Monday, December 31, 2012

The Bible Challenge

I love codes. I've read all kinds of books about them, their historical development and uses. One could argue that World War 2 was largely won because the Allies managed to break the German and Japanese military codes which allowed us to know what their armed forces were going to do before they did it.

I think this love of codes goes back to when I was a kid and realized that the world was filled with information that adults could decipher but I couldn't. So I was thrilled when they taught us to read in first grade. To turn the symbols into knowledge was an important skill. And once I learned to read, eventually I had to learn how to crack codes, forms of writing that once again were keeping me from learning something. I learned the manual alphabet for the deaf, Morse code, Braille, etc. After watching an episode of the old Mission Impossible TV show, I immediately jotted down the code the team was out to break so I could use it too. I had a book of codes I kept in my official James Bond attaché case, next to my 007 code machine and a James Bond pen that fired small projectiles in which you could roll up small pieces of message paper. And that paper would dissolve in water to hide it from enemy agents! I even made up some extremely complicated codes in case I was captured by bad guys and had to get a message out to my family. When you are a kid that seems like a much more likely scenario than it does when you grow up.

Today they use computers to devise nigh-unbreakable codes. It's not as much fun as using a Jefferson wheel cipher or a Scytale or a book code which turns any book you and the message's recipient both have into a codebook. I don't make up codes any more. But I still love movies like "The List of Adrian Messenger" or short stories like Poe's "The Gold Bug" or Doyle's "The Dancing Men." I should have liked "The Da Vinci Code" more but I kept getting distracted by all the historical and theological errors the author made.

You may be surprised that I was not at all in sympathy with the so-called Bible Code craze several years back. That's partly because I knew that, like a book code, if you have a sufficiently large text, you can use it to piece together any message. For that reason the Bible has been used as a codebook by spies. And if you're going to use it as a word search puzzle, you can find all kinds of random vaguely important words if you look hard enough.

But my disapproval was primarily based on the idea that God sticking a secret code into the Bible goes against the whole purpose of the scriptures, which is revelation. God is trying to communicate to a world that has trouble grasping obvious truths when they're laid out in front of them. (Remember the billboard that said, "What part of 'Love one another' don't you understand?--God.")  If the purpose of the Bible is to spread the good news why disguise it?

Even Jesus' parables are only hard to understand if you really don't try to grasp what he's saying about God, love, justice, forgiveness, grace, humility and how what people are inside counts for more than appearances. The gist of what Jesus is saying comes through, even if you need to consult a Bible dictionary or commentary to figure out certain details that his audience would have understood without any explanation.

Actually, the hardest thing about grasping what the Bible says is that it runs so contrary to our expectations. We tend to view things in a very different way. Watch any movie about good and evil and you will think that the two are easy to distinguish and that good people are radically different from bad people. But the Bible starts off by saying everything God created was good. Evil comes into the picture when we doubt God's goodness and misuse or neglect God's gifts. Evil is not good's equal and opposite. Evil is a parody of good, a diminishment of good, or as C. S. Lewis put it, spoiled goodness. That's why we often get the 2 confused. Evil people are people created to be good making bad choices. And no human is entirely good. So after the Fall we see humanity slide into all kinds of evils, especially violence. And we see God start his project to reclaim the people he created to be good. He finds certain persons, usually underdogs, through whom he can transmit his message, his word. Starting with Abraham we see God reveal what kind of God he is, namely one you can trust to keep his word, one who doesn't let untrustworthy behavior on our part slide, and yet who forgives those who turn their lives around. And he reveals himself to be a God who, unlike the other deities, doesn't demand we sacrifice our children or others. Sin does have a cost but that is shown in the sacrifice of animals, which were an expensive enough loss to those whose wealth and economy were measured in livestock.

When the people demand a king like other nations, God allows it, while warning the people about what such power will do to those who rule. David exemplifies both extremes. He is a man who devoutly worships God and yet he is forbidden to build the temple because he is a man of blood. He resorts to murder to cover up his adultery with another man's wife. His family troubles led to his son Absalom's revolt.

Another son, Solomon, is both a wise ruler and a fool when it comes to women and luxury. Under his heir politics split God's people into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Corruption sets in. And pretty soon God's message is not coming from official sources but from dissenters. The prophets keep pointing out how God's people, from the kings on down, fall short of God's standards. These shortcomings are particularly visible in the way people approach God and the way they approach the poor and powerless. The 2 are connected. If you don't really care about God or you worship things other than him, you don't really care about those made in his image or you value things above people. Eventually the corrupt regimes in Israel and Judah fall to the empires of Assyria and Babylon respectively. After 70 years of exile, only Judah returns, coming back to the ruins of Jerusalem and its temple. But the Jews have kept themselves from assimilation by devoting themselves to the Law of God that they previously had not observed.

By the time of Jesus, the problem is the opposite of not observing the Law. The Pharisees have obsessively kept it and elaborated on it, to the point that the average person despairs of receiving God's grace because keeping this version of the Law is impossible. The letter of the Law is being used to kill the spirit of the Law, were that possible. Justice, mercy and compassion take a back seat to keeping every last legalistic detail.

Into this world, God gives his last word on himself--the living Word of God, Jesus the Christ or Messiah. The definitive expression of God, the exact image of the Father, is seen in Jesus. He sets the record straight on the unforgiving version of the Law being promulgated and the religious leaders do not like it. Together with the leader of the country's Roman occupation they have Jesus executed. But God's Word will not be silenced and Jesus rises again to encourage and commission his disciples to preach the good news of God's Word. At Pentecost God's Spirit sets their hearts on fire and the gospel spreads like wildfire. Through Paul, a zealous Pharisee whom Jesus personally converts, the message reaches the Gentiles. The Bible ends with a book which, while somewhat disguised in Old Testament language so as to slip under the radar of the persecutors, is clear in announcing the victory of God and the re-creation of heaven and earth as a paradise once more.

That's the basic outline of the saga of God's redemption of his creatures. But there's so much more to the story. There is love and comedy and tragedy and treachery and war and peace and wisdom and folly and nobility and ignominy and horror and rescue and jokes and poetry and song. And yet, for all that, the Bible, a collection of 66 books written by at least 40 authors, has a remarkable unity. Like the 4 gospels, which approach Jesus from different vantage points and yet yield a 3 dimensional portrait of the same person, the Bible gives us a full and nuanced picture of our relationship with God. But the only way to get all of those details and nuances is to read the whole thing.

But that's hard, isn't it? Not if you read a translation you like. Not if you use any of the many study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and concordances, a great many of which are online, to answer any nagging questions. The Bible itself is online in several places in several translations, including in other languages. You can get it as an app on your smart phone or listen to it as a podcast. The Bible is easy to find, easy to read and easy to get the gist of. Yet woefully few Christians know it well.

The Bible is the best-selling book in the world and probably the least read. It's not in code. Its message has spoken to people all over the world, regardless of language, culture or time period. It has changed lives, inspired reforms in society and in the church, and has left its mark in our language and thought-forms. The majority of early scientists in the West were Christians and often clergy. They believed that the universe, as the work of one God, must make sense and that we, as creatures created in God's image, should be able follow his thoughts in exploring his universe. They believed all truth is God's truth. Isaac Newton, considered by many the greatest scientist ever, was very well-versed in the Bible and wrote a great deal about it. Some modern scientists ignore that part of his life. And they criticize people of faith as non-thinking dummies who don't even know what they believe very well.

So once again I'm going to issue the Bible Challenge. It's an attempt to get as many people to read the Bible in a year as we can. You can either read 3 chapters every day or read 5 chapters a day--3 from the Old Testament, 1 from the Psalms, and 1 from the New Testament--6 days a week. Most Bible chapters take 3 to 4 minutes to read so each session only takes 20 to 30 minutes a day. You can do that in the morning, at lunch or at bedtime.

