Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘trust’

Living in Trust, Living in Peace

Philippians 4:5-8

Emotional health is hard to come by in a world that seems to discourage trust in a healthy way, especially among many of in our communities who have a history of being marginalized. How can we seek a path out of the destructive patterns that recreate abusive relationships? How can we work towards a future that doesn’t recreate the past? What keeps us from this kind of healthy, holistic living: broken trust. When trust is broken we feel betrayed, alone, even worthless. We can enter into behavior patterns of mistrust, even when people have shown us that they are to be trusted. We can even perpetuate the same patterns in our relationships

Thus, it is essential that we seek restored trust. What are the elements of trust that we look for in a person, in life? What if we pursue and nurture these qualities in our relationships?

So…who was Paul of Tarsus? Good question. Like every author of Biblical literature, there is a lot of speculation and interpretation as to who Paul was. What we do know from other historical documents of the time and other Biblical books, is that Paul spent considerable time in prison. He was accused by the people of Philippi of disturbing their city and promoting customs that were not lawful for them or the Romans to observe. Leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin also sent Paul to trial because they considered him an agitator and a leader of a sect of the Nazarenes. We don’t know for sure, but it’s very possible that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison.

Before I go on, if any of you have any baggage about Paul, i.e. what’s been most likely pushed on you by others, let’s put that on the table first. Some [and maybe that’s you] consider Paul a misogynist, homophobe, and strict legalist. By no means am I claiming that Paul of Tarsus [or any other Biblical authors for that matter] were perfect or extra-inspired, super-holy people, and that’s why they are Biblical authors.

No way.

Paul, like anyone else was a flawed human being and he actually said as much in some of his writings. Now look, I cannot address the whole “against women and gay people” thing in a few sentences and you’ll need to do more thinking and study to come to wise conclusions. What I do know, however, is that women covered their heads in the 1st and 2nd century. It was cultural. This is not a teaching of Paul. Likewise, some of Paul’s closest associates on his missionary journeys and most trusted leaders were women. They were obviously teaching and leading. People who wish to propagate the idea that women cannot be leaders or ordained ministers use Paul as a way to justify their gender bias. And, Paul was not a homophobe. This word and also the word homosexuality did not exist until this century and neither did the concept of sexual orientation. It’s a fact. When Paul mentions in his letter to Rome, unnatural acts, he is speaking of a whole of behaviors [as defined by Greco-Roman culture and Jewish culture]. I point you to Dr. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and others for a more in-depth look at NT sexuality.

I say all this only so our conversation is not derailed by our biases about Paul of Tarsus. Otherwise, all that follows will not have any relevance. You see, Paul was a Pharisee originally. He was raised with a rigid belief system and set of morals. Most everything was “right” or “wrong.” He was raised to trust in a religious system and eventually to trust a Roman Empire that occupied Israel and spread its cultural and societal norms. But like most people who go through some sort of psychological break, Paul had a life-changing moment. We don’t know if it was a day, a week, or a period of years. Whatever the case, he changed his world view. He no longer trusted being a Pharisee. He no longer trusted the Roman Empire. He found peace and contentment in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth. But that was long after Jesus’ death; Paul never met Jesus. His journey to self-awareness and contentment was not as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps this is why some people can resonate with at least part of Paul’s story. He came from oppressive power and great privilege. At some point he broke away from that and changed. As Jesus did, Paul spent the rest of his days with the marginalized. And in doing so, he found peace within himself. This leads us to a pretty well-known part of Paul’s letter to Philippi, chapter 4.

The phrase “Do not worry about anything” could certainly sound like wishful thinking at first glance. But, as it fits within the original meaning of the Greek language, consider placing it after the first part of this text. In other words:

Be gentle with others, because you really don’t know what they’re going through. In your day-to-day moments, meditate, pray, be grateful. Whatever is honest, just, joyful, beautiful, kind, life-giving—think about these things and pursue these things in your relationships. If you do, a divine, holistic peace that doesn’t fit into society’s or religion’s boxes will fill you and surround you. You will think differently about yourself and others. You won’t judge life and its situations so much because you’ll take them as they are. And anxiety will not control you anymore.

