Flights of Faith

Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting Myself on a Blank Page

In case you didn't know, I'm entering Yale's Divinity School in a week or two. I plan to get a three year M.Div degree with a concentration in Theology and Ethics, Theopraxis. The dream is to be a writer and church laborer who is invested in a New Haven org at the conclusion of YDS. The prayerful post-YDS consideration is whether I should get a JD to do human rights and civil rights law, something I grow more passionate about each and every day. Rewinding back to the present, I had to write a student bio for a yearbook and a few essays for a course taught by Miroslav Volf and Former Prime Minister Tony Blair called "Faith and Globalization." Thought I'd share them with you. My on paper presentations of myself are a bit quirky and non-traditional so be prepared.

First, the bio:

I am excited to continue the journey of my twenty two year old life at Yale Divinity School and in the New Haven area. I have been encouraged and challenged by the time I've already spent in this city of dramatically engineered opposites. It is a tension I have felt most of my life as a black kid living in Iowa, a dreamer living in reality, and a soul contained in a body. Thankfully, I am aware of the process of reconciliation that is found in Christ. I am trying to follow that path to freedom every day.

Then, the description of the course.

This course will explore a set of issues concerning the public roles of religious faiths in the context of globalization. Students will explore (1) the nature, extent, and causes of the global resurgence of religious faiths;(2) cases from various spheres of life in which faiths serve as oppressive or violent forces and cases in which faiths contribute to human flourishing; and (3) the conditions under which robust religious allegiances can constructively be employed in the pluralistic environments of an increasingly interconnected world. By the end of the course, students will be able to express how faith traditions and globalization may influence each other and why understanding this mutual process is important in the twenty-first century.

In 200 words or less, describe your qualifications to participate in this course.

To the Jew, I became a Jew. To the weak, I became weak. If they are with the Law, then I will be with the Law. If without, then I am without. Paul of Tarsus set a fascinating model for cross cultural interactions and evangelism. Effectively demonstrating solidarity with differing communities, Paul was able to reveal Christ not as foreigner; instead, Paul presented him as a relevant Savior to any and every group. I’ve often looked up from my Bible only to find myself dizzy at how different the church seems today. We are mired in our differences and have effectively selected isolation as our solution. As an African American who grew up in the 97% white state of Iowa, I have been a lifetime student of these differences and of the vast similarities that present an escape for us all. This “real life academia” has equipped me with a desire never to make my scholarship something that exists in a vacuum. As I realized how much of a stretch it was for some to call me neighbor, I began to push my own definition to navigate a reverse middle passage and fling myself out of American notions to see a world of neighbors in need either from their humble cries or their proud shouts of dominance. As the world spins, I still myself. Jesus, make me relevant to a world you have saved. My eagerness and passion to listen to His answer is my best qualification for this course.

In 300 words or less, describe how participating in this course would promote your intellectual and vocational goals.

I’ve often imagined a simpler world. Sometimes, a village. In it, I would finally be able to do what I daydream: love as I would want to be loved. Naively though, I erase that path, the one out of the village where no has ventured before. As soon as I became a member of the village, I would itch to explore that path. It’s part of who I am: an adventurer. Maybe seeing the world via 24/7 news channel and a web that covers the world is better. Everyone is my neighbor now. Jesus’ commands to my life would not change no matter the century, but my ethical response to my overwhelming ability to make a difference must change.

Thus, I need knowledge and guidance. This world is breaking, and I have given up on independent actions to salvage what I can see. Instead, I’ve ceased striving and I am learning to be directed by what I believe. In that same spirit, I seek to be directed by Professor Blair and Professor Volf to consider a deeper understanding of faith in this world as something that is publicly growing, a burgeoning second sight in a world whose gaze is often transfixed on the horrifying.

Most importantly, I want to continue to expand my reach to the areas beyond the trans-Atlantic coasts I studied heavily in college given my interest in slavery. From my time as a researcher in Australia, I realize that we must engage the East outside of a Western imagination of the world, something Australia has failed to do until very recently. We must build relationships without fear of ignorance while positioning ourselves as learners of culture and tradition. Similarly, I am eager to become a better student at interfaith dialogue and efforts that do not erase distinctions and religious truths but instead find common ground to mutually labor for shared goals. By accomplishing these things, I will hopefully leave your class confident in a world outlook of a global village that will increase the impact of my scholarship and my pastoring.

