Archive for the ‘Heavy on the Jesus’ Category

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Going up?

The votes are in.  It is clear that, in many and various ways, the church is slowly but surely abandoning the cross as its primary identity.

The new hotness? The arrow.

And if you doubt this is true, think of all the churches that have an arrow pointing upward, or “right and up” as the business world calls it, in their logos. As their logo. It’s the new “thing” and it speaks to optimism and the “you can do it” vibe that much of Christianity is giving off these days.

You don’t have to Google too much to find one.  You probably will see it on a bumper or as a window cling on your way home from work today.

And that’s not bad, necessarily.  But it certainly isn’t the cross.

Sermons are now “TED talks.”  They’re “how can I improve my life?” talks instead of “how does Jesus ask me to give up my life?” proclamations. (And I love me some TED talks)

And, look, I’m all for practical and relevant sermons.  I think I give them. And I’m all for trying to improve myself and others.  I hope I do that in some ways.

But I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that I can learn how to reach higher in life.  I’m pretty sure Jesus talked, lived, and died in such a way that makes me desire downward mobility rather than upward mobility.

The downward mobility of washing feet.  The downward mobility of kneeling with those in grief. The downward mobility of embracing a life that banks more on repentance and grace rather than “trying harder” or “getting it right.”

In my neck of the woods so many churches are embracing the arrow over the cross.  The arrow of “make your life better” instead of “God is embracing you where you are, and believe it or not, that is better than constantly trying to make your life better.”  And I get why it’s happening, at least in part.  Arrows can speak to transcendence, a desire that humanity has been wrestling with since we first started to think bigger than our stomachs.  But the problem is that arrows promise a false transcendence; a transcendence that requires you to “keep climbing” instead of giving up.

But the cross speaks of giving up.  Specifically giving up your life for the sake of others.  And only then realizing that your life is given back to you in a new way.The cross speaks to the truth of human fragility, human vulnerability, human suffering and, subversively, Divine hope.  The arrow speaks to the lies of stair-stepping our way to salvation and human moral progress in such a way the sacrifice is less about “what I give up” and more about “I’m going to work harder.”

A difficult truth to swallow for some may be this understanding, which I’ve come to see as true: sometimes I find people following other faith paths (and sometimes even no faith path) living a more cruciform life than those with Jesus fish on the back of their cars.

And it’s not about wealth or church attendance or even belief statements, necessarily.  It’s about, as Jesus says, “Losing your life to gain it.”  It’s about starving the all-consuming ego monster in deference for the Other in front of you.  It’s about God resurrecting you more than you trying over and over again to resuscitate your happiness, self-worth, career, what have you.

This is something that 12 step programs understand so well, and something that we’re missing in the pews (or auditorium chairs, if that’s your thing).

Now, before you write that response below, I have to clarify something: I’m not for living or wallowing in total depravity.  I’m not for shunning the gym or canceling your therapist.  I am all for self-betterment in the non-annoying, non-cloying, non-consumerist ways it can happen (spoiler alert: that audio book will not “take away your Mondays”…but you knew that before you bought it and you bought it anyway because you’re willing to try anything to get rid of that feeling, right?).  This is not just a “grumpy church person” rant.

I think these things form and shape us.  And I think arrows are bad news when it comes to spiritual life.  They look like good news, but as a Lutheran I must “call a thing what it is.”  And it is bad news.

Because we don’t climb our way out of life.  This life is not about the climb.  We can’t climb out of that life, no matter how high you go, but we can live in such a way that we give up that life in exchange for a different one not so intent on moving up, but more intent on having the Spirit move within.

But the Spirit does all sorts of thing that will make you unhappy.  Things like:

Ask you to give up your life for the sake of others.

Ask you to put down the self-help book, to help the other selves around you.

Ask you to speak out against injustice  and own your role in the system (a system that promises you ascension at the expense of others).

Things like convince you that God is less interested in how much money you make, and more interested in how much money you decide to keep.

And, ironically, that’s exactly what we need.

3087694160_65e7783731_oMark’s 9th chapter, a small but hearty portion of which is the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, speaks directly to fear.  Here’s how it goes.

Jesus and his close friends were walking to school one day. You could tell by the way they walked that Jesus was the leader of this would-be gang.  Thomas hung behind a bit, not sure if he should join.  Judas snuggled in close to Jesus’ shoulder, feasting on every word (and every envious glance from others) that this new-found friend provided. James and John walked a little ahead tripping each other at the feet.  Peter and Andrew both fiddled with a pocket knives and some shaveable wood…they were always doing something.  Doers, those two. And the rest? Well, not much else of note for the rest of them.

