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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Navy Seals, Marriage and Mission

I have a wedding tonight for a wonderful young couple. Turns out she went to school with my nephew and her mom teaches with my niece. Those sorts of personal connections are a reminder of the connections which we all share without knowing it. Connections is one of the most important aspects of being church. The Gospel reading this couple chose is from John 15. The first line is simple, yet eloquent. "As the Father has loved Me so I have loved you. Abide in My love." (John 15:9)

The groom is a Navy Seal. His brother is a Marine. Several other Navy Seals are in the wedding party. They are young guys who have completed unimaginable training. They are the best of the best. They understand the concept of mission. When they know what to do, they do it. Sadly, we live in a world where human decision making and choices require that young men must train to kill. The tragic loss of young lives in war is a telling reminder that we have made a mess of this world.

There is some dissonance, standing in a church with warriors and reading about love. Yet, as Jesus continues to teach us (John 15:13) "No one has greater love than this, to lay down His life for His friends." Navy Seals and Marines have laid down their lives for us. This is a concrete act of love. In marriage, the man and woman lay down their lives for one another. If they have children, they will further lay down their lives. Every day. In ways that are not always dramatic and sometimes incredibly subtle. Love means "dying" over and over again each day.

The church loses sight of her mission too often. It is about love, but as Jesus reminds us, "If you keep my commandments you will abide in My love." IF you obey, then you love. As awesome as navy Seals are, once they stop obeying orders they become dangerous. As awesome as marriage is, once a couple seeks to exert their own will on one another the marriage dies. Jesus is the authority. He is also the model. Giving ourselves in service to our country can be modeling Jesus. Giving ourselves in love to our spouse and children can be modeling Jesus. All of us have people in our lives and jobs to do. If they are done under His authority then they can be love and obedience. We need to pause and be aware. What is our mission?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Quitting Church

I read an article in Christianity Today on line called "The Leavers: Young Doubters Exit the Church."
As I have written about this before some of my thoughts are already out there. I wanted to highlight a couple of issues raised by this article.
  1. "Poor Job of the Church in answering questions". I agree with this. My own struggles in faith are usually intensified by the pious, but shallow, answers most Christians give to me. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it" is not helpful to someone who is not sure God said it the way you interpret it. Of course, it is hard to teach kids in Sunday School because they are rarely interested. Even so, I fear I have not prepared our youth enough to face the big questions.
  2. "Moral Compromise." The author said that many young adults leave the faith because they are engaging in a life style which is contrary to the demands of Christian faith. One man is quoted that the Christian God demands obedience while his nature gods (Wicca) do not. I think this is a huge motivation. I have seen in my own life that there are times when I leave prayer discipline and faithfulness because I am engaged in behaviors which are not in line with the faith. Many of my parishioners who have left (some in 40's and 50's) also have some questionable behaviors going on in their life. I think the crisis of the church is related to individualism and self-generated morality. We as church have done a bad job dealing with real questions, but sometimes when we make it clear Christianity is too much for many people today.
I understand the culture today is hostile to faith. I also understand some of the legitimate reasons why church is no longer important to young adults. But I think there needs to be honest evaluation of the reasons. Some of it is sin, an old fashioned Christian word. I would argue alot of it is sin. I also dread seeing what the world will look like in twenty five years if this trend continues. History is clear, when we are our own authority, we tend to make selfish decisions.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Ordering Time

The mad rush from Thanksgiving to Christmas is pretty exhausting. The last two weeks we were out late almost every night. The weather is dark and cold. Everyone is sniffling and tired. New Years Eve looms ahead. I learned many decades ago New Years Eve is over rated. I am not a big time partier. I will open my house to my kid's friends and watch them celebrate.

There is a depth, though, to all of this. The end of one year and the beginning of another year is real. The US government thinks New Years is a big deal. If you do not make your contribution to the church by Friday at midnight then you cannot claim it as a deduction this year. The first baby born in the new year gets lots of presents, but the ones born the day before get a tax deduction. A few hours one way or the other means thousands of dollars! In real life there is such a thing as "too late." That is a deep spiritual law as well. There is good reason to believe that God also has set a time limit.

There is also the whole issue of new beginings. I have often said that as a young man I came up with such great New Year's Resolutions that I have been able to use the same ones every year! Get in better shape spiritually, physically, interpersonally, and mentally. Yes sir, that seems to be a need each year. A central tenant of Christianity is that "in Christ we are a new creation." One of the toughest issues for me is the lag time between 'being a new creation' ontologically and 'being a new creation' existentially. It has already happened and yet is is ongonig and slow. I am frustrated by how much of the old creation is still dominating me even as I am 'new'. But the Christian disciplines are the long, slow birthing process of the new man/woman. Daily prayer, daily Bible reading, daily acts of self discipline, daily acts of love and service. Imperceptible progress. Ordering time so as to become what I am.

When ordering time seems to be a waste of time I remember the stone steps into European Cathedrals. Thousands and thousands of people slowly wear the rock away. Not noticable with a single person, or even a hundred people. But after centuries the worn away rock is a stunning testimony to the effects of people walking up steps. I pray my soul (and yours) is impacted in the coming year by the Holy Spirit walking in us as we pray, study and work in the Kingdom!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Season

We are now in the Twelve Days of Christmas. well, liturgically we are. Around Memphis Tennessee there are not alot of liturgical Christians. For non-believers and most believers Christmas ended the morning of December 25th. The twelve days leading up to Epiphany on January 6th are after Christmas.

