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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lexically Discombobulated

I heard a word today that I haven’t heard in a long time: Catawampus. Or is it catty-wampus? It was used in a documentary to describe the motion of side-wheel steamboats on the ocean—how they’d waddle and lurch sideways like a drunken sailor. It’s got a certain Twain-esque quality, witty and playful, and it made me grin.

Then I started to think about how many funny words there are in English—words like akimbo and lollygag, fillibuster and rigamarole, boondoggle and nincompoop. Some words are comical because of their rhyming sounds. Mamby-pamby and fuddy-duddy come to mind. Others tickle one’s fancy because of their onomatopoetic quality, like kerplunk or cock-a-doodle-doo.

Word combinations can be funny too. William Safire, who died this week, came up with a doozey when he coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.” He was a presidential speechwriter for Richard Nixon, who should have gone to the hoosegow. Safire also wrote for Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had a funny name. Speaking of funny names, when I lived in Santa Barbara I used to rent movies from Video Schmideo.

Language is a cockamamie thing that can occasionally make even a cantankerous curmudgeon like me smile.

(If you liked this post, I’d recommend you peruse Alphabet Juice by Roy Blount, Jr.)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Learning to See

I remember when I first started reading the Bible, really reading it. When I was young the Bible was read to me at church and revered in the home, but I didn't begin perusing its rich library of literature until high school. I recall the mixed joy and frustration as I worked my way through the Pentateuch, marveled at the wonder and mystery of the Bible’s apocalyptic literature, and learned from the profound yet practical theology of the epistles. It’s a journey of discovery I’m still on today.

I’ve been on another journey of discovery lately—a journey into the world of fine art. I used to think of art as mere decoration, something pleasing to look at. When I was a child I thought Norman Rockwell was the greatest artist in the world and spent hours leafing through the coffee table book we had of his illustrations in our family’s home. Later I graduated to Monet’s Water Lilies and other images I found “pretty.”

I’ve been learning that art is more than aesthetics, a lot more than mere decoration. Art is as varied as life itself. And, like the Bible, art can be mesmerizing, thought provoking, frightening, inspiring, funny, confusing, convicting, offensive, and so much more. I’m awed by the variety of art and its ability to speak to me, if I let it.

When I first began studying the Bible, I needed a lot of help to understand, like the Ethiopian eunuch sitting in his chariot (Acts 8:26-40). Commentaries, study Bibles, and other helps served as my guides and still do. Whenever I came across a passage I found troubling or difficult, I was quick to find a way to lessen the tension, often explaining away the problem for my own comfort’s sake. (Jesus didn’t really mean sell all you have, did he? Of course not!) Now when I read the Bible I look for those things that confuse, trouble, or even offend me. Usually there’s a teachable moment, and if I listen, I’ll hear God speak.

Just as I've found a new way of reading the Bible, I've develop a new approach to art. I used to shun all modern art. When I saw an abstract painting or sculpture, I’d think to myself, “That’s not real art” and turn away. I’m learning to look a little longer and ask a few questions: Who was the artist and what was she trying to say? Was she reacting against something? What genre or school of art is it from and how does it fit into that tradition? Is there anything new or unexpected here, if so what?

As part of my effort to learn how to appreciate art more, I recently read a book by Michael Kimmelman called The Accidental Masterpiece. It’s a good book, but one small passage had a bigger impact on me than any other: “Art is about a heightened state of awareness. Try to treat everyday life, or at least parts of it, as you would a work of art.” Art is about learning to see.

It’s also about learning to listen. A few days ago I read this passage from Thomas Merton:

Music is pleasing not only because of the sound but because of the silence that is in it: without the alternation of sound and silence, there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling in the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have not silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have not rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will seem silently to withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty.

Immediately my mind turned to the avant-garde composer John Cage, whose 1952 work 4’33” is made up of three movements without a single note. When he performed this piece he just sat at the piano and played nothing. I used to think that was a stupid gimmick—musical chicanery meant to impress gullible pseudo-intellectuals. Now I’m wondering whether he was trying to say something similar to what Merton said: silence is as important to music as sound, and if you listen to silence you actually hear something. But you have to be a lot more attentive when listening to silence.

