Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Trust is the Opposite of Certainty

We have seen that Jesus interpreted Scripture in the rabbinic spirit of faithful questioning motivated by love. We have noted that Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture was in direct contrast to that of the Pharisees and other religious leaders of his time, who read the Scriptures in a spirit of unquestioning obedience and were motivated by an obsession with correct doctrine. The Pharisees were concerned about who was “right” and who was “wrong,” and were determined to enforce their “right” understanding, even if such an effort required violence.

We have said that over the centuries the Church has tended not to follow the pattern of Jesus, but rather to follow the pattern of the Pharisees, striving to maintain orthodoxy and labeling those who disagree as heretics. The result has been a long history of various manifestations of the church enforcing their authority through violence or the threat of violence—all in God’s name.

The struggle to know what is “right” has replaced Grace as the foundation of faith. In far too many cases our trust is more in the correctness of our doctrine than in the Grace of God. Such an application of religious faith establishes an “us vs. them” mentality, which always leans toward an exclusionary witness and far too often is forcefully inflicted.

While the exclusionary witness establishes categories for judging who is acceptable and who is not, Jesus’ witness was to go out among the outcasts and the fringe people—to eat with them, to touch them and through loving inclusion to restore their lives to wholeness. Too often our approach has been to demand that those on the outside become “like us” before they can gain admission and acceptance. Our doctrine becomes "the way, the truth and the life."

We all read Scripture selectively, and justification can indeed be found for both approaches. They stand in direct contradiction within the Holy writ, and we choose one way or the other:

1.       The way the Pharisees chose: unquestioning obedience to what they had determined to be the “right” doctrine (Law), and enforcing that doctrine as the prerequisite of faithfulness—excluding (and sometimes punishing with violence or threat of violence) all who do not conform (including Jesus).

2.      The way Jesus chose: faithful questioning the violence in Scripture and bearing witness to unconditional love (Grace), including all humanity in a divine embrace of reconciliation and restoration. All humanity. And "All" means "All."

Our celebrated First Amendment rights which grant freedom of speech and religion actually came about in direct response to the church’s legacy of persecution and rampant bloodshed committed in the sincere (but sincerely wrong) effort to maintain purity of doctrine. As a result of those Constitutional rights, there are no more burnings at the stake today.

So, what is the greater wrong: not getting the formulation of the Trinity quite right, or slaughtering those who do get it wrong? What is the greater sin: questioning a doctrine or working to destroy people’s careers and livelihoods because they question it?

Equally important as what we profess is how we profess it and how we live what we profess. When we act in any way to harm others in the name of Scripture or faith or morality we demonstrate that we are neither scriptural, moral nor faithful. Jesus said the whole law and the prophetic writings were predicated upon love of God, love of neighbor and love of self (Matthew 22:36-40). And Paul wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10) When we do not act in love, nothing we do is right, and nothing is faithful, not even according to the law.

The simple formula of the New Testament witness is “Grace Trumps Law.” It’s simple; but it’s not easy. It requires that we “let go” of our efforts to justify ourselves through adherence to “right” doctrine, and that we instead “take hold” of the Grace God offers and surrender to the power of that Grace to mold us into the likeness of Jesus. That whole process of “letting go” and “taking hold” is called “Trust.” Trust is the opposite of certainty, and certainty is a first cousin of control.

And we are a culture of control addicts. Maybe we need a 12-Step program to facilitate recovery. “Hello. My name is Jim; and I’m a controlaholic.”

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


Monday, March 30, 2015

The Common Denominator

Today I want to start at the end. In summarizing and concluding his book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did, Derek Flood begins with:

“The primary purpose of Scripture (is) to lead us to the one who is Life, Love Truth, and the Way. Scripture has the primary task of leading us into a living relationship with God in Christ, and then after that to continue to be a window through which we can commune with God in which the Spirit can communicate God’s love to us, leading us to love others with that same Jesus-shaped love. That’s the devotional, Spirit-centered, gospel-focused reading that needs to be at the center of how we read Scripture as Scripture.”[1]

I closed my last blog by saying Jesus established Love as the common denominator for all who read Scripture. The Bible was never intended to be a taskmaster, placing a burden on our back; it was intended to act as a servant, leading us to love God, others and ourselves (Matthew 22:37-40). If we read it in any way that leads to the opposite of this, we get it wrong. So whenever the religious leaders interpreted the Law in any way that hindered people from finding healing, and life, Jesus publicly opposed their hurtful interpretation.

