Thursday, November 14, 2013

True Prophets and the Mystery of God's Will

The prophet Jeremiah complained that there was literally no one in Israel who told the truth. He said the false prophets prophesy: "Peace, Peace!" when there is no peace. It was Jeremiah's task to prophesy about God's judgment on Israel (Judah) in his time. In other words, right at the point of the nation's history when they were anxious about survival due to the impending threat from the Babylonians, Jeremiah gave them a word of doom, not of victory or security. He did prophesy that after judgment and destruction there would be grace and renewal, but the hard word he preached about judgment and destruction in Israel shook his fellow country folk up! And, they got so sick of hearing him, they tried to do away with him at times. There are very few true prophets. Maybe many are called, but few are chosen by God, since there are few that can bear the anger and rejection of their contemporaries that comes of speaking hard truths from God. Jeremiah's prophesying was remarkable for he didn't just speak words of judgment on Israel; he also expressed his grief and personal suffering over the destruction of Israel and the pain that its people would suffer. Jeremiah's words come to Israel as God's Word, with a mixture of judgment and grief over the consequences of judgment. When reading all of this, one might wonder: "If God was so hurt by Israel's suffering from judgment which came through the destructive attack on Israel by the Babylonias, then why didn't God do something to ward off the Persians? or Why didn't God judge them without allowing them to be destroyed?" I think the answer pushes us into a mystery about how God's will is tied up with the exercise of forces put in play by human will, and how God's freedom is a freedom exercised in relationship with a free creation, not the freedom of a puppeteer. By saying that, I haven't clarified how it is that God actually exercises dominion in history because truth is I just don't know. If God can in some way "will" both the destruction of Israel and deeply suffer it at the same time as the prophetic word of Jeremiah indicates, then God's will is something way more complex than we have generally acknowledged. There is another element to this reflection on God's Will. Unlike so many human authorities, God seems to dislike force. John Calvin used to speak of the affirmative will of God and the permissive will of God. If God was a God of force, God's affirmative will would be pushed through over and over. But, if God is not a God of force, then God's affirmative will (what God really desires to happen) is at best approximated in the events of history, and at worst, defied by human actors. And, God's permissive will becomes the real crucial thing because that is where God's will gets mixed in with human will and the forces of creation to bring about . . . well, God's will, whether it was really what God wanted in the first place or not.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Almost everything I do, whether in court, at church, at home goes so much better if I listen to others. When I have the attention to really listen to another person, it means I am at peace and focused. Paying attention to what is going on around you, even right in front of you is a way of listening. And, there is also an inner listening: listening to the movements of your own heart and mind. Buddhists speak of "mindfulness." I like that word. But, so many days are spent in anxious movements, both physical and mental. And, so many conversations are nothing but alternating making noises come out of our respective mouths. When speech arises out of real listening, then it is part of an engaged conversation. That's when good things come to us, through us, and among us. When we don't pay attention to what is really going on around us, in front of us . . . when we aren't listening to others . . . when we are unable to listen to the movements within ourselves; that is being in a state of "mindlessness." Mindlessness leads to meaninglessness which lands us in despair. Listening, really listening, is like sending roots down into the source of life. In listening we are renewed. Maybe we have to be renewed in our souls to be able to listen, but maybe in the simple act of listening, the renewal begins.

Friday, March 2, 2012

My First Lenten Vow

As we begin this season of Lent, I wanted to share with you a few thoughts about what it means to observe Lent in the Christian tradition. First, I was raised in a Southern Presbyterian Church (PCUS), and we did not observe the Church Calendar, and so did not celebrate Lent. I thought that was something only Catholics or Episcopalians did.

Even though I have given some attention to the Church Calendar as an ordained minister in the PCUSA over the past 22 plus years, I had never been part of an Ash Wednesday Service until we celebrated with Central United Methodist in 2010. I had always heard about people giving up chocolate or soft drinks or beer or tv or something like that for Lent. I had started thinking about Lent seriously a few years ago at First United when we discussed Lent and talked about what it might mean for each of us personally to observe Lent.

