Archive for March, 2014

2014 Lent 23

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by timtrue


I Corinthians 10:14–11:1

Whoa!  Got some feedback to that last one–my last Lenten post, that is (cf. “2014 Lent 22”)!  Some readers hated it.  Others loved it–picked up a few new followers, in fact.  So I went back over it to see if I could discern why the controversy.

My thinking is that it’s the last line.  There I said something like, “So yeah, Paul, I know you’re the writer of sacred scriptures and all, but in this case reason and experience must rule the day for me.”

So my thinking is that maybe this sounds like I’ve just elevated my own reason and experience over scripture in the authority department.  Is that it?  Am I actually suggesting that, even though the scriptures are authoritative for me, my reasoning capabilities and personal experiences are nevertheless somehow more authoritative?

No.  That’s not what I am suggesting.  My heart beats a certain way; my mind follows the laws of logic as I know them.  But I am just one person, extremely limited, who is keenly aware that individuals are almost always poor assessors of self.

So I offer a clarification.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians to address division in their congregation.  In his letter, he brings up some causes for division revolving around the matter of liberty.  How much liberty should a believer in Christ be allowed?  Should a believer in Christ have to follow the Jewish custom of circumcision, for instance?  No!  What about Jewish dietary laws?  Are Christ-believers allowed to eat ham and shellfish?  Sure!  So, what about matters of sexuality?

Here Paul seems to waffle a bit.  He argues that marriage isn’t really that good–and by implication neither is family–that such relationships burden the Christ-believer with unneccessities (my cool new word, by the way).  But, for the sake of controlling lusts, marriage is allowable.  But when a man sleeps with his stepmother, that’s going way too far!

But Paul also believes that the end of the world is near, perhaps to come even in his lifetime.  In other words, he has an apocalyptic worldview.  In this scenario (indeed, just watch an episode or two of The Walking Dead), marriage and family certainly would be a burden.

But we’re not facing an imminent apocalypse.  Or even if we are, we don’t know it and therefore shouldn’t live like it.  Jesus himself says, when charging folks to remember Lot’s wife, that in the days of Noah, right up until the very day of the flood, they were eating, drinking, living, carrying on business, and marrying and being given in marriage.  Even before a worldwide cataclysm, people were carrying on life as normal.

Now Paul says not to since the world’s about to end.

I resisted this idea a little.  It was just a few posts ago if you want to see, something like “2014 Lent 18.”  Point is, I argued with the apostle.  And it felt good to do so.  After all, he and Jesus are making contrary points here; they can’t both be right.

But that post generated little response.

So why now, when I disagree with a method Paul uses to argue a point do I sense such resistance?

Paul makes a great point in I Corinthians 10:14: “Flee from the worship of idols.”  I totally agree, 100%.  Any time something becomes more important to me than God, it’s ugly.  But getting to this point Paul says we shouldn’t eat meat sacrificed to idols if doing so would cause someone to stumble in his or her faith.  Huh?  He also uses fear tactics in his argument:

“Remember all those Israelites who died in the wilderness after God delivered them from Egypt?  Well, they died because of God’s judgment.  Do you want to die under God’s judgment too?  I didn’t think so.  Therefore flee from idols.”

So my point yesterday was not that I disagree with a great truth, but that I disagree with Paul’s methods to get us there.

We are so far removed from Paul that we don’t even really know what meat sacrificed to idols looks like.  So we have no problem with his statement about that.  Why then can’t we remove ourselves from using fear tactics in our moral teachings?  In judgment, he says, “Twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.”  This is a huge number.  Certainly, I’m not about to make a brazen statement about Hurricane Katrina, for instance, being a demonstration of God’s judgment.  But isn’t that the idea behind what Paul does in chapter 10:1-13?

So here’s another statement that some of my readership might disagree with: Paul was a product of his times.  My reason strongly suggests this anyway.

Yes, he wrote a good chunk of our sacred scriptures.  And yes, there are many moral truths from his writings that transcend cultural contexts and are thus broadly applicable.  But he also shows some inconsistencies, such as vilifying pagans in one breath and then condoning their actions in the next (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-2), not to mention that bit above where he disagrees with Jesus.

So I’m learning to argue with Paul.

He’s used to it.  He himself was raised in a tradition that values discussion and debate.  Indeed, arguments continue to this day between Rabbis and the Torah.  It’s part of Midrash.  So what if I come along and question Paul’s methods?  According to Paul himself, I have liberty to do so.  Why then should the concluding statement of Saturday’s post be so rankling for you?

Interestingly enough, Paul ends today’s reading with another timeless charge: “Whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”

No argument there.

Nevertheless, I have taken upon myself a serious discipline this Lent to give substantial consideration to a passage of scripture daily as evidenced by my writing about it.  And this daily consideration includes engaging Paul in argument.  Following his charge, then, I am thus arguing with him for the glory of God.  That’s how I see it anyway.  For the remaining skeptics, however, I offer this: at the last day, after all the arguing and wrestling and rankling is over, I will say, eagerly, “Not my will, Jesus, but yours.”

