Scriptural Imagination and Ferguson (Part III)

In light of the Ferguson protests,  I’ve been exercising “scriptural imagination,” and reading the words of Jesus with fresh eyes. (Follow this link to read the entire series). Yesterday I examined Matthew 7:1-23. Today, I’m taking a fresh look at Matthew 7:24-29. Follow the hashtag #ScripturalImagination on Twitter for more renderings, and feel free to add some of your own.

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Matthew 7:24-29

The Two Foundations

Jesus drove the point home. “Everyone who hears and acts on my hard teachings—the teachings on secret prayer, mindful action, bearing the sorrows of others, and bearing peace—is like a wise person who builds their house on the high ridge of reconciliation outside the flood zones of violence. The rain of terror and violence may fall, the floods of oppression may breach the sandbag wall, and the winds of propaganda may blow and slam against that house to the point of great fear; and yet the house will hold strong. It will not fall, for it has been founded on the rock of a correct and active faith. It has been founded on the rock of my teachings.

"But what about those who hear these words of Mine and do not act on them, who opt instead for violent revolution, the terrifying teargas oppression, or who otherwise seek glory through contrived and false reconciliation? Or what about those who see a 'good crisis' and act in self-interest, self-righteousness, or self-indignation? They will be like foolish men who built a high-rise apartment complex at the lowest point in the flood zone. The rains of terror will fall. The floods of fear and oppression will come. The winds of propaganda will blow and slam against the building, and because the high-rise was built on an incorrect faith, it will fall. And its fall will be loud and raucous, and it will be broadcast on CNN for all the world to see.”

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their politicians and pundits.

 

*Photo by Debra Sweet, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Scriptural Imagination and Ferguson (Part II)

In light of the Ferguson protests,  I’ve been exercising "scriptural imagination," and reading the words of Jesus with fresh eyes. (Link to the series). Yesterday I examined Matthew 7:1-6. Today, I'm taking a fresh look at Matthew 7:7-23.

Follow the hashtag #ScripturalImagination on Twitter for more renderings, and feel free to add some of your own.

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Matthew 7:7-23

The Narrow and Wide Gates

“You’ll have to put down your weapons, crawl out of your MRAPs and tanks, perhaps lay aside your possessions, prejudices, and maybe even your picket signs to enter through the narrow gate. The gate wide enough to accommodate all the artillery, television trucks, helicopters, militia members, gangs, provocateurs, and even well-meaning activists, empties onto a violent and wide road that leads only to war and death. Too many well-meaning men follow the masses through that gate to their peril.

"The gate of peace and reconciliation is a very slim—in fact, it’s a super-tight fit—and only the smallest empty-handed children can fit through it. It takes great imagination to find this narrow gate. Stop walking with the masses. Strip naked! Get on your hands and knees, and search for the small entrance that leads to life and peace."

A Tree and its Fruit

"Beware of the provocateurs, anarchists, and activists looking to make a big name on a legitimate crisis; they seem to take the side of peace and reconciliation (have you heard the term 'sheep’s clothing?'), but they only fight for their own agendas. You will know them by their hate-filled backpacks, how they hide within the crowd and pitch bombs over your heads at the police. Their weapons of warfare belie their intentions.

"Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor strawberries from AR-15 assembly lines, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears the fruit of anarchy and violence.  A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a factory of warfare cannot produce organic, farm-raised, homegrown tomatoes (the kind you ate straight from the vine as a child; remember those?). The truth is, sooner or later these factories of violence and the societies that build them will go into the fire, just like every sick tree that bears rotten fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"Look closely; do you see it? You will know the reconciling children of God by their fruits.

"And one more thing: not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ cares about the kingdom of heaven. (Not really.) But he who does the will of a peaceful and reconciling God? He will enter the good and eternal kingdom. Many will say they belong in the kingdom, will say 'Jesus, did we not enforce law-in order in your name?' or 'did we not bring peace to a riotous, raucous crowd?' or 'did we not picket and protest for justice in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, ‘You did all of this for your own gain, which is its own sort of lawlessness. Did you take off your riot gear and join the protestors? Did you lay down your picket sign and talk with the police? Or did you just engage in a war of words? Get out of here. I never knew you.'”

*Photo by Craig Dietrich, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Confessions of a Recovering Neo-Reformist (Part 2)

Yesterday, I jotted a note on the timeline of my Facebook Writer's Page. Today, I'd like to explore the thoughts a bit more. If you read this there, bear with me. (For part 1 of these confessions, click here.)

