31 January 2007

The Whole Story

One of the major critiques of White Christianity (in the West at least) has been its emphasis on the death of Jesus over and above the life that led to the cross. Some are guilty of "vampire Christianity" (Dallas Willard's phrase)--we only want Jesus for his blood, ignoring the way he teaches his followers to live.

Parting the Waters is one of the most insightful and carefully constructed narratives capturing the heart of America during the King years. Here's an excerpt:

In Baltimore, after nearly a decade of persistent negotiations, the city’s white and Negro Baptist preachers came together to discuss the role of the church in a time of racial tension. The meeting itself was a historic event, a gathering of uneasy strangers, and for the occasion the preachers of each race selected a representative to speak about their common religious heritage…

Vernon Johns reacted to a sermon by a white preacher which primarily emphasized the death of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins and promise of heaven. Here's what Johns said in response to the sermon.

“The things that disappoints me about the Southern white church is that it spends all of its time dealing with Jesus after the cross, instead of dealing with Jesus before the cross,” he growled and a number of the Negro preachers already were sinking inwardly toward oblivion.

Johns turned to the white preacher who had just sat down. “You didn’t do a thing but preach about the death of Jesus,” he said. If that were the heart of Christianity, all God had to do was drop him down on Friday, and let them kill him, and then yank him up again on Easter Sunday. That’s all you hear. You don’t hear so much about his three years of teaching that man’s religion is revealed in the love of his fellow man. He who says he loves God and hates his fellow man is a liar, and the truth is not in him. That is what offended the leaders of Jesus’s own established church as well as the colonial authorities from Rome. That’s why they put him up there.”

Telling the whole story of Jesus is not easy. But if we are to be faithful to the message of God revealed in scripture, one must deal with Jesus' life, not simply one understanding of his death.

26 January 2007

Here's my focus for this week from N.T. Wright:

The longer you look at Jesus, the more will you want to serve him in his world. That is, of course, if it's the real Jesus you're looking at. Plenty of people inside the church and outside it have made up a "Jesus" for themselves, an invented character who makes few real demands on them. He makes them happy from time to time, but doesn't challenge them, doesn't suggest they get up and do something about the plight of the world--something the real Jesus had an uncomfortable habit of doing.

This weekend I'm in Fresno, CA with some good friends who put on the ZOE Conference. The conference is quite unique--it's a resource to encourage churches all over the United States to stay faithful to following the Way of Christ in a consumer culture. My task is to present the theology and practice for living life in search of God in the places, people, and spaces we would least likely suspect (an idea I tend to call the "margins").

Now that the Garth Brooks saga is behind us (ok, I'm over it)--we can get on with kingdom things.

UPDATE: I just read one of the best pieces I've come across in Christianity Today or her affiliates--and it's written by some friends (Wade Hodges and Greg Taylor from Tulsa, OK). Check this out. It's a must read.

20 January 2007

Me and My Girl

UPDATE: I forgot to mention this detail. On the other side of the wall (that you can't see) is a large screen tv...50 plus people were watching me perform this Garth Brooks classic--unbeknownst to Kara and I. Needless to say, I was slightly surprised when I got out of the car.

09 January 2007

The Messiah of Morris Avenue: Jesus in the Bronx

The Messiah of Morris Avenue by Tony Hendra (author of Father Joe) is one of the better novels I’ve read over the last few years. A friend of mine, spiritual guru really, suggested I read this.

The story is simple. In the Bible, Jesus of Nazareth came to redeem Judaism (“to do for Israel what Israel could not do for herself,” as N.T. Wright has written). Jay of the Bronx comes to redeem Christianity. In the person of Jay, God attempts to call Christianity back to it roots of radical hospitality, love, and solidarity with the marginalized around us. And like the first time God walked among us, the religious and politicians form a strange marriage and end up killing Jay, the son of God.

