The story of Israel and the saving promise of particularity, or why its important God doesn’t see us all the same

I presented a paper at a conference on hermeneutics a few years ago and had a respondent who hoped to improve on my proposal by offering the importance of a biblical meta-narrative. A “meta-narrative” is an overarching story that helps you interpret the importance of other aspects of biblical testimonies. How do these other elements relate to the biblical meta-narrative? This might tell you if a text has continuing relevance today, for instance.

I pushed back. While I’m a big fan of narrative as a leading characteristic of the biblical testimonies, I’m hesitant to lift a single narrative out of Scripture as the one ring that rules them all. I’m more comfortable, I suggested, talking about the biblical narratives (plural) and recognizing the inherent tensions that exist between some of them. Instead of smoothing these tensions out by appealing to one story that rules them all, I think the tensions themselves are important for us to live with as we interpret Scripture.

My auditor was not impressed with my response. With a high dose of incredulity, he suggested that every Christian would agree that creation-fall-redemption-consumation is the biblical meta-narrative. He’s certainly not alone with this kind of approach. Scot McKnight argues for something similar in The Blue Parakeet and NT Wright does something like this as well with his story in five acts. It’s popular with the students I teach at the graduate level as well. And who am I to disagree with McKnight and Wright? Fair point. And I would add that McKnight and Wright’s understanding of the major acts in the drama are full and more complex than this bare outline would suggest and don’t rub out the diversity of the narratives.

Still, in my favor, this is not how Orthodox Christians understand the story. They read Genesis 2-3 very differently, for instance, so don’t really have a “Fall” in their doctrine of salvation. So, not every Christian sees the overarching story in these terms. My auditor was outlining one way the biblical story has been understood (a Reformed version), but not the only one. I stuck to my guns that day and my commitments have only deepened.

Here’s the current problem I’m wrestling with related to this currently: the place of Israel in the creation-fall-redemption scheme. I mean think about it. What necessary place does Israel have in this scheme? For most of the people I worship with, Israel is little more than a failed attempt at delivering salvation. Law vs. grace. Commandment keeping vs. faith. Failed covenant vs. new covenant. It’s a historical part of the story and “predicts” the coming of Jesus in some places and we may learn a thing or two about God along the way, but Israel’s story has little or no immediate relevance in the creation-fall-redemption way of telling the story.

Let me see if I can make this point clearer. When you begin the drama with creation-fall, you generalize the biblical story. It becomes a story about each person, an abstract story about human sin, not a particular story about a particular people. The point or telos of the story easily becomes focused on an explanation of how to overcome individual sin and guilt.

“Yeah, so?” you ask. “Haven’t all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ coming, so that this would no longer be just a story about Israel, but all people?” Yes and no, and mostly no.

Let’s look at the stories the biblical authors are working within as they address God’s people. While creation and fall comes first in our Bibles, it’s not the story most use to explain what God is up to in either the Old Testament or New. For instance, there are several places in Scripture where Israel recites its story to clarify its identity. The story of “the Fall” never appears in these recitals and the story of Creation only once. The promise made to David shows up sometimes, but not often. The promises made to the patriarchs show up in most, but not all. The Exodus story is in every single one of them.

To expand this point, the creation-fall story is not told as a preface to the giving of the law, but the story of the Exodus is. And when Israel’s prophets call Israel and her kings back to covenant loyalty, they do not typically appeal to a creation-fall scheme, but they often appeal to the story of God’s act of mercy in delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery. The return of the people from exile, for instance, is often cast in Exodus terms. I think it’s fair to say that for Old Testament interpreters of Israel’s story, the Exodus functions paradigmatically in much the same way that the death and resurrection story does in the New Testament. So, while creation occupies the first place in our Bibles and certainly has theological significance, it doesn’t hold the first place in the theological imagination of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Yeah, so. That’s the Old Testament. Jesus changes the meaning of the story in the New Testament.” Yes and no, mostly no.

I’m working a lot in Luke-Acts currently, which certainly emphasizes universalism (the salvation of people from all nations), but it does so within the story of God’s covenant promises to Israel. For instance, the significance of the death of Jesus in Luke is not related to individual sin, or a creation-fall interpretation of the biblical story. Instead, Jesus’ death is aligned with the unjust death of all the prophets who have come before him, from Abel to Zechariah. His death pulls back the curtain on these injustices, exposing the violent ways that human kingdoms keep the peace. Given this emphasis, it is no surprise that the story of the Exodus features prominently in the telling of Luke’s gospel. In Luke, the rule of God (Kingdom) stands in contrast to the rule of Caesar or Herod or Caiaphas or, by extension, Pharaoh. In Luke’s world, the power of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than the power of earthly rulers who can imprison, execute, tax, etc, and produces an alternative reality–the Kingdom of God.

OK, but what about Paul? Fair enough. Paul certainly has a functioning creation theology that includes Jews and Gentiles, and he does give us a lot of language that can be related to personal salvation, for instance, justification. But Paul scholars have been challenging the long held assumption that justification by faith is the center of Paul’s theology. In fact, scholars like James Dunn suggest its wrong to think of Paul’s theology as having a center–a doctrine or idea that informs others. Paul is less concerned with the question of how individual sinners have their sins forgiven, and more interested in how the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenants of promise can represent the righteousness of God. The stories that stand behind that question are less creation-fall, and more related to the promises that God has made with Israel. In other words, Paul has not set aside the story of Israel for a generic human story about sin and redemption, but instead places what God has accomplished in Jesus within the concrete story of Israel. As a result, the story of salvation Paul tells is much larger than a story of individual forgiveness. Paul envisions salvation in terms of a new creation where all things (creation, our bodies) participate in the transforming realities of the resurrection.

Other New Testament writers could be similarly called to testify, and perhaps there would be some who are animated more by a creation-fall-redemption scheme, but not many candidates come readily to mind.

So, to summarize, the meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption does not seem to be the one behind most biblical writings, nor does there seem to be a single alternative meta-narrative. But why does this matter? I think it matters profoundly and beyond the need to interpret the Bible well. At the very least, it would blunt the anti-Semitic impulse that has run through Christian history. But there’s more here as well, tendencies we don’t recognize because they’re part of the assumed fabric of Christian theology and practice. Let me see if I can get there.

