Sunday, February 19, 2017

On being like God: Knowing each others' sorrows

And the LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows" (Exodus 3:7)
 A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3)
Jesus wept. (John 11:35)

Those who walk in the footsteps of God are oddly vulnerable. I don't mean "vulnerable to the usual attacks from enemies of God" in a way that calls us to put on our armor. I mean that in moments of trust we take off the armor. There is a fellowship in shared wounds. Martha may have said "I know my brother will rise at the last day", and we may say it too. Jesus did not dispute it; yet Jesus wept. When we hide our sorrows, we lose the fellowship of others who share them -- and they lose the blessing of fellowship too.

We are vulnerable to the wounds of others, wounds of compassion or empathy. We listen. We know each others' troubles. We are all acquainted with grief.

When Jesus proved himself to Thomas, he showed his scars -- which was what Thomas had asked, and had needed. There is a credibility in old wounds. Would Thomas have accepted the Risen Lord without the scars?

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Blessing and Rest

There was a man all alone, with neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil ... (Ecclesiastes 4:8)
I am deeply in need of a Sabbath rest. I need more than a day. There is wisdom -- and blessing -- in the cycle of rest in the Old Testament: rest on the seventh day, rest in the seventh month, more rest in the seventh year, and after the seventh set of seven years, a jubilee. The land rests, the people rest, debts are forgiven, and there is an end to toil. There were special prescribed celebrations each year where the people did not work, much like our national holidays, or something like our vacations with the annual pilgrimage feasts and celebrations.

A pause from work is not much of a blessing if it is done for the sake of preparing to work again. The best rest is not taken for the sake of refreshing our work; instead, the work is done for the sake of securing our rest. A pause from work is only restful if it is satisfying: if it is savored, if there is some beauty admired or fellowship shared or celebration, if we have enjoyed a moment of blessing. Without that, our toil seems meaningless to us.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

The 7 Habits of Peacemakers: John 8:3-11

When looking for the habits of peacemakers, I was struggling with the risk of writing a pet peeve list against people who cause conflict. In the hopes of escaping that trap, here are observations from a conflict that Jesus resolved. I expect that this portion of Jesus' history is familiar to most people likely to read here, so I will introduce it with just the opening verses:
And the scribes and Pharisees brought him a woman caught in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst of them, they said to him, "Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned: but what do you say?" (John 8:3-5)
  1. Integrity and wisdom that have gained respect. The peacemaker is not a meddler who inserts himself into other peoples' business, but has earned such a reputation that he is sought. There is a chance -- though not a guarantee -- that all parties would respect this person's words. The reputation is a mixed blessing: this particular peacemaking opportunity was meant as a trap (v6). 
  2. Accepts the legitimate concerns and upholds the standards of right. At no point does Jesus question the legitimacy of the laws upholding marriage, which are the basis of the complaint. His reply takes for granted that the law against adultery is a legitimate reflection that adultery is wrong. He upholds standards that are rightly respected. As we see later in Jesus' more private comments to the woman ("Go and sin no more"), he recognizes the crowd's original complaint that the woman's action was in fact wrong, and could not be tolerated in a God-fearing nation or among God-fearing people. Without shared standards, there is no basis for shared peace.
  3. Discerns multiple conflicts with multiple wrongdoers. Without denying the legitimacy of any honest complaint, the truly right party in one area can be self-seeking and self-righteous in pursuing (partial) justice for that complaint. Self-righteous and partial justice is not in the interest of peace. Jesus' answer to the crowd, to the teachers and legal experts, is one of Jesus' best-known answers to a trick question: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her" (v7).
  4.  Respectful treatment of both sides. He did not call them hypocrites. He did not harangue them to see the value of mercy. As surely as he was not the woman's accuser, he was not the crowd's accuser either.
  5. Without accusing, opens eyes to see their own role in the conflict. An accusation would have closed their ears, instead of opening their eyes. He worked with the basis of their accusation, their sense of right, as common ground. Their legitimate concern for what was right had the crowd lining up to condemn the woman. While they were in line so eager to uphold the right, Jesus suggested who could come to the front of the line. And so their eagerness to do right was employed so they could see right more clearly, as each one had to examine himself by that same standard. There are things we might never accept from another person, but we could possibly see for ourselves. The people dropped their stones and left, one by one.
  6. Resolves all the legitimate grievances. Even though no one from the crowd remained to accuse the woman, she was still genuinely in the wrong. He confronted her after the crowd had left, in a way that did not worsen the secondary problem of the self-righteous crowd. Very few stubborn problems have only one wrongdoer. There was no implication that multiple competing grievances cancel each other, no confusion that only one party could possibly be wrong, or that those who were wrong in part must be wrong in whole. Neither was the goal to identify and apportion blame. The peacemaker does not confuse or conflate issues, or minimize the original cause once the attention has shifted. And so Jesus both relieved her fears and insisted on her redemption: "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." (v11)
  7. May leave both sides with more than they expected. Both the crowd and the woman left that day with more wisdom than they entered, with more compassion, with a firmer dedication to the right. I suspect that they could not have attained peace without it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The 7 Habits of Joyful People

