Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Diversity and Worship

I've been privileged to be around a number of discussions lately about diversity in the context of worship. I have opinions on diversity in a faculty and in student bodies. But I've heard a number of perspectives lately on diversity in worship.

One perspective is that of the "homogeneous principle"--groups tend to "thrive" when they are full of like-minded individuals.  I've worded this carefully.  I've put "thrive" in quotes because potentially we are only talking about thriving in certain ways, thriving in number or thriving in terms of the pleasure of the group. Diversifying a group is hard work and like tends to attract like.

Perhaps more significant is the phrase "like-minded individuals."  A colleague of mine has suggested that a multi-ethnic group can actually be a homogeneous group because everyone there is like-minded in the sense of loving multi-ethnic groups (I'm not sure he has put it quite so well as I just did, however ;-)

Still more voices are those who would say we are not looking like the kingdom of God if we have a completely white or a completely black or a completely Hispanic congregation.  I heard a student respond today that she lives out in the country and there is hardly anyone but white farmers in her community.  "Does it make us racist that we have an all white congregation?" she asked.

The thoughts that have emerged in my mind as I've sat on the sidelines of these debates are two-fold.  First, who if anyone are we excluding?  Second, what are we missing out on?

1. Who are we excluding?
One of the great insights of this diversity discussion is to realize the privilege the "in group" often has without even realizing it.  We may not notice the inadvertent challenges the "out group" may face.  I would like to think we're mostly past overt discrimination (although we're not).  Hopefully gone are the days when anyone thinks women are by nature more gullible than men or that a man is of course always going to be more suitable for leadership (we're not).  Hopefully gone are the days when someone really thinks that Germans are a purer or more noble race than the Polish or Africans (we're not).

At least most of us at least know we shouldn't say such things (when we are prejudiced, we're now more likely to give some other reason for the prejudice than admit it).

Where we are now is less about overt exclusion but inadvertent exclusion without intending to.  I may not mean to exclude my Lutheran friends when my Wesleyan friends and I are laughing hilariously about Wesleyan things. And I may not mean to exclude the African-Americans who live on the other side of 38th Street.  Or maybe my respectable, masters degree, middle class congregation doesn't mean to exclude the people on welfare within a few hundred feet of the church.

But I may very well not notice that such people do not feel welcome at my church.  I may be excluding them by accident.  I may be so comfortable with "my type" that I don't even realize I have inadvertently made others feel unwelcome.  It is a matter of omission rather than commission.  I probably don't mean to exclude the women in the congregation by talking about "him," "he," "a man," "him," "he," "him," "he." But that doesn't mean that some of the women in my congregation don't feel ignored.

I suspect the most important question here is "In what ways might we as a congregation inadvertently be  unwelcoming to others who are not like us--not just in terms of ethnicity but in terms of social class or political party, etc?"  The "unlike" may not want to come, but we must be a place where the "unlike" would be welcome to come.

2. What are we missing out on?
There still seems to be something wrong when my little group is not in community with other believers near-by who are different.  Why am I not talking to the Baptists or Methodists or Catholics in my town? I should be, surely.  Why is my mostly white church not in fellowship with the Latino/a or African-American church nearby?  Why don't we worship together every once and a while?

Why is it that we have a Haitian congregation using my sanctuary on Saturday but my white Sunday morning congregation never eats with them, never worships with them ever?  Something seems wrong that we could be so close, be one in Christ, and never talk to each other, never worship together, never eat together.

Do we have to worship together all the time?  Does a congregation need to have a mixture of all races, genders, and social classes?  Something would seem deficient if a congregation were all female.  Something seems more kingdom-like when people of all "tribes and nations" are worshiping together.

But perhaps the bottom line is that we are missing out on something when we are not in fellowship with other believers in our community.  There seems something unhealthily inwardly focused, almost self-centered not to want to connect with other believers around us.

When others are excluded, intentionally or otherwise, when we cut ourselves off from other believers, it is hard to say we are thriving as a congregation, even if we have tremendous numbers.

Apprentices of Jesus 1

Throughout the book so far, I have tried to set Jesus' earthly mission and message clearly against the background of the arriving kingdom of God to the earth. The first chapter showed how John the Baptist likely preached that God was about to come to judge the earth and restore Israel. The second chapter showed how Jesus' preaching of the coming kingdom fit right into this context.  The third and fourth chapters talked about how Jesus' mission to the poor, the sick, and the demon possessed was in part about the restoration of all God's people, as well as the defeat of spiritual forces that stood in the way of God's rule.

This chapter is about how Jesus recruited others to participate in his mission.  Here we especially think of his "disciples."  The word "disciple" in Greek (mathētēs) is related to the word for learning (mathēteuō).  So the gospels remember Jesus' followers as "learners" or as apprentices.  As Jesus' apprentices, Jesus' disciples followed him around and learned his ways so that they could continue in his footsteps. They were Jesus' students who followed rabbi Jesus around and learned his ways and understanding of God.

Jesus had many followers. Stories about Jesus feeding five thousand and four thousand at a time make it clear that far more than twelve followed him around. At one point a group of men dig a hole in a roof to let a paralyzed man down because there was no room in the house (Mark 2:1-12). Soon Jesus stays out in deserted places because so many are following him (Mark 1:45; 3:7-9; 4:1; 5:24).

Among these many followers, Jesus picked twelve in particular.  The gospels give slightly different names in their lists of who these twelve were (Mark 3:16-19; Matt. 10:2-4; Acts 1:13). [1] John never even gives a list and indicates that many of Jesus' followers left him at some point. John is very symbolic in its presentation and may be indicating that many of Jesus' early followers stopped following him because they could not accept his death and resurrection as part of the plan (John 6:53-66). [2]

It is less important to know the precise twelve as to notice the significance of the number twelve itself. In Matthew 19:28, Jesus tells the disciples that they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This statement makes explicit something we might have already guessed, that the number twelve links Jesus' followers to the restoration of Israel. The fact that Jesus does not include himself within the number of the twelve puts him in a different category, namely, as messiah. [3]...

[1] The traditional way of handling the slight differences in the names of the twelve is to say that some of the disciples had more than one name, for example that Thaddeus in Matthew and Mark is Judas in Acts or that Levi in Mark 2:14 is Matthew. It is of course possible. From a standpoint of truth, it is preferable to live with the uncertainty. In real life, we would not harmonize details in this way but simply say that the sources do not completely agree on the precise names of the twelve.

[2] Many interpreters of John do not actually think that the "beloved disciple" who stands behind the Gospel of John was one of the twelve. Certainly the Gospel of John never identifies him as one of the twelve.

[3] So E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism...

Monday, February 27, 2012

Government and the Poor 7

... continued from yesterday
... Christians can only justify capitalism if they think it is an economic system that can help the most people while not oppressing the rest.

Another question that is sometimes brought up today is whether it is the task of the church or the government to help those in need. Certainly it is our task.  That is to say, "to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin" (James 4:17). We have seen that the New Testament unanimously expects those who are able to help those who are in need.

Should the church help those in need?  It seems common sense.  If we can organize our individual efforts as believers to help others, why wouldn't we?  Certainly the churches of the New Testament did.  Acts 6 tells of an incident when a certain segment of the church was being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  These were widows within the Greek-speaking Jewish immigrant community in Jerusalem. The incident tells us that there was a daily distribution, and that it was a Christian value to reach everyone in need within the community.

When Paul met with James and Peter for their first real sit down, their main request of Paul was that he remember the poor (Gal. 2:10). Accordingly, Paul expended great efforts some years later collecting an offering from the churches he founded to take back to Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9).  Paul himself primarily worked so that he would not get entangled with the strings of patronage--taking the support of a church like Corinth would have indebted himself to them in his mind. The giving of the Philippian church was more about them doing what they should do rather than about his need (Phil. 4:17).

1 Timothy 5 would later speak of a well developed system of taking care of widows within the churches of Ephesus. It was thus a Christian value of the early church to take care not only of those within each Christian community but within other Christian communities as well.  Acts 2 pictures an early church that even sold its excess property to give to those who had need (Acts 2:45). While most of this good was done within Christian communities, Paul says, "as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:10). Doing good is not limited to the church.

But what of governments?  Is it the business of government to help the poor? Here again we get into arguments about economics and political theory, with some arguing that government involvement is counterproductive. Some would argue that governments do not help others well but instead make matters worse. Many of these arguments involve expertise in areas beyond the scope of this book.

What we can do in this book is describe the overall Christian values. The first is that there is nothing in Scripture that opposes human authorities helping those in need. Indeed, the Old Testament considers it to be a virtue of the king to take care of the poor.  Psalm 72 implores the king to "take pity on the weak and needy and save the needy from death" (72:13). Romans 13 describes the Roman state as a potential agent for the good of the citizens of Rome (13:4) and does not set limits on what good the state might do.

