Obamacare, Cruciformity, and (un)Virtuous Conversation

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. Ephesians 5:1-2 Msg

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48 Msg

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:6 NIV

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 NIV

Distracted, Grieved, Burdened

I find myself terribly distracted. I have been trying for the better part of the day to get some other writing done … but I find my heart seriously grieved and burdened by the present state of the conversation over healthcare in the United States. Let me give the reader some context. First, in case you have been hiding under a rock or just got back from Antarctica, the ‘Individual Mandate’ of Obama’s healthcare bill was upheld by the Supreme Court. Second, this has (re)fueled a firestorm of debate, posturing, and rhetoric that is truly disheartening (which I’ll get to in a moment). Third, just as a matter of coincidence, I have come up on three months employment at my current job which means I am eligible for benefits – including health insurance.

This is potentially (but not in actuality) great since after going for far too long we might have a way to get the care Christie (my wife, she also goes by C.C.) needs for her Fibromyalgia, which requires maintenance by regular healthcare. Problem one here is that without good insurance we don’t have access to the care that she needs. Yes, there are nearby ‘income sensitive’ clinics (which can still be expensive and more than we can afford) but a local doctor at one of these told Christie it was in her head and they all tell us to see a rheumatologist (but wait, we need insurance for that). Problem two is that the plan provided by my current employer is a horrible value (ie, the plan stinks). Due to the high premiums, high deductibles, and large co-pays there is no way that we can afford it with my pay. So, while I am eligible for health coverage; because of financial concerns, we have to make the ‘choice’ to decline the coverage. Because of the confluence of events, some of the things I’ve heard since Thursday really hit close to home to me.

I would agree with those who say that Christians in the United States have largely been formed more by their affiliations in national politics (ie, Republican, Democrat, and even third party affiliation) than formed by a Jesus shaped spirituality – that they are largely more American in their orientation than anything else. The conversations among Christians this week have done nothing to dissuade me of these opinions. They have succeeded only in grieving me and making me wonder about the North American’s church’s ability to contribute to the conversation in a constructive manner.

What I’ve Heard

Those that know me, know that I shaped by temperament, calling, and education as a theologian (I am hopeful to do a PhD if ‘real life’ cooperates). To make a long story short, Christie’s health has taken a big downturn and I currently work in Christian retail (for a company that ‘shall not be named’ – whether or not you take this as a Harry Potter allusion is optional). The store I work at is pretty much representative of the broad base of Evangelicalism and its attendant subculture (in all its Christian bubble-ness). I meet all sorts of people and have lots of (very) interesting conversations. The shelves at the store are rather ‘thin’ and I overhear a lot of conversations. Some are these are good, some are amusing, and some are befuddling. This week, though, much of what I have heard has been disheartening.

It began earlier in the week, but came to a head on Thursday morning after word of the Supreme Court ruling became known. On Thursday and Friday these are the kinds of things I heard from fellow Christians…

“This is just socialism pure and simple … more of our freedoms down the drain.”

“You know that we are going to be forced to pay for abortions now, whether we want to or not.”

“We are now just six months away from complete rationed care … and not only that, the government is going to even start telling us how many kids we can have.”

“In fact, if you want to have too many kids, just like China, they will make you abort them.”

“And don’t forget the death panels, there’s already detailed plans for those.”

“Obama is just a half-breed monkey who lied to be president. He isn’t even a real American citizen.”

“This is just another step in Muslims getting a foothold in our country.”

“I will tell you the truth, anyone who voted for that Muslim (ie, Obama) sure isn’t a Christian and is probably going to hell!”

Ok, I’ll stop there and just add the observation that I heard no Christian in the Christian retail context in which I spend most of my week say anything close too, “Well, I realize this will mean I have to adjust my lifestyle but it’s good that some poor and needy people who otherwise wouldn’t have care can now get care.” I really think the kinds of things I heard coming from some Christians this week can only be driven by a strange mixture of fear, misinformation, ideology, a warped and misplaced nationalism/patriotism, and the over-determination of American politics on what counts as Christian. How else can we explain such (dehumanizing) vitriol? Far too many are more conservative (or liberal) politically than Christian.

In the end its more about someone’s convictions as an American than living in the way of the cruciform way of the cross of Christ. Whatever one may think about Obamacare (I have reservations myself, though they may not be what you’re expecting) the truth is that this is the very thing that contributes to Evangelicalism’s ‘empty politic’ (‘politic’ used here as the churches presence or ‘way of being’ in the world) as it works to replace the witness of the church with the power of the nation state (if only we can get our better more ‘Christian’ laws passed) and cripples the church’s missional presence in the world. And the truth is that we can, and we must, engage in a better conversation.

My Question(s)

In light of all this I have some (what I believe to be) pertinent questions…

Do Christians in the United States, as a whole, have the needed virtue to contribute to the national conversation on the issue of healthcare (or any other issue for that matter) as the people of a cruciform Messiah and the kingdom of God?

