Bible Leads: Genesis 3:1-13

TEXT

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.” ’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’

COOL LINKS
  1. How to DeSeed a Pomegranate
  2. Jewish Interpretations of Eve
  3. Sin
  4. What I Learned from 2000 Obituaries (TED Talk)

REFLECTION QUESTIONS
  1. What good are you glad you know?
  2. Would you rather have a world with death or a world without children?
  3. In what ways was the serpent right?
  4. What does it mean to know BOTH good and evil?

IMAGE

pomegranate-989551_1920

KEY WORDS

Good, evil, wisdom, serpents, eyes opened, like God, delight to the eyes, Where are you?, afraid, naked, What is this you have done?, I ate, life, death

SOUNDTRACK

Spotify Playlist featuring The Mountain Goats, Prince, The Neighbourhood, Sufjan Stevens, Iron Maiden and more.

HAIKU

It tastes good,
evil, powerful,
scary, sweet.

Immeasurable Loss

Turn in Your Pre-Conference Journal to page…

Is there a statistic anywhere of LGBTQ+ clergy who have fled the UMC for other denominations or other fields of service? I suspect not. I further suspect that there is no accounting for the LGBTQ+ laity we have lost to other denominations as a result of the ongoing consternation over including LGBTQ+ people in the denomination.

I ask this because of a notable phrase by Rev. Rob Renfroe on the Good News Magazine website. In responding to the Council of Bishops’ recommendation to General Conference 2019, Renfroe says: “We believe the Traditionalist Plan holds the most hope for a fruitful future for The United Methodist Church.” In thinking about the term fruitful, I became more aware of a gaping hole in the debate.

We know, to a certain extent, how fruitful I am as a clergyperson. You can check the statistical reports, journals and even interview parishioners past and present as to my effectiveness as a minister. Likewise, I can attest to the fruitfulness of many lay people in the church. Three lay people at my congregation fed 30 middle schoolers just this past week.

Not accounted for are the contributions from LGBTQ+ United Methodists who never got a chance to serve or whose service was hampered by marginalization or discrimination. It doesn’t even get to go down as a deficit in our column. The best we can do is surmise from LGBTQ+ United Methodists who stayed in the church. Or we can observe LGBTQ+ Christians who joined other denominations. But just as the accounting on the statistical reports is flimsy, we really don’t know what we’ve missed out on.

A personal angle

I know of one such person. She began as a missionary in our denomination. It was through her service to the church that her orientation came to light. She fell in love, which is no small thing! In order for her to serve God through the church, she had to leave United Methodism. Now she’s legally married and is legally marrying others. And I rejoice in her ministry and her family. But I mourn that there is a divide between her and me…and I’m on the wrong side.

In my old conference, there is a traditional memorial service at Annual Conference grieving and remembering clergy and clergy spouses who have passed away in the past year. It is a beautiful simple ceremony. I first became aware of the loss of a LGBTQ+ clergy colleague when I realized that she and I will not stand for each other at the Annual Conference Memorial service back home. Through the beauty of social media, I have seen her stand up for justice, rejoice with her congregation and bring beautiful children into this scary world. How many more like her have we missed out on?

So as General Conference 2019 approaches, I will be watching with great consternation. She has moved on, buoyed by a loss from her past and free to serve God with all that she is. I hope all of us in United Methodism can enjoy the same freedom to serve.

This Week in Ministry

Sunday 5/20

  • Had an okay worship: preached on Pentecost with a German + audience participation rendering of the scripture. Lots of people away.
  • Welcomed Jennifer Beeks (Family Community Resource Center Director at Orchards Elementary School) to speak at our potluck. Shared about her work and the kids that will be coming to us through Project Transformation. I am amazed at the work FCRCs do and I am deeply concerned about how much we as a society expect out of our public schools.

Monday 5/21

  • Visited with a local benefactor about the possibility of bringing a laundry ministry to the church.
  • Visited with folks from Council for the Homeless about reviving the Village Support Network-a great and creative program from a now-defunct agency.
  • Both of these meetings involved working connections and dreaming up new ways for people to collaborate. It’s one of my favorite things about ministry and I feel a particular knack at it.

