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Monday, November 24, 2014

A Spiritual Path to Gratitude

Brother David Steindl-Rast has contended in his writings that gratitude is foundational to a healthy spiritual life. If that is true, and I believe it is, then how might we expand our capacity for gratitude?

Perhaps some reflections drawn from the story of Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 33:12-23 can lead us along a path to gratitude. Moses says,
 “If your presence will not go with us, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The sense here is that Moses is requesting some sort of visible presence – like the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke that accompanied Israel in the wilderness. For in this way, Moses says, we will be distinct from all other peoples.

I read this as an example of first-level spirituality, which is a necessary part of our spiritual development and growth. We all need to feel special. One of the joys of being a grandparent is that we get to do this for our grandkids over and over again and then leave it to their parents to smooth out their rough edges reminding them that they are special - yes, but not that special.  We grandparents get to focus almost exclusively on the special part.

My youngest granddaughter, Addie, is two-and-a-half and loves to hear stories about herself. When she was one-and-a-half we took her and her sister, Sophie, who was three swimming.  Melissa, my wife, had to take Sophie to the restroom, so Addie was left with me. Well, she didn’t like being left with me, she wanted her Nan and, so she started to cry. Do you know how I got her to stop crying? I held her close, which she at first resisted, and then I began telling her how special she was. I told her the story of the day she was born and how excited we were, and then I told her stories of some of the experiences we have shared together in her brief time in the world. Soon she calmed down and had her arm around my neck as she listened to me tell her how special and how loved she was.

All of us, however, need to hear that we are loved. All of us need to feel special. It’s part of a soul’s healthy development. But there comes a time when we need to move to the next level of spirituality. We need to feel distinct, special, blessed, but . . . there comes a time when it is important for us to realize that we are all in this together, that we are all loved by our  Abba, our Compassionate heavenly Father, Mother, Friend and Liberator. We (as individuals and communities of faith) are parts of a greater whole and participants in a larger story.

According to the Abrahamic tradition, God called out a people, entered into covenant with that people, so that through that people all people/nations would be blessed. I believe that our calling as the chosen people of God is to spread a message of chosenness to everyone we can, so they will know that they are chosen too. And Jesus made it quite clear that we are to share this message while serving our sisters and brothers as equals. Unfortunately, the missionary activity of the Western church too often has been conducted from a place of superiority, rather than solidarity and unity.

Samir Selmanovic, in his book It’s Really All About God, tells about an experience he had on the morning of September 11, 2002. One of the Christian family radio networks had lined him up for an interview. He was mentally prepared to tell about the many ways he and his faith community had learned to love the city and its people in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks over the previous twelve months. 

But while he was waiting to go on the air, he overheard the two co-hosts boasting about Christianity, literally patronizing the world. He suddenly found himself disoriented by what he heard, and realized that he was not ready for the interview at all. He had to quickly rethink what he was going to say, because he knew what they were going to ask. And it came right on schedule: “Pastor, tell us, don’t you find people in New York more ready to receive the gospel after the tragedy? Aren’t they more receptive than ever to the message? Can we take this city for Jesus?”

Selmanovic paused and said,

“No. New York is a great opportunity for us Christians to learn. Most of the people here feel that to see the world our way would be a step backward morally. They see Christians as people not dedicated to following Jesus on earth, but obsessed with their religion. They see us as people who are really not interested in the sufferings on earth like Jesus was but driven with the need to increase the number of those worshiping this Grand Jesus in heaven. They wonder why, of all people, we are the first to rush to solve the world’s problems with weapons instead of patience and humility. I learned that it is we who need to be converted after September 11 to the ways of Jesus.”
The radio personalities didn’t ask for clarification. They quickly changed the subject and cut the interview short, not even halfway through the time allotted. In reflecting on his experience Selmanovic says,

“I realized that it is our Christian superiority complex that makes us an inferior force in making the world a better place.”

First-level spirituality claims God’s love for one’s self and one’s community, but second-level spirituality realizes that everyone else is loved too, and we are responsible for sharing that love and working for the common good. First-level spirituality can become toxic and even deadly if we never expand beyond our own belief and belonging systems to embrace others as God’s daughters and sons. Dualistic, “us” versus “them” thinking has wrought enormous damage in the world.

In Exodus 33 Moses prays, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you . . . Show me your glory.” In response God says,

“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’. . . . But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. . . . See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Seeing the backside of God may be a way of talking about the glory (presence, reality) of God in the visible, material, physical, tangible world. The great perennial truth that the Christian religion has brought to the stage of human history is the truth of incarnation, which really began with the Big Bang when time and space and matter first erupted into the making a new universe. God engaged a creative process that in time would bring forth life and then in “the fullness of time” become particularized (for Christians at least) in the person of Jesus, the Christ.

I’m convinced that God is incarnational. God is hidden in the visible world. Matter has always been the hiding place for Spirit. God resides in the depths of things, which is why God resides in the depths of our souls.

Paul, the mystic, perceived this when he said, “You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Or when he said, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  The true Self is actually God, who we know as the Christ, living in us and through us. Our false self is what we are when our ego is in control.

