Saturday, March 31, 2012

Christian Authority

"Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."    -- Philippians 2:4-5,12-13

I've been thinking a lot lately about authority.  To whom or what do we look as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life?  Some Christians say we should look to the church, or to our leaders in the church, as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.  Others say we should look to the Bible as our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.  I wonder why we Christians do not always say that God is our ultimate guide in matters of faith and life.

As Christian churches continue to split apart over differing beliefs, into smaller and smaller denominations, and even into single churches, under the direction of one leader, and as the Bible becomes more and more the tool used to separate people of faith from each other, I wonder about the future of our faith.  Does it take the breakdown of all institutions, before we are ready to put our ultimate trust in God, and listen to what God has to tell us?

Oddly enough, in my studies this week on the Greek city-state, I'm finding parallels to the Church and the Bible.  We can learn a lot from history.

In "Primitive Christianity In Its Contemporary Setting," Rudolph Bultmann writes that for ancient Greeks the institution of the city-state was believed to be divinely created.  It was not thought to be a product of human ingenuity.  "The State had an aura of sanctity about it, and the relation of the citizen to it was in effect his religion."  But the State relied on people to represent it faithfully, to always set the interests of the State as a whole above the interests of the individual or small group.  Once the democratic assembly began repealing old laws and passing new laws at will, "the State became increasingly the scene of party conflict and a scramble for power on the part of individuals." Bultmann writes, "...the city-state was cut adrift from its mooring when man forgot the transcendent ties which bound him to it."  (pg. 109)  When man forgot the divinity behind the institution, it began to crumble.

This made me think of the Church.  The Church was thought to be divinely instituted by Christ:  on this rock, I build my church.  Although, I doubt that Jesus intended to found a church, he trusted, at the very least, that Peter and his disciples would keep his teachings in their hearts and spread this message far and wide.  And yet, like the city-state, this relied on people representing these teachings faithfully, and setting the interests of all above the interests of individuals.  Unfortunately, the developing traditions of the Church strayed pretty far from the original simplicity of Jesus -- to the point that it was unrecognizable as the body of Christ.

Martin Luther, with the greatest intentions, tried to point out some of the ways in which the Church had strayed from Jesus' message.  With the stand of Martin Luther, however, the Church as an institution was no longer viewed as speaking infallibly for God.  Something else had to be an easily accessible authority in matters of faith and life.  Martin Luther trusted that the Bible would infallibly guide people along the straight path.  Sola Scriptura was the new motto.

And yet, it quickly became apparent that the Bible spoke differently to different people.  The Bible became, and still is to this day, the ultimate source for division between people of faith.  Clearly the Bible is not the infallible authority in all matters of faith and life if so many people of faith disagree so strongly about what it says!

I wonder if the period of the Enlightenment was driven by God as a way to get us beyond thinking about the Bible as the infallible authority in matters of faith and life.  Spurred on by the re-discovery of the works of Socrates and Plato, rational criticism and the study of empirical evidence became the tools for understanding the world around us.  Eventually, this led scholars to look at the Bible from an historical/critical point of view, discovering just how human it is.   Unfortunately, for people to whom the Bible was the ultimate authority, this created a crisis of faith.  For them, either one had to cling doggedly to the old understanding, or abandon God altogether.

Bultmann points out that the Greeks went through a similar crisis.  Regarding the city-states, "At first, the intention was to purify the myths from any ideas unworthy of the gods.  But so successful was this, that the myth itself was completely destroyed in the process."  Many people began to believe that the gods did not answer prayer, and that the gods were unjust. (pg 115)  Where could they turn?  As Socrates said, "Know thyself", find the divine within.  And as Plato taught, seek knowledge of "The Good", find the divine in the ideal.

And this is where we find ourselves still today.  On the one hand, we still have people of faith who cling to the ultimate authority of church leaders, or to the ultimate authority of the Bible.  On the other hand, we also have people aware that this authority is misplaced.  For some of these people, there seem to be only one of two choices:  loss of faith altogether, or loss of thinking of God as truly God.

This latter thinking continues to be promoted by scholars such as Bishop Spong, to whom Christianity is more about ethical behavior than about listening to God.  Spong does not believe that God answers prayer, or intervenes in the lives of men and women. Like Plato before him, Spong sees God as Love, but only as the feeling of love between a person and his or her neighbor.  Don't get me wrong:  loving our neighbor is what we are supposed to do.  However, when we remove divine intervention from the equation, it becomes entirely about our efforts alone.  Spong and others like him, who place ultimate authority within the individual (the divine is within us -- alone), reduce Christianity to a personal ethical philosophy.  But this only carries us so far.

