Friday, June 27, 2014

Most Biblical

   I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
- John 5:36-40 (NIV)

    Earlier this year, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was named the “Most Biblical City in the United States” in a poll commissioned by the American Bible Society.
    I grew up in Chattanooga. Spent 15 very formative years there, and met many Bible people. I still visit there a couple of times a year, and enjoy it very much. But I haven’t see anything to suggest that Chattanooga was “more biblical” than, say, Des Moines, Iowa (53rd in the rankings), or Wichita, Kansas (15th) or even the city where I live now, Chicago (74th). I’m not sure what the criteria for the rankings were. Number of Bibles in the city? Church participation? It’s hard to measure biblicism; someone who owns a Bible doesn’t necessarily read it, and even those who read it might not live by it. It seems to me that the poll tries to quantify something that can’t very well be quantified. Even the terminology is difficult.
    Sodom and Gomorrah were, after all, biblical cities.
    We use that term “biblical” a lot, we church people. It has a comforting ring to it, makes us feel ethically, morally, and doctrinally warm and cozy. We sometimes rate sermons on how biblical they are. Churches. We try to plot opinions and positions somewhere on a sliding scale of biblicism. Seems we even try to rank cities.
    But our attempts at ranking biblicism are, as they say, fraught with peril, as James Peron demonstrates.
    James Peron is president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, a libertarian organization “dedicated to the expansion of social freedom, tolerance, and equality of rights before the law.” In an article on Huffington Post, Peron compared the top ten cities in the “most biblical” poll with the bottom ten. What he found might surprise you:

“For every 100,000 people the Bible-minded cities had 1.2 murders. The least Bible-minded cities had 0.7 per 100,000. In other words, you are almost twice as likely to be murdered in the most Bible-minded cities than in the least Bible-minded ones.

“Rape seems to also be a problem for Bible-minded cities. The rape rate per 100,000 people was 5.4 in the ten most fundamentalist cities and 3.9 in the ten most secular cities.

“If you are worried about someone breaking into your house, it appears you need to head to a secular city to reduce your chances of being victimized. The top 10 Bible cities had 127.7 burglaries per 100,000 while the average was 109 in the top 10 secular cities.”   

    Or maybe that doesn’t surprise you that much, because maybe you already know that the word “biblical” can also be used as a smokescreen to hide or even justify all manner of unsightly and unseemly things. What’s more biblical — a sermon that directly quotes no biblical text, but is filled with the spirit of God and the gospel of Jesus, or a sermon that strings together verse after verse to justify and encourage monstrous evil? What’s more biblical — a church that uses the Bible as a wall to keep the world away, or a church that loves its neighbor, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and prays with the hurting and marginalized? Who’s more biblical — a judge who keeps the Ten Commandments tacked up on the courthouse wall, or one who renders decisions with fairness and justice?
    Almost every Sunday for twenty years, I’ve stood in front of a church and tried to preach a sermon that is true to Scripture. I take that job seriously, and spend a lot of time preparing — again, by studying the Bible. But if I take Jesus seriously, then the most important thing to happen on a Sunday when I preach is not that I know the Bible well, or that the people who hear me come away knowing the Bible better. Jesus told people who were “diligent” students of Scripture, who were convinced that in those Scriptures were words of “eternal life,” that they had “never heard [God’s] voice nor seen his form.” And why not? They knew the Bible. They knew God’s word. We would have called them biblical. But his word didn’t dwell in them. And they missed something important. In clinging to that “biblical” label, they missed Jesus.
    I’m afraid that can still happen to us.
    Before we dare call ourselves biblical, we have to let God’s word live in us. It can’t be just words on a page to us: data to be processed, information to be stored and retrieved at will, evidence to be mustered, arguments to be mustered, accusations to be made. We must live with it, let it soak into our hearts and minds until it comes out in our most unguarded words and actions. The words of Paul to the church tell us what we need as well, the answer to empty biblicism — “let the word of Christ inhabit you.” Preachers, teachers, the church doesn’t need to know more about the Bible. The church needs the word of Christ living in us.
    Actually, what Paul says could be better translated, “let the word of Christ inhabit y’all.” That “you” is actually in the second person. The implication is that the word of Christ lives in us best when it lives in us together. It’s no coincidence that some of the worst atrocities ever done in the name of Jesus have happened when one individual or segment of the church has had too much say in the interpretation of Scripture. Wherever there is an “official” interpretation, the living Word is in danger of being entombed.
    The Bible is not, as some would tell us, antiquated. It still speaks, still lives in us if we’ll let it. But, to let it, maybe we’ll have to let go of that “most biblical” label. If we’ll let the living Word have his way with us, together, then we’ll be something more than biblical. We’ll be like him.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Taste of God's Grace