And as they were walking, he kept on telling his friends about how anyone who wants to save this failure of a school system needs to break away from the need to be popular, take a risk to propose some new, innovative, even scandalous ways of doing things.  And though it would get negative attention and probably even get them expelled, the new life that would follow would be worth it.

Honestly, his friends were only half-listening.  They’d been hearing this all year from Jesus and they still couldn’t make heads or tails of what he meant, though his presence certainly made life more exciting at school.  But if you could look into the recesses of their hearts, some of them actually did start to understand what he was saying…they were just afraid of what it would mean for them and chose a convenient ignorance on the whole matter.

Besides, soon they’d rule the school the way things were going.  And even teachers and administrators listened to the most popular students.  In fact, as they rounded the block past Peter’s old house they started having hushed conversations about which one of them would be “the enforcer,” Jesus’ right-hand guy.  And also who would be the “gate-keeper,” you know, the one everyone had to get through to get to Jesus.

This was important stuff!

First period began.  Half of the friends headed toward Algebra II where they would ponder invisible integers in an attempt to come up with real-world answers (for some of them this would be their life’s work).  A few others skipped class to smoke in the bathroom, warming themselves with nicotine before heading into the classroom.  And a few other stuck by Jesus in the opening class of the day.

As the shop teacher unrolled a scroll of blue-print paper for the day’s project, Jesus turned to John and asked what they’d been talking about.

The shop teacher began passing out smaller copies of the blue-print, interrupting John’s halting explanation of their hushed conversation over greatness.  As the paper landed on the desk Jesus spied it: two beams of wood joined at the center with long spikes.  It was to be an example of an impressively massive marking post to let everyone know that “something important happened here.”

They’d each be constructing their own.

At the back of the class was a little boy.  Smart.  He was known by Jesus, but John and Peter and the rest didn’t pay a lot of attention to him.  He was different than they were in many ways.  But he was smart, and that day he’d just happened to throw together an imaginative example of a clock built from ordinary parts.  No sun dial, this.  It had a motherboard, wires, and a digital display with a tiger print face.

He was proud of it.

As the class period was drawing to a close, barely anyone had finished their assignment.  Some had abandoned the project altogether; others just figured it was too hard to start and didn’t.

The little boy himself had been working on a different project, though similar in scope.  It was strange to some people, but that was nothing new for the boy.

As the bell rang everyone got up to leave.  The young brown boy with the clock in his bag who had been working on a different project walked up to the teacher, proudly displaying his gadget.

The teacher looked at the boy, and the clock, and just wasn’t sure what to make of it.  Was it dangerous?  Was this boy dangerous?  He did, after all, work on a different project than most everyone else…

The boy was escorted to a different room where the chief principal and the secretarial scribes interrogated him with the school truancy officer.  It became clear that a different official outside of the school would have to be summoned, and in walked the Stateys.

It was deemed that the boy would be too dangerous for the good of the people, and he was cuffed and showed the door, leaving his clock behind.

Meanwhile, Jesus and his friends were standing by their locker, having seen what was going on.  As the boy passed by, Jesus turned to his friends and, in a bold move, pulled the young boy into the middle of them.

“If you want to be the greatest,” he said, “you must be willing to stand with, no…more than that…become this one that the world writes off.”

As he was saying this a Statey pushed Jesus out of the way, causing him to tumble backwards, the contents of his backpack spilling out.  Amidst the pencils, pens, and planner that came tumbling out was that blue print of two crossbeams gathered at the center.  It landed square on the floor as if to mark that something important was about to happen.

And Jesus fell straight back onto it, hands splayed out.

And then the friends got it…though the rest were confused about what they were seeing.

Let all who have ears to hear, hear.

Jesus_cult_logoI finally got around to seeing Jesus Camp, or as I like to call it, “Children of the Corn.”

It’s well worth the watch.  And it made me sad.  And a bit embarrassed.

I get the criticism that the documentary makers are biased.  Bias will always exist; a purely objective perspective is a unicorn.

But this is scary.

It’s about as scary as the person who came up to me the other day and told me a story of how an individual from a neighboring church here in the city tried to convince him that we (as in, my faith community) were teaching him falsely, and that he should come and find the truth at this other faith community.

