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Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

Fellowship of Saints and Sinners

“What Have I Done to Deserve This?”: Jesus and the Fig Tree, Weird Sayings Continued

The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it…

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Mark 11:12-14 and 11:20-25

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If the fig tree could sing, I think it might pick the line from the 1980’s Pet Shop Boys hit, featuring Dusty Springfield crooning “What have I done to deserve this?” “What have I, what have I, what have I done to deserve this?”  Good question.  And it would seem from first glance that the fig tree’s only fault is standing in the way of a hungry Jesus.  After all, it isn’t actually the season for full-blown figs.  The equivalent might be coming home ravenous to find that the Crockpot hasn’t warmed up to cook the mac n’ cheese- because you forgot to turn it on- so you cuss at the stupid thing for not doing its job.

Strange? I think so.  And it is enough to roil the anger of any environmentalist. What is Jesus doing here?

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It helps to know that the Old Testament often employs the image of a fig tree to describe the people of Israel and its withering as God’s judgment.  So in the book of Micah, for example, God laments that when God comes to Israel looking for “good fruit” to eat, in the way of a life of Spirit-filled rightness with God, God finds none: “What misery is mine!,” God exclaims. “I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave.  This kind of imagery about barren fig trees proliferates in the Old Testament- and Jesus uses it to tell his own parable about a fig tree that does not produce fruit and is therefore “cut down” (Luke 13:6-9).  It also helps to know that fig trees not in season for bearing fruit can still indicate by their leaves, or lack thereof, whether they will bear fruit in season. Chances are, this fig tree was not sporting much in the way of foliage.

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It is possible that Jesus like any good teacher, then, is teaching the disciples with a hands-on experiment.  The lesson? “If you want to know what happens when God comes back to find nothing in the way of spiritual fruit, fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control among those who claim to follow God, this is what happens,” Jesus seems to be saying.

There is a subtle but important difference, though, between condemning a fruitless fig tree to death and causing an otherwise fruitful tree to die. There is undoubtedly foreboding judgment in Jesus’ words here for those of us who belong to the church.  God will return to judge God’s people first based on what we have produced in the way of the fruit of the Spirit.  But that judgment does not comprise some sort of “double predestination” by which God at the beginning of time dispenses a certain number of “fig trees” and then destines a certain number to wither in hell.  God’s judgment is primarily one of truth-telling- it is naming in the light of day and in the fullness of time the life we have chosen to live.

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This reality scares me.  But it also invites me to recognize that the one doing the judging is also the one who goes to great lengths to help me bear fruit.  By sending His Spirit.  And promising that we can do many things with faith the size of a mustard seed.  And making a world in which new life somehow manages to inch its way in even after death.  Even after our own best efforts to do good fail and wither on the vine.

What is most remarkable and life giving is that Jesus goes to the cross knowing full well that he lives in a world where fig trees don’t bear fruit.  In fact I suspect He goes to the cross because of that.  And when we go there with him, by the power of His Spirit, we, too, can glimpse the first new sprigs and buds of life on the other side.

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This concludes our “Weird Jesus Sayings” series.  I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll keep coming back to visit for our upcoming series on “Jesus Epithets.”  You’ll also get to indulge- or grin and bear?- some of my own experimental engagement with feminist theology in an upcoming graduate seminar taught by Emory religion professor, Wendy Farley. All of this and more in the weeks to come! Thanks for walking with me.

 

 

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“The Concept of Woman”

In light of yesterday’s spirited discussion on Facebook around women’s leadership issues, sparked by Michael Frost’s re-posting of Mars Hill teaching pastor Mark Driscoll’s very controversial radio interview, I wanted to recommend a wonderful not-so-little (1,100 pages in fact) tome of a book written by Prudence Allen. The book, The Concept of Woman, is actually her second volume of this magnitude: it continues where her first volume left off, in the early humanist period of 1250 through 1500.

Allen is a Catholic nun in Denver, Colorado who teaches young male seminarians preparing for priesthood in the Catholic church. (Don’t you love it? I would love to be a fly on the wall in that classroom.)  With a view to building up men and women today in such a way that they are better able to relate to one another with mutual respect, appreciation and understanding, The Concept of Woman traces how “woman” as a category evolved across centuries of philosophical and theological reflection.  University of Chicago ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain has noted of Allen’s work that “there is no work to compare with [Allen’s] in its systematicness, intellectual rigor, and scholarly integrity.”

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My own journey through this book, which involves a short snippet every night at the end of a tiring day of mommy work, will probably take at least two years to complete at the rate I’m going.  (I am currently making my way through the juicy exclamations of the thirteenth century nun, Hadewijch, whose slightly obsessive love affair with St. Augustine, nine centuries her junior, becomes the stuff of impassioned theological reflection.)  But I’m grateful to Allen for undertaking a study of this breadth and fairness, and for the opportunity to commend it to you as part of a very important dialogue.

