Slavery Not Sex

I was asked a few years ago to give a study on The Bible and Homosexuality at a retreat. The person who announced the topic decided to add these words, “This is a study that will show you the claim that God does not love you is false.” I was struck by those words. It really was not until then that I realized I was doing more than merely correcting erroneous information. My job in that context was to help restore or heal the relationship between certain people and their God. I had thought completing the hard work of study and interpretation was the goal. For the announcer and others, that work was important only in so far that it gave assurance that God in fact loved and accepted the one’s taking the class. I was not teaching. I was assisting the Physician in excising the cancerous tumor that plagued the class. I felt unprepared. I was not sure if I was ready to begin.

What follows is a portion of that study. This essay deals with St. Paul’s attitude toward  sexual slavery. I put forward the understanding that St. Paul the Apostle condemned slavery in no uncertain terms and sexual slavery in particular. Paul did not view homosexual acts as worthy of condemnation. He did view the domination ethic that allowed one person to use another merely for sexual purposes as out-of-bounds for people who sought “the peace of Christ” or “the kingdom of God.”

St. Luke in the Book of Acts tells us that Paul claimed Roman Citizenship. Not only did he lay claim to it but that he was born a citizen of the city of Rome (Acts 22:27-28). He uses his citizenship to escape a flogging, appeal to Caesar, and to shame those who flogged him in the past. The question remains how did Saul of Tarsus, a Jew, receive citizenship upon his birth? Evidently, his father was a Roman citizen. So, then, unless his father was a non-Jew, it is a good question still how a “hebrew of hebrews,” who was “descended from the tribe of Benjamin” get the citizenship to pass on to his son? The answer appears to lie in the early part of Acts before Saul is first mentioned. We read that St. Stephen, the first martyr after Christ, was disputing with members of “the synagogue of the Freedmen” that included members from Cilicia (the territory of Tarsus) and other areas (Acts 6:8-10). Saul later watches the cloaks of the men who stone Stephen and gives his assent to his lynching (Acts 8:1). This story brings up an often overlooked issue. Why is their such a synagogue in Jerusalem? Who are “the Freedmen?”

The Roman Empire was built on conquest and slavery. The economy of the Empire was based on slavery. It is understood that the majority class of the Empire was composed of slaves. Rome discouraged the liberation of slaves. The one reason for our purpose is that Roman law required that any freed slave be granted Roman citizenship. Slaves who became Freedmen received the privileges of their former masters. The synagogue of the Freedmen was the meeting place for Jewish persons who were former slaves or their descendants. St. Paul was born a Roman citizen from Tarsus in Cilicia. Saul was descended from Jewish slaves.

The early Christian community condemned slavery in various ways. The slave trade is condemned in the New Testament (1 Timothy 1:10, a letter attributed to St. Paul) and other early documents.  St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a subtle rebuke of a Christian practicing slavery. Onesimus a runaway slave under Roman law could be condemned to death. St. Paul is sending this newly baptized brother back to his owner Philemon a Christian known to St. Paul. Philemon is to receive Onesimus as a brother just a Philemon would receive Paul. The Apostle does not say that Onesimus should be freed. Paul does say that he will come to visit and see how the situation has been handled.

Paul condemns several types of people in his writings. A primary example is the text of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Where Paul has advised against the use of law courts to settle disputes among believers. He gives a list of the types of people who are outside the kingdom of God. Among these people he lists two specific types of people. The New Revised Standard Version uses the terms “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” These words translate malakoi and arsenokoitai respectively.

The first word derives from a word meaning soft or effeminate. The translation of male prostitutes does not appear to be warranted. Suetonius, the Roman historian, describes how many male Roman leaders kept male sexual slaves. It was a practice that went back many centuries. Alexander the Great kept boys for the same purpose. This form of sexual slavery is practiced in central Asia in modern times.