Now, how in the cosmos is that putting my reason and experience’s authority above that of the scriptures?

Believing is Seeing

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on March 30, 2014 by timtrue

John 9

What does it mean to say, “I see”?

My dad and I used to play a game on road trips. He has eagle eyes, you know; eyes that can spot things far away, usually before anyone else—oftentimes long before—things like an airplane in the sky, a prairie dog on a field, or a dolphin in the water.

So we’d play this game. “Watch for the mileage signs,” he’d say; “as soon as you can make out the number, shout it out. Let’s see who spots it first.”

So, game on.

He usually won. But as I got older, I remember, it was on a trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco, I shouted out the number before he did. “307,” I said; and as we drew a little closer, Dad said, “Ah, I see; you’re right.”

Do you see?

So, in this brief story, I’ve used the word “see” in a few different ways.

There’s the, “Ah, I see,” that my dad said when he could see the number clearly on the mileage sign.

But he also said, “Let’s see who spots it first.” Here the word “see” doesn’t quite mean the same thing, does it?

And even as the story concluded, I asked, “Do you see?” This is a different meaning of the word still, like, “Do you understand?”

The word “see” can mean many different things.

Jesus knows this: that there are many different ways of seeing. And he plays with this idea.

Did you catch his statements towards the end of the story? The man who had been blind came to Jesus and said, “Tell me who the Son of Man is so that I may believe in him.”

And Jesus says, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.”

Only then does the man truly see, right? For only then, after seeing Jesus in this way, does the man say, “Lord, I believe.”

And did you notice? Every other character in this story can see. That is, every other character in this story has sight. They see Jesus walk up to the blind man. They see Jesus stoop down, spit on the dirt, and turn it into mud. They see Jesus wipe the mud on the blind man’s eyes. They see the blind man wash his eyes in the Pool of Siloam. And they see him come back, with his own sight restored.

And yet, even though every one of these characters can see, not one of them believes.

The neighbors don’t believe: “Surely this isn’t the same blind guy who used to beg, is it?”

The religious leaders don’t believe either. They demand from the poor guy three times, “Tell us who did this to you.”

Even his parents are too fearful to believe it. “Go ask him,” they say; “he is of age.” He can answer for himself.

You see, with Jesus, it’s not like that old saying, “Seeing is believing.” Rather, it’s the other way around: “Believing is seeing.”

Now I want to show you something.

<Flashlight and prism demonstration>

Let me explain what we just saw.

When I first shone the flashlight on the wall, what color was the light? White, that’s right! But then what happened when I passed the prism in front of the light? Yeah, we saw a rainbow! Now do you know why this is?

What colors are in the rainbow? I like to remember it as a name: there’s this friend of my named Roy G. Biv. His name spells out all the colors of the rainbow: Red-Orange-Yellow-Green-Blue-Indigo-Violet.

Now there are a lot of colors I didn’t name, yeah? Like turquoise. Like fuchsia. Like magenta. What about these colors? They come from combining the seven colors of the rainbow in various ways.

But I also didn’t mention white. Where do we get white light from? Yes, it’s a combination of all these other colors, as we saw in the demonstration with the flashlight and prism.

Now here’s what I want you to learn from this: not everything is what it looks like. The white light is really the combination of lots of different colors of light. It is the same with Jesus. In the story we read today, Jesus looks to almost everyone like just another guy. But then he gives sight to a blind man. And no one in the story except the blind man can believe it!

Remember, with Jesus, it’s not “seeing is believing,” as we might think; but “believing is seeing.”

Do you believe?

2014 Lent 22

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on March 29, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 10:1-13

Again, more issues for me here.

In today’s passage, Paul begins with a reference to one cool thing that happened in the past: that all Israel was delivered from slavery through a miraculous parting of the Red Sea.  No problem here.

But then he lists several negative things.  “Nevertheless,” he begins this list, “God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.”  Yikes!  Next, some were idolaters, others indulged in sexual immorality, “and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” because of it.  Again, some put Christ to the test “and were destroyed by serpents.”  And finally, some of “our ancestors” complained and thus “were destroyed by the destroyer.”

So let me get this straight.  God delivered the nation of Israel miraculously only then to allow them to die in the wilderness?  And I don’t know about you, but some of these descriptions of death–the one by serpents at least–strike me as more gruesome than drowning.

But this isn’t Paul’s point.  Rather, these things are an example to us, he says, to instruct us.  Then he sums it up this way: “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

Okay, okay, it’s a good point, I’ll grant you that.  Pride indeed comes before the fall, as we can all attest.

But my issues lie in how Paul got us here.

For it strikes me that he motivates the Corinthians, and by extension us, with fear.

“Our ancestors did these wrong things,” he says, “and look what happened to them.  Do you want to bring the same thing down on you?”

