Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rooted and Grounded

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 3:14-21.

The inmates at the jail really keep me on my toes. I hand out a lot of Bibles and they get read cover to cover often within a matter of weeks because the inmates have little else to do. So I have had to deal with questions about the nephilim, angels, Ezekiel, Revelation, reincarnation, and the problem of people not recognizing the resurrected Christ at first. And they zero in on not only the things they don't understand but the parts of the Bible that seem to contradict other parts of the Bible. In many cases I can explain things and other times I confess ignorance and promise that I'll look for an answer in my books.

Tuesday nights on my visits to the dorms I have been encountering 2 people who pepper me with questions that severely test my knowledge of the Bible. One has theories he is looking to support. In his case I listen politely, correct some misconceptions but basically try to get him to look at the larger message of the Bible. Just as comic book and sci-fi geeks can get so wrapped up in the details and trivia of their favorite heroes that they forget that their stories are merely meant to be entertainment, some believers can get so enamored with mining the minutiae of the scriptures that they can forget their purpose: to proclaim the gospel of the love of God in Christ.

The other inmate is very sensitive to the portions of the Old Testament where God seems to be less than loving. And while sometimes I can offer a different perspective on an incident, I will admit that some parts of the Old Testament bother me too. This is not new. Going back to the heretic Marcion in the second century people have been trying to come up with an answer to the problem of why God seems so wrathful in the Old Testament and so loving in the New.

The key word here is “seems.” In fact God's love is a major topic in the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 7:7 it says, “It was not because you were more numerous that all other nations that the Lord set his delight on you or chose you—for you were the smallest of all the nations—but because of the Lord's love for you and because he kept the oath sworn to your fathers, the Lord brought you out and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.” God loves his people as a nursing mother loves her child, according to Isaiah 49:15-16. His love for his people, for the widow and the fatherless, for the immigrant, for the righteous and for the wicked one who forsakes his way and turns to God is found throughout the Old Testament.

Because of his love for his people and for the innocent, God is protective, fiercely so. Think of a mother and its cubs. That explains a lot of the parts of the Hebrew Bible where God seems merciless towards their foes. Israel was never a very big nation. Its land sat astride the crossroads between Europe, Asia, Arabia and Africa. It was wedged between powerful empires: Egypt to their west and a succession of empires (Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, etc) to their east. When their larger neighbors were weak or in turmoil, Israel knew peace. When those neighbors were powerful, they generally sought to conquer Israel and control the crossroads. Small wonder that Israel, and later the southern kingdom of Judea, revered the Lord of Hosts, literally, Lord of the Armies. There was no UN or human rights commission to watch over them should their enemies come over the mountains to subdue them. So God's ferocious protectiveness of his people was a sign of love. And his strict discipline, like the military's, was meant to keep them obedient and united.

Today's passage in Ephesians is a massive prayer by Paul that the church try to grasp the immensity of God's love. “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

First note that Paul is on his knees. That wasn't the usual posture Jews or indeed Gentiles took when praying. They normally stood and raised their hands to heaven. One would prostrate oneself before a king. So Paul is on his knees praying to the heavenly king for the church.

He is also praying to his heavenly Father. It was not odd to hear pagans speak of Zeus or Jupiter as father, though they just meant that their god created people. But Jesus made it a term of implied intimacy. Sometimes Jesus called his Father “Abba,” the equivalent of "Dada." Paul says that every family takes its name from God the Father. Weirdly, though, he says “every family in heaven and on earth.” So some translate this “the whole family in heaven and on earth,” in other words, God's family, both those who have left this life to be with him and those still living on earth. Paul is emphasizing how far the fatherhood of God extends.

Paul next prays that his readers “may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit.” The Christian life is impossible to live using one's own power alone. We need the Spirit of God within us to give us the ability to live as Jesus wants us to. And we need to let him get as deep within us as possible.

Paul then prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” Some people want Jesus in their heart but only as a guest, not as a permanent resident. They want to be able to put a sock on the door and have him take a walk while they indulge in things that aren't Christlike. But Jesus doesn't want our hearts to be like an Airbnb. He wants to move in, set up his home and live in us eternally. And he can only do that if we in faith let him. We must trust that what he wants to do with the place is the right thing to do. We need to give him the key to every room in our heart and what's more, let him do any renovations he wants to. One sign that Christ is in our hearts is that they become larger rather than smaller. They should have room for all the people Jesus wants us to love.

These additions Jesus is building on to our hearts leave us “being rooted and grounded in love.” Actually the last word should be “founded.” Paul is mixing metaphors. We are being rooted in love, like a tree drawing its sustenance from God's love. But love is also our foundation, which gives stability to the whole structure of our life. Everything we think, say and do should be rooted and grounded in love.

Is that love adequate to build a life on? Paul prays that all believers have the power to comprehend his love's “breadth and length and height and depth.” It is so extensive that it is difficult to take in unaided by God. William Barclay, the Scottish Bible scholar, pointed out that the directions given—breadth, length, height and depth—call to mind the ultimate symbol of God's love: the cross of Christ. That the God who created the universe was willing to become a human being and die that way in order to save us shows the immensity of his love for us. That is something to contemplate when we have occasion to doubt God's love.

Paul then paradoxically says that he wants us “to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge...” How can we know what goes beyond knowledge? Ever get a good look at all the stars in the night sky? What you see only lets you know that it is much larger than what can be seen. Not only are there stars that at present you can't see because they are on the other side of the earth you are standing on but the star field extends away from you in all directions. There are stars right in front of your eyes that are so far away you can't see them. To see the heavens is to see how much more there is beyond your ability to perceive them.

God's love is like that if you just start thinking about it. God gives us life, a brain, eyes, ears, a nose, a tongue, hands, the ability to learn, to remember, to will, to love. He gives us a world to live in, filled with what we need to sustain life. He gives us other people in our lives, animals, plants, mountains and rivers and plains and forests and deserts and jungles and oceans. He has given us sunshine and clouds and rain and wind and snow and ice. God has given us so much and if you think about it, his gifts never end. What we can know about his love is that it surpasses what we know and even what we can know.

Paul prays that we realize this “so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Another paradox. How can we, finite creatures, being filled with all the fullness of our infinite God? I think Paul is talking of our heads and hearts being filled to overflowing with all the goodness God graciously showers upon us. It is akin to saying your heart is full after experiencing the love of someone towards you. We should radiate God's love.

Paul wraps this prayer us by saying “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine...” The power at work within us is yet another reference to the Holy Spirit, God in us. And the Spirit in us is able to accomplish way more than anything we can ask or conceive of. Think about that. Scripture is saying that God can do truly amazing, hitherto unimaginable things through us! Jesus said we would do greater works than he did! (John 14:12)

How is that possible? For one thing, there are more of us. A expert on chimpanzees said you would never see 2 of them, say, carrying a log together to use as a tool the way you see human beings working in concert on a project. The way we have accomplished so much more than any other species is through the fact that we can cooperate with each other, even with people who are not relatives. This church, the electricity that powers the lights and fans and a/c and computers, the water we use, the waste we dispose of, the roads we travel to get here, the construction of the cars and trucks we drive—all of it is the result of lots of people coming together to create these things, work the systems that produce them and support these efforts through donations, payments, and taxes. My blog has readers in Russia, South Korea, France, Singapore, the United Kingdom, numerous other countries and various parts of the USA because of the internet, a staggering human achievement that allows just about everyone in the world to communicate with just about anyone else in the world.

Jesus fed 4 and 5 thousand people on a couple of occasions. The church feeds millions worldwide everyday through its feeding programs, food pantries, and community gardens. Jesus healed at most a few thousand during his 3 ½ year ministry. The church heals as well as prevents diseases for millions worldwide everyday through its hospitals, clinics and medical missionaries. Jesus preached the good news to 10s of thousands of people. The church has preached the gospel to billions. In addition the church builds schools, universities and seminaries and educates people around the globe. It works to free people from slavery and human trafficking. It provides emergency relief after disasters. It offers counseling and guidance to the perplexed and guilt-ridden. It sends visitors to the sick and those in prison. This is how Jesus through the Body of Christ ministers to the world today.


