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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.

Reimagining the Bible, Again

27 May
Photo via Flickr user honorbound

Photo via Flickr user honorbound

I love a good storyteller. She has to ability to break the present, ordinary moment open to a sense of pure transcendence. A good story invites us into a thin space where we can float in truth and beauty. Go to a story telling event or an amateur comedy night and be reminded how hard good storytelling really is.

We need good storytellers to help us read the Bible and make it come alive, again, for us in this time and place.

During the Modern Age, Darrell Jodock explains in his book The Church’s Bible, the Bible lost a good deal of collective authority. This had to do with several cultural shifts including increased value placed on objectivity and the scientific approach and people connecting loyalty to tradition with stagnation.

The Bible, however, continues to withstand the test of time. Christians continue to find it useful to turn to the book. It is time-tested, but each generation has to reclaim it and rediscover its usefulness for their context. The Bible indeed has no authority outside outside the context of community and relationship. It is a book collecting dust until we open it, interact with it, and apply it to our communities. At its best, the Bible can connect us to other communities over time an space, providing a hold continuity. It can mediate the presence of God by providing a language of faith. As time goes on, we have to work harder and harder to translate that language in a way that is relevant to a world far from the original audience.

Reading the Bible with young people is a welcome challenge for me. We talk a lot about stories– those in the text and our own. We work to understand the original context so that we may apply it to our immediate context with care. Re-contextualizing the Bible requires imagination, creativity, patience and empathy. When we do it well, it is worth the work. The richness of the stories, if reimagined well, point beyond itself to God. They break open to transcendence. Beauty and truth rush in.

At the end of his book, Jodock invites us to simply take the Bible and read it. It will only speak when used in community and embodied in the daily lives of its members. In that way, we give the Bible it’s authority. It’s complex, worthy work.

Gospel Reflection for November 22, 2015, Christ the King

17 Nov
Photo via Flickr user Sapphire Dream Photography

Photo via Flickr user Sapphire Dream Photography

Sunday Scripture Readings: Daniel 7.13-14; Revelation 1.5-8; John 18.33-37

Jesus tells Pilate, ” My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would be fighting to save me from being handed over. My kingdom is not from here.”

(John 18.36)

The final Sunday of the Church year, the Feast of Christ the King, holds up in Jesus an alternative vision of power for leaders in the world. Jesus testifies to truth that is not armed and ready to fight but to the truth he demonstrates in feeding the hungry, giving sight tot he blind, raising Lazarus. Jesus reveals God’s power is love that heals and gives life. To follow Jesus we must testify to the truth within us, in the gospels, and in our tradition that recognizes the sacredness of every person.

This week as we lament with the people of France who have experienced terrorist attacks, we need also to ask how we can build up the kingdom Jesus is talking about — the unarmed work of building world community. The representative from our district is the only Muslim in Congress. Yesterday he stood on the steps of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, urging people to extend their hands and introduce ourselves to the followers of Islam among our neighbors.

How can you be an instrument of peace where you live?

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Handpicked God

13 Nov
Photo via Flickr user Mark Grapengater

Photo via Flickr user Mark Grapengater

“I’m sidestepping the Rachel and Leah story today in the children’s sermon,” the senior pastor said to me. “I’m talking about Veteran’s Day instead.”

“Smart move,” I answered, laughing.

“Is it though?” I asked myself later. I think so. The Rachel and Leah story is a complicated one to address with children. As adults, we do have to decide what children are ready to hear. It is also easy, however, to keep focusing on only the Bible stories that work for us. Like handpicking the Bible stories we think are appropriate for children, adults tend to continue to side step the messy stories that create cognitive dissonance with the idea of God or Jesus that has taken root in our minds and hearts. There is so much to choose from, and it seems to be human nature to project our own needs onto these faith stories.

Our handpicked views of God can differ greatly. Do you want a vengeful God? A kind God? A legalistic God? An empathetic God? It’s all in there if you look long enough.

The trouble comes when we, as adults, are not wiling to put the stories in conversation with each other. When we decide who we think God is and only look at the stories that support our limited image.

Every verse is not equal. Some verses, passages and books of the Bible are simply more helpful and accessible and relevant than others. Over time, some parts of the Bible have more successfully inspired art and action, worship and ceremony. Some parts more than others get at the root of God’s Spirit. It is okay to pass over some passages of the Bible for small children. It is also okay for adults to have a canon within a canon, I think. The trick is to being open to the parts that are not our favorite and may not serve our existing images of God. It’s good, also, to look outside of the Bible for supplemental material when seeking truth, to remember that God is bigger than any book. Open it back up. Be willing to be confused. Let the idea of God in our minds breathe a little bit.

For indeed, God is bigger, more complex and more beautiful than our limited human minds could imagine.

Gospel Reflection for December 25, 2014, Christmas/Holy Family

23 Dec


Christmas Readings: Isaiah 9.1-6; Titus 2.11-14; Luke 2.1-20

“The angel said, ‘You have nothing to fear.  I bring you good news, a great joy to be shared by the whole people.  For this day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.  Let this be a sign to you; you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’”  

Luke 2.10-12

Many people today may identify with how unusual Jesus’ family is. His mother is not married when he is conceived. His mother’s husband is not Jesus’ real dad. His mother is still a virgin, probably still a teenager. Mary and Joseph face all the challenges any child presents new parents, but Luke’s story also tells us their baby is extraordinary–the savior, the messiah, God’s Son.

These titles make claims about who Jesus is that eventually get him arrested and condemned to death. Angels announce Jesus’ identity to shepherds and give them and us a sign. The sign is the baby lying in a manger, a feed trough. Jesus’ first crib hints he will give his life to nourish ours. A manger is a place of low status, a place among animals and shepherds who live at the margins of society. The child is good news for the poor, joy to all of us, and safe with temporarily homeless parents making do.

