I suspect that most of us who blog on a regular basis are like people who set themselves on fire and then attempt to extinguish the flames with an axe (unless you only blog about puppies and babies, which is probably not a bad idea).
So, yesterday I picked a topic that opened up sensitive areas for people—people about whom I care deeply. I used the NOH8 Campaign as a launching point, not to demean a legitimate vehicle of protest, but rather to look at the larger issue of polarization and anger that seems to permeate our society. The challenge to NOH8 was not about combatting hatred; it was about my concern that opposition in any form might be classified as hatred. The post was not about gay rights; it was about how we as people have come to use caricature and categorization rather than civil discourse to fight our political and religious battles.
This is not a NOH8 issue (it’s just that they are prominent in the news right now). It’s a larger cultural and maybe even global issue. Some examples:
When Christians who embrace the Tea Party Movement are asked how they reconcile the writings of Ayn Rand (her Atlas Shrugged has been called the Tea Party Bible) with the teachings of Jesus, the questioners are sometimes suspected of being “socialists” by merely asking the question.
When political leaders differ with one another, labels of “fascist” or “communist” fly through the air.
When people protest against particular wars, they are often called “unpatriotic” or “un-American,” as if being pro-war (one of the worst evils to be visited upon the planet) is a sign of one’s national loyalty.
When Christian scholars suggest that there might be more than one way to understand certain doctrines, you hear the word “heretic” echoing off the walls.
Once you have labeled and categorized your opponents, you have turned them into objects. Objects are easy to hate.
I have the privilege of working for an academic institution that places a high value on civil discourse. Rather than engaging people of other faiths or other traditions in a combative manner, they seek to listen deeply in order to properly understand the other. They do this, not in an abandonment of their own Christian convictions, but instead with a deep commitment to their faith, and with the expectation that the other will come to the table with a similar sincere commitment to their beliefs. In that environment, caricatures break down, categories unravel, and understanding emerges. Without such willing discourse, people continue to run the risk of bearing false witness against one another. We who are followers of Jesus should tremble at that possibility.
We human beings should not kid ourselves about hatred. It is not going to go away any time soon. Thousands of years of human history show us that hatred, violence, and inflicted suffering visit us repeatedly. I support any effort to call for an end to hatred, bullying, discrimination, and other violations. But winning political, legislative, and cultural battles will not erase hatred from our planet.
Only love has the power to do that.
Love does not see the “other” as an object to be caricaturized or categorized. Love sees the other as one of deep value, whether or not there is shared agreement on all topics or even when violence and injustice is inflicted. For some of us, hearing the story of Jesus provides an image of such love, when he is unjustly condemned to death and then nailed to a Roman cross to die, yet prays that his killers would be forgiven because they didn’t know what they were doing. NOH8.
The NOH8 folks have graphically illustrated a profound truth: Hatred seeks to silence its detractors. Hatred wants to duct tape any mouth that would speak with a different voice. We humans all run the risk of committing that crime. History shows us that, quite often, the oppressed later become oppressors and the persecuted become the persecutors. It’s an ugly reality, and it isn’t going to go away. All people carry a role of duct tape in their pockets. Not all will use it, but it’s there just in case.
Love, however, doesn’t seek to silence others. Someone has said that love is patient and kind, not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude; love doesn’t have to have its own way and doesn’t cheer when others fall, but rather celebrates when things are truthful.
I think that NOH8 is a clever title, and the 30,000-plus photos of people with their mouths taped shut is a creative visual reminder of how oppression works. But I’d like to see if someone could come up with something like that regarding love. Not sure what that would look like.
On this day after the overturning of The Defense of Marriage Act, I’ve been doing a bit of reading about the “No Hate” (cleverly abbreviated as NOH8) Campaign. Here’s what the website declares as its mission statement:
“The NOH8 Campaign is a charitable organization whose mission is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest.”
The campaign illustrates its mission through over 30,000 photographs of people—many of celebrities or politicians—with duct tape over their mouths, symbolizing the silencing of their voices when Proposition 8 was passed in California.
I’ve been thinking about NOH8’s mission statement. I understand the arguments for marriage equality (meaning that marriage should not be limited to one man and one woman. We still seem to deny such equality to underage people, so the opportunity is not entirely equal to all). I appreciate the call for human equality, if what that means is that all human beings are of equal value (of course, such equality shifts a bit based on one’s social status and net worth).
But the call for gender equality puzzles me. I’m just not sure how that works. There is a co-humanity that underlies gender, and a kind of gender equality exists between members of the same sex (as long as size doesn’t matter). I just don’t get how the male gender is equal to the female gender.
I’m all for equality of opportunity, voting rights, etc., when it comes to gender. But, when it comes to comparing women to men, I’m pretty sure that the parts are different (if memory serves). There is a difference of hormonal makeup between men and women. Woman can bear and give birth to children, while men are made to watch TV in their underwear while eating potato chips and drinking beer.
Equality is an important word. You can give me two cookies to eat, and I eat them. Then, even while the crumbs are still dangling from my lips, you can give me two more and I eat them also. Or, you can just give all four cookies at once and watch me eat like a starving pig. Either way, I have eaten four cookies. Two plus two clearly equals four.