As such, this is not telling you to just push aside your problems and feelings, to ignore suffering, to be complacent and to “don’t worry, be happy.” Instead, this is an invitation to trust those things and people that bring you joy and encouragement, fill you with acceptance and peace. To think about and meditate on such trusted things and people, because the trust is earned. I’m hearing this text giving us all permission to Live into trust and into peace. Life is about Moving forward.

It is about stopping the continual dysfunctional patterns within our lives and relationships.

handscirclepeaceSee, we can try to be healthier, more spiritual, whatever—but we won’t be unless we change. We won’t find peace and wholeness by tweaking this or that or by trying various religious practices or joining clubs or making small lifestyle changes or making New Year’s resolutions. We can continually rearrange things in our lives, but it will never end. Not until we realize who we are at our core.

Are you feeling stuck in a dysfunctional past? If so, why? What relationships and behaviors are keeping you there? How can you move forward?

What drives you in life? Think about these things.

Where have you been hurt? Recognize this.
What qualities in people inspire and encourage you? Meditate on those qualities.

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EnTRUST-ed

Isaiah 5:1-7 Matthew 13:42,43

Love-one-anotherOnce again, let’s talk about trust.

In my last post we looked at how authority and trust go together, i.e. we give authority to the things and people we trust. And we focused on the idea that trust is not something we should blindly give; rather, that trust needs to be proven. Now, let’s take that same word trust and look at a variation of the root word in entrusted. If we entrust someone with something or someone, it means we give that person a responsibility to protect, care for, and handle. You give your beloved cat to your friend to take care of while you are on vacation. You entrust that person with your beloved cat. You put some money in a bank account. You entrust the bank to protect your funds, and in some cases, to grow the funds with interest. You send your teenager to college and entrust the professors, administrators, and RAs with your son or daughter.

So when we say we are entrusted with someone or something it is a responsibility to care for, protect, and in some cases, help to grow. I wish to connect the previous conversation about authority and trust to being entrusted. We give authority to political, religious, educational, and business leaders. By doing so we show that we trust them to do their jobs effectively and to serve the people they are supposed to serve. They are entrusted to do so.

And then, I look around. Yes, with social media and 24/7 news we are getting a heavier dose of politics than ever before. The issues, though, are the same ones we have always struggled with since the beginning of the human race. We give authority to political leaders, for example, like the White House Administration, and we expect certain things. We entrust these leaders who were voted in to care for human society, protect people, and serve the community. Sadly, I argue we have put far too much trust in people who since the very start didn’t have much of an interest in caring for or protecting people. And it’s not just in politics. Religion is no different.

How much are religious institutions and their leaders caring for and protecting people?

The issue of self-preservation is obvious among both political and religious leaders. And when you are afraid losing your authority and people’s trust in you is waning, then you will have the tendency to protect only yourself and the people you have around you. And that’s what is happening now.

A government that turns a blind eye to insane violence in places like Las Vegas, an individual who was able to plan out such a terrible shooting because it is far too easy to obtain automatic weapons that even people in the military think are unnecessary. Our own Conference Minister of PA SE the Rev. Bill Worley, stated after Vegas that as someone who served in the military and as someone who is a gun owner, he could not be more incensed and sad about the lack of interest in creating gun control policies that prohibit such terrible events and make it difficult for people to stockpile powerful weapons. It really doesn’t matter what political party you identify with or don’t, this issue is about people. And violence. And our political leaders continue to fail us. And I will also say that churches are far too silent about this. Far too many churches get all up in arms about Black Lives Matter signs or kneeling during the National Anthem and then say nothing after Sandy Hook, Vegas, and other mass shootings. None of us are that obtuse to insist that political leaders are not receiving money from the National Rifle Assoc., right? Those who have been entrusted to care for and protect are not following through.

Likewise, the AG of the U.S., at the same time of this horrible tragedy in Vegas, and during the continued suffering of people in Puerto Rico and Mexico, decides to rescind an Obama administration policy to protect LGBT people, undercutting federal protection, telling agencies to do as much as possible to accommodate those who hide behind so-called “religious freedoms.” So, in other words, it’s a license to discriminate. If that were not enough, the Trump administration issued a new rule that substantially undermines women’s access to birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Protection? Not unless you are white, male, straight, and wealthy.

