Category Archives: Theology

Biblical Values: Welcome the immigrant

As I listened to conversations around the election, I hear da lot of talk of Biblical values, usually invoked to keep LGBTQ people from having equal rights or using the bathrooms that assign to their gender, or when talking about abortion restrictions.

There are, of course, many other issues to consider when engaging in politics and being a public theologian: economics, immigration, gun rights/gun violence, the environment, racism, legalization of drugs, voting rights, and a whole bunch of other stuff. One of these conversations seems to consistently rise above the rest: immigration. And, more often than not, this conversation around immigration is coupled with fear. Fear of the possibility of violence brought by immigrants, fear of immigrants stealing jobs, fear that, as Donald Trump has said of Mexico “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

There also seems to be a large percentage of people who are afraid that a) we are allowing unvetted immigrants into the united states and b) these immigrants could be terrorists, preparing the next terrorist attack.

Or, as Donald Trump Jr. puts it:

trump-skittles

 

The solution that has been proposed to alleviate these fears is to end immigration from middle eastern countries, from Muslim countries, to some how label Muslims or people from the middle east, to build a wall on the border with Mexico.

Oddly enough, Biblical values never seem to enter into this conversation. I imagine this is because Biblical values do not seem to fit into the narrative being created by those who would like our anxiety to be put upon immigrants. As Christians we are called to not be afraid. To love our neighbor AND our enemy. AND we are called again and again and again to welcome the stranger.

If we as Christians are willing to cling so strongly to the relatively few verses that support our views in other matters, why are we not willing to cling to those verses as they apply to those who are different from us, when scripture makes clear over and over again that our call is to care for the orphan, protect the widow and welcome the stranger? To love our neighbor as ourselves?

In Exodus, God says to Moses, “Do not mistreat a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.” – twice in but a few verses God says that. Again in Leviticus, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land do not mistreat them,” “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born, Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt, I am the lord your God.” In Deuteronomy, “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.”

Job uses his care of the foreigner, his feeding and sheltering of them as a sign of his righteousness and love for God.

God speaks through Jeremiah and says, “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong of violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, do not shed innocent blood in this place.” God sends a smiliar message through Ezekial, Isaiah and Malachai.

In his parable to describe what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus uses care for the stranger as one example of loving your neighbor, ending with that which you did not do to the least of these you did not do to me.”

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Jesus consistently shocks his listeners by using outsiders as emissaries of grace, such as the single man who comes back to thank Jesus for his healing in Luke 17 or the many times Samaritans – dirty, suspicious, unclean outsiders, are the people who do the Godly thing. Jesus repeatedly crosses all kind of barriers to welcome people to him, in demonstration of how we should live in order to welcome people to God.

For crying out loud, Mary and Joseph were strangers in a strange land when they had jesus and they were refugees when Herod killed all of the children in the land. What if there had been a no refugee policy in Egypt?!

Again and again and again, scripture calls us to welcome the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. And yet this Biblical value seems to be completely absent from the discussion on immigration – it is like the polar opposite of our discussion on same sex marriage and Transgender rights, where the Bible is all over the place in spite of the relatively few verses that can be used to support this topic and Jesus’ silence on the issue. Over and over and over again, the triune God asks us to welcome the stranger and to not be afraid, and yet we seem to be committed to living in fear and building walls so that the stranger we are called to welcome can be kept out. Not for nothing, many of these foreigners are also widows and orphans – two groups of people pretty much every book of the Bible says we are called to protect.

Why are we leaving these scriptures out? Because it does not serve the narrative. It does not advance the policies of those who want to keep us afraid because our fear feeds their policies and puts money in the pockets of politicians who benefit from our fear. Politicians who promise to keep us “safe.”

Which brings me to another thing – Christians are not called upon to be safe.

Safety is not a Christian virtue.

We are called upon to sacrifice ourselves for the good news of Jesus Christ — the news that God came down and became human to know us, to love us, to set the oppressed free, to break the yoke of slavery, and to proclaim good news to the poor as he proclaims when he reads from the scroll of Isaiah in his first moment of public ministry.

Christians are called to sacrifice. We are called to pick up our cross and follow God. We are called to give up what we have and follow – safety, security, shelter, clothing – we are called to give those things away. We are called to leave our families for God, to separate ourselves from all we know and all we have, to go out into the world and trust Jesus. We are told again and again that following Jesus is dangerous. And it is. For centuries, people have been killed because of their call to follow God. Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for the sake of the gospel will save it.

