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Monday, June 24, 2013

Gone to Hell

This is a rework of my Sunday sermon on Luke 8:26-39; the demonic man healed by Jesus
One day Jesus got in a boat, but quickly fell asleep. As He slept the lake had a storm. The connection to the primal stormy waters of Genesis are intended to be seen. As the apostles cry out and Jesus rebukes (epitimao is often used of Jesus' exorcisms) the storm it is an act of salvation/creation. The connection of bodies of water and chaos continue throughout the Bible, both ancient and new covenant. In addition, stormy waters were sometimes used as an image of the Gentiles (those chaotic peoples worshipping their pagan gods...)

Later, when Jesus landed on the shore, He encounters another form of chaos. This raging storm is inside the man possessed by demons.
Notice we are told the man is naked, just like Adam was in the Garden. This is another typology reminding us that Salvation is (new) Creation. The naked man is screaming because Jesus is healing.

Evil and Sin are fruits of chaos/disorder. The word “license” means freedom, liberty or permission to do something. It also means “excessive liberty or impropriety, a disregard for standards or irresponsible freedom.”  The thin line dividing the angelic and demonic is based on the proper and improper use of freedom. License is good, license is bad. It all depends upon what you mean by license.

Our world is spiritual and material. Somehow they interact. This is especially true of human being. [It is hard to explain the spiritual and one cannot see the spiritual. Deep philosophical arguments about such things convince me that the spiritual does exist.] Evil can be spiritual and material (hence my total lack of awe when someone tells me they are "spiritual"). Traditionally, we identify three modes of evil and resistnace to God. We call this the flesh, the world and the devil.

·        The Flesh: We are all a mix of Jekyll and Hyde, holy and profane, good and evil. We do not always know ourselves or our motivations. We tend to put our best face forward, but when we are tired, hungry, cranky, stressed, or at home, we let the other side out. The ugly side.
·        The World: Those powers which positively and negatively influences us, sometimes very subtly. We don’t see how we are shaped and formed. Peer pressure and the worlds values distort and control us. They lead us from God regularly to do other things for other reasons.
·        The devil is usually subtle. Satan utilizes the evil already present in the flesh and the world. It would be nice if he appeared to us, all red and sulfur-stenched, and we saw and heard him in theatrically obvious evil. Unfortunately, it is seductive.  

Jesus says that freedom is submission to the Father. We must love and obey God. But a distorted self love, fueled by the flesh, the world and the devil, lead to chaos and confusion. Freedom degenerates into license, license becomes addiction, chaos re-emerges.

Satan’s promise is that he will give you the freedom to do whatever you want. And he does. Here is a case where the Prince of Lies tells the truth. The problem is it is not the whole truth. As we do whatever we want we end up a slave to whatever we want. We are imprisoned to our appetites and they destroy us. Just think of a normal day and how often you have an urge or desire to do something which is not good for anyone.

Let me illustrate. A good dog is a dog which acts more like a man than a dog. It is trained (discipleship) and has a master. A dog which does what it wants is called wild. It is not fit to live with us. I have a story about such a dog.

When my grandpa got back from the war he had operated a stable. They had two German Shepherds and several employees. Then they got another German Shepherd. The new dog, a border patrol dog in Germany, was much larger and meaner. Everyone was terrified. So Grandpa took the dog into a shed and closed the door. He emerged thirty minutes later with the dog was walking behind him.

Grandpa told my dad. “I decided that we had to clarify who was in charge. The dog attacked me and I punched him in the nose. He kept jumping and I punching. Over and over. Finally the dog decided it was me in charge.” From that day forward the dog was at his side and at his service.

Exorcism is like that. There is a wildness let loose in our world. It is destructive to man and beast. It is spiritual but it affects the mental, the physical and the social. I cannot explain exactly how. But I don’t know how cars and computers work either….

I do know it is manifest in diseases of body and illness of mind. It is seen in relationships gone bad and conflicts between people or nations. Alcohol and drugs, lying and cheating, violence and cruelty are all fruits of the Evil One. No place is completely free of its influence (even though there are other influences at work). And it always wears the cloak of “freedom/license.”

Everyone of us has been a victim of Satan’s tyranny.
Sadly, we have also been his tool.

The demon says its name is legion. The ancient Jew knew the connection of that word to the Roman legions. The demonic is also present in the armed occupiers. At one level the sotry of the pigs is an image of the Roman legions being hurling into the sea (much like the Egyptians in the song of Moses). "Horse and rider he hurled into the sea" goes the refrane. Roman occupation is the figurative "new" slavery to "Egypt."

To face evil we need the kind of courage that my grandfather showed that day some sixty plus years ago. We need to understand that the demonic may have sharp teeth and a terrifying bark, but we have a power working in us which is greater and more powerful. Yes, it is a dangerous business, to face down that snarling beast, but really there is no choice. We cannot hand things over to the forces of darkness because we would prefer someone else do the dirty work.

Jesus gave the church the power of the Gospel message. We are the Spirit-filled, Word of God drenched missionaries. We also have the sacraments: Reconciliation and Healing are particularly potent in spiritual warfare. While much of Christendom refuses to utilize these gifts, they lay in wait, like a sharpened sword. Once the church decides to take seriously the act of self examination and robust confession and Jesus shaped penance we will see renewal. Once we open to the forgiveness and healing love of God, publicy and openly, the grace of God will expell darkness with wonderful light.

Chaos and the demonic threaten to engulf us: individually and corporately. We are worn done by a hundred temptations to unfaithfulness to God and one another. And when confronted with satan’s handiwork we prefer to ask “why?”

Jesus does not ask, “Why did this happen?” Jesus does not give a lecture on evil and the goodness of God. No, Jesus walks up to Satan and punches him square in the nose. He does it, over and over, until the dark prince gets the point and jumps into pigs, which jump into the lake, returning to the waters of chaos where the whole mess started long ago.

Believe this:
You and I belong to Jesus. He lives in us.
Jesus is our salvation. He is freeing us from the darkness of licentiousness each day.

But understand this
Jesus empowers us to do the same for others. Luke spells that out in the previous chapter. We are to give to others in Jesus name what we have received.

So next time you find yourself complaining that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and wondering why God isn’t doing something about it remember this.

God is doing something.
He sent Jesus.
And Jesus sent you.
And that explains everything.
will be "off the grid" much of the next three weeks with other activities. appreciate your readership. will be glad to address topics of interest when I return; e-mail at if there are particular issues, preferably of Biblical or spiritual nature. God bless!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Church is a Waste of Time!

Bet you don't expect a priest to say something like that, do you? Church is a waste of time.

I have heard lots of people say it, young and old, mostly disgruntled but sometimes seriously trying and just frustrated. Church is a waste of time. It is true. It is a waste of time. It is intended to be. The problem is we  have a hard time wasting time with God and for God's sake. We really do not mind wasting time in general.

Deuteronomy 5:12 states Observe the sabbath day to make it holy, as YHWH your God commanded you. Rabbi Friedman makes a big deal of the first word "observe." He points out how different this command is here from Exodus 20:8 (at Sinai God says "remember the sabbath" and the reason is because God rested on the seventh day). Doing a word search on observe we find it is the Hebrew word shamar

It means to keep, guard, watch, give heed and it is used the first time in Genesis 2:15 (The Lord God put man in the Garden to tend/watch/keep it). Soon after the first couple melt down, God sets an angel with a fiery sword to watch/keep the tree of life and keep people away from it. It next appears in the mouth of Cain (am I my brother's keeper?) as his paltry defense before God's inquiry. Then it is used by God in discussion with Abraham that he has kept covenant and needs to continue (Gen 17:9-10)

In ancient rabbinic interpretation other uses of a word were often seen as connecting the text. Keeping, guarding, watching over Sabbath means a focused commitment to rest. It is connected with key stories of God's covenant(s) with various humans and all of us.