I know inmates who have read the whole book in a couple of weeks. Admittedly they can devote most of their waking hours to it. But to the average inmate it is the most reading he or she has done in their whole life. Some churches have done marathon public readings of the Bible over 4 to 5 days. Reading the entire Bible takes from 72 to 90 hours total. So stretched out over a year, it's an easy task to accomplish.  

And to help you, I will not only post the references to daily readings but I will be posting my daily reflections on this blog. I myself have decided, after much thought, to read Eugene Peterson's The Message. I was going to read various scholarly translations. But Peterson is a Greek and Hebrew professor turned pastor who did his very periphrastic but astute version precisely to get people to read the Bible. So I'm going to try it just to feel the flow of the saga of God.

I intend to start on New Year's Eve, to keep up the Monday through Saturday schedule. You can simply start January 1. By the end of the first week you will have read about creation, the Fall, the tower of Babel, Noah and the flood and how Abraham pleaded for Sodom to be spared. You will have read a selection of David's psalms and be in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount. By the end of 4 weeks you will have put the 10 Commandments behind you, have the 22nd and 23rd psalms fresh in your mind, and be approaching the crucifixion of Jesus for the first time. And you will have created a new habit. According to experts, it takes doing something for 21 days to make that activity a habit. Admit it: you've got worse habits. This would be an excellent one to adopt.

The most stinging criticism of Christianity is that it could be a good thing… if more people put it into practice. Sadly, a lot of people have very vague and uniformed ideas of what Christianity is really about. They think it's about being nice all the time. Or that it's about telling everyone else what they are doing wrong all the time. Or that it's about proclaiming difficult-to-understand doctrines. Or it's about being very concerned with your own relationship with God and your own spirituality and your personal peace. Those are distortions that come from only paying attention to certain scriptures. If you want to know about God and humanity more fully, you need to find out what he actually has revealed about himself, about his past history with us and about his plans for us now and in the future. The good news is you can do this by reading a half hour or less a day for a year.

Knowledge is power. Paul knew this and said in Romans chapter 1: "I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes…" So not having knowledge of the gospel robs you of spiritual power and health, the way not knowing what nutrient you are lacking in your diet robs you of physical power and health. What you don't know can hurt you. What you learn can save you. It can also help you pass that life-saving knowledge to all you meet. What better time to gain or refresh this vital knowledge than right now?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Carol of the Birds

This is based on a sermon illustration I heard as a kid. The sermon was written by Dr. George Scotchmer of Memorial Presbyterian church in St. Louis. I've fleshed it out and provided an ending.

It was Christmas Eve and the whole family was bundled up to go to services. Well, the whole family except for Dad. He never went to church. He said he had enough church when he was a kid to last him the rest of his life. His wife had given up on him as had the older children but the little one still pled with him to come. "Daddy, come on. Go with us."

"Sorry. I've got important stuff to do."

"You always say that. You just want to watch TV!"

"It's going to get cold tonight. What if the furnace goes out or the pipes freeze?  Want to come back to a house that's a block of ice?"

She didn't have an answer for that. "No. But can't you come for just a little bit of the service?"

"I need that time to make hot chocolate for you when you get back." That'll get her, he thought.

"That doesn't take that long. You use the microwave. Come on. You'll miss Baby Jesus."

"If I go, I might miss Santa. We don't have a chimney. I need to let him in."

It was a low blow but it got her thinking. "OK," she said reluctantly.

After they were gone, he felt guilty about using Santa. After all, the real reason he didn't go was that he didn't believe in Jesus. Well, at least not as God. But his wife did and they had agreed she could raise the kids in her church. It wasn't bad for them. It hadn't hurt him growing up. In fact, back when he was a kid and believed, it probably kept him out of a lot of trouble he saw his friends get into. But when he was a teenager, he started having doubts and eventually decided it was all nonsense. The idea that God would become a human being, die for people, all that. It made no sense. He wouldn't go to church because he wasn't a hypocrite. Which is why bringing up Santa to his daughter bothered him. He wasn't being honest.

After putting out the presents, he decided he was going to watch TV but it turned out there wasn't anything to watch except Christmas movies and Christmas specials and Christmas episodes of regular series. So he turned it off and looked out the side window at the snow falling. It was beautiful and it did bring back a bit of nostalgia for the Christmases he enjoyed as a kid. And looking at the snowflakes and realizing how unique each one was made him think about God. There might be a God, in his mind; a creator who got things started, like a watchmaker. But after he made and wound up the watch, why would God interfere with its workings or operation? Why would he answer the prayers of the individual cogs and springs? Why would he become a cog? Everything in this world worked out as it was designed to.

He noticed a lot of birds in the barren trees in his front yard. They were all fluffed up against the cold. Wasn't it supposed to get way below zero tonight? Could the birds survive that? He looked at the feathery balls in his trees, occasionally raising a beak and chirping plaintively. A harebrained scheme came into his head.

He went out through the kitchen into the garage. He hit the button by the door into the kitchen and the big garage door opened. Then he located the bag of bird seed they kept there and using a Big Gulp cup scooped out a large amount. He walked out under one of the trees and started pouring a thin line of seeds out to the driveway. He got another scoop and poured a line up the driveway into the garage. He looked back at the birds. A few flew down to investigate. They pecked and a few more joined them. They slowly exhausted the stash below the trees and followed the trail of seeds to the driveway. It took awhile but they got halfway to the garage. And stopped. They wouldn't come near him.

Of course! he thought. They are afraid of me. He started back to the kitchen door, stopped, then turned and went to his car. He removed something from the visor and went into his house. He went to the side window and watched, clicker in hand. When they got inside, he'd close the door so they'd stay warm.

Painstakingly, so as not to miss one seed, the birds hopped up the driveway and then stopped again, just outside the door. They would not go into the garage. Why not? he wondered. Did it smell of cars and chemicals? Wait! The cat's litter box was out there. They must smell the scent of cat.

He went back out the kitchen door into the garage. The birds backed away from him, hopping. He picked up the litter box and brought it in the house. Where to put it? He finally carried it to the guest bedroom. His wife would forgive him when he told her how he saved the birds from freezing to death.

When he got back to the window, he looked out expecting to see the birds in the garage. But they weren't. He watched for a bit but they congregated just outside the opening. It was getting dark so he went back to the kitchen and turned on the garage lights. Returning to the window, he watched until he was certain the light was not making the garage more attractive to the birds. He tried turning it off. This didn't make it any harder to see the birds as they were clearly visible against the snow. Still no migration to the garage.

He took a space heater out there, turned it on and went back inside. No, they would not enter the garage for heat. He went back and scooped and poured a huge pile of seeds in the center of the garage. They had eaten all of the trail; if they wanted more they would have to come into the garage. He went back into the house and waited at the window. One bird seem to cock its head at him and he thought maybe the were spooked by his watching at the window. He turned out the room's lights and went back to the window, hoping he was now invisible. No movement towards the pile, though.

Give it up, he thought. They aren't going to save themselves. Why are you doing this? Why do you care? He turned resolutely from the window and turned the TV on.

5 minutes later, he went out the front door, dressed in one of his wife's heavy cape/coat affairs. He came up behind the birds, spread his "wings" and tried to herd the birds into the garage. This was disastrous. Rather than be driven into the garage, the birds flew in every other direction just far enough to get away from him. So he strutted into the garage and mimed pecking at the seeds, devoutly hoping that no neighbor could see him. The birds were not fooled. He was not one of their flock.

