Where Do I Send the Bill?

I stumbled across this article on Salon.com that was shaming the New York Times for, well, shaming Serena Williams for her body image.

After I read the article, I had two immediate thoughts:

  1. I really can’t believe how stupid people can be.
  2. Can someone pay for the 3 minutes of my life that I spent skimming it? (In all fairness, the Salon.com piece was good, but I couldn’t believe how many other articles they referenced, and I’m glad I didn’t spend the time reading those links as well.)

I used to be a fan back in the Borg-Connors heyday, and it was classic. (Also was a big fan of Ivan Lendl, but hey who’s counting?)

These days? Not so much.

But this weekend, when Serena won her 6th Wimbledon title, I tuned in, and I watched Twitter a little. What I saw (mostly) were tributes to possibly one of the greatest athletes of all time (oh yeah, and she’s female).

When I saw an interview with her, I saw a female, African-American athlete at the peak of her powers. Her body is her instrument. Her “femininity” has everything to do with who she is, and at the same time nothing. She has trained her instrument to perform at the highest level, and she has succeeded.

Who talks about Aaron Rodgers’ “body image”? Does anyone comment on how “masculine” (or not) Lebron James looks?

Is Cristiano Ronaldo in danger of not looking manly enough?

Now, I know this is the unfortunate reality of what it means to be a woman: to be judged according to standards of body shape and image, but (and I can’t believe this still has to be written)… those standards are ridiculous and de-humanizing. 

Serena is a woman athlete; perhaps one of the greatest of all time. Her body reflects her passion, her craft, and her achievements.

Period. 

Maybe it goes without saying, maybe not: Ladies, your bodies are your own. Tune them and shape them into whatever tools they need to be in order to accomplish your dreams. Go for it. 

Oh yeah, I get it: please don’t send me a bill for your time.

Moses died.

Deuteronomy—and particularly the end of that book—is one of my favorite sections of the Bible. I find it fascinating.

Moses is THE man of God. THE prophet. Even the end of Deuteronomy says that there’s never been a prophet in Israel since him. No one since has seen God’s face.

(Now, Jesus changes all of this, but that’s another story.)

But what’s so fascinating about Deuteronomy is that Moses knows he’s going to die, and this is his “curtain call.” He is LITERALLY standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, the “Promised Land,” and Israel is about to enter.

But not him.

Because of a lack of judgment, a bad decision, etc., Moses will not be entering in with the people. God has told him that he will die on the border.

I try to put myself in Moses’ shoes: I’d be so angry and hurt. Faithful for how long: 40 years? 50?

Confronting Pharaoh, THE leader of THE super power…

Leading people out of slavery with no plan or map except YHWH will go with us…

Adminstering justice to an entire people…

Navigating years in the wilderness…

But God says, “no.”

To my mind, this simply isn’t fair.

My world doesn’t work this way.

I wonder if Moses railed against God. I wonder if he second guessed him. I wonder if he went to Lifeway and bought books about discerning God’s will because, “This just doesn’t make any sense.”

I wonder if decided (a la the prosperity gospel) that he just didn’t have enough faith. Did he send some money to Osteen to show that he really did believe?

I guess not.

In what’s one of the most amazing passages in the Bible, God guides Moses up the mountain and he gets a vision of “the whole land” that Israel will possess.

(Israel doesn’t even get this vision of the whole land; human perspective doesn’t allow for that.)

But then Moses—in defiance of our “bigger and better ministry”; the prosperity gospel; the idea that we always see the trend line go up and to the right—lays down and dies.

He is “gathered to his ancestors”. (What a beautiful phrase.)

Moses’ acceptance and submission of his reality is an amazing challenge to me. I think of how much I am attached too, the results that I think I “must” have.

The story of Moses reminds me that I may not see the end of many (any?) of the stories I write. And that’s okay.

PS Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the LORD—YHWH himself—buries Moses. What a statement of intimacy and friendship!

I guess in the end, Moses doesn’t get to see the “mission” completed, but the relationship he has with his God stays intact and thriving to the very end.

Words, Pt. 3: “Confess”

In a way, “confess” isn’t all that difficult to understand. At its heart, it simply means to agree with. 

Put into a spiritual (Christian) setting, it most often has to do with our brokenness, our limitations, our “sin.”

If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just an will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

On the surface, this all seems fairly straightforward.

