Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Being Open

Recently I met with one of our Rice Graduate students. Lindsey is getting her Ph.D. in English and we meet for coffee time to time. It's been interesting to hear what she's writing for her dissertation. And our conversations also involve matters of faith.

I'm engaged in a spiritual practice of being open to what God wants to show me. So I wake each morning being intentional right from the start to ask God about the day and then end each evening with a time to reflect on my day's experiences. It's an opportunity to examine my life and God's movement in it. Most always God shows me something through someone else; and often insight comes in what I'm reading.

As soon as Lindsay said it, I knew it was the thing God was showing me for that day. We were talking about the struggle people often have with understanding God's will for their lives. It naturally led to a conversation about prayer. Lindsay said she had a mentor tell her once something about prayer that stuck with her, and now it's sticking with me. Her mentor told her that many people often treat prayer like a spare tire. When we have a flat, we get out the spare tire; when something goes wrong in our life, we start praying. He told her that we should make the shift to seeing prayer as a steering wheel. Prayer should be forward looking. In the praying we uncover the direction God is leading us. Prayer helps steer us in those directions.

That insight has stuck with me now for a week. I've reflected on my habits in prayer and realize some work needs to be done to change my mental model about prayer. It's really been helpful. 

I've begun to see that for a while now my prayer life has not changed to match the change in how I view God that happened for me several years ago. Some time ago I stopped understanding God so much as a personal being. I see God now more like the water in which fish swim or the air through which birds fly. God is present all around, present in all things. God is all around us and in us. 

And so actually, my whole life is a prayer really. The joys and the sorrows. The conversations I have in my head; and yes the arguments I have in my head with my "enemies" too. The reading and the study and the work, everything. My whole life is a prayer. And if that's true, then so is yours. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Donald: Presidential Material?

I don't usually post about politics; though, I don't really think this one is political.

In light of the recent flak related to Donald Trump's response to Fox's Megyn Kelly's line of questioning in Thursday's Republican Debates, my wife shared a comment on Facebook that gets to the heart of an important issue.

Trump felt Kelly's questions were unfair and inappropriate. If he had left it at that, a worthwhile conversation might have been had. Trump evidently had support from the other debaters on the stage who stood along with him. However, in typical Trump fashion, he scooped a serving of vitriolic rhetoric, saying, "You could see blood coming from her eyes, and blood coming from ... wherever." A remark clearly referring to Kelly's menstrual cycle (no matter what he claims now).

With her usual clear insight, my wife commented: "Tell it like it is. Not politically correct, but simply misogynistic."

Trump responded to his critics who pushed back that our country is overly concerned with political correctness. He actually made this same defense during the Debate to the very question Kelly asked him in the first place, a question that drew attention to his habit of referring to some women in ways that demean and belittle. Much is revealed in such comments from our past and defended in the present.

In June, Trump made the same defense of political correctness when challenged for referring to all those who cross our southern borders as being murderers, rapists and drug dealers. He's sure about that while in the same breath being unsure that "some are good people."

You know, I understand to a certain extent the logic that leads people to bristle at political correctness. It requires work to pay attention to and change our language. It's embarrassing when the wrong thing is said - embarrassing for me and for the other and anyone around to hear it. Therefore, some claim that political correctness is silly or stupid or avoids getting at the truth. Maybe we really want to avoid facing ourselves honestly, our prejudices and preconceived notions that are false.

To my mind, if people express that they prefer to be spoken of in certain terms, why wouldn't I want to honor that? If someone is offended by certain words and terminology, why wouldn't I want to refrain from using it in order to respect and love that someone well. Why wouldn't I be willing to do the work to change my language in an attempt to foster a better relationship, a better community, a better humanity?

Whether you think he meant it or not, Trump speaks in ways that make me think his a racist and a misogynist; and his constant defense of his remarks only reinforce that sense for me.

Erick Erickson recalled his invitation to Trump to be a part of the Red State Gathering in Atlanta. His was a Republican response to Trump that I could finally applaud. He said simply, but profoundly, "Frankly, I don't want my daughters in the same room as Donald Trump." With three bright daughters of my own, I was thinking the same thing.

At some point you have to ask yourself a question: Is Donald Trump presidential material? Is this the kind of person we would want representing our country domestically or internationally? Do we really want a person with this way of speaking and this way of being to hold the highest office in the land?

Let me leave you with this. To those who want to dismiss Trump's comments as humorous and that in some way I and the rest of the world just need to lighten up, let me remind us of the old adage that is often true: "Many a truth is said in jest."

