Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nashville manifesto

A few weeks ago some 150 Evangelical leaders posted their Manifesto on Human Sexuality. While it got a little press, as a news item, its importance faded pretty quickly. After all, what they said was pretty much what you would expect that group to say. Also, their timing was a tad off coming as it did during a major hurricane and North Korea firing off missiles, and Neo - Nazi groups marching in our streets.  They affirmed their opposition to same sex marriages and transgender folk. No surprises there. I noted the usual cast of characters signed the document along with one of our local pastors at First Baptist Jacksonville.

Of interest to me was Article 5 which "denies that physical anomalies or psychological conditions nullify the God appointed link between biological sex and self conception as male or female." There are two choices, folks. You are either Adam or Eve and it is simple as that. I don't imagine the Evangelical Leaders have had a chance to talk to anyone with  "Anomalies" or persons with "Psychological Conditions"relating to their sexuality. (I have a met a few who have dealt with such psychological  conditions related to their homosexuality and in several cases their psychological condition was caused by the treatment they received from Evangelical Leaders.) It is just too bad for them. God didn't mess up but they sure are in a mess when it comes to Evangelical Leaders. To be fair, the Evangelical Leaders do affirm "that those born with physical disorders of sexual development are created in the image of God and have dignity and worth equal to all other image bearers." It's just that as the Manifesto says later, "we deny that sexual attraction for the same sex is part of the natural goodness of God's original creation." And that, it is a sin to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and it is even a matter about which faithful Christians should NOT agree to disagree (article 10). Sound a bit harsh? Find out what that believer thinks about homosexuality before you invite him, or her to the church potluck!

James Bryan Smith in his book, The Magnificent Story, writes, "instead of starting with original sin, we ought to start with our original goodness." God created and then saw everything was very good. Smith points out that we are essentially beautiful, good and true. The original image of God cannot be distorted or marred or vandalized by our sin. Sin however separates us from God, from others, and from ourselves. Some Evangelicals see sin as an abnormality, or abnormal psychological condition some people need to get over before they can be accepted by God or God's people. I have seen sin as the reaction some people created in the image of God have experienced in the abusive ways they have been treated by Christian leaders and other church people. If they are not normal like Adam and Eve, they have called abominations to the Lord, coerced to change their sexual attraction, forced to leave churches unless they change. I have met many persons who have wandered from church to church looking for a church home that welcomes them until they have given up.

I attend a church where we all have different kinds of "anomalies" and we have a healthy mix of all sorts of psychological conditions. Some of the people in my church have been "lost sheep" like the ones excluded from the synagogues in Jesus day whom he reached out to, especially. Funny thing though is each and every one is created in God's image and while we take seriously the damaging effects of sin, we also take seriously that  Jesus dwells within us by faith and that Jesus is our hope of glory as Paul says, and that our life is already hidden with Christ in God. Ray Anderson wrote some years ago, "this means there is something of us already abiding in the very presence of God through Christ."

I have learned a lot from this church. Most importantly, as humhan beings we all have abnormalities and are beset from time to time with a wide variety of psychological conditions. What we need is the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. We don't need more bad news that only leads us further into despair.

James Torrance said. "Christ does not heal us by standing over us against us, diagnosing our sickness, prescribing medicine for us to take, and then going away, to leave us to get better by obeying his instructions, - No, he becomes the patient. He assumes the very humanity which is in need of redemption, ...and by his life, death and resurrection, our humanity is healed in him. We are not healed through Christ, because of the work of Christ, but in and through Christ."

Jesus has opened up to us a life of selfless love. That's a tough one but it's what we all need and if we are going to follow Jesus, that is where the journey leads.

Hurricane Irma

Hurricanes are major life disrupters. We just had one which scored pretty much a direct hit on Florida. That's right - on the whole state. The Keys were wiped out along with both the southern east and west coasts. Then the eye came over the center of the state so most inland areas felt the effects of Irma, as well. Jacksonville in the far northeast corner of the state experienced devastating winds and flooding from rain and storm surge. Where I live, about 25 miles west of Jacksonville, in a rural county, it was a mess of downed trees and power lines. We were without power for about a week. Although we saw lots of water our house did not flood like some others near us did. We spent a few days camping out at home and then moved over to our son's house only a few miles away where there was power.

The first couple of days were ok and my wife and I felt like survivalists living off the grid. Then, it got hot and we were sweaty, stinky survivalists and the pride we had taken in surviving was wearing off. We have a septic system so we had to stop flushing too or risk a backup. More stink. While I could relieve myself out in the wilds my wife was not going to use a cup inside. So by the third day, we were making daily treks to our son's house and then just moved in.

