Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Incarnation of God Redefines Our Human Existence

Another Christmas has past, and as we spend the last days of 2011 putting away decorations, returning gifts, and counting down the hours before 2012, it is good for Christians to once again spend time reflecting on the meaning of Christmas, especially after the hoopla of a busy Christmas Day. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, throughout this history, Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

Historians of Christianity are well aware of the fact that as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, the nature of Christ was always at the heart of any theological debates that developed. Yet, you may be surprised to know that in the early days after Jesus departed this earth, and after his first followers died, that the acceptance of Jesus as divine was not a significant problem. Yes, there were some groups, such as the Ebionites, who did not accept the divinity of Jesus. Moreover, a later 4th century movement that originated with a bishop named Arius also did not hold to a divine understanding of Jesus. But for the most part, the earliest Christians believed Jesus to be divine.

The problem for many Christians in the first centuries of the Common Era was accepting that Jesus was human. Such ideas that God could take on human form were deemed by many to be impossible, for how could a god become corporal, incased in a physical body? Moreover, how could a god, believed to be all powerful and all good, take on the flesh of a limited and defiled body?

It is certainly without debate that the writers of the New Testament saw Jesus as human. And yet, despite all of the evidence of his being flesh and blood, we struggle to see Jesus as a human. Perhaps it is not that we struggle to accept that Jesus existed in a human body. The problem is whether we accept his humanity. In other words, while we embrace the fact that Jesus did all the activities that humans do, we may find it very hard to accept Jesus in his humanity, as someone who, at some level, was exactly like us.

I think two significant obstacles hinder us from accepting Jesus in his humanity. One obstacle is that we somehow think we must see Jesus first as God and second as a human. When we think of Jesus, we automatically think first of his divinity. We may more readily gravitate toward the divine side of Jesus because not to do so may make us seem irreverent and unbelieving.

The second obstacle to our accepting Jesus in his humanity is because we cannot see humanity as good, but only as sinful, weak, and evil. After all, the evidence we see around us proves to us that humanity can be weak, sinful, and dreadfully evil. This view clouds our understanding of Jesus as a human and can prevent us from accepting Jesus’ humanity.

The key to overcoming this perspective on Jesus is not to look at humanity and then say that Jesus could not have been human like us. The solution is to look at Jesus in his humanity and allow his humanity to show us what it really means to be human. If Jesus was truly human, then we ought to try and understand what it means to be human as he was human.

If Jesus was human, then he had a body. This is an obvious point to make, but making it demonstrates an important truth for us. If Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, then we must affirm that human flesh, i.e., our bodies, are good. This was the problem with some Christian movements in the early church beginning in the second and third centuries. They could not accept that Jesus was both divine and human, for perfect transcendent divinity cannot take on imperfect and defiled flesh. Yet, this seems to be exactly what the New Testament teaches us about the incarnation. The human body became the home of God.

This has major consequences for how we see ourselves. First, rather than seeing ourselves as souls trapped in worthless bodies waiting to escape, we must affirm that our bodies are good. We have somehow been convinced that our bodies are not good, that they are defiled, and that our goodness as humans is only found in our souls that will eventually escape our evil bodies. But the incarnation of God in Jesus loudly proclaims that human bodily existence is good; we are still made in the image of God. This has many implications for how we treat our bodies and how we see life.

But to affirm the humanity of Jesus is also to affirm that Jesus faced the reality of being human. At every twist and turn in his earthly life, Jesus faced the temptation for power, security, and giving up on God’s will for him. And in each temptation there was always the possibility of his failure, and thus the failure of God’s plan for humanity.

But in loving us, God chose to face life as we face life. In the incarnation, God not only took on human flesh; God also chose to face human vulnerability. While the mighty acts of God show us a God who is powerful, the greatest power of God is seen in God’s vulnerability, in God’s weakness, in God facing our human struggle. Indeed, without this vulnerability, God cannot truly love us, for to love another is always to become vulnerable.

If God has truly loved the world, then God has become vulnerable to the struggles of this world. God, in the incarnation of Jesus, has become vulnerable to the pain, suffering, weakness, and rejection that humanity faces. And in doing so, God has redefined what it means to be human.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Singing Mary’s Revolutionary Song

The Nativity is a longstanding symbol of the Advent and Christmas Seasons depicting the holy family gathered together on that blessed night. As we view the scene of the Nativity, our attention is of course drawn to Jesus, the new born babe. Yet, we cannot help but give some attention to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and ponder what thoughts were in her mind that night.

Although Mary is a central figure in Christian history, she is perhaps one of its most enigmatic figures. Much of the problem in our not knowing Mary more fully is that the biblical texts do not offer us a lot of insight into Mary’s life, particularly after Jesus’ childhood. This has given rise to various understandings about Mary, most notably differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant views of her.

We know that the Roman Catholic Church teaches Mary to be in a perpetual state of virginity; which says a little something about some wrongheaded views about Mary’s position. Yes, Roman Catholics hold her in high esteem, but more for her supposed virginity than anything else.

And, we Protestants are no better when it comes to Mary. Instead of holding her in high esteem as the Roman Catholics do, we sort of push her aside. Oh, we celebrate her as the mother of Jesus, but that it is about it. For many Christians, Mary may simply be the incubator of the baby Jesus.

Yet, while Mary remains a mystery to us, beyond her giving birth to Jesus, there is one piece of biblical material that offers us insight into the kind of person Mary may have been. The song of Mary, or as it is known by its Latin title, the Magnificat, is found in Luke 1:46-55, and may give us enough material to help us understand her and her impact on Christianity.

From an historical critical viewpoint, we must admit that Mary may not have actually sung these words. It is probably the case that the author of this Gospel created this poem and placed it on the lips of Mary. However, this does not mean that Mary would not have sung such a song. Indeed, by placing this song on Mary’s lips, the author of Luke’s Gospel may have understood that such a poem fits Mary’s perspective on the birth of her son.

But beyond these historical issues, we are left with this narrative character singing a song that is very personal; expressing her joy for what God was doing in her life. It is a song that comes from deep within her as she responds to the mighty promises of God. It is a song she sings as a result of her hope in what God is doing both in her and through her. Indeed, it is because of the joy that wells inside her that she cannot help but sing this song.

But at the same time that Mary’s song is a song of personal spiritual fulfillment and hope in the promises of God, it is also a very revolutionary song. It is a political song. It is a song about social justice. It is a song about the redistribution of power and wealth. It is, in fact, a politically dangerous song for Mary to sing at her time and at her place in life.

She is a young peasant female who sings as an unlikely and unauthorized prophet, declaring the coming of God. Outside the religious power structures of formal Judaism, this young peasant female sings a song that is a radical shift from the religious messages of her day, and her vision of God is starkly different from that held by the religious establishment.

Her vision of God shaped her understanding that God was turning upside down the normal power structures of her society. Her song announced that the proud and powerful would be cast down from their high places, and the lowly would be lifted up. The hungry would be fed, and the rich would have nothing. She understood that God was coming to alter the economics of her world by redistributing wealth and by overturning the normal politics of her world that were based on status.

This may give us some insight into the kind of person Mary really was. For her to sing a song that is so dangerous and so subversive, and one that is focused on justice for the poor and oppressed of her time, meant that she hungered for justice not just for herself, but for all her people. She witnessed daily the pain and struggle of the marginalized and oppressed poor around her, and she found in God’s visitation of her a sense of hope that things were moving toward God’s justice and peace.

Mary may have understood, however, that it would be through the good acts done by God’s people that the values of her society would radically shift. In other words, because she knew that she and her community could not directly challenge the religious authorities or the Roman powers, she instead believed that through radical living by doing good to those around them, God’s justice would prevail. It would be through living out the ethics of the rule of God in living together as a faithful community that God would reverse the values that shaped her secular society.