He ran out of the garage and tried to shepherd them into the life-saving warmth but they would go anywhere but there. Except one bird. It did not flee him. He looked at it hopefully, grabbed some seeds and tossed them in front of it. It did not move. He got closer. It did not move. He put a few seeds in the palm of his hand and offered them to it. It did not move.

Hope began to drain from him. It was not moving, its eyes were closed, its legs were drawn up under it and he couldn't see it breathing. He put his finger out, touched it and it did not move. Oh my God, was it dead? Had it already frozen to death?

He scooped up the bird and cupped it in his hands. It offered no resistance, nor did it respond at all. It was cold in his hands. He held it close to the heavy material of the coat. It did not move or make noise.

He carried the unmoving bird in his hands into the garage. He held it as close to the space heater as he dared. He breathed warm air on it. He rubbed it gently with one hand. He shook it a bit. It was no use. It was dead, he thought. And the other birds were sitting down and moving less. They're dying and I can't save them. I can't make them go to the food and the warmth and the light. They don't trust me and I can't make them understand I only want to save them. Why can't they see that? What do I have to do to let you know I'm on your side?

He looked up from where he was huddled with the bird on the floor of the garage. His eyes were tearing up. He would have attributed it to the cold but why lie to himself? He wasn't going to be able to save them. And so he did something he hadn't done since he was a teen. He asked God for help. Please, God. Don't let these birds die. Not so close to what they need. Not on Christmas eve.

He kneeled there on the floor of the garage, just repeating the words "please, help" over and over in his mind. Until he felt movement in his hands. The bird stirred. Its eyes were opened but it looked a bit out of it. He blew on it. It shook its head. It looked at him uncertainly. He cradled it until it tried to stand. He was about to take it into his house and then stopped. He put it down right next to the pile of seeds, stepped back and watched, scarcely breathing. The bird shrugged, stood unsteadily, got its bearings and pecked at the seeds. It pecked a bit and then lifted its head and chirped. It pecked some more and chirped. It started really going to town on the seeds, stopping periodically to sing. The other birds began chirping back. After a while one or two ventured into the garage and came to the pile of seeds. Then a couple more. Eventually most of the birds were there. He backed incrementally away from them, with long halts during his retreat so that he wouldn't scare them.

He was a safe distance from the garage when he heard his wife's car coming up the street. He went out to the beginning of the driveway to flag her down. She stopped the car in response to his frantic arm waving and rolled down the window. He told her to turn off the car and the lights and come with him. The kids piled out, looking questioningly as their father shushed them. Slowly they followed him up the driveway until they saw the feathered feasters in the garage. The family whispered all kinds of questions and after several minutes he convinced them to come indoors and they all watched from the side window while he told them what happened.

"You saved them, Daddy! You saved the birds!" his youngest squealed.

"Not me; it was that little one there." He pointed to the one he thought had frozen. He told them how it had sung to the others till they knew it was safe to come in from the cold and eat. "They didn't trust me. They wouldn't come near me. I wasn't one of them. He is. If it wasn't for him, they would have died."

They watched for a while longer and the older kids started to drift away. He and his youngest stayed at the window to watch the birds.

Suddenly she said, "Daddy, you missed church! It was great! It was all about the baby Jesus. The preacher talked about why God sent Jesus to become a baby. You wanna know why, Daddy?" 

He smiled at her and looked at the birds, safe and warm. "I think I finally know."

Bed Rock

When I was on a college study trip in Israel I actually saw a first century manger. You may well wonder how a feed box could survive for 2000 years. Wouldn't it rot? Not if it was made of stone. This was a slab of stone that had a depression carved into it. You'd put the animal's feed in that. And, if necessary, using a lot of hay I hope, you might turn it into a less than perfectly comfortable cradle if you're born in a barn.

A lot of the buildings of Jesus' day survive because they were made of stone. In fact, we saw a stone doorway with a lentil carved to look like wood grain. The Palestinians had a legend that at the beginning of time a great pelican flew over the earth carrying 3 huge bags of rocks. He lost 2 of them over the Holy Land. Stone was plentiful in Israel; wood not so much. So wood was expensive and just as we do with plastic, craftsmen sometimes made stone look like wood. This kind of thing has made some Bible scholars think that Jesus may not have been a carpenter. Arguing that the Greek word tekton means builder, they say Jesus may have been a stone mason. European scholars only translated the word as "carpenter" because they built houses out of wood. In Galilee and Judea most homes were made from stone.

If Jesus was a builder in stone, it ties a lot of scriptures together. For one thing, it is interesting that in several passages in the Old Testament a stone is used as a symbol of the Messiah. The most famous is Psalm 118:22 which says "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone." Jesus concluded the Sermon on the Mount by saying that those who hear his words and put them into practice are like a person who builds his house on bedrock. He nicknames Cephas Peter, the equivalent of our "Rocky," and says that on his confession of faith he will build his church. After Jesus incurred the wrath of the Temple officials by driving out the corrupt moneychangers, the disciples try to distract their angry rabbi by pointing out the magnificent stones of the Temple. They might have thought this would engage his professional interest. Instead he says that no two stones of the temple would be left on top of one another. He said this temple, indicating himself, he would raise up in 3 days. He talked like a builder.

If Jesus were a builder in stone it might explain Joseph's absence during Jesus' adulthood. Then as now construction is a very dangerous profession. During Jesus' early years Herod Antipas was rebuilding the capital of Galilee, Sepphoris, just 4 miles from Nazareth, and Joseph might have gone there for work, taking Jesus as his apprentice. There may a been a day when Joseph didn't come home, having been killed in a fall from a great height or crushed by a mammoth stone. And had Jesus been part of the rebuilding of Sepphoris he would have heard tales of the rebellion that caused the Romans to destroy that city. He would have heard how they crucified all the men of Sepphoris and lined the roads to the place with the crosses of dying rebels. Jesus would have known from a very early age the cost of trying to set up an alternate kingdom to that of the so-called divine Roman Emperor.

If Jesus was a builder, he would also be following the profession of his heavenly Father. One of the frequent metaphors for God in the Old Testament is that of the builder. In Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah, and the Psalms God is pictured as the one who lays the foundation of the earth, who sinks the cornerstone and uses calipers, tape measures, and plumb-lines to make things straight and upright. God's Wisdom is personified as a master craftsman who works alongside God in building the world. Later Christians would see this personified Wisdom as a foreshadowing of Christ, through whom all things were made.

God is spoken of as the one who builds Jerusalem and who gives detailed instructions on the plan of the new Temple to Ezekiel. He builds up the community of his people from the ruins of their defeat and exile. In the New Testament, Christians are spoken of by both Peter and Paul as living stones who are built up into the house of God. We are both individually and corporately the temple of God, in whom he dwells. And to that end Paul often talks of how Christians should use their words and gifts and ministries to edify or build each other up.

The Book of Hebrews says "the builder of all things is God." And indeed one can look at salvation as God's great building project. The culmination of the saga of Scripture is after all the new Jerusalem, "descending out of heaven from God." This super-symmetrical city is described in loving detail as being made of pure gold decorated with every precious stone imaginable. And yet, lest we take this literally, the city is called "the bride of the Lamb." We are back to the idea of the church being an edifice of believers.

When I started looking into this I was fascinated by how often the Bible speaks of God building, whereas a lot of people think of God primarily as a destroyer. It's interesting that the Hebrew word for destroy first appears in Genesis chapter 6, before the story of the flood, where God regrets making humanity because "The earth was ruined in the sight of God; the earth was filled with violence." This is paralleled in Revelation 11:18 where it says, "The time has come to destroy those who are destroying the earth." Think of this from God's viewpoint. He creates the earth as a paradise for us. We ruin it. We destroy it with violence against each other, though we are all made in his image. God decides to remove those who are destroying his paradise so he can restore it. This is like a builder who pulls down unsafe structures and hazardous ruins not fit to live in so he can build something better and lasting for others.