Sometimes we use religion (our scriptures and traditions) to avoid any real God encounter in the depths of the soul.  A common temptation for all of us is to use a belief system or a belonging system to substitute for any personal or life-changing experience of the Divine. It is easy for us to make belonging to the right group, believing the right things, or practicing the right rituals a substitute for genuine God encounter. Authentic God encounter always leads us into the depths of our souls to face our inconsistencies and contradictions in order to change, to grow, to become more loving and compassionate persons and communities. 

If God is incarnational, if God hides in the material world, then all the world is God’s temple, and the world is a sacred place. We can find God everywhere and anywhere. Every event, experience, conversation, every place where we are present God is present and presents us with a potential God experience/encounter. Third-level spirituality is the capacity to see, sense, and experience God anytime, anyplace because we know that God is present in all of it.

This is true of terrible and tragic situations too. In the tsunami and earthquake, the hurricane and tornado, where acts of violence and terror are performed, where persons are wounded and killed, in the children’s ward where kids are dying with cancer, in one’s darkest moments – God is there. God, of course, is not responsible for any of these things, but God is there. God is suffering and hurting and dying too.

And on the flip side, God is on the beach where waves are rolling in and the evening sun is casting an orange haze over the water. At the birth of your child or grandchild, or when your daughter or granddaughter reaches up and squeezes your neck as hard as she can and tells you that she loves you and you think it just can’t get any better than this – God is there. In the best of times and worst of times God is there. God is at one with the world and at one with each of God’s children, whether we know it or not.

God’s presence in all of it is grace. The Exodus text calls this “goodness” – “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” This goodness is passing before us every day - in the sunshine and rain, in the air we breathe, in the touch of our lover’s hand, in a thousand ways. God’s goodness, God’s grace is not an add-on, not something doled out on the churched or religious, or a prize won for believing or doing the right things. God’s goodness is what sustains and is inherent in all life.

I believe that a healthy, holistic, and transformative spirituality will move us along a path where we first recognize that we are loved with an eternal love, that God holds us close and never lets go, for we are that special. But rather than claiming this all for ourselves (which leads to an unhealthy, toxic kind of spirituality), we realize that God loves all God’s children this way. We then sense a connection to all our sisters and brothers and are compelled to work for the common good. As we grow in love, the blinders come off, and we are able to see God’s goodness and grace everywhere. As we drink from this reservoir of boundless grace gratitude fills our hearts and overflows into all the outlets and places where we live our lives.

Giver of all good gifts, you give us space and time
This new day, in this place, is your gift
Make me live gratefully
This day is opportunity
To receive your blessing in a thousand forms
And to bless.
To listen to your word in all that I hear,
And to respond in obedience of heart.
To drink deeply from your life,
And to make others come alive,
By radiant smile, by cheerful answer,
And by a secret blessing. 
             --  Brother David Steindle-Rast

Monday, November 17, 2014

Making the Most of What We Have Been Given (A sermon on the Parable of the Talents - Matt. 25:14-30)

I don’t know if there is any truth to it or not, but the story is told that when Britain faced a critical shortage of silver during the days of WWII Winston Churchill launched a search of possible sources of silver. They discovered some sterling silver statutes of saints in some of their churches and cathedrals. When Churchill was made aware of this he said, “Well, it’s time to put the saints into circulation.” 

This parable is about saints in circulation. Jesus is addressing his followers. In Matthew’s Gospel there are five major discourses attributed to Jesus, this parable is part of the last teaching block that begins in 24:1. Jesus and his disciples had just come out of the temple. His disciples were admiring the beautiful buildings when Jesus warned of the temple’s coming destruction. Then they walked over to the Mount of Olives and Matthew says that the disciples came to him privately with their questions about the destruction of the temple and end of the age. That is the setting for these parables. This is private instruction to insiders. The judgment parables of Matthew 25 are not directed to the crowds, but to his disciples.

There are some troublesome elements to this parable that do not quite square with Jesus’ earlier teachings in this Gospel and the ways in which he spoke of God. One difficult part is verse 30 where at the end of the parable the unfaithful servant who failed to use his master’s money wisely is cast into “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I read this symbolically of course, but still the language seems unusually harsh.

Another troublesome aspect of the parable is the way the unfaithful servant is described. He is called “wicked,” “lazy,” and “worthless” - descriptions that are totally uncharacteristic of the Jesus Matthew has described for us in his Gospel. I suspect (and not just me, but others as well) that these descriptions were likely added to the parable either during the oral transmission of the story (when Jesus’ followers retold these stories in different settings) or when the writer composed this Gospel. Of course, there is no way to be sure.

In the parable a master passes out money to his servants – actually a considerable amount of money – and puts them in charge of investing it while he is away. To one he give five talents, another two talents, and still to another one talent. A “talent” is a lot of money. One talent was equal to 30,000 denarii and a denarius was equal to a day’s wage for a common worker. So the servant who was given one “talent” was given more money than a common worker could have earned in a lifetime.

We are also told that to each one of the servants the money was given according to his ability. The ability belonged to the servants; but the money belonged to the master. This is the master’s money.

I love the story of the elderly woman who had just finished shopping and returned to her car. She found four men inside. She dropped her shopping bags and drew a handgun. She pointed the gun toward the men and screamed for them to get out of her car. They flew out of there like crazy. Somewhat shaken, she put her gun away, picked up her bags, and got into the front seat. But for some reason the key would not fit the ignition. Then it dawned on her; this was not her car. Her car was in the next row. So she found her car and drove down to the police station to turn herself in. As she told her story the officer behind the desk who was about ready to fall out of his chair laughing pointed her to another desk where four men were reporting a carjacking by a little old woman with a handgun.

