In which I show some love for my fundie background

Warning: this post contains an inordinate amount of parenthesis, but who doesn’t love a good parenthetical remark?

We’ve had our fun. We’ve aired our grievances. We’ve made our statement.

We are not the evangelicals of our parents.

But here’s the thing: I cannot separate who I am today from how my fundamentalist parents and church formed me. Nor do I want to.

I grew up speaking Christianese. I asked Jesus into my heart. I wore T-shirts with Christian slogans. I knew all the words to “Jesus Freak.” I belted out Michael W. Smith songs on road trips (especially when someone had a momentary lapse of common sense and announced their need to “tinkle”, at which point, my family responded with, “Sittin’ in the rain/Water on your brain/Got a hole in your boat/Tryin’ to stay afloat/Has got you down” because we loved each other that much) (also, I still love Smitty, so don’t knock it). I held my Bible high with the spine facing down for sword drills, and I did choreography to the latest church musical.

We blame the fundies for trashing the environment (a particularly funny complaint to me since my mom taught me to garden, even entrusting me as a ten-year-old with my own patch, and my dad is the ultra conservationist in all things, well, in all things [we used paper plates at the occasional barbecue; we reused and shared paper napkins (when we weren't using cloth napkins); Dad had a sixth sense when we opened the fridge door and ever so gently reminded us to turn off lights when we left rooms]). We hold them responsible for talk about going to heaven (instead of when heaven comes to earth). We despise their political affiliations (unfortunately, it seems to me, not because we now affiliate ourselves more with Christ’s kingdom than political tribes but because we have different political ideals). We laugh at their ideas of purity.

I may have my differences (a.k.a. my egalitarian beliefs about women, preaching, church leadership and ordination, which, if you must know, developed precisely from the manner in which these fundies taught me to study Scripture–to look at authorial intent, original languages, the larger picture of all of Scripture–and when I did these things–and because my dad included me in all those theological debates when his seminary buddies came over–I emerged egalitarian, but you can read about that another time) (that sound you hear is my dad slapping his forehead). I may make different decisions than my parents and other church leaders did. I may evaluate art and popular culture with different criteria. I may indulge in a glass of wine (or a margarita) with dinner.

But I treasure my upbringing, and I will mimic much of it as we raise our kids (in fact, I dance around the house to the same Kids Praise and Music Machine records my parents danced around the house to with me).

Here’s the thing: my parents and church(es) taught me that Jesus loves me no matter what, and they taught me to love him. They taught me that God has a plan to redeem creation. They taught me to love Scripture because this is how God reveals himself and his sovereign, loving plan to us.

They taught me that true love waits, and they answered all our embarrassing questions about sex, and though somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that girls don’t struggle with lust, which fed a sense of shame when I did, they taught me that sex is good.

They taught me to listen to the messages of the world with a wary and discerning ear, and though this often ended up in weird categories of “religious” and “secular” music (and, yes, I remember thinking Amy Grant had sold out with “Heart in Motion,” an attitude of which I’ve since repented, and I heart Amy Grant), they taught me to understand beauty and dignity from God’s work of creation and redemption rather than from fallen perspectives.

They taught me to respect myself and others because we were created in the image of God. They taught me that I didn’t need the affirmation of the world or of a guy because I belonged to God, and that was enough.

They taught me to love and include everyone despite race, ethnicity, and background. They taught me to forgive radically because God forgives radically. I’ve seen these things lived out time and time again.

They taught me to pray because prayer matters, because it changes us and because it influences God’s actions. Because it makes us partners in his kingdom work.

They gave me a place of belonging, and they taught me about my responsibility as a Christian to share God’s love, and because of this, I had the privilege of witnessing to my best friend in high school and embracing her as she decided to follow Christ.

They taught me that the Church is universal. My youth leaders took me to Honduras to build a kitchen and love on kids at an orphanage, and we learned that Christ blesses irregardless of nationality and economics. A crazy percentage of those who went on that trip have adopted kids. They taught us that what happens in the world outside our neighborhood matters.

They taught me to love art, especially music, and though they sometimes subjugated art to utilitarian purposes (oddly, not music because I could play Bach fugues and Chopin etudes for Offertory music for the sake of beauty), they taught me that pursuing a career in music was as worthy as a career in ministry.

They taught me that Christ will return and my hope is in him.

They taught me that the thing is to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul and mind and to love my neighbor as myself.

In this way, they shaped who I am and what–and who–I care about and how I care about these things and people. These days my parents and I debate our differences and care for one another. My parents may not agree that I should preach, but my dad will loan me his commentaries and talk Greek with me and discuss the theology of my sermon, and my mom will come hear me preach when she’s in town (my dad has his own sermons to give on Sunday mornings) and kiss me and tell me, “Well done,” and they don’t agree that we should baptize our children, but they come and they take pictures because this is how the Body of Christ works. We disagree, and we’re different, but we love, and I love my fundamentalist background and my fundamentalist parents and the fundamentalist churches who raised me.

