The Conversion of Han Solo

Following the release of the new Star Wars poster and trailer last week, a lot has been made of the various details contained therein.  Most often, questions about the place and role of Luke Skywalker are the ones that rise to the surface.

Han-Solo-changed-view-of-Jedi-and-ForceWhile interesting, there’s a much more intriguing motif running through the preview that has me (and others) thinking.  As you can see in the photo I’ve included here, it has to do with Han Solo.  While in the first Star Wars film he’s a brash young hero ready to reject supernatural beliefs in favor of his own abilities, it seems that his view of the universe has changed.  Now, after his experiences, he readily admits the world is more complicated.  He has embraced a new reality, if you will.

This kind of conversion motif, if you will, also marks the trailer’s conclusion, as a voice speaks to one of the characters, saying: “The Force is calling to you.  Just let it in.”  Likely a call to enter the Jedi life, this invitation was immediately reminiscent of nothing less than an old-school altar call.  Replace just a few words in that invitation and you’ve got a Billy Graham meeting.luminous-beings-we-are-not-this-crude-manner

The first Star Wars trilogy clearly borrowed from Eastern mysticism as well as Gnostic thought.  Dualism, pantheism, etc.: these were all philosophical and religious ideas that George Lucas borrowed (to great effect) in the films.  Though other themes and ideas could likely be perceived (think of Darth Vader’s last minute “salvation” here), the Force was understood deeply though the lens of Eastern thought as per Yoda.

I wonder, though, if the next film will borrow its broadly religious/philosophical ideas more heavily from a Christian or other conversion-based narrative.  Talking about conversion raises some interesting questions–perhaps most notably whether or not people really ever change.  I’m interested in seeing what the filmmakers have put together, and what opportunities for popular reflection and conversation such efforts may entail.

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Matthew 19

“When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” -Matthew 19:25

“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn’t you say?” -Captain James T. Kirk

graveIn the part of the church world in which I serve, it is not uncommon to refer to someone’s entry into the Christian faith as “getting saved.”  Though years of seminary have made me often refer to this as “becoming a Christian” or “converting,” there is something powerful about the starkness of this vernacular phrase.

Thinking about crossing the line one faith and getting saved illuminates some things. It points to a human need for salvation, the possibility and path of salvation, and the reality that there may be someone or something that can actually do the saving.  Here in Matthew 19 the disciples wrestle with such topics.  They hear Jesus talk about the difficulties of the rich entering Heaven and they begin to wonder if anyone can be saved.

The question of eternity and our own personal final destinations are, in many ways, never far from us.  One accident, one medical situation, one moment of stupidity or violence, and life can be gone.  Understandably, most people prefer not to dwell on the inevitable for very long, focusing instead on other things.  Death stalks us all, in otmaxresdefaulther words, so there’s no use whining about it.

The matter of who can be saved from death is not just a Christian one.  Nor is it a necessarily religious one.  Confronting the inevitable end of this life is something that human beings deal with variously: via science, medicine, distraction, philosophy, and, of course, religion.  The answers we choose to embrace are different, but the fact that such answers are needed in the first place points to one reality: this life will one day be over.

We know, that–all things being equal–we will die, both as individuals and as a human race.  If science is our only guide, we must accept that this world will eventually end, whether by human hand or natural occurrence.  Even if we manage the planet in the best way possible, the sun will go nova in five or six billion years.  And if humanity survives that?  Well, eventually the universe may come to its conclusion with a “big smash” of all there is collapsing together or via a “cold death” in which entropy wears out all the potential energy of everything.  A bang or a whimper, it seems.

Not too optimistic, huh?  Picturing both the eventual end of everything and my own life’s countdown is, well, depressing.  salvation1If death is the end of consciousness and being, well, that’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.  And if death actually takes us to an eternity either forever separated from our true home with God or eternally present in communion with God, that’s profoundly emotion-inducing as well.

I say all of this to remember that the question of “who then can be saved?” is not just a question for preachers.  It is a human question.  Whether death is a hard stop on our existence or entry into a plane the reality of which has eternal consequences, it can be a scary thing.  No matter what we think happens after death, it seems hardwired in us not to want to die.  Death is wrong, somehow.  It is an enemy.

