The Common Good

God's Politics

'I Was an Idiot' as a Sign of Grace

Few people in my life would likely make the mistake of characterizing me as a naturally disciplined or pious person. Zealous, maybe. Pious, no. I’ve tended to live life in a passionate pursuit of a particular direction only to stumble, fall, get back up, and run a different way (not necessarily opposite, just different).

Thus, it has been an interesting experience for me this Lent to spend time reading, writing, and reflecting on discipline and ascetic practices. This stumbling and turning has often felt like an aimless back and forth, but in these weeks of reflection, it has been encouraging to look back and see growth. While the back and forth has been real, what has seemed like “just meanderings” have turned out to have some forward direction.

Father Richard Rohr gives this encouragement, “The steps to maturity are, by their very nature, immature.”

As we look back, each step behind us is going to seem immature, maybe even like a mistake. Hitting our head and saying “God, I was such an idiot back then,” is evidence of grace at work in our lives. The ability to see the ways we failed that were invisible to us at the time, is a sign of our growth in wisdom and discernment. This is often hard for me to accept.

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Lent: Thine Be the Kingdom

CEO of World Vision Australia Rev. Tim Costello reminds us that the Lord's Prayer "is not about us." 

"This Easter we remember that Christianity is in some ways about the power of weakness — a man on a cross ... exposing the weakness of violent power. This rather is extraordinary power defined in love," he says.

 
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Songs of Ourselves: Grief, Hope, and Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens’ newest album, Carrie & Lowell (out now), is a heartbreaking meditation on personal grief. It’s also joyful, baffling, and delicately mundane. 

In the spirit of a listening party, a few of us sat down to play through the album, sharing liner notes and meditations on the songs that grabbed each of us. Conclusion: it's really, really good. Stream Carrie & Lowell here, and listen along with us below.

 

Death With Dignity” — Tripp Hudgins, ethnomusicologist, Sojourners contributor, blogger at Anglobaptist

Tripp: I love the first song of an album. I think of it as the introduction to a possible new friend. “Where The Streets Have No Name” on U2’s Joshua Tree or “Signs of Life” on Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, that first track can be the thesis statement to a sonic essay.

So, when I get a new album — even in this day of digital albums or collections of singles — a first track can make or break an album for me. I sat down and listened attentively to “Death With Dignity.” It does not disappoint. With it Stevens introduces the subject of the album — his grief around troubled relationship with his mother and her death — as well as the sonic palate he will use throughout the album.

Simple guitar work, layered voicing, and a little synth, the album is musically sparse. The tempo reminds me of movies from the nineteen sixties or seventies where the action takes place over a long road trip.

Catherine Woodiwiss: I was thinking road trip, too. There’s real motion musically, which, given a claustrophobic theme and circular lyrics, is a thankful point of release. It’s a generous act, or maybe an avoidant one — he could have made us sit tight and watch, and he doesn’t quite do it.

Julie Polter: This isn’t a road movie, but the reference to that era of films just made me think of Cat Stevens’ soundtrack for Harold and Maude, especially “Trouble.” (This album is one-by-one bringing back to me other gentle songs of death and duress and all the songs I listen to when I want to cry).

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Hozier's 'Take Me to Church' As a Holy Week Reflection

All Holy Week, I've been listening to Hozier's “Take Me to Church” — an odd sort of spiritual exercise, I suppose.

At first it was the hauntingly catchy refrain: “Take Me to Church” — and after all I would be going to church all week this week, the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar. Maundy, or Holy, Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunday.

The refrain was jarring against the artist's desired impact of the song, that in fact no one would be taken to church, that no one would trust the institutional church that has proven so dogmatic, divisive, violent, and decidedly un-Christlike in its practice as to become "a fresh poison each week."

“Take Me to Church” is about sexuality, about dogma, about prayer, about worship, about heaven, hell, life, death, sacrifice, sin, confession, and absolution. It’s about Catholicism and Protestantism and Jesus and atheism and fear and hope and love.

