One Scripture to Rule them All

I am often amazed at the power of scripture in our society. As a scholar of religion and as a practicing Christian, I dwell in these texts as words valuable to interpret and which interpret me. Buried in the pages of ancient holy writ, I often loose sight of their potent force in today’s culture. Like a father who spends every day with his growing child, great beauties lose their mystery in the mundane.

So, when during the inauguration events (a rare moment of cultural display in the U.S.) both Rick Warren and President Obama referenced “the scriptures”, they had my attention.

To quote Krister Stendahl, “God may be one”, but there are many scriptures, and the Bible is one permutation among many existent writings. More so, when you say ‘scripture says’ rather than ‘the Bible, or Koran, or Zohar says’ you are saying something quite specific about the set of writings you reference. You are moving beyond the particulars of some collection of ancient human writing. You have appealed to that writing as authoritative at least in its direct ability to speak to and guide us and at most as a transcendent text given to us from the spiritual and divine beyond.

So, for the pastor and the president to both appeal to the ‘scriptures’, we must ask: how did, on that day, the Bible find its place as an authoritative text, and what does it mean for us living in this pluralistic post-Christian society?

In his invocation prayer, we expected Pastor Rick Warren to appeal to the Bible as scripture. Regardless of your personal impression of his performance or content, we must observe how strange it seemed to have Christianity cozied up against the U.S. Government. And for all those who misunderstand the separation of church and state, this was not an instance of government sponsored religion, though I could see how it seemed so. No, it was President Obama’s free choice, religious or political, to express his religious convictions by appointing Warren. And yet, strange it seemed.

Warren, in his opening, began by saying, “Scripture tells us ‘Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God; the Lord is one.’ And you are the compassionate and merciful one, and you are loving to everyone you made”. He began with that foundational section of Moses’ sermon ushering his people into unwavering monotheism (though that’s not how things turned out). He also chose to leave out the second half of Moses’ point which Jesus reinterprets: “You shall love your God will all your heart, mind, spirit, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourselves”. Warren replaces this second half with his conviction that God is compassionate and merciful to everyone he made. I have no doubt that Warren meant “to the horizons of humanity”: every living person. Rather than placing responsibility on humanity to react and relate correctly to God and humanity, Warren used the opportunity to say more about the character of God.

So, Warren appealed to the scriptures as if it were an autonomous voice: “Scripture tells us”. In his view, scripture (in this case Jewish and Christian scripture) speaks to us and offers some piece of sage advice that we would do well to take into account. After all, the Hebrew word for ‘hear’ carries the meaning of ‘listen, obey, understand, test, or examine”. Warren was inviting, like Moses, his audience and particularly the now President Obama, to embrace, try on for size, just see what happens, if you give the Jewish and Christian God a chance. And his emphasis was on the character of that God. Incidentally, Warren believes that the God of Israel created all humans.

So, Obama and Warren, by giving Warren the chance to pray, exercised their freedom of speech and religion on one of the biggest national televised events of the decade. I understand Warren’s move, though it did make me feel a little awkward. Because I value the freedom of religion and its ability to allow me to freely worship whomever I please, and knowing that the line between sponsorship and expression is very delicate, I get uncomfortable when we are on that line. So what seemed expected and uncomfortable with Warren turned into a strange surprise when President Obama himself appealed to ‘scripture’. And again, it was an appeal to the Christian scriptures.

President Obama is a Christian and is able to choose his own religion just like everybody else. But when he used ‘scripture’ to appeal and persuade this nation, my ears immediately perked. Here’s what he said:

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things, to reaffirm our enduring spirit, to choose a better history, and to carry forth the promise that all are equal, free, and deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness”.

Our President appealed not to Paul, or the Bible, but to Scripture. He chose a less forceful understanding of scripture. Rather than it containing its own voice that we would do well to try on for size, he presented Scripture as ‘words’ for us to examine and explore. Of course he was referencing Paul’s great oration on love in I Corinthians 13. After Paul muses on the true nature of love (versus the Corinthians’ version of Spiritual Power Playing), he begins to talk about the judgment day.

A great day will come, says Paul, when everything will be exposed for what it truly is. In the case of Obama’s vision, a lazy and weak spirit will be revealed for what it is even if we pretend we are now strongly enduring. If we have chosen the low road in this age of globalism and terrorism, says Obama, one day we will not be able to pretend that it was the highway. And if we as a country have renigged on our promise of equality, freedom, and the open road to happiness, then we might be able to pretend for now that we are the beacons of liberty in this world; but, a day will arrive when we will be exposed for what we truly were, the greatest perpetrators of inequality, captivity, and oppression in the world.

Obama does not make this case; he does not go that far. He merely implies that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we are something we are not. We should become what we say we are. We should walk the walk of liberty, rather than talking the talk.

Now, for Paul, coming of age symbolized the end of days. So to mature was not something we do on our own, but happens to us when God makes all things new. And his point is this: some day God will set things right. You will be known better than you’ve ever been known. Many things will fade away: injustice, pride, broken relationships. Our temporal faith and hope will morph into some thing else. If now we have faith without sight, then we will believe because we see clearly. If now we hope in a hopeless night, then we will hope in the fullness of day. But, one thing will not change: love. So, let’s go about learning to love immediately, because it is the only way we can bring heaven to earth in the here and now. And Paul thought we could do so. Paul thought we should do so. Paul encourages us to bend our minds to learning the way of love.

