Be Like Jesus & Let Others Serve You*

“The Son of Man came to serve (διακονέω), not to be served.” –Matthew 20:28

What if many American Christians, myself included, have managed to turn the paradigm act of humility, serving others, into an act of pride? What if we’ve corrupted the act of service in such a way that for many of us, in order to do what Jesus meant, we have to stop, at least for a while, doing what Jesus says?

Let me explain. In Matthew 20:28, we have the famous line: “The Son of Man came to serve, not to be served.” But is Jesus advocating for a specific act? Or for a way of handling power & authority? The context will help. Two of the disciples get their mommy (at least we assume this by the reaction of the other ten) to ask Jesus if they can be in power when Jesus becomes King.

Jesus responds this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The point Jesus is making is that the Kingdom of God is a place where the great are those who give up their power, just as Paul so beautifully describes in Philippians 2. So is it possible that our acts of service can become a place not where we give up our power, but where we protect it?

Where do we see this?

We see it in all of us who gladly serve at the soup kitchen because it confirms we are the ones with the ladle and not the empty bowl.

We see it in all of us who gladly give money to the poor because it confirms that we are the ones with money and not the open hand.

In other words, so long as I make sure I am always the one helping, I can be assured that I am the one with, and you are the one without. I can be assured that our focus will be on your problems so that I can keep my veneer of comfort and security, with the added bonus of a good feeling in my heart for helping the “less fortunate.”

I contend that if we are truly going to imitate Jesus, we should learn to be with other human beings who are different than us. Not to save them, serve them, make them a project, but to see them for who they are and not be afraid to be associated with them, thrown in the same labeling, or seen on the same side of the soup line.

For in relationship with people, there is a balance between serving and being served, supporting the weaknesses of others and being supported in our own weakness.

This is what the Incarnation of Jesus means to me, who became and became associated with, humanity, leaving behind his divinity (Phil 2.) for the sake of relationship. So if we want to find a way to be like the Jesus who, although had cosmic social status, gave it up to be a servant, we would do better to find our example in the Jesus who allows the prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair in the middle of a social gathering. Maybe we sometimes we need to be served in order to serve.

So may we stop using endless “serving those less fortunate” experiences as a back-handed way of reminding ourselves that “at least we’re not like them” and instead start admitting our weaknesses, our need for help, and our vulnerability to those around us.

“In Galilee these women had followed Jesus and cared for his needs (διακονέω).” – Mark 15:41

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Nicole Kidman & Conservative Readings of the Bible

I’m currently reading a biography on Nicole Kidman by a journalist who has never actually met Nicole Kidman. The best part of the book is the beginning where he explains some of the reasons we love celebrities: “…the most important thing in that vexed transaction is the way the actress and the spectator must remain strangers. That’s how the magic works…For their cannot be this pitch of irrational desire without that rigorous apartness.”

His point is that we desire what we do not have because we can recreate it in our own image. We love the idea of God because we can make God into our own image, making God into whatever we want or need God to be. So long as God remains “out there” as “that which fulfills all my desires,” we love God. This is I think what is so compelling about the conservative Evangelical view of God, the perfect, transcendent, one. We like our Bible to be perfect, mystical, magical, and incomprehensible because then it always remains desirous, just out of reach, full of surprises that tickle our fancy.

But once the Bible becomes human, all too human, and once God is revealed as “irascible” as Brueggemann recounts it, we lose that aloofness, that mystical apartness that we were so attracted to. And this is what the conservative Evangelical’s paradigm will not allow. So while incarnation is given lip service, it is the “transcendent One” who will always trump. While the Bible says that Jesus “grew in wisdom and knowledge,” which means he didn’t know everything and when Jesus cries out “Eloi, Eloi Lama Sabacthani, My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me,” we must figure out a way to read those so Jesus doesn’t seem so . . . common, so human. We say we want a Jesus we can relate to but in those few instances where I feel I relate most to Jesus, in my ignorance and in my doubt, the conservative Evangelical paradigm becomes extremely uncomfortable.

When the Bible comes down off the silver screen and walks among us. When it says things we are embarrassed by, when it shows its age and sometimes inappropriate behavior, we get very uncomfortable with it. Thanks but no thanks. I prefer you on the screen where I can imagine you are something else, where you remain aloof and untouchable behind a veil of preconceived doctrines and guidlines, yes, but perfect and protected.

