Two Gods of the Bible? Malarkey!

The notion that there are “different Gods” in the Old and New Testaments – as if the “God of the Old Testament” is full of wrath and the “God of the New Testament” is all grace and mercy – is heretical and hurtful. Let me explain.

Disclosure: I’m a pastor, not a PhD Biblical scholar, historian, or theologian. There’s quite a bit I know, but much more that I do not know. My apologies in advance for the rough edges.

I suspect that this notion of an “Old Testament God” of wrath and a “New Testament God” of grace comes, in part, from a Christian tradition that has embraced “supersessionism” – that is, the notion that Jesus supersedes the covenants and promises of the Old Testament; that he completes, or fulfills, the supposedly unfulfilled promise of the Old Testament and Judaism; and that the Christian Church replaces the Jewish People as God’s chosen people.

If Jesus completes something that was unfinished, then that unfinished thing clearly is “lesser.” If we view it as lesser, we can give it less attention. We can dismiss it. We can mischaracterize it. It’s the “Old” Testament, after all. We have a New one now. A better one. We don’t need to give that Old Testament too much attention.

Malarkey. Here’s why.

When we start with the notion that the Old Testament is less-than, we read its tales of divine punishment with prejudice – that it is a flawed collection of books to begin with. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), or the death of Uzzah for merely touching the ark after an ox had tripped (2 Samuel 6:7), or the many attributions of suffering to God’s own hand (Psalm 51:8b, for example) sure make God out to be a bit of a wrathful jerk. And so we don’t even try to reconcile or understand these stories, because Jesus in the New Testament makes it all better. We can dismiss much of this violence because, well, Jesus and his grace is coming.

Sidebar: Have you read when Jesus said we should tie a millstone around our necks and throw ourselves into the sea? (Luke 17:2; Matthew 18:6). Millstones are big. They don’t work too well for swimming. Or, what about the time Jesus talked about cutting off our limbs because of sin (Matthew 5:27-30; 18:6-9)? Ouch. (Hey! Where have all the literalists gone?)

As I wrote earlier, this results in a dismissal of the entire Old Testament as barbaric (which gives short shrift to that barnwood art of Micah 6:8 for sale at Hobby Lobby!). If the Old Testament is barbaric, those who adhere to it exclusively (ie, the Jews) must be wretched dogs. Let’s burn their synagogues (so suggested an old and deeply flawed Martin Luther in his disgusting treatise, On the Jews and their Lies). Uh, no.

But what if we read the Old Testament on its own merit? What if we wrestled with these hard texts, and demanded of them a blessing (Genesis 32:22-32) in their own right? And, what if we read these stories not in isolation but in the fullness of the Old Testament’s story of God’s faithfulness, promise, and love? The Old Testament is a rich collection of texts bearing hope, grace, and renewal, including Isaiah 25’s feast where all nations are gathered in God’s presence, Amos 5’s calls for justice and condemnation of injustice; or Hannah’s song of transformation in 1 Samuel 2, among so many others.

Full disclosure: I’m no Biblical literalist. God is not a rock (Psalm 18:2), Jesus is not a gate (John 10:9), and since with God “a thousand years are like a day” (Psalm 90:4; 2 Peter 3:8) I don’t believe that creation (Genesis 1) took place over six literal 24-hour days of divine work and one 24-day of divine rest.

I understand the Bible as a story of faith written by people of faith who are describing and interpreting – on the fly and with the poetic memory of living tradition – their encounters and relationship with God. I trust the broad arc of Scripture, the wisdom of its stories and poetry, and the traditions of the communities who have received, nurtured, and cultivated these treasures.

Sidebar: The idea that scriptures are received, interpreted, and practiced by communities of faith is crucial. This is why, for example, Christians can’t just pick up the Koran and interpret it on our own without dialogue with Muslim communities who have prayed and sought to understand its teachings for centuries. Scripture doesn’t exist in isolation, but is part of a continuous, living community that itself has a wisdom, spirit, and interpretive tradition which necessarily shapes how we read Scripture. That nearly all of the communities which steward these sacred texts are – except for perhaps the most radical and isolated of fringes – not waging holy wars or meting out sacred justice with the sword shows us that these texts are living documents embraced by living communities of faith guided not by isolated examples of scriptural violence but by the broad spirit and story these texts convey.

I’m not going to explain away every instance of divine wrath or punishment in this little essay. What I am going to say is this: the broad arc of the Bible’s story – from Genesis to Revelation – is one of God’s saving action toward a people and a world God so loves. I do not understand every instance of violence the Bible attributes to God. Nor do I understand what the heck Saint Paul is talking about when it comes to baptism of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)!

