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Sunday, June 24, 2012

Church & Storms

[No post for two weeks. Vacation until July 9]

Today's (Sunday) Gospel is Mark 4:35-41. Some reflections from my homily preparation:
It is a story about Jesus in a boat. There is a strorm, a bad one, and Jesus just snoozes away. The apostles are terrified and sort of imply that Jesus is being negligent. (not too respectful there) He basically said "Quiet! Be muzzled!" ("Peace, be still" sound nicer). However, He rebukes the storm, which is harsher (and more theologically loaded) so I am thinking He screamed "shut up!"

The nature miracles of Jesus are under attack by skeptics and Modernist/Liberal Christians. They have a point, these are not typical miracles we see much of today. They have another point, perhaps the stories are symbolic. There are times when the Biblical writers are more interested in communicating a theological insight than they are giving accurate details of history. (This is true of much ancient history and even since "scientific" history came in vogue it still occurs) So one is left to ask, did this happen. It cannot be proved, but here is my argument for thinking it is a real event: Details. And not just any kind of details, unneeded, useless details.

There are three of them:
  1. "They took Jesus with them in the boat, just as He was." Jesus is being led around. Not the type thing which makes sense if the story were made up to prove He is a mighty miracle worker. The latter phrase, 'just as He was' is rather confusing. It obviously refers to something, but it is a something which a story teller knows, not a reader. And an author would not have much reason to add it because it is mysterious. It is irritating (huh?) mystery, not deep (oh my!) mystery.
  2. "other boats were with Him." Actually the Greek says, "little boats" and that makes their presence more of a concern. What happens to little boats in a storm? Did all those folks perish? We do not know, because they are never mentioned again. The focus is on the miracle and more so on the final question in the story. The little boats, the sort of detail story tellers provide about true events (the details that make the listener say, "Get to the point" because they muddy up the story) are an indication to me that someone (Peter) recounted an event which he witnessed. He is remembering the little boats.
  3. Jesus was "in the stern, asleep on a cushion." Once more, meticulous detail unneeded if the story were somposed simply to say Jesus is powerful. The exact location, smacks of eye witness and the cushion does as well.
Matthew, to prove my point, in a more theologically reworked version of the story omits all these details. Even Luke, simply says Jesus was asleep.  Asleep where and on what do not matter, do they? So, the historical character of the story implies a real, historic event.

The background in which to read the story is the Bible (i.e. The OT). Herein the deeper resonance of the story lies. All of us experience events which have a deeper meaning. Yesterday a Detroit pitcher pitched a game, having just returned from two days off with his family. His brother, a young man, had unexpectedly died. The personal tragedy made his excellent performance more poignant. We all get it. That is why Paul Harvey made money telling us "the rest of the story."

The creation account in Genesis is one such key for insight: powerful (elohim=gods, but can also mean mighty) wind (ruah means breath, spirit and wind) and water(= dark chaos) are central elements of the story. Creation is ordering chaos, making things habitable for all that comes later. The sea (for a Jew) was a dangerous place. In Daniel's apocalypse the monster comes from the sea. In several places YHWH kills the sea monsters. All this references the ancient creation myth of the Jew's predecessors. Wind god and sea god battle and the result is wind defeats chaos and humans eventually emerge. The men in the boat on the lake are participating in the great mythic struggle of life over death, order over chaos, the Divine over the Demonic. [Hence, Jesus rebukes the wind, the same term used when He exorcises demons. It isn't just a storm, it is satanic forces let loose in and through nature. It is pure evil wreaking havoc, and the Good One rebuking and silencing the fierce enemy of creation and humanity.]

Psalm 107:25-30 provide an additional OT parallel. It recounts people in a storm. "They cried out to the Lord in their trouble...He stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed." I don't think you need a PhD in Bible to see parallels here.

So the deeper story, the connection of Jesus with God (who creates order out of chaos and stills the sea for those in peril) is pretty obvious. This is not just a miracle; it is an Epiphany. It is God manifesting Himself in Jesus, Jesus revealing Himself as God.

As I mentioned earlied, Mt reshapes the elements of the story to make his theological declaration. But Mark has made one as well. It is from the question.

"Do you not care that we are perishing?" the apostles (accuse) ask Jesus. It is a question of The Church. (The Bible is Big Picture first). The first readers of this account, living some 15 to 40 years after the actual event, had their own storms and struggles. Is Jesus sleeping (=dead and gone)? Is He unable or inattentive? If Jesus is risen Lord then why is the church in duress and why is the victory not obvious and why aren't we experiencing the fruit of salvation and why does it feel like He does not care? The church (a boat) is being slapped and pummeled around in the storm, so where is He? Only secondarily is the question personal. (Why am I suffering--no job, illness, depression, broken marriage, losses&pain, etc.)

[This issue of church and the storm brings up a side issue for traditional Episopalians. We experience the church in a mega (demonic) storm. We see water filling the boat (chaos) and the threat of sinking is real (data shows it happening). My only point is this, if you leave the Episcopal church for another, remember, any boat close enough to swim to is in the same storm. The problem is wider than our denomination. And the storm is raging. We are not in the harbor we are on the lake!]

Jesus response, also an accusation: Why are you afraid? How is it you have no faith? This is the fundamental question for the church in every age. Why is fear and doubt cripping us in our ministry? The answers are multiple. We have short memories and what Jesus did is not always sufficient for us to trust what He will do in the future. Also, few of us are grounded deeply in the Lord. Our faith is not nurtured. And besides if the apostles doubted in His presence is there serious reason to think we won't in His "absence"?

The last question, "Who is this that wind and sea obey?" is the main point. Who is this Jesus? What manner of man is able to do (Psalm 107, again) what God does?

So our purpose as church is mission to "the other side" and our challenge as church is to trust and  be brave, even as we are buffeted in the storm. Our doubt and fear, however substantial, still crumble before the God-Man Jesus. He has power to conquer the storms of our ministry. He has power to exorcise the demons in their use of nature, relationships, government and institutions (including inside our churches). Jesus has the power. The power is mega;  more mega than the storm and more mega than our fear and more mega than our doubt.

I could write more. Visit to hear the homily if you like. Now I am off the grid until July 10.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

No Where

Jesus said, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."

What did this mean in His day?
Villages were populated with clan. Families stuck together. There was not a great deal of going off for the common folk. Now, we do not have in depth studies of everything everyone was doing. Sociology had not reared its head yet. But we do know that these were not folks who moved around much. We also know that identity came from community. I am who I am in relation to my group. "We are" was more important than "I am."