Tuesday 5/22

  • Took the kids with me to “Covington Breakfast” a bi-weekly breakfast we host for a local YoungLife chapter. Watched 3 members feed 30 kids while they got a good support and challenge from a teacher-mentor. Took some names so we can pray for them over the summer break.
  • Took the rest of the day off as a “mental-health day”.

Wednesday 5/23

  • Late start day at kids’ school meant a late, quick but productive office morning. Worked on getting things ready for the summer with Project Transformation. Best part was discovering that we had raised all the money for our buy-in to host the program.
  • Had a lazy but good time with my lunch buddy at Orchards Elementary.
  • Really miffed that I missed the Evergreen Faith-Based Coffee.

Thursday 5/24

  • Did a lot of worship prep for the coming weeks. Genesis is no slouch y’all.
  • Spent the afternoon with the Council for the Homeless as they prepare an update to their Homeless Action Plan. Have a promising follow-up to get out Tuesday connecting a new contact to work being done through Faith Partners for Housing group.
  • Had a late-for-us training session for Project Transformation. Tough having to take kids when it’s their bedtime but they really did great. It’s crunch time for us with volunteers and registrations.

Friday 5/25

  • Had a great day off with my little buddy. Can’t believe how big he’s getting. And I love him to pieces. Road bikes all morning and spent time at the library. He’s so charming and funny and smart.
  • Had a great rest of the day off after picking up our second grader. She’s so intriguing. Seems to absorb all things around her. She’s a ponderer with a sneaky silly side and keen fashion sense.

Saturday 5/26

  • Long day with the kids. Washed the van, enjoyed more park time and cleaned the house. Went to the airport early to watch planes land and wait for Mommy.
  • Wife came home from a long week at Festival of Homiletics. Everyone is happy!

Council of St. Louis?

or What the Council of Jerusalem can tell us about General Conference 2019.


Introduction

After Easter, I’ve been exploring Acts with my congregation. The concept was ‘let’s see what people did with the news that Jesus rose from the dead’. The second understanding was that Pentecost gave the Holy Spirit-the fiery courage to take the gospel to all the world, but the resurrection of Jesus was the content of the Gospel. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses,” Peter testifies on Pentecost (Acts 2:32).

God’s Invitation to the Apostles from the Gentiles

It’s interesting how Acts tells the story of the Gentile’s inclusion in the church. The notion that God is with Apostles is quickly turned on it head. It’s as if the Holy Spirit burst out of the Upper Room and the Apostles just couldn’t keep up.

God appears to Cornelius in a dream first before God says anything to Peter. And Peter has to be thrown into an hallucination before he would dare enter Cornelius’ territory. It is ultimately Cornelius who invites Peter. Peter testifies with aplomb. A second Pentecost breaks out and Cornelius’ household are all baptized. It’s as if this was for Peter’s awakening as much as Cornelius’.

Ananias was approached by God to relieve Saul of his blindness. Saul/Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A vision of Ananias was given to Saul/Paul before their meeting. The testimony is that God is clearly acting on behalf of the Gentiles that God wants to receive the gospel.

The gospel gets to the Gentiles by accident again after the stoning of Stephen. As a precaution, the fleeing Apostles only taught in the synagogues. It was in Antioch that Hellenists heard the Gospel. By crossing a language barrier, the gospel inevitably crosses an ethnicity barrier as well. The swelling of the church in Antioch prompts Barnabas to go get Paul. The two of them minister in Antioch for about a year. God readies the Gentile people before Barnabas and Paul minister to them.

This issue of gentile inclusion leads up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where leadership from the entire Christian planet gathers for a special general conference on inclusion of Gentiles in the church. By this time, God has on numerous occasions directly intervened to clear the way for Gentiles to be included. It would require a massive revision of Hebrew law.

Don’t Look Now, but the Quadrilateral gets Upended in Jerusalem

Not everyone was of one mind regarding Gentile inclusion in the church. A group of Pharisees insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised. To us, that sounds complete preposterous. But the Pharisees had scripture on their side.

Circumcision as the emblem of the Covenant

Remember, circumcision was the sign that the Hebrews were serious about following God. Abram was 99 years old when the sign of circumcision was given. And it was ordered as a serious custom from early on. It was a law before there even was a law. Circumcision was the threshold into the family of God.