And all this sounds so very familiar.

You see, in the Hebrew prophetic writings like Isaiah, the same things were happening. Governments were corrupt, self-serving, and refusing to care for the people—particularly those on the margins. Likewise, the religious institutions and leaders were silent and did not deem it their responsibility to care for and protect vulnerable people. YHWH, God, is not pleased with this. The image of the vineyard begins with a beautiful image of God’s good creation—the choice vines, the fertile soil, the potential to grow amazing grapes. But God notices that the beautiful vineyard that was entrusted has been neglected. YHWH expected justice, but saw violence; compassion, but saw indifference and silence.

Jesus of Nazareth knew the Hebrew scriptures and made the connection to Isaiah on various occasions in the Gospels. For Jesus, the vineyard was the kin-dom of God, i.e. the whole of creation, all living things. And this creation has been entrusted to human beings, to you and me. And those who produced the fruits of compassion, of caring for and of protecting, would experience this kin-dom and be in line with God’s great wishes for the world.

Friends, this is a critical time. It’s tempting at times to become overwhelmed with grief, sadness, and even anger over the break in trust that is happening now. So it is essential that we care for each other.

We must. Care. For each other.

Especially those who feel marginalized, vulnerable, lost, pushed down. We must care for each other. Because that is what God wishes for God’s good creation. Because that is what Jesus taught and did and passed on. It doesn’t matter what so-called authorities say or do, if they do not care for and protect people. We can. May it be so.

 

 

 

Authority: Listening and Trusting

Matthew 21:23-32

trustFallWhen I was in middle school I went to summer camp once. I remember bits and pieces of my experience there, and one thing I remember distinctly is a certain “game” the camp counselors had us play called a trust fall. Now I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of such a thing [and maybe some of you where unlucky enough to have actually done it]. I say unlucky, because, think about the concept: the camp counselor asked me to close my eyes, turn my back on the other middle school students, and then fall backwards without opening my eyes, looking back, or catching myself. It is not hyperbole to remark that I did not consider this such a great idea. I mean, I myself was 12 years old, and I thought: Would I even trust my own self to catch me?

nervous-preschooler-boyThe answer in my head was surprisingly no and so this led me to the conclusion that falling backwards and then expecting a group of other 12 year olds I had just met to catch me was not the wisest choice. I mean, even the couple of kids I knew were not really instilling confidence in me, considering that two of them in my cabin had recently stolen candy from my backpack and had threatened to dip my hand in warm water in the middle of the night while I slept. So…the trust fall? I kept my eyes open, and when I “fell” back, I probably waited a mere second before I turned around to see the anxious, uninspiring and nervous faces of my camping partners and I stopped the fall before it even began.

What is trust anyway? Let’s see what Collins English dictionary says. Trust is: the reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, etc., of a person or thing; confidence. Trust can also be a person on whom or thing on which one relies. Finally, trust can be the obligation or responsibility imposed on a person in whom confidence or authority is placed.

Which parts of this definition fit your own definition of trust?

Now do a quick Google search for songs about trust. What you’ll see in the results is that trust is not all that trustworthy after all? I mean, most of the songs written with trust in title are really about mistrust, betrayal, and manipulation! Trust in Me from The Jungle Book is one of the first songs that comes to my mind and it appears first on most internet searches. I mean, Kaa, the snake is singing this song to Mogli in a tree, using the song as a way to hypnotize the poor kid and then eat him.

Junglebook-disneyscreencaps_com-6045Trust in me.

Uh, no. And then the list goes on: I Don’t Trust Myself, Don’t You Trust Me, etc, etc. In fact, one of the most popular song titles is Don’t Trust Nobody.

So it appears we have a difficult relationship with trust. Not hard to see this in society. Recent Gallup and Pew Foundation polls and studies demonstrate the lack of trust we have in what we call the “great building block” institutions of society, to mention a few: religion, marriage, government, banks, public schools, and the media. According to Gallup, less than 32% of Americans trust said institutions.[1] Let’s hone in on religion, more specifically, the Christian church in the U.S. In 1975, 68% of Americans thought the church was trustworthy/they were confident in it; currently that number is at 42% and dropping.

