How Can You Mean This?

MatthewdIt is claimed that Susan B. Anthony once said something like this: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”

I’ve noticed the same thing. Have you ever know anyone to say in their defense: “I myself wouldn’t have a problem with THAT, but the Bible says that God is against it, so I must follow God first.”

Meanwhile in Congress, the GOP is intent upon cutting SNAP by 40 BILLION dollars. All the while, a significant number of them are receiving PERSONALLY tens of millions of dollars in farm subsidies. You see, we must do this they claim, because these people who are receiving free food are lazy, they are becoming a “take” culture, while they themselves are simply being given some help, ironically in the food production arena, to keep America’s food shelves healthy and full.

Mathewwrong

And do you know what they claim is their moral justification for what they do? Why it is Paul’s statement in Thessalonians:

“In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.”

They do not of course answer the burning question of “where are the jobs”, a bellowing demand they make of this President every week, if not every day. Yet, someone people should starve because those who receive food assistance are undoubtedly unwilling to work. Work at what, they don’t say.

Yet of course all this is so much a lie. Forty-seven percent of all recipients are children under 18. Eight percent are seniors. Forty-one percent live in households where someone works full or part-time. Less than 10% of recipients receive any other type of assistance. Nobody speaks louder or more clear than the GOP when it comes to veterans. Yet over 900,000 veterans currently receive SNAP.

Those are the facts.

What of the moral argument?

It too is utter nonsense and bespeaks the usual literalist reading of scripture that these fundamentalists indulge in.

I have some personal experience here for I’ve talked with a number of people who I’ve known since childhood who tell me all about Paul’s statement in defense of their agreement with Republican goals to cut SNAP funding. They of course first start by telling me of their personal anecdotes, stories of acquaintances or relatives who get assistance and either brag or are “known” not to really need it. This is almost immediately followed by complaints that “I’m tired of working so hard for these freeloaders. My taxes are already through the roof because of Obama.” (Note that taxes in general have gone down under President Obama’s administration, but of course people believe what they want to perpetuate the myth they are living with.)

Then of course comes the scripture. “Even Paul said that those who do not work shall not eat” This is often followed by the incredulous statement that “Everyone knows that Jesus was against government!”

So there we have it. Jesus doesn’t like government and so as all  fundamentalists tell me, these things should be left up to the Church. Yes. Well, nothing is preventing the “Church” from taking on the job. Nothing has been preventing them from doing so for over two thousand years. Somehow or other, they haven’t gotten the job done. So please don’t tell me the Church should do it.

And the thing from Paul? Well, IF one were to actually read Paul with some understanding of what his letters are about, one might get a clue that this is not a statement that should EVER be taking literally.

Looking first at Paul’s overall theology, it is clear that he, like many others in the movement, expected the return of the Lord within their own lifetimes. Indeed, in his first letter to them, he calms them and reassures them that those “who are still alive for the Lord’s coming will not have any advantage over those who have fallen asleep.” (1Thess 4:15) Much of Paul’s teaching on marriage for instance is based on his believe that the Lord would return within most of their lifetimes. Thus he counsels that those who can maintain celibacy, should not marry. Those who find it difficult should marry rather than engage in promiscuity.

Secondly,  it is not completely accepted that 2Thessalonians, from which the “no work, no eat” comes from, was actually written by Paul. Be that as it may, Paul is writing again to Thessaloniki because a crisis has arisen. Indeed, many of Paul’s letters are in response to crisis within the believing community. New people sometimes arrive with new teachings, something teachers get off on tangents. In other words, Thessaloniki is in crisis.

The crisis is quite obvious and is stated in the letter itself: Someone is telling the people in the community that the day of the Lord’s arrival has actually come!

“. . . Please do not be too easily thrown into confusion or alarmed by any manifestation of the Spirit or any statement or any letter claiming to come from us, suggesting that the Day of the Lord has already arrived.”(2Thess 2:2)

This is what has caused the problem. People are in panic. There is conflict. As is the case in all the cities, the household churches are supported financially by the more wealthy members. It seems that some in the community are no longer working, and are looking for the Lord to appear, and simply living off the largess of the wealthier among them. Paul says this must stop. According to him, there are various things that must transpire before the Lord returns, and these have not occurred. Everyone is to return to normal activities. Return to calm. Go back to your jobs and your normal pursuits.

What is pathetic in this use of a single sentence out of context, is that even to the most limited of readers, the context should seem most clear. Paul is not out of the blue announcing that it is a teaching of Christ that that no one who fails to work shall not eat.

This flies in the face of Matthew 25 which says something quite different:

Mathew25aThis is the great teaching of Christ.

This is what needs be followed by all who would claim the name of Christian.

While we keep these writings about scripture and faith, we urge readers to contact their congress person and demand that the cuts in SNAP be restored.

