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December 26, 2018, 3:05 PM

A Need for Disillusionment



A NEED FOR DISILLUSIONMENT

To be disillusioned usually means to be disappointed. The disappointment comes from having an unrealistic expectation dashed.

But disillusionment is not necessarily a bad thing, even when it is hard.

One can imagine the shepherds and the Magi…maybe even Mary and Joseph, themselves…being seriously disillusioned by the birth of Jesus.

The common expectation with regard to the Messiah was that he would be born to royalty or at least the priesthood.  This would give him power with which to rally the people of Israel and make their occupied and humiliated nation great again.

No one expected God’s Chosen to be born to a couple of hillbillies from a town so tiny, it literally did not even appear on most maps.  No one expected his mother to be a teenaged girl who would become pregnant out-of-wedlock.  No one expected the father to be an obscure woodworker.

Actually, no one expected the father to be God, either.  Decades after Jesus’ coming, Matthew would cite a passage from the Book of Isaiah as a prophecy that the Savior would be born of a virgin.  But there is a complicating factor…

The original language of the prophet Isaiah,  was Hebrew, the Hebrew word he used was almah which simply meant “young woman.”  Might be a virgin, but no specific claim was made to that effect.  Centuries later, the Book of Isaiah was translated into Greek, which was the language most commonly spoken in the Mediterranean world…much as English is the most common second language in the world, today.  This Greek translation, known as the Septuagint,  was what Matthew used.  In that version, almah was translated as parthenos which is the specific Greek word for “virgin.”

Most Jews didn’t use the Septuagint, so they were unaware of any references to a virgin giving birth.  The whole notion would have come as a surprise to Mary…and especially to Joseph.  Also, the people of Nazareth would not have expected such a thing, so it would have been pointless to tell them that Mary had conceived without benefit of a human partner in accordance with prophesy.

If they had  told their families that the child was conceived by God, it’s not likely they would have been believed, and it only would have made an already problematic pregnancy worse.  No mention is made of their reaction in either Matthew or Luke’s accounts.  But, it is significant that in Luke’s version, the couple travels all the way to Bethlehem when Mary is in the last stages of her pregnancy, and there is no indications that they were accompanied by any other family.  Their absence and silence seems to indicate a strong possibility of rejection.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone expected the birth of the Messiah to be accompanied by such scandal and hardship.  Mary and Joseph could be forgiven for wondering why they were being put through such hardship, as she went into contractions in a stable, far from home, and possibly discarded by their families and condemned by their little village.

Luke says that shepherds were the first to hear of the birth, and they came looking for the child.  We rarely consider how preposterous it would have sounded to be told they would find the baby in a livestock feeding trough.  The conditions in which they found him must have seemed shocking and well…disillusioning.  How on earth was this kid supposed to save Israel, much less the world?

Still, they took it on faith that somehow, this birth and this child were part of God’s plan. .  But, God only knew how.  All their prior expectations were shattered.

The Magi (Wise Men) would have been no less baffled.

Despite what pretty much every Nativity set depicts, the Gospel of Matthew does not say they arrived at the stable.  Instead, they found the family in a house some time afterward.

These men were priest/astrologers of the Zoroastrian faith, the only other monotheistic religion in the region.  It was based primarily in Persia (Iran) and though its doctrines were different in a number of ways, the Jews and Zoroastrians felt a certain kinship in their belief that there was only one God.  There is evidence that each faith had an effect on the other, and it’s quite possible the Magi were familiar with the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

But we’re told that, when they got to Judea, their first stop was the palace of King Herod the Great.  They also expected the Chosen One to be born to royalty.

They too, would have been disillusioned to find a peasant child born to a couple of nobodies.  Things weren’t playing out the way they expected.  They even had to skulk out of town because of a warning that they needed to do so.  Not exactly the end to the adventure they had expected.

What follows in Matthew’s account is an act of mass murder and the child and his family being reduced to refugees.  One more thing they didn’t expect.

Yes, the story is full of disillusionment.  Expectations are shattered.  Innocents suffer.  Today, we gloss over these parts.  I know a pastor, who in nearly forty years of ministry had never preached on Herod’s slaughter of the children.  Too much of a downer.  But the story is there.

