Thursday, October 3, 2019

Roots of Discord

Like most people who are not in denial or defending some vested interest, I see the racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that are endemic in much of American culture and blatantly rampant in some quarters of national leadership. And while I deplore them as much as anybody, I don’t believe these traits are chosen—they are not intentional or premeditated—as some would imply. 
I see us beating each other up with accusations of these evil, even demonic, qualities; however, short of mental illness or demonic possession, I don’t believe anyone would, upon reflection, decide: “I’m going to be a racist.” In fact, most people deny they are racist. For the most part, I repeat, it's not intentional or premeditated.
More than individual traits, these character flaws are systemic. They are embedded in the human ethos and have been manifested in virtually every human culture at least since the emergence of the conquest cultures during the Bronze Age. The conquest cultures, with their characteristic myth of redemptive violence, were clearly articulated and described as early as the Babylonian creation myth (The Enuma Elish), which dates to the 12th and 13th centuries BCE.
 Walter Wink describes that myth of redemptive violence, which he began to discern while watching the TV cartoons with his children during the 1960s. He writes:
“I began to examine the structure of cartoons, and found the same pattern repeated endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three quarters of the show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain, and restores order until the next episode. Nothing finally destroys the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, whether the villain is soundly trounced, jailed, drowned, or shot into outer space.”[1]
In the Babylonian myth, creation itself is an act of violence, and that mythic structure spread from Ireland to China. Wink continues:
“Typically, a male war god residing in the sky fights a decisive battle with a female divine being, usually depicted as a monster or dragon, residing in the sea or abyss (the feminine element). Having vanquished the original enemy by war and murder, the victor fashions a cosmos from the monster’s corpse. Cosmic order requires the violent suppression of the feminine, and is mirrored in the social order by the subjection of women to men and people to ruler.”[2]
If the Babylonian myth of creation describes a very early example of acculturated misogyny, the testimony of endemic racism dates at least a millennium earlier to the Hebrew Scriptures, where it emerges from the feud between Abraham’s jealous wife, Sarai and his concubine (Sarai’s handmaiden), Hagar. Ishmael, Hagar’s son and the source of Sarai’s jealousy, is banished with his mother, and became known as the father of the Arabic peoples. Ishmael hated Abraham and his tribe because of his banishment, which essentially cut him off from a rather affluent inheritance as Abraham’s first-born. That hatred became the basis of the relationship between the Israelites and the descendants of Ishmael (which continues today) and is an early depiction of acculturated racism.
In every manifestation of misogyny and racism, whether systemic and cultural or individual and personal, the root is an intolerance of differences—xenophobia. I submit that xenophobia is the foundation of virtually every human relations dysfunction, and I would emphasize the “phobia” part of that word.
In recent writings and addresses fear consistently is identified as a major factor behind the animosity that festers like an open wound and divides the American people.
The antidote to xenophobia, I submit, is that people simply become better acquainted. In training for pastoral care, a primary principle was (and still is) that between me and any other human there are infinitely more similarities than differences.  But it’s human nature to focus on the differences. And that focus eventually leads to fear.
When people become better acquainted with each other, it’s common for them to discover those similarities—common interests and hopes and ideals—that become a basis for cooperative, peaceful relationships. I suggest that the same is true in group and community relationships.
What are your hopes? Your dreams? What do you want to accomplish? If you share your responses with me, I suspect we’ll discover that I have the same kinds of hopes and dreams and objectives, and the foundation will have been laid for the growth of trust and friendship.
Sound too good to be true? Too easy? I don’t know. Has it ever been tried? Really?
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Collateral Damage?

