Category: Theology

Unexpected Theologians

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I was having drinks with my friend Devin a couple weeks ago and he asked me to suggest new music. From time to time some friends reach out to me with recommendations for new music because I absolutely love music. And because I have verifiably the best taste in music.

A lot of times people are curious to know how I hear about all this new music. I wish I could give a more impressive answer like I am on a first name basis with Thom Yorke or Sufjan Stevens (name dropping to show how cool and in the know I am) and they send me demos of their latest songs. Or maybe the staff at Pitchfork (another name drop, but come on, Pitchfork is kind of a parody of pretentiousness is it not?) want to run a few new albums by me for confirmation of their relevance.

The truth is far less inspiring. I just pay attention. Continue reading

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You Are Not A Rotten Human

“I’m a rotten human.”

Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of reading on shame and the countless dangers it poses to our human flourishing, but when a friend of mine recently referred to herself as a ‘rotten human’ I pushed back.

“No, you’re not. You are beloved.” I retorted.

In truth, she wasn’t speaking about herself in a purely negative way. This reminder of her imperfections, was motived out of a heart to see her personal spirituality as a product of the grace that we all need. So, in some ways her words were a noble effort to fight pride.

And that’s what it was. She told me that she wanted to fight against the notion that she has it all figured out or that she is in some way superior to others based on their political or theological opinions.

“Pride is rotten,” she said.

I could agree with that. “Yes,” I said, “Pride is rotten, but you are not rotten. Do you see the difference?”

Maybe that’s just pettiness over semantics, but if you ask me, I think it says something more about the way we see ourselves.

I’m a rotten human is rooted in shame.

I’m a rotten human says that I am inherently flawed.

We are responsible for our choices. I am responsible for my choices. But the moment I begin to believe that I am a rotten human or a failure or an idiot or awful or stupid or fill in the blank, I make it really difficult to see any alternative future. A future where I am not bound the rotten choices we have a tendency to make because we are humans, full of light and dark.

Growing up in church from a very young age you begin to hear that humans are flawed. We are the products of a decision that the first humans made to sin against God, thus, every one of us – you, me, your sweet old grandma – are born with a stain. In Christianity, we call this event “the fall” and what resulted is called “original sin”, the idea that because of the fall we can’t help but be defined by what we’re not.

And it’s a really great shame tactic. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that we are sinful. In many ways that was what was supremely true about us. That we are sinners.

But take heart, God is gracious and good and saves us from that sin. In Jesus we are cleansed of our sinfulness, so long as we accept him as our personal savior.  We read in Scripture in Romans that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

And so there God is, gracious, loving, merciful towards us pitiful sinners.

I can bet that many readers will say, yes, but we are sinners. To say that we are not is at best misguided, at worst arrogant.

I will not say that we are not sinful. Of course, you and I are sinful. We sin. I sin. You sin. Yes, I can agree with that, because it’s very much true of my life. And often despite are best efforts we fall into the trap that pursuing a way other than the way of Jesus will satisfy us. I do it everyday. I’m trying to grow and sin less, but we sin.

But there’s a difference in saying that you sin and that you are a sinner. I’m aware that I’m running up against even the words of Paul when he says that “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

My point isn’t so much to deny that there is a sinful side in us, but to call us to remember that the Bible doesn’t begin with humanity is sinful. It begins in the garden when God sees God’s creation, which includes you and I, and says it is very good.

I’m certainly not the first to come up with this claim. I’m encouraged by voices like Rob Bell and Danielle Shroyer who urge us to begin at the beginning. Genesis 1 is about goodness. Genesis 3 is about sin.

What would it look like for you to begin by saying “I am loved?” We all make choices we aren’t proud of. Some of us even feel trapped in a cycle of making bad choices, but how much harder is it for you and I to make good decisions when we begin with the assumption that we are sinful first and foremost?

I feel much more compelled to do the right things when I believe that I am loved. It is precisely because I believe that I am good, and that this is the way God sees me first, that I am much better equipped to make better choices.

Believing that you are fundamentally a sinner is rooted in shame. Shame is destructive. Shame hides. Shame thrives in the darkness. And hiding in the darkness is a breeding ground for sin to grow. Shame keeps me from telling you about my sin because I’m ashamed that I am a sinner.

However, if I believe that I am loved, that I am good, and that this is the way God sees me even despite my mistakes, I feel less of a need to hide. I don’t need to hide because I know I’m loved. And in the light we find true transformation.

God is just. God despises sin. It is God’s nature to push back against evil, but in such a way to affirm that we are made in the image of God and that image is good.

It is sin that is rotten. Not humans.

So, no, you are not a rotten human. Sometimes the decisions you and I make are rotten, but if there is something that is true about the gospel it is that there is never a moment where you can’t turn it all around.

