• What Jesus and Paul Left Out

    Let’s do some bible study, shall we? I look to do that sort of thing around here, donchano. Today I want to show you something kind of amazing about how both Jesus and Paul used scripture. And if we’re honest, it doesn’t fit with either liberal or conservative preferences for how to use scripture.

    First, let’s look at these quotes from the Old Testament:

    The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
        because the Lord has anointed me
        to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
        to proclaim freedom for the captives
        and release from darkness for the prisoners,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
        and the day of vengeance of our God.

    ~ Isaiah 61:1-2

    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
        for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
        and make atonement for his land and people.

    ~Deuteronomy 32:43

    Continue reading

  • On Poverty and Doing All Things

    Today Ben Irwin gives us a closer look at two frequently quoted bible verses:

    “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13, New Revised Standard Version)

    . . . For some, “I can do all things” means scoring touchdowns and clearing the bases. But that’s not exactly what Paul had in mind. Paul was sharing that he’d learned to be content no matter what his circumstances – rich or poor, hungry or well fed, in prison or out. What Paul was saying is not so much “I can achieve anything,” but “I can endure anything” – which, in his case, included prison.

    “You will always have the poor among you . . .” (Matthew 26:11, New Living Translation)

    It may not be one of the most popular Bible verses, but this is one of the more frequently misunderstood. As a kid growing up in church, I sometimes heard this text used put down other people’s efforts to fight poverty. There’s always going to be poor people. Jesus said as much. So why fight it? Except the context of this verse suggests a rather different picture. Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 15, which commanded Israel to cancel everyone’s debts every seven years. “There need be no poor people among you,” the writer insisted, “if only you fully obey.” . . . Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15 when he explains why it was okay for a woman to anoint him with expensive perfume shortly before his death, rather than sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. Mark’s gospel offers an extended version of Jesus’ line: “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Maybe we’d be better off focusing on the latter part of Jesus’ statement.

    This comes from an article titled Five Bible Verses You Need to Stop Misusing.

  • Driving Out Demons

    I don’t think I’ve mentioned recently how awesome (pastor, teacher, author) John Ortberg is. Or that I got to hear him teach fairly often during my brief stint at Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. He was my favorite and I learned so much from him. Unfortunately, I have since forgotten the joke he used to tell about Norwegian girls and chest hair. But it was really funny. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask about it so I can share it with you, k?

    Anyhow, today’s exegesis is by John Ortbrg from his book Who Is This Man? It’s on Mark 5 where Jesus casts the legion of demons out of a wild man:

    “One day Jesus drops a bomb. It’s early in his ministry, things are going well, and he has drawn a crowd so large that he must teach from a boat in a lake so all can hear. That evening he says to his disciples, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

    That’s the bomb. The “other side” is something of a technical term. Jesus is not talking just about geography. The other side of the lake was the region of Decapolis, the “ten cities.” This was largely enemy territory. Its inhabitants were pagan people. . .

    The Jews regarded the other side as the place where Satan lived. It was dark, evil, oppressive, and demonic. No one would go to the other side—especially no rabbi. . .

    Decapolis was also a center of Roman power in Jesus’ time. It housed a legion of six thousand Roman soldiers. The symbol of a Roman legion was a boar’s head. Jesus casually suggested one day, “Let’s go over to the other side.”

    What was he doing? Didn’t he know that the kingdom is for our side? It’s almost as if he didn’t know that this is the other side. It’s almost as if he thought it’s his side. It’s almost as if he thought every side belonged to him, or that he belonged to every side. It’s almost as if he thought that all the peoples of the earth were now going to be blessed through him —even the seven nations of Canaan.

    Continue reading

  • Exegesis and Why Noah Isn’t a Jewish Hero

    So . . . heard any good exegesis lately? What’s an exegesis, you ask? (Or maybe you don’t ask. Too bad. I’m going to tell you anyways.) Exegesis is simply the practice of explaining a section of text from the bible. So, a lot of sermons include exegesis because they start with the text and then offer an explanation as to their meaning.