Surely we are better than this.

Amen.

Matthewc

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Naming our Golden Calves

Golden bull sclupture on grey glassIt’s ironic isn’t it that the Israelites created a golden calf and not a golden bull. I mean given their belief that their God was a jealous God, one prone to dangerous anger, one wonders at their use of a newborn, still fragile, unknowing of much of the ways of the world, as their symbol of deity.

In any case, the story is fraught with puzzlement. Like much of the Hebrew scripture, God is portrayed as hardly all-knowing and often not all-powerful. He often argues and gives in to human logic (or what passes for it), and he seems to be in need of human hands to accomplish his ends at times.

This is perhaps why some folks think they know God and know what He wants on any given issue.

So Moses argues with God and dissuades Him from destroying the people for their “stiff-neckedness”, something one would have thought God had learned by now. It shows that Moses is the more rational of the two, reminding God that all His work to date would be for naught, and worse yet, he would look pretty weak and puny to non-Hebrews if in the end, he just mashed his sculpture into a ball and started over again.

Literalists of course, ignore all the strange and contradictory conclusions to be drawn here. Historically a lot of them used to (and perhaps still do) tsk, tsk, at the Catholic church for its use of statues of saints, calling it idol worship. One of course often misses the plank in one’s own eye when busy pointing out the planks in other people’s.

There are so many problems with concluding that the Bible is the “word of God” in a literal fashion. Least of which is that none of the fundamentalist crowd will ever answer the questions. They are quick to point out ( having matured no doubt) that they don’t claim that God literally “wrote” the bible, but only that he caused the writers to write down “in their own words” all that he desired humanity to know and nothing he did not want them to know.  Since they have pointed this out, I think it only fair to answer, “well why?”

Why what, you ask? Well, if God “used” people to write “in their own words” my question would be why would he do that? A God who can inhabit a burning bush, cause tablets to magically contain the ten commandments, part waters, create plagues of locusts, bring forth water from a rock, can surely manage to make a book of instruction can’t He? So what is the point of using these intermediaries?

Well, the answer begs the question. It’s just a not very logical way of explaining why God didn’t just start with one, and go through a list of commands. He did it once, so I guess he could make a longer list right? It explains why the Bible doesn’t read very God-like. Rather of course, than just simply state the truth–men (maybe women but we don’t know) wrote it.

My friend, Dr. James McGrath from Butler, said it thusly:

“People spoke it, others wrote it, still others copied it, still others collected the writings together, still others elevated the collection to the level of Scripture, others claimed that collection to be the Word of God, then the words of God. And that doesn’t “settle it.” The Bible tells me so.

So to claim that it does settle it, under the fundamentalist adage, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, suggests to me somebody is busy sculpting that calf again.

Churches can become calves too. I’m afraid that given enough time, almost all of them do. The church becomes THE thing. Certainly true of the Roman church, where rules and rules upon rules tell every Catholic what to do and when. They’ve relieved a bit of that, given the falling numbers, but there is still plenty of it. The Roman church formed from a winning of the battle of orthodoxy. But it didn’t go away. It erupted full force during the Reformation. It continues today. Most every church is formed around the belief that only they have the “true” understanding. That human hubris  sounds pretty darn calfish to me.

Then of course there is the infighting within the denomination. Who is a heretic? Who is a real prophet, seer, Guru? What is right teaching, wrong? Churches split nowadays over gay rights even suing each other over the very physical structures. People vie for personal power within the institution. People steal from the coffers in the name of something or other that somehow or other they justify as being “Godly”.  Your preacher “needs” to live in splendor given that he is “sweatin’ for Jesus” and you have no idea how stressful that is with the powers of Satan working so feverishly at every moment.

All that power, so necessary to “rightly lead” is a calf for sure awaiting its gilt covering.

We can get real personal and find that calf growing in our garage with that car that is oh so essential “given my long commute”, or that state of the art entertainment center, because after working so hard for the Lord, I just got to unwind! The calf grows in our relationships as we struggle to be in control, and form our partner into what works for us, draped in a facade of “what is the right way” to be a couple.

We are a stiff-necked people. Until we stop using the poor Israelites to teach a story to OTHERS about their lack of piety, well, we will continue that tradition. It’s all about your own calves. They surround you and me.

Is it time to melt down a few?

Simplify. Quiet down.

Find your real God.

She’s waiting.

And What of Love?

anewI’ve been thinking a lot about Abraham lately.

Specifically the story of Abraham and Isaac. More specifically, about Abraham’s call by God to sacrifice Isaac. The so-called “test.”

I’m as bothered by this as I am about God inflicting Job with all his woes as the object of a wager with Satan.

This is not my God, this God who uses and abuses his very own.

