Friday, April 13, 2018

Lead Us Not into a Time of Testing

Since Pope Francis has suggested changing the liturgical wording of The Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father) from “lead us not into temptation” to “do not let us fall into temptation,” Christians of all varieties and even non-Christians have been talking it. The idea is to bring the translation used in worship in line with James 1:13, making it clear that “No one, when tempted, should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one.” Please understand, Pope Francis has not proposed changing Jesus’ prayer or the Bible, only suggesting a clearer translation in line with the rest of the Bible.
I think an even more important translation update would be to change “temptation” to “Do not bring us to the time of trial” as the NRSV does in both Matthew 6:13 and Luke 11:4. As I understand the Greek word peirasmos traditionally rendered “temptation” could also (sometimes better) be translated “time of trial” or “time of testing.” That would be consistent with the book of Job and probably Jesus’ 40 day experience in the desert following his baptism (Matthew 4; Mark 1; Luke 4). I think it also supports the idea of not suggesting God tempts us.
Along with millions of other Christians all over the world, through the centuries, I pray through the Lord’s Prayer daily. I frequently discuss with God the tests I am facing each day. In recent months I have sensed that a time of serious testing in coming upon all of us in the US who want to seriously follow Jesus as his faithful disciples. I am increasingly convinced this test is a time of spiritual and moral confusion and conflict being played out in public on a national and even international scale.
I have been amazed, even appalled, shocked and disappointed, surprised and incredulous at the number of leaders among evangelical Christians who are giving Donald Trump a free pass on his alleged and acknowledged sexual indiscretions. I am not at all suggesting that I expect the US President or any other government official (elected, appointed, or hired) to be my brand of Christian (or any brand of Christian). I affirm the US Constitution’s prohibition of any religious test for public office. I think our Christian forbearers, who came before Constantine made a distorted version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, would agree that this is actually good for the authenticity and health of Christian faith and discipleship. The dilution and corruption of Christianity in the Christendom of Europe led to the dangerous idea that any nation could be “Christian.” The Puritans tried that in colonial New England and not only found it unsustainable, but that it undermined the faith of those who were serious about following Jesus. I would also add that my comments have nothing to do with political philosophy or any kind of comparison with either Bill or Hillary Clinton. What I am looking for in those in positions of public leadership, whether I agree with them on policy or not, is integrity, authenticity, and accountability. I mention this not to get into a debate about the cultural consensus about sexuality, but as an important test of spiritual and moral conflict and confusion those of us who follow Jesus are facing.
However, I am much more concerned about a less obvious but more ominous test of spiritual and moral conflict and confusion that seems to be emerging in recent weeks. That is the juxtaposition of increasing political instability and the beating of the drums of war. People are leaving Congress and the current administration at an unusually rapid pace. That so many are Republicans must be making party regulars uncomfortable. Anticipating the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election evokes both hope and fear, depending on one’s political presuppositions. What effect the #MeToo and #MarchforOur Lives movements will have remains to be seen. To be sure career politicians are nervous. Some posturing that seems to prepare for challenging the validity of those elections already seems to be underway. At the same time, we are hearing both vague and direct signals that military action is being contemplated in one trouble spot or another: Syria, North Korea, Iran. That a nation’s people tend to rally around their leaders in times of war is axiomatic and understandable. Provoking a war in a time of political insecurity to manufacture national unity has been employed as a political strategy in many times and places. I am not saying that this is consciously or unconsciously pursued right now, but I think even the prospect of it may portend a time of testing, of spiritual and moral conflict and confusion for those of us who follow Jesus.
Understand, I am not suggesting anything good about the regimes in Syria, North Korea, Iran, or any other troubled or totalitarian place in the world. But I would say that outside military intervention almost inevitably exacerbates the instability and suffering. The recent history of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are cautionary tales we should heed. Violence inherently breeds more violence. When we say things such as, “Military force is the only language they understand,” we are betraying our own failure of imagination. I know it is exceedingly hard work, but if we really care to bring peace and justice to these troubled places, we must commit ourselves to exactly that work.
I am convinced that unilateral executive or administrative action is not only fraught with moral and accountability danger, it invites political disaster and division. The US Constitution demands that Congress be the avenue for declaring and authorizing war. Of course, in a time of political chaos, getting a clear direction might be difficult, perhaps prompting an executive claim of national emergency as a pretext for proceeding to war without congressional consent. I would hope that our military leaders would have the moral insight and fortitude to refuse to be ordered to fight an ill-advised war. We must remember the big lesson of the Nuremberg trials: following orders does not excuse or justify immoral or illegal acts in war. From private to general, all military personnel are required to refuse to obey orders they believe are immoral or illegal.
I readily acknowledge that I have been a pacifist of religious conviction my entire adult life and that this perspective influences what I have written. I want to add quickly that I respect and do not judge those Christians who seek to faithfully live as disciples of Jesus in military service. I can only say that my pacifism is intrinsic and integral to my aspiration to follow Jesus as a faithful disciple which precludes that for me. I do ask that I be similarly respected without demeaning judgment.
Having said that, my concern here about this time of testing, of spiritual and moral conflict and confusion for those of us who follow Jesus is not dependent on a pacifist ethic. Just as I do not believe the concept of a “Christian” nation is valid, I have no illusions about any nation adopting a pacifist ethic for international policy. Nevertheless, ethical principles are essential to discernment should the juxtaposition of increasing political instability and the beating of the drums of war lead to misguided military action. Christians of all political and theological persuasions must consistently call for adherence to the classical principles of just war. These trace to Greek antiquity and are closely paralleled in Deuteronomy 20. They were expressed by the pre-Reformation Church Fathers in hopes of minimizing and regulating war in Christendom, when “Christian” princes would send their armies to wage war on other “Christian” princes for a host of reasons, real and imagined.
1.      Just cause – self-defense only
2.      Just intent – restoration of peace with justice for both friend and foe
3.      Last resort – only after all other paths have failed
4.      Lawful declaration – never the prerogative of individuals or parties
5.      Immunity of non-combatants
6.      Limited objectives – unconditional surrender and the destruction of economies and institutions is unwarranted
7.      Limited means – use only sufficient force to resist violence and restore peace[i]
I conclude by returning to my reflections on the line from the Lord’s Prayer, “Do not bring us to the time of trial” and my concern that those of us in the US may be facing a time of testing, of spiritual and moral confusion and conflict. I have written this as part of my earnest prayer that we will not be brought to such a time of trial. However, as I pray as Jesus instructed each day, the news of that day intensifies this prayer. These thoughts have been simmering in my heart and mind so persistently that I felt compelled to get them written. I genuinely pray that neither national hubris nor political desperation will bring war, but I did not want to come to the place of regretting that I had not expressed this sooner.

