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Addie Zierman wrote an article I appreciated in Relevant Magazine about rethinking Christian cliches.  The funny thing is, I wasn’t overly familiar with the cliches she referenced in the article, but I know that in every environment, not just Christian communities, we use these verbal shortcuts as part of our common language, for connection.  I’ve attended three churches in six years (lived in different places, that’s why), and one of the most interesting parts of entering a new church community is figuring out the local Christian cliches.  I think they are unavoidable.  But I connected with this article because I’m constantly trying to teach my students about why cliches suck the impact out of whatever they are trying to say, or generally, they do.  Overused language allows the listener/reader to pass by ideas without much thought.

I really like this connection Zierman makes with “fresh language” and Jesus as God’s Word:

But at the heart of the Christian faith is this: we were broken and we couldn’t figure it out and, instead of sending us some tired cliché, God sent Christ. The Word, John called Him. He had hands and feet, dust-covered from all that walking.

Here is what happens when the Word of God brushes against humanity: Stories. Discussion. Fresh metaphor, strung together like so many beads on a string. The Kingdom of God is like this … and like this … and like this other thing over here. It’s a seven-mile walk to a place called Emmaus without a Gospel tract in hand or the Roman’s Road paradigm to quote—just the messy truth of it all, hashed out among new friends.

Stories, fresh metaphor–sounds good to me.

Going back to the theme I’ve been sort of mulling over lately, about how Jesus’ teachings help us to live better in relationship to God but also to our neighbors, I like this idea of choosing language carefully, paying attention to how we’re communicating ideas, and attempting to prevent, through word choice and storytelling, our own indifference to the things we see and know about God’s work in this world.

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It’s David Foster Wallace day in the creative nonfiction class I’m teaching to advanced freshmen.  I just played for my students the (ultra famous) commencement speech he gave to graduates at Kenyon College back in 2005.  If you haven’t heard it, I recommend you listen–especially if you’re feeling kind of sad/frustrated/in your own head lately.

If you would prefer to just read it, you can read it here, though you will probably miss some of the speech’s most charming moments, which come from audience response and interaction.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes (though I left the even better moments to surprise and delight you if you take the time to listen):

[On] most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider.

Here’s part one:

and part two:

Enjoy!

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Ken Wilson did a fine job teaching about all of the moments when Jesus talks about Hell, emphasizing the connections between references, which I would sum up as namely this: Jesus brought up hell not in order to answer our questions about what happens to us when we die, but to emphasize God’s concern with the oppressed, and to draw his listeners to a perspective about what is important to God verses what’s important to them (generosity verses money; compassion for the poor verses self righteousness).  In the final passage Ken talked about (which is the last time Jesus mentions Hell or judgment in Matthew), Jesus illustrates how God will separate the people like sheep from goats, that all of these people will refer to God as “Lord” but only the ones who “remembered the least of these” will continue on to eternal life.

Some points Pastor Wilson made:

a) Judgment (or God’s Justice) is always good news for the poor and oppressed.  So if we shudder at judgment, especially in the context of this story, we are probably not oppressed at the moment.

b) In this story, Jesus changes the perspective from “sound doctrine” as what makes someone right with God to how they represent Him to other people.

The fact that hell has become a doctrine but feeding the poor has not really perplexes me.  Or maybe they both are doctrines, but one is debated a lot less on the internet; feeding the poor is so painfully obvious and doctrinal debate offers a fine distraction from what is painfully obvious.

As protestants or people influenced by protestantism, we read a teaching from Jesus like this and say, “God must take care of the poor through us because we’re too weak to take care of the poor.”  I definitely need God’s intervention on this one.  I get nervous when I see a homeless person (the last one I encountered started following me and saying that he wanted to get to know me better.  I’m a small woman and so I was freaked).   My guru in Detroit (Dale) says that one of the worst things we can do is pretend that we don’t see people who are asking us for money.  What is more unlike Jesus to ignore a person in need?  But still, I do it.  I’m weak and I’m scared.  At the same time, I don’t get the impression that Jesus is excusing the folks he’s addressing with this story because they are weak and scared.  He does like to invite people to come to Him, find rest in Him while simultaneously asking them to pick up their crosses.

