Saturday Night Theologian
24 February 2008

Exodus 17:1-7 (first published 27 February 2005)

Several years ago, I was hired to start a branch office in Atlanta for a company based in Chicago. It was a very exciting time in my life. I had the responsibility for finding office space, furnishing it with equipment and supplies, and finding people to do the work. I interviewed several people for the various positions, and I hired four of them to start working on an important project. Less than a week after they started work, I heard two of them yelling at each other in another office. I immediately went in to see what was the problem, and each of them proceeded to complain that the other was trying to foist off their own work onto the other person. The matter was resolved rather easily, but for the first time in that job (but not the last!) I wondered whether I was really cut out to be a boss. I really don't like conflict, and my natural tendency is to avoid it rather than confront it. However, when you're a leader, you don't always have that option. Moses was faced with a problem. The people whom he had led out of Egypt were getting tired of the journey. They wanted to get to the Promised Land already! They had participated in a miraculous escape from the pharaoh, and they had witnessed God's provision of manna and quail, yet still they doubted God and God's chosen leader, Moses. Sure, Moses had provided bread and meat, but they didn't have anything to wash it down with! Where was the water? Had it all been a trick? Had Moses really brought them out into the wilderness to die of thirst? Let's get him! Moses cried out to God, who told him to strike a rock with his staff and produce water from the rock. Nothing to it! Moses did as he was instructed, the people's thirst was quenched, and Moses lived to lead another day. Sometimes when you're a leader, you may think that you'll never survive the current crisis. Maybe the stress is just too much and you want to chuck the whole job. Maybe, despite all your effort, you simply can't figure out a solution to the problem, so you don't know where to go from here. Maybe you're dealing with people who have personality conflicts, or even personality disorders, and you're unsure how to handle the situation. It would be nice to be able to strike a rock with a stick and solve the problem. (I should add here that taking a stick to the rock-filled heads of your antagonists, while perhaps momentarily satisfying, is not an effective long-term strategy.) In the vast majority of cases, however, there is no Deus ex machina solution. You're simply going to have to face the problem and find a solution, even an imperfect one. Most of the time you will succeed, because you are a leader and God has given you leadership gifts. Sometimes you will fail, despite the fact that you're a good leader. Being a leader doesn't guarantee success; what it does mean is helping others through tough situations, caring for those who work with you, listening to the advice of others, and making decisions that will affect other people. If you're a person of faith, being a leader also means seeking God's guidance and doing your best to follow God's guidance, to the best of your understanding and ability. If you'll do these things, you'll be a good leader.

Psalm 95 (first published 27 February 2005)

Paul Maas, a leading scholar of classical texts, says in the first paragraph of his seminal work Textual Criticism, "The business of textual criticism is to produce a text as close as possible to the original." Since the dawn of the modern discipline of textual criticism of the biblical texts, the search for the original text has similarly been the goal of biblical textual critics. In recent years, however, textual scholars who specialize in both Old Testament and New Testament textual criticism have expanded the scope of their study to include examining the use of varying forms of the canonical text in religious communities. As the biblical texts were copied by scribes, they were changed--sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally, sometimes perhaps a little of both--and these changed texts were read and heard by congregations of faithful Jews and Christians. Changes that occurred before the texts were standardized (about the second century for Jews' text of the Hebrew Bible, about the fifth century for Christians' text of the New Testament) and that appeared in the standardized texts had far more influence than the earlier, original readings. In all probability, one such reading appears in Psalm 95:7. In the Masoretic Text, the psalmist says, "For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand." It is probable that the original reading was something like "For he is our God, and we are his people, the sheep of his pasture," as in Psalm 100:3. Nevertheless, the reading "the sheep of his hand," which at first glance appears somewhat nonsensical, is interesting in the light of the other references to God's hand(s) in the psalm. God's hand holds the depths of the earth. God's hands made the dry land. When the psalm says that we are the sheep of God's hand, it is saying that the same hands that encompass the earth, the same hands that are the creative forces behind all that we see, hold us as well. God holds us, creates us, protects us, feeds us, shelters us, disciplines us, and provides for us, his sheep, with the mighty hands of the Good Shepherd, the King, the Rock that saves us.