Does Obama’s vision match up to his reference in scripture? Perhaps. Equality, Freedom, and Happiness (the root of this virtue being holiness), will stem from a society of great lovers. But will our political and national vision of human greatness bring about God’s kingdom. Perhaps not. If we could match Obama’s political vision in step with a national movement of genuine love, perhaps. But then again that would be the derailment of the American dream of manifest destiny and replacing it by embracing our destiny to serve.

In the end, both men appealed to scripture in an authoritative way. Warren did so to highlight the character of God, to acknowledge Jesus before humanity. President Obama did so to persuade us to become our higher selves and to begin to walk the walk of freedom, equality, and happiness. Both did so with the help of scripture. The difference is that Obama appealed to the heart of a society once Christian; Warren appealed to a world ‘not yet so’.

What does this mean for our nation? Perhaps we are not as far beyond our Christian heritage as Christians and evangelicals now lament. Perhaps there is still room for Christians to appeal to the Bible as a valid authority and make their case. Maybe they should do so with creativity and care, but there might be room yet. And perhaps this means that the authority of the Bible might just endure through the era of enlightenment and critical scholarship, maybe because it speaks directly to the human experience in a profound authoritative way.

For Warren, his way was noble, but was not, I dare say, our beacon of hope. Warren, even with relativized prayer, “as far as his conscious would allow”, still seemed to be saying: “You need to know this merciful God; but you can’t know him except through us”. We need a larger vision of God’s work in this world far beyond our perceived borders, far beyond the work of our hands. Paul was indeed right when he said to the Romans that God had worked upon the heart of all who have lived. We must join him there.

Mostly, this all says to me that there exists, in our midst, a book of wonders. At least we should mine its pages for the wisdom of those who have gone before us. For others, we should consider more seriously its potential to guide our civilization down the path of truth and justice. At most we should consider its logic as that which springs from the mind of the creator God who did, it seems, create us all.

Duty, Charity, and Poor People

Has anyone thought to rename this era, “The Humanitarian Era”? World Vision, World Justice Organization, World Hope, World Faith, World Love, World Peace, Joy, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, and Growth…how can a person keep the non-government world straight?1  To top that, our millionaires are not as stingy as many would imagine. Bill and Melinda, Oprah, Rockefeller, D. Macarthur, Eli Lilly, and so forth confront us daily with the image that we as a people are a compassionate and giving people. Although our society doesn’t customarily expose our financial incomes and rates of giving, I bet it would reveal a lot. Either it would reveal that our society is filled with philanthropists, or it would reveal that the majority of our people are lousy givers out to make a killing rather than a living. I’d be curious to see.

Regardless, the fact is that, in the area of communal giving, we live in an environment filled with smoke and mirrors. Are we to listen to the humanitarian agency that makes us appalled at how much we own in comparison to the starving children in Africa? Or are we to heed the impulse that would pat us on the back for our generous national giving? Are we to burn with anger and deplete our personal savings as we watch the myriad of images blitzing the screen of starving children, child soldiers, and fly encrusted faces. Or are we to advance the causes and morale of our society in the face of the generosity of the country’s millionaires, professional athletes, and philanthropists? For a person interested in doing their right part in helping humanity, where do I even begin?

It seems to me that we need to temporarily shut our eyes and ears to the constant hum drum of rhetoric and listen carefully to our hearts. Stop worrying about false guilt, and focus for a minute. You may find that you are on good footing to take a few steps forward. And if you find your foundation rests on shifty sands, you need to reevaluate your base. It may be the very reason why you care so much and make so little progress in righting the wrongs of the world.

“What are these foundations”, you may ask. Basic logic. We base our lives on so many unevaluated assumptions that we are often ignorant to the mixture of contradictions that operate in us daily. So, in the arena of giving money, we need to start at ground zero.

In his 1971 article, Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter Singer raises the important question of human responsibility for the impoverished world citizen. He implies that our fundamental obligations to humanity have often been masked as moments for optional charity.

“Generally Speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing [the] refugees [of natural disasters] with the means to satisfy their essential needs.

Australia’s aid to the crisis in Bengal amounts to less than one-twelfth of the cost of Sydney’s new opera house.”

So we must begin, with Singer, at square one. Singer begins with the assumption that, “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad”. If you disagree with this point, you can probably stop reading now. Go check your pulse.

Point two is this: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance,” it is our human responsibility to do something about it.

Singer uses the metaphor of a shallow pond. If you see a child drowning in a deep puddle or a shallow pond, you ought to wade into it and pull the child to safety. You may get wet and dirty, but that is nothing in comparison with the possible death of that child. If you agree that the death of a child is worse that getting your clothes dirty, keep reading.

Of course we are now getting to square two or three, so naturally you may have begun to ask a number of questions. My biggest question is, “What if it is not in my power to prevent the drowning?” I cannot go to Africa and administer care for Malaria, because I live in the US and I have no medical training.

Let me offer another question. Do you accept a principle of impartiality, that all humans are created equal? If you do, you cannot discriminate against a person simply because they are far away from you or that you are far away from them, especially if there are doctors available or that exist at all. Distance does not lessen responsibility.

