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.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bible reading and fishing

I have tried to get into Joy Williams book, 99 Stories About God, several times. And I've given up. I was attracted by the title and I have liked others of William's short stories. This little book of the shortest of short stories proved nearly unknowable to me. I could read them but they seemed so obtuse I had no idea what they meant. After many attempts to get what she was saying I realized I was reading them wrong. I was reading them too fast, expecting them to give up their meaning in the time I had allotted to them. I was looking for information, a smart turn of phrase, instant wisdom. Something  profound communicated in 144 characters or less. Something I could smile over - that was good. A good use of my time invested in reading. In further -now slower readings, I have found associations I had missed. I saw things I passed over quickly since they did not give up their sense easily.

It's much like we read the Bible or don't. Recent surveys state an alarming drop in Bible reading among people who identify as Christians. Is that because we know what it says? Or, is it because it's too hard to get what the Bible is saying. We would rather have someone tell us what it means (we think we cannot get it if we have not had the proper training). The popular Christian view of God is One who reveals all God has to reveal in simple ways we can understand. Even though the disciples did not understand Jesus and no one else did either when he spoke in parables, and we still don't although we have lots of scholars to help us. There are lots of other stories in the Bible that are Williams - like. Jonah, for instance, a man swallowed by a big fish, or Adam and Eve, a couple that listens to a talking snake. The book of Proverbs is all short stories - parables - that are meant to be taken and "chewed over".  Meditated upon is what the early wisdom teachers said. Who has time to meditate any more? So much easier to take our news on Facebook.

Joy Williams stories are intended for meditation. Slow reading and thinking. Her stories like most of the Bible do not give up their meaning easily. The reader has to work on them, has to think, imagine, sit with them awhile. Enjoy them?

She has one story that baffled me. A noted humanist scholar was invited to give a talk on whether or not there was life on other planets. The humanist thought it was possible but believed a world devoid of human beings was not worth imagining.  Humans have the ability to appreciate beauty. After the talk, at lunch at a small, fine restaurant, he was served a speckled trout beautifully presented. From his plate he heard beautiful music faintly playing. Horrified, he jumped up, ran into the kitchen and attacked his waiter and the chef. Later, after he was taken to the psychiatric facility for observation he discovered no one appreciated his story of the beautiful singing trout. Williams concludes, "His ravings about the trout being no more appreciated than the ravings of any of the other lunatics there."

Perhaps, the reader of the Bible needs to appreciate the ways God chooses for revelation. Once Jesus got a lesson out of a fish's mouth. It can take some time to appreciate such things, however.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Whats good about Good Friday?

Today, Good Friday, I went into Jacksonville to meet with a small group of friends for coffee. Afterward,  I wandered through downtown waiting for a used bookstore to open. In that part of downtown near the bookstore is a plaza where a good number of our homeless population hang out. It's a nice park, clean and one of the best spots to host events downtown. Daytime food trucks and music groups make an inviting environment to enjoy coffee or lunch at a table or on a bench.  Some people complain that the homeless people detract from the central park ambience and efforts have been made to clear the park of the so-called undesirables but I think the mix of people works fine. Yesterday on Maundy Thursday some people from local churches showed up to hand out bag lunches and wash feet. Homeless people were invited to have their feet washed and to wash others including the ones who had come to serve in this way. It was awkward, and uncomfortable for all and beautiful in other ways is how one of my friends who was there described it. Church people in the South don't seem to celebrate Maundy Thursday or Good Friday much. Easter productions are the big thing. Certainly, a foot washing in the central park is uncommon.

More common was crucifixion in Roman occupied territories at the time of Jesus. It was not unusual at all to witness a person being crucified. That's the way Rome dealt with their political prisoners. Someone crucified outside the city of Jerusalem probably deserved it. It was no place for a religious leader to wind up. No one stood up for Jesus that first Good Friday. The gospel writers give us the details: Jesus was spit at, beaten, mocked, forced to wear a crown of thorns and carry his cross to Golgotha, the place of the the skull. This was no successful messiah. This was a man who was going to die for his delusions. His supporters had deserted him. Who could blame them?

Jesus was about as welcome as a homeless person in a downtown park. No one washed his feet or even gave him something to quench his thirst. Nothing was done to diminish his suffering.