The next word arsenokoitai presents a puzzle for the translator. It just so happens that the very first time we see this passage in Greek literature is this very text. It is not likely Paul made up a word that his ancient readers would not understand. It is a problem for the modern translator. It is a compound word that gives a literal meaning of “to go to bed with” or “lie down with.” From that knowledge the text implicates both the slave and the one using the slave. To our modern sensibilities that is not just. Given the context of the situation of the law court the issue may be about the impression of guilt rather than moral responsibility.  The use of this text to condemn homosexual relationships that are consensual stretches the meaning of the text.

The most commonly used text by modern interpreters of Scripture to is found in Romans 1:27. This text talks about how “women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way men, giving up natural intercourse for woman, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” The question to ask here is, “what error is Paul talking about?” The context is simple enough to understand. St. Paul is talking about the loss of worship of the transcendent God for anything and everything else that can be substituted for God. This list is as close to exhaustive as St. Paul can get. It describes the results of the removal of humanity from the God that is the creator of good things. There is not one sin listed here that is not a perversion of something good. Sexual slavery is perhaps the worst form of domination of the creature over another creature. It is predatory. Whether the sexual actions can be classified as heterosexual or homosexual does not matter because sexual slavery is destructive of all sexuality for a person or people desiring to replace that transcendent God over the creation.

No person is outside the love of God. No one is above the will of God. All too often people who read and interpret the Scriptures do so with our own prejudices in mind. It is important to remember that the only real actions the Bible asks us to do is live and act in the love of God and the love of other human beings. For this reason, I believe St. Paul understood the stigma of slavery, domination, and the inherent violence involved to be the ultimate result of people attempting to live without transcendence. We all have turned away and are without excuse before God. This is why grace is imperative to and for human beings.

The Need

It is cliché to say that one does not “believe in” organized religion or “needs” the institutional church. I admit that many times both clergy and laity ask themselves if they are witnessing anything happening that Jesus would have wanted. Hardly a week goes by that I do not ask myself if it is in any way worth the effort. My United Methodist clergy friends left St. Louis more fatigued and desperate than usual in both body and spirit. The difficulties of the Institutional Church are plain to see. Last month was equally difficult I am sure for Southern Baptists and the Roman Catholic Church is probably comforting itself with taking the long view of things eventually working out. In short, we are about to begin the season of Lent needing something to lift our spirits. I wish I had that to offer. Rather, I want to discuss something that made me pause this past summer.

Being a pastor often puts me on the spot. And this past summer my world was collapsing. I wound up with a broken marriage, a very important life and death need for addiction treatment, and attention to other health concerns. So, while dealing with those matters, I was asked by another patient about churches. Specifically, “I don’t understand why churches need buildings and money. What does that have to do with Jesus?”

I really wish I lived in a society where ministry could be done without the need for property, resources, and money. I don’t. I live in a society where property, resources, and money are necessary in order to do ministry in many situations. If I make a pastoral visit, I will need a way to get to the person I wish to see. If I serve food to the hungry, I will need a way to obtain the food. The list of situations continues for ever it seems. I decided to answer the question without addressing it directly.

One of my favorite ministries I have ever been part of is Wonderful Wednesday. What’s that? It is an after school program for elementary school children in one of the most impoverished counties in the state. What we did those days was to feed the students a small meal, helped with homework, played board games, taught prayer and stories from Scripture, played outdoors when weather permitted. And essentially taught the children to live together in a small community. They grew spiritually, emotionally, and mentally in what we did with them each week. I gave more description and examples. But, as a reader I think you get the gist of what I am describing. Church workers (mostly volunteers) who attempt to give a safe space of comfort and loving kindness to children who live in a volatile world. Wonderful Wednesday works and the larger community recognizes it.

