Thursday, July 31, 2014

God in the Coin Toss

"And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles." So ends today's lectionary passage from the book of Acts. Matthias, who is chosen by lot (something akin to drawing straws or flipping a coin) is to replace Judas as one of the twelve, the inner circle of Jesus' followers.

Using chance to make choices is hardly unknown to us. There was a close local election here recently requiring a recount, and the article explaining the process noted that a tie would have to be broken by coin flip. But this is a last ditch move when everything else has failed to produce a decision. We trust our own logic and decision making over chance in most instances.

In the Old Testament covenant established at Mt. Sinai, there was something called the Urim and Thummin, apparently a pair of stones that were used to "inquire" of God, that is some sort of holy dice that gave answers to burning questions such as whether to go this way or that, whether the king should make a certain decision or the other such as wage war or sue for peace. As I general rule, I doubt many of us would want our leaders throwing dice to make such important decisions.

I'm not arguing against careful and deliberate decision making, but I am wondering about how wisdom from outside of ourselves can be heard in our deliberations. I've seen far too much of the dark underbelly of Presbyterian decision making. We say that our Church Councils, whether the small ones in each congregation or the large one that oversees our denomination, are instruments of listening for God's voice. But all too often, especially in the larger councils, they look little different from the partisan politics of our day. Sides martial resources in order to win, and very little listening goes on. Each side already "knows" it is correct. In such a scenario, where is it possible for God to speak something that we don't already know? Maybe we need to bring the Urim and Thummin out of retirement.

Many centuries ago, St. Augustine said something along the lines of, "If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself." In a fundamental sense, faith is about trusting an authority outside of yourself. There is no avoiding the need to interpret an authority such as Scripture, but if, in our attempts to interpret, understand, and apply what we hear Jesus saying to us, what we hear never challenges or overturns some of our deeply held assumptions and certainties, I'm reasonably certain that God can't get a word in edgewise. 

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Faith Is for Losers

In today's gospel, Matthew shows us Jesus on the cross. Crucifixions were very public affairs, meant as horrible deterrents to those who dared defy Rome. They were usually located for maximum exposure, on a main thoroughfare or at a crossroads, insuring lots of people would pass by and get the message. Matthew tells us that those passersby taunted Jesus. The gospel doesn't identify them. We don't know if they were opponents of Jesus prior to this point. We know only that they passed by and said things such as, "Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him."

I don't know, but I suspect that taunting of this sort  was a common feature back in the days of public hangings. Such a person is, by definition, a "loser" of some sort, and we humans often take pleasure in piling on when someone is down.

"Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him." It's just a taunt, but I wonder if there's any truth to it. Would people have believed had Jesus miraculously descended from the cross? Surely they would have stopped taunting him.

My own conversations with God sometimes bear some similarities to those taunts against Jesus. In my case I'm not taunting so much as begging. "Do something impressive, and I'll have more faith. Fix some big problem in the world, and I'll find it much easier to do as Jesus says." Would I really?

Theologians and scholars have a fancy term known as "the scandal of the cross" that speaks to my problem and that of the passersby who taunted Jesus. Crosses are for losers, and we want winners. Getting crucified means you're weak, and we like those who have power and know how to use it.

I wonder if we can fully embrace Jesus, or fully know God, until we can fully embrace weakness and crosses and those the world thinks are losers.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Sabbath and the Gods I Serve

"Put away the foreign gods that are among you." So says Joshua shortly before his death. It is his last act of leadership to the people of Israel, renewing the covenant with Yahweh, the covenant first articulated at Sinai with Moses. But where do all these foreign gods come from?

Other gods and idols were expressly forbidden at Mt. Sinai. Moses had reiterated these prohibition to another generation of Israelites at the end of  his career, just as Israel was about to enter the land of promise. And if you know the Old Testament at all, you know that this problem pops up repeatedly. Israel is almost never able to entrust itself totally to God. People are always hedging their bets, finding others things that promise security, happiness, fulfillment, and so on.

Not that the Israelites are so different from me. There's always something that seems like a better thing to organize my life around than God or Jesus, something better to chase after than God. The Old Testament often speaks of this in concrete, golden calf form. The New Testament often equates idolatry with greed. I'm not as motivated by money as some folks, and so my greed is not always financial. I want acclaim. I want to be "recognized." I want to see results and make a difference.