It is one of the reasons why any rational person should rebel at the demand that scripture be taken literally. For the God portrayed in these examples is not a God to love or worship. It is only a God to be ignored at one’s peril.

But of course, most of us aren’t literalists. We see that scripture is the reflection of those who came before us on how they came to recognize and live with this transcendent God. How they came to see their relationship to this all-powerful deity. How they came to enter into the grace of faith and understanding.

As is so often the case with scripture, because surely it is divinely inspired, scripture often informs scripture. We find answers to the deeply agonizing questions offered up by one text in another.

Such is the case today, at least for me. Today John tells us that in those final hours in the life of the Master, he said some amazing things. Among them, he issued his own commandment, a “new” one as he said.

love one another.
As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

Go back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. Think about it from the point of view of today. Your neighbor comes to you, a pious woman, one who you know goes to church regularly. You see a worn bible next to her favorite chair in her living room when you visit. She often makes reference to biblical passages in your conversations. She is known for her commitment to acts of charity.  She says to you:

“God spoke to me last night. It was the clearest thing you can imagine. He told me that he wants me to take my dearest child, my youngest, and offer her as a sacrifice to him. Please say goodbye to my darling girl, for you will see her no more.”

What would you do? Well, quite obviously, you would either alert the woman’s husband or call the authorities. In any case, you would do all you could to prevent her from this act. If you learned of the act after it had been done, you would expect the woman to be taken into custody and either held for treatment or otherwise confined. Many would of course dispute her “vision” and claim her either mad or a murderer.

That would be the sane response.

Yet we read the story of Abraham and Isaac as if it all makes perfect sense. In the story, Abraham, known to love Isaac as his long-awaited son by Sarah, makes not a single objection. He offers no mental reservation, no agony of decision whatsoever. Is this even normal?

Of course it is not. And the story is just that, a story. God does not and would not ask such a thing of his creatures. The story illustrates in some crude fashion, how important it is to put God first in one’s life. It suggests that God means more than anything else. God’s desires come first. And it is crude, let’s be clear.

As is often the case with a teaching moment, we go way over the top to make a point. This the writer did. If you think you know what loving God means, well let me tell you what it REALLY means, the writer suggests. It’s hyperbole in its extreme form.

God would never ask such a thing. No rational person would do such a thing. It it meant to instruct us on what it means to love God, and of course to show us how very very short of the mark we really are. We cannot comprehend even how to love God like this.

Yet, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus shows us exactly and perfectly how to love God. He simplifies it for us. Love your neighbor as I have loved you.

AS I HAVE LOVED YOU.

Jesus, in his time with his disciples has shown them again and again the meaning of love. This willingness to think of others first, this willingness to get up when tired, and offer help, this willingness to bear the condemnation of others for the “company you keep”. Jesus showed his disciples that to lead, indeed to love, meant being last, being the servant, making sure that each and every person one encountered was brought into wholeness. Jesus was about to show them ultimately that life itself was worth sacrificing for a principle–not someone else’s life, but his own.

The principle of course was that being true to God in one’s heart, and living that out no matter what the personal sacrifice might entail was the way to bring heaven and earth into an embrace. Jesus answers the dilemma we face in the gruesome story of Abraham and his efforts to commit infanticide.  He shows us what the love that the ancient writer was attempting to define actually is in real and practical terms.

Scripture informs scripture, and forever teaches us that the stories are just that, stories which help us jump into the cloudy waters of our minds, to yet peel away another layer of darkness on the journey to the light.

Amen.

The Lesson of Thomas

doubting_bigThe story of “Doubting Thomas” is pretty clear, framed as it is with the stories of the marvelous healing abilities of the apostles following the death of Jesus. We can see it as a directive of the church–believe in the message. In other words, trust that what we have said is true.

This is a necessity of course since Jesus was no longer physically among them. On what basis would people believe in the fantastical story that they were beginning to tell. Why indeed should we believe?

Thomas’s conversion at the feet of the risen Lord assures us that the stories of the bible are true and can be believed. Don’t be like Thomas we are told, believe in the Word!

As I said, this was a necessity to the fledgling group of Jesus followers who found themselves in not only dangerous lands where death could be pronounced on those who preached this anti-power message, but telling a story that was difficult for anyone to swallow on its face. A man travels around preaching a new doctrine quite apart from normative Judaism, allegedly curing the sick and outcast of society, eating and drinking with these misbegottens, and then is hanged on a tree in the dump outside Jerusalem with other common criminals? Really?

Even to a people more inclined to believe in the supernatural than we, it’s a stretch isn’t it?

We are today of course, encouraged not to be doubting Thomas’s ourselves, and for some believers, it becomes almost a mainstay of their faith lives. It becomes the banner of those who refuse to consider any deviation from “absolute and total” faith as some dark weakness that may lead to eternal damnation. Stop your ears! Cover you eyes! Do not doubt for one second lest you lose the kingdom!

