The Resurrection of the Homeless

Love was winning in Hartford.

Last night I met Melissa, a homeless woman from Hartford, who is currently transforming the way I think.

I was at a street fair as part of The Hartford Project, which is a city outreach put on by 20+ youth groups from all over Connecticut.  Hundreds of teens spend a week in the capitol city loving and learning to love.  Anyway, at the close of this street fair, a gospel choir from Hartford was performing, and I turned and saw this woman crying off to the side.  Grabbing a friend, I went over to find out what was going on with her.

Melissa was sweet, but she was scared.  It was easy to tell that she was moved by the music and she was moved by the message being presented.  That was not uncommon yesterday, however.  The whole atmosphere on the street was positive.  All these kids and youth workers from the suburbs as well as the city had come to Hartford with a single agenda: love people.  That climate dominated the day, so it wasn’t surprising that Melissa felt it.

But Melissa quickly began to share some of her story, in bits and pieces.  She had once been married, we gathered, and had kids.  Who knows, though, when she last saw them?  Her foot was broken and she had a bandage on it, but she said her cane had been stolen earlier in the day.  The previous night she had slept at someone’s house, who said she could keep her things there for a while.  Those things were stolen and they included several medications.  Undoubtedly, she was hungry and in need of clothes, but both of those needs she was able to fill at the street fair.

Naturally, I felt awful for Melissa.  And we sent someone to search for a local who might be able to offer direct help, but they had little to give but directions to a local shelter.  What I could give her, though, was prayer.  So we prayed for her, and I felt the Father’s ache for her, the Father’s rich affection for her, and the hope that carried with it.

Then, as I drove home, I was struck by a theological reality that seems so crucial to occasions like these.

Generally, I’m a proponent of praying for specific and tangible impact in people’s lives.  I believe God desires to heal all wounds, sickness, and disease.  I believe the Father loves to bestow tangible blessings on His children in all forms, including cash, employment, cars, food, whatever.  I try not to limit the ways in which He might pour out on people.  And for Melissa, I prayed for her broken foot and I prayed for the restoration of her bag, containing all her medication.  Had I the means to provide for her a place to live and a job, I’d have given that too.

But I also realized, later than I would have liked, that there’s a further hope that is more powerful than every evil she faces.  The resurrection of Jesus, says Paul, is the down payment on the future resurrection of all who believe and live by Jesus’ way (1 Cor 15:20).  But what a rich hope that must be for those in this world that literally have nothing – that on the last day of this age they will be raised in real, physical bodies that no longer carry the marks or strain of life on the streets.  Whatever else this world may do to Melissa, however terribly the city may treat her, there is a vindication coming that will endure for eternity.

And I find myself happy today that her resurrection does not mean she’ll be sitting on a cloud strumming a harp, but walking the renewed earth helping the Creator to govern.


The Creator God and the Question of Ethics, or We’re Dead on Our Own

For nearly a week now, there’s been a fascinating conversation developing over at JRD Kirk’s blog on gay marriage.  It’s not your typical right-v.-wrong question, and Kirk’s position is, naturally, well nuanced.  The ensuing conversation, for its part, has its highlights, but also has its devolutions, which I suppose ought to have been suspected.  Regardless, the conversation raises some intriguing points and explores some oft ignored quarters of the debate.

This morning, I awoke to another ethics question at Not the Religious Type, the blog of Vineyard pastor Dave Schmeizer (and others from his community).  The issues Schmeizer raises connect to the inherent tension in the conversation at Kirk’s blog.  Of what value is academic ethics?  At what point does the theoretical impact life decisions in the moment?  What is the relation of civil law to morality, whether individual or corporate?  Should a person fight for laws that match her personal ethic?

My high school offered a humanities class to seniors in addition to English and history classes.  This was, in essence, the first opportunity to engage in many of the big questions of life directly within the context of public schooling.  World religions, psychology, philosophy, and, yes, ethics were all covered briefly.  I loved this course.

What does God think of David's robes? Hume cares not. (Image courtesy Wikipedia.)

I remember, though, as a 17-year-old being simultaneously enthralled and frustrated during our minor sortie on ethics.  Fascinated though I was by Hume and Kant, I couldn’t help but think there was something missing from these conversations.  Of course, this collection of unknowingly naive teens debated whether it was wiser to throw an elderly doctor or pregnant woman or teen-with-potential off a sinking ship to save the lot.  My classmates relished the complexity and the debates and the opportunity to take moral high ground.  My teachers looked on with the smirk of experience, at once thinking, “Isn’t this cute?” and “I guess you kids don’t know it all, do you?”

