Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Lamp to My Feet and a Light to My Path

I do not turn away from your ordinances,
for you have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119:102-105
This morning as I was sitting in a coffee shop reading The New York Times on line, I could hear occasional phrases from the conversation of two young men sitting in a booth across the room.

On the table, they each had open Bibles. The young man with the larger Bible was teaching the young man with the smaller Bible. I have seen him in the coffee shop many times; always with his Bible; always teaching another young man.

This should make me glad. What could be better than two young people contemplating what I believe to be the most important book ever written?

For the last several weeks I have spent an hour on Mondays and Tuesdays with Pastor Carol Reale teaching two Confirmation classes. We have spent a lot of time sitting around the table, with our Bibles open, engaged in earnest conversation. And I love it. I love the questions and the insights and the seriousness of our kids. And I want them to love the Bible.

But as I stole a sideways glance at the young men, I felt uneasy.

Part of my uneasiness was because I stereotyped them in the same way that other more secular people stereotype all (or most, or some) Christians. But another part of my uneasiness was because I could tell (am I really certain?) what they were doing. They were not reading the stories; they were picking out the verses. And the man with the larger Bible was explaining what each verse meant. He was connecting a verse in one book to a verse in another to show how they reinforce each other and make the same point. The method is called “proof-texting.” One begins with an assertion and then “proves” it with a Bible verse. Then, building on the first assertion, the argument moves on to ad another assertion “proven” by another text.

The problem with proof-texting is that it treats the Bible as if it were a set of propositions, or a rule book, or an instruction manual. And it approaches the biblical witness as if it were a puzzle to be solved; a hidden message waiting to be decoded.

The truth of the Bible is not in the verses; it is in the stories and the ideas. And it is not hidden. There is no secret to understanding the Bible, other than an openness to the spirit and the willingness to listen as it speaks. When we say that the Bible is true, we don’t mean that it is an accurate account of ancient history or an infallible alternative to modern science; we mean that it is true in our lives. The Bible is our story. It tells us who we are and to whom we belong.

It is dangerous to cast judgment on someone else’s spiritual practice or to question the direction of someone else’s journey. But when we proof-text, we miss the grand sweep of ideas. Instead of hearing a word of grace and hope that opens us to the wonder of God’s presence, we find ourselves in a cramped world of rules and demands that produces guilt rather than grace.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Left Behind

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray . . .”
Matthew 24:3-4

On Saturday, a little after 6:00 p.m., Tim Swartz sent me a text message asking, “R U still here?” Elaine and I were at Wesleyan University, celebrating my 40th college reunion. For better or worse, Wesleyan is one of the most secular places on the earth, so it was not surprising that the room was still full. The spirit of John Wesley lives on in the Wesleyan passion to “do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can,” but it is clothed in a secular faith.

My daughter, Carolyn, was visiting with my sister, Cheryl, in New York. They called my mother, believing that “if Grammie hasn’t been raptured, then no one has been raptured.”

Keith Sanzen and Mark Truman each said that the problem was one of spelling. We should be looking for a “raptor,” rather than a “rapture.” Keith was looking for dinosaurs and Mark was looking for hawks.

On Monday morning when I Googled “May 21,” I found several “Christian” web sites still proclaiming May 21 at 6:00 p.m. as the time of judgment. One site warned readers that if you talk to your pastor about this, it is “almost certain” that he will tell you that no one can know when the end of the world might come. This, they said, was due to a willful misinterpretation of Jesus’ declaration that “no one can know” when the end will come.

Like many of you, I have had a lot of fun with the rapture predictions over the last few days. And in many ways it was exactly that, harmless fun. But I have two serious responses to the good times.

First, I am concerned that there is way too much crazy in the world. It may seem harmless for folks to believe that Elvis is still alive and doubt that a man walked on the moon, but we seem to treat reality as an optional state of mind. We doubt things that are provable and observable, and have a strange attraction for ideas and theories with no basis in reality.

Second, the rapture idea is, for many people, just one more piece of evidence that Christians believe crazy things. The craziness diminishes all of us.

There have been many predictions of the rapture since William Miller predicted that the world would end in the 1840’s. The Millerites were disappointed to find themselves still here as the decade went on, but they continued to refine their calculations, convinced that the end was near. The idea of “the rapture” really took off with the “Left Behind” series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. They turned a small sectarian vision into an almost mainstream industry and made a fortune in the process.

One may wonder about the sincerity of folks who “lay up treasures on earth” that are almost beyond imagining by selling the idea that we are not long for this world and what really matters is our place in heaven, but they run a very successful business. The problem is that what they are selling is one more version of crazy, dressed up to look like Christian theology.