Many will take this to mean that we should be willing to be killed for our faith, as in if someone is holding a gun to our head, we should be willing to say that we are a Christian and let the chips fall where they may.

That’s cheap grace, it’s pumpkin spice latte Christianity. It’s basic.

Losing our lives for Jesus and the sake of the gospel is losing our lives to live as Jesus lived and to follow Jesus’ call to give up what we have and follow him, to give up our cloak, to turn the other cheek, to be willing to give up what we have so that others may have as well. We are called to be willing to give up our lives for the sake of love, for the sake of the poor and the oppressed. To eat all of the damn skittles.

Those are Biblical Values.

 


A nation of Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is often cited as a story about how wrong homosexuality is, and God’s desired punishment for such “crimes.” The story has angels coming to Sodom, whom Lot welcomes into his home as honored guests. When the men in the village find out that Lot has visitors, they come to his house and demand that he send the visitors out so that the men of the village may “know” them (aka, have sex with or, in this case, rape). Lot refuses, the visitors pull him inside the house before Lot gets hurt and tell him to gather his family, for the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” The common cultural understanding of this story is God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. It is such a common understanding that laws outlawing sex between gay men (and sometimes just anal sex in general) are referred to as anti-Sodomy laws and one of the epithets hurled at gay men is “Sodomite.”

This understanding is wrong.

God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. That’s not what this story is about.

Lot welcomed the visitors into his home — welcome being a high cultural value of the people of God, iterated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is Lot’s saving grace, his display of welcome. The men of the village destroyed that welcome. They were going to violate these visitors, running counter to culture, custom and the word of God. They were going to commit violence against the stranger, being about as unwelcoming as one can be.

The book of Ezekiel (16:49) makes the sins of Sodom plain, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

God did not destroy Sodom because of gay sex. God destroyed Sodom because they had everything they needed

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

and more and did not help those who were in need, because the people of Sodom did not welcome the stranger.

Sound familiar?

As I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I think of the new law in Indiana that allows business to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community, I think we need to redefine the word Sodomite.

Those who would not show welcome to visitors, regardless of the differences they may have: those are the Sodomites.

As I read about continued efforts to kick people out of this country because they didn’t come here legally (even those who were brought here as children, those who did not have a choice), those who would not welcome the alien as the Bible commands (Ex 22:21, Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Rom 12:13, Matthew 25:40), those who exhibit the sin of the men of Sodom: those are the sodomites.

Those of us who would cut benefits to the poor provided by our government, who would tell those in need to fix themselves, who would deny help to those in need (particularly those of us who live in plenty): those are the Sodomites.

The God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is a God of radical welcome. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of drawing all creation to him through his death on the cross. He tells his followers that that which you did to the least of your brothers and sisters, you did to me, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Our God is a God of radical welcome and inclusion, who will turn away no one who knocks on God’s door — and God asks us to do the same. Over and over again, throughout the laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. Not showing this radical welcome and love was the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the punishment was death.

It’s not about gays. People who engage in sex with those of the same gender are not sodomites.

But far too many of us are. Far too many of us are willing to kick out those who think differently, and act differently, as well as people who we feel don’t “deserve” to be here. Far too many of us ignore the plight of the poor and the marginalized to aid our own gains. Every day many of us are indifferent or even hateful as we walk past others on the street who are in great need. We keep what is ours for ourselves. We prop up structures that benefit the privileged while we ignore, shun, demean and oppress those who have little. This is Sodomy.

We are a nation of Sodomites. Our public policy is Sodomy.

If I didn’t believe in the God who will bring all people to God’s loving grace, I might wonder: what will be our fate? Will the fate of a nation that consistently refuses to welcome the stranger and care for the poor end up like Sodom and Gomorrah? If angels were to come to take those who show radical love and hospitality to safety, how many of us would be invited to go with?

What would the God of the prophets have to say to us, as we continue the ways of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Maybe something like this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself?

