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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.

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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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.

Gospel Reflection for October 2, 2016, 27th Sunday Ordinary Time

28 Sep

Sunday Readings: Wisdom 9.13-28; Philomen 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14.25-33

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my follower; whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” – Luke 14.26-27

Jesus continues on his journey to Jerusalem, teaching his disciples as he goes. Jesus is out to shock them out of popular expectations of the messiah. The conflicts Jesus faces will demand suffering and ultimately his life in a cruel death meant for insurrectionists against Rome. The sayings in Sundays gospel insists discipleship may ask our all, too. Our commitment may pull us away from family and safe and comfortable homes. Jesus’ life and work were scandalous, and disciples who try to live and do as he did can expect to endure shaming, harassment, and even violence. His disturbing words frighten us. Like the disciples we are on a journey. Our commitment unfolds day by day in our giving.

Share an experience that challenged you beyond anything you imagined.

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Gospel Reflection for September 11, 2016, 24th Sunday Ordinary Time

7 Sep
Photo via Flickr user Marcia

Photo via Flickr user Marcia

Sunday Readings: Exodus 32.7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-32

“Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep…..Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.”

(Luke 15.6, 9)

Losing, finding, rejoicing — that is the pattern in each of the three parables Jesus tells in chapter 15. Who doesn’t bother to look for the sheep that has wandered apart from the hundred and has not just strayed but is lost? Who forgets a lost coin and doesn’t bother to retrieve 10% of current assets? The lost sheep and lost coin invite us to hear the story of the man with two sons with the questions, “Who is lost?” Is it the party son who wastes his inheritance and comes home to his welcoming father or is it the responsible son who resents his father’s mercy? Which son am I? Let us rejoice in Pope Francis’ reclaiming in this year of mercy the deepest mystery of who God is.

Which son are you? How are you benefiting from this year emphasizing God’s mercy?

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Gospel Reflection for September 4, 2016, 23rd Sunday Ordinary Time

29 Aug
Photo via Flickr user Othree

Photo via Flickr user Othree

Sunday Readings: Wisdom 8.13-18; Philomen 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14.25-33

“None of you can be my disciple if you do not renounce all your possessions.”

(Luke 14.33)

Proclaiming the good news of God’s abundant loving kindness toward all people contradicts conventional wisdom that there is not enough love or anything else to go around, so it must be reserved for our own kind.   Healing the sick free of charge, no matter who they are or where they live or how they got that way brings condemnation from those who despise the afflicted or aim to profit from their misery.

In his best paradoxical fashion, Jesus insists, “Less is more.”  Possessions, however many, are never enough.  The generous economics of discipleship turn accepted economic theories on their heads.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis writes, “Every ecological approach needs to incorporate a social perspective which takes into account the fundamental rights of the poor and underprivileged.  The principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct and ‘the first principle of the whole ethical and social order'” (#93).

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Gospel Reflection for August 28, 2016, 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time

23 Aug
Photo via Flickr user Stijn Nieuwendijk

Photo via Flickr user Stijn Nieuwendijk

Sunday Readings: Sirach 3.17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12.18-19, 22-24; Luke 14.1, 7-14

“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

(Luke 14.12-13)

Jesus’ two healings on the Sabbath demonstrate God’s will for human beings. We read neither story among the Sunday gospels. Jesus straightens up a woman who for 18 years has been bent over in Luke 13.10-17 and heals a moan with dropsy (14.2-6). He restores them to praise and worship rather than leaving them among the forgotten whom God supposedly punishes. In his advice for making guest lists, Jesus prefers those who cannot repay their hosts with a return invitation and place of honor at their tables. Jesus wants us to widen the circle of those who eat at our tables to include people like the two he has just healed. He wants our guest lists to distribute food justly rather than cut people off as chronically inferior, deserving distance from us rather than place among us.

What places of honor might you give up? What would you lose or gain? Who might you add to your guest list? What would you lose or gain?

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Neighbors on the Path

19 Aug

It isn’t a new lesson, but it is one I have to keep revisiting. The Good Samaritan. One man in Jesus’ parable saw the humanity of the man on the side of the road naked and broken. One man stopped. One man did what it took to ensure the victim’s full restoration. It seems so elementary, but I have so much trouble following his example.

Jesus tells this parable to a man trying to find a loophole and get around the law. When he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds, with the story of the good Samaritan, essentially saying, “Your neighbor is anyone who has been put in your path.”

We, too, are challenged by Jesus’ ministry and this parable specifically to see the humanity of all people put in our path. We are called to stop, let others change our plans, let the urgency of restoration work shape our days.

It is no easy calling. Jesus is asking us to get our hands dirty. He is asking us to move into the heart of conflict. This may risk our reputation, our schedule, and the ease of our known lives. It is often our busyness, our vanity and our fear of conflict that holds us back from acting like Jesus and the good Samaritan. I am guilty of all three, so I must revisit this parable again and again.

Really knowing our neighbors, the people in our path, requires seeing and stopping. That is often the hardest part. If we do engage with unexpected neighbors, like the good Samaritan did, like Jesus did, then we are often filled with the compassion necessary to move toward creative and effective reconciliation work. So this week, yet again, I pray for the courage to be open and willing to fully engage with all of my neighbors.

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