Sunday, February 28, 2016

Everything is upside down


I got a little help from Ellen Haroutunian on this one. It's a good one for applying the skill of finding your self in the story. It's another one of those situations where Jesus does something seemingly mean and hurtful. He sends demons into pigs and the pigs kill themselves. It's a problem if you want a consistently fair and peaceful Jesus, but not if you look at this as a lesson in community justice.

This is the gospel, so we have Jesus. In this case he will be representing a group of people or an idea. The story begins with him meeting a demon-possessed man. The community has chained him up and he lives in a cave without clothes. To whom in your community do you see this being done? It might be drug addicts or welfare cases or felons or dropouts or some kid who doesn't pull his pants up. You may also be ignoring your neighbor or co-worker who sits on the opposite side of the political fence. Anyone you think is crazy for thinking in some way that you don't.

Jesus appears from far away as a healer to this man. Somehow the man recognizes him even though nothing tells us that he had ever seen Jesus before. People who are hurting, who have problems that they know are problems, but can't deal with them, often are able to recognize those who are able to help them. They are then doubly confronted, with their own "demons" and with someone who can help "exorcise" them. They sense a painful encounter. The Bible is terribly unhelpful on telling us exactly how to do this. It is not a manual for psychologists on how to break through someone's addictions and mis-education and get them to see they can be a useful member of society. All we get in this story is Jesus told the demons to go into some nearby pigs.

The pigs are the property of the community. This community had made no attempt to help this person. At least, the story doesn't tell us if they did. Judging a whole community is always dicey. What should we expect of them? There are people who don't want to be helped and can't be helped by anything except perhaps severely invasive therapy and medical attention. We have certainly abandoned a lot of these people in rural America (See book reference below). We have blamed communities and families for being backwards and causing the problems while we have whole organizations dedicated to giving assistance to people who live on the streets in cities.

But one story can't cover every situation. The way this is presented assumes the man can be healed. Back to the pigs. The pigs represent a cost to the community. Our Jesus here has judged that this community could have done something. They could have tried to talk to this guy. They could have kept an eye on him and kept him away from whatever it is was that triggered his behaviors. They could have met with him and his friends and relatives and designed some steps for him take to reintegrate himself. Instead they chained him up and that created a different set of consequences. It's a "pay me now or pay me later" situation. The healer eventually comes, but he has a price.

I really like the ending. The community tells the healer to go away, they don't like the price he extracted. The healed man wants to go with Jesus. This happens in 12 step and community support situations. People find the help they need, and they want to attach themselves to the help. Programs become self perpetuating and insulated from the very community they were supposed to be integrating people back in to. Participants may re-offend just to get back into the feeling of being supported that they found in the program.

In the blog I linked above, Ellen puts the community's role in terms of Roman gods. Those gods could be bargained with, and they could punish people you didn't like with demon possession. As she says, "There is a strange comfort in having gods that can be manipulated. Certainties feel safe. Jesus is a problem." I hope the analogy of calling the police on your loud neighbors instead of talking to them is not lost. Or the analogy of paying the price required to deal with people we wish would just go away.

* Hartland to Capitol Hill, The Journey of a Wounded Healer by Ernie Gunderson and Mary Gunderson. This book was written by a friend of mine using journals from his late mother. It was a large family in rural Minnesota. Two of Ernie's siblings had severe mental illness. It chronicles the many problems they had obtaining services. Her work leads to speaking before congress in Washington D.C. on these issues.


Elijah is not too happy with his Kingdom and is ready to call it quits. This is a well known passage and marks a turning point in the Bible where God seems to be speaking differently to his Prophets. Elijah is a very key figure too, in case you didn't know. He appears in the Transfiguration as an apparition with Moses when Jesus wants to show his apostles where he fits in the big picture.

And it's a beautiful bit of poetry isn't it? The "still soft voice", isn't that nice? If you stop reading at this point, which is exactly what the lectionary wants you to do, it sounds like "still" and "soft" are better than a loud wind that shatters rocks or an earthquake.

But I couldn't preach to this part of the Lectionary without mentioning the part they left out.

