Archive for March, 2014

Sin and Suffering

// March 28th, 2014 // 2 Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We had a rich and wide-ranging discussion on Wednesday night after dinner. We began discussing the long-promised fifth chapter of Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity, which concerns the place of Jesus as central to the Christian faith. As discussions of Christianity often do, this one eventually turned to the Bible. Specifically, we talked about how our witness to the life of Jesus was written decades after his death and how our reading of that witness is affected by millennia of other readers. Even the text we now have is translated from original languages through the lens of our entire Christian history and the theologies and imagery that have developed along the way. As if on cue, the lectionary this week presents us with John 9.1-41, the story of the man born blind, a text that is rich in reading possibilities.

Unfortunately, the possibilities that are reflected in our usual translations can be dangerous. The Pharisees ask Jesus whether the man was born blind because his parents sinned or because he did. The question reflects a common view in the ancient world: bad things happen to bad people. If someone is ill, someone must have messed up. Jesus, in his Jesus-y way, is kind, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” It’s not anyone’s fault; we shouldn’t blame the victim. But is this response truly any more kind?

The second part of his answer is curious if we take the problem of evil seriously. There are a lot of explanations for the presence of evil in the world if one – as Christians typically do – assume that God is good. We often describe it as a condition, the consequence of sin brought into the world by Adam and Eve and a sneaky serpent. As mentioned, the Pharisees assumed that it was the direct consequence of the blind man’s or his parents’ actions. Another theory developed in the few hundred years before Jesus’ birth is that people suffer, not because they are evil, but because they are good in an evil world. All intriguing and problematic theories, but Jesus does not offer those. Instead, he appears to say that it is God’s fault.

It would seem that this man was born blind because God wants to show off. Perhaps more generously, all of existence is here to testify to God’s greatness, including suffering. So this man was born blind, reduced to begging his entire life, bringing shame on his family in an honor/shame culture, all so that Jesus can come along one day and make him better. Now people can say, “Wow. God really is awesome.” Is God awesome? Is that God awesome? The God that makes people suffer for decades and then shows up at the eleventh hour to provide relief – is that a God worthy of worship? Can that God rightly be said to be good? I have to say, I don’t think so. There must be better ways to deliver a message than in our broken bodies heaped under a mountain of mud, sitting at the bottom of an ocean, or tormented in a fire from which there is no escape. God must have better ways of showing love than inflicting us with leprosy and paralysis and diabetes and cancer and spousal abuse and stray bullets. Count me out.

Fortunately, we have nerds. All nerds are great, but Bible nerds might just save our souls. Bible grammar nerds get an extra star in their crowns.

One thing our translations obscure about the texts they represent is that Greek is all mashed together. There are no divisions, no visual cues for the reader to understand how the words go together. There’s no punctuation to tell us where a sentence ends. There are not even spaces between words to tell us where they start and stop. Look at Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees in verse 3: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This certainly supports a common view that has emerged in the Christian tradition: that suffering is good because God wills it; that we suffer to learn a lesson or to demonstrate God’s grace. But what if we break up the sentences a little differently: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the one] who sent me while it is day.” Perhaps God and God’s love are revealed in our response to suffering. Perhaps suffering is, in fact, a bad thing, but we can redeem that suffering with love.

I won’t claim that this is the right reading of the text, or even a better reading. However, it does show that there is a choice that the translators made and that choice reflects a particular theological point of view. It is not neutral. It is not objective. It is not “simply reading the text.” It is a choice and that choice has consequences in the way that we as Christians live our lives. Now, this does not mean that reading the Bible is pointless. May it never be! Rather, it calls us to claim our own voices, to read critically and humbly, and to always know that our reading has consequences. Like our response to suffering, the way that we read a text – or do anything, really – can be revelatory of God’s work and God’s love. Or not. It’s our choice.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk further about the story of the man born blind. I know I said this last week about the woman at the well, but this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. I could probably say that about every story in the Gospel of John and that won’t be the only common thread between these two stories. I hope you will read ahead and I look forward to a rich conversation on Sunday.

How is Lent Going?

// March 22nd, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

We often treat Lent like New Year’s: a set of resolutions that will make us better people in the end, the people that we always wanted to be. We start a new diet or give up desserts or determine to pray more. These become chores that drag us down in our already busy schedules. By this, the Third Sunday of Lent, we’re probably considering scrapping the whole thing if we haven’t already. But Lent calls us to so much more than that.

