Digital Disciple Preview: Virtual People (part 2 of 3)

Digital Disciple will be on the physical bookstore shelf and the virtual website shelf on May 1. You can pre-order it here. Here’s the second part of a three part preview that can also be found on my Facebook page and on Episcopal

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As I view the intersections between connection and isolation, Tech culture and following Jesus, you should know that I make my observations from the perspective of a member of the first generation that has never known a world without the Internet. I’m a Millennial, one of the vanguard of the generation whose first members were born in 1982. As one of the eldest of the Millennials, I remember artifacts such as Prodigy and CompuServe, which lost the evolutionary battle to AOL. I remember when Napster was new and innovative and not at all threatening to the music industry. I remember when e-mail caught the attention of spellcheck.

But I don’t remember a time before http and www were more than just letters. I don’t remember my father owning a computer without a port for a phone cord. Ask younger members of the generation, and they won’t even realize that computers came with phone ports rather than Ethernet ones. My first cell phone was for emergencies only because it had a paltry fifteen minutes a month. (Don’t tell my dad, but most of my emergencies were of the pizza-ordering variety.) Younger Millennials have had cell phones since they were in elementary school. But from the eldest of us who remember the cretaceous period of dial-up to the youngest who were born with Bluetooth implants, we Millennials are dependent on the Tech, on all the gadgets and machines and Series of Tubes that connect us one to another and each to the world.

It's only a short leap from walking around with your bluetooth in your ear all day to the Borg. But they're still in the Delta quadrant, so we're safe for a couple hundred more years, right?

Of course, Millennials aren’t the only ones affected by the rise of the Internet and associated Tech. GenXers, Boomers, and computer-savvy older people like my grandmother feel the strong current of the Internet pulling them online just as much. As a Millennial, I have felt this current pulling me since I could reach the keyboard. As a follower of Christ, I feel God moving in both my virtual and my real lives. Knowing that these dual influences are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible gives rise to a series of questions.

How do the Tech’s simultaneous forces of connection and isolation affect our walks with Christ? How does living in a virtual world influence living in both the physical and the spiritual ones? How do we maintain the body of Christ when the physical bodies we see and touch in church expand to include the virtual bodies we inhabit online? What place does prayer have in our instantaneous, Tech-driven world? Where do we keep our knowledge of God when our preferred method of storing information has shifted to the external? How do we resist isolation while remaining plugged into the Series of Tubes?

Now, I can speak only from my own experience. But I know that we humans are ineffective at arriving at the truth on our own, so I hope and pray that you will interact with my experience to delve more deeply into the truth revealed in Jesus Christ. Each of us has a call from God, each a ministry. Within each of the questions above, we find this fundamental one: How do we continue in the tradition of the personal nature of the ministry of Jesus in lives that are increasingly siphoned off into remote, disembodied, virtual space? I invite you to explore this question with me.

But first, you might be wondering why you should take what I say seriously. Who am I to write this book? Well, I claim neither special revelation from the Almighty nor a mandate from my generation. I’m just another disciple of Jesus Christ who has a few words to share with you. I endeavor to follow Christ wherever he leads me, but increasingly I find myself walking along the data streams and fiber-optic paths of the virtual world. Is it possible that Jesus might find me and I might find him on those virtual paths? Is it possible that God can use the Tech to create better followers of Jesus Christ? I am convinced that the answer is a resounding yes, but a yes stamped with a necessary warning label. Our Tech-driven world is changing rapidly, and we are changing with it. Unlike the great cloud of Christian witnesses that has preceded us, we’re not simply earthbound, pavement-pounding disciples of Jesus Christ. The Tech has added a new dimension to our lives; we are physical, emotional, spiritual, and now virtual people. But I believe that God continues to move through every facet of our existence, and that makes us new kinds of followers. We are digital disciples.