Time is a funny thing. We moderns measure time in intricate ways. I watch baseball where thing are measured in parts of a second. In races, on land and in water, the stop watches measure to the hundredth or thousandeth of a second. Calendars, clocks, watches abound. Yet for all our ability to measure and micro-measure time we are less able to celebrate it.

Big events are a season in the church. There is Advent, four weeks of measured anticipation. Learning how to hope and wait and anticipate. There is Christmas, two weeks to celebrate the most important birth in history and the greatest mystery in history, the incarnation of Jesus. Soon it will be Lent, forty days of repentance and life change, followed by fifty days of celebrating the resurrection. The Event which changes how we see the world.

I wish I knew how to relax and enter into time. I wish the next two weeks I lived in a way which resonated with the liturgical calendar. I wish I was amazed and in awe of the incarnation in a way that brought wonder and joy to me and others. I wish I was not driven by "the next thing" and constant preparation for what is ahead....

Christmas last two weeks. Now that the buying and giving of gifts is done, it is a great idea to enter into the mystery!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve Night

It is after 10 pm on Christmas Eve. We are getting ready to celebrate the fourth and final service of the night. 4:00, 5:30, 7:30 and next 11:00. It is stunning to me that people celebrate Christmas but choose not to worship Jesus on Christmas. It makes no sense.
I have seen enough movies and TV shows to know that the popular explanation of the "true meaning of Christmas" is family. Personally, I love my family and cherish them. But the true meaning of Christmas has little to do with family. For one thing, it implies that people without families cannot experience Christmas. It also ignores the fact that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Jesus is the true meaning of Christmas. The nativity (birth) of Jesus is the incarnation (God become man) which bridges the gap between fallen humanity and a rejected God. That Gift of God's Son is the point.

I do not intend to insult the love of family or belittle family gatherings. Eating together and sharing gifts is a wonderful thing. But to do all that and fail to factor in worship makes no sense. Christmas without Jesus, without praise of the God Who gave us the gift of Jesus, is empty. I pray that you all have a holy and blessed Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Luke and Mary

Luke has a much different focus in his story of Jesus' birth. He begins with a feature common to his Gospel, alternating stories of men and women.

After explaining his serious historical inquiry, Luke begins with the story of an old priest whose wife could not have a child. We hear the OT stories of Abraham, Jacob and the parents of Samson in this account. It is a reminder that when God acts on behalf of His people it is wondrous and amazing. Zechariah, the priest, fails to trust the angel's message that he would have a child so he is struck mute. Is this Luke's way of illustrating that the voice of prophecy had been silenced in Israel for so many years? John the Baptist was considered the first real prophet since the close of the biblical canon by his contemporaries.

This is followed by Mary's visitation. She submits to God's plan. This is the first of many contrasts between John the Baptist and Jesus. Clearly Jesus is above John in Luke's narrative. Mary goes to visit her ancient, pregnant relative (Zechariah's wife Elizabeth). When she arrives, John the Baptist, still in his mother's womb, stirs. What follows is Mary's song. This is a central focus of the story. Herein lies the meaning of the event.

Mary glorifies God using words, phrases and images from numerous OT sources. In a sense the song of Mary is a composite of various other songs proclaiming God's saving activity. That is the key element of the faith journey. We cannot focus on ourselves, we must glorify God. Too often we wait for some amazing event to give us security and assurance. The pregnancies of these two women were not for private benefit. These boys will grow up to be The prophet and The Messiah. The pregnancies are for the nations! Mary sings that God will overturn the current world order. The mighty will be toppled. The poor and needy raised up. The political impact of the activity of God is earth changing. But God acts in love and justice, not petty political power plays. He raises up the lowly, but the goal is always to worship God alone and live a holy life. Reflecting on what is happening to her, Mary states what God is doing. He is bringing HIS kingdom. The pregnancy is but another step in that long process.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Out of Egypt

Yesterday we wrote about the RobMag (Magi) who came from the East. Today let us continue on with the story.
Herod desires to learn the location of the new baby. For some reason he does not send anyone with the visiting magicians from the East. There is not even a spy trailing them. No explanation for this bone-headed move by Herod is given. Perhaps there is a narrative reason?

The Magi give their gifts and head on another way fooling Herod.... Herod is reduced to mass murder of any child under two to make sure he gets the baby. Historically, we can assume the number of baby boys killed to be between 10 and 20. This does not diminish the horror. In ancient times, sadly, such things took place more frequently than we can imagine. Whatever events Matthew refers to here are consistent with the character of Herod and the actual efforts to undermine Jesus. It is likely, however, that Matthew is also engaging in a form of Jewish theologizing which was very common to this time.

The story has many elements from the OT. It is more likely that that is the point of Matthew's account. The story of Moses, for example, where Pharaoh was having the Jewish babies killed. There is also the OT Joseph who was carried into Egypt. Egypt was certainly a place where Jews had run to hide over the centuries, but the echoes of the Exodus traditions in the OT are certainly the main point here. Matthew parallels Jesus with Moses in His Gospel. The birth stories are probably an interpretive key to understanding that.

