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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Adam, Eve, History, Truth (3)

What is the point of the Adam and Eve story if it is not merely giving us the historical facts? First of all, let's look at the story.

We read that God formed (like a potter) man (adam) from the dust (afar) of the ground (adamah). There is a play on the Hebrew words here (adam//adamah). The joy of Hebrew is the constant use of such puns and allusions. Most of it does not get picked up in English translation. There are, however, some theological points to reflect upon.

The intimacy of creation is portrayed with the image of forming. To take and touch and manipulate is an involved process. One might call it a labor or work. If this is a metaphor (and it is) what is it inviting us to believe? I think the potter image lies behind the text, an image which Isaiah will pursue in his own prophecies. I think the language of shaping and forming is helpful for expressing our connectedness to God.

The idea of humans being composed of dust is also fascinating. One criticism of evolution is that it reduces humans to high functioning apes. Let me be clear, I believe that philosophical evolution is in error. I do not have time to lay that out here. I believe God CREATED heaven and earth. I do not believe it is accidental. That said, I also believe the act of creation is reflected in the creation. In that sense, the process probably 'looks' like what is called evolution. If God used the earth to form man, is it possible to understand that formation as taking place over a long period of time? Can the image be a metaphor for something that looks like the theories of science? Once again, I am asking questions of the text. I think we need to ask if a faithful reading can include this.

The word for dust is also interesting. Dust has multiple meanings and includes rubbish. We have some sense of this based on the word "dust pan" which is used to collect what we sweep up from the floor. The word dust appears several times in Genesis. It is used here to indicate from what the man is created and to what man will return at death (3:19). Then it is part of the curse on the serpent (you shall eat dust on your belly). Later God tells Abraham (13:16) and Jacob (28:14) that their descendents will be like the dust (lots and lots!). I think, however, the most important use is Genesis 18:27.

In Genesis 18 Abraham is arguing with God about Sodom. He is trying to prevent God's judgment on the wayward city. It is a remarkable case of driving a deal, as Abraham makes one slice after another, on the number of righteous needed to save the city. However, as Abraham begins the negotiation, he says, "I who am ashes and dust am speaking to the Lord." This is a dep theological statement, and I think it reflects the creations accoun.

The creation account is a reminder of our tenuous existence. It is a reminder that no one is great, no one is powerful, everyone is temporary. It is an invitation to recognize our dependence upon God for existence and serves as a harsh condemnation of those who see no need of God. The story is clear, even if it is not considered a detailed historical account. I think we are called to humility; to understand we are of earth and will return to earth, to understand that we must turn to the Creator for life. I fear the power of the revelation is lost when it is instead used to debate the actual process by which humans were created.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Adam, Eve, History, Truth (2)

What is literature? I think that question is fundamental when reading Genesis, especially the creation accounts.

Certainly I read the Adam and Eve story as straight history for most of my life. The question is, is it straight history? That question really has no bearing on Divine Inspiration. No one doubts that the Bible contains many different kinds of writing. The Bible is full of poetry, preaching, images and allusions. It is written with symbolic significance. It is full of puns and makes reference to things which are lost on us. As I argued in my last post, historical facts are not the full extent of truth. [Let me illustrate: proving through documentation from Roman and Jewish sources that Jesus of Nazareth was in fact crucified outside Jerusalem and buried in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea would certainly be historically significant. Not that I doubt any of it, but it would be useful in dealing with the skeptics who claim Jesus never existed. However, there is no document or archaealogical find which can ever prove that the crucified Jesus saved the world from sin. Understand? That is revealed truth. Further more, the factual details (did Jesus have help carrying the cross? John 19:17 "and carrying the cross by Himself" vs. "they compelled a carry His cross...Simon") are interesting, but make no difference to the Truth of the atonement. The atonement is true whether the historical details are accurate or not. In fact, in this case one senses that the Truth of the event is shaping the telling of the story and John is making the point that Jesus Alone is carrying the cross because He is the Savior... In other words, details about events are impacted by the meaning of the event. These are theological narratives trying to tell us something, and it is much more that mere gossip.]

So, let us say, in theory, that the story of Adam and Eve has something in common with the creation stories of American Indians or Vikings. How do we imagine that those peoples, untouched by Divine Revelation, constructed their stories? What purpose did their stories serve? Can the human process of telling the story of creation and the beginning of humanity offer any insight on Israel? Is it a denial of God to ponder such things?

Now let us think about the ancient (pre-Abraham) stories of what we call The Middle East. There are many collections of the stories of creation from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and other peoples in these areas. Is it possible that the stories of Israel, our Bible stories, were written with these stories in mind? Remember, the Jews were part of this world. The ancestors of the Bible people existed for a long time before God and Abraham.

It does not make me think less of God or trust His word less to think that the ancient Israelites were telling a story which borrowed elements from the stories with which they were familiar from their neighbors. Further, it does not cause me a problem to think that what God reveals to us through the story is a corrective of the stories which the other people told. That, to me, is the point. We are not familiar with those other stories, or we assume that they have myths while we have history. BUT, that is not what the Bible says about the creation account.

I am arguing that Adam and Eve is true. But I have come to see that the context is not contemprorary discussions about the history of the world. It is an ancient setting with its own rules about how one should talk about such things. So, it is clearly possible to say that the purpose of the Adam and Eve account is theological. And if theological, then it is best understood on its own terms. We should not twist the story to answer questions we have (or demand it prove points we want to make). No. It is Divinely inspired. The word addresses us, on its terms not ours. I think, sometimes, we Christians have it backwards. SO to read Adam and Eve the way God intended is the goal. Assuming it was intended as straight history, I think, is not so clear. At any rate, it is not helpful for Christians to harshly attack each other on this issue baed on assumptions which may not be right.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Adam, Eve, History, Truth (1)

I like blogs because I get a sense of what is going on with other people. Yesterday I ran across three(!) blogs in a row on Adam and Eve. One, an English philosopher of science and Christian apologist, has long been among my favorite writers. He writes about the age of the earth, using analysis of Scripture:

The second is a friend of a friend. She is an evangelical who is seriously engaging her doubts about the particular Christian worldview in which she was raised. She and many of her commentators, are no longer at 'home' in their old view. They wonder what it means. She writes here.

The last one I recently ran across. I think he is part of a movement trying to get back to a purer understanding of Jesus. He is responding to Al Mohler on Adam and Eve here:

I am a priest (preacher/teacher) who has studied the Bible for thirty five years. I am not, however, a Biblical scholar. I have not read all the religious texts written in the Ancient Near East prior to 500BC. I also do not have complete dexterity with the Hebrew text. But I have read books by people who have this knowledge. And I have read, studied and prayed about it for years. The issue of Adam and Eve is a difficult one. So many people equate their faith in God with a particular way of approaching Scripture. If you mess with anything their entire faith structure collapses. This is unfortuate, unnecessary and, to be blunt, our own fault. Let me start with the fault issue first.

Since I was a teenager, I have heard many Christians make the claim, "If a single word of the Bible is incorrect, then the entire book cannot be trusted." That is a powerful statement. It conveys, very strongly, a sense of how important inerrancy is. But there is a problem, it assumes that the only thing we can trust is something which cannot make even a single mistake. That is simply not true. Errors in detail do not negate the entire communication in any other area of life, so why would it with the Bible. Does the message: "God made us. God saved us. God wants us to be in faithful, loving, obedient relationship with us" really depend on an accurate count of dead and wounded in a battle between Caananites and Israelites? REALLY? The central message of the Bible is false if it turns out that the census numbers are not accurate? Why would any Christian create that sort of problem for faith for another Christian?