The garden and the wasteland

(Sermon for January 3, 2010 || Christmas 2, RCL || Luke 2:41-52)

They say that every therapist should be in therapy. Likewise, every priest should participate in spiritual direction. Without trained professionals helping us priests notice God’s movement in our lives, one of two things happens. We either forget to rely on God, thus emptying ourselves of all nourishment even though a feast is perpetually spread before us. Or we decide we don’t need to rely on God, because we are doing just fine on our own (thank you very much!) and the same starvation results. We priests are a rather thick bunch, usually quite stubborn when faced with the Almighty, because the Creator-of-All-That-Is rarely seems to fit the predictions of our seminary studies.

When I was in seminary, my spiritual director diagnosed my particular case as a combination of failing to notice God’s presence and deciding I didn’t need God anyway. I’m glad I could offer her such a potent mixture of blindness and stupidity. Needless to say, our sessions were never boring. Over our two years together, she taught me many things, but one stands above the rest. You can basically separate the events of your life into two categories, she said. There are moments of consolation, and there are moments of desolation. Both will happen and ignoring one will make the other that much harder to define. In this morning’s Gospel, Mary runs the gamut from desolation when she loses Jesus to consolation when she finds him again. Then she treasures “all these things in her heart” because she knows that the emptiness of desolation and the joy of consolation combine to form the trajectory of her life.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Usually, people want the bad news first, so we’ll begin with the emptiness of desolation. Desolation is the nuclear winter of the soul. Desolation makes the soul a wasteland – arid, parched, rendered uninhabitable by events in the life of the very person who must inhabit the internal desert.

Sometimes, we bring desolation on ourselves: a man cheats on his wife, and she doesn’t even catch him. He expects to feel the thrill of adventure, of subterfuge. Instead, he feels the pain of a broken promise. He doesn’t realize he is a moral person until he fails to live up to his own unexamined values. And his failure eats away at his soul. Sometimes, external events bring desolation upon us: the pregnancy has been difficult, but the doctors have managed to stay positive. If she can hold on just a few more weeks…but the contractions start, and she delivers a tiny life. The infant’s underdeveloped lungs struggle for breath. He lives for four days, and her soul dies with him. Sometimes, desolation happens not in these large events but in the accumulation of small frustrations and disappointments. They hired the other guy. The repair cost more than the estimate. Another D-minus. Chicken for dinner – again. Each frustration erodes the soil of the soul, nutrients leach out, and eventually only the wasteland remains.

In these times of desolation, we do not look for the presence of God because we think God can’t possibly be there. We abandon ourselves to despair, so we expect that God has abandoned us too. We may even stop believing in God, while paradoxically blaming God for our situations. When we are desolate, we don’t live: we merely subsist. And we fail to realize that our very ability to survive through the torment of despair is a manifestation of God’s awesome power and love.

While our desolation happens when we think God is gone, Mary’s desolate moment happens when she literally loses Jesus. The family has been attending the festival of the Passover in Jerusalem. They start their journey back to Nazareth, and Jesus is not with them. But they’re not worried because the caravan is peopled with family and friends; surely, he’s wandered off to chat with some favorite uncle. A day out, Mary and Joseph realize Jesus is missing. They rush back to Jerusalem, frightened, anxious. They search for three frantic days. As someone who has only experienced the combination of harsh words and fervent embraces that accompany a parent finding a lost child, I can only imagine the desolation that those three days brought to Mary’s soul.

On the third day, Mary’s search brings her to the temple. And there she finds Jesus, safe and sound and unaware of the years his absence has shaved off his mother’s life. Desolation gives way to the warmth, the electricity of consolation. What was lost, Mary now has found. They travel to Nazareth without incident, and Luke assures us that Jesus is obedient to his parents.

(c) Wizards of the Coast

Whereas desolation makes the soul a wasteland, consolation makes the soul a garden in full bloom. In consolation, the roots of our souls grow deep in the rich soil of God’s presence. We are aware of the persistent activity of creation, and we revel in the joys that life has to offer.

