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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Legally Blonde; Wealth only gets you so far

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "Prophetically Incorrect." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between us and our neighbors in political and cultural ways through our faith. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

..."they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals." Amos 2.6

Over the course of any week, I meet a few people who know about the Bible, about Christianity, and are genuinely interested in working on their relationship with the God of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Invariably, when discussing some verse of the Bible, they offer up a version of this: "Who can know that?"

What they mean by that question is usually some specific historical or intellectual piece of knowledge that makes sense of a particular verse of the Bible. That is, without advanced study in the historical and intellectual background, how can any regular person, even an educated one (but not necessarily in the Bible) understand what the Bible might mean; or, even more importantly, what God might be offering as a word of comfort or challenge?

Throughout Christian history this very issue (the Bible has specific cultural and historical constructs that make it understandable) has led Christians to different ways to respond. One, is to take the Bible away from people who don't have the necessary training and knowledge to understand it. People often do this for themselves, saying "This doesn't make sense to me. Why bother reading the Bible?" And so people don't, and the Bible often replaces the broken leg on the couch in the den rather than being a book read and cherished.

Another way to deal with the issue of the Bible being too hard to understand without advanced study is to say that there is no "right" answer to the Bible's meaning in its verses, and whatever you get out of it, even nothing, is OK, because what the verses mean are whatever you think they mean. This works for a personal devotion, say, reading the Bible daily each morning as a way to listen to God; but it doesn't do much for convincing other people of what God might actually be saying or doing. Most people need a little more than "it seems like to me" as a way to get behind a way to understand a verse, a chapter, or even the Bible itself.

Take a look at the line above from Amos, who is our Biblical companion during this series of Darkwood Brew. At first glance, the verse seems pretty straightforward: "they" (Israel) sells the righteous (other Israelites) for silver (money.) In other words: Amos is condemning the practice of slavery. Worse, he seems to be saying that the "needy" don't get sold for money, but rather they get sold for a "pair of sandals." Wow! How cheap must a person be if you can sell them for a pair of shoes? I tell you this, if you could buy a person to do your laundry, cook your meals, mow your grass, vacuum your house for the REST OF YOUR LIFE, and all you had to do was give her or his parents a pair of your shoes, would you do it?

Amos thinks that would be bad enough, but his condemnation is even worse than what you are are reading right now. Because the righteous and the needy are being sold for silver, and sandals which are Hebrew colloquialisms for legal ways to make trade. It's bad enough that Hebrews are selling other Hebrews, but they are doing it LEGALLY! For Amos, the rich Hebrews have so lost their moral and ethical compass that not only are they participating in slavery, but they are using the law to make it so. They have the "sandals" to prove the transactions were legal, they paid the "going rate" (for silver), and did not buy their slaves on the cheap. (As if buying slaves at a discounted rate is somehow worse than buying them at full retail.)

Enter Reese Witherspoon.   (and don't think I haven't wanted to include Reese Witherspoon in my blog before!) In her Legally Blonde movies, Ms. Witherspoon plays a lawyer who understands that privilege, wealth, beauty, and opportunity are not to be used in immoral or unethical ways. In other words, if you are of privilege, of wealth, of beauty, and of opportunity you are to use those gifts to HELP your neighbor, not to take advantage of your neighbor. It is precisely this that most frustrates Amos about his fellow Hebrews. They are using their money and power to take advantage of their neighbor, not to help their neighbor out. And God will not be impressed with such an abuse of such a gift.

This is where people say to me: How can we know that just by reading it? Answer: you probably can't. But know this: you do have Jesus, and he knew it. And Jesus never used his power, his privilege, his wealth, his fame to take advantage of anyone. He always tried to help his neighbor, even those he didn't like. Jesus took care of his neighbor  EVEN IF legally he did not have to help. He actually broke the law so he could talk to strangers, women, and sick people. For Jesus, if following the law caused you to not love somebody, then don't follow the law. Love, justice, righteousness are all more important than laws.

You might not know the Hebrew that Amos is referring to, but you do know the story of a God who loves. According to Amos, and to Jesus, you can't sell people even if it's legal...because selling people (slavery) is not loving people. Even blondes know that.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"Imago Dei:" Every Picture Tells a Story Don't It?