But I do know that in many of these stories instances of divine wrath serve to enact God’s promises to his chosen people, Israel.

  • Jericho’s walls fall and the Canaanites slaughtered (Joshua 6)?
    God promised to deliver Israel into a new land.
  • Sodom and Gomorrah burn (Genesis 19)?
    That’s punishment for their wicked failure to extend hospitality to travelers.
  • Elijah slaughters the prophets of Baal in grotesque fashion (1 Kings 18)?
    False teachings are kept at bay
    But Elijah the sword-wielding prophet soon thereafter exits stage right, getting relieved of his prophet duties. I contend that God’s question in the cave, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” – 1 Kings 19:13 – is spoken with a tone of anger and disappointment, not one of tender, comforting concern

Yes, I read much of Scripture’s violence with a narrative lens – asking, “what’s happening in the story here?” – and that story-telling perspective limits my horror. I do not read these stories literally – as if they are carefully re-counted stories of history – but instead read them as truth-bearing tales of God’s promise prevailing over forces that would obscure this promise. Since I do not read these texts literally, I do not in any way glorify the violence, nor do I believe that it is our call to literally take up swords and follow some supposed example of warring in the name of the Lord. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Vengeance is not ours to enact.

Furthermore, some of the gut-wrenching violence told of in the Old Testament is certainly not blessed by God, but instead are an honest telling of human wretchedness that demands our condemnation. King David’s evil with Bathsheba (sending Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to his death and then claiming her as his own wife – 2 Samuel 11) led to his own condemnation, along with turmoil and death within his own household. The rape and dismemberment of a concubine in Judges 19 is a horrific display of human sin, set toward the end of the Book of Judges not as an example of faithful living but as a warning sign of just how evil humanity can get. This violence showcases, too, the chaos and violence that occurs in the absence of faithful, moral leadership.

The New Testament – that collection of books that tell of Jesus and his grace – has plenty of judgment, wrath, and violence of its own. As mentioned above, Jesus speaks plenty of difficult, even violent, words. In the Book of Acts, we see two disciples – Ananias and his wife – die upon hearing Peter’s condemnation of their failure to give all they owned to the church (Acts 5:1-11). Revelation, a vision rich in symbolism, describes great battles, death, and destruction.

All this is to say: stories of violence in the Bible are not unproblematic. The tradition has contended with Biblical violence in ways that I’m only starting to learn. Here’s a wonderful essay from the Jewish Chronicle on the violence perpetrated against the Egyptians at the Exodus, and the Jewish tradition’s long struggle with the ethics of this event. These stories certainly should give us pause.

But as we pause to consider the meaning of violence in these stories, we should also dare both to look in, with, and under the violence, and to step back from the violence to get a broader perspective from the Bible’s grand narrative. We should strive to find the justice in the story, seek the reason this story was told over and over again by our ancestors, and embrace the blessing – whatever there may be of it – the story itself has to offer.

Let this sermon bury the dead (or something like that)

I’m preaching this Sunday. This Sunday’s texts from 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and, Luke 9:51-62 bring up images of call, service, and freedom. And the Soup Dragons (kind of). And Monty Python. And some personal wrestling about taking leave from my ministry here a two months ago to say goodbye to my father and tend to my father’s funeral.

1 Kings 19
In the first reading the prophet Elijah is called by God to anoint a new prophet and a new king. Change is underfoot.

A new prophet? I can’t help but wonder if God here is firing Elijah for his slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and his subsequent hiding from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Just before today’s part of the story, Elijah had a dramatic standoff with the prophets of Baal, and after the standoff he kills them all. That, predictably, angered the King who, though called to be faithful to the God of Israel, had sponsored these prophets of a Canaanite God.

[For some folks from New Joy the following commentary might ring familiar. I preached a sermon on this last fall, or last summer, I think.]

So Elijah runs and hides in a mountain cave. God follows him and asks, not once but twice, “What are you doing here?” I can’t help but hear God asking this question with the annoyed – or even angry – tone of a parent finding a child in the wrong place at the wrong time. After twice reciting his response about being passionate for the LORD, that everybody else has abandoned God, and that he is alone in being faithful, God fires him. “Anoint Elisha from Abel-meholah, Shaphat’s son, to succeed you as prophet” (1 Kings 19:16). You’re done, Elijah.

Elijah then goes to Elisha and throws his mantle on him, a sign that prophetic leadership has transferred from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha understands what has happened, how is life is about to change, and asks to return home to bid farewell to his family. Elijah blesses him to do so. Slaughtering his animals as a sign that his old life has come to an end, Elisha takes up the mantle and follows Elijah in this new calling.