Do we have to courage to ask how we have been shaped as a people?

Are we willing to ask what it means to imitate a cruciform God despite whatever legislation is passed or not passed?

Where is the gospel in all this? I’m talking about the King Jesus gospel of the apostles and the Gospels here, not the individual ‘plan of salvation’ ‘gospel’ (note: when we have to put scare quote around ‘gospel’ we have problems). I’m looking for it and I can’t see it.

Are we willing to stop sitting in our church buildings studying about being ‘radical’ or ‘crazy’ or whatnot, and to ask what it means to actually live out of our God given, Christ centered identity, to live generously and graciously before all people, as kingdom shaped people – even if it doesn’t get us prestige, power, or influence (even if, in fact, it causes us to lose these things)?

How long will Christians in the United States continue to be political pawns to either Republicans or Democrats (or even third party ideologies) – an especially appropriate question during an election year?

Are we willing to submit all our idolatries and ideologies (nationalisms, patriotisms, and militarisms) to the liberating King Jesus, for the sake of the kingdom – even in our private discourse? Are we willing to stop and ask, ‘Is this Jesus shaped, cruciform speech?’

Are we willing to cultivate the virtues of charity and hospitality, virtues that enable us to extend ourselves across our differences amidst these much needed conversations?

And finally, are we willing to exhibit the kingdom fruit of the Spirit of love exhibited in joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in our discourse both amongst ourselves and in the world?

Are we willing to even ask these questions?

Some Links and a Request for Prayer

Some links which I hope extend the conversation (yes, these most likely point the way I lean on this):

The ‘Think Christian’ blog on Why Christians should be ok with the Supreme Courts healthcare call.

The Internet Monk (who happens to be a hospice chaplain) with a few thoughts and good follow up on a Jesus shaped spirituality and healthcare.

Mike Bird (an Australian Evangelical) on Evangelicals and Healthcare; he concludes in part, “a cursory reading of the Gospels and imitation of Jesus’ own actions will inevitably [move] us towards advocating for a system of healthcare that champions the cause of the poor and the sick. The problem is, of course, that many evangelicals fear ‘socialism’ and value their capacity for economic prosperity.” I think he makes a good point.

Prayer request: I don’t pray for much. I pray for enough – enough to provide for my family … enough for my wife to be able to access the health care she needs … enough to be able to pursue what I feel God has called me to as a theologian both in the church and academy. I’m not looking to be rich, just faithful – and I want Christie to be taken care of. I have a couple applications for positions out currently, which would not help us get rich, but would better provide for my family and provide the much needed health insurance Christie needs. Please be in prayer for these. Thanks.

Imagination, Story, and Kingdom: (Late) Reflections on the Third Week of Pentecost

The Gospel Text for the Third Sunday of Pentecost, Mark 4:26-34 (TNIV)

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth.32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

I’m still playing catch up, and still a week behind on these – yet being late has turned out to be providential for me. I had followed my normal routine for the lectionary passages. I had done my readings of the passages, oriented my private reflections around them as usual for the week, looked at some Greek, read some N.T. Wright, and so forth … normal stuff for me. But when I went to write nothing flowed. However, this morning with our Crosspoint community, within ecclesia, over the communion table of our Lord’s body and blood, in conversation and community, and through the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (much thanks to the Rogers family for leading us), the fog it seems was cleared and there was clarity. (Note: it works both ways – sometimes our experience helps us sort out what we know and have studied; and sometimes what we know and have studied helps us sort out our experience. Its never one or the other, but the two existing in interrelation and interdependence.)

Parables and Priorities

Before getting to the text at hand, we need to back up a bit and talk about the use of parables by Jesus. Now, it is common when we hear a sermon on the parables for the preacher to systematize the thing by breaking it down into parts (and, most importantly, sermon points) with the seeming purpose of relating it to each of us directly and individually. Thus the common questions: does your individual heart represent the hard ground, the rocky ground, the thorns and weeds, or the good soil? But this is to almost entirely miss the point from the very beginning – to miss the context of the kingdom.

This is not to say that the parables have nothing to do with us, they certainly do – its just that we aren’t the main subject. The danger here is that if we act like we are we are liable to substitute our own kingdom for the kingdom of God. Here is a general ‘rule’ I go by when dealing with the parables: they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.

Parables: Revealing and Concealing

This is all a carryover from the previous scene in chapter 3 where Jesus began using parables to respond to the religious leaders. Whether one understood the parables or not, and one’s reaction to the parables indicated how much was really understood of Jesus himself and the inbreaking kingdom. In chapter 4 we find Jesus again teaching by parables, in this case, the parable of the sower (vs 3-9). This parable was a teaching on the establishment of God’s kingdom in Jesus, the great eschatological moment of renewal that had been promised. For those that had ears to understand this was a message that God was making the land fruitful again. But as this parable shows a great many don’t get what Jesus is saying, his disciples included! They question Jesus and he responds with an explanation (vs 13-20) which, ironically, apparently wasn’t understood much better. The parables both revealed and concealed. And my suggestion here is that Jesus himself is the hermeneutical key to understanding the parables.

