Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Where is the Christ in Christmas? That's what I would like to know.

The following was submitted to my local newspaper in response to two other articles/letters that had been printed. It was not printed, so I am publishing it here.  [note:  it actually did end up being printed later on]

Two letters in the December 5, 2007 edition of the [name of local paper] bemoaned the removal of nativity scenes from public property. The authors both believed that Christ is being taken out of Christmas, and wonder, “where is the Christ in Christmas?”

I too wonder that. Where is the Christ in our home decorations of candy canes, lights, trees, Santa, reindeer, and snow globes? Where is the Christ in our frenzied shopping to buy more things that we do not need, to fulfill wish lists of children and adults who will forget what they received within months, if not weeks or even days? Where is the Christ in our overindulgence of Christmas cookies? Is he there? Or has he been pushed aside, albeit unknowingly, to make room for all the “fun” Christmas activities? When we display a nativity scene in our homes as just one of the many themes of Christmas, making it equal to the other seasonal decorations, we are pushing the Christ aside. Why should we expect the government to make him a focus if we cannot do it ourselves? Sure, we may go to church on Christmas Eve for an hour and sing our Christmas carols, but what happens the next morning? The Christ is gone, and Santa has come.

The author of one of the letters likened the display being taken away to the Grinch who stole Christmas. The Grinch, however, stole only those outward signs of Christmas: the presents and the decorations. The message in the story is that Christmas still came without those things. Would it happen that way for us? Without our public decorations, would we still have Christmas? We should still have it. It doesn't matter if government displays or doesn't display a nativity scene. It doesn't matter if we choose not to compete with our neighbors with putting up lights. What matters is that we ask ourselves if we are truly celebrating Christmas. Are we celebrating what we think it is, a season of love, family, and compassion, as one author pointed out, or are we celebrating what it truly is, a unique time in history when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made himself known in a unique way, when instead of His presence dwelling in the tabernacle in the wilderness or in the temple in Jerusalem, His presence dwelt in the person of Jesus?

If we take the time to ponder the mystery of the Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, coming to us in such a way, everything else we deem important, such as whether or not we can have nativity displays on public property, or whether or not we have bought just the right presents, pales in comparison. Instead of feeling offended that there is not a nativity display, what if we took that energy and spent time contemplating, praying, asking God what he would have us do instead of asking the government to do it for us? How would we then be able to have our lives transformed and help in transforming the lives of others, just as our world began to be transformed when the Christ was born? Perhaps, then, we would be a living, breathing embodiment of the Christ, perhaps we would indeed be the body of Christ as we should be, and manufactured displays would no longer have to do it for us.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Ten...No, Four...No, Nineteen Commandments?

I actually wrote this last spring but apparently never posted it here...

Sometimes, I think I might be a heretic—or at least that others would think so if they knew some of the thoughts I have. But at other times I wonder what I worry about, because I know that I am thinking deeply about what I read and study, wondering what it means, wondering if we've missed some things, wondering if there is more to learn than what I've always heard, wondering if I have a right to question traditional teachings.

One of the teachings most people would never question is that of the Ten Commandments. Ask any Christian if they ought to be followed, and the answer will most likely be yes. But ask any Christian if any other Old Testament commandments should be followed and they will likely say no, or they will be puzzled and ask what other commandments there are. If they are told that there are other commandments like holding festivals three times a year (Exodus 23:14) or not boiling a kid in its mother's milk (Exodus 23:19), the response would probably be that those are not moral laws or that they were for a different time. Yet these same laws fall in a long list that comes right after the version of the 10 Commandments that we find in Exodus 20.

So why do we ignore most of the other laws we see, but follow the 10 Commandments? People might say, “well, they are in the Bible”. That's really the extent of understanding we often have of them. We may even try to be able to remember them all, but sometimes that is just like trying to name the seven dwarfs—we're apt to always forget at least one.

What do the 10 Commandments mean to us and should Christians even follow them? What were the circumstances surrounding their inception? The background to their coming into use is that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. We are told that they groan under the heavy tyranny that they faced from Pharaoh. God hears their groaning (Exodus 2:4) and calls Moses to be the one to take charge of the monumental task of leading them out of Egypt.

