jesus is for losers

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everyone seems to be talking about jesus and his followers right now. it might just be that it’s christmas time, but i think there is a bit more going on here. the culture wars are ramping up, and it seems to me that there is a tsunami of change on the horizon. 

once upon a time, in order to be recognized as a full-fledged american christian, you had to look, speak and act in very defined ways. whereas now, depending on what you’re looking for, you can find any and every way to make jesus appealing to each niche people group. jesus for hipsters, yuppies, protestants, catholics, emergents, baby boomers, even duck callers (too soon?). 

while jesus spent the last century in a suit and tie, unable to dance, cuss, drink or go to the movies, jesus is now best utilized as a stamp of approval for whatever makes us feel most comfortable and fulfilled. everyone from john stewart to rush limbaugh quote him, making it nearly impossible for outsiders to discern which group jesus really stands with and for. 

i must admit, i’m a little confused myself. 

was jesus the cool guy who made trendy folks feel at home, confidently knowing that the previous generation screwed up royally or was he the religious zealot who made sure all the sinners knew they were outcasts?

or was he neither of these polarizing options?

the first breath sucked in by the jesus we read about in the gospels was most likely saturated with cow manure. he was surrounded by farm animals, born to a peasant family, in a city that folks believed nothing good could come from. when he grew up, he was an itinerant preacher, healer, friend to large amounts of shady undesirables, who often got in trouble for breaking sabbath and other jewish ordinances. he touched lepers (you just didn’t do that), allowed prostitutes to wash his feet with their tears and hair, spoke to adulterous women (setting them free from the law code that condemned them) and invited fledgeling fishermen and swindling tax collectors to follow him. 

he spent the majority of his time putting religious authorities in their place, all the while showering love on society’s losers, thereby giving them the dignity inherent to the image of God they were born with.

it is also believed that jesus was homeless, since he has been quoted as saying, “foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.” he would say these sorts of things indicating to folks that were eager to follow him that if they weren’t also willing to wander about without a place to call home, they were not fit for his kingdom. he probably didn’t smell very good, and he certainly didn’t wear skinny jeans or a three piece suit.

i think we need to remember this rugged, uncool, irreligious prophet, not so that we can simply understand christianity better, but so that we can once again learn what it means to walk in his steps. 

this christmas, remember the loser who showed us how to love. not the costless sort of love that pats folks on the back, encouraging them to stay warm and be well fed, but the love that calls us to lay down our own hopes and dreams for people who have no hope whatsoever. remember his call to never forget the people he spent his life around. remember that not one of us is better than the other and that religion will never fulfill the deep longings you have inside you. remember the losers, because they’re the ones jesus is  still standing with and for. 

 

***i mean loser in the most affectionate, least judgmental way imaginable***

capitalism = evolution = the way we’re wired = not the jesus way

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For many Evangelical Christians, the idea of a god that would create via evolution is distasteful, even heretical.

Many of these folks (evangelicals) also subscribe wholesale to the economic system known as capitalism, even labeling it the most “christian” of economic systems.

I see a pretty glaring problem with this. Let me explain.

The theory of evolution (which, truth be told, I embrace) is based on the idea that the most fit creatures survive. If you can’t hack it, one way or another, you’re bound for extinction. The system of capitalism is based on the very same premise; only the “strong” survive.

We are wired to adapt to our surroundings, which enables us to survive in the context in which we’ve come to dwell. This article recently posted on CNN describes our economic situation better than I can, but it basically echoes the idea that those who have risen to the top afford their offspring a far greater chance to thrive than those who find themselves on the bottom of the economic ladder.

Capitalism make sense to us because it is that which comes most natural to us. If you don’t take it, someone else will. It is even seen as virtuous, since folks who reside at the top of our economic ladder are often assumed to be living more responsible, moral lifestyles.

Truth is, some of us are just more “fit” than others. This has been the situation now, it was before and will be forever true about the way this world functions. While some have found themselves in a favorable place to grow, learn and thrive overall, others have been systematically marginalized into a vast economic ghetto.

Problem is, those of us who have heard of and bought into Jesus of Nazareth have been directed to live in a way that not only looks radically different from this mode of operation (survival of the fittest, capitalism), but to name and subvert it in a way that makes it look foolish. This is a complete transformation in the way we, as humans, have always lived. In the same way Jesus brought shame to the powers, we have taken up the task to expose the systems that continually lift those in power to greater heights while pushing those on the margins further into oblivion. Instead of constantly seeking our own good, we are instructed to pay close attention to the needs of the folks who are falling around us. Whether it be due to their “fitness” or something else, we’ve got a directive that flies in the face of the old world’s order.