Hurricanes disrupt as I said. The routines of life are out the window and mostly what you do is figure out the next meal, the night's sleep, and where the nearest bathroom is. There are no lights so you make do with a flashlight and you make coffee with a camp stove. We had those and the power company was working hard to get people up and running. Many people down south of us and in the Caribbean Islands were really suffering with much less.

I was going to write about lessons learned but I did not learn much. What I experienced was the helpfulness of neighbors, the concern of family, and the community of church. Getting through this monster storm and its aftermath reminded me of what really matters and helped me make connections with people who cared. I saw the storm bring out the best and worst in people. At times, I felt my best and my worst.

One of the best descriptions of a Florida hurricane I've read comes from Zora Neale Hurston's, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Here is a small portion of it.

"The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."

If I learned anything, that might be it.

Friday, July 21, 2017

One little word

Eugene Peterson was a Presbyterian pastor for many years. Then, he taught Spiritual Formation at  Regent University in Vancouver, B.C. He has written numerous books on the Bible, Spiritual Formation and Pastoral Ministry.  I have read most of them. I use The Message, Peterson's translation of the Bible, for personal reading and for Scripture reading in public worship.  Eugene Peterson has been more than a helpful guide to the practice of Christian ministry, for me, he has been close to indispensable. I don't know if I would have survived as a pastor for 37 years without his writings. I know other pastors who would say the same.

So how did it happen that one little word called his entire body of work into question? One word and a Christian bookstore chain (Lifeway) was ready to pull all his books including The Message. One word and countless Christian bloggers were throwing him under the bus. One word and some Christian publications were calling for a re-evaluation of his life work. How did that happen? The little word was yes. Peterson said yes to the question of an interviewer who asked him if he would marry a same sex couple who asked him to do the ceremony. He said that over the years he had gotten to know several gay people who were also Christians and he admired their Christian commitment and service. So, he had changed his mind.

He did not change his mind about Jesus Christ. He did not change his mind about the Bible. He had not changed his theology. But, for some Christians he said a word that called into question for them everything he had ever said or written.

A day later it was reported that Peterson retracted his one little word. His critics breathed a sigh of relief and felt better about reading his other words.

Peterson is 84 years old. He has never been in the publishing game for fame or glory. He does not own a tv nor does he use the internet. He is clueless about the current state of our nasty social media culture. He is more at home in a medieval monastery in the wilderness than in a coffee house using wifi.

I believe he changed his mind. I believe he said yes and meant it. I believe he was blindsided by the blowback from the evangelical world. I believe someone retracted the statement. I believe he did not know what he was stepping into when he spoke his mind to the interviewer. Now he knows. I doubt whether he will have any more words to say to us.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Trinity Sunday, Why?

Last Sunday was called Trinity Sunday in the church year. It fell to me to preach on this Sunday. Not the most exciting topic to preach on, I was thinking. What will make it preach? I looked around at some other ideas, texts but no luck. I was drawn back to the texts for the day: Psalm 8, Genesis 1-2:4 and the very trinitarian verse at the end of 2 Corinthians.  Psalm 8 it was. Psalm 8 is a great Psalm of creation and praise to God, the creator. It calls us to humility - puny human beings, v4. Yet, created in the image of God, we are given a care taking responsibility over creation. There is not much that suggests the trinity, however. For that, the Genesis account of creation and the 2 Corinthians text are supportive. It also demonstrates why the Trinity is such a tough topic. It is not really spelled out in Scripture. It is more inferred. It took the early church leaders hundreds of years to iron out what the Scripure taught about the Trinity. What is the essence of God? Is God one or three? Are there three distinct persons, modes of being, or essentially one, three in one. There were years of debates leading to finer tuning.

Today, among Christians, the Trinity is accepted even if not understood. It is not as important as Pentecost Sunday the week before and is no where near as popular as Easter or Christmas. We might wonder why (or not, but if not we might wonder why not). The big emphasis in more recent theology is to see in the Trinity an image of God relating. The Trinity is about relationship. God is a community of love. Love is not an attribute of a static God but Love is who God is. God lives in this circle of love which God desires to share with us. We are created in Love to be loved by God and to share God's love with others.

Creation is not a statement of what God needs but what God gives. God does not need us or anything God created. God has no religious expectations of us and surely is not waiting to see if we merit God's love. God's overflowing Trinitarian love is wholly gratuitous.