Does this sound familiar to you? It should. For what we find buried in Mary’s song is the message of her son, Jesus. Though I have no strong evidence for this, I believe that more than any other person who shaped Jesus’ central message of justice for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, it was Mary’s world view that had the greatest impact on him.

Although we might piously think that Jesus came into the world programmed to know what God desired, I suggest that Mary shaped his way of thinking about God and the world more than any other source. Given what we find in Mary’s song, we cannot help but consider her impact on his thinking, his message, and his actions.

But all of this raises a significant question for us this Christmas Season. While we sing the popular carols of Christmas, do we dare to sing Mary’s song? And if we chose to sing Mary’s song, can we envision and enact a new economy that embodies simplicity and generosity, and a new culture that is characterized by welcoming strangers and loving our neighbors and our enemies?

How would singing Mary’s song alter our American values so that we would instead embrace the values of God and of God’s son Jesus?

Mary’s song is not just her song, and she should not sing it alone. It is a song followers of Jesus are to sing throughout all generations. But we cannot just sing this song, and continue to pay lip service to God. It is a song we are called to live in defiance of the norms of our culture until God’s revolutionary hope for the world is fulfilled.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Living in God’s Kairos

One of the interesting things about the Greek language, which is the language of the New Testament, is that it can use more than one word to describe ideas and things. The concept of time is one of those ideas that is described by two separate words. The Greek terms for time are chronos and kairos, each of which is translated by our English word time. But, there is a difference in these two Greek words.

Chronos is time that continually moves from the past, through the present, and into the future. It is the time that we measure by our clocks and calendars. It is the time that dictates our lives. It is time on the move that cannot be slowed or stopped.

But kairos, the other Greek term for time, describes a present moment in time. It is the now. Kairos is a moment in which something special takes place.

Indeed, a major distinction between these two ideas about time is that, unlike chronos, kairos is no measured by quantity. In speaking of kairos, we are not speaking of the quantity of time, that is, the amount of time. Rather, we are speaking of the quality of time.

For example, if you tell me you went on vacation, I would not ask you how much time you had. I would ask you what kind of time you had. Of course, you could answer the first question with a measurement of time, such as one week. But that is not what is important. What is important is the kind of time you had. That is what you will remember most, not the amount of time.

In Mark 1:14-15 the author gives us a summary of Jesus’ preaching. This is the succinct summary of Jesus’ entire message, and indeed his life and ministry. And, in that message he announces that “the time is fulfilled.” What did Jesus mean by this?

Of the two Greek words the author of Mark could have chosen, he uses kairos, and not chronos. While the statement certainly implies that time has moved forward to this appointed time, we cannot neglect the intentional use and meaning of kairos here. In using kairos, Jesus is thinking not so much about the movement of time to this point, but rather he is speaking in terms of the now. This particular time is THE TIME. This is a special moment in time, and this moment carries with it a sense of urgency.

But, again, the question that concerns us is what did Jesus mean by this statement, “The time is fulfilled”?

Part of our understanding may depend on what Jesus meant when he announced that “the kingdom of God has come near.” In stating that God’s rule has come near, Jesus is saying that in his coming the kingdom is near, but it is not fully here; the kingdom remains somewhat elusive.

This is one reason why Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 6:33 to “Keep seeking first the kingdom of God.” It is not something that just happens or something that just comes to us. We do not just wake up some day and there it is. Yes, it is present, as Jesus proclaimed it to be. But it is near, and it must be sought with all of our being.

I think this understanding of the nearness of the kingdom of God helps us understand what Jesus meant by his statement that “the time is fulfilled.” Jesus is indicating that the time is now. And though what is taking place in his coming has been promised in the past, the present is what matters. And, although the future is promised by God, the present is what matters.

The past is remembered, and the future is hoped for, both important concepts for faith. But, it is the present, this moment, that is of utmost significance and urgency. This is why Jesus calls us to repent and believe. Now is the moment of salvation, and now is the opportune time to repent and believe.

But for so many of us, we live most of our lives in the chronos, the time that moves on. We move with time, or perhaps we allow time to move us, and we allow chronos to dictate how we live our lives. To a great extent, we allow chronos to devour us.

Jesus, however, calls us to live in the kairos of God’s rule, in this moment, seeking and searching for God with each breath we take and with each moment that passes.

Living in the kairos of God carries with it an emphasis on being in the present. In being in the present, we are fully present to God and to others, putting away the distractions that pull us away from God and that lead us to live insular and selfish lives.

Jesus models this very way of being present. In his healing of people, he was empowered by his sense of presence; a sense of God’s presence, for sure, but also a sense of the presence of those in need. He did not view them as people who were longing just to be healed. He recognized their longing to know the presence of the divine, and he became that presence to them. Those healed and restored experienced this sense of the divine in the presence of Jesus, while those standing around watching Jesus perform these healings asked, “Who is this?”

Jesus’ central message was that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. New Testament scholars coined a phrase many years ago to capture the idea of the rule of God being here, but not fully realized: “Already, but not yet.” The idea is that the rule of God is here, but it is not fully here. We live, then, between the times; the time of Jesus’ advent as the earthly Son of God, and the time of Jesus’ advent as the coming Son of Man.

As God’s chronos moves on and as we live between these times, let us live in God’s kairos, modeling the life of Jesus by being fully present to God and those in need of the divine presence. And, as God’s kairos is continually being fulfilled, and as God’s rule continually draws near, let us continually repent and evermore believe in the good news that God has come.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What Does It Mean to Say that Scripture is Inspired by God?

In response to a recent article I wrote on the subject of biblical interpretation that appeared on, a person identifying himself as a professor of biblical studies wrote to me in an email in which he said that he was going to use my article in his class on biblical interpretation as a demonstration of “the fallacy of the liberal hermeneutic and mindset.” I took that as a complement, and not as a criticism, which I assume he intended.

Though I do not know this person, I assume that he and I have many different views about the nature of Scripture and how we ought to read Scripture and to what extent Scripture should be authoritative in formulating Christian theology and practice. At the heart of the matter, I would assume, is perhaps our differing views on what Christians mean by the inspiration of Scripture.

In talking about the inspiration of Scripture, the go-to text is Second Timothy 3:16, where the author writes, “All scripture is inspired by God.” The word translated as “inspired” literally means “God-breathed,” and although the author of these words would have been speaking specifically about the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians have long recognized that inspired Scripture also includes the New Testament.

Of course, saying that the texts that make up the Canon of Scripture are inspired raises the question concerning what this means. Addressing such a question has led to various theories that have been proposed to describe the action of divine inspiration. From those theories that view the Scriptures as produced by gifted human authors, to the idea that God gave a message to the author, who then used his own words in writing the text, to the theory that God dictated every particular word of the text, each hypothesis has been debated by theologians across the spectrum of Christian thought.

While the verse from Second Timothy clearly states that “All scripture is God-breathed,” this does not mean that we must accept the idea that every word was dictated by God to each human author, who then recorded those words. Many may hold to the idea that God inspired every word of the text, but this is a matter of one’s personal faith. It is certainly not compulsory to believe this, and one’s critical approach to Scripture or to any theory of divine inspiration does not in and of itself negate one’s faith in God. To suggest that the text is as much a human creation as a divine one does not make one less faithful in one’s belief in God.

In fact, since we must work in the realm of historical probability, the texts of the Bible actually give more evidence of human involvement in their production than they do of divine inspiration. This does not mean that we need to throw out divine inspiration altogether; but it does mean we ought to rethink what we mean.

