Adventures in Missing the Point

From a letter to the editor in the Cincinnati Enquirer, April 23, 2014.

With all due compassion to the woman struggling to feed her family with food stamps, the story did not deserve the front cover of The Enquirer on Easter Sunday. This day is the “Feast of all Feasts” – the great celebration of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Christians worldwide, Easter is THE most important event of the liturgical calendar. Indeed, Christmas is celebrated only in preparation for this great event.

I respectfully request that next year you give Easter the dignity and honor it deserves.

Well, I hope that next year the paper gives the Easter holiday the dignity and honor that Christ would applaud, where we are more informed about, stand more with and care more about the least amongst us, such as a woman who struggles to feed her family with food stamps. (Matthew 25 comes to mind.)

I think Jesus would want that more than just about anything.

Christianity is Ridiculous

I am barraged at times like this (Eastertime) by a LOT of stuff on Facebook about Easter and the resurrection from both my “believing” friends (some of whom believe every cute cat video/sob story/conspiracy theory on the internet) and my “non-believing” friends (who, frankly, also often –I think– believe some stuff for some really odd reasons).

You’ve seen it. Everything from “The resurrection is a sham” to the latest “I died and went to heaven and I came back” story. Often this stuff ends up getting tied to something political or not (I love the new facebook feature with “similar links” for this kind of thing). Then we have the evidence guys… “I can prove it happened.” “I can prove it didn’t.” We have people who’ve made loads of money writing books from either perspective.

So let me spell it out for you, in a nutshell.

The idea of somebody rising from the dead, after being in a tomb for perhaps over 48 hours, on his own power… is… well… ludicrous. It’s not scientifically credible, it doesn’t happen, and somebody who believes such a thing has actually happened is probably not right in the head, and shouldn’t be trusted with heavy equipment or power tools or firearms…

…if it didn’t really happen…

But it did… If this part of the Christian faith isn’t true, then anyone who believes it is just, frankly, nuts.

More than three decades ago, the risen Christ suddenly made himself known in my heart, my life, my soul (if you will). I can explain it to you, but if He doesn’t do that amazing almost magical thing He does in you that he did in me, I admit, sadly, you will never believe me, or Him.

He is risen.

I promise you.

Is “Christian” a Bad Word Now?

Rachel Held Evans is complaining about what has happened to the name (and by extension identity) “evangelical” over here on her blog…

And in the wake of thousands of people deciding that a particular issue (that probably doesn’t affect them directly) was more important than using a small part of their resources to help a child in desperate need (see here)… I feel a little funny about the word “evangelical” these days, too.

Some have said our labels have been stolen. Labels like “christian” and “evangelical”.

But… Remember, the word “evangelical” didn’t get stolen… but rather… in the marketplace of (relatively) free ideas, it got auctioned off to the highest bidder, as people who decided agreeing with them about certain lifestyle issues was the deciding factor in whether a person had value or not. (I’m not arguing those issues here, merely the horrible manner in which they have been co-opted as a litmus test for faith by fragile flawed humans).

And, really… it’s just a word. Nothing more.

The crusaders called their activities “christian” when they massacred people for disagreeing with them.They weren’t.

Arminians called their activities “christian” when they massacred Calvinists… and vice versa… They weren’t.

American slaveholders called their activities “christian” when they used Scripture to rationalize demeaning and even “owning” other human beings for generations… and then they called their activities “christian” when they covered their faces and killed people because of the color of their skin.

We evoked Scripture to justify our crusade to wipe out the aboriginal people of this nation, whose land we stole.

and so on… and so forth…

This is nothing new. Christians miss the mark a lot… And when we don’t, we don’t make news, because Jesus says to keep our good deeds quiet, and I think a lot of us are obeying that. (bad PR, but good spirituality…)

Dear God, help us to remember how much you are deeply in love with us and share that love… and not all this other junk…

The Gospel You Heard is Wrong

So… what if I told you that there was a man who is on his deathbed right now who was a hero of the Civil Rights era, who had received awards from organizations including the NAACP for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination? Would you say he deserves to be celebrated? What if I told you it was the founder of Westboro Baptist Church? Okay… now?

