This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Personal Responsibility.

            Many people appear to believe that the Bible and Jesus teach “personal responsibility.”  By personal responsibility they mean that each individual should be personally responsible for themselves and their families.  This means making wise and prudent decisions in their own best interests, not depending or relying upon assistance from anyone else.  It means working hard to get ahead and taking reasonable risks investing their assets.  It means keeping the commandments by not stealing, killing, or lying in their personal relationships.  It means not disrespecting their parents.  It means accepting the consequences of their own actions, not cheating, complaining, or blaming others for their situation.  It means keeping one’s word.
            All these virtues are interpreted very individualistically.  They concern what you as an individual do in your own life.  And this understanding of personal responsibility is based on another convenient assumption, that everyone has an equal shot in life.  There is an “even playing field” and everyone has to abide by the same rules.  Your life is purely what you personally make of it.  The feeling is that if everyone showed personal responsibility in this way, society would be much better off.
            And it probably would.  But this is not what the Bible or Jesus teach.  They don’t teach this view of personal responsibility because some of the premises are very wrong.  Scripture understands that, left to their own devices, human beings do not adopt the same rules for everyone.  Neither is there in reality anything like an even playing field.  Every person does not come into the world with the same abilities, opportunities, or prospects.  Indeed, the Bible understands that even adopting “the same rules” for everyone on paper or in theory isn’t even possible.  The very same rules may happen to favor some and jeopardize others, based on their different circumstances.  Thus the enactment of a philosophy of personal responsibility means that the privileged consolidate their power at everyone else’s expense.  That is why it is invariably the privileged who are most likely self-righteously to prate about personal responsibility.  Exercising personal responsibility results in a society in which the power of the wealthy, strong, healthy, well-born, intelligent, and good-looking ever increases, and that of everyone else declines.  The negative example of this was always Egypt.  Egypt stands as a continual warning of how bad a society can get – slavery – and the consequences – ecological disaster.
            The Bible remembers with some bitterness that a male child born a Hebrew slave in Pharaoh’s Egypt does not have anything like the same chances in life as a male child raised in Pharaoh’s royal household… and it gives us Moses as an example of both.   Slaves have no personal responsibility because responsibility for them has been forcefully usurped by stronger powers, exercising their own personal responsibility.  The same goes for people born poor, sick, aliens, outcast, excluded, or otherwise deemed by the personally responsible to be deficient.
            Therefore, God gives the new nation of escaped slaves a new way of living.  Since the free exercise of individual, personal responsibility leads inexorably to the tyranny of the strong over the weak, as in Egypt, God institutes a alternative, contrary way of communal and mutually shared responsibility for each other.  God gives the people a law which is intended to make them into an anti-Egypt where everyone is equal under God.
            This law is, of course, summed up in the Ten Commandments.  Briefly, the Commandments instruct us in mutual, shared responsibility by first asserting the primacy of God over all.  The has the effect of leveling society, mitigating against the idea that some (the personally responsible who get ahead because of their privilege) are better than others.  God says no to this and to the religious expression of this philosophy, idolatry: making something or someone who isn’t God into God.  God institutes the Sabbath to ensure that the demands of economic production, that place where the personally responsible most effectively wield their power, do not consume 100% of a person’s life.  God would have the people remember others, beginning with their own parents, representing former generations, traditions, and the Earth.  Then the four main tools by which the personally responsible enforce their privilege – murder, adultery, theft, and lying – are prohibited.  Finally, the people are enjoined from envying or coveting what belongs to others.  This works both ways: the personally responsible often envy the wealth generated by others’ work, and therefore connive to acquire it, and people are not to desire for themselves the fruits of being privileged over others.
            If anything, Jesus is even more severe.  When a poor or sick person comes or is brought to him, Jesus does not give them a sermon about how they need to be more personally responsible.  He acts immediately to alleviate the suffering.  His advice to rich people who ask for it is basically, “Go and sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor; then come and follow me.”  In other words, “exercise your personal responsibility by doing the thing you consider most irresponsible.” 
            For the Bible, then, we are only personally responsible for each other.  When inequalities emerge, we are responsible to ensure that those who have more contribute to those who have less.  The most important personal responsibilities we have are for other persons.  When we are living for others is when we are being most personally responsible, as far as Scripture is concerned.  However, if you are using your personal responsibility as a pretext for criticism of the underprivileged, as if they got that way because of their own lack of personal responsibility, well, neither Jesus nor the Bible has much patience with this self-righteous, hateful view.    

