Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Bible Says

I live in "The Bible Says" land.  In the South, I see more cars with Bible verse bumper stickers than I've seen anywhere else. I had never seen the Ten Commandments posted in any one's front yard but down here it's almost common. Saying, "The Bible Says', puts an end to many an argument. Jacksonville, Fl has been debating a Human Rights Ordinance with protections for the LBGT community and many Christians have said, "The Bible Says" in opposition. Folks here generally assume they are living life according to what the Bible says.

The latest Barna poll on Bible reading I saw said that 59% of Protestants surveyed had read the Bible in the past week. A Gallup poll in 2004 said 34% of the people they asked believed the "Bible was the actual word of God". Yet, polls and anecdotal evidence show how little Christians really know about the Bible. Few know all ten of the Ten Commandments, the names of the apostles, the books of the Bible - not to mention - the life and teaching of Jesus or the theology of Paul.

Take for instance, the book of Leviticus. It has one of best known verses in the whole Bible (18:22) due to the ongoing controversies over homosexuality and the churches. Most of the other verses in the book are not as well known. Lev. 19:19, says do not let your animals breed with a different kind, and do not sow your fields with two different kinds of seeds, and don't put on a garment made of two different kinds of material. Verse 26 says not to eat any meat with it's blood still in it. No more steak cooked raw or medium rare! The laws found in Leviticus 17: 10-15 raise questions about hunting and the inhumane treatment of animals but any Christians raising those questions are hardly taken seriously.

What I'm saying is that most of our treatment of the laws in the Old Testament is pretty haphazard. Some we like, some we don't even know! How do we know which is which. The Bible says, but what do we do with what it says.

Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that he did not come to abolish the law but he came to fulfill it. He did not come pointing out certain laws Christians are to follow and other ones we can ignore. He said he fulfilled all of them because we can't. There was only one law he told his followers to keep, the law of love. Love your neighbors as yourselves, love your enemies, love the Lord, your God. When the rich, young man came to Jesus and told him he had kept all the commandments, Jesus said to him, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have, give your money to the poor, and come and follow me. That commandment is, not so strangely, not a matter of much discussion today.

Christians make a distinction between the ceremonial laws in the Old Testament and the moral law. The ceremonial laws are not meant for Christians to keep today but the moral law (i.e., the Ten Commandments) is. This distinction sounds neat but doesn't work so well in practice. How do we know the difference? The Bible does not use that distinction. No where does the Bible spell out what laws Christians should keep and what laws are unimportant.

Leviticus takes the view that all the laws have something to teach us and there is not a one that is unimportant. It is all God's word (19:1-2). We don't have to come to Jesus as the rich, young man did and ask, Jesus what good deed must I do to inherit eternal life? The good deeds are enumerated in the Old Testament. Why, ask me, Jesus asked him, there is only one who is good, so go and keep the commandments. Which ones, he asked, (for there were very, very many). Jesus began naming a few and the young man nodded his head and said, I'm on top of those. But, Jesus said, there is one more thing. There is always one more thing. Unless, Jesus fulfilled the law, all of it. And we are following him living the one law that is necessary, the law of love.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Giving Pledge

The local newspaper picked up an article that was originally printed in Forbes magazine. The headline read, 67 people equal the wealth of 3.2 million. It grabbed my attention. I read further: 67 of the world's richest people's wealth matches the poorest half of the world, or 3.2 million people. It took a few minutes for that to sink in. 67 people. That's a few more than attend my small church in a month. I saw a few of them on 60 Minutes this month. The Gates are the richest people in the world at 76 billion or equal to 156 million of the poorest people in the world. Warren Buffett was there and the founder of AOL. They were at a gathering of the Rich to discuss The Giving Pledge which amounts to a promise to give away half or more of their wealth. 8 people have signed The Giving Pledge so far. That could free up 150 billion to help 300 million people. Most of the people made their money the old fashioned way. They earned it by being innovative entrepreneurs. No harm, no foul and no one is forcing them to give anything away. Buffett says he will give away 99.9% of his wealth. He won't leave much to his family because he believes large inheritances are unhealthy.

The United States with half of the world's wealth is a leader in foreign aid giving and as a nation charitable giving is high. Still the gap between rich and poor is growing and the little most people in world try to get by on is stunning. The average Indonesian laborer makes 39 cents an hour. It's difficult to get our minds around that gap when we live in a place that continually reminds us of what we could have if we spent more on ourselves. The website tells us that if we have any money saved, a hobby, a few changes of clothes, 2 cars of any age, and we live in our own home, we are among the top 5% of the richest in the world. If we earn 50,000 a year it puts us in the top 1%.

