Archives for posts with tag: Christian

Let’s begin with the ‘who’ rather than the ‘why.’ In case you haven’t noticed—and it seems some in the Republican Party either have not, or resent—America is getting darker. My own family is probably representative of the broader American landscape. Four years ago we were a bunch of white people. Today, my wife and I are proud parents of a black 21-month-old daughter. We just had a wonderful visit with our two nieces whose Mexican-American skin is a few shades darker than ours. Welcome to modern-day America.

It is no secret Barack Obama carried the growing ‘minority’ vote. Neither is it shocking, at least not to anyone who knows anything about the culture of ‘darker’ Americans. But it was not the black and Hispanic vote alone that carried Barack Obama to victory. He also won because of strong support among younger voters, many of whom are Christian. To older generations of Christians, many of whom are staunchly ‘religious right,’ this latter category comes as a surprise—or if not a surprise, at least with perplexity. So what do these groups have in common? Why did they vote predominantly for Barack Obama?

As a good Orthodox Christian, I’ll begin by answering apophatically (that is, before explaining why, I will explain why not). The stereotypical reason given for the minority—and even the young vote—is that ‘these people’ are lazy. They want government handouts. They don’t want to work for their money. I saw many ‘jokes’ around the internet like this one: “I predict Obama will take the early lead in the polls until all the Republicans get off work to vote.” This is only funny—to people, unlike me, who think it is funny—because deep down lots of people actually believe there is truth to it. Of course, it is couched in terms of a joke, but jokes are only funny inasmuch as they reflect some sort of perceived reality. Yet this answer is not only oversimplified and stereotyped, but wrong. It is the why not.

In reality, many, if not most, ‘darker’ Americans work hard for their money. In fact, I personally know many of these Americans who work longer hours in physically more strenuous jobs than me for half the pay or less. And then they send half their money to family in other countries so they can buy something more than a one room (note: one room, not one bedroom) house. I know many younger Americans who are far from lazy, but who have rejected the workaholic attitude of their parents’ generation. They actually listened to those sermons priests like me give at funerals—no one says on their deathbed they wish they worked more hours, spent more time at the office; rather, they tend to wish they had spent more time with their family. These young people’s parents thought their children would be best served by money, opportunity, and advantage. Meanwhile, all the kids wanted was a mom and dad who loved them, spent time with them, and were happily married. Those things do not happen when you are a workaholic. Many in the younger generation are not lazy—they simply value some things more than the almighty dollar.

So let’s get to the real reason these ‘darker’ and ‘younger’ and often ‘Christian’ Americans voted for Barack Obama. We need look no farther than the President’s inspiring Election Night speech. Here are two powerful quotes, representative of the real reason Obama was re-elected:

“What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on earth. The belief that our destiny is shared; that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. The freedom which so many Americans have fought for and died for come with responsibilities as well as rights. And among those are love and charity and duty and patriotism. That’s what makes America great.

Near the conclusion of his speech, President Obama spoke these powerful and true words:

We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”

These concepts are the real reason President Obama carried a large percentage of the minority vote, and not an insignificant number of the young Christian vote. But again, we must ask why. The reasons are both religious and cultural, yet they have this in common: all of these voting sectors are tired of the old Republican mantras of “rugged individualism” and American exceptionalism. Young Christians tend to reject these notions on biblical grounds. Minorities do not resonate with these concepts because they do not reflect their reality. Not to mention, young voters of all types increasingly understand that while the Emperor might not have no clothes, he often dresses as Jerry Jeff Walker likes his women: just a little on the trashy side. For those who do not understand this metaphor, I will say it in plain English: the younger generation realizes America makes a lot of mistakes, yet maintains an annoying arrogance. But back to the young Christians and minorities.

Since I am a ‘religious leader’ I will begin with the reason young Christians support Obama far more than older Christians. The highlighted passages from his speech last night have a biblical ring to them. When Obama spoke about “obligations” and “responsibilities,” I immediately thought  of Jesus saying in Luke 12:48: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more.” Ironically, this passage was part of the assigned reading today in the Orthodox Church—I read it this morning at Matins.

When the President pointed out “we are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions” I thought of Dr Nicolae Roddy’s poignant phrase when he was at our parish for our Bible Lecture Series. He said, “When God says ‘I AM’ (Exodus 3:14) it also implies ‘you are not.’” As Fr Paul Tarazi, another guest at a previous BLS, once said: “Only God looks good with an ego” (the Greek translation of Exodus 3:14 reads “ego eimi”).