I’m not opposed to guns. In case you missed that, I’ll repeat it: I’m not opposed to guns. Period.
I like Beto O’Rourke; but he shot himself in the foot (sic) at the Presidential debate: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47. We’re not going to allow it to be used on fellow Americans anymore.”
He should have stopped with his set-up: “If it’s a weapon designed to kill people on a battlefield; if the high-impact, high-velocity round when it hits your body shreds everything inside of your body because it was designed to do that, so that you would bleed to death on a battlefield so that you wouldn’t be able to get up and kill one of our soldiers. When we see that being used against children. And in Odessa I met the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was shot by an AR-15, and that mother watched her bleed to death, over the course of an hour, because so many other people were shot by that AR-15 in Odessa, in Midland, there weren’t enough ambulances to get to them in time.
In the first place, “we” can’t take away people’s guns, unless the 2nd amendment is rescinded. As I’ve said and written many times, there’s no possibility—NO POSSIBILITY—of that happening. It would take a two-thirds vote of both houses of congress even to present a proposal for rescinding. That proposal then would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states! Count them. Use your fingers if you need to: 13 states could defeat the proposal to rescind the 2nd (or any other) amendment of the Constitution. In your wildest fantasy, do you think that fewer than 13 states would vote against rescinding the 2nd amendment? And that question presupposes prior approval by a two-thirds vote of both houses of Congress! In your wildest fantasies, do you believe that could happen?
And, about that “slippery slope” the NRA keeps talking about: it’s hypothetical presumption—the rhetoric of conspiracy and paranoia, “based on the theory that too many firearm regulations could ultimately result in the loss of Second Amendment rights entirely. Take one type of weapon designed specifically for maximum killing impact off the shelves and next thing you know all our guns are gone.
“For me, the larger issue is not whether AR-15s or AK-47s will be confiscated; they won’t be in my lifetime, and maybe not ever, largely because that’s logistically and legally impossible. California alone houses at least a million assault weapons. American firearms are not on a slippery slope to confiscation.”[1]
Your guns are safe! Barak Obama nor Beto O’Rourke nor anyone else is coming to take your guns. So, relax. Breathe.
I think I’ve I addressed both sides—pretty much the entire spectrum—from Beto to the NRA. At least that’s been my attention. There already is too much attention paid to one side to the neglect of the other.
To my friends to the left: relax. Breathe. Nobody—NOBODY—is happy about the 302 mass shootings in the United States this calendar year. Nobody believes it’s OK for slobbering maniacs to shoot large groups of people, whether innocent children in schools or festive music fans attending a concert, or unsuspecting shoppers at a mall. Senator Chris Coons (D) from Delaware said, “I respect [O’Rourke’s] passion. Anyone who has had to sit with the parents of victims of gun violence, parents who have lost their children, as I have, after the Sandy Hook shooting, after the Tucson shooting. ...To sit with a parent who has lost a child and have no answer about how we’re going to make the country safer is a very hard experience.”[2]
My concern is that “to have no answer” status. As a nation, we’ve made it a guns-vs-no-guns issue, while that’s not the issue!!! The people who support unrestricted gun ownership point to mental illness and/or sinfulness as the problem. The real issue is that everybody is pointing to “the problem,”[3] but there is no cooperative effort, nor any apparent initiative or desire, to find a solution!
Bill Leonard, continuing from the above quote, wrote,
“No, the real tragedy of the frenzy over O’Rourke’s remarks is that the national conversation they sparked seems more intent on saving guns than on saving human beings.[4] …
“Other than Coons, and of course O’Rourke, I’ve not heard anyone else on cable television or social media give serious attention to “a 15-year-old girl,” her body shredded by gunshots, whose “mother watched her bleed to death” waiting on an ambulance.
“Responses to O’Rourke’s comments are, I think, confirmation of where we are as a nation in the year of our Lord(?) 2019. The American Republic seems so bound by the Second Amendment as a ‘God given, sacred right,’[5] that mass shootings increasingly seem a regrettable kind of collateral damage, the sad reality of non-negotiable weaponry.”
Leonard concludes that congress “could at least fund more ambulances.” It’s a pitiful reality check for a nation that is too focused on guns, pro and/or con, to attempt to find solutions to the bloodbath that seems increasingly acceptable as “collateral damage.”
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1]  Bill Leonard, “Beto O’Rourke’s Debate Invective And The New ‘Back To School’ Video Are The Jeremiads Of Our Time,” Baptist News Global, September 20, 2019. This blog is but an extension of my resonation with Leonard’s column, and his “larger issue” will be discussed below.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Even though we can’t agree on what the problem really is!
[4] I would add, “or restricting guns in some way”.
[5] A direct quote from our President.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Transformation--My Testimony