Not that making a difference is such a bad thing, but it can become a substitute for God, something I pursue, something that drives me, and something that, ultimately, leaves me frustrated, disappointed, and unfulfilled.

I've been doing a sermon series on Sabbath of late, something inspired by Walter Brueggemann's book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. It has led me to think a lot about the restlessness and busyness that characterizes our society. Very often this restlessness can't seem ever to stop and truly be still. And I am increasingly convinced that this is a telltale sign of serving one of those other gods the Bible keeps telling people to "put away." I say that because the God of the Bible both rests and commands rest.

When pastors such as myself serve a restless god who doesn't allow rest, our congregations are never quite good enough for us. Surely a better congregation would help us achieve what we want to accomplish. In such a view congregations become obstacles to pastoral success or stepping stones on the way to something better. And the living God who promises renewed life and daily bread gets lost along the way.

And so for me, Joshua's words on putting away foreign gods don't sound like archaic instructions to folks who may have picked up an idol at the local, Canaanite temple. Instead they are fresh, life-giving words that free me from the stressed out, anxious striving that too often characterizes life. They are gracious invitation that draws me once more into the rest and peace of God's provision.

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Sermon video: Divided Attention and Cluelessness

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sermon: Divided Attention and Cluelessness - Sabbath as Resistance to Multitasking

Amos 8:4-8
Divided Attention and Cluelessness
Sabbath as Resistance to Multitasking
James Sledge                                                                                       July 27, 2014

There’s an old joke about a preacher who, just before the sermon, performs the weekly ritual of taking off his watch and balancing on the pulpit so that he can see the watch face. A young boy, unfamiliar with this ritual, whispers to his father, “What does that mean, Daddy?” To which his father replies, “Absolutely nothing, son. Absolutely nothing.”
We preachers can sometimes drone on and on, oblivious to the need to wrap things up. But clock watchers in the pews are not always reacting to long winded preachers. Sometimes they simply have “more important” things they’d rather be doing.
Of course it’s difficult really to listen when you’re clock watching or paying attention to other things. I’ve heard claims that millennials, who grew up with the internet and cell phones, have brains that are wired for multitasking, but study after study has shown that when people, even young people, multitask, all tasks suffer.
Are you familiar with “phone stacking.” That’s when people who get together for a meal or coffee take out their smartphones and stack them on top of each other, agreeing not to check them until it’s time to go. If someone can’t hold out that long and must check email or update his Facebook page, he has to pay for everyone.
I’ve never actually seen this done, but it’s an intriguing idea. I say that as someone who has too often been guilty of checking my phone while in the midst of conversations with family or friends. More than once I’ve found myself embarrassingly lost in a conversation because my attention has been elsewhere. I’m trying to break free of my phone addiction because I know that I can’t really have a conversation while I’m checking my phone.
We all know that. We cannot be fully attentive to another while multitasking. Not everything requires our full attention, but you cannot really worship if you’re checking your watch, you can’t really make love while watching the game on TV, and you can’t really pray while checking stock quotes. Multitasking is a hazard to most anything intended to be deep and intimate. That’s especially of true of relationship with God and the life God wants for us.
In our scripture verses this morning, the prophet Amos is upset with wealthy people over multitasking.. They are keeping up with the expected religious obligations. They are marking the sabbath, but all the while they’re watching their clocks and keeping one eye on their profit margins. Outwardly they are attending to God, but inwardly they are making business plans, figuring out what corners they may be able to cut, what deceptive practices they might be able to get away with, in order to make a bit more.
Amos lived in a time when things were going well for Israelites in the upper tier of society, owners and CEOs and those with big stock portfolios. But it was not going well for the poor, and Amos warns that this will be the undoing of Israel because Yahweh is a God with special concern for the poor and oppressed.
In our day, a lot of people, even religious people, doubt that God actually intervenes in history. But I don’t know that this makes us much different from the wealthy of Amos’ day. They obviously didn’t worry about God intervening or listen to Amos. He was amazed at how oblivious they were to the plight of the poor, but such cluelessness is a common trait of multitaskers who always have one eye on profit margins or their bank account.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Acquiring a Jesus Accent

I mentioned in a post earlier this week how even skeptical, non-Christian scholars can accept Jesus' betrayal by Judas as an actual, historical event. Why make something like that up? And surely the same can be said of Peter's behavior in today's gospel.

