All Are Winnable

800px-lucas_cranach_d-c384-_-_christus_und_die_samariterin_28leipzig29One of my fundamental convictions is that everyone is winnable. “How unrealistic,” many of you would say. I’ll reluctantly agree with you. But so what? Why should I value being realistic over considering people winnable?

In John 4, we see Jesus “wasting” his time on a Samaritan woman. She wasn’t just a Samaritan woman; she also showed signs of being on the margins of Samaritan society. Surely Jesus, committed to realism as he was, would spend his time with Jews. As a man who knew his own culture, he’d also skip women altogether. Men weren’t supposed to associate with unrelated women. Much better for him to spend his time with Jewish men. At least they’d be winnable.

Surprise of surprises, Jesus wins the woman. That’s not the end of the story. By winning the woman, Jesus wins her whole town.

One of the most depressing things about contemporary political discourse is that partisans (of both parties) tend to act on the assumption that the other side isn’t winnable. They’re “stupid” or “evil” – or something like that. They’re to be mocked and derided, put in their place, rather than won over.

Too often we Christians aren’t much better. We look at various populations and mark them off as unwinnable. Consider ISIS – no, let’s not go so hard core – let’s just consider average Joe and Mary Muslimperson. Oh, they’re unwinnable, we assume, so let’s just keep our distance.

I could ask, How do we know they’re unwinnable, but let’s try another question. What is God’s attitude toward them? If what we read in the Bible is true, if the basic claims of the Christian tradition are true, if Jesus died for the sins of all , that is, what would God say about their winnability? Obviously too tough? Those pagan ancestors of ours, the ones who martyred the first generations of Christian missionaries, they were winnable, but not these folks now? I have trouble imagine God saying that.

So what do we do if we come to believe all are winnable? Here’s what I do:

  1. I assume that God calls me to love my neighbor as myself. If Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” from his parable of the Good Samaritan is taken as the standard, then the neighbor I am to love is the one who stands in need of love. Not much boundary there, is there?
  2. I have to treat people with respect. This can be tough, since respect is understood differently from culture to culture and even from individual to individual. If I’m going to treat people with respect, it means they’ll be more than objects. I’ll need to converse with them and get their feedback. If I discover that the way I am acting is perceived as non-respect rather than respect, I may have to change my ways. At the very least, I’ll have to become a better communicator with that person.
  3. I have to take things for the long haul. Some people will be won over easily and quickly. Some can take years – even a whole lifetime (or more). The weightier the matter in focus, the longer it may take. If I love people – and consider them winnable – I’ll have to take the time.
  4. I need to be part of a team. For me, the most important “thing” I want to win people to is allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom. Other things – politics, sports, cuisine – these things matter to me, but not enough to let them get in the way of the more important thing. I’m not a good enough communicator, I’m not spiritual enough, I’m not good enough – to do it all on my own. I need people on my team who share my allegiance to Jesus and seek to join in my disciple-making efforts.
  5. I final thing I need to do: I need to change. John Wesley, the chief guide of the Methodist movement, wrote of a continual need for “repentance in believers.” I can’t be happy with my current state, but need to continually submit myself to the work of the Holy Spirit. More painfully (sometimes), I need to submit myself to the work of the Holy Spirit through other people, maybe even people I don’t want to listen to.

What about you? Do you think other people are winnable? Is anyone willing to serve on the team with me?

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“If a brother sins (against you)…”

This Sunday I’ll be looking at Matthew 18, spiraling outward from v. 20. If you look at v. 15, chances are your Bible, assuming it’s a modern translation, likely has a footnote about a textual variant. What’s a textual variant, and why does it matter?

The Bibles we read today in English (or some other modern language) are not translated from the New Testament as-a-whole-document-someone-wrote-down-all-at-once. What we know as the New Testament took at least a couple of centuries to come together as a single book (as we think of books). Though Christians were early promoters of the codex format (a codex is the format we today just call a book), the earliest texts were likely in scroll format.

The writers of the New Testament books wrote their books for particular audiences. Those audiences read the texts, and as they found them valuable, made copies for wider distribution. Because of the type of materials they were made of and their heavy usage, none of the autographs (autograph is a term referring to the actual manuscripts written by the original authors) survive. As you probably suspect, this is true not only for the books of the Bible, but for just about every other ancient writing. Paper (or papyrus, it’s older form) wears out. What scholars work from today as they identify what the authors originally wrote is a collection of thousands of ancient manuscripts that witness to the text. Many of these are Bible texts themselves. Others are quotations, lectionaries, references, and translations (translation is NOT a new phenomenon when it comes to the Bible).

