THE SON OF MAN?

The Sunday School teacher will stand before his or her class and ask, “What do we mean when we call Jesus the Son of God?” The answer will be either “He is Divine” or less often “He had no human father.” The teacher may then ask, “What do we mean that Jesus is the Son of Man?” Often the answer will be given that “He is human.” And most of the time these answers are acceptable along with the affirmation that Jesus was one hundred per cent Divine and one hundred percent human. That affirmation is definitely orthodox by the Chalcedon formulation. However, the answers are wrong.

“And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'” (Matthew 3:17 NRSV) The ancient Christian heresy called “adoptionism” claimed after his baptism is when God adopted Jesus as his son. It is wrong for important reasons. The simplest reason is that God never adopted anyone. Still, there were certain people in the Old Testament that were regarded as God’s “sons.” Who were they? These men were the Kings of the Davidic line. And while later Kings of Judah might have claimed a divine connection by adding the divine name of “Je” to their names (Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Jeconiah) none of them were truly regarded as divine. The prophet Jeremiah once refers to the last king of this line as “Coniah.” (see Jeremiah 22:24-30) Some fundamentalist interpreters would likely claim, “Of course, the prophecy had not been fulfilled yet.” However, that begs the question of what was given to them as they were being called “son of God.” The answer is kingship with the responsibilities and the authority that accompanied the role of the King.

First century Jewish scholars would certainly understand being called the son of God was a witness to kingship. And according to Daniel Boyarin in his work,  The Jewish Gospels only one person could ever take up the mantel of King in the Davidic line. That person was known as the Son of Man.

Boyarin argues that the belief that the Son of Man as a Divine Being was held by many first century Jewish scholars. He uses the witness of Daniel chapter 7 and 1st Enoch and the Similitudes of Enoch to demonstrate the Son of Man was supposed by a large number of scholars to be a divine being originating in heaven and arriving on earth to return to the side of God. That man would be a truly anointed one of God – the Messiah of God. Jesus was saying nothing that these believers in the promise to Israel did not already believe. He was merely claiming the mantel for himself.

A larger number of Jewish scholars did not accept the conclusions about the Son of Man that some others had reached. The visions given in the books previously mentioned are vague to say the least. There is even a conclusion that marks Enoch “who walked with God” and was taken by God to be the Son of Man. Interestingly enough each group tended to refer to the other as “hypocrites.”

The synoptic gospels then understand the term Son of Man to be a Divine Being. And they are witnessing to Jesus claiming to be that person. By the time John’s gospel was written the Divinity of Christ was affirmed by enough early Christians that the writer sets out to explain what is meant in a seeming duality of God.

Modern scholars today have concluded that Matthew’s gospel was written by the early Christians who settled in Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:26). If so, this would explain one of the most problematic passages in Matthew’s book. “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (10:23). The context of this verse is when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Albert Schweitzer believed this text demonstrated Jesus was not divine because it appears Jesus got it wrong. Searching the gospels for “the historic Jesus” is probably the wrong way to go about it. The gospels are meant to witness to a resurrected and ascended Messiah. Another problem is that we forget how Matthew interprets a passage of Scripture.

The prophet Hosea in chapter 11 and verse 1 of the Old Testament book bearing his name. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  Matthew tells the amazing story of the holy family fleeing Bethlehem and staying in Egypt outside of Herod’s jurisdiction. When Joseph is told to return home, the writer uses the statement from Hosea to affirm that Holy Scripture is being fulfilled. And yet, the context of Hosea 11:1 is a reference to God recounting Israel’s history as a wayward child using the tribe of Ephraim as the stand-in for all of the northern Kingdom of Israel. The narrative of the gospel is that Jesus is taken to Nazareth which is in Galilee in the area once occupied by the northern kingdom. Matthew interprets Holy Scripture with actions in the life of Jesus even if the plain meaning of the text indicates something unrelated. Jesus’ words and actions are related to these texts in Matthew’s understanding of how the Scriptures can be fulfilled.

Obviously, then, the writer of the gospel will interpret Jesus’ words into the life of the church. Jesus does not mean geographical Israel (which really cannot be said to exist) but the “towns of Israel” wherever Israelites live. The Christian community in Antioch assumes the Son of Man will reappear soon.

Using Boyarin’s Talmudic scholarship, it is evident that the Christian Scriptures (both the interpretations of the Old Testament and the writings of the New Testament in the Christian tradition) are taken from the Jewish community that believed the apocalyptic visions of the Son of Man and accepted Jesus’ claim to be Him. The Jewish community that did not understand the apocalyptic visions of Daniel and the works bearing the name of Enoch would have been most likely not to understand the claim.