Another question you may be asking is: “Is it not the place of the government, rather than its citizens to make sure our taxes are going to needy parts of the country and world?” This question belongs to a whole web of questions that ask about responsibility: whose it is, what is the place of circumstantial judgment, and how much is required. Another question that belongs here is, “what if by helping a person to eat now, we are extending issues into the future, as in the case of booming populations; a mouth fed now will live to create four more hungry mouths”.  In a world full of drowning children, is it our responsibility to blindly work full time pulling them out? 

Concerning the question of governmental responsibility, I agree with Singer, that governments and elected leaders move by the winds of popular opinion. These want to get elected and stay elected. If they see their population investing their resources in one area, they will follow that perceived value and invest your taxes there to replace your personal giving. The tail does wag the dog, and it is our responsibility to put our money where our mouth is to highlight our values. In terms of the population control objection, your marvelous insight does not take your responsibility away. Instead of giving to the world food bank, you should give to organizations that teach birth control, abstinence, and general population awareness.

In regard to the larger question about how much we are to sacrifice and how full-time are we supposed to commit ourselves, we must keep in mind the principle of non-sacrifice.  For example, I should not devote myself to full-time unpaid humanitarian work leaving my family of three, five, or six at home without support. I need to work, and they need to eat. Our family should not give $1200 dollars per month to humanitarian work if it takes us $1000 per month to make a living. We must heed our physical, emotional, and thus moral limitations.

Yet, after traveling to square five or six, here is the main, personal, and heart issue. We need to re-evaluate what it is we need. Singer writes,” It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes we do not need to keep us warm.” To do so is not charitable, or generous. This means more than “we ought to give the money away”; rather,  it is wrong not to give the money away.

St. Ambrosias once rightly said, “The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless”. Ultimately the idea that it is an optional charity for a man or woman living in affluence to give to save someone else from starvation is fundamentally flawed. It is their duty.

But questions remain. “Just how much money are you suggesting I give”. “You don’t know what I’ve gone through to get financially stable. Are you asking me to go back to poverty?” “Even if you are right, how do you suggest that we turn a whole population living the American Dream toward the foundational values of duty?” “Your words and logic are nice, but what does God have to say about this?”…

1. This article, in essence, is a dialogue with Peter Singer’s article, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”

MLK Sermon

1/14/09

This is a sermon I’ll be delivering tomorrow at Asbury’s annual MLK chapel:

We too should find the higher way: Love in the 21st Century

It is an honor to be speaking here today with you in a chapel named after such a great speaker and after such a lover men and women. Dr. King had a deep love for all peoples, but I am often struck at his Christ-love and death for his fellow Americans. And it is for that reason, it is for his striking resemblance to Christ, why we honor every year his birthday. So, it is an honor today to be speaking amidst the memory of this great human. But I suppose I count it an even greater honor to be alive today living among you. There are faces among you that I recognize well, and there are others that I look forward to recognizing. I can’t help but mention those that have become my dear friends who deserve credit for this sermon and for helping me become my better self. To Scott Cozart who directed me toward Dr. King’s love and who teaches me about love every time we fellowship. To Doc Gray who has given me selfless support and introduced me to Dr. King’s beloved community. I am truly humbled to live among such brilliant and gentle humans and the countless others who have shaped me and who I lean upon.

I am not great scholar of Dr. King. I cannot tell you the name of the street where he grew up, what kind of gum he liked to chew, or what books were essential in forming the man. But I would call myself his student. I study Dr. King because he inspires me. I study him because his life and his words are possibly the most Christ-like that I have ever come upon.

You see, Dr. King found the higher way.

Many have said that if Jesus were to show up in our day bringing his message of love and salvation we would barely recognize him, if at all. While Dr. King was not Jesus nor did he claim to be a messiah, it seems to me that if we were to find somebody whose life most resembles Jesus is our day, we would do well to look at Dr. King. And even more so, we would do well to listen to his message and take seriously the things that he took seriously.

While we live in a day that is very different from Jesus’ and even Dr. King’s, a day of vast globalization beyond what Dr. King could probably imagine, we are not so very far removed from the issues that Dr. King so truthfully interpreted. In fact, Dr. King found the higher way of love in the twentieth century. We find that higher way in the 21st.

The pressures of globalism, of ethnic dialogue and interaction between peoples of many different kinds are no longer issues reserved for statesmen and missionary anthropologists. We can now not help but relate with the ‘other’. We can no longer chose to ignore the man or woman who is so different from us that it causes us physical anxiety to even be near them let alone strike up with them a meaningful conversation. We must find the higher way of loving our neighbor in this diverse setting. If we cannot, God only knows what tattered future we have before us. Let me share with you a couple of personal examples:

As we pulled into the snow-banked driveway, I had to do a double take at our destination. It was a farmhouse of old, quite smaller than I could imagine would fit the party we were expecting. It was the only house nearby and was back-dropped with snowy fields and the dead stumps of last year’s corn stocks blowing in the wind. If I’ve ever experienced rural America, this was it. On the house, the paint was chipping, there were no right angles perceptible, and as we stood outside the doorframe, I felt as if I were literally half the height of the house. I ducked through the doorway and was transported to an age past.

We entered to greet our never-met-them family, two middle aged women in their Christmas sweaters and one elderly lady full of smiles and happy to see my two year old daughter. As she bribed her with Christmas chocolate I was struck how much she seemed to fit into the backdrop of this place. It was almost as if I were looking at a painting of some old fashioned Christmas with the old lady in her rocker. I expected to not chat with her.

