Monday, December 24, 2012

Believing in God: A Christmas Reflection

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

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

Yet when we consider the concept of faith, the act of believing, our modern minds tend to focus more on an intellectual agreement with some idea or proposition. When we talk about faith, we often speak of faith in terms of our intellectual agreement with something; believing this proposition to be true, or that statement of faith to be true. Indeed, for many Christians, believing in certain theological statements is equivalent to believing in God. For example, many feel that one must believe that the entirety of the Bible is literally true, without any error, or we cannot have faith in God.

But when Jesus announced the coming of God’s rule and called people to believe in the gospel of God, was he calling them to agree intellectually with this? 

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

This is why the act of repentance is tied to the act of belief. Repentance is more than a change of one’s mind. Repentance is a continual change in one’s behavior based on hearing from God. 

So too, believing involves the actions of the whole self being oriented toward God and God’s purposes. If we truly believe God is doing something in our world, then we will demonstrate that belief through our participation in God’s work. If we do not participate in God’s work, then we fail to believe.

As Christians, we often give lip service to our faith. We say we believe certain ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and humanity, and we somehow we convince ourselves that this makes us faithful. But this is nothing more than cheap faith, to borrow slightly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 

As James rightly states, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not produce actions is not faith at all. The kind of belief to which Jesus calls us is a radical belief; a faith through which we are no longer being conformed to a self-centered way of living, but we are being transformed by the gospel of God.

To have a radical faith in God is to abandon all our desires for what God desires in our world. It is a call to hear what God wants from us, a call to repent from our selfish living and our long held, but often misguided, assumptions about what we think about God, and a call to believe in what God is doing now. 

And what God is doing now for our world is captured in the story of Christmas; a story about a deliverer who came to set the captives of oppression free and to bring peace, joy, and hope to all.

A faithful response to the Christmas story, a true act of believing, is not simply hearing the story and wishing these things to be true for the world. To believe the story, to believe in the gospel of God, is to bring to reality the peace, joy and hope God desires for the world through our acts of justice and mercy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Repenting Toward God: An Advent Reflection

In following the Gospel of Mark’s opening, what I have called Mark’s Advent story, I have suggested that the story calls us to wait on God and listen for God; two disciplines we ought to practice during the Season of Advent.

But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after listening for God through the multiple and diverse ways God may speak, we are confronted with the choice of either ignoring or acting. If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God. To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.

Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary. Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus we believe that there is no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin. But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.

Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel are the idea, the command, and the action of repenting. In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning. God’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, is a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God.

Such preparation involves recognizing that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God. This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God and to others in service and love.

Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger, John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.

But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God; the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God. In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance. Jesus declares, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel.” 

Thus, at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching, the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God, and Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near is a call to repent.
But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. From what should we repent and what does it mean to repent? 

Perhaps it is best to take the second question first. 

We can find assistance in answering this question by looking at the Greek word behind this English rendering to garner a definition of the word repent. Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.

We often think of repenting as telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again. Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?

While we should continue to repent of those individual habits that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger. 

Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God, particularly as they relate to our intentions and actions towards others. It is not a magical formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.

And this helps us answer our first question; from what should we repent? 

We are to repent from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and vulnerable.

We are to repent from our neglect to protect the most defenseless of our society, whether a child in poverty, a homeless adult who hungers, a person facing loniness and depression, or a school full of innocent children who are gunned down. 

We are to repent from allowing our politics to become divisive, from allowing our culture to have a love affair with violence, from allowing an ever intensifying disregard for human life, and from allowing bigotry, racism, religious intolerance, sexism, and homophobia to continue to exist.

But more than repenting from these evils and many more, we are also to repent and turn toward the rule of God. In doing so, we embrace a new life of love, justice, compassion, and mercy toward everyone. This is the heart of the gospel and the hope of Advent and Christmas.

For Christians, the Season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people by preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions that neglect the needs of others, disrespect the humanity of others, and wound the heart of God, and by turning toward the rule of God.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Listening for God: An Advent Reflection

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

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

In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the narrator tell us about John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, where throngs of people come to listen to him. 

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

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

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

While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.

Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating the Word of God, he was offering new meaning and understanding; a new way of understanding and hearing God in the here and the now. 

