Total Pageviews

Thursday, June 22, 2017


            “Whenever speech overwhelms and silences, it is not [an] expression of love.”[i]  When speech is not an expression of love, the speaker does not “affirm the freedom and dignity of the one spoken to, but uses him or her for extrinsic purposes.  Harvard divinity professor, Harvey Cox, makes these comments in an essay in which he draws out a Biblical concept of God in the way he connects speech and love.  The Gospel of John begins, “in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God” (1:1).  And then verse 14, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  And 1 John 4:16b, “God is love.”  So, God is “word” (logos).  And God is love.  Thus, word is love, or it should be.  “Since God’s love/speech is unqualified, we should love all people regardless of whether they qualify.[ii]
Cox’s essay appears in ‘A Common Word,’ which was first a letter written by Muslim scholars, addressed to Christians worldwide.  The intent was to call Christians and Muslims together around the two commands present in both faiths: love God and love neighbor.  The book by the same title is comprised of essays from scholars of both faiths that further develop the concept of love and how it can, as a topic, be the ground on which Muslims and Christians meet in peace.
Cox insists that love cannot be coerced, only chosen.  We can’t be made to love God.  We choose to because God has overwhelmed us with his freely given love.  But it is that, a gift.  The counter-speech, or “antiparable” to use Cox’s speech is seduction and sorcery.  Seduction does what Cox wrote that it does; it uses people.
He quotes Goethe’s Faust to illustrate his point, but the conversation moves out of the realm of dry academic writing and into the realm of uncomfortable invasion of personal space when we turn the question.  Instead of pointing out how Faust uses people with his speech, we have to ask do we?  Do you?  Have you spoken in ways, whether bullying or deceiving, browbeating or seducing, in order to get someone to do something for your benefit, but not necessarily for theirs?  Have I?  You better believe I have.
I have used speech to run down a woman who turned back my romantic overtures.  I have spoken violently to intimidate my children just to convince myself I was in control.  I have manipulated others for my own ends.  I have used speech to use people.  People are God’s image-bearers and I have sinned by seeing them as tools for my own personal use.  In the thought space of Cox’s essay, that’s seduction, not love.
The second way sin turns love aside is sorcery.  “Sorcery mocks and reverses God’s loving speech.”[iii]  Lovespeech communicates “in ways that preserve and nourish the freedom and dignity of people addressed.”[iv]  Sorcery, robs people of their dignity.  Cox sees three forms of sorcery as it exists in modern practice: propaganda, advertising, and complexification. 
Of these forms of modern word-sorcery, advertising is especially insidious.  Advertising plays on the anxieties that plague people, especially in America.  TV watchers and internet users in America are out of shape, isolated, lonely, and sedentary.  And they (we Americans) know it.  Because we see the emptiness of our own lives, advertisers use beer, shampoo, potato chips, diet plans, dating services, video games, cars, and 1000 other products as ways to rescue us from our anxiety.  The anxiety makes us vulnerable and into the space our own insecurity has carved out, advertisers convince us to spend money we don’t have on products we don’t want or need, products that won’t deliver what the advertiser promised.  Sorcery is the right word for it.
Christians are to speak and listen to lovespeech.  Note the difference.  Sorcery deceives and seduction uses.  In sorcery, humans – God’s image bearers – are pillaged.  In seduction, God’s image bearers are used as tools.  In lovespeech, God’s image bearers are given dignity and helped to flourish.
Cox and the other authors in A Common Word urge Muslims and Christians in the world to work for human flourishing by focusing on love of God and love of neighbor.  Love is essential in bringing together the billions of adherents to these faiths.  Beyond the scope of A Common Word, love softens the hearts of Buddhists and Hindus, Jews and Mormons to one another. 
And in the topic that has been my focus in these blog posts – race relations and Christianity - love is the foundation.  No attempts at justice or reconciliation will be successful without love. 
So, put the question to yourself as you become intention about your own speech.  Let this be an exercise in the day ahead.  Does your speech promote the dignity of the one to whom you speak?  Do your words reveal that you are trying to use that person the way a plumber uses a wrench or other tool?  Is your speech lovespeech, speech that helps the other flourish?  Or, when you talk, is the other being manipulated, led down paths that will lead to his destruction?  Put your own speech to the test.  Jesus, the World made Flesh is our guide and our standard.  May the meditations of our hearts and the words of our mouths be acceptable in his holy sight. 