Boyarin’s book includes more material about how Jesus went about observing the Torah. He also describes how those that followed Jesus’ way accepted the suffering and death of the Messiah as fulfilling Isaiah 53. To this writer, it appears that Jesus’ claim to be the divine being known as the Son of Man is crucial to understanding the Christian viewpoint that eventually changed Christianity from a Jewish movement to a primarily grouping of Gentile communities that is too far separated from its Jewish roots and even misunderstands its Scriptures and Tradition making untenable claims about both.

AN INHERENT SICKNESS

The church as an institution is an organizational structure that almost everyone believes they are against…until it does something they like. This is the reason we experience the constant hypocrisy of people within it. During the early months of 1999, I heard a female church official complain about the sickness of the world in which we live. Why? Because the U.S. Senate failed to remove Bill Clinton from office.

A few years later a large fundamentalist church near where I served wanted to “forgive” their pastor for adultery that occurred at a church where he previously served. “The Bible demands forgives,” was the claim. A young man – an aspiring pastor – asked my thoughts on the matter. It was easy to answer. I replied, “I wonder what they thought about Bill Clinton.” His eyes widened. And I knew it was something he never considered beforehand.

Church is often the place where people go to have their prejudices confirmed. It is uncomfortable when the prevailing opinions of the group are challenged. The feeling of discomfort is even worse when apparent hypocrisy is challenged. One congregation I served had a poster on a classroom wall that said, “Don’t follow the crowd.” It was a black and white photograph of German soldiers of the Nazi era that showed only the backs of their helmets.  Another time, at the same place, a congregant asked in wonderment, “how could a whole nation follow someone like Hitler?” I found it interesting because the same person along with most of the congregation’s members were overjoyed when their “Christian” President George W. Bush launched a war against Iraq in 2003.

Now the church rejoices in the Presidency of Donald Trump – a reality TV star, failed businessman, serial adulterer, and narcissist. Many people within churches are blind to this inherent sickness. As so many lefty Christian friends of mine observed, “These people do not read the Bible.”

Polite society allows us to claim, “real Christians do not behave this way.” Implied in the statement is that “real Christians” behave differently. The question left open is, “Do they?” Just how does a Christian behave? What are the moral goals? Are such goals in anyway different than what society considers to be goodness? What then does it mean to be holy?” And then why is it that many of the Christians who claim to be true to the faith do not allow the same consideration for members of other faiths who act contrary to the tenets of their own faith?

I will not answer any of these questions. Someone else may wish to do so. Nor will I offer the challenge that the Christians who hold different values simply are not reading the same Bible as me. Why? Because values are formed by other means than religious instruction.

The preeminence of the Holy Scripture in many Christian traditions is simply a faith statement. Adults who wish to learn more about the Bible from their churches tend to hold a high view of the Bible before the study begins. A clergy friend once told me the only people interested in the Bible are “fundamentalists.” I believe he was referencing people who had a high regard for the Bible who only heard from so-called fundamentalist media savvy preachers. Yet, even those with a high view of scripture, did not get that view from the Bible (after all they want to know more about it). They received this view from some other authority.

Personal values come to us from those persons we view as authorities. Family, teachers, medical people, government officials, military structures, and religious leaders all help to shape values. Authors and artists are those who challenge and reshape those values. Consider the unusual situation when a person is confronted by a novel or play that challenges and reshapes that individual’s values. Something very deep has happened in that person’s soul. Or consider how a visual representation can evoke a sentiment that destroys a veneer of intellectualism to make a change in one’s perception. The statue at Baba Yar outside of Kiev evoked such an evolution in my sense of compassion and justice that an evaluation of everything took place. And still there is the role of philosophers, historians, scientists, and other humanists that help us open our minds to other possible ways.

When these values, having been formed and reshaped, are applied when reading the Bible then something different from what one has “always believed” can be understood. Those spiritual and moral insights will be informed by the previously held values of the reader. It is not often that the Bible will alter those values.

Here is where the inherent sickness affects the people in churches. If a person holds values different from those of the church, that person lives with a dissonance far broader than the mere cognitive one of holding two different ideas at the same time. This often happens when that individual hears a teaching that differs significantly enough that it cannot be reconciled with the values one holds. The authority of the church is not significant enough for you to change your view.

Actions church leaders take are often more significant in the conflict of values. They often cause more anger too. Clergy members often value engagement outside the congregation and give the reason as “what they are called to do.” Whereas church members want to spend time engaging with each other and give as the reason the importance of “Christian fellowship.” Rarely does either side believe that they are saying. Clergy want to escape while laity want to hide. One side wants to be involved in some larger community. The other wants a sanctuary from that community. It makes for a conflict. Yet, it is the larger “visionary” projects that cause the most angst. Money is spent. Commitments are asked for. Time is begged for. And still the conflict of values is the problem. What is right? Who gets what out of this? Is this even workable?