But I don’t do well with fear mongering.

As a little boy there were certain men I minded my p’s and q’s around more than anyone else.  It wasn’t because I respected them, though; but because I feared them.

Some of them were my dad’s friends.  And he’d ask, “Wow, how did you get Timmy to listen to you?  He won’t do a thing I tell him.”

But is this really the best way to get kids to obey?

One of these guys–I can barely remember most of the exchange, I was so young–I liked initially.  He made me laugh, I remember.  And for that reason I was drawn to him.  But then, whether I got too close for his comfort level or was otherwise too riled up for his liking, he threw a limon at my head.

Limons are rock-hard little lemon-like fruits the grow in Mexico, where we were camping for the long weekend.  So imagine a thirty-ish year-old engineer with little experience around kids interacting with a five year-old boy with puppy-like energy.  Then imagine the engineer getting tired of playing with the puppy.  He tries to move on but the puppy-kid won’t let him.  So to make his point he throws a rock-hard fruit at the kid’s head.  And he hits him squarely.

Now this might seem funny to an engineer, or even to a grownup in general.  (I seem to remember my mom laughing.)  But, let me tell you, to a five year-old it was enough.  That friendship was immediately over.  For, to the five year-old, that engineer-man was uncertain, unpredictable, to be feared.

Now, today, as a dad, I in no way want to bring fear mongering into the way I raise my kids.  I want them to obey me, sure.  But they should do it out of love for me, not out of fear.

I view God this way too: to be obeyed; but out of love, not fear.

So, Paul, I know you’re a writer of the sacred scriptures and all, but this is an instance where reason and experience must rule the day for me.

2014 Lent 21

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on March 28, 2014 by timtrue

celtic yin yang

I Corinthians 9:16-27

Work is paradoxical.

We encourage children from the earliest age to think about what they want to be when they grow up.  We also tell them that they can aspire to be anything they want professionally.

Right now, in my own family, I have a daughter on the cusp of graduating from high school.  I’m giving her lots of counsel about a possible major, the adult work world, and so on.  Wouldn’t it be great if she could find the perfect blend of low stress and high pay?  But what is that?  Every doctor and lawyer I know deals with stress, usually lots of it.  Not sure I’d want to wish a life of that on her for all the money in the world.  But every low-stress job I can think of is low paying–except, perhaps, some teaching gigs and the arts.

Anyway, we raise children with a sense of liberty towards work.  “Work hard in school,” we say, “so that when you graduate you can do something you love.”  I even heard Ryan Seacrest say something along these lines last night on national TV: “‘Cause when you love what you do, it’s not work.”

So a lot of kids grow up with the idea that they will pick a field of work they love, of their own choosing.  And many succeed at it.

There are those, however, who end up doing something they’re not entirely fond of, something that was never a dream for them, in order to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their loved ones.  In fact, this may be the majority of folks out there.  Next time you’re in a restaurant, for instance, just look around.  How many table servers, cashiers, and managers do you think got into this facet of the hospitality industry because they were following a dream?  For these folks, work must feel something like enslavement.

So the kids in the first scenario end up seeming privileged over those in the second.  For the first end up doing what they love, and it doesn’t feel like work to them, at least according to Ryan Seacrest.  But the second face daily drudgery, working for the man, as it were.

But, you know, in each scenario the tables can be turned.  In the first, where liberty points us to find a career, in time the obligation still turns the job into labor, toil, even drudgery.  No lawyers and doctors I know fit the second scenario; that is, they went into their field following a dream.  But most (if not all) end up feeling somewhat enslaved to their positions after a while.

On the other hand, one of the most joyful persons–and in that sense one of the most liberated souls–I know is Daniel, my gardener.  He entered this line of work for little more reason than to make ends meet.  Yet I’m sure he sleeps very well at night, free from most (if not all) anxieties and stresses that plague others.

So Paul mentioned liberty yesterday.  Today he says that in his liberty he has entered a sort of enslavement so that others might be won over to the good news of Christ.

We can transfer the paradoxical nature of work over to self-discipline.  Christians who enter into a Lenten discipline do so voluntarily, in liberty, into a sort of self-imposed forty-day enslavement.

But maybe paradox isn’t the best way to look at it.  Maybe, instead, what we should see in all this is balance.

Does this sound eastern to you?  Wherever there is some yin, there must also be some yang.

Yes, it is eastern–in the sense that it resonates with worldviews with origins in the far east.

But it also resonates with Christian origins.  Paul writes about it here, after all.  And didn’t Jesus himself teach in a paradoxical way–or, in other words, in a way that seeks balance?  How is it that we are already raised to new life and members of a new kingdom yet still must die an earthly death on this here-and-now kingdom?  And so on.