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Feast of Creation.

Proverbs 9:1-6

            We see in this passage from the book of Proverbs that the practice among of God’s people of sharing together in a ritual meal of bread and wine goes back much further than Jesus’ last supper.  It even goes back further than Proverbs.
            In Genesis, when the mysterious High Priest Melchizedek comes out and blesses our father Abraham, he does it by bringing out an offering of bread and wine to share. 
            When the people of Israel were being delivered from bondage in Egypt, God instructs them to celebrate this event with a holy meal, the central elements of which are unleavened bread and cups of wine. 
            And here in Proverbs, we see the personified female character of Holy Wisdom, after she has participated with God in the creation of the world in those wonderful verses in chapter 8, she invites the people to a banquet of unity with the whole creation.  It is as if the dazzling description of God’s creating activity culminates in this meal to which all the people are invited.  Creation was created so there would be a place for Wisdom’s holy meal.  God made the world for the sake of this gathering.  Creation itself is the “house” that Wisdom has built for the purpose of this banquet.  And the invitation explicitly mentions bread and wine.
            Bread and wine constitute the gifts of God which are a sign of the unity of God’s people and God’s creation.  Unlike, say, milk and honey, or water and blueberries, bread and wine are not natural products of the earth.  In order to make bread, the grain has to be harvested.  Then there is a very involved process of making flour and finally bread.  It requires some human ingenuity, skill, tradition, and community to make bread.  The same goes with wine.  Turning grapes into wine is something people learned to do over centuries of experimentation.  It requires education, practice, and, most importantly, a community.  You can’t do either one of these things by yourself.      
            So this gathering around the Table to give thanks to God and to share bread and wine is constitutive of God’s people.  It is perhaps the one activity that reveals and creates who we are.  It is, in a sense, what we are all made for… and what the whole earth is made for.  We are made for the communion demonstrated and realized in this holy meal.  We are made, in short, for community.  
            God creates and requires a community, a gathering, a group of people who over time and through the use of their God-given wisdom, develop these means of nourishment and sustenance.  Creation itself is a place which God carves out of the chaos for the purpose of having community flourish.  There is the community of nature, and within it we have the community of human beings: People who are able to figure out how to make bread and wine.  Creation is a place of community and celebration, of the partnership between God and creation.

            When he comes into the world, the Lord Jesus fulfills this pattern and brings it all together.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word, by whom everything is created.  He is the One doing the creating at the beginning.  It is therefore his communal banquet that Wisdom sets here.  For he comes into the world to reveal, realize, and fulfill the communion and partnership that God intends for all people and the whole creation.
            On the night before he is killed, when Jesus sits down to his last supper with his disciples, it is a celebration of the Passover.  It is a commemoration and reliving the liberation of the people of God from bondage in Egypt.  It is about freedom!  It is about a new way of life not under the cruel thumb of Pharaoh.  Pharaoh’s unjust regime was about exploiting people and nature to make a few wildly rich.  That is not the kind of community and partnership God intends.  And it was severely punished with ten plagues, successive ecological disasters that ruined Egypt.
            You do not mock or defile the house of Wisdom.  Wisdom’s ways are the ways of creation itself.  There is a purpose and a content, a story and a bias, to creation.  Creation bends and moves in a certain, definite direction.  And we participate in Wisdom when we, in our lives, live by her instruction and keep her ways.  In other words, we may live our lives in harmony with creation.  We may attune our actions to the patterns built into creation itself and revealed in God’s word.  We may go along with and share in the movement and direction of nature, as God created it.  This is what it means to be wise.  And the consequence of this way of life is happiness and blessing.  Or we can go the way of Pharaoh, putting creation so out of balance that nature has no choice but to reject us. 
            In Proverbs, Wisdom is contrasted with another unnamed, foolish woman.  The intended readers of this book were young men.  They are urged to follow the good woman, Wisdom, and to reject the foolish woman, who leads them to destruction.  The foolish woman lures them into selfishness, lust, gluttony, carelessness, and pride.
            Anyone who reads this book, male or female, has to make the same choice.  We may follow the way of Wisdom, seen in the two books of nature and the Bible; or we may follow the way of the foolish.  One leads to life, justice, equality, prosperity, and truth.  The other inevitably bends towards violence and disaster.