Jesus and John the Baptist describe this shift in thinking as repentance. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” is not about saying sorry for lying, swearing or getting drunk last night, but a call to recognize the reign of God on earth as it is in Heaven. Therefore, when we “repent” we begin to see attainment of wealth and power while leaving the weak and poor in our wake for what it is: the way of the world. It is the way we have been wired to live, and it is unquestionably the opposite of how we are called to live as followers of the earth’s true King.

Which leads me to my favorite way our scriptures describe this shift. It is an expression we have come to know quite well in evangelicalism: the new creation. Whereas the old creation’s order is to dominate and subdue the weak, the rule of the new creation brings peace to those who were once poor, meek and abused. We talk so often about being made into a new creation, but we seem to prefer the old way of doing things. I prefer the new creation.

What I find most interesting is how often I have been accused of not taking the scriptures seriously. I would like to take this opportunity to redirect the question to those who believe capitalism to be biblical, even christian. Where in the teachings of Jesus and his followers do we find any approval of a system that allows the few to rise, while the many fall without any hope or support? Where does Jesus ever direct us to seek our own prosperity, especially at the expense of those who are suffering around us? I don’t see it, but if you can show me the scriptures to back it up, I’ll see capitalism as the biblical way too.

 

-dave-

 

 

 

 

 

 

dependence

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it is entirely impossible to escape the onslaught of opinions surrounding holidays like independence day. people on both sides of the isle excitedly talking about why they love their country and others preaching about how we should beware of our bent towards nationalism. i don’t want to be yet another noisy gong or clanging cymbal here, but from the conversations i’ve been having, it’s quite clear that the posture i have taken towards the country i live in is slightly misunderstood. so let’s do this:

i do not hate america. i love and respect her as the nation i call home and obey the laws of the land.

phew! feels good to get that one off my chest.

nationalistic fervor, patriotism and the like are well understood in my mind. it’s not difficult to see why folks would be thankful to live in a country that affords them many liberties that are not so accessible in other nations. i have no trouble recognizing all the good america has done throughout the world, and i appreciate the ability to speak freely and practice my religion without threat of violence or persecution. these are good things, and they are not to be downplayed or forgotten.

however (you knew this was coming), i’m not patriotic. i do not get goose bumps when i hear the national anthem or god bless america playing over fireworks or during the 8th inning of a baseball game. my consciousness has been made far too aware of her violent and oppressive beginnings to ever affirm america as a place of moral purity. she has never been nor will she ever (or any other nation) be “christian”.

but there are goose bumps aplenty when i hear of the good work being accomplished by folks who have dedicated their lives to the cause of the kingdom of heaven; a community of people defined (by her king) as one that makes peace in forgotten and broken places, brings healing and is relentlessly forgiving.

for example, i was having a conversation the other day with my housemate about how i’ve witnessed his admirable efforts in the realm of premeditated peacemaking. my friend goes out of his way to mentor a young man who is of little value to america (unless he decides to fight for her). he is the son of an immigrant and lives in one of the worst neighborhoods in all of massachusetts. by all accounts, he should have ended up in the gang on his street, but my friend has taken the time to bring peace into his life, and the life of his family.

this young man’s life will have been forever changed because my friend has decided to pursue life, liberty and the pursuit of shalom for someone other than himself. in a country fixed on individualistic pursuits of wealth, independence (though pursued for the good of others, most often won through violence) and so-called moral purity, the ethos of the kingdom of heaven shines as bright as the sun: people willing to give of themselves, cast aside judgment, putting their well-being at risk (carrying a cross) in order to put the kingdom of the lion and the lamb on display.

i refuse to be the angsty twenty-something i used to be. i will not be the “anti-you name it guy.” we must give an alternative to the system where power reigns, where poor and sinner are lives for gain; food for a better tomorrow. all the while, we must remember not to despise the place we find ourselves in. it is all too easy to go one way or the other, rather than opting for a “third way”.

each person is of enormous worth and i pledge allegiance to a kingdom that values people over property. when we pledge our whole selves to the kingdom where God is king, we will come to find that people are not an obstacle on our way to success and happiness, but an end in and of themselves.

rather than independence, i’m dedicated to pursuing the creation of a holy, Jesus-like community in a world devoid of peace. may we be ever dependent upon the Spirit that breathes life in to the community of the Christ rather than

-dave-

nameless love

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how can you feed me if you don’t know what i like to eat?

how can you fight for me if you’ve never met my demons?

how can you speak for me when you’ve never heard my voice?

you’re almost there. you know i’m hurting, so you’ve come to offer me your excess

for that i thank you

yet i remain a charity case

i am less than a person since i am without a name

you know my condition and call me by my disease (poor, oppressed, homeless, marginalized)

love without a name is no love at all

so feed me. fight for me. speak for me. categorize me.

what’s more, be with me.

i’ll take your charity, but i desire your company.