What if I told you that the guy who wrote “Awesome God” struggled with alcoholism his whole adult life, smoked like a fiend and cussed like a sailor (when he wasn’t getting in real live fistfights with his band members and offending everybody around him). Would you stop singing it?

What if you were a Protestant and I told you that the man most famous (and some argue most instrumental) for starting the Protestant Reformation was a raging unrepentant anti-semite till the day he died. Would you turn back to Catholocism?

I was reflecting with a friend today about how we get the Gospel wrong. Go to a funeral. People will talk about how great the person was, how many good or great deeds he had done, how generous he was, how loving… It’s all bunk, sorta…

I have a handful of friends who have been asked that when I die (if they are able) they attend my funeral to talk about what a black-hearted notorious awful sinner I was in my heart of hearts and how hopeless I was (although we needn’t go into detail, okay).

Why?

Because the Gospel isn’t that I can become such a good person that my good deeds outweigh the bad… It’s not that I’m redeemed so that I can somehow attain heaven or union with God or whatever you want to call it by my good works… Nope. It has nothing to do with me, or my deeds, good or bad (both of which can be equally sinful).

Do I have your attention yet?

So… what is the Gospel?

It’s simple really. In short, the reigning King of everything that ever is, was, or will be died for our sins, so we don’t have to. I’m not normally a fan of the Message, but I think that this part of scripture really reads well, so I’ll end with what a lot of folks who are smarter than I am think is the very first presentation of a “creed”… THE Gospel…

1 Corinthians 15:3-11 (MSG) (emphasis mine)

The first thing I did was place before you what was placed so emphatically before me: that the Messiah died for our sins, exactly as Scripture tells it; that he was buried; that he was raised from death on the third day, again exactly as Scripture says; that he presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than five hundred of his followers all at the same time, most of them still around (although a few have since died); that he then spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him; and that he finally presented himself alive to me. It was fitting that I bring up the rear. I don’t deserve to be included in that inner circle, as you well know, having spent all those early years trying my best to stamp God’s church right out of existence.

But because God was so gracious, so very generous, here I am. And I’m not about to let his grace go to waste. Haven’t I worked hard trying to do more than any of the others? Even then, my work didn’t amount to all that much. It was God giving me the work to do, God giving me the energy to do it. So whether you heard it from me or from those others, it’s all the same: We spoke God’s truth and you entrusted your lives.

Words Are Entirely Useless

Yes, they are. Useless.

I was thinking of this today as I was reading a book by a man who just recently died, as he was expounding the Christian understanding of grace. That word… means nothing it seems. We just say it, and then move on. Forget the scandalous uncomfortable forgiveness and undeserved favor that it represents that God extends to every one of us undeserving human beings. We say “grace” and think that the word has carried some meaning. If the word isn’t heard in tears… the meaning is lost.

Same with the word Christ. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. One very recent translation of the Bible has even avoided this word altogether, using “anointed one” or “anointed ruler” instead. Because the word as it was used in the New Testament isn’t Jesus’ last name at all. It’s a bold title that he claimed, one that led to such shock and scandal that the very word, and it’s aramaic and hebrew equivalents, probably got him killed, in the end. But we just say “Christ” and move on, thinking that the meaning has been carried. If somebody isn’t offended when you say that, and claim only heavenly allegiance and none earthly, then the meaning got lost.

Words are all we have, and I’m sorry that they have lost their meaning, but I hope that when we think on these things, when we read these words, we can try, somehow, to get that meaning back.

The Cold is Breaking

We aren’t going to go back into single digits or even the low teens for the next few days. What a relief. At last we have seasonably cold weather for a while instead of unseasonably antarctic ridiculousness (yes, that’s a word).

Is it possible that our hearts get that way?

And what kind of “weather” do we need for that.

Keep Dreaming

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

That is all… Keep dreaming… we’re not all there yet.

