Latest Blog Posts

Featured post

Danger: God’s Plan

Share:

This post requires a careful distinction. We stand at a fork in the road where both ways forward are marked with the same sign: “Trust in God’s Plan.” The choices, however, lead to very different destinations. One leads toward hope, courage, responsibility, and freedom. The other leads toward resignation, purposelessness, shallow thinking, servitude and perhaps festering resentment.

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:11-14 NRSV)

That passage, a favorite of many people seeking encouragement, comes from a vision beyond the impending doom of destruction and exile. Evil times are coming because the people and their rulers would not listen to the word of their God but chose instead to hide themselves in the false security of official religion. They fortified themselves with certitude that Jerusalem could never fall to an enemy, the king descended from the great king David could never be toppled from his throne, and Yahweh’s own Temple would forever guarantee security and prosperity – regardless of what Yahweh God’s own prophet tried to tell them. They had removed from their religion all commitment to faithfulness, justice, and compassion. All that remained was toxic belief that the way things were was the way things were meant to be and would remain forevermore because they were, supposedly, divinely ordained.

Looking at the passage from Jeremiah quoted above, however, we can see that God has “plans” for the people, for their turning and seeking God wholeheartedly, their restoration to being Yahweh God’s covenant people, and their future well-being as God’s faithful people, IF ONLY they will listen and seek wholeheartedly. It does NOT say God has an all-inclusive plan automatically following a script written in advance. That distinction brings us to the fork in the road.

The notion that everything happens according to a great divine plan is unbiblical and unhelpful. It comforts the rich and powerful while narcotizing the poor, cheated, and desperate. “Are you rich? That’s God’s plan for you. So, enjoy! Eat, drink, and be merry!” “Are you poor? That’s God’s plan for you. Accept it, and serve your superiors without complaint!” No! Such oppressive lies are not biblical at all!

Jesus was not a fool. When he taught his followers to pray that God’s will would indeed be done on earth, he was not telling them to pray for the inevitable. There was and still is a struggle going on. The world’s ways of power, prestige, and privilege war against God’s will and do great harm. God’s desire is not simply to establish a perfect world but to win the hearts and minds of humans and of humanity as a whole so that we will accept our responsibility as the creature to whom care of the earth was entrusted. God wants willing love and willingly wrought justice, not mindless obedience or resignation to fate.

As a Presbyterian whose theological ancestors fell prey to a doctrine of predestination that was degraded into fatalism, I have long felt compelled to speak against all forms of determinism. No, everything is not predetermined, and much happens that is not in accordance with God’s will. Let me put simply. It was not God’s will that the child’s mother or father got cancer, suffered, and died. It was not God’s will that the five-year-old girl was kidnapped. It was not God’s will that Hitler and his Nazis set out to kill all the Jews. It was not God’s will that the robber barons of America’s Gilded Age grew filthy rich. It was not God’s will that Japan should bomb Pearl Harbor or that we should bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki nor that we should firebomb Dresden. It is not God’s will that parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated should then see their children get measles. Mental illness is not God’s will; neither is depression or addiction or suicide. Nor is it God’s will that Donald Trump should be president of the United States. We are the ones who vote, choose not to vote, or are blocked from voting by political maneuvers designed to steal an election. All who hold power stand under God’s judgment; none has carte blanche to do as he or she pleases, and we cannot rightly imagine that Trump or any other president may act unjustly or maliciously in accord with God’s plan and so with God’s approval. No!

But God does still have plans for us and for this created world. The poor are not called to resign themselves to inferiority and deprivation. The rich are not entitled to declare their wealth and comfort to be God’s blessings granted to them because God is either rewarding them for something or favoring them above others for some reason. The Bible is not fatalistic. Indeed, it is the very opposite of fatalistic, proclaiming release for the captives, God’s love for the poor and the sick, and God’s opposition to power structures that keep the rich increasing their wealth and the poor sinking further into their poverty. A person cannot amass wealth through cunning greed and then call that wealth God’s blessing.

Yes, God has plans for us but NOT some grand plan that reduces us to mere chess pawns or mindless slaves like ants under the sway of their queen. We are not puppets. We make choices, bear responsibility, and need the changes that come from truly seeking God’s will and way.

Fatalism is an enemy of faith and hope. Resignation to injustices and sufferings is not submission to God’s will. So-called destiny does not justify or excuse brutality, slaughter, or theft by illegal or legal means. It was never God’s will that Europeans should sweep across this continent, destroying its native peoples. Manifest Destiny was a lie.

Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors; lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.


I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. . . . Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD . . . .

Featured post

The Slave God

Share:

It started with the exodus, God’s entrance into the political history of earth. This strange God, YHWH or YHVH (representing the four Hebrew consonants of the name of Israel’s God, commonly pronounced as Yahweh or Yahveh when pronounced at all, perhaps with the accent on the second syllable although that is debated, and mispronounced as Jehovah) entered earth’s political theater as the god of slaves. As such, Yahweh rated no respect or even consideration from the pharaoh of Egypt, the ruler over a great civilization who was himself regarded as a son of the high gods. He, the pharaoh, represented the divine in human form, the presence of the gods on earth, the agent of divine will for the stability and prosperity of his realm. So, when Moses and Aaron appear before the pharaoh to present the demands of this slave god, Yahweh, the divine human ruler replies with scorn. After all, a god of slaves was, in his eyes, a slave god. So, Yahweh takes upon himself the shame of his lowly people.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Yahweh, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.'” But Pharaoh said, “Who is Yahweh, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know Yahweh, and I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2 NRSV, with my emendation replacing the pious substitute name, the LORD in all capital letters, with the personal name Yahweh)

Egyptian history does not record the exodus of Hebrew slaves. The biblical view is that the Creator of the world (we today would say the universe) chose to become, in obscurity, identified as the God of slaves. From the outset of the work of redemption, this God to whom the Bible bears witness has self-committed to solidarity with the lowly and to turning the world upside down – that is, the world’s social, political, and economic structures and hierarchies — not by force and power, but by powerful compassion, life-changing justice, and faithful love.

Jesus of Nazareth contradicts humanity’s notions of leadership and greatness. He calls any and all who would follow him to take a very different way.

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NRSV)

The upheaval that comes from God is not a power struggle, with one tyrant replacing another, but a self-emptying that seeks justice not dominion, healing not destruction, and true peace rather than enforced obedience and servitude. A Christianity that seeks to dominate a society is not of God and is not faithful to Jesus whom it calls, in lip service, the Christ.

Featured post

King by the Grace of God

Share:

What does such a title mean, “king by the grace of God”? Let me offer an imaginary but biblically faithful self-reflective prayer from someone so chosen to lead God’s covenant people in biblical times.

Lord God, you have chosen me and called me to lead your people and to rule over your land. I do not deserve such consideration from you, and I feel too lacking in strength, wisdom, and courage for such responsibility, but if you will be with me, then I will trust in your wisdom and strength. Please guide me in caring for your people, protecting them from their enemies, and providing justice for all, especially the weak and vulnerable such as the foreigner who lives among us, the widow, and the orphan, for I know that your compassion reaches out to them especially. Grant me the faithfulness and courage to do what is right in your eyes, at whatever cost to me myself. Make me a blessing to your people, a champion of the poor, and a fair judge over all. Never leave me to my own ego and desires, but lead me along the paths of righteousness and justice so your people will praise you for calling me to rule over them.

To be a leader by the grace of God is to be chosen for self-sacrificial service to the people. Such service, not the leader’s authority, is the principal issue. Tyrants sacrifice others for the supposedly greater good – the young men (and now young women, too) to their wars of choice, women in distress to their desire for power over all women, people classed as minorities to their lust for wealth and their need for support from the wealthy and from the resentful. The leader by the grace of God must prioritize justice above popularity and political advantage. The one so chosen does not thereby gain prestige so much as responsibility, and biblically, the leader’s fidelity and success will always be measured by the condition of the poor and disadvantaged, not the increasing prosperity of the already rich and powerful.

During the “golden age” of the northern kingdom, Israel, under King Jeroboam II, the rich were getting much richer and the wealth measures of the kingdom were certainly rising (or would have been if such measures as Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product had been in use). Yet, the prophet Amos declares the nation bankrupt in the eyes of God because the poor are being cheated and their small parcels of land stolen from them (legally, of course).

When Judah’s king Jehoiakim has his palace freshly paneled in fine cedar from Lebanon, the prophet Jeremiah has this to say about his majesty’s opulence:

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the LORD. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. Therefore thus says the LORD concerning King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah: They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” or “Alas, sister!” They shall not lament for him, saying, “Alas, lord!” or “Alas, his majesty!” With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried – dragged off and thrown out beyond the gates of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 22:13-19 NRSV)

The poor and disadvantaged are God’s measure of the faithfulness of the leader. What would such a prophet as Jeremiah say in our time to the United States of America and its leadership? The foreigner (immigrant or migrant worker), the widow, and the orphan stand as evidence for or against those in power. The cheated offer the testimony to which God listens. The leader who fails to hear their cries and provide justice for them deserves only to be buried with the full pomp and ceremony accorded to a dead donkey.

What being a leader “by the grace of God” decidedly does NOT mean is being due honor or loyalty no matter what. No one has divine authority to be cruel, ruthless, self-serving, or greedy. No one. No leader is protected from criticism by some divine right. Always the called or chosen are subject to stricter judgment than the people in general. More is expected from those to whom more has been given. Besides, those who seize or steal power by their own cunning or treachery are not anything “by the grace of God,” except still alive and so able, perhaps, to find in themselves some remorse and to repent.

Featured post

The Everlasting Poor

Share:

How convenient that the New Testament gospels tell us Jesus said, “The poor are with you always”! By a perverse misuse of that brief sentence, the financially comfortable (not to mention the truly rich) can excuse themselves from concern over the large number of poor and desperately poor people in our nation and our world. Reading slightly further in the Gospel of Mark, we find, “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:7 NRSV) There’s the perfectly convenient combination of assurance that there will always be poor people (as though it were right and proper that there should be) with a reminder to give them charity at our leisure, right? No, dead wrong!