But of course a reading of the story in John suggests nothing of the sort. Jesus calls Thomas to him, shows him the evidence. Thomas, now convinced, falls at the feet of the Master and proclaims him Lord and God.

While Jesus does bless those who have not doubted, (or the Church inserts such language to bolster its argument), Jesus does not condemn Thomas in any way, or lay any penalty upon him for his reluctance to believe based on the words of his friends, the other apostles.

Perhaps then we can draw a bit of a different lesson from all this.

Is it not interesting that Thomas was unprepared to simply acquiesce from the claims of his friends? After all, Thomas had been with these men and women for some three years. Did he not find them trustworthy? Apparently he did not. Perhaps it was the lack of faith they themselves had expressed and evidenced with the arrest and trial and murder of their leader. Perhaps his own willingness to hide himself from the authorities caused him to be skeptical of the new-found “faith” of the others. Were they not all too human, susceptible to fear and confusion to be trusted with such a revelation?

Was not Thomas’s doubt a good thing?

Should we invest our time and our fragile psyches to unquestioning faith just because “somebody” assures us that we should?

If you spend time talking with atheists, most especially the “new atheists” (some call them evangelical atheists since they exhibit some of the same unflinching dogmatic surety of the fundamentalist), you will assuredly find that a good many of them, if not most, are former believers. And they were not ordinary believers for the most part, but fundamentalist believers, the most rabid, the most “sure” believers among us.

Ask a fundamentalist if she has any doubt about the truth of  Christianity, and you will get a swift assurance that her belief is total. She will regale you with stony firmness that there is NO doubt in her mind that the bible is indeed the literal word of God.

As we know, when such persons finally, if ever, discover that indeed this is not, cannot, be true, their faith is usually shattered beyond repair. Their faith is based upon the Good Book, not the working out of a philosophical foundation which makes faith reasonable and thus believable. If the book is shown to be faulty in ANY manner, then the foundation cracks and crumbles into dust.

Thomas reminds us that faith, to be enduring, and I would add, mature,  must be based on something more than the claims that some words in a book are absolutely true and beyond question. Questions are good. Some Jewish scholars would argue that the bible is to be read on four levels, and among them, the first–literalism–amounts to the understanding of a child.

Questions force us to confront the internal conflicts and contradictions of immature faith. If faith is to be mature and thus lead to a real conversion of spirit and growth into a “better” way of being human, it must confront and work through these issues. The bible thus becomes the place to uncover these very conflicts and becomes the basis of our truest conversion.

If our passion for truth and desire to believe and know this God is real, then we are compelled to reconcile the contradictions that exist within the Bible (for they are surely there if one honestly looks). By the reconciliation we uncover a God far greater, far more impressive, and far more loving, than the deity portrayed in the superficial reading at the literal level.

Jesus was the teacher we should emulate–for he told us to set aside all the Pharisaic rules of faith and seek the simple loving presence of God. He cut through the red tape. Unknowingly perhaps the early church gave us the means to do that, in the guise of Thomas.

 

Let There Be Light!

lightI once did a paper on the treatment of light in the bible. Phos as it is known in the Greek.  But the word light has played a significant role in our existential thinking for times well before the generation of the bible, and is not limited to those who espouse a Christian doctrine.

I had to laugh this morning as Father remarked upon Plato and his statement that most of mankind conceives of reality about as clearly as our ancient forefathers watched shadows play against the wall of the cave.

Father said in all sincerity, “for a pagan, Plato had a real insight!” Indeed he did, and perhaps he wasn’t quite the pagan you think he was. God speaks to all peoples in all times in ways that are conjunction with their time and place in the world.

As we struggled to free ourselves the “dark ages” which were admittedly only dark for some, we came into the “Enlightenment” that time when we began to see that things that we thought were mysteries of God, were explainable through human reason and study.

In our first reading today, Isaiah speaks of the light that is coming to Israel, a light that will be recognized, a light to be followed, and in following, the world will become rich. Of course Isaiah 60: 1-6 is thought to predict the coming of the Magi, who located the Christ child in Bethlehem and recognized him as the light that would lead his people as King.

And indeed, we often refer to Christ as light. Reading the first chapter of the Gospel of John assures us that Jesus is the light that brings life, the light that dispels the darkness.

Light in the Gospel and certainly among the Gnostics was akin to knowledge. In his person, Jesus brings true faith, he proclaims the true and direct path to God. He brings us the knowledge of things heavenly, things that cannot be grasped by reason alone, but through faith.