We're told that when they come out of slavery, they will worship God on the very mountain that He spoke to Moses on when He called to Moses out of the burning bush (Exodus 3:12). During the plagues on Egypt, we see the demand repeated that the people are to be let go in order to worship God (Exodus 8:1; 9:1). After the plagues, when Pharaoh finally lets them go and they have crossed the Red Sea into freedom, the first order of business is singing and dancing in praise of God. After this, times do get tough. The water is bitter and there isn't enough to eat. It takes months to get to the place where they are supposed to worship God, but eventually, they get there. God tells them that if they obey his voice and keep his covenant, they will be his treasured possession (Exodus 19:5). They agree. God says that he will come to them in a dense cloud and the people will hear what He has to say. In order to prepare for this meeting with God, they will be consecrated. They will wash their clothes and will only get just close enough to the mountain until the trumpet blows, and then they will be able to go up. When everything is all set, on the morning of the third day, there is thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud. The trumpet blast is “so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). Moses and Aaron are then permitted to ascend the mountain, but the others must keep their distance. And then, we are told, “God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). What are these words that God spoke?

The words that God spoke begin with Him identifying Himself with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). It's probably slightly comforting to know that yes, all the stuff happening now is consistent because it's the same God. It's not one of Egypt's pantheon of gods, but the one who is identified with their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He then lists these rules for them to follow:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me

  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol

  3. You shall not bow down to them

  4. or worship them

  5. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God

  6. Remember the sabbath day

  7. and keep it holy

  8. Honor your father and your mother

  9. You shall not murder

  10. You shall not commit adultery

  11. You shall not steal

  12. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor

  13. You shall not covet your neighbor's house, wife, slave, ox, donkey, or anything else

Wait...there are more than ten there. And if one were to look at the very first one according to Jewish sources, one would discover that in Judaism, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” as the beginning “command”. What's going on? What we have here, are actually a number of commandments, that are contained in “all these words” (Exodus 20:1) that God spoke. The Bible does not tell us how they should be enumerated, and that is why when we seem them listed, we will see differing versions between Jews, Catholics, and Protestants1

After the people witnessed these surrounding events, they became scared and decided that Moses should be the only one to get close enough to listen to the rest of what God had to say. God then gives Moses all kinds of ordinances—or commandments—that the people are to follow. In the twelfth century, the great Jewish scholar Rambam2 went through the Torah and codified a list of 613 different commandments that were contained there. These laws were not new; they had been followed for many years. They were just now listed in one location rather than having to search through the Torah.

But for many years, that is what people had to do, and the amount of laws were not unfamiliar to them. These laws are what taught them how to live their lives as God's people. But today, many of the laws get a bad rap. There are many Christians who believe Jesus did away with the laws and so we do not have to follow them. Is this really the case? They are partially right. He did not do away with them, as we shall soon see, but we also do not necessarily have to follow them.

In what has become well-known as the “Sermon on the Mount”, Jesus says

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19).

It is clear that Jesus says the laws are to be followed. But by whom? Jesus is primarily speaking to a Jewish audience. Later, we see that he commands his disciples to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles3, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:5-6) and then in Matthew 15:24 says that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Though in this scene he shows compassion on this woman and heals her daughter and there are other instances of his interactions with Gentiles, his primary audience was his own people, the very same people whose ancestors were given those commandments so many years before.

What then, is a Gentile to do? This is a question that arose in the Book of Acts. The events of this book begin after Jesus' resurrection. More and more Jewish people are becoming believers in Jesus based on the testimony of others and on their own new experiences. And then Peter, the disciple who first recognized Jesus as the Messiah, has another new experience. He is praying at noon and has a vision of various unclean animals and hears God telling him to kill and eat. While I have a hunter friend who likes to joke that this is definite Biblical evidence for God's approval of hunting, Peter understands the vision differently. He is told to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. Peter tells him that it had been “unlawful for Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown [him] that [he] should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28)4 For Peter, this vision does not seem to be as much about food as it is about with whom it is ok to associate. His world has suddenly expanded. No longer is this new religious movement only about his people, but it's about everyone, and he tells people that he now understands that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). And then, to the astonishment of the Jewish believers with Peter, the Gentiles are given the same gift of speaking in other languages that they had recently received.

It's not an easy transition for other people, though, because Peter is criticized by his fellow Jews for eating with Gentiles. He explains to them all that had happened and after he was done they “praised God, saying, 'Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life'” (Acts 11:18). The family tree has expanded in an odd way that was very unexpected. What are they supposed to do now? According to some of the Jewish believers, the new Gentile believers must now be circumcised. Circumcision was the mark of being a Jew, of being a part of the covenant that God made with Abraham.5 These Jewish believers felt that the Gentile believers must now “convert” and basically become Jewish, following all Jewish laws. There is a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss the issue, and it is decided that the Gentiles will not have to take on all of the laws that the Jews follow. The laws that the Gentiles must follow are to “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (Acts 15:19). There are only four laws here. Four.

