Friday, November 24, 2023

Dressing to See Jesus

 I’ve been seeing this thing on social media recently; you might have seen it.  

     I'm not sure what it came from. It looks like it could have been an ad, maybe for a family clothing store. Whatever its original intention, the caption that’s been attached to it leaves no doubt as to what it’s been repurposed for. Now it's become one of those "back-in-the-good-old-days" reminiscences about how people used to dress the "right" way for church.

     By the time I was old enough to have an opinion about what I should wear to church, in the mid-70s, things had changed somewhat. Like most of the men at church then, Dad mostly wore a sport coat and tie on Sunday mornings, as I recall. Mom and my sister dressed up to some degree, though by then pants were an option, in addition to dresses and skirts. (There was, I’ve been told, some difference of opinion about this among the women at church, but I guess Mom was kind of a trend-setter in that way.) 

     On Sunday morning I usually wore a “junior” version of what Dad wore. In my teen years, as things changed a little more, I could get away without a tie and a jacket. (The teen years also included my truly awful “Miami Vice” phase, which we won’t talk about except to say that I now wish someone had found something in the Bible forbidding unconstructed blazers in pastel colors, just in general.) I could wear jeans on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights. No shorts though, ever. In college, I mostly continued the jacket and tie habit. 

     When I started  as a minister 30 years ago, I usually wore a suit and tie, like most of the men at church still did. Over the years I’ve gotten a bit more casual as the rest of the church has. Now suits and ties are for weddings and funerals, and church is a lot more dressed-down.

     But that’s true in general, isn’t it? What used to be “office casual” is now just office wear. Our culture  is, in general, a lot more casual in dress. That's important to note; dress at church usually reflects larger cultural trends.

     Back to the social media post: “dressing for church like you’re going to see Jesus” is a bit problematic, isn’t it? I mean, forget for a moment the fallacy that going to church is about going to “see Jesus” at all. (Jesus doesn’t hang out at the church building all week, waiting for Sunday when he’ll finally have some visitors.) The fact is, we don’t know what people wore to see Jesus, back when they could, literally, see Jesus. A blind beggar shouted out for Jesus to heal him: we’re not told what he wore, but I picture rags. Lepers came to see Jesus; I’m just guessing they didn’t get dressed up first. Peter took his clothes off and dove into the Sea of Galilee to get to shore and see Jesus after his resurrection. Jesus doesn’t seem to have found that at all awkward. 

     We’re not told much about what Jesus wore when he was on earth, but I doubt he had a big wardrobe to choose from. He told his disciples not to give a second thought about what they would wear. He did, apparently, have one nice garment, woven in one piece. We know this because the soldiers that stripped his clothes off before they crucified him cast lots for it. When he died for us, he was stripped and exposed. 

     No, I don’t think there’s much in the Bible about how we should dress to “see Jesus.”

     When the Bible does talk about ornate clothing, it’s not exactly positive. Jesus mocked religious people who strutted around in flowing robes trying to impress everyone. He said expensive, luxurious clothing was for palaces, not for prophets. James blasted the church for showing favoritism to rich people in nice clothing over poor people in rags. 

    In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, of course, a lost son comes home filthy and ragged and his overjoyed father gives him a robe and sandals. Which maybe suggests that the important thing to remember about coming to God is that he clothes us. What we wear isn’t relevant. We’re all pitiful, poor, blind, and naked. We all need his grace, whatever designers we’re wearing. If we’re using nice clothes to try to make ourselves more acceptable to God, we should reconsider. 

     Maybe you don’t realize it, but dressing up for church is a relatively recent trend. For most of human history, most people had few garments, and they were likely handmade, worn, and more functional than stylish. Expensive clothing was a means of distinguishing social classes, worn by royalty and wealthy people. Often, in fact, people were legally banned from wearing the clothing of a higher class. 