My friend replied, “That’s what churches should be doing!” I said that I agreed wholeheartedly. We did not though hold the program in the church building where the Sanctuary was. We held it in another building also owned by the congregation. In fact, we could not carry out the Wonderful Wednesday ministry as effectively without the property, resources, and money that is part of “organized religion” or “the institutional church.” The children we minister to would not return if we couldn’t provide what they needed. The ministry need was provided for by the institution that we find ourselves having to manage, cajole, fight, and push most of the time. Without it the grace provided by the religious organization would be missing in the lives of those students.

We can only see through our own eyes. We only view from our perspectives. We talk about the fact that Jesus did not say to acquire property to do ministry. We forget though that Jesus preached in open areas, from fishing boats, in synagogues, in personal homes, and in the Temple. The mission was the goal. And the good carpenter knows how to make best use of tools. The stories I was told about how the church acquired the annex building demonstrate a difficult and divisive situation for the church. The mission for which the building was used became possible out of that struggle. The need makes the struggle worthwhile. Turning away from the struggle could leave the need unfulfilled. That would be the most devastating situation more than the pain and sacrifice of the struggle itself.

MAKE HIM A KING

It was a game. It was a game of cruelty. It was called basilinda. The word from Greek for “King.” The Romans had two kinds of games by this title. One was a harmless family game where lots were drawn and a child was made “king for a day” that allowed it to then give orders and rewards to other children playing.

The other was a parody of the being a King. It was played by soldiers who made up the death squad for a convicted criminal. A condemned man would be taken to torture before being executed if the soldiers were feeling particularly vindictive. The lots (made of knuckle bones) were tossed and the condemned man moved from place to place on the board. At one spot a prisoner might be slapped. Another spot might cause the the soldiers to kneel in mocking homage. One space required a robe be placed on the prisoner. Yet, another a crown of thorns. And eventually the prisoner would be advanced on the board to a final place. An image of a sword served as the finishing point where a non-Roman would be taken off to be crucified.

I know it sounds familiar. It is what is being described in the gospel accounts of the torture of Jesus of Nazareth before his own crucifixion. And yes, civilized Rome, with its genius of Law and Order bringing peace to a chaotic world allowed it to happen. Soldiers played the game. Prisoners watched. Pontius Pilate himself may have watched many men be treated this way. It sounds like something that responsible people could not let happen. And yet it did. It was not only in one place either. It did not happen to only one person. It was one of the perks of the job.

Once, during a Bible study discussion, a class member asked why would anyone describe that? Another student answered, to show how brutal civilization is.

I once stood on ancient flagstones in the old city of Jerusalem and saw the markings for this game. No, I do not claim to have stood where Jesus stood. The best dates given for these stones’ placement as pavement is the second century A.D. But, the game was far older.

It often eludes Christians on Good Friday that Jesus did not die in any special way. The gospel writers gave us the accounts of what could happen to any carpenter under Roman suspicion. What happened to Jesus was not cosmic child abuse. It was not murder of an innocent for the sake of the guilty. It was a murder that exposed the evil and violence that made the “Peace of Rome” and the “Sanctity of the Temple” possible. Jesus died for the very things he taught.

One cannot read the Beatitudes and ponder them very long without realizing the world will try to destroy anyone who puts them into practice. Eventually there will be conflict with what humans think will get them whatever it is they believe they want. The fourth gospel is clear that Jesus is not a sacrifice for sin. He is the paschal lamb that overcomes the sin of the world. He becomes a symbol of liberation. He is a liberation from the world’s ways. Then, he gives us the ways of heaven.

The season of the great fast of Lent is approaching. How often do we believe punishment should be the goal of justice? How angry do we get when we see evil being done and then catch ourselves wanting a greater evil to be done in response to it? Are we ready to give up such desires so that we may find ways to bless those who need blessing? Can we drop the focus on those who do evil? Can we begin to focus on being with the victims? With whom did Jesus die? Didn’t one of those get a promise of Paradise?

FIVE THOUSAND FED BY FIVE THOUSAND?

