Monday, September 30, 2013

How far did that apple fall?

While studying John Calvin in seminary, I realized that, as much as I respect him as a reformer, a scholar, etc, I don’t think we would get along. I think it’s likely that few Presbyterians would get along with the man who is credited with starting, not just our denomination, but the spiritual, theological and organizational movement that birthed many current denominations. Times have changed, and his autocratic leadership style, while very effective in 16th century Geneva, generally only works in cults or churches on the fundamentalist fringe. 

We wouldn’t like him today; we wouldn’t feel that he was one of us. Most likely, he wouldn’t like us ether.

The same is probably true of the Apostle Paul. Probably the most important figure in Christian history behind Jesus himself, it seems Paul could be hard to get along with. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons we never see him settling down anywhere. Of course, he had a mission, and a passion for that mission, and it’s possible that his mission was the one and only driving force behind the fact that the only thing that ever kept him in one place was prison. But Paul might have been a difficult person, who wore on people if he stayed around too long. He might have been like Steve Jobs- a brilliant, driven, creative world-changer, but kind of a jerk sometimes.

If he were around today, we might not like the guy that some people credit with the foundation of our faith. He might not like us either.

What about Jesus? As much as we might like to think of him as a laid-back, rock-star handsome white guy in a robe and sandals who only ever got angry once, that’s not who he was. He was also a man on a mission— an austere, laser-focused, anti-materialistic nomad on a collision course with the status quo and the powers that be. “Give it all away and follow me,” he told the young rich man, and when the young man went away sad, Jesus let him go. 

Sometimes almost incapable of giving a direct answer, other times calling people out publicly (including his best friends- “get behind me Satan!) for their attitudes and actions, it must have been very exciting and kind of scary to hang out with him. He went to the Temple, but didn’t care about who was in charge. I don’t think many pastors would like him visiting their church, pointing out hypocrisy and delivering his own message, even though there’s a well-planned and publicized sermon series already going on.

I don’t know that we would like Jesus if he showed up. I know he would love us, but would he like us?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

And just how does "Love Win?"

Last night at the "Love Wins" study at First Pres, we looked at chapter 3, which is about hell. It's an impossible topic for an hour-long study, but we did pretty well. There were, however, a few nagging questions left hanging. I thought I'd attempt to address a few of these here. 

One of the verses we got a bit hung up on in relation to what Rob Bell has to say about hell was the one where Jesus says, "no one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14.6).

We always have to look at the context in which Jesus said anything, and in this case, it's Jesus’ last supper with his disciples in chapters 13 and 14 of John’s Gospel. 

There are interesting statements throughout this narrative. For instance, after Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, he is teaching them about serving each other and about his imminent betrayal, when he says “Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (John 13.20). It seems to refer directly to verse 16, where in encouraging them to follow his example of serving those society would deem “beneath them,” he says “Very truly, I tell you, servants (slaves, actually) are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” On a few occasions in this passage, he uses circular statements like “if you receive my messenger, you’ve received me; and if you receive me, you’ll receive my messenger.” There are strong themes of unity and love — Jesus’ love for the disciples (13.1), the disciples loving each other (3.34-35) and the disciples loving Jesus, which shows up as obedience (4.15). 

There are other circular statements that emphasize unity and love between Jesus, his disciples and the Father, like “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them” (4.21). 

The verse in question is Jesus’ response to a question. Jesus is talking about how he is going to leave them and then come back to them, somehow preparing a place for them “in my Father’s house,” so that they can be together. “And you know the way to the place where I am going,” he says in 4.4. “No we don’t; how could we?” says Thomas, to which Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (4.6-7). 