     During the Industrial Revolution, advances in manufacturing made new clothes available to more people. The middle class that was coming into being used the new clothing they could now afford to distinguish themselves from the lower classes. That trend spread to church as well. Eventually, some preachers even began to argue that sophistication and refinement were aspects of God’s character, and so Christians should model those characteristics in their dress, especially when they came to church. 

     Well, maybe our dress at church should model other values than sophistication and refinement. 

     Maybe our dress should model authenticity. If we dressed to reflect our spiritual condition, what would we wear? Our righteousness is like “filthy rags,” after all. Let’s not try to cover ourselves with fake piety in the form of a dress code for visiting the Lord. 

     Maybe our dress should model humility. If our dress draws attention to ourselves, then maybe it’s not really appropriate if we want others, and ourselves, to “see Jesus.” Paul encouraged the church to “adorn themselves” with good deeds that give glory to God, not clothing and fashion that makes us stand out. I think that most of the time when people complain about how other people dress at church, it isn’t at all about seeing Jesus. It’s about the way they want people to see their church. It’s about pride. It’s about class. 

     Maybe our dress should model acceptance. I worry that posting stuff like this to social media sends the message that the church is for people who are able to put together a good look. What about the retired senior who doesn’t have the disposable income to wear the most stylish clothing? The blue-collar worker whose wardrobe consists mostly of, well, blue collars? The single mom raising kids on minimum-wage jobs? What about the Christian who could afford to upgrade their wardrobe, but instead feels called to use that money to care for those in need? How about the person who wants to dress in ethnic garb? Do they have a place at our church? How about the non-believer who already wonders if the church is sincere in their faith? If we send people the message, even unintentionally, that they have to think about what they wear when they come to “see Jesus,” are we actually showing them Jesus?

    Paul wrote that we are to be “clothed” with Christ. Not Armani, Herm├ęs, Dior, or Gucci. Let’s don’t waste a second of time worrying about what clothing to wear to “see Jesus,” and instead worry about being the kind of people in whom Jesus can be seen.

     I think that’s what you’ll find in most churches; mostly people who want Jesus to be seen in them. We’ll  probably be wearing all kinds of things, but hopefully whatever we wear we’re growing into Jesus. 

     Come join us, just as you are. 

Friday, November 10, 2023

Trying a Different Bible: "In the Flesh" (Romans 8:8)

 Not long ago I was talking with someone about Bible text and comparing how the translations we were using rendered the verses. It struck me that we can get so used to the Bible translations that we’re accustomed to using — whether by choice or happenstance — that we never consider or even know about other possible readings of difficult verses. In a lot of the Bible, that’s probably fine — there’s not that much variation in possible meaning. But in other places, not being aware of other translations can be problematic. We can miss nuance or alternate meanings that have been obscured by whoever it is that produced the translation we’re using. So, occasionally, I’m going to write about a translation that makes a contribution toward better understanding a particular text. This will be the first of those posts.

    I’ve written about Bible translations before, including a series on different available English translations. Translation is an inexact science, at best. In fact it’s as much art as science. It’s not just a one-for-one swap of words. There is context and vernacular to consider. There are considerations about who your intended audience is. Are you creating a translation for reading aloud in a church, or for an individual reading silently? How do you best communicate figures of speech from one language into another?

     Sometimes the choices translators make end up importing meaning into a text. All translation is a form of interpretation, but at some point you cross a line and enshrine a particular interpretation in your translation.

     When the New International Version was first published in 1978, there was a lot of controversy in some circles about the way it handled the word sarx, a Greek word that is often translated “flesh” in English Bibles. (We get the word sarcoma, through Latin, from it.) It has a range of meanings, though. Sometimes it means the “meat” that makes up a human body. Sometimes it’s used as a kind of a shorthand for the entire human being. It can be used to refer to human beings collectively. Sometimes, it’s contrasted with Spirit, and so you could actually translate it “merely flesh” if you were so inclined. 

      Usually, you can tell by the context which of the range of meanings it has. And so you just need to understand something about the different ways the word can be used and figure out which is intended in a particular verse. It’s usually not all that hard. 