I have always been repelled by the idea of “giving up” this or that. Maybe that’s because I just don’t have much will power to not do something I enjoy doing. But, something about giving up things never caught on with me. For me, it is almost as if deciding to give something up causes me to want it even more. So, no I have never given anything up for Lent. Well, until this year, and you are not going to be too impressed about what I am giving up.

It was the day before Ash Wednesday this year, and I had gone back and forth with the Blount County Sheriff’s Department about why my client was still being held in jail even though the Judge had ordered her release. And, about 4 p.m. that afternoon, it came to me out of the blue: “I am going to give up ‘being nice’ for Lent.” I said it out loud, one of our legal secretaries laughed, and then I said it again with some real conviction and smiled.

Now, I know it might sound bad for a minister like me to say that, but the more I thought about it, the more firm I was in taking my first Lenten vow of my life. Maybe what I really liked about this vow was that if I failed in it, it wouldn’t be so bad. Being nice, after all, isn’t a sin, is it? But, there was something deeper in this thought and in this resolution. It was about committing myself to truth and doing what was right more than worrying over whether others liked me or were happy with me.

As a lawyer who represents poor people charged with crimes, I am forever “being nice” with D.A.s and Judges and my clients to get the best deal I can for my clients. Every once in a while, the process becomes openly adversarial, but most of the time, it is a matter of using your wits to get a deal. So, I have had it “up to here” by the time I get home each day with ‘being nice’ to people who I am really not very happy with. Lately, some of my own clients have been the worst to deal with. I am ‘being nice’ because it is part of thinking about my client’s interests, not letting my own client's attitude get in the way of their legal interests, etc.

But, there is a time and place for all that being nice stuff. But, there is also a way to be decent without worrying too much about keeping everyone happy. There is even a place for that in law practice. If you don’t pay enough attention to your need to tell the truth or at least your need to stop covering up the truth, then a couple of bad things can happen to you personally: you can explode on someone, often the person least deserving of it; you can become a dishonest person and lose a real taste for what is honest and true.

So, yes, with all that said, I have given up being nice in the sense that I have decided to choose value honesty and truth above keeping others happy with me. I’ll see how it goes. So far, it is going pretty well both in court and out. If I speak the truth too plainly in court one day and get thrown in jail, would you be willing to chip in on my bond?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Lenten Meditation on Friedrich Nietzsche

“It is not a matter of going ahead (-for then one is at best a herdsman, i.e., the herd’s chief requirement) but of being able to go it alone, of being able to be different.”
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887

Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher who wrote most of his major works in the 1870’s and 1880’s. He died in 1900.
Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, the only son with several sisters. As Nietzsche grew into his own as a thinker and writer, he struck out in an independent direction as a philosopher. He revolted against both the prevailing philosophy and theology of his day.

At the very center of Nietzsche’s philosophy of life was the rejection of Christian morality. He regarded Christian morality as slave morality, not a morality fit for free, self-determining human beings.

Nietzsche once said: “There was only one true Christian and he died on a cross.”
He called Christianity an unnatural morality born of the resentment of those who were weak in mind and body . . . those who despised life and despised the strong who were able to embrace and celebrate life. Nietzsche thought that at the very bottom Christianity taught a person to think: “I am not worth much,” and then translate that value judgment into a religious/moral judgment: “I am guilty; I am a sinner.” Nietzsche says that human beings then decide they would rather consider themselves guilty than feel bad for no reason at all.

So, for Nietzsche, Christianity creates the miserable condition of the individual and then purports to offer salvation from the darkness through the offer of forgiveness and faith. Christianity is a religion that promotes, even creates guilt in the individual conscience, and then promises relief with the “Gospel.” Nietzsche apparently found that the cure was just as bad as the disease.

A Christian might wonder: “How does this atheistic philosopher know anything about faith?”

