All Are Welcome: Faith, Difference, and Justice

For each day of Lent, I will be posting here a Lenten devotional, composed at the behest of the Anti-Racism Team of the Western PA Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  These devotionals will also be available, as a paperback book or on Kindle, through Amazon.

Each week, this devotional for the forty days of Lent will consider passages, mostly from the Hebrew Bible, that stress God’s love for diversity. Each weekday the devotional reading will consider one particular aspect of that week’s Scripture readings, concluding with a prayer. Our emphasis throughout will be not so much on the negative—that racism and exclusion are unacceptable (although of course they are!)—but on the positive: that God has created us in all our racial and cultural and sexual diversity, and that God loves and values us in and for our differences, not in spite of them.

On each Sunday, the Gospel for that day from the lectionary will be presented without comment. You are invited to meditate on these Gospel readings by observing the spiritual practice of Lectio Divina. This Christian discipline involves reading the Gospel slowly and carefully, attentive to what is said, and also striving with a Spirit-inspired imagination to be present within the narrative. A helpful guide to Lectio Divina by Dr. Martha Robbins, Director of the Pneuma Institute and Joan Marshall Associate Professor Emerita of Pastoral Care at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is presented below. The Pneuma Institute is an independent, ecumenical organization offering workshops, retreats, and services pertaining to spiritual growth and development, and spiritual leadership in today’s world. For more information about the Pneuma Institute visit www.PneumaInstitute.com, and to obtain an order form for Dr. Robbins’ Guided Meditations on Sacred Scripture, email her at mrobbins@pts.edu.

God bless you as you read, reflect, and pray through this season of repentance and preparation.


Adapted by Martha Robbins, Th.D.


Choose a passage from Scripture: (Also good to read passage before going to bed.)

Recall that God is yearning to reveal God’s Word to you; to surround you with Love as God is always present to you. Attitude of expectancy, willingness, openness.

Trust that God will speak in God’s own way and time.

Prepare yourself for listening to God by breathing, centering, focusing.

Ask for the gift to know, love, serve God more fully as revealed to you in this Scripture.

READ (Lectio)

Read the passage slowly. Perhaps a verse at a time, aloud, or in rhythm with your breathing. Notice which words, phrases, verses catch your attention. Repeat words, phrases whenever you desire – especially those that draw your attention.

MEDITATE (Meditatio)

Reflect on what the Word may be revealing to you or how it may have something to say to you about who God is; what Christ may be saying to you; what it may illuminate about your relationship with God, family, others, your work/ministry, the poor, study, vocation. How does this Word (phrase, verse) addressed to you intersect your life?

Imagine yourself in the story (if a story passage) & let it unfold. What you are seeing, and hearing from the characters in this story? What is your response to what you see and hear? Allow yourself to interact with any of the characters in the Bible story. Let the Holy Spirit reveal the meanings of what you see, hear, say and its implications for your own life.

Linger wherever you feel drawn or moved, if a word or phrase touches you (e.g., you feel God’s love, a sense of peace, joy, sorrow, confused or disturbed by what the words are saying to you). Don’t hurry to move on. Let these words sink in, “chew on them” in order for them to become a part of you. Repeat them, take them to your heart.

PRAY (Oratio)

Let prayer arise out of you, thanking God, praising God, or sharing your sadness, confusion, questions, joys, or ask for God’s help or forgiveness. Sometimes your prayer may be wordless – experiencing joy, gratitude, wonder, tears. Whatever is going on within you can be gathered up and directed toward God as the Spirit prays within you. Be honest with God; carry on a conversation as one friend to another. Offer yourself or those parts of yourself that were revealed to you to God; let God’s word heal, consecrate, and transform you, “let this mind and heart be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

CONTEMPLATE (Contemplatio)

Let yourself be drawn into a deep peace, joy, love, silence! Let God’s Spirit pray in you.

INCARNATE   (Incarnatio)  

Ask the Holy Spirit for guidance in ways to embody this Word in your daily life.   What is God inviting you to do?


Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a Prophet?

Outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama stands this monument to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are carved into the fountain at its center.  On the wall around this centerpiece is engraved, “. . .until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The attribution of the quote is correct: this exact wording comes from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August  28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., during the March on Washington: one of the most famous speeches of modern times:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

But Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, certainly knew that when he said those words, he was paraphrasing the words of the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)

This was not the first time that Dr. King cited this passage from Amos. Indeed, he cited this passage earlier that very year, in April, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. From “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

In his book Why We Can’t WaitDr. King remembered writing his response to this open letter: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”  The letter was published in June 1963 in three magazines, including Christian Century; but it was in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly that it reached its largest audience.  It has since been reprinted countless times–but it takes some looking to find “A Call for Unity”!

