Archive for December, 2008

All Things New

Posted: December 31, 2008 in Bible, change, Christmas, life, prayer, spiritual formation

“And the One who sat on the throne announced to His creation: ‘See, I am making all things new. Write what you hear and see, for these words are faithful and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will see to it that the thirsty drink freely from the fountain of the water of life. To the victors will go this inheritance: I will be their God, and they will be My children.’” (Revelation 21.5-7; The Voice)

As Rochelle and I left a half-empty 24 Hour Fitness last Monday, I bemoaned the fact that next week the gym will be filled to overflowing with resolutions. This January there will be a guy or girl next to me on the elliptical machine dripping with sweat whose workout regiment will become a warm dish of hope melted by the end of February.

I suspect hope springs this time of year because most of us are willing to accept notions of newness. New habits. New ideas. New thoughts. If resolution season does anything for us, it reminds us that there are some things that we would prefer to have another way. So, we resolve! At the core, though,  most of us don’t like change, or else we’d have made changes already. We motor from the tradition-laden seasons of Advent and Christmas and come crashing into the change of New Year’s resolutions. I like Christmas better myself, don’t you?

Resolutions aren’t inherently bad, though. Through the years I’ve actually had a few stick. Resolutions, however, aren’t enough to bring about the robust turnabout that humankind needs most desperately – the change from darkness to light  (Acts 26.18). Real change is transformation.

When it comes to spiritual formation, transformation comes in different packaging than many people think. One of the great secrets of spiritual formation is that no one can make themselves more spiritual. What we do as disciples of Jesus is create space, make room, prepare the way, and orchestrate the conditions wherein God can make us into whatever He would have us become. Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual practices (disciplines) do not make us more spiritual in and of themselves. Instead through participation in certain practices, we invite God to encounter us in formative ways that shape us spiritually.  It is God’s work, through the power of the Holy Spirit, when we share in the practices that connected Jesus to God that changes us.

Even a quick perusal of the New Testament demonstrates that God is the One who changes us. Repeatedly, the Bible illustrates that God, the Alpha and Omega, makes everything new, including us. We are made new by the work of God more than the will of persons.  Like cultivating a garden, humans simply create the conditions for growth while God produces the harvest.

As you reflect on the habits you choose to welcome in 2009, I encourage you to make room for the ancient spiritual disciplines. These are simple ways we open ourselves to God in order that He make us new.

I’ve mentioned before that I my father raised me listening to the protest music of the 1960’s. One of my favorite songs was sung by Sam Cooke, A Change Is Gonna Come. Not only should Sam Cooke be the only person to ever sing that song, but the words, I have found, are always true: Change does come. And change has come for me and my family.

In February, I will begin a new ministry in Redwood City, CA, just south of San Francisco, as the Senior Minister for the Redwood Church. This change has been a long time coming, and my wife, Rochelle, and I believe Redwood to be the right place and the right people at the right time.

Beginning in February much in my life will change. I can’t mention all those changes yet…but I ask for your prayers for our family and this new venture. I believe God is going to do some amazing things. I am both eager and anxious. 

Keep checking back for updates.

After a recent sermon, a friend told me that they love the way I “read” the Bible. They went on to say that I frequently have a different take on familiar passages. What they meant was that, at least in their opinion, I bring fresh light and meaning to scriptures that they had not considered before. Now, I’m not sure how accurate their opinion is, but I’ll take it as a compliment nonetheless.

While I don’t feel as if I have a special take on scripture, I do feel like there are some things readers of scripture can do that will expand their reading and give them fresh bread. These are 10 practices I attempt to hold close as I search the scriptures.

1. Remove yourself from power. Because of my upbringing in the South and other “disadvantages” that came with it, I naturally see the story of scripture from the “outsiders” or “foreigners” perspective. When God tells the Hebrews to destroy a city and kill all the non Hebrews, I’m aware that I am not a Hebrew, and had I been living in that unfortunate city, the God I now worship would have instructed his people to kill me. That changes the way you read the Bible. It gives you a different imagination regarding what God is really up to in the world.

Plus, my ancestors were slaves. Try reading Paul’s instruction about slavery in the light of that fact. What was scriptures teaching to my great-grandparents? Try having an easy reading of the Bible with slave blood in your veins. The Hebrew’s years as slaves in exile become more formative than the reign in Jerusalem. The suggestion: Try reading the Bible as a minority. This one thing alone will radically enhance your reading. Here’s a hint: If your reading gives you more power over others rather than more surrender to God, then re-read.

2. Beware of Injustices. My presupposition is that Jesus becomes flesh to liberate the world (from selfishness, pettiness, death, etc…). As I read the Bible, I’m always mindful of how someone or some group has used a particular text to bind people to a cultural or social moray rather than liberate them. If a text has been used to enslave others or as an instrument to maintain an inequitable social status quo, it at least needs review. Southern Christians abused Pauline texts to maintain segregation. The question we have to ask is whether or not their use is what Paul actually intended. Your views may not change regarding certain things, but the texts should at least be examined.