This is what immediately follows the verse:

15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. 18 Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

And it goes on for pages about how they did just that. These anointed kings went about "putting to death" people all over the place. This is pure religiously motivated warfare. Never mind that it didn't actually happen, that doesn't make the story any better. There is no reason for this. It was probably a story told to make the Kingdom of David sound more important than it actually was. What purpose can it serve other than to say if you have God on your side, as opposed to Baal, you'll win?


Psalms are not my strong suit. This is a "lamentation" from King David when his kingdom is in a lot of trouble. It is also one of the more popular Psalms as it's opening line is repeated by Jesus on the cross. Some even say this is a prophetic vision. My non-supernatural view of that is, it is a literary device. The gospel writer is using words that his readers would be familiar with. The Psalm also has words about hands and feet being pierced. They are said to be parallels. They might be errors in translation, but that's far above my pay grade.

The Psalm itself begins with David considering an argument against God known. In the last century, the term "Divine Hiddenness" was coined to describe questioning the existence of God like this. He is seeking God, but feels he's not there and shows some evidence for his absence. Then he sings some praises and ends with a list of good things that will come from that praise, despite all the detractors.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Season After Pentecost

Proper 6 – June 12, 2016

Once when I was working with Kids Against Hunger, someone started a prayer with, “Thank you Jesus for breaking my heart. Thank you for showing me the brokenness in the world. By showing me that brokenness, I know what it is you want me to do.” That’s not how I would say it, but that’s what this gospel is about.

This is the message of the early gospels. Long before Jesus is on the cross. In the 1st century, the Romans were nailing a lot of people to crosses all over. It’s how they kept the peace and kept commerce moving. As you transported your goods on Roman roads, you saw people strung up and you knew exactly how those roads were made safe.

In this gospel, Jesus is invited for dinner with the people he is speaking out against, the Pharisee’s. They are Jews, but Jesus thinks they are too rigid and that they are not doing what good Jews should be doing. The Pharisees just see sinners and want to punish people for breaking rules. They don’t see people who need help. Jesus, somehow, it’s not clear, sees that the sinner in this story has faith. It’s also not clear exactly what she has faith in, but let’s assume it’s the standard, faith in Jesus. And then we have a happy ending of Jesus gaining more followers.

This is a common theme for Jesus, or whomever wrote the early gospels. He speaks to the people in the servant class. These are people who had minimal rights to worship in the way their ancestors did and weren’t invited to dinners with the priests. They wouldn’t have liked their Roman masters and they weren’t especially happy with their puppet ruler King Herod or his priestly class.

Jesus looked at all this and realized the world was broken, but instead of fighting the powers of the day, he said the first thing to do is stop being angry at the world. Love your neighbor. Recognize them for their desire to remain part of the community, not their specific knowledge of arbitrary rules.
Realize that most of those people, privileged or not, are victims of the same screwed up education about what’s right and wrong that all of us are getting. He said, we’re all being told, slavery is okay and you’re a slave. The masters are being told, slavery is okay, and you’re a master. Even if they were not a slave owner, they were being told to support that system, work hard, and maybe one day, they would get to have a slave!

That’s how a system like that is kept in place. The important thing to note is, it’s the same narrative for both classes. Jesus spoke against the narrative. He said, look below you at the lepers that you won’t touch, touch them. Bring them into the community. If you don’t, what is this community for? What does it represent? If we aren’t washing the feet of the whores, who are we to say we are better than them? If we aren’t forgiving their sins, why should we expect our sins to be forgiven? There are limits to this of course. Intolerance of intolerance will be covered elsewhere. But, if you look to the people in power and seek to gain what they have, you are perpetuating the same narrative that enslaves you.

None of this precludes having goals. If you want to be Queen or King or CEO or head cheerleader or whatever you think will make a difference in the world, that’s great, find people to support you. But you can’t be all of those things, no one can be everything. We would admire the person with 4 PhD’s, but think of the hundreds of other degrees they don’t have, or the street knowledge they probably don’t have. There are rare people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is successful due in part to his vast knowledge of the cosmos, and of movies and TV. He often relates an amazing fact about the stars to a super power of some cartoon character.

