Friday, May 20, 2011


You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.” (Matthew 15.6-9)

Slipping Away

It took 30 years, five productions and several viewings of Norman Jewison’s superb film for me to warm to Fiddler on the Roof. Why the show held the top spot in Broadway’s Greatest Hits list for more than a decade was never a mystery. It’s a smashing piece of theater with enough heart and soul for a dozen musicals. As everyone knows, the songs are splendid—not a dud in the whole lot. Its greatest strength, however, is tough-mindedness. The poor Jewish milkman, Tevye, his wife and five daughters, and the rest of their tiny Russian village are very aware their way of life is slipping away. Peasants are deserting their farms for big-city factories. Urban diversity is dissolving ethnic ties, while young people flock to universities, where they learn to question time-honored values and customs. Political unrest hangs in the air. Soon the masses will seize power, hurling the entire nation into chaos. Although Fiddler has more laughs than most musicals scramble up, nearly every one catches in the throat. Laughing in disaster’s face can only be so funny for so long. Then it starts to hurt.

I got all of this when I first saw the show as a 12-year-old kid straining with all his might to be a “sophisticated” theatergoer. Looking back, laughing at disaster was the decisive criterion I used to measure a musical’s greatness—a reasonable position for an adolescent sensing a huge, potentially disastrous life-change around the corner. With hard-edged hits like Gypsy, Cabaret, Funny Girl, and A Chorus Line sending me into swoons, Fiddler on the Roof should have as well.

Why did Fiddler leave me cold? I couldn’t figure it out—until writing an essay on movie musicals a few years ago. Fiddler hews to the formula without fitting the mold. It’s not about defiant non-conformity. It’s about mourning loss of certainty as everything you’re told to believe swiftly fades into the past. The show’s opening number, “Tradition,” tells us all about the characters’ lives and expectations. When the final curtain falls, none of it remains. A young person can’t relate to such sorrow. One must rack up a few miles and experience a few losses to feel the full blow of watching tradition slip away. It’s a terrible, painful thing to face, which is why so many would rather cling to obsolete traditions than let them go.

Outlasting Significance

Suppose we think about tradition for a moment—not specific customs, beliefs, and rituals, but tradition itself. It’s an odd, intriguing thing. Rarely does tradition burst to life unassisted. We call suddenly popular practices “trends” or “crazes” to indicate they’ll be short-lived, which most are. Tradition is typically introduced in adjunct with something greater: a principle, milestone, celebration, or imperative. Its initial purpose revolves around promoting the significance and continuity of whatever it’s meant to uphold. Yet over time, tradition tends to supplant what it was created to signify because social and scientific progress moves the culture away from its original reason for being. “God bless you” is a great example. It became the traditional response to sneezing as the result of medieval superstition that the millisecond a sneeze preoccupied our senses was all the time the devil needed to sneak into our bodies. “God bless you,” then, started as a counterstrike to diabolical possession. We stopped believing that when we discovered why we sneeze. But we never stopped blessing sneezers.

By and large, preserving hangover traditions that enhance our comfort and sense of continuity is a benign habit. In arenas of faith, however, misconceived or outmoded tradition can easily become the enemy of faith by creating confusion that fosters discord among believers. Isolating beneficial faith traditions from insignificant ones can be difficult, as transmission of faith from person to person and generation to generation most often occurs via tradition. Because faith—like love, truth, and patriotism—is abstract, a veritable garden of traditional symbols, rites, vocabulary, and (yes) superstitions crop up around its towering principles.

Enduring Christian traditions, such as baptism, Communion, and Lent remain sacrosanct due to their timeless significance; they’re immune to culture shifts and social progress. Yet there are also traditions many adamantly maintain that lost their value long ago. They now alienate believers and, in some cases, actually subvert Biblical principles speaking to issues we currently confront. Perhaps the most prominent examples exist in traditions that base ministerial rights on gender, marital status, and orientation. While scriptures can be found to justify some (though not all) of these criteria, opposing scriptures nullify such practices in principle. Thus, they’re doctrinally unsound. Furthermore, their legitimacy has always been dubious, as they were instituted as policies to safeguard church coffers from estate suits by spouses and children of deceased pastors. Given the shortage of dedicated ministers, abuses of power by men with no familial duties, huge advances in social equality, and the advent of the insurance industry, these traditions make no sense. They’re detrimentally unsound and obsolete. Yet they persist, rigidly upheld on the rickets of selective application of Scripture. And many, like Tevye and the other Fiddler characters, cling to them for no better reason than fear of letting go. In Matthew 15, Jesus confronts a group of tradition-bound Pharisees and boldly (some might even say angrily) challenges their customs’ significance—not that they were ever significant to begin with.