Sometimes, our determination brings consolation to us: a young girl is told she’ll never become a concert pianist. Her hands are too small, her technique mediocre, pedestrian. But she practices and practices and practices. Her joy is in the vibration of hammer on string buzzing up through her fingertips, in the notes transferred from black dots and squiggles to tones of weight and beauty. She may never play at Carnegie Hall, but the music is inside her soul. Sometimes, as with desolation, external events bring consolation to us: the city-dweller finds himself in rural woodland at night. The sky is clear, the moon a sliver. He lies on his back and gazes up at the stars. He didn’t know there were so many. The subtle band of the Milky Way brings shape to the clutter. The innumerable points of light in the darkness bring light to his soul. More often than not, consolation happens when we gather together all of the small blessings in our lives. A good night’s sleep leads to energy and cheerfulness. An unexpected phone call comes from an old friend. The house is warm. Chicken for dinner again! Each blessing enriches the soil, in which our souls thrive, and our gardens bloom with unrestrained life.

In these times of consolation, we notice God filling us to overflowing. We cannot possibly hold any more grace, so it spills from us, hopefully landing on those around us. Our joy prompts us to invite others to gather up their blessings and notice God’s presence in their lives. We form communities to share our joy, and these communities help sustain those who inevitably fall into periods of desolation.

You see, desolation and consolation are the extremes of life – the subsistence and the abundance. Most of the time, we exist somewhere along the spectrum between the two. Luke tells us that Mary treasures “all these things in her heart” – both the empty time of desolation when Jesus was lost and the joyful time of consolation when she found him again. Mary takes both categories into her heart and ponders them. Her life, like all our lives, brings together experiences both of desolation and consolation. As faithful people of God, we try with God’s help to lead lives that trend toward consolation on the spectrum.

As we begin a new year and a new decade, I invite you to take stock of where you fall on the spectrum between desolation and consolation. If your trajectory is moving toward consolation, rejoice, and continue to gather your small blessings and keep a weather eye out for God’s presence in your life. If your trajectory is moving toward desolation, I pray that God grants you the courage to turn around. You may still be stuck in the wasteland, but you will be facing the right direction – out of the desert and toward the garden.

Finally, may God grant you the grace to survive when you are desolate, to thrive when you are overflowing, and to treasure all these things in your hearts.

Kairos in an instantaneous world

Remember how Christmas Eve was always the longest day of the year? Technically, it is one of the shortest, but it felt so long. I remember planning a full day’s worth of activities (mostly of the building-with-Legos variety) just so the day would go by faster. Now, the clock on the wall had no idea it was Christmas Eve. The minutes ticked by as they normally do. But the anticipation of Christmas morning made me think the clock was conspiring against me.

watchIn Greek, there are two major words for time. The first is chronos, which tends to be the word used for the time of day, or clock time. The second is a special word. Kairos is the kind of time that starts an old Disney fairy tale movie, “Once upon a time.” This special sort of time is Christmas Eve time, expectant time, the kind of time in which promises exist. It is time mixed somehow with eternity, which still slips away but in no predictable way—time that will come when it needs to.

Put another way, chronos is soccer game time, which ticks away even when the ball is out of bounds or a player is injured. The referees add extra time to make up for that lost during the game, but it always continues to tick. Kairos, on the other hand, is baseball game time. There is no limit to how long a baseball game can last: innings take as long as they need to. Kairos is the kind of time the song from Rent talks about—it is measured in cups of coffee and report cards and sunsets and love.

When Jesus says to his brothers, “My time has not yet come,” he uses this special word. Within the Gospel, Jesus lives in kairos, which is understandable considering where he comes from. In my walk with Jesus, I find I have trouble living in this kind of time. Contemporary society jackhammers into me over and over again the supposed benefits of an instantaneous world. And there are definitely real benefits, don’t get me wrong. But 0.14 second Google searches and overnight FedEx and cholesterol reducing pills can blind me to the ultimate reality that most good things are worth waiting for, are worth working for, are worth anticipating.

Jesus’ statement, “My time has not yet come,” reminds me constantly that Jesus doesn’t work on my timetable. He doesn’t clock in and out, with hours well documented on a punch card. He doesn’t respond to my prayers like Google does to my searches. But he does call me to slow down and experience the kind of time measured by the sun’s slow movement across the sky. He does ask me to anticipate his movement in my life with all the fervor of my childhood Christmas Eves. And he does offer me the faith to know that all prayers are answered one way or another.