The goal is not watch more TV if you are PhD, or to go get a PhD if you like watching movies. The lesson is, on your quest to rule the world make some friends along the way, don’t forsake those friendships for the goal. The goal will evolve and might never be reached, but human contact is always available. When you get passed over for the Nobel Prize, again, it will be nice to have someone you can talk to. If you’re trying to decide to clear a forest so you can build the mega-hospital for cancer research, or to leave it there for the spotted owl, it would be nice to go for a walk in that forest with someone who gets you. Jesus didn’t build his following by successfully arguing theological points with the High Priests. He built it by showing compassion to the people in the street.


This NT reading gives some context for fitting the gospel story into the larger Biblical story of the meaning of the messiah and how Jesus brought a new Covenant. It is a good passage if you are playing “theological football” and want to make an argument for “works”. It is also a passage that can be used to argue for any action because you are “justified in Christ”. Justification for actions requires reasons. Having good reasons comes from understanding the world as best we can.

If religion is a quest to determine the forces in the universe and to align yourself with them, and you have reasons for believing Jesus is a way to connect to the forces, then this passage gives you some useful information. If, on the other hand, you don’t have reasons for accepting Jesus as your path to a better life here and in the hereafter, this passage doesn’t offer much. We are left with the quest to understand the universe and figure out where we fit in.

OT – Kings 21
This is a story of retribution by God to a King who did not respect God’s claim on land. It has no real value in the modern world.

For convenience, when I say “Jesus”, I mean “the early gospel writers whose names we don’t really know and we don’t how well the early messages were transcribed or if they have survived multiple translations and multiple copies.”

When I say “gospels” or “gospel writers”, I’m not talking about 4 people we know by first name. We don’t actually know who those people were. We have some idea of when each gospel written and the earliest one was 30 to 50 years after the events it claimed happened. These should be in the background of any sermon. You can choose to teach them from the pulpit or elsewhere, but the facts are not in dispute, at least not by most and not by much.

The oldest actual copies of the gospel are from around 250 AD. They are completely useless for confirming the truth of miraculous events. They give us some insight into lives of ordinary people and their thoughts from a long time ago. This makes them valuable as historical source documents. But source documents have to be evaluated in the context of everything else you know about that time and place.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Lectionary 21

I will be starting something new soon. It may be one of those projects I start but don't finish, but it's gotta be attempted. It will be called Lectionary 21, and will probably be it's own site, not a blog format. But I'll continue to post here and refer to it. I will follow the common lectionary as best I can, but sometimes I'll skip around. It will be in the format of notes and comments like you would find for any other lectionary guide. What will set mine apart from others is that I will accept no supernatural basis to any of the stories, but I will still be looking for meaning behind the mere words.

Obviously, my notes will be very different, otherwise what would be the point? For starters, and I'll repeat this a lot, when I say "Jesus", I will mean the historical Jesus. By that, I mean the character Jesus that has been handed down to us via history. The words originally spoken have been translated, changed, misinterpreted and essentially lost. When I say “Jesus”, I mean “the early gospel writers whose names we don’t really know and we don’t how well the early messages were transcribed or if they have survived multiple translations and multiple copies.” I'll say "Jesus" for convenience.

I'm going to start about 4 months out for this lectionary year, year C. I'm thinking of calling mine year Z. Hopefully that's far out enough that I can keep ahead of the rotation, and hopefully I'll have all three years done sometime around the end of next year. That starting point is also at the point of the early years of Jesus (see above), which I think is a better place to start the cycle anyway. Hopefully you'll see why I think that as it unfolds.

Eventually, I'd like to add music suggestions and extra Biblical study notes, but the main focus will always be the stories and their interpretation through the lens of the modern world with all its knowledge of where those stories came from and all of its philosophers and prophets that have come since.

My hope is that someone finds this useful. I will be contacting all of the ministers and lay speakers and theologians that I have known, sent emails to, wrote blogs about, commented on their websites and articles and sometimes hassled. I'll also be writing all those people who say they are on the cutting edge of theology. I look forward to feedback from all of them.