But equality and value are not necessarily the same. A dollar bill is different than a stack of a hundred pennies, but the value is the same. A dollar bill has similarity to a hundred dollar bill, but they differ in value (yet neither is value-less).
I have to say that I’m a bit concerned about the movement to flatten all things out to something called equality. From what I’ve seen, if someone has a different view (not necessarily hateful, but just different) about marriage, for example, the word hate is applied to that person. Hate is not equal to love. There is no equality to be had. So is equality only to be found in unanimity of opinion? Does that unanimity equal non-hate? Does it equal love?
There was a notion about equality in Jesus’ day. Long ago, Moses had pushed against the dominant, tribal practices of retribution (as in, you steal my chicken, I kill your entire family) by directing people toward an equality of response: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Punishment and recompense needed to fit the violation.
But Jesus challenged that sense of reactive equality by insisting on an entirely different response to an offense, one that flew in the face of any sane person’s view of equality:
“But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” (Matthew 5:39-41)
Jesus’ words violated the dominant view of the culture. So was he a hater? I don’t think we would say that. Maybe those who espoused equality regarding retribution were the haters. But who makes that call? If the culture at large demands a particular point of view, isn’t anyone who speaks differently a hater? Who now defines hatred? Jesus was condemned to death on the basis of the claim that he was a hater—he hated God’s temple, he hated Caesar, he hated the status quo. They duct taped him to a cross to silence him.
In our time, it seems like disagreement and difference of opinion are tantamount to hatred. This worries me. I am all for standing against hatred. Hatred spawns violence, oppression, and murder. I am just concerned about categorizing any contrary views on a topic as hatred.
In fact, I may now be a hater just because I’m not sure that gender equality makes precise sense. I’d better go find some duct tape.
Okay, time for a break from reflective and devotional stuff, because there’s news that must be considered.
The High Court has struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
The Supreme Court has ruled (5-4) that DOMA (signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996), which defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” is unconstitutional.
Here’s my concern, and it’s not what you think it is.
My concern is about the word “one.” What if the limitation of having one spouse is also eliminated in the drive toward proper constitutionality? Is it possible that some form of polygamy will become normative?
I’m not thinking here about the impact on society as a whole. I’m thinking of the impact on me.
Given the opportunity, I don’t think I would go shopping for an additional wife. Some guys might find that to be a great idea, but they really need to stop and think about who is really in charge of their lives. It isn’t them. It’s their wives. Face facts. So, I don’t think it would be helpful for me to have more than one boss. I have enough trouble following orders as it is.
What I’m worried about is my wife bringing in an additional husband. You see, as I get older, I’m less interested in household chores. There are other things that I’d prefer to do, and I’m sure that this annoys my wife. So what if she marries an additional husband who will pick up my slack? What if things get competitive? And where will he sleep?
I suppose it could work out. He and I could become friends, I guess, realizing our solidarity in servitude. We could play two-person video games, go bowling, and even take up hunting. But what if a bromance began to blossom? How awkward would that be? Of course, a new definition of marriage would allow for that, since the three of us would be hitched already.
There’s probably not a lot of danger of this happening, really. My wife has put up with me for a very long time, and I’m betting that she’s not interested in housebreaking another roommate. It’s likely that my sole position in the family is fairly secure.
But maybe I’d better get out there and pull some weeds. It doesn’t hurt to play it safe.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . (Matthew 4:23-5:2)
For me, the gospeller Matthew is a master storyteller. My imagination opens up when I read Matthew’s account of Jesus, and I see in my mind the story as it comes to life, hopefully in a way that comes sort of close to where the author intended.
In the passage just before the one above, Jesus goes around making new friends and inviting them to journey with him—to follow him. Then, he immediately draws them into the work he has come to do—proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and healing the sick, both of which were signs of God’s present and future intentions for the world.
Once he sees crowds of people responding to his work (and why wouldn’t they?), he heads up the side of a mountain and his friends follow him there. At first it seems like a very private meeting, one that is separated from the drama of the crowds below, but then you get to the end of chapter seven and you find out that the people were all astonished at his teachings. Apparently Jesus’ words weren’t limited to just his twelve new friends. Maybe the side of the mountain served as his pulpit as he spoke to the crowds as they gathered below.
The words that Jesus speaks in the text that follows—what we call The Sermon on the Mount—are a message of reorientation. He knows that the people, by and large, come with a preset way of thinking about life, human relationships, God, justice, and so on, but that their mental lenses for looking at reality are flawed, marred by legalism, guilt, shame, misinterpretation, and tribal preferences. So he does quite of bit of “You have heard . . .” contrasted by “But I say to you . . .” stuff in his sermon.
This is kind of like what happened to the ancient Hebrew people when God, through Moses, rescued them from the Pharaoh’s grasp. They had spent generations as slaves in Egypt, and their identity was completely wrapped up in that categorization. When they are given the Law—not just the Ten Commandments, but the entire Levitical code with all of its rules about dietary restrictions, social relationships, worship, and justice—they find a new way to live together that is oriented toward God rather than toward Pharaoh, and it brings life to them.
But by Jesus’ day, that liberating, reorienting Law had become soul-breaking legalism, and he brings a fresh word to the people, revealing God’s intentions as they always had been. This is not a new kind of law that Jesus brings; it is a new and life-giving way to orient one’s life toward God.
