Apr
2013

“H.W.J.R.?”

Not too long ago, these four letters were everywhere: on bracelets, on tee shirts,

on bumper stickers,

even, heaven help us, on tattoos.

But today, I want us to consider a different question: HWJR?  How would Jesus read?  First, though, a qualifier: “read” is perhaps not the best term for what Jesus was doing. Jesus did not have a Bible of his own to read and study—in fact, no one in the first century owned a Bible.  The Bible as we know it did not yet exist.  The various books of Jewish Scripture were written on separate scrolls, which were held by synagogues and schools.

Only a very few, very wealthy people owned scrolls of their own.  Jesus would have experienced Scripture by hearing it read aloud in worship, and by singing and chanting its words along with the congregation.  He would have learned his Bible by heart.

While it takes an act of the imagination to consider what Jesus would do if he was cut off in traffic, say, or if his internet provider went down, we do not have to imagine how Jesus read.  Matthew 5:21-48 provides us several examples of Jesus reading, and interpreting, Scripture.

Six times in this passage, Jesus says, “You have heard it said,” quotes a passage from the Scriptures, and then declares, “but I say.”  Jesus places his own words on a par with Scripture—and not just any Scripture, but the Torah (that is, the Law: the first five books of the Bible, still central to Jewish faith and identity) and even the words of the Ten CommandmentsIn part, this is what it means to speak of Jesus coming to fulfill the law and the prophets: he is himself the Word of God, made flesh (John 1:14).  But Christian readers should not be too quick to conclude that Jesus sets the Torah aside: after all, Jesus said, “I say to you very seriously that as long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality” (Matthew 5:18).  Jesus’ reading of Scripture is faithful to the tradition, not contemptuous of it.  However, Jesus reads these texts for what they mean, within the whole body of Scripture—not merely for what they say.

For example: the Ten Commandments say, “Do not kill” (see Exodus 20:13).  But that does not mean that any act of violence short of murder is fine.  Jesus knows that violence begins in the heart, in the attitude that demeans and dehumanizes the other.

Words of contempt issuing from such a heart not only lead all too readily to acts of violence, they are themselves already acts of violence.  Rather than narrowing the text to the letter of the law, Jesus’ reading broadens and deepens the text, seeking its spirit.

So too, though the commandment says only, “Do not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) this surely does not mean that anything short of adultery is okay!  Adultery too begins in the heart, with the lustful attitude that reduces the other to an object for my own gratification.

Like violence, then, unfaithfulness begins by denying the humanity of the other—by refusing empathy.  By reading the Bible this way, not narrowing and restricting the texts but broadening and deepening them, Jesus reads like the rabbis before and after him.

On the other hand, the Torah permits divorce.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 states that if a man finds “something inappropriate about her” (Deut 24:1 NRSV; the Hebrew is ‘erwah dabar, that is “a shameful thing”), he may divorce his wife.  The rabbis debate what “something objectionable” means.  For example, Rabbi Shammai concludes that ‘erwah dabar means adultery, while Rabbi Hillel says, “If she burns the meat in the pan, you may divorce her.”  Still, all the rabbis accept the legitimacy of divorce.

But Jesus thinks differently.  In first-century Palestine, women could not own property.  Divorced women could then be left homeless and hungry, unable to care for themselves or for their children.  Jesus recognizes that what is permissible is not necessarily good—let alone God’s best.  He therefore rejects divorce, except (like his near-contemporary Rabbi Shammai) when the relationship is already broken by unfaithfulness.

What does this mean for our own time?  Does Jesus’ rejection of divorce and remarriage hold for us today?  My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, recognizes divorce, and permits clergy to perform marriages for divorced persons.  Is this wrong? I have many dear friends and members of my family who are divorced and have remarried; some are pastors themselves.  Should I tell them that their marriages are invalid, or their children are illegitimate?

I don’t think so. Why should we read Jesus’ words narrowly and legalistically, when he himself did not read Scripture in that way?  If we are to read as Jesus read, we will look for how best to live out Jesus’ affirmation of faithfulness and commitment in marriage in our own context, rather than applying to his own words a legalism that Jesus rejects.

