Don’t Just Read, Interpret! 

“Now Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wild. For forty wilderness days and nights he was tested by the Devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up, he was hungry. The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave the first test: ‘Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered by quoting Deuteronomy: ‘It takes more than bread to really live.’ For the second test he led him up and spread out all the kingdoms of the earth on display at once. Then the Devil said, ‘They’re yours in all their splendor to serve your pleasure. I’m in charge of them all and can turn them over to whomever I wish. Worship me and they’re yours, the whole world.’ Jesus refused, again backing his refusal with Deuteronomy: ‘Worship the Lord your God and only the Lord your God. Serve him with absolute single-heartedness.’ For the third test the Devil took him to Jerusalem and put him on top of the Temple. He said, ‘If you are God’s Son, jump. It’s written, isn’t it, that “he has placed you in the care of angels to protect you; they will catch you; you won’t do much as stub your toe on a stone”?’ ‘Yes,’ said Jesus, ‘and it’s also written, “Don’t you dare tempt the Lord your God.”‘ That completed the testing. The Devil retreated temporarily, lying in wait for another opportunity.”                                           Luke 4:1-13 (The Message)

Familiarity is often one of the greatest enemies to faith. It has a habit of lulling folks into a spiritual innocuation that all but dismantles any need for faith, in the name of “I know that!” Like those folks who can ace a test, but have no actual grasp of the course content, faith-based familiarity can leave one with a tragically false sense of intimacy with the Divine.  I myself have been a Christian since 1999, and have a B.A. in Christian Studies, and an M.Div with a concentration in Apologetics, so that familiarity sticks to me like tar and feathers. And it’s usually not until life happens that I (once again) come to the realization that I lack the convictions of my courage. 

The wilderness temptation of Jesus is one of those things that suffers from that familiarity. The passage was one of the readings in my morning prayers recently. I almost didn’t even read it because I already knew what happened. “Yeah, yeah. Satan tempts Jesus. Jesus resists. Got it!”

You know that scene in Home Alone where Kevin just keeps walking around the house, “I made my family disappear,” and then he stops: “I made my family disappear!”?  I had that moment with this passage. “Satan tempted Jesus using Scripture…Satan tempted Jesus using Scripture!!!” 

This made me think: If Satan tempted Jesus himself with Scripture, why do we not think of this when listening to preachers, teachers, and politicians? It’s like certain Christians don’t even want to try to engage the Scriptures prayerfully. All that matters is that one merely quote the Bible. 

Jesus shows here that merely quoting the Bible does not mean that what is being proposed is godly. (Oddly enough, I had always been warned that “even Satan knows the Bible! So be on your guard!” But those same folks seem to fall for anything when it has been sprinkled with Christianisms.) Notice that Satan quoted Scripture, but Jesus interpreted it. Satan wanted Jesus to focus on a line or two taken out of context, like a bumper sticker. Jesus brought attention to other parts of Scripture that needed to be taken into account. And this begs the question, If Jesus interprets Scripture, shouldn’t we?

Now, I know that hearing that word brings much fear and trepidation to some. “You mean I have to become master of interpretation??? That’s hard!” But if I may counter that, we are masters of interpretation for matters far less important. We learn not to take things at face value for the silliest things. “That speed limit sign says 65, but I’m allowed to go up to four miles over.” “My friend said ________, but what they meant was _______.” “That’s his game face. He’s actually quite humble off the field.” We learn to interpret other things, why not the Scriptures? Why do we turn our interpretive skills off when it comes to someone quoting the Bible? Is it because we think it means more than it does? 

Jesus himself, in a dialogue with a lawyer (an expert in the Mosaic Law), asked, “What do the Scriptures say? How do you read it?” In other words, based on all you know of Scripture, how do you make sense of this part here? 

A good way to think about it is to consider book series. Think of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Outlander, or Game of Thrones. You can read any one book in those series, and follow along well enough. But unless you read the previous books, or the books that follow, you will be left in the dark. If you stopped reading Harry Potter at Half Blood Prince, for example, Snape is the worst kind of traitor. But if you read on, you know that he is a great hero. 

Certain literary characters are complicated, and are developed over time. And unless you consider the fully developed character, you will not see them as they are. The same is true with Scripture. 

Jesus showed Satan (and us) that merely quoting a passage did not make the temptation godly. In a world of competing ideologies, and swirling notions of what it means to be biblical, we need to do the same. 

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Embracing Our Enemies

“You’re blessed when you show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.”             Matthew 5:9 (The Message)

“As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbor against those who have hurt us. Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours. Amen.”                                             (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

Making Peace is Frickin Hard!

Peacemaking is not the easiest of tasks. It involves taking two sides (maybe more) who are estranged, and making it so reconciliation can take place. It is not, as Miroslov Volf points out in his book Exclusion and Embrace, merely moving the oppressed out from under their oppressor, and exacting justice on those oppressors. This, he warns, very often leads to the oppressed becoming oppressors themselves, which means that oppression has been allowed to continue, just in a different name. Such “peacemaking” is better understood as retaliation. “They did it to us, so we will do it to them.” This is also called warfare. 

