Thursday, May 30, 2013

Two Invitations

This summer at Arlington, we're reading the New Testament together using a reading plan from the Optina Community in Russia, courtesy of our friends at YouVersion. The plan involves reading one chapter from the gospels every day, then two from the rest of the New Testament, beginning with Acts. At the end of 89 days (which takes us from Memorial Day up to a few days before Labor Day), we'll have read the entire New Testament together.

Click on the links to learn more and participate with us if you're so inclined.

I'm going to occasionally blog about the day's readings if I find something interesting, as I did today.

I'm on day 4 of the plan, which involved reading Matthew 4.

I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, because I love both of these stories and I've preached on them numerous times, but it occurred to me this morning that these two stories are in the same chapter, and their proximity brings out an interesting contrast.

In the first story, Matthew 4:1-11, John has just baptized Jesus in the Jordan, and Jesus heads out for a long retreat in the desert that culminates in a proof-texting joust with ha-Satan. The absolute best meditation on this story I've ever seen is Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus. In the second story, Matthew 4:18-22, Jesus calls some fishermen as his first disciples.

As I was reading the chapter as a whole this morning, it occurred to me that both of these stories involve one person inviting another to do something significant, and the contrast in these invitations spoke to me about the crossroads we find ourselves at in the church today.

Jesus' verbal sparring match with the devil involved three challenges that either implied or outright promised a specific reward: "You've been fasting for 40 days. Hungry? Make some food out of these rocks. Heck, with that kind of power, you could solve the world hunger problem!" "Want people to listen to you? Do a cool trick so they'll know you're for real!" "Swear allegiance to me and I'll give you the keys to this whole place. Think of all the good you can do!"

Jesus' call to those first disciples simply invited them to act. "Follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people".

In a consumer oriented society, where you can't go anywhere without being bombarded by advertisements, one has to do something pretty special to rise above the din and get people's attention. We in the church spend lots of time and money figuring out how to most effectively answer the "what's in it for me?" question. We say things like "we will strengthen your family", "we'll show you how to find true happiness and fulfillment", or "you can punch your ticket to Heaven here".

None of these things are inherently bad, of course, but the message is fundamentally self-centered. "Here is what this will do for YOU."

Setting aside for a moment that the temptations were from the devil, none of the things Jesus were being challenged to were inherently bad, either. They would have allowed him to accomplish his mission in a much more efficient manner. The problem is that he would have been glorifying himself, instead of letting God work and provide the ultimate glory of the Resurrection.

Jesus' invitation to his first followers, on the other hand, has little to do with their own personal gain. He only invites them to follow with some vague metaphor that helps them understand that their new mission will be at least a little bit like what they already do: fish.

Perhaps the correct response to a consumer driven, ME oriented culture is not to make our message a barely Christianized version of an ad for a washing machine, but to offer a real alternative to all these other things that may promise ultimate fulfillment, but ultimately leave us feeling more empty and more alone.

This is a terrible marketing strategy, of course. We won't promise a stronger family, greater financial security, or certainty about anything, really. We can't promise bigger churches with more people in the pews and more dollars in the plates, who pay their full year's apportionments on January 1 (my apologies to Bishops and District Superintendents).

All we really have to offer is the promise of being part of something bigger than ourselves. We have the opportunity to the never-ending ME addiction of our consumer society and make a difference in the world that lasts after machines break down and clothes wear out.

In the process, we just might find a stronger family, more fulfillment, and all that other stuff, but it's one of the perks along the way rather than the end goal.

Maybe we should drop all the ME oriented marketing. Maybe our logos should say, "Let's get over ourselves and go do something meaningful". That's probably a bad marketing strategy, but it did work for Jesus. It's worth a shot.

Friday, May 24, 2013

What Warms Your Heart? (Strangely or otherwise)

Today is a special holiday for Methodists. Some call it Aldersgate Day, others Heart-warming Day, others simply Wesley Day. We celebrate the anniversary of John Wesley's "heart-warming" experience, which in some ways is unfair because his brother, Charles, had a similar experience three days earlier.

