Flight to Egypt

This is the fourth part of my meditation on the Nativity. It will also be the last on this topic. In the next installment we’ll take a quick detour through Jesus’ childhood before spending substantial time on his public ministry.

King Herod was livid. He had met a few days earlier with a group of astrologers from the East, so-called Magi. They reported seeing a star that, according to their charts, revealed the birth of a new King in Israel. Arriving in Jerusalem, they had been brought to Herod, the current King of Israel. He welcomed them and inquired about their journey.

“In the western sky, the heavens revealed a new thing!” one of them exclaimed. “A King has been born! A King who will rule over Israel!”

Another said, “We followed the star so that we may worship the child!”

While Herod was gracious to these strangers, he was not happy about their message. However, he wanted to keep them happy in order to get as much information from them as possible.

The travelers were treated to a special feast before being sent on their way to continue following the star.

“When you find this child, return to me with a full report. I, too, wish to see this new King and worship him,” Herod charged them.

Days later, reports came to Herod that the Magi had left Israel secretly. No one crossed Herod! He had killed one wife and several of his own children! The great Caesar Augustus had once remarked that it would be better to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons. Who did these damned foreigners think that they were? All of Jerusalem was on edge because of the King’s rage. Herod considered himself God’s anointed King. After all, he had built up the Temple and made it the envy of the whole world. His building projects were unrivaled in the Roman empire. How could God allow something like this? In Herod’s world, there was only ONE King!

Someone would pay for this. He would send a clear message to ANY would-be usurpers. A message that would not be quickly forgotten.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Joseph had a dream. In the dream an angel warned him that Herod was sending soldiers to kill Joseph’s new son.

“Flee! Go where Herod cannot find you! Go west to Egypt!”

Joseph woke soaked with sweat and his heart racing.

“Mary! Wake up! The Lord sent a warning! We must leave here! NOW!!!”

The young family packed quickly and found a group of merchants going to Egypt. When they finally arrived, they found a community of Jews where they were welcomed. Joseph was especially welcomed. A good carpenter was always needed. Mary, Joseph, and the young Jesus were comfortable and safe there. But, it was not ‘home.’

As they were on their way to Egypt, Herod’s forces arrived in Bethlehem. They went from door-to-door and put all boys who were two years old and younger to the sword. Herod made sure that he would have no rivals.

A few years later Joseph was again visited in a dream. The messenger told him that it was safe to return to Israel. Those who had plotted to kill the young Jesus were now dead.

Joseph packed up his family and traveled back to Israel. But, because of fears about Herod’s successor, Joseph took the family to Nazareth rather than back to Bethlehem.


As I reflected on this story I felt the fear and anxiety that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus experienced. We in this culture can’t truly understand what it’s like to pack up all of our belongings and run for our lives. They went from a comfortable home with family and friends to refugee status over night. I sensed, though, that both Mary and Jesus had a deep trust in Joseph’s leadership.

So many historiographers portray Jesus as somewhat immune to ordinary emotions such as fear and anxiety. He is shown as a person who is in  total control, rather than a normal child. For these writers Jesus would certainly not trust in a mere human! He had a hotline to God! Yet, the stories in the synoptic Gospels show a human side to Jesus. I can follow someone who understands life as a vulnerable person. He was a child who depended on his parents for his life and well-being. He was a real person whom I can relate to.

However, not everything about this meditation was easy. I had a very difficult time with this story. God had sent a messenger to Joseph to warn him of Herod’s plan. There is nothing here that would indicate that Joseph knew the lengths to which Herod would go. I don’t think that he would have run away without warning others if he knew that Herod was going to kill all of the young boys. And, if Joseph would have warned others, why didn’t God? They could have taken their children away until Herod’s anger cooled. But, that didn’t happen. How many children lost their lives in this massacre because God neglected to warn them. Did God not care? These are the kinds of hard questions that people ask. And, for many, or most, the answers are wholly inadequate. Who could swear allegiance to and follow a God who would allow such an atrocity?

I asked the Father, why? Why were the parents not warned? I sat quietly waiting for some kind of response. Eventually, I got a ‘reply.’ I did not hear any audible voice. I can’t say with certainty that ‘God said…’ This was all taking place in my mind. But, according to Albus Dumbledore, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

What I heard was, “Do you really believe that I would do that?

Whoa! What? You’re saying that the story is not true? If not, why did the writer include it? Did he add this simply in order to use the Jewish Scriptures to add some kind of credibility to the life of Jesus? He wrote about Rachel’s wailing and how God called his son out of Egypt. Both plot points that this story makes possible.

In the light of what I’ve learned about God over the last several years and the response noted earlier, I must view this passage as a literary device. It appears that the writer, 1) Did want to tie the passages in the Jewish Scriptures to show that Jesus was, indeed, the Chosen One of Israel, and 2) To show the utter depravity of Herod. And, by extension, the entire Herodian culture.

We can dismiss the historicity of this passage. But, we cannot cut it out of the text. Regardless of what we may think, this story is part of the inspired canon. What we can do, however, is put it in its place under the feet of God.

