Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The last word

I had never had a fig from a fig tree until I moved to Florida. Our son and daughter in law have one in their yard. I had tasted figs before in fig newtons but I was a little leery of taking a bite out of a real fig. It was pleasant both the texture and the taste! It was in full bloom carrying lots of figs.

The story that both Mark and Matthew tell about a fig tree that stood outside Jerusalem is not so uplifting. It is more like a judgment story. Jesus is hungry and looking for figs and finding it unfruitful curses it and it withers and the disciples can't believe what they have just seen. When they look to Jesus for an explanation, Jesus turns it into a lesson on faith and prayer. Jesus says faith will make it possible for the disciples to wither fig trees ( or to make them fruitful, I suppose) and to move mountains - actually to make them jump into the sea. Obviously, Jesus is speaking metaphorically here.

F. Dale Bruner who comments on this passage after consulting just about everybody admits no one seems to know conclusively what Jesus meant by the cursing a fig tree. It is clear that he was angry, he had just cleaned out the temple. He was hungry. He'd had a few days filled with ups and downs (the Triumphal Entry!) And he was heading for the cross at the end of this week. He had a few things on his mind.

The disciples were not getting it. They question, doubt and get things wrong. Jesus repeats his simple lessons. This is not the first time he has taught about prayer. "Ask and you will receive", has been a common theme.

Other New Testament scholars have dealt with this tough passage in other ways. They assume there was some meaning here. Jesus did not just wither a fig tree for no reason. We might if we could. We would have been very frustrated and angry even if we don't think Jesus was. St John Chrysostom could not accept that Jesus was really hungry so he said Jesus was play acting. We try to make sense out of this any way we can.

Mary Gordon, the writer, is ok with leaving the ambiguity there. We think we know how Jesus felt because we have shaken our fist at a rain filled sky, and kicked at the door of a closed restaurant when we are hungry; what Jesus is doing is what we do when we are up against something we cannot change. This fig tree had no figs because it was not supposed to, it was not the season for ripe figs. Jesus, who calmed the sea with a word, and told his disciples they can make mountains jump, could make a fig tree out of season produce figs if he wanted to. He does not, he says it will be forever fruitless.

Mary Gordon finds a lesson of Gospel Truth here: not everything turns out well.

That is certainly what the parables in Matthew 21 - 25 seem to be about. And, the Temple was just cleansed had not turned out well so it needed Jesus' surgical strike. In a few days, Jesus own life would take a very bad turn.

Most of us have been frustrated with ministry at times. Things way too often do not turn out the way we hoped. I have not moved many (any?) mountains in my day. I have prayed over fruitless fig trees. There is a curse over our lives ("Far as the curse is found"). Fig trees don't ripen out of season, we bang our heads against the walls of our limits. We cannot make ourselves, or others, fruitful.

In Mark's telling of this story (Mark 11), Jesus ends up with a word about forgiveness. "Whenever you pray, he says, and you remember anything you have against anyone, forgive them so your Father in heaven may forgive you." (Mark 11:25). Does that mean those who have cursed you, causing you to wither? Or those who are frustrating you, reminding you of your limits, making your life feel so fruitless?

Maybe the lesson Jesus gives is not to let our curses be the last word?

Friday, December 25, 2015


In the corner of the downtown parking lot
after we carried out the natural tree from inside (with ornaments falling)
and wheeled out the communion cart
and passed out the liturgy
the priest, Mother Mary, welcomed us.

Father John read the gospel from Luke (you know) for the day, it was four in the afternoon
Christmas Eve, Pastor Susan gave us the Word, One man from the church without walls sang O, Holy Night with a trained voice that was a little cracked and weary. His sneakers were well worn, too. So were his loose fitting jeans. What was his story.

We lit candles from the Christ candle at four in the afternoon. A slight wind blew some out. Wax dripped on the warm day. Silent Night. We broke bread and sipped apple juice. Passed the peace. While children climbed trees and rolled down the hill. Parents watched and lined up to partake. Hugs all around with snacking on cookies and coffee. Bags of food for those on the go. Someone left a box of Bibles and some clothes. Some left on bikes, some in cars and the rest walked back downtown to find a place for supper and the night. Like another Christmas eve long ago when God came in the flesh that gathered us all. God is here. Incarnation.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bridging the Muslim - Christian divide

This week Wheaton College, the evangelical college near Chicago, suspended a popular political science professor for a recent statement of her beliefs. Dr. Larycia Hawkins had taken to wearing a hijab in public during Advent to express solidarity with Muslims who are facing discrimination. In her own words, this was not a protest but an act of "religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God." The last phrase was what got her into trouble with Wheaton. Dr Hawkins did not see her theology as being out of line with Evangelicalism, in fact, she quoted the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf who has spoken at Wheaton and authored a book on Muslim-Christian relations as saying the same thing. Volf wrote an op-ed piece supporting Hawkins in today's Washington Post.