I hadn’t realized how struck I was at how much she was speaking until well into her monologue. I was surprised how verbal she had become and even more so when she began talking about her little Korean neighbors and how they loved to visit and bring her gifts. She talked about their black hair and dark eyes. I could tell she had a good experience with these little ones. I appreciated her willingness to interact with these little Asian children, and I wondered if she got the chance to really know them or their parents.

Globalization had hit this rural place. This rural American family was interacting daily with people who were very different from them. And if, in our day, the issues of new intercultural contact are not enough we have yet to really, in a deep way, deal with the intercultural sins of our fathers.

A second example: We pulled in to LaFayette Square mall in Indianapolis mostly by accident. We were on our way back to Wilmore from Wisconsin, and Eve had in mind to get a new shelf for Claire’s toys. Ignorant to the Indianapolis landscape, we stumbled upon this mall just off of I-65

As we pulled in the entrance, I began to understand where we were. I think I said to Eve from a distance. ‘We’re at a Black Mall’. I didn’t realize yet what I meant (I probably still don’t), but I could see from a distance that we were going to be the minority in this place. Of course there were a number of ethnicities in the mall, but I saw only one other white for our whole three hours. As we walked through the cold November air to the entrance, I began seeing the looks. What was it? Our dress? Our skin? Our demeanor? What was it that put us as a whole on the outside of this culture? As I walked through the doors, that feeling you get in your stomach, that, I’m-a-minority-here, feeling punched me square in the gut. The situation set me immediately into high sensory mode as my ugly stereotypes and collected bits of racism flooded my mind.

In a recent IndyStar e-article called, “Closures Plague LaFayette Square Mall”, I was not surprised to read the 77 comments written in response to the ‘emotionally neutral’ journalistic article. One commenter said,

“This whole mall has turned into nothing but a ghetto area with crime, drugs and many other problems all because the mall lost total control of security enforcement! This place is now nothing more than a rag tag flea market selling bling watches, cell phones and gold teeth! The sooner this place is bulldozed the better!”

Another man commented:

“Call it as it is, the area has gone downhill since there has been an influx of the intercity gangbangers and other trash that follows. The bow tied Muslims who stand on the corner at 38th and Lafayette Rd trying to sell me bananas or apples in the morning, the Hispanics who can’t speak a lick of English who shoot themselves down closer to 465

This is not how this neighborhood was and doesn’t deserve to be. Reinvent LSM by tearing most of it down, adapt to the shopping desires of people and with enough policing, the thugs will roost somewhere else and we can get back to a better way of life.”

Well, once we stepped inside the door, the impulses began almost controlling my actions: Don’t make eye contact. They’ll think you’re picking a fight. Pick up Claire. Who knows who will kidnap her or hurt her because we are white.

By most standards, the mall itself was in disrepair. Perhaps half of the shops were open. Most selling clothes, shoes, gold. I was honestly in culture shock when we came across the poster merchandizing teeth grills. I was fully out of my comfort zone, and this mall was outside my mall experience. I suppose the one difference between me and these commenters is that I didn’t get back in my car and pull away. And I’ve been in the diversity ball game long enough to ward the false shame that follows the activation of racist thoughts. I began to combat these internal forces that would slander the men women and children walking by.

After we finished our meal I was doing well combating these learned prejudiced instincts and was loosening up a little bit. We let Claire run around in the mall play area with about thirty other kids. I saw in her interaction the way things were supposed to be. Complete awe and joy and playfulness without thought to who she was sliding with, what color the driver was in the little foam car she was sitting shotgun in or what clothes she was or was not wearing. In my experience, it is these moments when the adults’ walls go down as we supervise our future around the play areas, where her Mom picks up my fallen Claire from the foam floor. Where I make sure his little boy doesn’t fall off the giant toy train’s smoke stack.

There are ethnic fault lines all across this country where we as a population have no idea how to give the love it will take for our country, this world to make it through this era. We Christians need to be the first to do so. We too need to find the higher way, and that should begin in all places with a set of pastors and Christian leaders.

Love from the beginning has been a hallmark Christian virtue. But how are we supposed to love the ‘other’ when secretly we struggle with a racism that betrays our principles of equality? How are we to love when the new people are so foreign, and the old issues so entrenched? How are we to love when the very people who we would like to trust end up bombing and killing our families? How are we to love them when our neighbors can’t even speak our language? How are we to love and minister to them who are so different from us. And in a globalized world when so many new and different people come before us, what does it really mean to love them? And ultimately our question, our cry to God, is this: God, how would you love the ‘other’ in a day when the diversity of your human creation has begun to interact so deeply that we can no longer ignore one another? Any advice?

Spiritual Master, Pastor, and Japanese statesman Toyohiko Kagawa, in his 1929 book, “Love: The Law of Life” writes:

Child, search not for springs of love in the deep valleys, nor yet in the bosom of another being. The spring of love, ah, it must well up in thine own heart. Therefore, I do not lose hope, nor do I fear when I see this drought [of love] in the land. I shall dig down deeper, still deeper, into my own soul, and there, in my heart of hearts, shall I find the spring of love which can never be found on the surface. I shall dig down to God who is within me. Then, if I strike the underground stream that murmurs softly in the depths of the soul—so rarely found—and to it will I lead a few thirsting comrades. In just the same fashion we must reach toward the thought that love for our enemies has a direct relation to some great impulse from an unseen part of the cosmos. If so where is the love to be found? This question demands our study”.

