I Want My Children to Know This About Faith

Having a kid changes your perspective.  I used to roll my eyes when I heard parents say that, but it’s true.Father-Son-Shadow

Like, for instance, how I’m much more willing than I used to be to just drop those last papers and emails and meeting notes to get home before bedtime.  I still work late…but I’m much more willing to let it all go to snuggle a snotty face, read Jimmy Buffett’s “Jolly Mon” storybook, and change a diaper before the little guy goes to sleep.

And as we’re raising this little guy, and as a pastor, there are a few things I want this little guy to know about faith.

First, faith and religion won’t give you self-esteem.  It’s not meant to.  It’s not meant to make you feel good.  It’s purpose is not to get you to love yourself.  Don’t stick with the faith because it makes you feel good.  If you’re doing it to feel good, you’re an addict, not faithful.  Get more vitamin K.

But…

But sometimes the faith can love you when you can’t love yourself.  Sometimes hearing that God chooses you can replace those moments in your life when you feel like you can’t choose yourself, don’t love yourself, can’t believe in yourself.  There have been times in my life where I’ve let the faith believe things about me that I couldn’t muster myself to believe…and it made all the difference in taking the next step the next day.

Secondly, faith isn’t about getting answers.  Faith isn’t about knowing certainty, “figuring it all out,” or attaining a perfect worldview that will put all the pieces together.  If you’re looking for your faith to do that you will be disappointed.

But…

But faith is intended to help you ask better questions about your life.  It is intended to provoke your thoughts about yourself, about purpose, about others around you in such a way that you see the world differently than the world tries to get you to see it.  It is provided to help you celebrate the life of the mind rather than the pursuits of greed, fame, and fortune.  It is the antithesis to a world that says “Success is the mark of a life well lived.”  No. “Pursuit of a purpose bigger than yourself, specifically the purpose shown in the life of the Christ in sacrificial love…that is the mark of a life well lived.”

While we’re on the subject of answers, the Scriptures are not meant to explain everything in this world.  They are not meant to explain how the world came to be, or how sexual orientation should be understood, or how psychology is understood.  No.  Faith is the quest for “why” not “how.” The Scriptures are inspired words by inspired people about the history of the quest for “why.”  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why am I to love even if I don’t feel like I want to?  Why is humanity connected in such a way that makes me feel responsibility toward someone else?

Faith is meant to help you embrace mystery, hold tension, and walk well in a world that wants to polarize you into this answer vs. that answer.  Your dad is a reluctant Christian because this has been largely lost.  I want you to be a Christian, too (even if you’re reluctant like your old dad…)

Thirdly, faith isn’t supposed to make you feel superior.  There are no “poor souls…”  You are as poor as any soul out there.  And if your job in the world is to “save” someone, you better be a lifeguard.  Only the Divine can save.  All you can do is be Christ’s hands and feet.

But…

Faith is something that I think you should share.  Not in the “I think this and you should, too…” sort of way.  But rather, in the “Here’s something I find really true…” sort of way.  In the “Here is my hope…” sort of way.  In the “Here’s what moves me…” sort of way.  And never be afraid to ask someone else what moves them, either.  Their beliefs do not threaten yours.  There is much to learn from one another.  I want you to have friends who believe and think different things than you do, and I want you to talk to them about it.  Often.

Finally, I want you in a faith community.  Why?  Because I don’t know how else to help make sure that God doesn’t end up looking like you.  And I want you in a multi-generational faith community where you have to interact with lovely old ladies and hold little babies. Hopefully it can be racially and ethnically diverse, too.  I don’t care if it’s big or small, I just want it to be diverse.  I want you to be in a faith community where questions are encouraged, where mystery (specifically in the sacraments) are lifted high (because then maybe you’ll see how the Thanksgiving table in November is like the thanksgiving table on Sunday mornings, and live in response to that bounty).  I want you to remember that you are loved and redeemed and meant to be a light in this world that too often is full of shadows, and the only way I can think that you’ll be reminded of that often enough is when you gather with other people to read and hear ancient words, to shake hands, to eat and wash together, and to drink strong coffee (optional).

There’s more to say this morning to you, buddy, but the freezing temps outside have closed your daycare, which means I’m in charge of lunch.  But this is a good start…

I Found Jesus…He Was Behind the Couch

My wife and I have a magnet on our fridge that says, “I found Jesus…he was behind the couch the whole time!”7786.jpg_3

My nephews love it.  I love it.

I think my nephews are even likely to tell their pastor that.  I encourage them to.  I told them it’d always be the “right” answer in Sunday School…because, you know, faith is all about having the “right answer”.

I think it’s funny.

I think it’s funny because, well, that whole theme of “lost and found” in the Bible is turned around by this whole notion of “finding Jesus.”

In all of those “lost and found” verses in the Bible, it’s not Jesus who is lost, but the other person.

Even in that “seek and you shall find” passage, there’s no indication that it’s “seeking” Jesus.

Seeking knowledge.  Seeking enlightenment.  Seeking salvation, liberation, wholeness…sure.

But not Jesus.

So this idea that we can “find Jesus”…well, you might as well look behind the couch because I think you’re just as likely to find Jesus crouching there as you are to find him in the “seeker’s service” at your local big-box worship center.

I’m not trying to come down harshly on “seeker services”; I think faith communities need accessible points of entry.

But if we think we’re giving them Jesus, as if Jesus can be commodified…well, we should stop fooling ourselves.

The search for Jesus is the search for the white stag…it’s pointless.