I would not classify this novel as a Christian novel; one that could be purchased at the Family Christian Bookstore for its theology is far deeper than most “Christian” novels. This novel challenges the way we do “church” America, and the way we think about ethics, discipleship, faith, and worship.

I am going to use this novel for an upcoming trip to the Bronx in which several college students from Rochester College will be working with The Bronx Fellowship of Christ, a house church movement in one of New York City’s largest boroughs.

Some of my favorite segments of the novel:

Depicting the rich young man who wants to follow Jesus (Pg. 167):

We were taken downstairs to the dressing rooms by security, and standing by the NO ENTRY ARMED ENFORCEMENT sign was a short-haired familiar-looking woman in jeans and a baggy sweater. She was holding a brown-paper supermarket bag and looked a bit scared as we approached. Jay gave her the one-arm bear hug: “Bobbi! You did it?”

She nodded. I wouldn’t have recognized her, though I’d interviewed her for an hour. Stripped of the Grecian ringlets, the plastic mask, the body armor of designer clothes, she was a person, not a billboard. Instead of Chanel, she smelled of peace.

She handed him the bag, which was stuffed with bundles of C-notes. My guess was it contained at least a hundred grand. Without even looking at it, Jay gave it to Maria. “Now I can follow you,” said Bobbi.

“You sure can.” Jay laughed, hugging her again. And in we went.

Addressing those who claim that “God is on their side” (192):

I have always hated wars waged in my name. God is on our side! Gott mit uns! Deus Vult! God Bless America! I am on no one’s side. I am not on America’s side, or Islam’s, or Israel’s, or Europe’s. I have never been on the British, German, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Catholic, or the Protestant side; I did not uphold the Crusades, not Muhammad. I did not guide the hand of David or Solomon, or the hand of Caesar or Alexander or Ptolemy.

And…the Lord’s Prayer (150)

…in heaven and in our hearts, blessed be Your name and blessed by your infinite strength.

Feed us with the food we need, teach us to sow the seed of love, hold our hands when we walk alone and afraid.

Forgive us the evil we have done to Your other children and help us forgive those who have done evil to us.

The real genius of the book is the way Hendra captures the “otherness of Jesus.” Think about Jesus for a moment. Here are some generally accepted facts about this carpenter Messiah as understood from the Gospel accounts: Jesus is born in a barn. Jesus is Jewish, a minority in the Roman schema (I often remind my students that Jesus is not a Christian). Unlike Paul, Jesus isn’t even a citizen in his own nation. Some might say he is an alien. Jesus is from Nazareth, not exactly a cutting edge city producing great thinkers. Remember the infamous line from the Gospels, “What good can come from Nazareth?” Jesus and his father are carpenters, more migrant workers than middle class; he does not appear to hold any elite positions. He has no special education that the reader is made aware of as do some of his contemporaries; Paul and Josephus to name a few. Jesus depends on the generosity of others during his ministry. Jesus is voluntarily homeless. Jesus is crucified as a criminal; a political insurgent who threatens Rome’s power in the region and Judaism’s tests of orthodoxy. Churches would not hire this Jesus. Moms would think twice before letting their daughters date this Jesus (borrowed from a piece I wrote for Wineskins).

And to have your imagination captured by the Jesus of Scripture and the Jesus of Morris Avenue, you’ll have to dive into the world of this book for yourself.

04 January 2007

Christians in the Trenches: Denver, CO

Tonight I'll be in Downtown Denver, hanging out with some new kingdom friends: the people who run Dry Bones: rescuing homeless teens one person at a time. Go here for their blog and here for their website. For a story out of this work that will keep you up tonight, go here.

They rely on Christians from all over the country to support their work, consider it. Here's a recent blog entry.

"God with us"

I was asked the other day to write a few stories from the streets of times when I knew that "God was with us". My response was that "God is with us" always. When I think about "God with us", I keep thinking about telling the story of the time I had a sandwich with a street kid, or the time I rode the Free Mall Ride, or when I hung out at Civic Center Park (all of which happen almost every day). In other words, I see God every day on the streets - He's always "with us". In fact, Dry Bones' goal is to join God on the streets wherever we find Him at work - which turns out, is ALL over the place. It's a good place to be. God blesses everyone as He shows up - street kids and myself alike.So here's three stories or instances that I can put my finger on and say, "God is with us".

