Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Why have Civil Authority?

"One fierce opponent of civil rights legislation, William F. Buckley Jr., admitted... “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” Mr. Buckley said in 2004. “I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.” quote from "Rand Paul and the Perils of Textbook Libertarianism," New York Times, May 21

The extent of the right wing Christian posturing against the government leaves me a little chagrinned. Civil authority was developed in part to stop evil doers and to protect weak. Jesus said he came, among other things, to free the oppressed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Darkness, dawn, and dustbunnies

Sunday morning. Dawn. The sun will rise in about twenty minutes. At the horizon stripes of night, light, and purple dawn rest over the water. I am away from home, about to spend a few days with strangers at a business meeting. I won’t be taking communion in person with an assembly of Christians, so I will celebrate in cyberspace.

We spend a little bit of every day in this mixture of darkness and light that comes before dawn. Nights may be restful, may be nightmarish. Daytime may surround us with comforts and blessings but night may let monsters lurk under beds, specters float overhead, intruders press at our doors. For those in war-torn, natural disaster stricken, crime ridden places—those threats are real. For some of us, those monsters, specters, and intruders are wrought by our real and perceived failures, by thoughtless and costly omissions, by the daunting nature of what’s before us.

For those of us living in peaceful, affluent North America, the rising of the sun, the coming of light, often reduces the monsters to dust bunnies, the ghosts to creaky ceiling fans, and the intruders to the ice makers dumping ice. In the light, the perceived and even most egregious real failures and omissions, the daunting nature of our tasks, don’t disappear, but they lack the superpowers they gain in the night.

For the believer, the light of Christ shines out of the darkness. He lets us see life and ourselves as we are—a mixture of success and failure, of purity and murk, of good and evil. He beacons us to follow the best of our nature and graciously forgives us for the failures. When in a community of believers, he surrounds with fellows who are willing to forgive, for they are acutely aware of the amount they have been forgiven. He listens to our anxieties and cares for us. He promises us wisdom, strength, and power for the tasks ahead of us. His provides a palpable presence in our hearts and bodies as we walk and work through our days.

In communion we remember the death of Christ, his resurrection, and we proclaim that we believe he will come again. This celebration brings together the darkest of nights, the most brilliant of mornings, and the most colorful vision of future life. Though it reminds us of the real scope and reach of our failures, the commemoration reminds us to repent, to make restoration, to move forward with courage and boldness, as a people filled with great hope.

The sun is up. The light calls.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The vicissitudes of pollen and Prague

The vicissitudes of pollen and Prague was written shortly after spring break, 2005.

My hairstylist's appointment book won't budge until after the big dinner. Twenty essays demand grading. Driving to school, my hair at the miserable can't do a thing-with-it-until-its-cut stage; I glance down noting the floor mats need vacuuming. The brake fluid light shines red and the low coolant light beams yellow. Yellow pollen covers the car. The windshield wipers, sans fluid, turn the dust into yellow granular slimes. As I pull out a quick glance at my mailbox garden reminds me that the mulching is undone and the snapdragons await planting.

Thoughts turn to home and five loads of laundry awaiting sorting, suds, drying, and worst yet--putting away. Thankfully the Christmas tree is down and put away, but weeks after Easter the fancy eggs from Prague still need nestling in their storage box. Problem is, getting that storage box out would mean opening the pantry which would remind me of the need for grocery shopping and restocking. Restocking the pantry will remind me again, that my husband and son are vegetarians and that I just don't have a good rhythm for meal planning yet. So, it's been three years. My pre-vegetarian meal planning rhythm wasn't all that great either.

Thinking of the stack of unread news, home decorating, and church leadership magazines irks me momentarily until I refocus on the irksomeness of the driver in front of me who seems to think blinkers are for ordinary people. I hope that a few minutes of NPR will help me focus on something more than the cruel vicissitudes of appointment books, pollen, and unread articles. Just my luck. It's pledge drive week.

How much more could go wrong?

Now it's nighttime. I stop working on my classes about 10:30 p.m. and contemplate a couple of pictures my husband Ken and I took on our recent trip to the Czech Republic.

First, Wenceslas Square. Home of the Prague Spring, 1968. Few folks can forget the thrill of seeing thousands of Czechs gathering there expressing their desire for freedom. Few can forget when Soviet tanks and troops crushed the nascent democratic movement.

I see the picture we took of a little wrought iron plant holder mounted on a tile on a building close to the square. I asked Ken to take the picture because I thought the plants were cheery and the wrought iron holder clever. Stepping closer, I saw some writing on the tile. Our friend, Eddie White, read the Czech inscription explaining that it is a memorial to a 50 year-old woman who was shot and killed at that spot in 1968.

Someone, perhaps her grandchildren, placed the color plants.

What luxury--no, what grace--to experience appointment books, pollen, unread magazines, and ungraded essays as the vicissitudes of life.

Posted by Beverly Choate Dowdy at Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Seven-Continually Questioning

I am a person of faith. But faith is just that--it implies confidence in the unseen. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is part of my heart, my mind, probably my DNA in a way, because I have walked in that way of faith all of my life--but it is still the unseen.

Yaweh, scripture says, is the Creator of heaven and earth with authority to ask for committment from his creatures. How does that claim reconcile with what we do see-the natural world as observed by modern science?

Francis Collins, the leader of the international Human Genome Project worked for over ten years to uncover the DNA sequence, all of the DNA of our species—the hereditary code of life. In his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, he writes about his discovery of the human genome in tandem with a discussion of his coming to faith in God. This book is a great read for someone in an earnest quest for faith wrestling with questions relating to science and faith. I appreciate this statement from his book,

“To examine the complexity of life and our own origins on this planet, we must dig deep into the fascinating revelations about the nature of living things wrought by the current revolution in paleontology, molecular biology, and genomics. A believer need not fear that this investigation will dethrone the divine; if God is truly Almighty, He will hardly be threatened by our puny efforts to understand the workings of His natural world. And as seekers, we may well discover from science many interesting answers to the question “How does life work?” What we cannot discover, through science alone, are the answers to the questions, “Why is there life anyway?” and “Why am I here?”