You are not a rotten human.

God’s first words about you are that you are good.

I pray that you and I would start to speak better about ourselves, because God sees us and sees good.

Richard Rohr on Reading The Bible

imagesThe past few weeks I’ve begun to fall in love once more with Father Richard Rohr. If you’re unfamiliar with his work do a quick search on Google and you’ll find lots to digest.

Lately, the Enneagram has been popping up with more frequency into discussions I have been having with people. I’m excited to dig into his book on the topic from 2001, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective. Rohr has been a champion and evangelist of the ways that Christian spirituality can benefit from the Enneagram, but Rohr is also known for his work with contemplative habits and patterns.

Here he addresses what I believe to be one of the central questions the Church must face head on in the years to come – how to read the Bible.

 

Advice to a Young Pastor from Karl Barth

There’s been a lot of love and appreciation for Karl Barth among colleagues this year. And for good reason. He was a masterful theologian and his contributions to modern theology can hardly be overstated.

My boss recently shared this fantastic little piece of advice from Karl Barth to young pastors, though it can be easily read by any pastor or anyone interested in ministering to others in any way.


Continue reading

The Third Place

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It’s a Wednesday afternoon and I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Paris called Craft (www.cafecraft.com). It’s a nice little space with minimalist design and plenty of outlets for all our gadgets. Around me are about a dozen or so people who are doing the same thing. They’re on their laptops, mostly MacBooks because duh, and they’re sipping on some single origin coffee which they have received in a repurposed scientific beaker, now more known for pour over coffee containers than actual scientific experimentation.

Some have headphones in their ears listening to whichever streaming service they fancy. I prefer Spotify, but in France it’s mostly Deezer. Others, like the group of six people next to me are using this place as a coworking space. They are working. And still others are here with a friend, a partner, a colleague, to share some caffeine and conversation.

Later this evening I will make my way over to one of my favorite breweries in Paris, Paname Brewing Company (www.panamebrewingcompany.com/en). Truth be told there are not many. Paris is still working on it’s craft beer scene, but it’s coming! I’m going to meet a friend of mine for a different type of libation, but surely good conversation. And all around me, just like every evening in pubs all around the world people will gather together to unwind.

Welcome to the “third place.” Continue reading

The Smell Test

Living in Paris has introduced me to the joy of good cheese. The French are proud of their cheese (as they are of their wine and of course their haute couture). And really they shouldCamembert_(Cheese) be. It’s damn good. I’ve particularly fallen in love with a cheese called camembert, which I did not know existed until moving to France in August 2015. I’ve mourned the fact that I’ve missed out on this pleasure for most of my life. It’s a soft and creamy cow’s milk cheese first made, you guessed it, at Camembert, Normandy in the north of France.

But what you really need to know is that it is as delicious as it is smelly. Which makes it hard to gauge when it has run it’s course and needs to be thrown out. Though I can’t imagine a scenario when I wouldn’t eat it before this happens. Because that’s what you do when you are a bachelor responsible for feeding yourself. You smell things… because things typically smell bad when they are no longer good for human consumption.

Cheese might be a confusing example, but we do this all the time with food. We test it. Does it smell right? Does it look right? And finally, if you’re brave enough, does it taste okay? These tests gives us clues to whether something is potentially harmful to us. Maybe it works this way with theology as well. Yes, I went there.

Lately, I’ve been reading Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus?, tackling the Christian doctrine of atonement and looking for new alternatives. Near the beginning of the book Tony describes his own smell test when it comes to our theology. And for Tony it really matters what your theological positions are aside from personal conviction.

“That may seem an odd way to measure a faith system. We are used to matters being true or false, right or wrong, not beautiful or ugly, sweet or sour. most prefer a more forensic approach: she who has the most logical doctrine wins. But… many religious systems that are perfectly logical are nevertheless downright ugly. They’re bad for the world and bad for people. In other words, you can devise a system of doctrine that makes perfect sense within its own little self-inscribed world, but when you take it out into the broader marketplace of ideas, it spoils, like dropping a teaspoon of vinegar into a gallon of milk.”[1]

The more I’ve thought about the theological smell test, the more I’ve resonated with it. Jones reminds us that “Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. Good Theology begets beautiful Christianity.”

As you think about what you believe about God, Jesus, sin, or any number of things ask yourself if what you believe is shaping your behavior and your relationship to others in positive or negative ways?

Because, as Jones writes, “it doesn’t matter how logically airtight some doctrinal system is if it results in an army of jerks.”

