The Meaning of Lent

It’s that time of year again — Lent. The time of year when Christians all over the world stop eating chocolate or swearing or something of the like. For the life of me I haven’t been able to decipher giving something up for Lent and a New Years resolution except that one is for Jesus. And yet we all, myself included, think each year about which to give up for Lent. I guess 40 days is a lot less intimidating than 365.

In the midst of preparing for Lent, I received an e-mail that has the Japanese word for Lent as it’s posted above. The word for Lent in Japanese is jyunansetsu. It is made up of three kanji (pictures that symbolize words or parts of words). The first kanji means “to accept,” the second means “hardship,” and the third means “a period of time.”

Together, in Japanese, Lent means to accept hardship for a period of time.

Maybe this is the heart of our Lent resolutions. Hardship is… well, it’s hard. So perhaps we resort to New Years resolution-type Lent disciplines as a distraction away from the things that are really hard in life, not that it is easy to give up chocolate or soda. But to really stand face-to-face with the hardships of life is uncomfortable for everyone.

We came face to face with death yesterday in hearing the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This reminder can be the hardship we take on. Lent constantly brings us next to our mortality.

And then, after 40 days of living next door to death, we hear the incredible news that the tomb is empty and the death has been defeated by love. This is the most important part of the meaning of Lent. We accept hardship… but only for a period of time. At the end of which we celebrate the wonder of the resurrection.

Cheers,
Eric

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A Response to John Piper’s “Masculine Christianity”

“We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” – Talmud

There has been a call to return — did we ever really leave? — to a masculine Christianity. This movement, spearheaded by the likes of John Piper and Mark Driscoll, has come to a head in some ways due to some recent comments by Piper. Recently, he wrote:

“God revealed Himself in the Bible pervasively as king not queen; father not mother. The second person of the Trinity is revealed as the eternal Son not daughter; the Father and the Son create man and woman in His image and give them the name man, the name of the male…God appoints all the priests in the Old Testament to be men; the Son of God came into the world to be a man; He chose 12 men to be His apostles; the apostles appointed that the overseers of the Church be men; and when it came to marriage they taught that the husband should be the head.”

It needs to be pointed out that this is an extremely selective reading of the Biblical narrative. It only listens to half of the narrative. Take, for instance, the creation narrative. Genesis 1:27 says

“So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them. 

In the initial act of creating a relationship between God and humanity, God creates both men and women in God’s image. God’s command to “have dominion” over everything goes to both men and women. It’s plural throughout the rest of the chapter.

While Piper repeatedly highlights the rest of the male-centered stories of the Bible, he leaves out the fact that God has been represented as:

  • A mother (Numbers 11:12, Job 38:8, 29, Isaiah 42:14, Isaiah 49:14, Isaiah 46:3, Isaiah 66:12, Hosea 11:4, Acts 17:28)
  • A seamstress (Nehemiah 9:21)
  • A midwife (Psalm 22:9, Psalm 71:6, Isaiah 66:9)
  • A woman working leaven into bread (Luke 13:18-21)
  • A woman seeking a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10) — This is in a line of parables where God is depicted as both male and female. There’s that egalitarian thing again.

There are countless images for God in the Bible — both male and female. It’s a case of you get what you look for. We could revise the Talmud quote from the beginning of this post to say “We see the Bible not as it is, but as we are.” In John Piper’s case, he wants God to be a man and he wants a masculine Christianity so he finds those instances in the Bible and reads that Bible through a masculine lens.

If we’re proper students of history, we know that Christianity has been masculine and dominant for far too long. I suggest that it’s actually a time to re-imagine feminine images of God. I think when we do that, we gain a richer theological imagination that helps us move outward into a new realm of possibility.

And that’s something that excites me.

Cheers,
Eric

If you’re interested in a more feminine view of God, I would encourage you to check out the writings of Rosemary Radford RuetherSallie McFagueOctavia ButlerElizabeth Johnson, and Naomi Goldenberg. I think you would be better served reading any of these ladies than Piper or Driscoll.

Sermon on Mark 1:21-28

“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” – Mark 1:21-28

On a cold January morning a few years back, a man in a baseball cap stood in the bustling corridor of a metro station in Washington DC. He opened up a violin case and started to play. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their morning commute.