[i] Harvey Cox (2010), “Love and Speech: with Remarks on Seduction and Sorcery” in A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Loving Neighbor, Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington, editors, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p.166.
[ii] Cox, p.165.
[iii] Cox, p.167. 
[iv] Ibid.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Racial Diversity and The Music of Jubilee

Is music playing that only you can hear, that others around you cannot?  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”[i] 
People you know hear other songs.  “Terrorism!”  “Fear!”  “Disappointment.” Those dissonant chords scratch the ears of your friends, your neighbors, the people who cross your path daily.  But your ears are caressed. 
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the thrown will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every test from their eyes.”[ii] That’s the song your hear.
Why does your neighbor despair over morbid tones he cannot escape, while you bask in melodic songs of eternity and life?  Why are you deaf to the deathsong?  Why in your hearing is it drowned out by the promises of God?
            Deidra Riggs writes
Because American society is built on systems that were born out of racialized notions of humanity, it’s extremely difficult to transform a church that historically been comprised of one race into a multiracial congregation.  It’s not impossible, but the cost of such change is great. 

The work of integrating a church is often debilitating because of the way it exposes and uncovers the layers of latent issues, thought patterns, and reticence.[iii]

            I hope you don’t feel blindsided?  I began talking about the music of Heaven, songs sung by angels in the book of Revelation.  And then I dive-bomb in a quote that claims there is inherent racism in American churches?  What kind of sideways turn is this?
            The “latent issues,” to use Riggs’ terminology, derive from the music we hear.  When a person is attuned to the Holy Spirit, she hears God.  He is aware of the Spirit’s prompts.  When a person is spiritually tone deaf, he or she misses the Spirit’s persistent message.  Both the spiritually tone deaf person and the spiritually attuned person live in the same world – one saved at the cross, but currently in the death throes of sin.  Do we see death or do we see salvation?  Are we set on following Christ, or do we wedge small faith into a small, uninfluential corner of our crowded lives?
            In Revelation 7:9-10, people from every human culture stand together, maintaining recognizable cultural distinctiveness, but at the same time completely united in their faith in Christ.  The same picture is described in Revelation 5:9.  The church today that is awake when it comes to institutional racism, and is active in combating that racism, and is determined to bring people together across the racial divide – that church is comprised of people who hear Heaven’s songs, even in the midst of the worst this fallen world has to offer.  Spiritual acuity and actively working for racial unity in the church go hand in hand.  One cannot be blind to the racial struggle and still claim to be actively pursuing the life of a disciple of Jesus. 
            Thus the picture in Revelation 7 is the goal and we construct church to live into that goal.  We do this acknowledging the full weight of Riggs’ observation of how hard it is to lead the church to become multicultural and multiracial.  Her approach is a thought experiment that every church goer should undertake.  What’s it like to be a _________ at my church?[iv]  What is it like to be black at my church?  What is it like to be a single mom at my church?  What is it like to be Mexican at my church?  What is it like to be gay at my church?  What is it like to be divorced at my church?  Another way of asking the question is ‘who would not be welcomed in my church?’
            Answer these questions honestly and it gets really hard.  Because most churches, if we are honest, have someone they won’t welcome.  As we play the honesty out, we realize that whenever we don’t welcome someone, we’re rejecting Jesus.[v]  Jesus loves us all and especially identifies with those who get rejected. 
            The good news is we can go through the hard work of change.  We can have the honest conversation centered on who is not welcome at my church?  In all likelihood, this conversation will need to happen many times because the church is comprised of many people.  As we identify people against whom our church has some prejudice and as we ask the Holy Spirit to root that prejudice out of our church, the opportunity comes to welcome those we previously rejected.  Subtly, we notice that the music we hear has changed.  Our church becomes a body that leans in to the vision in Revelation 7.
            In her own assessment of our times, Deidra Riggs has declared that “Right now is the moment of grace.”[vi]  She believes this is the time of Jubilee,[vii] when debts are forgiven and relationships are made right.  The debt whites owe to blacks in America, a debt born in the Middle Passage, planted in slavery, grown in Jim Crowe, and now flowering in mass incarcerations is forgiven as white society repents and seeks forgiveness.  Of course not all whites seek forgiveness or even acknowledge the debt.  And many black Americans have no interest in forgiveness.  That’s where the music clashes.
            Are we people living in Jubilee?  Or are our feet firmly planted in the soil of death, a soil composed of human sin? 
            The church must declare the New Day that has come in Jesus.  We must make this declaration in the make-up of the church family.  In diverse communities, there must be diverse churches serving as a witness to the community as a whole that all are welcome in the Kingdom of God.  “This is who we are.  We are together people.  We are in-one-place people.  We need to keep reminding ourselves of this.  We are our tribe. All of us.  Together.”