But, there it is…in black and white.  The story of an unready world into which the Chosen One must silently, silently sneak like a thief in the night.  We have always overlaid our expectations and illusions on him, demanding he live up to our demands for power, piety, propriety, and pomp.  When he refused to do so, he was ultimately tortured to death by believers and unbelievers, alike.

He saw that coming, and yet refused to back down or back away, even from those who would lynch him, out of their disillusionment.  They had expected him to forcibly fix the world according to their terms and conditions.  He called on them to fix it, by fixing themselves, and giving up many of their illusions.

He challenges us to admit that WE are the problem.  He renounced power to show us we will not find peace or happiness in pursuing it for ourselves.  He embraced service over dominance, because that heals us.  He showed compassion and mercy, because trying to crush and dominate our enemies only makes more of them.

Such lessons are hard for a broken world, caught up in the illusion that power rather than love, will fix it.  We need to be dis-illusioned for the sake of pour salvation.  And, it is for this purpose that he embraced both his life and his death.

 




August 21, 2018, 2:28 PM

Fighting the Monsters



The horrific accounts of sexual abuse and exploitation which have made recent news, point to a problem that goes beyond the Roman Catholic Church. (Indeed, it goes beyond churches.)

I think you need to know how our church responds. And I can tell you, based on personal experience...

In forty years of ministry, I have reported four cases of clergy sexual abuse.

One involved a member of the clergy from another denomination who was working in a counseling setting. He made an improper advance on a teen aged boy who had come for therapy.. I reported it to the proper authorities and the man quickly left the state. I do not know what happened to him.

The other three offenders were United Methodist pastors. Two became involved in sexual relationships with adult women who came to them for counsel in times of crisis. While the relationships involved no force, they were exploitative and both men turned out to be predators who had done this to several women, a couple of whom attempted suicide, as a result. When their victims came to me, I reported it to my superiors and they acted immediately to remove them from their pulpits and offered professional therapy to the women. Upon completion of the investigations, both men were permanently removed from the ministry.

The third case involved the abuse of a young child decades ago in another state. I only learned of it many years after the fact. The survivor had been too terrified and ashamed to speak of it. But, eventually she and I reported the assaults to the police and church authorities. Both were sympathetic and kind…but the passage of time and the lack of forensic evidence made it impossible to prosecute.

Even though she had no legal case, church authorities did offer to pay for therapy for the survivor. Decades later, she still suffers PTSD and long struggled with the feeling that God actually hated her.

Most ministers never encounter a case of clergy sexual abuse. Somehow, I’ve dealt with four. Not once, did it ever occur to me to hush anything up. Not once, did anyone at any level in the church leadership suggest that I do so. Not once, did they hesitate to take active pastors out of their positions so that they could not harm anyone else. Most importantly, not once were any of the survivors blamed for what happened to them in any way. All of them were offered care, at the church’s expense, from therapists of the survivors’ choice.

The sad reality is that some people in “helping professions” like clergy, therapists, doctors, police, etc., treat their credential as “hunting licenses.” They exploit the trust their positions give them, and the weaknesses of people who often come to them in deep crisis. It is a heinous thing which particularly enraged Jesus.

Jesus darkly declared, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” For a guy who was so focused upon mercy and forgiveness to utter such iron hard words, meant he saw this behavior as especially contemptible and vile.

Sadly, we have come to learn that it is all too common. The vast majority of clergy do not and would never engage in such atrocities. But those who go over to the Dark Side, are often driven by such a terrible compulsion that it leads them to victimize one person after another until they are caught. Just a few such monsters can wreak widespread damage…unless they are stopped.

It is estimated that one in four females in our society will be sexually assaulted. One in eight males will be sexually abused. This kind of atrocity is pervasive. No part of society is immune to it.

The truth is that we don’t know how accurate those numbers are because so many survivors remain silent out of fear and shame. They fear they will be condemned and disbelieved. They feel shame because their abusers often tell them what happened was somehow their fault. And too often, other people say the same.

IT IS NOT TRUE!

Please know that you are not alone. There are people who will believe you and support you. There are people who will offer help without condemnation.

I am one of them, and I have found others.

If you have struggled with the emotional and spiritual effects of sexual exploitation and abuse, there is help available.

