What is Christian Literacy?

refers to the ability to use a language - to know what words means, to be able to use grammar, sentence structure, to be able to converse in that language is to be literate.

Religious literacy
means having the ability to understand and speak about our faith intelligently. It’s the ability to communicate the basic tenets of our religion.

I'm very grateful to B.U. Professor Stephen Prothero for his excellent book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't." This book, along with my desire to teach the faith, served as the inspiration for this effort.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Psalms - Israel's Prayer Book and Ours

The Book of Psalms is found in the middle of our Bibles. The book is comprised of 150 prayers, which were sung in worship by the ancient Israelites. Reading them is like attending a "school of prayer" where we learn about praise & passion, honesty and adoration.

“It is impossible to think of any human circumstances which do not find expression in this book. It is intensely human. The deepest thing is that it is a collection of songs in which human experiences are brought into the presence of God. They show how man feels and thinks and speaks and acts when he is conscious of God.”
                                           -  Campbell Morgan

The psalms were written over a span of 900 years. Ps. 90 is said to be "A Psalm of Moses" (1400s BC). Ps. 137 was written during the Babylonian Captivity (500s BC).

The Psalms are a beautiful example of Hebrew poetry. Here are some characteristics of such poetry:
            No rhyme or regular meter
            Passionate & emotional -Psalm 10, 22,
            Vivid & Concrete Images - Shepherd, Rock, Fortress
            Simile & Metaphors - God is like . . .
            Repetition & Refrains - Psalm 42 & 46
            Parallelism - the echo adds to the first statement. Ps. 19
            Symmetry - same # of lines in each stanza, Ps. 33 & 41

There are many different types of Psalms:             
           Praise & Thanksgiving          Laments (the largest category, more than 60!)
Songs of Trust                    Confession                             
Wisdom/Teaching Psalms    Sacred History/ Holy History Psalms                   
Individual Prayers & Prayers for the Community       Songs of Zion/Royal Psalms

What to look for when reading the Psalms:

  1. Take note of the introductory words for author & context.
  1. Don’t worry about the words that are notations for the musicians!  Ex. "Selah" – 71 x
  1. “Listen” for rhythms, parallelism and refrains.
  1. Be careful not to make a doctrine out of an emotional prayer. The psalms often reveal theology, but they do not set out to teach it.
5. Watch for the shift in tone, from struggle to praise.

“Wherever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure vanishes from the Christian church. With its recovery will come unsuspected power.”
                                                                                   - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Extra Credit:

One of the wonderful literary features of the psalms is parallelism. It's where a statement is made and then it's restated in a slightly different way, amplifying the original statement. Psalm 19 is a fine example of parallelism.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; 
The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; 
The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; 
The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; 
Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
                           - Ps. 19:1-2, 7-11

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

God's Guidance

We Christians talk about God leading us. We pray and ask God to guide us. We sing about God's leading, “Lead On, O King, Eternal,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought.”  But does God lead us? And if so, how? 

Here are some of the classic ways that people of faith have sought God’s guidance:

1.    Inner Peace.
God often gives us a sense of inner peace when we are on the right path.                  
Scripture: Let the Peace of Christ rule in your hearts. - Col. 3:15
            We allow the gift of God’s peace to be our rule and guide.

2.    A Restlessness,Yearning for more.
Sometimes the opposite of #1 guides us! We have an inner restlessness, a sense that God is calling us in a new direction. Consider the calling of the first disciples. Jesus simply said, “Come, Follow Me.” There must have been something already stirring in their hearts for them to respond the way they did.

