Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Monday, November 17, 2008

If you're bored

Here's something I didn't write but wish I did.

Check out Noah's blog

Sunday, August 31, 2008

On God and Weather

Another selection from SpiritWalkers on the ridiculous battle between Focus on the Family columnist, Stuart Shepard, Hurricane Gustav, and the Republican convention.

Matthew 5:45b “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

I think one of my biggest hopes for the next administration, whoever might be at the helm, is that there will be a moratorium on giving the national microphone to religious nutcases. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (the early 1980’s in Rhode Island) I used to listen to the Focus on the Family radio show with Dr. James Dobson. Back then the show was about psychology, which is Dr. Dobson’s area of expertise, and it focused on applying psychological insights to family life. I actually used some of those insights throughout my ministry as I did pastoral counseling with distraught couples and families.

Sometime between 1980 and today, something went haywire and Dobson’s organization came to believe that what defines us as Christian is not our profession of faith or our baptism but rather the way we vote on certain issues. God apparently then went on sabbatical and left Dobson in charge of what those issues are. Just how far the esteemed doctor has come over these past decades was evident last week with the posting of a video on the Focus on the Family website by one of their columnists, Stuart Shepard. The video encouraged everyone to pray for torrential rain in Denver on the night of Obama’s acceptance speech in the outdoor Mile High Stadium—rain bad enough to make it impossible for the cameras to film or any but the most determined supporters to attend. It was so over the top that even Focus on the Family supporters complained and the site pulled the video. But of course it was first snagged for YouTube and you can watch it here:

Of course that night in Denver was as perfect as it gets, although some have noted with irony that the Fox News skybox was flooded by a sprinkler system failure. Of course now the bigger rejoinders come from the left, noting that God seems to have answered Mr. Shepard’s prayer against the Democrats by disrupting the Republican convention with a hurricane. Ironically there are even atheists cheering for God in this turn of the debate. Some on the right have shot back, as they did after Katrina, saying that God is again targeting New Orleans because they had a gay pride parade scheduled. The left notes that most hurricanes seem to hit red states. And so it goes.

All I can say is, STOP!!!

Nobody on either the left or the right should be cheering for something as devastating as a hurricane. And nobody who professes to let the Gospel guide his or her life should make any proclamation about how God is using weather events to express a preference or inflict a punishment. Probably people did the same thing in Jesus’ day, which is why Jesus also said, “Stop!” in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us quite plainly that the weather is just the weather. God created it, yes, but God does not use it as either a carrot or a stick. God makes sure that both the evil and the good get sunny days and that both the righteous and the unrighteous get rain.

I’ll tell you what I pray for. I pray for a nation driven by intelligent compassion rather than ideology. I pray that we will lose our national taste for shock jocks of both the left and the right so that media outlets will find their ratings go up when they feature respectful dialogue on important issues and down when there’s a shouting match between ideologues. I pray that Christians of red stripes will recognize the face of Christ in Christians of blue stripes and vice versa and work together to bring the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven. And, in my baser moments, I pray that all those who cheer the devastation of others have their toilets back up!

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Like a Rock

Just did this take on the parable in Matthew 7:24 about the guys who built on rock and on sand for SpiritWalkers, so I thought I would post it here as well.

Matthew 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”

The message in this parable from the Sermon on the Mount is quite clear. The first man builds a house on a rock. The second man builds his house on the sand, and the coming flood proves the wisdom of the first and the folly of the second. The moral of the story is this: Base your life on Jesus’ teaching, and your faith-house won’t get washed away.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to have a builder certify your home’s foundation than it is to follow Jesus’ advice. Some of Jesus’ words are clear and just very hard to put into practice. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matt. 5:44) for starters. But Jesus is also notoriously unclear in many places, as the miles-long trail of conflicting commentaries on his words would indicate. Some decide to take his words literally. But consider this: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” (Mark 9:47) “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yea even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) And that’s before you get into murky parables that praise corrupt managers and boot wedding guests who aren’t dressed properly even though you just pulled them in off the street. Literalism is a “sand” choice. Been there, done that. My house still fell.

I completely agree that “What would Jesus do?” is the correct question to ask. I just don’t believe that the question is so easily answered. I have tried my entire life to put Jesus’ words into practice, and it seems every time I answer the doorbell, it is the wrecking crew coming to take down my house again. And that doesn’t leave me too happy with the dualistic choice of “wise” or “foolish.” While I try to do due diligence in my life choices, whether I end up on rock or sand is often a crap shoot. Maybe God could see it coming, but I sure couldn’t, and I resent that guy on the rock sitting there gloating at me. So…I’ve added some guys to the parable.

