Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in Review: Bible Verses and Passages

Nate Hughes did a little blog about the most meaningful Bible verses for him this past year. Reading his post gave me a better insight into him as a person as well as giving me some space to reflect on the exact same thing myself. So I decided to do it too, hoping you will see a little bit more about what makes me, me and to also give me a good reflection to end 2011.

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” –John 1:14
To be fair, this verse came to the forefront for me at Urbana 2009. The entire conference revolved around the richness of this verse: the incarnation. Since then, this verse has been the foundation and sustaining passage behind our call to Asia and the thrust of our team. Being people living in the reality of the incarnation, or the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is of the utmost importance.

The Sermon on the Mount by Jesus, -Matthew 5-7.
This passage could easily show up each year, and probably will. There is a movement – a growing movement – of people who are rediscovering the radical message and life of Jesus and desiring to live into it (no matter how flawed the human endeavor ends up). Whenever I open the Bible my heart and eyes are naturally drawn to this part. This is so much the case that I literally read it about every two weeks. I learn something new each time I dig in, which means I need to keep reading on!

The True Fast, by God through the prophet Isaiah, -Isaiah 58.
A new movement was launched earlier this year called “58:” (learn more here). This past year I have been closely following this movement and participating in it. This movement is looking to end extreme poverty – noting that most of the world’s evil is linked directly to issues of poverty, but that equally we currently have all the resources we need to end poverty now. What do we lack? The will.

This movement is based on the Isaiah 58 passage. It is in this passage that we see clearly that God is not moved by our worship, our preaching, or our Christmas celebrations. In other words, He does not want empty ritual, words, and religion. Instead, He wants us to “chose the fast He chooses” and “let the oppressed go free”, “share your bread with the hungry”, "bring to your house the poor”, and “extend your soul to the hungry”. Needless to say, it’s a powerful passage that refocuses my energies and efforts every time I read it.

The Good News, -Isaiah 61 and Luke 4.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because the Lord has anointed Me
To preach good news to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set the at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Just a mere three chapters after God tells us what type of life He wants – justice, mercy, helping those in need (Isaiah 58, the true fast) – He gives us the fulfillment of those passages – Jesus.

When Jesus enters into Nazareth, his hometown, He is given the entire scroll of Isaiah to read from. The people want Him to teach them, to do the Scriptures for them. He opens the scroll, and out of 1200+ verses, He picks out a verse and a half (above), reads it, sits down, and says, “Today, this has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It has been said that the entire book of Isaiah is like a miniature Bible, incorporating virtually every theme of the Word. In other words, as some would call it, a “systematic theology”. So it is indeed a watershed moment for his listeners then, and for us now, that from all of the book of Isaiah, Jesus chooses to read these passages and end his teaching right there.

This passage is another foundational passage and foundational theological emphasis behind our move to Asia to do the work He has called us to there.

As a side note, only a few verses later in Isaiah 61 we read, “For I, the Lord, love justice,”….further driving home the point.

“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand….” –John the Baptist in Matthew 3:2.
Repentance and the kingdom, both central themes and messages in the New Testament. Jesus primarily talks about the “kingdom of God” and similarly calls all to “repentance” within the context of the kingdom, which it turns out is equally a confessional movement as well as a turning away from sinful practices. In this particular passage, and its parallels in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, John the Baptist gives concrete examples of what “repentance” looks like, which includes things like – “if you have two of something, give one away”.  That is what the kingdom looks like. It is tangible expressions of love, or as Cornel West has put it, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

This past year or so most of my personal biblical studies have revolved around the “kingdom of God” and what it all entails. I have a looooong way to go. But as I have studied this, and try to practice living into a kingdom ethic and lifestyle, I have found life, truth, and meaning. I am truly thankful for those who have helped me in this endeavor. 

"Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." -Jesus Prayer in Luke 11.
Jesus wants the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is already in heaven. This is revolutionary. This changes everything. We are to be kingdom people, living into a kingdom reality no matter how unrealistic, hard, or sacrificial.

All of these passages and verses, and many more, have been key for me this year. As I prepare to charter into the unknown, into suffering, chaos, and darkness - these passages will continue to provide the Light and foundation I need. 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

2011 in Review: Best of Blogs, Books, and Music

Here are some "best of" or personal favorites of 2011.

Ordinary Radical Blog:
My blog on Osama and "justice" was by far the most read of the year. I got a lot of positive feedback from this post, but I know that those who disagreed just respectfully read and left it there. The death of this man brought all types of reactions. You can read my reaction again here.

