How to Be the Church in America? Be Batman

batman 75The shadow of a bat, encircled in light, rends a dark sky over an even darker city. Criminals,
stopped mid-sentence in the false bravado of a murderous threat, lose their dignity, stumbling over each other to get away. The scared, the oppressed, the victimized, and the used see the first glimmer of hope reflected from the liht in the sky. Countless fans, kids and adults alike, watching Gotham from afar know the exciting part will soon burst forth from the shadows. Dread, hope, and thrill. The Bat Signal is remarkable in its ability to simultaneously elicit such varied reactions.

Seventy-five years ago today, the man behind this symbol made his debut appearance. The Batman has had quite the career since. Fighting criminals, freaks, mutants, aliens, and even Superman has made him one of the most successful comic characters of all time. And he still gets around quite well for his age. The Caped Crusader had barely finished Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, the embers of his renewed fame still glowing hotly, when it was announced we would see Superman appear opposite the Dark Knight for the first time in film. The image of the bat boldly shining over Gotham, for all the time that it has shined, still means a lot to us.

When I was a kid, Superman wasn’t strong enough to grab my attention. Star Trek seemed but a pointless wandering. Tales of Spiderman couldn’t ensnare me. But I always heeded the Bat Signal. After a few years of a mysterious disappearance, the Dark Knight returned to my attention with the release of Batman Begins. I fell in love with it and the subsequent films, but something was different this time. Being older, I saw more of the evil from which Batman was trying to save us. His role was no longer simply adventurous; it was necessary for the survival of his people and of his own soul. A brief perusing of the news showed our worlds were not that different. Evil triumphed and the oppressed tried to pick up the pieces. The change in my appreciation was no more apparent than, one night after watching The Dark Knight with some friends in Alabama, I made a surprising (even to me) offhand comment: “I wish the church in America looked more like Batman.”

At first I honestly wasn’t sure why I said it. but as the conversation continued (and continued in my head long after I’d gone home for the night), I realized my comment was born of the same hope that had grabbed my attention as a child. A week of illness gave me a week to contemplate the gospel according to Gotham. Before that week was out, I was able to say with full confidence that American churches burdened and blessed by privilege and material things, much like most of the churches I had encountered in my personal life, would look more like Christ’s plan if we borrowed some moves from Batman’s book.

Batman’s origins look like what ours should. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter-ego, is born into wealth. He doesn’t choose it; it just happens. Whether or not the various portrayals of Bruce respect or reject his parent’s concern for the plight of Gotham, Bruce has no life-altering desire for societal justice until the murder of his parents shows how bad the world really is. Whether or not we are individually wealthy, those who attend materially privileged churches reap the benefits of those who went before us, much like Bruce. And like Bruce, we won’t be motivated to grow the Kingdom of God until we get a grip on how bad things are for all of us, particularly those left behind by society (hopefully it won’t seeing our parents shot to create this epiphany).

Batman’s handling of his privilege looks like what ours should. Given the Wayne fortune, Batman could have easily given up on Gotham, retreating into his own wealth and power. Or he could have, awash in guilt, discarded it all. Instead, Bruce leverages his resources, education, and talents wholly on his calling. Many American churches face these same temptations, forgetting that God expects much from those who have been given much.

Batman’s handling of his pain looks like what ours should. Batman makes a unique superhero because he shares so much in common with many of his enemies, most notably their pain. The Rogues Gallery is full of twisted shells of human beings who have been legitimately wronged. What makes Batman different? The choice to focus on preventing that pain from afflicting anyone else, rather than choosing revenge. As human, we have each been hurt. But the church is asked to take the gospel everywhere, even where the people who hurt us live, and pray for those who persecute us.

Batman’s growth into the Batman looks like what our growth into ministry should look like. Unlike superheroes born that way (Superman) or superheroes who achieve powers abruptly, Batman takes years, nearly two decades in some portrayals, to go from the scared and angry young orphan to the protector of Gotham. What does he fill his time with? Exercise, study, planning, exercise, study, planning. It takes a lot of time and money to become the Batman. Why do we think emulating Christ and His perfect love and service should happen overnight?