Most of the texts are the same from copy to copy to copy: since the texts were highly valued, great care was put into the copying and transmission process. There are differences, however, in some places, from text to text. Matthew 18:15 has one of those differences. When you’re reading your handy-dandy Greek New Testament you see what is called the “textual apparatus” at the bottom of the page when there is a textual variant:

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You can see three variants listed here in Greek. The first two are simply matters of the tense of the verb “sin.” The third option has the same verb as the first but omits the “against you.” The difference between the first and third readings are, then, “sins against you” and “sins.”

You can see that there is more in this picture than just the Greek reading. The first thing you see is that the editors of the text have given it a grade of “C.” There are four possible grades, A, B, C, and D. These range from certain to less certain. In this case the C grade means that they are relatively uncertain that they’ve made the correct choice in identifying “sins against you” as the original reading.

Why are they uncertain? Well, look at what follows each of the bits of Greek. You see a list of letters, some in English, some in Greek, and, on the third, one in Hebrew, some numbers, and some names. To keep things simple (some of you may be wondering if any talk of textual criticism like this can be called simple!), the greatest number of ancient witnesses attests to the longer reading, “sins against you.” The oldest witnesses, however, (in this case Codices Aleph [Siniaticus] and B [Vaticanus]) have the shorter reading. Having the most witnesses counts for something, but so does having the oldest, since those are closest in time to the originals. An additional reason for the editors to choose the final reading is that it is shorter, on the assumption that texts usually (that’s a troublesome word, isn’t it?) get longer over time rather than shorter.

Now, I’m not only not a trained textual critic, but I’m also not a Bible scholar. My specialization is in philosophy and theology. For that reason, I’m mostly going through this to let you know what’s going on. In Sunday’s message I’ll not deal with these details. I may, however, briefly explore the consequences either way. My own analysis leans to the third (and shorter) reading. It’s the harder reading, of course. We all have heard that we’re supposed to forgive people when they sin against us. That’s even the clear message of the parable with which Jesus ends the chapter (one reason to stand against my analysis). But the broader message, that we’re supposed to seek the reconciliation of sinners, even when the sin of those sinners is not against us, is also clearly witnessed in the Bible, even if it is frequently ignored.

On Sunday we’ll glance at both options. See you then!

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The Moving Preacher

Anyone who has heard me preach knows that I usually don’t stand still. Sometimes I get comments on my constant movement. Some people like it, others not.

I have two reasons for moving, the first isn’t really under my control while the second is a chosen strategy.

In the first place, I am not very good at being still. Since childhood I’ve been a fidgeter. If I can’t move one part of my body, I’ll move another. This may be connected to my normally short attention span, though I’m not sure. When I’m preaching (or teaching, or doing much of anything) movement is normal.

Secondly, however, I chose movement as a strategy. When I communicate with an audience of more than, say, 5-8, I want every individual to feel like I am communicating directly to them. An important aspect of this is moving my attention around and looking each person in the face during the process. Obviously, I can’t literally do this once I get more than 20-30 people in the audience, but movement allows me to get much closer than if I just stood in one place – especially if that one place is rooted in the pulpit.

Once upon a time we could depend on people coming to church feeling a duty to listen to the preacher. That time is long past. Sure, some will come and feel such a duty, but for many listening to a preacher (drone on and on) is viewed as a chore. For this reason, I take it as my duty to earn my hearers’ attention every time I speak. I work hard to gain and keep their attention, and movement is one way I do this.

Why worry about attention? I take the preaching of the gospel – the good news that Jesus is God incarnate, come into the world to proclaim the kingdom of God, crucified for the sins of the world (including my own!), raised from the dead, and now Lord of all – very seriously. I don’t want anyone to miss out just because my way of presenting the gospel is boring or fails to grab their attention.

Part of me knows I can’t reach everyone, not even everyone who makes the effort to show up Sunday morning. But as long as they make that much effort (or someone else makes that much effort to haul them in), I’m going to do what I can to connect with them. They – and the gospel of Jesus – are too important to do otherwise.

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Defining Features of Liberalism?

colt_ar-15_rifle_21438In the context of an apology for the lowly AR-15, Edmund Kozak begins with a list of “three defining features of modern liberalism.” These are, “an intense aversion to the Constitution, a denial of objective truth, and a penchant for intentionally abusing the English language with an aim to mislead the public.”

