Friday, May 19, 2017

Youth Questions II - 2017

In this series of blogs, I have been addressing some of the "left over" questions from St. Paul's Post-Easter "Ask the Pastors" service. In this edition, we'll look at a couple more of the questions asked by some of our youth at our mid-week "Club" service.

Did Jesus have a middle name?

From what I've read about he customs of the time, probably not. Middle names in our culture are often used to honor a "family" name or allow some legal and social differentiation between persons, especially if your name is John Smith or Sally Jones. We rarely use our middle name, other than our middle initial, unless your Mom or Dad used it on you when you were a kid: "John Evans Smith you are in real trouble!" In Jesus' day, such differentiation was usually created by saying where a person was from, such as "Jesus of Nazareth," or by connecting them to their father, such as "Jesus bar Joseph," meaning "Jesus, son of Joseph" (ignoring, for the purpose of illustration, that one of our Christian beliefs is that Jesus' "real" father was God!). Because it was a highly patriarchal society at the time, rarely would there be any reference to the mother. My middle name, for instance, is MY mother's maiden name--Dahle (pronounced "Dale"). That would not have happened in Jesus' day. And, of course, I am assuming that everyone realizes that "Christ" was not Jesus' last name. He claimed to be "Jesus THE Christ," or the Messiah of God, which is what Christ means.

Are the stories in the Bible real or are they just there to teach us something?

The Bible has many types of literature in it: history, wisdom writings, prophecy, letters, saga, gospels, and apocalyptic writings. Obviously, the history in the Bible is as accurate as the people who wrote it could make it, although since the Bible is not primarily a history text, even some of the history may be written through the eyes, experiences, and beliefs of those who wrote it. There are many stories in the Bible that teach us great and universal truths, such as Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job, or the parables of Jesus. These don't have to be TRUE (accurate renderings of historical events) to be true in the sense of the truth they impart. Even some of what we label history in the Bible--such as the two stories of creation, Noah and the Ark, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah--are much more about theology than they are about chronology or history. Genesis, for example is not a science book. The stories of creation are not there to tell us how God created the world, but rather that God did create, and maybe to get at some of the theological theories as to why God created. People have always wondered about this stuff, and it makes sense that they would write about it. Trying to turn Genesis into a science book describing how God created the heavens and the earth is a fairly recent phenomenon, brought about mostly in opposition to fear of the scientific age. Clearly, the parables in the Bible are teaching tools, and it matters not whether they ever actually happened, for their truths are universal and compelling. One great parable in the Old Testament is the story of Job. This timeless story imparts many truths, has provoked questions down through the ages, and has been "retold" in thousands of secular stagings. Was there a real Job? Doesn't matter, any more than realizing that there was no "real" Obi Wan Kenobi spoils enjoying Star Wars. In fact, Star Wars meets the definition of saga--a story of the journey of a group of people, their struggle of good against evil, adversity against prosperity, war versus peace, etc. The Bible has lots of these sagas!

AND, here is one of our "left over" questions from an adult in our congregation:

What does "diversity" in our vision statement mean?

[Note: St. Paul's Vision: We will be an inclusive, diverse church, loving others according to the teachings of Jesus and working for peace and justice in our world.]

The word diversity literally means "a range of things." When talking about populations of persons, we often hear the word paired with a modifier such as racial diversity. At our most recent "Friendship Dinner" (inter-religious issues gatherings for the purpose of relationship building across racial, ethnic, religious, and organizational groups, along with discussion of common social issues), considerable time was spent at my table of eight persons talking about what all the word diversity might mean. It was observed that our "Friendship Dinner" crowd of 80 people demonstrated diversity--religious, racial, ethnic, interests, age, and gender.

