Follow by Email

Monday, August 25, 2014

Questions versus Answers (What Makes for Healthy Religious Faith?)

In the movie, Bridge to Terabithia (based on the book by Katherine Paterson), ten-year-old Jess Aarons has his sense of what is just, fair, and real turned upside down by a free-spirited ten-year-old girl named Leslie Burke. An old dilapidated tree house in the woods adjoining their houses serves as home base into the enchanted kingdom of Terabithia.  

One Friday they are rained out and cannot enter their imaginative world. Jess complains about Saturday’s chores and church on Sunday. Leslie asks Jess if she can come to church with him. Jess feels certain Leslie will hate church, but he takes her along anyway.

On the ride home in the back of the truck Leslie, who had never been to church before, says, “That whole Jesus thing is really interesting isn’t it? . . . It’s really kind of a beautiful story.” May Belle, Jess’ younger sister, interjects, “It ain’t beautiful. It’s scary! Nailing holes right through somebody’s hand.”

Jess retorts, ‘May Belle’s right. It’s because we're all vile sinners that God made Jesus die.” Leslie questions that part of the story, “You really think that’s true?” “It’s in the Bible,” Jess replies. Leslie, in a puzzled and questioning tone says, “You have to believe it, but you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful.” May Belle jumps in, “You gotta believe the Bible, Leslie.” “Why?” asks Leslie. “Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God’ll damn you to hell when you die.”

Leslie is shocked by such a dreadful image of God. She asks May Belle for her source, but May Belle can’t come up with chapter and verse. May Belle turns to Jess, who can’t quote the Scripture either, but knows that it is somewhere in the Bible. “Well,” Leslie comments, “I don’t think so. I seriously do not think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this” (Leslie raises her arms to include the sky, trees, and the whole creation).

This creative little girl calls into question Jess and May Belle’s exclusive and mean-spirited version of the Christian story that paints God in not so pretty colors. Leslie saw “the whole Jesus thing” with a different set of eyes than that of Jess and May Belle. 

In the above scene, I see Leslie functioning as a personification of the kind of religious faith that is more about asking the right questions than finding the right answers. Right answers are certainly important in mathematics, medicine, engineering, and other similar endeavors, but not so much in religion. A dynamic, transformative relationship with God raises far more questions than answers. And far too often, for those whose concern is with right answers, a bad answer will generally take precedence over no answer.

Popular author and minister Philip Gulley says that when he was nineteen, he went into a Bible book store and bought a book titled, “God’s Answer for Everything.” The book worked well for about a week, then a friend he worked with was killed in a terrible accident. The book’s explanation of heaven didn’t include his friend. Nor did the minister who preached his friend’s funeral, but the minister did say that Gulley could go to heaven if he believed and did what he told him to believe and do. Gulley says, “That was my first inkling that religion disliked questions so much, it would prefer bad answers over no answers.”

Healthy religion welcomes the questions and is content to live with the questions. If healthy religion is sitting on a park bench, and a lively question walks up and sits down, healthy religion is content to let that question sit there and talk all it wants. Healthy religion does not try to silence the question or send the question off to hook up with the first good-looking answer that walks by (thanks to Gulley for this analogy).

In fact, healthy religion enjoys having the question around, because it stimulates thought, evokes constructive spiritual experiences, and moves those who entertain it into a wider and deeper faith. Good questions expand our vision and our understanding of what is true and real.

In the movie, The Truman Show, Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carrey) lives in an artificially contrived world. The entire town is dedicated to a continually running TV show about Truman’s life, and everyone except Truman knows this. But then Truman  begins to intuit that there must be “more” and tries to break free from his small world. The powers that be do their best to keep him confined, closed in, locked down, for the pleasure of their viewing audience and all the amenities that affords the people in power. Eventually, however, Truman faces his fears, pushes the limits, and escapes into the larger world of reality to the demise of the Truman show.

Answer-based faith tries to keep us enclosed in its little world much the way the dominant powers sought to contain Truman; it’s about control, certainty, and predictability. Healthy religious faith opens us to mystery and inspires us to push against the limits of our particular faith tradition in order to explore the largeness and vastness that is the Divine.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to distinguish between moralism and mysticism. Moralism is about saying pledges, earning badges, enforcing purity laws, believing dogmatic certainties, and running endlessly on a treadmill of meritocracy that distributes rewards and punishments based on one’s performance. Mysticism (the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality) is about discovering who you already are—a beloved daughter and son of God, and falling in love with a Lover whose grace is inexhaustible and whose love knows no bounds. The honest pursuit of truth rooted in wise questions (not right answers) almost always leads to mysticism.

A focus on correct information and right answers fosters pride and exclusiveness, claiming God’s blessing for one’s own group or community. Whereas an emphasis on good questions tends to nurture a larger sense of belonging that inevitably ignites and fans a greater humility, inclusivity, and compassion.

What do you think God prefers? Right answers, which quite naturally lead to dogmatism, moralism, exceptionalism, and elitism. Or wise questions, which evoke wonder, mystery, compassion, and a wider belonging and a deeper connection to the Really Real.  

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What Jesus Learned from a Courageous Woman (and what we can learn too!)