Thomson says it this way about Nicole Kidman in particular: “Anyway, the subject of this book is Nicole Kidman. And I should own up straightaway that, yes, I like Nicole Kidman very much. When I tell people that, sometimes they leer and ask, “Do you love her?” And my answer is clear: Yes, of course, I love her – so long as I do not have to meet her.”

Are you a Christian, Ignorant, or Evil?*

Studies keep showing that non-Christians mainly associate Christians with being intolerant, judgmental, and arrogant. Ironically, though not surprisingly, Christians rarely see how they are being intolerant, judgmental, or arrogant. Often they just assume they are being unfairly persecuted against.

But that’s because we don’t often think about the implications of what we are saying. We aren’t intolerant, judgmental, or arrogant on purpose (for the most part, of course, there are some spectacular exceptions), we are generally just unaware of the implications of our words, phrases, systems, and approaches.

For instance, we talked before about the cliche “Love the Sinner but Hate the Sin” and how the message being heard is you love part of me, but not all of me. Your love for me is not unconditional but compartmentalized.” That’s not what we meant for them to hear but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We can do a lot of damage with a lot of good intentions and a lot of naivete.

There are many more examples that I could mention.

But this post is about the trend to make Christianity more attractive to people by making it sound like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world. The point of this post is to say: by telling people that believing a man named Jesus was raised from the dead and that the Bible is written by God “makes a lot of sense if you think about it” or that it’s even “common sense” means that if someone doesn’t believe it they must necessarily either be ignorant or evil.

That is to say, when we make the truth of the Christian story obvious, largely to make ourselves feel better about believing it, we must explain then, if it’s so obvious, why so many other people don’t believe.

And if someone doesn’t believe something that is obvious and common sense, after a while, we Christians have no choice but to say that they are either ignorant, in the sense that they aren’t even capable of grasping the most common sense truths, or they are evil, in the sense that they know its truth but the “hardness of their hearts” keep them from accepting it as their own. If Christianity is obviously true, I am not sure of other options we have.

For instance, if you tell a man to do something that is “obvious” and “common sense,” like “Go pour your coffee in the sink,” and he pours it in your fake flower pot instead, what will you think? Either that he is so, let’s put it gently, dim-witted that he didn’t even understand what the sink was, or more damning, he did it on purpose as a malicious deed. Either way, the guy who didn’t follow the “obvious” and “common sense” instruction isn’t looking good. He’s either evil or ignorant.

We do the same with the Christian story. Armed with the belief that Christianity is “obviously true” (or that evolution isn’t), when people just don’t buy it, we implicitly (and sometimes explicitly unfortunately) make them out to be evil or ignorant.

Now, what about this wouldn’t give people the impression that we are intolerant, judgmental, and arrogant.

On Gay Boy Scouts & My Christian Faith

As the Boy Scouts just decided to allow gay scouts but will still keep the ban on gay scout leaders, first of all, let me just say it takes guts to make a decision that doesn’t fully satisfy the desires of either side.

I know that many of my fellow Christians will immediately begin their ban on Boy Scouts for approving of such blatantly sinful behavior.

But let me say, regardless of your position on the sinfulness of gay sex: until the Boy Scouts of America ban every boy who openly sins, this is the most Christian decision they could have made. That is, if standing for justice and fairness is included in what it means to be Christian. If not, well then, I am not sure I want to be one.

And then there is that nagging question: why does someone sins disallow them to belong to a group?

Ironically, in the same chapter of Leviticus Christians use to show that homosexuality is an “abomination” to God, we have this: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34)

Even those idol-worshiping (<–that’s a sin condemned hundreds of times throughout the Bible by the way) foreigners were to be loved as though they were God’s chosen people. If you are so convinced that the Boy Scouts are a Christian organization who should live by Christian principles, then perhaps we should acknowledge them as “aliens living with us.” We do not kick them out. We do not go find a new land. We live among them and love them as ourselves.

To be honest, I am typically embarrassed to admit how much time I spent as Boy Scout, doing those, let’s admit it, somewhat dorky things we Scouts did. But today, I am proud to be a Boy Scout and am proud that their Christian foundations led them to this decision.

Creating with the Creator

I have been wrestling with what it means for God to be Creator. According to my reading of Genesis, this does not mean that God creates something out of nothing but that he creates order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes. Creativity, in this sense, is redemption.

So, what does it mean to be created in this God’s likeness? Perhaps, yes perhaps, it means we were born to create. And perhaps being creative is deeper than just being good at art. Maybe creation is about redemption, taking ashes and making something new.

