Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dreams and Decisions: The Story of Joseph and the God Who Risks

As is well known among even the most casual readers of the Gospels, Matthew’s story about the birth of Jesus differs from Luke’s. While Luke focuses on Mary, the beginning chapters of Matthew’s Gospel focus on Joseph. What might we learn from what Matthew tells us about Joseph?

First, Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man, and he tells us this in the context of Joseph discovering that his betrothed is having a child that is not his. Joseph’s discovery of this leads him to believe that Mary has been unfaithful to him. But, what makes him righteous?

Joseph is righteous because he is obedient to the law, and that law directs him to take one of two actions in regards to Mary. He can either have Mary stoned or he can divorce her. Joseph chooses to divorce Mary.

But notice that he chooses to do so quietly, not wanting to bring shame on Mary. His continual love for her and his just character causes him to decide that a quiet, non-public separation is best. Yet, he is still resolute to dissolve the marital contract.

All of this changes, however, through the visitation of an angel to Joseph in a dream. The dream that comes to Joseph, and the message delivered by the angel, speaks about God’s quickly approaching future. The angel says,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph’s dream forces a decision. Does he continue his plans to divorce Mary in secret, or does he believe that God is doing something new, now that he has heard this unbelievable story from the angel? And for that matter, why must Joseph take Mary as his wife? The reason this plot line is important may be found in the way the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David.”

This title eventually becomes an important title for Jesus, but it becomes very important here in relation to Joseph and his role as Mary’s husband and Jesus’ future proxy father. To understand this, we need to back up to the opening of Matthew’s Gospel where the author begins with the genealogy of Jesus.

What is important in the genealogy for what the angel tells Joseph is the emphasis on David within the lineage of Jesus. Matthew is very concerned to narrate his story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, and particularly as it relates to the prophecies that the messiah will be in the line of David. But how is this possible if Joseph is not the father of Jesus, which, according to Matthew and Joseph, he is not?

It is possible because Joseph does take Mary as his wife and when she does give birth, Joseph names the baby just as the angel instructed him to do. When Joseph names Jesus, he takes on the role of father and he becomes the one who cares for and protects Mary and the child.

Think about this for a moment. If Jesus is the messiah, the son of David, then it is imperative that Joseph take on the role of father of Jesus. If he does not, then Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus crumbles and Matthew’s whole narrative about Jesus falls apart. And if Joseph does not take Mary as his wife, this places God’s plan at risk and the promises of the past may not be fulfilled.

All that Matthew has said, all that the gospel promises, hinges not just on the providence of God, but on the decision of Joseph in response to that strange dream.

This story involving Joseph, a mere and unknown mortal, critiques our traditional and accepted understandings of God, causing us to consider God’s vulnerability. To me, this narrative tells of a God who risks.

We could even look at this whole story of Joseph and Mary and ask, “Why these two?” Why this unknown couple, about whom we still no very little, except that they were part of the lower class of Israel?

I’m not sure I have good answers to these questions, but perhaps the best answer is found in what the angel tells Joseph about the coming child.
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Perhaps in making this statement about the name Emmanuel, the angel is saying to Joseph, and to all of us who hear this story, that God does not simply desire to intervene in our world like a master, but that God desires to interact with us in loving relationship.

Moreover, maybe God so desires to be with us that in choosing to come as one of us, God took on the most vulnerable existence. In being Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus would get his start in a pregnancy that carried great social stigma, in a home of an impoverished couple, and in the frailty of the first century Roman world. Not the start that any of us would want for any of our children, but God chooses this path of risk and vulnerability, and God chooses and takes a chance with this little known man named Joseph.

That should make us all pause and reflect on whether or not we are open to the improbable that God wants to do through us.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Incarnation Redefines Human Existence

The season of Advent is almost over, and the anticipated arrival of Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, is coming. For centuries, Christians have celebrated this blessed event as the time in which God chose to be with humanity; “Emmanuel, God with us.” Yet, for centuries Christians have continually reflected on this event, returning to that story to rediscover what it means to say that God took on human existence.

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.

There are obstacles to our accepting Jesus in his humanity, and I think two are significant. 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 solving this, I think, 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, our bodies are good. This was the problem with many Christians 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 became not only 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.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mary's Song: The First War on Christmas

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.

Yet, while Mary remains somewhat of 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.

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.

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?

In our greed and consumption driven cultural celebration of Christmas, Mary's song stands as the first "War of Christmas"; one that challenges our American values and calls us to 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.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Faith in the Face of Fear

Pundits and politicians on the far right continue to use the propaganda of fear to capture the imagination of their audiences and to fuel irrational political agendas. The latest round of fear mongering concerns the resettlement of refugees fleeing Syria.

I am not going to claim that there are easy answers to this human crisis. There are not. Moreover, I am not going to suggest that we simply open the borders and let anyone into the U.S. We need secure boards.

But, from what I understand, the U.S. has a strict vetting process for those who seek asylum. Indeed, as a study by the Cato Institute has stated, “The security threat posed by refugees in the United States is insignificant.” The piece goes on to say, “The current refugee vetting system is multilayered, dynamic, and extremely effective.”   

Any action taken on the part of these refugees should take a balanced approach of securing the borders but also acting compassionately toward those who are running for their lives in hopes of finding safety, as Zach Dawes argues in a recent article at EthicsDaily.com.

Yet, as history has shown us, fear often leads to extremist reactions such as exclusion, isolationism, xenophobia, and hate-filled violence. Moreover, fear suppresses our desire to live boldly as messengers of the gospel of peace.

One of the more interesting biblical stories detailing the contrast between faith and fear appears in Mark 4:35-41, where we find Jesus and his disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat. In the midst of their nautical journey, a raging storm quickly arises and threatens their lives. While the story shows Jesus as a miracle worker who has power over creation, the impact of the story on its readers speaks directly to the empowering strength of faith to overcome the crippling force of fear in the face of evil.

A deeper understanding of the force of the story rests on the ancient belief that the sea was the place of chaos that threatens God’s good creation. Simply put, people of the ancient world held the view that the sea was under the power of evil and the unpredictable storms on the sea were a challenge to the creation and a threat of the return of chaos. 

In the context of the early Christian movement in the Roman Empire, the followers of the crucified Jesus may have identified this story as a narrative about their own persecutions at the hands of an oppressive regime. Feeling lost in a sea of violence and oppression, and longing for Christ’s victorious return, these early believers may have felt that God had left them, that Jesus was asleep.

The crux of the story hinges on the juxtaposition between the fear-filled disciples and Jesus, who calmly sleeps as the storm rages. In the disciples we witness a dramatic picture of human fear in the face of evil’s most powerful force, death. In Jesus, however, we discover a peaceful composure and the assurance of God’s presence, even as evil seems to be winning. 

The disciples' fear is brought out most clearly in the only two sentences spoken by the disciples in this story. 

Faced with fear of death, the disciples, seeing that Jesus is asleep, call out, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?” Their question exposes the volatile situation of the disciples, and the shock, even the distress they feel because Jesus is sleeping during the onslaught of evil’s power.  They are overcome with the enormous propagation of fear; a fear that blinds them to the quiet presence of divine power that is with them in the midst of the storm.

In response to this fear, Jesus asks two extremely profound questions: "Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?"  Through these questions, Jesus expresses disappointment and anger at the fear his disciples have, and he questions whether they have faith at all.

Yet, for Mark’s audience, Jesus’ query switches the natural human reaction to evil from fear to the divinely empowered response of faith. Jesus’ questions assume that his followers should have responded to the life-threatening storm with the faith that he himself had; a faith that gives abiding and confident assurance.   

But where does Jesus find such faith in the face of fear?   

The answer can be found in another dramatic scene from Mark. We are very familiar with the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we see Jesus at one of his most human moments, a moment of vulnerability, despair, and fear. The intensity of the scene cannot be overlooked, as the hot breath of fear breathes down Jesus’ neck as he comes closer to facing evil’s worse action, death. 

Yet, Jesus does not let the manipulative power of fear overtake him, and he turns to the God in whom he places his faith. This faith leads Jesus to reject the force of fear, to reject the violence that fear produces, and to embrace the calling of God to go to the cross. Jesus’ faith overcomes his fear.

 Again, in the face of the continuing threats from ISIS/ISIL/Daesh I am not advocating open borders and no vetting of refugees. We have laws and a process that can work to keep our nation safe.

Yet, as the richest and most powerful nation in the world we cannot ignore this human suffering. We are a country that values freedom and human rights. Our county is bigger when we live up to these values. And, for Christians, our faith should be bigger than our fears. We cannot succumb to fear that denies our faith. 

Fear is a powerful force. But if allowed to have control, fear draws us from God and God’s call for us to live peacefully and courageously in the world. Fear that controls us will only lead us to irrational conclusions and intolerant, and even violent, responses. Faith, however, is the divinely given power that combats and defeats our fears. Faith leads to the hope that we can love in the face of fear.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Necessity of a Critical and Relevant Faith

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at http://direct.energion.co/reframing-a-relevant-faith or through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Reframing-Relevant-Faith-Drew-Smith/dp/1631991213/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418159944&sr=1-1&keywords=reframing+a+relevant+faith. An e-version is also available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=reframing%20a%20relevant%20faith%20kindle.

If a relevant and progressive Christianity is to survive and bear witness of God’s love to the world, the adherents to such a faith, those who seek to follow Jesus, must embrace a critical approach to the Christian faith.  Critically thinking about the faith is not equivalent to criticizing the faith, as some may think, although that may be part of critical thinking.  Rather, thinking critically about the faith is to continue to ask questions, to inquire about the history of the faith, its present relevancy, and its future hopes.  It is also to admit its flaws and weaknesses with honesty and transparency.
For this to happen with any degree of success, any question about the Bible, theology, and the practice of faith must be taken as a valid question.   In dealing with the mysteries of God, we should never be completely satisfied with the idea that if the Bible says it, then that settles it. Nor should any of us be entrenched in our own interpretations of scripture.  We should always be open to new ways of thinking about the Bible and theology, for to do so leads us toward the truth and the realization that, in the words of Jesus, the truth will set us free. 
I have no doubt that many readers of this book will quickly identify with what I have to say. At the same time, I have no doubt that just as many others will find what I have written to be difficult to accept, and they may even reject these ideas outright. I am not so bold as to think I have figured it all out. However, I would like to offer my own story that has led me to many of the ideas I am arguing in this book.
Readers of this book will find out rather quickly that I am a person who seeks always to ask serious questions about faith.  I don’t ask these questions to be provocative, and I am not simply playing the “Devil’s Advocate”.  I am also not seeking to create a straw man that I can easily attack.  I am asking such questions with a great deal of honesty about my own interpretation of the Christian faith that has evolved over many years.  There are specific reasons why I asked such critical questions, and why I encourage others to ask challenging questions.
One reason for my determination to raise critical questions about faith, and why I encourage others to do so, is that I grew up in a fundamentalist tradition in which queries about the Bible and faith were not appreciated.  This was particularly true when one tried to ask questions about the inconsistencies found in the Bible, or when one tried desperately to harmonize a belief in a good God with the reality of suffering.  As a teenager, I was told that such questions are not important, and even heretical to ask; only knowing Jesus and believing in him were necessary.  I was satisfied with this answer until a later time when I began to discover the intellectual obstacles one encounters when approaching the Bible for definitive answers.  It was then that I returned to ask those serious questions, which opened more questions, and which eventually led to evolutionary, and indeed revolutionary changes in the way I view the Bible and the Christian faith. I can say with all honesty that this shift in my thinking did not come easy and it took time. In fact, I fought this for some time until I realized that venturing into unchartered waters, at least uncharted for me, led me to a deeper and more satisfying faith.
A second motive for my critical look at the Bible and Christian faith is that I have perceived an insufficient education in our faith and in the Bible on which our faith is based, particularly in churches.  By this I don’t mean that churches are doing a poor job at doing Christian education.  Many churches are doing a fantastic job at providing training in the faith to their members.  But there may be a bit of shallowness to the education we provide, in the sense that we are not always struggling with tough questions. There is no doubt that asking tough questions may lead us down paths that we dare not want to travel, but such questioning may be necessary if we are to make our faith our own.
This deficiency in the kind of Christian education that promotes critical thinking has led not only to biblical illiteracy, but more tragically, to ignorance when it comes to biblical interpretation and theological thinking.  Many Bible study groups do not seriously consider the complexities inherent in reading ancient texts.  Rather they focus only on what these texts say to us as individuals, as if the books of the Bible were written with our needs in mind.  Furthermore, churches are not providing tools to help folks think theologically.  Instead, theology becomes a separate box of propositions we always believe, without critically assessing their value for our context.    
Of course, much of the fault lies with those who print such materials for church groups.  Some materials produced for the purpose of Christian education are often so insipid and limitedly focused that they only serve to heighten our emotional experiences without moving us into a deeper and more thoughtful understanding of God and humanity. While finding personal meaning from the Bible and from our faith is vitally important for Christians, it is secondary to and flows from delving deeply into the text of the Bible to discover something outside ourselves and our own narcissistic needs.  The popular idea that God wrote the Bible for me needs to be stamped out.
Failure to do so will only lead us to assume what the Bible says, or will cause us to make the Bible say what we want it to say without giving careful thought and attention to the text itself.  Moreover, such Bible readings will limit our understanding of our faith to simply a personal spiritual experience.