Monday, June 23, 2014

Abiding in Christ and Mission Trip Highs

If you grew up in a church youth group, then you probably went on a summer mission trip. You'd travel by bus with forty of your friends to some remote destination that you had never heard of, and somehow you got up at the crack of dawn every day to do the kind of work that you would never think of doing back home. And yes, all of our parents would say quietly to themselves, "So my child will travel half way across the country to put a roof on some stranger's house, but you have to pull his teeth to get him to clean his own room?" I know, I know...double standards.

And if you went on these short trips, then you know all about the Mission Trip High (MTH). You came home with grand visions to live your life sold out for Jesus, changing the world before you graduated high school. You promised to read your Bible every day. You vowed to fast once a week. You swore to be the greatest prayer warrior in your church. You were going to be the perfect Christian!

But within days of coming home, the MTH was gone. You were sleeping in till noon. You were loading up on junk food. Your Bible was still packed away in your suitcase. And you figured that since you went on a youth group mission trip, you could excuse yourself from church for the rest of the summer.

As we grew up, we came to call those MTHs a mere emotional experience. We believed that we allowed our feelings to get the best of us; that's why we made the same ridiculous promises after every single mission trip. Let's be honest - those promises were a bit far fetched for anybody.

I would like to argue, though, that something other than out of control teenaged emotions were fueling those MTHs. In fact, I will say that for those of us who spent a week or two of our high school summers serving on mission trips, we were fulfilling Christ's words to His disciples in John 15.

Final Instructions.

On the night Jesus was betrayed, Jesus gave these final words to His closest friends.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:5-8 ESV)
How do we interpret those words, "Abide in me....I in you?" For years, I was taught that the answer was found in the spiritual disciplines: read your Bible, pray daily, fast regularly, etc. And indeed, these are important activities for any follower of Jesus. But Jesus does not exhort his Disciples to a life of prayer and meditation. Not here, anyway.

Jesus' emphasis is on direct action. Let's look further.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:9-11 ESV)
Now wait a minute. Did Jesus say what I think he said? Did he actually say that we will earn Jesus' love by following His commands?

No. He said that we would abide in His love. In other words, we would live in accordance with His love if we follow His commandments. Or we would become more aware of His love if we follow His commandments. That is the model Christ sets for us; He kept His Father's commandments and so rested in His Father's love.

And what is Jesus' commandment? He couldn't be more clear.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14 ESV)
The love of Jesus bore good fruit in the physical world. The love of Jesus wasn't only about storing treasures in heaven; Jesus loved in order to showcase the Kingdom of God is in our midst right now. 

John 15 is sandwiched between two profound acts of service. In John 13, Jesus washes His disciples feet, a humiliating duty reserved for the lowest of servants. In John 18 and following, Jesus is arrested, tried, and crucified. Jesus puts flesh on His own words - "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends."

For three years, the twelve disciples were first-hand witnesses to the kind of love that Jesus honors. Jesus healed the sick, he embraced the crippled, he protected the lowly, he advocated for the poor. Not only that, but Jesus loved the enemy of the nation of Israel by healing a Roman Centurion's son. Jesus loved the enemy of the weak by dining with the Pharisees. Jesus loved the enemy of the Law by sojourning for a while in unclean Samaria. 

Jesus loved His twelve disciples even as they misunderstood his teachings, as they asked banal questions, even as His own disciples questioned Jesus' agenda. For all of their mistakes, Jesus called these twelve men his friends, and that should be a great comfort to us as we struggle to live and love well. (Although, it should be noted that Jesus had sent Judas away from the table by this point in the narrative). 

And what of our teenaged MTHs? Think about it. If you went on those kind of trips, you made sacrifices. If you had a summer job, then you sacrificed a week's worth of income, no matter how small it was. If you had summer athletic training, you gave up a week of strength conditioning to serve. If you hated hard labor and early mornings, you sacrificed your right to sleeping in and comfort. If you harbored prejudices against the poor or people of color, than you sacrificed your biases in order to serve another human. If you didn't care much for your colleagues in your youth ministry, then you sacrificed your pride (or fear) and forced yourself to serve with new friends. Jesus honors all of these sacrifices, and in making such sacrifices, you opened yourself up to understand God's love in new ways

What's the takeaway? Christian, if you are longing to know Jesus' love for you, then here is your answer - love your neighbor as Jesus would love them. That is no "social justice gospel;" those are the very words of our Lord and Savior. While much good can be said for a life of prayer and meditation - and indeed, Jesus expects us to fast and pray - none of those disciplines will make any sense until you put on some work boots and serve. 