Did you know that foreigners were allowed to observe Passover in ancient Israel, but only if they were circumcised? “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). You can’t have the promised land without the pain.

Circumcision was also a saving grace. Did you know that en route back to Egypt, Moses wrestled with God the same way Jacob did (Exodus 4)? But in a twist, God not only overwhelms Moses, but is on the brink of killing him. Moses’ wife Zipporah sees what’s going on and performs an emergency circumcision on their son. Touching the freshly butchered foreskin to Moses “feet”* (feet in the OT is often a euphemism for genitals) God’s wrath is satisfied. Moses then goes on to free the slaves from Pharaoh. Apparently God really cares about circumcision.

The biblical record (at least as Peter and Paul understood) was very clear on circumcision: it was required. The default setting in Jewish theology was that circumcision marked one as part of the family of God. It was the foremost symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Circumcision and the covenant went hand-in-hand. Before Passover, before the Torah, there was circumcision. It identified. It saved. It purified. It marked you as God’s favored one.

On the anti-circumcision side, the only answer Peter has was what he observed. From Acts 15:

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And 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.’

Paul and Barnbas testified to what they observed in Antioch. James added a prophetic interpretation. In all, the Council of Jerusalem concluded that circumcision was not required. A letter was sent the churches throughout the world to explain the conclusion and to encourage Christians to steer clear of sexual immorality. I wonder how an intercultural church would have interpreted “sexual immorality”. Certainly Jews and Gentiles differed greatly on this.

This is no small matter. Through experience and a touch of reason, a major biblical and traditional emblem was discarded. Paul later details in Romans how the Law was really great at convicting one of sin, but otherwise terrible at actually saving anybody (Romans 7:7-12).

A Revolutionary Angle

Since Advent, when I gave myself a crash-course in the Maccabean revolt, I’ve had an altered view of the Pharisees. The Maccabeans ousted the Seleucids who were formidable world conquerers in the centuries before Christ. The Maccabeans were able to set up their own miniature dynasty (Wikipedia actually has an excellent summary here) until the Romans came along. Part of the Maccabean success was attributed to their penchant for their legal purity. They studied the OT prophets and concluded that their demise was due in part to God’s unwillingness to protect them. They rededicated themselves to their food laws and only begrudgingly chose to fight on the sabbath. They were able to defeat a grotesque and terrorizing army through their dedication to the covenant (the Law) that God had with them.

The Pharisees are the heirs of the Maccabean way, even as the Hassmonean dynasty splintered into factions. Their dedication to the law was not just for greed or power, they had good historical reason to believe that this was the way to oust the Romans and have their land back. It worked in the days of Exile, it worked in the days of the Maccabeans, this is clearly the way God will save us. For Jesus and then Peter and Paul (a Pharisee even!) to say that the Law was no longer necessary not only thwarted God’s word, it risked the continued occupation of the Romans in the holy land. The stance made at the Council of Jerusalem had far-reaching radical consequences.

What does this Mean for Saint Louis?

I say ALL of this to get us to General Conference 2019 in St. Louis.

I don’t know what is going to happen. But I feel as though there is a contest not unlike the Council of Jerusalem. The black-and-white readers have the book on their side (kinda). I personally believe that what the Bible says about homosexuality is ultimately apples and oranges since the Bible doesn’t recognize that homosexuals can actually mutually love each other. The scripture conflates homosexuality with other matters like violence or wanton lust…or worse. And what we now know about genetics is not accounted for in scripture. Nevertheless, those who see the Bible as unquestionably right do have a few lines of prohibition on their side. (Though it seems portions of the early church had found fault with that thinking.)

But is the Holy Spirit done? This seems to be the rebuttal. The harm assumed by including LGBTQ+ people in the church is not born out by the evidence. The good is hard to account for since all LGBTQ+ contributions to the church are couched in their being marginalized. What if Jorge Lockward was not marginalized? We simply do not know all that we’ve lost as a denomination. When I observe LGBT+ clergy in other denominations being just, loving, compassionate–all the things Jesus was–I do two things: I celebrate the ministry and I mourn my church for being so stubborn. When I observe LGBT+ married couples being joyful, mutually sacrificial in their love, raising kind-hearted children–putting to rest the stereotypes against them–I have two thoughts: I celebrate their family and I mourn my church for not having the eyes to see what’s going on. It is not Christian to be so nose-down in the Bible that you can’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the world around you.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis. The ramifications are huge. But so too are the hurdles for change in either direction! How can members of a family that are fused in their positions find peace?

