Volunteering as Tribute and Atonement

What story does this sound like:

Out of chaos, a covenantal society coalesces between a greater power and a lesser one. When the lesser one refuses to render due honor and obedience to the greater – in actions considered in rebellion of that covenant – they bring upon themselves the wrath of the greater power, a wrath that can only be satisfied by precious sacrifice, which balances the scales once more. The climax of the story comes when one representing those to be punished volunteers to take on the wrath of the greater power. That volunteer upsets the balance of power, subverting it.

The pattern of violence that balances the scales, that atones, for disobedience or wrath seems repeated over and over. The premise in The Hunger Games series follows this pattern seen in some parts of the Christian tradition around Jesus’ death pretty closely.

One of my favorite podcasts/blogs is Homebrewed Christianity. Two Claremont School of Theology PhD’s/pastors who spin passionate theology while sipping a new beer they brewed. This podcast linked below was one of the first shows I heard, and it feels classic–especially for Lent, when that “Jesus died for our sins” bit becomes more stark, especially as we get towards Good Friday. The hosts talk with two authors who critique traditional concepts of atoning and sacrifice, including in The Hunger Games, and explore how these frameworks get re-inscribed and reflected in our culture.

Listen to the podcast here while you get ready in the morning or something. It’s awesome.



Nadia Bolz-Weber on Hope and Vapid Optimism


If you haven’t heard of her, read most everything you can by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran church in Denver. From my perspective, she just gets the Gospel in all its grittiness and grace so well. I love this sermon of hers. It articulates a lot of the way that I experience and struggle with hope.

Sense of Home and “Black Iowa Dirt”

This is the song I referenced and sang a little bit of in my last sermon.

I love this song and William Elliott Whitmore’s strong connection to his home, and his passion for talking about it and articulating how important it is to him.

Hope and home are actually tied up for me. For years, my hope has been to one day return Home and live again in Colorado. I want to be back in the place that formed me; it’s comfortable and broken-in. But if that doesn’t happen, I am finding that other places can grow into home eventually.
There’s hope in this for me–that the things I think I will always long for and will never reach eventually wind up sprouting up right under my feet. I have spent time longing for Home only to realize in many ways, I am home here. This realization helps keep me grounded and present in the moment.
What is a sense of home like for you? What is wrapped up in “Home” for you?

Sermon on God Having Our Back


Here’s the sermon I preached this last Sunday. Read below or watch with link above; it’s much better heard and seen rather than read. Starts at around 31:40. Make sure to check out Alex Bonte and Derek Tam performing “Canaan Bound” by Andrew Peterson after the sermon ends.