So, yes, God can, through the power at work within us, do more than we can possibly imagine. If we let him. If we work with other Christians. If we are rooted and grounded in love, like the inmate with all the questions about the OT. He said, “I just try to love others like Jesus does.” If we stick to that and stick together, we can change the world.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Breaking Down the Wall

The scriptures referred to are Ephesians 2:11-22.

Warning: The introduction to the main topic of this sermon contains pop culture references. They are not intended to have the same weight as the theology that follows but are used for their insights into the prejudices and perceptions of our society, and so are sometimes commended and sometimes condemned. Complaints should be directed to the Apostle Paul who quoted Greek playwrights and used sports metaphors in his letters, that is, our scriptures.

While contemplating today's passage from Ephesians, I came across a surprising difference between my two favorite science fiction franchises. Doctor Who, in its original incarnation, was the longest running sci-fi series in the world. The show didn't become a hit though until the Doctor encountered the Daleks. They were the survivors of a nuclear war, so mutated by radiation that we never used to see them, just the non-humanoid battle armor in which each individual Dalek lived. In the first story the Daleks' enemies were the Thals, an idealized blond humanoid race. In contrast to the peaceful, non-technological Thals, the Daleks were dehumanized, mechanized, interchangeable and militaristic. Although originally seen as the cost of a culture always at war, the Daleks have come to represent xenophobia. They wish to wipe out or enslave every other race in the universe. The Daleks are monsters and while the Doctor generally is loathe to personally kill any species, he has the hardest time being a pacifist when facing the Daleks. He is not above maneuvering them into situations where they will be destroyed, usually through their own aggressive actions.

As even non-Trekkers know, the archenemies of the original Star Trek crew were the Klingons. And though the primary hero of each of these series has a personal reason to hate their foes—the Daleks were responsible for destroying the Doctor's home world; the Klingons killed Captain Kirk's son—they ultimately end up in very different relationships with their nemeses. More than 50 years later, the Doctor and the Daleks are still each other's greatest enemies; years ago, Kirk, albeit reluctantly, became responsible for the admission of the Klingons into the Federation, a kind of galactic United Nations. A prominent crew member of the second and third Star Trek series was Worf, a Klingon orphan raised by a human couple.

With the Klingons now allies, although not ones to be taken for granted, subsequent Star Trek series had to create new archenemies. But each has eventually become an ally, if only begrudgingly and out of necessity.

In the finale of Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans must join with their former oppressors, the Cardasians, to defeat a mutual enemy. That enemy is also a formidable threat to the Federation, which turns out to be not nearly as benign as it appears. A black ops division of the Federation engineers a biological weapon specific to this alien enemy and infects them. Then Odo, one of their race, who, like Worf, was raised on Federation ideals, goes to their planet to heal them. The Borg, a scary half-biological, half-mechanical race which the crew of The Next Generation fought, agree to a truce with Captain Janeway of Voyager. As part of the agreement the Borg drone Seven of Nine comes on board Janeway's starship and eventually becomes a valuable member of the crew. In the final analysis, the Doctor's enemies always remain enemies, whereas adversaries in the Star Trek universe eventually reconcile.

The theme of reconciliation is at the heart of many of Paul's letters, such as today's. The two adversaries he is writing about were the Gentiles and the Jews. Jesus was a Jew and was revealed by his life, death and resurrection to be the long-awaited Messiah. But he was quite different from the popular conception of the Messiah. Instead of a leader who would liberate the Jews from their oppression by Gentiles, Jesus set about liberating all people, Jews and Gentiles, from their slavery to evil and sin. While the known world was being evangelized in the first century, the majority of Jews did not respond well to this idea of the Messiah but many Gentiles did. Most of these were “Godfearers,” Gentiles who attended synagogue though they did not convert to Judaism. The Gospel message resonated with them and they readily converted to Christianity. Jewish Christians felt that they should become Jews first, getting circumcised and observing the ceremonial rituals. But Paul, though once a zealous Pharisee, saw this as a mistake. For one thing, the first Gentile converts, after hearing Peter preach, were given the gift of the Holy Spirit without first submitting to either baptism or circumcision. A more important problem was that requiring that Gentiles observe all 613 commandments of the Old Covenant diminished what Jesus did on the cross to establish the New Covenant. We all, Jews and Gentiles, are saved and become members of God's people through Christ's sacrifice. Making the Gentiles retroactively become Jews would be akin to making newly naturalized U.S. citizens also become British citizens since that was the national origin of the first U.S. citizens.

Remember that the Jews were a barely tolerated minority in the Roman empire. They wouldn't participate in sacrifices offered to the emperor as a god. When the Romans realized that monotheism was central to Judaism, and that they would die rather than worship any other gods, they gave them a pass on the emperor cult. But they never really understood why the Jews were so close-minded in this aspect and why they couldn't, like their pagan subjects, simply add another deity to their pantheon. This attitude, which goes back to the Greek successors of Alexander the Great, was the original source of anti-Semitism. So one can understand Jewish resentment towards Gentiles and why the first Christians, all Jews, felt that the Gentile converts were getting off too easily.

What Paul says about this division is interesting. He says that this was one of the things Jesus died for: to remove the barriers between people. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

But wait a minute! Didn't Jesus die for our sins? Yes, one of which is the hatred we have for those who are different. When Judge Sonia Sotomayor was up for confirmation to the Supreme Court, I heard a Latina say she was for her because “she looks like us.” That is the least important reason one should support or oppose a person, though at least that person was honest. And when we lived in tribes the fastest way to recognize friend or foe was by appearance, because everyone in a clan was related somehow. I never thought about the persistence of family resemblance until I went to a reunion some years ago and met many people for the first time who nevertheless looked oddly familiar. This would not strike me as strange had I grown up in a nomadic tribe or even a small village where I had familial connections to pretty much everyone. It would then be natural to see similar people as the norm and outsiders as odd folks not to be entirely trusted, or even to be hated if that were my group's viewpoint.

Once people started to live in towns and cities of hundreds or thousands of people we had to expand our ideas of who was a friend. But sharing appearance or language or culture or DNA still determined who was in our inner circle. Allegiance to larger groups can be tenuous. We have seen that in countries like Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq and Nazi Germany people can be incited to attack their ethnically distinct neighbors, even if they had previously lived together in peace, sometimes for centuries. Even here in the United States we have trouble remembering that being an American doesn't mean belonging to a certain race or religion or national origin.

The idea of a people of God made up of folks from different nations and ethnicities is in fact found in the Old Testament, especially Isaiah. But it wasn't talked about much in Jesus' day. Still, during Jesus' ministry we see Gentiles coming to him for healing. And shortly after Pentecost, the deacon Philip is led by God to baptize an Ethiopian official who happens to be a eunuch. This puts him outside of the presumed target audience for inclusion in God's people on two counts. And we see that even the apostles are surprised by the kind of people God calls to come to Jesus.

Paul is considered the Apostle to the Gentiles and yet his method was to go to the synagogue of whatever city he was in and preach there. When he saw the phenomenal results among the Godfearers, and resistance from his fellow Jews, he realized that God had a different idea for the composition of the Body of Christ. But that caused a lot of friction and the church, headquartered in Jerusalem, met with Paul and figured out what elements of the law the Gentile converts had to observe. And in Acts 15 we are told that they wrote this: “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from sexual sins.”

Now this was probably hotly debated in the churches Paul founded. After all, Paul preached that “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works so that no one may boast.” But refraining from certain things is not what saves you. Rather they are the acts of someone who is saved and is now operating out for love of God and for his fellow Christians, Jewish or Gentile.

