Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sunday, May 30, 2010

There is Work

You can't write a script for God. He is not a stock character that helps to move along the plot.

When death made a move into our lives, God did not do the expected. He did not sit me down and put his hand on my shoulders like Rembrandt's Prodigal Son painting. There was no promise of better things to come. The kind, grandfatherly God did not make an appearance. God was there, for sure, but not the God I liked to invent.

In Luke's gospel Jesus tells a man to forget about burying his father. There was work to do and grief is not a vocation. The Kingdom has come and someone needs to proclaim it. Jesus didn't sit that man down and feed him with cliches, "Everything will be OK." Things are not OK. Things are messed up. Jesus did not say, "oh, your father died, good things are due to happen now." All he said is there's work.

Today, following some difficult months, there is work. There is God's Kingdom to proclaim, neighbors to be loved, and an ever-present God to be praised.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Mixed Signals

Meghan is my Chinese Atheist student. This weekend she caused a stir on the campus of our school. On Friday, I gave her Bible class a take-home essay exam that asked students to explore the relationship of the Sermon on the Mount to Jesus' identity and mission. This was difficult, and it was especially difficult for a student who has no experience reading the Bible. I knew she would struggle, but I hoped she would produce something original.

On Saturday my wife noticed two of our staff members were on Facebook requesting prayer for Meghan. It seems that Meghan was becoming a "seeker," because she was asking questions about Jesus, God, and the Sermon on the Mount. The staff members witnessed to her and attempted to talk to her about the Gospel. They were authentic, and they care about her salvation. I appreciate their sincerity, but when I heard this, I knew what was happening.

Meghan was asking for homework help.

Today, I got to school and asked her about it; she confessed that she stressed about this assignment all weekend. Meghan also told me she asked for help from other teachers. Sure enough, when I read her essay, it was full of things that I have never said, and that she has never read in the Bible; it was witnessing material. I informed her of how her other teachers interpreted her questions, not academically but spiritually.

"I don't want God, I want an A," is how she responded.

Christians must realize that people we think are "almost Christians," might be in a different realm altogether. Be friends with people first, and find out what they are really asking. Find out what their life is about, and then proceed to the big questions. Meghan has no interest in becoming a Christian, because she sees no problem with her life.

Let's find out what people are truly asking instead of what we wish they were asking.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

And I and Silence

Over the last year I was preaching approximately twice a month. This was at our school's chapel, and high school students were my intended audience. The messages had to be short, between twenty and thirty minutes, and the audience had little tolerance for unfocused, under delivered material. The audience is the roughest kind for any public speaker; it was a captive audience. At times I could see that some students were engaged with my words, and other times they were dozing. If I was lucky, and doing my best as a speaker, then perhaps one or two kids would remember a joke or anecdote from the introduction.

There were times when I loved preaching and times when I hated it. Nevertheless, last week I sent a note to the chapel director for this semester to tell him I quit.

I hated the way preaching shaped my identity. It's impossible to know if it shaped my identity among students and colleagues, but it shaped how I felt about myself. When a person stands behind a pulpit to proclaim a religious message, I believe he is accepting an identity. His identity becomes a religious voice.

I don't want to be a religious voice; I don't want to be any kind of voice. In a world where there are voices everywhere, most of which are more powerful, well-spoken, and persuasive than mine, there seems to be no need for another voice. To be a religious voice is to enter into a cacophony, which requires confidence. I have little confidence in most anything. There is no strong voice coming from me.

One cold day, my sophomore year at college, I went with my friend Aidan to go "witnessing" in the Southeastern Ohio community where he had become the freshly installed pastor of a small church. This was actually a trailer park within the community, and it was culturally Appalachian. It would be a stretch to say that I actually was "witnessing," because an introvert like me is not about to go talk to strangers, especially Appalachian strangers.

What I remember most about that trailer park was the mud. As typical in late winter Ohio, the ground warms just enough to make a mess out of everything. We walked through the mud, and jumped over puddles, going from trailer to trailer, inviting residents to participate in a "Spiritual Survey." The Spiritual Survey was just the hook to get people to talk so you could pray the sinner's prayer with them at then end or your presentation, and then invite them to church. I could criticize it all day, but we went door to door out of concern for the gospel, and Aidan went because he cared about his ministry.

Most people were courteous and sympathetic to what we doing. Some allowed us to pray with them, and even one teenager prayed the sinner's prayer. Yet the man whom I remember is the one who opened the door and said, "Listen guys, it's cold, give it a rest."

Just more voices in a world of noise.

I believe in silence. If there is anyway to send a message in a world of noise, religious voices nonetheless, it must be through silence. There are silent ways to communicate Christ's Kingdom, and that is where I want to bring a message. In what way can I show a student that I love them, and that God loves them, without adding to the clatter? How can I present them with a Christianity that is quietly dignified, yet powerful to change lives?

So I quit preaching to learn to be silent. For an introvert like myself it might not be hard, but then again, it might. Emily Dickinson wrote, "and I and Silence...." I want to learn how to minister with Silence. My hope is that my students will hear my Silence, and be open to hear the Word.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Epiphany: Freshly Encountering Jesus

This week began our second semester at school, and due to circumstances, I am now teaching two sections of Bible. I've been working so hard to make myself an ESL/ English teacher even though my background is Bible and Theology, so teaching this class for me is a little like a kid in Toys 'R Us. There are many things to teach, and many things I want the students to know. I must restrain myself so I don't lecture for sixty minutes everyday.

