Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Blogosphere Inquisition

Well I better be careful. I attended a clergy ethics training event recently that drilled into my head that what you write "on line" is available to all and can be dangerous. This is evident by the recent "dismissal" of a United Methodist student pastor for what he wrote on his blog some of which was about Rob Bell's new book, "Love Wins."

It seems that brother Bell is challenging the "standard" concepts of heaven and hell and " the all who do not believe in Jesus are forever lost" stuff. Well I like my church and my job so what am I to say? I probably should sign off right now. But the truth is this kind of thing has always bothered me even before there were blogs and tweets and texting. It seems those of us who claim the name of Christ have trouble dealing with a text that predates the thumb producing constant barrage of words that fill the space of on line information.

What we do with the Bible is rather amazing. Rob Bell's words are just the latest battlefield for a new round of Bible Wars. Rob simply pulls "out of the closet" the same thing that many people have hidden in their hearts and minds. I deal with these people as a Pastor. It is usually is in a one on one situation because they are almost afraid to say the words in the light of day. "Is my Jewish friend going to Hell?...Are all Muslims doomed to damnation?...If Jesus is the only way what does that really mean?"

The little bit I know of Bells' new book is from the reviews and the video on Y tube. His basic premise is that the rigid literal view of a burning Hell where all who do not believe a certain way are assigned for all eternity seems to represent a God whose love is limited by the people who interpret the ancient text. I like what the Biblical scholar Karl Barth once said when confronted by a reporter who said to him, "Dr. Barth it sounds like you do not take the Bible laterally?" Barth responded, "I take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally."

When I teach about the Bible I often use Martin Luther's image of the Bible being the "cradle of the Christ Child." I then refer to a very special cradle that was given to us as a present by a man when we served a small rural church. It was a surprise gift. We still treasure it even though our children are far removed from needing it. If you step back from it you notice that it leans a bit to the right because the rockers are not exactly even. Remember it was hand-made. Running your hand across the top of the cradle you notice that the finish is a bit rough for it is made of different types of wood blended together by the hands of its creator. It was and is a gift of love. What really makes it special is what it held; our Amanda.

The Bible is the cradle of the Christ Child but remember it is hand-made. There are rough parts in the Bible that need to be understood and even explained. It holds within its hand-crafted exterior the love of God given to the people of God but it is not made in a factory or by a programed machine. It is an earthy book made by people. Yes it is filled with "inspired" words but those words of inspiration come through people like you and me so they often times need the gift of discerning study.

The Bible is important enough to be studied for not simply what it says but what it means. Rob Bell challenges the interpretation of the Bible that leads to a rigid understanding of the "fires of Hell." Study shows that the image comes from the people in Biblical days remembering the burning flesh in the valley of Gehenna where the burning rubbish from Jerusalem Temple sacrifices was collected. It is a pretty brutal image and is often the predominant one used when people want to make sure that the Devil gets his due.

There are a few passages where Jesus is quoted as referring to a place where "there shall weeping and gnashing of teeth" but those are mostly related to parables and stories where Jesus often uses exaggeration to make his point. Most of the time Jesus deals with "Hell" it is the hell people are living in. He goes there...places where people are outcast, poor, despised, forgotten, and in darkness.

In the oldest version of the Apostles' Creed the phrase "he descended into Hell" is found. We Methodists tend to leave that out because it does not sound "nice." But I like the assertion that love never gives up and goes to "Hell and back" to find the "lost." I wonder if that is Rob Bell's point; that love never gives up. Why would that bother Christians so much? Are we afraid that someone is going to get what they do not deserve? Just how small or big is heaven anyway? How big does a Hell need to be for a God whose love seems to know no bounds? Do we decide the size of eternity and do we get to limit God's love?

It seems that some Christians have to have Hell in order to have faith. Hell has often been used in the Christian proclamation to instill fear into people. It's the "If you think its hot here in July...remember Hell awaits those who do not believe." The "perfect love casts out fear" stuff ends up in the drain that goes down to the Gehanna sewer.

