Friday, July 29, 2011


Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
- Isaiah 55:6-7 (NIV)

How long does a guy have to wait to get a pardon in New Mexico?
    At least 132 years, apparently. That’s how long William Bonney has waited. And it looks like he’ll be waiting a little longer, since New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson decided not to pardon him on his last day in office.
    In 1879, Bonney was offered a pardon by territorial Governor Lew Wallace in exchange for his testimony in a murder trial. Bonney kept his end of the deal, but the Territory of New Mexico failed to keep theirs. Bonney, who had submitted to arrest until after his testimony, escaped from jail when the promised pardon failed to materialize. When he died two years later, he was still a fugitive in New Mexico. Still is, in fact. Which is just as well. Bonney doesn’t care now what the State of New Mexico thinks about him. And who would have remembered a former outlaw whose career ended with him turning state’s evidence?
    William Bonney is just one alias used by Henry McCarty. Another of his aliases is the one you know: Billy the Kid.
    Though it suits the legend better for The Kid to have been killed by Sheriff Pat Garret while a fugitive from justice, maybe you can understand what it’s like to live without pardon. Without grace, without forgiveness, without mercy. Some folks grow up in families in which every mistake is magnified, every sin scrutinized, every demerit tallied. The records are kept meticulously and opened and reviewed regularly. There is no way to expunge them, or even put them away out of sight. And so those folks grow to believe what they’ve been told: their sins make them unlovable, out of the reach of grace.
    Others come to a consciousness of their sin in churches with a well-developed sense of God’s judgment and a poorly-developed sense of his mercy. They hear over and over that God hates sin, and hear church leaders do little more than rail against the catalogue of sins that he hates. (Though it’s often pretty selective.) And they know the sins that they struggle with, and in time they learn well the lessons they’ve been taught: that God wants nothing to do with them until and  if they get their lives shaped up. And often enough, they decide they want nothing to do with God, either.
    Others wait vainly for pardon from a spouse, a friend, a child. They know the damage they’ve done, and would give anything to take it back or clean it up. They need mercy, but they hear only anger for so long that they eventually give up hope of anything else. Hungering for grace, they sit alone, in the dark, slowly starving to death.
    You know what it’s like to wait vainly for pardon, because you’ve seen first-hand what it does to people you know. You’ve seen the bitterness, the sadness, the anger, the cynicism that has all the nourishment it needs to thrive in a heart empty of the experience of grace.
    Maybe you know it first-hand. Maybe you see the hunger for pardon etched into the lines on the face you see in the mirror. If so, then there’s something you need to hear:
    The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, is a God of pardon.
    The prophet urges his people to seek God, turn to him. Yes, they need to give up wickedness and unrighteousness. But he counsels his people to turn to God because he knows this God as one who offers mercy and pardon. While he hates sin, he loves to forgive sinners.
    Paul says much the same, pointing out in Romans that, though everyone has sinned, fallen  short of God’s glory, in Jesus everyone can be made right again. Jesus himself compares God to a shepherd seeking a lost sheep, a housewife turning her house upside-down to find a coin, a father who welcomes back his lost son. In all those stories, the searchers to some degree overlook the sheep, coins, and son that were never lost in their joy over finding the ones who were. He pictures God’s grace as extravagant, his forgiveness as going beyond what some might consider fair or just. Those who need no pardon might well be incensed by that. But to folks who hunger for pardon, it’s just what they need to hear.
    I know which group I belong to.
    Jesus perhaps nowhere makes the depth of God’s grace any more clearer than he did on the  day he died. He prayed for those who killed him, after all. And he offered forgiveness and acceptance to a dying thief with nothing to bring to Jesus but his own regrets.
    I think that thief understood grace better than any theologian ever has. “We are getting what  our deeds deserve,” he acknowledges. That’s the first step toward receiving God’s pardon, of course. You have to know you need it.