I think we have to be careful what we do with our fear of the homeless/poor (who we fear, as Ken Wilson pointed out somewhere in the series, not as much because they are dangerous, but because they are different).  We have to ask God to tell us who is poor around us and we have to ask for his help to get over whatever keeps us from feeding the hungry.  The same dude who started (or propelled) all of this commotion about hell is also the same dude that said when a Christian moves to a neighborhood, the whole neighborhood should get excited because they are about to have someone on their block who they know will love them no matter what, who will provide for them whenever they need something, and will not judge them under any circumstances in such a way that would prevent them from loving them no matter what.  I really want to be this neighbor.  I think this neighbor represents someone who takes Jesus’ teachings seriously, especially the teachings to care for “the least of these,” which outweigh any explanation about how the afterlife works.  I need to stop getting caught up in “hot-button” issues and start asking God to direct me towards what’s important to him, and to equip me with generosity where I’m stingy, and compassion where I’m judgmental.

The last thing that I want to take away from this series is a nice reminder that Jesus’s words are as textured as a Rembrandt painting (scroll down for my post about Rembrandt paintings)–we can study them our whole lives and see something new about them.  Of course obeying Jesus’ commands starts with spending time with his words.  Of course.

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This morning I was in the mood for listening to a teaching about Jesus and so I went back to the Vineyard Ann Arbor website, where I know they post their sermons online.   I trust Ken Wilson’s teaching, partly because he was influenced by the same people whose faith helped shape mine.  This influence is clearest, I think, in his emphasis of Jesus as the central figure and focus of his teachings.  He speaks of Jesus as the person we’re following, worshipping, and getting to know through our prayer life in compliment of what’s recorded in the Gospels.  If it’s been a while since you’ve heard a teaching like that, I think the one I stumbled on today might be a nice refresher.

Back in January, Pastor Wilson taught a series called “Vertigo: A Jesus Perspective on Hell” (Man, I love his U2 references).  I just listened to the first one–if the others have interesting points I’d like explore on this blog, I’ll write about those, too.

First of all, I admired Ken Wilson’s decision to teach this series.  A lot of churches are facing the threat of division over teachings on hell; thanks to Rob Bell’s book, it’s a topic he’s tossed into the Christian arena to be devoured  not just by critics (discernment ministries, in particular), but also by people who read the book and found that a lot of its questions resonated with them.  But you’re reading a blog so I assume you know the “Love Wins” context.  I appreciate Vineyard’s response to this divisive era and tough subject by saying, simply: “Let’s see what Jesus had to say about this.”

I also appreciate that, under the umbrella of Jesus’ teachings, they are using Bell’s book to start a conversation, which was absolutely all that he was trying to do with writing it (okay, maybe I don’t absolutely know if it was, “absolutely”, but that’s what he says in his introduction and how he structures the book).  Pastor Wilson didn’t address the book much in his sermon, but at the end he invites his congregants to participate in two book groups: one that will read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce, and another that will read and discuss Love Wins.  I thought the idea of reading-groups alongside the sermons was a mighty-fine one.  I wish someone was doing that at the church I attend here.

In this first of four sermons, Pastor Wilson begins by addressing the contexts in which people have asked him questions about hell.  From his sermon notes:

 1. People from evangelical-fundamentalist backgrounds ask me about hell to see if I’m biblically sound. 2. Questions from people drawn to Jesus but troubled by their impression of Christian hell teaching; do I have to believe this about hell to be a Christian? [My question to Brian; MK’s to me] 3. Surprisingly common: Suicide context.

(The “Brian” in that bracket is actually a good friend of my parents’ so I felt kind of special for being able to recognize him.)

Then he contrasts these questions with the contexts where hell actually appears in Jesus’ teachings:

Jesus spoke of hell in a very different context: most of his hell references occur in his conflict with the Pharisees, as a warning about the dangers of self-righteousness or lack of concern for the poor. His teaching on hell discomforted the over-confident and powerful but comforted the religiously insecure who felt oppressed by them.

(His emphasis, not mine.)

After going through some of the different cultural influences that have shaped our understanding of hell, the way we picture the place in our minds, Pastor Wilson defines the three terms that Jesus uses in the Gospels to refer to it: the Greek word, Hades, the Hebrew word, Sheol, and the Greek word Gehenna.  This part was interesting but I’d heard it before (if you haven’t, I’ve linked the Vineyard Sermon page at the bottom of this post).  I was more interested when he started to talk about interacting with Jesus’ teachings and working, through prayer and reading, to understand them.

He says (sermon notes again):

When you love someone, when you’re devoted to them, it’s not enough for you to hear their words as they happen to strike you based on your experience of the world.  You need to learn-enter their experience of the world the sense what the words mean to them.

