Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Biblical Literacy or Is That Illiteracy?

Recently one of the candidates who is running for President of the US was asked what his favorite scripture was in the Bible since he said that he thinks the Bible is the greatest book ever written.  He first said that it was too private for him to discuss and then, when pressed further, said that his favorite verse was the proverb that said not to bend to envy.  Some Bible scholars have been discussing this interaction and many think that perhaps this candidate has rarely if ever actually read the Bible and perhaps is bringing it into the public forum so as to gather some votes and voters.  Who is to know if the man ever reads the Bible but his response is similar to many who say they value the Bible and think it is the greatest book ever written but they do not actually read the Bible?

When people defend certain societal views of theirs using the Bible as their defense, hardly ever does one hear them quote Book, chapter, and verse in their defense.  Usually they just say, "Well, the Bible says..." and they leave it at that.

I had a young woman in a Bible study group one time tell everyone, "Well, it is like it says in the Bible, 'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach him to fish, and he will eat for a lifetime."  As the words came out of her mouth, I could not believe that she actually thought the verse she quoted could be found in the Bible.  I raised my hand and said, "I don't believe that is actually from the Bible."  She was taken aback at what I said and tried to defend her views and I challenged her to find the verse in the Bible.  She could not, of course, because that proverb is taken from American culture, not from the Bible.  She admitted to me later that she was mistaken and we both laughed about it.

That example is not uncommon though.  Surveys have been done asking participants to say whether or not a proverb or verse can be found in the Bible.  Most of the time the participants are unable to successfully pass the test of the survey.

I enjoy watching game shows such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or "Jeopardy".  When the subject is something found in the Bible, I usually become amused because the game show participant rarely knows the answer and I usually do.  One time a woman was in the last round on the Millionaire show and a Bible question came up.  She either had to answer or had to walk away and she did not know the answer (which I thought was pretty simple) and she had to walk away ending her time on the show.

I know that I have been to seminary and have two theological degrees and have almost 25 years experience as a pastor but much of the knowledge of the Bible that I possess was taught to me as a child in Sunday School.  I had the Bible drilled into me weekly with games such as "Sword Drill" where we had to open our Bibles and find specific verses.  We were given challenges to make us want to look into the Bible and learn what was there.  We had memory verses to learn again and again and were given prizes if we could say them.  I had a mother who pushed Biblical knowledge on me over and over as long as I lived in the same house as she did.  So, even though I have advanced studies in seminary, I can attribute much of my Bible knowledge to my early roots as a Christian.

It is sad that many people who are Christians and who say they believe in the Bible as God's Word hardly ever open the book or read its words.  They may hear it read aloud in worship services and hear a pastor preach from it but they have never personally taken the opportunity to read it for themselves and to learn what it truly says about the social issues of our day.  They instead listen to television preachers tell them what they should believe and give a world view that is more akin to the medieval world rather than the modern world as they sway them into thinking the way they promote.

Some may be surprised to find that the Bible does not say anything about many modern topics.  It is silent on those because the cultures of the ancient world did not contain many of the modern things we discuss today.  Some Bibles are translated specifically to promote their own theological bent and even the translation of the Bible one chooses to read will lead one to think in a certain way about our world and its peoples.

The Holy Spirit gives light to those who seek it.  Those who honestly open the Bible and ask God to direct them in understanding it will find light and truth.  Those who simply carry it around or hear what others may say about it without actually reading its words for themselves will be led in one direction or another and may find turmoil and confusion.  God will lead us where we should go in life and God's Spirit will never fail to be our guide in our lifelong search for truth.  Open the book and read its words and ask God to direct you as you honestly search for the truth contained in it.  You will find peace and joy in such a personal venture.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being First in God's Kingdom

I recently had an experience while getting my hair cut at Supercuts in Austin that made me think about the Gospel lesson from yesterday's lectionary.  My wife and I were there and I  had already had my haircut and she was in the chair getting hers.  As I sat waiting for her to finish, suddenly the door opened and an elderly woman entered the place along with a younger man that I assumed could have been her son.  The older woman was using a walker and the younger man carried an instrument of some kind that had a tube leading from it to the woman's clothing where it was hidden beneath.  The hair stylist who had done my haircut, a younger man in his 30s, greeted the couple warmly and asked them to sign in.  He explained it would be a wait of about 30 minutes which seemed okay with the elderly woman.  As he told them to have a seat to wait, the younger man stopped him and asked a request of him.  He said that the woman could not sit in the regular chairs where we were waiting because of her legs and she may not be able to get back up if she did, so he wondered if she could sit in one of the stylist chairs that was not being used.  The stylist smiled and said, "Of course.  Just choose any one that is not be used and you are welcome to sit there."  The younger man with the woman thanked him for his consideration and the stylist replied, "Of course.  We are glad you are here and want you to be comfortable."

What a warm welcome this stylist gave to this aged woman with many health issues.  It made her feel included and accepted as she was.  They went out of their way to do what they could to be sure that her needs were met so that she could receive her hair styling along with other customers.

This lesson from life made me apply it to our life as Christians and as church members, of course.  It made me think about the welcome that we give to others who venture into our churches or the personal welcome we give to individuals whom we meet in life.

