Friday, January 31, 2014

Geocentrism, Segregation, and Other Biblical Doctrines

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.
-Psalm 119:105 (NIV)

From Rachel Held Evans, a short historical overview of Biblical interpretation:

In the 16th Century: 
“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.” - Martin Luther in "Table Talk" on a heliocentric solar system.

In 1637:
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.” - Captain John Underhill, defending the Puritan decimation of the Pequot tribe.

In 1846: 
“The evidence that there were both slaves and masters of slaves in churches founded and directed by the apostles, cannot be got rid of without resorting to methods of interpretation that will get rid of everything.” - Rev. Leonard Bacon, in defense of American slavery. 

In 1869: 
“The Bible is the revealed will of God, and it declares the God-given sphere of woman. The Bible is, then, our authority for saying woman must content herself with this sphere…Who demand the ballot for woman? They are not the lovers of God, nor are they believers in Christ, as a class. There may be exceptions, but the majority prefer an infidel’s cheer to the favor of God and the love of the Christian community.”  - Rev. Justin Dewey Fulton 

In 1960: 
“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.” - Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration entitled, 'Is Segregation Scriptural?'

     One thing that every person quoted above was sure about, without doubt or hesitation, is that the Bible was absolutely clear on the subject he was addressing. They defended a geocentric universe, genocide, slavery, denying the right of suffrage to women, and segregation by appealing to Scripture - and they had no doubts. They weren’t racists, they would have assured us. They weren’t misogynists. They were simply pointing out and defending what anyone could read for themselves in the Bible. 
     Of course, they would also have had to conveniently ignore the fact that at least some of those arguing the other side of those same issues were also just as convinced that the Bible was indisputably clear and supported their side of the debate.
     Ironically, if we want to isolate the primary cause of our culture’s disregard of the Bible, we don’t have to look much farther than the church. Too often, the use of Scripture by Christians eager to defend the Bible’s “obvious” and “clear” meaning has done more harm than good in encouraging those around us to read and listen to and try to live by it. Our use of Scripture, as seen above, has left at best a legacy of embarrassing missteps and at worst a set of catastrophic and tragic consequences in which we have found ourselves arguing for the oppressor against the oppressed. We’ve played our exegetical fiddles while Rome, and the church with it, has burned around us.
     The psalmist calls God’s word a lamp, lighting the way he walks on a long and possibly treacherous journey. That’s interesting, on a number of fronts. First off, the lamp and the journey are not the same. The lamp lights up the path ahead so that the holder can move forward, set off on the way. When the church has been at its worst, it’s often because we’ve gotten stuck sitting huddled in the comfortable glow of our lamps, maybe holding them up every now and then to peer down the dangerous path and shake our heads at the difficulty of the journey. God has given us his light as a call to lives of service and ministry, and instead we’ve often used it to stake out comfortable positions along the way and ensure ourselves that our prejudices and preconceptions aren’t only right, but sanctioned by God himself.  
     That image of light for a long and dangerous journey is also interesting, though, because it does assume that there is a proper path to be illuminated. I think the church’s impulse to find authority in the Bible is right. While most of us probably aren’t satisfied with a view of inspiration that has God dictating the Scriptures word-for-word, we’re not wrong to believe that they are in some way inspired, and therefore in some way authoritative.
     In what way, exactly, demands more space than this. To take a stab at it, though, I would insist on a few touchstones for finding authority in Scripture. The first is that Jesus, not the Bible, is primarily the Word of God. The rest of the Bible is to be read through the lens of Jesus, and not vice versa. I know that can be tricky, but it’s fundamental. We are Christians, not Biblians.“What Would Jesus Do?” might be the most important exegetical question of all.
     I’d insist that the Bible belongs to the church as a whole, not just the part of it that’s in the majority, or in power, or is most influential at any given time. The church might have seen the evil of slavery long before it did if black Christians had a seat at the interpretive table. We might have a better record on the treatment of women if women’s readings of Scripture were given more of a place in the discussions. The church’s attitudes toward immigration might change if immigrant believers get the chance in our churches to share their understandings of Scripture. It’s no surprise that the most deviant theology gets a foothold in the segments of the church that are most closed to diversity and dissent. 
     Finally, I’d insist that love - for God and neighbor - be the dominant interpretive key for our reading of Scripture. Jesus said that all the Scriptures hang on those two commands. Love demands that we think of others before ourselves and that we obey God when our own preferences lie elsewhere. Love is the only counter for a reading of Scripture that enshrines the status quo, elevates opinion, and allows the oppressor to go unchallenged.

