Christianity is full of labels.
Does caring about the environment make me a Liberal Christian?
Does opposing to the death penalty make me a Leftist Christian?
Does believing that women can preach make me a Christian Feminist?
Does believing in anti-violence make me a Christian Pacifist?
Does taking an anti-war stance make me an Anabaptist Christian?
Reading the Bible from the comfort of my couch, I find myself pointing fingers at individuals like Elijah. I can throw them under the bus for missing the point. It's easy for me to see how they got it all wrong. I'm amazed how apparent the presence of God can be one minute and the very next minute they sink deep into despair with this "woe is me" attitude — all the while thinking God has abandoned them.
But, as an onlooker, I have the privilege of seeing the whole story. I'm not living in the moment waiting for things to unfold. The Bible has extended to me the privilege of seeing the big picture, which makes it easy to see that while God is sometimes found on the mountain, or in those big cinematic experiences — conquering prophets, healing the sick, reviving the dead, conquering death — other times he is found in the valley, or in that still, small voice.
But then again, I have to wonder if I'm really any different? Don't I have the same struggles today? How often do I get caught up in the circumstances and lose sight of the big picture? I have some big mountain top experience — the money comes through, the deal works out, I got the job, my fear and anxiety dissipate, the mission trip is life changing, the sermon was exactly what I needed to hear — and, it never fails, the next minute I feel as though God has abandoned me. Doubts surface about whether or not God really has my best interest at heart. I wonder if he can even use someone as broken as me.
What causes such a drastic change?
After wrestling with this a little more, I came to a disheartening conclusion — I have a tendency to seek an experience instead of God.
Sometimes it's hard to blame people for rejecting God, because many Christians present a God that is ugly, cruel, unfair, and utterly horrific. Thus, when people avoid Christianity, they're actually shunning their ugly perception of it.
When you hear people talk about God, what type of God are you imagining? When you speak of God, what type of God are you communicating?
Unfortunately, society's obsession with success, politics, business, security, wealth, and comfort has hijacked the way we see and interpret God — even Christians are guilty of this.
It's easy to manipulate God to fit our own agendas, to use religion to rationalize our actions, to wield spirituality as a weapon, and manipulate theology to rationalize our sins.
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
Editor's Note: This post is adapted from a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Nixon.
Some of us have stood at a tomb, faced an open grave, scattered the ashes of one beloved. We know what it’s like to be confronted with the stark reality of death and the flood of conflicting emotions that comes with it. I’ve stood at different sites at Dry Creek Cemetery in Boise, Idaho, and the Veteran’s Cemetery next to it, to bury my father, my brother, my nephew, my step-father and-step sister, my brother-in-law, not to mention my beloved piano teacher, and a dear high school friend. Not so long ago I stood by the open grave of Patrice Heath as her casket was lowered into the ground. We prayed and wept and celebrated her life, but it is not an easy thing, under any circumstances, to lay a loved one to rest.
The ancient story of Lazarus being raised from the dead in John 11:1-45 is just such a situation. It’s also another occasion to encounter Jesus in his divinity and his humanity. It’s a long, complicated story. You have heard it read. I will not attempt to unpack it all.
Andrew Bird is one of my favorite musicians. I love the way he makes a one-man band, looping over his own violin playing, singing, whistling, and stomping to create beautiful songs. No two live performances are the same. And once, when I saw him in D.C., he played a new song that was still being written — one that had come from his heart, but he hadn’t yet finished and didn’t think it had an end.
He told us he wrote the song during the BP oil spill, often called “Deepwater Horizon,” that happened in the Gulf of Mexico. During that disaster, over 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the Gulf for days on end from a hole nobody could plug, and the whole country watched it happening live.
This year, some have given up Facebook for Lent. Others joined the “National Day of Unplugging” on March 7-8, putting away their phones, tablets, and laptops for a 24-hour digital Sabbath designed to slow people down in an increasingly hectic world.
According to the National Day of Unplugging website, people unplugged in order to dance, sleep, write, play, reflect, relax, reset, tune in, chill out, stay sane, and be more connected.
But wait a second — be more connected? That seems odd, since the promise of social media is that it will strengthen connections. Facebook links us instantly to hundreds of friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. Twitter enables us to follow people and collect followers of our own. LinkedIn links us to colleagues through an enormous professional network.
Social media seems to be all about connections. But its links have serious limitations.
Let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:24, NRSV)
Pride has taken many forms in my life, but most dangerously in this: I have taken myself far too seriously. You wouldn’t think that a neurotic worrier who spent eight years in therapy would be full of pride. But for years I was utterly consumed with anxiety over what would happen in my life, because I believed that it should go a certain way and that I had both the responsibility and ability to bring that about.
So there’s nothing like having your worst fear come true — 19 months* of unemployment in a bad economy — to show you how small you really are, especially compared to God.
It was kind of amazing.
I became a member of Young Koreans United (YKU), a Korean American grassroots group providing solidarity to the people’s movement for democracy, human rights, and reunification of Korea in 1986. YKU was instrumental in forming the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium (NAKASEC); established 20 years ago to build a progressive Korean American voice on major civil rights issues. I joined the NAKASEC board a few years back. Throughout this time, I have tried to provide a clergy presence whenever I can to show that ending the suffering of immigrant families, including that of the 1 out of 7 undocumented Korean Americans, is also a concern of persons of faith.
Recently, a large wealthy church decided to break up with my denomination. I’m not 100 percent sure I know why. But the no-regrets explanation they wrote implied that religious differences between us were too severe for them to stay committed to our relationship.
Religion has a way of making people do extraordinary things to create peace and unity. It also, as we know well, has a destructive capacity to turn people against one another. It can make us grip our convictions so tightly that we choke out their life. We chase others away, then say “Good riddance” to soothe the pain of the separation. Even more alarming, too many religious people insist on isolating themselves and limiting their imagination about where and how God can be known.