I looked for an image (on Wikimedia, so copyright issues are copacetic), as I often do, to illustrate this post.  How interesting to find an ancient Celtic piece of art with yin-yang symbolized on it!  It dates from the mid-first century AD, a full century after Julius Caesar conquered Britannia.  Had Christianity, or the school of thought leading to Christianity, yet reached the island by the time this piece of art was made?  It’s debatable–not to be ruled out, but neither to be assumed.  What is certain is that western thought had entered the island.  So, apparently, had eastern.

Doesn’t this provide us with another picture of liberty and enslavement?

The ancient Celts knew what it meant to live at rest in tension–to live in balance.

So did Paul.

We can too, whether it involves job dissatisfaction, unrealized dreams, factions in the church, political unrest, wars, or simply the joys and sorrows of everyday life.

2014 Lent 20

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 27, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 9:1-15

“O-oh we’re halfway there, / O-oh living on a prayer.”

These words of Jon Bon Jovi are a tribute to all of us who’ve embarked on some kind of Lenten discipline this year.  Yep, today marks the halfway point.  Hang in there!  You can do it!

But what’s Bon Jovi got to do with today’s passage?

I’m sure Jon Bon Jovi didn’t go into music thinking he’d make a lot of money at it–though he has.  I’m sure it wasn’t some sort of enslaving obligation for him, some drudgery that he hated facing day after day, practicing guitar and singing only to fulfill a sadistic obligation foisted upon him by a cruel music-teacher-tyrant.  Rather, he got into music because he loved it; he felt some sort of passion for it, a conviction that it was somehow the right thing for him to do.

Well, the apostle Paul did the same thing.

No, I don’t mean he learned the guitar at a young age, skipped a lot of school, and played and sang in dimly lit clubs, doing whatever work he could find to get by.  But he had a similar passion and conviction–for promoting the good news of Christ.  And he did in fact do whatever work he could to get by.

For Paul is was making tents.  It was seen as demeaning work to some.  But it paid the bills and allowed him the freedom to take the gospel with him wherever the spirit led.

One of the places he took the gospel was Corinth, the Las Vegas of the ancient world.  And, lo and behold, people there believed the message and an assembly of believers soon formed.  This must have been exciting for Paul, something like Jon Bon Jovi experiencing his first song to play on the radio, “Runaway” (in 1982), becoming an overnight local hit.  But still he sought no pay for his work–Paul, that is, not JBJ.

But, unfortunately, the Corinthians apparently turned Paul’s philanthropy against him, saying (something like) that he asked for no pay because he himself knew he deserved no pay, that he was something of a fraud.

Don’t you hate that!  You do something nice for someone and they use it against you!

But Paul had personal liberty to do make tents, right?  He could continue his demeaning, lower-class work (very likely how the Corinthians viewed it) for the sake of the advancement of the gospel if he wanted to; just as JBJ had liberty to sweep his cousin’s studio while pursuing a career in rock and roll if he wanted to, which he in fact did.

So my point comes in the form of a question: why use someone’s liberty against him?  Why be like the Corinthians and turn a person’s choice–generated from a spirit of philanthropy and generosity no less!–into an opportunity for division?

2014 Lent 19

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , , on March 26, 2014 by timtrue


I Corinthians 8:1-13

As I’ve been slogging through St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians this Lent, I’ve been trying to keep the idea in mind that Paul’s intent here is to combat division.  That’s what I’ve heard for years is the gist of this letter.  And it fits with the stuff we’ve already encountered regarding getting immorality out of the church.  It fits too with something I know is coming, around chapters 10 and 11, where the rich are excluding the poor in the congregation from communion.  A pox on social injustice!  But what about chapters 6-8?

For the past couple of chapters Paul has been discussing marriage and, by extension, family; now, in chapter 8, he moves on to discuss eating habits.  Both of these discussions are very personal in nature.  So, I’ve been asking myself, “Self, what’s all this got to do with division?”

Well, to answer briefly, I’m still not sure.  I’ll still be asking this question in the days ahead, in other words.  Maybe I’ll figure out a reasonable answer in the next few days; or maybe I won’t.  That’s part of what keeps me coming back to the New Testament, by the way: it poses many riddles to me, some of which I will never be able to answer, surely.  It’s challenging.  But, at the same time, it’s rewarding and it immensely shapes my view of the world.

Nevertheless, today I’ve found a foothold, a place to grab onto this particular riddle, rest for a bit, catch my breath, and think.  For today Paul actually uses the word liberty.  Do you see it?  Right there in the middle of verse 9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

The particular focus is on eating meat formerly used in sacrifice to idols, probably pagan, certainly not to the God of the Jews or to Christ.  Some of the Corinthian believers had no moral scruples about eating such meat, apparently, while others did.

For something similar in our modern-day, alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos come to mind.  Some modern American Christians, especially of the fundamentalist stripe, have real problems with these things, in some cases even calling the use of them sins.  (“Jesus didn’t turn the water into wine as we know it,” I’ve heard a preacher say, “but grape juice.  That’s why it was called ‘the best wine’: the best wine wasn’t fermented!”)  But, on the other hand, many other Christians have no problem morally with having a beer, enjoying a glass of wine, sipping a whisky on the back porch at sunset, lighting up a stogie, or covering vast portions of the body with permanent art (or kitsch if you prefer).