In our church's vision statement, I would say that, while diversity could mean all of those things, when paired with inclusive, it probably carries a little stronger emphasis on racial ethnic diversity. I acknowledge it can mean all of what was discussed above, and at St. Paul's, it certainly does. However, in formulating our vision, I believe there was an intentional effort made, with the choice of the word diverse to cast forth the desire that our church would do what it could to become a little "less white." As a church founded in a primarily white suburb 50 years ago, we have not strayed much from these origins, while the North Hills is slowly (and yes, it I mean slowly) becoming home to more persons of color, including African American, Latino, Asian, Indian, and other nationality groups. Our vision is designed to "tug" us in the direction of making connections with these persons in our "neighborhood," providing the necessary hospitality when such persons visit us, either for worship or one of our other ministries or services, and hearing each person's story.

While St. Paul's is blessed to be well on the way to being a fully inclusive church, we are missing out on the blessings of the rich gifts, experience, and perspective that greater racial ethnic diversity could bring.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Questions 2017 - From our Youth...

Did Jesus ever make mistakes? Ever? Even One?

Great question. Of course, we don't know everything about Jesus' life, only what the Bible tells us, but I think it is safe to assume he made mistakes. Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus "emptied himself" of the privileges of being God to come among humans. Jesus was a for-real human, although our Christian beliefs are that he also had the attributes of God as well. Part of being human is you make mistakes.

Some would say that Jesus made a mistake or two in picking his original twelve disciples. They were a bunch. He was always having to correct them, especially Peter, who was impetuous--leaping before looking, so to speak. He gets angry at the Pharisees and other religious leaders, at the vendors in the temple, and at a barren fig tree. Usually, when I get angry, it's a mistake.

The Bible never says Jesus didn't make mistakes. It says he was "without sin." Mistakes aren't necessarily sins. A sin is something willfully committed, or sometimes a willful refraining from doing something you know you should do. The word willful is important here. And, from my understanding, sins are things which are called sins by the scriptures either because doing them (or not doing them) may cause harm to the "sinner" or to others, and/or has the power to harm the wider community, in some way. Certain sinful activities may cause relationships to be damaged or broken, or may make relationships impossible to be formed in the first place. Jesus did not willfully commit stuff that would fall under this definition.

Jesus did ignore or maybe we should say negate some of the rules observed within Judaism. At one point, he is called on the carpet by the religious officials for healing someone on the Sabbath, and at another time, he and his disciples are called out for not performing a certain ritual hand-washing. From the perspective of the religious leaders, these were sinful activities, but certainly not from the wider definition of sin I gave in the previous paragraph.

So, let's review: Jesus was without sin, at least according to a definition of sin based on how God views the plight of humanity. Secondly, one can make mistakes without sinning. If I make a wrong turn in my car, it is a mistake, but it is not a sin. And finally, some acts of justice--such as Jesus' healing on the Sabbath, or the protesters in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, may be labeled "sins" by the prevailing people in power, but they are answering to a higher power.

Is saying, "Oh my ___" using the Lord's name in vain?

Oh yes, the texting OMG. First of all, why does God say "using God's name in vain" is a sin in the first place, especially given my earlier definition of sin? (Oh, I forgot, I'm supposed to be answering questions, not asking them!)

Here are a couple of ideas to consider. On the surface, one might say that using God's name as a swear-word is disrespectful to God, and that is why it is sinful. Have you ever read some of those Psalms in the Bible, and how people yell at God? Psalm 22, for instance: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!?" Or have you read how Job takes God to task for his plight? I think these actions are far more disrespectful than just using God's name profanely. And yet, God not only is okay with this, but even seems to encourage people to "vent" in this way, even as a kind of ticked-off prayer. So, I don't think it's the respect issue that makes this wrong. Maybe God listens when we call out God's "name"? How would you like it if someone just kept calling out your name and yet wasn't really talking to you? That would be irritating. If God is always listening for us to pray, and yet we keep "calling out God's name like when we say "Oh my G__!" and then not talking with God, that's really rude. Here's another thought: for those of us in the community of faith, who love God and seek to live according to Christian teachings and principles, it raises our ire to hear someone using God's name--or Jesus' name--profanely. Using God's name as a swear-word is kind of like the F-bomb to a person of sincere faith--we don't like to hear it, and someone who uses it regularly "disrupts" the community. That meets the standard of my sin definition back in paragraph three.

