07 December 2011
23 September 2011
"Forty-two, forty-three, forty-four..."
Lisbeth, the seven-year-old Hispanic girl I tutor, narrowed her eyes as she thought hard about how to say the character "5" in English. Her little nose crinkled in frustration.
I was struck by the determination Lisbeth had to persevere through her homework, even though she knew very little English. I wondered what it was like for her in school. I imagined her sitting in class while her teacher and all of her classmates freely spoke English. Did she have any friends besides her brothers and sister? Was she lonely?
Snack time. Another youth leader brought a tray of animal crackers and fruit snacks. The younger Hispanic kids eagerly devoured their food, but the oldest stuffed his into his pockets. "Puedo tener mas, por favor?" he asked. At my approval, he took the leftovers and stowed them away. His shorts started sagging and I helped him adjust his belt so he could transport them home.
While the group of kids left the classroom to listen to a Bible story (none of which the Hispanic children could understand), Lisbeth and I continued with her homework sheet ("Tengo que traerle a escuela manana." [I have to bring it to school tomorrow] she said). I overheard one of the leaders from the main foyer talking about how Jesus forgives sin. If Lisbeth could even understand this, would it really be pertinent to her?
Lately, I've been contemplating the idea of "good news." I think that we evangelicals primarily think of "good news" in terms of Jesus coming to forgive sins. While this certainly is good news, I'm not entirely sure that this completely encompasses what is meant by "good news." I'm not even sure if this is what Jesus meant by "good news."
I love the passage in Luke 4 where Jesus goes to the synagogue and chooses a scroll that contains Second Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor [Jubilee].
Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
- Luke 4:18-19, 21; c.f. Isaiah 61:1-2 ff.
Luke uses this passage as a "thesis statement" for the rest of his Gospel. This is strategically placed at the beginning of his account to illustrate Jesus' main interests. And yet, I don’t think that this is a main interest of Western Christianity today. Whenever we find people talking about such things, we accuse them of dabbling in liberation theology. I understand the dangers of liberation theology, but I’m not ready to dismiss it in its entirety. Maybe they’re on to something that we're missing.
The proclamation of release from the bondage of sin may be “good news” for the person who’s struggling with habitual sin, but how is it “good news” for Lisbeth when her family is starving? In addition to her forgiveness of sin, Lisbeth needs to know that God wants to provide for her and her brothers and sister. She needs to know that God speaks her language. She needs to know that God hears her and her mother’s cries for help when everyone else gives a deaf ear and forces them on the fringes of society.
I'm convinced that Jesus' Gospel can be contextualized and translated into each person's/community's situation.
And that’s good news.
13 September 2011
It got me to thinking: Do I really know what any of these key words mean?
I think that we use these words very carelessly today in Christendom. Public prayers, for example, are filled with them. "Dear Heavenly Father, thank you so much for your grace and your peace and your love... life, hope, faith, truth, joy, goodness... Amen." And then we utter "amen" in agreement without even realizing what they just said. What does that even mean? This is nothing short of the Christianize gibberish I griped about in this post a few weeks ago.
It's almost like our theology surrounding all of these words involves stuffing them all into a blender, pureeing them, and then pouring it back out for consumption.
As I continue to study John's Gospel, I'm looking forward to discovering what all these words mean. They had intrinsic theological significance to the author and recipients back then, and I think they have significance to the faith community now.
08 September 2011
One of the little boys wasn't very impressed. He shrugged indifferently and said, "Oh, this is a normal story."
I think he meant that this was along the lines of a typical story he heard at church. But, I think he unintentionally made a profound point.
This is a normal story -- for Jesus.
I'm so thankful that the God I serve does these types of things all time. He continues to heal people, calls them from their lives of sin, and urges them to follow him.
Perhaps we need to rethink "normalcy."
07 September 2011
Bart Ehrman has been a loud voice in New Testament study as of late. His recent book, Misquoting Jesus, claims that scribes actually changed the Bible so that it adhered to their own personal beliefs. People read Ehrman and think that he's the only voice on the issue, when in reality even secular scholars don't like him because of his poor scholarship. How did this man get such a loud microphone? I would argue that it's because he's voicing what our own culture is thinking. We're apprehensive about metanarratives and thus accept the other "marginalized," drowned-out voices from the Pseudepigrapha (books that were not accepted into the Biblical canon). Ehrman is voicing what we want to hear so we listen and accept it.
I would argue, however, that Ehrman does the same thing that he claims the New Testament does - he filters his scholarship through only one perspective. Not only this, but he adheres to the same kind of Biblical literalism he critiques.