A story is told of comedian W.C. Fields on his death bed.  Friends visiting Fields in his hospital room found him thumbing through a Bible—something he had never been known to do before.  When they asked him what he was doing, Fields replied, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

A narrow, legalistic approach to Scripture leads to that kind of reading:  we look for ways around the Bible’s more difficult teachings when they  bind us, while applying to others the full force of judgment and condemnation.  But this is not the way that Jesus reads!  In each case we have considered, Jesus reads the specific texts of the Bible in the light of the highest ideals of justice upheld in the whole of Scripture, seeking God’s intention and desire.  Jesus does not take the Bible literally.  He takes the Bible seriously—and so must we.

May we learn to read Scripture as Jesus does: not like prosecuting attorneys looking for evidence to convict one another, or like hostile combatants looking for weapons to wield against one another, but as genuine seekers, desiring to know God and to live as God would have us live.  Only then will we hear the Word of God among the words of Scripture.  Only then can we be changed by what God has to say to us.

 

Apr
2013

When the worst thing that can happen, happens

God help us.

Once again, evil breaks out in our world, and lives are shattered by its violence.  Two bombs, loaded with pellets and nails, exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon; three people–one an eight year old boy–are dead, and over a hundred are injured, some greviously.  We are stunned, confused, heartbroken, and angry.  In our pain, we turn to God, to our faith, to Scripture, and to one another for comfort and guidance.

But sadly, in our anger, we also turn on one another–so that violence prompts more violence, in word or deed, and hatred breeds hatred.  Word that a “person of interest” was a Saudi prompted the New York Post to trumpet that he was a suspect, in custody.  In truth, he was a witness, himself injured in the attack.  Another columnist and television commentator tweeted the following:

We do not yet know who perpetrated this assault.  But we do know that it was not carried out by a race, or by a religion.  It was an act of people–sick, deluded, evil people.  Whether they prove to be white or brown, foreign or native-born; whether they claim to be Christian or Muslim or of any or no faith, we play into their delusions if we think that they are, as they may believe themselves to be, “representatives” of any people or ideal.  They represent no one, they stand for nothing but carnage, they work for no cause save chaos and evil.  We must not let their racism turn us into racists, or their fanaticism make us into fanatics.

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk,  a prophet who saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  Habakkuk knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and feel again in the wake of this fresh tragedy, Habakkuk knew well.

I am printing below the sermon I preached then.  It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

Text:  Habakkuk 3.16-19

“What Do You Do When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens?”

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

 

Apr
2013

Whose Land? (Part two)

The Bible is always in the background of discussions about the land in Palestine.  Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and the American churches and synagogues that support them, sometimes insist that Jews can settle wherever they like, because the land is theirs: promised to them by God.  Just as Abraham and Joshua were told to walk through the land and so claim and possess it (Genesis 13:17; Joshua 1:3; 24:3; compare Ezekiel 36:8-12, where this is applied to those returning from exile in Babylon), so building more and more settlements in the West Bank is for some a way of laying claim to God’s promise. 

So, what is God’s promise?   In Genesis 12:1-3, God says to Abraham, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of earth will be blessed because of you” (Common English Bible).  This promise, repeated in different forms in Genesis 17:7-8 and Exodus 3:16-17, seems fairly explicit.  The land of Canaan—modern-day Palestine—is promised to Abraham and to his descendants.

But to whom is the promise given? Deuteronomy 26:1-11 directs that, when presenting the offering of the first fruits gathered in the harvest, the worshipper is to recall the history of God’s kindness to the ancestors, beginning with Abraham: “My father was a starving Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5).  In Exodus 3:16-17, God promises the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land full of milk and honey.”  As we discussed in an earlier blog (see “The Bible and ‘The Bible’”, March 13, 2013), Israel is described in Joshua and Judges as a landless and friendless people, to whom the land comes as a gift.  In the Bible, the promise of land is not given to a people securely settled and established: it is an offer of hope to homeless, landless people, without power or property.