The question is thus one of whether in fact a particular system of doing good for those in need truly helps them in the long run or not.  Christians will no doubt disagree on how effective governments are at such things.  But if a government could effectively help those in need without bringing other harm in the process, Christian values would say that it was a good thing. And certainly no individual or church is normally in a position to help as many people as a well organized government. [1] The Bible indicates it is a Christian value to try to help. If the powers that be could help as well, nothing in Scripture prohibits it in theory.

[1] If we take the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean or the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, no individual or church was equipped to bring help to the area with the speed or effectiveness that the United States government did.  In fact, most help organizations in the United States would have difficulty surviving without financial assistance from the government.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Yesterday I spun out what an outline of a short, 120ish page overview of Wesleyan theology might look like.  Today I wanted to brainstorm what the outline of the first chapter might look like.  The first chapter is usually introductory.  It gets definitions and presuppositions on the table. It might be a little shorter than the others, say 10-15 pages.

Here are some thoughts.

1.1 What is Wesleyan Theology?
Here I would give some history.  John Wesley was an Anglican minister, founder of the Methodist tradition.  Anglicanism was a kind of middle ground between Roman Catholicism and high Protestantism. So Wesley was influenced by Martin Luther's focus on individual faith and salvation.  He took the position of Arminius that God wanted everyone to be saved and that anyone could be saved, an argument that played out on the ideological turf of John Calvin. But Wesley also valued the sacraments and the authority of the church in a way that looks catholic to many today.

In America, Wesleyanism played out in the 1800's as revivalism.  Wesley himself had emphasized certain experiences of God a believer might have in his or her life, and the American frontier emphasized these, including one in which a person became perfected in love.  There was an emphasis on the necessity of a godly life after conversion with the possibility that you could "lose" your salvation if you did not walk in faithfulness to God. These were all trajectories set by Wesley's theology.

So Wesleyan theology is a form of theology that is orthodox in that it holds to the common creeds of Christianity.  It is Protestant in that it recognizes the fallibility of the visible church and the validity of its critique by Scripture and the founding principles of Christ.  It affirms the primacy of God's grace and the importance of individual faith.  It is Arminian in the sense that it believes anyone can be reconciled to God.

Within these streams, the Wesleyan tradition believes that faithfulness is an essential for continuance in God's grace.  It is optimistic about God's desire to transform us into godly people and to transform the societies of which we are a part.  There is thus an experiential emphasis in the Wesleyan tradition that arguably provided the fertile soil from which the Pentecostal movement later sprung.  

1.2 The Role of Experience
One of the influences on Wesley was his encounter with a group called the Moravians.  They were Pietists who emphasized the possibility of a personal assurance that a person was right with God.  It was quite unusual in those days, especially for Calvinists, to think you could be certain whether you were one of the chosen or not. Wesley himself found the peace they felt about their eternal destiny quite striking, and the idea of assurance was to become one of his major preaching points.

Experientially oriented Christianity has its dangers as well.  We are probably more often than not mistaken about what we feel is right when we don't bring our heads into the equation.  Perhaps a better way to say it is that God wants us to be in relationship with him.  Relationship implies that we have encounters with God.  The model of relationship is an excellent lens through which to explore Wesleyan theology and I would use it throughout any book of this sort.

The wisdom of recognizing the key role of the non-rational has become clear as postmodernism has passed by and brain study has progressed.  The way we think about the world is not the way God thinks about the world.  We do not have all the data nor can we organize it in all its complexity.  History is the story of shifts in paradigms and how we think is much more about the subconscious than conscious mind.

It thus turns out to be insightful to focus on the "heart" over the "head" in theology.  A robust theology cannot merely focus on what we believe with our conscious mind but include the deep person within with its motives and deeper intentionality.

1.3 The Role of Reason 
As a child of the Enlightenment, Wesley's thinking was very rational and Reason played a significant role.  Again, postmodernism has highlighted the centrality of faith in what we believe. Everything we believe about just about everything requires faith.  We must start therefore with faith.

Some streams of Christianity right now are heavily "presuppositional."  There are some things you just don't question.  This was not the spirit of Wesley.  He was more of the mind that the evidence would not blatantly contradict what we believe as Christians.

A fruitful middle ground is the tried and true "faith seeking understanding."  We start with the faith of the church but we recognize that our minds are fallible and limited, and the Protestant principle implies a certain revisability.  The evidence may not demand a verdict, but we wouldn't expect it to blatantly contradict the verdict of faith either.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

A Wesleyan Theology

Someone asked me if there was good book to introduce Wesleyan theology.  Sad to say, I don't think there is.  I had H. Orton Wiley in college and enjoyed it, but it's hardly coffee reading.  The Nazarenes have had a couple options in the past and I want to commend them for that, but I suspect they are getting a bit of a dated feel like a shaggy carpet and paneled walls.  I see that Will Willimon has recently come out with one for the Methodists, no doubt focused on John Wesley.

I'm not a professional theologian.  I'm always amazed at how little I know about theology when I talk to people like John Drury and Chris Bounds.  But maybe because I don't know as much, I suspect I write more engagingly and relevantly than most of those who are. I don't plan to write a Wesleyan theology, but as usual I got to thinking, "If I were to write a 120 page overview of Wesleyan-Arminian theology, how would I approach it?"

First, I think I would write each chapter in layers.  In each chapter, I would start with what most historic Christians have thought, then move to ways in which the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition might contrast with other traditions, and end with some of the variety among Wesleyan-Arminians themselves on that topic.  It would in the process point out similarities and contrasts of the tradition in relation to other groups like catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Pietism, anabaptism, evangelicalism, and Pentecostalism. We potentially share similarities and have differences with all of these.

Second, I think I would structure the book in terms of the story.

1. Faith (preliminary comments on what we can know and what is important)
2. God (including the Trinity)
3. Creation and Alienation (including some reflection on how evolution might affect this topic)
4. Revelation (much bigger than Scripture, God's movement toward us, including Israel, culminating in Christ)
5. Reconciliation (with Christ as the center; individual, corporate in the church, church as agent of change in the world)
6. Restoration (the resolution of the story in final salvation and judgment)
7. In the Meantime (Christian living as we live in the world, ethics, focus on the Spirit)

Finally, key elements that would distinguish the presentation as Wesleyan-Arminian might include things like 1) an emphasis on relationship, intention, and experience, 2) emphasis on prevenient grace, on the fact that God takes the initiative to come to us, sense that he comes toward everyone, 3) optimism about reconciliation and what God wants to do now in the world on every level.

Oh well, can't write everything...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Science Friday: Atomic Numbers

It continues.
... Meanwhile, Spruce continued to talk to himself.  "It's the protons that tell you what element it is.  That's because it's the only particle whose number is always the same no matter what form the element comes in."

Stefanie carefully removed a piece of parsley from a delicious strip of fettuccine.

"You see, we normally think an atom has the same amount of protons and electrons.  When it does, it has no charge or a neutral charge.  The negatives of the electrons outside the nucleus balance out the positives of the protons in the nucleus."

Stefanie next eyed a strip of fettuccine with some extra Alfredo sauce on it.  It looked absolutely delicious.

"But some atoms can give away some of their electrons or borrow some from another atom.  When that happens, the atom can become an ion with either a positive or negative charge.  So you can't count the electrons to decide what kind of an atom it is.  The number can change."

"That's interesting," Stef said, eyeing a lovely bit of broccoli.

"You can't count the neutrons," Spruce continued, "because the same element can come with different numbers of neutrons.  They're called different isotopes of the element."

"What's an element again?" she asked, not noticing that Spruce had used the word repeatedly.

"An element is a kind of atom.  So gold is an element, a particular kind of atom.  Silver is an element, a particular kind of atom."

"And diamonds are a kind of atom," she said.

"No, I think diamonds are made up of carbon atoms or something."

Oooo, Stef thought, a mushroom.  It had been hiding under several fettuccine noodles.

"So that's why they use the number of protons to identify an atom, because if you change the number of protons, you've changed the kind of element."

With no more fettuccine, broccoli or 'shrooms on her plate, Stef finally was forced to look at him.

"And I need to know this why?"

"The number of protons in an atom tells you the atomic number," Spruce answered. "It tells you which element it is.  You know the periodic table, that chart on the inside of every chemistry book?"

"Yeah?" and indeed she did.  There had been a huge one in her high school chemistry room, a picture full of boxes stacked on top of each other, like you were looking through the walls of some huge condominium with a tower on each end.

"The periodic table starts at the top left with the number 1 and moves across each row with the atomic number counting up one by one.  The first row only has two boxes on each end, numbers 1 and 2."

"So you're telling me number 1 has one proton in its nucleus and number 2 has two protons in its nucleus?"

Spruce was actually surprised she had paid that much attention.

"Yeah, hydrogen has one proton and helium has two.  Then the next row keeps counting up: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10."

"Why does it skip the space in the middle at the top," Stef surprisingly asked, having stared at the chart a time or two in high school.

Spruce thought like he was about to say something profound and finally came forth with his answer.  "No idea"...