God does not delight in destruction. Ezekiel 33 tells us "As I live, declares the sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but prefer that the wicked change his behavior and live." Nor can we look at every act of destruction and see it as God's judgment. Jesus addressed this when asked about some Galileans whom Pilate killed as they made sacrifices at the Temple. "Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you." Jesus similarly dismisses the idea that 18 people killed when a tower collapsed were judged. And those who say that natural disasters and mass murder are sent by God as judgment are not speaking with the Spirit of Christ. They'd better check their Bibles. There are penalties for misrepresenting God when claiming to speak for him.

The Hebrew word for "build" is also the word for "repair." God builds up and repairs. And we see this in Jesus. He repaired broken people--people who were blind, lame, mute, deaf, bleeding, deformed and leprous. He repaired people whose brains did not work right. He repaired relationships, restoring outcasts to the people of God. He reconciled Peter to him after his resurrection, asking him 3 times if he loved him, letting him declare his love for Jesus thrice, the same number of times Peter denied him at Christ's trial. Jesus does all of these things today. He builds up and repairs people and broken relationships. And if we are to be God's people, that's our mission as well.

God gives us the privilege of working with him in building his kingdom. We build up and repair people using our gifts, our skills and knowledge. We do it with our time and money. We do it with the help of science. Some people erect an artificial barrier between science and faith. They are not in conflict any more than architecture is in conflict with cathedrals, or my laptop in in conflict with the sermons I write on it or the internet is in conflict with my blog. Science is about how; faith is about why. Faith tells us what is of ultimate value, like loving God and loving other people as Jesus loves us; science can help us with concrete ways of doing so, like education, medicine, water purification, and other methods of helping others. People can misuse religion and science as they can misuse anything. That's the nature of evil: the misuse of God's good gifts. But provided scientists and theologians know what their individual functions are and aren't, they need not be at each other's throats. Faith points out that we must help all those created in the image of God and science can work out how to do just that.

If we are followers of Jesus the builder, we need to inventory our own gifts, skills and assets. We need to look at what we have as the tools our construction supervisor has given us and figure out how best to use them. We need to look at anything we encounter not as a headache or an excuse for heartache but as an opportunity to build or repair. A recent Pew Research Center report says that 16% of the world's population doesn't have a religious affiliation, the third largest group after Christians and Muslims. Some see this as a cause for alarm. Why not see it as an opportunity?

We have some real repairs to make in the church. Some people think they should pass judgment on others, on whether they are worth saving or even eliminating. That's not our job. Jesus explicitly tells us not to issue verdicts on others, or we will be judged by the same standards. We've seen a lot of powerful people throw stones at others only to have their lives and careers and self-righteousness shredded as their glass houses shattered and rained down on them. The selection of materials is the boss' job. Michelangelo made his masterpiece of David out of a flawed stone no other sculptor would use. And God uses only imperfect people to build with. Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul and all the rest were sinners, as is everyone in this church and the guy behind the pulpit. Remember people rejected the cornerstone as well. Leave judgment to Jesus. He's the one who has the final say on hiring, firing and what to material he will work with.

Ironically, the one thing that is all wrong as a material to work with is a heart of stone. A hard heart lacks the flexibility and sensitivity to respond to God's instructions. But as God says in Ezekiel 36, "I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you…" Again God does the hard part. He changes us. We just have to let him work in us. Then and only then can we work with him. 

What was set in place on that bed of stone in a cave in Bethlehem was the next phase in God's plan to rebuild and restore the world he created and pronounced good as well as the people he made in his image to inhabit it. He has graciously recruited us to be a part of this great enterprise. Jesus is the rock, the foundation we build on. And he is the chief cornerstone and the chief builder. We are not the boss. We are his apprentices, his crew. We learn from him. We take orders from him. We build up and repair. And we should never lose sight of the ultimate goal of this project: a gleaming city on hill, a light to the world, where the Lord lives with his people, where reigns the Prince of Peace in the city of peace, whose architect and builder is God.    

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In Vulnerability

How does Superman shave? Think about it. He's invulnerable to everything other than kryptonite. What could he use to shave his whiskers? Or cut his hair? Did Jor-El put some super razor blades into that little escape rocket with his infant son? Kryptonian scissors? I actually looked this up and there are some very funny answers on the internet but many remember a comic book where he uses his heat vision and a mirror to singe it off! As for how Clark and Lois could ever, uh, have kids, well, science fiction writer Larry Niven explored that insurmountable problem in hilarious detail. Suffice it to say, Superman only looks human; he's not really one of us.

There's been a lot of fan commentary on the idea that Superman, created by 2 Jewish teens, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, was a kind of Messiah. He saves the world, repeatedly. But he does so because he's physically more powerful than his enemies and impervious to bullets. It's precisely the kind of hero that would be dreamed up by a boy like Jerry Siegel whose father died as his business was being robbed by armed men.

Jesus is God Incarnate and many would be totally cool with it if he had been like a real-life Superman--superstrong and invulnerable. He'd never suffer the pain and humiliation of being crucified. He'd never be a victim. Of course, he's also never get a splinter or understand our pain or weaknesses. He would never understand how fear would make Peter deny him 3 times and then be able to forgive him. He would never understand how grief and bitter disappointment could make Thomas doubt. He would never know why Mary, Martha and their friends would be so brokenhearted over Lazarus' death and so weep himself.

At our last Lenten midweek service, we considered why it is important to hold onto the fact that Jesus is God. This week we emphasize the other fact of the paradox: that Jesus was also fully human. Why is this important? There was a whole philosophy called Gnosticism that felt Jesus' humanity was not just unimportant but a bad mistake. All matter was evil to them and that meant that anyone as pure as Jesus could not have really become a flesh and blood man. They often resorted to the idea that Jesus' corporeality was an illusion. This was called Docetism, from the Greek word for "seems." Jesus only seemed to have a body; he was, rest assured, pure spirit. 

As I said before, we tend to think in binary terms: black or white, flesh or spirit, this thing or that thing, and never the twain shall meet. The idea of God Incarnate makes many people uneasy. They want to say, "Jesus, pick a side already." But reality doesn't care for our categories. We separate mammals and birds, noses from bills, say reptiles can be poisonous but not mammals. And then reality throws a duck-billed platypus at us. We make our categories neat and clean and reality messes them up and blurs the lines. It turns out reality is just taking cues from its creator. He doesn't like us dictating to him what is acceptable in the divine.

God, according to the philosophers, is supposed to be aloof, passionless, a spirit who is primarily defined by what it isn't: immaterial, invisible, incomprehensible, implacable, immortal. Jesus breaks all those rules. He can be touched, seen, understood, and appealed to. He can be hurt. He can be tortured. He can be executed. He knows what it is to be human from your first breath to your last.

In his classic book, "Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" Rabbi Kushner admits that Christians have an advantage in believing God became a man in Jesus. If God was one of us, it means evil is not abstract to him; it's not an intellectual problem; it is not an annoyance that dirties up his clean creation. It means it is something that he encounters everyday, in his life and the lives of those he loves. He sees the damage it does, hears the cries of its victims, feels their deformed limbs and ravaged skin, smells the coppery scent of the blood they shed, and tastes the poor fare they eat. Evil is what he masters and denounces: the evil people do deliberately, the evil people let happen, the evil of not wanting to know what happens, the evil of hypocrisy, the evil of deceit, the evil of violence, the evil of neglect. Evil is what he himself endures: the evil of betrayal, the evil of injustice, the evil of political convenience, calculation, and cowardice, the evil of just following orders.