One of the more fascinating stories in the Gospels that many Christians conveniently ignore is Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 19:21-28 (par. Mark 7:24-30). Here is how it reads in the NRSV:

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

Generally, in story after story in the Gospels, Jesus confronts the status quo, speaks truth to power, challenges the religious gatekeepers, and in the words of Flannery O’Connor’s philosophizing serial killer (the Misfit) “throws everything off balance.” But in this particular story, Jesus is the one who seems to be thrown off balance.

The wit, wisdom, courage, and persistence of this Canaanite woman, a non-Jew whom Matthew identifies with Israel’s ancient enemy, appear to get the best of Jesus. That is, she seems to awaken something in Jesus that had been neglected or he hadn’t seen because of the energy focused on his mission to Israel.

So what’s going on? I think we are given a glimpse into an encounter that helped to enlarge Jesus’ vision and to unleash in him a greater compassion. Certainly by the time we get to the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ mission extends to all nations (Matt. 28:18-20). But in Matthew 10 when he sends out the twelve on an itinerate mission he tells them,

“Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Beginning with the story of the magi in Matthew 2:1-12 there are hints of a larger mission beyond Israel. We see this also in the healing of the Centurion's servant in 8:5-13 and the Gadarene demoniacs in 8:28-32, but clearly Jesus is focused on Israel. Why is that? Matthew doesn’t tell us, but I have a theory.  Perhaps Matthew’s Jesus expected Israel, God’s covenant people, to be the people to introduce God’s benevolent and gracious reign to the Gentiles. (All who are chosen by God are chosen to communicate that chosenness to everyone else.)

Apparently, Jesus was so focused on his task of preparing the covenant people for their mission to the larger world he considered the woman’s request an interruption, an intrusion. He seems to have lost sight, at least temporarily, of the people who constituted the larger world then and there. This woman draws Jesus back into the present moment. Sometimes our future plans and preparations can prevent us from seeing what God is doing here and now. God is always in the now.

There are some interpreters who attempt to soften the harshness of Jesus’ initial response by arguing that Jesus was testing her faith. Maybe he was, but that still does not justify his insensitive remarks: “It is not fair to take the children’s food (Israel’s food) and throw it to the dogs (a common racial slur for Gentiles).” The woman doesn’t question the priority Jesus gives to his mission to Israel (she even addresses Jesus using a Jewish Messianic title, “Lord, Son of David,”—post Easter?), what she questions is Jesus’ neglect of those outside Israel at the present time and invites Jesus to see this interruption as an opportunity for greater empathy and compassion.

This Gospel story invites us to question what we have been taught as God’s plan or will within our particular faith group or tradition. No one religious tradition gets it all right. I believe it is important to have a faith tradition and I recommend diving deep into that tradition, but it is also important to know that all particular faith traditions are limited and flawed. So with wit,  wisdom, and courage we should constantly be questioning the God who is always so much more than our particular version of God.

Jesus, after this encounter, was still focused on his work within Judaism as a teacher/sage, reformer, prophet, and Messianic mediator of God’s kingdom, but I cannot help but think this experience opened him to a wider understanding, outlook, and awareness of God’s presence in the other. (It’s interesting that Jesus announces in response to the woman’s wit and persistence, “Woman, great is your faith,” in contrast to the common way he describes the faith of his own disciples on several occasions, “You, of little faith.”)

If the trajectory of Jesus’ life is our guide for discerning God’s will, then we need to be open to what encounters with other faith traditions and spiritual seekers can teach us. If we are receptive to the Spirit through such encounters they will no doubt compel us to be more inclusive—more considerate, welcoming, and compassionate toward others who hold to different traditions and engage in different practices.

If Jesus was willing to confront the limitations of his own faith tradition and be moved by a larger vision, then we, too, need to be open to ever new encounters with persons of other faith traditions (or no tradition) who may challenge us to expand our vision, participate in a larger story, see God in the other, grow in grace, and be motivated by a greater love.




Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Leap of Faith (Matthew 14:22-33)

I know what it is like to be afraid on the water. I was nine or ten years old and my dad took me with him on a fishing trip with a work buddy. At the time we had a small boat with a 50 horse power motor. We were at Lake Cumberland catching crappie. It had been a good evening. We were in a school of crappie when dark clouds began to gather. Of course, we didn’t want to leave and stayed on the lake too long. The storm came on us quick and we were taking in some water trying to get back across the lake. Then the motor died.

I had never seen my father afraid. The look of fear on his face terrified me. I can still remember those feelings of fright. Fortunately, they were able to get it started back without too much delay. But I will never forget the fear I felt at that moment even though it was so very long ago. 

The disciples are caught in a storm. The waves and wind are against them, beating up against their small vessel. And then they see something or someone coming towards them. The text says they were terrified.

This is not a story about avoiding storms or the fear such storms produce. Fear is, first of all, a simple reaction to threat or danger. It has its place in helping to keep our children safe. Most children that is. It never seemed to be much a deterrent for Jordan.

I remember three times he went tumbling down our basement stairs. One time it was on a three wheeler. When he was real small he learned how to stand on his tip toes and slap the screen door handle to get outside. One afternoon, when I was supposed to be in charge, Julie was watching TV when it malfunctioned. In the brief time it took for me to see to the problem, Jordan had disappeared without my realizing it. Then there was a knock at the door. A middle aged man, with no shirt and a long beard had my son in his arms. He said, “This your kid. I came around the corner and he was in the middle of the road in front of your house.” I still remember the feelings I had that afternoon as vividly as I remember the fear in the boat on Lake Cumberland as a child. It was fear that kept me from sharing that story with my wife for a time. 

