Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Understanding the Dark Stories of the Bible

Rachel Held Evans posted an excerpt from her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which is beautiful, poignant, and haunting.  It also raises the question that I often get as a pastor, especially once someone finds out that I have a Ph.D. in Old Testament literature.

I hope that you will stop reading this now and go read her piece before continuing here, but for those of you who can’t or won’t, in one part Evans recalls the story of Jephthah in Judges 11, who promised the Lord that, if granted victory in battle against the Ammonites he would sacrifice to the Lord the first thing that came out of his house upon his return.

The Lord granted the victory, but, alas, it was Jephthah’s daughter who came running out first to greet him.  And with much sadness and regret, Jephthah fulfilled his vow.

We don’t understand how God would require that Jephthah keep his vow.  We can’t reconcile that picture of God with the one found in Jesus nailed to the cross for our sins.  The math just doesn’t work for us.

Nor does it work when God orders the Israelites to slaughter the entire city of Ai, combatants and non-combatants both (Joshua 8).

And numerous other times in the Old Testament.  God is much too violent for our tastes.  We prefer the portrait of God found in the New Testament, with the exception of a few incidents i.e. the execution of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

Some of Evans’ readers commented on this, one asking plaintively if anyone could explain if this incident and others like it were actually sanctioned by God.

My approach to the Bible is that it is more than a collection of books and more than a collection of stories; it is actually telling a story, and, no, it’s not merely the story of how God used Jesus to forgive us of our individual, personal sins so that we could go to heaven when we die.

It is the story of the insidious effects of violence on God’s creation, and how God acted to put an end to all violence, envisioning a day when wolves and lambs would feed together, swords would be beaten into plowshares, and we would learn war no more.

But here is the key: God himself is a character in the story, and in really good stories, the major characters grow, develop, and change.

I’m not saying that God really changes, grows, and develops.  This is not process theology being imposed on the text.  It is a literary way of looking at the text and understanding what is happening.

In the Big Story that the Bible is telling, the character named “God” learns that violence doesn’t work, that it doesn’t really solve anything, that it doesn’t lead to peace but instead leads to even more violence.

A couple of years ago I did a series of posts on my blog about this.  One dealt specifically with God learning about the ineffectiveness of violence in the Flood Narrative.

Once again, I’m not saying that God actually learns, I’m saying that in the narrative the character named God learns.  Of course God didn’t need to learn that violence  only begets violence—but we do.  After all these years, we still need to learn the lesson that the Bible, summed up in the cross, is trying to teach us.

When people ask me about the violence in the Old Testament, especially that which is sanctioned by God, I tell them that this event occurs in an early section of The Story, and one shouldn’t judge a character in a story by their actions in the early chapters.  Wait instead until the story is finished and see where the character ends up.

And in the Bible, God ends up on a cross, having refused to brandish a sword or raise an army.  Rather than being a perpetrator of violence, God is a willing victim of it.

But his victimization is an illusion; he used violence against itself, both by exposing the perpetrators for the evil that they have become and by absorbing their fiercest blows.

And rising three days later victorious.

There is obviously more than can and should be said about this, but perhaps this is enough to get you to begin thinking through the implications of this.

So the story of Jephthah and his daughter teaches us that there is a cost to war, even in victory, and that cost is terrible, painful, unbearable, and unjust.  There has to be a better way.

And that better way is found in the cross.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

How Do You Live with People Who Offend You?

What do you do when you have to be around someone you really don’t like.  I mean, really don’t like?

It’s natural to want to hang around with people we like, and few of us would choose hang around with someone we didn’t like, much less groups of people we don’t like.  Sometimes, however, it’s unavoidable.

Sometimes they are family.  Sometimes they are co-workers.  Sometimes they are your boss.  Sometimes they are classmates or teammates.

And sometimes they go to your church.  It would be nice if we liked everyone that we worshiped with, served with, and went to Bible study with, but that doesn’t happen very often.  In a large church you can avoid people you don’t like, but really only if you just attend worship.  If you go to a Bible study, serve in a ministry, become a part of leadership—anything that involves interacting with a smaller group of people—you are likely to encounter someone with whom you don’t jibe.