The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, by Francis S. Collins, Free Press, New York, 2006
Sell your shirt and buy it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Six: Awesome, Irksome Exodus

A 21st Century American suburbanite examines ancient mayhem and majesty...

If this is the first time you have checked this blog lately--let me explain what I am doing. I am reading through the Bible this year using the plan posted on the upper right hand of the blog. Once a week I am posting a set of reactions to at least one section of reading.

This week, I have concentrated my writing on Exodus.

Chapter 18
Jethro, father-in-law to Moses, an ancient Peter Drucker or Stephen Covey, gives leadership advice to Moses, who empowers his appointees to handle disputes, bringing only the most difficult to him. Moses, receives recognition for listening to his father-in-law.

Chapter 19

The Lord wants the Israelites, the house of Jacob, to recognize how he has borne them “on eagle’s wings” to himself. God considers all of the earth his possession, but he treasures the idea that the Israelites will be a priestly kingdom. He wasn’t singling out the people of Israel for their own benefit, though he was pleased to give them blessings—but he was doing all of this to make them bridge the gap between men and God. It was once explained to me like this—in a world rife with violence and worship of many types, God intended through Israel to shape a nation that would bring Christ. These creatures of God, newly redeemed from slavery were given the law to create out of the ethical chaos of the ancient world a community to bring light to the world.

Chapter 20

I told my son, Chris, our family ethicist and theologian, that I can see much of the law given on Sinai as wonderful.

The Big Ten

First of all, the same force that brought these thousands of slaves freedom from the most powerful empire on the earth, demands unrivaled devotion from the people.

Secondly, for all the treeness of Genesis and the emphasis on the giving of the land, this God makes it very clear that there would be no veneration of things earthy or animal-like. I read a thoughtful discussion of this perspective in Christopher J.H. Wright’s Walking the Ways of the LORD. There is not a kind of New Age, Jungian kind of attachment to the earth, or the veneration of trees, animals, moon, sun, stars, or other objects called upon by some religions. For the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the land is the place upon which the LORD does his acts of grace and love. It is the God himself, the Creator of all things who demands worship. He delivered the children of Israel in order to prepare a nation to be priestly to the entire world. He gave them a land, upon which they could become a nation, acting out his will. He gives them sun by day, the moon by night for sustenance and guidance. He is giving them this law to help shape a community that can model what a just God would want from his people. So to make an object of veneration offends this God who loves his creatures, delivers them, and provides for them.

Third,, the LORD is personal and relational, and finds it offensive to ignore or misuse him in anyway—so the language and life lived before him should in no way mock or make light of his godness, his creative power, his redemptive actions, his provision and care. Perhaps because there were so many objects of worship in the world at the time, the LORD wants to be clearly understood, and he wants his name to be known precisely for what he truly is—creator, sustainer, redeemer, protector, and not anything less than the most powerful force in the universe. For this name is to be honored—not trivialized or trifled with—by poor conduct or any kind of scornful talk.

Next, the Sabbath, with its guarantee of rest for all—wives, children, servants, animals, even resident aliens—according to Wright, is much more than simply a way to catch up on rest and to worship. Because it is a command to be applied across all of society, it is a significant factor in establishing social justice and protection for all. This could inspire even the peripatetic citizens of modern Atlanta. There are few among us who take an entire day to devote to worship, family, and respecting the needs of all. I would also like to note that for all of the anti-alien sentiment around, we probably should take note that in the most basic moral code given by the God most modern Atlantans call God, he demands equal protection for aliens. Further, the reading of Exodus demands that the people of Israel always care for the alien remembering that they themselves were once aliens and strangers in a strange land—and God took care of them.

Fifth, having children give honor—care, respect, protection—to their parents—thus preserving the life of the elderly and modeling this for the next generation would certainly lead to long life for people in such a society. I do not think this command means you have to do every little thing your parents ever want you to do, no matter what your age. It is a construct to give to families permanence and protection for each generation.

The first few of the Ten Commandments are not difficult to understand. The next few—you shall not murder, steal, bear false witness, commit adultery, or covet can clearly be comprehended by our 2010 minds. There is certainly much to consider about these commandments, but let’s skip them for now and go past them to the next level of laws given by Moses.

A cursory look at the conditions of slavery mentioned in the laws given after the Big Ten make all of the so-called Biblical justifications of the slavery sounded a century or so earlier by Americans a sham. At least in Exodus it was more like indentured servant hood with protections for the slave and eventual freedom.

Many of the laws given—the what to do if someone does such and such to you—have been explained to me in a helpful way—they were given to LIMIT retribution for wrongs done by one to another. In other words, if someone gouges out your eye—you don’t get to KILL them—your retribution is limited to a consequence commiserate to loss you have sustained. Not a pretty consequence—but in a lawless society—a limit to violence.

On the other hand

I told my son, Chris, our family ethicist and theologian, that I can see much of the law given on Sinai as downright disturbing.

For a middle class American woman in the 21st Century, some of the commands given after the Decalogue seem brutal.

For example, although dealing with a recalcitrant child can be frustrating, the idea that a child who curses his parents should be killed is frightening. There a few times when I was growing up that my mom did refer to this practice. She suggested I should feel lucky to have the limited consequences I experienced when being a bit sassy.

Joking aside, the idea of a parent killing a rebellious child is barbaric.

On the other hand, I knew a family with a minor child so violent that he made their life a curse. The parents would literally lock their bedroom doors at night, and sometimes take turns staying awake, in fear of the child. The child did things like vivisect animals. In our society we might call the police to protect us from such a nightmare. Was this command a civil response to the violent, dangerous child—perhaps even an adult child?

