Friday, December 27, 2013

Packing Up Christmas

It's been a while since I've posted anything (12/17), which is a testament to what life has been like lately. First, the rush up to Christmas. Preparations--both personal and professional--needed to be made in order for Christmas to come both to our house and to our parish. Then, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Finding time to be with one's children while also trying to be present for three services wasn't easy. Finally, the quiet recovery, which is still going on. I've slept in for two mornings in a row. I haven't shaven since the 24th (though it seems like the beard is on its way back). With the exception of some hospital visits, I've pretty much enjoyed a few days off of work.

But Christmas isn't over. As my daughter has announced both of the last two mornings, "Happy Second Day of Christmas!" and "Happy Third Day of Christmas!" She's got nine to go. Yet, when I drove in to the office this morning (yes, I did), I saw several people taking down their decorations. When I stopped in to pick up some dry cleaning, I almost wished the clerk "Merry Christmas," but I didn't since I'm willing to bet that she got all of her "Merry Christmases" out of the way two days ago. Here's the other side of Advent.

For four weeks, the Church prepares for Christmas by NOT celebrating Christmas while the world around us Ho-Ho-Hos its way through December. Then, for twelve days, the Church DOES celebrate Christmas while the rest of the world begins counting down how many days until Santa comes back next year. We're stuck out of sync with everyone else.

In our house, we waited until the afternoon of the fourth Sunday of Advent to put up our Christmas tree. That's one way we try to keep Advent as Advent and wait for Christmas for Christmas. But by Monday afternoon, we'll be the only house on the block who still has lights around the front door. What's missing?

How often do we spend weeks getting ready for something? There's spiritual/emotional/intellectual value in taking time in preparation. We don't do it often enough anymore. And how often do we celebrate something intentionally for twelve days? Even the most traditional among us (ahem, that's me) has a hard time keeping the Christmas spirit going for almost two weeks after everyone else has packed it up. But there's a reason to do that, too. It's so that we don't let go of the prepare-initiate-celebrate model that's central to our faith.

We do that not only at Christmas but also at Easter. And we do that not only at Easter but also in our coming-to-faith practices that are sometimes called "the catechumenate" and other times called "Confirmation class." We prepare. We initiate. And then we celebrate--every day for as long as we're alive. Advent-Christmas-12Days is a model of faith. So keep on celebrating. Enjoy the rest of these twelve days. Say "Merry Christmas" every chance you get--especially as January 5 comes closer. Let everyone else think you're strange. You are. We are. We're Christians.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jesus Was a Black Man

Got your attention, didn't it?

I've enjoyed (is that the right word?) watching people post about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's statement that "Jesus was a white man." She was responding to criticism that Santa Claus is always portrayed as white and appealed to the historical Jesus to make her point. I'm all for getting Jesus into the news--no matter what the network--but I'm not sure this is the right way to do it. You can read Adam J. Copeland's take here.

Colleagues have written that Jesus was, indeed, a Palestinian Jew of the first century. To me, that makes sense. I'm no anthropologist, but I do have a friend from seminary who identified himself as a "Palestinian Christian," which suggests to me that he might be close. I'm not 100% sure what qualifies as "white" since it seems that color and race and culture and appearance are all intermixed and overlapping, but I'd definitely say that my seminary friend's skin tone was darker than mine.

I also like the article I read today from Christianity Today, in which Megan Hill suggests that one way to avoid the controversy is by not depicting Jesus at all. You can read that article here. She goes so far as to ask her children's Christian education teachers to excuse her kids from having to color any depictions of Jesus--"even as an infant in a manger." The point she makes, which is a good one, is that we cannot help but worship the image we create--whether in our minds or in physical form. There's a reason God told his people not to make any graven image. Make the image and worship of the image always follows. We're physical people and can't really help it. But I wonder whether we can go one step further than what Ms. Hill suggests.

I like to say that Jesus was a black man.