Further, while God says, “I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are immigrants, the whole land of Canaan, as an enduring possession” (Genesis 17:8), the promise of possession never involves ownership.  The people of Israel are given the right to live on the land, to farm it and to graze their flocks upon it, but the land itself does not belong to Israel.  This important distinction is emphasized in the laws concerning sabbatical years and jubilees in Leviticus 25 (from a part of the book of Leviticus called the Holiness Code).  According to these laws, every seventh year (the sabbatical year), the land is to be left fallow: the fields are not to be plowed, and no new crops are to be sown.  Then, every 49th year (the seventh seventh year) is to be followed by another fallow year, called the jubilee.  In the year of jubilee, all debts are forgiven, and any land claims revert to the family among Israel’s tribes and clans to whom that particular piece of real estate was originally entrusted, according to Joshua 14:1—19:51.

What this means, in short, is that the land itself could not be bought or sold—not permanently.  All that one could do is rent a property for the number of harvests remaining until the jubilee, when it would return to its properly assigned clan.  Leviticus 25:23 makes this principle explicit: “The land must not be permanently sold because the land is mine. You are just immigrants and foreign guests of mine.”  We do not know if the priestly ideal of the jubilee was ever historically realized.  But the principle it expresses, that the land belongs to the Lord, is consistently upheld in Scripture.

Since the land is and remains God’s, the prophets make it very clear that God’s permission for Israel to live in the land was not absolute.  In Jeremiah 7:3, in response to Jerusalem’s false worship, violence, and injustice, the Lord says, “Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place.”  In fact, the Hebrew of this verse could be translated as a plea, expressing God’s longing and love for Israel: “Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place” (New Revised Standard Version).  God will be in Israel’s midst in the land, and Israel will enjoy the benefits that presence brings, only if Israel worships God rightly, and acts justly.  Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel rejects the claims of violent people who rely on the sword that they shall possess the land (Ezekiel 33:26).  The land is God’s, and its inhabitants will be those whom God permits.

In Isaiah 61:1-2, the promise of jubilee becomes God’s promise of justice to all the oppressed:

The Lord God’s spirit is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me.

He has sent me

to bring good news to the poor,

to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim release for captives,

and liberation for prisoners,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

and a day of vindication for our God,

to comfort all who mourn

For this prophet, “the year of the Lord’s favor” must also be “a day of vindication for our God.”  Sometimes oppressors must be overthrown before real peace can be found; peace without justice is no peace at all.

But when Jesus read from this passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he pointedly dropped that line (Luke 4:18-19) – not because he sided with the oppressors (Romans, in first century Palestine), but because he had come to bring new life to everyone: Jew and Gentile, oppressed and oppressor, alike (Luke 4:25-27; see also Isaiah 66:18-23; Jonah 3–4).

There are, have always been, and will always be hotly contested claims to the land of Palestine.  The modern state of Israel, first established in 1948 in the wake of World War II as a homeland for the dispossessed Jews devastated by Hitler’s holocaust, has a right to exist and thrive.  But the Palestinian Arabs also have a right to live and thrive, in a state of their own (such a state, in fact, was stipulated by the same UN resolution that established the modern state of Israel).  But that discussion is a matter for another day.  For today, my purpose has been simply to address the claim advanced, particularly by American Christians, that the land belongs to the Jews because God gave it to them, while Arabs (Christians and Muslims alike) have no right to the land.  That claim, I would suggest, is not valid.  According to Scripture, the land doesn’t belong to Israel: it never did.  The land is God’s.

Apr
2013

Whose Land? (Part 1)

Until 2010, I had never been to the Holy Land.  Despite a career spent studying the Hebrew Scriptures, I had never seen the hills and valleys and deserts and lakes of the land where many of these texts were written.  That year, for the first time, I took this pilgrimage, together with students from the seminary and Christians from the Pittsburgh area, as part of PTS’s World Mission Initiative.  It was a life-changing experience.  I returned with another group last year, and plan to go again in 2015. 

As a Bible scholar, to stand at Qumran and look out at the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered,

and to sit in the ruins there in the room that Roland de Vaux called the Scriptorium, where many scholars believe those ancient manuscripts were copied,

was for me an indescribable experience!

