Friday, February 12, 2016

Losing Hope

I'm in a funk.  It's beginning to dawn on me that the very thing I've committed my life to--the object of my study--doesn't matter these days.

Now, before you correct my misplaced devotion (after all, we're supposed to be committed to Christ and his kingdom), I am fully aware that there is a difference between the Word of God and the word of God.  And, yes, I've committed my entire life to the former, the One who captured my heart, the Man who lived better than any person has ever lived, the very Son of God who reveals perfectly our heavenly Father, the hope of our salvation, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins, the embodiment of our resurrection.  But, as the preacher in the book of Hebrews said so eloquently, Jesus is the Last Word of God found first and foremost in the very word of God--the Scriptures.  He warns his listeners over and over again:  We'd better listen to the word to hear the Word, because, if we don't, there's going to be big trouble.

Within the cacaphony of trivia that dominates our everyday attention, you'd think a more substantive, powerful, shake-your-soul-to-your-feet, gravitas-kind of word would feel like a drink of cold water in the middle of the desert.  (Is it just me, or are things getting worse?  My daily morning habit is to read a few .coms of news, check out a blog or two--even a so-called "Christian" blog that tells me the state of our faith "Today."  A few years ago, that would take about 30 minutes to an hour.  These days, I don't find much to read.  For example, this morning I clicked on nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing!  Perhaps I'm becoming that old curmudgeon that I used to despise in my youth.  But, I wonder to myself, "Does anyone read this nonsense?  Really?  Is this what should occupy our minds today?")  I read for a living.  I speak for a living.  I write for a living.  But, the very centerpiece of that devotion, the thing I treasure, what should occupy our attention in profound ways, is so marginalized today that I can't even get my students to pay attention to it in class.  The Bible doesn't matter.  And, the great irony is, they're taking a biblical studies class.  They don't read it before class.  They don't even have it open while I lecture on it.  They don't wrestle with what it says.  Rather, the majority of them sit and listen and take a few notes, hoping to pass the class.  Of course, I have a few students who care.  But that number is shrinking every year.

Sharing my disappointment recently, one of my colleagues assessed the situation like this:  these students of ours love the Bible.  They just don't care what's in it.

Same thing happens in church.  I'll invite my listeners to take their bibles and turn to . . . .  But there's no movement, little effort.  A few open the Scriptures (hard or e-copies) and try to follow along.  But, for the most part, the Bible is one of the most ignored things on Sunday mornings.  Trying to keep them engaged, I'll ask, "And what did Jesus say here?" or "And what was Paul's response in verse 24?"  Nothing.  Silence.  A few might fumble around trying to find the answer, as if surprised by the pop quiz.  But most stare back at me with that, "Are you finished yet?" look I've come to recognize so well:  in the classroom as well as in the church.

I'm afraid I'm becoming so discouraged that I might throw a fit in righteous indignation.  But that's such an ugly scene.  Doesn't do any good.  Besides, I don't want to be that guy.  I even prayed that this morning, "Lord.  Please help.  I don't want to be that guy."

But, I'm afraid I am becoming that guy, the old prof who reminisces about the good, old days--when people not only loved the Bible but also craved to know what's in it.

Honestly, I'm afraid the Scriptures don't matter anymore, and I wonder what the preacher of Hebrews would say.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Time to look away

Hearing about the death of one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, made me groan.  I don't know why, but it felt like the death of a friend.  That is the allure of film.  We see stories with which we resonate, admire characters with whom we identify, and then deposit in our hearts fond feelings for the actors who bring these fictions to life.  I've written before that our obsession with Hollywood should give pause to us all:  we venerate people who are good fakers.  What does that say about us?  We love to watch great pretenders.  Professional liars (is that too strong of a term for actors?) are our heroes.  Indeed, great actors know how to embody the role, wear the psyche of a complex character--which some think leads to the demise of the overly empathetic actor.

