Friday, July 31, 2020

Jesus Photo


…What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 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 God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

     But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

-2 Corinthians 4:5-7 (NIV)

Earlier this month, Dutch artist Bas Uterwijk released a “photo” of Jesus. 

     Uterwijk’s Jesus “photo” was part of a series he did of historically significant men and women who lived before photo technology was available. Using artistic renditions like paintings, statues, and icons as source material, he utilized an artificial intelligence program to create digital photorealistic images.

     It wasn’t immediately clear what source or sources Uterwijk used to produce his Jesus portrait, though some people saw hints of the Christ Pantocrator icon at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai. Here’s what he came up with:


Uterwijk had a problem with Jesus that he didn’t have with his other subjects, like Van Gogh, Napoleon, George Washington, or Queen Elizabeth I — historical accuracy is impossible. The earliest known artistic representation of Jesus dates to about 200 years after his death. (It shows Jesus as a Greek philosopher type, suggesting that historical accuracy wasn’t particularly important to the artist!) The gospels tell us next to nothing about his appearance — just a little about his clothing. About the closest we come in Scripture to a description of Jesus is from Isaiah’s suffering servant prophecy, and if he really was describing what Jesus would look like 800 years or so later (which I doubt), all he says is that he wasn’t much to look at.

     So Uterwijk’s AI was left with a bunch of representations of Jesus that show what their artists thought he looked like. Artists have always said more about themselves in the way they represent Jesus than they have their subject. Uterwijk gave his Jesus the skin tones he imagines a man living in first-century Palestine would have had, but of course that’s debatable. (I read a comment online from a woman who suggested that Paul, at least, would have been darker since he was mistaken for an Egyptian — an African — in the book of Acts.) He also gave Jesus shorter hair than his computer did, thinking that would have been more typical for a man of that era.

     We probably can’t escape the preconceptions we have in our minds of what Jesus looked like. As a kid, I remember Jesus looking a lot like this: 

     Later, I became acquainted with this image of Jesus, The Head of Christ by Warner
Sallman, commissioned by the 1940 graduating class of North Park Theological Seminary, where I did my graduate work. It’s maybe the best-known image of Jesus in the world, despite the fact that it makes Jesus look pretty Nordic. I know Black Christians who grew up with an image of Jesus like this. Many of them just kind of went along with it. Some who grew up during the Civil Rights Movement wondered what it meant that Jesus looked like the people using fire hoses and batons and siccing dogs on marchers.
I’ve sometimes heard, “If God had wanted us to know what Jesus looked like, he would have told us,” and I suppose that’s true. But it might matter, might it not, for us to be clear about what he most likely didn’t look like — especially in a society that has such a history of injustice to those of darker pigment, even though we claim it doesn’t matter?

     Maybe the early Christians had it right: It seems there weren’t many representations of Jesus in the first couple of hundred years after his death because the early church applied the Old Testament’s prohibition of making an image of God to Jesus. Maybe our tendency to imagine Jesus looking a particular way can’t help but do violence to the point of incarnation. To imagine him as a painting, an icon, or even a photorealistic AI image might tend to make us forget that he lived among us, that he was a real person who ate and slept and sweated, that if Peter made him laugh while he drank it would have come out of his nose, and that if you didn’t know him you wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a crowd in his place and time. 

     The Word became flesh and lived among us, and capturing an image of what that flesh looked like might have very little to do with whether or not he lives in us.

     More important than the question “What did Jesus look like?” is this one: “What does Jesus look like?” He should look a lot like us, right now, a lot like those of us who call ourselves Christ-ians and claim to follow him. The church are those who should be able to say “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” If Jesus’ life isn’t revealed in our lives, then in what sense can we call ourselves Christians?

     Maybe Jesus was darker than Uterwijk’s image. Whether he was or was not, he is living in the lives of many Black believers in our world today. In some places he looks white, in some places Asian, in some Latino, in some Mediterranean, Arab, Palestinian. He’s wherever his people are. He looks like they look.

     May he be seen clearly in each of us who go by his name.

Friday, July 24, 2020

God Doesn't Change

God is not human, that he should lie,
    not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
    Does he promise and not fulfill?
-Numbers 23:19 (NIV)

