Thursday, July 31, 2014

Part 2 of the interview with Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America, regarding the current events in Gaza and Israel. (scroll down for Part 1)

This weekend is Seafair in Seattle. One of the traditions of Seafair is that the Blue Angels come and do aeronautical stunts. Today the Blue Angels are practicing, which means their jets are circling Seattle, swooping down and banking around at stunning speeds with deafening roars that rattle buildings. It is meant to be fun and exciting but each time they come by I feel dread in the pit of my stomach and wonder what it must be like to be a Palestinian in Gaza, hearing similar roars from the sky above.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

It is worth taking the time to listen to what Henry Siegman has to say...

"Given his background, what American Jewish leader Henry Siegman has to say about Israel’s founding in 1948 through the current assault on Gaza may surprise you. From 1978 to 1994, Siegman served as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, long described as one of the nation’s 'big three' Jewish organizations along with the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Germany three years before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Siegman’s family eventually moved to the United States. His father was a leader of the European Zionist movement that pushed for the creation of a Jewish state. In New York, Siegman studied the religion and was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi by Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, later becoming head of the Synagogue Council of America. After his time at the American Jewish Congress, Siegman became a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He now serves as president of the U.S./Middle East Project."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tell Us What You Really Think, Mark...

Another Mark Driscoll scandal is lighting up the blogosphere.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have strong opinions about Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  This is due in part to him being a misogynistic, homophobic, arrogant bully and in part because he propagates bad (no, make that destructive) theology and in part because he can rock a fauxhawk like I'll never be able to.  If what I've just written sounds a bit ...testy... it is probably because I just finished reading some of the dozens of Driscoll's writings that he placed on an Internet forum using a pseudonym.  His screeds, which have recently come to light, were written several years ago (when Mars Hill was already a large church) and posted using the moniker William Wallace II.  They are vile and rage-filled and disturbing.  Certainly not worthy of a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

A couple of lessons come to mind:  (1) Nothing put on the Internet ever goes away.  Ever.  (2) It can be scary what can come out of a person when they don't think they'll be held accountable.  (3) The many people who have expressed concern about Driscoll's behaviors over the years were spot on.  (4) Perhaps neo-Calvinism does not bear fruit in keeping with Galatians 5:22-23.

I too have strong opinions (pro-women, anti-war, in favor of LGBTQ inclusion, etc.), but I'm willing to own them--publicly and under my own name.

If you wish to subject yourself to Driscoll's unfiltered thoughts, Matthew Paul Turner's blog is a good place to start from:

"The anti-everything Christianity we find on television, radio and in print would remind Jesus much more of the Pharisees than it would remind him of the people actually following his teachings. ... When you see someone who claims to follow Jesus who has or wants power; when they are saying things about Christianity that cause hurt to other people, when they create divisions, stating beliefs or supporting policies that marginalize already marginalized groups, when they say things that would allow one group of people to exert their will and beliefs on another group of people, you need to immediately question their sincerity and more so their motivation.  Jesus would have advocated none of those attitudes or behaviors."

--Mark Sandlin, I Want My Christianity Back

Monday, July 28, 2014

A Palestinian girl digs through the rubble for books.  Heartbreaking.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Not many days go by without seeing some sort of 'Stand with Israel' image pop up into my Facebook news feed. And, each time it does, my heart grieves over the fact that so many of my fellow Christians have been taken in by this new and dangerous theology, and in so duped into supporting terrorism and oppression… all in the name of God.
I believe that this theology ... is actually one of the most dangerous and destructive theologies in the world today. It is unlike many of the other 'secondary' theologies that are privately held beliefs which do not impact others one way or another. Conversely, this theology is causing a great many Evangelical Christians to embrace violence, condone oppression, support torture, and is actually creating terrorism. Ironically, this theology leads one to support not Godly behavior, but instead embrace behavior that is anything but Jesus-like."

-- Benjamin L. Corey

Friday, July 25, 2014

"The prophetic stance [within the Church] in relation to homosexuality is to acknowledge our diversity of opinion about homosexuality."

-- Brian McLaren

Jul 22, 2014

Dear President Obama:

As U.S. churches and Christian organizations, we join others worldwide who are calling for an immediate end to the violence--as well as its underlying causes--in Palestine and Israel. As the situation continues to deteriorate, and horrendous death and destruction mount in Gaza, we are called by conscience to say, “Enough.”

Sadly, the scenes that we are witnessing are all too familiar. Over the last decade, Israel has repeatedly carried out similar military operations in Gaza. In each instance, over a period of days or weeks, Israel bombed and invaded Gaza and Palestinian militant groups stepped up their practice of firing rockets into Israel. Each of these operations ended with a cease-fire that temporarily decreased military action but did not end the conflict nor lift the oppressive Israeli blockade institutionalized in Gaza since 2007.