Since that day Christian thinkers have come up with all kinds of theories of why Jesus died on that cross, how his death worked for our benefit. Most Christians have come to believe that somehow, some way, that death worked out for the good, for our salvation. So, we have Good Friday. While the theories are elaborate - how to explain something like this - the result seems simple: Jesus died for my sins.

A few hours before Jesus was crucified he hosted a dinner for some of his friends. During the dinner, he washed his friends feet. This act, if it was done at all, was ordinarily done by a servant. It was out of place for the leader of the group to assume the servant's role. As out of place as God on a cross or people some homeless, some not, washing each other's feet in a public park at lunchtime.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent drags on

Lent is dragging on. For weeks at church we have been reading the words of Jesus in the sermon on the mount. If you have read it you know it can drag you down. There is a lot in there about what we are not doing very well. Praying too piously, giving too proudly (this past week as I dropped a big bill into the offering plate I hoped others would notice it on top of all the smaller ones) and not making peace very easily. Reminders of what a drag we are. When I was a kid my church told me not to worry about that Jesus sermon because it was meant for the life of heaven when we will be perfect. That was good because it would take a perfect person to live that way. All we had to do, I was told. was ask Jesus to forgive our sins since he had already died for them and we were in the clear with a few right words being said. As I got older and read some other interpretations of Jesus' sermon I was bothered to learn that some people believed Jesus was talking about the life of the kingdom the way it is to be lived now. A few words do not save us rather it takes a life of dying to self and cross bearing. Lent reminds me how much I don't like death and how heavy the cross can be.

I long for Easter. In the East, among Christians, Easter is a much bigger deal than Christmas. For us, in the West, it's the reverse. Easter is mostly a time for Spring Break and more of us are on beaches than in churches. I think that's because Lent is not a drag. It is the time of anticipation for Spring that is coming to end our winters that have been a drag.

In the East, among Christians there is a stronger sense of celebration at Easter. Maybe it is because their lives have been more deprived of material goods and their lives more precarious and less peacable. They have had to bear more crosses. Life is harder, they read the Beattitudes more hopefully. For us, in the West, who have accepted Jesus as our Savior the issue of eternal life has been taken care of with a few rightly chosen words. Christ suffered and died for us on a cross. The cross was born by his back. So, we get to go to the beach.

I just read a book about the gospel and what a person had to believe to be saved. There was nothing about the sermon on the mount in there. You had to believe in the preexistence of Christ, and the virgin birth, and the deity of Christ and the crucifixion and the resurrection and a few other things but not the drag of Lent. Not the shared suffering and cross bearing. Not the dying to self.

Lent drags on until Easter. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians that as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (15:20-22). Sharing the suffering and cross bearing leads to sharing the Life of Christ. Stanley Hauerwas says all we need to know about resurrection is what we are privileged to witness in Jesus' victory over death. There God subjected all things that gain their power from death to the Son making it possible (for us) to share in that subjection through the gift of the Holy Spirit. All we need to know about the resurrection we have been given through the sharing of the body and blood of Jesus.

Lent drags on but it doesn't last forever.

The Word on the hill

Like many cities in our county the homeless are part of daily life. They are a  presence on the street, sitting in outdoor cafes and congregating in the large park across from the downtown library. The city would like to reclaim the park as a pleasant downtown meeting place. There is a park committee that plans events in the park like concerts and food festivals. Mostly what people are aware of though are the homeless with their backpacks or strollers piled high with their earthly goods. They hang out, some sleep through the hottest time of the day, while others walk talking to themselves or a companion. If you go downtown, it's a fact of life that you will see, hear, smell or otherwise be engaged by someone who is lives on the street. I've heard people say they do not go downtown just for this fact.

The Church Without Walls gathers every Sunday a few blocks from the downtown park. People come for a traditional Episcopal service served outside in a parking lot surrounded by a hill and a few trees. The priest, Mother Beth, welcomes all, preaches the Word of God and serves up the body and blood of Christ. All are welcome including those who don't have to live on the street or in downtown shelters. Folks from my church, The Well, were there this past Sunday. Together we sat on the hill or stood under a shady tree. It was already near summer time hot. Bottles of water were available in coolers around the parking lot. We sang, prayed, and read the days lectionary texts led by members of the Church Without Walls. We passed the peace and ate the bread and drank the cup together. Then it was getting late and people were hungry and thirsty. It was time for us to go to our homes and the others to go back to the street. Wait, Jesus said, don't go away before you have something to eat. Eat? Some of us did not have any food with us to share. Some of us depended on the generosity of others to eat most days. Give what you have and you will have enough, Jesus said. So, some of us went to cars and brought out crock pots of soup, and bags of sandwiches and fruit. A table was set and very soon a line formed filling cups with soup. Ten crock pots were quickly emptied. Everyone left full and there were some leftovers. The Word on the hill, the body and blood, even the leftovers - we had heard of this miracle and now we had experienced it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ash Wednesday