It is to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quicklt; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  ~ Isaiah 58


The devil’s question

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

A sermon on Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent; the time the church has set aside for penitence, reflection, fasting and prayer. It seems only right that we begin our Sundays in Lent with this story about Jesus’ temptation. This is a season when many of us put ourselves face to face with temptation – giving up things we love like chocolate, wine, perhaps whining. We do this to practice discipline (and sometimes to lose weight or give up bad habits), and, in doing so, we enter into prayer and build our relationship to God. Jesus’ temptation was far more formidable than chocolate – the devil tempted him with some of the more difficult things that we wrestle with every day. The need for self-reliance, the desire for power, the easy way out. But at the bottom of all of these temptations, and most of the temptations we face in life is the question, “Do you trust God?” That is what the devil is asking Jesus. Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you trust that the path God is leading you down is the right path? Do you trust God with your life?

These are the same questions the devil asks us. Do you trust God? Or do you trust yourself?

Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness. He had not eaten, and was very hungry. It is reasonable to imagine that he had not slept all that well either – sleeping out in the open, weather and animals keeping him awake. And here comes the devil, doubt and temptation personified, to offer Jesus a solution to his problems. You are hungry, Jesus, and you have the power to fix this on your own. Use your power for yourself, just this one time. Be fed. Fill yourself with what you have created by yourself. God might not give you the bread your stomach so strongly desires, Jesus. Fix it.

We are hungry. We are hungry for connection, for community, for meaning: we are hungry for love. The media and product peddlers take on the role of temptation and doubt personified. They tell us that we are not attractive enough, but there are pills and diets and surgeries and clothes to fix that. They tell us we are not complete, but there are cars and furniture and kitchen sets to fix that. They tell us we are not truly loved until we have extravagant presents to prove it. We are unsure of who we are and where we belong, we are told that the products we buy can help us define who we are, and along the way provide us with a community who is into the same stuff. We will find connection through our things. And we are surrounded by it, this message. It is in our ears and faces all the time. We absorb it through our pores. We doubt our worth and fall prey to the belief that we have the power to sate our own hunger. We fall into the cycle of spending our time to earn money to buy things to fill our hunger but it never lasts. And so we do it again, and again.

Jesus knows about this cycle. He knows that, on his own, he can do nothing, that it is only through God that he can act for good. Jesus knows that life is about so much more than that bread. He knows that he cannot fill himself on his own. He is hungry, he is weak, he is tired. I would imagine he is salivating at the thought of a meal. But he is also grounded in the Word of God, in scripture and prayer. He is grounded in faith in God and the knowledge that God can and will provide so much more than the things of this world, so much more than Jesus’ own power and abilities can bring him. It is his grounding in the word of God and trust in God’s promises that allows him to put aside his hunger and reply with words from scripture, “The human shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.”

By what are we living? The word of the world, or the word of God? Where do we put our trust?

The devil sees that this tack will not work. What else can he offer Jesus? What else might throw Jesus off track? An offer of power, perhaps? The devil offers all of the kingdoms in the world. Just the fact that the devil was able to show this to Jesus hints at the devil’s power. The devil claims that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him – is the devil lying, or does the devil control the major cities of the world? If the devil does have this power, this could make Jesus become the messiah the people of Israel were expecting – a mighty king, a political leader, come to free God’s people. This would be a very different king than the road Jesus is currently on. His power would be more visible, more worldly, would be seen in a way that those around him could understand. Moreover, it would be a power that he could understand, that he could control. Not only is the devil offering Jesus power and control, he is offering him it in a way that makes sense in this world. The power Jesus has, the role he plays in the world is almost never understood by those around him, not until after his death. All he has to do is pledge loyalty to the devil — in return he will recieve power, control and a different destiny.

Power. Control. Understanding. Recognition. We really like those words. Who doesn’t, at one time or another, daydream of being in charge of a kingdom, be it having control of your household for five minutes or having control of the world. We love control, and we really, really hate to admit that we aren’t in charge of much of anything. Most of us want to be recognized for what we do, to be seen as the one who just did that awesome thing. But we have a God who doesn’t show us the end of the story but lets us work it out. We have a God who asks us to do our good deeds on the down low. We have a God who asks us to pledge our loyalty to him and only him, in return for things that are hard to see, hard to explain, and often unrecognized by our world as being awesome. The world tells us the opposite – power is visible, control is ours, and we deserve to be recognized for what we have done. What are we willing to trade for some recognition, some power, some control? What are we willing to give up to God?