Many young Christians are tired of the perceived “I built it” attitude of the Republican Party (whether that is their attitude or not, you can debate—but it is the perception). Not only is such an attitude anti-biblical, it does not reflect reality. None of us built anything on our own. And young people are well aware these days of the science behind their genesis. As the aforementioned Fr Paul once pointed out to his anxiously over-obsessed teenager, who was taking a biology class: “Son, just remember, 16 years ago you were not even a sperm in my testicle.” Armed with this factual information, how could any of us honestly think “I built it”? And is it not revealing, as Fr Paul also has pointed out, that “I” is the only capitalized pronoun in the English language?

i have four young children (no, i purposely left “i” in lower case to make a point, Microsoft Word—quit auto ‘correcting’ me). Their mother and I have changed many diapers, interrupted countless hours of sleep, spent more money than I care to imagine on them, and have made numerous other sacrifices so they may grow and thrive—with no guarantee they will turn out as we hope, mind you. I better never hear them say “I built it.” The hell you did! You would be nothing without me. I would be nothing without my parents. None of us even decided to come into this world. If my children offend me with this type of talk, how much do we offend our heavenly Father with such an attitude?

Potential religious reasons aside, minorities understand Obama’s talk about “obligations” and “responsibilities” and the “sum being greater than the individual parts” because this is their reality. I honestly do not know a single ‘successful’ (in the world’s eyes) minority in this country who is not where they are because of sacrifices made by others on their behalf, because of cooperation and collaboration. For most of them, and for a variety of reasons, the ‘nuclear family’ is not the norm. I am unaware of any minorities who are not where they are today because of grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Most minorities understand obligations, responsibilities, and the sum being greater than the individuals intuitively and naturally. They do not take for granted what most of us white folks assume: a high school diploma, a college education if we want, and the general benefit of majority status. No one questions whether or not we whites are ‘American.’ No one asks to see our birth certificate. No one asks about my three white kids, “Oh, where did you get them from?” No one assumes we white people are related because we are white, as many assume of our black daughter and other black people we hang out with from time to time.

And one final word to those who are concerned many younger Christians and minorities—or even President Obama—are ‘socialist.’ These aforementioned groups are, by and large, no more socialist than the Tea Party is fascist. Sure, there are some socialists who vote Democrat, just as there are some who vote Republican and believe certain things about ‘legitimate rape.’ But neither of these two extremes represents the respective party. Most young, Democrat Christians and minorities do not want the state to control everything—they simply want us to collectively pick up the slack so our sum is greater than the individual parts. Why? Because that is how they (correctly) understand the Bible. Why? Because the sum being greater than the parts reflects reality. To many young Christians and the vast majority of minorities, Barack Obama’s stated vision of America resonates with them more than anything they have heard lately from the Republican Party. And that, my friends, is the real reason younger Christians and minorities carried President Obama to re-election.

One of the things I most appreciate about my seminary experience was the opportunity to study the Bible. Growing up in a Christian home I had, of course, read the Bible. I was quite familiar with what the Bible said. But I learned at seminary I often did not know what the Bible meant. Beginning at seminary, and continuing to this day, I have made an effort to better understand what the Bible means. I have learned not to take for granted any word that is used, any paragraph that is written, no matter how minor or tangential it may seem. Often, it is in these short clips we capture the essence of the Bible.

Today’s post on Genesis 21, and specifically verses 8 through 21 (the story of the departure of Hagar and Ishmael) is one of nearly countless examples of such an occurrence. In our normal reading of the Bible, we tend to gloss over 14 verses like this. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the biblical story; but, in fact, these passages are crucial.

To understand why I am saying this, let’s step back to a topic I have mentioned before. Probably all of us are familiar enough with the Bible to understand the main thrust of the narrative is the story of Israel. We tend to focus on major figures—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, etc. And certainly these men were vital to the story. But in so doing, we should not neglect to look at the bigger picture. As I have said before, Genesis is an introduction to the Bible. In Genesis, we find key words, phrases, promises, characters, etc., preparing us for the rest of the story. And as I have also mentioned, Genesis begins not as a story of Israel, but as a story of humanity. The story does not begin in chapter 11 with Abraham, but in chapter 1 with the creation of the cosmos and, shortly after, the introduction of Adam and Eve, the father of all humanity. It is my firm belief the Bible begins this way by no accident, but as a way to show that this biblical story is meant to instruct not only the Jews, but all nations; for God cares not only about the salvation of the Jews, but of all humanity.