Not long ago, a speaker at a church I attended talked about learning to see the world the way God sees it. God does not see our particularity, our racial and ethnic identities, this person claimed, but only our souls. Beyond the non-biblical anthropology at work here (we are not souls “encased in bodies”), this statement traffics at the level of same-ness or the general and abstract. This view comes from, I think, a creation-fall-redemption version of the story. There is no particularity, only a general human condition. There is no Israel, only generic, disembodied sinners. This is different than saying, for instance, that God loves the diversity of humanity in all of its colorful particularity. Could it be that God doesn’t see us all the same even if he loves us all the same? Could it be that our particularity is a gift, and that the gift of the other as an other is precisely what we need to be redeemed, to be liberated from our own sinful insularity?

When we make the Christian story a story about same-ness, it favors the experience of the majority at the expense of the marginalized. Hear me out. When same-ness becomes the norm of Christian imagination, what’s “normal” is easily confused with the experience of the majority. Same-ness too easily becomes the assimilation of the minority into the experience of the majority. Because there is no generic experience of what it means to be human, we have to assign same-ness to a particular experience big enough to pull off the illusion of being the definition of normal. It turn, this not only encourages various expressions of paternalism, but makes it invisible to those who benefit from it. We are, after all, attempting to see all people as being the same.

It was this kind of paternalism, traveling under the theological cover of creation-fall-redemption, that allowed European missionaries to confuse Christianity with Western civilization. Land and bodies and geographical identities were unimportant next to “saving souls,” which was indistinguishable from “civilizing” them according to European standards. Willie Jennings, in his provocative book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, makes these connections clear. He demonstrates how soteriology became the driving logic of colonialism and claims that with the loss of the particular story of Israel came the loss of tying particular identities to place (Zulus, Aztecs, etc), all with disastrous consequences.

“OK, but those days are long in the past and we’ve overcome them with the same old creation-fall-redemption view of the Christian story.” Well, not so fast. Theologians like SMU’s Joerg Rieger suggest that colonialism has changed, not gone away. We’re in a neo-colonial era more than a post-colonial one. But let’s bring it closer to home.

Suburban congregations that do “outreach” to urban areas do not imagine, for instance, that the African-American experience is the norm to emulate or learn from. When they plant a church in the area, they import their own experience and too often replace the capacities of those who have lived there for generations. They don’t ask, how might we be assimilated into the experience of the congregations that are already there, but how can we assimilate this neighborhood into our expression of Christianity? They assume that their experience is normative.

How else would you explain urban ministries whose staff are all suburban imports and whose boards do not include any long term residents? As one urban church planter confessed to me, “I now realize we’re benevolent imperialists.”

Maybe I’ve convinced you that a skinny creation-fall-redemption soteriology pushes toward “same-ness,” which in turn makes the majority experience the assumed norm resulting in paternalistic practices. Maybe not. But at any rate, what difference would holding on to the particularity of the story of Israel make?

If the story of salvation necessarily passes through the story of Israel, it can never fully be my possession. It didn’t start with me, doesn’t depend on me, and it didn’t come directly to me from God. It came to me through someone else’s story, which means it is never fully my possession. I cannot confuse my own experience of the story with the story itself. So, when I’m a missionary to Uganda or Uraguay I cannot point to myself as the carrier of the story. I am instead a witness to the story. It is not my possession, it is not given to me within my own history. The story is mediated to me and to the Ugandans and Uruguayans through the story of Israel. We are both found in the sequence of “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Together we witness what this story will produce among us.

The particular (biblical) story of Israel is important for more than its mediating function. Israel’s story is unlike others. Israel exists wholly within the saving action of God on its behalf. Israel is called by God’s summoning promise. It exists, not as the most powerful of nations or the most populous. They exist as God’s people precisely because they have been liberated from slavery, a situation beyond their control, which in turn obligates them to the widow, the stranger, and the orphan among them. It is this particular social circumstance that allows them to bear the story of God in the world. This is a different story than the story empires tell about themselves, stories where the world bends to their will, stories of exceptionalism and progress. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, Great Britain, the USA, no matter how noble or good or accomplished, need not apply.

God raised Israel’s messiah from the dead and has made him Lord of all.

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The reputation of the woman at the well

I heard it in church again today. I’ve no doubt said it myself before. The woman at the well is “a woman of questionable moral character.” All of this because of her multiple marriages and current questionable living arrangements. Maybe. But maybe not.

Let’s try some other options on. And let me quick to say that I’m thinking out loud without being an expert in the world of the NT. But here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s start with the fact that women in that culture had little say over matters pertaining to marriage. Marriages were mostly arranged by fathers to benefit a family’s social standing. The woman at the well likely had little say in who she married. And on the end of the marriage, she could not initiate divorce. She went from being her father’s property to her husband’s. And even if her husband died, there were rules about the remarriage of widows over which she would have little say.

It’s true that women could be divorced for sexual infidelity, though for any number of lesser reasons as well. But it’s doubtful that marriage to an adulterous woman would be appealing in that culture, making serial marriages unlikely. She would likely be exposed to public shame and perhaps even to the point of being forced into prostitution. It’s more likely, I think, that she’s been widowed several times, and remarried to kinsman. While the text is silent as to her exact situation, it also doesn’t say anything about her being morally challenged.

But what about the fact that she’s shacking up with a guy who is not her husband? Doesn’t this indicate that she’s a loose woman? Again, we can’t say for sure what the situation is. But there are other possible explanations. For a variety of reasons, she may have exhausted the pool of potential husbands and is destitute and in desperation has found someone who would take her in. This certainly would have been scandalous, but it also would put the woman in a completely different light in the reader’s mind.

Again, the text is silent about her exact circumstances. The one thing that is certain is that she was relatively powerless in a system that favored men. When Jesus reveals insight into her life’s situation, it may be less a way to expose her sin (does that sound like Jesus?) and more a compassionate revelation of himself as a prophet who comes to offer living water to the powerless (that definitely sounds like Jesus).

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Salvation is bigger and different than we’ve imagined

I mean, you can’t keep up with the literature. The books and articles and presentations charting revisionary directions on the meaning of salvation are like crickets in a Texas summer: plague like and chirping.

