Forsaken

This morning I woke up to the sound of my neighbor screaming at his son. This happens kind of a lot. Happy Good Friday.

This Lent, my church did a sermon series entitled “What Lies Beneath: Recovering the Lost Language of Sin,” which was really great and which you should all binge-listen-to right now. The idea behind the title was that many of us work really hard to look like we have it all together. When something goes wrong, we ignore it, or write it off, or pass the blame. But beneath our metaphorical floorboards, we are a fallen, broken, frail people.

However, something I’ve learned about living in a dense neighborhood of a big city is that not everyone is as interested in keeping up appearances as suburban transplants like me are. A lot of people just put it all out there for the rest of us to see or overhear. Addiction, poverty, failed relationships, and violence happen everywhere, but I’m constantly surprised  – maybe even impressed – by how many people around here don’t work too hard to hide it. Continue reading →

This Is (Epiphany)

It’s January, and in case you hadn’t heard, it recently snowed a lot in the American northeast, where I live. By this point the snow has lost its charm and is becoming an ugly inconvenience. That’s often how January goes around here: it’s cold, dark, gross, and boring. It’s also Epiphany, a tricky little season that’s sandwiched between and probably often overshadowed by Christmas and Lent. But that name – Epiphany – is dazzling. In our common vernacular, epiphany means a realization. It’s ideas, thoughts, and observations coming together in a meaningful way. It’s a sigh of relief as something is resolved. It’s a convergence. Continue reading →

Jesus, You Party Animal

One of my favorite New Testament stories made its way into my reading this week. I’m talking of course, about the first part of John 2 – the wedding at Cana. I love this story because it’s when Jesus reveals his glory to his disciples. 

Just kidding. I love it because of all the booze.

I promise this isn’t just because I really like wine. There’s a lot of great stuff in this story that I think might get overlooked, since the nature of this miracle seems so different than that of the others. But here’s the good stuff that stuck out to me this time around:

Jesus and his crew partied, and they partied hard. John doesn’t say too much about the newlyweds or other wedding guests, but whoever they were, they ran out of wine before anyone was ready to call it a night (…awkward…).  Continue reading →

God is For Cities

My church is in the midst of an initiative that we’re calling For the City – an effort to pray and raise funds for the renovation of the historic building that we recently purchased. The name of this initiative is based on our motto “a church for the city,” and (bias aside) I love it. My interest in urbanism and place-making has been pretty clear on this blog. This is something that has developed in me over the past few years, which is why it’s important for me to be a part of a church that aims to be for its city. These interests of mine are in part just dorky and academic. But ultimately they are rooted in something much more substantial: God is for cities, so I (and the church) should be too.

This might be a strange concept for mainstream contemporary Christianity (especially evangelicalism). We know that God is for individual people and for churches. God is for the poor and for the broken. “God loves you, Alyssa.” “For God so loved the world…etc.” But growing up, I never really heard much about God being for cities or places. So let’s unpack this a little bit. Continue reading →

The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

10,000 Children

In the outcry over World Vision’s hiring policy amendment, 10,000 child sponsorships have been dropped. Until a few days ago, these 10,000 children were being fed, clothed, and educated in the name of Jesus. And now they’re not, in the name of…what? Jesus? Scripture? Theology? A culture war?World Vision

In the midst of this mess, I feel bad for World Vision. They found themselves in a lose-lose situation and now people on both sides of the same sex marriage debate are angry with them, they’re losing donors, and board members are resigning. I also feel bad for World Vision’s married homosexual employees or prospective employees, who love Jesus and simply want to help World Vision care for needy people across the planet. And I pity evangelicalism, a movement that is losing followers by the second and drifting closer toward becoming obsolete.

But all of these people and institutions will ultimately be okay, because they exist in the developed world, where our water is clean, our education is free and mandatory, and our battles take place in cyberspace. Right now, I’m really worried about those 10,000 children. Maybe their lives are stable enough to go on just fine without their sponsors’ support, or maybe they’ll get new sponsors or be picked up by another organization. But what if that doesn’t happen? Will they just stop going to school next year? Will their food just run out or something? What about their next round of vaccinations? And how will their parents explain to them that their lives are about to change significantly because 10,000 adults in America got mad about a corporate policy? Will they be confused?

And to those 10,000 ex-sponsors: what did you do with the picture of your former child, the one that World Vision sent you when you decided, in the name of Jesus, to sponsor a child? Is it still hanging on your fridge or sitting on your dresser, watching you go about your day, disgruntled but otherwise comfortable? Or did you just throw it out?

Note: Right after I wrote this, I did some research and learned, to my relief, that World Vision’s child sponsorship program is modeled in such a way that no individual child will actually be significantly impacted by this scandal. Still, I’m deeply disturbed by the mindset of those 10,000 ex-sponsors, who more or less used these children as leverage in a culture war. In a lot of ways it’s kind of barbaric, and is definitely not Christ-like.