First, Jesus does not mention heaven. In spite of that, when he says “my Father’s house,” it’s not impossible that he was referring a celestial dwelling place (remember the ancient Hebrews believed that God lived above the sky), but I haven’t been able to find another instance in the Bible of the phrase being used in that way. He could have meant the Temple in Jerusalem (see where Jesus calls the Temple “my Father’s house” in Luke 2.49 and John 2.16). But I think a third option is even more likely. Biblical usage of the phrase “father’s house” most commonly refers to one’s family, or extended family. See King David’s statement in 1 Chron. 28.4 for a great example, or where Jesus uses it that way in the parable he’s telling in Luke 16.27. In that sense, “my Father’s house” refers to all those who are connected to you because of the relationship they share with one Father, or a common ancestor. This fits very well with the larger themes of connection and unity in the passage, and makes the most sense in context. 

In that light, look again at Jesus’ full statement (not a small part of it): “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Jesus is talking very specifically about the way to “his Father’s house,” or the extended family of people who are connected because of their relationship to the Father. He has revealed the nature of this family in his own life and teaching (“you [already] know the way,” 4.4). Beyond that, he is so identified with the Father, that he could say, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (4.7), and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (4.9). 

When Jesus claims that he is the way to the Father, indeed, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” I don’t believe he is creating an image of himself as a divine bouncer, determining who gets in and who is kept out. Instead, Jesus has come to show who the Father is, what it means to be part of that family, and what is the life that is worth living. If you follow that way—the way of Jesus—you have found God’s way. Likewise, in Jesus’ circular style, if you follow God's way, you have found the way of Jesus. If you follow Jesus’ way, you have found your way to “his Father’s house,” God’s family; if you follow the way of God’s family, you have found Jesus’ way, characterized here as the way of love, unity, selfless service and obedience.

Additionally, this doesn’t happen in another time and another place, or after death. Jesus goes on in this same narrative to promise the gift of the Holy Spirit through which the disciples will again know the presence of Jesus. He's telling them that, in their lifetime, “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (4.23). The “place” that Jesus is preparing is not in another place at all. It is rather a way of being in relation to God and others that was to exist in the location and lifetime of the disciples to whom he was speaking. Indeed, it already existed in that the disciples already knew both the way to the Father, the way of the Father, and the Father himself, by knowing Jesus. And it would exist in an even more complete sense a few weeks later with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The traditional understanding of entering into a relationship with God by saying a sinner’s prayer and accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior, by which one is then guaranteed a place in an other-worldly heaven after death, does not flow from this passage in particular, or from Jesus’ life and teaching in general. To use "no one comes to the Father except through me" to advocate that non-Christians will be sent into never-ending torment after death can only be done by removing Jesus' words from their context and placing them in another that I don't find in the Bible.

"Love Wins," in this case, because Jesus was throwing open the way to the Father's house. The way was the way of love and sacrificial service—the way of Jesus. As he said in the same passage (3.35), "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Are there some who do not find their way to the Father's house? Rob Bell would argue that this is a choice some people make, and that's where hell comes into the picture. More later...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

a bit more on race...

I should probably mention, given yesterday's post, that I don't recall ever having suffered from racism directed at me. Even living in a small rural town in India for five years, I don't think I experienced discrimination due to the color of my skin or my ethnicity. I got stared at a lot, but I don't think that was racism. There is discrimination against Christians in India, but even though I was involved with local Christian groups, I kept a low profile and didn't feel that I was being scrutinized. I do, however, know of Christians there who have suffered discrimination and violence.

One of the reasons I'm aware and concerned about issues of racism, and this year's Miss America pageant in particular, is because Shalini, my wife of 25 years, is Indian, born and raised in India, now a US citizen. My biracial children, both born in the US, spent a significant part of their childhood in India, and are very close with our extended Indian family.

While my family and I have never really suffered due to the racism of others, I'm concerned because I think things will only change when people step up who are not from oppressed minorities.

I saw a video yesterday in which a white man verbally abused a Muslim (possibly Arab or Iranian) woman on a public bus in Canada. The most troubling thing to me was not that there was one racist man; rather that not a single person on the bus stood up for the woman. They all acted as if nothing was happening, and by doing nothing, they all gave their quiet approval. The abuser went home empowered, thinking that the other passengers either agreed with him, or didn't care enough to do anything. The woman must have gone home feeling incredibly alone, alienated and unwelcome, despite the fact that no on on that bus was any more native to Canada than her. Their ancestors all emigrated at some point.

