Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is God Violent?

On Saturday, a gunman killed one person and injured three more at a Passover service at Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, California.  Last October, eleven people were killed and seven injured at a mass shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.  This was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.  Crimes against Jewish worshipers are certainly on the rise.

But that's not all.  On March 15 of this year, Christchurch, New Zealand mourned as its Muslim community came under attack.  "The attacks began at the Al Noor Mosque in the suburb of Riccarton at 1:40 pm and continued at the Linwood Islamic Centre at about 1:55 pm. The gunman live-streamed the first attack on Facebook Live. The attacks killed 50 people and injured 50 others."

In addition to the Jewish and Muslim communities suffering violence, Christians are under the gun.  On November 17, 2017, a gunman killed 26 people and injured 20 others at First Baptist Church.  "The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in Texas and the fifth-deadliest mass shooting in the United States.  It was the deadliest shooting in an American place of worship in modern history, surpassing the Charleston church shooting of 2015 and the Waddell Buddhist temple shooting of 1991."

Of course, none of this is new.  These are but a few examples in recent memory.  Down through time, faith-based violence has always been a huge theme in human history.  All you have to do is read the texts of sacred literature from around the world and learn that religions have been at the center of violence, either as perpetrators or as victims, since the dawn of time.  But recently, such violence is on an upswing.  On March 15, 2019, WJAC's Crispin Havener wrote:

Violence against religions is as old as time, but studies have shown that in the past decade worldwide, the number of incidents have spiked upward
According to Pew Research Center, in 2018 more than a quarter of the world's countries experienced a high incidence of hostilities motivated by religious hatred, mob violence related to religion, terrorism, and harassment of women for violating religious codes. That’s up nearly 10 percentage points from a decade ago and affecting virtually every religious group: with Christians, Muslims, and Jewish groups the most targeted.
In the United States, the FBI says hate crimes reports were up about 17 percent in 2017, the last year data is available, marking the third straight year it's increased. Specifically, religious based hate crimes went up 23 percent in 2017 from 2016.

The upturn in religious brutality leads to the question: Is God violent?  Our answer will determine whether we condone or condemn such atrocities as the shootings in mosques, churches, temples, and churches, or whether we believe someone is justified in bombing abortion clinics.  And what about violence that is not physical?  If God is violent, then faithful people have license to engage in hateful diatribes against believers of other faiths, and against nonbelievers.  Suddenly, gay-bashing isn't such a bad thing, if it promotes a stricter adherence to religion.  But it God is a God of love, we have to denounce violence perpetrated in God's name.

For most of my Christian life, I've had a hard time grasping biblical passages that depict God as either directly violent (e.g. the Great Flood), commanding violence (e.g. the Jewish conquest of Canaan), or endorsing violence (e.g. prophets calling down curses on their enemies).  I've asked myself, "Could a God of love really be violent, ask people to commit violence, or support violence?"  If the answer was "yes," then God became a scary, mean, capricious person in my perspective.  But if the answer was "no," then that called into question the integrity of the scriptures that made such claims about such a seemingly violent God.  I've struggled with this for years, going so far as to do my own lengthy study of the topic myself--with no good solution.

Recently, I finished reading Greg Boyd's Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence.  While I can't agree with a hundred percent of what Boyd says (I have yet to agree with 100% of what anybody says, I did find his overall perspective compelling.  In a nutshell, Boyd takes the position that God is love.  God's most perfect expression of that love is Jesus, and specifically the self-sacrificing, nonviolent love that is expressed by a Savior who is willing to be killed on a cross rather than to take divine anger out on his enemies.

1 John 4:7-12 (NLT) says:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.
Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us.

Jesus was very clear that the most complete understanding of God can be found by looking at the Savior.  When the disciples asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replied:

Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves. Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:9-12 NIV)

To see Jesus is to see the Father.  This means that the character of Jesus is the very character of God.  Jesus was the one who refused to call down legions of angels to defend himself (Matthew 26:53).  When Jesus' disciples asked for permission to call fire from heaven to destroy those who rejected the Gospel, Jesus rebuked them (Luke 9:54-55).  Not only is God nonviolent, but Jesus says that God's people must also be nonviolent, doing the same works that he has done.