-dave-

heremeneutic of privilege

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As I often do when I feel overwhelmed by a controversial theological topic that is beating me up, I gave my good friend and brother T.C a call (http://www.theologicalgraffiti.com/). He has a way about him that gets me back on track. Yet again, he came through in the clutch.

This particular phone call touched on the edges of quite a few subjects, but the one I can’t seem to shake is the conversation we had about our hermeneutic of privilege.

For those who are not familiar with the word, hermeneutic is simply an interpretive lens through which we read scripture. Everyone has a lens (or lenses), as it is entirely impossible for any single person or group to read the scriptures with a blank slate. For me, I’ve identified my dominant lens as one of privilege. However, what I mean by privilege is more holistic than it may appear. I don’t only mean that I approach scriptures as a fairly wealthy and educated white male (which I most certainly do), but also, as T.C. pointed out, a person saved by the grace of God (a privilege that implies I am no longer a slave to the world’s system).

We who claim to be Jesus people believe in a God that was more privileged than any wealthy white male could ever imagine, yet was willingly emptied for our sake, strapping on all the baggage that comes with being human. This same God that we find exhibited in the person Jesus calls us to follow in his Way. This is a very basic reality inherent in Christian theology in which you would be hard-pressed to find any disagreement.

Being that there is very little disagreement on the matter, why is it that we who are privileged have not sought to combat the hermeneutic that has isolated us from the people Jesus spent the majority of his time with? Why have we not had the insight to realize our hermeneutic of privilege should lead to a life of disadvantage? If I were to guess, I would say that it has something to do with the fact that we spend more time studying and worshiping in buildings surrounded by people who are exactly like us than we do engaging with folks who look and think differently than you and I.

Remember where it is that you come from. This Jesus we follow didn’t sit behind a desk with a library full of books that might provide all his followers with the answers to every theological conundrum known to man.

Instead he walked, he cried, he healed, he ate, he drank, he sweat and he bled. He spent time with people who were not like him.

We have to begin to examine ourselves more fully. Where is the majority of our scripture reading taking place? Do we do more theology behind a desk, on a mac, in a comfortable leather chair, or is there more flesh and blood in your theological reflection? Are we involved in a diverse community, one that challenges our presuppositions and pushes us to examine ourselves in ways we would have rather avoided?

It is imperative that we walk alongside the folks that have been cast aside by the privilege we enjoy. In this way, we will subvert our privilege by allowing the poor, the meek and the pure seekers to illuminate our blind spots. This is the good news. This is the way of the Messiah.

-dave-

Aside

The Walking Dead, saison 1I am a major fan of The Walking Dead. I’m not usually into zombies, but something about this show seems to do it for me. For all those who watch, the characters (those not yet undead) are faced with the choice between embracing the death growing inside them or living with the hope that life is still good and worth living . Some choose to dive into this world of walking death with full force, capitulating to its apparent hopelessness and choosing to leave their lives of kindness, generosity and trust behind. Others remain hopeful, seeking to treat the people they meet as they would like to be treated (welcoming them, killing off zombies for them, etc). This sort is the minority.

The main character on The Walking Dead, at least for now, is a man named Rick. He is the leader of a group of survivors (folks who have yet to fall prey to the zombie apocalypse), and is often forced to make decisions as to whether or not he should welcome strangers in or cast them away to fend for themselves. More often than not (as of late) Rick trusts no one, tending to throw others out into the streets rather than welcome them in (as had been previously done for him twice before).

The more time that goes by, the more survivors fall victim to the death that is permeating the world. Rick and his companions are fighting a losing battle, constantly struggling to make it through another day.  All the while folks are being driven to insanity, losing the version of themselves that would stick out their neck for a person to whom they had no particular allegiance.

Our pre-apocalyptic world is not so different. So many of us wake up without expectation, without hope. Our day ends with the swipe of our brow and a prayer of thanks that God got us through another one. We don’t seem to live for the thrill that somehow our whole wretched existence might just be turned upside-down. In fact, most of the decisions we make have a desired outcome of creating a more comfortable life.

Many, if not most people are in search of stability. There’s a steady longing for peace and certainty that comes with being human, but it seems to me that the life God has invited us into is not quite so stable. It is clearly more dangerous to embrace a life of faith, to believe that love is worth it. It killed Jesus, and it’s been known to kill one too many Walking Dead characters.

The way of love and non-judgment (a.k.a the narrow way) is as difficult as it gets. It doesn’t take much to inflict pain, to go along with the way world bends, to treat others as you have been treated, but loving others as you would like to be loved is a fight against the tide. You will often meet resistance in the form of distrust, since many previously unloved folks are accustomed to being treated like they are an inconvenience, or conversely, a charity case. Not only that, but the folks who “know the truth” will try to tell you that your fight is futile and that the work has already been done for you. They will insist that you are trying to earn some sort of favor with God, rather than understanding that you are just trying to take that Jesus guy seriously.

