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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.




March 21, 2018, 5:23 PM

A Funny Thing Happened...



This year, Easter falls on April Fools Day.  There’s something poetic about that.

There are certainly skeptics and cynics who are quite convinced that the Resurrection is an elaborately concocted fable, a hoax perpetrated upon the gullible and naïve.

The spread of all sorts of internet hoaxes and myths certainly shows how phony stories can spread like wildfire. 

Mark Twain is often quoted as having said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” It’s a quote found all over the internet.  Yet, ironically, there is good reason to doubt that he ever actually said it.  (Though I think he would have agreed.)

Skeptics point out that NONE of the four accounts of the Resurrection found in the Bible actually agree with each other.  They all differ somewhat.  This, they claim, is proof that the whole thing is made up.

But, if differing views of the same event somehow prove that it didn’t happen, then apparently President Kennedy wasn’t really assassinated that day in Dallas, because there are dozens of conflicting accounts of what happened, even though the event was witnessed by hundreds and caught on film.

The lack of a single version on which everyone agrees actually gives me reason to take the claim seriously.  The early Christians knew there was no single clear narrative on which they could all agree, and they chose not to homogenize them all into one account in order to “get their story straight.”  They let it be messy, because real history is often like that.

But they ALL agreed that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been raised from death.  On that point, they were emphatically unanimous. 

It’s important to remember that there had really been no expectation before Jesus that the Messiah would die an utterly ignominious and horrifying death, or that he would be raised from the dead.  His story wasn’t being forced to fit some narrative that already existed.  Oh, I know the Gospel According to Matthew frequently cites Old Testament prophets saying that one thing or another happened according to what they had predicted.  But, he actually made those connections after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  It was hindsight on his part, and a lot of those connections are pretty loose.

But, insisting that Jesus physically rose was a lethally dangerous undertaking.  It put anyone who made such a claim in direct conflict with the political and religious powers of the day.  The same ones that had no problem killing him.  It would have been vastly safer and easier to claim that Jesus’ memory lived on in a deathless way.  It would not have scandalized people, caused skeptics to snort in disbelief, or the authorities to see his followers as claiming that the man they had put to death for subversion was being touted as a divine authority greater than Caesar.  That is precisely what won them persecution.

So, claiming Jesus was actually resurrected was not a matter of having him live up to prior expectations, nor was it a safe or easy thing to say.  In fact, his death flew in the face of expectation, his resurrection was not prophesied, and proclaiming these things put a person in mortal danger.

But even so, they insisted, in spite of all this, that that was precisely what had happened, even if the accounts were somewhat contradictory about the details (which is something that frequently occurs in the wake of an astonishing event.)

But, does any of this prove that Jesus physically rose from the dead?

Nope.

It will always be a matter of faith.

But here’s the funny part…

In spite of the best efforts of the most powerful empire in the world, led by an emperor who was even considered divine…Despite the efforts of an ancient and influential religious establishment that deemed him and his followers to be frauds…No matter that no one expected or predicted such a fantastic and stunning turn of events…Even though the politicians, the priests, and even the people turned against him and killed him in gruesome fashion…Jesus of Nazareth is revered twenty centuries later by people who proclaim, “He IS risen!”

There is literally no one else in the history of the human race whose life ended so horrifcally who commands the reverence and allegiance given this dirt-poor woodchopper-turned preacher from an obscure hillbilly town.

The people who had come together to destroy Jesus could not have conceived of such a result in either their wildest dreams or nightmares.  It would have seemed utterly and absolutely preposterous.  It still does to a lot of perfectly reasonable people.

Such a prediction would have sounded like a joke, told by a fool.

People try to explain it away.  Mass delusion.  Intentional deception. The appropriation of even more ancient myths which somehow got attached to this crucified messianic wannabe.

But, in the face of ruthless persecution, delusions and frauds tend to lose their appeal.  The early followers of Jesus found mostly resistance, hardship, and rejection.  Those are harsh reality checks.  Far easier to go with the flow…Unless you cannot deny the truth of what so many dismiss as subversive and preposterous, even at the cost of your life.  Even in the face a terrinble resistance, they could not do that.

Those who sent Jesus to the cross were sure of their own righteousness and reason.  They were certain that truth and God were on their side.  This heretic/subversive would surely be forgotten, once he was dead and buried.

But, a funny thing happened…

The joke, it seems, was on them.  And, I can't help but think that the first sound to echo from that defeated tomb, was laughter.