It is our view that these cease-fires failed to last because they did not address deeper injustices. After each new cease-fire Palestinians in Gaza remained subject to the legal, structural, and physical violence inherent in Israel’s occupation and siege on Gaza, which constitutes collective punishment. This includes crushing restrictions and limitations placed on Palestinian movement, access to water and electricity, economic development, and other freedoms in both the West Bank and Gaza.

The Obama administration and Congress have rightly condemned the indiscriminate rockets from Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups into Israel. It is time for the U.S. to condemn the Israeli bombardment of civilian centers and the blockade just as strongly. This latest escalation cannot be divorced from the broader context of the Gaza siege and occupation.

To achieve a lasting peace, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, including the siege of Gaza, must end. The U.S. must, therefore, make ending the occupation and lifting the Gaza siege priorities for our foreign policy in the region.

Violence and military force will never bring peace for Israelis and Palestinians. Military aid to Israel amounting to more than $3 billion per year creates a heavy moral obligation for the U.S. to ensure that this aid is not used in violation of U.S. law and fundamental human rights. A key step in this direction would be for the United States to investigate the use of U.S.-supplied weapons and military equipment during this conflict and to ensure full accountability under existing U.S. law if human rights abuses have been committed using this equipment.

The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis will only be resolved when Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories is ended, and the inherent equality, worth, and dignity of all Palestinians and Israelis is realized.

We urge you to take action to both stop the current violence and use U.S. influence and diplomatic weight to push for a just peace that will benefit all of the people of the region.

We are grateful for the attention you have given to the search for lasting peace in the Middle East, and we offer you our prayers.


American Friends Service Committee
Conference of Major Superiors of Men
Friends Committee on National Legislation
Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns
Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
Office of Social Justice of the Christian Reformed Church
Pax Christi International
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas’ Extended Justice Team
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society

Members of the U.S. House
Members of the U.S. Senate


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and The Problem of Evil

In recent months I have been intently studying The Problem of Evil, and so as I've seen the news reports about Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 I've been naturally disposed to view the horrific event through the perspective of theodicy.

To clarify, the word theodicy comes from Greek and literally means "God (theos) Justice (dike)."

 Theodicies are attempts to justify God in the face of the evil we encounter on earth.  Every theistic religion has theodicies, developed by theologians.  We might say that theodicies are keys that attempt to unlock the box of The Problem of Evil.

The Problem of Evil can be succinctly stated like this:

    1. If God is omnipotent, God could prevent all evil.

    2. If God is perfectly good (omnibenevolent), God would want to prevent all evil.

    3. Evil exists.

The problem, formulated thusly (there are more complex formulations), lies in the question of how these three assertions can coexist.  If God is all-powerful and all-good then God would
have the ability and desire to prevent evil.  Yet our world, throughout history, is filled with evil.  The implication is that either, (A) God is not omnipotent; or (B) God is not omnibenevolent; or
(C) Evil does not exist.  To put it another way, if evil exists then an all-powerful, all-good God does not.

With the unfolding tragedy of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 we are witnessing a cornucopia of evil; the fruit of humanity at our worst destroying humanity at our best.  What we know so far is that a commercial flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur was shot down on July 17th by a surface-to-air missile while passing over a "conflict zone" near the Russian-Ukraine border.  All 298 passengers (including 80 children) and crew were killed.  Many of the passengers were HIV\AIDS researchers and delegates on their way to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia.  All the lives lost were precious and meaningful and irreplaceable.

The natural inclination when an event like this occurs is to ask, "How could God let this happen?"  It is a question as old as humankind.  The question might have been even more complicated had there been survivors: "Why did God spare some and not others?"  The survivors and their families might publicly thank God for saving them, leaving the families of the dead to grapple with the meaning of the loss of their loved ones.  This is The Problem of Evil in tangible form.

Christian theologians--from Augustine to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin to Barth and beyond--have wrestled with this Problem of Evil.  These men forged a chain of thought that stretches from the early centuries of Christianity, through the Middle Ages, to modern times.  Their theological and philosophical constructs are the infrastructure of what we now tend to think of as Christian doctrine.  Most Christians, I would venture, are unfamiliar with these men's writings, yet have received their thoughts through sermon and song as being intrinsic to Christianity. 

The writings of these theological luminaries are voluminous (Barth once quipped  "I haven't even read everything I wrote.").  Yet it is possible to sift through and distill the essence of their answers to The Problem of Evil.  They are surprisingly consistent, having each built upon the formulations of their predecessor (for a detailed analysis I recommend David Ray Griffin's book God, Power, & Evil).