I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church during the 1940s and 50s. I cherish and honor that heritage, even though I have moved a considerable distance from it, theologically, politically (sic), and biblically. My passion for the faith and for the teachings of Jesus came from that background. I literally do not remember a time in my life that I didn’t believe and accept that “Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”
Undeniably, my dependence upon the Bible as the standard of measure (canon is the official word for that) for matters of faith and Christian living came also from that legacy.
Ironically, it also was the study of the Bible that began my shift away from my native church. I have an inquisitive mind. It’s in my DNA; but it proved a liability in my early years in the Southern Baptist Church. From my earliest memories I had questioned specific applications of Scripture; but those questions were discouraged. I was even told, “There are just some things we’re not supposed to know.”
I didn’t accept that then; and I don’t accept it today. During my last year in high school and through my undergraduate years, I frequently said, “I’m not fully a Southern Baptist; but, I’m closer to them than anybody else.” The truth was that I really didn’t know much about what anybody else believed.
It has been said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Well, I’ve never been close to being an atheist; nevertheless, when I was sent to Vietnam by the Unites States Marine Corp, my dependence upon my faith was at perhaps it’s highest level.
I took it upon myself to “be in the Word” as much as possible, and since I was assigned to headquarters company, headquarters battalion, 3rd Marine Division, I had time and some level of security in which to do so. I decided to begin with Paul’s epistle to the Romans: you know, where Martin Luther found such discrepancies between what he had been taught and what the Bible says.
Well, I was letting the Bible speak to me because that’s what my preachers and Sunday School teachers had told me to do; but very early I began to note that what I thought was in the Bible, really wasn’t there. I even found some things that actually were counter to what I had been taught. The more I read the Bible, the less I could reconcile everything I had learned with what I found in the Bible.
At first it was a troubling experience—even frightening. After all, I was supposed to believe what I was taught, wasn’t I—not to question God or the Bible? What I came to realize was that the real message I was taught was to not question what I was being taught about God or the Bible. There is a difference.
But, in the Epistle of Romans I discovered that my relationship with God is not dependent upon believing right doctrine. It is dependent upon my accepting Jesus’ teaching that God already loves me and wants to make my life full and complete, regardless of—sometimes in spite of—what I believe at any given moment. Faith, then, is not a set of beliefs or doctrines, but is the willingness to live as if I truly believe what I say I believe.
Indeed, those moments of anxiety began to be transformed into a sense of comfort as I began to realize I had been trusting correct doctrine instead of trusting God as the basis of my relationship with God. Out of a fear of hell I had been driven to cling to doctrine—to put my faith in it rather than in the God revealed in Jesus. That realization is both freeing and motivating. In recalling that transformative time in my life, I am reminded of John Gillespie McGee’s poem, “High Flight:”
 Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
It was in reading the Bible that I slipped the surly bonds of my faith culture. And, time after time, it has been in reading the Bible that I have discovered new understandings of God’s unlimited, unmerited grace in contrast to the restrictive, legalistic, and exclusionary doctrines that are born out of human fear and lack of trust in that same grace.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Friday, September 20, 2019

Rantings After a Road Trip

Jo Lynn and I just returned from a 2850-mile road trip to the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I love mountains, from Pinnacle Mountain in Little Rock to Turkey Mountain in Tulsa; from the Boston and Ouachita Mountains in Arkansas to the Appalachians to the Rockies to the Sierras. And when I leave, it’s always with a touch of grief that I watch in my rear-view mirror as they sink below the horizon.
It was a great trip: an escape from the oppressive heat and humidity in Arkansas. We drove through Rocky Mountain National Park, past the highest point on Trail Ridge Road (elevation 12,059 feet according to our GPS).

Columbine Lake ~ Arapaho National Forest (My Photo)
I hiked from the trail head (elevation 10,095 feet) to Columbine Like, sitting beautifully in a glacial cirque at 11,060 feet above sea level. The air was crisp and cool and dry; and thinner than the air in Arkansas.
It was a tranquil time of peaceful appreciation of God’s creation.
But then we had to come home. Home, of course, is not the issue. To channel the late Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”
Speed limits are a joke. Virtually everybody ignores them: most drivers (and, yes, that includes me) and the police officers charged with enforcing them. It’s universal knowledge that there are two speed limits: the posted one, and the enforced one. On Interstates and major highways, the latter is generally 8 – 12 mph faster than the former, depending upon the traffic conditions, road conditions, the weather, and the current mood of the enforcing officer.
Inconsistency of enforcement is my primary gripe. We’ve all driven through radar at 80 mph and been ignored. On the other hand, my last traffic citation (in 1969) was for speeding. I was driving 58 mph in a 55-mph zone. Decades later, my nephew was cited for impeding traffic. He was driving 58 mph in a 55-mph zone. Inconsistency! It’s difficult—it’s impossible—to know what to expect from other drivers, as well as from those who are charged with enforcing the traffic. Still, we all think we know what we can “get away with”.
I generally set my cruise control around 5 mph over the posted speed limit. By actual count over several decades (I’m a statistics nerd), when I set my cruise at 75 in a 70-mph zone, I’ll be passed by 22 vehicles for every vehicle I pass. That puts me in the slowest 5% of vehicles on the road—when exceeding the posted speed limit—breaking the law!
When the posted speed limit is 55, and I set my cruise at 60, I’ll be passed by 9 vehicles for every vehicle I pass. That puts me in the slowest 12% of traffic.
A rule of thumb offered publicly and frequently by law enforcement representatives is to “go with the flow” in traffic. But, which flow? On Interstate highways the flow in the right lane is usually slower than the posted speed limit, while the flow in the left lane may well exceed it by 15 mph—or more! How often have you been trapped in the right lane behind a vehicle driving 68 mph, and had to wait while a line of cars in the left lane blast your doors off at 85 mph?
And the timing! You’re in the right lane as you’re supposed to be, approaching a slower vehicle, and in your rear-view mirror you see the rabid race driver wannabe bearing down on you. You try to judge; you have to decide: is there enough time to pass the vehicle ahead without impeded the driver bearing down behind? Do I speed up? Do I simply touch my brakes, disengage the cruise and wait for Dale Jr. to pass ? Or, do I change lanes to pass and let the speedster behind me deal with it?
An apparent sense of entitlement is assumed by many drivers. Yesterday on I-40 I was completing a pass of an 18-wheeler when a pickup roared up behind and tailgated within five feet of my rear bumper! The vehicle had been about a half-mile behind me when I began the pass, and there was no other traffic on the road at that point. It’s not an unusual experience. Am I obligated to speed up to get out of his way (which I did in this case)? Is he entitled to travel at 85 mph while everyone steps aside and bows as he passes?
To some degree I don’t think the mph is the issue. The issue is “Get out of my way!!!” I know frustration runs rampant on the highways. I get more frustrated than some. The extreme, of course, is road rage. I certainly don’t want to be the source of frustration, because frustration leads to traffic mishaps. Frustrated drivers become aggressive and dangerous. So I must choose: do I accept the frustration and deal with it; or do I forget that driving is a team activity that requires coordination and cooperation, and simply do what I want to do and to heck with the rest of those sharing the road? The latter is the choice of too many drivers. 

