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But I’m bored already: a call to long-suffering

 

As a church… as a culture…. we are easily seduced by the instantaneous.

Never has that been more true than in the age of Internet, fast food, and airplane travel. Yet the seduction of doing things as quickly as possible has been a part of Western life for over 150 years, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The effect has simply snowballed.

Church communities have long since bought into this as well:

* The 19th century saw a rapid spread of Protestant Christianity in the US, which necessitated more “efficient” ways to become a Christian. Tenets of faith were reduced to simple “fundamentals” that everyone could digest, understand without much intense study, and were easily replicable. Theology became the means to substantiate this “Christianity Lite.” Circuit riders and wagons followed Manifest Destiny west.The proliferation only increased in speed with the advent of technologies such as the steam engine and the railroad, followed by the automobile and airplane.

* Pastoral care had to speed up, too. Inspired by the miraculous events in the scriptures, and perhaps by the testimonies of healing, some of these evangelists took up “healing ministries”—which was a convenient way to both continue full-fledged proliferation of the “gospel,” without having to get bogged down in slower, messier activities like relationships or compassion.

* Of course, while many denominations and groups maintained their devotion to compassion and justice, many communities spent less and less time on such things, unless of course doing so posed some direct benefit for their cause to “spread the easy-to-swallow Gospel.” Justice, fighting prejudice, challenging unjust laws, these things take time. The 19th and early 20th centuries still saw some progress, but it was around that time that people advocating for a “social gospel” were being demonized as heretics and Communists…such causes were deemed as ‘getting in the way’ of spreading the real Gospel message.

* All of these incipient trends began to accelerate in the mid/late 20th centuries. Along with it, churches and revivals became places of mass religious consumption, designed for maximum conversion rates. Reactions against liberation movements for women, blacks, and others led many churches’ silence or outright condemnation, which allowed abuse, scandal, and corruption to go unchecked in homes, businesses and in churches themselves. In the face of threatening post-Christian culture, churches catered more and more to the styles and modes and fashions that they hoped would make their Gospel-nuggets palatable again. Missionaries were being slowly replaced by the medium-term, and then the short-term missionary. This allowed more people to have “life-changing experiences,” but cost far more money, less of which actually went to the poor… but it was all good, because the trips gave the participants all the feelings of “investment,” without actually investing. Needs of the community have been farmed out to committees and sub-committees, all to find convenient, cost-effective solutions, advertised as easy, not-too-life-consuming “ways to get involved,” nearly always in the form of a structured church program.

Is it any wonder why people feel lonely in our world? Even at church?

It’s time for the church to think long-term. 

To not do a hundred things at the shallowest of levels, but to do only a few things, and to do them well.

The new benchmark for church success? That people build deep, long-lasting, long-suffering relationships.

With each other. With community projects. With the poor, young, abused.

It’s time to stop judging a ministry on the basis of whether or not it “grows,” or if it leads to “conversions” (but probably not disciples)… but on the basis of the love that is shown, and grown.

It’s time to think in terms of years, not months…. and in DECADES, not years.

It’s time to realize that deep, systemic, deeply rooted-within-societal problems don’t go away with our prayers, if no loving action goes with it. And they don’t go away with our one-time action, or even, oftentimes, our one-year action. It takes deep, systemic, deeply rooted responses to such deep problems… which includes prayer, AND involvement, for the long-haul.

It’s time for churches, as well as the individuals in them, to build relationships. Real, two-way relationships. And to realize that these, unforced and uncajoled, take time to develop.

It’s time for churches seeking pastors, and new church leaders, to see the inevitable “downswing” that happens after new relationships are forged and the “honeymoon phase” is over, as an opportunity to “long-suffer” with another, rather than high-tail it and to look for another community, group, individual, etc. to fawn over, or to let fawn over you.

It’s time to stop patting ourselves on the back for only the things we measure as “success.”

