Sunday, April 23, 2017

St Francis' Prayer: Sowing Love In My Own Heart

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love. 
The climate of hatred is thick like a fog, intense like a desert -- and about as friendly towards our health and well being. I can hardly sign on to facebook without seeing a collection of people who want to use that as a platform for explaining why the people they hate are stupid, or looking forward to the evil people getting some poetic justice, or just practicing their favorite insults against their favorite targets. In some cases I actually belong to one of the vilified groups; in others I find myself identifying with people who are despised and marginalized.

But before that sounds too noble: I also find myself angry -- furious -- and tempted to hatred when I look at all the unfairness and abuse. I find myself resenting the arrogance of the people who presume they know so much better than everyone else. I find myself outraged at the hypocrisy of people who claim to be loving and tolerant but who speak of other people with open contempt without bothering to understand their point of view, gleefully assuming the worst of them to justify their hatred.

All it makes is a level playing field. Every injustice and hatred that we see is a temptation to respond in kind. People tend to copy the way we are treated when we respond to others. And sometimes we even adopt the emotions that came with our action. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, there comes a time when justice brings us down to that awful level where the good guys are indistinguishable from the bad guys. Those of us who think we're better than the others are probably kidding ourselves.

If we found some action really unfair or intolerable when the other side did it, why exactly would we want to copy it?  How could responding in kind do anything except make it so that there is no moral high ground?

Instead of copying the wrongdoers, Jesus challenges us to something radically different, something that could actually change the game: treating people decently whether they deserve it or not. Because people tend to copy the way we are treated when we respond to others. And sometimes we even adopt the emotions that came with our action. Treating other people with decency and respect changes us. And if it changes us, may it also humble us that we were not already treating people with decency and respect.

Does that even apply to our enemies? Of course it does. Where's the credit in being good to people who are good to us? Even the worst people on earth may be kind to their own, as Jesus points out. And if that's all we've got going, we're no different. Jesus' words "Bless those who curse you" could only apply to someone who hated us; exactly who else would be cursing us?

The work will be to figure out how to bless the people who are cursing us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Observing Good Friday: Forgive them

"Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they're doing." -- Jesus, at his execution
Of all the words spoken by Jesus from the cross, three are prayers -- but only one is a petition: forgiveness. He did not ask forgiveness for himself (which many dying people would pray earnestly), but for the people involved in killing him.

To observe Good Friday, and to observe the longer season of Lent, many of us fast on certain days and abstain from all kinds of self-indulgence. But how much of Jesus' point in Lent is about forgiveness? How much of his teaching is about forgiveness?

To observe Good Friday right, I'm thinking of all the people Jesus had occasion to forgive, and thinking how many people just like that I could forgive today:
  • The people who didn't know what they were doing, and thought they were doing the right thing (like the soldiers at the crucifixion)
  • The people who talked a good game, but didn't come through (like Peter at the Last Supper)
  • The ones who didn't do what they could, when we asked for support (like Peter, James, and John in the garden)
  • The ones who didn't stand by us when we needed them (like the disciples who ran away at Jesus' arrest)
  • The people who tried to score personal points at our expense (like Pilate sending Jesus to Herod)
  • The no-shows at our big moments in life (like Thomas on the day of the Resurrection)
We're all the criminals on the other crosses. Lord, forgive the people who have wronged me, so that when my time comes I may die in peace.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

St Francis' Prayer: Let Me Sow Love

I've been praying St Francis' prayer fairly regularly lately, where the beginning runs:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
I found myself wondering: How do I sow love? I know so many people who are full of hatred, or plagued by hateful thoughts, or (at any rate) what they say is reliably about their hatred of others. If we want to be an instrument of that peace, how do we do it?

Love is easier to sow where there isn't hatred. Where there isn't hatred, love can be planted by people getting to know each other: showing common interest and common ground, showing admirable traits or honest struggles. Those things tend to build a bridge. But where there is hatred ... how do we sow love?

I have to start by saying that I've seen it done badly. I've sometimes seen one person who is determined to force another person to say something nice about someone they hate. They maneuver their target into a position where they must grudgingly admit some small decency in someone they dislike. I've never seen it work in changing attitudes; it seems to be more about scoring points. It's about making the other person lose. After that, they have even more resentment. And it ignores that there might be a reason or a history behind it in the first place. Very few people come into their thoughts and feelings without a reason. For hatred, there is often a history of distrust or fear, or someone may have harmed them, or they may have believed an accusation without knowing whether it was true. Or it may have even been true.

So here are my first thoughts on how to sow love where there is hatred:

If there is legitimate reason for someone to be angry with the other, I want to acknowledge that the complaint is valid. If there is legitimate cause for fear of harm or loss, I need to consider that and give full weight to their voice. If I belittle someone's real concern, it will only increase the resentment and decrease my credibility for not recognizing it. If I haven't listened, I haven't earned the right to speak.

