Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Cross & Culpability

I've been led to think about culpability, theologically-speaking, quite a bit in the past several months. As a participant in the Social Action committee at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, it was frustrating to me how many times people stood to speak against the idea of us making a corporate statement as a denomination about a given issue in case it looked like we were then accepting culpability for something we didn't do.

At first, as a human, I understand this tendency to safe-guard reputation. As a parent, I want to warn my kids where and with whom they are seen. While I can state that physical safety is the main goal, if I'm honest, it's also because I care about their reputation. Reputation matters in this world. A good one will make things a lot easier in the long run.

But when I think theologically, and more specifically, christologically, and even more specifically, soteriologically, I am caused to remember that I have chosen to let Christ and the cross serve as the primary determinative for my perspective and action. The cross isn't simply personally salvific; it is corporately prescriptive. What the community of Christ says and does together will be shaped by the cross of Christ.

So if Christ were to have said, "I didn't do it, so I will not participate in its redemption," then damn us all.

But he didn't. Culpability is exactly what Christ took upon himself on the cross, and in doing so, he accepted it and then made way for it to be dealt with in grace and love. It wasn't the safest thing to do. And it wasn't the easiest thing to do. But it was the divine thing to do, which means it's the Christlike thing to do. Thus, it is our call.

I truly believe that in following Christ, part of our call to evangelism is to take upon ourselves the suffering of others, even if it is the result of sin for which we are not culpable, and even if it is the result of sin that those others themselves are culpable for. That is good news indeed, and not news today's society really knows much about. Everyone else is to blame and so no one is to blame.

So let's be clear: Christ's cross was never meant to save face. It was meant to save lives. Passing on the culpability of others will save face. But that wasn't Christ's game. He came to save life. And the things of violence and fear and racism are deeply embedded life problems. Let the Church be at the forefront of absorbing this pain so that it can be dealt with in grace and love.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Political Conventions and the Likelihood of a Messiah

I understand that people can't intellectually accept the idea of God, and even more specifically, Jesus Christ. I get it. There are some days even for me when deism or atheism just makes sense within all human reason.

What I can't understand is how many of these same people put just as much faith as I try to have in Christ into modern human political saviors who are just as much of a possible projection of nothingness as seems to be the story of a man who lived and died and lived again some 2000 years ago.

The amount of fervor and hope projected at a political convention can rival any church service any where. (One could make similar observations about sports or a Hollywood movie franchise, except that most people who sit in these arenas understand that athletes and characters are entertainers, even if their fans put more time and stock into them than anything else in life.) It's even more amazing that the masses continue to do this even after an every-four-years reminder that no one ever keeps all those promises. There is encouragement in this observation for me though: people have hope. Regardless of the side of the political aisle, they have hope that a human being can actually fix their problems or at least be the catalyst to do so. Many of the tactics by which they hope that this hope comes to fruition are hopeless, but it's good to at least see that people have some kind of hope in a person.

It's clear that the desire for a messiah is a rather universal human phenomenon (I'm sure there are exceptions). I accept the human notion that I'm wasting my time following a guy who's far removed from modern reasonableness. But we have yet to see that Hillary, Barack, Ronald, or the Donald are any more salvific, and certainly not remotely close to the same blamelessness.

So for me, I choose to follow the narrative and person of the humble, loving Middle Eastern guy from Nazareth. You can call me a sucker, and it's certainly possible that we'll find that to be true someday. But don't try and tell me that any of these other saviors are any closer to reality.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Humans, Pets, & Love

I am a dog lover. Always have been. I can count the number of years of my life that the household in which I live has been without a dog (or two) on one hand. I currently have a dog. Well...a Chihuahua, but close enough. I love his affection, companionship, and the safe space that he provides for me after a long day.

The question I want to pose is: To what extent can and do pets serve as a hindrance from practicing the love of God amongst humanity (a call I believe to be central to God's will)?

Some pertinent thoughts, both for and against such a question:

The joke is told: Why is a dog better than a spouse? Well...if you lock them both in the trunk of you car overnight, which one will be happier to see you in the morning?

Loving pets is mostly very easy. If you don't love them, you don't have to have them. If you do love them, it's pretty much pure joy. Loss can be hard, but in the long run, it's easy to pass love upon a pet.

It's not always so easy to love humans. Yet that is part of our primary call in the gospel: to love humanity.

It's notable to me that in the creation story, the companionship of animals did not provide what God perceived as the antithesis of loneliness. Only another human fulfilled the solution to the problem that "It's not good for man to be alone."