There’s nothing that ruins the tranquility of a mountain vacation quite like having to share the trip home with entitled wannabe road racers on the verge of road rage.
Like I said, speed limits are a joke.
Anyway, that’s my whine for the day. Would somebody please pass the cheese.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Monday, September 2, 2019

Ain't it a Shame to Work on Sunday...

Walter Brueggemann is among the preeminent non-Jewish American scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures. For many years I regularly have referred to his work in exegeting the Scriptures for preaching and for leading Bible studies. Over the past several weeks I have read and re-read, pondered and meditated on the his more devotionally focused book, A Gospel of Hope. That book, which is a collection of snippets and vignettes from his other writings, led me to yet another of his writings, Sabbath as Resistance, which I have just begun.
In the first few pages—scarcely 100 words into the book—the concept of sabbath took on new meaning and intensity for me. Brueggemann had made numerous references to sabbath in A Gospel of Hope; comments in which sabbath took on, in my mind, a vaguely healing and restoring quality. I began to hold it in juxtaposition to the stress-filled, manic pace of the competitive scramble for … whatever it is that we’re scrambling for in life. That scramble is laden with road rage commutes, rigid ideological self-assertion, and an illusion of perfection.
And then comes sabbath.
In my earliest memories my dad was a tenant farmer with dreams of owning his own farm. He worked hard, long hours; but, come Sunday, there would be no work. I remember riding into town for church, and passing a farmer working in his field. My mom, without fail, would sing a little jingle, “Ain’t it a shame to work on Sunday, ain’t it a shame?”
Sunday in my early memories was, aside from going to church, a day filled with rules about what we couldn’t do: we couldn’t play cards or go to a picture show, and we couldn’t go to the store because all the stores were closed on Sunday.
A similar kind of restrictive observation of sabbath can be found in the Jewish commentaries. The third commandment in the Decalogue reads:
“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:8-11 NRSV)
Of all those words, what grabbed the attention of the ancient scribes was, “work: don’t.” So, since it’s a commandment from God we’d better take it seriously. Don’t work. Avoid work. So, what is it we’re supposed to avoid? And thus began a process—a virtually unending process—of defining work. I don’t recall how many volumes of the Talmud were devoted to the definition of work.
I do recall one specific definition of work: carrying more than a cup of honey more than six steps. That was defined as work, and it was prohibited. So, the Jewish homemaker would make sure honey was within six steps of the table before Sabbath began.
I also recall reading about a man who was stoned to death for violating the Sabbath. His crime: dragging a chair across the dirt floor of his home. It was considered plowing.
Of course, the Sabbath had to be defined. At first it was from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday. When watches were invented, sabbath was defined as beginning at 6:00 PM on Friday and ending at 6:00 PM on Saturday.
I remember Sandy Koufax, ace pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 50s and 60s. He was Jewish, and one year refused to pitch the opening game of the World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year. Not exactly sabbath; but a similar application. Avoidance of work. Restriction.
And so the rigid observance of sabbath restriction passed from generation to generation: “Ain’t it a shame to work on Sunday, ain’t it a shame.” And in the process, the intention of sabbath has totally been missed. The word, sabbath, means to stop or to cease, and in the third commandment it is tied directly to rest.
Rest. A time for restoring energy and strength. A time for refreshing and healing and refocusing. A time for renewal of one’s whole being (soul): body, mind, relationships, and spirituality.
The rigid observance of a command, when observance means to avoid what is prohibited, becomes counterproductive and produces more stress, rather than healing.
Think of a small child resisting a nap or bedtime. The child doesn’t realize that rest is a human necessity—if not for herself, then for her exhausted parents. It’s not a luxury. It’s not an entitlement. It’s built into the human DNA, and to ignore it or deny it is to do harm to the very soul of humanity.
What if we took a break—declared a moratorium—from the whole legalistic, pharisaical rigidity that becomes common in so many faith expressions? What if we focused instead on the grace that undergirds the whole idea of sabbath?  
Rest. What if it’s not a prescription, but a description? What if it describes the will of God for God’s people: that they should have regular times of rest and restoration and refreshing? What if it’s more invitation than commandment? On that basis, might we give ourselves permission to take a regular sabbath?
And what if we took a sabbath from our petty social media pontifications and personal insults and intolerance? Just give it a rest.
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Biology, Zoology, Christology