I’m fairly sure that Ignatius wouldn’t approve of where I’ve gone with this. But, it is impossible for me to attribute the massacre of innocent children to the loving and merciful Father that I know. Nor, can I ascribe some abstract notion of sovereignty and authority to this.

The God that I worship would NOT be complicit in such an act…PERIOD!

Please use the comments section to share any thoughts that you may have.

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More Sunday Musings

This morning I was listening to Fr. Gene Sherman continue his messages on the Apostles’ Creed. The purpose of this series is to give people a basic foundation for belief held my followers of Jesus. While I don’t agree with some of what Gene shares, (there is no compulsion to do so), I do find it refreshing listening to someone who actually learned how to do exegesis. Unlike so many others that I’ve heard.

Today Gene spoke on the portion of the creed that states, “I believe…in the forgiveness of sins.” That idea is absolutely foundational to Christian belief. God is the one who is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”

One example he used was the story of the Father and Two Sons in the Gospel according to Luke, Chpt. 15. Gene gave the usual take on how gracious the father was to both sons. After being so unjustly used by the youngest, the father received him home again with open arms.

What struck me today, though, was something I had read dozens of times, but failed to really recognize. That’s not unusual with a pericope like this that is so packed with good stuff.

The story goes that a young man left his father and brother and took his inheritance. He then lost it all living an extravagant lifestyle. Ultimately, he had to hire himself out to someone who put him to work feeding pigs. To a Jewish ear, no one could fall further than that. Finally, the young man “came to his senses” and thought that while he sat there with nothing to eat, his father’s servants had plenty to fill their bellies.

What caught my ear was that when he realized what he had done, the first thing he thought of was his stomach. Hunger had driven him to a place where he could decide to return to his father’s home. It overcame his pride and shame.

So, he left for his fathers home, all the while rehearsing the lines he would use to ingratiate himself with his father.

(Now, before anyone gets their boxers in a bunch about how I worded that last sentence, let me be clear about something. I truly believe that the young man in the story was repentant. Somewhere along the line he realized that he had treated his father shamefully. He had, in fact, wished him to be dead by asking for his inheritance. I’m not diminishing that at all. But, we all have many motives for the things that we say and do.)

When he finally returned home, his father ignored all social protocol and ran to meet his son. He welcomed him home with new clothes and reinstated him to the family with his own signet ring. What happened next is what struck me.

He held a banquet and slaughtered the ‘fattened calf.’

The young man came to his senses spurred on by his hunger. Here, his father lavishly welcomed him with a great feast.

Many who exegete this emphasize the father’s role with both sons. With the youngest is the way in which the father went ‘over the top’ in his welcome. Jesus used this story to show the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, (those who thought that they were the true keepers of the faith; the ‘gatekeepers’ to bring it into contemporary parlance), that they, in fact, did NOT know the Father. Their preconceptions of a righteous and just God mandated that their ‘god’ be bitter and retributive to those who acted, well, like the young son in the story. Yet, Jesus revealed a Father who was willing to stoop to unbelievable low levels in order to welcome the young man and lavish good things on him.

That is how God is. When we are hungry and starving, God is there to prepare a great feast for us when we return. God gives from God’s own abundance to the weary and wayward. BTW, God also gives “everything he has” to the older son who remained with him faithfully. But, for those of us who come to our senses, God has a special welcome for us.

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How Can a Follower of Jesus Reconcile Violence in the Scripture?

*Note: This by no means a comprehensive treatment of the question of violence in the Scripture. These mental ramblings are simply meant to inspire thoughtful reflection.

I read and listen to a lot of different people with widely varying worldviews. There are evangelicals and progressive Christians. Over there are the atheists and the Nones. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists. I entertain the thoughts and ideas of many people. Every once in a while, even a fundamentalist Christian sneaks in.

The reasons that I do this are many and varied. I’m not afraid of ideas and questions. We are all passengers on this Pale, Blue Dot hurtling through space. We all have responsibilities to each other and to the planet itself. We neglect these responsibilities at our own peril.

I’ve interacted with folks outside of my own faith tradition, several who question the basic morality of Christians and even the Christian God.

They react to Christians who say “God is love,” or “You can’t be a moral person without God as your moral compass.” They site the number of people who say that they follow Christ, yet live like someone has placed a magnet too close to their ‘moral compass.’ It doesn’t seem to lead them toward true North, but toward some barren desert on the outskirts of BFE, (you can Google that yourself).

It isn’t a far stretch for them to observe that if someone claims to live according to the words of their god, then that god MUST be of similar moral and ethical fiber as they are themselves.

So, the questions arise, “What about how your God commanded His people to totally destroy their enemies”? “Their enemies’ women and children?” “What kind of god would command such a thing?”

And, they are justified to ask such hard questions. The sacred texts of all of the Abrahamic faiths have passages that talk about the so-called righteous destruction of god’s enemies. And, in some cases, people who are not enemies, but happen to be living in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Believers then feel compelled to defend God. (Like that’s even possible.) They respond with things like, “Well, God is God and can do whatever God wants to do.” Or, “God must have given those people a chance to repent, but they chose not to.” Still others simply say, “I don’t know, but if God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” Worse yet, many conservative believers use these texts to excuse violence against ‘others.’

