Bad Blood

Maybe you’ve heard this Taylor Swift song, Bad Blood, from earlier in 2015. It’s terribly catchy [consider yourself warned!]. The following are a few selected lines:

‘Cause, baby, now we got bad blood
You know it used to be mad love
So take a look what you’ve done
‘Cause, baby, now we got bad blood
Hey
Now we got problems
And I don’t think we can solve them
You made a really deep cut
And, baby, now we got bad blood
Hey

Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes
You say sorry just for show
If you live like that, you live with ghosts (ghosts)
Band-aids don’t fix bullet holes (hey)
You say sorry just for show (hey)
If you live like that, you live with ghosts (hey)
Mhmmm
If you love like that blood runs cold

 
Bad-Blood-1

There it is. And who among us does not relate to the difficulty of a damaged relationship? Maybe it’s someone we work with. Maybe it’s a member of our immediate family or a distant relative. Maybe it’s a former dating relationship. There is not a person alive who cannot honestly relate to Taylor Swift’s piece. It’s not possible.

The question of the day isn’t whether or not the song hits home. The question is this: where do we go from here? What do we do when we find ourselves steeped in the pain of a broken relationship? Most importantly, what do we do when we really feel distance between ourselves and God almighty, our Creator? There is serious distance between us and God, according to Scripture. It’s summarized rather well in question and answer format in a 450 year old church teaching document, the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. What does God’s law require of us? 

A. Christ teaches us this in summary in Matthew 22- Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. 

I don’t know about you, but I certainly haven’t been loving all neighbors as myself, and I certainly don’t always show my love for God in every action, even toward people I really do love dearly. And I have certainly had Taylor Swift’s experience of rotted relationships: bad blood has been my experience at various junctures in life. According to Scripture and careful reflection, I am fallen. I am unable to earn God’s grace. I’ve got bad blood with my Creator.

Here’s the good news, and maybe you’ve heard this before and it never hit home: Jesus stepped in. That old church document summarizes his mediating work well:

Q. And who is this mediator-true God and at the same time truly human and truly righteous? 

A. Our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God.

So the biggest problem was separation from God. But, through the Son of God, Jesus, we are reunited and forgiven and declared righteous! With the problem of separation from God addressed through Jesus, we can now live in a different reality. For Christians, the biggest concern-separation from God-is taken care of in Jesus, and we can now learn to live different kinds of lives.

And the God of the Bible is no distant, impersonal force in the universe. Instead, Scripture points out how close God is by explaining our relationship to him as adopted children. God is the parent, and Jesus is our sibling! Theologians point out how this is a double grace: not only are we delivered from sure separation from God, but we are also freed to act as children of God! We are freed from certain death and for his purposes of restoration to the good of all people.

We learn that we are all in need of forgiveness, and this makes forgiving other far, far easier. As I head to a close, I’ll use a story that Jesus tells. It’s in the book of Matthew in the Bible’s New Testament, and my version is a paraphrase.

There was a guy who owed a rich person a ton of money, like 5 million dollars. The rich person was about to litigate and have this guy and his family taken into prison, but the poor man begged. There was a subsequent change of heart, and the rich man forgave the debt completely.

He was stoked beyond belief. The next day, however, he was walking to get coffee and saw a former friend on the way there. This guy had borrowed money to pay rent and never paid back the $500. He slams the guy up against the wall and tells him to pay. He can’t. So, he calls his lawyer and gets the guy in huge trouble.

Then the rich guy finds out.

“So I’m told you’re after a guy in court. You know how I canceled your $5 million debt? Shouldn’t you have mercy on your old friend just as I had mercy on you?” As the poor yet vengeful man stood there quivering, he nodded to one of his workers who had him hauled off to prison.

Isn’t this our story? Do we not fail to recognize the gravity of our debt to God? And when we catch a glimpse of the depth of our forgiveness, does this not put all other human errors into perspective? In Jesus Christ we are set completely free. Our debt is paid, our account is settled.

