Category Archives: liberation

Lent

Let me admit something that isn’t very popular in my theological circles. I struggle with Lent. I get Lent. I respect it. But I struggle with it. A big reason why is for most of my life I’ve had to give things up for the rest of the year. Giving things up isn’t new. It’s just October or any given Tuesday or the third week of any month, or any other random season of my life.

That’s not me being unthankful, as I am truly and entirely thankful for the many blessings God has given me. Rather, it’s being honest about the regular experiences of loss and letting go embedded in much of my experience of life so far. Lent is a great discipline, but I wonder if it is appropriate for those who live in such uncertainty and loss. As Ignatius of Antioch put it, “Every wound is not healed with the same remedy.” Yet so often we generalize an experience and a remedy as appropriate for everyone.

Loss and letting go define my experience of Christianity. I’ve learned to trust and hope along the way, so I don’t see these as absolute negatives, just a sense that my liturgical journey with Christ never quite matches the Christian calendar.

I’m not alone in this, of course. Maybe that’s why low-church traditions don’t emphasize Lent, because they are often arising from communities of struggle and loss. I’m not saying anything conclusive here, just wondering out loud.

This isn’t a new struggle for me. Every year I find myself wrestling with the same thoughts. In 2007, I made a curious choice to give up giving up things for Lent. The previous five years had involved me giving up almost everything that made for a normal life in our day and age, so I decided to give up giving up things. And that, oddly enough, was the year that the light switch came on and the bounty of God began a radical rebuilding process in my life, a wave I am in many ways still riding. Not without struggles and certainly not without a radical call to live in faith all the while. Life is still quite tenuous. But there was a fundamental change that happened that went counter to the previous 25 years. I didn’t give up on God in 2007, I gave up assuming that God demanded a life of loss for me. That I had to give up at every turn. He sparked new life into my journey, giving me a testimony that I share in a lot of my classes.

I’m indeed honestly wondering about the role of Lent, even as I read very heartfelt essays on the importance and value of Lent. I believe those who write them. Maybe I’m wrong about it all. Maybe it’s just my low-church tradition revealing itself behind my attempts at sophisticated theological posturing.

This year, I got to wondering about Lent as is my wont, and wondered if the idea of “Lend” might be more liturgically appropriate. Not giving up things to give up things, but instead to give of my time, my energy, my efforts to help those around me. It’s a proactive orientation rather than a self-reflective task. That’s more a discipline I need in my life, as I easily become jealous and hoarding of my now sparse time. It seems that an exocentric reflection fits the pattern of Christ’s gift for us on the cross, not taking or demanding of us but offering himself for us and our salvation. We have been given life itself. And even in times of uncertainly and feeling overwhelmed I can trust in this more than I can ever trust in what I have or don’t have or can’t have.

I yearn for fullness of life, not yet more frustration and discouragement and loss. That’s my liturgical place these days and for as long as I can remember. But life is there and life given so that I can participate in and with the life of others around me. That’s a calling.

Anyhow, as I was thinking about my struggle on this topic I remembered I wrote something on this about six years ago. It’s nice when I find someone putting my vague angst into helpful words. Even if it’s me. Here’s what I had to say then and still affirm today:
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Talk to the Rock

A while back, I wanted to learn what the Bible said about the various types of spiritual expressions we commonly call gifts. And, I didn’t want to use the usual lists of various gifts that Paul talks about. Rather, I wanted to see how gifts were expressed in the Bible. What does it mean to be a prophet? Well, I looked at the prophets. What does it mean to be someone who has discernment? Well, I looked at the men and women who were commended for seeing truth even when there were shadows and mists. What does it mean to be a leader? I looked at the leaders in the Bible.

This latter study was more than a little bit disconcerting. There are a lot of leaders in the Bible, be it kings or priests or judges or generals.