Jesus is still hungry, still exhausted, and can likely see some positive outcomes of the devil’s offer. After all, he is fully human as well as fully God. But he knows his call, he knows who he is created to be. Once again, the strength of his faith comes through. His grounding in God and knowledge of his path takes over and he is able to say, “Get behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and no other.”

But the devil is not done. There is one more thing. And, really, it’s kind of bratty. Satan must be annoyed that Jesus keeps pushing him back with scripture, so he comes with some of his own. And through that, he manages to ask Jesus if he really trusts that God will protect him. “Jesus, God has said he will protect you. Do you really think he will? If you do, if you really believe in God, put his love to the test.” Or, the flip side of this question, “If you believe what God has told you about who you are, put who you are to the test.”

Most of us know this is a bad move in a relationship. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to say, “If you really loved me, you’d…” Or to act out to see what your beloved’s response is. And yet… how often do we put God’s love to the test?  How often do we act out hoping for some response from God, for some lightening bolt from the sky. How often do we put God to the test by questioning who we are, by questioning if we are loved?

You are loved. I am loved. We are loved. By God. The proof in this lies in our lives, our community and in stories of God’s love passed down through the generations and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus  had the stories, he had the community, he was rooted in God’s love for him. He didn’t need to throw himself off a building to prove it. He knew.

The devil is done with him… for now. The scripture here tells us that the devil will come back – at an appropriate time. Not even Jesus could escape temptation. But he could face it down, he could push it back – and so can we. With Jesus’ help.

But, why? Why should we push back temptation? Usually temptation has something fun on the other end of the line. True. Usually it does. Just like a fish sees a tasty worm at the end of the line but misses the hook. Giving in to temptation usually does have some fun, but it almost always comes with pain, loss, grief, embarrassment, and more.

Jesus was able to push back temptation because he was deeply grounded in the word of God. Not just the words of God, though his knowledge of scripture and his ability to quote it certainly helped him in this situation. He was grounded in the word of God, the word that was there at the beginning, the word that lived inside of Jesus Christ and the word that lives among us today. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We have the word in our midst! We have scripture, we have ritual, we have community, we have the Holy Spirit, we have the unending, always forgiving, never fading love of God. When the devil asks us, “Do you trust God?” We can look at all that we have been given, all that is around us, all that God has entrusted to us and respond with a mighty, resounding Yes.


Why can’t Christians agree on one thing: love our neighbors (and that this doesn’t look like “speaking truth in love”)

Dan Piraro gets is, why can’t we?

I am regularly frustrated by the plethora of examples in this world, in our society, and in our media of Christians being jerks. Just today, I read a blog article about a couple who berated a gay Obama supporter about his vote and his sexual-orientation, all the while using the language of faith to do so. It sickens me. This is not what God wants of Christians, and it’s really not helpful regarding bringing people to faith.

So, what does God want? God wants us to follow and be faithful. This is the first commandment, the first thing God had to say to Moses about how to live as God’s people and the thing God repeatedly laments people are not doing (see: all of the prophets).

How do we do this?

  • Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)
  • To lose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke… to give your food to the hungry and provide the homeless poor with shelter… (Isaiah 58)
  • Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12, Luke 10, Matthew 22)
  • Love one another because love is from God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God. (1 John 4)
  • Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christs sake has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Here we have a little something from the prophets, the gospels (AKA stuff Jesus said and did) and the letters to the early church. God is a little repetitive on this point and Jesus came to try to clarify even further — because people were still missing the point. We still are missing the point. We are still paying more attention to the letter of the law than the purpose of the law. It’s tearing our churches, our traditions, and our nation apart — and yet we still don’t get it. Jesus said that the sum of all of the laws was that we should love God above all things and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Why isn’t this how we live? Why isn’t this what people see of us when we are on the street, on the news or on Facebook? By we, I mean all Christians? Why do we defer to judging (which Jesus totally says not to do), and being mean and then — the worst — disguising it as love? Why do we use “I’ll pray for you” as an insult?! What is wrong with us?!!! What are our churches teaching that leads us to be so mean, spiteful, callous, uncaring and downright awful? Cause that ain’t what Jesus calls us to be. It’s not what he taught and it’s not how he lived.

