In an earlier post, I countered the frequent contention that Jesus claimed to be the ‘son of God.’ The titles of ‘son of God’ and ‘messiah’ (or Christ) were similar references to a military conqueror and ruler. The human Jesus refused that role. He also never spoke of himself as the divine logos (log’-ohs). These were all titles created by others for him. According to the gospels, the only ‘title’ he used for himself was ‘the son of man.’ No one else calls Jesus by this term. It was an image he apparently claimed for himself, but which the church has generally dropped in favor of ‘son of God.’ However, where the phrase ‘son of man’ is used in the gospel accounts, modern English translators often capitalize it as ‘Son of Man’ to ensure that we will understand the use of the term in a very specific context—as a reference to a seemingly supernatural figure found in the book of Daniel in the Hebrew Bible. In Daniel’s dream, this figure comes before God on the clouds of heaven and is given dominion over a never-ending empire on earth. The Son of Man fits nicely with the exalted image of Jesus in that other apocalyptic New Testament book—Revelation. But the phrase ‘son of man’ has other connotations in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ezekiel proposes a very different meaning for the idiom. Continue reading
Their relationship remains unclear.
They may be unlikely brothers,
or perhaps like Oscar and Felix,
they are simply an odd couple
sharing the same high rise apartment.
But Elohim and Yahweh—
the two gods of Genesis—
have competing stories
about how they did it,
how they created all that is,
each one claiming the honor
and vying for our adoration and worship.
Elohim, a man of few words,
created the heavens and the earth
by the power of the spoken command.
“Let there be light,” he said
and there was light.
I imagine him seated in a director’s chair,
gesturing broadly with his hands
as he speaks clear and simple instructions
to the dark and formless void.
A firm believer in evolution,
Elohim has watched his simple creation
of a flat earth covered with a dome
become a vast expanding universe
of stellar clouds and dark matter.
Yahweh, in contrast,
always prefers a hands-on style,
sculpting creatures from the earth,
breathing life into muddy forms,
and evicting disobedient tenants.
Elohim prefers the big picture,
the grand scheme,
the massive expanse of the untamed cosmos.
Yahweh, on the other hand,
believes that god is in the details.
A micro-manager of earthly affairs,
Yahweh spent centuries on a singular project
and controlling the destiny
of the Hebrew people
like tokens on a game board.
Today, many years later,
I imagine them in their retirement,
Elohim sitting at his telescope
watching the movement of the heavens
and Yahweh in his basement workshop
crafting a new species or two.
At the end of the day,
they sit together side by side,
Yahweh with his knitting,
and Elohim reading Carl Sagan,
bickering over the remote control.
(copyright © 2014 Kurt Struckmeyer)
the gods of the Hebrew Bible
The God revealed in the Hebrew bible is an integration of several different cultural traditions in the ancient Middle East. As the tribes of Israel established themselves as a distinct culture among the peoples of Canaan, differing images of God were eventually integrated into the oral and written traditions that shaped the Old Testament. Continue reading
On Palm (or Passion) Sunday, my church presented a play in which the congregation took the part of a jury in a trial in which Jesus stood accused before the high priest Caiaphas of acting with demonic power in transformational miracles involving a herd of pigs, celebratory wine, and the resuscitation of a corpse. It ended with Jesus being asked the question, “Are you the son of God?” Jesus answered, “I am.” Then he adds, “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
But did Jesus ever make this claim? Did he consider himself the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Jews, and the Son of Man?
The text that makes this claim is Mark 14:60-62.
Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,” and “coming with the clouds of heaven.”’