**In full disclosure, most of the people who know me are aware that I lean heavily to the anabaptist/pacifism side of the spectrum. This post certainly reflects that conviction, though also transcends it to some degree. 

Best Blog(s) I Read This Year:
I spend a lot of time at Alter Video Magazine and The Work of the People. I also enjoy reading Scot McKnight, Scott Bessenecker at "The Least of These" blog,  and the many who write at Q Ideas.

Most Important Book I Read:
Surprised by HopeN.T. Wright

I know this book was published in 2008, but I have only this past year or so been turned on to Wright's work. He has quickly become my go-to biblical scholar. He is terrific and is able to articulate many feelings and thoughts I have had on faith and the Christian witness, but writes in a clear and thoughtful way. This book, subtitled, "Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church" says it all. This book has honed in my "kingdom of God" theological emphasis, to which I am grateful.

Wright convincingly argues that what we believe about life after death directly affects what we believe about life before death. For if God intends to renew the whole creation—and if this has already begun in Jesus's resurrection—the church cannot stop at "saving souls" but must anticipate the eventual renewal by working for God's kingdom in the wider world, bringing healing and hope in the present life.

Most Challenging Book I Read:
InsurrectionPeter Rollins

I had never read any of Rollins's work, but a lot of people are talking about him these days and it seems that the postmodern landscape is right in his sweet spot. You know when Rob Bell gives this little snippet on the cover, that you are in for an interesting ride: "In this book, Pete takes you to the edge of a cliff. And just when most writers would pull you back, he pushes you off. But after your initial panic, you realize that your fall is a form of flying. And it's thrilling."

I am going to write some type of review of this book soon (the only reason I got a copy), but suffice it to say, there is plenty I agree with him on and some things that make me pretty nervous.

Best (Christian) Song of the Year:

Favorite Song to Dance to with Judah:
Rihanna'sWe Found Love
*I have thought better of posting the video.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

2011 in Review: Personal Highlight and Lowlight of the Year

Inspired by friend Nate Hughes, I spent some time reflecting on 2011 and major highlights, lowlights, headlines, and favorites. Here is my first entries.

Personal Highlight:
Being called and appointed to go the slums and margins of Asia to start and begin a new work focused on playing a (small) part of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

“You are doing what?” A common refrain from neighbors and loved ones alike. Honestly, I think the same thing myself…

“I am doing what??”

“God, you want me to go…where??”

Over the past several years, God has been cultivating my “conversion within my conversion”, or as Mother Teresa called it, a “call within a call.” I found in my maturation and evolution as a Follower of Jesus, happen the same thing that happened to pastor and author Rick Warren. Warren shared a watershed moment in his life that mirrors mine. “Around this time”, he says he was driven to reexamine Scripture with ‘new eyes.’ What he found humbled him. “I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all the purposes of God. The church is the body of Christ. The hands and feet have been amputated and we’re just a big mouth, known more for what we’re against.” Warren found himself praying, “God, would you use me to reattach the hands and the feet to the body of Christ, so that the whole church cares about the whole gospel in a whole new way-through the local church?” Like Rick Warren, these past several years for me and my wife have been an education and confrontation with God’s clear and overwhelming heart for the “poor, widow, orphan, and immigrant,” or in other words, the oppressed and marginalized of our world.

It is one thing to know that Jesus cares about the poor, and quite another thing to actively engage with that reality. The prophetic words of Shane Claiborne helped me process this distinction. “I asked participants who claimed to be "strong followers of Jesus" whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time with the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.

Right. Its not that rich Christians don’t are about the poor, it’s that they don’t know them. What I had then was nothing less than a moving of the Spirit to (actually, for once) live out my beliefs and passions instead of just intellectually assenting to them. This in turn translated into a calling to move into the slums of Asia and live in solidarity with the ones Jesus called “blessed”; the “poor.”

And so I go.

Personal Lowlight.
I am starting to unearth the depths of my self-centeredness and independence. For a lot of my life, I have forged my own way doing things according to my agenda and time frames. I paid my own way through college, worked up to 60 hours a week while going to seminary full-time, and went as a single to live as a civilian in a place armed soldiers don’t even want to go. I have never had to really consider anyone but myself in my life decisions. Well, marriage and fatherhood has brought this self-centeredness all to a head.