We'll see if I get into the class. Pray for God's will to be done.

Creator of the Universe, Hand Holder of the Godly

1 Corinthians 10:13 13No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

Philippians 4:13 I can do all things through Christ[a] who strengthens me.

2 Corinthians 12: 9 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

Psalm 37:23-24
The LORD directs the steps of the godly.
He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fail,
for the LORD holds them by the hand.

I was talking to someone yesterday about how "God doesn't give you more than you can handle." Nothing bad had happened, really. I was more talking about the awesome confidence we can gain from that. When we've got God, we have more than enough. I told him I was badly paraphrasing and that I'd look up the verse when I got home. I did. Google, however, had some other plans for me. Instead of just popping the verse(1 Corinth 10: 13) up, Google found a few sites that were talking about that phrase as a cliche and not necessarily Biblical. Once I read the verse, I realized where they were coming from. The sites mainly stressed the language of temptation rather than trial (though other translations use trial and some footnotes say the Greek for temptation/tempted can also mean testing/tested) and then said, of course, humans can be overburdened and feel like they have been given more than they can handle and that makes this cliche wrong...BUT we have God.

In that moment, I was really glad to have googled the verse. One because it made me search for some other verses that are really helpful, but it made something a bit clearer in the way Christians interact with the Bible and the world. I think the most important part of 1 Corinthians 10:13 is that God is the one who provides a "way out" and that we "stand" in God's strength. Paul repeats Christ's power in Phillipians 4:13. Paul, again, boasts in his weakness knowing that Christ's power covers them. If given to God, confessing weaknesses only makes one stronger because they now become a testimony to God's strength. Lastly, Psalm 37 provides a beautiful image of the Lord directing the godly (might seem very regal at first) by eventually saying the Lord holds us by the hand, a very parental image. When holding Christ's hand we may stumble, but we will never fall. After doing the Biblical research, I look back at the Christian cliche. I think I understand its danger, but I also recognize the truth that might come in the silent phrase that follows it. "God doesn't give you more than you can handle (because you have God)! While I think it's important to adjust how we use this expression, especially since Psalm 37 gives a much clearer picture, it was interesting to see people trying to disown it based on the failures of human instead of the awesomeness of God.

I was drawn a bit into thinking about a child-like faith. I just imagine the confidence of a young person with faith experiencing something sad and saying, "But God is here. Why would this all mighty all loving all knowing God abandon me just because I'm crying and just because I'm sad?" I just envision a child not being completely depleted spiritually before saying, "Oh. And I can use God." I think the strength of the verses I typed out along with the cliche (in its best moments) is that they allow you to have confidence, at all times, that God is supporting you as long as you see Christ as your Solution and the Strength you stand on.

In ways, I recognize the "BUT we have God" as a strange statement. It might be semantic; however, I found power in "We have God so..." to be indicative of a different sort of relationship with God, one that's actualized in good times and bad times. What if we could always remember God was holding our hand? What if instead of feeling like we're laying flat on the ground we recognized that Christ doesn't let us fall that far if we submit to Him and call on His Power? I wonder. Thankfully, we have verses like Psalm 37 to confirm we do not go it alone.

Christ holds our hands.
Guide us.
Show us the way.
Help us walk.
Never let us forget the Hands that we hold.

We pray this in Your name, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Acrobatics of a Christ Follower

As I walked down 42nd St. to Grand Central, the shout did not echo off the skyscrapers as much as it did my weary and confused spirit.

“I do not have the mark of the Beast!”

Pulse quickened. Eyes opened, not moved towards him. I remain locked in my thoughts.

“I do not have the mark of the Beast!”

New York City walks by and so do I.

He is quiet when I pass him. I would like to say it was just my eyes that refused contact.

I asked God to encase my body with Himself at some point through the night. And I know he did not fail. What is wrong with me? Why do I break myself?
I constantly crack the statue I never can become.

At one point in time, I wanted to be a pillar. Maybe I still do. Simply a source of strength for something bigger than itself. I wanted to be dutiful and still, not grappling with the distraction of options. It would be living by a commandment, finally obeying.

However, I was not called to be that kind of pillar. Given my passions and my talents, I think God consistently calls me to new things while expecting me to master the old with Him. He requires me to demonstrate my flexibility. Ultimately, it means I strike poses and wait for Him to carry out the acrobatics. He lifts me up, breaks me out of my stillness.