She thought it was her car, but it really belonged to someone else. We think what we have is ours – we earned it, we worked for it, it’s ours. Except that it isn’t. It’s God’s. All of it. We have been entrusted with it to put it to use for God’s good purpose in the world.

Remember, this is a parable taught by Jesus to his disciples. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept responsibility to use whatever we have in the interest of God’s kingdom. To accept the call to discipleship is to accept the reality that it all belongs to God. We have been given resources of money, ability, and time and entrusted with the responsibility to use these resources for the good of God’s kingdom, for the good of our sisters and brothers and the good of society.

The parable prompts me to ask myself where fit in the story? If I am honest I have to admit that I am not completely like the two servants who doubled the master’s money, nor am I completely like the servant who did nothing with it. I am somewhere in between. Sometimes I am like the two faithful servants, and sometimes I am like the faithless one who did nothing with the master’s money.

So when I stand before God to give an account – and I thoroughly expect to do so (I agree with Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ) – I fully expect to be evaluated, to be assessed, and I expect to be both commended and judged. I suspect I will be commended for some things and judged for some things and found wanting.  

Am I worried? Not too much. And why am I not worried or anxious? Because as Lisa [our children’s pastor] teaches our kids, God is good all the time. God is always looking out for our good even in judgment. God’s judgment is not like so much human judgment that is punitive and retributive. God really does seek our good. So whatever “outer darkness” I must walk through it will function to open my life to the light of God’s love and grace and enable that light to shine through me more visibly. Whatever “weeping and gnashing of teeth” I experience, whatever suffering I undergo it will only serve to move me along the path to greater spiritual maturity, integrity, and depth of character.

I think of athletes who go through training periods that are quite intense; they endure periods of suffering and hardship for the purpose of becoming better athletes. So whatever sort of suffering or hardship God might require us to endure, I believe it will be for the purpose of making us better persons.

This is why Paul and other NT writers could speak of suffering in redemptive ways. In the little book of James, the author wrote: “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.”

Philip Yancey tells about playing chess in high school.  He was a member of his school’s chess club and studied books on techniques and strategies.  After high school Yancey put the game aside for twenty years until in Chicago he met a truly fine chess player. They played a few matches.  Any classic offense Yancey tried was met with a classic defense.  If Yancey turned to more risky, unorthodox techniques, his opponent incorporated Yancey’s bold advances into his own winning strategies. Yancey soon discovered that none of his own strategies mattered much because his opponent simply incorporated Yancey’s moves into his own plan. 

Yancey writes,
“Perhaps God engages our universe, his own creation, in much the same way.  He grants us freedom to rebel against its original design, but even as we do so we end up ironically serving his eventual goal of restoration.

If I accept that blueprint—a huge step of faith, I confess—it transforms how I view both good and bad things that happen.  Good things, such as health, talent, and money, I can present to God as offerings to serve his purposes.  And bad things, too—disability, poverty, family dysfunction, failures—can be redeemed as the very instruments that drive me to God.” 

And I would add, the bad things can be the very instruments that change us, that make us more loving, caring, empathetic, and compassionate persons. 

Faithful servants entrusted with God’s resources trust in the goodness of God and so they are not afraid to take some risks. They are not afraid of failure.

The servant who did nothing with what was entrusted to him was hampered by fear. When he is called onto the carpet for his failure he says, “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

If that is how we imagine God, we will not be motivated to take risks, we will not be compelled to give our resources and abilities and energy to serve and love others. If we are afraid of failure or afraid of God we will not invest our money or time or talents into the lives of others and for the common good of our society. We just won’t.

I heard about a pastor who was excited about taking his two visiting nephews to church.  The two boys, six and nine, had never been to church. For whatever reason the two boys were not very impressed. The younger one - in the middle of the children's sermon - raised his hand and asked, "How much longer do we have to sit up here." When the offering was passed he watched as people put money in the plates. When it finally got to him, he looked up at his aunt and said, "You mean we gotta pay for this?"

If our image of God is like the unfaithful servant in the parable then we are likely to approach service and giving to others with the attitude of the boy who asked, “You mean we gotta pay for this?” You mean we have to serve others? You mean we have to invest in this? And if that is what we think, if that is our attitude, we are more likely to stuff away what we have than to use it for the good of God’s kingdom.

But if we know the God of Jesus, if we have experienced the God of Jesus, who is the all-compassionate one, who wills our good, who wants our best, who loves each one of us with an unconditional, eternal love, then we are likely to take great risks and find great joy in investing our resources, in giving away our energy, time, and money for the good and well-being of others and growth of God’s kingdom.