It's easy to live in the United States and feel poor or at least not rich. We are reminded that wages are not increasing as fast as expenses, and that we are not saving enough. We can get a seven year loan on a new truck so we can have more than we can afford, at least. We watch Downton Abbey and identify with the servants. It is a good thing to keep the Rich - Poor gap in mind when we are feeling like we really need a new something, or a night out at a nice restaurant, or an indulgent trip to somewhere else! There are websites that will tell you exactly where your wealth ranks you in the world. That is sobering too since I usually rank myself somewhere way below Oprah, or the latest mega contract of a professional athlete. Poor Me! Not so, Rich me and Bill and Melinda Gates are not the only people who need a Giving Pledge.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Muslim - Christian speech

There has been a lot of good discussion generated by the suspension of Dr. Larycia Hawkins by Wheaton College for her reference to Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God. While the college administration is moving toward dismissing her, many of her colleagues are supporting her. Many alumni are, as well (including me).

A recent series of essays by prominent theology professors and missionary specialists in Muslim - Christian relations were collected by the editors of the Occasional Bulletin of Missionary Research and can be found online at Highly recommend reading.

The most helpful perspective for me was offered by David Greenlee, who has been with Operation Mobilization since 1977 and has published numerous papers on Muslim - Christian relations. Here is part of what he said, "can we even answer the question, Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Which Muslims? Which Christians? Worship in the sense of ritual and tradition or in the sense of lives as living sacrifices? Same in the sense of the ontological fact of One Almighty God, Creator of all things, or same in sufficient congruence in the details of belief? ....I find myself wondering how many mistakes can there be in my belief for me to be worshipping God and not a false god? Is the loving Father a friend testifies to knowing the same being as the angry ogre she thought he was as teenager? Do we worship the same God as liberals Protestants, the Jehovah of the Jehovah Witnesses, or the Jesus of Oneness Pentecostals? What we believe matters, but God is defined by who he is, not by what I believe about him. A better question might be, Do we know the same God? ...Unilateral declarations about what others believe does little good in building peace among communities. In considering the increasing fear in American society, rather than talking "about them", could we more often talk with Muslims....we might find that sensitive exploration not just about what we believe about God, but what we hope for our children, could contribute to peacemaking in a fearful, increasingly fractured world"

On the presidential campaign trail we are hearing hateful, divisive speech regarding Muslim - Christian relations which is inciting fear and violence on both sides of the divide and hardening the division. One missiologist pointed out that minority Christian communities in Muslim countries are not helped by anti -Muslim speech in America. Let the Church lead in ways that encourage dialogue and sow seeds of peace and disavow any form of hate speech.

The Call

When did you experience your call to ministry? That's the basic question pastors are asked. No call, no ministry. What if you heard no discernible voice? What if it seemed like you more or less stumbled into it? Better to create a more compelling narrative than to be clueless about the call.

A pastor has to have a call. Now a teacher might, or a house husband, or a mechanic, have a discernible call but the call is not necessarily a part of the application process. If it is for a pastor (or missionary) why not for a teacher or a stay at home mom or dad?

I have been reading Luke 5 - a story about the call of the fishermen to be disciples of Jesus. Many people are called in the Bible. Moses, at the burning bush, for example. That was a discernible call and it freaked Moses out. He tried to get out of it. More often we are invited to consider the call of the disciples in the gospels as our prototype.

Take Simon for example. In Luke's account, Simon had been up all night fishing and was worn out. He was cleaning up getting ready for the next night. Fishermen fished the Galilee at night. Jesus showed up just then and started teaching from the shore. As the crowd pressed in he looked for a boat to push out a ways in the water and still give him a platform to speak. He asked Simon for his boat and his help holding it steady as he talked. When he was finished he told Simon to head out to deeper water and put down his net. Again. This was after fishing all night. He knew nothing would come of it but he did it anyway. He wound up catching a boatload of fish.  This was so unusual, so unexpected it meant something else was going on. Simon was scared. He was not sure what that something else was. So he shut it down. Jesus, he said, go away, for whatever is going on is way out of my comfort zone.  Jesus said, don't be afraid. Then, he invited Simon to follow him and he told him he would catch people. Simon, and the others who fished with him, left everything and followed Jesus.

Simon and the rest of them were called and followed. So, that's the story anyway.

It has always seemed too easy and formulaic to me. Would these hard working fishermen with families depending on them just up and leave everything to follow Jesus when they were called? Not likely.

Why was Simon afraid after he had the most successful catch of fish he had ever had ( why was he afraid of Jesus' call at first)?  Why was his initial response to Jesus a confession of his sinfulness? If Jesus had done what Simon wanted him to do, Simon would never have become a disciple.

When Simon was asked later in life to describe his call, what did he say? Of course, this may have been what he said right here in Luke. If so, it was more like he stumbled into it than intentionally pursued it. He was expecting nothing. He did not see himself as a religious person. And he had responsibilities trying him down. He was not looking for anything else.

Parker Palmer writes, "its the things we can't do anything about that have the most opportunity to actually do something with us."

Simon had been up all night. He was not looking forward to anything but a good sound sleep. Jesus shows up and interrupts his routine.  In the midst of having a bad day (or night)  he heard a call that he was not prepared to respond to (is anyone?). Jesus overruled his response. And Simon left everything on the shore that moment because he wanted to learn more about Jesus. I assume he shared that call with people over and over, beginning with his family.

