Thursday, June 21, 2018

Boomerang Psalms

Psalm 5:10
Make them bear their guilt, O God; let them fall by their own counsels; because of their many transgressions cast them out, for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 7:15-16
They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made. Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends.

Psalm 9:15-16
The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid has their own foot been caught. The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment; the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.

Psalm 10:2
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor— let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.

Psalm 35:8
Let ruin come on them unawares. And let the net that they hid ensnare them; let them fall in it—to their ruin.

Psalm 37:14-15
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly; their sword shall enter their own heart, and their bows shall be broken.

Psalm 57:6
They set a net for my steps; my soul was bowed down. They dug a pit in my path, but they have fallen into it themselves.

Psalm 109:17,29
He loved to curse; let curses come on him. He did not like blessing; may it be far from him.
May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle.

Psalm 115:8
Those who make them (idols) are like them; so are all who trust in them.

Psalm 140:9
Those who surround me lift up their heads; let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them!

Psalm 141:10
Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I alone escape.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Plural Pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer

Last week I had one of those experiences in which something I have known for years and with which I have familiar daily interaction struck me with a fresh and powerful impact. That is, that the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are plural. I have noted them here from the NRSV of Matthew 6:9-13, but the same pattern is in Luke 11:2-4 and in other translations.
·         Our Father
·         Give us our daily bread
·         Forgive us our debts
·         As we have forgiven our debtors
·         Do not bring us to the time of trial
·         Rescue us from the evil one
The pattern is our, us, we and not my, I, me. We have a difficult time grasping much less living this plural spirituality in our hyper-individualistic society. We let ourselves off the hook for a host of social injustices by rationalizing that “I didn’t do what they did;” or “I wasn’t there when that was decided;” or “I disagreed with that action by our government (or denomination).” As though it was Scripture (which is blasphemous in my opinion), we elevate the rights of the Declaration of Independence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to personal entitlements without regard to justice and compassion for others who do not enjoy them fully.
Of course, Jesus was not thinking about the United States or any other national entity, not even Israel. Jesus intended this to teach the community of his disciples how to pray together. Even though it easily gets reduced to a trite repetition, churches are right to recite the Lord’s Prayer together in worship. Jesus’ purpose went far beyond that to nourish our interdependence in the community of faith.
If we have plenty of bread and someone else in the community is hungry, praying for our daily bread takes the form of sharing. Our debts, transgressions, sins are part of community life: not injuring each other or people beyond the community; encouraging and supporting each other in the pursuit of Christlikeness. Praying that we will not be brought to the time of trial is far more than escaping personal temptations (as legitimate a concern as that is). It is asking God to protect the community from internal and external pressures that shake the integrity of the community. Though the KJV says, “deliver us from evil,” the NRSV “rescue us from the evil one,” is not just legitimate but powerful. Again, the concern is not so much that bad or even moral evil things don’t happen to me, but for the community to be protected from evil persons. It is true that the evil one can be understood as Satan, but it may also be understood as an evil person (or persons) who attack the community of faith from outside or corrupt it from the inside. I strongly suspect Jesus’ disciples thought of Herod in these terms, and the early church thought of the Emperor.
While the focus of the Lord’s Prayer is on how the community of Jesus’ disciples prays, when the plurals are juxtaposed with how Jesus treated Samaritans and Gentiles and all he said about loving neighbors and enemies, as the community prays these plurals, they necessarily embrace those outside of the community as well. As we pray together, we who follow Jesus seek for those who are unlike us to know the Father in Heaven, have their daily needs met, experience redemption and freedom from evil and the attacks of evil people. Such praying together will necessarily mobilize the community of Jesus’ disciples to put it into action for those beyond the community.
I am not interested in an exegetical debate about the Lord’s Prayer. What I do hope is to have stimulated some meditation on the significance of the plural pronouns in how Jesus taught us to pray.
I know this is a bit of an excursus, but I think we also easily miss just how radical it was for Jesus to teach us to pray to “Our Father.” I am quite confident that Jesus was not endorsing an hierarchical understanding of either gender roles or of God. That human fathers have failed, and the result has been distorted, antagonistic relationships in marriage, family, society, church and even relationship with God should not deter us from appropriating the power of the “Our Father.”
The Hebrew Scriptures make very few references to God as Father. That would have implied an intimacy that was foreign to them. Islam takes this a step farther and considers calling God “Father” blasphemous. I am not going to explore that any further than observing how it highlights the dramatic change of perspective Jesus introduced that follows through the New Testament and has become commonplace among Christians. We rattle off addressing God as Father in even the most casual of our prayers. I’m not actually criticizing that, but am suggesting pondering it for fuller appreciation.
The Hebrew Scriptures call God King, Sovereign, Almighty, Lord (and similar English renditions of several important Hebrew words) far more often than Father. Understandably, these tend to keep God at a safe distance from us, even when we pray. I am not criticizing or attempting to explain that, only to highlight the wonder that Jesus introduced with “Our Father.” By contrast, Jesus invites us to think of ourselves being in the intimacy of God’s family circle where love supplants fear.
As it happens, I am writing this on Father’s Day 2018. I don’t know if that has any particular significance. Again, I am not trying to provoke debates about language, but only to invite fresh contemplation of what has become so familiar that we easily miss not just the significance of the words but the power of the experience in both our private and community prayers.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Praying for the Peace of Jerusalem

Today, May 14, 2018, as the U.S. dedicates a new embassy and people are dying in the streets of Jerusalem, my regular rotation of praying through the Psalms brought me to 44 and 74. I found myself unable to articulate words as I contemplated this ironic and tragic juxtaposition. I had already done my lectio divina on the Lectionary lessons for next Sunday (Pentecost, May 20) which includes Romans 8:26-27. I trust the Holy Spirit is translating my inner groaning, and those of all who pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Psalm 122:6) into intercessions too deep for words according to the will of God.