I also thought of the artist Robert Rauschenberg, famous for his collages and sculptures made with junk he found. Yes, literal trash. In 1953 he erased a painting by the famous abstract artist Willem de Kooning, probably the most famous artist at the time. The work is called Erased de Kooning. It’s simply a blank canvas that had once been full of color. Maybe one of the many things the mischievous artist was saying has to do with the importance of the empty space on a canvas. At least that’s one effect of this unique un-painting.

Don’t get me wrong; I still like Norman Rockwell. Some refined intellectuals look down their noses at him and consider his art mawkish, overly sentimental. The problem is those snobs haven’t looked closely enough at his oeuvre. I’d challenge them to take a look at Rockwell’s 1964 painting The Problem We All Live With, done at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s one of the most striking social critiques by an artist.

So, I’m learning to look at art, if not life, a little more carefully. What have you noticed lately?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Wisdom and Joy for Fifty Cents

I think the greatest invention of humankind is the public library—a place where you can learn so much for free. Next comes used bookshops and thrift stores, where you can buy books for next to nothing. One nice thing about moving to a new area is getting to explore new secondhand stores for treasures. It’s a cheap thrill I learned from my wife. After a day of poking through dusty piles of cast-off goods, I came back home yesterday with a small stack of books for fifty cents each. In my collection were a couple of full-color art books (one on The Prado collection, another on the Musee D’Orsay), a biography of Paul Klee (ok, I’m on an art kick right now), Halftime (a self-help book about midlife crisis—don’t ask), a military history for work, and a devotional by Frederick Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner, I’m told). Lacking any profound thoughts of my own on this Labor Day weekend, I’ll share with you the passage for today from Buechner’s book:

To Suffer in Love (September 7)

What man and woman, if they gave serious thought to what having children inevitably involves, would ever have them? Yet what man and woman, once having had them and loved them, would ever want it otherwise? Because side by side with the Buddha’s truth is the Gospel truth that “he who does not love remains in death.” If by some magic you could eliminate the pain you are caused by the pain of someone you love, I for one cannot imagine working such magic because the pain is so much a part of the love that the love would be vastly diminished, unrecognizable, without it. To suffer in love for another’s suffering is to live life not only at its fullest but at its holiest. “One mustn’t have human affections—or rather one must love every soul as if it were one’s own child,” The whiskey priest thinks to himself as he says good-bye for the last time to his own daughter in Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory. (Listening to Your Life, 239).

Friday, September 4, 2009

When God Tells You to Sin

What do you do when God tells you to sin? Sounds contradictory, even heretical, doesn’t it? It’s a difficult if not impossible question for those of us who believe the Bible to be a product of divine inspiration, not merely a record of human experiences with God. Acts 10 records a vision in which God tells the Apostle Peter to do something he’s never done and always believed was wrong:

On the morrow, as they went on their journey, and drew nigh unto the city, Peter went up upon the housetop to pray about the sixth hour: And he became very hungry, and would have eaten: but while they made ready, he fell into a trance, And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending upon him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: Wherein were all manner of four-footed beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice: and the vessel was received up again into heaven. (Acts 10:9-16)

What God asked Peter to do clearly violated biblical dietary laws. It’s too easy to say the vision was a metaphor or a parable about racism, while that is certainly true too. The symbolism wouldn’t work well if the literal meaning were false. That is, if God intended Peter to keep kosher after the vision, never eating any unclean animals, it would have been much harder for him to “get” the importance of accepting unclean people like the gentile Cornelius. (The vision prepared Peter to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius and his house.)

Reformed theologians sort Old Testament laws into three categories: civil, ceremonial, and moral. Only the moral laws are still valid in New Testament times they say. This solution is as elegant as it is contrived. Nowhere do we find this classification system in the Bible, and Jews have always believed that keeping ritualistic laws was their moral and spiritual duty.

