That Pink Candle. . .

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  I always assumed that it had something to do with the veneration of Mary–but, as happens far more often than I care to admit, I was wrong.

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5:  “Be glad in the Lord always.”  The Greek word chairete does mean “be glad;” but in the Latin Vulgate, it is rendered as gaudete, which means “rejoice.” That is the reading followed in the NRSV, as well as in the KJV, which is the version I hear in my head:

Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, is hope.  Hold on.

I seem to need that Gaudete message this Advent more than ever. In my last post, I shared some of my wrestlings related to our recent election.  But I also shared this passage from the book 0f Joel:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves (Joel 2:28-29).

In contrast to many prophets–and particularly, to Amos and Micah–we know nothing at all about Joel apart from his name: no dates, no historical references, no places, no background.  Reference is made to an agricultural crisis, a locust plague, but we have no clues about which plague, when.

Perhaps, in part, this is the point.  Joel has been cut loose from history so as to speak to any and every time of uncertainty and fear–including our own.  Indeed, already within the span of this short book, the locusts become a metaphor: first, for invading armies (see Joel 2:1-11), and finally for cosmic destruction:

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved (Joel 2:30-32).

Yet Joel’s prophecy is not, after all, about impending doom.  In the face of tragedy, Joel calls upon the community to fast and pray, assuring them that God will respond to their repentance with deliverance.  They have not been abandoned to their fates: the prophet promises that “everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Joel is the prophet of hope.

As I noted last time, this passage from Joel was quoted by Peter (Acts 2:14-21), who found in Joel’s words a way to understand the outpouring of God’s Spirit he and his fellow Christ-followers had just experienced (see Acts 2:1-12).  God’s future had broken into the world in Jesus, but he had been taken from them: first crucified, then miraculously raised from the dead, but finally ascended into divine glory.  The outpouring of God’s Spirit made plain that Jesus was still at work, in and through his church, and that far from being abandoned, they were called, empowered, and sent forth in the confidence that God’s future was still breaking in.

Similarly, Jesus himself alluded to Joel’s vision of the day of the LORD:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken.  Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.  Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven (Mark 13:24-27).

Jesus, like Joel, was no Pollyanna optimist.  Everything is not all right, he tells his followers; indeed, times are tough, and will get tougher.  But the end is in the hands of God, who will not abandon God’s own.  At that time, God’s angels will lead us all home, to share in Christ’s just and joyous reign.  So until that time, we may live our lives confidently: not in despair, but in hope.

When I was a young Christian, I learned to sing the Philippians 4:4 passage that gives Gaudete Sunday its name as a round–I invite you to join me in singing it today. Perhaps it is in uncertain times that we learn that we can indeed “Rejoice in the Lord always.”




After the Swarm


This is a sermon that I preached in the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary chapel Thursday, addressing the meaning of community, particularly in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

I have a confession to make: I talk to things.  I talk at home to our cat Mocha, which I guess isn’t too odd, but I also talk to cats and dogs that I meet on the street, and to the birds and squirrels in our neighborhood.  I talk to my computer when it is running too slowly.  I talk to my keys, or my phone, or my reading glasses when they have run off and are hiding from me.

So I am right at home with Joel 2:21-27, which begins by addressing the natural world: not only the living things, the animals and trees and green plants, but the dirt itself:

Don’t fear, fertile land [the NRSV reads, “O soil”!];
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things! (Joel 2:21).

The setting for this remarkable passage is the aftermath of a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  The locusts are described by God as

the cutting locust, the swarming locust, the hopping locust, and the devouring locust . . .  my great army[!], which I sent against you (Joel 2:25).

But that is over now, and after the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

But the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.  Just after our reading in Joel comes the most famous passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his Pentecost sermon:

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
 In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves. (Joel 2:28-29).

The “children of Zion”—“my people”—it turns out, includes not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged–even slaves.

But nature itself is also caught up in that community: the animals, the trees, the green plants—yes, even the dirt!

Don’t fear, fertile land;
    rejoice and be glad,
    for the Lord is about to do great things!
Don’t be afraid, animals of the field,
        for the meadows of the wilderness will turn green;
    the tree will bear its fruit;
        the fig tree and grapevine will give their full yield. (Joel 2:21-22)

All are told not to fear. All are promised life, from God and by God. All are caught up in God’s promises of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame.

Today, sisters and brothers, we are reminded that we too belong to a larger community than we had known.  We had forgotten that–I confess that I had forgotten that.  We had succumbed to the temptation to define our community too narrowly—as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically.

If this election has taught us anything, it is that we have not heard one another at all.  In the days and weeks to come, we must learn to listen to one another–not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand.

We too hear today God’s promises to us: of deliverance, vindication, and freedom from shame. But we cannot experience these blessings separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will only find them together—all of us–or we will not find them at all.

Community is who we are: but it is also what we do.  My particular plea to the victors in our current political struggle is that they remember to treat the earth conservatively, with responsibility and care. For Joel reminds us that there can be no good for any of us if that good does not include our suffering earth.

Community is who we are, but it is also what we do.  So I am remembering today the words spoken in this chapel three years ago by Bishop Yvette Flunder:

Hurting people hurt people. Bound people bind people. Free people free people.

If we would be free, brothers and sisters, then we must work to free one another, for until we all are free, none of us are free.  We must be willing to draw the circle wide–to find ourselves a part of a larger community than we had known, embracing sisters and brothers we did not know we had, and extending to include all God’s world.





Ghoulies and Ghosties

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

We call this night not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to October 31 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

This saying of Martin Luther was used as an epigraph to C. S. Lewis’ famous Christian satire The Screwtape Letters: Letters From a Senior to a Junior Devil–letters of advice from the senior devil Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, on how Wormwood can tempt his “patient” into hell (an appropriately “Halloweeny” read, to be sure!).  The book is dedicated to J. R. R. Tolkien, the Roman Catholic friend who led Lewis into the Christian faith. That connection is particularly interesting, as some of the same Christians who condemn Hallowe’en as a pagan holiday also mistrust the fantasies of both Lewis and Tolkien, fearful of their alleged “occult” influences–despite the explicitly Christian worldview evident in both the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.