This way of listening embraces the past of God’s revelations, but also looks for what God is saying in the present. Thus, we must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open hearts and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking; even change our way of understanding scripture itself.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Waiting on God: An Advent Reflection

Today marks the beginning of the Christian calendar with the start of the season of Advent.  The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning “coming”, and the season that bears this title consists of the four Sundays before Christmas that look with anticipation to the coming of Christ. While we celebrate this time as a time of looking forward to the celebration of Christ’s birth, the practice of Advent each year is also focused on our faith and hope in what God is preparing for our future: “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

While traditionally, Christians have focused on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love, important themes as they are, I would like to glean another set of ideas from the opening of the first Gospel to be written, the Gospel of Mark. Although Mark does not say anything about the birth of Jesus, unlike Matthew and Luke, this does not mean that Mark is absent of an Advent theme.

Moreover, a careful look at Mark’s prologue produces some very important themes for our renewal during this season of Advent. These themes are: waiting, hearing, repenting, and believing. I’ll address the themes of hearing, repenting and believing in the coming days, and thus I’ll begin this series of reflections with the theme of waiting.

The opening of Mark’s narrative situates the story of Jesus in the context of the past, Israel’s history of exile, and God’s promise of redemption and liberation. Although all the statements that Mark attributes to the prophet Isaiah cannot be found in Isaiah, the intention of the Gospel’s narrator is to pick up God’s promises of the past spoken through Isaiah in order to frame the new work that God was doing in the present as the fulfillment of those promises. In the thought of the Gospel’s author, the theme of a New Exodus, which was prevalent in Isaiah’s prophecies, was now being realized in the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus.

But the fulfillment of this promise was only possible through the faithful waiting of God’s people. This does not mean that the actions of God’s people brought about the fulfillment of God’s promises. God is the only one who acts to accomplish God’s promises. But the waiting of God’s people was an act of faith and hope that held onto the promises of God and looked with anticipation for God to accomplish that which they had not yet experienced, but which God had surely promised.

In our nanosecond oriented world, we find it difficult to wait. We are extremely uncomfortable with delayed satisfaction, and we make every effort to achieve and obtain quick, but often fleeting ways of gratifying our lives. We realize we hunger, but we fail to realize that our deepest hunger cannot be satisfied by those momentary pleasures. Our deepest longings will only be satisfied by the renewal of God, who is continually making things new, but perhaps not at the speed we would desire. And, thus we must wait.

Yet, waiting on God is not like waiting in line at the store or waiting for an appointment. Waiting on God is like a child waiting to open presents on Christmas morning. There is hope and expectation, along with the assurance that though she may not know what is wrapped in the Christmas paper, she does know the one who gives the gift and she knows that the gift is the expression of the giver’s love. We do not wait in fear and anxiety of what might come in the future; we wait with faith and hope in the God who holds the future.

In our waiting, however, we do not enter into state of being and living by which we separate ourselves from the reality of a creation under chaos. Rather, we wait with creation, and we suffer with those who suffer; serving, healing, and praying for God’s final redemption. In doing so, we do not deny the reality of suffering and injustice, but we work as we wait for God’s promised hope. Indeed, we cling to that hope as a means of confronting the suffering and injustice of our world with the realization that they hold no eternal reign over us. And thus, we wait as we are being continually reoriented toward God’s future hope.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Gospel Imperative to Feed the Hungry

The story about Jesus feeding a multitude of people is one of the few stories about Jesus that is found in all four Gospels. This tells us that this story was of great importance for early Christians in describing who Jesus was and what Jesus’ ministry was about. And, while all four tell this story, I am particularly intrigued by John’s rendition in John 6:1-14.

In reading John’s account, one should notice that Jesus goes up on a mountain. This portrays him in Mosaic terms, and because John mentions that the Passover was near, we are to perhaps understand that this feeding story reflects the Exodus story, and specifically the wandering in the wilderness when God provided manna for the people to eat.

But wait, something is different in this story concerning the provisions for nourishment.  In the giving of manna to Israel in the wilderness, it is God who causes the manna to fall from heaven to the people. Manna just falls from heaven. 