Rest. Doing nothing, hanging with God. A time to repair and renew. Wasting time. Not being razor focused on achievement and production. Not seeking to get something. Just being.

"Sabbath" (in the Christian twist on this) is a day set aside for prayer and reflection, turning toward God and worshipping. Lot's of people say they don't get anything from church. I say, good. That is not the purpose. You go to church to GIVE. It really isn't about you after all. It is about creating space, doing nothing but thanks and praise, to listen and to offer God a chance to crack your well defended soul and maybe do some communing with you. If it is unproductive that is fine. Thanks and praise are not really about producing!

Sometimes as a father I have the chance to sit with a sleeping child, or even hold one. It is not terribly productive and as I age it hurts my elbows and wrists. The sleeper does not bond with me, sleepers are notoriously oblivious to things. What does happen is we are together. Not talking. Not sharing. Just me loving you, little sleeper. Sometimes, many times, inviting God in for a blessing or two. And the blessing is just being with God together, wasting time.

The thing is, it is wasting time moments that are sometimes the greatest moment.

So if you ever have the urge to tell me, Sundays and church are a waste of time understand that I agree. I just think wasting time with God is a wonderful waste of time; wonderful and life-giving and tied up with the purpose of life. Maybe I am oblivious, too, as He holds me in His arms and just loves me beyond my knowing and experiencing. Maybe that makes God happy. If it does then wasting time may not be a waste of time....

Friday, June 21, 2013

We are looking at Deuteronomy 5 again. Moses begins his instruction with the command "Listen!" (shama means hear, listen and obey; just like in English the three words are somewhat interchangeable) Yesterday I found myself thinking of Samuel but thought my meanderings had been quite long enough. And once again, as I prayed this morning, the lectionary text that appeared before me was the very one which I had been thinking about yesterday. Samuel (which consists of the root listen/hear/obey + el/God) is a little boy in the Temple. He hears a voice call his name. Thinking it is the old priest Eli he runs to him, over and over. Finally, Eli figures out it is God and so he tells the lad that if he hears the voice again he should say, "Speak Lord your servant listens."

To listen to the word is to be open in humility. It is to walk away from my prejudices and agenda. It is a difficult task which demands purification and holiness. So one must actively seek a pure heart in prayer and in self discipline. It is a hard work, but in the end all of our work cannot attain the goal without God's act of mercy and cleansing. We hear best through the prism of Jesus, His life and teaching.

Returning to the "10 Words" Moses begins with God's self designation."I am YHWH, your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from a house of slaves. You shall not have other gods before my face."

Some of my friends find this off putting. They think God should not be so hung up on His status. I think such a reaction misses the point. God is not saying He needs His people. He is simply stating the facts. If my son or daughter were to give a talk and lay claim to someone else as the most significant figure in their life, I might be hurt, but I could not argue the point. In reality, I am sure that I am not the most significant person in their lives. If, on the other hand, they claimed that someone else was their father, I could and would say, "not true." Someone else may function more as a father, but I reamain their father. Reality is reality.

This is the point here. God (the Savior) declares His relationship (your God) and justifies His claim by referring to the deliverance from slavery (He is father in deed). Those are facts. We know from other places that God chose and saved because He loves Israel. Why Israel? Because Abraham responded in faith to the covenant, then Isaac, then Jacob, then the sons of Jacobs (the 12 tribes). The family relationship is grounded in the choices made by those who go before. They were not always faithful, but they were faithfilled. It was not always a healthy relationship, but it was always a relationship. Like most marriages, it was rocky, but it remained a marriage because there was no bill of divorce. The ups and downs occur inside the marriage which remains intact.

Some folks find fault with this narrative because it was written in a style foreign to their current way of expressing things. It seems "old and outdated." I guess for me that is not a problem, here is why. I assume that there is no timeless communication, that human language is limited (as are all things in this world) and trying to convey the perfection of God in imperfect language means that one has to listen and hear it in and through the context. I also think our current context is not better or superior, it is just different. Each context has its strengths and weaknesses. The deeper truth of God is timeless, so we need to listen deeply to hear that Truth resonating deep below the surface of the words.

We must also hear and listen through Jesus. He is the Perfect Deliverer from slavery. Egypt is a 'type' for sin and death. Thus, the demand becomes, through the New Covenant, broader and fuller. Jesus saves so we must worship God alone, as revealed in Jesus. If we are to understand redemption from slavery we must go all the way down to the root of slavery (sin and death and alienation from God).

Verses 8-10 speak of God's jealousy. The Hebrew kanna only occurs five times (Ex 20:5 & 34:14 and Dtn 4:24, 5:9 & 6:5) and each time is used of God. Hence, it is fair to think, that the word is used as a technical term and we must remember it is translated into English! It is not the regular word "jealous." It is a divine attribute. Hebrew words and usage are not always easy to convey into English [another example is the term "fear of the Lord"] For me (and most of us) 'jealous' is a vice. We equate it with some petty teenager who is so insecure that s/he demands the total attention of another. One helpful clue to all this is that the Hebrew also speaks of those who hate/love God. The binary terms (love-hate) are common in the Bible (including Jesus) and we must understand them in that context. Hate covers a wider range of response to include indifference. Hate really means 'not love.' It seems strong to me, but that is because the word has a different connotation in my culture. Likewise, jealous is a powerful word which conveys a deeper, more beautiful meaning. God is jealous for His people means that God's love is consuming, all encompassing, total. In truth He is God and so the truth is any alternative worship is a lie, it is dangerous for the worshipper (we must remember the nature of the pagan gods) and it leads to death (as it cuts one off from the Life Giver Himself). God's total love, His "jealousy" is the cause of the cross. God will do anything for love of His people, including emptying Himself and taking on human flesh/nature, and then emptying Himself further into death, death on a cross." A jealous love understood as "choosing to die for love of you to set you free from your bad choices" isn't so petty is it?

Couldn't God just let people worship whomever/whatever they want and still give them life? He could if there were no repurcussions or consequences to human behavior. Unfortunately, there are. If we choose another god, we buy into that god's total package. Worship and obedience change us. What we worship matters. St. Paul says the false gods are demons. Demon worship has to lead to no good end. Demons are just not good guys.

The threat to the third or fourth generation is balanced by a promise of blessing to the thousandth (for those who love Me). Be clear, this is hyperbole and it is concrete language. Obviously generational curses and blessings do occur. Just as obviously, there is more to the story. It may be helpful to remember that three (or four) generations can (and did sometimes) live together in one home. It was not that long ago that grandparents, parents and children shared the same roof. In fact the first five years of my life that is exactly what I experienced. In such a case what affects one affects all. The cursed life of grandpa impinges on the baby at his feet. However, a thousand generations (and this was pretty much as big a number as you would see. Sort of like millions was used in my youth) indicates an overwhelming torrent of mercy.

So who is God? The merciful Savior Who declares His endless love for His people and offers them covenant marriage. Like any true marriage, it is a combination which requires total self gift and fidelity. Anything less is a sham. Hence, there can be no other claim on the loyalty of the heart of the one in covenant.  In Jesus, this covenant with Israel is open to all people. We are now co-participants.

It is interesting that the Hebrew you is in the plural when the 10 Words are addressed, but in the singular in each individual command. A reminder that us/me are both in play. It is personal and it is communal. And it stretches across time and space to encompass the generations not yet born as much as those that have passed back to dust.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Deal

Reading Deuteronomy 5 the other day and delighted in meditating on the Ten Commandments. Now, one interesting thing about the Ten Commandments is that different streams of the faithful number and divide them in different places. This is pretty amazing and serves as a reminder that God's revelation is always heard and interpreted through a particular context and through the "lenses" of the person(s) hearing it. We agree there are ten of them, but the exact ordering is a different matter.

Which brings me to another point. In the ancient world most people did not, could not, read the Bible. They heard it. The importance of memory in such a context cannot be overstated. I have heard that with the advent of handheld computers and information devices we have lost the ability to memorize things. It makes sense, who needs to memorize what is available via a couple of clicks on a keyboard? In ancient times large amounts of scripture was committed to memory. The words lived within people. That discipline is useful today.