Leaders of all kinds abound in the stories. The trouble is that the percentage of leaders leading the people to God is pretty small. Most of the leaders in the Bible did not serve God. The other trouble is that their negative example does not mean they were bad leaders.

For instance, we have someone like King Omri of Israel. First Kings 16:25 has this to say about him: “Omri did evil in the eyes of the LORD and sinned more than all those before him.” On the other hand, archaeologists and others who study the history say that as a leader, he was pretty good! He orchestrated a lot of building projects and otherwise secured enough wealth and support to pass the kingdom on to his son, Ahab.

How about an example from the New Testament? Paul had to confront Peter when he learned that Peter stopped eating with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11ff). Peter influenced Barnabas and others, and had to be corrected, because they, as Paul puts it, “were not following the truth of the Good News” (Gal. 2:14). The practice of Peter was not reflecting the call of God in or for the church.

With this in mind, I now turn to the topic of worship. It’s not uncommon for me to be singing along during a service and realize I’ve just sung something I didn’t, or shouldn’t, believe. This isn’t limited to singing, either. For the most part, many of the approaches, use of space, wording, and other aspects of our gathering together are more like Peter’s faults than Paul’s goal. They might be engaging, or they might be traditional, or they might be functional, or whatever reason under the sun, but they are not when examined more closely, “following the truth of the Good News.”

Now more formally, this “truth of the Good News” could be gathered together under the theme of theology. That’s what I think theology is and should be about, at least. It is the reflection on the actions of God and his declarations that point to a more cohesive expression of God’s work and being. It can be expressed using four syllable words or it can be expressed in a dance, or in a liturgy, story, or song. But, in being expressed in some ways it is saying that it is reflecting the God who is. Theology, then, should be a pretty important issue in discussions of worship.

God does not, we learn from Scripture, like to be misrepresented in word or deed.

This is probably most clearly expressed in the story of Moses. In Numbers 20 we read a very disturbing story. The people were complaining, again, about having no water (the nerve of them!). They rebelled, Moses prayed at the Tabernacle, and God told him what to do.

Moses gathered the people, stood before them, shouted at them for their rebellious ways, and then hit the rock twice. Water gushed out.

But God was not happy. “Because you did not trust me enough to demonstrate my holiness to the people of Israel,” he said to Moses, “you will not lead them into the land I am giving them.”

Moses, you see, was supposed to command the rock to bring forth water. He wasn’t supposed to hit it. God was not just interested in the result. His holiness is about the method, the act, the approach, the whole context. God’s revelation is holistic and he calls those who would lead his people to reflect this holiness in ways that match how he has chosen to reveal himself.

We can’t just hit the rock and say that’s God’s work, even if water comes out. Because the method is as much part of the message as the result. He’s telling a different story in the midst of this world and that means leading people to live in particular ways, ways that might not immediately make sense. But it makes a difference in the long run. Just as the method of the cross makes a difference not only in salvation but also in how we respond to the systems of this world.

We have to listen to God, reflect on his ways, and then we have to talk to the rock.

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The Confrontation of the Cross

An excerpt from my forthcoming book:

It is the narrative about the path to the crucifixion that we find the starkest confrontation between the way of God and the ways of this world. The cross is an expression of obedience and trust, both of Jesus and then by those who trust in this obedience for their own salvation. Whole trust in God that resists being co-opted by the systems of this world despite their claims for absolute authority and meaning. As this is a pattern established by both the writings and the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Gospels are not simply passion narratives with extended introductions.

What we see in the whole of the Gospels is a coherent expression of not only the solution to the crisis but also a living example of what it means to live this out in real contexts among real stories. It is the culmination of the whole narrative of Scripture thus far. The cross, then, is the end point, the fully exposed confrontation that exists throughout the ministry of Jesus, insisting on the ultimacy of God’s lordship across personal, social, and societal systems. This lordship is expressed in terms of love and commitment, but defining such in an absolute way that rejects syncretic attempts to see God as being another system among the systems, a god among the other gods. God brings the people out of slavery, they are to have no other gods. In contemporary terms, we are to have no other systems before him. God co-opts the systems, the systems respond, the result is the cross.

