Occupy Bethlehem

This is an advent story: a familiar tale told from an unfamiliar angle. Listen and remember…

Just over 2000 years ago in the region of Judea – in the town of Bethlehem – a movement was birthed. It all took place during the reign of Herod the Great, king of Judea, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. By this time Herod had been in power for over 30 years – appointed by the Roman Senate in the midst of political turmoil. Never fully embraced by the Jewish people, he was always considered an outsider, and his expensive building projects and lavish lifestyle caused financial strain. He was a client-king – operating primarily under the interests of Rome – not the true King.

Also in those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree through the Senate that everyone living in the Empire must be registered for tax purposes, including the Jews. Since general Pompey secured control over Judea 60 years earlier, the Jews were subjects of Rome. This census was yet another reminder that they lived in exile – captives in their own land. Although Judea had experienced a brief period of independence after the Maccabean revolt, the often-corrupt Hasmonean priesthood was characterized more by vying for power through political means than returning to God with true sacrifice and praise. These times were a pale reflection of generations past, before the Assyrians and Babylonians conquered the people and desecrated the Temple, like the Golden years under the great King David. They were living in the land again – the Temple rebuilt – but life was not the same. Exile was, after all, the inevitable consequence of the nation’s obstinacy. Jewish oppression under Roman rule was linked, ironically, to the oppression that the Jews first perpetrated.

Things were business-as-usual in those days some might have said, at least up in Jerusalem at the Temple. Sacrifices, festivals, Sabbath, circumcision, Torah-keeping, dietary restrictions – all the right markers of Jewish identity were in place. But everyone also knew that things were not as they should be.

In the midst of their exile the Jews were actually quite expectant for an occupy movement. Beginning with the first exile, the prophets spoke in veiled images of a time when God would return to occupy His people in His land in order to make things right. Justice would flow like a river and God’s law would be written not in stone, but on hearts. This hope grew over the years and assumed different forms. It was said that God’s occupation would be realized under the leadership of the Anointed One. By the first century the image that predominated was one of a military ruler who would come wielding a sword to gather his people together and overthrow Rome outright.

The time was pregnant with revolution. Nothing would be the same after the movement took root, and everything that came before would be seen differently. And so, in the midst of socio-economic, political, and religious crisis, it began: Joseph returning to his hometown, Bethlehem, to register, and Mary with child.

Occupy Bethlehem was birthed. Quietly.

The thing about Occupy Bethlehem is that it did not begin as Occupy Jerusalem, or Occupy Rome, as some might have expected. There was no grand entrance heralded by the horns of war. No march on the steps of the Temple Mount. Rather, the movement was inaugurated with an announcement to shepherds in a field. Other occupy attempts previously emerged in different regions around Judea – like the occupy movement led by one called Judas. He raided the palace at Sephoris and seized the armory. That movement burned out bright and fast. But none like Occupy Bethlehem. It was a real threat to the powers-that-be, however. Its Anointed leader, Jesus, threatened the essence of Caesar’s lordship – the heart of Herod’s kingly reign – the uniqueness of the high priest’s sacrifice.

Occupy Bethlehem was in every way characterized by the margins: a marginal birth on the outskirts of the city, a recruitment that drew from the margins of society, a message received by those on the margins of power, and an execution reserved for the most marginal dissidents. This occupation on the margins was about redeeming those who were in captivity and inviting in those who were not in by rights. Jesus said it himself when he quoted those who spoke long before in hope of this movement, “The Spirit…has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.” This was the Jubilee.

This movement Jesus led was no empty politic. It was the occupation of one kingdom by another – the invasion of the faux by the Real. It was not legislated, but inaugurated. It was not an uprising, but a descent. Not a massive footprint, but a mustard seed. The Pax Romana met the Via Crucis. The occupation of the Roman state signaled a reversal in its modus operandi: prevailing systems were no longer self-apparent because there was a new Benefactor, thus a new way of being human.  The implication of Occupy Bethlehem was that those who were poor, sorrowful, hungry, and persecuted were really blessed. Those who were first were really last, and the last first.