The Gospel lesson for yesterday was found in Mark's Gospel where Jesus asked the disciples what they were talking about as they traveled to Capernaum.  They were silent because he knew that they were arguing about who was the greatest in the Kingdom that Jesus was bringing.  Jesus told them that to be first in God's Kingdom means that we have to be servants to all.  To make his point clearer, he called a little child to be among them and said, "Whoever welcomes one such as this welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."  (Mark 9)

Children were not seen as precious gifts from heaven in the ancient world as they are today in North America.  They were seen as a burden and responsibility, one more mouth to feed, until they were old enough to contribute and help out with growing the crops necessary for all to be fed.  So, welcoming a child was an act of courage and acceptance because they represented a cost to the family who had a new child.

We like to think that we welcome all persons whom we meet but all of us have suspicions or fears or prejudices that we brought to adulthood with us from our childhood.  We learned to fear or mistrust others based upon ideas or characteristics about them.  Perhaps our feelings about them have to do with the color of their skin, their country of origin, their religion, their language, or their sexual orientation.  We may judge persons immediately based upon these and other factors without getting to know them first.  Welcoming the stranger who is different may be challenging for us but it should not be considered impossible if we truly want to act on Christ's behalf to others.

Persons who have rarely ever been a stranger or newcomer have a hard time relating to the feelings of others who are different.  Perhaps one has always lived in the same community or area where one was born and grew up and finds it hard to know how persons may feel who are new to an area or country.  Perhaps some have never been friends with others who are different.

I grew up in a town that was all white and never knew a person of color until I went to college.  I was taught to be wary of persons who were not of my same race.  When I went to college I wanted to be friends with all persons so I began to get acquainted with others and soon had many friends who were African-American.  As I worked in many places, I got to know persons who were different from me in many ways and soon found that all of us have the same needs and desires in life.  We all want to be happy, to be loved, to be safe and secure.  We all want a good future for ourselves and for our children.

Think about times when you have received a genuine welcome from others?  What did they do that conveyed sincere welcome to you?  How did they treat you to make you feel included and welcome?  How do we translate the welcome we have felt into a welcome that we offer others across all the distinctions that often separate us?  How do we make persons to feel welcome in our personal space and in our churches?

As we ask God to open our eyes to others around us and to see their needs, God will direct us into how we can expand our welcome so that we will truly be a welcoming and inclusive church as well as individuals who strive to show God's love to all in our world, even those who are much different than we are.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Believing or Doing or Both?

We are reading passages from the book of James each week during worship in the month of September.  James was written to the first century church to guide them in how the life of faith is to be acted out in daily life.  Paul wrote to other churches and stressed belief in Jesus Christ ("saved through faith, not works, lest anyone should boast").  James stresses works as an important part of the life of faith ("faith without works is dead").  The tension between these two views were not apparent at the time of their writings because they were written to different groups of Christians and each did not have both to compare.  We modern Christians have both writings and more that inform us of how the life of faith works in daily life.  We wonder if belief is the most important component or is what we do for others is more important than what we believe or does it take both to make a Christian a complete person?

James is adamant about religion containing works of piety and mercy.  Last week we read one of the key verses of the book of James---"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."  (1:27)  This week we continue with what James teaches and will hear--"You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (2:8)  The concern of chapter two, however, is not to judge others based on criteria that one may set for oneself but to love others without being judgmental.

James is concerned that some in the early church were favoring the wealthy over the poor when they attended worship.  He went as far as to call it a sin to show partiality to some based on criteria we set for ourselves. (2:9)  He compares it to other sins that we consider to be serious and are named in the Ten Commandments.  He urges mercy for all, for "mercy triumphs over judgement."  (2:12)

So, we are left with the instruction to love all and to show mercy and to not judge, something that even Paul would agree with James about.  So, what does that have to do with belief?  If one believes in Jesus as savior, then does the Christian life consist strictly of believing and professing one's belief to others OR are acts of mercy and piety necessary to the Christian life in order for one to truly be Christian?

I think Jesus own' teachings help to answer that question and the passage quoted most often in regard to this topic is from Matthew 25 where Jesus describes the great judgment where people are separated as sheep are from goats.  The judge who separates the people sits on the throne and the criteria used to decide whether one goes to everlasting peace or eternal punishment has to do with works.  The judge does not ask if one believed in Jesus as one's savior.  The judge asks those who stand before him...did you feed the hungry?...did you give drink to the thirsty?...did you welcome the stranger?...did you give clothes to the naked?...did you take care of the sick?...did you visit those in prison? (Matt. 25:31-46).  The answer given determined the fate of those being judged.

Jesus' parable about the judgment did not have the judge ask one time what one believed.  The outcome was based solely on works.  That leads me and others to conclude that the complete Christian life must include acts of mercy and piety and charity.  Saying what one believes is not enough to satisfy God.  Showing what one believes through what we do for others demonstrates our belief.  When it comes down to it, it really does not matter what we believe about God or Jesus or social issues if our lives do not demonstrate a life of love toward others in the way we treat them and in what we do to help them in their distress.

Paul was a great man and a great theologian and his own life demonstrated love for others in the way he lived among First Century persons.  He acted out his beliefs through his life of love and sacrifice resulting in his death for what he believed and taught.  He most likely would have agreed with James if they would have discussed their views together.  There is no writing saying they ever did this but both men's writings guide our thinking today as they struggled to reflect the teachings of Jesus to those of their day, both in what they said and in how they lived.