A long time ago, when I was in the eighth grade, I took a spring break trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit childhood friends. Unfortunately, the friends with whom my mother and I were staying were not enjoying spring break at the same time, and the adults did not really know what to do with me during the day when they went out to do grown-up things. "Maybe we should send him to school with Lauren?" they suggested. After a quick word with the principal, it was settled. For my spring break, I was going to school. Fun.

My visit happened to coincide with a presentation during Black History Month. Some guests had come to this public school to talk about history from an African perspective. For the most part, I tuned out. My interest and valuation of black history didn't develop until quite a few years later. In that presentation, however, I remember the speakers being asked to talk about Jesus. "What color was Jesus?" someone in the audience asked. Not willing to say it out right--this was a public school--one of the presenters began to talk about depictions of ancient Egyptians, all of whom have dark skin. She made an implicit connection between those paintings and the person of Jesus, asking, "When have you seen a picture of an ancient Egyptian who was white? What do you think that says about Jesus?" I thought to myself, "Jesus was Jewish. How many black Jews do you know?" And, just when I was about to raise my hand and ask the question (I've never been afraid to embarrass myself even in a foreign land), someone else pressed the point further, "So what color was Jesus?" And the reply was given, "Jesus was a black man."

I hated that moment. I thought it poorly expressed both historically and religiously. I was incensed that religion had come into the public school, though I'm sure I would have felt differently if the presenters had been representatives of my culture. Those words echoed around in my mind--Jesus was a black man--and along with them was a snort of derision that I added for effect. And I held that view for a long time.

And then I discovered a different Jesus. I don't really know when it happened or how it came about. Maybe it was a trip to Zimbabwe to study how the Methodist Church changed during the liberation movement. Maybe it was during seminary when I learned to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. Or maybe it was during a Sunday school class that I taught about liberation theology, when I read and quoted James Cone. But, whenever it happened, those words in my head changed their meaning. No longer was I critical of the woman who spoke to us that day. I discovered that, for me, Jesus was a black man.

The story of oppression, of capture, of torture, of execution--that is the story of the African context. The account of rebirth, of freedom, of liberation, of victory--that is the story of the African context. Jesus is the embodiment of the oppression and liberation of God's people. Although my own story is one of majority-dominated culture, I am learning to hear--I am straining to hear--the story of Jesus as that of a black man.

Of course, Jesus is more than that, and this is what I want to add to Ms. Hill's perspective. When I say that Jesus is a black man, I say it with authenticity and full conviction, but I don't say that from a historical perspective. No, the presenters that day who used Egyptian artwork to try to convince the students that Jesus' skin tone was similar to that of African Americans were misled. I don't think Jesus was black. I think he was a black man. Or a black woman. Or a Native American. Or some other identity that reflects the gospel message in a real, experiential way.

Such a statement is so completely disjointed from the historical context that it allows us to conceptualize it without falling into the practice of idol worship. In other words, I can say that Jesus was a black man without actually picturing a black man. The danger, as Hill point out, is trying to duplicate history. This is not an attempt to do that. I would never say that Jesus is only a black man. Nor would I say that Jesus is only a first-century Palestinian Jew. He is bigger than that. He is always more than we define him to be.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Remarks to Rotary

I want to start by saying the obvious: I am a Christian minister here in Decatur, Alabama. And that means that, for me and for my congregation, Christmas is a pretty big deal. Along with Easter, it is one of the two central moments of our faith. It is the story of Jesus’ birth, and I’ll say more about that in a second.

But next I want to say something that might not be as obvious: Rotary is not a Christian organization. Yes, it may have been founded by Christians. And, yes, it may have been created with Christian principles in mind. But, since then, Rotary has grown beyond its Christian roots. Sure, many if not most of the individuals within the Rotary world are Christians, but we’re also Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Muslims and Atheists. Of course, most of us in this room are Christians. This is Decatur, Alabama, after all. But that doesn’t mean that all of us are Christians, nor does it mean that we all should be. We are here together because we believe that our role in this community should be about service to others above service to self. What I want to say about Christmas, therefore, isn’t so much a reflection on the doctrine of a particular faith as it is an expression of hope that I believe Christmas offers to the whole world.

