Food for Thought-Reading Between the Light, Looking at the Theology of an Illuminated Devotion

Book of Hours

I am fascinated by devotional books. Some of the oldest devotionals in the western Christian tradition were known as “Books of Hours”. Usually smaller than most books, they were exquisitely decorated with illustrations of scriptural scenes, depictions of the Virgin Mary, and art outlining the understanding and insights of medieval theology. If you see an illuminated manuscript these days, it’s probably taken from a Book of Hours.

There is a page from a mid 14th century Book of Hours which always catches my eye. It’s a depiction of the universe and all things between heaven and earth. What makes this illustration unique (particularly for this time in history) is how the artist conveyed Earth’s relationship to heaven. Earth is portrayed at the lowest and darkest point of the universe. At the top of the page, light from heaven, light from beyond our universe, streams down to illuminate the earth below. Earth isn’t the light filled center of the pre-Copernican universe. Languishing in layers of distorted darkness, light comes to the whole of creation from the epicenter of heaven. Somewhere in the Middle Ages someone wanted to be reminded that God’s light shines on everyone and that humanity’s relationship to God is one bathed in light, hope, and love.

Food for Thought-10 Warning Signs You Might Have Wandered Into a Place That Claims To Be A Church

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If Their Vision of Christianity Involves:

1. Tearing down other religions in order to feel secure as a Christian

2. Believing your faith (personally and collectively) is constantly under attack

3. Spending more time talking about eternity than what Jesus calls us to do today

4. Focusing on a personal relationship with Jesus so much so it means you never ask how that relationship alters your perspective on the call to love those who are radically different from you

5. Talking to God more than listening to God

6. Hearing more sermons about obeying God’s rules than calls to embody God’s love

7. Reading yourself into every parable as the “good guy” and seeing everyone else around as those who don’t get it

8. Insisting that God’s grace is only offered to those who say the right words, pray the right prayer, and worship how you worship

9. Repeating the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin” because you think it makes you sound less judgmental

10. Interpreting scripture with no respect to tradition, reason, or human experience

What can you do? Live fully, love wastefully-like Jesus.

Food for Thought-How You Can Handle People Critical of American Sniper

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1. Use social media networks to post about the movie throughout the day, particularly articles from people who love the movie, always knew they would love the movie, and insult others who may have mixed emotions about the movie. This action alone will annoy some people enough to disappear from social media sites altogether.  Bombard them with example after example of your righteous indignation at their inability to get in line and love this movie.

2. It is hard for me to imagine any red-blooded American who wouldn’t love this movie. After all, the back drop of the film is our crusade to rid the world of the evildoers in Iraq who were responsible for the September 11th attacks. The one thing everyone hates, especially since 9/11 is being labeled a socialist. Call the critic a socialist.  Socialists are one step away from being red banner waving Communists. Socialists are clearly aligned with radical Islam.  Socialists are known to hate Jesus, their mothers, and the consumption of apple pie. No one wants that title.

3. If all else fails, you can resort to a more advanced form of religious name calling. Christians who are serious about following Jesus despise being called Sadducees or Pharisees. These two groups were the sworn enemies of the right believing, flag waving, and King James English speaking Jesus we all know and love. If you really want to hurt an American Sniper critic who “claims” to follow Christ, call them a Sadducee, Pharisee, or teacher of the law.

4. Compare Chris Kyle to another heroic martyr who died to make people free: Jesus Christ.

5. Remind the America hating, Jesus despising, American Sniper critic that the God of the Old Testament was a bearded, Oakley wearing God who had no problem kicking ass and taking names.

6. Make sure the critic knows how morally bankrupt they are to have never served in the military and therefore they have no right to speak, think, or offer anything other than praise about anyone who has ever served in uniform. Our military may protect our freedoms, including the freedom of speech, but that freedom doesn’t cover the right to be critical of those who defend a value system built on the premises of openness and free expression.

7. Make sure they know that the people killed in the Middle East didn’t and don’t matter. They died only so we could hold on to the hope of solving the mystery of deflated footballs.

8. Simply say, “How dare you?”

Food for Thought-Are People Screaming At You? Reflections on Mark 1:21-28

Are People Screaming At You

At first glance, one word from verse 23 jumps off the page. The man with an evil spirit “screams” at Jesus. I’ve had many things happen to me while preaching and in the context of a worship service. To date, I’ve never had anyone scream at me. Given what we read here, maybe I’ve been doing it all wrong. Perhaps people should be screaming at me if I’m disturbing and disrupting the world in the manner of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus provokes strong reactions in people; especially those who are heavily invested in maintaining the spiritual status quo.

We, knee deep in the pig-slop of Western Christendom, are hell bent on being loved, adored, and respected. People who provoke the back pew sitters to anger and confront society’s worst evils are relegated to the fringes of their denominations, live in poverty, and rarely find a spiritual home. Despite our innate desire to please others, we can’t ignore the reality that our Messiah was poor fringe dweller who alienated more people than he attracted to his cause. This is Jesus we see preaching in Capernaum.