A “truth,” by the way, that doesn’t allow for questioning…because it is ultimate.  Apparently they have it over at that church.  Good to know…

In the book Narcissists Among Us, author Joe Navarro lists a number of traits that one should look for in a leader to tell if they’re a cult leader.  Unfortunately, many Christian churches have turned Jesus into a character that fits many of the descriptions.

For instance, at the top of the list is that a cult leader has “a grandiose idea of who s/he is and what they can achieve.”  Now, this gets fishy, of course, because of the Christian tenet that Jesus is both mortal and Divine.  I’m not questioning Christ’s divinity at all.  But when we look at the Gospels, we have a very quiet Christ in most instances, one who doesn’t lift himself up but rather lifts up those around him.

Fast forward two thousand years.  Today you’ll find in many places people who claim that Jesus can cure your broken bones, broken marriage, broken spirit, and broken bank account (all for $19.99) if you just believe.

Or take another example of a cult leader from Navarro, the fact that they are preoccupied with unlimited success, power, or fame.  Can we not turn on the TV most any evening and hear how God desires this for us?  Can we not read most “Christian” self-help books and read about how the right formula of life+belief+prayer=blessing?

How about the fact that many churches are now holding these bizarre “purity balls” where young women (notice that it’s only young women…sexism is alive and well, don’t you worry) pledge their virginity to their fathers?  Sexual exploitation is the sign of a cult leader and, despite the fact that Jesus says not a mumblin’ word about sex (though he does talk about divorce), much of Christianity has turned these purity rituals into a rite of passage as a way to control behavior.

Look, I think that the church has to come up with a good sexual ethic (please, Lord, let’s revisit this, yes?), but such manipulation a) doesn’t work, b) is slightly creepy and c) causes confusion in children with regards to sex, sexuality, and their bodies.

And what about the one I see most frequently: the need for blind obedience?  Cult leaders demand this of their followers.  In Jesus Camp, there’s a really telling scene at the end where Mike Papantonio, radio personality, is interviewing a woman named Becky Fischer, a self-proclaimed “children’s evangelist,” the leader and host of this crazy camp where  children come to be guilted, manipulated, and formed into “soldiers for Christ” (their term, not mine).  And in the interview Papantonio brings up the idea that Fischer is actually indoctrinating the children, to which Fischer responds that she’d like to see more parents and churches indoctrinate children.

When I teach Confirmation and encourage the youth to memorize the Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, we follow up every statement with the good (Lutheran) question, “What is this?”

And it’s an honest question to which I encourage honest responses.

The church should not be in the indoctrination business.  But it has been.  For years and years.

Christianity should be a religion, not a cult.  Jesus is central to the religion.  Jesus is not a cult leader.

There is a difference between a religion and a cult; a religious leader and a cultic leader.  I think that many religious leaders, Christian leaders, can become cultic personalities.  But, likewise, I think that many religious leaders have turned Jesus into the cultic personality.

A religion is meant to look after the well being of the family, encouraging health in all ways.  Cults break families apart, doing psychological harm.  Should I say how many people have mentioned to me that they’ve been told by a religious leader that their spouse is going to Hell because they don’t believe/haven’t been baptized/are of a different religion?  Need I note the anguish this causes over a subject that no one living has any firsthand knowledge of?

A religion allows freedom of thought. Cults and cultic leaders do not.  A religion works within society, even as it tries to change society.  A cult shelters people from the greater society, creating a bubble of influence.  A religion encourages leaders to be questioned (this is, I think, what the historical critical method does of Scripture as a leader of Christian religion).  A cult does not allow a leader, or basic tenets, to be questioned.

Sigh.

Jesus was not a cult leader. It’s clear from the Gospel accounts that he was a compelling personality.  It’s clear from the Gospel accounts that those who followed him did so passionately.  But the personality profile given there doesn’t fit a cult leader.

So why, then, have many in the church made him one?

I was asked recently why I don’t say “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” more.index

That’s a good question.

I think I don’t use that phrase much because of my experience with that phrase.  In my youth that phrase was used as a litmus test of sorts, a shibboleth for those of you familiar with that term (or familiar with West Wing).

Saying “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” was like the secret password into a club that I wasn’t so sure I wanted into.

Because usually the people that I heard using that phrase were also the people who were talking about “spiritual warfare” and being good “Christian soldiers” and “working blessings” and “praying away the pain.”

All that phraseology was just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals to my ears.