A fundamental question that I think we must ask which may help us rethink the nature of the inspiration of Scripture concerns why the writers of the books of the Bible wrote these texts, and why they wrote what they wrote. What we have are these texts, and from these texts we can, at least at some level, try and answer the question of the purpose for the existence of these texts, which may help us understand how these texts came forth from the religious experiences of the authors and communities that formulated them. To answer these questions it might be helpful to consider why the two communities that produced the two portions of what is now the Christian Bible would have done so.

Obviously, we must speak here in generalities when we talk about ancient Israel, from whom we received the Hebrew Bible, and early Christianity, from whence comes the New Testament. Across the history of both of these communities, but particularly the longer history of ancient Israel, there was much diversity that is woven into the text of Scripture; diversity that offers us somewhat differing views about God.

The people of Israel viewed themselves as different from the other nations that surrounded them. Indeed, they were distinctly different from these nations, particularly when it came to religion. There is no known ancient civilization that was not religious, but Israel may have been the first ancient people who were monotheistic; although some have argued that Zoroastrianism, another monotheistic religion, may have predated Israel’s adoption of monotheism.

Israel believed their god was supreme over other gods, and that their god had created the physical world from nothing and had chosen them as a covenant people. This belief certainly influenced their understanding of the world and other peoples, and it most assuredly influenced the texts they produced.

To put it succinctly, the text of the Hebrew Bible came forth from the people of Israel in response to what they believed about God and what God was doing. In other words, they were theologically interpreting their own history, and they were telling their history from a theological point of view.

Their understanding of God and the world influenced the way they told their stories, from the creation story, to the flood story, to the Exodus story, to the stories of conquering the land of Canaan through violence, and the stories of their Exile and their return.

In approaching an understanding of the writing of the New Testament books, we must remember two things. First, the earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish, as was, of course, Jesus, and hence any faith that would develop from their experiences must have some connection to ancient Israel and its texts. Second, because these earliest followers of Jesus believed him to be God’s Son, the promised Messiah of Israel, they must be able to explain this in relation to what is expressed about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

In holding onto these two important ideas, the authors of the books that would become the New Testament searched the Hebrew Bible in an attempt to understand and explain Jesus. While some like to think that the Hebrew Bible foretold the coming of Jesus, it is probably more accurate to say that those earliest believers in Jesus saw in him what they believed was described about the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.

These early Christian authors were doing what one scholar refers to as “messianic exegesis”, which means that they were creatively reading the Hebrew Bible in ways that were probably not intended by the original authors of those texts. These early Christians formulated their stories about Jesus to define his life, teachings, death and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Israel. Thus, their experience of Jesus influenced their reading of the Old Testament and their writing of the texts that would become the New Testament.

What all of this means is that the text of Scripture, what we call the Bible, is the inspired Word of God in the sense that it contains the stories of how God’s ancient peoples believed God to be working in the world. The Bible is the explanation of the mysteries of God envisioned by these historically situated humans. Their religious experiences, whether these can or cannot be verified, led them to write these texts in response to what they believed about God.

This means that the Bible that comes down through history to us was at every point along its development a human enterprise that is limited in what it can define about God. A book cannot contain all there is to know and say about God and the various texts that make up the Bible reveal God and God’s will differently. That is, none of them see God in exactly the same way, and none of them can express the full nature of God’s being.

This does not mean that we should throw out these ancient texts, for they still serve to reveal many things about God, particularly for Christians who see Jesus as the revelation of God. But, it does mean that as modern readers of these ancient texts, who have different kinds of experiences, and who see the world vastly different from these ancient authors and communities, we must approach these texts critically in order to assess how they are God breathed today.

Monday, December 5, 2011

God on the Loose

People tend to be control freaks. We like to control our circumstances, and we certainly like to control other people. From a religious stand point, we Christians may also be guilty of trying to control God. We like to put God in a box, as they say, defining God on our terms. Our reasons for doing this may vary, but I think two stand out.

First, we like to control God because that helps us make life, and its many ups and downs, manageable. We say things like, “God will work everything out” or “I know God will take care of me.” There is truth to these statements, of course, but, they are still ways that we seek to control God.

But perhaps the chief reason we seek to control God, or at least the definition of who God is, is that it assures us that we believe in the right God, as opposed to others who believe in the wrong God. This too gives us comfort to know that we are on God’s side. But it also allows us to believe we have control over others, particularly their eternal fate.

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel we find a story that is common to the first three Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three tell the story of John the Baptizer, who is, as his title describes him to be, baptizing in the wilderness. Many are coming out to John to receive this baptism, and, as we know very well, Jesus also comes out to be baptized by John.

While all three of the Synoptic Gospels speak of Jesus coming out to be baptized, and all three tell of a voice coming from heaven, there is a stark difference in the ways that Matthew and Luke tell about the opening of the heaven, and the way Mark narrates this cosmological phenomenon. While both Matthew and Luke tell us that the heavens opened, Mark uses a word that is more vivid and expressive of what he believes about the coming of Jesus.

Mark tells us that when Jesus comes forth from the baptismal waters, the heavens are torn apart. The verb that Mark uses communicates that the heavens were not simply opened, only to close again. No, the heavens are ripped apart, which implies that they can never be closed again.

What does he mean by such a dramatic picture of what happens at the baptism of Jesus? What is Mark trying to tell us about the coming of Jesus through his colorful narration of what happens to the heavens when Jesus comes out of the baptismal waters?

To begin to answer these questions, we need to have an understanding of the way the ancients saw the world. The ancients had a different topographical perspective of the world than we do. They saw the universe as existing in two realms. Humans and other created things existed in the world of the physical earth.

However, beyond the realm of earth, in the firmament, or what we call the heavens, God lived and reigned. God, being holy other, could not exist among sinful humans, and thus God remained separate and distinct from the rest of creation. And, it would have been unheard of for God to cross the boundary.

Indeed, such ideas about the boundaries that separated the holy from the profane characterized much of Judaism at the time of Jesus. The Pharisees, as we see them in the Gospel narratives, were enforcers of the law to the extent that they enforced strict interpretations of the law. This is why Jesus raises their ire when he does things like healing on the Sabbath or eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus’ actions passed over and even tore down the boundaries between that which the Pharisees saw as holy and pure and that which they viewed as profane and unclean.

We can also see boundaries in the temple. The temple was set up with physical boundaries that were intended to keep the temple sacred, but in reality those boundaries separated and left out many folks from the temple and its religious significance. This is the reason that Jesus storms the temple, calling it a den of thieves, when its purpose is to be a house of prayer for all people.

In fact, in Mark’s narration of Jesus’ death, the veil, that grand boundary marker that hung in the temple to separate the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple, a place that no one but the high priest could enter and only once a year, was torn apart when Jesus takes his last breath. The word used to narrate this tearing of the veil is the same word used to describe the tearing open of the heavens at the baptism of Jesus. The veil is ripped from top to bottom, never to be repaired again. The tearing of the veil opens the way for all to enter into the holy presence of God.

Mark’s purpose in all of this is to say to his readers, including those of us who still long for God to be near, is that God cannot be found in heaven, hidden behind the clouds, and God certainly cannot be found in a temple, hidden behind a veil. In fact, God cannot be contained in any bordered area of existence. God will not be closed in. God has crossed over. God is now on the loose.

Where is God on the loose in our world? In a world that seems torn apart by the chaos of evil, where is God on the loose? Has God returned to the safety of heaven, where God can choose to ignore the chaos that evil causes in our world?

As Christians, we hold to the belief that in the coming of Jesus, God has come to our world. Jesus is called Emmanuel, God with us. And the same spirit that descended from the tear in heaven onto Jesus has been given to us.

God is not in heaven. God is here. God is in you, and God is in me.

God is on the loose in the faithful and radical living of the followers of Jesus, who refrain from controlling God, and who are open to God’s continual and unexpected movement in our world.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Critical Interpretation of the Bible Shapes Meaningful Theology

There are many reasons people may read the Bible, but for people of faith, the ultimate and constant reason for reading the Bible is theological. Most who read the text, or hear the text read, believe it to have something to say about God and God’s engagement with humanity.