This is why it bothers me so much that the press and the adoring public are eaten up with wanting the gory details of Mr. Hoffman's death.  It makes me angry.  I didn't need to hear that he had a needle in his arm when he died.  I didn't need to hear about all the bags of heroin in his apartment.  I didn't need to hear about his last hours on this earth--where he ate, how much money he drew from the ATM, whom he talked to on the phone.  All I could think about were his children, how they won't have their daddy around any more, how they'll have to hear all of their lives about how great an actor their daddy was and how tragic it was that he died a drug addict.  What a horrible burden to carry, especially for a child.

We watch.  We wait for more bits of juicy gossip.  We wring our hands over the tragedy.  We try to find some good in the "national conversation" about heroin addiction.  But, where's the dignity of remembering a man who was more than an actor and a drug addict?  He was a father for goodness sake.  He was someone's son.  Like every one of us, he too was made in the image of God.

Job said, "I have made a covenant with my eyes."  That's the best way to describe my desire these days.  I'm tired of watching the drama, the horror, the circus, the car wreck, the grief at someone else's expense.  For God's sake and mine . . .

It's time to look away and refuse to consume what the clamoring masses crave.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Good Endings

Our lives are filled with celebrations marking the beginning of things:  marriage, births, commencements, house warmings, inaugurations.  And, we have several ways of tracking life in the meantime:  birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, job promotions.  But, we really don't seem to have a handle on how to make sense of endings:  divorce, death, bankruptcy, retirement, chronic disease.  It's like we spend much energy at the beginning--party!--trying to keep the party going as it slowly fizzles--who wants cake and ice cream?--all the while knowing the end is coming.  To use a travel metaphor, we get worked up preparing for the trip, try to enjoy the journey, but have no idea when we've arrived.  It's almost as if we've heard the mantra so long--it's not the destination that matters but the journey--endings feel like failure.

Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that we cut against the grain of disappointing loss by offering some contrived celebration:  "yippee, I'm divorced;" or "ding, dong the witch is dead!"  That's why the recent trend of "designer funerals" appears so foolish.  A guy's coffin is made to look like the car of his favorite NASCAR driver, or a football fan's wake is attended by faux-cheerleaders of the NFL team he spent every Sunday rooting for.  I see what they're doing. They're trying to celebrate the end.  But it just comes off as campy and downright disrespectful.  Repeating the line, "Harry would have loved this!", doesn't make it any better.  Such arrogant words can only be spoken by the living, and they work like a hammer driving the last nail in the coffin.

Those of us who attend Christian funerals don't fare much better.  We try hard to say something nice, something important, hoping to sum up the life of a man in thirty minutes.  But, I always leave these funerals feeling like something's undone, like we forgot something, as if there was so much more to do, so much more to say.  Indeed, death always feels like a bad ending to a good story.

Then I think of Good Friday.  How the disciples walking away from the crowd that day must have felt the same way.  How the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus seems to capture much of what I'm feeling as I walk away from the funeral, needing to mark the end of things with a celebration.

Then we gather for food around a table.  We talk.  We eat.  We even laugh at the funny stories of our shared life.  But that makes me long ever more for the day when we will celebrate the good ending.

I wish we knew how to celebrate the end of things.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dear Reader

I've received several letters from readers of my books.  Few things excite me more than when a reader has read carefully my work and then offered a response.  For an author, it doesn't get much better.  Here's my response to a letter received last week:

Thanks so much for the kind, hand-written note regarding Spirituality according to Paul.  Please forgive my letter in print form; my handwriting is atrociously illegible, especially when compared to your beautiful cursive script.  I blame my poor penmanship on fast-talking professors during my studies at the university and seminary.  But, to be fair, my writing was in pretty bad shape before I started college.


Thanks for picking up a copy and reading the book.  I hope what I wrote is both fair to St. Paul and helpful to the Church.  There’s so much to say about our apostle, and so many excellent minds have devoted much study to unpacking his ideas.  No one, of course, will ever be able to say they’ve offered the last word on Paul.  To say that we shall study his letters until the end of the world is not a statement of resignation but a sincere and promising hope.  There’s still much work to be done.


