Why ‘Lost’ didn’t do it for me…

Okay, so I’ve voiced my displeasure at the ending of ABC’s ‘Lost’ on more than one occasion since Sunday.  My complaints have ranged from “it didn’t tie up the loose ends” to “it defied the nature of sci-fi” to “it was sloppy writing.”  In general I’ve found my gripes unsatisfying even to me.

Then, in the shower just a bit ago, the essence of my gripe against ‘Lost’ hit me: we, the audience, were tricked.  We were led to believe early on that this story was ‘about’ Jack and Locke, and that somehow in the tension of their two characters something larger was afoot.  An epic struggle between Good and Evil.  We came to learn that the Island had a unique history, and that the embodiment of Good and Evil in Jacob and his brother carried significance not just for the Island but for the entire world.  Hence, both (early) Locke’s and (later) Jack’s sense of destiny: that something COSMIC was on the line in their struggle.  The Island was calling them.  For a reason.  And that reason held significance for the wider world.  We dare not let the Smoke Monster off the Island; protect the light; save the world; etc.  That is what the story was ABOUT.

And then… at the last minute… the writers decided to pull a switcheroo.  They tried to convince us that the story was never REALLY ‘about’ what we all thought it was ‘about’; instead, it was about how we all go to a happy place when we die, where every wrong is righted and we can be the best version of ourselves with all the people we love.  In other words… THE SHOW WAS REALLY ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE.

Now that’s sloppy story-telling to me.  Imagine if Tolkien had told his entire tale of middle earth, Frodo, the Ring, the Shire, the Future of Mankind, Morder and the hordes of evil, etc., and then ended it with Saruman and Frodo sharing a beer in the clouds?  We would naturally be repulsed.  And not because Saruman and Frodo were reconciled, but because it violated the integrity of what Tolkien led us to believe his tale was ABOUT.  I WANTED to see how the deliverance of the Island was the salvation of the world.  What I got was half-arsed storytelling.  A cop out.  Ultimately, the Island and the fate of the world didn’t matter.  What mattered was the “happy place” after death.

I hope it will be obvious that my displeasure at this ending is of one piece with my displeasure at how many Christians narrate the Christian story.  Strangely, many of the Christians who also disapproved of the ending of ‘Lost’ hold a version of the Christian story that does essentially the same thing.

Curious I’d say.

The Island matters.

The words of Andrew on this matter end here.

Get over it people, the Gospel is absurd…

Some time ago, I preached a message in which I suggested that Jesus’ command to love your enemies and do good to those that hate you might have an application beyond the merely “private” sphere of interpersonal relationships.  I used a word in that message that I probably should not have used.  And no, it wasn’t a cuss word.  It was a better one: “pacifism”.  That I dropped this word in a sermon delivered in the heart of Oklahoma was likely poor judgment, and even though I tried to stress for the record that I wasn’t saying that I was a “p-word”, and that I only felt pulled that way because of my commitment to take Jesus seriously, nevertheless I drew some fire.

The negative responses I received by and large laid emphasis on how impractical and indeed patently absurd it would be to take Jesus literally at his word.  In reply I tried to lay stress on contrasting passages like Romans 13 in which Paul ascribes a (more positive?) function to the State, etc etc., while adding that as evangelical Christians committed to a supposedly “high” view of Christ and Scripture, and given the fact that Jesus hardly ever (if at all) seems to distinguish between so-called “public” and “private” morality, shouldn’t we have at least an a priori obligation to try to figure out how far his commands go, even if that puts us in awkward positions politically?  After all, isn’t our first “patriotism” to our King and his Kingdom and the State only secondarily?  Predictably, the conversations got bottle-necked around the impracticality of the command.