The brief quotation, “For you always have the poor with you,” has been taken out of context to produce a falsehood radically at odds with the overall message of the Bible and, especially, with Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom of God and with his ministry. Context matters. Context always matters.

Below is the context within the passage in Matthew’s version. The tellings of the story in Mark and John are much the same except for identifying differently who it is that objects to the alleged waste of the expensive ointment (in Mark it is a vague “some who were there” and in John none other than Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would become the traitor).

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”                              (Matthew 26:6-9 NRSV)

I have chosen to use Matthew’s account to point out that the objection does not have to come from non-disciples or a bad guy.

Clearly within its context, Jesus’ remark about the poor does not mean there should always or must always be poor people. It does not justify any system that by design keeps some people poor for the benefit of others. It does not say it is okay with him that some people should be poor. It certainly does not suggest that poor people have a place in society ordained by God, a place where they belong (in poverty and servitude), a place they have no right to leave. Nothing could run more contrary to the message of the Bible, from Exodus to Revelation!

What is the message in context? If I want to help someone, give that help at my own expense. The woman acted at her own expense in devotion to Jesus. In effect, disciples, mind your own business in such a personal matter! She has not instituted a program throughout the land for lavishing expensive stuff upon the rich while ignoring the poor. No, she has given a one-time gift for a very special reason to someone she regards as a very special person.

Two very popular but extremely wrong and dangerous beliefs are fed by the misuse of Jesus’ comment about the poor. One is the belief that conditions within society are as they should be, that the status quo is right, proper, and likely ordained by God, and that nothing should therefore be done to change the social, political, and economic systems that keep many people in poverty. The second is that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Jesus rejected both beliefs in his own society, and as his followers, we need to reject them in our own. People are not poor because they deserve to be poor. Neither are the financially successful rich because they deserve to be rich or because God has rewarded them with wealth.

The New Testament gospels provide us with many teaching of Jesus that bring hope to the poor and warning to the rich – not because poverty is some weird sort of blessing but because the coming reign of God means conditions and systems on earth will be changed. The first will be last, and the last first. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich sent away empty. The lowly will be raised up, and the high and mighty cast down. It is not the will of God that some (indeed, many) should endure poverty so that some (relatively few) may live in luxury.

Thy will be done on earth! That is a prayer for change.

Featured post

A Battle of Two Drunks

Share:

One night decades ago I looked out my study window to see two very drunken men swinging wildly at each other, neither coming even close to landing a punch but both staggering after each roundhouse swing and nearly falling to the pavement. I find in that memory an analogy for the present conflict over the Bible.

The rise of scientific method and its impressive successes at making sense of our world set off a furor that unleashed the backlash of biblical fundamentalism. The more scientists suggested alternatives to Medieval assumptions and verities, the more adamantly fundamentalists hunkered down on supposedly absolute truths lifted uncritically from the Bible in ways that were not faithful to the Bible itself. As fundamentalism fought to justify itself, it became increasingly authoritarian and cruel. That combination of absolutism in its truths and cruelty in its unyielding judgments upon people caused a double backlash from the other side: (1) the increasing absurdity of fundamentalism’s insistence upon “facts” which were not facts but literalistic misreadings of the Bible set up fundamentalism as an easily discredited straw man some modernists attacked as though discrediting Christianity as a whole, and (2) the cruel judgments upon people in which the Bible was used to bludgeon the “sinners” drove from the churches people who were at least learning tolerance if not full-blown respect and compassion.

Yes, the paragraph above offers a very rough sketch of the series of backlashes by which we have been buffeted into our present situation with regard to the Bible, the former “Good Book” which is now alternately weaponized and demonized into either a collection of absolutized truisms (with scarcely any message left except divine authority not to be questioned) or a compilation of silly superstitions and petty prejudices. Ironically, modern critical (meaning analytical, not unfavorable) study has opened the Bible for us in ways that can enable us to understand it better than ever and to hear its truth for leading us to God and each other, to healing, reconciliation, freedom, wholeness, and life lived with hope not only for ourselves but for our endangered earth with all its people and its non-human creatures as well. Sadly, the opportunity to hear the biblical witnesses more clearly has been largely ignored by the Bible’s opponents and rejected vehemently as satanic by its fundamentalist defenders. So, now we have biblical ignorance on both sides of the battle, one side erecting absurd facts which must be accepted “on faith” and the other side knocking them down with scientific facts which are irrelevant to the actual meanings of the biblical witnesses the two sides are disputing. Hence I am reminded of the two drunken men swinging wildly at each other in the night.

So it is that people who favor science and people who favor faith continue to battle over Adam and Eve, Noah and the Great Flood, miracles, and harsh regulations in the Holiness Code within the book of Leviticus as well as some of the opinions and foibles of the apostle Paul and his successors. Meanwhile, the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of the Great Flood, and of the Tower of Babel (to name some examples) continue to offer profound insights into our human condition in our broken relationship with God, our often denied and violated relatedness to each other, and our anxiety about ourselves, but who is listening?

More to come. I’m especially concerned about current abuses of the Bible in the service of power.