Our good God, most of us here are like me. We are sometimes faithful, sometimes motivated to take greats risks, sometimes willing to give much in terms of our money, time, and ability, and others times – well, not so much. If any of us here are hampered by fear, give us a clearer vision into your nature, open our eyes to your goodness and grace, help us to know how much you love us and care for us, so we won’t be afraid to fail, afraid to take risks, or afraid to give our resources for your cause in the world. Thank you for all the good things and help us not be too upset with the bad things – but to allow them to grow us and mature us so that we might become the loving, compassionate, and caring persons you have designed for us to be. Amen. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Being and Becoming Children of God

I grew up with a theology that said all children are children of God—that is, until they reach the age of accountability. I was also indoctrinated into a belief in total depravity, that we are all born sinners and inherit a sin nature, so somehow we had to harmonize these two positions and the way we did it was by postulating an age of accountability. It’s kind of ironic because we prided ourselves in being Bible believers, yet there are no biblical texts that mention an age of accountability. We believed that a child was a child of God until that child reached a kind of semi-adulthood. When the child reached the age of accountability (and nobody really knew when that was which made for a nice loophole), then that child was no longer a child of God and had to believe certain things and do certain things in order to become a child of God. We believed that the child had to be “born again” in order to become a member of God’s family. I have since evolved in my thinking in what it means to be a child of God and what it means to be “born again” as I know many reading this post have as well.  

The distinction I like to make at this point in my spiritual journey is the distinction between being and becoming. I’m convinced that we are all children of God all the time and there is nothing we can do or believe or fail to do or believe to change this fundamental and foundational truth about every single one of us.

Our worth, value, and sense of who we are is not to be found in what we have accomplished or achieved. It is not based on any kind of purity system, belief system, or worthiness system. There are no papers to sign, no doctrinal statements to agree to, no creeds to confess, and no hoops to jump through. We are who we are by virtue of our humanity, by virtue of our existence in this world.

However, being a child of God and living like a child of God are two different things. We can be children of God and not reflect much of God’s goodness and grace. So how do we claim our identity? How do we become who we already are?

How we see and what we see have a lot to do with it. This is a constant theme in the biblical tradition. Our tendency is to see things as we are, not as they really are. There is much in us that clouds our sight, distorts our vision, and prevents us from becoming who we are.

Sometimes it’s bad theology. In John 9 the scripture says that as Jesus went along he saw a man blind from birth. The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That’s terrible theology. They saw a sinner. They saw a man under the judgment of God. They saw his blindness as a punishment. They did not see a precious child of God. Their preconceptions were misconceptions which led them to diminish and devalue a person who by happenchance, who by the unluckiness of the draw, was born blind. The irony is that the disciples were the ones who were blind, but didn’t know it.

Bad theology, fear-driven images of God, dualistic “us” versus “them” religion can keep us from seeing reality as it really is. Also, our prejudices and biases, as well as our fears, insecurities, and anxieties can keep us from claiming our identity and becoming who we are.

I believe that within all of us is a desire to love, to forgive, to pursue peace and communion with God and each other. If we nurture this desire, if we fan it into a flame, it can become greater than the desire to harbor grudges and resentment, and larger than our need to compete with and compare ourselves to others.

But how do we do that? How do we move past our fears, worries, and insecurities? How do we recognize the biases that bind us and keep us from becoming the kind of daughters and sons of God we were created to be? 

It begins, I believe, with a leap of faith. We must make a leap of trust and accept that we are accepted. We must recognize that all those voices that keep whispering condemnations, telling us we are unworthy, or that God could not possibly love us are lies and deceptions. 

But where does this faith come from? I believe it is a gift from God. And while there is nothing we can do to earn it, we can ask for it. We can put ourselves in a context, in an environment where the gift is likely to be received and nurtured. I believe a healthy, loving, accepting, affirming community of faith can go a long way in nurturing this kind of trust.

Sometimes a loving community (or maybe just one other person) that loves us in spite of ourselves can help move us from a state of alienation and disintegration to a place of belonging and wholeness.

Most sin is a form of madness that acts against our own best interest. My hope is that all forms of madness can one day be healed; even the kind of madness that creates suicide bombers and sadistic killers. My hope is that all will be made well. I believe this to be the purifying hope of the gospel, that through the process of giving and receiving love anyone can be healed and redeemed, and we all can come to reflect something of the goodness of God and share in the likeness of Christ. I hope.

Through the acceptance and affirmation of another person or a loving community we can learn to not only receive love, but to give love as well. Love is not fully redemptive until it is returned upon the one or community that freely offers it.

There are some people who are still stuck inside their little selves (their ego selves) who want grace for themselves, but not for everyone else. They want to be winners among losers. They want to know and feel loved, but they don’t want God to love just anyone.

What can move one beyond this narrow, egocentric approach? Love. And this is where, I believe, some truly loving people within a community of faith can make a huge difference in people’s lives. The more we are able to receive and give love to others, the more we are changed.

I heard about a rough around-the-edges mountaineer who was known for his readiness to fight. There were burning embers of bitterness in his life and the tiniest spark could ignite his anger. Then one day he accompanied his nephew to a school party because his parents had other obligations. He met his nephew’s teacher and fell in love. It took him a long time to get up the nerve to even ask her out. How could such a woman love the likes of him? But love is a mysterious, wondrous thing and she returned his love. The day they were married someone who had noticed how he had changed asked him why he never seemed to get angry anymore. His response was, “I ain’t got nothin’ against nobody.”

The receiving and giving of love can do that. It can change us. It’s the hope of the world. Ultimately, it is the only thing that can enable us to become who we already are.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rethinking the Bible's Place (It's Just the Way It Is, Part 2)

There are some Christians who give the Bible godlike homage. It might as well have come floating down from heaven on the wings of angels. Should we ascribe to the Bible divine status?