Church 101: Can’t Go Over It; Can’t Go Under It; We’ll Have to Go Through It

This is my last post in the Church 101 series, a series in which I consider how we as the Church–one global, historical community made up of believers saved by grace through faith in one Christ and indwelt by one Spirit–continue Christ’s work to redeem and restore humanity and, in fact, all of creation; how we serve a Warrior God who saves and chooses for his kingdom the fallen, the hurt, the poor, the slave, the misfit, and the outcast; how, empowered and guided by the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided Christ, we overcome racial, socioeconomic, and gender barriers as we embody God’s kingdom.

So we come to the post that I dread, because we serve a king who, overturning worldly wisdom and the expectations of the religious leaders, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross! We serve a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Our king pursued his journey to Jerusalem, despite the warnings of the religious leaders and his own disciples, to his rejection, suffering and death, and he told his followers to expect the same.

When he tallied those who should consider themselves blessed, he finished his list with those who are hated and excluded, those socially ostracized because of their allegiance with Christ, those who would be considered traitors to their nation, those who would find their reputations ruined, their businesses boycotted, their families hostile toward them because of their identity in Christ. Blessed are you, our king said, because this means you’re on the right journey–my journey–and God will reward you for it.

When his followers recognized him as king and Messiah, he corrected their understanding of kingdom politics–that redemption and divine vindication travels through suffering. He called them to a life rejected by the world but embraced by God. Deny your own rights and desires, your ethnic, family, political and religious communities, and construct and new identity, community, and life in Christ, he said. Live dead to this world and its values, risking your reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God. This is the nature of God’s kingdom, our king taught, and as we refuse to engage in worldly power games, selfish ambition and material gain at the expense of others, God’s kingdom will spread.

When we live topsy-turvy as Jesus lived, we can expect isolation, conflict, social dishonor and rejection from the world as Jesus did. Will we reject the world’s comforts, though it means experiencing rejection in the world, or will we reject Christ for the comforts of this world, which means experiencing Christ’s rejection? For we know this is not the end. We know that when Christ comes in glory, God will reveal that Jesus served his purpose. And we have the opportunity to join this purpose and this kingdom now, but it means suffering. This suffering uncloaks the depth of the disciple’s love and commitment, and a proper attitude toward suffering and persecution frees us from fearing what the world can do to us and frees us from worrying over possessions so we can live generously and hospitably with our lives and everything we own.

This is our call.

Luke shows this in the lives of the disciples throughout Acts, people who leave their communities for the community of Christians, living generously and hospitably toward all even in the midst of their own need. We see James’ death because of his faith. We see Paul’s journey to Jerusalem that, like Christ’s journey, results in rejection, suffering and imprisonment.

This is not so different from any good story. The way of God’s kingdom is dangerous. The journey of a citizen of this kingdom is full of suffering. But it ends in glory.

As I sit in my comfortable suburban home in a country that teaches me to fight for my rights because I deserve a break today, or at least a Kit-Kat bar, I reflect on what this means for my life. What does it mean to deny my rights? To experience rejection? To journey through suffering?

At the very least, I believe it means treating my possessions as instruments of God’s kingdom rather than as instruments for my own comfort. I don’t mean that I can never enjoy the fruits of God’s creation and of my (and my husband’s) labor, but I am to live generously and hospitably, even if this means giving up some of my own comforts.

I believe it means refusing comforts especially when gained at the detriment of others. If my consumer habits imprison or take advantage of laborers, I must change them. If a career opportunity means throwing someone under the bus, I must skip it. If my work takes away from God’s mission rather than contributes toward his mission of restoring human dignity and redeeming creation, I must reconsider it.

I believe it means offering grace–individually and corporately–when others take advantage of us instead of fighting for our rights.

I believe it means recognizing that sometimes we’ll be seen as the bad guys, that sometimes our reputations will suffer, that sometimes even our families will turn against us when we live as Christ lived.

I don’t know what this will mean always, but maybe it comes down to expectations. Christ did not call me to pursue happiness or my own earthly rights. He called me to something far more joyful and liberating. And as I continue his work of proclaiming good news to the poor, releasing the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and setting free the oppressed, I do so hopefully with earthly ramifications but knowing that Christ’s good news, restoration and freedom is much more than we could ever expect in this life. We’ll experience the fullness of his kingdom when he returns to earth in glory. Any suffering, inconvenience, or rejection I experience now will pale compared to the joy of living in his kingdom.

Church 101: Blessed Are the Poor

We drank our sodas from Ziplock bags with straws because that’s how the villagers drank them when they wanted a special treat. They couldn’t afford the bottles. The village was what you’d expect of a third-world village: one- to two-room houses where women cooked on open fires with water they’d tapped from shared outdoor pumps. Our group worked construction during the day at what would become a retreat center for churches. We had two outhouses that we poured kerosene down at night to burn off the methane gas. Some of the women from the village served us our meals. I fell in love with empanadas there. After dinner, they led us in song. We alternated verses: a verse in Spanish, one in English. The joy in their music made me jealous.