To summarize in very simplistic terms:

On the assertion that if God is omnipotent God could prevent all evil, these theologians agree that God is indeed omnipotent and that God could indeed prevent all evil.  Augustine wrote that "nothing happens other than what God wills to happen" while Aquinas added that "God's [omniscient] knowledge, will and causation are identical, so that for God to know events is for God to will and cause those events."  Luther likewise surmised that all power belongs to God and that therefore everything that occurs (including the destructive decisions and actions of humans) is predetermined according to God's will.  Calvin wrote, "If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death — all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse ... are governed by the secret counsel of God."  The great 20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth likewise maintained that everything, down to "the slightest movement of a leaf in the wind," occurs because God wills it.

On the assertion that God is omnibenevolent, these five shapers of modern Christian theology likewise agree that there can be no question that God is absolutely and perfectly good.

So then, how do they answer the question of why evil exists?  When you sift and distill to get to the essence of their thinking they all agree--from Augustine in the 4th century to Barth in the 20th--that, to put it bluntly, evil does not really exist.  That is to say, what we perceive as evil is actually willed by God and therefore must be good.  Each of these theologians wrestled with how this could be, using ingenuity and nuance, but the bottom line they all reached is that, based on their presuppositions regarding God's goodness and omnipotence, evil must be an illusion;  what appears to be evil to us is not genuinely evil but only apparently evil--willed and allowed by God for the purpose of bringing about greater good.  

Augustine wrote, "If it were not good that evil things exist, they would certainly not be allowed to exist by the Omnipotent Good."  Aquinas believed that God's creation is perfect and that nothing could take away from the perfection of God's creation.  A beautiful painting has both colorful parts and drab parts (which serve as contrast to the colorful parts); in the same way a perfect world requires evil, which is intentionally placed there by God and, therefore, serves a good purpose.  For Luther, whatever God does is good and right and since nothing happens apart from God's will, evil is somehow good and right in the greater scheme of things.  It is difficult for us to grasp from our limited human perspective how this can be.  As Calvin wrote, "In a wonderful and ineffable manner nothing is done without God's will, not even that which is against His will. ... Yet, God's will is therefore not at war with itself, nor does it change, nor does it pretend not to will what he wills.  But even though his will is one and simple in Him, it appears manifold to us because, on account of our mental incapacity, we do not grasp how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place."  In other words, we are incapable of understanding why God wills things to occur (such as airliners being shot down by missiles) and we ought not to question why or argue with God about it.  We simply don't understand the good purpose of evil in God's larger picture.

An important question to ask about theology (or philosophy) is this:  Does the concept match our lived experience?  Or must we engage in cognitive dissonance and denial of reality in order to embrace a concept?  Is a given concept both doctrinally and empirically consistent?

The problem with the theodicies of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and Barth is that they are built upon certain presuppositions which came to them from Greek philosophy (specifically Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus).  Just the other day I heard on the radio Hank Hanegraaff, the self-designated "Bible Answer Man," describe God as the "unmoved mover" and I wondered if he knew we was quoting Aristotle.  Aquinas purportedly said that "philosophy is the handmaid of theology"--in other words philosophy has been brought into the service of theology.  

Early Christian theologians were Gentile philosophers, educated in Greek thought.  They merged elements of the Jewish theology they received from scripture with elements of the Greek philosophy they knew from their upbringing to form what became Classical Christian doctrine.  From Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus they incorporated the view that God is immutable (unchanging and unaffected) in contradiction to the Hebrew God who reacts to the choices and actions of humans.  Immutability is related to omnipotence since to affect God (such as making God angry or sad or pleased) implies having a modicum of power over God.  Griffin writes, "But when the Aristotelian unchanging God was combined with the Biblical God who knows the world, it became necessary, in order to achieve a self-consistent position, to deny all genuine contingency. ... For if God knows everything that occurs in the world, and knows this infallibly and unchangeably, without any additions to the content of divine knowledge, then the total truth
about reality, including what is future for us temporal beings, must be completely determinate." 

From Plotinus (the father of Neoplatonism and a massive influence on Augustine) the idea was incorporated into Christian theology that evil is necessary in order to form a complete and perfect picture.  Thus evil is ultimately in the service of good and therefore only appears to be evil.

But what if one starts from a philosophical basis other than Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus?  What if one replaces omnipotence (meaning that all power resides in God) with omni-relationality (meaning that God is utterly and intimately connected to every aspect of creation)?  It would mean that God is affected by the choices and actions of beings--as the Hebrew scriptures clearly depict.  But if creatures have the power to affect God--to make God happy or angry or sad--then that implies that God is not omnipotent and immutable in the Greek philosophical sense.  Further, the New Testament clearly states that God is love, and love requires reciprocity.  Jesus is the ultimate Imago Dei, the image of God, and Jesus was utterly relational and quite affected by the choices and actions and situations of those he was in relationship with.  The Gospels repeatedly depict Jesus as encountering persons and being "filled with compassion."  Aristotle's immutable God could not experience compassion or love towards humans.