This emphasis on love as the final purpose of Scripture has major consequences because it differs quite sharply from the way the vast majority of us have learned to interpret Scripture. We are taught instead, to focus on the “correct” reading, with everything harmonizing and lining up perfectly. In most cases it’s a kind of circular approach that begins with a doctrine or dogma about the Bible and then uses the Bible to “prove” the doctrine.

But when the focus on “correct” interpretation takes priority, love takes a back seat. The focus “being right” is at the expense of love. It is precisely this “by the book” obsession that led American Christians in the past to justify slavery and eventually led to an uncivil war. And those who took the authority of Scripture most seriously were the ones most likely to conclude that the Bible sanctioned slavery. [2] Unspeakable cruelty and barbarity was committed in the name of submitting to the authority of Scripture.

This obsession with “being right” trumps love—almost always. The prioritizing of scriptural fidelity at the expense of grace is a direct parallel to the fundamentalism of the Pharisees Jesus so adamantly opposed. Despite their desire to “be right," modern-day Christian Pharisees get the Bible dead wrong. As Paul puts it, if we don’t have love, all our doctrines and biblical interpretations are just meaningless noise (I Corinthians 13:1-3). When read “right”, Scripture always leads to love.[3]

And we cannot afford to forget that Jesus loved the people on the fringes of society—the very ones the Pharisees considered unworthy of love; indeed, Jesus loved even those who hated him. And Jesus loved them without requiring them to change first. Indeed, it was his love, given freely and unconditionally, that empowered them to change. 

That last sentence may be the single most frequently missed part of the gospel message: Love/Grace precedes repentance and change; indeed, Love/Grace is the empowering factor behind repentance. We have seen--in history, in Scripture and in our own lives--that the law and the threat of punishment do not motivate repentance and change [how fast do you drive in a 55 mph zone?]. Only love, with its vision of wholeness and peace can do that.

During this final week of Lent—called Holy Week—I hope to make some personal application of the principles I've discovered during my Lenten Pilgrimage toward learning to read the Bible as Jesus did. But for now,

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Press, 2014) Kindle edition, Location 3360.
[2] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).
[3] Today’s blog is heavily dependent upon Derek Flood, op. cit., Chapter Three, Location 959ff, with an occasional insertion by yours truly.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A More Excellent Way

With a lot of help from Derek Flood[1], Walter Wink[2], Walter Brueggemann[3] and others, I've been exploring how to read the Bible as Jesus did. Basically, Jesus applied the rabbinic hermeneutic[4] of faithful questioning, in contrast to the approach of the Pharisees of his day, who employed a hermeneutic of unquestioning obedience.

Ever since Christianity first began its shameless dance with political power, the Bible has been used primarily to maintain orthodoxy and define heresy. When Constantine marched his army into the ocean and pronounced them “baptized”, the church began a long history of enforcing orthodoxy with threats of death, torture, exclusion and hell fire. The record of atrocities is almost endless, from the crusades and the inquisition, to Puritan witch hunts to slavery to basically every human rights issue.

In every case, the practitioners of barbarism viewed their interpretation of the faith as the one and only “right” reading, and enforced their “right” way with violent use of power. This clearly represents the very worst of the way of unquestioning obedience and inevitably leads to violence committed in God’s name.[5] It is a total misreading of Scripture’s intent.

In striking contrast is rabbinic Judaism’s tradition of faithful questioning. Rabbi Anson Laytner makes the case that faithful questioning is typical, not only of the Hebrew Bible, but also of the Jewish faith itself.[6] (I have this delightful image of Tevye arguing with God in “Fiddler on the Roof.”)

Key examples of faithful questioning are found throughout the Jewish commentaries on the Scriptures. Instead of a single interpretation that establishes the orthodox, “right” way of reading Torah, the commentaries typically present dissenting views from various rabbinic sages, offered side by side like the transcript of a courtroom trial. It may help to recall that the word, “Israel” means “wrestles with God.”