Volf made the point that Muslims, and Jews and Christians have different ways of understanding God as well as some similar ways but this does not preclude us from saying we worship the same God. Islam does not believe in the Trinity, nor the divinity of Jesus and his crucifixion. Jewish people do not either. Yet, would there be the animosity toward a Christian who affirmed we worship the same God as Jews do? Volf attributes much of this firestorm over the tensions between "us Christians" and "them Muslims" right now. Many people see all Muslims as harboring hatred toward America. There has been an increase in firebombing and vandalism at Muslim worship centers and mosques. Hawkins is trying to build bridges instead of destroying them. On her facebook post she wrote: asserting our religious solidarity with Muslims and Jews will go a long way toward quelling religious violence..."

Due to the recent terrorist attacks fears about Muslims among Christians have been heightened. Some Christians believe that all Muslims are potential terrorists and that Islam is about taking over the world. Marco Rubio recently said as much when he said ISIS wants to see its black flag flying over our national capitol. For too many people ISIS translates as Muslim. I have had people tell me Muslims are infiltrating President Obama's administration in order to prepare for a takeover. There are Muslims serving in congress and our military as Paul Ryan pointed out when he made it clear he does not believe all Muslims are a threat to our security.

The three major religions (Muslims and Christians make up half of all the people in the world), have plenty of violent clashes in their histories. Not all of them were because of religious hostility. Several were fought over territory, oil and political power. With both Christianity and Islam on the increase worldwide the potential for clashes between the two will not go away.

It makes sense to try to understand each other and work together. That has happened often in the past as well. In the past month, the president of Liberty University in a speech in chapel encouraged his students to carry guns so that if Muslims ever come there his Christian students can put an end to them. Not exactly a bridge building attempt at understanding between cultures and religions.

There is much we have in common with Muslims. President Bush reminded us of that when he said "the God that Muslims pray to is the same God I pray to." Not all Christians agree with that - note the suspension of Dr Hawkins. But, as she said, it is a position that has been taken by numerous Christian leaders throughout history.

There are many different understandings of God among Christians even within the same congregations! Charles Kimball a Southern Baptist pastor and professor of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma said, "there is in my view no ambiguity at all that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are talking about the same God. What I have found is that this is more of a device that Christian religious leaders use to drive a wedge between Christians and Jews on one side and Muslims on the other."

There is a lot of wedge driving going on right now. There are also opportunities for Christians to gain understanding about what Muslims believe (a good book to read is Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslav Volf) as well as ways  to tone down the harmful rhetoric against Muslims that leads to more fear. In many places there are intereligious venues available to work together on community building and peaceful projects.

We need more acts of religious solidarity like that of Dr Hawkins if we want peace rather than violence to prevail in the future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Best Books read 2015, part two

I enjoy biographies. A new one appeared last year by Charles Marsh entitled Strange Glory on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I've read a few biographies on Bonhoeffer and several of his own books. Marsh's book gives a good sense of Bonhoeffer in historical and cultural context. He makes plain the struggles Bonhoeffer had with both the German Church and the Confessing Church.  He shares new information about Bonhoeffer's trip to NYC and relationships with Niebuhr and an amusing anecdote about Tillich. The discussion of Bonhoeffer's friendship with Barth is explored in depth helping to understand the tensions between these two high powered theological thinkers. Marsh fleshes out Bonhoeffer the person better than most because Bonhoeffer was not one to talk about himself. I have a lasting image from reading Marsh's book of Bonhoeffer in prison awaiting his fate and reading Barth's latest volume of the Dogmatics while working on his own book, Ethics. It adds a bit of drama to read Ethics with that in mind!

Books of poetry: Wendell Berry, This Day: Sabbath Poems and Brett Foster, The Garbage Eater. Walter Bruggemann, Old Testament scholar, has a book called Awed to Heaven, Rooted to Earth which is a book of prayers which read like poetry.

Sermons: While I don't like to read written sermons usually, I found a couple books of sermons that are a joy to read. Bruggeman's Inscribing the Text and And God Spoke to Abraham by Fleming Rutledge.

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Best books of 2015

End of the year best book lists are coming out so here is my list of the best books I read this year. Not all of them were new in 2015.

Best in Fiction was: Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. My favorite of the year. Re-reading it now.

Immigration is in the news as presidential candidates debate the best way to keep people out. Mexicans in particular are not faring well. Louis Urrea writes about the border conflicts with sensitivity to Mexicans and the border patrol. He tells real stories about how and why people are coming over and his writing is unforgettable. The Devil's Highway is non-fiction. The Hummingbirds DaughterQueen of America are historical novels. The Water Museum is a contemporary collection of short stories.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd -Southern history and the civil war as lived on one plantation.