In the Gospels we learn that a virgin, Mary, miraculously conceived a child “from the Holy Spirit”, a curious admixture of the Divine and Human, so that Luke can say that “the one to be born to you (Mary) will be called the Son of God.”  Jesus, we believe, somehow is “God-en-fleshed”; a union of the mystical and the material, the secular and the sacred; but more than that, as the ancient Calcedonian creed declares, he is “consubstantial (of one substance) with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.”  That in Jesus we meet one who is both “truly God” and “truly Man”.  A totally unique individual in the history of the earth, without precedent and never to be repeated.  And we Christians believe that this “hypostatic union” in Jesus is foundational to our salvation; if he be not God he cannot save, if he be not man he cannot save us.

Now, if I may: this idea is an “absurdity” if ever there was one.  (And for the record, I believe in the hypostatic union – the true-Godness and true-Manness of Jesus).  We have no categories for making sense of this idea, and indeed, if we assume our present state of knowledge, it is utterly absurd.  Impractical.  Ridiculous.  And of course it has often been ridiculed.  The Cross has been called the “stumbling block” for Jews; the Incarnation is a similar “stumbling block” for many others.  Foolishness.  Idiocy.

And yet, we believe this absurdity our very hope … indeed the hope of the world … The Beautiful Absurdity that is the Gospel

So here’s what I think is odd to say the least: that people (Christians) can claim to believe in the Incarnation – the quintessential absurdity, a monumental metaphysical “impracticality” if ever there was one – and then complain that any of Jesus’ commands are “impractical if you take them literally.”  I wonder to myself, “How does a person who claims to believe in Incarnation get away with saying ANYTHING is absurd, much less the teachings of the One who we believe is the very ‘Word’ of God made flesh?”  Seems to me that it would be easier to believe in non-violence (which has, oddly enough, proven itself to be more than ‘practical’ on occasion) than it would be to believe that God has entered our experience by being made flesh in Jesus.  Honestly, which is the greater absurdity?

I use the example of non-violence not because I’m trying to stir up any muck w/ regards to that debate (so please don’t try to get in a fight we me over right now), but only because it highlights the inconsistency of our thinking.  I hear plenty of people say they believe in Incarnation but have a hard time believing that they can trust God for daily bread.  “I just don’t have very much faith in that area..” they’ll say.  “Really?” I wonder … “You’re telling me that you have faith to believe in INCARNATION and you can’t believe that if you sell your possessions and give to the poor, God will take care of you?”  Or they’ll say, “I believe in Incarnation, of course, but Jesus’ command to keep our promises if it kills us (e.g., marriage), that’s just too impractical, too difficult to believe.”  “Really?” I think to myself, “You’re telling me you have faith to believe that the eternal God wrapped himself in flesh and then tucked himself away in Mary’s womb for nine months and you can’t believe in keeping your word?”  I REPEAT: WHICH IS THE GREATER ABSURDITY?  WHICH IS THE LOGICALLY MORE DIFFICULT TO BELIEVE?

The only conclusion I can come to is that we don’t really believe in Incarnation, or that we’ve so domesticated it that it no longer possesses the generative power to open up for us new (and seemingly absurd, but also beautiful and hopeful) ways of living.

Incarnation, we ought to remember, is the first Absurdity in a long litany of Absurdities which culminate in the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God, crying out in God-forsakenness from the Cross.  And this, we believe, makes for the world’s salvation.  Most of us reading this blog believe this…  And we’re going to complain about loving our enemies?

Maybe THAT is the real absurdity.

For my preacher friends

Undeniably, we live in the era of celebrity preachers.  To the extent that human beings LOVE to put other human beings on a pedestal, this has always been the case.  The Church has celebrated it’s great preachers and teachers throughout it’s history.  Sometimes rightfully.  Sometimes over-much.

Yet celebrity-ism in the world of preacher-ville appears higher now than ever.  It is likely that our culture is to blame.  Mass media and the rise of the Internet hasten the rise of many such celebrity preachers, making their presence ubiquitous.  It can be distracting.

I confess that I often find myself distracted by the ever-presence CPs.  I worry if anyone’s listening to me, if I should be more like the CPs, if one day I’ll be a CP, along with a thousand other anxieties, some noble, some ignoble.

