Rembrant’s Adoration of the Magi

magiThis is Rembrant’s depiction of the Adoration of the Magi.  I find it interesting that since the beginning of Christianity wise men have wanted to get to know Jesus.  Even today wise men and religious leaders (Buddha, Mohammed, Ghandi etc etc etc) are interested in the words of and about Jesus.  There is something about this man that was captivating from the beginning.  Consider the fact that since its collection into a single work the Bible is the most read book throughout history and Jesus is it’s central character.  Regardless of your opinion of Christians or religion in general, you would join the ranks of many wise people by investigating the story of Jesus.

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Knocking at the Door of Meaning

When Gary told me he had found Jesus, I thought, Yahoo! We’re rich! Then I found out it was something different- Jack Handy

Lately, I have been reflecting on the nature of grammar as it applies to our lives.  When it comes to sentences, I used to just go with my instincts and the complex nature of our compound constructions was often lost on me.  Yet, in my master’s work, I was forced into learning about subjects and objects and prepositions in sentences – things I had previously thought useless.  I have discovered the pleasure of good rhetoric.  Further, I learned the value of syntax in day to day existence.  You see, without syntax, there can be no sentence because the technical definition of a sentence demands that meaning be present within.
It may seem self-evident that meaning is important.  As with sentences, the search for meaning defines humanity.  Human beings are like a sailor in the crow’s nest – we stare unblinkingly into the abyss in search of meaning.  In particular, the generation I work with, those in their twenties, are trying to figure out who they are and what their purpose is.  They are Post-Moderns, the category of persons that has of late been accused of destroying truth along with other absolutes.  Yet the paradox is that this destruction lies in the wake of their ravenous search for meaning.  The previous generation was used to accepting such foundations and find their erosion disconcerting at the least.  The current generation is overly concerned with discovering things for themselves and discussing the relative value, and ambiguous nature of truth.

Yet ambiguity, which is often the substance of a good joke, is frequently used in good writing.  The Bible is a well-written book, whatever your opinion of its content.  Take for example 2 Corinthians 5:14a”The love of Christ urges us on because we are convinced that one has died for all…” The passage goes on to make a convincing case: that if a person believes Christ died for all then we wouldn’t be able to look at the people around us in the same way.  We would see them as people who Christ found worthwhile enough to die for. This change in perspective then, would, if we experienced it, change our behavior, the treatment we offer to the people around us.  The question, which leads us back to the subject of ambiguity, is a classic “what’s my motivation?!”

     The above chart outlines two ways to take the motivating phrase  “love of Christ.” If we take this as a subjective genitive, then, “Christ’s love for” us would be something that propels us forward.  Christ’s love for me is so great that I feel a need to respond appropriately, out of gratitude, to be less self-absorbed. However if we take “love of Christ” as an objective genitive then our “love of Christ” is something that impels us to love others, because we love him.  This works much in the same way I might voluntarily do the dishes- not because I find the experience enjoyable, but because I love my wife and realize that this is a way to express that love.  There is a Greek scholar named Wallace who would say that in this case we don’t have to choose.  While some disagree, he would call this a “plenary genitive,” it does “double duty,” if you will (Biblical Greek Beyond the Basics 118).  The phrase’s ambiguous use in this case implies a mutual relationship.  I might add that this could be called an adjectival use of the genitive, one which describes the type of love, i.e. Christ-like or Christ-ly love, which motivates us.
This is one of many examples where the Bible uses rhetorical ambiguity to allow for greater meaning.  Obviously, an excess of this could eventually obscure any and all meaning, and make communication impossible.  One can not move like a hummingbird from truth to truth without needing a place to call home.  A balance is required between the enjoyment of searching for answers and a willingness to accept that eventually one must make choices or all the possibilities you have collected become meaningless.  Yet, I am grateful for the gift of Post-Moderns, grateful for flexibility and a desire to seek out answers for ourselves, grateful for the search for meaning.  I believe that if we keep knocking, we may indeed get an answer.

Justice for All

Here is an article written by Stanley Hauerwas on the subject of inherent human rights (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2012/11/02/3624140.htm).  In it he critiques a Christian theologian who was arguing for a Biblical supported universal human rights theory:

(There is no theory with a universal appeal to Justice) Rather than a theory, God has called into the world a people capable of transgressing the borders of the nation-state to seek the welfare of the downtrodden.

What we need is not a theory of justice capable of universal application. Rather what we need is what we have. What we have is a people learning again to live in diaspora. And we are reminded that Israel’s political vocation took the form of a politics of diaspora through which she becomes a blessing to all people. Such a political vocation has been given to the church insofar as she has been joined to Israel’s Messiah, requiring her to be on pilgrimage to the ends of the world seeking reconciliation through the works of mercy. Such is the justice of God.

In light of recent culture-wars, it may surprise my non-Christian friends to learn that Christian theology actually has a highly developed sense of justice, fairness and equality.  The question at work in the above quote  is whether or not human beings are ontological possession of “unalienable rights,” whether by virtue of our being human we are inherently valuable to other humans.  The writers of the Declaration of Independence certainly believed that there was a God who endowed such things.  This is largely due to the language in Genesis 1, “in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them” (God’s image is somewhat anatomically vague).