The Council of Jerusalem sticks out to me as a similar battle. The potential for a flood of losers seems high. Then again, Peter, Paul and the like were then able to go to their constituents and say “Yes, we recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing here. Let us break bread in peace.” Perhaps that day is coming when we in the UMC can share the bread of with our LGBTQ+ neighbors without prejudice or shame.

Schools are for Learning

The best part of my work week was spending 40 minutes with a principal in my church’s school district. Her school has no church partners and I was there to see if we could be a potential partner for them. She’s been principal for 11 years and is a solid leader.

She told me a ton about her school. They have adopted 1-to-1 technology where every student gets a laptop, chromebook or iPad. She told me about older teachers embracing the training needed to use the new technology in the room. She spoke at length about self-care for teachers as well as the ethos that teachers ought themselves be continual learners. She does a great deal of caring for teachers so they can care for their students. The school is also embracing project-based learning where outside experts come it to teach their expertise in a multi-disciplinary setting. Somehow that included Dutch Brothers coming into mix drinks. They are teaching meditation to students so students can not only learn information, but they can know themselves well (Socrates sheds a happy-tear).

I was in awe of the many hats one person wears. And I am continually floored with the immense responsibility we as a society are placing on schools. The whole Maslow thing makes sense. But the logistical task it presents is overwhelming.

Our time was full but ended abruptly: “Riley’s outside!” Riley looked to be about 6 years old. She was outside without a coat waving a flag used by the crossing guard. The Principal joined 2 other staffers who were trying to corral this cheerfully unruly child. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, they had her somewhat constrained to a corner of the building away from traffic. They were all using great amounts of patience in deescalating the matter.

The Principal also spoke at length about learning to understand the challenges facing children and their parents. Her school is relatively low in the free and reduced lunch, but she thinks there are whole neighborhoods where the parents just don’t return the form. She sees them hungry and feeds them. I asked her about ‘Breakfast-after-the-Bell‘ legislation that recently passed in Washington state. She was very matter-of-fact that she’d been doing that for years. She spoke about teachers frustrated with out-of-control, even violent kids. She would point out to such teachers kids who were like that but had improved dramatically. She and her staff work tirelessly to understand the challenges and provide solutions so that kids can get back to learning. They successfully navigate numerous obstacles and kids with challenging lives actually learn and thrive at this school. This school’s leaders have immense belief in people: both themselves as educators and the kids as learners.

The default setting for gifted educators like this principal is patience, understanding and optimism. Expecting them to be ready at a split second to shoot an intruder armed with semi-automatic weaponry and body armor is to not understand the gifts of educators. It is to demand they put down their best instincts and most gifted attributes to solve a problem the rest of society is not willing to even talk about. By the time this society-wide problem reaches that teacher’s door, so many fail-safes have either been removed or failed altogether. It is gross negligence to expect such a grisly task, especially when no other fail-safes are even considered, when even trying to learn about a problem isn’t allowed or embraced. Placing the solution in the hands of teachers is to a) not understand teachers and b) to not understand the problem.

Martin Luther King, Jr: Sacramental Theologian

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” [applause] Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” (Yeah) And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. [applause] And we went before the fire hoses. (Yeah) We had known water. (All right) If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist and some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. [applause]
–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
April 3, 1968; Memphis, Tennessee
I’ve been pretty obsessed with the last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ever since Charlottesville. In preparing for yesterday’s sermon commemorating the baptism of Jesus, I reviewed our commitments as baptized United Methodist Christians (hub of resources here). We all agree to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. This has always sounded good to me.
If I’m going to be more active in the human struggles for freedom and dignity, actually, all I have to do is keep the word I gave at my baptism.

What to do if Roy Moore comes to your Church

Roy Moore fashions himself a Christian. His Christianity includes literally making an idol out of the Ten Commandments and doing all he can to harass and malign non-straight people. Now he’s one election away from the US Senate. Four women have subsequently come forward to accuse him of sexual improprieties when they were teenagers and he was a high powered state lawyer. One of those women was 14 when Moore allegedly groomed her for sexual abuse.