The word, Christology, is rather like biology, or zoology, or any other word with “logy” attached to the end. It is the study or knowledge of Christ. What is Christ? How is Jesus of Nazareth Christ? What does Christ mean to me/us? 
In seminary I had to submit periodic papers in which I described my own personal Christology. The formation of my Christology was, and continues to be, a process. I trust that process is growth toward the truth. The comments that follow represent my latest articulation of that process.
The question of Christ is an extension of the question of God. The identity and nature of God are at stake in the rabbinic debates which make up a literary form in much Hebrew Scripture. What is God like? It’s a primeval question; and the varied approaches in Hebrew Scripture may seem to reveal more contradiction than consensus.
One testimony, generally represented by more ancient wisdom and prophetic writings, describes God as adversarially jealous in regard to his (sic) people and his territory. This testimony portrays a brutal God: judging and punishing any who defy or ignore him. Not even Genocide bothers this God; indeed, he orders it.
Counter-testimony, represented primarily by later wisdom and prophetic writings, presents God as gracious, nurturing, and restoring. The role of judgment belongs to God’s antagonist, Satan, while God works to reconcile a Satan-duped humanity to himself (again, using the male pronoun only to be consistent with Scripture).
It was the latter representation of God that Jesus of Nazareth chose to manifest in his own life and ministry. The Gospel of John picks up on one Hebrew concept of God’s presence, viz., “Word of the Lord”, and identifies Word as a manifestation of the eternal, pre-existent quality or persona of  God: “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). In Jesus of Nazareth, that Word was lived out in human community—the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14). C. S. Lewis wrote, ““It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him.”[1]
Theologian, Walter Wink, begins the 9th chapter of his book, The Powers that Be (Doubleday, 1998) with these words:
“American culture is presently in the first stages of a spiritual renaissance. To the degree that this renaissance is Christian at all, it will be the human figure of Jesus that galvanizes hearts to belief and action, and not the Christ of the creeds or the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith. And in the teachings of Jesus, the sayings on nonviolence and love of enemies will hold a central place. Not because they are more true than any others, but because they are crucial in the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.”
Recently on Facebook I posted a quote from a late colleague, teacher, and friend:
“If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself, you are absolutely wrong.” 
― Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock
In response, a long-time friend (she used to baby-sit with our kids) posted: “If you're reading a Bible that justifies any of those things, you probably need to enroll in a remedial reading class AFTER you start wearing your new prescription lenses...”
That response is what stimulated this whole string of thought (for me, that’s not a difficult thing to accomplish!), and I responded:
“Actually, by being very, very selective in your reading of Scripture, it's possible to justify all of the above. The rabbinic method of testimony/counter-testimony debate runs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and into the recorded teachings of Jesus. That method compared contradictory propositions and the subsequent debates among the rabbis were seen as ways of increasing the faith. There is a distinct and consistent trajectory throughout, and if we follow that trajectory we eventually find Jesus of Nazareth, who took sides in the debate, rejecting all the things named in the Craddock quote above. My choice is to affirm Jesus' position and try to live it. After more than 77 years, I feel as if I'm just beginning to comprehend what Jesus was all about.”
The thoughts kept coming. The following concluding comments are an expansion of a subsequent post in the Facebook conversation with my friend:
The idea of the biblical trajectory isn't my idea originally; I discovered it in the writings of a postmodern theologian named Derek Flood[2]. Moreover, the testimony/counter-testimony[3] tag is from Walter Brueggemann, a leading scholar of Hebrew Scripture. Perhaps a better way to apply Jesus' relationship to that trajectory is to say that it describes the human comprehension of the will of God, and Jesus CHOSE that trajectory (see the temptation narratives in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4) and lived it out as "the visible image of the invisible God" (Colossians 1:15). It is in his total obedience to that divine will that he fulfills the Hebrew anticipation of the servant of God. 
“Servant” is Isaiah’s characterization of the messianic anticipations of Israel. Isaiah described the “servant” in a series of Servant Songs: Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7 and 52:13-53:12. Some scholars add Isaiah 61:1-3; although the word servant does not appear in the passage. I believe it was specifically through these passages that Jesus experienced and accepted his identity. It is through those servant songs that I find the clearest and most consistent understandings of Jesus as the anticipated Christ. To the degree that we live and manifest that same divine will we live "in Christ" (Romans 6:11, 23, et. al.)”
[Note: All footnotes were added during this present writing and did not appear in the initial Facebook posts.]
That’s how it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol III, edited by Walter Hooper (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco: @ 2007)—Spcifically, a letter written to a Ms. Johnson on November 8, 1952.
[2] 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), 82, et. al.
[3] Walter Brueggemann. Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 317-318.