Reading through these laws shows some that seem to have a reasonable, perhaps contemporary equivalent and others that seem beyond the pale. I wonder what I should make of these.There is a theme in the scripture that the Law is "holy, just, and good." Some of these does not seem so good if applied to my world.

I ask--can we love, obey, or understand this God by simply reading this text?

Chris to the rescue

Chris, family ethicist and theologian, helped with this crisis of consideration by reminding me that in the practice of Judaism, through the ages, discussions about the meanings of these laws are documented by volumes of points, counter-points, arguments, applications, arguments, and counterpoints. Great rabbinical conversations have pursued these topics and have often left exactly what a contemporary should do with certain laws open to disagreement. It is only in the last few hundred years or so that people have been persuaded that each thing must be examined scientifically and either proven or disproven for veracity and possible application. He got me to thinking that is okay to be quizzical about many points of the law.

Christopher J.H. Wright has also given me some help in reckoning these laws to my life in God today. He gives the idea that we might look for the broad principles of justice built into these laws as a paradigm for our conduct today. A good example is the Sabbath—we may or may not be compelled as modern Christians to observe the Sabbath in the exact way of the Israelites, but we may indeed understand and act upon that significant reality that all in society need time to rest, to worship, to devote to their family. As we exercise influence or power in our world, we would make such provisions for all—regardless of their status in society--to workers, to aliens, and even to animals. Sounds very contemporary. Even challenging.

The Rest of the Story

Much can be said about the rest of the book--including the tabernacle story. I summarize Exodus like this: Exodus exposes his covenant family, the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in a world of violence, political confusion, and human uncertainty.Exodus details the sentinel story of the rescue, redemption of the people of Israel--the escape from slavery in Egypt, the passage across the Red Sea on dry land, the destruction of the Egyptian Army and the journey the promised land. Exodus shows the LORD providing basic needs, giving guidance, structure, and a place of beauty for worship.

Here's a Bev paraphrase of several of the laws in Exodus:

When you buy a slave—set him free after six years with no debt.
If a slave comes married; the slave leaves married.

If the master gives him a wife; he goes and the wife and children stay. If he wants to stay with his family—he can become a slave for life.

When you marry off your daughter--If the man takes a second wife—he must still give the first wife food, clothing, and sex. If he does not—she can leave him debt free.

If you kill someone by striking them—you may be put to death. If the death is not premediated, God will provide a sanctuary. Premeditation is the factor that gets the death penalty.

Whomever strikes mother or father—will be put to death.

If one strikes someone and the person recovers—the assailant must pay for time lost and for medical care.

If some strikes a pregnant woman and she miscarries—the assailant must pay what the husband requires—an amount approved by a judge.

Other losses are to be recompensed in a manner limited in direct relation to the loss—eye for eye; tooth for tooth.

Maiming a slave in any way demands the slave be set free with no debt.

Ox gores should not be repeated upon pain of death for the ox and the owner.

Pits devouring others animals will result in a lawsuit.

Repeated ox gores are trouble for the owner of the ox.

You can’t kill an intruder in the daylight without being guilty for their blood. Breaking and entering is NOT a capital crime.

Arsonists shall make full restitution.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

If you lend to the poor, you should not charge them interest.

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in Egypt.

A significant part of your wealth over the years should be managed so that the poor may share in it. You should manage your fields so that the wild animals will be able eat as well.

An important part of the Sabbath is the opportunity not just for you to rest, but for your servants and animals to rest. Included in this day of rest are the resident aliens who need to be refreshed as well.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Five-Proverbs

Paraphrase of Proverbs 3...
If you want to know the divine,
if you want to see God,
if you long to understand this world and your own life,
shout it.

Shout it the way you may shout curses when frustrated. You may at times call out for God to condemn whatever you hate or find frustrating-from the trivial to the catastrophic. You say oh my God in response to the trivial and the catastrophic. Why don’t you cry out--oh my God--reveal real meaning in life to me. Give me insight! Help me understand nature, understand others, understand myself. Help me understand why live goes the way it goes.

Say it aloud, the way you may usually wage your curses and complaints.

You work day and night to possess houses and cars and clothes and status. Put that type of effort into the pursuit of God. You may examine consumer guides, search the internet, interview friends and strangers looking for the best of everything from toasters, to colleges, to doctors, to car deals. You seek these treasures with intelligence and passion. Seek for understanding of God and the life he desires for us with that kind of passion and intellectual commitment and you will find yourself holding unimaginable, indestructible possessions.

Give to the LORD before you do anything else with your money. Those who are thoughtful in this way with their money—who purpose and plan and are generous to others—will often be observed to have plenty.

Being shaped by good principles; understanding the consequences of good and bad behavior makes you into a person of strength in character. This is the nature of God’s discipline—not punishment and vengeance against your weaknesses, but a kind of loving teaching—the way a good parent teaches a child. A parent doesn’t fail to correct and lead a child deeply loved, but will provide the child with guidance and boundaries—yielding a wise and productive life for the child and joy to the parent.

Wisdom is better than wealth. It may not seem that way, but you know you may possess great wealth but lack happiness and peace.

The LORD’s wisdom—intelligence, creativity, power, and order— expresses itself in creation—in the skies, in the rain, in the sea, in the morning dew. Don’t fail to see this—this insight will emanate from within, will be displayed as fine jewelry around your neck; it will give confidence to your steps, and keep you from tripping up on the road of life.

What may happen in your life if you pursue the wisdom that comes for the LORD? When you are in a quiet place sitting, sans TV, IPod, and conversation of others—you will not be anxious but can calmly reflect. When you are in bed—you will sleep with the sweetness that you are in good stead with others and with God—because your actions and words have been laced with wisdom. You may not feel the same kind of panic others feel when things go wrong, because your heart and mind have been at one accord with the Creator and with ethical and spiritual guidance he affords.