Yet Christians are compelled by something other than meta-ethical philosophical theories.  We have been commanded to do Justice; “Justice” in this way takes on a verbal quality (most notably for the poor, widow, orphan, and alien: in short those on the margins of society).  “Justice” in the bible generally refers to God’s will for the world and those who are “Righteous” are those who are acting to bring the world into alignment with Gods will.  This is to say that Justice is not a static concept of “fairness” like we have in American courtrooms by a dynamic in-breaking force of the Kingdom of God who seeks to set all wrongs to Right.  Knowing God as such is “not a mere inner spirituality but a matter of transformation of value and resulting practical commitment” (Christopher Wright OT Ethics 267).

Universal Human Rights as such may not be “just” in a Christian understanding of the term.  Take for example persons with disabilities

much good has been done in the name of disability-rights for creating new opportunities as well as institutional space for the disabled. But such an understanding of justice is not sufficient if we listen to the disabled. They do not seek to be tolerated or even respected because they have rights. Rather they seek to share their lives with us and they want us to want to share our lives with them. In short they want us to be claimed and to claim one another in friendship. (same article above, bold mine)

People with disabilities very often are protected by those of us who are outraged by those who would mock or cheat or otherwise violate the fair treatment we would expect for people in general.  Yet, as Hauerwas points out, these people are uninterested in merely fair treatment, they want to love and be loved in community.  They want friendship.  This is one among many examples of the wisdom of people who are mentally handicapped but socially gifted.  The God of the Old and New Testament, the God of Christians, is not a God of who establishes abstract philosophical categories.  He values human beings, despite all their disabilities; thus, they are valuable.  The language of Genesis which tells us that Humans are made in the image of God is not a declaration of the inherent value of the human creature but rather a reminder of the esteem which the God of the universe has for your neighbor.  God’s love for the people around us- for the illegal immigrant, for the gay Starbucks barista, and for the Christian evangelical- is the foundation upon which are commanded to love one another as He has loved us (2 Cor 5:14ff, John 15).  This language goes far beyond the concept of human rights, it is a dynamic force which should move us with ever-greater sincerity into community with those around us.  Ultimately I think this is what our neighbors are instinctively after; I hope we will be able to be lights in the dehumanizing darkness around us.

Inertia

Image

 

Isn’t it strange that things which are not growing seem to be dying?  I remember hiking in the superstition mountains with a mentor.  I was in high school and a group of kids went along.  We ran out of water, no small problem in Arizona.  We came across a stream which was cold and looked delicious but before we could drink my mentor stopped up.  “Don’t drink that unless you want to spend the last days of your life on a toilet.”  While we all pondered the meaning of his threat he began to explain about a small bacterium call Giardia.  Wild animals are not conscious of waterways when they use the restroom; as a result stagnant waters are often havens for things that would wreck havoc on your bowels and generally ruin your weak.

 

A stagnant life is one which may appear restful, like the image above.  There is a certain beauty to a life uncomplicated by the forces of challenge, change or growth.  People on the outside may envy it and those within may relish the experience.  Yet there is a difference between being at rest and being stationary.  Inertia is a difficult force to overcome and the people I respect in life are those who actively pursue an ever-increasing discipline and depth in their lives.  It is certainly more convenient to remain the same person you were years ago, with the same prejudices and ideas.  Change is often hard, there are always growing pains but surely it is more painful to lead an unexamined life which produced relatively little fruit.  I have been reading in the Gospel of John lately and there is a woman in the fourth chapter who comes to a place of stagnancy and instead encounters Jesus.  He offers her living water, the sort that is always on the move, never stale.  She finds herself transformed by the experience, challenged to grow out of who she was and into who she has the potential to be.  The business I’m in aims to help people come in contact with life itself, to overcome their inertia and move on to deeper waters.

The New Mumford album

The definition of “Art” has been problematic in a Postmodern age.  This is particularly true in light of earlier definitions which are Modern in their roots.  I had a professor once who told me that “Good art challenges people.  Otherwise it isn’t art.”  While I’m not sure I agree with the latter part of his statement the former seems solid.

I have a friend who is an organist and he takes great exception to the idea that the organ is a boring instrument.  His argument is that the organists (not all but the majority) who are boring.  He says that the organ is an instrument of almost infinite complexity; it is built to challenge and create.  The problem is that somewhere along the way organists became “curators” instead of “innovators.”  “They were so concerned with losing precious traditions that they stopped trying to move people” (there is a metaphor here for mainline Christianity).
I have had many conversations recently about a band called Mumford and Sons.  There are quite popular with the demographic that I do ministry with, and I like their music.  Mumford has a tendency to use biblical themes in their music and it baffles people.  From Rolling Stone to a mediocre Christian blogger people have been speculating on whether or not the band is a “Christian” one.  This is the wrong question, largely because it obscures the content of the album.  The question should be: “Is this good art?”  If the definition of “Good art” is that it is both 1) aesthetically pleasing and 2) that it challenges people then I would argue that it is.  The album “Babel” makes almost constant use images and themes from Genesis 1-11.  Several people I have talked to have claimed that I am imagining this, others believe that it is an accident and that the lyrics are bewildering rather than deep (this may be true as well).  Folks outside my faith group have asked many questions about my opinions of the album.  Mumford for their part has said “the only thing we feel evangelical about is music” and I am sure they mean that- many Christian labels produce a remarkably low amount of good art.