Bad blood between other people in our lives is diminished. It may not go away entirely, of course; certain acts like murder or egregious slander can place lifelong distance between us and others. But we learn that because God has forgiven our great debt, the small debts-the bad blood-that others may owe us can so much more easily be dismissed. And this grace, this rich forgiveness from God shines so brightly in a world starved for reconciliation and forgiveness, a world torn apart by terrorism, racism, and lots of other isms that subvert the way God created us to live.

 

 

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#3]

Hilariously, as a kid I’d mistake the word “seminary” for “cemetery.” Naturally, later in life, there was the mental connection that ensued: were these two terms more similar than different?

Theological studies may not sound exciting, just like chemistry or math or art history may sound boring. This all depends on the hearer. I have a relative who is fairly wealthy on account of his recording studio. His studio does jingles and background pads for the likes of Apple, McDonalds, and Kelloggs. This may sound boring to some. But it may sound exciting to others. It’s all in the hearing.

Whether or not theological studies has its share of excitement is beside the point. What I want to get at is this: can theology professors profess both academic biblical knowledge and spiritual vivacity?

My answer is an unequivocal yes.

Though I cannot speak for every seminary out there, I can speak from my own observations during my six years at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.

One professor I had was very heavy-handed about his beliefs. He respected the people with whom he did not see eye-to-eye, but he had a very strong opinion on all things theological. Another professor had a lot of baggage from his ultra-conservative background, and at times it showed.

Each professor had their share of difficulties. But even the professor with the strong opinions and the professor with the ultra-conservative background clung tightly to the message of Jesus. They really do seek to love their neighbor, and their enemy too. They really do seek to bring every action into alignment with their heartfelt beliefs.

The modeling I saw during my seminary years was probably more important than the content of the teaching. I saw women and men teaching who genuinely and passionately pursued the holiness of God made clear in Jesus.

I recall often the phrase my spiritual formation professor would use. She said, “spiritual practice is getting up to see the sun rise; it’s happening whether or not we take the time to see it.”

Spanish Sunrise

Indeed this is the case. When it comes to knowing God, there is a seeking involved. My professors understood Matthew 7:7-8:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”

That’s Jesus speaking.

There is a whisper of Paul’s example found in I Corinthians 11:1:

“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”

Something powerful, something resonant, exudes from those living the kind of life that is worth being imitated. I thank God for the women and men who, in the beginning of the 21st century, have sought to follow Jesus.

Especially, today, I thank God for my seminary professors.

Top Ten Things I Learned in Seminary [#9]

The same concept outlined in #10 goes for Greek.

Because of my newfound linguistic skills, I learned that Oikos, the Greek yogurt that you may love, is called “home” in Greek.

“Home yogurt.”

vanilla-greek-yogurt-quart

My Greek skills hold up okay in the world of Koine Greek, especially when I conjoin my seminary skills with Bible software like my Logos 6 package or my languages collection from Accordance.

It’s true that working on a biblical language helps one to see Scripture differently. One professor who used to teach at my seminary likened it to, as opposed to black and white, seeing in color.

I think that was a good comparison.

Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#5]

Weakness is strength.

Doesn’t sound right, does it?

We live in a culture that exalts power. We may dream of influential positions in global corporations or long for a bigger voice in our local community. We Americans, of all people, delight in the possibilities that exist in the individual.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rags-to-riches novels impressed on the culture a sense of dramatic optimism. Suddenly it seemed as if anyone with the will power could rise through the ranks in commerce or industry and command armies of workers.

As history tells, this is not the case for everyone. Opportunity exists to gain power and influence, but acquiring it is difficult.

Within all this, God sees weakness differently. He sees it as strength.

If one reads any of the New Testament accounts of the death of Jesus, it is apparent that he was not exalted by his own power. Instead, God the Father gave him strength through the Spirit. John 16:5-16 describes the closeness of the three. Verse 15 reads: “All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.”