I believe Kagawa is right. We must dig deep into our often-deformed spirits, and in the spirit-numbing moments when we are presented with the choice to love, our wellspring pushes us to make the right choice. Only the God that lives in our hearts, distinct from our spirit, can bring us to the higher place of love.

But anybody that has tried to relate across cultures knows well enough that a deeply sincere heart full of seeming love is often not enough to create deep friendships that stretch across race, nationality, and ethnicity. Dr. King knew this when he preached on having the heart of a dove and the mind of a serpent. Dr. King said,

“Soft mindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice. The tough minded person always examines the facts before he reaches conclusions; in short, he post judges. The tender minded person reaches a conclusion before he has examined the first fact; in short, he prejudges and is prejudiced. Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings. There are those who are sufficiently soft minded to believe in the superiority of the white race and the inferiority of the Negro race in spite of the tough minded research of anthropologist who reveal the falsity of such a notion.

There is little hope for us unless we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft mined men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”

No, we are called to a higher love. In the unfamiliar face of our new neighbors, in the unfamiliar skin of our old, we are now called to, like Dr. King, find the higher way. And who better expound on this love than the inspired hands of jailed, beaten, and martyred St. Paul.

In I Corinthians Paul writes to a fractured church enthused by their newfound spirituality. And, the latest preacher to ride through Corinth mutually impressed each. In a larger bid to campaign for tough-mindedness in the Christian communities where zealous and perhaps foolish hearts full of good intentions were driving the Corinthian church to splinter and self-absorption, Paul gets to the root of their issue by elevates his speech and delivering one of the greatest orations on love that our scripture offers us. ‘Do you want unity in Christ while becoming a spiritual giant, a truly powerful Christian community’, asks Paul, ‘you must learn a higher way’.

So let me share how God would teach us to love in the face of difference by way of chapter 13 and lessons I have learned on my journey of love.

Verses 1-3 open the chapter and silence our smooth talking, put a check on our well educated minds, and put on trial our so called acts of sacrifice. When all is said and done, when the Lord asks us how we treated those most unlike us, when he asks what we did with the stereotypes that tempted our imaginations, when he asks us how we loved another ethnic or national group, many of us will have a long list of the ways we gave our money, time, furniture, and of all that we studied of the complexities of race in our land. But none of this will compute, none of this matters if we have not found the higher way.

I once went to the hospital while moving furniture for an incoming international student. I crushed my finger under a falling dresser. But what really mattered was not they way I submitted my body to suffering, but it was the conversation I was having in the truck prior to that with my Kenyan brother. We laughed together as I asked him about his wife and family. In turn he taught me about his favorite local bread. If we had not taken time to love one another, if I had been in and out to get a job done, then Paul would have been right. I would have gained nothing in my heart. I would have gained only a crushed finger.

Love is patient. It learns to listen to broken English and asks a person to repeat what they said, because you didn’t catch their accent. It doesn’t press relationships for the sake of having a friend who is different than you. It waits and persists when countless lunches fall through, because you value that person for who they are and know that the Lord works even in the times we don’t connect.

Love is kind. It finds ways to connect deeply with its neighbor. It learns their language and culture and learns to sing their heart songs. I was blessed with the chance to sing in a black gospel choir in college. I could not make it too long in the group, because they only needed tenors, and I was beginning to overstretch my thoroughly bass voice. But I learned the basics of gospel, how to shape the vowels just right, and how to sing, sway, and clap all at the same time. And my heart is richer to have learned the art. Love learns who the ‘other’ is. My Nigerian brothers here have taught me to ask questions upon our greeting. Not just the rote, ‘how are you’, but the thoughtful questions about their lives, families, and current experiences. I have also learned to participate with them in the gift of laughter, a human experience not utilized as much here. I have also learned that a good way to leave a conversation is merely to say, ‘thank you’. So, I do these things submitting to their culture in kindness to them, in love.

On the other hand, love does not envy. Love is when you are faced with the beauties of other peoples and cultures and you do not throw out your identity and seek to become the other. And when you come face to face with the glories of another culture, love does not diminish and envy them because in some ways, the beauties of their culture dwarf yours perhaps in rhythm, art, science, or dance. Love allows you to thoroughly enjoy your own culture and seek the ways that yours outshines the rest.

And when you find those beautiful aspects of your culture, for mine it is our proficiency and ability to produce, love uses that gift to serve others. Love does not boast and it is not proud in the sense that we should not flaunt our God-given gifts for the sake of our own glory. Isn’t this what Paul was trying to say in the whole of the later part of I Corinthians? Your gifts were meant to build up the church, not for your own moment or life in the spot-light.

Love is not rude. Love puts aside politics as usual to celebrate the historic moment for us all in the first black president. It does not paste bumper stickers on its car saying, ‘We could have got a hero. Instead we got a zero’ with a big red x over Obama. What message do you think that sends to your black brothers and sisters across this nation about how you perceive their achievement here? Love is not rude, but it is sensitive in the words and actions it communicates to our fellow humans.