Indeed, the Bible exists, both in its parts and in its whole, not primarily for historical or literary purposes, but because both the parts and the whole of the Bible offer the historically situated authors’ views on God and how God relates to humanity. In other words, the authors of the different books of the Bible present primarily a theological perspective of life from their own world.

But the very existence of the Christian sacred texts from any and every tradition indicates that the stories of the Bible are not just about the events, characters, and times of their own era. These stories extend beyond their own frames of reference to communicate a belief in God’s good future in which each generation can find hope in the midst of the challenges of human existence.

So, if the primary purpose for writing the books of the Bible and for reading these books is theological, then how should we read these ancient texts that were written by historically situated humans who would not have envisioned the world in which we live? Do we take what they say about God at face value, or should we be open to fresh understandings of God?

One important step to reading the Bible theologically is to embrace a critical approach to biblical interpretation. Fundamentalist Christians and some conservative believers refuse the findings and methods of modern biblical scholarship, believing them to be human created methods intended to refute and corrupt what the Bible says. But a critical approach to reading scripture is not only appropriate, it is also necessary when one is seeking to develop relevant theological thinking.

A critical approach involves several components that contribute to viable and meaningful interpretations. Reading the Bible critically means giving close attention to the historically conditioned nature of the biblical texts and the authors who penned them. These authors, and the texts they produced, reflect a different worldview than ours. They viewed the cosmos differently, history differently, and the experience of the divine differently than we do today. Thus, any faithful readings, and the theology that develops from those readings, must take into account the assumptions these authors had that we no longer have.

This means that we cannot always read the Bible literally, for the Bible is not necessarily historically or scientifically accurate in everything it says. While developing our theology from the scriptures must demonstrate integrity with the historical meaning of the text, our readings are not bound by those original meanings as we seek to bring theological relevancy to our own context.

For example, to read the creation story from Genesis as a literal telling of the beginnings of our universe and human existence is no longer valid. Not only is the story not scientific, to read it as answering questions that science is more capable of answering, really takes the focus off of the poetic and theological richness of the story.

Another very relevant example would be those texts that encourage and even command inequalities, oppression and violence. To continue to support the validity of those passages that legitimate prejudices, violence, or oppression against groups based on gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation is no longer acceptable.

Yet, as we read and interpret the text of scripture in order to shape our theological thinking in our own context, we must also recognize our own presuppositions. Each of us reads from our own ideologies that are often culturally transmitted to us. When we approach the biblical text, we do so with these presuppositions and ideologies, which often find their way into our reading texts of scripture without realizing it.

We often do not recognize such ideologies and presuppositions, and in not doing so, we cling to misunderstandings and misinterpretations of biblical passages that are not true to the text or a critical approach to its interpretation.

Indeed, such misinterpretations may be so deeply embedded in our cultural locations that they may be hard to set aside. They are often like a pair of old spectacles that have become a part of who we are and through which we see everything. If we are to read the texts faithfully in order to shape a more relevant and meaningful theology, we must take them off, at least for the purpose of seeing the text differently.

A primary step in doing this is to read the text of scripture in a community that may offer challenges to our individual understandings. A text of scripture does not have a single meaning limited to authorial intent, and no one person has greater authority in interpreting a text of scripture. A scriptural passage may have a multiplicity of valid theological meanings, and reading in community can help us see other meanings.

Yet, while we can read them in the communities we call our churches, this may only reinforce the same presuppositions. Others from our community wear similar glasses, for we typically associate with those who look like us, talk like us, and are from the same social and economic situations.

Reading the text with people from other races, other religions, other cultures, other genders, other sexual orientations, other social and economic conditions, and other ways of thinking about God and humanity can help us recognize our presuppositions and assist us in seeing the text vastly different.

We need not be defensive of our faith and particularly of the Bible when someone challenges our thinking. Rather, we should listen carefully and be open to different points of view from others who understand God quite differently than we do, or from others who do not believe in God at all. Reading the text with those both inside and outside our community can offer us a way of seeing fresh interpretations that shape a theological thinking that is more relevant to our world.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How will Alabama Lawmakers Respond to Jesus?

This past June, Alabama’s governor signed into law the toughest stance on immigration in the U.S. This law continues to be debated among the citizens of that state, while the U.S. Justice Department has stated that Alabama’s law is unconstitutional.

I am not an immigration lawyer, nor do I pretend to speak to the legalities of this particular law. However, I do think that this law raises the moral stakes, and for those who claim to be Christian, such as Alabama Governor Bentley, the question of potentially denying people "the most basic human needs," as the Justice Department declared Alabama’s law does, ought to be taken seriously. Jesus, himself a stranger and an alien, calls us to do better.

Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth, an event that many Christians will celebrate in just over a month. Yet, while we annually celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic lifestyle because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may rely more on myth than actual history, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger. How might this story speak to our lawmakers, particularly those who claim to be Christian?

Again, I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

The law in Alabama is an example of such a lack of compassion, even raising serious questions over whether churches will be held legally accountable if they knowingly provide assistance to any illegal immigrants. Indeed, as Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has pointed out, Alabama’s immigration law is reminiscent of the anti-desegregation era of the 1960’s.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and 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 alien 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. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

What is about these teachings from Christianity’s sacred text that these Christians, such as Governor Bentley, who would surely point to the Bible on other moral issues, don’t get?

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not illegal immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should also remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

And, while there may be as many as 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, many of these are hard working people who are seeking a better life for themselves and for their families. The majority contribute to the economy of this nation, including doing many jobs that Americans will not perform, as well as starting small businesses in the entrepreneurial spirit of America, as a recent report on NBC indicated.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

I wonder how the Alabama lawmakers will respond.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Flawed Heroes: A Reformation Day Reflection

Today, October 31, is celebrated by many Protestant Christians as Reformation Day, the day that commemorates a little known German monk, Martin Luther, who may or may not have posted his infamous Ninety-Five Theses on a church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This act was a challenge to the Roman Catholic authority, particularly the authority of the pope, and is recognized by historians as the starting point of the Protestant Reformation.

Many Christians in the West, particularly in the United States, identify with some branch of the Protestant Church, now considered, along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, as a branch of the larger Christian religion. Indeed, I have always been a Protestant, having grown up in a Baptist tradition. Although the tradition in which I was raised leaned more toward the fundamentalist side of being Baptist, I still associate with the Baptist tradition, but more with what I consider to be the more historically recognizable Baptist faith that is more moderate and open minded.

Yet, I also find myself in community with the Reformed tradition, particularly as it is expressed in the Presbyterian Church. While I am a minister ordained in the Baptist tradition, I am very often called upon by Presbyterian Churches to be a guest preacher. Moreover, having lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, and having studied at New College, the divinity school that is part of the University of Edinburgh, I am very in tune with the Presbyterian faith, whose founder is John Knox, the Scottish minister of the 16th century. These experiences have fostered in me a deeper understanding of the Reformed traditions, and have enriched my Christian faith and discipleship.

But, as we Protestants remember and celebrate Reformation Day, along with honoring the Reformers, we should be reminded that although these historical figures’ actions provide us with the faith we now embrace, they were indeed flawed human beings who may not be as heroic as we imagine them to be.

For example, although historians credit Luther with starting the Protestant Reformation, and we consider his brave stance against the overreaching authority of the papacy as a hallmark of deep conviction and courage, we should not neglect the historical reality that Luther was an anti-Semite. It is true that Luther perhaps sided with the Jewish people of Europe against the Roman Catholic Church, but once they did not embrace his Christianity, he spewed all kinds of derogatory and hate-filled speech about them, referring to them as “blind” and “stupid fools”, and he equated them with the devil.