If we start from the Trinity we won't get the wrong idea that we are here to please God, or help God out, or save the world! God is not waiting for us to buck up and get it right or God will let everything go to hell. It's not up to us, nothing is. God chooses, God loves in Christ and God has already done the heavy lifting. We need to receive the gospel and live it.

Our world needs God and the gospel of God's love. And we share it by living it. It's tough going though. Unfortunately, the general perception is that Christians are rule oriented, and performance obsessed and we have a certain type in mind of what a Christian really is - and others must measure up or they are not accepted. Love is not what most people think of when they think of Christians. Most Christians need to go back to square one which is the Trinity.

Why are you mindful of us, Psalm 8, asks. We who are of the ground (humans -adamah in Hebrew). So insignificant in the universe. So uncomprehending of the person and ways of God. So flawed and failed. Not given a great mission or great task that God needs us to do or else the world goes up in flames. Simply love people and take care of what God has given to us. The Trinity: Local, Organic, Good for you and others.

The Poor.... well you know

So there have been some things said in support of Trumps' budget proposal to cut programs that help the poor. His budget chief has said they are after quality not quantity and will put the money where it will do the most good. The Bible has been put to use as it often is in ways that buttress one's point of view. The poor you will always have with you is one of those verses or partial verses that Jesus purportedly said. The part of a verse is not given any context as if Jesus one day was handing out aphorisms. The other verse that has been popular among the politicians is a wise saying from somewhere in the Bible (it has to say it, right) about how cutting taxes to the rich will help the poor. There are lots of verses about the rich in the Bible but I cannot find this one. Then, there is the cabinet member who is in charge of housing for the poor, among other things, who stated that poverty is a state of mind. Gosh, I thought it had to do with childcare, putting food on the table and paying the rent.

It seems I have heard these things all my life. I've lived my life around Christians, mostly, as a pastor. Christians are giving people: toys at Christmas, canned goods for the food pantry, sponsoring children, and giving to missions. But, they draw the line often at giving handouts to the poor. They will say it makes them dependent on the government instead of taking responsibility for their own lives. If you are poor and broke in America, the evangelical financial guru Dave Ramsey says, it is because you need to make better choices so you can get better results. The poor will always be with us because some people make poor choices. Just look at what is in their grocery carts.

Two days before Jesus died he was in Bethany (means House of the Poor) in the home of Simon the leper (read outcast). Simon was probably poor but he did have a home to share with Jesus and some of his friends. During dinner, a woman entered with an alabaster jar (equals expensive) full of very costly oil, a luxury item even if you were rich. Although Matthew (ch 26) does not tell us it was rumored she was a prostitute who had used her earnings to buy the oil, or perhaps she was simply poor and somehow got her hands on some good stuff. She was out of place, poor and her presence outraged the disciples (see Mark 14 where it says they were angry and scolded her). She broke open the expensive jar and poured the oil extravagantly on Jesus. It was a years worth of wages wasted when it could have been spent on the poor (at least, if not on a vacation in Joppa for the disciples). Think of how many could have been fed? If she donated it to the Memorial Fund she could have had a plaque in her honor. Except, we don't know her name. Her acts will be remembered, Jesus said, but not with a brass plate on the Fellowship hall door.

Jesus says, chill out. She has done a good thing.... for the poor you will always have with you.

Jesus was poor, really poor. Most of the people around him were poor, outcast, and socially disabled. When Jesus talked about bringing good news to the poor he was not referring to a state of mind. He was talking about people like him. Who he knew. Who he lived with. When he said, Blessed are the poor he was not talking down to them. No, they were standing all around him. When he prayed, give us today our daily bread, he did not mean meet me for coffee and a scone.

Jesus was poor. He knew what he was talking about. He knew what he was bringing to the poor and it was not charity, a goodwill box at Christmas or a toy for a tot.

It was good news, the same good news the woman in the story had heard and proclaimed.

She undercut luxury.
She undermined money.
She understood the limits of charity and the system that kept it in place.

She underwent the transformation of the kingdom of God. She got it. Jesus was King. He was not taking over but turning over the kingdoms of this world.

It was a New Kingdom. It was a New Ethic.

Oil - what is that? What does it do for you? Why does it matter? Gold? Diamonds? So what, just stuff. You have Jesus. You follow Jesus the King. See Matthew 5.

Money runs out. Buys a few meals but it is no lasting solution to the poor. Community is, the community of the King.