Screaming seems to be the order of the day. When Jesus exorcises the demon, the man screams for a second time. The evil inside this man lacks the appropriate words to confront Jesus or explain its presence. We are reminded that evil is often inexplicable. Other than identify Jesus by name and role, evil has no response to Jesus or his message. There is no real battle or conflict. The possessed man is merely part of a much larger narrative. He will be made free. However, he is there to help tell the story.

What story? Jesus’ message will be heard; no matter how loud people scream. Demonic temper tantrums will not interrupt the coming Kingdom of God. We also learn that in order be heard, we don’t need to scream. Evil screams and shakes its fist in anger. Yes, the evil spirit calls Jesus out by name. What does Jesus say to man? Does he identify the demon by name (if you watch movies and television shows we’re led to believe this is crucial in exorcisms)? Jesus simply says, “Silence”. In a head to head confrontation with evil, Jesus doesn’t resort to name calling or screaming. That’s the other team’s modus operandi.

Jesus’ message is that he comes to build something new. He is destroying the cycle of fear, hatred, and anger undergirding a life which says, “I hate my neighbor as much as I hate myself”. This message is conveyed by one word, “Silence”. I can’t emphasize this enough; Jesus doesn’t argue, insult, or scream. Loving our neighbors begins when we say, “silence” to the arguments and anger within ourselves. It is in the spaces between the silences that the kingdom of God can begin to be built.

Food for Thought-Thoughts on the Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz

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Have you ever been to a concentration camp? I’ve stood on the site where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg camp in Germany. On this occasion, I felt evil as a tangible presence. The lingering effects of evil which inhabit a concentration camp make visiting such places (for me) almost too much to bear.

I know people who were inmates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I have heard their first hand stories and accounts of life and death behind the barbed wire and guard towers. No matter how our most gifted filmmakers seek to dramatize history or documentarians recount reality; nothing will adequately convey the depths of human depravity which existed in these camps. From the perspective of concerned observers, we are only able to see slivers of the reality others have experienced.

Industrial scale, mass produced genocidal evil must dehumanize its victims in order to function on the level seen in Eastern Europe’s death camps. Invariably, this process does not begin with guns, revolutions, or politicians.  It begins over comfortable dinners at home and in the innuendo of casual conversation. Regardless of the camp, survivors all relate some version of this truth. Hannah Arendt’s analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem demonstrates how one man exemplified this belief at the heart of Nazi ideology. The Jews of Eastern Europe were sub-human and didn’t share values in common with the wider civilized world; this is what Eichmann and millions of other Germans believed. If someone is unable to see other people as human beings with feelings, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears like their own, they’ve taken the first step toward being able to commit genocide. However, the moment victims become “people” in the eyes of the perpetrators, morality can only be suspended indefinitely.

What can we learn from this day and the memories which remain? How much of our current political discourse exists with this same sub-textual (and subtle) message under every word that’s spoken; whether from the right or left? Read the back and forth between the two sides of any contemporary political issue. You will see both sides use echoes of the language of dehumanization.  It might look something like:

People from one region of the country (or country itself) are ethically more superior/or worse than those elsewhere

People of one race or religion aren’t like us and need to be marginalized to the fringes of society

When we dehumanize and imagine others as being so vastly different from us; so that they aren’t “one” of us and our larger culture, we’ve taken the first steps toward reopening the mentality which led to the gates of Auschwitz.

Food for Thought-After Imagine No Malaria-Imagine No More Manufactured Ministry

After Imagine No Malaria-

I am a malaria survivor. I know what the fevers, shakes, and fear do to the human body.  For these reasons, I am especially supportive of Methodism’s call for the world to “Imagine No Malaria”. I admit that it is frustrating to sit in conference or district meetings and be lectured about the importance of eradicating malaria by those who’ve never had the illness. No one has asked for my insight nor have I sought to offer my perspective. Clearly, I’m pro anti-malaria. However, as my colleagues and congregation are urged to imagine a world without malaria, I also “imagine” other realities. What might Methodism “imagine” eradicating next? I’m going to vote for distractions, gimmicks, fads, ploys, contrivances, and other manufactured ministry methods. Imagine No Manufactured Ministry Methods-the next step in imagination from the United Methodist Church.

The Imagine No More Manufactured Ministry Methods campaign may lead to:

A world without PowerPoint screens in every sanctuary
A civilization free from pre-packaged sermon series that last 6-8 weeks
A worship space where there are no drums and no plastic booths for drummers to play behind
A denomination where satellite campuses and video link sermons are relegated to history books
Churches where communion is celebrated weekly
A world where pastors preach the entirety of the Bible over a three year cycle
A place where adult Christian education isn’t replaced by small groups
A Christian environment more focused on Jesus’ words about money than those uttered by Dave Ramsey or published by Crown Financial
A church that listens directly to its own community instead of deciding what its neighbors need based on George Barna’s research

As we raise funds to stop the spread of malaria; might we also imagine a world free of the contrived, manufactured ideas that are killing our congregations? If we can combat the drug-resistant malaria ravaging Africa we can certainly imagine a gimmick free Methodism.