I find it very important when a story is given to us in each of the four canonical gospels. Each time the story is nuanced. The stories of the Resurrection of Jesus are important to the writers and for some reason or reasons they are significantly different. The story of Jesus feeding a mass of people (Mark gives us two accounts) is interesting for the implications and warnings that surround it.

The feeding of the five thousand story is important to the early church. Why? Well, it can be argued that it is a miracle story. Jesus performs an amazing sign or wonder. And it is an amazing miracle when we consider it in all of the ways one can view it. Each writer puts it in context of the particular way he tells the story of the gospel. The story is important to the ministry of Jesus in history that the elements of story telling can be read together to think about it as an event. And an interpreter can try to understand its’ significance for the story of the church in the early centuries of Christianity. What amazes me is that all four writers are doing all of these things.

I wish to consider it as an event and to explain the miracle of the event itself. I do not view this event as a miracle that destroys the physical law of the conservation of mass and energy. I believe this event to be a miracle of the opening of the human heart.

Look at the action. We have loaves and fish. Where do they come from? My best guess is wherever loaves and preserved fish come from. I don’t mean that in a flippant sense. Think about how blandly ordinary the situation here is. Bread and fish. Typical food. Some of the writers identify a boy bringing these “five loaves and two fish.” One does not mention the boy at all and just names the gift. Curious. But, before the food is found or offered the Apostles protest Jesus’ instruction that they feed the crowd. The response, “we do not have that much money?” The Apostles see the problem. Who has the kind of resources needed to feed such a crowd? Surely no one there does. So it cannot be done.

The Apostles recognized the problem before Jesus asked. They were likely tired and hungry themselves. They asked Jesus to send the people away so the people could eat. Jesus tells them to feed the five thousand. Jesus asked the apparently impossible after the Apostles determine that it is indeed impossible. That is the point of their whole appeal to Jesus.

Now we should ask an important question. How did it come about that the boy had food? I can remember a childhood Sunday school lesson about a mother packing her son a lunch so he could go listen to Jesus preach. It sounded suspect to me. It sounded just like a mom packing lunch and sending a kid to school. Some brilliant writer was telling us this is what happened so we could relate to it. There is an interpretive insight here I will get back to later.

It is an impression the Apostles in the narrative give us that the people need to go buy food. Modern American church people will relate to this by knowing that the service on Sunday better end so we can get to a restaurant to buy food. But, consider this. People had plenty of common sense in first century Judea and Galilee. No one in their right mind would have gone into the wilderness without food and water. Jesus did it for forty days in a fast. But, otherwise people simply did not do that. It was not and is not a smart thing to do. So, here is a boy who has food because that is what a wise person would have done. I find the odds against one in five thousand persons bringing that much food.

What is happening here? The boy brings an offering to the Apostles. Whether he is alone or that his family with him decided to offer is unknown to us. Yet, Jesus receives the food and blesses the gift and begins to divide it. And suddenly there is enough food eaten with “twelve basket fulls leftover.” Let us now ask a question. Did the twelve apostles each carry a basket? Where did the baskets come from? Jesus did not suddenly create too much food and the baskets to hold the leftovers. Jesus opened the hearts of five thousand people to share the food they brought into the wilderness. Jesus knew in the midst of a place of scarcity plenty was being brought. And he realized he was the only person there who could see it. He had a God’s-eye view of the situation. It is strange how the ordinary can become miraculous.

When the fourth gospel tells the story there is a different understanding. The crowds return the next day. In fact, they pursue Jesus. When they catch up to him, Jesus explains the miracle of bread in the wilderness which is described in the book of Exodus in the Law of Moses. The writer of this gospel whom tradition calls John explains a mystical connection between the miracles of bread in the wilderness to embodying the life of Jesus himself with the example of Holy Communion.

This is a connection that the early church was to understand and when the churches in Corinth did not no less a person than St. Paul explained that the food of the common meal and Holy Communion were meant to be offered and shared. The mystery of the altar – the communion table – is the opening of the heart to Jesus and his way of the community of God. It is the same mystery as in the miracle of feeding five thousand people.

