God in Three Persons

 

Trinity Icon by Andrei Rublev

Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4

 

Trinity Sunday is the one Sunday a year where preachers have the opportunity to instruct their congregations on the doctrine of the Trinity, that teaching of the church which tells us that God is somehow both one God yet also three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So that leaves us preachers at risk of heresy once a year, hoping to explain something beyond us, something that perhaps we are not meant to understand.

I have always found the incomprehensibility of the Trinity in its own way one of Christianity’s most compelling attributes. Instead of inventing something that makes sense to the human imagination, the early Christians grasped for language to explain a God they experienced. There was a God who acted in the world and we mortals worked for a way to speak of this God.

This passage, the first in the scripture, shows this God at work. When God chooses to create, it is not “let me” but a “let us.” God speaks, and through the Word of God creates the world. Early Christians thought the Word of the Lord had a life of its own so that John writes of Jesus that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Somehow the word of God took life and was itself, God. And this Word became Flesh and named Jesus, the Son of God. And the Wind of God, the Spirit, blew over the face of the deep, giving order to chaos. And this Spirit was also God. So there were three, Father, Son (the Word), and Holy Spirit.

The language that the early Christians used for these three was Trinity. They are both three and one. Not just one thing presenting itself as three different things: Father, Son, and Spirit speak of each other as being somehow different from one another, yet the same. So while they are three, they are not three different gods.

The language that they used for the three parts of this Trinity is “person.” One God in three persons. Now “person” might be more confusing for us now than it would have been then. We hear “person” and we think “individual.” We think a person as idefined by how we are distinct from one another. We describe personhood in terms of independence.

I would encourage you to think of “person” in terms of how we relate to one another, not who we are apart from them. I am husband, father, son, friend. Who I am is wrapped up in

everyone I’ve loved, who have loved me into being. As the songwriter, Jason Isbell sings, “a man’s the product of all the people that he’s ever loved.” We are those people. They are us and we are them.

This is what we mean when we say that the Trinity is composed of three persons. We mean that God is fundamentally relational. This is why we say that God is love. Love is at the heart of who God is because even before the creation of the universe. Before the sun, before stars, before man and even the angels, there was God and God was three and one. God was never alone. Always at the heart of God is love.

So when God speaks and creates, God does not do this out of loneliness or need. God was complete in the fullness of the Trinity. Love always wants to share. Love creates more love. So the act of creation is pure love, driven not by necessity but out of selfless giving. If you exist, you know that God loves you since your very existence is an act of love and love holds the universe together.

Out of love this God creates. He divides the light and the dark. He calls the light, day and dark, night. He separated the sea and the land. He filled the world with trees and dolphins and birds and cows and sea anemones. Then he said let us make humans in our image. Male and female he created them.

In the next chapter, we read a different perspective on the creation of the world. We read how God creates Adam, the first man, and says “it is not good for man to be alone.” This is remarkable, since, with every bit of creation from the beginning, God has exclaimed “it is good!” But it is not good for man to be alone because man alone is not in the Image of the God who is community. So God makes the woman and they together are in the Image of God: man, woman, and the promise she bears in her womb. It is together, in community, that man bears the image of the Triune God.

Once again, this bears witness against the kinds of ways we understand our selves. Our identity and even our fate is tied up in the fate of one another. Somehow our own salvation is tied up in the salvation of others. I think the capacity for forgetting this truth is a particular American ailment.

An American writing for the British paper relates what he sees as the difference between America and England. He sums this up in a story that a friend of his from Yorkshire, a place he notes that many Americans deride as steeped in decline. While on vacation in Florida, this Briton witnessed something that we Americans experience as routine: a homeless man rummaging through garbage to feed his family. This Englishman greeted this experience with horror. That this man from a town in decline could not comprehend that someone would be left by their community to starve caused the American writer to wonder how a society allows its people to reach such desperation. In contrast, he writes of England:

“What most impressed me about the England I saw was the opposite: a feeling I encountered, again and again, that whatever happens, people are all in this together. Solidarity was one of the great themes after the terrorist bombing in Manchester, as the city came together around the victims in a truly impressive way, but it goes much further than that. It is the sense you get that the country is somehow obliged to help out the people of the deindustrialised zones and is failing “

When we live as if our fates are not tied to the fates of others, that is sin. We are together made in God’s image, but sin destroys that image within us. Sin wrecks our relationships with one another, making us unable to live in community with one another. The Psalmist writes that God has crowned us with the glory of God’s image (Psalm 8:5), by Paul reminds us that all sinned and now bear a broken image (Romans 3:23). Sin is an anti-personal force that makes us less than persons, less than human, makes us unable to live together, live with God and with creation.

But in the fullness of time, the God has acted. As in the beginning, the fullness of the Godhead has broken through into our world to remake us in God’s image. The Father has sent the Son, the Image of God invisible, so that we may be remade in his image. God has offered him up and raised him again from the dead. Jesus then ascended to the throne and sent the Spirit so that our broken selves may be put to death in Christ Jesus and made again in his image in his resurrection.

The fullness of the three-and-one God works together to reconcile us, to remake us. The God who first made the world now remakes us. They make us in the Image again, make us persons again. The God who made the world made us to be in God’s own image, the image of a God who eternally lives in community with one another. This is where we are in the Image of God – together. This is what John Wesley meant when he said “all holiness is social holiness.” Godliness happens in how we live together, how we treat one another, how we love God and each other. There is no Godliness outside relationship because God is community. And it is this God, the God who is forever loving another, that we are made to resemble.

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The Pentecostals

Acts 2:1-21
One hundred and eleven years ago, in Los Angeles, California, in an abandoned AME church in downtown, the one-eyed son of former slaves led a revival that would ignite the whole world. The people involved believed they were experiencing a last-days outpouring of the Spirit, signified by their speaking in unknown tongues. Most egregiously, these revivalists had integrated worship services, black and white worshiping together in the era of Jim Crow. They said that “the blood of Jesus washed the color line away.”  The papers were skeptical, describing what they saw as chaos. The LA Times, describing the noise of the unknown tongues, titled their front page story on the event “Weird Babel of Tongues.” Yet, these revivalists rooted themselves in another biblical story, calling themselves “Pentecostals.”