Jesus gave that up. It was part of the cost of doing business as a Messiah. And He seemed to enjoin a similar ethic on His followers. After all, can't follow someone with no where to lay His head and keep ahold of hearth and bed. So what does it mean for us, today? Private property is huge, at least in my part of the globe. "I own, therefore I am." Yet for all the solid, stable sinking of one's roots, the other side of it is we do not live with families. Most of us do not see family regularly. Many of us have fmaily spread out over hundreds of miles. There are literally dozens of cousins with whom I spent my childhood whom I  have not seen in decades. Would not know how to find them. They are distant memories grown old. For people like me Jesus' words are not so hard.

Yet, in His day, this was serious. The relationships of the Kingdom community (i.e. church) are fundamentally our new family. So thought Jesus, thus spake Jesus. You and me? Well we are part of something bigger, connected at the (Holy) Spirit level and in this together. And, as I often quip, our God has made sure that there are several folks in the church who make travel all the less enjoyable. People sent to teach us not to like, but to love. People whom we must learn to live with. People who make it hard.

Jesus had no where. Yet, in His heart, the Father reigned. Some day, not today, maybe, but someday that reign is going to bust out all over this world. And Jesus will lay His head, everywhere. He is the Head and we are the Body. If you feel disconnected and weary, maybe it is because of that...

Friday, June 22, 2012


I am working through the Sermon on the Mount for next year's Bible Study class. Yesterday, at the end of the day, I had reached Mt 7:13-14. Jesus said, "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction. The Greek word, apoleia (long o), is a feminine noun. It is derived from appolumi, which is in turn derived from a composite. All along the way the words mean the same: death, kill, destroy, render useless, etc. At some point the word perdition popped up. I looked that word up and read "a state of eternal damnation."

While Jesus does not say it is hopeless, He does imply, at least in this quotation, that the future does not look good. "The gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Narrow, hard, few... My experience in the church has been that people tend to respond to these words in one of two ways. They ignore them or they apply them to someone else. The first group, who populate mainline churches or are non-attending "believers," assume God's mercy (LOVE!!!). Hence, any indication of a bleak future following the Judgment is deemed unlikely. Hell is reserved for Hitler, Stalin, and that mean guy down the road who gives me grief. Hell is populated only with the worst of the worst. Heaven on the other hand is crammed full with people enjoying family reunions with lost love ones. God provides all the fun you can imagine and we relax and enjoy the benefits of "making it." The second group, usually based on their faith in Jesus, calmly discuss the annihilation of 99% of humanity with an attitude remarkable in its indifference. "Yep, God made the rules. We are all sinners. We are dirty, filthy creatures. And only those who know/believe Jesus are going to heaven. And I am one of them. So everything is cool." Perhaps my favorite thing they say, "I don't know about anyone's salvation but mine. I know I am going. I do not know about anyone else."

In a few minutes, after posting this, I will deal with false prophets (v15-20) followed by the warning against self-deception (21-23). There Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Ooooopppss! Looks like Jesus forgot we are saved by faith alone. Of course, there are those who interpret "does the will of my Father" as "believing in Jesus" (there is a verse in John which makes that possible). But Matthew does not seem to think that is what Jesus means. He goes on to quote that people will prophesy, cast out demons and do mighty works in Jesus' name--but still not be welcome.

I believe that faith saves. I define faith more broadly than some. I do not think that Hell is empty and I do not believe that only a handful of really famously evil people (and the unknowns who populate my life and really tick me off) are there. On the other hand, I do not know think we can "good works" our way into the narrow gate. I think there is no ladder to climb (except Jesus, see John's Gospel again). I am not sure exactly what my belief is on it all. Eternal life in the Kingdom is God's plan. Some are in. Some are not. Human choice factors in. God's Judgment is determinative. There is reason to hope (NT is full of good reasons). There is reason to be measured and concerned about the possibility of perdition (including the smug "believer" who is sure they are in). Crawling on my knees, confessing my sins and begging for mercy. That is my approach. Aware that I have a need to find the narrow gate, the hard way, the journy of faith in Jesus. Of course, much of the time I just look like anyone else. Sort of living and not paying much attention. That is the kicker. Few of us are focused.

But God is. So we hope...

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I am "gone" on "study week" this week. The idea is each year a priest gets two weeks to dedicate to study to be renewed and better able to provide pastoral care. In reality I am not sure how many do it. Most probably feel the pressure from the folks not to ("wow, Father, I wish I got a week to just read, where do I sign up?"), while some probably are not motivated. I try to take the time. Each year has been spent writing notes for my Bible study since I got her in '01. This year, after several years in the OT, I am doing the Gospel Parallels. Spending all day with Jesus and His words is amazing. Of course, the worries about getting as much done as I can (I am on page 23 of 190 and average almost two typed pages of notes per page of Biblical text) and trying to relay info means that I am not exactly pondering and meditating, savoring each text. That is a dilemma. Bible study can get in the way of Bible studying. Even so, there was something afoot in my soul last night that was absent the night before. I call it an echoing awareness.

Most of the day I worked on Beatitudes. Matthew and Luke have taken the information and done different things with it. Scholars debate what the shared source actually said and which of the two made the adjustments. Reading side-by-side, over and over, one does see that an editorial hand was at work in the Gospels. Briefly, Matthew has eight (plus one which expands on persecution) which speak of generic types of people: the poor in spirit, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, etc. Luke has direct address and only three. He says blessed are you who hunger now, you that weep now, you that are persecuted. However, he then includes three 'woes' to you who are rich, full and well-spoken of.

Luke is more concrete, at first reading, while Matthew seems to spiritualize, eg. poor vs poor in spirit. However, as one digs deeper (after all that is why I am paid so handsomely, to do the digging and bring back the nuggets) the differences melt away. Both sets point to an attitude of faithful dependence on God. Each says, "Focus on Him!" I used to worry about the dividing line. When are you poor and when are you rich. Obviously, in our culture the word 'poverty' describes a much different life experience than it does in India. And God certainly does not want us to focus on meeting some loweer income level to technically be part of "the poor."

Jesus' words were spoken, I assume, many times in many different settings. I assume in all His travels He had a certain set of things which He wanted to communicate. A solid background in Torah and familiarity with the Prophets (the books of Joshua through Nehemiah plus the collection which we refer to as prophets) would be the needed foundation for encountering Jesus' teaching. Much of what we find in the Beatitudes we also find there. Probably, Jesus was preaching and teaching on OT verses when He said what He said.