Biblical literalism, both on the secular and religious sides, is possibly one of the most dangerous thoughts affecting Christianity today.
The interesting thing about Ehrman is that he began as a very rigid Biblical literalist. He attended Moody and then Wheaton, two schools that push the absolute inerrancy issue. It wasn't until he went to Princeton and came across a textual error in Mark that things went further downhill. He decided that, if the Bible is absolutely and completely inerrant, it cannot be true because he just found an error. Biblical literalism is always all or nothing.
It's really poor scholarship on his part to conclude this when there is such strong textual support for the NT. Here's why:
1. Spelling errors account for three-fourths of the errors. An error, yes, but not problematic.
2. Other errors include variance among manuscripts of synonyms and pronouns.
3. The only errors that are actually meaningful and vital account for 1%. Even then, they don't change our theology too much. For instance, a large portion of this 1% is the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Scholars are sure that this is not original. Without it, do we still know that Jesus is forgiving? Yes. It does not alter our picture of Jesus at all.
Ehrman is wasting his time on these.
The real issue is when we read the Bible and find literary inconsistencies. Christians plug their ears and close their minds, claiming that they must both be true and thus committing logical suicide. Secularists critically point them out and gather them up as further proof that the Bible is not to be trusted.
Like I said before, Biblical literalism on both sides is dangerous.
These two parties are completely missing the point. Literalism is a very modern phenomena that surfaced during the Enlightenment period. The creation story, for instance, was predominantly interpreted figuratively up until the Enlightenment. Augustine was a large proponent of interpreting Genesis 1-2 figuratively. Prior to the Scopes trial, Christians even accepted a figurative rendition of the gap theory so that the Bible could be consistent with scientific, evolutionary findings.
The Bible is a PRE-modern book. Let's read it as such. Let's be faithful to its historical setting. Let's be faithful to its ancient literary style.
We don't have to default to an "all or nothing" theology. God can still be the inspiration behind and imperfect, error-filled book. God can inspire fallible human writers and influence the theology behind their limited, human words.
God is bigger than errors... And his story about his interactions with humankind can still be treated as a beautiful, God-inspired text even if it contains some post-Enlightenment errors.
02 September 2011
Occasionally, however, I noticed that the translations weren't always verbatim. An English speaker would say something that maybe (unintentionally) sounded a bit arrogant. Sometimes they would say something ambiguous or inconclusive. When this happened, the interpreter would make changes to the message in Spanish. He made the person sound better and communicated the person's intentions clearer. These translators were skilled with choosing Spanish words and phrases that did a better job at transmitting meaning to the recipients than their English counterparts did.
Now that I know enough Spanish to be dangerous, I find myself doing the same thing while translating. Although I know what the English speakers are saying, if I translate it literally into Spanish it won't make too much sense. I've learned to craft together Spanish words.
Sometimes, I feel like this is what my prayer life is like. I'm learning to think differently about prayer. I'm learning to understand it as encompassing more than just sitting still and mentally talking to God for a duration of time. There are sometimes, though, when I do verbally pray, that I feel at a lost as to what to say. I feel things that can't be conveyed into words. When I do use words, it seems like they're generic and ambiguous. I feel like I'm just talking gibberish (or, even better, just talking "Sunday School talk"... which is... gibberish).
It's during these times that I'm reminded that God's Spirit is praying with me.
"[...] The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will." - Romans 8:26-27I think I know what I may need, but God knows me better than I know myself. His Spirit translates my words so that convey meaning better than even I can articulate. God knows my heart, my desires, my fears, my doubts, my goals, and my frustrations.
I'm so thankful that God not only "speaks" my language but also translates it so that it contains deeper significance than I can clearly articulate.
30 August 2011
More and more, however, I'm becoming convinced that this kind of "freedom" really isn't free at all.
I think that this whole idea of "keeping my options open" is really attractive to my prevalent postmodern world because it gives the illusion of freedom. It makes me feel like I'm in control. I don't have to commit to something in case it disappoints me. Not only is this seen in careers, but it's seen in religious beliefs. I'll choose the aspects of a religion that appeals to me, but I won't commit because of the responsibility that will ensue. Plus, I might be let down by the church.
Several of my friends had a very strong sense of direction in life in college but now are "keeping their options open." They reason that they can really do ministry anywhere, so why does it matter if they devote themselves to a specific ministry? While I certainly do agree that we've separated the secular from the spiritual too much and ministry can, in fact, be done anywhere, I think that this thinking is flawed.