If you tend to see God as wrathful, bound primarily by supreme laws of justice, then chances are your life will model this. Think of Westboro Baptist Church. We use them often as a case study for religion gone awry, but think about their message. God is angry, God is full of wrath against sin, and God wants the world to know it. They delight in their message, which the rest of us, including most Christians, see simply as hate. But their theology comes from the same pages that all Christians read.

Sandro_Botticelli_050Bad theology begets ugly Christianity. I would say that “God hates fags” is bad theology and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Next time you come across a group of people attached to a particular theology or doctrine, notice what kind of fruit it produces. Does it breed love? Does it breed compassion? Would it mesh with the kind of life that Jesus lived and taught others to live? If it doesn’t pass the smell test, it’s time to think of better alternatives more akin to character of God exemplified in Jesus who as Paul describes in Colossians is, “the image of the invisible God.”

So many people don’t bother too much with theology, thinking it is the job of the pastors and leaders in their church to decide and share with the congregation. I think that’s a shame. It matters what you believe because what you believe shapes you.

The question is how? Will your theology propel you towards love or legalism?


Jones, Tony. Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution. New York City: HaperOne, 2015..

Crucifixion, Forgiveness, and Resurrection

This was a piece used in The Spire, a monthly newsletter published by the American Church in Paris. Visit acparis.org for current and past issues.

Resurrection3-600x405Resurrection Sunday. A day filled with hope in the endless possibilities of new life as Christians all over the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This singular event signals the climax of God’s redemptive plans for the world. Through Jesus Christ’s resurrection death is defeated and the hope for everlasting life springs forward into our existence here and now. It’s something worth celebrating. And it’s something worth reflecting on in the wake of a week of violence concluding with the crucifixion of the Reverend Thomas Uzhunnalil, a Salesian priest, who was kidnapped in Yemen earlier this month.[1]

As news reports poured in the morning after Easter, like many of you, my heart was filled with deep despair for the victims of senseless violence in the name of religion. And I thought about how easy it is to lose hope in goodness when acts of terror and unspeakable violence are carried out. In these moments we echo the psalmist who says “How long, LORD?”

To be honest, there is a lot in the world to find saddening.

But as I reflect on this past Holy Week I can’t help but look at Jesus on the cross. Luke 23 tells us two things that Jesus does that should give us a model for how we are to react to the violence of the past week.

First, Jesus forgives the very people who are nailing him to the cross. In the middle of excruciating pain and unbearable fatigue, Jesus does not retaliate. He forgives. There’s a strong temptation for us to want to retaliate against those who wrong us. Including those who wrong people in our tribe (i.e. other Christians). But Jesus clearly demonstrates that as Christians forgiveness is always to be the norm.

Second, Jesus says to the criminal hanging on the cross next to him, who asked that he remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus, even in his own pain, shows compassion.

So what can we learn from this? What do Jesus’ final moments tell us about how we should respond to the unspeakable horror of crucifixion and mass murder of Christians in the 21st century?

Lots actually.

First, forgiveness. Is there a more difficult concept to grasp in our context than forgiveness? Evil runs rampant in this world. And we feel the pull of vengeance, but often disguise it in the name of justice. But if Jesus’ own story is any indication of how we are to orient our own lives, then forgiveness is the natural (though instinctively unnatural) response to violence. Remember the words in Colossians 3 to “forgives as the Lord forgave you.”

Second, compassion. This characteristic is slightly more nuanced. Compassion demands that we not only forgive our oppressors but have compassion for them. The people who are capable of such heinous acts as crucifixion are also people in deep need of the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ who was obedient to death, even death on a cross. And so we are required to be ambassadors for Christ through our posture of compassion to even the cruelest of aggressors.

Is this easy? Of course not.

There is something counterintuitive. Something so foreign to saying to someone who has hurt you so severely, “I forgive you.” And yet, as Christians, that exactly what we are urged, compelled, even commanded to do.

I don’t know the way forward. I don’t know how to resolve the crisis of a terrorist group who is hell bent on committing such brutal and unconceivable acts of terror.

I do know that death and hate do not have the final word. I do know that on the cross Jesus shows us that self-sacrificial love, including forgiveness is normative for his followers.

And I do know that resurrection changes things. Resurrection says that no matter how deep the despair. No matter how much things seem like they are lost, broken, damaged, etc. Death and sin and loss and terror do not have the last word. The surprising, beautiful reality of Jesus’ resurrection is that there is always hope for new life where hope and healing are possible in the midst of death and darkness.

Let’s practice resurrection.

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[1] Sharkov, Damien. “ISIS CRUCIFIES CATHOLIC PRIEST TOM UZHUNNALIL ON GOOD FRIDAY: REPORTS.” Newsweek. March 28, 2016. Accessed March 30, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/isis-crucify-catholic-priest-good-friday-441219.