And for the love of God, we must, we must, we MUST stop supplementing our quick-fix, easy-answer, instantaneous-results orientation with a “Gospel Lite.” The “Good News” is not truly good, until it affects every strata of living— physical, emotional, social, spiritual, political, ecclesial. Until it is Good News for those who long-suffer and carry heavy burdens of oppression, guilt, abuse, neglect, poverty, self-worthlessness. Until that Good News becomes Incarnate, en-fleshed, in the very midst of that suffering, and we then “suffer with” (com-passio) the suffering.

Even if it takes a while.

A LONG while.

….

Are we willing to work on behalf of others without immediate or continual payoff?

Are we able to?

Does our theology, our Gospel, give us the resources to do so?

 

“Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.”
Henri J.M. Nouwen

 http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/4837.Henri_J_M_Nouwen

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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in church, jesus, theology

 

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“Easter Philosophy”: Faith can be a crutch (Rollins). It can also give life (Jones).

 

Yeah, I’m still FOB (Flat on Back) today.  Thanks for asking.

Yesterday’s post featured a “vlog” of me responding to a great discussion between philosopher Peter Rollins and pastor/theologian Tony Jones (who just defended his Ph.D. dissertation yesterday at Princeton) that occurred on Easter in New York City.

(I’m still not happy with my vlogging attempts so far, btw.  If anyone has some ideas as to how to improve them, I’d be happy to hear them.  [Anyone else find it immensely awkward to talk to a computer screen?] )

But yesterday I offered some passing thoughts regarding Rollins, who is far more interested in the present-day manifestations of resurrection-living in faith communities, than in the historical facts of the resurrection itself.  (Which sounds Marcus Borgish, and it kinda is, but I think his objectives are quite different.)  I wondered what the implications were for his take on resurrection for missional church behavior, and I tried to summarize his take on the relationship between faith and doubt in comparison to my own.  By comparison Jones makes a case for a physical resurrection, not by prooftexting or using apologetics, but by talking about what makes a story about a physical resurrection compelling, fitting, and beautiful.  In many ways, their positions well summarize the two primary so-called “postmodern” approaches to Christian philosophy today, although the divide is not nearly as dramatic as it was in the modern era. 

When we say “I love God,” is this really what we mean?

Today, in contrast, I want to mention where I particularly resonate with Rollins, and then talk a bit about (what else?) faith.  Follow me, beyond the jump.

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Posted by on April 26, 2011 in theology

 

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Making Jesus in our image.

 

Oftentimes when I meet new people, I hear one of two things:

Either:  “You look like Shaggy from Scooby Doo!” 

(To which I, of course, reply with my best impression:

“I’m scared, Scoob!”

(Imagine me doing my best prepubescent squeal as I say it. ) )

Or, more commonly these days (especially after people learn of my profession):  “You look like Jesus!” 

I’ve never known exactly how to respond to that statement, but it’s typical for these encounters that I find myself overwhelmed with the same, somewhat-snarky thought: 

       “But Jesus wasn’t a white Scandinavian.”

And sometimes, despite myself, I say this out loud.  Which, predictably, usually yields an awkward grimace and a change of subject, which I gladly welcome–thankful to be out of that awkward exchange.

For starters, I could do about 25 blog posts just talking about all the ways in which my life has not looked like Jesus’ at ALL in the past week!  But that’s not the subject of this post (Thank God).

But I think it’s a real problem that we naturally make assumptions about how Jesus looks based most depictions of him in the Western European tradition… when most of us are at least aware that Jesus was a Palestinian Middle-Eastern. 

[It’s amazing to me that I have often been called “Jesus” just for being a white guy with a beard and long hair.  I mean, I have red hair, people!  I’ve never seen a depiction of a red-headed Jesus. (After all, we prefer our Jesus white, not sunburned.)  Meanwhile, I wonder what the same people would say if they met a Middle-Eastern man with a beard…would they make the same association? ]

Naturally, I mostly blame the depictions themselves–which leads my thinking about the question of images of Christ in the first place, which I woke up Monday morning thinking about.  

In addition to being pasty white, American Jesus also typically has a great stylist and makeup artist. 