Jesus Saves (Or, Taking a Stab at Soteriology)

cosimo-rosselli-sermon-on-the-mount

“Sermon on the Mount” by Cosimo Rossellini, 1480.

My disclaimer here is that soteriology (the study of the doctrine of salvation) is a really sticky subject that a lot of people have very strong options on, even though I think most people know less about it than they think they do – myself included. This is something that’s been on my mind a lot about over the past couple of years, but I’ve never sat really down and fully processed it. That’s what I’m going to try to do here. I’m certainly not going to claim to have all the answers (to the contrary, actually).

Here we go:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
(John 14:5-6, NRSV)

Most Christians interpret this exchange in a very particular manner. That is, that no one can know God or enter His Kingdom (“be saved,” as many say) without believing in and following Him – this is the only way, and the only life and the only truth. And it is this belief in Him, or this following of the Way, that saves us. It generally follows that only Christians will be able to enter the Kingdom, but the good news is that anyone can be a Christian, because salvation is a free gift, and the only thing we need to do to be saved is to choose His grace.

There are a lot of things that I really like about this account of salvation, and for a while I was satisfied with it. However, over the last couple of years I’ve grown a bit skeptical. No, I’m not a relativist, or even a universalist, but I think that sometimes when Christians read John 14:6, their perspective is just a bit off. What I’m getting at here is that I don’t think becoming a Christian can save you, because only Jesus can.

Jesus doesn’t say that “Going to church is the way,” or, “Being baptized is the way,” or even “Believing in me is the way.” He says that “I am the way.” We are saved by Him, through His life, death, and resurrection. The more I look at the bloody cross and the empty tomb, the more I realize – and hope (pretty desperately, actually) – that my salvation is a result of His work and His grace, and has nothing to do with my prayers or habits.

Does this mean that I think that there will be non-Christians in the Kingdom? I try not to worry about this too much because it’s God’s business, not mine, but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked.

It also bothers me when Christians claim that they know the Truth. Because Jesus is the Truth, and He’s really big (i.e., infinite) – no one knows Him fully, except Himself. There are so many gray areas in the faith (hence, denominations), which is a pretty good indication that no one is totally right. Maybe in the Kingdom we will have all the answers, but for now I think we need to settle with having perspectives that are limited by space, time, biases, education, etc. Besides, a little mystery is good and beautiful:

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

All of this said, I’m still a Christian, and even though I don’t think that’s my ticket to the Kingdom, I definitely still think that it’s the best thing for me and for all people. We are made in God’s image and, as Augustine says, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him. God’s image in us longs for Him and compels us toward Him. The human end is union with Christ, and we cannot be truly happy apart from Him. But I think that all of these things have less to do with us, and more to do with Christ.

“It Might Be the Most Important Word in the World”

There’s this little part of Genesis 4 that I didn’t realize was exceptionally significant until I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Of course, I’m referring to the Cain/Able debacle, and God’s intervention:

The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.
(Genesis 4:6-9)

Steinbeck uses two of his characters, Lee and Adam, to teach us all something really significant about this passage:

Lee’s hand shook as he filled the delicate cups. He drank his down in one gulp. “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?

(By the way, if you haven’t read East of Eden, you should stop reading this and go read that instead).

Some people believe this encounter to be the first recorded murder. At the very least, it shows us that it’s wrong to kill people, especially your brother. But more interestingly, it tells us something about the relationship between God and man, and the nature of both. Here, God intervenes insofar as He warns Cain that “sin is crouching at the door,” but when they’re done chatting, Cain goes off and kills Able anyway. Surely the God who made the universe literally a few paragraphs ago could have stopped that! (Obvi.). But He didn’t, because of timshel – thou mayest.

Even though God is sovereign, we may or may not decide things a certain way. We may decide to follow Jesus, love our neighbors, not murder our brothers in a jealous rage, etc. Or we may not. Because God is sovereign, and we are free. Maybe we’ll triumph over sin, but as Lee says “the way is open,” and it’s up to us.

And this is kind of a big deal. Because with freedom comes responsibility. This is where I’d like to bring in the contemporary philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who has written a bunch of interesting books including one called Art in Action. One of the things that he says in this text that has always stuck out to me is that, “Man at creation is singled out as the creature who alone among earthlings is responsible. He alone is accountable…The dignity of man calls for recognizing that man is responsible, and so for recognizing guilt, which is the dark side of responsibility.” We are free because we are responsible and we are responsible because we are free. God takes us and our actions seriously, which is why we can go and do things like kill our brothers, even though He doesn’t want us to.

Murdering siblings aside, this means a lot for us in our everyday lives. For example, when we let people get away with stuff, or not live up to common expectations, we’re actually rejecting their dignity as persons, which is a far worse fate than getting off easy. Likewise, we shouldn’t shy away from responsibilities, because upholding them literally makes us human, and that’s kind of huge. Furthermore, Wolterstorff goes on to say that “we have responsibilities, in the first place, with respect to the natural world surrounding us. We are to subdue it – that is, to tame it, to eliminate its unruliness, to order it, to place our imprint upon it.”