Progressives don’t fare much better. They rationalize the text by alluding to the fact that these are ancient texts written by and for ancient people. So, it looks like God simply met them where they were culturally and ‘allowed’ certain behaviors that we enlightened folks in the 21st century find abhorrent. Or, they just ignore these texts. Of course, these are non-answers that simply seek to avoid the hard questions.

In fact, any and all responses like these do nothing more than perpetuate the idea that God is some sort of sadistic monster.

 

Then there’s the curve ball…Jesus.

 

The God that I see revealed through Jesus as recorded in the Gospels looks nothing like the God displayed in the Hebrew Bible.

What should one do with this apparent contradiction?

One person in the 2nd century C.E. came up with a unique way to look at this conundrum. His name was Marcion. Marcion came up with the idea that the God of the Hebrew Bible was not the same God as the Father of Jesus Christ. According to theologian Alister McGrath, Marcion believed that “The Old Testament relates to a different God from the New; the Old Testament God, who merely created the world, was obsessed with the idea of law. The New Testament God, however, redeemed the world and was concerned with love.”[1] Historian Justo L. Gonzalez adds, according to Marcion “Jehovah is an arbitrary god, who chooses a particular people above all the rest. And he is also vindictive, constantly keeping an account on those that disobey him, and punishing them. In short, Jehovah is a god of justice–and an arbitrary justice at that.”[2] Marcion went so far as to create his own canon that eliminated texts that did not conform to his special interpretation.

I suppose that’s one way to deal with the hard sayings of the Bible. Just cut them out and ignore them.

The thing is, we really don’t have that option. We’re stuck with what we’ve got.

So, how do we reconcile God with divine and human violence?

Simply put, we don’t; we can’t.

To explain away texts that the Church considers inspired in some simple, easy-to-wrap-my-brain-around-the-unwrappable isn’t something that we are entitled to do.

But, there may be another way to read these texts without ignoring or reading past them.

Recently, while spending time in contemplation, a thought occurred to me. Human history has been fraught with acts of violence and genocide. We don’t need to look any further than our own history in the U.S. Our very existence as a nation came about at the hands of European domination that was given strength by the Bishop of Rome, himself. In the late 15th century, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal Bull entitled, “Inter Caetera.” Basically, the Pope stated that any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered” and dominated by Christians. That’s how Columbus could get lost, yet “discover” land that was already occupied.

But, all of this is another post.

Some countries have recognized the abuses that have been heaped upon others. Notably, South Africa and Canada. Both of these countries have taken steps to reconcile their violent and oppressive pasts.

South Africa had a history of treating the indigenous Blacks living there with forced domination and violence. This system of “apartheid” was designed to keep the white minority in power over Blacks and other people of color at any cost. And, the costs were high. Many died and the freedom of all was taken away.

Finally, after much domestic and international pressure, South Africa ended apartheid in 1994. They set up a tribunal type commission whose mandate was to work toward reconciliation of ALL of South Africa’s citizens. The commission allowed people to have grievances and abuses recorded and, in some cases allowed for amnesty for those who came forward to report their own culpability. It was NOT a way for the oppressed minority to ‘get even.’ It was a way to get the wounds out in the open where they could be treated and healed.

The results have been breath-taking. South Africa has created a functioning democracy that they can be proud of.

Canada also began a process to help heal its own genocidal past. As European colonists invaded North America they ushered in an age of systematic elimination of the Indigenous People who had inhabited this continent for many thousands of years. The brutality and injustice of the colonists knew no bounds. From dislocation, to starvation, to the infamous Boarding Schools, Aboriginal people suffered.

“Reconciliation is about forging and maintaining respectful relationships. There are no shortcuts,” one person involved with the process wrote. It is, in a nutshell, the overarching framework for the Canadian effort. There are many who don’t feel that this goes far enough,. Canada still asks the Aboriginal people to accept the reconciliation effort on the terms of the colonists. This is a valid complaint. But, it is a start. The Canadian government is beginning to understand their own culpability in the genocide and are becoming more inclined to work toward a better relationship with the First Nations.

A common thread in these actions is acknowledging and repenting from earlier behavior that caused hurt to others.

What if we read the violence written in the Scriptures in a similar way?

We could truthfully acknowledge the violence. Yes. Whether the violence actually happened or not, the ancient writers recorded them. And, the people who gathered the early Church Councils canonized them. These facts we must accept because, Duh!, they’re written down.

However, we don’t need to accept the interpretations of these texts that have been passed down to us. God gave us rational minds with which to think and contemplate these words. We are, I believe, commissioned to read the Inspired texts and allow them to live and breathe in our contemporary world. Therefore, we can forcefully denounce the violence for what it was: an abhorrent violation of humanity. There really is no way around it. The actions depicted in Scripture are hateful and bigoted. There is NO redeeming value to them whatsoever.

Through confession and repentance we could claim LIFE for ourselves, our friends and enemies, and the whole of the Cosmos.

