Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Does It Really Mean to Believe the Christmas Story?

The biblical stories are replete with calls to believe and people who choose to believe or not to believe in God. Of course, the more familiar expression we use in speaking of this act of believing is to have faith. Whether we read stories of individuals in Israel’s history, or ancient Israel’s history as a nation, or whether we read the narratives surrounding the coming of Jesus, we are always reading about people who either had faith or about those who did not have faith.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in Mark’s Gospel, after his own experience of God’s presence in his baptism and immediately after his temptation in the wilderness, he proclaims his central message that God’s rule is near, and he calls on those who heard his message to respond, first through repentance and then by believing. Specifically, he called them to believe in the gospel of God. In doing so, Jesus was calling them not only to believe in the existence of God, but to believe that God was now among them through his own presence, and to believe that in his advent, the beginning of the end of injustice and oppression had arrived.

Yet when we consider the concept of faith, the act of believing, our modern minds tend to focus more on an intellectual agreement with some idea or proposition. Often, when we talk about faith, we speak of faith in terms of our intellectual faith; believing this proposition to be true, or that statement of faith to be true. Indeed, for many Christians, believing in certain theological statements is equivalent to believing in God.

But when Jesus announced the coming of God’s rule and called people to believe in the gospel of God, was he calling them to agree intellectually with this? The initial answer to this question is yes. Faith, any faith, requires us to believe with our minds that something is true. But faith cannot end with our intellectual belief in God and what we think God is doing. Jesus called those who heard his message, as well as those who continue to hear his message, to a belief that is more than simply mental conformity to God’s rule. He called and continues to call folks to the actions of faith.

This is why the act of repentance is tied to the act of belief. Repentance is more than a change of one’s mind. Repentance is a continual change in one’s behavior based on hearing from God. So too, believing involves the actions of the whole self being oriented toward God and God’s purposes. If we truly believe God is doing something in our world, then we will demonstrate that belief through our participation in God’s work. If we do not participate in God’s work, then we fail to believe.

As Christians, we often give lip service to our faith. We say we believe certain ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and humanity, and we somehow convince ourselves that this makes us faithful. But this is nothing more than cheap faith, to borrow slightly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As James rightly states, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not produce actions is not faith at all. The kind of belief to which Jesus calls us is a radical belief; a faith through which we are no longer being conformed to a self-centered way of living, but we are being transformed by the gospel of God.

To have faith is not to believe certain things about God or Jesus. Rather, to have a radical faith in God is to abandon all our desires and replace them with what God desires in our world. It is a call to hear what God wants from us, a call to repent from our selfish living and our long held, but often misguided, assumptions about what we think about God, and a call to believe in what God is doing now.

And what God is doing now for our world is captured in the story of Christmas; a story about a deliverer who came to set the captives of oppression free and to bring peace, joy, and hope to all. A faithful response to the Christmas story, a true act of believing, is not simply hearing the story and wishing these things to be true for the world. To believe the story, to believe in the gospel of God, is to bring to reality the peace, joy and hope God desires for the world through our acts of justice and mercy.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Advent is a Season of Listening

The fundamental statement of belief from ancient Israel’s history is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O’ Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This confession begins with a command to hear, a command that Jesus often reiterated through his well known statement, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.” Indeed, we find many references to the act of hearing throughout scripture, implying that God has something to say to God’s people.

But the act of hearing need not be limited to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear. Rather, the call to listen is a call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God. When we are commanded in scripture to listen, it is a call to silence the noise of our self-interests and listen intently to the voice of God.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the words of John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, who prepares the Way of the Lord.

We also hear the very voice of God, speaking through the rip of heaven to the Beloved Son; an event through which Jesus understands his mission as God’s envoy. And in the verses that close Mark’s prologue, 1:14-15, we hear that same Beloved Son speak with the authority of God, declaring that God’s rule was near. Indeed, in the very act of reading the narrative over and over, we continue to participate in hearing not only this story, but the various voices that proclaim the gospel to us.

Yet, despite the clear commands to listen, we face various obstacles that deafen our ears to God’s voice. One obstacle we face is the noise of life; noise that can drown out the voice of God to us. Another challenge to our hearing God is the fear we have that God will call us to be different than we are. Not knowing what God may say to us if we were to enter a time of intense listening keeps us comfortable in our status quo relationship with God. We are safer if we do not hear.

But another significant problem is that we staunchly maintain assumptions about what we think God says. The catch phrase that captures this sentiment goes something like this; “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” The assumption behind this way of thinking is that our way of reading scripture is always correct, and the interpretations we have maintained can never be challenged or altered.

While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God, and the sacred text of the Bible should form a basis for the church’s faith and life, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.

Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating the Word of God, he was offering new meaning and understanding; a new way of understanding and hearing God in the here and the now. This way of listening embraces the past of God’s revelations, but also looks for what God is saying in the present. Thus, we must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open hearts and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking; even change our way of understanding scripture itself.

One significant way of allowing God to challenge our way of thinking is to listen to others. Listening to what others say about God and life, particularly those who are of a different faith, can help to test and shape our own way of thinking to the extent that though we may not change many of our ideas, we can at least value how others have heard God speak to them. Allowing the divine in someone else speak to the divine in us can help us hear God more fully.

A personal story may help clarify why I think listening to different people is necessary for our hearing God. A few years ago an African-American gentlemen came to my home asking to do some work around the house. He and I have had many conversations since we first met. He cannot read and he is often in and out of jail. He and I come from completely different worlds, and yet when we talk, I cannot help but hear God speaking to me. Indeed, he represents the voice of God to me more than most sermons I hear.

But this should not surprise me at all. A careful look at the life of Jesus shows us very clearly that he heard God in the voices of those forgotten by the world. While the religious establishment held onto their assumptions about what God had said, Jesus was hearing the new Word of God through the voices of those outside that establishment; those who struggled to live life as God intended. Thus, Jesus was not simply the bearer of God’s truth, he was also the receiver of God’s truth; a truth shaped by his listening to others.

In hearing again the story of Advent and Christmas, may we silence the noise of our lives, turn away from our fear of what God has to say to us, and hear God, not through listening to our own assumptions about what the story says and means, but through the voices of pain and suffering that God continues to hear.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving as a Way of Life

This week, Americans will celebrate a treasured holiday in our nation’s history, Thanksgiving Day. On this day, families will gather around the table to share turkey, dressing, and all the other fixings before they laze away the afternoon visiting with relatives, taking naps, or watching football.

Many families will take a few moments at the table, before they partake of the delicious food, to give every person a chance to express their own thankfulness. These expressions of gratitude will continue around the table until everyone has had the chance to articulate thanks. But when this national day of thanksgiving ends, and the turkey, dressing, and fixings are put in the fridge for leftovers, the expressions of Thanksgiving Day are often put away until it is necessary to bring them out for the next Thanksgiving Day.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not being cynical about this holiday. I appreciate the fact that we have a day set aside for the purpose of giving thanks. I also believe that this day serves a grand, and yet, humbling purpose as a yearly reminder of our need to give thanks to God and to appreciate what is truly valuable in this life. But thanksgiving must be more to us than just a day.

Scripture tells us that we are to give thanks continually and in all circumstances. Thanksgiving is not something we do only on one day out of the year when we feel all warm and cozy in our nice homes and around the people we love. No, as Christians, thankfulness is something we are to feel and express everyday of the year as we live, work, and play, and as we struggle, suffer and mourn among our family, friends, acquaintances, and yes, even strangers and enemies.

But I don’t mind confessing that having a constant attitude of thanksgiving is very difficult, if not impossible. Daily we are confronted with issues, events, and yes, even people who challenge our ability to be thankful, even our desires to be thankful. I think that particularly during these difficult times when our nation is facing very challenging barriers to progress, we are more apt to be less thankful. Instead, it seems easier for us to complain about the state of our existence in this world.

Certainly there is room for these kinds of feelings. We only need to read some of the psalms to find out that those who wrote these poems were not always thankful. Indeed, while there are those psalms that express joy and thanksgiving for God’s orientation of goodness in our lives, we can also find those psalms in which the psalmists call out to God in anger and protest because of the pain, struggle and disorientation of life. In fact, although giving thanks might be considered a Christian virtue, even Jesus expressed a lack of thanksgiving and an honest anger at God from the cross as he called out, “My God, My God. Why have you abandoned me?” Not the most thankful expression one could voice to God.

Such expressions of protest, anger, and even lack of faith are normal for us to voice to God. In a real sense, when we express such feelings, we express a degree of discontentment that we must embrace that keeps us from becoming too complacent and comfortable about ourselves, the world, and the delay of God’s justice. Doing so causes us to see life in realistic terms, and not in sappy clichés. No matter how thankful we are, we must always be discontent with the evil and injustice that remains in our world.

So we face a struggle in our Christian living between following the command to give thanks in all things on the one hand, and the reality that there are issues, events and people that challenge our thankful attitudes on the other.