     But translators have a decision to make with words like that. Do they translate sarx as “flesh” in every usage, and let the reader sort through the range of meaning? Or do they find different words and phrases to try to denote the different connotations the word has?

     In 1978, the NIV translated sarx at least 20 times as “sinful nature.” A good example is Romans 8:8. Take a look at this comparison between the very literal way the New Revised Standard Version translates it and the way the NIV translated it in 1978:

NRSV — “…those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” 

NIV — “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”

     The NIV invented a phrase to translate sarx in those contexts that they thought required something more than just “flesh.” That phrase was “sinful nature.” In this case, the translation committee thought “controlled by the sinful nature” was better than “in the flesh.”

     You see why they thought so, right? When we say, “in the flesh,” what do we mean? Physically present. When we’re “in the flesh,” we’re here. Maybe I’ve been gone for a while, but now I’m back, “in the flesh.”

     So it’s easy for us to read Romans 8:8 as saying that there’s something about the human body that is displeasing to God. It suggests a disconnect between a part of us called “body" and a part of us called “spirit.” It can leave the impression that physicality is distasteful to God and that there’s something inherently sinful or at least distrustful about human drives, desires, and feelings.  

     The NIV, by using “sinful nature,” was interpreting as they translated. Again, translation is itself a form of interpretation. But how much do you do? How much is too much?

    Arguably, “sinful nature,” doesn’t solve the problem. It requires some interpretation as well. Some read it as the sin that we “inherit” from Adam — a doubtful concept linguistically and also theologically. For some, it means that in our human nature we are sinful, which still creates an unhelpful dualism between flesh and spirit.

     Most English translations just go with “flesh” and let readers interpret for themselves. Some are freer: 

“People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.” (Common English Bible)    

“…[T]hose who identify with their old nature cannot please God.”(Complete Jewish Bible)

“If we follow our desires, we cannot please God.” (Contemporary English Version) 

“Those who are ruled by their sinful selves cannot please God.” (Easy-to-Read Version) 

“Those who obey their human nature cannot please God.” (Good News Translation) 

…[T]he carnal attitude is inevitably opposed to the purpose of God…” (Phillips) 

“….[T]hose who are still under the control of their old sinful selves, bent on following their old evil desires, can never please God.” (The Living Bible) 

“Those who are determined by the flesh can’t please God.” (Kingdom New Testament)

     As you can see, the translations above also translate the Greek word usually translated “in” — en — as something else: “identify with,” “follow,” “ruled by,” “obey,” “under the control of,” or “determined by.” 

     Four verses later, in Romans 8:12-13, Paul mentions living “according to the flesh,” which suggests that Paul means something other by “flesh” than just physicality. As a rough parallel, take the phrase “gasoline engine.” We understand that the engine isn’t made of gasoline. We mean that gasoline powers it. The same when we talk about a “wood stove:” The stove is intended to burn wood as fuel, it’s not made of wood. 

     So when Paul writes that those who are “in the flesh” can’t please God, he isn’t saying that the bodies God made are inherently evil. In Romans 12:1 he writes that we should offer our bodies as living sacrifices. The only way we can worship and serve God is physically. True and proper worship is offering your body for God’s purposes. You can’t please God if you won’t do that, he says in our text. That’s what it means to be “in the flesh;” you refuse to allow your body to be under the influence of God’s Spirit.

     Romans 8:5 says, "Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” That doesn’t mean it’s virtuous to deny your body what it wants. It’s just that, when there’s a conflict between the two, we follow the Holy Spirit. (See Galatians 5:19-25)

     When the NIV was revised in 2011, the committee all but did away with “sinful nature.” In the update, Romans 8:8 reads, “Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.” They left sarx as “flesh” and translated ev as “in the realm of.” I think that splits the difference pretty well. It lets Paul communicate that what he’s talking about is what rules us. What powers us. What drives the bus. 