After three days, God glorifies Jesus, raising him from the dead. The first book after the four Gospel accounts is Acts, and at the very beginning of this book Jesus is witnessed ascending into heaven.

Weakness is strength.

Just like Jesus, we are strong when we are weak. When we lean into the grace of God, we find ourselves giving him glory.

Paul, one of the most committed early followers of Jesus, explains how this works in a letter, 2 Corinthians 12. God explains to Paul that, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

When Paul attempted to do things in his own strength, it did not bring God honor. It probably didn’t bring Paul that much honor either. Instead, glorifying himself likely just made other people irritated. The same principle goes for all of us.

God is interested in doing incredible things [just look at the miracles of Jesus and of the Old Testament that preceded him!]. God also wants people to know him.

Let’s put this into contemporary context. It’s meaningful when people serve other people. Right? It’s so cool to see businesses and churches and individuals serving the common good. Now here’s where the weakness/strength paradigm is vital. For the person or church or business who does something meaningful, that can inflate the ego. Very easily can doing good cause us to think we’re ok.

But when we do good through weakness, there is only one option for others to believe: God is at work.

The natural world understands this concept. Annie Dillard talks about this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The fecundity of nature, she says, is indomitable. A farmer somewhere thought squash were especially powerful, and he used a scale to test how much pressure these seemingly insignificant and feeble vegetables could exert. They pushed the scales to the thousands of pounds as they slowly grew, cell by cell, fueled by the growth of God. Weakness is strength.

In the human world, when someone is unexpectedly kind, it’s striking. When someone really seems to have the right to be vengeful and maintains tranquility, it’s noticeable. When a family loses one of their own to violence then responds with forgiveness, it speaks. It spoke in October 2006 in the wake of the Lancaster County shootings. A man brutally killed 10 young girls in a one room Amish school. The response from the Amish, even amidst their mourning, was forgiveness. Leaning into the strength of God, they never said it was ok or justifiable, but they forgave. Ironically, the man who killed the girls couldn’t forgive someone for having killed his own daughter.

God’s world is different. In God’s world, weakness is strength.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#8]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This marks the third post. They are out of order, except for the last few.

#8

Preaching is as scary as I always thought [but it can also be powerful!].

One of the more intimidating aspects of the pastoral vocation is this: speaking in front of a lot of people. Those people may be judging you, or they may offer great charity. Those people may come interested, or they may come with impatience and plenty of other things to think about at that time. Those people long for a sense of the eternal, of deep purpose for life, of grace and truth; but they may not have gotten enough sleep the night before.

And there they are at church.

Scary, right?

Now, let’s add to that.

I’m not someone who was naturally drawn to speaking in front of people. My college speech class illustrates this perfectly. The goal to was to eradicate ums and uhhs from our speeches, and also to memorize our main points. I couldn’t remember the next point, and I knew I couldn’t say uh or um, so I just stopped. It was probably about 8 or 10 seconds. Yeah.

If you listen to me preach nowadays, don’t be deceived. You may initially think I’m calm and poised, but don’t let that fool you! I am not! Well, at least beforehand. As I move into a message, somehow God’s Spirit seems to slowly calm my nerves, and I allow him to animate me. Somehow, my hands even seem to work with my words as I tread holy ground. Somehow, the people out there who always used to intimidate me have turned into people who simply long for an experience of God.

Just like God used Moses, a guy who stammered and lacked confidence and poise, God can use a guy like me. God can use a guy who wasn’t always a natural with words and with communication. God can use a guy who hated public speaking for the first two decades of his life. For me, this has been evidence of my calling that I have been given grace to do the communication that pastoring requires. That’s not to say I’m killin’ it. But I’m taking steps. The meme below says it all.

onedoesnotsimply.meme

God calls various people in various places to proclaim the hope contained in Scripture and made most evident in the Son, Jesus Christ. This is a serious, scary task. That can [and does] make us young pastors terrified!