Animals are part of creation. Nurturing creation is part of God's will for humanity. I am one who believes that all of creation is being and will be redeemed, including animals. I look forward to an eternity that includes the whole animal kingdom.*

Yet...how much of who we are supposed to be is transferred upon animals, particularly in USian society? The financial numbers are astounding. As much as I love my dog, I am confounded by what is presented to me when we make a visit to the vet. Some who know me may remember the saga with my previous dog (a chocolate lab) who was the victim of a horribly botched spaying which led us to the animal ER where I had to make an excruciating decision of whether to save her or not (we did...and I still wrestle with it). I'm pretty sure that I'll not make the same kind of decision with our current dog (whose neutering went perfectly fine).

Anyway, I'm open to conversation. Pastorally and ecclesiologically, I see it as a potential problem; a hindrance to our work we're called to in the Church. I see people whose lives seem to bear witness to the idea that they don't need anything else because they have their pet. While on the surface this is cute and perhaps can even be called pragmatically productive, I wonder about it in the grand plan of the Kingdom of God.

Animals can certainly serve in wonderful ways that humans cannot. I have friends with service dogs, helping out in the areas of sight loss as well as anxiety prevention and transference. I think these are wonderful companions and a great example of how God meant for humans and the rest of creation to co-exist.

It is true that the divine love within us can be inappropriately transferred to pretty much anything. Whether it's money, possessions, or even inappropriate human relationship, this is often called idolatry. It's recently become popular to conclude that the opposite of addiction is human love rather than sobriety, a conclusion with which I tend to agree. There's nothing inherently evil about animals (yes, yes...even snakes and cats). I just wonder why we don't call ourselves to task on this with pets more often.

I like to go running at one of the local dog parks in Hingham (Bare Cove - it's awesome, you should go there). I love seeing people walking their dogs. Often, dogs are the beginning of human connection, the start to a conversation that likely wouldn't otherwise occur if not for the pet. But I also see a lot of people who seemingly escape human interaction via their pet.

What do you think?

*Tangentially related, Wesley's sermon, The General Deliverance is a great read concerning the salvation of nonhuman animals.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Bible Women's Project: A Reminder that the Church Needs Artists

Every day my Facebook feed is littered with the shares of all sorts of lists and theories positing what the Church must do if it's going to be successful with this generation or for the future. I read some of them. Some are helpful. Others are obvious click-bait. I find assumption of necessary prescriptions or normative non-negotiables to be rather ignorant of the beautiful diverse contexts in which the Church is at work.

So it's with great caution that I say the following:
The Church needs to enable the artists among us.

We need to listen to artists. We need to give them space to critique, to practice, and to perform. Lest anyone think I'm talking about what happens in the context of worship, please...please...If the Church needs to get over anything, it's the dominance of exhaustively defining the Church by that which happens on a Sunday morning. We might consider that one reason so few are inspired by what the Church does in the context of corporate worship is because by our actions we assume that inspiration only happens therein. (Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I believe in the uttermost importance of the gathered Body, particularly around the sacramental Table.)

Art should be no extracurricular activity of the Church. It is at the heart of what God has made in the created image, deep within humanity. It comes out in many various forms, but it is essential in helping people realize and actualize the humanity that God intended. Here, I am intentionally defining art rather broadly.

I have seen many plays on the stage in the Cove Auditorium on the campus of Eastern Nazarene College. But I have never been as inspired as I was this past Saturday afternoon when I took in The Bible Women's Project. I have also never been disappointed by any of the plays or musicals that director Tara Brooke Watkins has overseen. She really did it with this project. The college campus offers a unique setting for theater: one in which the incredible life and passion of the college student smack into the creative space of the theater. Watkins seems to have a great handle on this breeding ground, especially with this project, in which the actors wrote and shaped the words and scenes they convincingly played.

Placed in a rather simple stage setting with minimal yet poignantly-woven musical accompaniment, the project featured thirteen female actors who brought us through dozens of stories of women in the Bible. Creative license was used well in setting the stories in contemporary vignettes, whether a Jerry Springer-like talk show or theater-within-theater (perhaps my favorite part). The scenes dealt heavily with closet conversations of abuse, addiction, depression, and sexuality. While much of these require somber and reflective tones, the director and cast also knew that such a play demanded humor, and it abounded throughout. As a spectator, I alternated quickly between mourning and laughing, sometimes almost in the same breath. The repeating choreographed interlude was well-placed for self-reflection and emotional adjustment between stories.

Interpretation of the Bible is often a tough undertaking. Believe me, I know. It's kind of what I do. The Bible doesn't seem to be a popular book in the arena of the theater these days. And anytime stories from scripture are attempted, I'm most often dismayed by the cliche and lack of creativity that comes out. But not the BWP. It was an approach to scripture like I haven't seen before (on the stage, at least). At some points it was difficult for me to make some of the extrapolations that they did with stories that are either virtually nonexistent in the text or otherwise bear a lack of historicity. But that was also kind of their point: the gospel demands that we pay attention to the minor characters in any story. The BWP called us to task in this way. So regardless of whether or not you or I think Eve or Rizpah bear an historicity, the narrative of their situation calls to us.