We had traveled to Honduras to give to the less fortunate, but I went home taking so much more from them, and I wondered, who are the fortunate ones?

Almost twenty years later, I come to God with the same question. Who should thank God every night in their prayers for the lot he’s given them?

“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said, “for God populates his kingdom with them.” Blessed are the hungry; blessed are the rejected; blessed are those who suffer injustice; blessed are those who are socially ostracized. Jesus turns the worldview of the Pharisees upside-down.

The people of God are those who though marginalized, forgotten, and discounted in this world, depend on God alone.

Still, the Pharisees didn’t get it. “Why the heck are you eating with these people?” The spittle of the their disgust smacks Jesus in the face.

Jesus answers with three stories, each one upping the stakes of the previous: the story of a woman who lost a coin precious to her retirement and to her ability to care for her family, found it, and celebrated its discovery with her friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a shepherd who lost one of his sheep, found it, and celebrated its discovery with his friends, most likely over a meal; the story of a man who lost his son, found him, and celebrated his recovery and reconciliation with his friends over a feast.

This is the heart of God: finding that which was lost and celebrating the recovery and reconciliation over a feast.

We want to be popular. We want to be trendy. We want to have discovered the band before anyone else heard of them. But building a church is not about having the hipster band leading worship or the pastor preaching from an iPad or the dry ice spilling from the stage during the music (seriously, I’ve seen it). Paul didn’t gather people with free giveaways, the latest technology, and the coolest youth group activities. (In fact, neither Jesus nor Paul were very popular at all.) I wonder if we’ve made ministry about being attractive to the cool people so that the cool people will be attracted to us.

This is not the message of Luke. Jesus attracted not the trend-setters but the outcasts, the socially unacceptable, dare I say it, the unhip. He went to the periphery of society and ministered to the forgotten. He gathered in those who the religious and the rich and the hip considered a menace to society.

We see the Corinthians struggle with this. They wanted to find and follow the most charismatic leader. They used the church for their own agendas of finding some sort of status. And when it came to celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they used it to exclude the less-than-worthy.

Paul reminded them that they were all less than worthy. They were all nobodies in society, but that’s who God calls. The intelligentsia and fashion setters and politicians considered God’s ways unwise and unhip and unpatriotic.

God brings into his kingdom the helpless, the misfit, the hurting, the poor, and even the sinner. He brings into his kingdom those who recognize that they can’t rely on their smarts or wealth or piety or position but on God alone. He brings those who have nothing to offer him. And when they return to him, in their spent and tattered rags, smelling like the pigs, he runs out to meet them, embraces them, and does the most elaborate, excessive thing he can to celebrate: he slaughters a calf and throws a feast.

Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Are you willing to join in the celebration for the recovered no matter who they are?”

God’s kingdom transcends income brackets. It transcends the kind of kitchen countertops we have. It transcends housing square footage, clothing brands, and vacation photos.

Our churches do not.

In my suburban life, I don’t pass the homeless on my way home as I once did when I lived in the city. Flowers and shops line the streets, and it’s easy to think this is all there is. My life is not made up of the marginalized, poor, and forgotten as much as it is by the social, political, and economic decision-makers.

True, my church crosses to the other side of the highway on occasion to “do ministry”: to serve a meal at an emergency youth shelter, to rebuild a fence for a poor widow, to take donations to the Samaritan Inn, but Jesus’ gospel calls for more from me. He asks that I eat with the hurting, as he ate with the hurting. He asks that I befriend the forgotten, the periphery of society, those who can’t repay me, those who’s favor won’t gain me any public recognition or status.

It’s easier to hang out with people who dress how I dress, read the books I read, enjoy the Broadway plays I enjoy, but that’s not the model I find in Luke.

As I type this post at 3:26AM, my insomniac heart cries because I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to tear down the Berlin Wall of my suburb. I’ve looked at churches in the poorer section of my suburban town, and the question comes down to the ol’ ecumenical issue: when do you sacrifice theological agreement with church leadership in order to celebrate unity? I am not willing for my children to be taught that there’s a second baptism of the Holy Spirit. I am not willing for my children to be taught that King James is the only inspired text. I am not willing for my children to be taught that they must attain forgiveness through church ritual. These are the churches I find where the poorer reside. Can this be the only answer?

I know it must not be. I know there must be other ways of transcending socio-economic status without either swooping in with the intermittent ministry fix-it or immersing my family in theology with which I don’t agree.

So I pray: God, help me build unexpected friendships in unexpected ways. Help me to live out your all-embracing kingdom in my oft-exclusive life. And I go to places like Rhyme Time for the toddlers at my library hoping that one day I’ll venture a hello to the mom next to me (which might cause this introverted heart to fail right then and there), and maybe someday I’ll take my kids to the emergency youth shelter to serve and eat meals with the forgotten kids awaiting CPS rulings (if I can stop procrastinating the mound of paperwork required), and I’ll stop worrying about how to bomb the Berlin Wall but allow God to work through small friendships.

