Violence, Love, & Mattering

Sometimes upon hearing the news all you can do is sit down and stare.
Or weep.
Or scream. 

That’s how I’ve felt these past few days as the headlines of the killing of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas Police officers rolled through my newsfeed. 

Quite honestly, I’m not really sure what I want to say about all of this. What is there to say that hasn’t already been offered?

I’m angry that yet again black men have been killed by the people that are supposed to serve and protect them. I’m angry that upon their deaths, attempts were made to justify this injustice by slandering the name and character of the victim in an attempt to make them seem criminal, and therefore worthy of immediate execution.

I’m angry that my black brothers and sisters continue to be ridiculed as divisive whenever they cry out for the murdered members of their communities. I’m angry at my white brothers and sisters who refuse to acknowledge that we live in a different reality than our black neighbors; a reality that is much safer, more comfortable, and – yes – more privileged.

I’m angry that this keeps happening. This keeps happening. This. Keeps. Happening. 
And yet I must not let my anger turn to violence. That is what happened in Dallas. Anger – rightful anger, righteous anger – was perverted and gave way to hate and violence, and five more people died.

Because that is how violence works. Violence leads to more violence, like a cancer moving through a body. Violence and injustice and oppression cannot be defeated with more of the same. It simply cannot. 

Genesis 6 begins the story of God flooding the whole Earth with water in an attempt to wipe out the evil of humanity. Genesis 6:13 says, “God said to Noah, ‘The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth.'”

God sets out to destroy violence with violence, but as we all know, it didn’t work. Violence cannot be destroyed by violence. Which is why God promised to never flood the world again. There is another way. A better way. That is the way of love, the way of life.

After all, violence is the antithesis of life. It is the destruction and denial of life. Violence says that there is no meaning in your life, so it is justifiable to harm it – even to end it. 

And this propensity towards violence comes from fear. Fear that my life doesn’t matter. Fear that I am in some way inferior to my brother or sister or neighbor; so I must prove to the world – to myself – that no, my life isn’t meaningless, THAT person’s life is meaningless…and we commit violence. 

The fear of insignificance. The fear of meaninglessness. The fear that I don’t matter.
This leads to violence.

So we hear that #BlackLivesMatter. We hear that #PoliceLivesMatter. We hear that #AllLivesMatter.
Because that is the cry at the heart of all of this.

And so God clothed himself with flesh and blood – God took on humanity – and faced this fear. 

Jesus insisted that the poor are blessed, that the sinner is beloved, that the enemy is a neighbor. Jesus insisted that the lives that have been oppressed and abused and beaten and killed do matter. Jesus insisted that the lives that have oppressed and abused and beaten and killed others do matter. Jesus insisted that you matter. You matter. 
No matter what, you matter.

And in the clearest display of our sickness, humanity unjustly murdered this truth-teller; because the truth has a way of disturbing our lives. We did violence to the one that insisted there was no reason to fear. 

On the cross, we declare that Jesus’ life doesn’t matter, yet in the resurrection Jesus assures us that ours still does.

Violence cannot be defeated by violence. Fear cannot be undone by fear. The only way forward is to trust that my life matters. To believe so strongly in my own worth that I do not fear any violence that could ever be done to me. To have such faith that I am a beloved child of God that I cannot help but see everyone else – Black, Police, Gay, Transgender, Terrorist – as the same; a beloved child of God. And when someone’s fear causes them to do violence to me, I am free to forgive; because they simply do not know what they’re doing.

Violence cannot be defeated by violence. Only love can do that.

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God’s Not Dead, March Madness, & Transcendence

Last weekend I took my youth group to see the movie God’s Not Dead 2 (which, I think we can all unequivocally agree, should have been titled God’s Still Not Dead). When the first God’s Not Dead movie came out a few years back, I took my youth group to see that one. When the next one in the franchise comes out (we all know it’s coming), I’ll take my youth group to see that one too. Is this because I, unlike many others, think that these movies are good? No, I actually think they’re terrible movies.

The God’s Not Dead movies are not good, but they are important.

These movies tap into something fundamental within the psyche and soul of Christians. The desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
But this is actually not just a Christian desire. This is a human one as well.

In addition to watching God’s Not Dead 2 this past weekend, I also watched the National Title game of the NCAA Final Four. The culmination of March Madness – the most wonderful time of the year.

Villanova beat the University of North Carolina on a last second buzzer beater. When the ball went through the net, Villanova fans went wild!

But why? It’s just a basketball game.Why do so many people across the country get so excited over NCAA March Madness?