     Our bodies, and their needs, feelings, and desires, were created by God. But they weren’t created to rule us. They were created to do his work in the world. They are made holy in Christ by the presence of his Spirit. Let’s set our minds on what the Spirit wants us to do and to be in the world.  

Good Thoughts on the Gaza Conflict

 I never do this, but I recently saw this Facebook post from one of my friends, Evertt Huffard. He is a missions consultant and former professor at Harding School of Theology, who also has a family history of missions in the Middle East and Israel. (His uncle was also a former minister at the church where I serve.)

     Huffard posted the following after the preacher at the church he attends wanted to say something about the conflict in Gaza, wasn’t sure what to say, and wondered “what Evertt Huffard thinks about this.”

     I can understand his position; feeling the need to say something, but not sure what. Any stance on this war can be unpopular. It’s become, sadly for the people impacted most directly by it, a political football. Most of the opinions I’ve heard on the conflict seem one-sided, more propaganda than thoughtful reflection. And so I think I, too, will defer to Dr. Huffard’s words — a committed Christian, missionary, and scholar. These are his thoughts, in their entirety, with no editing from me:

The region has a special place in my life. My grandfather died in Israel and is buried in Jaffa. I went to high school with Palestinians on the West Bank for four years and our family was evacuated with 6,000 Americans during the 6-Day War. For five years I served a church of Israeli Arabs in Nazareth and taught in a Christian High School in Galilee. My wife and I have hosted more than 25 tour groups to Israel. We have friends in Israel today living in fear of what will happen next with threats from the north and increasing shortage of food and supplies due to 450,000 reservists called into military duty.

     What could I say to a church on a Sunday morning?

     First, I would say something, because it has dominated the news for more than a week and creates a context to exercise our Christian worldview—a worldview rooted in the will of God revealed to us through the prophets and Christ. Micah would tell us to do what is good and what the Lord requires of us, namely: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).

     Jesus challenged religious leaders in Jerusalem who were living under the oppression of Rome to focus on the “weightier matters of the law”—justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt. 23:23). Any response we give that reflects these values will likely be in stark contrast to much of what we are exposed to in the media. Some news sources use such loaded hateful terminology that if I listened to it for more than an hour I would be filled with hate. As a Christian I am resisting the impulse to let them shape my emotions and reactions.

     Second, we cannot be instruments of peace when we are subject to the biased narrative of either side that is seeking justification for violence and global approval for a war. “Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely” (Prov. 28:5). As we watch the news, with discernment, we need to watch our attitudes. I resist the impulse to be drawn into a mindset that would not lead to peace. I want to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.

      The violent attack on Israelis by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) and other terrorists near the Gaza strip on October 7 created a greater shock wave through this small nation than 9/11 did in the US. Using the ratio of victims to population, the Hamas attack would be comparable to 40,000 people killed in the US on 9/11 rather than 3,000. The intense hatred that fueled their violence will only grow deeper with the anticipated retaliation. Granted, Hamas must be held responsible for its deadly attack. They have not cared for the Palestinians in Gaza, have been brutal to Israelis, and seriously thwarted a peace process anytime soon. The level of human suffering they are causing is difficult to comprehend. The images are difficult to look at or get out of our minds. We want justice, swift and clear. But justice must consider context, not just one tragic event. Decades of tension and five wars should alert us to the fact that if Hamas ceased to exist today, this human tragedy will not end. We must ask what or who created Hamas? Decades ago, Israel supported Hamas, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, to overthrow Arafat and the PLO, which has now returned to bite them. The same justice that would implicate Hamas will also have to implicate Israel for six decades of oppression of the Palestinians. It’s the reason Hamas portrayed their military mission as “enough is enough.”

     Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations, would call this a “fault line war” that could only be resolved by a balance of power among the primary parties and satisfying the interest of the secondary parties. “Fault line wars bubble up from below, fault line peaces trickle down from above” (1996:265, 298) Or as Jimmy Carter concluded, “It has always been clear that the antagonists cannot be expected to take the initiative to resolve their own differences. Hatred and distrust in the Middle East are too ingrained and pride is too great for any of the disputing parties to offer invitations or concessions that they know will almost inevitably be rejected” (Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, 2006:15). If true, the US has the responsibility to facilitate peace, but in all humility, our foreign policies reflect the dysfunction of our current government. Our foreign policy will have to radically change to bring peace to the region. I resist the impulse to put all the blame on anyone in the region when our own nation has contributed to the problem. None of the national leaders walk in righteousness. Only God can intervene and judge.

     Third, we can pray for the Arabs and the Jews who are crying for peace but living in fear for their lives and their family every day of this war, in the region and around the world. An awful irony of the massacre of Jews on the kibbutz and at the music festival near Gaza is that many of them were advocates for peace with the Palestinians and opposed the hawkish policies of their government.

     The US never initiated a serious peace process in the Middle East until after a war. Pray that after this one they will have the determination to do so. Pray for the Christians in Gaza, especially those who are suffering as they give medical care and aid to the victims. Pray for restraint among all sides in the region that this conflict will not escalate into an even greater one. Pray that through it all, the people of God will bring light into the darkness as they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. I know there will be days when I must face the reality that Jesus faced when all he could do was weep over Jerusalem. Even though I have known this conflict my whole life, I resist the impulse to give up hope.

     I appreciate the focus on justice in nearly every paragraph of Huffard’s thoughts; we can all agree that God wants justice. I appreciate how we can adopt attitudes about this conflict (and other world events) that do not promote peace. What most of us can do about the war in Gaza is what we can do about other global events — watch ourselves. Try to be sure we are always advocates for “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God,” that nothing makes us so cynical that we trade in those things for security, retribution, or hatred.

     Of course, we should pray. For a change of government policies toward peace. For compassion. For an end to the suffering of victims. For restraint. And, as Huffard puts it, “that through it all, the people of God will bring light into the darkness as they do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

     Light in darkness. The gospel, the good news that through Jesus God has made Jew and Gentile into one people — “by which he put to death their hostility.” (Ephesians 2:11-16)

Friday, November 3, 2023

All Saints

 These were all commended  for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us  would they be made perfect.

     Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run  with perseverance  the race marked out for us,.

-Hebrews 11:39-12:1 (NIV)

I’m writing this on November 1, which for most people I suppose is just the day after Halloween. But if you’re a Christian who follows a calendar of the church year, there’s another name for the first day of the eleventh month of the year: All Saints’ Day. It’s also known sometimes as the Feast of All Saints, and an alternate name for the day, All Hallows’ Day, actually gave Halloween its name. (“Halloween,” or “Hallowe’en,” is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening,” which is the vigil that precedes the Feast of All Saints.) 

     All Saints’ Day is generally what it sounds like; it’s a celebration of “all the saints.” While it’s sometimes associated particularly with those canonized as Saints in the Catholic Church, it actually has a wider significance than that. Since at least the 4th century, the church saw the importance of commemorating martyrs for Christ, both known and unknown. Feast days were held at different times of the year, often around Easter or Pentecost. By the 6th century, these feasts expanded in meaning to include all the dead in Christ, not just canonized saints and martyrs. By the 8th century, Halloween and All Saints’ Day were being celebrated on November 1.

     Growing up in, and still being a part of, a non-church calendar church, I didn’t really know all that. Whenever I finally did hear about the Feast of All Saints — I’m almost sure I was a teenager before I knew anything about it — it was one of those “Catholic” things that preachers and teachers warned me against. Halloween, for me, was just about wearing costumes and trick-or-treating. Sometimes we had a Halloween party at church, with bobbing for apples and a costume contest, stuff like that. But I would have thought it strange if anyone tried to tell me that there was some religious significance to Halloween, or the day after. 