From this line of thought we can see that reading Scripture by faithfully questioning violence and harm perpetrated in God’s name is not only characteristic of Jesus and Paul and the rest of the New Testament, it’s also a deeply Jewish way to read Scripture. Remember: Jesus also was a rabbi, steeped in that tradition.

Every culture and every religious faith is susceptible to error. The root of the matter is not necessarily within the particular culture or religion, but rather is the marriage of religion and political power. This always is a poisonous combination, and is the point at which the church diverges from the way of Jesus.

But there always are those anxious souls who want to nail everything down, who want guarantees and control over their destinies, both temporal and eternal. Their needs are such that they must live by sight, and not by faith.[7] The harm emerges when their insecurities lead to the use—or at least the threat—of violence to silence dissent. The greatest heresy is their belief that the use of force is a valid example of upholding the faith.

 The key difference between Jesus and the Pharisees, and between differing groups today is in which narrative we choose to embrace, and which we choose to avoid, discount or (as Jesus did) outright reject. The question is not whether we will choose some texts and ignore or reject others. Even the most fundamental literalist reads the Bible selectively, if only by emphasis and tone of voice. Rather, if we are to read the Bible as Jesus did, the question is which texts we choose and by what criteria!

The criterion both Jesus and Paul used is love. I will develop that theme more in the blogs that follow; but here is a teaser:

"While the Pharisees were focused on strict adherence to religious rules and regulations (the “right” or “correct” reading), the priority of Jesus was instead focused on loving and caring for people in need. Clearly, the way Jesus understood faithfulness to Scripture was that it should lead to love. ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself’ Jesus said, ‘All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments’ (Matthew 22:37049).”[8]

How then can we continue to claim that Scripture is inspired if it truly justifies hurt and damage to people? As Christians we affirm that the Scriptures are good, intended to lead us to love. However, as history reveals, it also can be read in an abusive way. My teacher, the late Fred B. Craddock once said, “There is nothing so holy that it does not have its pornographers.” Paul also wrote, “I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death” (Romans 7:10).

The common denominator is love.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn How to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Press, 2014).
[2] Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1999).
[3] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
[4] Hermeneutic, derived from Hermes, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, is the process of transmitting the divine message into language and concepts that can be understood by humans. In recent generations it has become generalized to mean any process of interpretation.
[5] Flood, op. cit., Kindle Version, Location 1017.
[6] Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc. 1990).
[7] The direct opposite of the life of faith described in II Corinthians 5:7.
[8] Derek Flood, op. cit., Kindle version, Location 967.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Black-and-White, or Gray?

The first time I sat down for a conversation with my new colleague, his first words were, “I’m a black-and-white sort of person.” His reputation for stirring things up had preceded him, and my immediate thought was, “That explains it.”

He and I enjoyed a trusting collegial relationship as we worked together, and I still hold our friendship dear. He is intelligent and knowledgeable (and opinionated) about a wide variety of topics, he is deeply compassionate and deeply spiritual and can be very charming. But his “black-and-white” approach to life continues to be counterproductive in both his relationships and his vocational pursuit.

In my observation, a black-and-white approach has a counterproductive impact on virtually every part of life. It lends itself, almost de facto, to adversarial confrontations, and is never—ever—an effective vehicle for negotiation or collaboration or effective problem-solving; indeed, it more likely will create conflict than resolve it.

Black-and-white people are perceived (correctly, all too often) as arrogant and obstinate, and often project an attitude of intolerance. They aim more frequently at persuading others than seeking to understand them. And, whether accurate or inaccurate, they are heard to say, “I’m right; therefore anybody who disagrees with me is wrong. Period.”

The “right” must prevail; and since I’m right, I must prevail. It’s only a short hop from that pronouncement to an “ends-justify-the-ends” ethic. But, in truth, the noblest cause, if achieved ignobly, is tainted, and thus ignoble.

Given the tirade above, it probably won’t shock you to know that I consider myself a both/and person. I live in the gray. My black-and-white friends (I truly am not aware of any enemies), consider me weak, malleable and even na├»ve. Compromise is a dirty word to them. But I find it a strength to be able to listen to both sides of any issue, to consider them in light of circumstances[1] and sometimes even to take parts of both to create a whole new reality.