Matthew tells us that all the disciples deserted Jesus following his arrest. But it seems the Peter does slink along behind, at a distance, wanting to know what will happen to Jesus. And so it is that Peter gets spotted.

Someone remembers seeing Peter with Jesus. Peter denies it, but I imagine he was getting a bit nervous at this point. Then another person recognizes him, and Peter must deny it even more forcefully. He looks a bit a like a politician whose been caught in some misdeed but still hopes repeated denials will make it all go away. But then it happens again, and this person points out Peter's telltale accent. Now I have no idea what a Galilean accent sounded like, but it must have been distinctive. I'm guessing it was also looked down on by folks in Jerusalem, the same way some people look down on an accent from West Virginia or the rural South.

Peter is feeling cornered, and so he begins to curse and swear. Surely no one believed his denials at this point, but it didn't matter. The crowing rooster recalled for Peter his earlier boasts of bravery, and how Jesus had said he would act precisely as he had just done. And Peter exists the stage, weeping as he goes.

Like Peter, most of us are better followers of Jesus in our minds than we are in reality, but unlike Peter, we rarely get cornered. There aren't many times when people want to catch us for following Jesus. We're free to make public pronouncements of our loyalty to him within the safe confines of a church sanctuary, knowing full well that no one at work or school is likely to cause trouble by accusing us of  hanging out with Jesus. We will have no need to swear and curse. We can "believe in" Jesus privately and live our lives in ways that don't betray the rather strange ways he teaches.

Very often, we have nothing of a distinctive, Jesus-like accent like the one that gives away Peter. Our lives may not betray any significant association with Jesus or the way he lived and called his followers to live. I know mine often doesn't. I think that's why I was so struck by a blog post with the admittedly hyperbolic title, "The Only Two Questions Any Pastor Should Be Asking Right Now," by Lawrence Wilson. These two questions are: "How do I get people to imitate Jesus in daily life as opposed to giving intellectual assent to Christian ideas without exhibiting life transformation?" and "How do we transform the public perception of Christians as judgmental, anti-intellectual, and mean-spirited to welcoming, hopeful, and helpful, which is how the ordinary folk of Jesus’ day perceived him?"

Wilson says that there is a single answer to both questions, and it is to begin living as Jesus did. Or, to use my analogy from above, to begin acquiring a distinctive, Jesus accent as opposed to some beliefs about Jesus. That leads to what Wilson calls a "modest proposal" for transforming church and world.
One: Begin to think of salvation as the transformation of your entire self from death to life rather than as mere forgiveness for sin with a ticket to heaven.
Two: Stop telling people outside the church how they ought to behave and give full attention to the transformation of your own soul.

That’s it.

When Christian people live lives marked by hope, joy, and a fresh, new way of living, we will be transformed people, and we will transform the world.
Not sure I can say anything to improve on that.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Convincing Others to Sin

(Apologies for the obscure Reformed humor.)
A line from today's reading from Romans really grabbed my attention. "Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." Of course Paul is not uttering pithy statements for someone to retweet. Rather this is part of a much longer discussion on not judging one another, a discussion rooted in the new freedom Paul has found in Christ.

Americans tend to think freedom means being able to do whatever we want, but Paul has a very different view. Paul has been freed to love as God loves, and so his freedom can never be the cause for any other person' harm. In a sense, Paul's new freedom has bound  him and made him captive to his neighbor. The issues Paul worries about, clean and unclean foods, circumcision, and whether Saturday or Sunday were special days, don't get us very worked up. And so Paul's statement, "Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat,"has little contact with our lives. Still, the concept is easily transferable.

I think Paul's warnings especially applicable to those of us who fancy ourselves good theologians. It is an admirable thing to struggle with the Bible and faith seeking fuller understanding. "Eureka!" theological moments can be deeply gratifying and even life-changing. They can also lead to no small amount of arrogance.

When we've figured something out or gotten where others haven't yet gotten, we naturally want to help them join us. But there is also a tendency to look down on those who don't see things as we do, to view them as theological simpletons. Even if we are correct, little good is likely to come of such arrogance. I wonder how often my own attempts to shape someone into my view of theological purity did more harm than good as I ignored "what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" in order to get people to do what I "know" is right. And according to Paul, if I somehow manage to cajole them into going along with me, but in their hearts they aren't convinced, I've actually led them into sin. So much for theological purity.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Humility and Doing the Right Thing

Today's gospel reading features Judas' betrayal of Jesus. It's an event that even the most skeptical scholars are inclined to view as historical. Why, after all, would Jesus' followers ever make up such a story? It's difficult to put a positive spin on the fact that Jesus hand-picked a follower who turned on him.

