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The God Trump Card

21 Oct
Photo via Flickr user Dwight Stone

Photo via Flickr user Dwight Stone

In part because I was lucky enough to receive an excellent theological education from grade school through seminary, I wince when I hear someone start a sentence with, “God says…” or even, “The Bible says…” Quoting the Bible does not mean quoting God, and even quoting the Bible has to be done with great care and reflection. These phrases can stunt conversation and dialogue, two things I’m in the business of promoting. I call it playing the God card, or throwing Bible bullets. The God card and Bible bullets are difficult for many people to argue, even though they so often used inaccurately.

Inevitably, during election season, the Bible gets dusted off to do the work of promoting person and political agendas. My instinct, backed by my deep respect of the Bible and its power to be used or abused, is to tread very lightly here.

Years ago, I had one professor who had been studying the Hebrew Scripture his entire adult life. He seemed to know God through his studies in a way I only dared to hope. He started the course by sharing some guidelines, some things to consider when approaching the sacred biblical text. I found it exceedingly helpful, so I put them in my own words. Every time I teach the Bible, now, I start out by sharing them, too. Students always seem to find it a helpful place to start. I find it a helpful place to come back to and revisit. I hope you do, too:

Be mindful of how who you are changes how you read the Bible.

The text is not the same as the interpretation of the text.

We are reading a translation, and every translator carries a bias.

No passage has a single meaning.

Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. It was written in a time long ago, in a place far away.

Talking about the Bible with people who think and live differently than us will make the truth more complex, richer and more full.

The Bible contradicts itself and never attempts to be consistent. It interprets itself.

There is a difference between believing in the Bible and believing in the God of the Bible.

Reading the Bible literally is a fairly recent phenomenon.

There are several different genres in the Bible– poetry, myth, genealogy, law, parable– that deserve to be read with different lenses.

Not everything in the Bible happened, but that does not diminish the story’s truth.

Context is key. Taking a verse out of context limits the power of the passage. We must study the passage by looking at what comes before it and after it, by putting it into the context of the whole Bible, and considering the historical and political context the passage is set in. This takes work, challenging us to not just read the Bible, but study it.

Not every Bible passage is equal in its influence over our faith life.

The Bible does not have answers to all our modern-day questions.

The Ladybug vs The King

14 Oct
Photo via Flickr user Devon Christopher Adams

Photo via Flickr user Devon Christopher Adams

I walked into a Bible college auditorium filled with undergraduate students to hear a man I deeply respect preach about restorative justice work. I walked in late, having mistakenly assumed that chapel happened in the chapel and not the main auditorium, but I caught the end of the last worship song before the message:

Behold our God seated on His throne

Come let us adore Him

Behold our King nothing can compare

Come let us adore Him!

The lyrics, and a large group of young people singing those lyrics, triggered something in me. I crossed my arms over my chest, looking down at my feet. The refrain repeated enough times to give me space to think about my thinking. The metaphor of God as king is popular and pervasive, but clearly that day it was an image that was standing in my way of worship. God as a man, a rich and powerful man sitting still was not working for me. I have not had any direct experience with kings, in that way the metaphor seems old and far away. My mind when tot the closest thing in my context– the image of a male political leader, sitting back comfortably while his subjects tremble– that image I can easily conjure up. I also have direct experience of everyday men, turning chairs into thrones, bloated with entitlement, expecting to be adored. Thinking of these men doesn’t bring me to a place of awe and wonder. Instead of opening me up, it shut me down. Instead of closer, God felt far away.

Just a day earlier, I presented a much different metaphor for God to a bunch of little kids during a children’s sermon. We were working with Psalm 23, and to make it real to kids, I focused on God being with us as we walk in darkness. Halloween is coming, after all. I proposed that luckily, our God isn’t afraid of the dark. Then I pulled out my son’s nightlight, a ladybug, whose shell has stars and a moon shape holes in it. You can choose to project red, green or blue light through the ladybug, and a colorful star-filled sky will appear in the darkness, filling the entire room. “Sometimes we wish God would just turn on the light and make the dark go away,” I said. “But I think God is more like this ladybug nightlight. God sits with us in the dark and works to make that darkness more beautiful.”