     If nothing else, may we be reminded that often when we say, “The Bible is clear” the loudest, it’s anything but. May we have the courage to recognize that if believers were wrong in their reading of the Bible back then, they might be today. And we might be among them. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

To Death

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you,  and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.
-Jesus, Revelation 2:10 (NIV)

Last week, Hiroo Onoda finally surrendered.
     He didn’t in 1945, when the rest of the Japanese Empire surrendered to the Allies. While other Japanese soldiers returned to their families and started new lives, Hiroo remained at his post on Lubang Island in the Philippines. He had been deployed there in 1944 as an intelligence officer, tasked with carrying on a guerrilla war of sabotage against the Allies. He was given two orders: “Never surrender, and Never take your own life.” And he was given a promise: “Whatever happens, we will come back for you.”
     He didn’t surrender in the years following the Japanese surrender. The three other soldiers still with Hiroo at the end of the war either walked away or died in the intervening years, but Hiroo remained at his post. He fought the war he had been deployed to fight, occasionally getting into shootouts with police. His actions even killed several Filipinos, though he was later pardoned for those crimes. Point is he stayed at his post and fought. Though most would have called it a fool’s errand, a lost cause, he followed his orders. He didn’t surrender, and he waited for the day when his fellow soldiers came back for him.
     He continued the fight that the rest of Japan had given up, in fact, for nearly thirty more years.
     It wasn't until 1974, when Japanese adventurer Norio Suzuki located him, that he finally ended his war. (Suzuki was traveling around the world, looking for “Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order.”) Suzuki couldn’t convince him to lay down his arms alone, however. He had to fly back to Japan with photos. The Japanese government tracked down his former commanding officer, Yoshimi Taniguchi (who had become a bookseller), who flew back to the Philippines to fulfill his promise and officially relieve Hiroo of duty.
     Onoda became something of a hero on his return to Japan. He wrote a book, collected back pension, and was encouraged to run for government office. Eventually, though, he moved to Brazil where he got married, raised cattle, became involved in local government, and established an educational camp for Japanese teenagers. In 1996 he returned to Lubang Island and donated US$10,000 to a local school. In Brazil, he was awarded honors by the Air Force and the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. 
     Last week, at the age of 91, he surrendered in his last battle, with pneumonia.
     You might question the wisdom of Hiroo continuing to fight a lost war for thirty years. You might feel sorrow at the time he wasted, though I doubt he would have looked at it that way. You might well mourn the lives lost because he continued to fight. But one thing you can’t do is question his faithfulness. He lived in a makeshift camp in the mountains of Lubang Island for thirty years, while the rest of his countrymen rebuilt their lives and their nation. Faithfulness rarely runs much deeper than that.