This time of the year, people love putting stuff in their front yard because it’s the one chance they get to do so without risking that the rest of the community will shun them for being tacky. (There’s still a chance that might happen, depending on how ostentatious the decorations are, but the bar that distinguishes tacky from tasteful is set pretty high in December.) Some of our decorations are notably secular—Mickey Mouse in a Santa hat, Frosty with wildly waving arms, Santa’s sleigh with its cohort of reindeer. Others prefer to recreate the Christian biblical account of the nativity by setting up a miniature barn in their front yard complete with hay, wooden cut-out animals, and statues of Mary and Joseph gathered around a feeding trough into which a wrapped-up baby doll has been placed. (Why the families in these big, warm houses couldn’t find a spare bedroom for the Holy Family is a topic for another day.)

The image of a young, peasant couple stranded in a faraway town when the mother-to-be goes into labor only to find that there is no room in the inn provides a compelling backdrop for Christmas. Although it’s only contained in one of the four gospel accounts, our affection for their heart-warming story is probably the reason we tell it every year. And some of us think that it’s the only story to tell. It’s easy to get lost in the details of the biblical narrative and think that Christmas is Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and angels, some lowing cattle and a silent, swaddled baby. And that’s certainly part of it. It’s how most Christians tell the story. But there’s more to it than that. Christmas isn’t just a proclamation of what so many people believed happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. It’s a story of hope that transcends any one moment in time and any one statement of faith.

Like most Christians, I believe that God came down from heaven and became one of us. The fancy word we use for that is “incarnation,” but don’t let any preacher tell you that she or he knows precisely what that means. None of us does. But part of what it means is that we believe that the human race is worth inhabiting—that there is something good and worthy and promising within our very nature—within each of us. Christmas means that we all contain a spark—a light that’s worth celebrating—and you don’t have to be a Christian to look for that hope that dwells within us all.

As Rotarians, we believe that the world is worth saving, and we believe that it is our job to be a part of that salvation. Why do we work so hard to end polio? Why do we send money to Afghanistan so that girls might go to school? Why did Rick Paler choose Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Morgan County as the recipient of the gifts made in honor of our speakers? Because Rotary stands for the good that is held within every man, woman, and child from Decatur, Alabama, to Da Nang, Vietnam. It doesn’t matter what they look like or what language they speak or what they believe. Christmas is the time of year when we look for that good that dwells within us so that we might hold fast to the hope that that good might grow and one day fill the whole world.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Do as I say, not as I do. Those words don’t come out of my mouth all that often, and, when they do, I’m usually joking—like when I’m standing at the top of a tall ladder and leaning out over the edge to change a light bulb. Don’t ever do this—even if I’m doing it right now. In the gospel lesson for today (Matthew 23:1-12), when referring to the religious authorities of his day, Jesus uses this approach: do what they say, not what they do. I think there’s a fundamental truth about our religion in that sentence, and I think Jesus was talking about more than just the elites of his day.

The scribes were the religious lawyers of the day. They knew the statutes and ordinances of the Jewish faith, and they made sure that everyone else knew them, too. They were the ones who interpreted the law and let the people know what they were supposed to do. Step out of line, and the scribes would let you know. Kind of like letting your grass grow a little too long while living in a planned community. It’s not just the note you get in your mailbox or the sign that’s put in your yard. It’s also the social shunning and condescending glares you get for crossing the line that they have established.

The Pharisees were the religious zealots of their day. They were the ones who took what the scribes said and made an example of doing it and more. Required religious garments like phylacteries and fringes? Absolutely—and broad and long enough for everyone to see. Fast on the appointed days? Of course—and twice a week to demonstrate how religious they were. Say their prayers? Every day—and loudly enough to be overheard by passersby in the street. Go to synagogue? All the time—and sure to sit in the front where everyone will see them.