Luke 9:51-62
This Elijah/Elisha story contrasts somewhat with Luke 9:51-62, where Jesus rebukes his disciples who, taking a page from Elijah’s playbook, want to send fire from heaven to destroy a community of people who would not welcome Jesus. Yet where Elijah got it wrong with his treatment of the prophets of Baal, he gives much more leeway than Jesus does in blessing his disciple to bid his family a proper farewell before starting the new gig.

This Gospel passage takes place “as the time approached when Jesus was to be taken into heaven,” marking – as the 1 Kings reading does – a shift. Change is underfoot.

In preparation for “[being] taken into heaven,” Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. Along this road he will run into people whose interactions with Jesus reveal insights about his mission and Kingdom. A village of Samaritans rejects Jesus, but also three would-be followers and disciples seek to follow him. Jesus has no interest in quarreling with the Samaritans (though the disciples clearly want to reign fire and fury on them), and he simply passes them by. But to each of the three would-be followers Jesus does not extend the warm, “Come, follow me” invitation he uses when calling his twelve disciples earlier in his ministry. Instead, he offers caution and harsh words about the path he walks.

“Wherever you go, Lord, I will follow.”
“Follow me? Even wild animals have places to rest, but not me. Not my followers. This ain’t going to be an easy road to trod. At all.”

“Hey you. Follow me.”
“Coming, Jesus. Just first, let me go back and bury my father.”
“That’s not how this works. Let the dead bury the dead. But you, go proclaim the Kingdom of God.”

“Jesus, I will follow you, just as soon as I say goodbye to my parents. I’ll be right back.”
“Really? The Kingdom’s ahead of you. There’s no room for looking back in God’s Kingdom.”


What do we make of Jesus’ harsh words, after he rebuked the harsh designs of his disciples against the Samaritans? Do we take him at face value that one cannot follow Jesus and bury a parent or bid farewell to them? Well, yes and no.

Jesus speaks in hyperbole, after all. Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If you cause someone else to sin, tie a stone around your neck and throw yourself into a lake. These are not precise prescriptions, step-by-step instructions for Christian living. Instead, these are colorful exaggerations intended to make a point, but not to prescribe specific behavior or clearly define the life of faith.

So too here. When Jesus tells the would-be follower to let the dead bury the dead, he is warning that the call to discipleship demands our attention and our lives. Plus, its a call to new life. Death – and burial of the dead – has no ultimate place in this Kingdom.

[Interpretations that the man’s father wasn’t actually dead yet – but that instead this excuse to “go and bury my father” was simply a way to delay the answer to Christ’s call – feel good, and serve to make Jesus’ words less harsh. But I just don’t see that interpretation supported in the text. Luke could have told us that the man’s story was hogwash … but he doesn’t. I think such readings of the text are meant to make us feel better about a Jesus who is, frankly, sometimes offensive and often demanding.]

And when Jesus scolds the would-be disciple who wants to bid farewell to his family, Jesus reveals the dramatic calling of the Kingdom – that God’s Kingdom could even come between us and our own flesh and blood. Choosing between God and the Devil is (relatively) easy, after all. But choosing between God and family? Well, that’s harder.

Two months ago I took leave from my ministry to go home, say goodbye to my father, and tend to his funeral. To no small extent I am the man in the Gospel saying to Jesus, “Yes, I’ll follow, but first let me ….” And I’m so glad I took that time. Jesus is Lord, I am not, and in those two weeks the Kingdom of God did not fail to come because I went home to grieve. Certainly, as with the would-be disciple whom Jesus declared not fit for the Kingdom because he wanted to first say goodbye to his family, I am not fit for the Kingdom. But that’s the point. I am not fit for the Kingdom. Neither are you. None of us are. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus, his mercy, and his grace in the first place.

So what do we do with Jesus’ words? Are we to neglect funerals for the Kingdom, or abandon our family when we hear the call? No. At least, not because of what Jesus says in these verses. As hyperbole, these sayings serve a function not of literal instruction but of moral and theological emphasis. We cannot adhere to them strictly – to try to do so would be idiotic. Instead, these sayings instead serve as a kind of law. Martin Luther talked about the law being so hard to fulfill that it drove us to our knees to seek forgiveness and mercy from God. We cannot give Jesus and his Kingdom the kind of loyalty and attention it demands. At least, I know I can’t. Jesus’ words in this passage are exaggerated yet true – they can be both at the same time – showing us the all-encompassing claims of the Kingdom and, in so doing, revealing to us our own lack of fitness for God’s Kingdom.

So where does that leave us?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
That leaves us to the reading from Galatians. In this passage we hear Saint Paul’s powerful description of Christian freedom. “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love” (Galatians 5:13).