Some fear is necessary, but fear can also be debilitating and oppressive, when one lives in fear constantly. Many of the kids crossing our border were sent here by parents who lived in daily fear for their children’s lives. It was their fear of what a lifetime of violence and poverty would do to them that compelled them to take such a risk. 

This story is not about avoiding storms or the fear they evoke, but learning how to face them with faith. Someone might point out that Jesus did indeed still the storm, and might draw the conclusion that if we just had enough faith Jesus would still our storms too. That, I think, is a misreading of the story. 

Stories have meaning on many different levels. At one time scholars thought that parables were intended to convey a single meaning, though today that theory has been largely debunked and most interpreters would argue that parables convey multiple meanings and that is true of most stories in the Gospels.

On one level, this story is a witness to what Matthew’s church had come to believe about Jesus. In the Old Testament, only God is attributed with the power to still storms. For example, the Psalmist cries out to God, “You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” And when Jesus speaks to the disciples, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” he is echoing the name of God by which God identified God’s self to Moses out of the fire when God said, “Tell them ‘I am’ has sent you.” Matthew’s church had come to see Jesus as the conduit of divine power and authority. At the end of the story Matthew (in contrast to Mark) says, “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’” They worshiped Jesus as God’s agent of redemption. While Matthew’s church would have never said, “Jesus is God,” they believed Jesus had divine status and function. This story reflects the evolving faith of the early Christians.

So this is not a story about having enough faith to still the storm or be delivered from the storm. Nor is it about avoiding storms. Some people want to make God responsible for the storms.

Author Philip Yancey recalls receiving a phone call from a television producer just after Prince Diana had been killed in an automobile crash. He wanted Yancey to appear on his show and explain how God could possibly allow such a terrible accident to happen. Without much thought Yancey retorted, “Could it have had something to do with a drunk driver going ninety miles an hour in a narrow tunnel? How exactly, was God involved?” God does not micromanage the planet or our lives.

There are some experiences of suffering that are simply tragic; it’s hard to find any redemptive value at all in some oppressive forms of suffering. Some suffering is simply oppressive. On the other hand, we’re not likely to grow without battling some storms. Talk to any recovering addict who has been in a Twelve-step program any length of time and he or she can talk about “necessary suffering.” They will tell you that it took what it took, that coming to the end of themselves was necessary to begin their recovery toward healing and change.  

Paul, as well as other New Testament writers speak to the issue of necessary suffering. Paul tells the church at Rome, “we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” James, in his little epistle says, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

You may have heard the saying before, “Religion is lived by people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is lived by people who have been through hell and come out enlightened.” God’s deliverance is rarely a deliverance from; generally it is a deliverance through. I suspect that it takes living through some hellish encounters in order to face the ways we need to change and grow. Some suffering is necessary to prompt us to face our false attachments and our negative patterns which we tend to deny, ignore, excuse, rationalize, and minimize.

It generally takes some form of suffering to compel us to confront our “spiritual comfort zones” which keep us spiritually stagnant. It may be that we are trapped in a particular way of thinking about God that undermines our capacity to actually trust God or it could be that fear keeps us from getting involved in some area of service or social justice that could expand our faith and spiritual development.

What is required of us at such times is a leap of faith. Peter takes a leap of faith in our story doesn’t he? There is a wonderful scene at the climax of the movie “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” where Indiana has to pass three supreme tests to reach the Holy Grail and save his father from dying. The first test is “The Breath of God” where he walks down a corridor and must bow at precisely the right moment to keep form having his head cut off. The second test is “The Word of God” where he has to walk on the right stones – the ones that spell God’s name in Latin – to keep from falling through the floor to his death.

The third test is “The Path of God,” where Indiana comes to a large chasm – about a hundred feet across and a thousand feet down. On the other side is the door to the Holy Grail. The instructions say, “Only in the leap from the lion’s head, will he prove his worth.” Indiana says to himself, “It’s impossible, nobody can jump this.” Then he realizes that this test requires a leap of faith. His father says, “You must believe, boy. You must believe.” Even though every nerve in his body screams don’t do it, he walks to the cliff’s edge, lifts his foot, and then steps out into thin air. Instead of falling to his doom like Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons, his foot hits solid ground. He lands on a walkway, this hidden, disguised, solid stone walkway that supports him and takes him across.

God is that hidden, disguised, invisible but solid Power and Love that sustains us and supports us, wherever we find ourselves, even when (or especially when) we are tossed about in a chaotic sea of confusion, pain, and uncertainty. Someone said, “God comes disguised as our life.”

But taking that leap of faith is not easy. When we take that step we usually have to leave a familiar place, a safe place. I think of the guy who was hiking across some cliffs, when he lost his balance and slid over the side of a drop off several hundred feet down. As he falls he manages to latch hold of a branch growing out of the cliff’s side. In his desperation he cries out for help. "Is anyone up there?" A voice responds, "I'm here."  "Who are you?" "I am God." "God will you save me?" "Yes, I will save you if you will do what I say. Now, let go of the branch." "What did you say, God?" "Let go of the branch." Then, after a long pause, the man cries out once more, “Is there anyone else up there?" 