Movie Review: Ragamuffin

He will never break his promise
Though the stars should break faith with the sky…

Last night, my family and I saw the new biopic about the life of my favorite songwriter ever, Rich Mullins. Entitled “Ragamuffin”, it follows the life of Mullins from his pre-teen years through his untimely death (Rich, why couldn’t you have worn a d*** seatbelt?) in September, 1997.

I’m going to get the bad out of the way. If you’re hoping this movie “solves” all the problems of the so-called “Christian movie industry”, it does not. It is too long by at least a half-hour, we never feel like the main character really is Mullins until almost a half-hour into the film, and it seems preachier than it needs to be, often using way too much dialog to communicate messages that filmmakers should be able to make with far less talking and far more skillful directing, acting and editing. Anachronisms abound for those who look for them (certain musical equipment and instruments appear years and years before they actually were available), the lighting seems to be an afterthought, and in many cases (as I implied earlier) paragraphs of dialog abound where lines would do.

If you think this movie is just as bad as so many Christian films (virtually all that I have seen in fact) are, you’d also be wrong. Refreshingly, this film does not sanitize the smoking, drinking, cussing (okay, maybe it eases up on the cussing, I’m okay with that), broken character that Rich apparently was. That, I found refreshing. And when Michael Koch finally “finds” the main character (or should I say, when we finally believe in him and the director finally sets the character free), he carries it well, warts (and there are many) and all. I was impressed with how Koch sings and plays the part so well (using his own voice by the way), too, right down to the occasional sloppy piano and idiosyncratic vocal stylings. The stress of growing up with such a broken father-son relationship plays a major role, as it should, and explains much of what we need to know about the character (reminded me of Johnny Cash, actually).

I was fortunate enough to meet Mullins during his too-short life, about 7 years before his death. By “meet”, I don’t mean shake hands after a concert, but in fact along with a small group of folks got to spend hours and hours with him talking and really getting to know each other. He was, by far, the most interesting person I have ever met. So… I am a little biased in saying that beyond the flaws in this film (again, typical of so many Christian movies, and of so much Christian music for that matter), is the story of a man who was worth knowing and knowing about, not in spite of, but partly because of his flaws. I can probably count on one hand the number of Christian songwriters who come close to Mullins’ talent and transparency (even if I’m missing a finger or two), and I’m thrilled that this film might introduce some new people to his work. Even more, maybe more people will come to grips with the fact that Jesus not only doesn’t mind their brokenness, but loves them right in the middle of it all.

That would thrill Rich the most.

Last Gasp Before the Storm

I’ll be spending as much time relaxing today as I possibly can.

Then, for the umpteenth year in a row, I’ll be spending all that Christmas Eve time that many of y’all spend with family relaxing and celebrating the end of all that shopping… I’ll be spending it at work/church… It’s a VERY long evening, and there are SO many details and SO many extra seats in our sanctuary and SO much more difficult music…

I know a lot of people in the church who would just like this night off… once… just one year.

I think that would drive me crazy.

The fact that I am SO blessed as to celebrate the occasion of God breaking into our world in human form with the talents God has given me, and with such an extraordinary family of faith.

I pinch myself a little.

Merry Christmas

Words That Endure

150 years ago today, a political figure totally ignored the trends of the day, totally ignored the methodology for speaking of the day, and gave a speech that still resonates loudly in our American culture a century and a half later.

The main speaker at the event that Abraham Lincoln spoke at was evidently a man who spoke at great length and with great drama. He was one of the most well-known orators of his day, he memorized his very long speech, and you don’t remember, or have probably never known his name. Lincoln spoke for 3 minutes and cemented his place in American history with his brief, genuine and timeless words.

When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address for a History class. I don’t remember all of it now, but it’s ironic that I had to memorize it when Lincoln actually read the speech from his manuscript in measured, slow, and by all accounts not a very dramatic tone. One Pennsylvania newspaper actually just recently actually retracted it’s 150-year old statement that the speech was nothing special.

Oops.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Indeed we remember what was done, and we remember what was said… every word…

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