Love is not self-seeking. This may be near the root of our biggest hurdle in America. American values, at their core, promise us each our own self-actualization if we just work hard enough. When we all go about seeking our Manifest Destinies, we will travel to shameless reaches to become the great pastor, speaker, or missionary that God ‘intends’ us to be. The synergy of such self-seeking produces a potent force when mixed with manifest destiny. It has created in our midst one of the most oppressive beliefs that could ever exist: that people groups are poor only because they are lazy. This is not a Christian principle. Love sacrifices of the self and allows space for the ‘other’ to shine in all of their glory and brilliance.

Love is not easily angered nor does it keep a record of wrong. This is an important one. I’ve struggled over the course of my life to have meaningful relationships especially with Hispanic and African American men. For some reason, my defense levels have always been high in these relationships. And we have so many often unspoken assumptions about one another, that we are bound to fumble our way through acquaintance and early friendship. I lived my freshman year two doors down from one of the few black men on my college campus. I struck a small friendship with him at the beginning of the year, and one night out of nowhere he let me have it. We passed in the hall. I smiled at him, nodded my head, and he let me know with multiple expletives what I could do with myself. I could see no reason for his outburst. And there it was, a possible moment where I could have hated black men for the rest of my life. But love got a hold of me in Christ, in time. We struck up a small friendship again three years later in our African American Religions class. I remembered that freshman moment every conversation that we had. And though he clearly had no memory of it, I learned to empathize and chose to love.

And being not easily angered and keeping no record of wrongs become quite a tricky moment for ethnic relationships, especially given the history of our culture. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and it does not become easily angered when another person does keep that record. Furthermore, love acknowledges the record of wrongs that is brought against my people and me. When I began to understand and embrace the realities of my historic privilege and historic money, my ability to relate well with black, Hispanic, and first nations people tripled.

Which leads to the fact that love does not rejoice in Evil, but rejoices with the truth. Historical privilege and money is the truth that my grandmother and great grandfather had more of it than many other people group’s had at that time. Historical money and privilege impacts today, and while it so often is a set of issues that divides us, it is the most powerful reality that could bring us together. There is a new wind blowing in our country, but our past will haunt us until we see it for what it was. Any movement that denies our naked history will sound like a self-seeking enterprise that is out to safe-guard its own privilege. Love is not self-seeking, but it rejoices with the truth.

Love Protects. When mutual hurts of prejudice and stereotype administer their sting, when hurt turns into violence, it is then when love acts. Love protects against slander, against profiling, against injustice. When push comes to shove, love protects people from the discriminatory slander and hatred birthed from soft-minded misunderstanding. This area is too sensitive for me give examples from especially given the nature of my position, but it has often been one of the most difficult and self-giving opportunities for us.

Love trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Anyone who has ever tried to work on deep and meaningful relationships knows that this may be the most difficult aspect of love. Any married person especially knows that all too easily the messy closeness of two recovering sinners can often create some pretty dark moments. We can take each other for granted or interpret veiled comments or actions negatively. We can lose trust in our closest of companions. We can lose hope that there can be any future for us when poorly chosen words or moments reveal our profound ignorance of one other or our tendency to diminish the ‘other’. Yet, love preservers. In marriage it preservers and especially in inter-ethnic relationships it perseveres.

Love never fails. For all the budding IBS folk out there, I believe this statement is a conclusion that encapsulates all Paul was saying about love into one principle. When I’ve wanted to engage in interethnic or intercultural relationships and have feared to know how. I’ve learned ways to love. The skills do come. When I’ve tiptoed around shallow relationships, love has got a hold of me and allowed me to go deeper. When I’ve experienced the pain of fractured relationships and misunderstandings, I’ve learned to ‘search deep down inside of me for that underground stream that murmurs deep within’ and I’ve let love capture me. God has much to say about our globalizing world. He says,

‘I’ve shown you the higher way of love and it does not fail. For you’ve seen my love in my Son, and you know that a day will come when I will gather my church from every nation, tribe, and tongue, and you will be known then better than you’ve ever been known. Your eloquence, your education, your theological and spiritual insight will be burned up like the autumn leaf, and God’s diverse creation will again live in unity unlike the veiled version we know now. So put away now your childish self and find the higher way; put on love now. Faith and hope may remain for eternity in a modified fashion, but love will endure throughout eternity in its current form. Tap into love now and watch God’s diverse creation unify in this age. You do not need to understand all cultures and each specific world group, your great service to other people will not take us there, and it will not take your PhD to make it happen. Unity will take love.’

I hope at this point you are beginning to ask what this means for you. For some, you may have dwarfed me in your journey of realizing King’s beloved community. Others may be asking what the Beloved Community is. Some of you may be miles into their journey. Others of you may want to begin it today.

For some to find the higher way means that you should begin the process of healing and forgiveness in your intercultural relationships. For others you need to let perfect love cast out your fear, and you should become intentional about the relationships you create on campus. Make the eye contact, introduce yourself, give your name, ask if you could eat lunch together. You must be intentional. Let the color of a person’s skin and shape of their eye attract you to a relationship, but let that relationship be about the human you are encountering, that God-imaged glory-filled distinct person.

If you want to know more or put yourself in an intentional place of intercultural formation and in the tradition of justice, come to the Multicultural Ministries. This is where I give my shameless plug. We have arenas set up for you learn. We have seminars set up for you to experience. We have small groups running that will expose you to transformation in the area of justice. You cannot miss us if you eat on campus. Our office is right near the new entrance to the cafeteria’s register.