Anyway, perhaps this eating of meat sacrificed to idols was causing something of a division in the Corinthian church, that “stumbling block” Paul mentions–just like alcohol, cigarettes, and tattoos cause division today.  (One wonders where trajectory will take us with the legalization of marijuana, yeah?)

But what if we look at the flip-side?  What if we look at it from the perspective of liberty?

Then maybe it’s the ones who have the problem who are being divisive.  Seriously, if someone I work with has a problem with the way I tie my shoe, is that my problem?  So this person confronts me: “Um, Tim, I notice you don’t make two loops before making your knot.  Instead, you do this weird thing to make your second loop–I can’t even explain.  It just bugs me!  So stop doing it that way.  Please.”  Really, should this become my problem?

So extend it to a beer.  If I happen to stop by Trader Joe’s on my way home from work and pick up a six-pack of oatmeal stout, then go home and enjoy a few with a fish-and-chips dinner, why is it suddenly my problem if a friend, a relative, or a parishioner doesn’t like it?


This is my foothold, by the way.  Paul is dealing with division in the Corinthian church, so I’ve heard.  Fine and well.  But he’s also dealing with liberty.  The Corinthians were free to marry or not to marry, as their consciences and circumstances allowed.  They were also free to eat meat grilled with pagan spices.  Just so, we are free to drink a beer brewed in a brewery owned by an atheist.  Why should these actions lead to division?

So I’ll have to think this through.  Maybe Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is more about liberty than division.  If so, those exercising liberty should use prudence, sure.  I’m not going to hang out with a recovering alcoholic at the local microbrewery.  But the flip-side is just as important: those who are wired in such a way that they look for division, or even cause division, should be slow to confront and quick to examine their own hearts–to look at the plank in their own eye, as Jesus put it, before pointing out the speck in someone else’s.

2014 Lent 18

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 25, 2014 by timtrue


I Corinthians 7:32-40

“I want you to be free from anxieties.”

This seems to be the core motivation behind Paul’s counsel on marriage.  A man or woman who is unmarried only has to be concerned with how to please the Lord.  A married person is concerned about this too; but with the added concern of how to please a spouse.  And then, one could add, when someone has kids, well, then it’s the Lord, the spouse, and the kids!  And in our day of blended families–quite similar to households in Paul’s day, I might add–there could be stepchildren, adopted children, live-in parents in need of continuous care, etc., etc.  In short, according to Paul, family life sure can be a headache!

I get Paul’s point.  To be as free from anxiety as possible is noble.  Who wouldn’t want to have a stress-free life?

Yesterday I mentioned the Stoic virtue apatheia.  This has to do with how your passions affect you; to remain detached from your emotions, regardless of how big the amplitude becomes, is the goal.  Today, however, what Paul suggests is more active; you actively maintain a mindset that frees you from anxiety ahead of time.  Today falls in line more with an Epicurean virtue, ataraxia.

Google these terms if you like, to find out more.  Heck, Google Stoicism and Epicureanism to learn more about these two competing philosophical schools of thought floating in the empire’s drinking water during Paul’s day.  But that Paul draws from one of these and then another only a few verses later is interesting, a question worthy of study.  Contemporaneous philosophers certainly wouldn’t have done the same.  At the very least, it suggests that Paul was human, that he was like you and I, that he mixed some things up, that (even) he was inconsistent in his letter to the Corinthians.  But this is a bit of a rabbit trail.

The point I want to make here is that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not very family-friendly, a point that I think has been made well enough over the past few days.

So, what do we do with this point?

Well (gulp!), let me propose, if nothing else, that Paul’s writings here, in the Bible, cause me to rethink some of my own prejudices, biases, and values concerning family.

I prize my family.  Marriage, I am firmly convinced, is the stuff that makes up the building blocks of society.  Children are a blessing of the Lord, a heritage.  Divorce is ugly, as it breaks up a sacramental relationship–a relationship that demonstrates outwardly the inward love of God in us.  And now, in mid-life, I’m starting to find a lot of joy in the likelihood of my never becoming a lonely old man: I’m looking forward to grandkids and great-grandkids, and the more the better.  And so it bugs me to the core when I hear mantras like “Faction before blood” (from Divergent).

But where have all my prejudices, biases, and values come from?  I’d like to say from the Bible.  And there are some, sure, like that psalm I alluded to about children being a blessing from the Lord.  But there are also an awful lot of passages like this one from Paul.  And didn’t Jesus himself say that unless you hate father and mother (and so on) you cannot be my disciple?  On a scale, I don’t know which would outweigh the other: pro-family statements from the Bible or anti-.