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh; 
she shall be called  ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man. ”
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united  to his wife, and they become one flesh.
- Genesis 2:23-24 (NIV)

Next week, my parents will celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. Here’s some of what was going on in the world that year:

  • On January 11, the Surgeon General released the first report suggesting that smoking might be a health hazard.
  • On January 16, Hello Dolly opened on Broadway, two days before plans to build a complex in New York called the World Trade Center.
  • On February 7, The Beatles arrived in America.
  • On February 23, Richard Petty won the Daytona 500, two days before Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
  • On March 9, the first Ford Mustang rolled off an assembly line.
  • And on June 21, Jim Bunning pitched the first perfect game in the National League since 1880

     Also in 1964, Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election. Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison on Robben Island. Mary Poppins premiered in Los Angeles. The Ranger 7 satellite sent the first close-up pictures of the moon back to earth. Northern Rhodesia achieved independence from Great Britain and became the Republic of Zambia. A baby named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in Chicago. (Later to marry a young man from Hawaii named Barack Obama.) And Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton. For the first time.
     Lots has changed in the world since June 21, 1964. What hasn’t changed is that Bob and Jackie Odum are married. That’s no small thing. Marriage isn’t always easy, and in the lessening over the last half century of societal pressure to stay married, lots of couples have called it quits. That’s sometimes necessary, if almost always painful. But my mom and dad have hung in there. Not only have they stayed married, but growing up I could probably count on one hand the number of times I ever heard them argue. (Maybe that had more to do with their ability to argue quietly…) They have remained affectionate, considerate of each other, and happy to be together. They travel with each other, nurse each other through sickness and surgeries, volunteer together at their church, and work together taking care of their house and yard. They even find the time to keep up with their children, children-in-law, grandson, and grandchildren- and great-grandchild-in-law. 
     In some Christian traditions, marriage is considered a sacrament, a means of God’s grace. In other words, it’s one of the ways in which God gives his kindness and shares his life with human beings. Whether you like the word “sacrament” or not, it’s pretty obvious to anyone who has seen long, strong, happy unions that marriage can certainly be a channel for God’s grace. It’s also obvious that a bad marriage can leach God’s grace right out of two people — and those around them, for that matter. 
     The thing about a sacrament like marriage is that it’s a means of God’s grace placed in human hands. God gives marriage to people, and to some degree or another it’s up to us what we can do with that. We can squander it selfishly trying to make our spouses into who we want them to be, or expecting our spouses to make us happy, or cheating on our commitments to see if we can have our cake and eat it too. 
     Or, we can do what God intends human beings to do in marriage: live as “one flesh.” One person, joined together in commitment and promise and love and honor. 
     Our culture says that anything that threatens our personal independence and autonomy is a bad thing. Marriage might be a good thing, so the conventional wisdom goes, as long as it gives me the opportunity to actualize my goals, have the things I want, and be the person I want to be. In that way of thinking, when marriage starts to compromise any of those things, it’s outlived its usefulness. Time to “consciously uncouple.”
     Of course, in so doing we might very well be unconsciously refusing the grace that God would offer us through our growing together as “one flesh.”
     While a long marriage might to some in our society imply stagnation, the thing is that long, healthy marriages require growth. They require change. Things change when the kids come along. When you buy a house. When one partner changes careers, or goes back to school, or takes on new responsibilities. Things change again when the kids leave. (And then again if they come back…) They change at retirement. They change with major health issues. They change along with a couples’ family situation, interests, and experiences. 
     Healthy marriages demand change. They demand spontaneity, flexibility, and resilience. They demand forgiveness, and commitment, and courage. Then, when you have someone beside you who knows you better than anyone and loves you anyway, you get a taste of God’s grace. When you can grow old together, surrounded by family and friends, you get a taste of his grace. In the solemn moments of a life shared together, you get a taste of his grace. 
     Some would say of my parents that they’re lucky to have each other. I’d say it’s anything but luck. It’s more about their love for each other, their commitment in lean times, and the keeping of their promise to take life as it comes, together. And, in that, they’ve experienced God’s grace. Ask them, they’ll tell you all about it.