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"Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune." ~ Noam Chomsky

I graduated with a degree in Economics, which, contrary to popular belief is less a study of money and more a study of the allocation of choice. As choice would have it, I passed on the lucrative careers that come along with such a degree, and opted instead for the less glamorous life of youth ministry at an Oklahoma mid-mega-church.

Oh, these are the times that try men's souls!

I remember the first time I heard it--"without uniformity of doctrine, there cannot be a strong and unified church." We sat at the boardroom table at the Friday morning staff meeting, and I watched as the ministers around the room nodded in agreement. The next hour was devoted to enumerating those truths upon which all of Christianity hinged--the virgin birth; the deity of Christ; the salvific work of the cross; Christ's resurrection from the dead.  I could get behind these, but then the conversation turned to lesser central doctrines--the continuation or cessation of spiritual gifts; the role of women in various ministry positions; election versus free will; the number of Gerasene demoniacs present at Jesus' first gentile healing.

A young minister, I listened to the conversation, distilled it to its most basic thesis. I reckoned that what the good pastors meant to say was something more along the lines of "agreeing on the tenants of the Creed is not enough." At that precise moment of epiphany, one minister upped the ante and asked, "and how do we convince our fellow brothers and sisters of these truths?"

Now we were to the meat of the matter. We were pursuing the apologetics of peripheral doctrines. Even in those days, this mindset seemed somewhat colonial. Take the Truth to the locals! Convince! Convert! It never made a lick of sense to me.

I've been removed from this kind of doctrinal hardline thinking for over 15 years, now. These days, I'm a layman, a man with no paycheck at stake. I've chosen my church carefully--they, a rag-tag gaggle of screwed-up folks who might not agree on the direction of the wind, much less the Christian doctrines outside of the Creed. We comprise a broader scope of lost-and-found Christianity.  There are former Baptist, Catholics, Church of Christers, and one or two of the ex-Methodist stripe. We have Charismatics and pragmatists. We have dispensationalists, covenentalists, and new covenentalists. We have apologists, evangelists, and servants (sometimes, they are one in the same). We have conservatives and liberals, Republicans, Democrats, and Tea Party members. And here's the beauty: this group loves each other well and serves together even better.

We call this church home because they pray well for and with us. They hold the efficacy of God-ward petitions in tension with his sovereignty. They support my art, my logic, and occasional anarchist tendencies. They support my wife's, too.

This body, it is quite plain and simple; it is my church, and it is a beautiful, unified body.

Yesterday, while listening to a sermon podcast from another congregation, I heard a pastor explaining why his parishioners should refrain from excusing a non-reformed Baptist brother from the fellowship table. My first thought was, "good on you for teaching something that may not be well received by your ultra-conservative crowd." My second thought was, "where did our gospel understanding go wrong that someone would actually feel the need to preach that from the pulpit?"

Then I remembered the exchanges between Peter and Paul, and I remembered--this stuff's been going on since the founding of the faith.

I'm just a layman now, a person who has a piece of cheap internet real estate and a keyboard. As sure as shooting, there's a pastor out there who will take umbrage with my words. But as a well-traveled believer in this thing we call the gospel, allow me a bit of leeway. Sometimes I reckon we'd be better to admit that things are neither as predestined as we like to think, nor are they as subject to the free will of man. Sometimes, I reckon we'd be better to recognize that things aren't as miraculous as we'd hoped, but at the exact same time, they are. Perhaps the teachings on women are contextual? Perhaps the teachings on speaking in tongues are, too? Perhaps they are literal? Sometimes, I reckon we'd be better to resolve ourselves to the possibility that we have it all wrong, or maybe we don't, but either way, the greatest of all things is love expressed through one central character in the gospels.

If we started and ended there (oh, audacious thought you are!), we might find a better way.

Ebenezer on the Internet

I.

Eben-Ezer - (Hebrew: אבן העזר‎, Even Ha'Ezer, lit. stone of help)

Nearly one year ago, I sat barefoot in the thick carpet of the Rock House living room and watched Titus vomit another meal into an over-sized plastic bowl. We were at wits end, feeding him through a tube that was taped to his ghost-boned cheek, ran up his nose, down his esophagus, and emptied into his unstretching stomach. A formula bolus was pumped through a syringe at the end of the tube, and as it pooled in the pit of his stomach, he squirmed uncomfortably, body readying itself to reject it all.