Dirty Hands

The unpleasant little dust-up starts with the disciples’ dirty hands. For centuries, Jews have practiced an elaborate washing-up ritual at mealtimes, presumably as an act of worship. No reliable Scripture supports their custom—certainly no bona fide law or commandment—yet over time the tradition has become regarded as law. At best, it’s an extrapolation of Temple protocol ordained in Exodus 30.17-21, which commands Aaron and his sons (the priestly caste) to wash their hands and feet before preparing food offerings. One might think of it as a lovely tradition that preserves worship in the home between high holy days—a nice-to-have, but certainly no legal obligation. Due to their makeshift existence, the disciples have no home. As such, the custom holds no significance for them. When some Pharisees and legalists learn the disciples often eat with dirty hands, they make a special trip from Jerusalem to accuse Jesus of irresponsibly allowing His followers to “break the tradition of the elders.” (Matthew 15.2) By the time He’s finished with them, they probably wish they’d stayed at home and minded their business.

Jesus gives them less credit than we have here. He doesn’t bother pointing out the exaggerated use of irrelevant Scripture that gave rise to the practice. Instead, He indicts their legalistic proclivity by refuting another tradition that has no scriptural basis whatsoever. He replies, “Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (v3-6)

Here’s what Jesus is talking about. In ancient Judaism, family wealth is held in common for all members of the extended family. What belongs to the father belongs to the son and vice versa. This is a divinely ordained practice per the laws Jesus cites (Exodus 20.12 and Deuteronomy 5.16, respectively), also evidenced in repeated commands to care for widows and orphans. Over time, however, some legal eagle devised a loophole that became instantly popular. If a son formally pledges his entire wealth will be given to the Temple at his death, he can refuse requests for assistance on the grounds all of his money is “devoted to God.” Designating his wealth as a “personal vow” (2 Kings 12.4) shields him from legal obligation to care about his family's financial security. And it's a major contributor to the widespread neglect of widowed mothers and abandoned orphans. (Essentially, it's a cleverly conceived version of current tax shelters that encourage people to hide their money rather than reduce their tax liability by writing off family dependents and charitable contributions.)

Jesus negates the nosy Pharisees’ challenge by questioning the validity of tradition in general. He says they're all worthy of reevaluation to test their legitimacy vis-à-vis principles of faith, not just legal acceptability or literal conformity to Scripture. Jesus sets the standard for tradition far above chapter-and-verse citation or customary beliefs and practices handed down over time. “You hypocrites!” He hisses. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’” (v7-9; Isaiah 29.13) Jesus shows us it’s entirely possible to construct far-fetched scriptural rationales for attitudes and behaviors that directly oppose the principles of God’s Word. In the end, if our words, worship, and teaching contradict eternal truth consistently found in The Bible, we’re clinging to detrimental traditions at our peril. We’re hypocrites. We honor God with our lips, but our hearts are far from God. Dirty hands are one thing; distant hearts is another.

This Process

With regret for this post’s length, I believe it’s essential we prepare our hearts and minds for upcoming discussions that will deconstruct the “clobber texts” many use to condemn LGBT and other unorthodox believers. (We’ll begin in earnest next week, after a second prefatory post to ensure we’re approaching the texts from a balanced perspective.) What we see in Matthew 15 is an example of culture wars that often arise within the halls of faith. Adoption of traditions that transmit faith’s principles opens the door for other traditions that either blatantly contradict faith’s truths or outlast their usefulness. Without question, those who wage cultural wars of exclusion and condemnation within the Church fit the Pharisees’ profile. They go out of their way to attack anyone who doesn’t conform to customs and selectively upheld beliefs. Yet we must also recognize the majority of those who question our faith don’t fit the profile. They don’t come looking for fights. Nor are they adequately equipped to respond to many of the points we’ll raise against erroneous or obsolete teaching they’ve received. Despite the virulence of their words, they mean no harm. And even when they do, it’s our duty in obedience to Christ’s commands to do no harm. (We’ll cover that in the next post.)