Three minutes went by and a middle-aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but then he looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year-old boy. His mother hurried him along, but the kid stopped to look back at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed a little harder than usual and the child continued to walk while constantly turning his head. Several other children repeated this action. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped to listen for any amount of time. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and the usual sounds of the morning commute took over the corridor, no one seemed to notice. No one applauded, and there was no recognition.

What no one seemed to know, was that the violinist was Joshua Bell, a child-prodigy violinist and one of the most renowned classical musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. 

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the cheap seats went for $100 per seat.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about the perception and priorities of people. Some of the questions asked were: in an everyday environment at an unexpected hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it?[1]

This story illustrates something that Mark is getting at in today’s gospel reading. In our story for today, only one person recognized Jesus for who he actually was. A lot of the people in the synagogue merely thought he was an authoritative teacher. They knew that he was different than the scribes, but they couldn’t put their finger on exactly why. Then a man in their midst, a man with an unclean spirit cries out, “What you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Quite the confession we have here.

The unclean spirit is the only person in the entire synagogue to recognize the Word made flesh in Christ. No one else recognizes who Christ truly is. Mark’s story presents us with the fundamental question that asks if we are even capable of recognizing God in the world? Much like the Washington Post experiment asked us if we recognize beauty in the world, Mark asks us if we can do any better than the man with the unclean spirit.

     So how do we recognize God in our midst today?

I read a story this past week about a family in California. A mom and her two kids, an infant son and a 10-year-old daughter were driving across a bridge on the 101 when they were accidentally rear-ended by a semi. The semi went through the railing and fell a hundred feet to the creek below. The car teetered on the edge of the bridge – not quite off the ground, but not quite on it either. When the emergency vehicles got to the scene, they wanted to maneuver the car back onto solid ground so they could rescue this family. Almost every attempt was met with the car teetering even more – threatening to drop them to creek as well. About a half an hour later – many attempts tried and failed – a group of Navy men and women came up to this scene and said they had a vehicle back in line that had a crane that could help bring the vehicle back onto solid ground. After a couple hours of being trapped in this vehicle, the mother and children were back on solid ground and emergency crews were able to get them out of their car. When news crews were interviewing some spectators of this whole thing, one woman called it a miracle and said God was here helping them the whole time.

I think it’s easy for us to see God in stories like this, stories of the rescued family with a renewed sense of life. Stories of blessing are often closely tied to God’s presence. But how can we recognize God from the perspective of the trucker’s family? Where is God for them? Where is God in our suffering?

I’m sure these disciples of Jesus are perhaps a bit confused that the first thing Jesus does after calling them to be his disciples is goes into a synagogue and encounters this spirit. The first act of Jesus’ ministry – following his call to the disciples – is to point out the suffering and evil that goes along with our life in this world. It’s almost as if Jesus is saying to his disciples, this road isn’t going to be easy. As we inch closer and closer to Ash Wednesday, we can begin to feel this move toward suffering. That even in the midst of this suffering, there is transformation.

This suffering from unclean spirits isn’t something that’s relegated to stories in the newspaper or on television or in the dusty hallways of Mark’s time. We know these all too well. We all hear those voices in the back of our head – the voices that tell us we’re not good enough, that we’re unlovable… Those voices that creep in on those lonely, sleepless nights. These are the voices of the unclean spirits. We know this suffering all too well, don’t we? But the good news is that even in the midst of suffering, there is transformation.

This is the main point of this gospel text. Until we face the evil and the suffering in this world and in us – until we name the forces that seek to destroy us: addiction, loneliness, depression, sin – it’s only in naming this brokenness and acknowledging its power, that we open ourselves up to be healed. The first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. My friends, we have a problem. We have a problem with brokenness. We have a problem with sin. We have a problem with selfishness. By acknowledging these problems, these shortcomings, we stop to see God’s healing presence in ways the commuters in the DC metro station that January morning did not. We stop to see God’s healing presence in the creek beneath the teetering car in the semi. We stop to see God’s healing presence in the man with the unclean spirit. And we stop to see God’s healing presence in us. Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

1. If you’ve ever taken a class from David Lose, you’ve undoubtedly heard this story — but it’s a great example of recognizing beauty.

