The Thing about those chairs from The Voice

The Voice - Season 4

THE VOICE — “Blind Auditions” Episode 405 — Pictured: (l-r) Blake Shelton, Usher, Shakira, Adam Levine, Michelle Raitzin — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Preachers in our contemporary moment have used the rotating chairs on The Voice to convey the essence of the grace of God. The basic gist is this:

We are the singer on the stage; God is in the chair. We are trying to earn God’s love like the contestants are trying to sing well enough for one of the hosts to turn their chair around, to tell the singer that they are wanted.

“You don’t need to wait for the chair to turn around,” the preacher aptly says. “God already loves you. And not one of us can earn God’s love, to begin with.”

This is punctuated with a peculiar reading of Ephesians 2:8-10, which suggests that we cannot be saved by “works,” but by grace and faith (which one or both are gifts from God).

This rendering is pleasant and draws our attention to the love of God that we find in Jesus Christ.

My curiosity runs wild, though, while thinking on this, further. Particularly because, as a minister and practicing Christian, this proclamation (though true because it points to Jesus) struggles to carry the freight of transformation within the individual. To use the careful observation of James Bryan Smith, we seem to only become “stabilized” with this “gospel” instead of being healed.

Perhaps it’s because, behind it all, this narrative simply tries to “improve” a narrative that is troubling for us. The human person experiences rejection by his or her parents at some point, mostly out of necessity for the individual to develop a self, not always reliant upon his/her parents for everything. One day, we cry and are not picked up immediately, but are left there all alone.

This deep wound causes us to hustle for approval, whether it is from peers, employers, coaches, parents, etc.

In the proclamation above, however, God becomes a hyper-parent, one who exceeds the limitations of our familial parents, for the chair turns around before we try to earn it, we are rescued from even the attempt of trying to be approved. The initial phase of this new relationship may be pleasant, but the wound isn’t fully addressed. Us and our needs still dominant the center, leading the individual to seek God for what they can get, instead of simply falling in love with God. The individual can actually develop an interesting “humble-pride,” having found a better parent-child relationship than others who have not become Christians.

This salvation might be “therapeutic,” but it might not provoke repentance, in the long run.

What if we could change where everyone is sitting in this metaphor?

What if God is the One on the stage, appealing to God’s world that has walked away? Instead of bailing on the world, God enters its mess to win it back, with a song.

What if we are in the chairs and are exposed to different songs and invitations to experience the fullness of life?

What if, halfway through the show, we hear a peculiar voice, One who speaks of love, sacrifice, faith? The unique shape of the song doesn’t draw our eyes “back” to a distant ideal that existed before we messed up, but “forward” to a day that God is constructed with the ruins of a 1000 broken dreams and disappointments.

As we listen to the song, we can’t help but think that this is the reason why we exist and that, even though the song will help heal us, it also beckons us to sing the song into every broken part of God’s world.

If we reach out to press the button that moves the chair, we sense that it will cause everything to change within us and it will alter how we want to see the world around us.

I can imagine that this song would cause each of us to push the button to turn our chairs around to see the singer and to take in the song. As we do so, we might just say that the whole experience is good news.

 

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JC + Nothing = Everything

Unknown

I had a conversation in my freshman year of undergraduate school that changed my life. I was one year removed from my youth-group-all-star days, full of passion and zeal, and spending more time praying and listening to Passion worship CDs than studying theology. I was fortunate to live near some patient (and smart) friends who found my energy for the faith endearing (I hope…).

We were all returning from dinner one night when we started to talk of theology. (Yes, we were the coolest kids you’d ever met.) I remember getting impatient with the conversation and exclaiming,

“I don’t care about theology… I just care about Jesus.”

“Who is Jesus?” one of my thoughtful friends, suggested.

“He’s the son of God and messiah of Israel,” I said.

“You’ll have to do a bunch of theology to substantiate that claim. Those statements are so complex and monumental that there answers dwell where angels fear to tread,” He replied. (In all honesty, I don’t think that he said this verbatim, but my embellishments animate how important this conversation was for me.)