3. Get Behind the Story. In every text there are a host of things happening. There is a story going on already and a verse or pericope of scripture is only a small part of that story. For instance, if you don’t know what’s going on in my favorite book (2 Corinthians), then you have very little idea about the depth of the teaching. We should be grateful for theologians. They serve the church. We need to explore what they tell us now about then. We need to know what the larger story is. If we don’t then it’s easy to fall into bumper sticker theology. So, if your preacher says, “I’m preaching through Acts.” Then go into your church library or down to the Christian bookstore and pick up the best commentary on Acts. Or better yet, ask your pastor/teacher/minister to share with you his resources. If they don’t,worry!

4. Know What Your Assumptions/Biases Are. It’s hard to read the Bible authentically if you are not aware of your biases. And as you get to know them, you have to be open to them being challenged. Part and parcel with this is the idea that you have to be open to being wrong about previously held conclusions about the text. You move forward if you think you know it already and you can’t move ahead if you’re not aware what you assume. In addition, you need to be aware of what you think the Bible is trying to do. Is it an answer book? Helpful tips for daily life? A grand narrative of God’s actions in the past and future? A pattern for church governance? Lots of questions flow out of this, but we have to know our assumptions first.

5. Read With Your Humanity on Your Sleeve. We have to read the Bible as people. That sounds obvious, but many of us read scripture like machines thinking that we were born exegetes and not people. This occurred to me last year when Larry James spoke at our Men’s Retreat. Larry — in a few short sentences — talked about stuff I knew already about Mary and Joseph and Joseph’s age when Jesus was born and the strong likelihood that Jesus was the  son of a single mom for most of his rearing. That has to change the way you see Jesus, and the ways you see single moms and children. And you won’t believe this, but until that moment, it had not dawned on my that I was the son of a single mom. I had never considered it before. My mom raised my brother and me be herself. Single moms were other people, not us. We frequently read our Bibles and don’t see ourselves in it and it keeps us from seeing ourselves in others.

6. We Would Have Reacted Like They Reacted. As we comb the Biblical text we have to be aware of the fact that we would have reacted like they reacted. This means Jesus is talking to us, Paul is instructing us, the Prophets are shouting at us. It’s easy to be on the side of Jesus, but we are the 9 lepers that didn’t come back. Let’s bring some humility to the way we treat those who didn’t follow Jesus, those who rejected Paul, those who were forced into the right actions under threat and endurance of plagues, and those who show favoritism. They are us and we are them. Another way to say this is to have a “confessional heart.”

7. Read in Community. You might have noticed that the Bible creates a community and is best read in community and was read and spoken to communities initially. The Bible is read best in fellowship and informed discussion (shared ignorance for 1-hour on Sunday morning is not the same thing). In community notions can be affirmed, challenged and enhanced. In authentic community the Bible comes alive as we see it lived in the lives of others.

8. Read On Your Knees and in A Posture of Obedience. Interpretation doesn’t work because we are clever. It occurs because God reveals Himself. If the Bible is read without a robust spiritual life and deep prayer we may be missing a great deal. Again, my presuppositions come into play: If it’s merely an answer book, then there is no need for spiritual life. Simply read and do. But if the Bible is trying to create a particular kind of person who lives in a particular kind of community with a particular mission in the world, then more must be done. Bible reading, I assume, is asking us to do and be something that we would not have done or become without having read the Bible. For that, I need intimacy with the God revealed in the Bible.

9. Read for the Sake of Reading. People in my profession often find themselves fingering through scripture in preparation of a class or sermon. This is unfortunate because it’s when we are reading for the beauty of the narrative that God often jumps up and surprises us. Here’s where I put in a plugged for The Voice. As I’ve re-read the gospels this Advent, The Voice, and it’s imagery have grabbed my heart and drawn me back into the story juts like when I was a kid. And I’m excited about who Jesus is all over again.

10. Look For Distress. The Bible causes distress. When the events it recounts occurred there was distress. After Guttenberg there was distress. In each text there is something that should cause distress for the reader. It always has. Certainly, there are comforting passages, but there are just as many distressing parts that call us to change everything; to repent. In fact, there is only one true Bible study question: What in my life would have to change if I were to take this text seriously? The Bible changes our lives and we don’t always like it.

Well, those are some of the ideas/commitments I bring to Bible reading. And surely there are some bad thoughts/assumption in there and some important things I totally missed. What can I say? I’m human. At any rate, I hope this helps reignite some of our passion for the Bible. And now I will give you my BIG tip that some people don’t like, but I think is most important.