The great Methodist evangelist E. Stanley Jones was good friends with Mahatma Gandhi. Both men were often asked about the paradox of a friendship that transcended their deeply held religious convictions. Gandhi once explained, “I like your Christ, I just don’t like your Christians.” It is so often our Christian sisters and brothers who make Christianity look bad.

The theological liberalism which prevailed through the middle of the twentieth century left us with a faith which tended to be vague and bland. The rationalism of that era lacked passion, and it lacked the vibrancy that we want in a more biblically centered journey of faith. But looking back, we can now see how important it was to have a faith firmly grounded in reason.

For Methodists, reason and faith have always belonged together. This weekend reminded me again of the importance of that legacy.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sojourners and the Missing Video

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Jeremiah 31:31, 33-34

The Evangelical social justice movement, website and magazine, “Sojourners,” refused to run an ad from an LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender) advocacy group called “Believe Out Loud.” The video in question does not advocate for gay marriage or ordination, but only for inclusion in the church. It pictures two moms and their young son going into a church where they encounter many uncomfortable silent stares until the pastor speaks and welcomes them. The message says, “Open Your Heart . . . Break the Silence.” As a footnote, the ad was funded by the Collegiate Church of New York City, known to some of us as the preaching home of Norman Vincent Peale.

The ad is innocuous, but Sojourners declared that this was an issue on which they would not “take sides.” The obvious question would be how there can possibly be “sides” to welcoming people to worship. But they know, and we know, that the goal is not just to have everyone feel welcome at Sunday morning worship.

Sojourners sees itself as a broadly based evangelical coalition focused largely on issues of economic justice. They have spoken out prophetically against racism and war, and over the years they have been remarkably faithful to the biblical witness. Their coalition is built across the political and denominational spectrum. They have made an important witness.

In rejecting the ad, Sojourners explained that if they were to take sides on this issue, they would jeopardize their coalition on the broader issues of social justice. It’s not about prejudice, said Sojourners leader Jim Wallis, it’s about priorities.

As the country song says, “the secret of life is . . . keep your eye on the ball.”

As the great preacher Henry Hitt Crane said long ago, “Don’t major in the minors.”

That’s all good as far as it goes (and I am not going to criticize either Henry Hitt Crane or Gretchen Wilson) but haven’t we heard that before? Like about half a century ago, when the issue was segregation?

When I have testified at the State House in favor of gay marriage, opponents have consistently insisted that gay rights are not the same as civil rights. And they insist that Martin Luther King would never have supported gay marriage. But as James Russell Lowell wrote in that wonderful old hymn, “new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”

I never met Martin Luther King, but I knew two of his teachers very well. And I know that Paul Deats and Walter Muelder spent their final years advocating for gay rights.

Jim Wallis and the folks at Sojourners need to decide whether their goal is to maintain a political coalition, or to witness for the gospel. Sometimes you can’t do both.

I’m reminded of a Bob Dylan song:

Well, I rapped upon a house
With the U.S. flag upon display
I said, “Could you help me out
I got some friends down the way”
The man says, “Get out of here
I’ll tear you limb from limb”
I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”
He said, “You’re not Him

Monday, May 16, 2011

Where is Osama bin Laden?

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
Mark 9:42-48

Jesus was never shy about telling people where to go. For all his compassion, he did not suffer fools gladly. And there were times when he lost patience, even with his disciples.

In the passages preceding the declaration about the millstone and the worm and the unquenchable fire, we see the disciples listening to Jesus describing how he must go to Jerusalem even though it will mean his death. Showing a remarkable ability to miss the point entirely, they argue with each other about which one is the greatest. He tells them that they need to be “last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and in one of the best scenes in the Gospel, he took the child into his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me . . . welcomes the one who sent me.”

That beatific scene is followed closely by the millstone, the fire and the worm.

A week ago, when I was searching online for reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden, I came across a blog written by a woman who describes herself as an Evangelical Christian. Her comments caught my attention:

"On Sunday night as I was watching TV, my husband (who was on his computer) said, “Did you hear? Osama bin Laden is dead.” I quickly turned over to the news station to get the latest information. While I am glad that this man who has caused so much death and destruction will not be able to do so anymore, I am saddened that to our knowledge he did not come to know Christ as his Savior and will now spend eternity in hell."

Osama bin Laden will spend eternity in hell, not because he killed innocent men, women and children, apparently without regret, and sent countless others to their deaths on his command, but because he “did not come to know Christ as his Savior.”

On the other hand, if he had come to know Christ as his Savior, he would have gone to heaven. Believers are in, and non-believers are out. Believing in Jesus is your ticket to salvation; don’t leave this life without it!