As I have thought about the command to give thanks, I have come to think of thanksgiving as more than simply an attitude, and certainly more than the expressions we offer on a particular day of the year. It seems better, theologically at least, to view thanksgiving as a way of living, perhaps even as a virtue.

To think of thanksgiving as a way of living is to carry out one’s life with a deep sense of God’s presence regardless of the circumstances. No matter what I may face, or what others are facing, I can have an abiding sense of contentment in the midst of discontentment. I am not speaking about a kind of faith that some express in which we talk about our struggles by using platitudes such as, “God will work everything out.” These kinds of statements are not only banal, they are somewhat false. God does not always work everything out for us, and to suggest that God can or will is presumptuous on our part.

What I am talking about is the realization of God’s indwelling and empowering presence that offers to us hope in the midst of joy and pain. It is an inward transformation of our lives to the extent that regardless of the situations we and others face in life, we can, at the same time, be both discontent at what is happening in this life, and content that God’s quiet, but powerful presence is moving creation to God’s glorious redemption.

The realization of God’s abiding presence in our lives means that in the ebb and flow of life, during the good times and the bad times, in moments of contentment and in moments of discontentment, we find hope that can elicit from us thanksgiving even as we call out to God in anguish, anger and protest.

But there is something more we must consider if we are to move from merely voicing expressions of thanksgiving to living out the virtue of thanksgiving as a way of life.

To express true thankfulness to God for what we have, we must do so through tangible acts of love and service to those around us. Expressing thanks to God and to others is a way of living that is articulated through real and radical acts of gratitude, service and love. True thanksgiving is sharing in the blessings God has given us through our participation in God’s work by sharing the blessings of God with those around us.

In most cases, those who claim to be thankful merely mouth words of thanksgiving about what they have. These expressions are good and necessary for any of us to truly be thankful. But these are not enough. To be thankful is to reevaluate all that we have not only in light of God’s grace upon us, but in light of God’s call for us to love our neighbors. True thanksgiving is not simply voicing how thankful we are. Authentic thanksgiving it is a way of life that is expressed in our sharing, even our giving away, that for which we are thankful.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Should we ever Question the Bible?

I was recently engaged in an exchange on Facebook when the question of Paul was raised. In the course of the discussion, I mentioned the fact that some of Paul’s teachings had been used to support the subjugation of women and others. One responder replied to my comment by first insulting me, and then by skirting the evidence that indeed there are teachings in Paul’s writings that have been used to oppress women and others, regardless of whether or not this was the intention of Paul; something we will never no.

While I refused at that point to engage in any further debate with my interlocutor, as I have chosen not to debate with those who resort to name calling and insults as part of their argumentation, this exchange raised again for me the issue of how diverse we are in seeing the Bible, and how, for many Christians, the Bible, along with its historical and theological claims, is true and unquestionable.

Such attitudes raise a fundamental question about how we view the Bible and how we ought to approach the Bible. Can we ever question the Bible? Can we critique, and yes, even forgo some of its historical and theological claims? Or, are we bound to some unwritten and universal rule that forbids putting the Bible under the same sort of scrutiny we do other works of history and religion?

For me, no question is off limits, and this is particularly true when it comes to the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith. Such matters are so important to me that I must ask serious and often difficult questions about them. I am not completely satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. I am open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for in my mind Jesus’ statement that the truth will set you free is the hallmark of our quest. I also encourage others to ask such challenging questions.

One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do the same, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which dangerous queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated. This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering; something the Bible cannot answer sufficiently.

As a teenager I was told that such questions are not important and even dangerous to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary. I became satisfied with this answer. After all, there is a great deal of comfort in naiveté!

This remained true for me until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers. It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary and revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible.

A second reason for my critical approach to the Bible is that I perceive a regrettable weakness in the way many churches see the Bible. More liberal minded churches have almost abandoned the Bible as a source for faith. While they may read from it in worship, many of them see little or no value in looking to the Bible as a source of theology and practice. Though I may have serious reservations about much of what the Bible says, I have not reached the point in my Christian journey where I am ready to throw the whole thing out.

On the other end of the spectrum, more conservative traditions have emphasized the so-called inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, holding a view of the Bible that ignores the discrepancies in the Bible, and more importantly, the long and complicated history of the Bible’s transmission. For these Christians, if the Bible says it, then it must be true. I have moved from this position, which I was taught at a younger age. For me, it is intellectually dishonest to place that much authority on these ancient texts written by folks who could not foresee our modern and scientific world.

A third motive for my critical look at the Bible and faith logically follows the second, and concerns an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based. Not only has this deficiency in religious education led to biblical illiteracy, more tragically, it has led to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking. Many folks cling to the Bible as if it fell from heaven, and they look to it as if it has all the answers we could ever seek for our questions.

Many Bible study materials and the groups that use them do not seriously consider the complexities and conundrums inherent in reading ancient texts. Instead, they focus on how we as individuals can improve our lives, and the discussions usually center on what the Bible has to say to me about my life. While this is important for people of faith, it is secondary to delving deeply into the text of the Bible. Failure to take this major step in biblical interpretation will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or cause us to make it say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.

But perhaps my greatest motivation for questioning the Bible is the nature of much of its content that sanctions oppression, violence and war; and it does so with what is taken to be divine authority. Passages that command the killing of others and the subjugation of still others ought to be abhorrent to our modern minds, but for some reason, since these are in the Bible, we evade them.

We must understand that not every part of the Bible witnesses equally to God’s character and will, and it is the passages that sanction violence and oppression that do not bear witness to God’s character at all. The historical fact is that the Bible was not written by God, but was penned by historically situated humans who were seeking to understand God, humanity and the world. At times, these people got it wrong, horribly wrong, and they erroneously legitimized their violence and oppression as the will of God.

In raising critical questions about these tests, we can assess them in light of those that speak more fully about the God who loves all life. Thus, it is intellectually, historically and theologically responsible for us to raise critical and difficult questions about the text we call the Bible. In fact, not raising these questions may be the greater sin.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Christians Are Called to Seek the Shalom of the City

What is the role of the church in society? What does it mean for Christians to be in the world, but not of the world? How do we remain faithful to our Christian confession and identity, but also engage the culture around us? These are important questions for us to consider, and they have been questions of considerable debate among Christians since the time of the early church.

There are some Christians who view the relationship the church should have with the culture as one of separation, isolation, and abandonment. Inherent in this approach is an understanding of the world as evil and culture as the tool of evil. The world is a very evil place, full of evil ideas, and thus Christians should separate themselves, isolate themselves, and, to some extent, abandon the culture.

A second approach is one in which Christians confront culture with power and judgment. Those who take this approach seek to use power, especially political power, to force what they believe to be Christian ideals onto the culture. Indeed, these types of groups would like to force Christianity itself on to culture. In America, these individuals and groups equate Christian ideals with American values, and, to a great extent, it is the latter that perhaps influences the former.

A third way that Christians have defined this relationship to culture is to embrace culture without any thought for the inherent biblical tension that lies between the Christian gospel and the culture. This view is a weak, ‘namby pamby” mentality that places hope solely in the togetherness of humanity. However, it fails to recognize sin and evil in our world, and it fails to see that culture has its inherent problems.

But is this all there is? Or, is there another approach; one through which the church does not separate herself from the world, does not seek to have power over the world, and does not cower down to the point of having no prophetic voice in the world?

In Jeremiah 29:1-7, we find a letter from the prophet Jeremiah written to the Exiles who were in Babylon. As is well known among scholars and lay people alike, the Babylonian Exile had a tumultuous effect on the people of Judah. This deportation from their home land, with the last deportation taking place in 586 B.C.E., coupled with the destruction of the temple that same year, brought a sense of despair and hopeless.

It is to these Exiles that Jeremiah writes his pastoral letter found in Jeremiah 29. His reasons for doing so seem to be to counter the idea that was being propagated by others that this current ordeal would be short-lived. In their prophetic utterances, the Exile would be over soon and God would return them to their land.

Jeremiah writes, however, to oppose this understanding of God’s purposes. This Exile from their land, Jeremiah tells them, will not be short-lived, and he instructs them to build, plant, marry, and multiply. In other words, he calls on them to do the things they would normally do.

These are not instructions given to temporary residents of a city. Refugees don’t do these kinds of activities as if life was normal. But these are instructions given by someone who understands that this Exile was going to last for an extended period of time.

Yet, there is something that Jeremiah says in his letter that may have confused and angered even his most loyal follower. Jeremiah also instructs the captives to “Seek the welfare of the city” (29:7).

The English word welfare, found in the NRSV, translates the Hebrew word shalom, a familiar word even to those of us who may not read or speak Hebrew. This term carries with it a richness of ideas, such as peace, prosperity, well being, and wholeness. And, if we understand the use of shalom here to mean something along these lines, then perhaps we might also capture its meaning by using the expression the common good.

