Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Moving Over to "Journeys Home"

Because of increased upcoming work in college and seminary course preparation, and a grant proposal that I plan to write for an early fall deadline, I'm going to stop posting at this blog for the time being. But I still continue to post regularly at my "Journeys Home" blog, accessible here. Posts at that blog will include short Bible studies and meditations, as I've already been posting at both sites. Feel free to continue browsing my posts at this site and the essays at my "Love of Bible Study site, accessible here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Staying Strong in Faith

Have you ever noticed the New Testament disciple Demas (Δημᾶς, pronounced day-MAS)? Possibly not, since he only appears three times, at the end of letters.

My mom used to own a collection of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermons, and in one sermon he made a hypothetical case about the stages of Demas' loss of faith (or, at least, Demas' commitment to Paul's difficult ministry).

Fosdick noted that, in Philemon 23-24, Paul lists him ahead of Luke. Here is the NRSV:

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

Then in Colossians 4:14, among his greetings and acknowledgments, Paul (assuming Pauline authorship of this letter) mentions Luke first, and then Demas:

Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 

In 2 Timothy 4:9-11, Paul writes:

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

Fosdick suggested a regression of Demas' devotion: first he is listed ahead of Luke (implying his importance to Paul), and then he is listed after Luke, implying a drop in importance. In the third verse, Paul regrets that Demas has abandoned him because he loved the world more than the Gospel. (I read that the name is used by John Bunyan for a deceiver in The Pilgrim's Progress.)

Perhaps that isn’t fair. It's not hard to imagine that Paul wasn’t easy to get along with! Paul, like many preachers following him, was singleminded in his efforts. I remember a pastor whom I met casually years ago. He made the comment to someone that Satan had been sending him the wrong persons to assist in his ministry. I thought that was a rather arrogant thing to say. He should have been more humble and said that his assistants had so far been incompatible with his own personality, style, and goals, which does happen in workplaces.

But one’s religious faith and devotion can certainly flag. That's not hard to imagine, either. Many times my faith has become tired and discouraged, especially in the face of difficulties outside my control and times of distress. Tired of feeling worried about certain things, I'm currently seeking God's help to grow in my trust in the Lord.

Thus, in Paul's letters as well as Hebrews and also the Gospels, that we should seek to stay strong in our faith and not to lose heart.  Just two passages that come to mind: 2 Cor. 4:16-18 and Gal. 6:9. Can you think of others?

One hopes that Demas found other chances to be a disciple, just as we all hope that God continues to work in our lives when we are weary, or when we drift or stumble.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jesus Has Compassion

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Pentecost.... My parents are both gone now. My mother died this past September and my father died back in 1999.  Like everyone else, I struggle to have a growing faith and to have a peaceful, trusting heart in the face of life’s difficulties, which definitely isn’t always easy. Grief from a family loss is a very major thing to face. I have to say, though, that all the biblical promises of eternal life and heaven helped me tremendously as I contemplated the fulfillment of those promises for my mother, who was 93 and had been ill and infirm for many years.

I like to think of Christ's death and resurrection as bringing about a kind of reality, which is forceful and real for us today. Our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God, because we’re protected in that resurrection reality.

Eternal life is like being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ, then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil. Our very lives are tucked away and protected, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ. We have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak, because the physical death we will eventually----awful as death is---has been rendered impotent as far as our eternal life is concern.   Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life.

These two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke’s gospel, are traditionally paired together. If you study them side by side, they parallel one another. Scholars think that Luke must have written the story in order for it to parallel the Elijah story, since structurally and thematically they’re very similar.

Elijah and Jesus both approached the gate of the town, they both immediately met a widow whose son had died. Both Elijah and Jesus had compassion, with Elijah’s expressed as a cry to the Lord and Jesus’ by the time he took to address the situation. Also, Elijah’s compassion was expressed in the way he reached out to a Gentile woman, while Jesus reached out to someone who was simply passing by while he was doing something else. In both stories, the son is given back to the mother, and also in both stories, Elijah and Jesus are both recognized as persons from God.

When I took an introduction to religion course during my freshman year of college, I learned my first “cool” biblical word, and it happens to be used in Luke’s story. The Greek work is splagchnizomai, which is translated “to have compassion,” but it is euphemism because the literal meaning is “to feel yearning in the bowels”---or, as we might say, “to feel it in the gut,” a gut feeling.  In other words, Jesus felt compassion in his deepest inner being.

This is an important thing to remember in this story, as Jesus was moving along with a large crowd following him and the disciples. He noticed another large crowd---dueling crowds, so to speak, but this second crowd was following the widow and her dead son. One of my commentaries quotes the epistle from James, that true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Obviously Jesus had power to help the widow and raise up the Son, but hypothetically he could have going on his way without discovering what the other crowd was about.

Jesus’ reaction, though, was compassion.

I’d like for us to think about that for a minute. One day my mother made an offhand comment that she wondered if she was good enough to go to Heaven.  I kind of hit the ceiling---because she was a lifelong churchgoer and I wished she had a more confident understanding of the gospel. But as we chatted, I did wonder if we do a good enough job communicating to people that salvation is a free gift.
Being with God in our life and after our death is completely a gift from God.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus didn’t say, “I go to prepare a place for you but only if provide good drywall and do the wiring.” It is completely Christ’s work that gets us a room in Heaven.

But I think, how sad it would be if you were a person in a hard situation, many very scared and the thing you needed most was a message of God’s great love and God’s free gift of salvation. But you feel like you should've volunteered more at church, you should have done this or that, you didn't resolve this or that conflict.  Sunday, the pastor might be preaching sermon about how you need to step up and volunteer more. You end up climbing to the notion that you have to earn God’s grace and work hard to get to Heaven.

But our scriprtures this morning teach us that Jesus responds with compassion to our weaknesses and our struggles.  When we’re at the end of our lives, he isn’t checking his notes to see if we’ve passed muster with him, like a fussy boss----he has already surrounded us with more love than we can realize.

That might be just a good all-around phrase to memorize and recite to ourselves when we’re in a bad way, and in particularly if we’re facing our own mortality: “Jesus has compassion....”

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Parable of the Talents

Continuing my off-and-on project of reading about Jesus’ parables (1), I looked up the parable of the talents---a scripture that inspired me when I hoped to deepen my faith during my college years. I already knew that a talent “in the biblical sense” was a unit of mass and value, and that the word had come down into the English language to mean an ability or skill. Like many of us, I read the now-double meaning of talent in a symbolic sense, which spurred and encouraged the stewardship of my abilities.

The parable is found in Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:11-27. Here is Matthew’s version:

For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Luke 19:11-27 has the same story but with some differences. For instance, the man becomes specifically a nobleman who goes to a far country “to get royal power for himself.” Luke’s version also ends slightly differently:

“Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.” 

Eugene Wehrli notes that although the parable concerns money, it “must not be treated as a story about the correct use of money” (p. 75). Nor should we think the master is an exact representation of God or Jesus, since this master is not the most upright master, seizing things and acting so harshly that his servants act fearfully. The parable is meant to illustrate something rather than to make that particular character a figure for God.

One difficulty in interpreting the parable, writes Wehrli, is following the reasoning. The third servant takes care of the money, too, seemingly in a responsible way. Wehrli’s analogy is a woman who is entrusted with a valuable vase, who then locks us up away from her rowdy children so that the vase can be returned undamaged, which seems reasonable and responsible. But the master had expected gain on his trust, which the other servants were astute enough to realize.

Returning to the idea of gifts from God, Wehri writes, “God’s gifts are not to be merely preserved; they must bear additional fruit.... The man with the one talent protected what was given him but was unwilling to venture it. This is like honoring religion...but refusing to live by its power. This is also like being unwilling to invest one’s life and risk all for the sake of God” (pp. 76-77).

He comments that among differences between Luke’s and Matthew’s versions, Luke introduces the context of the parable differently---Jesus’ followers expected the kingdom to come soon. Also, in Luke’s version, all the servants get the same amount. The basic thrust of the parable, though, is the same.

Seeking an original context for the parable, Wehrli comments that the story seems to be directed toward the Pharisees. Jesus was criticizing their faith, which (in Wehrli’s words) “puts a hedge around... faith to keep it from being contaminated. Instead of investing it or putting it to work in the world, [the Pharisee] keeps it pure by isolating it from bad influences” (p. 79). If the religion person----anyone, not just the Pharisees of Jesus’ time---has discourse and interaction with others but keeps faith to oneself, one has not recognized the purpose and value of faith.