I wanted to know what they thought spiritual warfare was and if they’d be “fighting it” if they had never been introduced to the concept.  I wanted to know what they thought being a “soldier for Christ” meant in every day life.  I wanted to know what they thought they were doing when they were “working a blessing” or what conclusions we’re to draw when we pray and pray and pray and the pain remains.

I didn’t want talk to be cheap; I wanted it to mean something.  I want it to mean something.

Because, and this is the thing, Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.  But that sentence needs so much explanation around it for me, that just saying it to you or anyone else will not do, I feel.

Because just saying it to myself doesn’t do it.

And no doubt people say that phrase and say it with utmost sincerity and face value; I truly believe it.  And I can speak that language, too, with much sincerity.

So, is Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior?  Yes.   Am I going to start adopting that language?  Probably not.

But I will say that my trust in God is deeply rooted in the Christ event.

And, believe it or not, I think that’s approximately the same thing.

I could say it another way, but it wouldn’t be authentic to me.

And I prefer not to.  It’s not how my spirituality is formulated.  My spirituality is formulated with deep roots in experiences and connection that don’t lend itself very well to short phrases like this, I find.

I’m much more Richard Rohr than Rick Warren.

That doesn’t mean either of those spiritual realities are “better” than the other one (how could we measure that, anyway?).  But it does mean that they present themselves differently.

And with a Christian history that needed a St. Julian as well as a Thomas Aquinas, that needed a Martin Luther as well as a Meister Eckhart, why should the fact that I don’t express my faith with these phrases, and that you do, cause us dissension?

So many churches are full of just Julians or just Luthers, just Rohrs or just Warrens.

What if we actually practiced radical community where you could lift your hands in praise while I fold mine in reverence and neither got annoyed with the other?  What if we actually practiced radical community where you could claim Jesus as your Lord and Savior and stretched my comfort with that phrase, and I encouraged you to parse that a little more to go a bit deeper than just phrases.

Because, and here’s the biggest thing, I don’t want any of our talk to be cheap…even our talk about community.

Because if we all think the same things, talk the same way, use the same phrases, and embody the same spirituality, we have less a “community” and more of a “club.”

And Lord knows we don’t need more clubs in this world.

And I’m a reluctant Christian many times because our clubs dot the streets, and our communities are few and far between.

I know…the title.  images

I actually wanted to title this “Jesus Isn’t That Into You” as a play off of the movie…but that would have really brought the hate mail.

So let me start with a disclaimer.

Let me say, unequivocally, that I think Jesus is “into you” (although I think that sounds weird).

But maybe…maybe Jesus isn’t that into you.  Or, at least, not as solely about you as we’ve made it out to be.  Jesus doesn’t want to be my boyfriend.

Let me explain for a second.

In my blog on 5 Phrases I Think Christians Shouldn’t Say, I got a lot of push back for #2 on my list, “You just have to do God’s will…”  Specifically for my statement in the subsequent lines where I posit that I’m not convinced that God’s greatest wish is for us to be in relationship with God.

I should have put an asterisk next to that statement because, here’s what I really mean by that: I think that Christianity has adopted a “win souls for Jesus,” “you must invite Jesus into your heart,” “you need to have a personal relationship with Jesus” mentality at the sacrifice of every other type of relationship that God might desire for humanity.

We’ve given up our relationship as stewards of the Earth so that we can build monstrous mega-church compounds on open land to focus on the “Jesus-and-Me” relationship, adopting crazy ideas that perhaps global warming is fake and is God’s plan for the world.

We’ve given up our authentic relationships with others who, perhaps, don’t think the same things we do, because our singular focus is now to try and convert and “win souls for Christ.”

American evangelical Christianity has focused so much on fostering personal relationships with Jesus Christ, most other relationships are left in the dust…

Plus, speaking from a place of honesty, much of the agnostic/marginally Christian world (and a good number of us convicted Christians) finds the super-close-Jesus-is-my-boyfriend talk creepy.

I think we all want to be known; really known.  And I think God knows us; truly knows us.

But when we start talking about Jesus like he’s our lover in the modern sense we really are talking in ways that put people off.

Don’t think we do that?  Consider the song “In the Secret.”  Here are the lyrics:

In the secret, in the quiet place

in the stillness you are there.

In the secret, in the quiet hour I wait

only for you (this part is usually whispered)

Because I want to know you more.

I want to know you,

I want to hear your voice

I want to know you more.

I want to touch you

I want to see your face

I want to know you more.

Creepy, right?

Or what about Hillsong’s “I Surrender” where you sing “have your way in me, Lord”?  I’ve banned that song from my church because I can’t hear that without imagining how someone who has been sexually abused hears it…

I mean, c’mon folks, maybe Jesus isn’t that into us.

