Sunday, March 11, 2018

The perfection of God's love

Some Christians talk as though they think God's perfection is a threat to us: they preach fear of God. They preach God as demanding perfection. They preach God as holy and just and absolutely perfect -- at everything except love. A loveless god is absolutely a threat to us; a loveless god is indistinguishable from a demon.

Have you ever watched a movie and tried to figure out what sets apart the good guys from the bad guys, and see if that's a window back into our own world in the way we'd hope from a good story? To become the hero, it's not the superpowers, or the extent of the power; in any interesting contest, both sides are formidable. It's not whether they have some sense of morality (and all moralities are equal); the "bad guys" are often convinced they're in the right, both in movies and in the real world. Often the difference is love in the sense of that human connection, whether one side recognizes that the other side is comprised of human beings who are worthy of love and compassion. If any group is written off as irredeemable, not worth knowing, not fully sane or not fully human, then atrocities are not far behind. Someone with a lot of power but without love is not the hero but the villain. And so I'd say it again: a loveless god is indistinguishable from a demon.

Thank God that he defines himself by his love, his mercy, his compassion. Thank God that he defines himself by how much he loves us, even while we were still his enemies. It's a wake-up call in that he calls us specifically to love our enemies too, to stop judging each other and condemning each other and devouring each other. As God loves his own enemies, he takes away any excuse for us to use his name to justify bad treatment of our own enemies.

"God so loved the world" -- the followers of Jesus read that today during Lent, those vast numbers of us who follow the common lectionary: God's motive, his reason for the cross. It's not about some judgmental perfectionism, not about his righteous anger. Our hope is in his perfect love. We trust him in the cross because it is there that we see, even as we suffer too: God is not the villain.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Lent: Can we see "competitive" from God's eyes?

I've got a competitive streak. Well, me and the rest of the world. As the Olympics have finished and next is March Madness, when the television stations have ratings competitions and the movie industry has its award season, it's pretty plain that on some level we all enjoy competition. There is a mix of excitement, of stakes of money or fame, an expectation of achievement and excellence. Some of the quest for excellence is about victory and bragging rights, and the type of emotional high that comes from them. It's telling that the best-known official book of world records was started by the folks from Guinness Breweries.

I've heard the claim often enough that competition is inherently wrong because of the potential loss of self-esteem to the many who don't win; I think that's a little over-simplified. Not just because the many who don't win may still gain awareness or accomplishment, may take satisfaction in putting in a good showing or a personal best, or from being exposed to the next level of skill, determination, innovation, and dedication. Also because there are often-unnoticed spiritual risks to the one who wins, in the forms of temptations to pride or arrogance -- or needing and expecting recognition.

Is there such a thing as healthy competition? We have an older letter in which St Paul set up a friendly competition among the churches on his circuit to see who could provide the most disaster-relief in a particular disaster; it seemed healthy enough. "Friendly competition": there is such a thing. It happens when each side spurs the other on to greater heights, to dig deeper into our own determination to do the best we can possibly do. Game on!

It's more typical that we don't use it to spur each other on to greater heights; we use it to try to gain or hoard recognition. For this, the spiritual risks of winning rival those of losing. In the original Lent -- Jesus' journey from the Transfiguration to the cross -- after he told his followers that he expected his own execution as they headed to Jerusalem for the Passover, there were arguments among his disciples about who was the greatest, and about who would sit on his right or left hand as Messiah (when he was crowned king, they may have expected, having missed the point about the upcoming death). They were interested in competition in which the goal seemed to be self-promotion. And I wonder how much the goal of self-promotion would make any competition unhealthy. I wonder how often that is exactly the draw for us.

I also found myself wondering if there are suitable prayers out there to help guide us into the right frame of mind as we enter a competition. I searched and found some online; I've linked some that I found that seemed to build a right heart and mind. I'd like to quote some gems that I found (all available at the linked sites):
  • May I compete with your love shining in my heart. May I push myself to be the best.
  • I feel Your delight when I compete. All of my abilities are from You, Jesus. My heart yearns for Your applause.
  • I am humble in victory and gracious in defeat.
  • Lord, I admit that my prayers before competition are more focused on the scoreboard than on becoming like You. I desire to pour out my heart before You every day that I compete. Develop in me a pure heart.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Lent: What is the value of penitence?

"Penitence" isn't something we discuss much these days. To clear up any confusion with similar words: penitence is an attitude of humility about ourselves, an awareness of our own struggles and imperfections, and a renewed dedication to reject any harmful or unkind thoughts, attitudes, and practices by cultivating the loving and holy things that are born of God's word.