But the incredible thing about preaching is this: it sticks. I still remember concepts and illustrations from the sermons my pastor preached growing up. I remember the story about bitterness that featured Eskimo hunters who dipped an icy blade into blood, then planted it in the snow. When a wolf would smell the blood and lick the blade, they became so intoxicated that they failed to realize their numb tongue was being cut open. That’s harsh, but it’s what we do to ourselves when we fail to forgive and harbor bitterness against others. Preaching sticks.

That stuff matters. It’s terrifying, and it matters. A lot.

The Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in May, here are a few of the things I’ve gained. I’ll be posting about one per day, out of order, over the next ten days. Some will be awesome. This one, #7 starts us off lightly.

#7

The best stories rule the world; and the best story is the strangely compelling narrative of Jesus.

*

Try as I might to find meaningful stories to communicate the reality of God, the story God has given us is simply the most compelling story the world will ever hear. My favorite movie is Clint Eastwood’s 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino. SPOILER ALERT: I’m about to give away the plot. If you haven’t seen the movie, go see it, and skip this post.

Anyway, I’ll make it simple. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crotchety retired Polish-American line-worker from Highland Park which is couched within the city limits of Detroit. He’s angry that all his white neighbors have moved away to the suburbs surrounding Detroit, angry that his kids are distant, angry that his priest [he’s Catholic] is young and inexperienced, angry that his wife passed away, angry that poor Hmong refugees now surround his neighborhood, angry that crime rates are up and that Detroit is struggling.

But something happens within Kowalski. I’d say it’s nothing but the power of God. Some may say it’s an old, angry gentleman who experiences an inner revolution. But I’d say it’s the life-transforming power of God.

He takes in a young neighbor, Thao, who had attempted to steal Kowalski’s prized car, an early ’70s Ford Gran Torino. At first it’s restitution, and Thao does odd jobs to make up for his attempted crime. But soon, Kowalski becomes a real mentor to Thao. Thao needs a father, and Kowalski coaches him on how to gather tools, hob-nob with the good-ol’-boys, fix things, and even gets him a construction job.

Gran Torino

Kowalski makes the mistake of roughing up some gang members who had been trying to recruit Thao into their drug-running enterprise. Soon, the gang retaliates and shoots up the Thao’ house and rapes his sister.

Outraged, Kowalski takes things into his own hands. His priest comes over to confront him, but even though he makes a serious confession, he hides his plan from the young minister.

By this point, I’m expecting a shootout between Kowalski and the gangsters. No good outcome is really possible here, right? In the light from streetlamps, he storms in and yells at the gangsters from the sidewalk. Then, provocatively, he reaches his hand into his vest pocket. They light him up, cutting him down with automatics. As he bleeds out, the watcher learns Kowalski was unarmed the whole time; he was reaching for a lighter for his cigarette.

Instead of continuing violence, he absorbs it, laying down his life for his new and foreign neighbor, the neighbor who tried to steal his car.

Kowalski’s actions were powerful. But they were only powerful because they mirror the greatest action of all: Christ’s work on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, absorbing violence instead of continuing it. But where Kowalski did plenty of things to deserve anger–maybe not murder, but certainly anger and distrust–Jesus was a perfect sacrifice.

Kowalski discovered the deepest meaning of love: it’s laying your life down for your friend. And his story is compelling because it mirrors the greatest story-the story of Jesus.

*

The Problem with Inviting Jesus into Your Heart

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Ask most Americans what it means to be a Christian, or even what the Gospel of Jesus is, and they will likely respond with a phrase to the effect of, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins so you can go to heaven.” The problem is simple: people are sinful. The solution is simple as well: ask Jesus to forgive you. The effect is said to be remarkable. Jesus decides, after your prayer, not to send you to hell.

Could eternal salvation be so simple? Certainly the details of faith are slightly more complicated than this. However, this prayer can be a starting point. Indeed, many powerful people of God have begun in such a fashion; they prayed a simple I-need-you-Jesus prayer, then followed him.