Everywhere you look, it seems like things have changed. Against our will. Under our noses.
Beyond what we could have imagined.
     For many of us, our jobs now involve the kitchen table and sweat pants.
     A night out means grilling in the back yard.
     A celebration means Zoom or a line of cars honking horns.
     Church no longer requires getting out of your pajamas.
     Those are the easy ones, of course. For some of us the changes include a lost job. A stay in the hospital and an uncertain long-term prognosis. Financial difficulties. The loss of a loved one to a virus whose name we didn’t even know when we wished each other a Happy New Year. 
     Some are stuck in a house with an abusive, angry spouse or parent. Some are trying to figure out how to stay sober in very stressful circumstances, and some are watching the hard-won sobriety of someone they love slipping away. Some are watching family members or friends with dementia or mental illness getting worse during this period of isolation. 
     Change is all around us. It’s in the air. Some of the changes were a long time coming and should have happened long ago. Some are sudden, shocking, and wrenching. As disorienting as it is, sometimes change is necessary, even vital, for the flourishing of human beings. Old attitudes that no longer work — some that should never have worked — have to go. Old traditions lose their meaning. Old practices have to be discarded. Old ideas are replaced by new ones. Muted voices are allowed to speak, while those that had the platform all to themselves have to learn how to share. Remembering the “good old days” usually doesn’t include remembering Jim Crow or polio or workhouses with fondness, and rightly so.
     As long as the way things are is working for us, we don’t care for change. Sometimes we don’t need any more reason to continue with something than this: That’s how it’s always been. That’s never true, of course. It hasn’t always been this way. What we mean is that it works for me, and it’s worked for others, and so let’s not change it. The second verse of Henry Lyte’s hymn, Abide With Me, captures well our feelings about change:  
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day
Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
    Systems break down. Institutions outlive their purposes. People grow old. Viruses mutate. Change doesn’t always involve decay, but it does often enough. The things we once found joy in don’t do that for us anymore. What was beautiful turns to ashes. Life’s short day heads quickly toward sunset. 
     If you know Lyte’s song, though, you know I left out the last line of that second verse:
O Thou who changest not, abide with me!
     Theologians refer to one of God’s basic characteristics as immutability. You don’t need to remember that word, but you do need to remember the idea. In a world where change is inevitable, and very often necessary if there’s to be any real progress, it’s vital to our well-being to remember that God doesn’t change. It isn’t that he changes slowly and imperceptibly. It isn’t that he only changes in good ways. What theologians mean by immutability is that it’s part of God’s nature that he does not change, ever, for any reason. He doesn’t change his mind, or say one thing while intending another. His words and his actions are congruent. When he makes a promise, he keeps it — even if, as in the case of Abraham, the fulfillment takes generations. 
     James, the Lord’s brother, says it this way: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” 
     Something to note about God’s unchanging nature is that in the Bible it’s expressed mostly in a relational way. That tracks with how God usually reveals himself: not abstractly, through a page in a theology textbook, but through the way he deals with human beings. So we understand and experience God’s immutability through God’s keeping of promises. We understand it through his generosity. We understand it through his compassion. Some theologians have argued about God’s immutability because he does sometimes seem to change in Scripture in one way: he has a tendency to forgive sin and change his mind about punishment. That only illustrates, though, that his compassion isn’t changed, even when his people fail him.
     God never changes in that he will always, without fail, seek to show us love, grace, kindness, and forgiveness. Nothing, not even his other fundamental characteristics like holiness or omniscience or omnipotence, change that fundamental thing about him. Whatever changes in your life — and everything will — you will find that God is faithful and will never change. That’s why John says that God is love, and later: “So we know and rely on the love God has for us.”
     To trust that God doesn’t change is to find the strength to accept change, however unsettling and disorienting it might be. We can’t expect our jobs or our families or our political party of choice to be the foundation we build our lives on forever. They’ll all change, evolve, let us down, even turn on us. God won’t. He’s faithful to us, he’s compassionate, and he always will be because he doesn’t change. 
     To trust that God doesn’t change is to have peace. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we’ll never be disappointed, or that we won’t grieve loss. It means we’ll always have a sanctuary, a place to which we can retreat and find shelter and security. It gives us a way to process change, to keep it in perspective.
     To trust that God doesn’t change is to have a way to evaluate the changes around us. That’s what Joseph does, for example, when he reflects on his brothers’ treatment of him, years later: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Because he found that God was with him, unchanging, even is literally everything about his life dissolved around him, he was able to see how God’s work in his life came together.
     Ultimately, God has shown just how unchanging he is through Jesus. He showed his commitment to making himself known to us through the Word made flesh. He showed how unwavering that commitment is through the cross. “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing!” — that was his prayer from the cross for those who put him there. Love, compassion, grace that wasn’t even changed by mockery, violence, and murder.
     Everywhere you look, it seems like things have changed. 
     Not God. Never God. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Idolatry of Normal

     So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

-Matthew 6:31-33 (NIV)

I was in a meeting recently (on Zoom, naturally), and we started talking about “when things get

back to normal.” You’ve probably had conversations like that the last few months with co-workers, family members, friends — the non-specific making of plans that lets us look forward to life “as it was,” pre-coronavirus. We know on some level, of course, that things won’t ever be just like they were. We will have always gone through this experience. It will undoubtedly mark us in many ways, some of which we haven’t even begun to discover yet. Eventually, though, the virus will be brought under control. We’ll develop a vaccine. We’ll find better and better treatments. We’ll develop herd immunity, maybe? While we’ll always have endured the weirdness and discomfort and (for some) tragedy of 2020, life will return to what it was pre-corona.