As I said yesterday to missional church thinker and activist Michael Frost, I believe the issue of women’s leadership is the most important issue facing the missional church today as it seeks to effectively participate in God’s mission all around the world.  Where we place stumbling blocks in front of women and their call to serve equally alongside their brothers in being part of the good things God is doing  (sometimes in the church and mostly in the world outside our churches), we do not just place obstacles in front of women.  We hamper the growth of the missional church in living out her call to serve God in the world around her.  I give thanks for Prudence Allen and her faithfulness to embrace God’s call on her life; just as I also give thanks for the many men and women like her (Mark Driscoll included, despite my strong disagreement with him) who have responded to God’s call on their lives.

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“Coffee with Jesus”: Jesus Sits Down with Mark Driscoll

Laughter is the best tonic for my and my husband’s anger this morning after reading Mark Driscoll’s latest series of blatantly chauvinistic remarks- (if there is a fine line between chauvinism and misogyny, I’m not sure where it is)- about women in leadership.  Maybe Driscoll’s remarks, excerpted below from an interview with British radio host Justin Brierley on Brierley’s program, “Unbelievable,” ought not to come as a surprise, in light of Driscoll’s newly released book (see earlier commentary on Real Marriage); but because they present such a big stumbling block to the Good News of God’s love in Jesus Christ for the many women who will read them, I feel compelled to speak out against their message.  (“Love Wins,” after all, to quote one of Driscoll’s associates.)

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I’m also grateful to FB friend Cliff Haddox for introducing me to Radio Free Babylon’s wickedly funny, sometimes deeply meaningful comic strip, “Coffee with Jesus,” which you can find regular installments of here: http://radiofreebabylon.com/Comics/CoffeeWithJesus.php.  If Driscoll were to sit down for coffee with Jesus, I suspect the conversation might look something like the following:

Driscoll: Jesus, I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody about you.  What I don’t get is how there are women in the church who would steal that part. 

Jesus: Mark, what makes you think that your penis entitles you to be a bigger nobody preaching the Gospel than your wife, Grace, if she feels so led?  Or, the woman at the well?  Or, any of the many women who have become my friends and have walked with me and told others all about me in the many years since?  I have coffee with them, too, you know.  Mark, you know I love you, but what makes you think that half of the human race should not be represented in the leadership of my church? Are you living in the Stone Age?

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Driscoll: But Jesus, you know that only a male God would impose conscious literal eternal torment on people.  If you won’t answer the question, I think I know the answer.  

Jesus: Huh?? Let’s save the eternal torment for later.  At most it might involve my taking you to the back of the wood shed.  For now, how about a hug instead?  

For less humor and more indigestion, below is the excerpt in question from Brierley’s interview of Driscoll (or was it Driscoll’s inquisition of Brierley?):

“Much of the interview revolved around Driscoll’s views on women and their role in marriage and the church. When Brierley confessed that his own wife is, in fact, the pastor of his church, things got incredibly awkward:

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Driscoll: I’m not shocked by the answer, by the questions you ask. I love you, but you’re annoying. ‘Cause you’re picking on all the same issues that those who are classically evangelical, kind of liberal, kind of feminist do.

Brierley: I think it’s because those are the issues here that people are thinking about. … [Brierley says he’s impressed by much of what Mars Hill Church is doing].

Driscoll: Kay, let me ask you a few hard questions.

Brierley: Go ahead, go ahead.

Driscoll: So, in the church that your wife pastors, how many young men have come to Christ in the last year?

[It’s clear from the tone of Driscoll’s question that this is not a bona fide inquiry about the souls in Brierley’s church. It’s a veiled criticism. Driscoll is going to prove that women pastors can’t get the job done (i.e. attracting men to the church) and he’s going to belittle Brierley’s wife & church to do it.]

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Brierley: Well we’re not a huge church, unlike yours, but I’d say there’s two or three probably in the last year who certainly, yah, I’d say have come to Christ in a pretty meaningful way.

Driscoll: Okay and in the church, what percentage is young men, single men?

Brierley: It’s difficult to say off the top of my head, but I’ll freely say it’s certainly not a big percentage, no.

Driscoll: Kay, and are you okay with that? Do you think that’s the best way to go?

Brierley: No, but can it be so easily put down to the fact that the church is being run by a woman? I mean, is that …

Driscoll: Yup. Yup. You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.

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[Yes, he did just say that. His results are better than hers. And it’s because he’s a man and she’s a woman.]

Brierley: Well, in our case, the …

Driscoll: This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Brierley: … Up to the point my wife took over, it had been run by men. Since she’s come, lots of new families, lots of younger people, both men and women, have come. I wouldn’t say the balance is right perfect yet by any means. But it’s certainly a lot better than it ever was. And so I don’t necessarily see quite the same situation that you paint there in terms of men not relating. I see more men in the church since she’s been there than before she was there, in a way.

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Driscoll: What kind of men? Strong men?

[The implication here is obvious. Only weak, limp-wristed mama’s boys would be attracted to a church with a female leader, right? Tough men like Driscoll certainly wouldn’t be. Brierley seems genuinely baffled by such a stupid question.]

Brierley: Well, men. I mean, men come in different shapes and sizes. I mean, yah, both really. Men who are very masculine, men who are, I guess, on a spectrum, more effeminate. But I couldn’t say that there’s been a sort of dearth of men in the church since she’s arrived. I mean, Mark, I don’t want to get into a sort of argument.

Driscoll: No, no, you don’t want to sit in my seat, I understand. So does your wife do counseling with men? Sexual counseling? Does she talk about masturbation, pornography, the stuff that I do?