[i] Revelation 4:8. 
[ii] Revelation 7:16-17.
[iii] D. Riggs (2017), One: Unity in a Divided World, Baker Books (Grand Rapids), p.47.
[iv] Ibid, p.50-51.
[v] Keep in mind the following passages from the gospels: Matthew 25:40; Mark 2:15-17; and Luke 14:21.
[vi] Riggs, p.58.
[vii] The very first Christians believed this too.  The reason they shared their things in common and provided for everyone (Acts 4:32-37), and the reason the gospel gradually spread beyond the boundaries of Israel (Acts 6-24) is the very first Christians believed that in Jesus’ resurrection, Jubilee had come.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Love, Love, Love

            This morning, a Sunday morning, my Sabbatical continued.  Instead of preaching at HillSong Church, my family and I worshipped for a 4th week in a row at Citywell Church in Durham, NC.  Pastor Cleve May delivered a remarkable sermon on creation (Genesis 1).  He made the case that the creation account actually comes out of the writings of Jews in the exile, 6th century BC.  The account is a response to the violent origins story of the Babylonian god Tiamat.  In the Tiamat creation drama, humans are the result of violent conflict among the gods.  In the Genesis story, the universe, the earth, and human beings are all created as expressions of “God’s overflowing abundance.”  A key quality in the creation is relationship.  God is relational.  The Genesis story flows from God’s love and shouts of God’s yearning for relationship.
            Pastor May’s thoughts on Genesis, and more importantly on the relationship of God and human beings, aligns well with the writing of the great author, pastor, and Bible translator Eugene Peterson.  In his sermon on Psalm 116 “Land of the living,” he says, “Every word [from God], every phrase, every sentence, every silence must be received relationally.  God does not reveal himself impersonally.”[i]  Creation is something God does.  Relationship is something God initiates.  We are created, but out of love, not violence.  We are invited, but not coerced. 
            The key is love – love between God and humans and love humans show to one another.  A Common Word (edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammad, and Melissa Yarrington) is a compilation of essays written to reflect upon the October 2007 letter written by Muslim leaders to Christian leaders.  The essence of the letter is that Muslims and Christians both have at the center of their respective faiths two central tenets or commands – to love God and to love neighbor.  Mark 12:29-31 is one of many places in scripture that make plain the centrality of these commands for Christians.  The Muslim authors who contribute to the A Common Word letter and essays to the book by the same title exhaustively demonstrate that similar commands are operative in Islam.  While both the Christian and the Muslim authors in the book recognize the likely irreconcilable differences in the two faiths, including nuanced understandings of “love,” both demonstrate that love is the key.  Furthermore, the Christian and Muslim authors make a compelling case that love is the ground upon which Muslims and Christians can meet in friendship and peace. 
