Happy Easter!

Seven Stanzas at Easter

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

-John Updike

Z is for Zarathustra (an alphabet for penitents)

When Zarathustra was alone, however, he said to his heart: “Could it be possible! This old saint in the forest hath not yet heard of it, that GOD IS DEAD!” (Thus Spake Zarathustra, 3)
“DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.”—Let this be our final will at the great noontide!— Thus spake Zarathustra.
Z. We’ve reached the end.  A journey that began with ash, a reminder of our mortality, ends in the death of God. When Jesus had died, about the middle of the afternoon, they took his limp body off the cross and laid his body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61).
The gospel writers are silent about the events of Holy Saturday and the emotional state of the disciples. Certainly, they were raw with grief and carried shame for deserting and denying their Master—the man they had invested three years of their life following. They likely didn’t visit the Temple on that Sabbath. It is difficult enough to pray and share space with other worshippers while in the midst of grief (who wants to sing happy-clappy songs of God’s deliverance when you are hurting?). It is all the harder when we consider that they believed Jesus would be God’s deliverer and they mulled over his strange sayings about how he embodied the Father (John 14:9-10). Now Jesus was dead.  My guess is that they holed up in the same room we find them on Sunday morning.
Zarathustra was the ancient, Iranian founder of Zoroastrianism. A man by the same name is Fredrick Nietzche’s mouthpiece in Thus Spake Zarathustra. 19th-century philosophers, like 19th-century novelists, could seldom write anything without preaching at their readers.  Zarathustra is Nietzche’s  preacher and the populizer of the phrase, “God is dead” (along with the madman in Nietzche’s The Gay Science). He preaches a new way of being in the world, freed from the confines of religious belief in a god. Kathleen Higgins suggests that:
“Nietzche’s basic goal in Zarathustra is to explore the question of the meaning of individual life. . . .The perspective that renders life meaningful is the tragic perspective, Nietzche contends. The tragic perspective does not denigrate individual life by urging the individual to associate meaning with notions of survival or perfect contentment. Instead it finds individual life to be meaningful in the way that art is meaningful—meaning emerges from the artist’s arrangement of limited material (“Reading Zarathustra” in Reading Nietzche, OUP, 1988, p146).
Nietzche has his fans, especially among athiests, philosophers and the children of Christian fundamentalists in teenage rebellion. Christian apologists love to quote Nietzche and use him as a foil for theism. But if truth is contextual, then today of all days we say with Nietzche and Zarathustra, “Gott ist tot.” God is dead.
Can we inhabit this space? The disciples are hiding out, wrecked with grief. Their religious illusions, beliefs about God, and hopes for a Messiah were dashed on the previous day. We may not, with Zarathustra, do away with God and put our faith in our own human potential. But the prophet and the madman understood the death of God has far reaching consequences. How now shall we live? 

Y is for Yes (an alphabet for penitents)

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”” (Matthew 26:39, NIV)

No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”” (John 10:18, NRSV)

Yes was Jesus’s answer to God in submitting to the cross. Yes is God’s answer to us through the cross.

It was late in the evening as Jesus knelt in the garden, full of dread at what awaited him— the desertion of the disciples, night time trials, beatings, flogging, mockery, and derision from law enforcement, the rejection of his people, and death on a Roman cross. Luke’s gospel tells us that he the sweat on his brow as prayed was like drops of blood (Luke 22:44). He was in anguish, anxious about the horrors he’d soon face. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” He knew how hard it would be and part of him didn’t want to do it.  But then he adding his yes to God, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

When he refused to offer a spirited defense of the trumped up charges against him, he was willfully accepted his fate. Nobody took his life from him. He laid his life down of his own accord.

✝✟✝

Why the cross? Why did our salvation take this shape? If you spend time in Christian circles, you have probably heard debates about the nature of Christ’s atonement—the way the cross saved us from our sin. The dominant theory for Evangelicals since the Reformation is a penal understanding: God is just and therefore must punish sin, we are sinful deserving of death, Jesus—both God’s Son, and sinless human—took our punishment for us on the cross. This is just one understanding of the work of Christ, but there are others: Christus Victor and Ransom models(Jesus’ victory over the powers), Moral Influence and subjective models(Jesus dies on a cross to make vivid the love of God for us), the Satisfaction model (like penal substitution, but more focused on God’s honor),  Sacrifice, mimetic atonement (Jesus breaking the cycle of  mimetic human violence), and variations on each of the above.