** Beware Bibliolatry. I don’t understand what people mean when they say they “love” the Bible. In my view, the Bible is a way — a primary way — that God is revealed, but at the end of the day, I want to spend time with, to lavish in the love of, to worship, and to serve God, not the Bible. God is most clearly revealed in the Bible, I get it. But the Bible is not the endgame. To make it such is idolatry. God is the endgame.

An Advent Prayer

Posted: December 16, 2008 in Christmas, missional, prayer

Today, we return to the pen of Walter Breuggemann and his wondeful book of prayers, “Prayers For A Privileged People.”

Newborn Beginning…after Caesar

The Christ Child is about to be born,
the one promised by the angel.
Mary’s “fullness of time” has arrived.
Except that the birth is scheduled
according to the emperor:
A decree went out that all should be numbered.

Caesar decreed a census, everyone counted;
Caesar intended to have up-to-date for the tax rolls;
Caesar intended to have current lists of draft eligibility;
Caesar intended taxes to support armies,
because the emperor, in whatever era,
is always about money and power,
about power and force,
about force and control,
and eventually violence.

And while we wait for the Christ Child,
we are enthralled by the things of Caesar –
and all the well-being that comes from
such control, even if it requires a little violence.

But in the midst of the decree
will come this long-expected Jesus
innocent, vulnerable,
full of grace and truth,
grace and not power,
truth and not money,
mercy and not control.

We also dwell in the land of Caesar;
we pray for the gift of your spirit,
that we may loosen our grip on the things of Caesar,
that we may turn our eyes toward the baby,
our ears toward the newness,
our hearts toward the gentleness,
our power and money and control
toward your new governance.

We crave the newness.
And while the decree of the emperor
Rings in our ears with such authority,
give us newness that we may start again
at the beginning,
that the innocence of the baby may
intrude upon our ambiguity,
that the vulnerability of the child may
veto our lust for control,
that we may be filled with wonder
and so less of anxiety,
in the blessed name of the baby we pray.


Preaching Christmas

Posted: December 15, 2008 in Christmas, church, life

A lot of ministers love preaching during Advent. For those of us in free church traditions, this is a time of year we can unapologetically turn to the lectionary and no one will give us grief about it. People also like preaching Advent sermons because words like peace and hope are easy to grab ahold of. Plus, the folks in the pew are typically glad to be worshipping together, congregations are filled with visitors, and sanctuaries are decorated in red and green. There are lots of good feelings around Christmas, and there should be.

At the same time, though, I fear that some of the preaching done during Advent is selective in it’s approach (a temptation even when it’s not Christmas). This year as I’ve re-read the birth narratives within the gospels, I’m shocked again by the scandal of the story; a story that is truly unbelievable without the asset of faith. It doesn’t stop at the scandal though. Just think about all those mothers clutching their little boys as King Herod’s minions draw knife and sword. And then, like in this past week’s lectionary reading, there’s John the Baptist, this wild man of the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, while looking like the last person you want to be around. John also reminds us that life in the service of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending.

Christmas, I’m reminded, is a scary holiday.

It’s not kid’s stuff.

The birth of Jesus presents a threat to power; a revolution of hope bought with the blood of someone’s son — both God’s and many others; it’s about a pregnant teenaged mother; and a earthly father given an offer he couldn’t refuse. The birth of Jesus is about lives turned upside down. It’s about one kingdom’s clash with another and the cold, hard truth that our personal and professional kingdom’s cannot be aloud to stand either. 

In my house are several Nativity scenes. When I’m not thinking, these pieces of wood and marble are quaint, almost sentimental tellings of a wonderful tale. But when I am thinking, the scenes strip away the armor of my heart and remind me that when Jesus was born nobody wanted him. And I have to ask myself again, Do I want him? Do I want to invite in this man who’s birth causes such upheaval into my well manicured life (even though my life is not that well manicured). Christmas tells me that I am not the center of the universe, though so many other people want to tell me that I am. Christmas tells me that in some ways, from last year to this year, I have tried to leave the King out in the cold, and because of it, I’ve missed the angels rejoicing.

So, Christmas for me has a double-edge. While I love watching my daughters get excited about Santa and trees and decorating the house, there is a King coming, and he’s coming to turn the world upside-down.

This is a reprint of my favorite thing I’ve ever written. It may not be the best, but it’s my favorite. Each Advent, I post it and continue to be challenged by the life of St. Francis.

A friend of mine tells a story about walking through his neighborhood a few weeks before Christmas years ago. Here in Houston it never gets too cold so walks in December aren’t unusual. Anyway, as he approached one house, he noticed the Nativity in the front yard. Everything was in its place, shepherds, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and manger. Only, inside the manger was the baby Jesus wearing a Santa Claus hat; fur-lined, red, and with that cool looking white ball thingy at the top. My friend points out that that’s the problem with Christmas – many of us cannot see the difference between who Jesus was, what He taught and did, and the unhinged, consumeristic fervor of America’s most gluttonous season.