God has and will continue to refine me to rely on others, live in intentional community, and most importantly, focus on the essential bond of marriage and family with my wife and son. God has and will continue to show me ways in which I put myself before them. He will continue to show me how much hurt and suffering I bring on relationships because of this self-centeredness. This is by no means a 2011 issue only. I have history and past experiences I still need to work through and confront, but no doubt I will be able to look back to 2011 as a year that revealed to me just how messed up I am in this regard. So even though this is a “lowlight”, I am thankful because I belong to Jesus and He is in the business of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation, that it can turn this dire “lowlight” into a “highlight” one day….Thank you, Jesus!

More to come! 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Last American Christmas: Reflections on Leaving Comfort to Enter into Suffering

As Christmas 2011 closes in, it is (finally) hitting me that this will be my last Christmas in America for the foreseeable future. I am leaving family, friends, homes, lands for unknown family, friends, homes, and lands in Asia. This is part of the sacrifice and also part of the inheritance of the call on my life. It’s complicated though…I am filled with excitement, purpose, and clarity…but ironically, I am also filled with anxiety, a sense of being overwhelmed, and confusion. It’s a paradox to say the least. But I love living in the tension. And I know that the paradox is, ironically, completely “normal” within the call.

By this time next year, I will be surrounded by people who don’t know Jesus, that are struggling to survive in extreme poverty, and that are being sold into the sex trade to make a living. There will be no Christmas trees….no eggnog…no fancy Christmas musicals…no Christmas music blaring everywhere…no company parties…no Black Friday specials…no Santa…no Christmas sweets…no lines at Wal-Mart.

But even in the absence of all of this “stuff”, where I am headed, Jesus will be there. In fact, He already is.

I firmly believe that….He is with the urban poor, those who are suffering to survive on less than $1 day. He is with the girl whose parents sold her in the sex trade in order to feed the family. He is with the baby suffering from malnutrition because there is no food or drink. He is with the woman being raped over and over and over again by perverted men looking for a cheap thrill.  He is in the suffering…and He asks us, He has asked me, to join Him there.

Dont get me wrong, my flesh wants the comfortable, familiar, safe Christmas I will have this year as I have had many other years of my life. But my Spirit…mmm…that amazing-radical-others-focused-God-presence-in-my-heart is ready for the uncomfortable, unknown, and dangerous Christmas.

People often ask me how I can do what I am doing? And to their amazement, I answer with ease. Most importantly I tell them, its not me, its Jesus in me…and…what else would I do? Meeting Jesus and following Him to the poor and suffering is what I was made for. This is my purpose. I am only following my heart. Because of this, it feels...quite...natural and right actually. 

So…I am ready to enter in. I am ready to trade in my red sweater and Christmas Day basketball for a slum house and perpetual uncertainty.
I am ready to do what Jesus already did, perfectly. 
Ready to incarnate the gospel where there are no Christmas trees.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Revolutionaries, Jesus, and the Kingdom of God

"Revolutionaries are always untimely - for the simple reason that they can never be deemed reasonable or right by the present system because it is the present system they critique. Consider a group of activists who protest against the building of a highway through a forest. It is perfectly possible to find many, if not most, of the protesters acknowledging both the futility of their mission and even questioning its justification. The protesters may know that, on purely rational grounds, the highway is needed. They may know that, were they to engage in public debate, their position would be exposed as lacking the rational framework that would justify their actions. Why? Because the presently accepted way of understanding the world dictates the scope and limitations of the rational framework itself.

So why do they act? Because they are affirming a reality that does not yet exist, a reality that would, if it was initiated, justify the actions that they are presently engaged in. They are fighting without justification for a world that would one day offer that justification."

Insurrection, Peter Rollins (175)

My Take:
Jesus is the revolutionary. The kingdom of God is the reality Jesus knew existed that we did not (and still don't to some degree) acknowledge or understand. It is only in the context of the kingdom of God, that we can understand the purpose and life of Jesus the messiah. Through the kingdom of God, Jesus affirmed (and affirms) a new reality. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Do You Know the Real St. Nick? (Shane Claiborne)

The original “Old St. Nick” who inspired the tradition of Santa Claus... was a bishop of Myra in fourth-century Turkey (Christians around the world remember him on December 6). There's not a whole lot known about him, but we know that he entrusted himself to Jesus early in his life, and when his folks died, he gave away all the inheritance to the poor.  Oh, and a neat little legend about the stockings we see everywhere.  The origin of the big red stockings was from a story of St. Nicholas.  Nicholas learned of three girls who were going to be sold into slavery by their father. He was so moved by their pain that he tossed three bags of gold through the window of the little girls' home, to ransom their lives.  The legend is that the money fell into their socks, which were drying by the fireplace.  So let us celebrate St. Nick today -- the real St. Nick -- as a lover of Jesus and of the poor.  And as we see stockings hanging up this Christmas, let us remember those who still hang their clothes out to dry... and may we remember the 1.2 million children who are trafficked each year in the global sex trade.  May their suffering move us to act.  