My friend was right and I find his comments to be helpful today.

That conversation provoked my theological quests to understand what those confessions about Jesus might have meant from the beginning, and what the faithful, church community has said about them over church history. Relying upon scholarship and research that is more faithful to the original story of Jesus (well, as much as we can know, at least) has led me to new and different ideas about what those same confessions mean and how it informs my commitments for living out the Christian faith.

My initial interest in “just being about Jesus,” was ultimately occupied by so many commitments that may or may not have much to do with the historical Jesus.

This is why I’m concerned, I guess, with the “Jesus + Nothing = Everything” sentiment. On the one hand, it’s an endearing confession, one borne out of the common experience of so many Christians, “Can we quit the silly stuff of religion and get going with the stuff that Jesus would want us to do?”

On the other hand, it can be another one of those empty statements that is usually used in an argument between two Christians. It’s an unkind accusation, suggesting that the one Christian has a purer view of Jesus while the other is loading down with a part-time job of blessings their personal commitments.

Here’s the deal… we all load Jesus down with personal commitments.

From:

Our preferred blend of American politics,

Our view about war and conflict,

Our view about possessions,

Our view about our interactions with other people groups,

etc…

I’m beginning to think that we naturally want recruit Jesus for our intended purposes if we recognize it or not. What might be more healthy is to admit it when we do it, instead of assuming that everyone else is doing it and we have moved beyond doing it.

Even the Canonical Gospels themselves, illustrating the same historical figure and foundational events, sketch Jesus in a unique tone:

Matthew: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus as the faithful Jew from Abraham and David’s family that can free us from the tyranny of false, Jewish kings like Herod and re-launch God’s promise to Abraham and re-seed Israel within Israel) = Everything

Mark: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the apocalyptic and signs and wonders prophet that will awaken Israel to faithfulness in its God) = Everything

Luke: Jesus + Nothing (other than Jesus being the fulfillment to God’s goal in Israel so that Jesus can be the faithful, benevolent representative from Israel to the rest of the Gentile world, too) = Everything

John: Jesus + Nothing (other than the eternal Logos from the Hellenistic tradition because I am preaching to a Gentile world for crying out loud) = Everything

Yes, our Canonical Gospels are shaped by the local expression from communities of Jesus in real zip codes. Real people in real churches facing real… realities.

The early church didn’t seem to be too rattled by such a notion. They deemed Tatian’s attempt to construct one gospel out of the four erroneous because they seemed to like a four-part harmony over-and-against the futile attempt to have a sterile Jesus + Nothing = Everything. The New Testament communities were “incarnational” allowing the God that we find in the incarnate Christ to inhabit every square inch of God’s world, a great, big world.

Talk about Jesus, and talk religion in general, is a high-speed freeway these days. Let’s be careful to look both ways and to refuse to live in an acute denial that we somehow have all of it nailed down.

So here’s my attempt:

Joe: Jesus + Nothing (other than:

Along with over 6 of every 7 people who wake up today, I want there to be a God. I find the One God embodied in the person of Jesus Christ.

A good God who punctuates every second with hope. Even though there are signs of entropy in this life, there are also signs of resurrection to which Jesus is the only rationale for such a happening.

I believe that the human life fully lived is one where I can give a gift “without why” and to also receive life as a gift without a debt. I wasn’t born with that framework, I’ve been shaped to expect life to be the opposite of that. So, I believe practicing the way of Jesus energizes me to live life differently.

I believe that the world is bending towards a renewal, even from within its own mess, where beauty, justice, spirituality, and community will be its norms and where faith, hope, and love will be its song.

Among a host of others things for another time.)

= Everything

 

 

Settlers: TV Ad and the Church

settlers

We’ve been watching a lot of football around the Skillen home and we’ve loved a few of the advertising campaigns that we’ve seen in the commercial breaks.

Our favorite: The Settler’s.

I think that these are not only funny ads, but they remind me of who we can be as the Church, at times.