The church as an institution is regarded by those who benefit from it as being in the Will of God. For those who draw no benefit or negatives, consider it unnecessary and a blight on society. Many within the latter group look for some other form of connection to other people. Often it is now said, “liberals don’t go to church” because churches are conservative. This is untrue. People, including professed believers, do not go to church because it is not where their actual values are formed or even challenged. They only go if they find some benefit. This benefit may be the goodwill of family and neighbors, a feeling of being a “leader” or “in charge,” or having a sense of prestige for participating. When churches do not offer their members who attend these benefits the church dies.

 

WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (3)

Attend Upon the Ordinances of God

The eighteenth century was a time of fertile discovery and argument. It was an age of questions. And these questions threatened both the established answers and even the new ones being offered by other thinkers of the time. The major questions concerning knowledge and the nature of moral order always led to questions about how we live out the answers. Even the fledgling American Republic had these questions being answered in different ways by its leaders.

John Wesley searched for the answer for his “Methodists” by relying on the past. Do no harm and do good are obvious ancient precepts. Almost any thinker in the eighteenth century would have agreed on the general ideas if not necessarily the details. These two principles would be agreed upon in Western European culture in all centuries as defining how a “good person” lives. By the modern era, this would be the assumption in the Near East as well. Wesley argued that African “primitives” understood these principles through their own natural experiences. For Wesley, the Priest of the Established Church in England, being good was not enough. A Christian believer possessed a call to holiness. A Christian nation would have that same call too. The reality  of evil actions also showed that human beings, including Christian believers in community,  failed in the sense of good and right actions. There was simply one more aspect of Christian living that was required.

Historically, the Christian Church held that followers of Jesus were to keep certain spiritual disciplines to maintain holiness of the person and the community of believers. Wesley knew them as sacraments and practices. The rites of Christian initiation (baptism) and community (the Eucharist) were of paramount importance for Methodists. The spiritual actions of prayer, fasting, reading scripture, reading spiritual literature, celebration, and giving alms to the poor were very important for the believer and the community. Participating in these acts reinforced the connection to God and the goodness done.

I understand that Bishop Reuben Job rephrased the third General Rule as “Stay in Love with God.” And it certainly appears to fit the sensibilities of the self-absorbed believers of early twenty-first century America. The General Rules easily become “I” statements. I do no harm. I do good. I stay in love with God. I know those sentences are grammatically incorrect. They are also theologically and philosophically incorrect. The original statement of the third rule emphasizes a collective sense of obedience to God.

Holiness and morality are connected in Christian religious practice. One can be good without the sense of holiness. Yet, one cannot remain holy without being moral. This problem vexed Wesley. He preached that slavery was immoral. A nation could not be holy and immoral. He believed conflict among believers was definitely unholy because the conflict concerned religious truth.

Christianity was born when the Jewish understanding of a time where God would reign met Greek and Roman culture. When Antiochus IV of the Seleucid dynasty began his persecution of the Judean people, the conflict began over how Jewish identity could be maintained when ruled by people who believed their destiny was to civilize the world in their image. The Apocryphal books of the Maccabees and the Jewish celebration that became Hanukkah tell this important story in history. The military conflicts continued under Roman rule off and on for centuries. Even after Judea was no more and the Jewish people exiled from their home land, the intellectual conflict was not settled. Christianity represents one way it eventually was. The other way was the secular concept of religious tolerance which came about in the modern era.

Christianity came to rely on the Platonic philosophy of Truth being in Idealism as well as the Hebrew Canon and then later adopting the Canon of the New Testament. In his research of ancient Christian writers, Wesley brought the platonic view of “an examined life” back into individual practice. And along with it came the concepts of Idealism and Truth beyond the concept of the Good. The Aristotelian concept of ethical goodness was gaining ground in Europe and the British colonies of America.

The General Rules provide a mix of ancient and modern thinking that tends to appeal to twenty-first century Christian liberalism and evangelicalism each emphasizing one part over the other. This development leaves one to ask if what was useful in the beginning of a movement becomes the seed of destruction at the end of it? Hopefully, this is the wrong question. I doubt it.

WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (2)

Do Good

What does it mean to do good? That is an important question. Is the question aesthetic in nature? Does it mean to do good work? Or is it primarily ethical in nature? Does it mean to do good deeds?

I believe the majority of people reading this blog would assume the exhortation to do good means to do good deeds. The Golden Rule as given in Matthew 7:12 is contextually about good deeds. “In everything do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.” It is between a section about how God gives good gifts and an admonition to find “the narrow gate” because that one leads to “life.” Doing good means to act in ways toward other people that enhances their quality of life. Or as we often hear, “treat people the way you want to be treated.”