I have lived in a lot of different places in my life. When I left my home in Colorado and went to college in Iowa, I had a hard time. I missed my land, I missed the way the rocks crunched under my feet when I hiked, I missed the color of the dirt, the taste of the air, the familiar mountains that shouldered up against my hometown, and just knowing my way around—I felt ownership of the place. I’ve re-started my life in about four different places, and I still always miss my home in Colorado.
One of my favorite musicians is a guy named William Elliott Whitmore. I first saw him in concert when I was at Grinnell College in Iowa. He didn’t have a band; just his guitar, his banjo, and his foot with a boot on it that he stomped into the stage by way of percussion. When the concert ended, he had left a divot in the stage where his foot had been. Check him out; he’s awesome.
By way of that introduction, He’s also a native Iowan who loves his home. Seems about every third song of his is about his emotional connection to Iowa. He has a song that’s just about the soil called “Black Iowa Dirt” that is all just about his engagement and relationship with the soil—“I put that black Iowa dirt on a biscuit, I put that black Iowa dirt in my tea, I put that black Iowa dirt in a big ol’ bucket and I carry it around with me.”
I can kind of relate to that—I take pink Pikes Peak granite rocks from home because it seems like taking a piece of home with me. It’s me trying to carry home with me, wherever I go. I don’t think it through too much when I grab these—it just seems like an important thing to do. I want to hold onto it, I want to hold onto home.
Home is not something you can easily explain to someone else. Home is home, you know? You may not be able to explain it to someone in a way that will dazzle and convince them with a logical argument about why your home meets these and these and these criteria to make it objectively the best. But it is yours, and is in your veins, It always lives with us.
In this passage from Genesis, God speaks to Abram and asks him to leave home. His family has been rooted here. He knows the land, where to get what he needs, and his family surrounds him, he is connected in; he probably baby-sat a lot. But God tells him to leave. And it’s not like, after he left, he could get in a plane and come back—he would leave forever. I wonder if he took something from his home—a rock, a twig, a bucket of dirt—to remember the place, or if he was fully ready to turn his face forward to a new place that was uncertain, but promised.
At our last On Tap meeting at Jupiter, one of our young adults there said that this passage resonates with his own feeling of being deep in the throes of transition. A lot of young adults, myself included, so often are conditioned these days to go to where the jobs are, where the next degree program is, follow the opportunities, be flexible, regardless of place. A sense of home becomes more and more relative. But we keep following a promise—of success, generally.
In the scripture, God promises that “I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you.” This is pretty challenging, right? God is going to curse people because they first curse Abram? But this person at On Tap heard this as God saying “I’ve got your back, through everything, through anything. I’m with you, and I’ve got your back.”
God calls on Abram to do something radical, difficult, and probably aching with grief. Leave your home. Leave what you’ve known. God doesn’t even tell him where he’s going yet! but Abram heard God—and he trusted God enough to say “yes”. And so he goes, bound towards Canaan. And God promises to have his back, and Sarah’s too, as they go forth.
There’s new life in leaving home, in leaving what is familiar. I firmly believe when we disrupt our comfortable, broken-in patterns, these cracks develop. And these are where God enters in. It seems like God is in the places where we are surprised by how we survive and even thrive in new ways and in new places. We get a better sense of who we are and who God is when things change; when our old ways of being are challenged and shaken up.
The OT and Gospel texts for Lent this year all seem to touch on the idea of transition. In all of these stories folks are being called, pulled or driven out from their current realities to something new and transformative. This is part of the legacy of Abram—exalted ancestor, who, as God continues to bind them together in covenant, becomes Abraham—ancestor of a multitude.
Paul picks up the story of Abraham in his letter to the Romans, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” This is an important distinction between believing in God and believing God. You can believe in ghosts or aliens—it’s about how you interpret the scattered evidence to represent real existence. That’s more the believing in God. But believing God goes down much deeper. Believing God is trusting God.
It can feel hard to trust God. God can feel like a remote and mysterious power, and some ways of talking about God seem to reinforce this. Especially when God’s mystery and transcendence are appealed to when painful or shocking things we can’t understand happen, this just seems to crank that gulf open wide between us and God. But I think the story of Abraham here moves us the opposite way—to be blessed by letting God come near to us. But how do we trust God?
We can trust God because God, like a loving parent, gives of Godself for our good. God is also making a transition in this new covenant in Jesus. And when God gave up power to enter our world as a person just like us. To be known intimately with us, and to show us ways of doing relationships in new, life-giving ways.
God tells Abram that through his descendants, the world will be blessed. How does Abram bless the world? I think Paul’s perspective brings this back around—Abraham believed God—he had faith enough to leave what was comfortable behind–and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. I wonder if leaving our comfort zones is where that blessing comes in. Where we are closer to God because everything else may feel unsteady. When we’re vulnerable and open, because we may not rely on ourselves or our expertise in the same way.
That is the way I think of righteousness—when we acknowledge that we’re not in control. When the layers of security and posturing we build up around ourselves are peeled away to the place where we can stand upright before God complete with all of our messiness, and relax into the faith that we are safe in God. And then, further, when we act in the fullness of belief that God has our back.
Blessing isn’t in comfort or windfall, blessing is in being loved by the God who loves the unlovable, who gives hope to the hopeless, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And the extent, the trajectory, of that blessing, that blessing first in Abram, is that we are equipped by God’s power to do the same to others. We are empowered to love the unloveable, to bring hope to the hopeless, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That’s the place where God is. That’s the place where God empowers us. That’s the blessing.
This is our deepest strength. When we accept that our strength does not come purely from ourselves or the things we do, but comes from God going before us and loving us so strongly that we can stand up with a courage and a promise not entirely our own. Our trust in this is our righteousness.
Abram believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. He trusted that God was working for good. And I believe that when he accepted God was for him, he could stand tall, have the courage to leave home, and bring his full self before God. He could go from the broken-in and static present to a future that was uncertain, but full of promise. God comes to us full of love, with a voice that thunders, and promise that surprises and disturbs. We may be called and we may be changed, but we will never be abandoned. Because God has our back. Amen.

