Friday, April 30, 2010

After You Believe: Chapter Three

After You Believe: Why Christian Character MattersThe third chapter of After You Believe: Why Christian Character Mattersentitled Priests and Rulers is a prime example of why I respect NT Wright. He has a way of taking Biblical themes that I am aware of - ideas that I think I understand - and expanding them to their fullest meaning within the story of God, Israel and the church.  Before reading this chapter I could not have done what he does here - namely, to trace the theme from Genesis to Revelation that God's people have the goal of serving as rulers and priests in the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. He shows that the Torah, prophets, psalms, synoptics, Paul, Peter and John all point us to the same central belief:

God created Humans with a two-fold purpose - to worship and reign over creation. Made in his image, Humans reflect God to the rest of nature and respond to him on creation's behalf. The God of love allowed his creation to join him and reign with him, but Humans elected to try to reign apart from God. God called Israel to be a nation of priests and kings in order to get creation back on track. Israel couldn't live up to their side of the covenant though. Though God wanted to return back to the days of Humans reigning with him, Israel faltered. So Jesus comes as the Ultimate Man - the Ultimate Israelite - to announces the Kingdom come - that creation is back on track and things have begun to be right or normal again. Messiah Jesus is King of Kings and the Great High Priest, but like God's original pattern in creation, Jesus shares his priestly and kingly duties with Humans: first his disciples, then the church. Through the Spirit, Humans now move toward our original destiny to rule with God (as kings) and to gather worshippers for him (as priests). The resurrection of Jesus paves the way for life after life after death for all Humans who will one day rule the world in resurrected form. This allows John to conclude the Scriptures in Revelation with imagery of a new heaven and a new earth where the saints reign for and with God. It allows Paul to believe that Humans will one day judge the world and the angels. It allows Jesus to tell his twelve disciples that they will one day sit on twelve thrones as kings and judges. Our destiny is to live, die, live again, and then to give glory to God while ruling creation as those created in his image. The two-fold goal of Humans is to rightly rule creation and worship the Creator.

How does this sort of theological reset apply to Christian character? Wright says it this way as he unpacks Romans 8:

God had promised the Messiah that he would give him the whole world for his inheritance...Now, it appears, this worldwide "inheritance" is to be shared with all of Messiah's people. That is what Romans 8:18-30 is all about. But if they are called to be God's free and freedom-bringing people, then they must learn to live as God's free people, giving up the habit of slavery - yes, slavery is as much a habit of mind as a physical state - and learning the art of responsible, free living. To put it another way, if these people are to take redemptive responsibility for the whole of creation, they must anticipate that by taking redemptive responsibility, in the present time, for that one bit of creation over which they have the most obvious control - namely, their own bodies.

Herein lies my personal breakthrough this week. If I really believed that the entire story of creation is going to lead to a point where I am one of the ones entrusted to reign with God...I had better start practicing now with what little authority I have. I had better begin to anticipate my future position by learning better how to control, discipline and "rule" my body. I think this understanding truly opened the door to the answer of the book's subtitle - Why Christian Character Matters.

My character matters because I am going to be around for a long, long time after I die...and I'm going to have authority with God (somehow) over a part of the new heaven and new earth.

Another way I have thought of it this week is this: If I knew for certain that I would be elected President of the United States in 2024, what would I be learning and doing (and not doing) today and tomorrow to prepare?  Who would I be spending my time with? What practices or situations might I avoid? How would I change my character?

It would appear that based upon the Scriptures, those who follow Christ should be anticipating a position higher than President in the future. Who you are becoming matters forever.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

After You Believe: Chapter Two

This is week two of a discussion through After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by NT Wright. This my first experience blogging through a book chapter by chapter and I'm not quite sure yet what the best tactic is. Last week I simply wrote a summary with some commentary. This week I would like like to simply address a few arching thoughts that I had while reading Chapter Two: The Transformation of Character.

FIrst of all, I feel the need to say that this may not be the best introductory book to NT Wright. I find it somewhat difficult to push through in places. My past history with him helps me move forward. If you have picked this book up because of my suggestion and haven't read Wright before you may want to consider setting it aside and reading Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the ChurchSimply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense or the first of his books that I read, a small work called Lord and His Prayer. Even if you are enjoying After You Believe, I would say based on this week's reading that it might be worth your time to read Surprised by Hope along side of it. If feels very much like a companion piece to "Hope."

