Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

Youth-soccer-indiana

With violence overwhelming Paris in the last few weeks, a half-dozen police officers and ever more innocent citizens shot dead across the nation, genocide in Nigeria, Cuban people held in political hostage by a perplexed, American Congress in gridlock, and a controversy over a Muslim call to prayer at Duke University that incited the Reverend Franklin Graham to opine that Duke’s inclusive policy is a form of affirming Islamic extremism, it seems that peace is hard to come by these days.

Not four weeks out from Christmas, a time when we ask for God to bring peace on earth, we see the worst of humanity plague politics, communities, and nations across the globe. I fear that our only hope for peace lies, not with those of us who are old enough to understand the hymns of peace that we sing, but with the next generation who have the power to craft a future not divided by race, culture, or religion.

This is what happened last month in Haifa, the northern-most coastal territory of Israel, when 200 children from different cultures and religions gathered to play a game of soccer.

It was December 15th, and the event was organized by the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould.  The event was intentional and brought together various soccer leagues from Jewish, Muslim, and Druz communities in honor of the 1914 Christmas Truce of World War 1.

The children knew full well the significance of the event, and they rallied enough support from parents, other professional soccer players, and politicians to make the event a historic day for Israel-Palestinian relations.

Melanie Lidman, writing in the National Catholic Reporter, documented the story and quoted Zouheir Bahloul, an Arab-Israeli soccer announcer as saying, “Here, we have an island of equality, and we need to develop projects like this…especially at this age.”

A few children were also interviewed.  One child, age 11, stated that he wanted to play in the tournament to meet new people and make new friends.

While we adults cower, react, respond, and act out in fear, our children have an uncanny way of building friendships across barriers and seeing the humanity in those who are different than they.  We need to learn from their example.

All of this took place near Mount Carmel, the mountain famous for the prophet Elijah’s showdown with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18), a series of caves that acted as Elisha’s spiritual retreat center (2 Kings 2:25; 4:25); and a symbol of beauty for the author of Song of Solomon (7:5).

Not very far from that location, near the Sea of Galilee, Jesus challenged his disciples to follow in the footsteps of children: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4).

Humility is something that we Christians are called to model, but we have to recognize that it is not a virtue we can force on others.  There will always be people who seek destruction, violence, and vitriol as a means to a dastardly end; if we respond in kind, then we are no different and humility will escape us.  God only holds us responsible for our holiness and our reactions to others.

A week after the protests and controversy at Ferguson related to the killing of Michael Brown, a group of us asked the youth at our church what they thought about race relations.  The children–ranging in ages from 11 to 15 years old–were clueless as to why such conflict between the races even existed.

One white youth who has an African-American best friend said that all of the people he knows at school have moved past issues related to race, sexual orientation, and even religion.  It seems that those conflicts are our problems, not his and his friends.

On that Israeli coastal plain half-way around the world, we see a model for how to do reconciliation, Christian or otherwise.  We can see it in the smiles of laughing, playing children.  We can see it in the collaboration of teams that work together for healthy competition.  We can see it in the innocence and joy of our beloved young people, whom I hope will craft a world far removed from the divisive–and divided–world in which we find ourselves.

Advertisements

Biblical evidence on divorce challenges notions of power, not convenience

divorceOne of the most controversial issues in church and culture is that of divorce.  Even in an age that focuses on non-traditional relationships, divorce abounds and marriages are still as fragile as ever.

This year, the Supreme Court will look at the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  I think somewhere along the way, people got it into their minds that married folks needed defending, but I know far more marriages that end in divorce than split due to some outside influence.

Divorce is too convenient, too ubiquitous.  It is an easy way out and reflects our propensity to escape hardship whatsoever.

As an old-fashioned kind of guy, I’m on the side of saving a marriage even if it means enduring a few years of suffering and hardship.  Every marriage has its difficulties and dry spell, but some issues are harder to work through than others, like adultery, abuse, and manipulation, to name a few.

There are times when divorce is unavoidable and times when clergy have turned a blind eye to the horrors that exist in many a marriage.  I’ve met many women who’ve endured being told by their pastors to “submit to their” violent husbands because of a church’s dogmatic, legalistic views against divorce.

Yet, the Bible, ever God’s holy word, still speaks to modern marriages even if our notions of the institution have changed.

In Matthew 5:32, Jesus condemned divorce except in situations involving adultery.  In the Gospel of Mark (10:1-21), however, Jesus condemned divorce but did not give an addendum about adultery; rather, he pointed out the deeper issues that led to divorce.

In the Gospel, pharisees and legal scholars challenged Jesus in a debate about divorce.  Jesus quickly pointed out that divorce was never God’s intent, it was Moses’ way of accommodating humanity’s “hardness of heart” (Mark 10:5).

Furthermore, in the ancient world, divorce was something that husbands initiated.  A wife, not so high on the social ladder, had little say in the matter.  A divorced woman was, therefore, vulnerable and shamed; in other words, unable to bring honor to her family.

Jesus sided with women on this issue.  Divorce was wrong not only because it went against God’s intent, but because it left a vulnerable and powerless people group out in the cold.