Luther also sided with the ruling authorities in their attempts to squash the peasant rebellions of the 16th century, which may have possibly been influenced by Luther’s own views about the freedom of a Christian. In his Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther accuses the peasants of not taking their God-ordained place within the structure of God’s planned society in which the kings ruled by divine right. Luther supported the use of brute force against these peasants, arguing that this is the only method by which they will be stopped.

John Calvin, the great father of the Reformed Tradition, was also significantly flawed. For one thing, his theological teachings, which continue to influence various Christian traditions, was centered on the view of God as some sort of capricious and arbitrary God, who Calvin argued “predestined” some for salvation and others for damnation. Calvin’s view of God leaves little to no room for human freedom and for human goodness; all of eternity has been predetermined by God.

But, perhaps Calvin’s most flawed action was his support for the death of Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian accused of anti-trinitarianism and anti-infant baptism. Servetus had escaped to Geneva where Calvin was, and while attending a sermon being delivered by Calvin, Servetus was recognized and arrested. Calvin gave his support for Servetus to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Calvin referred to his teachings as "execrable blasphemies", and he stated that, “Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are.”

John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer, whose house I walked by several times and visited on a couple of occasions, and whose statue stands in the court yard of New College, and in whose church I often sat in still reflection, was also no saint. In his, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a misogynistic treatise against Mary, Queen of Scots, Knox refers to women as blind, weak, mad, and foolish, and he asks, “How can woman be the image of God, seeing (says he) she is subject to man, and has none authority, neither to teach, neither to be witness, neither to judge, much less to rule or bear empire?”

There are, of course, others among the Reformers that could serve as examples of those we often consider heroes of the Protestant faith, but who say and do things we would consider abhorrent. Moreover, we could certainly point to many atrocities performed in the name of the Christian faith by the Medieval Church before the Reformation. So, on the one hand, we can perhaps applaud the boldness and courage of the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Knox, whose actions changed forever western civilization and Christendom, but at the same time remember that they are severely flawed heroes.

Perhaps having this perspective will help us see our own flaws as we make Christian history for tomorrow’s believers. But, may be this should also cause us to consider with all seriousness how flawed the Christian faith really is.

Friday, October 28, 2011

My Sermon Manuscripts Online

Dear Blog Readers,

From time to time when I preach at various churches, I am asked for a copy of my sermon manuscripts. I am trying something new by posting these in the right-hand column of my blog. You will find the links to various sermon manuscripts that I have written under the heading "Sermon Manuscripts" which is just under "About Me". Click on any of the links and it should take you to the manuscript online, where you can view, download and/or print. I have only uploaded two today, but as I review others, and proof read them, I will upload others.

As always, you can send me feedback on these.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Self-Appointed God Protectors Hinder What God is Doing

The Gospels are replete with stories of Jesus’ many encounters with the religious leaders in Jerusalem, and not all of them were pleasant. To put it plainly, Jesus and these religious leaders debated and argued on just about every religious issue of the day. Whether it was about healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, or paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus was pursued by their questions and accusations, and he was very quick to respond, mostly through questions of his own that he put back to them that left them dazed and confused.

The central point of contention in all these debates and conflicts, however, centers on one important question: Who speaks for God? And, the basic problem for these religious leaders was that this rebel rouser was usurping their positions as God’s authority over the people, and if he was able to continue, then they would eventually lose these places of power.

In order for them to remain in power, they not only needed to make Jesus look bad, they also needed to maintain the status quo of religious beliefs and practices as if they were protecting God. Of particular importance for them for maintaining a sanitized religion were the purity laws that kept many people out of the religious life and community of Israel all for the purpose of keeping their concepts of impurities out.

But, in their zeal to protect their traditions, to protect their temple, and essentially to protect their God, these guardians of religion were failing to see what God was really like and what God was really up to.

The main thing for Jesus in many of the debates with the religious leaders is that those who think they are on God’s side, and those who are quick to say that others are not, are really outside of God’s kingdom. But more seriously, not only are they outside the rule of God, their actions of trying to protect their traditions, their temple, and their God, are really in opposition to what God was doing through the ministry of Jesus and in the lives of people.

Over and over again, Jesus confronts these religious leaders with their abusive power over people and their wrong-headed belief that they are protectors of God by criticizing them for shutting out people who these religious leaders believed to be unclean.

Jesus, on the other hand, does not see them as unclean. Rather, he sees them as people in need of compassion, embrace and community. Indeed, we might just say that Jesus, the pure one, was quite willing to place himself in the community of those considered impure by the religious leaders. But his place among them was not to bring judgment. Rather, his community with them was really an affirmation of their humanity.

While the religious leaders continued to put up barriers to separate the pure (Themselves!!) from the impure, Jesus’ ministry was about crossing the boundaries, even tearing them down, to create one community out of those who seek God’s kingdom.

Jesus is clear that the kingdom of God is not about keeping those we consider impure on the outside. The kingdom of God is the mysterious power of God’s movement in the world to bring about a community of welcoming and embrace of people from all walks of life. In fact, in contrast to the religious leaders, Jesus views the kingdom of God as populated by those these same religious leaders would not allow into the temple.

Peter understood this perspective, but only after his dream of unclean animals coming down from heaven on a sheet. When God commanded him to eat the animals, Peter’s initial response was one of disgust, based solely on what he thought to be unclean. But the dream was not really about unclean animals; it was about the people Peter considered to be unclean, the Gentiles.

Peter’s dream, and his witness of the coming of the spirit of God onto the Gentiles, changed Peter’s mind to the point that he proclaimed to his fellow Jews, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?" (Acts 11:17).

There are many Christians that still believe that God needs protecting, and they do their best to hinder what God is doing. Like the religious leaders Jesus faced, they believe, sometimes very zealously, that they ought to keep out those they consider impure. In doing so, they believe it is their duty to protect the boundaries of the church to keep out the unclean.

I am afraid, however, that taking such positions only reincarnates the opposition that Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day. Doing this places us in opposition to God. But this is very easy to do. It is easy because it gives us a religiously sanctioned way for reinforcing our prejudices against groups of people by simply claiming that they are not children of God, that they are unclean, and that they cannot participate fully in the community of faith.

One of the major attempts to protect God today is the continual efforts of many to exclude gays and lesbians from full participation in the church. While some denominations have moved forward on this to embrace those of different sexual orientations, they have not done so without opposition.

While well meaning and thoughtful people have felt very zealous about protecting the traditions, the church, and God, by continually excluding gays and lesbians from full participation in the church, they have declared them as unclean. In doing so, they look and act very much like the self-appointed God protectors of Jesus’ day.

It has become apparent through my own Christian journey that I am not the protector of God on this issue, or on any issue, and I cannot and will not hinder what God is doing. Peter’s evidence for the inclusion of the Gentiles was that he witnessed the spirit of God in them, and thus he could not reject the people he once rejected.

I have experienced people of different sexual orientations than my own living out the power of the spirit in their own lives, through caring for justice and goodness in the world. How can I hinder what God is doing by pretending I am a self-appointed God protector?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Would Jesus Say to the “Job Creators”?

It seems that as the gap between the very rich and everyone else grows, many of those who are wealthy have taken defensive positions that expose how out of touch they really are. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul has suggested that not only are the rich getting richer,“but the poor are getting richer even faster.” And, Rep. John Fleming recently stated that out of the $600,000 he might have left over of his $6.3 million, he may have $400,000 left after feeding his family, suggesting that it takes $200,000 to feed his family.

Moreover, many of the rich, and those Republican and Tea Party supporters of the wealthy, have developed a new code word to refer to those who have amassed a significant amount of wealth. Instead of calling them rich, we are now to refer to them as “job creators”. The problem with this is that they are not creating jobs, and the rhetoric coming forth from them reveals that they are indeed out of touch with the rest of Americans who are struggling to provide for their families on a lot less than $200,000.