This being 2016, these waning days of October prompt anticipation, not only of Hallowe’en and All -Saints Day, but also of Election Day on November 8.  The continuing popularity of The Screwtape Letters has prompted the following item, posted on numerous Facebook pages:

I can understand the frustration with our own current political season that prompted this posting.  However, not only is this not a quote from The Screwtape Letters, or from anything else by C. S. Lewis, it is also a position that Lewis was unlikely to espouse.  To be sure, in The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape does advise Wormwood to get his client thinking obsessively about politics–whether conservative or liberal (“Patriotism or Pacifism”, in Lewis’ World War II English context) doesn’t matter:

Let him begin by treating Patriotism or Pacifism as a part of his religion.  Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part,  Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which religion becomes merely part of the “cause” (The Screwtape Letters, letter 7).

However, this does not mean that Lewis believed we should be concerned simply for the salvation of our own souls.  First, while Lewis would certainly agree that sin and salvation are personal, he would certainly not agree that either sin or salvation is private. In fact, so important is the Church that Screwtape advises Wormwood to prevent his patient from attending worship by disillusioning him:

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.        . . . When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew. It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous (The Screwtape Letters, letter 2).

Second, Lewis would certainly not agree either that concern for a “broken system” is misplaced, or that trying to fix what is wrong in our world is futile.  The Screwtape Letters was published in book form in 1943, but began as a wartime serial in The Guardian between May and November of 1941–just after the Blitz, a terrible period during which England was under almost continual attack from Nazi Germany.   Indeed, Wormwood’s “patient” is killed by a German bomb:

One moment it seemed to be all our world; the scream of bombs, the fall of houses, the stink and taste of high explosive on the lips and in the lungs, the feet burning with weariness, the heart cold with horrors, the brain reeling, the legs aching; next moment all this was gone, gone like a bad dream. . . Did you mark how naturally–as if he’d been born for it–the earth-born vermin entered the new life? (The Screwtape Letters, letter 31).

Lewis was well aware of the dangers posed by systemic, political evil, and of the responsibility owed by citizens to work for the common good.  Christian faith does not call us to quietism–indeed, loving what God loves will engage us positively and passionately with what God is doing in the world.  If you decide not to vote in this election, or that your involvement cannot make a difference in the world, don’t think to justify your cynicism by appeal to Lewis–though, come to think of it, Screwtape and his ilk likely are involved.  But our Christian faith also reminds us that we, together with all the saints who have gone before us, are part of something larger than this current political season: the Church of Jesus Christ, “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers!


That’s my Dad, Bernard Tuell, sitting next to me in this photo.  I got my laugh and my hairline from my Dad–but also, my love for the Bible and for the Lord.  Hallowe’en is also Dad’s birthday.  So–happy, happy birthday, Daddy.  God bless you, as God has blessed so many through you.


How To Read the Bible, Part Nine: Ends and Means

Earlier this month, the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) had its organizing meeting in Chicago.  Prior to the meeting, an article in the online Religion News Service opened with this paragraph:

Undoing the election of the first openly lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church will be a primary goal when 1,500 Methodist evangelicals gather this week in Chicago to found a new renewal group, according to organizers.

The article quoted Rev. Jeff Greenway, a leading figure in the movement:

“There are statements we’re making in regard to the acts of covenant-breaking that have accelerated the frequency and seriousness of the situation we’re in,” Greenway said. Such acts include “not only the election of Bishop Oliveto, but also the approval of four openly gay clergy in the New York Annual Conference” and similar steps taken elsewhere, he said.

The WCA will insist “that the commission proposes a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant and restores the good order of the church’s polity,” Greenway said.

I have many friends, colleagues and students, who were in attendance in Chicago; they, and others, have said that this meeting was not about human sexuality, but about Christian fellowship and sharing the Gospel.  Many of those friends and I do disagree, on this issue and on others–but we are still brothers and sisters in Christ!  Certainly, Christians who love the Lord and the Bible may, nonetheless, differ in their interpretation and application of Scripture.

But official statements of the WCA go further than acknowledging differences.  A FAQ on their website (now unavailable) read:

Pastors and congregations have expressed an interest in creating a “place” where traditional, orthodox UM churches can support and resource each other – both for ministry to our changing culture and for facing the challenges presented by a denomination that is unclear about its commitment to Scripture.

I do not believe that I or other United Methodist Christians like me are at all “unclear about [our] commitment to Scripture.”  I am absolutely clear about my commitment to Scripture.  Indeed, I believe that God has called me to the study and teaching of the Bible–that is why I am, after all, a Bible Guy!  However, at least some in this movement have a very different idea than I do about what the Bible is.

If the above statement, posted by Rev. Rob Renfroe and the Wesleyan Covenant Association, truly expresses their approach to the Bible, then they regard the Bible as an end: “the Bible is indeed the Word of God [emphasis mine], and it’s not our job to twist or correct it.” I, on the other hand, believe that the Bible is a means: that it is Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Trinity, who is the Word of God (John 1:1-14), and that Scripture, rightly and prayerfully read, leads us into a relationship with God.

I am not alone in viewing Scripture as a means rather than an end.  In a letter to a Mrs. Johnson, on November 8th, 1952, C. S. Lewis wrote:

It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our ancestors too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.

If the Bible is indeed a means rather than an end, then reading and applying Scripture must mean more than looking up “what the Bible says” about any particular issue, and then stating that as our position, without “twisting or correcting it.”  Indeed, no one actually reads the Bible in that way, whatever their rhetoric may claim.  In Leviticus 20, not only gay men (Lev 20:13), but also disrespectful children (Lev 20:9) and adulterers (Lev 20:10) are condemned to death–but few if any of us would regard this as God’s command for us.  So too, we understand that when Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off” (Mark 9:43), he is not literally calling for us to dismember ourselves.

Recently, Wendy and I saw “Sully,” director Clint Eastwood’s cinematic take on the famous “Miracle on the Hudson” in January 2009.  After the failure of both engines on US Airways Flight 1549, pilot Chesley Sullenberger (played in the film by Tom Hanks) landed his plane safely on the Hudson River, with no loss of life.  The film focused particularly on the investigation that followed, in which Capt. Sullenberger was taken to task for not following the proper procedures.  In his Patheos blog on this film, Paul Asay writes:

We learn that Sully acted from his gut—instinct informed by decades of experience. “I eyeballed it,” he admits. He tossed the rules and did what he thought was the right thing to do. And while investigators into the incident aren’t so sure, everyone aboard the plane is. “If he had followed the d–n rules we’d all be dead,” says co-pilot Jeff Skiles.

