Scriptural Imagination and Ferguson (Part II)

In light of the Ferguson protests,  I’ve been exercising “scriptural imagination,” and reading the words of Jesus with fresh eyes. (Link to the series). Yesterday I examined Matthew 7:1-6. Today, I’m taking a fresh look at Matthew 7:7-23.

Follow the hashtag #ScripturalImagination on Twitter for more renderings, and feel free to add some of your own.

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Matthew 7:7-23

The Narrow and Wide Gates

“You’ll have to put down your weapons, crawl out of your MRAPs and tanks, perhaps lay aside your possessions, prejudices, and maybe even your picket signs to enter through the narrow gate. The gate wide enough to accommodate all the artillery, television trucks, helicopters, militia members, gangs, provocateurs, and even well-meaning activists, empties onto a violent and wide road that leads only to war and death. Too many well-meaning men follow the masses through that gate to their peril.

“The gate of peace and reconciliation is a very slim—in fact, it’s a super-tight fit—and only the smallest empty-handed children can fit through it. It takes great imagination to find this narrow gate. Stop walking with the masses. Strip naked! Get on your hands and knees, and search for the small entrance that leads to life and peace.”

A Tree and its Fruit

“Beware of the provocateurs, anarchists, and activists looking to make a big name on a legitimate crisis; they seem to take the side of peace and reconciliation (have you heard the term ‘sheep’s clothing?’), but they only fight for their own agendas. You will know them by their hate-filled backpacks, how they hide within the crowd and pitch bombs over your heads at the police. Their weapons of warfare belie their intentions.

“Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor strawberries from AR-15 assembly lines, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears the fruit of anarchy and violence.  A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, and a factory of warfare cannot produce organic, farm-raised, homegrown tomatoes (the kind you ate straight from the vine as a child; remember those?). The truth is, sooner or later these factories of violence and the societies that build them will go into the fire, just like every sick tree that bears rotten fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“Look closely; do you see it? You will know the reconciling children of God by their fruits.

“And one more thing: not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ cares about the kingdom of heaven. (Not really.) But he who does the will of a peaceful and reconciling God? He will enter the good and eternal kingdom. Many will say they belong in the kingdom, will say ‘Jesus, did we not enforce law-in order in your name?’ or ‘did we not bring peace to a riotous, raucous crowd?’ or ‘did we not picket and protest for justice in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘You did all of this for your own gain, which is its own sort of lawlessness. Did you take off your riot gear and join the protestors? Did you lay down your picket sign and talk with the police? Or did you just engage in a war of words? Get out of here. I never knew you.’”

*Photo by Craig Dietrich, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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Scriptural Imagination and Ferguson

In light of current affairs, namely the Ferguson protests, I’ve been reading the words of Jesus with fresh imagination. His teachings seem more and more relevant with each passing day of protesting, and so, I thought that perhaps it’d be a good time to recast the teachings of Jesus into the modern context.

Today, and every day this week, I’ll be exercising my scriptural imagination, will be recasting Matthew 7. I’d like you to engage your own scriptural imagination, to begin the process of apply specific passages to the world around you. Also, follow the hashtag #ScripturalImagination on Twitter for more renderings, and feel free to add some of your own.

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Matthew 7:1-6

Judging Others

Jesus said, “do not curse the ignorance of others unless you want your ample ignorance exposed and judged. For in the way you condemn others and wish for their damnation, you will be condemned. And the standard you use to judge ignorance will be used against you. Consider the implications of that.

And why do you look at the Molotov cocktail that is in your brother’s hand, but do not notice the AR-15 that is in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the rock, the cocktail, or the picket signs out of your hand,’ and you haphazardly spray rubber bullets across the crowd? You hypocrite, first lay down your guns, your teargas, your tactical gear, and your PR campaigns and then you will see the path of reconciliation.

“Do not Tweet righteous indignation to the racists, prejudiced dogs, or even to the indifferent. Do not throw your wisdom before the enlightened swine of the twenty-four hour news cycle. Do not engage the bully-pulpit. They will waste your time attempting to make your wisdom appear foolish. They have boots made only for walking on you, and that’s just what they’ll do.

Prayer and the Golden Rule

If you really want reconciliation and not just a war of words, pray and it will be given to you; seek peace and an end to violence, and you will find it; knock on the doors of the oppressed and be ready to listen when they let you in. Those who pray in earnest for reconciliation receive it, and those who seek peace find it, and to those who knock with a willingness to listen, doors will be opened.

“Let me ask you this: when your son asks for supper, will you give him homemade bombs and loaded sawed-off shotguns? Or, when a child asks for toast and eggs, will a father give him riot gear and a gang-load of submachine guns? If you know how to give good, sustaining, and nourishing gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask!

“In everything, therefore, treat all people—the violent, the peaceful, the ignorant, the wise, the prejudiced, and the enlightened—with the patience and thoughtfulness with which you want to be treated. Try to emulate your Father, God. This is what the Law and the Prophets were all about.”

