Archive for May, 2011

Songs have been in my head lately: Gershwin’s “Summertime,” “Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” by Nat (King) Cole, “A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy, “Lazy Day” by Spanky and Our Gang, “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry, “Summer in the City” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, “Boys of Summer” by Don Henley, and others. With the warmer temperatures, people in our neighborhood are outdoors in the evening. The trees behind our house are, in the words of artist Bob Ross, happy trees. Birds (and squirrels: gray and fox) empty our bird feeder more quickly than in winter. I noticed two mallards across the street. The hen was perched atop a house while the drake wandered around on the lawn, calling. The scene looked like a stereotypical “spat” between couples.

A few years ago our air conditioner went out, and of course those were the summer’s hottest days.  I kicked myself because, a week earlier, I’d postponed a scheduled routine maintenance call because of a minor illness. If I’d kept the schedule, the crew might have caught the problem before the AC died!   But I thought back to childhood, hot’n’ humid seasons.  When I was a kid in the 1960s (and a teen in the early 70s), AC had been available for years. Window units, in fact, became available after World War II: according to an online source, sales climbed from 74,000 in 1948 to 1,045,000 in 1953. I heard somewhere that the hospital in which I was born–the Fayette Co., IL Hospital, constructed in 1955–was one of the country’s first with air conditioning. My dad’s sometimes painful thriftiness is illustrated by his unwillingness even to buy a window unit at our home in southern Illinois. We had a huge fan that mounted in the back door, which created a breeze through the house.

The summer of 1967, when I was ten, was the most uncomfortable, not only because of the heat but also the mosquitoes. (Late that year or during the next year, my hometown’s government authorized mosquito spraying.) I recall many nights when I lay awake well into the early morning because of the heat and the buzzing. Fortunately, when you’re ten, you don’t have many responsibilities the next day.

The playwright Arthur Miller recalled a very hot September in the 1920s: “Every window in New York was open…People on West 110th Street, where I lived, were a little too bourgeois to sit out on their fire escapes, but around the corner on 111th and farther uptown mattresses were put out as night fell, and whole families lay on those iron balconies in their underwear.”(1) I suppose the small town version of that would be front porches and back yards instead of fire escapes. I certainly remember some evenings when my parents and I were outside visiting neighbors in respective yards, until twilight.

I was chatting with someone the other day who declared she hated to turn her AC on because she liked her windows open as long as possible. I understand the sentiment, especially its ecological aspects. Yet … I never forgot that summer of ’67, not for me the summer of love, but of sweat and mosquitoes.


I enjoy the anthology of essays and poetry, Summer , edited by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga (Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1990). I happened to reread the essay by Roy Blout, Jr., “Tan,” just about the same time as I reread John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness (Fawcett, 1990) and browsed his essay about lying in the sun to get relief for his psoriasis. As I thought generally of childhood summers, and as I hummed summer-themed “earworms,” these essays reminded me of one of my most hopeless pursuits: getting tan.

These are memories of adolescence. I suppose I turned somewhat brown as a little kid who played regularly in the backyard sandbox with my cousin next door, improvised adventures with friends in the sunburned grass of our yard, cut across neighbors’ yards to play in the nearby park to wade in the creek there, and hiked to the town’s public swimming pool for a “dip” on a horribly hot day.

Cheerful memories… but I don’t remember if I tanned. The joy was being outdoors, messing around, getting out of our hot home, and living simultaneously in the real world and imagination. Being tan as an intentional goal wasn’t an issue until my teenage years, when I envisioned the joy of social approval and relief from bad skin.

My acne was so bad some months, that we worried (needlessly) that I’d be facially scarred. I don’t know the average age when puberty begins, but I seemed to hit it sooner than other boys, based on my terrible skin and the ribbing I received from clear-skinned jerks. I was 13 when I first shaved, and I remember the date, November 29, 1970, because my great-uncle Charlie Crawford died that day in my hometown, Vandalia. Up until then I was very peach-fuzzy and pimply, and since we had to drive to the St. Louis airport to pick up one of Charlie‘s daughters, I finally tired of looking so bizarre and asked Dad to help me use a safety razor. I also remember being horribly ashamed of my oily, broken-out skin when another relative passed away the following spring. Based on these and similar memories, my 13th, 14th, and 15th years must’ve been the worst for acne.

My folks consulted a St. Louis dermatologist. He advised me to get a lot of sun, because the UV rays helped acne. He even put me in a kind of tanning bed at his office, as a zits treatment. Obviously the advice is outdated today, with concerns for skin cancer and skin damage caused by excessive sun exposure. But at the time, the benefits of sunshine were still extolled, and looking brown signaled health as well as “coolness.”

The sun did clear my unruly skin. I knew in my heart, though, that I was just too fair to tan well. I inherited Dad’s complexion. Once, during a beach vacation, he got second-degree burns on his legs. No amount of shorts-wearing gave my legs any color beside red (accessorized with peels), while my insteps sported a pink spot from the sun and nothing more. My only hope was to be a browner shade of pale, to paraphrase that Procol Harum song.


I persevered. Perhaps someone among the tan girls who strolled around town in their shorts or culottes, in their sandals or bare feet, might notice me, if not as appreciatively as I noticed them. I went swimming, sometimes at the Vandalia Lake, sometimes the pool. I rode my bike a lot. I volunteered to mow my parents’ lawn, and even to pain the eaves of the house.  I didn’t play sports, so baseball and tennis weren’t options. I got a couple summer jobs painting houses and “bucking bales.”  Above the waist I only wore a tee shirt that I easily remove so my chest and back could get sun. My dad recommended a long sleeved shirt for outdoor work because one’s sweat was cooling. Apparently that’s how he and his friends survived the Pacific Islands heat during the war. But getting a lot of sun on my arms was the purpose of the hot, simple but tiring job, maybe more so than the $2 an hour we were paid.

Tan-getting has its own compartmentalized “dress code”, of course; acceptable attire at the swimming pool, or the relative privacy of your backyard is unsuitable for, say, a trip to the grocery store.  That was the premise of John Updike’s often-anthologized short story, “A&P”. The exception, I’ve noticed, are resort hotels on the beach, or with a pool; during a Florida vacation, I noticed little family pad into the hotel cafeteria with wet hair, towels, and swimsuits.

Some summer days, I relaxed on a towel in the backyard for half-hour increments. But it was so boring when I lay on my back! Even listening to my little AM radio didn’t help, and I felt too uncomfortable to nap. Lying on my stomach, at least I could read a book. Just as certain Beatles’ songs (especially “Paperback Writer”) remind me of “kidhood” swimming trips, later styles of music remind me of sunlight and beach towels spread upon backyard grass. I liked the Adult Contemporary station WDZ from Decatur, IL (which played Olivia Newton-John’s first and for a while only hit, the Dylan song “If Not For You”), then around 1972 I switched to KXOK out of St Louis, which played Motown like The Temptations, the O’Jays, and others.

Genealogy was my high school hobby, and when I decided to copy the inscriptions in our small family cemetery (about 250 stones in all), I found a perfect opportunity to work on my tan. “Soaking up the sun” is an incongruous expression when you’re visiting a graveyard, but I thought of it that way. The graveyard was (and of course still is) out in the country, down a lane into a clearing in a wooded area. Wearing only shorts, or shorts and a tank-top, I drove out to the place and recorded names, dates, and epitaphs on my paper and clipboard.

Then I went home, opened the windows and turned on the kitchen door fan in order to get a good breeze, and typed up my notes. Eventually I gave a copy of the manuscript to the local library, and I gained quite a bit of knowledge of pioneer families of that vicinity which I provided to the genealogical society. Although at age 17 I had no idea what I was going to do with my life (and, at 54, I’m still very much in process), I think I had at least an intuitive sense that my teenage hobby was a “cool” combination of the kind of research I might later do, and the childhood freedom that allows you to proceed out the door in play clothes with the goal of a happy day.


A few of those ages-ago, adolescent summers, I looked pretty decent.  I was thrilled when someone commented that I looked like I’d been outdoors a lot–and this was while I was standing next to my girlfriend who was quite brown. But then, kids who tanned easily (like said girlfriend) could say things like “Oh, I’m totally pale!” without irony. Arms were compared, and I marveled at friends’ shame at being medium-bronze instead of dark-bronze.

By the end of high school, my interest in being tan diminished. It was too much time investment for such minor results, and I v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y began to accept and like myself as I am. Thus, as I said before, getting tan is a set of teenage memories. My family and I have taken beach vacations, but the only other time I seriously “laid out” was with divinity school buddies on the beach of Long Island Sound at New Haven–and that was more to hang out with friends than to get brown. Whether at the beach, or doing yard work, I’m buttered with 100,000 SPF sunscreen.

But, oh mercy, I hate the smell of tanning lotion and sunscreen! Even the most pleasant-smelling varieties make me want to shower quickly to get rid of that aroma. Olfactory memories are very powerful, and although these summer stories of mine are cheerful and nostalgic, that scent tempers my nostalgia considerably!  So does OFF!Ò mosquito spray.


1.  Arthur Miller, “Before Air Conditioning,” in Edward Hoagland (ed.), The Best American Essays, 1999  (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999), pp. 185-187 (quote on page 185).

A large portion of this essay originally appeared in Springhouse magazine.