Look, I know that there are a lot of things upon which we can’t agree. And I get it, sort of. I understand that Christians who believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and Christians who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God have a really wide gap between us. It can be really, really hard to talk over that gap. And I get that because of this literalism some people can’t believe homosexuality is a part of God’s gift of human sexuality. I get that there are a lot of things we all read in(to) the Bible and believe are Truth and we cling to them because these things are the pillars of our faith, they are what hold us together when everything is falling apart. I get it.

What I don’t get is how the main pillar we all cling to is not God’s love shown to us in Christ Jesus, how it isn’t the self-sacrificing love of the Christ who told us explicitly to love our neighbors, who told us not to judge one another and who showed love to the most despised of society. How is that not the main pillar of our faith — of all of our faiths, literalists and non-literalists alike? How is that not what supports and holds up our faith and our life day after day? How is it that we are, instead, clinging to an obscure law in Leviticus (while ignoring all the laws around it) or to some unwritten command to tell everyone about their sins, loudly and vehemently? How are these the things we are communicating as church leaders and laypeople? This isn’t rhetorical. I really want to know. How did the face of Christianity become so mean — and what can we do to change it?

Jesus’ love should be the pillar we cling to and the bridge that allows Christians to talk across the divide of literalism. Why isn’t it? More importantly, why isn’t it the way we live every day as a witness to the love that was given to us?

Some help here?


The camel and the needle (or how to get into heaven)

23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Oh, the trouble of this passage. It demonizes wealth, it places obstacles between us and the Kingdom of God (often translated to be heaven). When preachers (and lay people) aren’t comfortable with what this passage says about material wealth, they posit a theory that there was an actual place called the eye of the needle and it was a very narrow canyon that was difficult for camels to pass through — difficult, but not impossible.

On the other hand, those who wish to curb our consumerism and warn us against our search for wealth and glory (or wish to shame or scare people into giving up what they have), turn this verse into a black and white statement. A camel can’t get through the eye of a needle (clearly), the rich cannot get into heaven (but for the grace of God, if the preacher is a grace kind of preacher).

On one hand, nothing is asked of us, and nothing really is said to us. On the other, having is demonized, poverty lifted up, and we have a checklist for things we can’t do to get into heaven (yes, I know I’m over simplifying).

I tend to fall on the side of wealth is bad, Jesus wants us to get rid of our possessions and follow him (cause, um, he like says so. A lot. Right before this passage, even). Even though I am rich in material possessions, I want to preach, “DOWN WITH THE RICH! UP WITH THE POOR! SALVATION FOR THE LEAST OF THESE, HELLFIRE FOR THOSE WHO DON’T GIVE TO OTHERS!” I really do. I’m more comfortable damning myself for what I have than a sketchy geological fabrication that lets everyone off way too easy.

Then I went to the Greek. The Greek (which is the best we have as far as original source material), reads more like this:

“How hard will it be for the ones who trust in money to be entering into the kingdom of God.”

There are two things about this that are huge for me.

The first is the glaring difference between those who have money and those who trust in (or have confidence in) money. It isn’t about what you have, it is about what you value, what you trust in. Do you trust in God, or do you trust in money (and therefore, yourself)?

The second is the phrase, “to be entering into.” The camel doesn’t go through the needle and *BAM* — heaven. It’s not an end of life, when you’re dead where do you go kind of thing. It’s not do this and fly with the angels, do that and burn in hell kind of thing. That’s not what this conversation is about. It’s about here and now. It’s about a daily process of entering into God’s presence, experiencing God, filling up with God. If you are placing your trust in your wealth, if you are depending on yourself, if you aren’t putting God first, you will have a really hard time entering into the kingdom of God. In this moment. In this place. In this world, here. The kingdom of God isn’t a far off place that we go to when we die, it is a reality we can create experience (or not) every moment of every day through what we value and how we behave. Trusting in wealth, gripping tightly to our material possessions makes it a lot harder to let God in because we are so full of ourselves, our own worries and our desire for control. We have to let go of that stuff, to be willing to let go of our material possessions, of our need for control, in order to be entering into the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God we can be fully in each and every moment, we can love without fear and reservations and receive love without question. We can live into life. Or we can hold tightly to what we have, and lived gripped by fear of losing our possessions, of having our heart-broken, of losing our lives. We can live in the kingdom of the Western world, in the kingdom of me.