Jesus by going to Egypt and then being called out is "recapitulating" the story of Israel. His life is seen as containing all that went before. Figuratively, we say "in Him" which means, that Jesus is the one who sums up all of our lives. Matthew the theologian wants us to know that Jesus is the True Son (whereas Israel failed in this vocation). He also wants us to know that God is active in the history of Jesus, even if He is not controlling every detail and every event. God works around the tragedies of evil men who abuse their power. God demands great sacrifices from those who seek to be faithful. God does not spare His own son any of the struggle. Are you tired of struggle and pain? Be brave and strong, there is no shame in being tired. But we can be inspired by this story to carry on. The heart of the Christmas story is the rejection and suffering of God's son.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Three Kings

Jesus was visited by Magi. The Greek word is of foreign origin. Rob Mag and refers to soothsayers, seers, astrologers, wisemen, physicians, sorcerers and magician. The last word is an English derivative of magi. The Medes, Babylonians and Persians all had such men who were highly revered. These ancient lands are called Iraq and Iran today.

Because of the popular song ("We three kings of Orient are bearing gifts we traveled afar....") and later legends which ascribed actual names to the three, most people have not been able to read the actual bible story. In the bible, it merely states that there were magi and that they brought three gifts. They are not kings. They arrive sometime after the birth of Jesus, in fact, they go into the house where he was (2:11).

Bethlehem is a small town, estimates of inhabitants vary but it was probably numbered in the hundreds. The questions about history are not easily answered. There is little doubt, though, that Matthew is sending an important message in this story. Jesus is under threat from Herod (the Jewish 'king') while Gentiles arrive to identify him as the "newborn king of the Jews." This is a key statement which Matthew wants his readers to hear and understand. Matthew does not speak of a temporary sojourn because of a census. Nor does he mention shepherds and angels. His concern is with Gentiles. He and Luke do not have the same story.

There is every possibility that Matthew and Luke are sharing historical remembrances of local people. It is equally likely that other wonderful events were left unreported. Perhaps most eye witnesses were long dead by the time they wrote their Gospels. If Jesus died at 33, then anyone old enough to remember his birth would have been in their mid to late 40's. Add to that a couple decades before the Gospels are written and suddenly you are talking about people in their 60's and 70's, or older. There would not have been an overabundance of people living that long. However, the amazing stories would have been recalled in family settings and dim remembrance possible long afterward.

The temptation to want facts can blind us to the truth. Who is Jesus? Matthew answers clearly, he is the king of the Jews. That is the central point which cannot be lost. How do we contemporary folk lost in our swirling doubts and questions deal with these Gospel stories? We need to answer the question, do I wonder? Is there room in my heart for mystery and amazement? I do not know if Matthew even intended for the birth narrative to be viewed as history. Tomorrow we will look at the OT parallels and ponder that.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Matthew: the Birth of Jesus

(Matthew 1:18-25) Most of us know this story. Mary and Joseph were going to get married, but they were not married yet. She is pregnant but Joseph knows he is not the father. However, the narrative makes clear that the pregnancy is of God. The explanation is for our benefit.

Joseph is righteous. For Matthew that means both he obeyed the Law and that he was moral and upright. His decision to divorce her is based on the grave nature of the situation. He assumes she has commited adultery. Yet he wants to do it "quietly." He is not trying to get revenge or publicly humilate her (even though he thinks she has done this to him). Like his namesake in Genesis, it is in the world of dreams that God speaks to Joseph. A messenger (Greek angelos = messenger) explains to Joseph that this is God's activity and that he has no need to feat taking Mary as his wife.

What we have laid out before us is pretty sparse. I am always aware of how little we are told. We do not know the length of time that all of this took place. We are not given details of the inner experience of Joseph or Mary: their feelings, worries, expectations, etc. Nor do we hear how friends and family react. The story is not told for us to have such insights or information. (In a sense, their privacy is respected.)

What we do know is central. God is at work here. The pregnancy is an act of God. This is emphasized by connecting the event to a verse from Isaiah 7:14. In the Isaiah story the prophet Isaiah tells the king, Ahaz, to ask for a sign. The king refuses and Isaiah blasts him for his insolence. Then he makes a prophecy about a child being born. This child, Isaiah says, will be weaned around the time Israel is delivered from its current threat. Isaiah is not prediciting that a virgin (in Hebrew the word means young woman) will  have a baby and that the baby will be a Messiah. However, Matthew connects the deliverance of Israel seven centuries prior to the deliverance to be given by Jesus. Fulfillment in the sense of FULLNESS is probably the best understanding. God is at work. Jesus will save His people from their sins. Big deals begin in small ways. Man-Kings start out as helpless infants. Insignifcant people, living holy and faithful lives, may find those lives turned upside down by God. To save the world God may upset your own little household. But in it all, the Holy Spirit is the author and God's messengers do show up (even if it is a dream). The many struggles of Joseph and Mary are something to reflect on. Being Jesus' mom and dad was a great blessing. When you serve God, great blessings are often a challenge (cross shaped). Matthew's Christmas story may be sweet to us because of warm feelings and carols we have sung. But if you look into the text more deeply it appears it could be full of real life challenges and struggles. But no matter how tough it is, Emmauel--God is with us. Even if he is present in the flesh of a baby!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Matthew, Luke and Baby Jesus

Matthew and Luke both claim that Jesus was born of a virgin. However, the details of their stories are quite different. What to make of that?