Volf, being Croatian, does not write about reconciliation and peacemaking from inside a bubble, as I would. I can point to history books, and documentaries, all while living comfortably in my little rural town in North Carolina. Volf saw his country torn apart by civil war. He saw two sides gather in the name of God, and pillage, rape, and kill each other with genocidal viger. The things I saw on tv as a teenager, happened in his backyard, so to speak. So whenever he speaks about reconciling enemies, he doesn’t mean two sides that just don’t get along,  he means enemies. 

Enemies Are Relative

Of course, if we’re talking about peacemaking and embracing our enemies, it’s helpful to know who our enemies are. I’d also venture that it’s helpful to know if they are an actual enemy, or nothing more than a perceived enemy. For instance, in my younger, more brash days, any Christian who didn’t share my specific beliefs — within an undefined perameter, mind you — I considered a heretic! (Sorry, Rob Bell.) To borrow from On Distant Shores by Five Iron Frenzy, “And off of the blocks, I was headstrong and proud. At the front of the line of the card carrying high brows. With both eyes fastened tight, yet unscarred from the fight. Running at full tilt, my sword pulled from its hilt…Casting first stones, killing my own.” 

But  if experience is any kind of teacher, I’ve come to find that “enemy” is a relative term. (Once again, if that enemy is an actual enemy.) We don’t get to choose our enemies. Nor do we know if and when we’ve met one. But they are relative nonetheless. For some, an enemy is someone who simply makes life a little more challenging. These enemies don’t pose a threat to anyone; however, they are just harder to love than most. And frustratingly, folks who have these types of enemies, are the ones who just love to quote Jesus at people. “Well Brother, I hate that that’s happening, but Jesus said to love and pray for our enemies.” (Yeah, easy for you, buddy. The only thing you’re dealing with is hiding your frustration. Meanwhile, I was just abused by my pastor.) I remember posting a status about this once, and a missionary buddy of mine commented, “Yeah, while some people are dealing with bruised egos, I walk passed corrupt local police who are dressed like soldiers, complete with automatic weapons. Loving them is not simple.” 

Thankfully, there are people throughout history who have endured far more than said bruised egos. Volf, as I mentioned above, if not personally, saw it in his countrymen. Likewise, there is Corrie ten Boom, who was a Holocaust survivor. She once said, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hate. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.” And lest it be said that that was easy for her to say post concentration camp, she once told a story of meeting one of the officers responsible for her daily nightmares, years later, and with much internal struggle, still managed to forgive. 

Why Say All This?

What’s the point? Well isn’t it obvious?!? Particularly in the United States, we are living in a time of absolute lunacy. Forgiveness is a foreign language, and at this point, may even be banned as a threat to the country! But forgive we must! Especially if you claim the Name of the Divine Interupter, who forgave and gave his life for the very people who unjustly arrested and murdered him. On a Roman cross no less! 

We are living in a time when all one has to do is say one criticism of their opponent, and that opponent flies off the comment section handle, and projects every form of vitriol they can conjur. Conservatives are more guilty of this than liberals these days; but liberals, you’re guilty all the same. 

The Big Idea of Forgiveness

Whether we are conservative or liberal, climate deniers or protectors, Christian or Muslim, we are all human. We are interdependent of one another. Conservatives don’t have all the answers. Liberals don’t have all the answers. Christians (being one myself I can say with utmost certainty) don’t have all the answers. And Muslims are tired of being blamed for every little bump in the night. 

Conservatives, you don’t get to call every opponent a liberal snowflake just because they challenged your thinking. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work with liberals to make this world better. 

Liberals, you don’t get to write off all conservatives as brainless morons because they deny climate change. Learn to forgive. And see how you can work together. 

There really are bigger, badder, more wicked threats out there than bruised egos. And while we’re busy calling each other names on social media (yes, I do it too!), those threats are rolling on. People’s rights are being stolen for no other reason than their sexual orientation, or that their skin color is different than their lawmakers’ (here’s looking at you North Carolina General Assembly!) 

There is a scene in the Outlander Series where Jamie Fraser, who earlier on had been brutalized by his enemy Black Jack Randall, and as he (Jamie) is helping his own daughter forgive her enemy, he comes to his own realization, Black Jack is only a man. Yes, he did terrible, terrible things. But he was only a mortal man. Not only that, but forgiveness is not a one time event, but rather many events over time. 

Whoever your enemy is, no matter what they’ve done, they are only mortal. Life is worth far more than spending it hunkered down in bitter hatred because someone doesn’t agree with you. 

Forgive as if humanity depended on it. 

More to come on this very difficult subject later.

Jesus Of Nazareth, PA

The older I get (I’m only 33), the more I’m amazed at how things keep coming full circle. Most of us, I’m fairly certain, can say that we see it most often with fashion. Once, when I was in college, a classmate was rocking his brand new penny loafers with utmost pride, as if he had just discovered the latest and greatest in men’s footwear. And then Dr. Murray, who, being from Texas, only knew one way to address an issue – bluntly – said,  “Hey! I remember when those became popular when I was in grade school…IN THE SIXTIES!!!” I don’t think I ever saw those penny loafers again. 