1. Last week, the Bedford Home Church was feeding our weekly Thursday night meal. A street kid that I've known for 5 years came walking up. He was visibly upset. He started talking to one of the other street kids. Their voices started getting louder and louder. The next thing I knew, he ran off into the park. About 20 minutes later, he came walking back up to the meal. He grabbed some food and began to eat. I walked over to him and said, "Are you ok?" Tears began to well up in his eyes and he said, "Sorry I ran off. I had to get away for a minute. I ran to the top of the hill in the park. I sat up on top and decided to pray. I asked God, 'Where are you?!!!' I'm so sick of the streets. I'm so sick of this street life - the drugs, the lying, the stealing, all of it! Matt, I just wish that God was here with me." We talked for a good while longer. He talked about how he's tired of making excuses for the bad choices that he keeps making over and over again. "I'm ready to own up to my mistakes," he said. "More than anything. I miss God. I feel like He used to be a part of my life, and now He's left me! I used to pray all the time. Tonight's the first time I've prayed in over a year. Why doesn't God show up? Where is He? I asked God to let me feel Him again - I want to know that He's with me?! Why doesn't He show up right now!?" I reached over and put my arm on his shoulder and pulled him close. My friend slowly looked up at me and his tear-filled eyes and mine connected. "I think He is here right now," I said. He smiled. We talked for a good while longer and then he left. Of course, I'm not God, but I can join God. God continues to connect us to people that need Him. God is pursuing hearts all across this city, mine included . . . In that pursuit, He often uses His people to express, "God with us". We're now connecting this kid with a professional Christian counselor - on his request. We'll keep walking with him as far as the road goes.

2. This week, Nikki and I sat at Starbucks with a street kid named, "Joe". We hadn't seen him in about 2 months. When we saw him on the streets, he ran toward us and jumped on me - almost knocking me over. He gave me the biggest hug ever and was genuinely excited to be reunited with us. We were standing there in the middle of a huge group of street kids - all buying, selling, and smoking pot. Suddenly, Joe didn't care about any of that stuff any more. He pulled Nikki and me to the side and said, "Can we go get some coffee and talk?" And so we did. We talked for over an hour. He poured his heart out over a cup of coffee. We talked about his week, the past two months, and his life - how his father had sexually abused him when he was a little kid. When it was time for us to leave, he walked us over to the the Free Mall Ride and we told him that we loved him. After that, we simply said, "See ya later." That was it - "God with us". We showed up at the park at a time when Joe was really hurting and looking for comfort. Instead of drugs, in that moment, God's presence in the park connected us with him.

3. Yesterday, Nikki and Rebekah talked to a young girl, "Samantha", who had recently found out that she was pregnant. She told Nikki and Rebekah that she wouldn't abort the baby because she didn't believe that abortion was right. She did, however, tell them that she had been drinking and drugging extra hard that week. She had even gotten in a couple of fights. "Perhaps, with any luck, I'll mis-carry," she said with tears rolling down her cheeks. Nikki and Rebekah didn't yell at her. They didn't start hitting her over the head with a Bible. They simply listened, loved, and then said the words that God would want her to hear. "You will be ok. Your baby is precious. Give this baby a chance. We will help you put your baby into the care of an awesome adoptive family if that's what's best. God cares for you and He cares for this baby. This will be ok." Samantha calmed down and listened. She realized in her own heart that self-abortion was just as wrong as going to an abortion clinic. Nikki and Rebekah will see her again tonight and again tomorrow and again next week . . . "God be with us" - We beg you!Eight kids that had left the streets have showed BACK up downtown just this week. We'll keep showing up to join God on the streets as we believe that He is definitely "with us".