So much of that is foreign to our culture. Then again, we're called to live as foreigners and strangers in this world, living not by the standards and practices of the passing secular fads, but as citizens of the kingdom of God, and ambassadors of the kingdom of God. So rather than dial back, let's press on: the first foreign concept is humility.

Humility is not an unhealthy self-loathing that uses our flaws as a pretext for self-hatred or self-abuse, but instead a healthy self-awareness of our own imperfections, leading to a compassion towards both ourselves and others. We reject the idea of being "better than" other people even within our own minds. We reject the idea of being "better than" other people without rejecting the idea that some actions are truly better than others. While modern seculars see the opposite of "judgmental" as "tolerant" -- anything goes! -- I'd suggest that the opposite of "judgmental" is "humble": not anything goes, but the line between right and wrong actions, right and wrong attitudes, is not used to divide people from each other, not used as a tool of control, belittlement, harassment, ostracism, or exclusion. Instead, the honest recognition of our faults makes us brothers and sisters with each other, every last one. And it does this without losing the idea that there is such a thing as good. The problem with being judgmental is not placed on the ideas of right and wrong, but on the attitude of arrogance.

In the almost-foreign idea of penitence, we have to stretch beyond our modernist shrinking spiritual world to reclaim another almost-foreign idea: sin. Remember that in embracing humility we have already rejected the practice of spiritual arrogance. Someone who does not treasure humility cannot approach the concept of sin without doing grave damage to themselves or others. (I suspect that's a large part of why the very idea -- that there is such a thing as "sin" -- is shouted down fiercely in some circles, or redefined as something that other groups do. Anything to protect ourselves from that self-awareness of our own flaws.) The concept of sin includes some thoughts that are at odds with the prevailing winds of our times: that there really are legitimate moral standards, ones which are true and right -- and universal. It's not possible to have real repentance without a concept of legitimate moral standards.

Some of the traditional practices of Lent are beginners' exercises in humility and self-control, such as modest levels of fasting and prayer. A short fast can awaken us to how much we can be controlled by even simple and healthy appetites, and how little harm is done by taking a break from self-indulgence as we tell ourselves "no" in an area where it's typical for our society to have little self-control.

When it comes to our own faults, penitence opens our eyes. When it comes to others' faults, our self-awareness in turn opens our hearts. Penitence is a fellowship-builder. Penitence is a door-opener.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Forgiveness, the fear of shame -- and compassion

In recent years in Lent I've spent some time struggling with forgiveness. At the start of Lent I set my mind to a more focused self-examination, this year watching for negative thoughts directed toward other people, and finding out why my mind turned that direction so I can trace the problem to the root. And fairly early on, I caught myself noticing that someone else in my team at work had gotten caught making a mistake; I was noticing with a level of gladness -- almost satisfaction -- that was just not right. And when I checked myself to see why I was glad that someone else was caught making a mistake, it turned out to be an obvious thing: I was glad it wasn't me.

Recently at work I've moved into a new group, using new tools and a different programming language than I'd worked in for some time, a new product framework -- and that's all part of the job. Almost any job requires of us that we continue to learn or even retrain ourselves in our spare time, especially in any computer-related field. But this time was different: instead of retraining all the staff together, they generally hired new people fresh out of school with knowledge of the particular language that they wanted, leaving those of us who had built the existing product to maintain it. Business-wise it makes some sense; career-wise there was a growing collection of us wondering if we'd just been sidelined. Slowly, they're coming to let more and more of us retrain for the new product.

So while I was retraining this time, besides the enjoyment of something fresh to learn, I also found myself pained by the learning curve -- or, honestly, pained by the embarrassment of being in a situation where I was inexperienced and prone to beginners' mistakes, far from the depth of expertise that I had in my prior work group. I'm still newest to the specific team where I work, but I've got a decent foundation now. So when someone who had been on that team a couple of years longer had made a mistake, I was glad that I've passed that stage in the learning curve where I'm the least competent. My gladness to see someone else make a mistake came from the horribly ungenerous thought, "I'm not the worst one in the group." It came from doubting that I belong, doubting that I'm welcome, doubting that others see me as worthy of being there.

The odd thing was that I recognized the thought, a variation of "I'm not the worst one here." I wonder how often a critical thought has crossed my mind about another person for the exact reason that I'm trying to prove to myself that I'm not the worst one there. In different situations it will be different, but I seem to be looking for proof that I'm not the most socially awkward, or not the worst-dressed, or any other area where I carry a lot of self-doubt. In my mind, I was thinking of shame like that old children's game "hot potato": if I could find someone else to hand it to, I get off free.