And that is the growing problem, especially for Evangelicals. It does not take very long to find things in the Bible which might be considered "errors." In fact, by Genesis 2 there is already one big, fat, glaring contradiction:
  • Genesis 1:9-13 "Then God said, Let the earth put forth vegetation...And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation." This is from day three. On the sixth day God made humans. Very clear.
  • Genesis 2:4-7 "In the day that the Lord made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up---then the Lord formed man from the dust of the ground.
Now, clearly there are some issues with order here. What came first, vegetation or humans? It makes me mad when a young Christian thinks that this issue is a deal breaker for their faith. Now some clever Christians will look at this and come up with a convuluted theory of how these two fit together. (And I often enjoy convuluted theories myself) But what I am not fine with is when they use a different criteria to criticize the Koran or other religious texts than they do the Bible. That is being dishonest. It also means that we must mess with the text to protect it.

So what then do I recommend? Well, to begin with, get rid of the idea that to be trustworthy the Bible must be "inerrant". OR, if you want to hold inerrancy, then define it (This goes back to a post a couple days ago about the meaning of words). The problem is "inerrant" means "no mistakes". But what is an inerrant text? The Bible is literature, not math. Literature is, in part, art. There are a wide variety of literary forms, each with its own rules. For example, ever notice how often in movies it is raining? Rain is a literary image. So the appearance of rain in a movie or book has more than meterological significance. It symbolizes. In the Bible (especially in an ancient, pre-scientific culture) the straightforward meaning of a text is understood in the straightforward way of thinking of those times. And we need to get clear, literal is not more true than symbolic. To say "it is 93 degrees" is not more true than saying "it is hotter than hell today." In fact, the latter conveys a subjective experience that the mere measure of temperature doesn't. That is why the words, "it is only symbolic" are fighting words for me (and I use the term fighting symbolically. I will not actually hit someone. I may not even argue with them. But I do think that it is silly and ignorant and that is what I mean by "fighting words"!)

I think that we need to seriously look at the word 'inerrant.' We also need to stop setting our kids up for a fall. We need to ask what we think the Bible is. How did it get written? Where and by whom? What was the process of composition? What was it reacting against? What was its audience? What is the author trying to tell us?????
Well, there a thousand questions but you get the point.

So to begin. Did the ancient authors of Genesis not notice the difference in order (vegetation & man)? In other words, was this an error? Did some later copyist make a mistake and rearrange things? (and if he did, how does that impact the claim of inerrancy? Does it matter that the originals are inerrant when we do not have the originals?) Is this a mistake? OR....

Were there originally two different stories which circulated in different times and communities? Were the two stories only written down after years and years of the oral story being passed around by people who live, not with books, but with spoken words? People who wander around deserts with tents and flocks. People who want to know: "why am I here?" and "what does it mean?" Is it possible that the stories, hundreds of years later, were edited and composed as written stories? Written down at a time when Israel actually had cities and resources to compose books (a very costly adventure in time and money). Maybe the first of the stories was written by a priest, composed to explain the importance of the Sabbath (hence seven days) and to emphasize we live in a world of order (hence the sterotyped language and neat divisions), under threat by chaos, but sustained and protected by God. And perhaps those priests were using the creation texts of their neighbors (who are also their racial relatives, Abraham was an Aramean!) as a foil. Maybe they were correcting the errors of pagan belief and that is why we see the similarities and differences. Perhaps the first account ends with the creation of man as the summit of creation. It tells us that this was God's final act. It makes clear to us 'who we are' and 'what are relationship with Him is' (image and likeness, to rule the earth). It makes clear that He creates by speaking a word because He is not like the gods of the pagan neighbors. He is not one among many. He is different from the gods they worship. His creation is not a cosmic battle of gods but a creative word spoken by a singular, all powerful God.

Perhaps in Genesis 2 man is created first because that author is making the same point. This time man is fashioned from dirt to remind us of our destiny (dead bodies disintegrate). The intimacy of God is emphasized here by using the image of a potter (rather than the distant God who "speaks and it is") Man is made first because the ultimate purpose of creation is man, and everything follows from that. Maybe it isn't about revealling the order of creation (vegetation or man). Maybe first (ultimate cause) or last (final goal), in this case, actually mean the same thing. Maybe each author tells us that "man is IMPORTANT to God." In that case, there is no contradiction. The two stories are telling us the same thing (i.e. the point of the story) using different images... Maybe we can let our kids read what the Bible is actually telling us (not make the Bible say what we want it to say). Maybe we can stop telling our kids that if they ever run across something that does not fit "perfectly" then the Bible must not be true. Maybe we can find a way. More on the 'first couple' in the days ahead.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Racism

I was watching The View on Monday, my day off. I was feeding the baby and complying with the TV viewing patterns of the house. In fairness, I do find it interesting to watch such shows because they seem to be popular with women. It gives me a window into their interests and values.

The special guest was "The Mayflower Madam" and she was that day's "Where are they now?" person of interest. Apparently each day some famous sex scandal person made an appearance. A few things hit me watching the show. One was the response she received, which seemed very positive. This is, after all, a woman who ran an escort service. Even the token "conservative" woman seemed to give her a ride. The first question Whoopie Goldberg asked was even more stunning, "Is it true you did not use Black and Hispanic women?" A real 'gotchya' moment.The Madam seemed taken aback, and denied the charges. She even mentioned by name a couple of women. Whoopie seemed very relieved. Really? Advocating for Minority representation to be a prostitute?

The night before there was a news story about a legislator trying to pass a law which would outlaw sagging pants. The story explained the origination of the practice and showed several young men, pants at mid thigh, underwear showing. There was also a young woman imitating the boys from her neighborhood and describing how distracting it was. The shock moment, though, was an elderly Black man decrying the legislation as racist. He was concerned that a clothing style was being criminalized. I thought at that moment about Martin Luther King's dream...

Racism is one of the results of fallen humanity. Conservative White people rarely face the race issue squarely. We have a tendency to ignore aspects of the debate. I have worked in numerous education and mental health facilities with integrated populations. For many years I had numerous co-workers who were different races. [One of the biggest jokes about the Progressive Episcopal Church, which talks incessantly about being a diverse church, is that I am surrounded by White people here. It is the least integrated place I have ever worked.] The years of interaction with Blacks helped give me insight into their needs and concerns. I came to understand their frustration with racism. I also got insight into my own.

That said, the Black leadership often times confuses me. The obsession with racism leads to some silly statements. Advocating for Black prostitutes and pants hanging down to the knees seems to be foolish. It would seem to give 'racism' a good name. I do not know what Dr. King would say about these two stories. I am not sure how he would respond to the challenges which impact the Black community today. Certainly there is a need in the White community to continue to help raise up brothers and sisters of all races. But the nonsense that I see among those who push for equality makes me think that there is need for some soul searching there as well.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Konerko and Reflections on Achievement Anxiety

[I wrote this a couple of days ago. Apparently I did not publish this as I found it in "drafts". Last night Konerko got #2,000 in a losing cause....]

Yesterday the Chicago White Sox won 10-0. They beat a superior team for the second straight day. It has given a bit of hope to their fans, who have watched this team flounder all season. Everytime we reach .500 (which means win as many as you lose) they seem to drop four straight. One of the highlights of this otherwise disappointing year, has been the play of Paul Konerko. Last year, at age 34, he had his best statistical season, an anomaly for a power hitting first baseman. This year one expected some regression. Instead, he has followed up with a year only slightly less magical. The last month he has been lights out great as a hitter.

