God is Near

The most meaningful Bible stories for me are the ones where I can identify with someone in the text. Sadly, I often can relate to the self-righteous religious leaders in the stories of Jesus’ miracles. Sometimes, I identify with the disciples, but usually when they are confused and doubting. Finding connections in the Hebrew Scriptures is a little harder for me. The story of Jacob and his transformation to Israel is surprisingly meaningful for me.

Jacob, son of Isaac, patriarch of the Jewish people and central Biblical figure is as flawed and imperfect a person as you will find in the scriptures. As I read his story, his greatness seems to be a birth rite and not something he has earned. He is clever but not righteous in any way. There are legendary stories of him outsmarting a dim-witted brother named Esau. Finally, he steals Esau’s birthright from an elderly blind and confused Isaac.

The account of his servitude to his uncle and marriages is almost comical. Yet, his persistence and cleverness eventually pay off and he finds himself to be as wealthy a patriarch as his father and grand-father.

The story of Jacob’s dream at Bethel is the part of his story I relate to. He succeeded in stealing his brother’s birth right, but it has upset Esau. Remember Esau was a prolific hunter who was impulsive and prone to making bad decisions. I think Jacob knows that his life is now in danger in his own home. So instead of staying to reap the reward of the birthright he is off to see his Uncle and hopefully find refuge there.

In this text he is alone and lays down with a stone for a pillow. His vision famously revolves around a ladder or staircase which extends from earth to heaven. Angels going up and down demonstrate how close we all are to heaven’s doors.

In this unlikely place Jacob has discovered that the connection to heaven is as close to him as the rock he is sleeping on. It is interesting to me that the Lord appears at his side and not at the top of the ladder. God has come down to where Jacob is. There is a great message in all of this. Jacob did whatever it took to steal Esau’s birth rite. Yet, now he leaves his home empty handed and afraid. In the midst of all that imperfection and crisis, God is revealed to him.

This unlikely place has become sacred to Jacob and sacred to generations who come after him. Bethel, house of the Lord, becomes an important concept in worshiping God.

I am always on the lookout for my own Bethel. What every day ordinary place will open my eyes to see how close we all are to Heaven. I take comfort in the Jacob story, God coming to him when his life seems to be falling apart is a great lesson that God is with each of us at all times and all places.

Theologians call this concept the omnipresence of God. I just take comfort in knowing that the next ordinary place I come across could become my own personal Bethel.

Peace.

Pastor Ed 

Abraham and Isaac – Not a Great Parenting Model

The Bible isn’t always what you think it is…

I was visiting one of our members in the hospital one day when her daughter stopped me to ask a question. “I’ve tried to read the Bible to my Mom. I’m not familiar with it and I am shocked at some of the stories I read. They are horrible stories in there. Is there a part that would be O.K. to read to Mom?”

I understand completely. People who haven’t read the Bible or spent time studying it, often assume it is a book of peace, forgiveness and love.

That is often not the case. Consider the Abraham and Sarah story for example. Most people know that they left their home to journey to an unknown “promised land” which God was going to give to them. Moreover, even in their old age, God promised that the childless couple would have as many descendants as the stars in the sky.

If you have a literal understanding of scripture their son Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 years old. Isaac’s name means laughter and I was taught in the early Bible Studies I had that it was because Sarah laughed to herself when she heard the news. Genesis 18:12. Her laughter was explained to me as a lack of faith or doubt in God’s promise. The story I wasn’t told was about Abraham when he heard the news. He laughed so hard in fell on his face.  It would be interesting to consider why one story is told more often than the other. Perhaps sexism has crept into our understanding of the Bible. But that is a topic for a whole different blog entry.

There are some difficult stories about Abraham’s other family. When Sarah didn’t conceive quickly she brought her maid servant, Hagar, to him that Sarah might “build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2) Ishmael was born to Abraham and Hagar. Fourteen years later, after Isaac is born, Sarah insists that Hagar and Ishmael be cast out of the camp and into the wilderness. With nothing more than a promise from God that everything would be all right Abraham casts out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. The desert there was so barren and dangerous that both Hagar and Ishmael almost die. So far this isn’t a story I want to read to children. It certainly isn’t a good example of parenting or family.  Interestingly, Ishmael also becomes the Father of many nations. He is an ancestor to the prophet Muhammed and the Arabic people. So even Islam traces its roots back to Abraham.

The real problem I have with this narrative happens next. God speaks to Abraham and says, Then God said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” (Genesis 22:2) Now most people know that ultimately Abraham didn’t sacrifice Isaac, but it still raises a host of questions.