If we refuse to center our identities around Jesus and his kingdom, the parables become stumbling blocks. We may grow tired of having to wrestle with truths we feel should just be explained ‘clearly’ (see the disciples in verse 10). Or we may feel threatened in our position or status. Or we might conclude that we aren’t getting what is due us, that Jesus isn’t bringing in the kingdom the way we want him too. People responded in all these ways and more to Jesus and his parables, indicating whether or not they were part of Jesus’ ‘true family’ (3:35). The kingdom of God is a ‘mystery’, not a puzzle to be solved. We don’t deduce the kingdom by adding up clues. The word ‘mystery’ here is the word for God revealing something previously hidden and that otherwise we would not have access too. While our heads may certainly be involved – it is equally as much (or more) a matter of our hands and hearts as well.

Developing a Kingdom Imagination

While this may sound strange coming from someone with formal theological training (of the systematic type even) I firmly believe that we cannot ‘systematize’ ourselves into the kingdom! Jesus did not bring in the kingdom along with a systematic theology. Instead, he drew from the familiar and organic images the people knew and he told stories, lots of stories. The kingdom of God contains a surplus that can never be contained in an instruction manual. Attempts to make Scripture either an instruction manual or systematic theology demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the kingdom is and the manner in which God forms a kingdom people. We are by necessity storied into the kingdom and storied into a kingdom people by the conversion of our imaginations.

This is what following the church calendar is about – through doing so we narrate ourselves into the life and story of Christ. This is what our weekly liturgy is about – storying ourselves into the kingdom by the shaping of our imaginations. One of the ways that we do this is through taking Communion as a community each week. Through the Eucharist we narrate the gospel, the story of Christ becomes our own defining narrative, and we are formed into a cruciform, kingdom shaped people (as I have said before, I don’t know how churches get by without taking Communion weekly).

In addition, there are at least three other ways that come to mind for me with which we could shape ourselves as a kingdom people. The first is the regular corporate recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, not merely as an ‘indoctrination’ into a supposedly dry, stale Trinitarian dogma, but as a way to convert our imaginations to the activity and story of Father, Son, and Spirit in the world in which we are brought to participation. The second, is the regular practice of corporate lament for those places in our lives, community, and the world where the kingdom is not manifest. I am convinced we cannot call ourselves a kingdom shaped people unless we lament and grieve well … together.

Now I expect some possible pushback on the first one, even from those that may have (re)discovered an appreciation for the church calendar and liturgy. Some may even think I’m nuts for bringing it up. And I expect that the practice of lamenting and grieving together will be too intimate for many (for us it was something we were thrust into and couldn’t avoid). The third thing I have in mind though is the corporate reading/recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). Now, this prayer could just as appropriately be called the ‘Disciples Prayer’ but the designation that really captures my own imagination is the Lord’s Prayer as the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ Everything we need for the formation of a kingdom shaped people is in the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ I was blessed by our saying of the prayer this week and I believe we would be served well to say this prayer communally on a weekly basis. (I have other ideas but we’ll leave it at these three for now.)

You might say that the formation of a kingdom and Jesus shaped people takes (communal) practice – the sharing of the Table, the reading of the biblical story, shared lament, and the recitation of the prayer (and even the Creed) – by this we narrate the Story in multiple ways. And we do these things weekly, we do them and then we do them again. We do this because, as my grandfather told me, in repetition there is learning. But developing a kingdom imagination is not just about the head. We find also that in repetition there is living – a kingdom imagination involves the hands as well, the formation of kingdom practices. Finally, we find that in repetition there is loving/longing – and imagination of the heart as well, the desiring of the kingdom. At the intersection of the formation of our head, hands, and heart is a kingdom shaped imagination.

Go Small, Go Slow, and Go Home

It seems clear to me that the majority of Evangelicalism as a conglomeration is captured by a malformed ‘go big or go home’ imagination (browsing the shelves at any Christian retail store will confirm this). I expressed my frustration with this way of thinking, doing, and loving in my last post.  So, what shall we say as we try to imagine the kingdom through the lenses of the parable of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed (as well as the parable of the sower)? The first thing that jumps out is that all these parables involve the planting of something small, a seed. Second, we find that the images used here are all from the normal, everyday, local experience of the listeners. Third, we find that the image of a seed is both organic and slow.