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From my “Journeys Home” blog…. In July 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) adopted “Amendment 10-A” which would change ordination standards to include openly gay persons. But the measure had to be approved by over 50% of the PCUSA’s presbyteries (regional bodies). This past Tuesday (May 10, 2011) the Presbytery of the Twin Cities voted 205-56 to support 10-A, providing the necessary majority (87 of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries). The change in ordination standards go into effect next July 10, giving presbyteries the ability (if they choose) to ordain gay persons. (See the article at http://www.religionlink.com/tip_110509.php, which reports the process and also provides numerous responses and articles on the subject. This would be a helpful source for anyone studying different sides of this contemporary issue.)

The PCUSA action has been exciting news to those of us who hope to see progress on this issue among our denominations. The religionlink article notes that “The PCUSA now joins the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Church of Christ as major denominations that allow the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and the development reflects a growing acceptance of homosexuals among the wider public.”

My own denomination, The United Methodist Church, still excludes gays from ordination. Any change has to be accomplished by the denomination’s law making body, the quadrennial General Conference. So far GC delegates have kept the restriction in place, but earlier this year, 33 retired UM bishops issued a statement urging a lift of the ban, as reported at the UMC site (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1, as well as http://www.actup.org/forum/content/retired-united-methodist-bishops-urge-end-gay-clergy-ban-3173/ and other sites). The bishop’s statement, although lacking legal force, has been applauded and in some quarters regretted; similar reactions greeted the first openly gay candidate to seek election to the United Methodist episcopacy three years ago (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=5690357).

Needless to say, homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic in many denominations, not only ordination but also marriage. And needless to say, biblical prohibitions (especially the texts Lev. 18:22, Lev. 20:13, Rom. 1:27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10) lie at the heart of the debate. For many people, the church should be faithful to these texts and not ordain gay persons—and the church is being untrue to God’s word when it circumvents these texts and argues differently from them. However, I’ve appreciated this article by Walter Wink that puts these verses in a larger context: http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink

The sad irony is: while church leaders and church members continue to debate these texts, God is already and richly blessing LGBT persons in callings to ministry and thus in gifts of preaching, counseling, teaching, administration, and other areas of service! Of course, the church has been ordaining gay persons for many years but only recently have gay persons felt a greater freedom to accept and open up about their orientation and identity. Many of us straight people have formed theological positions on this issue without having spent time with LGBT persons. But among the retired bishops I mentioned above, Sharon Z. Rader and Donald A. Ott “both stressed that the statement is based on their experience as church leaders. For more than five years after her retirement, Rader was the bishop in residence at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. In that capacity, she said, she met with many seminary students who had the gifts and calling for ministry but were gay or lesbian.” (http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5723451&ct=9103189¬oc=1)

If you open your heart and mind to the fact that God is already calling and blessing gay persons (and has been for many years), and if you need additional guidance from the scriptures, I find Acts 15:12-18 relevant:

The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,
“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.

In this passage, God is doing amazing things among Gentiles, but the question has been raised, Should they be circumcised (or, to say it another way, should they be excluded as Christian witnesses because they are not Jews)? You can see a parallel in this situation.  Circumcision was a nonnegotiable according to God’s word. But the fact that God was working among these people–the uncircumcised—causes the Jerusalem council members to seek the scriptures for assurance that God can indeed do amazing works in unexpected ways. As one of my seminary professors put it, scripture conforms to experience! If you argue that the biblical prohibitions forbid ordination of gay person, perhaps this can help you see a different but also scriptural way of looking at the issue—God provides gifts and graces to gay and straight people alike, just as God called and blessed both Jews and Gentiles alike in biblical times.

Here is another helpful text of an analogous situation. Galatians 3:2 reads: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” The predominantly Gentile church of Galatia had received God’s Spirit apart from fulfilling any traditional religious requirements. In our own time, have gay persons received calls and gifts to ministry by ceasing to be gay, in compliance with those above-cited biblical strictures, or by believing in the Lord?

Because many of us straight people think about this issue around the biblical texts, I’ve tried to show a few ways we can argue positively for ordination of gay persons. I’m conscious of the fact that this whole subject is hurtful and frustrating to gay persons, who wish that we straight people would catch up to what they already know, and who wish we’d meet them before we make judgments that affect them.

The Bible is God’s Word, but we should not interpret it (or assert that we should never interpret it, only obey it) as if there have been no new understandings of human nature, no historical developments, and no science since biblical times.

For instance, questions of biblical authority are often raised in the context of conflicts concerning the theories and discoveries of modern science. We can recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to science when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible any less God’s word if modern scientific theories and discoveries do not comfort to biblical details.

Similarly, we can affirm contemporary understandings of homosexuality as an identity, a possibility of a commitment relationship with another person, and as a gift from God—while acknowledging that the Bible defines homosexuality differently (e.g., as a male behavioral sin or an exploitive relationship), both within the Levitical holiness code (which otherwise does not, generally speaking, apply to modern Christian practice) and Paul’s lists of sins (and some of us may be guilty of a few of the others on those lists).

Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?

Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. I’ve also sensed that certain Christians assume that, because the New Testament portrays Judaism in a certain way, then contemporary Judaism must be the same; they’ve never taken the time to know a Jew or learn about modern Judaism. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust. Greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

Again, here is an example of a historically-conditioned quality to the Bible and the necessity to interpret it in light of new insights. In this case, we must acknowledge that the New Testament expresses an apparently hostile and generalizing attitude toward Jews, but history has shown that we (Gentiles) must not derive prejudice and racism from a thoughtless, literal reading of the New Testament text.

This example of Christian anti-Semitism is also pertinent to the discussion of homosexuality and LGBT person’s service to the church, because active persecution of homosexuals is of course quite real and some of it does make use of biblical texts. Rev. Mel White’s article, “What the Bible Says – And Doesn’t Say – About Homosexuality” by Rev. Mel White, provides several examples of gay bullying and killings. (http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-gay-christian). We straight Christians must be aware that we might be upholding Bible passages that are, by other people, used to excuse and justify hatred and murder.

I do not know if Bible texts are used against gays in Uganda, but to cite an example of persecution against gays, this week the parliament in Uganda was “set to pass a number of laws against gays and lesbians so draconian that the entire population of that country will feel the effects,” according to a news source. “The so-called ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, proposed by legislator David Bahati,” includes death sentences to persons “who are ‘repeat offenders’ of having sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex” and “anyone with HIV who engages in sexual activity with a member of the same sex. Those who harbor or assist gays and lesbians will be subject to imprisonment. Even those who know someone to be gay or lesbian who don’t report them to the authorities will face a prison sentence.” (Here is the source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bishop-gene-robinson/ugandas-kill-the-gays-bil_b_861150.html) Fortunately, in news which broke as I was writing a draft of this post, the Ugandan parliament tabled the measure in the wake of international outcries.

I’ve obviously moved from the subject of ordination of American gays to the ministry! But knowing about situations like this are necessary as we straight people learn the joys and sorrows of LGBT persons.  With greater understanding, we can learn to appreciate one another’s struggles, to enjoy God’s peace together amid our differences, and to affirm our respective callings, gifts, and graces.

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A piece from August 2009…. Recently I purchased an Avanti-brand greeting card and sent it to a friend. The front of the card depicts a very grouchy cat on a yoga mat, doing stretches. The inside of the card reads, “I meditate, I do yoga, I chant … and I still want to smack someone!”

The other day I was driving a morning’s distance and listening to the XM classical station. In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s birthday, the station played the new recording, conducted by Marin Alsop, of Bernstein’s “Mass.”

I still have my LP set, conducted by Bernstein. I purchased it around 1975, when I was eighteen. I don’t remember how I discovered the piece; perhaps I’d first watched a production on our area PBS station. I loved the piece, which I played a lot during college. But the vinyl became worse for wear and I never replaced it. So I’d not heard the piece since perhaps the early 1980s.

I suppose listening to an hour-and-a-half piece while driving in one’s car is not exactly an “experience,” but I was quite moved all over again by the “Mass.” I’ve not heard the other two versions (besides Bernstein’s) but Alsop’s is very fresh, and Jubilant Sykes is an emotional, affecting Celebrant. Hearing the entire piece uninterrupted was valuable. Mile after mile, I enjoyed the favorite passages: “A Simple Song,” which a friend used at her ordination …the jazzy “In Domine Patris”… the skeptical, honest “I Don’t Know”… the pretty “Gloria Tibi” … the fearful “World Without End”… the hopeful “Our Father”/”I Go On” … the most beautiful and uplifting song (in my opinion), “Sanctus” …the stomping, sarcastic (!) “Agnus Dei” … the “mad scene” “Things Get Broken”… and finally the hushed conclusion.

The XM host called attention to the mass’s early 70s, Vietnam-era origins, but I don’t think “Mass” betrays its Zeitgeist, any more than “West Side Story” sounds like a specifically 50s piece. In fact, allowing for a few “groovy” lyrics, the music and Stephen Schwartz’s words sound quite contemporary. When I enjoyed my Bernstein LPs years ago, I didn’t realize I was listening to “music of the future” (the way I didn’t realize the significance of “Sgt. Pepper” and “Dark Side of the Moon” when I heard those records). In other words, Bernstein’s intermingling of musical high- and pop-styles seemed distracting and inappropriate to critics at the time but seems entirely appropriate today.