Thanks also for including notes from your talk about homosexuality and the Bible.  To be sure, this is a complex and sensitive subject.  As a culture, we’ve certainly witnessed a revolution in the way we think and talk about homosexuality.  And, there’s no way a little letter will capture the way I read the Bible, and especially Paul, on this matter.  But, I will say this:  for the most part, I agree with your statement, “There can be no question Paul condemns homosexual acts, but he does not condemn homosexuality as such.”  But, allow me to parse your words a little in light of my reading of the Bible.


Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is a modern construct.  In New Testament times, they only knew of homoeroticism.  No one in Paul’s day would claim a psychological identity “gay” or “straight.”  So, to say that Paul condemns homosexuality in our terms is anachronistic (as your notes seem to point out).  That’s why I like to use (along with other NT scholars) the more descriptive term, homoeroticism.  Paul does condemn homoerotic acts, both man to man and woman to woman.  This is to be expected because as a first-century Jew who’s very concerned about holiness—especially as it applies to the behavior of his converts—Paul wants to present the obedience of the Gentiles to Christ as the ultimate proof of his apostleship.


Now, to claim that Paul would therefore affirm homosexual (a modern construct) relationships or unions (whether civil or religious) is purely speculative.  I think the burden of proof falls on anyone who would argue that Paul would support gay marriage.  Just because a more accurate reading of Paul’s arguments—based on the culture of his time—helps us see the difference between homoeroticism and homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Paul would support gay marriage.  The most that could be said is that he would oppose it because he believed homoerotic acts did not glorify God (and gay couples certainly have every opportunity to engage in homoerotic behavior).  And, the least that could be said is that we don’t know whether Paul would support gay marriage.  One would have to weigh the arguments—plotting a trajectory from Paul’s letters to our context—to see whether we’re being fair to Paul (and especially) the full revelation of God’s Word.


Of course, some don’t feel obliged to read Paul carefully; claiming to be “red-letter” Christians they base their support of gay relationships on the silence of Jesus.  But, I’m afraid such an argument from silence is pretty shaky ground.  Besides, Jesus does have much to say about human sexuality and practice that needs to be more carefully considered, for example his teaching about lust, the abuse of divorce, and the importance of “eunuchs” for the sake of the kingdom.  I don’t hear many people fretting over what Jesus meant about becoming a eunuch.  Why not?  Sometimes it feels like the “marquis” issues of our day dominate our reading of the Bible.  Our selective reading of the Scriptures has more to do with what we’re trying to prove.  I would like to turn the hermeneutic around.  Perhaps a more careful reading of the Bible should inform the issues we choose to discuss?  Is that na├»ve?  Maybe so.


I hope my little note helps explain what I wrote in the conclusion of the book, where I speculate on what St. Paul would say to us today.  It was offered as a “thought experiment” and not a definitive word.  But, you certainly read my comments correctly.  I don’t believe Paul would come down hard one way or the other on the politics of gay marriage.  I do, however, believe that Paul would continue to condemn homoerotic behavior and would have much to teach us about sacrificing ourselves for one another—even Christians who are attracted to the same sex.


Thanks again for your kind remarks about the book.

Blessings to you, my brother.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The loneliness of friendship

I've been thinking a lot lately about friendship.  It may have something to do with the convergence of things that have happened this summer:  my son and daughter's move to "the big city," the death of my father-in-law, time spent camping with my youngest daughter and her soon-to-leave-for-college life.  Friendship is an elusive reality.  We all want friends.  We all need friends.  But, I'm not sure I've found very many--you know, the kind of friend that loves you unconditionally.  Of course, we find friends in expected places (family, work, school), but even then I've come to realize that my friends over the years have been few and far between.