3.    An Open Door.
Sometimes God leads us by simply presenting us with an opportunity, an “open door.” The Apostle Paul seemed to utilize this method.
Scripture: I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me.  - I Cor. 16:9
When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord.   - II Cor. 2:12

4.    Other People.
God guides us through the counsel of those who know us and love us.
Scripture: Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed.
 - Proverbs 15:22

5.    Common Sense.
God leads us as we use our own reasoning and common sense.
Paul used this method as well.
Scripture: It seemed necessary for me to send Epaphroditus to you. - Phil.2:25
It seemed best to the Holy Spirit & to us to impose on you not further burden.  
- Acts 15:28

6.    The Delight of Your Heart
Often God’s will for us is found in what makes us feel most alive!
Frederick Buechner put it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”
Scripture: Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
- Psalm 37:4
      7.    Scripture and Christian Values
The Ten Commandments & teachings of Christ guide and direct our actions, as do the values that are taught in the Bible – honesty, humility, generosity, forgiveness, etc.
Scripture: Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.  – Psalm 119:105

8.    Opening Our Eyes
Sometimes through prayer God figuratively opens our eyes and helps us see what was already there. Biblical scholars point out that a number of Jesus’ miracles were healing the blind, and that by doing so Christ was suggesting that many around him were spiritually blind. He came to open our eyes to his kingdom. At our discussion Betsy mentioned that service to others helps her receive God’s guidance and make better decisions, because in the act of serving she sees beyond her own little world.

9.    Walk & Trust
Instead of showing us the entire journey, God often gives us just enough light to see the next few steps. So we must simply walk and trust that God is guiding us, that God’s will will be done.
Scripture: I will return to you if God wills.  - Acts. 18:21
Asking that by God’s will I may somehow at last succeed in coming to you.    
- Romans 1:10

10. Co-Creators with God
I love the children’s books where the child helps write the story. At the end of each chapter the child has choices about what the main character will do. The child makes the choice and then reads the appropriate section. At the end of that section comes another series of choices. The child and the author help create the story that the child experiences. God leads like that, combining our choices with God’s will and grace.

Prayer: Lead us, O God. Direct our thoughts, our attitudes and our steps that we may walk in your ways and live in your kingdom. Amen. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pope Francis

Pope Francis has made some remarkable statements lately.  He has said things we’ve never heard a pope say before.  

"Tell me: When God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person."

"If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord, and is a person of good will, who am I to judge?" 

 He's criticized the church for putting dogma before love, and for prioritizing moral doctrines over serving the poor. His vision is for an inclusive church, a “home for all” — in striking contrast with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the doctrinal defender who envisioned a smaller, purer church.

"The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you."
"I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God."

"We must meet one another doing good. 'But I don't believe, Father, I am an atheist!' But do good: we will meet one another there."

 “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty." 

"You know what I think about this? Heads of the Church have often been narcissists, flattered and thrilled by their courtiers. The court is the leprosy of the papacy."

To many observers Pope Francis has clearly been influenced by a type of theology known as Liberation Theology.  It began as a movement within the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s–1960s and arose principally as a moral reaction to the poverty caused by social injustice in the region. 

Liberation Theology is, "an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor's suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor" (Phillip Berryman).

Liberation Theology identities and focuses on the poor, believing that God is on the side of the poor and their struggle for justice. "The poor man, the other, reveals to totally Other to us," wrote Peruvian Priest Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez, who gave the movement its name with his book, A Theology of Liberation (1968). 

Liberation Theology does not believe in a God who is "up there" or "out there," but rather a God who is found in the course of human history, as the driving force for justice and in "the crosses of the oppressed." God participates in the human struggle for justice.

Liberation Theology puts ortho-praxis (right living) over ortho-doxy (right belief).

Liberation Theology puts people above the institution.

Liberation Theology has been highly critical of the church for being complicit with those who oppress, supporting the status quo and legitimating the power of the oppressors.

Prayer: Loving God, Thank You for Pope Francis and his Christ-like vision. Use him to breathe new life into all your people. Amen.

Extra Credit:
Liberation Theology is not without its critics. Many have seen it as more of a political movement than a theological one. Its Christology (the person and work of Christ) is often limited to God simply identifying with the poor and their struggle, as opposed to Christ dying and rising for all people. But for its call to a compassionate, costly discipleship rooted and grounded in this world, Liberation Theology is to be commended. It has certainly left its mark on one influential Christian - the one who lives in a simple apartment in Vatican City. 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

In 1947 a Bedouin goat shepherd came upon a cave on the northwest shore of  the Dead Sea. He threw a rock into one of the cave and heard what sounded like pottery shattering. He came back the next day and entered the cave. He found that it was filled with large jars containing scrolls. What he stumbled upon was the greatest archaeological discovery of the 20th century.