“Sully” could prove a cautionary tale about the dangers of reading Scripture–or rather, of taking one particular reading of Scripture–as a fixed and inflexible rulebook.  As Asay observes,

All the rules that Sully disregarded, those were the best rules that could be put together via human understanding. They were good as far as they went, but they, like their authors, weren’t perfect. They couldn’t see into every eventuality. As Sully says, “Everything is unprecedented until it happens for the first time.”

We can’t trust our hearts. Not really. And yet there’s something in that heart that, if we’re focused on the right things, points us in the right direction. We don’t need to be told. We don’t need to rely on human understanding. Sometimes, I believe, God speaks through our gut.

If the Bible is a means rather than an end, then we cannot read it as a list of rules for life.  We must rather listen carefully for the voice of the Living Word of God speaking through the words of Scripture.  We must be attentive to the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit–speaking, perhaps, through our gut!  After all, as the author of Hebrews declares, God’s Word in Scripture is no fixed and unchangeable “dead letter”:

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions (Heb 4:12).

Of course, trusting the Spirit is scary!  I suspect that the real concern of people who speak as Rev. Renfroe does is not the need to uphold some standard of biblical literalism.  It is, rather, the fear that without clear dividing lines, there will  be no standards for morality at all.  When those lines are drawn based on a particular way of reading and applying Scripture, questioning that reading becomes unacceptable.  This is what the Bible says, because this is what the Bible must say: to claim otherwise is to be “unclear about [one’s] commitment to Scripture.”

The Fundamentalist movement began in America in the early twentieth century as a response to modernity–and particularly, to the threat that modernity was believed to pose to the foundations of a moral society.  Its founders believed that only by recovering the “fundamentals” of Christianity, built on an inerrant and infallible Bible–THE Word of God–could the church meet that threat.  Reading the Bible as a means rather than an end calls that approach into question.  That does not mean, however, that our lives have no foundation–only that the lines may not fall where we had thought that they did.

My friend and colleague in United Methodist ministry Michael McKay calls us to a different kind of “fundamentalism.” Mike writes:

Lots of people will tell you that much of the violence and hatred
in the world is because of people who take their religion too seriously.

They get locked into a narrow view of the world
that has no room for anything but what they believe
and those who are different from them are treated
as the enemy.

The thinking goes that if we could get religious fundamentalists
to relax a little bit…things would be a lot better.

But…have you ever met an Amish terrorist?

By anyone’s definition the Amish are fundamentalist
in their outlook on life and their faith.

But they don’t blow up or shoot the people
they don’t agree with, in fact when a man
took hostages and killed several girls at
an Amish school before he killed himself
the Amish elders went to his house to tell
his family that they forgave him and to give
them an offering that had been taken up
among the Amish community.

Amish folks attended the funeral of the man
who killed their children.

Perhaps the main issue is not being
a religious fundamentalist, but maybe
the issue is what your fundamental is.

For the vast majority of Christians, Jews,
and Muslims our fundamental is loving and obeying
God through concrete acts of devotion and service.

I am beginning to think that to face the
scourge of violence and division that plagues
our world we need to get even more deeply
in touch with the fundamentals of what we
believe and practice them…

Getting in touch with our “fundamentals” will require us to ask hard questions about ourselves and our world.  It will mean digging deeply into Scripture so that through its ancient witness we may ourselves encounter the Lord Jesus, and hear his command to us in our own time and place:

I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other (John 13:34).

AFTERWORD: My friend Mike McKay would want me to give credit where credit is due by including his disclaimer: “You are more than welcome to use those thoughts in a Bible Guy post, but they did not originate with me.  I heard the idea of an Amish terrorist from Tim Keller of Redeemer Pres. in Manhattan.”



The Gift of Methodism

A foreword, and an apology:  I had not intended to take August and early September off from this blog.  But, thanks to several preaching opportunities, the need to prepare for fall classes, a wee bit of vacationing, and some badly timed illnesses (Lyme disease–who knew?), that is what I in fact wound up doing!  I apologize for my unplanned and unannounced hiatus–it is certainly my intention to write at least biweekly. Thank you for your patience.


This blog relates to an assignment given to me by friend and  colleague in ministry Rev. Liddy Barlow, director of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania (CASP), a regional ecumenical agency founded in 1970, which “includes 26 church bodies (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) representing 2,000 local congregations and 1,000,000 Christians.”  I serve as the United Methodist representative on the Theology and Education Committee of CASP, and we have been sharing with one another papers outlining the gifts each of our traditions bring to the wider church.  So, here goes:

Years ago, when I was in parish ministry in West Virginia, my mother told me of an exchange she had with a Roman Catholic chaplain at the hospital where she was a coronary care nurse. When she told him that her son was also in ministry, as a United Methodist pastor, he teasingly responded, “Oh, those Methodists! They’re wishy-washy!” I thought then, and I still think now, that that flip retort actually comes very close to expressing the genius of Methodism!

Our greatest gift to the greater Church, I believe, is not some Wesleyan distinctive, but rather the opposite: as John Wesley himself declared in his sermon, “The Character of a Methodist,”

If any man say, “Why, these are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!” thou hast said; so I mean; this is the very truth; I know they are no other; and I would to God both thou and all men knew, that I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity, — the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.

Wesley, one could perhaps say, was an early advocate for what C. S. Lewis would call Mere Christianity, or N. T. Wright Simply Christian—not as some least common denominator of Christian faith (how much may I jettison and still call myself a Christian?), but as an affirmation of essential Christianity, of common faith and mutual affirmation—of what, in his Sermon 39, Wesley calls “a catholic spirit.”

It has not always been so. In his irenic and prophetic book The End of White Christian America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016), Robert P. Jones uses the Methodist Building in Washington, D.C. as one of the markers of white Protestantism’s decline and fall. Built in 1923 at a cost of $650,000 (“nearly $9 million in 2015 currency,” as Jones [9] observes), the purpose of this structure, one Methodist bishop then hubristically stated, was to “make our church visible and multiply its power at this world’s center” (Jones, 9). The Methodist Building was begun at the height of the Temperance crusade, a movement whose anti-Catholic biases were undeniable. But the building’s troubles (exacerbated, doubtless, by the advent of the Great Depression) were evident even before the Twenty-First Amendment, “an undisputable confirmation of Protestant leaders’ loss of political power” (Jones, 14) undid Prohibition in 1933. Today, in a marked shift from the overweening, exclusivist days of its construction, Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the UMC Board of Church and Society, declares that the Methodist Building’s current task “is to be an inclusive religious voice for justice” (Jones, 14).