(Dtn 5:1) "Moses called all of Israel." One thing I notice is how often the word "all" appears in the Ancient Covenant texts. It is certainly a community focused idea, a great corrective to our individualism. I am studying the Benedictine way currently in preparation for Sunday school in the Fall. (It takes a lot of  study to make it appear that I am just talking without preparation) All of the authors are Protestant and they all agree that the monastic approach to life, loving God and neighbor in community, is the Biblical model. While we are not monastics, we can adopt the general "the rule of life" as a principle which governs and guides our own interactions. That is what the ten commandments are at their core, a rule of life.

I have also speculated that the word "all" includes later generations. In the ancient anthropology, the descendents are understood to be "within" the father. Hence, the argument about the better priesthood in Hebrews 7 makes this claims "One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him." In light of that, I wonder if the outrageous numbers (in the hundreds of thousands and even millions) which we often see in the exodus accounts are not in fact a counting up of all the descendents as well. I have not seen any scholars make such a claim, but I do wonder...

Moses calls the people to "listen." Listening is a challenge to all people in all ages, but it is especially hard for us today. Our culture is so noisy, inside our heads and outside. I have been trying to be "more mindful" and "more present" in my daily living. It is not easy, but it is pleasant! I am always flipping through endless "to do" lists in my mind and the duties of father, priest and husband weigh heavy on me. Some days I do not seem to have a moment's peace and even my prayer times can be under duress as I try to "get it done" and generate some contact with God, even as my distracted mind is flitting from one thing to another. Every where we go there is background music and flashing lights and signs demanding our attention.

God does not yell loud enough to be heard over the bedlam. As Elijah learned on the Mountain, sometimes God comes in the whisper. And to hear the whisper one must listen.  Listening is our job, hearing is God's gift. Listening is what we do, hearing is what happens. If we listen to God's law what do we find? We find a way of life. Jesus fully fills up the law and He is The Way. Our relationship with Jesus is the source of life, but even Jesus saw value in the law. It is because the law is connected to the covenant with God. It is the deal YHWH made with the Hebrew slaves (and descendents). Some laws fade and others emerge over time in changed circumstances. New situations dictate new expectations. Yet, at the core, we find Ten Words (the literal meaning of decalogue) which summarize the expectations. God tells Israel, "Be watchful to do them." Be watchful. Richard Friedman's Commentary on Torah includes a reflection on that word wathcful. It is first used in Genesis to describe the duty of humans in the Garden. After the Fall, an angel is given charge to watch the Garden and keep man from the fruit of the tree of life. It next appears when Cain asks, "Am I my brother's watchman/keeper?" Later, in 26:5 God commends Abraham for having "kept my watch." Now here, the fifth use, for all Israel. Keep watch.

Those familiar with the New Covenant texts know that watching and waiting are key words used by Jesus as well. For me, busy doing, it is hard to watch and wait, wherein lies the fallacy of my heart. I turn to me, not God. I look to myself, not God. And I am too busy to even notice. Perhaps blogging is my watching and an entrance into listening? I hope so. More on Deuteronomy 5 in the days ahead.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Why Opinion Polls Do Not Always Matter

It is tricky to balance majority rule and personal insight into the truth. However, this story is a reminder that public opinion is not a safe bet in every case.

It appears that Serena Williams has created "controversy" by making some remarkably balanced observations on a local story in Ohio. See the whole article here. I exerpted a small part:

She adds, "I'm not blaming the girl, but if you're a 16-year-old and you're drunk like that, your parents should teach you -- don't take drinks from other people."
And Williams is also quoted as saying: "She's 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn't remember? It could have been much worse. She's lucky. Obviously I don't know, maybe she wasn't a virgin, but she shouldn't have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that's different."
Serena's controversial comments quickly set off a social media outcry Tuesday,

I found nothing controversial about what she said. In fact, I think she is right on the nose in her assessment. This is why being told "the majority of people do not think like you" is sometimes a reason to think you are right! To crouch this in theological terms "all have sinned" and all fall short in godliness and wisdom. What this means is that sin is real, people are imperfect, and mistakes are made (intentionally and not). In fact, in the best of times there are still all manner of errors at work. Because I am a sinner, fallen and imperfect (in thought, word and deed, things done and things left undone) I cannot rely on my own reasoning (nor on "my Bible" because it is me who is reading and interpreting it!) without an abiding awareness that I can make mistakes. On the other hand, I have no other option but to choose, and in choosing to be humbly confident that I am choosing well. If I find I am in a minority that only means that the majority disagrees with me, not that they are right (or wrong). The majority is simply a larger number of flawed and sinful people (like me) many of whom have aligned themselves with a less reliable source of truth than I have. There are times when "most people" are just wrong.

We do well to remember that when Pilate asked the crowd, "Jesus or Barabbas?" that the crowd chose Jesus. Israel's history is full of "the people" going asray and the individual (Moses, Elijah or Jeremiah, for example) being right. Large groups frequently make bad choices.

Now, I am neither a tennis fan nor a fan of the Willliams sisters. I recognize they are amazing players, but what pulled my attention to the story was the word Steubenville. The Catholic Charismatic renewal was strong there in my younger days, so I wondered if the comments were in reference to some religious topic.

Instead, I read what can only be called "sound advice" about behavior. Note she says:
1. "I am not blaming the girl." The young woman had been raped and her photo taken. The picture then made the rounds on the social media. Serena is not justifying any of that. She is not saying it is the girl's fault. No one has a right to rape anyone and no one has a right to take a photo like that and publish it. Serena makes that point first.
2. Serena said it is not a good idea to be out drinking, that a 16 year old should not be drunk like that and that a person should not place themselves in "that kind of situation." I am trying to remember the adults in my teen years and what they taught me... Hmm, seems like my parents, grandparents and every other adult basically told me exactly that. Do not get drunk. Do not put yourself in bad situations. Do not do things which get you in trouble. They were always clear with me, things can get out of hand easily, so try to be in a situation where it is less likely that they will. I give my kids this advice all the time. I have told my kids frequently that no one has ever said, "If only we had had more booze to drink we would have made a better decision."
3. Serena re-emphasized she did not know all the particulars about the girl and added that "unless they slipped her something, then that's different." She points out that the girl may have been drugged against her will. Pretty darn fair and balanced I would say. She does not exonerate the boys involved and she does not call the girl the insigator or cause. What she says is the girl had made some bad choices, even if she did not cause it.

So what is the controversy? What could possibly be criticized here?
Underage drinking is illegal and immoral. In fact, one argument for restricting alcohol consumption among teens is because this sort of thing occurs. So really, should that part be glossed over? Do I want my own daughter to be aware of the dangers of drinking like this? YES! Do I want my daughter to avoid doing such things? YES! The risk of rape for girls is much higher than boys so girls especially need to be concerned about their vulnerability. Obviously, boys should not rape girls. Just as obviously, girls need to know some boys are bad and when drinking is involved everyone gets stupid...

My point? If we live in a society where people think Serena is out of line for what she said (note, she was asked the question and responded to it) then society cannot be trusted as a reliable asset in moral decision making. Society got this one wrong. Society blew it. Serena is right. And that is one more reason to always think before you go along with the crowd.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cruelty of Some Kindness

We live in a "post-sin age." Most of my life, the concept of sin has been much maligned and in many quarters rejected. While this is especially true in some theological streams of the church, I think in general all people shy away from a sin consciousness. Those who believe in sin tend to believe in the sins of others. As I have often noted, most people readily admit that they "are not perfect." The challenge for them, however, is trying to figure out the exact content of that imperfection. Hence, the widespread belief that the most accurate self assessment is "I think I am pretty good."