*photo by Shawn Semmler, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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On 6 Steps Through Cynicism (And a Book Birthday)

“Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” ― George Carlin

“Day by day, I’m leaning into it, being reignited by a personal revival. And by the grace of God, I just might see a full recovery from cynicism after all.” –Nish Weiseth, Speak: How Your Story Can Change the World. photo (2) We come weeping through the birth canal full of wonder, and grow into that wonder with tactile experience–the feel of the velvet blanky, the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry, the slimy lick of the puppy’s tongue. We grow, also, into the belief of taught ideals. “Jesus was a good man, a God-man,” they say, and so we believe. “The church is your family,” they say, and so we believe.

The experiences and ideals of our youth shape us. And though some things seem ever-true–the sweetness of the summer-ripe strawberry, for instance–other things seem to lose their luster. This, I think, is how cynics are born.

Allow me to walk you through the steps of cynicism.

1. Begin With a Grand Ideal

I bought the most youthful expression of Christianity, one accompanied by Kool-Aid, edible Goldfish, and the idealistic felt-board Jesus. Jesus gave me loaves and fishes (Goldfishes to be exact), and came to heal me of every disease. Jesus was my friend.

2. Learn Every Nuance of the Ideal

Idealistic Jesus was the perfect God-man, one who healed the sick, fed the poor, and advocated for the downtrodden. He was not so much above-the-fray as below it, he working up from society’s bottom. Friend of sinners, they called him. In fact, his friendship was so fierce that he died on the cross, rose again, and sent his Holy Spirit to indwell me.

Ah, the indwelling.

It is the indwelling that made it possible for me to be just like Jesus himself. They told me this with one caveat–you can be like Jesus if your belief is fierce enough.

3. Compare the Ideal to the Teachers of the Ideal

Jesus, poor and itinerant, was propped up by the teachers, who seemed to be less poor and less itinerant. In fact, they skewed the ideal, lived lives that proclaimed Security-Jesus, the Jesus that gave eternal life and a decent shot at an early retirement. He died to make them less poor and less itinerant, it seemed.

A preacher came to me, said (at least ’round about), “one day you’ll understand how important this building campaign is to Jesus. If we preach safe messages to secure donations, he’ll understand.”

4. Embrace the New Ideal or Become a Cynic

When the ideal was co-opted by a wholly different message (i.e., “Jesus friend of the poor,” become “Jesus the master mega-church builder”) I was left with two options. First, I could embrace the new ideal regardless of all internal angst and discomfort. Alternatively, I could choose to become cynical of the former ideal.

See how impossible a thing it is to actually be like Jesus, I said.

5. Hate the Ideal

When I realized the impossibility of Idealistic Jesus, I began to see hypocrisy everywhere–the faith-healer who was dying of cancer; the celibate priest who piddled around; the minister who refused to marry the woman impregnated out of wedlock. These things were askew with the espoused ideal, and so, in a sort of transference, I associated hypocrisy with an ideal that seemed a lie. And this is where the hate set in.

Hypocrite hating is an easy thing when I adopted the role of victim.

6. The Way Out

The way out is simple, but it’s not easy. The ideal is real–Jesus friend of sinners; Jesus the poor; Jesus the itinerant; Jesus working up from the bottom. I heard this story fresh, and believed. Then I set to looking less at the hypocrites and more to the true ideal carriers. I looked to the believers struggling for faith in the far east, or the ones being persecuted for the ideal in the Middle East. I looked more to the factory worker, or the businessman choosing morning prayers at his office. I chose to look at the housewife who instilled small virtues in her pre-schoolers.

I chose, too, to see the ideal in creation, in the coming spring and the turning fall. I found the ideal again in the taste of the summer-ripe strawberry. I believed the creative, age-old ideal of the genesis of things.

The way out of cynicism begins with a re-birth into fresh eyes–eyes that look with wonder on the ideal and bounce from the hypocritical co-optors.

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The details of my story would take too many words to write here. These are the sketches. But the truth is, my process does not exist in a vacuum. In fact, others have written better words about the topic. This being so, might I suggest a book?

Today, Nish Weiseth releases her book, Speak:How Your Story Can Change the World. In Speak, Nish devotes a chapter to her fall into cynicism, and how she found the way out. She writes:

“I haven’t always loved the church. In fact, I hated it for a good while. I know ‘hate’ sounds harsh, but when your heart gets racked by bitterness, cynicism, and anger, ‘hate’ is probably the best word for how it feels.”

If the story stopped there, it’d be tragic. But it doesn’t.

Nish pulled out of church cynicism with the help of stories from a few friends, and she’s written parts of this story in Speak. It’s poignant, and evidences how the stories of friends, how the power of a timely word can move one from the cynicism that kills into the fresh re-birth of the ideal.