As a follow-up to a prior post, here are my candidates for The 7 Habits of Joyful People:
  1. Gratitude. One foundation of joy is to be glad for what is around us, to appreciate life rather than take it for granted. 
  2. Forgiveness. Bitterness sabotages joy. So does malice. Forgiveness makes it possible to enjoy life in a world that is not perfect, and to enjoy the company of people who are not perfect, and to accept ourselves though we are not perfect.
  3. Friendship. Every good moment is enhanced and enriched when it is shared. Even moments experienced alone can be shared in the retelling. 
  4. Sorrow. When we deny our losses, we have only a counterfeit joy. If we dispute with our own grief, we undermine the goodness of whatever we have lost. To appreciate something fully includes mourning its loss.
  5. Humility. Pride blocks our view of the good in other people. Humility leaves us open. 
  6. Childlikeness. There is a willful suspension of cynicism that's needed for joyfulness, an innocent openness to what is good, an openness to delight. It takes a renewed innocence to see the world rather than tune out the familiar.
  7. Love. Love includes within it a well-kindled satisfaction with whatever is good and right, which is the flame of joy. 

I'd be glad to hear your contributions. There's no reason the list has to be closed after 7 entries.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

To what extent is the doctrine of the Trinity useful, and faithful to the Bible?

This continues a conversation with Aron from the comments section of a previous post. I'll begin here with one of my closing thoughts from the comment thread: I'm still a student of the nature of God, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and I'll gladly acknowledge that I have more to learn.

I think it doesn't help that the conversation here is taboo in most mainstream churches. There is always the undercurrent that, if a person doesn't come to the same conclusion as others, that person is no longer welcome. It's the kind of thing that puts a damper on honest and searching conversation, even if we ultimately agree. Because the taboo puts a damper on honest and searching conversation, the taboo works as an obstacle to understanding.

I mentioned in the earlier discussion:
While the doctrine of the Trinity is meant to clarify things, create unity, and reduce confusion, I don't think it has done any of those things.
And to be clear, though it has some points to recommend it as the centuries can attest, it hasn't fully succeeded any of those things, which is why it keeps being a matter of conversation amongst the churches of different denominations (or a reason why some churches won't recognize the validity of other churches, or do not have unity with other churches). It's important that I make my reasons clear from the beginning: the doctrine of the Trinity may have served well to refute the teachings of the Arians back many centuries ago. It was meant to clarify, create unity, and reduce confusion. In the long run, has it done that, or do we have more ground to cover? If it has not succeeded in those objectives, then there is probably room for us to understand better and explain better. That is the hope of this conversation.

