Archive for October, 2014

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

REVELATION 7:9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

One of our best examples of “dispatches from the edge of empire” is the New Testament book of Revelation. It was written during a time of persecution, when Christians (and other anti-imperial Jews) were being hunted down by Roman authorities for their unwillingness to give proper devotion to Caesar. The presence of such dissidents in an already unstable region would only spur other rebels and freedom fighters to resist the supremacy of Rome. Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) was especially ruthless in his campaign to uproot resistance, particularly in Palestine, and it was during this time that the book was likely written.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a good number of nominal Christians – those attached to the movement out of curiosity, convenience, or personal benefit – did indeed relinquish their loyalty to the movement when their lives were on the line. For obvious reasons, this was a cause of deep concern for those with the larger and longer frame of history in mind. If Rome was successful in killing the kingdom movement of Jesus, his ideals of human liberation, compassionate outreach, and a New Reality of justice, equality, and love would die with it.

In an effort to encourage and strengthen the fugitive Christians, this author (traditionally John) wrote dispatches from the edge of empire, possibly from the island of Patmos where he had been exiled. This writing was heavily encoded with the imagery of myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic fantasy – codes that his Christian audience would have certainly understood, but which would have confounded any imperial interceptor. Many of these local and contemporary correlations are lost on the modern reader, removed as we are by thousands of miles and years of history. But a careful contextual reading of Revelation has helped us move past a simplistic literal (end-time prophetic) interpretation, to one more grounded in its actual setting and intended purpose.

It isn’t hard to imagine the charge of hope and courage a first-century victim of state persecution must have felt when s/he made the identification between the throng, white-robed and gathered in worship around the majesty of God (not Caesar!), and the underground community of Christians to which s/he belonged. I am not alone in this darkness. Many others, just like me, are holding fast to the faith. We will make it together! But even if death should come to me, the torch of our cause will not go out.

MATTHEW 22:34-46

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?

45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Pharisees and Sadducees were two Judaic parties that comprised the Jewish high court called the Sanhedrin. Pharisees came out of the middle class and were devoted advocates of Mosaic Law. Sadducees were upper-class leaders very similar to the evangelical Republicans of our day, seeking to keep the privileges of wealth, conservative morals, and state protections of religion (their own) at the forefront of the court’s concern. The two parties thus represented two different belief systems, and each looked for opportunities to undermine or throw negative light on the other.

Both parties were also suspicious of Jesus and his kingdom movement, and for characteristically different reasons. The Sadducees regarded Jesus and his band as a potentially dangerous uprising of lower-class sentiment. It often happened that rebels (many also from Galilee) would organize themselves against Roman control and instigate protests or more violent attempts at revolution. If Jesus was one of them, his activity in and around Jerusalem could attract unwelcome Roman attention and interfere with the Sadducean agenda of maintaining the status quo.

The Pharisees were disturbed by the fact that Jesus seemed unconcerned about following the letter of the Law. He frequently opposed them outright and publicly, accusing the Pharisees of being more concerned with maintaining moral righteousness and ritual purity than with liberating the human spirit. If Jesus was willing to overlook or dismiss just one of the Mosaic commandments, they would have grounds to falsify the entire body of his teaching and ruin his reputation in the process.

So they asked him a trick question: What’s the greatest commandment in the law? Choosing one would mean discarding all others, and refusing to answer would expose Jesus as an incompetent teacher. Which is it – Stay clean? Rest on the Sabbath? Keep your distance from sinners?

And what did Jesus say in reply? Love God with all that you are, and love others as if they were you.

1 THESSALONIANS 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain,but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Leaders are sometimes schizophrenic individuals whose orientation is split (hence the term) between the ideals they feel passionate about and the reputation they are trying to manage. If a leader is not able to play well into the affections, anxieties, or aspirations of others, there likely won’t be any followers to lead. And a leader without followers isn’t a leader at all.

For his part, the apostle Paul felt called to a mission of spreading the gospel across the Gentile world, which was an ideal and purpose that carried significant risk. The Jewish center of the Christian movement, located in Jerusalem, was not entirely sympathetic to his mission, since he tended to downplay traditional Jewish customs and convictions in the interest of adapting Christianity to the Graeco-Roman worldview and way of life. Not a few times, Paul had to defend his platform to the other apostles, claiming that his version of the gospel was every bit as valid as theirs on authority of his special appointment by the risen Jesus himself.

With success came notoriety, and in the wake of notoriety gathered the fans, sycophants, and stalkers that are typically drawn to celebrity leaders. Such followers aren’t necessarily the best thing for a leader, and for two reasons. First, the only thing that many of them want is the rub-off of charisma and popularity that comes with celebrity contact. They don’t really understand or care to contribute to the leader’s cause, only to bask in his or her glory (and maybe photo-bomb the paparazzi).

Secondly, an enthusiastic fan base can actually interfere with a leader’s genuine attempts at clarifying the deeper truth of his or her cause. Because they are more interested in sensation than sacrifice, such followers are more like adherents than disciples, content with just a bowl of warm milk set before them. When the harder edge of truth is presented and a real demand is made, they will quickly distract themselves with some irrelevancy or quietly exit the back door.