I must interject an important point here: It’s so easy for Christians to read these scriptural accounts and then assume that Jesus’ words characterize Jews and Jewish teachers today, as well. This is wrong. I can testify that my Jewish friends and colleagues are all about putting their faith to work in the world---to the responsibility of “healing the world” (tikkun olam). My Jewish friends continually inspire me to make my own religious faith more devoted to service to the needy and to interpersonal peace. The qualities Jesus criticized in the Pharisees (who had a specific historical reason to be scrupulous in their devotion) are hardly unknown among persons of nearly any religious faith.

Jeremias also discusses the parable (pp. 58-63) agreeing that, in the presumed original context of the story, Jesus would not have identified him or God as the despot of the parable. Nor was the original parable necessarily about the delay of Christ’s return. (The early church could have seen the parable as an allegory for the Second Coming, in the theme of the master’s delay and the subsequent punishment of the third servant. Likewise, the brutality of the nobleman at the end of Luke's version could refer to the harsh justice that awaited the wicked at the Last Judgment.) Jeremias, too, sees the original target of the story as the Pharisees and scribes, trusted with the treasure of God’s teachings but unwilling to risk them.

Interestingly, Jeremias notes that the parable also appears in the non-canonical Gospel of the Nazarenes, in which the third servant has been rewritten (and moralized) into a wicked person who squandered his master’s wealth “on harlots and flute-players” (p. 58).

I suppose many of us---myself included, especially when I first encountered the parable---read it somewhat allegorically. God is the master who gives us talents (i.e., skills), expects us to use them for God’s kingdom, and is displeased if we let them languish. I had several modest talents, and so this call to God’s service stirred my heart.

As these authors note, the parable’s original form was likely a “jab” at the Pharisees and was more analogical than allegorical. But the point is always apropos: the treasure of God's teachings is not something to keep to ourselves but is meant to be a blessing and a healing power to the world.


(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Friday, May 24, 2013

Participants in the Divine Nature

This coming Sunday is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a challenging doctrine, with technical language.
United Methodist Memes
During my doctoral studies, I researched the doctrine in the theology of Karl Barth.

Ever since the work of the post-Nicene fathers, the divine nature is said to subsist in the three "persons" (personae, prosopa): the Father who is the incriminate origin of the Son and the Spirit, the Son who is the Logos made flesh, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Barth prefers the Patristic idea of tropos huparxeos (or modus entitativus, or Seinsweise), rather than prosopon, in order to preserve both the unity and tri-unity of God. He stresses that God’s tri-unity (Dreieinigkeit) points to God’s essential relational being, “in which the being of God for us is not something foreign to God’s essence but is grounded in his very being” (Church Dogmatics, I/I, p. 359f).

Because God’s essential (not accidental) nature is relational, God’s self-revelation to human beings takes us into a union with God. Any knowledge of God is also a sharing of the life and being of God in that God’s self-revelation is the nature of God in God’s tri-unity. This is not supposed to be a theopoiesis of human being but rather a gathering of humans into a saving relationship. Nor is it a mystical union, because God’s self-revelation is a wholly free act of God and never a miracle that we can objectify or claim, even in prayerful mysticism.

Jesus Christ is God’s “being in act.” The Trinitarian doctrine of perichoresis (the natures of the persons of the Trinity mutually permeate and condition one another) grounds the nature of God in his three ways of being and in his being for us (pro nobis). Knowledge of God is inseparable from God’s Lordship in Christ. But not only do we know who God is because of Christ, we also thereby know one another as fellow human beings whom we can serve gladly. That is because Christ’s human nature is not something foreign to his divine nature, but it, too, is essential to the being of God. So Christ not only reveals God but also essential, social human beings.

Barth's trinitarian "model" is not the only one. Duncan Reid, in his book Energies of the Spirit: Trinitarian Models in Eastern Orthodox and Western Theology (Scholars Press, 1997), explains distinctions in the doctrine. He notes that Aristotle distinguishes power or attributes (dunamis, from which we get words like "dynamic"), essence (ousia), and energy (energeia); in human beings, for instance, power is the potentiality and energy the actuality of our essence. In Western trinitarian theology (in the tradition of Augustine), God's potentiality, activity, and essence are the same: God is identical in being and action. This is why the West insisted on the filioque: because the western church so emphasizes God's being and action (the imminent and economic trinity); the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father are crucial, and the Spirit must be understood as proceeding from the Father and the Son. Eastern theology (the tradition of Origen, Athanasius, and the Cappadocians, etc.), tended to see power and energy as synonyms, so that God's energeia is identified with God's attributes. For Orthodoxy, this better ensures God's real presence in the created world. Especially, the distinction allows us to say that human beings (and the whole of creation) are invited to be "taken up (analêpsis) into the divine energy" so that we "become God" (theos ginetai), or deified (Reid, chapter 1).

These are all very subtle distinctions, but ones that are crucially important in their implications for other doctrines like justification and sanctification.

When I first posted these thoughts, I also pulled another books off the shelf, What Do Other Faiths Believe? (Abingdon, 2003). My interviewee for Sikhism explained his faith:

“Our scripture starts with a word, Ik Onkar... If you miss the meaning of that word, you’re going to be following the rituals but not the sense of the faith. If you followed and understood the meaning of that word, the rest of it falls into place. Ik Onkar means, ‘there is only one.’ There are not two. That one, is God. Once I understand that, you and I are not two. Just like I have two hands and two legs, my leg is not the same as my hand but they are one, a part of this body. If someone cuts off my hand, it is no longer part of the body; it cannot function. If we are an extension of that ultimate God, and that’s all we are, so our purpose in life becomes very clear to us: to serve that greater body” (pp. 72-73).

He explained that when we misunderstand our true identity, we think of ourselves as an “I,” something separate. But that is a very basic and serious error. Our true identity is as part of a whole, which is God, and thus our purpose in life is to serve one another. My interviewee said that, when we serve ourselves, we become analogous to a cancer cell. He noted that our goal is to add value to the universe. For instance, “If you are serving a customer, rather thinking, ‘How can I sell him something?’ now you can ask, ‘How can I add value to him?’ I am in the listening mode and try to find out ‘What does he need?’ Then I come around and serve that. Everywhere you see success happening, it has this ingredient present" (pp. 74-75).

Here are two different religions that affirm the ontological sociality of human beings, rooted in the being of God. In Sikhism, God is understood as the one God with whom we share our being. In Trinitarian Christianity, our sociality is grounded in the being of God pro nobis. One is a matter of understanding the true nature of our relation, the other is a matter of our being brought into a saving relationship. One is an impersonal God of infinite qualities, the other is a personal God whose very being is in relationship. In both cases, we do wrong, and fundamentally betray our human nature, when we serve only ourselves.

I had bookmarked an article, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beth-green/human-divine_b_861196.html?ref=fb&src=sp, which affirms the divine nature in human beings. In some religious systems, human beings are understood to be a part of the divine. The non-dualism tradition of Advaita Vedanta, for instance, there is no essential difference between the Universal Spirit (Brahman) and the individual soul (jivatman). Differences that we perceive in reality are actually illusion (maya) and therefore true understanding (jnana) comes from understanding maya. Obviously, then, there is no essential difference between humans and the Universal Spirit (nor between humans and other life forms). Other schools of Vedanta, like Vishishtadvaita, understands the soul and God to be different yet similar, while Dvaita understands souls, God, and the material world to be all separate realities and yet eternal.

As I kept thinking about all thing----going on a trinitarian journey, so to speak---I leafed through my Bible for passages that teach our unity with God and with one another.

A wonderful passage is Jesus' prayer in John 17. I probably shouldn't quote the whole thing here, for copyright purposes, so I'll just ask you read the whole thing with the ideas in mind: Jesus' unity with God, Jesus' unity with his followers and friends. What is the nature of our unity with Christ? Christ is glorified in us (vss. 10, 22-23), and Christ guards us (vs. 12-13), and although we do not belong to the world (vs 16) we are still here and are sanctified in Christ's truth (vs. 17). But that glory, protection, and sanctification are directed toward Christ's prayer that those who believe, and those who will believe, "may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (vss. 21-22). Likewise, Christ prays "that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 26).

I'm a very proud American, but I worry that the individualism and self-sufficient spirit that pervades our culture deters us from being able to appreciate and implement the unity we have with one another in Christ. One sees so many individualistic behaviors in congregations, which you could describe as "my way or the highway," "I pulled myself up by my boot straps," "you have to cover your ass to make it," and so on. We can be very stubborn and set-in-our-ways people who love our relationship with Christ but become snooty, or busy, or unconcerned when we think about being in unity with one another. I'm as private and self-sufficient as the next person.

Perhaps we should put John 17 on the walls of churches so that we remember that we are one with one another in Christ!