Today's Gospel is found in Luke 7:36 to 8:3

It is a familiar text, though in part because it includes a story which (seemingly) occurs in all the Gospel with differences. [It is hard to know if Jesus had a couple of different women cry on his feet and annoint them or if one story has been "remembered" with different characters, much like memories tend to work for all of us]

Jesus is at meal. Typical of this time, the meal is "open" to the public. Folks could wander in to observe the conversation and many did. What is unusual is a woman of noted reputation arrives. Her presence, she is a public sinner, produces anxiety and is a dishonor to the host. (Remember in this culture honor is very important) The intitial question of the Host seems to be concerning the legitimacy of Jesus. "Is He a prophet?" We cannot underestimate the confusion and tension that the Lord Jesus created in the minds and hearts of the Jewish leaders of His time. The woman lays at Jesus' feet, covering them with tears. As she does so the Host, a Pharisee named Simon, decides to himself that Jesus is not a prophet for He does not seem to know what kind of woman she is. In a startling turn of events, Jesus reads the Pharisees mind and gives him a lesson in love, forgiveness and hospitality.

The story has echoes of the book of Ruth. Late at night Ruth, a Moabite (i.e. foreign woman) comes to sleep at the feet of Boaz. Later, Ruth becomes Boaz's wife (and produces a child, Obed, who is the granfather of King David). Letting one's hair down in public is a (sexually tinged) scandal in Jesus' day. A mystical reading of the text would reveal some salvation//marital imagery of the sinner/Gentile church and Jesus, however, I want to look at something more literal and obvious.

Jesus says the woman loves much because she has been forgiven much. Simon, Jesus says, fails to provide basic hospitality, he has little love. Simon does not see himself as a great sinner in need of great mercy. There lies the paradox. Many today think they are doing a great kindness by negating sin. They see themselves as freeing people from guilt and shame. It is almost like the desire in the church today is to create an atmosphere where no woman (or man) ever feels driven to cry and cling to the feet of Jesus. At first blush that may seem a kindness. It may appear that by focusing elsewhere we are freeing people from damaging self incrimination and undue stress. However, there is a cruelty at work here as well.

The woman was a sinner. Jesus says that her sins were many. Many sins; sort of harsh, but then Jesus never shied away from the truth. Many sins. Here sinful status is not in question. Jesus accepts it and publicly states it (by the way, in front of her!). However, He includes another dimension: God's mercy. The centerpiece of Jesus' mission is NOT the message, "hey you're not that bad." His message is, "hey, God is that good and merciful." Sin is real and it is real bad. God's mercy and forgiveness is also real. Real good. Real powerful. Real.

When we deny sin is real we also miss out on forgiveness. We have no cause for gratitude because we do not feel any sense of being given anything. We do not know our debt is great, so we underestimate the blessing we have received. We are like people at table in an expensive restaurant (one without prices on the menu--the sort I never go to). We just make our selections oblivious to what the tab is. And because someone else pays for it we have no sense of gratitude for what it costs (assuming it is in line with our usual fare). The lack of insight produces a lack of appreciation. Without appreciation for all we have received (by grace) we assume a certain sense of entitlement. Thinking we get what we deserve (or possibly less than we deserve) we have a tendency toward resentment (not gratitude). The end result is we love little and are stingy with our kindness. And blind the entire time....

Some people would do you "the kindness" of saying that sin is not a big deal. They will tell you God is not troubled with your sin, that God looks elsewhere. They tell you not to grovel and not to worry. Such people are doing you a great cruelty. Sin awareness coupled with an awareness of God's gracious mercy provides you a venue to receive forgiveness. Having been forgiven, you can repent, and be truly sorry for your many sins. Sorry and mourning, you can cling to the Savior's feet and know His compassion. His love runs even deeper than your sin, and if you plumb the depths of your sin you will encounter remarkable love. Having been reconciled you will have cause to celebrate. And the joy produces love. And the gratitude produces love. And the reality of mercy produces love. And that love is a fruit of God's Holy Spirit, a gift to be shared with everyone.

In the end, God is honest and true. If you are unable to see your sins, I assure you in the last day He will make it clear. The "bill" for the meal will come do and you may be shocked to learn that what you thought ran $35 is actually many, many times that amount. As you fish in your pocket for the moeny to cover that expense you will learn that the only resources you have to cover your bill are sorroe, repentance and the Blood of the Lamb. Then you will weap. Then you will rejoice. Then you will know love. Why put it off until then?

Friday, June 14, 2013

God's Limits?

I have alluded to my belief that "things may not be the way that we think they should be" lately. I think this is especially true of our religious faith. No one is immune (and I certainly do not think I am) but some of us are probably worse about it than others. Much of this takes place at the level of assumptions. It is not even actively chosen much of the time. It is a function of our culture (religious and otherwise), our personality, and our family. Over time we do engage with the world and reflect on things, but "basic beliefs" can go a long way toward dictating our possibilities. For example, if you believe witches do not exist, you are probably going to have a different attitude about the Salem trials then you would if you thought they might exist or that they definitely exist. Some things are easier to prove than others.

One huge problem, as I see it, is assumptions create other assumptions. I was reading a discussion about the debates on God's control of everything. Some Calvinists and some non-Calvinists were engaged in a pretty heated back and forth. One person made the statement that if God was not in control of every single event that takes place then He was not worthy of the name God. Another person countered that if God was arbitrarily picking and choosing who was going to heaven and who was going to hell, then such a God was not worthy of worship. If we read those sentences and pause to think we can pick apart the assumptions about what God must be like (for these two people).

As I have said, I think the Calvinist position tends to minimize the incarnation. It does not take serious the kenosis (self emptying) of God in Jesus may be a key for understanding creation. An overemphasis on what God could do ignores what God has chosen to do. As I said another time, God could have made me 6'6" and atheletic. He didn't. It seems silly to talk about the theoretically possible world (which really could have been) and make decisions about myself based on that. In the end, it is best that I decide based on my 5'11" and non-athletic real self. Likewise, once God decided to make a world everything changed. The possible gave way to the actual. Each exisiting human being is an individual and each time and place is that time and place. Possibilities give way to actualities. What 'could have been' is interesting but a distraction. What matters is what is.

If it seems I am advocating a position which posits a 'lesser god' I think that is an illusion. In fact, I see the limits of God being a Self-imposed cost of Divine love. God made us and put us in time. If God enters time to be with us, then God must "empty Himself" of eternity in some sense. If God wants to interact with me, He has to do it in a history with a past, present and future. It is not because God is limited by time, but because I am. To be with me (or you) God must "suffer" the loss of Himself (in some sense). Jesus, God incarnate, is a revelation of Who God is. God is the one who suffers loss for our sake. The cross is not a unique, one time event, it is the perfection and focused expression of what God has done ever since the moment He said, "Let there be...." and it was.

My guess is the Calvinist will say I blaspheme. That is fine. Personally I find it bizarre that someone would make arguments to try and convince me that I do not have freedom and God totally controls everything. Arguments imply the freedom of intellect to reason and make choices, after all. My hope is, for others, this is an invitation to gratitude and worship. When we realize what God has done to be our God and our Father (and in Jesus our Brother, and in the Spirit our Life Breath) and how self gift is at the core of His loving interaction then perhaps it will inspire us to be more like Him.

If God has limits (in relation to creation), it is a limit embraced for love of us. And the cross is the image of what God is willing to endure for our sake in His limited state. I think starting with Jesus to understand God makes more sense than starting with my philosophical speculation about how God must be or should be. What about you?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Raising the Dead

This is a reflection on Luke 7:11-17 (when Jesus raised the dead son of a widow) While, like any story it can be read from several angles I offer two.

