A Crazy Idea

Here’s a crazy thought: What if we mainline church-types relaxed?

Crazy, right?

Yet in the summer when our schedules change and the weather heats up, we dress more casually, we enjoy the longer days, and we don’t seem to get quite so rattled about things. I would be fully in favor of allowing this chilled-out mindset permeate the rest of the year, too. Just imagine what it would be like if we didn’t take ourselves so seriously and trusted that God was with us in worship regardless of how tightly wound we are.

I know, I know, “We put on our best for God.” Okay, but… What does it say about our view of God that we have to get dressed up to be in God’s presence in worship? And what does it say to those whose wardrobe doesn’t include snazzy clothes? Do they not belong in God’s presence?

The way we dress is only a small piece of this equation, yet the way we dress certainly seems to influence how we act and interact. Perhaps there’s a workable trickle-down theory of worship attire (even though the trickle-down theory of economics has proven completely foolish).

So let’s just pretend that it’s always July, so we can chill out in worship and use our energy to love and serve rather than get all duded up.

Crazy, I know. But maybe just crazy enough to ease us out of our stuffy tendencies.

Casting Down Casting Crowns

It seems to be a perfect combination: a band whose sound, for lack of a better term, sounds like traveling. That is, it has a rootsy and organic feel like the Allman Brothers Band or the Black Crowes. On top of that, the band is made up of committed Christians who seek to build up people’s faith through their music. They are a remarkably popular group, with their most recent album debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts (and that’s #2 overall, not #2 in Christian or religious music) with sales of 99,000 units.

In reality, however, Casting Crowns simply misses the mark. And nowhere do they miss the mark more obviously than in their song “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s a tune from their Christmas album Peace on Earth, so that explains why it’s in my consciousness currently.

It seems to begin innocently enough…

Oh little town of Bethlehem
Looks like another silent night
Above your deep and dreamless sleep
A giant star lights up the sky
And while you’re lying in the dark
There shines an everlasting light
For the King has left His throne
And is sleeping in a manger tonight

So far, so good. They begin with a nod to two different familiar Christmas carols and set the scene for the song. Worth noting is that the song is theologically in line with the biblical witness at this point. Then things start heading off the tracks…

Oh Bethlehem, what you have missed while you were sleeping
For God became a man
And stepped into your world today
Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King
While you were sleeping
While you were sleeping

On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything necessarily wrong with this verse. They’ve taken the Christmas story as traditionally told in pageant-form and written it into their song. Sure, there’s a whiff of judgment (foreshadowing alert!), but that’s no big deal, right?

The problem arises when a person actually, you know, reads the Bible. Luke’s familiar Christmas story (2:1-20) is so familiar that it can barely draw anyone’s attention. We’ve cemented the images so firmly in our minds that they can’t be supplanted even by the biblical text itself. For example, most Christmas pageants tell the story of lonely Joseph and an 8-1/2 months pregnant Mary making a 65-mile donkey ride from Nazareth to Bethlehem and arriving in town to be rebuffed by three innkeepers (think Motel 6) with that third innkeeper being willing to let them stay out back in the stable. Moments after being whisked into that lonely stable, Mary gives birth to baby Jesus. And cue “Away in a Manger.”

Now, I’ve never been pregnant, but in talking with women who have, it’s highly unlikely that Mary would be able to make that trek during her late-term pregnancy. More likely, Joseph and Mary made the trip to Bethlehem weeks or even months ahead of Jesus’ birth.

Also, the gospel does not indicate anything about a donkey nor does it say that Joseph and Mary made the trip alone. Culturally, people were much more social than we are today and it’s quite likely that they were a part of a traveling caravan.

Even more blatant, though, is the fabrication of the innkeepers. No innkeepers are mentioned in Luke’s gospel because there weren’t any motels or hotels in Bethlehem! The word that gets translated as “inn” is the word kataluma in Greek. Interestingly, a kataluma is the place where Jesus and his disciples share the Last Supper in Luke 22. Most accurately kataluma does not mean “inn,” but instead means “guest room.”