There are two lies I hear often enough that I must consciously refuse them:

First, that we are not all creative. As a Christian, I cannot believe this. We are creative if we are human because we bear the image of the Creator. We are creative if we take pain and create joy, take material loss and create relational abundance. Of course, this is what art does. It takes a mess of paints, canvases, personal stories, and creates beautiful portraits. It takes strings, words, heartbreak or triumph, feelings and fingers, and creates music.

Second, being creative is a waste of time. Perhaps, yes, in a cultural narrative obsessed with efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line, being creative is a waste of time. But that is a narrative in which people are workers for profit and working for men, not co-creators. But if God is the Creator, then we are workers for redemption and working for the Creator. If we are working for money and out of fear, then yes. But if we are working for relationships and redemption, then there is nothing more fruitful to be done with our time than to be creative.

It is no accident that both the Exodus and the promise of return from exile are filled with creation language, reminiscent of Genesis’ account of chaos, power, order, and beauty. There is a deep connection between Creation & Redemption, Creator & Redeemer.

I do not want to live in a story where being creative is a waste of time and where we are not all creative. And if part of God’s task is, in every generation, to subvert dehumanizing narratives, those among us who own their creativity might have a few things to teach the rest of us who only reluctantly, and uneasily, admit the image we bear.

The Violence of Understanding

One hangover our culture has from modernity is the belief that the only way to achieve positive things in the world is by having an accurate view of the way things really are.* It seems like our churches, educational systems, and even the worldview of the so-called New Atheists all rely on this image of thought. Again, I find it ironic that Church Leaders and the New Atheists seem to obey the same logic.

To put it in Zizek terms, understanding the world as it really is, is the fundamental objet petit a, the “if only,” of American life. With a commitment to the view that “if only we understood as it really is,” the world would be better, comes “the world won’t be a better place until we reach the top of the mountain of understanding.”

This seems to be why New Atheists are so angry at religion. Religious people’s faulty understanding is keeping us from a better world. But that presupposition privileges the solution in a way that doesn’t seem warranted, cutting off all possibilities to see the multiplicity of solutions that are by-products of the process itself. It makes understanding some sort of savior.

This is why we privilege truth, as though it, and only it, will lead us to freedom. But propositions necessarily always and already inhere within the mind only. It is poor logic to assume that just because we understand the world, that something happens to make that world a better place. That is, there is an assumed mechanism between the truth of a proposition and a corresponding reality, one that has ethical implications. It’s like putting a quarter in a vending machine. The proposition is the quarter. The getting what “is best” (in reality, what we want or think is best) is the product that comes out of the vending machine, “in real life.” But where is the button? And where is the finger that pushes the button? People often assume that a propositional statement has within itself this mechanism, that it is the quarter, and the button, and the finger, and the relation, all in itself.

But that has not proven to be the case. Instead, our understanding is an insatiable appetite, a quest for control that limited human beings will never conquer.

So my, along with many others, modest request is that we must abandon the project of understanding the world as it really is, a violent project by definition, and begin to relate ourselves to the world, so that understanding is subject to a higher goal, that of the relation. The most important thing we can do as humans is not understand the world, but relate to it.

What do you think?

*Warning: heavy philosophy language. I am working at being less critical and more constructive. But in so doing, I have to go through the process of working it all out in philosophy-land before I begin translating it into everyday-speak. These ideas will show up again again but hopefully they will be more and more clear as I process. Thanks for bearing with me!

Help for the Bohannon’s

I studied at Westminster Seminary with Steve Bohannon. We were there during a pretty polarizing time with people taking sides and politics superseding friendships at every turn. Steve, on the other hand, was incredibly generous and gracious, even to those with whom he disagreed. He was always an attentive listener and quick to lend a hand.

But what amazed me more, was how he still lived out these things in the midst of a tough situation at the Seminary and an even tougher situation at home. His wife had been battling brain cancer. Since 2009 April Bohannon has had 4 occurrences and has defied the odds and beaten them all. She was just diagnosed with another occurrence and plans to beat it again, but they need our help. Their insurance doesn’t fully cover the procedure she needed and now they have medical bills they can’t pay.

Many of us who know Steve & April, including my friend Peter Enns, are doing what we can to support them through this time. If you’ve been looking for ways to help fellow Christians or just fellow human beings, I hope you’ll consider it as well. Just go to the link below, read more about their story, and donate if you can. Thank you all and I hope to get back to writing soon!

http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/help-for-the-bohannons/59279