Yeah, pointless.  Because I think all you’ll end up finding is a mirror image of yourself that you pass off as Jesus.

Instead the faith teaches that Jesus is/was/will be right where you are, and has been all along.

Martin Luther has this totally unhelpful/helpful phrase about looking for Jesus.  When explaining how God is present in the Eucharist, Luther said that Jesus is “in, with, and under the elements.”

This is absolutely unhelpful to the rational mind.  The literalist, the legalist, the fundamentalist, they won’t accept that answer.

There must always be a system, a way of finding, a problem/solution answer.

But what if there isn’t?  What if, instead, we leave those things behind and just agree to encounter the mystery of a present God, seen in the Christ, who subverts every single system and search, and who just surprises us as being on the scene?  What if we just walk with mindfulness?

It’d be a Biblical way of operating, that’s for sure.  Jesus surprises everyone at the tomb, the house of Mr. and Mrs. Clopas, the upper room, Paul’s lonely road to nowhereville.

Jesus surprises everyone in little Bethlehem (remember the Magi go six miles off course to Jerusalem to find him?).

Hell, maybe Jesus is behind the couch.  It’d surprise the socks off of me.

But if you looked, you won’t find him there.  Instead, it seems, Jesus finds us on the roads of confusion, in the upper rooms of fear, at the tomb of despair, in the little town of doubt.

That seems to be Jesus’ way.  This is why I don’t shy away from confusion, doubt, and despair.  I don’t have to have it all worked out.

Because that’s not the point.

I have a little mantra I repeat a lot to myself: “Jesus walked into a bar and no one noticed.”

Yeah…that sounds about right.

“Obscenity” or “On Why I Discourage People from Writing Their Own Marriage Vows”

I do a lot of weddings. I have a young community that I serve; it comes with the territory.writing-wedding-vows

And marriage is certainly on the radar these days in the States as more and more parts of the Union have legalized the union of same-sex couples.

I support same-sex marriage.  I should just say that off the bat.  I support it because, despite what you might hear out there, the Bible doesn’t have a thing to say about marriage.  It has many things to say.  And many of those things run contrary to modern notions of marriage.

What I don’t support, though, is for couples to write their own vows.  Sometimes I allow it…with conditions.  But, by and large, I don’t support it.  I’ll just come out of the proverbial closet on this: I’m against crappy vows.

If you want me to use my special designation by the State to do marriages, I’m going to force you to do pre-marital counseling with me.  Each session focuses on a different aspect of life together (and life, in general): family, finances, friends, and intimacy.

(If you want to keep going with “f” words it become obscene).

Another “f” word, faith, is woven through all of those.  Faith as trust: trust in the Divine and one another.

The very first session, though, is where we plan out the ceremony itself.  We spend a little while talking about order and structure, and then we look at words.  I think words are important (as you may know from previous posts).

I think words are so important, in fact, that I don’t continue with my string of “f” words when describing the different pre-marital counseling sessions…even though it would fulfill my great delight in alliteration.  The “f” word we commonly associate with intimacy is anything but intimate.  And although it’s a curse word that spices up language (and I’ve been known to curse), let’s not kid ourselves: we don’t feel particularly intimate with the “f” word in a way that is lasting.

If we did, we wouldn’t use it so liberally.  It is an obscene word that we use to indicate that something is just that: obscene.

“Love” is by far a scarier word to say.   And intimacy is not obscene, it’s scary.

So, because words are important, I always take the couple through the various words that I can/will use in the service: the declaration of intention, the prayer of the day, the blessings.

And then we get to the vows. And at this point I usually say something like this, “Now, I’m going to give you some options for vows and I want us to talk about them.  I want you to use one of these options. If you want to write your own vows, that’s a possibility…but I need to see them before hand.  And we need to talk about them.”

In all honesty, most couples aren’t interested in writing their own vows.  They’d rather have someone write something for them on a day when they’re already more visible than they’d like to be.

But every so often a couple will want to write their own…and that’s when I do my damnedest to try to talk them out of it.

See, this is the thing: in marriage, you can’t just promise whatever you might want.  And because love is scary, we often don’t know exactly what we want…and so we just go with what we know.

And so much of what we know is just sentimental generalist crap.

A vow is something very specific.  I had one of my best couples consider writing their own vows because, as the future bride put it, they wanted to “publicly express their love for one another.”**   Of course they do.  But that’s what the marriage ceremony is in and of itself.

A vow is not an expression of love, and yet so many labor under the delusion that it is.

A vow is a sacred promise, a statement that you say in front of people who, if they are at their best, will hold you accountable to them.  A vow is you saying, “Hey everyone listen up! I’m going to pledge some very specific things to this person across from me, and I want you to hear them and hold me accountable to them.”

Expressions of love are not vows.  Expressions of love are emotionally based.  Vows are not emotionally based, no matter what popular culture tries to tell you.

Vows don’t come from your heart, nor do they come from your head.  Vows come from that place that exists somewhere between rationality and emotionality, because you keep them even when it doesn’t make sense, and even when you don’t feel like it.

So many couples want to write their vows in secret, apart from one another, and then surprise the other with them.  Such surprises are best left for other points in the service, or other times in the whole event of the marriage day.  If you write your vows in secret, how are you to ensure that you’re vowing the same things to one another?

One of you cannot vow to be with the other to the bitter end, while the other only mention staying together in sunny times.  That happens, you know.  I’ve heard self-stylized vows that had very little to say about “the worst that is to come.”