Jesus and Capitalism 6

... continued from Tuesday
... He intervened when the weak were enslaved beyond their control. His impulse to heal is the impulse we should have toward those in distress in our society.

I hinted above that a society as a whole can "help" the poor by the way it structures itself.  For example, capitalistic systems, if they are set up well, seem to be able to help a society overall.  Many would argue that capitalism at its best makes it possible for more people to have more.  The question of how to set up economic systems to maximize the benefit to the most people is a question for economists and historians. It is not what a book like this one is about.

But what a book like this one can do is clarify the values that a Christian should have.  What would Jesus do, when setting up an economic system?  He would set up one that "loves" the most people the most, while not forgetting any individual in the process.  He would oppose any system that tended to impoverish some in the process of giving massive excess to others. Would Jesus set up a capitalistic system, if he were setting up a human economy?  The answer can only be yes if it meant that more people would benefit and that others were not neglected in the process.

Normally, we do not have much control over such things.  Few of us have any say on what the economic system of a country is.  From time to time, it does become part of the mix of topics in politics.  One politician says that one way of doing things will make things better, while another says it will make things worse.  Again, few of us are competent to know who is right, and even economic experts can disagree.

What is important is to be clear on the goal of loving and not harming our neighbor.  If an economic system only causes a few individuals to accrue massive wealth while those who work "in their fields" struggle, Jesus would reject such a system out of hand (cf. James 5:4).  You will find no support for such a system in the New Testament.

And it seems important to recognize that the way a system is set up has implications for how money is distributed.  Money is not property, not in the modern world.  The value of money goes up and down, as does the price we charge for something. Some of the most influential factors in the modern economic world have to do with gambling and speculation. The wealth accrued by a good bet on the market is not the same as a goat a family plans to eat for supper.

As we have seen, the New Testament looks negatively toward those with massive excess of wealth. One parable in Luke may even applaud a manager who, without his master's permission, writes off debt owed to his master.  It seems to applaud him even though he does it for selfish reasons (Luke 16:1-13). The reason this parable seems so strange to us may be in part that we do not realize the strongly negative underlying view of wealth that Luke has.

The Bible never connects its prohibitions on stealing with this sort of person. Indeed, a better argument can be made that it saw this sort of person himself as a thief.  Most people in the Roman world had barely enough to feed their family and pay whatever they might be obligated to pay the powers that be.  Stealing from this sort of person was not a violation of some abstract philosophical sense of property.  It was taking the goat from which the family got its milk and cheese.

Again, the point is that the follower of Jesus will always keep in mind the fundamental value of helping those in need.  There is no inherent virtue to capitalism.  Quite the opposite, it is based on a principle of self-interest that tends to move in the opposite direction of biblical values (e.g., Phil. 2:3).  Christians can only justify capitalism if they think it is an economic system that can help the most people while not oppressing the rest...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Prejudice and Stereotypes

I don't have time to write much today, but here's something based on a post in a course, after we read a short story called, "Revelation," by Flannery O'Connor.
One concept in sociology that has been helpful to me in processing social prejudice is in group/out group. When we are talking about someone in our group, we tend to accentuate their positive characteristics. When we are talking about someone in an out group, we tend to accentuate their negative characteristics.

It's a fine line to walk for me personally. There are cultural differences between different groups. Such differences can be prized by one group and devalued by another, just like I might value characteristics that are my strengths while devaluing characteristics that are my weaknesses.

But that doesn't mean that the characteristics are never real. My strengths often have corresponding weaknesses and vise versa for the person whose strengths are in areas of my weakness.  Surely it can work that way for cultures in general, that some cultures have strengths that may have associated weaknesses.

So it seems to me that cultural stereotypes are not always wrong; they can even give a jump start to communication and understanding. BUT, in the hands of most of us they are inaccurate, imbalanced, and a subconscious way of making me feel better about myself at someone else's expense. Most of the time, stereotypes are vehicles for prejudice rather than for understanding.

Bottom line: I need to give every specific individual the right to show and tell me who they really are, not to impose on them my own assumptions.  Further, I need to give every individual the space to change as well, regardless of what they might have been or done in the past.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

21st Century Christianity

Here are some features of Christianity that I believe have staying power, despite strong streams to the contrary at present.

1. A genuine love
Forms of Christianity right now that focus on what you believe focus on the most superficial part of the human brain.  Our motives are deep, and our choices are what define us.  What arguably matters most to God is our "heart," our intentions toward others as they lead to our choices and our actions. This focus is real. This focus is genuine. This focus shows up in life. This focus will persist.

2. Interest in the whole person
You cannot neatly divide up a person into mental, physical, and spiritual.  A person's eternal trajectory may be the most important aspect of his or her life, but God is genuinely interested in the whole person. For those who are "burned over ground," the frontal assault to try to convert is counterproductive. Christianity that will persist will need to build relationships, be genuinely interested in the whole person (meaning physical, social, economic, and needs of all kinds), and let issues of spiritual trajectory arise in God's own time.  This principle carries over to being interested in God's world as well.

3. Focus on trajectory, not event
Christianity that will persist will be less interested in mile markers than in the direction a person is traveling.  This includes the person who has made a confession of faith--God does not weigh a person by where he or she has been but by where they are going. It can become a myopic preoccupation.

3. Focus on reconciliation over justice
The picture of justice as God's dominant characteristic pictures an immature God.  Because love is God's ultimate character, God's sovereignty does not point to his right to condemn anyone he wants for whatever reason but to his right to forgive anyone he wants for whatever reason. Justice in the modern sense is a good, but one might argue that even true justice aims at reconciliation and protection.

4. Views all people as full participants
Artificial distinctions between men and women, between races and social groups are at best distractions, at worse fallenness trying to disguise itself as godliness.  The roles we play should ideally come from the gifts God has given us.  Christianity that will persist will be color and gender blind.

5. Scripture as our story
Fundamentalism is strong because it plays to simple understanding and simple answers, not to mention frequently base emotions.  It creates an idol of words and mistakes words for the Word, Jesus Christ.  In Scripture Christians find their story.  They find God walking with his people in the past.  Christianity that will persist will live in full recognition that we must "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" as we make our way through life, recognizing the constancy of God from the past--revealed especially in Christ--but also his principle of meeting us in flesh, of incarnating truth and ethics in specific contexts.

Monday, February 20, 2012

What is "Helping" the Poor 5

... continued from Saturday
... To be sure, there are, I believe, legitimate claims to be made that far more people overall prosper under the type of capitalist systems we find in the Western world today. But many seem to lose sight of this fact, that the ultimate Christian justification for capitalism is the conviction that it helps more people in the end. The danger is that we come to mistake Rand's "selfishness" as the Christian value itself.

When we begin to talk about something like capitalism, we begin to get into the bigger sense of what "helping" might mean.  I can help one specific person on one day by giving her a fish.  At the end of the day, I have one less fish and tomorrow that person will be hungry again.  If I could teach others to fish, so the adage goes, then they will be able to get fish for themselves.

This is of course a modern proverb.  It presumes that there are plenty of fish to find if we will only fish for them.  It is not a proverb based on the way people generally thought at the time of the Bible, which was more in terms of a limited amount of "good," a limited amount of resources.

But today it does seem that my prosperity need not take away from yours.  Sure, there are cases of this sort.  If there is a certain dividend in a company for the year, it can only be divided a certain way. And there are times where work is hard to find. I write this book as the United States seems to be emerging slowly from the most significant recession since the Great Depression of the 1930's. There are lots of people right now who know how to fish but can't find a pond.

But in general, the proverb rings true for our context today.  Jesus and the New Testament would not want someone to go hungry today. But surely it is even more loving of our neighbors to teach them to fish, to help them find a job, to help them stand on their own, maybe even to give them a job.

As we hinted above, the cycle of poverty in some cases has left some not wanting to fish.  I am convinced that Jesus would not say, "That's their own choice.  Let them experience the consequences of their own actions."  The reason I do not believe Jesus would say this is twofold.

Most importantly, psychology would lead us to question whether in fact they are free to make another choice.  Poverty can be a sort of addiction every bit as powerful as alcohol or drugs.  It is very difficult when you have never been addicted to anything to realize the powerlessness of the situation. I am convinced that Jesus would come alongside people in such situations to find a way not only to give them a fish for today, not only to teach them to fish.  But as the first order of business, I believe he would heal them so that they want to fish in the first place.

The second reason I believe Jesus would not leave such people alone is because mercy was more important to him than justice in our sense of the word. [1]  The focus of his mission was to reclaim the lost sheep, not to discard them because they had got themselves into a mess.  We do not find Jesus saying things like, "Let them stew in their own juice."

How to lift up those enslaved to a cycle of poverty is far beyond my capacities. I do suspect we are almost talking about a kind of miracle, just as it is so difficult for a person addicted to alcohol or drugs to stop. For the purposes of this book, I will be happy if you will at least recognize what Jesus' values were.  He did not leave the demon-possessed as if to say, "If you had been righteous, a demon would not have been able to take you over."  He intervened when the weak were enslaved beyond their control. His impulse to heal is the impulse we should have toward those in distress in our society...

