Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Work of Christmas

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
Luke 2:15-20

Like Mary, we should treasure the words of the story and ponder their meaning.

Unfortunately, if we do that, our peaceful holiday cheer will soon be displaced by a deep discomfort at the huge disconnect between the biblical message and our superficial adoption of it in our lives. Even before Jesus is born, in the messages brought by the angels to Zechariah and to Mary, Luke tells us that the baby will bring an unsettling message of social justice.

This year in America we will spend more than $450 billion on Christmas presents. In round numbers, that comes to $1,500 for every man, woman and child. What amazes me is that after I do the math, I am actually surprised that it isn’t higher.

What does that say about us as Christians?

In the fourth verse of her Christmas Carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Christina Rossetti writes,

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man, I would do my part;
yet  what can I give him; give my heart.

But the reality is that the vast majority of the people singing that carol are not poor. And we are capable of giving much more than a lamb. When we sing about giving him our hearts, it touches us deeply, but we are not really serious about it. If we were serious about it, then we would live differently.

We will never close the gap between our lives as they are, and our lives as we know they ought to be. And there will always be a disconnect between the message of Christmas and the way we live that out. But we can make a start.

This year our Christmas pageant closed with a wonderful poem by Howard Thurman, who was Dean of the Chapel at Boston University for many years and a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurman writes about what it means to take the Christmas message seriously. The poem is called, “The Work of Christmas.”

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
           To find the lost,
           To heal the broken,
           To feed the hungry
           To release the prisoners,
           To rebuild the nations,
           To bring peace among people,
           To make music in the heart.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Franklin Graham Is Wrong (Again)

Dr. Hawkins in her hijab
Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. 
Deuteronomy 6:4-9

When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment, he began with the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD your God is One. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."

Not surprisingly, he linked it to a verse from Leviticus (19:18), commanding that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The rabbis believed that the love of others was implicit in the love of God. You cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor.

For Jesus, this was the summary of the Torah: love God and love your neighbor.

I have been meditating on the great commandment while reading the story of Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins, an associate professor of political science at Wheaton College (this would be the Illinois Wheaton, not the Massachusetts Wheaton). She announced that during Advent she would be wearing a hijab as a sign of “embodied solidarity” with her Muslim sisters and brothers, and posted an explanatory note on Facebook in which she said that we all worship the same God.

She wrote:

I stand in human solidarity with my Muslim neighbor because we are formed of the same primordial clay, descendants of the same cradle of humankind--a cave in Sterkfontein, South Africa that I had the privilege to descend into to plumb the depths of our common humanity in 2014.

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

But as I tell my students, theoretical solidarity is not solidarity at all. Thus, beginning tonight, my solidarity has become embodied solidarity. 

It was a beautiful statement, but it elicited a punitive response from the college. Dr. Hawkins was placed on administrative leave, not for wearing the hijab, but for what they called “significant questions regarding the theological implications” of her action. “Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution’s faith foundations with integrity, compassion, and theological clarity,” the college declared in their public statement. “As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college’s evangelical Statement of Faith.”

Most prominent among those who took to social media to support the college and denounce professor Hawkins was Franklin Graham, who posted his response on Facebook:

Can you believe this Wheaton College professor who says she’s going to wear a hijab for the holidays this year to show solidarity with Islam? Shame on her! She said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Well she is absolutely wrong—she obviously doesn’t know her Bible and she doesn’t know Islam. The God of the Bible, has a Son named Jesus Christ. The god of Islam doesn’t have a son, and even the thought of that would be sacrilegious to Muslims. The God of the Bible sent His Son to earth to die in our place and save us from our sins. The god of Islam requires you to die for him to be sure that you’re going to heaven. That’s a huge difference—and there are many more examples! I’m thankful the school is dealing with this and has put this professor on administrative leave. Wheaton College is one of the premier evangelical universities in this country—and on top of that, my father Billy Graham and my mother graduated from Wheaton in 1943.

Many Christians understand Jesus very differently than Franklin Graham does. But he is right that what Christians believe about Jesus is very different from what Muslims believe. For Islam, Jesus was a prophet. For Christians, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Word of God incarnate.

But does that mean we believe in a different God?

If God is One, then we cannot believe in a different God. We may understand God differently. We may experience God differently. But God is One.

Telling Muslims that they do not worship the same God that Christians do is the same as telling them that they do not worship God at all. It is telling them that they worship something less. It is hard to imagine anything more insulting.


If the critical factor is what we believe about Jesus, then we would have to conclude that Jews also do not worship the same God.

And that would mean that the historical Jesus, the rabbi who kept the Sabbath and attended Synagogue, who was a devout and observant Jew, also believed in “a different God.”

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Are We Reading the Same Bible?

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Mark 1:14-15 (New Revised Standard Version)

I first learned those verses in the older Revised Standard Version, which said that Jesus came preaching “the Gospel of God,” and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

I interpreted that to mean three separate things:
1. He preached the Gospel.
2. He said that the Kingdom of God was at hand.
3. He called his listeners to repent and believe in the Gospel.