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Brierley: Well no, she doesn’t.

Driscoll: Well, who does talk to the men about those things, especially the young men?

Brierley: Well there are other people that she can pass them on to. We have male elders in our church who, you know, would be able to tackle those kinds of questions. I mean, but would you speak with those kinds of issues to a female in your church?

Driscoll: Uh no. If they’re a married couple we might meet with them as a couple. But if it’s a woman, we would have women leaders meet with them.

Brierley: Sure, well it’s the same scenario in our church really.

Driscoll: Well except for who’s in charge.

[This part is almost comical. Driscoll seems to think he’s got a real zinger. If a woman is pastor, who’s going to do all that important sex counseling that Driscoll seems so obsessed with? Faced with the rather obvious explanation that it’s the same in Brierley’s church as in his own (men counsel men and women counsel women) Driscoll insists that it’s still not as good because the men aren’t “in charge”.]

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Brierley: Well what’s wrong with… I mean, I agree, obviously theologically we’re not on the same page here Mark in terms of…

Driscoll: Do you believe in a conscious literal eternal torment of hell?

Brierley: What has that got to do with the issue of women in leadership, if you don’t mind me asking?

Driscoll: It does. It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone? Or is he like a father who also protects, and defends, and disciplines? If you won’t answer the question, I think I know the answer.”

 

 

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Remembering Dr. King’s Peacemaking Legacy

Martin Luther King delivers his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial.

When today we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., who in 1964 received the Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic and painstaking work as a civil rights activist, I am struck by King’s words on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.  At the time, King was a young, relatively unknown Baptist minister who had just been chosen to lead the boycott.  In his first speech as the newly dubbed leader of the effort, he said this: “We have no alternative but to protest.  For many years we have shown an amazing patience.  We have sometimes given our white brothers the feeling that we liked the way we were treated.  But we come here tonight to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”

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“To be saved from patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”  How often do we stop to think that our “salvation” includes deliverance from complacence with all that is wrong with our world?  Could this be what it means to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul in Philippians exhorts?  I can’t help but think so.

Today’s admonition in the devotional, Today, was to be “peace makers”:  “Cosmic peace has been secured by God in Christ (Colossians 1:19-20), yet God tells us to ‘let the peace of Christ rule.'”

When God “breaks into” our world in the person of Jesus Christ, God shows that “peacemaking” is not the same thing as just “keeping the peace.”  “Peacemaking,” I suspect, is nothing less than the disruption of our comfort with the status quo wherever “business as usual” fails to reflect the peace that God in Christ has already made with our world.  A peace that, if real, is inseparable from justice or freedom.

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And yet we remarkably have the freedom to choose whether “to let the peace of Christ rule.”  God does not force God’s Self on us: God gives us free wills; but when we decide to be part of the peace that God has made with our world, which sometimes can be as simple as not getting in its way, we have the opportunity to live into a God-given dream.  A dream that King not only preached about but died for.

It is easy to die for certain things.  We can work ourselves to death by trying to build ourselves a nice retirement nest.  We can smoke and drink ourselves to death in the spirit of Christopher Hitchens, who said his two bad habits made him a better writer.  We can kill our very selves and who we were meant to be because of others’ expectations.  We can die trying to be good.  These forms of dying are almost second nature to us.  But to die because we truly believe in God’s dream- a dream that all of us will one day be “saved” from the injustices of our world, including our own complacence- how many of us will do that?

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Whenever I drive by Ebenezer Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta or, en route to the gym, stroll down the “Walk of Fame” featuring the shoe prints of famous civil rights leaders, I cannot help but marvel at the proximity of King’s story and the deep legacy it leaves.  Which is a reminder, among many things, of the costliness of salvation and our invitation to be peacemakers.  Happy Birthday, Dr. King.  May you always rest in peace.

 

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Food for Thought: Did Jesus Come to Abolish Religion?

The below video, titled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus,” has stirred controversy on Youtube by implying that Jesus is opposed to religion.  Which begs a question: did Jesus come (at least in part) to abolish religion?  If you’re brave, leave your thoughts below.  I, for one, think that Jefferson Bethke (the video’s creator and preacher-rapper) is on to something- not dissimilar, I would add, from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.”

YouTube Preview Image

 

 

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Was Jesus a Tea Party Member? Weird Sayings Continued…

This bumper sticker may not appear in my forthcoming book, Grace Sticks: The Bumper Sticker Gospel for Restless Souls. It's witty all the same.

“Jesus said to him, ‘What do you think, Simon?  When the kings of the world collect taxes or duties, who do they collect from?  From their own families, or from outsiders?’

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‘From outsiders,’ he replied.

‘Well then,’ said Jesus, ‘that means the families are free.  But we don’t want to give them offense, do we?  So why don’t you go down to the sea and cast out a hook?  The first fish you catch, open its mouth and you’ll find an coin. Take that and give it to them for the two of us.'” -Matthew 17:25-27

With Tax Day not far around the corner, how’s this for an option? Instead of taking the trouble to fill out all of that annoying paperwork, or paying H&R Block to spare you the pain, just go fishing instead.  When you catch your first fish, be it the coy in your next-door neighbor’s backyard pond or that ugly grouper on the open seas, look for a coin or two in the fish’s mouth and send that to Uncle Sam.

