Souls and Selves

There is a concept in Christianity that we have to be very careful with—the soul. Here is why we have to be careful: emphasize it too much and we begin to think the only part of us that exists or is important is the ethereal spiritual essence thing that we call the soul, at the cost of our physical being. There is no separation between soul and body, and emphasis on this enforces a notion that the physical world doesn’t matter—only the spiritual. This leads to a theology that says our only job as Christians is “saving souls,” and our bodies don’t matter, the poor don’t matter, and the well being of the world does not matter. This kind of view ignores the biblical witness that begins with God pronouncing the physical creation “good” repeatedly. This kind of view ignores the fact that Jesus spent as much of his time healing people physically as he did healing them spiritually.

All that being said, there is a place for conversation about the soul. It is that part of us that is most truly in touch with God and who God created us to be. It is our true self. It includes physical, as well as spiritual realities.

This Sunday, as part of our Lenten journey of “Leaving it at the Table,” we will be leaving behind our false selves. As with all of our topics, this is not something easily done, and probably not permanently done. However, this is an opportunity for us all to reflect about who we really are when we are most fully living into our calling as children of God. In our Corinthians passage this week, Paul both boasts about himself, and belittles himself. He also focuses in on who he truly is, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” The reality is that each of us is not as bad as that nasty little voice in our head sometimes says we are, but we also aren’t quite as amazing as we want everyone else to think we are either—most importantly, God handles us with grace, so that tearing down, and puffing up, is of little consequence for God’s view of us.

The way we get to living more truly as Children of God is by letting go of those under-inflated or over-inflated images of ourselves, and accepting we are who we are by the grace of God.

Before you come to leave a symbol of your false self on the communion table tomorrow, take some time in reflection on who you really are without all that other clutter, and give thanks. By the grace of God you are who you are!

Check it out—Oprah and Richard Rohr agree with the premise for our worship and letting go this week so it must be right…right? Thanks to Carrie Farm for passing this on to me!

Your True Self


ISIS and Barmen

These last weeks have been filled with some pretty despicable acts of terror, the world over. Be it Boko Haram in Nigeria, or ISIS in Syria, Iraq or Libya. And before I launch into any kind of reflection on any of this, I would propose that you stop—wherever you are, and take a moment to pray for the those facing violence, the families who have lost loved ones, the world, and yes, even those twisted people who think that their cowardly and evil acts are in some way related to faith in God. Let us pray…

I have had some incredibly interesting conversations with people on this subject over the past week, and a few things have become clear. First, as a religious leader, I have a responsibility to speak with honesty and integrity about what is going on. Unfortunately, we live in an environment where nuance and subtlety are often not heard, and the media tries to put every statement into a camp of “for” or “against.” We can’t do that with ISIS. President Obama is wrong, ISIS and Boko Haram are forms of Islam, HOWEVER, to judge all Muslims on the basis of what ISIS and Boko Haram have done is completely ignorant and unjust. The perverted and disgusting form of Islam that is being practiced by these people is akin to medieval Islamic practices. The reason I say that we can’t just write these actions off as being terrorist acts or the acts of psychotic sadists is that there is perhaps something even more scary happening here that must be addressed. That is, a small, ignorant, and homicidal group is taking over the message of a religion and perverting it for their own gruesome purposes. The reason this may be scarier than just the acts themselves, is that we came to this same place a little less then a century ago, but it was Christianity that had been high-jacked at that time in history.

I speak of course of the German Christian Church in Nazi Germany. In the 1930’s the government of Germany had begun to take over the churches with the intent of using them as propaganda machines for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi death machine. They had quite literally insisted on putting Hitler’s portrait on the communion tables! Churches became the grounds on which the kind of anti-Semitism that led to the mass genocide of more than 6 million people was propagated, and all done in the name of God—the God that we worship. Now while much of the rest of the church was sticking its head in the sand, there were some Christian leaders who stood up and called this what it was—a perversion of Christianity to serve the horrific purposes homicidal, megalomaniacal lunatics. The result was the writing of the Barmen Declaration, which is included in the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Book of Confessions. This is an impressive document that reminds us that any religion, even our own Christian faith, can be perverted to obscene and tragic ends if we are not vigilant. As Barmen states, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” That is exactly what is happening right now within Islam, and anyone who claims Islam is evil or that this has nothing to do with Islam is ignoring history at their own peril.

The rhetoric being used by our media on all of this is truly disturbing. On the right, the rhetoric has become a call to Christian arms against those evil Muslims. On the left, it has become a combination of rejecting the notion that this has anything to do with Islam, or an outright condemnation of religion all together.

The result? Shootings like those that happened in North Carolina. The Mosque bombings like those in Texas. The attack of a 57 yr old grandfather in Alabama. This has to stop, and the only way that it does is if good people like you stop letting absurd messages like these pass for news. Reject it. Call people on it. Refuse to tune in to it. This has to stop.

One further disturbing problem with all this. ISIS is hoping this becomes a battle between Christianity and Islam. They want this to happen. We are playing right into their hands. Their theology states that there is going to be an Armageddon battle between Christian and Islamic forces, and if we get sucked into it that way, it only elevates their ridiculous prophetic utterances. This cannot become another US war in the Middle East. If we are to confront this kind of lunacy, it has to be a coalition of all peoples, all faiths, all nations coming together to say that we will not stand for this kind of heinous butchery. This cannot be boiled down to Christianity vs. Islam, because if it is, they will win the ideological war.