This too is echoed in the history of the city-states.  As Bultmann concludes, "After the dissolution of the old myth and the disintegration of accepted law, the individual in thrown back upon himself.  But can he really be his own master?  Life is turned in upon itself and anxious about itself when it loses its sense of security against the external world and feels overwhelmed by its environment.  Hence it must learn anew its origin and goal and the road from one to the other as something beyond its control." (pg. 125)  If all I have is myself, if all you have is yourself, if we are each our own master, then what do we do when we are overwhelmed by our environment?

If we still have faith in a divine, intervening God, we will look beyond ourselves to God -- finally.

This has certainly been my own personal experience.  When I allowed God to be my ultimate authority, and put my trust entirely in God's good purpose, God, a being beyond my power to control, showed me the way.

I know God can work in and through imperfect beings:  through the leaders of a church, through the writers of the books of the Bible, through other people, and through us.  The church, the Bible, and individual people are meant to help us along our way.  God speaks to us through them all.  However, none of these are God.  They are all fallible. Therefore, none of these ought to be given ultimate authority.

So, how do we know God's will for us with any certainty, when God is not as easily accessible as the leaders and members of a church, or the Bible, or our own brains?   

Christians who believe that Jesus is the perfect conduit of God's word, God's word made flesh, God's living word, must know JesusBe of the same mind as Jesus, as Paul says above.  And just like Jesus, we must trust God.  That is what faith is all about.

Turn to God for answers.  Listen to what God brings into your life through and in the church, the Bible, and other people.  Work out humbly with God what you are to do.  And let the life and teachings of Jesus be a light along your path.    As Jesus said,  You have one Father, the one in heaven ... and one teacher, the Messiah. (Matt. 23:9)

Dear God, please help us remember that you are the One, you alone are God, and that you alone have the power to work within us imperfect beings to create a better world.  May we always turn to you for understanding, and put our trust in you.  Love always, Pam

Monday, March 26, 2012

Written On Our Hearts

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.  But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord.  I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.   --  Jeremiah 31:31-33

I have been thinking a lot about legalism, lately.  Legalism is this idea people have that what God really wants is for us to follow a bunch of laws.  All we have to do are these ten things, or these 613 things, or these five things, or any number of things, and we are right with God.

We all have a tendency to do this, to separate the "letter of the law" from the sense of the law.  This is not an inclination that is unique to one group of people.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims all do this.  Perhaps this is a natural inclination of all humanity.  I think it stems from wanting to know how to follow the law, instead of thinking about why the law is there.  Asking the question, "How do we follow the law?" leads to an interpretation of the law in which the law gets broken down into greater detail:  this is what we need to do or not do.  Then following the law, becomes more about following these details.  And in this way, we actually move further and further away from the intention of the law. 

For example, think about the law:  "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord you God; you shall not do any work." (Exodus 20:8-10).  People of faith, of course, want to follow God's law.  So, those who want to do as much as possible, and those who want to do as little as possible, and everyone in between, ask, "How do we follow this law?"  And so the law gets interpreted by various scribes, those religious lawyers found in all cultures and eras.  And we are told to behave a specific way on a specific day and at specific times.  We are told what we should not do, and what we should do to satisfy the original law.   

In this way, even with the best intentions, the law, and the reason behind the law, get lost in the details.  People begin to think, for example, that if they do not use any tool or eat a specific kind of food between the hours of such and such, then they are right with God.  Or, if they go to church on Sunday morning, and sing a specific kind of song then they are right with God.  Or if they dress a certain way, and perform a specific ritual then they are right with God.  The result is that the original law and the truth behind it, however, has been lost.  Whether intentional or not, the law gets so removed from its original purpose that one can actually be defying the law even as they follow the specifics of the law!

Jeremiah, Muhammad, Jesus, and many others, understood that God does not want mere law-abiders, or people who follow the "letter of the law."  What God really wants is our hearts.  God wants our whole being to be attuned to his will.   God wants our spirit to be attuned to his spirit.