That is the message for us today as we celebrate the Epiphany of the Lord. Jesus comes into the world, into our personal world and offers us the light of knowledge. If we abide in him and in his teachings we live in the light. That allows the Spirit within us to guide us along the path of truth–the sure path to God’s loving embrace.

Now of course, many claim to follow Jesus. And many claim that others who make such claims do not in fact. How can we know?

There is no easy answer to this question. To be sure that one is doing the will of God, following the dictates of the Christ, is to almost always to fall into error. Those who profess that they have the “true” knowledge almost assuredly do not, and perhaps that is the hallmark of a false prophet.

Humility is the first hallmark I believe of living in truth. One must be ever ready to conclude that one has been wrong. One must be ever ready to read further, more deeply, and to struggle in prayer for a clearer understanding. We must implore God at every juncture show us our errors and lead us back to the straight road. We are all to enthralled with crookedness and we must keep that before us.

In reading the various things that Jesus said, or more correctly what was reported he said, we must look to the overarching theme of his dialogues. And of course, I explain nothing new when I suggest that the overriding theme of Jesus as love. Love of God, love of neighbor. One can never isolate a sentence or word from scripture as proof of anything else. It must be placed in the context of all that he said, for in the end we must confess that those who set quill to parchment lo those millenia ago were human and in being human they brought their own reason and history to their understanding of what Jesus meant.

That may fly in the face of some who claim that the bible the result of God directing perfectly the hand of the writer. The evidence doesn’t suggest that that was so, nor does logic if you think about it. If God dictated it, then well, I confess, God is and was not much of a writer. And besides, being a literalist simply is an easy way out. As is the claim by some that God meant for the average person, with no special education, to understand everything in it with ease. This leads to private interpretation and quite obviously is why we have tens of thousands of so-called Christian sects this day.

No those who claim that the bible is easily interpretable by anyone are surely just making life easy on themselves. Tens of thousands have spent a lifetime studying sacred documents, and they certainly make no such claims. The bible is complicated, perhaps as complicated as any “book” can be. So we tread carefully.

But with care, and attention, as I said, it is possible to see the broad foundations of Jesus’ teachings. We know that love, companionship, compassion, respect for our differences, embracing the poor and disadvantaged, respect for those we disagree with, service to others–these are the attributes of those who follow the Lord. With humility, curiosity, wonderment, awe, and joyous happiness, we go forth seeking the road and seeking to stay upon it.

I do not claim we will never stray if we do these things, but I am confident that we will be called back to the path if  we veer off. As long as we ask Christ each day, “Lord, teach me your ways!”

Amen.

 

Love or Sin

 

 

Since I insist on talking about politics and religion all the time, I get a fair amount of blow back. From the religious Right, it generally takes the form of reminding me that “real” Christians  like themselves are warned in scripture “about people like me.”

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1Jn 4: 1-6)

I often laugh at this, for I of course would often be of a mind to recite the same or similar verses as to them if I were of such a mind.

For truly I am of the opinion that many on the right say a good deal that is false and not “of the spirit.”

As I listened to James 2: 1-5 this morning, I heard reference to this, though I admit it is not what people usually think of when they read or hear it.

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

There are plenty of teachings in scripture which deal with the dangers of wealth and more so the dangers of paying too much homage to it. We are, contrary to the Republican Party’s claims against the Democrats, not a people who begrudge the wealthy their riches, we are more likely to be star-struck by those who live “above” us.

But as I said, I saw something different here. The one with golden rings and fine clothing, I would suggest, may be the one with the flowery language who encourages us to believe the snake oil he or she is selling. Such a person may tell us things that make us feel good, and I would argue, often have ready-made excuses for why your life isn’t what you wish it were.

Beware, my beloved of those who remove your own burden of responsibility by attempting to shift it to someone one (ones) else, whom you can blame. And beware all the more when those “others” are declared to be wanting in faith and God’s grace.

I would argue that those speakers are most assuredly the false prophets.

How often has it been that the poorest, most ill-educated often has the greatest wisdom? How often do we hear words that thrill us to the heart from people of very different faiths. Who does not nod in agreement at the words that come from say a Thich Nhat Hanh? Or a Dalai Lama?

Jesus, you remember was the poorest of itinerant preachers. He spoke about things that were definitely not kosher if you will, when it comes to the standard Jewish teaching.  That is why so many who were learned and “cultured” dismissed him as some radical troublemaker. He didn’t preach against the Pharisees so much as he admonished them to their faces when they attacked him with their sly questions. To his sheep, he told them the simple lessons of God’s love and how they could enter the kingdom.

Throughout the scriptures we are advised to avoid those who hearts are not on God, but who claim they speak for God.

The trouble is, it is very hard for any of us mere mortals to know who is and who is not teaching falsely. Some think it easy, but that is only because they are blinded by their own arrogance. You see, they think that there is but one interpretation of scripture, and they surely have it. Thus when someone sees it different–bingo you have identified a false teacher.