Maybe that makes it sound worse. Going without chocolate for forty days might make us unhappy, but it’s at least doable. A simple action, a small change as a hat tip to God, to Jesus, to the One who suffered and died. Should we fast every day? Should we self-flagellate? Should we rend our garments in woe? I can’t recommend these things any more than I can recommend guilt over Lenten practices.

Instead, I recommend paying attention. Whether we succeed or fail in our practices, the important thing is to reflect on what those successes and failures might mean. How do they make us feel? Who do we become in keeping a practice or forgoing it? Where is God in all this?

This Sunday, we’re talking about one of my favorite stories in the entire Bible: Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in the fourth chapter of John. In this story, the Samaritan woman comes to the well to get water, probably a daily task. It is not notable, not worthy of any reflection at all. Instead, she meets Jesus, who promises to give her living water. He promises that she will never be thirsty again.

By the end of the conversation, a couple of things have happened. First, she knows that Jesus is the Anointed One of God. Second, she becomes the first evangelist, the first to bring the Good News. Jesus reveals himself for who he is and reveals to her who she truly is. In the process of this mutual self-revelation, she is transformed, not into the person she wanted to be, but into the person she never thought she could be. In the end, she forgets her task, she leaves her water jug behind, and begins a new life.

Lent is an opportunity. It is not about the task that we thought we had. It is not a daily chore to grind us down. It is not about success or failure. Lent is an opportunity to know ourselves and to know God. In the process we are transformed into the people we never thought we could be, but in fact always were.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss the woman at the well. If you get a chance, please read John 4.5-42 ahead of time. This passage is such fertile ground for conversation. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Grace & Peace,
Scott

Death and the Possibility of New Life (Gun Violence Sabbath Sermon)

// March 17th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

(This was my sermon from Sunday’s Gun Violence Sabbath.  – Scott)

Erbie Bowser was a school teacher who worked with special education students. He was an imposing figure at 6-foot 7-inches and 335 pounds, but was described as a “gentle giant” by those who knew him. He liked to have fun, entertaining crowds before Mavericks games with the a dance troupe for overweight men, the ManiAACs. In 2010, he quit his teaching job to form his own non-profit to provide clothing, tutoring, and food for children. By all accounts, he was a good man.

In 2011, Erbie and his wife Zina began divorce proceedings. Court documents show that he warned her against taking any of their property, saying, “I will bury you.” He emphasized the point by opening a pocket knife and adding, “Call the police and I will execute your kids.” The judge granted a protective order, which barred Erbie from coming within 200 yards of Zina or her children. The judge wrote in his report: “Family violence has occurred and is likely to occur in the future.” On August 7th of 2013, the judge’s prescient words were fulfilled.

Erbie Bowser began his shooting spree at 10:30 pm in the home of his ex-girlfriend, Toya Smith. He killed Toya and her daughter Tasmia as well as injuring Toya’s son Storm and family friend, Dasmine. When the police arrived at Toya’s house, Erbie was gone, but Dasmine bravely identified him from a photo lineup. The Dallas police suspected that he might go after Zina next, so they alerted the DeSoto police that he might be on his way. As the DeSoto police made their way to Zina’s house, they received a 911 call that there was an incident at the home. Erbie Bowser shot and killed Zina and her daughter Neima and wounded her two boys, aged 11 and 13, before running out of ammunition.

I don’t know what happened in Erbie’s life that sent him down this path of violence. It’s possible that he had a breakdown of some kind in 2010 that caused him to quit his job and created marital problems. It’s also possible that, like many cases of domestic abuse, the threats and violence went on for years, but was well hidden outside his family. Since his arrest, neither he nor his lawyers have said anything publicly while he awaits his capital trial in prison. In any case, it wasn’t exactly beyond reasonable supposition that something like this could happen. The divorce judge predicted it and did what he could to prevent it. Interestingly, one thing he could not do is prevent Erbie Bowser from having a gun.

The discourse around gun violence quickly descends into a series of claims and counterclaims, with statistics flying around like the bullets they represent. We argue about how to label things. Is it a mass killing? A shooting spree? Is it gang violence? We slice and dice the numbers into murders and accidents and suicides. We even compare the number of gun deaths to other ways we might die. These are all important distinctions because they point to multiple causes and multiple possible solutions.

