Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Theology of Mischief

This is the kind of teaching that got Jesus crucified...

Happy Easter

The Lord is risen!

He is risen, indeed!

Vicit agnus noster, eum sequamur:

Our Lamb has conquered! Let us follow him.


Friday, April 22, 2011

A Good Friday Litany

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
--Mark 16:1-8

Good Friday is a day unlike any other on the Christian calendar. It is perhaps the only holy day for which the proper observance is a recognition of the loss of all hope.

Think about it--Jesus is dead. In the tomb. Executed by the state.

The disciples, who have followed Jesus around for a few years now, are suddenly scattered, and those who remain together are frightened for their lives.

Finito. End of story.

In the earliest manuscripts of Mark, the first gospel written, this really was the end of the story. The final words of Mark, written around the time of the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., are literally, "They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." Who knew that a gospel (think: "good news") could actually end in such darkness? Fear. Separation. Not even a real, official resurrection story. Just death and a suddenly--and mysteriously--empty tomb.

We don't like to observe or commemorate grief. Often, we push it as far from us as we can; when was the last time you heard a true sermon of lament in church? How often does your family get together to have an observance on the anniversary of the death of a loved one?

I know a pastor who hates even the thought of slow, hymnic worship, preferring instead the pop-rock overtones of contemporary worship music. "Worship is a celebration!" he says, "When I go to a worship service, I don't want to feel like I'm at a funeral. Worship isn't a funeral!"

Well, on Good Friday, that's exactly what it is.

It's also about coming to the realization that we're on our own; there comes a time when every child has to leave their parents' home to live their own lives and make their own decisions. That's the reality of life.

And as for the disciples, they don't even have the guidance of the Holy Spirit with them yet. They are utterly alone.

However, the man in the tomb in this story gives the disciples directions, supposedly from Christ himself, to meet Jesus in Galilee. Obviously Jesus trusted them enough to make do on their own for a while and to follow his instructions without him hovering over their every move. Sometimes we fail to recognize that God has given us all the tools we need to be a force for good in the world. He has given us instructions, it's up to us to follow.

But for now, we rest in the quiet shadows of the tomb of our crucified Lord.

This morning, as per tradition in the church where I was raised--and for the last few years, at the Baptist Student Center--some friends of ours will join Alyssa and myself for a small breakfast of home made hot cross buns and coffee, resting and reflecting on the life and death of the man we have all devoted our lives to following. We wish you could join us. However, if you cannot, here for your own meditation is the short litany and prayer we will be reading from. I have also posted two little hymns that I have found to be very meaningful and appropriate. Grace and peace be with you, and may you find the value in giving yourself over fully to grief, even if only one day a year.
A Good Friday Litany
Leader: When the tomb looms large before our eyes, remind us, Lord, who we are:
People: We are the children of the resurrection; the place of death will not hold us.
Leader: We are the painters of rainbows; the shadow of death will not daunt us.
People: We are the breakers of loaves and fishes; the taste of death will not defile us.
Leader: We are the raisers of the dead; the power of death will not defy us.
People: We are the people of the Pentecost; the spirit of death will not destroy us.
All: God is our refuge and our strength. We gather in the power and sure promise of resurrection.

Almighty God, kindle, we pray, in every heart the true love of peace, and guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that justice and peace may increase, until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love. Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer, hear the cry of those in misery and need. In their afflictions show them your mercy, and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

"He Never Said a Mumblin' Word," by The Welcome Wagon

"It is Finished," by Trent Dabbs, Kate York, Leigh Nash, and Kevin Bevil


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Last Temptation of Christ: Jesus before Pilate

[After having Jesus flogged] Pilate entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.
’From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’
...So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.” ’Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’
--John 19:9-12, 16-22
"Behold the man!"
A few years ago, my family spent my college fund and we all went to Europe together. While we were in Lucerne, Switzerland, my parents and I took a trolley up Mount Pilatus, which overlooked the small city and dozens of connected lakes spread out like honeycomb over the landscape. Local folklore says the snowy mountain is home to a dragon. And it's also--according to legend--the final resting place of the ghost of Pontius Pilate.

I feel sorry for Pilate. He was the kind of guy who just kept screwing up. He was, in effect, the Marvin the Martian of Roman governors, his delusions of power and grandeur constantly blowing up in his face. Some scholars believe that he was sent to Judea by Caesar as a kind of "last chance" gig. According to Josephus, Pilate had a hard time keeping the Judeans under his thumb, and eventually lost the prefecture. After that, according to folklore, Pilate spent several years in short prefectures across the Roman Empire, eventually landing at a Roman base in Switzerland. A political failure, he ultimately committed suicide during the reign of Caligula.

I want to be careful not to make him into too much of a comical or tragic character. In reality, he was a prefect for one of the most powerful empires the world has ever known, and in all likelihood was a force for the local Jewish insurrectionists to reckon with. 

