Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Coexistence at Laodicea

Anyone who knows me, has ever taken a class from me, whether at Shiloh Church, University of Dayton's Life-Long Learning Institute, or through Shiloh's Bible @ Boston's program, likely knows that I have a life-long affinity for archeology. If you know me well, you likely know that my favorite publication is the Biblical Archaeology Review, edited by Hershel Shanks. You also likely know that I firmly believe that the revelations of ancient times can help us better understand the world we live in today.

A point in that case is timely and important, I think. In the most recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Mark R. Fairchild offered a meaningful and exciting article, entitled, "Laodicea's 'Lukewarm' Legacy: Conflicts of Prosperity in an Ancient Christian City". In the article, Fairchild makes clear that Laodicea's history, while something of a remaining mystery, is an indication that, at least at times in the city's history, Christians and Jews shared space and, perhaps, time. The implications are drawn from relics that have been discovered during excavations of ancient Laodicea. Most telling of those discoveries is an ancient column, now broken, that depicts four symbols. Those symbols were a Jewish shofar, or ram's horn, a menorah, and an olive branch, which can be representative of both Judaism and Christianity. The fourth etching was a large Christian cross. The Jewish symbols were carved before the Christian images, but the Christian images were added to, instead of covering over, the Jewish ones.

The fact that both Jewsih and Christian symbols appeared together on ancient finds is important. The author suggests that the presence of both religions' symbols means that those faiths likely took place in the community side-by-side, likely in the same spaces and perhaps even at the same time. This suggestion reflects something that we have long suspected of the early pre-Christian and Christian periods. We have suspected that the Christian movement grew out of the Jewish synagogue and, at least for a time, lived fairly amicably side-by-side. The important point of the carvings is that neither symbol or faith is demonstrated at superior to the other. The presence of the unified symbols shows that they were contemporarily respected and honored images.

Which brings me to the age in which we live. We heard, just yesterday, of the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Missouri, where hundreds of tomb stones were thrown over, displaced and broken. At this time, before the video cameras are investigated, there is no suspect and no claim of responsibility.

I suspect that the accommodation of developing Christianity in the synagogues of ancient Judaism likely lasted until the institutionalization period of Christian development, beginning after 70 c.e. The separation picked up steam, of course, at the Council of Jamnia, in 90 c.e., when the Hebrew canon list was further established by the exclusion of "Christian" elements. This event signaled an institutional break between the two faiths.

Since then, there has been varying degrees of open conflict, sometimes subtle anti-semitism, outright violence, mistrust and competition that is meant to prove that one side or the other is more faithful as God's favorite. If the carvings at Laodicea teach us anything it is that Christians and Jews can live, worship and thrive alongside one another. We can live in unity, sharing time and space in such a way that both faiths, and all of the human race, benefit. We can, if we will, return to a state of honoring each other's sacred symbols, holy places and important images. There is no room in that relationship, and it is of no benefit to humankind, to desecrate graves, destroy images, or harm people.

Learn the lessons of the past, my friends, and coexist. It is of benefit to all people!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sermon on the Mount Applied

Jesus stood above his followers on a small rise in the terrain, in order that he could be seen and heard, and taught them the most radical of things. He challenged them to think through for themselves just how to live out the ethical archetype that he promoted, that which we will come to call the "Christ Ethic." Much of what Jesus said flew directly in the face of traditions in which the majority of his followers were raised. How dare he speak it? And how dare they listen? More importantly, how dare they undo centuries of tradition and follow him?

The "Sermon on the Mount" is earth-shattering and foundation-shaking. It is completely and utterly "other." It is nothing that anyone of Jesus' time would have been used to. It questions the authority of scripture and the trust that humanity had placed in the traditional teachings of God's law. It says, basically, "Do not rely on what you have been taught. It may not be the most faithful response to following God's will. Instead, do this..." The Sermon on the Mount marks a shift in perspective without which Jesus ministry cannot be understood or embraced.

The Sermon on the Mount remains, even today, a radical statement of the faith that follows Jesus, his actions and his teachings. Who can think of the actual teachings and practices of Jesus without hearing and experiencing "love your enemies," "you have heard that it was written, but I say unto you..." and "when you speak evil against another, you do the other damage?"

If Facebook posts are any indication, otherwise good Christian men, women and children have completely missed the point of a key teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Many have missed the cornerstone of Jesus' teachings. Folks, it is not okay for people to label others, refer to them by some critical epithet, and dismiss them as not worthy of our time, attention, or effort. To call names and insult is simply to dismiss, to estrange, to reject. The cornerstone of Jesus' teachings and actions is inclusion of those who are different, who believe and behave differently, who have been rejected and excluded.