But changing the way we refer to the rich by coining terms such as “job creators” and “investors” moves away from a critical understanding of the position of the rich as those who were very often under the scrutiny of many of Jesus’ harsh teachings about wealth. Of course, Jesus’ most familiar, and perhaps most critical statement about the rich illustrates this very point: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

Why does it seem that Jesus condemns the rich and favors the poor? There may be several reasons, but three seem certain.
First, Jesus was born into poverty and he chose to continue to live in poverty as an adult. He felt a deep sense of belonging among the poor and he clearly embraced and identified with those who were economically oppressed in his society.

Second, because he so closely associated with the poor, Jesus witnessed firsthand the tremendous gap that existed between the rich and the poor. This gap was the consequence of the rich gaining their wealth through oppressing and neglecting the poor.

Third, Jesus believed that he was ushering in the kingdom of God, and he called all who truly sought the kingdom to give up the possessions that hindered them from entering God’s rule. His statement about the difficulty of the rich entering the kingdom of God implies that Jesus believed that the poor were more receptive to the message of God present rule.

In Jesus’ mind, the rich were too self-sufficient and self-satisfied to heed his message. Thus it is clear from his life and his message that Jesus had a significant problem with how the rich viewed and handled their wealth in light of the revelation of God’s kingdom of economic equality and justice. He clearly believed that God was not on the side of the wealthy, but that God favored the poor.

One of the more fascinating stories that demonstrates this point is the Parable of the Rich Landowner in Luke 12:13-21. The story is about a rich man who gets richer, and yet whose greed for riches causes his downfall and judgment. But, as with most of Jesus’ parables, there are some subtleties in this story that provide a deeper sense of meaning to Jesus’ message about wealth.

What seems to me to be most interesting about this story is that the man is the only character in the parable. In fact, he thinks he exits on his own. He speaks to no one but himself and his conversations are about no one but himself. The pronouns “I” and “My” are frequent in this story and they express not the loneliness of the man, but his satisfaction to live life with no thought of anyone but himself.

This wealthy landowner has given no consideration to the God who has blessed him or to his economically depressed neighbors who suffer around him. In fact, he goes so far in his narcissism that he makes plans to live out his days in egocentric comfort. He is out of touch.

But there is something more that deserves our attention. We know that he is the only one in the parable, but we can infer from knowing that he is a wealthy man that he did not earn this wealth on his own. Who plows his fields? Who harvests his grain? Who will build his bigger barns? The workers for whom he has little concern, that’s who. They are the ones who really make this man wealthy.

Without those who plowed his fields, harvested his grain, and built his barns this rich man, this “job creator”, would have nothing. And yet, he has forgotten them. Though he plans to take life easy, to eat, drink, and be merry, he fails to remember that all this wealth was not earned by his hard work, but by those who worked for him.

The sad ending of Jesus’ parable about this rich landowner serves as a warning to those who accumulate wealth at the expense or in neglect of the poor: God will be your judge. The man’s life was demanded of him the very night he celebrates his good fortune. Was he condemned for his wealth? Yes, partly so. But more than any other reason, this man was condemned for his lack of concern for those hurting around him; the very people who helped him become rich.

In the current economic state that we are in, perhaps it is time for the rich to rethink their positions through which they defend their right to hold onto as much wealth as they desire. Perhaps they should rethink their status as those who have earned wealth by their hard work alone, for they have not, as Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the United States Senate has suggested.

But perhaps the greatest reason the rich should heed the words of Jesus about wealth, is that in doing so they will place themselves on the side of God, who wills economic justice for all. If they do not, then what we will find in the future is that the consequences of their drive for more and more wealth will be born on the backs of those who already struggle to meet their needs and the needs of their families. And, the rich will become richer and the poor will become poorer.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

International Day of Peace

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 2011.

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.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Greed Prevents Generosity and Community

Any casual reader of the Gospels will know that Jesus had a great deal to say about wealth and possessions and our proper response to them. In fact, he had more to say about the subject of money and care for the poor than any other subject. Indeed, Jesus constantly provoked his hearers with radical ideas about wealth and possessions; ideas so radical that we still attempt to explain them away or ignore them altogether. But, at the heart of his message was a strong warning against greed.

Defining a term like greed can be somewhat difficult. After all, greed can be understood in fairly relative terms. At some level all of us are greedy. So, a clear definition of the term greed, apart from a dictionary meaning, is quite difficult to pin down.

But I think we can at least come to some level of an understanding of the concept of greed from the point of view of Jesus. To do so, we need to see greed along two intersecting planes: The vertical and the horizontal.

The vertical plane of greed is our greed in terms of our relationship to God. When we are greedy toward God, that is, when we desire more and more wealth and possessions, we put these things in the place of God. We make wealth an idol and we serve mammon as our god. This is what Jesus warns us against when he states that we cannot serve both God and mammon, for one will always come before the other in receiving our devotion. It is this kind of greed that most Christians associate with sin; greed is putting material things before God.

But, although we might find this vertical plane of greed convicting, we also believe it to be manageable. We believe this kind of greed is more easily overcome through our words that convince us that we are not guilty of the sin of greed. The remedy we have for greed against God is just to say to ourselves, and to God, that we do not put wealth and possessions in place of God; mammon is not our idol. After all, many of us do not consider ourselves wealthy in the first place, so how could we put our wealth before God when we do not see ourselves as wealthy? And those Christians who are wealthy simply argue that they have been blessed by God with their wealth.

Moreover, we quickly defend our innocence of vertical greed by saying that we always put God first. We pray, we attend worship, we do good things, and here is the big one, we tithe, perhaps even more than 10%. Yes, many, if not all of us, would quickly say that we are not guilty of greed against God, for wealth is not our idol.

The other intersecting plane, however, is what catches us. And this is perhaps why Jesus has more to say about our holding possessions in light of the plight of the poor. The horizontal plane is our greed in relation to our fellow human beings.

Just as Jesus stated that the two greatest commandments, to love both God and our neighbors, are of equal value, so Scripture is also clear that greed is not only sin because we put wealth and possessions in place of God, but also, and perhaps an even greater sin, because it prevents us from sharing with others who are in need.

As John rightly asks, “How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John’s rhetorical question implies that one cannot logically say they love God and also withhold aid from those in need.

So, although we can rationalize that we are not greedy because we do not put possessions in the place reserved for God, our hoarding and not sharing with others reveals our true spirit of greed toward others and toward God. When we hoard our wealth and possessions, however large or small that amount is, we neglect the needs of those who are in great need. Doing this is the tell-tale sign of where our hearts really are.

Greed is caused by placing inappropriate value on possessions that lead us to rationalize why we need this new thing or that new thing. Once we begin to make such rationalizations, we become trapped in an uncontrollable sequence of desiring more, obtaining more, and then desiring more.

But if we repent of our vertical greed toward God and our horizontal greed toward others, our perspective and the use of our possessions can change. We can begin to see the essential worth of possessions primarily as God’s gracious gifts given to meet our basic needs, and not as things we cling to. Such a perspective sets us free from the need to want more, and we can reject wealth as an idol in order to serve God fully.

Moreover, if we change our perspective of possessions to be the things that meet our basic needs, we can also act more generously toward those who are in much greater need than we are. We can share our money and possessions with the hurting in our neighborhoods, our communities, and indeed across the globe.

I recently preached at a church in which the following served as the Prayer of Confession:

O God, Source of all that makes life possible, Giver of all that makes life good, we gather to give you our thanks. Yet we confess that we have often failed to live thankful lives: What we have we take for granted, and we grumble about what we lack. We have squandered your bounty with little thought for those who will come after us. We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.