I began to imagine what I’d do if Roy Moore came to my church. Then I thought, we do kind of have a game plan. We follow the two-person rule for Sunday school, our nursery has a window for observation (I can see it from the pulpit), our UMYF follows the 2-adult rule. There is known within the church the rules and people to go to should there be a complaint. But it can be better, for sure. Not all of the what-to-dos are actually done at my church. This moment of notoriety for Mr. Moore is revealing some holes in the safety net. Nevertheless…

What to do if Roy Moore or any alleged sex offender comes into church?

Note: I am assuming Roy Moore specifically where allegations are well-known.

  • The Pastor and the Lay Leader need to discretely pull him aside and let him know he’s welcome to worship, but we are committed to the safety of our children and youth. Hand him a copy of your child safety policy and mandate his compliance with the rules.
    • The assumption is that 1) you have child safety policy and 2) you have it in writing to give out.
    • Rules are:
      • 1) He makes NO contact at all with any child or youth in the congregation.
      • 2) He must accept the ministry of an escort, who will assure safety of the kids on premises while ALSO assuring Mr. Moore’s safety from his own temptations.
      • 3) Any deviance from these rules is grounds for immediate removal from the premises, using law enforcement if necessary.
    • Respectfully explain that while he is entitled to his due process rights under the law, the church out of an abundance of caution, must do what is necessary to assure the safety of children and youth.
  • Assign him an escort, someone of the same gender who will stay with Mr. Moore for the entirety of his presence on church property. That escort will never allow Mr. Moore to be alone on church property (yes, even in the bathroom), never allow him to interact with children or youth but WILL extend Christian hospitality otherwise.
  • In your welcome to the congregation as a whole, point EVERYONE to the safe sanctuary/child protection policy printed in your bulletin and/or posted in a public place. Assure everyone that children and youth are welcomed and their safety is paramount.
  • In a follow-up letter to all parents of children and youth in the congregation, alert them to Mr. Moore’s presence in the previous week’s worship.
    • Explain first the congregation’s child safety policy and the church’s strategy in ministering with sex offenders.
    • Explain how the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness is especially pertinent to Mr. Moore.
    • Invite people to share concerns, questions and comments.
      • If real conflict arose with established parishioners, I would side with those parishioners, but would work with other faith-group partners to find him a suitable worshiping community.
      • Barring any such conflict, I would allow him to continue worshiping as long as he remains with his escort and stays completely away from children and youth in the congregation. One strike rule would be in effect.
  • Preach the real gospel.
    • Preach on confession of sin and of repentance.
    • Preach on the inherent dignity of children and youth.
    • Preach on the inherent dignity of girls and women.
    • Throw in a millstone reference or two.
  • Do NOT withhold Holy Communion.
  • Offer all other aspects of the worshiping body EXCEPT for interaction with children and youth.

I’m grateful to be in a denomination that has been thoughtfully confronting this problem for decades through the pioneering work of Safe Sanctuaries and the concern of the Annual Conference to make these policies mandatory. Roy Moore is a sick man who has never admitted ever being wrong on anything. I believe his accusers and his arrogance only strengthens my belief in them.

This emergence of accusers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis CK, the #MeToo confessions, etc. has allowed me to see how nonchalant my congregation’s preparations are. And has allowed me to hone up on our preparations. Most Roy Moore’s aren’t named Roy Moore and aren’t plastered all over the news. If anything is to be learned from these rash of revelations, it’s that there is something fundamentally wrong with manhood that needs to be recognized and healed.

What do you think?

Reading the Bible Better

You can read the Bible better. It doesn’t take a degree in religion. It does require some skills that too often are relegated to the academy. Those skills can be acquired and practiced by everyday people.
You probably suspect that there are layers of meaning in the text. You hear great preachers and teachers reveal these layers. Maybe you think that level of understanding is beyond you. It’s not.
Here are some things you can do to begin reading the Bible in a way that reveals those layers. Who knows it may even change your life. (That is why you’re reading, isn’t it?)

Find Your Character.

