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Thursday, January 31, 2013

If God Wrote the Bible...

One issue I wrestle with constantly is the meaning of the expression divine inspiration. I have no problem believing it and no problem professing it. However, I do have a heck of a time conceiving it. And I am very aware of the need to make it wear flesh and blood because it is not an idea, it is real.

Last night we were doing our Bible study and we came across "the call of the disciples." Mark 1:16-20 is succint and to the point. There are two parallel stories. Jesus passes by Andrew and Simon. Calls them. They immediately respond and follow Him. Jesus passes James and John. Calls them. They follow. The majority of my folks said that they had always been taught that the immediate response was a miracle. Men who had never seen or heard Jesus encountered Him and were overwhelmed by the power of God in their hearts and responded. The radical nature of such an act (and almost reckless) made it all the more appealing to our hagiography. We know Jesus is God because one word from Him and the guys just immediately responded. How else to explain it?

Well, maybe reading the Bible will help to explain it. The word immediately translates two Greek words used by Mark. The adjective form occurs 3x in chapter 1. The adverb form is used 9x. That is a total of 12x that the word immediately appears. Mark continues to use the adverb (in the next five chapters a total of 20x). There is good reason to think that Mark is using the term, not for theologicall driven reasons, but because he just plain uses the word immediately very frequently. And to top it off, when James and John respond, he does not say immediately (only the call is immediate). Mark is not implying a miracle at all. That is good news to those of us who are also called but do not experience the call as a miracle (at least in the sense the word frequently connotes). People who are waiting for an overwhelming power to sweep them away can stop waiting. It doesn't happen that way (99.9%).

Lest this seem to disrespect the Word of God, it is also helpful to know that in John 1:35-42 John the Baptist identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God" to two of his own disciples. Hearing this, the two follow Jesus who asks "what do you seek?" The men stay the day with Jesus and then one of them, Andrew, goes off first thing to tell his brother Simon. Not quite the time line in Matthew-Mark. Andrew and Simon did respond to the call of Jesus, but the Gospel accounts tell the story differently (on a literal face value). To complicate it even more, Luke 5:1-11 tells a story of Jesus using an idle fishing boat to preach. He needed some space from the crowd. The same four characters (from Mt and Mk) appear together, this time as business partners. Once He is finished preaching, Jesus tells them to launch off to fish again. Peter says we worked all night for nothing, but we will obey. Next thing, the nets are full of fish and the invitation to "catch men" as Jesus' disciples. Once more, common features but also significant differences.

Mark is not describing the event of a call, he is declaring it took place. Luke has another version (which seems to have some interplay with a resurrection account (in John) with a similar large haul of fish). Whatever the exact historical details were, each writer, inspired by the Holy Spirit (word of God) has given us a version for our edification. While the basic agreement is a reason to trust, there are significant differences in the three stories. All might be actual historical events, but all three are not how the original call came about.

So, IF God wrote the Bible, why is there not agreement?

In the book, "Please Understand Me II" David Keirsey provides helpful categories for understanding the four basic types (and sixteen total subtypes) of people. Many of us have taken the test. [Extravert-Introvert, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, Judging-Perceiving. Google Personality Junkie for an online approach to this.] Keirsey identifies two approaches to tools (anything we use) as cooperative and utilitarian. He then identifies two approaches to using words: abstract and concrete. The Four Basic Personality types are a unique combination of the two pairs. Humans are divided into four basic groups and this leads to all manner of conflicts because we do not approach things the same way.

If we approach the Scripture from a point of view that the Bible has utility and the word use is concrete, we probably see the Sacred Scripture as a practical guide book and interpet it literally.
However, others see words more abstractly. Words like fiction, theoretical, general, inner, symbolic, figurative, and mythical have negative connotation to the first group (who equate this with untrue) which is more empirical, specific, literal, factual and detailed. This challenge extends throughout church history to the earliest centers of teaching. Alexandria was the home of the spiritual reading and Antioch the place where literalists abounded. [Keep in mind each group was able to understand and do the other, but each tended toward the opposite.] In as much as the two approaches to language and the two approaches to "tools" are preferences of personalities, the question is "which is right?" and the answer is "it depends on the situation."

What is God? Is God an abstract or concrete-utilitarian? An abstract or concrete-cooperative? The assumption we make goes a long way to determining how we approach anything (including reading the Bible) and how we read anything (including the Bible). Based on our brief look at the call of the apostles, it seems that a multi-layered approach is best. We need to know our tendencies. We need to assume God is not a carbon copy of 'us.' We need to be slow to make claims about divine authorship.

If God wrote the Bible then it may be literal (objective) or spiritual (subjective). It may be intended for utility (history, ethics) or community (mysticism). Whatever it is, it is not  helpful to blindly let our personalities dictate our way is the way, nor is it likely that we cannot learn from other approaches. IF God created the world, He seems to have been comfortable making sixteen basic types and all, to greater or lesser degree, are different! As such, it is not unthinkable that our approach to Scripture needs to balance the four basic approaches the sixteen types of people exhibit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Redeeming Competition

Last weekend we had our annual Trivia Night. There were thirteen teams (and a no show) comprised mainly of members and their friends/families. Right before hand I got a text from a friend who had been pondering the question, how does God redeem our competition. The point was, not just friendly competition, playing cards or Monopoly, but the cut throat, win and humiliate your opponent type of competition which we so easily slide into. Like my "Can a Christian...?" series some time ago, I think this one can be posed along those lines. Can a Christian be competitive?

First of all, based on my experience that night, it is not an irrelevant question. I experienced tension because I wanted to win. It was palpable. In reality, I believe that the biggest winner is the church for having fun together and the people who will benefit from the outreach contribution. Over $2000 will go to help those in need. Yet, I also know, I wanted to win. Perhaps too much?

Being competitive is, in some ways, an inborn trait. I remember reading about Cal Ripken years ago. They said that even in silly things like tossing socks in a garbage can he had a drive to beat every one. His success as a ball player reflects that drive. Someone who gets the most out of their God-given talent is often praised. In reality, some of that is God-given drive. The 'need' to outwork others is also something that we can have no power over.

At root, the question is "what is the proper level of competition?" St. Paul says, "outdo one another in showing kindness." In theory, we should look like that old tv commercial about the two (Holiday Inn?) employees who bounce back and forth making each other breakfast, vacuuming each other's carpet, and other assorted acts of hospitality. Such competition is possible (think of gift-giving). Yet, we also know (grace discussions center on this) that sometimes our outward acts of kindness can be self serving. And being competitive in any venue can disintegrate into merely lifting myself up for ego (even, and especially, if it is uplifitng through humiliation and service). One thinks of CS Lewis' Screwtape, who advised that getting the new Christian to go to church so that he thought he was superior could be supplemented by having him pray in the back of the church so he could be impressed by his own humility.

I think God redeems competition by reforming it into the orignal intent. Art is art, not art competition. Play is play, not bending the rules to win. Building is building, not building competition, etc. etc. Doing it all for the glory of God (thanks and praise) is the purpose, not beating someone else (and having won wanting to win by more!). Crushing those who get in our way is not godly. The humility and gentleness of Jesus reflects a balanced spirit in such things. Would Jesus compete with others? Yes, but not to win, rather to express truth, be faithful, show love, etc.

Winning is about success and success is also driven by feelings of inadequacy. This is based on a distorted understanding of value... While it is easy to malign the movement to "give everyone a trophy" and "remove competition and increase cooperation" there is also some truth there. And the competitive need to win makes it hard for us (even those advocating cooperation) to see how we allow conversation to break down into either/or. [A mystery here:] God competes with satan for human souls. Clearly some competition is here to stay. We live in a fallen world. Kingdom values do not easily translate into life on the planet we inhabit. Perhaps that is why The Cross is Jesus command. If we lose our competitive edge we flounder and get passed by. Practical Christians readily disengage from Jesus when their self interest is at stake. Reason dictates that we be successful we argue. Convincing ourselves that the culture has it right when it comes to things like "Me vs. World."

Sometimes competition pushes us to greater acts of discipline. Competiton reminds us things do not always go our way. But seeing the track and field, biking and baseball scandals with performance enhancing drugs it is obvious that competition  has a dark side. It is a big side and very dark. Any discussion of competition must include that evil makes itself known even in games.

In closing, I think of how easily a parent learns to "lose" games with a young child. The desire to beat a three year old in chutes and ladders is not there for me. And we also know how even very young kids can end up becoming consumed with winning, tantrums and crying accompanying anything not going their way. It is not an appealing trait. It is not what God followers want to look like (even if we do!). How will God redeem that? The way He redeems all of our mis-steps, our wrong emphasis and confusing the real purpose: in the cross. Die to self means the only competition is against satan and his desire to malform our original intent. It is, in the end, the competition with flesh, world and devil for our very life and self. Anything that distorts that needs redeeming. Winning is not bad. Thinking that being a winner is what matters, however, can become very bad indeed. Just look at the loser life of so many winners...