The biblical story of Pentecost happens in the second chapter of the Book of Acts, St. Luke’s sequel to his Gospel. Jesus has returned to his father in heaven and left instructions with the eleven to go and wait. Go, wait in Jerusalem, and Jesus will send them power from on high. The same Spirit who animated the ministry of Jesus will come upon them so that they may continue to carry out the work that Jesus started. So, after selecting a replacement for Judas, they go back up into Jerusalem and pray and wait.

So it came to what we call “the Day of Pentecost,” what the Jews knew as “the Festival of Weeks.” This festival marked seven weeks, or fifty days, from the time of Passover, when God secured Israel’s release from the captivity of Egypt, until Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the 10 commandments. God was about to give his people a new law, but instead of writing it on stone, he would write it on their hearts.

Then, they hear the sound of a rushing wind. As I like to point out, the word for “spirit” in Greek and in Hebrew is the same word as “wind” and “breath.” And it is the wind of that first blew over the void and made the heavens and the earth, the wind that blew over the Red Sea and made a way when there was no way forward. This same breath breathed life into Adam and Eve and made them into living creatures. This same creative force blew once again, making the world again.

Fiery tongues came and sat on each one of them. Fire was a sign of the presence of God, as it was on Mt. Sinai at the giving of the law when fire and smoke surrounded the mountain where Moses ascended. A fiery tongue itself in Isaiah represents the judgment of God against those who would commit social injustice. So this event is both a judgment against the way things are in the world and it is the grace to recreate the world as it should be.

Finally, there was speaking in other tongues. This is not the same kind of gift that we see over in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. Those tongues required someone with a spiritual gift of interpretation. These tongues were immediately understood by those who were traveling from other countries. They were speaking not some angelic language, but the language of real people, of travelers.
And when we speak of a world divided by language, we speak of the Tower of Babel. So, the LA Times was right to connect Pentecostalism to Babel, but not in the way they thought. In Genesis 11, mankind is judged by God for its hubris. Man unified and built a building that they believed that could reach the sky, climb the heavens. The judgment was not against the building itself, but against a kind of sinful unity, against the human monolith were human uniqueness is squashed.

So by changing their language and scattering them, God judged them but also offered a gift: the opportunity to know one another as other. To love one another in our differences.

But like many gifts, human sinfulness found a way to turn it into a weapon. So that these differences, our differences in language, our differences in places of origin, are bent into weapons of war. So today, we see a world overtaken by nationalism, an idolatry that claims that human differences are more important than the image of God in each of us.

Pentecost is a judgment against that. God judges nationalism, not by destroying our differences, not by making everyone speak the same language, giving one language priority over others and erasing our different histories, but by allowing them to understand each other in their different tongues.

So the theologian Stanley Hauerwas once preached,

“Attempts to secure unity through the creation of a single language are attempts to make us forget our histories and differences rather than find unity made possible by the Spirit through which we understand other as other. At Pentecost God created a new language, but it was a language that is more than words. It is instead a community whose memory of its savior creates the miracle of being a people whose very differences contribute to their unity.” (Hauerwas Reader 148-149)

Therefore, at Pentecost, God does not collapse all of our histories into one. He doesn’t create a new people by destroying our history. God allows us to see one another, to love one another, in our difference, not our sameness.

The real sign of the presence of the Spirit, the real sign of a Pentecostal life, is our ability to love each other in our differences, in our otherness. So, in 1 Corinthians 12, when faced with people who want to prize certain spiritual giftings over others, Paul says that it is the same Spirit who gives all of these gifts, so they are all equal. God works through all people differently, yet the same God works in all. Paul goes on to say in the next chapter that it is not any of those gifts that after all show the power of the Spirit in our lives. It is love, charity. The power of the Spirit, the power of the Spirit, is to hear one another, to love one another, to understand one another, in our different tongues, not collapsing them one into the other.

All of this, of course, is easier said than done. The Pentecostal movement did not maintain its unity. Eventually, it succumbed to the societal pressures of the world and fell back into worldly, racial divisions. A lot of pain and hurt happened in the process. The church that was born from the Azusa Street movement ultimately split into the mostly white Assemblies of God and the mostly African-American Church of God in Christ.

In 1994, the two Pentecostal groups separated by race gathered in Memphis to “recapture the initiative of the Spirit.” They wanted to return to the radical vision of racial unity found in the early days of Pentecostalism.

After signing a statement, one white Assembly of God pastor declared that God wanted him to wash the feet of a black pastor as a sign of repentance. As he washed the feet of Bishop Clemens of the Church of God in Christ, a wave of weeping washed over everyone in the place. They said later that God’s Spirit approving of the action. This event became known as the “Memphis Miracle.”

But this outpouring of the Spirit and the act of contrition did not fix all of the racial problems of the world. It didn’t even do so for the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. It didn’t erase all of the years of mistreatment. It didn’t fix all of the structures of the church that would allow them to become one church again.

Yet, in this, we see what it looks like when the Spirit is at work. The Spirit is at work when people who were not a people are unified not by allegiance to the same flag, not by the color of their skin, not even by similar views of economics. We know that the Spirit is at work when the only explanation we can give for these people joining together is that something divine is at work.

Loving one another is a miracle. Wherever we can truly listen to each other and hear each other is a miracle. It is the work of God. More than tongues, more than signs and wonders, there can be no greater sign of the Spirit than whenever we can hear each speak in charity. In these times of division, may the wind of Pentecost roar again and open our tongues and ears so we may hear each other in our otherness.

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Take Up and Read: Laying Down the Phone and Picking Up the Bible

Image result for free bible picture

Like many people my age, I struggle with an impulsive need to look at my smart phone. I found myself looking at mostly banal things, and I began to suspect the constant looking at silly vacuity on a screen was eating away at my brain. I had a difficult time concentrating on anything for an extended period of time, and I wondered if it had something to do with how much I looked on my phone.