Situation of Woman in Jesus’ culture.
1.   Much like thrid world women today, we cannot overlook the powerlessness of women in this time. According to the Social Science Commentary, a woman’s primary relationship was with her son, whom she relied on to provide for her in her old age. In general, husbands were a decade older than their wives. Widows were at high risk. She was “voiceless” and had no resources for survival. Tracing the root of the word widow we see how it was understood.
a.    Widow in Hebrew.   
                                                            i.            Alam (v)= to bind, to be mute (root word)
                                                         ii.            Alman (adj) = to be forsaken, widowed
                                                      iii.            Almanah (n) = widow
b.   Widow in Greek
                                                            i.            Chasma (n)= void, emptiness (root word)
                                                         ii.            Chera (n) = widow, a city without inhabitants
2.   In light of this, the one being saved from death is the mother. Jesus is responding foremost to her need; this is in keeping with Jesus’ radical acceptance and attentiveness to women. We recall James states that true religion is helping widows and orphans
3.   Theological Point The compassion of Jesus expresses God’s mercy. YHWH hears the cry of the poor. God intervenes to save. This is central theme of the Ancient Covenant text (OT), not that God is in control, but that God hears, responds and saves. This salvation is GRACE. Sometimes in response to our cries to God, sometimes just to our crying…
4.   Missional Point The church is the body of Christ here and now. Our job is to be “on the lookout” for those in need. We are empowered by Jesus to continue His ministry. What He has done for us we do for others. Our time, talent, treasure are the tools we have given to Jesus in this work. We should be most attuned to the “voice of the voiceless” and hear the cries of those “with no advocate, no ally, no hope.”

Death Defined
1.   What is Death in Bible?
a.    The normal end of life. The end meant the end, too. There was no expectation of going to heaven. One lived on in the descendents and a good name.(Remember, some 25% of babies died and about 50% of the ancient population perished before age 10. Most adults were dead before 40, though some reached their 70’s.)
b.   Death is also the opposite of life.
c.    Death is seen as a destructive power at work in us. Humans are made of perishable material (dirt) and are cut off from the tree of life. Mortality is under subjection to death. It is closely related to sin as both a cause and a consequence. The power of death is an enemy
d.   Oldest OT texts see the realm of death as the absence of God. The dead cannot praise God in many of the psalms. Over time it was understood (revelation unfolding) that God has power over even death.
2.    With a growing belief in resurrection as the ultimate defeat of death, a new horizon emerges in Jewish thought concerning the future of God’s kingdom. Recall conservative Sadducees rejected the liberalization of the Pharisees and their beliefs in resurrection.
3.   Death expands in meaning to spiritual death (called the Second Death in the Apocalypse) and now it has two meanings: end of life and eternal damnation.
4.   Death is also a metaphor for sin, damaged relationships, emotional/physical/spiritual brokenness. Every wound and illness is a taste of death’s nearness.
5.   theological point Jesus exercises God’s power to give life. He does it literally for the man and metaphorically for the woman. In fact, there is reason to believe that she is the focal point of the miracle (he gives the son back to his mother). What He will do for everyone at the end of time He is doing among us now as a sign and promise.
6.   missional point We are called to trusting faith, to proclaim our faith in Jesus’ power over death in word and deed. At every funeral we must treasure in our hearts that Jesus has the power to undo death. He can and does this temporarilly (the boy and his mom are both dead today) through recuscitation and ultimately and completely in the resurrection of the dead at end of time.
1.Jesus is the power of God. He does what God does. He is the author of life. WE can trust Him and should trust Him.
2. Jesus is the compassion (splagnkizomai) of God. Love is fundamentally other focused. It is gracious. It improves the condition of the other. God is good.
3. Jesus takes on uncleanness (touches the dead) this is a foretaste/prophetic act of the cross. Jesus "grabbed" the bier which made Him ritually unclean. He is Victor over death, but it costs Him everything, which is why love is hard.
4. Jesus is our model. This is the church’s blue print for being in the world. Because we can trust Jesus for everything, and He has the power and the desire to save, then we no longer have to live protecting ourselves from others. We are freed to let the life of God flow through us.
5. A disciple life restores hope to the hopeless, life to the dead and dying. It provides for the needs of others. It is active in seeking out ways to pronounce salvation in word and deed.
6. The joy such a revelation generates leads to gratitude and worship. That is why we turn heavenward with a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, lived within the perfect self gift of Jesus the Son.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The way it is is not always the way it "must be"

In the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, little Lucy returns from her trip to this parallel universe bursting with excitement. Her siblings, all older than her, cannot believe her fantastic story. There is a good reason for that, it is a fantastic story. When she claims that she returned to this place (and her brother had also) the conversation became quite uncomfortable. You see the way things are means places like Narnia cannot exist. It "must be" that her claims are fictive. The "old professor" briefly appears on the scene to discuss the situation with the oldest boy, Peter. He is Lewis' teaching moment to open our minds and hearts to a deeper truth about reality.

The problem is Lucy insists that what she said happened is true. It is not play acting. Her other brother, Edmund, who also visited the land (and she saw him there) has told the siblings that it was not true. His motivation is, among other things, spiteful meanness. The professor asks which of the two has the character of veracity. The answer is Lucy. In light of that, he continues, you must ask yourself the question, "is she lying or is she mad?" Those familiar with Lewis' apologetics know that this same line of reasoning underlies his argument for Jesus. Either Jesus is Who He says He is, or He is a liar or a madman.

Now the problem with narrowing reality down to a handful of words is that things are more complicated than all that. There was a sad day in my life when I realized that Lewis was overlooking one other, terrifying, alternative. (It is one that much of modern scholarship is founded on) Perhaps Jesus did not actually say the words. Now through a long, tedious process I have come to see the same must be asked of the apostles' testimony, which eventually leads back to the same premise, either they were nuts or they were liars (misleading and misled). The same process reveals the same conclusion: their lives reflect trustworthiness. What they say about Jesus reflects reality, so is Jesus nuts or a liar? Or the ONE!

Now, the other day I stumbled across a book called God and the Atom. I picked it up and read the cover, which reported that since the Epicureans, for thousands of years, there have been some who believe that the world is not created, it just consists of smaller entitites called atoms. In modern times, it goes on, we know this is true. There is no need for God if this is true, and it is, therefore there is no God....

How did that idea get into the mainstream of thought? The answer is because of silly Christians who advocate things which run counter to the way the world is. The answer is because of even sillier atheists looking for a way to avoid worshipping and obeying God so they construct an alternative. The reason is because we often intuit and assume and then based on our "beliefs" or "feelings" we proceed down a path of reasoning based on how we think "it must be."

An easy illustration: when I was a younger Christian I was once told that IF the Bible is the Word of God, THEN it must share in the nature of God THERFORE it is infallible. Within a few seconds it meant that the Bible excludes evolution and all manner of other things taught in schools. [Hence the motivation of people who write and read books like God and the Atom] Mind you, the basic premise on "how the Bible must be" is not argued out or explained, it is just assumed. Unfortunately, a serious study of the Bible reveals pretty quickly that this idea about "infallibility" (so defined) is simply not the case (or rather, this is simplistically not the case). In fact, by the middle of chapter 2 of Genesis (which is pretty quickly!) one is confronted with the fact that there are two versions of creation which disagree in some details (man is made prior to any plant in Gen 2; in Gen 1 man is last in line of creation). Now, the reality is God is doing the revealing here and our duty is to listen and learn. The sin of Adam is saying, "I am in charge of my own self." That sin is as prevalent today as ever, even among the Christians. So as I have pointed out before, thousands and thousands of 'thinking' Christians have 'thought' their way out of Christianity and become some sort of being called a "spiritual" (meaning they believe in God but not the organzied faith of the church). They do tend to get pretty mushy fairly quickly (being spiritual, after all, does not really define much) but that is not my point  here. Actually, I want to turn back to the premise that "if there are atoms then there is no God."

Our assumptions about the world, believers and non-believers, are often wrong. Humility and faith are virtues and approaches to the world which are much out of style. We are too quick to explain things (and usually in that simplistic way which crosses over into simplemindedness). "What is going on here?" we ask when confronted with some startling behavior of another person (example, a man kills someone). Then, based on our predisposition, we offer an answer. "Why this man is just being selfish and evil" or "Why this
man is a victim of social forces which have shaped him into an angry killer" or "Satan has possessed him." But is reality such an either or proposition?

