Sunday, July 19, 2009

Save the Frogs

Isaiah 55:8 “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord."

I accidentally broke a frog the other day. The frog in question had hopped himself right up to my sunroom door, and I didn’t see him. The door opens out and when I opened it to let the dog out, the frog’s leg got caught under the door. He managed to free himself, but the leg was no longer doing what it should and he kept falling over, hopping sideways, or generally having issues. By the next day he was hopping a bit better around the yard, learning to compensate for a leg that didn’t work properly, and I thought maybe he’d make it. Perhaps he did make it, but the next morning my cat threw up a frog on the carpet, so I have my doubts.

For reasons known only to my peculiar brain chemistry, my lack of watchfulness in opening the door and the resulting injury made me think of the way we sometimes open the Bible. We open its pages with force and purpose, like God gave it to us solely to support our own agendas. We open it callously, throwing around its phrases without really listening to some of them or noticing that we have just torn the leg off of someone who had been hovering close by. We open it arrogantly, thinking that its contents are indisputably clear, and that those who view it differently are at best wrong and at worst outside of God’s mercy. We open it thinking that it is our book, rather than God’s book, our word rather than the Word of the Lord. In the name of the Bible, we wound others made in the image of God, leaving them vulnerable to other predators.

This has been on my mind because on July 5 I was out preaching for the Massachusetts Bible Society and delivered my “stump sermon” to some folks on Cape Cod. The essence of the sermon is the core MBS philosophy, “taking the Bible seriously but not literally.” Since we are now on Twitter, I came home and tweeted that message.

By the next morning my video introduction to MBS, which has been on our website over a year, was posted on a fundamentalist website and I was declared to be an enemy of the Gospel. The video on YouTube as of this morning has received 1086 hits with people calling me unchristian as well as others lending their support. As I told the folks at our anniversary dinner, I haven’t had such great publicity since Fred Phelps preached about me and called me Jezebel.

But the debate is not a minor one, or something to engage simply for sport. When I preached that “stump sermon” on Cape Cod, I got the same reaction that I have in other places—an outpouring of gratitude and a new enthusiasm for reading a book that many of those listening had put away on a shelf long ago.

When I give people permission to read the Bible in its historical context and with their brain in gear instead of swallowing every detail whole, they come up to me afterwards and tell me of the ways they were wounded by those who threw open the Bible without regard for those nearby--those who claimed absolute knowledge of the ways and truth of God and then used that “sword of the spirit” to cut them down. They tell me of being afraid of the Bible because of those who threatened hell if they should question a passage or interpretation. Last I checked God was the judge and not human beings.

We see through a glass, darkly Paul says. All of us. God warns through Isaiah that God neither thinks nor acts like we do (no exceptions for those who take the Bible literally). When we open the Bible, we should do so reverently, gingerly, prayerfully, humbly, and with all the faculties of reason and sense that God gave us. When we do that, no innocent creatures will be torn apart and our own faith will be both deepened and blessed. In the meantime, those of us at the Massachusetts Bible Society are working to develop some doorstoppers, so fewer lives are hobbled by those who unwittingly forget that God’s ways and thoughts are not ours.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court Considerations

John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

The process of selecting a Supreme Court justice, who serves on the bench for life, is critical to our nation’s health and stability. It’s one of those things we simply must get right. Maybe because the pressure to get it right is so great, we always seem to get a little crazy when that time comes around, although we’re not always crazy in the same way.

A couple of decades ago we wanted our justices to have no personal opinions at all. Then over the last decade it shifted and we insisted they have partisan preferences so they could qualify to replace either a liberal or conservative judge who came before them. Now there’s a new brand of craziness and people are questioning whether it is appropriate to look for a Supreme Court justice with empathy. Hello? Isn’t that the difference between administering the law and administering justice?

Because one of the main Scriptural metaphors for God is that of a judge, and because biblical leaders were also generally called upon as judges, people of faith have an interest in these matters—or should. The best-known Old Testament judgment is the case of the two women claiming to be the mother of a single baby, a case that was brought to King Solomon.

In a case hailed forever after as a sign of Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon uses his experience of a mother’s love to decide the case. He orders that the child be cut in half, with half a baby given to each. When one of the women cried out to spare the child and give it to the other woman, Solomon knew he had the real mother and gave the child to her. One example of empathy at work, resulting in justice.

We only see Jesus acting formally as a judge once, in the opening verses of John 8. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery (although oddly enough they could only manage to bring the woman and not the man for judgment) and the Pharisees bring her to Jesus to judge, reminding him that the punishment dictated by the law is death by stoning. Jesus makes his judgment based on his ability to connect with and understand people—empathy. More than that, he brings about justice by calling those present to empathize with the woman as well. They are all reminded of their own sins and only those who have no sin are allowed to administer what the law requires.

It works, and nobody throws the first stone. Then Jesus, arguably the only one there who could have thrown a stone under the rule, does not. He recognizes her sin and tells her to shape up. But he lets her go, as the Pharisees had obviously already let the man go. What Jesus continually objected to in the Pharisees was their lack of empathy in administering the law. They were legalists, caring only about the technicalities of the law and not the broader concerns of justice. They were concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The “Good News” of the New Testament is that our ultimate judge is Jesus and not the Pharisees. We get the guy with the empathy not the one with a literal interpretation of the law. There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about a potential judge, for the Supreme Court or otherwise; but if empathy becomes an impediment to someone's selection, we could easily become a nation of Pharisees, leaving us all in danger of being stoned to death.

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Just one more week

Next week...I promise SpiritWalkers will be back. Tomorrow is our big event for the Bible Society, and I had to preach this morning, so I'm wiped out. But I'll be back to whatever "normal" is next week.