Thursday, September 24, 2009

Israel and the State of Israel

Psalm 147 closes:

God has not dealt thus with any other nation;
      they do not know his ordinances.
      Praise the LORD!

Folks sometimes ask if the claims and promises in the Old Testament apply to the State of Israel today.

My answer, for what it's worth - an emphatic, Nope!

God got out of the land business a long time ago. Like any land-endeavor, like any empire, great or small, the land business is costly in terms of lives and livestock, environment and national character.

For God, to create a nation, it was a bloody business from the get-go, and the bloodletting continued to the last fallen stone of Jerusalem.

From that point on, things went in two different directions: there were Jews who believed that Israel was now an idea, a culture, a faith and no longer a land with the Temple as the central feature and its daily sacrifices now at an end. Such is not foreign to the Old Testament prophets who foresaw a day when there would be no more boundaries, but that all the world would join together in God's peaceable kingdom. That God's love would transcend race and boundaries, and even the Temple and its sacrifices.

There were others who yet believed that God would restore Israel to its former glory, symbolized in the reign of King David. It is not by accident that the disciples ask the Risen Jesus if now is the time when God will restore the kingdom, to which Jesus says No and then redirects their thoughts to the world. God is no longer in the land business.

Because of the power of the idea of being Jewish, the Gentile world frequently turned hostile, and it mostly grew worse as Christianity became Gentilized and then grew increasingly hungry for total domination of the mind and heart of Europe and the Middle East (read Crusades), brooking no competition. As long as the Synagogue remained, Jews were a thorn in the flesh for the church; at best, to be tolerated; at worst, to be converted under threat of death or simply annihilated in pogroms (read James Carroll's excellent but brutally sad work, The Sword of Constantine).

No wonder there arose a longing for a place of safety, a land of their own - hence, the birth of Zionism, itself a long-debated idea among Jews.

Zionism, along with the guilt (deserved) of the Allies after WW2, prompted the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, at the cost of many lives and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians; like the land-business of old, it remains a bloody business today.

Within Zionism, the more conservative elements lay claim to the Biblical promises - that Israel as a state is forever. Others, simply lay claim to the human and polical right to be safe, and that I affirm and understand.

Unfortunately, America's failure to genuinely safeguard Israel's security has prompted Israel to become a military power in the Middle East, with the likely possession of nuclear arms. Sadly, the State of Israel has served our purposes - to keep the Middle East destabilized, with Israel as an client state able to threaten its neighbors even as Uncle Sam provides plenty of military aid and satellite photos.

To suggest that Israel's settlement policies, it's brutal treatment of Palestinians and its slow but inexorable elimination of Christian Arabs is somehow related to God's promises in the Bible, is, in my judgment, and that of many others, to be totally in error.

Okay, so where are we?

Israel is a state, a nation, just like Jordan and Iran and Poland and Canada and Peru. That's it; that's all. That get's one a seat in the United Nations as well as the right to exist in peace.

As for God, God is no longer in the land business. Now it's the world that God loves, and all the peoples therein.

Now, for God, it's all the world, or, might I say, the world or nothing.

So, for me at least, and for many Christians and Jews, there is no religious significance to the State of Israel, no more than there is for Chili or Morocco. 

Personally, I regret the formation of the State of Israel.

But history cannot be undone. It is my hope and prayer that America will craft a new policy guaranteeing Israel's security, providing for a real two-state solution and putting a leash on the more radical and aggressive elements within Israeli society - i.e. the Orthodox, many of whom are inclined to believe in a radical Zionism longing for the reestablishment of the Temple with its sacrifices and the coming of the Messiah who alone will bring peace - until such time, struggle and war will be the way it is.

Sadly, this violent vision has been embraced by fundamentalist Christians in America who love their guns and muscles and believe that war in the Middle East is a part of God's plan, and when the final war breaks out (see the Left Behind Series), then God will begin to act. So, let's go to war, as some have said, like John Hagee.