The first issue I wish to consider here is an objection given on the basis of ethics. “What you may consider good for you is not necessarily what is good for me.” This objection is sound. It is quite possible that a dangerous situation could arise for another person from my offer to give them food or medicine to which they are allergic. This objection has led many to argue that the negative Golden Rule offered by various other ethical systems is superior to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 7:12. The statement of Rabbi Hillel, the Buddha, Socrates and others, “What ever is harmful to you do not do to another person,” becomes the actual golden standard of ethics. I find this conclusion problematic because what may be harmful to me does not necessarily mean it is harmful to someone else. I could be allergic to certain foods or medicine. Does that mean I should hold them back from you if you can use them to enhance your health? Of course not. This is why the first of Wesley’s General Rules is Do No Harm.

The second issue then is when we do good for others we should be certain we do not create harm for them. I live near a national park that uses a black bear as its symbol. Many tourists want to see black bears living in the wild when they visit this park. One major rule of the national park is that no wildlife including the black bears is to be given food, have left over available to them, or for any human to be within 50 feet of the animals especially black bears. The reason? Were we to take any action that would be good to help a human being, it would be detrimental to the wild bears. Attempting to do good actually causes harm when the animal learns to associate humans with food. The animals can be destroyed. If we are dealing with human beings it is possible to cause harm to one set of people in order to do good for another group of people. One cannot take needed food, clothing, or shelter from one person to give it to another. John the Baptist’s instructions are for the one who has two coats to give one to someone that has none. Moses instructed that the person who has one coat that must give it as collateral on a debt must receive it back at night as defense against the cold.

The third issue is an aesthetic one. To do good is to provide quality in our efforts for others. We do not say, “beggars can’t be choosers,” and throw anything we want to them. My youngest son once came to me with a pair of blue jeans he had outgrown. “Can I give these to the clothes closet?” He asked. Proud as I was that he was considering the needs of other people, I used the incident to teach the lesson he had learned on another level. Together we unfolded the jeans and looked for holes, tears, and very worn places. I told him we wanted to give away clothes we would wear if we could. If it was something we would be embarrassed to wear and we gave it to someone in need, what would the action show our mindset to be about those in need? When we consider that issue, giving is about doing good work.

Doing good then is not about the act taken or viewing ourselves as the superior or hero in the relationship involved in helping others. Doing good is about enhancing the life of the other person. As Matthew indicates in the context of Matthew 7:12, it is a narrow gate leading to life while emulating the goodness of God.

WESLEY’S RULES FOR LIVING (1)

The Wesleyan “General Rules” have been rediscovered in recent years. The late Bishop Rueben Job deserves the credit for this with his book and study “Three Simple Rules.” It is a good study. Personally, I recommend it. What I offer today is my own understanding of these rules and how they may be applied. If one is not familiar with them the rules are “Do no harm. Do good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.”

Do No Harm.

The first rule appears simple enough. Do no harm. It is often considered the basis of what the West calls “the golden rule.” Jesus never used that term. It is still attributed to him from his guidance “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12 NRSV) Other teachers in other traditions have said similar things. A legend has it that Rabbi Hillel was once challenged to teach the whole Law of Moses while the gentile questioner stood on one leg. The Sage replied, “Whatever is harmful to you do not do to another person.” The approximate wording of the same teaching is used by Plato, the Buddha, Confucius, Mohammed, and others. The Hippocratic oath begins this way. “First, do no harm.”

Essentially intending to do no harm to another person is a common sense rule. Most people would assume it should be easy to follow. Yet, it is not a law. It is a practice. Decisions to do no harm are made every day. And so are decisions to do harm to other people. Most often though, decisions are made that appear to be easily to one’s immediate benefit without taking into account whether that decision will cause harm to others. While Jesus never uses the three words “Do no harm,” he knew the harm caused by such carelessness.

Jesus makes the point often that harm was being caused in many ways in the world. He tells Pilate that he recognizes the governor’s ability to release him or to condemn him. He may represent Caesar but his true ability comes from the free will given to him from Heaven. Pilate’s way was always to do harm to benefit Pilate and the Empire (see Luke 13:1-5). Jesus informs the people willing to listen that the Temple’s treasury received all the wealth a poor widow had on which to live. The same Temple establishment received gifts from the abundance of those who ignored the widow’s plight. The Temple in fact participated in the harm being done to the poor.

These are a few examples of how harm can be done unless one intentionally looks for the consequences of human actions. I have been both impressed and perplexed by other cultures, especially tribal ones, that recognize harm being done when we of “the first world” would cease to care. If an animal must be killed, sorrow and thanksgiving are expressed in such cultures. The harm to be done is apparently unavoidable. Guilt is discharged as the animal is understood to be offering its life. We in “the developed world” may claim that belief is superstition and ingenious avoidance activity. However, we miss the wisdom in regarding that life as important in a cycle of sustenance.