I don’t have a definitive answer for why the cross. I know that there are caricatures of God we need to avoid in whatever atonement theory we ascribe to or construct (i.e. ones that make the crucifixion seem like divine child abuse, and those that deny the unity of God in His plan for salvation) and I would say the cross is some combination of all the above. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). The Triune God was acting to welcome humanity back into their (His) embrace.  In the wisdom of God, this was the plan, God’s  yes.

✝✟✝

My seven-year-old daughter asked recently, “Why do we call it Good Friday when it is the day Jesus died?” Anyone who has grown up in the church has asked that same question. Today could have just as easily been called Bad Friday, the day we killed God. We call today good because of what the cross accomplished, the way Jesus’s death opened for us. There he hung—his arms stretched out while his body slumped forward, a”Y”— God’s yes for us.

 

X is for Xenophilia (an alphabet for penitents)

Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” (Matthew 26:23, NIV)

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20–21, NIV)

Xenophobia is something we are all too familiar with: the fear and disdain for people not like us. It is the default stance of the internet troll and the reason for the uptick in hate crimes towards Jews and Muslims. It is codified in the practices of law enforcement in minority communities and the mass incarceration of black and brown skinned people in our country. It is becoming our national immigration and foreign policy. It manifests itself as fear and hate or the desire for the other to keep their distance.

Xenophilia,  on the other hand, is the opposite: a love for foreign peoples, cultures, and customs.  In the Christian tradition, we call this welcoming the stranger. The Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) has a number of passages that talk about caring for foreigners, strangers and resident aliens dwelling in the land (cf. Deut. 14:29; 26:11-13, Lev. 19:10, 23:22, Zech. 7:8-10). There are also compelling examples within the narrative of hospitality and inclusion of strangers (i.e. Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18, Rahab, Ruth, etc).  The whole thrust of the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 was that he and his descendants would be blessed to be a blessing, a priest to the nations to welcome them back into relationship with God. Christians can glean a lot about hospitality from the First Testament and Jewish practice.

However, our example par excellence of xenophilia is Jesus. I don’t want to be anachronistic. Jesus was a first century Jew and he came to the Jews. He didn’t welcome everybody in his lifetime. Still he demonstrated the stance of welcome in his friendship to tax collectors and sinners, the healing non-Jews (the Centurion’s servant, the Gerasene demoniac, the Canaanite woman’s daughter, etc), his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), and teachings which challenged the exclusion of the Gentiles (i.e. Luke 4:20-30, the parable of Good Samaritan, etc.) His ultimate welcome of strangers came through the cross where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles was torn down (Ephesians 2:14).

Before we get to Calvary. Jesus dines with his disciples in an upper room. It was Passover, and they were in Jerusalem. These were Jesus’ disciples for three years of ministry. The guys he spent most of his time with. Friends. And yet there was a stranger in their midst. Someone who dipped bread and ate with Jesus, but in his heart, he was neither friend no follower. The stranger Jesus welcomed and called a friend, The friend who gives strange kisses in the garden.

On the same evening, Jesus offered up a missional prayer, that God would unite, sanctify and send his disciples out into the world (John 17). He didn’t just pray for them but for the ones he didn’t even know yet, who would respond to God’s message of welcome.

When they arrived to arrest him, a disciple cut off an ear of someone in the arresting party. Jesus healed the stranger.

How does hospitality, the welcome of strangers and xenophilia, shape your spiritual journey?  How can we follow the example of Christ (and the biblical tradition) in caring for strangers disconnected from basic relationships and security? Theologian Krister Stendhal wrote, “wherever, whenever, however, the kingdom manifest itself, it is welcome” (cited in Christine Pohl’s Making Room, Eerdmans, 1999).

We are at a good news moment in the Gospel story, why we call this Friday good. Let us seek to extend Christ’s welcome of strangers to the world too accustomed to fearmongering and hate. It is time to demonstrate the love of Christ to all those not like us. 