Thus the confrontation of Jesus in the trials that lead, ultimately, to his seemingly untimely and certainly violent death are themselves imbued with theological and sociological meaning. The contrasts begin at the beginning of the chapter, and are important in how the narrative develops. This is not a minor disagreement about methodology or even a religious dispute, this is a wholesale cosmic confrontation. Judas is filled with Satan. The priests are servants of the darkness. The disciples are all at risk. Jesus thus asserts the priority of his narrative as the true expression of God’s work. This is a narrative that will be brutally assaulted, leading to the vulnerability of all those who align themselves with Jesus.

The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go of patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.
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As a confrontation to the systems, the cross absolutizes the kingdom in contrast to the ways of society. These occupy the same environment—the world—but are expressing a substantively different narrative, a different way. It is absolute in that one cannot find a middle ground between the religious leaders and Jesus, the Romans and Jesus, the zealots and Jesus. Both sides reject such a synthesis. The systems want nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus rejects the systems. This does not, however, suggest that Jesus is a separatist, with the church called to isolation. Jesus does not abandon the world to itself; he enters the world in love. Separation may be a calling for particular Christians, but the church as a whole is embedded in the context no less than the systems are. By being defined according to a different narrative, a holistic and unifying narrative, the early Christians were committed to the world, in the world, through the Spirit of Christ.

But, because of the mutual exclusivity established by and through the cross, Christians could not be identified with both the systems and the kingdom. Either Jesus was right in saying he was speaking for God, or the Jewish leaders were right. Either Rome is the way of peace, or Jesus gives us a more expansive way. Either the methodology of the zealots is the way to social reform, or the way of Jesus. The curious nature of the cross, however, also mitigates putting these two patterns in conflict. The way of Rome or any of the systems is self-protection and self-perpetuation, as is the goal of the human ego. The way of the kingdom, however, is a fractal transformation from within. The story erupts from a manger and consumes the Empire from below.

As this is an issue of a new way and a new identity, a re-birth into a new story that transforms one’s past, present, and future, it is not feasible to seek meaning in both approaches. One is either with Jesus on the cross. living in the narrative of God, or with those who put Jesus on the cross, living in the narrative of the systems of this world.

Posted in Jesus, liberation, theology | 4 Comments

Hope for the Oppressor

Here’s a bit from the conclusion of my newly completed (but not yet finished) book. Main writing is done, but there are a lot of assorted tasks to do before it’s ready for printing. Divine DanceFor now, though, I celebrate the end of the most significant stage. Writing is done, now on to editing.

A small part of what I had to say:

In this text, I am unapologetically pursuing a particularly Christian theology. Such an approach begins with presuppositions about the nature of this world, past and present and future. My fundamental argument is that liberation, true and lasting liberation, happens only in light of the work of Christ, oriented and empowered in the work of the Spirit who leads us to fullness in communion with the Father. Thus, this is also evangelistic. I am, as fits my abilities and the confines of this medium, preaching what has long been called the Good News. What makes this news good? God. This nature and engagement by God in creating, redeeming, and renewing this world is the heart of a gospel of liberation. This Good News is music we play, a rhythm we live, a chorus of like and unlike together joining together in celebration with God’s freedom. Liberation is indeed a new song.

Such liberation involves a transformation of desires, an empowering and enlivening renewal in which the best of who we are becomes fully realized. Such liberation does not negate achievement or pursuit of one’s best. If desires are repressed or if a person is restricted or their ability to achieve their goals is reduced, the tendency is to fall into despair or learned helplessness, where effort is no longer productive. In light of the Spirit, our pursuit of our best endures because we find fulfillment in being in rhythm with God’s work in our lives and contexts. While seemingly counterintuitive, this is the experience of artists, musicians, and others who are engaged in a task with passion. The efforts rarely result in riches but do lead towards fuller sense of self, in which broader acclaim or validation is not necessary. Our desires become integrated with each other and with this world, coherent with God and with others so that there is no longer a constant clashing of demands and restrictions. We experience a freedom for many that includes many. Liberation is a dance.