Where might Jesus be born today to express God’s willingness to identify with all of us, especially the lowly and left out?

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Gospel Reflection for December 14, 2014, 3rd Sunday of Advent

8 Dec

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 61.1-2,10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8, 19-28

“Among you stands one whom you do not know.”

John 1.26

John the Baptist refuses to apply people’s expectations of the messiah to himself.  He anticipates one greater than he is coming.  He testifies to the light.  He insists that “Among you stands one whom you do not know.”  The words come down the centuries to haunt and taunt us into recognizing where we see Jesus among us.

Ours is the task of recognizing God at work in the hardest of all places to see–in ourselves, in our passion for justice, in the events of our history, in our own unrelenting efforts to hold our families and communities together.  We live in an unfinished drama and unfolding mystery that is the Spirit of God’s life-giving presence with us.

To what light do you testify in your unrelenting struggles?

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Gospel Reflection for December 7, 2014, 2nd Sunday of Advent

1 Dec

Sunday Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40.1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3.8-14; Mark 1.1-8

“One more powerful than I will come after me.”

Mark 1.7

Like the prophet Elijah, John the Baptist haunt the wilderness. Like Elijah, who discovered God speaking not in storms and lightning but in silence, the Baptist in the silence of his wilderness life senses God is coming among the people in a new way. His preaching and baptizing bring people into the wilderness and ready them for this breakthrough. His baptism washes away a past of simply keeping and breaking the law and symbolizes openness to the reviving Spirit of God.

John promises one more powerful than he is coming. He envisions that this coming figure will also baptize but with the Holy Spirit. Baptism in the Holy Spirit will create people anew more wholly than water cleanses and invigorates.

What do you need to wash away to open yourself to God’s reviving Spirit this Advent season?

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Gospel Reflection for November 23, 2014, Feast of Christ the King

19 Nov

Sunday scripture readings: Ezekiel 34.11-12,15-17; 1 Corinthians 15.20-26,28; Matthew 25.31-46

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?  And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25.37-40

Matthew’s gospel places the judgment of the nations immediately before Jesus’ passion in the flow of the gospel narrative.  In his passion Jesus himself becomes the least among us, suffering the kind of execution aimed to shame and subdue rebellious slaves.  Sunday’s parable invites us to recognize Jesus is all those who suffer.

In whom that you know do you see Jesus suffering?

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Gospel Reflection for November 9, 2014, Dedication of Lateran Basilica

3 Nov

“For 46 years this Temple has been being built, and you are going to raise it up in three days?”

John 2.20

In Sunday’s gospel Jesus cleanses the Temple.  The passage focuses on his prophetic actions, chasing out the animals for sacrifice, dumping the coins for paying Temple taxes, and overturning the money changers’ tables.  Jesus’ prophetic actions take place at Passover, the best time for business at the Temple.  What Jesus does is like throwing out the merchandise at Macy’s the last week before Christmas.

What prophetic action might Jesus do in our Church today?

Scripture Readings: Ezekiel 47, 1-2, 8-9, 12; 1 Corinthians 3.9c-11, 16-17; John 2.13-22

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You Matter

24 Oct
via Flickr user Charamelody

via Flickr user Charamelody

The Hebrew Scripture is tough. It’s long and old. It requires studying it year in and year out, so much more than just reading it like a devotional or a novel. Translating the stories to our own lives is daunting to say the least. And I think it’s easy for Christians to oversimplify the whole Bible into law and Gospel– the Hebrew Scripture is law and the Christian Scripture is Gospel. The Hebrew Scripture God is wrathful and angry and the Christian Scripture God is loving and approachable. So let’s skim the tough stuff and get to the good news. This dichotomy is not helpful or true. It limits God. It limits us.

If we do commit, if we do read the Hebrew Scripture year in and year out, we find a wealth of beauty in its stories. We find human characters and moments to relate to. And maybe most importantly, we learn about the complex nature of our God.

In his fantastic reflection of the God of Noah and Abraham, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels points out an important difference in the two human characters. In both stories, God is angry and wants to cause destruction:

Noah is obedient, he walks with God, but he makes no attempt to intervene; he simply saves himself from destruction. Abraham, on the other hand, acts to transform the situation. Though humble, Abraham is not content to merely be led. He confronts God, challenges the decree and insists on involvement. Indeed, Abraham is active and involved from the beginning, converting the citizens of Haran to the one God. While Noah provides rescue and disaster relief, Abraham is involved in the long hard work of reconstruction and transformation. And we identify ourselves, of course, as the descendants of Abraham, not of Noah. It is Abraham who is our model and aspiration.

We see a difference in maturity between Noah and Abraham, but also between the God of Noah and the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham includes Abraham in the decision-making. Unlike with the flood, God has seemingly learned that God needs to involve humanity in the process. The Abraham story shows us that God needs us. God uses us. God wants our engagement and realizes “perhaps the limits of divine omniscience.”

What is so exciting to me about the progression shown from Noah to Abraham is that our relationship with God is dynamic. It moves and grows. As difficult as it is to believe, God needs our intervention, our courage, our articulated longing. God needs us to fight for humanity. We are in process with God. God is willing to grow and change if we are.

And this brings me back to God being limited by our over-simplification of God’s nature in the Hebrew Scripture. We see God’s anger, yes, but we also see God’s intimacy. God gets angry because God loves creation. God’s willingness to compromise omnipotence for relationship is stunning. The stories remind us of God’s fierce love and commitment to us. In order to engage and intercede, we have to believe that we matter to God. These ancient stories bring us back to that truth.

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