How might this accumulation of wisdom be played out in your conduct? Do not fail to pay back those who have loaned money to you when you are capable of paying. Be certain to give to others promptly when you have the means to provide something they need. Honor the trust of your neighbors; never knowingly harm them in any way. Don’t pick fights with others—especially when someone has done no harm to you. Don’t wistfully look at thugs, gang members, or others who use violence to gain power and do not imitate them on any level—in spite of the wealth they accumulate. Remember the use of violence, quarrelsomeness, and greed in any form is a perversion of God’s great desire for his people. When you walk in fiscal responsibility, in honesty, in peace, doing kindness to your neighbors, you walk in the ways of LORD and will sense that he is speaking his wise insight into your life.

In the big picture of life, where wickedness abides so does the curse of the LORD and where there is this kind of upright living—the blessings of the LORD become part of daily existence.

If you are in the frame of mind in which you scorn the LORD—you may experience the negativity, cynicism, and cruelty often born of scorn. He favors humility over sarcasm and cynicism. Stubborn, foolish ways—that ignore his presence in nature and ignore his ethical path may find its followers experiencing disgrace. Building your life in recognition of the LORD’s ways establishes a kind wealth that outlasts calamity and allows you to pass on the true wealth of an honorable life to the next generation.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Reading for Revival Weak

Reading for Revival Week Five

How about weak five? The last several days find me weak from frustrations unrelated to reading. There is the temptation to let this slip—which I will not do. I will not do it because some friends and my very sweet mom are keeping up with the readings. Accountability helps.

It reminds me of when I ran with Jo Kite in the mornings in York, Nebraska. I told her I would be out there to run at 6:00 AM at 25 degrees. I could not skip out.

When it comes to reading the Bible—I have long thought it is not that we have the obligation or rule that we should read regularly—to fail to read and study is living below our privilege.

I take it for granted that I have the faculties to read and study. I take it for granted that I have many copies and versions of the text at my fingertips. I take it for granted that I have the freedom of religion. I take for granted the awesome nature of the kingdom of God.

From The Message, Matthew 13

Why Tell Stories?

The disciples came up and asked, "Why do you tell stories?"

He replied, "You've been given insight into God's kingdom. You know how it works. Not everybody has this gift, this insight; it hasn't been given to them. Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they're blue in the face and not get it. I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don't hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won't have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won't have to look,
so they won't have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

"But you have God-blessed eyes—eyes that see! And God-blessed ears—ears that hear! A lot of people, prophets and humble believers among them, would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but never had the chance. Matthew 13:11-17

I want to embrace my chance.

Peter said in his first letter:
The prophets who told us this was coming asked a lot of questions about this gift of life God was preparing. The Messiah's Spirit let them in on some of it—that the Messiah would experience suffering, followed by glory. They clamored to know who and when. All they were told was that they were serving you, you who by orders from heaven have now heard for yourselves—through the Holy Spirit—the Message of those prophecies fulfilled. Do you realize how fortunate you are? Angels would have given anything to be in on this.”
I Peter 1:10-11

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Psalm 20

Plans, pleas, and victory

May the LORD answer you in the day of trouble! The name of the God of Jacob, protect you! May he send you help from the sanctuary, and give you support from Zion...May he grant you your heart's desire and fulfill all your plans.

May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of God set up our banners...Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the LORD our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright.

Give victory to the king, O LORD; answer us when we call."
From Psalm 20

In the beginning of Exodus, God repeatedly says he heard the groaning of his people and remembered the covenant he made with them. He begins to put Moses into action to take the people to the land he promised them.

My mom, Emma Jo Choate, prayer warrior extraordinaire, tells a story of a woman who called into a phone line at Van Dyke Church of Christ years ago. The woman asked for the church to pray over a concern and then said, "I will call back with the victory."

Since then, mom frequently says when there is a prayer request, “I will pray. You call back with the victory.”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sodom Still Simmering

Another thought provoking response on the Sodom and Gomorrah blog. A friend from Mississippi writes:

Your comments on the Sodom narrative in Genesis reminds me of the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

"Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy." (16:49)

It amazes me when I look around at our society and see that we, too, are so self-oriented that it is acceptable to seek one's own personal satisfaction instead of being called to uphold and respect the basic human dignity of others who were created in just as much of the image of God as we were. There really is no limit to what we will allow ourselves to do for personal pleasure and satisfaction.

The more I study, the more firmly convinced I become that the sin of Sodom was that they were able to look at their fellow man (and woman) and see them as objects, not brothers and sisters. It makes me wonder, how far off are we?

The outpouring to Haiti has been touching. We can be so generous when we get the picture of the extent of suffering. We can be calloused to suffering of others closer to us--the day to day struggles of the working poor, for example.The comment by a South Carolina politician recently about children who get free and reduced lunch stung because the tone of the remark reduced them to less than human. Metaphors matter when leaders speak and teach. If he had spoken in a kind tone regarding the challenges of cultivating dependency, the offense would not have been so great. Contempt for the poor violates the Spirit of Scripture.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Four--The Process

For my friends who have been corresponding with me—I did find a printable listing of the scriptures for each day on a website: www.OneYearBibleBlog.com

So, Week Four will find us in beginning in Exodus, and continuing in Matthew, Psalms, and Proverbs.

I glanced at the website which has lots of material each day. I have not yet even determined who puts it together, but I will be examining it from time to time for inspiration. Keeping up with the reading and finding some outside reflections on these subjects keeps me pretty busy. How about you?

I think it is good for me to stick to reading all week and posting on the weekend. I think short posts may be more readable than one long one.