Letting go is hard for us, but our spiritual growth requires it. Where do we need to take a leap of faith today? Maybe we need the courage to face someone with the truth, to speak the truth in love and we know it will not be easy and probably will not be received well, and may create conflict. Perhaps it means facing some negative pattern or addiction that is not only hurting ourselves but also hurting the people we care most about. Maybe we need to stop being an enabler of negativity and hurtful attitudes and actions within the group we are part of, which may turn the group against us and leave us on the outside. Or maybe it’s an act of compassion or kindness that will require more energy and time and resources than we think we have. What leap of faith do you, do I need to take today?

Peter begins with great courage, but soon begins to sink. Thank goodness! The sinking is a reminder that we all sink. And just because we sink, is no reason for not getting out of the boat. Peter represents all disciples of Jesus; he represents everyone of us.

From a literary perspective, this story of Peter is a foreshadowing of how Peter figures in the story to come. In chapter 16 Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ and Jesus says, “Blessed are you, son of Jonah. Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven.” But then, when Jesus informs them of his impending death Peter tries to dissuade him from the path of the cross. Jesus says to him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He is walking on water one minute, and sinking the next. He confesses Jesus to be the Son of God, and then denies him three times.

Once Peter takes the leap of faith, he becomes overwhelmed by the presence of the waves. Little faith, by the way, is what we all have, this mixture of courage and anxiety. The word that is translated “doubt” in the story connotes vacillation, not skepticism. We all vacillate between trust and the lack of trust, between hearing the word of the Lord and looking at the terror of the storm. Faith is a struggle and little faith is all we have really and that’s okay. That’s quite all right. That’s enough.

I suspect that Matthew’s church wanted some assurance that the Jesus they proclaimed as Lord and who was the center of all these stories was with them amidst the turbulence and chaos of their lives. We want that too, don’t we? We want to know that the God who acted in Jesus is with us in the midst of the chaotic turbulence of our lives.

Some scholars think that this story was originally a resurrection story, which in the course of the oral tradition, the telling and retelling of the story, it got worked back into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry. When Jesus comes to them on the water their initial reaction reflects their lack of recognition (a characteristic of the appearance stories), “It is a ghost,” they exclaim.  

Maybe what we first call "a ghost" is actually the Holy Ghost. I have no doubt that God speaks to us in a rich variety of ways and forms and means, in ways that are not so obvious or overt or easily recognizable.

But I do believe that once we learn to be aware of the divine presence within us, in our true self, we can learn to see that presence everywhere. We can discover that presence in the laughter of a little child, in the wisdom of an elder, in the touch of a lover’s hand, in the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, even in the midst of the raging sea that threatens to capsize our small boat.

Whatever the chaos of the circumstances we face in life as individuals and as a community, however forceful the wind and waves threatening our very existence, we must not let that keep us from taking a leap of faith.

The eating of the bread and drinking of the cup is not only a sacred act that recalls the self-giving of Jesus unto death, it is also a celebration of his living presence in us and with us and for us, no matter how chaotic the circumstances of our lives.


Gracious God, give us the courage to take the leap of faith, to face the storms of life with the confidence of your abiding presence, and to realize that whenever we start to sink, that whenever we feel overwhelmed by it all, you have our hand and you call our names. Amen.

Monday, August 4, 2014

What Does Jesus Say about Sexual Relations?

What would a modern day Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like? Did Jesus teach a sexual ethic? 

I believe he did, though not explicitly. Biblical fundamentalists who like to claim that the Bible’s teaching is clear about any number of complex issues will find little in the Gospels to support a claim that Jesus is clear on all matters sexual in nature. Though Jesus does indeed have something to say.

What Jesus does say, however, must be viewed within the broader perspective of that which constituted the critical core of all his teaching.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment in the law, he responded,

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”(Matt. 22:37-40).

And lest we look for some wiggle room in the way we define “neighbor” Jesus closed that door by teaching that the neighbor even includes the “enemy” who wants to do us harm (Matt. 5:43-48).

The teaching above emphasizes that the love ethic embodied and taught by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that charts the course of God’s will for human beings. Everything Jesus did and said ultimately related to this essential demand: love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. So any Jesus inspired sexual ethic should be filtered through this teaching.

There are two specific passages in the Gospels related to sexual matters where this love ethic applies. One passage is Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:1-12 (par. Mark 10:1-12).

While Jesus argued against divorce, it was certainly not because Jesus considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. On the subject of divorce I am convinced that why Jesus says what he says is much more important than what Jesus actually says. Let me explain.

In the patriarchal culture of Jesus’ day only men had the legal right to divorce and they could basically divorce their wives for any reason whatsoever. While some Jewish interpreters of Scripture were strict in their application of the law allowing for divorce only on the grounds of unfaithfulness, many others were very loose in the way they applied it. Legally, divorce was permitted on any grounds

Deuteronomy 24:1 (“Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house. . .”) was commonly understood by many to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim.  

This was disastrous for women. Divorced women in Jesus’ day were considered damaged goods and had few options. Some without family to take them in were forced into lives of prostitution simply to survive.

When Jesus was asked if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause, he objected appealing to Genesis 2:24,

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

(Sometimes opponents of same-sex marriage argue that Jesus was here affirming heterosexual marriage. Even if it was Jesus’ primary intent to affirm heterosexual marriage that would not automatically mean that Jesus would be opposed to same-sex marriage, especially if Jesus knew what we know about sexual orientation, which, of course, he didn’t. Jesus’ appeal to the Genesis text was clearly for the purpose of arguing against divorce. The question of same-sex marriage would not even have occurred in that cultural context.) 