Sermon I Want to Preach On Christmas Eve, But Won’t

I always struggle with some parts of the Christmas story, particularly Luke’s Christmas story. The more I read it and think about it, the part of the story that grabs me isn’t anything about no room in the inn. It’s not about the angel visiting and the voices of the heavenly hosts singing. It’s not the shepherds visiting or any of that, although those are important and oft highlighted parts of the story. What confounds me so much is the first few verses in Luke 2.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own town to be registered.

This situates the birth of Jesus smack dab in the middle of an oppressive empire. The historicity of whether a census was actually taken in this way during this time isn’t important to me at this point. But what is, is that Jesus was born under the cover of darkness under a very strict rule of empire.

So how do you preach about the Son of God being born in spite of the constrictions of Empire (Roman) to people of Empire (American)? I’m running up against resistance in saying that we need to make room for the people who don’t have places in the inn with a lot of the immigration stuff going on down here in Arizona.

Surely, I can’t give an anti-empire sermon on Christmas Eve. Christmas sermons ought to inspire comfort and joy (because we don’t have enough of that).

Perhaps it’s not the right time, not the right place.

Perhaps I need to pick my battles.

Perhaps I need to just turn a blind eye to it.

But someone has to say it. Someone has to call out the dissonance between the way the Bible calls us to live and the way we actually do live. We have to give up this (GOP-fueled) “War on Christianity”. Christianity has been normative for so long, especially in positions of power that for white, American, male, Christians (lookin’ at you, Governor Perry) to even hint at being persecuted is a slap in the face to everyone else in the world (sounds like hyperbole, but it isn’t).

We need to change the way we view our selves and our world. And that starts by emptying ourselves as God did when she became a baby and grew up renouncing empire and the power structures that crush people who are not in the majority.

That’s the sermon I want to preach Christmas Eve. But I probably won’t. After all, I’m just the intern. So I’ll say it on here until I get through all the bureaucratic hoops I need to get through.

Then I’ll say it.

Until then… Here we are. With the sermon I want to preach, but probably won’t.

Cheers,
Eric

P.S. Yeah, I did the whole passive-aggressive, refer-to-God-with-feminine-pronoun thing. Another thing I’ve wanted to do, but haven’t. Just like to do it for fun every once in awhile.

5 of my Favorite Thoughts on Christmas

I have noticed it’s been quite hard to get into the Christmas spirit when it’s still in the mid-60’s down here in Arizona. But Megan put up some great decorations and we’ve been pumping the Sufjan Stevens Holiday station on Pandora, which helps. This morning I decided to do some Advent reading and see if that helps get me into the spirt — and it really has, perhaps a bit more than this wonderful picture to the left. Perhaps this Santa/Jesus battle is reflected in a couple of the thoughts later (maybe #2).

So here are my top 5 favorite quotes about Advent. (Sidenote: They aren’t necessarily interrelated with each other, but all center around Advent and Christmas.)

5. “We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer from “The Coming of Jesus in Our Midst” in “Watch for the Light”

4. “Waiting has its rewards, as I want to argue here… And yet, we might think of waiting also as a temporary liberation from the economics of time-is-money, as a brief respite from the haste of modern life, as a meditative temporal space in which one might have unexpected intuitions and fortuitous insights.” – Harold Schweitzer in  On Waiting

3. “So, according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and — born again to a living hope — live as new men and women.” – Jurgen Moltmann in “The Disarming Child” from “Watch for the Light”

2. “While many American Christians complain about what the store employees wish them, they are there in the stores alongside everyone else, engaging in a practice that has no real Biblical roots, making purchases in the spirit of our contemporary materialistic age.” – James F. McGrath in “Christmas: The Christian War on Solstice”

1. “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.” – Stephen Colbert on Jesus and Christmas. See the full clip here.

There you have it!

Did any of these resonate with you? What are some thoughts or particularly meaningful quotes you have as Christmas comes closer?

I hope you’re enjoying the season, wherever you are, as much as we are down in the desert!

Cheers,
Eric

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