It also doesn’t help to plead for a special case. Peter was an apostle, who lived when the Bible was still being written. True. But even if we don’t claim any kind of special revelation for ourselves, we’re still left wondering whether God changes or contradicts himself. No one wants a fickle, schizophrenic god, but I think we sometimes put God in a biblical box that’s too small to contain him.

The passage above illustrates a difficult religious conundrum. What do we do when there is a conflict between religious authorities? How do we prioritize them? Does a vision from God trump the Bible or vice versa? I was taught to go with scripture over any kind of subjective experience. That was Peter’s approach: “Not so, Lord!” But the Bible seems to undermine its own authority in this passage, putting a mystical experience over holy writ.

I’ve been thinking about this passage for two weeks now, and I’m still wrestling with it. Once I think I’ve got it figured out, I’m moving on to the story about when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Modern-Day Martyr

I arrived back in Virginia from Germany Friday evening and went straight to a hotel, because the movers had come to pack up our belongings for our move to Annapolis. (See my previous blog post about my new job.) Saturday morning, I woke up jet lagged around 4:30 am and headed to the IHOP, one of the few restaurants open at that hour. While sipping my coffee I perused the Washington Post. One tiny news report caught my attention. The headline read: “N. Korea Accused of Executing a Christian.” (You can read a longer version from the previous day’s Post here.)

The story was about a woman, Ri Hyon Ok, “a Christian woman accused of distributing the Bible, which is banned in communist North Korea.” Ok, “a 33-year-old mother of three,” was executed after being accused of spying for South Korea and the United States. (While it’s almost impossible to verify the truth of such reports coming out of communist North Korea, I’m going to assume that Ok was indeed killed for Bible distribution, not espionage.)

I’ve been thinking about Mrs. Ok since Saturday. It would have been easy for her to rationalize a different approach to her faith. There’s no scriptural mandate to distribute Bibles. She had a family to think about. And didn’t Paul say something about all authority being given by God? Who was she to disobey her God-appointed rulers? But Ok did not rationalize away her Christian duty. Instead she did what most of us would be too cowardly to do. She put her faith into action, despite the danger. The Bible for which she died sheds light on her situation. Jesus said, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:10).

When the Apostle Paul was in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), he had a peculiar vision one night: “There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:9). When he got to Macedonia, however, he didn’t find a man; he found a godly woman named Lydia (v. 14). Through Lydia God established a beachhead for the Gospel in Europe. Pray he will do the same in North Korea through the faithful witness of Ri Hyon Ok.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Flyleaf Verse

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his servants.

O LORD, I am your servant. (Ps. 116:15-16)

The first verse above is written in the flyleaf of my Bible. It’s there to comfort those who mourn. To help them see that death is not the tragedy we make it out to be, especially for those of us who believe.  In its crudest form the subtext goes something like this: “Why are you so overwhelmed with grief just because someone you love died? The Bible says death is a good thing, so cheer up!” Yikes.

I got quite a shock this morning when I read the verse in context. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his servants,” so far so good. Then the next verse: “O LORD, I am your servant.” Bam! I was taken aback. It’s not talking about someone else’s death. It’s talking about my own!

In any case, the psalmist is talking about his own death, not another’s. Apparently he was weighed down with grief to the point of despair. In verses 8 and 9, the psalmist says God delivered him from death and expresses his determination to live, even to do the things he promised to do (14). Then he declares a new understanding about his own death, now no longer imminent. Death is not something to be dreaded, at least not from God’s perspective. It’s “precious”—like picking up a child after the first day of school, or, better still, like a child who was lost being found.

When I think of my own death, I usually regret mistakes I’ve made or worry about things I won’t have accomplished. It’s not bad to take stock of our lives and to be aware of the consequences of our actions. However, it shouldn’t get in the way of living.

I’m adding to the flyleaf of my Bible, “O LORD, I am your servant.” And this: “P.S.: Don’t  forget to live!”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Finding God

Where do you find God? No, it’s not a trick question. For many people a house of worship is where they find God—in community with other believers gathered for that purpose. That’s a wonderful place. But what about those in between times, when God’s people are scattered? Maybe, like me, you worship at home with your family. But what about when you’re far from home and community?