I have so much to share about my encounter with His words yesterday, but that would mean spending all day blogging. Instead, a reminder. God can be remembered or forgotten at each moment of our life. We can decide to live consciously out of our faith, or we can drift into another mind and live oblivious to His call. The values which He offer runs counter to our natural inclinations and the (faux)values of our culture. There is little which draws us to the radical mindset which Jesus calls us to. The teaching is there and we are all invited to search it and know it.  Receiving the grace of His life and love is hard work. But Jesus calls. He calls you and me. He calls and He calls. Pick up your Bible today and read.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Can a Christian be a Sports Fan?

This was generated as I tossed and turned in bed last night. Anyhow, as I was trying to fall asleep I noticed my stress level was pretty high. What caused it? Watching my team lose again. We are 4 and 12 the last two weeks and have played almost well enough to win half the losses. And taking stock of my situation I found my mind wandering and wondering.

I recalled a sermon by St. John Chrysostom on attending the games (and other entertainment) in the ancient Rome of his day. He preached a pretty sharp attack on this practice. I cannot recall every detail, but the general tenor made me rethink going to movies and sporting events. Then I thought of the various times I had gotten my stomach in knots over games...

I think, in general, the early church leaders were pretty strict on this sort of thing. Throughout Christian history I believe there has always been some preachers and some denominations which were pretty tight about such things. I also know that if the preachers were preaching against it then the folks must  have been doing it. So in the early church there was a tension. The general consensus among people I know could be summed up with the word "just-chill." As a natural born worrier, chilling is not my specialty nor my first option. I am reflexively unchilled! But I also think life is to be lived and it can be so overwhelming to constantly think about "everything" and endlessly ponder what is a "sin." Sometimes I just want to love my God, love my family, love my church and watch some baseball. The question is, is the Lord fine with that?

The billions of dollars tied up in sports is probably not a healthy sign of the state of our society. And I am not railing against salaries, they are a function of an economy of scale. When ticket prices drive salaries they are much lower than when TV revenue gets factored in. I live in Memphis. My team is Chicago, which I watch on WGN. As do people all over the country. If you get a dime from one million people you have $100,000. (and they get more than 10 pennies per head!) No, my concern is the focus. I know all manner of baseball statistics. I probably know more about the 1968 pennant race than I do about parts of the Bible. Some of that is because I lived through it. And I do sincerely wonder if studying the Bible, day and night, without any knowledge of anything else is really God's desire. But there are times when I do wonder, how much of my life has been wasted as a fan.

Fan, of course, is short for fanatic. Even so, I think the diminutive has changed meaning. Now it means something more calm, more a supporter or a person with a rooting interest than an unhinged individual who is out of control. I hope God is okay with some of this. Lord, if you aren't I am in trouble. And there is some joy in just relaxing and cheering on the team. And there is much to learn about hard work, success and failure, commitment and luck from sports. I also know, sometimes, that knot in my belly cannot be a good thing.

In the end, there is much to wonder about life. I think we all know it is a mystery. God is the judge. We do well to think seriously about how best to respond to His call. We probably live in a warped culture. That has (mis)shaped and (de)formed us. On the other hand, since Adam and Eve and the Fall, what is not warped? St. Benedict comes to mind: In all things, moderation. A balanced life. Except when loving, that should be unhinged and unmeasured, bold and unlimited!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Can a Christian celebrate Father's Day?

I am catholic, as those who read regularly know, but not in communion with Rome. Even so, in the episcopal world I currently live in, the title, Father, is frequently used. I am called "Father Jeff." This is most distressing to a certain subset of other-thinking Christians. As I have heard from these (distressed) fellow Christians, Jesus says call no man father so the catholics (Roman and Anglo-) are disobeying Jesus. One great irony is if a Sunday School teacher is the one who taught them this.

Briefly, in Mt 23:1-36, Matthew has an extended version of Mk 12:37-40. The concern is the Pharisees, but Mt includes not just a general warning but a far more indepth attack by Jesus. [As a side bar, I am often challenged by church members for being "too hard." When one reads Mt 23 the worry about being too hard fades away and is supplanted by the worry I am "too soft." Jesus, whatever else He may  be, is not particularly nice all the time.] when one looks at the Parallel Gospel one finds Mt parallels Lk in places, but there are some sections which are unique to Matthew. Without getting too much into the technicalities of sources, lets just say that the church in Matthew retained and wrote information not found elsewhere. This includes the concern today: call no man father. It also says, call no man teacher. For some reason, no Christians ever seem bent out of shape about that one. Here is why. A simple syllogism.
  • Catholics call their priest "Father"
  • We (Protestant) don't
  • We aren't Catholic.
  • Therefore we can quote Scripture to correct their error.
  • we call our Sunday school teachers, teachers
  • surely that is okay
  • so we will ignore it
  • therefore, we will really focus on the 'call no one father' part of the Gospel
This is my, perhaps cynical, I would like to think it insightful, assumption of what takes place. But it squares up the problem clearly. Jesus forbids the use of both titles. And he does not limit it to the church. No father except God means just that. Not religious surrogate fathers. Fathers. Period. So this is much bigger than priest's titles. It goes to the heart of the paternal role in the family.

Today we honor fathers. Some, like me, have buried their dad. It is a sad day (IF we think about it too much). On the other hand, I am a dad. So technically this is my big day. We'll see how that unfolds.... If Jesus is to be taken literally, today is an abomination. It is disregarding Jesus' command. This leads to further reflection. Jesus actually speaks 'against' the ties of biological families on several occassions. We, today, do not have the close family ties of the Ancient Near East. Family, clan and tribe were the source of identity in ways which individualistic Americans can not fathom. (Not saying it is better or worse, just different). Everything Jesus said was spoken in that context (not ours). This is a topic worthy of a book so forgive my stunted reflection. What I will say is this: Part of Kingdom thinking is radically turning things upside down. It is a reminder that this (fallen) world is at enmity with God. Our (pseudo-) virtues and values are tainted by the (sin) process of our thinking and acting. Even good things are disordered. Jesus is striking the root when He reminds us of the centrality of God. We do not get it, so He says amazing, confusing things like "call no man father (or teacher)" to shock us into insight. GOD is God. God alone is God. We need to remember that.

Can a Christian celebrate father's day. I think yes. I will do it today as I have in the past. Can a priest be "father"? Once more, I think yes. The title goes back to Paul (who used the term to describe his relationship with his flock) and was widespread since the early church. Like all things religious it is dangerous, but the issue is the heart. And titles like "brother" or "reverend" are no less liable of abuse. In the end, it is our hearts that are messed. We do well to meditate on Jesus word, before, during and after celebrating the gift of our fathers. A gift from God, the only true Father.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Exodus Journey: History vs. Spirituality

Was there an Exodus? I have no doubt. The Jewish Bible is centered around that event and circles it repeatedly in later generations as a template for understanding the return to Jerusalem after the exile. One of the oldest, perhaps the oldest, existing documents found in the OT (the Song of Moses, Exodus 15) is the song of triumph at the Red Sea.