Rules of hospitality in the Middle East in Jesus’ day (and today, for that matter) stated that there was always room for visitors, particularly family, in one’s home. With all the people returning to Bethlehem for the census, it’s most likely that other family members had arrived in advance and were staying in the guest room. Mary and Joseph, then, were welcomed into the main living space which was on a raised platform a couple feet above the enclosed stable where the animals would stay during the evening to protect them from theft and to provide heat for the home.

All this Bible nerd stuff just goes to show that the creeping judgmentalism of the song misses the mark: “Oh Bethlehem you will go down in history as a city with no room for its King.” Even the errant Christmas pageant telling of the story says that Bethlehem did have room for Jesus. But when you need a refrain, the story can be changed, I guess.

The next verses go on about Jerusalem not having room for Jesus either. This content is a bit more palatable theologically, even if it paints with too broad of strokes. That theme of being “a city with no room for its King” rises up again to lead to the climax of the song…

United States of America
Looks like another silent night
As we’re sung to sleep by philosophies
That save the trees and kill the children
And while we’re lying in the dark
There’s a shout heard ‘cross the eastern sky
For the Bridegroom has returned
And has carried His bride away in the night

And this is the verse that really makes my brain hurt. There’s nothing like creating a false dichotomy for the sake of an argument. Now, Casting Crowns comes from a more conservative Christian tradition than my own and I can respect differing points of view. That being said, however, this is simply nonsense.

“And we’re sung to sleep by philosophies that save the trees and kill the children”? Really? We are? When was this happening? I understand that sometimes a point needs to be overstated in order to be made, but this is too much. My guess is that this is an anti-abortion lyric, but to have it crossed with an anti-creation lyric is plain strange.

I guess I just don’t hear people with the rallying cries of “Kill the Children!” or “Abortions for all!” Regardless of one’s personal views on abortion, to me the bigger picture is how we take care of the children in our midst. Are they provided with the essentials for life? Are children loved, nurtured, and supported? Or are they just a concept used in political machinations?

Then to put the abortion debate up against care for creation is just dumb. God created the world and said it was good. So let’s not conflate these two important issues.

Urgh. The song concludes…

America, what will we miss while we are sleeping
Will Jesus come again
And leave us slumbering where we lay
America, will we go down in history
As a nation with no room for its King
Will we be sleeping
Will we be sleeping
United States of America
Looks like another silent night

I want to like Casting Crowns. I really do. They do some interesting things musically, but their lyrical tone lands somewhere between guilt-inducing and condescending. (It doesn’t help that many lead vocals are grunted out like a Nickelback cover band.) Even though the music hits my sweet spot, the message of “we’ve got it figured out and you the listener are stupider than us” just doesn’t wash.

Yet they still land at #2 on the Billboard charts. I hope there are some more thoughtful Christian voices that write and perform interesting music and poignant lyrics about faith, life, and God. Until then, it seems likes we’re left with the humorless cranks of Casting Crowns.

Again for the First Time

Imagine being able to watch your favorite movie of all time for the very first time again. Or imagine being able to listen to your favorite song for the very first time again. Or read your favorite book for the very first time. Or even this – for those of you who have found the love of your life: Imagine being able to meet the love of your life again for the first time.

Of course, this seems like a foolish task, for whenever we encounter something that is our favorite, we are shaped by it and we come to a different understanding as a result.

But just imagine what it could be like to be able to have that very first encounter again, with no predetermined idea of what was to come. Foolish? Perhaps. But most definitely fascinating.

So it is with this idea in mind that I invite you to imagine today that this is the very first time you’ve ever encountered John 3:16. You’ve never heard the words, let alone memorized them. You don’t know what’s coming next after “For God so loved the world…” You’ve never seen a bumper sticker or sign emblazoned with this Scripture reference. Just imagine that you are completely unaware of these words and the importance they may have for you. Just imagine that you cannot or will not assume to know what they mean. Just imagine that you are completely open to what the words might be, to what they might mean for you, and what they might say about God.

And I know that this is like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. But I am confident it’s worth a shot because, if nothing else, this sort of openness to hearing these words again for the first time will help us avoid the sin of certainty, one of the most insidious elements of contemporary Christianity.

But this is not the first time that the sin of certainty has been committed. For it’s this very dynamic that sets the scene in John 3. A gospel text youve never, ever heard before. Right?