But in the story of the feeding of the multitude in John, Jesus asks one of his disciples, Philip, what they were going to do about feeding the people. Yes, John does insert the little comment that Jesus asked Philip this question in order to test him, because, as John tells us, Jesus knew what he was going to do. But why is Jesus testing Philip in this way?  Why does he not just create enough food for the people? Why get the disciples involved in all of this?

What seems most interesting to me is the question Jesus asks Philip: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” It seems like a very leading question to me. Why did Jesus not ask, “Do you think I can miraculously create enough bread to feed these people?”After all, if the people followed him because he had cured many of great illness, would not the disciples, his closest followers, know that he could do most anything? This seems to be a more testing question than asking Philip where to buy food.

Philip’s answer to Jesus’ question is very telling as well: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” In other words, even if they had a half year’s wages, they could only give each person a small amount of food, perhaps only a mouthful.  Philip seems to suggest to Jesus, “Surely this is not your plan.”

Philip’s answer exposes what he is most concerned about—Money. You can almost hear him say, “This will cost too much, Jesus.” “Even if we had this money Jesus, would we want to spend it on feeing this multitude of people.” “These folks are not our problem.”  Or, as he might say in our American context, “These lazy people need to work for their own food.”

Philip is not the only disciple to fail in this story. Andrew, the only other of the Twelve to be mentioned, comes to Jesus with some bread and fish he has received from a young boy. But in doing so, he looks on the small amount of food with doubt, as if it is nowhere near enough to feed the large crowd.

Which brings us to one other character in the story who is not mentioned by name. This character never speaks, but his actions speak loudly. He is the little boy. Even though he appears to be insignificant, this little boy plays a very important and central role in what Jesus does. Unlike the disciples, this boy shares what he has, possibly all he has. He probably knows that it is very little, but he is willing to share what he has.

In this way, the young boy serves as a model of faithfulness. If he and his gift, so insignificant to the followers of Jesus, can have an impact on feeding the large crowd, then no one can excuse themselves from giving and sharing in generosity in an effort to work toward the end of human hunger.

The problem facing Jesus, the disciples, and this crowd was hunger. We still live in a very hungry world. This story is also about real hunger, something millions in our world, yes even in our neighborhoods face each and every day.

But hunger is a symptom of something that is more deeply troubling: Poverty.  When people live in poverty, they cannot provide for themselves or their family members and this manifests itself in different ways, but particularly in the need for food.

Moreover, we know that hunger leads to sickness, which causes health care costs to rise. Hunger contributes to an inability for children to concentrate in school, thus they fail to learn, which leads to underemployment and unemployment. We could trace poverty and hunger to many of the ills facing our society today. But the question for us is the question Jesus posed to Philip, “How do we feed the hungry?”

We can approach feeding the hungry in two equally important ways.  First, on a personal, we can find ways of sharing what we have with others who are in need of food. We can support food banks that provide food for the hungry. We can serve lunches to children each day, especially during the summer months when they do not get meals at school. We can provide fruits and vegetables to homes that cannot afford to purchase healthier foods. We can give money to international food programs such as Bread for the World or Heifer International. There are many more ways that we can help feed the hungry.

Yet, another way to combat hunger and feed the multitudes often escapes us, for we have so reduced Jesus’ message of love and justice to a person level. We need to understand that hunger and poverty are caused by political and economic circumstances. People do not choose to be hungry. For most, and especially women and children, hunger is caused by the system in which we live that often favors the more fortunate while neglecting those who are poor.

Christians, indeed, all caring human beings have a moral imperative to proclaim to our lawmakers that God demands justice for the poor. We must understand our role in changing systems that contribute to the hunger of people and that continue to entrap people in poverty. We must stand against economic policies that cut programs that help the poor, and we must push for programs that lift the poor out of their plight to find not only nourishment, but also human dignity.

It is not enough to give a little money here and there to feed the hungry. Doing this is right and good; but it only treats the symptoms of poverty and not the underlying causes of hunger and poverty.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Jesus and God’s Economy

It is often said that Jesus had more to say about money than any other subject. From his statements about wealth and possessions, to his parables about agriculture and land, to his calling his followers to invest in treasures in heaven, Jesus’ teachings are replete with the theme of wealth and possessions. We might say that Jesus was, to some extent, an economist.