My long-time readers may grow tired of reading, “I believe in absolute truth; but, I don’t believe any human or group of humans is capable of perceiving truth absolutely.” Truth is not relative; but my perception of it is, and therefore it is incumbent upon me to keep searching and growing in understanding.

And so, I am brought up short when I realize that Jesus uncompromisingly took sides in a debate that was as old as Judaism. Was Jesus a black-and-white person?

As I’ve outlined in previous blogs, the ancient debate, faithfully recorded and later included as part of Holy Scripture[2], presents contradictory understandings as part of an effort to discern the nature and will of God. Which is it: (1) Is God a warrior/despot, jealous of his conquests and harsh in judgment upon those who stray from his pronouncements and laws, or (2) is God a creator, loving redeemer and merciful sustainer whose concern is the well-being of God’s creation?

There’s a third possible reading: God is both, because the Bible says so. This understanding requires that I jump through one of two hoops: (1) I have to overcome the hang-up that such a reading understands God as schizophrenic, or (2) I have to overcome a hang-up regarding the definition of Grace. If God relates in one way to “those who stray from his pronouncements and laws” and in a different way with “the people who choose to live in relationship with God,” then the divine/human relationship is based on human behavior rather than on God’s Grace, and the whole Christ event is rendered impotent and irrelevant. We are back under the law: obey or die.

We’re under Grace or we’re under the Law. Limited as I am by the clay of which I am made, I cannot conceive of having it both ways. I am fortified in that belief by my Lenten journey, in which I am discovering how Jesus read the Bible. Jesus consistently chose the side of the debate that understands God as loving and restoring, and rejected the alternative of God as vengeful and blood-thirsty. That choice directed all he taught and preached and how he served. And his choice qualified the intent behind his invitation: “Follow me.”

So, here I am, touting my liberal openness, claiming to be a “both/and” kinda’ guy, confronting a black-and-white” choice. It’s what Thomas G. Bandy calls a “bedrock belief.” It is the limit beyond which I can see no other alternatives: Grace or Law. Upon the choice I make I stake my eternal destiny. I choose Grace.

It’s also by choosing Grace that I am free to acknowledge the gray and to live there fearlessly, trusting that my relationship with God and my eternal destiny are based upon God’s Grace, and not upon whether I’m right or wrong about anything.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Which is another quality perceived as weakness to my black-and-white friends. To them, there is no circumstantial consideration. Right is right and wrong is wrong under all circumstances.
[2] At another time it might be well to discuss the role of inspiration and revelation in both the recording and the canonizing of the writings we call Holy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Taking Sides

I've been sharing my personal journal of my Lenten journey. Instead of “giving up” something for Lent, I've decided to “take on” something. Specifically, I’m taking on the challenge of learning to “Read the Bible Like (sic) Jesus Did.”

I'm fascinated by the way unplanned events in life sometimes line up in unexpected and explainable patterns. A buddy plays with the cigarette lighter in my car and drops it, burning a nickel-sized hole on the seat. As a result, I have to replace the seat covers. Had Whites Auto Store not been a half-block from where I worked, I might have gone to Western Auto or Sears and I’d have missed her, because she left on vacation with her family and then returned to School at TCU.

But there I was, walking into Whites Auto Store to buy seat covers, and there she was. 51-and-a-half years later, we’re still soul mates.

Had I not taken that Thomas Bandy book to read on the flights to and from General Assembly in 2005, the cumulative understandings of 45 years of ministry would not have taken the specific turn it took. Had I not been pressured into early retirement three months later, I probably would never have taken time to develop that new direction. Had I not served as Interim Minister in Trenton, Missouri, I’d not have found that Edward Hammett book that was left in the desk—the book in which I found the concept that united all my work and study so that new direction finally made sense.

In either story, had any link of the chain been omitted, who knows where life would have taken me? I don’t believe life is scripted and planned so that everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe humans are puppets or robots and God pushes buttons and manipulates strings to make things happen.

But I do believe God is present, and that sometimes events string together in unexpected and unexplained ways. And I believe those two observations are somehow related. I don’t understand; but for now, I choose to celebrate the Serendipity of God in life.