Batman’s role in society looks like what ours should. Batman is a bit of an ornery guy at times. Unlike some heroes, he manages to anger everyone at some point or another. When he can work with society, he finds who he can trust and builds a relationship with them (Commissioner Gordon, for example). But when the authorities are corrupt, he holds to his moral code no matter the circumstances, bringing down justice on street thug and corrupt official alike. In Batman’s refusal to blindly join any one camp in society in order to follow his code, I see the Christ who reveres God and His Temple but chases out those who have gained control of it. What parts of society does the church today blindly follow when we should be making our own path based on God’s plan?

Most importantly, Batman’s complete devotion looks like what ours should be. There are skills, talents, and resources typically associated with law enforcement and crime fighting. They form but a small portion of what Batman leverages in his fight for Gotham. His wealth, his detective skills, his use of his Bruce persona, his creativity, even his body. All is offered up for justice. The church is built on the Christ who tells us to take up our cross, the symbol of complete sacrifice, daily and follow Him. There are things we typically consider ministry (like preaching, evangelism, and planning a canned good drive), but they form but a small portion of the talents God has given us and the things we are called to do on behalf of Christ to serve those around us.

When the Bat Signal ignites the sky over Gotham, evil trembles and the oppressed find hope. I pray the American church, in all of its power and resources, can reflect the cross of Christ in a way that makes evil tremble and the oppress find hope.

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How to Be the Church in America? Be Batman

Mental Institutions, Fast Food, and Crazy Christianity

ImageLast week, while the bank accounts of countless Americans were growing acutely aware of the ending month, a man north of the border was taking the opposite approach to personal finance. While on vacation in Halifax, Canadian Richard Wright sent a buzz throughout social media channels by giving out high denominations of cash and silver to strangers throughout the city. Ultimately, the incident attracted police attention and Wright now finds himself detained for mental evaluation. Supporters see him as nothing more than an extremely generous individual, and a social media campaign has sprung up in response, even garnering the attention of Occupy Wall Street.

I’ve never met Wright and I am not a mental health professional, so I won’t hazard a guess as to his sanity; however, a quick perusing of comments on the relevant news articles (I know, I know, never read the comments) show a great many people think this guy is nuts. He ignored his family on vacation, he squandered resources that could have been used by his family or a “real” charity, he put himself at risk by carrying that much cash in an urban center, etc. The reasons vary, but the conclusion is the same: Wright’s radical actions are proof of instability.

I chuckled at this story at first, but as time has gone on, I’ve realized I wish more Christians were in mental institutions. And no, not just the Christians I don’t know how to handle. In what can feel like a calculated attempt to rattle our desire for “normalcy” (and maybe it is), Scripture routinely admits that this path is madness. John’s gospel begins by telling us about the light of Christ shining in the darkness, and the darkness wasn’t about to wrap its mind or clutches around the light, like oil and water separating. The core doctrines of the Christian faith are a stumbling block and foolishness to outsiders. Paul, responsible for so much of Christian theology, is called insane by a prominent political leader.

What does the gospel’s foolishness mean for our lives?

It means we won’t, and can’t, look down on or be offended by those outside the Church when they don’t act like us. C’mon, folks, next thing you know we’ll be offended by fish acting like fish or bananas tasting like bananas. It makes as much sense as being cured of cancer but hating cancer victims. It’s worth noting Jesus never really freaks out about people who don’t act like Him. He just gets to know them and offers Himself. He saves His fireworks for the folks who say they have it together but don’t.

It means we won’t see ourselves as normal. After centuries of quasi-Christian cultural hegemony, we feel comfortable calling things we don’t like “alternative lifestyles.” During the Olympics, a small faux controversy flamed up over NBC calling an athletes decision to marry, have children, and serve as a minister an alternative lifestyle…and NBC was right. To choose to be a Christian is to choose to be a freak. We don’t get to set ourselves up as the police of normal when Jesus and the apostles didn’t even see themselves that way.