We were watching the slow wither, his energy waning until the light in his eyes was dimming tired and faint. He was a malnourished native, a passing soul, an emergency. We were frightened--all frightened--and rocking on the edge of the mantel, feet balling up the carpet again, and again, and again. I would like to say that I prayed the fervent prayers of God-ward saints in those hours. Truth is, I didn't pray much at all.

We made our way to Arkansas Children's Hospital where a good doctor said he was sorry, but he had no good answers--not really. There was an egg allergy, yes. There was a slight brain issue, sure. But these things didn't account for Titus' inability to grow. It had come down to prayer and luck; these were our last and best ditch efforts.

We were discharged, and I feigned offense at God for some number of months. "Why Titus?" I asked, daring a deified storm to materialize on the horizon, to rush up on me like an Oklahoma wall cloud and thunder-boom

Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?"

That voice never came, in part because I had not yet endured the hardships of Job, and maybe in part because there was a kinder, gentler way.

There was a feeding pump. There was a special formula. There were slow feedings, patient feedings. There were weekly weigh-ins and checkups. There were the prayers of saints. There was the laying on of hands by the church elders. There were good friends who brought warm supper and supple wine. And slowly, we began to see real Goodness in the land of the living.

Nearly a year ago. Impossible.

Wednesday night I rocked Titus to sleep singing an awkward mix of pre-school silly songs and hymns. (Have you ever heard a playlist that included "B-I-N-G-O" and "Step by Step?") He began to doze during the second verse of "Come Thou Fount," and when I reached the line "here I raise my Ebenezer," I was struck by the notion that Titus was the personification of that truth. The sleeping proof of a meticulously patient and gracious God.

Ebenezers are real things. Do not doubt it.

II.

"Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt

Allow me to segue with a bit of a flourish. Allow me to come out swinging.

I am growing weary of the internet and social media. There is the good stuff, no doubt. There is also the clanging clamoring, the ranting and railing, the shaming words. The words. There is no great lack of words for consumption. Words. Words. Words. There are Tweets upon Tweets and statuses upon statuses. Words. Status. Words. Tweet. More words. Status. Tweet. Blog post. My blog post. My tweet. My status. Advertisement. Tweet tweet.

And there is nothing innately wrong with any of it. In fact, some of it I quite rather enjoy, and some of it is rather useful. But at times I find myself distracted by the thought that it is my by-God obligation to be in the middle of it all--ah, the siren call of attention's center. And often (here comes the confession), I sacrifice content quality to dive directly into divisive, subversive banter.

Let's call a thing a thing. Let's find these lines of division and blot them out with a metaphorical eraser. Let's stop talking about people and events and start talking about ideas, about concepts, about Gospel.

Gospel.

What is it?

III.

"The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love" -Psalm 103:8

The good book tells me that my God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. While I whined about the waning son, the Heavy Hand could have snuffed me out like a wick; he could have returned me to dust and ash. There was another way, though. Instead, he gathered the elements of faith, formed minerals from them, formed minerals into rock and rock into Ebenezer. Instead, he showed me his enduring patience with my lack of faith, and in time, restored it all gently.

I am thankful for my Titus. He is the reminder of my "Stone of help."

This is the Gospel--that while I was still sick and broken, while I was faithless, there was a patient and gracious way made for me.

IV.

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” ― Chief Seattle

The sections of today's piece may seem somewhat unconnected, but bear with me. There is a great pull to become wrapped up in the latest and most polarizing issue, malnourishing though it may ultimately be. There is a great pull toward sounding off. This is not a bad thing, necessarily. I think God created us with these  sorts of bents (even if we misuse them from time to time) because, truth is, certain events need discussing; the words and deeds of others sometimes need a little vetting.

But today--if only today--I'm asking if you'll participate with me in a bit of redirection, an internet slight of hand. Will you use today--if only today--to raise an Ebenezer? Will you share your Ebenezer story out loud? Do it here in the comments, or on Twitter (140 character challenge), or on Facebook.  Can we move away from the critical, divisive, issue driven internet? Can we participate in a better web for just one day--if only today?

It may not be your bag. If not, that's cool. But what if you gave it a shot? How would it feel?

Share with me your Ebenezer story. Raise it, and nothing else.

Who's first?