[1] "Justice" in the sense of the Old Testament prophets was not about punishment for wrongdoing but primarily about "social" justice, seeing that widows and orphans were taken care of, while making sure that those that oppressed them were brought low (cf. Micah 6).

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wealth in the NT 4

... continued from yesterday
But it is also no surprise to find that the New Testament has almost nothing positive to say about wealth or the wealthy. Virtually everything it has to say is not only negative but virtually condemnatory. "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Tim. 6:10). Rather, "we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (6:7-8). "Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (6:10).

James is of course even starker in what it has to say about the wealthy, and it assumes such individuals are cheats. "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you...  Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty" (5:1, 4). James pictures a land owner who severely underpays the captive labor he has at his disposal.

James 4 similarly mocks the "industrialist," the merchant who is preoccupied with making a profit.  "Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (4:11-12).

These verses remind us of a parable in Luke sometimes called the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). In this parable, a wealthy man wants to store up his surplus grain so he can "eat, drink, and be merry" for many years. He wants to tear down his barns and built bigger ones. The parable mocks him, because he is destined to die that very evening.

These are parables and proverbs. They are not absolute, without exception. It may be "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25).  But it is possible.  There are prosperous employers who pay fair wages to their employees. There is a time to store up grain in a time of prosperity so that you can help others in the years to come (e.g., Gen. 41:49). Notice that the authentic purpose in Joseph's case was to help others.

Paul thinks of it this way in 2 Corinthians.  "At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: 'The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.'" (7:14-15). In so many words, Paul says that God is prospering you Corinthians right now, so your obligation is to share to others who do not have enough at this time.  A time may come when it flows the other direction.

John Wesley summed up the most appropriate application of these values well when he said, "Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can." [1]  You will find no acceptance of laziness here.  But by "save all you can" he did not mean to store up your excess prosperity in bigger barns or brokerage accounts.  For him, save meant not to buy a more expensive brand when you can get by with a less expensive one.  Then "give all you can" is self-explanatory.

This biblical value of not storing up treasures on earth but dispersing God given prosperity to as many others as we can is difficult for us today.  It goes against the grain of our capitalistic spirit.  Indeed, the famous libertarian Ayn Rand once wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness.  To be sure, there are, I believe, legitimate claims to be made that everyone prospers more under the Western capitalist system. But most people arguably lose sight of this fact, that the only Christian justification for capitalism is the conviction that it helps more people in the end. The danger is that we come to mistake Rand's "selfishness" as the Christian value itself...

[1] Wesley source

Friday, February 17, 2012

Science Friday: Factor-Label Method

The science novel madness continues!  Here's tonight's excerpt:
After writing it all down, Stefanie's exhaustion from the day finally got the best of her. She climbed in her bed and quickly drifted off. But after four nights without chemistry intruding into her dreams, the monster returned.

The dream started off fine. She was at a mall. It was two stories with a big open space in the middle. Look, there's a Cold Stone. Look, there's a Mexican restaurant. Look, a Fazolis. It was her kind of mall!

Then it kind of changed. She was facing two stories, but there were bowling pins--and humungous strips of chicken from "arroz con pollo," a Mexican dish, on both floors. They were different colors.

Suddenly, her sister Stacy was standing on the second floor in a tuxedo and tights, wearing a top hat and holding a very long black cane.

"OK, Stefanie," she yelled down. "Your job is to match the things on the top floor with the things on the bottom. Let me do one for you."

Normally, Stefanie wouldn't pay any attention to Stacy's instructions. But you know how dreams are. Things that are normally bizarre seem completely normal and real. Stefanie began to get nervous, even broke out in a sweat.

"See this twisted 1.3 meter long piece of chicken," Stacy continued, touching the chicken on the second floor. It strangely began to glow. "This piece is exactly like the 1.3 meter long piece of chicken on the bottom." And then her cane extended down to touch the other piece of chicken on the bottom. It glowed for a second and then both disappeared. "Now it's your turn."

Instantly everything disappeared and then a series of things appeared on both the top and the bottom. Two red bowling pins and a twisted piece of chicken on the top. A red bowling pin and a meter long piece of celery appeared on the bottom.

"Um," Stefanie hesitantly said. "It looks like all the bowling pins should disappear."

"WRONG!" Stacy said in a triumphant voice. "There's only one red bowling pin on the bottom so only one of the red bowling pins on the top can disappear. So what does that leave?"

Now in the dream Stefanie was quite unusually flustered. "I guess it leaves one red bowling pin and chicken strip on the top and just the celery on the bottom."

"Exactly," and with that balloons of all colors started to fall incessantly from somewhere overhead.

Stefanie woke up in a start. "What was that all about?" she actually said out loud. "Humph," she said, "like Stacy would ever make me nervous"

For the rest of the chapter, see here.

Wealth and the Poor Then 3

continued from earlier
But amazingly, the entirety of the biblical texts are united in their sense that God wants his people to care for those who cannot take care of themselves. It is true in the Old Testament Law. It is true in the Prophets and the Writings of the Old Testament. It is certainly true of the gospels and Acts. It is true of Paul and the letters. It is ironic that so many Christians today are so sure about so many things that the Bible does not clearly teach or that do not clearly relate to today and yet can question, even vilify those who make it a priority to help the poor today.

To be sure, there are some very significant differences not only with the poor of the Western world today but also in how we think about money today.  Most Western countries today have some sort of "safety net" in place that aims at caring for those without the resources to care for themselves. For some reason the United States in particular seems to have a welfare system that creates problems of its own, where families get into a cycle of poverty. Children are raised with no sense of how to support themselves but instead know little but to continue the life of complete dependency they learned growing up.

Many of the homeless also are enslaved in a way that would need much more than food or shelter to lift them out of their condition. Some are, in a sense, enslaved to their way of life. Some do not want to leave their situation. It is not like the days of the Great Depression when the bulk of the homeless would have gladly worked to get out of their plight. [1] There is a sense in which the majority of homeless today often are in need of something much more profound than the Lazarus of Jesus' parable.

In such cases, "helping the poor" is still a solid Christian value, but the question of exactly what help they need is much more complex.  It seems much more difficult than simply giving food or clothing, although we must be grateful for the soup kitchens and homeless shelters that "give a fish" to those who are hungry today and those who want to get out of the cold today. We will not find Jesus ever saying of such people, "It's your own fault that you are on the streets, now you must experience the consequences of your actions."  We will look in vain for any sentiment of that sort in the gospels.

And let us also be clear that Jesus considers it an obligation for the rich man to take care of the poor man Lazarus. There is no sense that the rich man's money is his own, his own deserved possession. Rather, the New Testament largely operates with a sense of "limited good."  We are either to infer from the parable that the rich man is tormented after death either because he did not help the poor man Lazarus or perhaps even simply because he was rich in the first place!

The ancient world was not a monetary economy that functioned primarily on the basis of money. Most people, as we said, lived on a subsistence level. They had enough to feed themselves and their family in a minimal sense. We would thus consider almost everyone in the ancient world to be below the poverty line. People still primarily exchanged goods and what money did exist reflected more concrete value.

There was thus a clear sense that if one person amassed more, then someone else would have less. An Arab proverb from the time not long after Christ captured it well: "Every rich man is a thief or the son of a thief." [2] It is thus possible that the rich man's wealth in itself was seen as an indication of his wickedness. They would have thought that in order to have such wealth, he would have had to cheat many, many people in the process.

Think of it this way. Let's say there are 10 of us in a room, and we each have one apple to eat for supper. Then let's say that when we leave the room, nine of you have no apples and I have all ten. That is how people at the time of Christ likely thought about wealth. Of course that is not the way resources work today, so we must be very careful when applying biblical passages about money and resources. We must take such differences into account.

But it is also no surprise to find that the New Testament has almost nothing positive to say about wealth or the wealthy. Virtually everything it has to say is not only negative but virtually condemnatory...

[1] I am not referring here to the many unemployed in the current situation in the United States and elsewhere today who would gladly work if the jobs were available. I am speaking here of the perennially homeless.

[2] Malina

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Coming Clean on Hermeneutics

For years I have been arguing that Paul and the NT authors read the OT like a charismatic rather than a scholar, evangelical or fundamentalist. I've done this to legitimate the "reader-response" approach that most people use when reading Scripture.  I've called it other things: a "spiritual" reading, a "devotional" reading.

I've not changed my mind, that the Spirit is not and has never been limited by the original meaning of the biblical text.  God can speak truth to you through the words of Scripture even if you are completely mistaken about what those words really meant.  Accordingly, I believe the vast numbers of sermons every Sunday morning that proclaim truths that aren't really what the biblical text was about are still the word of God when God is speaking through the speaker.