[i] Holmes, Arthur F., War and Christian Ethics, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1975, pp. 4-5

Monday, April 9, 2018

Not Complaining About the Weather is a Spiritual Discipline

For many years, with I hope good humor, I have told people that I consider not complaining about the weather to be a spiritual discipline. We have no control over it. It just comes and we adjust, which I do believe is spiritually healthy.

With the seemingly prolonged winter (though I well remember April snow back to the 70’s in Wheaton, IL), I have seen and heard a lot of people all over the country fussing about the apparent delay of spring. I don’t know who they are blaming, but I still believe learning to adjust to what we can’t control is spiritually healthy. Yes, when people do things that harm others, we need to work for justice and compassion, without letting them control our emotions or steal our joy.

Yes, I am fully convinced that we humans (all of us together) have for quite a long time done things that have a destructive effect on earth’s total climate. And yes, it does affect not just my weather but the weather for all people around the world. We are right to do everything possible personally, politically, and economically to address climate change constructively. Having said that, today’s weather will be what it will be, and I still believe accepting and adjusting to that is a healthy spiritual discipline.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Generosity to the Needy is Not “Welfare Mentality”

My lectio divina for this week has included this from the Lectionary reading for Sunday: Acts 4:34-35. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” As I went on to the Epistle, my eye drifted down the page to 1 John 3:17, which is not in Sunday’s reading but seemed to connect for me. “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” While complete communal ownership of all property in the early church is not mentioned again, the ethic of using what God has given you to help those in need persisted.

As I pondered this, I remembered seeing a social media post in which someone defended buying a new luxury car when a friend observed that a lot of poor people could have been fed for what that car cost and a less expensive car would have been just as serviceable. The defense of the luxury car was that by buying it, the owner was feeding many people who worked to produce all of the materials that went into it and building it. The post went on to reject the observation about feeding the poor by labeling it “welfare” mentality that discourages people from working and commending “capitalist” mentality that rewards work.