     Congratulations, Bob and Jackie!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Economic Theology

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. 
- Luke 1:52-53 (NIV)

     When you’re Pope, everything you say and do carries great significance. If Pope Francis didn’t know that, his first year wearing the Fisherman’s Ring must have been a revelation so far. 
     Last month, in a meeting with UN officials about economic redevelopment for poverty-stricken nations, Pope Francis endorsed “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.” Some commentators understood Francis’ statement to be supportive of “forced redistribution” of wealth from the rich to the poor. The reaction was interesting. Francis was accused of becoming a “robe-wearing politician” and “exceeding his authority.” Less moderate online commenters accused him of being the S-word - a Socialist. Many pointed out what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the leader of the Catholic church calling for the redistribution of wealth. The general consensus seemed to be that Francis should stick to theology and stop meddling in economics. 
     That’s a lot of heat for suggesting that if a lot of those who have a lot could give a little something to those who have less, this poverty thing might not be so much of a problem.
     Keep in mind, Francis has no authority to set UN policy. He has no authority over the appointed leaders of any country. No one, least of all Francis, is under any illusions that his words on this particular occasion can be used to determine a course of action for dealing with poverty. He simply said what we all know on some level to be true: that those who have, particularly Christians who have, are given with those blessings an obligation to help those who have not.
     Statements like that make those who think politically crazy. That’s where the reaction comes from. It bothers many of us in the Western world to imagine having to share what we’ve earned through our hard work with those who, in our thinking, haven’t worked as hard. In Western culture, poverty is a character flaw. We tell ourselves that people are poor because they’ve made bad choices, or don’t want to work hard. We’re uncomfortable sharing what we have with others partially because we doubt that someone in need is really trying very hard. 
     But that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Jesus challenges what’s comfortable. He asks those who would follow him to give sacrificially, as he did. He calls those who would follow him to think differently about “our” money and the hard work that it rewards. For Jesus, net earnings or Gross National Product are not the way to keep score. He reminds us that trying to serve both God and wealth is a losing proposition. He calls us simply to give to those who ask of us. He reminds us that the Kingdom he inaugurated is one in which rulers are brought down and replaced by those in humble circumstances, in which the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” are his haunting words for those of us who live in affluence and think that somehow our hard work exempts us from sharing with those who go without.
     So Pope Francis is a socialist for reminding us of these things, for daring to suggest that believers allow theology to influence economic choices. As though Jesus cares at all for Socialism or Capitalism or whatever other “ism” you could toss out there. It’s a peculiarly American form of Christianity that paints Jesus in red state colors, complete with NRA button and American flag lapel pin.
     The argument is sometimes made that the poor aren’t poor because the rich are rich. Well, yes and no. The accumulation of wealth by some may not create poverty. But it can allow it to continue. In the end, those who argue against Francis’ statements make the same mistake they accuse him of: they accuse him of believing wrongly that governments can address poverty by forcibly redistributing wealth, while apparently believing that all government has to do to address poverty is to ensure that rich people can keep more of their money, which they’ll then turn into jobs and capital. But they leave out something crucial: those who would follow Jesus are called to be generous.
     As generous as he is to us.
     “Though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor,” the Bible tells us, “so that [we] through his poverty might become rich.” That’s a theological statement, to be sure, but also an economic one, because Paul’s point in writing it is to convince the church to give generously to the poor.  It always works one way or the other: either our theology will influence our economics, or our economics will influence our theology. If we don’t listen to Jesus in the way we go about making and using money, we will pretty soon have a Lord who approves of our accumulation of more and more, at the expense of the Lazaruses laid at our gates.
     I have no need or inclination to defend Francis. I admire his concern for the poor and his humility and lack of pretension, but I don’t acknowledge his authority any further than he is found to be a credible witness to the power of the gospel. What I want to argue against is the convenient theology to which his critics would like him to confine himself. Good theology is never isolated from reality. If our theology doesn’t lead us to speak against economic practices that help the wealthy accumulate more and more at the expense of the poor, then it’s useless theology. It’s certainly not Jesus’ theology. 
     Jesus identified so completely with the poor and marginalized that he claimed that no one who can ignore them is ready for his return. That’s about as simple and to the point as theology gets. If our theology lets us sidestep Jesus’ words, then it’s no good to us or to anyone else. 
     Francis’ words shouldn’t be used to segregate him in a theological ghetto. Neither, as Christians, should we read them as advocating “forced redistribution.” Rather, we should be reminded that followers of Jesus should never have to be forced to share with the poor. That we should give freely, generously, and gratefully. 
     Just as he has given to us.