As far as I could tell I was the only person in the grocery store sporting an ashen cross on his or her forehead. I was coming from a morning Ash Wednesday service where our pastor, not known for her subtlety, had taken her thumb dipped in olive oil and then dark ashes and tattooed my forehead with a big cross. Though there were other tattoos and piercings in full view at this hip natural foods store, I felt self conscious. Sitting in the car before entering the store, I was debating whether to wash it off or not. Is it a matter of displaying my piety before the world? Or, was I washing off my witness ashamed of the gospel as St Paul said he was not. I decided my discomfort wearing the ashen cross was worthy of some kind of Lenten sacrifice. I had not considered giving up anything for Lent this year. Last year I didn't buy any books during Lent and that was hard enough. What habits, actions or behaviors did I want to be intentional about fasting from over these next 40 days my Lenten program guide asked. None sprang to mind. Not that I would not benefit from some sacrifice and not that none were needed, I may have been simply distracted. I had other things to do after I left this service. That's the way it usually is. Thinking about what's next instead of being in the moment. I'm not good at that. I was listening to a podcast on the way to the church and it was about finding God in the ordinary. We are afraid of silence the author being interviewed said and that is why we fill potential silences with screens. I could give up screens I thought for a second. I do have trouble finding God in the ordinary stuff of life. The author said it was more like making space for God to find us. God is not hiding from us, she said, it only seems that way because we are not paying attention. True. I could meditate more, I could take 15 minutes a day for silent meditation. Sounded good but I knew I wouldn't. Even my prayer times are mostly me talking. I must be a hard person for God to find.

The verse from Psalm 51:10 was read at the service. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a right spirit in me." I have read about cleansing diets, and I just finished cleaning our car after a week at the beach so what would a clean heart feel like? Whatever it is I can't do it. Create in me, the Psalmist wrote, so it is God's work. I could ask.

The ashes are imposed. Interesting word. We are not supposed to impose our values or beliefs on someone. Our presence can be imposed, sorry to impose upon you, we might say. Ashes like the repentance they symbolize need to be imposed. It's not really something I am looking for. Imposed ashes make me self conscious. I have ashes on my face but that does not mean I have repented. If it's a witness, it's a false one. I have been to an Ash Wednesday service but that does not make me any holier than you other shoppers.

I was aware of a catch in my throat when the pastor imposing ashes said, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return." Nearing my full social security retirement age, I am more in touch with my mortality than ever. Ashes are not the only sign of mortality I am sporting as I stroll through the store. It is easy to see that I am no longer a youth. The clerk at least used to take a long second look at me when she checked out the bottle of wine I was purchasing.  What she is checking for has become obvious.

Turns out the ashes are a good reminder to be grateful. For this moment. For what God has given to me. For the heart God keeps cleaning. Truly, God does find us when we make a little space.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Oscars and the ordinary

Watching the Oscars slowly, bit by bit, throughout the week, I was struck by the powerful acceptance speech by Viola Davis who won the supporting actress oscar for her performance in Fences. She said the best stories are found in graveyards, the stories of ordinary people who no one knows. Her story, Fences, which I have not seen yet is such a story about ordinary people. Davis plays the long- suffering wife to Denzel Washington's role as her trash collector husband. In her acceptance speech Davis emotionally thanked the ordinary people in her life and God who allowed her to play the ordinary roles she has played so well. In this week when Lent begins we need this emphasis on the ordinary. As we look toward the cross we remind ourselves of its foolishness. God chose the weak things to reveal his power and love. He chose the simple to show his wisdom. He chose a violent act to demonstrate his love. It looks for all the world like it made no sense. Paul says, God chose ordinary people to do some things ordinary people do when they are infused by God's Spirit.