The contrast between a throned king and a ladybug nightlight is laughable. It initially strikes me odd that a genderless inanimate object is the more effective metaphor for God for me. In other ways, it makes sense. It’s close, comforting, and intimate. It’s harder to project this idea into our world because it, like the God as rock metaphor, only works as an idea. It infuses the nightlight with meaning, but there is no real risk of unearned adoration of the object. God as a towering male King works as a God metaphor for some, I’m sure. Today, I’m sticking with the ladybug.

Gospel Reflection for October 16, 2016, 29th Sunday Ordinary Time

12 Oct

Sunday Readings: Exodus 17.8-13; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.2; Luke 18.18

“Take up my case. Give me my just rights against my opponent.” – Luke 18.3

The widow in Jesus’ parable this Sunday is not asking for food and basic necessities. She is seeking her “just rights.” The word in Greek, ekdikeo, is not the usual term for justice but a word that means settling with an adversary. We have a widow with the means and moxie to take someone to court. When the judge finally acts, it is because he fears the widow will disgrace him.

This widow is a woman of voice and action who wants a judgment against her adversary and won’t be silenced. She is like the Mothers of the Plaza de May who have protested the “disappeared” in Argentina since 1977. This year the founder Hebe de Bonafini met with Pope Francis, who told her, “When I meet a woman whose sons were murdered, I kneel down before her.”

How is the widow in the gospel a model for Christians? What evils does the judge represent that Christians must resist? Who do you know who protests like the widow?

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7 Oct
Photo via Flickr user Donna S

Photo via Flickr user Donna S

The task was to dissect the story of the Israelites and the golden calf with high school youth. I went straight to jealousy, and we easily talked about coveting cool shoes, the newest iPhone, easily earned high test scores, raw hockey prowess or the attention of a particular person being given freely and enthusiastically to someone else.

What, though, does jealousy have to do with love? What does it mean that God wants our attention?

We talked about misplaced attention in our society, again with ease. We focus so much time on a particular kind of standardized test points-driven classroom educational success. We let our social media image and images carry too much influence. We take part in the build up and take down of celebrities. Golden calves everywhere.

The idols we have created, however, are metaphorical. I would argue this makes it easy to discuss what we have idolized and paid too much attention to without actually taking steps to dismantle the idol or build a new shrine. The world of actual golden calves and ritual sacrifices seems far away. We can say what we shouldn’t be about, but what, then, are we willing to stand up for?

I have a small, raised platform on my desk that looks like a candle stand. On it, I originally placed two votive candles. My spiritual director encouraged me to light the candles, each representing a baby I lost to miscarriage, whenever I felt sad. Lighting those candles validated my experience and honored the existence of the life that was indeed present in my body. I’ve added things over the years since, little trinkets that symbolize other things and moments on my journey. It is not a shrine or an idol. It’s a tangible place for me to go to honor who God made me, the path God put me on and thus the God who has walked with me on the journey with compassion and love.

In our worship communities today, distanced from ritual sacrifice where we are in no danger of constructing an actual golden calf, how do we take tangible steps toward giving our attention back to God? What can we build to show God our commitment to what God is all about in the world? What is worthy of reverence, time, attention and worship?

What would you put on your shine?

Gospel Reflection for October 9, 2016, 28th Sunday Ordinary Time

5 Oct

Sunday Readings: 2 Kings 5.14-17; 2 Timothy 2.8-13; Luke 17.11-17

Jesus asked, “Weren’t ten lepers cleansed? Where are the other nine?” – Luke 17.17

In Sunday’s gospel only one of the ten lepers Jesus heals returns to thank Jesus. The passage prompts us to practice gratitude to God and to one another. Being alive calls us to appreciate the Creator. Evolution deepens the story of God’s creative love in which we live. We see with eyes that have evolved over millions of years in creatures that sought light. Our stem cells contain the memory of God’s love unfolding. To be part of giving life gives parents their moment in the evolution of all that is. The birth of a child takes them to a place of awe and closeness to God. The child immediately breathes in the oxygen that plants and trees make every summer day out of sunlight. Our lungs tie us to the outside world we share with all that squirms, flies, blooms, and in each of us says than you. Our hearts tie us to one another.