I am reminded of words from a local pastor that I heard nearly a decade ago. "An over-exposure to Truth with no response will lead to a hard heart." 

Why did the MTH disappear? You stopped following Jesus command to love one another, so you ceased to abide in Jesus love. If you grew up believing that reading and memorizing God's word was the key to joy in God's Kingdom, then maybe you were confused when sustained joy never came with an increased head knowledge of His Word. That's because Jesus doesn't ask us to live life tucked away in an ivory steeple. Jesus calls us to love one another by practicing the wisdom of the Scriptures in the real world. To love one another is a command so simple that twelve rapscallions, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, were able to build God's church on this earth.

So go forth, serve, and get your Mission Trip High, and then work that high day by day by loving your neighbor as Christ commands us to. And may you find your rest by abiding in the Vine who supplies you with all that you need.

Until next time,
-JC

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Family Planning, Education, and Christian Discipleship.



I recently read an article posted on The Atlantic entitled "The Luxury of Waiting for Marriage to Have Kids." This brief piece examined an interesting cultural phenomenon among younger Americans: young Americans who have not completed a college degree are much more likely to have children out of wedlock. A few selections from the piece:

The Stats: 
According to a new analysis presented at the Population Association of America, among parents aged 26 to 31 who didn’t graduate from college, 74 percent of the mothers and 70 percent of the fathers had at least one child outside of marriage. Even among mothers who had high school degrees or some college but no B.A., the majority of births occur among moms who are either single or cohabiting...Of mothers with no high school diploma, 87 percent had at least one baby while unmarried.
On College and Marriage:
As my former colleague Jordan Weissmann wrote, the less a man earns these days, the less likely he is to have ever been hitched. College-educated people are increasingly only marrying other college-educated people, and they’re more likely to get married overall. One reason less-educated women are having children out of wedlock is that college-educated men are not interested in marrying them.
On Poverty and Family Planning: 
To a wealthy person, of course it doesn’t make sense for a high-school dropout to have a kid by herself. But as Maria Konnikova wrote in the New York Times this weekend, poverty actually robs you twice: First by making resources scarce, and second by making it harder for the poor to plan long-term. “The demands of the moment override the demands of the future, making that future harder to reach,” she writes.
On that last paragraph, a former mentor of mine once defined poverty thusly: "To be impoverished is to have a lack of options."

I tweeted a few initial reactions to the piece, including this one:
By which I mean, the State of the Family in America - in which those who can afford a college education to find their college-educated mate - reflects a classist society whose structures benefit the wealthy and marginalize the poor. In other words, maybe the quest to live the American Dream - Mom, Dad, 2.5 kids, a cat, a dog, and a white picket fence - is in fact nothing more than a Sisyphean tragedy: in sight, yet always out of reach for all but a precious few who can afford it.

And I'd like to add that while I do think family as a social unit is implicitly participates in classist structures, I do not believe that the Family is essentially classist, as though having a mother and father was a luxury for the privileged alone; instead, I am firmly convinced that the Family is a part of God's good creation and, as such, should be held in high esteem. To wit, a brief meditation on how Christian doctrine affirms the goodness and fallenness of the Family.

A Christian Appreciation of Family.

In Genesis 1 and 2 - The Creation - God created man and woman and exhorted them to (1) become as one flesh and (2) to "be fruitful and multiply." God calls His creation good, and by necessity this includes the Family.

In Genesis 3 - The Fall - we know that humanity's rebellion incurs a curse on all the land, and the Family is part of that curse. Child-bearing will be painful, and there will be a division between man and woman. Beyond the family, sin corrupts all human relationships, bringing with is prejudice and malice. This sin-induced prejudice includes classism, so in light of the Fall and the Atlantic's article, I feel confident in saying that the Family as a social unit is implicitly classist. However, because God made Family and called it good, I am also convinced that the Family is categorically good.