She came out as poor in a poor man's home, in the village of the poor. They celebrated: yes we are poor and Jesus, our King, is poor and there always will be poor among us but we trust God now and for everlasting.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What is a eunuch doing in church?

What is a eunuch doing in the church? What is a eunuch anyway? Eunuchs were common enough in the ancient world. Jesus was confident that his hearers knew what a eunuch was (read Matthew 19:12). In Acts 8, the disciple Philip encounters a eunuch reading a passage of Scripture in Isaiah and explains it to him and then at his request baptizes him into the church of Jesus Christ! In her fascinating book, Sex Differences in Christian Theology, Megan DiFranza includes a study of eunuchs in the Bible and the culture of the time. Eunuchs could serve in some types of official positions but they were routinely despised. They were seen as "not normal", inferior males. Due to their lack of sexual organs, either naturally or involuntarily castrated, they were the "epitome of other". To Jews their identity as other, or outsider, prohibited Temple worship. Jesus, however, turned this thinking upside down with his (a Jewish teacher!) positive evaluation of them in the context of his teaching on marriage. This group of people who were commonly seen as sexually different, not really male or female, and morally suspect were given a new identity by Jesus and welcomed into the church by Philip who was led by the Holy Spirit!

This was at a time when the power structures of the ancient world were built on a chain of gendered being. As DiFranza says elite men were at the top, women were at the bottom and eunuchs and effeminate men were somewhere in the middle. Jesus challenged this powerful system when he said that those who renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom would no longer be defined by traditional gender markers. Their primary identity would be a non gendered one (DiFranza, p105). "In calling his disciples to learn from eunuchs Jesus was calling them to learn from those whose gender identity was not secure, to learn that gender identity is not the central value in the kingdom of heaven." (DiFranza, 105)

As our congregations are roiled by questions of sexual identity and gender issues today, DiFranza's book deserves a close reading.

Is the Old Testament Dead

The Old Testament is dying if not dead is the theme of Brent Strawn's new book, The Old Testament is Dying: A Diagnosis and Recommended Treatment.  Strawn does not mean the OT is really dead  but that it is practically dead in the sense that it is mostly forgotten. There is a long history of the neglect and at times purposeful ignorance of the OT. Recall Marcion in the early church and the attempts by the German state church to erase all OT references to Christianity during Hitler's reign of terror. The attempt to undermine the OT has always been there. Today we are reaping what we have sowed or not sowed. When I arrived at one of my first churches I was stunned to read in our confession of faith that we were a church founded on the New Testament. In my travels I see "New Testament" churches proudly proclaimed on their signage. Strawn does a good job documenting the decline of the OT in churches today. It is not read, or preached from, or taught or sung as the Psalms invite us to do. Instead, Strawn calls what remains of the OT a kind of "Pidgin" language. We can talk about the OT in dumbed down ways and we still tell the stories with their morals to children but the OT is not the meat that we eat. That would be the New Testament which is preferred over the OT. It is about Jesus after all and we are not so sure about that God of the OT. If we have to choose what we are going to read with our limited time it might as well be the NT (although Strawn cites surveys that show Christians don't read that much either). Even those churches following the lectionary readings every Sunday never hit on great chunks of the OT. Most Christians believe that the NT has subsumed the Old. Whatever is important has been taken up in the New. There is even an animosity toward the Old that is signified by saying things like, "well that was in the OT but Jesus said this." We are followers of Jesus but not the OT.

Well, Jesus followed the OT. He prayed from the OT, and studied the OT, quoted the OT at the great turning points of his life. Like Psalm 22 from the cross! OT books like Deuteronomy are frequently referenced in the NT. The OT was the only Scripture the early church had. The NT writings were added to the OT and apocrypha which was the whole Bible then. (The apocrypha was part of the Scripture until the Reformation which made those works non-Scripture for Protestants). The OT is the revelation of God just like the NT is.

Wherever the OT has been dismissed or ignored anti-Semitism has been close by. Why do we choose to call it the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible. Why do we produce Bibles that are really only the New Testament. Why is it so difficult to find Christian worship songs that come out of the Old Testament.

Strawn has recommendations for the treatment of this problem. Mostly, they have to do with reading it so that it becomes a vital part of our faith and life again. We can pray the Psalms as Jesus and Paul did. We can sing them too with the help of modern groups like the Sons of Korah. We can study the OT for what it shows about God who is the only God of the Bible. I am not optimistic that Srawn's recommendations will do the trick. The OT may be too far gone. As in Josiah's day we need a miracle  of rediscovery.