In this sense, Jeremiah not only commanded the Exiles to settle down in Babylon and to build, plant, marry and multiply, he also called them to do more than simply wait out the Exile in isolation and separation or in judgment and intolerance. Rather, he called on them to seek the common good, not only for themselves, but also for their captors.

In many respects, the Christian tradition has utilized the historic Exile of Judah as a metaphorical exile of God’s people in the world. Indeed, as Peter states in one of his letters, Christians are aliens and strangers in this land we call the world (1 Peter 2:11). The assumption is that this earth is not our home, and the hope that we maintain, based on the biblical idea of a future existence with God, lingers in our hearts and minds. But until that distant future becomes a reality, we exist here in the now of this world, of this society, and of this culture.

We can take the position of some who practice isolation, separation, and abandonment of culture. Or, we can relate to this culture with force and power through intolerance, judgment and coercion. And we may even choose to shrink from our call to be God’s people in the world by quieting our prophet voice. But none of these are authentic biblical responses.

The most faithful relationship we can have to our culture is the do what we can to seek the common good for all. That, of course, is not an easy task, but it seems to be our clarion call from God, particularly as that call is revealed in the teachings of Jesus that command us to love others, to be peacemakers, to work for justice, and to bear witness to the God who is on the side of the oppressed. Seeking the common good, or seeking the shalom of the city, is possibly the most authentic way to be God’s people in our culture.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Peacemaking is the Heart of Jesus’ Message

In 1981, the Generally Assembly of the United Nations declared that the opening day of its annual session would be recognized as International Peace Day. Twenty-years later, in 2001, the Assembly determined that September 21 of each year would be known as International Peace Day. I write these words on International Peace Day 2010.

The heart of Jesus’ message is the desire for peace. At one level, Jesus called people to follow him as a path to finding peace with God. Yet, at a more experiential level, Jesus called people to be at peace with one another. Indeed, in the Sermon on the Mount we find one of Jesus’ most forthright statements on the subject, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

Given the fact that this statement appears in the list of what has been named the Beatitudes, those pithy sayings that stand as the most important ethical values Jesus lays out, peacemaking must assuredly be a core value and action for Jesus followers. Peacemaking not only reflects Jesus’ teachings, it also mirrors the life of Jesus who came as the Prince of Peace. But what is required to be peacemakers and why must we be peacemakers?

Simply put, and without qualification, the kind of peacemaking Jesus commands requires non-violent responses to evil. One of Jesus’ most controversial statements also comes to us through Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Jesus states, “When someone strikes you on one cheek, turn and offer to him the other one.” While many have tried to live true to this instruction of Jesus, more often than not Christians have found his command to turn from violence unsettling, and perhaps even ridiculous. But we cannot negotiate with Jesus at this point, for his statement is very straightforward. If this is true, then why do we tend to avoid Jesus’ clear command to turn the other cheek as an essential part of being non-violent peacemakers?

The answer to that question lies in our failure to see that Jesus’ definition of peacemaking also requires forgiveness. The central message of scripture is that God so loved the world that God has forgiven the world. But God’s forgiveness is not based on our paying restitution or in our suffering a penalty. God’s forgiveness flows from God’s unconditional love for humanity and a desire to make peace with us.

Our biggest problem in practicing this kind of forgiveness, and therefore our greatest hindrance to making peace, is that we are vengeful. Our culture tells us that revenge is a necessary part of justice, and when we as individuals, or as a group, or as a nation are wronged, it is only right, even expected, that we seek revenge against the wrongdoers. But is this the message of Jesus?

Gandhi, one of the greatest followers of Jesus’ teachings, said it best when he reflected on Jesus’ command not to seek revenge; he declared, “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” While the message of the world is that vengeance is right, and making people pay for the harm they cause us is good, the message of Jesus, and Gandhi, calls us to something greater that reflects God’s own character and action—forgiveness. Forgiveness is the necessary action that leads to peacemaking.

We should not assume, however, that offering forgiveness to others means that those who commit wrongs should not be brought to justice. We cannot simply overlook the wrongs committed by others, and we must name evil as evil. But the passion for seeking justice cannot be fueled by the need for vengeance; it must be empowered by the desire to forgive, to bring reconciliation, and to make peace.

While Jesus’ teachings on peacemaking apply to those of us who seek to reconcile with those who have hurt us personally, peacemaking also extends to conflicts among groups of people, whether local conflicts or wars on the global front. The waging of any war brings destruction to the lives of ordinary people, and wars will never establish lasting peace. The Christian community should condemn such hostilities, because Jesus never called his followers to take up the weapons of warfare and kill their enemies. He has called us to take up the cross of self-sacrifice through which we can find love for our enemies.

Two statements by Dr. Martin Luther King seem relevant to this topic. Dr. King stated, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.” Jesus also understood that war could never assure the world of peace; only peacemaking brings lasting peace. Dr. King also said, “Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice.” Peacemaking and peace building require us to work for justice.

Many have understood these principles and have applied them to terrible situations to discover that peace is indeed possible. One example that stands out is what took place in South Africa in the last century. South Africa was a place of violence and hatred due to the laws of apartheid that prevented people of color from having equal rights. Atrocities abounded from both sides, until changes were made that cleared the way for Nelson Mandela to be elected in 1994 as the first black president of South Africa.

However, before his election, Mandela had been imprisoned by the white South African government from 1962-1990. Yet, after Mandela was elected president of his country, he did not seek revenge against his captors. Instead, his government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered forgiveness to those who would come forward and admit of their wrongdoings. Mandela knew that peace could not be made by seeking vengeance. Without this commission, South Africa may have continued to be a place of strife and conflict.

On this International Peace Day may we remember those who have worked tirelessly for peace across this world, and may all of us, Christian or not, find ways to work together for a more just and peaceful world.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Religious Literacy Cultivates Authentic Understanding

The recent heated debates and arguments over the building of an Islamic Center in New York, as well as the clashes in other parts of the U.S. over the planned construction of Islamic structures, not only exposes an irrational fear of Islam, but a lack of religious literacy Americans have about Islam, and for that matter about religion. Such ignorance only increases our misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of the world’s fastest growing religion to the point that we will not even listen to moderate Muslims who desire to integrate into the religious fabric of America as a part of making this country stronger.

Take for example the recent remarks by the Tennessee Lt. Governor and gubernatorial candidate, Ron Ramsey. In a town hall meeting in Chattanooga, Ramsey, after towing the Tea Party line about how socialism is ruining our country, took questions from those gathered in the room. One gentleman’s query had to do with what he thought to be a national threat, as he put it, “the invading of our country from the Muslims.” He looked to Ramsey for what he would do about this threat.

Ramsey’s initial response suggested that he agreed with the man about the threat of Muslims invading our country. Ramsey continued by expressing concerns about the building of a Mosque in Rutherford County in Tennessee before he stepped back to say that he is in support of the First Amendment to the Constitution stating, “I’m all about freedom of religion.”

With this statement, Ramsey had an opportunity to affirm his belief in the Constitution, regardless of whether he agrees with the teachings of Islam or not. He had the opportunity to affirm, in public, his ardent belief in the First Amendment that protects the religious rights of all, but he did not.

Instead, Ramsey went on to mischaracterize Islam, even to the point of questioning its status as a religion. In his own words, “You can even argue whether being a Muslim is actually a religion, or is it a nationality, way of life, or a cult, or whatever you want to call it.”

While this is only one example of religious illiteracy, particularly about Islam, I am sure that the sentiments expressed by Ramsey are felt by millions of Americans who would rather continue to remain ignorant about Islam so that they can continue to stereotype Islam as a religion of radical hatred and evil. Protesters against the building of the Islamic Center in New York have expressed their attitudes against learning more about Islam through signage that reads, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11.”

In his book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn’t (2007), Stephen Prothero argues that while Americans are the most religious people in the Western World, we are perhaps the most religiously illiterate. He states that the “private and public lives of Americans are “awash in a sea of faith.” “Unfortunately, however, Americans’ knowledge of religion runs as shallow as Americans’ commitment to religion runs deep.” To put it bluntly, Prothero believes that while we are very religious, we very ignorant about religion. I happen to agree with his conclusions.

How should we respond to such religious illiteracy?

The most obvious answer to that question is that we must gain at least a basic knowledge of other world religions. Such education about these religions will help us avoid stereotypes and untruths that can only lead to a dehumanizing of adherents of that religion. However, such knowledge needs to be accurate.

Listening to the fear mongering politicians and pundits does not offer any one of us a chance at learning the facts about another religion. However, reading reputable books on religions and befriending and conversing with people who practice other faiths are two significant actions we can take in solving our problem of religious illiteracy. But our motives for such learning ought to be authentic as well.

While some Christian churches offer classes about world religions, these often only serve as a pretext for evangelism, and the focus usually concentrates on finding problems within a particular religion in order to win an apologetic argument. We need to recognize the intrinsic value of learning about other religions for the purpose of being better informed world citizens who are not simply interested in converting others to our religion. Those who seek to learn about other faiths should hold authentic desires to listen to and learn from those of other faiths.