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Jesus and the Dirt Eaters

The "Poor" are, theologically, a sociological entity and a spiritual metaphor in the Bible. The poor of God refers to those who have entrusted their life to Him. It means the ones who have no other resources, nothing else upon which to lean or hope. Such people (also called the Meek, the Humble, the Lowly, and the Poor in Spirit) have ordered their lives in a hierarchy where God sits atop of all desires and goals. [brief detour: Saying God #1 in our lives, however, can lead to an error. How? We might think that making God #1 implies that there are #2, #3, #4, etc. This leads to thinking that we can divide up our day and give God the "best" or "largest slice" but then turn to other concerns. If God is my #1, what is #2? So I give God an hour and then thirty minutes, with no God reference, to something else which is #2. I would say breathing is a better analogy. Keeping myself alive is certainly something I spend much time and energy doing. Here is the mystery revealed. I continue to breathe even as I do other things. At work, I breathe. At play, I breathe. At prayer, I breathe. At study, I breathe. I don't take leave of the need to breathe in order to do other things. Breathing is on a different level than my "to do" list. And it co-exists with all of them. So it is with God.]

For the poor in spirit God is  #1 means to say, "all I am, all I do, all I seek, all I celebrate, all I desire... is IN God." So I pray because God is my #1, but when I play, it is also in God. So nothing I do is outside of that relationship (which makes sinning so blasphemous. In sin, we reduce God to one value among many which, from time to time, can be set aside). The poor (in this spiritual sense) are the ones who recognize that every moment of every day hangs in the balance, and only God (ONLY God !) sustains it. So it is not an issue of balancing God with other values, it is an issue of submitting all values in and through our commitment to God. [The upside is we do not have to being doing "religious" stuff, or "spiritual" stuff, in order to be connecting with God] Family time, recreation time, eating and drinking, reading and relaxing can all  be done in a spirit of thanksgiving and worship, without being overtly "religious." However, I would also argue that to pull it off, one needs to set aside times of actual and overt "religious practice/spirituality" so church attendance, Bible study and prayer are not optional. The old mantra from the 70's "my life is a prayer" can be true, but it is usually a delusion if your prayer life is not robust!

However, and this is vital, the Biblical concept of the Poor is not simply a spiritual insight or religious practice. The primary referent to the Poor in the Bible is a sociological and economic entity. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, dirt eaters refers to a literal fact. The Poor eat "dirt" to fill their bellies. Recall the prodigal son parable in Luke. [If that is not a familiar story here is a link ] The wayward youth was in a most disastrous situation for a Jewish boy--feeding pigs (unclean!) and desiring to fill his belly with pig food (ugh!) because he was so hungry. In America we often hear of people who pick through dumpsters to find a meal. And in the third world people not only eat garbage, they eat actual dirt to make the emptiness go away. The danger with middle class folks (who are never really hungry) talking about being 'poor in spirit' is that we seldom are (when we say "I need" we really mean "I want"). And the delusion of the term can blind us to the actual reality which Almighty God has revealed to us in the texts of the Ancient Covenant (OT) and the Covenant of Jesus (NT). If we spend time reading the Torah we will see that God's concern with the rightly ordered life includes what we call "social justice" and taking care of the poor. In Torah, the farmer is commanded to leave some behind in the fields so that the needy can gather grain. Intentionally inefficient harvests for the sake of the poor is a stunning reminder to us today about how to deal with the poor (and Democrats miss the boat here as badly as Republicans, or so it appears to me). It is a personal decision to give freely of what I have to another. It is generous. It is not a government mandate fueled by Powerful people who tax (i.e. take away by force) and then distribute for political gain (don't believe me, look at which groups vote for which candidates and see if self interest motivates the ballot box!).

The real poor of Jesus' day also figuratively ate dirt because they were downtrodden (the image of being walked all over is figurative for us, but quite literal in some times and places for real poor people). The poor and powerless literally lay face down on the ground. (The Greek word for worship means to fall on one's face.) It was an ancient practice of submission which people really did to humiliate themselves and declare that they were beneath someone of a higher status. That is what 'the poor' does in the presence of the "mighty." (And it is not something middle class Americans ever do, figuratively or literally, hence the limits of the concept as a spiritualized ideal) To "lick the dust" (a frequent Biblical turn of phrase) is not just a poetic image, it is an actual behavior which the real poor experience. Stripped of self value and denied access to the halls of power, the real poor live under no delusions that they matter to society. They know that they are expendable, that they have no rights, and that the insolence of lifting their faces from the ground will result in a beating, or worse. [Remember, Roman citizens were not crucified nor beaten without a trial (see Paul's complaint in Acts 22) because they had rights. Most people, however, were slaves or foreigners. Most people were poor; they were "dirt eaters."]

The salvation revealed in the Ancient Testament (read Amos and Isaiah) is usually concerned with justice. It is a world where all have access to the riches of the earth. Food, drink and a life of joy are available to all in God's Kingdom. And the picture is quite earthy, even in the New Covenant description. As I will preach today (twice), God (in Christ) does not call us to be "spiritual" alone. Nor does He call us to  be "only" spiritual. [and I am a tireless advocate of the spiritual life and spiritual discipline] Being only spiritual is Gnostic (heresy, bad, deadly). Being religious is holistic (and holy, being both spiritual and material). Spiritual people do not bring good news to dirt eaters, they bring empty words ("hey, enjoy the sunset, hungry ones, and enjoy the knowledge that we have souls and like nature..."). To paraphrase James 1:27 real religion is being uncorrupted by the value system of unredeemed humanity AND taking care of the truly needy and poor. It is about Holiness and Justice, two enterprises which are never completely achieved.

Jesus was probably poor, much poorer than we imagine. He had little social power or social status. That is why He was crucified. If one studies His preaching it is hard to understand what He said which led to the cross. It is because in our culture we vote, we have rights to say what we think. Jesus did not advocate anything criminal in our minds, so what was His crime? His crime was that He offered a different vision of society. He claimed a status for the dirt eaters which the Empire could not abide. He basically said the dirt eaters were fully human and children of God. Such radical thinking is at odds with "the world, the flesh and the devil" so it called down the wrath of the Principalities and Powers. But The Evil One (and, as Paul says, we live in 'this present darkness' under Its influence) is subtle. In our own more democratic times the disdain for the dirt eaters morphs and takes new forms. The impulse to oppress others remains, it is just dressed in garb which leads us to think our version of oppression is just and fair. In every age, in all places, the radical message of Jesus (about God's Kingdom as expressed in Torah and Prophets) is hard to hear, harder to understand, and hardest to embrace and incarnate. We are all victims, but we are also perpetrators. We are all poor, but poor is relative and relatively speaking, some are much poorer than others. Some are unbelievably, horribly, hopelessly, despisedly, broken and downtrodden, dirt eating poor. Jesus loves us all. Jesus also calls us to so much more. And unless we repent of our own blindness and sin (distorted by our politics, each in a unique way) we will continue, every day in a myriad of ways, to walk all over the dirt eaters and ignore their plight (or use it to our advantage in the name of justice or other high sounding phrase). And when Jesus comes back, He will not be pleased (no matter how spiritual we think we are).

Friday, January 25, 2013

God's Ways

[Teaching Wednesday on Luke 4:16-30, we spent two full weeks on this chapter and I have written about it several times as well. So much there, so very much! Many of you will hear this Gospel Sunday (Revised Common Lectionary and usually the Roman Catholic are the same) so hopefully these reflections will be relevant.]

As we already saw, Luke has taken an event from later in Jesus' life (according to Mark//Mathew) and set it at the beginning of Jesus' ministry as a summary statement of Jesus' mission and ministry as well as a foreshadowing of the rejection and crucifixion. As the story ends, we read that Jesus is taken outside the city to a hill where they want to throw Him over, but He passes through their midst. Passing through is a phrase used over and over by Luke to indicate that Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem (to die). The crucifixion is on a hill outside the city...