As long as we who do not suffer from racism directed at us do not speak and act positively against racism, it will persist. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Thinking about race

This past weekend, First Pres hosted Bruce Reyes-Chow, who’s authored a great book to help people think and talk about race and racism. He led a seminar on Saturday morning, and helped us to start that conversation in our congregation. Then on Sunday, he preached in our three morning worship services.

Interesting then, that when Nina Davaluri, an American of Indian descent, won the Miss America title on Sunday night, the headlines included the fact that “Twitter erupted” with racist comments. 

 First, we all know that there are and will always be ignorant folks. The difference between 2013 and 2003 is that now, ignorant folks have Twitter accounts to broadcast their opinions. Many of those who reacted negatively to Miss Davaluri’s win mistook her for an Arab or a Muslim. US Americans know very little about India, just as we know very little about most countries of the world. I don’t know, but I would assume that Miss Davaluri is Hindu (or at least by background, if not practice), as are most Indians. However, it is conceivable that a woman of Muslim heritage from India, Pakistan, Indonesia, or many other countries might have won the Miss America pageant. Ignorance of India, the world’s largest democracy and one of its oldest cultures is one thing. Hatred of Muslims in general, more than 23% of the world’s population, is something else altogether.

At least “mcshakes” got Miss Davaluri’s religion right, even if he (I assume) could only communicate his assumption so crudely. Either he believes that Hindus can’t be Americans, or he is an ignorant person with a Twitter account, or both. 

Beyond the multitude of generally ignorant tweets though, are some truly disturbing ones:

Fox News commentator Todd Starnes ( probably does not consider himself or his tweet racist. Now I didn’t watch the show, so Miss Kansas Theresa Vail may have detailed generations of her family’s ties to the USA, or she might be the child of Irish immigrants. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Mr. Starnes isn’t concerned about how long ago her ancestors immigrated to this country (which they certainly did, at some point). 

I think he’s probably more in line with “Kansas Cowgirl,” who points to Vail's military service, her love of hunting and her tattoos (since when?!) as evidence that she’s the “real Miss America.” The explicit assumption here is that Miss Vail’s interests, activities and body art are more “American” than Miss Davaluri’s proficiency in Indian dance styles, her educational pursuits and goal of attending medical school. 

Could that honestly be the basis of their preference for Miss Kansas over Miss New York? They don't mention Miss Vail’s blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin, but I have a strong suspicion that neither would have responded in the same way had another white woman been chosen over Miss Kansas, even if the hypothetical winner’s interests and pursuits were the same as Miss Davaluri’s. I doubt they would have minded a white woman performing a piece from Romeo and Juliet, by Russian ballet masters Prokofiev and Lavrovsky. But what, really, is the difference between that and Davaluri's Bollywood dance? Both are equally “foreign,” but ballet is more associated with white culture, even if the white people are from Eastern Europe. 

What’s troubling to me here is that, both to the ignorant tweeters and Miss Davaluri’s more educated detractors, “American” still means “white.” Also, for too many, “American” also means “Christian,” but not any kind of Christianity that I want to be associated with- one that hates because of a person’s ethnicity, religion and cultural heritage. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

violent god?

This morning I read a troublesome chapter in the Old Testament- Numbers 16. It's one of those chapters that some use to argue that God is not good (check here for a long list of verses collected to prove that the Bible promotes violence and a violent god).

In Numbers 16, Moses not only stands between the living and the dead to stop a plague- he stands between the people and God to save them from God's fatal anger. On first reading, it's hard to see anything but an objectionable theology here. God is vindictive, arbitrary and unimaginably violent. The people are wrong, yes. But kill them all? The worst tyrants in the world don't go that far. The conservative theology of my background does not allow the consideration that this is a primitive view of God; only that it's true, and that we have to fit it into our theological picture somehow.