There are two prominent themes. First, the most common way our church members understand atonement has some significant problems. This view of the atonement has a name, “penal substitutionary atonement (psa),” and it goes something like this: God’s nature requires justice, defined as retribution. God can’t simply forgive sin, God’s wrath has to be satisfied, justice has to be done (penal). Justice in this case requires capital punishment. Jesus’ death in our place satisfies God’s wrath (substitutionary), allowing God to forgive us (atonement), his need for retributive justice intact. I won’t go into all the problems with this view (they are considerable), but will simply point out that it’s a fairly recent view as atonement theories go.

Mark Heim, in his very important book, Saved From Sacrifice: a theology of the cross, points out that no one viewed atonement this way until Anselm (Green and Baker push it even later to coincide with the development of Western legal theory, claiming Anselm was more concerned with honor than justice), and one wing of Christianity, the Eastern church (Orthodox) has never seen atonement in these terms. “Some regard a form of substitutionary atonement belief as the essential heart of Christianity itself,” Heim writes. “But this can hardly be true, for one major stream of Christianity managed without such a teaching for all of its history, and all of Christianity managed without it for a large part of its history” (p 4).

Various proposals have been offered as a corrective. Many see the need to proliferate theories (e.g. Green and Baker, McKnight, prominent among many), others to choose a replacement theory like Christus Victor or the recapitulation theory of the atonement. My dissertation is in this area, and I follow Robert Jenson’s suggestion that “theory” is part of the problem. The earliest Christians offered no complete theories of atonement, but rather saw salvation in narrative terms. The death and resurrection is the narrative in which we participate which joins us both to the life of God and the saving realities of the age to come.

Mark Heim’s book suggests we’ve read the significance of the Bible’s “sacrifice” language totally backwards. For Heim, Jesus’ death is not the ultimate or most effective instance of redemptive violence or scapegoating, but the end of it. He writes, “Scapegoating brings us together, stops escalating conflict among us, unites us against a common enemy. We find peace by finding a common victim, by hating together. Satan casts out Satan and becomes all the stronger for it…” In contrast, “(Jesus’) death exemplifies a specific kind of sin we are all implicated in and we all need saving from, and acts to overcome it. Only the divine power of resurrection and revelation could do that. God was willing to be a victim of that bad thing we had made apparently good, in order to expose its nature and liberate us from it.” (xi-xii).

I have lived enough with Heim and Girard to affirm Heim’s statement, “The greatest gift I have received from Girard and those writers inspired by him, is the experience of reading the Bible with surprise. His writing points insistently to things lying in plain sight in its pages” (12). I’ll refer you to an earlier post I wrote as an example of these kind of “in plain sight” realizations.

The big point here is that from several sources and many angles, PSA is being critiqued and old/fresh alternatives are being explored. For my money, Heim’s work, more than most others, surprises us into alternative understandings and is worthy of our attention.

A second big trend in salvation studies is a re-reading of Paul. I had a grad student confess to me a few weeks ago that she had quit reading Paul because she laid so much of the spiritual baggage she was trying to overcome at his feet. And where PSA is concerned, its defenders cite Paul prominently in their arguments. But newer readings of Paul (last 50 years or so), by people like NT Wright, James Dunn, Richard Hays, Michael Gorman, and others have profoundly shifted appraisals of what he is up to.

“Reformation” readings of Paul, popularized and made a staple in the social imagination of most contemporary congregations, suggested that the question, “how is an individual saved?” formed the heart of Paul’s writings, expressed in the doctrine of “justification by faith through grace.” While an important part of Paul’s theology, revisionary of readings note that it’s not even the center of Paul’s argument in Romans, much less his primary concern throughout his letters. He’s asking a bigger question, a more God-centered question. How does Jesus reveal the righteousness of God, particularly in relation to God’s covenant promises to Israel? The salvation of the individual is secondary to the large work of reconciliation that God is working, which features the new humanity (no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female), but extends to creation itself, so that Paul can refer to this enlarged salvation as a “new creation.”

Chief among those who are challenging  our well-worn notions of Paul’s views on salvation is Michael Gorman. In his work, notably Cruciformity, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, and Becoming the Gospel, Gorman sees Paul’s view of salvation as a participation the death and resurrection of Jesus. More this participation in the death of Jesus is nothing short of participation in the life of God, which is cross shaped. Paul’s views, Gorman suggests, are close to more Eastern notions of salvation, namely theosis. In relation to Paul’s writings, Gorman defines theosis as “transformative participation in the kenotic, cruciform character of God through Spirit-enabled conformity to the incarnate, crucified, and resurrected/glorified Christ” (Inhabiting, p7). In this transformative participation we are embodying the very gospel we proclaim.

I have highlighted Heim and Gorman because I have learned a great deal from each, but also because they are two of the featured presenters at this year’s Streaming conference. I chose to focus my dissertation on salvation because I am convinced it defines more than anything else what we mean by mission. We enact whatever our understandings of salvation are. To my view, our views of salvation are at the very least too small. At the worst,  they are distorted and distorting. We need people like Heim and Gorman to help us think more clearly about salvation and mission.

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Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the kingdom of God?

I preached yesterday from Luke 14, Jesus eating at the home of a Pharisee on the Sabbath, and came to a surprising realization in the middle of the sermon.

I’ve preached on this passage several times, adjusting the sermon for the occasion. It’s a very familiar text to me, committed to memory. Yesterday, however, I wanted to do something with the guest who between Jesus’ parables interjects, “Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” Let me set the comment up a bit.

Jesus has spent the better part of the preceding verses critiquing the banquet etiquette, and by extension the very social practices that maintain the status quo, namely reciprocity or favor currying, of those gathered. He goes so far as to suggest a different guest list for banquets. Don’t invite friends or brothers or rich neighbors or relatives, but instead invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.

Jesus has had the bad manners of criticizing both the banquet etiquette and banquet host, while at the banquet. As I suggested in the sermon, the critique is usually reserved for the car ride home out of ear shot of the host and other guests. It’s an awkward moment. Somebody should change the subject.

And so a guest shouts out something everyone could agree on, “Blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” Jesus, however, doesn’t take the comment positively or as an affirmation of his teaching, but as an objection to what he is proposing. I say this because he responds with a biting parable where the host of a banquet (rhymes with nod) is refused by those on the initial invitation list and are replaced with the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” the same guest list proposed in place of “friends, brothers, rich neighbors, and relatives” in the previous parable.  Those originally invited will find themselves on the outside looking in. The comment, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God” is clearly not in sync with what Jesus is proposing. But why?