The Incarnation - Jesus coming to earth as Emmanuel - affirms God's high esteem of the family. The Christ does not magically appear out of thin air; instead, He is born into a family, like most every child. From cradle to tomb and resurrection, Jesus' mother is present at all of Christ's most important moments. Jesus has both a Heavenly Father, upon Whom Christ is dependent for all things, and an earthly father in Joseph, who frantically searched for his boy Jesus, lost in the Temple at Passover.

In fact, the Incarnation subverts classism - Jesus was born into an abjectly poor family, not a wealthy or powerful one. From Mary's own testimony, we know that she is but a handmaiden and a poor girl. Not only does God affirm the Family, He chose a poor family to bring the Word Made Flesh into this world.

The Church: From Jesus to Paul, writers and characters of the New Testament speak of members of the Church in terms of brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Ergo, whether it's a biological family or an ecclesial family, God affirms the Family.

A Christian Response to The Atlantic.

Having been convinced that God and Christianity affirm the worth and dignity of The Family - and it's future restoration in the final Resurrection - there must be, then, a Christian response to this very real problem.

Emphatically, our response as Christians should not be to abolish the family. Not only does the Christian faith affirm the Family, it is proven that stable families benefit both individuals and society at large.

I propose that Christians be proactive in one of three areas. I do not aim to set out a solution - there are experts in the field who can do so more eloquently than myself. Simply consider this food for thought.

Education Reform. The Atlantic argues that college educated people are more like to marry and stay married. Sociologists and social workers would argue that stable families are only beneficial to the family. Thus, it behooves us to get the most qualified teachers in front of the classroom so that all students have a fighting chance to achieve academic success. Assuming that my reader agrees with the Atlantic and my own appraisal of the Family as essential to the success of society, then you most likely agree with me on the necessity of education reform. Questions arise in the logistics. Public schools or private schools? Or charter schools? Or home school? Should we use standardized tests or not? Is the CORE Curriculum useful or detrimental? What about salary caps and teacher tenure? What is the role of the Family in the education of their child?

College Tuition and Student Loan Reform. News flash - college is incredibly expensive, and unless you are a trust fund baby, even an in-state public university education will cost you thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses and years in student loan repayments. Again, there are many questions to consider, but the central theme is this: How can we ensure that successful students from poorer families have the same access to higher education their wealthier scholastic colleagues blissfully enjoy?

Family Planning. And this is the touchiest of all subjects, for here we run into questions about the Affordable Care Act, contraceptives, and whether or not abortion should ever be considered as a possibility. What is more, marriages are expensive - and with a 50% divorce rate, marriage is not a guarantee that the family will be permanently stable. You could argue that marriage is a risky investment, and not many people are ready to make that risk (As one fellow millennial told me,
"If I'm not married, then I can't get divorced!") That said, if the God of the Bible is so supportive of the Family that He would actually allow His Son to be born into an earthly Family, then we need to give serious consideration to how we Christians help people plan to have a family. And as a single millennial, I must defer to the expertise of medical practitioners, social workers, and most of all - to those men and women who have created their own families.

So what do you think? Is The Family essential to the success of society? And if so, how can we create social structures that best support the creation of stable and loving Families?

Until next time,
-JC

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Beaten Up By Opinions

I recently had the opportunity to share about my work with The Marin Foundation with friends old and new. Whiskey was poured and cigars were cut, and we talked late into the night about the church and the gay community. Our host was of one of the elders of my church and a prominent doctor in town. We were joined by his eldest son, who is a good friend of mine; a colleague of our host, with whom I am well acquainted; and two visiting medical students, whom I had never met before that night.

One of the medical students had kept quiet throughout this conversation until he finally said, "Jimmy, I'll be honest...I don't think I have ever met a gay person before. I've certainly never heard the story of a gay Christian. Can you share your story with us?"

Our host Rick laughed. I laughed. Rick's son Jack laughed. Chuck, my other friend on the porch, laughed. It wasn't that the question was absurd. The kid just didn't realize that he was asking for a 60 minute story, because if you ask for my story, that's what you're going to get

And so I launched into it. "I was raised in a Christian home in South Central Texas...."

I spent a lot of time talking about my North Carolina years. Those were difficult times for me, and I think I'm still processing what happened to me in 2008-2010. It all began when my father suddenly passed from biliary cancer, and then I moved 600 miles away from Memphis to North Carolina. 