A few years back, having suffered through a sub-par year, he made a comment that he needed to work out harder in the off-season. Reaching his early thirties (at that time) he suddenly experienced a loss of skill. I assume he did work out and I think it clearly has produced results. His next hit will be his 2,000th and in late September he is on schedule to hit  his 400th home run. Both of those are acheivements of note in baseball history. I have enjoyed his success.

Achievement. Most of us, unlike baseball players, do not have extensive statistics to measure our success. That is not all bad. Sometimes statistics are not as telling as we would like. In the church world, one measure of a pastor's success is the Sunday attendance. If lots of people go to your church, then you must be good. If there are fewer people, then you  have done something wrong. From occassional articles on the subject, apparently I work in a field where lots of men are very distressed in their work.

When a minister is anxious or depressed, it is a double problem. First of all, their are the issues which produce the emotional reaction. Secondly, there is the response of others to the minister's distress. Ministers, after all, are not supposed to be distressed. They are supposed to be happy. And upbeat. And full of faith, hope and joy.

In general, though, the "church business" is not good. The media loves stories about wayward ministers, especially scandals. It is rare that one hears about the hard work of a faithful minister. But misbehavior, especially of a sexual nature, has lots of air time. This is not a gripe. I do not think ministers should escape scrutiny. But it has produced some issues. The role is diminished. The collar is viewed with suspicion by many. When I smile at a young child I sometimes worry that I am considered a predator. That is not just paranoia, people have made comments indicating that they consider priests a threat.

As the church in the USA continues to decrease, more and more church leaders are saddled with a growing sense of failure. In general, many of these leaders are men of a certain age, their 50's and 60's. As much as we would like to focus on loving God and following Jesus, there is still a nagging concern that diminishing attendance (or financial losses) are a proof that we are "not very good." We understand grace, but we also fear judgment. 'Fear of the Lord' and 'judgment' after all, are also resurring themes of the Good Book.

Lay people, by and large, are no less free of achievement anxiety. People who think and ponder such things recognize the gap between who we are and what we are called to be. Some claim that they rest in faith with no anxiety. They trust in the mercy and rely on grace. Such claims would be a source of great consolation IF those same people understood grace to be extended on the same terms to everyone. But even "only grace" Christians are able to identify individuals, even entire populations, which will be visited with judgment for sins unforgiven.

Jesus says, "Fear Him who can throw you into hell." Jesus says we are accountable for every word we utter. The New Testament has lots of mention of wrath, judgment and accountability. I do not think we should live in misery. I think we should trust that God desires that all be saved. But I think we need to be more focused. We will all be held accountable. And there is no statistical almanac where we can look up and see where we stand. And there is danger in turning a relationship with Christ into statistics, even stats like church attendance or financial giving.

It is good to take serious things seriously. It is also important not to sit around counting hours spent in prayer, chapters of the Bible read, or even the number of people we have witnessed to...

More on Bible

I had a pre-marriage counseling session the other day. As we discussed one of the topics which I always look at, "how will you spend the holidays?", the couple shared that because he is a pilot, he is often out of town. Then he said, "I am always off on Christmas Day, it's just that I might be in a hotel somewhere when I am off."

When I was a younger man an American President made the following statement: "It depends on what the meaning of "is" is." I knew, of course, that this intelligent and well educated man was correct. I did not respect him for it, but his point was spot on. The definition of words is important. Just like my pilot friend above. He is "off" on Christmas, but it depends what the word "off" means. In his case, it did not mean "home with nothing to do" it simply meant he would not be in the air.

Jesus tells us (Mark 13:37) to "Keep Awake!" What does He mean? Last night the baby stirred several times, I heard and woke. In one case he was already with momma, in the other two, he was just tossing in his sleep. No one thinks that Jesus meant that, i.e., not sleeping at night. Most of us know that it means be alert, be watchful, live life in anticipation of the coming Kingdom. But here is my question, "What does being alert mean on a day by day basis?"

We are like Secret Service agents, each moment of every day we are supposed to be on the ready for 'the event' and we are to scan the horizon for signs. The problem is, it is hard to be alert and on the ready at every moment. It is also important to determine what "be awake" means to Jesus. Our assumptions about grace & works, about human & divine causality, about church & individual will all impact how we shape and define being alert/watchful/awake. In light of our human condition, that is unavoidable. But in light of Jesus' command, it is not optional. It also seems important enough that we need to get it right. My assumption is watchfulness is related to being a student of Scripture, praying and serving others in anticipation. It also means looking to God's Great Act. How about you?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Streams of Living Water

One challenge facing all of us is the temptation to "simplistic" answers. We want life to be 'consistent' and have 'easy answers'. This is especially true of religious faith. Although I hear people claim that Christianity is not a religion (and the way their definitions work they have a point), it still has common features to religion. One example is when people refer to the Bible as "an answer book" or "an instruction manual." It is a nice image and it does try to make a helpful point, but as I read the daily readings it is not so clear that one has simply to read and follow the instructions.

For example, in our OT selection we are reading about the transitition from King David to King Solomon. Having studied Samuel and Kings the last year I am pretty familiar with the story. It is not particularly edifying. It is full of cut throat politics (literally) and human foibles. Much of it is not appropriate to small children (innocent adults!). Based on my two Bible study groups last year (some 50-70 people), it produced as much confusion as clarity. Why is that?

To use an analogy, the Bible is a river (or ocean). Like most bodies of water (especially living water) it looks like a whole. Standing at the shore of a body of water, like the banks of the Mississippi, one surveys it and thinks "that is a river," or "this is the Gulf" or "the ocean" and it appears to be "one" thing. In reality, if you dive in, you discover quickly it is a composition. There are numerous currents and streams, and a wide variety of temperatures. In places it swirls and creates suction. There are places where it gets colder or warmer. Some parts are carrying debris, while others are more clear. Anyone who has been on a shore knows what I mean. Waves crash violently in one spot, while it is calm ten feet away. We stand in a warm spot, then move to the left a step and are shocked by the drop of temperature.

The Bible is a composite of many 'streams' all combined in a great body of water. There are places where the purity of the Scriptures carry along "debris." Sometimes the "temperature" changes, things which we encounter as, if not contradictions, at least inconsistencies, or mysteries. I read one of those yesterday. Paul stands before Agrippa at his trial. At one point he says that he is obedient to a heavenly vision (of Jesus) and he is merely telling Jew and Greek "that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance." What about Grace and salvation by faith? what is Paul (and/or Luke) up to here? That statement is one of the currents, or streams, of the Bible. It is the "do the right thing" current. It is associated with Torah. There is another current, the grace current. I guess to use my analogy, the grace stream is warm, while the 'obedience/Torah/morality/works/do" current is cold. It wakes us up and takes our breath. Both streams are part of the whole body of living water. It is probably not helpful to say "only" about any particular stream in the wider body of water. (It is simpler, but it is not accurate!) It is helpful to be clear about what is debris being carried in the water and what is the water (that is where science, for example, comes in).