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Weird.  Just plain weird.  What could Jesus possibly be talking about here?

For starters, it helps to recognize that Jesus has a deadly sense of humor.  He can be very good at dropping cynical, outlandish one-liners, and this is very likely one of those moments.  Does it mean that Simon is actually meant to go fishing for the temple tax? Probably not- although if Jesus wanted to make this happen, I am sure he could.

What can safely be concluded from this passage is that Jesus is not a fan of the temple tax, which has become just another way to prop up a corrupt religious system, usually on the backs of the poor.  Not long from now we will see him in the temple unleashing his anger.  He overturns the tables of the money changers, declaring “my house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers” (Matthew 21:13).

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That bumper sticker that reads “Born Free, Taxed to Death”?  It’s not too different from the message that Jesus is sending here in his exchange with Simon Peter.  Because in Jesus’ time, God’s holy meeting place had turned into the local mall, or worse.  Those T.V. evangelists we often see offering healing to the next caller with a working credit card?  They were all over the place in the temple, cheaper by the dozen, you might say.  And they were sending the message that God’s Love could be purchased for a few extra gold coins.

I suppose this sort of thing makes Jesus of all people especially angry.  If he has any idea what is in store for him- and Scripture gives an indication that he does- then he knows the costliness of God’s Love. He is about to demonstrate it on a cross.  So Jesus has little time for religious leaders who claim they possess God’s Love by selling it to line their pockets.

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Does this righteous anger suggest that Jesus would vote Republican or for politicians who promise lower taxes?  Does it imply that he is a card-carrying Tea Party member?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Chances are that if Jesus were running for office, he would do plenty to infuriate both parties.  Chances are that Jesus might not even vote.  Who really knows?  Because the truth of the matter is that we can’t answer this question from Scripture- and we ought to distrust anybody who claims to know Jesus’ political persuasion (be it Republican, Democrat, Independent, or other) on the basis of Scripture.

What we do know from this passage is that even as Jesus rejects injustice he chooses to pick his battles. Sure, he thinks the temple tax is wrong; but in this case we don’t see him inciting Peter to loud protest. Instead we see Jesus placating his rivals in a bit of a “wink-wink” moment with one of his disciples.  His words here signify a coup-d’état of wit, with a view to dying in the ditch (or, in this case on a cross) for his principles later.

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Jesus, I suppose, is no soundbyte-fed protester.  He is a shrewd strategist with unwavering ideals- the priceless, undomesticated love of God for all human beings being one of them.  And he is willing to die for those ideals when the time is right.

If you are still unsure about how to vote, you might try consulting Beliefnet’s “Politic-O-Matic” here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Test/epasch/PoliticOMatic_EricTest.aspx.

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Can Faith Move Mountains? Weird Jesus Sayings Continued…

“I’m telling you the truth:  if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.  Nothing will be impossible for you.  But this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”  Matthew 17: 20,21

Jesus’ claim here is weird because it seems so preposterous.  If an itty-bitty display of faith on our parts can move a mountain, why is it that so often the “Mt. Everests” in our lives have an annoying habit of standing still, despite our best efforts to believe in God’s healing?  The dear friend dying from cancer whose healing we have prayed for over and over again.  The broken marriage that we keep pouring our best into with the hope that God will restore it.  The homeless person you pray for every day, who is still jiggling their tin can at the local CVS asking for money while high on crack.

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When Jesus makes this bold statement, he is responding to his disciples’  unsuccessful attempt to heal a man’s epileptic son. Which is notable in itself because the text tells us that the disciples have already witnessed many displays of divine power in answer to their prayers: when Jesus had sent them out in pairs in the power of the Holy Spirit, they had healed the sick, raised the dead and cast out demons (10: 8)- but here the disciples find themselves in a bind. This child’s condition is a tough nut to crack even for these spiritual heavyweights.  Which can leave us feeling a bit inadequate.  I mean, if we were at the gym, these guys would be pushing the 200-pound barbells while we would be flexing those wimpy 5-pound dumbbells.  Where does this leave us?

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The answer, Jesus says, is faith the size of a grain of a mustard seed.

For a long time what has made this passage so difficult is my presumption that Jesus had to be talking literally here.  That when he says “I tell you the truth” there is no note of hyperbole in his voice. That he is rattling off a fact like any other, so that he could just as well be talking about today’s weather. Which is a strange inference, really, because there are plenty of places in Scripture where Jesus is clearly using exaggeration to make a point- “it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than a camel to enter the eye of a needle” being just one example.

"If I, a one-eyed shoemaker can do it, you can, too!"

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But if Jesus is talking literally here, can our faith really move mountains?  Many Egyptian Christians think so.  They record the tenth-century story of a Muslim caliph who came to the Christian patriarch, Abba Abraam, asking the very same question we are, only with an accompanying threat to make the skin crawl: if the Patriarch and his Coptic Christian flock could not make the mountain move, their God was false and they would be put to death; and they had three days to come up with an answer.  All the Copts fasted and prayed for three days, at the end of which the Patriarch was led in a dream to humble, one-eyed Simon the Tanner, whom God had chosen to move the mountain.  Tradition holds that Simon, the Patriarch and their Coptic Christian flock all went out to the mountain with their Muslim interlocutors and prayed, chanted and bowed some forty times; and most remarkably, every time they raised their head in prayer, the mountain moved up, and every time they lowered it, the mountain moved back down again.

