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Monday, September 15, 2014

What to Do About ISIS? A Christian’s Anguish

When I think about ISIS and what our response as a nation should be to their reign of terror my soul is in anguish.

Why the anguish? Does ISIS not completely devalue human life and are they not committed to the utter destruction and mass enslavement of all people who refuse to surrender allegiance to them? Does this not warrant the use of military action to stop them?

The reason I am in anguish is because I take seriously the nonviolent life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth whom I strive to follow. In the temptation narrative Jesus renounces the option of wielding power as a means of accomplishing God’s will. In his conflict with the religious and political powers of his day, Jesus chooses the way of suffering every time instead of the way of violence. At the time of his arrest he tells his disciples, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Jesus dies powerless and mocked, absorbing the animosity of his tormentors without wishing them harm.

Less we think this was somehow unique to Jesus, he instructed any would-be follower to renounce all violence by taking up his or her cross and getting in line behind him (Matt. 16:24). He even told his disciples to love their enemies by praying for them and doing good to them (Matt. 5:38-48). In his letter to the Romans, Paul echoes basically this same teaching (Rom. 12:14-21).

Not all Christians have or do take Jesus’ teaching on love of enemies seriously. Church historian and religion professor Charles Marsh researched some of the sermons delivered by influential evangelical ministers during the lead-up to the first Iraq war. He discovered that many, such as Franklin Graham, Paul Crouch (Founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network), Jack Graham (then president of the SBC), and popular Baptist preacher Charles Stanley, to name a few, fully endorsed the war effort.

In one sermon Stanley admonished, “We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible.” He quoted Paul in Romans 13:1 about being subject to governmental powers, but completely ignored Paul’s instruction to not repay evil for evil, refuse retaliation, and do good to our enemies in Rom. 14. And with a wave of the hand, he totally dismissed Jesus’ teaching on nonviolence and love of enemies in Matt. 5, claiming that Jesus was speaking to us as individuals, as if that somehow justified completely rejecting it. Marsh observed that Stanley expressed “no anguish, no dark night of struggle,” no “hint of apprehension, or words of caution, about the certain violence inflicted on civilians.”

For the first three centuries the vast majority of Christians rejected all expressions of violence and refused to take up arms under any condition. The reason: They sought to be faithful to the life and teachings of their Lord and his alternative kingdom. That all changed when Constantine wed church and empire, and made Christianity the official religion of Rome.

Since then the majority of Christians have endorsed violence or sought to justify it under certain conditions and circumstances. Many have simply ignored, dismissed, or rationalized Jesus’ life and teaching as if they did not matter.

Father George Zabelka was the chaplain who administered catholic mass to the bomber pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945 resulting in the mass destruction of civilians. Later he came to repent of his complicity in the destruction. In an interview with Sojourners, he described the Christian ethos of the times: “I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church [the church at-large/the majority of Christians] in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best—at worst it was religiously supportive . . .”

There have always been pockets of resistance to violence from peace-loving people, and from Christian communities that have born prophetic witness to both state and church, but for the most part Christendom has a sad history of acquiescing to violence.

I struggle with Jesus’ teaching and do not claim to renounce violence in all circumstances as Jesus commanded. I cannot fault Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his involvement in a plot to assassinate Hitler, for I probably would have done the same. I suspect I would employ any means available, including violence, to save family and friends from death by violence (if an intruder invaded my home, for example), and so I struggle with the question of what to do about ISIS. Do we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to our sisters and brothers in that part of the world to protect them from genocidal destruction?

By the way, I wish our president and national leaders would frame the question as a moral obligation to humanity, though I don’t expect them to. They tend to frame the question the way empires frame the question: What must we do to protect national interests and our own people? A follower of Jesus must frame the question in terms of the dignity and value of all human lives, not just American lives. Anything less is not Christian.

Is violence ever justified? According to Jesus it is not. Hence, my anguish of soul. I am a Christian minister but I am not yet willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross.       

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Dr. Albert Mohler versus musician Michael Gungor: Who is on the verge of theological peril?

Dove Award-winning Christian musician Michael Gungor has been taking a hit from some of his evangelical fans for saying that he has no more ability to believe that Adam and Eve were literal persons who lived 6,000 years ago or that “a flood covered all the highest mountains of the world only 4,000 years ago” than he is able “to believe in Santa Clause or to not believe in gravity.”