I assumed that the “Gospel” he called them to believe in was the story of his life and death and resurrection.

Of course, I was wrong. The Gospel is the Good News. And the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is among us. Jesus wasn’t saying three different things. He was preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God and calling his listeners to repent and believe it. That is the clear and unmistakable meaning of the text. I interpreted it differently because I brought prior assumptions to it.

My mistake was that I assumed that the Bible and the Gospel were about personal faith. I wasn’t completely wrong. The Bible has a lot to say about personal faith, but it has a lot more to say about social issues, about how we treat one another, about the meaning of justice, and especially about economic justice.

Jesus’ message was about the Kingdom of God. He invited his disciples to live in that strange place where the oppressed are set free, the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear, where the poor are lifted up and the mighty are cast down, where the hungry are fed and the naked are clothed, where enemies are loved and strangers are welcomed, where everyone has enough and no one has too much. 

But personal faith is always the popular favorite.

A recent study of Bible verses shared on the internet shows that the most shared verses are Proverbs 3:5-6, Philippians 4:6-7, Joshua 1:9, Romans 12:2, and Romans 15:13.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Proverbs 3:5-6

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:6-7

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”
Joshua 1:9

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Romans 12:2

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Romans 15:13

What is striking, though it probably should not be surprising, is that all of the popular verses are about personal faith. There is nothing wrong with that. We all need it. The chosen verses are all inspiring. Romans 12:2 has always been a personal favorite or mine. We all want “tidings of comfort and joy.” And that is an important part of the biblical message. But it is not the whole message. And it is not the center of the message. 

Sometimes when I listen to Christians say hurtful or vengeful or violent or selfish things in the name of their faith I cannot help wondering if we are reading the same Bible. Certainly they read the Bible differently. One suspects that it is possible to read all those verses about personal faith and come away with one’s prejudices unchallenged and one’s bigotry fully intact.

Friday, December 11, 2015

5 Things Jesus Says to Those Who Condemn LGBTQ Persons

Five Things Jesus Would Say to New Spring Church
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.
Matthew 17:14-18

A recent post from New Spring Church is titled “5 Things Jesus Says to the Gay Community.” Though the title sounds promising, the actual post is condemning. If anything, the initially soft tone and the deceptiveness of the article makes it even more damaging.

But I have a solution!

With just a few minor edits, I believe it is exactly what Jesus would say to those who persist in condemning and excluding LGBTQ persons from full participation in the life of the church.

I know. 

Jesus never said anything at all about LGBTQ issues. But bear with me. If “New Spring Church” can pretend, then so can we. 

And when we speculate about what Jesus might have said, we are always on safer ground when we tilt toward grace rather than judgment. So here we go: 

There is a lot of noise on the news and in public forums about gay marriage and traditional values. Everyone has an opinion on what’s right and what’s wrong. But what would Jesus say? How would Jesus address those who persist in the perverse exclusion and condemnation of LGBTQ persons? Do not let homophobia and bigotry possess you. You can repent and change. Looking through scripture, Jesus makes His thoughts fairly clear.

1. I love you.

Amidst the protest signs, yelling crowds and political referendums, the simple message of Jesus’ love for you is often drowned out. Never doubt that Jesus loves you more than you could ever know.

Jesus doesn’t just love a future version of you; He loves you exactly as you are right now. Jesus’ love for you has no prerequisites or requirements.

Even if you hate Him and deny his teachings, Jesus loves you and wants what is best for you.

Love is at the core of everything Jesus taught. Unfortunately, His message of love has been conveniently left out by many who would rather make a point than make a difference (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8-10; Romans 5:8; Psalm 86:15).

2. I understand rejection.

Jesus knows how it feels to be a social outcast.

You would think the religious leaders would have been His best friends, but they hated Him. They sought to kill Him and publicly shame Him any chance they had.

Eventually, the religious elite joined forces with local politicians and murdered Jesus in front of a cheering crowd.

Rejection hurts.

Jesus’ own family thought He was out of His mind; you probably understand how that feels. In Jesus’ greatest moment of need, His closest friends deserted Him.

You may feel rejected by society and the church right now, and that daily pressure takes a toll. Jesus understands.

His heart always breaks for the rejected and the outcast. Jesus wants to gather you in His arms and let you know that He loves you. You have a home with Jesus, you belong to Him and you are His child, even when you reject and condemn others. Even your bigotry cannot remove you from God’s love.

Don’t reject Him because He has not rejected you (Isaiah 53:3; Mark 3:20-21;Matthew 26:55-56; Matthew 27; Ezekiel 18:21-23).

3. I also was tempted.

Jesus was tempted in every way that we are tempted. He does not shame you or reject you because of your temptations and feelings. He understands your fearful temptation to reject others and deny their full personhood.

Some like to pretend they are perfect and never face any struggles, but they’re lying. Jesus really was perfect and still faced temptation. Like you, He battled the desire to run away from His Father’s plan.

He understands what you are going through.

If you read about His life, you will see it was no cake walk, but if you will walk with Him and obey Him, you will find a greater reward than you could ever imagine (Hebrews 4:15-16; Hebrews 2:17-18; Hebrews 12:2-3, 7-11).