I have been thinking so much about Genesis, although I have been doing the other readings, I haven’t had time to comment much on Matthew, Psalms, and Proverbs. If you are doing the readings and have something to share—questions, comments, even prayers, let me know. I’ll post your observations, too.

Themes I have been conscious of—you may have noted—are gender issues and general interpretative questions. As I read this week, I am looking out for ways God showed love and grace to the rascally people in these stories. I am also going to be doing some outside reading on the covenant to Abraham and want to write a bit more about that—because I think the love of God and the covenants made with man are the underlying messages to you and me.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Lessons for Little Ones?

Why are these stories in here? Are they for me to follow? Are they for me to formulate moral positions? Are they there to explain how things work in the world?

Are these early stories really lessons for little ones?

Jacob and Rebekah could be stars in a soap opera. A modern re-do of their story could rival Destiny, that lawyer series starring Glen Close.

Jacob stole from his brother; his brother did not kill him; he was blessed.
Jacob wrestled with God; God did not kill him; he was blessed.
Afterwards, Jacob was generous to his brother; his brother did not kill him; he was blessed.

He was one of the least deserving guys to receive such blessings.

That might be a lesson for us. We may wrestle with God. We may wrong others. We may, in spite of ourselves, be blessed.

Joseph’s saga shows that there are no new sins under the sun. Partiality and extreme sibling rivalry. Child trafficking and slavery. Neglectful, vengeful, and exploitative family members and dens of thugs. Rich urban women—like Potiphar's wife—can take their turn at being exploitative and deceitful—not just leaving it to hunting and gathering nomadic types like Eve and Rebekah.

Yet, Joseph inspires with the possibility that even the exploited, and the neglected, by the grace of God, can rise above circumstances and shine like stars in dark places.

That is a powerful story for children.

Some general reflections...

If you simply start reading Genesis, with no preconceived notions—nearly impossible—but if you try—you don’t see any descriptions of God that we give to him based on later passages of Scripture. You do not see the terms omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. Theologians, though I find them very helpful, can sometimes function outside the narrative of scripture in assigning God traits. Many works of popular devotional literature call God these things, creatng systems for interpreting his actions that are certainly not laid out in Genesis. I am thinking in particular of the view of God's sovereignty that says he is completely unchanging, controls all actions of men, and that every particular thing that happens is His specific will.

These stories hold some problems for that view, I think.

The God of Genesis seems to be so far, a God creating, relating, contemplating, urging, bargaining, recompensing, and revealing himself to humanity.

If I understand Christopher JH Wright, the main take-away from these stories should be the actions of God in granting grace. Creating a beautiful Garden in which to live, with no initial effort for man. Granting Abraham wealth and promise, based not on his actions, but on his belief. His continued blessings on this flawed, but fascinating family, including Jacob and his sons. A study human nature and interacting with the divine. Agree?

Sodom and Gomorrah

In the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative, homosexuality is undeniably part of the story.

Were pervasive same-sex relations the reason for the destruction of the cities? Pardon my frankness, but this is what I am wondering—is the willingness to rape the visitors the outcome of homosexuality or is the homosexual rape part of a culture of all kinds of lust and brute violence? I am thinking of prison rape. Is it a function of homosexuality or is it a function of brute violence and lust?

I am asking because this story is used to condemn homosexuality today. Is that what this story is about? Is this an admonition to those who claim same-sex attraction and love?

Are the other stories in these chapters admonitions about personal moral conduct? How is this to interpreted in the context of all the other goings on?

God, Grace, and Faith

God made a promise to Abraham. Then, Abraham moved his family around. He offered his wife to rulers for as a concubine. He slept with his wife’s servant. He generously shared property and wealth with his nephew. He acquired enormous wealth. He routed tribes in short wars. He participated in bloody sacrificial rituals. He bargained with God. He nearly killed his own son. He gave a tithe to a mysterious, to me, priest, Melchezidek.

Abraham heard the voice of God and moved in the direction God asked of him. Abraham, sensitive to a number of divine directives, was deemed as right before God not for the sum of his deeds, but for his faith.

God’s promises to him seemed improbable if not impossible, and he certainly did not see in his life the totality of their fulfillment. The part he did see—the birth and life of Isaac—had to produce an increase of faith. I wonder how he processed all this in the middle of the night when he woke up and thought about Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, Ishmael, and the promise?

The fact that he was father two sons from whom came great nations fascinates me. The father of Islam; the father of the Israel; and we who are Christians are adopted as his offspring.

Reading for Revival Week Three-The God Gene?

God creates, relates, reveals...
How was Cain supposed to know God would reject his sacrifice?

In the flood narrative—it says that the people were evil. I wonder if they knew they were evil?

How did people know God?
How did they know, after the fall, what he expected of them?

The text doesn't reveal moral law being laid out for them.

Romans says that creation itself speaks of God.

Romans 2:14-15 states,
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

Is this a function of the God gene? Is it the evidence of God?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Three-Selections

January 17
Genesis 35:1-36:43
Matthew 12:1-21
Psalm 15:1-5
Proverbs 3:21-26

January 18
Genesis 37:1-38:30
Matthew 12:22-45
Psalm 16:1-11
Proverbs 3:27-32

January 19
Genesis 39:1-41:16
Matthew 12:46-13:23
Psalm 17:1-15
Proverbs 3:33-35

January 20
Genesis 41:17-42:17
Matthew 13:24-46
Psalm 18:1-15
Proverbs 4:1-6

January 21
Genesis 42:18-43:34
Matthew 13:47-14:12
Psalm 18:16-36
Proverbs 4:7-10

January 22
Genesis 44:1-45:28
Matthew 14:13-36
Psalm 18:37-50
Proverbs 4:11-13

January 23

Genesis 46:1-47:31
Matthew 15:1-28
Psalm 19:1-14
Proverbs 4:14-19

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Isaac, Abraham--tell me why

I cannot think of a more troubling story told to me in my youth, with as little explanation or meaning, as the sacrifice---near sacrifice--of Isaac. Finally, I read an argument that one of the functions of this drama was to convey to Yaweh’s people that Yaweh would never require a child sacrifice, as was common in the era.

