Sunday, 5 October 2014

Racism: In the Bible, In the Church, In Me?


Have you ever heard people speak of seeing something the Bible for the first time? They’ve read the Scriptures countless times, and then suddenly see something new as if it were the first time they’ve read that portion of the Bible. I’m sure we all have, and I’m sure it’s also happened to most of us at one time or another.

The other day, it happened to me … again.

I was reading Paul’s familiar passage on divisions in the church. You know the one in which he writes,
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul,” another, “I follow Apollos,” another, “I follow Cephas,” still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; NIV)
Up until now, I always thought of this as theological divisions in the church, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve often used that passage to justify my distain for our seemingly incestuous love for denominationalism in the church. However, as I read in between these lines, I wonder if there wasn’t something deeper and more sinister than simply theological division going on in Corinth.

What could be worse than theological division? Racism, and especially when it’s subtly done in the body of Christ. As bad as theological division is, in my opinion racism in the church is worse because it’s usually loveless. In their book, “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes,” authors Richards and O’Brien write,
We may be failing to note ethnic markers that Paul sprinkled all over the text. Apollos was noted as an Alexandrian (Egyptian) Jew (Acts 18:24). They had their own reputation. Paul notes that Peter is called by his Aramaic name, Cephas, suggesting the group that followed him spoke Aramaic and were thus Palestinian Jews. Paul’s church had Diaspora Jews but also many ethnic Corinthians, who were quite proud of their status as residents of a Roman colony and who enjoyed using Latin. This may explain why Paul doesn’t address any theological differences. There weren’t any. The problem was ethnic division: Aramaic-speaking Jews, Greek-speaking Jews, Romans and Alexandrians. (p.66)
This is not just a one-off of possible biblical racism. 

There are many other examples of biblical racism. Remember the story of Rebekah? That beloved wife of Isaac also had racist tendencies. One day she said to her husband, “I’m disgusted with living because of these Hittite women. If Jacob takes a wife from among the women of this land, from Hittite women like these, my life will not be worth living” (Genesis 27:46; NIV). Does that not seem racist to you? She was “disgusted” by the Hittite race! What was it that so offended her by the Hittites? The Bible doesn’t say, but clearly it was something that was enough for her to be repulsed by the notion of interracial marriage as an option for her favourite son, Jacob.

Other biblical characters also had problems with interracial marriage. Moses’ siblings were no exception. “Miraim and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite” (Numbers 12:1; NIV). Whatever the problem was, it was an issue based upon race. (As an aside, the irony here is that the Mosaic Law, the one named after Moses himself, spoke against interracial marriage, as in the Deuteronomy 7:3 command to "not intermarry with them." Hmm, what are we to make of that?).

Just as in the years immediately following the Second World War there were still plenty of prejudices against the German and Soviet people, perhaps in those days immediately following the Exodus there were also prejudices against Cushites because of their connection to Egypt, and by default, the oppression of slavery that was no doubt still very much in the minds of most Jews. Furthermore, Cushites were a dark-skinned people who came from the southern Nile river area of Africa. At the risk of conjecturing, perhaps the bottom line was simply that Miriam and Aaron were racists; they were upset that Moses married a black woman, and one that perhaps also somehow reminded them of those difficult years as slaves of Pharaoh.

There are several other Old Testament examples that we could look at as well, such as Naomi’s kinsman redeemer’s refusal to purchase her family’s property because it would mean that Ruth, a Moabite (a foreigner) would become part of the deal (Ruth 4:6). It’s interesting that on that note, the racist kinsman redeemer fades out of the story, and righteous Boaz enters the story, who ultimately is memorialized as the great-grandfather of Israel’s much loved king, David.

It all begs the question, Does God have any use for the racist?

The New Testament also had other questionable racist characters with their hate speech, such as Nathanael’s racial slur, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Granted, his slur was more regionally based, but as often happens, when we make disparaging remarks against a region, indirectly we also do so against the people who call that region home.

Think back in your own life and homeland of one geographical area that was often the brunt end of coarse joking and slurs. Growing up in central and western Canada, two regions quickly come to mind that we often joked about (I'm not going to mention them here). Some of our friends in other countries most likely did not get the negative racist connection, but as locals we got the gist of it quite clearly. Likewise, you and I in our modern world don’t have a negative understanding of Nazareth in Galilee, but the folks in first century Israel sure did. Nathanael, despite being called by Jesus, was to that point, a racist.

