Saturday Night Theologian
17 February 2008

Genesis 12:1-4a (first published 20 February 2005)

In 1988 God called me and my family to move to South Africa. Actually, it was a person who made the actual phone call that morning. After having stayed up all night working on a seminar paper, while the printer was humming merrily along, the phone rang, and a complete stranger was on the other end of the line. After a brief introduction, he asked the question: "How would you like to go to South Africa for a year to teach?" He described South Africa as the most beautiful country in the world, but I knew about apartheid, and I had some misgivings. At the same time I was excited about an opportunity to travel to a part of the world I'd never seen and experience things I might never get to experience again. A few months later my wife, my nine-month-old daughter, and I left our home and jobs, and I took a leave of absence from seminary, to go to South Africa. I taught in the Baptist Theological College in Cape Town for a year, and I studied at the University of Stellenbosch. Of equal importance were the encounters I had with students, fellow professors, and our neighbors. I saw terrible oppression first-hand, in the cities and in the townships, but I also saw the tremendous resilience and faith of the people. We lived across the street from a mosque, and we learned that Muslims were good neighbors and people of deep faith. I taught my students, but they also taught me. Overall, I have no doubt that I learned much more from the experience than I could ever impart to others. It's scary when God calls you to leave your home, your country, your comfort zone to go to a new place, but that's exactly what God asked Abram to do. Associated with his marching orders was the promise that God would bless him and his family in unbelievable ways, if only he would have the faith to obey. What might the world have been like today if Abram had said no? Three great religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--might never have come into existence. If Abram had said no, people today wouldn't have his great example of faith. If he had said no, there would have been no one to urge God to spare the righteous in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah--the plea itself is important, regardless of how many righteous were actually found. If he had said no, we would never have heard the greatest story of faith in the Bible, the story of the Binding of Isaac. But Abram didn't say no, he said yes, and the rest is history. Or is it? Have you ever considered whether God asked anyone else to leave their homeland before asking Abram? Maybe Abram was the second person God asked; maybe he was the third; maybe he was the thousandth. How many people missed out on a blessing because they refused to heed God's call? More importantly, how many of their neighbors suffered because they refused to go? What is God calling us to do today? Maybe we answered God's call yesterday, or last year, or many years ago, but are we still receptive to new challenges? Are we willing to step out of our comfort zones and go where God leads, regardless of the cost? Sometimes when God calls us, it doesn't make much sense at the time. Sometimes God wants us to pack up and move. At other times God may call us to stay right where we are, even in the midst of a difficult situation. Whenever God calls us, and whatever God calls us to do, you can be sure that great blessings are in store, both for us and for those with whom we will come in contact. What is God calling you to do today?

Psalm 121 (first published 20 February 2005)

Many people in the ancient world believed that their gods lived on the tops of mountains. The Greek gods lived on Mt. Olympus. The Canaanite gods lived on Mt. Zaphon. The Hebrew God was identified Mt. Sinai in the pre-kingdom period and with Mt. Zion at a later time. Pilgrims who made the journey to Jerusalem to attend one of the three annual feasts had to travel uphill as they approached the city. This increase in altitude was so noticeable that the songs the pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem were called "Songs of Ascent." When they arrived in the city, they had to make their way uphill again to approach the temple mount, or Mt. Zion. Psalm 121 is one of several entrance liturgies that are found in the Psalter. It begins with a brief statement from the worshiper concerning the source of help. It is not to be found in the mountains, that is, not with any Canaanite gods or with the gods of other nations who dwell on high. Help comes only from Yahweh, the maker of heaven and earth. In the liturgy found in the psalm, the priest follows with a statement proclaiming God's vigilance ("he who keeps you will not slumber"), protection ("the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night"), and care ("the Lord will keep you from evil"). As worshipers enter the temple, the priest tells them that they have entered the mountain sanctuary of God, where they will be safe, protected, and taken care of. The church today should be a sanctuary to which all people seeking God can turn, but unfortunately it isn't always. Some churches today are "niche churches," targeting a specific group of people for ministry. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to reach a particular type of person, particularly if the target audience consists of people who are routinely ignored or ostracized by other churches. The danger lies in being so focused on a particular group of people that other don't feel welcome. I'm not talking about people who visit a church and don't feel comfortable with the style of worship. There are many different worship styles, and different people prefer different styles, but a huge difference exists between not feeling comfortable and not feeling welcome. Other churches preach a "gospel" of inequality, one in which different classes of church members are recognized. For example, men might be elevated over women, or married people might be elevated over divorced or single people. Still other churches ostracize "sinners," as if we weren't all sinners. People in this type of church claim to hate the sin but love the sinner, but what the "sinners" usually perceive is in fact hatred of themselves as people. If they're gay they're not welcome. If they're hooked on drugs they're not welcome. If they're an unmarried couple that lives together they're not welcome. If they have a prison record they're not welcome. If they have a mental illness they're not welcome. If they vote for the wrong political party they're not welcome. We sometimes refer to the church building as a sanctuary, and it truly should be a sanctuary in two senses of the word. First, it should be a place where people encounter the holy. Second, it should be a place where anyone can come and feel safe, protected, and loved.

Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

The U.S. primary season is winding down for Republicans, who have just about agreed on a candidate, but it is still going strong for Democrats, whose two remaining candidates have split elected delegates fairly evenly, though Obama currently has an edge over Clinton. One interest facet of the current primary season has been the focus on the word "hope" that has emerged in two of the campaigns, those of Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. In an improbable coincidence, Huckabee was born in the same town as former president Clinton, Hope, Arkansas. Like the former president, Huckabee has made much of the name of his hometown in his campaign appearances. Throughout the campaign he has sought to identify his message as one based on hope for the future. In contrast, his chief opponent John McCain has put more emphasis on his years of experience. A similar situation has transpired on the Democratic side of the race. Barack Obama, who wrote an autobiography entitled The Audacity of Hope, has focused his speeches on his vision and hope for the future, while Hillary Clinton, particularly at an earlier stage of the primary race, emphasized her experience as the key issue in the campaign. While Huckabee's message of hope has not resonated with enough voters to secure him the Republican nomination, which John McCain has now locked up, it did allow Huckabee to emerge from the status of fringe candidate to chief challenger to the eventual nominee. On the Democratic side of the contest, Obama's use of the theme of hope has catapulted him from far back in the polls to national frontrunner, albeit by a very narrow amount at the moment. What is it about hope that so resonates with many voters, indeed with many people of all ages, whether voters or not? Paul speaks of Abraham's hope in God as the reason he was willing to leave his homeland and family ties in order to step out into a new adventure and journey to the promised land. When he arrived in the land of Canaan, he found that it was not exactly everything he had dreamed of, and before long a famine in the land forced him to relocate to Egypt. Still, when the opportunity presented itself, he returned to the land of Canaan. Why didn't Abraham return to Haran when he discovered that Canaan wasn't exactly a paradise? Abraham realized that the promised land was not a geographical location but rather a spiritual realization. Abraham's geographic promised land may have been the land of Canaan, but it wasn't because of any inherent value of the land itself. What made Canaan special to Abraham was that it was there that Abraham encountered God and received promises concerning his future. In other words, Abraham received hope. As he looked around him, Abraham was surrounded by people who worshiped different gods and who had different ideas about the future. Abraham was not discouraged, though, because he had a clear vision of what lay ahead, though the way to get there was sometimes cloudy. Paul describes Abraham's hope in God, "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist." People today need something to hope for, too. When they look at the world around them, they are not satisfied with the status quo. Many American citizens believe that our country has lost its ethical moorings, advocating torture and spending profligately on an immoral war while millions of our own citizens lose their own personal battles with disease for lack of adequate health coverage. They see America as the leading contributor to climate change, while providing no leadership in addressing the problem on a worldwide scale. They believe that constitutional rights to free speech and privacy from government intrusion, once so highly prized as a nation, are steadily being encroached upon by Big Brother. In short, many people feel that hope is exactly what we need right now, not a perpetuation of bad policies and not a return to the past. What should the Christian response be to our current situation? We should hope with all our beings in the future, but, like Abraham, we must remember that our hope is based not in a particular geographic location, still less in any government or political party, but only in a realization that God is in control and calls us to move ahead toward a hopeful future.

John 3:1-17 (first published 20 February 2005)

In 1976 Chuck Colson published a book called Born Again. It described his personal encounter with God in the wake of his role in the national tragedy of Watergate. When Jimmy Carter ran for president, he was the first major candidate to talk openly about being "born again." Many Christians today would describe themselves as "born again" to new life in God through Jesus Christ. The phrase comes from the story of Nicodemus' encounter with Jesus in the third chapter of John. The interesting thing about the modern use of the phrase is that it signifies a misunderstanding of the main point of the story. Nicodemus, a Pharisee whom Jesus describes as a "leader of the Jews," comes to Jesus "by night," signifying his spiritual ignorance. When Nicodemus affirms Jesus' relationship with God, Jesus tells him that he must be born anothen. This word in Greek can mean either "again" or "from above." Nicodemus understands it to mean the former; Jesus means the latter. Nicodemus' failure to understand the word is demonstrated when he asks, "Can one enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus, of course, is talking about a spiritual rebirth, not a physical one. One must be born of both water and Spirit, he tells Nicodemus. Though the reference to water is probably an allusion to baptism, it is also used to speak of physical birth, in contrast to spiritual birth, as Jesus' next, parallel, statement shows: "What is born of the flesh (= water) is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit." He then proceeds to make another play on words, this time based on the Greek word meaning both "wind" and "spirit." Christians who use the phrase "born again" today do so in large part because the King James Version mistranslated it, so it has become standard in the English language. Furthermore, they understand that it means a spiritual rebirth, so I am not arguing that they have fallen into Nicodemus' error (which he seems to have overcome, based on the other references to him in the gospel of John). I do believe, however, that substituting "born from above" for "born again" in everyday parlance might lead to a better understanding of the divine-human encounter. The phrase "born again" can lead to an unhealthy emphasis on a spiritual birthdate (e.g., "I was saved on July 16, 2004"). While it is true that many people experience God for the first time (at least in their own understanding) at a particular moment in their lives, others would describe their spiritual journey as a gradual awakening, one in which they can't point to a specific day and time of conversion. Those who have experienced a "crisis conversion" (as it is sometimes called) must realize that their personal experience is not prescriptive for others, and I speak as a person who comes out of a tradition that emphasizes the "crisis conversion" and who can point to a specific day and time of conversion. To me, the phrase "born from above" can express a repeated, or even continual, process of divine-human interaction better than "born again" does. Moreover, it is a better reminder that the source of our new life is "from above," from beyond ourselves, from God.