    A good exegesis is a thing to make the heart sing. My favorite are the ones that show you something in the text you never noticed or understood before. Typically these explanations draw on what the preacher knows about the history, the cultures involved, the language and nuances which aren’t clear in translation, other Christian’s interpretations, the text’s relationship with other texts. It should also be spiritually astute. And it should always be humble enough to offer a possible way to read the text, not the only possible way. That’s not asking much, now is it?

    I’m not sure that the wider public really appreciates what it takes to teach (or explain or exegete) scripture well. But even a two bit preacher with no education and terrible theology has devoted more time to studying scripture than the average person has ever devoted to any idea in their life. Obviously, this is no barrier to preaching some really stupid, dull and idiotic stuff from the pulpit. But we’re all merely human. We’ll have to trust that God can get it all sorted out eventually.

    One of the things I’m going to start doing is passing along clips of really good exegesis that I come across. Because I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you’ll like them as much as I do. Because we’re geeky like that. No, actually because they’re really good. And if you have to be geeky to see that, so be it.

    Anyhow, I’ll just start with the insight of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the role, character of and errors of Noah in the bible (it’s not your typical exegesis, I suppose. But close enough):

    the principal distinction between Noah on one hand and Moses and Abraham on the other is that Noah accepts God’s judgement. . .

    Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. Continue reading

  • The Kingdom of God = Love?

    What if when we read the bible, we substitute the word “Love” for “the Kingdom”,”the Kingdom of God”? What if what Jesus was telling us is “Love is like this” and “Love acts like that”?

    Considered this way, all those parables Jesus told about “the Kingdom of God is like . . . ” take on a different hue.

  • Job’s Wife

    Well, it happened again. OK, it actually happens nearly every time someone decides to write about the book of Job. Inevitably they take a swipe at Job’s wife for telling Job to “curse God and die”. She’s unfaithful. She’s unhelpful. She’s a tool of the devil, tempting Job to blaspheme. Bad, bad Job’s wife.

    Actually, not bad, bad Job’s wife. Bad, bad us. Seriously. All those dead children? She had carried, birthed and fed them with her body. Job’s lost wealth? That was her wealth as well. Job’s position in the community was her position as well.

    How in the world do we look at a woman who has lost all of her children, her household, her security and standing and condemn her for telling her sick, oozing husband that it would probably be best if he just cursed God and died? What kind of monsters are we?

    I know she’s just a character in a very old story. But still. Can we all agree not to take potshots at Job’s wife anymore?

    BTW, a couple of years ago, I took another look at the book of Job and came to some surprising conclusions about it. If you have any interest in the subject, you can find the series here. Don’t worry, I skipped over the boring parts. ;)

  • Your Goodness Isn’t Filthy Rags

    If there’s one word which describes my experience of 2014 so far, it’s “inadequate”. I have felt utterly inadequate to the challenges of my life. Whatever good I can and have done has been wholly inadequate. In fact, this feeling has been so strong that I have frequently found myself battling a sense that anything I do or try to do is pointless.

    And into this jolly state of affairs, a few little church mice come whispering in my ear, “it’s all filthy rags. Whatever you do is no more than filthy rags.” Which just makes it all seem even more pointless. If everything I do is as worthless as a pile of dirty rags, then life is hopeless. Maybe I’ll have better luck in the afterlife.

    Except that’s just not true. Which is why this post from Derek Leman is an important corrective to the all too common notion that God regards all our efforts and good works as filth:

    Isaiah 64:6 is not a divine dismissal of the rightness of loving deeds; it is a prayer of complaint by the people about how they feel overlooked by God. . . In the voice of complaint, the believers are saying, “Where are you, God? It’s like our words and actions of love and faithfulness for you are filthy rags!”