While reading the Bible, determine which character is most like you. It may be that a main character is like you. It maybe that you are actually more like Jesus than the one he’s talking to. It may be that you are more like a character that is a bit off-screen (more on that in a second). The purpose here is enliven the scene by placing yourself in it. The Bible has enough distance to it: culturally, historically, etc. Reading it from a “third-person” perspective only adds to the distance. Finding your character may open up more questions than clarifications. That is a good thing. Each new question is an avenue of further exploration.

Consider the Jonah story for example. Are you Jonah running away from God? Perhaps not. Are you more like Jonah’s fellow passengers when a storm arises: just trying to do what’s right in a bad situation? Are like actually like God: desperately wanting someone to trust you enough to do something difficult but good? You may find that you are actually more like God.

Switch Characters, Uncover characters

Often we read the Bible from a single point of view. It may be a third-person perspective that takes us out of the story altogether. Once you Find Your Character in the story, you can then begin to play with other characters. Playfulness is a great tool for reading the Bible. Take for instance Jacob’s rivalry with his brother Esau. Maybe you identify with the younger Jacob always striving against your older brother. That’s great. But take some time to enter Esau’s world: he had to take care of his widowed mother who sold his blessing to his brother. And yet, when Jacob and Esau meet again years later, Esau seems at peace (Genesis 25 and following).

As you’re playing with characters in the text, look for unnamed characters. This could be simply groups of people like bystanders or background people like the Innkeeper in the Christmas story. One that shocked me was revealed to me in seminary: when Herod ordered the killing of all boys age 2 and younger in order to eliminate Jesus, the unnamed characters are the people who carried out the killings (Matthew 2:16-18). Were they fathers? Did they have sons?

Play with the untold story.

The Bible is big and at times the details can be so tedious. But there are also plenty of holes in the plot line. It is okay to play with the untold stories within the Bible. This is a great approach to test out your own experiences, morals and questions. Continuing with the Esau example, one of the untold stories is what happened to Esau after Jacob stole his blessing from their dying father. Esau disappears for the better part of 5 chapters while Jacob grows his family into an army. When they meet again famously in Genesis 33 Esau is successful and at peace. Of all the stories I wish the Bible told, the story of how Esau made peace within himself over his brother would be at the top of the list. The next best thing is for us to imagine how did Esau forgive his brother? What became of his relationship with his mother Rachel? You can make similar imaginings with the Samaritan woman, Pontius Pilate, Mephibosheth, Ruth, etc. (There is a great book called Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist which does this very thing).

Switch from Me to We

One of the problems of the Bible in English is that English renders the 2nd-person singular pronoun (you) the same as the 2nd-person plural pronoun (you). Reading the Bible in English means you don’t know when God is talking to you personally or you collectively. And American society is biased toward the individual. This means that when we see “you” we see the singular first. Our ‘default’ setting means we are prone to miss when God is talking to the community, the town, the nation, the family, the church, etc.

One way to unlock the layers of the Bible is to discover the communal aspects of it. When you can see that God is talking to a nation rather than a person…a whole new level of understanding emerges.

This may require a bit of technical assistance, unless you know biblical Hebrew or Greek. By technical assistance, I mean a good study Bible with footnotes that can help you know when the ‘you’ is singular or plural (NIV Study Bible does this well). Or you can try the Texas Bible App which is a plugin for your Chrome browser. The Texas Bible app will swap all plural ‘you’ for “y’all”. Yes, it’s a cool as it sounds.

Read in blocks.

One of the difficulties with reading only in worship is that we tend to read in very short segments. Sometimes not even whole chapters. But the scriptures were written as whole units, even the books that are pieced together from multiple sources. Furthermore, the minute dissection of scripture in church can literally cut out the drama in the text.

Take Mark’s gospel for example. Mark is a fast moving text where Jesus’ baptism is followed immediately by temptation in the wilderness followed immediately by Jesus calling the 12, teaching in the synagogue, healing a man with an unclean spirit, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, praying in the hills at night and healing a leper. That’s just chapter 1. The immediacy of the storytelling unlocks the desperation in Mark’s message. Mark really needs you the reader to pick up the mantle and finish the work Jesus started.

So read in larger blocks. This is easier than it sounds. Mark is readable in an hour. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) can be read in one sitting, too. The movements within help unlock the power of the storytelling. Each of the Psalms ought to be digested as a whole given their poetic nature. Rainy Sunday afternoons are great opportunities to break into the larger characters.

Read in Community.