As will be swiftly apparent to anyone following the link above to the full text of Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist,” even John Wesley himself was not always equal to his high rhetoric of “plain, old Christianity”!  He could be abusive toward Roman Catholic and Calvinist Christians. But at his best, as in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit,” Wesley’s generosity of spirit was apparent. Early in this sermon, Wesley avers:

But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.

In this sermon, Wesley unpacks 2 Kings 10:15, which reads in the King James Version “And when [Jehu] was departed thence, he lighted on Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him: and he saluted him, and said to him, ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’ And Jehonadab answered, ‘It is.’ ‘If it be, give me thine hand.’ And he gave him his hand; and he took him up to him into the chariot.”  Wesley declared this as his own view with regard to sisters and brothers from other church bodies: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

By this, Wesley did not mean to call for “speculative latitudinarianism,” or “an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” Indeed, Wesley held that every Christian must hold her or his convictions firmly: “A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. . . . he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any.” That said, however, Wesley was also fully aware that “humanum est errare et nescire: ‘To be ignorant of many things, and to mistake in some, is the necessary condition of humanity’” (a quote from the Duke of Buckingham’s epitaph)—that is, “He knows, in the general, that he himself is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes, he does not, perhaps he cannot, know.” This realization necessitates, in any reasonable person, a generosity of spirit:

Every wise man, therefore, will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions, than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs. He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question, “Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thy heart”?

I would venture, then, to propose that this catholic spirit could be Methodism’s greatest gift to the greater church. Ironically, it is a gift that we now stand sorely in need of exercising internally, as many in the United Methodist Church today would deny that generosity of spirit toward one another, either in favor of an empty, relativistic “speculative latitudinarianism,” or in the vain quest for some imaginary Wesleyan orthodoxy, wherein we may insist that love be shown only to those who think and act as we do, in bland homogeneity. It is yet to be seen whether my own movement will rediscover in itself Wesley’s catholic spirit, or whether we United Methodists will become what more than one wag has called “Untied Methodists.”



Noah’s Ark and the Interpretation of Scripture


Kenneth Ham is a famous creationist–that is, he believes that Genesis presents a scientifically and historically accurate depiction of the world’s beginnings and early days.  This applies, not only to the creation account in Genesis 1, but to the flood account in Genesis 6–9.  He is now completing a reconstruction of Noah’s ark in northern Kentucky:

The ark stretches one-and-a-half football fields long, rises as high as a seven-story building and is said to be the largest timber-frame building in the world. Mr. Ham is betting it will become an international pilgrimage site, as well as a draw for the curious, the seculars and even the skeptics.

“The reason we are building the ark is not as an entertainment center,” Mr. Ham said in an interview in a cabin overlooking the construction site. “I mean it’s not like a Disney or Universal, just for anyone to go and have fun. It’s a religious purpose. It’s because we’re Christians and we want to get the Christian message out.”

But is Mr. Ham’s ark, as he and his supporters claim, an accurate depiction of the ark as described in the biblical narrative?  I will not quibble about materials–after all, no one now has any idea what gopher wood is (the word appears only in Gen 6:14).  But based on pictures of Ham’s structure, it is a huge boat: it clearly has a bow, a stern, and a keel.  That is a problem, since the Hebrew word for Noah’s structure is not ‘oniyahsephina, or any other Hebrew word meaning “ship” or “boat,” but tebat, a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.”  

The word tebat appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: it is found 26 times in Genesis 6–8, to describe the structure Noah built, and twice in Exodus 2, to describe the reed basket (also clearly not a boat) in which baby Moses was placed when he was set afloat in the Nile.  Both Moses’ little tebat and Noah’s enormous tebat are coated inside and out with pitch (Gen 6:14 uses the word kopher, related to the Akkadian kupru [“asphalt”], which like gopher appears only here; Exod 2:3 uses khemar and  zaphet–“black tar” in the CEB) in order to make them water-tight.  Quite likely, the parallel is intentional: Noah’s structure is meant to call to the reader’s mind God’s deliverance of the baby Moses, and Moses’ story is meant to recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures–in each case, through water (intriguingly 1 Peter 3:19-22, which alludes to Noah’s flood, also speaks of salvation through water, but with reference to baptism).  

The ancient translations of Jewish Scripture into other languages tell us what those early interpreters of the text thought Noah was to build.  None of them use a word meaning “boat” to translate tebat.  All of them use words meaning “box.”  So, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, translates tebat as kibotos, or “box.”  This is the same term the Septuagint (for example, Exod 25:10, 14, 21) and the Greek New Testament (Heb 9:4; Rev 11:19) use for the Ark of the Covenant–although the Hebrew word used for that structure is ‘aron (also meaning “box”).

Likewise, in the Aramaic Targum, tebat is rendered as tebo (“box”), and in the Latin Vulgate, it is rendered as arca (“box”)–which is the source for the KJV rendering “ark,” followed by most English translations.  So too, in Middle Hebrew, from after the biblical period, tebat means a cupboard or a chest.

In short, Noah is told to build, not a boat, but a floating box–something on which all of the versions seem to agree.  This explains why nothing is said about tapering the hull, or laying down ribs or a keel.  Noah is instead instructed to build a huge rectangular structure:

This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high (Gen 6:15).


There are only a few elaborations given to this plain structure.  Noah is told to leave a one-foot (actually, one-cubit) gap beneath the roof, presumably for light and ventilation.  He is also told to cut a door into one side of the box, and to construct two stories inside it (Gen 6:16).

Why, then, does Kenneth Ham’s ark look like a boat?  Probably because we all assume that it should.  All our familiar representations of the ark, from children’s Bible story books to toys to Noah’s Ark at Kennywood Park (pictured above) imagine it as a huge boat–whatever the text actually says.  Even serious paintings of the ark commonly depict it as at least boat-like, if boxy.

In short, Mr. Ham’s ark is not an “accurate” depiction of Noah’s ark.  It is an interpretation, shaped not only by the text, but also by our expectations of what the ark is supposed to look like.  If Mr. Ham’s ark did not look as it does, if it was instead the big rectangular box the text describes, no one would recognize it.  Numerous details not present in the biblical text at all feature in Mr. Ham’s ark, not only outside, but inside.  For example, this ark contains animatronic giraffes with necessarily short necks, as well as juvenile dinosaurs.  Certainly, these are not mentioned in the biblical narrative!  However, they are placed inside Mr. Ham’s ark because he is certain that they must have been there.