I often wish things were clearer and easier. I also know that part of that is my laziness and lack of faith. God is not a thing. He is the source of LIVING WATER, and the Bible is (a major) part of that revelation. We also know that God is communicating to us through nature, other people, and the processes of our own minds. It is pretty complex. But as we swim through the different parts of the body of water we find each one provides its own delights and each one teaches its own lessons.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Big Day

Last night my baby boy was baptized. The church was twice as full as normal for a Saturday. There were about 20 or so guests (family and friends of ours who came) which means about fifty of the folks were "Sunday morning people" who came to see the event.

To our knowledge, in the 120 plus years of this church, no priest has had a baby baptized while serving here. So, in a sense, it was an historical event. The sort of historical event which in our culture is note worthy. We pay attention to firsts. Some of it is sports related and the incessant score keeping that takes place there. Some of it is political (which at times is sports for the non-atheletic). We often hear about the first woman to serve here, or the first minority to be elected there. I doubt in Jesus' time (or most other times) villagers spent much time taking note of "firsts."

A priest friend from another parish, who was with us the night that baby was born, was with us last night. He annointed. My close friend and associate celebrated, preached and did the baptism. His sermon included a pointed address to my other son and daughter, the 'big sis/bro." What he said was basic, but it was moving nonetheless. They will be the ones that he goes to, over and again. No doubt he will view them with the eyes of an adoring worhsipper.

Having a child baptized is an amazing thing. For endless hours I have prayed over this little guy. My biggest desire is that he be holy. I hope he will be strong where I have been weak, that he will be faithful where I have failed. Probably, most of us dream that our kids will do that.

The gift of relationship with God has been given. One hundred and nineteen of us gathered in a full church, crammed full, to sing, pray and hear God's word. It was historic. It was also unnoteworthy. A small group in a little church. So ordinary. So insignificant. Yet, so sublime.

God is that way. At work in growing seed and growing babies. At work in insignificant people who are somehow made part of the body of Christ through water and faith. It is easy to overlook how important these little events are. Some day Baby will do great things for God. At least that is my hope and prayer. Last night was another step in that journey.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Parking Lot Islamic Prayer

During "vacation" I was suffering from cabin fever. It was around 100 degrees every day and there were few outside options with a six week old baby. We decided to go out to eat at a Chicago Pizza place about a half hour from home. I anticipated the delicious pizza waiting for me on the drive. We arrived to an empty store and a sign "A/C Out: Closed."

So we went with another option nearby, a Memphis Italian restaurant which I love. I walked into the dining room and it felt warm. "It is 93 in here," the greeter stated. Relatively pleasant compared to outside, but I sensed that would not be cool enough for dinner...

We ended up at the Mall. A large facility where I could push baby boy around and enjoy the experience of moving. The kids did some before school shopping. We had a good time. In fact, it was so good that we closed down the place. The door we came in was locked so we had to exit from the side of the Mall. The walk back to the car was the long way around through the parking lot.

As we walked we saw a couple moving around next to a car. I assumed, based on the bending over, that he was fixing a flat tire. As we drew closer I saw her head scarf. I saw that he was kneeling. I realized it was Muslims at prayer.

It was a minor shock. I know we have Muslims in Shelby County. (We have Pentecostals, too, but I did not expect a tent revival either.) Watching them pray made me think. They are committed in ways few Christians are. The typical church sees 35% to 40% of its members on an average Sunday. Even on Easter large numbers of professing Christians cannot seem to climb out of bed in the morning to worship. Yet, Muslims are praying in parking lots at 9PM. I am inspired by this.

I also wonder. In some Muslim countries I hear it is illegal to have a Bible or wear a cross. In our culture the Muslim can pray in a public place, a parking lot. What if a Christian were to do this in Saudi Arabia? There is a part of me which is offended by that. Seems like one should give the same respect that one demands.

Our eyes met briefly, as we passed the car and the praying couple. I smiled and nodded. She looked uncomfortable. I wondered if they were ill at ease. Did they fear what we would say or do? I also wondered if the statistics were reversed, if Memphis were 90% Muslim instead of Christian, would this couple allow me the same freedom and offer the same respect for my faith?

These are not hypothetical questions. They are real. And if Christians do not begin to be more serious about prayer, discipleship and evangelism, some day Muslims will be a majority. Then we will find out. I would never want anyone to prevent a Muslim from praying. But I also know that the world is not pleasant. I blogged on violence earlier this week. The practices in majority Islamic nations is frequently hostile to Christians. Christians are fleeing many Middle Eastern countries right now. The "Arab" street is not totally tolerant. There is a threat of violence when cultures clash. Was our parking lot experience a passing cloud of shade (tolerance and faith) or the first signs of an approaching storm?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Marathon Man

I am not a Greek scholar. I am not especially adept with languages. But the New Testament is written in Greek and it is impossible to know the Bible without dealing with Greek and Hebrew. Most of us (including me) will therefore always deal with translations. However, I have studied Greek and so I am familiar with the vocabulary.

The word hypomenos is a composite. It consists of hypo which means "under" (like hypodermic means under the dermis or skin) and menos which means abide, stand. The word hypomenos means patience, perseverance or endurance. It used to be translated as longsuffering, though that terminology is not part of most contemporary lexicons. It is used frequently in the  New Testament. It is a foreign concept to the American culture in which I live.

I thought about this word as we gathered to celebrate the eucharist to end our vigil of prayer last night. For twelve hours various people had been in our church to pray. We do this each year to kick off the Fall. The first time we did it was 2001. As I looked at the gathered crowd I found myself remembering the many people who have come and gone over the last decade. I recalled the energy and exhuberance of those first three years I was here. Each year we saw increased attendance. People seemed excited about church. In 2003 we took a major hit with the Epsicopo-wars. Conflict, for  a while, seemed to energize us more. Many people were willing to take a stand. There was continued growth and a strong sense of 'us.'

Eight years later, we are smaller. There may be less excitement and energy. It is hard sometimes to know. What I do know is the race is long. I am not 'a runner' but I do run. I completed a half marathon. I recall the first mile where there are people everywhere and the way it felt standing ready to start. It is hard to hold yourself back as you want to race to the front. Most people cannot run very fast for a long time. You have to pace yourself. That is why one trains for a half marathon.

Church is a marathon. It is not a one or two year commitment. It is a lifelong commitment. We are one with Jesus forever. Over time, the newness wears off. We pass different mile markers, 4, 5, 6. Our bodies (and souls) begin to tire. We look at our watches and think "I have been at this a long time and still I have so far to go..." We notice people starting to disappear. They no longer run with us. They have other pressing things to do. They weaken and wonder what is the point?

This is no stunning insight. Everyone knows the race is long. It takes endurance. It takes the ability to stand up under the weight of life's disappointments. It takes strength to keep placing one foot in front of the other and follow Jesus.

When I ran the half marathon, there was a hil at about mile 8. All along that hill people were lined up. I did not know any of them. But they screamed and yelled at me (and the others) "Keep going! You can make it!" And I did. There was a sense of awe that people would do that. The hill was easier to climb because of them. It is my hope that church would be like that. People calling out "Keep your eye on Jesus. Don't quit, keep going!" Vigils of prayer serve that purpose. So does Bible study, helping others and community.

I get tired more easily now, it seems. Always prone to disillusionment, I find it more of a challenge at this point in life. There are, according to research, fewer and fewer of us doing this church/discipleship thing. It is easier for people to quit and walk away. Yet there are many who keep at it. Sons and Daughters of the True King. We run, sometimes slowly, hobbled and hurting, but we run. Praying. Loving. Believing. Studying. Serving.