As I’ve said to my daughters, if a guy says, “I love you” don’t just assume that means the same thing to him that it means to you. He could be speaking with his heart, his brain or different part of his anatomy. You need to know this guy, his background, experience of life and love, over time, to have any idea what he means.

It’s not enough to hang around Christianity, grow up in faith environment, and think you can easily understand what Jesus is saying. You’ve got to give him your full attention, put your time in with him, to understand him.

I think with all of the fear and division that is going around our churches today about who’s too loose and who’s too tight in their Biblical teachings, the reminder to give Jesus our full attention is especially important.  Not just to keep our churches together, but to keep our relationships with Him and each other together.

You can find the sermon here if you scroll down to 1/8/2012.

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I just got home from the AWP conference in Chicago.  I forget what the acronym stands for: Academics, Writers, and Publishers, that sounds about right.  The conference was sold out; 10,000 people attended.  Writers took over the Chicago loop.  Last time the conference was at the Chicago Hilton I had no idea if I wanted to be a writer.  There were only 7500 people at that one, and that seemed like too many.  Four years later, I am more confident (success and experience and a larger writer network definitely helps) but I still spent about an hour and a half in the lobby staring at all of the people as they walked by (most with noses as leads in their posture).  Good God, I thought.  Do we all really think we’re going to be writers?  The cold and gray weather did not help this less-than perky perspective.

Ah HA. This is going to be a Why I Write Post, which I just remembered I wanted to take time and hash out each year after AWP, thanks to Jhumpa Lahiri’s compelling “Why I Write”-themed key-note address last year.  Okay, so Why I write, the 2012 edition:

I met my cousin for breakfast yesterday and we discussed how writing is in so many ways an act of faith.  It’s the only disciplinary act of faith that I really understand.  I mean, I pray and read my Bible and attend Bible studies and church services.  (I wish I did more service activities. I wish I could blur the line more between my sacred and secular activities. I’ma save this for another post.)  But I think of those activities as ways of seeking God.  I don’t do them so I’ll be a better person.  I do them because I need to acknowledge God.  I need the things of God swimming around in my brain, or else I’ll start seeing a lot of damage–in my brain, in my relationships. So I do them out of necessity, more than discipline.  These days I do, anyway.  If I don’t, I’ll start to resent my students and complain about them.  That’s how I know I’m really off course and in selfish-ambitiondome.  These things help keep the conversation going that God’s having with me.

But writing?  Some people might say it’s also a way to connect to God but I’m just not going to go there.  I mean, it would be awesome if the ideas I came up with were all handed to me by God like a sack of gummy bears.  But they are not.  Sometimes they are really, really bad ideas.  Sometimes they are really good ideas trapped in really bad sentences.  There are some beliefs necessary to get myself to write.  The more I do it, the better I will be.  If I want to have a book, I have to write my ass off.  Well, if I want a good book, anyway.

Here is where I see the similarity between these two practices of praying and writing: they both have the same distraction: selfish ambition.   If I’m praying because I want something besides God,  I’m no better than the prodigal son asking his father for an early inheritance.    If I’m thinking about where this story is going to go once I finish it instead of where it’s going to go in order to finish it, I’m in trouble.  In other words, if my story is the means to something besides, say, the story itself, I have a totally flaky story sitting on my word document. It’s a heartless waste of time.  Besides, who is about to write in order to become famous, rich, or loved?  There have got to be less painful and tedious ways to to have these various versions of happiness.   You might have to write 10 bad pages to get one good paragraph.  You might have to write four bad stories in order to come up with one good one.  And the more you do it, the higher your standards, and the more miserable it makes you when you can’t reach them.

Okay, so writing takes faith.  You have to do it when you don’t feel like it.  Actually, you don’t have to do it at all but it’s good to do it if you’re a writer because if you don’t, you’ll start to resent everybody and every thing and nobody will enjoy your company anymore because you are such a draining person to be around.  And by you, I mean me.  This is what I get like when I neglect my writing.  It’s also what I get like when I neglect God.  Huh.

But writing, for a person of faith, a person who wants to have God be the focus, is, like all human activities, an opportunity to understand something about God, an opportunity to learn something from God.  And from what I can tell, writing is good for me because it teaches me to put my ambition away so I can concentrate on what’s in front of me.  Ultimately, the hours I clock in to write are opportunities to become better at praying, i.e., better at listening, at having a conversation with God.

I have a feeling that the same thing could be said of cooking, of walking the dog, of doing anything at all.