In Nazi Germany a Jewish fugitive fleeing for his life came to a small town. He sought out the house of the Christian pastor, hoping to find refuge. He knocked on the door and when the pastor opened it, he told his story and asked if he could stay a few days until it was safe to travel again. The pastor invited him to step inside and wait. The pastor knew that if this young man was caught hiding there the whole town would be held accountable and suffer greatly. So immediately he withdrew to his prayer room and closed the door. He asked God for guidance and then opened his Bible. He happened to come upon the verse in John’s Gospel that says, “It is better for one man to die, than for the whole people to parish.” He knew he had his answer. So he sent the man away. Later that night an angel appeared and asked, “Where is the fugitive?” The pastor said, “I sent him away as the Holy Book instructed me.” The angel said, “Did you not know that he was the Christ? If you would have looked into his eyes, instead of first running to the Book, you would have known.”

Right now all across Christendom, many Christian leaders are running straight to the Book to decide on whether or not to accept same-sex marriage or to welcome and affirm LGBT persons into the life of the church. If they would first look into the eyes and hearts of their LGBT sisters and brothers and listen to their stories, then they would know what to do and how better to interpret and apply the Book.

Because the Bible was written by flawed and fallible human beings, the Bible gets the will of God wrong about as often as it gets it right. No matter what one’s theory of inspiration, nothing can compensate for the fact that limited, error-prone, biased human beings wrote the sacred documents that constitute our Bible.

I did indeed use the word “biased.” This is not a bad thing or a good thing – it’s just the way it is. No one can escape their biases. We each have biases that we are aware of and biases deeply embedded in our psyches which are often hidden from us. They can be constructive or destructive. We can be biased toward retaliation or forgiveness, retribution or redemption, exclusion or inclusion, etc. There are scriptures that are clearly regressive, that lean more toward the petty and punitive side of life, and scriptures that are clearly enlightened and enlightening - breakthroughs in spiritual consciousness. 

For Christians I don’t know anything more important than the search and struggle to discern and do God’s will. And for that very reason it is vital that we understand the Bible’s place in that process. I suggest giving the following three sources equal authority:

1. Sacred Tradition. At the heart of this stands our Christian scriptures, but included also are our   Christian traditions (interpretations, liturgies, hymns, prayers, litanies, and Christian praxis in various historical and cultural contexts). Included also to a lesser extent are the sacred texts and traditions of other religious faiths. Truth is truth wherever truth is found, and there is perennial truth that spans time, culture, and historical religious expressions and forms. However, as a Christian I believe that all sacred texts, stories, and traditions should be read and interpreted through the sacred story of Jesus. For Christ-followers all decisions about scriptural authority and how the scriptures should be applied need to be filtered through the life of Jesus and the unconditional love he taught and embodied.

2. Mystical Encounter. The heart of mystical encounter is our own personal communion and experience of the Divine (the Really Real, the Christ, Spirit, God, etc.) both individually and communally. Included also are the accounts of mystical experience we read and hear about from others. I have no doubt that Jesus’ understanding of “Abba” (his compassionate, divine father/mother/friend) was largely shaped by his own personal experience of God.  

3. Rational Experience. By rational experience I am referring to understanding, wisdom, and insight gained from science and other branches of human knowledge. Depth psychology, for example, has much to teach us about the ways we hide from our true self where God abides. By rational experience, I am also referring to wisdom and understanding gained from reason, common sense, and our best intuitive sense of what is right, good, loving, and just.

If all we do is go straight to the Book, and the Book takes priority over everything else, it’s quite probable that we will use the Book to justify our beliefs and prejudices for good or ill. We most likely will find what we want to find, even though we think we are being objective.

There is a great need for many Christians to be honest about the scriptures and admit that we do not have a perfect revelation. Our sacred writings are just as broken as we are. And until we can accept the brokenness and fragmentation of the Bible, we will continue to use the Bible to justify harmful biases, and in particular it will continue to be used to spread homophobia that is deeply rooted in fear and insecurity.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr likes to say that how we deal with the Bible is how we deal with reality and how we deal with reality is how we deal with the Bible. Maybe some of us have a difficult time accepting a flawed Bible because we have a difficult time accepting our own flaws or those of our particular group. If we could just let the Bible be what it is without trying to project impossible demands and claims upon it, we would be better able to do the same with our own flaws and failures. Perhaps, then, we would be more honest and humble and confessional about our own struggles as fractured and fragmented human beings.

The purpose of scripture is to prompt the struggle, to get us asking the questions, to evoke prayer, study, self-reflection, introspection, and reliance upon Spirit. It is in the struggle that we meet God and are changed by God. 

Thomas Merton has said that unconverted persons will use scripture in unconverted ways. Unloving people will use scripture in unloving ways. Converted people whose hearts are right and in tune with God will use even the most oppressive texts in positive, transformative ways. Unconverted people whose hearts are cold, closed, unloving, self-absorbed, and egocentric will misuse even the most enlightened texts.