Barmen reminds us that we cannot simply stick our heads in the sand when great evil is being perpetrated. But neither can we be sheep like the German Christians and simply accept what is given to us. A faithful response to all of this is to call falsehoods what they are, and refuse to be sucked into black/white, Christian/Muslim, West/East battles. Rise above all that. As Barmen says, “We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.” Don’t let your faith be manipulated into a religious war.

I have several articles this week for you to think about. All of these articles have to do with the complicated realities surrounding ISIS and Boko Haram. Please, read them, and don’t simply take your 24 hour news network’s word for anything on this! Enjoy!

From the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA):

A pretty good in-depth article about the religious motivations of ISIS:

A reflection on how difficult it is to pray for our enemies:

The full text of the Barmen Declaration:

Super Elijah to the Rescue!

I have often talked about being careful about how we understand scripture, and this week is no different. It is Transfiguration Sunday, but this year we will be focusing on the Elijah/Elisha passage instead of the gospel passage.

One important thing to understand when approaching any of the Elijah/Elisha stories is the concept of genre. Yes, scripture has genres. Different parts of scripture are meant to be read differently. There is poetry, law, history, wisdom, theology, letters, and so much more in scripture. One of the biggest problems we have with modern understandings of scripture is the fact that we read it as though it should all be heard the same way—some sort of deeply reverent, solemn, historical, factual reading. This is actually a huge problem for us! This flattens out the depths of scripture and greatly reduces the meaning. Frankly, it is one of the more abusive things we can do with scripture.

So what does this have to do with Elijah and Elisha? Well, these stories are often completely misunderstood because of how we have flattened out the depths of scripture. Though the Elijah series shows up in Kings, what we call the “history books,” we need to understand that this genre of history is very different from the modern understanding of history. If we read these as modern history, we are forced to see Elijah as a brutal and nasty man—he massacres 400 prophets of Baal, he calls down heavenly fire on 150 of the kings men, and oh yeah, the part of the passage that we are not reading this week features a bunch of kids teasing Elisha for being bald and Elisha’s response is to call two she bears out of the woods to devour all the children of the village. Bet you didn’t know that one was there, did ya?!?

What do we do with stories like these? Well, if we understand that this genre of scripture is more like a comic book or Sunday morning comic strip, these problems resolve themselves. You see, there are different depths of truth than just what is factually or historically accurate. Sometimes truth is about the lessons and morals, and yes, even humor that speak to depths of truth that facts can’t touch. We have to remember that the first readers of these stories, weren’t actually readers at all! These were stories that were passed around campfires, and told to children as they prepared for bed. Not only that, but many of these stories were being told to children who had been exiled from their home lands and were living in harsh conditions in foreign lands. What kind of stories need to be told to kids in these conditions? Stories of powerful characters who are filled with the Spirit of God, that remind them that the nasty reality they live in is not the end of the story. Think about our own world. Is it any coincidence that in the years following 9/11 there were so many comic book movies that were re-launched? We got a new Batman, Spiderman, Superman, Avengers, etc. We needed heroes. Just like the Israelites needed them after the exile. That speaks to deep levels of truth that facts and history can only hint at. It teaches us a great deal about ourselves, and it also teaches us a great deal about the nature of God. God raises people up when we need them the most—which is exactly what our passage is about this week, but we’ll hear more about that on Sunday.

These are stories that have great meaning, but perhaps questionable historical accuracy. That isn’t a problem for us because there are more important truths than history or facts.

Get Over Yourself!

Phew! It has been a week! Well, really…it has been a month! I suppose I could even go beyond that, but suffice it to say there has been a lot going on. It all came to a head this week when, frankly, my body stepped in and said, “NOPE! We’re not doing this anymore!” My family and I all came down with this nasty bug that stopped us all dead in our tracks. There was really nothing we could do but stop and rest—which in itself is no easy task, especially for a 3 yr old!

Our bodies definitely have a way of stepping in to let us know when we can’t continue on at the pace we have been running. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that isn’t always so kind as to let us take the time we need to recover…to rest…to be.

Perhaps that is why this is such a consistent message in our scriptures. The whole thing starts with a creation that insists even God takes time for rest. Perhaps an important reminder to those of us who think that the world can’t go on without us! The ten commandments are mostly short and to the point, but the two commandments in Exodus 20 that require extensive explanation are the one about idols and the one about taking Sabbath rest—an indicator of how hard it is for us to listen to these commandments. How many of Christ’s stories involve doing something on the Sabbath over which the Pharisees pitch a hissy fit? And then of course, there is the passage this week that describes what seems to be an overwhelming and long day of healings for Jesus, after which he sneaks away for quiet and rest. Of course, that is until the disciples hunt him down.

I think there are some things we can learn from this. First—take some time to rest. Just do it. Don’t fill that time with other stuff. If you have to, put it in your calendar. Make a family plan to do nothing together after church and Sunday school on Sunday. Do less. And don’t feel guilty about it. In fact, if you are doing too much, perhaps the message to you should be–Get over yourself! God stopped and rested. Christ stopped and rested. So should you!

Second, let others take time as well. I was very fortunate this week that when I needed some time to heal, several of you, who did need my help, were gracious enough to let me take some time for rest. THANK YOU!

If you really want to be counter-cultural. Rest more. It isn’t about being lazy. IT IS about being faithful!