At that time, human sacrifice was a common part of other religions. There is a story of a gruesome death of a Moabite King’s son as a human sacrifice. (2 Kings 3:27) But this command from God to Abraham seems so contrary to everything we have learned about God up to this point. The birth of Isaac to a couple who are too old to conceive and the promise that Abraham and Sarah would be “the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:5) implies that God has great plans for Isaac.

As a parent I know I would fail this test. Even if God were to ask me to do something like this I would not. As a Pastor I would council anyone who thought this is what God wanted for them that they were wrong.

Still Abraham and Isaac make their way to the land of Moriah and climb the mountain which God showed them. It is interesting to me, because when they start the climb, Abraham takes the knife and the fire and gives Isaac the wood to carry. As a Father I can relate. When hiking with small children never let them carry anything dangerous.

I speculate about how Isaac felt when Abraham tied him up and placed him on the altar. Some Jewish commentary from long ago speculates that Isaac knew this was a command from God and he cooperated in every way. However, human nature tells me it would have terrified Isaac. Rembrandt interprets the story this way when he paints Isaac as a terrified child.The Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

We could focus upon the good news that at the last minute an angel from God intercedes and tells Abraham to stop because the whole thing was only a test. Yet, for me irreparable damage has been done to this child’s psyche and probably to Sarah as well. Children who experience that type of trauma today are often psychologically damaged as adults.

This story is more than 3,500 years old. That long ago, there may have been a different understanding of faithfulness and perhaps of human life. When I read it today, I see examples of some of the most horrible ways of parenting. If I am going to learn something from this story I may have to understand it as a lesson in what not to do.

If I had to prove my loyalty to God by sacrificing a child I would fail. I could never rationalize it by saying “God has the right to take human life.” Nor would I want to worship a God who tested me that way.

An Interesting Side Note:

This story still has very much to say in our culture. In 1978, American artist George Segal was commissioned to create a sculpture in commemoration of the Kent State shootings. He chose to make a bronze statue of

Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University.

Princeton Sculpture by Segal

Abraham about to sacrifice Isaac. The University rejected the sculpture for being inappropriate. It was eventually installed at Princeton University and titled, Abraham and Isaac: In Memory of May 4, 1970, Kent State University.

The Lord’s Prayer

I recently received an email with an “inspired” poem about prayer in public schools. I’ve included it in its entirety at the bottom of this post. It claims to be written by a 15 year old in Minnesota. I looked on a few fact checking websites and it is not clear if a teenager wrote it. It has also circulated with different places of origin. The author and source maybe unclear but it is clear that the facts represented in the body of the poem are inaccurate.

It suggests that guns have been outlawed and that quoting the Bible could be considered ‘libel.’ Of course, neither of these statements are true. This loose relationship to the truth makes me suspicious about the claims about the author being a 15 year old.

The poem is written from the perspective of a victim. It implies that schools may no longer ‘teach right from wrong.’ It says that chaos has taken over in schools and the implication is that this is because of a lack of prayer and God’s word.

Our two children went through public school and there was no chaos. The schools did a good job of fostering a respect for all people and not tolerating acts of violence or disrespect. My daughter is now a middle school teacher and my wife teaches in a community college. I hear first hand about the many problems faced by teachers in schools. They have to do with issues of  neglected children, addictions and abuse in families. Their students come from many different situations that range from affluenza to homelessness. I’m not sure allowing a public prayer in the morning would change those issues.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, written by James Madison, says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In the past, our court system has ruled that having everyone in class say a common prayer was the govt. ‘establishing a religion.’ Of course, they could not and did not prohibit personal prayer.

I want to contemplate what it would look like if we reintroduced public prayers and scripture reading in school.

If we were to bring public prayers back into school, which divinity would we pray to?  Jesus? Allah? The Great Spirit of Native American religion?  Buddha (Technically not a divinity.) Would you read from the Quran, The Torah, The New Testament, The Book of Mormon, The I Ching of Taoism, The Divine Principle by Rev. Moon?  I could see a system that tried to rotate between all sacred scriptures. It would be up to school boards to determine which sacred text had value. Or maybe they would declare them all to be worthwhile. Yet, if schools were to present all scriptures as equal, I would argue that would be creating a Theology of Syncretism. That would imply that all sacred texts are equally valuable. If we did that then I would object the government was creating a new religion.  

Also, how would we respect the estimated 7% of the students who are Atheist or Agnostic? Would we give them equal time to explain to other children why they don’t think God exists?

I’m not trying to be difficult, I genuinely want to know how you would word such a prayer.  I’ve been asked to pray at inter-faith events before and it is possible and meaningful, yet, it would be even harder if everyone in the group wasn’t theistic. It would be impossible if some of the group were adamantly a-theistic.

If you know of a prayer that that meets those criteria please send me the text. It would be interesting to use it for sermon material.