In verses 32, the earth opens up and "swallowed them and their households, and all those associated with Korah, together with their possessions." There were innocent children in that group- how could God do such a thing? But if we keep reading, verse 33 says "They went down alive into the realm of the dead..." Ancient Hebrews believed that the realm of the dead was not far below the surface of the earth, and that once buried, the dead passed down into a shadowy world of some kind of greatly diminished existence. In Psalm 6, King David, arguing that God should save him from death, says, "For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who can give you praise?

While there is no great consensus on exactly what happens after death, most of us agree that shadowy figures aren't wandering around a few feet below the surface. In Numbers 16, as in much (possibly all) of the Old Testament, the Bible presents a primitive view of the afterlife. I think it makes sense to allow that logic to apply to the view of God that we see in Numbers 16 as well. The presentation of God as unimaginably violent, vindictive and arbitrary reflects an ancient view of God that most of us don't hold any more. We have learned, particularly through the life and teaching of Christ, to see God through a different lens- one that emphasizes God's love and grace, and God's desire to reconcile the people of the world rather than destroy them for their sin. As I read the Old Testament, I see this progression already taking place in the ministry of the prophets.

Those who insist that the reading must be taken literally are forced to fit this violent God into their theology. I would suggest that those who accept that view of God are far more likely to accept violence as a legitimate option for dealing with our problems. If we can accept that Numbers 16 shows us a primitive view of God, then we are free to see what else we might learn from the passage, such as the leadership principles that we see in Moses (huge), the importance of unity, and the fact that God takes the choices we make seriously.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

tradition vs. convention

I'm way over my head in insightful reading since I'm studying classics of Christian spirituality for my D.Min. course. But this one is too good to leave in my notes.

Thomas Merton wrote No Man Is An Island, where you'll find this bit on tradition vs. convention:

Convention and tradition may seem on the surface to be much the same thing.  But this superficial resemblance only makes conventionalism all the more harmful.  In actual fact, conventions are the death of real traditions as they are of all real life.  They are parasites which attach themselves to the living organism of tradition and devour all its reality, turning it into a hollow formality.

Tradition is living and active, but convention is passive and dead.  Tradition does not form us automatically:  we have to work to understand it.  Convention is accepted passively, as a matter of routine.  Therefore convention easily becomes an evasion of reality.  It offers us only pretended ways of solving the problems of living–a system of gestures and formalities.  

Tradition really teaches us to live and shows us how to take full responsibility for our own lives.  Thus tradition is often flatly opposed to what is ordinary, to what is mere routine.  But convention, which is a mere repetition of familiar routines, follows the line of least resistance.  One goes through an act, without trying to understand the meaning of it all, merely because everyone else does the same. 

Tradition, which is always old, is at the same time ever new because it is always reviving–born again in each new generation, to be lived and applied in a new and particular way.  Convention is simply the ossification of social customs.  The activities of conventional people are merely excuses for not acting in a more integrally human way.  Tradition nourishes the life of the spirit; convention merely disguises its inner decay.

Finally, tradition is creative.  Always original, it always opens out new horizons for an old journey. Convention, on the other hand, is completely unoriginal.  It is slavish imitation.  It is closed in upon itself and leads to complete sterility.

Tradition teaches us how to love, because it develops and expands our powers, and shows us how to give ourselves to the world in which we live, in return for all that we have received from it. Convention breeds nothing but anxiety and fear.  It cuts us off from the sources of all inspiration.  It ruins our productivity.  It locks us up within a prison of frustrated effort.  It is, in the end, only the mask for futility and despair. Nothing could be better than for a monk to live and grow up in his monastic tradition, and nothing could be more fatal than for him to spend his life tangled in a web of monastic conventions.

What has been said here of the monastic orders applies even more strongly to some other forms of religious life in which tradition is less strong and convention can more easily hold sway.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

more christmas music and stephen colbert

I forgot one of my all-time favorites in my last post- the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi is always in our regular rotation.

I usually can't stay up long enough these days to watch Stewart and Colbert, and then usually forget to catch them later online, but thanks to Tony Jones, I got to enjoy this one, and wanted to post it here as well.

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