You will not be judged. There is grace for you. If you need a caring listener, and an ally in the fight. I am one. I know others.

Together, we can fight the monsters.




July 11, 2018, 12:00 AM

Weaponizing the Bible



Let’s face it, the Bible causes us problems.

Sometimes, it troubles us because it calls for us to love in ways that we find difficult and challenging.  Loving my neighbor as myself is hard enough.  But Jesus kicks it up a notch and tells us to love as he loved!  Dude, seriously?!?  You are a hard act to follow!

Sometimes, it troubles us because it just doesn’t jibe with what we have learned about the universe. The Earth isn’t flat, and floating like a bubble in an endless watery ocean which extends both above and below us, with a solid dome forming the sky.  That’s the literal description given in Genesis.  And, there is ample evidence that the universe as we know it evolved into its current form over billions of years…not a few days.

The Bible describes God liberating a helpless people, and then giving them the right to enslave others.  Jesus treats women as people of equal worth to me, while other parts of the Bible treat them as little more than property that produces babies.

For a thousand years, the Jewish people were required to live by an elaborate dietary and ritual code which helped shape their very identity.  Then one day, it’s all tossed away with scarcely any explanation.  What’s up with that?  Which rules should we consider unchanging and which are disposable?  How do we decide?

And then there’s stuff like the Book of Revelation which is pretty darned weird, and which has been spectacularly and embarrassingly misunderstood throughout the centuries.

The truth is that we ALL bring our experiences, biases, hopes, fears, prejudices, and preferences to our reading of the Scripture.  Anyone who says, “I don’t interpret Scripture, I just take it as it is,” is simply not being realistic or honest.

The Bible itself shows the folly of that claim.  For, as Shakespeare wrote, “The Devil can cite Scripture for his own purpose…” which is precisely what happens when Satan seeks to divert Jesus from his mission during his temptations in the wilderness.  It is a battle of differing interpretations (Luke 4: 1-13).

But, this leads us to the question, “How DO I go about interpreting Scripture?”

The author C.S. Lewis provides some insight:  “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopedia out of which texts can be taken for use as weapons.”

Jesus’ relationship with Scripture was actually kind of contentious.  He flat out contradicted the “eye for an eye” rule in Leviticus 24: 19-21.  See what he had to say in Matthew 5: 38-39.  He took a commandment to Israelites to love their fellow Israelite neighbors (Leviticus 19:17-18) and dramatically expanded it to include neighbors who they even despised in the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 1): 30-37.  He reinterpreted Torah concerning the Sabbath (Mark 3: 1-6) and keeping kosher (Matthew 7:15).

Clearly, he was setting a new standard…making a new lens, as it were…for interpreting Scripture.  And, that lens was himself.

In our reading and interpreting of Scripture, we must ask the question, “What would Jesus say and do in response to this?”  It is not enough to simply say, ”Well the Bible says…”  The Devil can do that.  That’s how the Bible gets weaponized.

If you are a Christian, you are called to read the Bible through the lens of the life and teachings of Jesus.  It’s that simple.  It’s that hard.

This is no easy process.  It requires serious study of the man and his times, gaining an understanding of his context, so that your understanding of him is as honest and accurate as possible.  To be a Christian is use Jesus as your “plumbline.”  You make him the touchstone of your biblical interpretation.  If you do that, you are guided by compassion, mercy, open-heartedness, and humility.

We are called to worship the Word of God, which is Jesus Christ, God’s grace incarnate…and not the words about God.  Even Jesus disagreed with some of them.

But there is a central narrative worth remembering.  Throughout all the stories, a relentless grace pursues people who need a love they can never deserve, often misunderstand, and sometimes reject.  But, through all of this, God does not give up on us, even when that means going to the cross to show the wondrous and terrible depth of that love.

This is the lens through which we should always read the Bible.




June 19, 2018, 3:34 PM

To Which Authority Will You Submit?



In 1988, I was invited to be a guest of the United Methodist Church in the German Democratic Republic (GDR).  As is so often the case with a country that has “Democratic” in its official name…it wasn’t a democracy.  The GDR was more commonly known as communist East Germany.