God sees. It is worth the effort. So I yell to you, dear reader, "Keep GOING! Jesus is with us. For Him. With Him! Keep going!"

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Violence II

Yesterday's lectionary contained three stories which centered upon violence. After blogging I went to read through the lectionary texts for the next Sunday I preach. The Gospel picked up a theme to which I alluded: the Cross.

The other day the President was speaking to a group. I did not hear all of his speech, but I  heard enough. He kept repeating that "I provided a plan..." and "it is time to end partisan politics." I was struck by two things. One was his definition of 'partisan.' To be partisan, clearly, is to disagree with him. He said this over and over. The other thing is there are lots of people who agree with him. There are lots of people, many of them my friends, who would agree that the opposition to the President is based on petty, even evil, impulses.

I would much prefer to hear the President say that we have a disagreement. They hold to what they believe, but I am pushing what I believe. We are all attempting to do the best, and we read the situation differently. That, he claimed, was the kind of man he was, a 'new way' to do politics. Instead, we get the same demonization. I am disappointed that he ended up being more of the same.

Demonization is also behind the cross of Jesus. The elders and chief priests decide "Jesus must die." So they implement their power to hand Him over to Rome. In our world, such actions are not uncommon. Every day, many people are torutred, murdered and executed for their beliefs. In many lands, Christian faith is a capitol offense. Sadly, there are times when Christians abuse their power, too.

There is no clear delineation between church and state, religion and politics in the Biblical world. Emperors were gods. The citizen burned incense in civic worship. The power to enforce right belief was employed with vicious violence. Jesus was a victim of this, but also a conqueror. He rose, victorious over the false religions and secular powers. His disciples, those who carry their crosses and follow Him, do the same.

In my church, lawyers are used instead of gunmen. I pointed this out to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church. Like the President, she sees herself as the good one, dealing with the crazy right wingers. Like the Tea Party folks talking about Obama, the conservatives are equally harsh with her. Jesus says that some day He will return with the angels and "repay each one for what he has done." Judgment. I believe that she is wrong so I worry for her. I have told her that as well.

Today we have a twelve hour vigil of prayer at our church. We gather all day to ask God to make us the kind of church He wants us to be. We also interceed. We will pray for leaders of church and state. We pray for them because they need it. All of us will be judged. All of us. And our propensity to be blind to our faults and blinder to our adversaries virtues means that judgment may be unpleasant. So we cry for mercy and we seek the truth. It is especially important that we pray for those in error.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I remember, as a young man, the day I decided to change the time I woke up for work. My alarm was set on a music station, but it was at the top of the hour, when the news was on. Each day I woke to things like, "there was a murder in South Memphis" or "a bomb ripped though an Israeli shopping mall." My heart would race as I heard some horror or other. I decided to wake five minutes earlier to some tunes. Easier on the digestion!

Today I actually got to do the daily readings before breakfast. It began with II Samuel. Absalom, the renegade son of David with the long, flowing locks, rode his donkey under a tree in battle and got tangled up in the branches. David's general, Joab, proceeded to thrust three darts into the dangling man's heart, then Joab's ten armor bearers dispatched Absalom with swords. The geopolitical violence with which we deal daily is no different from this family squabble (writ large because it is royal). Many men died in these battles, brutal combat. No less sad for being ancient.

In Acts I read that forty Jews made a vow to kill Paul. In an effort to 'sanctify' the vow further they promised not to eat or drink until he died. Paul's nephew brings news of the plot to Paul, who informs his Roman captors. The plot is thwarted as Paul, under a large armed guard, is swpet off to another place. Today disagreement about religous matters continues to fester around the world, frequently errupting in the same murderous impulses. I also wondered how many of those forty men kept to their vows and starved to death. I wonder what the judgement process looks like for those who murder in God's name .

Lastly, Mark 11-12, had a story about Jesus. The Jewish leaders ask for an accounting from Him. What is your authority? Jesus' response is to ask them what was John the Baptist's authority. Like many political leaders, they spend more time calculating the impact of their words than they do looking for th truth. They fear the popular opinion, so they cannot deny John the Baptist is from God. They also know that if they acknowledge that fact, Jesus will ask why they did not listen to John. The story ends with the leaders wanting to arrest Jesus.

As I prayed over each text my heart grew heavy. Violence in each reading. In the Bible it is not a rare occurence. Perhaps, in a fallen world, we are to expect violence. Still, as my baby boy and wife slept in the next room, there is a part of me that wishes it were not so. I think God wishes it were not so. I think God desires that humans live in accord with Him and with one another. Jesus tells us to love. Love seems to be a feeble remedy for violence. While it is true that those who live by the sword, die by the sword, it is no less true that those without a sword perish in larger quantities and more quickly. Those with swords frequently prey on the unarmed.

God's response to violence (and ALL SIN) is the cross. The cross is a tool of violence, a wicked, torture devised to crush and subdue people under Roman occupation. Jesus, God's Son, died on  the cross. God's non-violence was a choice (recall Jesus said He could have called down an army of angels to defend Him). Jesus' decision to submit was a choice (a blood and sweat, pray all night and weep choice). I ponder my own choice. How to respond to so much violence? Paul and Jesus, unlike David, are not soldiers. They do not fight back. David, the soldier, mourns and weeps over the death of his son. Even in victory, the soldier does not escape the horror of death.

I think we do well to pray to God for an end to the violence. I also think it is good to not be naive. We can sing songs for peace, but in a violent world, action must occur. We are called, by Jesus, to be willing to embrace the cross. It takes remarkable faith to trust that being crushed, for God's sake, will unite us to Christ. It takes great faith to believe that dying with Christ will lead to victory. I hope we have the faith to be God's faithful victims of violence rather than the perpetrators. I pray for the wisdom to discern, too.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Silence of The Lamb

Today in preaching I spent some time reflecting upon Jesus' non-response to the Canaanite woman. As she 'cried out' He said nothing. It is difficult to imagine Him ignoring her.

I think piety causes us to paint a picture of Jesus which is not reflected in the Scripture. For example, many folks want Jesus to be nice and politically correct. The reality is, nice and politically correct are not of necessity holy and good. Jesus is holy and good. Our popular forms of behavior and our cultural values are no always holy and good.

Jesus is on a mission, He has come to save the lost of the sheep of Israel. He is focused on them. In the popular view of our culture, that is too narrow. I imagine my Gentile self confronted by Jesus' silence. How would I respond? Am I humble enough to admit that I am not one of the covenant people? Can I joyfully feed on table scraps and consider myself blessed?

The grace is that those who submit to Jesus as Lord receive the deliverance, even though we are outsiders. Jesus did, after all, talk with the woman. He told her that her faith was key. At one of the services I said, "God is not a politician running for office. He is not buying our votes. He is a king, He demands our obedience and allegiance." Once more I am stunned by the hard reality of the Christian life.

Our God does not obey our rules, He rules. We are best situated when we are on our knees calling Him Lord. That is not politcally correct, nor is it popular. That is, however, the way it is. You are welcome to go to the St. Andrews' website if you would like to hear the homily. I invite you to ponder the Lord Who is much larger than our pious ideas!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Problem with Hope

Over the years I had met with this distraught parent numerous times. Her (His) adult child was not living like an adult. He (she) still engaged in the sort of self-centered activities more appropriate to a young teenager. This parent struggled with frustration, anger, guilt and confusion. The parent's expectations were realistic. The 'adult' child had adult responsibilities which were being shirked. The parent was explaining the responsibilities as well as the consequences, to no avail.