Not counting my immediate family, I've had three or four friends.  In high school, my best friend, Rick, was my constant companion.  Wherever he went, I went and vice versa.  We worked at the same place (Orange Julius at the Battlefield Mall), we enjoyed the same movies (Monty Python's "Quest" and Mel Brooks "Blazing Saddles" nearly made us pee in our pants for laughter), and went to the prom together (with appropriate dates, of course).  Our 40 year high school reunion is coming up.  I haven't attended a single one.  But, if I were to attend this one, it would only be because Rick was going.  And, I'm sure we'd pick up the conversation were we left it over 10 years ago.

I made a couple of friends in college--guys that I haven't kept up with but I know that if we were to talk, it would feel like time travel.  Jimmy, "Bib", and Tim--even though the four of us didn't hang out together--these three guys made college feel like home.  But, again, I've only seen them every once in a while, when they're drawn back to Bolivar for various reasons.

During seminary, I became acquainted with several guys, but only three--Gerald, Randy, and David--have become good friends.  There was this immediate connection, this automatic fellowship, that made me feel like I've known them all my life.  I've seen all three over the years for a variety of reasons, but I don't know them as well as I ought if they are truly "friends."

In different jobs, under different circumstances, I've found friends for the same reasons:  a sense that somehow we share a deeper affection, a raison d'etre, that pulled us together for a time.  Jeph, Ken, Ric, Martin--I knew as soon as I met these guys that we would be friends.  I think about them every once in a while--wonder how they're doing, finding out tidbits via social media--but since I don't spend time with them, it doesn't feel like we have a lasting friendship.

So, when it all comes down to it, my best friends are only four:  Sheri, Andrew, Emma, and Grace.  I need them in my life.  I crave spending time with them.  I think about them all the time.  I pray more for them than anyone else.  I trust them completely.  I can't imagine treating them like I have all of my other friends--only getting by with random updates and "hey, how are you doing" encounters.  I drink up the times we are together--now more than ever--because the centrifugal force of life is sending two of them away, with one yet to part.  The older I get the more I realize that time is the constant of friendship, and this irrepressible force we call "time" will leave me lonely for them.

I used to look forward to birthdays, the marking of time with presents.  Now all I want for my birthday is time--time with my friends.  And then I think of God.  Time.  Never ending.  Always together.  Never parting.  And I weep for the end of loneliness we call friendship.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Buffets and Television

I was an indiscriminate eater of buffet food when I was younger.  I'd plow through the line and grab most everything I liked, what looked good to me.  These days I can't stomach the thought of grazing at the buffet.  It all looks nasty to me.  High fat, deep fried, starch-city, warmed over, preservative-drenched mush.  Even if I closed my eyes and dove in, I'd regret it throughout the night.  My body would rebel, "What in the world have you thrown down here, you numbskull?"  Indigestion, tossing and turning, fat-induced coma the next day.  Bleary-eyed and stumbling through the work day, I would question my foolish consumption.  I have become an old man.  "I can't believe what people eat these days."

I was an indiscriminate consumer of television programs when I was younger.  I'd watch just about anything, no matter how mind-numbing or senseless.  These days I can't tolerate the nonsense that passes for entertainment.  It all looks ridiculous to me.  Low ball, over hyped, idiot-city, warmed over, commercial-drenched pabulum.  Even if I closed my mind and took it in, I'd regret it throughout the night.  My soul would rebel, "What in the world have you thrown in here, you fool?"  Easily distracted, rambling and wandering, short-attention span waste the next day.  Foggy-headed and uncreative through the work day, I would question my foolish consumption.  I have become an old man.  "I can't believe what people watch these days."

If you've ever visited (or lived) outside the U.S., you know what this feels like.  Turn the television on and the whole world is foreign.  None of the personalities are recognizable.  None of the programs are familiar.  That's what it feels like when I flash through television programs these days.  It's all foreign to me.  No matter how many people rave about "Duck Dynasty," I can't get through two minutes.  No matter how many people talk about "Honey Boo Boo," I can't even tolerate the commercials for it.  It feels like we're living the apocalyptic scenario predicted by the movie, "Idiocracy."