What struck me especially was the role of the Celebrant. “Mass” follows the Tridentine Latin rite, but “street singers” persist in interrupting the service with complaints, faith-struggles, questions about God’s concern for the world, blasphemies, and ultimately threats of violence. I thought of Job and his friends, but in this case, the “friends” complain about God’s supposed goodness rather than upholding it. Amid a protest march (the cacophonous, 6/8 “Dona Nobis Pacem”), the Celebrant has his own crisis of faith and breakdown, smashing the consecrated host. Following a long solo (reminiscent of the last act of Britten’s “Peter Grimes”), the street people return to quiet praise. They bring the Celebrant back into their group (whispering “pax tecum”), and with a benediction, the mass ends.

Before, I thought the Celebrant had been discouraged and broken by the protests of the street people. Lord knows enough pastors, unintentionally isolated within their calling, become disillusioned and wearied by the endless needs of congregations. I think this happens to the Celebrant, but now I wonder (considering the way peace is restored to the people following his breakdown) whether his suffering is intended to be vicarious. He takes the people’s struggles and doubts into himself. When he drops the cup, shocking though his “accident” is, Christ’s blood is shed. At the end, we may not have the world peace demanded in the “Dona Nobis Pacem,” but we have a “secret song,” the peace of fellowship and reconciliation.

I was not raised Roman Catholic, and when I purchased the album, it became the way I learned the classic, beautiful language of the Latin rite. What a way to learn sacred words, you might think! But in the intervening years, I’ve heard those words so many times: baroque pieces, the Vivaldi’s Gloria, the requiems of Brahms and Faure, John Rutter’s music, and numerous others. Hearing the words again, as I’d first learned them, was a jolt.

They are wonderful words. The church, being both divine and human, may sometimes contain politics, empty gestures, and false-seeming pieties. But the liturgical words are not empty. They speak truth. Set to music, they bring you all the more close to God.

But … faith is a struggle, and although the words are true, we may have no idea how to understand and “live” those truths. A few years ago the media reported that Mother Theresa had severe doubts and concerns in her faith and ministry. I thought … well, duh. The deeper you go into real faith (as opposed to a kind of shallow respectability) you may encounter dark places and questions you can’t answer. In the words of my greeting card, you do all the correct religious things … but sometimes you still feel badly. Sometimes you still just want to smack someone. Sometimes God seems far away. Sometimes you’d smack God if you could. 

Read Psalm 22, 42, 90, 143, and others, and you know that such difficult feelings are not alien to Holy Scripture, or to worship. Bernstein and Schwartz and their extravagant, Talmudic commentary on the Latin mass invite us to think, doubt, and feel–within the context of worship.

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Thoughts from my “Journeys Home” blog…. The reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death have ranged from joy and jubilation to relief, to an interesting and appropriate soul-searching about whether celebrating the death of a human being, even a vicious and hateful one, is proper. A large celebration happened at University of Missouri, for instance, where students waved flags, drank champagne, tossed toilet paper, and lit sparklers. Another celebration at Webster University, though much quieter, featured 3000 American flags arranged around campus. (http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/education/article_bea4f3dc-74f2-11e0-8ec0-001a4bcf6878.html) The Webster U. president (my wife) issued a statement affirming the diversity of the university and its values as “a welcoming institution that values differences.”
A good United Methodist news story expresses some of the emotional and theological responses to the death: http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=9380133  And still another story highlights theological challenges for pastors, imams, and rabbis: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-justus-n-baird/the-bin-laden-sermon-imam

At the Christian Century website, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf quoted a friend who had cited Proverbs 24:17, Ezekiel 33:11, and Matthew 5:44. The friend said, “After 9/11 I found it very hard to bring myself to pray for Usama [sic] bin Laden. but by God’s grace I did because Jesus said I must. And though I am tempted to rejoice today, I will not because Jesus said I must not.” Another friend had written Volf, who worried about whether “God’s justice” is achieved when foreign troops carry out a mission in another country. “All my instincts were, and are, to sigh with relief, even, in a measure, to celebrate. But my mind warns that this is a dangerous precedent in principle and an extremely dangerous action in terms of possible unintended consequences.” (Quoted from: http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2011-05/fear-and-relief )

It’s true that the Bible says love your enemies—the living Christ helps us to do so, many times painstakingly and over the long haul—but the death of an enemy elicits a normal emotional process, including relief and joy. 9/11 was a national tragedy of horror and grief, and some of the emotions of the past days (though certainly not destructive feelings like hostility toward Muslims) are part of a healing process, if not “closure.”

Like many people, I struggle with a sense of Jesus’ vision in combination of (as Reinhold Niebuhr put it), “what kind of world we are living in” (quoted in http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-plank/obama-niebuhr-and-us-politics ). Patriotism, religious values, and emotions mix in my mind and heart.

When writers worry about the use of violence to combat violence, and the problems of American exceptionalism, I wonder what specific alternatives they would offer toward someone like bin Laden that would bring him to justice and save people from further menace from him….

True, Jesus teaches us to love enemies, but what about enemies who are mass murders who caused untold grief and misery? Jesus showed (and shows) care and compassion on the suffering and grieving, after all, and disapproved those who imposed burdens of suffering upon others …

And I feel grateful for soldiers who sacrifice so much. Just a couple years ago I chatted with a man (at the mall) who was wearing a Korean War Veteran cap, and I thanked him for his service. His eyes grew misty….

And yet…. I agree that the use of violence against violence is a hellish, endless treadmill of destruction….

Somehow, something approximating world peace must be achieved, and the Lord shows us the way….

And yet I wonder how is God’s justice carried out in the world, given Romans 13:1-7 (which I haven’t seen quoted in these discussions, although I haven’t done any kind of thorough web search)….

And then… I think how complicated are historical trends, resisting easy solutions. For instance, some of the Middle Eastern situations of today have historical roots in international relations, and decisions both good and bad, going back over a century (e.g., the United States’ traditional support of the State of Israel has helped Jews have a homeland and yet perpetuates an Arab sense of humiliation and hostility in the Middle East)….

And I agree with my wife’s statement that our diversity of voices and opinions must be honored and preserved. Getting along and honoring one another’s viewpoints begins at home….

And….I wonder what are real, workable alternatives to international relationships, more helpful for the long term than American (or anyone’s) military confrontation. For instance, for a curriculum chapter on global security that I wrote last year (1), I read portions of John Steinbruner, Principles of Global Security, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institute Press, 2000. Steinbruner notes that an “[a]ctive confrontation is an ingrained American inclination,” and having a “designated enemy” has been an “organizing focus” for our own security policy.(2) But, again, the present possibility of “diffuse violence” is too widespread for the U.S. and its allies to address solely through confrontation and intimidation.(3) Altogether, he argues, “One of the most fundamental implications of globalization is the shift in the balance of reliance in security policy from deterrence to reassurance, from active confrontation to cooperative engagement.”(4)

…. And all these things are ways my head and heart go back and forth. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” says Edgar in King Lear. But that’s not quite right. We need to speak both: how we feel, and what must be said, our real emotions (including the shameful ones) and more excellent ways to which God guides us.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22:2).

I do very much appreciate these words from the same source by Miroslav Volf: “We are right to feel a sense of relief that a major source of evil has been removed. But we should reflect also on the flip side of that relief: the nature of our fears. As the King hearings and state-level anti-Sharia bills indicate, many people in our nation find themselves under a spell of a ‘green scare’ analogous to the red scare of the 1950s. But fear is a foolish counselor….”

Brian McLaren, who quotes this paragraph of Volf’s, also notes (alluding to the work of Rene Girard), that “We can unite our party, if not our nation, around common aggression against shared fear—even if we can’t unite them around a common vision around shared values. This trade in the currency of fear sets us up for a boom-bust cycle not unlike our economic cycle, ad not unlike the vicious cycles of agony and ecstasy known by addicts.”

He goes on: “At what point do we Americans temper the celebration of our victories with concern about what we are becoming? At what point do we notice that for us the word ‘justice’ is harder and harder to distinguish from ‘revenge’?” He expresses respect for those who took risks “to end bin Laden’s reign of terror” but warns again about the subtle and long-range destructiveness of fear (http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/who-will-be-the-next-monster-for.html). I think I’ll reread portions of Steinbruner’s book (published in 2000) and think about some of his suggestions in light of our current struggle against terror and the difficulties of our national debt.


1. The curriculum “Faithful Citizen” will be published later this year: see http://www.congregationinpubliclife.org/DVDCurriculum.html

2.  Steinbruner, Principles of Global Security, 225.

3.  Ibid., 229.

4.  Ibid, 18.

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When I lived in Kentucky during the 1990s, I went to work along U.S. 60 in an area called St. Matthews. High upon a particular phone pole, at the intersection of Lexington Ave. and Shelbyville Road, hung an Lincoln Heritage Trail (LHT) sign. Another such sign hung a few miles east on U.S. 60, at the intersection of Grinstead Drive and Interstate 60, and I recall signs on the road toward Frankfort, where historical markers commemorated the death of Lincoln’s paternal grandfather in that area. But I always liked that St. Matthews sign the best. It was faded, placed too high to be noticed easily, and was too far from other LHT signs that might have guided a traveler. It seemed a relic of an earlier time.  One day, as I returned from work, I noticed it was gone.