Which leads me to why I think Pilate's conversation with Jesus from Martin Scorsese's controversial 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, is so fascinating. The movie itself is one of my favorite films of all time, and this scene is one of my favorite scenes (hello: David Bowie). After watching the clip, there are two things I want to point out:

"What is Truth?"
1) I love Jesus's interpretation of Daniel's prophecy. Rome is the statue, Jesus is the stone. Now, this particular retelling takes the story out of context, but the sentiment is the same. In the Old Testament text, the statue represents political powers of Daniel's time. The lesson that underlies this parable is a subversive one: as tall and impressive and strong as empire might appear, God is ultimately stronger. Even if God comes in the form of a tiny stone. Or a homeless rabbi peasant from the badlands of Galilee. All kingdoms crumble, eventually. To Pilate, Jesus is a threat to the established order, the institution of Rome. Pilate is only concerned with the Jews inasmuch as the fact that he doesn't want to have a riot on his hands. He even points out the fact that he doesn't really care about the accusations of blasphemy against him: "I am not a Jew, am I?" he taunts Jesus in the gospel of John. Pilate's primary concern is for Rome. And in early first century Palestine, violent, zealous messiahs were climbing out of the woodwork like cockroaches by the hundreds in various attempts to overthrow the local Roman rule. These messiahs wanted their nation back. 
...and yet, Jesus was somehow different.

2) Jesus: "All I'm saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing."

Pilate: "Either way, it's dangerous; It's against Rome. It's against the way the world is. Whether loving or killing, it's all the same. It simply doesn't matter how you want to change things--we don't want them changed."

This conversation highlights the very reason every prophet who has ever lived--at least, the good ones, anyway--has been a failure. All of them, with the exception of Jonah, and even he wasn't happy about it. Jeremiah. Amos. Hosea. Just look at their prophecies: "Change your hearts, turn to Yahweh, and you will be saved." But people don't want to change. They didn't then, and we don't want to now. No matter how passionately we plead, no matter how resolved we are in our convictions, people don't listen. Very astute of you, David Bowie. 

In the comments below, feel free to discuss the big changes that you believe need to be made within the Church as a whole in order to carry on the gospel of Jesus. Then, perhaps, reflect upon the notion that you will very likely fail to bring these changes within your own lifetime. How does that make you feel? Is it the actual change God desires of us, or simply the courage to face our own defeat?

God give us strength. 
For the times when we feel like we are screaming to deaf ears from the mountaintops,
give us courage.
For the times when we are alone and crippled with despair, 
give us peace.
O God, in these final days of Holy Week, we pray that you might show us the light of hope among darkness, 
whether the darkness of unrelenting, uncompromising politics,
the darkness of abuse--emotional, physical, mental--
or the darkness of hate or fear or pride or selfishness.
God, we ask your forgiveness, and your restoration.
We ask for truth.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar and the Mount of Olives

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour?Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’
--Mark 14:32-42

Without anyone to really celebrate Holy Week this year with Alyssa and myself, I decided to share a few of my favorite cinematic Jesus moments that just so happen to coincide with the season. This is basically a mixture of my standard Holy Week liturgy and the continuation of a blog series I started a long time ago about my favorite pop culture depictions of Jesus.

In this clip from Norman Jewison's (yes, that's his real name) 1973 version of Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus leaves the sleeping disciples in the garden and treks up the Mount of Olives, soliloquizing to God about his painful circumstances: Caught between the desire to live and the desire to go through with the sacrificial plan, Jesus accuses God of putting him in a situation he didn't ask to be in in the first place. For me, the most poignant moment comes at about 3:54, when Jesus, his mind made up, screams, "All right! I'll die! Just watch me die! See how I die!" followed by a montage of artistic depictions of the execution of Jesus through the centuries. There are very few times that I have gotten through this scene in the film without weeping (unlike The Passion, which grosses me out more than anything, and will not be appearing in this series).

As a side note, has anyone ever noticed the reasons the different gospels give for the sleepiness of the disciples? Mark says that "their eyes were heavy," but Luke's account says that they "had fallen asleep from grief." I remember hearing this story as a kid, thinking, "Boy, those disciples sure were dumb--they couldn't even keep awake for JESUS?" But looking back from the perspective of Luke, I'm not certain that I would be able to keep awake, either.
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Last Supper and Eucharist: What's the deal with that?

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
--Matthew 26:26-30

Last Sunday, the pastor of the church that I work for opened the worship service with the announcement that communion was set out on the altar (which was moved to the side of the sanctuary to make room for the band and the sermon illustration), and that anyone was free over the course of the service to come and partake of the elements, per the "open table" policy of the Wesleyan church. He followed up his announcement by warning, "However, we do ask that you be a believing, baptized Christian, because the Bible says that if you're not, you are taking condemnation into yourself."