     Won’t it?

     Just a couple of days ago, in a phone conversation, someone asked me if I thought things were going to get back to normal. This person was missing meeting with the church, feeling disconnected. I told him, yeah, of course things would get back to normal. 

     Won’t they?

     Also a few days ago, our family was discussing vacation plans. Like everyone else’s, our plans for this summer had to be canceled. We found some comfort, I think, in talking about a life in which we could go anywhere we want without worrying about coronavirus. And we will, of course.

     Won’t we?

     Just for a moment, let me ask a different question.

     What if we can’t?

     What they don’t?

     What if it doesn’t?

     What if masks and social distancing are the new norm? What if, as far as we know, restaurant capacity will from now on always be, at best, some fraction of “normal”? What if working from home more or less permanently replaces going into the office? What if online, at-home education is here to stay? What if movie theaters as we know them are done? What if we never figure out how to go back to college and pro sports as they used to be? 

     What if a different way of being church is with us from here until Jesus comes?

     Look, I hope that isn’t true. Like everyone else, I hope there is a post-coronavirus life that resembles in every way our pre-coronavirus life. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, and in fact I tend to think that things will, sooner or later, get under control. 

     But what if it never does?

     I ask that question because I think we need to get out of our holding patterns. I think we need to stop just treading water, just marking time while we wait for some “normal” that may never come, or at least not soon. We’ve had several months to soak in the nostalgia of coffee with friends or baseball games or churches full of people. Nostalgia’s fun every now and then. As a way of life, it’s a dead end. It cares only about making sure that the future is as great as we remember the past being. I think it’s been our way of life for too long now.

     Remember the Israelites in the wilderness: “let’s go back to Egypt. Remember how great things were?” That’s what nostalgia does; it makes former slaves remember their captivity as a vacation. Next to the desert, memories of their servitude suddenly looked really rosy. Nostalgia distorts our memories of the past and our experience of the present. We complained about life in 2019 as well. Remember that. 

     Nostalgia distorts, but it has a more serious effect than that. It also disconnects. It disconnects us from God’s work in the world now. In longing for the past we start to worship it. Israel literally built a golden calf out of the valuables they brought with them from their past. May we not make an idol out of our pre-coronal lives.  

     God is not located in our past, you see — not in the idealized past of any era, and not in the immediate past that we all remember fondly in these days of sheltering in place and arguing over mask-wearing. God is here, now. He’s at work, as he’s always been, in the present. If you doubt that, look at the way he has us confronting racism — again. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, like all other human efforts it’s imperfect, halting, and sometimes ugly. But if you can’t see God’s hand in there too then maybe you’re just not paying attention. 

     God’s at work, right now, in the present, and as usual he wants us joining him in that work. He wants us to make church something more than a weekly event at a building. He wants us to find new ways to tell the good news of Jesus instead of just inviting people to hear a preacher. He wants us to serve the poor and hurting where we are. He wants us to leverage technology but also maybe to return to simplicity. 

     Your customers, clients, and patients still need you to serve them with the compassion, integrity, and grace that God gives you. Your students still need you to teach them with love and kindness and patience. Your work colleagues still need the peace that you embody as a follower of Jesus. Your kids and spouse and friends need your love and reassurance and presence now more than ever. The poor in your community need some of the time that perhaps your work commute used to take up. Your church — the people, I mean — need your prayers, your phone calls, your texts, your resources, your ideas, and your talents and gifts.   

     The problem with deifying the past, see, is that ultimately it makes us incapable of serving God and being about his work right now. We’re always looking back, remembering how good things were back then. We’re always looking ahead, wondering when things will be that good again. We have to just be in the present, this present, to be of any use to him. This is what God has given us. This is where we are. 

     Jesus tells us not to worry about the future, that each day has plenty of trouble of its own. But those words come after his warning about serving two masters: we can serve God, or we can worry about whether tomorrow will be at least as secure and profitable as yesterday. He tells us to make it our main duty in the world to look for God’s kingdom and righteousness, for those places in our world where God is at work, and then join in there. 

     Don’t look back at the past with nostalgia. Don’t look forward into the future with anxiety. 

     Look around. Find where God is at work and join him there. Make that your “normal.”

Friday, July 10, 2020

Commandment-Keepers and Jesus-Followers

     As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

     “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’

     “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

     Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

-Mark 10:17-22 (NIV)

“Good teacher,” I ask Jesus, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” I know some people can’t imagine a life that they want to extend out to eternity, but I can. I believe that God wants to share his life with me, and I’d like to be in on that kind of eternal life. 