Posted in God, Holy Spirit, liberation, writing | 5 Comments

the liberative path of the cross

A little taste of what I’m writing these days:

The cross is a definitive call to reject the patterns of identity formation offered by the various systems in an environment. This is rightly understood as a way of death, rejecting the systems entails a rejection by the systems who seek to preserve and replicate their fundamental place in a society. The resurrection is the promise that rejecting such patterns will result in an even fuller life. Liberation of the oppressor comes through the way of the cross but promises a new story in light of the resurrection. Which brings us back to Moltmann’s admonition not to dwell on what people lose but what people gain. We let go patterns and systems of death and dissolution because we do not need their promises of identity or security. We are freed from such anonymizing demands. Radical trust in God leads to radical realignment with the systems, embedded in them with a cohesive narrative of the Spirit’s transformative power.

I’m about 25 pages into a look at various Scripture passages to see how they develop a theme of liberation of the oppressor. I’m arguing there’s a cohesive narrative and theme throughout Scripture on this, one that primarily is about letting go other forms of definition and finding our idenity in God, which brings freedom because by being free in God we become truly free to be who we are made to be in community with others who are free to who God has made them to be.   I hear a lot of critiques about theology texts, that they don’t engage Scripture.  I find engaging Scripture to be a key element to what I’m trying to do.

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Writing task of the day: liberation of the oppressor in light of Luke 22-23.

It’s a confrontation between God and human systems.

The cross is an expression of obedience and trust, both of Jesus and then by those who trust in this obedience for their own salvation. Whole trust in God that resists being co-opted by the systems of this world despite their claims for absolute authority and meaning.[1] As this is a pattern established by both the writings and the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures as well as in the ministry and teachings of Jesus, the Gospels are not simply passion narratives with extended introductions. What we see in the whole of the Gospels is a coherent expression of not only the solution to the crisis but also a living example of what it means to live this out in real contexts among real stories. It is the culmination of the whole narrative of Scripture thus far. The cross, then, is the end point, the fully exposed confrontation that exists throughout the ministry of Jesus, insisting on the ultimacy of God’s lordship across personal, social, and societal systems.

[1] This can be seen as a bookend to the temptation in the wilderness, where Jesus resisted the claimed benefits for the sake of sole allegiance to the Father. In the arrest and trial he faces the counterpart to the ways sin and systems work: they first offer the promise of benefits and then, if resisted, turn to threats. If a person does not give into their apparent goodness, they will be cowed by their power.

It’s always nice to risk an interpretation and find an expert there waiting for me.  After writing this, I had a peek a commentary to see if I was on track.

Joel Green, in his commentary on Luke 22 writes,

“Here resides the great irony of the conflict that weaves its way through the Third Gospel and reaches its climax in the Lukan passion narrative: Those who oppose Jesus believe themselves to be serving God, yet unwittingly serve a diabolic aim… Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been involved in a war of interpretation: Who understands and serves the divine aim, really? Who interprets and embodies the divine word, really? Because both Jerusalem authorities and Jesus see themselves as acting on behalf of the divine will, the acitions that unfold in chs. 22-23 are indeed tragic. They are, nonetheless, the fullest manifestation of the competing aims at work in the Gospel narrative, previously seen best in the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (4:1-13).”

My path of writing this present chapter on the narrative of Scripture involves creative exploration, but I’m very happy to see I’m ultimately not original. Gives me confidence as I press on.  I’d also add that the contrast also involves Rome and the zealots, each of which are offering their own interpretation of the divine will.

 

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