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This story may be true- as true as stories of manna from heaven and the parting of the Red Sea centuries earlier.  But whether or not it is true, and whether or not Jesus is talking literally here, I suppose the point is not so much our faith as it is God’s greatness. Greatness in the fact that even the things that we puny human beings think are totally impossible are of little difficulty to an all-powerful God.

I’ve often heard it said that we human beings use anywhere between 2 and 10 percent of our actual brain capacity.  Which always leaves me wondering how I might tap into the other 90 to 98 percent. (Any ideas?) I can’t help but wonder if Jesus is sharing a similar sentiment when it comes to our spiritual life. Maybe the disciples had become smug in thinking that God’s healing depended on their own efforts. Maybe they had begun to doubt that God really was nearer than breath itself, all the while waiting for us to reach out in faith and claim God’s promises.  Maybe they had fallen back into living in that 2 percent zone in which God was safely relegated to prayers for parking spaces but couldn’t be appealed to for help with the much bigger stuff.

Yet Jesus here seems to be saying that there is so, so, so much more available to us in the way of God’s healing power.  All we need to do is reach out and ask for it- sometimes with our whole being, in prayer and fasting. And in this sense, yes, our faith can move mountains.

 

 

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The Freedom Riders

Ruby Bridges goes to school accompanied by U.S. marshals.

“Make ready for the Christ, whose smile- like lightning- sets free the song of everlasting glory that now sleeps in your paper flesh- like dynamite.”-Thomas Merton

Just the other day my son played his first basketball game as the only white kid in the 6-and-under age category on his team, “The Freedom Riders,” (which plays at the Martin Luther King Natatorium a few blocks from our home in downtown Atlanta).  This accomplishment was no small thing for our family: it had been preceded by several instances of our son showing up to practice only to stand crying on the sidelines, adamantly refusing to join the rest of the group and kicking and screaming with any parental efforts to cajole him to play.  Apparently, our five-year-old had felt not just intimidated but downright terrified by the prospect of being the only white kid on the court.

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The experience has deepened my appreciation for the tremendous courage it would have taken to be one of the first black children to show up for class at an all-white school during the early years of the civil rights era.  Take six-year-old Ruby Bridges, for example, who in first grade had to be escorted to class by U.S. marshals and who watched as some white parents literally dragged their children out of class because Ruby was there.

It would have demanded that same level of courage to be one of the first Freedom Riders.  When in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey the bus driver’s order that she give up her seat for a white passenger, this seamstress at a local department store may not have had much in the way of status or worldly power.  But her courage was enough to spark the Montgomery Bus Boycott; and it was enough to inspire similar acts of bravery by the men and women who, starting in the 1960’s, began to ride various forms of public transportation as a way to challenge existing segregation laws.  Last May marked the 50th anniversary, in fact, of the day when the first 13 of these activists set off on a bus headed south to confront racial discrimination.  You can find photos that tell their story here: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/05/03/135963719/photos-from-life-on-the-freedom-riders-50th-anniversary

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These Freedom Riders were otherwise ordinary people.  I have to believe that what distinguished them was their conviction and a capacity to suffer for it.  They must have believed that being fully human meant being fully free- so much so that they would not let anything stand in the way of that freedom.

I also suspect that inside each of us there is the courage of a “Freedom Rider.”  We might have to dig deep to find it.  We might, with the help of the Holy Spirit, have to withstand a painful chiseling away of layers of sediment in order to uncover it.  But, I suspect that there is a core to each of us that resists those things that would tell us we are not free.  A flicker of life that fiercely desires liberation for ourselves and others from the powers, principalities and systems in place that seek to oppress and enslave us.

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The Gospel tells us that in Jesus we are set free from sin and death (Romans 8:2), and that it is for freedom’s sake that Jesus set us free (Galatians 5:1, 13).  God, more than anyone- including our own self- wants us free, free from our various forms of bondage in order to be free for a life of freedom in the Spirit.  Until we are free, I suspect we will just be kicking and screaming on the sidelines of where true joy and God’s justice are. Will we have the courage to step out and play?  Can we ask God to give it to us?

Find some of Beliefnet’s prayers for strength here: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx.

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Rachel Held-Evans on “Real Marriage” and Why She’s Right

Mark Driscoll, the founding and preaching pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, apparently has a new book out titled Real Marriage:  The Truth About Sex, Friendship and Life Together.  I was introduced to Driscoll’s book by a friend (Rachel Held-Evans) of a friend (Michael Frost) on Facebook, and while I have not read it, I now feel qualified, having read Rachel Held-Evans’ very helpful review of the book, to register my own deep discomfort with pastors who take it upon themselves to wax as experts on every matter under the sun- from what we do with our checkbooks to how we perform in bed.  Held-Evans is right: in a celebrity culture that places pastors on a pedestal, “evangelicals expect too much of their pastors,” with the result being that we set our pastors up for all sorts of failure.