When you feel Your maker move you, you understand more of a radical peace that is practiced as opposed to given. Oh Lord, how I desire to move.

I’ve posed, silent and still. Just waiting for You to move me, Lord. I realize this breath I take grants me another chance to get closer but, Lord, sometimes, I feel myself slipping away.

The temptation of sin paralyzes me and in my avoidance of the sin I am thinking specifically about, I end up sinning in a way I had not seen coming. Why do I fall so easily? I am grateful for Your fingers that catch me, yet I separate myself from You only to recreate a lesser version of what You offer.

24What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24)

Here I am, bent downwards, one knee touching the ground and the other leg lifted straight behind me. My body is lunged forward in an imaginary parallel line with my one leg. My arms connect the two lines, flowing backwards and stretching to my legs. My head looks upward, at You. Come into me and make me fly.

25Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:25)

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Jeremiah 29:4-7

4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the peace of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its peace you will find your peace.

Where are we? What cities are we in? I listened to this amazing sermon a few Sundays ago on this Jeremiah verse and some others. The pastor's point was that we cannot see our lives as transient points, As, Bs, and Cs. No more exit plans from what should be our cities. No more clamoring to leave New Haven. We have to be planted where we are. Of course, we can move if God's will calls us to pack our bags. But even as we approach our last weeks in our hometowns or summer spots, we need to remember that our commitment to God's people in that city should be strong. After all, it is someone's home even if we don't consider it ours. And then, there's New Haven. The place many of us will return to come late August. Do we call it home? Do we seek the peace of it? Violence has increased by 56% this Summer. Are we ready to accept that pain as our own? Can we invest in the city? Make lives in it? Or do we see it as a place of exile? Let's not let society or Yale or even fellowships to define our role in New Haven or our current city as a temporary resting spot, a place to do guarded service that meets in gated courtyards, or simply soup kitchens where our charity is celebrated as if we were some heroes to the city. There is no truth to their celebration, just a pleasant reaction to a callous world.

This time last week I was watching The Dark Knight, a movie I find infinitely frustrating for many reasons. I'll articulate them at a later time. However, I have to admit that listening to this sermon on Sunday, God humbled me. As messed up as I think Batman is (and he is pretty messed up), Batman seeks the peace of his city. He does it alone. And on human strength. And with no regard for the whole of natural laws (not just avoiding the taking of life). We know better than to make those mistakes. Yet, the Caped Crusader offers himself up for the city. I don't do that. To be truthful though, the awful hopelessness of that movie inspired me to inject the hope of Christ into New Haven. If an 8 year old Christian boy or girl entered the Dark Knight and witnessed to any of the characters (alright, the Joker would be hard), then the entire movie would have changed its course. Christ's Truth is that powerful. So, a 22 year old man letting God act through him should have some impact, right? I hope so. I believe.

Psalm 125: 4

4 Even in darkness light dawns for the upright,
for the gracious and compassionate and righteous man.

Can we change our hearts? Yes. Can we change our cities? Yes. Not through capes or lies or the best out of brokenness. Only through Christ alone. Let's follow Him and seek His peace in all corners of our lives and our cities. All we have to do is let Him in. Accept His love over our brokenness, individual and collective. Let's keep transforming into what God wants us to be and not leave any areas behind.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Salt and Light Reveal Heaven and Hell

13"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

14"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

As some of you may know, salt was used to preserve meat back in the day. Light still shares its same purpose from Matthew's time 'til now. Preservers and Lighters. We are supposed to the carry the message of God, which makes all things new, and we are supposed to radiate in His light in order to attract others and not get cast into darkness ourselves.

What does this have to do with justice?
What does this have to do with judgement?
What does this have to do with Hell?


There is a logic we can use to derive Hell into existence. If there's a heaven... If God is good... Weren't we redeemed from...

It exists, and I acknowledge its reality.

However, we do not have to separate God's Love from His Justice in order to understand Hell. If we do, we take the risk of making Christianity like other world religions, which focus on the beginning and the end--not in the process of a personal Savior that we can listen to and obey, a personal Savior who IS the beginning and the end; but also, present right now.