Jesus' entire ministry illustrated this understanding.  He continually admonished those who protested the breaking of specific external rules and yet ignored the person within.  Regarding the sabbath, when the scribes and Pharisees protested that Jesus and his disciples plucked grain from the wheat in the fields, and thus did unlawful "work", Jesus tried to explain the purpose of the sabbath:  "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath."  The sabbath was made to enrich man's life, not restrict it.  When the scribes and Pharisees protested against Jesus healing on the sabbath, Jesus "looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart."  (Mark 3:5)  They had totally missed the original intention for the sabbath.

What was the original intent?  Well, the original intent of all of God's laws has always been the same:  Love.  The original intent for keeping the Sabbath was love.  It was a time that was to be set aside from the usual busyness of life so that we could express our love for God, and so that we would still our frantic minds long enough to listen to his loving will for us.  Without some quiet time to remember God, we would miss everything God wants us to learn.

Love is the attitude behind the two greatest commandments, which are so named because they include every other one of God's laws:  Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.   As Jesus said, these commandments are alike.  You cannot love God with all your being, and not learn to love your neighbor as yourself.  In turn, you cannot love your neighbor as yourself, without surrendering your whole being to God's love.

Julian of Norwich also captured this understanding.  After her profound revelations of Jesus, she desired to know the Lord's meaning.  The response she was given was thus:   'Would you know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love. What did he show you? Love. Why did he show it? For love. Keep yourself therein and you shall know and understand more in the same. But you shall never know nor understand any other thing, forever.' 

Keep love in your hearts and you will be well with God.

Dear Lord, thank you for loving us so deeply, so steadfastly, and so patiently.  May we always turn to you, listening to your will for us, in every moment of our lives.  Love always, Pam

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Hearing, and Seeing, God

On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightening, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled.  Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.  They took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
...Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish.  Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves or the Lord will break out against them."  Moses said to the Lord, "The people are not permitted to come up to Mount Sinai; for you yourself warned us, saying, 'Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy.'"       --  Exodus 19:16-17, 21-23  (a reading for Saturday 3/10)

This passage paints a picture of God that is very different from my picture of God.  In this picture, God is separated from the people.  This separation is for their own safety.  Otherwise, "the Lord will break out against them and they will perish."  This passage almost makes me afraid.

But, my understanding of God is that he is absolutely approachable.  Granted, this is a figurative statement.  I know that I cannot actually see God, "face-to-face", or touch God, but I still feel that God is very close to me.

These different ways of thinking about God reminded me of something my brother-in-law once asked me.  He asked, "Have you ever imagined what it would be like to walk with God in the Garden of Eden?"  I said that I thought that would be a wonderful experience.  I would ask God all my questions, or at least the ones I still had.   I would love that.  My brother-in-law said that he would be too much in awe of God.  He wouldn't be able to say anything; he would be struck absolutely speechless.  You see, we have totally different images of God.

Coincidentally, while reading "Primitive Christianity:  In Its Contemporary Setting," by Rudolph Bultmann, a little later in the day, I came across the following commentary:  "The Greeks believed that God was not perceptible to the physical senses.  But the Greeks did not believe that God could not be known.  Though it needed tremendous effort on man's part, he could apprehend him by reason, and even adduce rational proofs of his existence.  The Old Testament never reflects this way.  God is not invisible to the senses as a matter of principle.  Indeed, Hebrew has no word for 'invisible.'  God is invisible because he wills it to be so.  To see God would be to die. ....Man cannot get God into his possession or control; he knows about God only because God speaks to him.  Hearing is the means by which God is apprehended.  In the last resort, this is no more acoustic apprehension than seeing is optical apprehension.  ... For [the Greek], sight tends to be the most important of the senses.  For the Old Testament, however, hearing is the most important."  (pgs. 22-23)

This is certainly my experience.  I "hear" God speaking to me in the words of other people:  in a book (like above), in the voice of a friend or a stranger, in a sermon, in a song on the radio, even in a movie.  All these are things that  are heard.

But, just as I was thinking about all of this, and wondering if God can only be "heard", I met a person who told me something different.

I went to the UA Book Fair on Saturday afternoon.  I wanted to get some information about how to publish the book I am writing.  I went to one workshop, "From Proposal to Published Book."  It was a workshop showing the chain of events of one particular author's book.  First the author spoke about her experiences, and then her publicist and co-writer spoke, and then their agent/editor spoke.  The author is Ann Bolinger-McQuade, and the book that was published is called "Cloud-Speak."

