Food for Thought-The 10 Commandments, Sadism, and the Death of God

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There are 613 commandments in the Hebrew Bible. Of those 613, the Judeo-Christian tradition has decided 10 of these are of greater merit and value. While the Bible doesn’t use the term “The Ten Commandments” their chronological prominence and content gives them pride of place in the history of law giving among God’s people. However, when push comes to shove, a Biblical law is a law when it is handed to man from God. One would think that all God’s directives carry the same weight, shouldn’t they? Just as I honor my mother and father and love my neighbor, I should stone adulterers and bar lepers from my village (or nearest equivalent in 2015)? Of course not. We pick and choose what to follow when it comes to the 10 commandments and the other out of date and out of place laws throughout the Bible. This is especially true for Christians who wrestle with an understanding of Jesus; a man who came to redefine the law in terms of love, compassion, and neighbor. The remaining 603 laws are up for debate if you follow the Messiah from Nazareth named Jesus. So are the silly and culturally irrelevant laws you want to forget you’ve ever read. Others, like the Ten Commandments linger in the background, demanding we come to terms with them.

To be honest, some of the 10 Commandments have never set well with me. I’m fully aware they carry a great deal of weight and tradition; if only for standards we usually fail to meet. The prohibitive commandments are not a problem. We are told not to steal or commit murder. A proscriptive commandment, such as the reminder to honor our mother and father, are simply sound ideas, regardless of their divine origin. What does bother me stems from Exodus 20: 5. In verse 5, we are told, “Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (CEB) He punishes children for their parent’s sin to the third and fourth generation. Are kidding me? Is that right, fair, or just? That makes me physically sick. I want no part of worshipping a God who punishes innocent children for things done three and four generation prior to their birth. It’s not only unfair, it is sadistic. If this is the God I am supposed to believe in, then I’m sorry, I want out. This is not the God I was raised to believe in. I didn’t sign up for the responsibility of asking people to believe in a deity who hates children he’s never met.

I’m also uncomfortable with the image of God in Exodus 20:7. The traditional interpretation is to “not take the Lord’s name in vain” or as the CEB says “Do not use the Lord’s name as if it were of no significance”. The Bible says the Lord will not forgive those who use his name that way. I’m sorry, I thought there was nothing the blood of Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t forgive. Have I been lied to all these years? Have I been lying to my congregations for the past 16 years? Do these time-tested and well-worn elements of the 10 Commandments fly in the face of everything we know about Jesus Christ? Instead, do they point to a God who is already dead?

Food for Thought-Me and the Book of Discipline

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I have to admit it, there are times when I don’t follow the United Methodist Book of Discipline. In fact, I openly flaunt its regulations. In the highly charged atmosphere prior to this year’s selection of delegates to the next general conference I should get it out in the open. I have openly violated the spirit and letter of the Book of Discipline. Let me tell you what I’ve done. In clear violation of paragraph 336, I’ve served my ministry in a status of debt, “enough debt to embarrass my work”. This debt was accrued, nearly $100,000 dollars worth not while gambling in Moscow, or on prostitutes in Las Vegas, but on studying for the United Methodist ministry in Durham, North Carolina. I admit it. I am in clear and flagrant breach of the Book of Discipline. I am ready for my judicial trial. Among the general rules of United Methodists, as noted in paragraph 104 in the Book of Discipline, proscriptions exist against reading books or listening to music which do not promote the love of God. I listen to Mahler, read Byron, and watch American Idol with my children. Each of these activities are in clear violation of the Book of Discipline. I am not only skirting the edge of what it means to be a good United Methodist; I have clearly left what remains of the big tent we once called United Methodism. Again, with this open and public admission I await my trial by the judicial council. I have openly violated the Book of Discipline, a book where all the rules are equally enforced and held together by decency, respect, good theology, and common sense.