Does Exodus relate that event exactly as it occurred?
Hmmm, that would seem to be the next question, but before I answer it I have another: Does Exodus intend to relate the event exactly as it happened?

I ignore the history question because it really requires an indepth investigation into things better wrestled with in a history seminar. I have come to see that the exodus experience of Israel is intended to serve as a model of Spiritual life. It is, in other words, not only true about the past, but is equally true about the present. In my understanding, much of ancient culture embraced the idea that the literal meaning of things was in many ways the least interesting. In fact, a spiritual or metaphorical reading of a text revealed the deeper meaning. One aspect of this is typology, the belief that a "past event" was a type of a future event. This is Paul's approach to numerous OT stories. He sees Adam as a type of the Man to come (Jesus). He says that "don't muzzle the ox when he is treading the grain" refers not to oxen, but preachers of the Gospel. And he pointed to the wives and offspring of Abraham as types of the two people to come (children of grace and children of slavery/law). The first leaders of the Christian church, by and large, embraced this approach as well. (Though recognizing its danger, it can manipulate the text)

Thursday we did a VBS day for a group of innercity youth. My task was to tell the Exodus story. I told it as a story about our lives, as much as theirs (ancient Israel). Like them, we are slaves (slaves to sin, Jesus and Paul both expand this idea). I spoke to them about the powers that have control of us, things like donuts and anger. I said Egypt is the land of slavery.

Then we looked at the journey to the promised land. It is hard walking. It is hunger and thirst and desert sun. God does not make it easy. His miracles are not much use for us day to day. And so we think back to Egypt. "Dang, it was better then!" we convince ourselves. And that is the battle. The pull of our "bellies" vs. the power of  the Dream of A Better Place. We know where to go, but we turn back because of fear, or laziness, or a lack of faith. WE do, today, here and now. Us.

These young black teens understood what I was talking about. One of the adult volunteers offered that he found it more graspable hearing the story told in that way. Which is why I think the story was really written for the contemporary Jew (in whatever BC), hearing the story of his people (and God's people) a story set in even more ancient times but lived in their today. To visit the OT for history is to shield ourselves from the story. It becomes data to memorize and debate rather than a map for our own journeys of sin, faith and deliverance. It hides the fact that life today is like it was then, a wandering (and wondering)...

I have a BA in history. I really like history and value it. But history is about the past. And the Bible transcends time. The Bible is a living word. We need faith and the Holy Spirit to hear it, to take it in and to be taken in by it. When we Pray & Read we become His people more deeply. When we remember the story we find our own story. When we walk with them in the journey of faith, we become who we are and who we are called to be.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Are Christians Nicer?

Ol Dave posted a comment on June 8th to the effect that being Christian does not mean being stupid. He used the example that if some "Joe" steals from you, your faith does not dictate acting like it did not happen and allowing the thief to take advantage. He concludes "Some of the Joe's in the world try to take advantage of a warped model of "acting Christian." When you call them on their actions, the first thing they say is "That's not very Christian of you.""

Ol Dave raises the perenial question, "How does a real Christian act?" In the Wizard of Oz Auntie Em is unable to voice her disgust for the mean lady who has taken Toto from Dorothy because "I am a Christian woman." (and don't you know such a line will never appear in a mainstream movie today). Interestingly, the Bible does say clearly that we are called to do good to our enemies. This is an OT theme picked up and re-emphasized by Jesus and His followers. However, to Dave's point, we are not supposed to be stupid about it.

Frequently people come to our church door "in need." There are many types of folks who come up. Some are expressively Christian, saying God bless every chance they get. They make it clear that they are on board with the whole religion/Jesus/faith thing. Others are so busy spinning their yarns that they do not make reference to church at all. [One showed up eating an ice cream cone, not realizing that it was a deterent to getting the aid!] There is one group, however, which irritates; those who expect to get something and are in-your-face in their approach. At some point they say, "I thought churches were supposed to help people." My response is always, "Then why haven't you been here with us all these years doing that?"

I think being nice is a characteristic of some personality types. Wednesday I was in a parkiong lot, the guy next to me flung open his door and banged my car. He jumped out with a look of horror. To my surprise I heard myself saying, "I'm sorry." Instinctively I felt it was my fault because I had rolled into the spot next to his unawares. That impulse to apologize is something which I did not actively choose. It is sort of what "nice people" do. My efforts to be a nice guy are not simply my own. They are impulses which drive me.

Reading about church Fathers one frequently learns that one or another "Saint" was a prickly sort. God sanctifies all manner of people, nice and not-so-nice, with His Holy Spirit. Following Jesus means we are to display all manner of virtues, but being nice (lilke being perky) are not high on the list. Being a mat for evil people to walk on because they demand that we "act Christian" is not faithful to the long tradition of prophetic Christianity. Jesus advocated turning the other cheek, but He also called His enemies snakes and sepulchres. I am thinking He was not always nice. [of course, this does not mean going to the other extreme and being a jerk]

Christians are honest. Speaking the truth, even in love, is not always nice. Enabling sin is not Christian. Failing to confront a thief (etc.) is not nice, it is easing their way to deeper sin and eternal death. I think that Ol Dave is onto something important. We Christians need to clarify the difference between being nice and being Christ-like. We especially need to do this in an age of users, abusers and enemies of the Mission.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Divorce, Marriage and the Hungry Heart

The last two months I have had repeatedly dealt with dying marriages. Literally, the stories sound the same. I am not a marriage counselor. I am not a social researcher. I am not sure if what I see anecdotally is merely a statistical anomally or a reflection of a wider reality. And I am not going to be able to do hours of in depth research to clarify it. Fortunately, I am a blogger, so I can toss my insights out there with that caveat and feel honest.

In the debate on gay marriage, one typical response from Liberals is that heterosexuals have ruined marriage. (With the corollary 'why would you be against anyone who wants to marry?') This statement is true, as far as it goes. The problem  is, as always, while bumper stickers can be terrific simple declarations, they make really lousy arguments. The same problem motivating the gay marriage movement is at work in the 'end of marriage' movement and the pro-divorce movement. It is the two letter word: ME.

Gay marriage is based on the idea that what 'I want' should be determinative of 'how things are.' If I feel strongly about something or deeply desire something, then I think that is how it should be. I don't want to pay a lot, I don't want to wait in lines, I don't want it in that color, and I don't see why I can't have what I want, how I want it, when I want, for the price I want it!!! And one's sexual proclivities certainly are included in that world shaping in which we are all engaged.