275 years ago, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley had an experience of his heart being "strangely warmed" at a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. It was not a "conversion" experience in the sense that he became a follower of Jesus in that moment. He had been a deeply committed Christian all his life. But Wesley had just arrived back in England after a missionary stint in the American colonies that was a complete and total disaster.

Wesley had grown up in a very pious home, and his type-A personality led him to try to control everything. As a result, he was always trying to earn God's love, and he had finally hit a wall and realized he couldn't be good enough and work hard enough to be worthy (however he defined that) in God's eyes. At this prayer meeting, he was hearing someone read from Martin Luther's Preface to Romans, expounding on Paul's theme of how grace and nothing else connects us to God and makes us whole.

While none of Luther's works, particularly this one, are the most heart-warming things one can read, it spoke to the point of crisis that Wesley found himself in. He finally let go and made room for the Holy Spirit to assure him that he was right with God.

On this Aldersgate Day, I see the church wrestling with itself over how to "get it right". We assume that if we get our theology or ethics correct, if we have the proper stance on human sexuality, if we worship better or make better appointments, or generally achieve any kind of "better" performance (again, however you define that), that God will approve of us and shower us with blessings of more people in the pews and dollars in the plate.

So today, let's "let go", even just for a moment. Let's set aside all these things that we argue about, important though they are, and simply celebrate what we already see God doing amongst us. What warms your heart today?

It warms my heart to see the people in Oklahoma who are helping their neighbors dig through the rubble of their houses, even though their own house was destroyed, too.

It warms my heart to see the people in my church who are the most materially needy be the first to volunteer to serve others who are in need.

It warms my heart to see people reconcile with one another and let go of old grudges when they realize that life is too short to stay mad at one another.

Update: it warms my heart to see this! A Sikh woman's gracious response to a rude post on Reddit actually caused the poster to reconsider his actions, open his mind, and apologize! (there are some 4 letter words, but the heart-warming awesomeness is worth it)

Those are some of the things that warm my heart on this   Day. What warms your heart? Leave a comment and let's bless each other today.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness and Theological Anthropology

Warning 1: SPOILERS to follow. If you haven't seen Star Trek: Into Darkness (you really should, and it's worth the extra few bucks to see it in IMAX 3D) and you don't want to know what happens, bookmark this post and read it later.

Warning 2: major geekiness follows, of both the sci-fi and theology varieties.

You have been warned.

Before seeing the new Star Trek movie, I read a number of reviews that had wildly different takes on it. Some said that it was amazing and the reason you go to the movies in the summer. Others couldn't get over the massive leaps in logic and the rather deux ex machina nature of the ending. Still others fixated on all the references to other Star Trek stories. I figured that someone had to be wrong and someone had to be right.

Well, it turns out that they're all right, in their own way. The effects are incredible, if somewhat overbearing. And there are lots of references not only to other Star Trek stories, but to other movies, as well. A fight scene near the end makes one think of the Mustafar battle between Obi-wan and Anakin in Star Wars episode III. A scene near the beginning where "John Harrison" wipes out many of Starfleet's top officers seems very similar to a scene in Godfather III. I kept waiting for an admiral to protest leaving his lucky coat.

I think this latter aspect of the movie says a lot about the cultural moment we find ourselves in, where we're obsessed with irony and seem to award cool-points for one's ability to make as many clever pop culture references as possible. Family Guy and the Scary Movie franchise are prime examples.

The frequent references to other Trek stories struck some as lazy storytelling. After all, the JJ Abrams reboot found the best of both worlds, blending the established universe and characters with a clean slate/alternate reality thanks to some time traveling Romulans. The photo above appeared in the very first trailers, and I figured that's as far as the reference to the final scene in Wrath of Kahn would go. It turns out I was wrong.