However, they also become ways to distance ourselves from the problem. Mass killings are committed by kids who are mentally ill – they either aren’t medicated enough or they are medicated too much, depending on who you ask. Gang violence is only a problem for “them,” for “those people,” the people that live wherever I don’t live. Because why would you live in a place like that, anyway? That’s why it’s so important to distinguish between North Oak Cliff and South Oak Cliff, right? By dividing things up into a myriad of smaller problems we convince ourselves, first, that each problem is not really so bad, and, second, that the possible solutions are so varied and complex that we can’t possibly solve them all. Why even try?

We seem to overlook the one common denominator: guns. Across class, race, and geography, whether unjustified or justified, accidental or purposefully self-inflicted, guns remain the most efficient way to destroy a life. Bullets cannot be dodged or outrun. The damage they do is immediate, devastating, and longlasting. There are an infinite number of ways that someone might die, but there is one way that is extremely effective and absolutely pervasive: guns.

Frankly, when I consider the damage done, the easy availability, and the total inaction on the part of our representatives, I am mystified and I am angry. How many times do we have to turn on our televisions or our computers to see that someone has once again shot up a school or a mall or a theater or an office building? How many times must we be outraged? How many times must we be disappointed and lose interest and go on with our lives? Until the next time. Until the time it happens across the street or to people that we care about. At some point, all the isolated incidents add up to an epidemic. Something has to change.

In John, chapter 3, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus about being born again, born from above in the Spirit. This seems like nonsense to Nicodemus: a grown person can’t return to the womb to be born again. Jesus gently mocks him: How can you be a teacher of Israel and not understand this stuff? Jesus is simply explaining what he has seen and what he knows, but Nicodemus does not get it.

I feel this way when we talk about gun violence. We know that background checks work. In states where background checks are required for all gun sales 38% fewer women are killed with a gun by an intimate partner; there are 49% fewer gun suicides; 39% fewer police are killed with a handgun; and 64% fewer “crime guns” cross state lines. Yet, in spite of all that we know, people do not believe. Instead, people believe that we need more guns with unfettered access to them. It seems like nonsense to adopt anything other than a posture of opposition and defense. This is often the nature of the things of heaven: baffling to people of the world.

But Jesus speaks of earthly things. Jesus is in the flesh describing the human condition and the need to be reborn, but Nicodemus does not believe. What Jesus is saying should be obvious. We have all experienced that need for new life. How can Nicodemus, one of the wisest people in Israel, not understand that need? And if he can’t understand that, how could he possibly understand the things of God? To know God is to be reborn, to be transformed into new life in the Spirit. Flesh is flesh and spirit is spirit, it’s true, but we must understand both. In fact, understanding the things of the earth is a prerequisite for understanding the things of God. The two go hand in hand. To understand heavenly things, we must understand earthly things. We must see the world as it is.

We have a tendency to forget about gun violence. In between the heartbreaking tragedies, we convince ourselves that it was just that once. It’s just one disaffected youth, one disgruntled worker, one kid from the wrong side of the tracks. We don’t see the world as it really is. We forget that in America 1 in 3 people know someone who has been shot; every day 32 Americans are murdered with guns; 51 people every day kill themselves with a gun; and every day, 45 people are shot by accident. Our gun homicide rate is 20 times higher than our global peers; the only nations with more gun violence than the United States are countries torn apart by civil unrest. You have to go to a war zone to find a place more violent than America. Beyond the numbers, we forget the names of the victims and sometimes even the perpetrators. We stop seeing the families destroyed, the lives torn apart by loss and grief. For most of us, these awful tragedies have no face that persists in our memory. If we don’t see these things, if we don’t believe the epidemic all around us, how can we possibly know God?

God sent God’s only child so that the world might be saved. All we have to do is have faith. First, we must have faith that what God tells us about the world is true. We must have faith that the world was created for everyone to thrive. We must be passionate in that faith. Second, we must be faithful to God’s ways. From where will my help come? It comes from God and God alone. Do we trust in firepower or the powerful ways of God? Do we live in such a way that our thriving is set over against the thriving of another? Is reality at its core one of opposition, conflict, and struggle? Is that God’s way?