I had some prepared comments on the question “why.” But it hit me square in the middle of my eyes at this point of the sermon that the guest’s response is the equivalent of saying “all lives matter.” Jesus has said, in effect, that the realities of the coming Kingdom of God will privilege those who have been overlooked and marginalized in the way things are currently arranged. The poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame matter in the new arrangement of things God is bringing. The banquet guest is saying in essence, no priority for the poor and marginalized in the Kingdom of God. All lives matter. Anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God is blessed. The comment maintains their perceived place in the world and justifies their banquet practice.

So, that’s what I said. I’m not a manuscript preacher, though I write my sermons out before I preach them. I’m not arguing for my style of preaching, manuscript verses non. Some of my favorite preachers are manuscript preachers. No, really. But, had I not been “off the leash,” I’m not sure the phrase would have occurred to me, and if it had I likely would not have said it.

Some of you might be thinking I shouldn’t have said it. I’ll admit, I got a few disconcerted looks among some approving nods in the congregation. Some of you might be thinking I crossed a political line that shouldn’t intrude into worship. Some of you might think it’s not parallel at all to the current black lives matter/all lives matter debate. Perhaps, though the more I think about it in the aftermath of the sermon, the more I’m convinced its a very apt parallel and think it was the right thing to say.

The point of this post is more to say something about the task of preaching than to litigate our modern social issue (which the sermon did not do). Here’s the point. Preaching that confines itself to the safe parameters of polite company no longer carries the capacity to surprise, and in turn loses its capacity for news. Having said that, I agree with Brueggemann, who in the preface to the new edition of The Prophetic Imagination, warns against both the liberal “speaking truth to power” and the conservative “moral harangue” as forms of ineffective, reduced speech. Instead of this blunt speech, he argues for daring poetic speech which suggests new possibilities.

I’d like to think this is what I did. I tried as much as possible in the sermon to put us all on the same side of the dinner guest who blurted out, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God.” I contemporized the scene, hoping to draw us all into the awkwardness of the moment. In fact, when I began the move, I started with, “well this is awkward.” To which someone in the congregation audibly responded on all of our behalf, “yep.” None of us were on the righteous side of this encounter with Jesus. All of us wanted to resolve the tension that came with the critique of the way we tend to organize the world. We wanted someone to save the moment by finding a way to get us all on Jesus’ side. Had it occurred to me in sermon prep, I would’ve worked even harder to put those words, “blessed is anyone who eats bread in the Kingdom of God,” in my mouth.

My hope, though, is that the analogy surprised us all, as it did me, and opened new possibilities for all of us to imagine the world of good news.

 

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Preaching the startling news

So, if part of the saving work of the gospel is to startle us into a new perception of the world (see my two previous posts), then what should the aim of preaching be?

Preaching, every week preaching, should be gospel preaching. Duh? Not so fast. I have in mind here that preaching should do the work of the gospel, not just have “content” that qualifies as the gospel. Let me explain the difference.

I remember many years ago telling a young adults class I was teaching that I thought it was important that every sermon preach the gospel and asked them what they thought about that. Most thought I meant that preaching should be evangelistic, or include an invitation or altar call at the end. They thought, however, that preaching should be about more than that. They thought preaching should also focus on topics like marriage or money or ethics, not just about the fact that Jesus died for my sins. For them, the gospel was a discrete set of facts, a “message” or “content” that was reducible to a theory of the atonement. This is not what I meant.

Before I tell you what I meant, let me again emphasize the way the Bible uses the term “gospel.” In the bible, the gospel is not a theory or explanation of how the death of Jesus saves us. The gospel, rather, is the announcement of an event that has ongoing “newsworthiness.” So, for instance, Paul will define the gospel in relation to the event of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and not just as something for non-believers to accept. This news is what “they received” (past tense), “in which they stand” (present tense) and through which they are “being saved” (ongoing future). It’s not simply that something happened, it’s that its still happening, producing a new set of realities.

In fact, Jesus’ announcement of the gospel as the coming of the Kingdom of God shares this “always coming,” or ongoing sense. For both Paul and Jesus, the gospel is the announcement that with the coming of Jesus there has been a decisive “turn of the ages” and nothing will ever be the same for those who receive it. It’s not a set of facts that we believe as much as it is a new reality in which we participate, always producing new insight and meanings. It begins, continues, and ends as news. (Something’s happened, now this, stay tuned for further details).

Part of participating in the gospel, therefore, is being liberated from the way we see the world now–a world given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, so that we can see all things new. And this is the work of the gospel: an unmasking of the distorting world given to us by the powers of this age; and making clear what it means to participate in the liberating way of the Kingdom of God. Each week, we should be given the opportunity to be startled into new recognition.

Each week, really? My claim makes sense only if the world to which we are long habituated clings stubbornly to us. Just this Sunday, I became aware of how I have interpreted the story of the woman at the well through a lens of my own privilege and was shocked that it might actually be pulling me in another way altogether (subject for a later post). This happens enough to me, a person who is on alert for such a phenomenon, to think that the world pulled down over my eyes is tough to shake for all of us.

Not only do I believe that this is the case, but I fear that too often our churches go along instead of resist. For instance, one of the lies of a consumerist age is to say that our worth is related to what we produce or consume. Our lives are commodified, and churches, instead of resisting this, market to us like self-interested consumers. Or, we plan worship not around the question of “what would it take to form a Christian?,” but “what can we accomplish in an hour?”

Preaching can do the same thing. It can commodify the sermon, aiming for useful or inspirational, and unwittingly leave intact the very world the gospel would resist. My preacher, Adam Hill, has a great way of saying this. He’s not interested in preaching as problem solving, but in preaching as an act of the gospel.

This kind of perspective shifting work is done at the level of imagination. Gospel preachers are not content to fill out the details of a world we can manage better or succeed in more readily, what Brueggemann calls “prose.” Rather, again to quote Brueggemann, gospel preachers traffic in poetry, not as in

“rhyme, rhythm, or meter, but language that moves like Bob Gibson’s fastball, that jumps at the right moment, that breaks open old worlds with surprise, abrasion, and pace… Such preaching is not moral instruction or problem solving or doctrinal clarification… It is rather, the ready, steady surprising proposal that the real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age. The preacher has an awesome opportunity to offer an evangelical world: an existence shaped by the news of the gospel.” (Finally Comes the Poet, p 3, youngsters can google Bob Gibson).

