The Gospel Gives Us a Strange and Peculiar Perspective

After decades of loving the musical, Les Miserables, I am finally reading Victor Hugo’s novel. I found this passage describing Bishop Myriel especially inviting. (He is the bishop who later forgives Jean Valjean and sets him on a path of compassion):

He was indulgent towards women, and towards the poor, upon whom the weight of society falls most heavily; and said: “The faults of women, children, and servants, of the feeble, the indigent and the ignorant, are the faults of their husbands, fathers, and masters, of the strong, the rich, and the wise.” At other times, he said, “Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

As we see, he had a strange and peculiar way of judging things. I suspect that he acquired it from the Gospel.

I want to emphasize Hugo’s summation of Myriel’s outlook. What a wonderful and haunting thought. May our encounter with the gospel of Jesus Christ change us in such a way that the world around us would consider our way of judging things, “strange and peculiar.” Gaining respectability and social power are temptations we always face, but we have to admit there are simply some things about the gospel that will never make sense in our world.

For example, the Christian practices of forgiving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek, and radical generosity and hospitality are all peculiar and nearly unintelligible in our world. Forgiveness seems unwise or even dangerous in our culture that keeps long accounts. Turning the other cheek makes no sense. Retaliation in the form of a punch, social snub, lawsuit, or drone strike, is seen as far more reasonable. Giving of one’s money, time, and abilities for the sake of others on occasion is admired in our culture. But to make a habit of it at the expense of one’s career advancement or lifestyle is foolish.

During Lent, we take an inventory of our lives. We peer into our darkness and seek to repent of sinning against God and others “by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” We seek the grace of God to change how we think and act. These are peculiar acts for they are intentional practices to align ourselves with God’s mission in the world, and not a part of a self-improvement program. The great fast of Lent reveals our disordered desires and willingness to place our trust in that which cannot save us. We are once again invited to a deeper conversion to God’s kingdom. The strange gospel of Jesus Christ takes our focus off ourselves and puts it onto God and our neighbors.

Bishop Myriel says later in the novel:

Have no fear of robbers and murderers. Such dangers are without, and are but petty. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. What matters it what threatens our heads and our purses? Let us think only of what threatens our souls.

This is a fantastic exhortation for us during this holy season. In the remaining weeks of Lent, have the courage to confront what threatens your soul. And may God bless you with an encounter with the gospel—that inviting, challenging, comforting, perplexing, strange, and peculiar good news.

The Earthy Transcendence of U2’s Lyrics

Lately my music rotation has leaned heavily on U2. (Shocking, I know, that a Christian white male in his mid-30’s likes U2. It just proves some stereotypes are true.) While I love the music, I find myself in this season drawn specifically to Bono’s lyrics. His words evoke an earthy transcendence that is at the same time grounded in the beauty and muck of this world and open to a greater reality out there.

This is not an easy feat. Writers are stuck between two poles. At the one end is the claim the stuff we see, hear, feel, smell, and taste is all there is. Existence is nothing more than a bunch of atoms thrown together at random. Your atoms are animated for a few decades and then you die and that’s it. That’s not to say art that espouses this materialist view cannot be beautiful or wonderful. It’s just that this view will never reach real transcendence.

At the other pole writers deny the value of the physical world and claim only the spiritual or more ephemeral ultimately matters. This kind of writing hopes for transcendence, but really it is gnostic and escapist. It resonates with our longing for a better world. It cannot give a true account of our experiences of pain and goodness in the physical world we inhabit. If writing at the first pole cannot lift off the ground, the writing at the second pole cannot connect with the real dirt between our toes.

Bono’s lyrics don’t merely vacillate between the two poles. Rather, his words wake us up to the wonder of the everyday stuff like father-son relationships and medical breakthroughs and shoes walking down the street. Like other great poets, Bono can see ocean waves breaking on the shore as massive forces of H2O and as metaphors for a couple in a relationship stuck in a cycle of doom and rebirth.

For however lofty Bono’s lyrics can be in imagining a world shaped by compassion, I love how unsentimental and unromantic they are. Take the great song, “One,” from Achtung Baby. In it he sings, “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” In this one lyric he turns on its head every flimsy free-love song from the 1960’s that claimed people are all the same. Bono acknowledges our essential differences that are not easily reconciled, but reminds us we are all in this together. The result is, “We get to carry each other.” Notice carrying each other is not considered a natural reflex. We have to choose to care for one another. Whether it’s the father we have fought with for decades, the spouse who has raised children with us, or our enemy, we must make conscious decisions for love, oneness, and unity. True love doesn’t eliminate our differences. True love simply doesn’t allow those differences to keep us apart, it embraces the differences of the other.