Is doing God's work "anywhere" the best use of our limited time here on this earth? Wouldn't it be better to be whole-heartedly committed to "something" instead of "anything?" Wouldn't it be better to discover "something" that uses your talents, passions, and interests and REALLY matters than to listlessly float around amongst "anything?"
Seek first the kingdom. Be committed to God's kingdom. That brings freedom.
06 July 2011
Lately, however, I feel like I don't know who I am anymore. I sense that many characteristics about myself have changed. I still think of myself and describe myself in terms of who I used to be, but I can't help but to wonder if that person is still me.
I remember taking the Myers-Brigg test in junior high and coming up with the rare personality combination of INFP (often called the "healer"). I thought that this suited me quite well. Four years later I retook the test and came out with a different combination: INTJ (the "mastermind"). I remember being a bit devastated that my personality had changed. Were the first results the "real me," or were these new results the "real me?"
Looking back, I can see how much life's circumstances had in many ways helped alter my personality. I can't help but to wonder if something similar is happening in me now.
Who is the real me? How can I know? Which scares me more: the fact that my personality has changed again or that it can (and probably will) change again in the future?
And then I can't help but to wonder who "I" am a priori. I frequently think of myself in terms of my personality. But if that can change, what is the true essence of myself? Is there a part of me that is unchanging? What is the part that makes me, well, me?
Do I miss who I used to be?
So many thoughts running through my head, and they all seem to come when I'm lying in bed trying to sleep. No matter how long I analyze and brew over the issue, I don't feel like I'm any closer to understanding the "new me."
02 June 2011
17 April 2011
While this statement is true, it is also misleading. It leads us to believe that love is God's primary character quality. We equate the two things together.
If God's primary essence was love, then loving sinful human beings is something that just comes natural to him. He would only be doing what is his nature to do. It would not really be a free decision.
Instead of love, holiness is God's primary essence. God is set apart from sin to the point that he cannot have any contact with it, or the creatures that are infected with it. By loving us, God does not do what is his nature to do. He commits a profound act of love by inviting us to have a relationship with him. Loving us was not something that God had to do in accordance with his natural inclination. Loving us is an act of his free volition.
This is exactly what the Greek word "agape" means. Out of all the words for love that John could have chosen (there are several in Greek), John chose the one that signified a deliberate act of affection between unequal social groups. Agape in its truest sense is used when a person belonging to a higher class "stooped" to love someone below their class. Agape destroys social, physical, and spiritual boundaries.
In spite of our sinfulness, God chooses to "agape" us. He reaches down from his state of holiness in order to show his love to those who are unholy.
The simple sentence "God is love" has more theological significance than a bumper sticker can encompass. And yet, I am reminded of it every time I ponder the message on my little ring.
Never underestimate the significance of this three-word sentence.
10 March 2011
In my undergraduate work in Biblical studies, I could exegete a passage and explain to you its grammatical construction in Hebrew. I thought that I already knew how to read Scripture... But in many ways I was doing violence to it.
I am still recovering from reading the Bible in this manner. Although exegesis certainly has its place, it can sometimes strip Scripture of its living, breathing qualities and reduce it to a set of impersonal, systematized ideas to be extrapolated.
I am (re)learning to read Scripture.
Here are some important things I've been (re)learning:
1. I am learning to read Scripture while listening to the Holy Spirit, who inspired and continues to inspire it. This involves engaging my intellect/reason, but not completely depending on it.
2. I am learning to read Scripture as God's revelation of His self to me, especially through Jesus Christ. I want to know the mind of Christ, not a collection of stories and principles.
3. I am learning to read Scripture in the hope of seeking my Father's Kingdom and righteousness here on this earth as it is in Heaven. It is not a utilitarian handbook for making my life "work."
4. I am learning to read Scripture with the intent of becoming a trained actor in God's Story. I read to become immersed in the text. Less can be more, slower can be better. Although it is a great practice, I am not trying to "get through" the Bible and finish it in a year.
5. I am learning to read Scripture for obedience, not for mastery and expertise.
6. I am learning to read Scripture as a response to God's grace and the means by which I can nourish a grace-filled community. I do not read so I can create a shame-oriented, legalistic demeanor.
7. I am learning to read Scripture as an act of love for both God and others.
8. I am learning to read Scripture as a text that is as much alive as at it was its time of writing. It is not the dead words of a dead God.
Who you like to join me in this (re)learning process?