Despite what the perceptible patterns of this brokedown world and our faltering bodies say, “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).  As a Christian, I know that God has made a way for life beyond death in Jesus Christ, and it is not just available for me but all who believe and accept it (John 3:16).  I offer this as the answer for all people, even as I’m well aware that not all accept this.

Here’s a question I’m interested in, then: what about those of you who aren’t Christians or who aren’t even particularlythese-eternal-questions concerned with matters of faith?  Honestly and humbly, I want to know how you approach death.  What do you think about it?  How do you deal with it?  Do you ever ask yourself how you might be saved, either from the sheer extinction of being or as you move into eternity?  As death is a common human experience, I think these are legitimate and real questions around which we could dialogue. If you’re interested in sharing, I really want to know what you think about death and end of life: how you approach it, what you believe, and why you choose to believe that as opposed to other answers.  For those who may participate, thank you in advance.

Matthew 13

“A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

-Jesus (Matthew 13:3)

seed-sower-jeremy-samsIn one of the most famous of his parables, Jesus tells us about a person who sows.  Seed that is distributed ends up in a lot of different places.  The results are diverse.

Simple and oft-cited, this parable provides its readers/hearers with a lot of different imagery with which to wrestle.  On top of that, Jesus even takes the time to explain the story to his disciples.  But I’m not concerned with these details this morning.  Instead, I just want to focus on one picture: the sower.

Jesus doesn’t really spend much time here identifying the sower as such.  The text basically associates the image with those who share the message of the Kingdom of God.  So that’s Jesus.  That’s the disciples.  That’s Christians all throughout time.  That’s me too.

I’m not an expert in farming, but it appears that what the sower is doing here is not some scientific process of planting, but rather an almost casual dispersing of seed all along the ground that has been prepared.  There is method to it, but it is not overly defined by method.  It is sowing.

As the farmer proceeds, seed falls everywhere.  I don’t know what the personality of such a person is like, but I rather picture it as joyful.  Almost whimsical, if you’ll allow it.  There’s serious work to do, yes.  It will take a lot of time to sow this seed, yes.  But: the day is full and the wind is at their back.  And they can’t wait to see what this seed will turn into.  The worries of irrigation, weeding, harvesting?  That’s all for another day.

I think I’d enjoy being a sower.

I realize that my mental picture of this first-century agricultural worker probably won’t pass exegetical or cultural-historical tests, but all the same I like to imagine the sower smiling and singing asTheSower their task unfolds.  It is a good work, and they have a real part to play in it.

I suppose I see the sower in this light because it is how I want to picture the Christ follower as called to share the Kingdom of God.  Not worrying incessantly about the science of seeds but simply focusing on fulfilling a purpose: sharing the very good news that is Jesus Christ.

There is a time for strategies and planning, of course.  But there also needs to be a time for the joy of sowing.  A reminder too, that at the end of the day we don’t make seeds germinate and turn them into crops.  Only God gives Creation that ability.  We are just along for the ride.  And what a ride it is.

Reformation

Martin-Luther-Updates-His-BlogOn this Reformation Day, we remember that episode–now nearly five hundred years ago–when Martin Luther formulated and posted a list of disputations against some of the practices of the Church.  Though what eventually came to be known as the Protestant Reformation has a number of contributing factors, the life and actions of Luther (including this somewhat inauguratory one) are certainly among the most important.

Now nearly half a millennia from that moment, the legacy of the Reformation is all around us.  The Protestant Church is a well-established aspect of world Christianity. And, in the intervening centuries, the Roman Catholic Church itself has changed from the form it took during the days of Luther.  For all the bumps along the road–and the problematic features of Luther and other reformers–persistent alterations have resulted with regard to how Christians live their faith, understand God, and read the Bible.a0a59bf23908fdab7a893f9b595d8b10

The Reformation of the 1500s is over, of course.  It has been for a long time.  The circumstances of that era no long stand and we practice our faith in a new day.  Yet even as we live in the 21st century the Reformation poses an open question.

It goes without saying that we are not perfect.  The Church must face its inner problems as it looks to the Scripture and asks itself whether or not it truly embraces the Word of God or not.  Christianity, after all, is made up of fallible and sinful human beings.  It stands to reason that we will mess things up, given enough time.  Structures, habits, programs, and practices may end up obscuring the gospel today just as they did in Luther’s time.