Consider, “Love and Peace or Else.” The title alone shocks us as Bono mingles a Summer of Love image with a threat. As we listen to the song, we see Bono further grounding the ideas from “One” in the realities of generational religious and ethnic conflict. “All you daughters of Zion” and “All you Abraham’s sons,” the seemingly eternally warring adherents of the Abrahamic religions, are all called to “lay down your guns.” Again, Bono makes no claim that love and peace are our natural states. Love and peace are hard choices requiring work on our part. We have to decide, we have to act to, “Break the monster’s back.” This anti-war song continues the tradition of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” in which Bono claims “Tonight we can be as one,” which requires the disciplines of seeing the truth, rejecting being immune to others’ suffering, and “To claim the victory Jesus won.”

In rejecting a sentimental view of life while also acknowledging a transcendent reality, Bono evokes the biblical language of the psalmists. A pie-in-the-sky view of reality cannot help us stand against evil and injustice. The best we can hope for is escape. Plenty of pop music offers us escapist denial. A view of reality completely lacking transcendence can only see the mire. It can name injustice without real hope of a better world. At most we can hope that enough random atoms will move in a random way in enough random people that they accidentally commit to peace and unity. Ultimately we despair.

Because Bono does not deny the reality of suffering nor the reality of a better world, he can truly hope, he can lament like the psalmists. So he can sing to Jesus, “Wake up dead man,” as he deplores being alone in this world. He can also recognize goodness breaking through the cracks. First hearing the Ramones is for him a miraculous experience that gives him his vocation—he recognizes music will allow him to “exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” The physical world points us to a greater good. “Freedom has a scent like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”

I am attracted to Bono’s lyrics during this season because they remind me of two important realities: the stuff around me is not all there is and there is wonder and mystery infused in that same stuff. Bedouin fires, the Chinese landscape, even oilfields at sunrise wake us up to a beautiful day in which we can once again be shocked out of our stupor and ask for help to have eyes open to transcendence.

Touch me

Take me to that other place

Teach me

I know I’m not a hopeless case

The Most Basic Political Practice for Primary Season

“The most basic political practice for us is not voting, it is not petitioning elected representatives. For followers of Yahweh, our most basic political practice is prayer.” —from The Politics of Praise

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With the Iowa caucuses, voters have rendered irrelevant earlier prognostications of which candidates will succeed. We have already seen a number suspend or end their campaigns. Citizens in other states will soon cast their own votes for candidates to become their party’s presidential nominee. Each voter will evaluate which candidate’s values best lines up with theirs.

Do we stop to ask what shapes our values and political commitments? I am challenged by this question when I consider how much time I spend to reading news articles and opinions about the candidates. I believe being an informed voter is essential, but I probably give more energy to political reportage and debate than I do to prayer.

For followers of Christ, ensuring our values stem from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is vastly important. It is easy to acquiesce to the loudest voices and uncritically adopt the agendas of candidates or political parties as our own.

Prayer, reflecting on Scripture, and engagement in Christian community are essential practices to make sure our political values reflect the God we worship.

Last year I published a devotional, The Politics of Praise: Devotional Readings on Psalms 72 & 146, that helps readers pray through these two very political psalms. Psalm 146 is a terrific prayer as we listen to candidates share their agendas. Praying this psalm allows us to see God’s agenda of creation, justice for the oppressed, and renewal for the abandoned. Psalm 72 is a prayer for governmental leaders, but it gives us an image of the kind of nation God blesses. This is a nation that prioritizes the weak and needy, the people on the margins.

I encourage you to pray through these psalms as you consider which candidate will receive your vote. May we use these psalms as guides to petition the candidates to, “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72.4)

The Politics of Praise is available in both the Kindle format and paperback at Amazon.

“Do Not Be Afraid!” Luke 2.8-14

The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on December 6, 2015 for the second Sunday in Advent at The Creek Covenant Church.

John August Swanson, Shepherds, 1985.

In the region of Bethlehem, there are shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. It is moonless and surprisingly warm. Three shepherds lay on their bedrolls around the dying fire. Down the hill, in the distance, only a few windows of Bethlehem are still lit. The town is mostly asleep. The fourth shepherd, Annas, sits with his back to the fire and looks out at the flock of sheep, as he has the first watch of the night. A few sheep bleat out, but mostly he hears them breathing deeply in slumber.