I believe that the God revealed in the Gospels would be pleased with this. In fact, maybe God has been patiently waiting for humanity to grasp this. Perhaps we can enter into a new aeon of peace and prosperity with all of our co-inhabitants on this Third Stone From the Sun.

[1] McGrath, Alister E., “Christian Theology: An Introduction”, 4th Ed., Blackwell Pub., 2007, p. 126.

[2] Gonzalez, Justo L., “The Story of Christianity:Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation”, HarperSanFrancisco, 1984, p.61.

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As always, feel free to use the comments to express your own thoughts.

Blessings!

Thoughts About Original Sin

Detail from Jan Breughel & Peter Paul Rubens: The Garden of Eden (1615)

According to some Western Christians, sometime between 7 and 10 thousand years ago, God created the Universe. This event is recorded, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” As the story unfolds, we read that every plant and animal came into being ex nihilo,(out of nothing), through Divine fiat. God spoke it; it came into being. At the end of this first part of the story, God created humans. And, it must be noted, God created the original humans in God’s own image.  For millions of people this is historical fact.

In the next part of this story, we learn a little bit more. The actual physical location where God created these humans isn’t known. The story only tells us that after forming the first Human, God put this person in a garden in order to serve and protect it. It was there, in that garden, that God formed the first Woman from a rib taken from the Man. These first Humans lived in that God-made paradise until they were duped by a talking reptile. This talking reptile,(from here known as, the serpent), talked the Woman into eating the fruit from a tree that God had expressly forbidden the humans to eat from. She ate and gave some to the Man, and he ate. This meal even has a name, “Original Sin.”

The whole concept of Original Sin has been discussed among Christians since very early in the Church’s history. However, it really took off in the late 4th century C.E. when a guy named Augustine of Hippo included it in his autobiography, “Confessions.” Taking the Biblical story as his starting point he was able to trace his own personal proclivity toward sin back to the Original couple. Now, we need to understand that there was a belief in the ancient world that character traits could be passed from one generation to the next through semen. Therefore, Augustine understood that the guilt of Adam was passed to every subsequent person ever born. And, this also allowed Jesus to be born without that taint. (Virgin birth and all.)

Later, John Calvin doubled down on this idea. He concluded that not only death and guilt were part and parcel of Original Sin. But, shame and total depravity came along for the ride. And this, my friends, is the heart of reformation theology. There is absolutely nothing good about humanity. In fact, it is impossible for anyone to think or do anything good. God’s wrath and hatred are hanging over us. Only by looking at Jesus can God’s Holy anger be placated. But, heaven help us if God should happen to get a glimpse of our worthless and hated selves.

But, what if that’s not how things happened? What if 7,000 years have not passed since the Earth was formed, but rather, over 4 billion years? What if all the stuff that science has discovered is the truth and there was no first couple? And, therefore, no Original Sin?

This can, (and should),  turn the Reformed way of thinking on its head. If there was no Original Sin, then why did Jesus come, live and die? I mean, many of us who were involved with the Fundagelical world of religion preach that Jesus HAD to die in order to break the bonds of Original Sin. He cleansed us from that and enabled us to start over with a clean slate. For lack of a better term, to be “born again”! If Original Sin is out of the mix that whole house of cards crashes.

What’s interesting is that sin isn’t even mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis. God never pointed a Divine finger and said, “Oh, you guys! You really sinned now.” No. God said that death would now become a part of their lives. In fact, sin doesn’t enter into the equation officially until Gen. 4 when God spoke to Adam’s son Cain. God said that sin was crouching at Cain’s door. Cain was encouraged to ‘master’ sin. If there was an Original Sin that was so dire that nothing could ease its effects, how was Cain supposed to be able to master it? No, I don’t think that Original Sin as the Western Church has understood it is a reality. I don’t believe that humans are born depraved as Calvin and Co. would have us believe. But, I do believe that there is an enemy to be overcome. A reason that God chose to come and “pitch a tent,” (John 1:14), among us. And, that enemy is death.

Let this thought percolate for a bit. What does it mean if there was no Original Sin? How does that affect the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension? Use the comments to express your own thoughts.

Admittedly, this asks more questions that it provides answers. But, it may also open locks on chains that bind many people…too many people.

God is Not Bound…

This was originally posted July 2, 2015. Yeah, I know it’s been a long time. But, I want to share some things that are in line with this post. Especially, after the horror that was the 2016 presidential election cycle. (I include ALL participants. Not just 45.) Hopefully, will be back soon.

This is my first post since I decided to change the focus of this blog. After much prayer and counsel from my Spiritual Director and my counselor, I feel that, at least for awhile, this is the direction that I must go.

I’ve reflected on my personal experiences and those of others. I’ve read a lot that has been written by people who have been hurt by abusive ‘teachers.’ Heavy chains have been wrought out of the iron of dogma. This has been done primarily by White men who drape these chains upon the shoulders of the meek; the hurting; the marginalized.

So, this is a beginning. My desire is to reveal what I believe are errant interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. Also, I desire to shine a light on the fallacies of historic precedent that so many leaders try to use to validate these interpretations.