Most Christians today are not Jewish. The argument about whether or not Gentiles should become Jewish is one that we would never have today and one that many Christians would likely be surprised to discover is in the Bible.

The question over what to do and how to do it continued to be asked and pondered, and in the late first century, a document was compiled that we know as the Didache, or teaching. This document was a compilation of what Christians ought to do in certain situations. Among others, there are instructions for baptism, fasting, prayer, Christian visitors, and remembering the commandments.

In the section on remembering the commandments, Christians are told the following:

  1. You shall not murder

  2. You shall not commit adultery

  3. You shall not corrupt a young person

  4. You shall not commit fornication

  5. You shall not steal

  6. You shall not use magic

  7. You shall not kill a child by abortion nor slay it when born

  8. You shall not covet y our neighbor's possessions

  9. You shall not commit perjury, nor bear false witness

  10. You shall not speak evil

  11. You shall not bear malice

  12. You shall not be double-minded or double-tongued

  13. Your speech shall not be false or empty, but concerned with action

  14. You shall not be one who covets or extorts, hypocritical, malicious, or proud

  15. You shall not plan evil against your neighbor

  16. Do not hate anyone

  17. Rebuke some

  18. Prayer for others

  19. Love still others more than your own soul

So here we have even more commandments than we originally thought there were. Some are very similar to the Ten Commandments with which we are familiar, and only one of them seems to match up to the laws we discover in Acts (the law about fornication). And, these commandments only come in one section of the Didache. There are many more contained within the other chapters as well. We see that the early church was concerned about what living a Christian life meant. They obviously did not subscribe to the idea that people could individually decide for themselves what was acceptable and moral behavior and thought that people needed to know what behavior they should follow. The Bible as we know it had not been compiled yet and while manuscripts existed, it is difficult to say who had access to which manuscripts.

What can we learn from all these different ideas about what commands to follow? We can see that the simple ideas we have today such as “obey the Ten Commandments” were not always so simple, and that there was a time when people struggled and deeply thought about what the right thing to do was. Is this something that we should give up on thinking and discussing today? I don't believe so. If we are able to continue to ask questions about why we do what we do or believe what we believe, we have opportunities to grow in our faith in ways we may never have imagined. Does it mean we just throw out what is in the Bible? No. It is important, however, that we try to understand that there is a cultural and historical and religious context to what is there that is quite different from the context of our lives today. Despite the differences, we can gain a deep appreciation for the struggles that our Christian ancestors faced, because the question of how to apply the Bible and God's laws to our lives is one that we face every day.

1Although Protestantism began with Martin Luther, he continued to use the Catholic version of the commandments

2An acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides.

3A Gentile is a non-Jewish person

4Though the idea of not associating with Gentiles is not found in scripture, it could come from the extra biblical literature called Jubilees.

5See Genesis 17

No picking and choosing, huh?

A popular refrain that is heard throughout Christianity is that we cannot pick and choose what we want from the Bible or that the ten commandments are not multiple choice. And, usually each fall during stewardship month we hear about how we are supposed to give, and that the Bible commands us to give 10%. Now, I don't have a problem with giving. I just have a problem with the "theology" behind it.

We hear that the 10% comes from the word tithe in the Bible. The first place we see it is in the book of Numbers:

Numbers 18:21-26 21 To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting. 22 From now on the Israelites shall no longer approach the tent of meeting, or else they will incur guilt and die. 23 But the Levites shall perform the service of the tent of meeting, and they shall bear responsibility for their own offenses; it shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations. But among the Israelites they shall have no allotment, 24 because I have given to the Levites as their portion the tithe of the Israelites, which they set apart as an offering to the LORD. Therefore I have said of them that they shall have no allotment among the Israelites. 25 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 26 You shall speak to the Levites, saying: When you receive from the Israelites the tithe that I have given you from them for your portion, you shall set apart an offering from it to the LORD, a tithe of the tithe.

In this section, we see that the tithe is very specific--it is given to the Levitical priests in order that they perform their duties in the temple. Because they have these specific duties, they will not receive an allotment like the rest of the nation. And it is then a tithe of the tithe that is given to God.

In Deuteronomy 14, we see that the tithe is agricultural:

22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.

23 In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always.

28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns;

It has a specific use; it is eaten at the temple.

Today, we hear that giving 10% is about giving our money, and our time, and our talents (the 3Ts: tithe, time, talents). I don't disagree that we should give these things. But if we are going to use these verses in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible; Old Testament) to make our case, why do we ignore so many other things there?

Why do we not observe so many food laws? We see in Leviticus 11 that God commands His people to not eat pig (Leviticus 11:7 The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. ), yet pork is one of the most highly eaten meats today, and ham has become a traditional Easter dish.