For our community, we can begin this process of unity together this Monday. You are off of work and out of class on this celebration of Dr. King’s birthday. Come to the celebration and service events. Take home your bulleting, and pin it to your board. Come to the breakfast and listen to Dr. Kalas and other share about their impressions and memories of Dr. King. Join us for the march and rally in Lexington. Help serve the Wilmore community from 2-5 at the community center. And come to the worship service and hear Dr. King himself as we meditate on the Christian prophetic tradition. This is a real way to begin, and it is coming within the week.

I sometimes lay awake at night and ask myself, ‘what if’? What if our community got it? What if our global community here of future and Christian leaders became Dr. King’s beloved community? The world and our country are on a bullet train toward multiculturality. Are our hearts ready? What if we at Asbury became a campus full of great lovers of humanity in all its diversity? What if instead of fearing the potential conflicts among the ‘other’, we as a community began begging for this place to become more diverse? What if we made the extra step to create deep and meaningful relationships inter-ethnically and inter-culturally and did so with the sharpest minds and deepest love we could muster? What kind of healing would our campus experience? What kind of witness would we become? What kind of theological seminary would we produce? Would we be the bridge seminary that moved along side of our globalizing world and truly offered the premier product for globalized ministry? If the world is our parish, then I hope we can. What if we became the theological seminary that Dr. King would have called the successor of his vision, the Joshua of his Moses, and the realizing force of his dream? What if we too found the higher way? Dr. King knew what it would take for this vision to become a reality. He knew the type of person it would take for our world’s ethnicities to live together in harmony. He wrote:

“Only through inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit. The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort o f patience which is an excuse to do nothing. And his very transformation saves him from speaking irresponsible words which estrange without reconciling and from making hasty judgments which are blind to the necessity of social process. He recognizes that social change will not come overnight, yet he works as though it is an imminent possibility.

This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation’ dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless cavalries; and men do reverence before the false gods of nationalism and materialism. The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”

I want to close today with a song from my heart. Nobody truly knows the trouble that Dr. King experienced in this life. Nobody knows the pain he endured birthing the movement that we now embrace. Nobody but Jesus. As I am beginning to learn, the great gospel singer Mahaliah Jackson inspired Dr. King and represented the sentiments of the movement of which Dr. King was a prominent leader. Jackson often sang these words. Only Jesus truly knows the man that gave his life for the America he loved so dearly…

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrows
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

Sometimes I’m up
Sometimes I’m down
Oh, yes Lord
Sometimes I’m almost hit the ground
Glory Hallelujah

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows but Jesus
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

Childhood and Spirituality

Am reading a book on spirituality called, “Looking for Jesus” by Adrian Van Kaam.  The premise of the book is that Jesus’ speech in John 14 exists as Jesus’ main directives on the spiritual life while awaiting his return.  Came across one of those gotta-memorize paragraphs:


“To live spiritually is to preserve the spirit of childhood within myself, to regain it when it is lost, to restore its power when it is weakened. The opposite is pride. ‘Every proud man is an abomination to the Lord; I assure you that he will not go unpunished.’ (Pv. 16.5) His punishment is the loss of wonder and openness, of the sense of adventure that is the salt of life and love.”*

I was particularly moved by the last sentence.  The absence of wonder, openness, and adventure seem to me all parts of the shadow of discouragement, monotony, and then depression.  Am slowly learning to step away from these damp places. 

Would love to hear your thoughts. How do you remain in wonder, openness, and adventure?
*Adrian Van Kaam, Looking for Jesus (Denville: Dimension Books, 1978), pp.28.



Color Lines

I’ve been thinking a lot about race and racism lately and came across this interesting exercise. It is supposed to get us thinking about the subtle ways that we participate in groupings and racial perceptions.

So, try it out.
To make the exercise most effective, ask yourself the following set of questions, then try to spend time examining your emotional reactions, and then try to capture your rawest thoughts as they unfold:
1. Do you believe in the segregation of races?
2. Do you believe that students should be bussed across county lines to create diverse high schools?
3. How would you feel if you had one neighbor who was from another race?
4. How would you feel if you lived in a neighborhood where you were the only member of your race?
————————::
Well, the questions are supposed to be progressive, as you can see. The first question seems antiquated, but only fifty years ago this was the conventional wisdom of our society.
The second question pushes the envelope some more. It gets at a person’s willingness to intentionally create a diverse and multicultural society. I found myself more saying yes, thinking that the value of intercultural relationships is more important than convenience (a core value of our society).
The third question should also seem like a no-brainer. Again, this was one issue no long ago that conjured up volatility in our communities. I suspect while our general attitudes have changed in this area, the issues of interracial neighborhoods lies active and awake just beneath the surface of our society.
This fourth question packs the most punch. If your answer was something along the lines of, ‘it would not bother me’, you are either one of those rare new globalized people or you are somehow fooling yourself. For me, to ponder this hypothetical conjured up a host of emotions of which I was completely unaware. The vivid sense of otherness that I imagined placing upon my majority neighbors reminded me that while I believe in equality and fairness for all people, my perception of other peoples is fully loaded with fears and stereotypes that I often avoid in my small white rural town.
I wonder, how were the questions for you? What did you find? Were the questions though-provoking, or did you find them unhelpful?