God's Power and Authority give us freedom (Genesis 1:27-31; Genesis 2: 15-17). God's Love gives us boundaries (1 Corinthians 6:12; 1 Corinthians 8:9-13). God's Justice exposes and corrects our abuses to His boundaries. I think all three are intimately linked. God judges us because he loves us. Prophets were voices that were supposed to call people to God. And God's promise that there will be an end needs to be repeated as a prophetic call from all of us, so we don't fool ourselves into thinking this cycle of life and death will last forever.

Preservers and Lighters...what does that mean?

See, I'm of the belief that while the reasons of humanists, universalism, higher criticism, secular education might have something to do with the lack of belief in Hell. The biggest reason, in my opinion, would be the failure of Christians to preserve this Earth and shine Christ's light towards it.

How is that possible you say?

Because many people claim to be living in Hell right now. Just as you can logically argue that someone who believes in Heaven should believe in Hell, we can also logically argue that people who refer to their lives as Hell (even Hell on Earth) now, cannot have a proper understanding of what Hell really is.

And if we're called to preserve and to light up the world, then whose fault is that?
I'd say it's ours.

For some reason, our hope is not the current hope of the world as much as Jesus still remains our only hope. What's been lost in translation?

Is it the presence of a hell doctrine? Is it the lack of a hell doctrine? Actually, I think Hell is only a part of this problem.

If Christians cannot demonstrate the mercy shown on the Cross by Jesus, then ourselves and others cannot truly understand how we've been saved and what we've been saved from and what we've been saved into.

Don't get me wrong. Demonstrating mercy will involve Hell. But I guess I think that process might be less focused on the doctrine of Hell than on the real presence of Heaven and the real presence of Hell (discovered through the Word and the Holy Spirit acting in us) granting us a spiritual sight that can discern our priorities and can lead us to following the will of God. I think by invoking God's justice when He spurs us to do so, demonstrating mercy when we are sacrificing willfully, and by trying to love with all of the complexity and strength of Christ's love, we would connect to people's current locations of heaven (false pleasures? a place without fear? a place where they are recognized and appreciated?) and people's locations of hell (a sense of isolation? a state of immobility? a place of pain and suffering?) and show them Jesus, who gives us a CORRECT understanding of Heaven and Hell while giving us the security of an inheritance that shields us (1 Peter 1:3-9) and a command to resist the Devil and his ways (James 4:7).

It makes sense, right? If Christians are not fulfilling our God given description of being the Salt and Light of this world, then the world becomes that much more bleak, that much more gray, that much more indistinguishable from what Hell might be like. How can anyone understand the depths of Hell if not through grace? Jesus' grace and our echoes of it, the fulfillment of the commands He has given us (For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. Source: 2 Cor. 4:6) By fulfilling those commands, people will recognize Good and its absence.

13Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear[b]; do not be frightened."[c] 15But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 1 Peter 3:13-16 (for context continue 'til the end of the chapter)

If we boldly present the life of Jesus in word and deed, people will feel the stinging dissonance of Christ's ways and the ways of the world. People will know where they can find us, followers of the true God. They will understand more the choice they have before them: life or death. They'll have understood it because we took mercy on them and their ignorance of words, of terms that have value for us. A value that might have been abused earlier in their life. Hell is a word. Separation from Jesus is a shiver that we should feel, that should connect us to God's love out of thanksgiving, and should be shared so others can see something new with us. We must work through ignorance because people's lack of belief in Hell almost certainly is related to their yearning for God. And we are the laborers who can make those connections through loving and respectful interactions through our belief in Jesus.

Lastly, I think about Jesus' messages to people. And I see a lot of his discussions of Hell as merciful warnings for those following him and enjoying him as a human teacher alone. Hell became a way for them to realize that Jesus is not another teacher; instead, He's their Salvation from the wickedness of this world and the potential emptiness they could face in the next. Then, I wonder who in my life is celebrating the fruits I've received through faith without knowing the vine where I derive my source of Life? While everyone should know and fear Hell because I think that it can only be done properly by knowing the Godhead, I think those people receiving my fruits from Jesus are my direct responsibilities. For those people, me telling them about Hell through the story of Jesus and acts inspired by Him becomes a merciful act instead of one that unleashes the wrath of God without His love to go with it, something I think Christians have done too often in our 2000 or so years of history. This is something that we've all got to figure out for ourselves in terms of witnessing and ministry but this is just my (hopefully) Jesus-inspired take on it as it relates to my life experiences and others I've known. Hope it adds something to the discussion.

Words from our Savior:

1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:1-6)