It is not okay to post on Facebook, or to state in any other forum, something that dismissed certain parts of the population . It is not faithful to Christ Jesus to do so. I do not care what you read in the polemical press. I do not care that you have an opinion about politics or economies or social values. To call names and insult is not acceptable. To exclude, dismiss and reject is in no way in line with Christian values.

I therefore urge those who read The Shiloh Insider to refrain from posting things that insult, dismiss or reject others. Refuse to use language, or to take stances, that do others damage. Carefully consider the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ. Choose to refuse the bandwagon of lack of civility. Respect instead. Honor instead. Care instead. Even when you vehemently disagree, if what you are tempted to say diminishes another, choose to say nothing. When you speak and act on behalf of those who have been victimized, those who have been oppressed, excluded, rejected or dismissed, remember, please, to use language and take actions that do not damage, dismiss, reject or exclude others.

Think through what you do and say. Apply the Christ archetypical ethic in very practical ways to how you treat others.  

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

News

Can you remember with me when news was news? Do you recall when we believed at the end of a Walter Cronkite evening news report when he would habitually say, "And that's the way it was..." My favorite news tag line, by the way, was Linda Ellerbee saying, "And so it goes..."

Perhaps news was as polemical then as it is now. Maybe network were just as concerned with ratings, popularity, and the celebrity of its anchors. Maybe those were just more innocent times, when we believed what we were told and trusted the reporting as an ethical and honest depicting of what actually happened.

Something has happened to news and its sources. Somewhere along the line, the sensationalism of a story, or the opportunity to attack certain values, opinions or world-views has replaced factual recitation of the day's events. Perhaps there is simply too much news. In the competitive market, the more polemically a tale can be told, the more it appeals to this faction or that. Advertisers are so sophisticated that ads for items are placed within polemical environments, targeted audiences and demographic categories. News has become factionalized. It is compartmentalized, targeted, sectarian.

I noticed it first, of course, with news sources that disagreed with my own opinions and values. "They" were slanting their news toward a certain perspective. It was later that I began to realize that the news sources upon whom I relied for information were doing the same thing. "We" were doing exactly what I accused "them" of doing. Once able to make that admission, I could face honestly the nature of contemporary entertainment newstelling.

How does one get at the truth of anything in such a slanted news environment? It is not easy. It is not comfortable. It may, at times, not even be possible. But here are a few simple guidelines that I follow:

Trust No One: Do not follow a particular telling of the news as if its content and context were the absolute truth of the thing itself. No telling of the news takes place in a vacuum. Everything you read, hear or watch is slanted in some subtle way or another. (Like scripture, all news is contextual.)

Read, Watch, Learn Widely:  Because no single source is to be trusted with the truth of any single thing, turn to multiple sources, including those with whom you disagree. Read incessantly and watch reports from varied outlets. Become cosmopolitan in your newsgathering. (Like scripture, there is no single truth.)

Get Near Originals: Get as close as you can to original reporting. Almost every news outlet sites sources for their stories. Go back to those sources, if you are able, to see what was originally said. Many times, the slant placed on the news lies in the difference between what was originally reported, and that said about the original story. (Like scripture, news is filtered.)

Keep an Open Mind: Do not decide too quickly what a particular news item means. Take the time and make the effort to analyze for yourself the impact of any story, fact or occurrence. Think creatively and honestly about what you hear or see. Do not allow any news source to do the analysis for you. (Like scripture, news can constantly surprise us.)

Adopt a Wide Scope of Interest: News reporting relies increasingly on narrow viewpoints and make up minds. The telling caters to what sources believe people want to hear and see. Break out of that categorization to a wider worldview. Refuse to be pigeon-holed. Demand more eclectic information. As always, those who want to make certain people happy will tell them what they want to hear and show them what they want to see. Do not fall for it. (Like scripture, a wider worldview informs instead of challenges.)

Finally, embrace an ethical standard through which you determine whether or not a certain news story is of value, of what value, and what to do, think or say about it. Mine is the ethical archetype that is established in the life, ministry, Crucifixion/Resurrection of Christ Jesus. I run everything through the sieve of the standard of sacrifice for others and the universal benefit of life lived according to that ethical archetype. This is my tool for analyzing news and its reporting. You do not have to embrace it or adopt it. You are free to establish your own. I just find this one a faithful response to my calling and my understanding of being Christian.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Evolutionary Braking System

See if this resonates with anybody.