I think that we who claim to follow Jesus need to revisit this business of reorientation every so often. I know that I do. It’s easy to get smug and decide that we’ve pretty much got things figured out and then quit thinking too deeply about whether we’re right or not. I think we need to hear Jesus say, “You have heard . . . but I say to you . . .” once in a while so that we remember that our confidence doesn’t come from getting everything right, but rather that it comes from following close to Jesus.
There are a lot of issues right now tearing the Christian church to pieces—like the place of gay people in the life of the church, immigration reform, economic justice, and how we closely we align our faith with our political preferences. Most of us engage in these conversations with perceptions of rightness that come out of our personal histories. We have made past decisions, we’ve studied, we’ve argued, and we’ve heard. We often believe that we’ve got it all right.
But maybe these difficult conversations are an opportunity for us to listen anew to the voice of Jesus say,
“. . . the world of work is the primary context for spirituality—for experiencing God, for obeying Jesus, for receiving the Spirit.”
(Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, 31).
My wife, Emily, and I grew up, at least from our early teens, in the same church. Ours was a church in the holiness tradition (it was really the only church I knew, having previously been only an episodic Lutheran and an occasional Presbyterian as I tagged along with my religiously uncertain parents), and there were plenty of colorful and unusual characters to be found there.
One rather ordinary and uncolorful character was a man named Chet Dexter (Chet was short for Chester). He and his wife were very kind people, committed both to Jesus and to our little church community. Chet always went out of his way to be nice to Emily, who often came to worship and youth group alone, her parents finding church in general not to their liking. Chet served for many years on the church board, sometimes voting no on an issue when everyone else voted yes, just in case he was representing someone in the church who would have an objection about repaving the parking lot or getting the brakes fixed on the church bus. Chet took our democratic process very seriously.
Chet was a working man, getting up early every morning to do a job that no longer exists in most places in the US. He was a milkman, delivering dairy products in little metal baskets to his customers all over town. Every so often I’d see Chet driving his white milk truck, wearing his white milkman uniform, making sure that cream and cheese and buttermilk arrived in a timely fashion on the appropriate doorsteps.
I liked Chet very much, but I never thought much about his significance in the world, until he died many years later and my wife and I attended his memorial service.
His adult grandson spoke lovingly, through tears, about how Grandpa Chet would teach his grandchildren to start the day with the Bible, prayer, and cup of coffee. They would sometimes stay at his house and get up when he rose to start his day, sitting on his lap as he read Scripture aloud, prayed with them, and gave them tiny sips of hot coffee. Then off he would go, leaving them to appreciate the relationship between God and caffeine.
The grandson also revealed that Chet kept a paper cup in his milk truck into which he would drop spare change from time to time. Then, when he heard about a young couple who had just had a baby and were scraping to make a living, or the husband who had been unable to work because of an injury, Chet would see to it that they got milk for the baby, and sour cream for their baked potatoes, and cottage cheese for a little protein. He would reach into his cup full of coins and pay for their deliveries from his own meager resources, making sure that his accounts balanced at the end of each day. I imagine that he left a few prayers on those porches as well, tucked in among the bottles and cardboard cartons.
I received an entirely new vision of good old Chet that day. Here was a man who was a faithful follower of Jesus every day, not just on Sundays. His spirituality was not only expressed in slapping on a suit and tie and showing up at church (at least three times a week, in that tradition), but also in the breaking of each new day, navigating the dawn-kissed streets of our town, visiting so many front porches, always attentive to the lives present in those little houses. Chet was like a town deacon, bringing the aroma of Christ to the world of life and work, the fragrance of Jesus hovering over the baskets delivered at the hand of this faithful Christian.
When I read the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews chapter eleven, my mind wants to make a slight change to the text:
“And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David, and Samuel, the prophets—and, of course, Chet Dexter.”
May this day of work be redeemed as it becomes, for all of us, the place where our life in Christ is both nurtured and expressed in a world that is broken, and yet deeply loved by God.
A recent post by Tony Jones (quoting Jamie Wright, who I was delighted to discover through Tony’s blog) has caused me to take a break from my Ordinary Time reflections in order to talk about sex, which in a way is a very ordinary topic (as my dad says, we’re all products of unskilled labor).
Tony wonders if maybe we Christians make too big a deal out of premarital sex. It happens a lot, he says, whether or not we think it should, and we shouldn’t relegate people who have had other sexual partners prior to marriage to the heap of damaged goods. Indeed, I would agree, we do need to think more deeply than we have in the past about redemption and new life and all that comes with following Jesus as new creatures. People shouldn’t have to wear Premarital Sex stickers on their foreheads for the rest of their lives.
Jamie, as she thinks about her sons, advocates for helping young people wait to have sex before marriage. As much as I agree with her, I get the difficulty in this conviction. Cultural pressures aside, we are asking kids to wait a decade or more beyond hitting puberty before they act on one of the most powerful hormonal forces that living creatures can experience.
I’ve also talked to folks who just think the whole conversation is silly. After all, it’s just sex. Big deal. Get over it. It doesn’t matter and people end up doing just fine, assuming they don’t get pregnant or get STDs or whatever. Outside of those common and inconvenient problems (which we now take care of, for the most part, with quick visits to a clinic), it’s just body parts having a good time. Right?