In the 14 verses referenced in chapter 21, we are reminded once again of this greater context. Although the biblical story and, more specifically, God’s promise to Abraham, will not continue through Ishmael, God still shows his concern for Ishmael and his mother, Hagar. God assures Hagar that, although Ishmael is not the son of the promise, He will nevertheless care for Ishmael and make of him a great nation. In other words, God does not simply dispose of or overlook Ishmael and Hagar because they are not “chosen.” He still loves and cares for them—they are still His children. They will not be the main characters in God’s plan for salvation, but He is still their God and behaves in a fatherly way towards them. It is important for us Christians to remember this lesson in our dealings with non-Christians. They, too, are God’s children. God cares for them and loves them. So should we.

Today an excellent short article was being passed around my Facebook circles regarding the notion of someone being spiritual, but not religious.  You may refer to the original article from the Huffington Post here: http://tinyurl.com/7xag59f.  I liked this article, but wish to offer a few more thoughts on it that extend beyond the normal limits for Facebook comments and status updates. 

First, while I agree with pretty much everything in the article, I think those of us who are “religious” need to own up to our role in leading people to be “spiritual, but not religious.”  What I mean by that is simple.  If people from the outside–or probably even worse, from the inside–see how we behave, why would they want to be associated with religion?  We may rightly criticize the “spiritual, but not religious” group for their faults, but we should also be willing to accept criticism back for our own.  In fact, I would argue, if we were self-critical to begin with, most people would feel no need to be spiritual, but not religious.  For this reason, I make every effort to follow the authentic, but difficult, biblical tradition.  The Bible is extremely critical of those of us on the “inside” of religion.  So instead of spending time worrying about the so-called “culture wars,” I prefer to spend time criticizing and improving my own faults and those of my own faith community. 

Now, in some ways I am going to be hypocritical with respect to my previous statement.  I generally try to stay away from critiquing even other Christian denominations, at least publicly.  I confess, sometimes it is very difficult to avoid critiquing modern expressions of Christianity, especially when I believe such expressions give Christianity and religion a bad name in general.  So please understand I make these next comments in the spirit of the best interest of Christianity as a whole, and not from ill intent to simply criticize others for criticism’s sake.

I would take Ms. Daniel’s argument a step further.  She correctly speaks of the importance of belonging to a community because in a community one must deal with people “calling you out on stuff” and “disagreeing with you.”  In other words, it is easy to be spiritual, but not religious, because you can be spiritual all by yourself, with no one to point out your imperfections.  This point is well taken.

Again, however, take this argument a step further to the situation we have today in Christianity with the multiplication of denominations.  Clearly, the “spiritual, but not religious” group was not the first to run off and start something on their own.  They were not the first to challenge or deny authority, however you want to spin the argument.  This general spirit and attitude towards religion comes from the Protestant Reformation.  And this attitude is still pervasive today among the majority of American Christians–most of whom still identify themselves as Protestants.  To me, personally, I would think “protestant” would be a derogative term.  Why would someone want to identify themselves as protesting rather than standing for something?

As I said, I am very hesitant to be critical of other faith traditions, whether different denominations or different religions altogether.  But sometimes, for the benefit of Christianity in general, I believe certain questions must be asked.  If we Christians begin accepting the presupposition that if we don’t like what’s happening in our church we will simply join or start another, then we have no right to criticize people who take that argument a step further and become “spiritual, but not religious.” 

Anyone who knows me realizes I have a lot of problems/concerns/complaints against the way we Orthodox tend to think, act, etc.  Technically, it is one of my job responsibilities to critique these things, at least in myself and in my own parish community.  But for the very reasons outlined in the article I shared, I cannot see myself leaving the Orthodox Church.  Do we have problems?  Yes.  Are we perfect?  No. But I also have problems, and fleeing the Church would be to run from my problems, to assert my own will and supposed expertise.  As our Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch once said (paraphrased): “The Church is not invented.  It was founded by Jesus Christ and is passed down for generations.” 

The ultimate challenge for us who are “religious” is to live in such a way that others would also at least respect “religion.”  As it stands, there are plenty of reasons to disrespect religion.  As it stands, most of us fall under the critique and judgment in this article leveled against those who are “religious, but not spiritual”–we just haven’t taken the argument to its logical conclusion.

The first half of the 17th chapter of Genesis deals with the covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants.  The sign of this covenant is the circumcision of Abraham, his household, and his progeny.  Below I have highlighted three important aspects of this covenant.

Age

In verse 12, God commands the male children to be circumcised on the 8th day.  Obviously, this is at a time when the child is not able to choose for himself whether to be circumcised.  We learn from this a vital lesson that Jesus later taught His own disciples: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you…” (John 15:16).  Accordingly, in both the Jewish and traditional Christian tradition, a child is circumcised (Jewish) or baptized (Christian) as an infant.  They are put in covenant with God first, and then as they grow older are taught God’s commandments.  This is where the Jews get the name “bar mitzvah,” which means “son of the commandment.” 