In any relationship, there is a trade-off. You have to think of the others in the relationship. Marrying means giving up dating other people. Having kids means you can't just go out partying on a whim and leave them to fend for themselves. Belonging to a group means you respect and don't contradict the mission or violate the ethics of the group. You do these things out of affection or love for the others in the relationship. If you don't do these, the relationship will suffer and probably break down.

To be sure, relationships change, but not in the essentials, not if you wish them to last. I was fascinated by an NPR story of an Iranian couple who came to the United States. The father was very old world and autocratically ruled his family and his wife. When the wife objected she was told to shut up. When the kids were grown and married, their mother divorced her husband. He was shocked. In the aftermath, as he lived a bachelor life, he discovered—don't laugh—Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. And in reading this pop psych book, he began to change. In the end, the couple remarried, over the objections of their grown daughters! But the husband had picked up a skill that researchers say is essential for a marriage to survive: listening to his wife. That change of practice allowed them to save what was essential about their relationship—the love embodied in the marriage.

The early church was learning what was essential and what wasn't. Who you were, what you looked like, what race you came from, what gender you were, and what economic class you belonged to were not essential. Again Paul wrote, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What is essential is not who you are or were; what is essential is whom you trust and follow.

But there were still tensions. If you read Paul's letters you can boil down the primary flaws of each party. The Jews suffered from self-righteousness. They couldn't let go of the old regulations and rituals and their heritage. And the Gentiles didn't understand, much less respect the Jews' scruples. They thought that because they weren't saved by their own righteousness, they didn't need to try to be good. So Paul keeps telling them really obvious things about being a Christ follower, like don't get drunk at communion—or ever. Don't everybody talk all at once during worship. Don't dress immodestly. Control yourself sexually. Don't gossip or sue each other. If you believe in Jesus, behave like him.

244 of those 613 commandments in the Torah concern the tabernacle, the mobile structure that was considered the dwelling place of God on earth. David wanted to replace it with a big permanent temple. God wouldn't let him. Later David realized that this was because he was a man of war who had shed much blood. He wasn't fit to build the Lord's temple. That temple, built first by Solomon and then rebuilt by Herod, was superseded by Jesus, God Incarnate, his presence on earth. And now that Jesus has returned to the Father, Paul tells us that God wants to dwell in us. Speaking of Jesus Paul said, “In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” Note that the word “together” is used twice.

Jesus' prayer for the church the night before he was crucified was “Holy Father, protect them by your name that you have given me so that they may be one as we are one.” (John 17:11) But from the very beginning, that has been our biggest problem. First it was the Greek-speaking Jews in the church having friction with the Hebrew-speaking Jews. Then it was the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul confronts the fact that camps are forming in that church around different Christian teachers. Throughout church history divisions have arisen over the same things—culture, nationalities, teachings and teachers. Today we look back at many of these controversies and think “What was all the fuss about?” Yet people still put other things ahead of Christ and call themselves Christian.

Part of the reason that we resist reconciliation with other Christians is that we think that unity means uniformity. We are afraid that if we unite, all churches and all Christians will be the same. But, as Paul illustrates with a metaphor, one body is made up of many different parts and each has an important function. They are all controlled by the head, which is Christ. Do we not trust Christ to be in charge of his body?

We also fear change. But change is a constant. And yet the essentials don't change. Every cell of our bodies has died and been replaced approximately every seven years, skin cells more frequently. But we are the same people we always were: our passions, our strengths, our weaknesses, and our quirks are the same. The church, too, has changed over time, the outward and visible parts most of all. But the essentials remain.

Yet the idea of unity among Christians is still controversial. Just as Captain Kirk could not at first envision a Federation that embraced the Klingons, we cannot seem to envision a church that includes both conservatives and liberals, Baptists and Roman Catholics, Methodists and Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterians and Pentecostals, Lutherans and Episcopalians. And it's not like our so-called “adversaries” are genocidal monsters like the Daleks. They are people who trust in and follow the same Jesus Christ as Lord. The clergy all confess the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and to contain all things necessary to salvation. Are all the issues dividing Christians really things necessary to salvation? Or are they stuff we have added afterward, traditions and rituals and governing bodies that may be important and may have arisen for a good reason at one point in history but are not actually essential?

Sadly, the obstacles to unity among Christians are still the same as they were in Paul's day: pride, self-righteousness, lack of respect for others, not listening, and not appreciating the strengths of what different people have to offer the church. Jesus sacrificed his life to bring us together. But we can't be bothered to make sacrifices to be his one holy, catholic and apostolic church. And as long as we think our differences are more important than reconciliation, that who we are or how we do things are more important than being the body of Christ, that divisive speech and actions are more important than the continued incarnation of the love of God which Jesus said was how the world would recognize his disciples, we won't be fit to be God's temple either.


The answer, as always, is love. We need to emulate Jesus, who, when he heard that someone outside of his disciples was healing people in his name, said, “Do not stop him for whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40) It is Jesus who commands us to go outside the circle of those who love us and reach out to others. (Luke 6:32-36) Christianity is the religion of love. Love is the mark of being a follower of Jesus. But love always involves risk because love is not always reciprocated. Nevertheless we are commanded to love—our neighbors, our enemies, each other. “If I have not love,” said Paul, “I am nothing.” If we cannot love our fellow Christians, what does that make us?

Monday, July 13, 2015

Death Benefits

The scriptures referred to are Mark 6:14-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14.

They had to reshoot the end of Star Trek: Generations, in which Captain Kirk hands the film franchise over to Jean Luc Picard and his crew, because test audiences didn't like the original ending. Specifically they didn't like the part where the villain killed Kirk by simply shooting him in the back. It seemed like an ignominious death for such a hero. So they had to fly the actors back out to the desert to reshoot that part and give Kirk a more heroic death, one in which he saves the day.

They should have known the original death was anti-climactic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to kill Sherlock Holmes and knew he had to make it big. Holmes had made him a wealthy and popular writer but Doyle wanted to be taken seriously as an author and so he decided to dispatch his most famous character. While hiking in Switzerland, Doyle had come across the Reichenbach Falls, an impressive series of waterfalls in the Alps with a total drop of 820 feet. The Upper Reichenbach Falls is one of the highest cataracts in the Alps at 300 feet. What more dramatic a place was there to kill the great detective. But Holmes was a genius so he could only be brought down by someone of similar intellect. So Doyle created Professor Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime, as a worthy adversary. Watson finds the signs of a struggle at the edge of the falls and concludes that Holmes and Moriarty toppled into the abyss, locked in a mortal struggle. A fitting end for Sherlock Holmes...until Doyle resurrected him 10 years later.

In real life, great men do not have the luxury of picking a satisfying end to their lives. General George Patton died as the result of a car accident, less than a year after completing his key role in winning World War 2. Tennessee Williams choked to death on the cap of a bottle of eye drops he was using. Aeschylus was the father of Greek tragedy. His death was comical. A hungry eagle was trying to get at a tortoise it had picked up to eat. Apparently mistaking the playwright's bald head for a rock, the bird dropped the terrapin on Aeschylus' cranium trying to crack its shell. It cracked his skull instead.

So it is entirely believable that John the Baptizer would die at the whim of a girl. Herod the Great's family was a mess. This son, Herod Antipas, was actually tetrarch of Galilee rather than king of all Palestine as his father was. His insistence on being called a king eventually got him removed by the Romans. Antipas had an affair with his sister-in-law. He divorced his first wife and married her. Though John was openly criticizing him for his adultery, Herod probably took it as political criticism and thus jailed him. Nevertheless, Herod found himself fascinated by John and liked to listen to him, despite the prophet's objection to his captor's lifestyle.

That lifestyle apparently included drunken lechery towards his step-daughter. At his alcohol-fueled birthday party, Herod is so pleased by her dancing that he promises her anything she wants. The girl asks her mother what she should ask for. Her mother Herodias wants to shut up the bug-eating prophet and has her daughter ask for John's head. Herod doesn't want to lose face in front of his powerful guests and so has John decapitated. He has the prophet's head presented to the girl on a platter, who passes the grisly object on to her mother. John's disciples claim his body and bury it. And so Jesus loses his cousin.