I’m currently in Germany, chipping away at my dissertation. (The cathedral of Mainz, pictured above, is what I see framed in my window.) Here I have no faith community, no family, no place where I feel at home. So what then?

Thomas Merton, a modern mystic, has some advice:

If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of God’s life, that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest. For it is God’s love that warms me in the sun and God’s love that sends the cold rain. It is God’s love that feeds me in the bread I eat and God that feeds me also by hunger and fasting. It is the love of God that sends the winter days when I am cold and sick, and the hot summer when I labor and my clothes are full of sweat: but it is God who breathes on me with light winds off the river and in the breezes out of the wood. (Spiritual Illuminations)

May you find God today wherever you are, whether in church, at home, or far everything familiar. 

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Movie Tip

Chick flicks are a guilty pleasure of mine. My wife, on the other hand, prefers action-adventure. Go figure. I used to like war movies, especially classics like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Dirty Dozen, Paths of Glory, and The Cruel Sea. Since my own personal war experience I don’t enjoy those movies as much. I prefer love stories. Some of my favorite Romantic movies (“chick flick” is derogatory, I’m told) are Casablanca, Sabrina (both versions), Cyrano (the one with Gerard Depardieu), An Affair to Remember, and My Fair Lady. (I draw the line at Jane Austin films; they lower the testosterone level too much.)

Now I’m adding another movie to my favorites list: Crossing Delancey (1988), which I just discovered. It’s a modern love story about an uptown girl who is set up with a downtown guy by her typical Jewish grandmother and an annoying matchmaker. It’s sort of a cross between The African Queen and Fiddler on the Roof. Imagine, an engaging romance without a single sex scene. If you’re looking for a good movie to rent or download, try this one. Mazal tov

Friday, July 3, 2009


Wednesday was “I-Day,” Induction Day, at the U.S. Naval Academy, the day new midshipmen are sworn in and begin their training. It was my first day at USNA too, although my experience was low key and less stressful. The word that best captures the uniqueness of incoming class of plebes is “diversity.” It’s the most racially diverse incoming class in the Academy’s 164-year history.

However, not everyone is thrilled. One English Professor has raised concerns about the “dumbing down” of the school and, by extension, Navy’s Officer Corps as a result of the new diversity push. (Read the Washington Post article here.) He wants the admissions process to be colorblind. Academy officials insist it is. While I too am concerned about fairness, I’m not sure colorblindness is always a good thing. There's a particularly dangerous and insidious form of colorblindness—not a colorblindness that regards all as having equal worth but one that refuses to see the unique challenges experienced by racial minorities and the benefits diversity brings to a liberal, well-rounded education.

Personally, I’m excited to begin teaching at time when the U.S. Naval Academy is more diverse than ever.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Father Heart of God

     In 1967, Chaim Potok published his best-selling novel The Chosen about two teenage Jewish boys growing up in 1940s Brooklyn. One of the boys, Danny, was raised in a strict orthodox community where his father was the spiritual leader. Danny is expected to take his father’s place as head of the community one day, but there’s a problem. Danny is a brilliant, gifted boy and his father believes he doesn’t have enough empathy to be a good rabbi. So he intentionally shuns his own son, talking to him only when they discuss the Torah. He inflicts pain upon his son for his own good. What kind of father would do that to his own son?

     That got me wondering, Does God do that? Does our Heavenly Father inflict pain and suffering on us? The Book of Job explores the problem of suffering in depth. Job is a most unfortunate man, despite the fact that he is righteous. He goes from being wealthy to abject poverty and from health to miserable chronic illness. He loses all of his children—everything. His wife tells him to curse God and die.  This he does not do, but he does complain, a lot, and protest his innocence. He can’t help asking God, Why?

     Several things are clear in the text. Job did not suffer on account of anything he did wrong. In one of the most troubling verses in the Bible, God tells Satan that Job retained his integrity, “even though you made me destroy him for no reason” (2:3). Even if God didn’t cause Job’s misfortune, he clearly permitted it. Despite allowing Job to suffer, God is good. How can these things all be true? How could an all-powerful God allow the innocent to suffer and still be called good? It’s the classic statement of the problem of evil. 