Well, if we say it doesn’t matter, that sex is only a physical release and doesn’t impact us in any other way, that sexuality is incidental to our humanity, then we’d better be right. Especially if we’re in a position to help people figure out how to live well, and if we are considered to be leaders of the Christian type. We’d really better be right.
If not, then we might be committing spiritual malpractice.
There are certain things that are incidental to our humanity, like eye color, physical characteristics, ethnicity, and even race. It’s not that those things are unimportant; it’s that they are not at the heart of who we are as human beings (some would argue against race or ethnicity being incidental, but I would say that both the biblical creation account and evolutionary biology would argue for the emergence of the human race from somewhere in north Africa, making our current racial diversity nothing more than multiple expressions coming from the same family tree).
Gender and sexuality, however, are not incidental to our humanity. They are essential to it. Our maleness and femaleness are not mere social constructs (although our roles often are). To be human as either male or female includes our differing body parts and hormonal chemistries. We can’t extricate our genders from our humanity and still be human. You can lose an appendage or start identifying with a different ethnic group and still retain your humanity, but gender remains essential to being human. And, by association, so does our sexuality.
In the movie Vanilla Sky, a desperate woman (played by Cameron Diaz) tells her cavalier sexual partner (played by Tom Cruise) that, while their ongoing and non-committal sexual relationship means very little to him, it means everything to her. She says,
“When you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise.”
I think that’s a profound theological statement. We need to think in new ways about the whole human person, the integration of body, soul, and mind. What we do with our bodies matters, and promises run deeper than mere words. And if a person makes a lot of bodily promises along the way, those promises will be carried into marriage someday (assuming the person actually gets married). That could be a lot of passengers in the marriage bed.
I have a friend who used to tell her young adolescent daughters that faithfulness to their future husbands begins right now. I think she was right about that. Faithfulness doesn’t just magically emerge on someone’s wedding day.
So, there you have it. I’m for people waiting to have sex until they join their lives with a partner in the expectation of lifelong faithfulness (we used to call that “marriage.” Can we still do that?).
On the other hand, we do need to help people who have danced with other partners, so to speak, to find healing and restoration in their lives, and not label another non-preferred violation as the “unforgiveable sin.”
And we’d better stop saying that things like sex don’t matter. Because our bodies do indeed make promises.
Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:1-4)
Every family has a bit of scandal in its history—a cousin abandoned her family and ran off with the milk man, an uncle took up counterfeiting and did time in Joliet, a great-great-grandfather stole horses for a living and got hanged in Tucson, and so on. Some folks in the lineage just seemed bound and determined to besmirch the family name, not caring what it would do to future generations.
But they’re probably not the first characters that come to mind when your kids want you to tell them a story. You wouldn’t start out with, “Well, did I ever tell you about your great-great-great-aunt Alice, who ran a whorehouse in Pittsburgh?” No, probably not.
However, that’s exactly what the psalmist does here. He warns everyone that he’s about to speak dark sayings, and that the intention is that these stories (or songs, in this case) will be passed on from generation to generation. It’s a scandalous family history of a people who had experienced the faithfulness and goodness of God, only to turn away from him over and over, suffering the consequences of their unfaithfulness, running back in sorrow, then doing it all over again. It’s a mess, really. And the psalmist wants the kids and the grandkids to hear it straight.
If I had been around when this Psalm was written, I probably would have suggested editing out the long list of national failures (maybe replacing them with the simple phrase, “Sure, there were mistakes along the way, but . . .”) and focusing on the deeds of derring-do, the grand successes, the amazing discoveries, and the profiles of piety. Now, that’s how you write a résumé.
The stories, however, were passed on, and they remain in our Scriptures. They aren’t just stories of an unfortunate past; they are stories that include us and speak to all of our possibilities. I can find myself in the ancient accounts of a people forgetting about God. I am confronted with my own amnesia when it comes to God’s goodness and provision in my life. I have way too many times where I have taken matters into my own hands and ordered God to the margins so that I could show him how things are done. I have dark sayings of my own.
It’s a good thing to recall where we’ve been and where we have the potential to go. When our confidence rests in ourselves, humility is usually abandoned, and we edit our memories. When our confidence rests in God, humility comes to life and we recognize who we really are and appreciate our potential for disaster. We have a shared family history that reminds us of that possibility.
I am comforted as I read the dark sayings of Psalm 78, because the story is not without redemption. There is faithfulness to be found, but it doesn’t come from our ancestors of the faith. It comes from God:
Yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them; often he restrained his anger, and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again. (38-39)
It might be difficult for us to remember who we are, but God remembers. I’m glad for that, but it should still cause us to tremble just a bit.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “Speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:36-50)
Simon the Pharisee doesn’t appear to have just a friendly interest in Jesus. He’s a bit suspicious about him, and his concerns crystalize when the scandalous woman shows up invited.
Wealthier citizens in that time would keep their homes open—at least the outside patios—so that people could drop in and pay their respects, get counsel, or beg for alms. Simon probably didn’t expect that a prostitute would show up. A whore would be the worst of the unclean sinners (right along with lepers), and someone as respectable and religiously correct as Simon wouldn’t want any of her sin to get on him (ritually or literally).