I shared with these new friends how lonely and isolated I was, a grieving young man beginning his masters.

I shared how I quickly met an evangelical pastor - somebody who spoke my theological language - and how eager I was to enter into Christian community. I shared how this pastor wanted to hear my story, and upon hearing my story, he literally cut me out of his life. He wanted nothing to do with me.

I shared how I met a progressive pastor, who authoritatively told me that no conservative Christian could ever love me or truly be my friend. Thus, she planted the seeds that would later grow into doubt and fear.

I shared how I met a Methodist pastor who earned my trust, only to utterly destroy it through his own selfish agenda in one short month. 

I shared how in my anger at the actions of these pastors and the absence of a vibrant community, I rejected God, His Church, and His people. I shared that for four years, from 2009 to the very end of 2012, I was bitterly angry against anything that associated itself with Christianity. 

The medical students were quiet, so it was my friend Chuck who chimed in.

Jimmy, you got beat up by opinions.

I let those words sink in. I had never thought of my story in that way, but it made perfect sense. The pastors I met in North Carolina did not show me Jesus, but they were more than willing to share their opinion with me. Because each pastor shared an opinion that was in direct conflict with the others, I was left with far more questions than answers. Because I was still grieving the loss of my father, I didn't have any kind of clarity to answer my questions. Because I was living alone in North Carolina, separated from a healthy spiritual community, my grief and confusion turned into a deep bitterness.

It was my friend Kevin - the one who said to me in the middle of my darkest time in North Carolina, "I can't imagine what kind of pain you're feeling right now. I can't even speak to it, but I can walk with you. And I can pray with you. And I can love you, because you're my friend" - who showed me Jesus, and gave me hope.

And it was my friend Byron - the one I tried to push away from me, and in response said, "We're right here, Jimmy. We're not going anywhere." - who showed me Jesus, and gave me strength.

And it was my friend Michael - the one who said to me at the end of 2012, "For everything you feel like you've done wrong....and for everything wrong that has been done to you, Jesus' grace covers all of it" - who showed me Jesus, and gave me joy.

Not a single one of them shared their opinion with me. Kevin, Byron, Michael - and a host of others - simply showed me Jesus. And thus began a long healing process, one that is far from over.

One of our regular participants in our Living in the Tension dialogues shared with us, "I hear some Christians say that gay people are going to hell. I hear other Christians say that God loves gay people. I get so confused. Who is right? Does God really love me?"

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, tasked with responsibility of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, are faced with an important question: What is it that invites people to abide in Jesus? Is it our opinion on a specific cultural topic? Or is it something - or Someone - who transcends our own opinions?

One last thought. 

In Matthew 22, right after Jesus triumphantly marches into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, the Pharisees assail Jesus with questions about Caesar's taxes. After deftly answering them, their political rivals, Sadducees, confront Jesus with questions about the Resurrection. Jesus responds with wisdom and grace, so then the Pharisees rally with another question, this time about the Greatest Commandment.

All three questions were designed to trip Jesus up, each group wanting to trap Jesus in either heresy or treason. In all three cases, Jesus refused to play their game.

Instead, Jesus turns the table on all of them, saying, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?" A massive question, one that forced the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the onlooking crowd to answer according to the Word of the Psalmist - He is the Son of David, the LORD of my Lord. It's almost as if Jesus were saying to the crowd, "Stop trying to justify yourself. Just look at me!"

Jesus invites all weary people to come to Him - His burden is easy; His yoke, light. In all our dialogues, let us make sure that our words bear good fruit in our lives and the lives of our neighbors.

What do you think? How can we engage in healthy dialogues that invigorate the mind, honor the soul, and encourage the heart?

-Jimmy


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Religious Freedoms and Your Neighbor


There is a bill sitting on Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's desk called SB 1062. Arizonans who support this bill say that this legislation is needed to protect the religious freedoms of business owners in the state. The bill says, in an oversimplified nutshell, that any person or private organization cannot be "unreasonab[ly] burden[ed]" to provide services when provision of services would go against privately held religious beliefs.

For example, should this bill be signed in to law, a wedding photographer could not be sued for refusing to photograph a gay wedding on religious grounds. This was a news headline in neighboring New Mexico.