Matthew has written his story of Jesus from a particular perspective. His story begins with a genealogy. In the genealogy he describes three periods with fourteen fathers begetting sons. The three periods are Abraham to David, David to the Exile (when Jerusalem was over run) and the exile to Jesus. By highlighting these key moments in history, Matthew is particularly emphasizing how God saves (Jesus=Jeshua=Yahweh Saves) His people. Abraham and David both received important promises from God relating to God's gift of salvation to the world and to His people.

Matthew includes several woman, each one a person who was a foreigner or whose motherhood was the result of unusual circumstances. This is a preview of Mary's pregnancy. The foreigner theme is also a key issue for Matthew, who seems to be writing, in part, to explain why the Gentiles believe in Jesus while many Jews reject Him. Scholars have noted that the numerical value of the name DAVID (in Hebrew each letter is also a number) is fourteen. Are the three sets of fourteen fathers also a reference to David? We do not know. It would be lovely if Matthew had included a "behind the scenes of writing the Gospel" in his work. We do know that Luke has a different genealogy. It goes back in time all the way to Adam. It does not include some of the same names. But he is making his point as well, which echos throughout his gospel.

Genealogies for many of us are repetitive and boring. This was not the case for the biblical writers. The names listed are often people about whom we know things. Someone who knows the bible knows who many of these people are. The woman especially (e.g., Bathsheba is an adultress, Rahab a prostitute, etc) are important examples of how someone can make mistakes in their life yet still help God's plan along. (It is also a remnider that woman may not be appreciated in ancient culture as much as men, but God respects them)We are the result of our heritage. Choices made long ago impact us today. God is seceretly at work through us saving the world. In Jesus we see the central act of God's activity. But it is a consolation to know that Jesus comes from some questionable predecessors.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Christmas and Luke's Gospel

Anyone who has read Matthew and Luke notices that although they often have different emphasis, they are pretty much telling the same story. The story of Jesus is recongnizable. Some of the differences are because of a particular emphasis. Luke, for example, is very much focused on concrete poverty and many of his stories include an exhortation to take care of the poor. So where Matthew has "blessed are the poor in spirit" Luke has "blessed are the poor." Each tries to capture and convey in the limited space at their disposal a fuller picture of Jesus. If I can read an entire Gospel in a couple of hours it is safe to think that Jesus' 30+ years of life are not totally contained in the twenty or so chapters!

This brings us to Matthew and Luke and their infancy narratives. First of all, Mark does not have any stories about baby Jesus. He starts off with John the Baptist. There are lots of theories why this was so. No one knows. There is good reason to think Matthew and Luke actually had a copy of Mark's Gospel in their possession when they wrote their own Gospels. The arguments make sense, but I also know life is less logical than our reconstructions are. At any rate, Matthew and Luke have two stories of the birth of Jesus which really do not easily fit together. One reason for this, perhaps the main reason, is probably because they are telling the birth story to make clear what Jesus' life really means from their perspective. We forget that ancient history had different expectations and different emphases from our history. For one thing there was an understanding that the narrative was also a construction where the author had some leeway to construct his story. [Truth be told even today that is still true. Anyone who reads a newspaper account knows that the writer leaves out many details and plays up an angle for the story. History is always written from a perspective and the writing always conveys a view point.] However, there is still more or less accurate writing and even ancient authors were expected to write in a way that respected the truth.

As I said, the birth stories are different but both agree that Jesus' mother, Mary, was a virgin. The question which I have is this, if Mark does not mention it then where did Matthew and Luke come across this idea?   Compounding this is the rumor of Jesus' father being a Roman soldier. This means that in ancient times the birth of Jesus was thought to be under unusual circumstances and this was used by enemies of the Christian church. So something to think about as we enter the final week before Christmas. What does it mean that this man's birth was to a virign?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Funerals and Survivors

Yesterday I had another funeral. In ten days I have been at Collierville Funeral Home three times. The first time it was to preach at a generic Christmas service for those who had lost loved ones in the past year. On Friday and Tuesday it was for fathers, one in his 50's and the other in his 80's. Although I had met both men they did not attend my parish church.

What is the message for people left behind? I believe strongly in mourning and weeping. Too often people seem to equate tears with weakness.  I have to think that the reactions which come naturally at a time of great loss serve some healthy function. I do not understand why burying someone you love should be considered "no big deal." It seems to me frequently other people want the mourner to "hold it together" because that way it does not impinge on them.

There is no surprise that people who have suffered a great loss need to mourn. I share this more as a reminder. Many people around you are experiencing their first Christmas without someone whom they love. Compassion is a valuable response to such a situation. If you know someone who has had a loss the last few years it is generally more helpful to ask them how they are doing. Some of us are freaked out by a tear that is shed, but try to accept that the emotion you see is something buried inside of them. Losses make us feel lonely. That loneliness does not need to be compounded by the indifference, or even worse, the harsh criticism of others around us. It may not be so much fun for those who have suffered losses. Love them and be kind.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cain and Abel

Brother kills brother. There is no legitimate reason for this act in the text. What is the story telling us? What is it not trying to claim and explain.Obviously, the world is suddenly populated. Cain has a wife. Cain fears that as he wanders those whom he meets will want to kill him. There is no explanation of where these people come from.

Many Christians provide explanations. Adam and Eve, after all, had many other unnamed children (Genesis 5:4-5) however after the death of Abel it seems to imply that the son Seth is a replacement of sorts. (Gen 4:25 "God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel because Cain killed Abel.") There does not seem to be an abundance of children (enough to populate numerous villages) implied by this remark.