It presages Jesus' own death, except his would be more public and more humiliating. And if his lifestory ended there, we wouldn't be talking about John or Jesus. Which is my beef with the way Godspell is usually staged. Before I saw it, I got the album. The last track is a haunting but mournful “Long Live God” with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord,” the opening song, gradually weaving itself in. And then there is a sudden drum riff and the tempo ramps up and when I heard that I thought, “That's where the resurrection takes place.” But when I saw the play, the cast carried the body of Jesus off the stage, down the aisle and out of theatre. The tempo change corresponded to nothing but the curtain call and the bowing of the actors. While otherwise faithful to the Gospel of Matthew, the play concludes with a dead Jesus. It is not only not true to the ending of that gospel, but dramatically, it is a very downbeat ending for what is otherwise a very upbeat musical. Imagine the Nazis shooting Maria Von Trapp at the end of The Sound of Music. And most stage versions follow suit. In the movie, which is set in a New York seemingly empty of all people but the dozen or so actors, the body is carried around the corner of a building and when the camera follows we don't see them but a typical busy city street. Jesus and the disciples are swallowed up by an oblivious crowd.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that makes his death more than a gory and tragic end to a previously promising life. Unlike Buddha or Mohammed or Moses, Jesus' teachings are not so easily separated from his identity. Jesus could only alter and replace the Old Covenant if he was a party to it, ie, God. His most radical ethical rules—turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, taking up your cross—only make sense if we, like he, will be resurrected. His death itself only takes on a greater significance than those of others if it was a sacrifice to save us.

In today's reading from Ephesians, Paul spells out the transcendent significance of Jesus' death. In the Greek this whole passage is one long sentence. It starts by saying “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ....” A better translation would be “Worthy of blessing is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ....” And the rest of the passage enumerates the reasons that we should bless God.

He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places....” And then Paul goes on to tell us what they are.

First “...he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God didn't get stuck with us; he chose us. He chose us long before we chose him. He chose us before the creation of the world. This and the predestination talk in the next verse makes some people say we have no free will. But since God lives outside of time, he is kinda like the camera man in the helicopter filming the Macy's Thanksgiving parade. He isn't determining the parade but seeing all of it at once he can anticipate what will happen when a certain corner is reached, even before people in a specific part of the parade get there. He can broadcast that there is a problem ahead but he does not force people to respond to the problem in a certain way. He can decide to focus on one group, like a dance troop, at a specific point for his own purpose.

The key phrase however is “in love.” God chooses us in love. No baby has a choice whether her parents will love her, anymore than she has a choice in her hair color, or the culture she will be born into, or the language she will learn from her parents. And she can always reject or change those things later. Most children will accept what they inherit. But we see some people in Israel as well as people in the church reject what God has chosen for them. Still Paul is talking about how gracious God is to choose us in the first place. For that reason alone, God should be blessed.

He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ....” One of the misconceptions people have is that all humans are automatically children of God. We are his creations. He can adopt us as his children. But just as older children can refuse adoption, so can we reject God as our father. Theologians can argue whether or not God chooses us based on what he foresees our reaction to him will be, but the practical effect is the same. We who become children of God can look back and see how it came about and it appears in retrospect as if it were inevitable. For which reason we should bless God.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Here Paul is referring to Jesus' death on the cross which bought us out of our slavery to sin. By taking the consequences of our sins upon himself, Jesus makes it possible for our sins to be forgiven. Another reason to bless God.

Next “he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fulness of time, to gather up all things in him...” God has revealed his “secret” plan for the universe, which is to unite all of his creation in Christ. Why are we here? To love and enjoy God and one way to express that is to use the gifts we receive from him to help restore the shattered unity of creation. We do it through proclaiming the good news of God in Christ, through peacemaking, through caring for each other, through stewardship, through using our talents and abilities in the arts and sciences, etc. So why are we here? To make the world God gave us (and which we have ruined) a better place with his help. Another reason to bless God.

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance....” In the Hebrew Bible, the inheritance that Israel has from God is the promised land. For Christians, our inheritance is the new creation. The paradise which we have turned into hell on earth God will resurrect as the place he wanted it to be all along. And just as humankind was originally to reign as God's vice-regents over the earth, we are to reign with Christ in his kingdom. We are to be, as it says in 1 Peter 2:9, “a royal priesthood.” Yet another reason to bless God.

When we put out trust in Jesus after hearing the gospel, we “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up residence with him.” (John 14:23) Having God within us is, Paul says, “the pledge (or down payment) of our inheritance.” If we are to rule with Christ, we need to be Christlike. The presence of the Holy Spirit within us, transforming us, is a guarantee that God will do as he says. He is recreating us, making us into the people he intended us to be, so we can do what we were created to do. The gift of God's Holy Spirit to us when we are baptized into the death and resurrection of his son is another reason why he is worthy of being blessed.


Like his cousin John's fate, Jesus' was not a good death. But God used it to bring about good for us. His death transformed not only our deaths but our lives. He blessed us with salvation, a purpose, the gifts to carry it out, and a destiny that goes beyond our death. One day we will all die. We probably won't die like John or Jesus but we probably won't go out like Captain Kirk either. The important things are what happens on either side of our death. Jesus has handled what our afterlife will be. What we can do is use the blessings he's given us now to make our present life worthy of “the riches of his grace that he has lavished on us.” God can mine good out of bad situations but imagine what he can do if we offer him good things to work with, if we say, “Thank you for all your blessings. Use them to make me a blessing for others.” And by doing so, we can let others in on the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is worthy of blessing.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Elephant in the Room

I've never been one to ignore the elephant in the room. I am more like the boy who says out loud that the Emperor has no clothing, if indeed he is running around naked. So I am going to depart from my usual type of sermon in which I explicate one or more of the scriptures from this Sunday's lectionary or I answer a question from the Sermon Suggestion Box. I am going to deal with the momentous change that took place last week while I was at Florida SuperCon. I am going to deal with the subject of same-sex marriage.

The first time I really had to deal with the subject of homosexuality and Christianity was when the diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson as their bishop right before the triennial convention of the Episcopal Church. I was of two minds on the matter and so I asked my wife to sew a clerical collar and shirt for my dummy Felix. He and I had a conversation about the whole matter and the format allowed us to hop all over what is a large and unwieldy topic which can really only be adequately treated in a book. My wife thought it was the worst idea I ever had; turned out it was one of the best because I was able to discuss both sides and inject a little humor and using ventriloquism helped disarm the kneejerk responses to the topic. And in the end I had Felix say something like, “But didn't Jesus say that the way the world would know we are his disciples is by our love for each other? And wouldn't it be a powerful witness to the world if we Christians could disagree on something this important and yet still love one another?” To which I replied, “Maybe you're not such a dummy after all.”

Perhaps I'm a dummy for not using him today but that time it was something happening way up in New Hampshire and this time it's happening all over the country. A light touch was right then. This time I think we need to be more serious. Of course, the last time I did a serious sermon on this topic two presumably gay men who only came to our church once or twice each year stormed out angrily. Again I was trying to explore both sides and if there is one thing I have learned as a preacher is that to really tick people off, tell them that there is more than one position good Christians can take on a controversial subject. Apparently the God who made this universe and filled it with a mindboggling variety of things can have only one position on anything. I guess the people who think that way never read Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 where it says, “To everything there is a season and a time for every activity under heaven.”

This is a subject I have given a lot of thought to over more than a decade. It is not an easy issue to decide and anyone who says it is has not seriously considered both sides.

Basically the problem is that what we have here is a genuine moral dilemma. A moral dilemma is not when you want to do something that you shouldn't. That just ordinary temptation. A moral dilemma arises when different ethical values clash. As a nurse I've had to deal with the problem of relieving severe pain in a terminal patient using strong pain medication which as a side effect might hasten the patient's death. Our oath, like that of doctors, is to first do no harm. Letting a patient suffer is harmful as is doing something that increases the likelihood of death. You wish to alleviate pain and stave off death. In this case, you cannot achieve both positive values; you must choose one, knowing that doing so will make the other impossible. If that choice of which is the lesser evil doesn't disturb you somewhat, if you think the decision should be a slam-dunk, then you either aren't a very good moral thinker or else you aren't a very moral person.