The good news is that Jesus still calls racists today.

One really doesn’t have to look too far back in modern church history to see similar examples of religious tension based upon ethnicity. White and Black only churches were once commonplace in the not too distant past of American segregation. Sometimes that prejudice even erupted with deadly violence, such as the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Though that era is thankfully over, and though anyone of us, regardless of our race, can today worship wherever and with whomever we wish, church division based upon obvious ethnicity can still be found. Pockets of such pseudo-Christians remain here and there. As horrible as it sounds, we have to call it what it is … Racism.

What strikes me as interesting, in a sad kind of way, is that we who profess to follow Christ, often do so in such unloving ways. Racism is hatred, pure and simple, despite our attempts to mask it over and justify ourselves in it by some twisted fashion. We don’t call it hatred, but what else would you call ethnic divisions other than making distinctions, us versus them, which in turn limits any genuine expression of loving one another? How do you genuinely love someone that, despite any pleasantries that you may otherwise utter, you still hold off at arm’s length because they’re from a different ethnicity than you? “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile” (Romans 3:22), we love to quote, but do we really believe that? Hmm, I wonder sometimes.

The Racism Riddle

The fact is that our world, both in antiquity and today, is made up of ethnically diverse people with a plethora of rich cultures, customs and languages. I’m sure God created us all this way on purpose, and I cannot help but think that, perhaps one of the reasons that He did so, was to teach us to love one another, just as He loves us.

Going back to Rebekah, Nathanael and the other biblical examples, perhaps I was a little harsh. After all, we could say that the Jewish people as a whole were racist and that God even condoned it by virtue of the fact that they were called the “Chosen People." Perhaps Paul’s appeal (1 Corinthians 1:10-12) had more to do with his attempt to change that racist mindset that the Jewish people were known for, which may make sense when we consider that he was the apostle to the Gentiles.

Perhaps I’m still missing something else here. It is possible that I’ve inadvertently used my modern lens to view biblical racism in a much more negative light than the people of that time period did. After all, if God is a God of love (1 John 4:16), and if it’s true that He doesn’t change (Malachi 3:6), then it logically follows that the form of racism that He condoned was also still infused with His love.

Maybe ethnicity in God’s eyes is little more than the simple “testing of your faith” (James 1:3). Maybe what will ultimately separate the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) is the degree of racism that remains in us, for if God so loved them, and we in turn hate them through our racism, then there’s obviously a problem. Maybe the real proof of our profession of love toward God really does first lie in the way we love, or fail to love, our fellow man (1 John 4:20-21). At the risk of over simplifying the problems, maybe all of our global woes and conflicts throughout history are directly related to the fact that we still haven’t learnt what it means to love one another, despite all our differences.

An old children's song comes to mind that I'm sure many of us remember:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
All are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
It’s easy to love little children, or at least most of them. However little children turn into adults, and for many of us, that’s where things begin to get messy. The fact is, though, Jesus loves them still, warts and all. My question is, dare we not do likewise, and especially given that God has called us to do exactly that? Something to think about. Peace.

Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD, Flickr Creative Commons
Jesus Loves the Little Children: written by C. Herbert Woolston

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Institutional Church's Unlikely Visitor: Me


"You, my brothers, were called to be free." (Galatians 5:13)

I did something last Sunday that I haven’t done in perhaps ten to twelve years; I attended an institutional church service.

Not only did I attend an institutional church service, but I attended a service very different than one I have ever attended before, other than perhaps one or two times.

On the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (I know that because it was printed in their bulletin), my wife and I went to an institutional church service that, while “Baptist” in name, could very well have been confused with an Anglican church based upon the liturgical style.

In this worship service we followed a strictly outlined order of service which included rising from our pews and standing on cue, as indicated by a printed asterisk symbol in front of the service heading. We rose to our feet for the invocation and reciting of the Lord’s Prayer, singing of hymns, and to the reciting of the “Gloria Patri,” which for those not familiar with it states,
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end.
Amen”
We had Scripture readings and sang hymns. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the beautiful choir arrangements; the opening “Introit” especially brought shivers down my spine. Conspicuously absent were any modern instruments; no guitars, no electronic keyboards, no drums, no worship team; only a pianist and professional organist. Also absent were any modern choruses.

As I thought about that, I remember thinking how interesting it is that we often stereotype such “non-modern” expressions of faith as relevant only to the elderly, or those who embrace some strange utopian 1950’s version of what constitutes “church,” for who but the elderly would be into that style? Yet as I looked around me, yes, I noticed some elderly folks, but I also noticed many more adherents who were young couples, families, and school-aged children. Clearly, it was anything but stereotypical, as evidenced by such things as semi-shaved hairstyles, to multiple earrings in the ears of the black gown-clad senior pastor, to fashion that included everything from blue jeans to bow tie to somewhere in between.

I listened to the first in what we were told would be a 36-week sermon series. I participated in “Communion” as they passed the bread and the cup. My son (who invited us to his church) later asked me how long it’s been since I participated in that style of Communion service. In truth, I didn’t know, as I’ve long since understood Communion a little differently. Still it was, to use modern verbiage, “all-good.”

Then, after the offering plate was passed, we rose to our feet again on cue and sang the “Doxology,”
“Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above ye heavenly hosts;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.”
This was followed by another congregational hymn singing, which in turn was followed by the “Sending of the Community;” in which the leader proclaimed, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you.” Then on cue (as instructed in our printed order of service), the people in the congregation replied, “And also with you.” A blessing followed, and then a postlude, and we were essentially dismissed. Despite the service being officially over, we mingled for about half to three-quarters of an hour before leaving the building.

So, are you shocked by all of this?

Anyone who has perhaps followed this blog for the past few years might possibly be. After all, I have been known to slam institutional church systems a time or ten. In a way I was briefly amazed myself that I should find myself there at all, and yet despite all the little idiosyncrasies, I felt strangely comfortable and at peace there. Even my wife mentioned how much she enjoyed the service and “needed” to be there that Sunday.

Perhaps God had us exactly where He wanted us that Sunday.

Having said all that, does this mean that we have re-institutionalized ourselves? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. We still love the Christian relationships we have built outside of the traditional institutional church, and we have no intention on giving up on those. Still, if the Spirit leads, I think I can speak for both my wife and myself and say that from time to time, we could also easily step into an institutional church and fellowship with others there as well. As a matter of fact, I now fully intend on visiting other Christian communities from time to time, as the Lord may lead me to. Could it be that maybe it’s time to bridge the gap between institutional and non-institutional Christians? I wonder.

I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul once said,
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all” (Ephesians 4: 3-6; NIV).
Was Christ crucified only for your little sect? Was He crucified only for my little sect? (I deliberately use the word “sect,” for no other word seems to describe what we often seem to have become as well as the word “sect” does). Of course not! For that little institutional church, be they conservative/charismatic, liberal/liturgical, or somewhere in between; are no less sons and daughters of the most high God than Christians who choose to fellowship outside of any institutional church are. The fact is, we are all brothers and sisters, regardless how we choose to worship our great God. The only problem is, some of us either are, or have turned other siblings into, black sheep. And that is really quite sad.

Freedom

Perhaps the greater sin in our respective “Christian” walks would be to fail to recognize that and keep those walls firmly erected between us. If God doesn’t make distinctions, apart from those who do or don’t acknowledge His Son, then dare we? If we dare not, then shouldn't we busy ourselves with tearing down the walls that separate us? Come to think of it, even Jesus himself prayed about that very thing (John 17).

Yes, my reintroduction to institutional Christianity was semi-liturgical, and generally speaking I’m not, but they most certainly were brothers and sisters in Jesus, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. Next time I’m in town on a Sunday, I’m sure I will go visit that little inner-city (Baptist?) church again. After all, if I left feeling blessed and in complete peace this last Sunday, why wouldn’t I go back?

Peace and Blessings, from a (temporarily?) re-institutionalized brother.

Photo Credit: Doevos, Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, 16 August 2014

IF: Guilt's Little Cousin?


“If you (heart)
Jesus, repost.”

I don't know about you, but this has got to be one of my greatest social media pet peeve’s that I see out there time after time, and which has bothered me for a very long time. Bear with me as I rant a little. First of all let me be clear about something. This has nothing to do with whether or not I love Jesus; I do love Jesus, and I often do post things that reflect that love.

The problem, the way I see it, is the attached innuendo.

The problem is the “IF” this, then that statement. “IF” I love Jesus, then I will do something, which in this case is, repost. The innuendo then implies, “IF” I do not repost, then I must not love Jesus.

We see this all the time. Another post I saw recently stated:
Share "IF" you have the greatest son or daughter.
All nice and sweet, right? Who in their right mind wouldn’t admit that? I think I do have the greatest son and daughter any man could ever wish for, and as such I consider myself blessed. So what’s the problem?

The problem is, again, the message’s innuendo: “IF” you choose not to share, then you’re essentially saying that you do not think that you have the greatest son and daughter.

Do you see what I'm trying to say?

Why do (some) Christians do this? Another related common thinking is that, “IF” you are a Christian, then you will go to church … or tithe … or speak in tongues … or have a ministry, etc, etc, etc. By implication, then, “IF” I do not go to church … or tithe … or speak in tongues … or have a ministry, does that mean that I must not be a Christian?

The argument reminds me of a course in logical thinking that I had to take back in my college days. One element of the course dealt with dilemmas in the form of syllogisms. These syllogisms attempt to force us to take one of two positions; I either love Jesus or I don’t. “IF” I do, then this, but then along comes logic and says, “IF” I don’t, then that.

A famous example of this was attributed to Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician. He developed an argument, which in one form or another, has often been used in evangelistic endeavors. It went something like this:
"IF" God exists, I have everything to gain by believing in Him. And "IF" God does not exist, I have nothing to lose by believing in Him. Either God does or does not exist. Therefore, I have everything to gain or nothing to lose by believing in God.
Despite the logic, I guess the reason that the above Facebook post and others like it bother me so much is that I cannot seem to come away from them without feeling like I am being guilted into doing something. Something might be cute or funny or profound enough to make me share and repost it, and I sometimes do. But when I’m told to share or repost using that little word “IF,” well that’s now a whole other story. Maybe it’s just me, but the innuendo I hear behind “IF” is GUILT.

I’ve listened to enough guilt in the past, and I don’t do guilt anymore. Having said that, “IF” I’ve ever dished out the guilt your way then I’m sorry. (But I guess then “IF” I haven’t dished out the guilt your way, I’m not sorry ???)

That’s the way I see it. Peace.

Photo Source: Unknown (via Facebook)

Monday, 4 August 2014

A Cry for Mercy

"Dear Lord, in the midst of much inner turmoil and restlessness, there is a consoling thought: maybe you are working in me in a way I cannot yet feel, experience or understand. My mind is not able to concentrate on you, my heart is not able to remain centered, and it seems as if you are absent and have left me alone. But in faith I cling to you. I believe that your Spirit reaches deeper and further than my mind or heart, and that profound movements are not the first to be noticed.

"Therefore, Lord, I promise I will not run away, not give up, not stop praying, even when it all seems useless, pointless, and a waste of time and effort. I want to let you know that I love you even though I do not feel loved by you, and that I hope in you even though I often experience despair. Let this be a little dying I can do with you and for you as a way of experiencing some solidarity with the millions in this world who suffer far more than I do. Amen."

Author: Henri Nouwen, "A Cry for Mercy"
Photo Credit: Neil Moralee, Flickr Creative Commons

Dysfunctional Homes: Abraham's and Ours?


I was thinking about Abraham and God’s promises to him and how very long it seemed to take from the time God made the promise until it came to fruition. Waiting those roughly twenty-five years like Abraham did, I’m not so sure I would have remained as much a believer in the promise as he is credited as having done.

Would you have? Let’s think about it …

When Abraham was about 75 years old, his dad just died at the ripe old age of 205, and God called him to go to Canaan. God also then promises him many descendants. It’s safe to say that both Abraham and his wife Sarah wanted children, but Sarah was barren, and that obviously presented a problem. Still, the Bible says that Abraham believed God.

About ten years later, when Abraham was now about 85 years old, the promised son had not yet arrived. Sarah, well, she gets somewhat impatient and suggests that Abraham sleep with Hagar, her slave, and try and have a son by her. While it may have been legal in that society for Abraham to do so, it was not in the will of God for him to do so. But Abraham goes ahead and does what his wife suggests, and sleeps with Hagar. Perhaps Abraham was getting a little impatient by then too. The whole thing almost sounds like an episode of TV’s “Sister Wives.”

Another year passes and Abraham is now about 86 years old, Hagar becomes pregnant, and Sarah becomes jealous! Things become so difficult in the home that Sarah throws Hagar out. Talk about your dysfunctional home! But the Lord intervenes and sends Hagar back, promising to take care of her. Soon she gives birth to a son and Abraham names him Ishmael.

Fast-forward another thirteen years, and Abraham turns 99 years old and Ishmael becomes a teenager. I am tempted to wonder if during those thirteen years of watching his son grow if Abraham forgot the promise of God. If he didn’t, perhaps he came to believe that the promise was already fulfilled in Ishmael. After all, when Sarah suggested Abraham take Hagar, she did so believing that any children born to Hagar would by default become Sarah’s children. Just when I imagine Abraham and Sarah believing that, God speaks again and once again promises Abraham that he would have a son by Sarah. Soon after, God also reaffirms the same promise to Sarah as well.

Another year goes by and Abraham celebrates his centennial and turns 100 years old. Now, after twenty-five years have come and gone since God first spoke to Abraham and told him to go to Canaan, the promised son is finally born. He is named “Isaac,” which means “laughter.” And yet I wonder if Abraham even thought of himself as being too old to become a father. After all, he was still 30 years younger than his own father was when he was born.

But the drama continues and Isaac’s birth now creates a new problem at home, in that the now 14 year-old Ishmael suddenly has a rival for dad’s attention! For 14 years Ishmael has been his father’s only son, and of course, he no doubt was very special to him. Have you ever wondered how Ishmael responded to the latest course of events in the home? Probably much like any other spoiled only child today would do.

Three more years slip by, Abraham is now about 103 years of age, and there is a weaning-party taking place in the home. A what? That’s right; a weaning-party. It was customary in those days to wean children at about age three and turn the event into a celebration. By now Ishmael has become a rebellious 17 year-old teenager, and I imagine created more than enough trouble at home. There seemed to be only one solution to the problem; Hagar and her son would have to go! With a broken heart, the 103 year-old Abraham sends his son packing, and forces him to move out of the family home.

Let’s stop there and unpack some of that.

On the surface this story appears to be nothing more than the dynamics of a dysfunctional family unit. In truth, it could have been any of our family stories; each of us could probably relate to multiple elements within it. We could probably all think of times that we thought we heard God speak to us, and when things later went a little south, perhaps we either became disbelievers or we wondered if we had heard God correctly in the first place. Many of us could perhaps relate to the infertility issues. Many of us might have had to face the reality of a spouse sleeping around. Even though Sarah gave her blessing to the union of her husband to Hagar, you can’t tell me that didn’t hurt knowing of the intimacy that had taken place with the other woman. Instead of waiting on the Lord, many of us have also run ahead of God, to only afterward ask God’s blessing on our Ishmael’s, the fruit of our impatience. Many of us have had wayward teenagers, and perhaps even have had to endure the pain of asking them to move out of our home. Perhaps like me, you too were the rebellious 17 year-old, who voluntarily or involuntarily, left your parents home at that young tender age. Perhaps we too have struggled with a dysfunctional home.

It is easy to look at biblical characters as people so much greater spiritually than we are. I’ve sometimes thought that about the people listed in Hebrews 11, those who were commended for their faith. But when we look at the life of Abraham, we see that it wasn’t all rosy and super-spiritual in his home any more than it is or was in ours. Just like ours, his too sometimes played out like a soap opera, and yet God was still clearly in the story.

I take comfort in that when things go sideways in my own life and I’m tempted to beat myself up for yet another blunder in my own spiritual pilgrimage. Even when I do something stupid, and everything maybe even feels hopeless, God has not left me, and He has made some pretty big promises to me too, just like He did to Abraham. In the same way, though there may seem to be nothing but a massive grey cloud hanging over your head, God has not abandoned you either, my friend. In His great love for you through Jesus, He has some awesome promises for you too. Be encouraged.

There are an interesting couple of verses that I’m going to close with and let us meditate on. They read,
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” (Hebrews 11: 39-40; NIV).
Somehow we’ve been included in Abraham’s story. Could it be that even Abraham himself hasn’t yet received the fullness of the promise of God, and won’t receive it until the end of the age when he does so in fellowship together with you and me? I wonder. Something to think about.

Peace and blessings to you and yours.

Photo Credit: Ashley Rose, Flickr Creative Commons