On the surface, this bill seems fair - a businesswoman should be able to conduct her business as she sees fit.

But opponents of SB 1062 - or as it is more colloquially known, the "Turn the Gays Away" bill - argue that this bill is so broadly written that it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people. Speaking to a similar piece of legislation that was considered in Kansas, Dana Liebelson of Mother Jones reported that:
The bill, which covered both private businesses and individuals, including government employees, would have barred same-sex couples from suing anyone who denies them food service, hotel rooms, social services, adoption rights, or employment—as long as the person denying the service said he or she had a religious objection to homosexuality. 
And indeed, Kansas and Arizona are not the only states debating this kind of legislation - similar bills have popped up in the state legislatures of Oregon, South Dakota, Maine, and in my own state of Tennessee. Arizona just happens to be the first state where the bill made it to the governor's desk. Gov. Brewer has not indicated whether or not she would sign the bill into law. She has until Friday to sign it or veto it; however, if she does neither, then the bill will automatically go into law.

We Christians in states like Tennessee, Kansas, and Arizona need to ask ourselves, who is our neighbor? And to that end, I simply want to offer a revised version of one of Jesus' most beloved parables - the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Imagining that the Word Made Flesh, Emmanuel, came to us in the early 21st century, I suspect the story would go something like this:

Jesus was hosting a prayer breakfast for powerful religious and political leaders in the Phoenix community. One young legislator raised his hand to test Jesus. "Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responded, "What does your Bible say?" The legislator replied,“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live."

But the legislator, wanting to justify himself, said, "Who is my neighbor?" And Jesus said, "There was a man biking around town when a car hit him and knocked him on the side of road. He was severely hurt and unable to move. A pastor of a large church drove by, but he did not stop to help him. Then an elder of another church drove by, but he too did not stop to offer any help."

"But then two women, a couple, saw the man and immediately pulled off the road. One woman checked for a pulse on the man, while the other called for an ambulance. Once the wounded biker was put in the ambulance, the two women followed him to a nearby hospital and into the emergency room. Amidst the chaos of the scene, the two women found the nearest attending nurse. "Nurse," they said as they scribbled words on a piece of scrap paper, "This is our address. Whatever this man owes, you forward us the bill. And here's our phone number; you call us the moment he's able to see visitors."

"Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the biker who was hit?” And the young legislator said, “The ones who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise."

What do you think? Who is our neighbor? And what does it look like to love our neighbor the way that we want to be loved?

Until Next Time,
-JC

Monday, February 24, 2014

Somebodies, Nobodies, Anybodies: Coming Out and the Visible Community

University of Missouri football player and defensive player of the year for the SEC Michael Sam recently came out with the support of his teammates; he may be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

But many people said, "Who cares who he sleeps with? I really don't care about his sexuality."

Oscar nominated actress Ellen Page recently came out in a speech, saying that she was "tired of lying by omission." Many people praised her for her candor and vulnerability.

But I saw comments on Facebook that said, "Ellen Page came out, and I'm not surprised."

I recently spoke at a church about The Marin Foundation, and afterwards a man came up to me to say, "Listen, I'm a straight liberal man. I love everybody, and I have a few gay friends. But I get real tired about talking about all this gay stuff. Why do gay people need to make their sexuality such a big announcement?"

For the record, I was a little surprised that these words came from a self-proclaimed liberal.

From the athletic celebrity and the celluloid darling to the countless nobodies who will never have a large platform, the decision to come out is still a complicated one. Families of LGBTQ children can see their dreams of a "normal" life for their children disappear. Straight folks have come to me to ask, "A friend of mine just told me he's gay. What do I do now?" Evangelical Christians have told me, "I don't know why anybody wants to call themselves gay. Why would you ever want to identify by your sin?"

On more than one occasion, those words have been directed right at me.

Nearly every gay person I know has had to confront one question at some point in their life: "Will I be rejected by my friends and family just because I'm gay?" And for those of us who were raised in a church, we must confront one more question: "Will God reject me because I'm gay?" So we're left with two possibilities: either play it safe by lying about ourselves, or take a risk by being honest about ourselves. Eventually, the risky but lighter yoke of authenticity overcomes the devastatingly heavy weight of solitude.