The dilemma in Christianity and homosexuality is that it pits the Bible, the source of what we believe and how we behave, against our biblically mandated compassion for the suffering. Nowhere in the Bible is homosexual behavior commended; every time it is mentioned it is condemned. On the other hand, gay people are suffering. They are subject to increased violence and death. In 2011, the FBI reported that 1572 hate crime victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation. Gays, representing at most 4% of the population, made up 20.4% of the total of hate crime victims. Despite the fact that they can now marry in every state, in 28 states it is legal to discriminate against gays in housing, employment and in serving them.

Now some may say, who cares? Why should we accommodate sinners? The problem with that is according to the Bible, we are all sinners. So should we deny everyone the right to buy or rent a home, to get or keep a job or to buy cakes from bakers or flower arrangements from florists? Of course not. Is this a worse sin than all the others? Hardly. In Proverbs 6:16-19, we read, “The Lord hates 6 things; in fact, 7 are detestable to him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.” Lying is mentioned twice; homosexuality not once. Nor is it mentioned in the 10 commandments. Nor in Jesus' list of evils that comes from the heart and defile a person (Mark 7:21-23). Nor in Jesus' parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25. In fact Jesus never mentions it. Moreover, homosexual behavior in mentioned in just 7 verses, out of 31,173 verses in the whole Bible. Obviously it is not a top priority.

You know what Jesus did mention? Adultery. And he considered divorce and remarriage adultery. I'm surprised the Westboro Baptist Church did not pick up on that. Imagine how many people they could picket then! Are their Bibles defective? Or are they being selective? And what if we denied housing and jobs and wedding cakes to everyone who ever got remarried? That's 4 in every 10 couples getting married every year. Are we being selective?

I have officiated at the weddings of people who were divorced. Should I have refused to do so based on what Jesus said? And some of them got divorced after I married them. Should I excommunicate them?

In Jesus' day, only men could initiate divorce. A man could do so if his wife displeased him in any way. Once divorced the woman found herself on the lowest rung of society, with little or no power. Jesus was protecting women in a system that was stacked against them. He was not referring to a situation in which, say, a woman was being abused and would want a divorce. But she still could not get one. This is still a problem in Orthodox Judaism where men can sadistically withhold a “get” or bill of divorcement, despite the couple separating. This way a man can prevent his estranged wife from remarrying. Jesus was not talking of such a situation.

Today things are different. Women can initiate divorce. Yes, people still divorce for less than stellar reasons. But we also understand that sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils. It is better than spousal abuse, child abuse, realizing you are married to a sociopath, etc. Nevertheless most Christians see marriage as two people becoming one and divorce as a rather drastic operation that is sometimes necessary. We do not treat divorcees as pariahs and we do not bar them from the sacraments. Many good people in our church are remarried.

If we are willing to move on in regards to something Jesus mentioned, why are we so reluctant to move on in areas in which Jesus said nothing? Jesus frequently broke the law when it clashed with helping the suffering. He healed people on the sabbath. He touched bleeding women, lepers, even the dead, despite the fact that this would make him unclean. He refused to condemn a woman caught in the act of adultery and dissuaded others from carrying out the punishment laid out in the law of Moses.

Jesus famously told the Pharisees, who were scrupulous about following the law, that prostitutes and tax collectors were entering the kingdom before them. Jesus appeared to Paul, a deadly prosecutor of the church, and called him to be the apostle to the Gentiles, people who were not part of God's people. Philip was directed by an angel to explain the gospel to a eunuch, who was excluded from the people of God by the law, and Philip baptized him. The gospel is about God's grace offered to all, for all are sinners in the sight of God.

One thing I notice is that in Acts when the apostles are addressing a new group of people they don't lead off with condemnation. They don't begin with a list of sins the crowd is guilty of. They start with the mighty acts of God culminating in Jesus Christ. They establish who Jesus is, what he has done for us and only then get to what our response should be. Too often what we say seems to boil down to “Have you heard the good news? You're going to hell!” That's not good news; which is to say, that's not the gospel.

In their proclamation of the gospel the apostles were following Jesus' lead, who did not start off by condemning his audience. (Aside from the Pharisees, whose sin of hypocrisy needed exposing.) Even when talking to the Samaritan woman, who was married 5 times (remember how Jesus views remarriage), Jesus acknowledged her situation but did not make a big thing out of it. He was more interested in giving her new life than doing an autopsy on her old life.

So what does this say about how we approach gays? We proclaim the good news to them. We do it not only with our lips but with our lives, showing God's love and grace. We do not show hatred. We approach everyone as a person created in God's image and as someone for whom Jesus died. We see everyone we meet as either a brother or sister in Christ or a potential brother or sister in Christ.

As Christians we are also called to alleviate suffering. After Jesus told the parable of the good Samaritan who comes to the aid of a suffering stranger, Jesus says “Go and do likewise.” Gays are suffering. Just because one law changed does not mean that everything else is good with them. Besides suffering job and housing discrimination, gays are often rejected by their families when they come out. LGBT youth are 8 times more likely to have attempted suicide than heterosexual youth, especially if they have experienced high levels of rejection from their families. 25% have been bullied. And until recently, they could not make medical decisions for their partners, nor take family leave to care for a sick partner, nor take bereavement leave should their partner die.

There is no question that marriage bestows mental and physical health benefits on a couple, including better social, emotional, psychological and economic well-being. A studies of twins showed that those that were married were less likely to be depressed by 13 standard deviations and ¼ as likely to report suicidal ideation. Married people live longer. And these benefits are much more pronounced when a couple is in fact married as opposed to merely living together.

So the fact that gays can marry will help alleviate a lot of suffering. So where does that leave this parish/congregation?

Contrary to what some fear-mongers have said, no one can force any clergy to officiate at any wedding. As I was taught during the ordination process, I must bury anyone who comes to me for that but I needn't marry everyone who seeks that of me. I am blessing the union in the name of God. If I feel that the match is not good, that it is a toxic relationship, that there is abuse or coercion, or it's not Christian, I will not perform the ceremony. I approach each wedding request on a case by case basis. And I insist on the couple participate in a 4 hour marriage class, which covers what the Bible says on marriage as well as what science has discovered about marriage. Plus the basics of positive communication and fighting fair. Marriage is a big step and I believe in the people involved being prepared.

I perform most of my marriages on beaches and at resorts. That's why most people come to the Keys to get married. Any use of the church for weddings has to be run by the vestry/council, of course.

But will I personally conduct same sex weddings? I am still wrestling with this. It is, after all, a moral dilemma, a clash between what scripture says, however faintly, and what I see as the correct, compassionate and healing pastoral response to a particular situation. Marriage is not to be entered into lightly, and neither should the blessing of a marriage. It will remain a case by case process for me. And I will have to rethink the Biblical portion of my marriage classes, at least when it comes to same-sex weddings. I do not yet have a good theology for same-sex marriage. And until I do, I'm afraid I cannot in good conscience prepare a couple properly to live the unconditional love that marriage was designed to be by God. Until I have finished this necessary work, any same-sex couple that comes to me I will refer to a colleague who has worked this through to his or her satisfaction.

So here I am again doing something unusual for one of my sermons. I have no firm conclusion to leave you with. This is a radical redefinition of marriage. Despite what some assert, there are no precedents in Christian tradition. It may be that God is doing a new thing here, as he did when he directed Philip to baptize the eunuch or Peter to proclaim the gospel to Cornelius and his Gentile family and friends and then baptize them.