There is another angle here: Depending on the cause of the hatred, and the target of the hatred: Does the person have regular contact with someone who nurtures and encourages the hatred? Almost every news outlet, and a growing number of other TV shows, promote hatred of some group or person or viewpoint. There are some groups of like-minded people that seem to exist, or fuel themselves, by encouraging hatred of people with opposing points of view. Sometimes the hatred would fade if it weren't fed.

If someone regularly reinforces their own hatred, we may need to start by simply not getting caught up in it. I've come to appreciate people whose facebook posts are about things that are wholesome and not divisive. Anything that is divisive, if done badly, promotes hatred. Anything that is unifying, if done well, promotes friendship and love.

Monday, April 03, 2017

What Happens When Faith Is Silenced (Humor)

With good news
Without good news

Ok, I skipped my humorous post on 4/1 this year, but still wanted to post something on the lighter side. The lower of these two pictures is also meant as a standalone as a picture of A life without "spirituality". (It's still not free of spiritual influence, just free of good ones.)

This particular post I've tagged  as creative commons; the artwork is original likewise the words. If anyone should be interested: help yourself, & enjoy.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Upcoming 500th Anniversary of the Reformation ... Depressing?

Later this year will mark the 500th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther posted 95 debating points about purgatory and indulgences, which led to either the Reformation or a schism, or maybe both, depending on your point of view. Here's the thing: He never intended to split the church. Actually neither did Rome; they meant to excommunicate a cleric who wouldn't bow to the official line on purgatory, indulgences, and (behind that) the right of the church to say what the Bible meant and to decide what truths should be taught with or without having been taught in the Bible.

The "solution" of excluding each other from fellowship permits each group to continue in faithfulness as each understands it. It prevents us growing in understanding from each other on areas that we have in common. It prevents us from the solidarity and strength of being in union with each other. It divides our communities, and fragments the culture of Christendom. We have become the house divided against itself.

Each side is convinced that all the fault lies with the other side. (Didn't Luther use unnecessarily incendiary language almost as his trademark? Didn't Rome at least go too far in calling for Luther's death?)

Once Christ taught us: If you remember that your brother has something against you, leave your own gift aside and be reconciled to your brother before presenting your gift to God. Honestly, no matter where we stand, our brothers have something against us. When will we seek out our brothers?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Temptation in the Desert

The air is clear in the desert. They say the stars are spectacular when seen from the desert, with not even humidity to cloud the vision.

When I hear of Jesus being tempted in the desert, I wonder. The temptations in the desert seem unusually clear. We're tempted all the time, but we can't always tell that it's the voice of evil. The disguise of evil is too good for us to recognize it, or there's some confusion, some ambiguity in the offer. We can't always see the choice so clearly: taken to its logical conclusion, stripped of all pretense and decoration.

As others have noted, the first temptation is nearly a reversal of Eden. In Eden: in an overflowing paradise, take one more thing for yourself: a promise of being like God. In the desert: in a wasteland and very hungry, take some simple bread, even one thing for yourself -- by using miraculous powers for your own benefit, not suffering as simply man. And so in Eden a temptation to claim God's power for personal benefit was accepted by people. And in the desert, a temptation to assert divine power for personal benefit was rejected by the Lord. And does the tempter have a sense of irony? The temptation to be like God seems intended to dethrone God, and to take away the value of being "like God" for both God and for us wannabes. (I don't see any signs that there was real interest learning to discern good from evil.)

The other temptations in the desert involved status, pride, power, riches, recognition, safety, and escape from cruel and undeserved hardship. Those temptations have taken down many of us. They are often the focus of our prayers. We're eager to think that any path toward them comes from God. And Jesus did receive those same blessings from God. From God, not from the tempter. In God's way, in God's time. If he had gotten any of that in the tempter's way, they would have been worthless. Would we really have honored Jesus if the story ended there: "And Jesus bowed down, and received all honor and dominion." And everything Jesus received would have remained under the temper's ultimate control since Jesus bowed to him. The tempter promises gifts to his subjects; nothing would actually leave his domain.

If the tempter does eavesdrop on our prayers, it is no reason to stop praying for God's honest blessings. But it may be time to ask for what we once tried to claim: real knowledge to discern good and evil. May God grant us clarity to see, and compassion on each other as we struggle to see.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Why God created

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
I've written before about why God created, hoping to move the conversation beyond the usual defenses that God is not needy. (Of course not. Agreed. The conversation doesn't have to end there.)

Imagine there's no universe, and nothing exists but God alone. What good is it to be omnipotent if there's nothing to do? What good is it to be omniscient when the only thing to know is yourself, or omnipresent if there's nowhere to go? It's also not possible to appreciate the vastness of ocean, or the night sky, unless you're small in comparison.