Hence, the currernt sorry state of marriage in the majority community, which reflects those same beliefs above, is a direct result. Let's be clear. This is painful stuff. Terribly painful. As a counseling clergyman it is hard to see the tears, hear the broken voice, reflect on the cost and not be saddened. Yet, the reflective self ponders, what in the heck is going on?

One central problem is the mistaken idea that marriage is about connections and personal fulfillment. The belief that my life partner is going to be a soul mate, while nice, is probably as much a projection as the ideal parents were on the old TV shows Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best. Sure, there is some basis in reality, but in the end, this impossibly high view of marriage carries too much weight in the contemporary imagination. As such, cynics reject it totally and live together, free of the bonds. Others take it on, only to toss off the relationship at the point where real life (which can be wretchedly boring and challenging) shows real life marriage to be something less than "happily ever after."

We search for our heart's fulfillment little realizing that the deep hunger is for God. Therein lies the dilemma. While we chase around in hopes of finding true fulfillment and love, we miss the point. No realitionship will ever reach the heights of our unfulfilled longing. Our soul mate, one and only, is the Holy Spirit. We were made FOR GOD. The frustrations of life are not taken care of by moving on to a new spouse (or redefining the word). The place of marriage in creation (an institution for the rearing of children and the building block of society) was never meant to be romance. That is a lovely when it happens, but much of romance is self seeking, it is feeling based and it is as much fantasy as it is flesh and blood. True love looks like a cross (says God in the New Testament). It is self gift for the benefit of others. Married love is like Christ (man) and the church (woman). It is God's way of making opposites learn the difficult task of letting go of 'me' and becoming 'us'. It is self emptying (kenosis in Greek, see Philipians "He emptied Himself and became a man")

I am sad for my friends and parishioners whose marriages are sick, dying or dead. I am sadder for a society which has corporately created this mess. I do not think seeking God is the "Answer" because I do not think there is an answer. Obviously, many people seeking God also have marital problems. Most of us aren't that great at seeking God any how. But I do think seeking God is central. It is part of the answer, a major part. I also think rethinking marriage is vital. What is it we are supposed to be doing in marriage? One thing is clear, marriage is not about 'what I want.' Any talk of marriage which leaves out the Cross is useless, and it seems to me all of us tend to do just that. We natter on about love and marriage, little realizing that what we are spinning is fantasy generated by the twisted and distorted misundertanding of our true nature and true purpose. On the brighter side, that is the human condition, fallen and sinful, but God, in Christ, has reconciled the world to Himself and has promised us abundant life (and right relationships) in the Age to Come!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Aging and Dying

Sunday evening I attended an Evening Prayer/Funeral Vigil for Fr. John Atkinson. He was the priest of my adolescence and a key figure in my own faith development. He preached about peace and justice all the time. He also had the radical idea of calling our parish a community. We made a big deal of that, which was something in the Catholic church. When I went off to seminary he was the pastor of my home parish, but he was transferred the next year. Ironically, Fr. John planted a church a few miles from where I currently live, in Collierville, Tn. I remember coming out to see him. His misssion is now our biggest church in the town!

At the prayer service Sunday night, there was a couple from my first assignment. We shared pleasantries and the man said to me, "I remember a sermon you preached on Jeremiah..." He proceeded to quote lines from the sermon. He then asked, "How long ago was that?" I paused, did the math and told him, "27 years. I guess if people are going to remember them that long I need to work harder on my sermons!"

Actually, I already work hard on my sermons. Preaching and teaching are my primary focus in ministry. But I was surprised that people continued to carry words spoken so long ago close to heart. But then, I recall many things Fr. John told me 35 years ago.

One of the toughest parts of letting go of old friends is so much dies with them. My first days as a priest were spent with him. As his associate, I lived with him for two years. There are so many memories, many of them were only he and I. Seeing him in the coffin, I not only buried him but also the only person who could remember those days with me. The expression, "a part of me died with him" makes sense. That is part of the pain. I often say that there are few people left to verify my memories and offer evidence that I haven't made the story of my whole life up! Now there is one less.

The American culture is aging. We are transitioning into a society of older folks. The church is ahead of the curve, but it is universal to our entier society.The reality of aging and death are a challenge. The aches, pains and limitations are a huge challenge. It is also a chance to re-center; to realize that we are in need of refocus. The Lord is the King. He is the Center. There is still time for us to reconsider that. As I looked around the church Sunday night I saw many people whom I have not seen in decades. All of us were much older. The kids were adults. The young adults were gray haired and older. And the older folks, well they were not there because they are not here any more. Yet, in the midst of all those swirling memories, of happy-to-see-you-again-and-I forgot-how-much-I-missed-you reunions, and the pain of another loss, in the midst of all that shines the light of the Risen One. Our hope is in Him.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Surprising Reality of Sin

I was reading Time Magazine this morning when a little mini-story caught my eye. It seems USAID has decided to cancel a $20million program in Pakistan where they were creating a Pakistani Sesame Street (starring Elmo and Pakistani characters). The reason? Corruption in the local theatre's puppeteer community.Yes, the corrupt Pakistani puppeteers messed the whole thing up.

I was shocked!
$20 million of foreign aid for a Sesame street knock off? I am thinking that is a whole lot of cash. So that really blew me away; until I thought about our government spending habits.
Then the concept of crooked and corrupt puppeteers really took me for a loop. Itis a surprise, but almost comically so. I laughed as I considered some sort of invesitgative reports (like Sixty Minutes used to do). How far up the puppet chain does the corruption run?????? And that leads to a movie, about an innocent puppet in the hands of the dirty puppeteers. At some poiny, one of the characters, holding his hairy puppet would ask, "How did we come to this?"
Yes, the concept "puppeteer corruption" just shocked me. How can it be? Which led to the last insight, "why is someone who believes in fallen humanity shocked that puppet shows are touched by evil?"
It seems we say sin is everywhere but tend to think that sin is not. We figure people who work with kids would be decent types. We expect them to be better than other kinds of people. But in reality, wherever a human is there is sin. Period.
My shock at this story is similar to the shock of those who encounter corruption in the church. Corruption leads to reformation (and a whole new kind of corruption). The work of human  hands, even when led by the Holy Spirit, continues to wreak of human hands. Some folks seem to be shocked when a person in the church does wrong. It is really no surprise at all. Any institution created by and run by and populated with people will be corrupt. Sesame Street is no less infiltrated by human sin than prositution and gun running. It is, of course, not intentionally evil in the same way. Yet it is present. Just as it is present in sales departments, churches, governments, sports teams, and everything else we touch. Why this surprises is a bigger surprise. It is also a reminder why we pray each day for the coming of God's kingdom.
Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Big Problem for "Social Justice Folks"