In the conclusion of this narrative, as you recall, God provided the ram.

In our narrative as Christians, God alone provides the child sacrifice, the Jesus, the lamb.

A little sweeter possibility to pass on to explain to our little lambs as bedtime story.

Years ago, my very good friends, Janie and Jimmie Lawson, of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, introduced me to a book, An Eye for an Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today, by Christopher JHWright. No book ever gave me more delight in my understanding of the Bible. I cannot find my copy of that book right now, but I do have another one by him, Walking in the Ways of the LORD, The Ethical Authority of the Old Testament. I find them a little difficult, since I am not a formal theology student, but they have given me some theological background that helps me form a more coherent story in scripture.

It’s easier to read the Old Testament with some guidance. Christopher JH Wright is a protegee of the John RW Stott, the venerated Anglican leader.

Revival Reading Rated R

The Flood-Under 17 not admitted--sexuality, violence, some nudity
This sounds more like a Greek or Roman story of divine beings and humans interacting than I remembered reading. It makes me wonder about divine and human connections, about the realm of invisible spiritual warfare. Check out this from Genesis 6

1 When the people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2 the sons of God saw that they were fair, and they took wives for themselves of all they chose. 3 Then the LORD said, "My Spirit will not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days will be a hundred and twenty years."
4 The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. They were the heroes of that were of old, warriors of renown.”

So picture, the Nephilim, reportedly a population of giants from this primeval period, cavorting with the offspring of the sons of God and the daughters of the earth, these warriors of renown. Whatever this is about, obviously God was not very happy with the carrying on and as a consequence put an end the era of five, six, seven hundred year-old people.

Imagine the market for plastic surgery in those days.

Eventually, semi-divine hanky panky combined with the total depraved conduct of the population of the fallen world, provoked God to plan destruction upon them all.

When I was a child I don’t remember really liking the flood story much, but I don’t remember being terrified by it. I think because there was a lot more emphasis on how cool the ark was with the gopher wood, pitch, and all the animals. I did not like the idea of the folks drowning, but I think I pictured it like folks were knocking on the door wanting in and getting turned away. I never thought of the wrenching fear and utter destruction of this event. I don’t think I ever reflected on in meaningful way until the tsunami of 2004 and the destruction of the shore Bande Aceh, Indonesia.

I cannot really imagine what they found on the earth when the waters receded. Horrible thought.

The pervasive nature of the flood narrative throughout many cultures actually helps me have more faith. It doesn't necessarily make me like it much, however--not that it matters.

Further, the rather unflattering story of naked Noah and his sons makes me think the writers were more interested in conveying a story of the nature of man and God then in trying to create heroes for hearers to worship.

Any insights out there on the Nephilim and the warriors of renown?

Childbirth--Curse or Climax?

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in you will bring forth children.”

The New Oxford Annotated Bible gives a helpful comment on the above found within Genesis 3:16-19,
“Though this is often understood as a “curse” of the woman to pain in childbirth, the word “curse” is not used in these verses. Others have suggested that this text sentences the woman to endless “toil” (not pain) of reproduction, much as man is condemned in v.17-19 to endless toil in food production. The man’s rule over the woman here is a tragic reflection of the original connectedness between them.

This tops some interpretations coming down through the eons around about woman and childbirth and God. Some folks used to have a creepy view that women should not even take Lamaze classes for fear of relieving the pain God assigned to women. My sister, Deborah, gave me The Joy of Natural Childbirth, when I was expecting my firstborn. This little volume begins telling the story of a couple who, while expecting their first child, went to their pastor for some biblical insight into childbirth.

The author, the late Helen Wessel, used this vehicle to dispel the teaching of the curse of pain and espouse the view of childbirth as toil—labor. If I recall correctly—it’s been nearly 29 years since I read it—she equates the birth of child as tantamount to the ultimate, euphoric sexual climax. Hmmm. Wessel may have overstated it, but she makes a vibrant case for women, childbirth, and the grace of God in Christ.

I recommend it.

Wow, Woe, Whoa

Adam saw Eve and proclaimed, “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” I heard this could be interpreted as saying, "Wow!" Maybe so.

Not long after that, he might have cried, "Woe." The fall troubles Adam, the rest of humanity, of course, and depending on whom you listen, the woman’s culpability, creates degrees of trouble for the wow sex. A reader on this blog said, “But I still feel that the curse of Eve is emblazoned on all women to wear as a scarlet letter to be forever ruled by men.” That response gave me pause. It may be because the tradition in which I grew up doesn’t really teach a doctrine of original sin in the either the Catholic or Calvinist tradition, I have never been inclined to reflect much on the curse of Eve in such an intense way.

I did once hear a highly regarded minister say that it just means that women are more inclined to sin than men. I pause. I say, "Whoa."

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa Needs God."

In case you missed the following article last year, I wanted to post it as an observation of some of the good done by the Christians in Africa. Times writer, Matthew Parris, winner of 2005 Orwell Prize for Journalism, spent much of his youth in what is now Malawi. In December of 2008, he wrote

But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

Read the whole article.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Does religion cause the violation of women's rights?

As I read through the Bible this year I am taking note of the story of men, women, and God as it unfolds. I have already noted that though men are definitely the power brokers, at least the women were not circumcised in Genesis. Okay, so a virgin daughter or two are offered to crowds of men in lieu of offering male house guests—virtual strangers for—sex. Okay, so Abraham gives his wife with benefits to several men to avoid being killed.