Turns out, I was right to feel suspicious of my phone. In an article published back in 2014 by Psychology Today, Victoria Dunckly, a psychiatrist, claimed “excessive screen-time appears to impair brain structure and function. Much of the damage occurs in the brain’s frontal lobe, which undergoes massive changes from puberty until the mid-twenties. Frontal lobe development, in turn, largely determines success in every area of life—from sense of well-being to academic or career success to relationship skills.” Her observations mainly focused on childhood development, but it is not difficult to conclude that if screen time can have such a negative effect on children, it could potentially be adverse for adults as well.

Even with these negative effects confirmed, however, I found it difficult to simply stop looking at my phone consistently. It bordered on an addiction. I felt a tugging, like a cord hooked to my brain, pulling me away when I found myself lost in a particular thought for too long, or if, heaven forbid, I found myself in a moment of silence. I felt the urge to flood that quiet in my mind with the bright light of triviality, of Instagram pictures of friends’ food, plunging the endless depths of Wikipedia for its endless wealth of useless, often suspect, information. I had failed at quitting cold turkey, so I needed to ease myself off of this constant need.

I, therefore, followed the cue of those I know who wanted to overcome an addiction of some kind. Friends of mine in the process of quitting smoking carried water bottles in order to fill that gap left by smoking so that whenever they feel the urge to lift a cigarette to their mouths, they would instead drink water. It is important whenever you want to get rid of something from your life, a bad habit, an addiction, that you fill that space with something, else you will be more likely to relapse.

To fill the gap left by my smart phone, I began carrying a small New Testament with Proverbs and the Psalms. I first got the small Bible for my New Testament Intro class with Douglas Campbell, who encouraged us to carry it with us to read whenever we get a moment, as rarely as those come in graduate school. My friends and I jokingly called it the “Marcionite Study Bible” after the early Christian heretic who wanted so little to do with the Old Testament he even edited out Old Testament references from New Testament books. I would have preferred to carry more of the Old Testament than just Proverbs and the Psalms, but fewer books make the book more compact, more easily transported in my pocket.

I realize that few things can make me seem more “holier-than-thou” than forgoing looking at my phone to read my Bible. I do love the Bible, but in fact, I found stopping myself from looking at a screen in order to read difficult. It was important for this endeavor that I didn’t simply use a Bible app on my iPhone such as Youversion or Bible Gateway – I needed to pull myself completely from screens and from the temptation to slide on over from my Bible app over to, say, Twitter or Facebook. I needed to go analog.

After a few days of carrying my Bible around with me, I started noticing a few differences with how I read. Mostly, I read the passage I planned to preach that Sunday. At first, I only gave the passage a once-over, a quick glance. Then, I began to slow down. By staying with the passage and not moving on to something else, things leaped out at me that didn’t before, tiny details I hadn’t noticed. Questions began forming that hadn’t before. Eventually, it was like the text got inside me somehow, so I no longer read it but it read me.

Ancient texts like the Scriptures are not meant for only quick reading, but deep constant reading. My addiction to the easy hit of dopamine trained my brain not to stay with anything too long, but to flutter like an insect from one thing to the next. The scripture, as with all texts, requires attention, careful loving contemplation that most of our modern lives don’t afford room for. So we read scripture, but we never make room for it to speak to us, never really listen.

While I was in seminary, I took a directed study with Professor Campbell on the Greek text of Romans. It was Dr. Campbell, myself, and just a few other students in Campbell’s office. We would take turns reading the Greek text and translating it, a verse at a time. One day, my turn came up, and I wasn’t paying attention. Fortunately, or so I thought, the verse was one familiar to me, Romans 3:23. I recognized the verse so I just said:

“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”

“Is that really what it says?” Prof. Campbell asked.

“Uh . . .” I said, actually looking at the Bible this time.

It didn’t really say that. Instead, it said: “For all sinned, and lack the glory of God” (my translation, obviously). I translated it correctly this time.

“Why did you translate it the other way?” Prof. Campbell asked.

“I guess I had the NIV in my head,” I answered.

“Well get it out!” Campbell said.

Even with the original language in front of me, I found a way to not slow down and listen to the text. The difference between “have sinned” and “sinned” and “fell short of” and “lack” can seem small but are really monumental. People have built entire doctrines from less. Is “the glory of God” some sort of standard that we fall short of? Or is it something that we lack because of sin, but perhaps Jesus returns to us? I think it is closer to the latter. These tiny details are the ones I missed because I did not listen to scripture, I only read what I already thought it said.

Many times, what we actually read when we read scripture is not actually scripture, but certain constructs that we bring to scripture. It is very difficult to allow scripture to speak to us past our understanding of it, to let it put pressure on our reading of it. We do not come to scripture, or any text, as a blank slate; we always bring things with us. We bring our understanding of what it says and rarely allow it to actually speak. Only by prayerful attentiveness to the Bible can we allow the Bible to shout over what we think the Bible says.

I also cannot help but wonder if how we read scripture is inextricably linked to how we listen to one another. Or, rather, how we do not listen to one another but instead hear only what we think one another says. Instead of listening with charity, lovingly considering each word, we hastily draw conclusions about one another based on what we think they said, not what they actually said.

Perhaps, like the Scriptures, this happens mostly when we feel too strong a sense of familiarity with the person. I can tell you from experience that it is with the people closest to me, the ones I care about the most, that these kinds of misunderstandings occur. I do not intend to not listen; I believe I am listening, that is the deception. But because I believe I know what they will say, I more easily become distracted, inattentive to the person with me.

The two greatest commands God gives are to love God and to love one another and it is impossible to love one another without listening to one another, to hear what we are saying to one another. By allowing ourselves to become comfortable with being still and not pulled to and fro by flashing lights, we open ourselves up to God speaking to us through the Scriptures. This requires attentiveness and leaves little room for just assuming we understand. The text must push through to us past our false understandings and transform us. So too, with those we love, we must do the work of hearing one another. In our world of constant distraction, where we cannot do one thing without also doing something else, whether it be texting while driving or the constant background noise of the TV, the choice to not be distracted, to pay attention, we must make deliberately. We must choose to put down all distractions to live in better relation with God and with our neighbor.