     I figure Jesus would know.

     So I ask, and he tells me: “You know the commandments.” I do, I know them, and I’ve lived literally all of my life believing that keeping them was important. Some other ones too. I was baptized in a church that gets baptism “right.” I share in the Lord’s Supper every week. I sing without instruments, just like Paul and Silas in prison. I put some money in the offering plate. I read my Bible. I help people. 

     And so I tell him that: “I’ve kept those (more or less) since I was a kid.” So is that it? We’re done? Just keep doing what I’m doing, is that what you’re saying, Jesus?”

     He looks at me, and there’s love in his eyes, and I’m starting to think I’m his prize student. But then he holds up a finger, and the love in his eyes doesn’t go away, but it’s joined by something else. They’re the eyes of my teachers, telling me I could do better if I’d just apply myself. The eyes of my parents when they were a little disappointed in me. “One thing you lack,” he says, and my stomach drops because I know this is going to hurt.

     “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

     I knew it would hurt.

     I’m convinced, church, that we need to have a conversation like that with Jesus pretty often. By our nature, we’re a people who do pretty well with commandments: “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” fits our collective personality. Commandments give us something to go on. They serve nicely as a scorecard. Commandments let me evaluate myself against you, against my own expectations, and even against what God wants. They can be useful sometimes. 

     But, hear me when I say this: If we never get beyond obeying commandments, we’re not following Jesus. 

    Look at what we’ve done with commandments. We’ve multiplied them. We’ve found commandments in the Bible for nearly every aspect of our lives, and when we couldn’t find them we pretty much created them from proof-text and syllogism. If eternal life can be had by keeping commandments, we all should be in fine shape. 

     But if we’re relying on knowing and keeping commandments, we’re always going to lack something. 

     Commandments, as important as they are, can be manipulated to fit our comfort zones. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, we know — but who are they? Literal neighbors? Fellow citizens of the same city or country? People of other faiths, or different tribes of the Christian faith? The church knows we should love our neighbors, yet sometimes we haven’t acted with love toward abuse victims, or undocumented immigrants, or black people, or gay people, or people who differ from us doctrinally or politically. We’ve usually found ways to defend our actions. After all, “We’ve kept these commands since childhood.” We couldn’t possibly be wrong: We’re the commandment-keepers.

     Sometimes we hear Jesus’ response to this man in Mark 10 as just another commandment to be kept, in which case we usually have to interpret it to death because how could the church afford to maintain the building and pay the ministers’ salaries if everyone gave away everything to help the poor? 

     This isn’t just another command to follow (or interpret around), though. Jesus is replacing this man’s vocabulary of commandment-keeping with the language of discipleship. What he’s saying to him — and to all of us — is what he says to everyone who comes asking him about eternal life: Give up everything to follow me.

     That isn’t a commandment to be followed as much as a life to be lived. We find such security in wealth, power, privilege, convenience, pleasure, comfort. The life he wants us to live, the one that will extend on out into eternal life, is one that finds security in him and nothing else. 

     Following Jesus, if I understand this exchange correctly, means giving something up. Many of us could stand to give up some possessions, for sure, so we could be more generous to those who are doing without. That’s hard, but maybe it’s even harder to give up our privilege — or sometimes even to admit to it. Maybe it’s harder to give up resentment, but it’s necessary before we can forgive. It’s hard to give up venting our anger so that we can turn the other cheek. It’s hard to give up the notion that winning an argument is more important than loving our neighbor. It’s hard to give up detachment from the pain of others so that we can follow Jesus in offering comfort and care. It’s hard to give up political parties. Nationalistic loyalties. Denominational identities.

     Commandments keep us content. They keep us lulled into believing that we’re doing everything related to eternal life. They keep us self-sufficient and sometimes even let us define what matters and what doesn’t, what’s kingdom work and what isn’t, so narrowly that no one in the world cares about any of it except for other Christians. They let us hold on to the things we trust while obeying the letter of the law.

     Maybe that’s why we prefer keeping commandments to following Jesus. Maybe, to the extent that the church’s response to our present crises is lacking, that’s why — because following Jesus in ministering to a broken, hurting, searching world requires us to give up more than we’re willing. 

     What Jesus wants is for us to give up everything — even our identities as commandment-keepers — to follow him in doing the work of God’s kingdom in our world. To use our privileged positions in society to speak and act on behalf of those who are discriminated against. To serve the sick and dying and poor and hungry. What we sign up for when we follow Jesus is nothing less than to live the kind of life now that he has gifted us through his own “giving up.” The life of the new age.

     The eternal kind.