To stand on the mountaintop at Masada and look down on the outlines of the Roman camps and the still-visible remnant of Titus’ massive siege ramp (top right in the picture above) sent chills down my spine.  And of course, no Christian can look on the stones of the old Roman street that runs past Caiaphas’ house from Gethsemane into Jerusalem, a road that Jesus certainly trod,

or follow the Via Dolorosa through the Old City

from Pilate’s palace to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, without being profoundly moved.

Yet on each visit, it has been the people who have moved me most, not the places.  Our trips, organized in cooperation with the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, have as their express purpose not only to encounter the land of David and of Jesus, but also to offer support for the struggling church in Israel and Palestine.  The hospitality of Palestinian Christians, who opened their homes to us and worshipped with us; the laughter and smiles of children, the commitment of young people determined to remain in their homeland despite enormous political and economic pressure to leave—all were inspiring.

But when I tell this story to people here at home, I am often met with puzzlement.  Many American Christians do not seem aware that the church has survived in the land of its birth for two thousand years.  It is a surprise to them even to hear the phrase “Palestinian Christian”: the word they expect to hear after “Palestinian” is “terrorist.”  They are surprised to learn that we felt in no danger walking the streets of Bethlehem, or indeed anyplace we visited in the West Bank.  Many friends, Christians and Jews alike, seemed not only surprised but even offended by my critical statements concerning Israeli policy, particularly the separation wall that now snakes around and well into the West Bank,

the numerous checkpoints barring travel through as well as into and out of the West Bank, and the Jewish settlements that sprout like mushrooms, swallowing up ever more and more land.

After all, isn’t this the land that God promised to the Jewish people?  Aren’t the Arabs—the so-called “Palestinians”—really interlopers, with no real claim on the land?   Don’t the Jews have a right to defend themselves, by whatever means prove necessary?

These questions have been posed for me forcefully in this past week from several directions.  First, I saw this disturbing picture of Israeli soldiers surrounding the Stone of Anointing in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:

This picture reminded me of stories I had heard from Arab Christians, of being denied access to Christian holy sites.  Friends asked me if it were not possible that these soldiers were there to protect Christians, and I acknowledge that this may be the case (though in that case, I wonder why they were blocking access to the 13th Station of the Cross).  

Then I learned that, once again this year, many Christians from the West Bank were denied permission to enter Jerusalem for Holy Week or Easter.  According to the Catholic News Service, “the Israeli government said it rejected only 192 of the 19,000 requests it had received — because of security reasons.”  But many Christian parishes in the West Bank reported that only 30-40% of their requests for passes were honored this year.  Ashraf Khatib, who took part in the Palm Sunday procession this year and last year, observed a significant decline: “Last year we had buses from all the parishes, around 17 to 18. This year only eight buses came. Some places, like Jenin, did not get any permits and while we had four buses last year from Bethlehem, there was only one this year.”  Further complicating matters for Palestinian Christians longing to celebrate Holy Week and Easter in Jerusalem, Khatib claimed, is the policy of issuing permits to some family members but not to others, so that a family cannot make the pilgrimage together.   

I read this article after seeing  a comment on an earlier blog from Rick, who asked, “Can you provide a historical background for the current land claims of the different groups: Jew, Christian & Muslim?”  So–it became clear to me that this is a topic that I must address.

Please understand from the outset that I do not in any way question the right of Israel to exist, disparage the enormous accomplishments of this modern nation, or question the right of Jewish people to a homeland of their own, where they can live in security.  Nor do I claim that two trips and less than a month total in Israel/Palestine have made me any kind of expert on the current crisis.  But I do know a bit about the Bible, and it is from that perspective that I intend, in my next blog (or two, perhaps) to address the issue of this land that three faiths call Holy, and to whom it belongs.   Pray for me, and with me, please.

Mar
2013

Standing at this tomb of water. . .