If this is the case, you may ask, what does Greg Boyd do with all the cases of violence in the Bible that God seemingly commits, orchestrates, orders, or condones?  While Boyd affirms the divine inspiration of the Bible, he denies that every story is accurate in its depiction of God or God's will.  For example, when God drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, or when God commands the Hebrew invaders to kill the men, women, children, and livestock in a particular village, Boyd argues that the biblical record renders not what God really did or commanded, but the primitive conception of what God did.

Boyd is aware that biblical literalists will accuse him of misrepresenting who God appears to be in the Bible, making God out to be who Greg Boyd wants God to be.  But Boyd simply points to Jesus, saying, that the Savior is the true character of God, and that any depiction of God that falls short of nonviolent, self-sacrificial love is only a shadow of God God is, and falls short of being a true description of God.  Then, Boyd does something fascination with the picture of Jesus on the cross, that explains how the Bible could contain misunderstandings of who God is.

On the cross, Boyd says, God stooped to being misunderstood.  While God is a God of truth, God allowed the divine nature to be so misunderstood and misrepresented as to submit to crucifixion between two thieves.  Jesus allowed himself to be identified as a sinner, even though he never committed a sin.  Just as Isaiah 52:14 describes the Suffering Servant as being so abused and scarred that he no longer appeared human, Jesus allowed himself to be so misrepresented to the extent that he didn't even appear to be God.  On the cross, the nonviolent God was willing to be identified with violence so that God could identify with humanity, and we might know God.

Boyd suggests that this is exactly what God was doing by allowing people to misunderstand the divine character, identifying God in ways similar to other near eastern warrior deities.  In order to have a relationship with humanity, God was willing to be misunderstood in the short term so that in the long run, Jesus could lead us to a full understanding.  Boyd contends that every passage of scripture that depicts God directly committing violence, commanding violence, or condoning violence, is an example of God condescending to be misunderstood by violent humanity, just as Jesus condescended to be misunderstood on the cross.

While many will say that this view denies biblical authority, Boyd contends that understanding scripture in this way allows us to read the Bible not as a science or history textbook, but as a narrative of humanity's misunderstanding of God, coming to a climax with Jesus' redemptive death on the cross/.  To believe that Old Testament depictions of God are more true to God's character than the loving, nonviolent, and self-sacrificial depiction of God that we find in Christ is to elevate the Bible over the witness of Jesus himself.  Boyd suggests that any biblical passage that depicts the character of God in a way that seems contrary to the character of Jesus himself must be reinterpreted in the light of Jesus' love.  He says that the best way to understand this is to see that God is willing to be misunderstood and misrepresented as violent, in order to stoop to our level and eventually through Christ lead us to a more perfect way.

Perhaps this is a new concept for you--it certainly was a new idea to me when I read Boyd's book.  I encourage you to read it for yourself and see if it helps you to deal with the subject of divine violence in the Bible.  Personally, I feel sick over the religious violence that is all too prevalent in the world.  It's important that we answer the question, "Is God violent?"  How we answer that question will determine not just whether God is violent, but whether we ought to be as well.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Holy Sites Aflame

I have to admit that I was shaken when I heard about Notre Dame burning in Paris.  My earth quaked even more when I heard about the Al Aqsa Mosque catching blaze in Jerusalem, on the same night.  Now, I'm not the type of person to read signs and find omens in everything, but I have to admit that I was a bit unsettled that one of the most recognizable churches in the world caught fire the same night as the third holiest Muslim site.  No, I don't believe God made it happen, and I don't think the sky is falling.  But it did give me pause, and remind me of a few sayings of Jesus.

