Monday, June 30, 2008

Beatitudes, Part 1

When I read the Bible, one of the first and most important questions I ask is, "What did this mean to the original hearers?" By understanding what a scripture would have meant to those who originally heard it, we are more likely to accurately understand what it means to us today.

Some of this information about the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-10) is provided for us at the end of Matthew 4:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis [Ten Cities], Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. - Matthew 4:23-25

Segue to Matthew 5:1:

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying...

What this tells us is that the crowd whom Jesus was speaking to were a very diverse bunch. Northern Judea, which included Galilee, was a racially mixed area. Although the land was Jewish, it was also heavily populated by non-Jews. The Decapolis were ten cities which were grouped together as strongholds of Roman culture. Gentiles were the majority population of the Decapolis. Of course, Jerusalem was predominantly Jewish. The picture Matthew paints then is one of a mixed crowd following Jesus throughout the Northern Judea region. They were probably mixed in terms not only of race but also of economic status. This is still true today.

The first part of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount to this throng of followers has come to be called The Beatitudes. Beati is Latin for blessed. Beatitudes means Blessings. Jesus didn't speak Latin (that we know of). He probably spoke Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. Later theologians chose to call this section of Jesus's speech The Beatitudes because each line begins with the word "Blessed". Most likely though, Jesus gave the speech in either Aramaic or Koine (or Common) Greek, which was the lingua franca of the day. Koine Greek was to the Roman Empire of the 1st century what English is to the world today: a common trade language. Strangely, many Jews of the day did not speak or write Hebrew, but did use it's variant, Aramaic. If Jesus spoke The Beatitudes in Greek, the word that Jesus used, which is translated as blessed was makarios. Matthew's gospel seems to have been originally written in Greek and so, even if Jesus spoke only Aramaic, the writer of Matthew used the word makarios.

Makarios could also be translated as "happy" or "lucky". Have you ever been to the mall at Christmas-time, cruising around looking for a parking space when you suddenly spot one right in front of the store? That's makarios! Or have you ever put on a jacket that you haven't worn in a year and put your hand in the pocket, only to find a $20.00 bill? That's makarios! Or, as Napoleon Dynamite would say:

Mmmm. Maybe not.

The ancient Greeks originally used the word makarios to refer to their gods. Life was short and brutal and filled with misery on earth, but the gods on Mount Olympus had it easy. They were the the lucky ones. The word makarios came to be used to describe anyone who was rich or powerful. A common belief in ancient times was that wealth and influence were signs of God's favor upon a person.

If you were an average, rank & file Jew living in 1st century Judea, you probably didn't think of yourself as makarios. You lived under the iron boot of the Roman occupiers. Your own king, Herod, was a sadistic despot and a puppet to the Roman Empire. Your High Priest and civic leaders were corrupt. Life was hard. A lot of Jewish people wondered when God would send a deliverer--perhaps a warlord like Judas Maccabeus a few generations earlier or, going farther back in history, a David or a Gideon or a Samson or a Moses. If God was truly the God, and we were his chosen people, then why was He allowing the pagans to rule over us?

There were different opinions about this among the various Jewish sects. One group, the Sadducees, was comprised of men with wealth and power, including the High Priest. They didn't want to rock the boat. Another group, the Zealots, believed that armed rebellion was the only solution and that if they began a war against the Romans, God would raise up a warrior-messiah. Another group, the Essenes distanced themselves from the whole mess--living in compounds out in the wilderness where they strived for purity and awaited the messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls were produced by the Essenes. Another group, the Pharisees took pride in their success at observing strict adherence to the Torah--the laws of Leviticus, and the Talmud--the labyrinthian interpretations of those laws. They believed that if all of the Jews would toe the line and follow their strict interpretation of the Law, then God's judgment would come to an end and the Romans would be cast out of the land.

Your average Jew, however, was probably just worried about how to feed his family and get through another day.

It's among these average people that Jesus was born and where Jesus spent most of His time. Fishermen and farmers, prostitutes and lepers. Gypsies, tramps and thieves... no wait, that's a song by Cher ...anyway, you get the idea: The down-and-out, the hoi polloi, the proletariat, the little people, the insignificants, the nobodies.

But Jesus doesn't just identify with them. He says to them, "The rich and powerful? They aren't the lucky ones. You are the lucky ones! You are the ones favored by God!"

Jesus turns the whole system upside-down.

I was sitting with a group of inmates once and we had just read through the Beatitudes. One of the men let out a long sigh. He had tears in his eyes and stared hard down at the table. I had come to know this man. He was at rock bottom, having come face-to-face with the effects of his alcoholism. His wife had recently divorced him and was already engaged to re-marry. Another man ("a good man", he freely admitted) would be raising his children. Now he had wound up in jail; broken, ashamed, filled with self-condemnation. He saw each line of The Beatitudes as something he would have to try to measure up to and would probably fail at.