It is Holy Saturday—a day of waiting and expectancy, poised between the anguish of Good Friday and the exultant, full-throated joy of Easter.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been learning to pray the Rosary.  On Friday, then, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ suffering and death—a meditation driven home powerfully and poignantly by the readings and music of Good Friday worship.

The meditations set for Saturdays are the Joyful Mysteries—Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, his presentation at the temple as a baby, and Mary and Joseph finding Jesus, now a young boy, in the temple asking questions (see Luke 1:26—2:52).  As I was praying, it suddenly hit me: the womb and the tomb and Jesus coming forth, from each, to new life!

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you discover that the spot traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace is in a cave.

The limestone hills of the region are honeycombed with caves, which were used in Jesus’ day for storage, as stables, and as homes, so it may well be that this is indeed the spot.  Startling to think on that today, reflecting on the broken, abused body of Jesus, taken from the cross and laid in another cave: the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56).

The womb and tomb connections were driven home particularly by a song that has been in my head since Wednesday.  In chapel that day, remembering Jesus’ tomb, we gathered around the baptismal font and heard, beautifully played and sung, this contemporary setting of an old hymn (I have given the original words below).  The line “Standing at this tomb of water” has stayed with me, and meditating on the waters of Mary’s womb has given them a new resonance.  Water of life, water of death; beginning and ending and beginning again.

The power of this image, its depth and richness, are that it is not just a story about long ago and far away.  Jesus defeated death, not just for himself, but for us all.  His triumph over sin, death, hell, and the grave is our triumph, too!  Remember this, friends, when this day of waiting is over, and Easter morning dawns.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so are we.

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

 

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

 

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

 

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

 

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

 

John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)

Mar
2013

A Disabled God?

In the Christian West, tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Usually this day is given to joyful children’s processions, to waving palms and shouting “Hosanna!” In churches that do not observe Good Friday as a rule, or for persons whose work prevents them from attending Good Friday observances, the result may be that we go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of Easter, with scant attention given to the cross in between.  Or, Easter Sunday may become the day when we sing “The Old Rugged Cross” and talk about Jesus suffering and death, with little attention paid to the glory of Christ’s resurrection.

However, the lectionary readings for the day remind us that tomorrow is not only Palm Sunday (Liturgy of the Palms: Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 and Luke 19:28-40), but also Passion Sunday (Liturgy of the Passion: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 22:14—23:56).  We are reminded that Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem took him in the end to Calvary, where he “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death —even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).  Christians have always understood that the cross of Jesus is the place where our own death dies—the place where our separation from God and from one another is undone, and we are delivered from sin, death, hell, and the grave.  But from the very beginning, we have struggled to understand why, or how, this happens.

The Bible presents many ways of thinking about the cross. For example, in the gospel of Luke, from which this year’s lectionary readings are taken, Jesus is the sovereign Lord who remains in control, even on the cross. While in Mark and Matthew, Jesus dies with a loud, inarticulate cry (Mk 15:37//Matt 27:50), in Luke, his last words are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46)—a prayer of confidence, drawn from Psalm 31:5. No one kills Jesus in Luke’s gospel. Instead Jesus, in control to the end, voluntarily surrenders his spirit to God. By his death and resurrection, Jesus wins the final victory over the Enemy, Satan, and liberates the world from bondage to sin and death (see Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:1-11).

In the gospel of Mark, however, Jesus is the servant who identifies with those who suffer.  So, in Mark 10:41-45, Jesus teaches his followers that while the world regards as great those who lord it over others, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).  The model for this life of service is Jesus himself: “For the Son of Man [this is the way Jesus refers to himself throughout the gospels] came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  As the great Scottish Christian George MacDonald wrote, “the Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be more like his.”

I am thinking about the cross today, not only because we are on the verge of Holy Week, but also because of a question raised by Jennifer, who asks what the Bible says about “those with different abilities. I don’t mean good singers and bad singers. I am speaking more of intellectual disabilities. It isn’t something covered much in the Bible, but it is very important to me.”  Jennifer’s question addresses not only the developmentally disabled, such as those with Down’s Syndrome, but also those who lose their intellectual abilities later in life.  In particular, as more and more of us are living into old age, the incidence of dementia, particularly due to Alzheimer’s, is on the rise.  Where is God in the lives of those who cannot understand the words of the Gospel?

