Saturday, October 17, 2009

Moving Day

I’m moving my blog to Wordpress. You can now find Salty Bread here.

Same blog. Different location.

See you there!

Me First!

Me first! It’s something you hear on playgrounds every day. Children don’t have to be taught how to be selfish. It comes naturally. But not just for children, for grown-ups too. We live in a Me first! society full of Me first! people. Just look at how folks maneuver and speed up to get ahead on the highways and push past in the grocery lines. It even affects religion. Go into any Christian bookstore. The self-help section is the largest. Me first! The Bible says, “Husbands love your wives” but husbands leave their wives and children to “find themselves.” Me first! Women and men put their careers ahead of family. Me first! We live in a self-promoting, self-absorbed generation.

It was no different in Jesus’ day. James and John came to Jesus and asked him to do them a favor: “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:37). They wanted to be Jesus’ right-hand man. Only they didn’t know what they were asking for.

These sons of Zebedee were seeking the ultimate political appointment, only they got it all wrong. They weren’t asking a man who was about to set up an earthly, Messianic kingdom, as they supposed. They were asking someone hell-bent on getting himself killed. Jesus was a dead man walking. He was a criminal on his way to execution. And to be with him was to be guilty by association. Only they didn’t know that when they asked their question. Like a good Jew, Jesus answered their question with more questions: “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of? And be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Their immediate, unreflective reply was Yes, we can! They sounded like giddy Obama groupies just waiting for their man to take power. Jesus and his disciples were again talking past each other. Not only did James and John have no idea what they were asking of Jesus, they had not a clue as to what he was asking of them.

People often don’t realize what they’re getting themselves into. I’ve read several memoirs of young men who enlisted in the military in a time of war but didn’t realize what they were signing up for. Especially in World War I most joined for adventure, glory, and patriotism. What they got instead was long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror followed by disillusionment and cynicism. Few found what they set out after.

Jesus was great at turning things upside down, like when he overturned the moneychangers’ tables. He turned the Sabbath law on its head: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). He reversed economics. Instead of “get as much as you can,” he said, “Go, sell all you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21). Jesus inverted the impulse of self-preservation: “Whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” (Luke 17:33). He even promised to reverse life and death: “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). In Mark 10, he turns the tables on his two ambitious disciples, telling them, “whosoever of you wants to be the greatest, shall be servant of all” (44). The disciples didn’t get it. We don’t either.

The truly great Christians are not seeking positions of power but follow Jesus on the not-so-well-worn path of self-sacrifice that leads to suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “when Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).

Discipleship means following Jesus’ teaching and example, not the shallow Me first! preaching we hear from megachurch pulpits or on TV. Robert McElvaine, author of Grand Theft Jesus, calls it “ChristianityLite.” With lots of wry wit and sarcasm he characterizes the Me first! attitude prevalent today: “Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!” (4-5).

If we’re going to get serious about following Jesus, we need to start by repenting of our Me first! approach to life. (Me first.) Self-centeredness is a sin, and sin must be paid for. Jesus “gave his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). This transactional theology makes my liberal friends squirm. Christianity is not a civilized, sophisticated religion. It’s primitive. There’s blood and sacrifice. Jesus had to die as a ransom” to pay the penalty for my sins, and yours.

If we repent of our selfishness and pride, Jesus will show us a better way: “not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45). It’s the way of service to others. Others first! instead of Me first! That’s what Gospel living is all about.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

White Church Calls Black Pastor

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray

This week historic First Baptist Church of Washington, DC (FBC DC) took a bold step across the racial divide when the traditionally white congregation that once had slaves as members called Dr. Jeffrey Haggray as its first African-American pastor. (Presidents Truman and Carter both attended the church while in office.) In a previous post I summarized lessons learned from Dr. Ed Pruden’s memoir A Window on Washington in which the author recounts his long tenure as pastor of FBC DC. One take-away from the book was that “racial integration took a long time, even in the nation’s capital.” Now the church and capital are once again setting an example of racial reconciliation. I applaud FBC DCs membership and congratulate Dr. Haggray on this happy and momentous occasion.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dying In Between

Our faith gives us great hope that we will see our loved ones again. As Christians we know death is not the end. When the body dies the soul lives on. We believe in eternal life and the resurrection of the dead. We look forward to the glorious day when all those who died in Christ shall rise with him, then death will be defeated and swallowed up in victory.

Unfortunately, the same belief, which brings us hope and comfort, can also cause doubt and anxiety. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. (If not, consider yourself blessed.) Most of us have been tormented at times by questions we’re afraid even to speak out loud—questions like: Will I ever see father or mother again? What about my friend, who took his own life? What about our baby, who never even got a chance to be born, much less accept the Lord? These are the kinds of questions that gnaw at one’s soul. My aunt, “Tante”
Karla died last week. She grew up in a Baptist church and in a good Christian home, but in her adult life she didn’t attend church and never openly professed faith in Christ as far as I know. Does this mean she’s now separated from the love of God?

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know. I’m not qualified to judge anyone else’s salvation. Only God knows what goes on in a person’s soul. I can’t tell you what happened in her heart at the point of death, if anything. But I’ll tell you something I do know that gives me comfort and hope: my aunt is in the hands of a loving God whose mercy is greater than I can imagine.

When Jesus was crucified he hung on a cross between two sinners, two thieves. One mocked him in unbelief. The other embraced him with sincere faith and was promised paradise as a reward. It was a dramatic end for both—triumphant for one, tragic for the other. Most of us live our lives somewhere in between. Between acceptance and rejection. Between faith and doubt. Between desire and dispassion. We live in a dark world where the path before us is often unclear and our own hearts become uncertain. We see through a glass darkly, the Bible says, like trying to look through a dirty window (1 Cor. 13:12). Maybe it has to be that way. There can’t be true faith without some element of doubt. Otherwise it wouldn’t be faith. Even those of us who believe, still live in between the now and the not-yet, between time and eternity.