But if we did that, we should put Ephesians 2:11-22 on the walls, too. Read that passage, too. This is a similar and powerful biblical vision of our God-given unity with one another. God has removed the boundaries that separate people---but, of course, we persist in retaining them or building new ones.

And also---while we're attaching signs to walls---John 14 would be another excellent passage to remind people, on a weekly basis, of the role of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's role is absolutely crucial because Jesus is not present with his disciples any longer: his death requires his absence. But the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit abide in us and lead us to love God and one another.

There are other passages, like 2 Cor. 6:16:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
"I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people."

We could trivialize the passage a bit when we turn it into a health-related thing: we ought to take care of our bodies because our bodies are God's temples. We miss a deeper point: God's very presence dwells with us as the same God once dwelled in the Jerusalem Temple, but God's act of dwelling puts us in proximity to God's holiness--which, in turn, demands holiness from us.

2 Peter 1:4 is a good related verse:

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants in the divine nature.

Good themes for our prayers and meditations for this Trinity Sunday are these: what are ways we become temples of God's Spirit (if we even want to be)? How do we "participate in the divine nature"? How do we understand the divine nature so that our ideas about God and ourselves (while not necessarily disrespecting other people's faith) is uniquely Christian?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Did Jesus Smile and Laugh?

Artistically the Buddha is often represented with a slight smile. Jesus is, too, in some paintings, for instance, in the serene and famous Head of Christ by Warner Sallman (1892-1968). I looked online for other pictures but the one I liked best (one that was natural-seeming and not "forced" in depicting Jesus' happiness), was actually an old stand-by, often seen in churches: Head of Christ by Richard Hook (1914-1975).

And, of course, there is the good old "Buddy Christ" from the movie Dogma: a grinning, winking Jesus giving a big thumbs-up. So many artistic depictions of Christ are solemn, stern, or serene but unsmiling.

Do accounts of Jesus' life mention his smile or laughter? Unfortunately, none of the canonical gospels do. We have ten verses altogether in non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Philip and the Apocryphon of John. Ricky Alan Mayotte, who has collected Jesus' teachings in the canonical and non-canonical writings, lists these verses. Here are four:

"But he who stands near him is the living Savior, the first in him, whom they seized and released, who stands joyfully looking at those who did him violence, while they are divided among themselves. Therefore he laughs at their lack of perception, knowing that they are born blind" (The Apocalypse of Peter).

"The Savior laughed and said to them, What are you thinking about? Why are you perplexed?" (The Sophia of Jesus Christ)

"And I said, 'Lord, where will the souls of these go when they have come out of their flesh?' And he smiled and said to me, The soul in which the power will become superior to the despicable spirit, she is strong and she flees from evil" (The Apocryphon of John)

"But I [Jesus] laughed joyfully when I examined his empty glory...And I was laughing at their ignorance" (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth)

In such writings, his laughter and smiles are ironic and knowing, rather than reflecting joie de vivre.[1]

If you think strictly in terms of Jesus' atoning work, you might argue that the suffering of Jesus for our salvation takes precedence over his happiness. And yet that seems limiting, for didn’t Jesus have a broad, full (though short) life filled with all the emotions we experience? Certainly Jesus loved, and one needs psychological security and depth to be able to love as he did. Joy and laughter, too, require a sense of security. Not only that, but Jesus wanted his joy to be in the disciples, so their joy would be complete (John 15:11). We should read that verse and think of real joy in Jesus' voice, not the stern instructiveness with which we sometimes hear the words read in church.


1. Ricky Alan Mayotte, The Complete Jesus (South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 1997), 149-150.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Remembering the Lord

I picked up a favorite book, When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings by Thomas H. Green, S.J. (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1979). In other blog posts I’ve thought along with Fr. Green on the idea of “floating in God’s tide.” Today, I opened the book at random and I noticed the page where he recalls his father. The family had sent out a memorial card that read, “Remember with joy George C. Green,” and his life dates. Fr. Green says that memories of his father brings joy to his heart.

This was helpful to me as I continue to process my mother’s death last fall. My mom was a worrier, who lived in constant physical pain, and sometimes (to her family) saw the glass as half-empty. I still feel sad about the time she commented she wished I’d made better grades in school, when in fact I’d graduated cum laude. It’s important to me to acknowledge these kinds of things but also to put them in a larger context; she wasn’t always like that and was, often throughout my life, a nurturing and supportive mother. She had a perfectionistic streak born out of sadness and pain, while my dad (who could be grouchy and stubborn) was a little more unconditionally proud of me. Remembering the whole of my parents’ lives with me helps me think through a variety of feelings and ultimately to feel happiness in my memories of them.

Fr. Green (writing in the context of his discussion of St. Teresa and the relationship of will, understanding, and imagination) comments that his remembering of his father brings joy, and so can the memory of Jesus. “When Jesus was about to die, he was anious that we remember his love for us, that we remember him... As one of our most beautiful contemporary songs puts it: ‘All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.’ When our prayer becomes more ‘quiet’... our understanding and our imagination become the organs of remembering the Lord and his love for us. This remembering moves the will to love him, just as my memories of my father touch my heart; this is to ‘remember with joy’” (p. 49).

Fr. Green’s thoughts reminded me of those of a Lutheran writer, the New Testament scholar Nils Dahl, who describes Philippians 2:5-11 as not so much a confession of faith but a “commemoration [remembering] of Christ,” and other early Christian liturgies and practices, including the celebration of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) can be called commemorations of Christ—ways by which we remember Christ.(1) Remembering Christ in turn involves both an understanding of the gospel and the way God wants us to live, a “rule of conduct.”(2) These passages are very much in keeping with Old Testament calls to remember the Lord and his commandments, promises, and mighty acts, for instance the book of Deuteronomy, thoroughly a call to remember as a means to ongoing faithfulness.

Remembering God’s blessings and mercies through Christ is inextricably linked with those described in the Bible, bridging the centuries so that those mercies and blessings are within our own comparatively meager stories. Reading and hearing the scriptures are ways we remember Jesus, and certain passages—Ephesians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:5, 2 Timothy 2:8, 2 Peter 3:1-2, and others—are specific calls to remember. Likewise, the liturgical words of the sacraments. The words of the Eucharist include the reminder to remember Christ, his death and resurrection, and his promise to return; otherwise we don’t have a sense of why we’re sharing the elements. The sacrament of Baptism evokes the name of Jesus and thus the memory of who he is and what he did on our behalf.(3)

Much of our faith is a remembering of Christ, whether we think of it that way or not. For me, some of my faith struggles have in turn arisen when I’ve forgotten to remember, as it were. That is, I’ve gotten so caught up in my everyday affairs, and in my own tendency to be anxious and “half-empty” in my thinking, that the blessings of my life and God’s unfathomably deep love become submerged in mind amid a storm of temporary concerns.

1. Nils Alstrup Dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976), the essay “Amamnesis: Memory and Commemoration in Early Christianity,” 20-21.

2. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 25.

3. Dahl, Jesus in the Memory, 20.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Twelve Minor Prophets

Michelangelo's Zechariah
from royal-paintings.com
The “minor prophets” of the Bible are “minor” in the sense that they’re short, compared to the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. In the Jewish Bible (Tanakh), they are one book, Trei Asar or the Twelve, and as such, the Twelve are the last book of the Neviim, or prophets, which in turn is the middle section of the Tanakh. (http://www.ou.org/about/judaism/treiasar/) In the Christian Old Testament, these prophets are separated into twelve separate books and are the last books of the testament. That’s how many of us are accustomed to reading them, if we do indeed study them.

Altogether, the Twelve have 67 chapters, which is only one chapter longer than Isaiah. Like the major prophets, the Twelve are concerned with the events of the Israelite kingdoms following the division (after Solomon’s death) into the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. Israel is conquered by the Assyrians in 722-721 BCE, and Judah is conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE, who also destroy Jerusalem and take the people into exile. After the Persians conquer the Babylonians, many of the people are able to return to the land and rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple (as recounted in Ezra and Nehemiah).

Any of the prophetic books can be tough reading. Our Sunday school class in Akron, OH tackled Hosea for a while. Then we got depressed at all the difficult and discouraging prophetic pronouncements so we switched to something more cheery: Lenten scriptures! Any of the prophetic books demand a good commentary or study book to help you know what's going on. On the other hand, once you dig into the material, you appreciate their beauty and witness. One Jewish website (http://www.ou.org/jewishiq/treiasar/1.htm) has these words: "The voices of the Trei Asar, taken as a group, were like a great symphony, of dramatic and powerful movements. Or, using a visual metaphor, they were like a rainbow; a most appropriate metaphor, because their prophecies encompassed all the colors of the rainbow, from darkest to lightest, from the most somber to the most serene."