By saying that Jesus was an economist, I don’t mean that Jesus was an economist in the sense that you and I think of an economist. Jesus did not earn a degree in economics. He was not a major investor in the Roman economy. And, he wrote no book on the issue of financial success. But, he had a great deal to say about economics, and specifically how he envisioned God’s economy.

But what do we mean by God’s economy? Our modern word, “economy”, really has more to do with profits and losses and wages and benefits. It is concerned with trade deficits and budget deficits. It is focused on unemployment and welfare, and a host of other issues. All of these are legitimate concerns in a modern day economy like our own, but this is not exactly what is meant when talking about God’s economy.

Before we move to unpack what we might mean by God’s economy, we need to dispel some fallacies that I think are ingrained our cultural subconscious. First, while the idea is popular among religious conservatives, Jesus was not a capitalist, and his teachings should not be interpreted as being specifically supportive of capitalism.

It is hard to believe that Jesus even would have been a capitalist since he sided with the poor over the rich, and he gave up worldly possessions and called others to do the same. So, when some Christians want to argue that the Bible and Jesus support capitalism as God’s ordained way of doing economics, they are sadly mistaken.

Second, one can be a follower of Christ and be a capitalist or a socialist. Following Jesus is not about one’s concept of the best form of modern day economics, despite those same religious conservatives saying the opposite in recent years. We should never equate any political or economic ideology, such as capitalism or socialism, with being Christian or non-Christian.

Again, this is not to say that Jesus was not concerned with economics, for he clearly was. So, in considering what Jesus said and did that defined God’s economy, perhaps the idea we should dispel the most goes back to the word economy, and what exactly this word means. 

The Greek word from which we get our English word economy is oikonomia. The word means house-law, or perhaps better, house rules or management. It would have been used to talk about a family managing their household. But this would apply to more than simply managing the finances of the home.

If we consider, then, that Jesus was concerned with the economy, that is managing the household, we should ask exactly what this means. We could take it as Jesus talking about individual households and families taking care of their own business and managing their own affairs. But this seems a bit limiting, particularly when Jesus does not appear to be concerned with the financial success of individual families.

What if we consider Jesus to be talking about all of creation as God’s household?  This, at least from my reading of scripture, seems to make sense, and I think the story of creation from Genesis captures this idea wonderfully. We are told that the representatives of humanity were to care for the garden in which God had placed them. They were charged with caring for God’s household, and specifically with caring for each other.

And this, it appears, is how Jesus views God’s economy; an economy that is not so much concerned with profits, but with the welfare of all.

Economic systems that are focused on profits are inherently inconsistent in the effects on the lives of people within a society, for they create the haves and the have-nots. But God’s economy, as envisioned by Jesus, confronts the economies of the world with their inherent inconsistencies toward humanity that caused some to be rich and others to be poor, and judges them as unjust.

What is needed to move our economics in line with God’s economy is more fairness and equality.

When Paul was writing to the Corinthians to ask them to share with those in Jerusalem who were experiencing famine, he based that appeal on what Christ had done for them by becoming poor so that they could become rich. Paul was, of course, speaking of a spiritual richness.

But, he also understood that the economy of God was about justice and fairness, and in calling the Corinthians to give up some of their wealth for the benefit of others, Paul said, 

I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, "The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little." (2 Cor. 8:13-15)

Both Jesus and Paul understood that God was concerned with more than the spiritual welfare of people, and Jesus’ message was certainly more about economics than we often admit. But they also understood that God’s economy was about fairness and justice, particularly towards the poor. 

Christians can disagree as to how we create an economy that is more just and fair, but we cannot deny that Jesus was very clear about what constituted God’s vision of a just and fair economy. It was not the greedy accumulation of wealth that left others poor and destitute. It was the viewing of wealth and possessions as that which God graciously gives to some so that they might share with others.

The test of faithfulness to Jesus is always in how we treat the vulnerable of society. Christians who seek to follow Jesus in authentic discipleship should strive for the fulfillment of God’s economy in which the one who has much does not have too much, and the one who has little does not have too little.