Not a Tame Lion (Idolatry of Conformity)

Lion

photo by Robek, Creative Commons

I have always believed in chaos

Jesus did not come to bring order out of chaos are wrong.

He did not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword

to set son against father and father against son,

mother against daughter and daughter against mother

Order can be just as much a tool of the Hell as chaos

Is Calvin’s Geneva holy? Ask Miguel Servetus.

Was the Puritan city on the hill more holy than the “savages’ wilderness” it replaced?

Is Stalin’s Russia holier than Somalia’s warlords?

Our idolatry of order builds walls around God,

We tie up heavy burdens for our neighbors

and lift not one finger to help bear them.

Our walls cannot contain God,

But they can keep his beloved children out.

They are different. They do not measure up.

They are poor. They dress funny.

They speak with bad grammar.

They have tattoos.

They are sinners.

They are not like us.

But Aslan is not a tame Lion, and Jesus is not a tame God.

Let his wildness in

Let it kick over the moneychanger’s tables

Let it tear the veil of our hearts

Let it shatter every wall.

Dear God, please, shatter every wall.

Amen.

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Our Feet on the Necks of “The Least of These”

We Christians should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the freaks, geeks, and outcasts of society. Not out of some source of nobless oblige or charity, as if we’re above them, but because really following our Savior should make us outcasts, too.

Why? Because the way of the world is seeking power, seeking status, and seeking to secure that power and status against all threats. Thomas Hobbes explored this in depth in Leviathan.

Bruce Springsteen summed it up neatly in Badlands: “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and the king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”

America has democratized status-seeking. There is no subset of scheming aristocracy as opposed to hardy commoners that ‘know their place.’ You can call this good or bad, but it’s hard to deny it. We all now have the freedom and resources to seek our own power and security.

Even the common American has a luxury only noblemen had for centuries: the ability to claw his or her way up the social ladder, climbing over the broken hearts and souls of the weak, the slow, the “sinners,” and the outcasts.

We as Christians should be above this primal urge to claw and climb our way up. But too often, we are the chief participants. We keep up appearances and never admit weakness, not to our church “family.” We pretend our lives are fine, and our souls are spotless (aside from a vague spattering of socially acceptable sins).

We oppose anti-bullying measures because they partially focus on protecting gay kids. And we spend a lot of money making sure gay people don’t have the same legal rights we do.

We sometimes actively discriminate against people of other religions (try getting a teaching job in Mississippi is you’re openly atheist or Wiccan. The good Christian administrators will hire someone else, anyone else, faster than you can say “Christopher Hitchens”).

We rage against “welfare queens,” while asserting a rugged independence we manifestly do not possess. We lift our “self-made” wealth up like a bronze serpent on a pole, and look to it for our earthly salvation.

Jesus walked among the poor, the socially unacceptable (those the Pharisees called sinners, as if that brood of vipers weren’t worse sinners themselves), the sick, the outcast. He loved and healed them, including lepers (unclean), tax collectors (traitorous collaborators), a Roman Centurion (an occupying soldier, and worse, an unclean gentile), a Samaritan woman, the possessed, the insane.

But we too often stand with the vipers, the social climbers, with our feet on the necks of the least of these.

And that is unquestionably wrong.

No matter how many Bible verses we produce to prove a particular point, we can never justify turning the Gospel into a weapon, or a mere tool of social or political power.

Imposters of God – An Introduction

1932 U.S. Gold Coin, showing an eagle

So first off, why am I doing a blog series on a thin little book from the mid-sixties, written by a man I’d never heard of before this month?

Well, William Stringfellow comes highly recommended. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called Stringfellow “Probably the most creative and disturbing Anglican theologian” of the 20th century … a century that includes C.S. Lewis.  That got my attention. Who is this guy, and why haven’t I heard of him before?

It turns out Stringfellow was a lay theologian, a lawyer by trade. He lived in New York and spent a lot of time practicing law for the benefit of the poor and otherwise unrepresented. He “walked the walk,” as it’s said. So this “most creative and disturbing theologian” wasn’t even seminary-trained? Now you really have my attention.

But where do I start? Dr. Richard Beck (of Abilene Christian University’s Psychology department and the Experimental Theology blog) called Imposters of God the best single-volume survey of William Stringfellow’s theology.  And it’s about modern-day Western idolatry, one of my favorite topics (if by “favorite topics” you mean infuriating things I’m slightly obsessed with).

