Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Inauguration of Barack Obama: Moving Out of Our Exile

When speaking about Israel’s Exile in Babylon, the prophets speak of it as a period of judgment in which the silence of God was deafening. During this tragic period, the remnant of God’s people struggled to find their identity and they fought to return to a sense of divine purpose. Yet, even in the midst of depression, Israel’s prophets spoke about a time of renewal and hope. Jeremiah captures this sentiment as he voices the promise of God, “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow” (Jeremiah 31:13).

This past Tuesday, as I watched with many others the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, I recalled this period in Israel’s history and the hope about which the prophets spoke, even in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable obstacles. The somber and often depressing morale that has recently characterized our nation due to a greed induced financial crisis that weighs heavily on the poor and middle classes, the continuation of two seemingly endless wars, and the decline of America’s moral reputation on an international scale have gripped this nation much like the period of Exile tore at the Hebrew people. But as those people heard the promises of God through the voice of their prophets, I felt on Tuesday that we were perhaps hearing the voice of God after a period of divine silence.

To describe my thoughts in religious terms, I felt a great awareness of God’s presence. This is not to say that Barack Obama is a messiah figure, for the moment was greater than the man upon whom the day was focused; indeed it must be. Nor do I mean to imply that we are now becoming a “Christian” nation; indeed we cannot. But to use religious language to describe my thoughts on Tuesday, I felt that I was not witnessing so much the inauguration of a president, as I was participating in a revival meeting that was calling all of us to repentance, redemption and renewal.

I use the image of the Exile, for in my mind, although certainly not in the minds of others, the voice of God has been conspicuously missing in our leadership over the last eight years. This does not mean that religion or references to God have been missing, or that we must be religious to be moral. But I have sensed for quite some time that our government has failed to be the voice of justice, peace, and hope. Instead, the message of the last eight years has been one of arrogance, violence, and fear. While leaders can often throw the name of God around in order to give some divine credibility to their decisions and policies, this does not mean their words or their actions reflect the character of God.

The past eight years remind me very much of the words of another prophet, who spoke judgment upon the leaders of Israel because they had failed to lead as God had willed. Ezekiel declares God’s disgust for the leaders of Israel, rebuking them for not feeding the sheep. And in a strong statement of reproach God tells these shepherds, “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (Ezekiel 34:4). Have not the actions of our recent leaders done the same?

Yet, the inauguration of a man whose race has historically been disenfranchised, ridiculed, and persecuted stands to symbolize a starting over. The inauguration was a moment of healing and transformation for our nation; a moment when we could all acknowledge as a collective people of diverse races, religious or non-religious, republicans or democrats, and all the differences that often divide us, that the time is now for moving out of the grips of prejudice and intolerance of all kinds, unfair economic policies that hold down the poor, and a foreign policy that is haphazard, provincial, and fueled by the power of fear rather than power of the common good.

As a person of faith, I heard the voice of God speak through the moments and the words of the inauguration, even to the end when Rev. Lowery voiced a benediction that served as a call to respond. For in the historic moments we all witnessed and shared on Tuesday, we were called to return to the moral center of what is right, good, and just for our nation, and indeed the world. We were called to look outside ourselves, embrace all others through love and service, work for justice and peace in our world, and face the challenges our recent Exile has brought upon us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Satan Uses the Church

Since the time of earliest Christianity there has been a belief that the church is under attack from a figure we know as Satan. Probably extending from the stories of Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, and perhaps as far back as the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Genesis narrative, this belief is found in other parts of the New Testament literature and is often referred to as spiritual warfare. While we must take the existence of evil seriously, I often wonder if the church is only the target of Satan’s attacks, or whether the church is more often a participant in the wiles of the figure we call the Devil.

I have to admit that I am not one who necessarily believes in a mythical figure known as Satan. I more readily accept that this is a personification given by the ancients to what they perceived as the struggle to choose between doing good and doing evil. I am definitely not denying the existence of evil, and I am not setting out to disprove the reality of Satan, but I have trouble with using a mythical figure as a scapegoat for the evil and sin we choose to do as humans, as if we can say, in the words of the comedian Flip Wilson, “the Devil made me do it.”

But let me put aside my own beliefs about the non existence of Satan and presume that the Devil is real. In doing so, I want to return to the question about what Satan may be up to in relation to the church. The traditional and popular understanding of the actions of Satan suggests that the Devil attacks the church whenever the church seeks to do what God wants her to do. I most certainly don’t disagree with this belief, but I do believe that if we limit our understanding only to this, then we may be deceived into thinking that the church is only the enemy of Satan and not, as may be the case, an unwitting ally of the Devil.

It is the popular understanding about Satan and his actions that we find mostly in conservative churches that pride themselves on so-called correct theology and Bible believing faith. Yet, so-called correct theology and Bible believing faith can be deceptive, if Satan or our own ignorance and prejudices cloud our understanding of the message of the scriptures.

There are, in my view, some significant lies that Satan has fed the church that the so-called Bible believing church often does not recognize. While this is not an exhaustive list, it is certainly one that should be brought to the forefront if we want to have any honest conversations about the deceptive tactics of the figure we refer to as the Devil.