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Better Living Through Headbanging: The Grammys, Metallica, and Why Mass Appeal Isn’t the Point

Metallica Performs with Lady Gaga (Getty)

Metallica Performs with Lady Gaga (Getty)

I never watch the Grammy Awards, mostly because they do not feature much music that I like. This last Sunday’s award show promised a rare exception: a seemingly odd pairing of Metallica and Lady Gaga. Metallica was the first metal band I ever loved. True, when I first found them, they were in the midst of their hard rock phase of Load and ReLoad, two albums scorned by many longterm fans. I will always love those albums because they introduced me first to the band, which led me to their thrash metal 80s output, and then opened up an entire genre to me. From there, as they say, it was off to Never, Never Land.

That they were performing with Lady Gaga was a nice bonus as well. I do not listen to much pop, but I enjoy Gaga maybe a little more than I would like to admit. I would like to believe it because I picked up on her influences: she is heavily influenced by metal acts and rock acts like David Bowie who, while not metal, are close to the hearts of many metalheads. It should have been an excellent matchup and while the band and Gaga held up their end, the performance was somewhat overshadowed by a couple tiny humiliations. The presenter forgot to introduce Metallica, mentioning only Gaga and then, Hetfield’s mic mystery became unplugged, leaving the performers to improvise a solution until well into the song.

This incident launched a number of hot takes, including The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who saw this incident and others as evidence of rock’s diminished role in the Grammys. Perhaps rock’s role has diminished in the Grammys and in popular music, but Metallica are not rock, not like U2 or Bruce Springsteen. They are metal and metal and hard rock never enjoyed a privileged status in the Grammys. Even more mainstream acts like AC/DC have never won anything more than “Best Rock Album”. The hard rock and metal legends Guns N’ Roses have never won a single Grammy award, not even for Appetite for Destruction, one of the greatest debut albums in any genre.

This is partially by design of course. Metal is simply not the kind of music that wants to be embraced on a wide scale the way that pop music is. In metal, the embrace of the masses can be seen as evidence of “selling out.” Just like Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer from Saturday Night Live, metal isn’t here to be your buddy. It’s here to punch you in the face.

Among the metal faithful, loyalty to the genre is as strong as ever. A 2015 study by Spotify found that metal listeners were by far the most loyal to their favorite bands and genre. Metal is more than just a type of music; it is a lifestyle. Its adherents do not just listen to a favorite metal song here and there, but whole albums, whole discographies. They go to tours, they wear the t-shirts. Metal is a music that inspires intense reactions: either you are completely turned off or you are converted.

I remember when I first encountered metal in middle school. I was a sheltered kid, only one year removed from a brief stint in home school. I was good, conservative preacher’s kid, protected from all forms of music but southern gospel and country. At Poplarville Middle School, the kids my age walked around in Marilyn Manson shirts and moshed at school dances. I was horrified. Metal is, at its core, a deeply alienating art form. It is frightening and intimidating. The one thing it isn’t, however, is boring.

In contrast, I spent a great deal of time recently listening to praise radio in search of new songs for our band to play on Sundays. So, the radio stayed on Christian radio. One day, I picked up my wife from work and as she got into the car, a new song started playing on the radio.

“Have you heard this one yet?” She asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“I only ask because I know you’ve been listening to this station for a couple of days.”

I searched my memory and I honestly couldn’t remember whether or not I had heard the song. Instead of distinct songs, my memory could only recall several hours of chiming guitars and mid-tempo drums with breathy, airy vocals singing of the greatness of the name of God or something like that. The sound of this song was indistinct from every other song that station played. Every song had the same sound: that of an even less interesting Coldplay.

I wondered if it was because of the music I had listened to prior to listening to my worship binge had been heavy metal. I have only in the last year or two discovered the wealth of great metal being produced now. After dipping my toe back in, I have dived in headlong. After a year of thudding double bass drums, chugga-chugga guitar riffs, vocals that alternate between the operatic and hearty yells, the timid sounds of modern praise music became diminished. And unlike the syrupy homogeneity of praise music, heavy metal is a broad, diverse genre, much too big at this point in its history to simply fit under the umbrella of hard rock. Some metal is melodic; some is harsh and aggressive. Power metal, sludge metal, nu metal, progressive metal – a wide range of sounds and subject matters.

Take, for instance, one album I found myself listening to quite a bit in the last few years, Foundations of Burden by the doom metal band Pallbearer. Neither the sub genre designation “doom metal” nor the morbid band name would indicate this, but the album is quite lovely. In the opening track “Worlds Apart”, a lead guitar plays an elegant melody line over a chugging rhythm section until lead singer Brett Campbell’s high tenor takes the lead nearly a minute into the song. The song itself is ten minutes long. The song is gorgeous, but the Arkansas-based band clearly took no consideration of how this would play on the radio. It is simply not made for quick consumption. It is a steak dinner, not a Happy Meal.

Another example is Atlanta’s Mastodon, a band that has quickly become one of my very favorite bands. Three of the four band members sing, and each with a distinct style, giving them endless sonic possibilities. Mastodon has no bad albums, but one of their best is Leviathan, a concept album based on Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Like its source material, Leviathan is dense and intimidating, made even more inaccessible by its big riffs and a vocalist who sounds like a goat-eating creature from folklore. “Blood and Thunder”, its opening track, is among their most beloved songs in the metal community, but it’s easy to see why a sludge metal song about classic American literature never received the same widespread play as “Hello” by Adele.

I wonder if what draws me continually to heavy metal is its brashness, its unwillingness to compromise itself so that others will embrace it. It doesn’t care if you like it. I wonder if it attracts me so much because I care too deeply about whether or not others like me, so much that I’m willing to reduce myself to the generic mediocrity of much of Christian radio, the kind of nondescript blandness celebrated by award shows. Perhaps that kind of homogeneity will win meaningless awards, but it will never do anything interesting, never stand out. The only sure way to be embraced by everyone is to be so indistinct, so inoffensive so as to not say anything notable.