Jesus also understands goodness, not as an abstract quality commended by philosophers but as a sign of God's grace. He sees it in the strong faith of men willing to tear up a roof to get their friend fixed. He hears it when the scribe quotes the 2 great commandments to him in response to his question. He feels it in the children thrust into his arms by their parents for his blessing. He smells it in the last Passover meal he shares with its friends. He tastes it in the wine provided by the women of Jerusalem for those condemned to the cross. He models and encourages the goodness of justice, of mercy, of peace, of faith, of hope, the goodness of self-sacrificial love.  

People sometimes have trouble with the divinity of Christ. It seems a vague, unnecessary quality to some. But in Jesus the human and divine meet. In his humanity, his divinity is concretely expressed. In Jesus we see what God is like. And because he is the perfect image of God, we see what we are intended to be and what, through Christ, we can be. He came to humanity so we can share in his divine life. And so we can spread his eternal life to others. But God is love and none of us alone can fully mirror that. But a whole world, loving God with all they are and each other as Christ loved them, can display the true nature of the God who so loved the world that he sent his unique son into it so all may know, trust and live that love.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Good Thing, Small Package

There are, depending on how you count them, about 37 recorded miracles performed by Jesus. Some of them echo miracles performed by prophets of the Old Testament, especially multiplying food, healing lepers, controlling weather and even raising the dead, all of which Elijah and Elisha did. But the unique miracle that Jesus performed was walking on water. Nobody had done that before or since. And as we learn in Matthew, the immediate effect is that the disciples worship Jesus and say, "Truly you are the Son of God!"

Today it is basic theology that Christ is fully God and fully man. In the first century that was not a obvious solution to what folks encountered in Jesus. They thought he was a prophet, possibly the Messiah, but that didn't necessarily translate to him being divine. There were various ideas of the nature of the Messiah but God Incarnate was not one. To Jews this would seem blasphemous and sure enough, whenever Jesus says things like "I and my Father are one" or "Before Abraham was, I am" the reaction of his critics was to start picking up stones in order to kill him. So it took a lot for even the disciples to wrap their heads around the idea that Jesus was divine. Even after walking on water, it didn't really hit home until after his resurrection.

For us, Jesus' divinity is a given. And yet, our minds are so influenced by the concept that things belong to either one category or another, that we tend to at least overemphasize one of Jesus' natures. And that was the problem the early church had. In the first 300 years of Christianity, the hot topic was the relationship of Jesus' divine and human natures. I'm not going to get into details because that would mean first explaining the Greco-Roman philosophy of nature, spirit, mind and soul. Suffice it to say, that various solutions were suggested. Some made Jesus a victim of multiple personality but most seemed to have Jesus' divine nature totally override his human nature.

Arius was a Christian priest who came up with a different solution. Jesus was a lesser god, created by God the Father before the rest of creation. Thus the Trinity was an improper picture of the relationship of the Father and the Son. When Jesus says the Father is greater than he, he is not talking merely about his present state as a human being but his pre-human state as well.
The problem is that Arianism essentially makes Christians polytheists. And it means that when we are dealing with Jesus we are not dealing directly with God but a subordinate, albeit a highly placed one. God did not become human; a lesser god did. God did not die for the world; a lesser god did.

The advantage of this is that it does do away with the Trinity which is a confusing concept for many. But what if we did that in science? What if we ignored the fact that light acts as both a particle and as a wave and came down definitively on one side or the other? Physicists would object that we would be ignoring a whole lot of data for the sake of making a complex piece of reality easier to understand and digest.

What is the Biblical data? That the Father is God. That the Son is God. That the Holy Spirit is God. And that there is one God. The Trinity doesn't so much explain this as preserve the paradox. It is like maintaining that light is both a particle and a wave and we just have to deal with it. The same is true of the theologians who debated Arianism and decided to maintain the paradox of the Trinity and the paradox of the 2 natures of Christ in the Nicene Creed. "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made." Once you have that clear in mind, that on God's plane of existence 3 persons can be one being (something hinted at and reflected in the Genesis account of male and female becoming one flesh or organism) then the story of Christmas becomes even more marvelous. God did not delegate our redemption to a lesser being but took upon himself the task of saving us. The One who made you died for you. 

Translator J. B. Phillips in his book, "Your God is Too Small," put it this way: that Jesus is the infinite transcendent God whom we cannot truly imagine focused in terms we understand, those of time and space and human personality. In Jesus we see what God is like, especially his character. He is, as the Methodists would say, Holy Love. And he is now one of us. So just as it is mind-blowing to contemplate that all of the universe was, prior to the Big Bang, compressed into an infinitesimally small singularity, so too at Christmas we realize that in a manger in Bethlehem the Creator of the universe became a creature within it, a baby, a thing of flesh and blood, who fed at his mother's breast and had to be changed. Just because that's hard to understand doesn't make it less true. We just have to deal with it.

There is a meme going around Facebook, a Someecard that says, "I'm not short, I'm concentrated awesome!!" That was the infant in the feeding trough: Concentrated Awesome. The mind-blowing power of all creation in one tiny creature. God become human. That's an explosive combination. What happens next? Well, the last time anything close to that much power was that compact, it triggered the creation of the universe. This time it is primed to set off the New Creation, the grand restoration of all things as God intended, beginning with us. So at Advent our message is: watch out, world! Concentrated Awesome is coming! 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

One Man Intervention

An intervention is more than inconvenient; it is an intrusion into one's personal life. What business do family members and friends have in telling you how to live your life? That is the mildest response an addict can have to being the center of a concentrated effort to get him or her into rehab. From what few episodes I've seen of the cable TV series "Intervention," the addict's reaction is often much more emotional and much more negative. On one episode I recall the young woman in question spewing her loved ones with a seemingly endless string of expletives (which, when bleeped, sounded like the heart monitor of someone having a very bad case of atrial fibrillation). She then stormed off and paced up and down the road outside her house, crying and cursing. I don't remember whether she was ever convinced to go into rehab.

In his hilarious but harrowing memoir "Dry," Augustin Burroughs recalls being outraged but a bit less outwardly offensive at his intervention. That's because it was done by coworkers and his boss and the upshot of refusing rehab was to be fired. He was nevertheless extremely resentful and it took a while before he saw how bad his problem was and how deep in denial he was. One of the exercises rehab made him do was estimate how much alcohol he consumed, year by year, since he began drinking, which was in his childhood. The numbers surprised and alarmed him. Also astounding was the fact that he constantly took antihistamines because he was one of those rare individuals who is actually allergic to alcohol. Another shock hit him when he first returned home after rehab. His apartment was full of empty bottles. He had not noticed them until he was fully sober. In the end he carted out several trashcans full of empty liquor bottles, an unsettling and previously unseen reminder of how severe his problem had become.

Intervention did not exist in the days of Jesus. Besides, when the whole world is sick and enslaved to sin, where do you get the non-addicts to perform it? So John the Baptist is doing it all by himself. And, unlike the rules of staging an intervention, he isn't using very objective language. He is, quite frankly, insulting the residents of Judea, calling them a brood of vipers. The specific vipers he referred to were thought to chew their way out of their mother's womb. I'm sure he offended people and even got heckled but a lot of folks actually responded appropriately to John. Why?

Years ago I had a young patient who had a very rare condition. The doctors and parents knew the child had medical problems and they treated the symptoms and complications but they didn't know what was at the root of the child's disorder. And this was before the internet. The mother did a lot of research and found his condition through the National Organization of Rare Disorders that collects what little was known about various diseases too uncommon for research and treatment to be profitable. Her son's condition was one of only about 100 documented cases worldwide. There was no cure, only treatment, but after living with this mystery for 2 years, the parents were just happy to know the name and cause of their son's congenital condition. They found that there was a small group of parents and patients who, by banding together, were trying to get researchers to learn more about this disability.