But I'm going to come clean.  This is second best for me.  The best of all possible worlds is actually to understand the biblical text and to feel the freedom of the Spirit in preaching. 

The best of all possible worlds is actually to know what you're talking about rather than simply relying on the possibility that the Spirit can speak truth despite our ignorance.  The best of all possible words is to be relevant and knowledgeable.  

Mind you, I think true relevance is more important than true understanding.  I'd rather a pastor speak relevant truth to a congregation than for a pastor to know the biblical languages and say nothing of any import at all.  I don't even consider that preaching.  I agree with Craddock--a sermon without an address is not really a sermon.

But that's not an endorsement of ignorance.  I would rather a preacher both know the real biblical text (the Greek and Hebrew one) and speak with relevance to a congregation.

There, I've come clean...

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Church Leadership and the NT

In recent days a couple Facebook groups have arisen among Wesleyans and a number of hot bed issues have been discussed.  It's a painful place because quite different and strongly held perspectives are bantered about, but so far we're all playing nice. Some of the topics have been practical ministry questions. Others have ranged over more sensitive issues like women in ministry, inerrancy, and evolution.

I see one cross section of controversy arising because the Wesleyan church has attracted a number of former Baptists and reconstructionists whose orientation is to "get things back" to how the New Testament church did things. Occasionally, this gets us into conflict with some of the residual Methodist elements of Wesleyan Church structure.  Why don't we have deacons, for example?

I thought I'd post a couple comments I made there, since the question of how we should structure local churches occasionally has come up here.

1. Those who know me will know what I'll always say with these sorts of questions. Leadership will certainly not look the same in 21st century America when it comes to many specifics. There are instead general principles and values that have to be contextualized. Doing what they did might not do what it did then today. In fact, at times in might be downright counterproductive and have exactly the opposite effect. We don't read the Bible to do exactly what they did (greet the brothers with a holy kiss), but to see how God walked with his people at particular times and places in the past to bring forward the wisdom of those relationships and interactions (let's shake hands instead).

2. I like a deaconate system too and I think an effective church of any size will have to have individuals who perform this sort of roll. My pet peeve is that we have to do it a certain way or call these people a certain thing because of the NT. After all, Acts 6 doesn't call them deacons. Acts never uses the word. It appears in a small number of Pauline passages, and 1 Timothy is hardly the center of Paul's thinking.

I don't think we can say there was one structure to the NT church. James 2 talks of someone walking into their "synagogue," implying that many Christian Jews pretty much co-opted the existing synagogue structure. A church like Corinth seems to have had a strong charismatic element and prophets seem to have played a prominent role in NT church leadership. 3 John may reflect tensions between an older itinerant leadership and an incipient local authority structure.

So I would say we can easily justify from the NT 1) leadership that goes beyond the local congregation (e.g., Paul), 2) collective leadership of the wise in a congregation (e.g., elders), 3) focal leadership in a congregation (e.g., Timothy, Epaphroditus), 4) prophetic voices that must always be tested, and 5) individuals to whom more detailed ministry is delegated (deacons).

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Psalm 6 Translation

Psalm 1
Psalm 2
Psalm 3
Psalm 4
Psalm 5
Now Psalm 6
[To the musician leading (those playing) the Neginoth upon the Sheminith, a psalm (attributed) to David]
1 Do not in your anger correct me,
     and do not in your heat discipline me.
2 Be gracious to me, YHWH,
     for I am languishing;
Heal me, YHWH,
     for my bones tremble.
3 And my soul trembles intensely,
     but you, YHWH, how long?
4 Return, YHWH; deliver my soul.
     save me because of your faithfulness.
5 For in death there is no memory of you;
     in Sheol who gives thanks to you.
6 I am weary with my sighing;
     I swim in all [the] night [on] my bed;
     with my tears, I dissolve my couch.
7 My eye is sunken from grief;
     it ages from all my harassers.
8 Go away from me,
     all transgressors of wickedness,
     for YHWH has heard the voice of my weeping.
9 YHWH heard my mercy-cry;
     YHWH will receive my prayer.
10 Let all my enemies be very ashamed
     and let them be terrified;
Let them return,
     let them be suddenly ashamed.
A couple items of interest here.  First, there is the explicit denial of any meaningful afterlife in 6:5.  If I were to guess (unprovable, I suppose), I would date the psalm to the same basic period as Ecclesiastes and the Writings in general.

6:8 would seem to be alluded to by Matthew 25:41, where the messianic king tells those who have not helped those in need to depart to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  In the psalm, the speaker is clearly oppressed by enemies. It is not clear what of the psalm Matthew 25 considered relevant.  Perhaps it is no more than the fact that the psalmist is in need and those who do not help those in need but could are in one sense their oppressors.

Monday, February 13, 2012

LMS of the future?

An LMS is a "Learning Management System."  Think "Blackboard."  It's basically about setting up a classroom environment online for distance education.

Blackboard is the current hegemony in this area.  It's doing its best to retrofit itself to the incredibly fast changing Google/Facebook world. The problem is that it is really hard to turn the Titanic. If they were starting from scratch today it would no doubt look a lot different. And most of us suspect that someone will come up with something relatively free and better soon, and down Blackboard will come like the music businesses when Napster came on the scene.

I heard Friday that one of the leading online educators is in the final stages of designing its own LMS.  More power to them.  That sort of innovation always excites me. It's not hard to cobble one together from the things available in Google and Facebook, but not professional enough for an online institution to do.

One interesting discussion I had this weekend had to do with bringing online education to Africa. What's interesting is that Africa is basically leap frogging the desktop, because they often don't have reliable power or internet connection. What they do have is cell phones!

So the question was first, could you create an even more sequential pedagogy that could be administered via smart phones.  Someone else then brought up the iPad.  You can even do Blackboard on an iPad.  The question is which server they use in Africa, since the iPad only works with ATT or Verizon.

A cell phone LMS would basically need to be able to:

  • show text (in this case in very small screen snippets)
  • take text input (probably by converting voice to text)
  • It would need to link and sequence the course in a very linear thread, with minimal link following

Fun thoughts!  Ideally, someone would design a special tablet and bare bones LMS that did not require Verizon or ATT for hook up.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Not helping a sin? 2

... continued from yesterday
Luke's best example of what a poor person looks like is the poor man Lazarus outside the rich man's house (Luke 16:19-31). This is a parable rather than an actual story. And this is not the Lazarus of John's gospel, whom Jesus raises from the dead. It is a poor beggar who sits outside the home of a wealthy man.

The parable probably wants us to picture this beggar living off of the generosity of the rich man.  Perhaps at some point during each day, the scraps from the house are tossed out and Lazarus eats them along with animals. Perhaps we are meant to think he has leprosy or some other skin disease, for the dogs lick his sores.

Meanwhile, no sin of the rich man is mentioned explicitly. Would the original audience of Luke simply have associated sinfulness with the rich man's wealth?  It is more than possible. Are we to think of the fact that Lazarus lives off scraps from the house as a key indication of the rich man's sinfulness?  It is more than possible. The rich man lives in luxury and does nothing substantial to help Lazarus.

To Luke's audience, it was probably an obvious sin that the wealth of the rich man could be so close and yet Lazarus continue in his squalor.  Help was so close, so available, and yet apparently un-offered outside of scraps.  It is likely  because of the way wealth was viewed in general and because we find this theme explicitly elsewhere.

In Matthew 25, those who are sent to the "eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (25:41) are those who had the opportunity to help but did not.  "I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me" (25:42-43). Nothing is said of faith in Jesus in this passage.  Judgment is entirely according to works done toward the needy.

Similarly in 1 John 3: 17, John the elder seriously questions whether a person can truly be a child of God "if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them."  We are so used to the truth in Paul that we become right with God by faith that most of us overlook the substantial parts of the New Testament that look for works of this sort as the most important indications of who you are.  James summarizes it in this way: "You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone" (Jas. 2:24).

I am usually hesitant to speak of a "biblical" perspective on an issue.  The reason is because the different books of the Bible addressed different contexts and situations.  When you read these books carefully, it can take some serious theological work to identify what the Christian perspective is amid these diverse situations.  This work is complicated by the fact that every word of the Bible was first written to people who have been dead for about two thousand years and more.  Connecting these instructions to their world to our world, again, can require some serious theological work.

But amazingly, the entirety of the biblical texts are united in their sense that God wants his people to care for those who cannot take care of themselves.  It is true in the Old Testament Law.  It is true in the Prophets and the Writings of the Old Testament.  It is certainly true of the gospels and Acts.  It is true of Paul and the letters.  It is ironic that so many Christians today are so sure about so many things that the Bible does not clearly teach or that do not clearly relate to today and yet they question, even vilify those who take the biblical position on helping the poor today...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Jesus and the Poor 1

... continued from yesterday.
I started off this chapter mentioning Jesus' inaugural address in Luke 4 where he quotes the line in Isaiah 61:1 that he had come to "proclaim good news to the poor" (4:18). This is one of the special emphases of Luke, so I will return to it again in the second volume of this series. But it fits with the sense of this chapter that Jesus' earthly ministry targeted the "lost sheep," those who were not included in the "kingdom of Israel" at that time. Jesus seemed to target the marginal of Galilean society.