Consider how the desire to dominate expresses the intent to do harm as well. To dominate others requires the threat of violence and often lethal violence. When I was a child in Sunday School, the students would ask the teachers what “the mark” that God put on the mythical patriarch Cain was. Our teachers, who had grown up in the “Jim Crow South,” had been told the mark was dark skin. It was once a belief so common that the Book of Mormon written in the nineteenth century says so.  That teaching had fallen out of fashion by the 1970’s leaving our teachers with no answer to give us. The problem was twofold. The translation of the text of Genesis 4:15 from Hebrew Masoretic text is difficult. Often the word “and” is inserted to give the impression that God declares vengeance will be seven times as great on whomever harms Cain and then a mark was put on him to identify him. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible – called the Septuagint – is actually older than the Masoretic text Protestants rely upon for translation. The Orthodox Study Bible gives us this translation from the Septuagint of verse 15. “So the Lord God said to him. ‘Not so! Whoever kills Cain vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. Thus the Lord set a sign on Cain, lest anyone finding him should kill him.” The mark or sign on Cain becomes the reputation that Cain is dangerous and crossing him and his family won’t end well. “For every one of us you kill we will kill seven of you.” It also ends the idea that God is the one taking vengeance for Cain.

Do no harm sounds simple. Still many people being honest with themselves and who they are will understand that to keep this rule requires a major adjustment in who they perceive themselves to be. Many people like to assume the swagger of being “a badass” who will not only get even but get one extra hit in just to be sure their enemies remember it.

The next two weeks Glorious Life will have installments on the next two rules – Do Good. And attend upon the ordinances of God.

Ticket-Punched Christianity

There is a joke that United Methodist pastor’s tell. “There is a bird loose in the Sanctuary. How do I get it to leave? The answer can be multiple choice. “Ask it to become a member of the church? Ask it to serve on a committee. Ask it to sign a pledge card.” There are probably more. But you get the idea. The answer is not really about birds. It is about people. And it is not about just any people either. It is about professing Christians. Every congregation can tell a similar story. Someone came for several weeks as faithful as anyone could be. When they (or the kids) were baptized and joined the church (or the kids were confirmed) we never saw them in church again. Somehow we tend to blame those people for doing what they intended to do. We have not really wrestled with why they expect to get away with it.

Pastors grouse about how church members are happy to sit in the pews on a few Sundays a month or attend an entertaining event. I remember once when a Pastor-Parish Chair came to me and asked why I was not participating in “the activities of the church.” I asked what he was talking about. It seems there was grumbling about my not attending the various outings of the old folks which were nothing but entertaining themselves. My reply, “the Bible studies they always skip are activities of the church. Sunday worship is an activity of the church many of those same people miss. Serving the meals to shut-ins on Saturday mornings are missed by many of them too.” Unfortunately, I lost the argument by the chairperson conceding I was right. I am not sure how that happened.

I learned it was neither that one church nor the denomination that had this problem. It is a problem that came from outside the church. Recently, some of my more conservative colleagues learned of the following quote, “You cannot claim God as your Father without the Church being your Mother.” The quote comes from St. Cyril of Alexandria and was referenced against heretics. Remember my friends who admired this quote are Protestants and often of the evangelical school. The quote they admired was tantamount to the Roman Catholic statement “outside the Church there is no salvation.” The United Methodist clergy who supported the statement from St. Cyril were looking at it in the way I described in the previous paragraph. It surprises many when we look at our modern evangelist/revivalists that we can see the roots of the problem.

The evangelists of the previous generations like to use a phrase Billy Graham used to the new converts. “Find a Bible believing church.” The only word in that imperative statement that does not need definition is the indefinite article. Every other word there needs defining for a newly converted person. Revivalism and Evangelistic crusades became a cancer causing substance to the churches. “Be saved. Make Jesus your personal savior. Walk with Jesus. Have a personal relationship with Jesus,” all were the slogans of evangelistic crusades. If a person said, “I want that.” They were often told they now had salvation in Jesus with little to no further instruction.  In order to cover up this failure, the people were given the understanding that being once justified, God was obligated to let them into Heaven one day. They essentially had their tickets punched by the Great Conductor and forever had a place on the train. Church history demonstrates this attitude is a near constant. “Getting to Heaven” takes the place of wanting a true connection to the Creator.