There are at least two really bad things that come from this for the “average” preacher working away in relative (beautiful) obscurity in the trenches of pastoral ministry:

The first is, I have come to realize that it is precisely when I yield my soul with the anxiety that comes from paying too much attention to CPs that my own ministry of preaching loses it’s savor and it’s joy.  I start imagining that ought to be more like so-and-so, ought to conduct my ministry more like Pastor Awesome out there, ought to construct my messages and tell my stories more like that really cool preacher I saw on YouTube, etc etc.  In so doing I heap (weird and unnecessary) pressure on myself, and lose the joy of just being Andrew … the Andrew that God made … that God chose … and that God loves, just as he is, and has called into his purposes not in spite of, but precisely because of all of my unique weirdnesses.  Therefore, I am reminded that I need to repent of letting myself get distracted by all the CPs out there and just BE … the me that God created and chose for just this moment and for just this congregation.

The second is, I have come to see that a culture of CP-ism confuses the messenger with the message.  When the NT talks about the job of the preacher, it uses a bunch of words that essentially describe the basic job of the teacher/preacher as pointing BEYOND himself to something else.  The preacher/teacher is a herald, an ambassador, a representative of something far greater than himself … so that THE MOMENT THE MESSAGE BEGINS TO BE ECLIPSED BY THE MESSENGER, THE MESSENGER HAS CONTRADICTED HIS ENTIRE REASON FOR BEING.  I know this is basic, but it seems to me that it is not taken altogether seriously in the world of CP-ism.  CPs have their own websites and ministries and put on conferences to teach other people how to be CPs one day and on and on and on … but the POINT is not being a CP … the point of the preacher is that in the moment of his preaching, he would open up for his listeners a window so that, peering through it, they might see the kingdom.  (Which is to say, not the preacher).  The window is not the point.  What lies beyond the window is.

There is a famous piece of art in which describes the scene John describes in John chapter 3.  In it, John the Baptist is answering questions about the rise of the ministry of Jesus; a rise that is eclipsing his own ministry.  And of course the famous line from John 3 is, “He must become greater; I must become less.”

But of course there are no words in art; only images.  And the image depicted in the painting is of the scraggly, bedraggled John the Baptist pointing his long (ugly) boney finger at Christ.  John the Baptist understands that it does not matter that he is a homeless bedraggled country preacher with a nasty looking crooked boney finger.  It only matters that he has pointed decisively and compellingly to the Word made flesh.  If and when he has done that, he has succeeded.

Today, as I get ready to preach, I remember exactly that.  I am not to be the thing-looked-at.  I am a window.  A signpost.  And if and when I point beyond myself to the Christ, my job is done.

Point to Christ today, preachers, and lose yourself in the joy of so doing.

Into the tempest…

In the Bible, there are times when a “strong wind” from God starts to blow and sweeps people up into the Divine Purpose.  Jesus said that “The Pneuma (wind, breath, spirit) blows where it pleases, you hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.  So it is with everyone born of the Pneuma” (John 3).  Sounds fun.  Getting caught up in the “wind” of God.

…That is, of course, until it starts happening.  And all of a sudden you’re getting tossed here and there, unsure whither or where you’re going to land.  Will you land?  You don’t know.  A kite on the hurricane of God’s sometimes violent breath.

Much of my religious upbringing (I’m a charismatic) taught me to expect that such hurricanes of the Spirit would sweep me up now and again.  Actually, “the move of God” was something we longed for and celebrated.  Yet what no one taught me was that sometimes, getting caught up in the hurricane is scary, even potentially lethal.  As I’ve grown with God, I’ve discovered that more often than not, getting swept up in a “move of God” is perilous, not-altogether-straightforward, and fraught with risk and uncertainty.  Yet I’m sure of this: I’d rather be there than sitting comfortably in control of my universe.  After all, kites are only in control when they’re not flying.  But the point of kites is not control.  It is flying.  And flying is risky business.