Church 101: International Man of Mystery

Terrorists had taken control of the country. Immorality had tainted the people. They needed a leader who would return them to their foundations.

They got a Messiah who ate with the sinner, healed the enemy, and talked about the good old days when prophets of old passed on serving the Israelites to serve the foreigners.

When God made his covenant with Abraham, promising to create a nation and bless them, he did so in order that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). Jesus wept over Jerusalem and indicted its leaders for losing this purpose. Instead of being a house of prayer for all the nations, a place that drew all people to God, a place where all people of the world could come to worship God, Jerusalem, and specifically, the temple, because a place of boundaries and burdens. Herod had taken God’s plans for the temple and tweaked them. He built divisions: the Court of Gentiles, the Court of Women. Between the Court of Gentiles and the Jewish section, he hung a plaque that threatened death to any Gentile who entered the Jewish section. The Gentiles could no longer come to the temple to meet God because of the strict lines separating them as unacceptable status, as outsiders.

To make matters worse, the Pharisees and merchants used the Court of Gentiles to sell items necessary for pilgrims to offer sacrifices and to change money from Roman and Greek coins to the half-shekel required for the temple tax. The only place given to the Gentiles for worship was filled with the commerce, the clink of coins, the bleating of sheep, and the smells of animals.

Luke reveals Jesus’ heart for all people. (I should note that Luke wrote to Gentiles so that they might understand God’s salvific kingdom plan for them. Oh, and Luke was a Gentile, so there’s that.) Jesus proclaims the gospel to Samaritans and Gentiles. He heals them and their households and finds in them examples of faith when the Jewish leaders failed.

Then God brings out the big guns. In part 2 of Luke’s story (aka Acts), Luke narrates Peter’s vision from God that he could eat anything, not just kosher food. As Peter contemplated the meaning of this vision, messengers came from a Gentile (who had his own vision from God). At this Gentile’s home, Peter witnessed something astounding: God had revealed himself to them, and they believed.

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism,” Peter said, “But accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). God’s kingdom includes all God-fearers, not just Jews. Not only that, but as Peter had this ah-ha moment, the Holy Spirit–the same Holy Spirit that empowered Christ and now empowered the disciples–came to these Gentiles and empowered them.

Well, then, Peter went on, since they believe and have the Holy Spirit, let’s baptize them so they may be included in our community, so we can have true fellowship with them. And the practical application of Peter’s vision comes into play for previously, Jews could not eat with Gentiles. After all, the Gentiles would most likely serve something unkosher and unclean. Now, though, God had freed Peter to eat with them, to truly fellowship with them and demonstrate in this simple action of sharing a meal that they were no longer outsiders.

Yes, the Pharisees missed the all-inclusive point, but besides that, something had changed with Jesus. No longer did the Gentiles need to become circumcised or eat kosher or keep the Sabbath to approach God. In fact, neither did the Jews. Jesus became the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

As Americans used to an amalgamation of nations, messages of tolerance and fusion cuisine, I don’t think we can grasp the shock and discomfort this caused the Jewish people. What, then, made them distinct? How could they stay clean? How did they know how to act? Could any crazy fool access God from anywhere?

Enter Galatians. Even Peter, in what I’d like to believe was his concern for ministering to the Jews, misstepped. He forgot his vision from God and ate with the kosher Christian Jews, separating himself from the Gentile Christians and their unclean foods. He didn’t practice meal-time fellowship with the Body of Christ. Paul reminded the Galatians that since we all come to God on equal footing (aka grace), we can enjoy fellowship with all. The rules from the law didn’t matter anymore. Because we’ve all been reconciled to God, we are reconciled to one another.

Or as Paul wrote to the Gentiles in Ephesus, Christ nullified the requirements of the law, which separated and even cause hostility between the Gentiles and Jews, and reconciled them into one body since both have access to the same Father through the same Spirit. Jews and Gentiles are fellow citizens of God’s kingdom with equal standing.

If in Christ, two groups as distinct as the Jews and the Gentiles, the chosen and the, well, unchosen, now have equal access to God and fellowship with one another, how much more do all nations, all people groups, all ethnicities have fellowship with one another? Paul (Philippians 2:10-11) and John (Revelation 21:24-26) give us a vision of every nation gathered together to worship Christ.

Our churches should practice now for the ultimate performance at Christ’s return.

I worry that we find unity not primarily in Christ but in nationalities, political parties, and race. I worry that our American patriotic concerns cancel out our fellowship with the Palestine or Iranian Christian, that our economic distress ruins our unity with the Christian immigrant, that our voting habits create hostility between Christian Democrats and Christian Republicans.