As the Holy Spirit steers the Church back to the lavish inclusion, equality, and compassion that set it apart from every human institution—in keeping with God’s stated will and purpose—many who cherish baseless, outmoded traditions face the same kinds of sorrows we see in Fiddler on the Roof. Life as they know it is slipping away. They’re aware of that. Yet they’re uncertain what it means. What we hail as progress feels like loss to them. We hear notes of grief in their hostility, shrieks of panic in their insistence. They must go through this process for themselves, trusting God’s grace to bring them through. Our responsibility is threefold. First, we must uphold them in prayer and love. Second, we must remain steadfast in our humility and faithfulness, serving as worthy examples of acceptance and tolerance. Third, we must never yield our commitment to be obedient to God’s Word, His Spirit’s guidance, and Christ’s commands. Faith isn’t a matter of being right or wrong. It’s our means of being reconciled to God.

Blessing a sneezer is a prime example of tradition that outlasts its usefulness. Yet tradition is nothing to sneeze at. As the Spirit guides people of faith through change, we recognize the fears that accompany letting go of baseless, outmoded traditions.

Postscript: Fiddler’s “Tradition”

Fiddler on the Roof’s fabulous opening is something of a set-up. It invites us to relish the “balance” its villagers enjoy because of long-held tradition and then yanks the rug from beneath us by showing how clinging to tradition often causes us to lose our balance. The world turns. Times change. Progress pulls us along. Traditions outlast their usefulness and slip away. (From the 1971 Norman Jewison film version.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Good Book and Bad Intentions

Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” (Matthew 22.29)

Monkeying with God’s Word

Oh, how we love to argue Biblical truth by inflicting personal opinions and preferences on what God wants us to hear! Whoever first observed it’s possible for anyone to support anything with Scripture was a genius. The disjointed, non-collaborative process by which it came to be, centuries involved in its writing and assembly, unparalleled range of topics and information it contains, and—most of all—the profound mysteries thrumming through its lines and around its edges make The Bible a handy, all-purpose tool to excuse or defend whatever suits our fancies. Because we (supposedly) believe the Bible is God’s Word, one would think we’d approach it reverently and apply it cautiously, even fearfully, as its authority exclusively rests on belief in God’s infinite wisdom, power, and supremacy. Otherwise, if we suspect God is anything less or something other than GOD, what God says to us through Scripture holds little to no consequence for us.

Taking God out of God’s Word reduces The Bible to an encyclopedia of ancient history, poetry, and proverbs—surely the greatest volume of human insights ever compiled, yet human nonetheless. Were this so, we could shelve The Bible beside The Sayings of Confucius, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Bartlett’s Quotations, and other ready-made resources of mortal wit. We could pick and choose from it as we please, as though its pages stored a treasure of quips for every occasion and rationale for any earthly idea, from noblest to basest—if The Bible were a hodgepodge of philosophical tidbits, fables, and trivia. But that’s precisely what The Bible is not. Despite the extraordinary factors affecting its gradual creation and eventual shape, God’s pervasively consistent voice is the Binding Force that unifies and balances Scripture as all of a piece. It’s one Book comprised of 66 books penned by different people addressing many issues in wildly different times and places, all witnessing the miracle of divine inspiration by advancing one theme with one focus: restoring humanity’s hope by reconciling its relationship with God. From cover-to-cover, the message remains the same. To do what pleases our Maker, we must undo everything that displeases God and inevitably precipitates our own undoing.

Thus, The Bible isn’t amenable to selective reading, nor its contents available for selective use. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3.16-17 (emphasis added). Usage that detracts from The Bible’s overarching theme and/or undermines its overriding objective serves no godly purpose. It’s an illegitimate product of those who ignorantly mate The Good Book and Bad Intentions. Since they’re monkeying with God’s Word, the grave danger they invite should make Scriptural abuses very rare. Yet it happens all the time.

Silly Riddles

Flagrantly manipulating Scripture to manipulate hearts and minds—along with its flipside, exploiting Sacred Writ for material gain—constitutes unrivalled audacity. Therefore, we aren’t shocked that those bold enough to attempt it are equally fearless in their determination to succeed. Nor are we surprised that they target people who are scripturally gullible and susceptible to imbalanced doctrine and baseless dogma. Naïve, non-inquisitive recruits make the bravest of soldiers once they’re convinced they’re defending the “truth.” We observe this dynamic in Matthew 22.