Image of Notre Dame Cathedral, Royalty-Free

The first is the Lord's reminder that good as well as bad things happen to everybody.  In Matthew 5:45 (MSG), Jesus says:

This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

Some religious people on "their" side might call us nasty, and label themselves nice.  Alternately, some might want to think that burning buildings are tragic for "our" side, but are God's judgment for "their" side.  But Jesus is clear that "stuff happens" to everybody.

I also think of the words of Jesus, when a Samaritan woman asked him which was the best place to worship.  John 4:19-26 (MSG) says:

“Oh,so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?” 
“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. 
“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”
The woman said, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.” 
 “I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

Image result for al-Aqsa mosque royalty free
Image of Al-Aqsa Mosque, Royalty Free
While it's tragic that these fires destroyed or damaged holy real estate, perhaps we would do well to remember that God is bigger than brick, higher than the spire of Notre Dame, and more encompassing than the lead-colored dome of Al Aqsa.  God isn't concerned with where you worship, but how you worship.  Jesus invites worshipers to seek God in spirit and in truth.  

Wherever you are, and whatever religion you belong to, I hope you'll pray for worshipers with ties to both holy sites.  And I hope you'll be less concerned with outward forms and locations of worship than you are with inward expressions of spirit.  

Peace be with you.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


Sometimes ya just gotta unfriend somebody.

Now, that might not sound like a very nice thing to say.  After all, didn't I just blog about loving unlovable people?  Yes--I did.  But loving people doesn't mean you have to be everybody's friend.  

That may sound unkind, unchristian, and unpastoral to some people who might read these words.  But the Bible says there's "a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing (Ecclesiastes 3:5 NIV)."  So today, I unfriended someone.  I decided it was time to break the embrace.

Not that it was much of an embrace, anyway.  This person was a Facebook friend with whom I haven't had any real contact for years.  At one time, they were part of my social circle, but they were the kind of person that you're friends with simply because you feel it's your "Christian duty."  They need something, and it's in your power to give, so you give.  You've had folks like that in your life too, I'm sure.  This person was someone who I had frequent disagreements with, whose outlook is quite different from mine, and with whom friendship was more situational than soul-based.  And today, that person ticked me off just a little too much.  So I unfriended them.

No, I'm not going to go into the details.  But I've been realizing lately that I don't need a thousand Facebook friends.  When I was pastoring churches, I used to say yes to almost every friend request, because, "Hey, I don't even know them, but they live in the same community, and they might need a pastor!"  The truth is, I lacked proper boundaries.  Nothing in my job description said I needed to be everybody's friend.  And now that I'm not in the pulpit any longer, I realize that not only is being everybody's friend NOT in MY job description--it's not ANYBODY'S "Christian duty."  John 2:23-25 (NI|V) says:

Now while he \(Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.  He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.

Jesus knew that not everybody was trustworthy, and that while some people were worthy to be part of his inner circle, he didn't need a thousand Facebook friends any more than I do.  Facebook has only been available to the public since 2006--but long before "unfriending" became a word, God modeled setting proper relationship boundaries.  When people refused to behave in friendly ways toward God and other people, God removed the blessing of divine presence and favor.  Recently, I've been reading Boundaries: When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend.  I've also been reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don't Like Christianity by Wolsey.  Both authors talk about God distancing divine presence and favor from people who act in unfriendly ways towards God and others.  So I've taken God's cue and done the same thing with this person who crossed my boundaries.

Don't get me wrong--I'm not advocating disposing of sacred, special, dear, and important relationships like real friends and family.  But if you're honest with yourself, you'll have to admit that there are some people in life that were never really friends anyway--folks who you're better off without.  Today I created some breathing space in my life by being a bit more authentic in a really peripheral relationship.  Maybe you need to decrease your Facebook friends list, too.  Even if I'm the one you decide to drop, if your life has more breathing space, it's probably a good decision.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

When They're Hard to Love...Love Anyway

Some people are hard to love, aren't they?  As soon as you read that sentence, you probably brought somebody to mind--somebody who has mistreated you, ignored you, used you, betrayed you, or hurt you.  Maybe this person is even in the circle of people that you call friends and family--those people who are closest to you.  This makes the damage even worse, because they are supposed to treat you well, and yet they don't.  Perhaps, despite your best efforts, despite your peace offerings, despite yourself-sacrifice, they continue to be selfish.  They continue to not only disrespect you, but they treat others terribly.  Yes, these people are hard to love.