The difficulty arises when ministry centers entirely on attempting to get people to make decisions to follow Jesus. This may sound counterintuitive, but I have witnessed this very strategy. Most recently, I was present at a winter retreat for junior high students. The retreat was held at a small Christian camp in West Michigan. A couple times per day, we rounded up the tweens for an hour of formation. Essentially, the message was that everyone needs to escape the fires of hell via the I-need-Jesus prayer. The aging yet passionate camp director vividly described the death of Jesus at every gathering. The problem was that this is as far as they got. They touched on the resurrection of Jesus just once. There was nothing about the great cost of discipleship. There was nothing about the kingdom of God [a subject Jesus seemed to emphasize – see the synoptic Gospels]. There was nothing about sanctification, the long Christian word for how God slowly transforms people from the inside out. No, everything was about escaping hell. After all, people could die at any time. And it is scary to imagine what it would be like to die as a rebel from God.

Salvation is absolutely an important message. And it is a lot easier to talk about salvation than discipleship. But maybe the problem lies in the difficulty of letting go of old habits. Everyone, it seems, has heard about the sinner’s prayer. But have they heard about God’s kingdom? Have they heard about the Holy Spirit that was sent at Pentecost to comfort, empower, and guide the church? Have they imagined what the world might be like if the church was truly a forgiving, restoring, loving, generous, honest community?

Sadly, the message of salvation seems to have sanctioned off the work of Jesus to the next world. It is only when we die that we reap the benefits of salvation, the story goes. But this does not appear to be the case for members of the early church. For them, following the risen Christ meant radical life-change. In Acts 2:45 Luke records what following Jesus meant for the earliest believers: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” They also ate together, prayed together, and worshiped God. They had a common life together. I doubt if there was a guy telling everyone to accept Jesus into their heart at these meetings. All they knew was that a change should be made.

To be clear, I do believe our relationship with God is personal. I John 3:1a speaks of this: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:5 about how God has literally adopted us: “[in love] he predestined us for adoption as sons [it should go without saying that women are part of this in an equal manner] through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” And since God is personal, we can follow relationally. The late Robert E. Webber said this: “When someone asks me the question, “Do you have a personal relationship with God?” I always answer, “You’re asking the wrong question. What is important here is not that I in and of myself achieve or create a personal relationship with God, but that God has a personal relationship with me through Jesus Christ, which I affirm and nourish.”[1]

I also believe that belief is important. John’s Gospel brings this into crystal clear perspective. But James tells us the result of life in Jesus: real change. He does not equivocate: “…faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead [2:17].” Jesus is interested in eternity. But eternity began millennia ago, and time races forward whilst unnamed people are dying without hearing about Jesus. Famines wrack the planet even as human casualties mount from wars and genocide. Christians, I believe, should cease worrying about how God will judge those who have never heard his name, and embody a faith that the world will find peculiar.

Pope Francis is helping to animate this kind of faith. Washing the feet of imprisoned Muslims was certainly an act of humility and love, an act that forces one to ask, “why would he ever do that?” I am not advocating that followers of Jesus cease sharing their faith. I am only suggesting that their sharing should point toward God’s kingdom reality. Individual lives are transformed, as is the church as a corporeal unit.

See, the problem with inviting Jesus into your heart is that he stays there. He stays, instigating change, reminding you of your calling, listening to your cries for hope, helping you to grow deep roots of life changing faith, and spurring you on toward love and good deeds.


[1]Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 89.

Teaching with Imagination: Part 2

Since we can think of teaching as functioning in just two categories [I recognize this is impossible, but stick with me] let’s briefly redefine those.

Feel free to visit the post below this one if you are interested in the beginning of this two-part series.

Moving quickly ahead, the first category is deposit-making. A teacher can perceive her job to consist of depositing factual information into the minds of students. One can picture this teaching style like serving ice cream: each cup needs it, and in approximately equal amounts.