On a typical morning I arrive early at church, hopefully more than an hour before any one will be around. I go through e-mail, hit the blogs which I get my news from, I write my blog and I pray over Scripture before Morning Prayer. I did that today where at StandFirm there was an article about the mishandling of the Zimmerman case. One of the bones of contention is that the prosecutor neglected to fully inform the judge about the beating which Zimmerman had endured. She apparently did so in order to get the case to trial, with the intent of providing this information to the defense later. The point of the criticism is she has provided only a half truth, which in this case is tantamount to a lie. Immediately after that, I went into church to pray over my Torah text of the day, Exodus 23. The first verse I saw was this: "You shall not bring up a false report." And I was stunned that, yet again, the Word of God was connected so directly with what I had been doing beforehand. There is much change in our world, but some things are forever. Sins are not new or improved.

God's concern with justice is well known by those familiar with the OT text. The (heretical) idea that the God of the NT is love and the God of the OT is law is terribly misleading, erroneous, false, mistaken, wrong and incorrect. Chapter 23 of Exodus is a mother lode of valuable morality. It addresses mobs (v2 You shall not be following many to do bad) and in the Zimmerman case, with the huge media following, the large gatherings of people demanding justice, and the 'famous' civil rights speakers grabbing their microphones and making their speeches, the shooter was declared guilty in the court of public opinion. However, one telling aspect to the case, as I mentioned before, was that the Hispanic Zimmerman was identified as White. I know of no other time when this has happened. Because the victim was Black, it seems, the story was being written as "Will this White guy shoot a Black kid and get away with it, like it has happened so many times before in our racist judicial system?" In other words, the prosecutor is 'following the group to do bad.'

And that is the problem for the social justice types. They see identity groups but individuals do not exist. Being part of a group is your identity. Statistical analysis is the basis for decision making. A yong black man in a hoodie is shot, and the only reason possible is racism. But Exodus has a warning to making decisions based on a person's lower status. Ex 23:3 "You shall NOT favor a weak person in his dispute. [and to reemphaisze Lev 19:15 "You shall not be partial to a weak person, and you shall not favor a big person. You shall judge your fellow with justice."] The idea that God has a preferential option for the poor, which often means God treats them better, is not consistent with the Biblical model. God does care and out of justice He acts. God demands we treat the poor with compassion and justice. But God does not say there is a separate justice for them and the well off. He is always fair and true with everyone.

I think it is hard on social justice types because they often decide how things should look and then manipulate processes to assure the desired outcome. Too often the wrong people get identified as the representative of the race (e.g. OJ Simpson) and too often the corrective to past injustice "against" the race is a new injustice "for" the Race.

Now, another interesting thing in this chapter is the commands in verse 4-5, 9. These commands tell them that if you see someone who hates you in need, you must help them. God expects them to bring an enemy's straying ox or ass back to the enemy. And He says you must not oppress an alien. Doing acts of love to the enemy and outsider. That is at the heart of the Torah and the covenant with God. And doing justice is as well. And Justice is about the truth, not our politcally motivated desires.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Greatest Conflict Ever

Apparently there is great concern because the political divisions among Americans has reached its greatest point in a long time. I have a few doubts. Lately we  have heard a great deal about cannibals. Every day someone is taking a bite out of someone else and it is broadcast nationwide. That is what makes it seem like it is going on all over. Whether or not it is more widespread is less clear. It is probably not documented enough. Likewise, it is unclear to me that we are more divided. I grew up during Viet Nam and it sure felt more divided then.

I am clear that there are strong division, I am a "field commander" in the church culture wars. However, there seems to be less anger and fussing among us today then there was five years ago. Mainly because "us" has changed. There are younger folks coming in with different worries, concerns and agendas. I think the agenda of media is to highlight those things which have the most kick, and conflict has a lot of kick.

I do not want to minimize. I don't. I think the issues are serious. It is just that I think so much of the conflict is generated by widespread availability of all manner of media. I also think that life is cyclical. And I believe that things will change, are changing, and have changed. I have written before about generations and the book The Fourth Turning. The author has a blog and if you roll down a couple of entrees there is an interesting one on the Catholic Church in Spain and its efforts to reach the young generation. Prior to that is a stunning assessment of The Avengers, the summer blockbuster (I have not seen it yet). He writes about Captain America (pure WWII generation) vs. Iron Man (the Gen X)
and the different styles each has. Captain America is a hero whose time is coming back. The Millenials (current college/HS crowd) are a different kind of kid. They are more community minded and service oriented. They are more traditional. They are more like the kids my grandparents were.

I believe we live in a world in flux. We go back and forth like a grandfather's clock. There is a swing, a corrective, a swing in the other direction, a corrective, etc. We will never get it right here and now. Won't happen. The ideologies of each period will wax and wane. The Christian faith (my concern) also goes through various mutations. Each one not quite right, each one grasping some, but missing the rest.

I have my beliefs and my leanings. The priest who mentored me, Fr. John Atkinson, died today. I was in High School in his parish and he taught me much. When I was ordained, he worked a deal to have me assigned with him. I think he always saw me as a son. We worked for two years, then I left. Since then we have been in contact but see each other rarely. His politics was very different from mine. There was plenty of chance to disagree. But I loved him, so we didn't. That is the way it was. Was there conflict? No, just disagreement. In the end, what we shared in common was more important to me.

My kids and the people I shaped probably do not agree with me about everything. That is not the point. Seeking the truth, we must remain humble. Truth matters. So does love. So do many things. I am not shy about voicing opinions and I can be plenty strong in an argument or debate. I believe in taking a stand. I also know that trying to ramp up "the greatest conflict ever" is often self flattery. It is a way to convince me that I matter. It is preoccupation with being #1, the biggest, the worst, the most, the best.... So pray for truth and seek it, but try to be open to hear. And I understand that things are always changing: getting better, getting worse. Always. And the battle is never won. Until Jesus returns!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Can a Christian be Depressed?

There is a strain in popular Christianity which implies that Christians are upbeat, happy people. The theological warrant for this, God's victory in Jesus Christ, seems sound. After all, "if God is for us, who can be against us?" Insight into the reality that, no matter how bleak the current situation appears, there is Someone at work who will make all things right should have some impact on our emotions.