            After the supper with his disciples, when Jesus lifts up the bread and breaks it, he announces: “This is my body.”  And when he says “this” he refers first to the bread, of course; but he also means the disciples gathered around him who will be eating the bread.  The gathering of his followers is his body as well; they become the extension of his mission in the world.  And when he says “this” he may even be indicating the whole earth and creation.  This is the fulfillment of Wisdom’s holy meal.  The whole creation was made to make a place for this gathering, this communion.  “This, this is all my body,” he is saying.
            It all belongs to God, as I repeat weekly prior to the offering, quoting Psalm 24.  Creation is God’s body in the sense that it is made by God and is God’s property.  God made creation for communion.  It is a place for coming together and cooperation; a place for mutual help and complementary action; a place where man different voices join together in splendid harmony.  So when we gather at the Lord’s Table, even here in this little church, we represent and witness to the communion of all creation.
            The apostle Paul writes that when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper it is imperative that we “discern the Lord’s body.”  That doesn’t mean just focusing intently upon this piece of bread and developing complicated theories about it, like transubstantiation.  I am sure Paul means more than the bread; he wants people to look around and see Christ’s presence all around us: yes, in the bread, and also in the worshiping community, and finally and most broadly in humanity and creation itself. 
            When we eat this bread and drink from this cup we share spiritually in the lives of all who produced and prepared and distributed it, as well as in the life of the stalks of wheat, the grape vines, and the water, and the sunlight, and every living thing that died to make the nourishing soil.  Indeed, we share spiritually in the very life of God, by whose Word this bread represents Christ’s body nailed to a Roman cross, finally fulfilling the atoning blood sacrifices of the Torah.  To eat and drink this sacrament is to ingest oneness, forgiveness, blessing, unity, and peace.  It is to take God into yourself so that God permeates every cell of your body; it is to participate in the divine nature, as Peter says in his second letter.
            In Scripture blood is life.  In this meal and on the cross Jesus is giving his life, shedding and spilling and spreading his life across the whole of creation.  And one of the ways this happens is through us.  When we eat this bread and drink from this cup we are taking Jesus’ life into us, so that his life may become our life, and through us become the life of the world.
            Participating in the holy meal of bread and wine is indicative of our following the way of Wisdom.

            And Wisdom’s Way has specific content.  It means living in a certain way.  It means engaging in some behaviors and avoiding others.  Wisdom is reflected and expressed in our actions.  Just prior to this passage, after Wisdom has assisted at the creation of the world, we hear Wisdom say, “Happy are those who keep my ways.” 
            Wisdom’s ways are creation’s ways.  They are the laws governing the whole creation.  If we live according to them, creation provides a banquet for us of prosperity and joy.  We enter Wisdom’s house; we gather at Wisdom’s table for the feast of bread and wine.  We know that the ways of creation and Wisdom are revealed in Jesus.  He is the Word by whom everything was created.  In his life of love, healing, justice, equality, compassion, and simplicity we see what God intends for all of us.  He fulfills the moral law of the Torah and invites us to participate with him in the way of life.
            If we live like Jesus, we live in harmony with all of life.  If we choose self-centered foolishness, if we choose injustice and violence and inequality, then we do not follow Wisdom.  The world becomes not a glorious banquet in which the whole community shares, but a dog-eat-dog rat-race, a war of each against all in which we try to get ours before others get theirs.  It is not God’s holy and blessed community, but a jungle where the rules are survival of the fittest and natural selection.  Instead of the infinite blessings of God’s garden, we fall into a satanic nightmare, where the weak are left to die, the strong and rich grow more powerful, and the inevitable result is a comprehensive ecological catastrophe.
            If we continue to read in the book of Proverbs, we find lifted up virtues like honesty, generosity, hard work, humility, compassion, simplicity, and loyalty, while sins like greed, selfishness, cheating, meanness, lying, laziness, and gluttony are strongly warned against.  This is what characterizes the house of Wisdom, the community of creation.  And this is what Jesus comes to fulfill and embody.  And this is how we who eat his flesh and drink his blood and who thus share his life are called to follow him.
            Jesus does not come to teach personal responsibility for ourselves as individuals.  That’s not what Wisdom is about.  That’s not why creation was created, so you could get something for yourself.  Jesus teaches us to be personally responsible for each other.  Wisdom’s house rises or falls on how we provide for our poor, sick, lost, alien, hurt, lonely, disabled, excluded, disenfranchised neighbor.  

            Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  Live like Jesus, and you will live forever.  You will live forever because forever will be present to you in every moment.  In every action you will witness to the presence of forever.
            This is the banquet of forever, the dinner of Wisdom, the supper of the Lord, the joyful feast of the people of God.  If you have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, this, this gathering, this sharing, these words and these actions, in which the whole creation is united at this Table, where we are fed with the body and blood of God so we can be God’s blessing to our world, this is a glimpse of forever.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Gabrielle Douglas.

            Frankly, I haven’t been following the Olympics much.  But some things are impossible not to know about because they break into the public consciousness so forcefully that even I hear about them.  Gabrielle Douglas is a 16-year-old American gymnast who has apparently won some significant medals.  This makes her a star of sorts and so she becomes a target of the scrutiny of the pathological American media.
            It’s not enough that she won some medals doing something that is so far from possible for the rest of us as to be practically miraculous.  Now she has to bear the freight of all our hopes, dreams, and fears, which we for some reason feel we have the right to transfer onto her.
            In her interviews with the media, Gabby has indicated that she is a Christian.  I am a Christian too.  I don’t have any problem with her saying whatever she wants (as long as it’s not hate speech.  But then there are people out there who believe that unless you are agreeing with them it is hate-speech).  She could have attributed her success to Buddha or Allah, and I would still have supported her right to say that.  (I wonder how that would have been received?  To what hysterical fulminations from the right would we have to be subject in that case?) 
            I haven’t heard anyone complain about her expressing her Christian religious commitments.  However, some in the media apparently have to invent the lie that “liberals” are offended and complaining about this.  I haven’t heard any such thing, and I am about as well-connected into progressive sources as anyone.  So it is in the interest of some conservatives to actually concoct a controversy where none exists.  They assume, based on their own ignorant prejudice, that “liberals hate Christians” (which isn’t even remotely accurate given how many liberal Christians I have known in my life).  Then they assume that the “liberal media” (another fantasy) has expressed this hatred towards Gabby’s display of faith.  And report this as fact.  The theological term for this sort of thing is “bearing false witness against your neighbor.”
            Then there is the idiotic whining about, well, her hair.  I’m serious.  Gabby is African-American.  She has very curly African hair.  And she chose to fix that hair in tight barrettes so that it was directed straight to the back of her head where it was tied.  I imagine that someone flying around parallel bars and such would want their hair out of the way.  But how she chooses to fix her hair is her own damn business.  It is not a cultural statement reflecting her perception of her own heritage or anything like that.  If how Gabby fixes her hair offends anyone then they need to turn off the TV and get a life.
            Finally, the Sadducees at FoxNews have apparently decreed that it is a scandal that she did not have an American flag on her gymnastic leotard.  Because there isn’t enough nationalism associated with the Olympics?  It’s not enough that, after winning, she paraded around the arena draped in a flag?  What’s next, a demand to see her real birth-certificate? 
            Leave the young woman alone, already!  She has a spectacular gift from God and chooses to attribute it as such.  Where’s the problem?  And she should not have to wear her hair or her leotard, or anything else, to suit anyone but herself.  And I certainly hope she’s not listening to any of this idiotic crap going on around her, but concentrates on what she is gifted to do.  This whole irrelevant kerfuffle about her is embarrassing and shameful.  It is yet another indication that our culture is sick.