 

 

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Some implications of being startled

In my last post, I suggested that there is often a connection between the word “gospel” and being surprised. The good news is not the same old, same old, because it is truly startling. And I wondered if this might be a necessary part of our salvation–that believing the shocking announcement of God’s good news results in our seeing everything differently, and thus more in line with how God sees things.

I know that this isn’t how we typically think about the word salvation. We tend to think of it as a legal standing, either lost or saved, justified or condemned. These binaries are not necessarily wrong, but they fail to take into account the rich and broad language of salvation found in Scripture. This “legal” view of salvation is only applied to the individual and misses the ecological and communal language of salvation (God is reconciling all things to himself…whether in heaven or on earth). And it’s too punctiliar, a moment in time, which fails to account for Paul’s language of “being saved,” or “working out your salvation in fear and trembling,” or “we are nearer now to our salvation than the day we first believed.”And it sets the problem of sin too feebly, seeing forgiveness and its attending guilt as the only thing to be overcome in salvation, failing to take into account the need to be liberated from the powers of sin and death and the principalities and powers which accompany them.

All of these enlarged notions of salvation would allow, even require the kind of “startled to our senses” notion I have identified related to the word gospel. In fact, if part of salvation is being liberated over time from the powers of sin and death that continuously press on us, then our need for the gospel as a startling realization would be ongoing. Our lives might be filled with multiple moments of terrifying and liberating surprises, large and small.

I am increasingly convinced that we arrange our lives with the express purpose of diminishing the element of surprise. We want our life to work out according to plan. Get an education, marry, have a career, raise kids, welcome grandkids, and retire in comfort. We, at least those of us with enough social capital, work hard to secure outcomes and shield ourselves from loss. No surprises allowed.

To this end, we surround ourselves with people who are like us, who share our values and experiences, who mirror our sense of a dependable world. Those who can’t secure their own lives, we deem “unfortunate,” which carries with it an implicit moral judgment that they haven’t been smart enough or hardworking enough or good enough. We would be truly shocked if someone announced, “blessed are the poor, God looks with favor on them.” Perhaps even more shocked if the same person said to the rest of us, “congratulations, you have your reward already, and it has little to do with the Kingdom of God.”

Now, none of us lead completely charmed lives. Life has a way of puncturing our bubble of control. A business fails. A long illness threatens our lives and ruins us financially. We endure a divorce. Our children are born with genetic defects. Or, they run off the skids that we have so carefully greased for them. The possible culprits are legion. As my theology professor was fond of saying, “life will always bite you in the ass.” We are fractured.

And our responses to these fractured places vary. We scapegoat people who are not like us. They’re taking my job or threatening my security. Or we find ways to deny or avoid reality. Or we resign ourselves to karma or God’s will or some other invisible force and bravely say, “it will all work out in the end.” Or we double down on all the bootstrap pulling willpower we can muster, which blunts our empathy and makes the edges of our lives harder and sharper.

Occasionally, rarely, but sometimes, we are shocked into seeing the world differently. No longer able to sustain the world in which we are sovereign, we abandon it as a lie and begin to see the ways we were complicit in the lie. Here, we might despair and surrender. Or, we might repent in the belief that an alternative world is available that orders things differently.

To me, this is the power of the cross. It promises that especially in the fractured places of our lives, God has set up shop. That the shocks to our lives are possible places to see the world anew.

I have friends who received the news that their newborn son, their third child, had down syndrome. They were devastated, the script of their lives turned upside down. Years down the road, their lives are totally transformed. Former careers abandoned, they have thrown themselves into lives of active compassion.

I am shocked every time (which is every Fall) I walk the Wall Town neighborhood of Durham, NC, with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. His deep participation in that historically African-American neighborhood have made him well aware of the systemic challenges that residents of that neighborhood face every day. One example which struck particularly close to home (there are innumerable examples). For years, Wall Town was red-lined by banks, meaning that they wouldn’t give loans for residents to buy the homes they lived in. This made the landlords wealthier, but more, limited inheritable wealth. I can’t begin to estimate the difference home ownership has made in my life. Not just in the homes that I have owned, but the homes my parents and grandparents have owned. We are a family of preachers and educators, not the highest paying professions, but if I outlive my parents, I will die a wealthy person.

But beyond the financial well-being this provided, I lived within a world of possibility. I never once doubted that I would go to college, never once lived with the anxiety/despair that there wouldn’t be enough for me to do what I chose to do.

Realizations like this have changed dramatically my views on race and poverty and made me aware of my own advantage and complicity. But more, walking with Jonathan through Wall Town, has made me aware of the rich networks of life that the residents share, which has conversely changed how I view the benevolent paternalism of some suburban churches.

I teach students like Sher Sheets and Ali Kaiser and my son, Josh, who have given their lives over to broken neighborhoods and circumstances. I marvel at their stories. They have eyes for the world that I have to borrow to see the world as God sees it. They have no time for the bullshit lies that equate prosperity with human value. Their lives are full of holy ache and joy.

Here’s what I’m trying to say. These transformations in how the world is viewed don’t come primarily from reading books, hearing sermons, or getting our theology right. They come through participation in the world, especially by attending to the broken and shattered places in life.

Let me be clear at this point. I don’t want to glorify brokenness. God’s ultimate aim is healing, not brokenness. Nor do I want to suggest that God is behind every hardship we suffer in life, or that they are necessarily the result of malevolent spiritual forces. The world is estranged from God and no longer corresponds to God’s good intentions. Shit happens, and agency is a complicated thing to assign in a fallen world.

What I am saying is that the broken places in life are more often than not the places that bring us up short, that refuse to conform to the “good life” we’ve put our trust in. They can startle us into new recognition. And to this extent, they bear saving potential.

And here’s what I’m saying. The gospel of the cross finds its natural habitat in broken places, in the brokenness of God in God’s own self. Broken places bear the hope of salvation because God has taken up residence there. The good news is that the marred, disfigured one is the servant of God. The good news is that the Kingdom of God has appeared, not in the halls of power and influence, but in backwaters like Galilee. The good news is that the “weakness” of God on the cross, is the power of making things new through enduring love. The good news is that even though we were complicit in killing God’s prophet, the crucified and risen Lord proclaims peace, forgiveness, and joy in the Holy Spirit for those who repent.

It’s startling. Believe the good news.

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Startled unto Salvation

I’ve been thinking a lot about gospel and salvation these days, and some things are falling together in ways that they haven’t before.