I'll leave Hell to God. Most of the fire mentioned in the Bible seems to refer to refining fire rather than consuming fire. The God that Jesus talks about most of the time is the God of the prodigal, the God of the shepherd who unwisely goes after the one lost sheep, and the God of the cross whose boy gets a "hell of deal" when he gets strapped to a tree near the city sewer. Jesus goes to hell and back for love. I wonder if that is what Rob Bell is getting at?

Why don't we spend our time helping people get out of hell know the hell of poverty, racism, sexual exploitation, even the hell of religious intolerance that can lead to people killing each other in the name of God? Takkum Olam, is a Hebrew expression that means to help God "heal the world." I still have a job?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Temptation Buffet

Have you ever stepped up to the Temptation Buffet? I passed it up one time but now wish I had "partaken." No, this is not material for an afternoon soapopra. I"m talking about the time I was in Israel and we went to the traditional place where the Devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness. It says that Jesus fasted 40 days before the Devil tempted him with the old "turn these stones into bread" routine.

When we arrived at the spot the guide pointed to a rugged mountain that was the supposed site where Jesus met up with that rascal who loves to tempt anyone who will pay attention. It was about lunch time and we were hungry. So we were escorted into a restaurant that was in the valley that looked up at Temptation Mountain. We did not fast. We ate.

And you guessed it the name of the restaurant was "The Temptation Cafe." I had a sandwich but I noticed that if one desired there was a buffet. We did not have much time so I did not partake of the buffet but just think if I had I could say for all time that I "ate at the Temptation Buffet." I even passed up the temptation to purchase a shirt with words imprinted across the chest that said, "I Ate at the Temptation Buffet."

So what's on your temptation buffet? We all pass by it do we not? I suppose you can accuse the Devil of preparing the offerings or you can use the line I used recently, "Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself."

The original "buffet" consisted of "Hey aren't you hungry already? Here take this rock and make yourself a Wonderbread sandwich. You can do it. I know you can." We can dismiss this as not really on our buffet because it sounds like a magic trick but that would be what the Devil would want. It seems to let us off the hook.

This temptation is really about using our personal power because dog-gone it we deserve it. We're hungry and no matter what, it is time to fill ourselves. The reality that we might should do without is dismissed. "Go ahead eat that doughnut even though your waistline is telling you otherwise...Go ahead step outside your marriage vows. After all she/he hurt you and does not really understand you...go ahead spit that hateful word back at the person who spit one at you. He/she deserves it."

Get it?

The second offering on the buffet was something like, "Hey, do a two and half off the top of the Temple and land on your feet. That will put you on Oprah for sure." This has something to do with proving ourselves. How do you prove yourself? Getting the approval of others can be a "black hole" of sorts. It takes a lot of energy and it can suck the life out of us. And do we ever accomplish getting the total approval of others? What tricks do we have to do to gain status, love, esteem? Might as well jump off the top of the Temple...

The third item on the buffet has to do with "Who you gonna serve?" Bob Dylan wrote a song about this one:
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you may like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you're gonna serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna serve somebody.

So as in days past, the Temptation Buffet is open for business...always open...24 hours a day. The offerings are constantly being served up. The only question for us who stop by is the same question asked on that mountain long ago and again asked by a modern day songwriter: "Who you gonna serve?"

I've discovered that when I do step up to the serving line it helps to invite someone to come with me. He's been there before. So as I look over the offerings I can whisper to that one who wrestled with the Devil the first time, "Well, what do you think?"

Bless you

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Mining for Dust: A Poem for Ash Wednesday

Gold is now selling for $1441.00 per ounce. I thought of this as we step into Lent with ashes placed on our foreheads as we hear the words, "From dust you came and to dust you shall return...repent and believe the good news." I offer you this poem for Ash Wednesday....