Grace Baptist Church in Troy, New York, is having a raffle next weekend. One lucky attendee of their Sunday morning service will receive an AR-15 assault rifle. The flyer promoting the event, mailed to all gun owners in Troy, backs itself with Scripture, the Gospel of John, in fact. It quotes John 14.27: “…my peace I give to you…” it says. It has ellipses before and after the quote, so it’s dot-dot-dot my peace I give to you dot-dot-dot, which usually indicates that there is something both before and after the text quoted. That made me curious, so I did a little investigating. It turns out that what is hidden behind the ellipses is very important. This is Jesus’ Farewell Discourse where he tells the disciples he is leaving and gives them an idea of what to expect after that. In 14.26, he tells them that he will send the Holy Spirit to teach them everything and to remind them of all he has taught them. Then, in the full text of 14.27, he says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Life in God is not a life of fear and opposition. The new life, life born of the Spirit, is a life of peace and wholeness.

The Lenten journey is a journey toward death. However, it is a death that promises new life on the other side. But where is the new life for those caught up in the cycle of violence? The world does not believe the testimony of experts. It does not believe the great witness of our civil rights leaders who achieved great change without firing a shot. The world does not hear the grief and anguish of the victims. It does not see the brokenness of the perpetrators. We see Erbie Bowser on the TV and call for vengeance, death at the hand of the state, blood on our hands. The child of God came into the world to save it, but we fail to believe the testimony. We fail to see the death all around us. As a result, we continue to experience death – over and over and over. But this death is only death. There is no new life in it. At times, it seems hopeless.

But just as the world no longer runs on a global system of slave trade, just as women can now vote, just as same-sex couples can marry in 17 states and counting, there is a way through. That way is God’s way. From where will our help come? It comes from God and God alone. God’s way is the way forward. But what is God’s way? God’s way is certainly to mourn the dead, see their faces, hear their names, weep with the families left behind. But we must also change. God’s way is not to simply mourn as the bodies pile up around us. God’s way is the way of peace and wholeness. Do not let your hearts be afraid. As we mourn the victims, remember that on the other side of that gun is a broken person who, for whatever reason, has run out of options. God’s way is to reach out to those people. God’s way is to create new options and new life. God’s way is to take the option of gun violence away from them.

But most importantly, God’s way is to shine light into the shadows where our representatives creep. Jesus ends his conversation with Nicodemus saying, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” We can be instruments of peace and we can live our lives without opposition – and we should – but a problem of this magnitude requires systemic change. Attitudes must change, but so must laws. God’s way is to turn over tables in the temple. God’s way is to preach the good news in the presence of those who hate you. God’s way is to go to the house of Caiaphus and the palace of Pilate and, finally, to the cross. God’s way is to shine light on evil right to the end. This is the way to new life.

Reasoning from Above

// March 14th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

This Sunday, Church in the Cliff is proud to participate in the Gun Violence Sabbath Weekend, in partnership with the Washington National Cathedral and Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence.  In preparation, I’ve been looking at a lot of statistics.  It’s upsetting.  I remember the day of Sandy Hook.  I was in California for Lisa’s company holiday party.  We were in a hotel right on the beach, waves literally washing up underneath our balcony, the soft sound rocking us to sleep at night.  The morning of Sandy Hook, I had gotten up early to read in preparation for the next semester of seminary.  I was taking a class on evil, suffering, and death, and the first assignment was to read “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.  Included in the first of those chapters, Ivan, in conversation with Alyosha, philosophizes on the nature of evil:

Do you love children, Alyosha? I know you love them, and you’ll understand why I want to speak only of them now. If they, too, suffer terribly on earth, it is, of course, for their fathers; they are punished for their fathers who ate the apple— but that is reasoning from another world; for the human heart here on earth it is incomprehensible. It is impossible that a blameless one should suffer for another, and such a blameless one!

I finished my reading and turned on the TV to see that twenty children had been shot to death along with six adults and the shooter, Adam Lanza, who killed himself.  It turned out he had also killed his mother in her sleep with the gun that she had bought for him.

Lent is a time of preparation, as we have said.  It is a preparation for death that leads to new life.  In the liturgical calendar, we rehearse the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, so that we are prepared for all that life has to offer.  Coping with small losses, even (or perhaps especially) symbolic losses, creates a deep reservoir from which we draw when the big stuff hits.  But nothing can prepare us for this.

At least this will serve as a trumpet blast, I thought, the call that wakes us up to the epidemic in our land.  Certainly, this tragedy can be redeemed.  We’ll pass new laws.  Restrict clip sizes.  Require background checks on every gun sale, so we at least know where they all are.  Maybe people will voluntarily give up their guns, refuse to be a part of this cycle of violence and death, say enough is enough.  Maybe we’ll finally beat our swords into plowshares after all.  Two years later, there has not been one significant change in state or federal policy regarding guns.  In fact, the only thing that has been done is to arm teachers and school administrators in some states, putting more guns in our schools.  Every morning, millions of parents send their kids to militarized zones to learn.  The result: forty-four school shootings since Sandy Hook; twenty-three mass shootings in the year following Sandy Hook, including four within a stone’s throw of Dallas.  It seems that the sins of parents are indeed visited on the children.

