THE BOOK OF REVELATION is one of our companions this Eastertide. We are invited to contemplate its central image, the axis around which everything revolves: “the Lamb at the center of the throne” (7:17).
Is this an image that can engage the imaginations of our contemporaries, especially those unfamiliar with the scriptural symbolism? In 2016, I had my tattooist in New Zealand inscribe on the inside of my right forearm a striking copy of a medieval sculpture, one of the few that survive from the great Abbey of Cluny in France. It depicts the Lamb of God, bearing a cross. The Latin inscription surrounding it means, “As carved here the Lamb of God is small, but how great he is in heaven!”
I hadn’t anticipated that bearing this image on my body would lead to all sorts of intriguing conversations. Curious strangers stop me in checkout lines, bars, the beach, the street, asking, “What does that mean?” I talk about the vulnerability of God’s noncoercive love, and its ultimate power. Nothing can take away the sins of the world except the love that is revealed on the cross and vindicated in the resurrection. “Here is the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29).
Are these conversations sowing seeds of change? Only God knows. As for ourselves, we are still learning from the scripture’s insistence that the ultimate meaning of the Lamb is only accessible through adoration.
My friends on the row want to end up like our psalmist. They need to be set free from the prison that they are in — the prison in their minds which holds them captive and will not let them go. A lot of my friends have had traumatic childhoods, leading them to be hypervigilant. They have trained their brains to listen for every little sound in order to keep themselves safe. That same hypervigilance is pure torture inside a prison where the cacophony of sounds demands their on-going attention. They deal with the replaying of scenes in their lives that were painful. Therefore heir minds do not know what it means to be at peace. They desperately need to be free from the prison in their mind.
Lamps and debt. A friend in the night, and a sower of seeds. Wine, nets, pearls, weeds, and treasure. What is the kingdom of God like? It is like leaven and it is like two sons, like bridesmaids and sheep, like workers and judges.
In the 37 times that Jesus describes the reign of God in the Gospels, not once is the kingdom of God like a kingdom of earth. Thirty-seven times Jesus reshapes the imaginations of his followers. Thirty-seven times Jesus tells them a story to help them remake the only world they know.
Christianity transformed from a faith reliant on Jesus to a civic religion obsessed with obtaining partisan power. This co-opting of Jesus — manipulating His gospel of love and redemption to fit the narrative of an expanding American empire, specifically to maintain the colonial stronghold of white supremacy — fits a historical pattern.
When I asked Father Guy Wilson what the children of immigrant parents are telling him, amid the current inundation with media chatter, political rhetoric, and executive action on the topic of immigration, tears welled up in his eyes and one fell on his clerical shirt.
“It’s hard,” he said. “They are so scared.”
“Some of the teenagers have told me: ‘My parents are good people. They have never even had a traffic ticket. Why would anyone want to take them away from me?’”
It is the tragedy of Christianity that the first hate crime in our constellation of texts is Matthew’s, in his telling the story of the passion. Jesus was a great teacher, an inspiring healer, and a man whose radical compassion touched everyone — women without honor, under-employed fisher folk, Roman soldiers, gentiles, Samaritans, scholarly Pharisees. The hearts of Palestinian Jews flocked to him, and this terrified the Romans. They tried to abort his movement by making his death a spectacle of cruelty and unutterable degradation.
When our desire for security is so great that it diminishes our humanity and our capacity, or willingness, to see the world through the eyes of another, we lose a precious part of who we were designed to be. Our hearts are hardened, calcified.
You probably don’t think of Christmas as a revolutionary holiday. Twinkling lights on trees, Starbucks gift cards, and sweet carols are not exactly the stuff of subversion. A domesticated Christmas is comforting, but considering our fraught political landscape today, we might find better lessons by reflecting on the disruption caused by Jesus’ birth, and the radical implications of his life.
As Pope Francis officially opened this year’s Christmas Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, he said Jesus was a “migrant” who reminds us of the plight of today’s refugees.
Francis told donors who contributed both the Nativity set and an 82-foot tree that the story of Jesus’ birth echoes the “tragic reality of migrants, on boats, making their way toward Italy,” from the Middle East and Africa today.
Exit polls suggest 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for President-elect Donald Trump.
But support for Trump may have been less decisive on Christian college campuses, where most students are also white evangelicals.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll, before the election, found the views of younger adults do not align with some older ones, when it comes to their beliefs about Trump supporters.
Churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2001, and people gathered on that day, and for some days later. There was a draw to sacred space in the midst of our everyday space being turned into dust–profane, unholy, hollowed out. The liturgies I attended in those days that followed were stripped down, bare, and profoundly vulnerable. The psalms were prayed. People wept together. We clung close. We resisted asking questions of meaning, and allowed ourselves to grieve, to lament.
A lot fewer churches flung open their doors on September 11, 2002. And even fewer today. The gravitational pull to gather in sacred space has waned. And it has become impossible, for the most part, to disentangle our liturgies from our politics. No longer gathering together out of unvarnished need for the divine presence, some of us gather now precisely to ascribe meaning to the unfathomable through the inextricable linking of nationalism with religion.