This chapter functioned as an apologetic for character as produced through virtues in light of a particular Wrightian eschatological theme - that the followers of Jesus will be, like Jesus was, physically raised from the dead to live (and work, rule and judge) on earth in the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. The transformation of our character now - through cultivating "strengths" called virtues - allow us to actively anticipate our future reality. 

Improv and Theology

I thought about my own journey in two extremes as I read the first half of this chapter: my story as an improviser and as a theologian.

First, let's talk about improv.

As a kid I had a magnetic pull toward the theatrical arts, storytelling and creative play. A huge regret for me is that I did not pursue theater in high school. I was struggling with being socially accepted and worried that if I aligned with the theater people I would lose my friends. Looking back, had I made that move I would have probably found a true community with them. Since then, I haven't let social expectations keep me away from the acting. I am an actor and a storyteller - those theater people are my people. But, more specifically than that, I am an improviser. I had no idea that is who I was until my amazing wife signed me up for level one improv classes with The Second City Las Vegas about a decade ago. It was the best Christmas gift ever. It changed my life.

I had a few natural moments of success in that introductory class, but for the most part I was a bad improviser. I thought improv was about having a quick wit or being funny. People had told me in the past that I was witty and funny, so it only made sense that I would be good at improv from day one. But I wasn't. Nobody in my class was good at first. I've never met a level one improviser who is good at improv. You can see potential in some people more than others, but improv is all about submission to the art. Here's the thing that most people can't believe when you tell them. Improv - the art of making stuff up in the moment - is about keeping the rules. The freedom of improv is found in the boundaries. 

Here are some of the basic rules that must be mastered to be able to be free enough to excel at improvisational comedy:

  • Agree and Accept. This is rule one. Everything that is said and done in a scene happens for a reason. To deny something that happens is to deny the art - and to deny your scene partner. If my parter starts a scene by saying to me, "Dr. Nancy Willams, your skirt is on fire!" Then I know the truth: I am a doctor, a woman named Nancy, wearing a skirt, that is literally on fire. If I say, "No, I'm her husband and I'm wearing pants," I have broken the rules. The scene will go nowhere and will not be funny.
  • Heighten and Explore. Rule number two says that I start with the reality my parter and I create, but together we  raise the stakes. For improv to work it has to be one of those days that the characters would talk about years later. "That was the day my skirt caught I fire...and..." It is that "and" that makes all the difference. This is why improvisers talk about the power of the "Yes/And". Yes my skirt is on fire...let's explore that and heighten it. Maybe my skirt is on fire because I purchased a new flamethrower or my patient spontaneously combusted or whatever...My parter and I will explore this amazing day together in front of our audience. And it will tell a funny story.
  • Make your partner look good. There are some other rules that we follow, but this one rounds out the big three. Any free second of thought I have in a scene needs to go like this, "What can I do right now to make my partner succeed?" Improv is never about's about us. And the better I make  you look the better we all look. Great improv is never selfish.

I studied for years and years - hours and hours - thousands of dollars spent - to master those rules of improv. I landed a job doing improv six nights/week for three years. I've done improv tours and countless shows now. As a result I can generally improvise with anyone at a moment's notice. I don't get nervous. I don't think about "how" to do it. I just do it. I became an improviser. As long as I obey the rules, I am free to be who I was created to be. It is second nature.

Similarly, I have had a life-long obsession with learning about God. I have a degree in Biblical Studies, but that was just the beginning. I've read hundreds of books about God, Jesus and the Kingdom. I've had thousands of conversations about Him. I have lots more to learn, but I have learned a lot. Compared to a true academician like NT Wright, I am still a lightweight, but if you pull ten people out of line at McDonald's I could hold my own in any conversation about theology because I've devoted my life to being a learner on the subject.

These two realities in my life, in conjunction with some natural talents and abilities, have worked to create something in me that would be otherwise unexpected. I have bad days like anyone else, but I can generally teach a group of people about God in a moment's notice. I don't have to think much about it - I can just do it. Someone was attempting to compliment my teaching last week and said, "It's amazing that you can just get up there and wing it." Well...the truth is I can "wing it" if I want to (though I always spend some time in preparation.) But I can only "wing it" because I have devoted my life to two virtues that collide in a teaching moment - I am an improviser and a theologian. It's just what I became. Improvising and teaching about God are second nature to me now.  I have spent decades preparing the teacher so that I do not have to spend twenty hours preparing every teaching. Had I not done that, I would need to function differently.