Now, I’m one of those odd people (apparently) who is neither a liberal nor an apologist for the AR-15 or our current gun culture, so you may consider my comments here not to be worth your time. I don’t want to address the apology here; rather, I want to look at his uncharitable characterization of “modern liberalism.”

The first thing I notice is that this is a pejorative view of modern liberalism. Kozak aims to cast modern liberals in a negative light for his audience. He would have the reader assume that he and his ilk take diametrically opposed positions. Where liberals have an “aversion” to the Constitution, he loves the constitution and adheres to it strictly. Where liberals deny objective truth, he claims and defends objective truth. And where liberals “intentionally abuse” language in order to mislead people, he uses language properly in order to rightly guide his audience.

I have no doubt that Kozak believes these things about himself. I also have no doubt that at least most liberals would not accept his characterization of their beliefs and practices. Most people I know who consider themselves liberals claim to honor the Constitution (though some say it needs to be scrapped, since only wealthy white males created it). I believe they are honest in these claims: they are not lying when they say they honor the Constitution. What they do however, is interpret it differently from how Kozak interprets it. If liberals have an “intense aversion” to the Constitution, it is not the Constitution itself to which they have an aversion but to Kozak’s construal of the Constitution.

The pejorative approach continues with Kozak’s other two features. In terms of the history of philosophy, most modern liberals claimed that “objective truth” was on their side. It’s more accurate to say that at least some postmodern (liberals?) deny the existence of “objective truth.” Or, better, they deny the usefulness of the term “objective truth.” Again, the root of Kozak’s claim about modern liberals is a difference of opinion.

As to “misleading the public,” liberals would (and do) claim that people like Kozak are the ones deceiving the public, not only on the issue of guns, but on a multitude of other issues. Inasmuch as this and other opinion pieces (coming from all points on the ideological spectrum) are pieces of rhetoric rather than cool and detached analyses, we would expect writers, whether Kozak or “modern liberals,” to try to influence the public. If one thinks one has THE TRUTH on one’s side, and the other side is saying something else, then it is only natural to describe one’s opponents as deceptive. “Here’s the truth, we know it, they know it, yet look what they say!” As Socrates notes of his opposition at the beginning of Plato’s Apology, it is possible to utter many persuasive words, with nary a bit of truth mingled in.

Our objective in communication ought to be subservience to the truth. Kozak may well present some truth about the AR-15 in particular and guns in general; not being a gun person, I can’t say. I can say, however, that his characterization of modern liberals reads like pure attack mode, and not subservience to the truth.

More briefly, a second observation is that Kozak is aiming at a particular audience – and that audience likely already believes most of what he believes. His pejorative description of modern liberals is a way of saying, “Your team stinks!” Since his purpose is to rally his own troops, accuracy in describing his opponents is set aside.

If I were pushed to characterize modern liberals, what features would I point to? I’d start with a commitment to individualism. Now this might sound like an odd place to begin, since modern conservatives are also committed to individualism. How can it be that these polar opposite ideological positions agree on something so basic? It’s precisely because they share so much that the arguments are so bitter. While both begin with individualism, they approach it differently and end up with different flavors of individualism.

Secondly, modern liberals tend to believe that human institutions are merely that – human institutions. As human things, they are infinitely malleable. There is no such thing as marriage, for example, but only marriage as done in particular times and particular cultures. Because of this, one cannot speak of “ruining” or “perverting” the institution of marriage. Marriage changes as culture changes, as individual humans decide to do marriage differently. There is no reason to look to the past, to religion, to a god, or to tradition to figure out what marriage is. Part of the genius of the American tradition is our revolutionary attitude toward institutions. If they work, great! – we’ll keep them until they don’t work. If they are not working, or are oppressive, or are keeping individuals from the fullest expression of their deepest selves, then it’s time to change them or cast them aside.

Thirdly, and in line with the first two, modern liberals have an optimistic view of humans (well, at least of people like them, and those who think they’re the majority will happily extend this optimism to most). We see this in the gradual shift from “liberal” to “progressive.” Because humans are basically good, rational, and moral, there is progress. Where postmoderns (following Lyotard) would reject the progressive metanarrative, modern liberals tell the story of history as one of progress toward what they think is good. Doubtless that progress is neither continuous nor smooth, but we can see it if we look at history objectively.