But, it is worth remembering that Nietzsche grew up in a Lutheran household (Lutherans are a lot like us Presbyterians except they have Octoberfest – too bad for us!). Nietzsche grew up as a preacher’s kid, and had come to the conclusion from his experience that all Christianity offered him was guilt and the feeling that any effort to embrace and celebrate his strengths was a sin. He felt that to live fully and to be who he felt destined to be he had to renounce the Christian faith.
There is something that I have always liked about Nietzsche since I first read him in college . . . unlike other philosophers who dismiss God and faith or criticize Christianity and then move on to other topics, Nietzsche couldn’t move on. He was, in a sense, obsessed with arguing against Christianity. He has been described by one scholar as an “anti-Christian.” Nietzsche’s work cannot be understood without understanding its relation to Christianity.

Surely, Nietzsche had experienced the teaching and authority of the church. He was a preacher’s son, and at one time, he had probably taken this religious faith very seriously. And, in time, he had found that faith as he experienced it made him feel like he was nothing. And, Nietzsche knew deep down that he was really something, and he was.

So, he looked for something else to base his life on . . and that something else for him was his will to live, his will to think, to claim space for himself in the world. Nietzsche said once: “The real thing is not so much that you move forward, but that you learn to go it alone, that you have the strength to be different.”
I think that Nietzsche could never forget Christianity, because it raised his hopes so much and then disappointed those hopes so badly. Nietzsche is the one who said: “There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.” He seemed to have a deep respect for Jesus, and no respect for his followers. You might say, ‘the man Jesus, his teachings, the reports about him in Scripture raised Nietzsche’s hope, and the faith of the Church disappointed and crushed his hope.’ At least that’s what I think.

As we look back through history, if we are honest, we see that the Church has broken the faith and hearts of some very special individuals. Galileo was considered a heretic because he spoke the truth that the earth orbited around the sun, not otherwise. Origen, the great theologian of the 2nd century was branded a heretic, because his hope was too great, his mind too high. Charles Darwin was a son of the Church whose desire for truth and his desire to reconcile his scientific studies with his faith was disregarded by the Church of his day. And, Friedrich Nietzsche, who I believed yearned for something much more pure and life-affirming than the gospel being preached in his day, was given nothing but falsehood from a religious culture that was as afraid of Jesus truth as they were of Nietzsche’s criticism.
There are many people in our time who yearn for truth, the truth of God, but have found falsehood in the Church. They have found a church unwilling to deal with scientific truth, a church that can’t deal with evidence from neuroscientific studies about sexual orientation. They have found a church that dismisses those who have a real desire for intellectual honesty.

The doctrine of Biblical Innerancy stands as a cloud over our efforts to deal honestly with each other in faith. The teaching of a type of Creationism in churches that dismisses the great service offered the world by Charles Darwin is also a sad sign for the wider church.

We do not need to continue a tradition of intellectual dishonesty, but let me change that language a little bit. Intellectual dishonesty sounds a little too removed and fancy. What I am talking about is having lazy minds, dishonoring the God who gave us our minds, and lying about the way things are. That’s what I mean about the tradition of intellectual dishonesty in the Church. And, it is continued by people like Rick Santorum who doesn’t like the fact that a good number of us in the Church don’t think we have to check our minds at the door before we come to worship or Bible Study.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a liberal Christian. He studied religion as a man of faith, and he studied it from within the academic tradition as well. He appreciated what he learned about how the Bible was formed. He wasn’t afraid of the truth of science, but found it liberating.

Of course, human science is limited as is inquiry in other areas, and when we think science is going to resolve all our problems, we show that we don’t understand the limits of science. And, human science itself can get arrogant and think that truth is limited to what science can demonstrate empirically. But, in our day, science is much more humble than it was when I was growing up. And, a real dialogue is possible in our time between scientists and theologians.

When we are ready to be honest and ready to really think and discuss openly in our churches – then, maybe people who value real questions, real discussions . . . then maybe people who value real learning and honesty of both the heart and the mind will find their way back into our fellowship in the Church.

We ought to repent during Lent as Christians because of all the good, even brilliant people we have destroyed over time with our dogma, with our lack of imagination and our lack of appreciation of the gifts God has bestowed on many human beings and with our refusal to really investigate and seek the truth no matter what it costs.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ordination Standards in the PCUSA and Thinking Back on the 2004 G.A.