Observe, I still, even after reading more than twenty chapters in Genesis, hold out hope for a good story to unfold for women.

Also note, I made a decision when I was about 24 years old to keep my mouth shut about woman’s role in the church. I convinced myself that I would not have any credibility in the Church of Christ unless I could prove that I could be a good wife and mother. I would have to hold my tongue on my the view that women are marginalized in church practice due to a misappropriation of a few select verses written by the good bachelor Apostle Paul—until I was 50.

Well, I would not approach the issue with such reasoning today—now that I am well over 50. Certainly titles, offices, and power are not what Jesus sought. He did, however, come to “preach good tidings to the poor...proclaim the release of the captives...to set at liberty them that are bruised.” Throughout the world, women fall into these categories day in and day out.

Juxtapose the above proclamation of Jesus with a comment I heard many times through the years in women’s Bible studies in Churches of Christ, "Remember, in Christ, we have no rights.”

Did you ever hear this? How would you have responded? Sometimes people would say it in response to the hymn in Phillipians 2 in which Jesus did not claim his equality with God, but made himself a servant. However, how damaging is it to re-write this and tell women they should not claim rights?

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, in his January 9 piece entitled, "Religion and Women" challenges leaders in world religions, those who devote their lives to their faith, to take steps to stop the oppression of women. He says, “Today, when religious institutions exclude women from their hierarchies and rituals, the inevitable implication is that females are inferior.”

I have a thought, and I wonder if you agree. Many leaders in Churches of Christ agree that women can speak in the regular assembly—as they do in Sunday school classes, small groups, and after the “closing prayer,” but they do not make it a practice in their churches for fear of offending some—in particular, the more conservative women. When will those male leaders in our churches stand up for the women of the church whose gifts are stymied and marginalized while they enjoy using their talents in full employ?

I think most of the church leader fellows I know are nice guys thinking they do not want to rock the boat for the more conservative members of their congregation. I wonder if they ever consider that they may be part of a very big global problem?

What do you think?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reading for Revival Week Two Selections

from the One Year Bible: The Entire New International Version Arranged in 365 Daily Readings, Tyndale House Publishers, 1986

January 10
Genesis 23:1-24:51
Matthew 8:1-17
Psalm 9:13-20
Proverbs 3:1-6

January 11
Genesis 24:52-26:16
Matthew 8:18-34
Psalm 10:1-15
Proverbs 3:7-8

January 12
Genesis 26:17-27:46
Matthew 9:1-17
Psalm 10:16-18
Proverbs 3:9-10

January 13
Genesis 28:1-29:35
Matthew 9:18-38
Psalm 11:1-7
Proverbs 3:11-12

January 14
Genesis 30:1-31:16
Matthew 10:1-25
Psalm 12:1-8
Proverbs 3:13-25

January 15
Genesis 31:17-32:12
Matthew 10:26-11:6
Psalm 13:1-6
Proverbs 3:16-18

January 16
Genesis 32:12-34:31
Matthew 11:7-30
Psalm 14:1-7
Proverbs 3:19-20

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Reading for Revival Week One

Creation Comments

Recently,a young adult friend of mine posted this as his Facebook update, "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise, there wouldn't be religious people."

Among the thirty or so ensuing comments was his unconfession of faith and a passionate series of irrational comments about evolution and seven days of creation. This week as I read through the creation narrative a few things came to me.

Genesis 1:1-:2:3 pulsates with powerful images. A dark watery void. Chaos. Then comes the wind of God blowing over the deep, speaking order out the chaos, calling for light, crafting the sky, dividing oceans with dry land. Wind speaks trees into existence. Seed bearing plants appear. Sun, moon, stars, planets fly into motion. God speaks birds and fish into their elements. He gives voice and vegetation comes forth. Then out of the earth, the creation of humankind—male and female.

If I were to write something for my children to help them understand their origins, I could write about how Ken and I loved each other and how it took an eternity for us to decide to marry. I could tell them about the days around their birth and what it meant to us. There would be hyperbole, some figurative language. Nonetheless, a story of our family could add to their sense of identity, of their place in the universe. Now, if they need help determining their genetic make up to plan some medical treatment, my love narrative would not suffice. My story predates much of the latest genetic research.

When I hear some of the comments made about creation and science, arguments over the literal, figurative, or “scientific” nature of Genesis, I know why, in part, my young friend begins to find religious folks irrational. Besides, a literal interpretation is interrupted in the next section, Genesis 2:4b-25, as this second creation narrative differs in the order of events.

A venerable brother at a church I used to attend, a PhD in one of the sciences, makes an ornate argument for a literal--what is called “young earth” interpretation--of Genesis. When I listen to his various observations in support of a literal seven day creation, I find it fascinating, but fantastical. However, I deeply appreciate the disclaimer he gives at the beginning of his presentations on the topic. He explains that he thinks the discussion of these things is important because it is in the Bible, but there were no eyewitnesses to creation, so we remain limited in our knowledge in that way. We are left to examine, to consider. When it comes to salvation, however, we rely completely on Christ, for whom we have eyewitness testimony. This creation narrative matters--but the interpretation of it cannot be where we place our hope.

I think Genesis is a place to wrest a sense of identity—we are created with a spiritual likeness. There is love, power, and passion connected to our being. But what this story does not do, in my understanding, is put forth scientific proofs or assertions. It’s a story of beauty, love, and identity, but not a scientific treatise. The creation narrative predates science. It is not science. If we need science, we can go to science.

Come to think of it, this part of Genesis also predates history.

My children learning scientific details, even more historically accurate details, of the narrative of our early years and their birth, would not make my story a lie. It remains a true love story.

I don't think we should wage cultural war over this passage of scripture. We should wage confidence, courage, and wonder as creatures of a great and mighty God.

