Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 17

by Shannon Mayfield

Isaiah 58: 3-10:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
 Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, 
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

 A Theology that Works

Guy Clark wrote the song “Stuff That Works” about uncelebrated things in his life: an old blue shirt, an out of tune guitar, a pair of boots that fit just right, a used car that runs like a top. These, he said, constituted stuff that works. “Stuff that holds up. The kind of stuff you don’t hang on a wall. Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel, the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

Unremarkable and old and used. No cache. The kind of things anyone can have. Yet they stand in sharp contrast to new and showy things which, frustratingly, often do not work and do not hold up.

The people of Jerusalem worshipped and fasted in showy ways, practicing the kind of faith they could “hang on a wall,” for all to see. And they despaired that it did not impress God. In Isaiah 58, God pulls out the theological equivalent of Guy Clark’s list. Well worn. Time tested. Still effective.

These powerful verses point us, I think, toward the conception of a God who is not moved by pious displays. They tend to hit a little close to home as we labor over our lent commitments.

The ancient Israelites wondered why God was unimpressed as they fasted and wore ash. God seems to wonder why they bother with the form if the substance is so lacking. Why fast if only to justify yelling at one’s kids? Why smudge ash when simultaneously oppressing one’s employees. It’s all show and no go.

God spells it out for them, and us, in words that deserve always to be shouted or sung:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

A theology that works for us, in other words, is a theology that works on behalf of others. God does not wish for us to heap misery upon ourselves, but rather to alleviate the misery of those who can’t avoid it. Break the chains, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, open our homes to the homeless.

That, God says, is the stuff that works. Kind of old and threadbare as theology goes. It hasn’t been new and shiny for a very long time. It doesn’t get us noticed in the fancy places. But it just happens to catch the attention of the one we seek.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Stuff that works.

Prayer: Loving God, as we Christians use this season to develop skills to help us turn away from ourselves, let us remember that these are means and not ends. Let us approach them as exercises which build the muscle we need to break chains that oppress. Let fasting shrink our stomachs so that we might be satisfied with half a loaf and happy to share the other half. Let us rejoice that we worship a God who calls us not to suffer but to work joyfully to heal and reconcile. Thank you, God, for showing us through Oconee Street, a theology that works.

Lenten Devotional: Tuesday, March 6

by Jodie Lyon

John 19:30: “When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ ” 

It was, as Jamie Calkin might put it, a BOLD MOVE. It was 2004, and my small group decided to go see “The Passion of the Christ.” Everybody who loved Jesus that year made plans to eat popcorn while watching Mel Gibson’s graphic depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion. My parents’ tiny church even rented a bus to take congregants to a Sunday evening viewing. Sure, there were only 40 folks at mom and dad’s church on a typical Sunday, but the evangelical fervor over this film was high enough that even a church of that size could expect to fill an entire bus with eager moviegoers.

After a quick dinner at at a Mexican restaurant, my small group headed over to the theater. But when I got to the ticket counter, I bought a ticket to see “Love Actually” instead. Total rebel.

It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I knew I had no interest in watching an actor representing Jesus be beaten to a bloody pulp on a large screen. But my reluctance to sit through the bloodbath of a film wasn’t a popular one in my Christian community. My dad expressed sheer horror when I told him I had no desire to see the movie. He couldn’t comprehend it, and I thought I was going to have to help him pick his jaw up off the floor. My dad didn’t go to see movies generally, and he certainly didn’t see R-rated films, but this was a movie that no good Christian would miss. My decision to skip the movie was a potential signal of a lack of faith.

In reality, my choice to watch Hugh Grant and Colin Firth rather than Jim Caviezel was motivated by 1) the hotness of the former two (gotta be honest here) and, more importantly, 2) my frustration with the penal substitutionary theory of atonement upon which the movie was based.

I’d grown up with Mel Gibson’s framework for understanding Jesus’ death on the cross: God was angry with humans for our sin. This sin was deserving of God’s wrath and God’s punishment. In order to be “saved” and go to Heaven, humanity’s penalty for sin had to be paid and God’s wrath had to be appeased. Jesus took care of both obstacles on the cross-stepping in as a substitute for humankind, he endured the wrath and punishment for sin through the agony of flogging, crucifixion and death.

If this is your theological framework for understanding the death of Jesus, it makes sense to dramatically heighten the pain and brutality of the cross, as Mel Gibson did. Watching Jesus be beaten until his back is unrecognizable, we understand how serious our sin is and how angry God was at it. Seeing Jesus scream in unbearable pain, we feel overwhelming sorrow for how our sin caused the suffering of the innocent God-human. Viewed through the lens of substitutionary atonement, I appreciate what the film is doing. If you believe that Jesus took the wrath of God upon himself on the cross for your behalf, it’s only fitting that you force yourself to watch a representation of what this might have looked at played out in front of you in all its gory detail.  

But by the time 2004 rolled around, I had left this atonement theory behind for ones that painted God in less negative terms. I hadn’t lessened my view of sin, but rather heightened my view of God. God does not need to beat anyone senseless to get rid of anger. God does not even have to punish sin. God is greater than you or I, and can forgive the unthinkable and love the unlovable without requiring payment or an outlet for rage. By the time Gibson’s movie was released, I had discovered that this atonement theory that I had been always been told was the Christian understanding of the cross was a fairly late development in the history of Christian thought. I had found the richness of the Christian theological tradition and its myriad views of Jesus’ death, including some contemporary and progressive visions of the cross.