The old LHT signs were familiar from my childhood when, growing up in southern Illinois, I saw them in and near my hometown along US 51 and Illinois 185. When that St Matthews sign disappeared, I decided to look into the trail. I found a brochure in an Indiana rest stop along I-64, but not much else. Two different addresses for LHT Associations, in Petersburg and Champaign, Illinois, were out of date; my queries returned “unable to forward.” Finally, in a Vandalia antique store, I found a tour guide, “Traveling the Lincoln Heritage Trail” from the Spring-Summer of 1972, which gave me some information. Later, I found websites like http://www.alincolnlearning.us/lincolnhighway.html and http://www.millenniumhwy.net/lincolnheritagegtrail/Lincoln_Heritage_Trail.html

The trail, a series of highways in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, tied together towns, parks, and locations associated with Lincoln. In Illinois the trail follows highways like U.S. 51, Illinois 121, Illinois 29 and 97, U.S. 25, U.S. 34, U.S. 150, Illinois 1, 14, 15, 185, and old U.S. 66, linking towns associated with Lincoln like Vandalia, Salem, Mt. Vernon, Carmi, Marshall, Charleston, Decatur, Lincoln, Springfield, Petersburg, and others. A southern “alternate” trail connects towns like McLeansboro, Carbondale, Chester, Cairo, Vienna, Harrisburg, Shawneetown, and others. Here is a good photo at the village of Ware, IL, through which I’ve passed, in southwesternly Union County: http://shields.aaroads.com/show.php?image=IL19490031  A northern alternate branch connects Beardstown, Mt. Sterling, Quincy, Nauvoo, Monmouth, Galesburg, Peoria, Metamora, Bloomington, and others. Anyone taking a trip over a few days can visit New Salem, Lincoln sites in Springfield and Coles County, the Vandalia Statehouse, and other Illinois places—to say nothing of Indiana and Kentucky places, like his birthplace near Hodgenville, KY and his boyhood homes in Knob Creek, Kentucky and Spencer Co., IN.

Lincoln visited lots of other places, too. Because it primarily follows the earlier travels of Lincoln, the LHT omits Alton and some other Lincoln-Douglas Debate locations. I used to teach a course called “The Life and Times of Lincoln” at University of Akron. One of the books I refer to is Following in Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Complete Annotated Reference to Hundreds of Historical Sites Visited by Abraham Lincoln by Ralph Gary (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001). If anyone wants a very comprehensive guide to places Lincoln visited, you couldn’t go wrong with this nice text. Lincoln set foot in twenty-three states during his life, all but four (Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana) east of the Mississippi. East of the river, he visited all the states except Maine, Alabama, Florida, and the two Carolinas. Besides the DC area and places like Gettysburg, his notable historic sites are in the three LHT states. Another good book about his life travels is Don Davenport, In Lincoln’s Footsteps: A Historical Guide to the Lincoln Sites in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. I have the first, 1991 edition but newer editions have been published.

I’ve driven some of the LHT, not nearly all of it. When I lived in southern Illinois several years ago I followed the southern alternate trail a few times, enjoying favorite communities. When our daughter was younger, we visited New Salem during an enjoyable weekend trip. A few summers earlier we visited the birth site in Kentucky—the enormous temple enclosing a pitiful shack provides a startling contrast. The boyhood cabin site in southern Indiana, with Nancy Hanks Lincoln’s grave nearby, is also an enjoyable visit.

Traveling Lincoln’s life metaphorically is something else again. So many biographies and monographs consider his life. What was the relationship between him and his parents? Was his marriage as positive as it could be, given the Lincolns’ different temperaments, was it or a living hell? Lincoln was compassionate, tenderhearted, cruel, highly intelligent, crude, horribly depressed and lightheartedly humorous—who couldn’t be fascinated by such a complex, contradictory person, let alone someone who guided the country through its darkest times? Among the several biographies that I own, I’ve enjoyed Michael Burlingame’s two-volume Abraham Lincoln: A Life since it came out a few years ago.

I wonder who travels the LHT today, consciously I mean, in order to seek out places pertinent to our greatest president. It’s the kind of leisurely, semi-educational vacation people would take when they weren’t in a big hurry. Nearly everyone, however, is in a big hurry. I can imagine a car-full of whiney children, posed stiffly against a series of historical markers, their pictures preserved in a scrapbook later. Perhaps I’m being too nostalgic, though, for many of the signs are still there (though not “my” sign in St. Matthews), if not enough of them to give confidence to someone traveling without a map. The signs still beckon us to seek after Lincoln’s heritage off the fast-paced interstates.

If you decide to go, take your time, and have a good time learning!


In addition to the LHT, there is the famous and much longer Lincoln Highway. Both were conceived in the 1910s to honor the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. While the LHT was not designated until the early 1960s, the Lincoln Highway was laid out as a drivable coast-to-coast road, from Times Square to San Francisco. Interestingly, the Lincoln Highway is the oldest memorial to the president: the Lincoln Memorial itself opened a few years later. It was also the first transcontinental highway.

As with other named roads established during the 1910s, the Lincoln Highway was replaced in 1926-1927 with a series of numbered routes. For most of its length, the Lincoln became U.S. 30. In the West, however, U.S. 50 is nearly identical with the road through Nevada and California, since the pathway of 30 veers away from the Lincoln in western Wyoming and proceeds northwesterly through Idaho and Oregon During the 1940s and 1950s, many U.S. routes were realigned to bypass the business districts of small towns, but many communities, like Massillon and Canton, retain the Lincoln designation for the main streets. In Illinois, the old route of the Lincoln/U.S. 30 is state route 38, after the highway was routed to the south.

In 1928, an effort was made to keep alive the route and memory of the Lincoln Highway: a series of concrete posts laid along the entire road. Each featured a plaque indicating that the road was dedicated to Lincoln, along with the president’s famous profile. Sadly, there are far fewer of these posts remaining than there are LHT signs. When we lived in Ohio, I was glad to see a post in East Canton, OH in its original location, although some towns have erected replicas of the posts.

About twenty years ago I discovered Drake Hokanson’s Lincoln Highway: Main Street across America (University of Iowa Press, 1989, 1999). His interesting history of the road is enhanced by black and white photography of road scenes, some of them rather haunting. He includes photos of several 1928 posts, including the westernmost post on a street corner in San Francisco. Additional histories and guidebooks have since been published, as well as websites. Just a few of those include: http://lincolnhighway.jameslin.name/ and http://www.lhhc.org/highwayhist.asp, and also http://drivelincolnhighway.com/history.html

As you drive two-lane highways, you can occasionally spot earlier alignments, left over when the route was straightened or moved. Around my hometown, I liked to see old alignments of U.S. 40, like the several yards of roadbed just east of the river bridge, the dead end road left when 40 was rerouted slightly to accommodate Interstate 70, and a wide curve at the western edge of town en route to Hagerstown, IL. Another abandoned curve is north of Vandalia, just to the east of the modern U.S. 51, with an old concrete bridge that still has the metal plaque, common on such bridges, which dates the road to the 1910s. I could list several other examples of locations that I like.

I’ve noticed the same thing as I’ve driven the old Lincoln Highway. When we lived in Ohio, one day I drove down State Route 21 down to Massillon and then proceeded east on Lincoln Way, which is the old Lincoln Highway as well as the original U.S. 30 (now routed south of the town). Driving through Massillon and Canton, I rejoined highway 30 and drove out into the country for a while. I enjoyed seeing the oldest paths of the Lincoln Highway as they moved away from the modern highway, made a long curve, and then reconnected.

Whenever I drive U.S. 30 through western Pennsylvania, I spot the same thing: old highway alignments left over when the highway was straightened in the 1940s or thereabouts. Just west of Greensburg, for instance, an alignment curves around to the south and up a hill, then descends the hill and becomes the main street through the town. A mural on a downtown building calls attention to the days when the Lincoln Highway was this street.

Many interesting places can be found along the highway, as Hokanson’s and other books show. One was the S.S. Grand View Hotel, a ship-shaped establishment built on the side of a Pennsylvania mountain (http://www.brianbutko.com/lh.ship.html). Kearney, NE, where one of my college friends lives, is the middle-point on the highway between New York and San Francisco; in 2013 the highway’s centennial will be celebrated there.

My grandfather Crawford was the oldest of eight children: three boys and then five girls. Most of the family lived around my hometown but one great-aunt and her husband moved to Laramie, WY. They were named Ruby and Pearl, but since I always knew about them and visited them sometimes, I never stopped to think how funny they were both named for jewels and that Pearl is a different kind of name for a man. They, and their three sons and several grandchildren, were great, hospitable people. During one of our visits to Laramie, when I was about seven, we stopped and saw a famous Lincoln Highway scene, the tree growing from a boulder. I thought that was something fantastic!

That was a long set-up for a small, personal Lincoln Highway memory. But how many millions of small memories–of family visits, vacations, business trips, and so on—define the Lincoln Highway, over its entire coast-to-coast route! But the highway is defined in a different way: not only travelers, but people who lived, worked, and shopped in local business districts through which the road passed.


I grew up in Vandalia, Illinois, the former state capital. Lincoln began his political career there as a 25-year-old legislator attending the Ninth General Assembly in 1834-1835. He served two more legislative terms at Vandalia and a final term once the state government moved to Springfield. Of course, as a Vandalian, I heard about Lincoln from a very early age. Eventually I learned that several family members lived there while Lincoln was a legislator at the old capital, and one ancestor even helped construct the statehouse where Lincoln served.

Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas met for the first time in Vandalia in 1834 and subsequently served together during the 1836-37 General Assembly. The “Little Giant” distinguished himself at Vandalia as a powerful speaker and a master of partisan practice. Lincoln began more modestly – according to Usher Linder’s reminiscences, one legislator saw him and another homely colleague and asked “Who the hell are those two ugly men?” But Lincoln grew in sureness and abilities during his terms in the house of representatives. Lincoln’s probable places of lodging in Vandalia no longer exist, so the statehouse is the town’s foremost Lincoln site.

A “Madonna of the Trail” statue stands at the corner of the public square, near the statehouse.  (Originally it stood in front, as this old postcard shows.) In the same year as those Lincoln Highway posts, 1928, twelve of these statues were placed along the route of another early, transcontinental highway, the National Old Trails Road. That was had been incorporated into U.S. highways 40, 50, 350, and 66. While the statues do not honor Lincoln per se, Vandalia’s honors pioneer women, the memory of Lincoln, and the terminus of the pioneer National Road. Vandalia’s Madonna inspired great fanfare. Harry S. Truman, then a Missouri judge, was scheduled to speak but canceled at the last moment. The celebration and pageant parade went on apace, and my father and his sister are among the young “Indians” in the panoramic photograph of the celebration.

Striding confidently forward, children in her arms and tugging at her dress, her long skirt clinging to her striding leg like that of a Greek goddess but her (stone) sunbonnet looking—so I thought as a boy – a little too much like a military helmet. The Madonna looks out toward the West as if meeting some bully’s challenge on Gallatin Street as surely as Lincoln stood up to the “Clary Grove boys.” She actually looks down the row of shops.  (My cousin’s postcard photo at the head of this blog gives a good idea of the Madonna’s perpetual scene.)

This is a purely personal response, of course, but through all my own academic work on Lincoln, I have never been able to emotionally disassociate him from the small town, childhood ambiance in which I first encountered him, including small town stores, small town streets, and two-lane roads. Lincoln’s name was the name I saw on Illinois license plates; his was the face on the brown-and-white Lincoln Heritage Trail signs which ran along U.S. 51 and Route 185; his was the face on the penny which I placed in downtown parking meters; he was the great president honored by Vandalia’s Little Brick House museum which I visited on grade school trips; he was the hero whose home we visited by traveling U.S. 66. There was even a plaque to Lincoln in the city park where I played as a boy, for the pioneer road from Vandalia to Lincoln’s Springfield ran there. Cars with out of state plates parked in downtown Vandalia as tourists visited the statehouse. Every downtown drug store and restaurant sold postcards with the famous full-face November 1863 portrait of the president. Before it burned in 1969 the downtown Hotel Evans contained a mural depicting Vandalia as capital, with Lincoln and Douglas in the painting’s foreground, their height differences notable. Postcard renderings of this mural can still be purchased locally. I still purchase Vandalia postcards, as if I was a tourist who means to send them, as if I don’t know those scenes by heart. We call him “Abe,” a name he disliked, even if local accents sometimes run his name together as “A Blinkin.”

Once, in a shady neighborhood of a small town, I discovered a historical marker that called attention to an 1850s Lincoln speech. In Vandalia, no plaque is needed; the old capitol reminds us each day that the greatest president began his political career here. (Lincoln’s visits to Vandalia in 1856, which would have earned an historic marker in any other town, have been largely forgotten locally.) The young man Lincoln walked the same streets as the shoppers and business people and the teenagers who traipse around looking for something to do on a dull, hot summer day. If he came to town today, he would come downtown from Springfield on LHT routes like I-55 and IL 185. Perhaps he’d make a joke about all the signs he passed that featured his own distinctive profile.

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Here are several thoughts about the Bible’s truth and the ways we interpret the text. My goal is really to help people love and enjoy the book, look forward to delving into it, and use it appropriately so that God’s Spirit works in our lives. A portion of this material was rewritten and incorporated into my short article, “Keeping Peace When Scripture Conflicts,” The Circuit Rider, May-June-July 2011.

To state the obvious, Bible interpretation—like politics, childrearing advice, and sports teams–are topics about which people have strong opinions. (I’ve known some people whose eyes turned hard and cold when they felt that their views on a biblical topic, however deeply or superficially formed or just plain wrong, were challenged.) But a few “sayings” about the Bible are not helpful as they float around in popular culture.

You sometimes hear people say, is “Every word of the Bible is true.” As I browsed a Christian website of a local media personality, I noticed that statement and I frowned, because in this case, biblical authority was used to deny scientific method. (Though I disagree with “scientism,” the philosophy that all truth is scientific truth, I find evolutionary theory and contemporary uniformitarianism exciting to study and learn.) But I’ve heard that statement, “Every word of the Bible is true,” used in other contexts.

Every word of the Bible is part of the sacred book, inspired by the Spirit in its authorship, editing, and canonization–and our ongoing reading and study of the text. Every word of the Bible is true in that differences among texts, anomalies, and historically-limited statements do not at all undercut the Bible’s authority.

When you affirm the truth of the Bible, you must be sensitive to the fact that numerous passages are culturally-specific, unsuitable to be taken out of context, and improperly used as “slogans.” We also can–and will–disagree about how to apply the Bible to certain circumstances, even when we affirm the Bible’s truth. Here are a few overlapping examples.

1. As we study the Bible, we encounter untoward and difficult passages (like the scatological Malachi 2:3 and the crudely sexual Ezekiel 23:20) which seem to have nothing to do with the Bible’s messages of salvation and justice.(1) We also encounter laws that seem absurd or outdated, for instance, these passages that I found at a website recently(2):

* Eating fat is prohibited (Lev. 3:17)
* A woman who grabs a man’s genitals during a fight should have her hand cut off (Deut. 25:11, 12)
* Children born out of wedlock could not enter God’s assembly, even to the tenth generation (Deut. 23:2). Handicapped people (Lev. 21:16-23), men whose testicles were removed (Deut. 23:1), and menstruating women also could not enter the assembly.
* Homosexual men (Lev. 20:13), stubborn children (Deut. 21:18-21), witches (Ex. 22:18), and false prophets (Zech. 13:3) should be killed.
* Playing football on Sunday is punishable by death (conflating Ex. 35:2 and Lev. 11:7-8)
* And yet (as this website continues) slavery (Ex. 21), genocide (Deut. 7), incest (Gen. 20:12) and polygamy (several biblical characters) are allowed.

One could add others: for instance, the biblical obligation to marry your brother in law if your husband has died (Deut. 25:5-10, a complex set of procedures and the basis of the story of Ruth and Boaz), and so on.

In other words, we find passages within the Bible itself that, to a person wondering about the Bible’s authority, seem to shed poor light upon the Bible as a source for God’s will. Rather than making a simple declaration about the uniform truth of the Bible’s words, we affirm that the Bible does give us truth about God but that passages like these must be examined in terms of the original context, circumstance, and so on.

2. The Bible also has many verses that lend themselves to “proof-texting.” When we proof-text, we choose Bible verses, in a hasty or sloppy way that overlooks issues of context, either to prove a point or to proceed straight to an application:

* You have tattoos? You’re violating God’s word: Leviticus 19:28.
* You baptize by sprinking? Then you’re violating God’s word: the Bible says that Jesus was down in a lot of water (Mark 1:9), not sprinkled.
* You see children read stories about witches? God hates witches, though—Ex. 22:18, Lev. 19:31 and 20:6—so God is against these fantasy stories.
* You want a good reason to spank your children? Proverbs 13:24, taken out of context, seems to provide warrant for a few slaps to the kid’s butt.

Many issues can be argued using biblical material, as I discuss below, but a careful, thoughtful and prayerful reading of the Bible is needed, rather than a simple grasping of slogans, condemnations, or permissions.

3. Similarly, we can “claim” biblical promises in a hurtful way. For instance, Matthew 17:20 has been quoted to people who are ill: [Jesus] said to them, “… For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, “Move from here to there”, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” Yes, it’s a saying of Jesus, but can you imagine being sick and someone uses Jesus’ words to imply that if you had more faith, you wouldn’t be sick? My mother had to deal with some of this kind of insensitivity.

Similarly, Phil. 4:6 can be (cruelly) quoted a person who has a legitimate psychological disorder or the effects of a traumatic experience: Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Offering that scripture might be motivated as encouragement but it comes across as disapproval of the person who is struggling with anxiety. It shows an unwillingness of the Bible quoter to empathize with the person’s pain.

It’s a great thing to ask for and receive miracles and help from the Lord, and it’s a great thing to be led to seek the Lord’s help via scriptural truth. I can attest to these things! But you can also see how the Bible can be used in a painful way, not only toward others but toward ourselves. I read a blog post recently (and unfortunately didn’t keep the reference) about an unemployed person who had relied upon the truth of Jeremiah 29:11 for his future. After many months of continued hardship and unemployment, he still relied in the Lord but (if I recall the piece correctly) he realized that divine help doesn’t come as fast or predictably as we’d often like.

4. The Bible also “teaches” general things that we can no longer accept. We have to affirm our inability to follow the Bible on certain issues.

* One, as I just mentioned, is slavery. The Bible contains many passages concerning slavery (Ex. 20:17, 21:20-21, Lev. 23:44-45, Deut. 5:21, Matt. 18:25, Eph. 6:5-9, 1 Tim. 6:1-3, and others). Such passages recognize slavery as a social given, although Torah laws do give means by which slaves can be freed and by which justice can be ensured for servants and slaves. The Bible did not “cause” American slavery but the Bible’s recognition of the reality of slavery was used to justify the institution and to perpetuate racial divisions in this country that are clear violations of Christ’s redemptive work (Eph. 2:13-16).