It would be dishonest for me to say the Bible is easy. It would ALSO be dishonest for me to say that you can’t get it. Reading scripture with other people is one of the best ways to unravel the layers, discover new connections and air your questions. Different people are going to see different things. The point is NOT to all agree. In fact disagreeing is almost guaranteed. The point is to deepen your understanding of scripture and unlock its power to transform your life and your world.

Consider learning a new musical instrument or a second language. You can practice from the book all you want. But it’s when you join other players that your own skill can elevate. It’s when you get off the plane in Paris that you can really know how good your French really is. Your community will help you suss out your biases, reveal new angles of understanding, help you in living out what you’re learning and share in the joy of scripture.

Enjoy.

Have fun reading the Bible. It’s a pretty good book. I hope these tips help.

What has been helpful to you?

Gun Violence Will Not Go Away

An Evangelist is someone who brings a message of good news. This is the opposite of that.

Gun violence and mass shootings like the one in Las Vegas are not going away. We can’t even call them the new norm anymore. They’re just the norm. And the norm is increasing gun violence.

President Obama famously noted that we have a routine for mass shootings and their aftermath. We hold vigils. We offer prayers. And we ultimately do nothing. “We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loved one because of our inaction,” he said two years ago after Roseburg.

Guns are the true American idols. We worship them. We grant them salvific powers. We credit them for our nation’s existence. We treat one gun law as untouchable and sacred while calling any other gun law pure evil.

Identifying the idolatry of guns in America is part of the healing in the sense that step 1 of 12 is to admit you have a problem. Sadly, we cannot even agree that we have a problem. Even if we were to agree that there is some problem, Congress won’t even allow the matter to be studied. We value our ignorant adherence to unfettered gun ownership more than basic truth. You can psycho-analyze this reality all you want, be forewarned that your head might begin spinning rapidly.

Idolatry, sadly, does not go away easily. When I think of idolatry, I think first to YHWH’s famous screed against it in Isaiah (44:12-17):

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails, he drinks no water and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!” The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, “Save me, for you are my god!”

God must be having a really painful laugh at us Americans right now. Laughter over the absurd faith we put into our firearm culture. Painful, because God hurts over the pain of her children. And we are hurting.

Isaiah is not fully chronological. There are themes that weave throughout the book. In section 1, YHWH lays out the charges against the nation. “Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made” (Is. 2:8). God later chides the people for trusting in chariots to save them when trouble arises (Is. 31:1).

I fear that this current generation will have to pass before the wisdom of peace will be known. I know that the money protecting our current lack of gun legislation is a mighty force. Presidents past and present have decided that taking on the gun lobby was either too tough or against their ideology. And it is well-known that mass shootings often lead to a spike in gun sales. I’ll never forget after Sandy Hook, going to my local Wal-Mart and seeing AR-15s on sale with a queue lined up. Rather than be abhorred by the slaughter of first graders…we chose to make money and double-down on our gun-worship.

That to me was the moment of truth. The funny thing about moments of truth is that they reveal the truth. President Obama wept openly. A panel led by VP Biden recommended many changes. Obama signed numerous executive orders but Congress ultimately could not pass any action. The NRA spent ~$800,000 lobbying Congress that year. It worked.

Now after Las Vegas, with far less concerned leadership at the federal level, the prospects of even a debate taking place seem slim. Surprisingly, there is some chatter in Congress this time. Joe Manchin says he will revive a previous effort with Pat Toomey. The bump stock ban seems to have some steam. (But, then there’s this.) I know that Wayne LaPierre practically lives at the US Capitol building. He’s certainly waving his checkbook at vulnerable Senators. I would welcome any progress…but I can’t bring myself to hold my breath.

What now then?

Basically, a weird thing Jesus said comes to mind. When asked about a recent tragedy where a tower fell on top of the builders, killing scores of people, Jesus simply responded with a call to righteousness (Luke 13:4-5).

Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

None of the victims in Las Vegas deserved their fate. And it’s not like God picked a few to protect. They just got lucky. And it’s not like I can free myself from the fate of dying in an idiot’s hail of bullets. Rain falls on the just and unjust. So too does gun violence. What can I do given this atmosphere in which I live? Basically, all I can do is live as well as possible. Eliminate any regrets. Heal all broken relationships. Purge myself of all vices and fears. Love as fully as possible. Raise my kids well. Hold my wife tightly. Walk the woods a lot. Preach more boldly. Listen to people more carefully. That kind of thing.