I think of the suburbs as standard-issue, average income, Suburban-driving white. That’s not true. As Keegan and I run through the neighborhood (stopping to greet every dog), I see Muslims, I see African-Americans, I see Indian-Americans. (Thankfully, I do not see dead people.) A woman in my Bible study hails from China. Churches only blocks from me minister to Korean Christians, Filipino Christians, Hispanic Christians.

My church doesn’t reflect this diversity as well as toddler rhyme time at the local library does. (The woman in my Bible study attends a Chinese church.) How do we gather my church and the Hispanic church and the Chinese church, breaking down the language and cultural barriers to celebrate our unity in Christ?

I have friends from South Africa who, though they are white, attend a primarily black church because of their concern for reconciliation. Another friend, though she is Mexican-American and comes from a church that ministers to Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants, attends a church with a Swedish background (which, of course, makes me think of the Swedish chef from Muppets, though, what doesn’t make me think of the Muppets?). A few couples in our church from Nigeria joined my church. These friends made themselves the minorities in these churches because of the fellowship we have in Christ.

I don’t know that it’s practical right now to think of changing our church membership, but I’d like to find small ways to celebrate the international unity we have in the kingdom of God. Maybe I can invite the Chinese immigrant in my Bible study and her husband to dinner. Or ask our worship team to work in a song from Nigeria. Or visit the churches to immigrants in the area every so often to worship with them, even if I don’t understand the lyrics to the music.

Who knows what such craziness could lead to. Perhaps one day even Christian Republicans and Democrats will eat at the same table.

Church 101: Pass the Salt

The kids sword-fight with sticks while Carlos turns the meat over the fire. He’s making a traditional Argentine meal for us. Sergei regales us with a tale of the time he accidentally drove his 18-wheeler down a private driveway into some Texan’s ranch. The Texan met him with a rifle and asked if the Cold War was still going on. We laugh at how when Sergei and Muriel fight, they can’t understand each other because he gets mad in Russian and she gets mad in French but they only share the English language. Charl shouts something to his kids in Africaans when they get too close to the edge of a ridge that drops down to the lake.

As we feast on sausage (the first of many meat courses) and wine, I think, this is a glimpse of the Resurrection: nations gathered, laughing, worshiping our Creator.

Luke gives us a view of the kingdom that is inclusive and universal. The religious leadership didn’t get it. They limited their idea of Messiah to a political leader who would free Israel from Rome’s rule, but Jesus had come to free the whole cosmos from every force of evil (hence the healings and exorcisms and raisings from the dead, which demonstrated his power over these evil forces). He wants to liberate all people for all time. God’s kingdom includes Jews and Gentiles, women and men, blue collar and white collar, homeless and patron.

Luke uses the motif of meal-time fellowship to trace this all-inclusive theme, a motif I can appreciate since I love food so much. I believe this is somewhat true of all cultures but especially true of the 1st century: meals established community and demonstrated who was in and who was out.

Think high school cafeteria.

And Jesus showed his willingness to eat with anyone. He displayed hospitality to all, not just to those who could repay him or help him attain a higher position or had good conversational skills. More than that, he taught that in God’s kingdom, we will all feast together at the same table no matter our backgrounds. The popular girl and the math club nerd (I might have participated in a math competition in junior high, but let’s keep that between us) chat it up and share make-up secrets over a pizza.

In his narrative (part 1 and 2, or, as some like to call them “The Gospel of Luke” and “Acts”), Luke concerned himself (because Jesus concerned himself) with the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women. I believe Paul influenced a lot of Luke’s theology, especially in these areas, since Luke was from the church in Antioch, Paul’s home base where he spent much time teaching, and traveled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys. I say this because we see Paul concerned with including on equal footing the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women.

photo by Bethany Nauert, orinigally used in apartmenttherapy.com

Which means that we as the Church, which is God’s mission in the world to work out his kingdom plan until Christ returns, should be concerned that all people can not only come to God on equal footing despite ethnic and racial backgrounds, social and/or economic standing, music preference, gender, political leanings, national heritage, bathing habits, baggage, dress, parenting strategies, and education, but come together now in fellowship and friendship.

We should be marked by our hospitality toward all.

I want to learn how to better practice this, how to open up my life and my house and my table to all, not just those whose company I find pleasant, who are easy to converse with because we have so much in common, like life stage or interests or economic bracket. I want to struggle over idioms until we figure out each others’ meaning. I want to uncork a good bottle of wine for those who could never appreciate it. If I will be eating with them at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I want to get to know them now.

As I continue in this series, I’ll look at the threads woven in Luke’s tapestry, at how the early church grappled with these ideas of inclusion and fellowship and unity, and at how we (really, I) can consider them in our own lives and churches.

I want to know: how do you do this? Where have you seen God’s ministry of reconciliation practiced?

Church 101: The Crazy Kingdom of God

If I were a billboard, I’d call it the Krazy Kingdom of God, but I’m not, and as much as possible, I appreciate correct spelling.