This religious lawyer Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus under the cover of night. And the first words out of his mouth show his sinful inclination: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus tells Jesus, “We know all about you. We’ve got you all figured out. We know what God can and cannot do. We know what’s possible and impossible for God. We’ve got our eye on you.”

Arching his eyebrows and with a bemused look on his face, Jesus responds, “Very truly I tell you…” Now, this is a very antiseptic translation of the words which are much more pointed. Jesus says, “Listen up! You think you’ve got me figured out and you think you’ve got God under control, but no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

And this punctures Nicodemus’s certainty as he begins to ponder the biological possibilities before Jesus cuts him off by again saying, “Listen up! Maybe you don’t have it all figured out. Maybe you don’t know all there is to know about the Kingdom of God. You’re so certain, but the Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it chooses. Nicodemus, being born from above is a mystery!”

Finally, with the remaining shreds of his certainty stripped away, Nicodemus admits he doesn’t know: “How can these things be?”

And with those arched eyebrows and bemused look Jesus says, “Hey, you’re the religious lawyer. You know all about me. You know all about God, right? Certainly, you know how these things can be!”

Remember, you’ve never heard this, so now is not the time to call into question Jesus’ potential sarcasm!

Jesus continues, “Listen up! We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you all do not receive our testimony. You don’t believe what we have to say. I could tell you all about heavenly things since I’m the one who came down from heaven, but you don’t even understand the earthly things I’ve been talking about!”

Now this is a surprise! Being born from above and experiencing the Kingdom of God and the work of the Spirit are earthly things! Not heavenly, but earthly!

Jesus goes on to say, “Moses lifted up that serpent on a stick in the wilderness to heal and in the same way I will be lifted up on a piece of wood in order to heal and give eternal life.”

And then we hear these brand-new words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

“For God so loved the world…” Oh, here’s an interesting Greek interlude from David Lose. (And you probably didn’t know such a thing existed as an interesting Greek interlude.) The word for world here is cosmos, a word we know. And every other time it appears in John’s gospel – you can trust me, I read ahead to check – cosmos refers to the world in opposition to God.

So David Lose rightfully says that we could read these words to say, “For God so loved the God-hating world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And then Jesus says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Amazing to hear for the first time, right?

The reason I wanted you to imagine that you were hearing this promise-packed passage for the first time is that our familiarity with it can make us like Nicodemus, assuming that we’ve got it all figured out and that we can be certain of what it means.

This isn’t to say that our preconceptions are all wrong, but that I think John 3:16 has lost some of its potency and power by being so familiar. Because what I often hear this fabulous verse reduced to is not a proclamation of the mystery of the Spirit and the boundless nature of God’s love, but it gets turned into a question of just where the “believing threshold” lies.

Let me explain. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” gets pushed to the background in favor of “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” I think all of the verse is important, but in imagining hearing it for the first time, I am most struck by the depth and extent of God’s love. I am not brought to think about what it means and what it takes to “believe in Jesus.”

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with believing in Jesus. It’s encouraged. Believing is A-OK. I’m 100% pro-believing in Jesus.

But the sin of certainty rears its ugly head when any one of us assumes that we know exactly what it means to believe in Jesus.

  • Some say that to believe in Jesus you must accept him as your Lord and Savior.
  • Some say that believing means prescribing to specific historical creeds.
  • Some say that believing means promising allegiance to a particular church hierarchy.
  • Some say that believing means coming to worship often.
  • Some say that believing means having Jesus in your heart.
  • Some say that believing means taking every jot and tittle of the Bible as inerrant or literal.
  • Some say that believing means having particular and specific knowledge about Jesus.

You see, all these ideas get us stuck on the “believing threshold” and cause us to play the “in-and-out” game which means “I’m in because I know what it means to believe and you’re out because you don’t believe in Jesus in the very same way that I do. I am certain of this.”

But hearing John 3:16 again for the first time, I don’t think Jesus is at all concerned with the “believing threshold.” Instead, it is much more stunning to hear that the way God deals with the God-hating world is to love it, to love us, to love you!