However, if you delve just a little bit deeper into the human psyche and our spirituality, a deeper and fuller implication of “confess” begins to emerge.

For those of us who make some sort of practice of “confession”, it’s easy to keep things at a “just-me-and-Jesus” level. This form of spirituality means that confession remains largely in the realm of a personal, private, individualistic spirituality: we mess up, we confess to God, and then we go on with our lives, reminded that we are forgiven and loved.

The only problem with this approach is that it leaves our pride largely intact. 

More than ever, I think that pride is the thing that hamstrings us more than anything else. It’s the brokenness that keeps us from  admitting that we are not, in fact, “all that,” and that we actually need some help. 

When “confession” is relegated to the private sphere, the “stronghold” of pride is unchecked.

This form confession doesn’t really demand anything of us.

So what’s the alternative?

Simply put, consider inviting someone else into your confession, into your brokenness. 

Make your confession a three-way affair: you, God, and another human being: someone who is able to see you at your (almost?) worst, with warts and all.

In this way, “confession” becomes a powerful weapon in the war against our pride.

The various 12 Step traditions (AA, etc.) have long since understood how important it is for human beings to deal with their pride, and maybe it’s time for the church to recover some of what it has lost over time: namely the discipline of confession.

I’m not calling for the installation of confession booths in evangelical churches, but I think it would be worth it to see our pride dismantled and shattered as we bare our souls to each other.

(Note: Confession like this does not need to be shame-based. The point is never to shame someone into worshiping. Rather, the point of confession is to embrace humility, which is ultimately just being “right-sized” in the world: human beings are seldom the worst of the worst, but they are also not without brokenness. Confession is simply a way that we remind ourselves that we are ultimately human, and therefore imperfect. Or maybe even better: that we are imperfect, and therefore ultimately human.)

Words, Pt 2: “Repent”

The second word I want to take a look at is laden with all sorts of negative connotations. I don’t know about you, but my university came with its own street preacher (remarkably free-of-charge). His favorite place was on the median of University Avenue in Fort Worth, where he was free to ply his trade:

“WHORES!”

“FORNICATORS!”

“SODOMITES!”

How pleasant. A great way to wake up on your way to your afternoon geology class.

“Repent” is a word that seems to be usually associated with fundamentalist street preachers: they scream at people to repent so that they won’t be burned up in the fires of hell. The way they use it, it’s a challenging and divisive word that puts people decisively on the defensive. Ears are closed, boundaries go up, and dialogue is unthinkable.

In this paradigm, when Jesus shows up in Mark 1 and says—before anything else—“Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” the subtext or paraphrase is something like this: “Everyone better believe in my death and resurrection (which, um, hasn’t happened yet) or I’m gonna burn you all of you suckas up with … fiyahhhhhh!”

In this view, Jesus’ main agenda is to find people to condemn.

Except that doesn’t really seem to be the way Jesus operates. By contrast, the common people seem to really like Jesus, and for his part he seems to be quite gentle with people who, by all accounts, are complete moral failures. Rather, Jesus reserves his “condemnation” for folks who are actually the religious elite who have it all together and have all the answers.

Ironically, they would probably rather resemble my street preacher friend.

So what does Jesus mean by “repent”? The Apostle Paul says it too; what does he mean? (Surely Paul will back the fundamentals: everyone knows that Paul wanted to throw people into hell for not believing in Jesus’ atoning death.)

The word repent is actually a really rich and powerful word. The Greek word is metanoia. Perhaps the most literal translation is change your mind, but a better way to translate it might be, “reconsider your life” or “think differently about reality.”

In the context of Jesus’ statement in Mark 1 (or similarly in Matthew 4), you could paraphrase his statement like this:

Hey the Kingdom of God is here and available to EVERYONE—even the spiritual losers (check the Beatitudes)—so think about your reality differently. You can live your life now completely differently, with transcendent and life-giving spiritual power. You don’t have to live the way you’ve been living; You don’t have to be trapped by the things that have trapped you. It’s available now. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that “repentance” doesn’t come with a cost. To really change one’s mind about reality, one needs to jettison the programs that we have grown up with; our knee-jerk (and often unhealthy) reactions to others’ efforts to control or dominate us. This is certainly difficult, and costly.

But then again, culture’s patterns of addiction and unhealthy obsession would seem to indicate that not repenting has its costs as well. In fact, one could make an argument that living with our compulsive spending, eating, and medicating is a form of death.