     It’s much easier to accommodate to the changing winds around us, and so that’s what most people do. That’s why Jesus had to remind churches that seemed to be fighting a losing battle that they should “be faithful, even to the point of death.” Those believers were hiding in the mountains, metaphorically speaking. Anyone looking on from the outside would say that the war was over, and they had lost. There have been lots of believers through the intervening centuries, and many today, in fact, who have found themselves in the same circumstances. And all of us, from time to time, have at least found that we’ve held unpopular views, swam against the currents of culture. We’ve all had the experience of feeling like we’re fighting a war that most everyone else gave up on long ago.
     It can be hard to remain faithful when everyone around me says that it’s foolish to keep caring for my neighbor. My neighbor should get a job and care for himself, and, anyway, the government has programs to take care of the poor.
     It’s hard to be faithful when people whose opinions I care about tell me that it’s foolish to worship some God I can’t see, and who doesn’t even seem to care that much for the people he supposedly created. When they say that it’s much more sensible to trust in human achievement, rational thought, and empirical, impartial science.
     It’s hard to be faithful when the world I live in says it’s foolish to think that Jesus was raised from the dead and will come back to raise from the dead those who believe in him. It’s an outdated belief, I’m told, that smacks of ignorance, superstition, and mythology. It has no relevance in a modern world.
     It can be hard to be faithful when we’re told that it’s foolish to waste time worrying about sin. Life is short, everything about our world says, and we should squeeze everything we can out of it, as often as we can. We should just try not to hurt anyone else, as much as possible.
     It can be hard to remain faithful when we’re told that our convictions are motivated by hate, prejudice, and intolerance, even when we try to communicate those convictions with humility, gentleness, and love.
     So we need to hear the orders again, too: “be faithful, even to the point of death.” 
     That’s dramatic. It’s meant very short lives for some believers. For others, it’s meant long, difficult lives. It can mean walking into the swords or guns of militant enemies of the faith, or it can mean living with the enmity and ridicule of neighbors and even family. It might mean imprisonment, or it might mean living free but with a sense of loneliness and isolation. We all need to be reminded of our orders: “whatever happens, don't give up. Don't go back to living by the rules and priorities and whims of a world that doesn’t know God. Continue to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost might be.”
     And we need to hear the promise: “I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” That’s the difference between us and Lieutenant Onoda: Jesus will come back for us one day, but not to tell us that we’ve lost the war. He’ll come to tell us that we’ve won. He’ll come, not to pin a medal of valor to our chests, but to reward us with the prize for victory: life. Life that’s eternal in duration and perfect in quality. Not shattered by death, or darkened by evil, or plagued by disease, or threatened by hatred and violence, but full of joy, love, peace, and fellowship.
     This life is ours because Jesus, too, was faithful to the point of death. He asks us only to be as faithful as he was. If we’ll share in his faithfulness, we will share in the joy of his life.