If you are like me and need help keeping in touch with kairos in our instantaneous world, then try this. Sit down and take several deep breaths. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward. Keep breathing slowly, deeply. Without using your hand, see if you can feel your heart beating against your chest. Feel it? Dull squeezes to the left of your sternum. Small thumps against your ribcage. TUB-thp, TUB-thp, TUB-thp. This is where the rhythm of Jesus’ time resides in us. This is kairos.

The Sweet Six Billion

(Sermon for March 22, 2009 || Lent 4, Year B, RCL || John 3:14-21)

Last week, the annual rite of spring commenced. Sixty-four college basketball teams began competing for the NCAA title. My apologies for bringing this up. I wrote this introduction before Dayton upset our own West Virginia Mountaineers. The field has been cut in half, and WVU is, unfortunately, in the wrong half. Soon, the field will be halved again, and there will be sufficiently few teams left for SportsCenter to analyze them as the “Sweet Sixteen”: only one quarter of the teams will have survived. Presumably, this fact makes them “sweet.” After this third round of games, the sportscasters will chatter on about the “Elite Eight.” A mere 12.5 percent of teams will advance to play in this fourth round, making them (sure enough) “elite.” Notice how the sports media doesn’t have a term for the first and second rounds of games; there’s no such thing as the “Snappy Sixty-four” or the “Thrilling Thirty-two.” The field just isn’t small enough to qualify for such exclusive epithets as “sweet” and “elite.”

In our society, we often associate success and value with exclusivity. Only a handful of doctors can perform that neonatal heart procedure. Only a few original 1977 Luke Skywalker action figures exist still in the blister packaging. Only a couple dozen baseball players have accumulated over three thousand hits in their careers. As a culture, we assign value to these exclusive objects and groups. If every baseball player had over three thousand hits, such an achievement would certainly not make one a shoe-in for Cooperstown.

fruitrollupvspuddingcupOf course, our society operates in this way because of Econ 101. From a young age, we are socialized to think in terms of supply and demand. If only one kid in the cafeteria has a strawberry fruit roll-up, the demand for that delicious snack will be high. You might have to trade a week’s worth of pudding cups for that fruit roll-up. The same market forces apply outside of elementary school. If OPEC cuts oil exports, you know what happens to the price.

Sadly, the exclusivity model, on which the doctrine of supply and demand is founded, has infiltrated the Christian religion. Too many Christian groups attempt to define themselves as the exclusive repositories of the faith, as the exclusive holders of the keys to heaven. If you don’t interpret the Bible exactly as they do, then you are excluded. If you disagree about the way worship is conducted, then you are excluded. If you don’t subscribe to the same set of social values, then you are excluded. This exclusion provides for these groups of Christians an illusory feeling of certitude, and, consequently, a “my way or the highway” approach to outsiders.*

Over time, a single severely misinterpreted verse of scripture has developed into the brand for such exclusivist, cliquish Christianity. We heard it this morning in the Gospel. Perhaps, your ears perked up because you recognized the verse from a bumper sticker or the television or the half-forgotten memory of Sunday School. Homemade signs at ballgames give the citation: John 3:16 in big, block letters. “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.”

Cliquish Christianity has so thoroughly branded John 3:16 that the verse rarely appears outside its exclusivist shrink-wrapping.  Here’s one plausible line of reasoning employed to co-opt John 3:16: Supply and demand teaches that for something to be valuable, it must be limited. Eternal life is valuable. Therefore, eternal life is limited. If eternal life is limited, we must figure out who’s got it and who doesn’t. Let’s see: “everyone who believes in him.” Okay, that’s seems clear enough. If you believe in the only Son of God, you may have eternal life.