Students of history, of whatever discipline, have discerned a pattern of major cultural shifts that have taken place in human history roughly every 500 years. The shifts have been so meaningful in character that they have resulted, through time, in axiomatic shifts within every human discipline. There has been no corner of human endeavor unaffected by the cultural evolutionary process. The evolutionary process has been undeniable and inevitable, despite the best efforts of those who would rather it not be the case.

If we are correct in assessing those major cultural shifts, the last took place in the 15th and 16th centuries and is characterized in the religious realm by the Great Reformation. Now, 500 years later, we find ourselves in a similarly discernible phase of cultural evolution. The difference lies in our ability to recognize the cultural shift for what it is. One would think that we would cope with it far better than have past generations. But, no.

Each of these 500-year phases in cultural evolution has been characterized by a rough transitional period, lasting some 100 years, which we may understand as a battle between the old and the new cultural identities. Therefore, the age of tension in which we find ourselves these days is nothing new. It has happened every 500 years. If we are correct that the transitional phases take about a century, there is both good and bad news. The bad news is that we are only about halfway through that transitional phase. The good news is that we are halfway through that transitional phase.

There will be a Hegelian synthesis formed, as a modulation between the two extremes of what the culture had been and what it is becoming. That synthesis takes place as both extremes express themselves, often as reducto ad absurdum, and we see that neither is practical or practicable. To state the case more concretely, it is likely that the culture is moving in paths of unity, acceptance of diversity, tolerance and a continual blurring of cultural, racial, economic, gender, and political boundaries. Divisiveness is disappearing. Segregation is diminishing. Separation of kinds, types, clans and ilks is becoming antiquated, both as notion and practice. There will be forces that seek to articulate the divisiveness, segregationist, protectionist, fearful stance of previous cultural articulations. They will be powerful forces that seek to pull us back from the brink of cultural evolution. There will also be powerful forces that work for unity, peace, justice for all persons, equality and tolerance. Our culture will tend to shift from one cultural footing to the other, until we reach some synthesis of the two opposing positions.

The pendulum of cultural expression is swinging. American culture has just said that it fears the direction, and the pace, at which we are moving toward the inevitable cultural evolution. We pulled back. No judgment here, of course. Serious students of history would have expected just such a cultural response. It is natural and rational. It is doomed to failure, however. No statement of cultural opposition, whether religious, political, economic, social or military, can keep culture from evolving. It will move on. As certainly as we will see cultural opposition, we will certainly see cultural progress. While those who would put on the brakes of cultural evolution may do significant damage, do not fear, culture will evolve. In the meantime, perhaps we can work for those who are harmed by the pendulum swing.  

 

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

New Year Resolutions

The new year is prime occasion to start something. Many of us make resolutions. I have read many: Lose weight; Exercise regularly; Be more at peace with myself; Follow my dreams; Focus on my needs; Learn a language; Go back to school; Get a hobby; Win the lottery; Get a new job. Do not misunderstand, please. There is nothing wrong with improving one's self, educating one's self, finding a place of peace in this chaotic life. Each resolution is good, in and of itself.

There is something missing here, however. So I want to propose a different kind of resolution for 2017, one that focuses beyond self-improvement. Do those things too, of course, but don't do only those. What I suggest is a resolution that is beyond one's self, one that focuses our attention, time and energy on the needs of those around us. I call it the "selfless" resolution.

Here is the resolution: In 2017, I resolve myself to do one random act of generosity and kindness per day, without expectation of return, reward. recognition or appreciation.

The first half of the resolution is tough. One act of kindness or generosity per day is going to cost me time, energy, attention and, more than likely, even money. I am going to have to go out of my way to attend to those around me, particularly as I search for an act of kindness and generosity. As I look for opportunities to practice kindness and generosity, I am going to have to listen and look. I will be forced to attend to the needs of those around me. I will have to pay attention to others.

The second half of the resolution is even tougher. These acts of kindness or generosity are to be practiced without expectation of thanks, reward or recognition. There is a purity here that I do not want people to miss. So often, we engage in behaviors in hopes of winning some recognition or reward. Doing so means that we engage in those acts for ourselves. They are not genuinely focused on doing for anyone else. If, however, we are to engage in acts of kindness or generosity without such expectation, those acts spring from our sincere attempt to simply meet someone else's need.

Here is what I anticipate as an outcome of my 2017 selfless resolution. I anticipate a freedom from my own aches and pains. I anticipate a decrease in complaint about the ways of the world, which seem always to work against me. I anticipate freedom from depression and anxiety, which spring from a concentration on one's self. I must make clear, though, that I am not practicing my 2017 selfless resolution in order to get these things. It is simply that a focus on the needs of others diminishes attention to myself, my problems, my tension, my stress, my fear and my anxiety.