To understand the nature and mission of the Church, we must understand God’s larger kingdom plan, a plan that encompasses the entire story of the Bible. Not to worry: I don’t plan on giving you the entire story of the Bible. Just Luke’s interpretation of it. Rather, a supersonic review of Luke’s interpretation of the kingdom plan. Beginning with the Magnificat.

Why I love the Magnificat: it’s the Broadway overture for Luke’s book, providing a foretastes of the themes Luke develops: joy; justice for the poor, hungry and oppressed; God’s use of ordinary, everyday humans who fear him to accomplish his plan (read: you and me, unless you have superpowers beyond simultaneously writing a short story in your head, cooking dinner, and reading to your child); and the role of the Holy Spirit.

Like a jazz musician, Mary quotes and pulls from at least a dozen Old Testament passages, riffing on themes and forms borrowed from Moses, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Isaiah, and other classics. Her reworking of their themes and traditions through Hebraic poetic parallelism lends beauty to her piece and shows how God’s working in the past gives meaning to the present (not to mention displays her comprehensive knowledge of Scripture and understanding of theology, which exceeded the Pharisees’ understanding). She knows that this supernatural conception changes everything. Her song is a beautiful piece of art that connects God’s covenant love and promises to Abraham and David with what he’s doing in and through her. The Warrior God has come to fulfill his promises, sovereignly acting on behalf of all God-fearers, creatively using his power to liberate his people. And this sets the stage for the rest of the narrative.

Fast forward to the beatitudes, where Jesus takes Mary’s song and improvs. He borrows Mary’s theme of the oppressed, humble, and God-fearers to describe the citizens of this crazy kingdom of God—poor, hungry, mourning, rejected and outcast. God doesn’t build his kingdom on those who can offer piety, material assets, or intellectual attainments but on those who fear him and trust Christ alone. How many nations welcome the debtors, the known criminals, the unhip, and the blue-collar worker? (How many of our churches do?)

Jesus goes on. God brings justice to those who hope in him and overthrows those who find comfort in their own power, wealth, and status, those who exclude the less fortunate and socially unacceptable. Jesus takes the bastardized theology of the spiritual leaders of the day and reminds them of God’s concern for the oppressed, the misfits and the outcasts who trust him.

This thing we call the Fall corrupted all of humanity, but the person of Jesus Christ brings hope and transformation in every area of life so that the hungry will be satisfied, the mourning will have joy, the outsiders will find a home, a place of belonging. As Jesus journeyed from Galilee to Jerusalem, he gave us a foretaste of the kingdom of God as he preached the good news, healed the sick, restored life to the dead, and forgave the sinners. Then he became the blood of the new covenant, the New Exodus, dying for us and bringing us into his victorious life. To use terms of Paul (who influenced Luke’s theology as Luke traveled with him), we become the Body of Christ, a new community where the old barriers of religion, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity mean nothing and being in Christ means everything.

And so we understand Luke’s theme. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, Christ brings outsiders in, restores dignity, and lifts up the oppressed. This changes everything. Darrell Bock puts it this way: “The reality of God’s plan influences how individuals see themselves and the community to which they belong. Old barriers of race are removed. New hope abounds…Anyone…can belong” (Luke: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 43).

You can see why this is crazy, at least according to the world, and you can see why it gets me so jazzed (I’ve been listening to a lot of John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, and Trombone Shorty lately).

The gospel is universal, powerful, personal, and communal. It breaks down barriers and inequalities and inaugurates a new community under the authority of Jesus Christ. This is the message of salvation. Jesus calls for faith in him and a commitment to the lost.

God’s kingdom bleeds into the Church, forms the Church to continue Jesus’ ministry of healing and restoration, of breaking down barriers and embracing the socially unaccepted, the rejected, and the misfit. We are ambassadors of his reconciliation message, fellow workers of Christ for the kingdom, and this kingdom work is risky, exciting, and amazing stuff.

Luke scats on this theme through his two narratives. It weaves itself through all of his motifs (some of which we’ll explore in upcoming posts). In his gospel, Luke uses a journey to structure his piece, namely, Jesus journeying to Jerusalem. Acts picks this up, showing the journey of the apostles from Jerusalem to Samaria and to the ends of the world. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, relying not on social, economic, or religious status, not on material attainments, piety, or intellectual ability, but on Christ alone to enter God’s kingdom; to take up our cross, daily living dead to the world’s values and risking reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God; and to follow him on his journey. This kind of living finds opposition in the world but ultimate joy in Christ. Luke portrays different reactions to Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit: those who risk everything to follow him, fickle masses who only want easy miracles, and those who feel threatened by him and look to destroy him and his followers. He then poses the question, what will your reaction be?

With that question, my excitement comes to this place of wondering what this means in my suburban life and my suburban Church.