As we know from the story an initially positive response devolves into a negative reaction. Luke's Jesus expresses this by saying " will probably say, "Do here what you have done in Capernaum [i.e. miracles]" In Mk and Mt He does not say this. Instead it is merely unbelief which is expressed, and Jesus, amazed at this lack of faith is "only able" to do a few healing miracles among them. Luke heads elsewhere in his rendition. By referring to Jesus' broader ministry at Capernaum (which ironically begins in the next verse; Luke is chronologically out of order as we said) Luke is emphasizing the "insider-outsider" Jew/Gentile dilemma. All four Gospels shape the material of Jesus' life and shape it by emphasizing key issues and themes. Luke has his own (Holy Spirit inspired) emphasis. One of those is "the poor." Another is "the Holy Spirit." Here it is "the God Who acts freely as He chooses."

In reflecting on this question, "Why don't YOU do here what you did there?" I shared with the groups I teach that this is actually one of the Atheist/Agnostic's primary arguments against God. As Michael, my most expressive commenter shared some weeks ago: If God is good and powerful why does He allow bad things to happen. In Luke 4:24-27 Jesus gives His answer. Retelling some stories about Elijah and Elisha, Jesus reminds His hearers (and us) that there were lots of needy folks (a widow and a leper in particular) but God chose to only heal two foreigners. Now this is what set off the crowd. Luke is conveying, in narrative, a key element of Jesus' teaching. He says God Ways are not our own. While we may scrutinize those ways and critique God, in the end, Jesus is much less concerned with defending God then He is proclaiming God.

The God who saves Gentiles is, of course, one stream of the ancient covenant. After all, the story begins with Adam & Eve (and all humanity). The covenant with Noah is universal. Abraham is not a Jew. He is a father of nations (remember his offspring include the fathers of many tribes beyond Israel). It is, however, a particular line (Isaac, then Jacob/Israel) with which God makes a covenant (for the sake of blessing the world). Herein lies the mystery. God chooses a people and sets them apart, but He does not (at least in one dominant stream of the text) limit salvation to them, He offers salvation through them. For example, He makes Persian Cyrus an unknowing Messiah. Then there is the Balaam story (which I am reading in my personal prayer). Balaam is a pagan prophet, yet He knows God, BY NAME! He calls God YHWH and he is in communication with God. He is sent to curse Israel, but obedient to God, he blesses them (along the same lines as the Abraham blessing in Genesis).

Reading about Balaam took me deeper into Jesus' discussion in the synagogue. I told the class I frequently bring up things there which show up a day or two later in Morning Prayer readings, or on the radio, or in other readings. As if to prove the point, the next day a psalm I refered to in class (Ps 116, "I love the Lord because He answered my plea") was our first psalm in prayer. [I refered to it as illustrating our tendencies, we love when God does what we want--'do here what we heard you did there' and it is part of our sinful desire to have God serve us, rather than us serve God.] While Jesus is THE ONLY way to the Father, I am not sure the way we define it is accurate. Many are 'nicer than God' (those progressives with whom I am often so cross) and they say things like "Jesus is our savior" or "Jesus is my way." Such a slippery approach to truth makes me, well, it makes me quite cross. I find it silly. However, my conservative friends (and they are) bother me when they talk about salvation in such limited fashion that they seem to forget that God's desire is that everyone is saved. And the Bible, both the older and more recent sections, frequently mention events and words which provide every reason to think that God has a plan B, a plan C and a plan D to compensate for our failure to bring all creation under Christ. And I am clear, Jesus is the only way, and I am clear that Jesus is bigger than the preferred option plan for acquiring salvation being peddled among us.

God's ways are mystery, both (per Luke and the synagogue) "gracious sounding" and "irritating." I do not claim to know or understand, it is paradoxical. I only know that God is at work and I am at work trying to figure out what He is doing. And my vocation is to follow Jesus. To believe in and love Him, and to pick up a cross of my own and "pass through" this world to my appointed destiny. To live and die like Him....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The ONLY only

I have written in the past about my issues with "solo" talk. As I  have said, it is fine depending on how you define the terms. "Only faith" or "only grace" or "only the Bible" or "only Jesus" are wonderful chapter headings to summarize much more nuanced and complex theological reflection on reality. And Americans are often bereft of sufficient reflection on exactly what they mean when they say such things.

We were studying Luke 4:16ff last night in Bible study. The famous synagogue scene where Jesus reads from Isaiah and announces the text is fulfilled "today" brings chills to my spine. However, the focus of that sermon was on Jubilee. It is primarilly directed to the poor ("dirt eaters" i.e. people whose faces are on the ground "eating dust" figuratively and hungry people who literally eat other people's refuse and garbage as they starve) and has huge economic ramifications. It is about forgiving debts (see the Lord's prayer for that one, too) and setting those in debtor prison free. This theological principle is tricky and can simplistically be co-opted by politicians. [A rule of thumb, be consistent in applying Bible to politics] Whatever else Jesus means (figurative and spiritual readings of Biblical text are appropriate and very common in the early church) the primary reference (though not only) is to bringing poor people good news--and announcing a salvation which addresses body as well as soul, belly as well as spirit.  As we discussed Luke's version of Jesus and His affinity for the poor I was reminded, "only faith" is not advocated here. Service of the poor is, very much.

By opening our mind and heart to Jesus, we are challenged to expand our understanding of God on a daily basis. A minister friend of mine was telling me how hard it is for middle class people to hear the Gospel. I agree with him. When you baptize a middle class white American, you end up with a middle class white American Christian. Now, that is not all bad. It is, in part, the real world. [Our ideal world thinking tends to ignore that.] Academics tend to be academic in approaching Jesus. Simple folks get simple. Emptional (or unemotional) folks express their faith consistently with their personality. That is how it goes. Baptize Frank warriors in the Middle Ages and you get a combative church. Baptize nature mytics in the celtic regions and you end up with an earthy spirituality. Real live people make up the church in every day and time. The spirituality of African Christians has all the strengths and weaknesses of their culture. So, there in not one "only" way to be Christian (although there are parameters and limits) and no one culture is the "only" one to get it right.

Today we read Isaiah 45. We heard that  "I am the Lord and there is no other." In fact, we heard it again and again. I am clear that is a place where the word "only" is appropriate. There is only one God and GOD is GOD. There is no other. But as we construct our boxes for God we must recall that He is GOD (not us). And our vision and understanding of God, even if we read the Bible, is always too small and always inaccurate in places. This leads some people to declare it is "all a mystery" as they flush orthodoxy down the toilet and recreate God (with all the stuff they don't like clipped away) in the image they prefer. Isaiah calls that idolatry. He says idol worshippers are basically idiots. I agree with him. Any god I create is not worthy of praise. And the only God I can create is a false one. [so that 'only' is also accurate]

My minister friend said that the only way forward is for the conservative and liberal church to fold up. Statistics indicate that may be happening. A new gerneration has come of age. There is lots perculating among us. God is also among us (Emmanuel) so there is hope. ONLY in God will my soul find its rest. So we continue the journey. Tomorrow I want to reflect on the surprise God who does not match up with our expectations sometimes. More on Luke 4, Numbers 22 and Isaiah tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Whose Agenda?

One great challenge in life is overcoming the obstacle of hypocrisy. Sitting in a room with an overweight doctor, wheezing and sweating as he stuffs donuts in his mouth and puffs away at one cigarette after another; well it is just hard to hear his sound advice about diet and exercise and healthy living. Please note the conflict "hard to hear" and "sound advice." Our endless worry about hypocrisy can be a barrier to truth. No matter how disconnected the doctor's own life style is from his teaching, what matters is it is true.

I am a priest, the most dangerous career choice in God's house. There are numerous places where the preacher/teacher/leader of the church is told that (s)he will be held to a higher standard. In other words, God expects more from us because of the role we play. The upside is we can do what we love and enjoy serving Him and His. The downside, better be faithful and do it well, or there is hell to pay. Literally...

The Greek word, hypocrites, is where we get our word in English. It literally refers to a stage actor but by extension also can be applied to those who are fakes. In the end, there is a thin line between active faking and failing to live up to one's standards. This is why the word hypocrite is so difficult. Whenever I preach or teach I always know that I fail to do the things I am calling others to do. Always. And that awareness of self can be a temptation to soften the message. It can be a temptation to ignore the word of God and bring it down to the word of Jeff. That is probably understandable and may even (arguably) be motivated by humility or integrity. Whatever the motivation, however, the sad truth is, it is wrong. You see, the agenda of the preacher must always be God's message. And to replace God with me is always a sin. A failure. A missing the mark.