One thing I will try not to do too much of is, say, "the Bible says this, historians tell us this, we can't know for sure, the people hearing the story were experiencing this, it was written when this was happening, therefore,...." There are enough people doing that. There are books on that. I will refer to those people and books, but I'll leave that study to you.

There will however, be occasions when I have to comment on the historical context and how others are currently preaching to a particular passage. There are parts of the Bible that need to be designated as irrelevant to the modern world. We don't need to know how to build an ark and we don't need to know the military history of wars that didn't happen. Sometimes a miracle is an allegory for something that is timeless, sometimes it's a made up story to make God look good.


For convenience, when I say “Jesus”, I mean “the early gospel writers whose names we don’t really know and we don’t how well the early messages were transcribed or if they have survived multiple translations and multiple copies.”

When I say “gospels” or “gospel writers”, I’m not talking about 4 people we know by first name. We don’t actually know who those people were. We have some idea of when each gospel was written and the earliest one was 30 to 50 years after the events it claimed happened. These facts should be in the background of any sermon. You can choose to teach them from the pulpit or elsewhere, but the facts are not in dispute, at least not by most and not by much.

The oldest actual copies of the gospel are from around 250 AD. They are completely useless for confirming the truth of miraculous events. They give us some insight into lives of ordinary people and their thoughts from a long time ago. This makes them valuable as historical source documents. But source documents have to be evaluated in the context of everything else you know about that time and place.  

Historical facts
I will mention historical facts that I consider accurate and sometimes say something about how confident I am or what the historical consensus is. I won't dwell on these. The stories themselves are not historically accurate and were never meant to be, that is a background assumption. 

If it's important to you, it is up to you to check my facts. The point of this exercise is to find themes in these stories based on a full understanding of their context, including how we view them through the lens of all human knowledge. Obviously I don't possess all human knowledge, so my lens will be as blurry as anyone's. 

I will be glad to respectfully discuss historical issues, but before you do, consider how much you have discussed those issues with your spiritual community. My experience is they have not been too concerned by them. If the historical facts support their preconceived notions, they might, but if they cause a problem for the text, they would rather dismiss them. My lack of attention to explaining historical details should not be misunderstood as dismissive. I am using the standard of "to the best of my knowledge". I am always open to gaining knowledge or having mine corrected.

On the other hand, if you already don't believe the stories are historical, but think it's important that I point that out, consider how much you have looked into the themes of these narratives. If you look at them as pure fiction, can you still find value? That's what I'm exploring here. The fact vs fiction argument will sometimes matter but often will not.


"Good" and "righteous" are used frequently in the Bible. It is not always clear what they mean. Sometimes you can get a list, but even those are more for discussion than real answers. Even the 10 commandments has multiple versions. There are no simple answers from science, psychology or other traditions either. The idea of what is "good" is developed throughout the Bible, just as we develop ideas about it throughout our lives.

The most succinct description I have ever heard came from Dan Fincke in 12 minutes of an interview with Ryan Bell in 2016. Basically, after discussing how selective pressures acted on our ancestors and the basic capacities we have to think and be aware of our environment, he said, we need a cooperative society to fulfill our desires, from the highest to the most basic. After we receive a certain amount of education, we choose to participate in that society because we understand what was given to us and how it made us happier. We continue to see the value of long term relationships and peaceful functioning institutions and we see that by contributing to them, we will get a return. This is not a simple transaction. It offers no guarantees and fairness is difficult to achieve, often impossible. Sometimes we experience mutual empowerment and other times we are "paying it forward". Often times we don't know if we were good or not.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Chicago Root Beer

Grabbed some carry-out from Famous Dave's barbeque and a WBC "Chicago Style" Root Beer. I have no idea what makes if "Chicago Style". They're pretty proud of it though, since 1988. oooooh! Can't complain. With 45g of sugar, it was sweet, actually not overly so, surprisingly creamy. It foamed up nicely. I wouldn't say this is best Root Beer ever, but it's nice to know I can get one any time I'm at Famous Dave's.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Science of Peace

I'd like to make two observations that make a great difference in my worldview.

We are star stuff and we care about each other.