Had I not read Edward Hammett’s book I might never have made the connections regarding the relationship between the Millennial Generation and the church. Millennials don’t want doctrines or rules or archaic (and usually ineffective, sometimes even counterproductive) organizational structures. They want to know how to follow Jesus. Had I not made that connection, my eye may not have been drawn to the title of Derek Flood’s book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn To Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (my underlining.)

   But here I am, deep into the book, and if you've been following these blogs you’ll recognized that I’m stuck on high center while the impact sinks in. For the first time in my life the contradictions in the Bible make sense. I've spent a lifetime in damage control—trying to defend the Scriptures by explaining away the contradictions.

Well, guess what! I rediscover that the Scriptures don’t need my defense! Once again I’m challenged to let the Scriptures speak for themselves without trying to make them say what I learned in Sunday School.

 The contradictions are there intentionally, and are part of the message! They represent the ongoing debate of the community of faith, struggling to discern the nature and will of God.

One side of the debate sees God as territorial, vengeful and blood-thirsty; a warrior calling for genocide, dashing babies’ heads against rocks and disemboweling pregnant women! This perspective is the more ancient of the two sides, probably the residue of pagan superstitions that surrounded the Israelites and continued to influence the practice of their faith.

The other side relates to Melchizedek, the mysterious figure who blesses Abram in Genesis 14 and to whom the risen Christ is compared in Hebrews 7. Melchizedek is the “King of Salem” (or Shalom); and it’s interesting that in one rabbinic interpretation Messiah would be called “Prince of Peace (Shalom)”.

This second side of the debate was largely ignored until the 8th century prophets begin calling for justice in place of sacrifice and mercy in place of ritual incantations.

Following Babylonian captivity (ca. 586 – 516 BCE), the debate was fully developed in the diverse Jewish expectation of a messiah. Would messiah be a military/political hero who would lead Israel in conquest over Israel’s enemies? Or would he be the Suffering Servant of the second part of Isaiah: one who would not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick; but would be faithful to justice (Isaiah 42:3 & Matthew 12:20).

Which would Messiah be: a warrior/king like David (it’s interesting in this context to remember that God would not allow David to build a temple because David had drawn blood!), or a selfless healer and reconciler of humanity?

The debate peaked in the confrontations between Jesus and the leaders of the religious establishment. And as Jesus quoted the Scriptures, it’s not that he “cherry-picked” the sweet, gentle passages. He took sides. He made his stand on one side of the debate!

In Luke 4, for example, Jesus’ audience longed for God’s wrath. They believed—like so many Jews and Christians still do today—that justice is fulfilled by the destruction of their enemies. Jesus challenged this common religious belief.

This violent view was at the heart of the common Jewish hope that Messiah would come in vengeance: a warrior king who would vanquish the pagan oppressors and restore Israel to its glory.

So, in Luke 4:16-30, when the people hear that Jesus will work to liberate the people from their oppression, they are pleased. But, when they understand that this will involve showing grace and not vengeance to Gentiles, they become furious with Jesus and try to kill him.[1]

Jesus had chosen part of a text (Isaiah 61:1-2) which contained elements of both sides of the debate; but Jesus didn't ignore the remainder. He totally rejected it. He took sides; and that realization impacts the way I read…

…the rest of the story.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk

[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014) Kindle edition, Location 938f.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Life as Consequence

[Note: these Lenten blogs may seem redundant to my readers (both of you). Remember that these blogs journal a personal spiritual journey. I revisit previous material, sometimes to refresh, sometimes to check out, “Did I really get that right?” etc. Each re-visitation takes me deeper into understanding. Hopefully, my reexaminations are not distracting for my readers.]

The Millennial Generations [Generations “X” (born 1965-1981) and “Y” (born 1982-2000)] are turned off religiously by rules, doctrine, institutional church polity and judgmentalism. Come to think of it, so am I.

Millennials want a simple, honest spirituality based upon following Jesus. They want a faith with integrity—one that is lived, more than preached. Come to think of it, so do I.