(Note: For those wanting to bring back the 80s, you do you, but please, for the love of all things kind, leave the hairstyles and rock music alone. We never need to see those come full circle.) 

I became a Christian in the late nineties. And what I remember about every youth related material for churches, is that they all centered around the mantra “Let your walk match your talk.” (Ironically, the one man in my life who pounded that drum the loudest at that time, is very often a complete jerk. But I digress.) But, despite hearing that phrase every week for years, for whatever reason, one day I stopped hearing it for the next 15 years. 

And then 2016 came along, with its polarizing election. 

After the numbers were fully tallied, it was found that 80% of white evangelicals voted for The Donald (give or take a percentage or two). Either word you choose to focus on (white or Evangelical), that number is way too much support for a man who openly ran his campaign on lies, fake news articles, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny. In a recent article for Christianity Today, missiologist Ed Stetzer pointed out that such a large number has potentially damaged the witness of white Christians for years to come. Both Stetzer and philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins have each pointed out that, while this number is staggering and heartbreaking, it is important to remember that not every white evangelical voted for him because of his hateful rhetoric. Some voted because they thought they were choosing the lesser of two evils (better a man who says bad things, than a woman who does bad things). Others voted out of desperation, because they felt left behind by Democrats. Still others, because they were hoping he would make good on his promise to select pro-life judges for the Supreme Court. Both Stetzer and Rollins cautioned against treating every Trump supporter the same. (Rollins himself, living in Northern Ireland, had just experienced the fallout of Brexit.) This was also a similar message that Martin Luther King had in his “I Have a Dream” speech, in which he warned people of color not to treat all white people as racist, because some of them were actually in the trenches with them. 

I do not want to paint all 80% with the brush of hate. But, Christians in general, and that 80% specifically must  do some genuine soul searching. 

As Christians, we claim to be a people who love all people. And yet, we elected a man who wants to discriminate against certain people groups. 

As Christians, we claim that God loves all people, regardless of whether they love him back. And yet, we elected a man who promised success only for Christians. 

As Christians, we claim to love the truth, and hate dishonesty. And yet, we elected a man who, according to Politifact, lied 75% of the time, from the moment he stepped off that escalator, to his victory speech. 

As Christians, we claim to be a people who love the least of these. And yet, we elected a man (and a congress) who wants to strip the least of these of the basic human right of healthcare, and dump them with the weight of the nation’s tax burden. 

As Christians, we claim Jesus’ words that leaders must be humble. That to be first, we must be last. And yet, we elected a man whose whole life is a living monument to himself. 

As Christians, we claim a savior who has broken down the walls of hostility. And yet, we elected a man who wants to erect them. 

As Christians, we remember the quiet witness of Mary, the mother of Jesus. And yet, we elected a man who has a long history of treating women as objects for his own sexual gratification. 

Christians, we have so much soul searching to do as it is, given our own history. But you 80% have a major uphill battle ahead of you. For you allowed a man’s words to speak louder than his actions. 

Christian leaders, especially Franklin Graham, James Dobson, James MacDonald, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson, must answer for their clear partisan politics done in the name of non-profit status. Being a baby Christian does not excuse human indecency. And you must consider the implications of your choices. 

We must allow that old mantra to come full circle, especially if we are going to claim any faith in a God who wants to draw all people to himself. 

I conclude with the words of a new song. 

I met a man from Nazareth,       who called himself Jesus.             But since he was from PA,                  I knew they weren’t the same.  Just because you claim a name, don’t mean that’s who you are. There’s a Paris, Texas.                   And an Eden, Caroline.                 I’ve spent some time in Vegas,   But never crossed Nevada lines. Just because you claim a name, don’t mean you are that one. 

Call it good, bad, or evil,                    a rose is still a rose.                    These stems, thorns, and petals still warm a lover’s heart.            Call them anything you want,    they are just what they are.    These stems, thorns, and petals still warm a lover’s heart. 

Preacher man opened The Book,  And screamed about his God.        He looked for some souls to save, But barred them at the gate.            Just because you claim a name,     Don’t mean you represent.              There’s Benedict Arnold,                 And Judas Iscariot.                             Brutus was Caesar’s friend,               But stabbed him in the back.            Just because you claim a name,         Don’t mean you will next time. 

Call it good, bad, or evil,                     A rose is still a rose.                             These stems, thorns, and petals,        Still warm a lover’s heart.                 Call them anything you want,              They are just what they are.                These stems, thorns, and petals,         Still warm a lover’s heart. 

Actions speak louder than words,   Or have you never heard?              You can speak in angels’ tongues,    But beat your brother numb.          Just because you claim The Name,  Don’t mean you love his world.     There’s no shortage of evil,               And wickedness abounds.                 But the worst kind of sinners,          Were born and raised in church.     Just because you claim a name,      Don’t mean you really are. 

Call it good, bad, or evil,                     A rose is still a rose.                          These stems, thorns, and petals,        Still warm a lover’s heart.                 Call them anything you want, they are just what they are.                    These stems, thorns, and petals,       Still warm a lover’s heart. 

I met a man from Nazareth,             Who called himself Jesus.                  But since he was from PA,                 I knew they weren’t the same.