Thursday, January 8, 2015

My Friend, the Godly Atheist

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us... Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters,* are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister* whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters* also. ~ 1 John 4:7-12, 20-21 

I have a friend who is an Atheist. He does not believe in God, and he most particularly does not believe in religion. He does believe in science, intelligence, compassion, and justice. Yesterday, after a group of religious people entered the offices of a newspaper in Paris and murdered 11 journalists because they thought God was offended by things the paper had printed, my friend wrote on Facebook:
Goddamn religion. Makes me want to puke.
Considering the news from France, it was hard to disagree with him.

Which is why I was especially gratified to find this passage from the first letter of John in this morning's lectionary. They were words I needed to hear: words that everyone needs to hear: especially those of us who embrace religion as a source of spiritual and moral guidance.

Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. What an amazing and radical idea to preach to a church that was at that time being persecuted into extinction by the Roman empire. There is no call to defend God. No enlisting of Christian Soldiers. To the contrary, John says Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters,* are liars... This is tough stuff to swallow. The implication here is obvious and in a way terrifying. Whoever hates another person, hates God.

How do we love Christ? We obey his commandments. And how do we do that?
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. ~ John 13:34
 Would Jesus murder a newspaper reporter? Would he lie to a customer to keep their business? Would he cheat on his wife or beat his child or collect guns or fight against the "War on Christmas?" Would he turn his eyes away from the beggar at the traffic light or the drunk who is passed out on the curb? Would Jesus gossip or spread stories about people that he didn't know were true? Would he change the way he spoke or the jokes he told, depending on who was in the room? No, he would not have done any of these things, because they express disrespect and contempt, and whoever disrespects a person they can see, can never love the God they cannot see.

If we want to love our invisible God, we have no choice. We must love the people whom God has placed before us. Love is our business in this world. Maybe if we would mind that business, our religion would be more palatable to my friend who does not know the church, but knows God better than he may realize.

Let us love one another... For love is from God.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Bells of Nathaniel

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’~ John 1:43-47 NRSV

In this passage from this morning's prayers, two things ring in my ear like bells.

The first is that, at a Nazarene, Jesus grew up in a backwater that was the butt of jokes and derission among the more sophisticated people in Israel. Jesus was a hillbilly: poor white trash. He came from a place where the news was always bad. I am reminded of national news items about my home state. When we see a story about Kentucky on CNN or Huffington, our first reaction is, "Oh, no. What now?" It's usually about how ours is among the hardest places to live, with the most depressed people, the most numerous smokers, the worst poverty, the highest rates of cancer or drug abuse or most recently, the flu. We expect the news that makes it out of Kentucky to be bad.

At the same time, people who live in the cities of central and western Kentucky often look to the eastern mountains as the home of ignorance, meth labs, moonshine cookers, and snake handlers. Even among ourselves, we have a system of class and caste.

As it is in the Bluegrass, so it was with Israel As far as Rome was concerned, Palestine was a strategically important cultural wasteland. Though their homeland was critical to the Emperor's control of the eastern Mediterranean,  the Hebrews looked like savage primitives to the sophisticates in Rome. That cultural contempt echoed in Nathaniel's joke about Nazareth. Nothing good could ever come from the holler dwelling trailer trash in that miserable place.

Where else would you expect to find the Savior of the World?
And that's what strikes me as so important: Jesus was a cultural surprise. He was not a graduate of Harvard Divinity school, or even Oral Roberts University. He was a nobody from nowhere. A preacher who showed up from West Virginia or Mississippi or the lettuce farms of California or the ghettos of Detroit. We might expect such a man to offer homespun wisdom and folksy, simplistic philosophy, but never the most radical and influential theology in history. Jesus was a man without influence, from the most miserable town in the most miserable part of the Roman world. Jesus is not who we expect him to be. He is not to be found among the usual suspects. Jesus will take us by surprise, and challenge all of our prejudices and assumptions.

The second bell rings when Jesus greets the man from Bethsaida. We might expect a stern rebuke, or even good natured ribbing from the penniless preacher, but instead, he greets him with praise. Before Nathaniel even speaks to him, Jesus sees his character and his integrity. "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" Jesus does not return contempt for contempt. Nathaniel may look down on the Carpenter's Son, but at least he is honest about it. He does not smile with his mouth and sneer with his heart. And in that candor and honesty, Jesus recognizes a man who can serve God even if he is very different from the people among whom Jesus was raised. Jesus compassion transcends both bigotry and cultural differences, and in that moment, the two men form a bond that lasts a lifetime.

The story of Nathaniel calls us to look beyond our expectations and our differences. In this morning's collect from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, we hear, Make us willing to listen and humble in what we believe is right. (p 563)

Jesus was willing to listen, and humble in his beliefs: he did not see a snob from the port city of Bethsaida, but rather a man who was without trickery or guile. Jesus took the time to see and hear a stranger, and he found a friend. God grant that we might have the courage to really look and see the people we encounter, and the compassion to recognize the divinity in them, in spite of our own assumptions and expectations.

Peace, y'all.

Thursday, January 1, 2015


This saying has always made a lot of sense to me. As I started thinking about a personal theme for 2015, it rose to the top. My research showed me that the quote is wrongly attributed to Gandhi. He never actually said that. I also read a pundit who suggested that the philosophy is an anti-political bromide meant to sooth the guilty consciences of privileged Americans who would rather work on self-improvement that helping their neighbors. I reluctantly concede the first point, but object to the second.

I find profound truth in the idea that we must first change ourselves before we can change the world. Consider the damage done when a hero falls. Athletes. Politicians. Entertainers. Religious leaders. They might have done many positive things for a time, but when the cracks in their public persona reveal deep personal flaws or even hypocrisy, we start to question their motives and the integrity of their cause. If we want to change the world, we must first change ourselves.

I am a Christian. That means I believe in the life and ministry of a great and radical revolutionary: a teacher whose life showed us the value of courage, strength, compassion, and joy. Jesus didn't just say the right things and inspire with his words; he modeled the values of faithfulness and love that resonate right down to our time, even among those who do not believe in his deity or the church that bears his name. To imitate Christ means living the change: not just speaking out, but also stepping up.

My resolution for 2015 is to be the change I wish to see in the world.
  • I will continue to improve my own health and wellness, so I can serve my God, my neighbors, and myself more effectively. 
  • I will earn the Personal Training certification that I've been talking about for years, so that I can teach with confidence and authority. 
  • Finally, I am going to find myself a church home in 2015. My reasons for not doing so are no longer persuasive, not even to myself. I have known the value of contributing to a worshipful community, and I want that back in my life.
I will continue to refine those goals, sometimes privately, sometimes sharing that journey on Run Bob, Run, and in a year I hope to look back on these resolutions and see that I was faithful to them -- and that my faithfulness helped to change myself and my world.

Here is an invitation. How do you wish the world was different? What can you do in your own life and habits that will be a pebble dropped in the sea of change that will make the world a better place -- even just a tiny part of it.