When ordinary people enthuse about God rather than themselves, with their insights, powers, positions and prestige, people respond extraordinarily, John Goldingay says. These days we are more reminded of the so-called need for power, money, security and the need to keep those who threaten these things out. Spend our nations's wealth on walls and military weapons not ordinary people. The gospel is counter - intuitive, the powerful people have a hard time getting to it. "Right at the heart of God's revelation is a man being executed", Goldingay writes. Something so simple, it seems silly, unnecessary, trivial. Especially to people for whom greatness is the goal.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Sermon

I enjoy the Sermon on the Mount. The one by Jesus Matthew put down in his gospel. It is endlessly puzzling and interesting to me. Maybe enjoyment is not the right word for what I feel about it. I find it challenging and way too relevant. It was easier when I was a kid and the churches I went to categorized it as future. It was obviously unrealistic for us now so it must be speaking of life in heaven when we will be perfect! That was called dispensationalism but I didn't know that term for a long time. I simply thought it was the way all Christians thought about it.

Then I went for awhile not thinking about the Sermon much at all. Life intervened and I missed the point that that was the Sermon was about. I lived life preaching my own sermon and it was not nearly as good.

Then I met some Christians for whom the Sermon was the greatest, most central reality of the Christian life. They and I figured most Christians didn't follow it in the here and now because it was too hard. And so far from the way most of us lived. Who fasted? Who prayed like that? Who did not worry about money and stuff? Can we really expect to eat like a bird? Well, this group of Christians surely tried hard enough. Trouble was it felt like we were failing. The bar was set too high yet we gave it a good effort. I have to say that.

Then I discovered the gospel in the Sermon. It was not given to us to talk about a time in the future when we will be perfect nor was it meant to be a standard we could never reach. The Sermon begins with Blessed are you....These words are a blessing; they are an invitation to a life in community that is shaped by their words. Sam Wells says that the Sermon is about abundance not scarcity. God has given us too much not just enough. Our imaginations, he says, are simply not large enough to take it all in. It is possible to live in joyful recognition that God has given us more than we need (Hauerwas in Matthew).

Now when I read the Sermon, I read it more slowly, enjoyably. Prayerfully, because it is a Sermon of Disruption, the disruption of the Kingdom of God (Hauerwas's words).  It is meant to be read and prayed in the community that wants to live it out day to day. I read it with a  mindfulness made possible by "the compelling reality and beauty of participation in his time, a time that cannot be lost (or wasted I might add) because it is God's time" (Hauerwas, Matthew).

Beggin at Dunkin

She was standing near the Walmart parking lot at the entrance to Dunkin Donuts. It was a perfect spot  because there was a stop sign. You had to stop and look at her and she was looking straight into your eyes. Some drivers stared ahead while others sped through the stop sign as fast as they could. I looked at her and a small child seated next to her. Holding a sign that said, I LOST MY JOB I HAVE TWO KIDS I NEED HELP PLEASE GOD BLESS, she looked desperate. Was she? I thought about her as I went in for coffee. Maybe she was scamming us using her son as bait. Or perhaps someone else set her up for this and he or she will pocket the money. My wife does this, imagining the possible back stories of people we encounter. I was doing it now. Could be she was just who she presented herself to be. Down on her luck with no one to watch her son as she begged. Her job was gone and she had no one to look out for her. Why else would she be out at Walmart looking for help? And that poor kid - I thought of him telling his story years later about how Mom dragged him to entrance ramps trying to get some money for food. With coffee in hand I drove back to the stop sign. She looked right at me while her son looked down at the ground. When I rolled down my window she sprang forward hopeful. I handed her some money. Oh thank you sir, God bless you; she spoke with a foreign accent I couldn't quite place. I mumbled God bless you too wondering at the same time what that meant. I drove off so I didn't hold up traffic. Others crept up to the sign.  She was looking straight at them. Would any one stop? What back story did they come up with?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Muslim and Christian

He sat across from me. His son was doing graduate work at the university. He came to the United States to visit his son and he wanted to talk to me. His son was actively involved in our church even though he did not give up his Muslim faith. He was interested in learning about Christianity. He was well liked and respected in our church and the wider community. His father wanted to meet me because his son had talked so much about our church. His father brought me a book of poetry from a famous poet in his country. We talked about religion, God, and religious freedom. This he did not have in his country so even though he was interested in Christianity he was not able to investigate it. As we talked, I was aware that both of us had very similar religious hopes and convictions. We were both seeking the same will of God for our lives, it seemed. Our religious desires were one. We shared a common faith and belief in God. He was a Muslim and I was a Christian. Yet, it was clear that we shared a common religious bond.