The violent visions of war, the rapture, etc., are profoundly distorted images of what the Bible actually says. But there have always been those whose love of war has become strangely intermingled with their love for God!

It is our task to disentangle these elements - to promote the love of God, and to bring to an end our warring inclinations.

Hope these thoughts help clarify some serious questions about the State of Israel and how we read the Bible.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thoughts About Presbyterian Bitterness

As you may or may not know, I do a blog on "Presbyterian Outlook," and, yes, I'm happy to be a Presbyterian, but some folks aren't. In reply to one of my blogs, some pretty nasty stuff, including a request that "The Outlook" close the blog down. I checked out the writer, a pastor from Western PA who writes his own blog on being Presbyterian. Sure, we have our issues; who doesn't? But it's like a good marriage: either the marriage and its happiness take precedence over the issues, or the issues themselves outweigh the marriage, and then it's only a matter of time before bitterness and outrage prompt a divorce.
Yes, I have been bitter, but God be praised, I have learned anew that bitterness, lodged in the heart of a liberal or in the heart of a conservative, is Satan's poison, and the results are always the same - the slow loss of reason and a growing blindness to the goodness of God flowing free and clean every morning. Bitterness locks the prison door, and therein we brood and sorrow, talking only to the other inmates self-sentenced for the same crimes and misdemeanors. Bitterness prompts us to inordinate self-confidence even as we increasingly despise "the other." Well, just a few thoughts. I am grateful for where I am, and though I've travelled the road of bitterness, though I've sentenced myself a few times to the dark room, I'm not there now, and to God be the glory!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Preaching Schlock?

Excerpt from last (9/13/09) Sunday's message:

I’ve been paying attention to sermons for a long time.

In seminary, I worked in the library – I reshelved books returned by students and pastors … I decided to look at what pastors were reading, and even as a first-year student, I was shocked and disturbed – so much of it was just plain schlock … syrupy spirituality, mediocre moralisms, simpleton ideas and shallow commitments.

(to read the message, click HERE)

I'm still concerned about the character of preaching. Reading Calvin this year, and now into the fourth book of the Institutes wherein Calvin examines the nature of the ordained office and its high calling to instruction, I am saddened by what passes as "preaching" these days.

Many of us have been influenced by the megachurch style - three powerpoints, colorfully illustrated with flowers and crashing waves, along with a few scriptures and a tearful-story or two. The "sermon" outline may be included as a handout, and folks can "follow along" by filing in the blanks, such as "Esther really ________ God."

And, of course, all of this delivered "extemporaneously" ... and listening to a lot of stuff posted to the internet, much of this extemp preaching strikes me as inarticulate as it is loud. Sort of like the preacher of old who noted in the margin of his text, "strike pulpit."

Is this preaching?

Is this teaching?

I don't know.

I've done a lot of extemp preaching over the years, and looking back, I don't think any of it could ever hold a candle to the value of a carefully prepared manuscript filled with carefully prepared thoughts on a text that has been carefully exegeted and prayerfully pondered (sure, no style or method inherently posses the power of God - that's up to God alone, and God will bless what God blesses, and we cannot control or manage that).

I've done the slide-show routine, and there's value there, but like TV, how effective is eye-candy?

Millions have been spent for the latest in tech tools, and I've been there, too, but at this stage of the game, I wonder just how effective it's been in creating disciples and feeding the hungry.

The self-study undertaken by Willow Creek a few years back rocked the megachurch world by its startling honesty, revealing that they had been no more or less successful in creating disciples, spiritually mature followers of Jesus, than anyone else.

I think we've all been cowed by the secular - that glitz, tech and high-powered stunts, will bring folks to Christ, and, the "numbers" of the megachurch prove it ... or do they?

I thank God for the megachurches and how they impacted us, but they're learning, as did the "megachurches" of an earlier time, that numbers are deceptive.

Or in the flow of Isaiah or Gideon's army, it's the faithful remnant who carries the torch, and the remnant is always small in number, so that God's folks never get the impression that it's their might and main that wins the day.