But for me the idea was still mostly cognitive (head stuff) until my nephew (a “Millennial”) began developing the idea of spending a year trying to experience what it means to follow Jesus—truly. Here’s a link to his "Jesus Project"My Jesus Project

I don’t believe in fate—that life is scripted and everything is planned and “meant to be.” I believe things happen because we make choices: some good; some bad. Life is the complex network of consequences resulting from human choices.

And I don’t believe in luck. I believe "Luck is where opportunity and preparedness meet.” (source unknown)

But I also believe that God is present in all of this, calling humanity to follow a particular “Way.” The clearest articulation of that divine invitation is Jesus of Nazareth.

God has a plan, and invites us to follow that plan. When we accept God’s invitation, life makes sense, at least more often than when we choose our own way (and each of us at some time thinks, “I have a better idea”). When we choose our own way a complex network of consequences confronts us with confusion, distrust, fear and occasional violence. Human culture is the mix of consequences of diverse human choices.

But, again, while I don’t believe in fate, sometimes life happens in unexplained ways: some good, some bad. Long ago I gave up the need to explain everything in life; and, “Why?” is a useless word in most cases of the unexplained.

So, recently my attention was tweaked while looking for a book to download. I’m following my nephew’s “Jesus Project”, and even outlining a series of sermons on following Jesus. So, my eye was drawn irresistibly to part of a book title that read, …And Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did. (my underlining)

It seemed like a “God Moment,” so I downloaded it, and within a few pages I was being “Led by the Spirit” into the wilderness of my Lenten journey.

Derek Flood, the author, takes on the Old Testament contradictions that have troubled people of faith for centuries. For most of my adult life I've understood them as the residue of a progressive human understanding of God, the earlier understandings reflecting a more violent, vengeful, warrior God and the later understandings moving toward Jesus’ articulation of God as merciful, redeeming Father.

Flood doesn't try to make the contradictions go away. Drawing from Walter Brueggemann, he submits that the contradictions are an intentional and essential part of Scripture.They represent an ongoing debate as people of faith try to comprehend the nature of God. One side of the debate reflects a territorial, vengeful warrior divinity who demands violence to the point of genocide.

The other side, quite possibly emerging from the faith of Melchizedek (Gen 14:17-18; Ps 110:4; Hebrews 5-7), posits a God who enters into covenant with humanity: relating and sustaining, holding humanity accountable to the covenant, but always offering grace and redemption when human faithfulness wavers.

The Scriptures offer these contradictory images, says Brueggemann, as testimony/counter-testimony, as in a courtroom debate. The dispute was ongoing in the adversarial relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees, and continues today in the polarization between conservatives and liberals of the faith.

The gospels seem unavoidably obvious as to which side of the debate Jesus took. And yet, the debate continues to divide the community of faith that gathers in his name. In most cases it’s a matter of emphasis: grace vs. law, faith vs. works. Virtually all Christians talk about “salvation by grace, through faith;” but, some say that repentance must precede grace, while others say that grace is the power that enables repentance. [You say tomato, I say to-mah-to… and how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?]

The debate, itself, has become the contradiction and distraction at the heart of the sixty-year decline in the North American church. The “spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public”[1] is growing, and its discontent is finding voice in those who cry, “The grace/law-faith/works debate has distracted the church long enough! Is your faith in Jesus or in the correctness of your doctrine?”

In many ways we've confused faith with the content of belief. But faith is a verb. Faith is the living out of belief. Belief, no matter how fervently held, puts one on the same level as the demons, who also believe (James 2:19). Belief is “talking the talk.” Faith is “walking the walk.” And a whole generation, joined by a few of us older types, is confronting a divided, bickering Christianity, saying, “Shut up and walk!”

Imagine the consequences if we really did that.

That’s the way I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Thomas G. Bandy, Christian Chaos (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999). This population is mentioned and described in this and several other of Bandy's books, including, Coaching Change, Kicking Habits: Welcome Relief for Addicted Churches, and others.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Change? (Gasp!)

Beyond the gospels the central and dominant figure in the New Testament is, arguably, Paul (nee Saul of Tarsus). Before his conversion Saul had studied the Scriptures under the best of teachers. He was convinced that to be faithful he should commit violence in God’s name. He felt certain that for the survival of Judaism this Christian heresy must be rooted out.