Unfortunately, here is an example of a biblical acceptance of an institution that we’ve since recognized as evil.

* Another, also just mentioned, is genocide. The Hebrew word herem, or kherem, refers to the practice of devoting something to the Lord, but notably in Deuteronomy 7, 1-6, God devotes several nations (Canaanite kingdoms) to utter destruction. The subsequent book of Joshua (6:17, 8:26, etc.) uses the word in describing the slaughter and destruction of Jericho and Ai. The purpose of this devotion was to keep the Israelites separate from the influence of the Canaanites (the idea of “holiness” in Deut. 7:1 implies separateness from things that are unholy). But, of course, the notion of “holy war” is unacceptable and terrifying in our modern era. The herem passages result from specific commands of God or Joshua,(3) and are a distinctive part of the Deuteronomistic Historian’s theological interpretation of Israel’s history.(4) Thus, these Bible passages are not intended to be authorizations for similar actions beyond the biblical period–and to us, they’re pretty awful within the biblical period!(5)

* Still another issue related to biblical interpretation is Christian anti-Semitism. Although written primarily by Jews who still considered themselves Jews, the New Testament is filled with negative references to Jews (e.g., Matt. 27:25, 1 Thess. 2:3-16, Rev. 2:9, and the Gospel of John’s consistent use of “the Jews” in a pejorative sense). Does this give us permission to dislike Jews?

Of course not, but the anti-Jewish “atmosphere” of the New Testament has caused untold sorrow for Jews. I’ve known Christians who, while discussing the scriptures, refer disparagingly to “the Jews” in a clear echo of New Testament texts—the same Christians who would never make a generalizing, disparaging comment about an ethnic group in other contexts. Important work has been done in recent years to show how the anti-Jewish material in the New Testament has contributed over the centuries to Christian disdain for Jews, the persecution of Jews, and the anti-Semitism that led historically to the Holocaust.(6)

Here, greater sensitivity to the sins of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism require us to read the Bible in a different way than the literal sense.

5. Scripture can be consulted concerning a variety of important topics, without consensus.

* Homosexuality is a hotly-debated topic within many denominations. I’m relieved at the recent call of several retired United Methodist bishops for a removal of the ban upon the ordination of homosexuals in our own denomination, and I hope someday that ban, and the ban upon same-sex marriages by the denomination (and others), will be lifted http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=2789393&ct=9103189 The arguments concerning homosexuality are well known but I direct people to an excellent article by Walter Wink that discusses those texts and the ways we interpret scripture. http://www.soulforce.org/article/homosexuality-bible-walter-wink

* Women’s ordination seems like a “done deal” (my own denomination has ordained women since 1956), but some denominations do not practice it–and some forbid women to serve in other capacities. You can find biblical passages that imply or teach the subordination of women to men, or at least wives to husbands: Gen. 2:18, 1 Cor. 11:3, 7-9, 14:34b-35, 1 Tim. 2:11-15, 1 Peter 4:10-11. But the New Testament mentions several women disciples and leaders (Acts 9:36, 18:24-26, Romans 16:1, 3, 7, Phil. 4:2, Philemon 2, not to mention Old Testament leaders like Deborah). As is increasingly happening with LGBT persons, denominations recognize the gifts and graces of the Spirit provided to women, in spite of limiting biblical passages.

* Should a Christian own a weapon? David praised God who prepared him for battle (Psalm 144:1), and Jesus’ disciples carried swords (Luke 22:38, 49-50). Armed soldiers came to faith, and no one told them to lay down their arms (Luke 7:1-10, Acts 10:1-33, Romans 13:4). And yet Jesus taught peace, reconciliation, and active help and concern for one’s enemies (Matt. 5:9-12, 38-47), as did Paul (Rom. 12:14-21). Is there one Bible-based answer to this question?

* Use of alcoholic beverages is condemned in scripture (Prov. 20:1, 1 Cor. 6:10, Eph. 5:18-20), and is also a potential stumbling block to other Christians (with 1 Cor. 8:1-13 providing an analogous situation). But the Bible also allows moderate use of alcohol (Prov. 31:6-7, Ps. 104:14-15, 1 Tim. 5:23), and Jesus himself was criticized for drinking and eating with the wrong kinds of people (Luke 7:33-34). Again: is there one Bible-based answer to this issue?

* One could mention many other issues of contemporary importance: environmental issues, criminal justice, the death penalty, medical research, and so on, which can be–and are—addressed with passionate (and sometimes, unfortunately, ugly) disagreements about biblical teachings.


I’m belaboring my initial point concerning the phrase “Every word of the Bible is true.” But I want us to think about why and how the words of the Bible are true. We can affirm the Bible’s truth while also being cognizant of its difficulties and interpretive challenges. We can avoid using bible verses as “clobber passages.” As the conservative Calvinist theologian G.C. Berkouwer notes in his book, The Holy Scriptures (pp. 181-183), we need a “naturalness” in reading and interpreting the Bible; we recognize the book’s roots in ancient cultures while also recognizing it as a God-breathed book for our contemporary time.

Relying upon God’s grace, we all continue to grow as Christians, and we all grow in insight as to the nature of the Bible’s authority, the ways we can use the Bible to encourage and build each other up (Eph. 4:11-16), the disagreements that can occur between people interpreting the same book, and the ways we interpret and follow God’s Word.


Here is another saying that you hear concerning Bible interpretation. Members of a particular small group studied the letters of Paul. They came to Paul’s advice in 1 Timothy, I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. A female classmate spoke critically of Paul’s outlook toward women. Her husband teased her, “You can’t pick and choose, you know!”

Although the man was joking with his spouse, this view isn’t uncommon: If the Bible is God’s Word, then we should not pick passages of scripture we like and discard others.

But we all pick and choose Bible passages! We all make decisions (not necessarily articulating the reasons) about which scriptures to follow literally, which to follow less literally, and which not to follow. We interpret some passages as more culturally-conditioned than others. We cherish Jesus and seek to do his will … but we do not liquidate our possessions, give to the poor, and live as indigents (Luke 18:22). We do not traipse in pairs from town to town, lodging at people’s houses as we spread the Gospel (Luke 10:1-12); we “adapt” the literal command to fit contemporary realities. People pick laws from the Torah to prove their dislike of gays and Harry Potter but ignore most of the other laws. It’s human nature, but we’re more likely to take a stand against “picking and choosing” when we judge the actions and attitudes of others, rather than our own!

We also pick and chose because, honestly, we’re not inclined to follow certain portions of the Bible. How many people do you admire because of their bluntness and candor, in spite of the Proverbs which teach restraint from angry words and the wisdom of quiet thoughtfulness (e.g., Prov. 10:12, 14:29)? Have you ever taken the time to reconcile with someone prior to your worship (Matt. 5:23-24)? Have you lately helped a poor person, or visited someone in jail (Matt. 25:31-46)? Faithfulness to scriptures that we could follow more conscientiously is a struggle for all of us, most certainly including myself! But we are prone to honor Jesus with pious and respectful feelings about his authority, and then we proceed to live neglectful of many of his teachings (or we adapt them for present realities).

Bible study is the key way to clarity about God and God’s will, but as long as we live we’re always seeking deeper knowledge of God, new insights, new understanding of biblical content and fresh connections of the Bible to our circumstances. A positive way of “picking and choosing” is to recognize our limitations, and thus to seek God’s will in scripture with humble heart by finding scriptures that address our current situation. Rather than thinking about the process as “customizing” scripture for selfish purposes, we compare verses and allow them to teach and guide us, according to the Spirit’s guidance.

Here are just a couple examples. This is a verse well known to anyone struggling with a sense of Christian calling.

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:26).

But here is also a passage that is equally scripture:

He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4-5).

Jesus calls us to put him first in all things. But if a person serves Jesus in, for instance, a role of church leadership, he or she should not thereby become lax in household responsibilities. Here’s another scripture:

Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this” (Mark 7:9-13).

Here Jesus criticizes those who would renege on one’s obligation to parents through the custom of devoting an offering to God.

These passages taught me during a time when I struggled to balance the needs of a young child at home, my marriage, the increasingly dire needs of elderly parents (of whom I’m the only child), my call to serve God, and the unholy pride some pastors feel in working 80+ hours a week at the expense of their families. It would’ve been easy to linger on Luke 14:26 and feel guilty—as if I were a horrible servant by having family needs, a common-enough anxiety in clergy—but by broadening my reading I gained a better perspective.

Here’s another scripture that I love.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us (1 John 1:8-10).

But here is a passage from the same book.

Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters (1 John 3:4-10).

All of us do sin. Sometimes we fall into sin in spite of our best intentions, if not in the “big” sins then in our attitudes, weaknesses (gossip and the like), and poor decisions. Some of us fall into the big sins, too. Furthermore, we are a part of social structures where we participate in or tacitly condone sins like injustice, poverty, economic policies that exploit domestic and overseas workers, and so on.

The first passage rings true and is quite reassuring. Does the second passage contradict the first? This is important to sort out as we seek God’s gifts of holiness and sanctification. We must look at other scriptural viewpoints in order to elucidate John. How much power do we allow Jesus to have in our lives? He does save us for Heaven while we were sinners (Rom. 5:8), but should we allow him to cleanse us more thoroughly of sin? Do we really want him to?