So indeed, repent or die: just not in the way you think.

Hey! You can also read “Words: Good News”

Words: “Good News” 

I like words. I’m fascinated with them, how they change, how they come into and out of daily use. (In fact, I believe I am solely responsible for introducing “wonky” into our vernacular.)

But some words, to me, are more important than others, particularly in regards to faith. In this realm, the stakes can be high, and also very much prone to mis-use and misunderstanding. I thought I’d spend some time here with some particular words that have may have drifted over the years. Now, these are good words: they are rich and full of meaning, but they have, in a variety of cases, been stolen, manipulated, abused and mis-communicated to the point where we are afraid of them, or just avoid them altogether.

The first word I’d like to look at is the word gospel. Now, this is a basic word, a “Faith 101” word. We think we know what it means, but it strikes me that maybe there are some nuances we might have missed over the years.

“Gospel” appears 95 times in the English New Testament. It’s sprinkled through the four gospels (though, strangely, not in John’s) and in the book of Acts. But it’s Saint Paul who really goes to town with it: it pervades every single one of his letters; he constantly mentions the word.

Growing up, I understood “gospel” to mean, “good news”. I was told that the good news was that Jesus died to set us free from sin: his death paid the price for my brokenness. We didn’t need to work to pay off our sins (in fact, we couldn’t). The subtle communication was that Paul’s “good news” was theological, and mainly focused on the Jews: they preferred the law over the freedom of the gospel. (I’m grossly summarizing, but you get the point.)

However, the more I learned and studied, I learned that gospel actually had a specific and more nuanced meaning in the first century (to Paul’s—and the Bibles—first readers)

In Greek “gospel” is the Greek euangelion, and that word had a particular use in the first century. Some people may be familiar with the definition “glad tidings”, but what most people don’t realize is that “gospel” was particularly used by the Roman empire to announce military and civic victories.

In other words, the first century already had a gospel, and it was decidedly Caesar’s. 

The word gospel was about who protected the world. Who provided ultimate peace and security for people who lived in the Roman kingdom. 

What this does, however is bring another dimension to our use of the word as well: a dimension of victory and celebration, of faith and peace.

“Gospel” isn’t only about grace versus the Law, it’s about a victory. It’s about who wins. 

(Hint: it’s love, and it’s Jesus.)

So, when Paul (and Mark as well) writes the word gospel he’s doing at least two other things (besides talking about grace). First, he’s drawing a contrast: the emphasis is on whose gospel. It’s not Caesar’s gospel, it’s Jesus’ gospel. Second (and relatedly), he’s saying Jesus is the one who provides peace and security. Don’t find security in the state, in the empire. Jesus is the one (the King) who provides for you.

The message of euangelion is that Jesus has won a victory, that he is King, and that he cares for his subjects. It’s not only about “believe and go to heaven” (though that is a nice benefit), it’s about a long-lasting existence in the Kingdom of Jesus.

The Best Concert I Ever Saw and the Forgotten Years

In 1990 I saw the Australian band Midnight Oil at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas, Texas. They were touring in support of their release Blue Sky Mining, which was probably their most popular record in the US. This was the peak of true “alternative music”, when many radio stations were still free and DJs were spinning all manner of exciting new bands, and I was introduced to Midnight Oil—and tall, bald-headed lead singer Peter Garrett’s crazy dancing—through their 1987 record Diesel and Dust (I made a brief Spotify playlist). However, since I was just out of high school, and shaking off the last remnants of 1980s hair metal, I really didn’t get the band. I spent a lot time mocking Garrett’s limited vocal range and his entirely awkward dance moves. However, 3 years can make a lot of difference in a musician’s life, and by 1990 I was ready for Blue Sky Mining. 

So when they went on tour later that year, me and my good friend (and lead singer in my band) Kevin got tickets to the Bronco Bowl, a vintage venue in Oak Cliff, just outside of Dallas. The Bronco Bowl was a great place to see a show: intimate enough to be close to the band but large enough to pack some legit numbers in. We sat back and waited for the show to start.

I still remember the lights coming down as the band played the first notes of “Stars of Warburton”, the second song of the album. Garrett walked to the center mic and sang the verse and chorus with an intensity that I had seldom experienced. The crowd (me included) erupted when the band left the first chorus behind and, as they headed towards the 2nd verse, Garrett started doing his dance. His movement set us free, and we began to move and jump and dance right with him. It was a singular event: we were not observing the band; we were somehow with them, doing our part to create an experience. They provided the soundtrack, but we were all united and together in the same time and space.

