Nativity scenes in Newtown

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It’s not that there was anything wrong with the manger scene, lit up against the night sky, with its larger-than-life shepherds and angels and animals sitting on the hill. The whole crew of usuals was there, even the wisemen, who technically shouldn’t be on the scene for another year or two. The artwork had a slight “animated feature” vibe to it, but overall it was nice.

Too nice.

I couldn’t help wonder how that cartoon manger with its cartoon baby Jesus had anything relevant to say to Newtown, CT.

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Yesterday, The Onion­ – a satirical, faux-news website – posted an article about the shootings in Newtown with the headline “F— Everything, Nation Reports”. It was a sad, profound, bleak look at how most of us felt when we saw the news. Through fake quotes from fake news sources, the article might have captured the moment, and our hollow attempt to understand it, better than anything else I read. As one of the fake quotes put it: “good God, if this is what the world is becoming, then how about we just pack it in and f-ing give up, because this is no way to live.” Continue reading

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Science vs. Faith & other myths

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I was watching the show Fringe last night because, well, because of course I was. I could tell you all about the show and the characters and the mythology and how the last 2 seasons have been lousy but I’m sticking around to see how it ends … but none of that really matters.

What matters is that the show had one of those “science v. faith” moments that were super-cool back when LOST was doing it, but turned cliché a few years ago. In the scene one character gave this eloquent speech on behalf of reason – how the universe all boils down to math, and probabilities, and logic and whatnot. The other character – playing the role of “wise, mystical minority who speaks in vagaries and understands the mysteries of the universe”* – responds with a shoulder-shrug, a condescending smile, and says “well, I believe anyway.”  Continue reading

inconceivable interpretations of Romans 7

“Inconceivable!” the bald guy with the cartoon voice keeps shouting. He uses the word over and over to express his shock.

And finally Inigo Montoya – of “… you killed my father, prepare to die” fame – has had enough and utters my favorite line from The Princess Bride: “you keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

I mention this because I’ve heard several explanations of the famous Romans 7 passage where Paul says “… the things I want to do, I don’t do. What I don’t want to do I find myself doing,” etc.

And with nearly every explanation I find myself thinking “You keep using that Scripture. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

People like to say “see, Paul struggled the same way we did! His life was an ongoing battle too! Just like ours!” It’s the ultimate “misery loves company” moment for us. We should EXPECT for our lives as Christians to be a tooth and nail fight for shreds of goodness!

… wait, how is this good news?  It seems to me that if Paul’s saying “yep, the Christian life is one big, ongoing ying and yang battle against sin and you’ll probably never see much progress” … well that just depresses me.

But I don’t think that’s what Paul’s saying. At all. But seeing that involves backing up a bit. Continue reading

a new love

I’m speaking for the college ministry at my church this Thursday, and have the privilege to cover 1 Cor. 13 (a.k.a. the “love” chapter that’s often read at weddings).

In my preparation I learned something interesting: the word for love in this chapter is “agape” (which I knew). But what I didn’t know is how odd Paul’s word-choice was. During Paul’s time agape was an obscure word nearly no one knew. Most people think it was adopted from the Hebrew language, and thus was far from being a common colloquialism.

So why — in one of him most evocative chapters ever — does Paul use a word no one knows? I think for the same reason anyone uses an uncommon word … to sound smart.

… not really. I think it’s because new words demand new interpretation. Whenever I use the word “orange” my brain opens up a file containing everything I know about oranges. So if I want to communicate something OTHER than the information in that file, I need a new word.

I think Paul uses the word agape to clarify that he’s not talking about love the way his readers knew it. No, the love Paul talked about was something that — like the word — was different, rare, unusual. He then spends half the chapter defining this love: it’s patient, kind, free of jealousy and pride and rudeness. This love is hopeful and joyful and it’s always always always a proponent of the truth. It leads to faith and hope.

And I think the implication of this chapter is that whatever this agape is, it’s altogether other than the type of love we humans usually embody. It’s not phileo, friendly but only to a point. It’s not eros, romantic and desirous and lustful (not that either of these two loves are necessarily bad, by the way).

It’s a love that’s bigger … or maybe deeper would be a better adjective. It’s a love that humans aren’t particularly capable of on their own. It’s a love that will have to come from some place else.

Probably from a God who would repeatedly say that He is the inherent embodiment of agape. “For God so agape’d the world …” Or in 1 John, “For God is agape, and in Him there is no darkness.”

1 Corinthians 13, then, isn’t a call to try harder to love well. It’s a call to participate in a love that is altogether outside us … and never more needed.

whispers

It was Elijah’s great moment.

A stand-off between the priests of Baal – the spiritual seductresses that had led Israel to whore herself out to another lover – and THE God. The I AM. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who by His choice made Israel a chosen people.

And God won.

Fire fell from the sky. The altar was consumed. The priests were killed.

Elijah could not have dreamed a better result. God had show up in power and surely now – after all of this – Israel would rush back to Yahweh. Jezebel and her spineless husband’s reign of oppression would end. Israel would take its place as a shining beacon of light to the world. Right?

 

Except it didn’t go that way. Continue reading

the dust of our rabbi

There was a saying in Jesus’ time: “may you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.” Which is a weird thing to say to someone, I know.

It was said to people who were in training to be one of the few, highly respected teachers of the Jewish faith. It was a saying for disciples who, if a rabbi allowed them to sit under their tutelage, would follow their rabbi around everywhere and watch as he interacted with the world. They would watch him eat, pray, go to temple, and they would observe him, because they wanted to be JUST LIKE their rabbi.

So to be covered in the dust of your rabbi meant that you has followed him so closely on the dirt roads of 1st Century Palestine that his sandals had kicked up a cloud of dust that was now caking your body. And this was an honor, because there was nothing a disciple wanted more than to be just like his rabbi. The dust was a sign of honor.

 So when Jesus – the rabbi – says to his disciples, “you will do greater things than these,” it is a huge moment. He’s telling them “you’ve been covered in my dust, and you’ve done well. I’ve watched you, and you have what it takes. Of course, Jesus also knew the Holy Spirit would soon be changing their lives, bringing the same power that would soon raise Jesus from the dead into every waking moment. But that’s kind of the point for us, right? If we spend each day hovering close to our rabbi – caked in the peripheral presence of the Holy Spirit – then we can be just like Jesus. We will grow in His love and power. We will see our lives changed, and see God use us to change OTHER peoples’ lives.