An Exodus to Freedom: a book review

As I write this, we are at the beginning of Passover, a celebration of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and the beginning of their long sojourn to the Promised Land. Israel’s Exodus wasn’t just its liberation of Egypt, but it encompassed the forty-year wilderness journey with forty-two different campsites and G-d’s covenant with Israel at Sinai.  Both Christians and Jews read the Torah, and the Exodus story,  as Scripture, looking for what deeper meaning it has for life. Christians describe Jesus as our Passover lamb and appropriate Jewish traditions of liberation and salvation. Unfortunately, we haven’t often paused to listen to how Jewish interpreters understand our shared scriptural tradition.

reimagining-exodus  Rabbi David Zaslow is no stranger to the interfaith discussion. His award-winning book, Jesus First Century Rabbi, explored the Christian gospel from a Jewish perspective (I review that book here). As the synagogue leader of Havurah Shir Hadash in Ashland, Oregon (not too far away from my home in Medford), workshop leader and media pundit, he has deepened the dialogue between Jews and Christians.

His newest book, Reimaging the Exodus: A Story of Freedom builds a bridge between Judaism and Christianity while respecting the unique features of both religious traditions.  Zaslow happily notes the common themes of Passover and the cross, Exodus and Easter. Yet, he also notes ways in which Christians have bowdlerized the Jewish tradition with a replacement theology that demeans the sacred history of the Hebrew Bible.

Zaslow’s book divides into five parts (so did his last book. Self-conscious patterning after the Torah?). Each section is distinct in style and purpose. In part one, Zaslow describes the significance of the Exodus for the Jewish tradition—G-d’s liberation of Israel and their forty-year, two-hundred-mile journey, learning to walk in freedom. Part two offers a Midrashic interpretation of twenty passages from the Torah (mostly drawn from Exodus, but also Numbers and Deuteronomy). Zaslow’s commentary on the passages is scholarly and rich, but suggestive and evocative. Part three explores the common themes and key differences between a Jewish understanding of Exodus and the Christian Easter. Part four discusses in more detail the ways Christians (and Jews) have historically appropriated and misappropriated the tradition to justify various agendas (i.e. Puritans settling the New World, American Colonialism, the American Revolution against British Tyranny, Civil War Southern’s against the North,  Mormons, Civil Rights advocates, etc). Part five has personal stories (and a poem) of where Zaslow has seen Exodus reimagined in interfaith contexts (including an interfaith Good Friday service with a Portland synagogue, and stories from a model seder Zaslow leads in a Catholic parish).

Zaslow has an irenic nature and looks for ways that Christians and Jews can connect with each other and find common spiritual ground. He is respectful of what is distinctive in Christian theology and practice, but he is not afraid to offer a sharp critique of Christian supersessionism and replacement theology. Too many Christians have treated the Old Testament and Jewish Tradition as a mere prequel and failed to listen to the insights of Judaism. In Zaslow’s early book (Jesus First Century Rabbi) he engaged the Christian gospel traditions. This book invites Christians to a similar engagement with Judaism. Beyond just mining the text for Christological insights, the Exodus has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human and to be spiritual. Rabbi Zaslow’s evocative Midrash reveals as much.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for Christians, Jews and those who are spiritual but don’t sit easily in either world.  Zaslow invites us to a journey toward freedom, ” Just as the Exodus began with a catastrophe of enslavement but led to a great redemption, so we pray to God that the catastrophes of our own era are merely preludes to an even greater redemption and the liberation of all humanity as well as the planet” (33). ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Paraclete Press in exchange for my honest review.

O is for Obedience (an alphabet for penitents)

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

-Matthew 7:13-14.

“To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

-1 Samuel 15:22

One of my favorite movies, The Joyluck Club has a scene where the little girl version of June (the main protagonist) refuses to keep up her piano lessons.  Her mother is livid and shouts, “There are only two kinds of daughters. Obedient and those who follow own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient kind!”[This quote is from memory and may not be exact.] As a father, I have quoted that line to my own daughters (to their general consternation and confusion and my amusement), but whatever we think of June’s mother and her parenting, she does note something profoundly true. There are two kinds of [people].