With that long introduction in place, I want to reflect on our reading today from Ephesians 5:1-14. It begins with the exhortation, "Be imitators of God, as beloved children." Yikes! How can anyone as flawed as me invite others to imitate God? As the words flow from my mouth I can only think that I look as nonsensical as the unhealthy doctor I began today's post with. Do I imitate God? Heck, sometimes am I even trying? The sad truth, no. I try and fail, when I try at all. Yet, Paul is clear. This is our vocation, our calling. This is how we model our lives. Yet it is not obvious exactly what that looks like. Certainly Paul does not mean go around creating universes and ruling creation. He does  not mean acting like we are the Supreme Being. What He means is, be holy like God. Be virtuous like God. He provides a list of things to avoid: fornication, impurity, covetousness, idolatry, and silly talk. Rather, he says, "let there be thanksgiving." (Greek word is eucharist)

Fornication, in recent days, had made a huge come back. It is no longer viewed as a vice. And my own life is not pure and holy and innocent, so I am considered a poor candidate to address the issue. I have done some  things I should not have. I have thought some thoughts that were inappropriate. So anything I have to say can be ruled the useless banter of a hypocrite. O well, here goes anyhow. The Bible is clear on sex. It is intended in the context of a marriage. As a speaker once said, it is nice if there is love in the marriage, but love is not the context of sex, marriage is. That is God's intention according to the Bible and two thousand years of Christian tradition (and a long time prior, probably one thousand more years for Judaism)

In our culture, believing in traditional marriage is considered evil, or cruel, or bad. Speaking against fornication is considered judgmental and unfair. Saying marriage is what our Bible and prayer books say marriage is called hateful. We hear that "all love is equal" without reference to what that means. And be clear, that statement (in fairness like most pithy little statements) is not only false, it is actually silly and in the wrong hands, dangerous. But dang if it doesn't sound good and feel enlightened and open minded. Until someone who loves multiple women says it, or someone who loves young boys, or someone who loves... Well you fill in the blank. Reality is, all love is not equal. And even if it is, it doesn't matter as regards sexual expression.

Our own thinking on this issue is clouded. As a young man I was very open to the propaganda machine which told me that the church had an outdated, unrealistic approach to such things. Any argument which justified me doing what I wanted was most welcome. It fit my agenda. And it fits the agenda of most of us. Is sex outside marriage (ie, one man- one woman) the worst evil on the planet. Nope. But making the worst evil on the planet the dividing line is probably a bad place to start. It is, however, according to Ephesians, a cause of God's wrath. [God turns us over to the consequences of our sins.] And the fact that most of us are deaf and  blind to the word on this issue does not keep us from that wrath. God's agenda is no fornication. God's agenda is not our culture's agenda. And that is too bad for us.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Divine Authorship

Reading and praying over Numbers 21 I stumbled across a reference to another 'book', the scroll of the Wars. The reference seems to be to a poetic summary of Israel's victories. More "conservative" commentators argue that this book was also written by Moses and is a collection of poetic instruction for Joshua as he carries on  the fight into the promised land. While there is probably no reason to dismiss this idea without giving it a thought; there is less reason to embrace it (from the text). Like the Book of Jasher (Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18) or the oft mentioned chronicles of the Kings of Judah and Israel (in canonical 1&2 Kings), the plain sense of this reference seems to be to another resource. Why would such a thing trouble us?

When Luke says that he wrote an "orderly account" based on the "eyewitnesses and servants of the word" which he had "investigated carefully for a long time" (Luke 1:1-4) we feel safe to assume that he means, the Gospel of Mark, which he appears to have used as his primary source and either a common source with Matthew, or Matthew's Gospel itself, which served to provide the parallel teachings and assorted other shared features which they (Mt&Lk) share independent of Mark. Just reading the three Gospels side-by-side (which we are doing in our Bible study at St. Andrews) provides a constant reminder of this.

In the early church, there was a point in time when it became widely understood that Jesus was divine. The process of reflection and deepening understanding was not smooth and effortless. Wrapping their head around the concept of "God-become-Man" was difficult and challenging. It also appears that for some, once the idea of incarnation became accepted, the trajectory continued until the only thing people believed was "Jesus is God." His humanity was rejected as an appearance (the meaning of the term Doscetism, which identified this heresy). In a nutshell, they claimed that Jesus appeared to be human, but was not. He was only God. For many centuries the church argued and debated how best to affirm that Jesus is both, human and divine. To this day the struggle continues.

In like manner, for contemporary Christians, the struggle with the Bible follows a similar path. The divinely inspired Scriptures are authoritative. The Spirit leads the composition. Those who believe this sometimes err on the side of reducing the human authorship to mere transcription. "Yes," they affirm human authors wrote the Bible, but they mean "wrote" literally and limited to the physical act of scratching words on parchment as the Spirit guided their hands (like automatic writing) or whispered in their ears the words He had perfectly chosen. Such an approach to the Sacred Writ is in reaction to the Secular view of the Bible, which reduces it to men's religious sentiments and inspiration to the watered down concept of "emotionally moved" to write because of their religious inclinations. Like all good fights, the two sides grow further apart over time and positions solidify. And any listening to one another is condemned as "compromising the truth." The (false) alternatives are "The Bible is Divine" (with divine then defined by a serious of terms, some of which focus on errorless) or "the Bible is 'just' a book by people" (whereby the reader is free to toss out whatever does not meet his/her own standards).

But when I see a reference to another book (Book of War) it lends creedance to the idea that the person(s) writing about Moses. As I said in an earlier post, when the word of the Lord came to the prophets they said "came to me." They spoke in first person. And when an editor (Jeremiah mentions his scribes often) gathered up the prophetic words and added narrative about the prophet, it would switch from first person to third person. That is how we do things on planet earth (although Bob Dole did tend to speak of himself in third person...). Numbers does not read like an autobiography from Moses, but as about Moses. The odd geographic reference to the Wadi Arnon (a boundary of Moab and the Amorites) coupled with the odder citation of a source do not read like a first hand account at all. It sounds like a composer of history drawing attention (for whatever reason) to another source. When I read the Torah (and what follows ) I see conssitency in style. The Book of Joshua (which no one claims Joshua wrote) sounds like what goes before. It sounds like someone wrote the first five and continued with the next six (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings). It sounds like that. And I see no reason to deny that.

God communicates in and through the text. We do well to read it as a human-divine literary work. And we know how human literature is composed (we are human) so that gives us valuable tools from reading and understanding. Does this endanger the authority of the text? Does a process of human authorship mean we cannot read and trust what we read? No, no more than the fetal development of Jesus and His (slow) growth in knowledge and understanding (see Luke again) as a baby to toddler to young child to adolescent to young man to adult make Jesus less an authority. God seems to take His creation more seriously than we do. And the competing options of secular vs. fundamentalist is too limited (and too lacking in reality) for me.

I cannot, will not, read the Bible with an inner "defender of the faith" at work making me twist passages to protect them from some assault. I cannot and will not decide how God "must" do things to ensure He is divine. God made the world and He seems to love this world. A real world, not the ideal world of my wishes and expectations. The sooner we face that, the quicker we will grow in knowledge and understanding of the truth ourselves. And in the end, truth is God's nature.

This sense of sources is intensified by a reference in verse 27. There we read that the conquest of Amorite cities by Israelites has become a mashal (the Hebrew words for parable, puzzle or proverb). What we read is it is now "proverbially" said... Much like Sodom and Gomorah are proverbial cities (for sin and destruction) so the Amorites (and Moab) are proverbial for being destroyed.

I have already said that I believe God inspires the Bible and also that I thought Moses was the human authority behind the text. I do not see why it is needed for us to assume Moses sat down and wrote all five volumes of the Torah. And I think it is clear that in places the Law refers to living conditions (city life) which were not part of the exodus experience. While note taking and oral traditions (memorization is a lost art but widely practiced in non-literary cultures) were no doubt part of the process, it seems most likely that Moses did not sit in the desert for months and months, slowly scratching out the five books which we now possess. And that is why there are such stylistic differences (some of it in theology which can be discerned in English, much of it in vocabulary and phrasing which is locked away in the original Hebrew). It is most likely that the historic core was remembered but later worked, reworked and added to by various schools of scribes.

Friday, January 18, 2013


"Did you wash your hands?"
How often do we hear that question? We have hand wipes, hand sanitizers, fist bumps (to replace dangerous physical contact). The news media regularly has medical snippets on germs. The primary concern is germ avoidance and germs, we are told, are everywhere!!!! (and kitchens are worse than bathrooms). Not long ago the local news lady did a special report where they did all manner of swipes and cultures in the news room and video taped how often the three reporters touched there faces. The message was clear. Touching, even yourself, is a bad idea. One might think that our hands are the most toxic site around!

Our borderline germ-phobia is probably a good model for understanding the ancient covenant. Unfortunately, the word most often used (clean/unclean) is too familiar to us to be useful. We use the term clean constantly. And it is a hygiene word for us. I want to say it is our reaction to the word which is useful. The ancient Israelites were very aware of pure/impure as something larger than a soap and water issue. They reacted to ritual impurity the way we do someone sneezing in our face.

