Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  (mission statement of The United Methodist Church)

It’s that last bit—“for the transformation of the world”—that has driven my ministry since I retired from software engineering a baker’s-dozen years ago to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And it’s that last bit that obliges United Methodist preachers to bring the affairs of the outside world into the church, a place where a good many would prefer to be a sanctuary away from the conflicts and anxieties of the world.  If we are to be a Christ-following people of world transformation, we must engage the world and do so within the context of Christian community (i.e. the church).  Bit, never have I known this imperative to be so difficult as it is today.

In this winter of our divisive discontent, having just elected a president unlike any other, and whose leadership is decisive, unconventional, and results-oriented (bypassing the red-tape to fulfill campaign promises), yet sometimes dysfunctional and too-often immoral (lying and promulgation of prejudice against Mexicans and Muslims), a Christ-centered perspective on current events is necessary.  We need to sort out and clarify who we are and what we believe as Christians (individually and as a church), and then interact with our world from that identity.

My first impulse, not unlike that of the bazillions of commentators and trolls on social media, is to speak and preach directly to our current situation.  But to do so would allow me to drift too far into preaching political and social opinion rather than interpretation of the Bible.

My solution to this problem, and I hope it works, will be to focus first on the Bible and its theology.  Our turbulent world will always be in the background, but with the Bible and Jesus Christ in the foreground, those to whom I preach and teach will receive from me tools for making their own decisions about the world around us.  In other words, I want to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  They will, in turn, go forth and impact the world around them in their own unique ways.

Part of me feels like this is a bit of a cop-out that allows me to avoid conflict, and it may be, but I do not see how we get to “the transformation of the world” without first “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  And it will be those disciples who, out of their own deep faith and Spirit-stoked inspiration, will do whatever they do best to make a difference in the world.  I intend not to get in the way of that by alienating the very people whom I am trying to help become more devoted disciples of Christ.

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I AM A HUGE POPE FRANCIS FAN!  BUT!!!!! -WE’RE NOW AT ODDS . . . AND IT’S OVER WOMEN!  (I’m sure we’ll get through this disagreement and, one day, the Pope will invite me to dinner, but for now. . .)

In an article reported in The Guardian, a Swiss journalist asked the pontiff if the ban on women becoming priests would ever be lifted.  His response: “Saint Pope John Paul II had the last clear word on this and it stands, this stands,” referring to a 1994 document forever prohibiting women from the priesthood.  I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed.  I was hoping for ecclesial disruption of the Holy See’s status quo from this pope. I guess even the most radical pope in generations (centuries?) has his limits.

To be clear, although I am an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, I owe much of my vocation, and maybe my health and wholeness, to the Catholic Church, who, during my undergrad, had an on-campus ministry that reached out to me and helped me through a very difficult transition from Atheist to Christian. They helped me when I was in spiritual, emotional, and physical danger, and for that I will be forever grateful.

However, my ancestry, genetics, and my spirituality are, at their roots, Celtic, and the Celtic Church has always been more … well … practical than the Holy See.  We’ve never accepted the prohibition of women in the priesthood.  Women have always been as revered, venerated, and respected as men . . . especially spiritually.  (For that matter, we’ve never warmed up to the celibacy of the priesthood.)

The foundational argument for keeping women out of the priesthood is that Jesus’ disciples—in particular his inner circle of those who would become his apostles—were all men. No women.  Thus, there is no precedent to ordain women as priests (they forget that we had Celtic women priests once).

I’d like to point out that none of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples were from South America (as Pope Francis is), or Poland (where John Paul II came from), or Italy (where a lot of popes were from).  So . . . why can a pope be a non-biblical Polish, Italian, or (name-the-nationality) man but not a non-biblical any-nationality woman?!?

It’s medieval, patriarchal, and a bit silly. . . and the Roman Catholic Church should obsolete the prohibition against female priests. It makes no sense, is not biblical, and berefts the church of a great deal of wisdom.

Pope Francis — if you do invite me to dinner, I’ll not only bring my wife but ask for a more cogent theological rationale for a male-only priesthood.

As voices within The United Methodist Church (UMC) continue to argue human sexuality, vis-a-vis, homosexuality, they continue to do so while ignoring the proverbial 800 pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room.  A good example of how some of our more thoughtful UMs miss the most crucial point is exposed a quote from Rev. Jeff Greenway, who led Asbury Theological Seminary while I was matriculating there.  In a piece he wrote explaining  the purpose of the newly formed Wesleyan Covenant Association, a conservative forum for UMs, and offering thoughts on the Council of Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward, which will try to sort out our issues of human sexuality, Rev. Greenway said (emphasis mine),

“Let me be clear—human sexuality is not the cause of our differences—it is the presenting symptom. The real causes of our division are related to the nature, role and authority of Scripture—the nature of salvation—and the work of sanctification in the life and conduct of a follower of Jesus. We are miles apart in these basic beliefs and it makes our covenantal relationship untenable. We use the same language, sometimes quote the same scriptures or Wesley sermons, but we are speaking about entirely different expressions of faith”

Rev. Greenway almost sees the 800 lb. gorilla. He is spot on that the arguments we have over homosexuality are proxies, carrying the water for deeper issues that a few, like Greenway, are either insightful or bold enough to raise to the surface. As Greenway, and a good many others who claim the “conservative” label see it, the real issue is a difference of opinion about the authority of the Bible. Alas, this is where we get stuck again because we haven’t yet dug deep enough to unearth the core issue.  Moreover, when conservatives claim that they support the authority of Scripture, then they are also claiming that the same authority is being ignored by progressives (those who support the full inclusion of homosexuals into membership and ordained ministry, and who advocate defying The Disciple in those places where it lists proscriptions against homosexuality).  This is not a debate but an indictment that gives progressives no way to respond.