But Simon feels that it’s acceptable for him to be in the company of Jesus. Jesus might be a spurious prophet, but he’s a religious type, and Simon has a responsibility to make sure that newcomers to the work of religion get vetted.
It appears that the woman also feels that it’s acceptable for her to be with Jesus, but for different reasons. Somewhere along the way she has come to understand something deep about him, something that has changed her life. She has no need to approve or vet him. She has come to love him, as she has been loved.
Simon, of course, is scandalized that Jesus allows the woman to even come near him. Jesus might have scandalized Simon even further by not only affirming her devotion over that of the Pharisee’s, but also by declaring their common need for forgiveness. The idea that he would share such common ground with a prostitute must have troubled Simon. I wonder what he thought of Jesus’ prophetic powers when he heard that.
Jesus would eventually go on his way, his stomach satisfied, but the details of the meal forgotten. But he would not be able to forget the woman any time soon. The ointment that she poured on his feet—a perfume that was very likely a tool of her trade, a scent that she had been using to allure men to her bed—would stay with Jesus for quite some time. The aroma of forgiveness would emanate from him, maybe even to the moment of his death.
Simon didn’t want the woman’s sin anywhere near him. Jesus carried the woman’s touch to the cross.
As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it . . . (Luke 19:41)
One of the things that evangelical Protestants lack is geographical specificity. Other religious groups have centers: Roman Catholics have Rome; Orthodox Catholics have Constantinople; Muslims have Mecca; Jews have Jerusalem. Evangelical Protestants are, by and large, decentered. We have no holy city, no particular place of pilgrimage. Some might say, in a theological sense, that we are, as a scattered people, God’s own dwelling, and we need no earthly city to give us an identity.
So, it’s possible that Jesus occasionally stops and weeps over Rome, Constantinople, Mecca, and Jerusalem. It could be that those cities are occasionally washed in his tears.
And maybe he pauses now and again to weep over us.
In Luke’s story, right after Jesus’ time of weeping, he went into the Temple and chased out the moneychangers and sellers of animals intended for sacrifice. Yes, these people had turned the Temple courts into a religious strip mall, but they had also wiped out the purpose of those courts: To allow non-Jews to come close to the Temple and engage in worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In effect, the people of God were eliminating their witness to the world. They had closed their doors to those who should have drawn close to the light that Israel was created to be. They had divorced themselves from their very destiny.
I worry about this. Protestants emerged a few hundred years ago as ones seeking to reform a broken church. Evangelicals emerged later to give their lives to bearing witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now we’re seen by others as more about what we’re against than what we’re for. And I think that Jesus might be weeping.
Our so-called studies in apologetics (the tradition of defending the faith) is more combative than clarifying. Our relationships with people of other religious traditions involves much more accusation than it does mutual understanding. Our response to the surrounding culture, when it seems to offend us, is too often to hunker down and heighten our walls rather than to engage and try to see what God is doing.
I think I would rather have Jesus weeping over a holy city far, far away rather than weeping on me. But I suspect that we are drenched in his tears and don’t even know it. As painful as it might be, maybe Jesus will come along and clear out the rubbish and the drama from our Temple courts and remind us who we were meant to be as the people of God—a people who exist, not for themselves, but for the sake of the world.
If Jesus does that, will we repent and respond? Or will we haul him up on charges of heresy and nail him to a cross again? I don’t want to think too long on the answer to that question.
When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” (Luke 19:29-31)
There is some important symbolism going on with the colt in this story. It is a fairly young animal and has yet to be ridden or required to be a beast of burden. Just as the implements of worship in the temple were not given over to common use, so would the colt serve as a pure vessel that would carry Jesus into Jerusalem, where he would first be hailed as the Messiah, and then soon after sentenced to death and crucified.
The symbolism will continue later on when Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb that had never been occupied. Jesus was the first to be laid there.
It might be good for us to think about how Jesus occupies these new, unused places. We go to these kinds of places all the time. We enter into new phases of life, new jobs, new relationships, new challenges, and any number of other new things. We usually believe that we are receiving God’s guidance as we go. But do we think about God actually being present in those new places—even going before us there?
And what if the new place is not a good place? What if it is a self-destructive place?
Years ago a woman in my church told me her story. As a young girl, she had already suffered a number of painful, abusive experiences at the hands of people who should have been protecting her—including people in her church. At age thirteen she made a conscious decision to start drinking and to engage in a lifestyle that could easily lead to her destruction.
On the day that she made her decision, she informed God of her plan. She told me that she heard him say to her, “All right. I’ll go with you.”
She said that, in all the years of drinking heavily and partying hard, she never lost a sense of God’s presence. She didn’t claim to have his approval, but she felt that he had gone with her to this new, destructive place in her life, and had not abandoned her.
As a young adult, she entered into a recovery program and got sober. Her life found some level of harmony and she never lost the sense of God’s presence in her life. She still had a lot of emotional and psychological baggage, and she was aware of that. But she never ceased to marvel that God had not forsaken her, even in her darkest time.
I’ve thought a lot about her story over the years. I know people who have spiraled down into very damaging lifestyles and who were certain that God had turned his back on them. I’m not so sure that’s the case. I doubt that the sins we choose—whether out of deep pain, rebellion, or just plain stupidity—somehow catch God off guard. He’s pretty much seen it all.