The men who favored a less restrictive view of divorce raised an objection:

“Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?”

In response Jesus said,

“It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

The Bible, of course, doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for this concession because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation — critical reading that is — of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).

It should be obvious, in light of Jesus’ love ethic, what he was doing. Jesus was interpreting Scripture with a bias toward love — toward the good and well-being of those who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing women who did not have that option some leverage. He was trying to level the playing field.

Divorce was simply tragic for women in that culture, so Jesus applied the love ethic to his argument from Scripture. Why? I believe it was because what Jesus cared most about was trying to make the situation livable for women trapped in a patriarchal system that often treated them as commodities to be disposed of at will by men who considered themselves superior.

Jesus did not argue against divorce because he was inflexibly committed to some divine law or ideal plan that was encapsulated in Genesis 2:24 (as some opponents of same-sex marriage would want us to believe), but rather he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them.

(By the way, isn’t it interesting how opponents of same-sex marriage want to quote Jesus’ appeal to Genesis 2:24 to argue that Jesus only affirmed heterosexual marriage while they completely ignore what Jesus said about divorce? If they exclude same-sex committed persons from their churches on the basis of a handful of biblical passages — which they incorrectly apply literally — one would think they would also take Jesus literally and exclude divorced persons from their churches too. They don’t, of course, which is a prime example of the selective reading and interpreting of biblical texts fundamentalists engage in. They like to say, “The Bible says . . .” but they conveniently ignore all the biblical passages that contradict their dogmatic assumptions and beliefs.)  

The second Gospel passage that has a direct bearing on understanding Jesus’ sexual ethic is Matthew 5:27-28,

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

What did Jesus mean by looking at a woman lustfully? Was Jesus condemning sexual desire? Of course not. The Greek text behind the translation suggests that the looking is for the purpose of using the woman sexually. What Jesus was denouncing was sexual desire that objectified a woman as a man’s personal object for sexual gratification. 

Once again, as in the passage on divorce, Jesus spoke directly to men, because it was patriarchal men who sexually exploited women. And once again, Jesus does what he can to safeguard women against sexual oppression and exploitation.

What follows next in the biblical passage is a warning by Jesus to the men who sexually exploited women that is the most vivid, intense, and severe of any warning Jesus ever uttered,

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut if off and throw it away; it is better for you lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30).

Jesus, of course, was speaking in hyperbole (it would be absurd to interpret such a text literally), but he fully intended on shocking his hearers. Jesus was willing to utilize whatever nonviolent means available to him to liberate the oppressed. Jesus wanted to derail sexual exploitation at its origin — in the heart.

Jesus made this point in Mark 7 when he traced sexual exploitation along with a host of other harmful and evil attitudes and behaviors to their source,  

“For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (7:21-23).”

The word above translated “fornication” is a very general term that is often simply translated “sexual immorality.” If we interpret this in light of Jesus’ love ethic, then we can most assuredly say that immoral sex is sex that objectifies and exploits the other, sex that is non-mutual, manipulative, and self-absorbed.

Authentic transformation involves a transformation of the heart. This is why the prophets envisioned the future day of the world’s redemption as a time when the will of God would be written on the minds and hearts of God’s children. When the royal law of love fills hearts and minds, then holiness codes and legal stipulations become obsolete.  

If we applied Jesus’ love ethic to the sexual mores of our culture what would our sexual mores, values, and commitments look like?

Jesus says absolutely nothing about same-sex relations and the only reason he quotes Genesis 2:24 (as we argued above) is in order to draw the conclusion: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Also, Jesus says nothing about sexual relations outside of marriage. Can sexual relations outside of marriage be guided by the love ethic Jesus embodied and taught? I think so. It might by surprising for some readers to learn that the Old Testament nowhere prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults.

In fact, it might be surprising for some Christians to realize that the sexual mores condoned by the Hebrew Scriptures were quite diverse, although they almost always favored patriarchal prejudices and preferences. For example, both polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she was not married) were commonly practiced and accepted in the Old Testament Scriptures without a single word of judgment uttered against either practice.

So what would a modern day, Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like? In actual practice it might look like a lot of things, but without question the core elements of the sexual relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) would be characterized by mutuality, equality, commitment, compassion, humility, honesty, and magnanimous love that truly seeks the good and well-being of one’s partner. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Preaching the Mystic Vision of Saint Paul



Last Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary reading from the epistles was Romans 8:12-25. I picked it up at 8:9. I wanted to share with my congregation the importance of having a mystic vision. I began my sermon by saying:

“I would describe what we just read as part of a mystic vision. I believe Paul was a Jewish mystic. What I mean by that is that he put a priority on direct experience of God. Mystical awareness is an awareness of the Divine pervading all reality that is generated through direct encounter with God. Later in this letter at the conclusion of a section where Paul expounds on redemptive history he exclaims, “For from God and through God and to God are all things" (11:36). That is a mystic vision of reality. He didn’t get this simply through the Hebrew Scriptures, though there are hints of it there, but he came to this through his own direct experience of the Divine.”