In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus frees us from the power of sin. This is the heart of the Gospel. But what is the purpose of that freedom? To go to heaven? Sure. But, what about before then? Too often as Americans we think of freedom only in terms of what we’re free from. Free from tyranny. Free from debt. Free from oppression. But free … for what? Too often we answer that this freedom is for ourselves.

Saint Paul writes in Galatians 5 that we are freed from the power of sin for the purpose of serving our neighbor. Martin Luther echoed Saint Paul when he wrote, “A Christian is a free Lord, servant to none. The Christian is a dutiful servant, subject to all” (The Freedom of a Christian). Many historians interpret Luther as among the first freedom fighters, setting in motion efforts to topple hierarchies and rulers in Europe and the Americas, and ultimately the individualistic ethos that characterizes the West. That’s too simplistic, and certainly wasn’t Luther’s intent. For Luther, and for Saint Paul, freedom is not (something we use) for ourselves, but (something we use) for others.

We are free from having to fulfill the law to please God.
We are free from having to climb the ladder of righteousness into heaven.
We are free from having to prove ourselves worthy of God’s mercy.
We are free from having to live perfect lives to earn ourselves a seat in God’s Kingdom.
We are free from all this, for the purposes of loving and serving our neighbor.

Freed from having to prove ourselves, live perfectly, demonstrate our worthiness, we instead pour that energy and effort into our neighbor. We don’t have to earn the free gift our Lord gives; instead, we are free to use that gift for the sake of others. All of Christian living is a call to humility, to service, to sacrifice, to putting the needs of others before our own (Philippians 2:4). Being a Christian is about following Christ in service to our neighbors.

Hence, when Jesus rebukes his disciples for wanting to send fire down from heaven, he rebukes them for having their interests, their anger, their desires first and foremost in mind. No! We serve others. And serving others begins with not killing them (duh!), and letting them be even if and when they reject us. But it goes much beyond that, too.

When the would-be disciples come to Jesus and ask to follow, Jesus reminds them just how hard it is to put the needs of others before the needs of their family and themselves. These echo what Saint Paul writes in Philippians 2, that we are called to put the needs of others before our own. Or again, in Galatians 6, that when we bear the burdens of others we fulfill the law of Christ. Christian living and identity is entirely wrapped up in the care and welfare of our neighbors – a life that is free for the sake of the world.

On belief, unbelief, and grace

On any given day I believe in God. At least, I think I do. I mean, yes, I believe.

Usually. Maybe. Most certainly.

But there’s plenty of time I don’t believe. Or, perhaps better put, that I’m not sure what I believe. Or, maybe that my faith fails to provide the precision often demanded of faith, and I find myself in a gray area that few people care to occupy. Especially people of faith.

Certainly, faith is not a crib sheet for the tough questions of life. At least, my faith is not. When does life begin, and who decides? What is freedom, how far does it extend, and for whom? Are there any acceptable exemptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill”? Is God all powerful and all loving? Do miracles happen? And if so, by what power, why, and why not more often?

If a man getting out of the burning car can thank God for his rescue, what role do we attribute to God in the death of three people who didn’t escape the flames?

Easy answers are hard to come by.

Sure, easy answers work for easy questions. But when you ask harder questions, second order questions, simple answers fail. Miserably.

This is not to say that I’m bound by the paralysis of theological perfection, unable to say anything with certainty without circling back to theology books I read back in seminary or to books I’ve purchased but haven’t (yet) read (if I ever will). I’ll gladly answer the questions above with a full and confident voice after some theological hemming and hawing. But I also reserve the right to say something different tomorrow. Or next Tuesday.

Because easy answers are hard to come by.

Now, there are some tough questions I’m better at, even as I acknowledge that they’re still tough questions and my answers might have more nuance than a slice of pizza has grease. For example, even though Jesus clearly and unequivocally teaches that divorce is wrong (Matthew 5:31-32), I’m ok with divorce. And by “ok,” I mean, I’m not advocating for a divorce in every pot.

No. I’m no fan of divorce, but I get that we need it. Broken people get themselves into broken relationships, after all. Some of those broken relationships really need to be undone. This is not willy-nilly disrespect for the covenant for marriage. It’s acknowledging that human brokenness is real, and that freeing people from bonds that might serve only to perpetuate pain and dysfunction may be necessary and good and even holy. And that’s ok. Divorce can represent the freedom that Jesus promises … even if the Gospels record that Jesus himself was no fan of divorce.

No Biblical literalist am I. Obviously.