(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

"So God created humankind in God's image, in the image of God, God created them." Genesis 1.27

What's tricky about this verse of scripture is the word "image." What does it mean? How can we understand that word to make sense of who humanity is in relationship to God? Is an "image" the same as that which it "images?" If so, how are they the same? How are they different? How far does the "image" metaphor go in the Divine-Human relationship? Does humankind "look like" God; or, rather, does humankind "behave" like God, or both? Maybe an "image" is no more than a photograph of someone; a reminder of some time in someone's life, but not much more than that? Tough word this "image"...

Fortunately, we have Rod Stewart to help us out.  One of Mr. Stewart's greatest hits is called "Every Picture Tells a Story." (If you've not heard it, check it out here.) As we move through that ballad, notice that the picture ends the song, it does not begin it. That is, the picture tries to recapture all that is the love this guy had for a woman. It does not replace the love, but rather, as a picture, tells the story of love. Now, THAT, might be useful...

You see, if humankind is a picture of God, (replacing "picture" with "image"), what we do is tell the story of God's love. The goal of humankind is not to be "like" God, but rather, to participate in the life and being of God's reality so that we can tell the story of who God is, what God does, and maybe even why God does it. (Admittedly, gentle reader, that last one is a bit dicey. But hey, you just listened to a Rod  Stewart song, how much more dicey can we get?)

So using this idea of "image," the role of humankind in the Divine-Human relationship is to tell the story of God's love. How are you telling the story of God's love these days? For example, Darkwood Brew has been busy during the 50 days of Easter asking people to show God's love by helping out the environment. Every time we plant a tree, tend a garden, reclaim the carbon from our atmosphere, we are telling the story of God's love. It's just a picture, a snapshot of a much greater love, but it does tell a story...

Our lives then tell the story of God's love for humanity, for the world, and even for each one of us individually. Perhaps the greatest soul singer ever, Sam Cooke   penned a beautiful way to see how we tell the story of God's love. But Cooke, unlike Stewart, saw the love that comes from suffering, from despair, from being down to being raised up to new life. Sam Cooke, as a black man in a racist country, knew that newness comes from a love much deeper than any picture can reveal. That newness comes from a trust, a love that goes deep into the heart of despair, rests there, and then arises to a brand new day.  Check out this song "Change is Gonna Come." Jesus of Nazareth knew what Mr. Cooke is talking about. The story of love may be a long time coming, but it's always worth the wait, that's why we take the pictures.

May your tables be full, and your conversations be true.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Re-Thinking my Dissertation, a mother's day.

Thirteen years ago I wrote my Doctoral dissertation on the Triune God. In that work I looked at a lot of theologians who had written about God's being, and found quite a few that I liked, and a few I only tolerated. I set up the parameters of my discussion using the work of two theologians: Douglas John Hall, a Protestant from Canada, and John Zizioulas, a Greek Orthodox from Pergamon.

I used those two primarily because I liked what they did with their theologies, and also because I was seeking an answer to a question they both could answer, although neither one answered it on their own. I am seeking a way to understand the relationship between God and humanity. For them and for me, it is not trivial that God is Triune. I hold that the only way for Christians to have a relationship with the Divine is to have a Triune God. Unitarian Christians are a mystery me, and I do not understand how anybody can bind themselves to someone else without an understanding of a socially construed concept of God.

This is a key concept, because, theoretically, it applies not only to Unitarians, but also to Jewish and Islamic understandings of God. What I mean by this is that the basic understanding of God, which for those who believe in God becomes the ontological basis for their understanding of reality (in other words, reality has a direct connection to your God), has to have some way to show that God desires (loves) someone (thing) without having it be a logical necessity or a solipsistic choice. Got it?

Here's what I mean:
     1. Your belief in God has a direct bearing on how you believe reality works (obviously, if you don't believe in God, this doesn't matter--but why are you reading this?)
     2. If your belief in God is static and unitary, how does God enter into relationship with humanity? (Various religions, who believe in a unitary God--very few believe in a static God--suggest that God enters into relationship with humanity through an external means to God. That is, what establishes the relationships between the Divine and humanity is not intrinsic to God's own way of life and being. For example, the Jewish people hold that God enters into relationship with humanity through covenant and law; Islam, through the Koran and prayer, and neither tradition posits that is who God, either a law or a book.)
     3. If your relationship with God is engaged through external means, we humans then begin to enter into relationship with creation (the environment, our neighbors, even our families, etc.) by external means. Usually we call this obedience to however God enters into relationship with us. So, if God enters into relationship with us through laws, then we enter into relationship with the environment with laws, with our neighbors with laws, etc.