It was incredible; this was rock and roll. Garrett and Midnight Oil showed me what can happen when a singer and band hold nothing back and give themselves over—without restraint—to an idea, a song, a movement, an event.

Ninety minutes or so, the band finished with a rendition of Elvis Costello’s song, “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)?” We drove the 30 miles back to Fort Worth inspired and spent.

The fourth song on Blue Sky Mining is called, “The Forgotten Years,” a song about the rhythm between years of war and years of peace. It’s anthemic and powerful, a reminder that we should never forget what peace costs. I still love singing this song around my house—sometimes I even dance like Garrett does (thought you’ll never see it)—but recently it has really struck me when I consider that my country has been at war now for almost 15 years (since we started bombing Afghanistan in October, 2001). It seems as if war has now become the normal state of affairs for the United States, and I wonder, “What is this doing to our mentality as a society?” We have declared the “end of hostilities” a few times now, but still we seem to be mired in low-level war.

Do we remember what peace feels like?

I wonder how easy it is to celebrate, as Garrett calls them, “the years between”, when the years between no longer seem to come. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope we remember that war should not be the normal state of affairs. 

I was reading my Bible this morning, and I stumbled across these words in Isaiah 32:

“The fruit of righteousness will be peace,
and the outcome of righteousness,
calm and security forever.
Then my people will live in a peaceful dwelling,
in secure homes, in carefree resting places.” (vv17-18)

These words remind me that as much as it seems as if war is the normal state of affairs, it’s not. God is a God of peace, and actually peace should be the outcome of our spiritual life.

Bait, Switch. 

I am just coming off of a season where I’ve focused personally an awful lot on Jesus’ death and resurrection (technically, we’re still in the church season of Easter, but you get the point).

However, there’s this thing about Jesus: He’s always one step ahead of you, and just when you think that you have him figured out, there’s another aspect to him and his ministry, and you’re back at the start again, filled with wonder and shaking your head in humility and amazement (ideally, anyway).

Brennan Manning once wrote (more or less, anyway), “The signature of Jesus is the cross”, and I wholeheartedly believe this. It opens up heaven, defeats evil, frees all of us, and continually challenges and motivates me. Additionally, the resurrection breaks the power of death and sin, and unleashes a whole new power into the world (and, by definition, my life).

But Jesus says there’s still even more

If you take Jesus’ words seriously (and, well, I do), then you have to acknowledge the fact that repeatedly Jesus tell people that you have to pay attention to his teaching—the things he says and does during his minitry.

Over and over again, he flat out tells people, “Look the reason I have come is to teach and preach.” (Check Mark 1:38), John 8:31, and especially John 6:63 and 12:47-48.)

We have a tendancy to focus so much attention on the cross and empty tomb, and then his miracles that we can sometimes tend to lose sight or downplay his teaching agenda.

And he taught a lot: 

  • In “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7, Luke 6) he lays out a vision for life that far transcends any “normal” human life (and I fully believe he expects us to be able to live it).
  • In John’s gospel Jesus says things like, “The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life“ (John 4). He also refers to the fact that “Whoever wants to do God’s will can tell whenter my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:17).

These are challenging teachings because (a) they often don’t fit into the neat little boxes we draw for ourselves regarding faith and (b) they actually challenge the way most of us look at and live in the world.

I think it’s pretty odd that we ignore Jesus’ own words to focus on his teachings.

Sometimes I think it’s because—as crazy as it seems—we get uncomfortable because his teachings expect too much of us. For those of us who grew up in church, it’s sometimes actually “easy” to focus on Good Friday and Easter, possibly because of the “paid for” and “finished” aspect to them (and I believe that).

But when you look at what Jesus taught, you realize that he actually expects more of you.

It’s like—if we were to actually take him at his word(s)—he actually expects transformation.

And that makes us uncomfortable.

We want to go to heaven, but often we don’t want to actually change beforehand. We are just as content to remain angry, pride-filled, self-focused, and addicted and compulsive.

I think Jesus’ ministry was a continual call to transformation that culminated in the cross and then the resurrection, but it’s not like that call ended with the four gospels.

The call is still going on.

What do you need to change?