Let me begin with the idea that the gospel is “news.” Shocking, I know. But we tend to make the gospel into something else, like truth or a theory of the atonement, important things, but things that aren’t news. But I think it’s important that gospel remain in the form of news. The gospel is news, and surprising news. It’s always surprising news.

Let’s look at a few biblical texts. Let’s start with Isaiah 52-53, one of the few texts in the Greek Old Testament that uses the word gospel.You know the verses. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announced peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'” The prophet goes on to use the imagery of the Exodus to suggest that the return of exiles to Zion (Jerusalem) is the extending of the mighty right arm of God.

For those watching and hearing the announcement, this is surprising. It’s news to them. “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” (53:1). There’s debate over who the watching audience is. Some take the audience to be those who persecuted the prophet and treated him shabbily. I think the audience is the nations who oppressed Israel and can’t believe that the events announced here could be considered the mighty work of God. I say this, because the verses that directly precede these feature the nations. God’s servant, his chosen one Israel, has been marred beyond human resemblance, “so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see…” (52:14-15).

Ay any rate, the point is the same. The announcement that this is mighty work of God, that Israel’s God reigns, is shocking news. The facts on the ground don’t support the claim. But if the claim can be believed, if things they “had not been told they shall see,” then there is a chance they can be startled into reality. “Surely, he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions.” The startling “news” that Zion’s God reigns through the wounded servant creates the possibility that others will see their own complicity in the injustice done to God’s servant. It pierces their own self-perpetuating view of reality to expose the world according to God’s reality.

Or, let’s look at the announcement of the gospel in Mark 1:14-15. “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel.'” The surprise here is not as obvious, but I think is implied. The proclamation of the gospel comes against the backdrop of John’s imprisonment and the region of Galilee, none of which seem to be saying the kingdom of God has come near. And Jesus’ message ends with the exhortation to “repent and believe the gospel.” In other words, you will need to change to believe this nondescript movement out of Galilee is the good news of God. It’s surprising news. So surprising, that even Jesus’ own followers don’t believe it, highlighted by Peter’s rebuke of Jesus in Mark 8.

Or, we could look at Paul’s understanding of the gospel in 1-2 Corinthians. Paul defines the gospel in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has done nothing less than bring a new age with surprising sources of power. The word of the cross for many seems weak and foolish, but for those “who are being saved,” it is the power of God. If the principalities and powers had recognized this, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. So, the startling revelation that God’s power is being worked through what others perceive as weakness requires belief. “We no longer see things from a human point of view. Though we once regarded Christ that way, we do so no longer. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, everything has become new!” For Paul, the death and resurrection of Jesus is startling news that allows the possibility of perceptual change. Once you believe that the cross is the power of God, then the whole world starts looking new.

There are other texts along these lines. I think of Acts 2 where the crowd realizes that they have crucified the one attested to by God and who has now poured out the Spirit that they both see and hear. They thought they were on the right side of history, but now see their complicity in opposing God, in killing the ultimate prophet of God. “Brothers, what shall we do?” is answered by Peter’s word of peace. “‘Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’… And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'”

A few things to note here. They are startled by Peter’s words and are urged to save themselves from this corrupt generation. In other words, they are asked to see the world differently, not the ways they saw it while in alignment with the powers of this corrupt generation. But, they are also offered the power of the Holy Spirit, an alternative form of power that will allow them to see and act in the world anew.

So, what if salvation requires this kind of startling news–shocking news that brings us to our God senses. What if our salvation, and the salvation of all creation, requires that we be thrown clear of the world given to us by the principalities and powers of this age, to the world that’s been pulled down over our eyes? This perceptual change would be the tangible result of a victory over the powers of sin and death. And the cross would be more than an atoning sacrifice, but also (primarily?) the social location from which to view the world anew, among the poor, the powerless, those unjustly treated. Part of our salvation, then, would be the ongoing process of discovering the ways we are complicit with powers other than the Kingdom of God, startled into this recognition by a scandalous gospel.

Been startled lately?

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A little riff on Springsteen

This past October, James Smith led our Streaming conference on worship and the formation of missional communities. He also supplied the title for the conference, “Everybody has a hungry heart,” 14707895_10157540683075007_4308623066983235923_oa Springsteen lyric. We took his title and ran with it on Thursday night at the conference. We had a “prairie home companion style” night of music and other “amusements.” Caryl and Scott Parker (Nashville) and Boone Langston and Robby Wells (Portland) covered Springsteen numbers, we interviewed James Smith, had an An14633729_10157550449180007_8819322726775762675_onie Dillard reading by Anne Nichols, a few attempts at sketch
humor. I capped off the evening with a Springsteen inspired essay, built in large part on his outstanding memoir (which had only just come out). I include it here.

I know better tonight than to say that I’m a Springsteen fan. It’s not because I don’t listen to Springsteen. I do. I have most of this catalog in my itunes folder. Nebraska is one of my favorite albums, and thank goodness for The Rising and Devils and Dust, albums that did some justice to the experience of 9/11 and the second gulf war. I’m plenty familiar with Springsteen and enjoy listening to his music.

I hesitate to call myself a fan, however, because I know a few, and I have nothing in comparison to their life-altering devotion. Springsteen is not on their bucket list. Springsteen is in the oxygen they breath. So, they might drop all the details of their life and get on a plane and fly across the country to attend a concert, maybe even for the third or fourth time on this particular tour.

A friend of mine has been to countless Springsteen concerts. His boys are now old enough that they’ve been through the Springsteen catechism and now attend concerts with their father. Recently, the boys went to a U2 concert and were disappointed at the weak effort of the lads from Dublin who could only manage to play for two hours, far below the Springsteen standard, who on his most recent tour played one night for four hours.

For John and others, you know who you are, Springsteen doesn’t just talk about life, he delivers it. A through your ears to your heart, throughout your body kind of life.

And, I have found, he does this for people who are particularly spiritually sensitive. Not necessarily the “go to meeting on Sundays” spiritual types, but the ones whose cares and concerns related to life cannot be assuaged by the sweetness of a praise chorus.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s some church in his music. It’s not hard to scratch on a Springsteen lyric and find some sort of faith allusion. I don’t know if you saw Springsteen with Steven Colbert the other night on the Late Show, but they talked about the way their Catholicism has shaped them. I saw an earlier interview with Springsteen where he talked about how the themes of faith, of resurrection and hope, show up in his music. He didn’t write deliberately of these things. He wasn’t intentionally writing songs of faith or about faith. It was more that the rhythms and smells and dispositions of his early religious training got deep inside of him, so that no expression was devoid of them.