Which kingdom sounds better? Which one will you be entering into today?


Theology with Ice Cube: the beauty of metaphor and killing it with facts

Ice Cube's good day -- a utopian fantasy

These are the things I think about in my spare time. Ice Cube and exegesis.

A few months back, there were attempts made to figure out exactly what day was Ice Cube’s good day in his song Today Was a Good Day. If you aren’t familiar with the song, here’s one of the more pastor’s-blog-friendly segments:

Drove to the pad, hit the showers

Didn’t even get no static from the cowards

‘Cause just yesterday them fools tried to blast me

Saw the police and they rolled right past me

No flexin; didn’t even look in a niggas direction as I ran the intersection…

Plus nobody I know got killed in southcentral LA – today was a good day.

The song has references that help to place it in time – the Lakers beat the Supersonics, Yo MTV Raps is on, the Goodyear blimp is flying (so there’s some kind of big game), people still used pagers. So, some people took these hints and “figured out” exactly what day was Cube’s good day. It was a fun little exercise that got passed all around the interwebs.

When Ice Cube was asked about this recently he made it clear that there was no one particular good day – this was all just stuff that would make a clearly awesome day (for Ice Cube). It is, if you will, a utopian fantasy. In pointing out exactly what would make a good day, Cube points out some stuff that is really messed up about society. It is rare for a day to go by when no one he knows gets killed. The fact that he is surprised that he drives past the police and nothing happens emphasizes police harassment of people who look like Ice Cube (black, car with hops, gangsta: any or all of the above). Making it about facts takes a lot of this commentary away – it’s no longer a commentary on anything, just a story about a rad day Ice Cube had back in 1992 or so.  Making it literal takes some of the commentary out of the song, it weakens it, takes out the creativity and the story. It’s a fun game, but it’s not really what the song is for. The song is a story meant to express Ice Cube’s dreams – some base physical needs (sex, food, money) and some greater needs (freedom from the constant threat of death, from the watchful, profiling eyes of the police). When it becomes literal, some of the magic is gone. It is just another day.

(It’s pretty clear that this song is not meant to be taken literally – especially the end of the song, where Cube says, “Wait, wait, wait a minute poo, stop this s***. What the f**k I’m thinkin’ ’bout?” Like man, this is just a dream. Let’s get back to it. )

Does this sound at all familiar? Do you recognize the practice of taking an interesting and disturbing story that points to immediate and greater themes and reducing it to dates, times and facts? Isn’t this what many of us do when we study the Bible?

So much of the Hebrew Bible is this amazing compilation of stories written by people who were trying to make sense of their world. They were trying to communicate their immediate needs and their longing for freedom, love and peace.  The people who wrote the Old Testament were helping their communities grapple with famine, death, oppression, and slavery (not entirely unlike a lot of rap and hip-hop music today). Their stories gave meaning to people’s lives and provided hope for a future that will have something different to offer.

Much like a lot of rap, these stories can be violent, disturbing and confusing. So we try to make them into fact. We try to pin dates on things, we try to find Noah’s ark and the location of the Ten Commandments. We take a metaphor and strip it of its meaning by reducing it to facts, all so that we can be more comfortable.

One of my least-favorite examples of this is Jesus’ statement that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven. Ow. This is awful for most American Christians. Most of us have a lot –we are rich by the world’s standards even when we feel poor. So, this verse sucks. It makes it pretty plain that at worst we won’t even get into heaven, at best our money won’t help us get there. So we try to make it into fact. We make the eye of the needle an actual geographical place that was really narrow, but not so narrow that a camel couldn’t get through. Jesus was using a metaphor to make a point. We use truth to avoid it.

I’m not saying this is all bad. Archeologists and historians have their thing to do – it is their job to ferret out the truths of the ancient world. Christians have another job, a different job. It is our job to hear the voices of the Bible speak to us as they spoke to the people of their time. It is our job to hear the cacophonous multitude of voices express pain and grief and violence and hope and to hear what they were saying to their community through these stories. It is our job to sit in the difficulty of the story and the challenge of the metaphor, to let it inform our faith, our ideas of God, and our actions in the world around us. The question is not whether the events and stories in the bible are factual, it is whether they are True. Harsh, confusing, violent, full of hope, full of pain, replete with love, lust, mistakes, hubris and just plain weird — that sounds an awful lot like life, doesn’t it? True? True.