I know that this may appear to be a lot to consider. And, it is. But, it is important that we take this journey together at this time. Many good and sincere people are trapped in abusive institutions. Many others are leaving the faith journey altogether. There has been a marked rise in the number of folks who simply can’t believe any longer. I have been one of those who has questioned that God even exists. But, I can’t go there. Something…that ‘still, small voice’… keeps me from walking away. I BELIEVE that there is more to the Universe…to our existence…than simply cosmic dust. I have only my experience to hang on to. My experience with the transcendental ‘Other’ compels me to continue on this path.

Perhaps, you also, are in a similar place in your life. If so, ‘Come!’ Let’s walk together for awhile. You, me…and God.

The masthead of my blog quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). I have thought about this verse for many, many years. What does Paul mean? What did the folks in the Galatian church hear? How does this apply to me/us some 2,100 years later?

For starters, most Fundagelical leaders dismiss this whole concept by saying that the meaning of this verse is that we are all ‘free’ to not sin. WTF?!?! I’m free to not do something? But, what AM I FREE to do? What am I free to think and believe? Who am I free to be?

I have never really felt comfortable with that definition by negation. For one to be free implies that there is something to be freed from. Some kind of bondage or prison that is not good. So, they would say, “Well, you’re free from sin.” As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, I honestly don’t know what that means. No one can provide a definitive answer to what ‘sin’ actually is. (This is the subject for a future post.) Some say it’s simply ‘missing the mark.’ However, the most common term for ‘sin’ in the Greek New Testament is hamartia. This has to do with being evil, wrong doing and guilt. And, many of the people who hold to this holiness outlook are more than willing to pile on the guilt.

There are many kinds of slavery. Slavery to addictions, praise, food, etc. In this passage from Galatians, Paul was writing about slavery to the Jewish works of the Law. These were primarily the ‘identifiers’ of who was a Jew and who was not. Basically, it set the gates for who was in and who was out. Things like circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping were what Paul had in mind. Today, many Christians bind themselves to laws that effectively perform the same function. They have developed ‘laws’ that must be adhered to in order to be members in good standing in their ‘tribe.’ What is one’s stance on abortion? LGBT people? Has one followed whatever ‘formula’ is currently in vogue for tribal initiation, (did I say some kind of “sinners’” prayer correctly)? Do I hold to the ‘correct’ doctrine, (whatever that means),?

What these do not do is free people. They heap on the unsuspecting a burden that they cannot bear. Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:4 are true of these people, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

This may sound like the rant of an angry person. Well, actually, it is. I am angered by the presumption of these people to say they speak for God. Every time one of them states, “God said this or that” the hair on the back of my neck stands up. When I hear hate speech being spewed from pulpits I cringe. I recently saw a video of a man claiming to ‘know’ God’s will screaming at a second grade girl who had the audacity to hold a rainbow flag. Somehow, I can’t picture Jesus, the One who welcomed the little children and blessed them, doing this.

I think that my favorite passage in all of the Bible is Luke 4:18-19. The story recounts Jesus’ coming out at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.

He stood to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He found the text he desired and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives. And recovery of sight to the blind. To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

I could go on and on. And, I will. Eventually. I intend to broach issues that Evangelicals prefer to ignore. Or, worse, disparage. I am going to poke and poke to evoke a response in folks who think differently. This is a place for civil discussion.

So, let us begin. What do you think about slavery? If there is some bondage, how do we move toward freedom? Does God require that we wear some heavy yoke?

Use the comments. Please note that I moderate the comments. Refrain from inflammatory language.

God Is Not Bound to Our Ways

This is my first post since I decided to change the focus of this blog. After much prayer and counsel from my Spiritual Director and my counselor, I feel that, at least for awhile, this is the direction that I must go.

I’ve reflected on my personal experiences and those of others. I’ve read a lot that has been written by people who have been hurt by abusive ‘teachers.’ Heavy chains have been wrought out of the iron of dogma. This has been done primarily by White men who drape these chains upon the shoulders of the meek; the hurting; the marginalized.

So, this is a beginning. My desire is to reveal what I believe are errant interpretations of the Christian Scriptures. Also, I desire to shine a light on the fallacies of historic precedent that so many leaders try to use to validate these interpretations.

I know that this may appear to be a lot to consider. And, it is. But, it is important that we take this journey together at this time. Many good and sincere people are trapped in abusive institutions. Many others are leaving the faith journey altogether. There has been a marked rise in the number of folks who simply can’t believe any longer. I have been one of those who has questioned that God even exists. But, I can’t go there. Something…that ‘still, small voice’… keeps me from walking away. I BELIEVE that there is more to the Universe…to our existence…than simply cosmic dust. I have only my experience to hang on to. My experience with the transcendental ‘Other’ compels me to continue on this path.

Perhaps, you also, are in a similar place in your life. If so, ‘Come!’ Let’s walk together for awhile. You, me…and God.

The masthead of my blog quotes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). I have thought about this verse for many, many years. What does Paul mean? What did the folks in the Galatian church hear? How does this apply to me/us some 2,100 years later?