The tragedy is that many of the persons asking for salvation and wanting “to walk with Jesus” were sincere in their first commitment but were let down when the revival packed up and moved to the next town. Methodists know in our history that such revivals in the old days meant there would be an organization of a class or society where people would begin working together toward being disciples of Jesus – ones who followed and then walked along side of Jesus. For them and as John Wesley understood ancient Christianity, Jesus was not merely Savior but Lord as well and that Christ was not his surname but an office he held in the Church itself.  When we acknowledge this truth, we understand why being a disciple of Jesus is the greatest job we can have in this world.

Outside the church are many people who merely wish for the church to do their own will and not that of God. John makes this clear when Jesus warns against thieves who will not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climb the wall to steal. They are indeed ravenous wolves whose tactics and intentions are far from those of the true shepherd the anointed One who calls us to Him. The leaders of the churches should expel the hateful teachings of the wolves who are in charge of “ministries” and mistakenly called “pastors” (shepherds) who are merely the mouthpieces of the interests of this world. Who are they? They are the ones who take photo ops with the people in power. They are the ones talking about the Bible and never revealing the Gospel message.  They are staging large performances and hypnotising people with false assurances and promises Jesus never made. They appear as Angels of Light and spew out human teachings and doctrines to keep the powers comfortable and destroy the souls of the poor. We can know them by their works.

The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is that mercy and redemption and celebration are available to those who will accept and participate in it. The Gospel is for those who are willing to let the One who came in the form of a servant show them how to serve. The Gospel is for those who know they need a Savior and salvation, a Shepherd and a pasture to be fed, and clear water to sustain the Resurrection Life they will be given.

The Changing Life of Prayer

“What is your sermon on this week?” The stand-in secretary asked.

“The next beatitude ‘Blessed are the Pure in Heart.'” I replied.

She said. “Aren’t you done with those yet?”

I laughed. I think she did too once she thought about what she said. Like many satirical punchlines it was funny because it was all too true. I know many church members do not like “sermon series” type of preaching. For a pastor they make planning easier. For a church member that attends every other week, it means they will miss something. That is if they really care that they miss anything.

My ministry has seen a lot of the Beatitudes both according to Matthew and Luke. I have had church members and church visitors ask me where they can be found in the Bible. Most people are familiar with the Ten Commandments (there was even a movie) but know nothing about the Beatitudes. Because of this lack of knowledge, I have adopted a few catch phrases. “I will see you ten commandments and raise you eight beatitudes,” is one such phrase. It encapsulates my counsel that the Commandments are where we begin while the Beatitudes are our goals in Christian living. If the “big ten” commandments make one uncomfortable wait till I introduce you to the Beatitudes. These eight should make one really uncomfortable because they eventually got Jesus killed.

Practicing Christian faith should make us uncomfortable. On one level it would be wonderful to live life in constant communion with The Way. On the immediate level we might miss everything about life right now. Salvation is wonderful. But, do we wish to see people we know to be evil receive it? Justice is wonderful too. Do we wish to see our best friends feel that wrath? These are uncomfortable questions. And we want most of all to be comfortable in our life with God.

The practice of prayer becomes especially difficult if we are praying. I have known people who ask for other people to pray for them simply because they never pray themselves. I know others who fear they don’t pray correctly and do not try. Still others practice prayer and find themselves empty when they once were filled with joy in their communion with God.

It is not that they have sinned against God or do not pray correctly. It is a sense of needing to find a new prayer way. Unfortunately, there seems to be more in church life about doing than there is about staying in peace with God. The changing life of prayer for those who practice prayer daily or even many times a day is important in the growth of the person. Prayer is connection. It is communication. It is talking. It is listening. Prayer is being pure in heart and doing purity of heart. It is calling on the transcendent to become immanent. It is asking. It is answering. It is seeing because we are searching.

Essentially prayer is running toward God. Sometimes we are exhausted because we are running in place. God is there to meet us. And God meets us when we respond to any of the divine invitations to be in God’s presence. Once again, I must add is it is often uncomfortable. Many people prefer God meet them in preferred places. Those places may be churches, private homes, or in an out of doors setting. God never promised to meet me where I wanted to be met. God never promised to keep my schedule or respect my boundaries. God promises to be with me. I am not certain what that means.

I have reached a place in my life where I can let God be God. My image of God may be a mere image. However God chooses to have communion with me, it is left to me to respond. The same is true for all of us. If God afflicts my comfort so that God’s glory may be shown, so be it. My life lies with God.

Being Transcendent

I really enjoyed reading David Bent Hart’s book Experiencing God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.  A good friend turned me on to this writer wondering if I could make heads or tails of what he was trying to say. Hart makes two important moves in his argument for the existence of God as defined by ancient philosophical theologies.