Our Souls Night is a third in a series of novels that take place in a small Iowa town. Likewise Lila by Marilynne Robinson is a third book of a series about a small town minister and his family. This is her best one in my opinion.

Best in Non-Fiction is the already mentioned The Devil's Highway. Jacksonland by Steven Inskeep tells the story about how the Jackson administration took the land from Native Americans and profited from it. Boys of Summer and Rickey and Robinson by Roger Kahn, best baseball writer ever.

Our Only World, essays by Wendell Berry. A wise book.

Backpacking with the Saints. Theology professor is retiring and makes the transition by backpacking with his dog and reading books by the Saints of the Church.

The Great Fire by Lou Urenick. Armenian/Christian genocide by Turkish troops and a heroic American missionary teacher who saved thousands.

Best books in Theology/Church History/ Bible Studies
What Shall We Say About Evil by Thomas Long. Preaching professor hence the emphasis on speaking about evil, suffering and faith in God. Excellent. Also excellent is Fleming Rutledge's Crucifixion on how we understand the death of Christ. Great book. Well written by a preacher and teacher of preachers. She interacts with every body and every thing important to the subject. Amazing.

Seriously Dangerous Religion by Ian Provain. Ten Basic questions the Old Testament answers. Provain takes on critics both outside and inside the church.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas lite

Our small church community has no children's Christmas pageant. Mostly because we have few children. We could muster a close up of Joseph and Mary but we would still lack a baby Jesus. We don't have a choir Christmas concert either. It's not because we don't have some good voices but a choir would basically sing to themselves. Each Sunday, some one brings a keyboard or a guitar and leads the singing. We don't have a Christmas Eve service. We meet with another church and partner with the downtown Church Without Walls that draws about a hundred or so homeless people for a Christmas Eve afternoon service at 4 pm. We meet in a parking lot. Last year it poured rain. We are hoping for better weather. Afterward we pass around refreshments. We don't even meet the Sunday after Christmas losing a chance to take advantage of some end of the year giving as I pointed out to the pastor. She said we need a Sabbath. So stay home. I am not sure what to make of this church. It is different from what I have known. I often ended up bone tired after the Christmas Eve service in the churches I pastored over the years. It was a long season of activities from Halloween to Christmas Eve. The week between Christmas and New Years was my favorite week of the year. Somehow I am finding that less is more.

Refugees at Christmas

Christmas is near. It's ironic that a refugee crisis is so much in the news when at Christmas we celebrate Jewish refugees. Joseph and a very pregnant Mary were on the road trekking to their hometown because of a governor's executive order. We are not fond of governmental executive orders today. Joseph and Mary had no choice but to join thousand of their countrymen and women on the road. Nine months pregnant or not. Jesus was born in whatever last minute accommodations Joseph could arrange. Including a midwife, I presume. Once they got the government business of registering for taxes out of the way (that would go over big today, too), they headed home again. Only to be warned by a messenger from God himself to flee the homeland because they were the target of a government terror plot. Seeking refuge in Egypt, they were allowed over the border and set up housekeeping there until the terror had passed. Jesus had safely missed the massacre of all the children his age in his village. Fortunately, he and his family had some place which would let them in. The situation is much different today.

This past Sunday we heard and saw pictures of a mission in Uganda to refugee women fleeing violence in other parts of Africa. Our church supports it, Amani Sasa, which gives battered and traumatized women a safe place to live and learn a trade to support themselves. Many people in our church give money to Amani Sasa at this time of year instead of spending it on a bunch of presents.

The mood in our country right now is not very pro refugee. In fact, the shrillest voices are the most inhospitable. Which sounds badly off-key in this season of giving and hospitality.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Trump, time and the future

A recent poll reported that we are as fearful of the threat of terror in our future as we were after 9/11. Donald Trump is the presidential candidate who is benefitting the most from our collective fear. Never mind how irrational some of his statements sound, they tend to amp up our fear, too. Trump will keep us safe, Trump will strike fear into the hearts of Muslims, Trump will protect our borders from Mexican intruders. Trump will make America great, again. Trump, our savior.

In some reading I was doing this week I was struck by how short sighted this is. Diana Butler Bass in A People's History of Christianity reminds us how long that history is. The period of the so called "early church" was over 500 years. It is as long as Martin Luther's' day from our own. In that time, the world had gone through huge economic, political and social changes, terrible wars, plagues and famines. The upheaval of civilizations. And the Church was in the midst of all of it. In light of that our politics today and specifically the rise and fall ( at some point) of Donald Trump is like a grain of sand on the seashore of time.
So what are we afraid of? Who do we trust for our future? Does God have a future and a future for us?