When I need to charge forward, to motivate myself, to feel as though I could walk through a wall if needed, metal is the music I turn to. I need its intensity to push me beyond nondescript pleasantness, beyond my need to please everyone. Metal inspires me to do the difficult things. When you encounter it, don’t let its abrasiveness turn you away. You may find it a part of the appeal, and then its beauty, complexity, and its diversity will become more apparent to you. Open this pit up!

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The Case of the Introverted Pentecostal

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I spent many of my formative years in an assortment of Pentecostal churches across the state of Mississippi. They were the old-school, holiness variety, where matriarchs with tall buns would experience sudden shocks of emotion, standing, shouting, running all over the sanctuary, raining bobby pins wherever they went. On certain occasions, they would call those of us who were youth to join in, to experience what they experienced. We would come to the front and they would dab our heads with olive oil, urging the Spirit to pour out upon us, entreating us to give into a feeling they assumed we felt.

I did not do any such thing; worse, I felt compelled to do no such thing. I felt no explosive energy in my chest forcing me, almost against my will, to dance or shout or prophesy or speak in other tongues. I feared one of two scenarios: either I was unknowingly squashing that internal fire, “quenching the spirit,” or worse yet, I was not adequately sanctified for the Spirit to fill me. I was an unclean vessel, and so the Spirit would not come to fill me up. I was entering my teenage years, and I knew what darkness filled my soul, the way I now looked at the girls my age, the thoughts I now had about them. I could not worship the way the people in my church wanted me to, and I knew it was something that was wrong with me.

I was a sensitive child, but not overly expressive. I internalized things, and so I did with my inability to express myself in worship the way which others seemed to expect of me. I felt my feelings strongly, but I was not and am not overly prone to tears. This is not for any pretense of manliness, although I expect that intractable standard of Southern masculinity is more deep in my bones than I even now know. My own introspection fed into a recursive loop: I internalized my feelings, so I could not worship expressively without knowing I was faking it and, knowing that, I continued to look inward to find what inside me blocked that river of life from bursting from me like a flood.

We sang songs with lyrics like “we bring the sacrifice of praise.” Our God demanded a sacrifice, and we offered up our emotions in the form of shouting, in Jericho marches that took us around the sanctuary, and in dancing. I have no doubt that those who did these things did so out of sincerity, but I could not, so I suspected some sort of spiritual deficiency within myself.

Years later, I would find my self in a similar situation, with new faces demanding this same ransom. Instead of tall buns, they were goateed men with skinny jeans and guitars. They demanded I raise my hands and my voice and shout at the Lord so he would not pass me by, and only a desperate cry would make him turn his head. I stood by once again, but no longer willing to fake an emotional reaction I was incapable of.

Eventually, I found the Spirit working in me in ways that I never expected. I remember reading Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God in my home, reading about the breadth of God’s love, how it envelops us and invites us in, and felt an atomic explosion of joy in my heart. I discovered prayer book and contemplation and, in my time of prayer, with no one standing over me urging me, I prayed in tongues. I discovered that the Spirit moves in all sorts of ways to people with all sorts of dispositions.

For many of those who preach such expressive worship, they do so with the understanding that their emotions are a response to what God has done for them. The analogy goes like this, if you shout and get excited for football on Saturday, how can you simply sit on your hands for God when he has done so much for you than some sports team? This analogy assumes a great deal about how others watch sports. The little sports-watching I do typically takes place either in the form of either reclining or nervous pacing, with any shouting being nearly nonexistent. Something in my wiring makes such displays difficult.

Fortunately, there is no more sacrifices that we need to make. In Christ Jesus, the ultimate sacrifice has been made and praise has been perfected. As the theologian Marva Dawn has said, God is both the subject and the object of worship. Worship is not a work for us to achieve, but one accomplished already in our high priest Jesus, who now invites us to participate through the gift of the Spirit. So we do not need to compel one another to worship adequately, least God will not hear us or God will not be present with us. The God-Who-is-with-Us took on the weight of worship on himself in Christ Jesus.

Worship transforms us and reforms us, but God does not need our worship. God is complete in the fullness of the Godhead. God does not need our worship but we need to worship God. We need to worship God because we come to resemble the things we worship. When we worship the temporal things of the world we become like them, vapid and passing away; when we worship God, the image of God within us is restored and we are remade in his likeness.

God does not need your shout, but if God puts a shout in you, you better let it out. There is a place for that exuberant worship of the Pentecostal church. I still consider myself a Pentecostal and I celebrate the freedom for worship for those so inclined to worship with exuberance. For those of us not inclined to extroverted praise, we should have tools available such as the Book of Common Prayer and through the practice of silence. There is no need to forbid shouting or running the aisles. I celebrate the gift of those spiritual mothers and fathers in my life and I believe we need their voice in the church.

At Renovatus Church in Charlotte, it is a part of their manifesto that “liturgy and the primal shout” can coexist. I hope so, and I continue to work to reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable things. This is part of the mission of my ministry, to bring together the oil and water of Pentecost and liturgy and fusing them together. At the foot of the cross, there is room for worshipers of all dispositions to gather and adore.

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Your Daughters Will Prophesy

I was a teenager when I preached my first sermon. The church was a small Pentecostal congregation in Mississippi, the pulpit was my father’s, and the text was Acts 2. It wasn’t a bad sermon; it barely had any time to be. The sermon ran hardly more than a few minutes, consisting mostly of half-baked exegesis and a few nervous jokes.

The purpose of this particular worship service was to “get the youth involved.” Some of us sang songs, some served as ushers. As the pastor’s son, I seemed a natural choice to preach the message. So I did. And, in the spirit of the occasion, I preached something like this: when God poured God’s Spirit upon the Church, all of God’s people, young and old, male and female, became empowered to preach the Gospel. The theme of the service being what it was, I focused on the former couplet, the young and old, rather than the latter (the male and female). The latter concerns me more now.