So what do you do?  If it gets bad enough, you can stop attending family functions, transfer to another department, get a new job, change teams, move to another Bible study or even change churches.  In the latter case, people do it all the time, because, unlike families, jobs, and schools, you really do get to choose your church, and more and more people are taking advantage of that.

But is that good?  Is that actually harmful to a person’s spiritual development to only hang around with people they like and who like them?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because in the last few weeks circumstances have forced me to be with and work with people who, to be quite frank, hold views that I find offensive.  So it’s not even a matter of liking them.  On an interpersonal level I actually do like some of them, but I know that they hold views that I consider to be racist, in effect if not in intent.  Their views on women border on misogynistic, they are callous toward the poor, and they use Scripture in a way that supports all of these things, and that offends me even more.  It’s not that they are bad, evil people.  Not a one of them is.  But, still, while I'm a very tolerant person, I do have limits.

And there is a part of me that wants to break relationship with them as a matter of principle.  But I don’t, and the reason is that Jesus called both Matthew and Simon to be his disciples.

See, Matthew was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), and Simon was a Zealot (Luke 6:15).  Matthew was a collaborator with Rome who profited from the exploitation of his fellow Jews by the Romans; Simon was part of a violent revolutionary group who sometimes engaged in acts of terrorism against Romans soldiers occupying Israel.  Matthew would have viewed Simon and the rest of the Zealots as extremists who would one day lead to the destruction of Israel by the Romans—and events would prove that he would be right.  And Simon would have viewed Matthew as a traitor to God and country who in many ways was worse than the Roman occupiers—and he would have been right.

Yet Jesus called them both to be part of his inner circle of disciples.  They ate, slept, worshiped and traveled together and somehow managed not to kill each other.  In fact, they were still together at Pentecost,  praying with one another in the upper room (Acts 1:13).

Jesus knew what he was doing when he called those two and forced them to live together.  He knew that it would be all right as long as he remained the center of the group.  He knew that the way we learn to be loving, grace-giving, forgiving, patient people is not by avoiding people we don’t like or who offend us at even the deepest level but by being together.  And he wanted the 12 to model what life in the Kingdom looks like, when the dividing walls of hostility are torn down and the differences between us don’t matter as much as having Christ among us.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Common Calling

In the Beginning, we all had the same calling.  It’s commonplace now to talk about God’s unique calling on our individual lives, and that my calling may be different from your calling and that’s all right.  But in the Beginning, we all had the same calling. 

By all I don’t just mean all humans, I mean every living creature God created.  Birds, snakes, lions, platypuses (platypii?), even bugs shared the same calling from God as the humans.  

This universal calling is found in Genesis 1.  “Be fruitful and multiply.”  That’s what he told them.  It’s explicit when he makes the fish and sea creatures (verses 20-23), implied when he makes the land creatures (verses 9-11, 24-25), and explicit again when he makes the humans (verses 26-38).  The two statements in Genesis 1:22 and 1:28 can be seen as bookends or brackets that are inclusive of everything in between.

So, does that mean our calling is to have lots of babies? It’s easy to see “be fruitful and multiply” on the most literal level, but at the core is the calling to bring forth life.  That is the calling that God has given to every living creature, to be about the process of bringing life to creation.  Life, not death.  This is heightened in verses 29-30, in which God says that he has given every plant and fruit tree to every animal, both human and beast, for food.

No animals are given for food, just fruits and vegetables.  This isn’t a statement on human or animal nutrition, it is a theological statement.  In other words, nothing has to die in order for something else to live.  From the beginning our calling is to bring forth life, not to bring forth death. 

“But didn’t the calling given to the humans differ from that of the animals?” you might be wondering. “Didn’t God also call them, not only to be fruitful and multiply, but to have dominion over all the other living things?”

Yes, that is true, but it is a different kind of dominion than what we are used to with kings and rulers.  Ask any farmer, any shepherd or rancher—it’s a different kind of dominion.  

The farmer doesn’t stick a seed in the ground and then give it a command: “Grow!”  No, the farmer fosters the conditions in which the seed does what seeds do—sprout, grow, and become plants. 