In a recent podcast Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist’s flagship seminary in Louisville, claims that Gungor “is shifting into theological reverse, moving right back to the last decades of the 19th century.” According to Mohler, Gungor’s ideas are the result of Protestant liberalism, “which also came over to the United States [from Germany], infecting many denominations and seminaries.”

I mean, really, Dr. Mohler? When is learning how to think a disease? What Dr. Mohler doesn’t say is that practically all mainline biblical scholarship rejects his inerrantist view of the Bible and his literal interpretation of the creation story and flood narrative. Even many evangelical scholars who still cling in theory to biblical inerrancy (they are forced to sign faith statements in that regard) reject the literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis.

Actually, throughout most of the history of the church the literal meaning of a biblical text was deemed the least important reading by many Christian scholars and teachers. The literal reading was sometimes compared to the physical body, while the spiritual or metaphorical (sometimes allegorical) reading was likened to the human soul.

It’s a helpful analogy. If a person narrowly focuses on the physical body to the neglect of the soul (a healthy inner life), that person becomes quite shallow and lacks spiritual, emotional, and psychological substance. When the literal reading takes precedence over the spiritual/metaphorical/theological reading of the biblical text, the result is a superficial kind of Christianity that lacks depth, mystery, heart, and struggle.

Mohler claims that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks.” Is that true? Consider the following biblical passages,

“The Lord said to Joshua, ‘See, I have handed Jericho over to you . . . The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.’. . . Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:2,17, 21).

  “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman” (Deut. 22:22). 

“As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:33b-35)

 “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. 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” (1 Tim. 2:11-14).
Are the above texts literally God’s word? Are these instances of God speaking? I hope not, don’t you?

The more people become aware of what is actually in the Bible, the less likely they are  to believe that the Bible floated down from heaven on the wings of angels and is a literal word from God.

Human beings wrote the Bible and because flawed and fragmented human beings wrote Scripture, the Bible is also flawed and fragmented. It is also a beautiful, powerful book that contains a variety of sacred literature of diverse genre. The Bible mirrors the human struggles and contradictions that characterize the very human lives of people of faith everywhere and anytime.

All Christians read the Bible through a particular lens that reflects their biases. Everyone brings their biases with them into the process of reading and interpreting biblical texts. A healthy bias is rooted in common sense, reason, the best of human intuition, honest struggle with contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox, and a humble quest for the truth. It is natural for one with healthy biases to be evolving in their faith.

An unhealthy bias is based on dogmatic assumptions and certitudes, and is often science- denying and reason-defying. This is why it’s nearly impossible to reason with such folks in the comment section of a blog like this one. Their biases denigrate reason, common sense, and science in favor of dogmatic beliefs.

For example, Mohler says,

“We will either believe the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God—that it is the specially revealed word of God, which is our ultimate intellectual authority, because it is, indeed, the word of God—or we’ll see it merely as a collection of inspirational and spiritual writings that are to be ‘reinterpreted.’”

We believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible, says Mohler, not because good judgment, critical discernment, spiritual enlightenment, reason, and common sense so indicates, but “because it is, indeed, the word of God.” It’s literally the word of God because Dr. Mohler (and those who adhere to his conservative version of Christianity) say it is. How is that for an honest, humble search for truth?

Because the Bible is both a divinely inspired and humanly imperfect book, the Bible contains wonderful, breakthrough, transformative texts and regressive, petty, punitive, and life-diminishing texts (as quoted above).  Thomas Merton contended that the Bible in the hands of an unenlightened person can become a deadly instrument.

In one of the great, transformative texts of Scripture (1 Cor. 13) the Apostle Paul concluded,

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Isn’t it time we grow up?  

Mohler contends that Gungor, by disbelieving that the early chapters of Genesis contain historical, factual information, is in danger of “theological peril.” But who really is on the verge of theological peril? I have had conversations with people who knew Dr. Mohler in his student days and they claim that back then he was a much more moderate, balanced, and reasonable thinker. What happened?

Father Richard Rohr contends that the Bible is primarily about the conversation between God and people of faith regarding power. Could he be right? Could the struggle with, against, and for power be behind much of what is written in and about the Bible? Is that the real struggle behind so much of our reading and interpreting of biblical texts today?

Could that struggle turn a reasonable, balanced thinker into a dogmatic fundamentalist? I wonder. 

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.