There are two kinds of things in the ancient Biblical world: holy and unholy. This extends to Jesus' day and beyond. Holy things are associated with God. They are "other." The primary referent of Holy is God. In fact, He is "Holy, Holy, Holy!" As we recently have written, such holiness is dangerous to humans. It is life-giving and death-dealing. One way it is described is "light" and another is "fire." Both images are helpful. We know in limited and controlled environments light and fire are good and helpful. But when too bright and too hot (and it is a quick trip from enough to too much with either of them) it becomes uncomfortable and deadly. If holiness of God is like light and fire, we understand why we have to be very, very, very careful dealing with the divine. Like the sun, get too close and you are toast.

A derived meaning of the word holy refers to people, places, and things which are associated with God or dedicated to God. Moses is told to take off his sandals because he is on holy ground. The priest is holy because he is consecrated to God's service and the altar and articles of worship are also holy. According to The Book God says this, not humans. The Israelites believed that God was the driver of this understanding. To be holy is to be consecrated to God. Therefore, a third level of meaning flows out of the word. Because people are holy, they need to be holy. Consecrated to God, His people are expected to act in accordance with His will. Certainly, this meant, most importantly, to be people of love, justice and righteousness. Holy people are moral. It also meant that the worship was dedicated to (YHWH) God alone, no idols, no other gods. And the worship process was highly formal and God laid down the parameters. Ritual purity matters to God very much in the Torah. Very much. We God-believers and Bible-readers have to deal with that fact.

When the holy God chose to "live among" the people, it was potentially dangerous. Like (weak analogy alert) a nuclear reactor, the power of God in their midst was also a mortal threat. Regularly God decides He is going to snuff them out. Meltdowns (nuclear or divine) are devastating. What is being conveyed here (in the actual Biblical text) must be read with care. A concrete, simple reading portrays a God who gets mad and kills people. My guess is the simplistic portrayal of God is more a factor of the people writing then the God being written about. God is too complex for our language to capture or our words to convey. So He speaks to us on our level (and their context was the context of these words). If we see the text as providing a helpful story to explain something more mysterious and larger (God is big!) then we probably will not get bogged down with the troubling questions (is God just a giant man?) which plague so many wonderers and doubters in our age.

The revelation is this. God is holy. How can such holiness mix with people? And it also makes clear, this is bigger than morality. One's liturgical standing also matters. There are lists of animals which are clean/unclean and lists of situations (woman's period, dead bodies, mold, to name a few) which render one unclean. The Bible does not explain why this is the case. And it is baffling to us. As I say in class, "we are fine with an adulterer going to communion, but not someone with a runny nose. We excuse sin, but not germs." And we have no qualms about a woman on her period coming to communion. So why did they have a problem?

First of all, they understood impurity to be communicable. If You are unclean and you touch Me, then we are both unclean. And unclean/impure was associated with death and decay (shed blood). If God is life, then such things are not acceptable in God's presence. Because we operate with a different set of assumptions (and we are not superior, look at the news and evaluate our society if the "new and improved" idea is perculating in your mind) we think they are silly. I do not know that our assumptions are better. Maybe our hyper-individualism blinds us to corporate realities. Maybe unclean people do pollute the land. Maybe everyone is not an island. Maybe we are a body. Much of what "we think" today is not true.  In fact, I am alive long enough to know that some things which "all the smart people know" are now relegated to "only idiots think." [My new diet is difficult in part because it runs counter to what I learned in the 80's which had undone the health suggestions of my 60's childhood, for one very easy example: margarine anyone???] Assumptions, unfortunately, are assumed (never explained) so we can know but not understand why the Bible says what it does. But here is the take away.

The goal is to keep the land pure so the holy God can remain among us. And the sacrifices were done to keep the land clean. However much we differ from the ancient content of this, we can and should embrace the idea. God is mobile. He comes and goes (in the Bible), whatever that means (mystery)... We need to make sure we are not driving Him out. Clean and unclean are the religious version of germ/ungermed (infected). It is not just morals. It is about the whole life: What is godly? what is ungodly? It is best to read the text with that in mind. Applying it to today, well that is an even tougher translation task.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Insight into Priestly Religion

There are numerous theories about the authorship of the Torah. One is that Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. If he did, it was strangely written, as he uses the third person to write about himself, including his own death. In addition, his Hebrew portrays different styles in different places. Perhaps, the issue is the word, "author"? If we understand that Moses is the "authority" behind the text (even modern authors do not always write every word in their books) and that the text  has a long life history (over centuries) then it is possible to understand the 'conflicts' in the text. (Like two versions of the Ten Commandments with different ordering and emphasis) Using Moses for a shorthand way of saying it Mosaic is no doubt true. I also believe that the "writers" and "compilers" and "editors/redactors" are all divinely inspired. And just as we see relationships between the first three Gospels (and sometimes the Fourth) internally within the Torah texts there are melding of various more ancient traditions. [This is most easily seen reading Genesis 1 and 2.] Not unlike our own constitution (which continues to add ammendments, some to replace others), the document which we read has been made to address different situations over the long lifetime of Israel, from desert wanderers, invaders tribes, confederation, then nation, then nations, then exiles, then oppressed sojourners in their own land under foreign domination. Tent people, town people, city people. Different contexts abound and different needs for communication from One God abounds as well.

Whatever your theory of construction, it is clear that within the Ancient Covenant (Old Testament) text there are streams of concern. There are priestly concerns. There are legal concerns. There are governance concerns. There are prophetic concerns. All are variations on convenant concerns.

There are also narratives, stories which seem to be stories. Some explain. Some illustrate. Some baffle! All provide a different angle on the questions: Who is God and who are we called to be in relationship to Him?

Numbers has much about rituals. For a variety of reasons many of us are not interested in such things. Our religious culture tends to be anti-ritual. We have a basic distaste for priests and ceremonies. In the American south this is especially true. [Which may explain the allure of college football, the heart hungers for rituals.] Things like order, purity, holiness are not understood in the ancient way. Even those of us who like our religion priestly (count me in) are deeply formed (malformed?) by the Puritan ancestors. In the Revised Common Lectionary (used by most mainline denominations) there are only three readings from Numbers which ever appear. It may be the Word of God in theory, but in practice it is a mostly silent communication.

If we can suspend our distaste, we may find insights for our own world from this revelatory word from God. Numbers, after all, is inspired. As Thomas Dozeman says (in the New Interpreters Bible, vol 2) "Interpretation of Numbers requires an understanding of priestly religion." In a nutshell, the God of Numbers is not an intimate friend (like "buddy Jesus"). He is not a pal or playmate. He is an all holy, even terrifying God (see recent post, "How Dangerous is God"). There is an immense gulf between such a God and us. We are not His equals nor do we serve as His counselors. We are not His intimate friends with whom He enjoys a cup of coffee and a chat. He is, rather, creator of all that is, seen and unseen. He is the source and goal of creation. And He has chosen to bridge the gap and come among us.

Because the God Who is self-revealed in this text is Holy, Just, and Righteous, He is deeply offended by our sins. Approaching such a God is done with deep respect, even awe, fear and trembling. He may be good, but good is not nice and true good does not easily entertain the good mixed with evil mess called human being. Humanity lives in exile (since the Garden fiasco) and continues through the time of Moses to be under the dark cloud of sin and death. The rituals of Numbers are meant (by God's revelation) to provide a proper approach to the Divine. It is also intended to create rituals which insure the on-going presence of the Holy God in  the midst of an unclean people.

Ever had an experience of meeting someone who is incredibly attractive in dim light from afar, but as the lights get brighter and you get closer, well, hmmm, not so much. In God's perfect sight, the things we overlook (no one is perfect) are more apparent and more glaring. Numbers is written by a someone(s) whose revelation from God wants to make that clear. And Numbers will provide insight into how Jesus is the One Mediator (see Hebrews) whose priesthood perfectly deals with that situation. Tomorrow I hope to write about clean/unclean and make sense of some issues of our own day.

Sunday, January 13, 2013


I was at a basketball game Saturday afternoon to watch my daughter and her friends. One of the moms told me that she looked forward to reading about the game and theology on my next blog. So not wanting to disappoint such a lovely lady, I begin with a brief reflection on what I saw and want to connect it to what I have been reading and studying latel.

The team is quite athletic, as many play on the high school soccer team, and as such they are pretty effective in the recreational league. In Saturday's game they were ahead by a large margin so they began the process of making sure every one got a chance to score. And time after time they tossed the ball to the remaining young  ladies with a "0" next to their name in the score book. Once the girl finally scored the team erupted in high fives, hugs and cheers. Nice kids.