This is all to say, that as NT Wright spoke of virtue and character I quickly saw those areas of my life as positive examples of character building. I also saw the areas of my life that have had far less attention and training. If I want to be as "accomplished" at generosity or gentleness or patience as I am at improv, I have to do the work...and maybe even be willing to learn the "rules" and obey them for the sake of my greater freedom within the art.

Section Six - Romanticism, Existentialism, and Emotivism

I felt a tinge of conviction in this section. I don't think I am an emotivist, but by his definition I am close to being a romantic and an existentialist. Particularly, the idea of authenticity as a key virtue exposed in existentialism resonates very deeply with me. "Being me" is very important to me - maybe too important. I suspect that we will deal with this more as the book progresses. 

Section Eight - Vintage NT Wright

For me, the chapter that was a bit laborious to plow through ended with fireworks. This section is NT Wright in his prophetic zone and at his very best. I  think I underlined the entire chapter. In his previous works, I cannot remember Wright giving such a succinct version of his understanding of the gospel:

"The goal (of the gospel) is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world's rulers and priests. The goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory in the world."

I'll end this post with that quote. It is a lot to take in for modern Western Christians who have largely been taught a less substantial, more individualistic it's-all-about-going-to-heaven version of the gospel. If you are reading the book with me, I'm sure this won't be the first time he challenges us in this regard.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Let's Talk Politics

Here goes nothin'

To my knowledge I have over the last eight years successfully avoided talking about American popular politics on this blog. I've never endorsed a candidate or an issue. My politics are not of this world. I am the voluntary slave of a benevolent totalitarian despot named Rabbi Yeshua. He is my only politic. 

When I first embraced this idea I immediately became apolitical in the common sense of the word. I had some revolutionary breakthroughs about my primary identity. I am not - at some foundational level - a Republican or a Democrat. For that matter, I am not fundamentally an American. This doesn't mean that I hate Republicans, Democrats or America. I happen to love all three. I've spent my life announcing good news to the people of America. It is my chosen mission field. But it doesn't change my political allegiance to King Jesus.

I am not trying to be the guy who takes jokes too seriously or stirs things up. Neither am I  secretly trying to make some covert pro-Obama statement in what I am about to say. (I'm rather dreading the comments that may follow actually.) That said, as a pastor and theologian, I need to call some evangelical Christians into account for an increasingly hate-filled "joke" that has gone way too far. (Please keep in mind that I am the pastor who makes PG-13 poker-themed comedies in my spare time. I can normally take a joke just fine.)

On social networking sites (and bumper stickers) people have been "jokingly" advocating praying for the death of President Obama. Today three of my Facebook friends invited me into this fan group:


I get the joke part of this. But I would like to think Christians are better than this. If the last line was, "My favorite pastor is Joe Boyd. Amen" would you still be a fan? Even if you didn't like my ideas and teachings? 

There is another similar "movement" that is far worse. I've seen it on Facebook as well, but more frequently on bumper stickers in my neighborhood. (And once in my church parking lot.) It reads "Pray for President Obama: Psalm 109:8"

It seems innocent enough until you read the passage in context:

"May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars! May they be driven from their ruined homes..." - Psalm 109:8-9

This is a curse written by a psalmist (maybe David) several thousand years ago - an occasional practice in Old Testament poetry and literature, but a tactic remarkably absent in the life and teachings of Jesus and his early followers. 

Jesus says things like, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?"

Paul says that we should pray for our leaders in this way in 1 Timothy 2: "I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth."

Let's not forget exactly who Jesus and Paul are taking about. Within three years of saying this statement, Jesus' enemies arrested, tortured, framed and murdered him. Yet he did not retaliate...or pray for their death. He prayed on the cross for their forgiveness.

The leaders of Paul's Roman world were, generally speaking, off the charts immoral, violent, selfish ego-maniacs. I Timothy was written in the 60's AD - during the rule of Emperor Nero, possibly the most vile and brutal Christian-torturer of all time. Nero was certified evil. Paul says, "pray for him...that we may live peaceful lives." If anyone deserved a Facebook fan club to pray that God would kill him, it was Nero. Paul must have listened when Jesus said to love his enemies.