But cliquish Christianity ignores two major problems with this logic. First, the major premise of the syllogism** (for something to be valuable, it must be limited) is altogether false. One of the wonderful things about God’s love and grace is their utter repudiation of basic economic theory. The counter-economics of the Gospel are well-documented. All the workers in the vineyard receive the same pay no matter how long they labored. The five loaves of bread feed a thousand times their number with twelve baskets to spare. God’s love abounds when it is freely offered, rather than becoming scarce like the bills in your wallet when you give your cash away. Likewise, eternal life cannot be limited. That’s what makes eternal life eternal.

Second, cliquish Christianity mistakes the minutiae of adhering to particular doctrinal positions for belief in the only Son of God. Disagreements about what constitutes the correct method of making someone wet during a baptism or what instruments are approved to be played in church have driven some Christians to deny eternal life to others. Such disagreements are akin to thinking that ketchup, rather than ground beef, makes something a hamburger.*** History and experience have shown that there are many paths to belief in Jesus Christ. The early leaders of the church recognized the need for four accounts of the Gospel to speak to the widest audience possible. In sixteenth century England, two competing groups struggled for doctrinal dominance, but Queen Elizabeth saw value in each position and accepted both into the Book of Common Prayer. As Christianity spread throughout the world, missionaries fused the message of the Gospel with local custom, creating unique expressions of the Christian religion.

But cliquish Christianity disregards both counter-economics and the substitution of particularity for belief. The misinterpretation of John 3:16 has become inviolable, an idol in blister packaging. And this packaging is necessary for cliquish Christians to use the verse as validation for their exclusivism. You see, the shrink-wrapping protects the sixteenth verse from all the ones surrounding it. But scripture has never been intended to be taken a verse at a time. Indeed, judging by the age of the Bible, verse numbers are downright innovative, having debuted in the 1550s.

So, let’s reattach verse 16 and see what happens: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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. 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.”

In this context, we notice the object of God’s love: the “world.” God gave his only Son because God loved the world. God sent the Son into the world to save the world. In just these three sentences, the “world” appears four times. God’s loving gift takes on cosmic proportions and comprehends the whole creation.

God doesn’t give the gift of the Son to an exclusive group of people but to the entire world. The Son is not the exclusive property of those who believe in him. He is not trussed up in the backroom, ready to be ransomed in exchange for compliance to doctrinal particularity.  Rather, those who believe in him are the property of the Son, in whose presence eternal life gushes up like a spring.

God loved the world so much that God gave the only Son to be lifted up on the cross and to die and to rise again and, in so doing, to lift us to the light of eternal life. If this sublime story of sacrifice and salvation were meant only for an exclusive few, then there’s no reason to believe it. But the world is the recipient of God’s loving gift, a gift so extravagant and precious that an exclusive few could never hope to unwrap it completely.

In our fallen society, we measure success and value by exclusivity. But in God’s family, we measure success by our ability to include. We measure value by our generosity and hospitality. We invite others to discover God’s loving gift just as we have discovered him. We welcome everyone to celebrate the joy of an abundant life illumined by the light of God’s Son. We do not play the role of the gatekeeper to God’s house, checking credentials and barring entrance. We do not play the role of the bouncer with the clipboard. Our role is simple and humbling. We go out into this world that God loves so much and we meet our brothers and sisters and we say,  “Look at the gift I received from God, this gift full of love and grace. Come and see. God offers the gift to you, too. Come and see. God gave the gift to the whole world. Come and see.”


* In recent years, to the detriment of the work of God in the world, various members of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church included, have exhibited a variation of these exclusivist tendencies.

** My focus group (read: my mother) advised me to remove this word from the spoken version of the sermon, which I did. But, this is technically the correct word for the context, so I figured I could sneak it back into the written version. A syllogism is an argument that has a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. Here’s an example: “People who use the word ‘syllogism’ in sermons are pretentious goobers. Adam used the word ‘syllogism’ in a sermon. Therefore, Adam is a pretentious goober.”

*** Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo have written about this. Check out their Adventures in Missing the Point

Forty days

Americans are rarely a self-reflective people. We have eyes only for result and effect, caring little for process and cause. We seek to assign blame, caring little for our own culpability. We repeat the mistakes of the past, caring little for the lessons those mistakes teach. Never look back. Never let ‘em see you bleed. Never stop to think or the world will pass you by.