Yet, despite their objections, it is obvious that growing up in the Vineyard UK has had a profound impact on these musicians.  As a result they are producing some very good art.  People are trying to put a box around the music (something which tends to happen to challenging art) because for the several years now Christians make Christian music and the rest of the community makes music.  Yet like U2 before them they are wrestling with Christian themes in a far deeper way than non-Christian musicians are capable of.  The pastor in me loves listening and wondering what exactly they are trying to say with lyrics like

…We will run and scream You will dance with me They’ll fulfill our dreams And we’ll be free
And we will be who we are And they’ll heal our scars Sadness will be far away  So as we walked Of fields of green As the fairest sun I’d ever seen And I was broke I was on my knees But you said yes as I said please… (Below my Feet see Revelation 21:22 and following)

 

…Touch my mouth and hold my tongue I’ll never be your chosen one I’ll be home, safe and tucked away You can’t tempt me if I don’t see the day … And oh, my heart was flawed I knew my weakness  So hold my hand, consign me not to darkness. Crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down I’ll never wear your broken crown I took the road and I (expletive) it all away. Now in this twilight how dare you speak of grace…. (Broken Crown see Genesis 3:1-14)

There is definitely a challenge here, and the fact that we as listeners are allowed to view this wrestling match is intentional.  The artist has effectively baited my curiosity and I have, as yet, to find an answer to my questions.  However I have found many people who are interested in talking about the album and I am thoroughly enjoying the conversations.

Taken captive Genesis

So we’ve been going through Genesis at The Refinery and its been making me think.  I have begun to see the images and the story of human nature in the scenes played out around me.  Just when I would think myself done with it for the day Mumford and Sons would release an album clearly influenced by Genesis 1-11 or a friend would describe himself with language like that of Cain.  My scientist friends have an issue with the beginning of Genesis because they expect it to function like a science textbook, likely because Christians often have the same expectation.  Yet, Genesis makes no such promise.  It is a story,  by definition something which seeks to take us captive.  It has no intention of persuading us that its material is true and it will not allows us to dictate the terms by which it may speak.  I am in the habit of saying that Genesis isn’t so much about the specific hows of the world coming into existence but the whys.  Why did the world come into being, why did it go wrong?

As a captive of Genesis I have been wrestling with the story of Noah.  One of the basic premises of most Christian theological systems is that human beings are flawed, crippled, twisted from birth since the Fall.  We are a people filled with violence.  God’s rationale for the flood is that the humans that are should not be (Gen 6:5-7, 11-14).  So, why would God save humanity through one man, apparently against his better judgment (Gen 8:21)?  He tells Noah that the human heart is inclined (NRSV) toward evil since birth, a depressing admonition for one of the few humans left alive!  Yet the statement comes on the heels of a promise; God’s solution for the problem of human nature will no longer be allowing violence and evil to flood over them.  The complete destruction of humanity represents an unacceptable loss for God.  This begs the question: What is the solution?  What will God do in light of such an obviously problematic creature as man?  One thing is clear, the Creator of the World in Genesis 1 will not allow the world to be uncreated.  He seems intent on finding a way to redeem that which has been broken.

A Matter of Life and Death

In Th’ early morning
Death met me, bleary eyed
Nodded and with a yawn
tipped dusty brow with shrouded hand
Others frenetic
desperate to recover
The hill Oblivious
Quite still
I slipped quietly out
Growing steadily more aware

Watching a man die is a strange but not an uncommon experience in the life of a pastor.  My first experience was in an Adult Emergency department.  Those who work in the AED are a part of a surreal community.  They battle Death regularly and often successfully, but it leaves them with a strange sense of humor.  In the hospital, Death was a regular part of the conversation.  Out of the hospital, people were often uneasy with the subject.

I had a professor in an undergraduate class claim that if you want to know what the taboos are in a society look for euphemisms, i.e. kick the bucket, buy the farm, bite the big one, shuffle off this mortal coil etc. etc. (this is true of sex in America as well, despite the comfort we claim to have with the “casual” nature of it).  We are wildly uncomfortable with the idea of Death.  We look to science/modern medicine to cure us of it and we deify/ demonize it in movies like Final Destination and other horror films.  Death, for many of us, is the only real force of evil we believe in.

The strange thing about such attitudes is this: since the beginning of time, every human being has died (Christians would say that this is not a permanent condition).  Our days are numbered as it were (Ps 39:4).  In the hospital I would sometimes get to chat with people who had faced the concept of their death and had come to terms with it.  These conversations were a privilege.  People who are dying have a remarkable clarity about their lives.  It is as though all their concerns, all the things we worry about on a regular basis,  have passed through an emotional furnace.  The only ones that remain are the important ones; almost exclusively, they want to talk about their family, where they stand with God, and the meaning of it all.  I wonder if we could handle living with such honesty.