We also need to gain an appreciation of the value that all religions contribute toward the betterment of humanity. The great world religions are ways of approaching the human search for ultimate reality and for how we are to live as humans. Some, but not all of them, express such reality in terms of a divine being. These various religions have different ways of understanding God, the human problem and how to remedy that problem. These differences are significant and therefore should not be overlooked and we should not treat religions as if they are all the same. But each one offers much good to the world. For sure there those who practice hatred and violence in the name of their religion, but at the same time, there are people from all faiths who act with love and goodness.

Through our gaining knowledge about the religious beliefs of others, we can reach a place where we can acknowledge both the similarities and the differences between various religions. Though they are vastly different, religions seek for the common good of humanity. Keeping interfaith dialogue focused on the common good, while at the same time having open and honest discussions about religious differences, can help us balance the truth and value of our own religious faith while at the same time acknowledging the truth and value of the faith of another. This is not a fool proof solution, but through thoughtful engagement and conversations, we can at least cultivate a more authentic understanding.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

“Driven by Faith, Not by Fear”

One of the Internet sites I frequently visit is operated by a grassroots organization known as Faithful America. Faithful America’s focus is to get people of faith involved to address the pressing moral issues of our time, such as poverty, immigration, climate change, and peace. As their website states, they are “building a powerful grassroots movement to put justice and the common good back at the center of the American values debate.”

Recently, Faithful America began a campaign “to counter the fear and the lies the Tea Party and extreme pundits are spewing.” To create a name for this campaign, they held a contest and the winning slogan is, “Driven by Faith, Not by Fear.” When I first read those words, I immediately thought of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels; the one located in Mark 4:35-41 where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. For me, there is no other biblical story that offers such a contrast between faith and fear.

In the midst of their nautical journey to the other side of the sea, Jesus and his followers encountered a raging storm that appeared quickly and threatened their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear.

It goes without saying that the disciples were afraid of the storm, for they believed that they were about to perish under the torrent of the sea. But the theology of the story hinges on the dialogue between two characters; Peter, who represents all the disciples in their fear, and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In Jesus, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence. In Peter, we witness a dramatic picture of human fear.

How might this story speak to us about the crippling power of fear in our own context?

Since the horrific events of September 11, 2001, many politicians have used the tragedy to attempt to convince us that we ought to be afraid, and that we should especially be afraid of the other. At the heart of the immigration debate is a fear that America will be overrun by immigrants. At the heart of arguments against allowing the construction of a Mosque and Islamic cultural center two blocks from Ground Zero and the building of a Mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a fear that we are somehow giving leverage to terrorism. At the heart of the past debates over health care, is a fear that we are now on the slippery road toward socialism. It seems that every issue that arises offers an opportunity for some to inject unsubstantiated and irrational fear into the debate as a way of convincing us that this is the end.

This fear mongering rhetoric defines the world in black and white terms, seeing only good or evil and leading those who utilize such rhetoric to more easily define who and what are our enemies. The now infamous “war on terror” tag-line became the rationale for waging war, torturing prisoners, and infringing on the freedoms we have always cherished, all in the name of national security. Arizona’s recent passage of a law targeting immigrants, as well as several other states seeking to pass similar legislation, have come about as a result of the power of fear. Moreover, the use of fear as a tactic of political campaigning has created the illusion that only one political party can save our nation.

What shocks me the most about all of this rhetoric is that many Christians have bought into fear as a thoughtful reaction to terrorism, to immigration, to heath care and many other important issues. Yet, the reality is that if we surrender to fear, our faith in God and in one another will diminish, and we will become less than the humans we were created to be. We will become fear induced extremists instead of humans made in the image of God who are commanded to love others and to do good.

Our succumbing to the power of fear has produced a rising tide of intolerance and xenophobia. Moreover, irrational fear is precisely the motivation behind the ever extending trajectory of stories and opinions that continue to speak of the other, whether they are immigrants, Muslims, gays and lesbians, or the poor, in terms that demonize them as less than human. But this is what fear does.

Faith, on the other hand, embraces the other as made in the image of God and worthy of love and friendship. Indeed, in the story from Mark 4, Jesus desires to cross the Sea of Galilee because he knows that on the other side are the Gentiles, enemies of his own race, and he is compelled to cross boundaries to embrace them in friendship and love. While faith does not deny the existence of evil or those who may cause evil, faith relies on the eternal goodness of God whose love conquers evil. Faith is truly the power that overcomes fear.

Fear is a powerful force, but if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live faithfully in the world. While so-called threats to our security and to our way of life, whether real or imagine, naturally produce feelings of fear, we must follow the model of Jesus, who at the most vulnerable point in his life, turned to the God who gives faith that triumphs over all fear. May all that we think, say and do be “Drive by Faith, Not by Fear.”

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Candidate’s Religion, or Lack Thereof, Should be Personal, not Political

The relationship between religion and politics is always a messy one; sometimes too messy. As the recent primary elections in South Carolina and Nevada have demonstrated, politicians can easily use religion as a weapon against political rivals (See Brian Kaylor’s Baptist Attacks Fail on Candidate's Religion at

This is not new. Candidate Obama faced continual questions over his own faith, even though he repeatedly claimed to be a Christian. But folks still question his faith, even after he has been elected president.

However, these religious inquisitions within the political arena raise serious questions about political candidates, the nature of political campaigns and the proper place of religion in our politics. Should a political candidate be forced to defend his or her faith in order to be elected? And, should candidates legitimately use religion as a weapon against political opponents?

In reading Kaylor’s story, and in my own following of this kind of back and forth religious examination between candidates in which candidate ‘A” claims to be more religious than candidate “B”, or candidate “B’ claims to be a member of the right religion, as opposed to candidate “A”, whose religion is somehow less true, I am reminded of something I heard one morning during the early campaigning of the last presidential election.

While sipping my morning coffee, I watched a reporter interview folks in a local diner on the day of one of the presidential primaries. The journalist was asking patrons of the restaurant who they would choose as their candidate for president and why they were choosing that particular contender. Most were concerned about the economy, or about immigration, or about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or about any number of issues. Yet the response of one woman caught my attention and almost caused me to spill my morning cup.

When asked for whom she would vote, this particular voter responded with the name of her choice candidate, and when asked why she would cast her vote for this particular candidate, she simply replied that he would be the right person to turn America back to religion. I thought I had actually misheard what she had said, but I was wrong. Not only had she said what I thought she said, she was also very sincere in what she said.

Don’t misunderstand me; I firmly believe that all people have the right to vote their religious consciences, even if I or anyone else does not agree with them. Indeed, in our democracy, people who are eligible to vote can vote for any particular candidate for any particular reason. Moreover, there is certainly nothing wrong with voting for a person because that candidate is religious.

The problem that I see in making the religious faith of a candidate a determining factor for voting for that candidate, and especially in using religion as a political tool to either make oneself look better to the voters, or to cast religious doubt on one’s opposition, is that we can confuse the personal faith of a public official with the idea that he or she should be a religious leader in our government. This seems to be what the woman in that coffee shop was saying, and it seems to be what happened in both South Carolina and Nevada, and probably in other elections.

But, should a candidate’s religious preference or the lack of religious preference be a vital part of his or her campaign? Should a candidate’s personal faith be fair game in political elections? Must a candidate for any office succumb to the constant badgering from those who question his or her faith as a qualification for carrying out the duties of the office for which he or she seeks election?

The short answer to this question ought to be that while the personal faith of a candidate for public office may be important to a block of voters, this does not mean that the candidate needs to prove his or her faith, and it certainly does not mean that the candidate’s role in government is to lead America back to religion, as if religion has somehow vacated our country.

There are some very important reasons that such a distinction must be kept. First, America was founded on the principle of the separation of church and state. While some have challenged this fundamental principle of American identity, history is on the side of those who maintain this separation.

Learning from the long history of religious violence and oppression in Europe, the founders of this nation, while affirming the importance of religion, drew a clear line between the roles of the church and those of the state. That line is always hard to keep clear, but it becomes very blurry when political candidates are valued foremost for their religious views.

Second, while the U.S. Constitution gives many roles and authorities to those elected to federal offices, and while various state constitutions outline the responsibilities of state officials, these documents do not include religious leadership as a duty.

There are certainly times in the life and struggle of a nation where certain elected officials, such as a president or a governor of a state, symbolically serve a quasi-pastoral function, giving comfort to those who have suffered great tragedies. Moreover, by virtue of the power of these offices, elected officials must act justly by making just legislation, which can have religious correlations. But in no way do elected officials serve as religious leaders.