Yet, I recall thinking, “This is stupid.  When am I ever going to wind up on a sinking ship?  And why couldn’t I just sacrifice myself to save the rest?  And furthermore, where is faith in this conversation?”

Having been raised in the church and being one with a predilection to matters of faith, I had been reading the Bible before my stature reached four feet.  Perhaps I didn’t understand Job or Ecclesiastes, and perhaps I often skipped Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and perhaps the prophets seemed to be speaking inconsequential gibberish, but the stories I understood.  And it seemed to me that the miraculous was a regular part of those biblical stories.  And it seemed an omnipresent and omnipotent God played major roles in those stories.  This God, it seemed to me, would have been on that sinking boat too, and He would have had something to say about the situation.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins his Ethics with what seems must have been a similar thought: “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection.  The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge. … Christian ethics stands so completely alone that it becomes questionable whether there is any purpose in speaking of Christian ethics at all. … Man at his origin knows only one thing: God”. [1]

The temptation of Adam and Eve was to partake in the knowledge of good and evil, but their calling was to partake of life.    Where the original humans had available a relationship with that omnipotent and omniscient Creator, a relationship overflowing with life, they opted for a future of independence.  With their Creator, they were not assured all the answers, but were guaranteed life in all circumstances.  Without their Creator, they were assured nothing but a deteriorating existence.

Such is the story of all the Scriptures.  It is a story of humanity pursuing its own ethical path, of the Creator eternally working to reestablish the original union with humanity, of minor successes and major failures, and, finally, one major victory.

Ethics without its origin in a relational Creator is no ethic at all.

What say you?  How do you approach ethics?  Does the reality of a present God matter?  How do you consider difficult (and real) situations in life?

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 21. The entire first section of Ethics is mind blowing. Where was I?

Jesus Is the Man

No one ever said evolution was pretty.

There’s some excitement happening in my head these days [1].  At this writing, it’s something of a muddle, with various thoughts buzzing about in odd directions and at dangerous speeds.  Occasionally, two nestle up alongside one another comfortably.  More often, they’re crashing at alarming speeds and angles.  Switching analogies, this feels like one of those primordial-soup periods from which vast and wonderfully complex ideas emerge like a slimy and gasping lungfish.

There are a confluence of thoughts swirling in various sectors these days.  Check it:

Over at JR Daniel Kirk’s blog, there has been a fascinating string of discussions that began (roughly) with Adam, and stretched into the question of human/divine christology (or, what’s the deal with God and humans, and specifically, God and the Christ?).

Meanwhile, I just wrapped up a re-reading of NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, the last 50 pages of which is a study of Jesus’ vocation as it related to what God said He would do for Israel and the world according to the Hebrew Scriptures.

What’s more, I’ve been commissioned to preach a month from now on the second person of the Trinity.

Here’s a preview of the direction I’m thinking (feedback mostly welcome).

Approaching Jesus from the title we most commonly give him as the second person of the Trinity, “Son of God,” it is curious to look at the other places that phrase or concept appears in Scripture, especially the Old Testament.  The idea first appears in Exodus, while Israel is still enslaved to Pharaoh.  Speaking through Moses, the Lord calls Israel His firstborn (Exo 4:22-23).  Hosea echoes the same sentiment (11:1).  Elsewhere, it seems the king of Israel is God’s son (2 Sam 7:14; 1 Chr 17:13), even as (and perhaps especially when) that king does the Lord’s work on the earth (Ps 2).

In the New Testament, of course, Jesus receives the title frequently enough, but Luke, in his genealogy, calls Adam the son of God (3:38).

So Adam was the original son of God with the vocation to govern and expand the garden.  We might call that a covenantal commission.  That commission gets passed down, essentially, to the nation of Israel, who was meant to represent Yahweh on the earth as a light to the nations.  Thus, Israel is God’s son.  Once Israel demands and anoints a king, that king represents the nation as a whole.  The king of Israel, then, must be a light to the nations inasmuch as he embodies the people he serves.  The king is therefore God’s son in some special way.

Enter Jesus, who fulfilled all these roles to perfection.  It was Jesus who instituted the heavenly kingdom in a great reversal of Adam’s failure.  It was Jesus who stood as a light to the world of the Creator’s purposes on the earth, who embodied God’s heart.  It was Jesus who entered Jerusalem hailed as king (“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Mt 21:9).  Jesus fulfills the commission and deserves to be called son of God.

Notice one more thing, however.  Notice that throughout, it is humans, individually or corporately, who receive the title, “son of God.”  Beginning with Adam, passed to Israel through the Sinai covenant, and handed to David’s heirs through his special covenant, sons of God are people who represent and embody the Lord on the earth (or, at least, are meant to).  The same is true – in fact, totally and completely true – of Jesus.