I do not think Christians should read their own bible with a different set of demands than they read the sacred writings of other religions. This does NOT mean that I equate the truth of the Bible with the writings of other faiths. I do not. That is why my questions always center on what does the text of the Bible really say. The narrative conveys the rapid decline of the human experiment. Adam and Eve have two sons and one kills the other. There are social statements being made (farmers and herders are represented). There is a psychological/spiritual component (sin is lurking at the door seeking to master you but you can master it) which emphasizes human choice. There is an idea of human responsibility in worship and service of God (If you do well will you not be accepted?). And, of course, there is the age old tragedy of sibling rivalry. Lastly, human anger and jealousy produces murder.

All of us are prone to self centeredness. In our quest for what we want, we do damage to those who somehow diminish our sense of self. The story of Cain and Abel is a reminder that human realtionships and our relationship to God are interconnected. The tragedy of life is how often we choose to harm, even kill, one another. Yet, the Bible wants us to understand that we are connected to those early sinners. Our heritage is tainted by murder and violence. It is a sad fact of life on the planet. The reality of sin is the Problem which we all face. the strories of the Bible never shy away from human sin. These stories are a mirror in which we see our own reflections.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Adam and Eve

Do you ever wonder what these stories sounded like to people 3,000 years ago? Imagine their lives, so different from ours in many ways yet so similar. Think of the stories which their neighbors told, stories about warring gods and the debrise of those wars and the corpses of the fallen gods being the "the stuff" of human existence.

You and I, dealing with our own set of worries and concerns, hear the stories from our perspective. In the same way, the original story tellers and the original audience also did the same. Perspective means to see from a certain vantage point, to see in a particular way.

The Darwin debates in our own age have produced a particular interpretation of Adam and Eve. When I am asked, "Do you believe in evolution?" I answer, "It depends on what you mean by that."
I do not believe we are here by accident. I do believe there are biological processes through which God has guided our creation. To the Rationalist I am a dark age thinker because I believe God created us. To the Literalist I am a Modernist heretic who has denied the words of scripture. I guess as I thinker neither of them understands the word of God in this place, I can live with their conclusions.

We are here because God guided the process. Just as babies are created through biological processes and become human adults. It is not an accident. It has meaning. We have duties and responsibilities. At least that is how I read the beginning pages of Genesis.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Genesis 2: The Tree

Looking to Genesis to debate the science of life on this earth seems to be missing the point to me. It implies that the stories there are presented as an alternative to modern science. It ignores THE FACT that this is an ancient text, written by and for ancient people (under God's inspiration). It is a failure to listen to what is being communicated.

So revelation says that humans are in a position of responsibility in relation to the world. Genesis 1 seems to imply that it may be a struggle (subdue and have dominion). There is a parallel to the idea of God ordering the universe to subdue chaos. Humans have a battle on their hands keeping the world under control. Human choices were meant to make the world a better place. In Genesis 2 the language is less aggressive and combative, The man is a laborer who watches over, protects or keeps the garden. But once again there is an implication that all is not well, why else must the man watch and work? So from the beginning there is a deep sense of human vocation to work and even to struggle.

The question is "what is up with the tree?" Knowledge, in the biblical sense, includes experience. That is why "to know" is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. The knowledge of good and evil is not merely theoretical. There is a sense in which one must experience evil to know what it is. Knowledge is also understanding. It is the ability to think deeply into things. There are lots of explanations about the tree. I am sure that the tree was a multi-layered image even from the beginning. But whatever else it may represent, it is clearly a symbol for limits. In the garden, man (and woman) had all that they needed. They were provided for and they were occupied. But there were limits. True freedom is dependent upon our ability to choose to do the right thing. Obedience makes us better, it grows us and allows us to become disciplined, trustworthy and faithful.

Personally, I do not think that the tree was any different from any of the other trees. What made it a tree whose fruit gave the knowledge of good and evil was the simple fact that God said do not touch that one. Once it was forbidden it changed. Once a hand reaches out to touch this fruit, to take and eat this fruit, then the human person would experience and know doing evil. Being disobedient instructs us. Once we learn that we are not to be trusted it will effect our view of ourself and our view of others. Those who know the story know that Adam and Eve experienced shame (they saw they were naked; i.e. they experienced a need to "cover up" as they became more self centered and self focused) and shame led to blame (relational break down and finger pointing. Adam blames God and Eve: the WOMAN that YOU gave me, Eve then passes the blame to the snake).

I also think it is a micro-version of the history of Israel. They are in the promised land, sin, and are exiled. The story of Adam and Eve is also our story. We ruin it all by our choices and then seek to blame everyone else. Yes, this is a deep narrative told in simple form. And it is True. Truer than those who would reduce it to debates about biology. I will write about evolution later.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Genesis 1 & 2

How are we to read the book of Genesis? When we hear all the raging controversies and all the claims made what are we to think?