The second one is simpler, but relies on the first. I’m going to accept that we care about each other as truth without providing an explanation because the explanation is complicated and relies on assumptions and is ultimately un-provable. Call it an assertion if you want, but I call it an observation because I observe it in myself when I see any kind of story from a commercial designed to tug at my emotions to any of the great and timeless theatrical presentations or novels you might want to name.

It is not necessary to explain it, because “it” explains our mere existence. The complex organisms that we are don’t survive very well without a lot of nurturing. The first few years are literally impossible and to be anything other than an equal to any other animal in the kingdom takes several more years of attention and intervention of the natural tendencies we have to get ourselves into trouble. Anyone who has engaged in the simplest conversation with a child, who asks “why”, knows how frustrating it can be to deal with all those parts of the brain left over from earlier stages of our evolution. At some point in that conversation the adult starts to wonder why they are bothering to continue with it.

It can be logically concluded that we would not exist if we didn’t care about each other on some level that is so basic we can’t explain it with logic. At best, we would be a minor species, slightly more adaptable than others, a little better at hunting, but still vulnerable to the larger carnivores and always vulnerable to natural disasters and just as unaware of the age of the universe or its future as any other animal. We certainly would not have vehicles running on fuels or universities or grain storage or an understanding of invisible things that can poison our water. Life would be idyllic and without worries part of the time for some and a living hell for others the rest of the time. Large populations would disappear and no one would know why or for that matter, would have ever known about them it all.

We can despair in the fact that there are people who live in horrid conditions, that despite our knowledge of the universe and our ability to affect our environment, we still allow that to happen, or we can notice that we are the ones who care. We can feel small against a vast and mostly inhospitable cosmos circling above at speeds we can ‘t comprehend or we can feel big enough to do something for someone on the other side of this one little planet. We can get whatever sense of satisfaction that might bring even if that feeling is brief and only makes us more aware of the enormity of the problems that there are to solve. We can be thankful that we get to feel at all, that we have the luxury of grieving for another while we sip our coffee before heading off to whatever meaningless work we have to do for the day.

It is those moments, whether they are spent alone or with others who feel the same that bring the meaning to those day to day tasks. If you are composing a sonnet to rival Shakespeare or sending out a memo about some obligatory training session, your words, your expression of who you are, is fleeting. Very few people are remembered beyond a century and even those are not preserved well. It’s unfortunate that we hold those memorable moments in history above the moments that we have with each other. It is those moments with each other that build the foundations that give us the reason to have a history in the first place.

Civilization did not begin with some great person telling us to care for our children. It did not begin with someone providing a list of rules to live by and the need to enforce those rules because people did not understand that they needed to care about each other. By time we started writing down rules, we had been raising families and defending our way of life against others for a long time. We had run into the problem of peace through strength a long time before that. We developed any number of philosophies and rituals to deal with it and we continue to muddle through the problem today.

By any measure, by the number of weapons we possess, the number of people experiencing chronic starvation, the quality of our leaders or the number of safe neighborhoods in the world, we are still a caring and peaceful creature. We have managed to not blow ourselves up and to rebuild after disasters, human caused or otherwise. I could try to recreate one of the great observations by Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson about how amazing it is that we are here and can reflect back on what it took for us to be here, but they do it better, and it takes me too far distant from the things that actually matter to me and keep me connected to the ground that is a part of that larger thing.

It is enough to be able to look back on my own ancestry, up to the point that I can no longer name them, and then look at where they came from, the culture, the environment, everything that was needed to keep them alive, and see it is exactly the same things I need. And those things are pretty close to what every other living thing on the planet needs. And to see the larger forces like gravity and energy from the sun are needed just to hold the planet together and provide a place for life to get the whole thing going. If all of those resulted in me, and I’m occasionally able to feel happy about that and connected to it, that’s enough for me to want to figure out what I can do to keep it all going.

That’s enough for me to use that simple ability of reflecting on whatever is around me. To look up at the stars and wonder how they got there and if there is another creature somewhere looking at my home star. To see an old man walking with a child and be amazed at the years it took to create that moment. To then apply every bit of data I know and every bit of reason I have to determine what I can do right now to continue to create moments like that in the future. If those moments are fleeting, if they are just moments, that doesn't bother me. I still have those moments and we still have each other.