This matters because Mr. Ham and his supporters generally deny that they are engaged in interpreting the text at all.  They insist that they are preserving the Bible’s authority by simply presenting what the Bible says.  When it comes to the appearance of a reconstructed Noah’s ark, this claim really doesn’t make that much difference: no one is harmed by whether or not Mr. Ham’s ark has a keel.  But when our reading of Scripture leads us to marginalize and exclude others, even entire groups, then the claim that we own “the plain truth” of Scripture matters a great deal.

Last week, the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church elected Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, as bishop.  Objections have been raised to her election and consecration from across the church–not because she is married, or a woman, which would disqualify her in some Christian circles, but because she is in a same-sex relationship.  While many of those objections are based on United Methodist polity and church law, undergirding them is the assumption that LGBTQ persons who live out that identity by marrying are sinners, because the plain teaching of Scripture says so.  To say otherwise is to deny the authority of Scripture.

I have written elsewhere (see especially my blogs from here to here) about the various biblical texts cited in this conversation, and explained why I do not believe that they compel us to regard same-sex relations as inherently sinful, or LGBTQ persons as sinners. Here, however, I will only say that if “the Bible says so” was enough for us, then United Methodist Christians would not ordain women, permit divorce and remarriage, or for that matter eat pork.  On most issues, we understand that Scripture requires prayerful interpretation and careful application: passages must be read and understood in their proper context, and with due humility–because my own simple, common-sense, straightforward reading of the Bible (of course Noah’s ark was a boat!) may prove to be mistaken!

This does not mean that “anything goes” in biblical interpretation–the words of Scripture clearly cannot mean anything.  It does, however, mean that I must acknowledge that my own reading of any text is not the meaning of the text for all persons and all time: it is an interpretation, among other interpretations.  So I must hold my own reading lightly, keeping it and myself accountable to criticism.  I must read carefully and prayerfully, listening to the Spirit, the text, and to my sisters and brothers–especially those with whom I disagree.

In a letter to the Western Jurisdiction, Bishop Oliveto wrote:

I know there are many who are lamenting my election. Our task is to love deeply, which means standing before those who are angry, anxious, or fearful and be a witness to all they are feeling, and to remain in relationship through the power of Christ’s love. The best of our United Methodist tradition is when we can hold the tension of our differences for the sake of our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. God has called us for such a time as this. Can we do it? “Lord, we are able!”

 I pray that Bishop Oliveto is right, not only about United Methodist Christians, but about all who faithfully seek understanding through Scripture–that “we can hold the tension of our differences for the sake of our mission.”

Duelling Mottoes

Monday, July 4th is, of course, Independence Day—the 240th birthday of our nation.  The Great Seal of the United States, depicted above, is emblazoned with the Latin motto, E Pluribus Unum.  This Latin phrase was adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782 as the motto for the Seal of the United States, and it has been used on our currency since 1795.

Yet this is not our national motto–not officially, anyway.  That would be “In God We Trust”–approved by our Legislature and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 30, 1956 (the year I was born).  That same law also stipulated that this motto, which had already been placed on some coins since 1864, be printed on all currency issued after that date.


E [an abbreviation for ex] pluribus unum” means “out of many, one.” It was suggested as a motto by Pierre Eugene du Simitierre, one of the designers working on the seal. While the Founders didn’t go with his design (which is rather fiddly!), they liked his motto!

Apparently, du Simitierre got the motto from the title page of The Gentleman’s Magazine, a popular magazine of the day that (rather like Reader’s Digest) took its content from a number of places. But where did the editors of this magazine find it? Some think the Latin phrase came originally from a line in Moretum,” a poem attributed to Virgil, which describes grinding together many ingredients to make a cheese spread:

Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour [color est e pluribus unus]

A more dignified proposal is that the phrase is adapted from Cicero’s De Officiis (“Concerning Duties”) 1.17.56, regarding friendship:

When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many [unus fiat ex pluribus], as Pythagoras wishes things to be in friendship.

But whatever the original source, we can see why du Simitierre proposed this motto, and why the Founders liked it.  It well describes the United States of America, as many states unified as a single nation.

Having two mottoes is only a problem if we see a conflict between them.  Does trusting in God preclude our unity? Or, does diversity threaten our trust in God?  Some may think that it does: that real Americans (or real Christians) must look like me, or at least, think and act like me, and that the borders between those inside and those outside must be clearly marked and defended.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and emerging church leader, preached after the slaughter of 49 LGBTQ people, mostly Latinos and Latinas, in Orlando:

. . . what I really want to do in moments like these is to hide a[nd] divide.  That’s my instinct.

But the poison that created the disease cannot also be the medicine that cures it. And dividing people up is what creates white supremacy and religious extremism and purity systems and homophobia and segregation and bathroom laws and yet what is  my reaction to all of this? Blame the bad people who vote differently.  Blame the bad people who think differently.  Blame the bad people who post on social media differently.  Blame allies who aren’t reacting in the perfect way they should. My instinct is to  immediately divide people up even further until I’m entirely alone.

Which brings us to the healing of Naaman the leper, in 2 Kings 5:1-14.  In this passage, Naaman is the ultimate outsider. Not only is he a Gentile (a non-Israelite), he comes from Aram, or Syria—in those days, Israel’s sworn enemy. Further, not only is he a Syrian, he is a soldier in Syria’s army, and not only a soldier, but a general—one of Israel’s oppressors!

Believe it or not, it gets worse: Naaman finds about about the wonder-working prophet Elisha from a Hebrew slave, a young girl stolen from her home and family in one of Syria’s raids (2 Kgs 5:2-3)!  Adding insult to injury, Naaman then tries to deal his way to a healing, through political pressure (my king writing to your king) and bribery (2 Kgs 5:5-7).

Naaman’s healing comes in a way that makes abundantly clear that it is God, not Elisha, who does the healing.  Elisha never even sees Naaman! Through his servant, he commands the Syrian general to immerse himself in the Jordan seven times.  In his snobbery, Naaman is on the point of refusing to do what the prophet commands:

Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger (2 Kgs 5:12).

Yet, despite all of this, Naaman is healed anyway.  Moreover, even though he misunderstands who God is (Naaman takes “two mule loads” of dirt from Israel so as to worship Israel’s God, as though the LORD were somehow tied to Israel’s soil) and what commitment to God means (the Syrian general continues to go to Rimmon’s temple, for political expediency; see 2 Kgs 5:17-18), God does not take the healing back!  Indeed, if we read closely, God’s presence and involvement with Naaman began long before he ever came to see Elisha: “through him the LORD had given victory to Aram” (2 Kgs 5:1).