So for neither Jews nor traditional Christians is circumcision or baptism seen as the end, but rather as a new life, “…that you should go and bear fruit” (John 15:16).  You can now see from the full quote of Jesus in John 15:16 the consistency between Genesis 17 and Jesus’ teaching.  We are chosen by God, before we even have a choice in the matter, but only so we may go forth and bear fruit through following God’s commandments.

Sign

Another significant facet to circumcision is the obvious mark circumcision leaves on the one who was circumcised.  This mark is important because in the ancient world slaves were known by their mark.  In the Bible, it became common to refer to a believer in God as a “slave of God” (often weakly translated into English as “servant of God”).  This terminology became the common phrase used by Paul to refer to himself in the introduction of his epistles.  Obviously, the physical mark and the terminology used indicates we are “owned” by God and are, thus, accountable to Him.  It is our responsibility to live by the rules of His house, and we are to have no other master.

Biology

Circumcision, as I understand it, was fairly unique to the Jews.  Certain other societies practiced it, but even today only an estimated 30% of males are circumcised, and the vast majority (if not all) of those have been influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.  From a biological standpoint, what I find interesting about circumcision is God commanding the people to do something contrary to their biology.  In other words, God is asking males to do something that biologically changes them from the way they were born. 

The reason I find this fascinating is because the Bible—and most especially the teachings of Jesus—teaches us to behave contrary to our biological impulses.  For example, we have a biological impulse promoting selfishness, or an ability to survive.  In Scripture, however, you are taught not to be selfish, to give freely and generously to others in need.  Another example: biologically speaking, we intuitively know to stay away from people who are unkind towards us—it is a survival mechanism.  Yet, Jesus taught us to love those who hate us.  Many more examples could be given, but I think you see the point.  Most of what Jesus taught us to do is overcome our biological impulses, which is essentially what Paul means when he speaks about living according to the will of the Spirit rather than according to the desires of the flesh.

These three facets of circumcision are certainly not the only significant aspects of the covenant in Genesis 17, but to me they stand out as important principles that play a role throughout the Bible.

I am back from vacation and the Parish Life Conference, so I hope to keep this blog more regularly updated.  Today I will return to the book of Genesis, chapter 15.

Chapter 15 offers a pivotal moment in the Bible, primarily because in verse 6 Abram (later re-named and subsequently referred to here as Abraham) is “accounted righteous” by God.  Whether we like it or not, in a very real way this one verse has shaped the past 2,000 years of history.  The reason I make such a bold statement is simple: this verse is the cornerstone of the defense/apologia of the Christian movement as seen most explicitly in Acts, Romans, and Galatians.  And, of course, we know that history has been changed because of Christianity.

According to the teachings of Jesus Christ, as thoroughly outlined especially by St Paul of Tarsus, being accounted righteous by God is independent of being perfectly obedient to the Mosaic Law.  I believe it is important for Christians to understand that the teachings of Jesus and Paul–that righteousness is found apart from the Mosaic Law–is not a “new” concept, but one found in the Old Testament.  Put differently, in defending the teaching of Christ, Paul did not invent a new argument or concept, but simply referred back to Scripture to make his case.

In Paul’s time, as in our own, we are tempted to think (even if we profess something different with our mouths) we are righteous because we follow certain rules (insert the rules of a specific religion or denomination).  With religious Jews, it is easy to fall into the trap of righteousness by following the Mosaic Law.  However, as Paul correctly points out, Abraham is deemed righteous by God BEFORE the Mosaic Law even exists.  Therefore, if one is accounted righteous before the Law is given, then righteousness does not come through the Law.  Instead, as Genesis 15:6 indicates, it comes through belief in God.

Now it is important to keep in mind that the word translated “believe” in Genesis 15:6 is more than an intellectual ascent or a simple confession of faith.  Rather, biblical belief in God means you put your trust in God.  I often compare this to kids and their “belief” in gravity.  Give a 3-year old kid a balloon and take him outside.  Watch him let go of the balloon and cry when the balloon flies away.  The child has such a strong trust in gravity he believes whatever goes up will always come down.  The 3-year old in this example has a biblical “belief” in gravity–he behaves according to something unseen based on a trust in that principle.