“After his encounter with Christ, and his experience of healing and enemy love from Jesus’ disciples (Acts 9:11-18), Paul needed to completely reassess how to understand the same Scriptures he had read previously in such a toxic and violent way. The change produced a radically different understanding of God’s will, and a radically different way of interpreting those same Scriptures.”[1]

NOTE: Nothing in the Scriptures changed! It was only Paul’s way of reading the Scriptures that changed! Nothing is more central to my Lenten Pilgrimage than this distinction!

I would say virtually every person of faith at some point along the journey of life comes face-to-face with the possibility that our understanding does not mesh with the reality presented in the sacred writ. Not every person has the strength and integrity to confess, “I was wrong.”

Martin Luther had such a confrontation with his own faith while he was reading the Epistle to the Romans. It was during the reading of that same epistle that I had my first conscious realization that what I had been taught was not consistent with what I was reading.

It’s a terrifying realization. But sometimes integrity demands that we go a different way.

As Derek Flood points out, for Paul, of utmost significance may be not so much in what he says as in what he doesn’t say. It is revealing to note how he deals with violent passages in the Old Testament—texts that call for killing Gentiles.

In Romans 15:8-12, for example, Paul quotes several Scriptures to make his point that Gentiles “may glorify God for his mercy” because of the gospel. Note what he doesn’t include in those Scriptures:

 (NRSV) For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,Thou didst make my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. They cried for help, but there was none to save, they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer ... For this I will extol thee, O Lord, among the nations[2], and sing praises to thy name.(Quoting Psalm 18:40-49) Again, it says, “Praise his people, O you nations; for he avenges the blood of his servants, and takes vengeance on his adversaries, and makes expiation for the land of his people.” (Quoting Deuteronomy 32:43)

Within Paul’s change of Scriptural understanding is his re-contextualizing of these passages; instead of focusing on violence against Gentiles he declares God’s mercy in Christ for Gentiles. Not only does this represent a reinterpretation of the relationship of faith to violence, it constitutes a major redefinition of how salvation is understood. Instead of meaning God’s deliverance of Israel from its political and military enemies, Paul now understands salvation to mean the restoration of all people in Christ, including those same “enemy” Gentiles.[3]
Now, instead of excluding Gentiles, Paul embraces them within God’s mercy; indeed, he is singularly committed to taking that message of God’s mercy to them. Now, instead of using violence to purify the world from them, he is exposing himself to violence in order to include them. Such is the nature of radical commitment to the gospel—not the exposure to violence, per se, but the radical shift from rabidly narrow exclusion, even violent elimination, to universal, merciful embrace. The violence is the byproduct of resistance to change.

Note again, however, that Paul’s personal shift did not indicate in any way a shift in Scripture, itself. Indeed, the precedent had been set at least as early as Isaiah’s metaphor of Israel as a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6). Paul could easily have used these more pastoral texts from the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps he was being intentional in using and reinterpreting passages that previously had been used to justify violence.

In the same spirit of Jesus’ teaching, “You have heard… but I tell you…” Paul is moving faith to the next level, and it is a move for which he paid a high price.

I suspect that Paul sensed the futility of trying to move his Jewish community to this new understanding and chose, instead, to align himself with the new movement. Cultural and ethnic exclusivism is nowhere as strongly rooted as in the sanctions of religion, and most especially within the ranks of fundamentalist expressions of religion. And Paul should know. He was a Pharisee.

And so, where does all this bring me in my Lenten wandering through the wilderness of my own temptation? I am torn between the desire to lash out at (for example) terrorist extremists to who are inflicting blasphemous atrocities on other humans in the name of God, and the knowledge that violence breeds violence and does not bring lasting peace. But most of all, I am conflicted over my growing awareness of the value and effectiveness of non-violent confrontations and my knowledge that those who practice it frequently end up being crucified.

That’s how I see it through the flawed glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,

[1] Derek Flood, Disarming Scriptures: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence Loving Conservatives and Why We all Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014), Kindle edition, Location 781
[2] The word also is sometimes translated “Gentiles,” and “heathen”.
[3] Derek Flood, op. cit., Location 797.