    It turns out that this idea that our deeds are worthless, disgusting even, does not come from God. Instead, it’s the perspective of people who are worn out and tired from waiting and suffering who fear that God has rejected them. This passage isn’t a condemnation of our good works and efforts, but a very human cry many of us can relate to.


    Is this what God actually thinks of their deeds?

    Not at all. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. That is God’s counsel from Isaiah 1:16. The righteous will not labor in vain. They will be blessed by the Lord. Their prayers will be so powerful, God will answer them before they speak them (Isa 65:23-24). God does not despise the good deeds of his people. He teaches us to do them. It is good to pray, to visit the sick, to provide justice for the widow and orphan. These things God does not despise. They are not filthy rags, according to the Bible.

    And at the center of human beings is not corruption, but purity and holiness. It is the image of God. It is who we truly are. The corruption is not at the center, but is a veil of darkness refusing to let out who we really are. We are not evil beings pretending to be good, but good people fallen from our true selves finding in God and Messiah the path back to our pre-ordained glory as his sons and daughters.

    What we need to hear when life is hard isn’t the human perspective which says that what we do is pointless or worse than nothing. What we need to hear is God’s perspective which views us as beloved image bearers whose goodness is precious to him.


  • Adam-naming-animals-by-Theophanes-at-Meteora-04

    Who’s In Charge Around Here Anyhow?

    If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you are well aware that I have a bit of an obsession with the creation stories in Genesis. (No, I don’t read them literally – I take them waaaaaaaaaay too seriously to inflict that sort of nonsense on the text which all but screams “this is a mythological telling, not a history lesson!”) If you could make money by meditating on and studying these stories, I would uber rich. But, alas, God pays in insight and wisdom, not cash. I know he says that wisdom is to be valued above rubies, but try telling that to the electric company – “here, take some wisdom. It’s worth more than that money you keep demanding!”

    Anyhow, what I want to talk about today is the first thing God ever did with Adam (read mankind). Even before there was man and woman. Even before he assigned us the job of raising food and making babies. Even before he warned not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Do you know what he did? He had man name the animals. Isn’t that amazing? Can you believe it?

    Alright, alright. Some of you just started wondering if I’ve been smoking something. The answer is yes. I had a cigarette a couple of hours ago. Don’t tell anyone.

    So the naming of the animals doesn’t seem that remarkable or amazing. Just one of those odd, throw-away details that trying to read the text as history obscures. But it’s revolutionary. It could change everything. Really. Allow I to explain.

    It’s a common narrative in Christian teachings that God is in charge of everything. Some people take it to the extreme of saying that every bridge collapse, every act of abuse, every sickness is the direct result of God, in his infinite wisdom, specifically causing that event and its results to occur. Most of us are unwilling to take it to that extreme. We punt and say that God is in charge but allows, rather than causes, terrible things to happen for mysterious reasons.

    Now, contrast that view with the very first thing God does with mankind. God doesn’t start by offering instructions, demanding obedience or demonstrating his power. Quite to the contrary. The first thing God does with man ask him to act independently, according to his own judgment. He doesn’t bring the animals to Adam and tell him what they are called. He brings the animals to Adam and has Adam tell God what they are called. Instead of God putting on a display of God’s own power, God has Adam put on a display of mankind’s power. Think about that. Isn’t that amazing? Can you believe it?

    This small, seemingly insignificant detail reveals something very important about God’s desire for us and our relationship with him. Naming has long been considered an act of power and responsibility. Far from being a God whose sovereignty demands that he maintain control over all things, we see a God who willingly and eagerly hands power and responsibility over to mankind.

    When was the last time a pastor or Christian teacher told you that God wants mankind to take hold of our own power and responsibility? Most of us have probably never heard such a thing taught. God wants us to be obedient, to submit to his will, to hand over control to him. If a Christian pastor had written Genesis, God would brought the animals to Adam, told him what their names were and given instructions for how to deal with each. And then he would have monitored the situation to make sure Adam was using the right names and following the instructions. Yet the God in scripture puts mankind in charge and doesn’t come back until he’s taking his evening stroll through the garden.