Interestingly, since the current presidential election in 2016, the Pew Foundation found that people’s views of religions and other traditions outside of the traditional Christian church positively improved, specifically Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Jews, and Mormons. Trust in the Christian church, however, is at an all-time low. I don’t say this to be a Debbie Downer or to make any of you hearing this who are Christian to feel sad or hopeless. It’s the opposite. I want to honestly talk about trust. Why have many people lost trust in the Christian institution called church?

If you think clearly and listen to others with an open mind, you will know why. Really, there is no reason to trust, because trust is not a blind faith, falling back with your eyes closed, hoping that you will be caught and kept from harm. Trust is confidence in someone or something because that someone or something has instilled said confidence in you. In other words, we trust someone or something because it has been earned. Proven. Demonstrated. The church institution is not proving this to people.

So to bring this home [and in coming weeks we’ll talk more about trust, because there is no way to adequately address it in one segment], let’s look briefly at an example of trust in a story about Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus was teaching in the temple [a religious institution that people were taught to have confidence in but which had been oppressing women, the poor, lepers, the marginalized, and was also in the pocket of the Roman Empire.] Those present were chief priests and elders [also the religious elites who were supposed to be trusted]. And said elites came to Jesus upset, asking him by what authority did he teach and heal and hang out with those who were considered unclean. But Jesus knew what they were doing. They were trapping him with questions that had no right answers. So he asked them a trap question. Did the baptism of his cousin John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Jesus asked this, because there was an argument among the religious elites about whether John or Jesus was the true prophet, or whether both of them were wrong and just competing against each other’s teachings.

So the religious elites who were supposed to be the trusted role models, were worried about saving face in front of the crowds and maintaining their power; they copped out and said: We don’t know.

And then Jesus told a parable, one that was meant to drive the point home. It was a story about authority, and this authority is only granted because of trust. John and Jesus had the same message of love and acceptance to the tax collectors and the prostitutes [the marginalized of society]. Those on the margins accepted this message and trusted the love and acceptance they were shown.

They got none of this love or acceptance from the institutions, from the elites they were supposed to trust.

And this was [and is] the consistent message and good news of Jesus. Trust is not about blind faith in a church or a religion or a person or a thing. Jesus didn’t expect people to close their eyes and fall backwards into his arms. Jesus invited people to receive healing, to join community, to forgive and be forgiven, and to love, and be loved above all else. Trust is, on every level, about experiencing love and respect, commitment and honesty.

Trust must be shown and proven.

It must be lived. So when ministers or prospective members of most Christian traditions are asked: “Do you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ…” what are they are really committing to? A belief statement? A doctrine? A religious creed? Loyalty to an institution? I hope not.

Because trust in institutions hasn’t gotten us very far as humanity. Many in this world [and maybe you too] have been marginalized, manipulated, used, or even betrayed by institutions [whether government, religion or others] because you were vulnerable and someone or something took advantage of that.

This is wrong.

I am sad that this happened to you or to anyone else.

So let us reclaim this word and concept of trust. In my view, Jesus exemplified what it means to love and accept people and proved it.

So may we have confidence in the people who love and accept us as we are, who sit with us in vulnerable times and don’t take advantage; may we also be especially aware of those we encounter who are vulnerable and looking for love and acceptance. May we give them a reason to find us trustworthy by showing them that we are.

[1] http://news.gallup.com/poll/192581/americans-confidence-institutions-stays-low.aspx

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says: Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

A Trusting Identity: We Are a People of Continuing Testament

Luke 4:1-13     

These 40 days of Lent is a time to reflect on identity. Who am I? Who is God? Who is my neighbor? Who are we? Whenever we look deeply at our own identity, if we are open, we can even surprise ourselves. We can find out something new that we didn’t recognize before. And always, always, identity formation is enhanced in community. The people around us help us to know ourselves better. I can certainly say that this has been true for me. Throughout my life, there have been people who have helped to shape and form my identity. Some were family; some were friends; some were teachers, mentors; and of course, the people we love deeply and commit our lives to [like life partners and spouses] help us see ourselves differently.