And although in our certainty and in our debates about the believing threshold we try to put limits on God’s love and tame the Spirit from blowing where it chooses, John 3:16 actually tells us that God never gives up on any of us, God’s love is unconditional, and God loves us.

This is the gospel in a nutshell, as Martin Luther put it, because it is the pure promise of God’s love.

And perhaps the biggest stunner that comes from rescuing these words from certainty is that John 3:16 is not at all about having your ticket punched for heaven. Jesus says he’s not talking about that! John 3:16 tells us that eternal life is experiencing this life in the presence of the eternal God. It happens here and now. Eternal life is a present-tense, earthly reality. It is the result of God’s love for us, for you.

And when we experience this eternal life, we are transformed as we live in God’s presence and seek to love and serve the world, following Jesus’ lead.

There is no “if” to God’s love. Yes, we can try to live outside of God’s presence and that will be an experience of perishing. But since God doesn’t give up, God even loves those who don’t believe. God cares for those who choose to perish. And God seeks after the God-hating world, even you and me.

So instead of clinging to our self-serving certainty and squabbling over the precise nature of the deliberately imprecise idea of believing in Jesus, hear again for the first time the pure promise of the good news of Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Lousy Jesus

Jesus would make a lousy politician.

Take a look at Matthew 5:38-39 if you don’t believe me. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” This was a standard given in the Old Testament in order to limit revenge and it certainly seems reasonable. An eye for an eye sure seems to make things fair. It’s an argument that gets used to support the death penalty, for instance. That person took a life, so their life should be taken from them. Fair is fair, right?

Except that Jesus continues by saying, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

Now, we know that Jesus isn’t just talking about slaps to the face, so we quickly see that this just won’t do for us! Sure, “turn the other cheek” is a good thing to teach kids so that school squabbles can be minimized, but we adults certainly can’t abide in this!

No politician in these parts could get elected with “turn the other cheek” as her or his campaign slogan. The electorate wants to be able to trust in a “strong” leader who will retaliate in full measure to anything perpetrated against us. Turning the other cheek gets branded as being weak. There’s no vengeance there. Might makes right, so Jesus must be wrong.

“Turn the other cheek”? Ha! That kind of crazy-talk from Jesus would never get him elected. He would make a lousy politician.

Jesus would also make a lousy lawyer.

After this turning the other cheek nonsense he says, “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” Who wants to hire a lawyer whose strategy is to give up? And not just give up, but give up even more than the other side wants?

Seriously, the bar association would take one look at this sort of legal conduct and take quick and definitive steps to have Jesus disbarred. How would any of Jesus’ clients win their cases if his opening argument is “Take my client’s coat. Take his cloak too!”

Jesus ought to avoid the legal profession if he knows what’s good for him.

Jesus should also avoid going into business because he would make a lousy businessperson.

Take a look at what he says in Matthew 5:47: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” Nowadays when we talk about “going the extra mile,” we’re referring to achieving some great accomplishment. But Jesus wasn’t talking about achievements.

In his day, members of the Roman government could force any non-Roman to carry something for one mile. So Jesus was saying, don’t just do what is required, but go two miles instead!

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how razor-thin profit margins can be. You follow the law (or at least don’t get caught breaking it) and you do no more! The resources and manpower that go into traveling the second mile would simply devastate a company’s balance sheet. Sure, good customer service is important, but that means a nice smile and friendly conversation, not going over-the-top with this two mile business.

The stockholders just wouldn’t abide in this business plan and Jesus would be ousted in short order for fundamentally misunderstanding the market. Taking a look at Jesus’ ministry bears this out. As Michael Budde puts it:

Jesus passed up countless money-making opportunities – he didn’t charge for healings, he gave loaves and fishes by the thousands (angering the bakery owners’ association and the fishing industry in the process), and he alienated a rich young man who might have otherwise bankrolled the ministry.

Clearly, business isn’t the right place for Jesus.

So it is also probably no surprise that Jesus would make a lousy banker.

Here he goes again: “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

This fiscal policy would get rejected faster than you can say “Fannie Mae” or “Freddie Mac.” There’s no talk of collateral, credit ratings, lending history, or ability to repay the loan. No amount of FDIC insurance would make up for this tremendously short-sighted banking method.