Fleming Rutledge in a sermon in New York City well before 9/11 talked about standing atop the World Trade Center and looking out over the city. It was a time in the Cold War when nuclear tensions were high. She thought about the devastation a nuclear bomb dropped on NYC would cause. No Statue of Liberty, no financial district, no Yankee Stadium, no Broadway, no Fulton Street Fish Market, no Brooklyn Bridge, and so on, all ashes, dust and rubble. So unnerved was she about the loss of the future, she had a crisis of faith. She talked to a theological mentor about it. He said, Fleming, did you think God had not thought of that?
The future does not belong to us. It belongs to God. No one of us can fix our problems now. No one we elect can make us safe, or secure our borders, or keep all the Syrians out, and why would we want to live in a world like that anyway?

I was reading a biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer earlier this year and I was struck by the way Bonhoeffer and his mentor Karl Barth kept to their work during the worst of the war. Barth at his desk in Switzerland and Bonhoeffer in a German prison. Bonhoeffer reading Barth's latest volume in his Church Dogmatics with genuine joy even as his life hung by a thread.

God holds the thread. Our future belongs to Him. It is the future of God. So, in our work, and worship we bear witness to our faith in God's future.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Another shooting

Another shooting. The guy on NPR said they are becoming commonplace. There is a website that keeps a running total of mass shootings where more than four people died and it shows there is about one a day in the US. That shocks. Stuns. Unless it has become all too familiar. This latest one was in a center that brings social services to the underprivileged of the community. The least of these. It was at a Christmas party. It was carried out by a husband and wife who had just dropped off their six month old daughter at grandma's. They both had good paying jobs. They were not on any terror lists, in fact the husband was born in Illinois to parents of Pakistani background. It makes no sense. There is some evidence he was a disgruntled employee targeting his colleagues. He left the Christmas party angry, people said. But, then he and his wife came back so well armed, it is hard to believe it was an impulsive act. So far 14 have died and at least 21 more are seriously injured. For no reason. The authorities have said the high powered weapons were obtained legally. They were military type assault weapons. Over 300 million  guns in this country. How many assault type weapons? Why is it so easy to get them? Why does the NRA control the debate? The President came out and said what he said last week after Colorado. Enough is enough. That may be true but we need more than words. When the journalists on NPR were asked, will this shooting change the mood in America enough to change the gun laws, they could not say. It never has. It never does. Will another shooting make a difference? Will we get serious about gun violence? I hope and pray we do before another shooting.  I hope enough is enough.

The Crucifixion

Christians don't know what to make of the cross. That is an odd statement but a fair one. Assessing the message of the various churches today you might conclude that Christians were most concerned about social issues like abortion or homosexuality, or electing a conservative Republican president, or filling huge buildings with people who come to be entertained with the latest technology and hip preaching and listening to the latest worship music hits. Even the churches which cannot claim mega status are confused by the cross. There is usually a big one in the church but it looks nothing like the one Jesus died on or said his followers needed to carry (in the mega churches you might not even see a cross at all). The preaching of the church hardly ever deals with the event of the crucifixion. Even though the passion of Christ makes up most of the four gospels, there is little time to preach on it. On Palm Sunday is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then the next Sunday is Easter. One celebration to another - scant attention paid to the painful events of Holy Week. There may be a Good Friday service but they are fewer and fewer and the preaching could be superficial (Jesus died to show how much God loves us) to harrowing (Jesus paid for the punishment due us for our sins). Questions abound but seldom get asked. Why did Jesus have to die to show God's love? Why did God forsake his Son on the cross? Why did Jesus have to pay for our sins and who got paid? Jesus comes off as a good guy who died for us and God the bad guy who made him do it. How did the Trinity break down on Good Friday? Some critics of Christianity want to indict God for divine child abuse? Where was God when Jesus was crying out for him?

Why did Jesus die on a cross? That's a question the whole Bible deals with. It takes a lot of unpacking. Who was Jesus? Why did He die? What does his death mean? Why a cross? And what does that mean? How did his death affect our relationship with God? Needless to say these are important questions that go unanswered for the most part.

"Why was it necessary for God's son to die in such a peculiarly horrible way in order to show us God's greater love? That's the way Fleming Rutledge puts the question that takes 600 pages to answer in her book, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Rutledge is an Episcopal priest and a preacher and teacher of preachers. That's what makes this book so good. She regularly asks, Does this preach? She communicates in language people can understand. She takes that question of the Cross's meaning and interacts with the history of Christian thought, literature and modern culture. Reading her book would go a long way toward "understanding" the cross and it's place in our lives today. I recommend it.