Ms. Bolinger-McQuade sees messages which speak to her specific concerns in the clouds.  She said, "You can call these messages from God, if you are comfortable with that.  [-- I am.]  Or you can call these messages from the Universe."  So here is someone who sees messages.  Which I think is very cool, especially in light of my thoughts for the day.  That was, for me, one of those moments when I knew I was where I was supposed to be.    I invite you to check out her website at:  

The next day, I read the following passage in the daily lectionary:

The heavens declare the glory of God, 
the sky proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day makes utterance,
night to night speaks out.

There is no utterance, 
there are no words,
whose sound goes unheard.
Their voice carries throughout the earth,
their words to the end of the world.

-- Psalm 19:2-5a  (The Jewish Study Bible)

Dear Lord, thank you for teaching us what you want us to know in whatever way we can learn.  You are amazing!  Love always, Pam 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are Gentiles, But ....

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."  And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them ... Peter stood up and said to them ... "God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.  Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will."  --  Acts 15:1-2a, 7-11

This passage makes me think about the many ways people exclude others from God's Kingdom.  Thank God for his Holy Spirit. 

There have always been people who have tried to draw a line between who is "in" and who is "out."  Back then, as the Gospel message spread outward from Jerusalem and was accepted by more and more non-Jews, some Jews wanted to draw the line between those who accepted circumcision and those who did not.  That is, they said that you had to be Jewish, like themselves, in order to fully accepted into the group.  But the Holy Spirit so filled these non-circumcised Gentiles that it was clear to the leaders of the church that such distinction was not important to God.

Still, this was a hard concept to accept, especially for many devout Jews who had grown up with the understanding that they were chosen among all the people in the world to be God's people.  Their special sense of being set apart from the Gentiles around them was hard to overcome.  Even after a voice from heaven tells Peter,  "What God has made clean, let no man call profane."  (Acts 10:15), he still has trouble moving beyond the culture he has always known.  Though Peter can accept Gentiles enough to baptize them, he has trouble breaking down all social barriers.  He finally draws the line when it comes to eating with Gentiles, in Antioch.  I can almost imagine Peter saying to Paul, "You know that some of my best friends are Gentiles, but the law says I must not eat what they eat.  So, my hands are tied on this one."  Tradition and customary laws are hard to overcome -- even when you know its better to listen to the Holy Spirit.

Paul, though not very sympathetic to Peter's dilemma, drew lines, too.  This man who said, "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." (Gal. 3:28), still could not move far beyond his patriarchal society to fully include women as teachers in his church, even though women supported church houses and had the ability to prophesy.  And so, I imagine Paul defending his ruling by saying, "Look, some of my best friends are women, but I cannot allow them to teach other men.  That's going too far."  Even for Paul, so willing to admit Gentiles, tradition and cultural customs were impossible to overcome.

Most recently, the church to which I proudly belong (the ELCA), erased the line that had been drawn between celibate homosexuals and partnered homosexuals, acknowledging their right to be fully who they are and fully members of the church at the same time.  For it had become clear that what God's Holy Spirit had blessed, man should not deny.  Nor should we place upon anyone "a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we [would] have been able to bear."  However, though the church took this courageous step, it was not without painful consequences.  For some people, this was a line that could not be erased.  I heard more than one person say, "Some of my best friends are gay, but that doesn't mean I approve of their lifestyle."  And they drew the line when it came to supporting life-long, monogamous, partnerships between homosexual adults.

It is hard to believe, considering how inclusive Jesus was toward the ostracized and outcasts of his day, and how he made compassion for people of greater priority than the law.  His followers, however, seem to have a special gift for excluding others from God's Kingdom.

When I was in high school, my best friend told me that unless I was a born-again Southern Baptist, like herself, I would go to Hell.  And in graduate school, my best friend, a highly-educated and sophisticated woman, told me that only Greek Orthodox, such as herself, go to Heaven.  Clearly these messages of exclusivity were taught by their respective churches, and not by Jesus.

Along these same lines is the response of one Lutheran pastor when he was asked why he thought Gandhi would not be accepted in God's Kingdom.  His answer was, "I'm sorry, but I didn't make the rules."  What rules?, I wondered.  Jesus told his followers to "Love each other as I have loved you."  That's it.  That was his rule.

We still have a long way to go before we can be the people Jesus wanted us to be.  He gave us a key, however, and a hope, for progress, when he said, "No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins ... but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins."  Jesus' teachings were like new wine.  They needed, and continually need, to be put into fresh wineskins.  So, I do believe we will get there -- if we always  make listening to God's Holy Spirit our priority.