I have written earlier suggesting that the line in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into a time of testing” or “trial” may address our time of confusion and uncertainty for faithful Christians about basic presuppositions for our understanding and response to troubling and complex issues in our world. I suggested that our divided opinions about how to respond as Christians to our government may parallel the challenges faced by the Confessing Church in Germany 1934ff which they so eloquently articulated in the Theological Declaration of Barmen. (Please understand I am not making some sort of simplistic accusation of Nazism that degenerates into unsubstantiated name-calling and misses the significant challenges unique to our time.) My encounter with Scripture today prompts me to ponder the testing and trial of confusion about how we as followers of Jesus should pray for the peace of Jerusalem in light of current events in our own country and in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere in the world.

The particular theology of some of my good friends with whom I have shared loving fellowship and close service sees the moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem as support for God’s intent to restore the promise of all the land from the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt (Isaiah 27:12 and elsewhere) as a specifically Jewish nation as a necessary and good part of preparing the world for the return of Christ. Many of my other colleagues in ministry and partners on the journey with Jesus are compelled by the universality of the Gospel in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 and elsewhere) to pray for the peace of Jerusalem that will include Jews and Palestinians as expressing God’s blessing and mandate to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3) I am not going to attempt to sort out these arguments. I know that vigorous partisans of both persuasions are easily provoked to discount and dismiss the others as deficient in theology and discipleship. My point is that this is another aspect of our time of trial and testing from which I pray, along with Jesus, that we may be delivered.

That confusion is quickly evident in exploring how Psalms 44 and 74 are understood in light of today’s events. So as I groan out my wordless prayers, I entrust them to the Spirit’s intercessions too deep for words. I cannot believe that the hostility and violence we are witnessing today is the will of God. With all of the confusion and conflicting theology and politics among those of us who aspire to follow Jesus, O God, deliver us from this time of trial and testing! Despite all of the confusion and conflict, all the devious political machinations, O God, bring your peace to Jerusalem!

Monday, April 30, 2018

Only Jesus Is Lord!

When the calls come for the Church and her people to serve the glory and power of nation or party, the Church must answer with a resounding, “No! Only Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

The Confessing Church in Germany (1934 ff) understood and articulated this well in the Theological Declaration of Barmen. It did not specifically address all of the evils of the Nazi regime or offer resistance in a specifically political sense. Rather, they rejected as false doctrine that the Church become an organ of the State. The effect of this was that congregations and individual Christians chose whether to identify themselves as “German Christians” or “Confessing Christians.”

In the current political environment of the United States, especially among those who object to some of the policies of President Trump and the Republican Party, various comparisons are made to the situation in Nazi Germany. My own opinion is that this alienates people and truncates genuine dialog. I believe it also leads to seeing false parallels and missing more fundamental issues of our time.

Since exploring the Confessing Church and its theologians when I was at Wheaton Graduate School (69-72), I have found the Theological Declaration of Barmen to be profoundly relevant and beneficial. I sense (and hope I am wrong), that the Church (full spectrum of those who trust and follow Jesus – not any one manifestation) in the United States today may be facing a similar call to choose that prompted the founding of the Confessing Church 84 years ago. Voices from several quarters seem to be calling the Church and individual Christians to serve the nation and political ideology undermining the Lordship of Jesus even as it gives him lip service. I am concerned that the Church in the United States may become divided as were the “German Christians” and “Confessing Church,” leaving most who just want to live a simple faith in Jesus and follow him daily, confused and torn as leaders they have respected advocate for competing loyalties.

Yes, the Theological Declaration of Barmen was forged in a particularly fierce furnace, but it speaks profoundly to us today. It interprets the historic challenges of Christendom to authentic Christian faith and discipleship. I am convinced it will speak relevantly to many generations who will come after us. I continue to urge its study and dialog, not as a critique of fickle political policies that will come and go and be shaped by events and reality, but as an incisive prompting to probe the profound issues of the fidelity of the Church in our day to only Jesus as Lord.

Romans 10.9:
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
1 Corinthians 12.3:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.

Philippians 2.11:

Every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Volunteer for Execution

I will be interested to see who replaces Reverend Patrick J. Conroy as Chaplain of the House of Representatives. Will they choose an obscure retired pastor to pronounce religious platitudes or a prominent figure to articulate a religious rationale for their cause?

We seem to have several aspirants for the role of Ludwig Müller, rallying churches and religious folk to serve a political cause. In that they identify with the young and women, perhaps #MeToo and #MarchForOurLives may parallel Sophie and Hans Scholl. Who are the candidates for the roles of Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Executions won’t come by guillotine, noose, or carbolic acid but by dismissive slander.  

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.