And that’s when the vow is so important!

In a day and age of choice, which is what we are in, I’m sorry…I’m not willing to provide you with this particular choice.  You cannot choose what you vow to one another in marriage; marriage cannot mean whatever you want it to mean.

And I know that may seem to trample on individuality, but I’m trying my hardest to impart one thing and one thing only on you two: this is important.  You will make of your journey together what you will, but I want to hear how you’re going to make the journey, and I’d prefer you use ancient words that people have leaned on throughout all of time.

Because for as much as this is about you and your love, it’s also about all of us who witness it.  Because you invited us to be there.  So I’m going to try to hold you accountable to these things to the best of my ability.

And I’m not one who believes a couple should “stay together at all costs.”  Sometimes an amicable divorce is healthier than an acrimonious marriage.  But, at the very least, can we not look at the vows you made and figure out where things went wrong?  Let’s not pretend that people divorce over irreconcilable differences.

We divorce because vows are difficult to keep and we have trouble living together in covenants.

And so, instead of vows, too often we just have statements of love and intention because other people are really really difficult to live with.

No one marries intending not to stay together; I know what you intend.  I want to know what you vow.  I want to know what you promise from that place between your head and heart, that place of deep yearning that leads people to come together in marriage in the first place.

I don’t think marriage is under threat because people of the same sex want to marry.  Any two people can make a vow; gender doesn’t have much to do with it.  Marriage is under threat because people, of any sex, want to marry on their own terms.

And so much of the church is missing the boat here, I think.  We shouldn’t stand against same sex marriage, we should stand against shoddy vows and a society unwilling to comment on them in a meaningful (read: not judgmental) way when they fall apart.

I think the Bible has many things to say about marriage, most of them absolutely foreign to our modern ears and notions about the institution.  The question for the church isn’t, “What does the Bible say about marriage?” It is rather, “What does our faith say about marriage?”

And our faith, the Christian faith, says vows and covenants are important.  This thread flows through both testaments.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, we’ve been silent on the vows…but have a heck of a lot to say about who should marry.

And to not see the difference?  That’s just obscene.

**The couple eventually decided to have some statements of love that they had written to one another read before the vows themselves.  This is a great option, I think.

The Bible summary you may have wanted but never took the time to compile…or maybe you didn’t want it. Regardless, here it is.

This past Sunday at my church we started a new adult education series called, “The Bible: What is it?”images

I wanted to name it, “The Bible: What the Hell?” but my editors decided against that.

Overall, the first day of the class went OK.  I say just “OK” because, well, we talked about some boring stuff on Sunday like how the Bible came about. Basically some Bishops of the ancient church started proposing that there should be a particular “plumb-line” for what is acceptable to use as scripture…mostly in reaction to some interesting suggestions (they called them “heresies” but, whatev) from some other Bishops like Marcion.

So in the year 331 they arrived at what we commonly call our Biblical canon (“canon” is a fancy word for “ruler”…as in, what something is measured by).

So the Christian Bible (of the Protestant flavor) contains 66 books with histories, myths, poetry, wisdom writing, prose, letters, and little snippets of other stuff here and there (like apocalyptic writing).  How did they decide on the books they would allow?  Well, for the Older Testament they took books being used in Jewish circles already.  They were a little bit easier to agree on.

The books that ended up in the Newer Testament were not so easy to agree on.  And, here’s something to chew on, the early church didn’t ask if God had “divinely inspired” each book before they put it in the canon.  They wouldn’t have been considered “Bible believing” by modern evangelical standards.

Instead they asked questions like, “Who wrote it?”  Because books that were written by people who may have had access to the Christ…or people who had access to the people who knew the Christ…got first dibs.

But they didn’t stop there, they then asked, “Is it any good?”  In essence, were people reading it widely in communities of faith?  And if so, were they gaining some spiritual food from it?

They also asked, “Is it weird?” *  Or, better put, “is it consistent with other things we’ve heard about Jesus.”  This is why the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas aren’t included in the common canon.  I know, you’ve heard the rumors that they were excluded because they lifted up women too much (although, in the Gospel of Mary she turns into a dude at the end…so…yeah), or because they were suppressing gnostic voices or, what have you.

And, sure, some of those theories might have some credence. After all, when you get a bunch of men used to systems of patriarchy in one place, you’re going to get something that fits well within that system.

But I don’t buy the vast conspiracy theories about the formation of the Bible.

And finally, as a person of faith, I believe that God’s breath (the feminine ruach in the Old Testament) moved through this whole thing, as incomplete and laden with patriarchy as it is.  Because God always works with broken things.  And there are certainly parts of this process, and parts of the scriptures and the way they’re interpreted, that are very broken.

I’m not one who worships the Bible.  I worship the one the Bible points to.  I don’t think that’s true for all of Christianity out there.  And if the ancient church didn’t worship the Bible (heck, it didn’t even have a Bible for 200 years after Jesus died), why would we assume that to be Christian you have to believe the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible”?

But, for those of you wonder just what is in the Bible, here’s a rundown of it’s books with approximate dates of authorship according to scholars, much of which is taken from the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2009), as well as a brief description of the book/context/author.

This is just an overview…people study this stuff for years, remember.

OLD TESTAMENT

The Pentateuch (first 5 books authored by at least three different traditions, probably 4…and with edits, maybe more)

Genesis: written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.

Exodus: Meaning “exit,” this book tells the story of Israel leaving Egyptian slavery (perhaps around 1250 B.C.E.?). We find Israel mentioned in a stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Note: Not written by Moses, either.