I shared yesterday about the message(s) of Genesis 1. I believe God reveals, in and through that majestic text, some core, foundational truths about the world in which we live.
In the middle of chapter 2, however, there is an additional story about creation. It is a different version of teh creation of human beings. In Genesis 1:12 the earth brings forth vegetation on the third day and humans are created on day six (1:26). On the other hand, in Genesis 2:5 "there is no plant on the earth and no herb when the Lord God (in Genesis 1 it is simply God) makes the man. The Hebrew words are a pun with man/adam and dirt/adamah. It is a reminder that human beings die and disintegrate and return to dust. The beginning of man's existence includes work. He is to till the ground and to keep the garden. Work is part of the deal. Man is also in need of companionship. So we are communal. The foundation of marriage is God's plan for a man and woman to live together as one and produce new life. Lastly, the original state also implies some innocence and openness (they are naked but not ashamed).

Some people see the contradictions between story elements in Genesis 1&2 and reject the bible as untrue. Others, having already decided that because the word of God is true it must conform to their specific standards, deny there is any contradiction. They read the biblical text with the intention to make it all fit. Sorry, but neither approach is terribly helpful. If I read other sacred texts with a critical eye then I must apply the same standard to the sacred text which I hold dear. God's message is on His terms, not mine.

The creation of human beings in the bible is not about a scientific or biological explanation. It is about God's power and plan. The different order of details was known to the ones who originally compiled the literature we read. Ancient people were very adept at seeing logical inconsistencies. Clearly it did not bother them, in fact there is good reason to believe they set the two stories side by side, in spite of some inconsistencies, because they held both the stories to be sacred and true. It is no service to Scripture or Truth to deny what is before us. It is an act of trust and humility to embrace the message. God used the planet we live on to mold and shape us. Is that not what the developmental theories of biology also claim? Our task on earth is unique. We are responsible for the planet. Is that not what we all believe, secular or religious? Human relationships are needed to reach our potential as humans. Is that not what social sciences teach? A family is a man and a woman in committed relationship producing children. That is a biological actuality and social science is very clear that statistically when that breaks down it is not good for children. So, I can hear God's message here and be stunned by the beauty of words written so long ago which still resonate in my heart!
The authority of God's revelation in and through human language is my core belief. The truth of the message is believable. Time limited assumptions about truth dating to the Rationalist movements of the Enlightenment are not infallible, nor are they accurate. So read the bible for what is there and dig deep to uncover all the riches.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Genesis 1

 Yesterday I shared about my frustration with "Rational" people who make fun of the bible but generally pick-and-choose and misrepresent what the Bible says. I am also distessed by much of the "Christian" response to such arguments. Often times the Christian caricature is based on the silliness of actual Christians. Is it possible to be seriously minded and a Christian? YES! I leave it for others to judge if I am able to demonstrate it myself.

There are two accounts of creation in Genesis. In the first chapter the language is majestic. It is very structured and repetitive. There is a seven day week. Each day God says something and then we are told how it unfolds. Each day God "saw it was good." Each day ends with "there was evening, there was morning," and the day of the week is numbered. The high point of creation is the sixth day, the creation of men and women. The point of creation is the seventh day of rest, the Sabbath. If this were an academic blog then there could literally be hundreds of pages written. Comparisons would be made to similar creation accounts belonging to the ancient neighbors of the Jews. (I always assume that a primary purpose of every Jewish writing is to, in part, refute the competing beliefs of their pagan neighbors, something modern people rarely if ever consider). We would also study the language to see patterns and significant vocabulary which has additional connotations. We would reflect on the numerical issues (all Hebrew letters serve as numbers) and the roots of the words (each word is part of a family with a host of deeper meanings) and overt and covert symbolism. We would look for puns and clever plays on words (the authors love to do that and in the English translations this is lost). There are other exercises in which we would also engage. But I am no scholar and I do not write for scholars. That sort of work is beyond my scope. My point is this, anyone who reads Genesis 1 and disdains it as prescientific silliness better be ready to display more in depth analysis than that. This is a piece of literature worthy of respect regardless of whether or not one is a believer.

Instead I offer these reflections on Genesis 1. (It might be a good idea to read it.) The message of order is emphasized. The entire creation proceeds in an orderly fashion. The story reflects a belief in an ancient, chaotic body of water. Emptiness, void, chaos, darkness. These are evocative images (and not a scientific theory). It is a judgment on the world without God. Things tend to disintegrate (that is a scientifc theory). The word of God is spoken and it conveys the power of order. (The truth of that is a debate found in philosophy but not in the world of science.) God orders through speaking not acting. In other ancient myths of creation, the world is a result of great battles between gods. The debris of the battle is the stuff of creation and our world. In Genesis, the story is mythic, but ut is not a myth. What do I mean by that? It is mythic in the sense that it conveys a mystery too big for our langauge. Creation is not explained and described; it is declared! The details of the unfolding process are really left out. In myths we get the details (e.g., the exploding body of a dead god become stars in teh sky) but the story while sounding historical is clearly not historical. Here in Genesis, we are told the meaning of the world around us.

Creation is good, by God's own judgment. Humans are in the image and likeness of God. This speaks highly of t he value of every human life and the potential vocation of each human being. (Now remember in the ten commandment it says that we should make no image of God. That is important. God is the one who makes the image. This is also important later because of the claim in the NT that Jesus is The Image of the invisible God.) Lastly, the Sabbath, a center piece of Jewish faith and practice, is the culmination of the process. We need to understand what the message is here. God saw everything that He had made and it was very good. we share in the task of co-creators with God. Our task is to be fruitful and multiply. Our task is to govern the world. Take a breath and relax. Rest. Know that God is the source of all creation.