The one constant is love. We are forbidden by Jesus to hate anyone, be they neighbor or enemy, Christian or non-Christian, gay or straight or questioning. That Q you see tagged at the end of LGBT sometimes can mean "Queer" or it can mean "Questioning." Some LGBT people say they knew what they were very early in life; a lot did not until puberty hit and then there was a considerable amount of time spent questioning. Ellen DeGeneres herself did not realize her orientation until her late teens, wondering why she was not boy-crazy like her friends. And I ask of the impatient a grace period to work out my position on this important matter of how I can best demonstrate God's grace and love to those who find themselves outside the mainstream when it comes to whom they most intimately love and wish to bind themselves to as one the way most couples seek to. I therefore ask for your prayers. And I commend myself to the Holy Spirit to guide me to the place he wants me to be. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Death of Death

The scriptures referred to are 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27 and Mark 5:21-43.

Richard Dawkins is a biologist with a doctorate in animal behavior and is a world famous anti-theist who wrote The God Delusion. Alister McGrath has a doctorate in molecular biophysics and another in divinity. He is a former atheist who is now an Anglican priest and a theologian. He has written The Dawkins Delusion. You would think a debate between the two would be tremendously exciting. But in a video you can find on You Tube, they are instead rather...British. Dawkins is much less bombastic than usual and distinctly wary in the way he makes his arguments. He knows that McGrath not only understands Dawkins' science but understands theology, which Dawkins certainly doesn't. McGrath for his part is very polite. And his response to Dawkins' persistent questions about the problem of evil is disappointing. Dawkins brings up disasters and the fact that some live and some die. Dawkins understands psychologically why parents whose child survives thank God for saving him but feels that begs the question, “Why didn't God save the others?” Unfortunately McGrath responds to the question psychologically instead of picking up on Dawkins' very limited use of the word “save.” For Christians there is another way of understanding the term “save.” We do not believe this life is the only one. The surviving child is “saved” in a physical sense but it does not follow that all the others were not “saved” in another sense. In fact, the survivor is only “saved” in the same way I “saved” a dollar by using a coupon. I didn't spend it then but that doesn't mean I will retain that dollar forever. I will spend it on something else later. The survivor, like all of humanity, will die later on. So the physical salvation that Dawkins feels would have been a valid proof of God is ultimately a temporary one. I bet that in cases where all people survive, such as in the Hudson River plane crash, Dawkins would simply shift his ground and ask why, if there is a God, anyone ever dies.

Let's face it. If this life is the only one, then there is no justice. Good people suffer, bad people sometimes get away with evil. If there is no God to judge and redress wrongs in the afterlife, then there is no reason to trust him. Paul says as much. In 1st Corinthians he writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be most pitied.” In fact, later in the passage, Paul says, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.” The resurrection of Christ is, among other things, a promise that we who follow him will likewise be raised. Perhaps McGrath did not want to get into this part of Christian theology because Dawkins would reject out of hand any hint of the supernatural. But the resurrection of Christ is the beginning of our faith. If Jesus stayed dead, we wouldn't be here.

Still, this does not eliminate all the problems that death brings, like separation and mourning. The 1st chapter of 2nd Samuel gives us David's very moving ode to Saul and Jonathan. And it is all the more poignant when you consider the complex relationships they had with David. Saul was the first king of Israel. Jonathan was his son. Saul acted as a mentor to David. Jonathan and David were best friends. But Saul got jealous of his protege and eventually David was forced to flee from Saul. Hiding in the hills, David did not take advantage of the opportunities he had to kill God's anointed king. But when the Philistines routed Saul's army, they killed Jonathan and badly wounded Saul with arrows. Rather than let himself be captured, Saul fell on his sword. When the Philistines found his body, they cut off his head and displayed his body on the walls of the city of Beth Shan.

David was now free to take the throne of Israel which he had been anointed to do by Samuel years earlier. But he is torn up by ignominious death of Saul and Jonathan. So he composes the “Song of the Bow,” which contains the famous line, “How the mighty have fallen.” You can feel David's shame at how they were defeated, his pride in how they fought to the end, his mourning of the passing of the king, and his loss of a close friend. Some have seen a lot more than friendship in the relationship of David and Jonathan. I'm afraid they are reading back into that time and culture the way male friends act today in the West. But in the Mediterranean even today, men are free to express their affection for their friends in much the same way women do in our culture: holding hands, greeting each other and saying goodby with a kiss, etc. Whatever they were to each other, Jonathan's death was hard for David.

At David's time, the concept of an afterlife was rather vague. All the dead were thought to go to the shadowy realm of Sheol. That word either derives from the Hebrew word for ask, as if it is asking the land of the living for more dead, or it may come from a Hebrew word that means “empty or hollow place.” Sheol doesn't sound pleasant. It is a place of dust, darkness, silence and forgetfulness. It is a joyless place where the dead exist in, at best, a quasi-life. To go there prematurely, as Saul and Jonathan did, was seen as punishment.

But we also see another theme in the Old Testament. God is able to deliver the righteous from Sheol. Psalm 16 says, “For you will not abandon my soul from Sheol, nor will you let your holy one see decay.” Psalm 49 contrasts the fate of the wicked, who go sheep-like to Sheol, with the righteous. It says, “Surely God will redeem my soul from the hand of Sheol, for he will take me.” Take him in what sense? The use of contrast in Hebrew poetry would make it logical that he is taken by the opposite of the hand of Sheol. So the righteous dead are in God's hand.

However there are a few verses in the Old Testament that give us a glimpse of something more. In the 12th chapter of Daniel, an angel tells Daniel in a vision, “And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” And Isaiah 26 says, “Your dead ones will live. Along with my dead body they shall rise. Awaken and sing, dwellers of the dust. For your dew is the dew of dawn and the earth will give birth to the dead.” This is a glimpse of something the patriarchs scarcely dared to hope for: resurrection.

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And he demonstrated this on at least 3 occasions: the raising of Lazarus, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, and the raising of the girl in today's reading from Mark. This miracle is also told in Matthew and Luke. It is linked with the healing of a very gutsy woman. In both cases, Jesus is not afraid to break the taboos of his culture and religion to bestow healing on someone.

The woman with the bleeding would have been ritually unclean for the whole time of her ordeal. She would not have been able to enter the temple or participate in worship or in any kind of corporate life. No one—family, friends, or even strangers—would be able to touch her without also being considered unclean. If she had been married, her husband had probably divorced her long ago. She certainly shouldn't have been in the tightly packed crowd surrounding Jesus. She would make unclean any who jostled her, not to mention Jesus, whose garment she deliberately touches. That's why she is afraid when Jesus asks who touched him. But Jesus only wants to find out who touched him in faith. He commends the woman, who is restored not only to health but to the community.

Touching a dead body would also render Jesus unclean. But he presses on, even after messengers tell Jairus that his daughter has succumbed to her illness. This was a huge blow to Jairus. As a ruler of the synagogue, a position akin to a vestry or council member, it had to be hard for Jairus to come to Jesus. He was a controversial figure who acted without official sanction by religious authorities and who indeed butted heads with them. It would be as if our senior warden or council president went out to seek a roving street preacher for a healing. But his daughter was so sick that Jairus swallowed his pride and threw himself at Jesus' feet, begging for him to rescue his child. N. T. Wright says Jairus must have been hopping from one foot to the other in anxious impatience when Jesus paused to find and then speak to the bleeding woman. Then some friends and relatives arrive to tell him the worst. “It's too late. Don't bother the teacher any more.”

What Jesus says to this is crucial: “Don't be afraid; just trust!” The opposite of faith is fear, not unbelief. That explains why Richard Dawkins is emotional about what others believe rather than indifferent. He is afraid. He would say he fears the irrational and and destructive things that some believers do, such as suicide bombing. (I wish McGrath had pointed out that this practice was started by the Tamal Tigers, Marxist atheist terrorists fighting for a homeland in Sri Lanka.) But I think deep down Dawkins is afraid that we might be right—that there is a god, that the reason science works is not that human minds are finding patterns in randomness but that we are discovering evidence of a creative mind at work on every level of existence. If God exists—and when backed into a corner by logic Dawkins admits a god could exist—not only would he have to renounce many of his books, though not his scientific findings, but he would also have to live his life differently. Just as science determines what you can and cannot do physically, so a creator and redeemer God would determine what you can and cannot do morally. And that is what a lot of skeptics fear and rebel against.