            The key is love – in creation, in relationship, in drawing together parties that have experienced mutual enmity.  The theologian Miroslav Volf writes one of the Christian responses.  His essay is a tour de force of theological explanation as he explains the trinity even while demonstrating why the trinity cannot be explained.[ii]  On the love of God Volf writes, “God loves irrespective of the existence or non-existence of creation; … the contingent world is created by a God who is always love and just because God is love” (italics Volf’s).[iii] 
            One of the points of emphasis in my Sabbatical is a study of the differences between people and how those differences can be overcome for the sake of beautiful friendship, and more importantly that differences be overcome because we are family – brothers and sisters in Christ.  Admittedly, I have devoted much of my reading and conversation to the divide between European Americans (white) and African Americans (blacks) while knowing there are other divisions separating people.  I felt the black-white divide demanded my attention.  But, the animus many American Christians feel toward Muslims needs to be abolished too.  And maybe my study of A Common Word will yield reminders of the call of Christ to love that can become identity markers in interracial friendships and encounters in the church I pastor.  We Christians are called to, commanded to love our neighbors.  The church is to be the community that witnesses to the world the unity and diversity of the body of Christ.  We can do this when, within the church body, we see sacred neighbor love so powerfully that all who come in know from the start they are welcome and are at home among people who deeply care for them.
            From Pastor May’s word on God’s love as the basis for creation to Eugene Peterson’s display of God as the supremely relational One to Dr. Volf’s smart, straightforward account of God as God is Love, the point is abundantly made.  The root of who we are is love – God’s love.  My son and I saw Wonder Woman, and we thoroughly enjoyed it, but I snickered at the end when her final conclusion was “the most important thing is love.”  I smugly thought, “Well that’s just Hollywood cliché, its vapid fluffiness on full display. Wonder Woman kicks some serious bad guy butt and then in a reflection both hopeful and melancholy concludes, ‘the most important thing is love’?  Seriously?” 
Now, I’m saying the same thing. 
            I am because it’s how I was made.  I was created by love (you know, 1 John 4:16, ‘God is love’).  I was made in the image of the One who is love.  He who made me knows me and in spite of my selfishness and impatience commands me to love my neighbor.  He pours His Spirit and His love into me.  Created and commanded, I must love.  Also, I know that the hope for our church (HillSong) and for the church (Christians everywhere) is that we be the living embodiment of God’s love.  Only then are we truly God’s church.  And for peace and flourishing and joy, the world needs the church to truly be the church. 
            I can’t believe I am going to say it, but I have Cleve May, Eugene Peterson, Miroslav Volf, and Diana Prince’s endorsements (not to mention the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’s).  And, seriously, who am I to question Wonder Woman?  The most important thing really is love. 

[i] E. Peterson (2017), As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Waterbook (New York), p. 74.
[ii] Volf, Muhammad, and Yarrington, editors (2010).  A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids), p.130.
[iii] Ibid, p.126.  

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A Lazy Sabbatical?