Third, and perhaps most important for the modern era of American life, the multicultural fabric of our society has also produced a multi-religious civilization in which all should have freedom of religion and equal rights. While a candidate is free to choose his or her personal religious faith, and he or she may find strength from that faith to carry out the role to which she or he is elected, no elected official can become the promoter of any religion, including their own religion or the dominant religion of their constituency. To do so will inevitably lead to the endorsement of one religion over others, whether such an endorsement is implicit or explicit. In a democracy of religious diversity, to promote one religious perspective over others would result in the suppression, and perhaps oppression, of other religious views.

In a democracy, where the power over government rests with the vote of each citizen, the fundamental belief is that people can make reasonable and moral choices. And while those citizens have the right to make their choices based on religion, they must also understand that moral choices and good government are not solely dependent on religion or on a person who is a religious leader. The key to a just and moral society in which the religious and non-religious are free and equal citizens is in finding the common moral ground on which just legislation is promoted to achieve the common good for all, religious or not.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Is Jesus Popular?

I have three teenagers. One is about to begin his university studies at the college where I am currently employed. The other two are still in high school. Having high school and college age kids means that our mail box is often flooded by post cards from various universities across the nation. Almost daily we receive another advertisement from a college that communicates to the prospective student why they should choose their university.

Recently, my middle teen, who will be a junior in high school this next academic year, received a post card from a Christian college. The header on the card read, “The most popular guy on campus walked the earth two thousand years ago.” Obviously this card is meant to inform the student that at this Christian campus, Jesus, the guy who walked the earth two thousand years ago, is the most popular guy on that campus. The intention is to say to the prospective student, and the student’s parents, that at this school, we are really Christian.

While I understand that using Jesus in such a public relations campaign might be effective in catching the eye of students who want to attend a university where Jesus is very popular, somewhat like the star athlete who promotes a certain product, I wonder how popular Jesus really is. Or, perhaps a better questions is, which Jesus is popular? Is the real Jesus popular?

I will have to admit, that in my own life, I sometimes find Jesus to be popular. I like Jesus. But the problem with which I struggle is that I like a certain kind of Jesus. I like the Jesus that I find comforting. You know, the Jesus who is often depicted in paintings that hang in children’s Sunday School rooms. In these images, Jesus is pictured with children and animals around him in scenes of great serenity and gentleness. Who would not like such a Jesus? I know that this is the Jesus I like. But is this the real Jesus?

In Mark 6, Jesus, Nazareth’s own hometown boy, returns home to preach to those who knew him as a child. You can imagine the anticipation they felt for what he might say as he preached his first sermon in his home synagogue. Although Mark does not tell us the words that Jesus spoke, he does tell us that those who heard him “took offense at him” (Mark 6:3). Taken literally, they were scandalized by what he said. Why?

Perhaps they assumed that their hometown boy would make them proud by affirming their righteousness, their place as God’s elect people, and their pious religious observances. Perhaps they assumed that Jesus would side with them against their enemies, preach stirring sermons convicting others of their sins, and pointing to his own people as examples of what it means to live holy lives. They believed that Jesus would tell them what they wanted to hear, and this would make him popular.

However, whatever Jesus said in the synagogue on that day convinced the Nazarenes that the returning hometown boy was not the Jesus they wanted. Instead of being the popular Jesus, the one everyone could like, he was offensive and scandalous to them. He was not popular.

We can look at this story and point our pious fingers at these people and others who reject Jesus, shaming them for not embracing the person and words of Jesus. But are we not just looking into the mirror at our own faces? Was not their problem with Jesus the same as our problem with Jesus?

We embrace the Jesus we want, the popular Jesus who listens to our problems, offers us comfort, and easily forgives our sins. But, we quickly reject the unpopular Jesus, the Jesus who offends us.

The Jesus we want is our friend. He is our ally in the face of our enemies. This Jesus is always on our side, answering our prayers, and blessing us. This Jesus tells us what we want to hear, makes us comfortable, and looks pleasingly at our self-righteousness.

The Jesus we want permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He allows us to be unconscious of the sufferings around us and to replace real discipleship with a pseudo spirituality that manipulates us into thinking we are close to him. He consents to our prejudices that we not only hold against people of other races and genders, but especially against those of other religions and sexual orientations. Yes, this is the Jesus we prefer. He is the Jesus we can accept. He is the popular Jesus.

But this is not the real Jesus. The real Jesus is the one who calls us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, to sell all we have and give to the poor, and to take up the cross and follow him. This is the Jesus who calls us to reach out to others and cross the boundaries of race, religion, culture, and gender. This is the Jesus that dined with tax collectors, beggars, diseased, and various persons of questionable social standing.

This is the Jesus who compels us to repent of our insular lives and to commit ourselves to work for justice, peace, and hope in our world. This is the Jesus that desires for us to be inclusive and affirming of others. This is the Jesus who calls us to rethink our theological assertions and to open ourselves to being moved by his Spirit. And this is the Jesus, who, by being so offensive and so scandalous to his contemporaries was crucified on the most offensive and scandalous instruments of Roman power-the cross.

Yes, this is the offensive Jesus, the one who is not so popular. This is the Jesus, that if I am honest, I do not like, for instead of comforting me and affirming what I want, he haunts me. But he is the real Jesus. He is the radical Jesus. He is the biblical Jesus. Indeed, this Jesus refused to be popular, for although he called folks to follow him, he called them to embrace his radical, and dare I say, unpopular way of living. Is this Jesus popular? As I look around, I would have to say, I don’t think so.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Having All Things in Common: The Essence of Christian Community

The book of Acts includes two summary passages that describe the character of the first century church (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37). In both references, Luke, the author of Acts, narrates that the early believers gathered for worship, prayer, fellowship, and the breaking of bread. Even in our churches today, these actions are familiar and normal to us, as these are still considered the central acts of worship of the gathered people of God.

But perhaps more striking to our ears are the statements in which Luke tells us that these believers “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” He goes on to say, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.”

What might cause such radical generosity among these believers? For sure, it was the power of the Spirit that compelled them to share what had been their own with the needy of the community. Indeed, the indwelling Spirit transformed their understanding of property as that which is privately owned, to viewing private property as that which must be shared with others. Their sharing with others demonstrated that there was a reevaluation of worldly possessions in light of the new work that God was doing in Christ.

But was the relinquishing of private property simply a form of asceticism through which the believers renounced the things of this world to focus on the things of God? To some extent, we would have to say yes. However, the giving up of private property for the well being of others was not simply an expression of genuine generosity that both provided for the needs of others as well as liberated those who acted this way from the temporal things of this world. This action was also a major step, if not the major step toward the formation of the beloved community.

The giving up of one’s possessions for the good of others was more than a simple life void of the distractions of private property. It was something much greater; it was one of the primary characteristics of community living among the early believers. Indeed, without the giving up of possessions to share with others, true community among the believers would not have been realized.

Consequently, these earliest followers of Jesus instituted something radical for their world. For sure, there were other communities in the Hellenistic world which held common possessions, following the teachings of those like Aristotle, who taught that friends held things in common. And the community at Qumran, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, lived this way. But Luke’s narration of these summary portraits of the early church informs us that what they were practicing was different from much of the world around them, and the significance of their common living was brought on by the gospel and the power of the Spirit.

Yet, while the actions of giving up private property in the new people of God may have been something radical, and remains so today, the reality is that these actions, according to Luke, were actually normative for Christian identity and community. Luke’s narration of their selling private possessions is not so much for the purpose of informing us of the ideal to which the church is to attain, though this reason is there. Rather, the practice of community sharing among the early believers was a fact of being the Jesus-following, sprit-empowered, people of God. It was who they were.

The portraits of the church in Acts, therefore, are not primarily models of unreachable ideals the church is to hopelessly pursue; though the church should continue to pursue authentic community through such acts. Instead, these narratives express that which was and is normative for the church to be the church. To act differently means to be less than what the church is to be.

Through the practice of sharing possessions, the believers were materially expressing something deeper that was essential to their being the community of Jesus. Simplicity and communal sharing of possessions had become the normative economy of the new people of God, and this practice opened the way for other normative practices that shaped the community.

Service became the normative model of social relationships, instead of holding power over the other. Inclusive welcoming of all, rather than exclusion, became the norm of community formation. And humility, not power, became the norm for living in peace. Once the right to claim private possessions was reevaluated in light of God’s new work to create and shape a new community, and once these symbols of status were removed through the guidance of the Spirit, service, inclusion, and humility further shaped and characterized that community.

Western Christianity, and especially our American brand of Christian religion, has privatized religion to the extent that we cannot legitimately call it Christian, at least, I think, from a biblical perspective. This privatization of Christianity is in direct opposition to the original call of Jesus, who, although calling individuals to follow him, called them to a social community in which they were formed by his character and the Spirit and in which they found new existence and identity.

The pictures of the early church in Acts portray what Jesus envisioned as normative for the community of faith; a community through which individual character formation takes place that shapes the broader collection of God’s people into a true community of sharing, service, inclusion, and humility.