Sort of like God in the Ancient Covenant  (OT) text. It is a story of constantly, after failure after failure, finding a way to make His people what they need to be. The Bible words is "longsuffering." That word summarizes God's heart.

The Book of Numbers, in the Torah, does not have a good reputation. It is generally dismissed as an enldess series of lists and no one speaks fondly of it in my experience. While I have been reading it the last month in my daily prayer time, I have come to appreciate it more. In fact, I used chapters 13&14 for our retreat on leadership and the church. As I studied the commentaries, though, I exploded with enthusiasm. You see, there is so much more there than I ever knew. The information I garnered drives me to write and share.

First of all, the Hebrew name of the book (from the Massoretic text) is "In the Wilderness." While I really am a numbers guy (most baseball fans have to be) I admit the Hebrew title is more inviting. In the wilderness comes from the opening verse of the book, it is the geographical (and spiritual?) setting for everything. The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness/desert of Sinai. God speaks in the Tent of Meeting, which is with the people in the desert/wilderness. This is key. God is WITH and AMONG them.

What is a wilderness? It is a desert place and hostile to human habitation. It is a land where there is not abundant life. As such it represents destitution and separation from God. "Like a dry, weary land without water" says the Psalmist. Ironically, the desert sojourn is also a positive symbol, sometimes used to remind Israel of "the good old days" when the people relied solely on God for their sustenance. (In our simplistic 'either/or' world we forget how complex and diverse reality is. Nothing in life it totally this or that. It is always a mix and what we emphasize is our choice.) However, the time of provision is also a time of testing; Israel is put to the test and tempted to complain and lose faith. They falter often. They also tempt/test God with their infidelity. (In fact, most of the first part of Numbers is about just that) The desert is far from civilization and as such serves as a counter to "the city." [In later ages, Christians will flee to the desert from the dangers of sin-cities. A movement which does not appeal to consumerist Western Christians.] Spiritual (symbolic) reading of this Biblical text will provide a richer insight into its deeper meaning.

The book of Numbers asks the question (and answers it to some degree), "How can a HOLY God live amongst an unclean people? How do justice, truth and perfection interact with injustice, untruth and imperfection? Does mercy and grace imply human behavior does not matter? Does love make one blind to the faults of others?" Numbers addresses the same questions which plague the church the last five hundred years (Reformation Period in the West). I believe that reading it will be a helpful source for our own reflection. Therefore I will return to this wonderful book in the coming week.

[I am greatful for the work of Thomas Dozeman, a Presbyterian seminary Professor in Dayton, who authored The New Interpreter's Bible, Volume II, commentary on Numbers. In addition, I read Dennis T. Olson, a Princeton Professor, from teh Interpretation series of commentaries. Probably both are available at local libraries for further study.]

Friday, January 11, 2013


This is the liturgical season of Epiphany. Last week was the Epiphany and the Wisemen. This week is the baptism of the Lord. In the ancient church these events were significant markers in the worship calendar and connected to the life of every day Christians. I will have the great pleasure of baptizing a new baby this Sunday. Such events are always a joy for the family and for the wider parish church. New life!

In Mark's Gospel (chapter 1) the narrative runs pretty cleanly. John the Baptist is introduced first, preaching repentance. Then, suddenly, Jesus is baptized. He sees the heavens split (the Greek word is schizo, which means cleave, echoes the language of Isaiah 64:1: O that you would rend the heavens!). He watches a dove/Spirit ascend from heaven (echoes of creation, a wind/spirit hovers over the waters of chaos -and- Noah's ark, the second creation, where a dove hovers over the chaos waters of the flood as the world prepares for round two of the creation). He hears a voice from heaven ("You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased." language that echoes wht God said about Isaac to Abraham). Like I said recently, got to know that Ancient Covenant (OT) text to see what is going on in the New Covenant story! The baptism of Jesus is about new creation, fulfilling the longing for God's Kingdom and the (eventual) sacrifice of the Son of God for the children of Abraham/Isaac.

Jesus then gets driven into the desert by the Spirit. Now they did not have cars, so driven (Greek is ekballo, the same word used of Jesus' exorcisms!) probably connotes being tossed there. This is not gentle leading but a powerful hand of God hurling His Son into the dangerous land of desert sand and sun. In epic stories the hero must face a trial (the Greek word, peirazo, means both test and tempt). In the epic story of Israel's exodus there is a desert experience as well. And they do not do so well. Remember, also, that the river Jordan, where Jesus is baptized, is the same river which dries up (at Adam, a city) so the people can cross on dry land into the promised land. Layers and layers of meaning and fully-filled-ment here! Jesus and Joshua are the same name in Greek and Hebrew. The early church always saw that connection and you should, too!

After successfully facing down the Satan (literally Adversary) in the desert, Jesus returns to proclaim that the time is filled up and the Kingdom is near. His two fold invitation is Repent (Greek: change your mind, Hebrew: change your direction in life) and Believe the Good News. Immediately He gathers disciples and immediately they follow (though the Fourth Gospel fleshes the call of Andrew and Peter out a bit, which helps make it more understandable). Then He goes to a synagogue where His preaching leads to wonder and amazement. After all, Jesus preaches well, with authority, He heals sick people and He tosses out a demon. There is little wonder why His fame spread.

Looking at Luke there is an interesting addition. [We read Luke this year, so we will spend more time with him on this blog.] Later in Mark 6 we will read about the resistance to Jesus, but Luke raises the spectre immediately but transporitng that parallel to the beginning of the story. Luke paints a more detailed picture of Jesus' preaching, including a visit to His home synagogue where He unrolls the scroll to Isaiah. Reading the Messianic verse, He declares that the fulfillment has occured in their hearing.

The initial response is positive, but then there are questions. Who does this guy think he is, literally, "Is this not Joseph's son?" In Mk 6, however, it says, "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Which may  be an allusion to the sketchy birth of Jesus. Mk, writing earlier, has no account of the birth, but the unusual reference to Mary as mother, and no mention of father, may be a hint that Jesus was viewed as a bastard?) Matthew 13 changes "the carpenter" to "the son of the carpenter" not clear why, but maybe he was offended by the implication... At any rate, folks feel like they know who Jesus is. As Luke uses the name Joseph, he may be reinforcing for us that people do not know. Earlier, in the chapter just prior to this, Luke listed the ancestors of Jesus, which began "it was supposed he was the son of Joseph."  So the reader knows, when Luke writes "isn't this the son of Joseph?" the answer is, "No, but He is the son of God (Lk 3:38)" If you do not read the whole story you miss that!

The people reject Jesus and decide to kill Him, but He 'passes through' the crowd. The term, passes through, is a favorite of Luke. He uses it to describe Jesus' great journey to Jerusalem (and His cross). Every where else, Jesus is 'passing through.'  Jesus cannot die on the hill by the synagogue, Luke implies, because His date with death is destined to be the Great City. Perhaps this is why Luke mentions "a hill"? (There does not seem to be an actual hill in the area near the synagogue, but Jerusalem in built on hills!)

Today, as then, Jesus is a controversial guy. Today, as then, the revelation of God found in the Jewish Bible offends. The claim that God chose a people as His own to save the world is offensive (John 4:22, Jesus said, "...salvation is from the Jews."). The idea that from that people (Abraham, David) God placed His Son as the actual means of that salvation is offensive. Multiple roads to god (as defined by us) is the preference. However, this is not new. From the beginning, the declaration of God (This is my Son) has led to two responses: accept (the apostles) and reject (the offended synagogue folk). The teaching, preaching, healing and exorcism are seen as God' voice and hand at work; or not. It depends on what we are willing to accept and believe.

For those who do accept and believe, faith is a journey. It is following the one who calls. He travels in strange and sometimes dangerous places. He expects the ones with Him to illustrate the values of the Kingdom by their acts of love, kindness, and justice. He expects their values to be shaped by the Kingdom. And He expects them to have a "passing through" agenda, a way of being on the road to their own crucifixion. There are trials, exciting adventures, and epic battles with the adversary. And it all hinges on a decision. To accept the call or reject. To embrace Jesus or "tolerance." To submit to God or be god myself.....So choose!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

How Dangerous is God?

 I want to write about my recent reading in Numbers, but want to provide some New Covenant texts as a pre-emptive counter to claims that "the Old Testament God" is a God of law and vengeance and the "New Testament God" is a God of love. (By the way, that is heresy. And the covenant(s) with God are with one and the same God.)

In Morning Prayer today we will read the letter to Sardis from Revelation 3. It includes these words of Jesus, " have a name for being alive, but you are dead.Wake up and strengthen what remains...for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God...obey it and repent. If you do not wake up I will come like a thief in the night." I found my meditation on these harsh words a bit unsettling.

