How Holy Week reflects our individual stories

This past Sunday was Palm Sunday which began Holy Week. For anyone unfamiliar with Palm Sunday, it is the day when Christians celebrate the time Jesus entered into Jerusalem and people shouted,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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Now, what’s going on here? A little context I think has helped me.

If your living during this time, you are shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures and the narratives found there. Primarily though, you are shaped by two major narratives; that of exodus and that of exile.

Exodus is familiar to most people, even those not raised in a religious tradition. According to the narrative, God, through Moses (i.e. Christian Bale:) brought about salvation (read liberation) and set the Israelites free from Egyptian oppression.

Exile, is less familiar to most people, but it is no less important and may actually be much more important to the Jewish mind. In 587 BCE, the Babylonian Empire, under the reign of Kind Nebuchadnezzar, conquered Judah, destroyed the temple, and took thousands of the most influential leaders and most of the young people and brought them back to Babylon to assimilate them into their culture. This exile lasted for about 50 years until the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonian’s in 539 BCE and allowed those in exile to go free. It was actually during this time that much of the Hebrew Scriptures were written. This was because the Jewish people were forced to wrestle with who they were and were God was in the midst of this. They had been conquered, their sacrificial religious system destroyed with the temple, and how they understood God was through God’s presence in the temple. Now they had to think about where they came from, who was God, how did God bring about salvation before, and how the heck did they wind of in Babylon?

In both of these narratives, God brought about salvation through a person who set the Jewish people free from oppression.

So, in the Palm Sunday narrative we see the first century Jews expecting God to bring about salvation in the same way that God had in the past, by sending a Messiah/Savior who would bring about salvation by overthrowing the Romans and establishing an earthly kingdom…only this didn’t happen.

Several days later, what Christians now call Maundy Thursday, one of Jesus’ closest friends betrayed Jesus and on Good Friday Jesus was crucified. Imagine you were one of the disciples, you have left all family and friends to follow this Jewish Rabbi for the last year, and you wholeheartedly believed that this Rabbi was the coming Messiah/Savior who would bring about salvation. In other words, Jesus was the warrior king who would overthrow the Romans!…only something went terribly wrong.

Within a matter of several days, your whole world was shaken, and you were left confused, frustrated, uncertain, and dumbfounded. You have given up everything. You deeply believed that Jesus was the Savior and now he was just killed. Your whole life was headed in one direction, and then all of a sudden the ground was ripped out from under you and you didn’t know where God was or why this was happening.

Have you ever felt like this?

Have you ever asked, “Why is this happening?”

Have you ever asked, “Where are you in the midst of this God?”

You’re not alone!

Holy Week reflects the human drama. In other words, each of us can share in this week, because I have never met anyone who didn’t go through a Friday of their own. Everyone one of us has felt lost, betrayed, hurt, wounded, alone, frustrated, uncertain, confused at some point in our life. If you are human and your heart is still beating, you have endured a hardship, a time of grief or suffering of some sort. You have experienced a crisis or loss, you have loss a job, a relationship, someone has passed away, someone close to you has been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, you have moved, someone has spoken something to you or about you that has wounded or hurt you, you have tried to obtain something – a job, a school, a grade, or even pregnancy, and it didn’t happen…we all share in this story because Holy Week reflects each of our stories.

Two simple things I have learned from going through seasons like this in my life and seeing others go through them as well. They are very practical, but I think very powerful.

1. Admit it

To admit that your struggling is not easy, but it is the first step to healing. Many of us, myself included, struggle with this because it feels like admitting that we are weak. Also, among many Christians, there can be a sort of pressure to always seem like we  have it all together and to always be “more than conquerors.” The problem is, we don’t live our entire lives in Easter…we spend our lives journeying from Palm Sunday – where everything seems to be going great, through Good Friday – where everything comes crashing down, to Easter – where God works to bring about new life among the ashes.

By admitting it, we are not admitting we are less human, less mature, or less spiritual. We all have and will endure seasons of hardship, just because you are struggling doesn’t mean that you did something wrong or aren’t good enough or strong enough. When we admit it and openly walk through difficult times, our souls expand. Have you ever met someone who seems like they were a deeply centered person? Chances are they walked through a very difficult Friday and resisted the temptation to try to skirt around it or try to pretend it’s not there. I think the key here is realizing it is a season of your life and it doesn’t define who you are.

2. Surround yourself in community.

Friends matter. Relationships matter. As much as we try to do things on our own, when we experience Fridays (i.e. times of crisis) in our lives, we often need to rely on others. This has been true in a number of different seasons of my life. As much as I would like to always have faith, hope, perseverance, and strength, I don’t. I doubt. I don’t always have hope. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and want to give up.  We need those around us to have faith for us when our faith falters, to have hope when we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, to continue to walk alongside us and be our strength when we feel like giving up and surrendering.