    But the second step is the one that takes him to Jesus. That’s the difference between Judas, who killed himself after he betrayed Jesus, and Peter, who found pardon and began a new life after doing the same thing. One went to Jesus, and the other didn’t. That thief - he knew he had nothing to bring, nothing to offer. So he went to Jesus, hand outstretched, and received more than he could have possibly dreamed. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
    You aren’t intended to live your life waiting for a pardon that never comes. You don’t serve a God who enjoys punishing sins, or who goes back on his word. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves,” the Bible warns us. But if we’re willing to admit what everyone with a conscience knows, that we need pardon: well, in that case, God “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”
    So if today you’re feeling the weight of your sins, and you’re tired of waiting for a pardon that never seems to be coming from the people around you, then maybe it’s time you turned to God. Maybe it’s time you went to him, not with promises or pride or petulance, but with trust that the God who sent his Son to a cross for you will not withhold his forgiveness. Once you receive his pardon, you’ll know that you can never be the same. And your new life will finally be able to start.
    I think you’ve been waiting long enough.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Of Mashed Marshmallows and Acceptance

    May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
    Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
-Romans 15:5-7 (NIV)

Chuck Berman, Chicago Tribune
In the Chicago Tribune this week, Barbara Brotman described coming across a game of Marshmallowball in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. The kids were playing in the street - actually in an intersection, with each corner one of the four bases. They were using an aluminum baseball bat, but some of the other rules were different - including the fact that the ball was a jumbo marshmallow. (Marshmallows go far enough when you hit them with a bat, but not too far.)
    Brotman noted that kids of all ages were playing. If the younger ones had trouble hitting,  the older ones would help them out. She reflected that the once common sight of kids playing ball in streets or vacant lots had become less common as organized leagues and other activities fill summer days. She ended her article, “the kids will look back on this as the summer of the marshmallows — the year they played in the street, spending hours smacking sticky white gobs into the air as the cars slowed and the fireflies flickered and everyone became friends, and summer and marshmallowball will last forever.”
    The marshmallowball article got me into the Wayback Machine, thinking about my own  version of marshmallowball. We played in an intersection, too, though in later years we had to move the fences back to prevent an explosion in home runs. (We never thought to launch an investigation into performance enhancing drugs.) Our game started out as baseball, actually, when we were little kids, but it evolved when we were a little older after Todd Holden lined one foul through the Barnes’ living room window. After that, we played tennisball, which like marshmallowball is pretty self-explanatory.
    Brotman’s article reminded me of how we’d shout “car” whenever one came by. (Often, one of us would shout, as the car passed, “What do you think this is, a street?!” Pretty clever, we were.) We weren’t as busy as a lot of kids are now, I guess. But we never got tired of playing tennisball. If somebody had to go home, we’d just adjust the teams to keep things fair. If there were just a few of us, we’d use ghost runners.
    I’m not going to tell you that we were always so accepting, but anyone was welcome on the tennisball...field? Court? Whatever. The weird kids. The uncoordinated kids. The little kids. Even the girls (and later, especially the girls). We didn’t have strikeouts; there was more a generally-agreed upon time limit for each hitter per turn. The older ones would help the younger ones, too, and no one really cared how good or bad anyone was. (The one attempt we made in about 1979 or 1980 to keep stats ended in failure because no one really cared enough to remember to keep track.) I don’t remember arguing much over the score of the game, because in the end the score didn’t matter. There were no playoffs, no championship; the next day, both teams were 0-0 again. We had something to do. We got exercise. And, most importantly, we got to know each other. We laughed, and enjoyed being together. We discovered that, even if we couldn’t be friends everywhere, we were friends there. I still remember those kids, the things we did, the things we said. I can still see the view from under that streetlight, standing at the crushed Coke can that served as home plate, bat in hand, my friends covering bases or cutting up or leading off a base. (We did have some arguments about leading off...)
   I’m reminded of Paul’s demand that we accept each other, and how some people never have a place where they know they’ll fit, and be welcome, and won’t be judged by their appearance or their performance or whatever. It’s not getting any easier to find, either. The busier we get, the more task-oriented groups we belong to, the more likely we are to lose the art of accepting others - and the joy of just being accepted.