Those eight white Alabama clergymen who disapproved of Dr. King felt that civil disobedience is inappropriate for Christians. Evidently, Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  Oddly, we still sometimes think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos, there was no separating the two.

The passage from Amos cited by Dr. King powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Without right living, our prayers and hymns are just noise. And lest we think that this is just Amos’ view, or just the Old Testament’s view, the New Testament also proclaims this truth:

If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen (1 John 4:20).

Without justice, right worship is impossible.  However, I am also persuaded that right living is impossible without right worship–or at least, very, very difficult!  If we seek to establish God’s justice on our own steam, we will burn out quickly. That’s why Jesus named two great commandments: love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). Just as love for the neighbor shows forth our love for God, so it is as we love God, and know ourselves loved by God in our worship, that we are empowered to love our neighbor.

While those eight prominent white Alabama clergymen may have disapproved of Dr. King, Amos would have heartily approved! Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day, declaring that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).

Amos confronted both the religious and the political leaders of his own day for their involvement in injustice.  Amaziah, high priest at Bethel, condemned Amos as an outside agitator (!) from the southern kingdom of Judah, and ordered him to go back home:

You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house (Amos 7:12-13).

Amos would have been delighted by Dr. King’s response to the charge that he too was an “outsider.”  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. 

Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a prophet, like Amos?  That is not an easy question for an Old Testament scholar to answer!  After all, the prophets of ancient Israel believed that the words that they bore were God’s words, not their own: that is why Amos, like other prophets in Israel, speaks in God’s name and with God’s voice, in the first person (“I hate, I reject your festivals. . . If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food I won’t be pleased”), as God’s spokesperson. Dr. King certainly never claimed such an exalted status for himself, or for his words.

But the prophets were also ministers of God’s justice, shaking Israel out of its complacency and calling their people to remember who they were, and live as God’s people. As a voice raised on behalf of the oppressed, as a tireless laborer in the cause of God’s justice, as an example of what one person devoted to God’s call can accomplish—Dr. King was a prophetic witness to his own time, and to ours.

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons; today, when the Southern Poverty Law Center records 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation in the month after our recent election, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period; ” today, when the continually rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”


AFTERWORD:  Thank you to former student and colleague in ministry Rev. Chad Bogdewic, who invited me to preach the sermon on which this blog is based at a service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at First UMC in Ellwood City, PA; to Rev. Angelique Bradford, pastor at Ellwood City First, for hosting this event, and to the Ellwood City Ministerium, for planning it.


Saved Through Water

This Sunday, the first Sunday after Epiphany, celebrates the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist.  In the Gospel for this day, Matthew 3:13-17, John doesn’t want to baptize Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”  But Jesus insists–“Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness”–and John at last agrees.

Why this reluctance?  Earlier, John had said,

I baptize with water those of you who have changed your hearts and lives. The one who is coming after me is stronger than I am. I’m not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).

John is not worthy to baptize Jesus–and indeed anticipates that Jesus has come to baptize him with the Spirit.  But Jesus says that his own baptism is “necessary” first.  What could this mean?  Perhaps Jesus must be baptized to model the life of believers to come.  But perhaps Jesus must be baptized in fulfillment of the model he himself is following.

We may find a window into what this means by considering other biblical texts concerning baptism.  The apostle Paul famously found the waters of baptism to represent death and burial:

Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Romans 6:3-5).

Jesus’ baptism prefigures his death and burial, while we who follow him are baptized “into his death”–dying to self and sin.  Similarly the author of 1 Peter saw the waters of baptism in terms of death and destruction:

Noah built an ark in which a few (that is, eight) lives were rescued through water. Baptism is like that. It saves you now—not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God. Your salvation comes through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at God’s right side. Now that he has gone into heaven, he rules over all angels, authorities, and powers (1 Peter 3:19-22).

Like Noah’s flood, which swept away a world, baptism marks for the believer the end of an old world and way of life, and entrance into a new world, in which one stands before God in “good conscience.”  The means of salvation through water for Noah and his family was of course the ark.  As I have discussed before, the term used for this construction is intriguing–and may point us toward another image for Jesus’ baptism, and ours.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word used for Noah’s ark is kibotos (see also Matthew 24:38; Luke 17:27; Hebrews 11:7)–a word meaning, not “boat” or “vessel,” but “box.”  In fact, that same word is used in both the New Testament and the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, not only for Noah’s ark, but also for another box: the Ark of the Covenant (see Exod 25:10, 14, 21; Heb 9:4; Rev 11:19) –although the Hebrew uses different words for that structure (‘aron, also meaning “box”) and Noah’s (Hebrew tebat).