I have invested a large part of my life reading and studying the Bible, and trying to discern how to apply it in life-enhancing and liberating ways. I am well-aware of how I have misused it in the past to justify beliefs and biases into which I was indoctrinated and socialized. By way of personal experience I can say rather confidently that Christians will continue to propagate hurtful teachings and practices and use the Bible in detrimental ways unless they dethrone its god-like status and give the Bible its rightful place in discovering and doing God’s will. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Two Visions, One Book - that's just the way it is

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan argues in his book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, that in the biblical tradition, both Old and New Testaments, two incompatible and contradictory explanations of God’s final victory over the evil and injustice of the world run side by side, often in the same biblical books. One explanation is extermination. It is reflected in the Noachic solution to evil in the world, namely, the complete destruction of the wicked. Crossan writes,

"In this vision, God’s solution to the problem of human violence is the Great Final Battle in which good triumphs over evil—and triumphs, let us be clear, by divine violence. The symbolic place of that cosmic cleanup as cosmic slaughter is at Har Magiddo in Hebrew (hence our English “Armageddon”), the mountain pass where the spine of Israel’s hill country cuts westward toward the coast and skirts a great plain suitable for battle."

Examples of this approach can be found in Micah 5:15; 7:10, 16–17 and Revelation 14:20, 19:11–21.

The alternate explanation of God’s final resolution to the problem of evil is reflected in the Abrahamic solution where God calls out a people through whom he proposes to bless the world. In place of a great Final Battle to end all battles, this solution imagines a Great Final Banquet, and its symbolic place is Mount Zion. Examples of this position can be found in Micah 4:1–4, Isaiah 23:6–8, and Zechariah 8:20–23. Crossan says that these texts express the hope that “all peoples and nations will convert to the God of nonviolence in a world without weapons and to the God of justice in a world without empires.”

Two visions, one book.

Not only can these two visions be present in the same book, they can stand side-by-side in the same passage. In Matthew 22:1-10 we read:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city [this is most likely a depiction of the destruction of Jerusalem added to the parable after 70 CE]. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Think about this for a moment. No distinction is made between the bad and the good. No moral evaluation or condemnation – just y’all come. And they did – both good and bad. It’s hard to get more inclusive than this.

Is this too good to be true? Perhaps for some it is not good at all. Grace looks and sounds great, except when it is extended to those we think should be excluded. Were some members of Matthew’s community not happy with this all-inclusive vision of the kingdom? No worry, Matthew offers an alternative vision in the very next paragraph in 22:11-14:

“But when the king came to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

The harsh, severe, vindictive language in the passage above is typical of Matthew. The “weeping and gnashing of teeth” used above is found also in Matt. 8:12; 13:42, 50; 24:51; 25:30 (outside of Matthew only in Luke at 13:28), and the phrase “outer darkness” is found in Matt. 8:12. Also, Matthew speaks of “everlasting fire,” (Matt. 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8; 25:41-46) and “eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:30) to describe God’s judgment. In addition, Matthew makes reference to hell (gehenna) seven times, whereas the word appears only once in Mark and Luke.   

Anyone familiar with Matthew’s Gospel should be able to observe how these images of divine vengeance stand in contradiction to Matthew’s own portrait of Jesus. It is hard to imagine that the Jesus who shares table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, who speaks of God as Abba, who teaches and embodies unlimited forgiveness, who teaches his followers to pray for their enemies, who brings healing and wholeness to the diseased and demonized, and who condemns condemnation would so mercilessly dismiss, condemn and punish the unrighteous. Theologian Walter Wink has pointed out,

“Matthew’s use of the judgment theme is particularly vindictive . . . The unconditional loving Abba of the Sermon on the Mount (5:45) now wants to settle some scores.  Matthew’s heart will not be happy until ‘all evildoers’ have been thrown ‘into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Matthew, it would appear, has an axe to grind. Two visions – side by side – in the same passage, reflecting two competing visions within Matthew’s church. It’s just the way it is.        

This tends to drive modern people like us crazy, but the early Messianic communities which were modeled after the Jewish synagogue apparently had little problem with it. Jewish teachers loved to debate and argue various positions and interpretations.

The Bible is obviously not a window into a perfectly clear revelation of God. Rather, the Bible is more like a mirror that reflects the human struggle to hear, know, and do God’s will, which we get wrong a lot of the time. Because we are flawed, fragmented, and fractured, our sacred texts are also flawed, fragmented, and fractured. Sometimes a Bible text will take us three steps forward; sometime two steps back. It’s just the way it is.

So here in a single passage, two competing visions. One inclusive, the other exclusive. The inclusive vision was apparently too good to be true for some in the community, so – if you want in you better have the proper attire. And what is the proper attire? That depends on who you ask.

In the church of my upbringing one had to walk to the front of the church at the conclusion of the worship service when an invitation was extended and confess Jesus to the preacher. That was the way in. One had to say, “I want to trust Jesus” or “I want to be saved” or something similar. There was some flexibility on the particular formula, but the confession to the preacher was essential. That’s what sealed it. Every group has their own style of wedding robe – confessions, creeds, rituals, belief systems, etc.

The inclusive vision of the bad and the good together was just too much inclusiveness for some folks in Matthew’s church to accept, and after two thousand years of church history, we can say that for the most part this had been true for most of Christendom. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Cutting Through the Snow on the LGBT Question

As a result of the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up cases seeking to overturn decisions that struck down bans on gay marriage, same-sex marriage is now legal in 24 states. And that number is likely to expand in the near future. To celebrate this progress I pulled out my Bob Dylan CD to hear Dylan wail, “The Times They are A Changin.’” The moral arc of history just bent a little more toward justice.  I believe MLK would say, “Amen.”  