11 caves in all housed jars that contained 900 scrolls.
They date from 250 BC - 68 AD.
Most were written on parchment but some were written on papyrus and bronze.
Most of the scrolls were not biblical scriptures, but over 200 were.
Every book is represented among the scrolls, except the book of Esther.
These scrolls gave us the oldest copies of the Hebrew Scriptures that we now have.
- 20 copies of the Book of Genesis
- 21 copies of the Book of Exodus
- 11 copies of the Book of Numbers
- 21 copies of the Book of Isaiah
- 36 scrolls containing many of the Psalms.

In viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit at the Museum of Science recently, I came away with two main impressions:

1. The scribes were amazing.

These scrolls gave biblical scholars manuscripts that were more than 900 years older than the oldest manuscripts we had. But when you read the Dead Sea Scrolls you say to yourself, "Yes, that's Genesis 1 as I know it from my Bible. And that's Joshua 7, and that's the famous Isaiah passage, "the lion shall lie down with the lamb" (Is. 11:6).  In other words, the scribes who copied the scriptures, thus preserving them for future generations, knew what they were doing, and they did their work with great care.

My other lasting impression was this . . . .

2. Those who hid the scrolls cherished the scriptures.

The theory is that these ancient people believed that Jerusalem was no longer safe and therefore their scriptures had to be removed from the temple and kept elsewhere. They hid them in the caves so that God's Word could be read by those who would come long after them. Little did they know that the scrolls would not be read for 2000 years!

Prayer: God of all generations, help us to cherish the words of scripture and never take them for granted. Help us to love your Word as they did long ago. Amen.

 Some of the caves:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Holy Wars & the Bible

Let’s be honest, there are some difficult and troubling passages in the Bible. And for some they’re quite a stumbling block when it comes to faith. Here’s an example:

Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” 
-     -   I Samuel 15: 1-3

What do we do with this passage and others like it? Would God really give a command like that? Would Jesus? It’s one thing to be upset with the Amalekites for opposing the Israelites, but it’s quite another thing to kill every man, woman and child. We’ve covered the “Just War Theory,” which prohibits targeting civilians. How can it be that theologians have higher standards than God?

So what do we do with this passage? How are we to make sense of it? Here are two responses that are common among Biblical scholars today:

1   As Christians we view every passage through the lens of Christ. We evaluate and even critique passages in the Bible based on what we know about God from the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Would the One who taught his disciples to “put down the sword” and love one’s enemies ever give the command Samuel did on behalf of God? Absolutely not. So we have to say that this passage doesn’t measure up to what we know about God, as seen in Jesus.

2    Ancient people wrote history differently than we do. They believed that if something happened it must have been the will of God, or the will of the gods. So, if Joshua, when he fought the Battle of Jericho, killed every man, woman & child, ancient writers/historians would record it by saying that God must have told Joshua to kill every man, woman & child (cf. Joshua 6 & Joshua 8) That’s just the way they wrote history. It’s not of course the way we look at it today.

Here’s a thought: We look at every passage through the lens of Christ.

Prayer: God, thank You for the clear picture we get of You in Jesus. Amen.

Extra Credit:

This is why I'm not a Fundamentalist, one who takes all the Bible literally. If you take these troubling passages literally it causes one to come up with all sorts of theories of why God would command the Israelites to slaughter the innocents ("God needed the Holy Land to be pure for his people."). I find such explanations an offense to logic and to God. We can take the Bible seriously, but we don't have to take it all literally. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Martin Luther

Martin Luther 1483 - 1546
One of the delightful coincidences of history is that the man who sought to reform our nation and bring it back to the truth of its founding principles ("that all men are created equal") was named after the great reformer, Martin Luther, who sought to bring Christianity back to the truths of its founding principles as recorded in scripture. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Martin Luther were great men of faith and courage, who faced uphill battles all their lives and persevered because of the strength of their convictions.