4. I want more for you.

God created marriage and sex for your enjoyment. Sex was created to bind us together within the covenant of marriage, and it has been that way from the beginning. Anything else is less than what God wants.

Sin is separation; from God, from one another, and from our best selves. Jesus will not stop bringing it to our attention because we will miss out on the deepest experiences in life if sin is left unaddressed. You may think Jesus is trying to take the one thing you enjoy or spoil your fun, but that is not the case. The reason He blessed our love for one another is because He wants what is best for you. Love overcomes our separation.

Jesus wants everyone to be included. When you reject your LGBTQ sisters and brothers, you are rejecting Him.

Ignore the political arguments, the protestors and the yelling. Jesus wants you to trust Him.

Trust that He has good things in store for you. Trust that He wants what is best for you. Before you decide that what you feel is right, decide if you trust Him (Matthew 19:4-6; Ephesians 3:17-21; 1 Timothy 2:4).

5. I will be here for you.

You may disagree with Jesus’ thoughts on love and commitment, but He will not turn away from you.

You may enjoy the life you live right now, even if it is a rejection of God’s love and Jesus’ teachings. Jesus understands your hesitation to make changes. He does not give up on us.

For a long time now, people have disagreed with Him, yelled at Him and run from Him, and He patiently waits. Jesus is patient with us because He wants you to know Him.

Jesus wants you to live a life that is full and abundant. When you are worn out from doing things your way, He will be here. Turn to Him and ask for help, and He will be there before you can blink.

Jesus wants what is best for you, and He wants you to experience a full life.

Jesus is not concerned with winning an argument or forcing you to do something you don’t want to do. Jesus wants you to know that your relationship with Him is better than anything else out there.

Until you reach that point, He will be here patiently drawing you to Himself (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Peter 5:7; Hosea 14).

Friday, December 4, 2015

Handel's Messiah and the Killing in San Bernardino

What then are we to say about these things? 
If God is for us, who can be against us? 
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:31, 35, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? 

After the shooting in San Bernardino, which was the second mass shooting of that day, what can we say? How does our faith speak to such horrific events?

Last Sunday afternoon I attended a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” by the Rhode Island Civic Chorale and Orchestra at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Newport.

It was the complete “Messiah,” not a selection of “favorites” pretending to be the real thing. So it was long. Two and a half hours. But it was wonderful. Elaine, who sings in the chorus, had told me repeatedly that I did not have to go just because she was singing, and afterward she inquired anxiously how I had endured. “What’s not to like,” I answered. “It begins with Isaiah and ends with Paul. What could be better?”

And then we talked about the individual pieces and the movement through the scriptures. Those verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans provide the text for one of my favorite pieces.

Our conversation moved from the verses in Romans back to the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which is the theological and emotional center of the oratorio. I told Elaine that I found it incredibly moving when everyone stood and the chorus sang, “For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth . . . Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

If you ask me what I believe about the resurrection, I will tell you that I am long past anything that sounds like a resuscitated corpse or a flying body. I don’t think Jesus popped out of the grave like a groundhog on February second. And a close examination of the Gospel accounts reveals an understated sense of mystery that is somewhat at odds with our tendency toward an Easter Sunday extravaganza.

There is a sense in which the “Hallelujah Chorus” does not fit very well with my theology. 

I was well into what might have been a long dissertation on this when Elaine interrupted my reflection to say, “Yes . . . but it’s true!”

Of course, that’s the point. It is moving because it is true. 

Fifty years ago this past spring, at the conclusion of the march from Selma to Montgomery, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the State Capitol. Recognizing the frustration of the long struggle for civil rights, he drew on the poetry of James Russell Lowell and William Cullen Bryant, and a sermon by Theodore Parker, to preach about the meaning of resurrection:

I know you are asking today, "How long will it take?" (Speak, sir) Somebody’s asking, "How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?" Somebody’s asking, "When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?" Somebody’s asking, "When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, (Speak, speak, speak) plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, (Speak) and truth bear it?" (Yes, sir) 

I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, (Yes, sir) however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, (No sir) because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." (Yes, sir) 

How long? Not long, (Yes, sir) because "no lie can live forever." (Yes, sir) 
How long? Not long, (All right. How long) because "you shall reap what you sow." (Yes, sir) 
How long? (How long?) Not long: (Not long) 

Truth forever on the scaffold, (Speak) 
Wrong forever on the throne, (Yes, sir) 
Yet that scaffold sways the future, (Yes, sir) 
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, 
Keeping watch above his own. 
How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (Yes, sir)

Handel’s “Messiah” is about faith in its simplest form. It does not focus on social justice as Jesus did. But without that faith it is hard to sustain the struggle for justice and peace. We are always proclaiming Easter in a Good Friday world. 

And our faith is that Easter has the power to transform Good Friday. We don’t yet have the answers to gun violence. But we will. And we don’t yet know how to prevent terrorism. But we will. 

Until the kingdoms of this world
have become the kingdom of God
and he shall reign
forever and ever.
Revelation 11:15