I am unclear, however that faith does always make one 'feel' happy. Part of the reason why is because I am not sure what generates our feelings. As a counselor I have often worked with people who self identify as "having every reason in the world to be thankful and happy" but "just aren't." Their successes, good health, good families and faith would, on the surface, be more than sufficient reason for them to break into endless song of praise and tap dance where ever they go, finding mere talking and walking to be insufficient to express their joy. Their lved reality is different.

Knowing God's victory and trusting in the future redemption does not make Christians happy all the time. It seems like it should. Therefore (this is a syllogism now) someone who is not happy is probably not a Christian. Therein may lie the issue. Some people find themselves wondering, "am I one?" One of the ironies of the "saved by faith alone" school is it reportedly provides "blessed assurance" of our salvation. That is all well and good until you hear the expression, "lip faith." Lip faith, in simplest terms, is the recognition that someone can say with their lips "I believe," but may not actually do so. It raises the question, "is my faith genuine?" which blows up "blessed assurance" like a bomb. One ends back up with the prospect of Judgment, and hope mixed with fear.

Another probably cause is personality. There are many different kinds of people. There are a variety of natural dispositions. Some folks just don't bounce around. Some people are worriers. And telling them worry is a sin only adds to their worries! Some people have chemical or physical things at work within them which no amount of preaching can easily overcome. And, truth be told, an overview of two thousand years of Christianity does  not resonate with the premise, "Christians are fun,  happy people." In most times and most places the Christian self understanding included elements of darkness and struggle. Not the whole story, but certainly a part.

Can a Christian be depressed? Yes. However, it is good to work against such inclinations. Depression, after all, is depressing. But we probably do not benefit anyone by ignoring that a Christian is always a human, and all things human affect Christians. We are redeemed, not perfected, and we wait for the final consummation. At that time, depression will be wiped away. In the meantime, we carry our crosses and aid one another with our burdens, and we tell each other the stories of God, stories which can give us hope and joy!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Snake Handlers and Faith

It seems that a preacher was bitten and killed by a rattle snake. He is part of that group which takes Mark 16:8 ("they will pick up snakes in their hands") literally. It is easy to ridicule such behavior and certainly any number of comedians have had their chance to make disparaging remarks, mocking the faith of the man. It is inviting to mock such faith as wrongheaded and silly. It is the type of faith which would seem at home in the setting of the Hatfields and McCoys.The exhuberance and frenzy of such worship can easily be laughed at, especially by those of more sedate religiousity. I think such ridicule is often arrogant and shallow.

I do not advocate snake handling. I would argue the people who do are misreading the Scriptures. Yet, this is not the first time the preacher was bitten and he certainly handled the snakes for many years. The people doing this are very serious. And honestly, there are lots of religious practices which I do not engage in which others advocate... {Read more here}

The issue this raises for me is how we read the Bible. If one looks at this section of Mark 16, it is not crammed with "silly things"
14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover."

We believe in and practice healing prayer here. While many of our members are reluctant to actually do it, we are publicly in favor of evangelizing. The idea that faith in Jesus is determinative of one's relationship with God is solidly Christian. So it isn't until v18 that things get dicey, and that is the problem. Pick-n-choose!

At our National Convention I heard an advocate for "LGBT inclusion" dismiss the chapters in Leviticus which directly addressed these behaviors. An hour or so later, I heard the "social justice" advocate for all manner of social behaviors based on the next chapter from Leviticus, the chapter which confirmed all her beliefs. Consistency anyone?

That is the issue. We are confronted with a Biblical text which is sometimes agreeable to and at other times disagreeable to our beliefs. We read along when our beliefs are confirmed and then twist and turn and maneuver when the text goes in a direction we do not like (or think is wrong). The snakehandler does what he does to emphasize his faith in God's word. I like to think people like me who would not do such a thing have an equal faith and an equal share in the Kingdom. Even so, we do well to reflect on how we pick-n-choose. What is the criteria? Do we have a reasonably consistent model for reading and incorporating God's Word. What is the meaning of the text before us? How should one reasonably and faithfully actualize it? Think, question, self-challenge, be humble and listen...Whatever else this exercise produces, it should certainly diminish our arrogance!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Mundane in Bible

Yesterday we looked at a question generated in a Prayer group I am in, "Why am I here?" While it may seem that Christians would  have the answer (and we do) there is still a sense in which it is all wrapped up in mystery.There is still plenty of room to wrestle with related questions. How should I spend my time? What activities need to be pursued. What is the criteria for determining things. Are Christians more spiritual than other people?

Although it may sound like a copout, in reality the answer begins with the admission, "It depends on what you mean..." Too often we are not clear on the definitions of the words we use. In particular, the word 'spiritual' is very open to a wide range of meanings.

Rather than blather on and on, I want to look at my reading yesterday in Exodus 18. The setting is a short time after the escape from Egypt. Israel has already begun its never-ending cycle of "murmuring" against God and Moses with God's response (manna, water) and threats. Suddenly we hear that Moses' father-in-law, Jethro (a name forever besmirched by the Beverly Hillbillies) heard everything that God had done. That verb, "heard," is very important. The Exodus Story is about God making His Name known. The reason given for much of what takes place is, over and again, 'so that they will know I am God.' This is confirmed a bit later in v11 when Jethro, praising God, says "I know that YHWH is bigger than all the gods..." [For me, the need to make known God's Name and glory is sound reason to question the belief that God conrols every detail of life. I think the narrative pushes in another direction.]

Chapter 18 continues that once Jethro has heard about the strange goings-on he packed up Zipporah (Moses' wife) and her two kids. I read Richard Friedman's Commentary on The Torah and his note is fascinating. He reflects on the limited information about Moses' reunion with his family. It says Jethro comes to Moses and says I have brought your wife and sons, and Moses "bowed, and he kissed him, and they asked each other how they were..." Why is there no mention of his interaction with his wife and children?

Instead, we hear that Jethro is taken aback that  Moses spends all day dealing with the people. Jethro's advice, subdivide into tens, fifties, hundreds and thousands with a chief over each level will keep him from being worn out. Friedman then notes that the two phrases "to be by oneself" and "to be able" appear twice here but also in Genesis 32:24ff in the story of Jacob wrestling God. He sees parallels in our relationship with God and our relationship with one another, and sees, ironically, that we seem to fair better with our struggles with God!

The issue of Moses being overworked and overwhelmed comes up again in different versions later. I am not interested in that. What I am interested in is that it came up at all. For all the sublime content we find in Exodus, it is stunning that the main point of most of this chapter is burnout and delegating responsibility. On a personal note, the text was especially relevant as I have struggled recently with delegation and burnout. No magical smooth sailing for those in relation with God. We still need management skills, insight and the willingness to put in long hours. We also have to work smarter, not just harder. The daily stuff of living together in community makes up a huge percentage of our daily load. And family relationships can remain private and personal. However important they are, they need not be included in the Word.