Some of my readers and friends actually like President Obama. But, some of you really dislike him. Some of you see him as your ultimate enemy. Maybe he is your enemy. (If he is I refer you up four paragraphs.) I'm not asking you to support his policies.  I don't mind if you think he is a raging out-of-control communist ideologue. I'm not that into the politics de jour to care about those sorts of things - again, it's not my Kingdom. My whole point here is that when you joke about praying for his death - or seriously pray for his death - you are inconsistent with the teachings and actions of Jesus and Paul. You are breeding hatred and murderous fantasies in your heart and mind. You are breaking the sixth commandment in your spirit. In my opinion, you should repent immediately and pray for forgiveness and peace. You might even want to apologize to him here. And stop asking people to join you in your sin.

Friday, April 16, 2010

After You Believe: Chapter One

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters

This is week one of an ongoing commentary for the book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters:

I’m generally a good person. I tend to follow the rules and always have. Sure, I misbehave from time to time, but for the most part those who know me say I have “character.”

At this point in my life – having recently turned 37, I am more or less happy with my character but remarkably unhappy with the reasons why I am who I am.  I am not entirely sure that why I behave the way I do is consistent with what I believe about God, Jesus and the Kingdom.

When I was eight years old my family started going to church and we became “Christians.” I was taught that Christians obey God and keep the rules in the Bible. As a child, that was all I needed to hear. That is why, though I had moments of failure, I was the perpetual “good kid.” I didn’t do the “bad things” that many of my friends in high school did. I didn’t drink until I was 21. I didn’t do illegal drugs or have sex before marriage. As I grew older I didn’t cheat or lie to get ahead or make a buck. I’ve been faithful to my wife. I’ve helped people in need. I’ve been a “good person.”

The problem for me now is that I am not sure why I am still so eager to be “good.” All of my big-word-ologys have changed: my epistemology, theology, christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology and basileology have dramatically evolved over the last 15 years. (And yes, I think I made up the word basileology – but the one thing world needs is more basileogists – Kingdom students.)

In other words, almost every foundational truth that relates to my understanding of God and faith has evolved since earning my theology degree in 1995. All but perhaps one – my reasons for being moral. Now that the gospel is fundamentally about Jesus and the Kingdom – not about me and my sin – I have felt that my old way of viewing morality is somehow broken or inconsistent. As a result, I have been a good person because it is all I have ever known. I know morality, virtue and character have to tie into the Kingdom-centered life, but I’m not sure I have been able to say exactly why.

This is the personal disclaimer behind my desire to read and blog through NT Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. The subtitle for the book won me over. I want to know why Christian character matters. And since I have pretty much devoured NT Wright’s thinking on most every other matter, it seemed like the right time to tackle the topic.

I haven’t read ahead in the book and don’t plan on doing so. I’ve read the preface and first chapter and will write briefly about it now. I’ve converted to a Kindle, so I am unable to reference page numbers. I hear that issue is fixed in the Kindle 2. But…here we go…

I hope you didn’t skip the Preface of the book. Wright clearly claims that this book is a logical third installment after his previous popular works: Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope. He specifically notes that this book remains rooted in his thesis that “the final hope of Christians is not simply “going to heaven” but resurrection into God’s new creation, the new heaven and new earth." My interior response to this was a huge sigh of relief. This is what I had hoped the book would be.

Also in the Preface, he tells us his objective: “But the main point of the book…is to stimulate tomorrow’s Christians of whatever sort, and in whichever tradition, to be encouraged and excited in the pursuit of virtue in its specifically Christian form, and to have their character shaped, together and individually, to become the human beings God made us to be, which means being concerned primarily with worship and mission and with the formation of our own character as the vital means to that double end.”

And here we have it – before we even see chapter one. Character, he will evidently attempt to prove, is an outflow of our dual mandate to worship and do mission. This intrigues and excites me.

Chapter one is a series of real-life narrative examples that ring very true to me – especially as a pastor. Example one is “James.” James experienced a real and dramatic conversion to Jesus that changed his life, but the church was unable to answer his next big question, “What happens now? What does life look like after I believe?” This causes Wright to respond:

“Many Christians have so emphasized the need for conversion, for the opening act of faith and commitment, for the initial statement of faith (“believing that Jesus died for me” or whatever), that they have a big gap in their vision of what being a Christian is all about.”

This resonates. Our gospel must lead to genuine transformation in the here and now or it is not the gospel of Jesus. I sometimes worry that half of the people in my church are “James’s” afraid to ask someone, “Is this all there is?”