Not only do most of us live somewhere in between, many people, like my Tante Karla, also seem to die in between—between acceptance and rejection of the truth. But think about this: What was in between the two thieves, between the one who professed his faith publicly and the one who cursed openly? Jesus! That’s where Jesus is. And that’s where hope is.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dirty Little Secrets

In a recent blog post “Abortion and the American Conscience,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler highlights some of the chilling racial and population-control motives behind the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country. He calls this “one of the dirty secrets of the abortion rights movement.” While I applaud Mohler’s tireless support for the unborn, I was disappointed because his post ignores the dirty little secrets of the religious, pro-life movement. Didn't Jesus say something about a mote in a brothers eye and beam in one’s own?

Many forget that Southern Baptists initially supported abortion rights and other Evangelicals were slow to oppose Roe v. Wade. (Mohler hints at this lack evangelical pro-life concern in the wake of Roe v. Wade when he admits, “Evangelicals . . . were largely out of the debate” speculating that “a majority of evangelicals seemed to see abortion as a largely Catholic issue.”) Even Evangelist Billy Graham has been less-than-consistent in his statements on abortion over the years.

Here are some facts Mohler left out of his blog:

-Dr. W. A. Criswell, two-time Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president and longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas (and Billy Graham’s pastor for many years), initially voiced his support for Roe v. Wade, saying, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from the mother that it became an individual person, and it always has, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and for the future should be allowed.” Criswell later changed his position, becoming pro-life, as Ronald Reagan, now a patron saint of the Religious Right, had done before seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1976. (Reagan signed the pro-choice Therapeutic Abortion Act into state law when he was governor of California in 1967, over five years before Roe v. Wade.)

-The SBC passed multiple pro-choice resolutions in the 1970s both before and after Roe v. Wade. Only subsequent to the conservatives coming to power in the SBC in 1979 did the denomination begin to pass pro-life resolutions. The same year, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority with an anti-abortion agenda intended to awaken Evangelicals’ to political action as means of social transformation. In subsequent years the Religious Right largely forgot Evangelicals earlier apathy toward abortion.

-A majority of Southern Baptists and Evangelicals voted for the self-proclaimed born-again Presidential Candidate Jimmy Carter in 1976, despite the fact that he was pro-choice.

Don’t get me wrong. Like Mohler I’m pro-life. But I’m also pro-truth. When it comes to dirty little secrets, it’s not just the pro-choice crowd that has something to hide.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Christians are Scheming Swindlers

In my previous post I blogged on the lections (Bible readings) for last Sunday, lamenting the way both the theological right and left have selective hearing. Then I came across this gem by nineteenth-century philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?

(Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard)

Why is it that we let pastors, biblical commentators, Christian authors, and even (gulp) bloggers talk us out of the plain meaning of scripture (if there is such a thing)? It was the serpent who beguiled Eve by asking, "Yea, hath God said . . .?" (Gen. 3:1) In other words, "God didn't really mean that, did he?" Selective listening is a ubiquitous problem that makes the whole world hard of hearing. We all twist scripture for our own self-serving purposes at times. I want the Bible to speak to me in a way that rouses me out of my spiritual lethargy, but I'll admit don't always feel that way. Lord, Give us ears to hear what you are saying!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Left and Right Both Get it Wrong

Theological liberals tend to be more permissive of sexual sins but passionate in their opposition to social and economic injustice. Conservatives get their knickers in a twist over sexual immorality but often ignore economic exploitation to the point of oblivion. In scripture, however, both sex and labor are powerful forces that need divine regulation.

On the sixth day of creation God established both the Sabbath and marriage, making these two the oldest divine institutions. God limited work to six days of the week and circumscribed sex within an exclusive union between one man and one woman. Work and sex are both (re)productive activities God enjoins and protects.

There are, in fact, not one but two creation stories in Genesis—the first majestic, the other messy. Guess which one involves human relationships? (Duh.) When God made the sun, moon, and stars from nothing and filled the earth with living creatures, he pronounced everything “good.” But when he went back to survey his handiwork, he said something was “not good”: “It is not good that man should be alone” (2:18). The Bible doesn’t tell us why it’s not good for man to be alone. Maybe because there’s nobody who will ask for directions. Be that as it may, God’s resolve to make a “helper” for man suggests the need for a coworker more than a soulmate.

If the original purpose of woman was to assist man with his labor, then the so what? of this creation narrative is a little surprising: “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (24). God surgically removed a rib from Adam’s side, in order to create a new kind of physical union—sexual relations between man and woman. At least that’s what’s implied by “they shall become one flesh.” Woman was created to provide a suitable partner for man in both labor and sexual relations. And that partnership was supposed to last (“shall cleave unto his wife”).

Moses, the lawgiver, allowed for divorce and remarriage (Deut. 24:1-4). Jesus, who often played fast and loose with the Sabbath, did not. He said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). Legalism says follow the rules and you’ll be rewarded. Disobey them and you’ll be punished. Jesus was no legalist, yet he gave a more restrictive rule when it comes to marriage and divorce. In context he explained that this higher standard is based on God’s original purpose.

Gospel living is not about what you can get away with and still be within the legal limits. It’s about walking with God and following his plan; and that plan, according to the Bible, is to be sexually active only within the protective bonds of marriage and economically productive without exploitation or workaholism.