Today, it was a good day.


Preparing for the modern church in a post-modern world, pt. 1

I now know how to keep people in their seats in a place like this for a full hour, after which they will leave good little products of my little factory church. Or leave with their to-do list written and check book balanced.

This is what seminary is doing for me (and for most of my colleagues across denominations and seminaries). I am being well prepared to lead the church of the 1960’s (or before). I go to a seminary that is a part of a major protestant denomination. We are aware that our flock is shrinking and that America’s future is one in which white people will be the minority. Due to this fact, the seminary prepares us (as best a mainly white seminary can) to interact with people of color by making us aware that people of other cultures exist and by singing hymns in other languages. We even have a hymnal for African American congregations and one for Latino congregations. Problem solved?

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Preparing students for a worship style and structure that was created by and for the modernist era will not grow the church, even if it is translated into other languages. Teaching students how to pump theology into parishoners so that they come out of the church-factory as well-educated, Enlightment-minded Christians will not create churches that will bring todays young adults to Jesus. Yet this is exactly what we learn how to do, each and every day.

At my seminary, our weekly worship is by-The-Book. Sometimes, we get crazy and use the part of the book for Latinos or the book for African-Americans, but it is always by-The-Book. It is important to know how to use the book and why our worship is structured the way it is, just as all artists learn the fundamentals of art before they go creating new and interesting works. But we stop at the book. We stop at people sitting in chairs that are all in a row (or, sometimes, in the round), facing forward having faith poured into their heads like good little products of the church factory. There is no room to play, no room to try something new — at least not in the campus-wide worship service. There is no room to move. The people who feel like post-modernism is that where they fit), want to not only taste and see, they want to touch, smell and move as well. They don’t want to be products of the faith factory, they want to be participants in the creation of faith in themselves and in the community. They want this participation to not be relegated to the activities that happen outside of worship. This means allowing more parts of the worship to be led by participants, it means leaving room for productive, contemplative silence, it means allowing for time to move (other than the passing of the peace). This means singing songs that are a part of their culture as well as reaching back and singing ancient chants and hymns from the middle ages. This may be entirely personal, but if I have to spend another worship service singing songs that are entirely in King James language, I’m going to throw something. That is not my language or my culture. I love the occasional old-school hymn, but I also want to hear some Indigo Girls, Over the Rhine or Mumford and Sons. That’s my language and my culture.

And that gets to the heart of it: culture. My seminary asks students to do a cultural immersion into another culture. Our options are (so far as I know) Urban African-American and Latino. But never, at any point, are we asked to parse our own culture, the culture we are living in now. We aren’t asked to learn how to speak post-modernism (or post-post modernism or whatever time it is now). We’re asked to translate our modernist, factory-system based church culture into Spanish or into something that works in the African American community (don’t get me started on multi-culturalism in the mainline churches, that is a whole other conversation) without translating it in to the language of the era that effects us all — the language of social networking and text messaging and you-tube and tattoos and piercings, of globalization and de-centralization and mistrust of institutions and the church of me and the language of Oprah spirituality. We never have to understand any of that. I don’t know if it is assumed that we know how to do that, but, if so, it is a wrong assumption for many.

Now, I’ve been to two seminaries, and the one I attended earlier in my life was more flexible when it came to worship. There was a bit of room to play — there was a rock band, acoustic guitars came in, and the structure was less rigid than it is where I currently attend. However, we were still doing worship the way it had always been done, we just found new instruments to use. There was at least an attempt to translate worship to the culture in which we were living. I give props to that.

No one worship service is the “right” way to do things. There are people who enjoy praise bands, people who feel God when chanting, people whose faith is fed through the use of incense and veneration of saints, people who see God in liturgical dance and people who feel like what really connects them with God is a good hymn by Martin Luther. There are people who love the idea of tweeting during worship and people who would leave the worship space if that happened. There are many who think that we should start thinking about creating online worship services (even a Second Life for church), and others who feel like the community would be fractured if that was done. Every worship service is determined by the culture that surrounds it. But if we don’t know a) how to investigate that culture b) how to speak to culture and c) what our options for worship are outside of the book, the church is going to keep pushing itself into irrelevance.