Finally, I said to this person, "the problem is you still have hope." A look of shock swept their face and the reply, "but I though hope was good" was full of sincere wonder.

Hope is good. Hope is one of the three theological virtues. Hope is the fountain of joy and the fuel to continue on in the face of adversity. The problem with hope, however, is the use of the term.

As I explained to the parent, "You are frustrated because you still have hope that there is something that you are going to say to your child which will fix the situation. You have hope that if you talk long enough and are wise enough your child will assume adult responsibilites and act accordingly. It is your 'hope' which is causing the frustration. It is the hope that makes you continue to talk and talk (to no avail)." After some further discussion this parent seemed to come to peace with the idea. It is my 'hope' that things are better for this parent because he (she) no longer thinks that there is something else to say which will make the child mmore mature and responsible.

So am I saying hope is bad? No. I just challenge myself, and you dear reader, to make sure that we know what hope is. Morning Prayer triggered this reflection. We were praying Psalm 62. Verse 6 "For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in Him." Reading that verse fused with something I had been praying about yesterday after a funeral, "Our only hope is the resurrection." Our hope is God and His kingdom. This side of the return of Christ we are still in transition. And hope in God does not mean that we think everything will work out here and now. Sometimes we need to cut our losses and move on. Sometimes we need to readjust our expectations and be at peace with things as they are. Sometimes we need to accept the imperfect. In a context of eternal hope, hope and trust in God, we know that some day, maybe way off in the future, but some day, a better day is coming. A better day is coming because Jesus is coming. In glory. To judge the living and the dead, to set things right, to make all things new. That is hope. That is the source of joy.

We need to adjust our thinking so that Jesus and His Kingdom are our hope. We need to be aware when we place our hope in other things (or persons). We need to keep clear on the different uses of the term hope.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

You Do Not Know What You Are Asking

So a couple of the apostles, James and John, ask Jesus, "Can we sit at your right and left when you come into glory?"

Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? Don't we live in a world where we think 'know what you want and go for it' is a good thing. If there are going to be seats, why not try to grab the two closest to the King? This seems to be the type behavior which gets rewarded.

Well, as the Gospel makes clear later on, when Jesus is crowned King, it isn't the typical coronation. The crown is woven thorns. The throne is a cross. The proclamation, Jesus Christ King of the Jews, even though true, is meant to be mockery. Jesus redefines 'coming into glory.' And, by the way, the ones on the right and on the left are being crucified as well.

No, my boys, you do not know what you are asking.
And neither do we.

I hear about riots across London and flash-mobs wreaking havoc closer to home. The media, driven by ratings, spends more time advocating for one side or another than they do analyzing and providing information. People struggle against all manner of problems, with nature, with each other, with themselves. There are tragedies and heart break. There is anger brewing in the land.

We are praying, too. Lots of us. We give God His 'to do' list and wait for His response.

"Lord, won't you bless me? Won't you make my team win? Won't you make sure I live in abundance? Won't you give me what I want, I don't ask for much! I just want you to do what I want."

Jesus replies, "You do not know what you ask for: Blessed are the Poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are you when they persecute you."

We are in the midst of the next great Turning. We are living now, in a time, when things are collapsing. We have not been deserted by God, but I do sense that He has handed us over to our choices. Christians, even conservative, orthodox Christians, are going to be purged along with everyone else. Our ignorance will be revealed and our sin scoured. It is a time of blessing and curse. It is a time of danger and rescue. It is a time when the secrets of the heart are revealed.

We really do not know what we ask. God knows what we need. We are all going to be taught by Him in the days ahead. "And if the days were not shortened by God, even the faithful would not stand." Pray for deliverance and salvation, not only for yourself, but for all...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

St. Herman

Yesterday I learned something. There is a St. Herman of Alaska. What is even better, his title is "St. Herman: Wonderworker of All America." He was born in 1756, outside of Moscow, but no one knows his real name. Apparently he was a pious youth, not unlike other great saints of the church and entered a monastery at age 17.

If a teenager asked to join a monastery today, most folks would recommend that he (or she) should "live" first. Most Christians would say that. Sad. It reveals how little we love the Lord. It shows how afraid we are of committing our lives to Him. The religious life is viewed, even by most Christians, as a lesser existence. I feel the same lack of passion eat at my own soul. Our values are more shaped by the culture than by the Gospel.

Herman spent many years as a hermit. [I did a check and I was disappointed that this had no influence on Herman's Hermits, the 60's rock group.] At 37 he led a small group of missionaries to Alaska. He was known as a great teacher, though he had no formal education beyond monastic training. He was known for his kindness to all, especially children. He took a courageous stance on behalf of the Aleuts against the Russian and European colonists.

He died on Christmas day, 1837. Until yesterday, I had never heard of him. To be honest, Herman of Alaska sounds like a joke name to me. But he was no joke. He was a holy man, a light of Christ in a hard land in a hard century.

I have heard it said that the life of Christians is the Fifth Gospel. I have heard it said that our witness, in word and deed, is the second volume of the Acts of the Apostles. I have also heard it said, over and over again, "I am no saint."

In the end, we are all called to be saints, whether we respond or not. Certainly, a natural inclination for God is probably a gift from God. Some people are born with an advantage, it seems. But it is also true that we can work to nurture, in our own heart and soul, a deeper desire. Years spent in solitary prayer made Herman more effective for Christ. Being transformed into a missionary through years of monastic prayer and communion with the Father made Herman all the more effective. Being called a "Wonder Worker" implies some God-activity in his life. Such miracles, we read, are a constituent part of the early church. It is our apostolic heritage. Pity; so few of us are wonder workers...

We are not Herman, nor are we called to be Herman. But we are called to be like him. A man taken up in the life of the Triunue God and spent in service of the same. A man who could love the least and share his knowledge in such a way that others were in rapt attention for hours on end! He was called the "North Star" by his people, a faithful guide. Who calls you a wonderworker? Who calls you holy? Who looks to you as a sure guide to God? In the midst of economic and political turmoil, church decline and endless threats, we are called to turn, once again, to the Lord. To prayer and holiness and service. To be a light to the nations and give glory to God.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Divorce, Children, God's Coincidence

Back to 'real life'. Walked the dog in a light drizzle while back at home momma fed baby. I pondered the daily reading, in particular the Gospel. What a Gospel it was, Mark 10:1-16

Jesus spoke on divorce in today's Gospel. Ouch! There is much speculation about what Jesus actually said and what the Church did with it. Matthew 19:9 indicates that "porneia/immorality is another issue" but Mark makes no mention of any extenuating circumstances. Did Jesus or did He not make exceptions to the rule on no divorce? Obviously, for a large number of Christians (especially Western Christians where marriages so frequently fail) this is a huge issue. Pastorally, it is a great challenge. What to do with Jesus' hard words?

Many scholars claim that Jesus made no exceptions, but that the church later did. Hence, Matthew added the 'porneia/immorality" line to deal with the pastoral situation of his church. Or his church had made that accomodation already so he incorporated it into the Gospel. The early church believed that the Risen Lord was at work amongst them (note the end of Matthew's Gospel and Jesus' promise) so for them there was no dramatic difference between the historical teaching of Jesus before the resurrection and the on-gong presence of Jesus, teaching in their midst. It is probably a helpful insight. Unfortunately, there are no ecclesial handbooks written by the apostles to let us know exactly what they thought about history and Gospel.