The sharing of possessions among the early believers, according to these passages from Acts, was on the same level of importance as the preaching of the apostles, the breaking of bread, prayers, and the worship of God. But such sharing was not simply a renunciation of one’s worldly possessions. Nor was it merely a generous act to help those in need. While both of these are true and necessary, the larger purpose for relinquishing wealth and possessions was so that authentic community in Christ would become a reality.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Seeking God’s Will for Your Life: A Message for Graduates (And the Rest of Us)

I work at a university, coach a high school girls’ soccer team, and have three teenagers, one of whom will finish high school this month. From all of these contexts, I have witnessed both the joys of graduation, either from high school or from college, as well as the uncertainties young people face as they embark on the next chapter in their lives.

Many of those graduates that I have the privilege of knowing are Christian young people, who have an abiding trust in God that could teach more seasoned adults about how to face changes in our lives with hope and optimism. Most of them believe that God is guiding their lives, and they are heartily committed to following God’s direction.

While I cannot speak specifically about what God has in store for each one of these gifted, intelligent, and faithful graduates, I hope I can offer to them, and to the rest of us, at least something to hold on to as they enter a world that will often test their faith in God.

Understanding God’s will for our lives is tricky. Living God’s will is even more complicated. While we who are Christian rightly believe that our primary resource for knowing the will of God is the Bible, and while we are often told that reading the Bible can give us a clear understanding of what God wills for our individual lives, using the Bible as the primary source of knowing God’s will is very challenging.

For starters, we live in a world that is a long way away from the ancient world in which the Bible was written, and much of what we might understand from the Bible is frustrated by what we know about the world as opposed to what the inhabitants of the ancient era knew and didn’t know about the world.

But the problem is more than just simply the distance in time between the biblical world and our own lives; a time gap that is not easily bridged. The problem also comes in understanding what the Bible wants to say to us and which parts of the Bible might say these things more clearly.

Indeed, I would caution you to be careful in reading the Bible in order to make it say something to you, as if the Bible was written for you or for me. The Bible is not a self-help book, and the books that make up the collection we call the Bible were not primarily written for you or for me. They were written for ancient people whose history spans generations and whose world was quite different from our own. Therefore, we should not pretend that reading the Bible is easy.

In fact, biblical interpretation is often difficult and gut-wrenching work, if we are really seeking to be serious about what the text says, and if we are especially serious about learning what the text might say to us. Despite what we hear from some preachers and teachers of the Bible, the Bible is not always clear and not always correct for our context. And it is certainly not easy to follow in what it prescribes.

Moreover, we are also not helped in reading the Bible when we tend toward spiritualizing portions of the Bible just because we think that every part of scripture must mean something for us now. Many well meaning folks believe that every word from Genesis to Revelation has meaning for us, and many Bible study materials push this idea to the point of over-spiritualizing portions of scripture just to make them fit our lives. It is false to assume that every verse of the Bible applies to our lives, and we tread dangerously close to making the Bible something it is not when we treat it this way.

Do not take all of this as my advocating that you throw out the Bible as a source of truth, faith, and hope. I am not here to demolish your faith; I write these words to challenge you on how you think about your faith. Indeed, as I have stated, and as I try to practice in my own life, the Bible ought to be our primary source for how we understand God and how we live our lives in response to God. But I am saying that we can face many questions in life for which we may never find specific and crystal clear answers from these ancient texts, no matter how hard we try.

But all is not lost. Despite the struggles we have in finding specific answers to the questions we face in our world, questions unthinkable in the ancient world, I do think that both you and I can find God’s will for all of us in the central message of scripture. That central message is summed up in various ways, but two references are pertinent for how we live in this world as followers of Jesus.

From the prophet Micah (6:8) we read, “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” And, as recorded in the New Testament, Jesus stated that God’s 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 the most important creeds by which to live for a couple of very important reasons.

First, both of these statements recognize that life exists in relation to God and others. We are not alone and despite our tendency to be independent, and many of you are facing the thrill of being independent, the fullness of life can only be encountered in relationships with God and others that are based on love. Though we are individually made, we are made to be in community with God and with others.

Second, both Micah and Jesus call us to live our lives for others and not primarily for ourselves. To do justice, to love mercy, and to love others as we would want to be loved means that we ought to live our lives not in selfish gain, but in self giving sacrifice expressed towards our friends, strangers, and yes, even our enemies.

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 how I want my life to be shaped, now and in the future.

So, as you enter this next exciting, but uncharted, phase of your life, in whichever direction God leads you, may each of you live your life guided by the will of God that calls us into loving relationships with God and others; relationships that are characterized by your actions of love, justice and mercy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

God Dreams of Welcoming All People

Acts chapter 10 tells of the vision Peter encounters while he is at prayer; a vision that brought about a radical shift in not only Peter’s life, but also in the movement that would become known as Christianity.

In that experience, Peter came to realize that ethnic, racial, and cultural differences cannot hinder the proclamation of the gospel and the work of God to create a new humanity that would consist of people from every land, language, and background. In reporting his experience to the Jewish believers in Judea (Acts 11), who were initially critical of Peter’s new position, Peter replied, “Who am I to hinder God?” Thus began the openness of the early Christian movement.

In fact, we might even suggest that one of the key characteristics of early Christianity as it began to grow and develop was the welcoming of all into the people of God. The practice of hospitality among early Christians may even have been the impetus that caused the growth of this new movement. In a world of ethnic, economic and political exclusion, the early Christian movement welcomed all in the name of Jesus and demonstrated the new ethic of love that Jesus instituted among his followers. His was a new commandment that called for his followers to love others just as he had loved them, and to share that love across any man-made boundaries that separated all of God’s people.

This is not to imply that everything went smoothly for the growth of Christianity as an inclusive faith, for there was still resistance to accepting all into the community of faith, just as Peter and others initially resisted the inclusion of the Gentiles. But, nevertheless, the inclusive nature that was shaping Christianity was the product of a gospel of love and welcome.

That practice of love through welcome was to be a powerful force that served to symbolize what the world was intended to be by its creator. The early Christian ethic of love and embrace was to represent a return to God’s intention for humanity to be one humanity that consisted of diverse peoples from all walks of life. This was the vision of God, this was the vision of Jesus, and this became the vision of Peter.

But what has happened to this vision? What has happen to the Jesus ethic of love and welcome? And why, instead of seeking to return to that vision, Christianity has become more entrenched in its practice of exclusion?

I am reminded of the words accredited to Karl Barth, the most prolific theologian of the 20th century, who, when he was asked to give advice to young preachers about preaching, replied, “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.”

As I recall Barth’s advice, I realize how important it is to remember that if we believe that scripture, though written in a far away time, place, and culture, still has relevancy for our living out the gospel of Jesus, then reading scripture in light of contemporary events, and reading contemporary events in light of scripture, is vitally important to shaping how we might respond to those events.

In reading Peter’s experience and his change of heart from one of exclusion to one of embrace, I cannot help but think of the current political and legal battles that are taking place over immigration in the United States. Over the last couple of weeks, news has spread about Arizona’s new immigration law, one that seems to take a very aggressive stance that will affect all immigrants, legal or illegal, as well as their families and the good citizens and communities of this country who show compassion to them.

How might scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and aliens and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, for the wall of separation has been torn down, and the two have been joined together into one new humanity. And, of course, the story of Peter epitomizes the dream of God and the force of the gospel of inclusion.

That same vision of unity among God’s people is also the vision that God dreams for the new heaven and new earth. John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth about which we read in Revelation 21 is God’s dream to move all of creation toward unity and togetherness through welcoming all. It is a dream in which all the peoples of the world will find peace and comfort. It is a vision of the New Jerusalem, whose gates will not be shut. In God’s dream, the new creation will have no boarders.

Peter experienced a conversion through which he became convinced of God’s dream and God’s will to fulfill that dream through bringing Jew and Gentile into one people. He knew that he could not hinder God’s moving forward to see the fulfillment of that dream. So, instead of making attempts to hinder God, Peter decided it would be best to join God in welcoming others.

God’s dream and will remains the same for us. God desires to transform our world from a place of division, exclusion, strife, and war, to one of unity, inclusion, love and peace. God dreams and wills for humanity to be one. Are we doing our best to hinder what God is doing, or are we joining with God by being captivated by God’s dream of welcoming all?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

I’m a Social Justice Christian

Most readers of this post are by now familiar with the statements made by the Fox News commentator, Glenn Beck, warning people of faith that if their places of worship speak about social justice, they should run away. Many Christians, from various denominational and political backgrounds, have already spoken out against Beck’s comments and his equating social justice to Nazism and Communism. Indeed, there is a video circulating the Internet in which Christians from all walks of life declare, "I'm a Social Justice Christian".

I am a social justice Christian. I declare this neither because I can say it better than others, nor because such a movement needs my voice to be effective. I want to add my voice because I desire to join a growing chorus of voices that can move beyond simply responding in opposition to Beck’s comments to bring attention to the need for social justice in this country and in the larger world in which we live.