Romans 5:1-11 (first published 27 February 2005)

A man beats his wife or girlfriend. She threatens to leave him. He apologizes and promises never to abuse her again. For awhile he is better, but then something sets him off, and he beats his wife again. This sequence of events is called the cycle of abuse, and it is all too common in relationships. Some women who grow up in dysfunctional homes assume that the cycle of abuse is a normal part of life, so they accept it without question as part of the ordinary course of events in their relationships with men. It is only when they come into contact with another person for whom abuse is not a way of life that they are able to understand that abuse is not part of a loving relationship. Many people of faith participate voluntarily in a different cycle of abuse, one that involves God. They see God as an angry deity who exists to punish sinners. From the Old Testament stories that described God ordering the mass murder of offending races (the Canaanites) or whole families (Achan's), to medieval Christian theologians who described God as a medieval torturer, to the sufferings of the wicked in Dante's Inferno, to Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," many people have had, and continue to have, an image of God whose primary characteristic is inflicting pain on others. This concept of God was so foreign to Marcion, a leader in the church of Rome in the second century, that he completely rejected the Old Testament and its God, teaching that God the Father of Jesus Christ, the God of love, was different from the god of the Old Testament, a god of war. Paul struggles with his own traditional understanding of a wrathful God in his discussion of justification by faith in Romans 5. Though he speaks of humans as God's enemies and of the wrath (of God), his description of the depth of God's love overpowers the allusions to a vengeful God: "But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us." In other words, Paul says that while humans were still separate from God, God sent Christ to die for us. That doesn't sound like an angry God to me; it sounds like a God who loves his creation and wants to be reconciled with it. If the goal of God's work in Jesus Christ is indeed reconciliation, then God is revealed as a God who loves, not a God who hates. There have always been some in the church, and in Jewish and Muslim religious circles--particularly, but not exclusively, in mystical traditions--who have focused on the love of God and minimized or completely eliminated God's wrathful nature. Perhaps the ultimate example within Christianity was the great third-century theologian Origen, who believed that God's love was so universal, so all-encompassing, and so powerful that in the end, even Satan himself and his demons would repent and be reconciled to God. Origen's sentiments were not appreciated by the great church, who rejected his teaching and condemned him as a heretic (centuries after his death!). The two great theologians Augustine and Thomas Aquinas both explicitly rejected Origen's teaching, but I think that Origen had a better understanding of God on this point than his adversaries. Yes, God is a God of justice, and yes, God punishes sin and, consequently, sinners. Nevertheless, I think that it is only our limited understanding of God's justice that allows us to continue to see God as a God of wrath, who inflicts eternal punishment on temporal sins. It's time for us as Christians to remove ourselves, and God, from the cycle of abuse that is more fitting for a pagan god than for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

John 4:5-42

From the earliest days of Christianity, baptism has been an important rite of initiation into the church. The earliest baptism ceremonies followed the Jewish practice of immersing proselytes who were entering the faith. Over time, as Christianity spread to places where immersion was not practical, and as the tradition of baptizing babies became popular, it became more common to pour small amounts of water over the head three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Water is a powerful symbol, because it represents the power of God to cleanse. Jesus understood this when he held a conversation with the Samaritan woman beside the well in Sychar. He picked up on the imagery of the power of water to quench thirst as well as cleanse, and he told the woman that he could offer more than a simple drink of water from a bucket or skin. He could offer a veritable river of clean, running water (the meaning of "living water") to her if she would only put her trust in him. As she continued talking with Jesus, she became convinced that he was indeed someone to whom she could entrust her life, and many of her neighbors did as well. Too many Christians today are so satisfied with the water of baptism that they don't think about the river of running water that Jesus offers his followers. These are people who see their initiation into the church as all they need, not realizing that a few cups of water--or even a few gallons of water, if they belong to a tradition that practices immersion--is nothing compared with the superfluity of water for life that they have at their disposal. The water of baptism was never intended to be an end in itself but rather a foretaste of the water available to all who will accept it. And how do we obtain this water in abundance? Not by focusing on an exclusively inward life, as some propose, but very simply by following the example and teachings of Jesus in our daily lives. One place to start is by following the example of Jesus at the well and interacting with people different from ourselves on a fundamentally human level. Jesus and the Samaritan woman were of different genders, had important differences in culture, had different theological understandings, and perhaps even spoke different languages, or at least different dialects. Despite those differences, Jesus took the initiative to start a conversation and welcome the woman into the reign of God he was proclaiming. What a contrast with Christians today who live in neighborhoods in which everyone looks just like they do, who are afraid to talk to people who speak "with an accent" (as if they themselves didn't also speak "with an accent"!), and who really, really hate immigrants. Baptism is a good start, but we all need to experience the cleansing power of the rivers of running water that Jesus offers us, as we go about the Christian task of following the steps of Jesus.