The father in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) didn’t physically travel with his younger son on his journey to disaster, but in a way his love remained present to the son. And when the son came home, the father was fully prepared to receive him. His love was a continuum that preceded the son’s departure, followed him to the far off land, and gathered him home when he returned. In a very profound way, the heart of the father went with the son into a very dark place. The father’s love accompanied the son as he travelled to Hell.
I don’t recommend the choosing of new places in life that are destructive. Choosing Hell is very unwise. But when we go to those places, we might not be going alone.
Let your steadfast love become my comfort according to your promise to your servant.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your law is my delight.
Let the arrogant be put to shame, because they have subverted me with guile; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts. (Psalm 119:76-78)
It’s puzzling to imagine why someone would luxuriate in law. In our society, laws are important, and they serve as both protections and boundaries. They bring order and provide a basis for governance.
But laws, in general, do not bring us joy. They are just laws and are often subject to change. We’re glad they’re around, but we don’t really need to think about them all the time.
The psalmist, however, speaks of the Jewish Law lovingly and with devotion. The Law is portrayed as something that brings delight, something that draws the worshipper into meditation.
How can this be? Most of us have some idea of the ancient Jewish Law. It was formed around what we call the Ten Commandments, but there were also many other laws in the Old Testament pertaining to justice, dietary restrictions, and social interactions. We might see devotion to the Law as legalism, something we Christians believe has no hold on us. We see legalism as a bad deal.
But for the ancient Hebrew people, it was probably different. Their ancestors had come out of Egypt where they had been a slave population for generations. Their identity was wrapped up in oppression and servitude, confused and complicated by the religious mythologies of the Egyptians. The Law was, for them, not simply boundaries and restrictions—it was something that formed a new identity for them, an identity as a special people, loved by God, rescued by God, and gathered into a nation so that they would be the light of the world.
Jesus didn’t speak disparagingly about the Law. He said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) He summed up the entire Jewish Law and the declarations of the ancient prophets of Israel in one word: Love. Love for God, love for others. (Matthew 22:34-40) For followers of Jesus, true identity is found in that love.
People usually get in trouble when they base their identities in some other place or thing. If my identity is my work or my career, then I have to do everything I can to protect it. And when it goes away, I don’t know who I am anymore. If my identity is found in my loneliness, then medicating that pain is my highest priority. If my identity is in a past hurt, then I will forever try to nurture my pain, because without it, I am nothing.
But if my identity is in Jesus, as a broken person loved and redeemed by God, then those other sub-identities have no final hold on my life. Protectionism loses its power. Loneliness can no longer demand acts of adultery or promiscuity. Past offenses remain real, but they can no longer drag us back into a history that is no more, but must release us into a future that comes from the preferences of God.
Everyone has some kind of identity. Ours is in Jesus.
Let your mercy come to me, that I may live; for your love is my delight.
I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I promised you in marriage to one husband, to present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by its cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:1-4)
In Genesis chapter one, God creates human beings, “. . . in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” And ever since, it seems, we humans have been re-creating God.
It’s been done with statues and idols, stars and planets, pantheons and mythologies. We even do it with Jesus, seeing him as the kinder and gentler version of that crazy, violent, Old Testament God that Jesus called “Father.” Jesus can be reduced down to the low-hurdle version of God, the one who took the heat from the wrathful heavenly Father because of our sins, and now stays God’s hand lest he smite us for our rottenness, destroy of because of our total depravity.
Of course, we need to say that this isn’t right. We’re told in Scripture that, in Jesus, the fullness of God dwells, that he is the Word of God made flesh, that he is the very image of the invisible God. If we really want to know what God is like, then just look at Jesus.
Unless we reinvent Jesus as well.
We do this all the time, you know. Someone has a private revelation and swears that Jesus has given new and secret instructions, and everyone gathers on a hilltop waiting to be whisked away to glory. Others decide that there isn’t enough good work going on in the nation and the world, and they characterize Jesus as the embodiment of their political preferences, wrapping him in a national flag. We decide that he’ll heal everyone of their diseases if they’ll just believe rightly, and we turn him into a capricious wizard. We dismiss the idea that he’ll heal anyone and we make him the vice president of quality control for the American Medical Association.
It’s difficult to reinvent a person you actually know. We can know all about Jesus and project any number of new personalities onto him. But knowing him—really knowing him, as a real person—doesn’t allow for such projections. When Jesus is limited to our interpretations of him through our texts of Scripture, he can become valued and yet abstract to us; he can be one to be imitated, but not necessarily one to know and to follow.
I marvel at how often our appropriate response to the summons of Jesus is simply the acceptance of an invitation.
“Come unto me . . .”
“Come, follow me.”
I wonder, if in our constant struggle to know Jesus by crafting him into images of ourselves, we miss his invitation to come to him, to find rest, to learn new rhythms of living, and to dine with him at his table. We might be surprised at the others who are already gathered there, taking and eating, drinking and following, ones we would have never expected to be invited in the first place. Then we realize that it’s a wonder that even we received an invitation.
And in the midst of our surprise, we might really know Jesus.