Leviticus: About offerings, rituals, and some other rites partly compiled during Israel’s monarchy period (1000-600 B.C.E.), but also containing some concerns of the community post being taken over by Babylon.  Written and redacted over centuries. Note: Moses probably couldn’t write if historical accounts are true.

Numbers: Probably to account for people who could serve in the armies.  Continues with the stories and themes begun in Exodus…with a whole lot of counting and “so and so begat so and so” in there. Note: Moses?  Nope.

Deuteronomy: Written around 700-640 B.C.E., this book is another one about rules and relationships, like Leviticus, but with some significant prose and changes to previous laws/understandings.  It was hoped that, if Israel followed the rites and laws of Deuteronomy, they wouldn’t be overtaken by foreign armies because God would protect them.  Let’s just say, that didn’t happen.  Note: Still not Moses.

Historical Books

Joshua: This tells the story of Israel settling down again in the promised land of Canaan after the Exodus.  It’s written about the history of the 13th Century, BCE, but was actually written and completed sometime in the 7th Century BCE.  Not exactly eye-witness accounts, here. The battle of Jericho is one famous story in Joshua…although in an archeological dig we didn’t really find any walls around Jericho.  Just sayin’.

Judges: Written about the time between 1200 and 1020 BCE, this book records the people who watched over Israel (the “Judges”) before there was a king/queen.  This book was put together when Israel was conquered by Babylon, between 587-539 BCE.  Coolest judge? Deborah.  Want to know why?  Read the book.

Ruth: A book of inspiration taking place between the period of the judges and the kings/queens of Israel.  May have been written by a woman after Israel returned from Babylonian capture!

1 & 2 Samuel: Written by many people collected and edited over time, mostly after 721 BCE.  These two books were only one book originally, and speak of the beginning of the monarchy period for Israel.  King David is the major character here.  And Bathsheba.  And David’s harp.

1 & 2 Kings: The author of this book loved the book of Deuteronomy, and records the Kings of Israel (much like 1 & 2 Samuel) in an effort to say that Israel kept being conquered by people because they didn’t follow the rules of God.

1 & 2 Chronicles: Originally one book, Chronicles was written by an author in Jerusalem sometime after Israel had returned from Babylon (539-532 BCE).  It’s main thrust is to give a people who had been without a home (in exile in Babylon) a connection back to Jerusalem.

Ezra: May have been written by the same author as Chronicles (or maybe not), it was completed somewhere around 400 BCE scholars think, and it tries to assign meaning to the events that had happened the previous 300 years.  Much like Chronicles, as the people return from exile in Babylon, they try to distinguish themselves from the surrounding people (Samaritans), while re-claiming a connection to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah: See above…Ezra-Nehemiah were one book until the 15th Century.

Esther: A book with Persian influence! Esther is a fun book about idiotic leadership, there is no direct mention of God, but it speaks of Persia’s power of the Jewish people after they left Babylon (Persia conquered Babylon and let the Jewish people resettle where they wished…and many went back to Jerusalem).  Grab some stuffed grape-leaves and read this book.

Wisdom Writings and Poetry and Songs

Job: A story whose date of composition is unclear.  Maybe the 6th Century BCE.  A meditation on the problem of suffering, it is a difficult book and not a history, but rather a story that raises good questions about the human condition.

Psalms: The ancient songbook of the church 150 units long.  It was composed by many different authors.  There are Psalms for help, comfort, thanksgiving…you name it, it’s here.

Proverbs: Connected with King Solomon, it was finished somewhere around the 4th C BCE and is largely intended to provide practical advice and wise saying.

Ecclesiastes: One of the youngest books of the Old Testament (maybe just 3oo years before Jesus was born), it is narrated by an aged person called “The Teacher” and is a personal memoir to share thoughts that he has learned about the difference between what is fleeting and what is fulfilling.  It was once said of Ecclesiastes that, if you ever needed a reason to hate yourself, read this book.  I don’t see it that way, but I get the sentiment.

Song of Solomon (Song of Songs): Written in the 4th or 3rd Centuries, we don’t know the author…but it wasn’t Solomon.  It has a strong female voice, and may have been written by a woman.  It’s a series of scandalous love poems…and should be read immediately.  Because we all need some scandal in our lives.

Prophetic Books both Major and Minor (“big deals” and “littler deals”)

Isaiah: Big deal.  You know much of what’s in here if you’ve been around the Bible at all.  It tells of the promise of a “Messiah” (anointed one) and was compiled by several prophets and editors over many many years, from around the 740’s BCE to 538 BCE…basically much of Israel’s monarchy to when they were taken over by Babylon, to when they started to return to Jerusalem.  Lots here (not the person, “Lot,” he’s back in Genesis).

Jeremiah: Another big deal. Jeremiah lived from 626 BCE-586, and many of his sermons are in writing in this book.  His secretary, Baruch, wrote some of the end of Jeremiah, and we don’t know who wrote the last chapter but it certainly wasn’t either of those two…

Lamentations: If you need a reason to be sad, read this book.  It’s 5 poems about Babylon destroying Jerusalem’s much beloved temple in 586 BCE.  We don’t know who wrote it, but they sure were sad.

Ezekiel: Ezekiel was a priest during the time when Israel was taken over by Babylon, and had some prophesies for his fellow exiles.  It started around 593 and extended to 571 BCE.  It’s obviously edited by someone, but we think most of the writing comes from the priest himself.