  1. We tend to think that there isn’t much that we need to adjust in order to move ahead in a changing world. This impulse to resist change is more precisely found in a contentment to continue what we know rather than a fear of try something new.
  2. The Church is not “old,” but at times people feel like they are stepping back in time while interacting with our communities.
  3. Outsiders may look at the people in their lives who go to church in a sympathetic way, rather than with disdain. A generation ago, when people quoted 1 Peter 3:15 they’d paraphrase by saying, “Be prepared to give a defense (an apologia) for the hope that you have.” In our time, it appears to be said a bit differently: Be prepared to give a reason…” Non-churchgoers seem to wonder, “You mean, after scientific inquiry, hyper-religious-and-political-ideology, constant apocalyptic paranoia, scandals and controversies, etc… you still go to church? What’s your reason?”

The answer going forward isn’t as easy as dumping all of the old stuff for the newest thing nor is it to resist the new for the “tried and true ways.” The way of Jesus has always been attracted to “treasures old and new,” a great mashup of what has gone before us while not being afraid to creatively interact with the present and anticipated future.

James D.G. Dunn suggests that this is one of the compelling ideas of the gospel, that it is both a tradition and a revelation. On the one hand, Paul suggested that the gospel was “according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15) and, on the other hand, a “revelation” that no one person revealed to him. (Galatians 1)

The church functions as its best when it can be accurate in its curating of the past, all-the-while agile enough to navigate the contours of the arriving future.

 

 

 

 

The Mirror in the Other

I’ve been doing some work for a sermon for next Sunday that will reflect on the story of Jesus and his parents meeting Simeon in the temple courts of Jerusalem just 8 days after Jesus’ birth. (see Luke 2:22-40)

Jesus’ parents were fulfilling their purification obligations as good Jewish parents when they were interrupted by Simeon, a “righteous and devout” man who had been promised that he’d see Israel’s Messiah before he passed away.

We should note this dramatic change in scenery as they meet Simeon. The first few verses are shaped by tradition, law, and ritual… Mary and Joseph are sticking to the book that is steady, timeless, and predictable.

Simeon’s presence, on the other hand, is “spirited.” Note the way Luke mentions Simeon’s response to the Holy Spirit three times in as many verses. (verses 25-27) Not mention this outstanding promise Simeon was given… that he wouldn’t die until the Messiah was born? Imagine being Simeon’s friend who heard of this outrageous promise that Simeon was given and the corresponding commitment Simeon had to bear in these waning years of his life.

Simeon saw Jesus, invaded the young family’s “personal space,” and spoke wonderful words of life and truth over Jesus. I can imagine that his family had mixed reactions to Simeon’s words for they were not only comfort but also warning and woe.

Earlier in Luke, a similar affirmation was given over John the Baptist when he was born, but it was from his father Zechariah in the form of a song. Jesus is celebrated, not by a family member, but by a complete stranger.

There is something to be said about receiving affirmation from someone that you’ve known for your entire life. They’ve been able to see “all of you,” the ups and the downs and have hung around long enough to see you grow up.

I’ve also noticed that some of the most familiar people in our lives, and some of our biggest fans, have a hard time allowing us to grow up… they have the temptation seeing us solely in the image of who we’ve been earlier in life. That type of pressure can be unhelpful and impossible to uphold.

Therefore, its important to allow our wings to be spread out, in some way, to get around “the other” in order to see ourselves within their reflection, too. We don’t need to abandon where we’ve come from, but we also do not need to allow our village to cast the only vote in our lives.

Perhaps this early encounter with Simeon in the Temple only 8 days in Jesus’ early life paved the way for his second visit to Jerusalem, some 12 years later, where he was able to capture a bit more of what was ahead for him, to allow his reflection to be seen “in his father’s house” among the wise and learned as they all shared their knowledge of God.

Our aim is to never betray where we’ve come from and, at the same time, allow the reflections of the stranger to be as comforting as parental blessing.

Something More from the Sermon: Presumption

presumption

I listened, with gladness, to Pastor Vic’s sermon yesterday to launch our church into the Advent season. Yesterday, we lit the Prophecy Candle, reminding us that Jesus’ arrival did not appear out of thin air, nor did the early followers of Jesus invent it. God’s purpose and plan was something that was whispered and hinted at from the very beginning.