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said fathers naturally give good gifts to their children and adds, “How much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?” (Matt. 7:11). I’ve heard some people argue that “Father” is a Christian, not Jewish, term for God. They say you won’t find God addressed as “Father” in the Old Testament. That may be technically true, but the idea of God as father is certain there. In the book of Isaiah, the LORD says of Israel, “I have nourished and brought up children and they have rebelled against me” (1:2).  If God is indeed our Father, then we have to ask, What kind of father allows his children to suffer?

     Job not only wanted an answer, he demanded one. “My desire,” Job says, “is that the Almighty would answer me, and that mine adversary had written a book” (31:35). Little did he know that his life would become one of the main stories his “adversary”—that is, God—put in His book! Well, after thirty-eight chapters, God finally shows up. Better late than never. Only he doesn’t give Job a direct answer to his question. God answers Job’s question with more questions, starting with, Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (38:4). 

     God goes on to ask Job how much he understands about the origin of the universe, about oceanography, about meteorology, and other things. This arrangement of rhetorical questions shows that Job’s understanding is too limited to grasp the answer to the questions he asks. Feeling appropriately rebuked, Job confesses that said things he didn’t comprehend, things too lofty for him (42:3).

     I like the fact that God didn’t deny Job’s pain or try to minimize it by saying those glib things we sometimes hear such as, “You’re young enough to have more children.” There are no easy answers to hard questions like, Why do the innocent suffer? 

     Ultimately God answered Job’s question not with words but with deeds. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to earth to participate in our suffering as an example of God’s love. Jesus was falsely accused, unfairly condemned, and cruelly tortured before dying a criminal’s death. The God of the Bible is not aloof from or unresponsive to human pain and suffering. He redeems it—through the death of his only Son. This is the Father Heart of God: He loved us enough to suffer with us and for us. 

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Shack Group

Over the past two weeks I’ve been attending a discussion group on William P. Young’s novel The Shack. This engaging, thought-provoking book plunges the reader head first into the problem of evil (Why do bad things happen to good people?). It’s a real page-turner, but I have some reservations about the theology behind the book. I also don’t like the way the author keeps the reader guessing, Is it true? Did it really happen? It’s gimmicky, at best. But that’s not what I want to talk about.

The discussion group has been a joy. It’s made up of young and old, Baptists and non-Baptists, ministers and lay people.  Most are white Americans, but there are also minorities, including some foreigners. Some participants are theologically conservative, others progressive.  Yet we’re all there for the common purpose of discussing the book, which means we’re talking about, and debating at times, what it means to believe in God.

In the book of Revelation, there’s an image of heaven in which those around God’s throne sing a new song:

Thou art worthy to take the book,

And to open the seals thereof:

For thou wast slain,

And hast redeemed us to God

By the blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation

And hast made us unto our God kings and priests

And we shall reign upon the earth.

I’m drawn to the fact that heaven is made up of a diverse group of people. In contrast, the churches I’ve attended for most of my life have been quite homogeneous, often intentionally so. Most Sunday mornings I worship in a sea of white, middle class, Republicans. Our common faith in Jesus Christ should unite us, not demographics. I want to find a church that looks a little more like heaven, or at least more like my discussion group. 

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Rumor of War

     Everyone struggles with stereotypes—expectations of what we are or are not supposed to be and do. Often in the military, chaplains are pegged as cheerleaders, jolly people who go around spreading sunshine. Anyone who knows me knows that my personality is not well suited to this role. I’ve resisted the temptation to be the chaplain who hands out candy and slaps people on the back. I feel more comfortable dealing with people in pain than with those who want me to be a happy, sappy chappy. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the rhyme.)

     I just finished reading Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, a realistic memoir of a Marine Corps infantry officer in Vietnam, which has been on my reading list for some time. I came across a fascinating passage in which the chaplain is a thought-provoking, albeit irritating, ethical commentator. It’s is too long to reproduce here, but I’ll share the end of it. The author has just recounted a contentious conversation with Chaplain Ryerson, “who was as thin and cheerless as the doctor was heavyset and jolly,” about the apparent futility of the war and its toll in human suffering.