Holy Week is a reflection of each one of our stories. By reflecting upon this we can  be encouraged to know that we are not alone!

Oh…and the most powerful part about this is that God is working amidst our Fridays (loss) to bring about Easter (new life)!

Is the Bible Inerrant?…and did God command genocide?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the first chapter of Peter Enns new book The Bible Tells me so…why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.

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I have since finished the book, it’s fantastic!

I wanted to reflect on what I saw as the main points of the book and where I resonated the most.

The main point of the book is that too many people have attempted to defend the Bible as an inerrant rule book that gives one harmonious story and picture of God, and this view has thus hindered them from reading the Bible as it is.

Enns’s conclusion?

The Bible doesn’t behave like a divinely dictated, inerrant rule book. The Bible contradicts itself, gives various pictures of God, and often tells stories that are not factually or historically true.

Enns jumps right into the complexity by dealing with one of the hardest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, the genocide of the Canaanites that was commanded by God.

In the book of Joshua it states, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

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Enns writes, “It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday.”

Enns goes a step further and writes, “…this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.”

If you are like me and have struggled with understanding how a loving God could command such atrocities your not alone!

Enns shows that the archeological evidence suggests the annihilation of the Canaanites never happened. (I have written about the historical inaccuracy of this here.)That’s correct…what the Bible claims to have happened appears to have never taken place…at least not on the scale that the story claims.

Before we get into other places where the Bible contradicts itself ( in Joshua it says that they annihilated all the Canaanites except for a few, but Judges makes it clear there were many still alive), we still need to answer the question of why this story is in the Bible.

Christians believe the Bible is somehow inspired by God. If this is the case, why would God allow such stories to become a part of the Bible?

Enns answers this (and I agree) by showing that God lets God’s people tell the story. The picture of God, in the case of the Canaanite annihilation, was not an accurate picture of God, but it was the way they viewed God at the time. Enns writes, “the ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways.”

I would add that we should be careful here to not think ourselves as having it all figured out. In another three thousand years I am sure people will look back upon us in many of the same ways we do to ancient people now.

So the story of the Canaanite annihilation is not a factually true story and God did not command genocide, but it was rather the view of ancient Israel of God as a tribal warrior deity similar to all other tribal warrior deities in the surrounding areas?

Yes.

Recently Richard Rohr wrote, “But, some will say, the Bible talks about God’s wrath. Yes, it does, but I would say that it was the people who were hateful at that point, and we wanted to create a God in our image. So we justify our wrath, our vengeance, and our violence by saying, ‘God orders us to kill all the Canaanites.'”

In other words, God works within whatever system or view humanity has of God at the time – even views that are not completely accurate (doesn’t this makes sense? If God is working through our limited views now, which I’m sure are not completely accurate, than our experiences would confirm this). We are limited in our perspectives. We see the world through certain lenses that our science, technology, archeology, cosmology makes available to us at the time. In the story of the Canaanites, the people of the Bible viewed their God in much the same way other people viewed their gods. Israel saw the world in much the same way other ancient people saw the world.

If the Bible is not an inerrant rule book or manual for life, what then is the Bible?

According to Enns, the Bible works, “as a model for our own spiritual journey. All of us are on a journey of faith to encounter God from our point of view.”

“The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the  spiritual journeys of people long ago.”

The Bible is inspired because it reveals the story of God that climaxes in Christ, yet it is always written from the perspective of humans and humans have different ways of seeing things.

So the Bible is not a simple, laid out, harmonious story that we just passively absorb. The Bible is a complex, multilayered, collection of stories with different perspectives that don’t always align. Thus, we are invited to enter into the story, engage with the story, learn from the story, struggle with the story, wrestle with the story, and even…yes…disagree with the story, in hope that we can continue the story of God in the present and into the future – this is actually what the people in the Bible were also doing when they wrote it down.

shift in paradigm

If you know much about me at all, it is clear that over the last 3-4 years I have changed my views on a few things. It would take many posts to go over the ins and outs of each of these changes, but, as I reflect, I think much of the change can be summarized as a shift in paradigm.

Growing up I used to see life as the picture below.

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Truth was clear, and all the correct beliefs were filed away neatly, and could be pulled out at any moment. As seen in the picture above, this belief system had clear boundaries which made is simple to tell who was “in” and who was “out”.

The goal was to first solidify your beliefs, then organize them, and then try to convince others that all your views are correct. In other words, you are trying to get everyone else outside of your way of thinking to come inside.

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Then something happened…

this whole system no longer worked for me.

I find it quiet interesting that some have (and continue to) suggested this happened because I fell of the wagon, turned my back on God, truth, Scripture, the Spirit or was offended or hurt by someone. (Usually this is because I see things differently then they do and they aren’t sure how to handle it).