(Note that Jesus’ response contains two quotations)
So Jesus answers in the affirmative to two political titles—Messiah and son of God (the Blessed One)—both of which refer to the anointed king of Israel (or king of “the Jews”) or to a military leader who wants to take the kingship by force. In the context of a nation controlled by Rome, it is a title of revolution and rebellion. Continue reading
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– The prophet Micah (NRSV)
I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
Can kindness save the world? That is the question I posed as I reflected on the theme of ‘transforming the world through loving kindness.’ Are we really talking about changing the world through small acts of kindness, perhaps from one stranger to another? If so, are we discussing a movement like London’s ‘Kindness Offensive,’ known for orchestrating large-scale ‘random acts of kindness?’ Although kindness is an important virtue, and the world is all the better for it, can friendly, gentle, caring, considerate, and helpful people change the entrenched systems of domination, poverty, and violence that we face in our neighborhoods, nation, and the global community? Kindness may give pleasure to others and make us feel better in return, but I suspect that transforming the world will require more than simple acts of kindness that lift someone’s spirits.
Perhaps the answer to my question can be found by exploring the meaning of the phrase ‘loving kindness.’ That intriguing expression offers new insights. There are two ways of looking at this phrase and it turns out they are interconnected. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is in reference to the poetry of Micah 6:8 in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation—“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this context, it is important to grasp what it means to ‘love kindness,’ (a verb with an objective noun), particularly in partnership with such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘humility.’ A second way of looking at the phrase is by examining the peculiar hyphenated word ‘loving-kindness’ (a compound noun), invented by Miles Coverdale (1488-1569) when he created the first English translation of the Bible in 1535. If this is the case, one wonders why ‘kindness’ needs a modifier. Is there any other kind of kindness than the loving kind? Continue reading
Jesus called on people to change. Not just a little, but dramatically. Mark’s gospel reports that Jesus began his ministry with these words:
The ‘kingdom of God’ is the term Jesus used to express his vision of a profound transformation of human beings and human institutions—social, political, economic and religious—to fully express the character and nature of God—a God of love. To accomplish this vision, Jesus worked toward the creation of a new kind of community dedicated to values of compassion, generosity, peace, and justice. He was creating a movement for change, a people engaged in a vast conspiracy of love.
To lay the groundwork for the dawning of his vision, Jesus called on people to repent and believe in the good news. Repent and believe. It seems so simple. Traditionally, the reader would assume that Jesus wants us to feel bad about our past sins, resolve to do better, and believe that Jesus brings good news about what the future has in store for us. This reading views repentance and belief as a mostly internal experience of the heart and mind—first the emotional response of remorse and then an intellectual affirmation of whatever good news Jesus is announcing. These actions are entirely within one’s comfort zone. It is easy to repent and believe a few ideas about Jesus or his vision if this is all that is required. Paul’s letter to the Romans adds some content to the belief part: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Of course, Jesus did not necessarily agree with Paul on what to believe. In fact, the gospels they proclaimed were very different. Accordingly, Paul has led us astray when it comes to the intent of Jesus. When you view Jesus through the lens of Paul’s writings, the good news is distorted. The assumption is that we are being saved to experience an eternal life in heaven. This may be standard orthodox teaching, but it is way off the mark in regard to the message of Jesus, and misses his meaning of repentance and belief. Continue reading
The way we pray is determined by our image of God. The most popular image in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that of a supernatural theistic God who dwells somewhere “up there” or “out there” and reigns with unlimited majesty and power. This is the image of a transcendent God—separate from and greater than all of creation, including humanity. The blended God(s) of the Canaanite and Hebrew traditions—Elohim and Yahweh—whom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, were conceived of in anthropomorphic terms, nearly always with male gender. Ezekiel and Daniel viewed God as a human-like being seated on a heavenly throne (or a flying war chariot) surrounded by a royal court of lesser divine beings. I was taught in catechism classes that the biblical God is omnipresent (present everywhere), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipotent (all-powerful). Because of these characteristics, our prayers are directed to a God who is nearby, accessible, and listening, who already knows what is in our hearts and minds even before we speak, and can answer our prayers by powerful supernatural means when necessary.