I think it can also be said, that jest can reveal the true character of a person. And as far as Trump is concerned, I don't like what I see.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Is God Violent (5)

My Twitter description quotes Bob Dylan, "Times they are a'changin'". And truth be told, so am I. I'm on a journey of personal transformation that leads to community transformation. 

In the last post I unpacked the idea that the view our biblical writers had of God evolved and matured throughout the canon of scripture. And more importantly this evolving and maturing was always at God's initiative. This isn't necessarily a linear maturing, but a circular dynamic that is happening and which is always moving forward.

Of course, if you haven't asked it already, I'm sure you will: Who are we to think that we know more today than the biblical writers? Who do we think we are thinking we've got a better handle on God and the world, humankind and how to be a follower of Jesus in the world? Do you really think we are the ones who have now arrived? Doesn't a lot of evidence point just to the contrary? 

Indeed, it just might. It seems the more we change, the more we stay the same. 

However, what's the big deal, really, saying that we know more than the biblical writers did? Or that we have learned things that the biblical writers never could know? 

We've learned for instance that storms and natural disasters are not sent by God as a punishment, but have other originations that we know about due to science and technology. We have also learned that the biblical view of the structure of the universe - as a three part dome of the sky, a firmament floating on water, under which is an underworld, around which the sun and moon and stars revolve - was wrong. It sure made sense then, but we know different now. We know more about illness, germs, communicable diseases, anatomy and biology, epilepsy and multiple schlorosis, atoms and cells and genes. 

I would say that without a doubt this has shaped our understanding and experience of God in very profound ways much to our betterment. 

I would also say that it is also true that the more we learn the less we know, the more knowledge we acquire the newer potential for abuse and destruction, the greater is our insight into our fallibility as human beings. Those two things can exist in the same space for me. And because they can, the Scriptures still are the single most important source for me to shape my understanding about how I am to be a disciple of Jesus in the world. 

The other side of the question, Do we really think we are the ones who have arrived?, is the question, Is God still unfolding Godself, still showing us things that we still need to learn? Who are we to think that we know that God has stopped, frozen all we need to see into a specific moment of time when the biblical canon was adopted and closed? Actually, isn't that the very definition of idolatry? And God was pretty definitive on that one. 

Brian McLaren wrote: To be a member of a faith community is not to be the lucky member of the group that has finally arrived; it is to be in a cohort that is learning together. (A New Kind of Christianity)

I want to write more on this. But enough for now. In the meantime, let me know what is getting stirred up in you. I'd really like to know. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Is God Violent? (4)

So here's where I left off basically: God is violent but less violent than the gods in the surrounding region. That's no small thing, but is that the best we can do managing our real anxiety in the face of clearly violent God-actions and commands in our inspired Scriptures?

In a previous post I stated that one of my assumptions about the Scriptures is that it is a library not a legal constitution.

Another assumption is that the Bible isn't always and everywhere to be taken literally. Not only because the Bible utilizes many forms of literature, but also because the persons and communities that wrote and assembled them did so in a particular time and culture. Add to that our own culturally conditioned context and the old bumper sticker sounds pretty lame: "The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." (1)

My view of the inspiration of Scripture is simple. The Scriptures are inspired by God, by which I mean, they communicate a true knowledge of God and nurture a saving faith in Jesus the Christ. How do I know this? Well, I can't know this; but I trust this and my experience reminds me that it's true. 

So, I take the Scriptures seriously but not always and everywhere literally. 

What opens up to me because of this is a greater appreciation of this Sacred Story of God. I have come to see something that I was not able to see before. First, the images and understandings of God in the Scriputres change and mature as the story unfolds. And second, God is the one who initiates this. 

Let me share some examples. 

In Exodus 3 Moses encounters God in a burning bush on the mountain of Horeb. Moses runs out of excuses for why he isn't the right candidate for the job of returning to Egypt to tell Pharaoh to let God's people go. Finally, Moses acquiesces. But before he's finished he wants to know God's name. "What if they ask me your name? What shall I tell them?" God tells Moses, "My name is Yahweh. I am that I am." But that isn't the only thing God says in response. God also tells Moses that this name was intentionally withheld from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the Lord I did not make myself fully known to them." (Exodus 6:3 NIV). Before Moses God let himself be known only as El Shaddai, God Almighty. From Moses onward, God is now also known as Yahweh, I am that I am." God initiates this new thing. 

Another example is in Hosea. God initiates a new maturing dynamic relationship. Listen to what Hosea says: “In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master. ’ (Hosea 2:16 NIV). God iniates a new relationship from God as Master or Creator to God as husband and lover. 