Read any part of the gospel and you discover that the religious authorities are often portrayed as the opponents of Jesus. Who criticizes his healings? Who questions his authority? Who plots to arrest him? Other gospel writers use different labels for that group, but Matthew calls them “the scribes and Pharisees.” Because of that, it’s easy for us to dismiss outright as hypocritical or wrong or just plain bad, but that’s not what Jesus does. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it,” he says, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” And what does he mean? “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

The religious authorities are eager to lay the burdens of the faith on others but aren’t willing to shoulder those burdens themselves. And that is true in every age. It’s a lot easier to tell someone what he or she is supposed to do than to do it yourself. The woman wearing the cross necklace belittles the cashier when the transaction goes wrong. The driver of the car with the “practice random acts of kindness” bumper sticker blares his horn and shakes his fist when a driver who didn’t see him before pulling out. The priest who groans and sighs when the particularly bothersome parishioner walks in. Those of us who make a show of our faith usually find the show easier than the faith.

What does it mean for you to be a person of faith—a Christian—a disciple of Jesus? Is your faith a quiet walk through the woods a ride on a float in the homecoming parade? Is your religion more about you being shaped and formed or more about you being sure that others know what they are supposed to do? Some of us have made our faith a very public thing, and, at tonight’s ordination, we will see that happen again. Is there anything wrong with that? In theory, no. In fact, I think all of us have a call to do the same—to be bold communicators of the gospel in word and deed—but to do so as humble servants and not as self-exalted “teachers” or “fathers.” All of us need to spend less time thinking that the world would be a better place if there were more of us in it and more time wondering how we might become truer disciples of Jesus.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Pink Candle

My sons go to a preschool at a Methodist Church here in Decatur. The older of them brought home a neat thing to stick on the refrigerator. It's a paper Advent calendar with "unlit" candles arranged in a circular though two-dimensional "wreath." Not all that surprisingly, there are three purple candles and one pink candle on the outside of the "wreath" and one white candle in the center of the paper. Paper-clipped near the bottom of the piece of construction paper were four yellow "flames," which one is supposed to affix to the remaining three Advent candles and the central Christ candle. But right above the paper flames is the confusing part. The teacher has encouraged her students to affix the flames in the following order: purple (actually affixed while at school), purple, purple, pink, white.

I know my child's teacher, and I like her a lot. She's got the perfect mix of love and discipline and instruction that a preschool teacher needs--especially with my four-year-old in her class. But I must take exception to her churchmanship (ironic archaic gender-specificity intended).

As Steve Pankey reminded us yesterday, this is Gaudete Sunday, and it's supposed to be joyful. It's the third Sunday of Advent--the season once known as "St. Martin's Lent." During Advent, we're purple for a reason (an argument for another day), but historically the church took a break from the intensity of the penitential, preparatory season and changed the color from purple (yes, purple) to pink. The word "gaudete" means "rejoice," and, at this "half-way point," we focus on a little bit of joy before returning to the solemnity of Advent. The third Sunday--Gaudete Sunday--comes with a physical and metaphorical "lightening" of the purple to a color actually called "rose" instead of "pink."

Some people mistakenly place the pink candle on the fourth Sunday because they think it's "Mary's Sunday." Actually, Joseph is usually bedecked in pink, and Mary is typically shown in blue, so there's no real traction there. Yes, the fourth Sunday in Advent often features the holy family in the gospel lesson, but, again, the pink isn't about Mary's Sunday.  So, altar guilds everywhere, be sure to deck your altars and lecterns with pink hangings. Clergy, make sure to don your pink stoles and chasubles (whatever they are). It's pink Sunday this Sunday! So, if your Advent wreath has a pink candle, make sure to light it this week.

But, if your altar will remain purple and your clergy will refuse to put on pink stoles, by all means take the pink candle out of your Advent wreath!!! How many of us have pink candles in our wreaths but have no other pink in our churches? No wonder my child's preschool teacher thinks the pink candle comes fourth! We shouldn't confuse congregations by inserting a pink candle with no logical, liturgical, or theological rationale. But the readings give us a reason to rejoice, so preachers have a chance to redeem their parish's traditional faux pas. Preach joy and pretend to wear pink.