I think most Christians today have very inadequate conceptions of God, which make it difficult for them to think of God in such an all-inclusive, universal, non-dual sense. Many Christians, I think, imagine God as a person much like themselves only bigger and greater—all-powerful and all-knowledgeable.

A mystic vision does not deny that God relates to us personally, but God cannot simply be designated a person. At the very least God functions as a person in the way God relates to human persons, but God is certainly more than what we mean when we use the word. Unfortunately, much Christian language and hymnology contributes to the confusion. For example, when we sing, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

But if we take Paul’s mystical vision seriously, then besides exercising the qualities or attributes of personhood, God is also the very source of life that interacts, intersects, and pervades all reality. Everything is connected and everything participates in the ebb and flow of the Divine Life.

I said to my congregation on Sunday,

"We might even think of the universe in all its dimensions being the body of God. That analogy breaks down, however, because God is conscious within that body at all points and in all parts. The Divine consciousness is always present. As the Franciscan mystic Richard Rohr likes to say, there is no circumference, there is only the center and God is at the center. Every point is a center point where God is, where God dwells in full consciousness. If you could somehow magically travel to the farthest reaches of the universe which is still expanding by the way, God would be consciously present there in God’s fullness.
My sense is that all consciousness from the consciousness of a dolphin to the consciousness of an infant to the consciousness of an Albert Einstein is all connected to the Divine consciousness. In Psalm 139 the psalmist expresses this sense of God’s inescapable presence. God is everywhere anyone and anything will ever be.

The Divine indwells each of us. As Christians, we (along with Paul) identify the Divine with the Christ, because this is the way we know God—through the Christ image. You may have noticed in this passage that Paul uses the terms “Spirit of God” and “Spirit of Christ” interchangeably. As Christians we know God through the Christ, and we know the Christ through the historical Jesus, or more accurately through the sacred tradition of Jesus that has been passed on to us.
Sisters and brothers, this is where language simply breaks down. Language can’t carry all the meaning. This is why God language is always symbolical language. We have to use symbols and metaphors and images to speak of God and even then we can only approach a particular aspect of God through the symbol, metaphor, or image. God of course is so much more.”

So much of the spiritual life is about awareness—becoming consciously aware of what already is—so that we can live into that reality, so that we can become who we already are, namely, the beloved daughters and sons of God. I pointed out to my congregation that this is all gift,  

“Did you do anything to earn your place in life? Your very existence and your emergence as a human being from development in the womb to birth to infancy to childhood and even to where you are now has been pure grace. There were many factors over which you had no control whatsoever: your place in history, your genetic constitution, your parents or care givers, etc. At some point you began to exercise some responsibility for your personal development, but you didn’t earn your place in the world. Life has been given to you. 
It’s the same in our connection with God. You are a child of God not because you believed or did certain things. It’s pure grace. But once you become aware of who you are and how connected you are to everything else, you become responsible to participate in the process of becoming like the Christ within you.”
I went on to contrast “life in the Spirit” with “life in the flesh” as two different ways to live rooted in awareness and unawareness. I also emphasized that life in the Spirit engenders hope that this world can be transformed (8:18-25).

I said,  
“The Divine within will never lead us to withdraw from this world into our own exclusive tribe or colony or group where we care only about our kind of people, and where we just wait for God to take us out of the world. This is why Rapture Christianity is so toxic, because those who embrace it tend to abandon care and compassion and a sense of responsibility to this world which God loves and wants to transform.
God loves this world and is at work in this world and we are called to participate with God. If Jesus and Paul and the early Christians were right about how much God loves and cares for this world, then the Spirit will always lead us into this world with all its suffering and injustice and oppression where we can be the body of Christ, where the Spirit can flow through us to touch and minister and heal and care for this creation.”
I am convinced that a mystic vision is the hope of our planet. I hope more Christian ministers will proclaim it and Christians will embrace it.


 


Thursday, July 10, 2014

What Would Jesus Say to Shawshank Redemption's Samuel Norton?



The Shawshank Redemption is at the top of my all-time great movies list. It is punctuated with great lines and saturated with rich spiritual symbolism. The warden, Samuel Norton, is an icon of toxic Christianity.

The warden presents himself as a socially respectable, church-going, Bible-quoting Christian. It becomes clear, however, from the moment he appears in the story that his Christianity is in name only. His faith has holes in it larger than the one Andy Dufrense chiseled through his cell wall.

When Andy and the other prisoners first stand before the warden, immediately the warden’s self-righteousness dominates the scene. When one of the prisoners asks, “When do we eat?” the warden has him beaten. Holding out a Bible, he says to the captives, “Trust in the Lord, but your ass is mine.”

Contrast the scene above with the one in Luke 4 where Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, applies Isaiah 61 to his understanding of his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In one scene, the warden enters Andy’s cell and lays hold of Andy’s Bible. Andy and the warden quote Scripture verses back and forth as if in a Bible ping pong match. The warden does not open the Bible, which is a good thing since the rock hammer Andy uses to tunnel through his cell wall is hidden inside.



When the warden hands the Bible back to Andy he says, “Salvation lies within.”

Does salvation lie within the pages of Scripture? Yes and No. Much depends on what we focus on in the Bible, how we apply what we focus on, and why we do what we do.

In healthy versions of Christian faith the Bible is employed as an instrument of liberation and transformation. In the hands of Christians like warden Norton it is used to clobber our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, and to oppress women, keeping them “in their place” under the authority of men.