For centuries, a significant line of Christian theology has held that belief in Jesus as the Christ was the one and only requirement for salvation. And conversely, many Christians have argued that the absence of belief was sufficient cause for a person to spend eternity in hell. So the “Evangelical” blogger is not alone.

In his recent book, “Love Wins,” Rob Bell has stirred a bitter backlash with his suggestion that no one is consigned to eternal torment. For many Christians, apparently, the only thing more precious than the blessed assurance that they are saved is the comfort they get from believing that others are damned.

Bell is accused of the heretical teaching that hell is not a real place. Actually, what he says is that in the time of Jesus, hell was a very specific place. The Greek word most often translated as hell is “Gehenna.” In biblical times, that was the name of a ravine outside of Jerusalem. Originally the site of pagan child sacrifice, in Jesus’ time it was a garbage dump. In Gehenna, the fires literally never went out. And wild dogs gnashed their teeth as they went through the garbage. There were some actions, said Jesus, for which one deserved to be treated like garbage.

According to a recent CNN poll, 61% of respondents think that Osama bin Laden is in hell. There was no indication as to how many thought his whereabouts had been determined by his failure to believe in Jesus and how many thought it was the result of his behavior. There was also no indication why anyone would think to conduct such a poll.

I don’t know where Osama bin Laden is. Rob Bell (and others) seem(s) to think that even after we die, in some way God continues to speak to our spirits. God does not give up.

I believe that we come from God and we go to God. Maybe sometimes it’s a long journey.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Common at the White House

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
Matthew 7:1-5

I don’t like rap music.

Some would say that I don’t understand it, but it doesn’t sound like music to me. I know that’s what older generations said about Rock ‘n Roll, but they were wrong, and that still doesn’t make rap music real music. And I know that there’s “rap” and there’s “hip hop” and I’m not sure whether they are like the Scribes and the Pharisees, two names for the same group, or like the Pharisees and Sadducees, two very different groups that are often confused. And I also know that if any of the kids in our Youth Group read this blog they will be convinced (as if they needed convincing) that I am just old.

All of that is by way of saying that I cannot help having some sympathy with the folks who said that Michelle Obama should not have invited Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr., the rapper known as “Common,” to the White House for a poetry festival.

Although Common is known to have a positive message, as least by rapper standards, he still has songs that are violent and misogynistic, and that is my real objection to rap music: the killing and the bad attitudes toward women.

At least that is what I say to myself and to others.

On the other hand, one of my favorite singers is the late Johnny Cash. I love Johnny Cash. And I believe that “Man in Black” is one of the most “Christian” songs I have ever heard. When I hear him sing about the poor and forgotten, it sounds like the Gospel to me. But have you ever heard “Folsom Prison Blues”?

When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die

How can you sing about shooting a man "just to watch him die"?

If you listen to the album recorded live at Folsom Prison, you hear a very dark vision of humanity. There is frailty and folly, and human evil. It is an uncensored view of the human heart. One of the songs performed at Folsom Prison is “Cocaine Blues,” which includes these brutal lines:

Early one mornin' while makin' the rounds
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my woman down
I went right home and I went to bed
I stuck that lovin' 44 beneath my head

He sings about murder, betrayal, and adultery, and yet in that dark vision there is a ray of light, which is revealed in the contrast. Oddly, the feeling one gets is more hope than despair. As you listen to the album, you hear a prison official interrupt every so often to announce the names of men who have “visitations,” and you are reminded that these are real people in a real place. It is brilliant. And when I listen to “Folsom Prison,” I am convinced that Johnny Cash was a genius.

When Johnny Cash was honored at the White House by President Bush in 2002, there was no criticism about the violence of his lyrics. There was nothing but praise for “The Man in Black.”

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

God and the King James Bible

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7

The King James Bible is four hundred years old this month.

The King James Version, also known as the “Authorized Version,” was not the first English translation. That honor belongs to William Tyndale, who produced an English translation in 1525. Unfortunately for Mr. Tyndale, his understanding of the biblical perspective on divorce did not suit Henry VIII, and the king settled the matter by arresting Tyndale for heresy and having him both strangled and burned at the stake. Apparently, when it comes to heresy you can’t be too harsh on the heretics.

The language of the KJV is spectacular. It has a poetic resonance which other translations simply cannot equal. Unfortunately, its poetry is not matched by its accuracy, and there are many passages where the original meaning is lost or obscured.

In John Wesley’s sermon, "On Charity," based on the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Letter to the Church in Corinth, he explains at great length that the Greek word agape, which in the King James Version is translated as “charity,” should really be translated as “love.” The mis-translation reduces Christ’s sacrificial love to a hand out.

The problems of accuracy are important (not to mention ironic) because many of those who treasure the King James Bible are also biblical literalists. The Bible they believe literally is known to be an inaccurate translation.