     Leaving the mess, I went back to my desk. It was difficult to work. The tent was stifling, and I felt confused. The chaplain’s morally superior attitude had rankled me, but his sermon had managed to plant doubt in my mind, doubt about the war. . . .

     “Twelve wrecked homes.” The chaplain’s words echoed. “That’s twelve wrecked homes. The doctor and I think in terms of human suffering, not statistics.” I thought about Sullivan again. He was one of those statistics, just like the four enemy soldiers killed that morning. The only difference was that they were in different columns on the colonel’s scoreboard. “Twelve wrecked homes.” I thought about Sullivan’s young widow in Pennsylvania and a chill passed thought me. Maybe her husband had died for nothing, maybe for something. Either way, it could not make much difference to her now. (179-80).

     The chaplain’s pastoral concern for the families of the dead was clearly a factor in his righteous indignation. His “morally superior attitude” may have been caused by the stressors of war allowing his inner voice to come out unguarded or it may have just been his personality. Whether or not he was tactful, there’s a positive lesson to be learned from his approach to ministry in the role of ethical advisor.  As chaplains, we have to resist becoming mere spokesmen for the  government—what  the Soviets called propaganda officers. Otherwise we’ve sold our birthright for a mess of pottage. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Lord is My Shepherd

The 23rd Psalm is a psalm of comfort and assurance. As a child I recited it  when I was afraid. As an adult too. Under fire in Iraq, my Christianity was stripped of its superstructure. All of the theological sophistication vanished like the threat of WMDs and my faith was momentarily compressed into its most basic expressions—the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm.

With just six verses, the 23rd Psalm is the theological equivalent of the Gettysburg Address—short and profound. It’s a favorite at funerals, and for good reason. Not just because it mentions “the shadow of death,”  but because it avoids easy answers to the problem of pain and suffering. It doesn’t give the glib responses and clich├ęs we often hear from well-meaning believers, such as, “Everything will be OK,” “Every cloud has a silver lining,” or, “You’re young enough to have another child.” No, the psalmist is no Pollyanna. He’s not whistling in the dark to keep up his nerve. He offers no simplistic solutions or pious platitudes—not even the assurance that “God works all things together for good.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, said in an interview “that the 23rd Psalm answers the question, how do you live in a dangerous and unpredictable world?” There’s no denying the darkness in the valley. Yet his solution is very simple: “Thou art with me.” The Shepherd-God—whom the psalmist addresses personally in verse 1, “the Lord is my Shepherd—he does not take away the danger, rather he leads us through it. Again Rabbi Kushner:

People who have been hurt by life get stuck in “the valley of the shadow,” and they don’t know how to find their way out. And that's the role of God. The role of God is not to explain and not to justify but to comfort, to find people when they are living in darkness, take them by the hand, and show them how to find their way into the sunlight again.

As much as we say we want our freedom and autonomy, there’s nothing more comforting in a crisis than knowing someone else is in charge. In all of our dark valleys, someone else is in charge. That’s one thing that stands out to me about this psalm—its focus on divine activity. It is God who takes the initiative. He’s the one making us lie down to rest in green pastures. He’s the one leading us beside still waters and in the right paths or “paths of righteous” as the King James has it. Over and over, God is the subject and we are the object.

The final verse contains a surprise. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.” The Hebrew word for “follow” actually means “pursue.” God’s goodness is not shuffling along behind. It’s hot on our heels, chasing us like a hungry cheetah after an antelope. Fortunately for us, we get caught. God’s mercy allows us to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This is a promise of the resurrection, when the people of God will be raised up to live with Him. It’s not the punishment we will escape or the perfection we will obtain that brings comfort. Rather, we’re told our reward in the world to come is being with the Lord, not just for a time but for eternity.

It’s not flattering being called a sheep, especially if you know how dumb sheep are, but given the biblical alternatives (wolves, goats) being a sheep isn’t all that bad, especially when your shepherd is God.