But Speak isn’t just a story of rebirth; it’s a book about the power of stories, how stories can change things. Nish writes from personal experience, yes, but she also delves into the stories of others, offers proof that there is power in the collection of our experiences. She shares how the power of these collective experiences change individual lives, how those individual lives change societies, and how those changed societies change the world.

It is true: stories change things. No one knows that better than Nish. So today, as you ponder your own story, perhaps your own shedding of cynical skin, would you consider picking up a copy of Speak? You’ll be glad you did.

(For more on Speak, visit Preston Yancey’s site. He makes a startling confession: “I wish I wrote you this book.”)

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On Faith and Cannonballs

“There are some things that affect us so deeply that move us so emotionally that it makes objective rational organizing of thought around a topic impossible.” This was the honest and forthright opening to John Ray’s sermon on faith and pain. He was preaching a passage from Jesus’ teachings on faith, and confessed his struggle with the topic.

He expounded, said that while his daughter lay fighting for her life in the hospital after a tragic accident, a well-meaning woman tried to prop up John’s faith. “If you only have faith like a mustard seed,” she said, “all things are possible.”

Maybe all things are possible with faith, but these words don’t do a hill of bean’s worth of good to a man in the midst of trauma. These are the words that feel less like comfort and more like millstones, as if the entirety of outcomes rests on mustering up of some sort of religious fervor.

John’s daughter would pass later that day, and John expounded on the near passing of his faith, too. He said with all candor, “yes, this passage has been used to deeply hurt me, and it’s not the passages fault.” Then, he fleshed out faith, spoke of the invisible hand that gives us the gift. And it was good.

I’m telling you this story for no purpose other than asking you to listen to his sermon. You can find it here. (For the iTunes download, click this link.)

I’ve been though a similar experience, have had others claim that my son’s recovery from a mystery illness hinged on my faith. Titus pulled through, though, and this begs the following question: what does that say of my faith in contrast to John’s faith? Nothing.

In honor of yesterday’s sermon, and as a reminder to us all, I’m reposting Psalm #11 from my archives.

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Psalm #11 (Mustard Seeds:Cannonballs)

1.

If addiction to grief were a thing,
such would be the carnal cravings
of those with the most authentic lives.
Children with velvet blankets,
we might rub the corners first. Then
we’d pull the edges over the eyes,
shroud ourselves in night, usher in
the dreams of the murder of crows,
the legion of doubt,
or the garden of Eden,
whichever the night might first give.

Lord have mercy.

2.

If tomorrow’s healings rest in today’s faith
are we to bear the eternal fever?
The thing meant for hope–
the smallest seed of faith–
becomes a cannonball to be dodged
as if such a thing were possible.
If faith is a suspension of the will,
the laws of nature, of nuclear hatred,
fear, and the ashes of doubt
that cover every potential promise,
is such a thing possible?
We, our own little gods, have always
turned mustard seeds into cannonballs.

Christ have mercy.

3.

There was a man, said Theophilus’ friend,
with demons aplenty and he lived
among the graves by the sea, among the pigs
on the overlook of the foamy unpredictable.
He was without his wits, and without wits
can there be a mustering of any worthy faith?
His demons were Legion, the usurpers of will,
and they were as obstinate as the tide, once,
but now no longer.

Only say the word and we shall be healed

Theophilus, the demoniac and I know this to be true:
every gentle hope of peace passes first through
addiction; then, through a Word; then through life
and into death. From sea to glassy sea, it moves,
plunging headlong into the sparkling forever.

Lord Have mercy.

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On The Redemption of Cursed Earth

God spoke into a garden and created man. That’s what the good book says. God created man, and then he created woman, and then, he gave them work. Back then, I reckon, it wasn’t all about market economies and building sky-scraping mud huts to heaven. Before the fall, it wasn’t about padding the bank vault or adding another digit to the backend of a 401(k). It wasn’t about the corner office and the leather chair. The cows were still wearing their leather, in fact, and I suppose everyone aimed to let the cattle keep their skin.

Instead, the way I reckon it, work was less about security and more about communing with a good God. It was about engaging the soil of creation and enjoying the company of the fellow workers.

Camaraderie was a real thing back then–how sweat mingled and communed with soil; how soil harnessed the salt and water of sweat to grow good produce; how all of it sang praise to the imagination of a relational God. Doesn’t this feel true? Doesn’t it really? Ask yourself.

There was a day, they say, when men and women broke the rules and found themselves on the outside of this Camaraderie, this connection. It was the day, they say again, that God buried the groan for redemption in men and soil alike. (Rom. 8:22). We men have toiled ever since, but instead of the toil toward camaraderie, we toil toward other things: the sky-scraping McMansions, the padded bank vaults, the extra digits on the 401(k), and the leather chair in the corner office.

There are some that struggle for redemption, though. I want you to meet them.

Work is Redemptive – Dehradun Guitar Co. from Dehradun Guitar Co. on Vimeo.

*Photo by Panos Photographia, Creative Commons via Flickr.

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