    But believers in Jesus never lose the ability to accept. All we have to do, when we forget, is to think about Jesus. He was never so busy that he didn’t have time to welcome someone who was hurting, or have a meal with someone everyone else shunned, or bounce a child on his knee. He could talk with hair-raising intensity about God’s judgment, but he befriended sinners and always believed that redemption was right around the corner for them.
    And he accepted us, didn’t he? It’s an article of faith among us that he died for our sins, and that in his resurrection he offers us redemption and new life. No matter what we were, what we still can be when our fallen natures have their way, he welcomes us with open arms, love, and grace. He calls us his friends. Invites us to be with him.
    So you know how to accept, and you know some people who need acceptance. You know they’re withering and dying, you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices, and they just desperately need someone to accept them, to notice them, with whatever baggage they may carry, and still be their friend. Unless you’ve been in that place, you can’t imagine what it will mean to that person to have one human being acknowledge their worth and look at them with acceptance and not rejection.
    You can only see it with some people though. Others cover it pretty well. They’re self-sufficient, seemingly. They function at a high level. They’re admired for their achievements, feared for their power, honored for their excellence. From the outside, it looks like everyone loves them. But they’re dying, too, because no one loves them for who they are. There isn’t a soul who knows them for who they really are and loves them. Their worst fear is that they’re unlovable. Unacceptable.
    Sometimes it’s hard to tell. So, as those who know what it is to be accepted without qualification, let’s make it our mission to accept others. Let’s tell and show the people in our lives that they matter, that they’re valuable, just because they’re made in God’s image. Let’s assume, with every person we meet, that if we don’t accept them, no one will. Because that really might be the case. Nothing is a greater witness to the gospel, to the redemptive power of God in Christ Jesus, than for one person to accept another with no strings, no expectations, no hidden agenda.
    Just like in marshmallowball. Except, you know, with less stickiness.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fiddlin' and Non-Fiddlin' Brethren

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
    Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
-Colossians 3:12-15 (NIV)

When Josh was a little kid, we used to watch Veggie Tales together. Even though I don’t have anyone to watch with anymore, I still find myself remembering one episode or the other now and again. It happened to me just last month, in fact.
    The episode I remembered, for you Veg-heads, was the one where the veggies who wore shoes on their heads went to war with the veggies who wore pots on their heads. Yes, I know it sounds silly. Yes, I suppose it was. But what I remembered was the song sung by Junior Asparagus - the one veggie who seemed to grasp the ridiculousness of the war. Junior sang:
“You have a shoe, and I have a pot,
But when we look deeper there’s more that we’ve got....”
    The song came to mind when I met a gentleman from the Independent Churches of Christ. We have a lot in common, the two of us. Both the Independent Christian Churches and the Churches of Christ, the fellowship of churches I’m a part of, come from the American Restoration Movement. We have almost identical beliefs about the stuff that divides a lot of Christians: baptism, observance of the Lord’s Supper, church polity, and so on. What has divided us - officially since 1906, unofficially since before that - has been the kind of music we use in worship. Specifically, the Independent Christian Churches use instruments, while the Churches of Christ use only vocal music.
    That may seem rather minor to some. To others, it’s pretty significant. Practically speaking, it makes worshipping together difficult, at best. And so, for more than a century we’ve remained functionally two separate denominations - even though on both sides of the division, ironically, we decry the existence of denominations.
    Not surprisingly, this brother in Christ and I discovered right away that we had a lot to talk about. He told me about his grandfather, who had been a preacher in Oklahoma who sometimes debated preachers from Churches of Christ. His grandfather, he told me with a laugh, called us in the Churches of Christ the “non-fiddlin’ brethren.”
    I got a good chuckle out of that. “Non-fiddlin’ brethren”: I’ve certainly been called worse.
    “You have a shoe and I have a pot. But when we look deeper there’s more that we’ve got.”