In the spiritual life, there are those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind. Jesus contrasted the wide way that leads to destruction and the narrow road that leads to life. In the Old Testament, the prophets warned that “to obey was better than sacrifice.” Many children of Israel (and Saul in 1 Samuel 15) thought that religion was a tool to garner personal prosperity (pray the right way, perform the right ritual and God would bless the land, the crops, and bring peace). This didn’t transform their lifestyles. They did what they wanted but expected blood on the altar would absolve them and bring blessing into their lives.

What kind of people are we? Obedient or those who follows our own minds? The question becomes poignant in Lent. This is after all the season of self-sacrifice. We keep our little fast and observe our little rule and expect that God will bless us. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” What good is our little rule if we aren’t being transformed into the image of Christ?

I have kept vegan during Lent and used the time to reflect on injustice in our food system and my own eating habits. I was asked recently about my reflections on this, but I don’t really have any. I know the first couple weeks were difficult and it got easier as Lent progressed. Now in the home stretch, I feel like it has been really good for me. I lost a bunch of weight and I feel good. It has its challenges and I will feast on Easter. I know that is possible that I can make this kind of liminal commitment with no lasting change in my life.

But if Lent is about more than our little sacrifices but learning to walk in obedience to Jesus, there is lasting fruit. I have tried to make space for prayer and Bible reading, to walk humbly with God and act where he tells me. I have tried to learn graciousness and act kindly. Jesus modeled obedience for us, in life and in death. The call on his life is the call to us as well.

How about you? How are you learning obedience in this season? What are the things God is calling you to do?

What has Bioregionalism to Do with Discipleship? a ★★★★★book review

Early Christians asked themselves, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” wondering about the relationship between the Christian faith and pagan philosophy. Today many Christians raise a similar question: “What does my faith have to do with the environment?” Western Christianity has imbibed a functional Docetism since Constantine, placing salvation outside of creation’s realm. We’ve also been bequeathed the medieval Doctrine of Discovery, and Industrialization’s anthropological assumption which has enabled colonization and the exploitation of our natural resources (5-6). We’ve commodified our land and resources and a major divide continually grows between our Christian faith and our lived environments. We are now at a critical juncture in which human persons are making a major impact on our world. It is time to re-place Christian discipleship within our ecosystems.

9781498280761Ched Myers is well known for his theological activism, his work as an educator, and for his political reading of Mark’s gospel, in books like Binding the Strongman, and Say to this Mountain.  He is co-director, with Elaine Enns, of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries (BCM) where he advocates Christian engagement in the realms of peace, justice, and radical discipleship. At a 2010 meeting of the Bartimaeus Institute, he introduced the term ‘Watershed Discipleship’ as a way of impressing the importance of bioregionalism for North American churches (xvii), In this anthology, Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice Myers draws together essays from a dozen activists and scholars who share his vision for bioregional faith. He frames this collection with introductory and concluding essays of his own.

What does Watershed Discipleship mean? Myers describes the term as a triple entendre:

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental and social justice and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and citizen inhabitants of specific places
  2. It acknowledges the bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our individual discipleship and the life and witness of the local
    church take place inescapably in a watershed context
  3. And it implies that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. (2).

The essays in this volume engage the realms of theology, history, biblical studies, social science, and environmentalism; however, each essay is also autobiographically rooted.  The authors describe how they’ve come to care for their own watersheds. They are cognizant of the human and environmental crisis we face, attentive to their places, listening well to what their watersheds have taught them.

Rose Marie Berger‘s poem, Prophecies from the Watershed Confederacy, stands at the beginning of the book, Denise Nadeau writes the forward. In chapter one, Katarina Friesen essay reflects on current Christian missions, and her experiences on missions and growing up as a Missionary-kid. She explores how the medieval Doctrine of Discovery has shaped conquest politics and contributed to a ‘dis-placed’ understanding of mission. She argues us to redirect missions toward our own watersheds:

As a church, we need a framework whose transformative potential adequately counters the oppressive history of forced conversion of land and people, a resurrection way of liberation for all people and land more powerful than the death legacy of colonialism.
As a people marred by placeless theologies, our challenge is to repent of Watershed Conquest through practicing Watershed Discipleship. We are being commissioned home, through the power of the One who will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b).