The implications of this lineage in our post-Resurrection world, are massive, but that lungfish hasn’t lurched ashore just yet.

[1] For those that are into these sorts of things, I’m an INTP. For all intents and purposes, virtually my whole life exists in my head.  People are great, don’t get me wrong, but give me a set of ideas to ponder and pull and prod.  Put me at a party and I’ll inevitably end up thinking about the party rather than engaging with the party.  It looks strange on the outside, but, trust me, it’s enjoyable on the inside. Back to the top.

What I Don’t Know about Romans Could Fill the Tiber

Over the weekend, I pick up JR Daniel Kirk’s Unlocking Romans and made my way through the first chapter.  Already I’m intrigued and delighted by his approach.  He raises some interesting questions regarding the book of Romans that, frankly, I’d never even considered asking of the text.

It is so difficult and yet necessary to approach something you believe to be familiar in a fashion that makes it suddenly unfamiliar.  Every thought requires extreme effort.  Still, this is exceptionally helpful.  Over time, our perceptions of a particular object get covered in dust.  They no longer shine with meaning as they once did.  When we force ourselves to view the object in a new way, from a new angle, with new lenses, we begin to see glimmers of radiance behind the dust.  All is new again.

Anyway, what I am loving, already, about Kirk’s book is that it is raising an issue that I believe is a severe plight on many evangelical Christians.  Often, when Western Christians approach the Bible, we think we know what it is about.  We think we know that this collection of books is about us and how the Lord saves us from sin and offers us passage to heaven.

Perhaps we’re right, on one level.  The Bible certainly speaks through the centuries to all generations in all places.  And surely a part of the overarching storyline is Yahweh’s effort to deal with a broken creation.  And, yes, the goal is restoration (though the whole “heaven” talk, well, I’ve got issues).

What we so often forget (or never knew) is that these books are also uniquely about God working through a specific people (Israel) in specific times and specific places to accomplish that restoration.  We forget that Paul, like Jesus and David and Moses and Abraham (kind of) were all Jews living in (mostly) Palestine.  We forget that they thought themselves as part of a grand story.  And so we forget that what they say, the words they use, fit those specific contexts.  The result, often, is that we read a Bible that the authors never wrote.

So I keep coming back to this: for those of us who are committed to the Christian Scriptures, we simply must learn the story.  As best we can, we have to learn the narrative, the chronology, and the social, political, economic ethnic contexts around these texts.  It’s our best chance at shaking the dust off these stories that we regard as formative.

And Darkness Covered the Earth

Yesterday evening a storm blew in, which ravaged a local weeping willow, which forfeited a substantial limb, which descended on a power line.  And darkness covered the earth.  This was about 5:20 last night.  It’s now 2:50 the next afternoon.

If you look carefully, you can see me next to the downed power line.

But I’m not complaining.  Actually, the incident reminded me of an occasion a couple years ago when a power outage left me and my roommates in the dark.  We promptly lit candles and talked about – what else? – how dark it was.  We also made a resolution: for the next week, we would live without electricity.

Going without electricity for a week these days is tough to do.  This is not because we simply can’t bear the strain of powerless lives, but because it’s almost impossible to avoid.  We laid down a couple extenuating ground rules, however.

(1) We were aloud to cook.  We had a gas stove, but of course, it used electric sparks to light the burners.  We all agreed, it was OK to turn on the stove in order to cook yourself a hot meal, even if your cooking had to be done by candlelight.

(2) Charging cell phones was permitted.  Each of us needed to have use of our phones every day, so this had to be permissible.  Using a laptop, however, even on battery power, was not OK.

I remember two things, primarily, from that experiment.  First, my roommates and I all went out and bought candles the next day.  We were excited about this new venture and how it might change us.  It’s funny to me now to think of embarking on an experience anticipating personal change.  It’s one thing to look back on an event and reflect on the change that has occurred.  This seems a genuine and responsible thing to do.  But to look ahead and anticipate deep, personal change seems somehow prematurely self-congratulatory.  And that leads to the other thing I remember from this week of self-imposed darkness.

I don’t think I saw either of my roommates the rest of the week.  I would return from work each evening at 5:00 or 6:00, make some dinner and take advantage of whatever sunlight remained.  Then, I’d sit and wonder what to do in the darkness, and eventually light a bunch of candles and read a book.  I’d do all this alone, while my roommates, no doubt anticipating the darkness that awaited them at home, struck out for more modern households with all their 21st century accouterments.  I spent the week trying to live without electricity; they spent the week trying to live at other people’s houses.