Not only that, but while Jesus can and does cleanse us from specific sins, we must ask: Is there also a point where we deceive ourselves as to the depth of our sin? Sin has a way of rearing its ugly head just at the point when we think we’ve conquered it. In addition to moral and psychological sins, we fail to recognize kinds of sin that don’t necessarily set off “alarms” (our gossip, our acquiescence of injustices, our subtly racist habits of thinking and acting, and others).

Recognizing the tenacity of sin, we can go beyond a definition of sin as the violation of law (John’s understanding here in this letter) and compare John’s theology to, for instance, that of Romans 7:7-25; there, sin is not just the violation of the law but also a fault within human will and nature. Christ’s salvation is something that reaches deeply into our circumstances. In this case, another scripture by another author help us understand a point that was less completely discussed in a passage. (Another such scripture is the beloved Ps. 37:4, which might imply God gives us everything we want if we just love God enough!)

“Comparing scripture with scripture” is a venerable way of studying the Bible, but it’s a way that requires sensitivity for word meaning, context, and the author’s intended meaning. We should never neglect understanding each biblical writing in its integrity, in addition to its place within the canon. We also need more rather than less of the Holy Spirit’s help for clarity of guidance and understanding. But “picking and choosing” Scripture can be either a negative kind of “customizing” or a very positive choice as we deepen our faith, understanding, and service.

Our confidence in the Bible rests not only upon the truth of the words but upon the person and grace of Jesus, as I explain next.


As I’ve discussed the sayings “Every word of the Bible is true” and “you can’t pick and choose,” I implied aspects of a third statement one sometimes hears about the Bible: “The Bible shouldn’t be interpreted, only obeyed.” Instead, I argue that following the Lord necessitates interpretation, gives us clarity about the Gospel of Jesus, and, in turn, shows us how to obey.

Back in my younger days, I had a friend who appreciated Mark 7:6-8:

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

Doctrines contrary to my friend’s church were “words of men,” but my friend’s church didn’t teach human doctrines, only the Word of God.

I’m not criticizing the basic idea there—searching for God’s clear Word, and finding guidance within a community—only the fundamentalistic spirit that makes a too-easy identification: I believe the Word of God, you (who differ with me on a point of interpretation) believe the doctrines of men, and therefore my soul is safe, but you seek God in vain….

Yet (this was my brief experience when I was a naïve and insecure young person) if you’re afraid for your salvation because someone told you that you’ve misinterpreted the Bible, then what becomes of the Good News of God’s free grace? Grace you have to earn is not good news!

We don’t always think through the way Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ongoing presence in our lives guides the way we read and interpret the Bible. This point came home to me strongly as I was reading Graeme Goldsworthy’s Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture.(7) Goldsworthy says that, “while there is much in the Bible that is strictly speaking not the gospel, there is nothing in the Bible that can be truly understood apart from the gospel.”(8) While not addressing all aspects of biblical interpretation, I find his argument thought-provoking with regard to preaching, devotional Bible reading, and Christian practice.(9) How has the Good News—the wholly free gift of salvation of sinners through the blood of Christ and the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit—clarified, modified, fulfilled, or even negated the meaning of a particular Bible passage?

For instance, consider the Torah. Jews revere the Torah as God’s direct word, while the prophets are God’s message communicated through the prophets’ words, and the books of the Writings (the Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, Esther, and others) are divinely inspired but are more definitely of human authorship.(10) If a person’s sole scripture is the Old Testament, then this hermeneutical approach makes sense and is consistent. But the New Testament changes these levels of authority. As I discuss in the next series of posts, the prophets and also the psalms take on greater authority in the New Testament; the “lesser” prophets and writings became keys for interpreting Jesus as messiah and, therefore, for interpreting the Torah. Consequently, Christians interpreted the Torah as a preliminary, yet not abrogated way by which God expresses his will (Matt. 5:17-20, Rom. 3:31, Heb. 3:1-6). Because of Christ, we must think about the ways that the Torah is scripture for Christians. We must interpret the laws in the context of the Bible’s whole witness, so that “You shall not murder” is always true but “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (Lev. 19:28a) is more time- and culture-bound.

Similarly, consider the prophets. Read through those books and you’ll see the harshness of God’s judgment against the people’s faithlessness and the direness of his warnings. A person could easily neglect the context of the prophets in ancient Israel and use prophetic judgments to address contemporary examples of unrighteousness and social injustice. (For instance, we use the term “prophetic preaching” to mean sermons and writings that confront, challenge and criticize.) The prophets’ themes are timeless: the formal practice of religion is no substitute for true righteousness, and true righteousness always includes justice (e.g. Amos 5:23-24). But when we look at the prophets with a broader view, we also see that the prophets focus not only upon then-current societal situations but also God’s plans for the future. God achieves his will for the people of the divided kingdom of the prophets’ times, but God also, through the prophets, announces his will for the more distant future: the person and work of Christ. To use the prophets primarily to address specific social problems risks neglecting the “canonical shape” that puts the prophets in context with Christ’s salvation.(11)

As Goldsworthy also discusses in his book, we must also consider how the death and resurrection of Christ also informs how we understand the teachings of Jesus himself! The Good News of Jesus’ resurrection frees us from the law (Gal. 3:10, 3:23) but also makes us take the demands of discipleship all the more seriously, because we’re freed from the notion that God saves us when we’ve checked off the “shalts” and avoided all the “shalt nots.” Christ in his roles as teacher, healer, and risen Lord help us do his will—and his Spirit breathes live and vitality to Bible verses that we might otherwise read as slogans, shalt-nots, and “clobber passages.”

As I reflected on this point, I thought of several ways this is true.

* When I was young, I worried that God was keeping track of every time I became angry and called someone a “fool” (or “jerk” or “idiot” or my dad’s favorites, “ignert sumbitch” and “damned ignert fool”): Matt. 5:21-22. Yes, we’re held accountable for “every careless word” (Matt. 12:36), but we’re not saved by anything we do or don’t do (Rom. 3:28). We’re saved from our sins, without reservation, and we have ongoing forgiveness and power for salvation (Heb. 4:14-16). But when we look at this “fool” passage in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see afresh at how Jesus has saved us from all our sins (past, present and future), and so, thus freed from the fear of earning God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9), we can respond with a new sense of joy and love, both for God and for one another (Rom. 8:1-8). As Christ healed his contemporaries, his love and power heals our souls of angry words (although anger is a normal human emotion when appropriately addressed: Eph. 4:26, 31).

Thus, instead of interpreting that “fool” saying as a law, we see it as an even deeper challenge: how are we modeling Christ’s love? How are we growing in love through the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24, so that dismissive and contemptuous comments cross our minds less frequently? How is the Spirit of Christ changing the content of our hearts?

* Similarly forgiveness. “We’re supposed to forgive each other,” we might say. But we forgive each other in the context of a lively, growing relationship with Christ. When we are freed by Christ’s death and resurrection, forgiveness is not a law or a hard obligation. Forgiveness is a response to Christ’s unearned love. Even more, we don’t have to force ourselves to forgive through our own will power, but we find power to learn to forgive (and even empowered forgiveness isn’t always easy) as we deepen our relationship to Christ.

* And prayer. Another verse that worried me when I was young was “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). I couldn’t do that! Nobody can: our brains are not neurologically set to focus continually. But that verse isn’t a law that requires every single thought to be prayerful. That verse is a call to deepen our love and concern for one another as we receive the resurrected Jesus’ love and power. Instead of interpreting the verse primarily as a rule, we focus upon Christ as our Savior and helper when we fail. Through Christ, our minds and hearts acquire the habit and impulse of prayer.

* And speaking of prayer: do we pray the Psalms as Christian prayers? Obviously the psalms are Hebrew and Jewish prayers–of ancient origin and then collected during the Second Temple period–and they’re now part of the Christian canon. But we could very easily neglect to connect the psalms to Christ’s death and resurrection. For instance, if you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” are you praying the prayer as a plea to God for forgiveness and restoration? Do you also and simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through the crucified and risen Lord? Psalm 51, classic though it is, has to be connected to verses like Romans 7:24-25, where the assurance of Christ’s salvation of sinners is affirmed.

* What about using a Bible verse as God’s holy word in condemnation of another person? We should always remember that Jesus himself stood condemned by God’s word; he was considered a sinner (John 9), and he was placed under a curse because of God’s word (Deut. 21:23). In his ministry, Jesus gave grace and a new opportunity to the woman of John 7:53-8:11) when people used God’s word against her.

Certainly the Bible warns us and can be used to warn. But one particular warning, Matthew 7:1-5, is all the more keen when we’re tempted to employ the Bible in a condemnatory way.

* Is our evangelism always supposed to achieve great results? The contemporary decline of membership among mainline denominations has added urgency to evangelistic efforts. Acts 2:41 and 47 imply that, if we’re doing evangelism right, God will bless our efforts with great numbers. This outlook dovetails well with American concepts of success; yet “getting great numbers” was not a concern of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46, and Paul’s ministry among the Athenians was ineffective in practical terms. Yet no one would say that Paul shouldn’t have taken his ministry among the Greek intellectuals. Our command to make disciples (Matt. 28:19) is relevant whether we make a few disciples or many: the real work is done by God’s Spirit promised to us by the risen Lord.