"I'll never be able to do all that.", he said, softly.

"You already have done most of it.", I told him. "You're already there."

He was stunned. And then a look came over his face as if the proverbial lightbulb had just come on. "Ahhhh.", he said, with a nod and a smile. A new set of tears filled his eyes.

The Beatitudes aren't a checklist of how to earn God's approval. The Beatitudes were good news to the average people who first heard them, just as they are good news to average struggling people today. The Beatitudes don't so much describe how to become a person of God; rather, they describe how to recognize a person of God.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn't say "Blessed will you be if..."

He says--
to the people who lack the influence of the Sadducees,
to the people who don't want the murderous hatred of the Zealots,
to the people who aren't accepted in the holy outposts of the Essenes,
to the people who can't measure up to the religious rigor of the Pharisees,
to the rejects and underdogs, He says
--blessed are you.

Like my inmate friend, I think there came from the people who first heard Jesus speak the Beatitudes, a collective "Ahhhh."

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-10 (NIV)

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It seems like I can't get away from the Beatitudes. I started teaching through them about a year ago at the jail. By the time we finished, all of inmates we started with had been released or transfered (such is the transitory nature of the jail population). So, we started from the beginning again. And again. It's become a cycle.

When we began attending North Seattle Friends Church a few months ago, we started participating in the "Meeting for Learning", which is an interactive study/discussion that meets from 9:30 to 11am on Sunday mornings. The group was going through a book entitled But I Tell You, which is all about the Sermon on the Mount (beginning with the Beatitudes). It has short chapters, so we would read a chapter together, then discuss it. We had a series of wonderful discussions throughout the Beatitudes.

Last Sunday, Lorraine, the pastor announced that she is going to be teaching through the Beatitudes for the next several weeks.

All of this got me to thinking this morning that maybe I should blog through the Beatitudes. I'll begin by offering Eugene Peterson's version from his paraphrase of the Bible, The Message:

When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are—no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.

"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.

"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.

"You're blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.

"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Another "What if?"

Lorraine, the pastor of the Quaker church we attend, told me recently about the time she came to church with laryngitis. Only, she didn't realize she had laryngitis until she got up to speak and nothing came out. She told me that the great part about it was that it wasn't a big deal. The meeting just naturally shifted into unprogrammed silent worship, where anyone can speak if they feel led by the Spirit. The congregation, being Quaker, was already adept at doing this. They weren't dependent upon a pastor or worship leader.

This got me to thinking: What would happen at most churches if the pastor and worship band didn't show up for the Sunday service? I imagine that people would sit and wait for someone up front to do something. There would be murmuring. After a little while they would begin to mill around and talk to one-another. Gradually, they would leave--disappointed that church didn't happen.

And what would the typical pastor do if he (since the pastor is typically a he) suddenly discovered that he couldn't speak to deliver the sermon? Would it be a mad scramble to fill time and make something work? Or would he rest in the knowledge that the congregation could have church just fine without him?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How are you doing?

My boss's name is Joe. We met several years ago when he attended a class that I was teaching. He asked me to do some work for him as a consultant, which gradually grew into more work until I eventually became an employee. We have worked well together over the years, in large part because there is a mutual respect and trust between us. I really like Joe and enjoy working with him.

Joe is a very gregarious person and he has an odd habit of asking people how they are doing. When he makes a phone call--even a business call to a stranger--usually the first thing he does when the person answers the phone is ask, "How are you doing?" When someone greets him he nearly always responds with a friendly, "How are you doing?" Maybe it's a Southern thing, since he is originally from Florida.

The weird thing is, this has rubbed off on me. Without even being aware of it, I began asking people, "How are you doing?" Even, like, tech support people in India. Even telemarketers. What's even weirder is how many people have seemed mildly surprised and have even thanked me for asking them how they are doing. This is especially true of waitresses/waiters and retail salespeople and customer service representatives and cashiers. I guess, in their line of work, they get used to not being regarded as individuals worthy of a reciprocal kindness. It's weird that people would display such gratitude at being asked such a simple question.

What's weirder still is that Joe's habit which rubbed off on me has rubbed off on my wife. She does it now too. I love to see the little spark in someone's eyes when she looks at them, smiles, and asks sincerely, "How are you doing?" It's hard to be rude and imperious to your waitress after such an exchange. It sort of says, "Hey, we're all in this together."

Maybe people are just colder to one another here in the Pacific Northwest. I don't know, but isn't it weird that such a little thing as asking "How are you doing?" could be so contagious and rewarding?

Monday, June 23, 2008


I just wanted to throw out there that I would love to hear comments, commiserations, corrections, concerns, conflicts, concurrence, qualms, retorts, rejoinders, remonstrances, assent, dissent or just a friendly hello.