So obviously I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Imposters of God is only 66 pages long in its current printing. But if the first chapter is any indication, it has more real meat than most 400-page tomes.

In his foreword, Stringfellow gets to the heart of the matter: the jarring disconnect between sanctuary and society, especially in a nominally Christian society.

Six days a week, Christians seem identical to everyone else. One day a week, we enter into various worship ceremonies ranging from the ornate to the causal to the concert-ish.

What does this mean? Is our worship more than a sentimental or superstitious practice?

Is it more than a social club or opportunity to network?

Is it more than a prerequisite for respectability in the Bible Belt?

Why is the most religious of the industrialized nations also the most violent, most calculating, most ambitious, most status-seeking?

Stringfellow proposes an answer: we have been led astray into idolatry. And idolatry is, at its heart, the worship of death.

We’ll explore what this means over the next few weeks. I believe that as Stringfellow pulls back the curtain on our treasured Western Christian American culture, we’re all going to bleed a little.

But that’s a good thing. Sometimes the only way to heal is to cut out the infection. And sometimes the only way to serve God is to tear down your father’s idols, as Gideon learned.

Next time, Chapter 1: The Mystery of Idolatry.

39 Million Reasons to Hate the Culture War

In the last ten years, various conservative and Christian political groups have spent tens of millions of dollars to fighting against the legalization of gay marriage.Over $39 million was given to promote just one initiative, California’s Proposition 8.

What does $39 million buy?

World Vision lists a deep well (which can provide clean water for an entire village, preventing cholera and other outbreaks that kill many infants and children every year) at $13,700, a home for orphaned children at $5,100, a school at $22,000, and a health clinic at $39,000.  You could have one of each for $79,800. So you could transform 488 towns in developing nations for $39 million, touching literally millions of lives over many generations.

With $39 million, you could set up a foundation and use the interest and dividends from the principal to help people. That would give you, conservatively, $429,000 million a year (anyone who can’t get 1.1% on $39 million needs to find a new financial advisor). That sum would sponsor over 1,000 children through World Vision, forever.

Instead, we spend our $39 million making sure two men and two women can’t get married in one state. And we spend more fighting it in the courts.

Even if we ignore the emotional costs to our gay, lesbian, transgendered, and bisexual neighbors.

Even if we ignore the spiritual costs of getting in bed with a money-and-power driven government in order to continue pressing down an already subordinate class of people.

Even if this culture war can be justified in theory, its opportunity costs cannot be justified, because they are paid in the sickness, pain and death of others.

We pay for our traditional, 1950’s-inspired lifestyle in the blood of the world’s poor.

Tell me how this follows Jesus’s example?

Tell me how this fulfills the Greatest Commandment?

Tell me how this honors Christ’s name?

 

The Storm (February 10, 2013)

Tornado

I didn’t see the storm. But I heard it and felt it. Katherine did – three houses wide and stretching to the heavens, rushing toward us. And it rattled her.

he slammed the front door and shouted “get in the hall! Get in the hall!” I did what she said. When I felt it coming, I got her into the inner bathroom bathtub.

As the storm passed over us, I stroked her hair and whispered, “It will be all right. It will be all right.” That was nothing more than speculation, and I knew it at the time. But it seemed the right thing to say. In truth, it was more of a prayer than a statement of fact.

After the most harrowing minutes of my life, I felt my ears pop, and everything went silent.  “There. The storm’s passed.”

We walked to our front door and stepped outside. The destruction was unmistakable. Roofs with trees through them. Thick pine branches strewn across yards and streets like tinker toys discarded by a frustrated child. Huge trees, four feet in diameter, blocked the road on both sides.

Lines and cables lay coiled like vipers. Any one of them could have been live and deadly.

Neighbors poured from their houses, alive and shell-shocked.

We felt lucky, blessed, and thankful, not only that we were alive, but that we’d sustained so little damage.  Then we looked out the back door.

Two massive pines bisected our yard. Our carport lay in shambles, crushed. Our cars (my beautiful, beautiful car, the first I’d ever bought because it was beautiful) lay buried, smashed, totaled, buried underneath no fewer than five big trees.

The dog yard fence was twisted and crushed like tin foil. I thought, dimly, that I could probably handle never seeing Molly, Charlie, and Gigi again, but I couldn’t handle finding their bodies.

Katherine started feeling contractions.

As dusk fell, rescue workers came, evacuating those who could not stay. The way was slow, on foot, through yards, around downed lines and fallen trees, making their painstaking way to where the ambulances waited.