Daniel: A book of stories and visions, Daniel contains some of the oldest material we have as far as the Old Testament goes (including some cool apocalyptic writing).  Written in Hebrew and Aramaic (in different parts), main characters are Daniel (of lion den fame) as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And a furnace.  This book covers a long period of time, from the Babylonian captivity all the way to Alexander the Great (320’s BCE)!

Hosea: A prophet from 769-697, Hosea prophesied during 5 of Israel’s kings in the northern half of the kingdom.  His words were shared through oral communities, scholars think.

Joel: Written after the Babylonian exile, scholars think Joel was composed sometime before 348 BCE and is focused at an Israel trying to rebuild itself.

Amos: He’s a pissed off prophet who said his share around the first half of the 8th C BCE.  See how these prophets aren’t chronological order?  It’s confusing, right?  Mostly just to us…

Obadiah: Written (most likely) after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, Obadiah’s vision is of an Israel sad over the loss of their kingdom and longing for good news from God.

Jonah: A short story, probably what we moderns would call a “myth,” it’s set in the time when the Assyrians had taken over Israel (720’s BCE) and is a tale about what you should not do if you’re a prophet. Main characters: Jonah and a big fish.  Oh, and God.

Micah: Micah foretells doom for an Israel (split into a northern and southern kingdom) who is living a little too comfortably in the shadow of Assyria.  It appears to have been written in the mid 8th C BCE.

Nahum: A group of oracles from around 612 BCE, his sayings celebrated the fall of the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh.  It’s supposed to be a story of good news.  The bad news is that, after Assyria fell Babylon took over…and things got bad again.

Habakkuk: A prophet around 600 BCE, this book is a book where a prophet pleads on behalf of God’s people not to be squashed between Egypt and Babylon.

Zephaniah: Probably written in the second half of the 7th C BCE, Zephaniah begins mad but ends peacefully assured that God will prevail over the threatening power of Babylon.

Haggai: Written after people had returned from exile in Babylon (in 520 BCE), the community of Israel begins to feel some difficulties in rebuilding both community and the temple.  Haggai provides encouragement for a community in depression.

Zechariah: A contemporary of Haggai, this author (and book) offers a vision of an Israel beautifully reformed and reconstructed.

Malachi: Not the scary dude from Children of the Corn, this book asks the people returning from exile in Babylon to become re-devoted to God and use the priests to aid them in leadership.  Probably written after the temple had been rebuilt (515 BCE).

NEW TESTAMENT

The New Testament does not “pick right up” where the Older Testament left off.  There’s a number of gap years.  Rome is now the major imperial power (after Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia all had taken turns).  And then Jesus shows up in an Israel controlled by Rome.  The New Testament starts off with stories about Jesus.

The Gospels

Matthew: Probably written in the 80’s by someone who had read the gospel of Mark.  We call it “Matthew” because that name became associated with the book somewhere in the early 100’s.  Did “Matthew” the apostle write it?  Very doubtful.  It appears that the author of Matthew also uses a source that scholars call “Q” (short for quelle or “pen”) to provide some Jesus stories.  The magi are in Matthew at Jesus’ birth, but no angels or shepherds.

Mark: Oldest gospel book, written in the 60’s or very early 70’s.  Probably was written by the same “Mark” talked about in the book of Acts, and may have had some eye-witness accounts of Jesus.  Jesus is the most human in this Gospel.  In Mark there is no birth in Bethlehem.  Jesus just walks out of Galilee.

Luke: Probably written between 80-90 CE, this writer also had read Mark (because he, like Matthew, copies parts of Mark word-for-word), and also had access to this other document we’ve called “Q”.  Did someone named Luke write it?  We think it may have been.  It is clear from it’s style that this gospel was recited and performed orally, and is the first half of a longer story (the second half is the book of Acts).  Here we have angels and shepherds in the birth story of Jesus…but no Magi.

John: The gospel of John doesn’t fit well with the first three.  It’s thought to be the one written the latest (90’s), and Jesus dies on a Thursday in John…which doesn’t line up with the other three.  Jesus is also most fully seen as divine in John, as he knows what’s coming next.  That being said, it is included because a large number of people were using this gospel book when the Bible was compiled, and although it contains some unique material, it is not out of character for Jesus drastically.

Books about the Church

Acts: The second part of the Gospel of Luke, Acts picks up where Luke lets off and describes the formulation of the early church.  Probably written in the 80’s CE.  Main characters: Paul, Silas, the early church, the Holy Spirit.  You know, the usual.

Letters of/attributed to Paul

Romans: Written by Paul to the Christian community in Rome (context clues!), sent in the mid-50’s CE.  Paul had already been a missionary for around 20 years. Paul entreats the Romans to live peacefully between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians

1 Corinthians: Written in the early 50’s CE, this letter was written to the church in Corinth by Paul to heal a division in the church.

2 Corinthians: OK, we’re pretty sure this is actually like three or four letters all put together by someone other than Paul from letter fragments of Paul’s.  There is no agreement here, though, on the subject.  It was written sometime after 1 Corinthians and pieced together (if that theory is true) much later.

Galatians: Written by the apostle Paul sometime between 50-55 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the church at Galatia.  Again…context clues.  The big fight in this letter that Paul tries to resolve is whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish practices.  Verdict: nope.