Who were the poor? The first thing we have to do to get into the mind of Jesus' world is not to think of ancient poverty in terms of money. The world of Galilee did not function primarily by the exchange of money and there certainly were no credit cards.  We should think more in terms of goods and resources.

The poor of Jesus' world were thus those who did not have adequate resources to live. [1] Mind you, most people lived on a subsistence level.  They farmed just enough to feed their family and to pay those forces of power who required their cut.  The poor did not have even enough to subsist. Whatever their inherited place in the world, they had lost it.

We do not actually find Jesus feeding the poor.  He feeds the 5000 (Mark 6:30-44) but not because they are poor.  He feeds them because they are hungry and far from food. We do not find Jesus beginning a soup kitchen or feeding program. But providing for those in need was clearly a core value.

In fact, Jesus lives like the poor himself, and he sends his followers out in a way that makes them fully dependent on others (e.g., Matt. 10:9-10). "Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:58). Luke knows who the poor are and he presents Jesus in a way that emphasizes this value.

Luke's version of the beatitude reads flatly, "Blessed are you who are poor" (Luke 6:20). There is no qualification for the poor in spirit, as in Matthew. Jesus proclaims the good news that those who are knocked off track now will be honored and restored in the coming kingdom of God.

Luke's best example of what a poor person looks like is the poor man Lazarus outside the rich man's house (Luke 16:19-31). This is a parable rather than an actual story. This is not the Lazarus of John's gospel, whom Jesus raises from the dead...

[1] Some great resources here are Bruce J. Malina's, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001) and The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels (London: Routledge, 1996).

Friday, February 10, 2012

Science Friday: Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius

I've used the fact that my step-daughter will probably take chemistry this summer as an excuse perhaps to dabble a little in chemistry this spring:

Here's an excerpt for my "Science Friday":
... Her step-father took out his pocket notebook and wrote down the formula: F=9/5C+32.

"Yep, that's one of them," she said.  "Then going the other direction it's C=5/9(F-32).

It was too much for her step-dad to resist.  While they walked on, he launched into a lecture about why the formulas made sense.  Mind you, no one was listening to him.  Stefanie and her mom were whispering to each other in the front.  Tom and Sophia were competing to see who could count more birds. Meanwhile, Stefanie's step-dad Ken muttered on and on to himself.

"It's easy to figure out the formulas if you forget them," he said.  "It has to do with the fact that on the Celsius scale, 0 degrees (0°) is where water freezes and 100 degrees (100°) is where water boils.  What the conversion formula does is it matches these temperatures to the places where water freezes in Fahrenheit (32°) and where water boils in Fahrenheit (212°).

"So if you're going from Fahrenheit to Celsius, first you subtract 32, like you were going from 32° in Fahrenheit to 0° in Celsius.  Taking away 32 aligns the Fahrenheit scale with the Celsius scale.  Or when you're going from Celsius to Fahrenheit, adding 32 at the end aligns the two scales.

"The other part of the conversion has to do with how much bigger a Celsius degree is or how much smaller a Fahrenheit degree is.  If you subtract the 32° from the boiling point of water, 212°, then you can compare how the two types of degree relate to each other.  180 degrees on the one scale corresponds to 100 degrees on the other.  So you can figure out how big a degree is in one scale compared to the other.  Fahrenheit degrees are 180/100 times more (which reduces to 9/5). Celsius degrees are 100/180 times less (which reduces to 5/9).

"That's the ratio.  You multiply a Celsius degree by 9/5 to get a Fahrenheit degree.  You multiply the aligned Fahrenheit by 5/9 to get a Celsius degree.  It all makes sense."

"Oh, I see," Stefanie cleverly responded as they arrived at the ticket booth, where her other sister Stacy was waiting.  But of course no one had paid any attention to Ken's lovely explanation...

Are Christians Progressives or Conservatives?

It's going to be tempting for a lot of pastors and Christians to get very specific this year to tell others who and what to vote for. In fact, I've been amazed at how clear so many Christians of all stripes seem to think such choices are. Here are three key pieces of advice, especially to those who are pastors or Christian leaders.

1. We need to operate on the basis of fact rather than feeling.
I do it too and have done it in the past.  I hear something on the news or on cable.  I hear something by the water cooler at work.  If it has to do with a figure I don't like or an issue with which I have a history.  I spark. I get upset. What a horrible decision! What an evil person!

If I actually talk to someone involved in the decision or on the other side of the issue, usually there is more to the story.  Important decisions are often complicated and those in positions of high leadership usually don't make them in the simple terms we talk about them by the coffee pot.  True, sometimes they do, but I have sometimes later found that my immediate fervent, zealous response to something is only partially informed.

Paul called it a "zeal without knowledge."  Zeal is only good if it is truly informed zeal.  Otherwise it's counterproductive or even dangerous.  And to be informed, we have to truly listen to both sides of an issue.  Both sides means going into "enemy territory" on the other channel, not the "straw man" pretending to represent the other position on my favorite channel.

A "straw man" argument is one where the other position is not truly represented but only something that looks a little like the other position.  Even I could beat up a stuffed imitation of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  It's harder to beat up the real thing.

2. When we are in leadership, we have to minister to everyone.
When I am in front of a classroom, when I am behind a pulpit, in these last days when I am Dean of a seminary, I am not merely representing myself.  Even though this is my personal blog, I indirectly bring my associations with Wesley Seminary at IWU and the Wesleyan Church. There is a certain need for me to moderate my opinions because I am not merely bringing myself to this post. I have to stand for others.

There are Christians who strongly support current Republican emphases. And there are Christians who strongly support Democratic emphases. As pastors we have to minister to both. If we push strongly partisan positions from the pulpit, we are not only putting an unnecessary stumbling block in front of our ministry, we are probably revealing our own ignorance of the issues--the Christian position is rarely as slam dunk as the partisan thinks it is.

3. We need to distinguish our culture from our faith.
I am often amazed at how strongly we can come to associate positions that are a matter of our personal subculture with a Christian position. For example, I believe in capitalism. I've visited parts of Europe that used to be communist and there is simply no comparison between how prosperous in general the Western parts of Germany are in comparison to what Eastern Europe was like under communism.

But how some have come to embrace a certain form of American capitalism as a fundamental Christian value is puzzling to me. I have a PhD in New Testament. I read the real New Testament in Greek, not in some translation made by someone else. I don't see it. I'm a capitalist by philosophy, not because I find it clearly advocated in the Bible. It didn't really even exist in anything like it's current form until the 1700's.

Similarly, a desire to help the poor is a clearly biblical value in the gospels and Bible in general. But how to work out that fundamental value is complicated. Helping in some ways may not truly be helping in the long run. And there are legitimate questions about whether helping the poor is primarily a matter for the church or the government. In short, there is room for disagreement among Christians on how the value plays out.

My point is, our strong political feelings on these sorts of issues are very often more a reflection of our subculture rather than some supposed clear teaching of Christianity or the Bible. Having lived abroad, I guarantee you that there is not a little myopia in some of the fervor American Christians have on certain issues, where we cannot see how culturally driven our thinking is, even though we are convinced we are just following the Bible.

These are some things those of us who are leaders should keep in mind as we minister in this election year. When we wear our ministerial hat, we are best to stick to broad values and principles, not to specific candidates or legislation. That's more a matter for us as individual Christians. There are exceptions to be sure, but they are far fewer than we are prone to think.

This is one area where we are all too prone to justify hating our neighbor in the name of Christ. But that issue is slam dunk--we are never justified in hating our neighbor, in word or deed.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Psalm 5 Translation

Psalm 1
Psalm 2
Psalm 3
Psalm 4
Now Psalm 5
[To the musician leading (those playing) the Nechiloth, a psalm (attributed) to David]
1 Listen to my words, YHWH.
     Attend to my cry.
2 Listen to the voice of my cry,
     my King and my God,
     for to you I will pray.
3 YHWH, in the morning you will hear my voice.
     I will direct it [to you] and will look [to you].
4 For you are not a god delighting in wickedness;
     evil will not dwell in you.
5 Foolish people will not stand before your eyes;
     you hate all those doing wickedness.
6 You will destroy speakers of falsehood;
     a man of bloods and fraud you will despise, YHWH.
7 But I with the multitude of your faithfulness will go to your house;
     I will worship toward the palace of your holiness in your fear.
8 YHWH, lead me in your righteousness because of my enemies;
     make straight before me your way.
9 For there is nothing dependable in their mouth;
     their heart is ruin;
     an open grave is their throat;
     with their tongue they flatter.
10 Destroy them, God;
     let them fall because of their plans.
Because of the multitude of their transgressions
     cast them out for they rebel against you.
11 But let them rejoice forever,
     all those who trust in you;
let them rejoice
     [because] you protect them.
Let them be joyful in you,
     those who love your name.
12 For you will bless the righteous, YHWH;
     like the shield, [with] goodwill you will surround him.
This would seem to be an imprecatory psalm, one that calls on God to destroy one's enemies.  Christians must apply/pray such a prayer carefully, since Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies and do good to them.