But there is trust involved. We won’t embrace someone’s viewpoint of ourselves if we don’t trust that person. If someone challenges us or encourages us to try something new or to change in a certain way, we do so because we trust that person’s knowledge of us. And we also trust that he/she has our best interests in mind and that this person loves us enough to tell it like it is—to be honest.

One of my struggles in all the churches I have been part of is the lack of trust I have often observed. There are a lot of people in the pews or on the church rolls who read the Bible, pray, serve on committees or boards, even preach and teach Sunday school. But they rarely [if ever] move past the superficial conversations to reveal doubts about God; or say that they aren’t sure about the Bible; or that sometimes there are not answers to life’s greatest questions. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of trust related to our tendency to check our brains outside the sanctuary’s doors. It’s weird, but once many church people are inside the sanctuary, they don’t think or ask questions.

As people of faith who then form communities of faith, our identities are formed by how we see the scriptures [the Bible], and our theology [how we think about God]. There is an identity phrase used by the United Church of Christ: God is Still Speaking. This phrase has sort of become the denomination’s unofficial slogan. There is a story behind it, as there always is. Some of you may remember the comedian George Burns. His wife was also a performer, Gracie Allen.

GracieAllenThey had their own show together. The story goes that after Gracie died, George found among her papers a letter left for him. The letter included the phrase Never place a period where God has placed a comma.[1] A few years ago, when the UCC was in the midst of developing an identity campaign, a man called Ron Buford was charged with leading the creative efforts. So he gathered ideas from people in local congregations around the UCC.

Ron was first inspired by a quote from one of the founders of the Congregationalist Church, John Robinson: O God, grant yet more light and truth to break forth from your word. The idea that there was more light to break forth and no period where God has placed a comma became God is still speaking.

CommaIt was not and is not a new idea, actually. Revelation continues; testament [literally, witness] continues. The Bible, though full of different religious traditions and a mash-up of different time periods and writers, we say is inspired by God. There is not a period. This means that one interpretation of a Bible passage or one theology is not the final one or the best one. God is still speaking means that what Reformed theologians like John Calvin or Martin Luther wrote or said or what Councils in Nicaea or Rome decided is not by any means the final word. God is still speaking recognizes that their perspectives were limited to their culture and time period and agendas. What about other voices and interpretations? This is what continuing testament is all about—trusting that there still light [new perspectives] to break forth.

For some, this is difficult to accept, and why people [within the Christian community] say that UCC stands for Utterly Confused Christians or Unitarians Considering Christ. The openness of the idea, however, of God is still speaking does not mean that we’re all relativists [and neither are Unitarians, actually]. In other words, we are not just interpreting the scriptures in a way that is convenient or consistent with our cultural practices, political beliefs, or just simply put—we are not seeking to interpret the Bible to mirror what we like and already think.

God is still speaking is about opening up the mind and heart to different and even difficult interpretations—perspectives that challenge our comfort zones and move us to humility and love-action. And yes, if we’re really open and ready to listen, we will find that some of our doctrines and dogmas were and are oppressive, racist, close-minded, and downright awful. Throughout history, people [and the church] have interpreted scripture in order to do something bad to other people. It still happens quite often today, I am sad to say.

This is one of the main reasons I decided to be an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ–precisely because I do believe that there is a LOT of wisdom, light, and meaning yet to be discovered. It’s really never-ending. I have no trust in a Biblical interpretation that cuts down other people. You’re Muslim—well, too bad! The Bible says you are going to hell unless you believe in Jesus; tough luck. Oh, you’re gay? That’s too bad, because even though Jesus loves everybody else, he doesn’t love you! You pray that way? Eat that food? Speak that language? Believe that about God? Good luck, because my Bible says: See ya!

 And yet, if God is God, how in the world could we possibly limit this God by slapping a period down at the end and saying: That’s it! There’s only one way to look at it! The Bible as a whole contradicts this. Have you ever compared the four Gospels? Their views of Jesus–what he did and who he was–are sometimes very far apart, and rightly so. Each part of the Bible has its own unique voice. Continuing testament, God is still speaking—the idea is nothing new. The Bible itself is made up of different viewpoints, theologies, and religious practices. Continuing testament is about being attentive to God’s creative movement in the world.

God’s not stuck in a book; or in an era; or even in a religion. God is love and that love is free.