This happens in the Gospel of John. Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples for shortly he will be arrested and executed by the state. He says to his disciples, "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15 NIV)

And even Paul acknowledges this. Think of his letter the Galatians and his delineation of Law and Grace. He says at one point, Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, (Galatians 3:23-26 NIV)

So my point is simply that the images and understandings that the biblical writers held about God constantly changed and evolved and matured. But more importantly that changing, evolving and maturing was at God's initiative. 

Clearly, the biblical writers moved from an understanding of God as one among many to a God who was all powerful to a God who is unique and the one and only. God initiates a maturing from a community deeply concerned with religion and ceremonial fidelty to a community more passionate about social justice. God chooses an odd band of nomads called the Hebrews but then sends Jesus as the first move to becoming the universal God for all nations. God also intervened directly into affairs, giving special knowledge or power, but now has left us the Spirit to guide us. 

An Illustration from Everyday
Brian McLaren reminded me of what it was like when my children were in second grade learning to do math. When they got to subtraction, their math textbook had a rule: You cannot subtract a larger number from a smaller number. 

Correct? You bet; for a second grader that's perfectly correct.

Then one day in the sixth grade they came home. The class was starting a chapter in their math textbook that was entitled "Negative Numbers." The first line stated, "This chapter will show you how to subtract a larger number from a smaller one."

What if something similar must happen in the theological education of the human race? What if people who live in the second-grade world of polytheism need to learn that God is superior before they can learn that God is uniquely real?
Ah, so I can hear it. Who do we think we are to say that we have arrived theologically and know more about God and God's relationship to the world than the biblical writers?

Good question. More to come on that..

(1) I want to write a series of posts expanding this further, but for now I will leave it at this: when Paul writes "an elder must be the husband of one wife," I feel free to interpret that as culturally conditioned by a patriarchal society that had certain assumptions about men and women. However, I take literally Jesus' answer to the man who asked him What is the greatest commandment? "Love the Lord your God ... And your neighbor as yourself." Everyone does this. It's simply a matter of how and based on what rules of interpretive engagement one uses. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Is God Violent? (3)

So, Is God violent?

First, one of my assumptions about the Bible is that it is not - as Brian McLaren has pointed out - a legal constitution.

It's not one document that we quote article and paragraph to prove a point. It's not a text where everything is taken literally, without the work required to understand and interpret it. To take the Bible seriously means to understand it's historical context, the Hebrew and Greek text, the type of literature we are reading, and the cultural circumstances in which the writers lived and wrote and through which they saw the world around them.

The Bible - both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament writings - must be interpreted using the tools we have at our disposal, along with much prayer and openness to the Holy Spirit. It requires me to remain open to my own cultural assumptions and how that impacts my reading and understanding of what God is ultimately conveying through these inspired texts.

The Bible isn't like a legal constitution, but rather like a library. It contains a collection of books by many authors who are often in dialogue with each other about God and what God is revealing.

This doesn't solve every issue related to the question, Is God violent? We still find these disturbing images of God in this library. The images really make me uneasy. As much as God is Creator, Sustainer, Provider, Grace-filled, and Loving, let's be honest, God is also violent, cruel and un-Christlike.

What do I do with those violent images? How do I embrace this God? 

What do I tell my children when we read a story like the one in 1 Samuel about the Prophet Samuel giving King Saul a command from God? The command is to exact punishment on the Amalekites and to kill every man, woman, child and infant, as well as every animal and beast. Nice, huh?

I can hear it now, "Daddy, why did God want Saul to kill even the babies? What did they do wrong?"

What do I do with texts like that? Do I simply live with this image of God and say, "Honey, listen. God is just way too difficult to fathom? Too much of a mystery to understand? But just remember, God has a plan. He loves us. And it's part of the plan."

And I can hear her reply. "But daddy. If God did that once to the Amalekites, couldn't God one day do it to you and me? I mean, if we do something wrong that makes God sad and angry? In Bible class sometimes we talk about sin, and if we are bad, then God will punish us. My Sunday school teacher said that some people living today will die and go to hell forever, unless they confess their sins and accept Jesus into their heart."

And so the commonly accepted story line goes, a story line that frankly simply perpetuates that God is, indeed, violent. If you don't think this story line is being taught, you're just not listening. (1)

So, one place I begin - and it's only a beginning - is to point out that God's crimes are far less serious than the crimes of other gods in the surrounding region in the ancient world.

A way to illustrate this is to point out that we know of other creation stories that existed during the same time the creation stories of Genesis 1-2 were witten. The most famous one is called the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth from the same period as the early Old Testatment.