Thank God. Otherwise I’d be worshiping a rock (Psalm 18:2), cutting off my hand (Mark 9:43), and as a minister of the Gospel condemning siblings in Christ to death for their acts of unfaithfulness (Acts 5:1-9).

Actually, no Christian is a literalist. The Bible is full of metaphor and hyperbole and story and wonder that conveys the truth and power of the grace of God. The stuff of the Bible is not meant to be forensic, scientific, literal truth, like an oddly written text book, or the transcripts of a eyewitness statement – which, we know, are not perfectly reliable. Instead, the truth of the Bible and of the church is meant to be like a supernova that unleashes an immeasurable grace into the community of the faithful for the sake of the whole world.

Let’s do another “for example.”

I embrace that yes, Cain, we are our brother’s keeper (Cain didn’t think so and killed his brother – see Genesis 4 for the juicy details). Jesus affirms that we are our brother’s keeper in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein Jesus portrays a member of a much-derided religious group as an example of righteousness when this man gives generously to care for a neighbor in need.

We all love the Good Samaritan story. But let’s just pause here for a moment and let it sink in that Jesus didn’t just teach us about being good to our neighbors. He didn’t just use the example of Jane Do-Gooder. Jesus deliberately told this story using a member of a reviled, rejected religious group as an exemplar of righteousness. That in and of itself says something. Pay attention to Jesus’ storytelling – not just for the “moral of the story,” but for the way in which he tells the story. The form in which Jesus teaches us about caring for our neighbor itself teaches us what care for our neighbor looks like … especially for our neighbor who neither prays or nor looks nor acts like us.

James writes in a similar theme about care for neighbor, saying essentially that “thoughts and prayers” are a bunch of crap when we are instead called to actually provide for our neighbor’s human needs (James 2:15-16, and following).

So the Bible is abundantly clear. We are to care for our neighbor.

But then come the hard questions, for which I have no easy answer (remember, there are no easy answers). To what extent do we care for our neighbor? Give our cloak, and shirt, too (Luke 6:29)? Spend our last mite (Luke 21:1-4)? Offer up our own lives (Mark 8:34-38)?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Anyone who says there are is trying to sell you something, or justify themselves, or both.

We live in a broken world full of sinners, and I am chief among them.

People in dire need visit churches all the time. During the week, usually, when only the church staff are there. It’s the safest time for someone beaten and kicked to the margins by all kinds of human brokenness to make their way to a church door. And for all the times I’ve been able to help someone, how many more times have I turned away such people, dear children of God, from my church?

There I am, sitting in my air conditioned office, with my well-maintained car in the parking lot that drives me to and from my home in a fairly affluent community. I turn her away, I turn him away, because I, because we, didn’t have enough to help with an electric bill. Or groceries. Or rent.

Bullshit. Lord, have mercy on my soul.

This is the stuff I worry about. I rationalize it enough to get by – I’d go nuts if I didn’t – but I seriously wonder what that conversation will be like with Saint Peter at the pearly gates when he asks me how I’ve lived my life, what I’ve done with the Gospel entrusted to me, how I’ve cared for the least of these? Oh, Lord have mercy upon me. I believe in grace, but not so much that it frees me from the sense of responsibility I have to the Gospel and to my neighbor who bears the very image of God (Genesis 1:27).

And so forth and so on. I could write for days about the conundrums I find myself in when it comes to being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Because easy answers are hard to come by. And if we live as Jesus lived, as he calls us to live, we’d end up where he did, dead on a cross. But I actually like life. So, there’s that.

Which is why my favorite verse in the Bible these days (yes, it changes from time to time) is Mark 9:24.

“Lord I believe. Help my unbelief!”

In this story a father brings his son, who is tormented by a demon, to Jesus’ disciples for healing. Jesus was up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John at the time, so the other disciples decided to try their hand at it. But they couldn’t cast out the demon. They couldn’t heal the child.

Anxious father. Sick child. Frustrated disciples. And naysayers – the legal experts – arguing with the failing would-be miracle workers. What a chaotic scene.

Then comes Jesus. After a mountaintop experience in which the three disciples he hand-picked to join him didn’t really understand the revelation they were privy to and were just plain awkward when they encountered the enveloping presence of God (and to be fair, wouldn’t we all be a bit afraid and awkward in such a situation?), Jesus approaches the bickering crowd and begs, perhaps with an eye roll and a sign, “What are you arguing about?”

The worried dad of the sick child tells Jesus the whole desperate story. My kid is possessed. I brought him to your disciples. They couldn’t heal him.

Jesus scolds the crowd. “You faithless generation! How long will I be with you? How long will I put up with you?” But then Jesus goes on. “Bring the child to me.” Jesus doesn’t let his anger get the best of him. He doesn’t make the suffering of the child and the faithlessness of others become a moment for finger-wagging. Instead, it becomes a moment of grace.