A relational God is a God that does not coerce but instead persuades.  It is a God that not only allows but requires free-will on the part of creatures.  Love that is unilaterally mandated and
pre-programmed cannot truly be love--it is a sham, like taking a robot for a spouse.  Love requires choice--freedom to not love, to respond, to be vulnerable.  A relational, non-omnipotent God is also a creative God.  It is the God of jazz, constantly interacting and responding and improvising along with creation.  God is a poet and visionary and risk-taker, rather than a puppetmaster.  Can God be perfect, yet not exercise (or even be able to exercise) coercive absolute controlling power?  I believe so, if we think of perfection in terms of relationality rather than power.

But this means that evil is real.  Evil occurs not as a result of God's will but in contradiction to God's will.  Evil is a potential by-product of freedom, and freedom is a requirement for love.  Evil is not necessary, but the possibility of evil is.  We can choose to love God and live according to God's intentions, or we can choose not to.    We are co-creators with God of what our world is and what it becomes.  God is constantly speaking to us, wooing us, luring us, calling us towards goodness and wholeness and beauty and harmony.  The inevitable trajectory of the universe is towards shalom, but we can choose whether or not to participate in that movement or go against it.  God is able to creatively guide and transform us all incrementally as we journey together with God towards what God envisions the universe can be.  It is a dance rather than a script.

So, was the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 by a Russian missile evil?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was.  Was it God's will?  Absolutely and truly and emphatically it was not.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"In its early days our Society [The Religious Society of Friends] owed much to a people who called themselves Seekers; they joined us in great numbers and were prominent in the spread of Quakerism. It is a name which must appeal strongly to the scientific temperament. The name has died out, but I think that the spirit of seeking is still the prevailing one in our faith, which for that reason is not embodied in any creed or formula. It is perhaps difficult sufficiently to emphasize Seeking without disparaging its correlative Finding. But I must risk this, for Finding has a clamorous voice that proclaims its own importance; it is definite and assured, something that we can take hold of--that is what we all want, or think we want. Yet how transitory it proves. The finding of one generation will not serve for the next. It tarnishes rapidly except it be preserved with an ever-renewed spirit of seeking. It is the same too in science. How easy in a popular lecture to tell of the findings, the new discoveries which will be amended, contradicted, superseded in the next fifty years! How difficult to convey the scientific spirit of seeking which fulfills itself in this tortuous course of progress towards truth! You will understand the true spirit neither of science nor of religion unless seeking is placed in the forefront."

-- Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, British astrophysicist and philosopher

Bonus: Here is the excellent film 'Einstein and Eddington' in its entirety...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Like a good parent, God does not seek absolute conformity to God's aim for us, but rather invites creatures to embody the divine vision in their own unique way.  In the dynamic interplay of call and response, our creativity allows God to explore novel possibilities that would not have been relevant apart from our freedom.  However, deviating significantly from God's personal and communal vision for our lives and our relationship with others can become sinful when we consciously choose behaviors that are self-centered and harmful to ourselves and others. ...
[S]inful behavior involves putting our individual, local, or national needs ahead of the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants.  Sin may also involve the turning away from God's aim at creative transformation by holding on to outworn traditions.  In seeking to preserve a particular tradition or way of life, we may be standing in the way of the future God intends for us and our communities.  We may be stifling the imaginative and innovative possibilities that are part of what it means to be created in the image of God."

-- Bruce G. Epperly, Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

By how you've probably heard the recording of a conversation between tech writer Ryan Block and an obnoxious Comcast customer service agent in which Ryan and his wife spent 18 minutes trying to cancel their service.  If you haven't heard the recording, here it is:

The recording seems to have struck a chord with the masses and gone viral.  Comcast has responded by expressing their "embarrassment" and, of course, are making their customer service representative the scapegoat.  I'm guessing that the poor guy does not have any kind of union backing him and thus is screwed.   