"O begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first will afterwards be pleasant. It is for your life; there is no other way [...] Do justice to your soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer."
-John Wesley, 1760
28 February 2011
What's in a name? A name is what gives someone an identity. To strip a name away from someone would be to strip them of their personhood. Perhaps this is why we become offended when someone forgets our name, particularly if they have spent a good deal of time conversing with us. Even if we have talked to them about some very personal issues, they surely do not know us because they can't recall our name!
When we think about it philosophically we realize that a name does not primarily exist for our own benefit. I know who I am. My name exists so that you can know me. It creates a relationship between two persons.
We should be amazed, then, when God gave himself a personal name: Yahweh (Hebrew letters - YHWH). Here is this Being who metaphysically can exist by himself but instead chooses to exist as a being-in-relationship. He did not give himself a name for his own benefit. This transcendent Being gave himself an identity so that humanity could know him.
This is a beautiful paradox - the God who cannot be named chooses to be known by a name. He puts himself at the mercy of human language so that we can enter into relationship with him.
What's in a name? Everything.
24 February 2011
Let me first say that I think that a theological understanding of the recent Jasmine Revolution has little to do with dictatorship vs. democracy. Functioning out of my subjective, biased American experience, I would have to say that out of these two options I am in favor of democracy. The deeper issue of this problem, however, is deeper than governmental identity. These people who are crying out in retaliation are longing for something that not even democracy in all its "glory" can deliver.
It is apparent early on in the Old Testament that God takes pain very seriously. From the very beginning God has heard the cries of the afflicted. When Cain murders Abel, his blood is said to have cried out to God from the grave (Gen. 4:10). He hears when the Israelites are in bondage in Egypt and mourns over their oppression. His sensitivity is not limited to the Israelites, either; in the prophetic books God frequently accuses the Israelites of doing the very same things to other nations that Egypt did to them.
According to OT scholar Walter Breuggemann, grieving is a strong critique against injustices. When we grieve, we are emphatically saying that something is not the way it should be. We long for a sense of justice that no governmental structure can give us.
The problem, then, is not that people are being denied democracy but that they are being denied the ability to express their grievances. The oppressed and marginalized are being silenced. If God takes the cries of the afflicted seriously, imagine how seriously he takes it when those very cries are being stifled.
The regimes of the day are right in thinking that their very structures are being challenged when marginalized people cry out. Such a critique is the beginning of the dismantling process. Whether dictatorship or democracy, they want to keep their totalitarian hold and will try to convince people that the world is as it should be. As I have already written, the issue is not so much about the choice between government systems.
This now brings us to the last book of the Bible. Here, the early Christians cry out because they are being persecuted and they resist to the point of death (Rev. 12:11). They do not inflict violence but overcome their situation by the shedding of their own blood. Even the Lamb is not marked by the blood of his opponents but by his own blood (Rev. 5:6-10). In their mourning, they paint a picture of reality that is completely contrary to their own. They seek and articulate with symbols an already/not quite yet Regime that will deliver them from injustice. The Roman Empire could not offer this hope. Neither could the "Christian" Constantine Empire nor a "Christian" democratic republic years later.
During these revolutions, may we grieve and pray for a different reality that neither dictatorship nor democracy can promise. May we articulate in words and symbol an imagination that is quite unlike anything the world has ever seen. It is not a question of choosing between reality and imagination; rather, it is a question of choosing which imagination we will choose to perceive.
02 February 2011
It is just so relaxing being able to think things through until my thoughts slowly turn into little blurps of images, popping in and then popping out just as quickly. When I run, I don't have to analyze any of my thoughts, but can just let them freely come and go.
I have been running a lot lately. For what reason, I am not entirely sure.
26 January 2011
When I first met Danny, he said, "Preacher, you need to know that I'm an atheist. I don't believe the Bible. I don't like organized religion. And I can't stand self-righteous, judgmental Christians."
I liked him right away!
In spite of Danny's avowed atheism and my devout Christian beliefs, we became close friends. Over the next year Danny and I engaged in numerous conversations about faith. During that time Danny softened his stance on atheism. One day he announced with a laugh, "I've decided to upgrade from an atheist to an agnostic." Several months later Danny said, "I've had an epiphany. I realize that I don't reject Christianity. Instead, I reject the way that intolerant Christians package Christianity." A few weeks after that conversation, Danny said, "Martin, you've just about convinced me on this religion stuff. So I want to know--what's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?"