Vic’s treatment of John the Baptist’s ministry, as it is mentioned in Luke 3, was important for me and for our congregation to consider. John came to give a warning, to prepare a highway through rough and uncertain terrain.

His baptism of repentance was striking in so many ways.

  • Only non-Jews were baptized in 1st century Judaism. Outsiders needed to be cleansed in order to participate in the life of the community. John’s urgent call for all to be baptized signaled a clear message: it doesn’t matter what family you were born into; we are all outsiders and we need to think again about how we are living life.
  • This baptism was taking place “along the Jordan River” instead of Jerusalem and John believed that this baptism was for the “forgiveness of sins.” That type of transaction was supposed to take place in view of official priesthood in the shadow of Israel’s Temple. But here is John, breaking out holiness in the wilderness. This bold move had political, religious, and economical implications.

I suggest that the heart of John’s critique of Jewish insiders was their presumption for being in Abraham’s family, that their national identity gave them some sort of certainty within the life of God. John is clear, the fruit of one’s life is the determining factor of whether or not one is located within this community.

Presumption is a powerful force. A man can presume that he and his spouse have a romantic relationship because they sleep in the same bed and share meals together. A mother can presume to have a good relationship with her child because they “talk” everyday. A worker can presume to have a certain standing within a company because he has worked their for a certain amount of years.

Those outside of the faith struggle with the sins of pride claiming that they don’t need a god in order to have an ultimate ground of being.

Those inside the faith struggle with sins of presumption, claiming that affiliation is the same as participation.

John’s riverside chats are haunting and I must admit that his message stings and spooks. As not only a religious person but also a professional Christian, John’s words have pointed me to Paul’s haunting words to the Corinthian church,

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)

May our craving to inhabit the life of Jesus exceed even our desire to be affiliated with the community of faith.

May God see us as faithful servants, not merely enthusiasts.

Between Rocks and Hard Places and Safety and Refugees

rock and hard place

This isn’t a post about marriage but about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage, that placed him between a rock and a hard place. (see Matthew 19:1-10)

To be more clear, this post is about a time when Jesus was asked a question about marriage and decided to deal with the thing behind the question about marriage.

In Matthew 19, Jesus opponents sought to test him by asking a question concerning a common debate among them:

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

What a question!”For any and every reason?” Seriously? Try to answer a question where “any” and “every” are tied together.

This question was packed with serious heat. In the background of this question we have two schools of rabbinical thought that had argued about the topic of divorce for decades and the battle line seemed to be drawn in Deuteronomy 24:1, where Moses permits divorce for “anything indecent.” One school emphasized the “indecent” part of the passage, leaving marital unfaithfulness as the only acceptable reason for divorce while the other school emphasized the “anything” part of the ruling, allowing men to divorce their wives for things as menial as burning their meal.

So the question was tricky: “Who are you with Jesus? With the ‘indecent’  group or with the ‘anything’ group?”

The framing of the question left little room for actual discussion, but only just enough room for a quick vote of affiliation.

Therefore, wisely, Jesus moved the discussion “into a bigger room” by not trying to parse a particular passage in the law of Moses, but to a more radical (radical: think not of teenage angst but “root” where the word radical really comes from) vision of relationships: two people leave their families to journey on an adventure together and dwell as one person. Let’s talk about how we can stay together and not how, or if, we can plan to go our separate ways if we lose interest in our original commitment to one another.

Jesus’ opponents followed Jesus into that bigger room where they tested him again with another question. After all, they didn’t want to learn something but they wanted to engage in a game of rhetorical sword-fighting; everyone’s favorite pastime.

Their question was as follows:

“Why did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7)

This is a fair question. Why did God allow Moses to permit a divorce if God was so adamant about couples not parting ways?