As blogger John Herman insightfully points out, "If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual. The customer service rep is trapped in an impossible position, in which any cancellation, even one he can't control, will reflect poorly on his performance. By the time news of this lost customer reaches his supervisor, it will be data—it will be the wrong data, and it will likely be factored into a score, or a record, that is either directly or indirectly tied to his compensation or continued employment. It's bad, very bad, for this rep to record a cancellation with no reason, or with a reason the script should theoretically be able to answer (the initial reasons given for canceling were evidently judged, by the script, as invalid). There are only a few boxes he can tick to start with, and even fewer that let him off the hook as a salesman living at the foot of a towering org chart. The rep had no choice but to try his hardest, to not give up, to make it so irritating and seemingly impossible to leave that Block might just give up and stay. The only thing he didn't account for was the possibility the call would be recorded. Now he's an internet sensation. The rep always loses." (Source:

What this interaction (which some are calling "Kafkaesque") brought to my mind is the book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland which chronicles how average working-class middle-aged German men were conscripted into Nazi extermination squads and proceeded to commit mass murder and unspeakable atrocities.  Author Christopher Browning explores the question of how such "ordinary men" could become soul-less minions of evil.  What is it that causes some (many?) people to lose their moral compasses and sell their souls to the powers that be? 

Obviously, this obnoxious (and now unfortunate) Comcast customer service rep is not a brutal murderer, or anything remotely close to that.  But I see the same basic principle at work.  His need for a job required a small sacrifice of principles to the corporate god.  Other than that, he was just a regular guy doing his job.  He was only following orders.

"Process theologians see Jesus as a reflection of God's aim toward creative transformation, calling humankind forward from what is to what can become.  Christ calls us to be open to God now and in the future.  While God's aim at creative transformation is present in all things, seeking beauty, intensity, and community, God is specifically present in Jesus Christ in ways that create a life-transforming field of force among those who hear his message.  The interplay of divine-human call and response resonates in all things, but Jesus Christ's life and mission creates an intensified field fo force that transformed persons in the first century and still transforms persons today.  Jesus Christ 'saves' us, to use traditional language, by opening and empowering us to experience God's vision for our lives in new and lively ways.  Jesus' life, death, and resurrection do not transform God's attitude toward us, involve Jesus paying ransom to demonic forces to liberate us, or require his suffering on our behalf in order to appease God's wrath.  Rather, as the model for what we can be in our time and place, in every century, Jesus Christ calls us to become fully human as we embody in a variety of ways our vocation as God's healing partners in  our world.
Although deeply rooted in the Jewish faith of his parents, Jesus nevertheless challenged his tradition to reflect God's all-embracing realm of Shalom, that included oppressed and oppressor, outcast and righteous, and foreigner and neighbor.  Jesus' message and mission, process theologians assert, was not supernaturally-oriented toward life beyond the grave, but a call to embody God's vision for this life and this world.   In this regard, Jesus embodied the prophetic vision of Shalom, God's alternative vision of reality in contrast to the injustices and oppression of the world in which we live.
Faithfulness to Jesus' vision challenges us to challenge and transform our own faith tradition as Christians in light of God's call to Shalom in our time."

--Bruce G. Epperly, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed

Friday, July 11, 2014

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, Professor of Process Theology, on prayer (from In God's Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer)

"God is like water, flowing throughout the universe, like an ocean touching innumerable shores.  The action of those waves is sometimes like a chaotic clash of elements, whose terrible dynamism reshapes what is and brings new things to emergence.  And the action of those waves is also gentle and quiet, nourishing all forms of existent life.  The one form does not contradict the other, nor the varieties in between, for the nature of water is interaction with all elements in its path, taking the nature of each element into account in the resulting action.  God is like water.

And we?  Are we those shores touched by God, showing in the shape of our sands what we have done with the waves of God upon our lives?  And what of our effects in God as our sands find their way into the vastness of that ocean?

All images break down as we push them to their limits.  But the force of this image is to give a sense of the very pervasiveness of God, so that prayer, far from being supernatural or even superstitious, simply follows from the reality that we live in--and within--God's presence.

God creates and works within an interdependent universe, both interdependent within itself and with God.  The universe is not 'finished'; God's creativity cannot be so easily stilled!  Stars are yet born, and race toward unfathomable reaches of space.  Suns yet burst in fireballs of energy, spawning yet new planets and who know what forms of new life.  In our own small portion of this universe, generation yet follows generation, and we turn life into story, and yet again into history.  In such a teeming universe, what is prayer but God's gracious invitation to us to participate in the continuing work of creation?  If prayer constitutes our openness to God's own purposes of in creating communal well-being, then prayer is God's creation with us of this very well-being!  Prayer is central to the how of God's continuing work in our world.

And so our prayers of confession purge us of blockages against our own and others' well-being, opening us to the transforming work and will of God.  Prayers of intercession actively join us with God's will toward the well-being of the greater community and are used by God to whatever degree possible to bring such well-being into existence.  Liturgical prayers express and deepen our communal identities, and can open us to goodwill toward communities not our own.  We may yet with God turn this world into a community of communities, rejoicing in identities that are what they are in and through their differences as well as similarities!  Then we would be woven into a world with a sparkling story, creating together with God a new history of interdependent care for one another and for this wondrous Earth.

