Another funeral today, another with a casket too short, another that comes after years of prayers seemingly unanswered. The sense of this psalm, written by Glenn Pemberton for Liam almost a year ago, applies equally now to Rex; his parents, Lance and Jill; and the rest of their family:
- What did the New Testament church actually practice?
- When did the New Testament church stop being the New Testament church?
These questions seem really basic, but the answers are quite complicated. The answers are assumed to be:
- What the New Testament says they practiced
- When it stopped doing what the New Testament described
Here’s the problem with both of those answers: Continue reading Class, Week 5: When Did the Early Church Become the Catholic Church?
It also means I’ve been blogging for more than a year – I started this thing in late July 2011, and here I am, somehow still trucking along. In celebration, here are the top 10 posts by pageviews this blog has had since its inception. If you’re newish, maybe you’ll find something you like; if you’ve been here from the beginning, thanks! Maybe you’ll find something you missed or forgot you liked. Or maybe the fact that these posts are the most viewed here will make you once again wonder why you’ve wasted so much time reading this blog.
Without further ado:
So begins the paper I wrote for Amos and Ethics, the Maymester course I took this summer that continues to shape how I look at the ways faith and politics intersect. I’ve posted that paper in the Smartypants section of the blog, and I encourage you to read it, not because it’s so brilliant but because it begins that process of working through exactly what we as Christians should do with our political power.
Because here’s the deal: Nonengagement is not an option.
By virtue of the democratic republic in which we live, all voting-eligible citizens hold political power, and willingly giving that power up – by not voting, for example, or refusing to stay informed – is itself a political act with practical ramifications. Sorry, folks.
So we adult citizens of the United States of America have political power. But we Christians living in the United States have not only political power but the power of majority. As I cite in the paper, nearly 80 percent of Americans self-identify as Christian. For all the talk about post-Christian societies and all the fear mongering about impending secularization and persecution, the reality remains: If you are Christian in America, you are most likely comfortable, accepted – and extremely powerful.
The question, then, is what do we do with this power?
If we are following Jesus, then the cliché answer is we give that power up. That’s what he did, after all. But that doesn’t really help us. I didn’t ask to be born in the United States, and I am glad to be a Christian, but I cannot give up my right to vote nor can I ask to become a member of the minority. Doing the former would itself be an exercise of power and the latter is simply impossible – I’m a straight white male Christian American, and none of those things is about to change.
This is where Amos comes in so handy.
Yesterday, Richard Beck posted the following quote from Jurgen Moltmann:
Because this fellowship comes into being on the basis of Christ’s unconditional and prevenient invitation, the fellowship will be an open one. It cannot limit Christ’s invitation to its own account. Everyone can participate who wants to participate in the fellowship of Christ. The communion is the answer to Christ’s open invitation…
Because of Christ’s prevenient and unconditional invitation, the fellowship of the table cannot be restricted to people who are ‘faithful to the church’, or to the ‘inner circle’ of the community. For it is not the feast of the particularly righteous, or the people who think that they are particularly devout; it is the feast of the weary and heavy-laden, who have heard the call to refreshment. We must ask ourselves whether baptism and confirmation ought to go on counting as the presuppositions of ‘admittance’ to the Lord’s supper. If we remember that Jesus’ meal with tax-collectors and sinners is also present in the Lord’s supper, then the open invitation to it should also be carried ‘into the highways and byways’. It will then lose its ‘mystery’ character, but it will not become an ordinary, everyday meal for all that, because the invitation is a call to the fellowship of the crucified one and an invitation in his name to reconciliation with God…”
I loved this quote for a couple of reasons, one because of my past experience and the other because of my daughter’s recent experience.
I think this most Sundays. Our 3-year-old daughter doesn’t like going to the in-service Sunday school class, so for the past year or so, she’s been sitting with us all the way through the service. That’s not a good idea. But part of the rules is that if she wants to sit with the grown-ups then she needs to act like one and be quiet – and, in a classic case of proving that sometimes our kids will actually live up to our expectations if we set them high enough, she’s done a great job.
Of course, she’s helped a great deal by a little purse full of toys, two snacks (one for when the singing starts, the other for the sermon) and the Sunday Scribes bags the church provides, each with a pad of paper and baggie of crayons. J quietly sits on the floor and creates page after page of crayon drawings and hands them to me while I worship, pray, take communion and listen to the preaching.
To me, that’s a win-win-win. She’s learning how to be quiet for extended stretches of time when silence would be truly necessary (a funeral or wedding, for example), my wife and I get to fully engage in worship, and the folks around us aren’t distracted by toddler shenanigans.
For others, apparently, this is not the ideal situation.
A book that is now on my ever-expanding “to-read” list is Glenn Pemberton’s Hurting with God. I’ve mentioned Glenn on this blog before; he wrote the incredible psalm of lament for Liam’s memorial service, as well as a moving translation of Psalm 51 for the modern-day psalter Timeless.
Part of the reason I want to read this book is because I deeply identify with Mike Cope’s autobiographical description of a “winter Christian.”
During my years as a minister, I constantly felt the disappointment of some who wanted more confidence. They needed miracles; their minister loved mystery. They loved The Prayer of Jabez; I was embarrassed by it. They turned to scripture as an answer book; I found in it life’s greatest questions (along with an “answer” in Jesus). They saw it as the inerrant blueprint for dating, marriage, job, etc.; I trusted it as my spiritual community’s library of faith. They wanted confident prayers expelling Satan and claiming spiritual victories; I turned to the Lord’s Prayer. They spotted God’s healing everywhere they turned; I kept performing funerals. They needed more “already”; I’m “not yet.” They wanted sermons where everyone could shout “Amen!”; I preached anticipating quiet nods, thoughtful expressions, and eyes moist with hope.