It must be remembered that the telos of this movement was comprehensive in scope – no realm un-occupied. Its leader, the Son of God, came to occupy all of creation. Because, as his followers would later affirm, that which is not “occupied” cannot be redeemed. So he became every bit of us. He invaded all of our space by setting up his tent here. His protest – his mission – was one of reconciliation, not through force but by willing submission to the worst of our mess. Death. And so his occupation was our liberation out of death and into life because he triumphed over the powers that held creation in captivity. The Son’s successful occupation, in fact, was a victory march – a procession with the defeated foes in tow. They were disgraced by the occupation’s counterintuitive means: the cross. Indeed, the Son’s great Demonstration was his humiliation there. It was only through his emptying that there was vindication as he was raised the true Lord over creation.

Soon Occupy Bethlehem went viral. Throughout the Roman Empire other movements took hold: Occupy Judea, Occupy Samaria, Occupy Ephesus, Occupy Corinth, Occupy Rome, and beyond. The Good News of the movement grew by the force of its inherent power and the witness of its followers.

Now we join in Occupy Bethlehem by participating in the self-emptying demonstration – becoming occupied ourselves. All of our allegiances are thus redirected and redefined, and we submit to being transformed by the same Spirit that always energized Occupy Bethlehem with the Son and Father. Outward now we move into the public and private spaces of occupation – to the 99 and the 1% – witnessing to the character and power of Occupy Bethlehem.

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Nativity Mystery: Does that really belong here?

As a youngster I watched in wonderment as Kevin McCallister eluded the grasp of Harry and Marv by covertly finding refuge within a life-size nativity scene. It was not only Kevin’s cunning that captured my imagination, but the idea of the nativity itself – one of very few three-dimensional, tactile images of Jesus in protestant free-churches (and homes). The nativity was categorically different for me than flannel board depictions of Jesus or that weird blonde portrait that hung in Sunday school rooms. I studied those scenes. I rolled the figures around in my hands feeling their weight and texture – intuitively aware of its sacred value.

In recent years, however, a peculiar fascination has grown up alongside my reverent intrigue for the nativity. I am fascinated by the persistent appearance of the features, portrayed in both the miniature scenes and the stories, that are simply not part of the original story. How did they get there? And why are they still there?

It is a common refrain that the Scriptural account of Jesus’ birth does not include many of the details that tradition has attached to it. No rude inn-keeper; no barn; no specification regarding the number of Magi. And, most importantly, no ox and ass lowing. It’s the animals that intrigue me the most. Especially because this particular tradition is explicitly apocryphal, which makes the animals the most ancient and scandalous of the nativity add-ons.

The ox and ass first appear in literature in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This work is part of the New Testament Apocrypha. Like its (more familiar) Old Testament counterpart, the NT apocrypha is a collection of writings resembling the form of its canonical parent, but often quite different in content, which was written chronologically after the 27 books in the NT (2nd century AD and later) though it recounts events from the same period as the NT. I don’t have the space to explain why and how these books were not included in the New Testament canon. For now, understand that many of these works fall into the category of “Infancy Narratives,” which re-tell and expand (often in fantastic fashion) the birth and early childhood of Jesus. In fact, there were a proliferation of infancy narratives circulating in different communities the first thousand years of Christian history, and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is one of them (not the earliest, but one of the most popular). Some Christians and heretical groups were so fascinated with these stories that they continued to survive even though church officials repeatedly condemned and expunged them.

The presence of the animals in Pseudo-Matthew is an interesting case in itself. The ox and ass actually appear in art (e.g. on a 4th century sarcophagus in Milan) well before the earliest manuscript of Pseudo-Matthew. It’s possible that an oral version of the apocryphal tradition is early enough to be the source for the art, but because of the lack of manuscript evidence, the opposite is also possible (in case you’re interested, “art generating text” would be a unique ancient phenomenon). More complicated still, in ancient depictions of the nativity, the ox and ass are (nearly) always present with Jesus – appearing even when Mary is absent. This begs the question both for the NT Apocrypha and for our front yards, “How did they get there?”