The wise man builds on rock, the foolish man builds on sand, but I think there’s a third guy--the moron. The moron builds on sand, has his house washed away and builds again in the same place! And then there’s my favorite—the fourth man—the teachable man, who builds his house on the sand, has it washed away, learns from his mistake, and builds the next time on rock. With the addition of the moron and the teachable man to the metaphor, I have a much better shot at getting to that rock and earning the wisdom title.

These four possibilities were all lived out before our eyes over the past month as the Mississippi had its second 100-year flood in the span of 15 years. First we have the obvious comparison—those who built (individuals, businesses, and towns) in a flood zone and those who did not. Sand and rock. But the second set of builders was also in evidence. Of course we saw the reports of those who rebuilt in the same location after the flood in 1993 and once again had the mighty river conquer their efforts. But I was really struck by the news reports about Valmeyer, Illinois.

In the first round, they were sand builders and 1993 washed away their entire town. But they were not content to be labeled so simply by the metaphor. The whole town of Valmeyer decided that it was teachable, and the whole kit and caboodle picked up and moved two miles east and hundreds of feet up. They rebuilt the entire town on higher ground. The flood came again last month, again submerging their old town limits. But the new town stayed high and dry with not a single resident losing anything to the flood. The teachable man. It was hard-won, but the town of Valmeyer is now “wise.”

Of course you can keep adding people to the metaphor. The complete idiot who rebuilds on the sand time after time. The slow learner who finally gets to the rock after multiple sand castles. The latter was certainly the story of Jesus’ own disciples who had to be taught and re-taught so often that Jesus finally says to Peter in frustration, “Are you still so dull?” (Matt. 15:16).

That gives me hope. An initial choice might land me in either the wise or the foolish category, but I don’t have to just sit there like a lump. I can learn…maybe slowly, but if “dull” Peter can become the “rock” on which Jesus would build the church, then maybe this slow learner can do the same. Now to go remove some sand.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The face of God

I'm working on a third book. It's coming along all-too-slowly, but I am learning as I go. The book deals with the way in which our human relationship issues often transfer to our relationship with God, so I'm working through all the different types of human relationships in turn.

Most recently I've been working on the Sibling Rivalry chapter, and the biblical example I chose for this is the story of Jacob and Esau. While working through the reconciliation of that relationship at the Jabbok River in Genesis 33:1-11, I saw for the first time a broader parallel to another story.

In the Jacob and Esau narrative we have two brothers, sons of a wealthy man. There is an inheritance issue, and one son grabs the inheritance and runs to a far off country. While away from home, that son serves another man as a servant for many years. When he finally decides to return home, he sees the one whom he has wronged and approaches him bowing and scraping in submission. But Esau ignores that and in Gen. 33:4 "But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept." Jacob then says to his brother, "For truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God--since I have received such favor."

What other Bible story does that remind you of? I'm sure I'm not the first to discover this, but all of a sudden it struck me how like the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 this was. It has so many similarities, in fact, that I wonder if Jesus--who like any good student in Hebrew School would have been steeped in the Jacob and Esau story--wasn't giving his listeners a midrash on the story when he told the parable. Some of the details are changed, of course, but the issue of inheritance, feuding brothers, forgiveness, and the grace of God are still dominant themes.

The truth of both stories are the same--contrasting the way we typically act in human relationships (especially in our families) with the unmerited grace and unconditional love of God. In the story of Jacob and Esau, it is the wronged brother whose face mirrors the face of God. In the story of the Prodigal it is the wronged father who runs to welcome his errant son. But in both cases, the Gospel message is told. The Kingdom of God is here...standing in our midst, wearing the most unlikely of faces. The face of a sibling. The face of a parent. The face that we are afraid to look at directly because we know the wrong we have done them.

And yet, when we muster the courage to look, our fears of punishment are washed away as fast as that other person can run, and we find ourselves not in hell, but in God's loving embrace. The God of the Old Testament is no different than the God of the New. Maybe that's part of what Jesus was saying in that parable. I don't know how I missed it.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Psalm 137

Psalm 137 is a problem for a lot of folks. It starts out as a lament...wondering how a captive people can go on in exile. I can't read those first lines...especially starting at verse 2..."On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs..." without hearing the haunting song from Godspell taken from this Psalm.

But not even Godspell could deal with the last verse, as the Psalmist moves from lament to anger against conquering Babylon: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!" And there the Psalm ends.