It calls to mind verses from Hebrews 10:31 "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." The Greek word phoberos= "fearful" occurs only three times in the entire NT, all three in Hebrews. (see also 10:27 about fearful judgment and 12:21 Moses terrror at seeing God)

I read some Wisdom literature over the weekend and recall that verse, "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." That concept occurs more than once I believe. So what would motivate such fear of God, if God is love? Well, the answer may well be found in pursuing yesterday's theme on holiness. God is holy. And being holy is sublime and unimaginable. In the Ancient Covenant texts there is a reminder that if we were to see God it would kill us. Humans can not bear to look upon God's perfection. (No more than a human can stare into the sun with unprotected eyes.) Humans, at least the ones I know, seem to be pretty oblivious to this. And most people I know (including myself at some level) react negatively to stories like the one in Numbers 16-17 which I prayed over yesterday in my Torah time.

A group of Israelites (Levites) were irritated with Moses and Aaron because they did not like the authority structure. They basically said, "we are as good as you, we should be priests." (Forgetting that priesthood was God's call and designation) Long story short, when the rebels came forward to use the incense (as priests) a fire went out from God and consumed them (16:35). This is similar to what will happen with the pagan priest and Elijah hundreds of years later.

Our American culture chaffs at such an idea. And many people would say God is wrong in His response. Lest we think this is unique to us, in Numbers 17:6 that is exactly what the people say, but they are careful to do it by shifting the focus onto His messengers. [And all the congregation of the children of Israel complained the next day against Moses and agaisnt Aaron, saying, "You killed YHWH's people."] First a side note, one of my pet peaves is the way people blame human messengers for God's message. When our readings for service include hard words of judgment or challenging words of exhortation, the frequent response to the preaching message is "wow, YOU were hard on us today" or "YOU are in a bad mood." It is convenient to avoid the Divine source. It is also a long standing practice (stretching all the way to the wilderness exodus!)

YHWH's response to the insolence (and untruth) is a threat to wipe out all the people. He tells Moses and Aaron to get out of the way. Instead , the two men begin to intercede. They fall on their faces. Then Aaron ran and made an incense offering of atonement to stem the plague which had broken out among the people. We read that 14,700 died. The priest's efforts are not in vain, the plague abates and the people are saved.

SO what to do with such an image of God?
Forget it, toss it aside, make happy thoughts by singing songs of joy and love?
Quake in fear and hopelessness, frozen and paralyzed with terror?
Retreat to bromides about 'saved by faith' or 'saved by baptism' and project judgment onto "others"?
Spend every waking moment self scrutinizing and making constant effort to be perfect?

The two extremes beckon. Mindless hope or a mind full of hopelessness are neither one an option. Instead, echoing my recent writings, read the whole bible. All of it. Nice and not so nice. Upbeat and downbeat. Love and grace. Demand and Judgment. Understand that God is love. Understand, as well, that God is holy. Being loved by and in love with a HOLY God is a different kind of love.

It is hard to know exactly what to make of the image of a fire breathing God consuming people while a priest armed with prayers for mercy and an incense pot stands in the brink. What we do know is the author of Numbers communicates to us some experience of God, some aspect of God. Aaron is a type of Jesus and the work of Jesus is seen here (in micro). We also see a God who relents, whose sense of righteousness and demand for obedience is balanced by mercy. He spares those not worthy of being spared (arrogant people who judge Him!!!) and that is good news for you and I. We have much in common with ancient Israelites. And God is the same God in every age.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Light and Dark: Winter Hope

Being holy is a major theme of the Ancient (Old) Covenant (Testament)  and is found in all manner of texts in Torah and Prophets. It is tempting (for some) to see such concerns as no longer relevant. However, the New Covenant (Testament) texts do have an interest in holiness. The word "holy" occurs a great deal in the Bible. [One survey found 637 times in 567 verses of the New King James version of the Bible.] The first mention in that Bible is in Exodus when God tells Moses he is standing on "holy ground." Holy modifies anything which is consecrated to God or special to God. It is arguably one of the primary concerns of the entire covenant for Israel. However, the call to be holy or the declaration that the people are "a holy people" is the most important use of the term. Except for the other major theme: God is the Holy One. This is especially prevalent in Isaiah, but it is one clear message about God throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.

The word holy appears most often in the New Testament (Covenant) as a modifier of Spirit, especially in Luke&Acts. Yet there are some references to the Ancient Covenant understanding, for example in I Peter 1:15-16 we read (twice) that because God is holy we are to be holy (he quotes the text from his Bible for emphasis). Picking up on biblical themes in 2:5 he calls the church holy priests and in 2:9 a holy nation; both are Scriptural references to Israel which he now applies to the church. To be holy is to belong to God and it is also to reflect God's nature. That process of that reflection is a theme of this time of the liturgical year. Epiphany is a season of light. It is situated in a time of darkness (winter), thereby expressing a theme of hope. Light in the darkness is a big deal. [It is an even bigger deal in places without light bulbs and artificial lighting.] Most of us know the feelings of 'oppression' stemming from the endless gloom of winter. It has been tied, in many studies, to depression. The symbolism is natural.

Where does the light come from in a season of darkness? In the natural order the sun and stars are light sources. In Genesis the sun is called the greater light. There is a second, a lesser light, which rules the night. We call it the moon. In fact, the moon is a light source, but its light is not self generated. The moon is a source of light to us because it reflects the Sun. The SON is also the light source. His light is the light which illumines the darkness around us (sin, suffering, hopelessness, death, all that ails us). Our faith is that in Jesus we are redeemed, He is  the Messiah Savior of the people of God. All the stories and promises in the scriptures of the Ancient Covenant find their meaning in Him. We, you and I, are the moon. When we let our light shine it is an act of reflecting His light. How do we reflect light? By our deeds of kindness and our words of proclamation. When we act like servants of the Kingdom of God (doing mercy and justice) and when we announce that God (in spite of all indications to the contrary) does exist, does care and will definitively act on our behalf (popularly called "save us") we bring light into darkness.

When someone moans, "I hate the gloom of this time of year" we can remind them, "Spring will come, and then summer and long days of glorious brightness." This is an act of faith. It is based on assumptions that the world will continue as we have seen it in the past. It is reasonable to believe and trust that January darkness will give way to May's bright promise. It is also reasonable to believe that the Creator God, revealed in the Ancient Covenant and New Covenant in Christ will also fulfill the promises He  has made. So we act today like the promise of tomorrow is a sure thing. And our actions reflect the values of that coming Kingdom.

This should shape or buying and selling, how we spend our time, our talents and our treasure. It impacts who we spend time with and why, what we read, look at and ponder. It impacts our future plans and our personal agendas. Kingdom people, shaped by the Ancient Covenant and its fulfillment in Jesus, are people who love, honor and serve others because they love, honor, and serve the Lord. And the sooner we get around to doing it the better off the world will be!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany: Why Reading the Bible Matters

 Today is Sunday, January 6. So today we celebrate the ancient feast of Epiphany on a Sunday.  The Feast dates to the early church. Two of the big feasts, Easter and Pentecost, date to the time of Jesus. Easter, of course, (because He rose from the dead and that is the sort of thing that makes an impression) and Pentecost (which is a Jewish Feast day, but on that day there was an amazing Holy Spirit event with the apostles) were remembered because they were events experienced by the early church. The Jewish faith had a liturgical calendar and the first Christians were all keenly aware of the importance and power of "remembrance." [note, not in the sense of bringing to mind but of particating in a past event which lives on today.] Epiphany was celebrated early on, probably in the second century, as the manifestation of the new born Jesus to the world.

The Gospl reading is about the Three King who come to baby Jesus' manger in the stable and bring him gifts. Well, sort of, because we "know (assume)" so much more about this than we really know. Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar are their names. The little statues under our Christmas tree: one is black, one white, and the other brown. They road camels. And, of course, none of that is actually in the Gospel of Matthew, the place where the story originates.

The Gospel calls them magi (where our word magician comes from) and it implies people who are "wise" and adept at discerning things. Astrology is no doubt included in their bag of tricks. The origin of the men is much debated, but "from the East" implies Babylon or Iran to many. The racial makeup no doubt is generated by the desire to show "all the world" comes to worship the baby Jesus.