     So may we be faithful. May we follow him in everything we do and say. And may we never lay down our arms in the battle against our own tendencies to give up until he comes to tell us it’s time to stop fighting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Hands That Hold the Nets

“People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a snare, people are often caught by sudden tragedy.”
Ecclesiastes 9:12)

Imagine you’re a fish.
    Come on, imagine it. You’ve got fins and gills. You live in water, not air. You spend your days looking for food and avoiding sharks. You have a simple life. The rules are clear, and the complications are few. But you have one great fear.
    Not the sharks. Oh, they’re dangerous, of course, but statistically they get very few of you. The thing you fear most is the stuff of fish legends and myths. It’s the horror story of undersea life. The thing you fear most is nameless and faceless. It takes many fish, and they’re never heard from again. It’s especially frightening because it’s so sudden. You’re just minding your own business, and you’re suddenly ripped away from the world you know, into...what? A few have escaped. They’ve come back to tell of a strange world without water to breathe, populated by weird, loud fish with no fins and no scales, but plenty of these horrible things that the strange fish call “nets”.
    OK, OK, I’ll stop. But are you getting my point? I want you to imagine you’re a fish because I want you to imagine the fear generated in a school of fish by these everyday, ordinary things called “nets”. To us, they’re unremarkable: just strands of fiber interlocked to form mesh. To a fish, a net is the end of life as he knows it. A net is the great unknown.
   Now you see, don’t you? “Like fish in a net...people are often caught by sudden tragedy.” An earthquake that kills thousands. A plane lost at sea. The sudden grave illness of a child. The stroke that takes a parent before a son or daughter can say goodbye. Tragedy’s usually sudden. It rarely comes with a warning, and even when it does the warning never prepares you. Divorce papers arrive, you find a pink slip in a pay envelope, you read the suicide note of a close friend, and suddenly you can relate to a fish in a net. You’re ripped away from the familiar. A strange new world whirls around you. You can’t focus, you can’t hear anything over the chaos, and you can’t even draw a breath.
    You’ve probably been there. Maybe you’re there right now. Certainly, if you live any time in this world, you’ll be there one day. What do you do? How do you handle it when the net of tragedy closes around you?
    Maybe you’ll appreciate a story I heard recently about a fish in Oslo.
    This fish, a cod, is blind in both eyes. He weighs about 5 pounds. And this particular fish has found himself in a net a few times. Well, more than a few. How do we know? Because he’s been in the same net each time.
    Fisherman Harold Hauso has caught this poor little blind cod at least 35 times since March of last year.
    Harold lets him go every time he catches him. “He’s too thin to eat and he’s in bad condition,” the fisherman says. “And I feel a bit sorry for him.” Apparently, Harold’s nets attract some of the fish’s favorite food, like tiny crabs and starfish. The cod has discovered that it’s an easy place to find dinner, and he knows Harold always lets him go. So he swims bravely into the nets.
    Remember that little blind cod the next time you find yourself spinning helplessly into the unknown. The next time you feel the strands of tragedy suddenly tighten around you, remember that the One who controls the nets is more merciful even than Harold Hauso. “The helpless put their trust in you,” sang David to God (Psalm 10:14). Jesus came to those trapped by sickness, prejudice, poverty, and religious indifference to show beyond a shadow of a doubt that God cares. He even showed by his crucifixion and resurrection that the nets of sin and death are firmly in God’s grip.
    And if you can trust that God won’t let tragedy destroy you, you can start to see what the blind cod sees. In the nets, there’s food. In the struggle, there’s growth. In tragedy, faith is hardened, hope is clarified, and gratitude is born. Believe in a loving God who takes charge of tragedy’s helpless victims, and you’ll learn not to be so afraid when it snaps you away from what you know, love, and trust. You’ll learn to say, with Paul, “I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love.” (Romans 8:38)
    Paul’s realistic about the world, there’s no denying that. He doesn’t imagine that faith in a loving God can be an opiate that dulls the pain of what human beings have to endure in their lifetimes. “Trouble...hardship...persecution...famine...nakedness...danger...sword” - these are the nets Paul knows about. He doesn’t give us room to imagine a faith that removes us from the struggles of life in a fallen world.
    He just knows the One Who holds the nets. And he’s so convinced of God’s love that he’s certain that the worst the world can throw at us isn’t enough to undo the plans that God has set underway in Jesus Christ. God gave up his Son for us - is there any length to which he won’t go to show us his love? Jesus, whom God raised to life, intercedes for us in God’s presence - is there any way to imagine a scenario in which God give us up to the hardships and troubles and tragedies of human life?
    By the way, Harold has plans for the next time he catches his fish. He’s found a marine park nearby who’ll let the fish retire to its aquarium. “It’ll be a good place for him to be a pensioner,” says Harold.
    God has great plans for you, too. He sent Jesus to show you and open the way for you. One day, it’s true, you’ll find yourself jerked out of this life. It will be painful to those who mourn you, and quite possible to you too. It will seem that everything has ended, that death and destruction have one. But, in Jesus, the end isn’t destruction. It’s life, and it’s peace. It’s never having to worry about pain, sin, sickness, or death again. If you’re in Jesus, even the worst tragedy becomes a pathway to heaven. Even death loses its sting.

    Trust in the loving hands that hold the nets. Look closely, and you can still see the scars of the nails they took for you.