Jesus examines the suffering child, and then asks the father how long this has been happening. “Since he was a child,” dad says, the long-suffering angst surely hanging in his voice. “If you can do anything, help us! Show us compassion!”

Now, this is one of those scenes where stage directions would be great. Does Jesus respond to the father with a scolding tone? A generous tone? Was he incredulous, or matter of fact? I’ll leave that to you to imagine.

Jesus answers the desperate father. “‘If you can do anything‘? All things are possible for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!” dad responds. Tears, I’m sure, are streaming down his face.

And to the desperate father’s statement of faith and non-faith, of belief and unbelief, Jesus says nothing. No grumbling about “this generation” or “kids these days.” No push-back to the dad, “So, what is it? Do you believe, or don’t you? You can’t be on both sides, bucko.” No. In response to this amazingly honest statement of a faith that both is and is not, Jesus acts. Jesus casts out the evil spirit from the child, and the child is restored to health.

The disciples couldn’t heal. The father couldn’t bring himself to believe, fully. And all throughout this scene the know-it-alls were mocking them for their failures.

This is the setting of my faith, dear friends – somewhere between belief and unbelief, with fellow followers who struggle to make it all work according to the teachings of our Savior. I keep trying, hoping, expecting, yearning, believing even when I don’t believe, that grace will show up. Because that’s what the Bible and the ministry of the church has shown me – that grace shows up.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.


Running as an Easter Spiritual Disicpline


Mary Magdalene running to tell the disciples that the tomb was empty Niccolò dell’Arca | 1462-63 | Painted terra cotta | Bologna, Italy

If running doesn’t yet have a feast day on the church year calendar, Easter should be the Feast Day of Running.

The Easter account tells of running – running to and from the tomb – in three of the four Gospels.

Matthew 28:8 “So [Mary Magdalene and the other Mary] left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Luke 24:12 “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb, stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

John 20:2-4 “So [Mary Magdalene] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.”

This Easter morning I will head out for a run at dawn, the time of day that Scripture says the women first went to the tomb.

With the women I will run.

With Peter and the other disciple I will run.

With fear and amazement and great joy I will run, for the Lord is risen. Alleluia!

The Lord has given us renewed reason to run the race set before us. To run with love. To run knowing that death is not the end of the story. To run knowing that an empty grave, new life, resurrection, and the Kingdom of God lies before us.

Run the race of hope and promise. Run the resurrection. For this is why we run. This is the Feast of Running.

The Bible’s “Marathon” Verses – 26:2

Bible 26:2

I am running my second-ever marathon this Saturday. A marathon is 26.2 miles. For no reason other than the novelty of it, I present here every chapter 26, verse 2, of the Bible – out of context, and perhaps quite odd to read in isolation from the broader story of the text.

The marathon distance is rather arbitrary, and the assignment of verse numbers to Scripture texts wasn’t exactly a precise science, either. I’m no believer in hidden codes in Scripture, nor that the chapter/verse numbers themselves have any intrinsic meaning. I just like marathons and I like the Bible.

That being said, I will certainly carry Job 26:2 with me during Saturday’s race: “How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength!” If I run this race correctly, I should be pretty much out of power and without strength at the end of the race (and hopefully have a new personal record). This Saturday I will certainly find comfort in the God who helps one who has no power.

I am grateful for the gifts and opportunities God has given to me to run and to train. Running truly gives me such joy, and is a great way for me to revel in the gift of life God has given me. I look forward to celebrating God’s gifts over a 26.2 mile course this Saturday.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Genesis 26:2
The Lord appeared to Isaac and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; settle in the land that I shall show you.”

Exodus 26:2
The length of each curtain shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits; all the curtains shall be of the same size.

Leviticus 26:2
You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord.

Numbers 26:2
“Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.”

Deuteronomy 26:2
You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.

1 Samuel 26:2
So Saul rose and went down to the Wilderness of Ziph, with three thousand chosen men of Israel, to seek David in the Wilderness of Ziph.

1 Chronicles 26:2
Meshelemiah had sons: Zechariah the firstborn, Jediael the second, Zebadiah the third, Jathniel the fourth.

2 Chronicles 26:2
He rebuilt Eloth and restored it to Judah, after the king slept with his ancestors.

Job 26:2
“How you have helped one who has no power! How you have assisted the arm that has no strength!”

Psalm 26:2
Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.

Proverbs 26:2
Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, an undeserved curse goes nowhere.

Isaiah 26:2
Open the gates, so that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.