All these realities take on a sad irony when we read about God promising to be outside the walls, present with different people in different places. What does it look like when God defies the restrictions we presume are in place?
“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
Thus begins the spiritual drama of Lent, the forty days before Easter that commemorates Jesus’ wilderness experience. No human, not even Jesus, can escape the temptation of the devil.
Just before Jesus was led into the wilderness, he was baptized in the Jordan River by John. As the Gospel of Matthew reports, when Jesus emerged from the water “a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’”
Jesus’ identity as God’s Son had always been true, but he received confirmation of his relationship with God at his baptism.
Is Eve all about sex? Or might she want something else? Our popular imagination turns Eve into a receptacle for one set of our fantasies. Our fixation on Eve’s sexuality causes us to overlook the story’s major themes and what they might mean for our common life together. Indeed, biblical scholar Ken Stone shows that Genesis 2-3 has a lot more to say about food than it does about sex. Even if becoming “one flesh” is about sex, and maybe it’s not, there’s all kinds of references in the passage about what the first humans may or may not eat.
The story tells us directly what Eve wants. She doesn’t want to tempt Adam. And she doesn’t want a snake curling suggestively around her body. Eve wants wisdom.
And she gains wisdom.
Let’s review some of the overlooked details in this story.
“I knew from the beginning that as a woman, an older woman, in a group of ministers who are accustomed to having women largely as supporters, there was no place for me to come into a leadership role. The competition wasn’t worth it.”
These are the words Ella Baker spoke regarding her decision to leave the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, SCLC, in 1958. Baker was one of the core founders of this organization. Yet, her male colleagues only recognized her competence and expertise to a limit. The “preacher’s club” selected Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker to replace Baker at the helm. Due to this prevailing patriarchy and what she deemed a focus on “mass rallies and grand exhortations by ministers without follow-up,” Baker left the SCLC. She chose to go her own womanly way.
We make decisions every day. Life’s twenty-four-hour cycle is filled with choices. We contemplate what we will wear. We ponder breakfast selections. Will it be the bagel with cream cheese or a caramel macchiato with soy? Should I watch Mad Men, Scandal, or go to bed early? Do I call or just send a text or email? Our daily lives are replete with routine choices.
However, beyond these commonplace decisions are those personal, communal, and national selections that will have an impact on our lives years from now.
Last year, I wrote about my journey from forcing joy to finding that love is what is everlasting, not joy — that we sometimes hear and believe that Jesus only lives in the places of our lives where we recognize him with joy. But that that is not true.
And so, almost as an afterthought, I've been thinking lately of other ideals that Christians hold as truth, somehow in the process giving a lifeless principle more weight than a Living Christ who reveals himself beyond what can be wrapped up with words and smacked with a theological bow.
Like the concept of Presence.
We know and rest our restless hearts in the idea that Jesus is with us always, lo, even unto the very end of the age. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. And this is good. We sing songs and pray prayers and feel goose bumps and know that it is true … at least in those moments.
But what about the God who seems to be known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence? What happens when we don't feel God’s proximity uninterrupted?
I had the idea for this blog post a couple weeks ago, but I thought it best to wait until around this time to release it. Just two weeks into the new year, this is usually the stage in which people are slowly becoming less committed to their resolutions.
I know there is much disdain for the phrase "new year, new me." We all have family and friends who commit themselves to something on January 1st, whether it be to exercise more, eat healthier, become a better Christian, etc., and just days into the new year they have already failed to live out those commitments. The phrase probably should be "new year, same old me." This post is not intended to stroke the ego of our skeptics, rather, Lord willing, it will serve as encouragement to those who strive to better themselves.
Although we struggle to stay faithful to our new found endeavors, thankfully we serve a God who is both patient and forgiving. Psalm 86:15 states, "But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."
I’ll be upfront and admit it. When I heard about the chemical spill that shut down the water supply for 300,000 of my fellow West Virginians, I felt an odd tug of relief. “Maybe now something will get straightened out,” I thought to myself.
Sure, what I felt might sound callously unfeeling. After all, the chemical spill closed down businesses and schools, shut down bathing, and reduced populations to scrapping for potable water. Happily, thousands of neighbors and outliers pitched in to deliver water from bottles to tankers to the beleaguered people.
Welcome, world, to West Virginia, your national energy sacrifice state. Our state has a king — name’s Coal. Just as in Nebuchadnezzar’s era (Daniel 3), on cue politicians, business people, and media outlets bow their knee to King Coal lest their fates be a metaphorical fiery furnace.
Before readers think I’m off-track, let me first back up.
(Editor's Note: This post was adapted from the author's speech at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver.)
When I was in seminary, one of my best friends came up with a brilliant theological … pick up line:
"Hey, baby. What’s your hermeneutic?"
Despite the genius of that question, we soon discovered that anytime you start a pick up line with “Hey, baby” you’re in some trouble.
But it’s such a great question. Think of all the relationships that would have avoided painful break ups if they just defined the relationship in the beginning by answering the question “What’s your hermeneutic?"
Sojourners campaigns assistant Anna Hall posted a great piece last week de-bunking 5 myths about the minimum wage. One of these myths — that most minimum wage workers are suburban teenagers — was countered by the facts: nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are adult women.
Don’t think of a suburban teenager — think of a single mother working full time while trying to raise her children, care for her family, and make enough to pay rent, probably without any paid sick or personal days (not to mention maternity leave). Could you do that on $15,000 a year?
On Jan. 13, Maria Shriver – who, in addition to her many accomplishments, is the daughter of the statesman widely regarded as the architect of the “War on Poverty” — released a report focusing on the needs of women in the current economy.