In the midst of the Enuma Elish is the story of the rebellion of young gods against old gods. Tiamat, a female god, fought against Marduk the head god. Marduk killed Tiamat. He forced the wind into her mouth and blew her up like a balloon. And when she was thus distended, he shot her with an arrow. With Tiamat dead, Marduk took his sword and sliced her "like a fish into two parts." He set up the upper portion of her distended belly to become a big dome that makes the sky (parallel to the dome in Genesis 1:6), and established "stations" in this sky for each of the great gods. Finally, Marduk announced that he would "establish a savage; 'man' shall be his name. Verily, savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease!" After conducting an investigation into which god had provoked Tiamat to rebel, Marduk identified Kingu as the guilty party. So, he "severed his blood (vessels)," and used the blood to create humankind to serve the gods and allow them freedom. (2)

Now. Let's stop.
Allow that to soak in a bit ...

When you compare this creation myth written about the same time as Genesis 1-2, some things become apparent.

Contrary to the spontaneous acts of capricious gods, who create in the aftermath of violence, the Genesis accounts tell a story of order out of chaos without the use of violence. God fashions humankind out of the dust and blows into his nostrils and the man becomes a living being. God establishes a partnered relationship with humankind to care for the Creation.

Creation of Adam
When compared to the Enuma Elish it would have literally jumped off the pages that God creates with intention and without violence. Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to excuse the violence of God we read in the Bible. But, too, this is no small thing.

Of course, we still have in the library that is our Scriptures, images of God that are cruel and un-Christlike. Is that where I end this? God is indeed violent, but at least he's less violent than other gods?

Check back, after I have a little time to unpack something else in the next post.

(1) I wrote a series called The Overarching Story Line of the Bible" that explored this in more detail. You can read the first one HERE

(2) Adapted from J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent God (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), pages 105-106.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Is God Violent? (2)

Some will take that question and go the direction of saying, "Of course, God is violent. You only have to read a short way into Genesis to see that!" In a certain way, they are right.

Genesis 6-7 contains one of the more horrific stories in the Bible. Though we depict the story in our children's wings at church and in our nurseries at home with rainbows and loveable animals, the story is really quite disturbing. God is disappointed and angry because the heart of humankind is only intent on evil all the time. So God who created everything in the opening chapters of Genesis decides to express his anger by blotting out everything:

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
(Genesis 6:5-7).

If there was any doubt that God was just blowing off steam, a short chapter later God makes good on his threat:

The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; the waters swelled above the mountains ... And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth.
(Genesis 7:19-23)

If this served as the only place God is violent, we might be willing to pass over it as an anomaly. However, we can't. Too many other instances exist of God being violent to dismiss this one so easily.
This isn't simply a philosophical question. 

In addition to what we stumble over in the Bible, unfortunately, too many acts of violence happen today that are justified as divinely sanctioned. Notice a connection?

So, for many the question isn't even worth asking. As someone said to me on a bus to Cambridge after learning that I was a Christian, "How in the world can anyone be a Christian? Do you know how many wars are going on right now in the name of G-O-D?"

I want to spend a few blog posts dealing with how I have come to respond to this question that I raise for myself. I hope you stay with me as I do.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Honoring the Rice U Police Department

This week is National Police Officers Memorial Week. It's a week to remember the men and women who serve as our public safety officers and who do much to ensure safe streets, neighborhoods and cities all across the United States.

R.I.C.E.-Responsibility, Integrity,
Community, Excellence
The Houston Police Department has helped us as a church and school on several occasions. As well, because Rice University is our neighbor across the street, we have often relied on the Rice University Police Department for help and advice. They are always responsive, accommodating and very willing to do anything to help.

Fortunately, most of the needs we have come are relatively minor. But it sure is good to know that RUPD stands ready for anything.

Take a moment and send them a note ( to say thanks for what they do, what they are willing to take on as public safety officers. It's not an easy role to play and it's clear that each office owns a sense of calling for what they do. This week in particular we join them in what grief they experience in remembering officers they have know who have given their lives in the line of duty. I ask you to pray for them.

I think of the words of Jesus, which I preached on just this week:
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. -John 15:13

This year has taken a toll on officers around the country. Under a great deal of scrutiny and criticism that often gets socialized to good officers who do their job with excellence, it's perhaps especially necessary for us to say thanks.

This week, First Christian Church and School chipped in to provide a Goode Company BBQ lunch for the RUPD (Complete with the turkey I shot on a hunting trip this Spring!) They were very appreciative of the gift when I delivered it. Thanks to all of you who helped make this happen!