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus retells Naaman’s story for exactly this reason—to show that God is at work even among those unlike us, whom we see as outsiders. The response of his hometown crowd in Nazareth shows how popular that sermon was–they try to throw him off a cliff!

In the Gospel reading for Sunday (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus sends out seventy followers.  Traditionally, this was the number of the foreign nations, based on the the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. The theme, again, is a call to outreach and inclusion for all the world.

This, in the end, is the reason that, for those who believe, “In God We Trust” belongs, inextricably, with E Pluribus Unum.  Those who trust in God know that making one out of many is God’s design and delight:

This is what God planned for the climax of all times: to bring all things together in Christ, the things in heaven along with the things on earth (Ephesians 1:10).

It is not that we insiders, who have Christ as our possession, take him with us to those outside. It is, rather that we go to find him among the outsiders, where Christ already is: with foreigners and lepers and clueless, unclean folk like Naaman.

Nadia Bolz-Weber, again, has our number–and reminds us why this unseemly grace is such good news:

I mean, I may want a vigilante saviour. But what I need is a saviour who brings a swift, terrible mercy. What I want is a dividing saviour – who will draw the same lines I would draw…but what I need is a saviour who makes us one, a saviour, who lifted up, draws all people to himself. Not just the worthy. Not just the lovely, the likely and the lucky. All people. I need a saviour who commands me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me – pray for those whose hate blinds them to their own goodness and the worth and dignity of others. And I need a saviour this merciful because it is I who needs this much mercy.


Open-Carry Christians?


Early Sunday morning, April 12, 2016, forty-nine LGBTQ people (pictured above) were shot dead, and fifty-three more were wounded.  They were gunned down in the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida by a homophobic, hatred-obsessed, historically violent man.  He tried to legitimate his hate by dedicating this act to ISIS, but there is no evidence that he was actually in contact with this terrorist organization, that it funded him or helped him in planning his attack–or  for that matter, that he was even Muslim in much more than name.

In the days since, some (such as Mr. Trump) have blamed Islam, while others have blamed the victims. Still others have wondered why, despite having been investigated by the FBI for voicing sympathy with terrorist groups, and even being on a terror watch list until 2014, this person was legally able to buy “a SIG Sauer MCX rifle — a spinoff of the military-style AR-15 — as well as a 9-millimeter handgun at a Florida gun shop about a week before the attack.”  After four attempts by the Senate to pass legislation calling for universal background checks and barring persons on the terror watchlist from legally purchasing weapons had failed, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse wrote:

Not one senator in either party believes that someone who presents a serious terrorism risk should be able to waltz into a gun shop and legally buy powerful firearms. Yet partisanship, a reluctance to compromise and the influence of powerful special interests again prevented lawmakers from achieving a consensus, as four plans went down on Monday to entirely predictable defeats.

It was just the latest instance in which lawmakers agreed that something needed to be done on an issue of national importance, but were unable to find a way to do it in Washington’s hyperpolitical atmosphere.

Others have responded to these same questions with a fervent defense of the Second Amendment, and of their own personal gun ownership.  As Chris Williams notes, many of the most passionate defenders of their personal right to bear arms identify as Evangelical Christians:

[S]ome of the most enthusiastic and passionate gun lovers also are followers of Christ. Whenever this debate rears its head, the most passionate gun supporters in my social media feed are often those who are also outspoken Christians. I once had a youth pastor friend who, when he heard about a shooting, said that it would never happen at our church because he’d be carrying his gun in service   . . . I see Christian friends on social media post about how excited they are to buy a new gun and boast about their stopping power. I know there are likely men and women in our church who carry concealed weapons. And I see Christians boast on Facebook that if they’d been in that nightclub/church/movie theater/school, they’d have had their gun on them — and things would have been different.

So, do the teachings of Jesus legitimate open-carry Christians?  There are a number of passages where Jesus addresses the use of the sword.  Matthew 26:51-54Mark 14:47-49, and Luke 22:49-51  all describe one of the people with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane drawing a sword against those who came to arrest Jesus, cutting off the ear of the high priest’s slave; John 18:10-11 says that the assailant was Peter, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. In all of these passages, Jesus opposes this violence.  Indeed, in Matthew 26:52, Jesus says, “Put the sword back into its place. All those who use the sword will die by the sword.”

Yet, in Matthew 10:34, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”  Does this passage legitimate Christians arming themselves?  Probably not, as Luke’s version of this saying demonstrates. Luke 12:51 reads, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division” (Greek diamerismon). Apparently, Luke’s version of this saying provides an interpretation of what “the sword” means in Matthew’s version.  In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  Jesus is not calling for his followers to take up the sword against their opponents.

But then, there is Luke 22:35-37:

Jesus said to them, “When I sent you out without a wallet, bag, or sandals, you didn’t lack anything, did you?” [see Luke 9:3]

They said, “Nothing.”

Then he said to them, “But now, whoever has a wallet must take it, and likewise a bag. And those who don’t own a sword must sell their clothes and buy one.  I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in relation to me: And he was counted among criminals [Isaiah 53:12Indeed, what’s written about me is nearing completion.

This saying, found only in Luke, conflicts with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere–as Jesus himself acknowledges.  Still, some Christians base their ownership of weapons, and their advocacy for gun ownership, on this passage.  Indeed, even Chris Williams, in his blog cited above, says (apparently regarding this passage):

Yes, I realize Christ also at one point advised his disciples to buy a sword. I don’t think the Bible can be used as pro or against owning a gun. But I think Jesus’ attitude toward violence and retaliation speak volumes about what our attitude should be about these things. 


Could Luke 22:36 preserve an old memory that Jesus did call for his followers to take up the sword?  Reza Aslan claims that he did just that:

Jesus had warned his disciples that they would come for him.  That is why they are hiding in Gethsemane, shrouded in darkness, and armed with swords–just as Jesus had commanded.  They are ready for a confrontation. . . Resistance is useless, however, and the disciples are forced to abandon their master and flee into the night (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth [New York: Random House, 2014], 146).

On the other hand, Evangelical blogger Preston Sprinkle lists several commentators who argue that in this passage, much as in Matthew 10:34, the sword is intended metaphorically:

The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is “a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice.” Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically “points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge.” Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the ‘sword’ signals” that “the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution,” which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.”