Just click on the word "comments" at the bottom of each post and let me know what you think--good or bad.


Sunday, June 22, 2008

If Oliver Twist were a Mexican...

Carla and I watched a wonderful film last night. Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna) tells the tale of nine year-old Carlito, who lives with his grandmother in a village in Mexico. Carlito's mother, Rosario, is an undocumented worker cleaning the homes of wealthy people in Los Angeles. Rosario, a single mom, is able to send $300.00 a month back home to Mexico. This enables Carlito to attend a good school and have a relatively comfortable life. But both mother and child ache for each other.

When his grandmother dies, Carlito takes it upon himself to go to his mother. He travels from Mexico to Los Angeles by way of El Paso and Tucson. Along the way he meets a variety of characters; from a creepy junkie to a helpful migrant worker to a traveling mariachi band. Carlito ends up in the begrudging care of a lout who has no use for a kid hanging around. Watching the friendship develop between these two, which is eventually put to the ultimate test, is one of the delights of the film.

Carlito's adventures in getting across the Southwestern U.S. are juxtaposed with Rosario's life as an illegal alien in Los Angeles. Her life is filled with indignities, but she is buoyed by friends, a kind man who hopes to earn her affection and, most of all, her dream of earning enough money to hire a lawyer that can help her get a green card and bring Carlito to America. She has no idea of the turn of events that have thrust her son out into the world.

The film is heartwarming and bittersweet, without becoming maudlin.

Adrian Alonso, the young actor who plays Carlito does an amazing job. The rest of the actors are also fantastic.

This movie has just come out on DVD. It is in Spanish, with English subtitles. Carla and I both highly recommend it and I guaranty that the ending will make you smile.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

What would happen if...?

I'm going to float a balloon here and see where it drifts, so humor me.

As you probably know, in May of 2008 the Supreme Court of California overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage. On June 16, 2008, that ruling went into effect. Thousands of gay and lesbian couples are flocking to California to be legally wed. There is a proposed constitutional amendment, however, called the "California Marriage Protection Act" which would override the Court's decision by defining marriage as strictly between a man and a woman. This proposed amendment will appear on the California general election ballot in November.

Obviously, passions are running high on both sides of the debate. This has gotten me to thinking...

What if we did allow marriage between consenting adults, regardless of gender? What would happen? Would God pour out His wrath upon America? Would panic in the streets ensue? Would we careen down a slippery slope of moral depravity ending in a cesspool of bestiality and child-rape?

Or... Would we just end up with more married couples?

I'm very pro-marriage, having been married myself for 21 years. I'm pro-monogamy. I believe that marriage, children and family are the basis for a healthy civilization. I think most Christians would agree. That being the case, perhaps we should promote--or at least accept, rather than reject--same-sex marriage. An increase in committed monogamous fully-recognized marriages would (it seems to me) bring added stability to the gay and lesbian community and therefore, to society as a whole. As long as we're dealing with consenting adults here, where no one is being victimized or exploited, I'm having trouble seeing the downside.

Gays are often demonized by Christians for their wildly promiscuous lifestyles. There seems to be a modicum of truth to this characterization, although there have also always been gays who practice chastity and monogamy. Gay people are not inherently out-of-control sexual gluttons--at least no more so than non-Gay people. Here's the thing though: Imagine that you are a young adult living in an alternate universe where homosexuality is the norm. In our hypothetical world, heterosexuality is shunned. Sometimes violently. To be attracted to the opposite sex is to be condemned to a life of shame and furtiveness. Since the dream of being publicly married to the type of person you are attracted to--and still be socially accepted--seems out of reach, you are left with the options of living a lie, accepting a lifetime of celibacy or joining a sub-culture in which transient sexual liaisons with opposite-sex partners is the norm.

What I'm getting at here is that perhaps some of the dangerously promiscuous behavior in the gay community is a direct result of their being marginalized by a Judeo-Christian society. Gays have historically been pushed into the corners. And we know what occurs in dark corners...

I suspect that if GLBT folks were just accepted in society as people and given all of the same rights and privileges as heteros--including legal marriage--we would see less of the extreme behavior that Christians (myself included) find so disturbing. When a heterosexual teenager is engaging in highly promiscuous and risky sexual behavior, we worry about the long-term damage that may result (emotionally, physically, spiritually) and we hope that they will someday settle down into a healthy monogamous relationship. Do we extend that same hope to gay teens?

Of course, every discussion among Christians about same-sex marriage eventually winds up at the Book of Genesis and the story of Adam and Eve. I've come to the conclusion, after years of study, that a great deal of trouble and misery has been inflicted upon the world because of gross misunderstandings about the nature and purpose of the stories contained in the Book of Genesis. But that is a topic best left for a separate post.

For now, my default position is to love and accept.

"Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not covet,' and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." (Romans 13:8-10)

Monday, June 16, 2008


"There lives more faith in honest doubt, / Believe me, than in half the creeds." -- Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Our only child is our son Seth. He will turn 20 next week and is a student at the University of Washington. He is attempting to earn a double-major in Physics and Chemistry and then (as of this writing) plans to enroll in medical school with the goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.

We are a very close little family, the three of us. Seth knows that he can talk to us about anything (and he does).

Seth was raised in a Christian home and has been part of churches all of his life. He has seen the good, bad and ugly of modern Evangelical Christianity. The church that we were part of when he was a teenager left a particularly bad taste in his mouth because of some of the nastiness and pettiness that occurred as the church was in its death throes (caused by financial malfeasance and charismatic lunacy on the part of the senior pastor).

Seth rejected the only form of Christianity that he had ever known. For the record, so have I. The difference is that I've sought to get at the heart of following Jesus without all the man-made crap added on. Seth, on the other hand, threw the baby out with the bathwater. He now refers to himself as a "Deist"--meaning that he does believe in God, but more-so in the transcendent sense than in the imminent sense. He doesn't quite know where to place Jesus in such a theological matrix, so he is setting Christ off to the side for now.

Strangely, this doesn't bother me as much as you might think. Seth is a scientist and, as such, seeks truth via empirical observation. What he has observed of Evangelical Christianity--especially the Fundamentalist Charismatic variety--has not impressed him. Seth is a very honest young man, with a low tolerance for bullshit (something he inherited from my father). He likes the absolutes that he finds in physics and mathematics.

Mixed in with his scientific aloofness towards Christianity, there is a chip on his shoulder from what he has observed as a church-kid. Yet, he says he is leaving the door open for Jesus. He just wants/needs to have his own encounter, not live off of the experiences of others (such as his parents). I can understand and appreciate that--having had such an encounter myself with the Living God when I was about Seth's age (and apart from any church setting).

Quakerism is often referred to as an "experimental" and "experiential" faith. It seems well suited to the scientific mind, as evidenced by the large number of scientists that have been Quakers. I'm hoping that, eventually, Seth can find a haven in Quakerism--as his mother and I have. But I'm content to wait and let God work. Right now Seth's attention is on college and girls and exams and girls and social activities and, did I mention, girls?

The Amish have a custom known as rumspringa, where their youth go out and experience the world before (hopefully) returning to the fold. The overwhelming majority do return and have a deeper appreciation of the choice they are making. As a Christian Universalist, I'm not motivated and stressed about the prospect of an eternity in Hell. Of course, like any parent, I worry that he'll make good choices and not get into (too much) trouble during his journey. So far, so good.

I continue to delight in Seth, as I know God does (just as He delights in all of us). I will continue to be fully there for him (as I know God is fully there for each of us). But Seth wants his own encounter with God. All I can do about that is wait and pray and trust that, in God's time, Seth will come to own for himself the incomparable joy of following Jesus.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Beware of falling fish!

So there I was yesterday, standing in the parking lot at work chatting with someone, when I heard a sound behind me like a wet "splat". I turned and there laying on the ground a few feet away was a fish. Looked like maybe a perch--dark green, flat, about 10" long and 8" high. A seahawk or osprey must have been flying overhead with it and lost it's grip. I can just imagine the bird saying, "Dammit!" as the fish slipped from it's talons. My thought was, "Yeesh, it's not enough that they poop on us, now they're throwing fish at us!" One of the dangers of living in the Pacific Northwest, I guess. A few months ago I was getting out of my car and looked up to see a seahawk directly above me, about 20 feet off the ground, laboriously flying with a what looked like a salmon in it's talons. It was an amazing site.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Writing a book...

I've decided to try to write a book. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time (actually, in High School my goal was to become a journalist but I got sidetracked by trying to become a rock star).

Carla (my wife, who is also the most artistic person I've ever met) has been working on a fantasy novel for a few months now. She's up to somewhere around 300 pages so far, and it's really good.

My passion is theology and the historical roots of various theological positions. Unfortunately, I lack any credentials (such as having a Ph.D. or pastoring a large church) that would make anyone want to publish my theological views.

Carla has been encouraging me to try to write something (since I love to write), but I had no idea what. Then last week while walking the dog an idea popped into my head that is either brilliant or stupid--I haven't yet decided which. I am going to try to write a Science Fiction novel and incorporate theology into it. Sort of "Theological Sci-Fi". It just might work! The only qualification or credential one needs to write fiction is an imagination and the ability to write good..., I mean well.

I've been pouring through On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott for guidance and inspiration. The tough part will be setting aside the time and having the discipline to bang out 300+ words per day. I don't know what negative affect this will have on my blogging, but I can assume it may. So if my blog posts are fewer and farther between, you'll know why.