Monday, June 20, 2011

Developing Cultures and The Presence of God

I made the comment a couple posts ago, that God goes to Burning Man. This was a simple observation in connection to the idea of a God Who is omni-present.

Now strangely, I have had a few Christians challenge the idea of going to Burning Man - as though participation in the event would somehow be opposed to the nature of the Gospel and God's Will. This is partly due to the exaggerations people believe about the event (note this Christwire spoof article, which highlights many of those exaggerations), partly due to the wildness of the event, but partly due to the fact that as Christians we often do not see God in developing cultures.

It is far too easy for us to see transitions in culture as enemies to tradition, and therefore also lacking God. If we truly believed that God was opposed to radical changes in culture, we might easily assume that God isn't going to be found at Burning Man - thus, God doesn't go there.

This mistake in logic is two-fold:

1) it assumes that God does not show up at places where sin occurs.
2) it assumes that developing cultures which have elements of licentiousness within them do not have expressions of the Gospel itself in their basic construction.

(I could add to the list of mistakes, but will not do so for simplicity's sake here.)

In response the first mistake: It almost seems silly to have to respond to it, but here we go. Everyone repeat with me, "Where sin abounded...." You do know the rest, correct? If not, please see Romans 5:20. We read that Jesus was a friend of drunks, prostitutes and sinners of all kinds. Yet somehow befriending people He befriended is wrong for us? Of course we do not sin in order to experience grace, yet where sin is grace shows up excessively. Doesn't the story of the woman caught in adultery teach us this?

In response to the second error: (There are too many negative responses to changing culture to fully cover this mistake in a quick post such as this, but here go a few thoughts.)

a) Change is a dynamic of life with God. Perhaps we should anticipate change in culture to have some elements of God built into it. The Reformation is a radical example of this. It was more than a theological revolution, it carried cultural changes as well.

b) because cultural revolution may have elements of excess it does not mean that everything within a developing culture is birthed out of selfishness, or a lust-drive. The radical acceptance, and the culture of "gifting" (neither buying nor selling, nor even bartering, but simply giving freely) is part of the culture of the week at Burning Man. If nothing else, this models the dynamics of grace better than anything I find in our capitalistic American culture today. Everyone pitches together to make art projects happen, to give food, and gifts and services of all sorts.

c) If we make the mistake of seeing nothing but the devil in a developing culture, we will make the same mistake that many missionaries have made in history. We will either lose the audience we hope to love, or we will change them so fundamentally that many of those changes will isolate them from their own culture, and harm them. In these times of radically changing culture it is necessary to find God in the developments. Seekers are looking for ways to find God and authenticity in cultural shift, and because of that God is there in the cracks between the shift.

d) believing that cultural change is wrong is tantamount to deifying our own culture. The Jesus I read about came to the culture of 1st century Israel and turned the culture of the religion upside down. His work was progressive enough to get Him falsely accused and executed. He was an iconoclast of His times, tearing down the idols of a culture which viewed itself as the culture of God.

This missional consideration is the philosophical background behind our art project Pillars of the Saints, which is a Burning Man art installation this year. It is our way of meeting God at Burning Man, and helping those who are seeking find what they are looking for. This is our last day for reaching our funding goal. You can help us reach that goal by visiting the Kickstarter fundraising site. Thanks.

Of course, this will necessarily lead to another post in which I look at God's position both outside of, and inside culture, because I do view God as transcendent to culture, and yet immanent and present within it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Salvation: from what?

Typically we (Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians) consider this issue of salvation as a deliverance from "the World, the Flesh and the Devil."

In this context "the world" is a reference to the a system of behavior, and authority running the program of history and being directed in some way by the devil, but also subjected to the problematic results of a curse put upon it after the Fall in Genesis 3.

Yet, Evangelical Christianity is more regularly considering the fact that the world is in need of being saved from not just the curse of the Fall, but of our poor use of it. So salvation is being viewed as encompassing the idea of Creation being saved from humanity, and our devastating impact upon it.