What struck me the most about this prayer was the last sentence: “We are more troubled by the few who have more than we do, than by the many who have so much less.” Unfortunately, in the current economic state of our nation, the latter group is growing larger and is increasingly being neglected.

Greed is a desire to have what others have. When we cannot, we become jealous of their riches. But Jesus calls us to reverse our gaze by turning from our desire to have what others have, to notice and serve those who have less. In doing so, we will not only find healing from greed; we will also become more generous towards and find community with the people with whom Jesus found community.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Why Tolerance is Not the Answer to Exclusion

In the first chapter of his 1967 book entitled, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describes the state of the Civil Rights Movement in America and the state of white America’s acceptance of African Americans. He asserts:

“With Selma and the Voting Rights Act one phase of development in the civil rights revolution came to an end. A new phase opened, but few observers realized it or were prepared for its implications. For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade—the first phase—had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination. The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.”

Dr. King captures so pointedly what I believe continues to be the great sin of our world. In these insightful and prophetic remarks, King offers to us a portrait of the repetitive state of humanity that is blinded by the promotion of exclusion. Certainly we persist to live in a world that is saturated with oppression, hatred, and violence, but Dr. King also draws our attention to a sin that is more subtle than the sin of hate and violence and the sin of exclusion.

We have been duped into believing that the answer to hatred and bigotry is tolerance. The world has preached a message to us to be tolerant of others who are not like us, to bear with the differences we have and to merely tolerate them. But the downside of tolerance is that it is very short sighted. Tolerance does not go far enough.

Sure, tolerance may be the better option in the face of those who continue to ward off the message of tolerance because, in their words, it weakens the so-called truth of the Christian message. But those who preach tolerance to us are not promoting the fullness of God’s love in Christ.

The irony of the tolerance debate is that those who preach against tolerance and those who preach in favor of tolerance have made the same grave mistake. One side considers tolerance an evil, while the other considers tolerance the answer. One group preaches to us that tolerance is a construct of the pluralistic, and therefore, evil world. The other side preaches to us that tolerance is the height of humanity’s progress in social relationships.

No one doubts that Dr. King delighted in the fact that white Americans were being convinced that the brutality carried out against African Americans was immoral. But in the words that I quoted above, Dr. King is certainly lamenting the fact that this is not enough; it fell short of what it needed to be.

True community is not just the removal of exclusion and replacing it with tolerance. Tolerance must move beyond itself to become the full embrace of the other. While some call for an abandonment of tolerance, and still others call for an acceptance of tolerance, the gospel of God in Christ calls us to move beyond mere tolerance to full and vulnerable embrace.

So where does the answer to the sin of exclusion rest? Is it tolerance or the rejection of tolerance? Should we hide behind a false gospel that calls us to separate ourselves from those not like us, which only reinforces our stereotypes of others and increases our hatred? Or should we accept the mediocrity of tolerance, knowing that tolerance merely calls us to grit our teeth and bear with others not like us, but keeps us at a distance from them?

The biblical answer lies neither in abandonment of tolerance nor the reluctant acceptance of tolerance. The biblical answer lies in the activity of God in Christ, who excludes no one, and who does not merely tolerate us, but who has fully embraced us.

In the words that appear on the final pages of Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, we find these words:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of the now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. We still have a choice today: non-violent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

And so, the time is now. We must redeem the time that has been lost to exclusion, oppression, hatred, and violence. We must repent of our sin of exclusion and our sin of mere tolerance. We must choose between chaos and community. One will lead to our destruction. But the other will lead us to embrace the world through love, justice, forgiveness, humility, peace, through which we can foster the common good of all humanity.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sermon Preparation as an Introspective Process

In college, and again in seminary, I, like most everyone else who has attended seminary to prepare for ministry, took one or more courses in sermon preparation. For the most part, these courses, at least at the introductory level, teach students on the mechanics of how to prepare and deliver a sermon. Despite what some church folks might think, sermon preparation requires a great deal of hard work; that is, if the preacher or pastor is doing what she is called to do.

Sermon preparation normally involves a number of steps, some of which are as follows:

1) Selecting a biblical text or texts from which one will preach. For lectionary preachers this is made somewhat easier, although not without its challenges.
2) Reading and interpreting that text, ideally by translating the text from its original Hebrew or Greek and by consulting authoritative commentaries written by biblical scholars.
3) Formulating a working outline of the sermon, along with a specific direction the preacher wants the sermon to go.
4) Writing the sermon manuscript from which the preacher might deliver the sermon either from memory or from reading the manuscript from the pulpit.

There are other steps that preachers may take in this general process and each homilitician will do things differently from others, but most would agree that the above steps are essential to sermon preparation.

One of the challenges that a preacher faces each week, particularly those who are pastors of congregations that expect to hear a word from God week each week, is how to make a sermon applicable. After all, some texts do not easily translate into applications for congregations living in our modern, and very scientific and technological world.

To be honest, I have always hated the concept of drawing an application from every biblical text. As I see it, this process seems, at times, to force something from a text that is not there. Often times the preacher is so pressured into finding an application from an ancient biblical text that matches the needs of his contemporary audience, that the application is at best a stretch.

On a personal note, I recall being criticized for not drawing out an application while leading a Bible study on a particular book of the Bible. The person commented that we need to know what each verse means to us. I replied, somewhat snarky, “Not every word in the Bible has to do with you.”

But still, folks who gather to worship on Sunday mornings gather with expectation that they have not just come to hear a good oration of a biblical text; they have come to hear what God may have to say to them about their lives and their struggles, even though many may disregard the message, particularly if it makes them feel uncomfortable.

But in preparing sermons, I wonder how many of us allow a biblical text to speak to us personally before we start making applications for those who will hear our sermons. Do I read texts with an expectation of what God may be saying to me before I concern myself with what God might want to say to others?

I am not questioning the thought process that preachers go through each week when preparing sermons. I have not talked to enough pastors to determine by any stretch of the imagination what the majority of pastors do with regards to their personal approach and involvement in sermon planning and writing. But, I wonder how many of us preachers write sermons that apply to our congregations, but allow a text’s message to pass us by?

Would we not be more authentic in our preaching if we allowed the text to take stock of our own lives before we presume to say what we think God might want to say to our congregations?

Again, as I told the person who criticized my lack of making application from every verse in Bible, I do not think every word or every verse or every passage has something to say to us. However, I do think that texts can speak to us in different ways, and for the preacher to allow the mechanics of sermon preparation to become the focal point of crafting a sermon in order to jump to how the text applies to his congregation, without first allowing one’s personal encounter with the text to shape one’s thoughts, may miss the treasure that awaits the congregation.

For me, at least for many of my sermons, sermon preparation involves an introspective process in which I read the text and allow the text to penetrate deep inside my mind. Yes, I perform the mechanics of sermon preparation, much like I was taught in that seminary class. But, I also do not treat the text as an object outside of myself. Rather, I try, though not always successfully, to allow the biblical text to become a part of me, and I become a part of it.

This is one reason why I am partial to biblical narratives because I think the narratives, whether those of the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, present plots and characters that resonate with us even though we are separated by a chasm of time and culture. I recall a college professor telling our class that the characters in the Bible were there not for historical purposes, but to help us see who we really are. By that he meant that when we read of the lives of these characters, we often find that we can be very much like them, both when it comes to accomplishments as well as deficiencies. These characters become mirrors in which we can see ourselves.

The biblical narratives complete with their plots and characters give the preacher a gateway into the introspective process of sermon preparation. The preacher thinks not how the text applies to the future audience, but rather she thinks and struggles with how the text infiltrates her own spiritual psyche and how it draws out her own humanity before God.