And I have trouble imagining that there could be any variety without limits. That is: if there's one kind of flower, it isn't another kind; if it's growing here, it's not growing there. So variety comes from being specific, and in that sense limited.

A being of pure spirit cannot taste or feel or touch. So much of the glory of this world is sensual, it helps to be physical to fully know and love it. And then there is companionship, and fellowship, which is enriched by the company of others. At times I think it's possible that God created the world so that he could become human.
This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:32)
And if God did create the world so that he could become human, then I've vastly underestimated how blessed it is to be human.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Once we qualify the scope of "omnipotence", is it meaningful?

I've often heard advice not to engage in all-or-none thinking. But some words seem to exist for the sole purpose of saying, "this is about all." One such word is "omnipotence," used to speak of God being all-powerful, or able to do anything. I think most people would accept "able to do anything that isn't inherently impossible" as a reasonable understanding, rather than a backdoor or escape route.

Is it possible to give billions of people the "image of God" -- including ability to shape our own surroundings and paths -- and have God remain in control of everything? In a discussion on omnipotence, either our mastery over our environment is an illusion -- we are simply God's proxies -- or God has granted us our own domain where we are agents in some real sense.

There are many kinds of evil in this world caused by people: caused by hatred, malice, greed, lust, unfaithfulness, indifference, arrogance, and a whole series of problems that need no introduction to those who have lived enough years. If God is good and can do all things, why not prevent people from harming each other by a use of his power? Typically, Christians view this as God choosing to limit the extent of his control -- a choice that was inherent in the act of creating sentient beings -- in which he gives us an area where we are in charge, for good or ill.

But once we think of God as holding himself back, once we think of billions of agents who are not God's proxies -- is the word "omnipotent" still applicable? A crude understanding of "omnipotent" is no longer accurate; for accuracy, it has to be qualified. And if it is qualified, it is no longer simply "all". Without 'all', whatever is left may not be 'none' but it also isn't 'all'.

Theologians can discuss the intricacies of God's power and speak of the subtleties of "omnipotence". But once there are subtleties involved, is the popular meaning void?

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The art of apologizing

Normally I try to share anything I may have learned or discovered. Today I do not think I should do any more than say: if you want to learn the art of apologizing, this is the best article I have found:

The delicate art of apologizing without making it worse

Saturday, February 25, 2017

There's religion, then there's religion

Some people use religion like a pot-head uses incense: it's about covering up the smell.

I recently had a relative of mine -- one who is still struggling with addiction -- suddenly become religious (apparently ... for a couple of weeks). That is to say, he developed some of the outward trappings of religion: he read the Bible a lot, and prayed a lot, and talked a lot about how much he was reading the Bible and praying. This is a person who had not shown much interest in religion over the years. And I still didn't see him showing much interest in religion, I just saw him spending a lot of time talking about how much he was reading the Bible and praying.

It's like the crowd we used to run with as teenagers: the stronger the smell of incense, the more I could be sure there wasn't anything wholesome going on. I think a lot of religion-haters have developed the same reaction to "religion" that I have to incense: in my experience it has been used as a cover-up, and so my first thought is that it's only there to hide the smell.

Reading the Bible and praying -- it's something that the religious people do, too. But thinking that's the whole of it ... It's like someone whose first experience with art was as a kindergartener with an 8-pack of jumbo crayons and a book of color-by-number line drawings. If that person, as an adult, still only had the 8-pack of crayons, we'd wonder about how much he was actually into art. Or if someone claimed hatred of art because it was all color-by-number, we might encourage her to get out more and see some of the more mature work of people who had kept with the discipline past elementary school. And yet even the mature artists' work might still use some of the same colors and shapes, and may have begun in the same kindergarten.

Sure, religion can in fact help hide the smell -- but mature religion doesn't stop there. Mature religion also goes to the cause of the stink. Mature religion does pray -- and seek the will of God -- and seek to become an instrument of his peace in this world. Mature religion does read the Bible -- and the words sink in, and begin to create in us a clean heart. The words take on flesh in us -- not as we talk about having read them, but as we begin to be the one who stops for the stranger, and knows the sorrows of our friends. True religion becomes less like my experience of incense, and more like a breath of fresh air.

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?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Best of the Blogroll 2016

Here are my favorite posts of 2016 from the Christian blogs that I read regularly:
Thank you for all your dedicated blogging over the years! I'd encourage my readers to try a few of these links if you're looking for edifying material.

Best off-the-blogroll 2016: 
  • The return of my health, which had caused me to take several months' leave from blogging (amongst other things)
  • The 30-day chip received earlier this month by someone dear to me
  • My son's safe return from his first deployment
Blessed be the name of the LORD.