In my experience, people freak out when they get to this verse. It's a reason many people decide that the Bible isn't for them. Worse, it is the reason some who call themselves Christians have felt justified in killing the children of their this is some sort of divine permission for infanticide.

I have actually used this Psalm in worship. I used it at a candlelight vigil on September 14, 2001, three days after America discovered what it feels like to live in many other parts of the world. I didn't use it to encourage vengeance or to glorify the horrible act it portrays. I used it because it told the truth about the rage and anger that rose in our hearts that week. The ugly, ravaging truth.

That's what the Psalms are for. They are prayers...prayers that were sung to God in private and in public...prayers of saints and sinners alike. They aren't shining examples of how God's people SHOULD pray, they are gritty, amazing records of how the people of God DO pray in all sorts of circumstances.

The Psalms have glorious odes of praise like Psalm 100. There are deep words of comfort like Psalm 23 and pleas for mercy and forgiveness in the wake of sin like Psalm 51. There is lament, awe, confusion, joy, resentment and...yes...even the extreme and brutal anger of a brutalized people.

I think we need Psalm 137 to remind us of what is in the human heart, even when it is not pretty. And I think we need Psalm 137 to remind us that God is big enough to handle even the darkest corners of our hearts without striking us with lightning. Such thoughts do their greatest damage when they are hidden and repressed, only to surface in some sudden, horrid action that we cannot even explain to ourselves. Far better that we pull them to the surface and give them over to God, who can take our cries of "Crucify him!" and turn them into "Father, forgive them, they don't know what they're doing."

Monday, August 06, 2007

God and Harry Potter

This poor blog has been so neglected. So I'm posting my SpiritWalkers from the week that Harry Potter came out. Beware...this has spoilers. If you're still reading, come back to this later!

Hebrews 13:2 “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

There are lots of ways to approach this verse, but the thing that moves me this week is the idea, evident in many parts of Scripture, that God and God’s messengers are not always easily recognized. You can, in fact, have angels staying in your home, eating breakfast and snoring on the couch, and not see them for who they really are.

Jesus, of course, is the most obvious example of this, but all the way back to Abraham, the Bible has been telling us that God does not show up with a nametag. Mother Teresa talked about the “distressing disguise” of the poor and Jesus talked about being present in the sick, the hungry—even those in prison—when people didn’t realize it. In preferring to be anonymous, God encourages us to treat everyone with charity. Because, after all, you never know.

And so it is with Harry Potter. Those of you who know my bent toward the fantastical will not be surprised that I am a fan, nor will you be surprised that I get infuriated with Christians who simply cast off the books as evil because they happen to have magic in them. This is a life-long frustration, as I had my first article published (back in my twenties) about how fantasy literature had shaped my faith. The letters to the editor blasted me for being a heathen and an agent of Satan for finding faith in…ummm…Narnia and Lord of the Rings. The Christian Right is a bit more educated now, and they reserved blocks of seats at the Narnia movies. But the lessons don’t seem to carry forward to poor Harry.

Ironically, it comes from the other side as well. I read a piece in the Globe a couple weeks back that talked about how (unlike Narnia and Lord of the Rings) there was no God in Harry Potter. It wasn’t a Christian-Right piece, it was a secular writer eager to have fantasy literature without religion in it.

Well, God is not wearing a nametag in the Harry Potter series. But I smiled as I read book 7. They weren’t identified as such, but two important quotes are directly pulled from the Bible. Verbatim. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:26) and “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt. 6:21) And, let’s see. The whole series has been focused on love as the greatest power (1 Cor. 13) and the willing sacrifice of self to save others. Gee, isn’t that pretty central to Christian faith? Oh yeah, there’s life after death for good and evil alike (although in different conditions) and resurrection.

The great evil of Voldemort is driven by the fear of death. He abuses power, seeks to harm the meek and lowly, and distinguishes some races as more worthy of life than others. He has no remorse, no empathy, and will even splinter his own soul in an attempt to ensure immortality. Author J.K. Rowling said in a post-release interview that all of the characters could be defined by their attitude toward death. Voldemort will do anything to avoid it. Harry embraces it for the sake of others and virtually every other “good” character in the series is willing to do the same—not eagerly like those with a martyr complex, but if love can find no other way. Harry’s sacrifice, like his mother’s, does not turn out to be foolish. It saves. And then he comes back. Gee, where have I heard that story before?

Do show hospitality to Harry Potter. I’m pretty sure you’re entertaining angels.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Response to atheism

I did a response to atheism that has been posted on Theolog, the blog for Christian Century. Here's the link: