Category Archives: Epistles

The Cure for a Corrupt Mind

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans  7:14-25, NRSV)

In the last several weeks, the news media has spent a great deal of energy uncovering instances government mismanagement and corrupt behavior. Classified leaks, secret cover ups and scapegoating have dominated the news cycle. The IRS, NSA, DOJ, Benghazi and the palace intrigue of wondering what the President knew and when he knew it, are the latest parlor games in Washington, DC. The seriousness of these events are still hijacked by much of the media (which for the most part has lost all sense of objectivity), to stoke general fears of government overreach, state monitoring and possible media interference.

Let’s be clear, in a free society there should always be the expectation of free access to people, places and information. Any reason for secrecy should be carefully debated, explained and then continually reviewed to see if the reasons are still valid for secrecy.  Open societies can have secrecy, but what makes them different from totalitarian secrecy is that there are well-defined and oft debated reasons for secrecy. The freedom of information is held with primacy along with the need for security.

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Much of that process took place when the Patriot Act of 2001 was enacted by Congress as a result of the attacks of September 11th. There were many voices of consent and dissent that were part of the discourse but in the end, a free society chose secrecy balance by freedom. The Act has been renewed several times by members of congress with overwhelming support, each time with new hearings and new conversation of the reasons we have for being secretive. To date we have chosen to keep the balance toward secrecy.

Unlike the surveillance programs, the other scandals are true instances of misconduct and negligence on the part of our government. These other scandals are bureaucratic and selfish attempts at government (or persons charged with the public trust in government) to act toward personal ends. We often miss the incredible selfishness that is present in our government structure as institutional preservation outweighs all other considerations toward morality. Whether it is secretly seizing records in a criminal investigation, withholding applications because of political affiliations, and/or the editing of talking points to save political careers; the trouble centers on the will to do right, over the will to do for self.

Government is not the only place where this battle of will is played out. So often we as individuals are faced with this same battle of wills. We battle between what we know is right and moral to do in a situation, and then battle against what we want to do for ourselves. Paul alludes to this very battle in this letter to the Romans. In discussing the work of the Jewish law in the life of the believer, Paul defines the law as convicting and clearly designed to bring us to an understanding of our immorality before God. So then, in light of the law, we are forced to know what the difference is between right and wrong.

As a result of that knowledge, we must choose. Empowered by a will to do either good or evil, we choose to act in the world. We choose to conform to the law or “live in the flesh” (according to Paul). Like much of the foolishness going on in our government, we often choose based upon self gain, preservation and a general belief that ‘no one will find out’.  Unfortunately what results from decision-making in this way are corrupt, ineffective and blatantly selfish actions that cannot be undone.

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If all we had was our understanding of the law and our failure to live up to it, then we indeed would be doomed. But Paul says in verse 25, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”. It is by and with and through Jesus Christ that we are empowered to be different. By taking on HIS will, we see different options for being the good sheep He calls us to be. Sure corruption is always possible, but Paul’s admonishment is to be different for the sake of Christ. This same Christ who took on indifference and hatred make a decision for Him. This same Christ who died for you, the epitome of selflessness. Make the right choice because of who He is to you…

My vision of truth for us is just that: Be different for the sake of the one who became different for you.

 

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‘Biblical’ Challenges…

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, NRSV)

Unless you have been under a rock for the last month or so, you have missed one of the most controversial and yet ‘trendiest’ topics in pop culture……The Bible. This 13-part miniseries seeks to cover some of the pivotal and definitive stories of the Biblical text. Unlike most History channel programming about the Bible, this series contains little to no scholarship or commentary (in fact very little narration). Instead this series seeks to ‘tell the story’ with, according to the series, a fervor and vibrancy that “bring the Bible to life.”

With a multi-racial cast and a eye toward an interpretative acting, the series offers insight into an angle on the scriptures that a segment of our Christian family affirms. Retelling the stories of pivotal stores of Creation in Genesis, Samson in Judges, Moses in Exodus and David in the history texts among others, the series hopes to bring the Bible and its narratives into the mainstream of the public consciousness and conversation. To that end, the series has been widely successful. It has trended on Twitter, been followed closely by TV personalities like TJ Holmes and Roland Martin and has been featured on several news networks. The series has also been deeply criticized by biblical scholars, feminists, and Christians from all over the world. I too, add my voice to that criticism of the series…

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I have watched the series produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, (both avowed evangelical Christians), each week with excitement and bitter resentment. Excitement to see the stories of my Christian heritage brought to life and resentment as to how they would be butchered and skewered in the grinder of cultural, social and contextual blindness. They have selected the stories, chosen what was relevant and used their multi racial cast in such a narrowed view that Egyptians are white and Jews are British. Their choices have left no doubt about their intentions, directions and purposes in telling their narratives about the bible.

In watching last night, I found myself repulsed by the brunette Brit that was supposed to represent my Jesus. Weirdly, I previously tolerated a British Moses and Pharaoh, a peculiarly black Samson (with a thing for white women), the gross mischaracterization of David’s ‘rape’ of Bathsheba and the casting of President Obama’s twin as the devil in the earlier installments of the series. Yet, I found this week that this interpretation of Jesus was a bridge too far….

The truth of the matter is that the casting of colonial Jesus essentially completes a ‘whitewashing’ of the continual portrayal of the Biblical narrative. For centuries, the truths of the African and ‘colored’ heritage of the text has been undermined by colonial powers and forces that sought to rewrite and patronize the what the ancient writers sought to convey. Many folks have said that the color of Jesus shouldn’t matter as long as we appreciate and believe what he did for us. If Jesus’ color doesn’t matter, then why are nearly all of the depictions of Jesus in western culture of a white man? The ‘color’ of our stories matters because they help us to inculcate and in grain the narratives in our lives. Culture, context, gender roles and power all matter in the telling of sacred narratives because they help to expose the continual truth of God’s engagement in the culture, context and power of our present lives.

One colleague commented on reviewing one of the episodes that I, “should not be surprised or astonished, because Burnett and Downey could not be expected to do multicultural telling of the Bible.” My reply was that “my expectations were not unrealistic and in fact were even more normative given that this is the 21st century and we have a broader view of the text and the messages of the text.” Expecting Abraham to be middle eastern and speak something other than English (with a British accent) is not an unreasonable expectation in the 21st century. Expecting a culturally and textually appropriate portrayal of any Biblical character is not an unreasonable expectation of white producers or of the History Channel. Expecting that critical elements of the narratives of Christian heritage not be redacting or edited is also a reasonable expectation.

Unknown-1The text for this week is a passage that I often struggle with. In and of itself, this passage (which has been used by many preachers to support the efficacy of the Bible), on its surface validates the use of scripture because ‘scripture says so’! However, the more nuanced understanding of the text offers a view that the Bible is relevant for teaching because of the inherent truth of the witness of God throughout all generations in the totality of scripture. I believe the writers of the biblical text told the truth of the stories with an awareness of God’s action in and through and by and with the messiness of our human existence. That truth of the text is what makes  the text “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”

In my vocation as a pastor and religious educator, I plan to use the series and all of its flaws. I plan to use it to teach the power of hermeneutics and enculturation in reading the bible. The History Channel series is no different than many of the other portrayals of the Bible (see ‘Ten Commandments’, ‘One Night with the King’, ‘Prince of Egypt’, etc.). All of these movies and shows tell the stories of the Bible in ways that are intentional in leading us to believe what they want us to. In many ways, these tellings reinforce cultural mores and norms that continually oppress and undermine the real meaning of the text. In teaching about this form of redaction, I hope to empower many in our faith to counteract these tendencies when we see it so that we may be empowered in our views of pop cultural representations of our faith.

I take REAL issue with redaction (even in the ancient traditions in the Old Testament). Redaction is a power grab and a selective revisionist view toward telling the truth. Its misleading with intent and purpose. If we are ever going to get a free and fair glimpse of the vision of truth, we are going to need to tell the story of our faith free from redaction, revision and with a healthy wrestling with God in the text.

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Bronze is Ok….

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. (Philippians 3:12-15, NRSV)

We are a little over halfway through the 2012 Olympics being held in London. As always is the case, commentators, retired athletes and sports officials around the world offer their critique of whose the best in the world in this field or that sport. In turn, the eyes (and citizens) of virtually every nation in the world converge on an industrialized city to observe the running, swimming, throwing, volleying, and even trampolining to see who will be the best in the world. The modern Olympics serve as one of the few places where the community of nations gather without the intense pressure of diplomatic success or failure. Instead, the glaring eyes of the world look on for one thing…….GOLD, SILVER or BRONZE.

In looking at much of the coverage I am awestruck and the ability and talent of all the competitors. The concentration, the discipline and fortitude it takes to swim 100m, 400m or any distance in a respectable time is phenomenal enough. To win the race is extraordinary. For athletes like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, Sonya Richards-Ross, Jessica Ennis, Gabby Douglas, and so many others, the God-given gifts and ability that they exercise display the reason why the Olympics are still as popular as ever.

The performance of these (and all of the Olympic athletes) require me to look at this profound passage of Paul to the church at Philippi. In Chapter 3 of the text, Paul displays his credentials to be a faithful Pharisee yet says he lives for Christ because Christ first chose him. In this famous passage, Paul then compares the work of living a faithful life to that of the athlete competing in the ancient Olympic games. His words conjure up an image of strain and struggle, sweat and tears, cramping and stretching. The race we run as disciples of Christ, means that there is work and strain, training and discipline, yearning and pushing all involved in order for us to be who we are called to be in the race of life.

I saw this disciples lifestyle most strongly on display in a preliminary race during the Men’s 10,000m race over the weekend. There were nine competitors from all over the globe racing for only three qualifying slots. The gun fires and off they run. It is going to take them about 20 minutes to run the roughly 6 miles of the race on the track. About halfway through the race, one of the frontrunners in the pack trips and falls. All of the others jump over and around him, but keep up the pace. It appears that he is getting left and he is out. But almost as soon as he falls, he gets up and starts kicking! I mean kicking!! He within one lap has made up most of what he lost when he fell and was back to keeping pace with the pack. He crossed the finish line to claim the fourth spot to qualify for the next round!

This runner embodies our quest for life as Christians. The shot is fired and we are sometimes in the lead, sometimes in the rear but always trying to keep pace with the pack of life. (Sometimes, all we can do is keep pace with the pack.) There are even times, that we slip and fall feel like we get left by the pack. Yet, we “press on toward the mark”, we get up and KICK! Push toward the end with love and faith, kindness and forgiveness. We dig deep and RUN so that we can finish. There is no need to be first in the race, for really it has already been won! We just need to finish the race we started. And the real good news is that there are enough qualifying spots for all of us who finish the race, to qualify for the next round!!!

Like Bolt, Phelps and all the others, we are athletes for Christ.   Pushing and struggling to make it to the finish line. It takes perseverance that only comes from God. I pray that you see the vision of truth that comes when you run the race that is set before each of us in Christ Jesus.

 

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Y’all Got Power…

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:11-14, NRSV)

“You Got Power!!”, a member of my congregation exclaimed.

My family and I were among the nearly 4 million Americans that were affected by the summer storms (called a derecho) that swept across the midwest and eastern seaboard. the storms were fast and intense. Literally, thirty minutes of wind, rain and lightning resulted in 1.5 million electrical outages in the DC Metropolitan Area. Many persons are expected to be without power for days in sweltering 100 degree heat and humidity.

We lost our electricity a little after 11pm on Friday, at the height of the storm. Temperatures spiked around 101 degrees on Saturday and the home in which we live, the internal temperature spiked at 84 degree. (The lower parts of the house were bearable at around 74 degrees.) Many of my neighbors and friends vacated their homes to attend movies, malls and museums in order to escape the heat and lack of rest. We stayed in our home and made the best of our time and energy.

 

 

At a church function the next day, many of my fellow congregants discussed our challenges surviving the storm. All of the people began conversations that day with, “Do y’all have power?”. The answer usually followed with either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’, according to the circumstances in which we found ourselves. It continued in this way until one member finally rebutted all of us when she blurted out, “Y’all GOT POWER!!! WHAT YOU NEED IS ELECTRICITY!”

Her statement pointed out a wonderfully refreshing theology. There is a power at work in each of us that never goes out! We just lost electrical connectivity due to the storm. Now sure, that is what we all meant, but none of us said it. We semantically equated electricity and ‘power’. No harm, no foul!! Not so much…

 The question of power seemed appropriate to the discussion, but her comment exposed a real theological distinction of our life in God. You see, what we call a thing is often what we believe about a thing. When we name a thing, we in many respects, define what it means to us. When we call a thing “black” we at have some level identified it as negative. This has been ingrained in our culture over many centuries and therefore become a part of our lexicon.  Black sheep, Blacklisted etc…

The behavior we exhibited after the blackout, gave real insight to our true definition of power in our lives. Many people were helpless without an ability to charge batteries, surf the internet, or even to simply watch television. In spite of the oppressive heat, many persons felt it absolutely essential (and necessary) to their survival to get to air conditioning and safe environments. Others, however, found it necessary to connect to ‘power’ in order to get their centers of identity powered up in order to function in a lack of electrical power.

What my parishioner’s comment reminded me of is the importance of remaining grounded in times of challenge and crisis. Paul reminds us in the above passage, that we all have access to a power that keeps us in the midst of our circumstances. Despite the challenges of our life, Paul says that we really do have power to live in and through those challenges.  The power to be patient in circumstances that challenge our patience. The power to be joy-filled in trying and sad times. We have power that keeps us ‘grounded’ when we very easily have a tendency to be ‘short-circuited’.

This power is outside the purview of our ability to mediate it and understand it. It is available to all of us! Praise the Lord!! The shorthand of power can be, for some, a literal understanding of enabling us to be more than what we are. It is a sense of identity for some. The storm, my parishioner, and this passage all remind us of the importance of remembering who has the power and tapping into the power that heals, restores, invigorates and affirms in the midst life’s difficulties and trials.

Keeping a constant tap to the power source of the universe helps us all gain a vision of truth in each of our lives. 

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