To be sure, the Bible says a great deal about physical disabilities: blindness, deafness, paralysis, and a host of other ailments.  Usually, the point of Scripture is that God is a God of healing and wholeness (for example, see Isa 35:1-10; Matt 11:2-6).  But healing is not always guaranteed.  Consider Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10).  Interpreters vary broadly over what the nature of this ailment was.  Some suggest that Paul had malaria—an illness that, once you get it, keeps coming back, over and over again.  Others suggest, based on Gal 4:13-15 and 6:11, that Paul was going blind.  Whatever his trouble, it is clear that despite his prayers, Paul was not healed.  Still, he declares, “”I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me . . . for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10).  Paul finds meaning in his own suffering by identifying with the suffering of Christ.

But what about those with intellectual disabilities?  As Jennifer notes, there is little, if anything, in the Bible to help us here.  Passages which may seem to refer to intellectual disability, such as 1 Thess 5:13, where the King James version reads “comfort the feeble-minded,” or Prov 1:22, which appeals to the “simple ones,” are talking about spiritual weakness or willful ignorance, not about mental illness or developmental impairments.  Still, if Jesus has come to identify with the least of us, to humble himself in service to all of us even to the point of taking on our suffering, weakness and death, then surely Jesus is among those who are mentally as well as physically or economically disabled.  Our relationship with God does not depend upon our right understanding—if it did, how could anyone be saved?  It depends upon God’s love and grace, and God’s decision to come and be with us in our weakness, whoever we are, and whatever our weakness may be.

Early in my ministry, I was blessed to know a woman named Freda, who was dying of a painful bone cancer.  God’s presence in her life was very real.  Toward the end, when I would visit her in the hospital, she would not ask me to talk about heaven, where she would be free from pain, or about the promised resurrection that would follow her death.  Instead, she said to me again and again, “Steve, tell me about the cross.”  The message of the cross to Freda was that she was not alone: that Christ was with her in her pain, and would not abandon her.  I believe that the cross speaks to all of us of God’s presence with us, whatever pain or fear or need we face.  In Christ, God assumes our disabilities into Godself, transforming the place of our deepest need into the place of God’s most abundant grace.

Mar
2013

The Bible and “The Bible”

A number of people have asked what I think about the television miniseries “The Bible,” now airing on the History Channel (see http://www.history.com/shows/the-bible for more information).  I have not seen this program (although several folk have told me about the “ninja angels” at Sodom,and my Scots Presbyterian students were foolishly pleased to learn that Noah was, evidently, Scottish!).  I think I probably should see it, both because this program shows how lots of people think about the Bible, and because it is probably going to shape how lots of people will think about the Bible.  Still I am, truth to tell, uncertain whether I want to see it or not.

Usually, I am not very excited by attempts to transfer the Bible to television or film.  My problem is not that such enterprises are not, or cannot be, done well.  It is rather that any film of any book is not the book.  No matter how faithful an adaptation it may be, the film is something new, something else.  For example: I am a great fan of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films, and also greatly enjoyed the first film of his new trilogy based on The Hobbit.

These films feature scenes and lines of dialogue straight from the books, as well as a design sensibility drawn not only from J. R. R. Tolkien’s literary descriptions, but from Tolkien’s own maps and watercolors of Middle Earth.

However, the films are not the books.  Scenes are missing or rearranged; characters are re-imagined, their interior lives left to be inferred from their actions and dialogue.  Most particularly, the feel of Tolkien’s prose and poetry, the rhythm of his language, is lost.  This is not a criticism: Jackson has, I believe, done as well with his adaptations as any lover of Tolkien’s books could wish.  But the films are films, and to be good films, they need to do what films do best, rather than trying to do what books do.