Presumably Judas' actions were well enough known that all the gospel writers felt the need to make some sense of what he had done. I take it that the different and sometimes contradictory ways the gospels describe Judas, his act of betrayal, and its aftermath, reflect varied attempts to understand such events.

Despite the various pictures of Judas, I feel comfortable saying that he wasn't simply an evil monster. He clearly was drawn to Jesus and his ministry. He clearly had some affinity for Jesus and his teachings. Who knows whether he became disenchanted with Jesus or if he thought he could force Jesus to act decisively by placing him in jeopardy. Perhaps he was even motivated in part by financial gain, but surely he had some "good" in mind. He saw his actions as the right thing to do, just as some of the Jewish authorities most certainly did.

It's a sobering lesson in just how wrong people can be while doing what they are certain is correct. Consider how Paul, the most prolific evangelist in the New Testament, saw followers of Jesus as a threat to true faith with God prior to his own dramatic encounter with the risen Christ.

Right now, many Christians "know" that same sex marriage is a dire threat to our society while others "know" that discrimination against their LGBT brothers and sisters is an affront to the gospel. Many Democrats and Republicans "know" that the other party is hellbent on ruining our country. Many Israelis and Palestinians are sure that the other is the bad guy. And most all of us "know" that if we could get others to see things our way, the world would be a lot better off.

None of this relieves us of the need to make our best judgments about right and wrong, moral and immoral, true to the way of Jesus and not. But it does recommend to us a humility that does not traffic well in the civil, political, religious, or international discourse of the day. Hubris gets much better traction. Not too long ago, some Americans were expressing their admiration of Vladimir Putin because of his.

I have no illusions about teaching the ways of humility to any of the world's powerful people. I'd be content if I and other leaders in my congregation could learn it. And if we could do that, who knows what it might start.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Sermon: Remembering, Amnesia, and Salvation - Sabbath as Resistance to Coercion

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 (Matthew 19:23-26)
Remembering, Amnesia, and Salvation
Sabbath as Resistance to Coercion
James Sledge                                                                                          July 13, 2014

One of the more poignant movie scenes I’ve watched is the end of Saving Private Ryan. It takes place a half century after World War II, long after Private Ryan has been rescued so that at least one of the four Ryan brothers will return from the war. The mission to save him cost other soldiers their lives. Now a much older Ryan, children and grandchildren with him, visits the Normandy military cemetery where the captain who led his rescue is buried.
He finds the grave and falls to his knees, weeping. His wife runs up to comfort him, and he says to her,  “Tell me I’ve lived a good life.  Tell me I’ve lived a good life.”
The movie tells us nothing about Ryan’s life between the war and this visit to a Normandy cemetery. We know almost nothing about him, whether he was a good husband or father, whether he was a model citizen or a shady businessman who grew wealthy on crooked deals and questionable ethics. We don’t know, but we can make pretty good guesses because we do know that he remembers how it was he got to go home and have a life and a family and a chance to make it in the world.
Memory is a powerful thing that shapes our identities. That’s why we cherish family stories. That’s why history is never simply about what happened. That’s why there’s propaganda and “spin.” That’s why all societies have epic tales. What we remember about ourselves and who we think we are forms our identities.
Many of us have known someone with Alzheimer’s and have seen the way the disease steals away a person’s identity. It’s much less common that Alzheimer’s, but you’ve probably heard about or read about someone with amnesia, who has all her faculties, but not her memories. In cases where these memories never return, it can destroy family and marital relationships. A mother who cannot remember her children being born or growing up may find it nearly impossible to love them as she did when she remembered. A husband may find it difficult or impossible to love his wife of 20 years when the memories they shared vanish.
Moses is worried about memories and remembering in our scripture this morning. The people are about to enter into the land of promise, the land flowing with milk and honey. It is a land where they will prosper and develop an impressive civilization, and Moses knows that prosperity has a way of giving people amnesia. As some become wealthy and use that wealth to acquire more wealth, they will forget how it was they came to this land. They will forget that they were once slaves in Egypt, that the land was not something they acquired by hard work or ingenuity but had received as a gift. Later generations will forget that the land is an inheritance and will claim, “We built this.”
When Israel prospers in the land of promise they will come to think of that land as a possession rather than an inheritance, something acquired, bought, and sold rather than birthright that belongs to all Israel. And the land Yahweh gives to all Israel will become the private possession of the few.[1]
Moses and Yahweh understand the consequences of forgetting for Israel and their call to be God’s people in the world, and so Moses does some remembering, and he commands remembering. This is critical because his audience is already a generation removed from slavery in Egypt and God’s words at Mt. Sinai. No doubt forgetting is already going on and amnesia is setting in. And if they forget entirely, they will end up creating a society that looks little different from Pharaoh’s oppressive system from which their parents had been rescued.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Groping for God