In 1516  a Dominican Friar named Johann Tetzel was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell "indulgences" in order to raise money to build St. Peter's Basilica. It was church teaching at the time that indulgences were an important act of "good works" which could assure one's salvation. Martin Luther was a German monk, a catholic priest and a professor of the Bible. He objected to the selling of indulgences on two major grounds. One he believed that Rome had enough money to build and shouldn't be twisting the arms of poor commoners to raise the money. But his strongest objection was the idea that our good works could assure us of salvation.

Luther taught that salvation is by grace through faith.  - sola gratia, sola fide.

Luther essentially started the Protestant Reformation when he wrote of his objections to indulgences and other church practices in his "Ninety-Five Theses." Legend has it that he posted the document on the doors of the Whittenberg Chapel on Oct. 31, 1517. With the advent of the printing press Luther's words were soon published and read widely throughout Europe (the newly invented printing press played a major role in the Reformation!).

A few things to remember about Luther:

1. He believed that salvation is God's work, not ours. It's based on the free gift of God's grace. We make this gift our own through faith in Christ. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:23-24).

2. He translated the mass and the Bible from Latin into German, so that people could understand what they were reading and saying.

3. He urged folks to read and study the Bible for themselves.

4. He wrote new hymns, often using the contemporary styles of his day.

5. He believed in the "Priesthood of All Believers," that we're all to do God's work, not just clergy.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for such a man of faith and courage. Give me that same strength of conviction and devotion to the your Good News. Amen.

Above: Luther's words at the Diet of Worms, when asked to recant.
Extra Credit:

Luther's passion and skill with words made him immanently quotable. Here's a sampling:

 Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.

There is no more lovely, friendly and charming relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.

Let the wife make the husband glad to come home, and let him make her sorry to see him leave.

Pray, and let God worry.

Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.

The devil does not stay where music is.

War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity, it destroys religion, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is preferable to it.

I feel as if Jesus Christ died only yesterday.

We all carry about in our pockets His very nails.

The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.

They gave our Master a crown of thorns. Why do we hope for a crown of roses?

To gather with God's people in united adoration of the Father is as necessary to the Christian life as prayer.

If you are not allowed to laugh in heaven, I don't want to go there.

The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians. What is Luther? The teaching is not mine. Nor was I crucified for anyone. How did I, poor stinking bag of maggots that I am, come to the point where people call the children of Christ by my evil name?

The fewer the words, the better the prayer.

The less I pray, the harder it gets; the more I pray, the better it goes.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Love, Sweet Love

 The Bible's crystal clear on this subject!

"In this life there are three great virtues - faith, hope and love. The greatest of these is love."  I Cor. 13:13

"By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  John 13:35

The greatest of all the commandments according to Jesus is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."  Matt. 2:37-39

We throw the word "love" around a lot. We love our sports teams. We love a good cup of coffee. We love high-speed internet service. And, we love our God and those who are dear to us.

The Greek language, the language of the New Testament, had several words for love. Philia was used for the feelings of affection between friends. I was born in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Trust me. Eros, of course, was their word for romantic, physical, sexual love. And storge was their word for the love between family members.

Agape (uh-GAH-pay") is the word the New Testament uses to describe the love God has for us. This is the highest form of love - selfless, sacrificial, and unconditional.

     "For God so loved (agapeo) the world, that he gave his only Son . .."  John 3:16

     "As the Father has loved (agapeo) me, so I have loved (agapeo) you."  John 15:

     "God is love (agape)."   I John 4:8

This is the same quality of love that we are called to. "The greatest of these is agape".

Question: What's helpful about having more than one word for love?

Prayer: How profoundly beautiful it is, O Lord, that your very nature is agape. Thank You! Grow within me that I may be a channel of your love.  Amen.

Extra Credit:

The early church took Jesus' words on love very seriously. This fact was not lost on those outside of the church. "See how they love one another!" they said. Take a look at this Second Century, "Letter to Diognetus:"

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. 
     And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.  
     They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life.
     To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body.