At least from my own experience, and I am not saying I am very good at this, I believe that such an introspective process of sermon preparation makes for more authentic and more passionate preaching. And, as preachers are inclined to say, “Now, that will preach.”

Monday, July 25, 2011

My Struggle with Prayer

I have always been a little jealous, but at the same time impressed, with folks who give a lot of time and effort toward praying. I am especially impressed by those who, without any hesitation, put so much faith in the act of prayer. These “prayer warriors” model for the rest of us a relentless belief that God hears our prayers and that God answers our prayers. Indeed, these folks will not only offer continual prayers for life’s challenges, they will see the outcome of those challenges directly related to their prayers.

But I have always struggled with prayer. I know how to pray; at least when it comes to the correct structure, the right language, and the exact tone of the voice. But these are merely surface issues that do not reveal what happens in my mind and heart when I am praying. I struggle to have any sense of assurance that God actually hears my prayers. I guess I am very much like the proverbial person who says that when he prays it feels as if his prayers are not even reaching the ceiling.

It is not for a lack of trying. In fact, at some points during each day I will stop and pray. More often these are short periods when I have moments to myself, but they can also be more extended sessions of prayer when something heavy is weighing on my mind. So, I do consider myself as giving an effort toward the activity of prayer.

But I still have this problem of not really feeling, as do some, as if my prayers really matter that much, either to me or to the people for whom I pray. This is probably the reason why I rarely tell folks that I will pray for them. I am certainly not one of those who when someone requests prayer on facebook, others will post the comment “praying” as if something magical is about to happen by my praying.

For one reason, I am not sure I will remember to pray for them. For another, I’m sort of doubtful that my prayers will do them any good. I am often tempted to say to those who ask me to pray for them, “I don’t think you want me to pray for you. You might be better off asking someone else.”

I don’t mean to be flippant, or cold, or faithless by thinking such thoughts about prayer and my own effectiveness or ineffectiveness at prayer, but this is the reality that I have faced for years in my own Christian journey. I am often unsure how to pray, and I am very often unsure as to whether or not God hears my prayers, and as to whether or not my prayers are that effective.

Perhaps many other folks struggle with prayer, at least at some point in their life. And, if we do struggle with prayer, we may need to be honest with ourselves that this is not only natural, but normative. Admitting this may actually be the first step to moving toward a more authentic prayer life.

But, why, if scripture commands us to pray, do we struggle with prayer?

The obvious answer to this question is that we are human, and prayer, at least as we understand it, does not mesh with our normal way of living as humans. This may be particularly true because we rely so much on science and technology to provide answers to life’s big questions and life’s big struggles.

The problem is also compounded by the fact that in our normal ways of living, interacting, and conversing with other beings, we experience their presence through one or more of our senses. We can see them, hear them, and touch them. There is in most cases a two way conversation, and at least most of the time we are pretty sure that the person with whom we are speaking hears us.

But this does not happen with God. We cannot see God, nor touch God, and although many people claim to have heard God, most of us have not heard the voice of God, at least in ways we hear the voices of others. Our nature as finite human beings who interact with other human beings through verbal and non-verbal communication hinders us from interacting in this way with an infinite being such as God.

I also think we struggle with prayer because we do not know for what we should pray. Of course, there are needs that we and others have, some of which are so great that we cannot help but pray. But even in these situations we really do not know how to pray, and we struggle with the words we should be expressing to God.

The problem here is that the tragic situations that we and our loved ones encounter are periods in which life seems to spin out of control. These times of suffering bring to the surface our doubts about life with God. We move from periods in our life when things are going well, to periods when it seems that our world is crashing in on us.

In these moments of disorientation we really do not know how to pray. May be this is why the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that in these times when we do not know how to pray, the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs that are too deep for words.

What Paul is telling us is that the spirit intercedes for us because the spirit knows us and knows our life situations better than we do. The spirit is in tune with what is the heart of God for us and for our world. And, at the heart of God is the love of God that Paul so beautifully describes as never being separated from us. This means that no matter what we encounter in life, God is always on our side, even if we do not realize that God is there or that God hears our prayers.

But there is also something very important we should understand about prayer that we often do not consider. Prayer is not really about us.

Our prayers, whether we feel they are reaching God or not, have nothing to do with who we are, but have everything to do with who God is. In prayer, we are not saying to God that we are worthy of our requests. Rather, we are saying to God that we are helpless without the God who loves us and who has promised us hope and joy.

In this regard, prayer is not about what I want and need for my life; it is about where God is leading me in my life. I may struggle to believe that God hears my prayers or that God will answer my prayers, but the hope that all of us have is that God is with us, loving us, and moving us to places where God desires to use us, even if we do not understand.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Would Jesus Say to Our Leaders?

One of the sad facts about American Christianity is that many Christians are ignorant of the political nature of Jesus’ message. Preferring to see Jesus in only spiritual terms, and his message as only about salvation and heaven, we often miss the significance of Jesus as a political figure. I don’t mean to suggest that we should see Jesus like we see politicians today. Rather, we should gain a better understanding of the historical reality that Jesus preached a political and prophetic message that constantly challenged the political leaders of his day.

In being a prophetic and political voice, Jesus was carrying forth the traditions of Israel’s prophets, who were called by God to confront the leaders of Israel with their injustices. These leaders, who were to be the shepherds and caretakers of God’s people, were charged by God to govern people with justice, to strengthen the weak, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the displaced and homeless. These leaders were charged by God to be generous in their leadership, and they were judged by God when they kept their positions through political compromises with the rich and powerful. When Israel’s leaders failed in their God ordained responsibilities, the prophets served as the voice of God’s judgment.

It is this same prophetic and political message that must continually challenge the politicians of our day. In many respects, our government leaders have failed in their faithful roles as shepherds of the people, for they have failed to feed the sheep, to strengthen the weak, and failed to heal the sick. Like the political leaders judged by Jesus, they have cared for themselves and their political agendas and friends.

At a time when our national leaders seem to be hesitating and playing political games over the debt ceiling, taxes, spending, and the budget we should be asking our leaders some very serious questions about their leadership. Why can’t the richest country in the world provide health care for all? Why do many of our leaders side with big companies instead of with those who need quality and affordable health care? Why do they listen to the lunatic fringe of the right wing misinformation machine, instead of standing firmly on what is right and just for the vulnerable of our nation? Why don’t these leaders work for creative and compassionate solutions to solve this crisis?

Many of our politicians like to talk about moral values. Abortion, gay marriage, and other issues are usually those that are at the forefront of the debate. While these are moral issues, the greatest moral crisis facing our nation is not abortion, and it is certainly not gay marriage. The greatest moral issue that faces us today, and one about which Jesus spoke the most, is poverty. Consider the following statistics related to the issue of poverty.

One in every six children in America lives in poverty; that’s 13 million children. Thirty-six million people live below the poverty line. About 4 million families exist in a chronic state of hunger. These are tragic statistics, but they do not even scratch the surface for they do not reveal the desperate problem of inadequate housing and a substandard education.

The scandal in all of this is that our political leaders are not solving these real problems because they spend their time blaming each other instead of working together to provide real leadership and permanent solutions to the problem of poverty. This is not a political issue, and it is neither a Democratic nor Republican issue. This is a humanitarian issue, and at stake are the lives of the most vulnerable of our society, and the middle-class families tying to make ends meet.

We have the power to change things, if we only will. Like Jesus, we need to have a sincere consciousness about the plight of people in our country, especially the poor. In developing such a consciousness, we must hold our leaders accountable until they make real progress in solving the poverty of this nation, and indeed, our world.

Poverty is not just a political issue. It is not just an economic issue. It is a moral and spiritual issue; the one about which Jesus and the prophets were most concerned. We have a moral responsibility to care about this issue and especially the people caught in the seemingly inescapable web of poverty. To do so is to live the real political message of Jesus.