     That was, I suspect, exactly what my Protestant forebears wanted to happen. During the Reformation, much of Catholic doctrine and practice was suppressed, discontinued, and slandered as superstition. It was at this time that Halloween and All Saints’ Day began to be associated with paganism. Reformers taught that Halloween, in particular, was a lightly Christianized observance of the ancient pagan festival of Samhain and associated it with demons and witchcraft. During the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s and 90s, many American churches taught that Halloween could be a dangerous gateway to the occult.

     The trouble with all of that is that there’s just no evidence for it.

     There was an impulse in the church to remember and celebrate the sacrifices of martyrs long before it was associated with November 1st. While it’s possible that the commemoration eventually landed on November 1st to Christianize Samhain, there’s no evidence for that, either. In fact, it can also be argued that Halloween and All Saints’ Day influenced the modern understanding of Samhain.  

     So if you’re like me, maybe you think of All Saints’ Day as a “Catholic thing,” or a light Christianizing of pagan  superstition. Maybe you’re uncomfortable about Halloween, or don’t think Christians should participate in even its secular traditions. I’m not trying to get you to observe All Saint’s Day or go trick-or-treating next year, but I want you to understand a little about the meaning of it — and maybe help us to recapture something that I think we may be in danger of losing in the church.

     Jesus reminded his hearers that God “is not the God of the dead, but the living, for to him all are alive.” His point is that death doesn’t put us out of God’s reach, and that the promise of resurrection gathers both the living and the dead together into God’s embrace. God is still “the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob,” and so even those ancient patriarchs are part of our community of faith. Their memory lives on, of course, but so in some way do they.

     In the book of Revelation, John sees “under the altar (in heaven) the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.” They’re appealing to God for justice, and he tells them to wait “until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.” For John’s original audience, that “full number” might eventually include some of them, and John wants them to know that God won’t forget the faithful dead. While I think most everything in Revelation is symbol and not to be read literally, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Those martyrs are present, and God hasn’t forgotten them and they can expect vindication through resurrection.  

     The best-known text about a community of faith that also includes those who have gone on before us is probably found in Hebrews 11 and 12. Hebrews 11 is what some people like to call the “Hall of Fame of Faith” chapter. It describes how a long litany of our ancestors in the faith lived their lives “by faith.” The chapter ends with a reminder that our predecessors are united with us in receiving the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus, and then (after an unfortunate chapter division), we are reminded that they serve as a “great cloud of witnesses” that exhort and encourage us to run our own races with the same faith that they had. “The world was not worth of them,” the author says. We need to remember their faith and follow their best examples.

     See, all my life I’ve heard that I need to follow Jesus — and of course I do. The writer of Hebrews, in fact, includes him in our “cloud of witnesses” when he tells us to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” In some ways, though not chronologically, Jesus is the example that we all follow, our spiritual ancestors and us. 

     So of course I need to follow Jesus. But I also need the example of people I’ve known to see just how that looks in real life, up close. Oh, they won’t be perfect examples, any more than we are to the people who will include us in their cloud of witnesses. But to see people who do their best to walk and talk like Jesus in front of us, who live “by faith” in visible, tangible ways in our sight, is to be blessed beyond measure. And it’s fitting that we remember those people when they’re gone; to thank God for their example and to recall that we share a common hope, that we’ll see each other again around God’s throne.

     The people who taught you about Jesus. The ones who loved you with his love when you most needed it. The ones who prayed for you daily. The ones who encouraged you, and the ones who challenged you and sometimes infuriated you. The ones whose service shamed you and whose grace overwhelmed you. All these are your cloud of witnesses. When they are with the Lord, they are still a part of our community of faith.

     I’m thinking of many now who I’ve had the privilege over 55 years of life to know and to be known by. While I won’t see their faces or hear their voices again this side of heaven, they “still speak” to me. 

     Who are the saints you include in your cloud of witnesses? 

     And who will include you?

     May we remember with gratitude all the saints who taught us to follow Jesus.