Fourthly, and I’ll stop my analysis here, modern liberals tend to reject the observation that they are part of a tradition. Rather, they are simply intelligent, good-hearted people, thinking for themselves. They are not like “conservatives” (or whatever they call the other team) who try to enforce their bigoted and outdated reading of the Constitution on others, who deny the objective findings of science, and seek to mislead the public by their references to God, America, and Safety. Perhaps you can tell that I’m not contending with both these positions here. What we know as conservatism today is not just a position that says “Change is bad, maintain the status quo!,” liberalism today is not a position that says, “Change is good, let’s change everything!” Instead, both are instances of traditions of inquiry and action. Both embody both continuity (they remain this tradition, and not some other) and change (they adapt to changing environments, situations, and challenges). Insofar as they deny that they or their opponents are a tradition, they are likely to misunderstand themselves and the Other.

But, of course, if all one wants to do is puff out one’s chest, display one’s plumage, and insult the other team, then, well, who cares about some misunderstanding along the way?

 

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Sustaining Institutions over Time & Collective Identity

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor recently wrote on “Political Identity and the Problem of Democratic Exclusion” for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Opinion page. He dsc_0100argues for the need for greater cohesion and unity among “the people” than is commonly found in our age:

“A modern democratic state demands a ‘people’ with a strong collective identity. Democracy obliges us to show much more solidarity and much more commitment to one another in our joint political project than was demanded by the hierarchical and authoritarian societies of yesteryears.”

When he says that “a modern democratic state demands,” he doesn’t have politically expressed demands in view. We’re modern, we’re individualists: we resist the power of the state to the degree that it comes between us and what we want. We value standing against the status quo and against all powers that would mold us, change us, or impinge on our personal freedom. So no, he is not claiming that the people are clamoring for this solidarity and commitment. As far as our expressed opinions go, we want exactly the opposite: more freedom.

The force of demand in this case is one of logical entailment. If we want to sustain a state that will maintain its integrity and accomplish what we want from a state, such a state will logically require this kind of a people.

Taylor is considering the role of the state; I want to think of this in terms of the church. Both  the traditional state and the traditional church were hierarchical and authoritarian. “Ordinary” people didn’t have much say in matters. There’s was not to reason why, but to simply get along the best they could given the constraints of the current authorities imposed on them. The advent of and increase in democracy means that all people, at least potentially, have a say in governance and institutional direction. In the past, if ordinary members of the body had views, those views were largely irrelevant. Now they matter.

I believe this is true not only for the state in which we live (the United States of America), but also for the United Methodist Church. Though we still complain from time to time about our hierarchies and exercises of episcopal power, the institution has become less hierarchical over time. The power of bishops has eroded. First the clergy, then the laity, came to own the church, to view it as an institution about which they had a say. Maintaining unity in the face of modern individualism and its leveling tendencies is proving very difficult. In Taylor’s analysis, state unity is harder so come by as collective identity is lost. Church unity, under the same cultural conditions, is equally hard to come by.

One way to handle this decline in collective identity has been the turn to normative doctrinal pluralism. This position, enacted in the 1972 Doctrinal Statement, shaped our collective identity around a loosely articulated method of talking about doctrine. We shared some “signposts,” some historical characters and documents to which we could point as being relevant once upon a time. We had the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” that suggested four points of departure one might take in producing one’s theology. Though the church turned from normative doctrinal pluralism with the 1988 Doctrinal Statement, it has remained the de facto position for many in the denomination.

Our age of highly (and variously!) educated clergy and lay leaders demands an ethos of encouraging all to “think for themselves.” Some still imagine limits on this thinking. It might be the 4th century creeds, the Reformation positions of the 16th century, or the Wesleyan documents of the 18th century that provide the limits on our “thinking for ourselves.” As good modern Americans, however, we chafe against these or any limits. We are educated and intelligent. We read the Bible for ourselves. We pray and develop ourselves spiritually. We are unwilling to listen pronouncements of the bishops (unless they agree with us), and the bishops know this. They avoid pronouncements and appoint (at some point) study commissions.

Collective identity, “Unity” as we enshrine in our institutional name, is hard to come by in our age. We have a love-hate relationship with it. We want it when it results in the enactment of The Right Thing; we don’t want it if it means submission to something we think The Wrong Thing. Yes, there’s that ugly word we thought we’d banished from American discourse – submission. I know the United Methodist Church doesn’t currently have it. I don’t know that we even want it.

What do you think?