Recently I purchased the Berit Olam set of Old Testament commentaries published by Liturgical Press. I decided to start leafing through the two volumes (published in 2000 and 2001) on the Twelve, both by Marvin Sweeney, who teaches Hebrew Bible and the History of Judaism at Claremont. I was interested in learning about the themes and concerns of the Twelve, if we were to study them together as one long book. How do they interrelate, written as they were by a dozen prophets over a 300 year span? I took the following notes from Sweeney's interesting texts.

Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant Bibles order the twelve minor prophets following the order of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh (that is, the Masoretic text): Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Many Orthodox Bibles, following the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Tanakh), have a different order of the first six of the twelve: Hosea, Amos, Micah, Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah. The reason for the different ordering is not clear. As Sweeney notes, the LXX has the benefit of common themes: Hosea, Amos, and Micah concern the norothern kingdom of Israel, especially as an example for the southern kingdom of Judah, while Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, Nahum, and Habakkuk concern the foreign threat to Judah and Jerusalem, and lastly, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi speak to the restoration of Jerusalem. Also, Joel---which is difficult to place historically---becomes, in the LXX order, a general statement of God’s restoration that provides a segue point between the first three (northern) prophets and the rest of the prophets, with their themes of Judah and Jerusalem (p. 148).

To say more about the themes of the books: Hosea portrays the crisis of Israel as an example for Judah, then Joel provides a framework of punishment and restoration for Jerusalem on “the day of the Lord.” Joel also cites Amos, Obediah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, and Zephaniah, thus providing a continuity among the books that follow. With that framework and connection in mind, we move to Amos, wherein the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel is the opportunity to restore the monarchy of David. Then Obadiah preaches against Edom (the kingdom south of the Dead Sea) for threatening Jerusalem. Jonah depicts God’s mercy for Assyria. Micah also portrays the fall of the north as a framework for Jerusalem’s fall and restoration. Then Nahum condemns Assyria for its actions against Jerusalem. Habakkuk similarly condemns Babylon. Then Zephaniah preaches about the purification of Jerusalem; Zephaniah addresses the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple; Haggai preaches about the restoration of Jerusalem; Zechariah is concerned with that process of restoration, and then Malachi is concerned with the city’s final purification (pp. 148-149).

Hosea. Hosea reflects the 8th century rise of Assyria and the text depicts conflicts with the Assyrians
A late 1st cen. BCE or early 1st Cen CE fragment
of the Septuagint minor prophets,
from wikipedia
(pp. 3-4). Sweeney writes that although Hosea is by Rabbinic tradition called the oldest of the twelve, Amos mentions Jeroboam and Uzziah and Hosea mentions the chronologically later Ahaz and Hezekiah (p. 3). Also Amos writes during the rise of Assyria before it had definitely threatened the northern kingdom. But still, he writes, “Hosea seems to be particularly well suited for its position at the head of the Twelve on thematic grounds. It employs the metaphor of Hosea’s marriage to Gomer and the bird of their children as a metaphor for YHWH’s relationship with Israel” (p. 3). That is, as Gomer is divorced because of harlotry, so the Lord condemns Israel for abandoning its covenant with God---Israel’s figurative “adultery.” But Hosea takes his wife back, and the Lord also restores Israel following punishment from gentile nations. Sweeney notes that the Lord’s disdain for divorce in Malachi connects back to Hosea (p. 3).

Joel. The book has no definite references to its historical circumstance, and the threatened “Day of the Lord” seem to refer to natural calamities. But, “[w]ithin the MT version of the Book of the Twelve, Joel presents the paradigm for Jerusalem’s punishment and restoration as a fundamental question to be addressed within the Twelve as a whole” (p. 149).

Amos. The theme of locusts connects Amos and the previous book Joel (Joel 1-2, Amos 7:1-3), as does the theme of the restoration of fertility and agricultural prosperity (Joel 3:18, Amos 9:11-15). Amos also connects to the subsequent book, Obadiah, in the need for Edom to be pushed (Amos 1:11-13, 9:12). Furthermore, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are connected because of the theme of the day of the Lord (Joel 1:15, Amos 5:18-20, Obadiah 15). In the LXX order of the books, Amos connects with Hosea in identifying the Beth El sancturary as a specific problem of God’s anger depicted in Hosea, and then Amos connects to Micah in their mutual depiction of God’s punishment and restoration (p. 191). Also, Hosea, Amos, and Micah are all the 8th century prophets among the Twelve (pp. 191-192).

Obadiah. This short book has in common with Amos the restoration of the Davidic kingdom, as well as the theme of the day of the Lord (p. 279).

Jonah. This book depicts God’s mercy toward Nineveh of Assyria, thus connecting to the mercy God shows in restoring Israel and Judah as depicted in the next book, Micah. Jonah balances Obadiah’s prophecies against Edom, but it also contracts with the book after Micah, Nahum, which shows the punishment of God toward the ultimately unrepentant Assyrians (p. 305). Jonah also addresses the question of God’s mercy and trustworthiness following the Babylonia exile, for the themes of creation and the Exodus are brought in, functioning to tie together earlier scriptures about God’s power and faithfulness (pp. 306-307).

Micah. The restoration of Zion amid the nations is a major theme of Micah (chapters 4-5). As the sixth book in the Masoretic order of the Twelve (the order most of us are used to), Micah bridges God’s judgment and mercy to the nations in Obadiah and Jonah, with themes of the next three books: the fall of Ninevah, the Babylonian threat, and God’s call to his people to repentance.  As the third book in the LXX, Micah’s perspective of the punishment of the northern kingdom Israel has ramifications for the experience of Jerusalem and Judah as well as the nations, including Micah’s vision of Zion as the center of God’s world peace (p 339). “Overall, the book of Micah is esigne to address the future of Jerusalem or Israel in the aftermath of the Babylonian exile,” even though Micah himself was 8th century (p. 342).

Nahum. Concerned in part with the divine judgment against Nineveh, the book follows Jonah, indicating that the repentance of Nineveh was temporary. But the book is also the beginning of the long process of God’s judgment against the nations, as well as against Judah and Jerusalem, which are the subjects of the subsequent five books (p. 420).

Habakkuk. Like Nahum, Habakkuk affirms the Lord’s control of world events, and the Lord’s use of the nations in the divine purposes. The two books contrast in affirming the fall of Assyria (Nahum) and looking forward to the fall of Babylon (Habakkuk) (p. 453). “This prepares for Zephaniah, which calls upon the people to make their decision to observe YHWH’s requirements or suffer punishment if they refuse to do so (p. 454).

Zephaniah. Zephaniah links with Habakkuk in the prophecies about Babylon (the agent of Judah’s fall) and with subsequent Haggai, who looks to the rebuilt Temple and the hoped-for restoration of the Davidic monarchy (p. 493). But the beginning of Zephaniah locates the prophets career during Josiah’s reign, thus connecting with the pre-exilic reforms of that righteous king. The call for repentance and purity of Josiah’s reforms have a new urgency in the post-exilic times (pp. 493-494).

Haggai, Zechariah. Both are prophets who appear in the account of Ezra. Haggai’s concern with the Temple and the restoration connect with Zephaniah’s themes and with the next book, Zechariah, who affirms the Temple and restoration but also looks beyond the Temple to God’s cosmic purposes (pp. 529, 561).

Malachi. The last book of the Twelve calls the people to “to take the action that is necessary for Jerusalem and the Temple to fill” the role depicted in the previous books: Israel and the Temple as “the holy center” of God’s peace for the nations and the cosmos. As Sweeney noted elsewhere (in my notes above), the Lord’s disdain of divorce circles us back to the divorce and return of Gomer and Hosea in the first book of the Twelve (p. 713).

In this biblical book "The Twelve," we have history of God's people from the 8th to the 5th centuries, but we also have a beautiful vision of God's peace for the world, centered at Jerusalem. We also have a vision of God's universal purposes. Many Christians, of course, interpret some of these texts as referring to Christ and his kingdom, and we understand more about Christ and his person and work by appreciating his place and context within God's purposes with Israel. We also find among the Twelve, classic Bible passages that always inspire and call us, like Micah 6:8, Habakkuk 2:4, Amos 5:24, and others.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard

In my last post, I thought about a parable of Jesus via two New Testament scholars, Eugene S. Wehrli and Joachim Jeremias.(1)  This evening I turned to another parable, the Laborers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16. Wehrli draws several meanings from this parable. One is that we don’t earn God’s grace! The laborers who toiled all day and the laborers who toiled a comparatively short time all receive the same pay. This is according to agreement---and as the householder is free to pay as he wants (because it’s his money and his field), God is free to provide freely because the Kingdom is his, not ours (p. 38).