The fact of the matter is, that this shift took place while I was seeking after God’s direction, attending church on a regular basis, and attending a conservative Bible College. What happened wasn’t that I walked away from truth, but that I wrestled with the answers that were given and being given to me and found them lacking.

While it began with a few small changes, it soon became clear that the whole system or way of operating didn’t work…it didn’t make sense…I didn’t just need to change a few beliefs, but I needed a completely different way of understanding life.

I needed a new paradigm.

Instead of a “truth box”  life is much more colorful, interesting, dynamic, and complex. Instead of the goal being to try to make my beliefs stronger and then convince others I am right, I see life much more like a journey towards growth, and growth always requires change.

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What this means is that I do not see things the way I did before and I think this is a good thing.

We all start somewhere, but hopefully we don’t remain there. Hopefully we will grow, discover, come to better understandings of God, the universe, creation, purpose, meaning, the sacred etc.

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Maturity is not about solidifying all of our beliefs exactly as they were five or ten years ago, but about learning to be open – we will not see things the same way and that’s actually a good thing.

We start somewhere, but then we move.

This also means that the place we are at, will not be the place we will be at in another 5 or 10 years.

Now, in honesty, this is usually not an easy transition and often it brings with it a sort of disequilibrium. The old system or way of seeing doesn’t work and it can throw us off or put us in a tail spin of sorts. It is during this time of disequilibrium, where we choose. We choose to either go back, chuck out everything because it’s just to complex, or we fight to move forward.

Going back is safe.

Giving up is simple.

Going forward is strenuous.

In my experience, going forward can often be a major struggle, but it is worth every ounce of effort!

I now see life as a serious of movements. Each step we change, grow, and see things in different ways.

Life is more complex, truth more inclusive, and love more expansive.

As part of this process, I also see God as the force that is drawing us forward into more love, inclusion, justice, and compassion.

I think it is quite a beautiful thing!

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Where does the Devil come from?

In reading through the Christian Bible  (the New Testament), it is easy to picture Satan as an evil being who is God’s archenemy.

Texts such as Acts 5 and 26 suggest that Satan is not only other than God, but counter to God. For example, we read in Acts 26:18, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God”. Clearly this text is suggesting a force of “darkness” that is working against the powers of “light”, but the view of a cosmic battle between good and evil was not the commonly held view in the Hebrew Scriptures, in fact the idea of a Devil is nowhere to be found in the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.[1]

How did the idea of a Devil come to dominate the Christian mind?

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In Chapter four of The River of God, Dr. Riley explains the evolution of Judaism from monism (a belief that the world is unified) to dualism (the belief in a comic battle between good and evil). For much of the time leading up to the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people, along with all the surrounded ancient Near Eastern cultures, had no teaching or belief of a Devil, demons, or an eschatology including a heaven or a hell.[2] Texts such as Ps 78:69 which states that God, “founded the earth forever” and Ps 93:1 “the world is firmly established; it will not be moved” reflect the commonly held belief that the world would exist throughout eternity. In other words, they had no belief in the end of the world – what is called eschatology.

Concerning the beginning of the Hebrew dualistic view, Dr. Riley writes, “Such a cosmic dualism does not enter the River of God until the Persian invasion of Mesopotamia in the sixth century BCE. Before that time, all of the cultures of the ancient Near East lived in a world more or less at peace with itself”.[3] The conquering of Babylon by the Persian Empire brought with it Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism was a dualistic way of seeing the world in which there were two cosmic powers at war with one another, each with their own following of angels or demons.[4] While people who lived in the ancient Near East had a belief that the world was created out of chaos or already existing matter, Zoroastrianism brought a new view that the creation of the cosmos was brought about by God as a “battleground” where God and the Devil would fight for the loyalty of humankind.[5]

This duality took root very slowly in Israel after the return from Exile, and the majority of Jews still believed there was a most supreme God who lorded over other lesser gods or angels.[6] As dualism increased, people began to see that evil was the result of some form of lesser beings that choose to go against the most powerful deity.[7] Evil was now understood to be  brought about by Satan and his demon followers.

One of the clearest examples of this evolution in belief is found in comparing two Hebrew texts: 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1. The text from 2 Samuel, which was written before the exile, states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them saying, ‘Go, count the people of Israel and Judah’”. I Chronicles, written after the exile states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel”.

So which is it?

Did God incite David or was it Satan?

This is a problem text for many who hold to an inerrant view of Scripture, but I think it clearly shows the evolution of belief among human history.

Dr. Riley shows that the idea of the Devil grows tremendously in the inter-testament period, and by first century, the idea of a Devil had fairly well solidified into the minds of many. This solidification was so dominant, as shown in Acts 5 and 26, that it’s impossible to understand the Christian Scriptures without the view of a Devil, demons, and a cosmic battle that will finally end with the destruction of the world and creation of a new one.