For the exact same reason that so many people get excited over a sub-par movie about defending the existence of God. We as humans have an innate desire to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

Whether that is being a devoted member of a basketball team’s fanbase, just hoping for the chance to cheer as the ball swishes through the net; or as a devoted follower of Jesus, just hoping for the chance to take a stand for what you believe and hold most dear. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

The word for this is Transcendence. Webster defines “transcendent” as something that is exceeding or beyond the usual experience. We as humans desire to move beyond our usual experience and to be active and involved with something of significance.

Cheering for a team in the NCAA tournament offers a measure of transcendence. So does the Christian faith…sometimes.

Kenda Creasy Dean offers this insight in her book Practicing Passion,

By the late nineteenth century, “establishment” Protestants – still reeling from revivalism’s emotional excesses – had become suspicious of emotional terrain in religious expression. As mainline Protestants increasingly aligned themselves with the American middle class, they sought more distance from the demonstrative piety of many marginalized communities where worship offered cathartic release from daily hardship. For most of the twentieth century, except for occasional charismatic “renewal” movements, most Protestants remained content to observe the mysterium tremendum from afar. Little has changed; in 1994, according to Barna surveys, more than one-third (34 percent) of churchgoing adults said they had “never” experienced God’s presence in worship. In 1962, when cognitive psychologists David and Sally Elkins asked young adolescents where they were most likely to experience God, most of them said, “In a church or synagogue.” By 1999, however, only one in seven adolescents believed that participating in  a church, synagogue, or other religious group was necessary to being “religious.”

It seems that Christians no longer find the transcendence that they desire within the established confines of the church, so they are going to the movie theater instead.

After watching God’s Not Dead 2, one of the teens in my youth group said that,
“It was inspiring to watch; to stand up for what you believed in, even if it gets you in trouble.”

We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.

So maybe, instead of poorly reviewing movies, it’s time for Christians to reclaim our mission as the Body of Christ. To proclaim that the Kingdom of God has in fact come near to us. To share the Good News of grace, and love, and justice for all; even if that gets us in trouble.

There is something bigger than all of us going on, and we are invited to join in.

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Holy Wednesday, North Carolina, & Judas

Today is Holy Wednesday.

We are midway through the holiest week in the Christian calendar. A few short days from now we will celebrate Easter. This means that for folks like myself who work in ministry, this is a busy week.

I was at church tonight until past 8pm practicing for a dramatic production of the Last Supper that my community is doing. I’m playing the role of Judas.

When I got home I mindlessly checked Twitter and started seeing things that first confused me, then concerned me.

Apparently, the North Carolina Legislature quietly and quickly introduced, “debated”, and passed a bill that has some serious implications for the LGBT community. All in one day. Legislators were not even allowed to see the bill until this morning, just hours before the vote. As I write this, Governor Pat McCrory is signing the bill into law. Again, it was introduced to committee just this morning.

The focus of the bill is on bathroom use by transgender people. While this is most definitely an important component of this (now) law, I think the bigger issue is yet to be fully discussed.

Section 3 is the part that really concerns me (yes, I read the whole law).
It is the public policy of this State to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity of
all individuals within the State to enjoy fully and equally the goods, services, facilities, privileges,
advantages, and accommodations of places of public accommodation free of discrimination
because of race, religion, color, national origin, or biological sex, provided that designating
multiple or single occupancy bathrooms or changing facilities according to biological sex, as
defined in G.S. 143-760(a)(1), (3), and (5), shall not be deemed to constitute discrimination.
What is this saying?
No one in the State of North Carolina can be discriminated against on the basis of “race, religion, color, national origin, or biological sex”. Notice anything missing from that list? Sexual orientation.

Basically, what this section of this law is saying is that if a business, restaurant, or any other organization open to the public discriminates based on race or gender there is grounds for legal action. However, if this organization, restaurant, or business discriminates because a person is LGBT that is perfectly legal.

And the law goes on to say that no other governing body in the State can make any law that specifically protects LGBT people from discrimination, because this State law supersedes it.

So there it is. North Carolina has now made it fully legal to blatantly discriminate against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

And here is the brutal irony of this all.

This law was passed in the middle of Holy Week. In one day, Holy Wednesday, the most sweeping anti-LGBT law in the United States was passed.

Holy Wednesday. The day that Christians traditionally recognize as the day that Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ closest companions, decided to betray him and hand him over to the political and religious rulers.

It seems that Holy Wednesday 2016 is no different.

The North Carolina legislature, under the guise of “public safety” and “common decency” have traded justice and morality for 30 pieces of silver worth of power.

So let me be as clear as I can be.