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Critical Look

This blog post is intended for COMIC RELIEF ONLY. Everything I say below is only intended to make the reader LAUGH. I mean NONE of it seriously. In other words, please don't email me saying how bad of a person I am. HA~!

Last night, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) was on TV. As a child, I looked forward to this show every year. It was my favorite show. So last night I let Judah stay up and watch it with me. Maybe a 3-year old shouldn't watch such a show - especially the parts (which were a lot more than I remember) with the formidable Abominable Snowman wreaking havoc on everyone. Judah tried to be tough, but he was clearly nervous. He was thrilled that the mean snowman turned good at the end.

Inspired by a critique I read of Thomas and Friends (one of Judah's favorite shows), I noticed a bunch of odd themes and hidden messages (again, this is kidding and joking) in the show last night. Let me share.

The film first aired in 1964. This is hardly a surprise. There is absolutely no racial/ethnic diversity at all. Contrast this with a newer Christmas show, "Elf on a Shelf", where the diversity is very apparent. There are elves with all sorts of backgrounds and in prominent roles of the movie. Not so much in Rudolph.

Not only is there not racial diversity represented in the show, but not even minor differences in personality or appearance are appreciated. Rudolph's dad, Donner, upon finding out that his son has a bright nose unlike other reindeer decides he wants to "hide" the problem because Rudolph's nose is not "normal". How progressive of you, Donner. I have heard of kids trying to change their appearance to please their peers, but a parent...cmon! Even the show commentator, Sam Snowman, got in on the action saying the parents did a "good job" of "hiding the non-conformity", actually stumbling over the words "non-conformity" with the implicit message that he wanted to use a harsher word, but thought the better of it. How noble, Sam.

This theme is of course solidified in the treatment of Hermy the Misfit Elf (dentist). He is the only male elf that has long, flowing blond hair, cherry lips, and a soft, small mouth. He wears his elf hat pushed back to show off his hair. This is a far cry from the other male elves that all look the same, sound the same, and act the same. Hermy laments that he doesn't like his job of building toys and would rather be a dentist. His boss (never named throughout the show...just "the boss") ridicules him for his aspirations. In an emotional exchange between the two of them, Hermy says, "I am not happy in my work." The boss responds, "What???" and begins undressing him (so to speak) in front of the other elves which in turn leads to a gossip session and mocking. The boss concludes, "you are an elf, and an elf makes toys." So much for innovation and creativity in the North Pole. Hermy concludes, "I am such a misfit", which becomes the inevitable conclusion for Rudolph as well. In standard fashion, Sam Snowman is unsympathetic of Hermy's plight and dismisses him quickly saying, "Such is the life of an elf."

Nevertheless, Hermy continues his quest to be a dentist and misses elf singing practice in order to fix the teeth of a doll. When Santa is less than pleased with the singing performance of the elves, it takes The Boss very little time to shift the blame to Hermy who was missing from the practice. The Boss storms into the room and yells at Hermy, "Santa knows what is good, you should do as you should." In other words, fall in line. You begin to sense the frustration of The Boss (middle management) who is caught between a demanding CEO (Santa) and his less than stellar line crew. In fact, Mrs. Clause was ok with the singing performance. But more on this later.

Back to Rudolph. As I mentioned, he comes to the same conclusion as Hermy that he is a "misfit" (of course they sing about it). But how exactly did he get there? Well, all the young reindeer were playing "reindeer games" and learning to fly (so they could be useful of course. Their only aspiration in life was to pull the CEO's sleigh). Rudolph is flirting with Clarice the doe and finally being affirmed by someone. This leads him to fly higher and better than all the other reindeer, earning the praise of the coach and Santa himself. Of course this was short lived because his nose covering popped off. Back to reality for Rudolph. Santa rebuked Donner (the dad!!), "you should be ashamed of yourself!" No more reindeer games for Rudolph. Of course his lovely doe comes to his side and tries to console, but then chooses the odd song of "there is always tomorrow." Tomorrow? Good job, Clarice. The scene has the inevitable ending of Clarice's dad coming over and pulling Clarice away, saying, "No doe of mine is going to be seen with a red-nosed reindeer."