I know that if we got down to discussing particulars there would have been many differences. I know that some Christians believe Muslims pray to a different God than they do. I know Muslims and Christians share a history of violence in many parts of the world. I know all of this and more. Yet, that one afternoon I remember thinking we are two individuals seeking after God. There is more that unites us than divides us and God can figure that out.

Today he would not be able to visit me in my office. His son is worried about being deported as he continues his studies here in America. Our president has said no more refugees from his country are permitted to come to America. Temporarily, visas needed to come to America are being held up, too.  It is not supposed to be permanent but we all know how these things go.

I am very fortunate to have had these few hours with a man my age who had children and a wife he loved and was seeking after God as I was. As he prays for me, I will pray for him and his family.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The hiddenness of God

Last night at a small group in our church we watched a youtube video featuring a youth minister in Germany interviewing several teens to twenties in a park. He asked them questions like, Do you believe in God? Why or Why not? What do you believe in? Do you go to Church? What do you think of Christians?

No one believed in God. One believed in Odin. Several were atheists or at least agnostics. One believed in science and most of them thought believing in God was too much of a stretch of logic. God did not make sense, Miracles cannot happen, they said. Yet when asked what the world needs most right now and if they had the power what would they do. They said things like peace and end all wars, justice for all, accepting others no matter how different they are.

I was struck by their reactions to the question of belief in God. Stone, cold stares with not even a flickering awareness of God's reality. That's it, God was not real to them, at all.

Some with their facial piercings, tattoos, and Gothic dress made clear that they thought there was nothing out there with them or for them. They were on their own in a pretty dark and cold world.

It's not just youth culture. I read in the NY Times a weekly piece that follows artists like poets, writers, tv producers, Broadway actors and playwrights and others as they go about their Sunday routine. I don't think I have ever read where one of them included church although a college basketball coach did once. Youth may be more verbal about their struggles to find truth than older adults who demonstrate their agnosticism by their lives. God is not a real thing for them. They have coping skills honed over the years to deal with the dark and cold world.

I thought of a section of Karl Barth's dogmatics where he discusses the hiddenness of God. He quotes many of the early church thinkers like Iranaeus, Anselm, Augustine, and others. Anselm wrote, "How far removed are you from my vision, yet I am near to you. Everywhere you are present and I see you not. In you I move and have my being yet I cannot come to you. You are within me and about me yet I feel you not. You are hidden from my in your light and blessedness while I walk in darkness and misery...the sinful senses of my soul have grown rigid and dull, and have been obstructed by their long listlessness."

Barth says there was agreement in the early church that to know God was to conceive God in his incomprehensibility. Yet, that is not a bad thing. Confessing God's hiddenness ( and our inability to know God on our own) is the first step to faith in God's revelation in the Scriptures and in Christ. By ourselves we can know very little (Barth and Augustine would say nothing) truly about God

This reality that was so acute in the early church has largely been eclipsed in the modern church today. Listen to the music we sing, the prayers that are prayed and the sermons that focus on us as much or more than God. The mystery, the majesty of God, the sense of the difference between us and God is mostly gone.

Chrysostom who was known for his preaching in the early church said this:" We call God the inexpressible, the inconceivable, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the one who is superior to human speech, who surpasses human reason, who is inscrutable to the angels.....invisible to the human rulers, and who is known simply to his creation by his only Son and Holy Spirit."

Don't know if it would preach today but we could use a dose of it.

In our recent week of inaugural activities we heard from clergy and politicians who promised God's protection for us now that we are on the right track. One famous clergyman from a famous clergy family professed his belief that the election of this new president was a sign of God's intervention in our history.  A good solid dose of the thinking of our early church leaders might make us stop and think before we speak, might serve to make us humble before God.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Alt-facts

It's a new day under a new administration and there is a new language to learn.  Beside alt-right, now we have alt-facts. These facts, truth be known, do not have to line up with other facts. That is two facts can be the same but different and yet both true. So, Obama's inaugural crowd can be larger than Trump's while at the same time being smaller. You just have to know if your talking about the facts or the alt-facts. The Woman's March on D.C can be larger than the crowd at Trump's inaugural while at the same time be smaller. Simple math, it's an alt-fact. Alt-facts can come in handy. You many think you know the facts but you don't until you've heard the alt-facts. I think we will be learning a lot about alt-facts in next few years. Kinda fun like a new math.