PSALM 1

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Religion traditionally specializes in stereotypes and absolutes. A stereotype – from the French referring to the “solid” or fixed plates used to set images for printing – is a preconceived notion of an entire class of things (like human groups) based on your observation of a few individual examples. In the passage above, “the wicked” and “the righteous” are moral categories applied across a wide range of characteristics, behaviors, and lifestyles. With a stereotype, you are either in or out of the category.

An absolute is something that stands apart independently of all conditions or limitations. An absolute judgment is true universally and in every case, not only in this or that situation. When the supreme reality is regarded as absolute, God is conceived as outside of time, above the world, unchanging, and perfectly unique. Logically there can be no relationship with something that is absolute, beyond merely standing there in worship of its perfection.

Stereotypes and absolutes are especially useful to us during adolescence, when the project of identity-formation can benefit from some unrealistic classifications of ourselves, other people, the wider world, and the deity-in-charge. To really believe that reality is divided so cleanly between “this” and “that,” or that some things (like God and the soul) stand utterly apart from the complications of time and death, serves to calm our anxieties and support the certainty we (think we) need to function in life. Just knowing that “the wicked” will get what’s coming to them, and that we (“the righteous”) will one day have our reward, is enough to keep us in the game.

But eventually we need to grow up, become more realistic in our appraisal of life in this world and take a more adult perspective on the gray-scale distribution of good and evil – if these categories are even useful anymore. “The righteous” don’t always prosper, nor do “the wicked” always perish as we hope they would.

Reality is not like that, and a genuine faith connects you to reality. Belief keeps you safe inside your world, but your world is not reality.

DEUTERONOMY 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan,all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

10 Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11 He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12 and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

Traditionally the first five books of the Bible (Pentateuch) are attributed to Moses, who was supposed to have authored them during his busy campaign of liberating the Hebrews and leading them to the Promised Land. This passage in particular is often cited in challenging Mosaic authorship, since it contains a reference to the death of its author! How could Moses write about his own death, where he was buried, and how his reputation lived on?

Of course, even pre-modern commentators had noticed this strange detail, but questioning the authenticity, integrity, or logical coherence of the Bible didn’t become a serious issue until the modern period. It was then that new critical methods of literary research started encouraging treatment of the Bible as a collection of writings ranging from history, prophecy and apocalypse, to poetry, legend and myth. As scholars looked more closely at the texts, different theological traditions started bobbing to the surface.

The current theory recognizes at least four major traditions behind the so-called Book of Moses, each one with its own concept of God, worldview, and moral agenda. At various production points, these occasionally conflicting voices were blended together, with different stories and texts stitched at the edges to give the impression of continuity. Still, clues remain: two creation myths, two flood stories, two originally rival names for God (Yahweh and El), two competing vocations (prophets and priests), two models of society (nomadic and agrarian), all the way down to a discrepancy over who supposedly killed the giant Goliath (David or Elhanan).

All of this makes the Bible much more “messy” than how it seemed when single authors were given credit for larger sections or “books” – or still today when authorship of the entire Bible is attributed to God. Messy, maybe; but much more human as well. Some will even agree that it makes the Bible more approachable, more interesting, and more relevant when we can (or are allowed to) see the signs of human insecurity, fallibility, and prejudice, alongside the insight, wonder, and hope stained in its pages.

Blessed Are They

Posted: October 17, 2014 in ContraVerse

Blessed Are They

MATTHEW 7:21-29

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

If you were to poll a large number of true believers in the world today and ask them what, really, is the point of their religion, they will no doubt answer with a variety of responses. Freedom from guilt, membership in a community, positive values, an enlarged sense of belonging, weekly inspiration, and everlasting security would certainly make the list. Answers to metaphysical questions, participation in sacred rituals, and the cultivation of religious disciplines (prayer, meditation, fasting, study) would probably be somewhere, though not as high as the first set.

Many put their religion on for show, quoting Bible verses, spouting prophecies, calling out the Antichrist, and performing “miracles” before spellbound crowds. For them, religion is a public performance. Popular “evangeltainers” lead personality cults for their own attention, glory, and luxury. A large segment of society is happy to watch (and donate) as they manage the stage and promote their empires.

What about Jesus? How would he have answered the question about the real point of his religion? Going to church? Feeling relieved of guilt? Having a platform from which he could accuse others and grab glory for himself? Getting his soul safely to heaven in the next life? Actually, none of these. For Jesus, religion wasn’t about what the ego needs or believes it deserves. Instead religion is about action – doing the will of God.

But what is that, the will of God? It is about making a difference for others: lifting up the poor, reaching out to the sick, encouraging those who have lost hope, emancipating the human spirit, and speaking up for those The System doesn’t count or care about. Go to church if you want. Ponder and debate the doctrines of orthodoxy if that’s your thing. At the end of the day, the real question is how authentic, fearless, and far-reaching your love is. True love changes things.