One of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a pastor and theologian who led a substantial resistance movement to Hitler during the rise of Nazi Germany.  Bonhoeffer knew what it meant to get “swept up to big purposes”, and also understood that so getting swept often would make one’s life substantially more complicated than it would have been otherwise.  While sitting in a prison for his actions, awaiting a most certain death, he composed these lines.  I share them with you as hope and encouragement to you (since this is the week leading up to Pentecost) to lose yourself, whenever you can, to the risky wind of God’s Spirit:

“Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.

Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.

Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.

Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.

God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.

Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.” – Bonhoeffer, Stations on the Way to Freedom

This Pentecost, I’m remembering that getting caught up in the strong wind of God is rarely straightforward.  Sometimes, it’s a tempest.  But I’d rather live wildly on the wind than safely on the ground.

May you have courage to get swept away this Pentecost.


When your grandfather’s name is Zadok

Matthew’s gospel opens innocently enough:

1A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
4Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
7Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,
8Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
9Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amon,
Amon the father of Josiah,
11and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13Zerubbabel the father of Abiud,
Abiud the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
14Azor the father of Zadok,
Zadok the father of Akim,
Akim the father of Eliud,
15Eliud the father of Eleazar,
Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
16and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

17Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.

..But when we look closer we instantly realize that Matthew’s opening words really are not at all “tame”, for Matthew is making the claim that in Jesus a brand new creation is afoot.  “Record of the genealogy” is quite literally (in Greek) “Biblos Geneseos”, which a way of calling to mind the dramatic activity of the Creator God “in the beginning” who took the madness of pre-creation chaos and turned it into something good.  Matthew wants us to know that his book will be a “book of the genesis” of Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom God is “making all things new”, to use Paul’s language.  God’s Sabbath rest is now upon us.

Yet if that were all Matthew wanted to say, he would not have needed to include this extensive, belabored genealogy.  Mark didn’t.  John didn’t.  Matthew didn’t have to.  Or did he?  Perhaps in the genealogy Matthew wants us to understand something of the character of the God who is now acting in Jesus Christ.  Perhaps the genealogy is a clue to Matthew’s understanding of “His”-story, God’s story – which is to say our past and our future.

And indeed when we begin to peer into the genealogy, that is exactly what comes into focus. There are a handful of “saints” to be sure: Abraham, Hezekiah, Josiah, etc.  But more often than not we meet less-than-savory, even dastardly folk.  The conniving Jacob, the murderous Judah and his brothers, some disreputable women, a murdering, sexually promiscuous king (David), a litany of evil kings culminating in a handful of nondescript rulers who preside over the final demise of Judah, and a whole list of “no-names” leading up to the birth of the Messiah.  Some family.  And yet – all of them integral to the Divine Plan.

And even more, what is interesting is that Matthew seems to have an interesting understanding of how God works his divine plan.  For Matthew, being an inconspicuous “outsider” may not count AGAINST your being used in marvelous ways by God; and being a deeply connected, entrusted-with-power “insider” may not count FOR you.

I grew up in a small town in central Wisconsin.  My grandparents and extended family were farmers and blue-collar folk, for the most part.  No presidents in my past.  No senators.  No statesmen.  Heck, no doctors, no lawyers, and as far as I knew, almost no one with a college degree.

When I graduated and went to a prominent Christian college in the Midwest, I quickly became aware of the “inconspicuousness” of my past.  There I met a good deal of students whose dads’ were so-and-so, who’s grandfathers’ were such-and-such, who had walked the royal halls of Christendom and were deeply enmeshed in it’s flows of power.  I was not connected.  And neither were my parents.  “Internationally unknown” as one person put it.  It made me feel awkward.

One day, griping to God about all of this as well as about all the quirks and idiosyncrasies which I felt God had unnecessarily “blessed” me with, I remember hearing the voice of God in my soul, saying, “Andrew, don’t you think I knew about all of that when I called you?  Those things will only limit you if you let them.”

“Don’t you think I knew about all of that when I called you…?”  As college progressed, it was fascinating to watch how many of the deeply “connected” people faded into obscurity, while many of the “outsiders” were precisely the ones God used.  People who came in with no standing, no “name”, no power; those were the ones God exalted.  Weird.  But it’s just the way this “odd God” works.

