What Does it Mean to Celebrate Immanuel?

prayer1Tony Jones has issued another call for progressive theological bloggers to join in a conversation about the nature of God. He’s calling it #progGod, and last time I talked a little bit about the human inability to fully grasp who God is – including but certainly not limited to those humans who recorded their thoughts about God in the texts that now are called the Bible.

This time I want to revisit a post I wrote almost exactly one year ago. Liam, the son of some friends of mine and the focus of several posts on this blog, had just died, and it led to a lot of questioning. The post references a coworker whose son had brain cancer. That was Rex, who just died last month. He and Liam were diagnosed at nearly the same time, and died within a year of each other – despite countless prayers lifted up by thousands of people, many of them children.

That post from last year seems just as relevant today as it did back then, as we celebrate the miracle of God-with-us, the incarnation.

Continue reading What Does it Mean to Celebrate Immanuel?

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Waiting with Advent

AdventA lot of people have said a lot of great things about Advent, and I’m hesitant to add my voice. It seems this season on the liturgical calendar has been getting more of its due lately than it did when I was growing up. That’s undoubtedly a good thing; if there’s any one thing we need as 21st-century Americans, it’s a season to focus more on waiting and less on consumption, materialism and consumerism. The broader culture could use for Advent and less Christmas – or at least what Christmas has become.

The church could use it, too, because Advent focuses on the fact that we are in exile, awaiting the Savior of this world to set things right, just as God’s people were 2,000 years ago (plus a few). The American church doesn’t do lament very well, and Advent is a way to bring up, point out, even live within the fact that for many people, this holiday season will be filled with pain, grief, loneliness and heartache. As our preacher said yesterday morning, “Advent says there’s something missing in the world, and you can’t put a bow on it.”

So after saying I was hesitant to add my voice, I’ve written two paragraphs. Nevertheless, I prefer in this case to let those who have written far more poignant things take the lead. Specifically, a few hymn writers who get just right the notion of Advent and what incarnation means when light breaks through the darkness.

Continue reading Waiting with Advent

Keep the Mithra in Christmas!

All right, people, it’s smackdown time.

My wife likes to watch this show called Drop Dead Diva. I know very little about it except that it involves someone dying and coming back to life in someone else’s body and now they’re a lawyer, or something like that. I also know that the other night, while I was studying for my final, I caught a moment of courtroom drama in which the prosecutor shocks the defense with some piece of evidence that makes the accused’s guilt all but certain. The defense, of course, had no idea this was coming.

This happens in courtroom shows all the time – the prosecution rocks the defense back on its heels with a stunning piece of previously unknown evidence. OMG! What will happen next?

In real life, what would happen next is that the defense would ask the judge to rule the evidence inadmissible and/or call for a mistrial, and the judge would almost certainly grant it. Because failing to provide a full disclosure of the state’s evidence to the defense, though certainly dramatic, is also prosecutorial misconduct and therefore tends not to happen much in real life.

So of course, I felt obliged to interrupt my wife’s enjoyment of this show to remind her of this fact, at which point she reminded me that it’s a show about someone being dead and coming back to life in someone else’s body, which also, last I checked, is not something that happens very often either. Touché.

Nevertheless, the feeling I get when TV shows and movies portray flagrantly unethical practices as commonplace occurrences to enhance courtroom drama is the same feeling I get when I’m cruising along on my Facebook wall, and I see this:

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People, this has to stop.

Continue reading Keep the Mithra in Christmas!

A Scripture for the National Day of Prayer

Isaiah 58:1-7, courtesy the Slacktivist:

Shout loudly; don’t hold back;
raise your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their crime,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
They seek me day after day,
desiring knowledge of my ways
like a nation that acted righteously,
that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
wanting to be close to God.
“Why do we fast and you don’t see;
why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?”
Yet on your fast day you do whatever you want,
and oppress all your workers.
You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
you hit each other violently with your fists.
You shouldn’t fast as you are doing today
if you want to make your voice heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I choose,
a day of self-affliction,
of bending one’s head like a reed
and of lying down in mourning clothing and ashes?
Is this what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
setting free the mistreated,
and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
covering the naked when you see them,
and not hiding from your own family?

My Favorite Disciple

Who’s your fave disciple?

People seem to like having one, though I think “favorite” is shorthand for “relates the most to” or “identifies the most with.” Peter usually wins this particular competition. A lot of folks can relate to his think-before-speaking, half-cocked way of doing things, and I certainly can, as well.

We all like to think we have a lot in common with John, who was bosom buddies with Jesus, preached about him fearlessly in Acts and, tradition has it, was so plugged in to the Holy Spirit that he had the mother of all trippy dreams about how the world was going to end (or maybe not, but that’s another conversation). The truth is, John is probably the disciple most of us are least like.

Judas? Well, not many would admit to having him as our favorite, but I think most of us could relate to making a horrible mistake, immediately regretting it, and feeling at a loss about how to make things right.

I relate best to Thomas. The doubter. The guy who, when the other 10 living disciples told him after the first Easter, “We saw Jesus alive!” responded, “Yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Thomas doesn’t get a lot of play in the Jesus narratives – just three speaking parts. But they say a lot.

Continue reading My Favorite Disciple

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 2

One of the key questions in studying whether the virgin birth was a literal historical occurrence or not is what Paul knew.

In chronological order, Paul is the first person whose writings ended up in the Christian canon. He also, though a contemporary of Christ, was not a follower while Jesus was alive, which means anything Paul knows comes from second-hand sources. In other words, what Paul says about Christ is a good indication of what was widely accepted in the years immediately after Jesus’ death.

So what does Paul say about Jesus’ life? For the sake of the argument, I’ll include all letters traditionally attributed to Paul and note where some disputes occur regarding authorship (and therefore dating).

Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 2

Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 1

For a long time now (well, a couple of months, anyway), I’ve wanted to take a hard look at the biblical accounts of Christ’s birth and whether they can withstand the scrutiny.

I think there’s a resistance to doing so among most Christians, even ones who would not argue for a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, because the virgin birth is such a central part of our belief about who Jesus was. Some of this is theological – his being conceived by the Holy Spirit gives us a peg on which to claim that Christ was fully divine – but some of it is cultural, as well. The Christmas story is the first story we’re taught as children, and it’s the ostensible purpose for our biggest holiday of the year. Finally, some of it is convenient. Jesus was the Son of God, and it just makes a lot more sense for him to have been conceived miraculously.

So a lot of people get defensive when someone comes along and says, “Yeah, not so sure about that.” I totally understand that. So in that spirit, let’s try to start with some points on which I think everyone would agree:

Continue reading Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 1