The Scriptures say that Judas did what he did because he was susceptible and compelled by the power of Satan. I believe that the same reasoning can be used for this new law in North Carolina. It is nothing short of the work of evil.

This law does nothing but legitimize the demonic power of hate and intolerance towards our LGBT brothers and sisters.

It is not just. It is not good. It is not acceptable.

But I also know that this is not the last word. The story is not over. Holy week doesn’t end on a Wednesday.

Things only get darker from here, but they don’t stay dark. Sunday is coming. And – quite literally – all Hell is about to break loose. Hell is gonna break loose (or should I say be broken loose) with love and justice and peace for all.

Hate and violence and death won today, that is just the fact of the matter. Hope is gone and buried in a tomb. But the week isn’t up yet.

It may be Wednesday now, but Sunday is coming, and the tomb is gonna be empty.
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Pharisees, Jesus, & Starbucks

This morning I read about 2 different showdowns, of sorts.

I read about the first one as I did my early morning scroll though the InstaFaces & TwitSnaps of social media. I saw that once again Christians are feeling the need to fight off the pagan hordes coming to destroy Christmas. This time around, the heathens are serving coffee in minimalist red cups.

Apparently, Starbucks hates Christmas. Never mind their overtly-Christmas flavored seasonal “coffee” drinks, filled with enough saccharine cheer to send a diabetic into a coma that lasts until the Masters tee’s off. But yeah, sure…war on Christmas.

The second encounter that I read about this morning came from the Gospel of Matthew during my morning prayer time. (Yes, I read Twitter before I read the Bible in the AM. Don’t judge me.)

This is what I read:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
    their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:1-11 NIV)

Some quick background.

The Jewish religion back in the Biblical times had many ceremonial practices that people would perform as a part of their faith. Practically all of them were primarily concerned with keeping someone ceremonially pure/ritually clean/holy and worthy of God. A common one of these practices was the ritual hand washing before eating. While this surely was not a bad thing, hygienically speaking, the purpose of this hand washing was not to “wash before eating,” as in what your grandmama used to say to you pre-supper time. This hand washing was done so as to remain holy and blameless before God.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash before eating.

The pharisees called him on it. “Jesus, why don’t your disciples wash before eating? Don’t you care about being faithful to God?”
Jesus answers with a question of his own. “Well, why don’t y’all take care of your mama and daddy?”

Again, more background.

It was expected in the Jewish faith to financially take care of one’s parents. To neglect this would not just be bad form, but would put you at odds with God. When Jesus drops the quote, “Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death,” he is referring to a refusal to financially support the parents. Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of neglecting to give this required support to their mothers and fathers.

It seems that the Pharisees had decided that if they took the money that was meant for their parents and “devoted it to God,” they could get away with not supporting the old folks. You gotta hand it to the Pharisees, they’re a creative bunch. They must have had a great accountant.

The Pharisees had convinced themselves and others that they were being holy and blameless by performing all the necessary rituals and by cooking the books to give all their money to God. However, in the process they had completed neglected to do specifically what God’s word told them to do.

They ask Jesus why he doesn’t wash his hands before he eats. He asks them why they don’t take care of people who need help. “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” 

So, Starbucks (lack of) Christmas cups.

We could ask, “Why doesn’t Starbucks overtly support Christmas? I can’t drink their coffee now.”
But maybe the question should be, “Why aren’t we actually sharing good news with people?”

After all, it isn’t the coffee that goes into someone’s mouth that defiles them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.

Speaking of Christmas, here is one last bit of Scripture. From the Song of Zacharias, when John the Baptist was born.

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
    through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
    and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79 NIV)

May it be so for us.

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Die To The Sword

As was sitting outside in my backyard this evening and was listening to all of the fireworks being set off by my neighbors – along with the professional grade biggun’s somewhere off in the distance – I had a thought.

First, the thought was how the constant explosions that I was hearing must be similar to what it sounds like to be in a war zone.

This then made me think of the Revolutionary War; which, after all, is the occasion for all these explosions. And how we are basically celebrating as a nation going to war.

Which made me think of our country’s (and our culture’s) relationship to violence.

Which made me pause.

Didn’t Jesus say something about violence? Wasn’t it Jesus who said (while being arrested, no less) “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword”?

It seems today that we and our culture are very much comfortable living by the sword. The problem with that is…well…it is completely antithetical to what Jesus was all about.

So, I don’t know…maybe on July 4th, instead of celebrating our Independence from Great Britain that was accomplished through war, Christians should celebrate the future day when all violence will be eradicated. We should shoot off fireworks in hope that they would be the closest thing we ever experience to battle.