I’ve walked with this “odd God” long enough now to know by experience what Matthew tries to teach us in the genealogy: that the people who wind up on the “right side” of history are not always the ones we’d expect.  Not the powerful or influential, not the connected or “money-ied”; in fact, those folks often wind up on the WRONG side of history.  (It’s not by accident that Matthew makes the “kings of Israel” culpable for the disgusting slide into exile.)  More often than not, it’s the “meek” who “inherit the earth”; the ones who, Mary, in unassuming trust receive from God’s hand the “moments” that are given to them, and watch as their lives get taken up into the Divine Story; who somehow in so doing put the Sabbath-rest that is Jesus’ Advent on display.


If you’re unknown, unheard-of, inconspicuous

If you’re not powerful, not rich, not connected

If you’re name isn’t in the headlines, and there are no senators or statesmen in your lineage

Don’t fret: You may just be in the center of God’s will for the human race; an important link in the chain of God’s saving purposes for the whole world.

So be of good cheer, even if your grandfather’s name is Zadok.

Time for Love

Paul claimed that the core Christian virtue – Love – is, among other things, “patient” (1 Co 13:4).  Embedded as it is in the middle of the poetic and perhaps all-too-familiar “love chapter”, we seldom reflect on the relationship between patience and love; how in fact love is “patient” and, on the flip side, that patience is what makes love possible.

The Gospel writers Matthew and Mark each record that, a short while before he was betrayed, Jesus was anointed by a woman with a jar of perfume “worth more than a year’s wages” (Mk 14; Mt 26).  The disciples are astonished, and angry.  What a waste!  The economics of it don’t add up.  The perfume is worth tons of money – money that could have gone to feed a bunch of hungry people.  And she pours it in an act of dramatic wastefulness on the head of Jesus – the same Jesus who thundered loud denunciations against the opulence of the rich and called forth a society built on love and justice.

Curiously, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the woman.  He commends her.  Because apparently her act of grace and lavishness and generosity is appropriate to the nature of the gospel, the nature of the kingdom of the Father, that He came to bring.  And then he says, perhaps surprisingly:

“Why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she could.  She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.  9I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mk 14:6-9)

In other words, for Jesus, somehow, there is space and time for lavish love.  But how is that possible?

I think it has to do with something Jesus knew that we often lose sight of, and it is this: the kingdom of God is not something we build.  It is not a program we enact, or a responsibility that rests on our shoulders (though of course we are called to make manifest the kingdom and live lives that are an extension of the heavenly kingdom).  Instead, Jesus knows what we time-crunched ones don’t know: the kingdom of God is a gift.  The writer of Hebrews says that we are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28).  We don’t “build” it.  God “gives” it.

And here’s why this is important: knowing that the kingdom is pure gift, and not anything we earn or attain, creates the time and space for lavish love.  It creates a sort of “heavenly economy” where things like love, kindness, grace, forgiveness, and generosity actually make sense.  In the absence of knowing that the kingdom is a gift of God, all we are left with is cold calculation, “effectiveness”, and a rest-less striving to right every wrong now, which of course we cannot do, and will only add new wrongs to old ones.  God will right every wrong; and patiently we wait for the day.  In the meantime, we patient ones have time to love.

So, since it is not your responsibility to “build” the kingdom, but rather to receive it as the gracious gift of Jesus’ Father (and ours!), here is my recommendation:

Love well

Live lavishly

Give more than you can spare

Celebrate the poor and ennoble them by taking time for them

Play with children (yours and others)

Spend time with the elderly

Take time to pray

And laugh

And sing, for the pure joy of singing

Plant flowers

Get to know your neighbors

Throw parties, for no other reason than for the joy of being together (inviting everyone you know)

And do it all knowing that God’s being in control of history “creates the time” for you to live this way.  Not in panting, panicked feverishness, but in slow, deliberate, intentional acts of love.

“We don’t do great things” said Mother Teresa, “we do small thing with great love.”

Good advice I’d say.