Jesus’ response might be a bit spooky for some of us to consider, because Jesus insinuates that the law given by Moses in Deuteronomy 24 was in response to how the Israelite community had developed up to that point. Moses’ law was binding for that time and it seemed to be helpful for the vulnerable women in their culture, a formal way of making restitution for broken relationships in that zip code when faced with their plight. Jesus’ hope was that a more native vision of marriage would be recovered and would replace the (now) unhelpful vision from Moses community.

After this, his disciples chimed in with what could be called the nihilist position,

“If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” (Matthew 19:10)

Jesus acknowledges that the marriage debate from above isn’t for everyone, including those who were born into or forced into situations where they cannot even have the option to choose to be married. And still others who choose to be exempt because of their religious commitments.

As I read through this passage, I couldn’t help but think about how I have heard recent “discussions” about our national security on the one side and the welcoming of refugees on the other. Yes, if Jesus (and those seeking to follow Jesus) is to be tested today, I can hear the question now:

“Is it lawful for us to deny foreign refugees or to give them safe harbor?”

And we can compare the above conversation between Jesus and his opponents about marriage to how some of our conversations about refugees have gone. For they seem to have the same thing behind their corresponding questions.

The conversation about refugees is trapped in tight spaces, like as tight as a phone booth, where people are forced to give quick and (if they’d admit it) underdeveloped answers to complex situations.

We may struggle to find easy answers to these complex questions. At the end of the day, that might be a good thing. Easy answers usually draw us away from reality and if we are drawn away from reality we are drawn away from the people who are shaped the most by real, hard situations.

May we have the same guts that Jesus displayed here in this passage; with care, with courage, and with patience, understanding that our presence might be more helpful than a Retweet or Facebook Share.

The Stiff-Arm of God

stiff arm

I’m preparing a talk for the weekend and wanted to post a bit about it. It will be some new material, so writing a bit about it helps to sort it out, a bit.

In Mark 5, Jesus and his friends are in a neighboring region called the Decapolis, the land of Tyre and Sidon, where foreigners lived and where (in their minds) bizarre religious practice dwelled.

They immediately encounter a man with many demons, who lives among the tombs, who cannot be bound by chains, who howls at the moon, and cuts himself with stones. Yikes! This guy is in some bad shape, right?

Through a brief and unusual interaction with Jesus, the man is freed from his plight and is seen as “in his right mind,” or as N.T. Wright’s Kingdom New Testament renders it, “stone-cold sober.” (v.15)

This man has received new life, or what we might call in Christian environments, “born again.” We can only imagine what possibilities lied ahead for him now that he was in his right mind.

The nearby residents didn’t like the way in which this miracle was conducted and what it cost them to have the local eye-sore set free, so they revoked Jesus’ visa and demanded that he leave the country.

As Jesus and his disciples prepared to leave, the man-formerly-known-as-the-tomb-dweller asked if he could join Jesus and his friends.

Jesus stiff-arms him. And tells him to,

“go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” (v.19)

The man did as Jesus asked and,

“all the people were amazed.” (v. 20)

We should be a bit struck, initially, at how Jesus resists this man coming aboard the boat and joining his band of disciples. The man was left by his own country people among the tombs and now has a reputation to be in league with Jesus of Nazareth, whom they just deported. What’s the chance that anyone would embrace him in community?

Wouldn’t it have been more kind of Jesus to allow him to climb in the boat, hang out with them for a while, until he got back on his feet?

It must have been a challenging call for Jesus to make. He was potentially asking this guy to go back to an impossible situation.

But, part of our development sociologically and psychologically is to experience a gap, even from those who we look up to and admire. As early as 18 months to 2 years old, our primary caregivers set this pattern within us and we recognize it for the first time: we are not them nor does their whole world revolve around us.

This “stiff-arm” is important, for it helps us to develop a sense of self and a way to engage the world in a more healthy way. The man from among the tombs experienced both this lack and the blessing from it, for he was able to face the uncertain world with confidence and maturity.

Jesus returns to that same region later in Mark’s gospel and the residents of that land embraced Jesus instead of rejecting him. (see Mark 7:31-8:10) Perhaps it was the direct work of this one man, formerly the eye-sore-of-the-community-turned-messenger, who helped to pave the way for that great work.