Jeremiah 26:2
Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord’s house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word.

Ezekiel 26:2
Mortal, because Tyre said concerning Jerusalem, “Aha, broken is the gateway of the peoples; it has swung open to me; I shall be replenished, now that it is wasted.”

Sirach 26:2
A loyal wife brings joy to her husband,
and he will complete his years in peace.

Matthew 26:2
“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

Acts 26:2
“I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews.”

* all bible verses from the New Revised Standard Version


A Dead Poet’s Society of Church Readers

A few times now, when talking with youth at church, I have shown them clips from Dead Poet's Society. Though I admit there is something old-manish about showing kids a film that was released years before they were born, the film taps into the power of poetry and of words.

The words we read in church have power. The Word of God is living and active. Not that I want our lectors on Sunday morning reading at a frenzied Robin Williams pitch, I do encourage readers to read clearly and with energy, and as if the words they were reading had the power to change lives … because they do.

Enjoy these two clips from Dead Poet's Society, and may the reading of Holy Scripture in your church give life to words that have the power to give life.




Loving our enemies – and our youth – for the sake of the Gospel

Lectionary 7 (Seventh Sunday after Epiphany)
Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:38-48
Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lectionary 7 Year A 2011

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

Last week’s Confirmation Class began with a thud.  I told the class,
“Alright, open up your Bibles to the book of Ruth. It might be hard to find –
    it’s a small book, buried in the Old Testament somewhere.
    Use the table of contents if you like.”
“Pastor Chris,” one of them said, “We know where it is. We read from Ruth last week.”
Oh, crud, I thought to myself.
I had prepared the wrong lesson, the one that Randy Correll,
    one of our wonderful Confirmation Ministry teachers, had taught the week before.
So, while my brain was spinning about what to do,
    I showed the class a video on YouTube of a Doritos commercial from the Super Bowl,
    something I had planned to do anyway. 
The commercial dealt with Doritos, yes, but also with resurrection,
    and I thought it would be a good way to start our class.

Read More

Teaching the Bible in Confirmation Class

My congregation uses the wonderful Here We Stand confirmation ministry curriculum from Augsburg Fortress Publishers.  Though no curriculum is perfect, I like Here We Stand (HWS) because it is intelligent, engaging, and flexible.  I've used it with a large group of kids in a church that made great use of technology and enjoyed the silliness of the skits, and I've used it with a smaller group of learners in a church that had a much more traditional mode of teaching.  Yet HWS works for both.

I also like HWS because it is flexible.  Inevitably, many teachers – pastors and lay leaders alike – shape the lesson to include their own insights, experiences, or emphases.  Sometimes we do this to the benefit of the ministry, and other times to its detriment.  (My rule of thumb: trust the curriculum editors and writers – they're not perfect, but they're not dim-burning bulbs, either.  More on using curriculum, perhaps, in a future post.)  The core leader material is available as a downloadable .rtf document – completely editable.  Whenever I teach, I download the whole lesson and then edit away – cutting out what I don't want, keeping what I want, tweaking what I want to tweak.  It is marvelous.

One of the ways that I am editing the curriculum this year – besides my inevitable tweaking of the lessons that I'm assigned to teach – is that we are not going to go through the Bible portion of the curriculum in a straight forward, Old Testament to New Testament movement (as is suggested in their 2-year Scope and Sequence).  Instead, we will be reviewing Biblical content this year on a thematic basis, bouncing between Old Testament lessons, New Testament lessons, and Small Catechism lessons (which, of course, reflect Biblical themes and contain lots of Biblical content), hoping to show the unity of the Testaments in the process.  Our units are as follows:

  1. Introduction to the Bible (2 sessions)
  2. Creation and New Creation (4 sessions – 3 OT, 1 NT)
  3. Chosen by God, Promised by God (7 sessions – 3OT, 2NT, 2 SC)
  4. Way to Live (3 sessions – 1OT, 2 SC)
  5. Heroes of the Bible (12 sessions – 8OT, 4NT)
  6. Poetry of Faith (2 sessions – 1OT, 1 self-written lesson)
  7. Hope for the Future (1 session – 1NT)

To see which lessons we will use in each unit, download and view the Confirmation Calendar using the following link:
Download Confirmation Calendar.

After two weeks of introduction, my intention with the second and third units is to teach two broad and central Biblical themes that reach across the Testaments.  The following two units will help us reflect on the life of faith, especially through the diverse lives and experiences of various biblical heroes.  The Poetry of Faith unit is too short, but it will seek to connect the creative expression of faith in song and prayer with the creative juices of our young people.  We end with a hopeful look at the promise of the resurrection.  I hope my learners will see common themes connecting the Old and New Testaments, and come to view the Bible and our faith tradition as an integrated whole rather than as the sum of several distinct parts. 