* Here’s a slightly different issue: how about using Bible characters as models? Let me use David as an example, for the Bible calls him a “man after God’s heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14, Acts 13:22), in spite of his very flawed life. If you’re like me, you want to be a person after God’s heart, too. We ask, “How can God use me? Does God see me as somebody he can use?” Neither is necessarily an easy question to answer. As we develop a good spiritual life that includes regular worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer, and a certain amount of spiritual discipline, we try to keep focusing back to God. We try to stay open to God’s guidance and purpose. We take comfort that a flawed person like David could be so well used by God.

But we can’t raise these questions only in the context of David’s stories, as Goldsworthy discusses. First, we need to be careful not to place ourselves on a similar stature as David, to make ourselves equal somehow to him, or to make God’s plans with Israel similar to the patterns of our lives. (Besides, David was an Iron Age warrior and killer of many, many people; to focus upon and identify with only his spiritual humility is to ignore significant things about him.) David and his people were special in God’s salvation history, while we’re beneficiaries of the groundwork God accomplished through them. Second, although we can certainly learn with aspects of Bible characters’ experiences, we need to seek God’s will about these stories in the context of our salvation in Christ. For instance, we all actually have a better chance to become close to God than David because, now, God’s Spirit is poured out to all of us. God’s Spirit gives gifts of power and ministry unimaginable in ancient times, taking God’s will for us to new levels (John 14:12).

So often we take Bible passages and Bible commandments and separate them from the key things: our living Lord, our covenant relationship with God, our relationship (as freely forgiven sinners) to God through Christ, and Christ’s commandment that we love and uphold one another.


During a summer when I worked on these Bible reflections, my family and I visited Europe as my daughter’s choir toured several cities: Heidelberg, Speyer, Erfurt, Eisenach, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. Emily had wonderful experiences in this choir as she used her musical talents with other teenagers. On one of the tour’s last days, we took our seats for a noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. As we all absorbed the beauty of the sanctuary, I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words:

Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein

My German is rusty so I had to think about the meaning of the phrase….Be ye doers of the word and not hearers only  (James 1:22, KJV). The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a sense of peace and assurance.

The whole verse in the NRSV is, But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. What an interesting connection: hearing (or reading) God’s Word, and self-deception! In these posts, I’ve been thinking about God’s Word… But how can we deceive ourselves as we hear the Word?

Several ways. We hear the Word and believe, but because we believe we feel pleased with ourselves, and continue feeling hatred toward particular individuals or particular groups. We hear the Word but never “bridle” the tongue; consequently our religion is “worthless” (James 1:26). We hear but never take the time to actively love and care for the needy (James 1:27). We hear the Word in the sense that we respect and defend the Bible, but we compartmentalize your faith as one aspect of life among many. A very subtle way to deceive ourselves is to hear the Word, to love the Bible and Christ, but to have a very shallow kind of faith: we think merely have to be good, churchgoing persons who volunteer, serve on committees and have a conventional, upstanding morality. These are not bad things in themselves but we must be on guard that these things aren’t substitutes rather than expressions of a deep faith.

Even a life-changing profession of faith, so cherished in evangelistic experience, can be a “hear but not do” kind of thing if we don’t “follow up.” I don’t want to get into debates about whether or not one can lose one’s salvation (although as one whose theology is more Arminian than Calvinist, I’ve some ideas); I do want to say that both Jesus and Paul cautions us to be attentive to and humble in our faith (Matt. 7:1-5, 21-23, Rom. 11:21-22, 25). In Christ we have an accomplished salvation, but Christ in turn also calls us to ongoing discipleship and transformation (with which, wonderfully, Christ helps us).

“Doing the Word” means embracing the Gospel message in its wholeness. You’ve fewer illusions about yourself and your position in life because you understand, cognitively and spiritually, that you are no better than the worst sinner you can think of. Every aspect of your life is in need of God’s forgiveness and grace. You accept the grace of God through Christ as a free, unearned gift, which in turn links you to the power God provides for your living. You understand that God’s love liberates you to show loving-kindness to others; God’s love doesn’t give you license to be a meaner person than before; God’s love changes your perception so you can see other people as those for whom Christ died. (An analogy might be: when the person you love loves you back, you feel free, joyous, and changed.)

As we’re transformed by God’s love, we imperfectly grow in certain characteristics taught so frequently in the Bible:

· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.

· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God

· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.

· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)

· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person

· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).

· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances

· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.

· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.

And yet … Christian love is not anything specific that you do, in the sense that Christ provides you a checklist or (as I have here) a list of bullet-pointed characteristics. Christian love is a gift of God’s empowering Spirit. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). That last statement means that these qualities cannot be defined by the law and—Paul is being wry and ironic—they are not illegal. As one commentator, Richard B. Hays writes that this section of Galatians “is the most impassioned defense anywhere in Scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide the community of faith.” But Paul’s opponents at Galatia wanted to impose various structures and laws to that community. Obviously laws and structure can be good things, but Paul retorts that the Spirit is a sufficient guide, as Hays writes, “A church guided by Paul’s hopeful word would cultivate a community of flexibility and freedom, living with openness toward the unpredictable liberating movement of God’s Spirit.” Hays notes two examples: Wesley’s preaching outdoors to coal miners, and African American churches that addressed civil rights issues in the 1950s and 1960s.(12) Could our contemporary congregations learn to love, spontaneously, in a deep and powerful way, wholly trusting God to provide all we need?

An emphasis on Bible study—and the self-diagnosis and wisdom that comes from Bible study—is a powerful tool for churches, in addition to (or instead of) the more programmatic means that congregations sometimes adopt. Bible study has its risks. Here again, we can get off-track when we don’t balance hearing and doing: you could become discouraged in your faith because you can never measure up to the Bible’s standards; or you don’t know what to do with your doubts and questions because you think—because the Bible is God’s word—you’re not supposed to have any. But that is why we read the Bible best when, in addition to private reading and devotional time, we’re also part of a congregation of diverse, worshiping people where prayer, preaching, the Eucharist, group study, and service are part of a whole spiritual journey.

I read a lovely story from the author and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“Once I noticed,” writes a Christian scholar, who visited the city of Warsaw during the First World War, “a great many coaches on a parking-place but no drivers in sight. In my own country I would have known where to look for them. A young Jewish boy showed me the way: in a courtyard, on the second floor, was the shtibl (Hasidic synagogue) of the Jewish drivers…. All the drivers were engaged in fervent study and religious discussion…. It was then that I found out and became convinced that all professions, the bakers, the butchers, the shoemakers, etc., have their own shtibl in the Jewish district; and every free moment which can be taken off from their work is given to the study of Torah. And when they get together in intimate groups, one urges the other: Sog mir a shtickl Torah—Tell me a little Torah.”(13)

I don’t study the Bible that way and I’m unfamiliar with Christians who do. But I love the image and the challenge: How wonderful if we, who don’t want to be fundamentalists but do want to live as faithful Christians, lived our lives in such a way that Bible study was intimate—and an intimate part of our everyday lives, and a natural part of conversation, the way we talk about the irritating people at our places of work, about our favorite books and movies? We might get angry at least other, but we’d deal with it; we wouldn’t be aloof from each other, or “take our toys and go home”; we’d accept our disagreements. We’d grow together, perhaps reexamine our cherished opinions and positions, perhaps growing in convictions in other ways. But we’d grow in the Biblical gifts of wisdom and kindness.


1. http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2007/04/everything-in-old-testament-points-to.html

2. “Bible Justice” by Ken Adams, http://www.liberator.net/articles/AdamsKen/BibleJustice.html

3. The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, D-H, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), page 118.

4. See, for instance, Robert B. Coote’s introduction to the book of Joshua in The New Interpreter’s Bible, volume 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), pages 555-580, which discusses several of the themes and emphases of the Deuteronomistic history and of Josiah’s reforms.

5. See “Excursus: Holy War,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), page 314.

6. The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book by Julie Galambush (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005); The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006); and also “Good News” after Auschwitz? Christian Faith within a Post-Holocaust World, edited by Carol Rittner and John K. Roth (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001). See also Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

7. Preaching the Whole Bible As Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching by Graeme Goldsworthy (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2000).

8. Goldworthy, page 95.

9. In its variety of witnesses, the Bible allows for a variety of readings. For instance, Walter Brueggemann warns: “[T]he task of Old Testament theology, as a Christian enterprise, is to articulate, explicate, mobilize, and make accessible and available the testimony of the Old Testament in all of its polyphonic, elusive, imaginative power and to offer it to the church for its continuing work of construal toward Jesus. That is, Old Testament theology, in my judgment, must prepare the material and full respect the interpretive connections made in the New Testament and the subsequent church; but it must not make those connections, precisely because the connections are not to be found in the testimony of ancient Israel, but in the subsequent work of imaginative construal that lies beyond the text of the Old Testament.” See his Theology of the Old Testament, p 732. Brueggemann differs in his approach from the canonical readings of Brevard Childs, whose class I was very privileged to take in 1979.

10. The Seventy Faces of Torah: The Jewish Way of Reading the Sacred Scriptures by Stephen M. Wylan, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005), pages 22-23.

This is not to say Jews cannot interpret the Torah laws. Jews recognize that not every law is applicable today and therefore they must be discussed and considered. Torah: A Modern Commentary, edited by W. Gunther Plaut (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), is a publication from the Reform tradition that interprets and discusses the Torah material.

11. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context by Brevard S. Childs (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986,), pages 128-132.

12. Richard B. Hays, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), page 329.

13. Wylan, The Seventy Faces of Torah, pages 73-74.

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