Nakedness and Trees

On the way home from work this week, I heard what I thought was an odd story on NPR about author Diana Wells, and her recent release, Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History. She presents over 100 trees and stories about how these trees derived their names and how certain people have interfaced with these trees. She asserts that trees are very much bound to our lives and are, of course, important to our planet. She spoke of the Japanese Cedar and the practice of “forest bathing.” She says, "You go into the forest and soak yourself in the trees," she says. "I live where there are woods and I will [do that] quite often and let the trees feel as if I'm part of the forest. It's very, very soothing — it's beautiful." I am pretty sure she said this soaking takes place sans clothes. My gut reaction was “whack job.” More reflective second reaction was “pagan.”

Then, I went home and worked on my new commitment to read through the Bible in a year, and started reading the Garden of Eden narrative. Very naked. Very tree oriented. Not so pagan, really. I mean it is in the Bible. I have become fascinated by the life giving, wisdom giving nature of the tree stories in Genesis. Then, today we sent to see Avatar. Very naked. Very tree oriented. I started to think about Lord of the Rings. Not necessarily naked, but very tree oriented.

I was intrigued by the provision of God for men and animals of green plants and fruit bearing trees for food. First few chapters—pretty vegan. Seems like Able actually had better cred with God over the fruit of earth type sacrifice and that for some reason, the animal sacrifices didn’t cut it. I found it remarkable that it was only after the flood that the narrative included, “The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea; into your hands they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you, and just as I gave your green plant, I give you everything.”

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Revival ala Julie & Julie

This life in Christ. I’ve been at it hard for most of my life. I and a cadre of Christian friends experienced theologically a sort of Vactican II, Age of Aquarius meets Alexander Campbell, with a nod to Pat Boone’s A New Song, upbringing. I am a boomer with a veneer of postmodern bred of an Eastside of Detroit public education sent South to a Christian college.

Growing in a veritable Church of Christ ghetto in suburban Detroit, my childhood was blessed by parents in love with each other, kinfolk who cared deeply for us, and kindly neighbors. Good memories abound.

Yet, in my young world, the Catholic kids I went to school with were all taught that I was going to hell for not being a Catholic. The Church of Christ I attended taught that the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, were sadly, all lost. I learned that we Church of Christ kids, we were Neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jew. I read it on a little tract on a rack in my church foyer.

I credit the genesis of my ecumenical spirit to a moment at Michigan Christian Youth Camp when a college aged Bible teacher read aloud from a little volume called Voices of Concern, a collection of letters from earnest Church of Christ folks who just couldn’t take the sectarianism, called “Church of Christism,” anymore, and went denominational. I was in the eighth grade. Reading The Chosen, by Chaim Potok further influenced on my approach to orthodoxy. I was just over forty. I won't say how old I am now, but I was born the same year Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England--the current Elizabeth.

My mom posted a sticker with a verse from the King James Version of the New Testament, Philippians 4:11b, on my bedroom door when I was child. It read, “I have learned therefore, in whatsoever state I am in, therein to be content.” It made an impression on me because post high school, I found a way to be content living in Michigan, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Nebraska, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, and Tennessee.

I have embraced and have been embraced by, loving congregations in all of these places. No two people have been treated more kindly than my husband, Ken Dowdy, and I, through our 35 years in these communities. We are deeply grateful for the grace, mercy, and love we have experienced.

Most of these churches only faintly echoed the harshest teachings of my youth. In with all the sweetness, I often chafe at the latent judgment, sectarianism, and sexism in the culture of this movement. These elements seem to be derived in part from theology, and partly from regional and socio-economic factors.

Of late, the church experience notwithstanding, it has been my own personal failings and the vicissitudes of life that most challenge my walk of faith. Sometimes I fear I may have become “as one of the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word and it yields nothing.”

In addition, several young people with whom I am acquainted, and whom I love well, have left the faith of Christ. This grieves me so deeply that sometimes I fade into thinking that if I just didn’t believe so intensely, their leaving the faith would not cause such a wound to my heart.

I need a personal revival to finish the course, to keep the faith. I need to renew relationships to help me finish the course, to keep the faith.

In my childhood, I was taught “five steps of salvation.” The first step was that one must HEAR—“for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” Reflecting on this "step" and inspired by Julie of Julie & Julia, I thought of a plan to revive my faith by reading the Bible through this year and blogging my experience. I intend to read through the One Year Bible, The New International Version arranged in 365 Daily Readings. I confess to a complete lack of diligence in my reading over the past few years.

I will read daily and post weekly. I thought that a few of my friends might join me and share questions and revelations. Read just Old Testament; read just the New Testament; read just the Psalms; or read just the Proverbs. Just read and share. I am already playing catch up because this all just came to me on January 4.

January 1
Genesis 1:1-2:25
Matthew 1:1-2:12
Psalm 1:1-6
Proverbs 1:1-6

January 2
Genesis 3:1-4:26
Matthew 2:13-3:6
Psalm 2:1-12
Proverbs 1:7-9

January 3
Genesis 5:1-7:24
Matthew 3:7-4:11
Psalm 3:1-8
Proverbs 1:10-19

January 4
Genesis 8:1-10:32
Matthew 4:12-25
Psalm 4:1-8
Proverbs 1:20-23

January 5
Genesis 11:1-13:4
Matthew 5:1-26
Psalm 5:1-12
Proverbs 1:24-28

January 6
Genesis 13:5-15:21
Matthew 5:27-48
Psalm 6:1-10
Proverbs 1:29-33

January 7
Genesis 16:1-18:19
Matthew 6:1-24
Psalm 7:1-17
Proverbs 2:1-5

January 8
Genesis 18:20-19:38
Matthew 6:25-7:14
Psalm 8:1-9
Proverbs 2:6-15

January 9
Genesis 20:1-22:24
Matthew 7:15-29
Proverbs 2:6-15