Yes, as Steve points out, there's joy in Mary's Song, and many preachers will choose that this week, but I find myself drawn to the joy of Jesus' reply to John the Baptist. I think that's the real joy here--that the kingdom of God has broken in and has manifested itself as "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." That's why Jesus' Advent (both of them) is an occasion for joy. We celebrate the arrival of a kingdom that isn't the kind of kingdom the world expects. This is God's kingdom, and it shows up when things like those Jesus was known for happen. Rejoice that the blind can see! Celebrate that the deaf can hear! Marvel in the good news being brought to the poor. Really, that's the content of Mary's song, too, but I'm hearing that more clearly in Jesus' definitive declaration to John. Wait for another? No, it's here now.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Categorical Shift

It's the last line of Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11) that sticks with me: "Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." What does Jesus mean by that?

Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although remarkable, isn't worth diddly squat when it comes to kingdom comparisons?

Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although important in preparing the way, won't be included in the kingdom?

Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although clearly willing and able to acknowledge Jesus' messianic identity, is stuck forever as an almost-made-it Johnny-come-early?

I don't think so. But I do think that Jesus understands his life and ministry as a demarcation in human history and that John the Baptist represents the other side--not the "wrong" side but the "other" side.

In our Rector's Bible Study that meets on Mondays, we're reading The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. This week, we read about Jesus and his ministry. We asked questions like, "Did Jesus understand himself to be the messiah?" and "Did Jesus understand his death as significant in the salvation history of God's people?" My favorite among our questions, though, had to do with the kingdom and the extent to which Jesus brought it in: "Did Jesus realize that the kingdom of God was breaking into human history through his work on earth?" The answer, I believe, is yes.

In the book, Wright has an interesting way of summarizing the first-century Palestinian Jewish political/religious context. He notes that if a people believe in one and only one God and that they are God's chosen people, their suffering must be temporary. Think about it. If there's only one God and you're his chosen people, your predicament cannot be permanent. I like that. That means that people were looking for deliverance...salvation...God's kingdom/reign to be established. The tricky thing, however, is to figure out what sort of kingdom that should be.

Given the account of the gospel, it seems that many of Jesus contemporaries were looking for a kingdom that would manifest itself politically; i.e., through the defeat of the Roman Empire and the establishment of a free Jewish State. (Note how many of today's religious leaders--both Christian and Jewish--still believe that this is true.) Wright and Borg both point out that this was not Jesus' understanding. Instead, his understanding of the kingdom was that it was being established without regard for the overthrow of the Roman occupation. Instead, his healings, teachings, exorcisms, ministry to the downtrodden, etc. all showed that God's kingdom was being established here and now. And that brings us back to John.

Jesus statement isn't a condemnation of John the Baptist; it's a recognition that the kingdom is now. John was the forerunner, the herald, the set-up man. Jesus followed and brought the kingdom. John preached, "The kingdom of heaven is coming," and Jesus proclaimed, "The kingdom of heaven is now here!" John asked, "Are you the one?" and Jesus declared, "What do you see?" There's a great, big line in the sand, and its name is Jesus.

Jesus' statement about John is a confirmation that we're not still waiting for the kingdom. Yes, maybe we're waiting for its fullness, but it's here now. Stop waiting and start participating. Don't get left out. The least in the kingdom are a part of something far greater than was ever anticipated or imagined. The time is now.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Repentance Fruit

On several occasions, I have remarked that sermons on sin have been well received by congregations. To me that’s a curious phenomenon. I’ll preach about the unavoidability of sin, the depravity of human nature, our collective, desperate need for redemption, and people will walk out of church and say, “I loved that sermon.” And those are the same people (me included) who so often say, “I love the Episcopal Church because we don’t hit people over the head with sermons about sin and judgment.” What gives?