Of course, the laborers grumble because they feel this is unfair. And yet they were paid the wages they expected, so it’s not that they were shortchanged! They just thought it was unfair for the short-time workers to be paid what they received. It’s a typical kind of jealousy, though, when we chafe that people whom we consider “undeserving” receive more than we think they should. Similarly, we might praise God for unexpected blessings for ourselves but fuss when we see others receive blessings (pp. 38, 40). Wehrli compares the grumbling laborers to the elder brother, who had always been loved and cared for but hated the fact that his useless brother was an object of the father’s wonderful love (p. 40).

Wehrli clarifies that this parable “does not teach that it is never too late to repent. ...Furthermore, the parable makes nothing of the idea that it is never too late to begin work... Neither is the parable an analogy for employer-employee relationships as if it were trying to picture the ideal business behavior” (pp. 40-41). I had thought of the parable as story of God’s welcoming the repentant, but Wehrli notes that the focus is the generosity of God rather than human behavior, and that our ideas about dessert and merit are irrelevant because God gives freely in God's own kingdom (p. 41).

He also notes that verse 16 actually fits better with Matthew 19:30 and Luke 13:30, rather than with this parable, since in the parable the first and the last are paid equally (p. 41).

Turning to Jeremias’ book (p. 37), I found that he adds another dimension to the story. “[The vineyard owner] sees that [the servant who worked an hour] will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behavior of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with me. This is what God is like merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness” (37).

I wonder how many of us completely miss that aspect of the vineyard owner; we focus on the mercy of God, which is Jesus’ point, but we think that the owner is indeed being arbitrary in his goodness. Even though the parable is not about human business practices, we can certainly be inspired by the vineyard owner's compassion and sympathy.

(1) Exploring the Parables by Eugene S. Wehrli (United Church Press, 1963), and The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

Friday, April 26, 2013

Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

The other day I picked up (from a shelf of free, used books) an old copy of Exploring the Parables (United Church Press, 1963), by Eugene S. Wehrli. He was a professor at and former president of Eden Theological Seminary, where I teach some semesters. Then I got down from my own shelves a book I’ve had since college, The Parables of Jesus by Joachim Jeremias (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972).

In the chapter “Relations of the Kingdom,” Wehrli writes this about the pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14). “The Pahrisee does not see his life in relation to God and in dependence upon him, but rather compares himself with other men. This precludes a true relationship with God” (p. 87).

Of course, this is Jesus’ story about one of his own people, but we distance ourselves from the point by thinking this is a problem with this particular religious group, rather than a serious temptation for any religious person!  “See, I don’t sin like he or she does.  I’m a wonderful churchgoer in all this ways.” Jesus identifies a way of thinking that’s common among many of us.

I was thinking, though: what about those of us who compare ourselves to others----unfavorably. What about the times we become blue because our achievements, our “breaks” in life, seem less impressive than someone we know. I play those kind of “tapes” in my head an awful lot, and then I feel down on myself. But why? It strikes me that this kind of comparison is also a way we don’t see our lives “in relation to God and in dependence upon him,” as Wehrli puts it.

Wehrli also writes that the Pharisee’s “very goodness becomes his downfall” (p. 88). We’re accustomed to thinking of downfalls that result from moral lapses and critical errors. But in the Kingdom preached by Jesus, the recognition that one is, indeed, far from God is actually an indication of closeness to God! But the goodness, uprightness, and clean record of the very religious person becomes, paradoxically, a chasm of separation----because if you’re good and know it, you have no need of God.

Jeremias finds a prayer in the Talmud that sounds much like the Pharisee’s prayer, thus letting us conclude that Jesus’ story is drawn from real life (pp. 142-143). But there, the prayer is a thanksgiving to God for helping the pray-er be guided to a righteous life, unlike the unrighteous ways of others. Still, even in that thanksgiving is the temptation to compare oneself favorably to people who think are undeserving. Jeremias also notes that the Publican’s despair may be partly due to the difficulty he faced in truly repenting: he must not only give up his way of life but also restore fraudulent gains. But how will he now support his family, and how will he ever know exactly whom he defrauded? (p. 143). (Publicans were Rome-employed public contractors who also collected taxes.) But a person at the end of his or her rope is exactly the person whom God favors!

One clue to the favor of God in this story is the fact that the Publican evokes Psalm 51: God does not despise the broken heart of a sinner. In fact, “He is the God of the despairing, and for the broken heart his mercy is boundless. This is what God is like, and this is he is now acting through [Jesus].” (p. 144).

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Don't Blame Science

A "Journeys Home" post from 2009.... Recently I read a news story from a Midwestern community. The high school band had designed tee shirts that featured an image of a primate moving through stages until it becomes human: that famous illustration of evolutionary development. Each figure held a brass instrument. It seemed a clever way to encourage band spirit for their fall program. The tee shirts were banned, however, because of parents’ complaints that the shirts promoted evolution. The article reported that an assistant superintendent said that the school district must remain neutral about religion.(1)

I'm religious and I love science, so this kind of story distresses me. But I want to respect the people in this story and think a bit about the issues involved. The school official and the complaining parents apparently consider evolutionary theory a “religion” or, at least, a philosophy that competes with traditional religious belief.

If one understands certain distinctions, aspects of this issue may fall into place. A hypothesis is an assumption that something is true, but that assumption is still undergoing experiments, discussion, and testing. A theory is a “model” of reality that has stood up under many experiments over many years, has been discussed in peer-reviewed journals, is compatible with other theories, and can potentially anticipate other observations and theories.

Evolutionary science is a theory in this respect: it is a sound scientific model that explains data in many different fields like biology, paleontology, and others. Evolutionary theory is science. There are no alternative theories that are accepted by a majority of those in scientific community; this is not because scientists are closed-minded to other theories but because this model has been studied and refined for years and is viable. No other scientific models make as much sense and explain as many phenomena, from an empirical standpoint.

Science concerns the observation and explanation of physical phenomena. Although science does address questions of cognition and behavior, science does not answer questions of theology and spirituality. Science is “methodologically materialistic,” that is, its procedures and methods are aimed at physical phenomena.

But at this point you can take at least three philosophical positions. The first, which I hold, ais that science and religion are complementary sources of truth. The invisible world exists but it is approached through religion, faith, faith-encouraged reason, certain kinds of experience, and tradition rather than empirical examination. Science can describe phenomena according to empirical methods, while religion can declare truthfully that "God created the heavens and the earth."

The second position is “epistemological materialism”; there may be a spiritual world, but since we cannot know it through science, we cannot know anything meaningful about it. Religious belief is a matter of faith but not reason.

The third is “metaphysical materialism”: we cannot know the spiritual world through science, therefore the former does not exist. We can explain everything meaningfully through science, including the reasons why we’re religious, moral, etc.

I think many people become upset about evolutionary theory because they believe it necessarily falls under the third position and, therefore, is an atheistic philosophy which is being taught to our children. No, evolutionary theory, properly speaking, is a scientific theory that explains physical phenomena. But among scientific theories, evolutionary theory seems the very threatening to theological doctrines like the image of God in humanity, sin, redemption, and the inspiration of the Bible. Somehow even the antiquity and vastness of the universe do not make people as theologically anxious, even though astronomical science could equally threaten a literal reading of the Bible.

Public schools should offer traditional science as proper science but also find ways to introduce some kind of non-sectarian religion courses for students--and then students can get a more full religious instruction in other settings. There are suitable ways in which religion can be brought into public schools without violating church-state separation. My daughter’s schools in Kentucky and Ohio did a good job of striking these tricky balances.

Shameless commerce: I discuss these issues in a study book that I wrote for the United Methodist Publishing House: What about Religion and Science: A Study of Reason and Faith, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007. But I’ve also been re-reading Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions (New York: HarperOne, 1992, originally published in 1976), where he comments:

“With science itself there can be no quarrel. Scientism is another matter. Whereas science is positive, contenting itself with reporting what it discovers, scientism is negative. It goes beyond the actual findings of science to deny that other approaches to knowledge are valid and other truths are true. In doing so it deserts science in favor of metaphysics--bad metaphysics, as it happens, for as the contention that there are no truths save those of science is not itself a scientific truth, in affirming it scientism contradicts itself. It also carries marks of a religion--a secular religion, resulting from overextrapolation from science, that has seldom numbered great scientists among its votaries” (p. 16-17).

