On the Need For Artists

The world lost an incredible woman this morning when Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. She was a poet leader whose inspiring works were matched only by her inspiring life.

The extraordinary outpouring at Maya Angelou’s passing reminds us that the world is not clamoring for more theologians or more men standing at podiums dispensing answers. No, the deepest desire and yearning of the world is for artists: poets and writers and painters, sculptors and actors and musicians who can cut through the noise of life and make. us. feel. Artists who speak to what it means to be human and inspire us to be better.

It strikes me that Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He never dealt in big words or complex theories, never got bogged down in the minutia of religious argument. He simply told simple stories to simple people, and yet his stories had deep, meaningful impact. He made a habit out of answering questions with questions, inviting people to be curious and explore rather than dispensing answers from on high. Jesus cared more about systemic injustice than systematic theology.

May we follow in Maya Angelou’s footsteps — indeed, the very footsteps of Jesus! — and dream of a better world, then join God as creative artists to make that dream, the Kingdom of God, come true.

Of Holidays and Citizenship

‘Tis the season for gentle snowfall, sipping hot cocoa by the fire, hanging lights, and… fighting a fierce and bloody war to defend the holiday of Christmas.

That’s right, it’s officially War on Christmas TM time, boys and girls. And that means leaving no stone unturned in the search for things to be offended by. No baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn? Persecution! No “Silent Night” at the kid’s Christmas program? To arms! Calling it “winter break” instead of “Christmas Break”? Battle stations, everyone! Someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas?” It’s a horseman of the apocalypse!

We’ve even moved beyond those traditional theaters of war this year into the realm of not-so-subtle racism, with Fox News battling suggestions of inclusivity by making sure everyone knows the “verifiable fact” that both Jesus and Santa Claus are white.

Look, I get it. I really do. Drawing battle lines, creating a “them” for “us” to rally against, engaging in a war… it makes sense. It does. We do it because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Morally superior. It gives us a (twisted) sense of purpose and calling, something that feels worthwhile to accomplish. And it allows us to create a separate group of people, whom we can blame everything on when anything goes wrong. Drawing battle lines creates a built-in scapegoat for all our problems and issues.

Underlying it all is the unspoken assumption, our expectation, that our civic leadership endorse and embrace our specific religious belief system. Until they do, and do so wholeheartedly, we will continue to find (or create) reasons to be upset and offended.

Unfortunately, all of this runs contrary to how I read the narrative of faith in the Bible. That narrative, to me, majors on a theme of inclusivity, not exclusivity… a theme of tearing down walls rather than building them, erasing battle lines instead of drawing them. It centers on an idea of loving everybody (even regardless of what holiday greeting they use), and beating our swords into plowshares. To give up the battle in favor of gardening. To stop destroying and start creating.

Along with that, this narrative teaches me something about who I am as well, and it couches it in terms of citizenship. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” Paul writes at one point, not in this world. For Paul, this was a direct contrast to his Roman (read: privileged) citizenship. For us, let’s make some folks uncomfortable: We are not citizens of America. We are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven.

There’s no dual citizenship here. There’s no foot-in-both-worlds possibility. When we choose to become citizens in the Kingdom, we renounce our citizenship in the world. We renounce our American citizenship.

We’re not “Christians first, Americans second” — we are, essentially, no longer Americans.

That idea has far reaching implications on a number of levels and issues. But during this time of year, the holiday season, what it means to me is it does not matter whether or not civic leaders legitimize the symbols of our faith — the symbols of a rival and competing kingdom.

It does not matter where we may or may not be not allowed to place images of Jesus… after all, the image of our Creator is borne by all of us in flesh and blood, not in plastic light-up made-in-China dolls.

It does not matter what holiday greeting you receive in a checkout line… after all, Jesus’ most valuable lesson was that Christians ought to demand privileged status in society and be offended when we don’t receive it. Or the exact opposite of that. Whatever.

Loving God and loving people, sacrificing yourself for the sake of others, is what being a citizen in the Kingdom of God is all about. And doing that most assuredly does not require putting a label of “Christmas” on everything or having a white baby Jesus doll on a public lawn.

Heaven and Nature Sing

We like to think of heaven, at least subconsciously, as being “up.”

After all, that’s the direction Jesus went when he ascended into heaven, right? He was “taken up” and his students were left with their mouths hanging open, “gazing up into heaven.”

But that’s not all of the story. In fact, that misses a central plotline in the story.

When Jesus came to earth (down to earth?) it was a miraculous moment because heaven — the vast, unreachable heaven, was colliding with earth. It was a collision which had occurred only a few times ever before, and never lasted long. This time would be different, though: this time, heaven would remain on earth.