I heard other patients say that, after suffering for years, they were just glad that the cause of their misery had a name. It is hard to fight a nameless, undefined enemy. Even if the diagnosis brought little hope, they were encouraged by the fact that at least they knew what they were dealing with.

As in the time of Samuel, it had been a long time since there had been a prophet declaring the Word of the Lord to his people. Maybe that's why people flocked to John despite his inflammatory rhetoric. They knew they had problems but no one was telling them what it was. Then as now they did have people telling them what they wanted to hear. The Zealots told them the problem wasn't them; it was the Romans who occupied their country. Scapegoats are always popular. Get rid of the bad people and all of our problems will be solved. They are still doing that in the Middle East. "If we just got rid of all the (Arabs, Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Shiites, Sunnis, etc) all of our problems would be solved." We do it here. "If we just got rid of all of the (illegal aliens, gays, homophobes, unions, conservatives, liberals, brown people, white people, etc) all of our problems would be solved." It doesn't work that way. Logistically it is impossible. The Nazis devoted considerable resources to exterminating the Jews. They killed 6 million but the Jews still survive. And had they succeeded, would Nazi Germany have been saved from all or most of its problems? No. Scapegoating not only harms innocents; it diverts us from our real problems. They tend to be closer to home. The comic strip Pogo was on the mark when it mangled Caesar's declaration of victory "We have met the enemy and he is ours" into "We have met the enemy and he is us." 

But maybe the problem isn't us but the way we are doing things. If we follow this technique or program or regimen, the problems will be licked. Not a week goes by that I don't receive a postcard or email or flyer proclaiming a hitherto unknown method of making a church grow or increase its giving. And while the touted program might have a lot of truth to it, the idea that merely implementing it will yield magical results is patently untrue, unless, perhaps, you were doing absolutely nothing. This way of thinking didn't even work with the Law. The Pharisees told people the problem was they weren't obeying the entire Law of Moses, along with all the addenda the rabbis had attached to it. It was a very comprehensive system that dictated what to do in just about every situation. And this is, after all, God's law. So why didn't it make things all better?

Any medical professional will tell you one of the biggest problems we have is patient compliance. Rare is the patient who does everything the doctor prescribes or does it in the way the nurse or physical therapist teaches them to. It's hard to give up all smoking, or to keep track of every morsel you eat, or do your exercises with a painful new knee, or practice safe sex, or use the communications techniques taught in your marriage counseling sessions. We like our solutions to be easy to implement. Why can't everything work like an infomercial gizmo so we can simply "set it and forget it?"

At first it looks as if John buys into the "you're simply doing it wrong" mindset. When people ask him what should they do, he gives commonsense advice: Share your excess with people who have nothing. Don't cheat people. Don't abuse your power and don't be greedy. And certainly those are good things to do. They are a start. But even John recognizes these as treating the symptoms. Like a GP who recognizes that the disease is beyond his powers to cure, he tells his patient they have to go to a specialist if they really want to get well rather than merely learn to cope.

"I baptize you with water but one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Baptism was at this time a matter of total immersion. When he came, the Messiah wasn't going to apply the Holy Spirit sparingly, on this small problem area or that tiny patch. God's Anointed was going to immerse God's people in God's Spirit. No halfway measures will do. Nothing but a full Silkwood decontamination shower by the Spirit of God himself would suffice. Not a rad of resistance could remain. 

But what does John mean by baptizing people not only with the Holy Spirit but with fire? Fire had various uses and therefore could be used to symbolize different things. 2 seem more likely than most here. First, fire was used to refine metals. The impurities could be removed only by heating gold or iron ore to high temperatures. The resulting metal would be pure. Secondly, fire was used to burn the inedible parts of grain. After winnowing the wheat from the chaff, the dry covering was burned as waste. So John could mean that the Messiah would purify the people who followed him. He could also mean he will judge and consign those who didn't comply to the trash fires. Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom where Jerusalem burned the city's trash, was the word Jesus used to signify Hell. So which are you? Wheat or chaff? Gold or slag? A light to the world or a pile of refuse to be burned? Don't wait to find out, says John. Repent: change your mind, turn your life around. And then get baptized to signify the fact that you are making a clean start on a new life.

But that's just the beginning. John knows the people need to do more than just change a few habits. He also knows he is not the guy tasked to do that. He is a herald. He is to tell people to get ready because the king is coming. There are things only a king can accomplish. Or we wouldn't need a king.

Advent is about heeding John's cry and getting ready for the king. Of course, we are looking at what is to us the past. We know who the king is and what he will do. We know all the spoilers, as geeks would say. And yet Advent is not merely about Jesus' coming as a powerless baby but also about his next coming as our powerful Lord. And it is also about his coming not just to one couple as the gift of a newborn but also his coming to anyone who welcomes him as the giver of new life. "Let every heart prepare him room" says the carol and that too is what we do at Advent. If Jesus were coming to stay at your house, you'd clean the whole place and take out the garbage. If he is coming to stay in your heart, you'd do the same. Get rid of the greed, deceit, and violence there. Throw out the trash. Be generous to others, knowing what you do for them you do for him.

But this guest isn't going to be content to lie around and relax. If John is like the TV show "Intervention," Jesus is more like "Extreme Makeover." He has big plans for you, your heart and your life. He doesn't just want them clean but redone, remade, larger than before. Because your heart, the person you are, and the life you live are going need to be a lot bigger to accommodate our awfully big God.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Love, Knowledge and Insight

John Lennon famously sang the song "All You Need is Love" in the "Yellow Submarine" feature cartoon. It's a great song. And it's wrong. You might be surprised that a preacher whose primary message is the good news of God's love would say that love alone is not sufficient. But we have it on the highest authority that it is not. In today's reading from Philippians Paul writes, "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…"

We see love without knowledge and insight all the time. Someone just meets a person and in no time they've moved in together, setting up a household with little knowledge of their partner. We see people blind to the fact that the boyfriend or adult offspring they love so much is damaging them, all the while defending the person doing evil. We see people raising the children they purportedly love without insight or even common sense. Worse, we see people following an ideology or a religion with no clear idea of the real essence of the thing, blindly defending it using methods its founders would repudiate.

Just because some person or activity or lifestyle attracts you doesn't mean it's right for you--or anyone. What looks or even feels good is not always good. Nobody takes drugs with the intention of becoming an addict. They do it because it feels good--at first and fleetingly. If the effect were lasting they'd never take another hit. Other people do some terrible things because they make good money at them. Or because, without checking them out, they mistakenly thought that they would be good things.

Evil is a chameleon. It is fake goodness, a cunning knockoff that promises what it cannot deliver. It is spoiled fruit with the rotten or fuzzy side turned away from you so that you will buy it unwittingly. It's the contract that seems too good to be true, until all the unfavorable conditions and fees in the fine print catch up to you. Were it seen for what it is, no one would choose it. So a good deal of wisdom is discerning what is good and what merely appears to be good.

Knowledge and judgment are the 2 things that Paul prays that the reader's love overflows with. Knowledge is important. You have to have the facts. I can't believe the stuff people post on the internet without looking up the facts. There are whole websites devoted to correcting internet misinformation. is my favorite. You would think with the equivalent of a world class library on your laptop or smartphone people would stop believing foolish things. But knowledge is not enough. Otherwise, all of these studies governments commission would lead to better policies.