Living in this results-driven world is, at the same time, both exceedingly difficult and quite easy. It’s difficult because true joy, the fuel for any fruitful life, is a scarce commodity. Joy happens during not after, and in a results-oriented society, the during is dismissed as superfluous. 50percentBut this dismissal is why the results-driven life is also quite easy. You crop half of life away. The journey becomes unimportant: only the destination matters. How easy would a test be if you only had to score a 50% to pass?

Self-reflection makes life hard, but it also allows us to recognize that joy abounds, poised to infuse our lives with meaning. Because we are such poor practitioners of self-reflection and because our culture tells us not to take time for such a revealingly honest enterprise, we need a swift kick in the trousers to boot us from the grasping current of the results-driven half-life.

In the Church, this swift-kick-in-the-trousers is called the season of Lent. “Lent” is an old translation of the Latin word quadragesima, which simply means “forty days.” Forty days is a significant period of time in the Bible: Noah, Moses, and Elijah all had forty days of something –flooding, fasting, sitting around with God on the mountaintop. Jesus spent forty days in the desert, during which Satan tempted him. Begun this year on February 25 (on the fast the church names “Ash Wednesday”) Lent continues until the day before Easter. Historically, the season of Lent was the period of time that people used to prepare for baptism, which took place at the Great Vigil of Easter on Easter Eve.

During these forty days that bring us to Easter, we examine our lives and discern how attuned to God’s movement we are. We pray for God to create in us clean hearts and renew right spirits within us, as Psalm 51 says. We rededicate ourselves to following Christ and wonder how last year’s dedication faded away. We slow down and turn our thoughts inward. How have my actions and inactions contributed to the brokenness in the world? To what have I enslaved myself? Where is my joy and freedom? Do I really want to follow Christ?

When we enter this period of self-reflection, when we honestly answer questions such as these, it often becomes apparent just how skin deep and results-oriented we’ve become. The season of Lent helps us see the error in statements such as “It’s only cheating if you get caught” and “The ends justify the means.” Living a full life – not a half-life of results only – means valuing the moral fortitude that counters wanton opportunism and caring about how things are accomplished, not just that they are. Observing Lent means taking a hard look at ourselves and borrowing enough strength from God to be capable of seeing those festering things that we usually ignore. Then we borrow enough faith from God to know that God will help us change and will reawaken within us those faculties of hope and love that have long lay dormant.

I invite you to turn your gaze inward during this season of Lent and discover the true joy that comes from a full life lived in the love of God.

* This post began its life as an article in my local newspaper.

“He had a beard!”*

Have you ever noticed that none of the people who wrote the Gospel ever takes the time to describe what Jesus looked like? In Mark’s account of the Gospel, Jesus comes onstage nine verses in, ready for a dunk in the river. The text says simply: “In those days Jesus came up from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” The next verse could read: Jesus, a strapping fellow, a shade over six feet with a ruddy complexion, a nest of a beard, and dark hazel eyes, was coming up out of the water when he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. The next verse could read like this. But it doesn’t. The Evangelists (one term for the authors of the Gospel) seem singularly uninterested in offering up any details of Jesus’ physical appearance.

What! No Beard??? (A very early image of Jesus from the catacomb at San Callisto)
What! No Beard??? (A very early image of Jesus from the catacomb at San Callisto)

This, of course, has not stopped people throughout history drawing, painting, and sculpting images of Jesus. The earliest paintings we still have around come from ancient catacombs where worship services were held in secret. These pictures usually portrayed Jesus as the good shepherd, and they appear to modern eyes as cartoonish – obviously, the artists were not trying to go for physical accuracy. As the centuries progressed and Christianity became first tolerated, then acceptable, then (in some cases) compulsory, images of Jesus appeared in mosaics, frescoes, statues, illuminated manuscripts, and stained-glass windows. Artists depicted him as a king and a judge (and sometimes still as a shepherd). During the Renaissance, Jesus often wore period costume, making him look more like a gentleman of Verona than a first century Jew. At some point, it became fashionable for Jesus to wear a beard; at another point, a serene, starry-eyed expression.