Jesus came to institute the kingdom of heaven on earth. That’s the narrative of the good news stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He didn’t come to whisk people away to some far off land, or to make us pine for a place we couldn’t yet be.

He taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He taught us that heaven was like yeast, slowly working its way through a batch of dough. He taught us heaven grows on earth like a plant grows from a seed.

In other words, heaven on earth started small, with the birth of a baby boy, and now it continues to grow, to work its way through a weary world. It grows and spreads with every decision we make to bring life instead of death, love instead of hate, peace instead of war.

And it grows and spreads by the power of heaven’s King even while we sleep or do nothing or screw up.

This advent season, look around you. You’ll see lots of pain, brokenness, injustice, and hurt. These are opportunities to grow and spread heaven on earth. And look around you some more. You’ll also see lots of joy, love, peace, and hope. These are evidences of the truth: when Jesus ascended, he left heaven here on earth for us.

If you’re looking for heaven this holiday season, don’t look up — look around you.

Enemies at the Table

You had to know it would happen.

After every major natural disaster, someone in the Christian community makes an insensitive post about how the disaster and the subsequent loss of life was the mighty hand of God’s judgment against sin (usually gays or abortion doctors), or about how we all deserve death anyway and so really it’s not that bad.

And I get it. I really do. I get the desire to explain away the hard things. I get the yearning to tuck away the destruction of an elementary school and a daycare center into a neat theological file folder so it doesn’t shake your faith too badly. I get the temptation to take the horrendously misused doctrine of total depravity and push it to its logical (and heartless) ends.

I get it. I used to be there, I used to do the same things. If the internet had birthed the world of blogging ten or fifteen years ago, I would have been right there, passionately writing those same themes and ideas — and powerfully alienating the hurting and grieving communities who most needed to see the mercy and compassion of God.

I would have been right there, alongside John Piper who has made headlines again after a ludicrously callous tweet, quoting a Bible verse about a house collapsing and sons and daughters dying (made in a weak effort to point people to God’s sovereignty). I would have been right there, alongside Pat Robertson who has made headlines again after saying if the people in Oklahoma had just been praying more, then God would have intervened and stopped the tornado. I would have been right there in the thick of it all, defending God… rather than having compassion on broken people.

But listen: I don’t blame John Piper and Pat Robertson and others for their comments. Those sorts of comments are born out of a particular philosophy, a certain perspective, an understanding and approach to the world that I once shared. It’s an approach that says to be a leader you have to have all the answers. You have to be able to explain everything. You have to know or else people won’t follow.

They are comments made in response to an incredulous world asking, “Why would God send a tornado like this?” or alternatively, “Why would God allow a tornado like this?”

Once upon a time I thought the most important thing was to be able to answer that question.

Now, I am finding the best response is perhaps the most honest one: I don’t know. I don’t have any idea why God would send or allow something like this. God’s ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Maybe it’s because of sin, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s because he’s angry, or maybe it’s not.

Maybe the answer to that question isn’t as important as just loving the people who are directly affected.

Whether that be through financial donations, or traveling to do disaster relief, or praying for the victims, or sending cards and letters, or whatever… acts of love speak infinitely more loudly than any sort of jumbled mess of an answer we can stitch together.

So I don’t blame the folks making those comments, because I understand where they’re coming from. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t blame them. I also don’t blame them because they are part of my family. They are part of my spiritual, jacked up, messed up, eclectic family and they are adopted children of God just as I am.

But it’s become sport in the world of Christianity to hurl insults at our family members. Back in February, I wrote about what happens when our fellow Christians make public displays of ridiculousness:

What happens is we distance ourselves as far as possible from the offending party… We are quick to announce to the world, “We are not like them.”

[I]t becomes a race to see who can denounce the others in the harshest, most public manner possible. “Open letters” are posted, interviews are given, sermons full of warnings and labels and epithets are delivered, websites are launched… But here’s my plea: can we please stop distancing ourselves from one another, and instead band together to help one another?

…I understand you want people to see you are not like Mark Driscoll. I understand you want people to see you are not like Rob Bell. I understand you want people to see you are not like Ted Haggard or Eddie Long or Catholic priests. So rather than rant and condemn, show them.

And love those whom you are not like. Maybe in that process, you’ll realize you are more like them than you care to admit. And you’ll realize we all need help and are all in this together. As one big jacked up family.