In his recent memoir, a brilliant read, he writes,

In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It was a glorious and pathetic place I was either shaped for or fit right into. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life. So as a young adult I tried to make sense of it. I tried to meet its challenge for the very reasons that there are souls to lose and a kingdom of love to be gained. I laid what I’d absorbed across the hardscrabble lives of my family, friends and neighbors. I turned it into something I could grapple with, understand, something I could even find faith in. As funny as it sounds, I have a “personal” relationship with Jesus. He remains one of my fathers, though as with my own father, I no longer believe in his godly power. I believe deeply in his love, his ability to save . . . but not to damn . . . enough of that. (Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run (Kindle Locations 298-305). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition).

In his interview with Steven Colbert a few nights ago, he talked about his songs in gospel terms. “The verses,” he said, “are the blues. The chorus is the gospel. It’s how I think of a song when I write.” The chorus, he says, is where I try to bring some “transcendence.”

Maybe the themes are getting more explicit the deeper Springsteen goes into his career. The allusions seem more obvious in Devils and Dust and Radio Nowhere. The friend I spoke of earlier says he’s reconnecting with his catholocism. Maybe. But this is not, I think, Springsteen’s primary appeal to my more spiritually sensitive friends.

His appeal comes more, I think, from his ability to name our common experience poetically, and in doing so, to make it transcendent. Our everyday experience is shot through with meaning, with a beat, with a turn of a phrase, and in the performance with an embodied passion that makes it all mean something.

It’s this sensibility, I think, you hear in his memoir, when he writes about the neighborhood he grew up in:

There is a place here— you can hear it, smell it— where people make lives, suffer pain, enjoy small pleasures, play baseball, die, make love, have kids, drink themselves drunk on spring nights and do their best to hold off the demons that seek to destroy us, our homes, our families, our town. Here we live in the shadow of the steeple, where the holy rubber meets the road, all crookedly blessed in God’s mercy, in the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, race-riot-creating, oddball-hating, soul-shaking, love-and-fear-making, heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey. Let the service begin. (Springsteen, Bruce. Born to Run (Kindle Locations 173-177). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition).

Life as worship. Where the holy rubber meets the road.  Blues and gospel. Laying it across the hardscrabble lives of friends and families. The truth.

Springsteen has a way of making me ache when I listen to him. He touches places I’ve been and feelings I’ve had. Some of it in sepia tones, home, glory days, regret and longing for home. But some of it is the ache for escape, to run, for the desperate need for there to be more. To follow the indeterminate destination of the road, or to be carried someplace by the river, which makes us clean.

He captures something of the beautiful and horrible ambiguity of life.  Oh that our worship on Sundays could hold this beautiful and horrible ambiguity! Too often our worship “papers over” our reality. It’s too glib, too easily moves to happy or joyous. It’s all gospel and no blues. It scarcely notices injustice or hardscrabble lives. And in so doing reduces the gospel.

One final thought about Springsteen tonight. It’s rock and roll that carries all of this, that both holds the lyrics and creates the space for them. But it’s more than that. The words are embodied in the performance. In the sweat and the movement and the beat and the way the sound moves through your chest. At a Springsteen concert, we’re not “brains on sticks,” to use Jamie Smith’s memorable phrase. We’re bodies connected to light and sound and others and the world. It’s not escape. It’s connection. One that we long for. One that we desire.

Bruuuce.

 

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Shifting the center of worship from sermon to table

In anticipation of the conference we hosted a few weeks ago, “Everybody Has a Hungry Heart: Worship and the Formation of Missional Communities,” I put out a survey for those who plan and lead worship. The results were revealing in many ways.

People invest a lot of time in worship planning and take it very seriously. We’ve raised the bar in terms of the importance of thoughtful planning, which is good. But we still have a ways to go in how we conceive of worship in the first place.

In the over 50 completed surveys, one thing emerged over all other responses as a shared practice related to worship planning: it begins with and revolves around the sermon.

This is not a surprising insight, especially for those of us in free church traditions (most of the respondents) that do not begin with a fairly set liturgy buttressed by readings from the lectionary. (Although, even the few that completed the survey from more liturgical traditions built their services around the sermon).

I probably wouldn’t have questioned this much before reading Jamie Smith’s books, particularly, Desiring the Kingdom. Smith questions our view of what it means to be human, noting that since the Enlightenment, we’ve tended to think of humans as creatures driven by reason, or ideas. But, a more satisfying view from theological, philosophical, and psychological perspectives, is to see humans as desiring creatures. As the title of Smith’s latest book suggests, we are what we love. And desire is not cultivated or trained primarily by information, but by bodily practices in the world, our habits and routines, or as Smith calls them, liturgies, that hold our lives.

If Smith is right, and surely he is, then what does the fact that we plan worship around preaching say about what we think it means to be human? Do we think of humans as “brains on sticks,” to use Smith’s memorable phrase? One other survey finding might support that we do indeed suppose that formation is primarily a function of rationality. We expect very little in terms of bodily participation from those who worship. As one respondent put it, “We don’t expect our members to do anything except sing.”

Now, don’t get excited here. I’m a preacher and would like to think my sermons make a big difference in people’s lives. And I think good ideas are better than bad ideas or no ideas. Unlike some worship leaders who equate worship with singing, I think a good deal of worship goes on during preaching. No one is saying stop preaching (though occasionally sermons I hear miss two or three good places to end earlier), but we might want to be more realistic about what preaching actually accomplishes (a post about this, perhaps, in the future).

So, let’s keep the sermon and maybe even think more fully about its importance, but what if we built our service around a different telos, or “end,” than the sermon?

What if the service was built around the Lord’s Supper? And by that I mean, what if the planning and design of the service revolved around making the new social arrangements of the gospel visible? OK, let me explain a little. Surely part of the significance of the gospel is that the welcome of God cuts across ways of sorting the world by ethnicity, gender, age, class, etc. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh which means that men and women, old and young, servants both male and female, will prophesy (to paraphrase Acts 2). All who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved, without distinction.