I was very proud of the cast, even though I only know one of the actors, two others tangentially, and a few others by name. By my count, there were five Nazarene pastors' kids and one grandchild (truly, I should probably say "Nazarene elders", but many won't know exactly what that means). I mention this because it's a great encouragement to me as a Nazarene pastor. Many of us (dare I say a silent majority in my context of New England?) have the same conversations that the script handled in smaller circles of the Church. And the encouragement from those involved with this play was that this generation is ready more than ready to handle tough words and elicit tough questions from those who may disagree with us. Too often, critical eyes only see rebelliousness in even having a conversation rather than providing a safe place in which to be honest with one another. This project bursts such conversations into the spotlight, even somehow demonstrating within the script of the play how a group can have such open dialogue. Yes, while other corners of the Kingdom  settled these conversations for themselves long ago - much to the impatient dismay of many of my Nazarene brethren - I am encouraged by these ENC students, alums, and professors and their boldness.

Which brings me back to art. Somehow, art has been relegated to those things we do when we have the time to sit and enjoy something. Yes, art is often enjoyable. But art is often rather painful, shining light on those things we'd rather hide but are actually there. Art has a way of exposing and healing. Often healing requires initial pain. Art also can blaze new paths. Sometimes these paths are ones that scholars or other leaders have tried to begin. But pulpits and classrooms just don't have the power that a canvas or a stage does sometimes. The BWP didn't really open anything new for me. I'm just so glad that these artists were bold enough to give voice to so many of us who have been praying and talking in these ways for a long time.

So thank you, Bible Women's Project.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Personalities, Churches, & The Litany of Humility

Some nine Christmases ago, I sat down on a couch my in-laws' living room with the whole family and watched a short video that my brother-in-law-youth-pastor had brought with him. In it, this really cool-looking guy was walking through the streets and the woods, talking about rain and his son and what it is to be wanted by God the Father. It was a great little video: well-produced, well-spoken, and well-pointed. 

And so Rob Bell was born into my life. 

(And I learned that it's okay to write a one-sentence paragraph.)

A lot has transpired since then. But (former) Pastor Rob had a long sit-down interview with Oprah last week. You know you've made it when you sit down with Oprah. So we've come "a long way" since that couch. Bell has certainly swayed me one way or another in numerous ways over these years. I've appreciated much of what he's put forth. I've left a lot of it behind, too.

Just a few months ago, someone sent me a podcast of Nadia Bolz-Weber. I appreciate her fresh take and inspirational story/style in the Church today. I could take or leave the vulgarity, but it's nice to see people pushing the envelope so we can stop thinking about the Church as only that which exists in button-up shirts and khakis. But I hope it's not just an act or a way of drawing attention. I don't know her. Would love to meet her. 

Even more so: I'd love to spend a day worshiping or serving with the church she leads.

Because in between Rob Bell and Nadia Bolz-Weber are a hundred other "personalities" that have otherwise affected, inspired, or changed me in some way, even if just a little bit. Probably the most effect has come from Stanley Hauerwas, quite the personality himself. Before Pastor Nadia burst onto the scene in great part due to her keenness on verbal vulgarity, Stanley H. was cursing like the son of a brick-layer that he actually is. But form aside, their message is notably...different.

But...I'm tired of personalities.

I'm tired of individuals who after a while just seem to be notching up their hits or views. Bloggers, super-pastors, seminary theologians...all personalities whose notoriety is built on being different, finding a cutting edge, saying something "new", or at least being the first.

I'm tired of personalities.

And not just because personalities often lead to quick and easy downfalls. Media like Facebook, Twitter, or even old-school news media can tear apart a personality at the whisper of conspiracy, downfall, or fraud, like the recent spotlight on Steven Furtick and his new house. What we find is that once the marketing, the pretty pictures, and the clean-cut logos are stripped away, personalities are simply human. 

I'm tired of hearing about super-personalities.

So...tell me about churches. 

I want to hear about groups of people working together in the personality of Christ. Tell me the stories about individuals who are working hard for and as Christ in places no one really cares about. I want to hear about what the Church is doing together in various places in various ways. I don't care about cutting edges. Let me hear how ancient stuff like Matthew 25 is playing out or how the Greatest Commandment is exemplified through normal people who would otherwise look ridiculous standing on stage at some conference. 

But tell me about these groups and people in whispers. I don't want the spotlight to screw up what they're doing for the Kingdom. I don't really believe in "special little corners of Heaven" but if I did, I would surely believe that there's one reserved for people whom no one's ever heard of. And it'll be way bigger than the corner reserved for everyone who ever has been.