I certainly think that Jesus would have discussed divorce on many occassions. Perhaps, Matthew (and his group) were more concerned about the legal issues than Mark. A close reading of the two Gospels does seem to support such an idea. If that is the case, then Matthew may well be including a more thorough explanation. Mark may not have been aware of this or thought it unhelpful to his point.

What is Mark's point? It seems to be that Jesus is explaining that the marriage vows are unbreakable. That God is involved in marriage and He makes the bond ("What God has joined"). That humans are under His authority ("let no one separate"). That remarriage after divorce is adultery.

Now in wrestling with this what are we to think? The Roman Catholic Church tries to deal with this through annulment. It is a legalistic approach, but it is a legal question. I think they are on to something in asking the question, "what constitutes a marriage?" However, too many annulments are granted. When I was an RC priest I was often asked if I had done a particular wedding ceremony. My response, "I don't know, we will find out..." After all, some marriages of ten, even twenty years had been annulled! The Protestant response is to poke fun of the Catholics and then proceed to allow remarriage. I am stunned when a Literalist ignores such clear teaching of Jesus. The Liberals "cannot imagine Jesus would be so mean and demanding." Neither of those two is helpful. It seems that the Catholics at least trying. My take on things is that Jesus wants us to know it is serious. He also warned that looking with lust upon a woman (poor Jimmy Carter paid for admitting that one) commits adultery. So perhaps, the adultery issue is about insight into sin? Can someone remarry? Maybe He wants us to understand how sinful we are?

I often ask (previously married) couples who want to get married, "If I laughed during your vows, rolled my eyes and said, 'sure you will,' would you be offended?" They always say yes. Then I ask, so why do you want me not to take seriously the commitment you made last time? It is a fair question. I think it is the one Jesus asks.

The reading concludes with Jesus blessing children. That is the reading that I alluded to yesterday in my blog. I was stunned, again, by the Divine Coincidence. I wrote on this some time ago. How often, I  have spoken or written about the words of Jesus only to have them appear the next day in the daily readings. It is, for me, the blessing of God. It shows me how things can be connected, somehow. It makes me take greater notice of  the Bible text and reflect more intensely.

We must be like children. In the end, maybe that is the hope of the divorced and remarried. Come to Jesus as a child. Be humble, dependent, open and trusting. It is the hope for all of us, whatever our particular sin or failure. I thnk this topic deserves much deeper work and more extensive explication. I cannot give more time. I pray for those who have suffered through divorce. I trust the judgment and mercy of Jesus. I think, inspite of our sin, we can come to Jesus and He will bless us, each of us, a little child who  has made a mess of our lives!

Monday, August 8, 2011

First Day of School

Yesterday my daughter said to me, "Summer is over."

"No," I reminded her, "It will still be 100 degrees. Summer is not over, vacation is."

Endings and Beginnings. Most adults can remember back to the first days of school. I recall being so excited that I couldn't fall asleep. My mind raced with questions. Would there be someone gone or someone knew? Who was my teacher going to be? What classes were we going to have? What adventures were to take place?

Tne unknnown. Anticipation. Excitement. The joy of wonder.

Too often our adult lives are spent trudging through each day. We lose the ability fo anticpate or be excited. It seems that this is a natural process. As much as being young at heart sounds great, there is also something wrong with adults who never grow up. Peter Pan, at age 45, is rather creepy. However, we want more than simply to be a hollowed out, beat down shell of the person we were.

Jesus said we are to be like children in the Kingdom. In His time, children were hardly idealized. I think, therefore, that His point is more important. Be children. Probably, what it means, is to live in anticipation. Anticipation of the Kingdom. Hungry and thirsty for God. Looking forward to all that will be. Trusting and Hoping and Living on the edge, the edge of a new adventure. An adventure with God.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


I watched a tv new station which I usually avoid. I wanted to hear another view point, one from a perspective different from my own. I was not disappointed. The commentators did nothing short of advocating for one party and attacking another. It was helpful for me to hear their beliefs trumpeted so loud and clear.

One irony of life is how often we are friendly with folks with whom we have such strong disagreement. I was working out and someone was blasting the tea party. I try to hear what people say. I get plenty of chances to talk. I do not want to debate, especially while on an exercise machine. I like the guy who was sharing his politics with me. I do not agree with him, even if I am not in the tea party.

The struggle for me is truth. It is hard to find it. There is so much I do not know. The liberal group was all advocating increased government spending to help the faltering economy. The tea party warns that one can only burn up so much debt before one goes under. The recent downgrade of US bonds was certainly a stunning reminder that debt produces consequences.

I also wonder if we spend too much time focused on wealth. The houses we live in and the mode of life we embrace eat up alot of resources. I wonder where Jesus would live and how He would vote (or if He would vote) if He lived today. What kind of church would He attend? A mega-Evangelical? A smaller community church? Mainline or Catholic? Of course, Jesus would be in a strange situation attending a Christian worship, being as how we worship HIM! But you get the point.

Making right choices and doing the right thing is important to me. I have processed so many competing ideas through the years. I have, in fact, been a leader who has actually told others 'the Way.' I believe I profess Christian truth. I am more sure of that than I am about my politics and economics. But there are many who tell me I am wrong, even evil....

Faith is trust. Trust that God is working, even if He is awful quiet about it. Trust that the mistakes will be covered over and the Lord of mercy will find a way. Trust that clarity and confusion are okay, because God is in His Heaven and He will prevail

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Dangerous Duo: Oprah and Shirley Maclaine

I was making dinner the other day. There is a TV in our kitchen which is expanded by a connected bonus room. The normal TV watching schedule was in place, i.e., the one which does not factor me in (because I am usually at work at this time). So Oprah was on.

For much of the time I was focused on peppers, potatos and sausage. Even so, I could take in much of what Oprah and her guest, Shirley Maclaine, were discussing. It seems that Shirley, the celebrity front woman of the new age thinkers, wrote a book that changed Oprah's life. Oprah took God "out of the box" and expanded her understanding of spirituality. Spirituality, Oprah explained repeatedly, means "an openness" to reality and, she gently reminded her audience, was in no way against anyone's religion.

Shirley then proceeded to espouse basic pantheism, to the apparent delight of the studio audience. I would have preferred that the two ladies were more argumentative. I would have preferred that Oprah attacked Christian faith or Shirley had mocked the Lord Jesus. I would have preferred that everyone knew exactly what these two media giants were actually saying.

Instead, we heard about meditation and the value of non-violence. We heard about reincarnation and the 'reality' that no one dies. The soul lives on. We heard that the problem with people today is no one teaches 'spirituality' in the schools so people grow up ignorant of the (panthesistic) truth. And, of course, we were assured that none of this was intended to undermine "your religion whatever it is." Even as the two of them dissembled the Christian faith and denied not only its central tenants but its core: Jesus.

On the surface, and even a bit below, the conversation was pleasant. It is a lovely picture they painted of life. No one dies, our souls go on and on, learning and loving. There was a non-violent component (war/killing is bad). There was also no morality baggage. Like some versions of the Gospel of Grace I have heard, human activity was pretty much free of the troubling struggles of becoming holy. We just are, so enjoy it.

One striking feature was Shirley Maclaine's memories of past lovers. It appears she has had many, quite a few of which were not very good, she humorously quipped to the delight of the women in the audience. She admitted to having had three different men in one day. More startled delight from Oprah and her followers! Ms. Maclaine was on the campaign trail and, she shared, everyone else was doing it... Oprah, the wise, explained "you didn't want to be left out?!" "Yes!" Shirley admitted. We then learned that three different men were chosen. Oprah asked about the process. The audienced laughed and clapped. It wasn't very good, we were told, Shirley prefers some level of emotional bonding first. No life lessons here. Apparently spirituality of this sort is promiscuous (if you want it to be).