Fact is, there is hope all around us. There are people who would rather die than kill and seek the good of folks around them at the cost of their own comfort. In a world where death sits on the throne, for me the only way to live is as a conscientious objector. Our rebel king gave us a Way, not just a new fairy tale to believe in so we can feel settled as the storms come.  I say bring on the storms! Somehow life will always break through, and I want to be a part of the kingdom that fights fire with water, not a passenger waiting for my ship to come save me from the treacherous waters.

Maybe in the end Rick and his friends will realize that their existence is not worth holding onto until they have given up the fight to stay alive. Self preservation is one of our worst enemies and it causes us to neglect the people who would enrich our lives the most. Our lives defined by comfort and stability are as life-threatening as the dangers facing the folks in The Walking Dead. May we take risks that will awake us from our zombie-like state.

For more on the kind of life I am trying to describe, read my friend Ryan’s blog here.

-dave-

look alive

confessions of a one time calvinist

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  An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the conception of following Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

When i was a young lad at Eastern Nazarene College, right down the street from “blue” Quincy Bay, I took a class called Philosophical Quest with a man named Dr. Thomas J. Oord (“the doctor of love”). During the course of the semester I came to the understanding that the God of Jesus of Nazareth IS Love and that we are creatures made in God’s image so that we can respond freely to God’s desire to be in relationship with us (creation). Not too far into taking this course, a friend of the family happened to be visiting from New York. This friend happened to be a newly converted Calvinist and he was after me like a heat-seeking missile. While I was sharing about the great freedom I has experienced from this new found truth about God, he began to quote scripture (Romans 8-10, Ephesians 2, John 3). ‘At this time I was a young, impressionable evangelical mind, and I began to think that this “doctor of love” had duped me with flowery language in order to lead me away from the truth! Indeed, I was told that this college professor was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Needless to say, I dove head first into the soteriological system known as “the doctrines of grace,” a.k.a Calvinism.

From that point on, I became one of two “Reformed” students in the class, ready and willing to stomp out the sea of heretical Arminians. What’s strange is that, to this day, I’m not sure what came over me. It’s as though simply believing in the “doctrines of grace” led me to become an attack dog for God. A quiet student before this, I began to raise my hand in defense of the faith so that my fellow classmates would have the chance to hear “the truth” before they spent too much time believing that God actually loved the people God made.

Over time I softened on my stance that there were some divinely elected before the universe was made to experience the joys of heaven, while others were predetermined to suffer in the fires of hell. I didn’t stop embracing Calvinism for another couple years, but I did relax on my defense of the system as time moved on. I just couldn’t reconcile all the suffering in the world with the idea that all was going according to God’s plan, and I didn’t feel like the sovereignty of God, as defined by Calvinists, provided an adequate or biblical explanation for the mess that is planet earth.

More importantly, I discovered that my embrace of the idea that God was willing all that came to be (rape, genocide, sex-trafficking, etc.) left me crippled. It was way too much to handle or even think about. Actually following Jesus became purely optional. I mean, I had been forgiven and any attempt to do good works would be like filthy rags anyway, so why should I get caught in the trap that the Catholic church had set before the time when Martin Luther and John Calvin set everyone straight! After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was just showing us how sinful we were and in need of his substitutionary death. He certainly didn’t mean for us to pursue a righteousness that goes deeper than the law! You may be able to see why, at the time, I mustered very little resolve to enter into the lives of people who didn’t have the luxury of going to heaven when they died.

As Bonhoeffer said, when we allow man-made systems to guide us, even systems characterized by grace and forgiveness, we make discipleship superfluous. This means that not only do we suffer, not experiencing the life Jesus offered, but folks who are without any hope or faith are simply offered something other than a horoscope or the possibility of winning the lottery to believe in.

We spend more time debating matters that are out of our hands than we do sharing the good news of freedom from oppression with our lives. We offer a new belief system (often based on guilt and shame) rather than a living and breathing community patterned after the loving, triune God. Therefore, our churches have become splintered and impotent, allowing theological debate to rule the day when Jesus had already defeated all the arguments we continue to use against following him like a child.

That’s why I was a one time, never-to-be-repeated Calvinist. I can never again adopt a system of salvation, because I’ve been freed from the need to be caged in a prison of TULIPs. These systems paralyze us into thinking we have it all figured out and that our sole duty as soldiers in the army of God is to share that information with other people. Don’t let that happen. Let the mess we have made overtake the neat and tidy world we would like to embrace. It’s only when we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the pain we experience that we can find the Messiah who was emptied, leaving himself vulnerable for the whole world.

 

-dave-