Have you ever noticed that people never "swear" using a figure of another religion? No one ever says when angry, "Oh BUDDHA!" or "Oh VISHNU!" There may be a reason for that.

Linguists tell us that the words we use to profane something or someone (swear-words) usually have hard "G," "K," "S," or "T" sounds in them. The "hardness" of these letters, when a word with them is spoken harshly has a certain "power"--kind of like the "venting" mentioned earlier. For example, it's much more "satisfying" to call someone a "goof" or a "putz" than a "ninny." Our language of profanity has grown to incorporate this "visceral" element when we are angry or want to call someone out for a behavior that irritates us. That's also why "Oh Buddha!" or "Oh Vishnu!" don't work.

People of the Judeo-Christian faith have many more reasons NOT to use God's name as a curse-word than justification for doing so. However, I sincerely doubt God will freak out over it. Remember, though, OTHERS might!

Is it okay if you are an atheist but a good person all the same?

I'd say it's much more than "okay"--its a good thing! Before I get theological here, let me just point out that if someone is an atheist (doesn't believe in God), she or he has at least one less reason to be a "good" person. Believing in God, and therefore learning the morals and teachings of the Bible, offer many reasons to be "good," including building up the community, engendering relationships, and also acting on a desire to "please" God. Someone who doesn't believe in God, but who lives a "good" life, is doing so just because they care about others, themselves, and the world around them. (This is presupposing that being "good" means doing positive acts of kindness, "loving their neighbor as themselves," etc., and being a contributing member of the society--stuff like that.) They should be lauded for their desire to be a "good person." People who believe in God also often believe in some kind of judgment or accountability they will face someday before God. Indeed, this can serve as an extra motivator for "good" actions or behavior!

Now, let me get theological for a moment about this question. As a Christian believer, I happen to believe God loves everybody, and in Jesus, desired to reconcile the whole world to godself and eventually to each other in loving, respectful human relationships. If I really believe that, I must also believe that this "redemption" would be for everybody, not just the ones who acknowledge it. In fact, I believe that when we DO acknowledge it, as a person of faith, we receive the "extra" benefit of being in on the deal, kind of like having a backstage pass to a great concert, or something, or getting to sit with the Penguins on the bench during the playoffs. I believe God's love is so strong, and the grace netted out to the world in Jesus Christ so extensive, that it "catches all fish," so to speak. I know that not every pastor feels that way, and I would have to go into much more theology to fully explain this interpretation of our Christian faith story, but it's where I stand.

Have you ever asked someone who is an atheist why they have made this choice? Sometimes it is because they operate with a strong "science" mind--if you can't observe it and quantify it, and/or prove it, it isn't real. I find that many of these types of atheists really do believe in the created order of this incredible universe, but just haven't yet found the signature of the artist on the canvas. We should respect their views on this. However, the church and believers have created more atheists than anything else! I have met many atheists who quote bad theology they heard in the church for from "believers," or cite unloving, even hostile views and actions perpetrated by "good church folk" in the name of their God that have really turned them off. More than one has said to me, "If THAT is what believing in God is all about, then count me out!" I do usually try to defend persons of faith, especially because we all "fall down" on our beliefs from time to time and our human "sinful" streak rears it's angry head, but I think they are mostly referring to some "Christians" who have a very self-serving set of beliefs which they ascribe to biblical roots. Bad--very bad--biblical interpretations often lead people to marginalize or even "hate" persons because of their lifestyles or their divergent views. Doesn't sound like Jesus, does it? You know, the Jesus who "ate with sinners" and hung out with adulterers, tax collectors, lepers, the poor--not the Jesus of Joel Osteen (glitz and "prosperity") or the Jesus of the Wellsboro Baptist Church (vile, hateful and judging). This latter Jesus, and his followers, have created many an atheist.

More to come in a later post--our youth had some GREAT questions!!! Peace, Yinz.

What's Next?

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