Smith's words shed light upon some the issues raised by the critics of the band tee shirts. These folks were concerned about a secular religion being promoted (scientism, or metaphysical materialism). But they confused scientism with science. Science is a wonderful, vitally important thing that should be taught in public schools and more widely appreciated and understood by the general public. (In fact, the tee shirts don't even represent current science, which no longer posits such a linear progress of species development.)

1. Although the article now requires a subscription to read it, I first accessed the then-free and -current article at: http://www.sedaliademocrat.com/articles/0px-18740-span-font.html


A few more thoughts concerning science and religion. My aim of these thoughts is to give assurance and some ideas to people who struggle with the tension between religious belief and scientific discoveries, notably evolutionary theory.

People who worry about the contradiction between science and the Bible usually focus upon Genesis 1. But actually the Bible has numerous “unscientific” words about the nature of reality. Exodus 20:4, for instance, depicts a three-tiered cosmos; Ps. 24:2 and Ps. 136:6 depicts the earth as founded upon seas; 2 Samuel 22:8 says that the earth is set upon foundations; 1 Samuel 2:8 talk about the pillars on which the earth is set. Leviticus 11:13 and 19 lists bats among kinds of birds. Must we assume all these images are literal truth? If we defend them as metaphorical, well … we’ve immediately acknowledged that the Bible contains passages that are not literal but metaphorical and poetic truth.

Scoffers at biblical truth would zero in passages such as these in order to discredit religious belief. But religious people, too, must defend the truth of the scriptures in spite of the ancient world view that the Bible reflects.

Both defenders of biblical inerrancy and scoffers at biblical truth make a similar mistake in reasoning: if the Bible has errors, then the whole Bible is discredited. But God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2) and the whole Bible is true.

That is a false choice. We don’t typically make such distinctions. For instance, I made an unintentional error in a history book that I wrote back in the 1980s. I made an informed conclusion but new information emerged later. I made the mistake because my human knowledge is incomplete, but that doesn’t mean my whole book was a lie, or that I’m a liar, or that I need to explain my error through artificial arguments.

The Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer argues that we shouldn‘t confuse error in the sense of incorrect knowledge, and error in the sense of deception and sin. Limited as they were by their historical and cultural circumstances, the biblical authors has far less knowledge of science than we do. But we cannot thereby call them "liars" or deny that the Holy Spirit inspired them. As Berkouwer notes, when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.”(1)

Berkouwer, a conservative and very biblically-based Calvinist theologian, writes that we can safely recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers. Therefore, when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we shouldn’t worry that we’re “selling out” the Bible to science when we recognize the Bible’s ancient cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not conform to biblical details. What is needed, he believes, is a “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.

Berkouwer cautions that ideas of biblical inerrancy shouldn’t be ridiculed, only that its application be examined so that the sincere desire to uphold scriptural authority should not damage that authority rather than advancing it.

See my site http://www.theloveofbibletudy.com, chapter 6, where I get into these and related issues more fully.

1. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), pp. 181-183 (quote on p. 182).

Thursday, April 11, 2013

God Brings About Good

There is an entertainment/literature trope called "Put on a Bus," in which a major character disappears in such a way that the character can be brought back.  At the end of Men in Black, agent K retires (and is deneuralized), and then a large portion of Men in Black II is devoted to his restoration. Similarly the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, where Jack Sparrow goes down with the ship in II and then is located and returned in III. This is a very common trope in soap operas: for instance, when I was a kid, the character Stephen Frame in Another World was presumed dead, reminisced about for over a year, and then reappeared.

I don't care for this trope in movies very much. But then I realized that the Bible has an elaborate "story line": the family of Jacob settles in Egypt via the complicated circumstance of Joseph's "disappearance" from Canaan, and then God rescues the Israelites in order to return them to the land where Jacob and his family had left!  Not only is this a "story line," it comprises nearly 90% of the Torah (the most precious part of Scripture for Jews), contains the covenant and mitzvot foundational for the Bible and, as I discuss in another post on this site, the Exodus story is next to Jesus' resurrection as key for the whole Bible.

You may wonder about God's strange ways, as I do. Why such an elaborate, centuries-long plan, just to get the descendants of Abraham back to the place from which they started? To prove God's saving power? To create a "community" of God's people through misfortune, salvation, covenant, and memory? To show God's faithfulness and righteousness in and among unfortunate human circumstances? Yes, yes, and yes.

I thought about all this while we were on vacation as I read the July 21, 2011 piece in the Lutheran devotional Portals of Prayer. The piece noted that God used the sin of Joseph's brothers in order to establish a plan to save God's people: "God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive," declared Joseph (Gen. 50:20).

The piece notes that many of us suffer because of the sins of others. Certainly, we're not spared that kind of suffering, a fact which can put a strain on our faith if we're struggling to understand why things happen generally, or why God allows terrible things to happen. (In fact, the July 22nd devotion concerns Mary Magdalene, who stood heartbroken at the empty tomb and, in her distress, could not recognize the living Jesus in front of her.)

The devotion writer notes that "In any terrible circumstance, even physical death and the pain and loss it brings, God can and does work good things. We can count on it." The stories of Joseph, the Exodus, and Christ's resurrection are great benchmarks of God's love and salvation among the difficulties we face.

We must remember that God didn't work in Joseph's life just for Joseph's sake! (Why did God allow Joseph to "rot" in prison for two years, for instance? His betrayal and exile were compounded with still more betrayal and distress.) When we personally are in crisis, we're naturally thinking of the resolution of that distress whenever we pray for divine help. But God worked in Joseph's life not only for his sake but also to achieve a greater good---several greater goods, in fact. Although our own circumstances are not on par with the biblical events, we can take comfort that God may not only be involved in our personal situation but possibly also, through us, the difficulties of others.


While I don't mean to distract from my devotional thoughts above, I browsed a bit through the addictive site, tvtropes.org, as I looked for that phrase "Put on the Bus." I noticed a few other tropes that reminded me of some Bible stories. This is just a bit of daydreaming about the Bible's content, not intended to be irreverent.

"The Can Kicked Him," or incidents when a character is injured or killed in the bathroom. Pulp Fiction is an example. In 1 Samuel 24, Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself, and David could've killed him there---but did not.

"Stuffed in the Fridge," incidents when a character is killed in a gruesome and horrifying way. Certainly the gang-rape, death, and dismemberment of the Levite's concubine in Judges 19 is one of the Bible's most awful passages.

"Chuck Cunningham Syndrome," when a character (like Richie's older brother in Happy Days, or Carrie's sister in King of Queens) disappears without explanation and never again referred to.  Zerubbabel figures notably and hopefully in the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah and in the first part of Ezra (the story of the post-exilic restoration) but then ceases to be part of the story! His name is mentioned, though, once in Nehemiah and in the Matthew 1 genealogy of Jesus.

"Sobbin' Women," a pun on the Sabine Women: women who are kidnapped for companionship, as in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and an episode of Gunsmoke in the mid 1970s. Another horrible Bible story is the rape of the women of Shiloh by the Benjaminite men at the conclusion of Judges.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Floating in God's Tide

A post from my "Journeys Home" blog.... There are several good Bible verses about following God's will, like Philippians 2:13, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. A beloved pair of verses are Proverbs 3:5-6,

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
   and do not rely on your own insight. 
In all your ways acknowledge him,
   and he will make straight your paths.

Both of these imply a degree of trust in God. While the Proverbs passage draws its key metaphor from traveling on land, a book that I like draws the key metaphor from floating in water.

Thomas H. Green, S.J., is the author of When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1998). He notes that learning to float on water is surprisingly difficult. “[M]any people never learn how to float” because they “never learn to relax, to let their head be pillowed by the water” (p. 142). He lives in the Philippines and observes that even natives of those islands have trouble floating. “Learning to float is counterintuitive; we have to do the very opposite of what our self-preserving instincts urge us to do” (pp. 142-143). Also, floating is “essentially to learn to trust,” which is also difficult (p. 143).

Floating makes for a thought provoking metaphor. We must decide to swim or float, and we would prefer to do both, writes Green, because we want to make our own way through life but to call upon God for help when we feel out of control. But God, rather, “wants us to have as our goal our total surrender to the [God’s] tide” (p. 144-145). Floating is when we “are totally secure” in God’s love and can thus “float free” and allow God to guide us (p. 145).

Thinking along with Green, I wonder if we should think of floating, not as a way to go through life in a passive way or a victimized way, but as a way of thinking about Romans 8:28 as we pursue our various responsibilities and follow our dreams. That Philippians verse implies a mysterious relationship between our actions and God's grace; we make our way through life while all the time calling upon and relying upon God for guidance and providential leading.