Some may say that those laws are not moral laws and therefore they do not have to be followed today. But how is the example of the tithe a moral law? Moral laws are more along the lines of having to do with not murdering or not stealing or other laws such as those.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that we simply do not study our Bibles and try to understand the context in which the text was formed. We just look for ways to apply it to ourselves, and therefore, we pick and choose what we deem applicable. If we are going to do that, we at least should be honest about it and be upfront that we don't abide by everything in there.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Piano

The black upright piano was a feature in my childhood home for as long as I could remember. It stood against the wall and had a bench seat that opened to store music. It's ivory keys had become somewhat yellowed with age, but each time the cover was lifted from them, there was a sense of something special beneath.

I remember banging on the keys as a child, trying unsuccessfully to create the music that I knew could come from the instrument. And then, when I was 10, I began piano lessons. I was excited to learn—finally I would be able to make beautiful sounds. My ambition to play did not last long, however, due to boredom with practicing for half an hour every day (no matter how well I could play the song or no matter how frustrated I got when I just wasn't getting it), combined with jealousy over my younger sister's ability to pick out tunes by ear when I could not do that and I could not understand the notes for the left hand very well. This led me to quit my lessons after only two years.

But as I look back on the piano, I have new thoughts about it, thoughts unrelated to music or lessons. The piano had belonged to my grandmother, and possibly, her mother, but, as we will see, the details are unclear. What got me started thinking about the piano and my grandmother is a candle I have that's scent is called “Grandma's Kitchen”. It is a mixture of Cinnamon Bun, Sugar Cookie, and Carrot Cake. The candle's name and scent is meant to evoke happy memories of baking with Grandma in the kitchen. What then, is a person to do when Grandma wasn't a baker? My grandmother was not a baker. Not only do we have a photos of a lopsided cake that she made, we've also all heard the story about her leaving a spoon in another cake she made.

Despite the fact that my grandma wasn't a baker, there are other things that bring to mind memories of her. Fudge stripe cookies. Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Beefaroni. A card game called “Strawberry Shortcake Turnover” that I more aptly renamed “Strawberry Shortcake Turnover Beat Grandma”. I remember playing with my older cousin and then sitting down to the lunch of Beefaroni that she gave to us. I remember eating Fudge Stripe cookies and peering at Grandma through the hole in the center. I remember the black Hancock chair she'd received as a retirement gift. I remember her black hair and that she wore glasses.

And I remember lying on a towel by the woodstove in order to dry off after coming in from playing in the snow when the visiting nurse was there to care for her. Grandma had breast cancer. She died the day after I turned six years old.

There are other things I know about her that I do not have memories of. I know she smoked, but I am not sure I remember her smoking. And I know that she played the piano, and at church, the organ. Perhaps there is a vague, foggy memory of being in church and knowing she was in the balcony playing, but I am not certain of it.

These are six years of memories that I have, and they are few. It gives me only pieces of who she was and I realize I did not really know her. I have mementos of her: a bracelet with her initials on it, her engagement ring, a china plate. And today, if I eat Fudge Stripe Cookies or Beefaroni, I think of her.

I recently learned that she was raised by her father and grandmother because her mother left when my grandma was only about eight years old. My great-grandmother apparently had a dream of becoming a professional pianist and left the small town in northwestern Connecticut in order to follow that dream.

I wonder how Grandma felt about her mother leaving. What kind of fear, hurt, and anger did she have? When other parents would not let their children play with her because her parents were divorced, did she cry? Did she have a favorite stuffed animal to hug? Did her father and grandmother dry her tears?

Why did she choose to play the piano? What did she feel towards the instrument that helped to lure her mother from her life? Did it ever make her angry? Or was the piano her connection to her mother, as much as the jewelry and china plate are mine to her? When she sat at the bench and raised the cover to reveal the ivory keys, did she remember happier times when she would listen to her mother practicing?

I didn't inherit Grandma's inability to bake. I didn't inherit her musical talent. The piano itself is long gone. The first time I visited her grave in years was only a few months ago. I don't even think about her that often. But when I do, whether it is through stores at a family gathering, looking at old photographs, or simply because she comes to mind, I am thankful for those six years I did know her. Was she thankful for the eight years she had her mother?

Years later, in moving it out to the garage, the piano would topple on the uneven pavement and be destroyed. The piano was only an object, much like jewelry and china plates. Those objects will not last forever; they will be lost or broken, given away or sold. What is important is the memories that they evoke. Those memories can never be given away, sold, or broken, but can be the connecting piece between the past and the future.