I have lived too long to be shocked or disgusted by all this. I have heard too much over the years. It is all too familiar. My innoncence is gone. I wish I could be surprised. I wish I could be shocked. I think Oprah is incredibly dangerous to the Christian faith. Not because she is evil, but because she is silly. Silly, and incredibly powerful. Woman are influenced by her. I can only wonder how many other woman are now "freed" by the "Maclaine (pseudo) gospel." I wonder how many are sitting in church pews. Like I said, I prefer an actual frontal assault on the faith. And a genuine discussion of the repurcussions of the beliefs being espoused. We live in an age of paganization. It is sad and scary. It is the work of spirit, but not THE Holy Spirit. It comes packaged in Hollywood glamor and our 'BFF" Oprah's gracious style. It is seductive. It is deadly. And it is hard to combat because, after all, who wants to say something mean about Oprah when there is so much evil in the world? And so a seductive, more photogenic, dangerous belief system continues to permeate our culture.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More on Babies and Fiscal Issues

I want to make clear, following up on my "Breeders vs. Baby Haters" post a couple of days ago, that I do not advocate children being in every place. I understand the desire to have a "scream free zone." I think it is a parent's responsibility to exercise some critcal thinking. I also know there is a wide range of opinion as regards what is acceptable. My concern is more with the term "Breeders" and the wide-spread distaste for children in some quarters. It is hard to know exactly what is going on in a nation of hundreds of millions of people. I do think that there is an anti-life bent that is coming through from certain quarters.

I am also troubled by the idea that fiscal conservatives are terrorists. Now quotes have a funny way of being edited, and I myself have seen my own words snatched out of context and used to put me in a bad light. But the idea that someone who is dedicated to not increasing an already ridiculous amount of indebtedness is engaging in terrorist behavior is beyond silly. It is, to me, evil. I long ago grew weary with the use of the term "hater" which was pinned on anyone who believes in tradtional marriage. Really? Such language is a result of laziness. It is also a desire to demonize. The misuse of 'terrorist' as applied to debate opponents is equally unwelcome.

My vacation is drawing to a close. We have done little more than household chores. Largely, this is due to childcare responsibilities. Caring for a two month old (we crossed that mark Monday) is pretty much an around the clock thing. It is very time consuming and rules out most other options. It is hard work and there is little positive feedback at the time. The greatest value is it affords one the chance to actually engage in true love. It is an act of self gift and sacrifice. It is not, mind you, heroic. It is not, mind you, unique. It is not, mind you, a reason to think more highly of myself. It is, however, the way things are.

There is much uncertainty hanging over our heads regarding this little guy. We feed, change diapers and care for him. We pray, alot. We recognize how much we have to do and, paradoxically, how little we can do for him. As my other son said some time ago, "Why do they call babies a bundle of joy, they seem to be a bundle of worries."

I want him to grow up in a society which is not bankrupt, morally or financially. I want him to live in a place where he feels valued and where he has reason to believe that if he works hard he can make a good life for himself. I am less secure in trusting the future will be like that for him. However, I have a deeper, further ranging hope as well: God's Kingdom. Perhaps, paradoxically, growing up in a 'worse' world he will help his values and beliefs sharpen. Perhaps he will be more Christian than those of us whose faith has been filtered through the opulence characteristic of middle class life the last couple of decades. It is a mystery to ponder on this hot, hot Wednesday in August.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Economics and Salvation

My daughter is taking economics this year. Sometimes I read the books assigned, which I did this week. It is interesting reading and I am excited for her to be in the class. Some time ago I read Freakonomics, which really opened my eyes to a broader understanding of the field. Probably, if I weren't in theology, economics would be something I would seriously consider pursuing. It has components of math, psychology, philosophy and history. It is also focused on the basic issues of life.

Like many folks, I have observed a great deal of news coverage on the congressional budget debates. I have a personal distaste for debt which drives me to pay things off early. I get fifteen year mortgages and add to the payment for that reason. So, a guy like me has a very difficult time understanding why it is a good idea to continually add billions of dollars of debt each year. I also understand that national economics is more complex than my personal financial life. Even so, I am upset that each year we pile on more and  more debt. The polluting influence of politicians doing their spin thing only makes it worse....

The word economy for me is forever changed because of an expression, "economy of salvation," which I first heard in seminary. The process whereby God does His saving work is in a context of a web of relationships. The interactions can be subtle and discreet, yet make huge impacts. Perhaps this is what Jesus was getting at when he talked about mustard seeds becoming large bushes. Or yeast in dough.

We are all in debt to God, and it isn't just sin. If we were sinless, we would still be in debt. "All things come of Thee O Lord" we frequently pray on Sunday. We owe God for everything we have. Sinning just compounded the entire process. Debts never disappear. When someone writes off a debt, they eat it. The debt is still there, it just isn't paid off by the one who owed it. But the debt remains. The one owed the debt just does not collect. The debt holder is the one who pays the debt. On a cosmic scale, God writes off the debt, which means God pays it off. The cost is seen on the Cross. Like all economic systems it is more complex. The cross does not explained everything. We do not understand how it works. We just know it does.

In the days ahead, when our nation collapses under the fiscal irresponsibility, there will be great suffering. There is also greater suffering in store for the sinful choices we make. Unfortunately, humans have a remarkable capacity to ignore approaching doom. People ignore the truth. People ignore the future cost of decisions. Perhaps that is why Jesus spoke so much about Judgment?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Breeders vs. Baby Haters

At a clergy gathering in the Spring one of the Progressives said to me that his gay friends call people with children "breeders." I have run across this a few times in articles, generally written by more progressive types. I think it is clever and no doubt funny in a way. I am probably sensitive enough to the culture war issues that I do not find it "laugh out loud" comical. I also believe it is reflective of a bit of disdain for traditional marriage. Just a bit, mind you, but a bit nonetheless.

I do not give much thought to that phrase usually. I am pretty tied up with the three kids, especially the baby, and I have disengaged from the culture war battles in our church since we lost the 'war'.  Around these parts, everyone knows what I think and why I think it. They really do not care.

What raises the issue today is at the Y this morning I saw another news story on restaurants barring children under six. I understand the impulse and no one wants to hearing a screaming baby. I swear I have  had my fill. Even so, is there something else afoot? What is the general mood of a society that it says that children are not welcome. One theme of the report was that even people with kids wanted to eat in peace and were for the idea. Another theme was that parents are just not good at controlling their kids. But one commentator pointed out the large number of couples who have decided not to have children. These two-income couples are not wanting to see or hear children, apparently. Or at least enough of them to make this issue rather worrisome to me.

The demographic trends in the West are clear. People are not having children at replacement levels. In the decades ahead many nations will be populated by older adults with few young people. It is cultural suicide. It is also divine wrath. Choose life or choose death, God commands in Deuteronomy. Viewing married couples with children as 'breeders' may be one symptom. Refusing admittance of children to restaurants may be another. And then there is the abortion rate.

We need more data to know for sure what is going on. But one thing is clear. At least among certain classes in our society, anti-child is okay. My Lord Jesus said, "Let the children come to me." I hope the church will welcome them in His Name. I think this trend may be a bad thing. What do you think?