Partly, I think people like sermons about sin because they themselves are broken in one way or another and like hearing the reality of our need for forgiveness. Partly, I think people like occasional moments of discomfort, which, as long as they don’t happen too often, give people the satisfaction of tension and release akin to a musical composition’s pattern of dissonance and resolution. Mostly, though, I think that’s because the sermons I’ve heard about sin in the Episcopal tradition have more to do with God’s mercy than with the threat of damnation. In other words, they aren’t really sermons about sin—they’re about forgiveness.

Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 3:1-12) seems to bear that out in its own way. John the Baptist, the one who proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near, calls on the people to repent. In other words, he spent a lot of his time preaching about sin. And, sure enough, the crowds came out to hear him. They were nourished by his message of the need for repentance. Even the religious authorities—the elites who are so negatively portrayed throughout Matthew’s gospel account—come to see what was going on. And, when John saw them, he proclaimed, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

But then John makes the point that preachers like me need to remember: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” That means that it’s not just about showing up and hearing the call to repent. It’s about taking that message to heart and showing it in one’s life. As attractive as it is and as much as we like encountering that sharp, discomforting message, we need to go further. We need to let the dissonance that exists between God’s call in our life and the life we live change and shape us.

What does bearing fruit worthy of repentance look like? It’s not showing up at church and telling the preacher she or he preached a good sermon. It’s not wearing a cross around your neck so that everyone who sees you assumes you’re a Christian. The kind of fruit that John was talking about has its roots in the prophetic tradition in which he is identified.

This is Advent. Many of our churches are having services of lessons and carols. I’ve spent the last few weeks looking over this year’s lessons, asking people if they will read, helping proofread a bulletin, etc.. And each time I do it I read those lessons that sound so much like John the Baptist. It’s about swords being beaten into plowshares. It’s about equitable judgments for the poor. It’s about worship being purified as a metalworker purifies gold in the fire. Are we bearing fruit worthy of repentance? Are we creators of peace, righteousness, and purity?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Peace that Passes Understanding

I’m mentioned him several times—probably because he was formative in my spiritual and religious development—but Dr. Kay Koidio, one of my chemistry teachers in high school, once asked me a question to which I wish I could give a different answer than the one I gave way back then. I was a senior in high school. I had already taken one year-long class with Dr. Koidio and was preparing to start another quarter-long class. He was a devout Muslim known to the high school community for, among other things, a strict observance of Ramadan and the five-times-daily prayers. One day, he stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Why are you a Christian?” It caught me so off guard that I replied, “Well, why are you a Muslim?” Without hesitation, he responded, “Because I do not want to go to hell.” After only a brief pause to consider his response, I said, “Me too, that’s why I’m a Christian—because I don’t want to go to hell.” Within only a few minutes I realized that I wished I had said something else.

I am not a Christian because I don’t want to go to hell. Although hell seemed a pretty scary concept—one I would still prefer to avoid—even at 17-years-old I had already figured that I wanted to be a Christian because I wanted to go to heaven. That might seem like a meaningless distinction, but I assure you that as one who made that transition from fear to faith it was an important transition.

Now, though, I think I’d give an even different response. Why am I a Christian? Because I want to have life—the life God has promised me—and I want to have it now.

Today is the feast of John of Damascus. He was a very, very, very smart Christian who lived during a time when Islam had begun to spread throughout the near-east. Steadfast in his faith, he reportedly worked as the right-hand-man for the caliph who ruled over Islamic Syria. And despite being an integral part of a publicly Islamic caliphate, John of Damascus held firm to his belief in the resurrection. He synthesized copious amounts of Christian theological scholarship and produced important writings that still guide the church in its beliefs. He was openly opposed to the iconoclast movement that made the veneration and public display of icons illegal. When we celebrate his feast, we use the proper preface for Easter, which underscores his commitment to the “Paschal mystery.” Most notably to me today, we read John 5:24-27 as we remember him.

Jesus said, "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)

For most of my life, I have heard those words of Jesus as a test. If you believe, then you go to heaven. If not, you go to hell. At first those were scary words, and I worried as a young child whether I would pass the test when I died and go to heaven. Eventually, I relaxed a little bit and found confidence that indeed I did apprehend the whole Jesus-thing and knew that, when tested, I would pass. But now, I’m hearing those words of Jesus in a totally different way.

