Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

A good song for a bad day.


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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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Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat Pray Love fame, wrote an interesting article about “over giving”that has got me rethinking generosity.  You can read it–it’s a fast and easy read–but the main point is that she has caused rifts in her relationships with her generosity.  In paying off her friends’ credit card bills, she neglected their dignity.

She puts it this way:

Sometimes, by interrupting his biographical narrative so jarringly, I denied a friend the opportunity to learn his own vital life lesson at his own pace. In other words, just when I believed I was operating as a dream-facilitator, I was actually turning into a destiny disruptor.

I’m thinking about how when Jesus tells us to be generous, it’s in the context of a relationship with another person.  Somebody asks to borrow your coat, you give them your coat.  Somebody asks you to borrow money, you say, here, no need to pay me back.

I think the key here is that a person is asking for these things.  They are already humbled, in a way, and so you don’t have to worry about their dignity, or interrupting the pace of their own work/goal achieving. Someone asks you for help, then you really help them.

The main point Jesus makes (again and again, and its a point Paul likes to reiterate in his letters) is that we “put others before ourselves.”   That means we treat them the way we want to be treated.  I am not sure it’s Christ-like to make people feel like they owe us something, or to empower ourselves through our giving.  It seems like true generosity takes something much more involved–it takes a relationship with that person, trust.  Someone trusts us so much, trusts our generosity, that they ask us for something, for our help in meeting some need.

I know this is tricky, and I’m still thinking it through.  I’m interested in your thoughts.

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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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Rembrandt at the DIA

A friend from home just reminded me about the Rembrandt exhibit I saw at the Detroit Institute of the Arts when I was home for Christmas.  My dad took my boyfriend and me there to see it.  It’s called “The Faces of Jesus,” and the main point seemed to be that Rembrandt was unique in that he used Jewish models for his depictions of Jesus.   He was, it seemed, one of the few of his day to recognize that Jesus was Jewish.

I noticed something else.  This is one of the earlier paintings, where Jesus is making eye-contact with something we can’t see–presumably, he is looking up to heaven:

Then his eyes went this way for a few paintings:

Towards the end of the exhibit, in what I think are the later paintings, though this might just be the work of the exhibit designer, Jesus’s focus changed again and he was looking this-a-way:


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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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