If there is anything positive that may come of Beck’s comments, and indeed this is already happening, it is that the idea of social justice has come into the forefront of public discussion. That is a very good thing, which I assume Beck did not intend. His remarks have opened the door for us to take this opportunity to reclaim the social justice message that is still at the heart of Jesus’ life and teachings.

I am a social justice Christian, but I have not always been a social justice Christian. The church in which I grew up never talked about social justice. In fact, I was raised in the racially divided south, where the Bible Belt culture of white southern America is perhaps the most stalwart bastion against social justice we might find in this country. The church in which I grew up was more concerned about the salvation of individual souls than the human dignity of a person that justice can bring.

But over the last two decades, since I started honestly reading the Bible, and particularly the stories about Jesus, I have discovered something very transforming. If there is anything at the center of Jesus’ teachings and his actions it is the message that the kingdom of God has come, and that God’s kingdom is no spiritual idea that only promises eternal salvation to lost souls. No, God’s kingdom, as it is announced by Jesus, is the idea of justice, social justice for the outcast, the oppressed, the poor, and the sick.

Given this understanding of Jesus’ message, I am willing to say that if we are not social justice Christians, then perhaps we might want to consider that we may not be followers of Jesus. To use Beck’s parlance, I would say that if your church does not talk about social justice and does not act to bring about progress towards social justice, then perhaps you should run away, or at least you should raise this important issue as fundamental to the church’s identity and mission.

If we are not for social justice, then we have abandoned our following of Jesus and have become followers of an institutional religion that has discarded justice for the poor and oppressed for some sort of salvation for the soul. Moreover, institutionalized American religion has embraced the American idea of individualism above community and the pursuit of wealth above the pursuit of justice.

Yet, to be followers of Jesus means that we are on the side of God who has a heart of Justice. Indeed, the idea of justice runs throughout the Bible as a unifying thread, and most of what is said about justice has to do with bringing justice to others who are victims of a cruel world in which systems have been created that offer power and comfort to some and oppression and pain to others.

I know that some will argue that the church is to care for justice through personal giving and Christian service toward those who are hurting. I would offer an Amen to such a view, but only if this is part of the solution. While some argue that government cannot bear the burden of bringing about social justice, I would argue that neither can the church if it simply encourages individual giving and service.

Yes, Christians should act individually and corporately by living simply and by giving generously to provide for the basic needs of all human beings. But Christians and their churches can only do so much.

We should also take up our responsibility to work together with others to accomplish justice in much broader and sustainable ways. To work for social justice means that we are to utilize our personal generosity and service to help others. But we must also use our voices to support governmental legislation and programs that provide for the welfare of all our citizens, through health care reform, education reform, and yes, tax reform that benefits the least among us. In doing so, we can work to ensure that the programs that bring help to the poor are effectively sustained. Our Christian duty is both individual and personal as well as cooperate and political.

But being a social justice Christian is far from being a socialist or a communist. Indeed, equating socialism with communism is also a mistake. Beck and others use these terms interchangeably as a way of ratcheting up the rhetoric. But caring for the people all around us in ways that lifts them up out of their state of poverty and restores them holistically is not communism; it is the gospel of Jesus.

Broken systems that continue the status quo of marginalizing, oppressing, and holding down those who need to be lifted up must be changed. There must be a redefining of our values that leads to a redistribution of wealth and power so that all may share. Jesus, in line with the Hebrew prophets, challenged the systems of his day that continued the cycle of injustice that not only entrapped the poor and marginalized in their troubles, but also prevented them from experiencing the fullness of human dignity as equal members of the larger community.

Followers of Jesus must stand for social justice that calls us to do more than simply acting as individuals and as churches through our giving. We can give and give to others in order to bring them help and comfort, and indeed we should. But, unless we act as a collective society through enacting just social and economic policies, we will only continue the plight of the poor, the sick, and the suffering.

Continuing along a path that fails to work for social justice in our world will mean that we will not progress as a society that values all humanity as made in the image of God. Rather we will perpetuate and expand a gulf between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, and the sick and the well that will inevitably plunge us deeper into an abyss of materialism and narcissism, and we will fail in our following of Jesus.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mark’s Unsatisfying, but Compelling Ending

Since the early days of the movement that would become known as Christianity, the story of the resurrection of Jesus has been celebrated across many Christian traditions throughout the span of church history. If there is one thing that unites all Christians around the globe, even if they are only loosely united, it is the resurrection story.

In the reflections that I have been writing recently, my focus has been on Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples traveling toward Jerusalem, the place where Jesus was tried and put to death by the political powers of Rome. Yet, the story does not end at the cross, for it continues to the resurrection narrative, and, in a very real sense, continues to this day.

To understand the distinctive nature of Mark’s resurrection story, as opposed to the other three Gospels, we have to deal first with where exactly this Gospel ends. Anyone picking up an English translation of the Bible can turn to the 16th chapter of Mark and find that verses 9-20 are bracketed off and the reader is directed to a note that generally reads, “Some of the most ancient authorities end the book at 16:8.” This means that the best textual sources available to us have the Gospel of Mark ending in 16:8, while other sources include verse 9, and still others go all the way to verse 20.

This is all too complicated to discuss here, so I will simply state what has become the majority consensus on this issue. The overwhelming number of recognized scholars of Mark believe that the Gospel ends at 16:8. Of course, there is the very slim chance that there was an ending that has been lost, but we have no evidence of this.

It is easy to see why the precarious verses that follow 16:8 would have been added later. All we have to do is read 16:8, where we discover that the women who go to the tomb, where they are told to go tell his disciples to go to Galilee, actually leave the tomb in great fear and they tell no one. Moreover, and perhaps even more troubling, the resurrected Jesus does not appear again in Mark’s story.

This ending must have been very unsatisfying to someone who felt the need to add a more interesting ending, one in which the disciples are told of Jesus’ resurrection and the resurrected Jesus does appear. In fact, Matthew and Luke, who write after Mark, but who generally follow Mark’s outline, were both unsatisfied with Mark’s ending, and thus they included an appearance of Jesus after the resurrection.

But if the ending of Mark is at 16:8, why would the author end the story here without including something other writers felt was needed?

Of course, we cannot travel back in time to talk to the author of this narrative we call the Gospel of Mark. Indeed, Mark may not even be the author’s name. Church tradition ties Mark to this Gospel, but the story never mentions that he is the writer. But we can read what is there in the last chapter of the story and propose some reasons why the narrative ends at 16:8 and what this might mean for our own faith and discipleship.

While having the women leave in fear and tell no one is problematic for us, and while not having the resurrected Jesus appear in the story is even more difficult for us, these may really be the best clues we need to solve the problem of Mark’s ending as it is understood within the framework of Mark’s overall narrative.

First, although Mark does say that the women were afraid and told no one, we must assume that the message of the young man in the tomb did get out somehow. After all, we are readers of Mark’s story, and thus the message was passed on. Since only the women go to the empty tomb and none of the male disciples receive the message directly from the young man at the tomb, we can be fairly certain that these women told someone, even if this is not included in the story itself.

As to their fear, we should take a close look at similar responses to numinous experiences throughout Mark’s story. Responses of awe, wonderment, and fear characterize the way many characters react to Jesus’ miracles in the narrative. The women’s fear is not a fear as if they are scared from a threat. Rather, they have experienced something from beyond the realm of creation; the in breaking of God.

Concerning the missing Jesus, while Matthew and Luke, as well as John, were concerned with this problem, Mark is not worried the least about this. In fact, the absent Jesus works well for his story.

What we should understand is that Mark’s story is not about believing in Jesus’ resurrection. It is about how one follows Jesus. It is a story of discipleship; perhaps even a manual on discipleship.

Indeed, we should notice that this Gospel does not begin with a birth narrative, as do Matthew and Luke. Instead, Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus. Thus, Mark’s story begins at the place where Christian discipleship begins, baptism, and takes us through the life of Jesus, a life defined by challenging the religious and political powers. In this way, Mark’s Jesus is the paradigmatic disciple, who proclaims God’s rule of justice, and who, in doing so, takes up his cross unto death.

The message the young man tells the women, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee,” is a commission to return to the road of discipleship, where one continually follows Jesus to the cross. Thus, Mark’s resurrection story is not so much a promise of what is to come, nor does believing the story require us to believe that Jesus was actually physically raised. Rather, the resurrection story is a story that empowers us to perpetually return to the road of discipleship to follow Jesus.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lent Reflection: The Crucified Messiah

The penultimate event in each of the four canonical Gospels is the death of Jesus by crucifixion. As modern readers of these stories, particularly living a world that celebrates violence, and especially after we swarmed theaters in 2004 to watch Mel Gibson’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, we might wonder why none of the four Gospels describe the grotesque details of crucifixion. They simply say that Jesus was crucified.