Ultimately, putting this kind of faith, trust, or belief in God is what leads to us being accounted righteous.  It is our authentic admission that we are insufficient before God, and our recognition that only He can correct that, which leads us to holiness.  Certainly, if we have that sincere faith, action should follow; we should behave in a certain way.  As St James pointed out in his epistle, if our behavior does not match the confession of our lips then it proves we do not have a biblical belief in God, but only the kind of intellectual belief I mentioned previously–and one shared even by the demons (James 2:18-19)!  Yet, we should never permit ourselves to think our actions make us holy.  It is only God who can deem us holy, and only when we are willing to admit our deficiencies and inadequacies. 

Genesis 14 includes three verses (18-20) about the most enigmatic figure in the Bible, Melchizedek.  Throughout the centuries, biblical readers have argued about the correct translation of the Melchizedek passage and its significance.  Besides these three verses in Genesis 14, Melchizedek is mentioned in Psalm 110 and briefly in Hebrews 5 and 6, and more extensively in Hebrews 7.

What I wish to present here is the traditional Christian understanding of Melchizedek, based largely on the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Melchizedek means “my king is the king of righteousness,” or simply “king of righteousness.”  Melchizedek is introduced in Genesis 14 as the “king ofSalem.”  The word Salem in Hebrew means “peace,” so this “king of righteousness” is the “king of peace.” 

There are three main reasons Melchizedek is important in Christian understanding.  First, Abram (later re-named Abraham) offers Melchizedek a tithe.  This offering would indicate Abram viewed Melchizedek as greater than himself.  Second, Melchizedek is the “king of peace” and a priest of God Most High.  These titles are taken to refer to Melchizedek as associated with whatSt Paulwould call “the heavenly Jerusalem” (for certainly the earthly Jerusalem has not been known as a peaceful place!).  Third, Melchizedek offers Abram bread and wine, two extremely important images in Christianity.

From all this we can understand the importance of Melchizedek in Christian thought.  Christianity moved away from the earthly, Levitical priesthood and theTemplesystem in favor of the idea of Jesus’ eternal priesthood and once-for-all sacrifice.  Furthermore, and quite related, Christianity left behind the Temple sacrifices and the notion of worshipping in one specific geographical location (i.e. the earthly city of Jerusalem) in favor of worshipping God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24) wherever one is located.  Christians stress the pre-eminence of the “heavenly Jerusalem,” which will be a peaceful city, over any earthly city.  Finally, instead of offering a new sacrifice, Christian worship revolves around the remembrance of Jesus’ death, with the bread and wine being offered as antitypes of His Body and Blood sacrificed on the Cross.

Although Melchizedek appears for such a short time in the Bible, his importance is considered significant, serving as a reminder to us that we should read each and every verse of the Bible carefully.  If we gloss over the story of Melchizedek, we miss an essential aspect of the Bible.

Yesterday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church was John 4:5-42, the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  The story is, of course, packed with meaning, but I would like to point out one interesting aspect that is frequently overlooked.

John 4 says Jesus came to a city of Samaria called Sychar.  To my knowledge, there is no historical evidence such a village existed.  This led some Church Fathers and scholars to conclude there is some sort of scribal error involved with Sychar.  However, I am inclined to think it is no error at all. 

The root of Sychar in Hebrew means to earn your living by working as a servant/slave.  It is this same word used in Genesis to describe the 14 years of Jacob’s labor to acquire Rachel.  In addition to this Sychar, several times throughout John 4 the Greek word “kopio” is used.  In verse 6 it is translated as “wearied” and in verse 38 several times as “labor.”  The word “kopio” is also used by St Paul in his epistles to speak of laboring for the Gospel.

One more thing to keep in mind is the play on the five husbands in the story.  The number five in Scripture is often a reference to the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy–the Mosaic Law).  Since the Samaritans only accepted the five books of Moses (and not the rest of the Old Testament), Jesus’ discussion here about the five husbands is likely referring to the woman being under bondage to the five books of Moses.  Remember, a woman during these times was legally subject to her husband, under his authority.

Based on this info, you can see how there is a play going on between Sychar and kopio.  The Sychar, the laboring to keep every aspect of the Mosaic Law, leads to bondage.  Drinking of that water leaves one thirsty, always needing to do more and more, work harder and harder.  On the other hand, the kopio, the laboring for the Gospel of grace, leads to freedom.  Those who drink of the Gospel’s waters will never be thirsty again.  They will reap that for which they had not labored (vs. 38) and, following this path of grace, will continue to kopio/labor for those who will come after them and reap of their work.

As Christians, this should be our worldview: freely you received, freely give (Matthew 10:8).  We have freely received God’s grace, so we must in turn labor to make this grace known to others–not only in our preaching, but through our works of love and mercy.