Over a period of three weeks, I visited various churches across the GDR.  I had occasion to speak to congregations and to their Annual Conference which included pastors and lay delegates from all the United Methodist congregations in the country.  Officially, there was freedom of religion in that country.  But, churches were subject to surveillance and Christians were denied places in the government.  It was commonly known that in every church there were agents and informants for the infamous and dreaded Stasi…the secret police.  It may have been the only secret police organization more efficient than the Soviet KGB.

When I spoke to these groups, I did so with the knowledge that my words would be reported to the authorities, and that I was being watched.  The Stasi even paid a visit to the pastor’s home where I was staying while he and I were out of town.  When his wife told him about it, she was clearly frightened.

I knew I had to be careful in my public statements, or my hosts could pay a penalty for it.  And while I was deep in “enemy territory” there was also a risk to myself.

I thought of that time while contemplating words written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome.  Words which US Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited in a (futile) attempt to stifle criticism from a wide range of Christians about the policy of incarcerating immigrant children after separating them from their parents.  A policy which even Franklin Graham, who often seems to be a cheerleader for the administration, describes as “disgusting.”

In the thirteenth chapter of his Letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:  Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Throughout history, these words from the Apostle have been used by governing authorities of one sort or another, to insist that submission to their rule is a Christian duty.

It was the basis of the concept of the “divine right of kings” to exercise absolute power over their subjects.  Papal political power was also justified in this way.

Slaveholders insisted that it also applied to their relationship with their “property” since the law granted them authority over their slaves.

The church in Nazi Germany impressed upon Christians that it was their holy duty to unquestioningly obey their Leader (Fuehrer).  Some insisted that Hitler’s unlikely rise to absolute power was a sign of God’s blessing upon him…that he could have only attained office through God’s intervention. This mindset helped allow German soldiers to commit genocidal crimes while wearing belt buckles with the insignia “Gott mit Uns”  (God With Us) emblazoned upon them.

In America and South Africa, governments exercised official racial discrimination while claiming  they were “Christian countries” and that the legalized bigotry ordained by their governments was blessed by God.

Given the clear and horrendous abuses committed by people citing this passage, one wonders why Paul wrote it in the first place?

That takes me back to my experience in a totalitarian state that was hostile and suspicious toward the church.

Paul knew that his letter would be read to the fledgling Christian congregations in Rome, and that the government there was both suspicious and hostile toward them.  After all, Christians professed to worship a man whom the Empire had gruesomely executed for insurrection.  The members of the church were largely members of the restive under class and slaves.  People prone to revolt.  And, just as I knew there would be Stasi agents listening to my speeches and sermons, Paul knew that the Empire would have agents listening in when his letter was read, and reporting to the government.

If they felt he was trying to foment open revolt, they would swoop in and annihilate the nascent church.

So, he felt it essential to reassure the authorities that the Christian movement was nonviolent in nature, and that it promoted virtues which would benefit any society.  They were out to transform society, but they weren’t actively working to overthrow it.

All of this is true.  But, in the end, Paul himself was executed by the Empire because those very authorities he said were “established by God” insisted that he renounce his faith and declare, “Caesar is Lord.”  And, despite the fact he genuinely saw civil authority as necessary, he would not give them ultimate authority over his life, or sell his conscience to them.  The Emperor…the crazed and corrupt Nero…demanded worship, and Paul refused.  This made him a dangerous subversive in the eyes of the government, so he was beheaded during a savage wave of persecution of Christians.

Christians must always walk a tightrope.  Civil authority is necessary, and often a blessing.  It holds back anarchy.  These are facts that must be acknowledged and respected.  But, throughout history, there have been governments which claimed divine blessing, and even that they were defenders of the faith, while committing monstrous atrocities and legislated injustices.

We need to always remember that Jesus identified himself with the marginalized and powerless.  I am convinced that he is with, and for, the children in those chain link cages and demands that they be treated with compassion.  The United Methodist  theologian Len Sweet has written:  Want to make Jesus mad? Want to really tick him off? Want to get him so angry he sounds like the Mafia? ... Harm a child. "Harm one of these little ones, and better for you that you sleep with the fish." (my translation of Matthew 18:6). Or more literally,  "It would be better for you to have a heavy millstone hung around your neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea."

Paul ultimately refused to proclaim “Caesar is Lord” even at the cost of his life, because his central affirmation was that “Jesus is Lord” and even Caesar must answer to the standard of Christ.