Every denomination and church tradition has its problems. I write this as my United Methodist brothers and sisters are in the midst of their assembly and I watch as many of friends, some on opposing sides of some debates, seem to duke it out on my social media streams. From my perspective, they seem to have the women’s ordination thing hammered out, but they still grapple with all sorts of issues within their tradition. They have their issues; we have ours.

Our problems just so happen to include women’s ordination. We do ordain women and have for a very long time, longer than some might expect. Yet, we have formulated a sort of official glass ceiling: we have three tiers to ordination and women may only arise to the second level. This third level, which we call “Ordained Bishop,” carries with it the ability to vote on decisions affecting the whole denomination. So, as is often the case, the church permits women to do the work but not make the decisions.

Yet, we see in this Spirit that poured out on Pentecost a life-giving Spirit that throws the tables around. The Spirit introduces chaos to what was orderly. This disruption of order is frightening; I often fear it myself. But in my heart I know that why I often greet order with such gladness is that the order often favors people who look a lot like me. The Spirit turns the world upside down so that nothing of what you are or were in the old world matters because a new world has come where we can truly say with Paul that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).”

After all, the Spirit only does what Jesus did. Jesus invited women to learn from him. The Gospel was first delivered by a woman when Mary Magdalene proclaimed the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples. Women have always played an important role in the work of Jesus. His church must now catch up to him.

Fortunately, the theology department of Lee University, the Church of God’s flagship university and my alma mater, released a statement in support of women reaching full ordination status on their Facebook page. That statement, posted on April 6, 2016, read as follows:

“The Department of Theology supports the full participation of women in all vocations of the church. We affirm that God the Father incorporates persons into the body of his Son Jesus Christ and pours out the Holy Spirit upon them without discriminating according to their sex. We affirm that God calls women to every activity, office, and level of ordination in the church. We both renounce any restrictions on the ministry of women based solely on their sex and commit ourselves to the removal of any such restrictions. Finally, we strive to provide a learning atmosphere in which women can find their voices and discern, understand, and pursue their many indispensable vocations.”

This is an encouraging step from an organization that is helping to shape the future of the denomination. Pentecostalism is about the Spirit speaking through whom the Spirit may. Historically, the poor and the working class have found their home in Pentecostal congregations. While many liberal churches talked about the poor, the poor actually gravitated towards Pentecostalism. As one theologian quipped, “Liberation Theology opted for the poor, the poor opted for Pentecostalism.” They knew that the subversive Spirit of God gave voice to those who would otherwise be voiceless.

Listening to some of the past discussions my denomination has held on women’s ordination, however, it is difficult to wonder if many of these men, having found authority in the one place that would allow them to have it, now see their power as something to cling to. Having secured for themselves the only place where they are not just working class white men, they cannot bring themselves to empty themselves of the power to share it. Instead of disrupting the order of the world, they simply have remade it with themselves on the top and others, including women, on the bottom.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the kinds of arguments that attempt to explain away the arguments of opponents rather than taking them seriously and at face value. Yet, there is a kind of anger and fear behind the arguments that do not seem to fit with the arguments they actually make. The arguments themselves consist of the flimsiest of reasoning that does not hold up to reasoning: 1 Timothy 3 doesn’t say a bishop must be a man. If we are attempting interpret this literally in the sense that they often mean it, it says they “must be a husband of one wife.” Do we need to enforce a rule that any bishop in our church must be married? If so, does that mean Paul himself could not be a bishop in our church? Perhaps something else is at work in this verse. Those making these arguments do not flesh them in out in this way, nor do they follow their reasoning in any sort of logical end. The arguments do not flow from reason; they flow from fear.

Pentecost is the time to remember that it is not our income, nor our gender, nor anything else that we possess that gives us authority in God’s kingdom. Authority comes from the Spirit of God poured out on Pentecost. God empowers the ones who receive Spirit to speak, to prophesy, to dream dreams. And for God’s church, it is time for us to listen.

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Aquaman and the Undivided Life

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Among comic book characters, Aquaman has the dubious distinction of being both one of a handful of comic book characters the average non-comics reader can name without a Google search as well as being, throughout his history, a character whose name power hasn’t translated into publishing success. While other Golden Age characters like Batman and Superman have comics in continuous publication for nearly a thousand issues, no single volume of Aquaman has even broke 80 issues. Even worse, his name, though well-known, is more infamous than famous; his legacy is that of an irreducibly silly character with a useless power set.

Although talking to fish is a difficult power set to sell, especially when contrasted with a character as immensely powerful as Superman, it is not the power set in itself that is the problem. As a comparison, look at Marvel’s Daredevil, a character with perhaps an arguably even lamer power set: he is a blind man with the power to see. Yet, hardly anyone thinks of Daredevil in this way and that is for one simple reason: Daredevil is the most consistently well-written character in Marvel’s history. Since Frank Miller, Daredevil has enjoyed a murderer’s row of writers, from Ed Brubaker to Brian Michael Bendis to Mark Waid. Frank Miller found a niche for Daredevil that set him apart from being just a Spider-Man clone: Daredevil became a gritty, noir character in a world of ninjas and organized crime. Frank Miller’s hook made it possible for later writers to turn a power set that could have been a liability into an opportunity for great storytelling.

Yet there was no such opportunity for Aquaman. DC canceled Aquaman’s solo title and, during the eighties, the period that other characters made the leap into their more modern incarnations, published a mere 9 issues of Aquaman. During the nineties, writer Peter David crafted a successful run with Aquaman as a hook-handed, scraggly tough guy, but it never managed to supplant the goofy Super Friends character in the minds of the general public. David’s run would be perceived by some as DC over-correcting in order to make an acceptably dark and gritty character to fit the 90s aesthetic. Aquaman’s series would once again be canceled and, after one more attempt at viability, ultimately be killed off in story. It wouldn’t be until Geoff Johns’s 2009 crossover event Blackest Night that Aquaman would once again get a chance at life.