The word tebat is a loanword from the Egyptian tbt, meaning “chest.” It appears in only two places in the Hebrew Bible: 26 times in Genesis 6—8 for Noah’s ark, and twice in Exodus 2, for the reed basket in which baby Moses was placed.  You may have heard the old joke, “How many animals did Moses take on the ark?” “None—that was Noah and the ark.” Well, as it turns out, Moses did have an ark, and in the Hebrew a clear connection is made between Noah’s and Moses’ deliverance.

The story of Moses’ birth is told in Exodus 2:1-10.  Moses was the child of a man and women of the priestly tribe of Levi. His birth was a great risk, since Pharaoh had sentenced all Hebrew baby boys to death by drowning in the Nile (Exod 1:22). His parents hid him as long as they could, but when he was three months old, they surrendered to the inevitable, and Moses’ mother and sister took him to the river themselves. But instead of drowning the baby, they put him in a tebat (rendered in the NRSV as “basket”) and set him afloat—hoping against hope, perhaps, that someone would find him and raise him in safety.

Not only is the same Hebrew word used both for Moses’ little ark and Noah’s enormous ark, but they are also prepared similarly: both are coated inside and out with tar, to make them water-tight (Genesis 6:14; Exodus 2:3).  Just as Noah led his family and the world’s animals into his ark, after which the LORD closed the door (Gen 7:16), so Moses’ mother placed her son in his tiny ark, trusting him into the hands of God.  Careful readers of Scripture, when they read of Moses’ ark, recall God’s deliverance of Noah, his family, and the world’s creatures in their ark, and know that as grim as Moses’ future seems at that moment to be, this baby, like Noah, will be saved through water.

The reader needs those reassuring links to Noah’s story!  The little basket floats into the Egyptian princess and her attendants, who are bathing in the Nile (Exod 2:5-9).  Surely this will be the end for Moses.  Pharaoh himself had commanded that any Egyptian who found a Hebrew boy was to drown him in the Nile—and surely, if anyone could be expected to obey Pharaoh’s edicts, it was his own daughter! But instead, even though the Egyptian princess knew that this child must be one of the Hebrews, she decided to keep him and raise him as her own. Moses’ sister, who had been watching from the bank, stepped up with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for the baby, and so Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household by Moses’ own mother!

As Dale Allison in particular has noted, Matthew understands Jesus, in many ways, as The New Moses (for example, Jesus goes down into Egypt and returns; see Matt 2:13-15).  Perhaps, then, Matthew saw Jesus’ baptism as a necessary reflection of Moses’ river ordeal.  Perhaps Jesus, like Moses, is passing through the water, showing his people the way to salvation. Pushing this parallel, we could ask where the ark is in Matthew–but then, perhaps that is the point.  Jesus doesn’t need an ark. Jesus is the ark as well–saving us through the waters of death and destruction.  With the great African-American gospel hymnist and preacher Charles Tindley, we can confidently pray:

When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the storm of life is raging,

Stand by me.

When the world is tossing me

Like a ship upon the sea,

Thou who rulest wind and water,

Stand by me.


In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar.  By their reckoning, January 6 marked the beginning of Christmastide, not its conclusion.  So, to our Orthodox sisters and brothers, a Merry Christmas!


What Child Is This?

The carol “What Child Is This?,” sung to the old English tune Greensleeves, has always been a favorite.  Recently, however, I heard a sermon from PTS colleague Derek Davenport that caused me to see this carol in an entirely different light.  I had always heard, and sung this, to the arrangement above, with “This, this is Christ the King” sung as a repeated chorus.  However, it turns out that this is not the original form of the lyric.

The words are by William Chatterton Dix, who was born in Bristol, England on June 14, 1837, and died September 9, 1898, in Cheddar, Somerset, England.  Dix managed a marine insurance company in Glasgow, but poetry was his passion: he wrote more than 40 hymns over the course of his life, of which this one, written in 1865, is certainly the most famous.

Dix’s lyric is restored in the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God.  You’ll find his original words below.  Notice in particular how the refrain in the second verse poignantly answers the question this verse poses: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” In this form, this carol is a beautiful proclamation of the whole gospel of Jesus Christ.  I present it with my hopes and prayers for you all in this coming year.  Have a glorious Christmas, and  blessed New Year!

What Child is this who, laid to rest
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom Angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and Angels sing;
Haste, haste, to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

So bring Him incense, gold and myrrh,
Come peasant, king to own Him;
The King of kings salvation brings,
Let loving hearts enthrone Him

Raise, raise a song on high,
The virgin sings her lullaby.
Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.




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.”