We each see pieces of it. Many American viewers saw Hozier's music video and wrongly assumed he was gay — that the sum of his message was about the church's persecution of homosexuality. And even though Hozier is not gay, he did mean to indict the church for its horrible treatment of the LGBTQ community — but the message of his song goes beyond sexuality.

Hozier is an Irish singer, a man who grew up with the deadly legacy of Catholic-Protestant war, a man whose national church was beset by sexual abuse scandals and pews full of dogmatic believers who had never read the Bible. Masses in many cases were dominated by ritual and women and babies sent away to church-run facilities, like the one where the bodies of nearly 800 infants were recently found in an unmarked mass grave.

Americans can look on the Irish church with judgment, yet our own church scandals and hypocrisy can fill even more pages.

As a pastor looking toward Easter Sunday 2015, I see something else in these lyrics. I see and hear a deep longing. Not only for sex. But a longing for the God who came to earth in Jesus, who died and rose again because of love.

I asked colleagues and friends about their responses to this song, as it dominates airwaves during Holy Week, and no one seemed to want to broach the topic. Too sexual, some said. Another, that "it could not be redeemed." Another, that "people would be too offended."

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Weekly Wrap 4.3.15: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. At Least 10 Religious Groups Have Come Out Against Anti-LGBT 'Religious Liberty' Laws
"While substantial attention has been paid to the lawmakers, athletes, businesses, and celebrities who have challenged the new laws, less has been said about the steady flow of criticism from the exact group these RFRAs are ostensibly designed to protect: people of faith."

2. Stress and Hope in Tehran
On Thursday, the U.S. and Iran along with five world powers reached a preliminary deal that would curb Iran’s nuclear program and address sanctions imposed upon the country. The New York Times offers this glimpse into what those sanctions mean for ordinary Iranians.

3. Outcry Over RFRA Might Be a Fear of Christians
"The outcry isn’t about the law, it’s about us. It’s a fear that we will discriminate. And it is a fear based on a history that, whether we like it or not, is ours. We have, in no shortage of ways, broken relationships with the LGBTQ community. We have expelled our sons and daughters. We have protested them. We blamed them for the ills of society like a scapegoat. And no matter what we believe about same-sex marriage, that is wrong. Because of that, restoring relationship and trust with the LGBTQ community is on us."

4. Why I Won't Wear White on My Wedding Day
"As far as we have come, and as removed from these traditions’ origins as we may be, we are still attached to these remnants of a woman’s worth and identity being grounded in her sexual activity, importantly solely for the purposes of her pleasing a man."

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Holy Week in an Unholy World

We call it Holy Week. But it was a terrible week.

His trial reeked of injustice. His own disciple sold him out for a few pieces of silver, betrayed him with a kiss … and hung himself.

As he was arrested, one of his closest friends disregarded all his teaching on love, pulled out a knife, and cut a guy’s ear off. (Jesus called him out … and healed the other guy). A lot of the stuff that happened that first holy week was pretty unholy.

Once arrested, he was passed back and forth between politicians and bureaucrats. There was Caiaphas the priest, the Sanhedrin council, Pontius Pilate, the crowd — everyone seemed to want him dead, but no one wanted blood on their hands. Even Pilate washed his clean.

They had all kinds of accusations. Insurrection. Inciting a riot. Conspiracy. Terrorism (plotting to destroy the temple). Blasphemy.

But all he did was love. And heal. And give people hope.

Despite any substantial evidence, witnesses, or signs of any crime committed, he was pronounced guilty and sentenced to die.

As he awaited his fate, he was bullied, interrogated, harassed, tortured, beaten to a pulp. The authorities humiliated him and stripped him naked. They mocked the claims of his divinity, ramming a crown of thorns onto his head and wrapping him in a royal purple robe as they laughed.

And so it went. This man who many believe was the holy one that the prophets spoke of, the long-awaited Messiah, God incarnate, love with skin on— was executed, brutally. He died with his body convulsing as his lungs collapsed, with vultures swarming overhead, hoping to clean up after the execution. There is nothing more evil than what happened that “Good” Friday.