Since this is also the start of the second semester, I need to get the students into the New Testament and into Jesus, so I have been teaching a little background history. This is going well for most of the students. Although they are not Bible scholars they do have a basic knowledge of Abraham, Moses and David, which is necessary to appreciate Jesus. The problem is there is one student who has no basic knowledge.

Meghan (not her real name) came to our school just this week. She is Chinese. She speaks English well. Meghan is out-going and inquisitive, the student every teacher wants, really. Nevertheless, she has never seen a Bible before, and knows nothing about Christians and Christianity except they exist in parts of the world far from her home. I spent the first day of class going over some Bible history, which was basically my "Old Testament in 10 Minutes" speech. Of course, she was confused. When the class and I were discussing Abraham she asked, "so...is this Abraham a god or a person? Is he still alive?"

In our church rhythm and time this is the "season" of Epiphany. It is the time when we find out who Jesus is. During this time, I will read and reread the Gospel stories I have heard since I could comprehend anything. However, Meghan will find out who Jesus is for the first time in her life. I have a feeling that Jesus is going to make this Epiphany a special one. I know Meghan will get to see Jesus for the first time, and in some ways, I believe I will see Him for the first time too. This should be our hope for every Epiphany season, that Jesus would freshly reveal himself to us in a way that reminds of us we have only begun to learn of his greatness.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

World Communion Sunday- A Thought

The first Sunday of October is labeled by some churches (mostly PCUSA and UMC) as World Communion Sunday. I don't know what that really means or what anyone is supposed to do on that day. The whole Pentecost Season should be a "world communion" season, however, some churches don't want to commune with other Christians. That is a rant for another place.

The PCUSA churches apparently use the day to take a Peacemaking Offering whereby 1/4 of the offering is used specifically for some local Peacemaking Ministries or giving the money as response to HIV/AIDS pandemic. This seems like a good start, but I wonder why churches don't make "peacemaking" part of their reason for being. Can't this idea fundamentally change what it means to say we are "Christian."

It's en vogue these days to say things like, "Well, Christianity is not all about heaven and some out of body spirituality." This is true. And if we believed it we would be investing everthing we had into peacemaking initiatives, because there is no greater way to incarnate spiritual reconciliation than to practice peace making.

I have argued before that the Eucharist forces us to consider dying for Christ,but it also forces us to consider living for peace. When we receive Christ's body and blood we're hearing, "Here, God is at peace with you even though you generally suck at life." That tells us then that part of what it means to be God's people is to be at peace with others who suck at life.

The ministry where I serve was founded on the premise of peacemaking. The idea was that if you can bring together children who are raised to hate each other to receive an education and grow together, and pray together, then they will stop hating each other. Sounds good to me.

Yet, will the church ever listen to what God says at the Eucharist and practice peace?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Inglorious

My wife and I saw Tarantino's new Inglorious Basterds on Friday. This is a film I have been anticipating for about three years ever since I saw the first news story about its possible production (of course the rumors then had Adam Sandler in the film, which would have been something). You can find a lot of reviews about the movie online, so I'm not writing a review just some post-theatre thoughts, which may not all fit coherently together.

The Good

There were some beautiful shots in the movie. Shots that reminded the viewer of why Tarantino is a top-notch talent as a director. The movie was also very suspenseful at points, and the viewer never lost interest, even through lots of subtitles.

The acting was terrific. Brad Pitt was over the top and enjoyable. Christoph Waltz had a performance of a lifetime. The casting was great, and their presence on screen was organic. Very nice.

Tarantino set the film up nicely to be a critical reaction to the way Americans view: war, war films, Abu Ghraib, and justice issues. The director wants us to cheer for the group of American soldiers (the Inglorious Basterds)while they scalp and beat to death with baseball bats fully surrendered German prisoners of war. It all makes the thinking viewer wonder if American atrocity is so much more tolerable than Nazi atrocity? If so, why?

The Bad

The film concludes with no solution to its problem. Does Tarantino want us to leave the theatre thinking war crimes (like those committed by the Basterds) are appropriate if the enemy is bad enough? He never imagines an alternative. All the characters are driven by violence, revenge, and selfishness. No person in the movie does anything virtuous, which might precisely be his point: in war there is no virtue. However, we can all imagine characters that wrestle with forgiveness and hope in a war situation. In that sense, at least a movie like Sergeant York attempts to wrestle with a solution, even if ultimately it is wrong.

The Inglorious

Genocide is not a setting for a film that can't propose something. At least a movie like The Reader asserts the merit of literacy. If Tarantino is going to create an alternative history like he does in this movie, then he needs to think through the problems. Is there a God in Tarantino's universe, or morality, or are Holocaust survivors supposed to be comforted that everyone is equally as evil? I cannot imagine that Tarantino would make this film set in Rwanda, so why is it appropriate for him to use the Holocaust? This film was larger than he anticipated, and in my opinion, he dropped the ball on offering anything substantial apart from a beautifully shot movie.
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2 Ages Verging by Ryan Cordle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.