It means we betray the distinctiveness of the gospel when we play to the lowest common denominator. This one might be the hardest to stomach. Speaking of stomachs, there’s a dense blob of fast food chains across the highway from Baylor, creatively known as “fast food row.” Each restaurant serves its own slight variation on a common theme of processed beef and marginal nutritional value. It tastes awesome at the time, but won’t do much for you down the road. There is precious little genuine distinction. Unless they have a dietary need, the decision to go to one establishment or the other is born out of either a blind unquestioned allegiance or a random craving for a particular taste.

Humans like to feel accepted, and we like to have our way. So we as Christians ask any and all to get involved in a social justice campaign, because it should make sense to anyone. Or we assert that certain laws should be passed because we think anyone of any faith should be able to agree to a vague Judeo-Christian framework for life, even if they are fully opposed to those faith groupings. Whether these mass appeals come from the progressive or conservative groups of Christians, they all cheapen the foolishness of the gospel. Christianity is made to be no more distinct than a generic fast food patty. This betrays the gospel and devastates its potential to spread. Why would anyone bother with all the hard parts of being a Christian when they can get the exact same thing at McIdeology down the road?

So what does it take to keep from turning God’s redeeming love into processed beef filler? Embrace the crazy. It feels scary, but can be so freeing. In the words of Gnarls Barkley, there’s something so pleasant about that place. It’s because the madness frees us to follow God’s hope and love. We can dream big about a better world that has been promised. We can have an answer for why we have so much hope or act the way we do (and I don’t mean something as pat as, “Because I go to church/am a Christian.” We can love so scandalously that people think we’re crazy, even if they throw us in a mental institution like Richard Wright. If darkness can comprehend the light, it shouldn’t be able to comprehend those who reflect the light.

Mental Institutions, Fast Food, and Crazy Christianity

I’m Conservative…and I Hate It

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Most people would call me a conservative, and I can understand why. I believe in absolute truth, and I believe Jesus Christ is Truth. I believe and follow several beliefs and standards often associated with conservatism, particularly in American politics. If a survey or research project counts me amongst conservatives, I don’t bat an eye.

But I hate that word. When I hear it in the church, I involuntarily cringe. Why? Because words are powerful. Words don’t just describe; they have the power to create. The ancient Jews knew this. Look at Genesis 1, whose author tells us of God’s creative power through words. Or a Hebrew lexicon, which will reveal one particular Hebrew word can mean “word” or “thing.” Even today, just look at how Obamacare and the ACA, two names for the same law, affect perceptions of that law. The right or wrong word makes all the difference between healing and injury. And the word “conservative” has been hamstringing the church.

Let’s look at “conservative.” The first definition at dictionary.com tells us conservative entities are “disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.” Merriam-Webster offers an adjectival meaning of conservative as, “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”. And Wikipedia tells us, “Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others, called reactionaries, oppose modernism and seek a return to ‘the way things were'”. Based on personal observation, the preferred social order to be returned to is usually somewhere between 50 and 250 years ago. The highlights of this era, in the US alone, include slavery, racist laws, unChristlike treatment of women, and debtors’ prisons. Today’s social order isn’t much better, rife with the same old problems redressed behind shiny new veneers and viewed through iPads instead of pamphlets and newsreels. What exactly is it we’re so excited about bringing back or keeping?

Contrast those descriptions with what we see in Scripture. We see a Christ who threatens the existing unjust and impious social order, flipping tables and driving it out. This Christ tells us His Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a small thing capable of quickly overwhelming a garden (If Jesus was in the South today, would He compare His Kingdom to kudzu?). He tells us that the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Kingdom. Here’s the thing about gates: they are inherently defensive. They don’t move. They keep. They preserve. They conserve.

Sometime in the past, keeping the faith became confused with keeping the social order. Much to the delight of politicians and other “powers that be”, many Western Christians have become convinced that holding beliefs that look conservative also means conserving the social order, even if the preferred social order contains horrid injustice in the eyes of God. Like the Pharisees, we strive after the Law, but the poor starve, God’s beautiful Creation is scarred by our machinations, and the marginalized are told they should stay in their ghetto until they look like us. We forget that those hated by American conservatism are those with whom Christ lived and ate. I believe there are many commands from Christ that look conservative, but when the label overtakes the loving person of Christ, it becomes an idol. Our label becomes our god, and the god Conservatism demands we murder God’s hope, love, and transformation on its altar.