And in the end, did any of us really changed as a result?  After one week, I was just as happy to return to the electric age as they were to return to the apartment.  I suppose, though, I was a little bit more proud to have accomplished something so minor.  And they, I imagine, were a little more ashamed of their cowardice.

So, yeah, I guess we all did change in the end.

I’m Not Feeling Blue about “Blue”, or I’m Feeling “Blue”

Over at Patheos, my good friend Jonathan Fitzgerald confessed his fears about the upcoming Blue Like Jazz movie.  As a writer in his own right (see what I did there?), this has been something of a running theme for Fitzgerald for as long as I’ve known him.  He’s an artist (though I don’t think he’d actually say that) and a Christian (he would say that) and he’s exceptionally thoughtful about both.  Read the post.  He raises some excellent points about the value of art and why so many have been frustrated both with contemporary “secular” art as well as half-baked attempts at “Christian” art, though for different reasons.

Anyway, this is about the trailer for Blue Like Jazz, whether I’ll make plans to see it, and whether those plans will be filled with trepidation or excitement.

I must confess, I don’t share Fitzgerald’s initial fears about this movie.  Watching the trailer, I’m actually eager to see the film, which is strange, because I generally won’t read popular Christian literature (Blue Like Jazz included) or see supposedly Christian films (I did rent Saved, though, and relished in the satire).  This film, to judge by the trailer, looks quirky.  I love quirks.  At some level, it bears the feel of something fantastical, to which I also aspire.  And more than that, it comes across as genuine.

As Fitzgerald rightly warned, we can’t judge a movie (or book) by its calculated promotional materials.  Yet these 100 seconds give the impression of a real struggle of faith that poses honest questions without trite and prepackaged answers.  It’s what I’ve come to expect of Stephen Taylor, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay.

It remains to be seen what sort of reviews Blue Like Jazz will receive.  It remains to be seen whether it will be a good movie on any level.  The film itself simply remains to be seen.  But here’s the question I find myself asking as I watch the trailer: If this were a story about a young Hindu woman who travels from India, loses her faith in America, and then regains the moorings of her youth, would it be considered a good story?  Would I be inspired, in my own context and my own (very different) faith?  Would it encourage me to ask good questions of myself and my culture?  Would it encourage me to diligently seek answers for beneficial reasons?

I will look forward to any movie that can do that.

My Goal Is Not to Go to Heaven

Evidently, today is the day for this to make the Facebook/Twitter rounds (go ahead, it’s brief and worth it).  I suppose if there is a valid use for church marquees, this is it.  Better that placards outside houses of prayer yell at each other than at passers by.  (Side note: this pictorial exchange pretty well characterizes my own interactions with devout Presbyterians.)

But what’s the deal with heaven?  Do people (or dogs or rocks) actually go there?

A Rock with wings.

As you are well aware (you are, you know, brighter than average), a blog is no place to expound the depths (or heights?) of the doctrine of heaven.  It just won’t do.  But some cursory thoughts are just the thing for a blog.

For one, the Bible consistently speaks of heaven as the realm of God.  You could call it a cosmic place, I suppose, in as much as it is intangible for human beings and the like (most of the time).  It is the place where God’s influence is unadulterated and unbounded.

Among the things that we modern Westerners tend to have a difficult time with regarding heaven is its placement in relation to earth.  The Jews of Scripture never imagined a heaven far off in space, complete with cloud floors, lyre-strumming and winged babies, and a bearded and white-robed God.  For a more biblical perspective, you could imagine heaven as overlapping the physical earth.  Where we only see the earth, God and other spiritual beings could see both the earth and the spiritual overlay, with both realities interacting in real time.  Heaven, indeed, was close.

Another Rock with (Red) wings.

What really interests me about this heaven business, though, has to do with our conceptions about a postmortem existence.  While it’s true that Paul expected to “be with Christ” following his death (Phi 1:23) and Jesus was thought to be seated alongside God the Father in the heavens (Eph 1:20), Paul also fully expected that to be a way station.  Heaven, for Paul, was not an end goal.

Rather, for Paul, “getting to heaven after he died” was merely a stepping stone for a far greater hope.  Paul was ultimately waiting for the final re-creation of the earth.  He was waiting for the final, bodily resurrection of those who had placed their hope in Jesus, their Messiah (1 Cor 15).  He was waiting to get back into action governing the earth alongside the one true king to whom every knee would bow and tongue confess as Lord (1 The 4:13-17; Phi 2:9-11).

Heaven will be a pretty cool thing to go to when we die, but there’s a better thing that comes after that thing.