For starters, most Fundagelical leaders dismiss this whole concept by saying that the meaning of this verse is that we are all ‘free’ to not sin. WTF?!?! I’m free to not do something? But, what AM I FREE to do? What am I free to think and believe? Who am I free to be?

I have never really felt comfortable with that definition by negation. For one to be free implies that there is something to be freed from. Some kind of bondage or prison that is not good. So, they would say, “Well, you’re free from sin.” As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, I honestly don’t know what that means. No one can provide a definitive answer to what ‘sin’ actually is. (This is the subject for a future post.) Some say it’s simply ‘missing the mark.’ However, the most common term for ‘sin’ in the Greek New Testament is hamartia. This has to do with being evil, wrong doing and guilt. And, many of the people who hold to this holiness outlook are more than willing to pile on the guilt.

There are many kinds of slavery. Slavery to addictions, praise, food, etc. In this passage from Galatians, Paul was writing about slavery to the Jewish works of the Law. These were primarily the ‘identifiers’ of who was a Jew and who was not. Basically, it set the gates for who was in and who was out. Things like circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath-keeping were what Paul had in mind. Today, many Christians bind themselves to laws that effectively perform the same function. They have developed ‘laws’ that must be adhered to in order to be members in good standing in their ‘tribe.’ What is one’s stance on abortion? LGBT people? Has one followed whatever ‘formula’ is currently in vogue for tribal initiation, (did I say some kind of “sinners’” prayer correctly)? Do I hold to the ‘correct’ doctrine, (whatever that means),?

What these do not do is free people. They heap on the unsuspecting a burden that they cannot bear. Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:4 are true of these people, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.

This may sound like the rant of an angry person. Well, actually, it is. I am angered by the presumption of these people to say they speak for God. Every time one of them states, “God said this or that” the hair on the back of my neck stands up. When I hear hate speech being spewed from pulpits I cringe. I recently saw a video of a man claiming to ‘know’ God’s will screaming at a second grade girl who had the audacity to hold a rainbow flag. Somehow, I can’t picture Jesus, the One who welcomed the little children and blessed them, doing this.

I think that my favorite passage in all of the Bible is Luke 4:18-19. The story recounts Jesus’ coming out at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.

He stood to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He found the text he desired and read,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me. Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives. And recovery of sight to the blind. To set free those who are oppressed, To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

I could go on and on. And, I will. Eventually. I intend to broach issues that Evangelicals prefer to ignore. Or, worse, disparage. I am going to poke and poke to evoke a response in folks who think differently. This is a place for civil discussion.

So, let us begin. What do you think about slavery? If there is some bondage, how do we move toward freedom? Does God require that we wear some heavy yoke?

Use the comments. Please note that I moderate the comments. Refrain from inflammatory language.

A Response to my Friend

BibleA couple of weeks ago I shared a blogpost written by Benjamin Corey . It was basically a critique of the way in which many people in our Western, particularly American, culture read and interpret the Christian Bible. A very good friend of mine commented about that posting:

“It seems that you have shared a number of articles about what Christians are not doing right. They take scripture here or there to justify something or to maybe judge. The article you shared once again is telling people to understand what is being said in scriptures based upon the times and how they were written. So, I am asking the question, how do you use scripture to reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?”

As I reflected on this, I realized that this is not just one question, but two. First, he is leveling an accusation that I am antagonistic toward Christians. The question seems to be, ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’ The second question is, ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

I responded to him that I thought that these were valid questions that would require further reflection. What I’ve written here is that response.

Question One: ‘Why are you attacking those with whom you have identified for so many years?’

Actually, my friend, I’m not. As I’ve grown older I have found that I’m not nearly as sure of the things that I thought, felt and believed earlier in life. Back then it was easy to be absolutely sure of myself. I knew that God had created the universe. I was convinced that anyone who did not accept and believe the Christian Bible as we in the West accepted and believed it were wrong and in danger of eternal punishment. The foundation of my world view was set firmly in a patriarchy. And, I had no doubt as to my eternal destiny as a child of God.

Then, the doubts started to seep in. I learned that others who were not a part of my ‘tribe’ were not the evil, depraved creatures that I had been led to believe. Many of them were hard working, family-loving people simply trying to get by in life. Many others were devout believers in God, but not in the same way that I was. Still others diligently searched for God in other cultures and settings. I saw women who were gifted to lead and teach. These people were able to stand before God and others in confidence. Were the things that I had held up as ‘gospel truth’ able to stand in light of these observations? Honestly, I wasn’t sure. One thing I did know, however, was that things I continued to hear week after week from the pulpit were quickly becoming incongruent with my life’s experiences.

So, I became a seeker. I needed to find out if my thoughts were, in fact, opposed to the ‘orthodox’ position that those around me embraced. Or, was there hope in this cloud of doubt.

I entered Ashland Theological Seminary in the fall of 2006. (That’s a whole story in itself. I’ll save that for another time.) I didn’t know what I would experience there. I only knew that it was the place I needed to go. The next five years took me on a journey that changed my life and my way of thinking and believing. I learned that it’s ok for followers of Jesus to think! Imagine my surprise. I had been trained, or better, indoctrinated to believe that everything that came out of the mouths of church leaders was to be accepted. After all, these men were God’s anointed shepherds. To question them was to question God. I also learned that there is really no one…let me say again, No One, who can know totally and with certainty what God thinks, cf. Isaiah 55:8-9,

8    For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. 9    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.