Tomorrow I will say something very controversial, but for now, rest and reflection on God's creative acts!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Making Fun of Bible

I stumbled across another "conversation" between a "Christian" and a "Rational" person today. These usually appear in the Comment Section after an article I have read on line. It was dealing with a social problem I was researching on education and inner city children. The "Christian" person said that things would be better if we practiced a "biblical based morality." The "Rational" person responded that the bible teaches genocide, murdering children for offenses and abuse of women. Well, gosh, who isn't uplifted by this level of in depth discussion????

Let me begin by saying I do appreciate the criticisms of "biblical morality." From earliest times, church leaders have struggled mightily with much of what is in Scripture. St. Augustine wrote about this in 400, for example. Numerous theories on reading the bible have been crafted just because it is not easy to interpret the bible in many places. It is also not so simple to define "THE biblical morality." So serious minded Christians have struggled and debated and prayed over the biblical texts. The early church fathers and teachers dealt with serious criticism from their pagan neighbors for hundreds of years. The "Rational" critic of teh bible would do well to remember that and not be as simplistic as the Christian whom he criticizes.

But in trying to be fair to the "Rational" people, I must admit I am often times frustrated by their approach. For one thing, I rarely hear them apply the same sort of reasoned criticism of their own beliefs. I also notice that when they make fun of the bible they usually engage the most simplistic lilteralist. While picking on the weakest argument may make it easier to win, it rarely helps to find the truth. Lastly, our culture has any number of its own blatant moral defects and the ethical system embraced by a large swath of secular culture includes an embrace of its own easily lampooned morality. Joshua behaved in accordance with the established expectations of his age. We do the same. He could probably point out things we accept that would be shocking to him.

SO what about the hard things in the bible? What is one to think? We can investigate together in the days ahead.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Does Worship Matter?

The Old Testament prophets were very focused on a couple of themes. One had to do with not worshipping other gods. The Jewish history as recorded in the Old Testament makes it clear that this was an ongoing problem. It is rather ironic that the sacred book of the Jews is so self critical. Unfaithfulness to the Lord is the norm for much of the narrative. God makes it abundantly clear that this pursuit of other gods is the reason for Israel's demise.

On hte other hand, it is also clear that worship without justice is unacceptable. The Lord rejects such worship in the strongest terms. At times the language is very strong. Going to the Temple without treating the needy with justice and mercy was a waste of time. God says He rejects those offerings.

So church attendance, without an accompanying commmitment to the service of the poor, would seem to  be offensive to the Lord. But there are times when people imply that church attendance is offensive and that is not the point of the prophets. I daresay the lack of justice is the issue. Sleeping in on Sundays is not the point of their message.

It might be helpful to reflect on what it is God asks of us and not simply look for excuses. As I said early Sunday morning, there is little reason to think God needs our worship. If you have followed what I have written about the last few weeks I hope I have made it clear that it is us who need to worship Him.

Church attendance

I got here at 7:30 this morning. In an hour or so about 85-100 people will begin filing into the church building to worship. At 11:00 a similar number will do the same. Last evening we saw over 40. Normal weekends 215-235 people are here. Statistically, we are normal. About four in ten of our members show up each week. Sixty percent of those who say, "St. Andrews is my church" do not show up.

Does it matter if people show up? Does our relationship with God really need a church? I am of two minds. On the one hand I am a priest. I became a priest because I think going to church and being church matters a great deal. It matters enough that I have committed most of my adult life to this work. I am self aware enough to know that it is also my job. I support my family on this work so there is another reason why I want to see the church thrive. On the other hand I know that "going to church" on Sunday can simply be a mindless activity. Most people have quit going because even when they were going it probably did not make an impact on their lives.

But in the end, if the church is the sacrament of Jesus, then the work of the church is the work of Christ in the world. The primary way that Jesus does things today is in and through the church. We are "the Body of Christ" as St. Paul says. The problem is church members who view the church as something they do when it is convenient. Or the church is where they go to "get something." Worshipping God is not always fun. Does God deserve an hour or two of thanks and praise? Is He diminished when we sleep in? I do think He deserves worship but I do not think He needs it. I do however think we need it. I do believe God draws near a people who love and honor Him. I do believe God withdraws from a people who do not do this.

My guess is the world would be different if the people of the church acted like church. In my imagination I can see all 500 of our people crammed into this place for multiple services. I can imagine them radically generous with their time, talent and treasure. I can see this as a place which makes a huge impact in the lives of other people, especially broken people. I can imagine children growing up in an environmnent where hope and joy are present. I think it would be better and I think it is possible. But I also know that all of us, myself included, are not terribly adept at making God the center of our lives. So this morning I plan to pray for the desire to love and serve God, in me and in you and in them. It isn't much, but it is a start.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Church

Edward Schillebeeckx wrote a book that  is the basis of most of my thought. In it he says that Jesus is the Sacrament of God. It was helpful to me because I understood the incarnation more clearly. It also made sense of the world I live in, something I have tried to reflect on the last week.