For instance, floating reminds me of the numerous turns and paths of my vocations (to focus on just that aspect of my life). I’m very proactive in my career, seeing and creating opportunities, and staying open to professional avenues---while I’m also praying to the Spirit for guidance. Several times over the years, opportunities that I thought were wonderful were not or did not develop, while other, unexpected ones appeared and were amazing. I’m sure it’s been that way for many others, too; one's life does take unexpected twists and turns. I’ve even praised God for answered prayer for circumstances, only to find those circumstances fall apart and lead eventually to something better.

If you can be a “floater” who is anxious and fussy and uncertain while floating, that’s me! Green assures us that it's not easy to trust God. But as we grow in our trust in God, we can see many ways that we and our loved ones have been guided.

Green also evokes the example of Ignatius Loyola, who spent a good part of his career in one role (administration) when he would have preferred other kinds of work (teaching, visiting the sick, etc.). If we're in a situation in life where we'd rather be doing other things, the idea of "floating" can help us stay on track as we look to God to see how we can thrive in this situation and also to keep our dreams alive.

When I talk to people about prayer (often, these days, via Facebook conversations), I prefer to emphasize this aspect of faith and spirituality: prayer and faith puts one within God’s “tide,” and we can trust God to guide us, but we may not immediately perceive that guidance. I don’t want people to feel disappointed if their prayers don’t get answered right away, or if “the peace of Christ” they felt in their hearts doesn’t last, or if (like me) the prima facie answer to prayer doesn’t necessarily work out. To me, it’s more honest and helpful (and more biblically, really) to assure people that God guides us over the long haul, and the wonders of God’s “current” may become obvious only after a period of years.

“Floating” also gives us confidence when we’re amid people who are single-minded (and possibly simple-minded) about ways to approach life. There will always be people (Christians included) who think everything has to be forced and pushed; that nothing good happens except through hard work and use of personal power. And a lot of things do happen through hard work and effort!  But you wish such people acknowledged prayer and surrender more obviously: you can be a Christian and still be very atheistic in your everyday attitudes. The idea of “floating” reminds us that there is a far greater power at work than our small efforts.

“Floating” reminds me of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

We’ve no problem embracing the part of that prayer that reads, “put me to doing.” But what if the Holy Spirit wished us to trust that the unproductive times, the times of disappointment and uncertainty, and even the dark nights of the soul, are ways by which God leads us? We might discover that our “doing” is a subtle way we try to control God's guidance. (I think churches try all the time to control God’s guidance.)


Another reason I like to think about this subject, is what I said above: like many of us, I become anxious when I’m in situations where I’ve limited or no control. A minor example is airplane travel: how long is that delay going to be? Will I miss my connection? Illness is a more serious example. All of us have different things that push our anxiety buttons more than other things. What makes you afraid and out of control?

In my ongoing efforts to be less anxious in stressful circumstances, I’ve been borrowing a little bit of Buddhist teaching (accepting situations as they are and feeling peaceful in them) with my faith in God’s providential help. As Green writes, God wants us to trust and "relax," and then God can lead us effectively.

I thought of another book I like, by Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). His chapter on Francis of Assisi is interesting. Tugwell notes, “The monastic tradition had assumed that the development of a proper spiritual life depended on the monks being protected against disturbances and temptations; but the Franciscans made it their boast that their enclosure was no other than the whole world. If this is God’s world, ruled by his providence, we ought not to have to protect ourselves against it. Whatever happens is God’s gift to us" (pp. 129-130).

The author concludes that the source of Francis’ love of nature--for which we think so fondly of the saint--is this belief in God’s providence. But though we think sentimentally of Francis’ love, he was no armchair lover of the outdoors. He actually wanted to be completely unprotected as he faced nature. He even tried to prevent a friend from extinguishing the fire that had caught his habit: “Dearest brother, do not harm brother fire,” he said (p. 130). “The whole point of Franciscan life is a radical conversion away from a life of self-will to a life of submission…The heart of conversion must accordingly be the disappropriation of your own will” (p. 131).

The point is not to be obedient on principle, but to follow Christ and to be like Christ. Christ himself went through life obedient and unprotected. Francis did not sentimentalize this approach to life: Christ was obedient and because of it was cruelly killed, after all. But if we follow Christ in this way, we discover “a new way of relating to other people”; vulnerability and disappropriation of one’s will (as well as voluntary poverty, another Franciscan ideal) leads to love of others (p. 133).

It also leads to personal happiness. Francis told the story of a traveler who, on a rainy and cold night, would not be accepted into a place of lodging for the night. “I tell you,” says Francis, “if I have patience and am not upset, this is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul” (p. 132).

To put it in terms of my own anxieties: if I have patience and happiness when I’m stranded in an airport, or when many things are stressful in my life, then I’ve reached a very good stage of inner peace rooted in trust in God. (You can also see how Francis’ parable traveler could be praised for his Buddhist-like sense of non-attachment.)

I’m SO not there yet! But to turn back to Fr. Green’s image, I think his notion of “floating” corresponds well with the inner freedom Tugwell finds in St. Francis: a willingness to relax as one goes about the day’s work and travels, a willingness to believe that God “current” will carry us, and an ability to relax in that “current” even when circumstances are difficult.


As I reflected on all this, I also thought of Hebrews 2:1. In that letter, the author warns people about abandoning their newly-found Christian faith, but he is also concerned with people drifting away from faith, like an unsecured boat. “Drifting” in this sense is different from the “floating” which Fr. Green intends. You drift when you’re careless about your faith and don’t maintain your side of your relationship with God. “Floating” is a serious process of surrendering to God’s help and guidance, especially in times of distress and uncertainty.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Good Friday and Easter

When I was little, I liked this hymn (words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874).

Low in the grave He lay, Jesus my Savior,
Waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose! Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed, Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!


Death cannot keep its Prey, Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!


Musically, the hymn was appealing to me. The verses are stately, almost march-like, while the refrain is faster, upbeat, and triumphant. With the words “up from the grave He arose,” the melody rises, too. I also liked the hymn because Jesus was pretty heroic. “He tore the bars away”… Superman did things like that.

Now I look at the hymn and see that it balances both the victory of Easter and the tragedy of Good Friday. Jesus is victorious at Easter … but first, he’s dead, executed. At least he received a more respectable burial than other condemned criminals. Nevertheless he is the “prey” caught by the predator Death.

Jesus’ heroism is one of obedience. He is dead because he followed God’s will. Remember the third “servant song” of Isaiah, 50:4-9a, where the servant declares he “gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting” (verse 6). What an odd kind of heroism! Certainly not the kind we necessarily esteem in people, whom we prefer to be forceful, perhaps good with weapons.

There is room for that kind of heroism. But there is also a force that resists retaliation. Dr. King once wrote, “We must use the weapon of love. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscious that we will win you in the process.” Suffering is a potential force for change, and a way for God to achieve amazing things.

But that’s the problem: who wants to suffer? Who wants to potentially be perceived as servile and passive?

The incarnate God is willing! He gives us a model for our own obedience but, much more importantly, he accomplished our unearned salvation through his own obedience, death, and resurrection.

… though he was in the form of God,
[he] did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6:-11).

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Growing in Faith

The New Testament book of Hebrews contains an interesting metaphor: milk vs. solid food as "nutrients" (my word) for one's religious faith. The whole passage is 5:11-14.

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

I hate being talked down to and scolded, so I might have shamefully thought (if not said) "Screw you!" if someone told me this. But the passage is interesting and difficult because it follows some very sophisticated and nuanced theology in the previous 4-1/2 chapters!

We don't know the author of Hebrews nor the location of the congregation, although the latter were probably Jewish converts to Christianity (hence the title, added by later tradition), perhaps in Italy in the 60s AD. The congregation could've grasped and followed the writer's several arguments concerning the primacy of Christ, based on Old Testament scriptures (the only scriptures they had, of course). Yet, the author expresses concern that the people are still "babies." Interestingly, in 6:1-3, the author tells them to "leave [behind] the elementary teachings about Christ... not laying again the foundation of repentance... instruction about baptism," etc. (NIV). They know all that stuff! And yet the basic knowledge, as well as the more sophisticated teachings of the author (which you could consider "solid food"), are not leading the members to maturity (NIV: the NRSV has "perfection").

The author of Hebrews does alternate harsh warnings, reassurances and encouragement throughout the letter: for instance, the section coming up, 6:4-12. Why weren't the people mature? Their problem seemed to be apathy or sluggishness (6:12: cf. the "dullness" referred to in 5:11 above), weakness that implies weariness (12:12-13), and a tendency to "drift" (as an unanchored boat would drift: 2:1). They also seem to be facing a certain amount of persecution, though apparently not yet life-threatening (12:4). So the epistle's author felt the need to startle them: to talk louder, if you will, to get their attention.