Again, as Michael Budde puts it:

God obviously is not as smart as even the average capitalist. For God seems unaware that, given this sort of business plan, God will go bankrupt – nobody can continue by giving people more than they produce, by privileging the weak and the inefficient over the strong and powerful, by ignoring those with resources to give in favor of those who have nothing and amount to nothing.

So, to summarize, Jesus would make a lousy politician, a lousy lawyer, a lousy businessperson, and a lousy banker. So if you were hoping for some practical career advice, sorry, it’s just not going to happen.

Yet there’s at least a part of each of us that wants to trust what Jesus says, so you may take his words and do some intricate and careful machinations to smooth off the rough edges and make his words more palatable. With good – if misguided – intentions, we may try to spiritualize or minimize Jesus’ words.

“Oh, turning the other cheek is good for children and good for little things, so we can get by. But when big stuff happens, all bets are off! You bomb me and I’m gonna bomb you right back!”

Now that seems more sensible, right? Or at least it’s more in line with the way the world works. And since he would make a lousy politician, lawyer, businessperson, or banker, Jesus clearly does not have a firm grasp on the way the world works!

Since Jesus seems unconcerned by our conventions and our desire to succeed and accumulate and make sure that others get what they deserve, we politely invite him to leave the public living-out of our lives and hide him away in our hearts where he can give us warm fuzzies when we’re feeling down. I mean, that’s easier than actually taking Jesus at his word.

Except that Jesus persists. And this time he tops everything off by saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

It turns out that Jesus wasn’t bluffing. Instead, he calls our bluff with this stunning command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. And while Jesus would indeed make a lousy politician, lawyer, businessperson, or banker, he did not come to be any of those things.

Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. And Jesus is the perfect Savior.

For, you see, in these seemingly unrealistic statements about turning the other cheek, giving our cloak, going the second mile, giving without reservation, and loving our enemies – in all these things, Jesus is only asking for us to do what he has already done for us!

Jesus asks us to exercise grace with integrity. That means, we have all received grace upon grace from God, for when we sin, we abandon God and turn from him, making us God’s enemies. And, let me tell you, it is great news that God’s chosen way of dealing with his enemies is to love them! For otherwise we would not stand a chance!

Sure, you can criticize turning the other cheek and loving your enemies as unrealistic and unreasonable, but doing so means that you are arguing with God’s chosen way of dealing with you and the world.

Since we have received God’s grace, we are called – no, we are commanded to show and share this very grace with integrity. And the only way that you can turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and love your enemies is if your life is shaped by Jesus. If you want Jesus to fit into your view of the world, it’s just not going to work. But if you’re willing to be shaped – in the form of a cross – into Jesus’ view of the world, then it will all make sense for we are who we are because Jesus is who he is!

In Matthew 5:48  Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This perfection has nothing to do with acing a test, having all the right answers, or having perfect attendance. Tom Long says, “To be ‘perfect’ is to respond to other people – even our enemies – with the kind of compassion and desire for the good that expresses the way God responds to the world.” Being perfect means engaging the world as God engages the world.

As Martin Luther said, “At this point you will discern how hard it is to do the good works that God commands… You will find out that you will be occupied with the practice of this work for the rest of your life.”

It turns out that God really cares about how we treat one another!

Jesus would make a lousy politician, but he is the leader we are called to follow.

Jesus would make a lousy lawyer, but he has freed us from the guilty verdict we have earned by disobeying God.

Jesus would make a lousy businessperson, but he is willing to forgo a profit and even declare bankruptcy so that we are not overcome by sin, death, and the devil.

And Jesus would make a lousy banker, but he has emptied the vaults of grace, mercy, and forgiveness so that you and I may live.

Live not just how we want to live, but live in response to the grace we have received so that we turn the other cheek, go the second mile, love our enemies, and shape our lives through the cross of Christ, the perfect Savior.

 

Hello world!

This journey into the blogosphere is a repository of my musings on faith, life, music, sports, and whatever else I find interesting, amusing, or even offensive.  This quest of some proportion or other is an attempt to live faithfully in God’s grace among the exciting and vexing days of my life.  While an audience is neither sought nor required, it is well-appreciated.