As for preaching?

It's an age-old task - from Jeremiah before the temple to Jesus on the Mount, from Calvin in Geneva to any of us today - and only God will give the blessing!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Presbyterian Divorce?

Just finished the latest issue (September, 2009) of "The Layman" - an exhausting read for me, and clearly unpleasant, as they dislike the path I'm on even as they walk in a very different direction.

Oh well ... they're convinced and so am I. Wonder how that happens, but it does, with everyone striving to claim the high moral ground of Scripture, theology, creed and tradition.

It's always painful, for everyone - those who leave and those who don't.

I think many, on both sides of the equation, believe that we've done just about all the talking we can do.

Or have we?

Is there anything more to be said, or like a tough divorce, should we just get on with and go our separate ways in the hopes of finding ourselves again?

From the tone of "The Layman" and the recent action of the Beaver Butler Presbytery to serve notice on the PCUSA, it seems like some folks have drawn a pretty clear line in the sand.

I suppose I have, too.

Like a broken marriage, we've slept in separate bedrooms for a long time, we've gone on vacation with our theological peers, and when we talk, it's mostly acrimony and accusation.

Would counseling help?

Or is exit counseling the best course of action - to minimize the damage, to bless one another on our respective journeys and to get on our with life, a little bruised and slightly damaged, but still capable of a good life, free of having to look at each across the breakfast table?

Just some very random thoughts ...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ill-Advised Zeal

Writing of the Anabaptists (4.1.13), Calvin notes their sinfulness - yup, that's what he calls it, driven, as it is, by "ill-advised zeal for righteousness."

 A few lines later, Calvin writes: they ... sin in that they do not know how to restrain their disfavor. For where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity. Indeed, because they think no church exists where there are not perfect purity and integrity of life, they depart out of hatred of wickedness from the lawful church, while they fancy themselves turning aside from the faction of the wicked.

 I think everyone of us has done this because it feels so good.

But the sin of ill-advised zeal is still sin, and it results in the same thing as any plain old sin might do - things are broken, and the heart is steeled against the impulse of the Spirit. Pride begets pride, and then the anger, and then further acrimony, and more pride and more fighting and more sadness.

I find it of interest that Calvin writes in this way of the Anabaptists - like the early Donatists, I suppose, the impulse to get it right, and the need to lambast those whom they see as getting it less than right.
We've all done it; there's a little Donatist, or an Anabaptist in nosing around in every heart - that secrete place of pride and power wherein we adjudge ourselves pure and righteous, and the others? Oh well, see ya' in hell!

 I'm entertained with Calvin at this point: he was a man who could dish it out, and now, on the receiving end of it from the Anabaptist, raises the question of "ill-advised zeal."

How fine is the line between "Ill-advised zeal" and "the zeal of the Lord"?

Perhaps the Book of Proverbs might help us ... or the Beatitutdes ... or the simple washing of feet - for who doesn't need cleansing, who doesn't need grace, who isn't saved by grace morning, noon and night?

Ill-advised zeal - a dangerous business!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Family ... and What a Family It Is!

"The Family: the Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," by Jeff Sharlet, is an eye-popping, gut-wrenching, read, as he details the rise of "elite fundamentalism" in America, a bizarre blend of Christianity and capitalism, union-busting and anti-government ideology, militarism and market globalization, to generate wealth for the wealthy and power for the powerful, most of it under the table, even as it eschews the "populist fundamentalism" of a Billy Graham.

With a city like Colorado Springs being a refuge for thousands fleeing the evils of urban America and a source of ideas and energy to reclaim America's urban centers for Christ.

With Ted Haggard as one of the leading lights of the movement, that is, until Ted's fall from grace, so to speak.

Though spin puts a happy face on it - Ted was so powerful for the Lord, it would seem, that Satan had to unleash a full-frontal attack on the man, causing him to sin.