Of course, most of us can see the fallacy in such reasoning and such judgment. Most of us know that the ineffable is well, to a great extent unknowable by us. We do our best to understand, but as Augustine often said, most of what we decide is true about God is probably not.

I know of only one guiding principle, and it is I admit based nearly entirely upon my own theological beliefs. I believe that God is love, pure and simple and that all that God is is a constant reaffirmation of that fact and an attempt to bring it forth in the world through us, his creation. Anything that separates any of us from God, is in my mind, not from God. Any who preach this, who preach that some are “others” and must conform to their way of thinking in order to be saved, is probably speaking from ego rather than grace.

Is the message Love or Sin? Sin, it seems to me, is in the act of keeping God’s children from God and from each other.

But that is my opinion.

Reach for love my friend and God be with you.

Amen

 

Pastoring 101

Often it is hard to figure out why certain readings are put together. Not so today. Today we have a veritable teachers manual of what a good pastor is.

I am reminded that a week or so ago, I watched part of a “Family Values” summit here in Iowa. Of course all the major GOP candidates came to speak.

Each speaker, candidate or local politico, invoked God, acknowledging that first and foremost each and every person there looked to God as their true leader.

They then went about talking against marriage equality, and against universal health care, and against a worker’s right to unionize, and against EPA standards that protect our water and air. God

And I saw the audience nod and look to each other and smile, always reassuring each other that this indeed was God’s will–the things they were for and those they were against.

It probably wouldn’t do any good, but they, each of them, would do well to read and pray upon the words chosen for the lessons of this day.

Our good friends who see themselves as righteous and God-abiding are wont to tell us what God wants. Having talked with a good many of these  born-agains, I know the litany. Paul, they tell me,  (who oddly is quoted by the fundamentalist far more often than Jesus) makes it abundantly clear that the duty of a “good Christian” is to admonish and correct those in error. They would be failing in their duty to remain silent. Silence is acquiescence, quite simply.

When questioned as to the possibility that their truth may not be the truth, they scoff. No way! They assert with all sincerity that God has spoken quite plainly in their translation of the bible (usually the KJV). God does not hide his desires, he states them plainly. There is no need of any learned person to tell them what God says; a person of pure desire will hear the Word correctly. Learned biblical scholars, after all, have a goal: to be paid, and to be held in esteem as better than other interpreters.

Yet, a good deal of biblical space is given over to warnings about false teaching. It is this conundrum that the average fundamentalist faces: how to tell the false from the true. And the answer they have chosen is to trust their own instincts.

Of course that works fine, except that we are human beings who, so psychologists and sociologists tell us, are motivated to believe all manner of things that empirically are provably false. We chose to believe things often because it “works for us” satisfying some need that we may only be dimly aware of.

In Malachi we are warned:

 You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction; (Mal 2:8)

In Psalm 131 we learn how to approach God:

O LORD, my heart is not proud,
nor are my eyes haughty;
I busy not myself with great things,
nor with things too sublime for me.
Nay rather, I have stilled and quieted
my soul like a weaned child.
Like a weaned child on its mother’s lap,
so is my soul within me.

In Thessalonians Paul models the perfect Pastor:

We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.
With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well,
so dearly beloved had you become to us.
You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thess 2: 7-9)

And finally, we have Jesus, the Great Teacher who tells us exactly how to be:

“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called ‘Master’;
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23: 1-12)

If we would model the Master, we are humble, we assume that we are but children in terms of our knowledge of God’s ways, and we never presume to “teach” others. We lead by the example of our lives, giving our vision of God as we understand, but not as teacher. Rather we are fellow travelers. We don’t have all the answers, and we perceive the spark of God in all our brothers and sisters and eagerly look to them to teach us as well.

We take the warnings seriously, both those of Malachi and all the others found throughout both the Hebrew and New Testament. Things like, “God’s ways are not your ways,” “God sees to the heart” , “Care for the log in your own eye before worrying about the splinter in your neighbors”. These all reference a warning that we mere mortal humans cannot speak for God.

All we can do is to try to live honestly and forthrightly according to the pitifully small understanding we do have.If we can understand on that one thing, then we will shun any idea that we have any basis for telling anyone else what they should do or not.  Surely we have the right and duty to separate ourselves from those who hinder us by speaking things that seek to harden hearts and justify mistreatment of others “in the name of God.” But, we are on shifting sands when we take that as a license to teach others the way of righteousness.

Amen.

What Do We Expect?

I’ve said this a few times (to say the least) before. Fundamentalists create more atheists than other atheists ever will. I was never quite sure why, but the answer is really pretty darn obvious.

Fundamentalists deal in absolutes. The Bible IS the word of God. It is absolutely true in every single respect. There can be no contradictions and no errors. Of course when proven not to be the case, the shattered believer applies the same demands on non-fundamentalist faith–proof.  And none is forthcoming, so they throw up their hands.

If there is no proof, then there is no basis for faith.

But really, fundamentalists are much akin to atheists in their thinking. Atheists always point to reality as that which can be proven. A science experiment either works or it doesn’t. It’s true or false. Something, someday, might be more true, but it seldom turns out utterly false.

The same is true of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives know what has worked, and what hasn’t. They KNOW and they don’t want to venture into not-knowing. They don’t like to take chances. They don’t like not knowing anything, so they often structure a world that contains only known things and they declare unknown things unworthy of thinking about.

Liberals don’t mind not knowing. They actually know that some things they may never know, other things will become known in time. They aren’t afraid of taking chances, especially when what is known produces outcomes that don’t work so well.

Liberals make fine progressive believers. They aren’t afraid of the fact that they may never know God in any significant way. It’s okay. It’s okay even if God isn’t real in the end. Believing and living a life based on belief is not a bad thing. As they see it.

Conservatives think that silly, and so do fundamentalists. So they set out to create a God that they CLAIM is knowable, fully. And they know God, or so they claim. They feel relaxed, confident, and somewhat puffed up by the fact that they KNOW.

The person who has had the fundamentalist theology explode into a thousand pieces asks what is not possible. They want answers that will fully satisfy them as their bible-thumpin’ ministers used to. And when they don’t find that, since living in the unknowing, is part of being a believer, they mope, and get angry, they argue, and they pout, and in the end they throw up their hands in disgust. The atheists are right–believers have no answers.

I don’t mean to make fun of or deride these folks. I feel deeply saddened that their personal, shall we say, brain pattern demands certainty. It is perhaps they way they are structured. Some seem to make the change, but most don’t. Not that I can see.

Buddhists are, in my opinion, rather expert in living in the moment, and not wasting much time worrying about knowing. If you can’t know you will be alive in five minutes, there isn’t must you can be sure about. There is much wisdom in that.

I’m in a place and time where I’m not giving nearly the attention to faith that I should. But maybe the point is that I shouldn’t be at all concerned. God offers me relationship, gracious and freely. Since I believe that, I expect God understands quite perfectly when my life becomes chaotic to the point that I only seek him for peace and sanity, and little more.

So, I’m okay with the limits on my prayer, meditation and reading of spiritual things. It will return when life is less hectic, of that I am sure. I don’t know if my notions are accurate or not, but there is nothing I can do to find out anyway.

God is there when I need it. At least that is what I feel, and what I believe. And in the end, what else is necessary?

Amen.

Is That Hubris or What?

A few nights ago we watched a movie called “Creation” which focused on the life of Charles Darwin in the years leading up to his epic book. If the portrayal was accurate, Darwin agonized over writing the book, in part because he knew it would be seen by some as a direct challenge to God’s existence.

Darwin himself was unsure of what his findings meant. He was tortured by the possibility that it did indeed mean, as some of his more “enlightened” friends suggested, the “death of God.” This played heavily on his mind since his wife was a firm believer whose sensibilities he had no desire to harm.

Obviously we know that he did write “Origins of Life” and it did set off the firestorm he expected.

What is ironic to me is that as I watched, I once again realized that the atheist and the fundamentalist are but two sides of the same coin.

The atheist says, my senses and mind cannot betray me. The bible is untrue, God is dead. The fundamentalist says, my bible is true, God is true, my senses and mind betray me.

I find both positions utter hubris. Both claim man’s stellar reasoning to be the apex of existence. The atheist does this quite openly, proclaiming that the universe is utterly knowable by the human mind, and indeed all things are knowable. There is thus no need for a supreme being who guides and orchestrates life. We came to be quite naturally, and the “sky is the limit” in so far as the future is concerned.

The fundamentalist hides her hubris. Although giving lip service to a superior being, it is one that is defined by the fundamentalist. It is infamously contained within the pages of a book, and is self-defined by that fundamentalist.

Both agree, that both evolution and God cannot be true. Both, in utter arrogance chose one side or the other because they, in their superior believing minds, believe that their constructs of God are unquestionably right.

Yet there is another way, and a way that I would argue is the way of the true believer. Confronted with Darwin’s findings, this person recognizes that we must be willing to trust in our senses and the abilities of our minds, otherwise life is simply chaos. There is no meaning at all if life is reduced to haphazard occurences that follow no “rules.”

Yet, learning is an ongoing proposition. We learn and adapt. We learn and we change. We learn and we discard, replace, and revise. That is the way of human history.

