world. (A particularly insightful read on the subject is Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's "On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society". As a West Point psychologist, he researches the interior mechanics that exist when one person ends the life of another and how these mechanics have changed throughout modern military history and influenced society. If you’re interested, it's on our bookshelf.)

To quote Boyd's article again, the alternative to this reality of life is to subvert our predominant culture for the Kingdom of God. "To belong to this kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence." (I am in the process of writing a sermon that looks at the term "flesh" in Galatians as the neutral, human element of culture, rather than a sinful nature and draws conclusions for how the church should respond.) To rephrase, as followers of Christ, we look to execute our cultural desire to live out of self-interest and tribal/national interests…and their protection through the use of violence. For every person involved, whether in fatigues in Afghanistan or in Fullerton, introspection is necessary to determine how we will live faithfully in the manner we were taught by Christ.

Grace is also ever necessary.

(I am seeing my brother Kyle this week, who served with the United States Marine Corps. I am looking forward to his take on the subject. I am also concerned for the safety of my brother's brother, MJ, currently beginning a deployment in Iraq.)

Cross-posted at