The church should be setting the pace. All the wrangling we do over a handful of biblical texts (Lev. 18:22/20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9; Rom. 1:26-27; and 1 Tim. 1:10) that condemn some form of same-sex relations is such a waste of time. In terms of the Christian’s practical discipleship to Jesus, all that matters is how well we love one another.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the handful of texts above which condemn some deviant form of same-sex behavior (like pederasty, master-slave sex, temple prostitution, or sexual excess) actually condemn ALL same-sex behavior. Would these texts then negate Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves? Would they override God’s mandate to emulate Jesus’ inclusive love and compassion? Would they diminish Jesus’ inclusive vision of the kingdom of God? Absolutely not.

If I thought the biblical writers were condemning all forms of same-sex relations, then I would have to argue that the biblical writers were wrong - just as they were wrong about God sanctioning violence and ordering the annihilation of entire civilizations. I would argue that the biblical writers were wrong the same way they were wrong about the validity of patriarchy, the moral inferiority of women, or their support of slavery. I would say: Follow Jesus, strive to love as he loved, and forget about those scriptures.  

In reality, it is virtually impossible to know with any degree of certainty what the biblical authors of these disputed texts actually had in mind. Trying to recover authorial intention is a nearly impossible task, and it is very easy to manipulate the evidence and read into the authors meaning what we want them to say.

What should be clear to everyone is: Committed, faithful, monogamous, same-sex relations are very, VERY different than same-sex relations that are rooted in self-indulgence, manipulation, and exploitation. And, of course, the very same thing can be said of heterosexual relations as well.

Many times I have heard Christians who are against same-sex marriage and the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church say, “We take this position out of love. We are simply being true to scripture.” I don’t buy it. We can read the disputed texts in a variety of different ways, either as a way of excluding LGBT persons or as having no bearing on the issue at all.

So why do so many Christians read them in a condemnatory and exclusionary way? I think there is still a lot of disguised and concealed homophobia in the church. Yale University Professor Dale Martin contended in his book “Sex and the Single Savior” that a lot of scholarly interpretation of these disputed texts is homophobic. He wrote, 

“I am not claiming that these particular men are themselves homophobic. Rather, I would argue that their writings about homosexuality participate in a cultural homophobia, an irrational fear and loathing of homosexuality . . . that pervades much of Western culture and expresses itself in discourses about sexuality, institutionalized marginalization of gay and lesbian people, and social structures that discriminate against them.”

Clearly since Martin made that statement in 2006 the tide has shifted. However, this “irrational fear and loathing of homosexuality” is still quite prevalent in Western culture and in the church in particular. Some Christian groups seem to be entrenched in homophobia.

Until Christians can come to a place of acceptance of same-sex marriage and full inclusion (acceptance and affirmation) of our LGBT sisters and brothers in our churches, then we will continue to fail miserably at fulfilling Jesus’ mandate to love God and neighbor and at being the body of Christ in the world. I honestly admit my personal daily failure to love my neighbor as myself and to incarnate the love of Christ; I would never point to my own life as an example of what this should look like. However, I also would not appeal to scripture to justify my failure to love as I believe opponents of same-sex marriage and full inclusion do.

Paul got it right when he said: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).

If the church cannot change and become welcoming and affirming of our LGBT sisters and brothers, then I’m afraid the church will be reduced to a noisy gong and clanging symbol, rather than what I believe God intends for it to be – an outpost for God’s kingdom of love and justice in the world.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Toward a Modern Day Jesus-Inspired Sexual Ethic (Three articles as they appeared in the Frankfort State Journal - Aug.; Sept.; Oct.)

Part 1 (Aug., State Journal)

Today and in my next two articles I will be exploring the question: What should a modern day, Jesus inspired sexual ethic look like for Christians who aspire to follow Jesus? Jesus, of course, does not address this subject directly in the Gospels. But he does speak to it indirectly.

By way of introduction we should first ask: Does the Bible as a whole teach a clear sexual ethic? It does not. The sexual mores condoned and practiced in the Old Testament Scriptures almost always favor patriarchal preferences and prejudices. Consider the following examples:

(1) Polygamy (having many wives) and concubinage (a woman living with a man to whom she is not married) were regularly practiced and accepted as normative in the Old Testament without a single word of condemnation by a biblical writer.
(2) Prostitution was considered quite natural and necessary in patriarchal biblical times as a safeguard for the virginity of brides and property rights of husbands (Gen. 38:12-19; Josh. 2:1-7)
(3) In the Old Testament a man could not commit adultery against his own wife (because she belonged to him); 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).
(4) And nowhere in the Old Testament are sexual relations between consenting unmarried heterosexual adults prohibited.

I could go on (the above examples are not exhaustive), but the point should be obvious: The sexual mores accepted and practiced in the patriarchal culture of the biblical world favored male power and interests. If anyone tells you that the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics is clear, they either do not know any better (they are simply passing on what they had been taught), or they are being intentionally dishonest. 

As I said, Jesus does not approach this subject directly, though he does teach some things that are certainly related to sexual mores and practices. So where do we begin? We must begin with that which constituted the critical core of all Jesus’ 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).

For Christians, this love ethic as taught and embodied by Jesus provides a guiding beacon, a compass that can be used to chart the course of God’s will for human beings.