One cannot read the text ‘simply’ and understand the mind of the writer, let alone the mind of God. Especially, when one is reading a translation of a translation. These texts were written millennia ago in cultures and languages that no longer exist. I learned that we cannot take these texts out of their social and cultural context and place them directly into our culture in the 21st century. What this led to was an understanding that the playing field of orthodoxy is a very large one. As long as one is able to keep the ball from going completely across the boundary line, that person must be considered orthodox.

With this being said, my intention in sharing the kind of material I do is to present other views of orthodoxy. Rather than attacking the church, I offer a different opinion. I’ve shared many times on Facebook that I like to stir things up. I want to stretch people’s understanding. Is what the predominantly white, male-dominated evangelical church’s view of God and scripture the only viable one? Obviously, I don’t think it is. Simply put, I want to give people an opportunity to think.

Question two: ‘How do you present the gospel to others?’

The simple answer to this question is, I don’t. At least, not in the way it has been pursued by most evangelicals. I don’t knock on doors. Nor, do I ‘cold sell’ to people. I’m not going to assault strangers and begin to ‘witness’ to them.

What I am going to do is be prepared to give a reason for the hope that I have,         (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15). That reason, or explanation, is based on personal experience. Lofty, theological vagaries don’t help. What good is it to speculate and theorize with people who have no interest in the text to begin with? However, no one can take away nor refute what I have experienced. Like the beggar who Jesus healed, when questioned by the authorities, responded that all he knew was that before he was blind, now he could see. It is our life with God that speaks. A statement attributed to St. Francis sums this up. “Always remember to preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”

What does this say, then, about my approach to using scripture to “reveal the truth of Jesus and his saving grace?” I’m not sure that’s the right question. This question diminishes the scripture and makes it a users’ manual of sorts.

How to get someone ‘saved.
Step one: The Roman Road.
Step two: The Four Spiritual Laws

A more accurate question would be, what is the purpose of the Scriptures? Is it history? Science? Myth and fairy stories? Or, is it what it claims to be…the inspired Word that is living and active in the world? I think that the text provides us with a glimpse into the heart of God. It allows us to see how people have related to God and one another over the centuries. And, it gives us hope that we can share in these experiences as we grow to know this Person. That is what I share.

Ok…So What?

The fact is, I don’t know everything. (Surprised, right?) In most things I’m most likely mistaken. As I’ve written before, I follow the theology of Snoopy. This allows me to be myself as God has made me. I am extremely confident in my ability to be wrong.

I can be friends with people for who they are as God has made them. It doesn’t matter what their politics are or their station in life. I am not concerned about their sexual orientation or their view of science and the cosmos. I love and accept them as they are. After all, didn’t Jesus himself say that to love God and our neighbor summed up the entire Law?

Yeah, I disagree with people. Sometimes with vigor. But, that doesn’t diminish them. That elevates them to dialog partners. Like I wrote above, I am a seeker. By definition that makes me someone who is not afraid to go places that are unfamiliar, and perhaps, uncomfortable. It opens me up to opinions that are different than those that I hold. For me, this has been freeing. I don’t have to fear other opinions and concerns. I’m pretty sure that God’s not afraid, either. My friend, this life is a journey, not a destination. To hold lightly to what we think and believe, yet to hold tenaciously to God makes the journey a good one.

Diversity and Snoopy’s Theology

Those who know me understand that I like to stir things up from time to time. I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind. I’ve never been afraid to embellish things with a wee bit o’ hyperbole. I don’t do this to be a smart ass. I do it to push people to think about what they are saying and doing. Yeah, sometimes it bites me in the back side. Most of the time, however, I’m not sure that anyone’s actually listening. Or, maybe they just don’t have the time to think about it.

Yesterday was one of those times that I purposely poked. A Facebook friend had posted something about being a liberal. Now, I’ve made it pretty clear that I lean to the progressive/liberal side of the theological spectrum. So, when I saw this I thought that it was worth reposting on my timeline to see what kind of responses it would garner. A couple people ‘liked’ it. That was expected. One person, however, took exception to it…with gusto. I enjoyed reading his response. It was well thought and courteous. Yes, there was strong language and passion. I would expect nothing less from him.

While I disagree with some of what he wrote, I must honor his position. It’s where God has met him. snoopyTheologyThis thing that we call orthodoxy is a fairly wide playing field. There is a lot of room for diverse ideas and beliefs. This may have been the single most important lesson I learned in seminary. ‘Doing’ theology is not simply reading someone’s book on Systematic Theology and spewing it at people. It is conscious reflection on what we understand from the Scripture, the Church and its traditions, the creeds and how they intersect with the reality of our culture. It’s wrestling with the tough questions and issues while resisting the tendency to offer simple answers that help no one. My friend has done this. So have I. We have come to different conclusions. That’s ok. God, whom we follow, is a big God. I’m fairly sure that God is not worried about our differences. We each have different gifts and purposes in life that the Holy Spirit distributes as the Holy Spirit sees fit. For me, or anyone else, to say that someone else has missed the mark is simply wrong. Yes, we can encourage one another to greater understanding. Yes, we can use hyperbole to poke and prod one another to continue to think and reflect. And, yes, we can piss each other off. But, through it all, we’ve got to remember that we can have only a small piece of God’s truth. And, chances are, we’re wrong a lot more than we realize.