As you did it to the least of these…” is warning to the powerful that they are still accountable.




May 21, 2018, 12:00 AM

Anchors and Sails



8 “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”  (John 3:8)

In his conversation with the Rabbi Nicodemus, Jesus likens the Spirit of God to wind.  In Hebrew, the word for spirit is “ruach” which also means wind, or breath.  In Genesis, when God is described as breathing life into the mudball that became Adam, it is “ruach” which brings him to life and imbues him with characteristics of the divine.

The wind/spirit was invisible, yet powerful.  In April, we witnessed that power when winds of over sixty miles per hour screamed around our house.  Shingles from roofs around our neighborhood, as well as siding, and lawn furniture sailed through our yard.  On the next block, a pole barn was uprooted and sent tumbling until it disintegrated.

In Jesus’ time, the wind was no less powerful, and far more unpredictable.  It was truly mysterious.

We were certainly glad our house remained immobile in the storm, though our roof was damaged. But, we also need the wind to move things.  Wind has spread seeds and pollen…thus it has spread life.  Wind powered ships in Jesus’ time, and it powers cities in ours. 

Throughout the centuries, one of the symbols employed by the church has been that of the anchor.  It keeps ships from being moved by the winds and tides.

The idea was that the Gospel provides an anchor in turbulent times and keeps us from being carried away by forces we cannot control so easily.  It’s a symbol that has merit.  The anchor is far more commonly used as a symbol by the church than the sail or at least a sailboat.  Yet, it is the ability to be driven by the wind…the Spirit…which Jesus talks about it his conversation with Nicodemus.

Maybe we just prefer staying put.

Nicodemus came to Jesus, a bit puzzled.  It was clear the Jesus had great power and he seemed to have divine authority.  Yet, instead of remaining anchored in the ancient teachings and well-established traditions of his culture, Jesus often seemed to fly in the face of them.

He would say stuff like, “You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  (Matthew 5: 38-39)

Not only did his teachings contradict their Bible, they seemed to defy common sense…although using that very tactic, non-violent protest movements have prevailed against injustice in a number of places.

Jesus seemed to be taking people in a radically different direction from what they considered to be solidly anchored and immovable biblical teaching and truth.  Scandalized and outraged by this, his critics would go on to plot and then lynch that jumped-up hillbilly woodchopper who was telling them to disregard God’s eternal, unchanging, immovable truth! 

They had dropped anchor!  They intended to stay put!  Not wind-filled sails for them.

But, it seems the wind chose to blow in a new direction with unexpected force.  And some folks decided to unfurl their sails and let it take them to new horizons.

God’s Spirit is mysterious and  like the wind, always on the move.

We prefer the safety of dropping anchor.  And, there are times when that is wise.  But, if we never “set sail” we will never move closer to the kingdom.

Is this a time for anchoring or sailing?

The controversy over how to deal faithfully with people who are homosexual and transgender has people passionately advocating both approaches.

Some insist that we must hold to the traditional views and policies which see non-heterosexual forms of sexuality as inherently disordered and sinful.  They accuse people who call for a more accepting approach of “picking and choosing” the parts of the Bible they want to obey…and thus being faithless.

Others note that even the Bible contains examples of change.  The passage calling for an “eye for an eye” being replaced by “turn the other check” is an example.  Leviticus calls for homosexual men to be stoned to death.  Yet only a few people call for the death penalty for being gay today. Anybody want to enforce that one?

It seems we ALL pick and choose when it comes to following the Bible.  So did Jesus.  The question is always, “Are we being driven by the Spirit?”  The answer is rarely clear.  Good and faithful people can be found on both sides of this contentious issue.  And it threatens to split our denomination.

I would offer one thought.  In our hemisphere, the prevailing winds run from West to East because of the rotation of the Earth.  It sets the general direction, though the winds vary. 

The things that sets the general direction of the Spirit, is love.  A love we see incarnated in Jesus, who embraced the outcast and the outlaw, who forgave those who seemed unforgivable, and who constantly broken the taboos which divided people in so many devastating ways.  He loved those who disagreed with him and did not seek to drive them away.  Whatever we don’t know…we DO know this is the direction in which the Spirit leads us.

That is the direction in which we must sail.


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