Does Satan preclude the world and the flesh? Are psychology and sociology wrong while theology is right? or vice versa? Is the world just atoms and that explains it all (leaving out the wonder that a bunch of molecules end up doing theoretical math, writing a novel or opera or playing smooth a shortstop in Yankee stadium)?

Humility and faith say "I do not understand but I trust." The journey of faith is a journey into truth. Many of our pitched battles are based on acting like we have it figured out. Conservatives are not the only ones to do this, either. I remember in the church "discussions" on marriage how the advocates for 'the new way" always sounded so understanding and reasonable. "We may be wrong in this" they would say with (pseudo) humility. I call it false because even as they spoke they acted like they were absolutely right and if in public they sounded nice in private their words were sharper and more decisive. As I told one young priest, "if my wife said she wanted to look at houses and consider moving, I would find it difficult to believe that we were considering the possibility if she had already signed a contract and began shipping our furniture to a new location." The words of one advocate of "the new thing" sum it up for me, "I just cannot imagine that God..." There it is. The limits of human imagination are suddenly the criteria for determining what God "must" be doing.

All of us (even and especially me) have a long list of things that we "can't imagine" or which we believe "must be." Believer or not, Evangelical or Catholic, male or female, etc. etc. For some the existence of atoms precludes the existence of God. (Begging the question what would the world be made of if God did exist?) For others the Bible has to be a certain way (a perfect textbook of science as we understand science today). For some there are clear lines between human and divine causality (there is no weather, God makes it sunny or  makes it rain--or-- there is no God, only dry and moist air, cold and warm air). What if reailty is real? What if our assumptions are generated, in part, by our need to control, our fallen, arrogant nature? What if God is not exactly what we think? What if His ways are as high above our ways as the heavens are above the earth?

What if we opened our minds and hearts in prayerful worship and submitted to Him (rather than expecting Him to submit to our expectations and belief systems)? The one thing that comes through about Jesus is He broke open the expectations of the people of His time. The religious leaders missed the boat, as did the secular authorities. This is often pointed out by simple people, usually as a reminder that such "people in power" cannot be trusted. This is true. Religious and civil authorities make errors. Of course, it was the crowd crying "Crucify Him!" at the top of their lungs which represents the rest of us. Simple people are no more adept at recognizing Jesus, or the truth. We all have a remarkable propensity for missing the point. All of us.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Aslan is on the Move

It is Friday, the end of our week long Bible study. Each morning some forty of us gathered to hear God's word, to sing songs, to pray the psalms and Lord's prayer, to offer thanksgiving to God and to hear a brief teaching/reflection on some message related to the Good News. We priests alternated leading. I shared yesterday that there is a surge of energy when  I do this sort of thing. Some of it is the freedom to express joy and wonder. Some of it is the simple proclamation of Who God is and what God calls us to be. Some of it is singing and dancing and hand clapping in church.

Our Bible Study was related to the Chronicles of Narnia, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." each day we watched part of the movie, the younger ones had the story read to them. The visualization of the characters is helpful. The bad guys are ugly and the good guys are noble. (Not always true in reality where bad guys can be very handsome or appear winsome) Most of us adults have read the books, some of us have read them multiple times. Many of us admit to the disappointment that we have never personally stumbled across that magic closet which transports us to that magical kingdom.

The value of the Chronicles is that they convey the truth without being overt. Why is that good? Because the message is deeper and richer than we imagine. Too often church types (like me!) are not trusting enough that God can find His way into the hearts of His people. We create "a way" (not Jesus, but a program or step-by-step process) to get saved. We define salvation. We define holiness. We define and define and put up walls and barriers. [side bar, I believe strongly in walls and limits. I believe strongly that there is 'insiders' and 'outsiders' and I advocated taking choices seriously because they do have an impact. This is not a simple minded attack on organized religion. As I said before, as bad as organized religion is, it beats the heck out of disorganized religion which is usually a projection of our wants, inclinations and desires] When we go to Narnia the details of the story are jumbled up, so it can reach us in new ways, deeper and more poerful ways.

The new creation in Christ? How about the transformation of Edmund from sullen, selfish little boy to self sacrificing hero boy-king? Or what about the stone creatures, frozen into rock by the wicked queen (and I hear echoes of God's voice in the Ancient Covenant text; "I will take you heart of stone and give you a  heart of flesh")? Simon and Garfield sang many years ago, "I am a rock, I am an island...and a rock feels no pain." The upside to being a rock is it is painless, the downside is it is lifeless. Yet the breath of Aslan (like Jesus breath on the cross and with the disciples after His resurrection in John's Gospel) makes the stone into flesh, the dead into life, the feelingless into passion. The breath is spirit and gives life.

Some critique Lewis for his embrace of warfare and violence. There is a battle and it is real in this world. The White Witch is brutally serious about subjugating the Narnians. Does such fighting subvert Jesus' words on non-violence? Lewis thought not. He lived through two major wars (he was a soldier) and he had no illusions about trust and love and kindness. The Germans would have conquered all of Europe without the resistance of the Allies. Lewis knew that there were good Germans and bad Englishmen. He also knew the higher cause was to be judged. In Narnia, the "cost of discipleship" is faithfulness. Aslan gives His life to save the people, but the people must still fight. St. Paul used athletic and warrior imagery, too, in his explanation of the Christian life. Even Jesus made martial allusions in a parable.

The greatest joy of the story is the realization that Aslan/Jesus comes and goes. He does not leave us orphaned, even if we are left to be faithful without His overt presence much of the time. We do not live in a flatland, there is height and depth to our existence. We do not live in a uniform world where everyone is the same. There really are good guys and bad guys (or better guys and worse guys). Our alignment with the Lamb, the Lion of Judah, the Great High Priest, Jesus the King of Kings places us square in the middle of that war. We do not fight mere flesh and blood, but principalities and powers. Lives are at stake. Bodies and souls are at risk. Alsan is on the move. Those who believe must take up arms (shield of FAITH, sword of God's Word & Spirit) and do battle. The innocent victims of the white witch need us. Aslan is on the move and even if planet earth is not Narnia, it is just as wonderful and amazing, if we open our eyes in childlike faith and see reality for what it is.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Missing the Point

So there was this guy sitting in a park playing checkers with a monkey. They played on and on, and as they did so a crowd gathered round to watch. There was a buzz in air and most of the conversation centered around the amazing monkey who could play checkers. Finally, with a tone of exasperation the man said, "I don't know why you think he's so great, I have beaten him 7 out of 10 games."

I underline my Bible. I like to underline when I read. One advantage to doing this is it allows words and phrases to pop out when I open the Bible. Deuteronomy begins with Moses recapping the events which we call "the exodus." I had several phrases underlined and circled. I want to share three.

Before we start, I want to emphasize one thing, the Hebrew people had experienced a miracle--God had brought them out of Egypt from bondage to freedom. There  had been a series of wonderous signs of God's power in Egypt, culminating in the death of the first born. The blood of the lamb on their door posts kept the angel from destroying them. [here is where my point on symbolism yesterday is so vital. The Lamb (Jesus) is the source of salvation. The lamb (Passover) and its blood is a pointer to Jesus. we call this a type (that is the Greek word in  the Bible to describe this) and if it is read symbolically/spiritually you understand the deeper meaning.] Later when Pharaoh's army was about to fall on them a miraculous wind provided a land bridge and the returning waters later wiped out the chariots in pursuit. God had also manifested Himself in "signs and wonders" with fire and thunder. These people had what we all claim to want, an experience of God: "Proof!"

Back to my checker playing monkey. The reason the joke is funny (to me) is because it is a vivid illustration of someone who is missing the point. Probably, the humor is emphasized because he is so arrogant in the process. Focusing on "me" (I win!) he loses his capacity for wonder and appreciation. (There is also some humor in thinking about a monkey playing checkers....)