It feels weird to me to celebrate a holiday that is so contingent on picking a fight. Isn’t the hope of everlasting peace a good enough reason to fire up the grill?

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No One Is Getting Left Behind: What Revelation Is Really Saying

So, here’s the thing. Let’s just go ahead and be clear about this. The recent movie Left Behind (starring the unparalleled Nicholas Cage and based on the best selling series of books by Tim LaHaye & Jerry Jenkins) is not Biblically accurate. And not just the “it’s a fictional movie based on what the Bible says” kind of accuracy. No, I mean the whole premise of Left Behind, which is to say the entire idea of The Rapture, is not what the Bible is actually saying. To use the dreaded “U” word, Left Behind is Unbiblical.

Now, before you tie me to the stake or beat me with a rubber hose, please let me explain myself. A quick bit of history…

In the mid 1800’s, a man named John Darby articulated a complex theological system called Dispensationalism. At it’s core is the belief that at some point in the future, as an integral element of the Second Coming of Christ, all true Christians will be “raptured” up to heaven to be with God. In other words, the righteous will fly away from earth to heaven, while the unrighteous are…you guessed it…left behind.

Now, here’s the fun part. Prior to John Darby, no one believed in this. Like, no one. Seriously. There is not one shred of historical evidence that anyone in the history of Christianity ever believed in a Rapture or any form of Dispensationalism until John Darby came up with the idea in 1830. The Rapture was made up by one guy less than a couple hundred years ago.

The details of Dispensationalism are pretty complex, and quite honestly confusing. It involves bizarre interpretations of singular verses from various places throughout the Old and New Testament. All that is important is the fact that the entire scope and sequence of the Biblical narrative doesn’t really leave any room for Darby’s rapture theology.

It is only a quirk of history that caused this strange idea to take off in the public sphere. One of the few people who bought into Darby’s Dispensationalism was a man by the name of Cyrus Scofield. He wrote one of the very first popular study Bibles, the Scofield Reference Bible. When it was first released in 1909 it was a huge hit. People loved having notes that helped them understand the Scriptural texts. Unfortunately, the Scofield Reference Bible was full of Dispensationalist rapture theology. So, by the early 1900’s, a wide range of Christians in the US believed in the rapture. Something that no one else in Christianity had ever heard of in years past.

So, if Left Behind isn’t Biblical, if the Rapture isn’t legit theology, then what is? What is the Bible actually saying? More specifically, what the heck is actually going on in the book of Revelation? I’m glad you asked!

The most important thing we have to think about when reading the book of Revelation is what we are reading. Or, said differently, what type of writing is Revelation? Is it a story? Is it a historical account of something? Is it a novel? Is it a letter? What are we reading when we approach Revelation?

The short answer is that Revelation is an apocalyptic prophecy that is written as a circular letter. Ok, now what does that mean?

An apocalypse is a type of literature. It is an ancient genre of writing, specifically a Jewish writing style. An apocalypse is not meant to be taken literally. Apocalyptic literature is a look at the current world condition from the perspective of heaven. So the wild imagery is meant to lift the reader (or hearer) up to heaven. Kinda like an action movie. Lot’s of special effects and explosions for the purpose of transcendence. It is designed to draw us up into another realm of reality through its powerful imagery so that we may be fully convinced of, and our lives therefore transformed by, the present rule of God.

First off, prophecy is not foretelling the future. A Biblical prophet is not a fortune-teller, but instead is a spokesperson for God. So, a prophecy is God’s message to a specific group of people at a specific time and place. In the Old Testament the prophets were bringing God’s message to the rebellious nation of Israel. They basically said, “Stop disobeying God! Return to worshiping the LORD or else!” Or… “God has punished you for your disobedience, but because of God’s promise to you from long ago, He will restore you as His people.” We tend to interpret that as predicting the future, but it really isn’t. It’s bringing God’s clear message for the present time.

Circular letter:
In the Christian tradition, a circular letter was expected to be passed around city to city to the churches in the area. However, one important thing to notice about Revelation is that it actually is addressed to 7 specific churches in Asia. But if we take a closer look at these churches, along with what is being said to them, we can see that they can be read as a representation of all the churches of the time. This is backed up by the fact that there are 7 churches addressed; 7 being a number that in apocalyptic literature represents perfection, or completeness. In other words, Revelation is a letter written to seven specific churches, but was expected to be applicable – and therefore circulated – to all the churches of the time.