This is when Rudolph and Hermy meet up as the "misfits". In a laughable moment, Hermy declares that they are both "independent" and exclaims, "let's be independent together." Independent together? Score one for Hermy. Maybe his boss was right.

Which brings us to my favorite part, the introduction of Yukon Cornelius. He arrives on the scene in heroic fashion, whipping and yelling at his dogs to "mush faster". He declares himself the "greatest prospector" (did he mean, "speculator") and goes on to reveal to the misfits that "this is my land" and its "rich with gold and silver." Naturally, Cornelius has two deadly weapons attached to his waist and is wearing plaid. At this point, Cornelius shows his true colors and throws his ax into the snow and brings it up to taste..."nothing", he concludes. He was clearly disappointed. The natural takeaway is that he wanted to do the least amount of work for the most amount of profit. I was shocked by this. Once again Sam Snowman chimes in with his take and breaks out into song, "Everyone exists for silver and do you measure its worth...just by the pleasure it gives on earth." Great message for kids. The scene ends with Cornelius saying he needs to get more "gun powder, guitar strings" and other items. He yells "mush!" to his exasperated dogs who are fed up with getting beaten and yelled at. Because of this, they don't move an inch for him. Cornelius, the tough guy that he is, puts the dogs on his sleigh and pulls them all himself. He gives these two words of wisdom to the misfits as they move on, stay with me and you will "be rich." I wonder if Cornelius is red or blue??

They make it to the land of misfit toys where Cornelius affirms Rudolph and Hermy's worst fears, "even among misfits, you are misfits." Great friend, huh? As they spend the night on the island, Cornelius in a moment of epiphany decides they are all in this together and exclaims, "Its all for one...and ah, ah, ah...never mind." Brilliant, Cornelius! You have heard the saying, "guns don't kill people, people kill people." But this shows us that perhaps there are certain people shouldn't have guns after all.

Rudolph finally comes to grips with who he is and comes back to Santa's home as a secure individual. Of course, Santa the CEO, is only thinking about himself and is distraught because Donner has went to look for Rudolph and Christmas Eve is only days away and he needs Donner to be successful for his one day of work a year. How about being thankful that Rudolph is back, Santa? Well, we find out that the Abominable Snowman has captured Donner and others, which brings us to another evident theme in this show: women on the margins. If you go back to the reindeer game scene, you notice that no women reindeer are allowed to partake or join Santa's sleigh. Furthermore, they are relegated to the sidelines where they stand in awe of the males and cheer them on. North pole cheerleaders, basically. When Donner wants to go look for Rudolph, Mrs. Donner (never named, just, mrs. donner) demands to go with Donner. Donner snaps back in an angry tone, "this is a man's job." Point taken, writers.

Back to the scene...Cornelius has a great idea to free the captured reindeer. He contends that the Snowman will have more interest in "pork than reindeer" (who would have thought...Cornelius of course!) and comes up with a plan to take him out. Included in this plan is mobilizing Hermy to extract his teeth. In other words, capture the bad guy and torture him. Very commendable, Cornelius. Of course, misfit Hermy doesn't question Cornelius's authority.

The reindeer are all freed and come back to Santa! Yay! Upon arrival back, it is noted that "maybe misfits have a place after all." Then Santa confesses," 'maybe' he was wrong." The inflection on the word "maybe" in both sentences is clear. The "maybe" for misfits having a place is contrite and confessional. Santa's "maybe" was less than sincere. To further highlight this difference, at the very end of the show Santa is once again complaining about Rudolph's nose, as if he had forgotten that he was "maybe wrong" just a few minutes ago. That is, right up until he figures out that Rudolph will be useful to him after all because his obnoxious nose can help Santa work his one day a year. Even Donner, unrepentant it seems, chimes in out of nowhere, "I knew that nose would be worth something someday." Thanks, dad.

The final scene is filled with subliminal messages as Santa is up in the air delivering toys. He has a bunch of misfit toys from the island. But dont we know a Santa who delivers toys to each house, coming through a chimney, and filling stockings. Why, yes, we do. In a radical departure from contemporary knowledge of Santa, an elf is throwing out misfit toys from 35,000 feet in the air. Thankfully, they are at least given umbrellas for a soft landing.

Great movie.