More than from the Bible–far more–is what we call the Judeo-Christian ethic.  And this ethic, and thus my biases and values, comes more from tradition, from cultural norms over time, I’m afraid.

So this point more than anything else reminds me that not everyone sees it my way.  Not everyone else values family the way I do.

And that’s okay.

In fact, that’s as it should be.

2014 Lent 17

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , , on March 24, 2014 by timtrue

This photo is courtesy of my daughter: Carnivale 2014, somewhere in Italy.

I Corinthians 7:25-31

Remember, these are just thoughts I’ve been sharing; I’m not claiming that my words are to be seen as dogmatic truth.  I’m reading the daily lectionary and responding to the readings.  I’m not approaching I Corinthians or the other readings I’ve touched as a scholar would–researching, analyzing, processing, and finally writing down.  Rather, it’s more of a conversation.  And conversations are fluid.  The parties in conversations–genuine conversations anyway–do not have their minds made up ahead of time.  As more information reveals itself, either party can change his mind.

That said, today’s passage baffles me.  I’ve read ahead a little; I’ve also gone back some.  But doing so hasn’t helped much.  I remain puzzled by Paul’s words today.  So what I say today, I say with the caveat that I may change my mind on this.  But the gist is that my approach to marital counseling is vastly different than Paul’s.

He says–correct me if I’m wrong–that it is better not to marry.  But if you must marry (presumably for issues regarding self-control), then it is not a sin to do so.  But in light of the “impending crisis” (v. 26), i. e., that “the appointed time has grown short” (v. 29) and “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31), once married you should go on living like you’re not married–just as those who are mourning should not mourn, and so on.

No, I most definitely wouldn’t counsel a couple desiring marriage to: 1) go ahead and do so to control your lusts; but 2) keep living like you’re not married; and 3) give little thought to tomorrow, for the world’s just about to end anyway.

Again I could be wrong, but Paul seems motivated here by two philosophies floating through the air of his day: Stoicism and Apocalypticism.

Stoicism valued apatheia, a state of mind that was relatively unaffected by passions.  Hence the “and those who mourn as though they were not mourning” bit.  This state of mind was prized by many members of the Roman Senate, in fact–hardly a Christ-believing group in Paul’s day.

Apocalypticism held that the world would soon end.  The Qumran community, whence came the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a community formed around this belief; and so they moved out beyond the edge of town and lived something of a stockpile life, trusting and depending on only themselves until the end of days.  But their days ended and the world goes on.

Perhaps a similar feel was in the air as Y2K approached, some fifteen years ago.  I was living in Pennsylvania at the time, the “can-do” state.  And I knew several folks personally who had filled their basements with trash cans full of drinking water, hundreds of pounds of jerky and dried fruits and vegetables, and weapons.

Perhaps that sense of apocalypse hasn’t ended.  Just look at the proliferation of movies and TV shows about zombies, outer-space alien attacks, nuclear holocausts, and other end-of-the-world scenarios.  Even the church has its Left-Behind contingent, you know, that portion that thinks the world is just getting worse and worse until, at last, Christ will rapture all the good guys away and destroy the remaining bad guys along with all creation.

Anyway, I can’t go there–whether counseling a couple seeking marriage or in my own understanding of life in community and end times.

Paul wrote this letter nearly two thousand years ago, suggesting that the end was right around the corner.  But two millennia have passed.  why should we think the end is right around the corner, in our own life time?  Statistically it doesn’t make sense.

Too, such thinking de-motivates us.  For instance, when I was in seminary a professor told me about a visit he’d made to a Christian college in the midwest that believed in this apocalyptic end times stuff.  He didn’t name the school, so I can’t tell you which it is.  But the school was intentional about not recycling, since the world would all burn up in a few years’ time anyway.  Really!  With that mindset, why have a college at all?  Paul himself had to deal with this de-motivation.  In one of his letters to the Thessalonian church he admonished the Christ-believers there to work for their living: they apparently figured, since it was all going to end soon anyway, why bother?

Even more significant in my thinking, though, is that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection ushered in a new age, the Kingdom of God.  And throughout the scriptures the theme of “already but not yet” resonates.  The Kingdom is already here but not yet fully realized.  It’s being more and more fully realized though–quite the opposite of getting worse and worse, as some want to say!

No, Paul, in marriage counseling, I’m going to encourage the couple to enter a life together; to leave their old life (their “father and mother”) and cleave to one another; and to plan for the future.  So I pry a little: What will your budget look like?  Do you plan to have kids?  If so, how many?  And what’s your approach to discipline?  Are you compatible–what do you have in common, what do you enjoy doing together?  Where do you plan to go to church?  Even things like, what is your understanding of baptism?–for if one thinks infant baptism is the way to go and the other disagrees, well, you never know.

But I don’t ask things like: Hey, how are y’all doing in matters of self-control?  Is your lust for each other intolerable?  What about your views on the end of the world?  Tell me how you feel about zombies.