Closer to home, I totally confess that I'm weary of many seeing the church that I lead as "a result" of my personality. I'm weary of it because I can't bear it. I can't bear the image in actuality of practice (because it's not true). I can't bear it emotionally. And I certainly can't bear it theologically. 

"I hear you're doing great things at North Street!", some say to me sometimes. I know they're just trying to be an encouragement or start a nice conversation, but I've started to ask them right back, "Oh yeah? What have you heard?" I try to honestly respond that it really is a great group of people and much of the credit goes to willing vessels who call the church their home. But I'm sure it more often than not comes off like a deflecting "I'm-just-trying-to-be-humble" cliche, only made to add to the image.

Quite frankly, when we actually read the narratives of scripture, we rarely see a wonderful picture of crisp-clean personalities. And most of the few exceptions demonstrate what a people are doing together.

This summer as part of my sabbatical, I visited a few church communities I'd heard about from afar or had never heard of at all before the summer. And it was awesome to see how The Lord is working through people in ways for which there is no clean website, no five-step plan, and no real super-star personality other than the collective Christ that abides within these groups.

Ever heard of Church of the Servant King? You MIGHT have, but chances are you probably haven't. People I know who live in the LA area that I asked hadn't even heard of them even though they are right in LA. What a wonderful group of people I met and spent a whole day with. They might max out at 65-75 people. But don't look for their sign. Or their "church building." They own a few houses together and share life together each and every day, in weekly and yearly rhythms of life. This is no fresh and cutting edge church: they've been doing this for 35 years together. But Christianity Today has apparently never called. (By the way, I didn't plan on visiting this church - I'd never heard of them until I was on sabbatical and some people recommended that I visit them.)

Ever heard of the Community of Adsideo? If you're in the Nazarene world, you might have. But chances are you probably haven't. This little community of 70 or so people (about half of how many they were a few years ago) is also an intentional living community striving to be the Church. While anyone can enter their community space pretty much seven days a week, to join this church, one must go through at least a year of intense discipleship. They're so focused on serving other fragments of the Body of Christ that I kinda felt like I was in the way when I was there. But they welcomed me nonetheless.

Ever heard of Mid-City San Diego Church of the Nazarene? You might have. But chances are you probably haven't. It's churches within a church within the Church. There are seven language-speaking groups who share a horribly run-down, unattractive building. The carpet was gross (I actually wonder if they refuse to replace it just so it serves as a visible - and smellable - way of reminding them that there are more important things than the carpet). And in the worship gathering of the English-speaking portion of the congregation, I worshiped with maybe about 50 people (though I do think it was a "down" week in the middle of the summer). But this church is smothering the things of evil through creative means of food distribution, immigrant-service, and addiction-squashing. 

Ever heard of Peace River Christian Fellowship? You might have, but I doubt it. Just a smallish group of Christians who gather on Sunday evenings together in another church's building. Kids running all over, just a normal potluck afterward, some songs and sharing from the Word. Sure, they hope to grow, but it doesn't appear to be priority #1 for them. They just want a peaceful fellowship together wherein prayer is shared, the Word is preached, and people know Christ.

As I turn into an old man, the only personality I'm truly interested in these days is the one that Christ exemplified and churches would replicate. Yes, I know: the church itself is made up of personalities and individual churches carry personae themselves. We can't escape personality and we shouldn't. After all: at some point, God chose to once-and-for-all show holiness in a person. But I'm tired of personalities who become so in and of themselves to the point that Christ can only be found lurking in the shadows. (It's often not that person's fault: sometimes it's us masses who shine the light.)

Sometimes I wonder why I blog when I actually sit down to write on this thing. Frankly, it could be rightly pointed out that me writing on a blog is just another cry for attention. Goodness: I used my name as the URL! And a middle initial! (To be fair, that crazy fashion designer had already taken jeremyscott.com.) 

But today, I think I'm writing because I'm realizing just how much I want to please people. I have this life-long penchant for trying to make everyone like me. I hate conflict and I hate people thinking any ill of me at all. It's a horrible thing, actually. And it's far from the path to and through the cross. More specifically, I again discovered today a number of people who have "unfriended" me on Facebook (at least, I'm not sure how else we're no longer "friends"). You'd think I'd know by now that you can't please everyone. You'd think I'd have learned that I should get over such things. But honestly: I am indeed sensitive. So help me, God.

When I was in college, the guy who is actually now my advisor at BU spoke in one of our chapel services. It's funny to me that I've always remembered him as being the first to share the following prayer. I have returned to this prayer numerous times. I remember praying it as I wrestled with coming to North Street or taking a position at another church. I've prayed it when I'm feeling overly-good about what I've done. 

It's thusly disturbing that I haven't prayed it in a while. 

This prayer from Rafael Merry del Val isn't for everyone. In fact, I know a lot of people who should pray very opposite words to those below. But for me, I need this prayer:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.