Fundamentalism, with its focus on personal conversion and inward piety, combined with a sense of retreat from the evil world even as one acquires its wealth (God's blessing) and the accouterments of worldly pleasure - homes, big SUVs, and fine clothing - is a perfect tool for the unregulated capitalism that has driven this nation to its knees and brought about a near-collapse of the global economy.
Sharlet's book is a perfect sequel to Chris Hedges' fine book, "American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America" - a carefully written book examining the classic examples of fascism and how the Christian right has flirted with fascism, if not, in fact, been seduced by it.

As I think and pray about such things, I am continually reminded of such things, since September 1 was the 70th anniversary of German tanks crossing the Polish frontier to begin 6 bloody years of world war, at the end of which 45 million were dead, and we must never forget how adroitly the Nazi propagandists used religion to further their own interests and keep the concentration-camp fires burning.

In the midst of that horror, an even greater question: Why did so many millions of German Christians buy into the rhetoric of a Himmler and a Hitler? Why the hatred of the Jews and Gypsies and all the rest deemed unworthy of the name "German"?

Yes, there was the Confessing Church, God be praised - and the Old Testament scholar, Von Rad, who refused to knuckle under and raised a protest, for which many of them paid the ultimate price.
But the question remains and must be asked countless times: Why did so many bishops and pastors, Protestant and Catholic, and millions more who heard their preaching and received the sacraments from their hand, buy the mythology of Aryan purity and power?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Doctrine and Love???

In 4.1.7, Calvin writes of the Lord's Supper, and of our participation in it: an attestation of our "unity in true doctrine and love."

Had Calvin put a period after doctrine, we'd be left with an impossible dream, for Christians will never find unity on the basis of "true doctrine," at least in the long run. Perhaps in the short run, in the thrill of new friends and new-found associations. But in time, friendships wear and the new becomes just as tired and wearying as was the old.

Doctrine is a good thing, but only as a servant of love.

In those instances where doctrine has been given too much weight, the results are always the same: bickering, dissension and divorce.

And those newly married on the basis of doctrine will soon find other issues to debate, things endlessly in need of fine-turning, sub-point and codicil ... with mountains of paper, books and counter-books, claims and counter-claims, and with each round, a little more bitterness, a little more anger, a little more this and a little more that, until all those little things become big things, and the indifferent makes all the difference.

I know doctrine, but do I know love?

I spent a good many years, early on, in the land of doctrine; it was fun and rewarding, but wearing, too, as ideas wear upon one another like engine parts shy of adequate lubrication, until the whole thing ceases up and comes to a grinding halt.

I think it was Rob Bell who said, "Doctrine makes a good servant but a horrible tyrant." He would know, living and working as he does in Grand Rapids, sort of the Holy City in the Land of Doctrine.

But it's love with which Calvin ends the sentence.

That's always the good end, the only end required of us.

While I'm quite sure what doctrine looks like and a community of faith utterly shaped by it, I have difficulty imagining a community of faith driven by love.

Yet some things seem obvious: like putting up with one another and our respective views, without calling down the wrath of heaven or summoning up the fires of hell.

Making room for one another, and perhaps, then, we can finally address what has been our fatal flaw from the get-to: too much reliance on doctrine and not enough push on love - biblical love - highly ethical and pulsing with loyalty to one another because of Christ's loyalty to us!

Of the former issues of race and gender, those who favored the status quo were able to marshal tons of Scripture and tons more of doctrine. The weight of history, in the main, is always on the side of the conservative [note the Sadducees].

But there are other stories to be told, and someone like Diana Butler Bass ["A Peoples' History of Christianity"] helps us do just that, and with these smaller stories, reminds us of the ways of love, the courage of love, and the humility of love.

Calvin himself relied too much on doctrine [a man of his time, to be sure], but he could never forget the Holy Spirit, the mystery of God, and the power of love.

Doctrine is neat and clean, especially when we walk away from those who might offer another take on things. That's one way of keeping the house clean.

Love, however, requires of us something rather different, or so I think.

The next time I'm at the Lord's Table, which will be this coming Sunday, I'll think about these things ... to be united in true doctrine and love.