Enter Warner Sallman, who in 1941 painted arguably the most famous portrait of Jesus ever: amber background fading into brown; Jesus in three-quarter profile shown from the shoulder up; the flowing locks, the beard, the serenity, the multiple light sources. For many people, especially American baby boomers, this is what Jesus looked like. The portrait was so ubiquitous for so long that it almost took on canonical significance, as if it were the authorized image of Jesus agreed upon at the Council of Nicaea. People have been cast to play Jesus in films based on this image – just look at Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Honestly, what self-respecting casting director would hire an actor who couldn’t grow such a nice dark brown beard?

I know this sounds like I have a vendetta against Warner Sallman. I don’t…truly, I don’t. I think his painting is quite nice, though I personally think Jesus looks a bit dull, like he’s waiting for a traffic light to change. My opinion aside, the point is this: we, as a culture, have developed such a clear picture in our minds of how Jesus of Nazareth appeared. This clarity comes from centuries and centuries of images; from all the nauseatingly banal Tiffany stained glass in the windows of our churches; from a single authoritative, iconic portrait painted nearly seventy years ago. But this clarity, this consensus, is completely and utterly baseless. Our “clear picture” of Jesus was created ex nihilo, out of nothing.

More than anything else, aggregate historical imagination has contributed to the development of our enduring image of Jesus of Nazareth. This imagination has fed off of the racial and cultural markers of myriad societies, the political and economic status of the Christian religion during various periods, the value of visual art for disparate sects of Christianity, and the technology, proficiency, and goal of the artist or craftsman.

In one image Jesus may wear pantaloons and a feathered hat; in another, he may wear a jewel-encrusted tunic and crown; in a third, he may wear the ever-popular toga/sash/sandals combination. In the majority of images, there’s a high probability that Jesus “looks like me” – both “me” in the sense of the artist’s race and culture and “me” in the sense that the person writing this is white, male, of Anglo-Saxon heritage, with brown hair, who could probably grow a nice beard if he could get past the “itchy stage.”

Our penchant for recasting Jesus in our own images and for relying on the aggregate historical imagination should give us pause. There’s obviously no way a first century Jew looked like a guy whose ancestors hail from Kent, England. Nor does the simple fact that something is both aggregated and historical infuse it with validity.

I’m not saying that we need to throw away all our pictures of Jesus and smash all our stained glass. I’m far from an iconoclast. What I am saying is that we develop awareness of where we come from, not to discount or disconnect that past, but to integrate it fully into our interpretive arsenal. When we discover that no words in the Gospel ever describe what Jesus looked like, we can begin to ask why our images of him look the way they do. Then we can ask: What else have we taken for granted?


* I take the title for this post from the film Talladega Nights, which has a wonderful scene about a dinner table prayer. That one scene alone gets at what I talked about above. It’s worth the price of admission for the whole movie.

Run home, Jack

(Sermon for January 4, 2009 || Christmas 2, RCL)

In the 1991 movie Hook, the nefarious captain who lends his name to the film abducts Peter Pan’s children and brings them to Neverland. Once there, the pirate attempts to condition Jack and Maggie into thinking that their parents don’t care about them and that they are better off away from home. Maggie resists Hook from the start, but Jack, who is angry at his father for always missing Jack’s baseball games, falls victim to Hook’s indoctrination. To show his feigned appreciation for Jack, Hook organizes a ballgame.  When Jack comes up to bat, it becomes apparent that none of the pirates knows a thing about the sport. Instead of cheering for Jack to hit a home run, the crowd mixes up the words and chants “Run home, Jack! Run home, Jack!” For an instant, Hook’s spell is broken, and Jack remembers who he is and where he belongs.runhomejack

We live in a world of dislocations and disenchantments, and too often we forget where home is. We are constantly on the move from here to there or are stuck in traffic on the way from here to there. We are constantly harvesting the disappointments of a world that makes rash promises and fails to deliver. We are constantly sprinting, speeding, gorging, guzzling – but we rarely stop to catch our breath. We rarely pause to find our bearings. We rarely go home.