Following this statement by Jesus, the disciples run a quick inventory, and tell Jesus that they have two swords.  Jesus replies, Hikanon esti: “It is enough” (Luke 22:38, NRSV)  But what does that mean?  Is Jesus saying that two swords will be sufficient?  Given that there were eleven of them, that seems unlikely–at least, if this passage actually is about Christians arming themselves against their enemies.  Another possibility is that Jesus is calling an end to the discussion–perhaps because the disciples have understood him too literally:  the CEB renders this phrase, “Enough of that!”

The reference to Isaiah 53:12 in this passage, where the Servant of the LORD is “numbered with poshe’im“–that is, “rebels”–could lead us to Luke’s point.  Perhaps Jesus’ followers need to be “armed” because, to fulfill this passage of Scripture, Jesus must be taken from among armed resisters. Their resistance is only a token, however, meant symbolically to fulfill the prophecy.  Later at Gethsemane, the disciples ask, “Lord, should we fight with our swords?” (Luke 22:49). But when they do so, Jesus rebukes them (see the discussion above)–in fact, in Luke, Jesus heals the slave’s wounded ear (Luke 22:51).

Whatever Luke 22:35-38 may mean, then, it is clear that Jesus opposes the use of the sword even here.  Therefore, whatever legal or moral arguments we may make regarding the use or possession of weapons, we will have to leave Jesus out of them.  Jesus, after all, seems little concerned about personal rights–his own, or anyone else’s!  He calls for those who follow him to love their enemies, not to arm themselves against them.  Let us hold the victims of this hate crime in Orlando, and their friends and families, in our hearts, as they are held in God’s heart.  Let us pray for peace, and work for justice, confident that God’s love abides, and will triumph.



God Is Playing Jazz

Last night, my wife Wendy and I were privileged to be part of the audience at a performance by my former student Jeremy Fisher and the Jeremy Fisher Quartet–the opening event of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s “Being Church” conference.  Billed as “Jazz and Theology,” this concert/lecture/seminar combined sacred music (Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” and the premier of a jazz setting of “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again” by Mr. Fisher) and secular, with the invitation to the audience to think about the theological implications of elements of jazz performance such as communication and improvisation.

As it happens, at the top of my head right now is my current project on creation in Scripture.  What does it mean to confess God as creator?  How is God related to the world that God calls into being?  So as I listened to Jeremy’s comments about jazz–and the performances that illumined those words–I wondered if they had anything to contribute to these questions.  I am persuaded that they do.

Playing jazz involves a continual conversation among the musicians in a group, as they pass musical ideas back and forth.  Just so, theologian Marjorie Suchocki proposes that in Genesis 1, God creates through “call and response:”

This is no “clock maker” deistic God, impassively spinning a world into space.  Instead we have a God who evaluates and responds to the world in each moment, building on just this earthly response with the next divine action.  The text portrays a responsive God interacting with a responsive world (Divinity & Diversity: A Christian Affirmation of Religious Pluralism [Nashville: Abingdon, 2003], 28).

This divine responsiveness is evident from the first.  In Genesis 1:3-5, God not only calls light into being, but evaluates and appreciates God’s creation (“God saw how good the light was,” Gen 1:4).  God’s personal involvement with creation is evident when God names the light and the darkness (“day” and “night”).

Just as we give names to our pets, our homes–and sometimes, even our automobiles!–and so personify them, so God names God’s creation, calling the world into relationship with Godself.

This relationship becomes even more evident as God begins to call upon the world to participate in its own coming into being.  After calling forth the dry land from the waters, God empowers the emerging world to take part in God’s creation:

God said, “Let the earth grow plant life: plants yielding seeds and fruit trees bearing fruit with seeds inside it, each according to its kind throughout the earth.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:11).

God invites the earth to participate in its own creation, by putting forth (Hebrew tadshe’:  “sprout,” or “green up”) green plants.  Further, the plants themselves, each bearing “fruit with seeds inside it,” hold within them the possibility of continuing God’s creation, carrying life forward into the future.  God creates a world capable of continuous regeneration.

Again, on Day Five, God invites the world to take part in its own coming into being: “God said, ‘Let the waters swarm with living things’” (Gen 1:20).

God invites the water to bring forth living creatures, much as the plants had emerged from the earth.  So too, on Day Six:

God said, “Let the earth produce [Hebrew totse’, that is, “cause to come forth”] every kind of living thing: livestock, crawling things, and wildlife.” And that’s what happened (Gen 1:24).

There is a consonance between Genesis 1, where God empowers the world to bring forth life, and contemporary evolutionary biology.  Biologists strive to understand the emergence and development of life in naturalistic terms, just as an engineer designing a dam or an astronomer calculating the orbit of a planet strives to make predictions based on observable, natural laws.  Genesis 1 is not biology.  Israel’s ancient priests knew nothing of DNA or mitochondria or the evolution of species.  Their description of creation proceeds from their idea of God, not from investigation into the world’s workings.  However, their insight that God empowers God’s world for self-creation, and invites its participation in its own coming into being, lends support to the biologist’s quest for understanding.

It also speaks to the relationship between God’s sovereignty and the freedom of God’s creation.  As theologian and particle physicist John Polkinghorne observes, in Genesis 1 God endows the universe “with the power of true becoming” (The Faith of a Physicist [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994], 81): that is, God enables the world to participate in its own creation, and grants it the power and freedom to be, independent of Godself!

Calling an autonomous universe into being “involves divine acceptance of the risk of the existence of the other” (Polkinghorne, 81).  But the God of Genesis is neither anxious nor controlling.  God loves the world God makes!  Again and again through the first six days, God celebrates the beauty and wholeness of God’s world, calling the creation “good” (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).

I think that jazz is a perfect analogy for God’s ongoing creative relationship with God’s world. Rather than following a set and immutable musical score, God is genuinely and authentically responsive to the world, calling forth continually from the universe the best, but actively and creatively responding even to our failures.  Paul puts this well: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).  The point, note, is not that all things are good–clearly, they are not.  Nor is it that all things are willed by God: as though God pushes the cancer button, or pulls the hurricane switch.  Rather, it is that God is at work in and through all things, ultimately willing the good.