For many Christians, a supernatural theistic God is a daily reality in their lives, but for many others, this kind of God is simply not there. They long to feel God’s presence and God’s love, but instead they experience emptiness and isolation. They worship God in church, but find that God is not present in the sanctuary. They pray fervently to God in private moments, but realize that their prayers often go unanswered. In the end, there is only silence. The biblical character of Job cried out to God in despair, “I cry to you God, but you do not answer. I stand before you, and you don’t even bother to look.” (Job 30:20)
Barbara Brown Taylor (b. 1951) describes this emptiness in her book Leaving Church: a Memoir of Faith, in which she relates her experiences at a small Episcopal church in rural Georgia.
On my worst nights I lay in bed feeling like a single parent, unable to sleep because I knew I did not have enough love in me to go around. God was the boundless lover, but for many people God was the parent who had left. They still read about him in the Bible and sang about him in hymns. They still believed in his reality, which made it even harder to accept his apparent lack of interest in them. They waited for messages from him that did not arrive. They prepared their hearts for meetings that never happened. They listened to other Christians speak as if God showed up every night for supper, leaving them to wonder what they had done wrong to make God go off and start another family.
Mother Teresa (1910–1997), who ministered to the needs of the poor, sick, orphaned, and dying in India for over 50 years, felt a similar absence and silence in her life. It began soon after she set up her Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in the late 1940s and continued until her death in 1997. She interpreted it as a loss of faith.
If there be a God—please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.
The image of a transcendent all-powerful, interventionist God is still the most prevalent one in America today. But for some people, it has ceased to be a reasonable working hypothesis. Continue reading
Go and learn what this means, “I desire compassion, not sacrifice.”
–Jesus (Matthew 9:13)
In March 1943, the Gestapo arrested and imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian and pastor, because documents linked him to subversive activities against the Reich. Two years later, just a few days before the end of the war in Europe, he was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
A year before his execution, as he sat alone inside cell 92 in Berlin’s Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the state of the church to which he had devoted his adult life. In a letter to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer wrote about the seeming ineffectiveness of Christianity—and religion in general—in contemporary life.
We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious’…
And if therefore man becomes radically religionless—and I think that is already more or less the case (else, how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any ‘religious’ reaction?)—what does that mean for ‘Christianity’?
In light of the depravity of the Nazi state and the horrific violence of the Second World War, perpetrated by religious people on all sides, the church had proven to be either incapable or unwilling to deal with the evils of the modern world. For many, the religious practices of Christianity had become personal and private, and were largely divorced from social ethics and politics. The mainstream churches in the so-called “Christian nations” proved to have no prophetic voice.
Bonhoeffer was disturbed that religious people were not speaking out and their social and political struggles were conducted without drawing on their faith—or more likely, that their faith had become so disjointed from social and political conditions that they saw no connection. If religious institutions in every nation were willingly transformed into servants and chaplains of their respective states, and if Christians were not raising a prophetic voice for peace and justice, Bonhoeffer asked if there was some other way that one could be a Christian in a world of continual injustice, suffering, and violence.
Bonhoeffer was struggling with what remains when the typical traits of a religion—clergy, religious institutions, sacred rites, orthodox beliefs, and a rigid moral code—are eliminated. How would that redefine Christianity and what would become of the church as a result? Continue reading
I am often frustrated with the church. I find myself drifting away for periods of time and then wandering back. I am too unorthodox in my theology to be in the mainstream of Christianity, so I linger at the margins. I am often uncomfortable with the theology of the ancient creeds and so I remain silent when they are recited and I am equally uncomfortable with the theology of 21st century happy-clappy praise songs, so I do not join in. For me, the experience of worship should be challenging, not entertaining. It should help us grapple with poverty and injustice, war and oppression.
Through the past half-century, I have experienced the church in many settings—as part of a struggling inner city parish, a growing suburban congregation, and a tiny small-town church. I have been a part of churches with many ethnic roots: German, Slovak, Norwegian, and African-American. Over the years, I have been a part of the church’s engagement with social, political, and economic issues. As I came of age, I witnessed the church struggle with integration and civil rights, and then watched it segregate itself every Sunday morning for worship. I have seen it wrestle with the evils of war, and watched it feebly respond to U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, Central America, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I have seen the church grapple with women’s social, political, and reproductive rights and their equal right to ordination—which far too many churches still deny. And most recently, I have watched the never-ending debate over the role of gay and lesbian people in the church and their frequent exclusion from equality in the body of Christ and its leadership.