I'm trying to take this awareness and build compassion for whoever is caught holding the hot potato. We've all been there.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Named persons in the better-known non-Biblical gospels

Note: With Lent beginning this week, this will be the last post on technical analysis of various interesting non-Biblical documents until after the celebration of the Resurrection. 

Another way we can gain an objective insight into the different documents is to analyze how often they mention personal names, whether that of Jesus or anyone else. Documents that relate conversations or narrate events tend to contain the names of the people involved. We can count how often we find personal names to get a rough estimate of how much the various documents focus on interpersonal events or conversations:

While I'm still developing my skills with various charting tools -- and may evaluate some better ones -- it also helps with perspective on these documents to see how often the name Jesus is used compared to other names. These documents run the full spectrum from "Jesus" being the only personal name used to "Jesus" never being named. They also cover a wide spectrum of documents that scarcely name any people at all (whether Jesus or anyone else), to ones that focus heavily on people and actions, though not necessarily on Jesus.

As a point of interest, the most commonly-used name in each of these documents is:

Sunday, February 04, 2018

"Red Letter" Content of the Better-Known Non-Canonical Gospels

This post continues the project of an objective analysis of the better-known documents that are called gospels that are not part of Christian Scripture, using computerized methods to the extent possible. Here we analyze the collection of 8 better-known non-canonical gospels to answer the question: How much of the content is "Red Letter" type content that consists of quotations of Jesus? In the analysis, I've included quotations even if the document frames them as someone else quoting Jesus in order to comment on what he said. I've also given the benefit of the doubt to those documents that never explicitly mention the name "Jesus" (Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of the Savior), agreeing with the view that the "Lord" or "Savior" meant in those documents is Jesus. Here is a chart of the relative word counts contained in quotes attributed to Jesus in those documents:

Several of these documents are incomplete, with missing fragments or pages. If there are future discoveries that lead to more complete documents, that would enable us to make a more complete assessment.

These documents show a wide range of difference in how much Jesus is quoted, ranging from "not at all" in some of the documents that we reviewed last week, to "almost all of the content" in the Gospel of Thomas, which largely consists of a collection of sayings. As the Coptic Gospel of Thomas distinguished itself earlier as being the one that mentioned the name Jesus more than the other seven combined, again it distinguishes itself here as having more sayings attributed to Jesus than the other seven combined, by a considerable margin. While the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are largely familiar from the canonical gospels, still the material does raise the interest in the Gospel of Thomas as more nearly the same type of document as the Biblical gospels, where the document intends to relate information on the life and teachings of a historical Jesus.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Red Letter" Sections Outside the Bible?

In some Bibles, the sayings of Jesus are highlighted in red, to make them easier to find when scanning the page. It is an easy way to distinguish places where Jesus' sayings are recorded and other material. The reason this is done is fairly obvious but it deserves notice all the same: many people are specifically looking for Jesus' sayings as the point of reading the gospels. The rest is of less interest to them for their own purposes.

When we look at alternative gospels outside of the Bible, they are not all the same type of document. The Gospel of Thomas records the sayings of Jesus and very little else; it is mostly "red letter" content. Some others do not record any sayings of Jesus, again for various reasons. This post will consider two different non-Biblical gospels and take a look at the different reasons why these two documents do not record any sayings of Jesus.

The Proto-Evangelium of James is the type of narrative that intends to tell an organized story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It does this by narrating events and conversations. It mostly concerns itself with the back story of Mary, beginning with Mary's parents before Mary's conception and following through to Mary giving birth to Jesus. While a number of conversations are included in the narrative, Jesus' own words and actions are not part of this narrative. That is intentional given the nature of the document: it does not intend to narrate the life or teachings of Jesus but to provide more material about his mother's side of the family.

The Gospel of Truth does not follow a narrative framework. It is a meditation or reflection, and includes some devotional and inspirational content. There are parts that might be suitable in some Christian circles today in a sermon, as a homiletic reflection on the meaning of the works of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, on the fruit of faith, and on our healing as we gain wholeness and forgiveness. It has some allusions to Jesus' words, particularly the lost sheep, along with other Biblical allusions. While there are places in the document that a reader might find a good spiritual reflection, there is no place in the document that a reader might find a quotation of a saying of Jesus. Again, that is intentional given the nature of the document: it does not intend to narrate the life or teachings of Jesus, but to reflect on some spiritual truths.

This post is the beginning of a survey which I intend to continue, giving the reader a better overview of various non-Biblical documents and whether they have any direct bearing on the life and teachings of Jesus.