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
“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.
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.
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 should 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.”
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.
Bad 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?
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.
We’ve all been there. We’ve all had the last minute panic over what to give up for Lent. For some of us it’s chocolate. For others it’s alcohol or sugar or some other food we deem unhealthy and tempting. More recently it’s become popular to give up social media, in particular Facebook.
Our practice of self-denial during the Lenten season has its roots in remembering the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. In our self-denial we are constantly reminded of the example Jesus set and the victory Jesus won, while also remembering the cost of following him.
But what happens after our 40-day journey? Chances are we pick up those habits again. We begin eating chocolate. We start drinking beer. We logon to Facebook. In his book The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote, “The New Testament has a lot to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.” In other words, self-denial isn’t about the mere practice of self-denial, but in something deeper.
Perhaps we’ve used Lent as a time for self-denial as an end in itself. What would it look like, then, to truly give something up for Lent? And not only give it up for Lent, but forever.
On the first Sunday of Lent in youth group we looked at the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness in the gospel of Luke. Over and over Jesus is tempted by the devil. First with hunger, then with authority, and finally with power.
As we studied this story together one thread that runs throughout these temptations is control. Over and over again the devil is tempting Jesus to take control. When Jesus is starving the devil tempts Jesus with food. The devil then tempts Jesus by offering authority over all the kingdoms of the world. Finally, in what seems to be the most tempting situation of all, Jesus is tempted to show his true power. And why not? If he showed his power to people in commanding the angels to protect him, many people might have come to believe that he really was the Son of God.
Where in your life are you tempted to take control? What places in your relationships, education, or career are you tempted to be the one in control?
We live in a culture that encourages even celebrates the mastery of our destiny. We’re in charge. We’re in control. Nobody else. If we want something and work hard enough at it, we can have it. It seems good enough. In fact in some ways these lessons are good for us as individuals. It is good to work hard for something. It is good to have the hope that we can pull ourselves out of hardship through hard work.
But in the end it’s all about control. Who is ultimately in control?
In effect when we try to become the master of our own fate we are saying (whether consciously or not) we want to be God.
The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness were the same kinds of temptations in the Garden of Eden. The serpent said to the humans, take control, be in charge of your own lives, because you know best.
More often than not in our own lives when we try to make ourselves the masters of the universe we inevitably mess things up. God does not expect control simply to assert God’s authority over us, as deserving as it is. God’s control over our lives is always in our best interest and always protects us, despite our very best protests against the idea and our claims that we know what’s best.
So during this season, our youth have been challenged to give up for Lent. To give up control over their lives. To give up the idea that simply with enough hard work and determination that we can live the best possible life.
It’s a lesson I am learning myself in a deep and powerful way this Lent.
So won’t you join us in giving up for lent?
Because in the end, our giving up control means giving the Creator of the world, who loves us more than anyone ever could, the power to guide and direct our steps toward truth, beauty, and goodness.
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.
It is inevitable that during the month of February that one writes on the topic of love. We have so many pictures of what love is. And many words have been written elsewhere to discuss love in its many forms. But I would like to discuss the role of love in our theme verse for 2016 at the ACP.
12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:12-17 (CEB)
One of the unique and beautiful characteristics of the ACP is the diversity, not only in culture but in theology. We are a body made up of 40-50 different nationalities, but we are also a community with wide-ranging theological views. And this can be a tricky sea to sail upon.
Let’s take a look at just a few (and I mean just a few) examples.
- What is the role of women in ministry?
- Is homosexuality a sin?
- Was the world created in six literal days? What about evolution?
- Can we participate in war as Christians?
The reality is that in a congregation like ours there will undoubtedly be as many answers to those questions as there are denominations represented. We are faced with the challenge then to worship together in the middle of a complex web of theologies. You will not agree with every person you meet at the ACP. In fact you may vehemently disagree with certain people on certain issues which may hold significant importance in your life.
Here in Colossians Paul lists all these attributes to possess as ‘God’s choice, holy and loved.’ And he finishes that list by saying ‘over all these things put on love.’ Why? Because it ‘is the perfect bond of unity.’
So often in the protestant tradition we have disagreed, but rather than work together, we have split apart, forming yet another denomination. Paul challenges us here to put on love over all of the other attributes, because through truly loving each other, even in our differences, we bound together in unity.
St. Augustine of Hippo is famously quoted saying, ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.’ Immediately following verse 14, Paul tells us that ‘the peace of Christ must control your hearts – a peace into which you were called in one body.’
Don’t miss that, because Our essential is Christ.
We belong to the ACP through our unity in Christ. Remember that though we have our differences, sometimes big differences, Paul tells us to put on love and St. Augustine reminds us that in non-essentials (which by the way, is what all these controversial issues are) we have liberty, and in everything we ought to show charity.
So the love I want for each of us at the ACP is one that, amidst complex theological diversity, is bonded through our most important essential, Jesus Christ. So that in our community of believers of all kinds, we work out our faith together ‘in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him.’