Symbols and Metaphor…Paths to the True Destination

For those of you who have followed my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that one of my favorite bloggers of all time if Jennifer D. Crumpton. Today I read her most recent post. In it she looks at a new book by Reza Aslan, entitled Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. He considers what the writers and original readers of the gospels would have understood about the truth of their stories. His is not a new take on this topic by any stretch. It is focused on people who say they have faith, they’re just not religious. Of special interest in Jennifer’s post is a video of an interview she did with Aslan. Both the blog and the video are a bit lengthy. So, if I had to choose, I’d watch the video. Pay special attention to the historic and literary context that Aslan identifies for the writing of the Gospel texts. A link to this particular post is here.

What do you think of the position taken regarding Scripture? Is it possible that fiction can bear truth?

 

Thanks a lot,Plato!

A few days ago I was reflecting on something that happened many years ago. At that time I worked as a sound tech for a Christian band. The band was pretty good and we played fairly regularly in our region of the country. There was always plenty of energy and I made sure that no one had any trouble hearing it. (Oh, yeah…play loud!) Before every show I had to take time to make the sound fit the house. I would use a pink noise generator and ‘pink’ the room to set the system equalization. Then, because pink noise generators are stupid and can’t hear, I would play various songs from CDs I carried in order to get the EQ just right. I chose music that had a wide dynamic range so that I could make the necessary adjustments across the frequency spectrum. I did not choose the songs for their content. My ears didn’t care about content, they cared about frequencies. One time before a show, one of the guys told me that I should use “Christian” music for that. After all, we were supposed to be a “Christian” band and someone might be offended by Chick Corea. This posed a dilemma for me. Would I do my job with the tools I was familiar with…that would give me known results? Or, should I follow the suggestion of my friend?

This is a small example of something that has been troubling me for years. What is the so-called secular/spiritual dualism that we seem to accept without question? Where did it originate? Is God behind it?

These questions cannot be completely answered in a blog post. But, perhaps I can throw some wood on the fire in order to cast some light on our considerations.

As I understand things, the Semitic worldview that spawned the Jewish and Christian scriptures, and into which Jesus was born, was not a dualistic worldview. For them, creation was a single whole. God had created it for the enjoyment of all of God’s creatures and it was good. God was One unity. There were no other true Gods, and God was not divided. The most important part of a Jewish prayer service is called the Shema. It begins, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” To suggest that God could be divided would have been blasphemy to them. Humanity, likewise, was considered a unified whole. In the beginning of their story, God formed a human from the “dust of the ground” and breathed life into it, causing it to become a “living soul.” No division…a singular living being. So, how did we wind up with so much division, and factions, today?

I think that the root of this can be traced to the ancient Greeks, particularly Plato. Plato was perhaps the greatest thinker of his age. Living from 429–347 B.C.E., his influence has transcended the centuries. One of his chief tenets was that what we see and understand here, in the visible universe, is not true reality. When we see a tree, it is a somewhat defective representation of a ‘real’ tree that exists in some perfect realm. This idea is especially important when we consider more abstract concepts like ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty.’ Things that we consider good and beautiful derive these characteristics from the truly Good and Beautiful. What’s important to see here is that the so-called ‘ultimate’ object that we cannot see is perfect and superior to the derivative and defective ‘penultimate’ object that is visible and understandable to us. Ok, enough philosophy 101…my head hurts.

The early Christian church grew out of Judaism, to be sure. But, its development was deeply embedded in the Greco-Roman worldview of that time. Its roots grew deeply into the rich soil of the northern Mediterranean region where Greek culture and philosophy fertilized the tender shoot. It was inevitable that Platonic thought would influence the Church’s development.

“Ok, Helbert…so what? What does all of that have to do with playing Chick Corea?” I’m glad that you asked! Platonism, or more accurately, neo-Platonism is the life-blood that courses through the whole of Western thought and culture. We have learned to quantify and qualify our entire universe. We have the ability to mentally compartmentalize every facet of our lives. All thanks to our friend Plato. What interests us here is that Plato provided a qualitative aspect to our existence that, I don’t believe, actually exists. His premise seems to rest on the fact that the ‘ultimate’ is good; the penultimate is defective. For us, that translates into that which is spiritual/godly is good; that which is earthly/fleshly is bad. We can then make judgments between the spiritual and secular that are, at best, distorted.

In the beginning God formed a unified whole. Yes, there were many parts. But, there are many parts to any single system, be it a human being or a butterfly. For those who want to keep the spiritual and the secular separate, just remember that there is only One Who is good. That One is Yahweh. Everything else is created. And, Yahweh declared that it is all good.

Mine is only one opinion. What do you think?