And prayers of thanksgiving are like breathing spaces in all the work of prayer and the work that flows from prayer.  Gratitude shapes and forms us, flows through us and from us, mingling with our sorrows as well as with our joys.  Gratitude is the sheer delight of being a conscious participant in the dance of God, the dance with God.

And now, you see, in the end my image of God as water shifts, becoming the image of the dancing God who woos us to partnership through prayer.  But shall we not swim in those waters, dance in that dance, and merge all our metaphors together in gratitude to the One who surpasses them all?  Oh yes!  So let us pray; so be it; amen."

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"In Gaza last night, while Israeli army forces launched military attacks against Gaza, by sea, air and via artillery shells, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children were unable to sleep inside their roof- tinned homes, clinging to their parents, crying, and terrified. The shelling last night was earth shattering, and went through the entirety of the Gaza strip- at least 100 attacks have already taken place. 

In Gaza, we do not have bomb shelters to escape and hide."

--Dr. Mona El-Farra, A View From Gaza

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

“If Jesus is relegated to the hyperspiritualized role of personal savior, then we are free to pledge our political allegiance to the latest incarnation of empire. This is why Christians from the days of Constantine onward have been so pliable in the hands of beasts. We should think deeply upon the fact that the Nazi blitzkriegs were waged by baptized soldiers. Had the church held to pre-Constantine convictions, Hitler would never have gotten off the ground. Before we appeal to Hitler as the ultimate argument against Christian nonviolence, we first have to ask how Hitler was able to amass a following of Christians in the first place. After all, it wasn’t atheists and pagans who formed the German Christian movement that lent support to Hitler in the 1930s.”

--Brian Zahnd, What If Hitler Invaded Your House?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

"It takes no courage at all to criticize Palestinians when they respond to their occupiers with violence– plenty of people speak up. But speaking up against Israel? Too many Christians don’t. While it is true that the Palestinians are not guiltless, it is important to remember that they are not the ones in power. There is always special accountability for the individual (or in this case group) who holds the power– but we’ve held them to none.  Why is this the case? Sadly, the answer is quite simple."

--Benjamin L. Corey, What If Blessing Israel Means Confronting Their Violence?

Sunday, July 06, 2014

New Testament scholar James Brownson (Western Theological Seminary), author of the excellent book 'Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships' discusses the shortcomings in the argument of 'gender complementarity' (aka "the plumbing argument") that is often used by opponents of same-sex relationships.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

"Somehow the idea of 'inerrancy' had lodged itself in my mind. And here I was, reading the Bible, and discovering that the Bible we actually have doesn’t seem to line up with the Bible I was told to believe in."

- Daniel Kirk, "AHA" moments: Biblical scholars tell their stories, Peter Enns' blog

An informative, transparent and heartfelt apology from a former leader at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

"My hope is that we’ll all learn the lessons of the wrong we did as a collective at Mars Hill, and not just blame it on a couple of leaders and make the same mess all over again."

Friday, July 04, 2014

Today we pledge our ultimate allegiance, to the Kingdom of God
To a peace that is not like Rome’s
To the gospel of enemy love
To the kingdom of the poor and broken
To a king that loves His enemies so much He died for them
To the least of these with whom Christ dwells
To the transnational church that transcends the artificial borders of nations
To the refugee of Nazareth
To the homeless Rabbi who had no place to lay his head
To the cross rather than the sword
To the banner of love above any flag
To the One who rules with the towel rather than an iron fist
To the One who rides a donkey rather than a warhorse
To the revolution that sets both the oppressed and the oppressors free
To the way that leads to life
To the Slaughtered Lamb

--Shane Claiborne

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

(Originally posted on July 4th, 2012)

One of the most profound and yet simple statements I ever heard came from a Catholic priest. It was just six words, and when I share them you will probably think “Well, duh!” but at the time they really impacted me. What he said was, “Jesus is the revelation of God.” Maybe another way to say that is “If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.” 

I guess this is why, over the years since then, I find myself continually circling back to read the Gospels. It is there that I see what Jesus did and taught. I want to understand better the things that God values. As a Quaker, I also know that the living God still speaks to us and teaches us and leads us, if we but listen—as individuals and as communities of faith. 

In the Gospels, Jesus spoke more than anything else about the Kingdom of God (in Matthew’s Gospel, which was originally written for a Jewish audience, it is referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven in order to not offend Jewish sensibilities about speaking the name of God). The Kingdom is mentioned over a hundred times in the four Gospels. In Luke 4:43 Jesus said “I must preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” The proclamation of the Kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ ministry. When He would heal someone or cast out a demon or feed a crowd or reach out to a person on the margins of society, Jesus would say, “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” The Greek word for “kingdom” is basilea, which means “the rule and reign.” In other words, Jesus said “This is what it looks like when God is reigning—when God’s will is being done—rather than Caesar’s or Herod’s or the religious authorities’." 