It doesn't happen very often, but there are occasional nights when I can't sleep because my brain won't stop. Most often this happens because I'm worried about something at work or  struggling with a sermon. Last night was something of an oddity. My "worry" was the lyrics to a Mountain Goats song. I was struggling to recall a song in its entirety, but couldn't quite coax all the words out into the open. And the not quite complete lyrics played over and over.

My wife doesn't understand my affection for and, from her perspective, near obsession with the Mountain Goats. Some of John Darnielle's lyrics can indeed be dark, depressing, sad, defiant, and unnerving. Yet they often have a cathartic effect on me. Perhaps that would not happen if not accompanied with his distinctive style and voice. I don't know. But I find some of his least uplifting lyrics to be a balm for my soul at times.

Perhaps that is why I couldn't sleep last night as I tried to recall words that would not come. I was reaching for a balm I could not lay my hands on. It was frustratingly close yet just out of reach. God feels like that to me at times, so maybe there was a little transference at work.

I wonder if the author of Psalm 12 is reaching for a balm that can't quite be grasped. The writer is clearly frustrated with the situation. Hyperbole is a big part of Hebraic speech, but still...
   Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
          the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
          with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
We later learn that the plight of the poor and needy is a part of the psalmist's frustrating situation. The psalmist places the words about the poor and needy on God's lips. “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD. I wonder if it is certainty or frustration that drives the psalmist to speak for God. Is the psalmist confident God will act or longing for God to act?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Righteousness is an almost exclusively religious word in our day, perhaps obscuring some of Jesus' meaning. The paraphrase, "Blessed are those who long for a world set right," may come closer to that meaning than what some hear when they read from the Bible. Jesus describes a frustration not so different from the psalmist's and says such unfulfilled longing is somehow blessed, that such frustrations are not forever.

It seems that frustration, longing for God's presence and action, is part of faith. The life of faith will experience dissonance with a world that allows the poor to be despoiled and lets the needy groan. And it will speak, perhaps confidently, perhaps longingly, of a God who acts.

Wake and rise and face the day and try to stop the day from staring back at me
Busy hours for joyful hearts and later maybe head out to the pharmacy
Won't take the medication but it's good to have around
A kind and loving God won't let my small ship run aground

If you will believe in your heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day        - The Mountain Goats
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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sermon: Sabbath Hangovers and the Neighborly Community - Sabbath as Resistance to Anxiety

Exodus 20:12-17; Matthew 6:25-31
Sabbath Hangovers and the Neighborly Community
Sabbath as Resistance to Anxiety
James Sledge                                                                                       July 6, 2014