I have no interest in denigrating capitalism per se and certainly not work. However, as one who aspires to follow Jesus, I emphatically affirm generosity toward those in need. That was affirmed from the Hebrew Scriptures through the New Testament Epistles. As Deuteronomy 15:11 says “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” And I dare not dismiss generosity to those in need as “welfare mentality.”

Friday, February 23, 2018

More Dangerous than Being Killed

For all of my adult life (at least 50 years), as one who aspires to follow Jesus (often not doing as well as I wish), I have been convinced that killing or injuring someone else is spiritually more dangerous than being killed or injured.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Relinquishing the Grasp of a Joy Thief

Through the day yesterday I saw a large number of posts reacting to the Everytown count of school shootings as false and fake news suggesting that the gun problem is not as big as that, and by implication more gun restrictions are unnecessary or perhaps even counter-indicated. I would repeat that that count is not false, all acknowledge that the events did occur. What is in dispute is whether they all reached the level of being counted as school shootings.

I also saw a number of posts suggesting that everything from taking prayer and paddling out of schools was to blame. We need to keep in mind that this is not a school problem, it is pervasive in our society. We have had mass shootings at concerts, in movie theaters, churches, offices, shopping malls, and almost anywhere large numbers of people gather.

I also received a number of posts reminding us (me?) that those who want to kill will find other ways to do this even if they don’t have access to guns. Certainly true enough. We have had several stabbings recently, but I would doubt anyone could stab 17 people to death in six minutes. The lethality of modern guns makes them particularly problematic. Perhaps the only things more lethal than guns are explosives, as was quite evident in Oklahoma City and Boston. Having said that, explosives are not as easy to deploy as guns. Nevertheless, my contention would be that the methods used are symptoms of a deeply underlying problem of violence and anger that is pervading our whole society, not just those who carry out lethal acts.

I am afraid that arguing that “it is not as bad as the news makes it out to be” dismisses and minimizes the pain for victims and their families and friends. I am hearing from personal friends with no agenda in the gun debate saying that their children are having trouble sleeping and are afraid to leave the house. I would not diminish the importance of all kinds of mass killings (by guns or any other method), but I would point out that though they get high public profile, as they should, far more people are killed (and even more injured) by guns (and yes, other methods too) in quiet obscurity than in these mass killings. Accidents, suicides, and domestic disputes bring daily fatalities in large numbers and go unnoticed unless it is your spouse, your child, your parent, your sibling, your friend, your neighbor who dies. The unique problem with guns in these cases is that their lethality is dramatically more effective than other methods.

Combined with the “those who want to kill will find a way” is almost writing off such events as inevitable if the perpetrators are considered mentally ill. Most folk who suffer and struggle with their mental health are not dangerous. When this is raised with a “we can’t do anything about it” attitude, we feed the social acceptance of such deadly events as to expected and almost normal. It stigmatizes not only those will mental illnesses, but also those who try to help them. Not that treatment insures no violent outbursts, nor that all who need it would get treatment, but the mental illness explanation must be seen as doing better with mental health services, not a path to accepting this violence as inevitable.

Some have, correctly I believe, observed that the problem may not be so much mental illness as anger. We are living in a very angry time. Public debates on all sorts of issues before us all too often degenerate into expressions of anger (sometimes with subtlety), and civility of decorum when discussing disagreements is lost. Brawls in the halls of government are rare, but the words and tactics used express and feed the social propensity toward anger, which is all too evident on social media.

The arguments against even simple, incremental steps because they would not have prevented this or that tragedy paralyzes us from doing anything. The problems of violence and anger do not spring from a single source nor can they be addressed with single, simple solutions. But the refusal to try to make progress with small measures perpetuates the problem.

I have found myself deeply troubled by this issue for some time. I don’t consider myself to be a gun control crusader, but neither am I an advocate for totally unfettered access to firearms. I have written what I consider to be a guide for personal, spiritual self-examen on the place of guns in the heart. I also recognize that social media rarely, if ever, changes someone’s mind. With my writing, I have tried to prompt thought rather than articulate positions per se, but I’m sure plenty of my readers (if they persist in reading my lengthy essays) think of me as some sort of partisan. So be it. After responding to some of the things that came my way and disturbed my peace yesterday, I felt compelled to write one last essay to put out there as a way of letting go of this. The priority of my life right now is making every day for my wife, Candy, the best it can be as we journey together with her Alzheimer’s. I need to give her full attention without being either mentally or emotionally distracted by some of these things that I do consider to be important. My spiritual disciplines at this moment must be to relinquish the things that steal my joy. My hope is that by getting these thought out, I can let go of them and refocus on walking hand in hand with Candy and Jesus.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Trustworthy Prophet - Glorify God in Your Body - Without Deceit/Guile

As I have engaged in my lectio divina on the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday (January 14, 2018), I have been particularly challenged by one phrase in each selection.