The Lord’s Prayer

By a 15-year-old school kid who got an A+ for this entry

(TOTALLY AWESOME)!

The Lord’s Prayer is not allowed in most U.S. Public schools any more. A kid in Minnesota, wrote the following:

 

NEW School Prayer

Now I sit me down in school
Where praying is against the rule
For this great nation under God
Finds mention of Him very odd.

If scripture now the class recites,
It violates the Bill of Rights.
And anytime my head I bow
Becomes a Federal matter now.

Our hair can be purple, orange or green,
That’s no offense; it’s a freedom scene.
The law is specific, the law is precise.
Prayers spoken aloud are a serious vice.

For praying in a public hall
Might offend someone with no faith at all.
In silence alone we must meditate,
God’s name is prohibited by the State..

We’re allowed to cuss and dress like freaks,
And pierce our noses, tongues and cheeks.
They’ve outlawed guns, but FIRST the Bible.
To quote the Good Book makes me liable.

We can elect a pregnant Senior Queen,
And the ‘unwed daddy,’ our Senior King.
It’s ‘inappropriate’ to teach right from wrong,
We’re taught that such ‘judgments’ do not belong.

We can get our condoms and birth controls,
Study witchcraft, vampires and totem poles.
But the Ten Commandments are not allowed,
No word of God must reach this crowd.

It’s scary here I must confess,
When chaos reigns the school’s a mess.
So, Lord, this silent plea I make:
Should I be shot; My soul please take!

Amen

 

If you aren’t ashamed to do this, Please pass this on.

Jesus said, ‘If you are ashamed of me,
I will be ashamed of you before my Father.’

~~~~~~~~~AWESOME~~~~~~~~~~

Not ashamed. Passing it on!

This is complicated…

I was excited when we decided as a staff to talk about the issues around Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. I wasn’t sure how we were going to approach it, but I knew we had to talk about it. A few people warned me that it wasn’t an appropriate conversation for Church because it is ‘too political.’ This discussion is so much more than political. It is a conversation about how each of us sees ourselves and how other people see us. It gets to the heart of what it means to be created in the image of God. If God has created each one of us and the Holy Spirit of God dwells in all people, who are we to create barriers and walls between people who are so equally blessed?

When I am trying to promote upcoming events for Church, I sometimes run ads on Facebook. In the past they have not been very effective. Thousands of people see the ads, but I can see from the result almost no one clicks on them. So when I spent $250 of the Churches money promoting this theme for worship, I didn’t have great expectations.

I was surprised by what happened. Apparently, our simple logo, showing the expressions, “Black lives matter and All lives matter,” spoke to a lot of people. Immediately, we began to receive lots of comments. Right away someone said,

“This should not be in a church. If this was the church I attend I would leave. I am a Christian conservative. All lives Matter! Yes we have quite a few blacks. Thus sounds like a race issue. Come on this is 2016. People this is not the the 60s.”

Another person added, “It’s about Blacks always wanting to appear the victim- when in reality, they are the problem.” My initial response was to delete anything I didn’t like. But Phillip patiently responded to this comment and others, encouraging people to have an open mind and a compassionate heart.

Maybe my favorite response came from a woman in the Twin Cities,

“How about do you have any black people in your church or discussing this issue? No? Then fail and point missed. Edina? Seriously.”

I assured her that three of our five presenters were people of color, but she still saw it as tokenism. She posted:

“Racially diverse dialogue in the sermon? Shadow throwing. Do you have black members in your church? Do you march for equality? Social justice? You have a lot of action and home work to do. You can’t just discuss with big words and drink coffee and cookies, oh my goodness. BE Real. Go to the north side and attend a church there and have a racially diverse dialogue. Looking down your white Edina noses will not get the job done.”

The more comments we received about race the more important I realized it was to talk about. Even among the staff we were far from one harmonious position.

One person emailed me to say we should stick to preaching about the ‘love of God.’ It is hard to argue with that. It is just that I see God’s love as a powerful force which transforms us. It seeks out our sinfulness and condemns it, and in its place it creates a new person.

The act of being recreated is never simple or comfortable. It pushes us into to think and act differently. It constantly challenges us how to live in the world, with love and respect for all people.

And so we waded into a discussion that most people steer away from. We each shared who we are and what our backgrounds were like. Because that is what has made us who we are today. I think the best chance we have to changing in the futures is to be aware of where we have come from in the past and how that has shaped us into the person we are today. If I can do that, it is my hope that I can be‘re-created’ into someone different. To paraphrase Martin Luther Kind, I want to be a person who can judge people, “by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.”

I hope that you can join us on a journey of self-discovery and an awareness of how of our ‘human-ness’ we all share.

Let me know what you think.

Peace,
Pastor Ed