Food for Thought-I’m Not Sure I Want to Be Washed Whiter Than Snow

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After witnessing the epic winter weather across the United States and two recent snow events here in North Carolina, I have meditated upon the words of Psalm 51:7. The Psalmist writes, “Purge me with hyssop; and I shall be made clean, wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” For Christians, there is an obvious allusion within those words to Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and resurrection. However, it is helpful to remember, these are not Jesus’ words. In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the Lord says (in an appeal to the reason of the Israelite people), he has a desire to prevent the further destruction of Israel. “Though your sins are like scarlet,” says God, “they will be white as snow. If they are as red as crimson, they will become like wool. If you agree and obey.” Context matters. This passage has nothing to do with the salvation of humanity or Jesus of Nazareth. It does have everything to do with the imminent deportation with the Israelite nation to Babylon. God will square them with Babylon; not their sins with the cosmos. That’s not the issue.

Jesus never uses the word “snow”. The word was used to describe his apparel at his ascension in Matthew’s gospel. John recycles Isaiah’s prophecy and adapts it to early Christian apocalyptic thought in the Book of Revelation. That’s the sum total of snow in the New Testament. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, made no mention of our bloody sins being washed away. Shedding and washing are two completely different words in New Testament Greek.  Washing sounds folksy and like something you can imagine your grandmother doing.  Someone “shedding” blood sounds like a man who was taken out to a Roman Imperial black site and executed on political charges.  As a result, if Jesus never talked about our sins becoming as white as snow (as a result of his sacrificial shedding of blood). So why do we keep pushing this image?  Is it because of the sanguine obsessions of late 19th century hymn writers?  Because it’s not in the New Testament. It’s not something attributable to Jesus of Nazareth.  Call me crazy, but I put a priority on doing things Jesus did, not stuff  we make up and then later pretend he did or said.

I don’t want to be washed white as fresh snow. I don’t think Jesus wants me washed as white as the wind driven snow on a George Winston CD cover. Jesus needs me dirty, tarnished, muddy, and filthy. Because this is who Jesus has called me to serve, love, and live among. The people who can’t go inside, make chili, post pictures on Facebook, haven’t showered in days, have no one to love them, can’t afford their Lorazepam, the people who are broken and no one wants to sully themselves by stopping to look at the dirty mess by the side of the road. Because if you’re looking at them, how can you praise God for all the great things God has done for you, how blessed you’ve been, and how grateful you are that you are clean.

Lord, I beg you. Keep me dirty and muddy and free from unsound scriptural metaphors about snow.  I need my sins to make me a better Christian.

Food for Thought-Divergent Jesus Thoughts on Mark 8:31-38

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Shortly before we left Northern Ireland, my daughter Jordan wanted me to watch a film.  I’ll have to admit, for a 17 year old, she has fairly good taste in cinema.  This one was something supposed along the lines of “The Hunger Games”.  Dystopian fairy tales are right up my alley as well.   However, all the girls (I am the only man in a house with four women) said this movie was fundamentally different and I might like it more than the “The Hunger Games”.  So, we watched “Divergent”. One reason I note this is because a sequel to “Divergent” is about to be released.  It’s called “Insurgent”.   Both are based on a series of books by Veronica Roth.

This was one of the most theological movies, particularly for young adults, I’ve ever seen.  The movie starts with the same underlying premise Jesus shared with his disciples shortly before he died.  In John 17:21, Jesus prayed, “that they may be one.”  One body, in agreement, with no divisions; this was Jesus’ prayer.  This promise of unity-social, cultural, moral, legal, and ethical is where this movie begins.

The film’s basic premise is that (at some point in the future) peace can only be achieved by organizing people into groups (factions).  These groups then become the main source of an individual’s identity.  Upon reaching their mid-teens (it’s ultimately unclear exactly what year) the young people are tested to see which group or faction they are best suited.

When the test results are announced, the teens leave their biological families to join their respective factions.  They will remain with these factions for the rest of their lives.  The faction will come define their identities.  Who they were before they were they joined their faction, especially if they choose the defense faction, is expected to be completely forgotten. Each faction is expected to contribute something unique to the common good.  One faction functions in a political role, another group works as bureaucrats or administrators, another serves as a defense force.  As is it conceived, each group needs the other faction in order to survive.  This means one group is less likely to launch a coup to overthrow one faction to consolidate their own power.  In theory, the world they’ve created works, up to a point.