Marking a Reformation Day, then, should never be a moment of simple backward gaze or a only the rehearsing of timeworn sola‘s.  It needs to mean something more.  It needs to stand as a reminder that we humans tend towards chaos.  That there is work to do as we seek to be people of the Word and live that Word in the world.  That there are ways in which we may have not been faithful and in which we may need to change.

120a12b703bcdd69ecd86e5e755552f4On this day of Reformation the Church needs to ask itself if it has let tradition, custom, and even doctrinal systems guide it in ways that Christ has not.  There should be questions about whether our theology and its implications are biblical or not.  We need to ask ourselves whether the ways in which we are interacting with others is truly Christian or something else entirely.  And then, of course, there needs to be the courage to actually change.  This isn’t just a task for 2014; it is the call to Christians of all eras.

My Reformed friends have a saying that I like: ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda.  In English this means “the Church always reformed, always reforming.”  Our sinful tendency, given enough time and independence, is to not be conformed to Christ.  The meaning of the Reformation is that we must be.  Always.

The Church in Tragedy

Marysville_WAAround lunchtime on Friday, many of us in the Pacific Northwest–and the nation-at-large–paused from the usual course of our workday, interrupted by a tragic and far too common occurrence.  Reports flooded in of yet another shooting in one of our schools.  We who live near Seattle paid even closer attention, for the situation took place not “out there” somewhere, but in our very backyard.

By now the story is widely disseminated: a high school student in Marysville, Washington (about 45 minutes to an hour north of Seattle) begin shooting students during lunchtime.  In the end he took his own life, but not before fatally wounding two and leaving others in serious condition.  The tragedy is yet another in a growing list of episodes of school violence that continues to mar our society.  That is bad enough.  When it happens only 40 minutes from your front door, it is terrifying and heartbreaking all the more.

Watching the newsfeed at midday on Friday, I was struck by the professionalism of law enforcement and caution with which they were operating.  I watched video of students being shepherded away from danger.  I wondered what it would be like to live in their shoes.  I pondered the fear that must have been flowing through their minds.  As I did so, I realized that I’d have to teach a class called “Introduction to Youth Ministry” in less than an hour.  2014-10-25T024516Z_1_LYNXNPEA9O014_RTROPTP_2_USA-WASHINGTON-SHOOTING

Whatever lecture was planned for the day took a backseat as we prayed for the students, families, and community of Marysville.  We spent time talking together about our thoughts and reflections as people called to serve students.  What would we do?  How could we serve in a situation like this?  What does ministry look like in the face of such horror?

As we prayed, processed, and reflected, I shared a few thoughts with my students (now likely embellished by a few days’ reflection).  I reminded them that as ministers in communities affected by such tragedy, our presence with people is important.  As we are in that place our ability to listen is vital.  So often we pastors are talkers and fixers and doers.  Helpful at times, but in the face of chaos that is beyond our ability to repair, these tasks must take a backseat to helping people express their feelings and process their shock and grief.

It has been heartening to see an example of the faith community being present and serving the community in Marysville.  On the same day as the shooting, a vigil was held at The Grove Church, where many came together to sort through their pain, sorrow, and questions in the house of worship.  Even in our sometimes post-Christian America, the ability for our churches to function as places where people can have such space persists.  Over the weekend I saw a short video report from their pastor:

Of course, a little video and a candlelight vigil doesn’t change what has happened.  It doesn’t end the process of grief.  It doesn’t fix everything.  But it is a beginning.  Serving as the Grove Church and others are in their community can mean being with the people whom God loves and listening, questioning, praying, and crying with them.  As their local high school will remain closed all week, the church will be open as a place for students to come and seek safety, healing, and a listening ear.  In the face of a tragedy like this that reminds us there is so very much we cannot repair, I believe what they are doing represents an important Christian orientation.

In the ability that The Grove Church and others have to be a place for people to grieve, meditate, question, and hope, I am reminded of a profound moment from the Gospel of jesus_wept_featureJohn.  It takes place right in the midst of the story about Lazarus, who has died.  In a tiny little verse we are reminded that as our Lord confronted the reality of death and the emotional pain that it brings, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  Knowing that God weeps with us in our sorrow is of inestimable value to me in moments like these.  And knowing that His tears are not in vain can give us hope to look ahead.

May we pray for Marysville and its schools, families, churches, parents, and students as we continue to ask that “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.”

