Friday, March 28, 2014

Beer for Lent

    “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Romans 14:5-6 (NIV)

Like many Christians throughout the centuries, Chris Schryer is observing Lent.
    The way he’s observing it, though, is pretty unique.
    Lent, as most people know, is a 40-day period of repentance and prayer that precedes Easter. During Lent, many Christians make a special effort to spend more time praying, worshipping, serving, and studying Scripture. Most give up something they enjoy: certain foods, TV, unnecessary purchases, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, and so forth.
    Chris Schryer is certainly giving up something: all solid food. Despite being the main cook for his wife and two children, for 40 days Chris will only drink water, tea, coffee, and fruit juices. Oh, and something else.
    In fact, beer is the primary thing keeping Chris upright. At breakfast and lunch, he drinks a 341 ml bottle of a thick, high-calorie German lager called dopplebock, brewed especially for his fast. At dinner, he drinks a 650 ml bottle. Each afternoon he drinks a beer that he reviews for a website that he runs. That’s it. Chris figures he gets around 2,000 calories a day from the beer. And, no, he says - he isn’t drunk.
    Before you make jokes, he’s apparently sincere about the spiritual aspects of his fast. He’s a devout Anglican, and had the beer blessed by his church’s priest before Lent began. In interviews he’s spoken eloquently about the point of Lent, and described how his beer diet has him more centered and has helped him spend more time in prayer, worship, service, and study of Scripture. He also describes the difficulty of saying “no” to his appetite: “Every meal time there’s a challenge.” He sounds like a man on a spiritual journey.
    Having grown up in a Bible Belt church culture that definitely favored the non-use of alcohol, and sometimes insisted on it, I have to admit that Chris’ unusual Lenten observance seems more than a little odd to me. I’m used to an expression of the faith that dictates you should never drink alcohol; one that mandates that you only drink alcohol, even for just a few weeks, is pretty far outside my range of experience.
    And I suppose that’s the point I’m making. Being outside my range of experience isn’t the same thing as being wrong. While we’d all agree that there are some mapped-out boundaries to the faith, beyond which there be heresy, it’s hard to make the case that the clearly-delineated boundaries are many. And it’s harder still to make the case that my experience should be normative for setting those boundaries.
    We’d like to think so, sometimes. If it’s not what I drink, it’s how I vote. Or if it’s not how I vote, it’s what I wear to church. Or if it’s not what I wear, it’s the kinds of songs I like to sing, or the Bible translation I use, or my opinion on the issue of the day, or my interpretation of a text of Scripture. And so my opinions, my experience of the faith, my practices and rituals - in short, me - becomes the assumed standard of a valid, true, and orthodox faith. Where God has left the boundaries vague, or left them off entirely, I do him the favor of sharpening them up. If I can’t imagine a valid faith expressed through a diet of beer during Lent, it must not exist. If I can’t imagine a valid faith in which Lent is observed (or not observed), it isn’t possible. If I can’t imagine a genuine, true faith in which a person can sing those songs, or hold that doctrinal belief, or use that translation of the Bible, then it can’t happen.
    Slowly but surely, I narrow it down until the only valid expression of faith in Jesus looks suspiciously like my own.
    Paul, however, talked about “disputable matters.” Matters open for discussion. Matters in which there is plenty of opinion, but no Divine mandate. The way we deal with those matters, he says, is to drill down to a deeper level of Christian experience, one in which we talk less about what’s “correct” and more about what’s good. We should be consistent with our own consciences, he says, and do what we do (or don’t do what we don’t do) to honor the Lord. And then we cut the sister or brother whose faith looks a little different some slack, and assume he or she is trying to please the Lord just as much as we are.
    Here’s the thing about “disputable matters”; they don’t come with a big, bright label advertising them as such. Depending on the convictions of a person’s conscience, disputable matters for one person might not be disputable at all for another. Sometimes a big issue for one believer is not even on the radar of another. Navigating that requires some sensitivity, love, and grace.      
    It requires us to understand that the faiths of two different believers don’t have to be identical.  Unity does not demand uniformity. In fact, the diversity and multi-faceted nature of the gospel should be expected to create a diverse, multi-faceted church. That’s only threatening if we’re invested in making sure that everyone else’s faith looks just like ours. Instead, we can relax a little, and recognize that believers might legitimately come to different conclusions about a particular Scripture, doctrine, or practice and still be equally interested in pleasing the Lord - and believe that God will clear up the misconceptions of good-hearted people.   
    So I’m thankful for Chris Schryer’s unusual, unconventional observance of Lent. And for other, more conventional observances. And for those whose conviction that repentance and seeking the Lord is a year-round process makes it difficult for them to see the point of Lent at all. May we be sisters and brothers. And may we look forward to the day when we raise a mug together in the Kingdom of God.

Friday, March 21, 2014

God Is...Hate?