We often hear that people "today" do not  have faith like they used to. We hear that we are not religious like in the old days. I think it is true, but only to a degree. No generation is pure and holy. Hear what Moses says to the people (in chapter one!)

1:26 " were unwilling to go up. You rebelled against the command of the Lord.."
1:32 "...but in spite of this, you have no trust in the Lord your God..."
1:43 " would not listen. You rebelled..."

Obedience and Faith are at times interchangeable words in the Ancient Covenant texts. To trust and believe and have faith means that one listens and obeys. Faith in action, if you will, is obedience. Disobedience and doubt are not modern inventions, although we have no doubt perfected them somewhat in recent days. Unbelief and rebellion date to the Garden (Adam does not trust God so he acts on his own and disobeys)

Today we will have another day of VBS. Thirty children, and more exciting to me, fifteen adolescent 'helpers.' All these young people spending three hours a day hearing about Jesus, singing about Jesus, learning about community. It is a context where trust, faith, listening and obedience can be experienced and perfected. They are happy days. When I am with the children I feel years younger. I smile more and am happier. It makes me wonder, why am I not "more alive" all the time?

Perhaps, like the checker player, I miss the point.
Perhaps, like Ancient Hebrews, I miss the point.
God is God, always and everywhere.
It is grand that doing VBS with little ones sparks my awareness, but in the journey of faith is vital to open one's self in all times and places to the reality of the God who saves, is saving and will save His people. So I am remnded that Hebrews can forget their experience of God and it leads to sin. I, too, can forget. I, too, sin. It is a very good thing not to miss the point!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What of the Wars in Deuteronomy?

One of the more difficult parts of Deuteronomy is God's command to annihilate the inhabitants of the land. [Dtn 2:34 "in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor."] What is one to think of such a reading?

Liberals and Fundamentalists each have offered an approach. The Liberals say the Bible is flawed and such parts of Scripture illustrate its limits and errors. The Fundamentalist, advocating the belief that God is the author of Scripture, says God can choose to do with the world He created as He sees fit. The dilemma is mass extermination, genocide, is obviously evil. If God demands genocide, then how does one twist that into a paradox where "an apparent evil" is actually "a good"? And if God says genocide is good, setting a precedent for it in Sacred Writing, on what grounds do we condemn the various peoples around the globe who have, at one time or another, engaged in that heinous practice?

Does this mean that the Liberals are right? That the Bible is a flawed document and it does not reveal God, rather it reveals the religious feelings/beliefs of an ancient people? That it serves an interesting historical purpose providing insight into religious practices from long ago, but not much else?

As a Christian I say, "the Word of the Lord" when we read from the Bible, and I call the Bible, "the Word of God." As such, I have a high respect for its content and would contend it reveals God to us in and through the words. So what kind of God then is revealed?

A God incarnate.
A God who deals with people where they are and when they are.
A God whose message expresses the timeless in the context of time, which conveys the infinite in the limits of language and grammar, a God whse perfection is poured out in and through fallible words. In other words, The Truth, in becoming "enfleshed" chooses to self limit. No passage of Scripture conveys all of the truth. As such, isolated bits are open to misinterpretation. Isolated bits of Truth can be untrue or in error, depending on how you look at it... (It is the nature of language)

This is why interpretation is vital. One cannot simply say "it means what it says and says what it means" without the caveat, "and it was written long ago so our struggle is determining what it is saying and what it means!" Words have connotation and denotation. Words change in meaning in different contexts.

When you're with the Flintstones
you'll have a yabba dabba doo time.
A dabba doo time.
You'll have a gay old time.


Anyone want to bet that last line would not mean then what it means now? More to the point, 'yabba dabba do' was a made up expression which had no meaning prior to that in the wider culture. In fact, outside of Fred yelling it on a regular basis, it did not exist. (It is the nature of language)

So what of the Bible? The spoken words from one generation are handed down from father to son, father to son. Over the hundreds of years the context changes. A close study of the laws reveals the changes which happen. We understand why. Things change so laws must be adjusted. [that is why we have silly laws on the books today, silly because in this context they make no sense, just like someday some of our laws will appear funny] With law that is easier to understand. We see how a clan of shepherds, a small village, and a large city would create different social settings, demanding different values and differently ordered life. Some principles are the same (be honest, do not do violence, love your nieghbor) but the actual concrete rules would be different.

What does that have to do with the wars in Deuteronomy? As I said yesterday, Deuteronomy is part of a long written tradition encompassing much of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It is written in Judah and that perspective (central worship in Temple) is found throughout. It also aims to explain the sorry state of things at the end of the story with the exile. So "how did we end up  here?" is a driving influence on the literature. The answer is "we were unfaithful." Sin produces death, figuratively and literally. (It is the nature of creation) Deuteronomy in its final form is written with the end in mind.

Archaeologists say that their digs in Ancient Israel reveal no evidence of the Jews destroying cities. [The Liberal would claim this 'fact' is another proof that the Bible has error in it. They say it is not historically accurate.] In fact, the "scholarly" opinion is that escaping slaves were reintegrated into a kinship group already in the land. The "conquest" was a slow motion event, taking place over a long time and was not the holy war described in Scripture. Except, of course, the Scripture speaks with two voices. In Joshua the massacres have annihilated all the inhabitants, while Judges (slo-mo) indicate all manner of ongoing problems with the inhabitants. The Jews are told to kill everyone and also told not to intermarry with the inhabitants (slo-mo). There are pro-social rules governing the alien among the Jews, even as there are commands that no alien is to be among them. How to understand this incongruity?

My belief is that the texts are NOT meant to be modern history. [That is, after all, why it is called modern, it started in the modern era of history.] It does not mean they are not true. Truth and factual history are related but not the same. It is all about purpose! Ancient history was written for different reasons. I believe the revelation of God in these works must be understood in a symbolic/spiritual sense. [For a more obvious illustration consider Paul on "spiritual armor" or Revelation where the sword (=Word of God) comes from the Rider's mouth and 'slays' the enemies of God.] They communicate in starkly violent words a spiritual principle: Purify the land and make it holy, make no room for sin and infidelity. Killing "babies" is rooting out "little sins." Baby snakes grow into big snakes. Poison kills. There is no innocent in the symbolic meaning. The texts are literal, but literally figurative. They do not provide a new take on social morality, rather they illustrate the deadly seriousness of the all or nothing call to love and obey God. The truth of the Deuteronomy war texts can and should be applied in any age. Root out every semblance of evil. It is not an invitation to project our sins on another (especially another race or group of people). The Scripture makes that clear, too, in saying "if you act like them then I will sweep you from the land just like I did them." It is theological more than geo-political. It is a warning, a stern threat, that the way of God is all encompassing. It makes use of an ancient experience (receiving the land as a blessing from God) and expresses it (consistent with the culture and time) as we find it in our Bible.

So, it can be asked, why not just say it is symbolic? My response is no one would ever do that, it makes no sense to thnk they would. The Fred Flinstone lyrics do not have a disclaimer because they assumed the audience knew and understood the words: yabba dabba do and gay are clear if you understand. The purpose of Deuteronomy is historical theology and theological history. It is meant for the audience then and is appropriated by us now only through that original context. When I say symbolic I am not saying only symbolic, meaning less serious.Symbolism is far more serious than any stale fact. For example, we are studying about Aslan this week in VBS. Aslan is symbolic but his story really conveys the historical reality of Jesus. Symbols include things like spitting in someone's face or lifting there arm up in victory. Those symbols are very, very real!

This is a blog, not a book,  but I hope even this brief treatment provides a venue for continued reflection. And the beginning of an answer to the question "What of the wars in Deuteronomy?"