When I was a young boy in Spartanburg, SC, America’s cultural version of Sabbath was still quite prominent. There was no Sunday Little League baseball, and, as we had not yet discovered soccer, no Sunday youth leagues. At my house and most others there was no cutting the grass. And people might cast a judgmental glance at the odd person who did.
Most stores didn’t open on Sunday. Those that did waited till afternoon. Indoor shopping malls were a new thing. We didn’t have one in Spartanburg, but there was one in Charlotte where my grandparents lived, dutifully closed on Sundays. But things were changing.
In their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon write about the day the Fox Theater in Greenville, SC defied blue laws and opened on Sunday. Willimon, then a  youth at Buncombe Street Methodist, joined a few others in his youth group who snuck out of the youth meeting to see John Wayne at the Fox Theater. They write,
That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom, South Carolina style. On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice it would no longer be a prop for the church. There would be no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.[1]
For many of you, it’s hard to envision the Christendom that began to fade in the 1960s, a world where legal statutes and longstanding custom worked together to maintain a Christian hegemony. This particular form of Sabbath had little to do with the one commanded at Sinai. It was more about guarding churches’ special place in our culture, a culture where it was hard to grown up without being Christian, at least one day a week.
It is vastly different today. Sabbath, at least as I knew it as a child, has almost entirely disappeared. But we still live with a Sabbath hangover, the residue of a potent mix of Puritan severity and blue laws against movies, dancing, drinking, or anything suspected of being too enjoyable. And this hangover affects people who never actually drank a Sabbath brew. Even folk who grew up play soccer on Sunday mornings may reflexively recoil at the mere mention of Sabbath.
But this hangover is from a bad imitation of Sabbath. True Sabbath is not about keeping people from having fun or weighing them down with lists of prohibitions. It is about rest and refreshment. Most of all, it is about creating a community of genuine neighborliness.
If you want to experience the opposite of such neighborliness, simply drive around metro DC. I’ve shared with many of you a Facebook post by Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the Rest of Us, that captures this well. She’d just returned from conferences in Hawaii and the US Southwest and experienced the drive from National Airport to her home in Alexandria, prompting this. “Have just returned from the land of Aloha and ‘Thank you ma’am’ to the land of ‘Get out of my way, I’m more important than you.’ ”

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Patriots, Jesus, and Who Gets to Be God

Save me, O LORD, from my enemies;
     I have fled to you for refuge.
Teach me to do your will,
     for you are my God.
 Let your good spirit lead me
      on a level path.             
Psalm 143:9-10

These verses from the morning psalm made me think about July Fourth. Actually, they prompted me to recall a Facebook post that employed a different psalm, Psalm 33. Written in large script over an artist's depiction of an American flag was this verse. "Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord." ("Lord" here is a respectful way of avoiding God's personal name, YHWH.)

I'm unfamiliar with the person who originally posted this picture, but I feel safe in assuming some sort of "Christian nation" perspective lies behind it. And I presume the proximity to Independence Day is not coincidence. I have to admit that some of the ways American Christianity and patriotism intersect make me a bit nervous. Not that my own faith doesn't profoundly impact my politics. It does. But a huge problem for people of faith, all the way back to biblical times, has been the attempt to enlist God in our causes rather than serve in God's.

The Facebook use of Psalm 33 may be a good case in point. This psalm also speaks of the king not being saved by his army or the warrior by his might, and it says that military prowess does not bring victory. But in my experience those who easily mix patriotism and religion also have a great affinity for military might.

One of the more startling claims of Christians is that the God whose name is YHWH showed up on earth in the person of Jesus. If one takes seriously this notion that Jesus is God in the flesh, then the quote from Psalm 33 could be paraphrased, "Blessed is the nation whose God is Jesus." Now this may not seem all that problematic, for Christians at least. But consider for a moment what it means to say that Jesus is God.

I think most religious types will agree that they are supposed to do more than simply believe God is God. God is the one of ultimate authority, the one who must be obeyed. In a way, to deliberately live contrary to what God commands would be tantamount to not believing in that God. So if Jesus says to do something and I respond, "I don't want to do that. I have a better plan," then clearly I have decided that Jesus isn't God after all. Either that, or I've decided that I'm smarter and more in charge than God.

Take a bit of time and read through a couple of the gospels. They're quite short and were likely first intended for reading aloud in their entirety to a congregation. As you read, consider all the things that Jesus says, does, and commands his followers to do. He hangs out with all sorts of sleazy types. He speaks of loving enemies and of good news for the poor. He talks a lot about the problem of money and wealth, and in Luke's gospel he declares woes or curses on those who are wealthy, have plenty to eat, and are well spoken of. He insists that following him must be more important than loving family and friends, even more important that your own life. (I'm pretty sure your own country would fall in there somewhere.) He generally gets along well with "sinners" and ruffians but is always fighting with religious folk.

Once you've taken a good look at Jesus, consider what your life would look like if Jesus is indeed the ultimate authority, as well as the ultimate example of how people should live. I doubt that anyone measures up by such standards, but still I think it important to know what it is we're supposed to be aiming for.

There's a famous quote attributed to Gandhi that goes, "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ." It's not clear that Gandhi ever said this, but it's a good quote nonetheless because it points so succinctly to what I'm trying to say. If people look at those of us who claim to be Christian and don't see much resemblance to Jesus, then it would seem that they are looking at people who don't actually have Jesus as their God.