In her article “Context in Written Language: The Case of Imaginative Fiction,” Margaret Rader observes, “Only in writing can the inference-suggesting information be so carefully controlled and restricted even as inferring and imagining are given full rein” (in Spoken and Written Language, ed. by Deborah Tannen [Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1982], 187).  That is, a text not only guides us into new worlds, but also gives us tremendous freedom to imagine those worlds.  Texts are specific—they cannot mean just anything—but their meaning remains open-ended, ambiguous.  Pictures, though, are explicit.  Pictures, especially moving pictures, show rather than tell—which can be an extremely powerful experience.  Still, pictures are more controlling and more restrictive than texts.  In a movie, Galadriel’s hair must be this color, not that.  Boromir will move like this, Rivendell will look like this.

As a result, some of the open-endedness and ambiguity of the text will be, must be, lost in the translation. For an immensely complex and multi-layered book like the Bible, this can result in a sense of over-simplification, of dumbing down. My friend David Odell, a chemistry professor at Glenville College in West Virginia (and a mean clawhammer banjo player!) wrote, “The show reminded me so much of a children’s book of Bible stories—not that children’s Bible stories are bad, but that’s not what I expect to see in a documentary.”

A television show adapting the stories of the Bible, then, is not the Bible.  There is nothing wrong with that, so long as we remember the difference!  But there is another problem with such an enterprise.  David also wrote, “I can’t help but find irony in how one minute Moses is receiving the Ten Commandments,

and a few minutes (or maybe the next episode) later, God is instructing them to kill their enemies.”

This, again, is not a fault of the series: the History Channel has only a limited amount of time, and is condensing the narratives of the Bible to fit into that time frame.  But in so doing, they are giving those narratives a different context: within the linear flow of images that makes up a television program, rather than within the pages of a text, where a reader can range backward or forward, slow down or speed up at will.

In Scripture, the conquest narrative in Joshua has multiple contexts.  One context places this narrative at the beginning of the story of Israel told in Joshua through Kings (called in Jewish tradition the Former Prophets).  In that setting, the violent conquest of the people of the land in Joshua foreshadows the violence Israel itself will suffer, ending in the loss of the land given by God as Jerusalem is destroyed and its leading citizens are taken into exile in Babylon (2 Kings 24—25).

Joshua must also be read in another context: as the end of the narrative extending from Genesis through Deuteronomy (the Torah, or Law, in Jewish tradition).  There, the occupation of the land is the fulfillment of an ancient promise (Gen 15), given to landless, homeless people (see Deut 26:5-10).  Even so, the land is regarded, not as Israel’s possession, but as God’s.  In Leviticus 25:23, the Lord declares, “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” God allows Israel to live on God’s land.

A careful reader quickly discovers another, more subtle, context for this narrative.  While in the main plot line of the Former Prophets the story of Israel’s entry into the land is a story of total war and conquest, the writers have preserved other, alternate traditions: old memories that conflict with the main plot line.  So, while Joshua 10:40 reads, “So Joshua defeated the whole land. . . he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded” (see also 12:23), in Joshua 13:1, God says to Joshua, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed.”  The opening chapter of Judges describes large areas of the territory of Palestine that were not in Israel’s hands.  In fact, the tribes are described as hanging on by their fingernails in the hill country, surrounded on all sides by well-armed enemies.  This explains, I believe, why the oldest songs in Scripture (such as Exod 15:1-18 and Jdg 5:1-31) describe God as a warrior: the people of Israel, living under constant threat, found great power and encouragement in the image of the God who fights for us.

This is a far fuzzier, more ambiguous picture of Israel’s past than a single, linear story line can convey—far too fuzzy for good television.  The ambiguity with which the whole biblical story regards the violence in Joshua does not translate well into images—but the screen loves a good battle scene (as is sadly evident in Peter Jackson’s movies, which are far more explicit in their depiction of violence and gore than Tolkien’s books).