The first move is the one of definition. Hart defines God much the same way as Plato. God is beyond nature and the progenitor of all the was, is, and will be. Beyond the Cosmos there is more than what Carl Sagan imagined. The difficult aspect of this definition for God in philosophical theology is that it is beyond argument. One cannot argue convincingly to a person who is used to logically having a firm definition that can be demonstrated. It feels like slight of hand is at work for that person. Daniel Dennett claims it is like playing tennis without a net for one’s opponent while having to play with one for yourself. I agree it is difficult to argue against a vague definition. It is paramount to saying, “I don’t believe in the Hindu position” when no such position exists. Some people are indeed Hindu. Yet, there is no truly defined Hinduism. That is a Western word developed by Christian thinkers. And so God as defined by Hart is beyond argument.

The second move he makes is that, while God is beyond argument, God is not beyond human experience. God becomes, as panentheists argue, both immanent and transcendent. Those of the great theistic religions who practice spiritual disciplines claim to experience God in some way. Hart uses teachings from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu mystics to demonstrate how spiritual discipline develops awe for the transcendence that gives God the supernatural side of “being-itself.”

Hart is not advocating religious syncretism. His main purpose is to oppose philosophical materialism. And yet, here is the major problem. A person who holds to the materialist position can experience transcendence. Hart claims that any time this experience comes to an individual or say that person desires to learn the good or the true then that person is experiencing or seeking God. His definition allows him to make that claim.  God becomes an interesting being who both is and is not…like the famous non-existent cat.

Hart claims that any other definition of God is then something less than God. The divinity becomes a product of nature by being a dependent Intelligent Designer; or a fallible demiurge in the definitions that argue God is immoral in some actions described in sacred literature. Why not use the word Tao as something undefinable? Because Hart needs the supernatural God to be personal. The great theistic religions require not only a divine being but a divine person.

Divine personhood is the tricky part. A person acts. And therefore has both will and must be responsible for actions or refusals to act.  This is territory Hart does not venture into. Why? Because no moral demands may be made on the ultimate Truth and the ultimate Good.

I have set this argument up as an agnostic or an atheist would for a simple reason. Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian. His purpose in developing an understanding of God is to look to thinkers and mystics of the ancient times for other answers as well. He appeals ultimately to Tradition. As an amateur historian I understand the pitfall of nostalgia. The commonly spoken phrase of “We need to get back to…” is at best a desire based on distorted vision. I loathe the Hindu caste system. I despise the traditions of Islam that allows for the modern practice of slavery. I shake my head when Christians appeal to the works of various denominational founders as starting over points. I do these things when those of secular disposition kneel before the idols of the eighteenth century. Time moves in a certain direction for human beings. We can only ever step forward. Many ideas about the human spirit should be discarded when we know that human life, being, and personhood do not fit those ideas.

Theologians of the philosophical bend should be prepared to give up old definitions and find those that give hope in life as we continue to discover what that is. And do not fear where that may lead if thought, experience, and experiment are rigorously tested to help further the human spirit as such. I cannot say I accept Hart’s definition of God as any more convincing to a skeptic. He is merely engaging in a form of Christian apologetics that has already failed.

WHY THEY BELIEVE THE LIES

It was late.

The knock on the door of my hotel suite interrupted my settling in after the long day. We were with the church youth group at the annual big youth gathering with the big number results hoped for at the end. It was just beginning. I was already tired and a little frustrated. I answered the knock.

It was one of the college age volunteers who was to help with the sixth to eighth grade age boys. The look on his face said he was troubled. I asked if everything was all right with his group of kids. Everything was fine, he told me. Then he asked, “That story the preacher told, do you think it’s true?”

Ah yes! The preacher’s miracle story. It was the key to my frustration that night. Youth gatherings are plagued by the visiting evangelist. They are usually hired because of their track record of bringing in the numbers of conversions or “pledges of faith.” They get them in some manipulative way. One way is by telling stories about young new drivers or young cancer patients or young accident victims who died after claiming Jesus as their Savior. That is the worst manipulation tactic I know. Another is the miracle story.  This one is of the incredible type that includes the following structure.  An armed mob decides to run the evangelists out of a village in some country of the Global South – this time it was somewhere in Africa. Someone with a powerful presence intercedes (this time a little old grandma). The armed toughs dropped their clubs (or whatever) and go away. The hook of the story is where the villagers that do speak to the evangelists have no idea who the intercessor was. It is a tale designed to produce chills and wonderment. Such feelings are evidence that it must be true. I answered the question.

“No. I don’t believe it is true.” I said.  He nodded and went to his room. I was glad he asked. I did not care if he told any one, “Pastor Don says it’s not true.” Simply because it wasn’t true. I am reminded by Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” I think telling lies to manipulate others into any action, even “making a decision for Jesus,” is wrong.  The text quoted above is a warning for those who do that. I do not tolerate lying evangelists.