Given the date, I feel compelled to add that nothing I've said is in the least bit unpatriotic or has anything against Independence Day celebrations. I'm going to celebrate by going to a Washington Nationals baseball game tomorrow, and I'll stand and sing the national anthem. (Not too loudly as I don't want to bother those near me.) I hope to catch some fireworks later. But I get really nervous when anyone starts dressing up scripture verses in red, white, and blue. This seems to lead, almost inevitably, to enlisting God in our cause. When that happens, we start trying to make Jesus look like us, and it's supposed to be the other way around.

Happy July 4th!

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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Things I Don't Understand

Another 5-4 Supreme Court decision, a decision that likely would have gone a different way had Al Gore become president rather than George W. Bush. The Supreme Court is supposedly a gathering of the best legal minds rendering the best decisions that such an august group of scholars can muster. And yet many of its decisions break easily along party lines. If such things were completely rational exercises, surely it would not happen this way. Justices on both sides can write long and carefully supported reasons their view is the correct one. Obviously one side is wrong.

We humans like to imagine ourselves rational creatures, but I have my doubts. Rather, our rationality seems used mostly for supporting what we believe. We muster our facts and figures (and sometimes distort or create them) in order to give beliefs the air of rationality. Non-religious folk are quick, and often correct, in charging the religious with such practices, but our beliefs need not be religious ones for such tactics. The truly scary part is that whatever group we belong to imagines it is the other side who is irrational, guided only by their unsubstantiated ideology, theology, or whatever.

All that serves as something of a caveat as I say that I cannot quite fathom yesterday's Hobby Lobby ruling. I am willing to accept that some sort of rational, legal calculus can support it. I am cognizant of the fact that my own rationality is suspect. But still I struggle to understand how rights originally meant to protect individuals from being coerced or overwhelmed by powerful majorities somehow apply to corporations. Rights meant to protect the weaker from the stronger seem to be inverted here. But perhaps I'm simply captive to my own beliefs.

Speaking of beliefs, I make no apologies for operating out of my own Christian beliefs, and in my reading of both the Old and New Testaments, God seems quite intent on creating a just society that is especially concerned with the weak and the vulnerable. Modern evangelical spin somehow turned Christianity into a effort to secure a place in heaven for individuals, but the scripture itself clearly speaks of salvation in terms of a just society. The "kingdom" Jesus proclaims takes up the social promises of the Old Testament like those of today's psalm.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Jesus proclaims the dawning of a day when the strong will not overwhelm the weak, a day of peace and restored relationships, a day when our divisions into rich and poor, important and insignificant, male and female, us and them, will disappear. It will likely offend our rationality, and it may well feel like bad news to those at the top. (See Luke 6:24-26)

Such a day seems a long way off in light of recent event in Israel. I suspect I'll find near universal agreement when I say that I cannot understand the rationality of
kidnapping and killing children as a way of furthering your cause. The murder of three Israeli teenagers is heinous and unfathomable. In what sort of warped rationality does this make any sense? Here there is no need for caveats. No version of rationality supports this. It is simply evil, or wicked, to use the psalmist's language.

None of that, however, helps me understand the rationale of Israel's response as described by Prime Minister Netanyahu. "Hamas will pay, and Hamas will continue to pay." Anger and the desire for revenge I can understand, but I don't know many who would describe those as particularly rational actions. Indeed Israel and the Palestinians seem to me a pair, each with genuine grievances against one another, who are locked in a struggle defined by irrationality on both sides. Each sides' beliefs, buttressed by certain elements of truth, end up motivating actions that do terrible harm to the other and to themselves. The horror of these latest murders provide Israel with "justification" for action, but air raids on Gaza will end up accomplishing very little, and the irrational dance simply continues. At times, my only hope is that both sides may appall themselves at some point, and began to question their own certainties and beliefs.

I am increasingly convinced that whatever our core certainties and beliefs, be they political, national, economic, religious, etc. they are not, strictly speaking, rational. Our most deeply held beliefs shape our rational responses more than our rationality shapes these beliefs. To the extent this is true, we had best be clear about just what it is we do believe. At the very depths of our being, what are the beliefs that drive us?

If such things are pre-rational or even irrational, I may not be able to modify them via rational means. But at the very least, I can take a long hard look at them, and decide if I like what I see.

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