I believe that everything Jesus did and said ultimately relates to this essential demand: Love God with the totality of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Value the well-being of the other as much as you value your own well-being.

In light of the importance of this foundational teaching, I believe that any contemporary Jesus inspired sexual ethic must be filtered through this love ethic that was central to Jesus’ life and message.

In my next two articles I will apply Jesus’ love ethic to three specific sayings (Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 7:21-23, and Matt. 19:1-12) that relate to this subject. Watch this space (Sept. 7; Oct. 5). 

Part 2 (Sept., State Journal) 

What should a modern-day, Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In my first article (Aug. 3) I pointed out two things: (1) In the Bible sexual mores were quite diverse, but generally they reflected patriarchal practices that favored male prejudices and preferences. (2) Any Christian sexual ethic must be guided by the love ethic (Matt. 22:37-40) that was foundational to Jesus’ life and teaching. Here I want to explore how Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-9) relates to this.

Jesus argued against divorce, but I do not believe he considered divorce a greater sin or evil than any other betrayal or failure that divides people and harms relationships. In Matthew 19 Jesus is not the one who brings up the subject. I am convinced that why Jesus said what he did is even more important than what Jesus actually said. Let me explain:

In the patriarchal culture of Palestinian Judaism in Jesus’ world only men exercised the right to divorce and they could do so 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 . . .”) was commonly understood by many Jewish leaders to mean that a man could divorce his wife on the slightest whim. 

This was simply disastrous for women who were then 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 by 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 over/against same-sex marriage. Clearly, Jesus’ appeal to Gen. 2:24 was for the express purpose of arguing against divorce. And clearly, the affirmation of heterosexual marriage does not in any way imply the condemnation of same-sex marriage, which Jesus says nothing about, and would have made no sense in a culture that knew nothing about same-sex orientation.)

Jesus’ critics 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” (Matt. 19:8).

The Bible doesn’t actually say that Moses allowed for divorce because of the hardheartedness of the people. This was Jesus’ interpretation—his critical/spiritual reading—of the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 (quoted above).

Jesus interpreted Deut. 24:1 with a bias toward love—toward the good and well-being of the women who suffered from divorce. By arguing against divorce, Jesus was providing some leverage for women who were generally devastated by divorce. He was trying to level the playing field.

Undoubtedly, Jesus’ love ethic provided the context for his argument from Scripture against divorce. Why did he do this? Because what he 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 naturally 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 or because divorce is a greater sin than other sins involving a breach of trust or act of betrayal. I am convinced that he argued against divorce because he first and foremost cared about the plight of Jewish women entrapped in a patriarchal culture that oppressed them. Luke 4:18 emphasizes Jesus’ mission as one of freeing the captives and releasing the oppressed.

What can we appropriate from this in our contemporary setting? By following the trajectory of Jesus’ teaching we can conclude that a Jesus-inspired sexual ethic for both heterosexual and same-sex couples will always be characterized by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for and in the best interest of both partners in the relationship.

Part 3 (Oct., State Journal)

This is part three of: What should a modern day Jesus-inspired sexual ethic look like? In part one I argued that any Jesus-inspired sexual ethic must be grounded in Jesus’ love ethic that was central to his life and teaching (Matt. 22:37-40). In part two I concluded from Jesus’ teaching on divorce (Matt. 19:3-12) that all sexual relations (heterosexual or same-sex) worthy of Jesus will be marked by mutuality, equality, and what is genuinely good for both partners in the relationship. Here in part three I want to look at what Jesus says about sexual excess and exploitation. .

In Matthew 5:27-28 Jesus says: “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.”

In the interests of love Jesus sometimes intensified the Jewish law, other times he abolished it. Here he intensified or radicalized it.

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. 

As in the passage on divorce, Jesus spoke directly to men, because in his culture 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 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 to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matt. 5:29-30).

Jesus was certainly employing hyperbole (it would be absurd to interpret such a text literally), but he fully intended to shock his hearers. Jesus wanted to derail sexual exploitation at its origin—in the heart.

Jesus made this point in Mark 7:21-23 where 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.”

The word translated “fornication” is a very general term that is often simply translated “sexual immorality.” 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 Hebrew prophets envision the future day of the world’s redemption as a time when the will of God is written on the minds and hearts of God’s children (see Jer. 31:31-34). When the royal law of love fills hearts and minds, then holiness codes and legal stipulations become obsolete. 

So what happens when we apply Jesus’ love ethic to sexual desire and the sexual mores of our culture? Sexual desire will not be denied, denigrated, ignored, or abhorred. It will be welcomed as a gift, an inseparable part of our humanity that God calls “very good.” The external shape of a Jesus-inspired sexual relationship may take different forms in our culture, but without question this relationship (heterosexual or same-sex) will be characterized by mutuality, equality, fidelity, humility, honesty, compassion, and a magnanimous love that truly pursues the good and well-being of one’s partner.

On Tuesday, Nov. 11 from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Community Room of the Paul Sawyier Library I will be leading a workshop on “Why Jesus Would Say ‘Yes’ to Same-Sex Marriage.” This is a workshop on why the church should be welcoming and affirming (committed to full inclusion) of our LGBT sisters and brothers. It is free to the public. One can access all three parts of this series at my website: It’s titled: Toward a Jesus-Inspired Sexual Ethic.