Then the idea of salvation as a deliverance from "the Flesh" is a clear denotating that Evangelical Christian theology views each and every human as needing to be saved from themselves. Slavoj Zizek (Lacanian-Marxist Theorist, atheist, and most popular of philosophers today) recently made the point that breaking the social barriers which create "untouchables" will not occur simply by elevating those untouchables to a position of "children of god" as many have been trying to do in India's caste system, but "the first step should rather be exactly the opposite one: to universalize their excremental status to the whole of humanity." (Living in the End Times pg. 23) He then references Martin Luther as an example of properly thinking through establishing an egalitarian ethic.

Before the promotion comes the demotion.

This is the heart of Evangelical soteriology. It is the core of the idea of repentance followed by acceptance by God and elevation to a noble status. This highlights the concept of being saved from ourselves. Yet it also places us in the tension of living between the sewage trenches and the palace. This is us being saved from ourselves.

Then the identification of an external enemy with malevolent designs enters the picture of this struggle of life and death. The world may be an external force, but it is stupid (unthinking, broken and failing in some kind of post-apocalyptic vision all around us.) We may at times be malevolent toward one another, and perhaps even toward ourselves, but salvation from self (the Flesh) is a far more difficult enemy to overcome, because as we typically discover in our struggles - we like Paul understand the tension of doing those things we don't want to do, and not doing those things we do want to do (Romans 7).

Yet, the third enemy, "the Devil", is an outside, personal, and malevolent force. That is how much of Christian theology views this part of the dynamic of salvation. We have an enemy and he has designs against us. Therefore we should be wary, and recognize that the World and the Flesh may at times become resources for the intelligent and malevolent designs of the Devil. He is trolling our lives, making accusations, and setting traps. Unlike the previous external unthinking, and internal forces this third purposely malevolent force appears to have no hope for salvation, and so there is no view of reciprocal evil being paid back to "the Devil" such as we find man in his destruction of the world. So it is, that in some way we are becoming like devils ourselves through activities which are like his own, and thus we need to be saved from him, and from becoming like him all at once.

This thing called salvation appears to have an all encompassing demand. There may nothing untouched from its reach into our lives.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

God Goes to Burning Man: Believing that God is There Before We Arrive

I am a Pastor.

I am going to Burning Man. Again. Yes, I went to Burning Man last year. And yes, I have theological justification for going there.

God is at Burning Man. He has been going since it's inception. So I thought I ought to go to Burning Man to find God, and I did.

God is in fact everywhere, and the understanding of this causes me to assume that God has already been to places I want to go, and has already been working with people I want to touch with his Gospel. This being the case I must assume that God has already expressed His love, communicated His passion, and made Himself known in some way to the people I come across every day.

This is my assumption in the city where I am a pastor - Salem, MA - yes, Witchcity USA! And I have found that this assumption has proven valuable to myself and our church over the course of the last 12 years.

So, if God has already been to the places he is sending me, it should inform my behavior towards the people I meet. These are just a few things I am aware of in my encounters with other people who attend large, sometimes strange spiritually directed festivals:

1) I assume that everyone has encountered God, whether they realize it or not, whether they define it that way or not.
2) Many weird beliefs people hold are an attempt to define their experiences with God.
3) many people do not know how to describe their encounters with God, and therefore I am sent as an interpreter of those experiences. (This might be the most powerful expression of the prophetic in our world today!)

This year I am leading a team of people to build an interactive meditation art project. This project is based upon the belief that God is already at Burning Man, and wants to communicate with people. We are merely making a place for people to listen for the Voice of the Spirit. We are also hoping to document this search for the Voice of the Spirit on video.

On the basis of the above point of faith and my 3 basic responses to it this art project is dedicated. May the God Who is Already at Burning Man, and already with all the people going to Burning Man be with us as we endeavor to be His interpreters of His Voice in our generation. Too big a task for anyone person. I am glad that God is starting the work, and simply allowing us to arrive with a stylishly late entrance.

Our project is called Pillars of the Saints. Well, and yes it could use financial support. There are 5 more days on the Kickstarter fundraising.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Feeling Bad for God, Dogfish Head, and Urine as Bad Medicine for Stingray Wounds

I've been feeling bad for God lately. Poor God gets a bad rap. Really. I mean it. I do feel bad for God.