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Preliminary Deal on Iran Nuclear Program Reached

The United States and Iran agreed to a preliminary deal on Iran's nuclear program today, Politico reports. The hotly anticipated deal, following stop-and-start negotiations and vocal concern from Republicans and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will include Iran dismantling two-thirds of its centrifuges and allowing rigiourous inspections by the IAEA through 2035 and beyond. In exchange for Iran's compliance, the U.S. and the E.U. will lift longstanding economic sanctions. 

President Obama was optimistic but pragmatic, saying the plan was a "good deal," according to Politico: 

"'[It is] a historic understanding with Iran which, if implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I am convinced that if this framework leads to a final deal, it will make our country and the world safer,' Obama said in a statement in the White House Rose Garden. The deal would 'cut off every pathway that Iran could take to develop a nuclear weapon.'

... Obama stressed in particular the inspection and verification aspects of the agreement. 'If Iran cheats, the world will know it. If we see anything suspicious, we will inspect it,' Obama said.

...'If there is backsliding on the part of the Iranians,' he said, 'there will be no deal.'"

The Win Without War coalition called the preliminary deal "huge news" in a statement, also released today:

"At a time when much of the Middle East is engulfed in war, the United States is on the verge of achieving one of our most pressing national security goals without dropping a single bomb. Today's progress towards a comprehensive, historic agreement between Iran, the United States, and our P5+1 partners not only ensures that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon, but it demonstrates precisely how America can win without war."

Details of the plan are anticipated in late June. Read more at Politico

 
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Indiana Lawmakers Agree to Amend ‘Religious Freedom’ Law

Indiana Republican legislative leaders, under growing pressure from inside and outside the state, said April 2 that lawmakers had reached agreement to amend Indiana’s controversial “religious freedom” law to ensure it does not discriminate against gay and lesbian customers of Indiana businesses.

 

The proposal, rolled out at the Statehouse, would grant new protections for LGBT customers, employees and tenants.

“What was intended as a message of inclusion was interpreted as a message of exclusion, especially for the LGBT community,” Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told reporters at the Statehouse.

“Nothing could have been further from the truth, but it was clear the perception had to be addressed.”

“Hoosiers value gays, straights, blacks, whites, religious and nonreligious,” Bosma said.

“We value each and every Hoosier.”

 

 

 

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Fifty Shades of God: Does Easter Week Affirm Our Violent Desires?

Have we made God into a monster? And as a result, have we taken the holiest of weeks in the Christian year and dressed it up as a celebration of bloody, violent sacrifice?

If so, I'm afraid we've gotten Easter all wrong.

I lead a small group discussion every Sunday morning at First Christian Church, Portland, where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. It's one of my favorite hours of the week, partly because of the common bonds of trust we're building that transcend our many differences. But it's also become a very safe place to ask hard, disturbing questions and to express ideas that, in many other contexts, might be shouted down or even excluded entirely from the conversation.

This week, we were discussing whether one could identify as Christian, in that they follow the example and teaching of Jesus, while also claiming no belief in any sort of metaphysical divinity (i.e., God). One member of the group, Heath, raised something very thought-provoking, particularly given the context of Holy Week and what it means to so many.

“If we are to believe that God sent Jesus to die for our sins,” said Heath, “it's easy to understand why so many would want to distance themselves from such a monstrous God.”

That led to a lively discussion about what Easter — and more specifically, Good Friday (when Jesus died by crucifixion) — meant to each of us, and how that understanding informed our understanding of the nature of God.

If God sent his only son first and foremost to die for our sins, then the climax of the Gospel narrative at Easter is the defining point at which we are left with what Heath called “Fifty Shades of God.”  

Here we are left with what I call the conundrum of substitutionary atonement, which is the belief that Jesus took our place on the cross — deserved by us, not him — in order to satisfy the price someone had to pay for our sins. And although many who call themselves Christians claim this belief, it raises some hard questions we tend to overlook when embracing such a claim.

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At Least 147 Killed, Hundreds Rescued in Kenyan University Attack that Targeted Christians

Somalia’s al-Shabab militants shot and killed more than 147 people, wounded dozens of others and held hundreds hostage April 2 at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya.
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