It is with that effort to hear a Still-Speaking God in the Bible stories that we turn to Jesus’ retreat story. Notice I didn’t say Jesus’ temptation. I’m borrowing from Dr. Bruce Epperly, professor at Claremont University. Bruce equates Jesus’ so-called temptation in the wilderness with a spiritual retreat.[2] He argues that our take on the story is quite full of devil-baggage and thus, we miss the Gospel writer’s point. Jesus is on spiritual retreat—trying to find his identity after being baptized by John. Jesus goes to pray and think and journey. And in that process he comes face to face with himself.

devilIt is true that our view of this story is often clouded by our view of the age-old character, the devil. Yes, that evil dude with the goatee, horns, red suit, and trident/pitchfork. Honestly, there is probably no better example of a mishmash of history and legend than the character of Satan. Of course, less than 1% of how the devil is portrayed in popular culture actually includes what the Bible says! In fact, there is no devil in the Hebrew Scriptures [what Christians call the OT]. Evil yes; devil no. Even in the NT of the Bible, the personification of the devil is hotly debated. Yes, there are demons [evil, angry spirits], but always in people or in some cases, in animals. The devil as a personified character is never described physically. There are evil voices and people who do evil things—that’s it.

You see, over the centuries various cultures have defined evil in different ways. The U.S. concept of Satan or the devil is a combo of various Anglo-Saxon and other European traditions—mixing in a bit of Greek mythology.

FaustThe German tradition of Faust is often mistakenly combined with Jesus’ wilderness story. Of course, Faust, in the story, is a highly successful scholar who is dissatisfied with life in general and so he makes a deal with the devil to acquire unlimited knowledge. Many see Jesus’ wilderness experience as this personified devil trying to seduce him to make a deal. And this kind of thinking leads us to the idea that the devil appears in our heads or on our shoulders, trying to persuade us to do bad things. Finally, we come up with the famous but ridiculous phrase: the devil made me do it.

 

HomerEventually, we start to feel a bit like Homer Simpson who carried the burden of Good Homer and Evil Homer. Again, though, is this really what Jesus’ wilderness experience is about? Is there one guy who is pure evil and makes us do evil things? Do we make that guy responsible for the things we do? Honestly, I think this is harmful and certainly not truthful. All of us are responsible for what we do and say. Sure, we are all capable of evil. No doubt about that. It doesn’t take long to see that we are all capable of hurting, killing, destroying, stealing, lying, and hating.

But I argue that it is less about a pitch fork-wielding devil and more about a lack of trust. In Jesus’ wilderness retreat, he is “tempted” three times, but each time it is about trust. If Jesus did not trust that he would have enough to eat, then by all means, he would have turned the stone to bread. If Jesus did not trust that he had what he needed, he would feel the need to take power for himself; and if Jesus thought that God really didn’t care, he would throw himself down to test that theory. It is all about trust.

That’s the message I hear. In our identity as people of faith, it is about trust. We are in a relationship with a trustworthy God who loves us unconditionally as we are, creates all of us equally human; and leaves us with an incredible natural creation to care for and love. And God entrusts us with relationships, which are supposed to be built on trust.

Temptation, then, is really planting the seeds of mistrust in relationships.

We are tempted to lie if we don’t trust that a person will accept our truth.

We are tempted to be passive-aggressive and not talk with someone face to face, because we do not trust them to listen.

We are tempted to hurt another if we think that person will hurt us.

We are tempted to steal if we don’t trust that we will have what we need.

We are tempted to hate if we don’t trust that differences are okay.

We are tempted to be apathetic and individualistic because we don’t trust that our actions make a difference.

It is about trust.

And so, let us form an identity of trust.

First, trust that God loves and doesn’t hate. God creates and doesn’t destroy. God is engaged in merciful action and not legalistic judging.

And then, trust yourself enough to love someone as she is. Trust yourself enough to accept differences and even embrace them. Trust enough to stand up for someone when no one else will. Trust enough to be honest, and generous, and forgiving, and passionate about helping.

Trust.

There is more light to break forth.

God IS still speaking through your actions of justice, love, and mercy.

The testament continues…in you. Amen.


[1] Two Minutes for God : Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007) by Peter B. Panagore

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