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss,  but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
-Luke 7:44-47 (NIV)

Fred Phelps died this week. His passing made news, but didnt generate many tears.
     Phelps was a civil rights attorney until he was stripped of his license in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court for alleged ethics violations. Phelps considered the court system corrupt, and saw the disbarment as a badge of honor. It was his other life, anyway, that would bring him notoriety, if not respect. In 1955, before he got his law license, he had founded a church in Topeka: Westboro Baptist Church. And it was as pastor of Westboro Baptist that he made his mark in the world.
     The small church, made up mostly of Phelps extended family, always served as a platform for his brand of, well, deviant is probably not too strong a word to describe his theology. Phelps, an extreme Calvinist, believed that a persons eternal destiny was sealed the moment they were born. Warning the condemned would not save them, but it was essential for Phelps and his churchs own salvation. So they evangelized, not by proclaiming the love of God, but his hate. God hates all evil, went the gospel according to Phelps, and all who were evil.
     It was in the nineties that homosexuals became the main target of Phelps Gods hatred. That was when Westboro began picketing funerals, holding up signs and chanting about Gods hatred for people like Matthew Shepherd, a gay Wyoming student who was beaten to death in 1998, and later of AIDS victims and even soldiers, whose deaths Phelps said were punishment from God on a nation that allowed sin to thrive. The demonstrations at military funerals, in particular, aroused counter-demonstrations to shield mourners from the Westboro contingent, and even brought about laws in 40 states restricting demonstration at funerals.
     In later years, Phelps was apparently excommunicated from the church he planted. If so, I suppose its to be expected; a church so preoccupied with what God hates would understandably have a hard time figuring out how to love each other.
     Let me be clear here: Fred Phelps was wrong. He was wrong that God can be accurately described in terms of what and who he hates. In fact, its an unusual thing in the Bible to find references to God hating at all. The vast majority of those texts talk about Gods hatred of certain acts - almost always injustice or abuse of the weak by the powerful. A very few passages refer to God hating the wicked or unrighteous; I suppose those are the passages that Fred Phelps lived in. I think, though, that those are best explained as hyperbole that highlights Gods love for those who do right, in the same vein as Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated, or Jesus demand that someone who follows him must hate their family.
     Much more frequent are passages that talk about Gods love, his compassion, his grace, his slowness to anger. All the smiting aside, in the Jewish scriptures God is described at least nine times, in a kind of confessional formula, as compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and rich in love and faithfulness. John reminds us of Gods great love for the world in giving his Son. Paul marveled that Gods grace was offered to him, the worst of sinners. Jesus associated with sinners to such a degree that respectable people criticized him for being just a little too friendly with the gritty underbelly of his world.
     Phelps preoccupation with Gods hate for people came, not from the Bible, as he would have had us believe, but from his own mind. Must have been terrible for those who were the recipients of his animosity, and for their families. But it must have been terrible for Phelps, too, to live with all that hatred.
     Phelps will answer now for his sins, just as we all will. I doubt many will be able to whip up much sympathy for him, and judging from his life he wouldnt care anyway. But, thinking about his death, Im thinking of that table where Jesus sat with respectable, religious people and one sinner, a woman whose history had made her a pariah. And while the religious people grumbled about what kind of person she was, Jesus was talking about forgiveness and love. This woman knows how to love, he said, because shes clear on how much forgiveness shes received. But the one who thinks theyve had little need of forgiveness has a hard time with love.
     That, I think, was where Fred Phelps sat - in the chair of that Pharisee, bewildered by love because he knew only judgment, distrusting grace because he had never let himself admit his need for it.
     And, I think, as believers in that grace, we have to remember that it extends all around the table. To sinners discovering the joy of a new life, yes, but also to hardened, angry pastors who dont know how to love anyone, even the Lord. If you believe Jesus, the only way folks like that will learn to love is if those who know Gods grace extend it to them.

     It doesnt really matter what you think of Fred Phelps now. Hes gone. But there are lots of people out there, on both sides of the church doors, who need to know of Gods love. On the one side are those who think God hates them, and they need to see that he doesnt. On the other side are those who are convinced God hates everyone else. What both sides need is grace made flesh in the actions and words of those who have experienced it first-hand. Then maybe no one else will have to live with the lie that God hates.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Getting Over the Hump of Biblical Inerrancy

     For the word of God  is alive  and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword,  it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
-Hebrews 4:12-13 (NIV)