The next narrative account – of “Jenny” and “Philip” surpassed the James example for me. This one hit closer to my heart. Jenny was presented as a moralist who sees the Bible clearly as a document providing black and white/right and wrong answers. Philip is presented as her opposite – seeing a gospel of grace, love and forgiveness…and a lot of gray in the black and whites. Philip thinks it is all about discovery and the process.

I used to be Jenny. Then I became Philip. The problem is...Wright doesn’t portray either as the hero. They are both missing something. It is, likely, also what I am missing. I am counting on the rest of the book to flesh out the answer, but it starts with this:

“Character – the transforming, shaping and marking of a life and its habits – will generate the sort of behavior that rules might have pointed toward but which a “rule-keeping” mentality can never achieve. And it will produce the sort of life which will in fact be true to itself – though the “self” to which it will at last be true is the redeemed self, the transformed self, not the merely “discovered” self of popular thought…In the last analysis, what matters after you believe is neither rules nor spontaneous self-discovery, but character.”

The third narrative account in chapter one centers around the 2008 world-wide economic collapse. I found it an interesting example of how creating rules or regulations cannot fix things – only genuine character can. But, for me, it wasn’t as timely or personal of an example as the first two.

The fourth narrative is the story of the “rich young ruler” who approaches Jesus in Matthew 19, Luke 18 and Mark 10.  A reader new to Wright should take the time in this section to meditate on his take on eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven. Here we see the connection to his previous works and eschatology. I found this section rich, but would like to focus now only on his conclusion:

“But what we notice in Mark 10 is something which seems to operate in a different dimension. For a start, it is a call, not to specific acts of behavior, but to a type of character. For another thing, it is a call to see oneself as having a role to play within a story-and a story where, to join up with the first point, there is one supreme Character whose life is to be followed. And that Character seems to have his eye on a goal, and to be shaping his own life, and those of his followers, in relation to that goal.”

This is when it hit me. It has been there all along, but I have been unable to see it with my religious and cultural blinders. God through Jesus is bringing Heaven to Earth. (That part I have gotten.) I get to be part of that story. (That part I have also understood.) Therefore, I must be being made fit for Heaven now in preparation to play a role in the great story of Heaven come to Earth. (Somehow…I had not fully gotten this connection.) This was the big break through for me in chapter one.

The fifth narrative in the chapter is the story of Captain Sullenberger – the pilot who landed the airplane on the Hudson River a while back. Wright used his story to explain virtue. In essence, he concludes that virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature. We train ourselves to be virtuous. It is perhaps less about being good and more about being ready. The sixth narrative also supported this theory – the story of the man who saved his daughter from drowning instinctually because of his training. Wright claims that to be virtuous is to be fully human. He reminds the reader that this is both rooted in worship and mission.

The chapter ends this way: “The heart of it – the central thing that is supposed to happen “after you believe” – is thus the transformation of character.” This, he tells us, will be the discussion of the next chapter. I’m looking forward to it. 

Monday, April 12, 2010

I'm kinda like Oprah.

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters
I'm starting a book club. Sorta. I will be reading After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by NT Wright starting this week. Over the next eight weeks I will blog on Fridays about my thoughts as I read through the book. Feel free to join along if you would like.

I am a rather unapologetic disciple of Wright. I was drawn to this title because he will be unpacking Christian virtue/character as part of worship and mission. I've always struggled with being good (or moral) simply because the Bible tells me to. I was always the kid who wanted to know why I was expected to behave in a certain way. Once I knew why, I tended to be very compliant. If you'd like to spend the next few months thinking about why you should be good - or what even means to be good...then join me in this process. I'll discuss chapter one this coming Friday.

Real Compassion

When I first heard Dr. Wess Stafford, President of Compassion International, speak at the Vineyard National Conference in 2009 he broke my heart for the poor and for children. His personal story and humility crashed through my cynicism and I knew that somehow my life was going to need to change.

I immediately went up to meet Wess after he spoke that day. As a public speaker myself, I know it can be an overwhelming experience when people line up to introduce themselves. I usually choose not to add to that chaos, but on that day I had no choice. After we spoke Wess gave me his personal e-mail and I followed up the next week asking him to come to the Vineyard and speak whenever his schedule would allow. He accepted the invitation to come this last weekend. I couldn't have been more pleased with the gift he gave our community at VCC.

Compassion International is consistently rated as one of the most successful and integral charities in the world. There is no doubt that this is in part due to Wess's leadership. He is the real deal.