But the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, did not look like the popular expectations of a temporal theocratic government, based in Jerusalem and established by violently driving out the Romans and the Herodians and the corrupt temple officials. Jesus kept saying, in essence, “No, the Kingdom of God isn’t like that. It’s like this…” 

So, for example, in Luke 13:18-19, just after healing a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, Jesus says “What is the Kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.”

Now, if a prophet were to compare God’s kingdom to something horticultural, you would expect him to choose the mighty cedar tree of Lebanon, which was a time-honored symbol of the nation of Israel and of great kingdoms and empires. To do so would conform to expected Biblical metaphors. 

For example, Daniel 4:10-12, referring to the Babylonian empire, states:
"These are the visions I saw while lying in bed: I looked, and there before me stood a tree in the middle of the land. Its height was enormous. The tree grew large and strong and its top touched the sky; it was visible to the ends of the earth. Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed."
Ezekiel 31, referring to the Assyrian empire, states:
"Consider Assyria, once a cedar in Lebanon, with beautiful branches overshadowing the forest; it towered on high, its top above the thick foliage. The waters nourished it, deep springs made it grow tall; their streams flowed all around its base and sent their channels to all the trees of the field. So it towered higher than all the trees of the field; its boughs increased and its branches grew long, spreading because of abundant waters. All the birds of the sky nested in its boughs, all the animals of the wild gave birth under its branches; all the great nations lived in its shade."
A bit earlier, in Ezekiel 17, Israel is also likened to a cedar tree:
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches.”
Obviously, in the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is alluding to these well-known texts. After all, isn’t the Kingdom of God the greatest kingdom of all—greater than the Assyrians or the Babylonians or the Persians or the Egyptians or the Greeks of the Romans? 

But Jesus says something utterly unexpected and quite absurd. Instead of a mighty cedar, He compares the Kingdom of God to a noxious, invasive, common weed! His audience would have either gasped in shock or giggled at the subversiveness and irreverence of what He was saying. Sometimes we forget that Jesus had a sense of humor and could employ sarcasm and parody to get His point across. 

Now, we have all heard this parable explained in terms of something very small growing rapidly into something big; as a metaphor for the early Christian church. After all, a tiny mustard seed does quickly grow into a bush that can reach ten or twelve feet in height. Keep in mind that most trees in Israel don’t grow very tall (except for the cedars of Lebanon) so there isn’t that much difference between a tall bush or plant and an average tree, in terms of height.

But this parable is speaking about more than just the church starting small and growing rapidly. In fact, I think the main point of this parable is often overlooked. 

You see, in Jesus’ culture, it was not allowed to plant a mustard seed in your garden, as the man in the parable does. This goes back to the Torah and the Talmud (the lengthy interpretation of the Torah). If you look, for example, at Leviticus 19 or Deuteronomy 22, you’ll see all kinds of prohibitions about mixing things: Don’t wear clothing made from two kinds of fabric; don’t plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together; don’t plant different kinds of seeds together; etc. 

The ancient Jewish understanding of holiness, or kedosh in Hebrew, had to do with separating. It is understandable that this view developed when you consider that throughout ancient history Israel was a tiny nation sandwiched between great empires who wanted to swallow up and assimilate them. Maintaining a separate and distinct identity was crucial for their survival as a people—as God’s people, in their eyes—and so separation was equated with holiness. At the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures, in Genesis 1, you see God separating things: Light from dark; water above from water below; sky from ground; etc. 

This idea of maintaining separation—kedosh—holiness, permeated Jewish life and resulted in “purity codes.” If someone was deemed ritually impure (which often had nothing to do with sin or immorality), such as a woman during her monthly cycle or a person who had touched a corpse or someone with a skin disease, they had to be excluded from the community and from worshipping God (which was a communal activity) until they were purified. By the time of Jesus, there was a voluminous purity code—which was particularly and meticulously adhered to by the Pharisees. A man could bring about impurity by eating the wrong things or by eating with the wrong people (such as Gentiles) or by mixing the wrong foods together or by not properly washing one’s utensils or by mixing fabrics or by not planting crops in the prescribed manner or by speaking with a woman in public or by coming into contact with a leper or by touching a corpse, etc., etc. 

And, of course, one’s garden had to be kept kedosh—holy. This meant each type of plant had to be kept separate from the others in neat, tidy rows. 