But in the context of the story, Jesus is saying to Jairus, “Don't let fear get a hold of you; keep trusting in God and in me as his representative.” And Jairus was faced with a dilemma. Who should he trust? The friends and family members who gave him the awful news are trustworthy. Nor would they bring this devastating news unless they were absolutely sure. They knew death well. Unlike our society, everyone back then saw death with painful regularity. Half of all their children didn't make it to adulthood. Most adults didn't live to see 40. They knew the girl was gone.

On the other hand, Jairus just saw Jesus heal, inadvertently, a woman who had been sick most of her life. In a small town like Capernaum, Jairus may have known her or knew of her because she must have been wealthy once. We are told that she had “suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and spent all she had.” Everyone in town knew this sad case. And here, in a roiling crowd, like those pressing in on a modern celebrity, the woman had been cured. “Daughter, your faith has healed you,” Jesus said. So he could heal the living. But could he do anything for the dead? Could Jairus bear to have his hopes dashed a second time?

Jesus, possibly having the other disciples hold back the crowd, takes Peter, James and John with him to Jairus' house. The mourners have already been assembled. They have already started crying and wailing loudly. Again this is a culture that does not believe in holding back your emotions. And when Jesus, who has yet to see the girl, says she is not dead but asleep, they break into bleak laughter. She is pale. Her lips are blue. Her eyes are fixed. Her body is limp. There is no breath, no pulse, no heartbeat. They are not stupid. They did not give up on her prematurely. They have seen death more often than many healthcare professionals today have. The women have bathed and prepared and prayed over many a dead friend and neighbor and family member. “She is dead,” they laugh bitterly.

Jesus throws them all out. That's what the Greek says. Taking 3 disciples and the shocked parents into the girl's room, Jesus at last sees the person whose prognosis he so confidently pronounced. Jesus takes the corpse's hand and in her own language, Aramaic, not the more formal Hebrew, nor some magical mumbo jumbo, says, “Little girl, rise.” And she does. She gets up and walks around. She is alive once more. Everyone looking on is, according to the Greek, “instantly amazed and exceedingly ecstatic.”

Jesus then gives 2 orders. First, tell no one. How they are to pull this off, we do not know. As I said, everyone there knew the girl was dead. But Jesus is thinking of his ministry. He doesn't want it to end just yet. What will the authorities do if they hear of this? What would a bunch of doctors do if a local guy were effecting real cures without a license? Leaders are more interested in preserving their power than in promoting truth.

Then, possibly to snap the parents out of their wild and unhinged astonishment, Jesus reminds them to give the girl something to eat. Maybe the girl was dehydrated and emaciated after her long wasting away. Some commentators feel this smacks of an eyewitness account. It's such a weird detail--”Don't forget to feed your daughter”--that it seems like something that struck someone who was there and stuck with them.

The little girl and the bleeding woman were on the lowest rung in status of anyone in their culture. They should have been beneath Jesus' notice. Their conditions should have kept him from touching them. But he did. And he raised the child from the dead, something so astonishing that 3 out of the 4 gospels include it. And all 4 gospels tell us of dead people that Jesus raised. But Dawkins' question remains: why them? Why not save all the dead?

My observation of Dawkins' assumption stands as well. Mere physical rescue is not enough. It is more revival than resurrection. These people had to die all over again some day, though without the fear of death most of us have. Only the final conquering of death will redress the injustice of this life. The Jews of Jesus' day knew that. And they believed that one day, at the end of the current evil age, God would resurrect all people and judge them. And that's what was so mind-blowing about Jesus' resurrection. No one expected God to raise one person before the last day, much less the Messiah, who wasn't even supposed to die. Everything had to be rethought.

The facts are these. The resurrection of Jesus showed that all that he had said was true. He is the Messiah, God's anointed son sent to save the world. His death transforms our deaths. The age of the kingdom of God hasn't waited politely until the present evil age has played out. It's barged its way in, just as Jesus barged into that house filled with folks who made a perfectly reasonable diagnosis of the situation: it's all over; we live in a world with no miracles, no escape, no hope of any higher good than physical life.

Jesus overturned their assumptions and opened their minds to the fact that we don't know everything. The past doesn't put a straightjacket on the future. We do not live in a closed system. Just because God created a reliably regular world doesn't mean he can't break the routine when he feels it's necessary. That routine can be comforting. But when Jesus rose from the dead, all bets were off. Anything he wants to do is possible. And he wants to recreate the world. He wants to infuse life into our dying world. He wants to make us alive now before our life plays out. And when he's done with us, a merely physical life is irrelevant. Whether we live or we die, we are the Lord's. Death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.


Jesus' resurrection spelled the death of death. That should be exciting. And maybe a little scary. But Jesus said to Jairus, “Don't be afraid. Just trust.”    

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fatherhood and Plan B

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Don't ever take down a fence until you know why it was put up.” This was illustrated quite vividly by an incident that took place during the PBS reality show, Frontier House. A group of modern people were trying to live like their homesteading ancestors from the 1800s. Fences were not a high priority to these re-enactors until a nearby rancher drove his cattle through the settlement. The cows trampled the settlers' crops and pretty much everything in their way. Seeing this, the viewer understood both the need for fences as well as the enmity that farmers have for cowboys. Not for cows, mind you, because farmers also have cows, which they control with fences and barbed wire. Without them cattle see no distinction between the croplands and the meadows. Not only will they destroy people food, they will trample the very crops which are meant to get the cows through the winter. Fences can protect.

Fences are barriers and today it's popular to look down on barriers. And yet everyone lives with them: the walls of your house, the internet firewalls that keep hackers from hijacking or crashing your computer, and the personal space most people observe. When someone who is not family or a close friend violates that by getting closer than 2 or 3 feet of us, we become very uncomfortable. It all comes down to what the barriers keep out and how well they do so. The Great Wall of China did keep the Manchus from invading, at least until someone left a gate open. That could be either good news or bad news depending on how you feel about the Manchu dynasty. However, had the levees surrounding New Orleans worked as effective barriers to keep out the flooding, that city would have been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina. Barriers can be good.

However we have seen barriers, especially societal constructs, like the Jim Crow laws or redlining, used to exclude others and unjustly restrict people's freedom. Following Chesterton and knowing why they were put up—to oppress or segregate certain groups—means they and their ilk definitely should come down. But some people think that making definitional distinctions of any kind are exclusionary and want to dismantle all of them. One definition that people seem intent on dismantling is the concept of the traditional family. Critics say not all families are alike and they are right. They say traditional families have problems and they are right. No family is perfect and some families are downright toxic. It does not follow that there is something inherently wrong with the traditional family, any more than the existence of birth defects means that natural reproduction is inherently flawed. Nor does it mean that the alternatives, such as in vitro fertilization or the use of surrogates, are less susceptible to problems than nature's method for making babies. In fact, nobody who can safely conceive and give birth naturally uses any other method. The alternatives were developed for those who, for whatever reasons, couldn't do it that way, as a Plan B. Plan B can be good.

The biological family, consisting of a man, a woman, and any children they have is Plan A, that is, the plan most people consider first. Not everyone can achieve Plan A. Not everyone wants Plan A. That's why there's a Plan B. Plan B might be your preference. But that's no reason to disparage Plan A or deny that it is Plan A. For instance, if you're going to the mainland from the Keys, the fastest, cheapest way to drive is via the 18 Mile Stretch. That's Plan A. Card Sound Road is 7 miles longer and you have to pay a toll. That's Plan B. Now, like me, you might find Card Sound Road is more scenic and less stressful. You might feel it's worth the extra time and the $1 toll. Good. That doesn't change the fact that it is both the longer and more expensive drive to the rest of the state.