In a recent edition of “Word A Day,” editor Anu Garg celebrated the language of the King James Bible, but added a critical note:

If there's a god, I don't think he/she/it would care what book or which version (or any book) you read, or what name you addressed him/her/it with, or how many times in a day you bowed, or what direction you faced, or how many rituals you observed, or which animal was clean and which wasn't, or what day of the week you did what, or how many people you "saved".

Any entity worthy of being called a god would be above it all and would probably care more about how kind you were to others, and whether you left the world just a little bit better.

Sadly, we know that there are plenty of people who call themselves Christians for whom that criticism is completely valid. And they make all of us look foolish. But I want to respond in a different direction.

Just for the record, I don’t believe in “a god,” or an “entity worthy of being called a god,” or even in “a God.” I believe in the One who is revealed to Moses as the Ground of Being (Tillich’s phrase). A unity beyond our words and our understanding. The One who brings light out of darkness and life out of death. The one who is beyond every attempt to define or contain.

When the Samaritan woman met Jesus at the well, and asked him where the holiest place to worship God was, he said, “God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” God is not contained in words. As T.S. Eliot wrote:

Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still. Shrieking voices
Scolding, mocking, or merely chattering,
Always assail them.

Words, even the best and most poetic words, cannot hold the Spirit.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Sectarian Violence

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
I John 4:7-8

The headline was “Sectarian Violence.” And the dateline was Cairo.

I assumed it would be a story about Muslims attacking each other. But this time the violence is between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Two churches have been burned down and at least twelve people have been killed. The official body count is perfectly divided: six Muslims and six Christians.

Many Christians and some Muslims blame the confrontation on Salafi Muslims. The Salafis are Muslim traditionalists who are often apolitical, but also sometimes radical. In recent months it has been common to use “Salafi” as a generic label for Muslim extremists.

On the other side of the conflict, the Coptic Orthodox church traces its roots to New Testament times as one of the earliest organized churches. They comprise about ten percent of the Egyptian population.

One of the most troubling historical facts for those of us who identify ourselves as religious people is the persistence of sectarian violence. There are feuds and hatreds that last for centuries.

The violence in Cairo does not appear to be organized. Like many so-called religious conflicts, the real issues may be more economic than religious. In this case it may be more about one group of underemployed young men fighting with another group of underemployed young men, than about any larger political issues, and the religious allegiances are little more than convenient labels.

But we should not take great comfort in that observation. If religious affiliation is not the root cause, it is still a flashpoint. In discussing the Doctrine of Original Sin, Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that even the sublimest truth can be corrupted and misused. In fact, we can know that it will be corrupted. One can argue about whether religions should make claims of absolute truth. But if we do make those claims, then we must be careful about how we make them. If the absolute claims of religious truth are not understood in the context of love and tolerance, they can (and will) lead to violence.

The Bible is right. If we do not love one another, then we cannot love God.

Monday, May 2, 2011

On the Death of Osama Bin Laden

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”
Luke 6:27-33

I have been reflecting on our reaction to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

This is not an easy issue. And this is not a day when many Americans are meditating on Jesus’ commandment (it wasn’t just a suggestion) to love our enemies.

It is only human to want revenge. Jesus would not have had to teach us that retaliation is wrong if we naturally avoided it. It is not surprising that we would want revenge for the killings on 9/11.

H. L. Mencken made fun of the Puritans for their objections to “Bear baiting.” They were not bothered as much by the pain it caused the bear, he said, as by the enjoyment it gave to the spectators. But I believe the Puritans were onto something. I would be much more concerned than they were about the pain inflicted on the bear, but from a moral perspective, it is also wrong to take pleasure in the pain of another being.

And that is how I feel about the celebration of Bin Laden’s death. I have no sympathy for him, but I am uncomfortable with the celebration of his death.

On the one hand, we cannot help celebrating the skill and bravery of the Navy Seals who carried out the operation. It was an impressive achievement. They deserve our praise and admiration. We have to oppose evil. And there are times when that opposition must be translated into the use of force. On the other hand, this isn’t like winning an Olympic event. People died.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that he was called not just to resist Hitler’s theological grip on the German church, but also to stop him. To that end he joined in a secret assassination plot, and for that reason he was eventually arrested and imprisoned, and finally executed. He was convinced that he was walking in the path that faith required, and he had no regrets, but he also believe that killing, even killing a genocidal maniac like Hitler, was wrong.

He was doing the wrong thing for the right reason. If the plot had succeeded, his response would have been repentance rather than rejoicing.

In “Master’s of War,” Bob Dylan ends his bitter lament this way:

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand over your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead.

In the end, the real enemy is war itself. That is the casket we need to lower into the ground. And that is a death that even Jesus would celebrate.