Tony Jones on being “saved”

Tony Jones on being “saved”

Tony Jones is an author and theologian really into new frontiers of church and Christian spirituality. This is a very rich article by him that seeks to open up salvation beyond just a “what happens to your dear departed soul?” sort of issue. I hope we can discuss some of the broader questions this brings up, and any that strike you as you read this, at Gather this Thursday night at 7:00.

Tony Jones also has an e-book called A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin if you want to really sink your teeth into his stuff around salvation. 

Gather Series Kick-off, and, Why Hope is So Powerful but I Kind of Hate It.


Photo Courtesy of Matt Erickson.

This Sunday at First Church, we opened our first Sunday of Lent and kicked off our Lent theme “Saved by Hope”.  I’m curious and excited to see how this unfolds in our church, and I’m also pretty challenged by this theme. And my hang-up, turns out, is on “hope.”

Hope…is a concept I value (how’s that for non-commital?). I think it’s an important aspect of how we are called to relate to the world as Christians. I can say a lot of nice things about it, preach on it, but it is tough for me on some very visceral levels. I’m fairly cynical, and some talk of hope triggers some self-comparison in me. When I hear people talk about it in such glowing and happy terms enough, I feel like I must be doing it wrong, because I feel more cynical than I’d like to often admit. And I kind of feel like a professional-Christian fail. Hope sounds like a nice concept to me, but it’s hard for me to connect with in any real way. I actually wind up feeling kind of resentful, because I feel like some defect I have is exposed—I’m not as full of hope as I get the message (probably my own internalizing) that I should be.

Working as a hospital chaplain didn’t really help with feeling like I can comfortably relate to hope. I heard so many family members tell each other, hoping in darkness, that their loved one would be okay. Would come through this stroke, this infection, and would be returned to them as fulfillment of their hope if they just kept holding out hope. And more often than not, that loved one did not. I found nothing to say in these situations besides to sit with them and hold the agonizing silence with compassion. I wasn’t sure where hope was. In some of the more typical discourse I hear about it, it doesn’t seem to work itself out the way I might expect. These experiences made me wonder if hope is something we can easily perceive or experience, or if it arcs beyond our perception. That’s the way I have to hope for hope—it’s often beyond what I can understand.

I’ve preached on hope and tried to wrestle with it, and I think the most I can say about it is that it’s so unpredictable, so hard to anticipate or control, that it’s hard to pin down. I guess hope feels to me like something hard to talk about because it is kind of incorporeal. I don’t think you can know what it is until it happens. It comes out of nowhere. If any of you follow Hyperbole and a Half, (if not, read all of the older comics and enjoy your laugh-cry) It’s Allie’s little shriveled piece of corn. And maybe that surprise, that hope working itself out beyond how we can get it, is good news.

This Lent, in Thursday Gather, I invite all of us to wrestle with these theological pieces that come up in Lent. We discuss how we relate to these concepts, how we’ve experienced them, and how/if we can discover some blessing in them. Each week will be broken down by a word: “saved”  “hope”  “atonement” and the final two that I don’t think you can talk about one without the other: “cross” and “resurrection”. These can be pretty tough for some of us, especially those who identify as progressive Christian, to relate to or engage with. But I believe there is some beauty and grace in these too that goes down deep. I can’t wait to hear what comes up.

This will be supplemented with blog posts some very smart folks have written about these topics I’ll post on this page. I encourage you to read them before Gather each week. The conversation won’t specifically be around one post, but they will provide some awesome questions and concepts. Check back here regularly.

All of these can tie together or stand alone, so come to all or drop in as you can. Looking forward to seeing you and hearing these conversations!

Lent Playlist

Lent Playlist

Here’s a spotify playlist I put together for Lent. Some are more explicitly about Lent; some just have a moody vibe that sounds Lenten to me.

It’s collaborative, so feel free to add any songs that you’re feeling for Lent. This is a place where we can connect in places where music can say things better than just talking about them. I’d love to hear why you chose a particular song in the comments, if you’re willing to share.

a space to share, question, rejoice, lament, and gather.

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