Significantly, perhaps, our students will not directly study either the birth or crucifixion of our Lord.  I'm trusting that

  • our students will have learned these stories previously in worship and Sunday School;
  • they have reflected (or will reflect) on these stories in the Catechism year of our two-year Confirmation program; and
  • through their participation in the life of the church – it's liturgy and fellowship ministries – they are making meaning out of these stories.

Surely we could benefit from teaching the nativity and crucifixion stories, but there are other less familiar topics that I'd really like to address.  Even if the nativity or resurrection isn't the central lesson for a given lesson, my learners will have opportunity to reflect on these central stories through the topics that we'll cover in class and through participation in other ministry settings.

Also, the lesson outline is Old Testament heavy (16 OT, 8NT, 4SC, 3 "other").  I believe that our children (and our church, in general) are much more familiar with the New Testament than they are with the Old Testament, and that many view the Old Testament as if it were some sort of a wrathful bogeyman (many, quite unintentionally, fall into a Marcionite heresy).  My hope is, by teaching the Bible with a strong emphasis on the Old Testament, that our learners will see the whole Bible as an integrated book of faith showing us a way of life and giving us hope for the world.

Besides a Sunday School-style "Learning Faith" class during which these lessons are shared, our program also includes a Sunday evening "Living Faith" program.  The "Living Faith" portion of the ministry consists of of three units of five consecutive Sunday evenings (one unit each in the fall, winter, and spring) where learners will gain some experience in a hands-on, "Living Faith" activity – worship leadership in the fall unit, planning and executing a service project in the winter unit, and practicing spiritual disciplines in the spring unit.  More on the "Living Faith" unit, perhaps, in a future post.

After the Children’s Bible, what?

I love children's Bibles, particularly the Augsburg Fortress Spark Story Bible and the American Bible Society's Read and Learn Bible.  Children's Bibles put the stories of faith into words and pictures in a way that makes them accessible to children, allowing children to grow familiar with Noah and Moses, Jesus and the disciples, and the God whose love is shared through these figures.0806670495h

One of the great things about a children's Bible is that you can open it up at bedtime or story time, to any page, and can't go wrong.  The stories have been selected and presented in a way that will make sense to our children and (perhaps just as importantly) to the adult who is reading with them.

But what happens in 3rd or 4th grade, when the child is presented with a NIV or NRSV Bible?  Even if it is a "youth" Bible, complete with notes and charts and pictures geared toward the upper elementary age level, it is fundamentally different than the children's Bible in that it contains the whole Biblical text.  You can't open the Spark Story Bible and find a long passage from Numbers detailing how the Israelites are organized through their wilderness journey, but you can in the NIV.  You can't open the Read and Learn Bible and find a story detailing God's vengeance, but you can in the NRSV.  That is, what children (and the adults who read to them) learn with a children's Bible is that you can pick up the Bible and read it, and it will generally make sense, because the stories have been pre-selected.  In a full-translation Bible that is just not the case.

And besides the story-selection that takes place within the pages of a children's Bible, the stories themselves are presented in accessible language and with engaging illustrations.  But even the better "youth" Bibles are still full of pages that have nothing but columns of black text – something you don't even see in their textbooks at school!  The NRSV Bible is written at an 8th or 9th grade reading level … and we give it to 3rd graders?  But it is more than an issue of translation or graphical presentation.  Do we really expect our 3rd graders to be able to deal with Judges 19

Is the answer perhaps to create a story Bible that, like the children's Bible, is a selection of Bible stories engagingly presented in paraphrase and with illustrations?  Such a Bible (or, better put, a book of Bible stories) would include a wider selection of stories than the children's Bible, a selection that reflects the abilities of upper elementary youth to comprehend and engage the Biblical account.

And finally, when we present Bibles to our mid/upper elementary children, do we give them and their parents a way to read the Bible?  Do we help them find the passages and stories that are age-appropriate, or give them tools to work through some of the tougher passages?

These are some of the questions I'm wrestling with as I think about the faith formation of children and families, and the importance of making faith-exploration accessible in the home.  Even our most dedicated children and families will miss several Sundays per year of worship and Sunday school, ministries which at most offer about 100 contact hours per year (in comparison, our children get 100 contact hours at school every 2.5 weeks).  Because Sunday morning cannot be the only opportunity for intentional faith formation, we need to not only create ministries of fellowship and formation outside of Sunday morning, but also place in the hands of our parents and children resources they can use during the week to nurture faith and grow into the promises of the Gospel.