In simplest terms: God is invisible. Jesus, the man, is the person "in and through" Whom God is present in the world. There are deep philosophical questions about how spirit and matter interconnect. The sacramental understanding is probably the best way. So God is present in the flesh of Jesus (the meaning of incarnate).  Jesus ascended to heaven after He rose from the dead. The earliest followers of Jesus had an experience of the Spirit of Jesus unleashed on the church. In John's Gospel Jesus breathes on the apostles to give them His Spirit. In Acts there is the famous Pentecost event. Some readings of the crucifixion note that Jesus "handed over His Spirit" can be double meaning; that is, He dies and also a sort-of-Pentecost giving over of the Spirit. Some folks will argue long and hard about all this. For me, it is clear that the life force of Jesus, The Holy Spirit, is now shared with His followers (the Church). In and through the church Jesus is active in the world. So our activity is, in fact, the on-going saving work of Christ (until the great consummation of creation).

The rituals in which we engage are acts of Christ. So are the works of loving service. Where is Jesus? Where is God? The Church should answer that question in its daily activities! But all sacramental acts are not equally transparent. Sometimes we are weak signs and symbols. That is why there is so much doubt and question about church. More to come.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


I think a marriage ceremony best illustrates what I am trying to say happens in the ritual called baptism. What happens at a wedding? A man and a woman come together before witnesses. They exchange vows and make commitments. They publicly state their intention to be husband and wife. They enter into an institution which is very old and honored in most cultures.

Well, there you have it. Have they been changed? Yes. They are now legally a partnership. There is a moral expectation that they will forsake all others and be faithful to one another. Can a newly maried person go out that night and "party" with someone else. Yes. Do the vows make the love perfect? No. But there is a difference between someone who is in a vowed life and someone who is not. How often have we heard about couples who live together but do not want to get married because it will "ruin" the relationship. Obviously such people believe that marriage is real and does something. Even a sham marriage is still observably different than a non-marriage.

When people sincerely seek to be a married couple then the activity of the ritual does in fact increase and intensify the relationship. That is why people, including very often the groom, get emotional at a wedding. There is something real taking place. But it is not magic which makes relationship suddenly easy. There is still a struggle.

What is God doing in a marriage? Well from my view point He uses marriage to teach us to love. Love is something we are not very good at much of the time. There is a reason why half of marriages end in divorce. Most of us are looking to get something. Marriage is a symbol of giving. But BOTH parties must give or it will not work. Marriage is a sign of Jesus' love for the church. Jesus, the groom, marries the church, the bride. Baptism is our entry into that relationship.

The way God shapes and forms us is slow. The ritual marks the beginning of the process. Just like birth changes everything, but the process still continues. Is God active in weddings? We invite Him to be, I guess no one can prove He is, but neither can one prove He isn't. I do know this, if we have eyes to see then we can discern Him there. I know that if our expectations and assumptions are rightly ordered to reflect the real world and not our own desires I think we will see God more clearly. Unfortunately, I think much of the time my wishes and fantasies make that harder for me than it needs to be. But in the end, if we can see how a wedding ceremony does make something happen, perhaps we can also see how baptism does the same.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Baptism 2

So getting washed clean resonates as a spiritual action by people, but does the ritual really do anything or is it all psychological?

Baptism is an action which God does in the world, in and through human agency. We cannot baptize ourselves. That is a fundamental, though overlooked, part of baptism. In baptism I am acknowledging that I am the problem. Me and my choices are contributors to the evil, pain and sadness in the world. I am acknowledging a need to be made clean. There is a real sense in which I receive baptism.

Baptism is also entry into a people, a community. By virute of that initiation rite I become part of a group. Membership, as they say, has its privileges. It also has its responsibilities. There is a self-gift involved as well.

My biggest disappointment with baptism is it is so mundane and ordinary. There is not enough "magic" in it. I want the water to make something amazing happen. I want baptism to give me (and others) super powers. I want to be able to look at a crowd and see baptized people are happier, nicer, wiser and just plain better than other people. I want God to do something with baptized people that makes everyone say, "wow, I want some of that water on me!" In other words, I want baptism to be an ESCAPE from real life!

So is baptism efficacious? Does something happen when we get baptized? Does getting baptized save us?
Yes, it is efficacious, it does what it says. When we are baptized we become God's (adopted) children. We become by His gracious act, part of a people called out of this world to live as His followers. In light of that, yes, something has happened. Is that something salvation? Here is where it gets dicey. I have heard all the great debates about baptism, faith and salvation. To be honest, I do not buy into the starting place of many of these debaters. We live in a world of limits and exceptions to the rule. There is mystery, too. I think that baptism makes me clean and makes me God's child. I also believe that I can choose to get dirty again and I can be a prodigal who wastes his inheritance in wild living. But God has made me clean at my core so the dirt can be cleaned off (in repentance, confession, penance and reformed life). And God has made me His child forever so I can come back home and be reinstated.

In my first real job I was hired to be the supervisor of a child care center. Prior to that I had worked part-time as a janitor while going to school. I was due to start on Monday. That weekend I was mopping floors. I remember standing in that empty building on Sunday afternoon and thinking, "tomorrow I am in charge." It was weird. Baptism is like that. I am really His today, even though the fullness of that new state is yet to be totally manifest. But as I do the grunge work of mopping, I know tomorrow is coming. In the meantime I have to do what I am supposed to do. No escape from life. And it is not always fun or easy. But it is necessary. And I am confident in the promise (okay, not always, but trying to live confidently!). So, yes, I am saved by baptism and yes the salvation is not yet fully revealed. I trust God works in baptism so baptism is necessary. And I believe that I can throw it all away if I choose. So I try to choose not to throw it away. How about you?