Genesis: As a Book

Can I just say that the first three texts of our scriptures are BEAUTIFUL works!

Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus weave together a story not mainly about humanity and Israel, but of God; we just happen to be a major character. Genesis is primarily about God’s activity in “descending” humanity, especially those who descend directly from God. Exodus and Leviticus are primarily about God’s speaking to humanity, especially to Moses. God speaks/reveals to Moses an order of society, one which ensures extreme providence to the God-ordered community: both in terms of God’s presence among his community and the land’s wholehearted embracing of the people. At center stage, we find God at step with humanity as he himself works unceasingly to reveal himself, care for a constantly fragile new creation, and perpetually speak life and redemption into his descendants. (I’m sure that Numbers, Deuteronomy, and the rest of the scriptures add similarly to this narrative; I just haven’t read them yet, this time around).

I’m writing in 2006, which means that before I go any further I have to answer some pertinent questions about how I am reading these texts. I am reading under the assumption that to some high degree God continually speaks through the cannon of Christian scripture. I am interested in how God has worked in this world, and I believe that the First Testament has some pertinent and historical answers. I am mostly attempting an objective reading of the texts: one that is interested in what the text primarily says. Regardless of our growing cynicism towards all things “objective”, our post modern friends still haven’t toppled everything scientific. As all things objective to some degree fail, I do understand that some degree of personal bias will influence the “meaning of the text”. And since some of our current audience still thinks that we can’t come to some focused conclusion concerning the intended meaning of the texts, I have to wonder if these critics will ever really read the Bible; or will they continue their assault, through wide sweeping rejections, on all things universal.

As for what I think the scriptures are, I will only say two things. Firstly, that these texts find themselves in a tension between history and story. Without such tension, one falls into the perils of fundamentalism; furthermore, without such tension, one strips the beautiful meaning from the texts. Secondly, I am fairly comfortable with redaction and its influence upon the text. When the dust settles, I remain all the more interested in what the Bible says and how it influences my actions and relationships.

So, with that out of the way I feel fairly comfortable jumping in to Genesis.

Key Verse of Genesis:(Gen 50:18-20)

“Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him and said, ‘We are here as your slaves,’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.’”

From Joseph’s mouth we understand the emphasis of Genesis: Despite our malcontent God has intended good, to create and preserve a bustling people of influential blessing. In fact God has not held back; no, he continues to fashion good things despite our evil and violence. This message weaves throughout the book from the turbulent beginning:

“I have produced a man with the help of the Lord”, proclaims the new mother Eve; and after things go terribly wrong, “God has appointed for me another child instead of Abel, because Cain killed him” (4.25).

God treated the first family with the care given to a newborn child, despite its internal violence; the tree lead to death after all. And God’s heart grew as heavy as the violence in the earth:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark.”
(Gen 6.11-18).

God would not let his dreams wither. Long has he tilled human society forming it in the image of his rule. Just when human ways engulf his revelation, God preserves a remnant who upholds the ways of God. Yet, as a flower in long bloom, God reveals himself; in fact, only when Adam’s grandson opened his new eyes, ‘At that time people began to invoke the name of the LORD’ (4.25). It was Adam and Eve’s family that produced Noah, a line safeguarding knowledge of Eden and perhaps preserving the righteous life.

The earth became a new Genesis after the washing. From this vantage point we must understand Abraham; Egypt, Babylonia, Canaan, all sprung from Noah’s sons. The world would engulf God’s revelation with images of birds and beasts and earthly kings. Yet the descendents of Noah also produced Abraham, a son of Babylon, a son of Lamech of Shem. Joseph’s words echo of Abraham’s story. God has been “preserving a numerous people”:

“God brought Abraham outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them’. Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendents be.’ And he believed the LORD and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (15.5-6).

We cannot understand Genesis without understanding God’s intention to preserve a numerous people; people coming through hell and high water. And all along, God slowly reveals himself,

“No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you” (17.5-7).

Finally, if Genesis would bear any meaning for us today we must understand the relationships between the brothers: Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob. I have begun to wonder if we are supposed to relate to Cain, Ishmael, and Esau, rather than the victim, the chosen child, and the blessed one.

For in Cain we find our response to God’s rejection: a bitter surge of violence. In Cain we find our punishment: the very land we toil rejecting our needs. In other words, we’re stripped from our identity; all that was familiar and comfortable utterly forsaken.

In Ishmael we find the wild ass of men that we are, living at odds with our kin. God’s favor seems to rest on us, but Isaac has God’s full attention. (I thought it was interesting that we find both brothers burying their father Abraham, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron”.)

In Esau we find our struggling attempts to be the chosen one, “When Esau saw that the Canaanite women [his new wife] did not please his father Isaac, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael to be his wife in addition to the wives he had” (28.9). We also find our haunting mistakes, “Have you not reserved any blessing for me, bless me also, father! And Esau lifted up his voice and wept. Now Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him” (27.41).

Finally, Joseph’s brothers despise him for his self-glorifying attitude and ship him off to Egypt so that no such younger brother would rule over the family. But,

“God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45.5-8).

In the end, God continues that work which he began. He creates and sustains people who live a life of mysterious communion, a people who walk with God; a righetious people who slowly learn what the reader learns in the beginning: that this person who won’t leave humanity in violent peril is the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that lives.