I remember the thought that began my coming out process in 2001: "I can't keep lying to people. Someone has to know who I am." I didn't believe that I could be loved until somebody knew that I was different in some mysterious kind of way. Coming out was a sacred moment because I was finally able to share for the first time all of my fears, my questions, and my most intimate understanding of self.

I recently saw a tweet that said (in so many words), "I don't see it as coming out, but rather as inviting others in." Here is a beautiful image of what Bonhoeffer calls the "visible community." God did not create people to live in the dark shadows of disconnectedness; He designed us to belong to each other in vulnerable relationships. Therefore, coming out is my invitation for you to share your life with me just as authentically as I share my life with you. In this way, coming out is somewhat in opposition to American culture in the 21st century. All of our social media gives us an immediate connection to one another, and yet we're starved for significant, long-lasting relationships.  Coming out is a decision based on the hope that our community can be built upon shared vulnerability and respect.

Lastly, though we may come out with our sexuality, we don't want you to define us by our sexuality; we don't want to be your gay friend. Michael Sam, the Mizzou football player, recently told a group of journalists at the NFL Combine, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player." And when asked if he felt like he was a pioneer, Sam replied, "A trail blazer? I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

Coming out still matters, and it has little to do with sexual orientation - or for that matter, one's sexual history. Coming out is an open confession of a private journey towards the understanding of one's physical, emotional, and spiritual self. Thus we all come out at some point in our lives, and we all consciously choose to invite people into the inner sanctums of our life. Let's cherish these moments for what they are: vulnerable, transformative, and sacred.

Until next time,
-JC

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Walking through John 5: Contrary Callings

My housemates and I are walking through the entire Gospel of John. We recently finished two weeks on John 5, and I want to share some of our thoughts with you. This is the third and final installment of a three-part reflection on John 5.

Let's jump right to it - Jesus breaks the Law, and He has no qualms about doing it. His ministry flew right in the face of culturally accepted norms and theological constructs for his time.

How do I know this? Because it's all recorded in the Gospels. In fact, as my friend and The Marin Foundation colleague Michael Kimpan explores in his forthcoming book"in the four gospels, jesus crosses both cultural and religious boundaries repeatedly - over 45 separate examples – in an effort to stand in solidarity with the Other."

To story of the long-suffering invalid found in John 5 is just one of those 45 examples. Jesus breaks two laws:

1. Christ approaches a crippled man. People with physical infirmities were often considered unclean. For just one example of this, look quickly at Leviticus 21:16-24 - Moses is told to instruct Aaron that any of his descendants that suffer from a physical defect are forbidden from approaching the LORD's food offerings, and they are strictly forbidden from entering the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

2. Christ heals on the Sabbath. Working on the Sabbath was the specific charge the Jews of Jerusalem levied against Christ and the Invalid - Christ healing and the Invalid carrying his mat. Why was this such a big deal? Because according to the Revealed Law, you were required to keep the Sabbath above all other things, or you would be punished by death.

God doesn't approach invalids - the Law forbade it. And above all other things, the LORD did not work on the Sabbath.

As if that wasn't enough, Jesus had the audacity to say, "My Father is working until now, and I am working."

My Father - God - My Equal.

No wonder "the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him" (John 5:18).

Jesus responds to his accusers with a long series of statements that would have deeply offended 1st century Jewish sensibilities.

The Son can do nothing on His own authority, but only what He sees the Father doing (v. 19).

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life (v. 24).

The testimony that I have is greater than that of John [the Baptist]. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very (Law-breaking) works I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me (v. 36).

And perhaps most startling of all - startling even to us worshipping in 21st century Evangelical communities:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you...if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words? (vv. 39-42, 46-47)

Jewish boys living in 1st century Judah would have been required to memorize the entire Torah by the time they were 10 years old. Evangelicals today are exhorted to read and memorize large portions of the entire Scriptures. For my part, I read the entire Scriptures over the course of the year; I practice this discipline daily. I like to think that I "search the Scriptures" because, in no small part, I do find life and meaning in them.

What we have in John 5 is a crowd of Torah experts telling a nameless Invalid and an itinerant Rabbi that they are breaking the Revealed Law of God. In our world, we evangelicals feel it necessary to speak Capital-T Truth from the Scriptures into every situation we encounter, especially when a person's narrative doesn't quite fit our own understanding of the world. In so doing, we perhaps miss out an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to celebrate a person's life.