To some, this view of God will seem wimpy and indecisive, and this view of reality uncertain and threatening.  Isn’t God in control?  Doesn’t God have a plan, for our lives and for our world?  I would answer that of course God has a plan, but that need not require a view of God as the only real actor in the universe, setting the cosmos at its creation toward its fixed and inevitable future.

God is not only the first and final cause of the universe–its source and its meaning–but God is also continuously active and present.  Such a God would of course do what God did, coming to us as one of us in the person of Jesus–not to compel our obedience, but to love us into relationship.

One final visit to the jazz analogy.  The Jeremy Fisher Quartet played Dave Brubek’s classic “Take Five.”  Instead of Paul Desmond’s alto sax, however, the melody line was carried at first by Jeremy’s guitar.  Nor did the drum line, the bass, or the piano parts echo the above link.  Yet it was plainly “Take Five” that they were playing–and very well.  So too, to say that God is authentically responsive to the world is not to say that God has no plan–as though the only alternative to playing a fixed score was playing random notes.  It is rather to say, as Paul does, that God is at work in all things for good. God is playing jazz.


Emergent church leaders Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans will be at the PTS “Being Church” conference Friday and Saturday, June 10 and 11.  Join us for serious thought about what it means and will mean to be the church in this new, still-young century.


Babel Undone

This Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, the birthday of the church.  The Old Testament reading for the day, however, is Genesis 11:1-9, the famous story of the tower of Babel, where “the LORD mixed up [Hebrew balal, punning on “Babel”] the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD dispersed them over all the earth” (Gen 11:9).

Doubtless this passage was selected because the Acts account of the descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13) alludes to the story of Babel. There, the Spirit conveys the gift of tongues to the followers of Jesus praying in the upper room, prompting Pentecost pilgrims from across the Roman world to declare,

“Look, aren’t all the people who are speaking Galileans, every one of them?  How then can each of us hear them speaking in our native language? Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; as well as residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the regions of Libya bordering Cyrene; and visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism), Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the mighty works of God in our own languages!” (Acts 2:7-11).

With the coming of the Holy Spirit, the curse of Babel is undone.

This is not the first time that Scripture recalls the Babel story, however.  Zephaniah 3:9-13 deals with the restoration of Judah after the Babylonian exile. But this promise of restoration begins with the nations, not with Judah!

Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech,
        that all of them will call on the name of the LORD
        and will serve him as one (Zeph 3:9).

The Hebrew is ki-‘az ‘ekhpok ‘el-‘amim saphah berurtah (“then I will change to the peoples a pure speech”[?]), which clearly assumes that something unspecified will be changed; the CEB “I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech” seems to make best sense. Again, the allusion is to the Babel story–indeed, in the three-year cycle of Scripture readings once used in the synagogue, Zephaniah 3:9-17, 20 was read together with Genesis 11:1 (Ehud ben Zvi, A Historical-Critical Study of the Book of Zephaniah, BZAW 198 [Berlin: de Gruyter, 1991], 24-25).  While in Zephaniah, the nations are given “a pure speech” (saphah berurtah), in Genesis God confuses their speech (again, saphah; see Gen 11:7), so that humanity, which had been united by “one language and the same words” (Gen 11:1), became scattered. Zephaniah envisions the undoing of Babel’s curse, to the end

that all of them will call on the name of the Lord
        and will serve him as one (Zeph 3:9).

This promise, that the scattered and separate nations will one day be reunited in the worship and service of the LORD, calls to mind the Zion song in Isaiah 2:1-4:

In the days to come
    the mountain of the LORD’s house
    will be the highest of the mountains.
    It will be lifted above the hills;
        peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to theLORD’s mountain,
    to the house of Jacob’s God
        so that he may teach us his ways
        and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
    the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
    and settle disputes of mighty nations.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
    and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
    they will no longer learn how to make war.

In Zephaniah, reversing the curse of Babel in turn reverses the curse of exile–an idea expressed, appropriately, through word play!  Just as, through the confusion (Hebrew balal; Gen 11:7) of their speech the nations had been scattered (Hebrew puts; Gen 11:8), so through the purification (Hebrew barar; Zeph 3:9) of the nations’ speech God returns the exiles—those God calls “my dispersed ones” (Hebrew bath-putsay; Zeph 3:10).

Just as God has purified the speech of the nations, reuniting them in order to deliver God’s people from exile, so also God purifies the people Israel. The restored nation will no longer be haughty, but “humble and powerless” (Zeph 3:12; Hebrew ‘oni wadal).  This small and humbled remnant of Israel, the prophet says

won’t commit injustice;
        they won’t tell lies;
        a deceitful tongue won’t be found on their lips (Zeph 3:13).

Thus, Israel’s speech will be purified, just like the speech of the nations! As the flock of the LORD,
            They will graze and lie down;
                no one will make them afraid (Zeph 3:13).

This image of the LORD as the good shepherd calls to mind John 10:1-18, as well as Psalm 23.  But the rest conveyed by this peaceful, bucolic image is only possible after the nations have been reunited, by being gifted with “a pure speech.”  Just as at Pentecost, the Spirit sends that first church into the streets to declare God’s praise in the languages of all the nations–undoing Babel–so in Zephaniah Israel’s peace is gained, not through the conquest or destruction of the nations, but through their healing.

This election season, Mr. Trump in particular has appealed to our fear and suspicion of the other.  As Thomas B. Edsall observes,

He claims that as president he will impose harsh tariffs on imports from China, suspend Muslim immigration, deport 11 million immigrants and build an $8 billion wall that Mexico will pay for.

Sadly, ethnocentrism–the belief that people like me are better than other people–is alive and well in modern America.  Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Drew Engelhardt (from Vanderbilt University) asked whites about how favorable to unfavorable they found blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, gays and lesbians, and transgender people, as compared to themselves.  Overall, 23% of all white respondents rated these groups favorably, while 57% rated them unfavorably.  Broken down by political affiliation, 41% of whites identifying as Democrats, 59% of Independents, and 73% of those identifying as Republicans rated people unlike themselves unfavorably.

May Pentecost be a time for our confession of and repentance from the sin of ethnocentrism.  After all, if the prophet is right, our own healing can only come with the healing of the nations.  It is only when Babel is undone that we find the Spirit’s presence in our midst, and can join those first Christians in “declaring the mighty works of God”!



Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has a Pentecost resource kit for pastors and others planning worship or teaching classes in this season of the church year. It includes a Bible Guy blog on Pentecost from 2013, as well as two faculty sermons, a video, and lesson plan.  You can access this resource at