Friday, July 5, 2019

The True Word of God

I am confident that no one will admit this; however, the human race always has created God in our image—in direct contradiction to the biblical affirmation that the revers is true: God created humans in God’s image. Two contrasts help me understand how Western culture in general, and American Christianity in particular, has done this. There are other clues; but, I’ll restrict my comments to these two.

First, the nature and identity of God is revealed in God’s self-identification in Revelation 21:5 (NRSV)See, I am making all things new.” In the original language of the New Testament, the verb is imperfect, implying ongoing, as yet unfinished action; thus, “I am always making all things new,” or “I keep on making all things new.”

In contrast, it is the nature and identity of humanity to try to hold on to the way things are right now and/or to try to revert to the way things were in some utopian “good ol’ days,” or to actualize life the way it “ought” to be. The key here is the phrase, “hold on to”, regardless of the preferred paradigm.

This contrast goes a long way toward explaining why there are so many different, sometimes mutually exclusive, and too often antagonistic ways of understanding reality and reality’s God. The standard of measure begins with individual humans’ preferred way of being—the way things are, or the way things used to be back when, or the way things “ought” to be… Our cultural paradigm, whether chosen or by default, establishes the lens through which God is perceived, viz., God is perceived as existing for the purpose of helping us obtain and sustain life as we want it to be.

In other words, we humans prefer a secure (read: unchanging) God of stability; so, we create that God and worship him (sic). But, when the perception of God emerges out of any human desire or preference, given the diversity of human desire and preference, the inevitable result inevitably is chaos and antagonism.

And all the while, we humans are missing (or ignoring) God’s promise of new life: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (II Corinthians 5:17 NRSV)

So, what is meant by this cryptic phrase, “in Christ?” In its most basic understanding, it simply means being who Christ is and doing what Christ does. It means “dying to self” (those human insecurities that lead to the chaotic and antagonistic reality mentioned above) and being raised to new life as imitators of Christ, whose paradigmatic identity was manifested fully in Jesus of Nazareth.

In the second contrast, it is the nature and identity of God to desire unity, in Christ, of all things (Ephesians 1:9-10). That unity is the end and goal of God’s ongoing creative industry (“always making all things new”.)

The contrasting human desire is for uniformity in human desire and behavior. So, the God created by humans has the compound duty, first, of meeting our human needs and desires and, second, of making everyone else “like me/us.”

Remember that muffler commercial from several years ago—the one in which a guy in coveralls with greasy hands is wielding a two-pound maul and says, “Ill make it fit”? Whether consciously and intentionally or obliviously and by default, all of us some of the time, and some of us all the time, begin interpretation of Scripture with the intention of making it fit what we already have decided to believe. And then the various denominations and cults square off and point accusingly at one another and demand conformity. The majority of faith-based human ideologies insist on the exclusive merit and absolute correctness of their interpretation.

Indeed, most will deny that their approach is an interpretation at all. They will insist that their “understanding” is clearly the only true meaning and intention of Scripture. Well, to quote my nephew, Christian Piatt, “There is no uninterpreted Scripture.” I will take it a step further and say that a literal understanding of Scripture is humanly impossible.

We cannot totally free ourselves from the preconceptions and expectations we bring to any reading of Scripture. For most of us who read the Bible in English, even when simply reading, verbatim, the exact words of scripture, we at best will be reading a translation (probably of a translation) which inevitably redirects some of the subtle nuances of the original language. Without some knowledge of, or guidance through, the original languages of Scripture, we begin our reading with several layers of translation between us and the text.

And while God’s Spirit always is available to guide the writing of Scripture, not all humans are in tune with that guidance when they translate or interpret. The contradictions among the multiplicity of English versions of Scripture makes my point.

Moreover, we bring to any reading of Scripture all the bits and pieces of remembered, half-forgotten Sunday School lessons, camp songs, Hymns, sermons, devotional readings, and opinions shared over coffee with friends. It’s difficult to clear the attic—to sweep away the shards and cobwebs of partial memory to make way for a new reading—to let the Scripture speak fresh, as if for the first time.

Even a verbatim reading will be an interpretation, simply by the emphasis and inflection we inflict on the individual words of the text. Finally, one’s choice of text in any given situation will reflect the preconceptions with which one approaches Scripture.