Jesus asks for a costly commitment to God’s kingdom, but too often my life looks like the comfortable lives of everyone else. I suppose this explains why I want to work through this with you all. The women and men in Luke, Acts, and Paul’s letters—married, single, parents, employers, employees, masters, slaves, businesspeople, agriculturalists, soldiers, prisoners—lived transformed in Christ and sometimes lived according to the world, risked and sometimes cowered, gave generously and sometimes lived selfishly. In their neighborhoods and in their churches, Jesus called them (and Luke and Paul echoed) to something greater, to kingdom living.

This kind of living contrasts the ways of the world, ways that we too easily baptize with spiritual waters: God helps those who help themselves, God demonstrates his blessings through influence, power and wealth (or through church position and recognition, Internet hits, a large congregation and larger offering plates, a stress-free and fulfilling job, a happy family, and a good parking spot), and I deserve this and should fight for my right…to get that job, to receive recognition, to hang the ten commandments, to pray around the flag, or, you know, to party.

But this kind of living heals the hurting, proclaims good news of freedom to the oppressed, the downtrodden and the trapped, and restores dignity no matter what someone’s gender, race, social or economic standing, intellectual ability or sins.

This, too, is my journey: to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him.

Church 101: Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple

I have a love-hate relationship with the Church for one main reason: when I open the doors and see all the people, I discover that they’re mostly like me. Serving and selfish, loving and condescending, hurt and hurtful. Turns out, I’m not always a big fan of people like me. Worse, I’m not a big fan of people whose fallenness happens to express itself differently than mine.

But no matter what I think or how I feel about the local expressions of this idealistic, historical, universal community called the Church, God chose to establish it over 2000 years ago during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost to do his kingdom work. While the Church is not the kingdom in its fullness, it is God’s manifestation through the power of the Holy Spirit of his salvific, kingdom work on earth until Christ returns. I suppose I have to accept that.

I shared recently how teaching through Luke and now co-leading a small group through Acts and selected Pauline letters has done something to me (studying God’s word tends to do that). God put together all these things I’ve known in new ways and added a dash of salt, and now this concoction simmers in the Crockpot, the scent of the flavors filling the house with anticipation. Ah-ha, I said. This is God’s kingdom, and this has ramifications for both the Church and for the church.

I saw that Luke is the story of the Warrior God coming to earth to do his salvific, kingdom work, reclaiming his people and saving them from oppression and evil through the power of the Holy Spirit. I saw that Acts is the story of God continuing his salvific, kingdom work in the Church through the same power of the Holy Spirit. And I saw in Paul’s letters local churches struggle with what this means and how to work it out and live it out and be God’s unified people, coming together on equal terms in the face of persecution and in the midst of cultures that valued things not of God’s kingdom.

And now I take this, alongside thousands of theologians (meaning anyone, whether lay or professional, who has thought about who God is and what this means, though, for me, I mean this specifically in the Christian sense) across time and space to figure out what it means in my little suburb and in the world.

As a friend in college used to say, it’s el fuego!

Sometimes when we hear the stumblings of pastors or the missteps of churches (of which, let’s admit, there are many), we forget that God is doing a powerful work. I easily list how the church has failed me and communities of people. It’s important to address these things, but for now, I want to look at what God accomplishes through this clay jar.

Hence, this new series, Church 101. I haven’t done much in the line of series on my blog before, but these thoughts lend themselves to just such a form, and I look forward to working through them together, with the community who from time to time gather at this space called L’Chaim (or on the local Facebook expression the blog), just as I have worked out and am working out these thoughts in my local non-virtual church. Each week, I’ll take a theme or motif from Luke and Acts to explore, peppered with how we see the first churches working these out through Paul’s letters. As I learn more about the Holy Spirit (more on this in a future post) and how he’s working in churches, I’m anxious to hear about his work in your lives and in your churches, ministering to the people around you in your communities and across the globe. (If I were cool and trendy and hipster, I’d try to get some sort of hashtagged to-do around all this, but since I’m just me, we’ll see where this goes on its own.)

(Nerdy footnote: As I taught through Luke, I depended mainly on Joel Green’s commentary, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT commentary series [not to be confused with NCIS commentary series, which as far as I know, doesn't exist, but someone will at some point come up with a Gospel According to NCIS, I'm sure] [further proof of my unhipster status: I like NCIS, although I haven't watched it this past year because my husband is more hipster than I am and likes to discover new shows, especially ones that no one's heard of or watches because he's cool like that], with some help from Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke. For Paul’s letters, which our small group has looked at briefly [read: one letter per week alongside our Acts reading], I’ve drawn from Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; and several books and articles by authors including, but not limited to, Drs. N.T. Wright, Philip Payne, and Tom Constable. Also, my reading of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight complements this study on the nature of God’s kingdom work through the Church.)

(Not-so-nerdy footnote: A great companion to this series is Belonging on Ed Cyzewski’s blog.)

Let the games begin.

Belonging: Finding a Home in Church

Ed Cyzewski has been doing a series on Belonging (I highly recommend following both that series as well as his Women in Ministry series). Inspired by his words (as I often am), I decided to give you a snippet of my story and how I’ve learned that I can belong in a church that hurt me.