Allow me to suggest that rather than the ‘go big or go home’ imagination, we are better served for the kingdom of God with a ‘go small, go slow, and go home’ imagination. Go small because the little things of the kingdom are what subverts the injustice of world systems. Go slow because the kingdom is more like a fruitful harvest that grows over time rather than have it your way fast food. Go home (or local) because the locally incarnated kingdom of God redeems the comings and goings of our mundane, ordinary, and everyday localities. There seem to be many who have a disdain for mundane, but if the kingdom is not manifest locally in the mundane it is not manifest at all. This is what the presence of a Jesus shaped people with a kingdom imagination (ie, ecclesia) is all about.

May we be such a people.

May our imaginations be captured by our liberating King Jesus this week!

Prayer for the Third Sunday of Pentecost

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Scot McKnight on the Radical Message of Jesus

Note: We are up on the fourth week of Pentecost and I’m still a week behind on the weekly lectionary reflections. I’m still working on the third week and should have the fourth week done midweek (if all goes well). Meanwhile, below is a video of Scot McKnight on the radical message of Jesus – which I think relates not only to a Christian subculture that subverts this message despite claims to the otherwise, but also ties in well with the current series of lectionary readings from Mark.

One of the things that frustrates and grieves me about the current Evangelical subculture is the incessant push to ‘do great, wonderful, extraordinary, spectacular, amazing, blow out, BIG things for God.’ I call this the ‘go big or go home’ mentality – and I believe with all my heart it is hurting people.

Working in Christian retail currently and having a chance to browse through the popular evangelical reading material two things strike me: one, much of it could just as easily be described as Dr. Phil or Oprah type self-help inspiration with a little Jesus thrown in. Second, such literature I have come to believe feeds on commonplace Evangelical insecurities of insignificance and (even if perhaps with good motives and unintentionally) actually reinforces these self same insecurities. This is the very same tactic used by those in the general market to sell us stuff. This is simply the Christian bubble’s version of the consumer cycle and the liturgy of consumption. All this is part of what might be most accurately called ‘the Evangelical Industrial Complex’ and is driven largely by elitism and the dominance of celebrity pastors.

One of my current jobs is to help people find the books and curriculums they feel they ‘need’ to study and do church. But from the conversations I have with person after person, good people who I believe want to serve God; the majority of the curriculums currently available will do them little good. They will complete the current study, the one that promised them they could really be ‘radical’ or ‘crazy’ for God, or move them from being a ‘fan’ to a true follower – if only they can go BIG enough (and endure lots of poor Scriptural exegesis)! The consistent thing that gets missed here is incarnating the gospel (the King Jesus gospel, not merely the ‘get my individual sins forgiven’ gospel) in the normal, ordinary, mundane, and perhaps even forgotten or marginalized spaces in life (listen all the way to end of the video below for the importance of this).

The sad truth is that almost all the current curriculums really end up deconstructing themselves. They usually begin with a dire analysis of the state of the church and Evangelicalism but in the end amount to doing ‘the same ole thing’, only now with a new vocabulary (this is commonplace within Evangelicalism). The ‘same ole thing’ is now called ‘radical’ and in the process actually subverts the truly radical nature the gospel. (Another example that comes to mind is the trend for ‘traditional’ churches to begin calling themselves ‘missional’; yet change nothing of their church structures, still do missions the same, and have the same ‘come to us’ mentality towards the community at large as always).

One question I think needs to be asked is: do these curriculums and literature actually end up reinforcing various harmful ideologies to the church (nationalism, militarism, politics, consumerism, etc). The reason for this is that if these competing visions of the ‘kingdom’ are not properly critiqued or deconstructed, the end result is that the ideology in question itself becomes associated with being, let’s say … (to choose from one of the current buzz words) ‘radical’. This makes it far too easy “to identify ourselves and our kings and our kingdoms with the reign of God, and the other guy over there with the reign Jesus opposes.” In the process, not only is the church divided but the gospel and true Kingdom are themselves subverted.

However, the gospel of King Jesus is truly more radical in nature than anything we can find in most of the ‘popular’ Christian literature, calling into question all of our ideologies, idolatries and false kingdoms, and calling us to orient all that we are around Jesus. In the video below Scot McKnight takes us on a tour of the radical message of Jesus. In it McKnight brings out our need to ask the right questions which enable us to orient ourselves with a gospel, kingdom imagination.

The first is the ‘how’ question – how can we get in on the kingdom and what Jesus is doing?

The second is the ‘what’ question – what does the Kingdom of God require? What is the substance of the kingdom life?

The third is the ‘who’ question – which also involves the ‘why’ question (why does Jesus say such ‘hard’ things). The ‘who’ question of course points straight to Jesus.

In the end, these questions are all interrelated. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ point to the ‘who’ – while the ‘who’ (Jesus) gives us the proper lense through which to see the kingdom, that we need to be able to answer the ‘how’ and ‘what’ correctly.

Scot McKnight – The Radical Message of Jesus