It is insight, judgment, the proper weighing of the facts, that leads to wise choices. Facts only tell you what is; judgment tells you what ought to be. And it needs to be right about what ought to be; it needs to be good judgment. Different philosophies, political parties and religions have various ideas of what ought to be. They can't all be right. Hedonists have one view of what the world ought to be; Nazis have a different one; Quakers yet another. Values must be decided.

Our values are derived from scripture's wisdom. They begin with the idea that we are created in the image of God. That means human beings have intrinsic value. This is why it is wrong to harm others. That's why the natural corollary to loving God is loving human beings.

Another insight is that human beings are fallible. All human beings. Popes, priests, scientists, atheists, politicians, thinkers, writers, soldiers, athletes, rock stars, actors, doctors, nurses, teachers, you name it. The Bible says that there is none who is righteous. Thomas Jefferson was a great president but terrible at managing his personal finances and also when it came to acknowledging his illegitimate sons by his slave, who was his wife's half-sister. Charles Dickens was a beloved and world famous writer who exposed the plight of the poor but left his wife and the mother of his 10 children for an 18 year old actress. Richard Wagner was a great composer but an anti-Semite. Weekly the news reveals the flaws of otherwise admirable people.

That's why we don't worship someone who is merely human, but Jesus Christ, who was tempted in every way we are yet did not sin. And that's why humility is a Christian virtue. Even when we must correct others, we need to look towards our own behavior. Jesus warned about trying to take specks out of others' eyes while carrying around a log in our own.

The obverse of the fact that none of us is perfect is that anyone can be redeemed. No one can be written off completely. Nor are we supposed to. Jesus told us not to pass judgment on others lest we be judged by the same standards. All saints have a past...which means all sinners can have a future! It also means people we are tempted to look down on may be in transition, in the process of coming to God, however roundabout it looks to us. Our job is to help them, not impede them; to encourage them, not discourage them; to invite them, not repel them. 

Because we know the good news that anyone can be redeemed by Christ, we share it. We come not as conquerors or judges or enforcers. We are messengers, heralds, emissaries of God's Kingdom. We offer God's love and forgiveness, his mercy and transforming power, his grace. We offer new life, a new beginning, new hope. We offer an alternative to the world's increasingly fatalistic reading of genetics and environment as one's inescapable destiny. We offer an opportunity to become more than an animal, whose purpose is just to reproduce and die. We offer the opportunity to become one of God's children, following in his footsteps, continuing his work. We offer a community that gives support in following Jesus, providing free instruction, inspiration, music, prayer, communion and love.

And so we come full circle. From love to knowledge to good judgment to love. They go together. If you love something, you want to learn more about it. If you love someone you want to learn everything about them. You want to know what they like and don't like, what they are interested in, and what they love to do. If we love God, we want to know everything we can about him, what he likes and doesn't like, what he is interested in, what he loves to do. If we really listen to him, to his Word, we will gain knowledge about him. If we use good judgment, we will uphold his values. If we uphold his values, we will show our love for him and for those he made in his image and for whom, in the person of his son, he died.

Paul wrote that he prayed his readers' love may overflow with knowledge and insight "so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness…" The old saying is that practice makes perfect. Jesus said we must be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (or complete). We are learning about God and his love so that we get better at emulating it. Our goal is eventually reaching perfection. We will probably never reach it in this life but when Christ returns we are told we shall be like him. The righteousness he imputes to us by grace will be realized.

We will be changed. That's what knowledge and insight do to you. They change you. The knowledge of God and the insights of his wisdom are meant to change us until we are more like him. We were created in his image and we have marred that. But through knowing God we come to be more like him. Especially because we cannot really get to know God without knowing Christ. And we cannot know Christ without opening ourselves to his Spirit. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed and shaped into the image of Christ.

Christianity is becoming less popular these days. But Christ isn't. And that's the problem. People are not stupid. They see that many folks who use Christ's name do not resemble him very much. But when we do resemble him, when we do the things he would do, when we display his Spirit, the world makes note. Like when a mentally ill man shot up a schoolhouse full of Amish girls and the Amish community comforted the shooter's widow and family and attended his funeral. The world realized that was Christlike behavior.

The obvious solution to the unpopularity of Christians is that we need to resemble Jesus all the time. We may not achieve it perfectly in this life, but if we were the next best thing to Jesus, if we were a reasonable approximation of him, if our presence reminded others strongly of his presence, imagine the impact we would have. Imagine the good we would do. Imagine the people who would be interested in knowing more about the God we love, if we more perfectly reflected that love.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Clash of the Values

One of the most suspenseful parts of Corrie Ten Boom's memoir "The Hiding Place" had nothing to do with Corrie's being interned in a concentration camp. You know going in that she, her sister and her father are arrested for hiding Jews. But she tells of the very different way her sister-in-law acted while saving Jews. Corrie felt that lying to the Nazis was justifiable. After all, she was already using forged ration cards to get food for the people she was hiding. But her sister-in-law drew the line at lying when asked a direct question. So when Nazi troops showed up at her brother's house to look for Jews and asked his wife where they were, she told them. "They are under the table." They lifted the tablecloth on the heavy dining room table but no one was crouched beneath it. Then the sister-in-law began to laugh. Apparently thinking she was unhinged, they left in disgust. But the woman had told the truth. There were Jews hiding under the table…if one looked under the rug under the table and found the trapdoor the fugitives had used to get out of sight. God knows what the woman would have said had the Nazis been more specific.

Our sermon suggestion slip asks, "Why do Christians have different moralities?" First off, let's grant that believers usually pick and choose among which of the different laws in the Bible they will and will not obey. Part of this is that we all find things in scripture we do not like or agree with. These either get ignored or explained away. For instance, the Bible condemns charging interest. Our whole economy is based on it and I am unaware of any church that condemns it. Jesus condemned divorce with little or no exceptions. No-fault divorce is the law of the land. Very few churches forbid the marriage of divorced people. In the Roman Catholic church one must first get an annulment from church authorities which states that the previous marriage did not legally exist. Henry VIII never divorced; he annulled.

And there have been more egregious examples of people engineering workarounds for Biblical rules, especially when it comes to violence. You'll be interested to know that the church never executed heretics. After securing their confession, the church turned them over to civil authorities to carry out the sentence, mirroring what the religious leaders of Jesus' day did by turning him over to the Romans. Plausible deniability is as old as politics.

Some of this is just sinfulness, us wanting to do what we shouldn't. Or not do what we should. But some of this is practicality. As A.J. Jacobs found in his book "The Year of Living Biblically," no one--not fundamentalist Christians, nor Orthodox Jews, nor the Amish, nor any other group--manages to keep every rule in the Bible. In Romans, Paul points out that it is impossible. Which is why our salvation does not depend on our keeping the law perfectly but upon our faith in God's grace revealed in Jesus Christ. But that doesn't mean we can act immorally. That's like thinking that as long you keep your prescription for your asthma inhaler filled, you can go back to smoking.

Jesus boiled down our ethical priorities to two: we must love God with everything we are and have, and we must love our neighbor as we do ourselves. Everything else in the Bible hangs on this. Or as N.T. Wright translates Matthew, every other ethical rule in the Bible "is a footnote." Mark records that Jesus said that no commandment is more important than these two.

Looking at it that way, one can see how Corrie and her family felt they could break laws and deceive authorities. The primacy of the commandment to love their neighbors overrode other Biblical rules about obeying civil authorities and telling the truth. When one finds oneself in a situation where the honest or lawful thing to do will result in harm and injustice, the loving thing to do instead is to protect innocent people from evil authorities. After World War II, nobody agreed with the defense low-level Nazis gave for contributing to the deaths of 6 million Jews and an equal number of non-Jews in the camps; namely that they were "only following orders." In fact, the U.S. military code recognizes the existence of illegal orders and soldiers are not to carry them out, nor are they to be punished for refusing to carry them out.