Reading the Bible, slowly and regularly, reveals all manner of interesting things. Why am I here? In part to work with other folks, and to do it efficiently and effectively!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why am I here?

Led a reflection of the Gospel of John (3:1-17). The ensuing discussion was interesting because, in various ways with different levels of intensity, the question which emerged, over and again, was "why am I here?" While everyone at the table was armed with the standard answers, text book Christianity if you will, none of them seemed to find solace in them. They all "get it" and they can all articulate the wonders of God and the glories of Christianity. That isn't the problem. The struggle is with the 'match up'; connecting what we say with real life.

The real question was probably what does God think about how I spend my day? Lots of us have jobs and most jobs do not easily fit into the category of "ministry." As one person asked, "When I say I do everything for the glory of God, what does that look like when I spend my day doing XYZ?"

The textbook answer is, "everything can glorify God if we want it to" and there are enough lovely articles written about amazing holy people doing mundane tasks with grace to inspire us to think it is true. But, truth be told, most of us have figured out that the artistic skill of the story teller has a part to play in that inspiration. Last night I read an obituary about an author, a WWI veteran, who was disillusioned by war and wrote negatively on WWII. His point was that the glory of war and the glory of heroism are not glorious. He saw it as a horrible waste of human life and destructive. Movies and songs make it sound so much more romantic than it really is. That is the thing about movies and songs. They can make everything sound better.

Doing dishes. Brushing your teeth. Pumping gas. Balancing checkbooks. Trucking tennis shoes. Making paint. Selling suits, bonds, high rises or sun glasses. We spend all day doing all manner of activities and the question is, how does God like it?

An answer, tentative but interesting, was uncovered in these verse: "The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of  it, but you do not know where it comes ffrom or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit." For most of my life I have struggled with the flow of thought in this passage. (when reading John's Gospel, the flow of thought is generally not easy to follow). I tended to see the two sentences as talking about the Holy Spirit and sort of ignored the reference to "those born"; seeing it instead as expressing the mystery of how the Spirit works on them. However, last night, it struck me that maybe the primary reference is to believers. The pun (see previous blog) on wind/Spirit connects the sentences thematically, but there is a shift. It may mean, like the wind, the lives of those born again are wrapped in mystery. We do not know where we came from or where we are headed. We have speculation about it, but no one knows. Yet, we do know, kind of (another theme in John, the yes and no contrast). We know God is in control. We trust.

It is hard to know how God views human life. This is why we get judged in the end. Whatever else we know, we do know that the world he made consists of lots of things which are not religious. We know that much of our lives is spent dealing with things which do not remotely seem to glorify God. Yet, we can offer ourselves to him. Just as a goat or ram on an altar do not instantly make sense as a sacrifice, so our lives, filled with mundane tasks, do not readily appear to be a worthy sacrifice. But they can and do if we are willing.

Why am I here? to learn, to love, to honor God. The actual doing it may (at times) be rife with disatisfaction, depression, frustration, confusion, yet this mist shrouded existence is the world we live in. God knows what He is about. So we gird our loins, ask our questions, and then we coninue the journey. From here to there, like the wind, driven along, perhaps imperceptively, by the Spirit.

Friday, June 1, 2012

That's Punny

I am not good at languages, in fact I did not do well in either Biblical Greek or Hebrew. Fortunately, there are resources available which cover some of my inability (and most people are not ready for or interested in more than a shallow discussion of languages). However, in my three years of more intensive OT study I am more familiar with the actual Biblical text. One thing that I am more aware of is the constant puns in the OT stories. Many of the puns are lost on us because they revolve around Hebrew roots which do not translate easily into English. So a related word, or a rhyme, in Hebrew is not apparent in an English translate.

For example, in Enlish a story about a dead person, a cup of coffee and being tardy can have a clever sound. "The late Mr. Jones did not enjoy the latte, it arrived late." While not artistic, one can see how the words interact in English and can imagine a more complex and enjoyable combination.

In the OT, the authors do a great deal of this. It is the reason why some of the sentences can seem odd to us. In Hebrew the words are similar or sound alike, but in English they do not. Sometimes, though, the English can actually convey the idea found in the Hebrew. In reading Exodus 17 in my prayer time yesterday, therefore, I was attuned to see something more in the text. Ironically, the Hebrew puns are not present, three different and unrelated terms are used. In English, however, it is present. But the thematic connection is obvious.

Moses is worried, the people are mad about being thirsty. In 17:4 he says "A little more and they will stone me!" God says in response, v6, that He will be standing on a "rock" at Horeb and Moses must strike the "rock." This episode is called Massah and Meribah (Testing and Quarrel). Immediately after Israel is driven into battle against Amalek, but their success is based on Moses keeping his arms up. Then in v12 Moses his arms too tired to hold up, sits on a "stone" and gets help from Joshua and Hur. The verb stoned and the words rock and stone connect the three scenes of the narrative thematically. This is something which contemporary readers care little about, but apparently the ancient Hebrew/Jewish people loved. Seeing these sorts of things gives an added depth and texture to the reading and insight into the ancient mind.

The Church Fathers, many of whom considered the literal, plain meaning of a text to be its least significant, would delve into the sacred writ for deeper meaning. The rock/stone imagery would possibly draw one to reflect on Petros/petra (literally rock and stone; or Peter). Jesus told Peter that He would build his church on the stone (of Peter's confession, or faith, or Peter himself). An ancient Christian reading might see Moses on the stone as a type of the church. In our worldly battles (the war) we are at prayer (arms held up), sitting on the faith of the church (stone) and we need Joshua (Jesus) and Hur (literally 'hole', perhaps, therefore, the empty tomb) to make our prayer effective. The stone Moses sits on is also the rock of the life giving waters, so it is baptism (and/or the Holy Spirit). The church reborn in baptism//full of God's Spirit is able to pray. This is an example of God's revelation about the importance of baptism and the Holy Spirit. This is our firm foundation. But there is still a battle, Amalek wins for a while, then loses. It is a struggle. The battle does not end until sunset, the end of day (= symbolically, 'the end of days').

Such an approach to the Word may seem too playful to some. Not concrete enough to others. Overly subject to many. However, it seems that in Ancient Hebrew, puns were part of the point and in ancient Greek sumbolic was the deeper and more imporant meaning. I invite you to dive into the word with an awareness of these possiblities. The sheer artistry of God's authorship!