A company of intrepid Sadducees engages Jesus in a battle of words on their pet topic, resurrection. Belief in life after death is where they part ways with the Pharisees, who teach resurrection, while the Sadducees refute it. Given the Pharisees’ overwhelming majority, Jesus’s mastery of their doctrine’s finer points, and His own comfort with preaching resurrection—for obvious reasons—most scholars presume He identifies as a Pharisee. (Nothing like our popular I’m-spiritual-but-not-religious default position exists in first-century Palestine. There are no non-denominational synagogues or ecumenical groups, either. Every Jew publicly embraces a theological tradition and sticks with it.) So the Sadducees confront Jesus not as God’s Son, but as a Rabbi from the opposition. And their challenge is no off-the-cuff premise. It’s one of those silly riddles Bible abusers cook up to corner opponents—the Sadducee equivalent of “If God meant people to be gay, why did God create Adam and Eve instead of Adam and Steve?”

Here’s what the Sadducees propose: A woman marries a man with six brothers. When he dies, in keeping with Mosaic Law, she marries one of his brothers. When that husband dies, she marries another brother. On it goes until all seven brothers are dead and then she dies. How does this scenario get resolved in the afterlife? Whose wife will she be? Jesus refuses to dignify the riddle by attacking its naked intention and outlandish scenario. Instead, He cuts right to the chase. The Sadducees have selectively pounced on one scripture (Deuteronomy 25.5) and cleverly manipulated it to pose an argument they think sufficiently disproves Pharisaical belief in the afterlife, when their riddle proves how oblivious they are to Scripture’s overarching message. “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God,” Jesus replies. “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.” (Matthew 22.29-32) Harping on one verse to condemn those who worship the same God, yet hold differing beliefs, misses the point. Wakefully doing God’s will in this life far outweighs dreaming up scenarios of what God will do in the life to come.

Fellowship and Right Relationship

Paul’s instruction to Timothy about proper use of Scripture is wisdom we all should take to heart. “Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.” (2 Timothy 2.14-17) The Bible isn’t an armory; it’s God’s Word. We don’t rifle through its pages in search of weapons to deploy in defense of personal opinions and preferred dogma. It’s the height of audacity to imagine we can pull one scripture over here, another over there, and weld them into a club with which to clobber fellow-believers who hold differing views.

In Psalm 119.130, David exclaims, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” God’s Word gives light. Through it, the Holy Spirit speaks promises of hope and reconciliation that open our eyes and illuminate our lives. That’s Scripture’s purpose in a nutshell. While we’ll never grasp how this happens, why it happens is so basic anyone can understand it. In 2 Corinthians 6.14, we’re asked, “What do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” And 1 John 1.7 gives us the answer: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” The light of God’s Word is given to bring us together in fellowship and right relationship with God. Misusing The Good Book with Bad Intentions divides us and blinds us to God’s power. Those who manipulate and exploit Scripture for such purposes merit our pity and forgiveness. By no means do they deserve our attention or respect.

The Bible is not a weapon we deploy in defense of personal opinions and preferred dogma. It’s a light that draws us together and reconciles us to God.

Postscript: “Clobber Texts”

In tandem with a two-part study my pastor is conducting on “clobber texts”—i.e., scriptures taken out of context and erroneously used to condemn other believers (especially gay ones)—we’ll spend the next few posts examining them. I pray everyone who’s been frustrated, intimidated, or outraged by this practice will benefit from what we discuss in order to dismiss “clobber” manipulation and irrelevance out-of-hand.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

We're Everywhere

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. (1 Peter 5.7-9)


As every preacher and churchgoer knows, gloomy topics rarely play well in the pulpit. That’s why looking at Sunday’s readings makes me glad I’m not one of thousands of ministers tasked with synthesizing them. Other than the psalms—which exuberantly extol God’s majesty and love—the texts have a decidedly unsettling undertow. The Old Testament reading, Genesis 18.22-23, gives us Abraham bargaining with God to spare Sodom, his nephew Lot’s recently chosen abode, if a quota of just people can be found there. Abraham starts at 50 and works down to 10; while his concern and courage are touching, knowing the final outcome lends a discordant note of futility to the story.