Apocalyptic Prophecy written as a circular letter:
Revelation is prophetic in that it brings a message from God to a specific group of people at a specific time and place – Christians in the Roman province of Asia towards the end of the first century AD. It is Apocalyptic in that it shows the reality of its audience from the perspective of Heaven. It shows that God is still in charge; it shows that Jesus is King of the world, not Caesar. It is a circular letter in that it was written to specific churches, but was expected to be passed around to all the churches of the area and beyond.

So, when we read Revelation, we must understand what it is that we are reading. We are not reading a prediction of the end of the world. We are not reading an encoded message that we have to figure out what it is saying. We are reading God’s message to the Christians living in the Roman province of Asia in the first or second century.

This was a time that was filled with persecution. A time when the people hearing this letter read in worship were in very real danger of being killed for their faith. A time when the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar (which is a term for emperor, not a single person’s name), claimed that he was the son of god and therefore ruler of the world. So Revelation reminded Christians of the reality of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the true Son of God, had been killed because of his faith, but rose from the dead and now sat on the throne. Jesus is King of the world, not Caesar. And there will be one day when Jesus will return to earth to make all things new and establish his reign once and for all! It asked its original hearers the vital question, “who do YOU say is Lord of the world? Who will you follow? Caesar or Jesus?” This is the story of Revelation.

But this question is also posed to us today. In our culture, which is strikingly similar to the Roman culture of the late 1st century, we need to be reminded that Jesus is King. We have so many things claiming to be god, promising to bring peace on earth.

Whether it is the promise of peace through wealth. Or peace through military power. Or peace through health brought on by a vast selection of drugs. Or peace through material goods. Or peace through our own personal integrity and will power. Whatever it is, our reliance on other things have taken the spot of king of our world.

Revelation calls us to witness to our faith in Jesus. The original greek word seen all throughout Revelation that we translate as “witness” is martyria, from which we get the word martyr. In other words, we are reminded by God’s message in Revelation to prove with our entire lives that we believe in the Kingship of God. It cannot be just our words that mark our faith, but everything we do. Everything we are.

So, Revelation is not a story of how we will either be whisked away to be with God, or else we will be left behind to suffer. No, Revelation is much more interested in reminding us that the real action is happening here on Earth. In our lives, we have an important choice to make. We either say – with our words and actions – that Jesus is Lord of the world, or we give allegiance to something else. This is Revelation’s challenge to us.

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The Death of An Artist

The first movie I ever remember seeing in the theater was FernGully: The Last Rainforest. I remember the entire event vividly. I was about six years old at the time. My older sister and I were spending the morning at my grandparent’s house. My mom came to pick us up and when we climbed into the Chrysler minivan (the one with the wood paneling), I asked if we could go see Ferngully. She said yes and I’m pretty sure that I’ve never been so excited in my entire life.

Now here is the thing. I asked my mom if we could go see FernGully for a very specific reason. It wasn’t because I liked fairies. It wasn’t because I liked rain forests. It wasn’t even because I particularly liked watching movies – though, I of course did. The real reason I asked my mom so many years ago if we could go see FernGully in the movie theater is because of Robin Williams.

I can’t now remember how and when I was first introduced to the actor of Robin Williams. Maybe it was as Peter Pan in Hook. Maybe it was from catching glimpses of my dad watching Good Morning, Vietnam. But somehow, when FernGully came out in 1992 (a few months before Aladdin, btw), I was a full blown Robin Williams fan. So much so that as we settled into our seats in the theater I kept turning around to look up into the projection box, hoping to catch a glimpse of my hero. It was only after I asked my mom if we would be able to meet Robin Williams after the movie that she disappointed me with the news that the actors aren’t actually in the back doing the voices live.

Robin Williams was the first actor I ever fell in love with. His movies defined my growing up. Like the great family sitcoms of the 90’s, Robin Williams helped me understand what it meant to love, to laugh, and to cry. Ultimately, Robin Williams helped me understand what it meant to live. He could be uncontrollably funny, yet could also perfectly express the most raw and painful side of human emotion. His range as an actor is something that has rarely, if ever, been rivaled. He was a true artist.

Many times when a famous performer whom I admire dies, I am disappointed. I’m not necessarily sad, though I may say that I am. But, honestly, I’m not. I don’t know the person. I’m not really losing anything. True, they won’t be creating or performing anymore, but disappointment is about as far as I’ll admit to actually feeling. But earlier today when I heard that Robin Williams had taken his own life, I was genuinely sad. The first actor whom I ever loved is gone. I actually began to tear up the more it began to sink in. The more I thought about all of the incredible movies he gave the world that have shaped my life, the more I felt a deep sense of loss. This one hurts.

So, here’s to Robin Williams. Thank you for everything.

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