The first lie is one that suggests that inequality is biblical. While many churches would not admit to practicing inequality, when we prevent certain people from holding leadership roles in the church because of gender, marital status, race, or other form of social classification, then we practice inequality. To say that a female cannot be a pastor, minister, or deacon, is to practice inequality. To say that a divorced person cannot take on a church leadership position is inequality. And to prevent a person of a different race from leadership, whether intentional or not, is to practice inequality. But the gospel is about equality and the tearing down of barriers that divide humanity.

The second lie follows from the first. Exclusion grows out of our practice of inequality. We see the other as not only different, but also as unequal to us, and thus we exclude them. Whether we exclude people based on their race, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, or theological beliefs, exclusion is a sin and is one of the great lies Satan has told the church. But the gospel is inclusive, open to all who believe and choose to follow Jesus.

Finally there is the lie of ignorance. It becomes easier for the church to practice inequality and exclusion when we remain ignorant and resort to statements like, “the Bible says it, so that settles it.” While as followers of Christ we must take seriously the message Christ preaches and exemplifies, and we should work to become more biblically literate, if we read the stories of violence, prejudice, and exclusion that we find in some of the biblical material with a view toward making them theologically and ethically relevant for the church today, then we have bought into one of Satan’s biggest lies. Holding onto ignorance cloaked in religious truth only feeds the prejudices that lead to our seeing people as unequal and results in our excluding them. This process is completely contrary to the gospel Jesus preached, lived, and ultimately died to fulfill.

While we play victim to an attacker we call Satan, the real deceit we practice is in not admitting that we are very often participants in the evil promulgated by the Devil. History shows that the church has committed its own share of evil in the world. And, in very subtle ways, masked by a perception of truth, the Devil continues to entrap the church in his snare and to use the witness of the church to prevent people from believing in a God who shows no partiality, who is inclusive, and who welcomes all into the full participation of the church.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

What does the Lord Require for 2009?

I have never been one to make serious resolutions for each New Year. Moreover, since 2009 is now a week old, I would probably be considered a little late in making any resolutions at this point. I am not opposed to making such resolutions, and I am certainly not cynical about those who make them and seriously try to keep them; I have just never really felt the need to make them.

Yet, as we begin the New Year, I have been considering what I want 2009 to be for me. For sure, I have personal goals like spending more time with my family, getting and staying in shape, and being a better person. Moreover, I have professional goals to be better at my job and to improve my professional skills. But as 2008 was coming to a close and 2009 was in its first hours of life, I began to think about what God really wants from me in 2009.

God’s will can be very difficult to understand, but more difficult to execute in my life. Understanding God’s will for me in 2009 can be tricky for the simple reason that my primary resource for knowing the will of God is the Bible and the life of Jesus. The year 2009 is a long way away from the ancient world in which the Bible was written and in which Jesus lived. Yet, it is vitally important that I start with these resources in order to understand and live out God’s will for my life.

But the problem is more than just simply the distance in time between the biblical world and my own life. The problem also comes in understanding what the Bible wants to say to me and what parts of the Bible might say these things more clearly. Thus, seeking the will of God for 2009 requires reading scripture, reflecting on what scripture says, and using spiritual discernment and sound reason to find the direction God desires for my life in the New Year.

But is it necessary that I make this task so difficult? Yes, biblical interpretation is often difficult and gut-wrenching work if we are seeking to be serious with the text and serious about what the text says. Despite what we hear from some preachers and teachers of the Bible who spout off nothing but watered down theology that only skims the surface of the biblical texts and the life of Jesus, the Bible is not always clear and not always correct for our context. Moreover, spiritualizing portions of the Bible just because we think that every part of scripture must mean something for us now is not the answer. But finding God’s will for us can often be made even more difficult when we cannot see the forest because of the trees.

I am certainly not one to say that we ought not to consider the intricacies of scripture and what scripture says on issues with which we deal; but I am saying that we can face many questions we have in life and never find specific and crystal clear answers from these ancient and distance texts. However, I do think we can find God’s will for all of us in the overall message of scripture that is summed up in various ways, but two that are pertinent for me.

Micah 6:6 from the Hebrew Bible offers us the following, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” And Jesus stated that the law is summed up in this, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and everything that you are, and love your neighbor as you would love yourself.” These seem to me to be codes with which to live for a couple of important reasons.

First, each recognizes that life exists in relation to God and others. We are not alone and despite our tendency to be independent, the fullness of life can only be encountered in relationships with God and others that are based on love. Second, both call us to action on the part of others. To do justice, to love mercy, and to love others as we would want to be loved means to live our lives not in selfish gain, but in self giving sacrifice.

If I consider these verses and others like them to be the center piece of the biblical message, then these should become for me the moral and spiritual compass by which my life is guided. And if these words are the moral and spiritual compass of my life, then they must become the basis from which I formulate resolutions, not only for a New Year, but for each new day.

So, while I have never been keen about the whole New Year’s resolution tradition, I hope that I am serious about living my life the way God intends. I hope that my life for 2009 is focused on loving God and loving others by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.