Breaking, Bucking Jesus

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on March 23, 2014 by timtrue

woman at well

John 4:5-42

Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city.

For many years I’ve looked at this passage through the eyes of Jesus.

He encounters this woman.  He’s a Jew; she’s a Samaritan; Jews don’t associate with Samaritans.  Nevertheless, he goes out of his way to teach her some amazing truths about God.  And in the end she goes back to her own town and tells her neighbors about the Messiah, about what he’s done for her.

The application is simple.  I’m to be like Jesus here.  I need to find someone unlike me, someone who is outside of my comfort zone; and I need to share the good news of Christ with them.  What’s more, my job isn’t done until that person goes and shares the good news of the Messiah with someone else—just like the Samaritan woman did.

So that’s how I’ve always looked at this passage.  It’s a good lesson for us all, sure.

But today I want to look at it in another way.  Today, with you, let’s try to get into the head of the Samaritan woman.  She’s the character more like us here, not Jesus.  She’s the one who meets the Messiah; she’s the one who comes to recognize him as the Messiah; and she’s the one who responds to the Messiah.  Like us, she’s the one on a salvation journey.

So then, as a starting point for her journey, notice that it is Jesus who initiates the conversation.

Jesus had many reasons not to talk to the Samaritan woman.  She was a Samaritan.  And, in that day of patriarchy, she was a woman.  But she was also something of a social outcast.  She’d been married five times.  And the man she was living with now wasn’t her husband.  When the disciples returned from lunch, they were shocked.  Jesus was breaking many unwritten rules, and maybe even some written ones, when he spoke to this woman.

So, I ask, what rules is Jesus breaking when he talks to us?  During this season of Lent, reflection and introspection are encouraged.  Which of your mistakes, shortcomings, and sins have come to the surface during your times of prayer?  What have you asked God to forgive you of recently?  You and I, we’re faulty, faithless, fickle human beings, prone to tantrums and whining, blame-shifting and selfishness.

Yet Jesus has initiated a conversation with each and every one of us.  Otherwise we wouldn’t be here today, sitting right where we are.  And we’re so important to him that he has broken rules and bucked convention for our sakes, just as he did for the Samaritan woman.

You’ve heard it before, I’m sure: Jesus meets us where we are.

But he doesn’t leave us there.  Notice, next, that it is Jesus who asks for a drink.

Have you ever thought about this peculiarity?  The woman has just walked from town carrying a water jar.  It is about noon.  Presumably it’s hot, and she’s thirsty.  And there’s this man, Jesus, just sitting at the well.

Why didn’t he get the water from the well himself?  He was perfectly capable!  And even if he didn’t have his own bucket, he could have borrowed the woman’s.  Or, if he’d been feeling especially polite, he even might have waited until after she’d drawn what she needed and then asked.  Yet he didn’t do any of this.  He simply said to her, “Give me a drink.”  What’s this all about?

Here’s my suggestion—a possibility anyway: Jesus offers the woman a chance to meet the Messiah through an act of love.

She’s on a salvation journey.  Jesus has initiated this journey, breaking rules and bucking convention.  But now he’s expecting a response—an act on her part, of love.

We meet strangers all the time, whether it’s someone’s hand you shook for the first time today or the table server you joked with last night at dinner or that homeless woman you walked past downtown the day before that.  We live in a large city; there are strangers all around us.  And with so many strangers comes human need all around us too.  A little thing like a cup of cool water offered to a stranger in love—this is a key part of our salvation journey.

The next thing to notice is the exchange: the woman genuinely engages Jesus, seeking to understand who he is.

He says, “Those who drink the living water I give will never be thirsty again”; and she asks, “Where do you get that living water?”

He tells her to go call her husband, and he will give them both this living water.

But she has no present husband.  Jesus calls her out on this.  But, you know, she doesn’t try to hide it.  Rather, the genuine exchange continues until Jesus at last delivers that great “I am” statement: I am he, the coming Messiah, the one who is speaking to you.

Jesus already knows her secrets—Jesus already knows our secrets—and he engages us anyway!  That’s part of that rule-breaking already mentioned.  But do you see what the woman does here?  She is intrigued by Jesus.  He teaches her something that is not easy to grasp, not at first anyway.  But she persists until she understands.  She shows a genuine desire to learn more about him.  She soon thinks he is something of a prophet.  But even this is a truncation.  And then, finally, she grasps the truth: he is Messiah.

So profound is this truth that she leaves her water jar on the ground at Jesus’s feet and returns to her town to tell about it.

Do you grasp the Messiah in a similar way?  Do you engage with tough questions about Jesus?  Are you striving to grow in your walks with Christ, perhaps even wrestling with his words as the Samaritan woman wrestled, not satisfied with easy answers but plumbing for deeper truths?  Does the truth about him resonate with you so profoundly that you set aside your daily routines—your own water jars—for his sake?

There’s one more observation I want to make about this woman’s salvation journey—and ours.  Notice what she doesn’t say to her neighbors.