American Carnage

Carnage is not a word I expected to hear as a new president took the oath of office. I expect to read it in a book about the civil war as an author describes a battlefield littered with the bodies of the blue and grey. I expect to hear it in a news report after a terrorist attack in a bustling public place. Or looking at the horrific impact on human life after a mass shooting.

I admit to feeling a little creeped out as I watched a scowling President of the United States talk about his take on the nation he was elected to govern in terms of carnage. Carnage that summed up the terms of four living presidents who had preceded him in office. 28 cumulative years of presidential experience and public service brushed aside as if worthless. Dozens of new colleagues sitting behind him who contributed to the messes our country is in because all they did was talk, talk, talk and took no action.

Our previous president ran on a platform of hope but there was precious little hope in view last Friday. The new president did not look hopeful. Looking out on scenes of crime filled cities and rusted  out factories and people living miserable lives he had accepted a heavy burden to turn this country around. He has said he believes he is the only one who can.

Not all of us are scowling today Mr President. We see plenty of things to be grateful for even if you don't. A small mission team from our church returned from a trip to Uganda the night before the inauguration. There they visited staff from a ministry that works with refugees from other countries. Uganda's borders are porous, one member of the team said. They accept anyone who is fleeing the violence of war, the carnage which many have experienced personally. Our team led a retreat of spiritual respite and community building. They experienced the hospitality of the local people in their homes and at meals. Many of the staff of this ministry are former refugees themselves and they have so much gratitude and joy in their lives now. They share whatever they have. They know carnage, experienced it firsthand, but now they experience a different reality and generously share it.

I suppose the view from the penthouse of the Trump Tower in NYC or a lenai overlooking the ocean at Mar-a- Lago looks different.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Inaugural Prayers

The Trump Inaugural has announced the people who will leading in prayer - sixty to ninety seconds each which will cut down on the sermonizing while praying. There will be several Christians and one Rabbi. One woman. One man who is the self acclaimed leader of the largest African American "congregation" of which many may be listeners or viewers. The woman espouses what has been called the Prosperity Gospel which means that God wants to bless you with riches. She points out that those who give generously first to her ministry will gain God's greater blessings.

One man who will be praying is the son of Billy Graham, Franklin Graham. Billy Graham was a great friend of presidents and his friendship was used by some like Nixon for political advantage. Billy Graham was said to be shocked when the Nixon tapes appeared. He admitted to being naive. Franklin has stepped into his father's shoes. He said God intervened in our election and made Trump president. So, it wasn't just Putin. God put a halt to the atheistic, godless swamp that Obama, Hillary and Bill and others who are not conservative evangelicals were leading us further into. Like Trump Franklin sees this as a "drain the swamp" moment under the supervision of God.

Taken aback by the arrogance of someone who claims to know the will of God in our national election, I returned to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. It bears reading as we inaugurate our new president. In the midst of our nation's civil war Lincoln acknowledged that both sides read the same Bible, prayed to the same God with each side invoking God's aid against the other. The Almighty has his own purposes, said Lincoln. It may be God so willed this horrible war to measure out his justice and it may be that God wills it to continue until, 'the judgments of the LORD," are fulfilled. Lincoln did not know what God was going to do. He did know as he said another time that it was more important to be on God's side that to assume to know He is on our side.

I don't know if the election means God answered Trump's prayers or Hillary's. Obviously, Trump won. But God's purposes are vast and far beyond my understanding. Already, voices in the church are waking up and sounding an alarm that certain works of justice cannot be assumed in a Trump presidency and there is work in the trenches to do. That's a good thing.

I don't pretend to know what God's will is in terms of our election. But, I do know what Jesus said at his inauguration.

"The Spirit of the LORD is upon me to preach good news to the poor, and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the LORD"S favor."  (Luke 4:18-19)

Consider again the closing words of Lincoln's address: "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace among ourselves and all nations."  That may rightly be said to be the will of the LORD.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Bible Says

A good friend asked me about how I approached Biblical Interpretation. I was raised in a fundamentalist church environment. The Bible was God's Word. It is inspired, inerrant and supposed to be taken literally. That is, there are 7 days of creation, Noah built an ark and all the animals fit on it after a worldwide flood wiped out humanity, etc. It was a book like no other.