Jennifer Lawrence the Theologian

JENNIFER-LAWRENCE-JON-STEWART-618-618x400By now, most people are aware of a recent episode involving actress Jennifer Lawrence and others.  Basically, personal iCloud accounts were hacked and private nude photos of famous stars published on the Internet.  These images were never meant to see the light of day, and their distribution on such a wide scale has often been called a “scandal.”

Just yesterday, Lawrence responded to the situation in an article in Vanity Fair.  She spoke directly:

“It is not a scandal. It is a sex crime…just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this.”

She’s right, of course.  Such photos were never meant for public distribution.  They represent a violation of her privacy and constitute an unwanted public invasion into her life in a way that took matters out of her control.  She didn’t have a choice whether or not the world would see these photos.  She has become unwitting and unwilling pornography in a digital world where such things never go away.

From the Church’s point of view, the question of pornography has taken on increasing importance with the rise of the Internet.  Many people (including an unfortunate number of ministers) have found themselves caught up a culture heretofore relegated to the seedy shop on the other side of the tracks.  Addiction is a serious word, but for some if not many pornography has become a kind of drug.

The Church, often focusing on those caught up in the cycle of addiction and shame, has rightly addressed the issues of sin, purity, and faithfulness that are involved with pornography.  Words like “moral failure” get tossed around as a euphemism for some of what is happening.  This is all fine and good as far as it goes, but I think that a situation like Jennifer Lawrence’s reveals that such a view of sin is far too limited and–dare I say–selfish.  Pornography and the TIME-JENNIFER-LAWRENCEaccompanying objectification of women is not just a problem for the man who “dirties” himself and gives into lustful thoughts and actions.  It is a sin against the subject of those pornographic thoughts as well.

The Atlantic has an interesting article that clarifies Lawrence’s concern as being one of consent.  She never had a say about whether these photos would be made public.  In this way she was violated.  Consider: it would be a transgression of sorts for any of her private photos to be published online; that they were nude photos makes it much, much worse.

I would agree with the Church that everyone (let’s be honest, mostly men) who has been viewing those images to satisfy their own lusts has been sinning.  You’ll get no argument from me there.  But the sin doesn’t simply stop at a person making themselves guilty.  It also means that we’ve sinned against this woman.  Violated her privacy.  Gone against her wishes.

Such considerations go beyond photo-hacking, however.  They have to do with a whole culture of objectification.  While publication of private nude photographs is one of the worst examples of this, living in a world that often values people for how “cute” or “hot” or “sexy” they are offers implicit and potentially pseudo-pornographic objectification everywhere we turn.  How many friends have we seen on Facebook post pictures of themselves looking for positive feedback? How many times have we simply commented how good they looked and left it at that?

So even in those instances where people seem to “share” themselves of their own free will via the selfie, magazine cover, or photo shoot, I would submit that at least some of this is because our culture has told us this is the way to be.  Made it a mark of value and worth.  Indicated to us that this is how you know you’ve arrived.  It is an alluring lie.  But it is a lie nonetheless.  I’m well aware that there is a school of thought in which volitional expressions of female sexuality and celebration of the body by choice is a way of pushing back against a society that robs women of agency.  Yet to do so in the same way the offense comes makes me wonder if the dynamic has really changed that much. (For more on this re: Jennifer Lawrence, read the Atlantic article referenced above.)

The-Hunger-Games-Mockingjay-–-Part-1-Jennifer-Lawrence-7In the end, I hope that a situation like Lawrence’s shows us that sins of lust, the use of pornography, and the like do not belong in some dark and private personal category.  Why?  Because they are sins not just in our heart alone; they are sins against a fellow human being.  Whether such images or actions are available for all to see because of a person’s overt decision or not, it is still all symptomatic of a world that removes agency from the individual and places it in the hand of the consumer.  You don’t have to have your iCloud photos stolen to be trapped in the world of objectification.  Sometimes that world can lead people to objectify themselves because that’s the only option it appears to permit.

I’ll bring this to a close with the words of Lawrence herself:

“Just the fact that somebody can be sexually exploited and violated, and the first thought that crosses somebody’s mind is to make a profit from it. It’s so beyond me. I just can’t imagine being that detached from humanity. I can’t imagine being that thoughtless and careless and so empty inside…Anybody who looked at those pictures, you’re perpetuating a sexual offense. You should cower with shame.”