I might not feel bad for God like I feel bad for an abandoned puppy, and certainly not like I would feel bad for Tsunami victims, or cancer patients. Yet I still find myself feeling bad for God - in a sort of "what did He ever do to deserve this?" kind of way.

Since before Easter I have been meditating on the subject of the "weakness of God," and "the foolishness of God." These were my topics for my sermon on Palm Sunday, and since then I have continued considering the topics.

The weakness of God, and the foolishness of God are not commonly referred to by many Christians, because it somehow seems blasphemous, and well, rather foolish to call God (the BIG God who created all things with the word of His mouth - the HUGE God who destroyed the earth in a flood - the AWESOME God who will one day judge all people - THAT God) foolish or weak.

But Paul talked about the foolishness and weakness of God, so I figured I would give it a shot. Then I wondered if he talked like that before or after he got shipwrecked, thrown out of towns, or was told that he would just have to put up with that thorn in the flesh. But, I still thought, well heck, he's an apostle and he talked about it, so I can think about it some, and maybe give a sermon a try too.

So, I'm still here. Even after May 21st and all that rapture talk. Haven't even had a fender-bender since then, let alone a shipwreck. Well, not yet.

So getting back to the subject. Thinking about the world, and all it's problems, and all these mad people who seem to blame God, and have been doing it for centuries, or I guess that would be millennia now: I thought that it sure seems like God has put Himself in a pickle. A pickle like in baseball: it seems that generation after generation someone, or more specifically lots of someones are trying to run Him down, and tag Him out.

This thought was highlighted in my mind this afternoon while talking with my buddy Mike. Mike is a good guy. He goes to a Catholic Church and has been teaching a Wednesday night bible study for 7 years, and teaching kids on Sundays, and he organizes a youth praise band. He and I talked about people who have struggled with questions about God and the problem of evil for years.

It seems that the only options people are left with when they talk about bad things happening to themselves or to children, or to good people, or to Uncle Bob's cat, or whatever offending thing - is that God either did it or allowed it to happen. Then, of course, if He allows it there must be a reason, and if there is a reason, even if it is a good reason, there simply are some things so heinous which might happen to Uncle Bob's cat that it can in no way justify allowing it to happen.

So, I have been wondering while considering the weakness of God, and the foolishness of God: is it possible that God doing something bad, or allowing something bad might not be the only options available to us when we think about the problem of evil? Could it be that God neither performs evil, nor allows it?

And right about now, you are probably thinking, "It's about time this guy got to the point. He's been talking about Uncle Bob's cat, and who knows what. I'll bet he's drinking a beer while he writes this nonsense." Well, and you'd be right. I'd be drinking a Dogfish Head Raison D'Etre right now. At least you now know I have some smarts, because it was the beer of the year a year or so ago, and it's certainly not one of those superbowl ad, nasty, tastes like medieval medicine - the kind surfers used to use on stingray wounds - beers.

So, if God does not perform evil, and does not allow evil, what other options are there? I heard you ask that question while I rambled about peeing on stingray wounds, which as it turns out does not really help (now they tell us.) Well it seems to me that the problem of evil is the problem of freewill, and the problem of freewill is more problematic than creating a situation in which God allows evil. Rather it seems that with freewill God only has two options: solve the problem of evil created by others by getting rid of it (or in this case them, well, more specifically "us"), or allow it to go on, and try to work with these nasty little trouble makers.

God's weak and foolish plan for creating and working with individuals who are such trouble makers has perhaps injured God as much as it has injured anyone in human history. He suffers with being misunderstood, and betrayed; and these are reoccurring problems in every generation. In fact, God spent a few years on earth to try and walk us through His thought process for doing what He did, and we were so mad we tried to kill Him.

Oh, I guess we did kill Him.

And so once again God proved that this whole idea of working with us was a foolish idea, and a weak plan. Of course Paul had the foresight to see that God's foolishness and weakness would still win in the end. But, how it wins is another story. For now I am happy not to have to blame God for either performing, or allowing evil. Like us, He has to suffer with it, and He proved that He is willing to do so.