If you genuinely want 2017 to be a better year, I recommend a selfless resolution. Try it for a year. See if it does not translate into happier, healthier, more fulfilling relationships. See if it does not make better selves in the long run. See if it does not make us more like Christ, which, I believe, is core to the practice of the Christian faith.

Happy New Year!  

Monday, December 12, 2016

A Prayer of Christian Commitment

A new person here at Shiloh shared this prayer with me a few weeks back. He explained where he ran across it, why he passes it along, and its deep meaning for him. While I might amend a thought here or there, I have decided to share it with the readers of The Shiloh Insider just as it was passed to me.

I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power. I have stepped over the line, the decision has been made. I am a disciple of his. I won't look back, let up, slow down back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my presence makes sense, my future is secure. I'm finished and done with low living, sight-walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talk, cheap living and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, plaudits, or popularity. I no longer have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith, leaning on his presence, walking in his patience, lifted by prayer, labor and power. My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal is heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions are few, my guide is reliable, my mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, deluded, lured away, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won't give up, shut up, or let up until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up, all for the cause of Jesus Christ.

I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I must go till he comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till he stops me. And when he comes for his own, he will have no problem recognizing me...and my banner will be clear. Amen.

While I do not necessarily agree that our goal would be heaven, and while I question whether Jesus comes again in the faithfulness of his followers, I love the devotion and commitment that is reflected in this statement. Maybe we could be less distracted, less manipulated, less compromised, less turned away. Maybe we could be more faithful, more devoted, more committed, more loyal, more certain. Maybe our lives could serve as certain witness to the presence, love, grace, mercy and generosity of Christ Jesus. Maybe, with Christ's coming, he might find us ready, willing and able to be his faithful community of disciples and apostles. Thanks, Jason, for sharing the prayer with all of us!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

The Law Against Christmas

If you are a person who believes that strict adherence to all laws is the best way to live communally, I have some news for you. Your position would have resulted in preventing Christmas. Here is how.

In ancient times, marriage was less a romantic notion about life choices and couples' aspirations than it was a contract between two families. The deal worked like this: families with daughters arranged with families with sons to transfer responsibility for the daughters to the families of sons in exchange for a price, a dowry. In exchange, the families with sons received a young woman of child bearing potential to provide subsequent generations. The arrangement was a betrothal contract. It promised that responsibility for the daughter would be transferred to the family with sons.

The betrothal contract was binding. The sons had no choice. The daughters had no choice. They were bound by the betrothal contract to carry out the arrangements that their respective families had reached. As soon as the daughter of the one family reached the age of child-bearing, the betrothal contract of with the son's family was enforced. There were few ways out of the betrothal contract. Most were unlawful. The sons or daughters could vacate themselves. They could run away. If they did, however, they could never return. Such a crime was punishable by death. The female could become impregnated by another male, thus breaking the betrothal contract. Again, however, the crime was punishable by death. In fact, in such a case, the groom-to-be son of the one family was obligated under the law to be the first to cast a deadly stone at the otherwise bride-to-be daughter of the offending family. The betrayal brought shame on the daughter's entire family, and, not incidentally, her own death.

This situation is particularly applicable to the nativity story of the Gospel according to Matthew. While betrothed, but prior to marriage, Mary, who was obligated by her family to marry Joseph, was found to be with child. The law was very clear. Joseph was obligated under the law to see to it that Mary was stoned to death. In fact, he was obligated to be the first to cast the deadly stone. Joseph was in a tense position. He did not want to see Mary die. He resolved to break the law by dissolving the contract between his family and hers. (This was an illegal act!) In Matthew's Gospel account, Joseph, not Mary, is warned in a dream, by no less than an angel of the Lord, to honor the contract, despite Mary's betrayal, and take her as his wife. (Another illegal act!)

In the briefest of accounts, Joseph breaks the law and takes Mary as his wife. If he were a man of honor under the law, he would have cast the first rock at her public stoning. If Joseph had done what he should and ought to have done, there would have been no nativity, no birth, no Jesus. Had Joseph held to the letter of the law, there would be no Christmas.

So, if we want to protect Christmas, let us do so with compassion, understanding and creativity. Let us not demand a strict adherence to the letter of our Christian orthodoxies or ecclesial laws, rules or regulations. Had Joseph rigidly clung to those obligations, Mary and Jesus would have died. It is only through compassion, mercy, imagination, forgiveness and grace that we have Christmas at all. Thanks to the unlawful Joseph, Jesus is born to Mary. Christmas is saved!