Matthew gives no desription of the birth. He says that Joseph had an angel explain that God was involved and then he says "after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea." Chapter 2 recounts the events of the magi as they first encounter Herod and then find Jesus. Notice, however, in 2:11 that they enter "the house" to greet the baby. Without reference to Luke, one would assume that they lived in Bethlehem and the house is their own. The wisemen lay out three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrh. Three gifts. There is no similar count of the wisemen (or mention of camels). Probably over time it was assumed each one brought his own gift (3 gifts=3 men). This is, of course, not a proof. When my wife and I go to someone's home we bring one gift, There may be two of us, or up to five, but the family unit brings one gift. There is no reason to think that a group of men would not have brought the three gifts in unison. So there could have been two, or ten, or more. Instead of the gifts signaling the number of magi it is better that we see them as symbols. This is where reading the bible more widely is helpful.

When we gather in my church we have a lectionary, a group of three readings plus a psalm. Today's readings are most helpful. The first, Isaiah 60:1-7, has played a part in shaping the original story in Mathew into one we are more familiar with. Isaiah is prophesing about the return from exile (in around 500 BC) and the promise of God that the (v5) wealth of the nations will be an aid in rebuilding the fallen city. There (v6) we find mention of camels. We also find the (v9) mention of gold and frankincense. [myrh a resin was used by Egyptians for mummies] Psalm 72, whih is a song of praise and petition for the King of Israel includes mention of kings coming (in verses 10&11) with gifts. With that the magi are kings! However, both Isaiah and Psalm are part of the interpretation of the meaning of the event. As I wrote some time ago on "fulfillment" of Scripture, what is spoken of in the Ancient (Old) Covenant (Testament) text is Fully-Filled-Up in Jesus. Matthew's story of the magi is rife with images from his Scriptures. Since the Exodus a recurring theme has been the nations (Egypt, later others) will give their wealth to the Jews as God raises His chosen people up. In the end, this is the means by which the One True God (the God revealed to Israel and by Israel) will also be glorifed. God's King (David and descendents, perfectly in Jesus) is God's representative (fully incarnated by Jesus). So bringing the gifts to Jesus is about fulfilling the Scriptures! The 'Nations' have come with their gifts. [bonus: Isaiah 1 speaks of the ox and ass knowing the master, but Israel does not recognize her God. Guess who else appear under our tree? ox and ass!]

Legends begin with history. Later on elements are added, with significance which can easily be lost. The process of legend the Biblical text (like with the Three Kings) is an import thing to keep in mind as we wrestle with history and written expression. Legend can sometimes communicate not a fact but a truth. In the end, facts are data, truth is life. We do well to read the Bible. We do well to see what is actually written there. We also do well to be familiar with the bigger story, to see the themes weaving in and out, to see the parent (OT) in the child (NT) and realize we cannot know the son without the father, we cannot know The Son without The Father.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Ancient Covenant text

We live in interesting times. While our differences can produce conflict, we also have more positive contact with other belief systems. This is good and bad. (That is life on planet earth!) As Jesus once said, the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest. And weeds and wheat can look alike sometimes...

We need to stand for the truth, but we also need to be open to truth. None of us totally grasps all truth, so we are all still on the journey. While my sympathies lie in a Catholic direction, I have also benefited from the Evangelical faith. I have affection for the Eastern Orthodox way. I focus on Scripture, but also have read mystics. Science and social sciences, especially history are important, too. Listen. Learn. Discuss. Learn.

Connecting with the Jewish roots of my faith is important to me. Rabbi Leman has helped me in that. He inspired me to read Torah yearly and I have done so three times now. I also read it with Jewish commentary and gain insights I never found in Christian works. Derek’s new book, Yeshua Our Atonement, opens to me a better vision of the Ancient Covenant text, the bible of Jesus and the early church. After finishing teh first draft of today's blog I was surprised to see that the Internet Monk is also doing a series on the First Testament. I am not alone in this!

Seeing the “old testament” as outdated (or worse, “bad”) has produced all manner of problems in the church. As I open myself to insights into the Word of God uttered in these pages (which is well over half the Bible) I am broadened and deepened.

One example, Numbers 15:39. God tells the Israelites that they shall have a fringe on their garment with a blue string (like the priest) to remind them that they are to live under God’s commandments. What comes next is enlightening and challenging “you will not go around after your own heart and after your eyes because you whore after them. So you will bring to mind and do all my commandments, and you will be holy to your God.” However complex the explanations about what this should look like (back to weeds and wheat); it provides some principles. One is “following my heart” (much advocated in our culture) is a negative in the biblical narrative. And the explanation is pretty clear, our eyes and hearts are polluted. The other command, be holy, is repeated in the Christ Covenant texts. The "new" in Jesus is an expansion of the "old," but the more recent and the more ancient are greatly in sync. We are to be holy. Holiness is a gift and grace, it is also a task! The next chapter recounts the revolt against Moses and Aaron by Korah, Dathan and Abiram. Korah says "we are holy, too. We should be able to do priestly functions." The meaning of holiness is clarified for them (and us) as fire from heaven consumes them and the earth opens up to swallow them all. Is this different from the New Testament? Hardly, but you have to actually read both to see it. Holiness is a NT word which is defined over and again in the First Covenant book. We need to know it all. I wish you well in  your journey of faith this day!   (see posts dated  Dec 30, Jan 1&2)

Thursday, January 3, 2013


Rabbi Derek Leman's new book, Yeshua, Our Atonement, arrived last week. I have been able to read several chapters, and like everything he does, it is awesome. Derek has a skill at popularizing scholarship in an insightful, yet readable, way. Go to for more information on this and his other books.

One thing he shares is his own journey of deepening understanding. It is true of us all. We have a chance to factor in new information and test out our assumptions. What I also know is, in spite of contrary evidence, we tend to hold onto our assumptions. It is probably the nature of things.

I am re-reading The Fourth Turning. I am in the section about personality types. I have long been interested in such things, being a big fan of Please Understand Me II (as well as the previous book by the same title without the "II"). I notice that my personality type is interested in personality type. It all fits...

At Youth Villages we had social styles training. The four basic groupings were Driver, Analytical, Amiable, and Expressive. Four basic groupings of human beings. The four come from the combination of two pairs. Do you tell people or ask people? Do you focus on people or are you focused on results? Like all simplifications it is simplified, but there is a core truth available as well. Face it, while we are all different, we also  have many commonalities.

There are any number of "pairs" which we can use to discuss people. Many an old joke begins with the words "there are two kind of people in the world..." And part of the humor is based on the truth of it. One of the places where those binary divisions occur is in religion. A fundamental one, for Judaeo-Christian believers has to do with the status of the Jews. The problem (dilemma, bone of contention) is the statement: The Jews are the Chosen People. In my seminary days this was called "the scandal of particularity." In other words, most of us get skittish when God is identified with a specific choice (as opposed to generalities). The concept of a "chosen" people is hard for Americans to accept. We like "everyone" language so we say, "the Jews are chosen, but so is everyone else." Americans tend to redefine terms to make things fit in an inclusive blanket. In reaction to that, there is an exclusivist party which embraces the opposite stand. Now most of the latter group would also think that "The Chosen People" i.e. Jews have been replaced. But the replacement group (Christians, as specifically defined by the person advocating the position) is every bit as chosen (many like the word "election" meaning pre-ordained, chosen before time, decided on long ago before things got started). It is rare that believers in a "chosen" group do not also include themselves as "the chosen."

One common assumption is the idea that the Jews (Chosen People) have a special place in God's economy of salvation (fancy way of saying, "the way God sets things right"). This special status is generally understood as privilege. Now some of that comes from the (American) cultural inclination to see things in terms of class warfare. Privelege is in the eye of the beholder (listen to how the upper and lower classes, or their political advocates, talk about each other). In fact, assumptions are a direct result of "the eye of the beholder." Our lenses through which we see the world is a function of assumptions.

It is with all this in mind that I stumbled across Numbers 15:13ff. Although I know better, I am still surprised by the instances in the Ancient Covenant Text of the Jews which do not neatly fit into a two tiered universe (us and them). A brief quotation, as regards sacrifice. "As you (Jew) will do so he (alien) shall do. You, congregation (God's people), and the resident alien have one law, an eternal law, through your generations: It will be the same for you and for the alien in front of YHWH. You and the aline who resides with you shall have one instruction and one judgment. [TORAH, translated and commentary by Richard Friedman] Friedman's comment, "Israelites are no priveleged over anyone else.]

The Jews are chosen, indeed, but chosen to mission. As Jesus told them (He spoke to Jews, remember?) "You are the light of the world." That missionary work, to be God's light is fundamental to identity. As such, being chosen is chosen for mission, not status. Jesus makes clear that the servant status of Chosen Ones is not privelege it is self gift.

Unfortunately, there are two kind of people in the world, the ones who think we are chosen for honor and privelege and the ones who think we are chosen to loving service. The question, which one are you (am I)?