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This gripe may be my biggest after reading about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” in Driscoll’s book. But it certainly is not the only.  Why, for example, do we evangelicals so often read Scripture like a self-help manual, so that the beauty of erotic poetry in Song of Songs can become little more than a prescription for how wives (in Driscoll’s case) should pleasure their husbands?  Why do we evangelicals tend to place marriage on a pedastal over singleness, with the implication being that we are not complete persons if we find ourselves without a spouse?  Why, similarly, do we evangelicals (who by definition claim to have such a high view of Scripture) find it so easy to read deeply contextualized Scripture passages with a view to propping up our own agendas, so that the Driscolls (wife Grace included) might just as well “color code” all the sections in the Bible that support a very particular, traditional form of American marriage in which a wife “submits” to her husband?  These are only a few of my gripes, thanks to Held-Evans’ review.  I include it in full below.  If it makes your blood pressure soar, don’t say I didn’t warn you:

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Evangelicals expect too much of their pastors.

In addition to demanding they serve as nearly flawless leaders and teachers, many of us demand that our pastors serve as professional counselors and advisors, experts on everything from politics to science to sex to health to money to marriage to relationships.

As a result, some pastors simply crumble beneath the weight of the pressure, “faking it” for years and then burning out. Others develop a heightened sense of self-importance and arrogance, as they slap the word “biblical” in front of each of their opinions, claiming to speak on behalf of God on every given topic. Still others live complete lies, lecturing the congregation on the importance money management on Sunday while struggling to overcome secret credit card debt on Monday. Others project their insecurities and obsessions onto their followers and demand that everyone look just like them. Very few manage to remain humble, honest, and brave in the face of our unrealistic expectations.

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And so I believe we all bear some responsibility for creating an environment in which controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll can write a book about sex and marriage that tops the Amazon bestseller list.

Given Driscoll’s alarming preoccupation with sex and “masculinity,” and the immaturity with which he has addressed these subjects in the past, one would think Christians would approach this book the way they would approach a book about nutrition written by a pastor who struggles with obesity…(or a book about overcoming procrastination written by me!) But Pastor Mark continues to grow a devoted and impassioned following, which means thousands of couples around the world will be looking to his new book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace, for advice.

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The Good

It’s no secret that I’ve expressed concerns over Driscoll’s teachings and antics in the past, particularly those that encourage the bullying of men who don’t fit into Driscoll’s macho-man mold, but I tried to approach this book with an open in mind, and indeed I found some pleasant surprises in Real Marriage.

The chapter on the importance of nurturing a true friendship in marriage includes some good reminders about kindness and reciprocity. I thought Grace wrote a brave and honest chapter about sexual abuse. In places where Mark has been insensitive in the past, he seems to have softened a bit. For example, rather than insisting that a woman stay attractive for her husband lest he be tempted to cheat on her, Mark suggests that a man make his own wife his standard of beauty (and vice versa). He does a much better job of emphasizing mutuality in sexual relationships than he has in the past, (though I’ve never quite understood why so many complemementarians insist on hierarchal-based relationships in which wives submit to their husbands “in everything,” while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of mutuality when it comes to sex…but that’s a topic for another day).

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The Bad

Books that claim to prescribe “biblical sex” will always be selective. Much of the Bible was written at a time when women were typically sold to their husbands as teenagers, polygamy was the norm, and losing your virginity before marriage…even being raped…could get you stoned. Even in the famous “household codes” of the epistles, instructions for women to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters. And so comparisons between modern marital relationships and those of an ancient near eastern culture should always be approached with caution and with attentiveness to context. (I’ve written more about this in my forthcoming book.)

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Grace’s chapter on submission will make egalitarians cringe, but it would take too long to dissect all her arguments here. Let’s just say it drove me crazy to see the biblical character Vashti criticized for not submitting to her husband (by refusing to parade around naked in front of his drunken friends!?) and Esther praised for graciously submitting (by illegally requesting an audience with her husband, who she was forced to marry after he slept with hundreds of other concubines to pick his favorite?!). Grace’s conclusion that “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands,” fails massively to understand the context of that story.

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Mark also misses the point when he praises Martin Luther and his wife Katherine because “they set in motion a model for Christian faith and maturity through marriage, sex, and children, rather than through singleness and celibacy,” a position that wholly discounts the apostle Paul’s high praise for celibacy in 1 and 2 Corinthians. I don’t know why Christians keep fighting over which is better—singleness or marriage—when it seems rather obvious, both from Scripture and from Church history, that both can glorify God.

As he has in the past, Mark essentially reduces the Song of Songs to a sex manual, instructing wives to be “visually generous” with their husbands. Believing the poem to be about Solomon himself, Mark has to admit that the impassioned exchanges between the two lovers must have occurred “before the multiple wives and concubines ruined the love and oneness they had together.”

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The chapter entitled “Can we…?” which has scandalized so many people with its advice on everything from oral sex, to role playing, to sex toys really isn’t that shocking to me. It seems like common sense that couples should feel free to engage in such activities if both partners enjoy them, so long as they don’t become obsessions. The fact that Christian couples seem to need the approval of a pastor along with some strategically placed Bible verses in order to engage in these activities is a bigger concern to me. It seems that we are once again demanding more from the text and from our pastors than they can and should give.