Ephesians: One of the coolest letters in the New Testament, it’s almost certainly not Paul who wrote this book (though it claims he did) because the style and verbage is not very Paul-like.  It could be a disciple of Paul’s, though, as the central ideas are echoes of Paul’s other letters.  BTW, it was pretty common for a disciple to write under their teacher’s name…so, who cares if Paul didn’t write it?  It talks about the Cosmic Christ and all of creation being redeemed and is just so freakin’ cool.

Philippians: A letter to the first Christian church in Europe from Paul and Timothy, this is a happy letter and it’s clear that Paul loves this little church.

Colossians: We do not know who wrote this letter. It may be Paul; it may be someone else.  It’s got some not-so-very-Paulish theology in it.  It may have been written in the 50’s or as late as the 70’s.  But it is written to the church of Colossae, and we don’t know much about that church because a big earthquake destroyed much of the area.  Regardless, the author had never been there, but is writing to talk to them about Christian teaching and living.

1 Thessalonians: May be the earliest letter, from the early 40’s CE!  It is Pauline, and is one of the oldest writings that we have of the early church.

2 Thessalonians: Probably not written by Paul, this letter writes again to the church at Thessalonica.  It may have been written by Timothy or Silvanus (Paul’s compatriots), but probably not by Paul.  It’s a letter of encouragement for the church.

1 Timothy: It may have been Paul’s letter…or maybe not, and is relatively late for the letters (80 or 90 CE).  Paul was already dead by then.  It’s obvious the author respected Paul…as he went on to write 2 Timothy and Titus…but it was probably not Paul.  Remember, just because it says it’s from Paul doesn’t mean it actually is.  This didn’t cause the ancient church much trouble, and they knew about it…you don’t need to be troubled by it, either.

2 Timothy: Read above.

Titus: Same dude who wrote the letters to Timothy, this letter goes to Titus (a fun name, right?) on the island of Crete and includes general instructions for the early church.

Philemon: I love this little book!  It’s probably from Paul and written while he was in jail about his friend Onesimus who had a falling out with the church of Colossae that met in this man Philemon’s house.  It’s a book about reconciliation and love.

Other Letters

Hebrews: This book is an odd duck in the New Testament.  It’s written in elegant Greek (much more elegant than even Paul’s writing), and probably is from the 70’s CE.  Hebrews is all about interpreting the Older Testament for the current times, and holds up the cross as central to understanding God’s work in the world.

James: Martin Luther hated this book.  It may have been written as late as 130-140 CE, this letter is dedicated to James the leader of the Jerusalem church, and speaks heavily of right action (rather than right belief…which is why Luther disliked it so much).

1 Peter: Not written by the apostle Peter, but probably dedicated to him.  It was also not written to one specific church, but most likely to any/all churches of the time.  It’s focus is on new life and living hope through Jesus the Christ.

2 Peter: See above.  Same sort of deal except the author now seems to feel his death coming soon.  All sorts of talk about “false prophets” and “false teachers” which has often sent literalists smelling false prophets under every rock…

1, 2, 3 John: We don’t know who wrote these books (may be referred to as “the elder” spoken of in 2 John), but we think that all three of these John books are written from the perspective of a faith community that relied heavily on the Gospel of John.  Time period is unclear, though certainly after the composition of the Gospel of John (90’s)

Jude: We don’t know who wrote this or who they were aiming to write this letter to, but we think it was written in the late first century.  Again, “false teaching” is a major theme in this book (like 2 Peter).  You can imagine that would be a central theme because these Christian communities were so scattered that different traditions and ideas popped up in different places.

Revelation: This book almost didn’t make the canonization cut!  It’s not written by the John who wrote the gospel, nor the John who was the apostle.  It is a type of writing known as “apocalyptic,” which means it uses stark imagery to talk about modern themes.  That’s right, it’s not about the future or the “end times.”  It was about the current times of this John writing at the end of the 1st Century (or maybe even later).  It does not, repeat, does not tell the future.  But it sure does say a lot about Roman imperialism and the Christian call to fight against bowing down to nations rather than to God.

So, there you have it.  For all of you in the Bible course, we’re going to be talking about the history of the Bible this Sunday: how it’s been read over the centuries, by who, and for what.  It’s a much sexier topic than canonization, I think…

Lonely footnote:

*Taken from “Animate: Bible” (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2013)

Please remember: these dates and much of the descriptions were gleaned from a number of sources over the years (from my brain), but chiefly from The Lutheran Study Bible which is a great resource.

“Scripture and Responsibility,” or “Someone Stole My God and Put a Bible in It’s Place!”

I got a message on one of my social media sites from someone I don’t know.  They were upset with some of the blog posts that I had written.  They wrote,

All due respect, I get what you’re trying to do with your blog, but you are irresponsible with your perspective. You are pitting the world against Christians in the name of reaching them. That said, there is very little that is explicitly biblical in your blogs. You rely on opinion and hope. The scriptures themselves are the only hope we have, and I would suggest that your addition (or subtraction of their authority) are dangerous and, again, irresponsible to say the least.

One of the phrases that I think humanity should abandon, in general, is “all due respect.”  It pretty much ensures that what they say won’t be very respectful…

I’m not offended or anything.  People are welcome to have their own opinions, although I disagree with the writer’s analysis.  I don’t think it’s irresponsible to come into conversation with scripture, and I don’t find my writings based on “opinions and hope.”  There is much scholarship (and late nights with beer and granola bars) that inform these posts.  Hence why I don’t post every day…sometimes I have to sleep.