On nearly every one of these issues, the larger church has found itself on the tail end of the struggle for peace and justice. It has rarely been a leader in these movements and all too often has been a distant follower. I have watched churches test the wind on nearly every social issue and adopt positions that will offend the fewest number of its members—often in the name of ‘unity.’ I have observed that many churches rise to speak boldly and prophetically only after the matter has been resolved by society at large and the issue has been settled everywhere but in the church.
Increasingly it seems that the church has become an irrelevant force in the world. Too many churches seem focused entirely on personal salvation rather than addressing the everyday evils of violence, power, and systemic injustice. Too many congregations focus solely on themselves instead of the suffering and needs of their neighbors. Too many pastors find it difficult to speak the truth, challenge the faithful, and rock the boat. In nearly every country the church too often serves as a chaplain to the policies of the state rather than a prophetic voice calling for peace and justice.
I wish the church was different. I wish it was more faithful in its calling. Yet I take heart that there are faithful people and communities who, though small, are engaged in the work of God on earth. Jesus often used images of a tiny minority who could accomplish great things—a bit of yeast in a large loaf of bread, a pinch of salt in a great kettle of soup, a tiny mustard seed scattered in a well-tended garden, a feeble lamp in a vast darkened house.
So I often feel alone, on the margins of the church. I find it increasingly hard to be true to Jesus in an institutional church that by its silence validates war and economic disparity around the world. And so I wonder why I stay. Continue reading
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
You came near when I called on you; you said, “Do not fear!” (Lamentations 3:57)
My six-year-old grandson was recently given an assignment by his first grade teacher to write a list of things he was worried about. They had just read a book called Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes about a little mouse who worried about everything—things both great and small. Wyatt’s list was heartbreaking: “Tornadoes come. I die. My baby sister gets hurt. Mom dies.” For me, it was a great insight into the mind of a small child. Many of us think that young children are worry free. Quite the contrary, they are consumed by existential fears.
I remember as a child going into the dark and dank basement of my house, an aging two-story two-family flat. A light switch on the second floor dimly lit the winding stairs to the basement, but at the bottom, the basement itself was engulfed in darkness and held hidden terror. Several feet from the foot of the stairs was a single light bulb with a string attached to a chain pull. One had to step out into the fearful gloom and reach out in the murky darkness to find the string and turn on the light. Until the light came on, the experience was gut-wrenchingly frightening. Even then, with the sole bulb lit, evil seemed to lurk in the surrounding shadows. I remember a sense of dread and panic overtake me each time I had to descend alone into the darkness.
But children are not the only ones with fears of terror and misfortune. Adults worry too—about things great and small. Currently—at least if you listen to the 24/7 cable news channels—Americans are consumed with fear about the Ebola virus in Africa and Islamic State terrorism in Syria and Iraq, dangers that are far away and unlikely to affect us here. Strangely, they seem to ignore the much more significant threat of gun violence by their armed neighbors at home. Mostly, however, they worry about the practical things of life—jobs, financial security, college costs, medical coverage, retirement, illness, and death. We are all plagued by anxiety about what the future holds. But the Bible says repeatedly, “fear not!”
The expression ‘fear not,’ or ‘have no fear’ or ‘do not be afraid’ is found approximately 115 times in the Bible, spoken again and again in the Hebrew Bible by Yahweh and the prophets, and in the gospels by Jesus and angelic messengers. It is also found in the Hebrew Psalms and in the letters of various authors in the New Testament. Altogether, it is one of the most commonly found phrases in the Bible. In the larger sense, the biblical message seems to be that although things may appear bleak right now and that evil seems to be winning, there is hope that God will act to transform the future.