But loving someone isn't a feeling that happens to you.  Love is a choice.  Being IN LOVE certainly is a feeling--a powerful one that you feel for somebody who's easy to love.  We usually think of being in love as a romantic feeling, but I think you can feel that same kind of strong love for people besides your significant other.  For example, you can be in love with your own kids or grandkids--so overwhelmed with love that you see their beauty and perfection all the time.  But as beautiful as being in love is, it's different than choosing to love someone who's hard to love.

I want to suggest that when you choose to love someone who's hard to love, you're loving the way God loves.  That's agape, or unconditional love.  In his Bible paraphrase, "The Message," Eugene Peterson renders Jesus' words in Luke 6:32-38a as:

If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that.  If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that's charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.  "I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You'll never - I promise - regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we're at our worst.  Our Father is kind; you be kind.  "Don't pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults - unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don't condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you'll find life a lot easier.  Give away your life; you'll find life given back, but not merely given back - given back with bonus and blessing.

With the words of Jesus, I want to encourage you to choose to love people who are hard to love.  Those people for whom your love doesn't naturally flow.  Those are likely people who are different from you are.  Or people with whom you have a bad history.  Or people who have offended you or hurt you or treated you as irrelevant in their own lives.  Choose the way of agape, the way of unconditional love.

I leave you with the words of a poem that is probably falsely attributed to Mother Theresa.  Even though, I doubt that she wrote them, they are good words, anyway.


People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered.  
Love them anyway. 
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.  
Be kind anyway. 
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and true enemies. 
Succeed anyway. 
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.  
Be good anyway. 
Honesty and frankness will make you vulnerable.  
Be honest and frank anyway. 
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.  
Build anyway. 
People need help but will attack you if you help them.  
Help them anyway. 
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  
It was never between you and them anyway.

Friday, April 5, 2019

An I for an I

Where does the phrase "an eye for an eye" come from?  Most people would quote Exodus 21:23-25 (NIV), which describes an injured person's right to retribution against someone who has harmed him:

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Many Bible scholars point out that this law was not written to encourage vendettas and vengeance, but to limit vindictive aggression.  Instead of killing the person who bruised you, you're only allowed to bruise him back.  But people who cite the book of Exodus as the original source for this phrase probably don't know that it dates further back than Moses.  According to

"An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."
This phrase, along with the idea of written laws, goes back to ancient Mesopotamian culture that prospered long before the Bible was written or the civilizations of the Greeks or Romans flowered.
"An eye for an eye ..." is a paraphrase of Hammurabi's Code, a collection of 282 laws inscribed on an upright stone pillar. The code was found by French archaeologists in 1901 while excavating the ancient city of Susa, which is in modern-day Iran.

In a 2016 article entitled "Trump's Favorite Bible Verse," Noland D. McCaskill wrote about one presidential candidate who was very fond of this concept:

Donald Trump’s favorite Bible verse involves an “eye for an eye,” he said Thursday.
WHAM 1180 AM radio host Bob Lonsberry asked the Republican front-runner if he had a favorite verse or story from the Bible that’s impacted his thinking or character.
“Well, I think many. I mean, you know, when we get into the Bible, I think many. So many,” he responded. “And some people—look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us.”
“And they laugh at our face, and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money, they’re taking the health of our country,” he continued. “And we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.”