What are 10 things you are grateful for today? Use the question every day.

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Unchristian Certainty

30 Sep

I am walking with youth through a unit on Faith and Science. Can you believe in God and science, the Bible and evolution? Can you seek God in what you know as well as what you don’t? I’m finding the matter at hand repeatedly comes back to unfair assumptions about certainty. Certainty has become a value of society. It helps young people (dare I say all people) feel competent and worthy of being taken seriously. We associate it with confidence and knowledge. All too often we look to our political, scientific and religious leaders to exude certainty. In the midst of uncertain times, we wager it may help us feel safer. It rarely does.

At the core of both faith and science is not certainty, but wonder. Boiling either area down to certainty limits it greatly. It limits God. The deeper we get into the disciplines of both science and religion, we gain knowledge, yes, but also awe. Modern-day astronomers look up at the stars and think more and more that we are not alone, that we may never have one set of scientific rules to live by, that we are made of the stuff of stars.

Maybe it is time for all of us to embrace doubt as a friend:

Doubt then is not our enemy but our great friend. For it keeps us from the most unchristian of things: assuming that we possess certainty, that we need not think about our faith or love our neighbors, and worse, that we become certain is no longer (by definition) faith; it has become idolatry, where we no longer seek out a living personal God but make this God into a frozen idol. The truth, then, is that there can be no relationship at all when it is based on certainty. I cannot really love my friend and embrace the fullness of his being if I assume I know him with certainty, if in being with him I keep saying, “I know you; that’s not what you think. I don’t need to hear you, see you or learn from you. I know you certainly. You cannot change.”

–Andrew Root and Kendra Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry 

The seriousness that Root and Dean bring to the matter of doubt and relationship is refreshing. Indeed, we do not want to limit our loved ones with certainty, so why ever would we want to limit God? Embracing wonder and doubt invokes love yet again, where we leave room to be surprised, we leave room for growth.

God’s Jokes

23 Sep
Photo via Flickr user ChrisA1995

Photo via Flickr user ChrisA1995

Each fall I retreat with youth, away from the city.

Away from the city, where one need not be so on guard, the beauty of giving to all around many again rise in you. –Rumi

In past years, I have been in charge of the teaching on fall retreat. I pick a theme, research, acquire resources, design activities and discussions. I put a lot of time into constructing and then executing curriculum. On retreat specifically, the teaching never feels great. I feel like the bad guy. I think it’s mostly because the whole time we are doing something formal, I can sense the youth just want to be on retreat, outside, having fun, seeing where the wind takes them. They want space to play and relax, think and laugh. They desperately need unstructured time. And there is something about nature that calls this to attention for them even more.

This world needs our warmth against it, or things will perish. –Rumi

This year we are trying something different. There is very little agenda. We will eat, have a bonfire, play games, and sing. I sense it is the right thing to do. Instead of forcing structured times of learning, I’m leaning into their desire to retreat into nature, where benevolence has the space to rise up in them and remind them of their true nature.

I, for one, am excited. When I head on retreat in charge of a full itinerary, I can take myself too seriously. In this case, the easier thing may be the right thing. We are simply getting on a bus, going somewhere beautiful away from the city, and spending time together. My guess is that God will show up in ways we cannot even anticipate.

Away from the city, where you need not be so on guard, you are more apt to realize…God tells a lot of jokes. –Rumi

Letting Go

16 Sep
Photo via Flickr user Don Merwin

Photo via Flickr user Don Merwin

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. –Buddha

September, for me, is still filled with the childhood feeling of fresh starts. When I was young, it meant new notebooks and a new teacher. As an adult, I continue to sense an opportunity to reboot come September.

In the New York Times, Carl Richards wrote an eloquent piece called “The Cost of Holding On.” He starts with a story about two monks who encounter a rude woman on their journey. The young monk stews and ruminates about how poorly the older monk was treated until finally, hours later, he spoke about it. The older monk said, “I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?” Richard adds:

There is an actual cost to holding onto things we should let go of. It can come in the form of anger, frustration, resentment or something even worse. The question is, can you really afford to keep paying the bill?