Certainly, I can fight the lobby and call my representatives, etc. John Oliver is right about that. But I cannot ignore the immensity of that particular hill, either.

When someone gets a killer disease, they typically make a bucket list: things to do now that life is precious and fragile. Well, gun violence is a disease that is killing our society. As it stands, we’d rather die and let our neighbors be killed than to find another diety. The doctors with the power to heal are in bed with the disease makers. If they wake up, great. But you better have a contingency plan otherwise.

How are Non-White Americans forced to live today?

This is part two of a series of reflections on Charlottesville via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech “I See the Promised Land” (text and audio here). See the Intro here.

I can remember [applause], I can remember when Negroes were just going around, as Ralph has said so often, scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. [laughter, applause] But that day is all over. (Yeah) [applause] We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.

What is the rightful place for black people in God’s world? The naturally-following question is more blunt: How are non-white Americans ‘forced to live’ today?

Just this week, a story emerged locally of a man deported in February leaving behind a wife and 7 kids. He is only 2 years older than I am. I cannot imagine being ripped from my family and removed thousands of miles away. I would probably die of sadness. Compare this to the relative ease with which Irish immigrants came to the US 100 years ago: granted ease of passage for being white. The notion that the road is equal for white and non-white Americans is simply not supported by statistics.

  • See HERE for disparities in the criminal justice population.
  • See HERE for income disparities.
  • See HERE and HERE for educational disparities. See HERE (pdf) for a huge federal report from 2013.

Add to these realities the function of historical trauma. This refers to the difficulties of particular groups of people to escape the pains of their ancestry. You can see this trauma in Native American groups where addiction has decimated entire tribes, essentially finishing off ethnic-based atrocities begun generations earlier. The black community is still feeling the economic ripple-effect of slavery. They are feeling the economic ripple-effect of segregation. they are feeling the economic effects of mass incarceration.

It’s weird, I don’t see anyone forcing black people to live poorer than me. But the invisibility of these disparities is designed into the disparities themselves. I don’t see the income gap, because I live in a lily-white town. I don’t see the disparities in education. I just happened to go to a private Christian college and saw the percentage of black classmates drop from 40% to 1%. I think you get the picture.

In this context of systemic disparities in America, what then is black America’s “rightful place in God’s world”? What then must be done for the black American to gain that rightful place?

The first is a spiritual matter. The second a spiritual-political one.

Spiritually, it seems obvious that black Americans ought to be free. Free to be who God is calling them to be.They ought to have equal access to housing, healthcare, education, opportunity, etc. as anyone else. It seems to basic and obvious to me that it seems almost shameful to have to say it. Why would a nation who so values money NOT want to unleash the productivity of half of its population? Why would a nation who prides itself on opportunity not want to grant full access to the creative powers of its peoples?

The simple answer is the best one, in this case. Black America’s rightful place in God’s world is to be free and to seek and find the abundant life God has for them.

Closing the gap between current realities and God’s will for black Americans is a lot tougher (The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates remains the seminal work). I’m not sure its because the answers are all that complex. I more think that the pathway to true freedom and equality for all people is BOTH spiritual and political. And often the political is dominated by current matters. Spiritual matters are slower and elusive. Of course, public policies need to eliminate disparities in the public sphere. But spiritually, there needs to be a further growth within white people for black equality to be a reality. The growth is in terms of awareness of black inequality, honesty within white America regarding our complicity in systems of oppression, a deep concern for non-white Americans that leads to radical change in white Americans and an collective effort to acknowledge wrongs and commit to set those wrongs aright.

As I encounter Dr. Kings’ last speech in light of an ascendant white power movement embodied at Charlottesville, I see so much about what he writes that is still unresolved 40 years later. This intersection of black America’s “rightful place in God’s world” and the powers forcing black Americans to live dramatically less free is today’s enduring work for enlightened and conscious people. The work is multifaceted: artists, politicians, clergy, educators, historians each have their role. I worry that there is too much work and too little will power for true equality. But ultimately, these spiritual matters are God’s will. Don’t I want to be in that will?