Our lectionary text this week is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John, chapter 3.  In it, he promises Nicodemus that he could see the realm of God if he will only be born again, born from above.  This new life seems nonsensical to Nicodemus.  We often imagine in our modern world that God speaks only of God’s things: heaven, the spiritual, and the great hereafter.  But Jesus testifies to earthly things.  If we cannot believe those things, we have no right and no way to know the things of heaven.  If there is new life on the other side of a tragedy like Sandy Hook, we must believe that Ivan is wrong, that the reasoning from heaven is one of hope.  At this point, it seems nonsensical to believe that there is a life not dominated by the threat of violence.  However, we must believe God’s great witness to the things of this earth: that we are here to thrive and love and mourn and change.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we talk about earthly things: tragedy and the possibility of new life.  Note that we will be taking up a special collection to be donated to a non-profit working to end violence.

Grace and Peace,
Scott

Into the Wilderness

// March 8th, 2014 // No Comments » // Church in The Cliff

Jesus’ baptism was a spectacular event. The heavens open and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove lands on Jesus’ shoulder. Then a voice from the sky says: “This is my child, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is an unquestionable validation of who Jesus was. So he leaves. The Synoptic Gospels say that he was either driven or led by the very same Spirit that had so gently lighted on his shoulder. He goes away (presumably) to the barren landscape that surrounds the Dead Sea to fast. After forty days without food, he starts to see things; after forty days alone, he starts to hear voices.

The devil appears to tempt him. The first temptation is the obvious one for someone so hungry: bread. The second temptation is a little more subtle. The devil suggests that Jesus throw himself from the top of the temple, but he packages it with the promise that God would never let Jesus be harmed. Self-destruction gilded with ego and a sense of destiny. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain, like Moses, and promises to give him everything he sees. Of course, Jesus rejects all of it.

This story can be read as Jesus’ triumph over the devil, his absolute resistance to sin. As such, it might encourage us to similar aspirations. However, it can also make us feel like crap. If I hadn’t eaten in forty days, I would certainly go for the bread. Reading it as an example of the many ways that Jesus is better than us shortchanges what Jesus actually did as well as our potential response. It minimizes what Jesus did because it tends to put us in mind of his divinity rather than his humanity. Jesus has a body and that body needs food as much as you or me. This is not a supernatural act. It minimizes our response because it seems unattainable and, perhaps, irrelevant. It would be extraordinary for one of us to fast for forty days; we would be nonfunctional. We’re not going to do it, so what use is this story? I’ll highlight one aspect of the story that I find both illuminating and challenging and then we can talk about many more things on Sunday.

Every time Jesus is tempted, whether to indulge in his own powers or to accept the “gifts” the devil offers, Jesus turns back to God. God’s word is food enough. God’s faithfulness does not need to be proved. Serve God alone. Many of us like to think that we are special, but Jesus recently had it announced from the sky that he is, in fact, special. There is so much that he could have done with that, but he responds with, “It’s not about me.” This may seem like a strange thing to say in a Christian context, but it’s not really about Jesus. Jesus is interested in the things of God, not the things of Jesus.

This is spectacular and miraculous. It is a triumph. It certainly shows how Jesus was better than us. However, it is also a perfectly human response; it is something we can do. At our lowest points, when we are hungry or feel powerless or feel like life is not worth living, we can turn toward God. Note that this does not solve Jesus’ problems. He’s still hungry in the middle of a God-forsaken land facing the probably tragic future of a child of destiny. Note also that he is not burying himself in charitable acts or work or thrill-seeking. Instead, he is pointing toward God. On this inward journey of purgation, he becomes keenly aware of the vast scope of God’s presence. That shapes his identity as the Beloved and his call to ministry and, ultimately, his death at the hands of the powers of his world.

Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we begin our Lenten journey with a discussion of sin, temptation, and guilt, of deprivation, life, and death. Remember that this Sunday is the beginning of daylight savings time, so set your clocks ahead one hour. We don’t want to miss you!

Grace & Peace,
Scott