Now, as the summer fades, is as good of a time as any to really acknowledge what we have been holding onto from last year or yesterday or earlier this morning that is no longer serving us.

Where do you carry your anger? Your throat, chest, hands, jaw, stomach? 

What tools help you let go? Exercise, meditation, music, talking, writing?

Who gets the brunt of your anger? You, strangers, or someone you care deeply about? 

What are some things that you are still holding onto? What is the actual cost?

Anger is energy, and it can be exciting even if it is only harming us. But Richards is right: there is a real cost to hanging on. With every exhale we have an opportunity to let go of something we have been holding onto. That will create space for God to rush in with healing and new life. September can feel like a fresh start indeed.

Mother, Now Saint

9 Sep
Photo via Flickr user Mammovies

Photo via Flickr user Mammovies

A mere 19 years after her death, Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa a saint last week. In his homily during the ceremony at the Vatican, Pope Francis commended Mother Teresa for her generosity of mercy and for defending the discarded of society.

Indeed, in her tireless work, Mother Teresa gave people dignity by seeing their full humanity. She called urgent attention to the hideous and unnecessary poverty plaguing our globe. Taking Jesus’ gospel call to advocate for the poor quite literally, she devoted her life to the daily work. Rightly, Pope Francis lifted up Mother Teresa as a model of holiness.

And then, also rightly and with so much style we have come to expect of him, Pope Francis served pizza to 1,500 homeless Italians who were bused in for the event.

The declaration of Mother Teresa’s sainthood is exciting. In elevating our heroes, it is also important to remember their humanity as well. I can distance myself from them, venerating their holiness, while excusing myself from the call. We are all capable of making a life-long commitment to advocate for the vulnerable members of our society. I read the same Gospel that she did, one where Jesus models mercy, compassion and ministry to us. She was a mere mortal who had the same choice I do as to how to live out our daily lives.

I remember as a young child, being taught by nuns, I was curious about the monastic lifestyle. I wondered, “What would I do with my time if I committed to a simple, celibate life? What life would I build? Who would I love?” Now, with a spouse, children and a job, I must ask other questions. Mother Teresa’s sainthood throws back into relief for me the importance of doing Gospel work in my daily life, here and now, in any way I can. Instead of allowing her holiness to distance herself, I can pray for her holiness to call me to a life of mercy and compassion, too.

God With Us on the Move

2 Sep
Photo via MN Historical Society

Photo via MN Historical Society

A friend of mine spent ten weeks working at a migrant center in Tijuana this summer. Tijuana is a city generally seen as the last stop for migrants from Central America trying to cross into San Diego. Lately, the center is also housing large numbers of people from all over the world seeking asylum and refugee status in the United States. The arrival of refugees from places like Haiti and even as far as Syria is fairly new for the city.

The journeys of the migrants and the refugees weigh heavy on my heart. There are oh so many people on the move, looking for a place to rest, willing to travel across to world to find a country who will welcome them. The courage it takes to set out, the energy it takes to travel, the resilience it takes to continue on shows the remarkable strength of the human spirit. They are looking for a fresh start, a safe place to build a future. Only then can they properly grieve their past.

Abraham had been promised land as far reaching as the eye could image and descendants that numbered the stars. Yet as an old man, when his beloved wife died, he had no land, and Isaac, his only son, had no wife. Abraham could have given up. He could have sat down, pouted, and waited for God to follow through on God’s promises. Yet the story simply tells us that Abraham mourned for his wife and then rose from his grief. He got busy, buying land to bury Sarah and went looking for a wife for Isaac. Both of these acts furthered God’s plan for him. The promises came true. Abraham shows the same courage, energy and resilience as the world’s migrants and refugees. Part of grieving his past required him to continue building his future.

People who have been through great trauma benefit from having opportunities to rebuild families and careers. Good work is good for the soul. Building a future creates space to heal from the past. When the worst happens, we can become angry with God and give up, or we can hear God whispering to us to move. Then God can fill the space we create.

Is it possible that God is waiting for us to act? Perhaps God is calling to us from the future, beckoning us to create space for God’s will on earth. The migrants and refugees arriving at Tijuana have heard the call. They seek room to build a future full of good work and flourishing families. Healing from their past depends on it.

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