“Thinking Back on PCUSA General Assembly in 2004”*

Five years ago at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, I was on the Church Orders and Ministry Committee, which is the committee which deals with the issue of ordination standards, and the issue at the center of the storm of our committee was whether a gay man or woman could be ordained as pastor, elder or deacon. Our Book of Order has a requirement that those who are to be ordained must practice “fidelity in marriage or chastity in singleness.”

I remember listening to witnesses who spoke from their experience from either side of the issue. I think we listened to about five hours of this testimony. It was emotionally very tiring. Our denomination was clearly and sincerely split over this issue. Hardly anybody tried to speak from a theological perspective or to suggest a model of interpreting the Bible regarding this matter. But, we heard impassioned speeches against ordaining gay persons made by delegates from overseas. I remember one particularly strong statement made by an Egyptian man who pleaded with the committee to uphold the ban on ordination of gay persons. We were aware that the head of the East African Presbytery had taken the same position. The Korean churches seemed to also oppose ordination of gay men and women. I have never had the chance to hear Christians from Seattle and New York and New Mexico and Kenya and Egypt at the same time. But, I did at that Assembly. I heard parents of gay men speak of the painful experience their sons had had being marginalized by their churches. I heard gay men and women speak of their desire to serve in the ministry, and their deep sense of calling, and how they had waited. I heard some young adults who said they had experimented with homosexuality, but had experienced it as sinful and not their natural desire. They said that if the church does not take a clear position on this it leaves young people to fall into confusion over their sexual identity, as they had done.

The procedural issues about how the proponents of gay ordination had chosen to raise the issue – well, that was a very complex strategy. And, there was a more radical and a more moderate approach. I was invited to an insiders meeting on these issues, and was very impressed with the depth of preparation and conviction, especially of the more radical group: The More Light Presbyterians. Although the moderate position was strategically clever, the radical More Light leader said very plainly: “we want to win the hearts of the people.” He said they didn’t want simply a power shift that gave them some access, but reconciliation and true understanding in the denomination as a whole.

This all sent me into a process of thinking and praying, and looking for a way to communicate about this. I kept thinking of Bible passages, of friends who were Christian and gay, of ministers in my Presbytery who felt one way or another over the issue, about my own family, and about my own church at home.

But, one thing that kept occurring to me: these More Light Presbyterians: why do they continue to stay in our denomination when they could easily go to a theologically similar denomination, the United Church of Christ, and be accepted without all this struggle? I guess the real answer to that was what that “More Light” leader said at that insiders meeting I went to: “we want reconciliation and true understanding.” Having experienced the good news of God’s grace for themselves, they had the sense that those that refused to accept them really hadn’t experienced the good news of God fully – and, they wanted that. Thinking back on that, I can’t help but think of Philippians 2:4-5: “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 . . . “ It also occurs to me as I think on this that we often find it so hard to stretch our minds and hearts to accept those who are really “our betters.”

This reflection was written in 2009.

*In 2010, the “fidelity and chastity in singleness” clause was removed from the Book of Order opening the way for local Presbyters to determine the fitness of candidates for ministry without this specific limiting rule.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Passing New Laws as a Form of Government Control

In our times, state and federal legislatures continue to pass more and more criminal laws. Each year our governments define more and more areas of human conduct as "criminal." The reach of the government's arm is longer and longer, more and more invasive. I guess government means to make us all into good people, to decide how we need to act, and force us to act that way or charge us and put us in jail.

In our day, it is seldom admitted by politicians that government's reach has gone too far in the area of the criminal law. For example, we are insistent that we will solve the drinking problem, so we charge 18-20 year olds with a crime for drinking a beer. And, we think we can solve the drug problem, so we turn every traffic stop into a drug investigation, running drug dogs around cars of people stopped for minor traffic violations. If a guy is a little drunk out in the public square, we charge him with a crime, put him in jail, just in case he might have been a problem.