Lying evangelistic charlatans are the primary reason so many church people fall for the lies of leaders like the President of the United States. Even when people know they are being lied to, they will shrug it off and say, “the other side lies too.” Moral equivalency is based in lying. It is a logically false statement. When a person claims someone is lying the act of claiming another lie has been told (as in “well, what about…”) does not negate the falsehood described by the prior claim. All that is being said here is, “Yes, I know. And I don’t care.” It is similar to the claim a friend made about the Left Behind series. “I know it is radical right wing propaganda. But, if someone is saved because of it, what does it matter eternally?” Why didn’t Jesus think of that? “By lying lips you shall be saved.” Actually I believe he said freedom came with the truth (John 8:32).

The belief in a lie is also wrapped up in the identities people wish to claim for themselves. A person may believe an untruth because they wish to be accepted by others or even rejected by others as a contrarian. A human person may believe a demonstrated untruth because they wish to be faithful, and seen by others as faithful, to a cause whether that cause is religious, culturally traditional, philosophical, or secular is immaterial to the situation. Still a small group of people believe lies in order to maintain the insularity of the group. Often challenged with demonstrable truth as in science or textual analysis or logic such persons resort to tactics like moral equivalency, irrelevancies, ridicule, accusation, and then ultimately violence.

The means of overcoming a lie is to offer unvarnished fact in its’ face. I am reminded of the time two political candidates wrangled over the meaning of the first amendment to the United States Constitution. The debate ended when one candidate read the text of the document out loud in front of an audience to his opponent. The debate ended even though the opponent kept wanting to clarify that the actual text was being read.

Why do they believe lies? It surprises us too often that it isn’t because of ignorance of facts. It is often because of a desired identity on the part of the believer of the lie. It is more often because of a desired goal that can be reached by using a lie. And most commonly it is because the person or group have been conditioned through long habit that the truth or fact does not matter. These are the reasons great evils triumph for a short time.

Celebrating Gnats

“You blind guides! You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” Matthew 23:24

When s fellow Christian tells me their church is “progressive” or “non-traditional.” I am cautious and ask what they mean by either of those terms. Usually, that person is excited to tell me more. The reason for that is their church is doing something very different from what they experienced growing up. Their experience of church in childhood could be that of worship that is staid formalism, long and boring sermons, or music they would not have been caught dead listening to outside of the church building. When these persons speak this way, their church is considered neither progressive nor non-traditional.  The proper way to describe their church worship time is “contemporary.” Various problems people have with the contemporary worship style centers around the forms of music being used. And there are other issues involved.

Criticism of “traditional” worship centers around how worshipers are expected to dress when attending “church,” what instruments are used such as an organ, harp, piano, etc.,   how the minister and worship leaders are robed, vested, or otherwise clothed, and lastly what translations of the Scriptures or liturgical prayers (if any) are used.

Celebration of “contemporary” worship often involves the very same issues. What instruments are played, how Scripture, prayer, and song lyrics are conveyed, and whether or not male clergy and worship leaders wear ties are the issues in the minds of too many Christians  who want to call themselves progressive and non-traditional. In fact, such people are all too conventional.

The church has become a choice among many in a culture of consumerism. What forms of worship do I want to consume? Is a more important question than who is this God I want to worship? Do I have a relationship with God? Is a more important than is my connection with the Ultimate Other, the Source of All Being. Or worse yet, is my relationship with God in my own image or an adult form of an “imaginary friend?”

The text quoted above applies to the modern (mainline) Protestant and evangelical churches on these issues. We are prone to look at trivial matters as more important than issues that actually matter. Are we too busy learning a newly released song to keep worship exciting (meaning really more attendees and fundraising)? This is modern tithe of mint, dill, and cummin. Or are we looking for what God, as the Source of All Good Things, considers under the heading weightier matters of instruction – “justice, mercy, and faith.” Does our reflection on this matters make us more just, merciful, and faithful?

I point our that the words progressive and non-traditional are not true values any more than conservative, orthodox, or traditional are. Once the church rejects justice, mercy, and faithfulness in order to celebrate gnats, what camels do we swallow? What corruption are we willing to tolerate and hide in order to be acceptable to those who we know would judge us harshly? Why do we fool ourselves that doing so is for good? My meaning is this. Do we hide corruption and evil for the “good of the church?” Are we willing to cast aside any person from a marginalized group because to do so harm’s our reputation for those who are wanting to condemn the church anyway? Are we protecting our power over an institution? These are indeed the questions Jesus, Paul, and James asked us to consider two thousand years ago. The truth is all that has been accomplished over this amount of time is to know we are not providing the answers they are asking us to give. So, we defend the indefensible. We make God in our image. The Jesus we choose to follow has nothing to do with history or Scripture and becomes neither Lord nor Savior but an imaginary friend. And we celebrate the gnats and believe our own lies.