    That certainly applies to fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren. Or to more significant denominational divides between Catholic and Protestant, Western and Eastern, Evangelical and Mainline. It also applies to Christians who in previous generations might have had no contact but who now rub elbows on Sunday mornings: Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and so forth. Surely, it also applies equally to Christians who are wealthy, middle-class, and poor. Liberal or Conservative. Male and Female.  
    It’s a fallacy to imagine that New Testament Christians didn’t have problems with division. They certainly did. To start with, they were a Jewish movement that was gradually and steadily becoming more and more Gentile. Think there weren’t any differences of opinion between Jews and Gentiles over whether to serve pulled-pork sandwiches at church potlucks, or what constituted sexual immorality? You can bet there were, and in fact several New Testament books are actually letters dealing with problems exactly like that.
    And then beyond Jew and Gentile, there were questions of doctrine. Debates about how far freedom in Christ could take women out of the domestic world and into the public. There were free Christians and slave Christians, sometimes in the same church, sometimes in the same household: How did their status as brothers in Christ affect their relationship as slave and master - and vice-versa? Then there were questions of what was appropriate  in a community worship service, who should do it, and how it should be done.
    You’ll find, in fact, that the disagreements sound pretty contemporary. There was one difference, though: in the New Testament, Christians in Corinth or Rome or Thessalonica couldn’t just leave one church and go down the block to another. What you did was stay, and show each other grace, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and put each other first, and show the same forgiveness you had received from Jesus. And, when it was hard to do any of that, you’d just “bear with” each other. And you’d remember that, in Jesus, you’d been called to peace.
    I know that, on some level, it matters whether a church uses musical instruments or doesn’t. I understand that real convictions are involved. But I also know that, compared to what the fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren share in common, it’s a century-old “shoe/pot” division. And I would very much like to not bequeath that division to my son.
    Maybe you can apply some of that to some things going on down at your own church. Maybe the Anglos and Hispanics at your church are having a hard time coexisting. Maybe the Democrats and Republicans aren’t sitting together much anymore. Maybe your church is struggling to figure out how to treat the poor among you with justice, respect, and dignity. Maybe some dispute over how to understand a particular set of texts and doctrines is threatening to divide you.
    Stuff like that is hard to handle, and scary. All I can say to you, in the words of Roger Williams, is, “We find not in the Gospel, that Christ hath anywhere provided for the uniformity of churches, but only for their unity.” In short, if you’re praying for every church to look, think, and act in exactly the same ways, you might be praying for the wrong thing. Williams, in the end, despaired of unity being possible. I’m somewhat more optimistic, if only because I believe that it’s the will of the One who has called us together, the One whose name we bear, and the One in whom we all live.
    “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,” Paul wrote, and that applies to fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren alike. Because, in him, we are brethren - family - and we’re called to peace. If we let the peace of Christ overrule the pride, self-interest, fear, and anger that makes us unable to admit we might not have all the answers, we might take the first steps toward the unity that the Lord wants - expects - in his church.
    Pot-wearers and shoe-wearers, standing side by side.
    Fiddlin’ and non-fiddlin’ brethren, playing the same tune.
    May it be so.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Who Wrote the Bible?

As for God, his way is perfect;
     the word of the LORD is flawless.
He is a shield
     for all who take refuge in him.
-Psalm 118:30 (NIV)

Who wrote the Bible?
     Well, sure: God.
     A team of scholars in Israel, though, is trying to answer the question in a slightly more nuanced way. Using powerful new computer applications, they hope to be able to more completely answer the question of how God used human beings to compose the Bible. By running the biblical text through their computers to analyze, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and so forth, they say they can identify the different writers whose work forms the Scriptures.
     For instance, the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament – has for over a century been believed by scholars to have been the work of more than one author. Various clues, including the name used for God, have been posited by these scholars as a way of determining which sections were contributed by which authors.