When I look back at my life I see parts of what happened in Simon's call story. I hear Jesus speaking in the midst of nothing much in my own life. When I get a hint of the changes Jesus might mean for me, I recoil. Get away from me! I am not ready for what you promise. I hear his invitations. It takes awhile but I leave my plans to see what his involve for me. It's feels like a pilgrimage I am still on.

Monday, January 11, 2016

John the Baptist and mental health

It is hard not to notice the homeless people congregating in the park outside Jacksonville's public library. Some of them carrying their belongings in carts, or backpacks or simply wearing all they have. Many are in small groups talking waiting for the library to open. Some are talking to themselves, I guess, no cellphone in sight. Every once in a while I will a hear a person preaching to the congregation of homeless and others who happen to be in the park that day. Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.

I was thinking about that as the preacher spoke on John the Baptist this week in church. The image she drew of John was so much like one of the homeless people I had seen the week before. What did people think of John? His strange diet, where he lived, his social isolation, his preaching which was not designed to draw followers but offend them. The preacher Sunday, who works with people with mental health issues,  suggested that John may have had his own mental health issues. What? That was a new thought! My mind recoiled.

Why not, John? God had chosen some other people with issues before. Moses could have been sent to anger management. Any one of the Judges committed impeachable behaviors. David would have had a hard time being elected president once his indiscretions were made known. Saul was well known to be a depressive and how many prophets asked God just to end their lives? Well, we could go on... Paul the religious fanatic, terrorizing Christians.

So why not John? Why do we still think God needs perfect people to further his plans for the world? Why do we judge people God leads into the church (it's not ours you know). Why do we think we have the plan for their lives? Give 'em to us and we'll fix 'em up! Maybe it has something to do with how well we know ourselves and can hardly believe God can use us (love us?) with our issues.

We are an issued bunch, us Christians. God in his love gathers us from the four corners and heals us - over time, much time - and as we let God get close enough to feel his embrace, gradually, we find we can embrace others, every one of them. (We, they, belong to God, you know.)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Reading Leviticus

Leviticus is a book in the Old Testament that most Christians have not read, will not read, and wonder why it is even in the Bible or has remained in the Bible. This might seem like a severe judgment but it is born out of years of experience in churches. Origen, who has been called the earliest and greatest commentators on Leviticus, had already noted in the third century that "if you provide a person a reading from Leviticus at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it was a bizarre food."

Leviticus has never been an easy read and today it might as well not even be in the Bible for all the attention it gets. Except, it has a verse in it that is much used and discussed in the Church's ongoing attempt to sort out what the Bible means on an issue of human sexuality, and one of Jesus' favorite verses is found in it and the book as a whole is foundational for an understanding of the book of Hebrews. Not to mention it has a great chapter on the the atonement and another one on the year of Jubilee.

So why is it that Leviticus has gotten the reputation of just being a book about laws, obscure laws that are not in force today? Well, probably because it is a book about laws, all sorts of laws about sacrifices and offerings and rules for priests, and hygiene and food. Laws Christians find irrelevant for their lives today.

How many sermons have you ever heard from Leviticus? A recent commentary by Ephraim Radner (2008) in the Brazos series takes issue with the way Levitcus is ignored by the Church.

Before the Reformation the main reason for Christians to read Leviticus was to find Christ in its pages. After the Reformation this "figural" way of reading Leviticus was greatly questioned and finally set aside for a more doctrinal - historical reading of the book in which it's lessons became "time worn and limited" (Radner). By the end of the nineteenth century, Radner observes, Leviticus was consigned to the dustbin of Judaic superstition by deist and rationalistic polemicists.

Radner's thesis is that Leviticus is not part of Scripture because of divine senselessness. It is more than an arcane piece of historical religion; it is the Word of God through which a figural reading opens us to the grace of God in Christ. A figural reading assumes that Leviticus depicts the work of God in Christ on a cosmic scale comprehensive enough to demand the wealth of detail figured in the book's verses.

Radner's commentary follows the previous works of several Rabbi's as well as Origen, Calvin, and Hirsch. He engages other modern Bible scholars. Mostly his work comes from his passion to open the book up to modern readers who otherwise may be closed to reading it due to historic hermeneutic prejudices and presuppositions. In other words, so people will actually read it and discover the meaning that is there for them.

Admittedly, Radner's approach is an imaginative and creative method of interpretation. How do we know that what we find in the text was really meant to be there? What happened to the hermeneutic principle that what the text means now must have made sense to the first readers? We are not free to just make up what we want the text to mean, are we?

The interpretation of the Bible is a challenging task and obviously, since we are speaking of the Word of God to us, a very significant one. It is best done by the Christian community. Pre-Reformation interpreters of Jewish and Christian faith are mostly unknown to us today. We are the poorer for that. Are there riches in Scripture to be mined by reading the earliest interpreters of Leviticus? I think so. If God has not spoken to you from Leviticus in a long time, it might be time to ponder the Word of God in Leviticus with Radner and his colleagues as guides.