And, I'm sure there will be a number of new criminal laws once state and federal congresses convene again. The theory is that we will fix society's problems by passing laws that define conduct we don't like as criminal. We have convinced ourselves that passing a law that purports to solve a social problem actually does solve the social problem. I think this is a totalitarian, repressive way of dealing with social problems, and it is costly and works very rarely.

For example, since the implementation of the harsh federal sentencing laws on drug offenses, has the drug problem subsided? No, it has grown. Some federal judges have remarked that society might be better off in legalizing certain illegal drugs, because the drug war being waged by the government is being lost badly because of the financial incentive to traffic illegal drugs.

But, as I type, I am sure another congressmen has come up with another law that he or she feels will make us all safer and better. And, it won't.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Post from 4th United Bible Blog about Celebrating Advent

As we begin celebrating Advent this year, I want to wish everyone the peace and purpose of God’s Coming in Jesus, the Christ. The people of Israel labored long and hard in the hope for the coming of the Christ of God, who would save his people from their sins and from their worldly oppressors. On the eighth day of his life, the Christ child was brought to the old Jewish prophet, Simeon, and the old prophet who held the child in his arms rejoiced: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of salvation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people, Israel!” Luke 2:29-32. It is in this spirit of celebration of the gift of God for all people that I enter into this Advent season.

As we celebrate Advent, I ask that we understand ourselves in a holy relationship to both the universal Church and to all humanity, those who affirm Christian faith and those who do not. Our identity as Christians and as humans arises from the same source: Jesus, the revealer of God’s self: the source of our faith and the source of our true humanity. It is good to remind ourselves at this time of year that Jesus came in the will of God to restore all of us to our true humanity, our God-intended humanity. The Church is a means to that end, just as Israel was meant to be a means to the end of blessing all the earth with God’s glory and redemption. Being a Christian is not the goal, it is the means towards the greater goal of being a true human and thus honoring the One who created us to this high purpose and for unity with God and each other.

Jesus’ way is truly God’s way. Jesus’ truth is God’s truth. Jesus came in the will and the love of God to save, not to condemn the earth and all its creatures. The Church was given birth by the outpouring of God’s Spirit in this way that Jesus had pioneered on earth: a way of obedience to God, a way of love of God and neighbor that was stronger than all powers of evil that twist and destroy human beings and the created order. But, the path of life, the holy way of God is always Jesus’ way, under Jesus’ lordship, and so long as the Church follows in this way of Jesus, the way of the Church is holy, and good and life-giving. But, when the Church, or wings of the Church begin to honor creeds and traditions and human-centered salvation formulas and secular authority and ecclesiastical hierarchies above God’s way in Jesus, then the Church does not become the means to salvation, but can even become a hindrance to receiving the truth of the Gospel.

As a church, we must resist the temptation to substitute our ways for God’s ways. We must resist the temptation to become another self-serving religious institution. We want to break through sin to become witnesses to the Living God of Jesus, the Christ of all the world. We want to break through sin to become brothers and sisters with all human beings, not just friendly with those we are comfortable with. Yes, we are in a deep and holy relationship with all the churches of the world who raise the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost in praise, but we are also in a deep and holy relationship with all human beings whom God has claimed as his own through the death of Jesus, the Christ. We join ourselves with the churches of this world seeking to be a means for the salvation of all people. The goal is that the true humanity revealed in Jesus become the inheritance of all people. As we see human beings reflecting that true humanity that we have come to know in Jesus, we rejoice and thank God. Sometimes, we see that true humanity reflected in the lives of people who have never become part of the Church, but seem to us to be walking in the way of the Lord of the Church, Jesus. And, we remember that our primary allegiance is to God and his way in Jesus, not to the Church. We remember that the Church stands under God’s judgment, seeking to resist those sins of arrogance and selfishness and cowardice that have so crippled the ministries of the Church through the centuries. We remember that the repentant Church has always received forgiveness and healing and courage and joy to love the world as God loves the world, to help the world with a courage and an integrity and a persistence that is beyond our imagination.

It is in this hope that I celebrate the Coming of our Lord, and anticipate the fulfillment of the great hope of all the ages: the Coming of God’s Kingdom, that day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.