Years ago, I served at a church that had an annual Thanksgiving meal for the people served at our local food bank. Three hundred people came and ate with us. One person said to me afterwards. “We have two whole turkeys left we never even cut up. I thought we would run out of food?” I reminded her of the story of five loaves and two fish. She seemed taken aback. Did we just witness a miracle? Yes. But not like she was thinking. We briefly got a God’s-eye view of what was possible.

The Glory Of The Open Table

“This is the Lord’s Table. It’s not a United Methodist table, nor is it Green Meadow’s table. You need not be a member of this church, nor any church for that matter, to celebrate Holy Communion with this community of faith”

These words from the bulletin of Green Meadow United Methodist Church in Alcoa, Tennessee are found just underneath the heading of “Invitation to the Table of Holy Communion” and above the Prayer of Confession. The placing of these words is theologically significant. The altar in front of the congregation on which are placed a cross and candles and sits behind the smaller altar on which sits the elements of bread and wine for Communion is confessed by the church to belong to some one else.

Look again at the words. “This is the Lord’s Table.” What is not said is that the table does not belong to the church. Indeed it does. But, it belongs to the church only insofar as it belongs to Jesus Christ as the head of the Church. When the congregation of the church approaches the Lord’s table, we are being invited to share in the consecrated meal that is taken from the offerings of the church and given back with the blessing of Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.

This is why the practice of “Open Communion” is important in most Protestant fellowships. Our practice of Holy Communion differs from that of the more traditional Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities because we have determined that we are not protectors of the holy mysteries.

The United Methodist Church does not baptize people to make them United Methodists or to unite them to a particular congregation. Baptism – the sacrament of initiation – is the act that unites a person to the Church Universal. There is no boundary surrounding the font or baptistery. There is no outward boundary the determines where the Church Universal begins or ends for that matter. In the same way, there is no boundary made around the Table of the Lord.

Human beings often need boundaries and defined limits. It is common for us to want to make them. St. Paul warned the early believers in Corinth that they were making boundaries not around the Table of the Lord but within it. The ancient practice of Holy Communion included a meal called the Love Feast which would be much like any time a community meal or “covered dish dinner” was held in a church today. St. Paul was concerned about two important matters.

The first was that the brothers and sisters in the community of saints were making distinctions based on how the world viewed people. Status was being brought into the meal. Sharing the meal was not being observed. Some ate very well. Some got very little. The Church was for all practical matters a mirror image of the world at large. To the mind of St. Paul there was only one word to describe that practice. The practice was demonic.

You may search all of eleventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. You will not find that word. However, you will find it in the tenth chapter. Previous to the instructions St. Paul gives regarding what the community of believers fails to do together, he talks about what they may be doing in the world when they were not together. There is a possibility that the believers were eating sacrificed food. That is to say food that was sacrificed in the religious rites of the temples of the various recognized gods of the Empire. St. Paul identifies these rites as demonic. An interesting discussion can be made as to exactly what he means here by the word translated as “demons.” For the purposes of this writing though it is sufficient to say that these entities and practices are in opposition to God. When he picks up the discussion again about drawing boundaries among believers in Holy Communion, he refuses to commend the believers who act in this way as he condemns those who acted arrogantly in the tenth chapter.

The practice of Open Communion, the Open Table of the Lord, is in keeping with St. Paul’s vision of the kingdom of God. No one may be kept away by anything except his or her own conscience. It is as glorious as the declaration of the Resurrection and the Advent to declare in practice that all are welcomed by Christ in the sacraments of the church.