There are plenty of summer Christians on my Facebook feed. Nearly every morning, someone is ringing in the day with some sort of celebratory psalm or phrase of thanksgiving to God for another terrific new day. And on one level, I agree. I am grateful and privileged to be alive this morning; but for many, many others in this world, it’s another day to survive, another day of hunger, thirst, illness, rape, slavery, abuse – another day in which the mercy of death does not come.
Yet many of the same people who endure so much more than I ever have are also followers of Jesus. Their faith remains unshaken by the horrible circumstances of their own lives, even as simply hearing about them makes my own faith quiver to the core.
So, like any good academician, my thought is: If I read books by people of faith who have suffered or are suffering, perhaps I can get a better handle on how I can marry my own faith to the harsh realities of this world. Because, to be honest, most days I find it much easier to be an atheist than to be a Christian.
The blog’s gotten pretty political lately, so let me steer the conversation back to something I tackled very early in this site’s life: What role, if any, do Christians have in a secular, often corrupt, never particularly efficient political process?
A USA Today article (h/t Scot McKnight) indicates that Christians are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the hope of using government action to pursue religious objectives.
In a refreshing departure from the culture war mind-set that has come to characterize this and other recent elections, some of evangelicalism’s leading thinkers and spokespeople are trumpeting an important insight: Christians too fixated on politics are bound to end up frustrated and tarnished. And politics is not the only way to create positive change.
I can’t speak much to being tarnished, but certainly anyone who follows politics will become frustrated. Listening to activist Supreme Court justices consider rejecting the two democratic branches of government and overturning 70 years of precedent – and, more importantly, removing the promise of health insurance to tens of millions of people currently without it – over the past three days has not been good for my blood pressure.
But I would argue that, frustration aside, it’s quite possible that religious and political conservatives – i.e., evangelical Christians – are losing interest in political fights for their religious values because the values they pushed were not, in fact, those of Christ, and that is becoming abundantly clear as they hemorrhage congregants among younger generations focused far more on social justice.
After all, what is the overriding message of the Bible?
If there is anyone in the world who knows about undeserved pain and inexplicable suffering, it is Glenn.
Glenn was a normal, healthy middle-aged man until a couple of years ago, when his feet began sending pain signals to his brain for no reason at all. The result, despite long months filled with surgeries and medication, is that Glenn frequently must use a wheelchair and have a constant flow of pain relievers.
A couple of weeks ago, Glenn hobbled up the steps at the front of a church auditorium, relying heavily on a cane, placed a piece of paper on the podium and began to read this prayer during the memorial service for a 7-year-old boy. I post it with his permission and the permission of Liam’s parents.
For Liam – January 28, 2012
Lord, you have always been our dwelling place;
before the mountains were formed
or the first stars danced with light,
from everlasting to everlasting,
you have been our God.
But Lord, it wasn’t supposed to end like this,
gathering to sing a few songs, tell stories,
and share memories of a little boy,
his smile, his art, and his love
for his mom and dad and sister.
So I hope you do not expect us to act
as if nothing has happened,
as if we are not disappointed with you.
How can we help but say,
“If only you had been here Liam
would not have died?”
How are we to get over the death of a child?
At least you got to see your son grow up.
No, everything is not okay. Not with us – or you,
not now, maybe not ever. Continue reading A Psalm of Lament for a Boy Now Gone
As you might know, Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which means Facebook and Twitter came alive with the words of Dr. King, who remains eminently quotable on a host of topics, not least of which were justice, inequality, race and war – evergreen topics about which his words still ring true today, 40-50 years after he first spoke them.
In the spate of MLK-related blog posts that also happens this time every year, the preacher at my church posted this gem of a YouTube video, King’s late 1950s appearance on Meet the Press when he was just 31 years old and leading the lunch-counter sit-ins across the South (Part 3, which contains the quote I want to discuss is above; here’s the link to Part 1). He was only a decade away from his death, but much would change in those 10 years, including the passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill. Just 40 years after his death, America elected a black man as president. There is no doubt that King accomplished much in the short time he had to do it.
It so happens that I’m reading the book Unfinished Reconciliation: Justice, Racism & Churches of Christ, published in 2003. In this case, Churches of Christ are the group of New Testament restorationist congregations who trace their lineage back to Alexander Campbell (the more conservative members would argue they trace it back to Jesus, but that’s simply untrue from a purely historical perspective).
Anyway, early in the book, Dr. Harold Marks, a minister at the Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., discusses the Minor Prophets and, though not explicitly – and perhaps not even intentionally, though I kind of doubt that – draws a connection between them and King, America’s most famous prophetic voice:
Hosea, Amos and Micah went against the flow. Their dreams were not what the common people of that time had in mind for their future. These Minor Prophets were not swayed by the cultural majority. Through God, they saw a different kind of world that God would create. There is power in a vision.
Somebody in every community must see people flowing to Zion to hear the word of God. Someone must see a vision of the nation hammering military hardware into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Someone must paint a picture of a society has his or her own fig tree and vine. Dreamers do not have dreams; dreams have dreamers. The dreams come from God, not from us.
Many of King’s dreams came true, though he did not live to see them. But there is still a glaring blind spot in our self-congratulation over the amount of racial progress we’ve made in the four decades since King’s death.