            “I’m disappointed in you, Rob.  You should still be in bed.”
            A neighbor said this to me a month ago, when my Sabbatical began.  He had the sense that Sabbatical = relaxation, or rest.  He made this smiling, sarcastic comment at the bus stop as he along with me and other parents stood with our elementary-aged kids waiting for the bus that usually arrives around 7:20AM.  Our kids go out there at 7:00AM to play high octane games of tag while waiting.  Sometimes, for my kids, waiting for the bus is the highlight of the day.  We parents join them, clutching our coffee cups, around 7:10.
I couldn’t take up a practice of sleeping in even if I wanted to.  My kids are early risers.  It’s not uncommon for me to hear one of them stumbling around before 6AM, on a Saturday.  I am the type of sleeper that cannot really sleep if the kids are up. I also have trouble in June, when it’s daylight for so long.  I shudder to think how I’ll do when I am in St. Petersburg in July with 19-20 hours of daylight.
It’s funny that he, of all my neighbors said that particular thing.  He’s just started a running program.  A lot of mornings at the bus stop with the kids, we see him come running up, dripping sweat.  He’s just finished a 6-mile run.  He’s lost so much weight, I hardly recognize him. I wish I had that kind of discipline.
I don’t.  Discipline is something I struggle with, so Sabbatical has been a challenge.  A lot of times, I hear “You’re not doing anything. Can you …” (insert request). I don’t resent it.  Usually the person making the request is my wife, and the request she’s making is something our family needs me to do.  And she doubles me in terms of work done making our family’s life better.  So, I need to emphasize, stress, and underline this (in case she reads this).  Her requests are not intrusions on the Sabbatical.  But, I’ll get to that in a minute. 
The phrase “you’re not doing anything” is poignant.  In actuality, that’s not what she says.  It’s what I hear.  What she says is “Could you help,” and what I should immediately say is “Yes dear.”  But, I do wonder sometimes.  What am I to be doing?  How do I go about the work of rest?  What is my “work” right now?   I thought I’d have figured this all out by now, but I think that misses the point.  I think this Sabbatical is about meeting God in the normal rhythms of life.  I think this is especially so in my adopted Sabbatical motto, “die to self.”   
I have hiked.  Miles and miles in the Eno River State Park, Duke Forest, Occaneechi Mountain, and in my own neighborhood. On those wilderness walks, I listen to God talk to me through the voices in nature: through the wind, through frogs and turtles and millipedes.  God spoke to Balaam through a donkey and to Elijah through the silence after the storm.  I have always known that God speaks to me in green spaces. 

I have read.  Deidra Riggs One (you have to check it out); The Next Worship by Sandra Maria Van Opstal; A Common Word (this is by several Christian and Muslim authors including Miroslav Volf; I’ve read these and many other works.

I have talked to pastors and Christians in multiethnic church contexts.  Walking, reading, talking – this is all stuff I do all the time anyway, but in now, in Sabbatical, it is in a unique space.  But none of this is the “work” of Sabbatical.  The work of Sabbatical is those times when my wife or my kids need me.  One definition of “vocation” is “a person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as particularly worthy and requiring great dedication.”  My family is worthy of “great dedication.”  My vocation right now is being here for them.
I’ve gone on my son’s 4th grade beach field trip.  That was a 4AM-8PM commitment.  I’ve attended my daughter’s classroom awards ceremony.  Tomorrow, I will spend the day with my son who’s about to finish 8th grade.  Next week, I take all three of them on a three-night camping trip, one we’ve talked about for over a year.
Also, on this Sabbatical, I’ve mowed the lawn, done dozens of loads of laundry, and taken the trash and recycling out countless times (I don’t know if anyone else in my house knows how to do that).  In these simple tasks, I am living my faith in the course of daily life.  Sometimes pastors forget to do that.  Sometimes we get our heads caught up in theology or lofty goals related to justice or compassion or evangelism.  Those are all worthy things to which pastors are called, but not at the expense of serving God in daily life, in the context of our most important relationships.
The real vocation is to live as a disciple of Jesus.  One of the ways Jesus’ disciples show love for him is by loving their families, in my case, wife and kids.  Sabbatical definitely has lazy moments.  “Should I spend the next hour reading The Next Jim Crow, or should I spend the next hour watching The Avengers?” [i]  Sometimes, heavy social reading is left on the shelf and I veg out watching a fun movie.  Sometimes, not enough times, I do the reading.  But much of the time, the answer is neither.  I want to read.  I want to veg out.  But I am “called” to play Wii golf with my son or read to my daughter.  In that, I meet God as much as in my heavy reading or nature walks. 
I am fortunate to have the gift of this time.  I’m trying to appreciate it and be a good steward of it. 

[i] Quick quiz – Can you watch The Avengers or Captain America too many times?  The answer is No.