According to one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, "The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." It is just a much more eloquent way of saying that the world thinks we’re a bunch of hypocrites.
To be quite honest, most of the time, the claim is warranted. I have a friend who wants nothing to do with Jesus because his father, a very religious man, was active in the local church but was abusive behind closed doors. Another friend continues to distance herself from anyone associated with the church because of their judgmental glares about her lifestyle choices.
Whatever their reasoning, I understand. I, too, have personally encountered the hypocrisy they see in our communities of faith. And if I'm at all honest, the number of times I have been the hypocrite who has turned others away are too numerous to count.
AS CHRISTIANS, we affirm that God, whose presence fills every nook and cranny of the universe, is already at work in each of our neighborhoods. Even though we can’t see God, God is there, standing at the right hand of the needy (Psalm 109:31). God is hard at work rescuing the oppressed (Jeremiah 20:13), comforting the stranger (Exodus 22:21), pleading the cause of the poor (Proverbs 22:23), giving food to the hungry (Psalm 146:7), giving the desolate a home to dwell in (Psalm 68:6). God’s son Jesus is so totally identified with our neighbors who are ill-clothed, lonely, sick, or imprisoned, that when we minister to them we minister to him (Matthew 25:31-46).
Because the God of biblical faith acts in this way, we can say much about God’s will for our neighborhoods. As a loving parent, God cares deeply about all our neighbors, and wants all God’s children to be free from exploitation and to have what they need for their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual well-being. God’s will is shalom for all.
Easter Sunday marks the holiest, most exalted moment of the Christian year. In Easter services all over the world, trumpets and organs blast. Flowers transform churches with their brightness. Worship leaders boldly proclaim: “Christ is risen!” Congregations echo back: “Christ is risen indeed!” The cycle of celebration and repetition begins as it should — a festive proclamation of good news. In Christ God has overcome the powers of sin and death, freeing us to live with hope and promising us life. Not just life after death, but full life, divinely inspired life — life in the here and now.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Even in these festive moments, many people express insecurity regarding the quality of their own believing.
In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man.
Rev. Laura Barkley debunked Kelly’s statements for Sojourners, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
I’d say the moment is ripe for “Christ in Christmas” — the real Christ, of course, who shunned the privileged and aligned himself with sinners and outcasts, whose heart went out to sufferers like the homeless of Rome whom a new pope risks serving.
I’d say the moment is ripe for new life being born in stables and forced to flee the powerful and greedy. We have seen Mammon’s insatiable maw, power’s absolute corruption of the human soul, and thugs murdering the many in order to protect the few — and we know our need of something better.
So, yes, it’s time for Christ in Christmas. Time for new life, time for hope, time for the faithful to say yes to God. Time for peace, not war. Time for repentance, not comfort at any cost. Time for justice and mercy and the even-handed goodness that God promised.
This, of course, isn’t what zealots mean when they vow to “defend” the faith from a culture’s “war on Christmas.” They want a free-fire zone where moralizers can denounce all but the like-minded, and churches with huge budgets can frighten or seduce worshippers into donor mode. They mean using Jesus’ name to impose the very cultural and political oppression that Jesus escaped once as a child but couldn’t escape as an adult.
The American Family Association has been tracking major companies to see how they promote Christmas. It came up with the “Naughty or Nice” list where it has examined different company’s websites, circulars, commercials, and stores noting how many times they use the word “Christmas,” if at all. According to the association’s website, “If a company has items associated with Christmas, but did not use the word “Christmas,” then the company is considered as censoring “Christmas.” Its research has uncovered that if you shop at Radio Shack, Barnes & Noble, Family Dollar, and Foot Locker (just to name a few) then you are part of the problem and thus should be placed on the “naughty list.”
The American Family Association believes that there is a full out “war on Christmas.” Well, I would have to say that it is correct but not for the reasons it postulates.
Brace yourselves. The calendar has turned over to December, which means that the inevitable discussion on the “War on Christmas” will soon see it’s opening salvo for 2013.
It is inevitable. There will be an outrage by a prominent figure about how we have lost our moral fabric because as someone was buying gifts with money they don’t have to impress people that they don’t always like, the cashier will commit the unthinkable sin of wishing us a “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
There will be gnashing of teeth as a town or city somewhere will have a “Holiday Parade” rather than a “Christmas Parade,” as Tulsa had done several years ago. (The parade was subsequently boycotted by one of it’s senators.)
The chorus of those who would profess to be Christians will shout that the “Political Correctness Police” have overstepped yet another boundary and that we should not take the “Christ out of Christmas” as the batch of perceived slights against Christendom freshly reveal themselves for this holiday season.
As a person who would say that Jesus is the most important thing in my life, who has devoted my life to the service of God’s Kingdom, and spends all of my waking moments trying be faithful to that devotion, I have to ask: “What exactly do we mean by putting the ‘Christ back in Christmas'?”
How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.
Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!