Few undeniable truths remain in this world, but one is this: you’ve got to know where you are to figure out where you are going. Look at any map at a rest stop or fire safety plan on the back of a hotel room door, and you will find a dot and the words “You are here.” Your destination is 140 miles up I-81. Your nearest exit in case of emergency is the stairwell at the end of the hall. These maps come in handy when you are trying to find your physical location.

But there are so many other ways to become lost, for which “You are here” stickers are nowhere to be found. You used your credit card to make your mortgage payment last month and now the Visa bill is due. Your new relationship burned fast and hot for a few months and now you are wondering if there’s anything left to fuel the fire. Your job is eroding your will to exist, but there’s nowhere else to work. I doubt none of us has to dig too deeply into his or her own soul to find a similar situation. When we are lost, retracing our steps to home will help us find ourselves again.

But only in the narrowest definition of the word is “home” a physical place. More expansively, home is where we center ourselves. Home refreshes us and reintegrates us. Home propels us to where we are going next by being the one space that assures us of where we are now. Do you remember that old keyboard tutor, Mavis Beacon? She teaches you to type by keeping your fingers on the middle row of keys, the “home keys.” With your fingers on A-S-D-F-J-K-L-semicolon, you always have a reference point for finding the rest of the alphabet. Your left index finger knows to go up for “R” and “T” and right for “G.” You don’t have to look at the keyboard with your fingers centered on the home keys. When we find ourselves “at home,” we allow ourselves the space to breath, find our bearings, and achieve the quiet stillness that nurtures new possibilities.

The people of Israel have been in exile in Assyria and Babylon for a long time – decades stretching into centuries. Their home is their identity, an identity they lost when they were taken by force to their conquerors’ kingdoms. They weep by the rivers and hang up their harps. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in the strange land. But in this morning’s reading, we hear a note of hope from the prophet Jeremiah: “See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth…With consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble…They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion…I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”

The prophet tells of the imminent return of the people to their own lands and homes, where they will reclaim their identity and sing once again on Zion’s height. Today’s psalm would not be out of place on that long journey back to their home: “How dear to me is your dwelling, O Lord of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the Lord.” The psalmist sees the sparrow and swallow making nests and reflects on the happiness of those who dwell in God’s house: “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room.”

The psalmist longs to be in God’s presence. In our world of dislocations and disenchantments, some deep, inexplicable energy drives us to seek this same presence. When we pause long enough to figure out where we are, we open ourselves up for an encounter with the presence of God. This presence constantly encounters us, but we rarely tear ourselves away from our sprinting and guzzling long enough to notice. But when we do, when we accept the God-given gift of stillness in our souls and embrace the encounter with God’s presence, we will find ourselves at home. St. Augustine says, “You have made me for yourself and my heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” We find that rest when we are at home in God’s presence, which refreshes us and creates in us the space to figure out where we are going next.

The wise men in this morning’s Gospel find this presence when they follow the star to Bethlehem. They enter the home of Mary and Joseph and find the Christ child with his mother. In the presence of the infant King, they offer their gifts. Like the wise men, when we notice the signs pointing to an encounter with Christ, we too can find ourselves at home with Jesus. In that shimmering moment of encounter, God gives us the opportunity to discern the gifts we can lay at Christ’s feet. Centered and nourished by God’s presence, we go out, use our gifts, and join in the work of building God’s home here on earth.

So run home, Jack. Run home and find Jesus Christ awaiting you there. Run home to God’s presence and find your rest. Come and sing aloud on the height of Zion. Let your heart and your flesh rejoice in the living God. Encounter that one day in the courts of the Lord that is better than a thousand elsewhere.

Unmuddying the waters (Bible study #9)

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes wimusicmanth “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.

The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.

Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.

Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.

I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.

Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of  “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.

Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.


* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.

** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.

*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!

Once there was a man who found a pearl…

So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).

With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?

I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.

Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:

Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.

So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”

The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”

This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.

Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”

Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”

The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?