And I don’t think I’m pitting the world against Christians (what does that even mean?).  Although I’m uncertain exactly what the writer is trying to say there, I’m pretty sure that Christians are doing a pretty good job of pitting people against them on their own…

But I think that the writer makes one substantial claim that can be enlightening in teasing out the reason (or, at least one of the reasons) why certain parts of the faith/a-faith community talk over one another.  Did you double-take at the line, “the scriptures themselves are the only hope” that humanity has?

Yikes.

I’m a Christian, a person of faith, and I have to say that my hope is not in the scriptures.

The story of Jesus that is told in the scriptures is the most intriguing story I’ve ever read.  I believe that God has revealed something in the Christ that can’t be ignored for it’s importance and life-changing ability.  I believe that, in the person of Jesus, God started something new in the world.  So new, in fact, that people had to write about it in haste.

But you see, that’s just it.  My hope is in God’s work through Jesus.  The scriptures contain that story, but they aren’t the object of my hope itself.  Somewhere along the line we’ve turned the scriptures into God…and then everyone who begins to question them, to delve into their historical context to weed out discrepancies and cultural trappings becomes “irresponsible” and “dangerous.”

In short, my question is: “If the Bible isn’t God, why are so many people worshiping it?”

As a Christian, a person of faith, a pastor, the Bible informs my faith.  It is the feedbox of faith; not the fence nor the object of faith.

But we’ve turned it into the idol on a pedestal.  We’ve claimed it as “infallible” and “inerrant.”  My favorite variation of this claim is that it is “inerrant in it’s original languages.”  Nice dodge, people.  I hate to say it, but that’s not exactly how language works.  It is not intellectually honest to claim that something is perfect in its original but long-lost form.  It’s a quaint way of acknowledging that there are internal inconsistencies with the scriptures while escaping any need to take them seriously.

Infallibility and inerrancy are traits commonly ascribed to the Divine itself.   But because we can’t see the Divine in the ways we want to, we’ve created this lovely Bible-calf out of the gold of our desire for concrete things, and think that full “authority” rests in it instead of the God it points to.

As an interesting test-study, let’s look at some scripture passages (as the person who wrote to me doesn’t think I use enough) that are commonly held up as proofs for the Bible’s inerrant nature and infallibility to engage the heart of the issue.

In 2 Timothy 3:16 the writer says, “All scripture is God breathed.”  This has commonly been used as a defense for the Bible’s infallibility and inerrant nature.

Unfortunately, the writer of 2 Timothy didn’t have a Bible.  They only had the Torah, the Psalms, and some wisdom writings.  In fact, they may not have even had all of those, depending on where they were in the world.  So, unless the writer of 2 Timothy was indeed projecting 300 years into the future to when the scriptures were canonized, the writer was talking about some other books.

On the face, to say that “all scripture is God-breathed” seems pretty cut and dry.  It can very easily be understood as talking about the canonized Bible because, for the last 1700 years, that’s exactly what most people have been talking about when they say the word “scripture.”

But I think it is irresponsible to allow that line of thinking to go on without some good questions like, “What writings did the author have?” and “What was the understanding of ‘God-breathed’ that they may have been working with?”  Too often we imagine these writers like they are sitting in Cleveland using the same dictionary we have on our shelves.

Another example that deserves a spin on the old turn-table of critical thought: Revelation 22:19, “And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from (them) a share of the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described therein.”

I love Revelation.  It’s a book of unending interest to me.  A great treatment on the subject was written by my seminary professor Barbara Rossing entitled, “The Rapture Exposed.” (Spoiler alert: the “rapture” is exposed as a bunch of leviathan dung…)

But one of the problems with this verse from Revelation’s 22nd chapter is that, for years I’ve heard preachers who haven’t done their homework take this line and apply it to the whole canon.  I mean, not only is it clear that John the Diviner (the name we’ve given to the writer of Revelation) didn’t intend for that to be the case, it’s absolutely reprehensible to suggest that notion to someone interested in the faith because it automatically cuts off any ability to question or wrestle with scripture.

If the result of wrestling, questioning, and even saying, “hey, that’s a little nuts…” is being cut off from God’s grace, do you think people are going to do it?  Instead people start yelling “false prophet!” or “anti-Christ” or…well, other things that people begin to yell when they feel like their faith is threatened.  It cuts off conversation at it’s core.

There are other verses and proof-texts, of course.  Many.  You know of some, too.

The person who wrote to me said that my suggestions are irresponsible, and that my thoughts are dangerous.  I want to say, quite plainly, that I think that reading the Bible without taking note of its historical context is irresponsible for a pastor/theologian leading a faith community, and that I think its dangerous for the faith to continue along this anti-intellectual trajectory that we’ve been heading down since the Enlightenment.

My own context, Lutheranism, has always understood scripture to be read in three ways: for devotion (spiritual edification), proclamation (faith formation), and study (critical learning).  I like that we uphold (at least) three ways…it’s very Trinitarian. And they each inform the other and have elements of the other within them.  My own faith has been edified and formed through critical study.  My devotional life has been formed and developed by hearing the scriptures and ancient texts read with other people gathered around.

But having a multivariant approach to scripture is important.  It’s important because the scriptures are not one monolithic writing, but contain myths, legends, histories, testimonies, letters, and all sorts of type of writings, and that variance should be acknowledged through a lens that allows for it.  It’s important because it prevents the reader from putting the Bible, as words on a page, on a pedestal because each approach informs and critiques the other.