THE NIGHT SANTA BECAME REAL

Saint Nicholas is one of my favorites. Yes. I know St. Nick and Santa Claus are different figures. If it could ever be proven that Saint Nicholas of Myra was merely a church legend, I would still cherish the story. He is the patron Saint of children and pawnbrokers. He is the one who like Moses gave into violence to defend the faith by punching the heretic Arius in the mouth only to become subject to the discipline of the church by being suspended from his office as bishop for a year. And in his repentance he humbly submitted to the discipline. He was amazingly human. Like St. Paul centuries before him, he would say “follow me as I follow Christ.” I have often thought if I had been in a tradition where I took on the name of a saint it would be Nicholas. I was given an icon of St. Nicholas for my ordination. His name was on the short list of possible names for my sons.

Imagine then my complete surprise when a former church member called me out of the blue to ask a strange question. “Would you be my Santa Claus?” It was the first time I was ever asked to play Santa. The person who called was a special education teacher for home bound students. She explained that these children never got to go see Santa. Their families never had pictures of their children with Santa. She went on to say that up until that year her uncle had done this task. He was no longer able to do so. She had the costume. She had gifts for the students. Would I give a few days’ time to help her out?

What could I say? I was an active pastor then. I had duties to perform at the church and the district? It was December for heaven’s sake the busiest month in my calendar. I said of course I would do it.

The following Saturday afternoon I drove to her house to get the costume. When she answered the door the first words out of her mouth was, “Oh good. You didn’t lose the weight.” The suit had no padding, you see. After visiting for a while and making arrangements to meet I took the suit home. But, there was one thing nagging at me in the back of my mind. Could I pull it off? I had no acting experience. There was no theatrical training in my education. Could I really be Santa? Then inspiration happened.

I called one of my then church members who had small children. “Are your kids still up?” I asked. It was early evening. “Yes.” He said. “Could I bring them some candy?” He hesitated. “Well, I guess that would be all right.” He said finally. “Good,” I said, “I’ll be right over. And I will be wearing a red suit and a white beard.” After that I put on the suit and drove over to their house.

Luckily, Greg regained his composure in time. The kids were waiting. When he opened the door he said, “Look who’s here!” The children were beside themselves with glee. I then fell into the role. I talked with the kids as Santa. I mentioned to one of the girls how she was so much like her grandmother (who I knew). She giggled with the attention. I was laying it on thick and heavy. When I left the children knew Santa had made a special visit to their house. I wonder if they remember that night now.

That night Santa became real for them. And I felt the spirit of St. Nicholas dwelled within me for what I thought would be a short time.  But, I was in. For the next three Decembers I was Santa for kids who did not get to see Santa otherwise unless they were in Children’s Hospital. My friend retired from her teaching post. But, I never retired from being me and Santa. I have been invited to be Santa at schools, church, and nursing homes. To this day I have yet to own a Santa Claus costume. Like the spirit of St. Nick, the suits I wear are borrowed.

I once said in a joking way that I was Santa Claus. A friend’s five-year old son looked to her and asked, “Is he really?” Yes I am. I am happy to be one of those people who give up their own identities for a brief time to bring Christmas joy to people who really need it. Another thing that makes me even happier are the times when I can’t be there those other guys who say, “if you can’t make it, call me and I will do it.”

Some people want to say Christmas is about Jesus and not Santa. I claim that if Saint Nicholas was a true follower of Jesus, then we need him too this time of year. The rest of the year we don’t get enough of either of them.

 

 

THE PERFECT CIRCLE

A recent inquiry was made to me from a friend as to why I disagreed with a certain political philosophy. The discussion became a heated argument which we both later regretted. Apologies were made on both sides. Yet, the question remains. I will rephrase it here in my own terminology.

Why do I remain a traditional protestant and a democratic socialist? The answer is simple. I do not believe in perfect circles of any type. Let see if I can unpack that answer.