In general, I’m not an iconoclast in general (an iconoclast is someone who destroys or condemns the use of art or “icons” for worship because they see them as idolatrous).   I am actually an advocate for the use of art and images in worship, despite their obviously-imperfect depictions of the ineffable God or of a historically-inaccessible Jesus.   Art can guide our minds towards worship of God, just like interpreted, translated words on the pages of our Scriptures can guide us towards God.  We in the Protestant church have underutilized the engagement-possibilities of our other senses and learning styles, and reclaiming them in part, as some churches have done, is a helpful corrective[although there is admittedly great beauty in the Anabaptist/Mennonite/Quaker tradition as well of near-sensory-deprivation in worship]. 

But when I see all these depictions of a white Jesus with a white robe, often (though not always) painted as such out of a white European tradition regarding what Christ looked like, I typically process it with one of the following two inner-monologues:

1)  “Josh, chill out with the righteous indignation. After all, every culture has always depicted Jesus “in their own image,” with the skin color of their own people [not always true, in the post-colonial world, but point conceded…]… People are merely saying that Jesus is ‘for them.’ They’re reminded of the truth of the incarnation— that Jesus came to be among us, to be like us.  Sure, it may be inaccurate, but it’s ultimately no worse than all the other ways that we see our faith through our own personal lenses.  It’s natural, merely people following historical patterns, and not inherently sinful. At any rate, as the Western church has always used them, people have come to naturally connect these images with Jesus and thus find them meaningful for worship…so it’s really not much about the images themselves in the first place, anyway.”

2)  “Josh, I know you’re not an iconoclast and that you really think using art and icons in worship is a good thing, but maybe, if the only image of Christ in the West that we’ll accept or “naturally connect” with Jesus in worship, then maybe we’re better off without them.  There’s something to be said, after all, about making God into our own image!!! We have made Jesus in the image of the race that is typically identified as the wealthiest and most powerful in the world on average; yet Jesus on earth identified with the poor and despised, those without power.  For whites, that means we’re psychologically-conditioned to believe that Jesus, as a fellow white, condones our affluent lifestyle.  For people of color who inherit this Jesus from former colonizers or oppressors, they are left with an image of God, made in the image of their oppressors.  In a multi-cultural world, we would do well to depict Jesus as he was—or to just not depict him at all. 

I go back and forth with these two lines of rationale… but as I write today, I’m very much in favor of the latter… although I still think we should use art in worship.  I just think we should depict Jesus closer to as he was:  a Palestinian. 

The elephant in this virtual-room, of course…. is that in white America, we don’t want our Lord to look like (what we perceive to be) a terrorist.  Because we assume everyone who’s from the Middle East is Muslim [not true], and all Muslims are radical Muslims [also not true], and the cognitive dissonance that would be created if we commonly saw images of our Lord Jesus looking more like “those people” we see on the news throwing rocks at tanks would be too much for us to handle.

Maybe, we really don’t believe in the radical nature of the incarnation. 

Such a change in depiction, I think, would drastically change us, if we let it.  Images, after all, have a way of lodging in our brains and influencing our subconscious assumptions and judgments, more so than we even realize, I think.  I think a Middle-Eastern Christ would force many to confront their own discomfort and disregard for Jesus’ command to “love your enemies.”  It would force the racism in our hearts out into the light of day, exposing it to the fires of worship.  And, we (as white Americans) perhaps, would stop implicitly assuming that Jesus is our Jesus (which, perhaps unwittingly, carries with it the implication that he is not your Jesus). 

What do you think? 

An Aramaic depiction of Jesus… what is your gut-response when you see this?

Does our depiction of Jesus as white in art and dramas affect how we view ourselves, and others? 

Would changing our art change our perceptions, or would we simply be better off without icons/art of Jesus altogether? (Keep in mind that even the most iconoclastic among us still have manger scenes in our home during Christmas.)

If we DO depict him, should we have a variety of “Jesuses” depicted with various ethnicities, or should we be “historically accurate”?

At least we can all agree that Jesus looked NOTHING like this growing up. 

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2011 in church, jesus, justice, race

 

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