 

 

[1] Gregory J. Riley, The River of God (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 102.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 95.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid.

Lent – the death of the old and the rebirth of the new

So this Lent season I have been thinking about what Lent means to me and what it says to the world we live in today.

I was not raised to pay much attention to the church calender. Of course Christmas and Easter were always a big deal, but following the church calender through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and ordinary time where never on my radar.

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Lent is that time of year where Christians prepare for the death and resurrection of Jesus. Often times this comes with giving up something in observance of this season.

I have specifically been thinking about the time between Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.

What happened in this time is one major faith shift.

I have gone through some pretty major faith shifts, but the biggest faith shift has been my picture of God.

I still remember very clearly not long ago someone on pastoral staff at a church who was suggesting that God brought about a recent hurricane to judge the “wicked”. This person quoted texts in the Hebrew Scriptures (Christian Old Testament) to prove that God had done this before and that God was doing it again.

I also remember during this time wrestling through different texts, their interpretations, and who God was when an old friend firmly tried to “rebuke” me (that’s a Christian way of saying your wrong) and declared that we should not wrestle with the Bible or God but we are to accept both as it is. Really? What this person was actually saying is that I needed to accept their interpretation of Scripture and their picture of God.

I also remember during this time hearing from an influential lay leader at a church that not only are Muslims wrong, but that they are evil and Christians need to be aware and stand against them or else they will take over our nation. This person had a very clear picture that America is a “Christian” nation and that any other religion is our enemy to be fought against.

I also remember during this time hearing from several about the importance of getting people to say a “sinner’s prayer” so that they do not go to hell and burn throughout eternity.

I remember thinking through these four examples (and many others) and realizing that I just don’t see things the same way. Each of these examples could be argued (and were) using the Bible. I didn’t have the words, or the theology, but I was going through a season of Lent. The old way of seeing and understanding God had died – I just hadn’t made it to Easter yet!

Jesus was suppose to be the Messiah (anointed one) and the Savior who was suppose to free Israel from the Roman Empire. Palm Sunday is a clear example of this as the people shouted Hosanna which means “Lord save us” – literally they were anticipating salvation from the Roman Empire just as God had saved them from the Egyptians in the book of Exodus and from the Babylonians during the Exile (587-539 BCE). So to them Hosanna clearly meant Lord save us from the Roman empire.

This makes perfect sense. As they understood God was a mighty warrior who conquered and defeated their [Israel’s] enemies. Yahweh was a God who brought about calamity, commanded genocide, and fought for Israel and would send people to hell in a moments notice.

Here comes Jesus, the one who was suppose to represent all of the descriptions above. Jesus would to be a mighty warrior who would conquer and defeat Israel’s enemies, the Romans. Jesus would bring peace to Israel through violence and the sword and would condemn to death those who oppose him.

  • Palm Sunday – people celebrated and expected this Jesus.
  • Good Friday – this Jesus was put to death.
  • Easter – Jesus was resurrected and shows a new way of seeing God.

I have recently heard that each serious Christian has one primary text that acts like a lens through which they read the rest of the Scriptures through.

During this time, and today, one of the biggest texts that I use is found in Colossians which says, “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God”. Also a similar text found in Hebrews 1v3, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…”.

I understand not everyone believes that Jesus is divine, but it’s difficult to argue for a more beautiful way of seeing God. The one thing, above all others, that makes Christianity unique, is this idea that God entered into our humanity and showed us who God is and how to be fully human.

Now, I realize a lot of violence, destruction, oppression, and hatred have been used in the name of Jesus (much like it has been used by a few Muslim extremist today), but when one reads the life and teaching of Jesus it is very difficult to get a picture of a God who is violent, vengeful, angry, full of hate, and ready to torture people throughout eternity.

In fact, it seems to me that one gets the exact opposite picture of God. In my experience there are many people who do not believe in God, and when they talk about the God they do not believe in, I realize that often I do not  believe in that God either.

What does this mean for today?

I wonder if we need a season of Lent in our culture. I think that there are some very horrible and destructive ways of seeing God that should be put to death.

I have a feeling, that there is a growing number of people, like myself, for whom the old ways of seeing God no longer work. These people have entered into a Good Friday, and similar to the first followers of Jesus, it is easy to experience a disequilibrium of sorts.

During this time it is tempting to through the whole thing out the window (this is what the first followers of Jesus did and what we often do as well). While some are atheist because this seems to be the most rational way of understanding the world, I think some people are atheist because they have been presented with a god that doesn’t make sense and that is actually not worth worshiping and have rejected this god.

I think the invitation during this season of Lent for today is to hold on and continue the journey. While you may have gone through a Friday, the promise is that Friday does not have the last answer – Easter is just around the corner!