The other shepherds don’t speak and though they are tired down to their bones, sleep eludes them. Their minds are full of those worries that seem to only plague us at night when all is quiet. The deep fears we keep at bay most of the waking hours through busyness and distraction. But when there are no more tasks to take our attention, our minds can’t seem to stop the flood of worst case scenarios, existential doubts, and thousands of forms of the unanswerable question, “What if?”

Josiah, the oldest of the shepherds rolls onto his side, feeling each muscle as it aches. As a shepherd, he’s a peasant in his world. [1] Like his coworkers, he owns a little land, but not enough to feed his family. Each year he tends someone else’s sheep, spending weeks on the hillsides around Bethlehem away from his wife and children and grandchildren. The pay is meager, but enough. Taxes from the local governments and the Roman Empire are costly. If he can’t afford those, he will be thrown into prison until his family can pay up. Living on a hillside among filthy livestock is better than rotting in a debtor’s prison.

Josiah rolls again, unable to find a comfortable position. He knows these are not merely the sore muscles that come with his profession. Each pain is more intense, and they linger longer than last year. He knows these pains are a sign that he won’t be able to meet the physical demands of shepherding much longer. And then he will have to scramble to find work. Just when he wants to be falling sleep, his pulse quickens as he worries about his wife and family. His younger brother recently fell ill and Josiah’s family has started to provide for his brother’s family. If they are any more generous there won’t be enough to go around. They can’t sell off much more of their land. They live close to hand-to-mouth as it is. Josiah feels like he’s on a sinking boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It’s too far from shore to swim to safety. If he stays on the boat, he drowns. If he jumps off, he drowns. His boss probably won’t hire him for many more seasons. But where else can he find work?

Annas, with his back to the fire, now stares at the sky bright with stars. As the youngest shepherd, he is lowest in authority, even among a group of men who are essentially nobodies in their society. Annas gets all the menial tasks, including the longest watch of the night. His mind turns to the Roman Empire.

He wants Israel to be free. Annas can’t stand the Romans and their oppression. He hates the soldiers ordering people around. He despises the political leaders who announce new laws and taxes on a whim. Annas sees through the cynical attempts of the Roman leaders to buy the people’s good will through building theaters and arenas—just distractions to keep the people of Israel from remembering that they live in exile in their homeland.

Annas is terrified of the Roman Empire’s violent power. He’s seen the bodies of revolutionaries hanging on crosses along the road. These invading foreigners might destroy him, his family, all that he knows. They have the swords, the numbers, the might—and they don’t seem to care one iota about the lives of the Jewish people. Annas knows the history of what happened when Israel tried to fight Rome and was decimated. His fear of the Romans manifests itself in two ways: sometimes his fear becomes hatred and he imagines joining a rebel group and killing Roman soldiers. Other times his fear causes him to freeze. Will he live his whole life under the thumb of an Emperor several thousands of miles away? Tonight Annas vacillates between fearful hatred that makes violence seem reasonable and fearful surrender to the awful thought that he has no hope of freedom. His parents want him to marry and have a family. But how can anyone think of having children in a hopeless world full of so much terror?

Hezekiah lies on his side, his eyes nervously darting from the embers of the fire to each of his coworkers. Earlier in the day he lost four sheep. He thinks they wandered into a ravine, but he can’t be sure. He didn’t tell the other shepherds about it due to his embarrassment. Hezekiah can only hope they won’t find out until the end of the season. Their pay is determined by the number of sheep they return when it is time for shearing and slaughter. Some loss is always expected, but this has been a tough season already. And Hezekiah has been responsible for most of that loss. The other shepherds barely spoke to him for three days when two sheep died under his care.

Hezekiah came to shepherding reluctantly. He grew up working in the grain fields. He is much more comfortable harvesting plants than herding livestock. But the pay watching sheep is better and he has a growing family. He has never felt secure in this role. He is afraid his coworkers think he is incompetent or a fraud. He fears disappointing his wife and children if he does not bring home decent pay. He worries his neighbors will see him as a failure if he leaves shepherding. He dare not speak any of these fears to anyone because he doesn’t want to appear weak. Hezekiah takes a deep, nervous breath, and pulls the blanket over his head.