As [Jesus] approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God. (Luke 18:35-43)
In some Christian circles, salvation is an act of precision. The requirements are often made clear—the prayer must be specific, the confession sufficiently sincere, the understanding adequately orthodox, the membership in the community of faith prompt and participative.
In the Bible, however, salvation is often quite a sloppy event. Jesus, in particular, who you think might know better, often brought healing to people and forgave their sins, getting in trouble with all the local religious stakeholders. Jesus didn’t seem overly concerned about religious specificity when it came to salvation.
The blind man had limited sensory resources. He must have heard about Jesus at some point, because he referred to him in a way that suggested prior knowledge. He couldn’t find his way to Jesus as he passed by, so he used his voice and called out. The only thing close to a confession of faith that the man could offer was an acknowledgement of Jesus’ kinship with the great Israelite king, David. The man’s only request was that he would regain his sight.
Luke doesn’t describe a scene that is heavy with process. There aren’t any interviews conducted, no theological exams, no huddles with Jesus and his disciples to see if the man is worthy of a healing touch. Jesus just does it. The man’s sight is restored faster than you can Tweet what you had for breakfast today.
There is, however, a qualifier. Jesus says that the man’s faith saved him, but he makes that declaration after he commands the healing to take place. The man had faith in Jesus, trusted him to be able to restore his life to him. Without sight, the man had become a helpless beggar. With his sight restored, he could re-enter the society that had marginalized him. He trusted that Jesus could do that for him. And it seems to have been enough.
It’s interesting that Jesus didn’t say, “Your faith has resulted in your eyes getting fixed.” Instead, he says that the man has been saved, he has been rescued. For the formerly blind man, salvation was not merely theological or positional or eschatological. It was existential. It had immediate effect in his life and would launch him into a whole world of restoration.
The man became a saved person because of his faith in Jesus, yet it was a faith that was not grounded in doctrines or creeds. For that matter, it wasn’t grounded in belief in Jesus’ death, resurrection, or any of the things that would happen later. It was grounded only in the person of Jesus, and in his authority to make all things right.
Our doctrines and creeds are important to us because, on this side of history, they tell us about our own story, a story that emerges from Scripture and the long-standing (and sometimes wrong-headed) traditions of the Christian Church. But untethered from the real person of Jesus—not just the memory of Jesus, but the true, living presence of Jesus—they’re just another set of religious boundaries, embraced not by faith, but by personal preference.
The formerly blind man and the people in the crowd had the right response to this act of healing. They glorified God and praised him. They seemed to understand right away that this was God at work through this wandering prophet named Jesus. If salvation came along, then God’s fingerprints had to be there.
[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)
This story that Jesus tells is usually seen as one that contrasts legalism and humility, and clearly that contrast is evident. But I’m seeing something in addition to that as I read this text on this morning in Ordinary Time.
I’m seeing solidarity.
The Pharisee has separated himself (“standing by himself”) from others in the Temple. He sees himself as one who is not part of the gathering of people in this Jewish place of worship (“I thank you that I am not like other people”). He does all the right things and he is not to be counted among the sinners, or so he thinks.
The tax collector also seems to be standing alone, but out of shame rather than out of arrogance. He addresses the reality of his life to God, and Jesus claims that the man goes to his home as one who is “justified”—a man changed from unrighteousness to righteousness, one who has been made right with God.
Jesus says that the Pharisee, however, did not find justification. The man claimed to be separate from his list of sinners, but he was wrong—he was one of them. In physically and legalistically isolating himself from those he believed stood outside of God’s favor, he had failed to realize that he, too, had missed the mark. He was actually standing in solidarity with those he had condemned.
Recognizing that solidarity allowed the tax collector to see himself honestly and cast himself before God’s grace and mercy, leaving the Temple as one who had been embraced by God. But he would still understand the truth about himself and his complicity with the rest of the world.
I think a lot these days about the issues that deeply impact and divide both the US church and the nation in general—issues like same-sex marriage and immigration reform. I wonder how the conversations would change if we in the church started, not with our own righteousness and justification, assuming that because we are heterosexual or because we enjoy citizenship because of an accident of birth, but with honest confession before God, that we are sinners on our knees before our merciful God.
It might be even better to do that while kneeling next to a gay couple and an undocumented worker and her family.
God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting. Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth. (Psalm 50:1-2)
I love to visit the eastern Sierras in California. The air is clean and the views are dramatic. The beauty is sometimes breathtaking, and it always seems to fill something within me that I didn’t know was empty.
I’ve hiked with friends in those mountains who would stop occasionally and declare their amazement at God’s handiwork. They see God’s fingerprints everywhere, and they have no doubt that they are witnessing the effects of the Creator’s artistic touch.
It doesn’t quite work that way for me. I look at the rugged mountains, the expansive valleys, the pristine lakes, the lovely and aromatic trees and shrubs, and I think about ancient earthquakes and volcanoes, massive glaciers and millennia of corrosive activity. I even imagine how people’s appreciation of the landscape would change if they were lost in those mountains and facing a cold and lonely night, with only bears to keep them company.
I used to be troubled at my apparent lack of theological reflection about God’s creative work in nature. I wondered if I was secretly and unconsciously an unbeliever (maybe some of my Reformed friends were right, and double predestination was a reality, and I was on the wrong side of election but didn’t know it!). Maybe one of my atheist friends could point out that I had discovered what had already been apparent to others—nature is just nature, and you can’t prove God by its wonder and beauty.