This works fine in many cases, but do you love your mother because it is a law? Do you love your neighbor because it says so in a book? Most people, even most people within religious traditions that understand their God in a unitary way, do not love for those reasons. The mystical traditions of Sufism (Islam) and Kabbalism (Judaism) seek to discover ways to love that are not based in laws and books alone. Christianity--from the get-go--posits something completely different. God, because God is not unitary, but rather plural, loves because God wants to love.

So, Christianity says that God, as the Creator Father, as the Son, and as the Spirit desires love in order to exist as God. That is, without love, God would not exist because one or two of the "persons" would not receive God's own being. God would literally dis-integrate. And not exist. That's why Christianity spends so much time talking about the love between the Creator Father,  Jesus the Son, and the Spirit of God. If there's no love in that relationship, there's no God. (Admittedly, whether there is only three or not is a bit arbitrary. The Bible has Three persons, and Christians go with that, although God is still a mystery, and it might be more than three.)

This does not mean that Love is God, however. Love, in and of itself, doesn't create God. Just like love cannot create a marriage between me and my wife. My wife and I create a marriage, and we create love in it. But love is not the creator of our marriage, but rather, the way in which our marriage is lived out. The same would be true for the relationship I have with my mother. Love did not create our relationship--biology did. But love is how my mother and I live out and express our relationship. We define love, love does not define us, and the same is true with God in God's three persons.

Notice my three-part analogy above: I hold God loves because God desires to love. (God does not have to love, and this is why the resurrection of Jesus is integral to the Christian Triune God--this is evidence of God's desire to love Jesus even though he is dead. How do you love a dead son? You bring him back to life! I presume not even God would do something like that because God had to, but rather because God desired to...)

If that is an adequate metaphor for understanding how God works, then the relationship God has with humanity stems from those intra-workings of God. (Granted, I assume God reveals to us what God what most values in God's own self--God might still have something up the proverbial sleeve, however.) God's relationship to humanity now is based on God's desire to love humanity, without an external means to to that love. God loves us, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is about the only tangible evidence we have of that love. (And it is scanty evidence indeed. Empirically. However, the love of people who believe in that evidence, even a little bit, becomes the empirical new evidence of God's love. This is called the fruits of the Spirit. And the cycle goes on and on and on...)

Because God is not a unitary being, and God does not relate to us by means external to God's own way of living and being, e.g., a book or a law and other such ways...we now relate to our reality based on the desire (which is internal to our make-up, as it's how God is "made up") to love rather than on something external to us. So Christians love their mothers not because it is a law or in a book, but rather because they desire to love their mothers. (This is the big Christian dilemma--what if the desire is not there? In Judaism, for example, to love your mother comes down to loving God enough to follow God's law, regardless of whether you desire it or not. Sometimes you do, and that is great, but sometimes you don't. Too bad. It's a law. Get over it. Christians don't have that option--although, granted, we did steal that law about loving your mother--we didn't, however, steal the law against eating pork. Hence, we have ham on Mother's day for lunch.)

In Christianity if the desire to love isn't there (and the reasons could be many, we usually call that absence of desire to love "sin"), the mother or child suffers through it, even if it kills them. The minute you try to force someone to love you, you no longer have desire as the basis for your love. You have force. For Christians, it is better to die than to force someone to love you, that is, if you are a Christian who uses the example of Jesus of Nazareth as your guide. (Does this mean, for example, if a child is being beaten by their mother they must stay and take it until they die? Absolutely NOT! If the child, who may have a desire to love her mother, tries to leave the situation and the mother forces her to stay because the daughter has to love her, it is the mother, not the child, who has misused God's love. In fact, a child would leave that situation--if possible--because she desires to love her mother, and her mother is not making that love possible. In this case, it is the child, not the mother, who best exemplifies the desire to love. It might break the child's heart to have to leave her mother, but unfortunately in this example the mother does not have the desire to love her child. And she may never. The child must be protected until she learns that her to desire to love her mother is not the same as her mother forcing her daughter to love her. God works from love, not force. That's the theological reason why Christians don't allow children to be abused.)