These alternate theories would probably be considered suspect by many of Gibson’s viewers. It’s often claimed that progressive theology attempts to bring God down to human levels, that we “liberals” want to make God in our own image rather than “letting God be God.” While that can certainly be true in some cases, in this case I think progressive theology’s rejection of substitutionary atonement is precisely a refusal to bring God down to our level of pettiness. A being who needs retribution sounds a lot like us. A being that has to assuage anger by taking it out on someone sounds suspiciously like us. Ironically, the conservative theologies that love to tout the power and majesty of God are often the very ones that render God impotent, claiming that God is hamstrung by cosmic rules of justice or held hostage to volatile, pent-up emotions.

The crucifixion was brutal; there’s no getting around that, and Gibson (from what I’m told) succeeded in artistically portraying that brutality. But I personally think the brutality can’t be the main point. God’s love isn’t in the violence, it’s in spite of the violence, because the violence is what we do, not what God does. The cross represents our wrath that God patiently endures, not God’s wrath finally appeased. It is about God’s willingness to dwell with humanity in our suffering, rather than God’s burning desire to inflict suffering upon us. And that is love (actually).

Prayer: Emmanuel, God with us, may your presence in our suffering turn us from our violence and vengeance, and inspire us to self-sacrificial love for others. Amen.

Lenten Devotional: Wednesday, March 11

by Jodie Lyon

March 11, 2015

Luke 22:14 “Father if you are willing, take the cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

The other night I had a slight meltdown.  Ok, my husband might not describe it as slight.  Whatever.  I got pretty upset while reading some quizzes.

I have two goals in teaching Christian theology to college students.  The first is informative and the second is transformative.  First, on a basic level, I want students to have a correct knowledge of the history of Christian theology.  Let’s know the facts about Martin Luther, not the myths.  But second, and more importantly, I want students to learn how to think better through their interaction with Christian thinkers.  Theology is all about critical thinking—evaluating ideas about God through the lenses of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and constructing doctrines that fit together as one coherent whole.  Whether my students are Christian or Buddhist or atheist, engaging theology can help them make better arguments.

I got upset reading some quizzes because I wasn’t seeing a lot of critical thinking.  What I was seeing was a simple case of students rejecting ideas they didn’t like for no good reason.  Of course, I don’t grade my students based on whether I agree with their viewpoints.  I grade them on whether they are able to offer support and evidence and argument for their position.  And in this case, I wasn’t getting arguments.  I was getting outright refusals to listen to what they had read.  I had a slight meltdown.  Ok, a medium meltdown.

Just breathe.  I have to remember that I was the same.  That I am the same.  

Was the sameI remember the time, in college, when I sat in Sunday School listening to a visiting biblical scholar with my arms crossed in front of my chest, refusing to reconsider my interpretation of a particular biblical text, despite the visitor’s vast knowledge of the subject.  I had no arguments in return, just my firm insistence that the way I’d been taught this text was right and he was obviously wrong.   

Am the sameI still read books with new ideas and experience the same stubborn anger that I felt as a college student in Sunday School.  I still pass hasty judgment on those who disagree with me.  They are not real Christians.  Me, and my side, we are the true believers.    

It shouldn’t surprise me as much as it does that change is hard for people, since my life has clearly demonstrated that it’s hard for me, too.  As humans, we have limitations.  We may be free to form our own opinions, but that freedom has its clear boundaries.  We’re products of our time, our culture, our family, our religion, our friends.  It’s hard for us to see the truth in things foreign to us, hard for us to see the error in things familiar to us.  The foreign is threatening while the familiar is comforting.  So we grasp at whatever we can to secure our positions of comfort.  I can’t blame my students for this—I do ittoo.  I’m as likely to be convinced by John Piper’s best argument as they are to be convinced by Marcus Borg’s best argument.  

This realization brings me to crisis mode sometimes.  So how can I teach?  How can I truly help people to see things in new ways?  I know I’m called to teaching, but I often feel inadequatein my ability to do it well.  The task is too large, God, please take it away.  I don’t want it because I can’t do it.  

It helps me to remember that neither, in a sense could Jesus, and he was God incarnate.  I’m not trying to be heretical here, but simply pointing out that Jesus didn’t convince everyone.  His sermons, his miracles, and his way of life didn’t appeal to the masses.  His attempts to get religious people to rethink the way they viewed God and viewed Scripture weren’t an overwhelming success.  Those attempts got him killed.  And Jesus, knowing the relative failure of his teaching ministry, and his impending death sentence, begged God for a way out.  

I’m with Jesus on this one.  I frequently beg God for another task, another mission, one that isn’t so hard.  It may seem overdramatic of me to say that, since I’m not marching toward a cross, just an ordinary school building, but that doesn’t mean the internal battle isn’t hard.  Or that God doesn’t care, or that my calling isn’t important.  We are called to different things, and for each of us, that calling comes with challenges. May we be like Jesus, and with God’s help, keep going despite those hardships. And may we always recognize our own humanity, so that we can forgive the humanity of others.

Prayer: As I fulfill what you have called me to do, O God, help me to be like Christ, who admitted his struggles and temptations to quit, but kept going, according to your will.  Amen.