1 Samuel 3:20 says that the boy Samuel grew up to be known as a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. I certainly do not have either the gifts or the calling to a prophetic office as Samuel had. And now that I am not pastor of a congregation, my ministry role is taking a different shape than it had had for 40+ years. Yet, as I came to oratio, I prayed not only that my reputation from those years would be that I had been a trustworthy pastor, but that in my new roles that are still becoming clear to me, God would consider and empower me to grow as a trustworthy servant.

1 Corinthians 6:20 says to glorify God in your (my) body. I remember well using that in teaching teens about Christian use of their sexuality (is directly in the context of the passage). Even at this stage of my life, I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with how well my sexuality glorifies God, but I am seeing that maintaining health and strength to serve in new roles as they emerge, and especially to enable my wife Candy’s life to be as joyful as possible on her Alzheimer’s journey, is essential to glorifying God in my body. So my oratio is not that I will be lauded but that God will be glorified in my daily, physical living.

In John 1:47, Jesus called Nathanael “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” While “deceit” is certainly a proper translation, I still like the KJV use of “guile.” To me it implies a broader understanding of nothing crooked or misleading, a depth of integrity. I have often described my wife Candy as being like Nathanael, a woman in whom there is no guile. She assumes the best about people, even in the midst of their foibles. She takes things at face value and speaks without any twisting of words. Friends and family find this amusing at times and she misses the humor of jokes that depend on double entendre. This week, this passage has been prompting my oratio to ask God to stand guard over my mouth (Psalm 141) and heart (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45), so that I have such integrated integrity that no guile or deceit will dwell in or proceed from me.

I know I am only half way through the week and will be meditating on these passages for a few more days. I think they are connected, integrated into what it means to trust and follow Jesus. I am expecting the Holy Spirit to use them in these days to continue to shape me to be more and more congruent with Jesus. Much as Abba Poeman wrote in the 4th century. “The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the word of God often, opens [the] heart to the fear of God.” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, 1975, pp. 192-193

I am not much fond of labels

I am not much fond of labels whether they be political (conservative-liberal), theological (evangelical-progressive), liturgical (traditional-contemporary), or social (values-rights, rugged individualism-common good). I think even labels to identify positions on issues are not helpful (pro-life-pro-choice, religious freedom-individual freedom, pro-Second Amendment-Sensible Gun Control). Understandably, movements also adopt slogans as shorthand to rally around (Black Lives Matter-Blue Lives Matter). Instead of promoting understanding, these divide and polarize. On the one hand, they obscure nuanced thinking, and on the other hand, they associate people with drastically different views together under one label, all too often as a way of discrediting something without understanding or addressing it. As convenient as labels are as shorthand for making particular points, they truncate true dialog and thought.

I am not comfortable identifying with any of these labels. I am happy to have real conversation with people who disagree with me on just about anything. I believe we can all learn from each other but don’t have to convince each other. But I don’t want to be labeled so as to be tossed in a bin of those who are like me or not like me.

As I pastor I have served congregations who struggled mightily with theological, ethical, liturgical, and social differences of opinion. I can’t claim to have been particularly successful at this, but I have aspired to encourage people to try to learn from each other rather than convince each other, to love each other rather than shun each other, as they find deeper unity in following Jesus than in their disagreements. I know all too well the argument, “As I read the Bible, I must take this position and cannot accept a different position as legitimate.” I have found it exceedingly challenging to help those who take that approach to listen to why those who disagree with them are as confident they are following the Bible or Jesus as they are. I have felt the pressure from partisans of these social movements to publically take sides and use my pastoral influence (if not authority) to promote one side or the other in these conflicts. I have repeatedly said thing like, “I don’t want to be known for what I say about (sex, guns, politics, etc.) but for pointing people to Jesus and inviting them to trust and follow him. It’s not that I don’t think our opinions about these issues don’t matter in how we follow Jesus, but when we keep Christ at the center (thank you Dietrich Bonhoeffer) we begin to get some perspective on our propensity to build our allegiances to temporary human thought instead of the eternal reign of God.