An interesting tidbit of this psalm is also the reminder that Paul and other NT authors read the OT "spiritually."  Romans 3:13 quotes Psalm 5:9 slightly out of context.  Romans uses the verse in support of the argument that all have sinned, whereas Psalm 5:9 is only directed at the enemies of the psalmist.  It does not say that everything has an open grave for a throat...

Running to the Prodigal 6

... continued from yesterday.
Of course many prodigals may want to change but be completely unable to do so in their own power. This is one of the great insights of modern psychology, to realize the extent to which people can be enslaved to self-destructive patterns of behavior. We can find models in the New Testament that are similar.  Romans 7 pictures those who cannot do the good even though they want to.  Then there are the demon possessed of the gospels. Psychology, science, and sociology have filled in a number of details on enslavement to sin.

God of course can free the prodigal enslaved to the powers of addition directly, but more often than not he uses others who come alongside those who cannot free themselves from some addiction or self-destructive pattern.  Psychologists call it an intervention, and it was the kind of thing Jesus does throughout the gospels with miraculous power. Some prodigals will destroy themselves and everything around them unless someone reaches in to them from the outside.

That leads to my second take away from the parable.  Followers of Jesus run out to them, run out to the prodigal who wants to return.  We run out to them full of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. Even beyond the parable, the spirit of Jesus would have us run out even to those who do not want to return.  We may not be successful. Perhaps failure is more often the outcome when it comes to prodigals, but that won't stop us from trying.

Who therefore was the main target of Jesus' earthly ministry? It was clearly the lost sheep of Israel. Again, these lost sheep for Jesus were not everyone, because "all have sinned." [1] Jesus' target were those who were blatantly lost, those who were most strikingly not included in the kingdom. These were the people most ignored by the righteous and the normal. These were the outcasts of Israel.

Who are our prodigal outcasts?  Who in our society have spiraled out of control?  Certainly there are countless children in our schools and youth in our towns who are on a path not only to their own destruction but to destroy many others around them in the process.  And we continue to have our share of prodigals enslaved to drugs or prescription medication, enslaved to alcohol, enslaved to poverty. There are those enslaved to sex, enslaved to gaming.

Most of these sorts of individuals do not have the power in themselves alone even to leave their "far away city." Their only hope is for someone to reach them, to penetrate their enslavement with miraculous power. Those of us in the West are privileged to live in a world where many non-Christian organizations and even governments have developed immense expertise in the human dimensions of human liberation. As Christians, we are smartest to work alongside these forces for good, realizing that God can use even a foreign king like Cyrus to do good in the world (cf. Isa. 45:1).

I want to make one final observation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son before moving on to others that Jesus included in the kingdom.  There are many pictures of what Jesus did on the cross, all of which probably give us part of the picture. One of the most popular right now is the idea that God's justice demanded a sacrifice, that someone had to suffer for the sins of the humanity.  Jesus did this for us and in our place.

There certainly seems to be some truth in this picture. Somehow Jesus' death seems to satisfy the order of things, the sense that wrongdoing calls for punishment. However, we should be careful not to assume that God had to do anything. To hear some talk about "penal substitution," the idea that Jesus took our punishment on the cross, it was almost a mathematical formula.  If the world had this much total sin, then someone had to be punished exactly that amount for anyone to be forgiven.

The God of Jesus in the gospels was not this sort of mathematician. The Father in the Parable of the Prodigal Son simply forgives his younger son.  He does not demand that someone else pay back the debt for his son. He simply has the authority to pronounce forgiveness. We should be careful not to make justice a higher authority than God himself.

[1] While the insight that we are all prodigals of a sort is a very important truth, we Protestants have so emphasized it that we have lost sight of those Jesus actually focused on--the blatantly lost.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Prodigals Today 5

... continued from yesterday
So who are the prodigals today and how are we to treat them as Jesus followers?  Probably the most straightforward answer is to identify them with anyone who quite explicitly pursues a life he or she knows is wrong. Modern day prodigals have told the rest of the world that they do not want to "go work in the field."

Just to give perspective, there are a whole lot of us who go to church and at least try to appear to be good people.  Whether we turn out to be "older brothers" as in the parable is a discussion for a later chapter. The goal is for us to be like the father in the parable, to be a representative of our heavenly Father in our mercy and love. So I will return later to the question of hypocrisy and the more subtle sinfulness of the self-righteous.

But for now, let's just say that there are plenty of prodigals around as well. I could have said, there are plenty of people who have abandoned God, but I don't think a lot of prodigals experience their lives in such idealistic or spiritualized terms. To them, they are doing what feels good or what they want to do. They may not even believe that God exists or, if they do, he may be a fleeting thought at best.

Some prodigals know they are on the wrong path. They may be thinking they will eventually turn their lives around.  Or they may want to turn their lives around but find themselves enslaved to a pattern of self-destructive or wrong-doing behavior that they cannot extract themselves or change the pattern. And of course there are those that simply do not care. They are those who are like the seed that birds immediately snatch from the path in the Parable of the Soils in Mark 4--words of what their lives should be like go in one ear and out the other.

Again, the "older brother," the one that begrudges the prodigal, has his own subtle problems, but I want to focus here on the prodigal, the blatant wrongdoer.  Curiously, our realization that we "older brothers" have problems too has led some to accept problems as the status quo, rather than to see us as needing to fix things like the prodigal needs to fix things. But when we return to Jesus, we see that he wanted to see the problems of both individuals solved, not to create complacency with both sons as they were.

I would like to reduce our "take-away" on the prodigal to two points. First, followers of Jesus want to see prodigals redeemed. This works against our sense of justice. Justice insists that a person who does wrong receive an appropriate punishment. [1] Jesus wants to see the wrong doer reclaimed, forgiven.

This is not a "cheap grace," as if all the person who does wrong needs to do is say a few magic words. The prodigal son of Luke 15 was truly repentant. True repentance implies a real desire to change. The person who does wrong, says they're sorry, but continues to do the wrong over and over again, with continued apology, is either not truly repentant or perhaps is so enslaved that they cannot change in their own power...

[1] And of course the question of justice is its own question. One of the functions of government is to administer justice (Rom. 13:4). Systems of justice are arguably a different issue from the way we as individuals approach others.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Prodigal 4

continued from here.
The sinners of these parable were not. They were truly "lost sheep" in a clear way. The Pharisees were actually trying to obey. The tax collectors and prostitutes were not. They are of course represented by the prodigal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

In the Parable, one son basically tells his father that he wishes he were dead. He wants his inheritance. The father gives it and the son goes and squanders it in a far away place. Because there are pigs there, we can be assured that this son has left Israel and thus, by implication, has left Israel's God. The elder brother later suggests that he squandered his inheritance with prostitutes. It is unclear whether Luke wants us to add this to his list of sins or if he wants us to think that the elder brother was imagining what he had done.

In Jesus' context, this prodigal son represented the sinners of Israel, those who had gone astray in a very blatant and obvious way. This was the son of the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21 who initially said he would not go work in the field. They were not trying to keep the covenant God had made with Israel in the Old Testament.

These were the individuals Jesus targeted more than any else in his earthly ministry.  How amazing the focus of Jesus' mission was!  He did not focus on Gentiles but Jews (cf. Matt. 10:5-6). He did not focus on all Israel but primarily on Galilee in the north. Even there, he did not focus on everyone but on the "lost sheep," those in Israel who had lost their way. These were people like tax collectors and prostitutes.

Jesus' earthly focus was thus on redemption and reclamation, not so much in a spiritual or eternal sense but in the sense of bringing back to the Father those who had lost their way. This is the restoration of Israel like John the Baptist may have preached but with a focus on those who were particularly off track. It was a ministry of inclusion.

It is interesting to think of any ostracism or ridicule Jesus might have endured as a child, given the possible rumors that his mother had borne him out of wedlock. It would be easy enough given the birth stories of Matthew and Luke to imagine that Jesus grew up amid scandal. How well he then might identify with the outcasts of Israel.

In the rest of the chapter, I want to look at some of the marginal groups on whom Jesus seemed to focus especially. In addition to more notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus focused also on the poor and perhaps even on women. Jesus' focus on healing and exorcism were also a manifestation of this focus, which I will explore more fully in a later chapter.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sinners 3

... continued from Saturday.
After all, the Pharisees were actually trying to keep the covenant. Jesus never applauds the prostitutes for their sexual activities or the tax collectors for cheating the people. What he does is open the door for their restoration. Similarly, Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for being strict. He criticizes them for having their priorities out of whack (e.g., Matt. 23:23).