It mainly told about Jesus who was God's Son sent to us to save us from our sins. If we accepted Jesus into our hearts we were assured of going to heaven when we die. If not, there was hell, the place of the devil hotter than any desert and people who go there burn forever.

The Bible was a battleground. Christians were always fighting atheists, scientists, liberal Bible scholars, and secular schools and educators. The seminary I ended up going to was founded in part by Dr. Harold Ockenga who wrote, The Battle for the Bible. If you were a Christian and believed in the Bible as God's inerrant Word you were always under attack. I went to school and Sunday School and youth group and church. I heard about evolution but I filed it under Secular Religion. I didn't do too much reading of the Bible because I had been told what it said and the most important thing was I had accepted Jesus. What else was there to know?

After a long and winding course I began seminary. I attended an Evangelical/Reformed seminary although I had not decided to become a pastor. I wanted to learn more about the Bible, Church History and Theology.  One of the first courses I took was called  Interpreting the Bible. How hard could that be? I already knew how to do it. It knocked my socks off and was the most important class I took in three years there. I found out that we (Christians) did not have 100 % certainty in the original documents of the Bible. There were no original documents extant (it was called) from the time of the Bible. What we had were copies of copies. But, not to worry for text critics were working hard to determine what was in the originals and they were 99% certain that they had. So what we had was very good probability of the original text but not complete certainty. Not to worry #2 - what we were not totally sure of did not affect any of our doctrines. The inerrancy of Scripture applied to the originals not to all the copies. So, one of the pillars of my rationalistic faith was secure. Then, we started hearing about oral tradition and how no one wrote down the Bible at first. Of course not, it was an oral culture and the books and tools to write with were hugely expensive. Then, we heard about how much poetry was in the Bible (metaphors, using imagination - a no, no from where I came from), and how different the four gospels were and where the sources of the gospels came from, and how some Evangelical scholars were even whispering their doubts about Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and whether Job and Jonah were real people or characters in a story.

At the same time I was having my theological bell wrung by a study of early church history. For a thousand years, I discovered Christian Bible interpreters used an allegorical method to interpret Scripture. They did not take all Scripture literally but showed how it pointed to a deeper spiritual meaning. Most of my colleagues and teachers were uneasy about this method because it meant the text could mean anything any one wanted it to mean. Still, some pretty brilliant teachers like Origen used it faithfully and pointed out that Paul did, too.  My professors taught the historical/critical method for Bible Interpretation. The Bible text cannot say what it could not have meant to the original hearers. Allegory and deeper meanings were out. Yet, many of my professors, devout believers, would say things like, I was reading the Bible and God said, or God showed, or I heard or saw.....a deeper meaning possibly?

As science began to make more inroads into culture and the church, I was reading Genesis 1-2, the Psalms and most of the Prophets as poetry. Taking the Bible literally meant reading it as it was meant to be understood. The Jewish understanding of story was different from mine. Genesis was true and told us what creation means if not how it happened.

Origen (b 184) devoted his life to the study of Scripture and his writings on the Bible were massive. But, his purpose was to say that we need to know the Bible for personal fellowship with God. It is his word to you so read it. This love of Scripture was true of other great Bible Interpreters like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Barth. Augustine taught that the Psalms show Christ to us. Luther was wildly inventive in some of his Bible interpretations. Calvin was a careful craftsman handing the word of God. They were not trying to prove it was God's Word or explain away supposed contradictions. I saw over the years as I read the works of these early interpreters that there is no one way to interpret the Bible that is the correct one. The important question is not what does God's word say but what does it say to me.

The person who has helped me the most is Karl Barth. Barth is a skilled expositor interacting with many years of church tradition, and loves God's word and teaches it with Christ at the center. He followed Kierkegaard's insistence that there is an infinite, qualitative distance between God and us. God's word is God speaking to us. You don't have to be a scholar to get what God is saying to you. You have to be humble and faithful which is God's gift to you, as well. We need to pay attention to what is there rather than get bothered by a lot of academic questions. For Barth, reading Scripture is a matter of reading it, praying over it, trusting the Spirit's work in granting understanding and then doing what it says. It is a book like no other and it requires a humble, engaged reading that hears the voice of God in the word.