The short answer is that it’s hard to say. Throughout the centuries Christians have used Old Testament texts like Isaiah 1:3 in order to explain their presence and significance. Isaiah mentions the beasts in the context of Israel’s ignorance. The implication is the ox and ass would be symbols of judgment against the Jews who do not perceive Jesus as God’s messiah: i.e. the animals get it but some of God’s chosen people don’t. This explanation makes sense, but neither Matthew nor Luke allude to the Isaiah passage. And although the author of Pseudo-Matthew uses the ox and ass as a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:3 (and the Septuagint’s translation of Habakkuk 3:2), the beasts certainly do not serve to highlight lack of perception in the apocryphal story. They’re just there – like a vital feature of the landscape.

And they’re still there – carved out of wood, fashioned out of a plastic mold, and sung in our carols. This is ironic to me – especially as it appears among Scripture-alone Protestant types (like myself). I wonder how they deal with that tension (assuming an awareness of it)? All those extras are reasonable deductions from the story, they might argue. Maybe. But why didn’t Matthew or Luke include those details? I would argue that they did not include the details, whatever they really are, on purpose. We often forget that authors say a lot in what they choose not to say. And we short circuit what can emerge from that silent space when we rush to fill in the gaps. We miss the significance of what is already there.

I encourage you this advent and Christmastide to dwell in the mystery of the nativity by taking a look at what’s there. Look at the art (animals and all) – read the Text(s) – and take it in. Don’t fill in either space too quickly and wait to see what emerges. Be drawn in by real-ness of Incarnation and be shaped by it. Listen. Emmanuel.

When the Familiar Becomes Strange: Part 1 – “Wait, Am I Reformed Now?”

When I left OBU in the Fall of 2008 to head up to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School to study New Testament, I was a confident (but naïve) Arminian. I grew up in a Baptist church that picked occasionally from both the Calvinist and Arminian traditions, but the debate itself was rarely (if ever) rehearsed. At OBU, the professors I respected most taught (roughly) from the Arminian camp – although, once again, the issue itself was rarely broached. My personal study of the issues surrounding this debate (e.g. sovereignty/freedom, foreknowledge, election) first emerged, like many young college students beginning to think critically about their faith, through the door of theodicy. In this process I drank deeply from the likes of Greg Boyd, John Sanders, and Clark Pinnock, as well as other more traditional Arminian scholars in the Wesleyan tradition, like Ben Witherington. This fragmented search came together during the last few years of college as I thought through the words of a brilliant, Danish NT professor of mine, “Election is for service, not status.” So I wrote my senior theology paper unfolding this idea – effectively vanquishing all Calvinist foes (so I thought) – and bulldozing several of my peers along the way.

As a result of this process I walked away with the impression that any self-respecting scholar in biblical studies was Arminian. My arrogance was palpable as I rode high on the wave of intellectual assurance. The main danger was that this assurance was a key piece of my identity: I was the guy who could confidently articulate what I thought about the intersection God’s sovereignty and humanity’s freedom. I drew meaning for myself from that function, and comfort from rallying others to my side.

Less than two weeks after pulling into Deerfield, IL with Caralisa, well before classes had even begun, my theologically-familiar rug was yanked out from underneath me. I don’t remember what the first clue was. I don’t know why I was so ignorant. It was a slow, and then very quick, realization. Like when Indiana Jones is finally able to light his torch to discover that he fell into a pit of snakes. When the light finally came on for me, and I was able to survey the extent of the mess I was in, I saw that I was an Arminian stranger in a mostly Calvinist land. Even my advisor, the man who was supposed to be integral to my academic growth and success, was not just one of them, but was the one to whom they looked for inspiration [During one of our first meetings, he looked me square in the eye and asked, “So…how Reformed are you?” It was a trick question, I think].

But this story is not so much about my theological journey as it is about my spiritual formation. This was just one of many events to come. It is a symbol of the slow-but-steady deconstruction of the identity I built for myself – the first rupture in the walls of my tightly packaged scheming. This story is one that I will try to recount for you in its different shapes and colors in the installments to come. It is about how the familiar became strange for me, how the strangeness opened up places of deep confusion and disappointment, how I learned to listen to God in the midst of deconstruction, how that strangeness became familiar and good, and finally how what was once quite familiar is now very strange (sort of).