This debate is heating up again with Rachel Held Evans taking Piper to task for his latest comments. And I don’t blame Rachel for her passion and her blog post, either, because I understand where she’s coming from, too. She has a heart to see people fall in love with Jesus and experience freedom in the Kingdom of God, and it pains her to see things like Piper’s comments that hinder that journey for folks. Believe me, I get that.

And I get that for some people out there, this is a cause that forces one to take sides – to choose Rachel or John – and respond with tribalistic passion in defending your choice.

I get that, but I hope and pray that we all get something else: division is not healthy. Unity is God’s desire. We are called to love, not to tear apart.

Look: for pastoral care and wisdom and shepherding, I would take Rachel Held Evans over John Piper any day. But in the Kingdom of God, I do not have to choose. There is room at the table for both of them.

If this were truly a family reunion, I think John Piper would be our crazy uncle who stands in the corner saying embarrassing things that everyone shakes their head at. And I know some of you disagree with me and feel that way about Rachel Held Evans. But John is still family, and we still love him. Rachel is still family, and we still love her. I have seen cruel, mean things said about them on Facebook and Twitter and blogs that nobody would say to their faces. That kind of division has got to stop. John and Rachel are beloved by God. Valued. Cherished. And in the Kingdom of God, they share a seat at the same table — the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Whether you agree or disagree with whatever you think they’re trying to say, they both have hearts to see people know God. They both belong to us. We, in our narrowly defined personal versions of orthodoxy, are quick to speak and slow to listen. We are quick to pounce and prove and point… and slow to love. It seems to me we ought to practice loving one another now — otherwise that wedding feast is going to be a mighty awkward event.

What is Heaven Like?

First, a little background music while you read this blog. Go ahead, push play, then keep reading:

So judgment day is supposed to happen tomorrow.

More specifically, some fringe Christian ministries are promoting the idea that the Rapture is going to happen tomorrow. Everyone who believes in Jesus will be whisked away into the air (sans clothing), leaving all the heathens down below to deal with the aftermath of a massive earthquake along with gruesome death and destruction.

According to Family Radio Ministries, the main group pushing the May 21 rapture date, roughly 200 million folks will be raptured tomorrow (isn’t it great how they know everyone’s hearts?) — leaving behind 97.2% of the world to be tortured and die.

Yippee. How’s that for “good news”?

So I’m torn. I’m torn between having some fun with the idea that the rapture is going to happen tomorrow or writing a serious piece about how the end really is going to come someday.

So instead, I’ll take door number three and talk about heaven — where we’re supposed to be aiming to end up after all the chaos (tomorrow, or whenever).

Specifically, what is heaven like?

Because it seems to me we as Christians have got a bit of an image problem. All the cool folks want to go to hell instead of heaven. How many times have you seen the badass heroes in movies say something akin to, “See you in hell!”?

Let’s be honest: if heaven is anything like what most of the evangelical church says it’s going to be like, I don’t know if I’d really give up all my worldly pleasures to go there, either. After all, if heaven is tomorrow, then we’d better get all the good stuff we can packed into today.

Like one giant worldwide Mardi Gras before the boringness of eternity sets in.

In heaven, supposedly, there is no sex. No beer. No smoking. No swearing. No dancing.

And if there are none of those things in heaven, then I’d better do all of ’em down here before I go.

Is heaven really just standing around for eternity worshiping God? If so, I’ve gotta tell you – I really love a good worship service, but there’s only so many choruses I can sing before I start getting a little antsy (it’d probably be somewhere around worship song number 5,094,256 or so). Sometimes I wonder if I really “could sing of your love forever.”

Not that I want heaven to be one big “free love” party, because I understand there’s a “dark side” to sex and drinking and all that stuff.

But I do wonder if heaven won’t be more party-like than we’re making it out to be. After all, doesn’t Jesus compare it to a wedding feast, one of the biggest celebratory parties in Jewish culture? All that stuff above is absolutely beautiful in moderation and in proper context. I’m not talking drunken orgies here. I’m talking deeply beautiful sexual intimacy between two people who are wholly committed to each other. I’m talking enjoying the freedom and life represented by alcohol, as Jesus illustrated at the wedding in Cana.

And it makes me wonder — do we try so hard to shield ourselves from “the world” that our view of eternity begins to take on the same bland, lifeless, and freedom-less undertones as well?

So what is heaven? What is it like? I’m hoping that in a completely restored creation, you and I can hang out, share a pint and a pipe, and sit in the contradictory peace and fearsome awe of the presence of God. Maybe if we begin to understand heaven from the context of a theology of restoration and freedom rather than a theology full of evil bogeymen, heaven would be a place people might want to go.

What do you think? What is heaven like?