It's been 13 years since I wrote that book, and I couldn't have done it without my mom. She's always been my biggest fan...and I'm OK with that.

So this year, this trinitarian Christian says Happy Mother's Day, not because I have to, but because I desire to...Happy Mother's Day mom.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Family Business


(Editor's note: This blog post is part of the Darkwood Brew series "On Earth as it is in Heaven." This series is looking into the question of the relationship between God, the earth, and humanity. Check out Darkwood Brew for more information.)

God blessed them saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds multiply on earth." Genesis 1.22

From my window every morning this Springtime I get to see the birds of my neighborhood live out this blessing. I feel sorry for the female cardinals, jays, hatches, robins, and occasional duck trying to find a quiet moment to eat without some guy hitting on her. Yesterday, one particular female cardinal was at my patio door, staring in, almost begging me to let her sleep on my couch so as the guys would leave her alone. I told her, "Hey. Don't look at me. Blame God for your lack of sleep these days. God's the one who thought all this copulating by birds would be a good idea." She did not seem impressed, as she flew away with two more guys tearing the skies after her...

So all this Springtime fornication by birds in my backyard is just a living out of the blessing God gave them in Genesis. It's funny, but I remember this text very clearly from my youth, but it involved the fish. As a child my grandfather liked to take the family for lunch on Sunday afternoon after church. In the Spring and Summer we would go to a favorite restaurant of his in Superior, WI (my grandfather lived in Duluth, MN, but apparently you could not get good prune whip in Minnesota), and then take us for a drive over to the Brule River fish hatchery to look at all the trout. 

Inside all those troughs were thousands of little trout, eating, growing, and waiting to be released into Wisconsin's rivers to provide food for the many predators, including humanity, that feasted on such fish. But Wow! Could those fish multiply! It was always so tempting, especially if Saturday had been a rather unsuccessful fishing day, to reach my little ten-year old hand into the bin, and pull out a nice fat rainbow trout. Needless to say, grandmother did not approve of that type of behavior, so I always left the fish hatchery empty-handed too.

Later, as I learned in my biology classes, I began to see that birds and fish serve many purposes in God's world, but the primary one is is to feed other flora and fauna. Mostly fauna. Like me. (I love birds and fish. A grilled trout, freshly out of the stream, seasoned with a hint of lemon is truly sublime. And roast turkey? Well, let's just say that why God made turkeys.) That's the sad fact about the fecundity of the birds and fish God made on Day Five. They are on the lower end of the food chain, save for a few species of predators like hawks and sharks. But although God intended these birds and fish for food for other species, there is still is beauty and grace that birds and fish add to our world...they are more than food, they are often partners in own living and growing on this planet.

Aldo Leopold has a wonderful essay on this monument to the passenger pigeon. . There are no more passenger pigeons in this world because humans killed so many they could not survive. But in his essay, as Leopold reflects on this monument, he writes:
For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun...But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss. Had the funeral been ours, the pigeons would hardly have mourned us. In this fact, rather than in Mr. Dupont's nylons or Mr. Vannevar Bush's bombs, lies our objective superiority over the beasts. (from Sand Country Almanac, 1949)

What Leopold noticed that day was that humanity had a role in the world, and it was not to destroy species. Rather, we are the pray-ers, poets, lovers, and play-ers in this world. Humanity is the species that remembers the past as more than a biological impulse, and who envisions a future where enmity and strife fade into insubstantial mist. Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson once remarked, "I don't know who Adam and Eve were, but apparently they were the first humans who prayed."

I am not linguistic enough to know if the birds of my backyard are praying. but I have seen the eyes of birds dying, and I am sure they are more than capable of prayer, but I have no information on that. But I do know that humans can pray. I do know that humans can mourn. I do know that humans can celebrate. And I agree with Leopold, that if humanity does have superiority over the beasts (a dicey proposition at best!), it lies not in our ability to kill, but in our ability to love...to love not only what's right in front of us, but also what's in our past, and what's in our future.

May your tables be full and your conversations be true.