Why not take advantage of the clean slate? Why not introduce new characters and new stories? After all, the alternate timeline leaves them un-beholden to the Trek cannon. Why tempt fate by risking the new Kahn not measuring up to Ricardo Montalban? (no worries there- Benedict Cumberbatch owns it)

We don't know if the filmmakers are making any kind of explicitly theological or philosophical statement. Probably not, as JJ Abrams has said he initially preferred Star Wars over Star Trek because the latter was "too philisophical". Nevertheless, he has created shows like Lost that have all sorts of latent theology, whether intended or not.

But, narrative choices aside, simply looking at all the similarities between the "old" timeline and the "new" raises questions of theological anthropology: how we understand humanity overall and individual personhood in relationship to the divine.

The similarities between Into Darkness and Wrath of Kahn go far beyond the presence of the titular character. A core idea explicitly stated by Spock in both movies is that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", both spoken at times when he was prepared to sacrifice himself for the good of a larger group.

Both films feature a main character entering a lethal radiation zone to fix a mechanical problem that would allow the ship to warp out of danger, saving the crew, but killing the person in the process. In Darkness, Kirk even tells Spock that his self sacrifice is "what you would have done".

Both death scenes feature a conversation between Kirk and Spock through the glass, the person on the outside having to be held back from trying to rescue their friend (again, see the photo above). And, of course, both characters are resurrected sooner or later so the adventures can continue.

Again, putting aside the question of what the screen writers were thinking, how is it that such similar things would happen in two different timelines? The alternate realities were created by time travelers who altered Kirk's life in a major way by ensuring that he grew up without a father. The butterfly effect resulted in Kirk and Spock meeting and forming their friendship under extremely different circumstances.

From these differences, one might conclude that such formative events might have led Kirk to become a fundamentally different person, one with whom Spock would have never developed a friendship. In fact, the first movie heavily suggests that their friendship would never have happened if not for the intervention of Spock Prime (the Spock from the original timeline who ends up in the alternate). But neither of these conclusions turns out to be right.

So clearly, there is the latent idea in the story that one's circumstances only have a superficial influence on who one is at the core of their being- that there is some kind of fundamental created personhood that cannot be undone no matter what happens to us. In other words, nature is more powerful than nurture.

The Arminian aspect of my theological heritage doesn't like the implications here. If Kirk and Spock are fundamentally wired to be a certain way, are they really free to choose these actions that come from their gut? Is their choice to sacrifice themselves to save others really heroic if it's not really a choice?

Then again, there is something appealing about a story where nature trumps nurture. The fundamental goodness in each of these characters, particularly the way they make one another better, can't be changed by those external circumstances. Perhaps that says something about the perseverance of grace in the face of all obstacles.

That would, of course, also suggest that Khan was going to be evil no matter what. But he's genetically engineered to be a megalomaniac, so perhaps the bad hands he's dealt in each respective timeline override the fleeting glimpses of altruism and genuine human emotion he displays at certain moments.

So, do you agree with the theological anthropology inherent in Into Darkness? Are we who we were created to be, regardless of things that happen to us that are out of our control? Or does nurture have a much bigger influence than Abrams and company give it credit for?

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thoughts on the National Day of Prayer

Today, May 2, is designated as the National Day of Prayer and has been officially observed every year since 1952. There are massive public prayer gatherings all over the nation today, which is great.

Two thoughts as I ponder this day and what it says about our culture:

1. Participate in these gatherings for the right reasons, not just to make a show. Matthew Paul Turner put it perfectly, borrowing the form of Matthew 6:5-6:

And when you pray on National Day of Prayer, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to post about their praying on Facebook and Twitter and take pictures of themselves kneeling beside flags and in groups so they can be seen by others on Instagram. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

2. Let your prayer motivate you to action. If you attend a downtown prayer rally but ignore half a dozen homeless people as you walk back to your car, then you've wasted your time. Let your prayer open your heart to see the person at your job or in your school who is lonely and excluded. As the apostle James wrote (James 2:14-17), your faith isn't alive unless it leads you to action.