I've often said to my wife (sounding like an old man), "I honestly don't know anymore.  None of this makes any sense to me.  Why do people watch this stuff?  Have we become a nation of idiots?"  She offers a more perceptive take on this ever-increasing mountain of television mush, "I think I know why.  People love to make fun of other people.  They're not watching 'Honey Boo Boo' because they like it.  They're watching it because it feeds this dark place where we enjoy being cruel to others."

Well, that may be true.  But, we still have to live with the indigestion that results from the indiscriminate consumption of what is served at the buffet.

So, here's some advice from a curmudgeonly old man, "Watch what you watch, for goodness sake.  We are what we eat.  (As he turns to the television) are the Cardinals playing tonight?"

Thursday, June 27, 2013


When I think through the implications of Jesus' teaching about how to love our enemies (Mt. 5:38-48), I realize once again how provocative he was.  In certain respects, I wish he would have been more vague about what it means to "love."  It would've helped us justify ourselves with empty expressions like, "hate the sin, love the sinner," for who could deny that we are "loving" someone when we tell the truth about sin?  But, Jesus won't let us get off so easy.  He doesn't leave the definition of "love" to us.  Rather, he offers a startling example that forces us to do things that don't come so easy.

When we think about loving our enemies, we often center on the "turning the other cheek" part of his advice.  And, that teaching is provocation enough to make us rethink whether we are truly loving our enemies.  But, recently I've been thinking through the other bit, the part about "going the extra mile," as an even more scandalous teaching--for Jesus' day and for ours.

Think about what it meant for his day.  He's making a clear reference to the practice of Roman soldiers to "force" imperial subjects to carry their armor, swords, provisions for a mile.  Since Rome didn't pay their armies enough to live on (some things never change), the Senate made provisions for Roman soldiers to exact help from the people they were ruling, e.g., extorting provisions for a journey, procuring goods for an expedition, or forcing locals to carry anything for a mile.  Of course, Roman soldiers abused the law and often took more than they should.  Think about how many times Jesus witnessed the scene growing up in Nazareth (a little town located a few miles from a major Roman highway).

Roman soldiers enter Nazareth.  They need food, water, perhaps tools, equipment, beasts of burden, etc.  Going house to house, the soldiers take what they need, what they want.  A Jewish man objects; they can't take his ox!  It's the only one he's got.  It took a year's pay to get it.  How will he plow his field without it?  The man resists.  The soldier gives him the usual warning, a back-handed slap across the face.  What can the man do?  He relents.  But, it gets worse.  The soldier has decided that he will not only take the man's ox, he will conscript the Jew to carry his armor.  That's the last thing the man from Nazareth would want to do:  help his enemy with Roman occupation.  As he carries the weapons and armor, imagine what would go through his mind:  "I wonder how many Jewish brothers and sisters this pagan has killed with his sword.  And I'm helping him get to the next Jewish village!"  They reach the end of the mile.  According to Roman law, that's as far as the subject should have to go.  But, the soldier keeps walking.  The Jewish man says, "That's it.  I'm going no further."  The soldier returns, slaps the man across the face again, and says, "Keep moving."  This was a common scene repeated thousands of times, not only in Palestine but throughout all imperial provinces of the Roman Empire.

Going "the second mile" not only meant willfully accepting the injustice of the enemy but also "aiding and abetting" the perpetrators.  Imagine what it looked like to fellow Jews when one of Jesus' disciples helped Roman soldiers rule the land promised by God to Israel.  By any standard, such action would be treason:  treason against fellow Jews, treason against God.

And, now we've come to the litmus test of what it means to love our enemies.  If our friends can accuse us of helping our opponents to the point that we are acting like traitors, then we might be living up to what Jesus taught.

But, we don't do this for two reasons:  we refuse to admit we have enemies (we Christians love everyone, right?), and our enemies know we hate them.  It's no wonder we don't know how to love them.