It all begs the question: What should we be thinking and doing at Christmas?

Before I came to the church where I currently serve, Christmas was essentially about getting the stuff that I wanted, the presents under the tree. A good Christmas meant I got what I wanted and the sweet potato pie was good. It had nothing to do with Jesus. In my religious tradition we simply did not celebrate Christmas as a religious event.

It was purely secular!

I remember asking my fifth grade Sunday school teacher, Larry, why we didn’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, and why we paid absolutely no attention to the Christian calendar. No Pentecost! No Advent! Nothing! Larry told me that no one knew the exact dates of those events so to celebrate them on the dates proposed was outside what we knew from the Bible. That’s true, I suppose. However, I knew that my grandmother as a black woman born shortly after the turn of the 20th century in Mississippi had no birth certificate and no one could remember her exact birth date, but she still got older each year and we still acknowledge her life. I applaud Larry and the church of my youth for being concerned about what the Scriptures say, but at the end of the day it taught all us kids that Christmas was about the same thing that Fisher-Price and Mattel wanted Christmas to be about: The stuff!

And that teaching has been hard to shake!

Each year as Thanksgiving rolls around I know that there are very few things that I need. A new pair of pants, some new shoes, maybe, but nothing sexy – no iPods or new cars. I tell myself that I don’t need anything, and don’t want anything and that I won’t ask for anything, but I can never keep up with my plans. Suddenly things start shining, old things seem, well, old and in need of replacement. Those things that seemed like nice hobbies to start “one day” turn into imperatives that need me to invest in them immediately. So I end up needing, asking and wanting more. Thank goodness for Christmas sales.

Before I know it, this time of year, this Advent season in which the church is to anticipate the coming of Jesus into the world, this time when we are to be looking to the Heavens with expectation about the healing of the world and the healing of our broken relationships with each other and our broken relationship with God becomes a dime store smash and grab to see what stuff we can make off with.

Have you ever had that experience? Am I the only one?

Recently, I was thinking about my Christmas coveting and reading about Francis of Assisi (these are not two things you should do simultaneously). Francis was born the son of a wealthy merchant and had visions of becoming a superior fighter. After and illness, however, he began to experience deep religious feelings. He would go off by himself to pray, wear ragged clothes and give away money from the family business to the poor. As you might imagine, this made his father a little – um, irritated! His father took Francis to court and asked that the bishop to force him to give back all the money Francis had given away. Equally irritated, Francis stripped off all his clothes, hurled them toward his father and walked out proclaiming that he would only now speak of his Father in Heaven.

From that point, Francis renounced materialism. Over time, Francis founded several mendicant – which is fancy word for “beggar” – religious orders. Unlike other orders, Francis and his followers rejected not only individual property, but also communal and collective property. In short, they had no stuff! For Francis, poverty was not an end in itself, but a means of aligning with Jesus, the disciples, and the gospel by direct imitation. One of Francis’ biographer/followers wrote: “While this true friend of God completely despised all worldly things he detested money above all. From the beginning of his conversion, he despised money particularly and encouraged his followers to flee from it always as from the devil himself. He gave his followers this observation: money and manure are equally worthy of love.”

Could you imagine spending Christmas at St. Francis’ house?

I wonder what this patron saint of animals and the environment who married “Lady Poverty” for the sake of the gospel, might say about “Black Friday” – the day after Thanksgiving – when Americans sleep outside department stores to get the first look at sales. Or what might he offer to a Christian community that essentially sees and treats Jesus like Santa Claus? Perhaps he would feel uncomfortable with the fact that American Christians, who by and large have too much stuff already, spend the season of Advent concerned about getting more stuff.

Perhaps St. Francis might tweak our practice of Christmas a little. Maybe he would say that during Advent and Christmas, we shouldn’t focus on our riches but our poverty. Of course, there are a lot of us that give to good causes year round, but that’s not the only kind of poverty I’m talking about.

I’m also talking about real poverty – spiritual poverty.

I’m talking about the way that many Christians exercise no demonstrative difference in their character than non-Christians. I’m thinking about Christians who proclaim love for the powerless babe in the manger, but spend each breath of their existence trying to beg, borrow, steal and deal for more power for themselves. I’m speaking of pastors and church leaders who have no vision for the communities they serve and no love for the sheep of their flock, looking only to the church for what they can get from them. I’m concerned about people who are made miserable through their own self-concern. And I’m talking about those of us who fundamentally believe that something other than God will finally or ultimately make us healthy and whole. We are all so deeply, deeply poor.

And that’s why we need to visit friend Francis this year. We need to strip it all off and look only to our Father in heaven. If we don’t we will continue to look around the next corner, over the next bend, and under every rock for that “thing” we think will make us whole.