The Gospel revisits The Sermon on the Mount’s conclusion (Matthew 7.15-29), where Jesus warns us to beware of false prophets—calling them wolves in sheep’s clothing—and promises those who abuse God’s name to advance evil agendas will meet with doom. He compares them to a foolish man who builds a house on sand, ignoring the inevitable day when hostile weather destroys his wobbly structure. Instead, Jesus says, we should emulate the wise builder, whose house survives tumult because it stands on solid rock. Lastly, the New Testament reading (1 Peter 5.1-11) picks up the theme of integrity, counseling us to “clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for God opposes the proud.” (v5) In this way, Peter says, we will withstand temptation and suffering that threaten our faith. All in all, the texts offer scant room for feel-good sermonizing.

Uncommon People

With the readings heavily leaning toward the dark side, one has to feel for the preachers challenged to present them in an uplifting light. While I have every confidence the best will, my mind flashed on the sad picture Lennon and McCartney paint in “Eleanor Rigby”: Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. Naturally, that triggered the refrain:

All the lonely people

Where do they all come from?

All the lonely people

Where do they all belong?

The lament somehow brings new resonance, relevance, and unity to the texts. The people they involve—Abraham, Jesus’s listeners, and Peter’s readers—stand apart from a culture given over to violence, hypocrisy, and pride. In many ways, they lead solitary existences born of swimming against tides of reckless power and callous indifference. Yet I would argue faith makes them uncommon, rather than lonely. It’s not a matter of where they come from: they’re there because they’ve always been there. Nor is it a question of where they belong: they belong where they are because that’s where they’re needed. In a world teetering on self-destruction, their compassion, strength, and humility become control rods that reduce the likelihood of total meltdown. The courage of their conviction is wedded to the integrity of their belief that seeking justice and serving others will defeat socio-religious waywardness. Truly, they are uncommon people. And so are we who believe and behave like them.

Common Misgivings

Being uncommon doesn’t mean we’re wrong. It means we’re different. And being different—authentically different in ways that radically alter how we think, act, and speak—subjects us to complications that come with uncommon commitment to a higher calling. When loving God and our neighbors without restraint becomes our raison d’être, we take on concerns few care about. Heightened awareness to human frailty sharpens our ability to detect poisonous traits concealed in popular trends. Summoning the courage and integrity to speak truth to power with sincere humility isolates us from the apathetic silent majority, as well as belligerent, noisy malcontents. If Jesus’s example teaches us anything, it proves an uncommon life founded on love, faith, truth, and justice exacts great sacrifices, incurs much anxiety, and frequently experiences lonely, troubled times. As followers of Christ, we should anticipate these costs of discipleship. Yet, unlike Jesus—Who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1.14)—mortal logic exposes us to temptations and sufferings that convince us we’re alone in the struggle to do as Christ commands.

Peter closes his first letter by addressing common misgivings of an uncommon life. “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you,” he writes. “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” (1 Peter 5.7-9) We consciously release all of our doubts, fears, and worries to Christ’s care—our pessimism about the world, fear of failure and rejection, worries about past, current, and future problems—all of it—because nothing can shake our confidence in Christ’s love. We keenly guard our thoughts and emotions against opposition enticing us to question our faith, whether it intimidates us with lion’s roars or camouflages predatory motives in sheep’s clothing. Then we counter feelings of isolation by remembering many like us confront comparable adversaries. “You know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering,” Peter says.

We’re everywhere. LGBT believers whose families and faith communities condemn and turn against them are everywhere. Women barred from realizing their full potential in ministry and society are everywhere. Christians fighting addictions and unhealthy compulsions are everywhere, as are those shackled by traumatic pasts and abusive relationships. We have brothers and sisters all over the world—some known, most not—undergoing the same kinds of suffering we face for the same reason. Daring to be different carries heavy costs. Yet the heaviest costs of being true to Christ wither in comparison to its rewards.

All the uncommon people, where do we all come from? Where do we all belong? We come from everywhere and belong everywhere because we are everywhere.

We answer times of lonely struggle by remembering brothers and sisters all over the world endure similar tests due to their uncommon commitment.

Postscript: “I Need You to Survive”

At first I hesitated to attach this gut-wrenching treatment of Hezekiah Walker’s powerful plea for Christian solidarity. Yet, as uncommon people, we are called to a common struggle against mindless tragedy and callous indifference. Knowing we’re everywhere and drawing on shared strength, we can defeat evil that plagues our world. “I Need You to Survive.”