Jesus didn’t say, “anyone who hears my word and understand it has eternal life.” Instead he says believe. What does it mean to believe? Belief is not the same thing as understanding, and John of Damascus knew that.

Jesus isn’t suggesting that only those who pass the understanding test make it into heaven. He’s saying that those who believe have life. Imagine being a Christian icon in a country dominated by Islam. We share a similar story, and we both respect Jesus, but our belief about what happened to him differs. In the Qur’an (4:157-58), Jesus is said to have been not actually crucified and killed as God instead raised him to himself as a substitute was killed on the cross. For John of Damascus, there wasn’t really any way around it. That’s a difference that we can’t gloss over. So how do you hold fast to Christianity in a circumstance like that? How do you justify, explain, rationalize, and argue for a belief that is explicitly contradictory to those with whom you are discussing it?

Understanding is not the same thing as believing. And the life that Jesus promises isn’t the some-day life in heaven but the life now. That suggests to me that believing as Jesus invites us to manifests itself here and now not as intellectual assent but as deep, soul-level commitment. This is the “peace that passes all understanding” that “keep[s] [our] hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son Jesus Christ.” We don’t talk about that peace coming from our understanding but from the knowledge that passes all understanding. And what kind of knowledge is that? That’s belief. That’s life-changing, life-filling, life-restoring faith. John of Damascus had it. And we’re invited to have it, too.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Tips for Jesus? No Thanks

Maybe I'm over Thanksgiving. Maybe the Scrooginess of Advent is setting in. Or maybe I'm just looking for a fight. But I want to go on record (for what it's worth) as being against the idea that lavish, flashy, over-the-top tips for servers is a good, Christian idea.

Yep, I said it.

Here's an article from NPR about people leaving HUGE tips for their servers and only identifying themselves as @tipsforjesus. I've seen some colleagues post on Facebook about how wonderful this is. But I'm not so sure.

What makes us think that the Christian thing to do is dump a bunch of cash in the hands of someone who works waiting tables? I waited tables. I got some fabulous tips, and I got plenty of crummy ones. One group of 12 made me so angry that I almost chased them out the door and threw their pocket change back at them. I only worked as a server for a brief while, and I never made a serious effort at it, but I still know a little bit of what it feels like. I would have done backflips if someone had left me even a $200 tip. I get what it means to open that little black folder with hope in your heart that the number on the signed receipt will make you smile. Still, though, I might not be the right person to judge, but I think that money would be better spent in at least a dozen other ways.

How much more could that $10,000 do if it was given to a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter or an organization that specializes in micro-finance? How much more could be done with that $10,000 if it was given to a church? A community resources center? A political action committee that is focused on raising the minimum wage?

Yes, Jesus talked a lot about money. Yes, he talked about the Kingdom of God as a place where people aren't rewarded based on the world's criteria but as God sees us--with shocking equality (Matthew 20:1-16). And, yes, it's nice (cute? sweet? astounding?) that a rich person would give a presumably less rich person so much money, but is the result really the manifestation of God's reign here on earth?

Most of us (me included) are asking ourselves, "What sort of person does that?" We're wondering what "AshleyS" did with the money. We might even speculate as to the motives of @tipsforjesus. But I haven't heard anyone talking about the kingdom or the laborers in the vineyard or how this stunt brings us closer to the good news of Jesus Christ.

I feel certain that Jesus was a good tipper--starting at 20% and only going up from there. And I'd like to think that he's the kind of person who even tipped a little bit more when the service wasn't all that great because he assumed that the person waiting tables was having a tough day and needed a pick-me-up. But I don't believe Jesus would have left a tip like that--at least not if he was going to sign his name. Even if we don't know who @tipsforjesus really is, this story is still all about that person or group of people. It's not about Jesus. It's not about the server. It's not about transforming unjust societal structures so that the world we live in looks more like God's kingdom. It's just about someone throwing a lot of money around in a seemingly generous way to get attention for all the wrong reasons.