Dear God, you are ever patient with us, always persistently pushing us to be as faithful, and hopeful, and loving, as your son Jesus.  Thank you.  Love always, Pam

Friday, March 2, 2012

Living and Dying

He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made proclamation to the spirits in prison...   --  1 Peter 3:18b-19

I've been thinking about death lately.  That's not unusual for Lent.  Lent is the time in which we remember the way Jesus gave himself entirely over to God's loving will, even unto death.  But I've been thinking about my own death.  I just  can't escape the message I am hearing.  In everything I read, in songs on the radio, in the words of other people, the message is the same:  Think about your death now.  It will change the way you live.

First, wanting to know more about Tibetan Buddhism after last week (see "Searching After Knowledge), I picked up "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying," by Sogyal Rinpoche.  I read that Buddha's teachings emphasize the necessity of preparing and practicing for our own death. "If we refuse to accept death now, while we are still alive, we will pay dearly throughout our lives, at the moment of death, and thereafter.  ... For someone who has prepared and practiced, death comes not as a defeat but as a triumph, the crowning and most glorious moment of life." (pg. 15)  I found this idea of preparing for one's death difficult to understand.  

Then I read in the daily lectionary,  Man, his days are like those of grass; he blooms like a flower of the field; a wind passes by and it is no more, its own place no longer knows it. (Ps. 103:1, 15-16) In other words, life is fleeting.

Then, I remembered that I hadn't yet finished Dr. Allan Hamilton's "The Scalpel and the Soul."  I wanted to do that before I got too far into the Tibetan book.  I only had a few pages left.  Dr. Hamilton's last chapter is a list of things he has learned in over 30 years experience as a neurosurgeon.  They are his "Twenty Rules to Live By."  His Rule #4 is "Live your life with death in it."  He writes, "We are fools when we let ourselves believe there's more time -- a future lying ahead of us where we'll make changes, right a wrong, or correct our transgressions." (pg. 220) 

Now that I understood.  For I recognized myself in that last sentence.  I am a terrible procrastinator.  If I have a deadline (no pun intended), I get done what needs to be done.  But without a deadline, things get put off, and put off again, sometimes indefinitely.

Those words spoke directly to me.  For I had recently decided to put off a project that I have been trying to complete for over a year.  In December 2010, I had felt God telling me to write a book about my experiences along this "journey faith."   This call was compelling, insistent.  I quit my job at the University last year in large part so that I would have more time to devote to this project.  But each time I tried to write it, I got bogged down in doubts and fears.  So instead of writing it, I avoided writing it.  I got busy filling up my time with anything but writing that book.  But it was always in the back of my mind.  Last week, I said to myself, "When my kids are grown, I'll have more time.  Then I will write my book."

Dr. Hamilton's words struck a chord deep in my heart.  Did I think I would never die?  That I could decide when I would die?  Perhaps I won't even be around when my kids are grown.  I could die five years from now.  I could die tomorrow.

I once had a daydream about what would happen after I died.  I saw myself standing before God and him showing me my life in review on something like a big movie screen.  And then he showed me the life he had wanted me to have.  I saw that my life with God after death would be a Heaven of gratitude if I had put my trust in God.  Or, my life with God after death would be a Hell that I had created from my own stubbornness, fear, and laziness  --  a Hell of regret. 

What would I regret if I died tomorrow?  The answers came quickly.  I would regret not writing that book.  And I would regret not teaching my children more about God's love.

I am so grateful to have gotten the message finally.  I am amazed at God's steadfast love for me. I feel as if I have been given a reprieve.  I feel as if God has said to me, I don't want you to have an eternal life of regrets.  I want you to have the life you are meant to have.  A life filled with my spirit.  

Julian of Norwich believed that "we can choose to ignore, or ridicule and deny, God's love, but we cannot stop him loving us.  Whether we like it or not, we are his beloved children." ("I Thirst", by Stephen Cottrell, pg. 118)

So I have begun writing my story.  This time feels different.  This time I feel absolutely inspired. 

Dear God, words cannot express my feelings for you, but  this song  comes close.  Love always, Pam

(The song highlighted above is "Lovesong," sung by Adele, lyrics originally by The Cure.  I apologize for the advertisement at the beginning.)