But not all ethical quandaries in Christianity are that easy to clear up. Sometimes when 2 ethical demands clash, it is difficult to decide which has top priority. Jesus told us to turn the cheek should someone strike us on our other one. Many peace churches like Quakers, Mennonites and the Amish feel that by this Jesus forbade his followers from retaliating against physical force or using physical force on others. But what if the person being physically beaten or harmed is someone other than me? Is it Christian to observe someone beating up another person and if he doesn't stop when told, to not use force to pull him off whoever is being beaten? Is that loving? What if the aggressor has a weapon and is threatening to kill his victim. Would it be permissible for a Christian to shoot the violent person? Can one use deadly force on one person to protect another? Is that loving to all concerned? And what if the Christian is a cop?

This is the stuff of true ethical dilemmas. It's not a dilemma if you simply want to beat someone up and know Jesus says you shouldn't. It's a dilemma when you don't know how to honor both the command to love and the command to not act violently. It is when a situation brings 2 Biblical principles into conflict that we find Christians sincerely differing on morality.

Jonathon Haidt, a moral psychologist, who wrote "The Righteous Mind," has uncovered 6 elements of morality: the care and compassion vs. harm axis, the fairness and justice vs. cheating axis, the liberty vs. oppression axis, the loyalty vs. betrayal axis, the authority vs. subversion axis, and the sanctity and purity vs. degradation axis. And when they conflict, people find themselves pulled in different directions. Should a poor person steal medicine to save a life? Here care and compassion are in direct conflict with fairness and justice. What about a violent revolution against an oppressive government? Here the values of liberty, authority and doing no harm are up against each other.

What believers have to do is weigh each element and prioritize. Hippocrates began his oath for physicians with "First, do no harm." Haidt found that tops everyone's list: care and compassion usually come first. Then come fairness or justice. The rest vary greatly. Loyalty is very important in groups but so is liberty, especially to oppressed groups or individuals. Authority is very important to some as is sanctity, but some rate them both very low. In fact, Haidt found that the difference between liberals and conservatives is how they rank these 6 moral values. For both sides care and compassion come first but liberals rank it much higher than any of the other values. Compassion for liberals is followed by fairness and liberty while the other 3--loyalty, authority and sanctity-- are ranked much lower. Conservatives also rank compassion first but the other 5 values are closely clustered and not far behind compassion. Conservative's values, Haidt found to his surprise--he is a liberal Jew and an atheist--are more balanced.

To make things more complicated, some values are viewed differently by the two sides. Fairness for the liberal means equality, mixed with compassion. For conservatives, fairness primarily means proportionality. So, say, when dividing up resources, for liberals, fairness means everyone gets an equal portion but for conservatives fairness means taking into account what each person contributed when determining how much each gets. 

But it's the difference in ranking that makes prioritizing some values easier for liberals and more difficult for conservatives. It explains why highly moral people on different sides make different judgments on the same issue. It also explains why people on both sides have such a hard time understanding each other's values. To liberals, when faced with an ethical dilemma, the most compassionate attitude or action is far and away the correct course. For conservatives, compassion comes first but other values must be considered as well. And this is one big reason why liberal and conservative Christians often make divergent moral decisions.

So what was Jesus? Like both sides, compassion came first. If he saw someone sick or suffering, he didn't wait till the Sabbath was over but healed the person right away. He incurred ritual impurity by touching lepers and other unclean individuals. He even healed the slave of a Roman officer. He fed the hungry people who came to hear him. 

On the issue of justice, he sees Jews, Samaritans, and foreigners as equal in that they all are in need of God's love and forgiveness. Their standing with God is primarily affected by their acceptance of God's grace. Notorious sinners who repent come before righteous people who don't in God's kingdom. As to proportionality, those who put in more effort in using their gifts for God are better rewarded. But that doesn't translate directly into being rich or poor. The poor widow who donates the only 2 cents she has is more commendable than rich folks giving larger sums but a smaller percentage. It also means that God favors more fortunate people when they help those so unfortunate that they can't even repay them.     

Liberty is important to Jesus but not in in political sense. It is freedom from the slavery of sin that Jesus grants. And by healing those banished from the worshiping community by their diseases, Jesus freed these pariahs from their internal exile. But Jesus showed himself to be in harmony with the prophets in denouncing those who oppressed, exploited and neglected the poor.     

Loyalty to God and to himself is very important to Jesus. As he said, you cannot serve 2 masters. And your primary commitment should be to God. Otherwise when there is a conflict of interest, you can't be counted on to stick up for God's way.

We see this with Peter. He denies knowing Jesus three times in the courtyard of the High Priest while Christ is being tried. The only reason is cowardice. But after his resurrection, Jesus three times asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter answers yes and three times Jesus tells him to feed his flock. Reconciled, Peter becomes a fearless apostle and dies a martyr.

Jesus supports the authority of Scripture but always with an emphasis on the spirit of the law rather than its letter. Understanding that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, frees you from an unreasoning slavery to the rules of the Sabbath when you come upon someone in need. And, of course, Jesus spoke on his own authority and expected that to be sufficient in resolving moral questions. As God Incarnate, his word is law. Which is the ultimate loyalty test for those who claim to follow him.  

When it comes to sanctity and purity, Jesus again goes to the heart. The purity that counts is that of the heart. It is evil in our hearts that defiles us, not acts of ritual pollution. Thus he can touch lepers, menstruating women and the dead in order to heal and raise them. The only thing that keeps him from going to a Gentile's house is that the Roman officer believes that Jesus can command his slave's healing from a distance. As for sexual purity, Jesus holds a high view of marriage with faithfulness practiced within it and chastity outside of it. But he when speaking to the Samaritan woman he doesn't denounce her checkered marital history and he does not condemn the woman caught in adultery though he tells her to go and sin no more.

Jesus upholds all 6 moral elements like a conservative but when there is a conflict, compassion and mercy triumph over other considerations in every case except that of his own authority. Which is crucial because it is his authority as the Son of God that allows him to forgive sins and set aside restrictions which in specific instances create a barrier between God and people. Sin is the only real barrier between us and our creator and the repentant are always forgiven and granted a new life in the Kingdom of God.

Today's Christians face moral questions both old and new. In some cases we have Jesus' explicit commands; in others we must rely on the Spirit he sent to dwell within the hearts of all who trust him. But often, as Haidt found in his research, we go with our gut and then rationalize our moral stance after the fact.

We also are adept at looking for evidence and arguments which confirms our position. We seize upon 1 positive piece of evidence so we can answer the question "Can I believe or do that?" with a "yes!" Or we unearth 1 negative piece of evidence so we can answer the question "Must I believe or do that?" with a "no!"

The good news is that as social creatures we can be persuaded to change our outlook by the arguments of  those who we respect or care about. And so, lacking Jesus' authority, we should, through listening and discussion within the body of Christ, work towards a consensus on these issues. But love for God and compassion for others, whether neighbors or enemies, comes first. It really does go back to those two commandments. Everything else hangs on them and no other commandment is greater than they. And Jesus said we would be known to the world as his disciples by our love for one another. So when Christians do disagree on some non-essential moral rule, even if it seems somewhat important, we need to be able to say to one another, "I really disagree with you on that, but I still love you as a brother or sister in Christ and you are a vital part of his body." The true test of love is loving those who disagree with us. It's not easy. If it were, Jesus' command to love each other would not be considered such a moral milestone.

Let us close with 2 quotations. Peter, who knew what it was to screw up big time, wrote in his first letter, "Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins." Or as St. Augustine said about Christians, "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things love."