Our family sponsored our first child through Compassion this weekend. $38/month provides Michael the medical, educational and survival needs he cannot provide for himself. If you are interested in learning more of sponsoring a child head over to

Check out this video told from the point of view of three sponsored kids who have now grown up and are actively working to see poverty eliminated in their home nations:

Follow Wess Stafford on Twitter at @Wess_Stafford.
Follow Compassion on Facebook.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

An Open Letter to My Friends w/God Questions

I have lots of friends all over the world who read this blog. Many are self-identified Christians, but some are not. I often wonder what my I-have-more-questions-about-God-than-answers friends think about my more God-centered posts. I thought I would write a post tonight for them. (I'm talking about my actual real-life friends who read this - not cyber eavesdroppers. You all know who you are. We've talked about this stuff at 2 a.m. in bars across America over the last decade. For whatever reason you are all on my mind tonight.)

First of all, I want you guys to know that I didn't become your friend to try to convert you. I know you all know that, but it is true. I respect you and your spiritual journey. Nothing is gonna ever change that.

Second, I would want you to know that my faith - though rooted in Jesus and the Christian tradition - likely has some substantial differences to cultural Christianity. If you know me, you have likely sensed that already. This is intentional on my part. I am not trying to be the Christian who shocks people or anything like that. I'm trying to follow Jesus as I understand him. Jesus himself came off as anti-religious a lot, and I sometimes do the same.

You should also know that I grew up very religious. I was a card-carrying bible thumping evangelical right winger when I was younger. I was also a bit of hypocrite - very proud of my morality, spiritual knowledge and rising church fame. I was convicted by God that I was a fake in the years before I met most of I became whatever I am now to try to rectify that.

More than anything, I would want you guys to know that I do not see Christianity as simply an individual spiritual contract between God and a "sinner." I think that is a modern reduction of a much greater truth. I also don't see Christianity as fundamentally about morality or being a good person. I hope I am both, but i don't think that is the point of it all. More likely, it is a healthy by-product.

I've studied the Bible nonstop for twenty years and I believe it is historically reliable - not all parts are intended to be taken literally, but it does hold up to textual accuracy tests for ancient literature. That means I believe the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the earliest and most reliable biographies of Jesus. I believe that they were written by eyewitnesses; and, at the very least, the words in them are what those eyewitnesses believed really happened. (So much so that they were all tortured and martyred for the words they wrote without ever recanting them.)

They made it clear that Jesus was a radical revolutionary Jewish rabbi with one clear message - that the "Kingdom of God" had come to earth and would continue to come until God reigned over all. This message needs a lot of unpacking for us non-Jews 2,000 years removed, but I think it means that God himself is now available to people who call out to Him - that God is actually creating a nation/tribe/colony out of the people of earth - a people who will bring about the redemption of the planet through submission to Jesus as King. (I think "Christ" basically means "King.")

Jesus said this about himself in John chapter 3:

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

This is John 3:16 - the verse that people hold up at sporting events for whatever reason. I think many Christians don't notice that it is the "world" whom God loves and the "world" whom Jesus saves. The individual is mentioned as receiving enteral life, but that is because they are part of the whole. I think this is important. God loves us. Not just me. True faith in Jesus is never about me. It is about God and all of us. This is why so many of you care so much about others. You get this innately. You know that we (all of us) are more important than just you. Sure, we are all selfish, but we also love each other. That is because God made us to be a people - not just a collection of individuals. In the "already present but not fully realized" reality Jesus called "The Kingdom of God" we all live together with God in the now. He loves us all as we love each other. This desire is in your soul because God put it there. It isn't about simply living right or being good - it is about a real God made of love who hardwired us to be restless until we join his love revolution against the powers of evil in the world.

In this understanding, "heaven" begins now. Another beef I have with modern Christianity it is that it has reduced the faith to some fundamental theory about the afterlife. I'm sure you have all had people try to get you to say a prayer or "believe" so that you will go to heaven when you die. I strongly believe in life after death, but I don't think that is the main point of faith. Faith is for the here and now. Faith is trusting God to make things right - to lead his people - to fix the world starting right now with me and my friends. Faith is about resurrection. (Those early biographers all believed that Jesus raised from the dead. There is no doubt that Christianity spread so quickly because all of the early disciples truly believed Jesus was made alive after being dead for three days. That would change everything if it is true.)

