Archive for December 2017

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell
“Who am I?” It’s never been an easy question to answer. Adolescents have always struggled to define themselves, but these days it seems like we’re all teenagers. Each of us feels pressure to create a personal brand. Whether we meant to or not, we’ve all become political agents, minor celebrity personalities, and part-time philosophers.

Our entire society is caught in a perpetual quest for identity. We’re hungry to understand who we are. Because we honestly don’t know sometimes. There are far too many variables to juggle. Every time we think we may have found a satisfying answer, a new cultural trend, marketing campaign, or political scandal hits and we’re thrown into doubt and insecurity all over again.

Ours is the age of market segmentation. Identity has become a super buffet, with virtually unlimited mix-and-match options. Each one of us has a whole slew of identity-laden merit badges: attachments to a variety of communities, multiple ethnic and sexual identities, and unique commitments. Identity has become a patchwork quilt, uniquely cut for each individual.

In other times and places, identity had relatively little to do with the individual. It was something inherited – from family, tribe, nation, and religious communities. When new identities did emerge, it was in the context of mass movement. The rise of the early church, the early Quakers, nationalism and communism – each of these was a community you joined, a movement you gave yourself to.

In this new age of consumer choice, identity and community aren’t necessarily linked. Identity is available in single-serving doses. In fact, it’s become a challenge to get it in any other format. Identity has become yet another commodity that we consume. A product to sell us. We can be anything or anyone we want to be, a combination as unique as our social media graph and Amazon browsing history.

Yet at the heart of this single-serving life, we find emptiness. We are given a thousand and one ways to differentiate ourselves from those around us, and we do. Almost as if by plan, we have become so unique that our only common life is the consumer economy. Our baptism is buying. Our prayer life is selling. The closest we come to holy communion is our shared participation in the market.

In some ways, this is new. The degree and scale of our market-based atomization is certainly unprecedented. Yet in other ways, this experience is ancient. The idolatrous power of the market, and its ability to redefine identity and subvert community, is as old as civilization.

This is the way empire has always worked. In the ancient world, consumer activity was explicitly tied to worship. Shoppers in ancient Rome were required to offer a pinch of incense to the divinized emperor, paying tribute to the gods of the marketplace. The object of worship was the wealth and power of the state, the security it provided and the terror with which it reigned.

Things aren’t so different today. Despite our claims to individuality, we bow before the gods of the market. We may not be able to find unity in party, religion, culture, or science – but there is near unanimity when it comes to economics. Even those who rail against the system and see the evils of capitalism cannot resist it in practice. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

For those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus, the deck is doubly stacked against us. On the one hand, we are scattered and distracted by a multitude of competing identities, causes, and subcultures. On the other, we are seduced by the ubiquitous ad campaign of consumerism. Our creative energies are drained by the demands of a system that promises us luxury, but only in exchange for unquestioning devotion to the gods of productivity. We are offered autonomy and self-determination precisely in those realms where we are ultimately powerless – that of personal self-conception and representation. Meanwhile, the imperial economy demands our obedience in every way that matters.

How long will we obey?

What would it look like to reclaim our freedom from the gods of the marketplace? What would it mean to reject the lure of the personal brand, primping and styling our myriad identities without end? What would it feel like to question the unquestionable – the economic and social order of this world? Such a change would require an alternative community, a new kind of identity and social order.

The kingdom of God is this alternative. It is a life and community that stands in stark contrast to the economies and value systems of empire. Jesus invites us to an economy of love and self-denial.

The kingdom of God and the consumer cult of empire are mutually exclusive. As citizens of this kingdom, we utterly lose ourselves – and find our true identity for the first time.

What is this true identity worth? In world ravenous for identity, what am I prepared to sacrifice to never hunger again? What would it look like for me to subordinate all of my identities to the true self I find in Jesus? What hardened walls would I have to let down? What debates would I have to be willing to lose? What kinds of people must I learn to call “neighbor”?

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Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?

Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?
The Bible’s teachings on authority come not primarily though a set of terse doctrines set forth in a few lines, but rather through hundreds of stories. We learn about God’s authority and humanity’s original rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We encounter Moses’ authority, and the challenge it represented to the authority of Pharaoh in Egypt.

We learn that words spoken with authority can bring death, such as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, godly authority has the power to bring life. Jesus often healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with the laying on of hands and words of authority.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogues, the people marveled at the authority with which he spoke. He opened the scriptures, not as a dead letter to be adhered to, but as a promise and a challenge to be received with joy and trembling. Jesus’ authority – the power of his ‘yes’ to truly mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’ – was a hallmark of his ministry.

There is a thread in the biblical tapestry that argues clearly and forcefully for subjection to authority. Romans 13 comes to mind as an important – and often abused – example of this line of thinking. All authority is instituted by God, says Paul. The governing authorities are to be honored and obeyed, not just out of fear, but for the sake of conscience. God wants us to obey.