The first year of grad school was nothing short of a crisis for me. [I’m sure things weren’t objectively as bad as they seemed to be.] But I found a small group of Arminian dissenters, I read and read and read, I took a course called “Calvinism/Arminianism,” I discussed, and I listened – a lot. I settled down and, eventually, stopped freaking out. I learned that I was misinformed, careless, and just plain wrong in so many ways. I also found new clarity and confirmation in many ways, all while learning to respect and love them, my brothers and sisters.

Most importantly, the church came around me and encouraged me to see this crisis as God’s gift – an opportunity to get a good look myself and see what was really there – a magnifying glass on the content of my heart. In the midst of rubble was the place where renovation could really begin. This renovation, however, took root in my mind long before it was played out in my body. I understood the kind of work that needed to be done in my life before I actually stepped into it – stubborn and scared as I am. The prospect of forfeiting control over idolatrous scripts that direct our lives is frightening. In fact, where I am now, emotionally and geographically, is one of the material ways of doing my best to live into this work in my life, which is certainly ongoing.

This autobiographical-ness is not normal for me. I hope that you can tolerate it for the time being as I work on vocalizing my introspection. Others have pointed out that I am far more emotionally guarded than I realize, so this series partly functions to create a venue for vulnerability. I also hope this series is less the result of narcissism and more the result of a desire to communicate from the space I actually inhabit rather than those places I wish I existed. Or better, I’m not sure how else to use my true voice, devoid of the crap it’s usually wrapped in, without first narrating my failure.

So I invite you to come and listen with me. God is near. Repent. Believe.

Vocational Identity

Eugene Peterson writes in his memoir, The Pastor, “the most effective strategy for change, for revolution – at least on a large scale that the kingdom of God involves – comes from a minority working from the margins.” He argues for a “vocational identity as necessarily minority, that a minority people working from the margins has the best chance of being a community capable of penetrating the noncommunity, the mob, the depersonalized, function-defined crowd that is the sociological norm of America.” (16)

Reading Peterson’s journey as a pastor, the features that formed him and his vocation, is helping me navigate my own vocational confusion – words that I can use in the meantime while I search for my own. I need these words because daily I struggle through the failure to make a name for myself here in Little Rock – to find my pastoral (or other) vocation so I can begin living out of my newfound purpose and significance. The truth is that this desire is really just a mirror image, a new instantiation, of the three-year struggle that eventually led Caralisa and me to this place: the frantic attempt to find my niche in the academic world so I could start living out of the significance of my degrees and intellect.

But Peterson’s witness to the nature of his vocational formation subverts my attempt to grasp my identity in the midst of the ecclesial mob. It reminds me how my desire for significance and purpose emerges from a broken imagination – one that, although fueled by images I’ve absorbed from the church, is not truly funded by the shape of God’s kingdom. Peterson’s story reminds me that I cannot manufacture the identity I desire. What I want cannot be delivered through the resources I seek. My identity (my vocation), rather, emerges from the margins, from a minority community with an alternate social cadence.

Right now this looks like seeking to be present in the seemingly mundane particulars of my day – seeking to understand how God is at work in my apartment, with my brother, and while substituting 6th grade PE (for instance). Yesterday I told Caralisa that as I’ve observed God’s work in the lives of others, as I think about the times when it is really evident that someone’s decisions flow out of submission to Jesus, it seems to me that work in the Kingdom is something that we back in to, or wake-up to, rather than accomplish through strategy and good planning. The problem is that somewhere in my body, beneath my cognition, is the desire for the safety of knowing that I am in control of determining my vocation – the satisfaction of knowing that what I’m doing is significant in tangible ways that others can notice and find impressive. I want plow my way forward into the life I’ve idolized (even if it is the church-y kind) instead of patiently waiting to receive it. I need to be reminded that the kingdom, especially as it is manifested in my day-to-day, does not come by force.

As Peterson says, this is the process of living into my emerging identity – the slow waking-up-to how God is at work in my life and the world around me. The renewal of this blog is part of that process. This is meant to be a space where I can get words on “paper” and you can think through them with me.

What do you think of a vocational identity that is necessarily a minority working from the margins – in ways that resist the prevailing images of significance and purpose? How have you backed into God’s work in your life?