The very debate that we are neglecting–the 800 pound gorilla–is not human sexuality, or even the authority of Scripture (which faithful people on both sides will say is all important and inviolable), but how we interpret the Bible.

Competent, critical interpretation of the Bible is a basic required skill of all UM clergy.  The preaching, teaching, and spiritual guidance that is our business are dependent on our ability to do more than skim a page of the Bible and then simply parrot back what it says (although some scripture allows for this, e.g. “Jesus wept”). However , we can interpret the Bible using various rubrics. One common rubric is a literalist rubric that assumes what was written a long time ago in a land far away is absolutely universal in meaning. This contrasts with the kind of interpretation many of us are trained to do by using the tools of literary criticism, historical criticism, social/psychological criticism, coupled with the commentaries of the church throughout its history. Nor surprisingly, these varying interpretive rubrics can render differing interpretations of a text.

Until we begin sideline accusations about who does and does not recognize the true meaning and authority of Scripture so we can discus how we interpret Scripture, we will progress no further, and, worse, our differing positions will entrench.

Let’s stop ignoring the 800 lb gorilla—It’s not invisible.

To all nervy white folk who are anxious (or just plain panicked) about increasing ethnic and cultural diversity in America:

Become a well-rounded musician or music-listener and you might lose your fear of diversity.

As I bounce back and forth between sermon preparation and rehearsal for a piece of music I’m presenting in church tomorrow, it occurs to me that I am playing a flute traditionally used by Native Americans of the Great Plains, a guitar built by a Canadian company, all played over electronic music with roots in Europe with improvisation based on jazz, an African-American invention.

Oh . . . and the sermon is based on a piece of scripture from a writing originating in the Middle-East around 3,000 years ago (a Psalm from the Hebrew Bible, a.k.a. Old Testament). And to my knowledge, the Bible which we Christians, including White Christian Evangelicals (the religious group most disturbed by cultural diversity) claim to be the cornerstone of our religion, spirituality, and ethics was written by a bunch of Semitic Middle-Easterners and Greek-speakers from what is today’s Palestine, Syria, and Turkey. No American white guys involved.

Maybe I’m due to give an apology to my ethnicity, so here it goes:

To all white Americans—my apologies but, I just don’t get the fear of diversity that’s created the Alt Right, nurtured racial division and inequality, and somehow makes the angry rhetoric of American isolationism and wall building seem reasonable to far too many. Sorry, but I just don’t understand what the problem is and why I should be anxious, suspicious, and hateful of non-whites either in America or outside of it. Indeed, I feel enriched by exposure to cultures other than my own.

Okay . . . so that wasn’t really an apology. I guess I have no apology I feel I need to make for my embrace of the world’s cultural and ethnic diversity. Why should I? As God says in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make humanity in our image,” and that means all of us (I just can’t get that to read “Let us make white Americans in our image.”).

Oh, by the way, . . . about that wall one of our presidential candidates wants to build to wall off Mexico— The French tried that tactic already. It was called the Maginot Line and after great expense and effort to wall off France from Germany, the Germans simply went around it.

While accompanying the seminary choir on bass (guitar) during worship one Wednesday, things were going well for the first two and a half measures.  The choir sounded musical, passionate without melodrama, and articulate, and I was playing with smoothness and subtlety so that the bass became another voice in the choir.  And then I hit a B. The Asbury Seminary chapel range like a large bell. It sounded like I had replaced my modest combo bass amp with a big Ampeg stack and turned it up to 11.  It was ridiculously loud . . . but only when I played B.  I made it through the choir anthem by consciously playing that note very lightly.  As I explained to the choir director (who already knew what the problem was), the brash and bold B was at the resonant frequency of the chapel’s interior, its only architectural design flaw. My bass guitar’s B was at just the right wavelength to bounce around the room in a way that made it sound a lot louder than any other note.

I had a psychological experience of such resonance while at the School for Pastoral Ministry this over the last few days.  Listening to one of the two excellent keynote speakers, Nadia Bolz-Weber, talk about her calling in ministry, something she said—probably several things—rang like that bass B through the cognitive and emotional mess that is my consciousness. The resonance was with my own calling into ministry—my religious raison d’etre, the “why I got into this ministry mess in the first place”.