For Jesus, compassion always trumped blind obedience to Scripture. Love of neighbor, which included both the oppressed and the oppressor, always claimed precedence over biblical prescriptions and precepts. Jesus clearly read his Bible with a bias toward love. Thus he knew which Scriptures to accept and reject, to obey and disobey, to submit to and to ignore and dismiss.

For example, Jesus completely ignored the laws of clean and unclean in Leviticus 13 and 14 pertaining to leprosy when he touched and healed the leper in Mark 1. (“Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him . . . Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean!”)

Also, when Jesus allowed a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” to touch him, he clearly dismissed Leviticus 15:25. (“If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days . . . all the days of the discharge . . . she shall be unclean.”)

Jesus completely reversed the laws of clean and unclean in these situations: Instead of Jesus being rendered impure by an unholy touch, the “unholy” touch resulted in the leper and the woman being healed and made whole.

Jesus refused to allow Bible literalists to tell him who he was or what he could and could not do. 

Now back to the warden’s interchange with Andy, which ends with the warden quoting John 8:12:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”

Of course, the warden does not have the foggiest notion what that verse really means. The warden walks in darkness and is about as blind and un-liberated a person as you would ever find. But he thinks he is a Christian.

Religion can easily become a cleverly disguised way of protecting the ego—a way for us to feel secure, superior, safe, and in control. Jesus saw right through this.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus enjoyed hospitable table fellowship, not with the moral majority, but with the immoral minority? The gatekeepers were invited, but they didn’t want any part of those Jesus kept company with. The religious officials were not comfortable around Jesus, while many “sinners” were drawn to him. 

Those who thought they could see were actually blind, while those who knew they were blind found spiritual sight. 

What would Jesus say to warden Samuel Norton? Perhaps what he said to the religious leaders in John 9 when they asked him sarcastically: “Surely we (the religious elite and gatekeepers) are not blind, are we?”

Jesus said:

“If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

Is there a bit of Samuel Norton in all of us? I suspect there is. If we are certain that we see, then we are probably blind, and our sin (our illusions, ego defenses, false attachments, addictions to power, control, etc.) remain.
 
Healthy religion and authentic spirituality have nothing to do with being correct or citing Bible verses. Nor is it about wearing the right badges or shouting the right pledges. There is no “Roman Road” or “Four Spiritual Laws” that lead to salvation. There are no five steps, or six principles, or seven habits for highly spiritual people. 

What we Christians have is Jesus. And the real test of genuine faith is whether or not we have the passion and will to imitate him—to love the way he loved.

There are two dramatic scenes that I like to imagine represent the outcomes of these two different approaches to Christianity (or religion in general):

Scene 1: When the warden’s money laundering is exposed and the authorities come to take him into custody, he looks over at a message hanging on his office wall about God’s righteous judgment coming soon. Next, he pulls the trigger that ends his life.



Scene 2: On a night of heavy thunder and rain, Andy crawls through the hole he has patiently dug month after month, year after year from inside his cell. He reaches a pipe barely large enough for a human body, full of sludge, which eventually empties into a creek beyond the prison fence. With the storm as a cover, he busts through the pipe, crawling through the sludge. When he eventually “dumps” into the creek, he rips off his prison clothes in a moment of jubilation celebrating his new found liberation.



Andy’s experience can be our experience when we follow Jesus into a larger world beyond the prison walls of Bible worship and toxic religion—a world permeated and pervaded by love of God and love of neighbor.  




Sunday, July 6, 2014

When Prejudice Disguises Itself as Holiness




Prejudice disguises itself as holiness when passages such as Romans 1:26-27 are employed to clobber LGBTQ persons. The text reads as follows:

“For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Here is the problem with turning Paul into an anti-gay proponent: Paul, along with most ancient moralists, would have regarded same sex relations as an expression of excessive or exploitive sexual behavior by heterosexuals. It is not likely that he would have had any understanding at all of same sex attraction as a sexual orientation set early in life. Paul’s knowing about sexual orientation is about as likely as his knowing of atoms and electrons as basic elements of our universe. He would have been totally unaware of the distinction between sexual orientation, over which one has no choice, and sexual behavior over which one does. Paul and everyone else in his day most likely believed that everyone was “straight.” The idea of sexual orientation or the possibility of a same-sex committed relationship were not even on their radar.

If one applied the same reasoning that Paul employed in Romans 1:26-27 to what we know today, then one could very well argue that for same-sex oriented persons to have sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex would mean acting “contrary to nature”—contrary to one’s unchangeable basic sexual orientation.

It is common for anti-gay proponents to argue that gay marriage denies the natural order. This is such a weak and misguided argument. It certainly sounds lame when Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians 11: “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Does nature really teach that? Are families who have children through adoption (rather than through procreation) perverting the “natural” order of things? Is my Down Syndrome daughter sinful because she has an additional chromosome with the resulting consequence of limited mental ability? Her state is definitely not “natural.”  

But let's come back to the likelihood that Paul would not have had any understanding of sexual orientation as an unchangable state. An example of how limited knowledge impacts the meaning of Scripture (both the original meaning intended by the biblical writer and our assessment of its relevance) is the way the Gospel writers understood and attributed diseases like epilepsy, psychological disorders, and even birth defects and disabilities to the work of unclean spirits or demons. They simply didn't know any different. 