The table is the place where these new social realities become most prominently visible, where we welcome one another as Christ has welcomed us, for the glory of God. Admittedly, the way many of us practice communion conceals this reality. We are left to our private meditations as we take individual portions and pass the emblems down rows to faceless participants. Communion is the time, in many worship services, where we are left alone with our thoughts (brains on sticks?).

We’d have to practice communion differently to make visible the new social realities of the gospel embodied among the eschatological people of God (church). In fact, I very seriously doubt that we would have come up with the idea of passing plates down rows in the first place if the social aspects of the table of the Lord were our starting place. I am struck every time I attend a service where I am invited to get up and go to table. The visual impression made by a diverse people being welcomed around one table is striking. Often I have thought, what but the reconciling work of God could have brought these people together?

And, we’re doing things with our bodies and interacting with other bodies. We’ve moved from being worship spectators/consumers to embodying the claims of the gospel on our collective life.

To refer back to the post from two days ago, now the focus of worship is not an excellent performance, but making the diversity of the people of God visible. We would think of leadership roles in worship, not just in relation to who can do the best job (or what gender they are), but in terms of making the reconciled people of God visible.

It might change the ways we think about other parts of our worship, like singing. Consider that toward the end of Romans, Paul exhorts this Jew/Gentile challenged church to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” He then cites passages from the Psalms that imagine all of humanity with one voice praising God. Singing in worship is not just about you getting your praise on. It’s a public act of solidarity wherein the gracious welcome of God becomes visible. The offering, the sermon, the call to worship and the sending at the end, all would be given a different significance.

I know that this kind of shift from sermon to table as the focus of planning would form a different kind of imagination for who we are and what we do in the world. It would shape our desires differently. It’s tougher to worship around the notion of the welcome of God and then exclude others in the various places we live and work. And it would protect our preachers from the temptations related to celebrity. I think we’d be less compartmentalized in our Sunday lives and our Monday-Saturday lives, less likely to distinguish between the gospel and justice, less likely to see personhood in relation to autonomy, more likely to know in our bones the significance of community. And on and on and on….

Anyway, that’s my proposal. Who’s in?

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When excellence is a guiding principle, is your worship Christian?

At a conference at a Christian University several years ago, I heard Stanley Hauerwas comment on part of the University’s mission statement that used the word “excellence.” As only Hauerwas can say it, “When excellence is in your mission statement, you’ve lost the capacity to be a Christian University.”

I remembered this comment a few weeks ago as I was reading survey responses given by those who plan and lead worship. The word “excellence” was used several times, alongside words like “seamless” and “flow,” words which require a certain competent efficiency.

I remembered Hauerwas’ words again today when I read an article published by The Christian Post that reported on a church in Oregon that bans fat people from serving on the praise team, for, among other reasons, their tendency to interrupt the “flow of anointing” between members of the team. I kid you not. These guidelines, which included many things, were posted on their website until it began attracting negative attention.

Our outrage over this (I hope you’re outraged, but I’m worried that some of you might be thinking, “it’s wrong, but they have a point”) gets at Hauerwas’ point. Their concern over appearance was in part related to the public statement they wanted to make with guests. “You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” the statement read. Fat people need not apply. I wonder about old people, or people with disabilities, or physical deformities. Could a person in a wheel chair even make it onto the worship “stage?”

Richard Beck tells of being invited to share from his book, Unclean, with the ministry staff of a very well-known megachurch. He visited their worship before he met with them, and they asked him about his impressions of their worship. He responded that there was no death visible. They were certainly not expecting this response, and asked him to explain. Everyone who led in their very polished worship experience, he explained, was young and pleasant in appearance. Death denial. They were shocked that this was the case, perhaps an indication that all of this works on us at a very subconscious level.

These kinds of worship experiences certainly do leave a first impression. We’re about the appearance of wholeness and vitality. We’re hoping you find us attractive and enjoy your time with us. We’d never do anything intentionally to offend you or put you off. And for an hour on Sunday, you too can live in this world of appearances. Excellence. And here’s the thing. Excellence is exclusionary.

So, what would a Christian first impression be? Wouldn’t it have to be a little scandalous? Wouldn’t it have to give an impression of gracious inclusion, that all are welcome here just as they are? Wouldn’t it have to publicly exhibit the fact that our world is not perfect and you don’t have to be either? Wouldn’t we have to exhibit in some way our brokenness? Wouldn’t it have to demonstrate that the people our society would hide or overlook have a vital and visible place here?

I attended a church in Durham, NC, recently that gave just this kind of impression. The worship band was diverse, as were all who led publicly. Young and old, black and white and hispanic, male and female. The entire service was done in both English and Spanish, even though there didn’t appear to be many “Spanish as first language” people present. At one point in the service, they opened it up for anyone to speak around a prompt that had emerged from the sermon. Talk about a “flow” killer. The first speaker was a young man with down syndrome dressed in a suit and tie. Earlier in the service, he had walked in front of the praise band to get to his seat while doing some version of the funky chicken. At this point in the service, he enthusiastically took the mic and said some things that sounded sufficiently churchy, even if they weren’t fully coherent. The church applauded when he finished. I bet there aren’t that many public places he can go and hold the microphone and speak and be so warmly affirmed. And I bet there aren’t many places where the members of this church work that would appreciate or encourage this kind of thing. That’s Christian worship.

I could give several other examples of how that congregation gave a first impression of inclusion. I wondered if I were that church’s pastor, if I would’ve been cool with all that, particularly of giving the mic to anybody. I recently visited one of my former congregations and was stunned when a particularly challenging member of the congregation led a prayer. To my shame, I knew that would never have happened when I was there. What value was I protecting by resisting that level on inclusion? Probably something to do with excellence or efficiency.

My friend, Erik, who is on our grad program and lives his life in a wheelchair, is very kind to gently point out ways that I haven’t fully thought about the experience of people like him. At our conference a little over a week ago, Jaime Clark-Soles talked of her experience in imagining church from the perspective of people with disabilities. She says she’ll never see church the same way again. I know that parents of “special-needs” children often give up on going to church because its moving too fast for them to participate. They often feel disruptive and left out. Shouldn’t their inclusion be a test of the gospel in worship?

I can hear some of you hissing. You’ll never reach people that way. Agreed. Some you won’t. Some won’t think that this kind of public display represents much good news. It will be too embarrassing, too many smells and sights and sounds. But some will. The poor, the lame, the blind, the crippled. Let the reader understand.

 

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