     The team - Moshe Koppel, Navot Akiva, and Nachum Dershowitz and his son, Idan Dershowitz – all computer scientists or biblical scholars at universities in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, announced recently the results of their work with the Pentateuch and other biblical texts. As a test case, the team first randomly jumbled the books of Ezekiel and Jeremiah, and the computer was able to sort the mixed-up text back into its component parts “almost perfectly.” With that known result under their belts, the team ran the Pentateuch through their computers. They found that their software was able to verify the academic opinion of the authorship of the Pentateuch about 90 percent of the time. In other words, the vast majority of the time the computers divided the text according to different authors in the same way human scholars have.
     The computers had the same result with Isaiah, verifying the scholarly opinion that Isaiah had at least two authors. (Though they disagreed with where “Second Isaiah” begins; they pegged the second author's section as beginning with chapter 33, instead of the more usual chapter 39.)
     You might imagine the team members are skeptics. You'd be wrong. Three of the four members of the team are religious Jews who, despite their computers' findings, still believe that the Pentateuch was dictated by God to Moses in its entirety. They say he just used differing styles, accounting for the computers' results.
     That may be, of course. Still, why couldn't a God who could dictate a book in its entirety not communicate that same book through various human writers? And why could he not guide an editing process through which the text as we know it came into being? Does that make the text any less his word?
     God has always used people, with all their frailties and inconsistencies, to carry out his will in the world. He used Aaron's rod, Moses' staff, David's sling, a donkey's jawbone in Samson's hand, Peter's boat – the list goes on. So I don't think it should cause a big crisis of faith for us to discover that he may have used the pens of more people than we may have thought, some of whose names we'll probably never know, to communicate his word. Personally, I like the thought of an editor or some editors being led by the Holy Spirit as they put together different texts by different authors into what we know as the story of the patriarchs and the Exodus. I like the thought of a student of Isaiah's, thrilled by the prophet's words to an earlier generation of Israelites, led by God to write an “Isaiah-like” response to events in his own time.
     I think that even might be what makes the Bible the Bible.
     I mean that when we read the Bible, we come away with a clear sense that God is speaking to real people with real problems in a real world. And what better way to do that than through people who were there on the ground, sandals dirty with the pain, uncertainty, and messiness of life? Paul knew and cared about the church in Corinth when he wrote them. Jeremiah saw the siege works around Jerusalem. John knew first-hand that the persecuted church needed encouragement to remain faithful when he wrote Revelation.The psalms still resonate with the pleas and worship their authors offered to God.
     It might very well be that they didn't know who, if anyone, would read their words. Maybe they couldn't have explained how inspiration works. But the human element in the Bible doesn't negate the divine. In fact, it makes the text that much more immediate and relevant for other human beings – like you and me.
     We mustn't make the mistake that some believers, properly concerned about being faithful to the Bible, wind up making. We mustn't imagine that God's word can be restricted to words on a page, however convinced we are that the Bible is God's word. While the written text is, for God's people, certainly the word of God, it is an especially subtle form of idolatry that elevates the text above its true Source. The writers of the Bible didn't make that mistake, after all; they recognized that their own writings were just one particular way in which God has chosen to express himself.
     “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” wrote John. In Jesus, John wrote, “we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Jesus cautioned the Bible-believing people of his day against a bibliolatry that makes a particular understanding and interpretation of the text into a god to be served and worshipped. “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life,” he said of those who failed to trust in him. “These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The Bible testifies to the work of God in the world, especially through Jesus. It was never intended to be a criterion of faith or a password to distinguish the faithful from the unfaithful. The church, it seems, has always looked on those who engage in academic study of the Bible with suspicion, imagining that their work would somehow undermine the text. We've been less willing to look honestly at ourselves and ask whether our own refusal to obey God's word has perhaps undermined it more completely than the most liberal scholars.
     In the end, the most important question is not who wrote which parts of the Bible. It's simply whether or not we're willing to hear the Bible's call to come to Jesus and live.
     It doesn't take a computer to figure that out.