Thursday, February 2, 2012

Religion bashing…

Last week, one of y’all showed me a youtube video that’s been making noise recently. I’d seen it on many a facebook friends’ pages, but hadn’t yet watched the clip. Titled “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus,” if you have a few extra minutes, check it out.

Here, though, is a recap. It’s a four-minute monologue from a young adult believer, apparently well schooled in slam poetry and evangelical atonement theology. About the former, slam poetry is a spoken-word art form resembling hip-hop without music. The performer passionately and rhythmically performs an original work of poetry, mixing urban lingo and personal observation with linguistic dexterity and bravado. As modern art goes, I’m a big fan.

Regarding evangelical atonement theology, I’m not as sympathetic. In short, this belief system claims that Jesus’ blood sacrifice was the perfect way of satisfying God’s righteous wrath. And only by accepting this fact, then working to convince others, can people avoid the dark destiny of Hell. You probably know I’m none-too-keen on such assumptions; Jesus’ death speaks to me, rather, of the lengths God will go to show us how much God loves us. Thus, I assume God opens doors to grace through pathways outside Christian faith, though I find following Jesus most satisfying, personally.

Nevertheless, in the afore-mentioned video, the artist claims fervently his life’s been changed by Jesus. And given that I’ve witnessed that happen to many people- myself included- I say, despite our theological disagreements, “Right on, friend. Preach!” Another claim he makes is something I’ve also encountered before, namely that sometimes there’s a difference between ‘religion’ and ‘faith.’

Now, I wouldn’t take that opposition too far. Oftentimes, I find the distinction people make between the two rather forced. Most of ‘religious’ people I know are faithful, good, authentic believers, who participate in church because they want to, not from blind obligation or delusion. The ‘religion’ this guy eviscerates, rather, is way of “believing” that prizes ritual over passion, tradition before the Spirit, safe action over bold commitment, comfort instead of mission. And he’s right that some churches or Christians seem overly committed to a status quo that’s willing to forget the needs of the poor and marginalized so we can feel good while praying. If, indeed, that’s what it means to be ‘religious,’ I want no part of it. Jesus, after all, undertook great measures to proclaim God’s love for everybody. “Whatsoever you do unto these, my children- even the least…” and all that jazz.

So if the slam poet toned down his attacks on religious people, complicated the picture slightly, he and I would have a good conversation. I, too, pray Plymouth Creekers will make faith without works anathema to their self-identity. I, too, hope our worship services aren’t empty words and vapid murmurings, but earnest efforts to lay our entire, broken, beloved selves before the Lord of Lords, seeking desperately to be uplifted, empowered and sent forth. I, too, imagine gatherings of believers with the temerity, the inspiration to expect God will keep doing new things. In our lives, through our lives, because we’ve decided to be together; a community shining bright as a beacon of Christ’s table, open to all, serving all.

So the reason I avoiding condemning ‘religion’, per say, is because I believe we’re all in this for the long haul. History shows that “God’s Kingdom come on earth” isn’t something that will happen next week. It’s an ongoing dream manifesting itself in many ways, across many cultures, through the love of many families and faithful friends. Indeed, it’s so hard to accomplish we’ll never make it on our own. We need companions for the journey; we need each other! The wisdom of our forbearers, the energy and nerve of our youth. And without a church to harness that, receive it, direct it in mission together, our hopes for a better future will likely flicker and fade.

Therefore, may we be religious, not in the stale, but enduring sense: a gathering of disciples inspired and inspiring, by each other, to each other, for the sake of God’s amazing grace. That, my friends, would produce a message worth filming.

Grace and Peace,

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Prophet? Me?! Imagine That…

I’ve whined before about society co-opting, then warping, ‘religious’ words. Like, any idea how ‘Jesus Christ’ became a swear word? Or ‘righteous’ a mid-90s surfer synonym for ‘good’? Me neither!

I’ve also noticed a similar phenomenon, though nearly the mirror-opposite- religious words receiving distorted meanings within religious communities. Consider, for example, ‘salvation.’ Contra commonly held belief, the Bible rarely, if ever, uses salvation to mean ‘granted admission to Heaven after death.’ Sure, I was taught that; maybe you were too. But throughout Hebrew Scripture and into the Christian Testament, salvation has a primarily this world focus. Israelites are “saved” from bondage in Egypt. Kind David prays for “salvation” from military enemies. In Philippians 3, Paul urges readers to “work out your salvation,” like it’s an ongoing, divinely directed, here-and-now process. For it is! God’s goal is abundant for all life, in this life! Or as Jesus put it, “God’s Kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth...” I do believe that God’s saving grace includes eternal life embraced by love. But eternal life- salvation- begins, well, now.

Another word(s) that’s also received oft-misleading meanings, I believe, is ‘prophet’ (and its relative ‘prophetic’). Many believe, of course, a prophet is someone who sees into and predicts the future. A fortune-teller, crystal ball expert, clairvoyant, mystical, eerie. To be fair, some Hebrew and Christian scriptures interpret prophetic texts much that way. But that, as they say, ain’t the whole truth.

You may already know- and if not, I’m going to tell you :)- that contemporary biblical scholarship uses “prophetic” differently. After reading closely the texts and stories of Israelite prophets (a substantial portion of Hebrew Scripture), these modern scholars note how little space the prophets devote to foretelling events. Sure, sometimes they wax melancholic about the coming “Day of the Lord.” They dream and scheme, wail and boom about impending doom or God’s deliverance. Even within these passages, however, a higher purpose emerges than simple prediction. The prophet’s main concern, in fact, is what’s at hand, the present.

After all, why predict God’s imminent wrath unless you’ve a strong case this wrath is warranted? And believe me (or read Jeremiah), prophets spent much energy on that task! Similarly, even those sections we recognize from Christmas pageants and Handel’s Messiah, about “Every valley shall be exalted” and “Unto us a child is born”, are examples, primarily, of imaginative social critique. The prophets, this theory goes, along with whatever else they were, were mostly poetically inclined observers and commentators. Bold, daring, creative souls who imagined something more holy than what they saw around them. And wouldn’t stay silent about it, sometimes enacting this new reality.

As such, we can celebrate ‘modern prophets’; bold, daring, creative souls like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day and Mohandas Gandhi. Notice, David Koresh and Harold Camping don’t make the list, because those disturbed men cared/care more about future-casting, “be damned!” (literally) with the present. And while authentic prophets may not always like what they see, they also love the world and God’s children with fervency and hope.

So what’s this to do with Plymouth Creek? Well, one effect of modern prophetic scholarship is renewed interest, among many Christians, for cultivating our own “prophetic imaginations.” “No way, Shane!” You might protest, “A prophet? Me?!” To which I’d respond, honestly, “It’s possible. Imagine that…” Indeed, I believe that’s an important skill for Christians to develop, with God’s guidance of course. An ability to look clearly upon the world that is, discern where it falls short of God’s justice, freedom and righteousness, and then prophetically imagine what it could be with God’s- and your- help.

And to that end, we’re directing worship this Lent. Every Sunday, we’ll explore one great story or text from the Hebrew prophetic tradition, all in preparation for the greatest prophetic act of all: The Resurrection of Jesus! The defeat of sin and death on Easter morn! Which he accomplished believing that you and I could follow his lead; help God’s Kingdom come on earth, God’s glory shine brighter. But it takes bold, daring, creative souls- prophets- to make that happen. Like you. Me?! Imagine that…

Grace and Peace,

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