Being labeled, by ourselves or by the world, as conservative is not a free pass to neglect to love our gay, Muslim, atheist, homeless, black, white, racist, or any other kind of neighbor just because someone might think we’re liberal, nor does it free us from acting on that love. Being labeled conservative does not get us out of caring for the Creation that God made out of love for us just because “progressives do that hippie stuff.” Being labeled as conservative does not get us out of acting like Jesus of Nazareth, who refused to be held back or limited by the political labels thrown at Him.

Why do I hate being conservative by the world’s standards? Because there is more to Christ than an ideology, there is a person and there is love. There is hope and promise for a better world. And I’m terrified of losing Him in the fog of America’s culture war. 

I’m Conservative…and I Hate It

Peace, Prosperity, and Urban Gardening

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Yesterday, the first roots and seeds of this year’s garden found their way into soil and peat. The deep, rich smell of wet earth is simultaneously intimately personal yet ancient and transcendent. It recalls childhood springs gone by, and not-so-distant ancestors who joined the struggle as tenant farmers, and a God who planted a garden and invited us to get our hands dirty with Him. A God who, by telling us to take care of His garden and calling it good, teaches us that both the pleasure and the work found in seeds and clay and manure honor Him.

My garden is a little less traditional than that of my ancestors. I, like many other Millennials, live in an apartment. But thanks to the collection of practices known as urban gardening, I’m able to enjoy getting my hands dirty even on rental property. Urban gardening, however, is about much more than what it does for me. Every scoop of dirt and every picked pepper tell me that urban gardening can and should be an important part of Christianity’s future.

To look to the future of our calling, we need to look at our past. When Jewish survivors of the Babylonian conquest were led into exile in Babylon. When faced with the decision to assimilate or wall off their culture while in exile, Jeremiah gave them what had to have been an astounding message from God. In Jeremiah 29, the exiles are told to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.” Early in the chapter they are told to plant and eat of what they plant, a sign of permanency and involvement. This is a God who wants His people to make gardens and put down roots, like He did, even amongst the chaos of exile. This is a God who wants His people to make their cities better, whether or not our neighbors follow Him.  And if the church wants to be His people, we will work for the peace of New York, Tokyo, or whatever other Babylon in which we find ourselves placed by God to sojourn.

Our planet is becoming increasingly urban. Only 100 years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. As of 2010, 6 out of every 10 did. By 2050, it is projected 7 out of every 10 will. If this comes to pass, the impact will be extraordinary. Concrete and steel will choke out more green space. People will increasingly leave the land for apartments. As a result, the UN projects we will need to sustainably produce 70% more food by 2050. And one can imagine the impact of sprawl and pollution as urban centers continue to explode. Where can the church seek peace and prosperity in that? On porches, and balconies, and courtyards, and roofs overflowing with God’s beautiful plants.

Urban gardening provides churches serving in urban contexts with an amazing opportunity to fulfill Jeremiah 29 (and many other scriptures). Imagine if more urban churches, particularly those in more metropolitan areas, engaged in urban gardening. What would we, and the rest of the world, see?

We would see more people, Christians or not, reminded that they are made in the image of a creative God. You have to be truly creative to get certain crops to grow in the urban context. A quick Google of “urban gardening ideas” will show you a cornucopia of pallets turned into vertical herb gardens, tubs and pipes repurposed into self-watering planters, and dead spaces reimagined into thriving gardens. Reconnecting with God’s purposes for us to creatively work to better His creation would certainly lend more peace and prosperity to a city.

We would see more green and less grey. This is easier on the eyes, but also on the rest of the body. As any 4th grade science class will tell you, plants help our planet regulate heat and carbon.  What a beautiful way to fulfill our God-ordained roll as stewards of Creation, even among our inorganic metropolitan jungles. The benefits obviously wouldn’t end with those who belong to Christ. Anyone in the area would find more peace in a city made greener by Christ’s church.