Another example is the way ancient people conceived of the earth as the center of the universe and the way biblical writers believed in a three-tiered cosmology consisting of God’s heaven above the dome of the sky, the earth in the middle, and sheol (the abode of the dead) below the earth.

In holding to these beliefs they were simply echoing the common beliefs of their time and culture. They did not have available the accumulated knowledge we have access to.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it could be proved that Paul did know something about sexual orientation and still condemned same sex relations. Would that settle the issue? Does that mean that God is against such relations?

I have spent my life studying the Bible and it is central to my faith, and one thing that has become crystal clear to me is that the biblical writers got some stuff dead wrong. They certainly got God wrong when they imagined that God wanted Israel to utterly destroy any group of people who got in their way of taking possession of the promised land.

Did God really command Saul to kill even the women and children of the Amalekites as the Bible says in 1 Samuel 15:1-3? (“Thus says the Lord of hosts . . . Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox an sheep, camel and donkey.”) Is this the God of Jesus who tells us to love our enemies, to pray for them and do good by them? I don’t think so.

Some biblical writers were wrong in believing that women were inherently and morally inferior to men and incompetent to lead as 1 Timothy 2:11-14 teaches (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”)

And let’s be honest about biblical sexual mores: They were all over the place. Polygamy (many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced throughout the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by any biblical writer. Not a single judgmental word. 

Why not? Because patriarchy dominated in ancient Israel. Even Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”) which Jesus referenced in his argument against divorce was never understood in Israel as excluding polygamy. They believed a man could become “one flesh” with more than one woman, through the act of sexual intercourse.

Consider the following sexual mores found in the Old Testament (almost always favoring male power and dominance):

  • Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary as a safeguard of the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7). 
  • A man could not commit adultery against his own wife; he could only commit adultery against another man by sexually using the other’s wife. And a bride who was found not to be a virgin was to be stoned to death (Deut. 22:13-21). 
  • When a married man in Israel died childless, his widow was to have intercourse with his eldest brother (serial polygamy?). If he died without producing an heir, she turned to the next brother, and if necessary to the next, and so on. Jesus mentions this practice without any criticism (Mark 12:18-27). 
  • I suspect many Christians would be surprised to learn that the Old Testament nowhere explicitly prohibits sexual relations between unmarried consenting heterosexual adults, as long as the woman’s economic value was not compromised.
  •  And of course there were those practices considered taboo: sexual intercourse during the seven days of the menstrual period was strictly forbidden (Lev. 18:19; 15:19-24); nudity was forbidden (2 Sam. 6:20; 10:4; Isa 20:2-4; 47:3); and semen and menstrual blood rendered all who touched them ritually unclean (Lev. 15:16-24).

Does the Bible present a clear sexual ethic? Obviously not. Any honest and sincere interpreter of Scripture who is truly interested in truth should concede this.

And what contemporary Christian would argue today in favor of slavery even though there are clearly some biblical passages that condone and support it? Most interpreters (even those who believe in biblical inerrancy) understand that there is a deeper tenor and ethos of Scripture that emerged from Israel’s experience of the Exodus and from the life and teachings of Jesus, namely, that God identifies with the outcast and marginalized, and God’s passion is to liberate the oppressed.

The same logic should be applied to the handful of biblical texts that condemn excessive and exploitive same-sex behavior and say nothing about committed same-sex relationships.

So why do many Christians today reject what we know about sexual orientation and insist that the Bible is clear and right when condemning same-sex relations? I believe their biblical literalism and their deluded concept of holiness are nothing more than a cover for their entrenched prejudice and fear that they are unwilling to acknowledge.

Every interpreter and faith community must pick and choose which texts will have authority in their lives and communities. The question is not: Do we pick and choose? We all do. The more pertinent question is: What will guide our picking and choosing?

I would advocate that we use reason, common sense, our best sense of what is good, right, just, fair, and loving, and the clear and obvious themes that dominate the Jesus tradition in the New Testament through which Christians should filter all other Scripture.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus says nothing about same-sex relations or relationships?  Jesus, like everyone else in his era, would not have had access to the knowledge we possess today about fixed sexual orientation. Still, Jesus does not utter a single word of judgment. What Jesus does condemn, however, are attitudes and actions rooted in prejudice, greed, and intolerance, and he exhorts us to treat others the way we would want to be treated.

I believe all sexual mores should be critiqued by the love ethic of Jesus. Such a love ethic is mutual, caring, loving, and non-exploitative. Jesus challenges both heterosexuals and LGBTQ persons to question their sexual behavior in light of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and love—that which is truly in the best interest of the other person.

I believe that Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons are not only misinterpreting Scripture and standing on the wrong side of history (like the pro-slavery Christians once were), they are in my opinion betraying the very one they call their Lord.

I suppose we all (I’m certainly no exception) have called evil good in order to justify some bias that we pass off as holiness. We all have blind spots. However, growth in spiritual awareness, sensitivity, and compassion exposes them.

Christians who condemn LGBTQ persons pursue a false holiness they can measure, mandate, and control. They are not interested in the holiness of grace—grounded in honesty and humility and expressed through faithfulness and forgiveness.

The blindness of Christian pro-slavery advocates was eventually exposed. I am hopeful that the day will come when Christian anti-gay proponents will either acknowledge their blindness or else their anti-gay bias will be exposed as non-Christian.