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Means and Ends

ends-means-just-e1370964311614Ends are purposes or goals toward which we aim. Means the the methods and devises we use to achieve or realize those ends.

In current political discourse we are endlessly focused on means even when we use the language of ends. If someone or some group claims a different set of means than we do, we assume that they must be seeking different ends. We know that our ends are good, just, and loving; since their ends differ, they must be the opposite of good, just, and loving.

But what if our ends mostly overlap? What if multiple parties seek very similar ends through very different means? Do we have the ability to discern that is happening? Do we have the patience and will to check things out? Or do we just jump to the quick and easy judgment that the Other Team is stupid and evil, while we laud our own virtue?

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Feeling Close to God

retable_de_l27agneau_mystique_28729“If you don’t feel as close to God as you used to, guess who moved?”

When preachers ask this question, the answer is obvious. After all, we continually preach the love of God. God is persistent. God never gives up. God pursues us all the way, no matter what.

But we humans are fickle. One day we might boisterously shout our love for God and the very next live like an atheist. More commonly, there might be a time in our lives when we are fully engaged in spiritual disciplines, integrated into the life of the church, witnessing for Jesus with humility; life changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes hitting us upside the head with a two by four. We tire of life with God. We kick back. We take it easy.

So when we’re faced with the question, “Who moved?” God’s faithful, we’re fickle. Surely we’re the ones who did the moving.

Sometimes that’s the way it works. But consider Jesus.

It’s hard to imagine someone in the Bible closer to God than Jesus. A man of deep prayer, he constantly spent time alone with God. He did this not only before his big ministry events, but even in the middle of success with the crowds. The New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition goes so far as to call Jesus the Son of God – God incarnate – come to live among us.

This very Jesus, however, reached a point where he said – no, “said” is too weak – where he cried out – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That sounds like someone who doesn’t feel very close to God. So who moved?

Did Jesus move? Did he withdraw from his Father? Did he stop reading his Bible? Did he stop praying as much? Did he skip church to play golf , go fishing, or sleep in?

Or was it the Father that moved? Many want to say this. Jesus became sin for us, and God, being too holy to tolerate the presence of sin, turned his back on Jesus. The Father moved away from the Son.

We’re forgetting an important word in the original question, however. Feel. It’s possible to feel farther from God without being farther from God. We need our feelings to be human, but sometimes we can’t rely on them.

Consider the Jesus who felt God-forsaken? Was he feeling the truth of the situation? Had God turned his back on him because he’d taken on our sin?

We could work our way through the Old Testament, Psalm 22 in particular, but I’ll do that another time. Just consider this work of Jesus. When we read the gospels we don’t see this “taking on human sin” as a new thing, something Jesus just starts doing on the cross. No, we see it at the very beginning of his ministry when he’s baptized.

Jesus comes to John to be baptized. John’s confused. He knows enough about Jesus to know Jesus doesn’t need the baptism of repentance he had on offer. Sinners are the ones who need to repent. Jesus isn’t a sinner, so doesn’t need to repent, and doesn’t need baptism.

But Jesus insists. We need to do this to “fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus says. So John relents and baptizes Jesus. In this act we see Jesus casting his lot with sinners, or, in other words, taking their sin upon himself.

And how does God the Father respond? Lightening bolts to destroy his now sinful son? Curses on him for moving away? Maybe a silent turning his back on this now baptized man? Well, no, none of that. Seeing Jesus take the sin of the world upon himself, the Father says, “This is my beloved son.”

If the Father says this when Jesus ritually begins taking on the sin of the world, how much more when it climaxes on the cross?

Ok, so maybe Jesus didn’t turn away from God, and maybe God didn’t turn away from Jesus. So what happened? Why does Jesus feel so distant from God?

Life is tough in this sinful world. Taking sin – and its consequences – upon himself was not a mere bit of Kabuki theological accounting. It was downright hellish. His suffering was real, not pretended.

So what about us? How do we explain our feeling like God is farther away?

In line with the popular answer, maybe we have moved. Maybe we have forsaken the life of discipleship. Maybe we’ve become mere spiritual slackers or consumers. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just the fact that life is hard. Maybe it’s that we live in a sinful, broken, hurting (and hurtful) world. The reality could be that God is as close – or closer! – than ever, and our feeling, our perception is off.

What can we do? Best I can think of is to stay close to Jesus, to walk with him even through the valley of the shadow of death. Hold on to his promises, and expect him to see you through.

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