“My Bible says…” should be replaced with, “The way I read scripture…”, because in all honesty that’s the best any of us can do. That’s why St. Paul insists, “…we walk by faith, and not by sight” (II Corinthians 5:7) That’s why he insists,  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (I Corinthians 13:12)

But we don’t want to walk by faith. We want an absolute guarantee. So, since the Bible offers only faith, we create the guarantees. And the result is the absence,  not only of the uniformity we seek, but also of the unity which is the will of God as demonstrated in Christ.

I love the C. S. Lewis quote, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him.” For me, the Gospels and the Christian Epistles are consistent in their definitive testimony regarding Christ; therefore, I approach all of Scripture through the lens of Christ—the Word-become-flesh. In him, my faith has hands and feet, and a voice.

That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.

Together in the Walk,


Thursday, July 4, 2019

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

I've been interested in this year's FIFA Women’s World Cup in which the American team (wouldn't you know it?) attracted significant notoriety because of the impudent boastfulness of some of its players. 
Since the emergence of the Human Potential Movement in the 1960s[1] the idea of self-actualization or self-realization has been variously revered or cursed, used and abused. It has been instrumental in promoting mental and emotional well-being, and it has produced unprecedented and increasing levels of self-aggrandizement and narcissism.
·         A women’s beauty product commercial featured a woman cooing, “It’s expensive; but I’m worth it.” 
·         A fast-food chain chanted, “Have it your way!”
·         A professional athlete snapped photos with a top-of-the-line camera because, “Image is Everything.”
·         A high-end restaurant chain and a banking corporation enticed customers with, “It’s all about you!”
·         Professional football players beat their chests, choreograph their touchdown celebrations, and otherwise scream, “Look at me!” over the slightest accomplishment on the gridiron—even if their team is trailing by three touchdowns!
Whatever happened to the shy, humble slugger who ducked his head, muttered, “Aw, shucks!” and then knocked the cover off the baseball? What has happened in American culture so that even the President of the United States leads the parade of impudent narcissism?
Did it begin with Mohammed Ali screaming, “I am the greatest?” Indeed, was his mantra actually narcissism, or was it an honest acknowledgement of self-actualization? At that point in time, he was, in fact, “the greatest” (at least in the boxing world). Joe Namath said, “If I say and then do it, it’s not bragging.” So, when one reaches that level of self-actualization, is it OK to beat one’s chest and shout it from the highest hill?
The debate begs the question: “What does it mean to be self-actualized?” What is the highest level of selfhood a human can reach? It seems obvious to me—does it seem obvious to you?—that the answer necessarily varies with each individual human, emerging from his or her innate potential. But, in general, it seems to me that one quality of self-actualization would be the absence of any need to flaunt one’s status or to prove anything to anybody. So, whence the braggadocio?
We could play “junior psychologist” and surmise that it began in the depths of loneliness and abandonment in Generation X—the generation of latchkey kids whose parents were busy “being successful” and climbing the corporate ladder. The truth is, I don’t really see that kind of behavior from that generation (except for professional athletes).
Or, we could theorize that it’s a byproduct of the advertising industry—a culture immersed in shallow jingles and sensuous imagery. 
Self-actualization is the top of five levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, which include, in order: Survival, Security, Social Needs, Achievement, and Self-actualization. Maslow believed that each level of need motivates specific behavior, and that once a need is met (but not before), one moves into the next level. 
I think what we’re seeing in today’s rampant narcissism and braggadocio is a category of people fixated in a not-yet-realized need to achieve. Too often, one judges one’s own value or achievement on the basis of other people’s accomplishments or notoriety. Consequently, too many people simply don’t recognize the value of their own accomplishment and the value of their own lives.
At its root, self-actualization is a good thing; indeed, it even has spiritual value. As a preacher and (I hope) a theologian, I immediately recall Jesus’ ranking of God’s greatest commands: “Love God, love neighbor as yourself.” Certainly, Jesus seems to affirm self-importance in “as yourself.”
When you board an aircraft, prior to takeoff a flight attendant will make a safety speech which includes the instruction, “In case of cabin depressurization, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead. Put on your own oxygen mask first!” Until you have your own oxygen mask in place, there is the risk that you will lose consciousness and therefore be totally ineffective in assisting anyone else, and in particular a child or a person with any level of disability or physical challenge.
That illustration is a utilitarian application both of Maslow’s self-actualization and of Jesus’ exhortation to love others as yourself. In a somewhat more mundane expression, there is a song from the Broadway musical, “Golden Rainbow”—"I Gotta’ Be Me!”—the lyrics of which include the line, “I can’t be right for somebody else if I’m not right for me.”
I propose that self-actualization—identifying and maximizing one’s purpose in life—is not an end in itself. It is an act of “putting on your own oxygen mask first.” Human potential, in its most basic manifestation, is a manifestation of the image of God in which each human is created; more concretely for the Christian, it is living one’s life so it reflects the presence of Christ. The more nearly one approaches self-actualization/Christ-likeness, the more effectively he or she can participate, as all humanity is called to do, in God’s ongoing acts of creation—the more productively he or she can contribute to the fulfillment of the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
When a person lives at that level, there’s no need—or desire—to brag. 
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my worldview.
Together in the Walk,