And the thing that troubled me the most is that he said this during his welcome. While smiling.

What is it about the Eucharist that is so profoundly confusing? Why are there so many crazy practices out there? This is not the first time I've heard this argument, about "taking condemnation into yourself." The first time was when I was a youth pastor. I was teaching the youth one night about the importance of togetherness, and mentioned the last supper Christ ate with his disciples as an example of how important it was for Jesus to eat with his friends. One of our volunteers, a retired lady, interjected suddenly, "Yes, but you have to be a believer, otherwise you're taking condemnation into yourself."

You know, John Wesley himself viewed communion as a form of prevenient grace, which in a nutshell means that the Eucharist is God's way of saying, "Here, I have this gift for you: take it."

Saying "All are welcome--except for you unbaptized unbelievers, and you know who you are" is exclusive and harmful to the spirit of the last supper. And the language of "taking condemnation into yourself" is both overused and judgmental, especially when Paul's words are taken out of context. These words actually come from Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I come.
--1 Corinthians 11:27-34

So it's taking of the bread and the cup "in an unworthy manner" that brings "judgment" upon us. But what is that unworthy manner? Is it not being holy enough or believing enough to approach the table with Jesus? Let's take a look at just a few verses up from this passage, where Paul actually answers this question:

For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! 
--(vs. 17-22)

Paul is scolding the church--particularly the wealthy folks--for rushing ahead of the poor folks in the supper line! He emphasizes that it is a genuine heart, not particular beliefs or rituals, that make the Lord's supper holy. And when people turn it into a competition to see who can fill their plate and cup with the body and blood of Jesus first, taking advantage of social, political, or economic high-ground, only then are people eating and drinking judgment into themselves.

The table is open. Christ is willing to share his last meal with you. Not just once a month or once a quarter; every single time you sit to share a meal with others, Christ is there, as long as there are genuine hearts and the spirit of hospitality among you.

Open our eyes that they may see the deepest needs of people;
Move our hands that they may feed the hungry;
Touch our hearts that they may bring warmth to the despairing;
Teach us the generosity that welcomes strangers;
Let us share our possessions to clothe the naked;
Give us the care that strengthens the sick;
Make us share in the quest to set the prisoner free.
In sharing our anxieties and our love, our poverty and our prosperity,
we partake of your divine presence, most loving God.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Theory of Community: An Update

"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people."
--Acts, Chapter 2
Not long ago in my Religion and Violence class, we were discussing the concept of paradise, or a "perfect world." One of the students who was presenting suggested that an ideal existence would not be a world in which there was no dissent, but one in which dissent is respected and embraced. Heaven would be rather dull if everyone thought and believed the exact same things.

In theory, this "perfect community" would exist in unity and love, making decisions based upon consensus. When an individual would disagree with the community, that individual would be free to make their disagreement known to the group, not sacrificing his or her values, remaining distinct and apart, but at the same time remaining committed to the end goals of the community.

"This cycle is what is known as the discipline of obedience, or the discipline of stability," our professor, Father Bob, interjected. "It's been practiced in monastic circles for centuries. It's essentially what makes them work as successful faith communities."

I've been thinking about community a lot lately. I mean, even more than usual. About two weeks ago, our plans for Anavah House were abruptly changed. Alyssa and I realized that we would not have the money nor the community support in order to take over and purchase BBRC. Our financial situation has gotten steadily worse over the last couple months, with a majority of our troubles coming from miscommunication with SEMO's student financial services department (but that's another story). Also, with the rising cost of gas, it is been increasingly difficult to afford trips to Kansas City for my seminary classes--about $200 a weekend--every weekend, except for the time I spent in Thailand and Burma--since January. As much as our hearts have been in this, we have learned the valuable lesson that (to modify a familiar cliche) it takes a village to raise a community. Unfortunately, we didn't have much of a village; for now, and perhaps for several years to come, Anavah House is on the back burner.

Our future home in Liberty
However, within a few days of realizing that we weren't going to be able to stay at BBRC, a friend offered us the opportunity to rent his house in Liberty. We'll live within a block or two of several families who are incredibly important to us, namely, Tyler and Jess Tankersley, Mark and Marilyn Buhlig, and eventually, Jay and Amber Howard (who have been living in an intentional community in Pittsburgh called Formation House for some time now).  We'll also be within walking distance of our awesome new church home (Second Baptist Liberty), as well as the town square which holds a regular farmer's market, where I hope to be able to sell some ceramic wares...

All this has sort of forced me to redefine what it means to be in community. Before, my understanding of intentional community was restricted to a bunch of people living together under one roof. And let's face it: for those who are familiar with neomonasticism and intentional community, there is a definite stereotypical image that fits these terms.