The reason for the lack of a blow by blow description of Jesus’ crucifixion may be because the people of the first century Roman World were very well aware of the practice and effects of this horrible tool of execution. The Romans used crucifixion often, and they used it well, as a deterrent against upstart rebels. Jesus was certainly not the only one to die on a Roman cross, so to include the bloody specifics of how crucifixion was carried out would probably be unnecessary.

Yet, we also may propose that the lack of these details about the act of crucifixion itself is also due to the fact that each Gospel writer wants his audience’s attention focused on other particulars that are much more important to the story of Jesus’ death.

As we approach Mark’s telling of Jesus’ execution during this Season of Lent, we ought to be reminded that Mark is not writing history as we would write history. Rather, Mark is interpreting history through a narrative story he tells to communicate what it means that Jesus died on a Roman cross.

Indeed, much of the details that Mark includes other than that Jesus was crucified may not be entirely historical, at least to our modern minds. But that is not the point. Like the rest of the story he tells, the Passion of Jesus is narrated so that we might pay close attention to the events and words in this story to inform us of the importance of Jesus’ death for faith and discipleship.

There are certainly many things happening in this scene, but of utmost importance are the things that are said to or about Jesus by those who stand around the cross. On one level, these statements are meant as scornful indictments that mock Jesus and characterize him as nothing more than a common peasant who was badly mistaken about who he thought he was. Yet, with ironic flair, Mark places these indictments on the lips of those who watch Jesus die with the intent of using them as proclamations that declare the truth about Jesus.

Jesus is mockingly treated as a king. He is given a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and those who beat him and mock him bow down to him in sarcastic worship. The sign that is hung above him reads, “King of the Jews,” and the religious leaders contemptuously say, “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel come down from the cross now, so that we might see and believe.”

The irony of this is very clear. While the religious leaders mean to mock Jesus as one who cannot possibly be a king because he hangs on a criminal’s cross, Mark means to use this to show that Jesus is king precisely because he hangs on a cross.

The kingly throne of Jesus according to Mark is not a seat of gold and jewels, but one of wood and nails. His kingly authority is not secured through power and violence. Jesus is king because he gives his life away in protest of the injustices of his world.

Jesus is also mocked by those who stand around the cross by their taunts of, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” In their thinking, if Jesus healed others, which Mark’s story is clear that he did, then he should be able to save himself. Those who watch Jesus die challenge him to do just that.

Again, the irony is obvious. These people were mocking Jesus because he hung on a cross in weakness and he was helpless to change his circumstances. Indeed, from the cry of Jesus accusing God of abandonment, we learn that even God could not change the course of this tragic event.

But Mark uses their mocking to express the true mission of Jesus. It is exactly because Jesus remains on the cross, giving his life, that he saves others. Remaining true to two of his earlier statements, “Those who want to save their life must loose it” and “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many,”

Jesus demonstrated to those around the cross his own willingness to die to save others. In giving his life on a scornful cross, Jesus was indeed achieving salvation for humanity.

There is one final statement that deserves our attention and our response. This statement serves the crucifixion scene as a defining moment that expresses the truth of Jesus’ excruciating death. It is the testimonial spoken by the Roman Centurion who stood at the foot of the cross.

As this soldier was about his daily routine of crucifying criminals, something he probably did on a regular basis, he witnesses something he had never before witnessed. He sees the death of this innocent man, and he confesses, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”

The title Son of God as it is used in reference to Jesus in Mark is important. No human, not even Jesus, ever uses this to refer to Jesus. Only God and the unclean spirits refer to Jesus as the Son of God. Why is this?

Perhaps it is because the human characters of Mark’s story never recognize Jesus as the Son of God. In Mark’s narrative, it is Jesus’ death, not his miracles and not his resurrection that is the defining moment that declares him as God’s Son. It is Jesus’ death that is the ultimate expression of his true nature as God’s Son, the one sent by God to challenge the powers, both spiritual and political. In seeing Jesus die, the Roman Centurion confesses Jesus as the Son of God.

During the remaining days of this Holy Week, each one of us stands at the foot of the cross. We look directly in the face of Jesus and we see him breathe his last breath and die. As we reflect on his death, do we dare to remember that we are not simply called to stand and watch? Do we dare to confess our own faith in Jesus as God’s Crucified Messiah? Do we dare to take the road that he took by challenging those who bring oppression and injustice? Do we dare to embrace his call to take up the scandalous cross and follow him?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lent Reflection: Jesus’ Garden Prayer Models a Faithful Response to Suffering

As Jesus and his disciples move closer to the event of Jesus’ trial and execution, which he seems to know is coming, but they seem to ignore, we, as readers of Mark’s story, begin to suspect that the drama of the narrative is about to reach its crescendo. Indeed, beginning in Mark 14, the narrative is pointedly focused on Jesus’ suffering and death, and one scene in particular captures the distress that Jesus faces in his last hours.

The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-50 swells with imagery, betrayal, and treachery. There, we are witnesses to Jesus’ anguish, the disciples’ failure and desertion, and the handing over of Jesus to those who will judge him, beat him, and kill him. The event of Jesus’ suffering and death, about which he has spoken of several times, is now becoming a reality.

As readers of the story, we should not be surprised. Throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus has been certain about this destiny. In fact, just before their move to the garden, when Jesus and the twelve celebrated the Passover Meal, Jesus spoke about the bread and the cup as symbols of his death. Jesus is sure that his death will take place, and he is determined to follow through with his destiny as that which will fulfill God’s purpose.

It is somewhat shocking then to see the anxiety of Jesus in the Gethsemane account. Not shocking in the sense that he is somehow above feeling anxiety, but shocking in the sense that up to this point in the story he has been so resolute. Never has Jesus demonstrated such anguish or grievance over God’s will for him to die. Yet, in the garden, Jesus struggles with what he has previously declared as his divinely mandated death.

Much could be said about this scene; too much for a short reflection. For one thing, it is a clear picture of Jesus’ humanity and his vulnerability as a human. For another thing, this scene is fraught with unanswerable theological questions concerning God’s character as that which wills violence and death. We certainly should not ignore either of these issues, and in any attempt to address them, we should be intellectually honest. But in this Lenten reflection, we might learn something valuable from Jesus’ prayer at his most vulnerable moments.

The prayer opens with Jesus’ direct address to God calling God Abba. It has been the consensus of most Jesus scholars that Jesus adopted this phrase from everyday use in family life, and that the term carried special meaning, particularly in relation to Jesus’ use of it in reference to God. To put things simply, in calling God Abba, Jesus affirms his close relationship with God and his trust in God’s benevolence toward him.

What is interesting is that this is the first time in Mark that we witness Jesus speak directly to God. In narrating Jesus’ direct speech to God, Mark may want us to remember when God spoke directly to Jesus, in the baptism scene at the beginning of the story. If this is the case, we are reminded, as Jesus remembers, of the loving declaration from God, “You are my Beloved Son.” In his most anguishing moment, when he is alone facing his impending suffering and death, Jesus recalls perhaps his most joyous experience, his baptism, and his intimate relationship to God, his Abba, the one in whom he entrusts his fate.

Jesus’ trust, however, is not limited to the benevolence of God. He also seeks to enlist the power of God to remove the cup of suffering from him. Jesus’ affirmation of God’s power to do all things prefaces what is his real concern, a relief from the suffering that is fast approaching. This is requested forthrightly by Jesus to the God in whom Jesus trusts for both love and power.

His affirmation that God can do all things clearly shows us that Jesus believed that the reversal of the divine will narrated throughout the Gospel is entirely possible. Though Jesus is not stating a universal principle, his prayer expresses his belief that God could take away the cup. Indeed, at this point, God is the only one who can deliver Jesus from the suffering and death that is upon him.

Yet, Jesus’ understanding of God’s loving care for him, combined with his belief that God can take away the cup of suffering, is what leads Jesus to affirm his submission to the divine will. He has been characterised throughout the Gospel as submissive to God’s will, and here, even in the face of his suffering and death, Jesus submits himself to what God desires, even as he calls on God to intervene. In a sense, Jesus’ intimate moments with God give him strength to face what is ahead of him.

In contrast to Jesus’ anguish that transforms into faith, the disciples are presented in the narrative as unconcerned about Jesus’ fate and their own faithfulness to him. Each of the three times Jesus finishes praying he returns to the disciples only to find them sleeping. He has commanded them to “keep awake”, but they are weak in flesh. Jesus contrasts their weakness in flesh with the willingness of the spirit.

We have wrongly interpreted Jesus to mean the human spirit, yet it seems more likely that Jesus means God’s Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that is willing to give these disciples strength, just as it is God’s Spirit that has strengthened Jesus.

As God is the only one to whom Jesus can turn during this time of anguish, so the disciples, and indeed all who seek to follow Jesus faithfully, can find hope in Jesus’ example of trusting in the willing Spirit of God to sustain us during times of anguish and suffering. God is the source of not only Jesus’ hope in the face of suffering; God is also the one to whom followers of Jesus must turn during times of doubt and pain.