The second category is problem-posing. In essence this consists of raising awareness of problems. At first glance it may appear to lack guidance, but this is exactly the point. To establish a problem implicitly invites a solution. It invites imagination and enjoins the student’s faculties to action. According to Speech Act Theory, communication precipitates action. Let me illustrate.

Recently I listened to a man who had planted a church and pastored it faithfully for a number of years. It had grown significantly both fiscally and numerically. Many would say it grew spiritually as well. As the pastor continued, he revealed his motivation for such dedicated work. He had been cut from the basketball team in 7th grade. He tried out again the next year and failed again. After a long and difficult conversation with a coach, he was instructed not to pursue basketball: “son, it’s just not for you.”

He refused to quit. Fueled by these words and assisted by a growth spurt, he practiced unceasingly between junior high and high school. Having made the team his freshman year, he started all through high school as a center. Later he received a robust scholarship for college basketball, and he flourished in the sport.

He intimately described the motivation for his success both in basketball and then in pastoring: “I didn’t want to be told ‘you can’t do that.'” That was it. And he went on to prove them wrong. Though it eventually led to some critical errors in leadership, it was fuel sufficient for a season.

What does this mean? It means that words are extremely powerful. To instill imagination in people is to plant seeds of hope. As a Christian, the words of Jesus have sparked hope and life in me. Teachers, pastors, and leaders of every kind have the ability to invite imagination at every turn. And it is in the way we teach that we can either spark incredible change or cause irreparable damage.

Teaching is more than revealing factual information. For the Christian, it is about capturing the imagination for the sake of sustained participation in the Kingdom of God. For Christians and secular thinkers alike, though for differently ultimate purposes, teaching is about capturing the imagination for the transformation of the world.

In the illustration about the pastor, words – discouraging words – were powerful enough to, in a certain sense, drive him to both create and build, to push himself to his limits, and to react to how others had [foolishly] instructed him. May we as teachers have the courage to ask the right questions, helping listeners to better understand the haze of the world we live in. The world sees more clearly when teachers ask the better question. For the Christian mind, we live to advance the Kingdom of God. And in advancing the Kingdom of God, the world of believers and unbelievers flourishes.

blur

 

Teaching with Imagination: Part 1

Animals and people are similar in so many ways. We see a chimpanzee at the zoo and immediately (though subconsciously) mentally list its similarities to the last baby we saw watching the chimp from a stroller. Both have a face, though the human’s is slightly softer. Both have hands, even opposable thumbs! However, as we synthesize similarities, we also analyze differences.

This task of making this delineation is equally simple at some level. The chimp likely will probably not excel in physics, though he can likely learn to play a video game. She won’t graduate from elementary school, but she may very well flourish as a hunter-gatherer in a tropical jungle. Animals are a part of the world, immersed in the same surroundings as their human zookeepers and zoo-supporting philanthropists. But they do not seek to change their world. Rather, they simply want to survive and reproduce.

Humans, on the other hand, make a choice. They must make the choice of how they will influence the world. Every human has agency – the ability to affect change. Though humans use their agency differently, each human possesses it to some degree.

No one would argue that education is an irreplaceable aspect of human participation in the world. Educations alerts individuals and communities to the world around them, helping to guide and direct young persons in their forthcoming autonomy, their long-anticipated independence from parents.

In education, however, young people are, at times, treated as vessels for holding information. Instead of sparking the imagination of youth and inviting their participation in the world, education often trains up young ones to know every state capital and the names of all the US presidents. Of course, there are many excellent educators in our world, and they certainly don’t simply deposit facts in students’ brains. But this does happen.

Paulo Freire, a Brazilian philosopher and educator, has juxtaposed two means for pedagogy. The first, deposit-making, consists of giving information, of filling the minds of students with information. The second, problem-posing, invites the agency of the individual to factor in to the pedagogical matrix. In other words, Freire believes critical intervention in the world is essential for
thorough and meaningful education.

In my next post I’ll take a closer look at how this pertains not only to education but also to preaching, politics, government, and other spheres.