When it comes to pornography, it isn’t just about the wrong we did.  It is about the people we’ve wronged.  With Lawrence that wronging is much more obvious and direct, but it doesn’t change the numerous ways in which we devalue others and keep our world–defined by supply and demand–locked in such a destructive pattern.

On the Multiplicity of Religious Intelligences

orlando-espinosa-seven-kinds-of-smartThis week in my “Discipleship and Spiritual Formation” course we are discussing the theory of multiple intelligences.  The idea that there are, as one book claims, Seven Kinds of Smart makes good sense to me as I look out at the world.  People simply process things differently, with some naturally favoring certain ways of learning and thinking over others.

As laid out, the seven basic intelligences are: verbal, visual, musical, logical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.  To this list two or three others are sometimes added.  But even by looking at just these seven, one can see the rather wide diversity that can exist.  (If you’re interested, take a little online test here or here.)

Educationally, of course, the existence of multiple intelligences is both a great reminder and a definite reminder.  It helps guide us to be more understanding of those we teach and their particular thought patterns.  Yet it also means that much of the structure of traditional education is so heavily focused on a few of these intelligences that it can leave others by the wayside.  By favoring the logical and verbal over the others, we imply that those intelligences are best and subsequently ignore the profound ways that people think and learn in other areas.

At some level my thoughts about the intelligences and the process of discipleship follow a similar pattern.  Like most educational models, we in the Church can too often favor certain means or methods of conveying the content of the gospel, the teachings of the Scripture, and the basic tenets of the faith.  As I first considered the problem, I reflected on the fact that churches–like schools–can often be very “word-heavy.”  After all, just look at how long we spend on things like the sermon in our corporate time togetMultiple-Intelligence-wordleher.  For those whose intelligences are different, this is an issue and a clarion call to change our ways.

In thinking more about the intelligences, however, I’m beginning to come to a second conclusion.  For while it is true that church life can favor one intelligence or the other, I don’t believe I can claim that “all churches” do this in the same way.  As a matter of fact, I’m sure they do not.  Some denominations, for instance, may be very big on the sermon.  They spend an hour or more each Sunday expounding the Scripture through oral presentation.  This is a verbal approach if ever there was one.

But what about congregations in the charismatic tradition?  There the sermon has its place, no doubt, but so too does the kinesthetic, musical, and intrapersonal by means of participatory and emotive forms of worship.  And if you’re Presbyterian or Reformed, it may be that theological reflection favor logical intelligence.  A Catholic or Orthodox church with its stained glass, icons, liturgy. and genuflexing may very well favor the kinesthetic and/or visual approach, while the laid-back fellowship and mutuality of a non-denominational hipster/emergent church would very much fit the mold of the interpersonal approach.

196372-new-mass-translationAs I think about the intelligences and modern church life, I am fascinated by the ways in which they come together in the various ways that we live our religious lives.  While above I have clearly painted with a broad and somewhat stereotypical brush, it is still the case that different congregations and denominations can and do favor certain ways of thinking over others.  While on the one hand this can be a reminder that each of these churches needs to be aware of the other kinds of “thinkers” in their midst, it also says something else.

People sometimes ask why the Church is so divided into so many different groups.  Indeed, why Christianity is denominational rather than organizationally united is a real stumbling block for some.  It simply doesn’t seem right.  And insofar as such division can lead to recriminations, bickering, and malice, it is most definitely not.  While I believe legitimate theological differences do exist, this is no excuse for all those who adhere to orthodox Christianity not to exist in cooperation with one another even while maintaining their own denominational distinctives.

All this to say that while theology matters, I think that a major and often obscured reason that so many different churches and denominations exist is that people live and express their faith in ways quite similar to the multiple intelligences.  If one is emotive-intrapersonal, a certain kindimages of church life makes sense.  A logical or verbal person may choose another group altogether.  For the visually intelligent among us, another religious experience is preferable.

Christianity, therefore, while united in Christ, might be expressed and lived out in subgroups of believers not simply or perhaps even primarily because of theological disagreement, but because our spiritual intelligences are simply different.  Denominations could simply be a sign of our unique ways of processing the truth of God rather than–as often perceived–a sad sign of Christian division.

  It’s an optimistic vision, surely.  But it does point to some interesting truths.