So what would happen if you put a mustard seed in your garden? It would very rapidly spill out of its row into other rows, mixing and mingling with the other plants, dropping seeds everywhere which would sprout up more mustard plants, and before long it would take over your garden! Plus, why would you even bother to plant mustard in your garden when it grew wild all over the place? It was a common weed. No, you would do everything you could to keep mustard plants (and mustard seeds) OUT of your garden! (If Jesus had come to Washington state where I live, instead of to ancient Judea, He might have likened the Kingdom of God to a blackberry bush!)

So, imagine again Jesus saying to a gathered crowd, “What is the Kingdom of God like? … It is like a mustard seed, which a man planted in his garden…” It’s absurd! It’s against the law! It’s contrary to our interpretation of scripture! 

But it gets worse…

Mustard bushes produce lots of seeds. What do seeds attract? Birds. Who wants birds in their vegetable garden? Most gardeners do everything they can to keep birds out!

In the parable, the birds perched—in other words, they found rest—in the branches of the mustard bush (rather than, as in Daniel and Ezekiel, the branches of a cedar ). Recently I was running an errand and I parked my car on a residential street. As I got out of the car I glanced across the street and noticed a big, ugly bush—probably six feet high and eight feet across—at the front of a residential yard. I don’t know what kind of bush it was, but my first impression was that it was an unruly eye-sore. But then I noticed that there were little birds all through the bush. They were flitting around within it and chirping and seemed to be having a great time. I imagine they felt a sense of security within the bush, being less exposed to predators and weather.

So, back to our parable: The picture that Jesus is painting here is of a nice, orderly, religiously proper vegetable garden that is about to be messed up by an invasive weed! And He says, “That’s what God’s rule and reign looks like! That’s what happens when God is in charge!”

It makes sense though, if you think about it… When you look at what Jesus did throughout the Gospels (and remember, Jesus is the revelation of God), He kept breaking down barriers and disregarding taboos. He disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with sinners. He surrounded Himself with low-lives and outcasts and those who, socially, were on the margins. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning fellowship with despised tax-collectors. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning Samaritans and even made a Samaritan the hero of His parable about loving one’s neighbor; another absurdity, which would have been highly offensive to many. Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning the place of women in society and the segregation/marginalization of women (One of my favorite Gospel stories is the one in John 4 where Jesus is hanging out at a well in Samaria having a cordial theological dialog with a Samaritan woman who has been married multiple times and is currently living with her boyfriend . Another great Gospel story is the one in Matthew 15 where Jesus has a dialog with a “Syro-Phoenician” woman and she gets the upper hand in the discussion. Typically in ancient Palestine, if you wanted to write something espousing the great wisdom of your rabbi, you would not show him being beaten in a debate by a Gentile woman!) Jesus disregarded the taboos concerning touching lepers and dead people.

Jesus, in fact, did all kinds of things that would have made Him ritually unclean. Imagine that! The man who is the image of God is doing things that will cause Him to be viewed as impure and ineligible to be in the presence of God and in the community of God’s people!

I think it is because Jesus had a different definition of holiness. A pair of Quaker pastors named Philip Gulley and James Mulholland wrote a wonderful book entitled If Grace Is True, which contains the best definition of holiness that I have ever come across:
"Holiness is God's ability to confront evil without being defiled. God's holiness does not require him to keep evil at arm's length. God's holiness enables Him to take the wicked in His arms and transform them. God is never in danger of being defiled. No evil can alter His love, for His gracious character is beyond corruption. This is what it means to say God is holy--God's love is incorruptible. Holiness and love are not competing commitments. God is love. His love endures forever. This enduring love is what makes God holy. No manner of evil done to us or by us can separate us from this love. God transforms His morally imperfect children through the power of His perfect love. It is our experience of this love that inspires us to such perfection. Jesus said, 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matt. 5:48). If this verse was a command for moral perfection, our cause is hopeless. Fortunately, this admonition follows a command to 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Matt. 5:44). Perfection is demonstrated not by moral purity, but by extravagant love. We are like God not when we are pure, but when we are loving and gracious."
So, the parable of the mustard seed is, at its heart, a teaching about radical inclusion. That bears repeating: It is a parable about radical inclusion. Jesus is saying, in effect, “If you allow the Kingdom of God into your midst, it is going to make a mess of your neat, tidy garden. It is going to break down your barriers of separation. It is going to attract and shelter the ones that everyone else tries to keep out. It is not going to look majestic and lofty and impressive, but rather, common and unremarkable and initially very small. But..., it will spread like crazy.”

What are we to do with this? Will we insist on maintaining our neat, tidy theological gardens? Or will we do what is absurd—what is taboo—and allow God’s rule and reign to mess things up? Will we value order and orthodoxy over radical inclusion and extravagant love? Each of us is the man with the mustard seed in his hand. We have only to let go and drop it into our garden and then watch what happens.