I have been struggling for a while with a sense of direction in my ministry, which has led to a bit of paralysis and a lot of frustration as I feel pushed to get the church I serve to grow in numbers and figure out something a somewhat elderly church can do to fulfill the United Methodist Church’s slogan (part 2): “transformation of the world.”  I’ve tried blending contemporary music into worship and preaching about social justice and changing the world. The problem is that I am just not called to, or capable enough at, either engineering church growth or prophetic preaching.  Some pastors, such as Adam Hamilton, are greatly adept at providing a worship and discipleship environment that attracts a lot of people of all ages.  Others do a lot of social justice work, preaching about the issues of society and leading mission work. These are all great things and important, but they are not why I entered ministry.

My calling to preach the Gospel (Good News of Jesus Christ), offer the sacraments, and help sinners realize God’s gifts of grace and forgiveness. It’s these things that I am here to do and mean to return to doing with focused intent.  I don’t need to engineer church growth or figure out how to transform the world.  If I help people deepen find their home in the house of God’s grace, embrace God’s forgiveness, and discover for themselves what Christ crucified means for them, then the other stuff will just happen.  Forgiven and grace-filled people who “get it” about what God was doing suffering on the cross and dying for us will go out and transform their world as well as bring others in to experience that God can do for them as well. I need to simply do what matters most and get out of God’s way.

What will this mean for my work as a pastor?  Past changing the direction of my preaching and how I approach the sacraments, I haven’t a clue. But I’m sure God knows. . .

Jesus&ChinoWe’re not talkin’ ’bout pants here . . .

CHINOCHristian In Name Only — someone who calls themself a Christian but whose daily guiding beliefs and behavior are set against God and God’s purposes as seen in the life, teaching, and commandments of Jesus Christ.

While Christianity is not a faith measured strictly by performance of good works and holiness, it is far more than lip-service given to the idea of Jesus Christ as God’s Son, and our Lord and Savior. Talk is cheap and God wants more than talk from us. Remember, the first thing Jesus does when he begins his ministry is to proclaim, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” (Mark1.14-15, see also Matthew 4.17) In Luke’s Gospel, his opening proclamation is a quote from Isaiah—“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor. . .” In other words, Jesus does not begin with “believe in me and be saved” but with “be transformed and do good.”

Note also that eschatological judgment does not consist of a filtering the saved from the damned by virtue of their claims of belief, but, as recorded in Matthew 25.31-46, whether we have attended to the needs of “the least of these,”: the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned (as a representative list).

And if we want to distill this down to a few guiding principles, Jesus offers those as well, in fact, he offers three.

(1)  The Great Commandment – “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all  your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22.37-39) In other words, Love God and Love Others, period!

(2) The New Love Commandment – “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)

(3) The Great Commission – “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (Matt 28.19-20)

Sure, belief in Jesus and who he says he is, is a necessity, but without attending to those things that Jesus wants from us (nos. 1-3 above), that belief is so shallow it may likely be aspirational rather than real. Put another way, one may claim to be a Christian but ignoring Jesus’ commands makes one CHINO.

Now… before anyone throws a fit about how we are not saved by works but saved by faith, consider this question: If the faith you claim has no outward expression that reflects the ministry, teaching, and commandments of Jesus Christ, then is your faith anything more than words?

Coming next—Is America a CHINO nation?

As I preached, last Sunday (3/9), the first in my Jazz Christianity series of sermons, I used the list found in Matthew 5:3-11 traditionally called “The Beatitudes.” I use the Common English Bible (CEB) translation and it presents 5:3 as follows:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”

The NRSV, as well as a number of other translations render the same verse as follows:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Both translations present problems. The traditional “Blessed” is archaic enough that it is functionally meaningless. “Happy” just doesn’t sound right since we we tend to think of happy as the way one feels when having fun. So. . . how what did Jesus/Matthew intend to say?

The Greek word, makarioi, can be translated as either happy or blessed, yet neither quite fits. And “happy”, as it is used in our vernacular, misses the mark by a fair margin. Rather the word means something a bit more complex—a sense of joy and feeling of well-being.

It also helps to read 5:3-11 with a little care and sophistication. Let me explain using 5:3. . .
People are not or ever happy to be hopeless, nor can we say that the hopeless are blessed by their hopelessness. To read 5:3 this way is, in my opinion, ridiculous. Rather the joy or blessing comes from God’s response to our hopelessness (or, traditionally, being poor in spirit), which is the promise of a place in the kingdom of heaven, which is good news indeed! Thus the happiness/joy/sense of blessedness and well-being is only now in part, because it is just promise, but will eventually be experience in full as the promise is realized.

We can work our way down this list this way and it makes sense.

(In an interesting interpretation of 5:3, Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom contends that we are indeed blessed/happy to poor in spirit in terms of poverty of possessions and attachments such that the love of God can fill us. See “Beginning to Pray” pp.40-41)

It all sounds a bit like academic Biblical studies nitpicking, but it isn’t. The so-called Beatitudes have always been a little tough to interpret, especially the first one, and because of the difficulty strange errors can creep in. For example, one might read 5:4, “Happy are those who grieve, because they will be made glad,” and then oafishly tell someone grieving the loss of a loved one that they are truly blessed or should be happy.

Like any other form of communication, as the Bible speaks, we need to listen carefully.