So no learning is sacrosanct. And the true believer quickly realizes that this must apply to both the bible and her conceptions regarding God. Confronted with the apparent paradox of Darwin and the Bible, she recognizes that she must delve more deeply into the mystery of sacred text. She must learn of its human origin and the circumstances. She must place the book against the ongoing discoveries of history and find the points of mesh and tension.

Most assuredly, the true believer realizes that if God is God, then we are in a process of learning to understand that God, and that perhaps it is not possible to do so fully in life. The Bible becomes then a text of others efforts to understand God and the reflections of their meditations. Those are our guides as we pursue God in our own ways.

The true believer thus concludes that whenever there is an apparent confrontation between God and science, that it is only appearances. It only goes to show us that we still have not uncovered the glory of God in its fullness. For there is nothing in human experience that can be in conflict with God.

Recognizing our own fallible powers of reasoning is the first step in truly beginning to see our Creator. For only by being totally open to all the possibilities, are we available to be guided by God’s grace. The atheist and fundamentalist are never open, they have already tied God up in a nice box with appropriate ribbons and bowsturning the Godhead into either a child’s toy or an individual caricature of their own making.

I always find it so ironic. Those two groups, whose greatest vitriol is reserved for each other, have more in common that all the rest.

Amen.

Who is Christian?

Following the horrific events in Oslo, Norway, and the ensuing rhetoric about it, this question came to me. Who indeed is Christian?

As you will recall, long before much in the way of facts were uncovered, a shocking number of pundits and “journalists” speculated freely that Al Qaeda had struck innocents once again. Once the alleged perpetrator began to talk, all this changed, and we learned that the actor was a self-proclaimed Christian and fundamentalist. His written screed backed this up, with illusions to the Crusades.

As we have now come to expect, the Right was furious. How dare this madman do his evil deeds in the name of Christianity? In fact, some of these misguided folks claimed that they were the “true victims” since the Left now would use this crime to attack the far-right cause. Indeed the terrorist named several anti-Muslim activists in this country as being an inspiration to him. So the extreme right had reason to be concerned.

Other’s unbelievably, still wanting to put a Muslim face on this tragedy, said that the actor “had a point” in suggesting that multiculturalism was a disaster for Europe, and by inference for America as well. This tactic was rather soundly condemned: how can you uphold anything that comes from a crazed killer?

But perhaps the most profound result was people like Bill O’Reilly, pundit for Fox “News” who proclaimed that the Norwegian killer was “no Christian”. He claimed that one was not entitled to that title merely by saying it, especially when one’s actions belied any real understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

Of course, Mr. O’Reilly has never had any problem with calling Middle Eastern terrorists, “Islamic Terrorists” simply because they were of the Muslim faith or claimed to be. One begins to smell a lack a rat here.

But the question remains. What constitutes a Christian? The question of course can equally be asked of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and any other faith tradition.

Who gets to decide when one is acting or talking or thinking within the acceptable parameters of one’s tradition?

I, for instance, would argue that The Westboro “Christians” aren’t Christians at all, or one’s whose understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  I and many others sometimes refer to fundamentalist Christians as Christianists, to signify that they use and distort biblical passages in order to serve their personal views of the way the world “ought to be.”

Other’s argue that Mormons are not “true” Christians. And the list goes on and on.

The point is, that the majority of Muslims throughout the world might well argue that those who engage in terrorism are misguided and self-serving in their interpretation of the Qur’an, and are not “true” Muslims. Perhaps that is said by some portions of the Jewish community. There are Buddhists who engage or have engaged in violence. Are there Buddhists who would argue that they are not “true” Buddhists?

So the question remains, who decides?

There is no human answer here of course. The ultimately satisfying answer can only be, that God will and does determine this issue, if it is of any importance at all. We, individually or in community cannot know the mind and spirit of any other person. We cannot judge what faith means to them, or how they interpret it.

Is the man who killed Dr. Tiller a Christian? He would certainly, and does claim that he acted to defend God’s word. Were the Inquisitionists Christians? Were the Crusaders? The KKK?  White Militias?  All have killed in the name of God.

Again, we mere mortals do best to leave that alone. Nothing is served by trying to “protect” one’s sect of Christianity by claiming that this or that one “doesn’t belong to us.” The truth is that fundamentalism is not a Christian thing, nor a Muslim thing, nor even necessarily a religious thing. It is a state of being, in which the believer thinks that he/she has the answers to whatever issues matter to them. They have interpreted correctly and those that disagree must be defeated. The manner of their defeat can be many things, but for a fringe it can and will include violence.

It is this that is opposed, and not the thinking itself. I am well able to accept your self-serving interpretations as long as they remain yours and not ones you seek to impose upon me by force.

If the Norway shooter believes he is Christian, then he is entitled to do so. He’s not my vision of one, but I am not the decider. And neither is anybody else.

Amen.

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