I'd like to expand briefly on those specific points, since they are my reason for wanting to have this conversation, and believing that the conversation can productively continue:
  1. Clarity: The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to clarify things. But the number of things that become less clear may rival the number of things that were addressed: Three "persons" -- How convincing are the arguments for unity against the charge of tritheism? And granted the translation issues and the philosophical subtleties of the conversation, how convinced are we that it clarified everything? (Do we prefer to say 'hypostases'? How much does that clarify for the average churchgoer?) What's the origin of the Holy Spirit? Or for the big picture: If nobody in the early church taught it, are we warranted in requiring uniform answers to those questions?
  2. Unity: The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to create unity in the church. But doctrine of the Trinity and the related doctrine of the person of Christ have divided a number of groups who cannot in good faith embrace the majority positions. The ancient Coptic church of Egypt is among those holding a variant position. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox are divided by a related question. Which brings me straight to:
  3. Reducing Confusion: The doctrine of the Trinity is meant to reduce confusion. It may have reduced confusion about Arianism -- but different questions and challenges keep arising, and it's not enough to answer Arianism. I think the doctrine of the Trinity has introduced confusion about specific things. For example, I read a theologian (Moltmann) -- someone who had a good reputation -- explaining how the "second person of the Trinity" became the Word of God -- and it sounded as if he meant that the Word of God was not the inherent nature. It would seem more Scriptural to say that the Word of God is regarded as the second person of the Trinity  -- or is by nature the second hypostasis of the One God, or some other construction like that.
So back to where we began? I'm still a student of the nature of God, of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and I'll gladly acknowledge I have more to learn. And with the above said, I lean towards the view that what we honor is by nature the Word of God, and we recognize the Word of God as the second hypostasis of the One God, who takes on fuller distinction in relation to the world as incarnate. I lean towards the view that what we honor is by nature the Spirit of God, and we recognize the Spirit of God as the third hypostasis of One God, who takes on fuller distinction in relation to the world as the Spirit who is kindled in humans. And that the origin of the Word of God and the Spirit of God is God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth who is the ultimate origin of all things -- including His Word and His Spirit. 

I'd be glad to learn more.

Take care & God bless

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The 7 Habits of ... exactly what are we trying to become?

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was a phenomenon when first published, and continues to be a respected book. At the start of the new year, reflecting on what I might like to accomplish, I found myself thinking about that book and wondering, "Effective at what?" With that thought in mind, here are some other topics I would like to understand:
I'd be glad to hear of other peoples' wish lists there.

Updates: adding links to posts on those topics written after this original piece. 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Following Jesus in Teaching: Do Bible Commentaries Carry a Risk?

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
When we read the Bible, there are all kinds of commentaries to help us understand it. But what if they help us misunderstand it?
This Good news we call the gospel of Christ. After making people aware of their sinfulness and their inability to save themselves, Jesus assured them of God's merciful forgiveness. (From the Albrecht & Albrecht commentary on Matthew 4:23)
When I look at Jesus' ministry in Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and surrounding countryside, I don't see him spending a lot of time on "making people aware of their sinfulness and inability to save themselves". He talks about God as the God who blesses, who meets us with blessing exactly in the worst moments of our lives, whose answer to the problem of evil includes not only defeating it ("healing every disease and sickness among the people"), but proclaiming beautiful blessings for those who have suffered. I see him kindling a desire for holiness. I see him showing how "morality" is not about keeping rules, but about the time that someone's decency and goodness made them the hero of someone else's story (Good Samaritan). I see him reserving his harshest words for the religious leaders and the religious establishment (such as "the blind leading the blind").

As he went around the countryside teaching, he was rarely their accuser. Someone who bashes the people over the head with their sinfulness is not bringing good news; in many cases they are being verbally abusive. They may cover that by saying it is necessary; but if so, why doesn't Jesus do it so regularly? Neither does Jesus spend a lot of teaching time trying to create feelings of self-doubt and helplessness. He does not seek to undermine their hope or their self-love. Instead, he seeks to leverage their self-love into opening their eyes to the needs of others ("as you love yourself"). He seeks to leverage their wish for forgiveness into mercy for everyone -- because we desire not only mercy from God but the people around us as well.

Somewhere there are some passages where Jesus confronted people with their sinfulness; that does not provide a license for his followers to use those as the official general approach, when Jesus did not have that as his official general approach.

To what extent does fitting Jesus into our system, then commenting on Jesus from the viewpoint of that system, run the risk of making us blind to what Jesus actually said and did?