February 19, 2018, 11:25 AM

Thoughts & Prayers



 

Once again, a gunman with a grudge against the world has walked into a school and opened fire with random, murderous malice. 

We’ve seen these atrocities in other schools (including two in our area) and in churches.  We have seen wholesale slaughter in a nightclub in Orlando, a cinema in Colorado, and at a concert in Vegas.

The most recent mass killing in Florida took place on the tenth anniversary of a massacre at Northern Illinois University in which the only child of a friend of mine was cut down by a heavily armed man with a long psychiatric history who then killed himself.

After every one of these atrocities, our politicians rush to TV cameras to say their “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims.  But, nothing changes.  The slaughter continues.

I find myself recalling the words of the prophet Amos who expressed God’s fiery indignation over displays of piety in the kingdom of Israel that did not lead to acts of justice…

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
 Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
 But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5: 21-24)

Some people like to claim that the reason for school shootings is that “God isn’t allowed in school” any more.  Actually, personal prayer has never been banned, and is even protected by numerous Supreme Court rulings.  But, that fact aside…the kind of carnage that we see repeated over and over in this country is virtually unknown in many countries that are FAR more secular than ours.  And, last I checked, prayer is still pretty common in churches where there have also been monstrous attacks.  In fact, the crimes took place during worship and prayer meetings.

“Thoughts and prayers” have too often become replacements for any other form of action.

We’re Southern enough in Southern Illinois to be familiar with that bit of Christian passive/aggression that goes, “I’ll pray for you.”  It’s kinda like, “Bless your heart.”  It’s a throwaway term, that means something a good deal less pious than it sounds.  “I’ll pray for you” is too often code for…”You’re hopeless and I don’t intend to really do anything for you.”

 

Our society is in the grip of an existential spiritual crisis.  One symptom is the mindless violence which we see perpetrated  in random ways.  Another symptom is the opioid epidemic that kills more Americans each year than did during the entire Vietnam War.

At the root of both lethal trends is profound alienation and despair.  They are both the result and the cause of a terrible, soul-crushing loneliness.  In some people, it leads to a spiritual implosion.  They collapse into themselves in a death spiral of despair, using powerful drugs, or simply turning their guns on themselves.  Others, filled with rage and resentment, explode in acts of barbarous violence.

But they are all lonely and filled with despair.

This is the deeper disease that threatens us all.   Even if it doesn’t lead us to addiction or violence, it damages our souls when we look upon such tragedies as “just the way it is” and become  numb to them.  It is a profoundly spiritual crisis , because it is about the lack of  hope and connection and meaning.

I’ve had people accuse me of questioning or denying the power of prayer because I have expressed deep frustration with the way people respond to horror after horror by offering “thoughts and prayers” without those thoughts or prayers ever seeming to change this constant carnage.  No, what I am questioning is how seriously they are taking their prayer life.  What I am saying is that this is something that should be said with deadly seriousness and not used as a throwaway line because you can’t think of anything else to say and don’t want to put the effort into finding answers, or being an answer.

REAL prayer is powerful, transformative, and dangerous.  It’s dangerous because it puts us at God’s disposal.  Like the prophet Isaiah, who answered, “Here I am, Lord!  Send me!”

Too many prayers  start and end with, “Please fix it for us, and the sooner the better.”

What’s missing is the part where you say, “Dear God, I may not be able to fix this whole problem.  But, I want to know what I can do.  Make me an instrument of your will and your peace.”

Have you done that with this problem?  How often do you do it with any problem?

Jesus lived about 90% of his life in complete obscurity.  Which was much safer and easier for him.  I suspect he looked at the troubled and violent world around him and thought and prayed about its plight for quite awhile. But,  eventually, his thoughts and prayers led him to take action.

The baptism he underwent, was billed by John as an act of repentance.  Again, that’s not just saying you’re sorry, it’s a dramatic change of direction in one’s life.  Jesus decided after years of safe obscurity, to step out of the water of the Jordan and into the glare of the spotlight.  He knew he would pay a terrible price, but the world was (and is) in terrible need of a courageous love.

He had no illusions that he could change everything by himself.  But he could make a start.  He now calls on us to carry on his work.  And he has promised his presence when we do so.

By all means, think and pray about what is happening to our children and our society.  But don’t just toss it into God’s lap and walk away.  Pray as Francis of Assissi did… “Lord, make ME an instrument of your peace.”

Pray with a repentant heart that is open to being transformed and sent in a new direction.

Come to think of it, that is what Lent is all about.


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