I’m all for the talk of having the “heart strangely warmed,” to use a Wesley phrase (and he was reading my boy, Luther, btw).  I’m all for the stirring of the spirit, for soul-stirring that you can’t explain.  I’m Lutheran, a spiritual descendant of the one who kept repeating over and over again, pro me, when it came to Jesus’ promises in Scripture.

“For me.”

It’s personal.  And the opposite can be true.  A lot of places talk so much about God in the abstract, that any sort of relational talk is totally absent.

But I hear less of the latter and more of the former.  It’s good to talk about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but we’ve taken that and run right into the crazy bin.

If that’s all we focus on, the personal…and that’s a lot of what I hear…then, well, I think the boat has been missed, by and large.

When Jesus said “Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself,” I don’t think he imagined we’d stop on the first part as much we have.  Remember, that second part is “like the first.”

I’m all for a relationship with God; the mystic in me can’t do without it. St. Julian spoke of her relationship with Jesus in the most intimate way possible (totally scandalous…everyone should read some St. Julian).  But even from Julian you get the sense that she’s speaking from a “remain in me” kind of way, echoing Jesus from the Gospel of John.

But if it stops there…

No, really…I think a lot of places talk as if it goes on from there, about helping the neighbor, loving people for who they are and where they are in life, but it’s really just about you and Jesus and what you gain from that.

If that’s the case, well, then I’d say you have relationship issues. Maybe it’s good to consider that Jesus might not be that into you…not your boyfriend.

And that singular focus that I hear so much really often makes me a reluctant Christian.

My wife and I have a magnet on our fridge that says, “I found Jesus…he was behind the couch the whole time!”7786.jpg_3

My nephews love it.  I love it.

I think my nephews are even likely to tell their pastor that.  I encourage them to.  I told them it’d always be the “right” answer in Sunday School…because, you know, faith is all about having the “right answer”.

I think it’s funny.

I think it’s funny because, well, that whole theme of “lost and found” in the Bible is turned around by this whole notion of “finding Jesus.”

In all of those “lost and found” verses in the Bible, it’s not Jesus who is lost, but the other person.

Even in that “seek and you shall find” passage, there’s no indication that it’s “seeking” Jesus.

Seeking knowledge.  Seeking enlightenment.  Seeking salvation, liberation, wholeness…sure.

But not Jesus.

So this idea that we can “find Jesus”…well, you might as well look behind the couch because I think you’re just as likely to find Jesus crouching there as you are to find him in the “seeker’s service” at your local big-box worship center.

I’m not trying to come down harshly on “seeker services”; I think faith communities need accessible points of entry.

But if we think we’re giving them Jesus, as if Jesus can be commodified…well, we should stop fooling ourselves.

The search for Jesus is the search for the white stag…it’s pointless.

Yeah, pointless.  Because I think all you’ll end up finding is a mirror image of yourself that you pass off as Jesus.

Instead the faith teaches that Jesus is/was/will be right where you are, and has been all along.

Martin Luther has this totally unhelpful/helpful phrase about looking for Jesus.  When explaining how God is present in the Eucharist, Luther said that Jesus is “in, with, and under the elements.”

This is absolutely unhelpful to the rational mind.  The literalist, the legalist, the fundamentalist, they won’t accept that answer.

There must always be a system, a way of finding, a problem/solution answer.

But what if there isn’t?  What if, instead, we leave those things behind and just agree to encounter the mystery of a present God, seen in the Christ, who subverts every single system and search, and who just surprises us as being on the scene?  What if we just walk with mindfulness?

It’d be a Biblical way of operating, that’s for sure.  Jesus surprises everyone at the tomb, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clopas, the upper room, Paul’s lonely road to nowhereville.

Jesus surprises everyone in little Bethlehem (remember the Magi go six miles off course to Jerusalem to find him?).

Hell, maybe Jesus is behind the couch.  It’d surprise the socks off of me.

But if you looked, you won’t find him there.  Instead, it seems, Jesus finds us on the roads of confusion, in the upper rooms of fear, at the tomb of despair, in the little town of doubt.

That seems to be Jesus’ way.  This is why I don’t shy away from confusion, doubt, and despair.  I don’t have to have it all worked out.

Because that’s not the point.

I have a little mantra I repeat a lot to myself: “Jesus walked into a bar and no one noticed.”

Yeah…that sounds about right.