Except, when they do this testing, to see which group people are most suited for, some people blow up the test.  By that I mean they don’t come back with standard results which are easily interpreted that say, “Yep, you fit in here, there, or there.”  These people come back with no clear answer of where they belong.   As such, they are called, “Divergent”.  A divergent person is someone who is gifted and skilled in every area of life.  A divergent is someone who can’t be pigeonholed as any one type. As you might imagine, a divergent is a danger to the well-prescribed hierarchy and order which had been created.  If the “divergents” let the cat out the bag that the factions and groups are just a way to control society then the jig is up, the game is over. Divergents were to be stopped and killed.

Jesus was a divergent.  Jesus was the original divergent.  You and I are called to be divergents; to borrow the language of the film, especially if we’re honest with our own test results.

Jesus refused to be placed in a faction.  We let ourselves be put into constituencies, factions, and groups all the time.  Despite the fact Jesus comes to us and says, “You don’t have a faction or a group.  I’m you’re group, me, Jesus.  I’m the only faction you have and we work and love everyone.”  We are divergent.

Being a divergent is about denying factionalism a place in our lives.  What we know from our own lives (not just from the movie) is that factionalism and factions doesn’t work, labeling and ordering the world in some pre-conceived notion of the common good is the very opposite of freedom-whether you’re motivated by politics from the left or right.  It’s the opposite of what Jesus envisioned.

How does Jesus say we, as divergents deny the power of faction, the go along to get along idea that sucks so many of us into this mentality?

In this week’s lectionary lesson, Jesus says you’re going to be rejected by the factions you may so desperately want to join.  The factional people, those who place stock in the factional way of life, he calls them out.  (The elders, the chief priests, and the legal experts in verse 32.)

The factions are going to come after us if we’re living according to how Jesus teaches us to live.

Divergence is also about denial. When we welcome divergence, you start by saying no to the things with which you normally converge.  Divergence is about moving away from those things that normally define you.

Jesus also tells his early followers and disciples to “take up our cross”.  I do think the statement “Everyone has a cross to bear” minimizes Jesus’ identity and the reality of his execution by the Roman Imperial authorities.  The cross is the great equalizer. The function of the cross is to draw humanity to Christ.  When you’re a Christian it becomes the means in which you define yourself, the locus of you identity, you can’t talk about yourself without talking about the cross.  At the foot of the cross there are no factions. It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to get to that level ground at the foot of the cross, we have to become more divergent, more like Jesus.  We have to move beyond factional, Pharisee theology (believe like this or else) and diverge from the divisions and pray that they may be one.

Divergence is the way of Christ.  Divergence welcomes everyone and empowers us all to live, love, and serve without the boundaries created by humankind.  Serving Christ may not be as clean and clear as serving a faction but why would you join a faction when you could gain everything?

Food for Thought-Thoughts On The 1st Sunday of Lent Mark 1:9-15

Let me ask you a question. When did John the Baptizer become John the Baptizer? Was it when he first decided to put on his camel hair garments? Was when he decided to go in his camel hair garments and preach down by the river? Could it have been when he ate locusts and with his wild hair shouted about the coming “kingdom of God”? Was it when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers? No, it was none of those. John became John the moment he was arrested. The words he spoke became a living reality; not a look down some future prophetic road. John and his followers, among them his cousin from Nazareth, were forced to ask the question, “What do we do now?”

When John gets arrested the nature of how we talk about God’s message changes. It’s not just an existential struggle between good and evil. That’s still present and bound up with how we live every day. Once people start going to jail for what they believe, Christianity can no longer be an intellectual exercise or a good theory to be debated at parties. It has to be a way of life. Like Martin Luther King’s first arrest in Montgomery, John’s arrest is such a transition. There are two ways to talk about time in ancient Greek. One may talk about chronological time with the word “chronos”. That’s the linear sense time you and I keep with our watches and phones. The second Greek word for time is “kairos”. Jesus is saying, this is the “kairos” moment, the definitive moment in history, where everything that comes after this time will be fundamentally different than everything that came before.