    Now, am I claiming that we don’t need to worry about being obedient to God, seeking his will, etc? Nope. Not at all. I’m going to get into that in my next blog post, in fact. But for today, this is my point: in the beginning, before it all went wrong, God’s first priority was empowering man to use his own judgment and act independently. Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, our relationship with God is redeemed, corrected, healed and restored. God’s first desire for mankind was that we be empowered, given responsibility and control. And that’s still his intention for us – that we would be empowered to use our own judgment and make our own choices. Isn’t that amazing? Doesn’t that have the potential to change everything?

    We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. ~ T.S. Elliot

  • So, the chicken needs to be about this big . . .

    John the Baptist Says to Stop Being an Arse

    Some of you will recall that I was raised Catholic. So each week at mass I would listen to a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospels. And at the end of each the person reading would intone, “The Word of the Lord” and we’d respond together in monotone: “Thanks be to God.” Because we were so excited.

    Now, I understand the intent of this little ritual and I truly do offer thanks to God for his Word. But now that I’ve actually read the bible myself, I kind of think that all of heaven must occasionally roll their eyes and guffaw at this response to scripture. Like say that day’s Old Testament reading was from 1 Samuel 6 where the Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from their neighbors and been duly smited. To set things right, they are instructed to “make models of their tumors” as well as of rats out of gold to give to the Israelites when they return the object. Can you imagine? Make models of your tumors? You cannot tell me that the Israelites didn’t laugh their asses off at being given a bunch of gold lumps cast from the Philistine king’s goiters. And we respond with the same old monotone “Thanks be to God” in such a way that makes it clear that we’ve missed the joke entirely. Once again, these stories and poems and words, so filled with beauty and passion and humor just get flattened into monotony and so lose their power. It’s kind of sad the way we do that (and no – this is hardly a Catholic problem!).

    I was thinking about this last night while reading a story about John the Baptist which really, could have come right out of a Monty Python skit:

    And the crowds were questioning [John the Baptist], saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”

    Can’t you just see it – here’s this wild-eyed crazy man out by the river and people come to ask him what they should do to be saved from the coming wrath. He leans in, maybe puts a stinky arm around the questioner and essentially says, “listen closely – stop. being. an. ASSHOLE.” Like it’s some big friggin’ secret or something. Continue reading

  • reason_faith

    Christianity and Giftedness

    When I was putting together my book The Upside Down World ~ A Book of Wisdom in Progress last summer, I went back and forth and back and forth about including an essay I had originally published here titled “How Being Gifted Means Being Different”. It was one of the most popular posts I had done. And many people had contacted me since I put it up to thank me for writing it. However, it didn’t seem to fit. The book is very grounded in my faith and the post is about being gifted. The two seem incongruent. But every time I went to take it out, there was that little tug that I’ve learned to listen to telling me to leave it be. So I did without really know why it was there. And I’m sure that those who read it wondered what it was doing there as well.

    It wasn’t until some time later that I began to understand why it was there. The fact is that the church as a whole does not do a good job of making room for or embracing those parts of the body which are smarter and more creative than the norm. We see this in those parts of the church which fiercely oppose science and will even claim that those who engage in the work of science are doing the devil’s work. It is present in those who insist that a “plain reading” of scripture is good enough and refuse to consider context, history, translation or any of the other issues which affect the way that we read and understand the text. It shows up in how churches deal with their members who produce art, literature or music. This past fall, I talked with a lot of pastors and uniformly they told me that they have a policy of not supporting the work their creative members produce. (I talked about my frustration with this practice here – The Sheeple Are Leading the Flock.)

    This animosity also floats on a the good number of verses which seem to speak critically of those who are learned or wise over those who are more simple: Continue reading