By that time, Geoff Johns had become one of the industry’s premier writers. He was already responsible for the rebirth of Green Lantern and was in the midst of retooling The Flash. As a writer, Johns has the ability to perceive what makes a character great, what a character lacks, and supply the character with what he or she needs to accentuate the core of the character. With Blackest Night, its follow-up Brightest Day, and culminating with the 2011 New 52 reboot of Aquaman’s solo title, Geoff Johns turned his creative energy towards doing for Aquaman what he had done for Green Lantern and The Flash.

Johns reassembled Aquaman essentially from the ground up. In Amnesty Bay, he received a base of operations comparable to Star City or Gotham. He returned to his Golden and Silver age alias of Arthur Curry, eschewing the modern, more fantastical “Orin.” As Arthur Curry, Aquaman struggles to truly live as an amphibian, living the life of an underwater royal and as a land-dwelling superhero. Geoff Johns left the book with issue 25 and the following writers would try, with varying degrees of success, to maintain his resurgence.

Two of the most successful of these stories, Jeff Parker’s Aquaman 28 and this past month’s Aquaman 49, written by Dan Abnett, both focus on the things unique to Geoff Johns’s revitalized character. This Aquaman is a public superhero: everyone in his hometown of Amnesty Bay knows Arthur Curry is Aquaman. And Amnesty Bay itself is a small town in Massechussets, so most of its inhabitants have some sense of familiarity with Arthur Curry. Issue 28 focuses on Arthur Curry’s high school reunion and issue 49 follows Arthur and his girlfriend Mera at the town’s annual Sea Festival.

So what Johns, Parker, and Abnett have found interesting is that Arthur Curry is a man who wishes to live an integrated life. Unlike virtually every other member of the Justice League, Arthur Curry is the same person at all times. He has no secret identity. Bruce Wayne dons a bat costume and becomes the vengeance and the night. Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered reporter until he reveals his godlike power as Superman. Aquaman is simply Arthur Curry wearing Atlantean chain mail and carrying a trident. Arthur Curry’s struggle is not to balance a dual life as Aquaman and his life as a regular person by keeping them separated. Arthur’s struggle is to live an integrated life. This, finally, is the narrative hook needed to make Aquaman a compelling character.

The struggle of Aquaman is one that we can recognize in our own lives: the need to have integrity. Aquaman is a man with two homes, Atlantis and Amnesty Bay. With each of these homes come different sets of responsibilities. On land he is a super hero, under water he is a king. Yet, unlike many of his colleagues in the Justice League, he does not respond to being pulled in two different ways by creating different identities for each aspect of his life. Many of us have a self that we are with our friends, the self we are at work, and the self we are with our families. The result is a divided life. Integrity means being the same person at all times. The struggle of Aquaman is to reconcile all these competing parts of his life without living a divided life.

While this makes Aquaman’s life maybe a little messier than that of Batman or Superman, perhaps it also leads to a healthier person. Aquaman is, after all, one of the few comic book super heroes to be in a relationship with the same woman for the majority of his existence. Mera is herself a superhero as well as his queen. She shares his responsibilities with him, both under sea and on land. He hides nothing from her and shares all with her. Possibly it is because he alone lives a whole life instead of several fragmented lives that he can maintain a long-term relationship. His fellow members of the Justice League (with the exception of Wonder Woman) all hide secrets from someone, if not nearly everyone. Aquaman does not, so his relationship with his queen can be founded upon trust. This makes him the most aspirational of heroes.

As DC comics approaches yet another rebirth, we’ll see if the next writer will continue to focus on this core. If the rumors are true and the new writer is none other than Geoff Johns himself returning to the book, then I believe we can be confident that he will continue to build on the foundation he has laid. His Aquaman has shown us that the undivided life is the only life we should aspire to.

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Favorite Things of 2015

As 2015 ends and 2016 begins, I thought it would be fun to do a year-end list, a staple of blogging that I have never attempted before. Here are a few of the things I enjoyed in 2015:

Best Film: Mad Max: Fury Road.

Many of you who know me well may have expected to answer with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars is imminently enjoyable, and mostly lives up to the hype, but I somewhat agree to the growing concern of some that the film is the  beneficiary of low expectations. Fury Road, however, is a tour de force of high-action storytelling. Through what is basically just an extended chase scene with scant dialogue, director George Miller manages to tell a very human story with fully realized characters. Film schools should use this film to teach big-budget action directors how to tell an exciting story without sacrificing narrative and character development.

Best TV Show: Daredevil, Mad Men (tie)

This was the year we finally said goodbye to Mad Men, which has been one of the greatest television shows of all time and began a string of successes for AMC that included the equally great Breaking Bad. Like Breaking Bad, I was satisfied with its conclusion, a rare feat for a show that sets such a high standard of continued excellence. Without it, I’m not sure what to do with myself. Fortunately, Netflix’s relationship with Marvel Studios yielded twin blessings in 2015 with Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It was difficult to choose between the two, but Daredevil’s intensity, fight choreography, and the fact that it was first, won the day.

Best Album: Pageant Material, Kacey Musgraves

My head tells me that I should join the chorus of voices praising Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly; that album is truly great, and will have no shortage of accolades from other year-end lists. However, I am a country boy at heart, and a well-crafted Country album will win my heart every time, and Kacey Musgraves has indeed won my heart. Pageant Material is charming, honest, and fun. Her songwriting is sharp, but never too clever for its own good. Musgraves manages to avoid a sophomore slump after her wonderful debut, Same Trailer, Different Park. Her future, as well as the future of Country music, looks bright.

Best Book: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

What else could it be? As Toni Morrison’s blurb on the back cover indicates, this book is required reading. Not only is this the most important book of the year, I can think of no other book that encapsulates 2015 better than Between the World and Me. This year awakened much of white America to what most already knew to be true: that we do not live in the post-racial utopia we would like to believe we do. There is not much more to say about this book that has not already been said. Go read it.