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Jesus tells the world to “Believe in the Good News”. Newer translations, like the CEB, have “Trust the Good the News”. That’s a better start. To get closer to reality, it reads something like, “Trust into the Good News”. The main point of John’s preaching (and Jesus’ to come) was not that people would develop or hold some kind of opinion about the good news. Instead, Jesus wants you to base your whole life on everything about the good news. Again, it’s gone from something we think about to something we live. The good news is something we can base our lives, without reservation or qualification upon by living into and trusting what Jesus says. Even if this means being arrested, being isolated, or as Psalm 25 notes being shamed while your enemies rejoice over you. Do you “trust” as Jesus says, “in” God enough, that while those painful, hurtful things are happening, that you’re going to get through to the other side? Do you trust, as the Psalmist says, a path and way, will be made known? Even though you’re weak and injustice surrounds you? Do you “trust”?

Food for Thought-ISIS, Christianity, and Hell

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ISIS are a barbaric bunch of folks. From beheadings to burnings they’ve reminded the world just how brutal committed religious people can be. Where did they come up with this stuff? Burning your religious opponents and throwing heretics from nearby tall buildings? Why Medieval and Reformation era Christianity, of course! Christians wrote the book on religious torture, brutality, and violence. John Calvin once had a theological enemy burned alive for disagreeing with his theology. Mennonites and Amish were burned alive in their barns throughout Europe. In Ireland, to this day, Christians regularly execute other Christians for the sheer hell of it. In fact, it’s only recently that some American Protestants has gotten out of the religiously sanctioned torture business. The last lynchings in this country were a little less than 80 years ago. Islam has no monopoly on thuggish brutality and Christianity is tainted by the same evil past.

There is no place for such brutality in either faith. People of all traditions find the inhumane and brutal execution of other human beings as morally repulsive. Executions like those performed by ISIS are offensive to every sensibility and human decency. No one deserves to be beheaded or burned alive. As Christians, we pray for the victims of the heinous crimes; that their suffering will end and that God would intervene on behalf of the victims. It’s not an intellectual or theological stretch to say that many Christians pray that ISIS (the perpetrators) would themselves be brutally eliminated from the face of the earth.

Here’s where the irony makes things a little sticky: we are morally incensed when ISIS burns someone alive but we have no trouble praying to a God asking that God to do the same thing to them. There’s something wrong with that equation.

The most traditional Christian doctrine of hell, people consciously aware of their burning for all eternity, we have no problems, nor moral issues believing in a God who will do this to people but are morally repulsed by ISIS doing the exact same thing. In some ways, where ISIS kills people by burning them once, in the traditional version of Hell, God burns them over and over again for eternity. Tell me what’s worse? Tell me what’s righteous?

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. Whenever I see someone in an orange jumpsuit, I see Jesus Christ. I feel the pinned up anger and frustration at watching an innocent man being forced to carry a cross for crimes he did not commit. I see a person willingly going to die. I feel fear and despair torturous Good Friday moments being replayed before me. I realize that I can no longer say or believe that burning people to torture them is barbaric when ISIS does it, but it’s virtuous when God demands it.  Because these people I’m watching, like Jesus on the cross, are God. This God, told us once, he desires “mercy, not sacrifice”. I believe him.  Maybe the people dying are dying for their enemies in an act of sacrificial love.  You’ll tell me that’s too much to believe, and I’m too naive.  But you’re cool with people being burned alive in hell forever?

Food for Thought-The Season of Lent (A Poem)

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It’s all about something,
everything and nothing,
this season of abstaining,
giving up the obvious,
to embrace the oblivious,
Lent stalks us,
like the neighbors cat,
what will we drop,
where will we turn,
we know not,
where he’s at,
in our face,
just beyond,
our parking space,
what does he want,
on this day,
I cannot see,
nor be reminded,
of my immortality.

-Richard Bryant