Martin Luther himself, who took the Bible more seriously than most in an age where reading wasn’t exactly in vogue and questioning authority wasn’t encouraged (remember what happened to Hus?), even argued with scripture.  He opined that the book of James and the book of Revelation should be cut from the canon (at least, in his younger less angry years).  Was that irresponsible?

Or was it him taking scripture and what it is seriously?

I take scripture seriously, not literally. For me it is not some fable nor is it a golden book that fell from the sky. It holds the most intriguing story I’ve ever heard in which I put my hope…but it’s not the story itself, and is certainly not the hope.

So, read your Bibles, preferably with other people.  Don’t worship them.  And if you’re a pastor, introduce some critical thinking into your instruction…the world will be better for it.

“If it’s wrong, I don’t want to be right” or “I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.”

In the July 8th issue of The Guardian, David Hare has an interesting interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Yes, get your “Mr. Bean” jokes out now.

Williams has been an outspoken critic of the New Atheist movement happening in his backyard, but his critiques have been mostly what I would call a “failure to engage.”  But as I read more and more about Williams, his theology, and his argumentative style, I would classify his critiques less as a failure to engage and more as a choice not to talk over.

That is, after all, what most of these shouting matches between atheists and theists have been: talking over one another.

So when one can boil the Archbishop’s responses down to the simple, awfully British, phrase, “Oh, please…” I now understand better why.  Williams finds the whole process of argumentation to be an exercise in futility.  And one, I might add, that leads to more bitterness and entrenchment than anything else in my experience.

I, too, came to this realization about a year ago.  In my search to mine the depths of my own skepticism, I finally came to much the same conclusion that Williams appears to have known for some time (if only those with ears would hear): argumentation in this arena is a futile attempt at making oneself believe by mind what is only known by heart.  Or, as St. Ambrose reminds us, “It does not suit God to save (God’s) people by arguments.”  Williams apparently often recites this.

This realization is not an escape, mind you.  That’s ultimate Truth.  And if you think you know it, I would question if you do.

Willaims explains this idea much more satisfactorily in the interview:

“Oh, look, argument has the role of damage limitation. The number of people who acquire faith by argument is actually rather small. But if people are saying stupid things about the Christian faith, then it helps just to say, ‘Come on, that won’t work.’ There is a miasma of assumptions: first, that you can’t have a scientific worldview and a religious faith; second, that there is an insoluble problem about God and suffering in the world; and third, that all Christians are neurotic about sex. But the arguments have been recycled and refought more times than we’ve had hot dinners, and I do groan in spirit when I pick up another book about why you shouldn’t believe in God. Oh dear! Bertrand Russell in 1923! And while I think it’s necessary to go on rather wearily putting down markers saying, ‘No, that’s not what Christian theology says’ and, ‘No, that argument doesn’t make sense’, that’s the background noise. What changes people is the extraordinary sense that things come together.

In reading Harris and Hitchens, in reading Craig and McGrath, I’ve come to this conclusion: I enjoy the reading.  On both sides.  I find myself nodding to Hitchens about just as much as I find myself nodding to McGrath.  And I find myself shaking my head in the same places, too: where the argumentation devolves into silly straw-people stereotypes and supercilious name calling.

(Harris and Craig, actually, I find pretty tedious because their anger is not mixed with enough sarcasm.  I prefer my agitants to be laced with humor.  It helps the hate go down better.)

But all in all this interview with the fine Archbishop has helped me to hone in, once again, on what it is that I am giving up in this life constantly, and that is the need to be “right.”  He notes:

Put it this way, if I’m not absolutely paralysed by the question, ‘Am I right? Am I safe?’ then there are more things I can ask of myself. I can afford to be wrong.

My dance with religion has led me to find that I’m not dancing to learn the steps, I’m dancing to dance.  And perfection is not the goal of this endeavor; dancing is.  I’ve given up my need to have the right steps.

But if that’s the case, why are so many Christians concerned with orthodoxy?  In my own church, my own denomination, we’re continuing to struggle with issues over orthodoxy, and yet, if we’ve given up the need to be right as the Christ has freed us to, it appears we haven’t given up the need to fight about it.

It is at this point that many will say, “Sure, but your point certainly doesn’t mean that anything is permissible!”

Quite correct (I’ll refrain from using the word “right”).

But must we argue and divide and split on account of it?  Williams’ own tenure as Archbishop has shown that diverse opinions can be pillars that hold up the same house.  And whether it’s because his eyebrows are too threatening to tussle with, or because he’s actually on to something here, he truly believes in the church in a way that makes me not want to fight him on it.

But I’ll allow his belief to be my own for the present time.  For while I want to believe in the church, the church often makes me a reluctant Christian.  Christians make me a reluctant Christian. While I find myself free from the need to be right, it appears my sisters and brothers throughout the church do not.

Sigh.

And sure, the one last argument the dissenting reader will throw out is true, “But don’t you think you’re “right” in believing its correct to give up being right?!”

Fine.  Incurvatus in se.  I won’t argue with you on that…because arguing will get us no where.  But I don’t believe in the rightness of my belief.  I don’t believe in the rightness of religion; no way.

Instead, I’ll just say that it’s my lens. I lean on it.  I look through it. Or to put it another way, I’ll quote someone else much smarter than me:

“Religion is not primarily a something to be believed…Religion is first and foremost a way of seeing.” (Kushner, Who Needs God)

So, I guess I don’t want to be right, even if that’s wrong.  Because in my reading and my experience, being right or needing to be so, well, it just leads to blindness.