Friday, January 3, 2014


Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting  for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming  is near. Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters,  or you will be judged. The Judge  is standing at the door. (James 5:7-9)

As life’s little annoyances go, a ground stop ranks right up there with the best of them. Or the worst of them, depending on how you rank life’s little annoyances.
     I’m sitting on a runway (in a plane) in Nashville, Tennessee, as I write this. My itinerary says I should be back home in Chicago by now, watching the Sugar Bowl or, more likely, removing a foot or so of snow from my sidewalks and driveway. The snow - that’s the reason I’m sitting here, in fact. Midway Airport is overwhelmed by delays earlier in the day, delays caused by that snowstorm. They’re in a ground stop: no traffic in or out while they untangle the mess and deal with the backlog of flights.
     They’re in a ground stop. So we’re at a full stop.
     It’s a first-world problem, of course. An uptown problem. Our flight back to our comfortable home in Chicago is delayed. We have family offering to pick us up or provide us a place to stay tonight, if we need it. We’re loaded down with Christmas gifts. If this is the worst problem we ever have - well, I’ll take it. 
     But, in the moment, it’s also kind of frustrating. Frustrating to be dependent on others to get home. Frustrating that it’s looking more and more like the flight isn’t leaving at all tonight. Frustrating, most of all, that there’s nothing we can do about it. We’re stuck, powerless, unable to change our situation even a little. All we can do is wait.
     One of history’s great theologians, Theodore Geisel, knew a little something about waiting. He wrote, in fact, about The Waiting Place:

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

     As familiar as that may sound to many of us, Theodore gets in wrong when he says waiting is “not for you.” Wouldn’t that be nice? But waiting, at one time or another, is for everyone. One waits for a diagnosis. Another for word of a wayward child. Another for news about his job status. Another for a spouse’s affection. We wait, every one of us; we sit on the tarmac of life, waiting for a takeoff that never comes. Waiting to taxi away from the gate. Ground stop. We wait.
     Apologies to Dr. Geisel…err, Seuss…but the question isn’t whether or not we wait. The question is how we wait.
     James says to wait like a farmer. Farmers know what they’re waiting for, and they hang in there until it comes. They don’t decide two weeks after planting that they’d rather be lawyers or cowboys or circus clowns. They know that it’ll take time. They know there’s nothing they can do to hurry things along. But they also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the harvest will come. They can’t see it until it does, but they know it’s on the way. So they’re patient, and they stand firm. And that’s how you wait.
     Here’s what I tend to forget when I have to wait for a plane, or anything, for that matter: I forget that I’m not really waiting for a plane. Oh, sure, I’d like that plane to come, or go, or whatever. But what I’m really waiting for is the Lord to come. What finally gives my life meaning is the promise that one day he’s coming back to make right what’s wrong, redeem what’s lost and broken, bring together what’s come apart, and give life to what’s dead. Whatever else I may be waiting for - what I’m really looking for is that day.
     That’s true for you too. So we really ought to listen to James and consider how we’re waiting. Are we standing firm, confident that the Lord’s “standing at the door”? Are we patient, not distracted by other pursuits? The text suggests that even seemingly mundane matters like how we treat one another might speak volumes about how we’re waiting. Patience and standing firm have to do with making sure our whole lives reflect that we know what we’re really waiting for - whatever waiting place we may happen to be in at any particular given time.
     Turns out we had to wait even a bit longer to get home. Our flight was cancelled, and we decided to rent a car to get home. It took a little longer than an hour-plus flight, but we made it safe and sound. Funny thing, too - it seemed less like waiting when we were pointed toward home and heading that way. 
     So that’s how we wait. We point toward home, we stay en route, and we wait patiently.
     We act toward the people around us as though the One through whom they were created, the One who died for them, is coming soon. We use our time like it’s not only finite, but also consecrated to him. We give of our resources as though they belong to him, and when he comes back he might be asking what  we’ve done with them. We give him the honor he is due, and we do as he asks us to, and we trust him enough to believe in what he says is true over our own opinions, and we live in faith that he is in control of our lives and the world around us, and most of all that he’s good and loves us endlessly.

     That’s how we wait. We can’t always understand the many diverse ways our lives unfold. We can’t foresee its twists and turns, its conclusions and resolutions. But we know how it ends. And we know that Jesus is coming. And so we wait, not for an airplane or a promotion or a soul mate or even a cure. We wait for him. We wait patiently, and we wait confidently, and we know that one day he’ll come, and we’ll be home.