In short, believers should be wary of overzealous attempts like these to prescribe “biblical sex,” when sex—like beauty and like God—remains shaded with mystery. Paul likens the love between a man and a woman to the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church, the writer of Proverbs to the inscrutable way of an eagle in the sky. When sexuality gets relegated to the realm of religious absolutes and strictly enforced roles, the focus tends to shift from serving one another to servicing one another. And that’s no way to love.

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The Ugly

As others have noted, the book focuses so much on sex that it can create the impression that it’s the most important element of marriage. Also, as I’ve noticed before, Mark has the tendency to project. Because his wife was abused in the past, he believes that the majority of women were abused in the past. Because he and Grace struggled with their sexual relationship, he believes that most couples struggle with their sexual relationship. Because he likes sports and hunting, he assumes that “real men” like sports and hunting. Because his marriage is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission, he believes that “real marriage” is based on a hierarchal pattern of submission.

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In addition, Pastor Mark provides us with a few of his classic face-palm-inducing quotes:

“The previous church I had attended was Catholic, with a priest who seemed to be a gay alcoholic. He was the last person on earth I wanted to be like. To a young man, a life of poverty, celibacy, living at church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell, so I stopped somewhere around junior high. But this pastor was different. He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife.” – p. 9

 

“We did have mediocre sex that eventually resulted in five children and one miscarriage.” – p. 15

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But by far the most disturbing part of the book is the first chapter, in which Mark and Grace go into extraordinary detail about their troubled sexual relationship. In this section, Grace is often cast as the damaged and sinful wife who withholds sex from her deserving husband, Mark the hero who is justified in leaving his wife but instead comes along to rescue her. The amount of guilt and shame that pervades this part of the book makes me so sad.

The review over at Friendly Atheist explores this section in more detail, but here’s an excerpt:

My previously free and fun girlfriend was suddenly my frigid and fearful wife. She did not undress in front of me, required the lights to be off on the rare occasions we were intimate, checked out during sex, and experienced a lot of physical discomfort because she was tense…One night, as we approached the birth of our first child, Ashley, and the launch of our church, I had a dream in which I saw some things that shook me to my core. I saw in painful detail Grace sinning sexually during a senior trip she took after high school when we had just started dating. It was so clear it was like watching a film — something I cannot really explain but the kind of revelation I sometimes receive. I awoke, threw up, and spent the rest of the night sitting on our couch, praying, hoping it was untrue, and waiting for her to wake up so I could ask her. I asked her if it was true, fearing the answer. Yes, she confessed, it was. Grace started weeping and trying to apologize for lying to me, but I honestly don’t remember the details of the conversation, as I was shell-shocked. Had I known about this sin, I would not have married her.” (p. 6, 11-12)

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What’s perhaps most interesting about all of this is that Mark admits that this was how he felt about his wife and his marriage while he was confidently preaching through his first Song of Solomon series at his growing church!

“In the second year of the church we had a lot of single people getting married,” he writes, “so I decided to preach through the Song of Songs on the joys of marital intimacy and sex. The church grew quickly, lots of people got married, many women became pregnant, and my counseling load exploded. I started spending dozens of hours every week dealing with every kind of sexual issue imaginable…Although I loved our people and my wife, this only added to my bitterness. I had a church filled with young women who were asking how they could stop being sexually ravenous and wait for a Christian husband, then I’d go home to a wife whom I was not sexually enjoying.” (p. 15)

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He also notes: “I grew more chauvinistic. I had never cheated on a girlfriend, but I never had a girlfriend who did not cheat on me. And now I knew that included my own wife. So I started to distrust women in general, including Grace. This affected my tone in preaching for a season, something I will always regret.” (p. 14)

While I appreciate Mark and Grace’s honesty in admitting that they don’t “have it all together,” and while I would never expect a pastor to preach only on subjects which he or she has mastered, the fact that Mark was not only making some of his most famous (and controversial ) comments about women and sex during this difficult time in his marriage, but also providing counseling to couples, says something disturbing about the degree to which he can live in dishonesty and denial…and, perhaps, the degree to which we allow (even expect!) our pastors to do so.

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It will also inevitably raise questions in the reader’s mind about how much of the content of Real Marriage can be trusted. (I personally find that whole bit about Mark’s “vision” a little strange.)

By his own admission, Driscoll’s troubled sex life affected his teaching of Scripture, so it will not do for Christians to continue to insist that pastors who teach the “timeless truths of Scripture,” cannot be wrong.

Which brings me back to my original point: Just because someone is a pastor does not mean that he or she is an expert on sex…or money or relationships or marriage. Christian couples struggling in their marriage should seek professional counseling, and not rely exclusively on a single pastor (or his or her interpretation of Scripture) for help.

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Meanwhile, evangelicals in particular need to do something about our celebrity-pastor culture. Mark Driscoll is simply not qualified to serve as a sex therapist—most pastors aren’t!

True maturity is marked not by how much a person knows but by the wisdom he or she shows in discerning when to speak with authority and when to hold back. And when it comes to maturity, I’m afraid that Pastor Mark still has a long way to go. 