[1] Thanks to Abraham Mazlow’s theory of self-realization as the highest level of human achievement, and to subsequent kneading through Jungian psychology (William James, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy, The Esalen Institute, et. al.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Walk With Me

[Continuing a journal of a personal quest for a more effective evangelism: an evangelism with credibility and biblical integrity.]

In my last blog I discussed what I see as a counterproductive approach to Evangelism, viz., an “ambush” strategy. It’s based (at least theoretically) on a concern for the eternal destinies of people; however, there are at least two flaws in the system. 
First, it begins with an assumption that people (particularly people who aren’t in our group) need what we have—without asking them. It’s presumptuous in its assumption that what we offer is the only right way to God. That assumption overlooks the findings of multiple polls and surveys that indicate 95% (more or less, depending upon the specific survey) of North Americans believe in God. But for the evangelicals, beyond that oversight is the conviction that believing in God is not enough. One must jump through very specific hoops (the ones we offer) in order to be “saved.”
What 95% of the North American public needs is a faith community that supports them in their faith journey and walks with them as they attempt to follow Jesus. They don’t need to be targeted as “unsaved-in-need-of-our-five-step-Roman-Road-to-Salvation.” They already “believe.” What most “dones” and “nones[1] really need is guidance and pastoral care in their sincere desire to follow Jesus. They haven’t found that guidance and care in the church; that’s why they’re not there anymore.
A second flaw in the antiquated and counterproductive system is its vulnerability to a prideful competitiveness and success-orientation. Granted, no one—NO ONE—will own up to that; however, that tendency to “keep score” is a part of the image (right or wrong) from which the “spiritual-but-not-religious) are fleeing.
So, at this point I’m thinking the focus of our evangelism, while not abandoning the lost, should emphasize the “spiritual-but-not-religious”—those Thomas G. Bandy calls the “spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public”.[2] That population, says Bandy, is the largest and fastest growing spiritual population in North America, and the Millennial generations account for its overwhelming majority.
And I suggest the motivating vision for our evangelism should be that of Jesus in Matthew 9:35-36 (NRSV) “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
At the next level, I’m beginning to believe that “invitation evangelism” won’t work. The key word for our evangelism should be the same as the key word in Jesus Great Commission,[3] viz., GO!!! They already have been-there-done-that, and/or have declined our invitation.
While the “spiritual-but-not-religious” make a lot of generalized assumptions about church; there is enough evidence to make those assumptions valid. So, maybe a prior step is for the church to clean up its own act—or, at least to divorce itself from the stereotypes that repel. In doing so, I suggest we begin with a focus on the Baby Boomer values of “success” (rather than obedience), “achievement” (rather than faithfulness), and consumerism (rather than service). I think those Boomer values are the foundation of the “institutional disillusionment” that fuels the current exodus from the church. This topic merits attention that transcends the boundaries of a simple blog; nevertheless, some deep soul-searching is in order.
Finally, when we GO!!!, our primary purpose will not be to proclaim, but to listen. I know, the kerygma[4] is the heart of the Gospel; but, for the “spiritual-but-not-religious,” the kerygma is a bus that already is moving 40 mph. We need to stop the bus before we expect them to board, and I'm thinking the "Good News" for those groups is, "Somebody cares enough about you to listen."
A major life experience for the “spiritually yearning, institutionally disillusioned public” includes stress, depression, and anxiety. These life qualities are a spin-off from the fast-paced pressure-cooker life of the corporate world created by the Baby Boomer generation. It impacts the Millennial generations severely: their work, their relationships, and their world view. 
They truly are a generation “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” and they need—and as children of God they deserve—to experience the love, and grace of Jesus. They already know about it; and when they didn’t find it in the church, they left to seek it elsewhere. By all accounts, they still haven’t found it. 
Perhaps the primary question for the church is this: is “it” even in the church, anymore. After beginning with listening, what if our evangelism should proceed with, “I’m hungry for a closer walk with Jesus, too. Will you walk with me, so we can help each other find that closer walk?”
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] These are nicknames (somewhat demeaning) for those who are “done” with playing church and those who never got started.
[2] Thomas G. Bandy, Christian Chaos, et. al.
[3] Matthew 28:19-20
[4] The Greek word for “preaching” or “proclamation.”