The shepherd doesn’t sit on a throne and issue commands: “You sheep there!  Move over into that other pasture!”  No, the shepherd goes out and leads the sheep into the pasture, or to the water, or into the pen.  Like the farmer, the shepherd fosters the conditions in which the sheep can do what sheep do: eat, grow wool, and have lambs.  

Our calling is to bring forth life. Unfortunately, soon enough humans learn to bring forth death. Cain kills Abel (Gen. 4:1-16), Lamech avenges himself 77 fold (Gen. 4:19-24), and by Genesis 6 the earth is filled with violence (see verse 11).

God’s question to Cain after killing his brother—”Am I my brother’s keeper?”—is a question we ought to be asking ourselves. 

The kind of people who flourish in the kingdom of God are those who return to their first calling to bring forth life and foster all the conditions that allow life to flourish. They are the kind of people who answer, “Yes, I am responsible for making sure my brothers and sisters are cared for.”

Many are about this already.  Will the rest of us hear the call of Jesus and join them?

Friday, November 1, 2013


Why is sanctification—the process of transforming a person into the image of Christ; of making us holy, set apart for service—why is it a process at all?  If it is the work of the Holy Spirit, why is it taking so long to—at least in my life, I'll let you judge your own—produce so little holiness?  Why is it so—dare I say it—ineffective?

Please tell me I am not the only one who feels this way.  It’s tough enough to realize that, after all these years of being a Christian, that I may know more stuff, be able to parse the Bible in its original Greek and Hebrew, discuss in detail various  schools of theology, and lay out in bullet points numerous techniques for prayer and meditation, and yet feel like I am still basically the same person I was 25 years ago, better in all too few areas, the same in way too many other areas, and, yes, worse in others.  Am I alone in this?

Anyone familiar with the church knows that there is far too much sin in its ranks and far too little holiness.  And I read the prophets’ frustration with Israel, that after hundreds of years of being God’s Chosen Ones, given the advantages of God’s presence, protection, and written instructions from Sinai, they are still no different than the nations in their devotion to God and their treatment of the weakest.  And I read Paul’s letters to the churches and the immorality that apparently was rampant in them, and it’s clear that this is not a new problem.  So much time, so little to show for it.

“It’s a process,” we’re told.  “It takes time.”  Why?  Why does it take time?  God spoke, and light appeared.  Light is both wave and particle, and nothing is faster than light, and God created it in an instant.  But making me holy takes time?  That’s harder than creating light?  Really?

In 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, Paul is dealing with the Corinthians about immorality in their church—and he emphasizes that he’s talking about immorality among Christians in the church, not the pagans outside the church.  He’s talking about some bad stuff, too: fornication, adultery, idolatry, slander, theft.  And he says, “And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”

Note the passive voice: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified.  See?  It’s the Spirit’s work in us.  Yet it’s clear both in the context of chapters 5-6 and in the entire letter that Paul holds the Corinthians accountable for their immorality and holiness and for tolerating it among themselves.  How can you hold someone accountable for something that they are not responsible for?

Unless they are.  Responsible.  For their sin.  For their unholiness.  And if you are responsible for your unholiness, that means you are responsible for your holiness.  Your sanctification.
Oh.  No wonder it takes so long.  No wonder I’ve so little to show for it.

So sanctification isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit?  Of course it is.  But love isn’t coercive, it’s persuasive.  God doesn’t force things on us without our consent and our cooperation, even good things.  He just won’t.  Sanctification is something we can’t do without the Holy Spirit, but he won’t do it without us.

And you know what?  It’s hard.  I mean, it’s really hard.  Sometimes I think it really would be easier to create light.  Old habits die hard, new habits come harder.  Old ways of thinking die hard, and new ways of thinking don’t come without pain, even trauma.  But it should be hard.  The best things usually involve hard work.  Marriage is hard, parenting is hard, being church is hard, being a Christian is hard.  But they are all worth it.  

And you know what else?  God ultimately gets what he wants, and he wants our holiness, so he’s going to see this through to the end.  As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”