All of this to say, God has standards for us, and we may uphold them.

Exodus and God’s Love of the Tangible

the-israelites-are-eating-the-passover-lamb-1931-artist-Marc-Chagall

“The Israelites Are Eating the Passover Lamb,” by Marc Chagall (1931).

Exodus is pretty gritty. There are murders, plagues, and other controversial things (who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?). It’s a compelling story of freedom and faithfulness. And it’s a story we’ve all heard before. So rather than ramble on about how we are no longer slaves, or predestination (who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?), or something interesting like that, I’d like to use this post to talk about one of my favorite things:

How to properly cook meat.

God, the Infinite, who made everything and occupies all of space and time, takes great care to liberate His people from slavery. And while doing so, He also gives them a pretty precise recipe to follow for their new year’s dinner:

They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts.

 – Exodus 12:8-9

When I read these verses this time around, I kind of smirked and thought “Well, obviously. No one in their right mind would boil a perfect cut of meat.” After I got over my snobbery, it occurred to me that there might actually be something to this. God requires a lot of His people, and His laws are very precise. But God is not arbitrary, and all of His laws point to the Good.

So what is so ultimately Good about roasted lamb?

I did a little bit of Googling around to try to answer this question. Namely, I was interested in learning more about how roasting is distinct from other cooking techniques. The most basic distinction here is that when you roast a cut of meat, you typically don’t add any liquid. You also don’t need to prep it very much – you basically just stick it in a pan. God instructed His people to cook the entire lamb, which means that they had hardly any prep work. Even seasoning the meat is somewhat optional, since by cooking it in its own fat, the meat is naturally flavorful. I imagine that a lamb with all of its innards and all of its excess fat would have been pretty juicy. Finally, roasting often takes a bit longer than other cooking techniques. Roasting an entire lamb over a wood-burning fire is pretty much a day-long process, since a fire takes longer to pre-heat than an oven. It would have taken the Israelites even longer, since their lamb had to be well-done.

In short, the process of roasting a lamb is simple and slow.

Now I’m picturing a nation of slaves, who have recently survived a bunch of really bizarre natural disasters, eagerly awaiting the freedom that has been promised to them, pausing from the chaos to spend a day preparing this feast, hoping desperately that after that meal they will be free people. Their anticipation must have been overwhelming. Their faith here is astounding. And I bet their dinner was delicious.

But here’s the other, probably more spiritual and significant thing about that meal and the preparation thereof: it was carnal, it was bloody, and it points directly to the crucified Christ.

The Israelites didn’t go to their neighborhood butcher to pick up a leg of lamb, they went to their herd and found the most pristine year-old lamb or goat that they could find. On the morning of that first Passover, all of those lambs were alive, and they were perfect. They were slaughtered in their prime, and it was smelly and bloody and it probably wasn’t too fun for the critter.

The God who ordered this sacrificial dinner, and then, through Jesus, suffered it Himself, is not distant. He is deeply concerned with all that is tangible and worldly. He cares about people, and creation, and things.

The Greatest Story Ever Told

Preface: I’m trying to be a responsible Christian adult and read the Bible from start to finish. By now, I’ve read most of it (except for the boring parts), but not in any particular order. Now seems as good a time as any to do what I should have done long ago. Bear with me as I try to muster up the patience to read the Word of God in its entirety (even the boring parts).

Every other time I’ve tried to read the Bible from the beginning, I’ve always ended up stopping a couple of pages in. The first chapters of Genesis have so much going on, and we’re left with so much to think about, that the stuff that comes after, however important historically and theologically, just doesn’t do it for me.

We’re talking, billions of years of history.
There was nothing, and then there was everything.
There was good, and then there was sin.

It’s a little overwhelming for me, and I’m going to make the bold claim that the first four chapters of Genesis make up the greatest story ever told.

This story’s beauty and greatness are sometimes overshadowed by the loud and kind of embarrassing bickering or Christians who are all about creationism vs. evolution vs. faith vs. reason vs. intelligent design vs. whatever. I can think of several dozen good reasons why this bickering is unnecessary, but they all primarily hinge upon the fact that no matter how old the earth is, these first parts of scripture are not only the greatest story ever told, but the truest story ever told.

(That is, something doesn’t need to have literally happened to be true. Truth is way too cool for that).

The creation story tells us so many true things about God:

God speaks.
God creates.
God rests.
God is bigger than time.
God is bigger than space.
God is faithful.

And the creation story tells us a lot about people too:

We are good.
We are fallen.
We have choices.
We are responsible.
We need to work.
We need each other.

Seriously, what more does anyone need to know? (Just kidding – I know that the story gets even better).