We would see more fresh local food made available to those experiencing material poverty and malnutrition. The easy availability of junk food and the premium price affixed to far too many fresher options serve as dual impediments to urban nutrition. Those who can afford healthy nutrition could band together to bless those who can’t. And rather than simply handing it out, why not invite our neighbors into our efforts, getting to know them while we work together to decrease hunger? Decreasing malnutrition would go a long way in increasing peace and prosperity.

Does urban gardening take a lot of work and patience?

Yes…but so does following Christ

Could urban gardening get us out of our comfort zones?

Yes…but so does following Christ

Would urban gardening require lay people devoting to God skills like scientific reasoning, infrastructure planning, research, and others we often don’t associate with church ministry?

Yes…but so does following Christ.

Interested in urban gardening? Well get moving! Nearly every growing zone in the United States is either experiencing sowing season or will in the next few weeks. What are you waiting for? Use your God-given talents to research and plan. Get your friends involved and engage in the kind of community God designed us to crave. Dig. Enjoy God’s Creation and praise Him for it. Relish what it produces. And while you’re out there, maybe you’ll catch a vision for a little more peace and prosperity in your city.

Peace, Prosperity, and Urban Gardening

Giving Up Tax Exemptions for Lent


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This infographic has been making its way around Facebook lately. Honestly, I have no idea if even one of these stats is correct.  The numbers didn’t catch my attention; instead, it was some accompanying thoughts from my friend Jarell. Why? He didn’t simply lash out against it (“We deserve these tax breaks!”) or agree with it (“Useless leaching churches!”). Jarrell included a little bit of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination.” Jarell’s post wondered what could happen if churches set aside the money we save in tax exemptions, using it for relief of hunger and homelessness.

In that moment I saw a fleeting glimpse of this reckless love in action, and it was breathtaking. Believers, on a national scale, humbly choosing unconditional love and connection over expectation, privilege, comfort, or safety. An increasingly diverse culture seeing God, without fear, on the move among them.

But that wasn’t the first time I’d caught such a glimpse. Emperor Julian, the last avowed non-Christian Roman emperor provides us with one through a letter he wrote to Arsacius, a regional high priest. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.” Julian goes on to instruct the high priest to teach the faithful that they should engage in public service. Elsewhere he relates that the Roman government will be providing food to be distributed by the temples in order to show that those of his faith care about society.

Just dwell on that. The early church was so involved in caring for society that one of the most powerful people in the world felt that it shamed his religion. He therefore planned to start a proto-welfare program in order to improve public relations, hoping to beat us at our own game. Our spiritual ancestors instigated all this in a wildly diverse and divergent culture, not unlike what we in the West are experiencing today.

So why did Jarell’s musing grab my attention when so many churches already do such a beautiful job of embodying Jesus’ calls to serve? There is always more that could be done, but maybe I’m not hoping for a strictly monetary change as much as I’m hoping for a theological and ideological change. I hope for a church that gives up the fears and limits that keep us from prophetically imagining and realizing the coming Kingdom. If we do that, any needed monetary changes will follow.

Today is the beginning of Lent, a time of somber reflection and fasting leading up to Easter. The name for this season originally simply meant “spring.” For even longer than “lent” has been used to describe the forty days before Easter, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged seat at the table of Western culture. This comes with all manner of trappings, including but not limited to political office, influence over the arts, and tax exemptions. Whenever that perch is threatened, there is a great roar from large swathes of the church, arguing that our privilege allows us to do more for the Kingdom. Maybe, in order to free us to imagine and cultivate more first fruits of the coming Kingdom, it is time to give up for Lent any expectations of privilege. Not just for the forty days of Lent, but give them up for and toward lent, spring, as part of the coming spring of God’s Kingdom. When we give up our cultural power, we will look more like the Christ who gave up His glory in order to serve us. And if His example tells us anything, the end result will confound the Julians of our day. May we be a church so enamored of building the Kingdom that we make the powers and social safety net programs of this world jealous of our service and love to all.

Giving Up Tax Exemptions for Lent