Best Comic: The Valiant, written by Matt Kindt and Jeff Lemire, art by Paolo Rivera (Valiant Entertainment)

As a lifelong comics fan, it has been heartening to see the growing quality of comics coming from all corners of the industry. It is a medium boundless potential, far beyond just superheroes and nerd culture. Image Comics has asserted itself as a top publisher along with the Big Two of Marvel and DC, making for a Big Three. In addition to Image, several smaller publishers have also emerged. One of these, Valiant Comics, is small in its output (releasing no more than ten comics a month) but focusing more on quality over quantity. Like Marvel and DC, Valiant boasts an interconnected superhero universe. The Valiant serves as a brilliant introduction to that universe; it is a compact story with stunning artwork by Paolo Rivera. The Valiant Universe will make it to the big screens soon, so now is a great time to hop on board and there is no better starting point than The Valiant.

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Minimalism as Spiritual Practice

“Regarding as nothing the things that most people value and rising above them, we live as in paradise, or rather as in heaven, set free from all constraints through our untroubled devotion to God.” – The Philokalia

It is trendy now, among my fellow Millenials, to live with fewer possessions, a practice known simply (appropriately) as “minimalism.” It is a trend as much as a necessary adaptation – we are a generation burdened by enormous student loan debt and bleak job prospects. I have taken to this trend myself for such a practical purpose: we have a curious, tenacious toddler and relatively little storage space to hide things from her. We have often found our energetic tot rummaging through our stuff, flaunting items as unburied treasures simply to disregard them in a growing heap.

I decided to curtail this tendency by getting rid of things that we didn’t need. After sorting through much of the stuff, we decided there was quite a bit we didn’t need. I am an avid music lover and own quite a few CDs, but have long ago transferred the majority of my music to MP3. In addition, we had a few TV shows on DVD that we no longer needed thanks to streaming services such as Netflix and HuluPlus. It would be a very simple process of emptying out our entertainment center of these unneeded relics of the pre-digital age.

Except, I soon learned, it wasn’t so simple. The problem was not with my collection; the problem was with me. The problem is not my possessions but my need to possess, my need to own. It wasn’t enough for me to enjoy The Office; I needed to have it. All of this sounds very silly and overblown when talking about DVDs and CDs, but I began to wonder how deep this went, how much this need to possess things, to capture them instead of simply delighting in them, affected my everyday life.

Perhaps, for others it is not music and movies, but clothes or books or who-knows-what. It is a demonic impulse, this need to dominate life, to stockpile the things I love instead of experiencing them for the time that they are there and then letting them go. We become possessed by the things we possess. The quote that begins this post comes from The Philokalia, a collection of spiritual writings of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The section from which this quote originates warns about the dangers of worldly possessions and how they “breed innumerable trials,” including anxiety and fear. Yet, when we let go of our attachment to the things of this world, we become free to make Christ our primary goal.

I do not mean to join a monastery any time soon, though I think there are those who are called to such a life. I do, however, mean to pare down my possession to what I need the most. I do still collect things, but I will moderate what I keep. All my music will now be digital and I will get rid of any CDs. I have gone through my closet to rid myself any clothes I cannot or do not wear. The few collections I allow myself to have, specifically vinyl records and comics, have restrictions. It is not much, but I have already found the act of minimizing to be liberating. I do not think that merely selling a few outmoded discs will make me St. Peter of Damaskos, but I hope that by releasing these possessions I can find myself released from my need to possess.

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Use as Directed: Some Thoughts on Communion

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I haven’t always held a very high view of the Eucharist. The Lord’s Supper was, for me, a symbol, as it is for many other Evangelicals and Pentecostals. I never seriously considered any different understanding of it. Despite the mighty shifts that shook my faith in my late teens and early twenties, my sacramental theology remained undisturbed.

It wasn’t until seminary when I started investigating the question of the Lord’s Supper. Unfortunately, it wasn’t often that the classroom itself prompted me to think in that direction. Instead, my coterie of friends, which included Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Catholics, challenged my underdeveloped sacramental theology to grow heartier. It was then that I started to think about what I believe about all of the sacraments, including the Lord’s Supper.

In retrospect, it is quite odd that Pentecostals possess such a meager eucharistic theology. After all, we are a people who believe in healing, demon-possession, mantles of anointing that can be shared with others, and prayer through televisions. It seems inconsistent that a people who already subscribe to such beliefs would have such trouble with the idea that Christ can be present, one way or another, through something such as a sacrament. After all, the manifestation of God’s presence when the people of God gather together in one accord is foundational to Pentecostal worship.

This contradiction becomes increasingly apparent when one considers the manner in which most Pentecostal communities celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The celebration typically includes a reading of Paul’s warning against abusing the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11, which admonishes the Corinthian Christians to take care in how they partake in the sacrament, as “Those who eat and drink without correctly understanding the body are eating and drinking their own judgment” (v. 29). So, it comes as no surprise that, with threat of damnation but with no expectation of grace, many Pentecostals often abstain from taking the Lord’s Supper. After all, if there is no promise of reward but only a threat, what do I really have to gain from it? That it gives me the opportunity to remember what the Lord did for me on Good Friday? I can watch The Passion of the Christ and do that and, as far as I know, no one ever brought eternal damnation upon themselves by watching The Passion of the Christ, despite its problems.

Things are looking up for Pentecostals in regard to Eucharistic Theology. Doctor Green is a professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tenn. His most recent book, Toward a Theology of the Lord’s Supper (CPT Press, 2012), represents an effort within the Pentecostal movement to develop a unique vision of the Lord’s Supper. I do not intend on reviewing the book fully here, but I will say that I am excited about its existence and what it potentially means for the future of the Pentecostal movement. Green examines the history of Pentecostalism and finds enough material there to begin construction of a truly Pentecostal theology of the Eucharist.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of something new. Hopefully Pentecostals and Evangelicals can find ways to incorporate communion within their worship services and their theology. After all, so much of charismatic worship centers on the idea of God’s presence in the midst of the people of God. Eucharist can do that better than any guitar or altar call. At the altar call, we offer ourselves to God; in communion, we receive God.

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