Mining For Dust
A Poem for Ash Wednesday

Our hands reach toward
a shinny past hoping
to strike it rich
So we strain through the
dirt of our lives
to mine it for
a gold that
often eludes us

But the maker of it all
mines not for the
glitter of our world
Our God mines for dust
and through those
ancient hands there
is a sifting
for what is precious

As the earth makes gold
and we long for
its lofty worth
So the God who formed
the earth and its riches
cares not for the gold
but loves infinitely
the dust

The dust is God’s gold
for into it the divine
breathed life’s breath
And those old hands
shaped us into living beings
whose value is
much beyond
shimmering nuggets

And to sanctify it all
the old miner
of all Creation
Sent the child of Bethlehem
to sift through
the rubble
and be dust

Standing knee-deep
in the running waters
of an ever-flowing stream
God Almighty reached
into the earth
and pulled from it
the dust
now gold

“From dust you came
and to dust
you shall return”
Are the customary words-
But when spoken by
they really say,
“The dust is my gold”

Jody/Ash Wednesday/2011

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What Me Worry

That smiling foggy faced gap toothed image haunts me. Alfred E Newman smiles at the onlooker with the words imprinted below his picture; "What Me Worry." He may imaginatively walk the halls of "Mad Magazine" but he also appears once in a while in my mind's eye reminding me of my worry habit.

I was almost over my irritation of waiters and waitresses responding "No problem" when I thanked them for my food when the phrase changed overnight. I mean I am not talking about problems when I say "thank you" so why should the response be "No Problem?" Have I bothered them or something and they are excusing me? My youngest daughter insists that I'm hung up and that this is simply her generation's way of saying, "You're welcome."

So just about the time I settled in to "No problem" I started hearing, "No worries." What? Do I look worried when I look up from my hamburger? Did I oversleep only to wake up in a world of "no worries?" Wouldn't that be nice.

I recently preached a sermon on Worry. I had to admit to the congregation that me giving advice on not worrying was like Osama Ben Laden giving a lecture on peace and love. So as I have often done before I was preaching first to myself.

I used Jesus' famous, "Why are you worried so much" talk that he gave to his tiny band of "worried" disciples. It seems he sat them down in the middle of a field of wild flowers, picked one of them, and said,"Look long and hard at this flower...does it look worried?...The birds flying overhead, do they seem to suffer from anxiety?...My dad seems to be able to provide for them so why are your brows so furrowed and your stomachs in knots?"

So while I preached I held up a single wildflower and reminded me and any who would listen some interesting tid-bits about worry...Want to hear some of them?
-40% of what we worry about never happens
-30% is worry over the past so we can't do much about it
-12% is needless worries about our health
-10% is centered on petty, miscellaneous worries
-leaving 8% worth worrying 92% of our worries are as Earl Nightingale in his book "The Essence of Success" says are "pure fog with no substantial chance of happening."

How about them odds?

I also mentioned signs of unproductive worry as listed by Robert Leahy in "The Worry Cure."...
-you worry about unanswerable questions
-you worry about a chain reaction of events
-you reject a solution because it is not perfect
-you think you should worry until you feel less anxious
-you think you should worry until you control everything

Can't you just overhear a flower say, "Hummm I wonder if the sun will come up tomorrow...and if it does not how will I survive...and if I have trouble surviving what about the seeds I was going to spread next Spring?...and if I can't spread seeds then why am I even here?...but if I concentrate on these 'what if's' at least I can keep from being so afraid...but how can I get hold of the one who controls the sun???"

There is a kind of strange silliness in my/our efforts at worry. It betrays a need for control but also a deeper need to develop the art of letting go so that we can again be faced with the issues of trust and faith. Carl Jung once responded when asked if he believed in God, "Believe...? I know there is a God! God is my name for all things that I did not myself create that come across my path and gets in the way of my carefully developed plans and desires."

It is not just a saying on a cross-stitched wall hanging. It's wisdom: "O God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change...the courage to change the things I can...and the wisdom to know the difference."

What me worry? Today I will attempt to pay a little more attention to those few flowers that are attempting to break Winter's grip as they remind me that Spring is coming. When will it come? If you listen to the breeze that blows those flowers to and fro you will hear a a gentle whisper that says, "No worries."

Bless you