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Apocalypse 2012?

"The four horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Just the other day I heard someone speculate that 2012 could be the year of Jesus’ return.  At the very least, we weren’t getting any further away from the day.  But, if you’re wondering whether to stop investing in your 401K plan and start building a fallout shelter, or make for the highest summit closest to you with a stock pile of bottled water and freeze-dried foods, you may want to think again.  Mitch Horowitz, Huffington Post blogger and author of Occult America:  The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, has shared the following “top ten myths” behind the notion that 2012 could be the year in which the world as we know it ends:

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The ancient Mayan people, whose empire extended across much of Central America from late-antiquity to the 1500s, maintained a complex system of calendars — which, oddly enough, ended with this year, 2012. This anomaly in Mayan timekeeping has caused many today to wonder whether the great calendar-makers foresaw an apocalypse in our era. The truth is more complex. Here are today’s top 10 myths about 2012.

1. OK, it’s past 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2012. Why didn’t anything happen?

Actually the great endpoint of the Mayan Long Count calendar is winter solstice 2012, which falls on Dec. 21 of this year. Keeping counting.

2. Is the world really going to end on winter solstice? Yikes.

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Not according to most people who’ve recently written on the topic. Author John Major Jenkins has tracked some remarkable astronomical phenomena due to occur this year, in particular a “galactic alignment” of the earth, sun and a black hole at the center of the galaxy. While that may sound ominous to people who follow portentous signs, Jenkins finds nothing in Mayan literature to suggest an apocalypse. Ditto for writer Daniel Pinchbeck who, like Jenkins, envisages a shift in consciousness rather than a global meltdown. An earthly sign of what these and other writers have in mind, perhaps, is the worldwide protest/Occupy movement.

3. But the Mayan civilization DID predict the world’s end, right?

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The truth is: We don’t know. Virtually no surviving Mayan carvings or documents make any reference to 2012, beyond the calendar system. Conquistadors and missionaries destroyed vast amounts of Mayan records and scholarship beginning with the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan peninsula in the early 1500s. We are left today with just remnants of Mayan thought. Hence, what these ancient mathematicians and calendar-makers actually believed would happen in 2012 remains a mystery of the antique world.

4. But other signs in the environment point to something creepy happening, don’t they?

Actually, one legitimate cause for environmental concern that is sometimes tied to 2012 is the problem of solar flares, which could disrupt electrical grids. Author Lawrence Joseph, a 2012 theorist, has written very ably on this question — though he doesn’t necessarily pinpoint the issue to the calendar year 2012 itself.

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5. I should stock up on water and provisions just in case, right?

Well, Napoleon put it this way: “Every plan immediately fails upon contact with the enemy.” Hence, it’s really difficult to say whether generators, freeze-dried food or the massive jug of water that leaked in our kitchen last night (this is true) will make any difference for anyone, anywhere, on Dec. 21, 2012, or any other day. Ethical living, on a personal and global level, takes precedence any day in my book.

6. The famous early-20th century psychic Edgar Cayce foretold bad tidings for 2012, didn’t he?

No. While this rumor widely circulates on the web, and while Cayce did forecast earth-change prophecies for the late 20th century, he never uttered a word about 2012.

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7. But the soothsayer Nostradamus warned us over 2012, right?

Again, no. While this is another rumor that makes the rounds online and in tabloid weeklies, the Renaissance-age seer never mentioned 2012. Of course, many analysts of Nostradamus would find that debatable. Nearly all of the middle-French quatrains produced by Nostradamus were imbued with ambiguous, shadowy images and language, which led to the profitable development of a cottage industry out of their interpretation and translation. But the best scholars in the field, which include Stephane Gerson (author of a monumental forthcoming biography of the seer) and Richard Smoley, who has recently retranslated the middle-French quatrains, find nothing in the work of Nostradamus that deals specifically with the year 2012 (or with the events 9/11 either, for that matter).

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8. Didn’t a computer program called Web Bot predict a 2012 apocalypse?

The Web Bot Project is a program that scans the Internet for repeat phrases to search out cultural and business trends. Its findings are broad and widely open to interpretation — and some do use its data for prognostication. But it hasn’t pinpointed anything that plainly speaks to 2012.

9. I’ve heard the earth’s magnetic poles could shift in 2012.

This too makes the rounds online. If the magnetic poles suddenly shift our climate and environment could be thrown asunder, according to theorists. The author John White has written an authoritative book on this very question and finds little evidence for a sudden, contemporary pole shift. 

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10. OK, so this is all a bunch of hooey from a backwards primitive culture, right?

Again, the truth is more complex. The Maya were an extraordinary civilization, possessed of a greatly intricate and multilayered system of calendars, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, geometry and religion. They were a truly great civilization, on par with other ancient cultures, such as the Greeks and Romans. The fact that they abruptly ended their calendar on winter solstice 2012 is a historical mystery. Did they believe this year marked a great transition? An endpoint of some sort? Or were they merely taking a break in their vast system of time-keeping? We really don’t know. But anyone who is fascinated with the philosophies of the ancient world has a legitimate interest in wondering what the Maya had in mind.

Next up: some reflections on courage and Martin Luther King Day and a continuation in our “Weird Jesus Sayings.”

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