Food for Thought-9 Assumptions that are Killing the Church

9 Assumptions that are Killing The Church

1. Church is a building; a religious franchise complete with signs, entrances, exits, a sale table and a manager called a “pastor”. We sell intangible goods and services such as peace of mind and tickets to paradise.

2. Church is somewhere you “go”, usually once a week on Sunday morning at 11:00 am.

3. The best people in the community go to church. The world, which is inherently “bad”, is full of people who don’t go to church.

4. Our primary function is to convince the “bad” people from the world to come into the church so they might see how cool it is to hang out with “good” people who dress casually and sing upbeat music. We want the “bad” people to become “good” people like us.

5. Church is what happens between 10:59 am Sunday morning and the moment the pastor says the Benediction. Everything else which happens at church during the week, that’s a “meeting” or “function”. Church is only on Sunday mornings.

6. The real work of the church is done somewhere else, called “the mission field’. This “mission field” is certainly not in our own community. We send our best “good” people (at great expense) to these places because that’s where the poor, physically needy, and emotionally broken are found.

7. We do ministry best in segregated groups which are based on gender or age; the men’s group, women’s group, or youth group.

8. People who are saved according to our standards go to heaven when they die.

9. Our mission is to “make disciples”. We say this ad nauseam, especially at the district and annual conference level. We assume that making disciples is the mission itself rather than overall goal that occurs organically if we’ve moving away from using the language of control and manipulation (e.g. we make, we control, we transform).

Food for Thought-Friday with Francis

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We live in a time of great violence, conflict, and war. Peace seems, at times, to be both elusive and naive. Thank God Jesus never became that jaded. Do we honestly believe Jesus lived in an era which was any less brutal, violent, or conflict driven? No, by all indications his world was far more destructive and bent on killing than our own. If Jesus was able to talk about loving our neighbors, blessing peacemakers, and putting down the sword in 1st century Palestine, why does it seem so odd or out of touch for Christians to do the same in 2015? Because if we take Jesus seriously; our priorities will have to change. When we risk looking foolish for Christ, out of step with the conventional patriotic wisdom, we also risk being called stupid and ineffectual. Stupid for insisting there is no possible way to reconcile violence with Christianity and ineffectual for continually reminding the world Jesus never said the words others place into his mouth. I’m ok with those epithets as long as I can maintain the integrity of the term “Christian”. It’s hard to call yourself a Christian when you reject the basic premise of Jesus’ message. I believe that message starts with how we understand peace.

Have you ever read the Prayer of Saint Francis? Originally attributed to Saint Francis, these words have woven their way through Catholic and Protestant Europe for centuries.

Make me an instrument your peace. That’s how the prayer begins. Look at those two words “instrument” and “peace”. As we step from the clutter of our present moment, we realize the one thing which separates the word “make” and “peace” is “instrument”. Peace is contingent upon the work of the instrument. Who is the instrument? What is the instrument? We are the ones who can become instruments of God’s peace. If I want to be an instrument of God’s peace, I realize that instruments are like tools. Tools function in many ways but ultimately they accomplish tasks bigger than themselves. We are the tools which God uses to undertake tasks bigger than we can ever imagine. As we apply ourselves to the task of peace in our daily journey, our eyes widen and we see the bigger vision God has laid before us.

Food for Thought-Lies You Might Have Been Told by a Pastor or Church

Lies You Might

1. There is only one way to read the Bible.  The Bible can only be viewed as the literal word of God. That’s not true. There are multiple ways to read and understand the scriptures.

2. Jesus only loves you unless you say a certain prayer or formulaic arrangement of words. Again, a lie. Jesus loves you as you are at this moment. How we come to that realization is what matters.

3. The church is not a place for people who have doubts or questions. To be a Christian means you have “faith” all figured out. Also, not true. God welcomes our doubts and questions. Church is a place where we should be able to explore and find the courage to be ourselves.

4. You must be able to recall (or pinpoint) the moment you were “saved”. This is false. Salvation isn’t one instance in time; it’s a lifelong process.

Food for Thought-Reflections on the Death of Marcus Borg

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Marcus Borg has passed away. He was a great scholar and Christian teacher. I’m grateful for his work and contributions to how we understand the Bible. Many churches preach an understanding of God that is punitive. Any form of Christianity that talks about the possibility of Hell sees God as punitive, no matter how much the language of grace is used. This is one of the most important ideas I encountered in his work. I think he’s right. Is God ultimately punitive or compassionate? Will our response to God be fear based (because we don’t want to be punished) or will we enter into a life free from fear? Borg demonstrated that the polarities of fear and compassion dominate how Christians talk about God. Is God a reality that gives us life and draws us into a deeper relationship each day or a divine score keeper, who watches us walk on egg shells and is ready to punish us from the moment we’re born? As Borg said, it matters how we talk about God.