The Western intellectual heritage help for many years that perfect examples of everyday things existed. If they could not be found on earth then they surely existed in the heavens. The stars, the planets, and the sun were made of a perfect substance called quintessence. Every right thinking person knew this to be true. Only renegades like Anaxagoras or Zeno thought differently. Aristotle thought the elements all moved to their natural sphere. Ptolemy and much later Copernicus agreed that the motions of the heavens were governed by perfect circles. If the observed behaviors of the planets did not conform to perfect circles then other circles were invented to show the planets orbited twice (the second time in their own orbits) to explain the observation. The only real difference in these models of the Universe were the relative positions of the Sun and Earth. It was not until the time of Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler that other explanations were even considered possible. Yet, the elegance of perfect circles and perfect systems continued to hold sway in the minds of the Western peoples. Consider that today we use words such as quintessential to represent the best example of a type. We consider mathematical reasoning to be more organic, logical, and rational than information derived from observation and experimentation. Changes in action and thought are said to be revolutionary. Something basic is elementary. Thomas Kuhn’s use of the word paradigm still haunts us in the twenty-first century.

These terms I have just described are indeed as much the ghosts in our thinking as they are the spirits of the age. And they are behind all areas of our thought whether those thoughts are scientific, educational, political, economic, theological, or philosophical. The problems we think we face are based on the realization that the circles are not perfect enough. The ghosts then become demons to our minds. And we then fight them in ways that lead to social madness. The perfect state becomes a goal to build  the perfect society. We can reasonably demonstrate that all people must do is adopt a perfectly rational idea and all things will work to the good. Yet, this cannot be perfected so then the perfect ideal society is no state at all. The perfect morality becomes a godless society. Religion is poison so truly liberated people become ethical through seeing to their own intellectual and spiritual self-interest. Or perfect morality is based on perfect theology to please the deity and every other area of thought must bend to that. Perfect knowledge leads to perfect action and people must be forced to have perfect knowledge and so forth. These quests for perfection deny a reality. They deny what is really before our eyes. And this intellectual madness becomes the destruction of very real persons, animals, and institutions.

The only solution is to admit, in all honesty, that the circle cannot and should not be closed. As a traditional protestant studying the varied methods and histories of theology, religious, devotional, and spiritual practice the supposed purity of our system is never achieved. We must admit the tragedy of desiring the perfect Christian system is an ongoing experiment. If building the kingdom of heaven on earth is our goal, which I believe it is, then loving God and our neighbor is where we begin using the greatest of the theological virtues to support our faith and hope. Being a democratic socialist means taking civil liberties seriously. The United States encodes and often expands the codes of these liberties based on what we learn through trial and error. Other Western nations can draw their own liberties through the hundreds of years of trial and error living in traditions. The socialist side is to recognize the human and environmental costs of industrialization and does not externalize these costs in order to look nice on charted calculations.  Adaptation is therefore constant in all areas of life. And hopefully justice if not loving-kindness may be achieved.