But community for me is fast becoming defined by the intentional togetherness of its members. I've thought a lot about that word: intentional. As long as we are coming together as Christians--as humans, even--to celebrate our God and our relationships with one another, we are participating in intentional community. The inspiring thing about the stories of the early church in the book of Acts isn't that the first Christians were living together under one roof on an inner city block (which we may very well do--someday), but that they were living together in love and devotion to one another, to the world around them, and ultimately to Jesus.

Our friends have already begun to scheme and conspire (literally, "breathe together"), and we have started simple. Though we live in separate houses on separate blocks, we are planning on meeting for dinner as often as we can, to break bread together and pray and celebrate the love that allows us to devote our time and energy to one another. My good friend Scott Moon once put it this way: "Enemies don't put their feet under the same table together. When you sit down to eat at Christ's table, you know you are among friends."

Alyssa and I are among friends. And we're opening a new chapter in our lives. It is terrifying: stepping into the unknown always is. But we are able to face the future with dignity and with courage, knowing that we have a community of friends a family behind us, walking with and guiding us as we grow.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Burma Poem #4

Go Down, Moses
in burma,
even the shadows of monks are holy.
around them.
9,000 miles away,
a church
locks up gods
airconditioned house
for the weekend.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Burma Poem #3

You Say You Want a Saffron Revolution

In Burma
today, as I tasted my American morning
oatmeal in the comfort of my empty American
My friend Mana
the People dissolved
the military regime and elected
Thein Sein their democratic president.

What happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?
What happened to the Lady,
with flowers in her hair?

History spreads parallel away
like two hairs each from four buddhas,
independent and without intersection
in the folds of ascetic robes
worn by men with hands folded
in prayer, stretched glinting into the sky.
Such peaceful angry men,
crying for
liberation from suffering,
for sympathetic joy,
for equanimity of mind.

One hundred fifty years of instability,
of assassinations and displacement,
of ethnic cleansing and
charred jungle villages and men
who fire
into vined forests hoping to hit civilians,

the answer to these echoes of frailty
is some ambiguous cloud of democracy,
The American Way,
and a gathering of street monks?

“Do those people recognize what our country has done
for them?” my uncle asks.

Those people?

My friend Mana,
who craves inclusiveness and plurality
as if they were water,
Is he a those people?

My professor, Dr. Maung Maung Yin,
who studied in the Philippines
and at Oxford, and runs
an illegal liberal studies program,
Is he a those people?

That child who followed me begging, barefoot
through an agoraphobic labyrinth
of disjointed alleys smelling of cooked fish,
fried pork and egg noodles,
dragon fruit,
damp concrete
and the nauseating incense
of open sewer systems—
Is she a those people?

We are good, you are bad (or, at least, pity-worthy)—
the earth revolves on binary axis,
throwing its weight around, wobbling
unequally as it hurdles against the stars that grin,

like a boy with mussed black hair
at a marketplace patrolman carrying
a slack AK47,
and the officer smiling back with unequivocal

This is life. These
damn dissonant jazz chords.
All creation groans
with the birth of something new;

People with names are dying and people with
names are praying.

9,000 miles away the customers
at the same brown, patchy
pants, splattered and stained
with clay clip and glaze,
Didn’t he wear those

Burma Poem #1

There are some poems I've written in the last couple weeks since returning from Thailand/Burma. Feel free to leave comments, rip 'em apart, dissect them. I appreciate you taking the time to read.

Just Add Water

In Burma
it takes two weeks
for the smell of coffee and exhaustion
to slide away
from my clothes.

Two loads
of balled-up shirts
and hand-sewn pants
into two hotel sinks
stopped with the clouded
water we were told
not to drink.

Everything is instant here.

The English tea is instant,
small green plastic pouches
of a cocoa-like substance

The coffee is instant,
in little tubes of NesCafe semi-

The cars are instant,
ratcheted together of rust and age and gears
and a century
of Empire.

The streets are instant,
The pagodas instant,
The instant homes of mud-hut gods
and golden chimeric prayers.

The bamboo scaffolding on corporate buildings,
The mendicant begging bowls,
The cascading honeysuckle and dancing elephants
rocking back and forth
straining their chains.

A whole nation
that thrives on filtration.

The junta springs from struck stones
with half-cocked authority
at rainbow day-markets sweetened
by sudden unseasonable showers,
jagged pavement smiling up at the sky clouded like water—
see the beauty of oppression?

I take communion with
armless, legless widows begging in the street,
naked Saturday prostitutes,
my love you, my children,
& George Orwell memoirs,
the lifeless black fish in cramped black alley eateries,
a barefoot child with a Technicolor rooster that clucks and pecks
at nothing.

In this country, the only thing slow-cooked
are the people.

9,000 miles away they’re brewing
coffee again,
and it’s the time of the year
when women are having