I will return to the Pharisees later. For now, I mainly want to argue that we should only describe them and other Jewish teachers as "healthy" in quotation marks--implying that they were not truly healthy--in hindsight. It is not something everyone would have immediately understood at the time. In the Parable of the Two Sons in Matthew 21, they initially say they will go work in the field. It is only after they reject Jesus that it turns out they do not.  Similarly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), it is only after the prodigal returns that we begin to realize that the elder brother is not as righteous as he may have appeared. As I have sometimes said, the Pharisees would have been voted "Most Likely to be Righteous" in high school.

But the Pharisees are really more a focus for a later chapter. Here, I am more interested in the sinners.  They are represented by the prodigal son in Luke 15 and by the son who initially says he will not go work in the field in Matthew 21. But the story of Jesus' ministry is a story of great reversal. By the end of his ministry, those who said they would go work in the field, the "healthy," turn out not to follow Jesus.  Meanwhile, those who initially said they would not go work, do. They repent and follow Jesus.

So we know in hindsight that the word "healthy" should be put in quotation marks, but quotation marks do not belong around the word sinners at all. These individuals really did start off sinners in a much stronger sense than the Pharisees did. It is at this point that our knowledge of Paul is prone to interfere with our hearing of Jesus--especially the way later Christians have appropriated Paul. We are prone to have Romans 3:23 ringing in our ears--"all have sinned."

To be sure, Jews did believe that no person stood self-sufficiently righteous before God. That's why there was a sacrificial system, so both the corporate and individual sins of Israel--especially unintentional sins--could find atonement. But this was not the focus of Jewish understanding like it seemingly has become in so many Christian circles. The focus was on intentional wrongdoing and on making the right choice when a person came to a conscious decision between doing right and wrong.

This is the standard of the gospels and, when we read him in focus, it is even the focus of Paul's moral understanding. The righteous in the gospels are not those who are absolutely perfect but those who consistently make the righteous choice when a moral choice comes. The concrete starting point for such choices at the time was the Jewish Law found in the Old Testament. But, as I will argue in the next chapter, Jesus was more interested in the motives behind a person's action and whether a person was acting with love and mercy.

The sinners of these parable were not. They were truly "lost sheep" in a clear way. The Pharisees were actually trying to obey. The tax collectors and prostitutes were not. They are of course represented by the prodigal in the Parable of the Prodigal Son...

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Three Parts of the Soul

"Do we need to stop at Wal-Mart for school supplies?"

Getting an answer to a question like this from my son always feels to me like pulling teeth. So today I tried a picture.  Think of yourself as a body with you inside, your "soul."

Now think of your soul having three parts: a mind that thinks, feelings, and your will.  Your will is the part of you that makes choices, that makes the decisions.  Your will can go with your feelings or your will can go with your mind.

So let's say your mind knows you need paper for school but your feelings don't want to go to Wal-Mart.  Your feelings want to go home and watch TV or play Call of Duty.  Your will is what makes the decisions.

The person who turns out to be happiest in life is the person whose will chooses with their mind and what they know is the thing they should do.

Of course all these things--mind, feelings, and will--are ultimately functions of the brain which is part of the body. What function a detachable soul might play is the stuff of fun discussions. These are true pictures, not literal ones.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Pharisees 2

... continued from yesterday.
Our heads are so full of things from Christian tradition and other parts of the New Testament (e.g., Paul) that it is hard for us to hear the connotations words like "healthy" and "sinner" likely had at the time of Jesus in his rhetoric.  At least to start with, we should take these words somewhat straightforwardly. The son that initially says he will go work in the field is the "healthy" son and refers to the teachers, elders, Pharisees, and priests of Israel.

Since none of us has ever met an ancient Pharisee today, it is all too easy for us to make them into cartoon characters who are predictably evil and predictably hypocrite. Perhaps you've heard the children's ditty: "I don't want to be a Pharisee, 'cause they're not fair, you see." It is true that Matthew 23 absolutely excoriates the Pharisees as hypocrites, but as with most things, we will have a skewed view of them if we only form our understanding from one passage.

For one thing, the other gospels and Acts do not have as strongly a negative view of them. In John 3, Nicodemus is a Pharisee and is clearly friendly with Jesus, and Jesus is friendly with him. John portrays Nicodemus as surprisingly without understanding (John 3:10), but he is clearly genuine in his pursuit of God. Similarly, Acts sees no contradiction between being a Pharisee and being a follower of Jesus (e.g., Acts 15:5; 23:6).

Additionally, there may very well be aspects to Matthew's situation that have led it to focus on the worst elements in Pharisaism.  Many think that Matthew was written in the decades immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem, at the time when the Pharisees were basically all that was left of the leadership of Israel. The Sadducees were priests closely associated with the temple, but the temple was gone. Many Essenes had probably fought as revolutionaries in the Jewish War, but they lost and the Romans hunted others down.

The Romans arguably engaged Pharisees when they looked for someone among those left who could be liaisons between the empire and the people who remained in the land of Israel. These were those who were to set up their leadership at a place called Jamnia.  These were those who would shift the focus to purity and away from politics. This was the beginning of what would become rabbinic Judaism.

Matthew's presentation of Jesus' engagement with the Pharisees was about much more than remembering what they were like.  It was written to show that Christian Jews were the true heirs of God's people, not Pharisaic Judaism.  Matthew accentuates the negative aspects of the Pharisees in its presentations to show its primarily Jewish audience not to follow the current leaders of Israel.

But at the time of Jesus' ministry, the Pharisees were perhaps the most popular religious leaders of Israel. They inspired hope in the people. Their agenda was to return Israel to its covenant with God. If Israel would only be faithful enough, then God would forgive its sins and restore it. When we read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we are not surprised that Jesus honors the "genuine" tax collector who is honest about his sin. But in Jesus' day, this conclusion would have been quite shocking.

After all, the Pharisees were actually trying to keep the covenant. Jesus never applauds the prostitutes for their sexual activities or the tax collectors for cheating the people. What he does is open the door for their restoration. Similarly, Jesus does not criticize the Pharisees for being strict. He criticizes them for having their priorities out of whack (e.g., Matt. 23:23)...

Friday, February 03, 2012

Psalm 4 Translation

Psalm 1
Psalm 2
Psalm 3
Now Psalm 4
[To the musician leading (those playing) the Neginoth, a psalm (attributed) to David]
1 When I call, answer me, O God of my righteousness.
     In [my] distress, you made space for me.
Have mercy on me.
     Hear my prayer.
2 Sons of man, why [do you turn] my glory to shame?
Why do you love emptiness?
     Why do you seek falsehood?
3 And know that YHWH has set apart the faithful person for himself.
     YHWH will hear when I call on him.
4 Tremble [you all] and do not sin.
     Speak [you all] with your [pl] heart upon your [pl] bed.
     And be silent.
5 Sacrifice (pl) sacrifices of righteousness
     and trust in YHWH.
6 Many are saying, "Who will show us good?"
     Lift up the light of your face, YHWH.
7 You gave more gladness in my heart
     than their corn and their wine increased.
8 In peace both will I lie down and sleep,
     for you, YHWH, alone will cause me to dwell in safety.
One very interesting thing about the Hebrew here is verse 4.  The Hebrew says to "tremble" and not to sin before the LORD.  However, the Greek translation of the psalm, informally called the Septuagint, reads "be angry and do not sin," which is of course the version that Ephesians 4:26 quotes.

Jesus: The Two Sons 1

The Gospel of Luke begins its presentation of Jesus' ministry with a kind of "inaugural address" Jesus gives in his home synagogue of Nazareth. He picks up the scroll of Isaiah and reads from chapter 61: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor" (Luke 4:18-19). If each gospel has its own special emphases, this is one on which Luke especially focuses.

On an occasion early in Mark, Jesus is criticized for hanging out with "sinners." His response is that "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners" (Mark 2:17). Jesus has gone to the house of a tax collector named Levi. Tax collectors were known not only for taking much needed resources from the common person for the powers they worked for. They were known for getting rich themselves by adding on to the amount taken. Jesus never disputes that they are sinners. What he disputes is the sense that they were unredeemable.

Most of us know the Parable of the Prodigal Son, but Matthew 21 gives us a shorter version that captures the bottom line well: "There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.' 'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted? 'The first,' they answered" (Matt. 21:28-29).

The two sons correspond to the "healthy" and the "sick" respectively. The sick are the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus mentions immediately after telling this short parable (Matt. 21:31-32). The "healthy," by contrast, are those who have just asked Jesus who gave him the authority to do the things he did. In this context, the chief priests and elders, the leaders of Jerusalem, are talking to him (21:23). But at other times in the gospels, he refers to Pharisees and other teachers as the healthy (e.g., Mark 2:16).

Our heads are so full of things from Christian tradition and other parts of the New Testament (e.g., Paul) that it is hard for us to hear the connotations words like "healthy" and "sinner" likely had at the time of Jesus...