Did you hear that camels are going to be the straw that breaks the back of the Bible?
     That’s what some researchers at Tel Aviv University are saying, at least. Using carbon dating, they’ve pinpointed the age of the oldest known camel bones in the Holy Land, and say that camels were introduced rather abruptly to the area sometime in the ninth century BC, possibly by Egyptian traders. The problem with that, at least from the standpoint of those who might tend to be skeptical anyway, is that the book of Genesis says that Abraham had camels - much earlier than the ninth century.
     Though, the first time the word “camels” is used in the Bible, it’s to say that Abraham acquired them from…wait for it…Egypt.
     So, maybe the researchers are right in their discovery that camels came in large quantities to the Holy Land in the ninth century. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that Abraham and his family used camels they brought from Egypt. Or that the nation of Israel brought some camels with them during their Exodus from Egypt. Or that invaders from other places came to fight in the Holy Land mounted on camels. That brings us, in the text of the Bible, up to the time of David - which is nearly in the time frame the researchers point to.
     Or maybe researchers will find older camels; it wouldn’t be the first time evidence against biblical data has needed to be re-evaluated: the existence of Bel-Shazzar, or the Hittites, or the Assyrian king Sargon come to mind.
     All of that aside, however: if the researchers are right, and it turns out to be conclusively established that Abraham couldn't possibly have owned camels - that changes nothing. It doesn't “disprove the Bible.” If history is conclusively shown to conflict with biblical events, it only reminds us of something we already know to be true.
     The Bible’s not that kind of book.
    The Bible tells stories about Abraham and his family so we’ll know about God’s grace and initiative and faithfulness - not to provide us with a reliable inventory of Abraham’s livestock. They could be buzzing around the desert in dune buggies and it wouldn’t substantially change the story. (Though how cool would Abraham in a dune buggy be?)  We know for sure that the stories about Abraham as we have them were written down much later than the actual events. Do we really expect them to have every historical T crossed, every camel dotted? Sure, the Holy Spirit could have given the authors of the Bible instant and perfect knowledge of historical events - but then the finished product would sort of lose its human element, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t any longer be human reflections on God’s work. It would be more like divine transcription. 
     We know Luke “carefully investigated” the sources behind his gospel - he apparently didn’t wait for the Holy Spirit to strike him with a bolt of inspiration. Is it so hard to imagine other biblical writers doing the same thing? If a writer got a name or two mixed up, or put in a camel where there should have been a donkey - well, so what?
     The Holy Spirit doesn’t need human inerrancy to do his work.
     Good thing, because if he works in and through human beings at all, it’s through human beings who make mistakes. And, believe me, mistakes much more serious than saying Abraham had camels. If human mistakes don’t invalidate his work in our lives, and in our time, why should we be worried that they might invalidate his work through other lives in other times?
     Really, there’s no need to be defensive about camels in the Bible. I say that because, I promise you, right now there’s some well-meaning believer somewhere trying to find - or even manufacture - evidence for camels in pre-Ninth Century Israel because he thinks the Bible needs that evidence. Otherwise, he thinks, the skeptics will have won.
     Well, we don’t need to beat the skeptics. Belief is grace, and it comes from God. Truthfully, anyone who thinks the Bible collapses like a game of Jenga because some researchers in Tel Aviv pull out the camel block either doesn’t know much about the Bible to begin with, or has already pre-selected skepticism as his default position. 
     I know why we worry about stories like this. I get it, I do. “If Abraham didn’t have camels, what else might turn out to be untrue?” Isn’t that what really bothers us? Not that we believe the other stuff isn’t true - few of us have faith so fragile. But we worry because ninth century camels at least admits the question. Those camels open the door for those who are skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection, for instance, or even for the existence of God. So does evolution, or questions about Joshua’s “lost day,” or whatever the evidence du jour of the Bible’s lack of historicity. And so we who believe feel a little anxious - not for our own belief, usually, but for the perception among those who don’t believe that the Bible can’t be trusted.
     But, I say again - the Bible isn’t that kind of book.
     We do it a disservice when we handle it that way, too. When we treat it like an inerrant version of history to be defended, we miss the point. We fail to communicate what the Bible is about, and who wrote it. 
     Hint: “God” is only the right answer to one of those questions. 
     What? I don’t believe God wrote the Bible? You don’t either, really. You don’t think he put pen to paper. And you don’t think he dictated it either, not really, not if you’ve read it. You know it’s a human creation. It came about because people had encounters with God, and found him to be awesome and holy and faithful and compassionate, and they, or others, wrote about those experiences - often decades or centuries after the fact. They wrote about those experiences so that those who came after could know about that God and would seek him and maybe have similar experiences with him. 
     And sometimes they got a camel out of place. But it doesn’t change the truth of those experiences.
     The Holy Spirit was square in the middle of that. He was involved in it. But he didn’t write it, and he didn’t dictate it. So it can be true, and still not always entirely accurate as history. 
     Because - say it with me - it’s not that kind of book.
     If some researcher some day indisputably proves that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead - then I’ll be worried. If some researcher some day shows that God couldn’t possibly exist - then I’ll be anxious. But camels? Please. If Abraham wouldn’t have known a camel from a dune buggy, it doesn’t change my belief in a loving God who made us and calls us to him, my faith in Jesus, who died for our sins and rose from the grave, or my experience of the Holy Spirit, who is making me every day more and more like him. The Bible doesn’t create my relationship with God. It helps me understand it, make sense of it, and organize my life by it. That’s the kind of book it is.

     A weaker view of inspiration? You tell me. But it’s a stronger view of the Bible, unmarked by camel hooves.