David Pritchett examines the city, showing how the urban grid has historically been ‘used a tool of the colonization, control and alienation of citizenry, in order to efficiently move goods and military assets across the landscape” (54). Pritchett draws inspiration from the book of Daniel, on how contemporary city-dwellers may subvert the urban grid’s hegemony. He gives contemporary examples of subversion such as urban art, de-paving parking lots (which contribute to urban watershed problems), and food mapping.

John McRay provides a theology and a biblical vision of the Kingdom of God and salvation as a ‘transfigured earth’ (60). McRay explores the biblical narratives of Jubilee, Jesus and Elisha-Naaman story, articulating a ‘hermeneutic of reinhabitation.’ He argues, “Our best chance for justice and peace is to enact Jesus’s blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation. Like Naaman, we must learn to move from profane control to holy conversation through acts of reinhabitation”(72).

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann tells her story of caring for the Detroit River watershed, the place of her baptism. She describes the fight for clean water in the city and its effects on the poor and marginalized.  Erinn Fahey, also in the Detroit Watershed, is a water engineer.  In her chapter, she explores the contradictions between the discipline of engineering and her vocation as a green engineer. Sarah Thompson interviews Atlanta community organizer, Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, discussing environmental racism and ecojustice in the Atlanta Watershed, the next stages of the civil rights movement, and the witness of Christian Peacemaker Teams in violence reduction around the world.

 Matthew Humphrey calls evangelicals away from a posture of abstraction to one of action for inhabited bioregions. Humphrey lives in the lower Mainland of British Columbia. He discusses the [North] American lack of place (“Americans have careers not places”) He reads the story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard against the displacement of Aboriginal Canadians (in Indian Residential Schools) and the history of displacement of Native. Humphrey encourages us to inhabit our place, and become ‘settlers’ allies’ for ‘the sake of the land and its inhabitants’ (121)

Sarah Nolan interviews Erynn Smith and Reyna Ortega of The Abundant
Table project in Ventura County, CA, discussing their experience as organic
farmers and activists and the challenge of trying to practice agriculture which offers alternatives to the destructive farming which surround their community (138)

Sasha Adkins maps the disaster the problem of plastic from a public health
perspective and the damage it does to bodies and global watersheds calling us to examine our spiritual problem of disposability. Victoria Machado discusses the confluence between bioregionalism and the Catholic Worker movement (i.e. the local and contextual
nature and mission). Tevyn East and Jay Beck explore the Carnival de Resistance— a traveling carnival and school of transformation which promotes environmental justice and sustainability. They contend art serves watershed discipleship by supporting cultural transformation and spiritual recovery (181). Myers concluding essay explores the need for a theological and hermeneutic recovery, and the need to re-place our church practices

This is a rich collection of essays. I was familiar with the concept of Watershed Discipleship from Todd Wynward’s Rewilding the Way (also a great book). This book highlighted the perspectives and actions of a dozen theologians and activists. Two major themes jumped out at me as I read these essays. First, they underscore the importance and meaning of place. Missiologists and church planters talk about Incarnational ministry, but they seldom challenge the assumptions bequeathed to us by urbanism, Industrialism, and the Doctrine of Discovery. By conceiving of discipleship bioregionally, the authors in this volume are cognizant of the relationship between persons and their ecosystem (as well as their built environment). This opens fresh possibilities for what mission ‘in place’ means. It doesn’t involve simply asset-mapping a neighborhood for human services. It means understanding food systems, the impact of human communities on Creation, and how environmental problems impact people, particularly the poor and the marginalized. Mission in place means caring for both the community and creation within your bioregion. This is missiologically significant.

Secondly, I appreciate the hopeful tone of these essays. Because of the impact humans have on their environment, many books on environmental justice are kind of bleak. However, each of these authors believe social change and a more responsive relationship with Nature is not only desirable, but possible. They allow their faith and the eschatological vision of a restored creation to inform their thoughts and actions. The overall tone of this book was inspiring, getting me to think about what I can do in my own watershed (a region I’m new to and know little about).

I recommend this book to anyone who wonders about the relationship between our environment and faith—our bioregion and the life of discipleship. You will get a sense of what others are doing in the realm Christian creation care. Several of these essays open new avenues for Christian mission. I happily recommend this book and give it five stars. -★★★★★

Note: I received an electronic copy of this book from Cascade Books (an imprint from Wipf & Stock) in exchange for my honest review.