They’re probably right, those atheists. You really can’t prove God just by looking at nature. But here’s the catch: Isn’t it a wonder that we can stand in those places and be overwhelmed by something we identify as beauty? What is it within us that characterizes a rugged, ancient landscape as beautiful? Do the wild animals pause every so often to enjoy the amazing views? Or do they just function there, looking for something to eat and a place to sleep? We might understand how something huge and overwhelming would produce a feeling of awe, but how does beauty do that?
I may have trouble clearly identifying the effects of a glacier with the hand of God, but I’m coming to marvel at the fact that we all seem to have a capacity for beauty in the first place. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but my ability to appreciate things that are beautiful gives me pause.
I am troubled about the recent news stories surrounding the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) organization’s ruling to allow openly gay boys to become scouts, in effect overturning a ban on gay membership. There are two things that trouble me.
First, BSA is open to boys as young as seven years old (Cub Scouts). A boy can enter the ranks of the Boy Scouts at age eleven (that’s when I joined up). The levels of cognitive, social, moral, physical, and sexual development are all over the map when you get boys (girls also, but boys are my topic today) of varying ages together.
I get concerned when developmental labels are put on children while they are still in the process of developing. My guess is that most boys join the Boy Scouts (or move from the Cub program) at the younger ages of eligibility. I wonder how many 11-13 year olds have sufficiently moved through their developmental stages so that a label of sexual orientation can be placed on them?
I do not object, however, to the lifting of the ban. Young boys (and adolescents) are working through many complex developmental issues all at once. It seems appropriate to me to open membership to boys in general rather than attempting to encourage categorizations about sexual orientation that may be premature.
If there is a concern about sexual behavior among scouts, it would be a mistake to assume that having a ban on homosexual membership would stop that from happening in the first place. In his book Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis talks about the sexual domination of younger boys by the older boys in the boarding school where he lived. Boys get into these kinds of shenanigans all the time. It’s not a good thing, but it’s also not a new thing.
My other concern is about the very loud and vocal exodus out of the BSA by very conservative Christian groups. I am troubled when Christians extract themselves from the world and create competing organizations. I recognize that there are times when extraction may be appropriate, but I’m not convinced that this is one of those times.
The subtle message that leaks through the reaction to the BSA’s ruling is that there are certain kinds of people that are outside the scope of Christian ministry and care. Perhaps there is even the implication that there are people out there who stand outside the possibility of God’s redemptive love (unless, of course, that they get their acts together—can I please hear my Reformed friends reminding us, “By faith alone!”?) This is, in my view, a problematic message that is being given to the world.
Not all things that happen in our culture should be embraced—I get that. But there needs to be deeper reflection taking place than simply drawing a hasty line in the sand and creating competing subcultures that make Christians appear both irrelevant and ineffective.
[a personal note: I was only in the Boy Scouts for a year. But, to this day, I can quote the BSA oath and the 12-points of the Scout Law. I can’t remember where I left my car keys, but I remember all of that. I guess it’s an okay trade-off]
I once knew a man who told me that he had recently made a left turn from a parking lot and inadvertently crossed over a double yellow line. He then tearfully explained to his young son, who was in the car with him, that it was that type of thing that would send a person to Hell.
For this man, all infractions—including murder, theft, lying, and minor traffic violations—were sin, and sin is what sends a person to Hell.
In a way, he had a bit of a point. According to the Bible, sin is a general category that covers every act that is aimed away from the intentions of God. However, there are still differences. Murder and crossing a double yellow line, for example, have different consequences. They also differ in their fundamental nature.
Murder is a forbidden act in most societies. People groups might have different definitions for what differentiates murder from other forms of killing, but most would agree that the taking of a human life is essentially wrong.
There are other violations that are social in nature and subject to change. The man mentioned above might have made the same left turn the day before the lines were painted on the street and would not have seen himself barreling down the road to Perdition. There are certain social boundaries that we observe in human communities that are not universal in nature, but are functional (and sometimes arbitrary) and subject to change.
International borders are like that.
In the early 1800s, the western border of the US ended at the Rocky Mountains. Florida was Spanish territory. Much of the west and southwest belonged to Mexico. The border between Texas and Mexico was open until the 1930s. So a person could cross legally one day, and be in violation of the law the next.
I have spoken with people who insist that an undocumented worker (illegal immigrant, or whatever) stands outside of God’s favor and is in danger of eternal punishment on the basis of an unauthorized border crossing. After all, breaking the law is wrong and, therefore, sin. I’m sure that the people who hold this view never exceed the speed limits when they drive.
I’m happy to see a number of Christian leaders speaking responsibly in the current US work on immigration reform (see the “I Was a Stranger” challenge). I hope to see more Christians speaking with wisdom and theological sense into this issue. We US Christians need a lot of help in distinguishing between our partisan preferences and our call to be God’s people for the sake of the world. We also need help in our tendency to operate out of fear.
The challenge for we who follow Jesus is to act responsibly when it comes to social and political realities, but at the same time to remember that we stand in solidarity with all people, as co-humans made in the image of God. Our national boundaries are insufficient in defining people and separating them into categories that allow us to dismiss their humanity.