Christ validates our discipline of Scripture intake; Jesus says that these Scriptures bear witness to Him. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to stop reading the Scriptures, and in a few decades following Jesus' ministry, another itinerant pastor named Paul will exhort new churches to cling to these sacred and holy texts.

However, Jesus' words should challenge us: You pour over the Scriptures, but you refuse to come to me that you may have life. And His challenge comes to a Jewish people who are so hung up on a single Law that they cannot celebrate the restoration of the Invalid.

I have a few questions for us to think about.

Is it possible to thoroughly pour over the Scriptures and miss the point entirely? 

What do we do when our carefully constructed Biblical interpretations come into conflict with the world around us? My colleague Jason just wrote a fantastic post on this question.

Do we American Christians have a solipsistic reading of the Scriptures? That is to say - here is what the Bible says to me in my context, and this shall be the only correct interpretation for me! Or another away of putting it:
Does Jesus ever call us to follow Him in such a way that conflicts with deeply held religious beliefs? After all, He healed on the Sabbath - and he approached an unclean Invalid. What Rules and Laws might He ask us to break?

Leave your thoughts, comments, and pushback below. Let's get a conversation going!

Until next time,
-JC

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Above All, Keep the Sabbath

If you grew up in the church, then you were taught the Ten Commandments from a very early age. The Big 10 form a solid foundation for creating a Christian ethic; heck, most people in the world, regardless of faith, would say that over half of the commandments are, by and large, good rules to follow.

But which commandment is the most important of them all? That's the big question a lawyer asks Jesus in the Gospels, and Jesus answers succinctly, "Love your God with all your heart, mind, and strength; and the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself."

Groovy. We all know that.

But if we had to pick one of the Big Ten to elevate, which one would we pick? Don't murder? Don't steal? Make no idols? Have no other gods besides God?

The Scriptures have an interesting answer.

In the second half of Exodus, we see Moses standing atop Mt. Sinai as he receives the sacred Law from God, which includes the Ten Commandments. There are long passages of how to build the Tabernacle, how to construct the Ark of the Covenant, how to fashion together elegant priestly robes. And at the end of their meeting, just as God is about to send Moses back down to camp, He says:
“You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death." (Exodus 31:13-15)
Wait a minute. Above all else...rest? The most important thing to do....is rest? You mean to tell me that of all the Big 10 Commandments, resting takes precedence over no idol worship, no stealing, no coveting, no murder? Resting is more important than not killing somebody? God surely not, no!

But the Scriptures bear three different witnesses to the importance of the Sabbath.

1. The word Sabbath is mentioned a total of 123 times in the entire Scripture - 66 times in the Old Testament, 32 times in the Law. God spent a lot of time detailing what the Sabbath was, what it was not, and why we should keep it.

2. The Sabbath is a big sign that "I, the Lord," will sanctify us. The Sabbath is a testament to God's abiding presence with us. The Sabbath is important because it is holy for us - literally, it has been set aside for us. This is God's gift to us, as if to say to the ancient Israelites, "You toiled without rest for 400 years under the hot Egyptian sun. Things are different now. You will rest, because the human body is not a machine."

3. A stern warning accompanies most Biblical mentions of the Sabbath - if you break it, you will be put to death. This example from Exodus 31 is no exception.

Rest. Or you die.

Actually, that sounds about right. The human body is not a machine, and we Americans tend to work ourselves to death. Too many people lie on their death beds with one looming regret: I worked too hard to enjoy life. 

Rest. Of you'll be cut off from the people.

Actually, that sounds about right. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Or in my music world, the conversation goes like this:

"Jimmy, let's hang out tonight!"
"I can't. I have rehearsal." 

No joke, this happened last night, verbatim.

So the Sabbath was then and is now serious business. When we let our work become our entire life, we lose touch with our friends and family. When we let our work become our entire identity, we lose sight of our full humanity that is being restored and sanctified by God. And sometimes, the only way to meditate on the person and the work of God is to put down your own toil, turn off your iStuff, and rest every once in a while.

With our God giving us such clear expectations for us to rest, it would be shame if we were to break the Sabbath. It's not like a certain Son of God ever did such a thing...

Until next time,
-JC