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The first time I heard this analogy was in Tennessee.  I’m going to blame the Bible belt for it.  Nearly a decade ago now (sheesh time flies), my best friend who I sometimes call my wife and I were on a road trip and Knoxville was our first stop.  The friend we stayed with spent a lot of our visit debunking various religions, reiterating the analogy that the ingredients in rat poisoning are mostly harmless except for a very small dose of poison–was it arsenic?  I don’t know.  A small of something that kills rats.  This was to demonstrate that we can’t pick and choose what we want from other religions and throw away the bad stuff, because a small amount of lies spoils the whole religion and makes it poisonous.  Something like that.

I’d nearly forgotten about this illustration until a couple Sundays ago, when the pastor at my church told a story with the same sort of analogy as a punchline:  A young girl asks her father if they can watch a movie that’s rated R, and the father says, “Why is it rated R?” She explains that there’s a little bit of sex and violence but it’s supposed to be a really good movie.  He says, “Okay, I’ll make you a deal.  I’ll watch that movie if, after it’s done, you’ll eat some brownies we’ll make together.”

The girl is like, “Awesome!”

So before they put the movie in, the father starts making brownies and he tells the daughter to go get some dog shit out from the yard.  She does.  He puts it in the brownie batter.  The punchline: a little dollop of dog shit ruins the whole batch. (See below for my pastor’s context of this story, which is different than the guy in Knoxville’s…)

I’m willing to say that sometimes, life does work this way–if a hair gets in my restaurant meal I am going to be grossed out and ask the server for a re-do on my dish.  I’m not convinced, however, that God works this way with sin in our lives.  Here’s why:  The harvest analogy.

Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a wheat field where the farmer lets the weeds grow with the crop, knowing that come harvest time, he’ll separate the weeds from the good stuff. He’ll toss the weeds into a fire. He’ll use the wheat for some bread.   Lots of people like to say this is about hell, and sure, maybe it is, I have no idea, but I see it also in my own life here on earth.  For me, walking with God means that every six or seven years or so, I go through a harvest period.  In this case, something drastic has occurred which has made me have to rethink my faith, my relationships, my family.  And I ask God–how did it get this way?  And then I reflect, through various conversations with folks, about how I ended up where I am.   I understand that there have been wonderful things happening to me and my faith (I love God more and I love people more and I’m less depressed) because of the events that led me here since the last time I had to go to God in a crisis.  Meanwhile, I see lots of lies about God and how he goes about his God-business have also accumulated.  I ask, “Why did you let that junk go on?” as many of us do when we are wondering why God allows suffering.  This time, I asked the question right before I read the harvest analogy, which just happened to come up in Matthew, which I’ve been reading again since the New Year.

This is what the Kingdom of God is like, for me at least.  My relationship with God is one where I hit the wall, where shit hits the fan, and instead of turning away from God, I go to him and ask me to sort out what’s left.  What’s left is a lot of weeds and a lot of wheat.  He helps me to see what is what, I pick out the good, productive ideas from the bad, destructive ones, and I grow in my knowledge and insight.

This is a life-long process, I think, for myself as a believer.  Eventually, we are to believe, God will give the destructive stuff a good destroying and that will be the end of it. But until then, this is how it’s been and probably will be again.

I’m hesitant towards the rat poison analogy because it sets us up for some real exclusion of people.  Because what if the field analogy works on an individual level, and what if we are rejecting someone because we have spotted a weed in their thinking?  Sure, we should try to pull it out, but also trust that if the person is trusting God, a time will come, likely in this life, when he will harvest them into better people.  If the rat poison analogy holds, we must reject those in whom we we detect the tiniest bit of poison.  And who among us is completely poison-free?

I will end this by saying that though I think sex and violence can be in a really good movie (what is better than The Wire? and what has more sex and violence?) I actually liked the sermon a lot that I heard at my church.  It wasn’t about people, but our words.  It was a reminder that a poorly constructed thought can do a huge amount of damage–in other words, watch your words.  Words count.  As a writer, I do need to hear this as much as possible.

Meanwhile, as a believer, I think it’s important that I trust God with the weeds in other people’s lives and be careful about how I use the rat poison analogy.

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I had one of those this morning when my friend Ann (who is in the middle of a really cool project, read about it here) sent me a link to this blog:

http://rachelheldevans.com/bible-made-impossible-biblical

The problems the author works through on this post, particularly the stuff about “biblical womanhood” are things I’ve been working through for a helluva while.  It’s just so great to see that I’m not alone on this.  Plus, she uses the word “deconstruct” when reading the Bible.  It’s Derrida week over here in grad school and so the timing is impeccable.

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