This is fascinating, coming from Paul. After all, Paul regularly tussled with the established authorities – religious and political – publicly challenging their world view. He was no one to shy away from upending the religious and cultural chieftains of his time and place. It’s not a coincidence that he regularly had to flee for his life. He spent much of his time in jail. How strange that among his teachings should be the idea that a violent, often tyrannical government like that of Rome should be honored and obeyed.

It’s not just Paul. We encounter this unexpected message in the life of Jesus, too. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – not because he was in need of repentance, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s ministry possessed authority, and Jesus found that in submitting himself to John, he was submitting himself to the Father.

Jesus didn’t submit himself to every authority. Jesus openly defied the life-denying teachings of the Pharisees and priests that dominated Jewish religious and political life. He challenged Herod, the notoriously unjust local strongman who murdered John the Baptist, even calling him names at one point. Jesus seemed to have no problems picking fights with those in authority.

And yet, when Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, he ordered his disciples not to fight. He submitted himself, first to the abusive authority of the priests, and later to the state violence of Rome. According to scripture, Jesus had no defiant words for the Pilate. The Roman governor was amazed at his passivity! Jesus exercised a ministry characterized by direct confrontation with those in authority, yet he was led to his death without resistance.

No matter how much some of us may resonate with the maxim, “question authority,” the Bible gives consistent witness to the importance of obedience. Jesus himself is the ultimate authority. In him all things hold together. Everything that does not join with him scatters. All authority is instituted by God; it is the skeletal system of the God-created cosmos. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.

We live in an age in which almost all of our authorities and civic institutions are being ripped down. The individual reigns supreme. In the absence of authority, truth becomes a moving target. With no one able speak with authority about the things that really matter, we are all relegated to the realm of “alternative facts.”

Despite the twistedness of our human authorities and value systems, we clearly need them. God instituted authority when he said “let there be light!” and divided the day from the night. Through his supreme, creative authority, God drew us out of chaos and into a beautiful, ordered universe. Only God’s authority can overcome the chaos and confusion that now reigns in our personal and civic life.

Yet there’s good reason that so much authority has been rejected. Our authoritative institutions in government, business, and religion have all been thoroughly discredited. Corruption abounds. It’s hard to see how we should submit ourselves to an authority that is so hollowed out, so rife with injustice and hypocrisy. The Bible supports us in this conclusion, too, with its many stories of resistance to an unjust social order.

How do we reconcile this biblical ambiguity? Are we to submit to the governing authorities – to the civic and religious institutions that govern our society – even when they’re wrong? Or is it more important to stand up for truth, even if it means trashing the authority structures that lend shape and coherence to our communities, nations, and the world at large?

It would be easier if we could simply say, “submit to authority, always” or “question authority, no matter what.” Black-and-white rules are easier to follow than principles guided by conscience. But for better or worse, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. God has given us free will, in clear anticipation of the challenging and nuanced choices we are called to make.

What does it mean to imitate Jesus in our relationship to authority? What does it mean when he teaches us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which belongs to God”? Like so many profound teachings, these words of Jesus contain a tension that demands discernment on our part. We are to subordinate ourselves to the authority of the state. Yet we can only rightly submit ourselves to human authority in the context of our ultimate submission to God.

Who are the authorities in your life? Police, the IRS, employers. The money economy, church leadership, social expectations. Fashion, loyalty to sports teams, family. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as free and independent people, beholden to no one. Yet there are so many authorities that we answer to. What does it mean to obey – or to resist?

Paul, who in Romans calls us to submission to the civil authority, also writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All authority is instituted by God, yet not all authorities are to be obeyed. How does Paul navigate this dilemma? How do we?

Though not an author of the Bible, C.S. Lewis provides a clue when he writes that the devil doesn’t create anything. The Father of Lies can only twist the good creation that God has made. God created all authority to bless and give life, but through our rebellion against that holy and healthy authority, we have allowed the creation to become twisted. Authority no longer works as intended. Rather than acting as a skeletal structure for the body of Christ, it can be misdirected to empower evil.

How do we tell the difference between authority instituted by God and demonic strongholds that must be challenged? Sometimes it seems impossible to sort out all the mixed motives in our relationships and institutions. Fortunately, the author of all authority is available to guide us in our discernment. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would be present, speaking through us as we interact with authority. As we submit ourselves to God, we can be instruments of healing and reconciliation for earthly authorities that have become twisted with rebellion and diverted from their God-given purpose.

This process of courageous discernment requires that we maintain an awareness of who is in control. All authority is delegated by God, and so all authorities are answerable to God. The Holy Spirit lives and speaks in us, so even the weakest of us can be called to speak in God’s authority. We are called to submit to the governing authorities, and to all authorities that God has instituted over us – citizen to government, child to parent, worker to employer. Yet in all these relationships of authority, God must always reign supreme. Each one of us stands or falls before our own master – the Lord Jesus. We are primarily and ultimately responsible to him. We must be mindful of our obedience to him even in the midst of our subordination to lesser authorities.

As the early church said to the religious authorities who ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

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That Gospel – I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

That Gospel - I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, & Mark 13:24-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.
But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.
In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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