"What's the least I can believe and still be a Christian?" What a great question! Danny's provocative question prompted me to write a new book, using his question as the title. Part one of the book presents 10 things Christians don't need to believe. In short, Christians don't need to believe in closed-minded faith. For example, Christians don't need to believe that:
• God causes cancer, car wrecks and other catastrophes
• Good Christians don't doubt
• True Christians can't believe in evolution
• Woman can't be preachers and must submit to men
• God cares about saving souls but not saving trees
• Bad people will be "left behind" and then fry in hell
• Jews won't make it to heaven
• Everything in the Bible should be taken literally
• God loves straight people but not gay people
• It's OK for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious
On the other hand, there are things Christians do need to believe, which is the focus of part two of my book. They need to believe in Jesus -- his life, teachings, example, death and resurrection. A great benefit of these beliefs is that they provide promising answers to life's most profound questions including:
• Who is Jesus?Like Danny, many people in the 21st century hunger for an open-minded expression of Christian faith. That's especially true for young people. For example, in a recent episode of the popular television show Glee, several high school students explain why they are turned off by religion. From their perspective, the church is down on gays, women and science. When you add to that the arrogant and judgmental attitudes found in many religious-right churches, it's easy to see why people are repelled by religion. If the only faith options are fundamentalism or no religion, many people will opt for no religion. Thankfully, a better alternative exists -- vibrant, open-minded, grace-filled, gender-equal, life-giving, centrist, moderate/mainline faith. Promoting that kind of faith is my greatest passion in ministry.
• What matters most?
• Am I accepted?
• Where is God?
• What brings fulfillment?
• What about suffering?
• Is there hope?
• Is the church still relevant?
• Who is the Holy Spirit?
• What is God's dream for the world?
11 January 2011
One man I talked to told me about his job and how it at least "paid the bills." Just minutes later, I talked to another man about his job. His disposition toward his work was completely different from the first. His entire demeanor changed as he excitedly told me about all that God was doing through position. His passion was contagious. He had a sense of urgency for doing God's kingdom work.
Two men. Two jobs. Two completely different outlooks on them.
One man viewed his job as a necessity that provided money to live. The other viewed his job as an important instrument of God's kingdom.
I think that our country heavily stresses the "American dream" where we successfully build our dream career and do what we want for a living. And end up really rich in the process. When we achieve less than this we are "just paying the bills."
Both of these perspectives are inconsistent with Jesus' view. "Seek first God's kingdom," he says, and all your basic needs will be met (Matt. 6:33).
God's kingdom comes before my wants.
I feel like I am very much at a major crossroad in my life. There are several different career paths I could take, many of which are exciting to me. But I am realizing that I cannot choose what I want to do and then subsequently make it fit into God's kingdom as an afterthought. Sure, God could use and redeem that vocational choice, but He doesn't say to seek His kingdom second.
Everything I do must be centered on the idea of welcoming God's kingdom into my life and the world around me. God's kingdom is too urgent for me to satisfy my own desires.
God's kingdom come, God's will be done, in my vocation as it is in heaven.
01 January 2011
----------------------------------------------------When people think about "antichrist" they typically add a definite article to it and correspond it with end times, catastrophic events, and Nicholae from the Left Behind series. The problem with this association is that it is completely unbiblical. Nowhere in Revelation is the term "antichrist" even used, much less described in our present day's expectations. In fact, the only place where "antichrist" is used is in I John. The description of an antichrist is alarming. Not only can there be more than one antichrist, but you and I can possess such an office.
I John 2:18John is certainly not foreseeing an incarnation of Satan in this passage. Here's John, 2000 years ago, writing that an antichrist is coming and that there are already many antichrists present.
Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
John continues to describe just who an antichrist is:
I John 2:22This is a pretty broad definition. An antichrist, then, is anyone who denies that Jesus is the Messiah. This may be an explicit or implicit denial. Some people verbally disbelieve in Jesus; others implicitly disbelieve Christ by their actions.
Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist - he denies the Father and the Son.
Each one of us possesses the possibility of being either for or against Christ. We can be like Peter, who opposed Jesus' plan to suffer and die and was commanded to "get behind" Jesus (Matt. 16:21-23). Or we can be full supporters of Christ's kingdom plan and "get behind" its implications for our lives.
The choice is ours. We must make a decision, for there is no middle ground. Either we accept Christ's message and plan for humankind entirely or we "get in front of" Christ and assume that our plans are better than his. May this New Year challenge you to reevaluate your lifestyle and surrender all of it to the control of Jesus. By aligning ourselves under the direction of God's kingdom we can be for Christ instead of anti-Christ.