When it comes to the definition of the family, the first fence post people have been trying to remove is the father. The ongoing biological necessity of a mother is a given. Her body is designed to gestate, give birth to and feed babies. The father's role, aside from contributing half of the chromosomes needed to make a person, is less obvious. Some think that he is therefore redundant. But that's not what science says. More and more studies have shown that fathers are vital to both the physical and mental health of children. According to the National Principals Association, 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes. According to the Department of Justice, 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes. According to the U.S. Census, 63% of youths who commit suicide are from fatherless homes. Children from fatherless homes are twice as likely to engage in early sexual activity, 7 times more likely to get pregnant in their teens, 5 times more likely to be poor, 10 times more likely to abuse chemical substances, 20 times more likely to have behavioral disorders, 32 times more likely to run away, 14 times more likely to commit rape and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. According to the US census 25 million children are living apart from their biological fathers. That's 1 out of every 3 kids.

Having an actively involved father in the home not only tends to protect his children from bad outcomes, but those children tend to have a higher IQ, better verbal scores, and better academic success. They are more likely to be emotionally secure, more confident in exploring their environment, and more sociable with their peers. Playing with their fathers helps children regulate their feelings and behavior. As a government study says, “Generally speaking, fathers also tend to promote independence and an orientation to the outside world. Fathers often push achievement while mothers stress nurturing, both of which are important to healthy development.”

Of course, this is greatly enhanced if the father and mother have a loving relationship. And, to quote the same US government paper on child welfare that I've been using, “Research consistently shows that the married mother-and-father family is a better environment for raising children than the cohabiting (living together) mother-and-father family.” No, it's not the magic of having a piece of paper; it's the willingness to publicly make promises and commitments. Promises never uttered are easier to break.

Now we all know of the damage bad marriages and bad fathers do to their children. Husbands who are continually angry with their wives, who show contempt for them or who clam up and refuse to discuss important issues with their wives tend to have children who are anxious, withdrawn or antisocial. Abusive fathers (and mothers) model behavior that is unconsciously copied by their children in their future relationships. But again, the flawed execution of an idea doesn't disprove the validity of the idea itself. Otherwise, based on the disastrous movie adaptation, you would have to conclude than Man of La Mancha is a pretty crappy musical. A more logical conclusion is that they just didn't do it right.

How do you do it right? Since this is Father's Day, I'm going to address fathers and potential fathers.

First and foremost, resolve to be a good father even before you are one. That means refraining from situations that could make you an unwitting father. One of the most neglected areas in all the discussions of sex today is the fact that, biologically, it's primarily about making babies. That's why it is such a strong urge in all species that have 2 sexes. That's why salmon fight their way up raging streams. That's why male peacocks grow gorgeous fantails and shake them in dances to attract females. It's why the male bowerbird spends hours building a little hut and decorates it with hundreds of carefully arranged flowers, feathers, stones, discarded glass and plastic, all in the same color. Whatever else the participants are aiming for, their bodies are simply trying to create new life. This is not a side effect of sex; it's the main purpose. Ask any biologist.

Once you've found the person with whom you wish to create life, marry her. Being a baby daddy doesn't make you a man. Men make commitments. Men accept responsibility. The world was not built by those who lost interest in something once it became difficult but by those who persevered. Being in a committed relationship is not always easy. Raising children certainly isn't. A real man isn't afraid of the hard work of building a good relationship and a strong family.

A key element of that is the strength of your word. Only make promises you can keep; keep every promise you make. Do that and your wife and kids will respect you, and what's more, trust you. Trust is the foundation of any good relationship. The world is full of untrustworthy people and unreliable promises. Be different. Your kids will be the better for it.

That also applies to discipline. Let rules and the principles that underlie them be clear. Let the penalties for breaking the rules or violating the principles be clear—and reasonable. Don't threaten your kids with any punishment you are unwilling to follow through on but let them know bad behavior has consequences. The world is not going to shrug off dishonest, selfish, illegal or unreasonable behavior. Prepare them for that.

Unless you are willing to spend a couple of hours a week personally laying out for your children an integrated worldview and comprehensive ethical philosophy, take them to church. Don't send them; take them with you. Children are the keenest judges of hypocrisy. If you want them to do something, you must do it yourself as well.

Read the Bible to them. Discuss it. If you don't know something, be honest and tell them so. Then tell them you'll look up an answer. Don't worry. Children ask tough questions but it's unlikely that theirs hasn't already been asked in the last 2000 years. There is probably an answer, perhaps several. Don't give them the impression that faith means having all the answers all the time. Or the first time they are at a loss for one, their faith will collapse. Teach them that faith isn't believing a bunch of facts about God; faith is trusting God, relying on him in the present based on his goodness to us in the past.

Once again, children tend to do what you do. Teach them to trust God by trusting God. Teach them about thankfulness by being thankful. Teach them about mercy by being merciful. Teach them to admit their faults and amend their lives by admitting your faults and amending your life. Teach them about faithfulness by being faithful. Teach them about love by loving them and loving their mother. It's as simple as that; it's as hard as that. That's Plan A.

Sometimes it's harder than that. Sometimes things aren't going the way you planned. Or maybe they are and you realize you made the wrong plans. Maybe you neglected to plan. Maybe things came up that nobody could have planned for. Sometimes for whatever reason you find yourself smack dab in the middle of Plan B. Welcome to the club. That's life. But God is not frustrated. He can bring goodness out of whatever happens.

For proof of that, you need go no further than Abraham and his descendants. We think his family must be Plan A because they are God's people. But they are really examples of how God can even use people in Plan B, no matter how broken they are.

Sarah gave up on the idea of Abraham having the child God promised through her. She chose Plan B and so gives her maid Hagar to her husband as a surrogate. And when Hagar got pregnant, things got tense, as, by the way, all plural marriages in the Bible do. Sarah drove Hagar and her child out into the desert. But God saved Hagar and made her son Ishmael the father of a great nation.

Isaac and Rebecca had twins and each had a favorite. This exacerbated the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob and the jockeying for birthright and blessing led to a legacy of jealousy and deceit. Rebecca's favorite, Jacob, had to flee so his brother wouldn't kill him. She never saw him again. That was not her Plan A. But God used the situation and both brothers eventually prospered.

Jacob planned to marry one woman, Rachel. But that trickster was himself outsmarted by his father-in-law Laban and found himself hung over and married to Rachel's sister, Leah. After what reads like a bedroom farce, Jacob ends up with 4 jealous and competitive wives and 12 sons. But God makes them the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

Despite the obvious lessons of his childhood, Jacob favored the children of Rachel, especially Joseph, over his other sons. That situation almost led to fratricide and Joseph spent years in slavery and in a foreign prison. That doesn't sound like Plan A. Yet, though his life seemed to go from bad to worse, God used Joseph to save a nation as well as his father and brothers. Joseph turned out to be the noblest of the patriarchs.

Life seldom unfolds the way we'd like. Most of us find ourselves working under what we'd call Plan B at times. And yet most of the principles I listed can still be implemented. It's never too late to start following God. There is no situation that God cannot redeem. He can make Plan B look like it was really Plan A all along.

Never forget that you too have a father, one who understands you better than you do yourself. One who loves you more than you do yourself. One who can take any sorry state of affairs, even our crucifixion of his son, and turn it into a blessing. And so he cannot be stymied by any predicament we get ourselves into. The only question is whether we are going to continue to work against him or if we are going to start working with him.


Fatherhood is not for wimps or spoiled brats. It's not for the rigid who can't stand it when Plan A goes off the rails and you have to resort to Plan B. We all have to improvise at times. The two things that must remain constant is your love and your willingness not to give up but to persevere. Nor can you turn back the clock to the hallowed days of your childhood and do everything the way your dad did it. The best way to honor your father is to be the best father you can. And to realize that our Father in heaven is ever ready to help us and to bless us if we just let him.