Mohandas K. "Mahatma" Gandhi, the renowned teacher of nonviolent resistance, is well-known for his different perspective.  According to Quote Investigator, Gandhi said, "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind."  Of course, Gandhi was echoing the teaching of Jesus, who said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Gandhi's point, and Jesus' point too, is that you can't solve the world's problems by meeting aggression with aggression, insult with insult, offense with offense.  When we act this way, we put ourselves first and others last.  When I behave like this, I forget that my neighbor and I are one.  So I suggest an intentional misspelling of Gandhi's famous phrase, to help understand what it really means:

An I for an I makes the whole world blind.

I stands for ego.  It stands for me first.  When two people contend with each other, this ego is blind to the needs of that ego.  The other ego can't see the perspective of its adversary, precisely because it has placed itself in an oppositional position.  Our problem is that we want to stand toe to toe with others, naming them our enemies rather than recognizing them as people who need our help.  Our problem is that we blame others for our problems rather than taking a look at our own responsibilities.  Jesus had something to say about this.  I beg your latitude as again I change the word "eye" to "I," so that you can see the point clearly:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s I and pay no attention to the plank in your own I? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your I,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own I? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own I, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s I (Matthew 7:3-5 NIV).

Here, the I is the probem.  The ego is the issue.  When my ego finds fault in another before taking stock of my own errors and flaws, I have made myself better than my neighbor. When I let my bruised ego get so hurt that I feel justified in wounding another, I have sinned not just against them, but against myself.   Let's be better than that.  Instead, let's be people of vision, people of the light.  Because an I for an I makes the whole world blind. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Have Patience

At this time, there are two young women in my life who are expecting babies.  My daughter Lydia is looking forward to the birth of her first child in April.  Christina's one-time foster daughter Bri is due any time now.  As we eagerly await the birth of these two little ones, it's easy to get impatient.  Maybe you can identify, because you've been waiting for something good to be "birthed" in your life as well.

This morning, for no reason at all, Christina started to sing this song that she remembered from her childhood:

Then, as I sat down to have my quiet time, the assigned scriptures in my devotion were:

Hebrews 6:13-15For example, there was God’s promise to Abraham. Since there was no one greater to swear by, God took an oath in his own name, saying:
“I will certainly bless you,    and I will multiply your descendants beyond number.”
Then Abraham waited patiently, and he received what God had promised.

Psalm 27:14Wait patiently for the Lord.    Be brave and courageous.    Yes, wait patiently for the Lord.

Hmmm...with all these things hitting at once, maybe God is trying to tell me something.  Do you have trouble with patience, like I do?  Has God been bombarding you with a message, through life events, through scripture, through music?  Maybe if we take time to wait patiently, we'll hear what God has to say.

Comment below if you'd like to share how God has been speaking to you.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Fix Your Thoughts

Today in a case managers' meeting, we took turns standing up and sharing uplifting stories about people we had gotten housed, or positive things about our coworkers.  Each of these things was represented by a house sticker or a "thumbs-up."  These are just a few of the reminders that good things are happening around here.  I was especially blessed because one of those thumbs you're looking at represented the inspirational quote board that I keep at my desk, and change daily.  It made me smile to know that something I've been doing has made a difference for others.  

This got me thinking about all the times that I'm having a hard day, finding it difficult to find something positive.  Inevitably, God puts someone in my path who says something encouraging.  Or maybe there's a sunrise that I find uplifting, or a scripture I read in my quiet time that inspires me.  I'll be it's the same for you.  Even on the worst days, there's something to lift you up.  It's a matter of choosing where your focus is going to be.  Are you going to choose the things that bring you down, or choose the things that make you rise above the circumstance?  The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:8 (NLT)

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

In this translation, Paul says, "Fix your thoughts."  This probably means "keep your thoughts," but I'd suggest that if your thoughts are broken, fix them.  The truth is, life doesn't bring us down.  We bring ourselves down when we decide to focus on our troubles rather than focusing on positive things.  Keep your mind on things that build you up, and build others up.  And maybe, while you're at it, share those good things with others to brighten their day.