A few years ago, our church canceled the service my husband and I attended.

A word about this service: it was more than a place that played the kind of music with which we connected, that worshiped the way we wanted to worship, that included people who looked and thought and felt like we do. It was a place of community, a place where we belonged. I hadn’t felt like I belonged in church–or really anywhere–in over a decade. But in that service, in that community, we belonged. We ministered there, and that service, which was more than a service, became the gateway to our connection with the church.

When the leadership canceled the church, it tore open old wounds and for good measure, added a dash of salt. I had worked and volunteered in churches, served and served and served and finally found that no place like home. Now it was gone.

Several people in the service left the church. Some planted a new church. Chris and I looked and prayed: where do we go?

We stayed.

We stayed because a couple of our closest friends stayed, and we stayed because we didn’t know where else to go. The new church plant was a little far and a little trendy (my friends will tell you I’m no hipster Christian). There’s nothing wrong with trendy and hipster, but we didn’t know how to serve there, how to belong there.

Not long after that happened, on a road trip, Chris and I listened to Life Together by Bonhoeffer. I remember Bonhoeffer talking about these moments when you taste eternity in community, when you meet with Christians and everything is beautiful and ideal and home. But these are not the everyday. We treasure them, we suck nourishment from them, and we go back to our ordinary, hard lives.

That service had been my taste of eternity, I thought, and now I must return to the ordinary, the hard, maybe even the place of unbelonging.

We leaned on each other and the few friends left, and we complained a lot. Sunday after Sunday, we attended service, we read the Scripture and prayed and took Eucharist with this group of strangers in this larger, stranger service. We sang to music that sometimes made me want to take a mallet to the speakers. Chris got involved in men’s ministry; I had my book club (which, in part, got me through that difficult time).

I don’t know how it happened or when it happened, but love snuck in.

One day, as I approached the altar for communion, I looked up and saw the church–followers of Christ who loved and hurt and made mistakes and sometimes hurt each other. People like me. In a mass of strangers, I saw people who knew and loved me, and I knew that somehow, in this place where it made no sense to belong, where a bookstore sold Christian kitsch next to C.S. Lewis, where sometimes the approach to missions made me want to take my theology degree and my cross-cultural studies and tell someone off (on my more mature days), where women wore wide-brimmed hats on Easter Sunday, I belonged.

Because the truth is, this church does amazing work for Christ through Christ. This church loves and serves God, hungrily leans into him and into what he has revealed about himself through Scripture and the Holy Spirit and church history.

I think of the Jerusalem church, making their way in the mess of Jews and Gentiles becoming this new thing, this Church, as fellow followers of Christ, how they both sacrificed for the sake of fellowship and unity and mission.

And I fell in love again with my church. Some days I have to remind myself of that (especially when the choir strikes up a Maranatha song again), but all I have to do is see the people who pray for me and laugh with me and stood with Chris and me as we baptized our son and rejoice with me and cry with me.

And sometimes I even like the hats because the hats tell stories.

 

All Saints’ Day

Yesterday I read my friend’s post, “Alone” about her experience at Relevant, an annual woman’s conference. More to the point, it’s about many of her experiences wrapped up into one experience of loneliness.

Even more to the point, it’s about all of our experiences. For who among us has never felt alone? Extroverts and introverts, the centerpieces and the fringers, the admired and the dejected, we all struggle with this, for this is language of the Fall. They realized they were naked and they made coverings for themselves and they hid.

They hid in work and in the Internet. They hid in TV and in books. They hid in vacation homes and in parties. They hid in their homes. They hid in their art. They hid in their churches. They hid and were alone, and the nakedness of knowing one another completely became shame.

But this, too, God redeems, and he does so in the Church, this beautiful organism that spans history and culture, embracing all believers everywhere, one body and one Spirit just as you were called to one hope.

Today we celebrate that we are not alone but are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. They testify that though alone in prisons, lions’ dens, deserts and mountains, though mistreated and rejected and despised, God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Together made perfect–whole, complete, beautiful.

So I celebrate the faithful who went before, known and unknown, famous and ordinary. We continue God’s kingdom work on earth while they rest from their labors, and one day we’ll see the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. One day God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

And we’ll belong and we won’t be alone.

The Body of Christ, Broken

I kneel at the altar, palms cupped. “The body of Christ, broken for you,” the priest says and presses the wafer to my hands.

I look across the table, across the pulpit and see the body of Christ, broken yet redeemed and being redeemed and being redeemed, one by one kneeling, eating, drinking. Love overwhelms, overflows for these people who come every Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, and despite our frustrations with this church that make us consider leaving and despite a music style that sends me into epileptic seizures (think SNL church singers), there is love. There are people in this church who know me. They know me and love me, and maybe that’s enough.

The cup is at my lips, and I drink and cross myself, accepting this, God’s grace, God’s sacrament.

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