This is interesting to me, partly because I want to be mature in Christ, too, and partly because this biblical advice is different from the way some of us preachers and churchgoers approach this subject. A denominational official visited our church several years ago and, I swear, he preached an evangelistic, "come to Jesus" sermon--for an established congregation. We pastors want people to grow in their faith but I think some of us try to do so by reiterating and reenforcing the "elementary teachings"---the "milk." Perhaps we should, instead, remind them of what they know (or should know) and push them toward deeper and more confident understanding.

What might jolt and lead people toward maturity? Discussing this Hebrews passage, the commentator in The New Interpreter's Bible (vol. 11, p. 72) notes that the problem with the congregation was essentially a social failure! "The [original] readers [of the epistle] have apparently pulled back from bold witness to outsiders and from exhorting and encouraging one another. The loss of a congregational conversation means a loss of hearing. Through lack of use faculties grow dull and the members regress to a former condition of immaturity."

But their failure was also a failure to sharing the blessings of Christ's own life. We can follow Christian teachings and have correct beliefs and yet fall short of a full relationship with the living person and living presence of Christ himself---no historically distant teacher known only through a book. Thus the Hebrews author gives his readers so many glorious passages about the sufficiency of Christ for people's needs, about Christ's tender, real and present care for struggling sinful people. The failure (but not an irreversible one) of the congregation is a two-sided coin: an apathy toward the living Christ and an apathy toward mutual encouragement and social involvement and witness.

All this dovetails with one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 4:11-16.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul (or, some scholars argue, the author writing in Paul's name) similarly links Christian maturity to mutual support and encouragement and Christ's living power. Christian maturity can't take place apart from a loving (a genuinely loving) fellowship wherein people can build one another up.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

In the previous chapter, Paul depicts Christian maturity in a lovely way, and then in this section, he lowers the boom on the Corinthians, who think they're mature (and possibly would've thought Paul was describing them in chapter 2), but they actually are "infants"! Their "infancy" is, once again, a basic social failure combined with a failure to appreciate the living, working presence of Christ among them. Instead of being pleased at God's grace, the Corinthians were jealous, quarrelsome, prone to divine themselves among factions, and to glorify the work of particular people (in this case, Apollos and Paul) in a possessive, self-important way.

I never liked the expression, "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit," which has been attributed to both Emerson and Harry S. Truman, among others. Half-humorously, I think the saying could be used by people to take all the credit and not acknowledge and thank the efforts of others! But if we apply the saying to Paul, we could paraphrase: God can accomplish amazing things as we avoid playing favorites with one another, dividing ourselves into factions, and work humbly together for one another's benefit! But those things imply a deep trust and mutual affection among believers in a congregation---goals that a church might set prior to other, more programmatic goals.

Back to Hebrews: we grow and become mature believers in Christ in so far as we encourage and support one another---every day, in fact (Heb. 3:13, 10:23-24). I don't seek such encouragement every day, and would feel needy if I did.  Biblically, though, I should be seeking and giving daily encouragement for my faith (including periodic course-corrections)!

So should we all--but, as I say, it would require a high level of love, trust, and sincere concern within our circles of fellowship.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Being Judgmental

A while back, a friend asked me why I thought some Christians are so judgmental. I promised to think about it!

Maybe it's better to say "some judgmental people are also Christians." None of us can separate our psychological makeup from our faith. People who are naturally introverted, or controlling, or easily hurt, often express their personalities in similar ways in church settings, too; similarly, people who are quick to pigeon-hole and judge others, and people who want to others to change. (The character Angela in the NBC show The Office is a good pop-culture example of someone who, you assume, would be strict and stiff even if she wasn't religious. You shutter to picture the character Dwight Schrute as a Christian, without an accompanying personality overhaul!)

Having the Word of God at hand can be a powerful source for "judgmentalness": God said it, you don't measure up, that settles it. Some of us read scripture that way. Conservative and evangelical people tend to be accused of judgmental attitudes, but I think liberal and progressive people can also be quick to generalize, stigmatize and condemn. It's a tricky balance to be passionate about an issue or topic, and yet not dismiss or characterize those who disagree.

Of course, "being judgmental" doesn't have to be the same as having strong opinions and convictions. One might be perceived as being judgmental when s/he communicates personal convictions (again, whether they're stereotypical conservative or liberal issues); but she might be labeled as judgmental by someone who disagrees.

I wonder, too, whether judgmentalness (I know that's not a word: don't be judgmental toward me, LOL) is connected to certain stages of one's spiritual growth. This isn't always the case, but it can be. When I was a new Christian I was quick to pass judgment on certain things, but in retrospect, my attitude stemmed from my insecurities in faith and life, and my uncertainties how to be a Christian. I certainly lacked the inner peace that helps a person be strong, consistently kind and sensitive toward others.

Sometimes people are judgmental because they can't quite process the fact that other people's lives and experiences are not their own. They meet a single woman and make assumptions why she's not married. They meet a childless couple and wonder why they don't have children. Years ago, a few fellow pastors learned that I was interested in both parish work and getting a PhD, and they judged that I must be snooty and "ivory tower." Much worse, you can see how this kind of assumption-making isn't too far from racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. Any of these attitudes are painful when they're directed at you from fellow Christians; you hope they'd be more loving and considerate.

Unfortunately, generalizing harshly about other people is an easy habit for all of us, in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves.

Scripture does teach the potential need to warn others about their behavior or circumstances. Ezekiel 3:17-21 is a well-known example. This would be an easy scripture to use wrongly: throw tact to the wind, point out a person’s sin, and say to yourself, “Whew, I did what God wanted!” Nevertheless, according to this scripture, one might have the responsibility to warn someone about his or her actions. Similarly Paul voiced concern about immoral behavior tolerated by a congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-5) and also showed concern about another congregation (2 Thess. 3:6, 3:14-15; also Titus 3:10-11).

Jesus pointed out people’s sins. He was very harsh to the teachers who considered themselves superior to others (Matthew 23:25-28), and he told the woman caught in adultery to sin no more (John 8:1-11) although he was kind to her and, indeed, saved her life. But Jesus also loved people and involved himself with people whose lives were wrong, broken, judged harshly, and confused. To them, he shared himself.

Scripture teaches a responsible kind of judgment-making, but it is also very clear about the kindness and encouragement that go along with judgments! One should mind one's own affairs (1 Thess 4:11), one should be gentle and self-aware in one's judgments (Heb. 5:2, Gal. 5:1, 2 Tim. 2:24-25), one should be encouraging, helpful, and patient (1 Thess. 5:14), one should be concerned for peace rather than "wrangling" (1 Tim. 6:4-5, 2 Tim. 2:24-25). Why don't see these kinds of verses and focus on the ones about rebuking and fault-finding?

In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus famously tells people not to worry about the speck in someone else’s eye until you take the log out of your own eye. It’s actually a very humorous passage, which definitely gets the lesson across: I'm walking around with a big ol' tree stuck to my face and yet I point out that your face doesn't look right and you need to fix it!

Just because you see something that you consider condemnable in another person, you need to ask, What is condemnable in myself, if "the whole truth" were known about me? When Jesus’ opponents said, “He eats and drinks with sinners,” the irony is that they who disapproved of the sin of others, were themselves sinners! But they (in their own eyes) seemed more righteous because their sins were more subtle and prideful.

Jesus also said, “Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (John 7:24). Here is another biblical warrant to be cautious how you judge someone: the person may seem to be doing something of which you don’t approve, but do you really know what’s going on with the person? Have you "walked a mile in his or her shoes"? Have you inquired into the person’s circumstance? (Remember that “judgment” in the legal sense means a decision based on all the known facts about a case.) “Being judgmental” implies an haughty assessment according to appearances, or to a one-sided appeal to scripture, without a person knowing the content of that person’s heart and experience (or your own).

And… how would you know what’s going on with the person, if you didn’t have some kind of friendship with him other? Those scriptures I cited earlier (four paragraphs up) place judgments within the context of fellowship, friendship, love, and empathy. It's easy to show scripture to someone to condemn or criticize them, but in a way that's distancing yourself from them, putting yourself above them. That’s why “being judgmental” is so easy to be and simultaneously is so disagreeable when we see it in others.

To cite the often-quoted 1 Corinthians 13: you can be right about everything, including your moral and theological judgments, but if you don't have love, you're just noisy.