The final shepherd, Judah lies on his back, eyes closed, lips silently moving as he recites prayers. The other shepherds know him to be the most religiously devout of their group. He regularly quotes the verses from the psalms that refer to shepherding and often reminds the others that the great king David was a shepherd. But tonight, as he prays, Judah feels no connection to Yahweh God. It is as if he is speaking into a void.

Judah opens his eyes and looks into the darkness between the stars. As long as he can remember he has prayed for Messiah to come. His parents prayed for Messiah to come their whole lives. His grandparents prayed too. And their parents and their parents, going back generations. Why has God not sent Messiah, who will lead Israel back into faithfulness, and who will establish Yahweh’s kingdom here on Earth?

Judah thinks about the centuries of waiting for the promised messiah and he wonders why does God delay? Maybe God doesn’t really care about the people of Israel. What if Yahweh has decided to leave the world alone to its own devices? Or what if the belief in God’s redeeming messiah is just a story the people of Israel made up? Judah grows afraid as he entertains this thought. What if all his hope, all the hope of the people praying in the Temple and synagogues, is placed on a figment of someone’s imagination, or worse, on a hoax? What other answers can there be for God’s delay? Either God no longer cares or the hope of Messiah coming to Earth is a lie. And if the hope of Messiah is a false hope, isn’t the whole Jewish faith false too?

Judah finishes reciting his prayer and he receives no comfort. He doesn’t feel God’s presence. His certainty in God’s goodness is not stronger. Instead his doubt has increased. The fear that he is alone in this world has strengthened. Judah looks at the fire, the brush, the rocks. He sees the silhouettes of the sleeping sheep. He looks at the stars and the dark, dark night, and he asks that terrifying question, “What if this is all there is?”

Four shepherds around a fire, ruminating on their doubts and fears. Fearful there won’t be enough to provide for their families. Frightened of the violence and terror in the world. Scared others might reject them if they are truly known. Petrified at the thought that God does not care, or God does not exist and they are alone in the world. These shepherds, who live on one of the lowest rungs of society’s ladder, lie awake unable to sleep and overcome by fear.

Then an angel of the Lord stands before them, and the glory of the Lord shines around them, and they are terrified. But the angel says to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” [2]  Continue reading

The Most Powerful Verb

Pick up a writing manual or style guide and you will find exhortations for writers to use powerful, active verbs. These guides usually list “to be” and all its forms as one of the weakest verbs writers should avoid. Writing littered with “to be” verbs makes the author appear lazy and unimaginative. Instead of writing, “This pizza is delicious,” one could write the stronger sentence, “This pizza tastes delicious.” In the first example, the sentence only implies the pizza encountering something other than itself. It merely states the pizza is. In the second example, the pizza affects the eater’s sense of taste. The pizza evokes a response from the person eating it.

We would say, “There is a rock,” is a far less interesting sentence than, “The rock plummeted down the canyon wall.” What a shame. In the reality outside the written world, “to be” is the most powerful verb we have. The fact the rock exists at all is far more powerful than its plummeting down a canyon. The rock’s ability to plummet or crush or sit depends on there being a rock in the first place.

All our actions for good or ill, all our successes and failures, depend on our existence. Your abilities to create music, swim in a lake, or hug your family are not greater than the fact that you are. Perhaps we do not consider the wonder of our being because it is not something we accomplished. You did not bring about your existence, you received it. But you are. And that is truly an amazing thing.

We take existence for granted by subordinating it to utility. The tree in my front yard shades our house and it looks nice, but it is not wondrous primarily because of what it accomplishes for my family. Its very existence is something to behold. The tree is at once both gratuitous and necessary. That one tree does not necessarily have to be, yet it does exist all the same. And the very fact that it is, leaves an indelible mark on all reality. The tree is a part of this world and this world would not be the world we know without it.

We unfortunately see the wonder of being rarely and usually when the major turns of life overwhelm us. The birth of a child awakens us to the gratuitousness of existence. This new child comes into the world seemingly out of nowhere and we see her existence as a gift beyond our powers of accomplishment. The death of a loved one reminds us just how necessary that person’s existence was. Their absence forever changes the world and no amount of healing will ever fully replace the gap they left. Birthdays can be annual reminders of the miracle of existence, if we take the opportunity to reflect.

Some languages don’t use the verb “to be” much—it is implied by the syntax of the sentence. But your existence is not a verb implied by the syntax of our world. Your being is both a gift and necessity. Further, your neighbor’s, friend’s, mother’s, co-worker’s, classmate’s, child’s, brother’s, and enemy’s existence is both a gift and necessity. “To be” is truly the strongest verb imaginable.