Why I Remain a Believer

I have gone through a lot lately. In fact, very little has been resolved. I am in a new phase of my recovery program. I have wrestled with myself. I have fought to keep the dark thoughts of surrender and suicide at bay. And I have tried to envision a new path for ministry. To say the least, it has not been easy.
While I went to treatment for depression, chronic pain, and a substance abuse disorder, I decided that I could take along some reading material. I must have looked a sorry sight dragging enough luggage with me to move in for a few months. I had a week’s worth of clothes and a year’s worth of books. Then I settled into a routine. It was not easy. I was one of the “older guys.” But, I soon learned that I had most if not all of the same issues as my fellow patient/inmates. I went in with the old names. To some people and staff members I was Don. Other patients called me Pastor. Not too long ago I ran into one other former patient who yelled, “how ya doin’ Rev!” And it was that occasion that brought me to this reflection now.
Why do I still believe? Why remain an ordained clergyman? Why continue working on a Doctor of Ministry degree?
I have tried to be fairly open with what I have wrestled with. Many people told me “don’t give up on God.” I felt the most annoyed at these kind of affirmations because I was sure that God had most likely given up on me in my doubts and redefinitions of the God I wanted to accept.
Think about it? There has been a large amount of scientific and literary research done on the Bible and Church History. Most believers do not wish to deal with these subjects choosing instead to comfort themselves with prejudged beliefs. But, I want to really understand what the people of the Book did with it over the millennia. What I never want to do is take the position of the person who would walk into an Orthodox Synagogue and begin an argument over the lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus. Could I just be comfortable with not having beliefs? Could I not choose a secular viewpoint? Of course I could. I could easily take the position that there is no God and people can go on being whatever they are. Human beings could decide for themselves their ways of life. I would choose mine while everyone else could do the same. The problem is that is a very privileged position to take.
Most of our fellow beings in this world cannot take such a position. They do not have the luxury of choosing what it means to be human. It is a viewpoint secular humanists (aka Brights) do not comprehend. It is unfortunate that many smart people cannot see beyond their own noses. The glory of being human is in the discovery that there is more than simply being human. We are neither the “end-product” of evolution. Nor are we the crowning glory of Creation. We are what we are while learning to be a part of what is. Human beings are neither needing to be rescued nor of overcoming. Christian teaching and spiritual practice posits that human beings are to be and to become the image of Christ and the Image of God. Therefore, I am a believer in God in the communal self of three persons. The purpose of living is being holy in loving-kindness toward all beings and creatures. We begin this task in acknowledging sin and failures. We then accept love for ourselves and practice love for others.
I remain a believer to do these things.

Why the Change?

Recently, I announced that I was switching from theology to philosophy. I understand it caused some consternation and confusion. I hope this corrects that.
Theology is not the same as Religious Studies or Biblical Studies. Theology is speculative discussion on what ultimately exists in the supernatural realm. What is God? Who is God? What other beings exist beyond our perception and how do they act? The reasons we care about such things is how should life in our world be lived and organized based on answers to these questions.
Philosophy while not necessarily religious or theological has been brought into service as the “handmaiden” to Theology. Philosophy is not primarily concerned with how does one live due to the existence of the Triune God. Philosophy is about how we think and act. Theology is about how we believe and act. Yet, ethics – how we live – is not as important within the field of theology. Defining beliefs takes primary focus in theological discussion. Ethics is very important within philosophy because that discipline informs the methodology used in the act of thinking.
These are some of the reasons I am focusing intellectual work on Philosophy now. So say I always have.

Distracted Christianity

Before Christians became gladiators, they were the victims of gladiatorial contests. Mostly, this was done in “the arena” to begin the days’ events. Send a few traitors and criminals in to be torn up by wild animals to get the crowds really going.

My own county hosts a “Christian boxing club.” And most churches, including my own, use Super Bowl Sunday to raise money for a local food bank. We say, “the Lord moves in mysterious ways>” I also understand about silver-linings and clouds. But, should not we consider the incongruity involved here?

First, let me say, I watch football, track and field events, soccer, and love baseball. Shows, like professional wrestling, are not worth my time. I do not understand the attraction with mixed martial arts. I think it is still about the show. And therein lies the problem for the church. What gets us excited to be Christians?

Passion is not meant to be distraction. Divine glory is supposed to be the primary focus for Christians. Whatever we say or do is meant to bring glory to God even if our words or actions fail to provide more secular or “practical” results.

My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, has a mission statement that says the primary task of the church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It is not a bad statement by itself. The down-side has been too many of our pastors burn out when the congregations do not grow in membership. We forget that membership is not discipleship, success is not victory, and salvation is to bring about transformation. Hence, the temptation to provide a spectacle as worship.

This temptation is not a new development. Old time revivals were often just as bad as anything done today. When a person could testify that he or she has only now been saved after making the same testimony at  three previous revivals, something is wrong. When the teaching or preaching of the church is not meant to help transform people for the glory of God, the church is failing.

American Christians and their denominations must stop the last two hundred years of choosing spectacle. We are losing too many young people who see their “christian journey” as a phase or a fad. Let’s worship God and let the Spirit direct how the Spirit wants to work.