Paramedics told us the hospitals were full, that even if we went in, we would only be triaged. They told Katherine to lie on her side and try to keep calm, to time her contractions, and to call 911 if she needed to.

Our phones rang mercilessly, until I turned mine off to conserve power. How do we call 911 if we run our phones dry answering questions?

When true dark fell, the rescue workers slipped away. No streetlights, no headlights, no moon. No cars. No escape. A pistol on each bed stand, a high-intensity flashlight beside it. Loaded. Chambered. No safety.

No safety.

Rain kept the looters away. It fell like sheets. Sporadically, thunder rumbled, lighting lit the whole night sky bright as day, and Katherine shuddered. I shuddered, too.

We got precious little sleep that night.

But morning came, and with it, the first good news.

Gigi, our traumatized stray, had not perished in the storm. The noises we heard in the night were her wedging her 90-pound body between the patio couch and the corner of the deck. She’s my favorite of our dogs, but I’ve never been happier to see her.

City workers cleared the street. Although we still didn’t have working vehicles, at least we could get out if we needed to. Our parents came to help clean up, to bring supplies, and see if we needed a place to stay. Progressive came through, and we had rental cars by sunset.

It wasn’t over, and it wouldn’t be for quite a while. It wasn’t okay, and it wouldn’t be for quite a while. But it was close enough. And it was going to be okay.

God had preserved us through yet another storm. I don’t know why he has protected us so closely for so long, and I’m certain we are no more valuable or important than anyone else, but I am grateful.

I am grateful.

The Necessity of Struggling

For so long before this storm, things were going so well I had only petty complaints. That nagging doubt at the back of my mind, that it shouldn’t be this way, that calm waters are stagnant waters? Easily ignored.

That comfortable, easy place I’d been living in for so long?  A trap. It’s not the Peace of Christ, but the anesthetized-entertained comfort of sitting in front of the television set with a big bowl of ice cream.

It doesn’t make me profoundly grateful. It makes me weak.

The struggle of exercise – walking, lifting weights, swimming, climbing, running, wrestling itself – makes us stronger. So does the struggle of our spirit – studying things that challenge our preconceived notions and existing interpretations, practicing empathy to understand why others differ, letting our hearts break with those who are suffering profoundly, getting our lives dirty, looking ridiculous, walking as Jesus did, among those who are “other” and beyond the pale of respectable society.

We were meant to struggle. We were never meant to coast. There is no cruise control in the Christian life.

But that’s what we do so often.

  • We know what we believe – or at least what our denominations believe – and we never question it.
  • We accept our interpretation of the Bible as being as infallible as the Bible itself.
  • We accept our respectable social circle as right, superior, almost sacred.
  • We let our socially acceptable sins slide. It’s not really gossip, I mean, not if you spread it out out love…
  • We accept our privileged American lifestyle as our birthright.
  • We accept our nation’s sins and crimes, no matter how many suffer and die for our “security” or to produce the consumer goods we crave.
  • We unconsciously assume that a “Just War” and an “American War” are one and the same.
  • Or perhaps we blindly take the political left’s side. There’s no reason to pick on conservatives. Spiritual laziness is apolitical.

I’ve been guilty of all of these in the past. And my spirit, like my physical health, has paid the price.

I’m making a commitment here to struggle every day. It won’t be hard to find things to push back against.

  • my distractedness
  • my physical laziness
  • my tendency to let Katherine do too much of the housework
  • my uncharitable thoughts, especially about those in authority
  • my tendency to eat too much of the wrong foods
  • my tendency to make everything about me and what I want/feel/think/believe
  • my privilege as a white, male, middle-class, heterosexual cisgender American
  • and so on

Ultimately, this struggle isn’t about the little details or the individual sins. It fundamentally affects what kind of person I am.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB) says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

If we don’t struggle, if we just coast in our well-fed first-world lives, what use are we?

Tim’s Back (and Tim’s front. They’re both here!)

You may have noticed a two-month silence on this blog. I hope you noticed it 🙂

Two months ago, an F4 tornado passed over our house, close enough my ears popped. It tossed several hundred-foot tall pine trees around like Lincoln Logs, smashing our carport and both cars.

Twelve days later our first child, a daughter, was born.

I may write about all this in more detail later, but suffice it to say I wasn’t thinking about blogging for a while.

But it’s been two months, and it’s time to get back on that horse. I have things I want to say, things I need to wrestle with.

So, here goes…