To put it simply, I would say that heaven and hell are already co-existing on earth. We've all felt both extremes. As Christians, we hope and pray for more heaven and less hell. Someday, I believe that we will be resurrected into a reality that is all heaven and no hell.

The last thing I would say to you - if you are still reading, is that the key to personally accessing all of this stuff is both easy and hard. It is easy in that all you have to do is give up. You have to admit that if you were really in charge of the world, you'd screw it up. Then you have to admit the same is true for your own life. You are broken and can't be trusted to make your own way in the world. (This is the reality of "sin.") You are so broken that you should just sell yourself as a slave to someone more powerful, wise and loving than you are. You need a Master. Another word for "Master" is "Lord." I gave up on trying to rule my life and became the slave of Rabbi Jesus. (This was the hard part.) Now Jesus calls all the shots and I just do what he says. I trust him more than I trust me. He's my guru and I'm his apprentice. He's my Lord/Master.

When all of us become that desperate, then the "Kingdom" can come to us. And the kicker to all of it is the most revolutionary thing Jesus taught us...that God himself is at his core a "Father." You know how no matter how old you get, you never really feel like a grown-up? That's because you aren't really one. We are all children in adult masks waiting to be received by the perfect Father we never had. He loves us - all of us. Including you. And me. And that smelly dude on the bus muttering in pig latin.

I hope my thoughts find you well this evening. I think and pray for you often. I'm around if you want to talk about it.


Friday, April 02, 2010

There is life after life after death.

Nothing makes us sound crazier than believing in the resurrection. It is a hard pill to swallow. We know that everyone dies. To say that Jesus raised from the dead is to say that God can raise anyone from the dead. To be a Christian - particularly early on in the decades following Jesus - was to believe in resurrection.

Some more liberal theologians these days have come to an understanding of resurrection as purely metaphorical - that through God we can all become new people - get a new life. I believe in this too. The old self dies. The new self is resurrected.

But I also believe in a physical bodily resurrection - both of Jesus and those who follow him. It is clear that Jesus' early followers believed that they would be physically brought back to life after they died.

Here is Paul's take in I Corinthians 15:

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

This issue is foundational to Paul. And there is zero separation between the one-time Jesus resurrection event and the resurrection of all of the rest of us. The two are connected. Paul goes onto say that Jesus was the "firstfruits" - the first harvest of the dead proving that we will be raised with him:

"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death."

It has hard to read Paul's words here as simply metaphor for a better life. Paul believed that Jesus died, was raised from the dead, will return to conquer evil/injustice including the ultimate evil - death. Then the dead will live again.

Most pop culture Christian Americans at this point will have one of two reactions:

1. I thought I was going to live forever in "heaven?" This coming back to life stuff doesn't sound right. I line up with NT Wright (Surprised by Hope) on this one. I believe in life after life after death. I think that when we die we are in the presence of God. (Call that Heaven if you want - though that word has problems in these discussions because of our cultural baggage with it.) That post-death state is not our ultimate eternal experience though. There is life after life after death. We are raised to be with Jesus in the my opinion, we live again on earth as our new selves. Jesus so fully redeems this planet that it becomes "heaven." (I told you this stuff makes us sound a little crazy...)

2. The second side-track here is to jump to some sort of eschatological (end times) debate. Some believers, more so in modern America, hold tightly to some specific relatively new interpretations of the book of Revelation and a few other Scriptures. If they have problems working Paul's clear teaching into their view they try to assume Paul means something other than what he said. The problem could be that Paul and you disagree somewhat on eschatology. Another side of this reaction is more common. People respond by saying something like, "I don't know how it is going to end, I just know I will be with Jesus." I think this can be a very appropriate response to the aforementioned silly arguments that occur surrounding the issues of Jesus' Parousia (return), but in my opinion it is not a healthy attitude about the truth of resurrection. You do know how it will end if you believe in Jesus. You will be raised from the dead. Somehow. Someway.

So, at least for this weekend, let's not get sidetracked. Tonight we will mourn the death of Jesus. Sunday he is alive. The story of every Jesus follower will be exactly the same. Someday you will die. Someday after that you will live again. It may sound ridiculous, but it is the hidden hope of every person who has ever taken a breath - that we could live forever within the reality of God's love and justice.

"I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead." -Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi

Two post-notes:

1. Please don't try to convert me or my readers to your end-times view. Not the point of this one. I'm a stubbornly simple amillennialist.
2. If you are intrigued by the reusurrection, read NT Wright's Surprised by Hope.