What she does say is: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.”

“Come and see” is a good thing to say, and something we should all try to tell others.  But it’s the “everything I have ever done” part I’m concerned about.

What do you think her neighbors thought when she said this?  “Everything you’ve ever done, eh?  Wow!  That’s a tall order!  Where do we start?”

These were her neighbors.  They lived with her in close community.  No doubt they knew her shady past and her questionable present!  Everything she’d ever done?  It had to be a long list.

But there’s something she’s not saying.  It’s certainly suggested.  The reason she doesn’t say it, though, is because she doesn’t have to:

“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done”—and still loves me anyway.

On our own salvation journeys, Jesus has brought us to himself, he has asked us to respond, he has engaged us in genuine relationship, and we have repeatedly failed him.  We know this, perhaps especially so during this season of Lent.

But, like the woman at the well, Jesus still breaks rules and bucks convention just to meet us where we are.  And like the woman at the well, he loves us anyway.  He is our Messiah!

2014 Lent 16

Posted in Lent 2014, Reflection with tags , , , on March 22, 2014 by timtrue

I Corinthians 7:10-24

On marriage, St. Paul seems to be all over the place.  “It’s good if you’re not married,” he says; “stay that way if you can.  But if your desire for sex is too strong, then get married.”  That was yesterday’s reading.  Today he seems to be saying that if you Corinthians were married before you believed in Christ, stay that way now that you do believe.  In other words, a couple shouldn’t divorce over religious leanings.  But if the non-believer leaves a believer over religious differences, well, then that’s a different matter: let her go.

And so I am transported back to my adolescence, to when the Bible first started to make a lot of sense to me, to when I first saw some relevance in it.  In particular I remember a youth group gathering where we discussed this passage.  Actually, we were discussing the topics of marriage, dating, and sexuality—subjects always of interest to youth groups, at least to youth groups in the mid-1980s—and the youth group leader pointed to these verses as a proof-text to an argument she had been making.  “It reminds me of a bumper sticker,” she said; “have you seen it?  ‘If you love something, let it go.  If it comes back to you, it’s yours; but if it does not, then it never was.’  That’s exactly what Paul’s getting at here.”

Really?  Even then, as a tender, confused adolescent, something at the core of this message smelled of manipulation.  I’m not so sure that’s what Paul is getting at here.

Youth group theologizing aside, there is a church dogma that has come from these verses.  But did I say dogma?  We Episcopalians generally run away when we sense that word drawing near.  Yet, in fact, yes, I did say dogma.  And I also said church, meaning not just the Episcopal Church, or even the larger and longer Anglican tradition; but the entire church throughout her history.

The dogma of which I speak comes from v. 14 (and elsewhere in the Bible, as discussed below), which states, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband.  Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.”

Paul was a devout Jew.  As such, he knew from childhood that a sign set him apart from the non-Jewish part of the world, that a sign demonstrated that he was one of God’s people.  This sign, of course, was circumcision.

He was given this sign as a baby.  That means he had no say in the matter, no personal decision.  It was his parents’ decision; and above this a people’s decision.  He wasn’t alive when God saved the Israelites from Pharaoh’s wrath through Moses; yet he was nevertheless personally saved from Pharaoh’s wrath, for he too was one of the Israelites, the chosen people through whom Father Abraham’s Messiah would come.  Paul was holy (or saved) as a newborn baby, in other words, because his parents (and their parents, and so on, back to Abraham) were holy.

This teaching rings true in other parts of the Old Testament too.  Such as when God told Noah to include his sons and their wives on the ark, one whom we know from a later episode to be anything but holy.  And such as when Lot—the only one of the, eh hem, lot who was ever declared righteous—was told to flee from Sodom and Gomorrah with his wife, his daughters, and his future sons-in-law.  We all know what happened to Lot’s salty wife.  But what about these future sons-in-law?  Were they a part of the group that tried to abuse the angels under Lot’s roof?  The Bible says all of the men of Sodom came out to abuse them—all, “to the last man” (Gen. 19:4).  Yet even these mob-rule abusers were allowed to escape God’s wrath vicariously through righteous Lot.

Anyway, now Paul brings this amazing truth—this dogma—into the church.  It seems, like with Lot, that the holiness of one family member suffices for the others.  When God saves one, God saves all—with respect to households anyway.  (But it begs a question. . . .)

Some years after the youth group gathering I described above, I revisited this passage with this newer understanding.  And it painted baptism in a new light for me—baptism, the sign (and seal) of the new covenant.  It didn’t really matter to me so much anymore whether my kids were capable mentally of grasping baptism’s significance, salvation’s intricacies, and the church’s importance.  Because I was a person of the new covenant, they too were God’s people of the new covenant.  That was enough.

So, at the next opportunity, on the Day of Pentecost in 2003 in fact, my four kids were baptized together.

Paul’s kind of all over the place on marriage.  But this much is certain: there’s something holy in it.