Joshua has another biblical context that we must explore.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Former Prophets (Josh-Kgs) are immediately followed by the Latter Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve (twelve short prophetic books sometimes called the Minor Prophets).  The Prophets as a whole, then, begin with Joshua and end with Malachi.  At the beginning of the Prophets, God says to Joshua, “Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go” (Josh 1:7).  At the end of the Prophets, God says to Malachi, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel” (Mal 4:4 [3:22 in Hebrew]).  The Prophets begin and end with the Law!  Rather than being just another scene in a straight narrative line, then, the Torah given through Moses is the focus of all the Prophets.  The depiction in the Ten Commandments of a just community, bound together by the love of God and of neighbor, is far more “biblical,” if you will, than the exciting scenes of mayhem a visual reenactment of Joshua, or Genesis, or Exodus, will convey.  Context is key.

AFTERWORD:  The Bible Guy joins believers around the world in celebrating the election of Pope Francis.

By taking the name of the humble reformer Saint Francis of Assisi (the first to do so), this Pope from Buenos Aires—the first Pope from the global South, the first from the Americas, and indeed the first since Peter who is not European—has begun very well indeed.  May God’s blessing and guidance rest upon him.

 

Mar
2013

Why “The Bible Guy”?

Growing up, the only thing I ever wanted to be was a preacher.  My studies in college and seminary, and my experiences as an associate and a student pastor, only confirmed my sense of call.  When I graduated from seminary, my bishop appointed me to serve two country churches in West Virginia—and I was happy.  Even with its frequent frustrations, parish ministry was a joy.

My first inkling that God might be leading me in a hitherto unsuspected direction came a year or two into my ministry, when I was visiting one of my elderly shut-ins.  This day, her brother was with her.  He had heard about me from his sister, and wanted to meet me—in order, I soon learned, to confirm his suspicions.  Though he had never set foot in the churches I served or heard me preach, he knew that I was a heretic because 1) I was a United Methodist, 2) I wore a clerical collar, and (I strongly suspect), 3) because I had a beard!  Almost immediately, he began to quiz me.  “What does the Bible say about baptism?”  When I started to answer that the Bible says a lot of things about baptism, he interrupted me: “No.  Acts 2:38:  ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.’”  And so it went.  For every question, a memorized proof text was the right answer; my fumbling attempts to address other texts, to express a range of biblical answers, were brushed aside.  All the while, I kept thinking, “Why can’t I talk to this man?  We both care for his elderly sister.  We both love the Lord.  We both love the Bible.  Why can’t we communicate?”

After this encounter, my wife Wendy and I prayed long and hard about where God was leading us.  We realized that I needed to go back to school, to pursue deeper study into the Bible and how to communicate its message more effectively.  When my doctoral degree in Hebrew Bible was completed, a friend invited me to interview at a small, church-related college in South Carolina, where I discovered a new passion: I love to teach!  For the next seventeen years of my life, I found myself a college professor, teaching Bible and religion to undergraduates first in South Carolina, later in Virginia—something I had never thought about doing, but now found to be God’s new direction for my ministry.

While I was teaching in Virginia, a colleague one day emailed me a question about the Bible, prefacing it with “Since you are the Bible guy. . .”.   Immediately I thought, “That is exactly who I am.  I love the Bible: I love studying it, I love teaching it, and most of all, I love the God revealed in its pages.  I am a Bible guy.”  Now, eight years into a new career as a seminary professor, helping women and men prepare for the pursuit of God’s call on their lives, I am even more persuaded that this is my calling.  I am a Bible guy!

In this blog, I want to share the Bible I love with you, and invite you to join me as fellow Bible guys. As time goes on, I hope that we will engage in conversation across these pages.  Perhaps I can answer some of your questions; certainly, I will pose many of my own. John Wesley, founder of Methodist Christianity, referred to himself as homo unius libri: that is, “a man of one book.”  I pray we will find ways to speak across our differences, united by our love and respect for Scripture—that we might become, following Wesley’s example, a people of one Book.

 

Feb
2013

What Color Is Lent?

winterThis has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010).  Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway.  Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate.  Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving.  The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade.  But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

ground-tuell

Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept.  Lent as springtime?  Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (6th century) as “the Spring of souls.”  Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these forty days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration!  But the Lenten disciplines are not optional.  Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12).  Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we.  But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless.  Lent is a green season—a time of growth.  Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are.  Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit.  It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!

By The Rev. Dr. Steven Tuell, James A. Kelso Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.