Jesus hit the nail on the head: the real issue behind divorce was the abuse of power.  We sense this because, not minutes after this debate, Jesus welcomed children–another vulnerable people group in ancient society–into his arms (10:13-16). Like women, antiquity preferred children to be neither seen nor heard.

After that, a rich young man asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (10:17-31).  The man followed all the rules and fulfilled what was expected of him, but Jesus said he lacked one thing: “Sell all your possessions, give to the poor and then follow me” (10:21).

The rich man refused; and, later, Jesus responded,”But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). Again, Jesus went to the heart of the matter: power, humanity’s abuse of it, and God’s deep commitment to correct it.

For Jesus, being righteous was not about the legalities of marriage or divorce, but was about one’s ability to temper power in a way that kept the most vulnerable in a place of honor and dignity.  Jesus’ disciples best followed God when they lived by an ethic in which they put “the last” first in life even at their own expense.  Even they had to become vulnerable, “as a little child,” to enter God’s kingdom (10:15).

There is no doubt that divorce is full of complexity.  Perhaps the root of all our discussions, however, shouldn’t be whether to divine what God might say to this couple or that, but should be to get at the heart of where we wield–and, at times abuse–power within our relationships.

Perhaps the only defense our marriages need is the defense against our baser, selfish, and power-hungry selves.  After all, we too are susceptible to a “hardness of heart.”

“And your slaves, both men and women…shall prophesy”

By artist, Scott Erickson. (Click on the picture to visit his blog.)

[This is the third and final reflection on the Joel text and the Pentecost story in Acts 1-2.]

“And your slaves, both men and women slaves . . . shall prophesy.”

In the ancient world, there were people who held the top of the social echelon and those who remained at the bottom.  On the lowest rung were slaves.

Slavery was the result of various social situations.  Some slaves were conquered enemies; others became slaves out of necessity.  In many cases, it was an inherited caste or one brought about by indentured service.

Some slaves were treated with high esteem, while many more were treated poorly–branded on the forehead, denied shoes and proper clothing, torn asunder from family systems.

Whether pampered or scorned, God’s Law clearly established that many slaves could not participate in worship at Temple if they had been maimed or disfigured.

For the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8, this presented a poignant hindrance.  Eunuchs were slaves, but they were also disfigured by one of the most humiliating acts of the ancient world, castration.  By castrating a slave, a royal administration could entrust him with serving concubines or keeping finances worry-free.  High positions required such unfettered loyalty.

According to Deuteronomy 23, however, a eunuch could not enter worship in the Temple court.  That a eunuch–or anyone else with an inability to marry or have a family–could not procreate made him a particular social pariah unworthy of any community whatsoever.  Outcasts, twice removed, as it were.

This was true for the Ethiopian eunuch; and by the time we read about him in Acts 8:27, we find him returning home from Jerusalem.  He went to worship, but was turned away because of his plight.  The Spirit sent Philip to intercede and share the Good News nevertheless.

When Philip reached him, the eunuch was reading Isaiah 53:7-8.  This resonated with the eunuch: Like him, the promised Messiah would be “slaughtered” and “humiliated,” excluded.

Philip explained that all people–slave or free–had a place in God’s Kingdom regardless of their situation or sexual stigma, the eunuch asked why he couldn’t be a part of this new Christ-movement.

Perhaps the eunuch had in mind a promise three chapters later in Isaiah 56:3-5, which foresaw a time when even eunuchs would join God’s kingdom.  So, if nothing kept the eunuch from being baptized, then nothing kept him from preaching.  According to legend, the Eunuch was the first missionary to the African continent.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul argued that, in Christ, anyone can preach the Good News of God’s new inclusive agenda ushered in by Jesus’ death.  Ethnicity, social status, and gender could not keep anyone from participating in the Great Commission (3:28).

In fact, the powerful post-Pentecost text in Acts 8 did more than blur lines in ethnicity, class, and gender.  It was, additionally, a parabolic declaration that all people can become Spirit-filled prophets.

In a recent edition of the Christian Index, the editor-in-chief opined that a recent conference on sexual ethics hosted by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was a sign that emerging, non-traditional family units limited the integrity of the Gospel.*

He went so far to imply that the conference’s organizers might be “apostates” because of their role in reflecting on who God may commission to spread the Gospel.  But the editor’s name-calling is simply another form of exclusion, a lowering of another’s status to the next rung down–an act of violence in and of itself.

If the very people the Temple excluded in Jesus’ time were the very people whom God empowered to be prophets of God’s new, inclusive economy of salvation, then what does that say about what God may be doing with those on the margins today, many of whom are committing suicide or falling away from the very church in which they long for safe refuge?

Like the eunuch so long ago, many people on the margins of our society–humiliated as they are by those in power and privilege, like editors of major Baptist newspapers–“may not make up the structure of the institutional church, but without them the body of Christ is hopelessly maimed and dismembered” (Wendy Farley).*

Like sheep led to slaughter, indeed; but prophets nevertheless.

Source:

J. Gerald Harris, “Activist judges, living documents and evolving convictions,” The Christian Index (31 May 2012), p. 4.

Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), 5.