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Second Time Around

When I was a child there was a song, Henry the eighth, which had a line "second verse, same as the first." In a sense Deuteronomy is that, a second verse. The word deuteronomy literally means "second + law" and it is structured as a long sermon by Moses reviewing the exodus event. Those who study (and cross study it with Exodus or Leviticus) the writings see an extended narrative which continues through Joshua, Judges, Samuels and Kings. In simplistic terms it is all about God's grace, God's offer of covenant, God's provision of  the covenant expectations and the option of life or death, blessing or curse. It is a reflection on the saving relationship of God and His chosen ones.

Like most people, I was raised to view the "OLD Testament" with a certain level of disdain. It was old and outdated, the "god" of the Old Testament was a "god of judgment" and cruelty and as a New Testament person I had limited interest in and limited knowledge of the greatest portion of the Bible. Of course, we did cherry pick any number of cool stories (Adam and Eve, Samson, David and Goliath) usually sanitized and edited so our young ears were kept pure. The paradox, the OT was part of the Bible and the Bible is God's Word, did sort of gnaw at me at some level, but I was not consumed with the things of God and probably spend most of my time worried about the daily concerns of my existence.

As I have come to see the Ancient Covenant as foundational and Jesus as the fully-filling-up of that covenant promise of God, I have also come to a deeper reverence for God's word in both testaments/covenants. I studied the Jewish texts with the same enthusiasm as I did the Jesus texts. I learned that grace is also in the older and judgment is also in the newer, so there is not a clear differentiation. God is God, unchanging and also bigger than our theologies imagine,and He is God in both. [In seminary I found out the differentiation between the OT god and the NT God is actually a heresy: a damnable lie. In light of that I have attempted to seek truth and embrace the fullness of God's self revelation.] Lastly, and this was recent, the Easter before last, one day it dawned on me that the Ancient Covenant text (Torah, Prophets, Psalms and Wisdom) is what Jesus called the Bible and it was what He opened up to explain who He is. In other words, Jesus only needed the Ancient Covenant text (OT) to explain everything!

Deuteronomy is gracious. God chooses Israel because He wants to. He makes promises to the people and keeps His end of the bargain. The offer of abundance (land and blessings) require obedience, but how could it be otherwise? Deuternomy is a reminder that there is a time and a place. Obedience is a gift not a curse. Much of God's law is intended to shape human behaviors in imitation of God. In other words, we are to be loving, honest, fair and trustworthy. Such things are not just outward behaviors, they are also inward attitudes. We become by what we do, and we do from what we are. There is a degree of self-creation in all this. And we  have a role, to be light to the world. That is Israel's task: to witness that the Lord (YHWH) is God. Their actions are as much a proclamation as their words.

So Deuteronomy is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It is loaded with wonderful wisdom and inspiring, life giving demands. It has a beauty which shines into my heart and soul. It also lays out an explanation for all of the history of God's people, right up to the bitter end of the Fall of Judah. It offers insight into our predicament today and gives light in this present darkness. And Jesus fully-fills-up the revelation given in Deuternomy.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Stop Limping

"How long will you pasach (passover, sprin over, limp, be lame)  between two ca'iph (ambivalence, divided opinion, different sides?" the prophet Elijah asked the people of Israel in the first reading (I K 18) this Sunday in many of our churches (Revised Common Lectionary, you can see the readings here: )

The first thing that jumped out at me is the word pasach which occurs for the first time in the Ancient Covenant text of Exodus 12:13 "the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses, when I see the blood on your door I will passover you and the plague will not  be on you..." Where it then occurs three times in that chapter. In 1Kings 18 the word occurs twice. Here and in v26 where the priests of Ba'al are limping/leaping/hopping around before their altar (in a frenzy) trying to stir their (pseudo) god to act. This is an intentional use of the word (with different connotations) probably to emphasize that the ambivalence of Israel (their limping) has placed them in the same camp as the futile hopping priests of the idol/false god. On the other hand, it also leads to memories of God's definitive act of salvation. [I believe I am following the ancient Jewish practice of reading Scripture by connecting the word to its other uses and contexts] The reading therefore opens to us both options, illustrated from other uses of pasach: The blood on the door in God's ultimate act (in the Ancient Covenant) of salvation and the bloody (they cut themselves with swords) false priests of the unreal god Ba'al.

In the section prior to this Elijah has happened upon Obadiah, (bad) King Ahab's chief of staff. Obadiah is an interesting character. His name means worshipper of God and he is described as one who fears the Lord greatly. While the evil queen Jezebel is killing off the prophets of Israel, Obadiah has secretly hidden one hundred of them in the desert and provided them bread and water. Thus he acts as savior to the men (as God's tool). Yet, while faithful to God he is also in service of Ahab and fears him as well. Elijah tells Obadiah to announce to the king, "Elijah is here" (which in Hebrew can also mean "Lo, the Lord is my God." see Seow in the New Interpreter's Bible, Vol III). Obadiah is afraid the king will kill him. He is an example of the "limping between two opinions" which Elijah condemns.

When Ahab and Elijah meet it is almost comical. The king to calls the prophet, "Is that you, the troubler of Israel?" to which Elijah responds, "I am not the troubler, you and your fmaily are the troubler because you have turned from God to Ba'al." (like the banter of feuding third graders). This is the age old conversation between competing world views (and continues to this day). Judgment is God's affirmation of which one is right. We will soon learn it is Elijah.

In what would certainly have been a much watched reality TV face-off in the ancient world if they had cable, Elijah invites the 450 priests of Ba'al to make a sacrifice to their god and call down fire. The problem is Ba'al is no god and so their hours of hopping and self-cutting produce nothing but exhaustion. Elijah, playing the trash-talker on the side lines constantly mocks their efforts and their useless god. One of his best lines is "maybe your god is asleep." Finally, Elijah says, "it is my turn." Then to emphasize the miracluous powers of God, he has gallons and gallons of water poured upon the wood. Clearly, if it catches on fire, it will take some doing. After a brief prayer (the theme is constant; it is about God' revealing Himself so that the people "will know the Lord/YHWH is God. We see it time and again in the Torah and the story of Exodus. Manifestation and revelation are central concerns) Elijah invokes God and a fireball so hot that it consumes everything: gift, altar, dirt, water, totally. It is another case of superabundance. In the face of the divine the people fall to earth in worship and proclaim "The Lord is God! God is the Lord!" The crowd (ever fickle) turns on the Ba'al prophets and slay them all (just retribution for the murdered prophets of Israel). It is a bad day for false gods.

Even in the Bible, God does not usually act so definitively. Many times, most times, He is quiet and behind the scenes. Later in this story we will see Elijah in a deep depression and hopeless. God's power is often masked and God's people are often deeply tried and worn out. Israel's history is limping between two options (God or false gods) as is ours. We embrace "spirituality"  in the quest to make God fit our desires and needs. We are reluctant to obey or submit. We redefine morality to fit our behaviors. We are, in a word, just like Ancient Israel. We are adept at claiming we know best and self-jusstify everything we do.

The prophets' words are as apropriate today as they were 2500+ years ago. Stop limping between two opinions, he demands. Stop hesitating and vascilating. Stop trying to  have it both ways, eating and preserving your cake. "Fish or cut bait" demands the Prophet. He knows the cost of obedience. He fights for his own soul in an effort to stay faithful. He succombs to despair and only God's mercy and intervention saves Him from tossing in the towel himself. This way of life is not easy and in spite of some church advertisements, when you follow Jesus everything is not better and all blessings are not yours. The cost of discipleship is a cross. Following Jesus means abundance, but also great suffering.

Today in VBS we will sing about Jesus. We will have joy and laughter. We will love the kids who are to spend the week with us. We will mark them out for Jesus (with the blood of the lamb on their doorpost--figuratively speaking). We will study "The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe" and announce Aslan (Jesus) in on the move! But I know we are intitiating them also into a life of decision. No limping, only following Jesus (Triune God). And embracing that path these little ones will need to be prepared for great battles against Ba'al and all his satanic henchmen. It is the way of the non-limper, the way of Life!