Monday, August 29, 2016

When Christians Read the Bible

In my day job, I edit Bible study materials for adults. I recruit writers and shape their efforts into a form that’s suitable for publication. Hundreds of churches and thousands of people depend on our company to provide dependable materials to assist them in studying the Bible and following Jesus. I reckon it’s work worth doing.

Every great once in a while, a writer fails to come through and I have to write the lessons myself. In fact, I just finished writing five lessons on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which is found in Matthew 5­­-7.

As I worked on those lessons, I was reminded again of how Christians are supposed to read the Bible.

I need to make a few preliminary comments before I get into that subject further.

First, Christians should actually read the Bible. We shouldn’t just accept somebody else’s words—not even those of an erudite columnist—about what it says. We should read it for ourselves.

Second, if we’re Christians, then we should read the Bible as Christians. We aren’t Biblians; that is, we’re not saved by a personal relationship with a book. As the old hymn “Break Thou the Bread of Life” puts it, “Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.” We’re saved by a personal relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.  So we do everything, including reading the Bible, in light of our relationship with Jesus.

Third, there’s more than one way to read the Bible. What I’m talking about is how the Bible itself directs those who follow Jesus to read it.

Christians should read the Bible in light of the fact that Jesus is our ultimate authority. How do I know? The Bible tells me that Jesus tells me so.

Early in 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” (Mt 5:17-18). Christians believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah. That means, among many, many other things, that the law and the prophets point to and are fulfilled in Jesus. 

Jesus fulfills Scripture.

That’s why Jesus can say, as he says six times in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said,” then quote something from the Old Testament law, and then say, “But I say unto you …” As he earlier said, he doesn’t abolish the law; he fulfills it. He completes it. He gives it its fullest meaning. And, since he is our Lord and Savior who has ultimate authority in all things, we listen to him. 

The Bible is important, but Jesus is more important. The Bible is authoritative, but Jesus is more authoritative.

Jesus is Christians’ ultimate, absolute authority.

Christians, therefore, read the Bible through the lens of Jesus. Our reading and interpretation take the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus into account. 

A person can read the Bible in other ways and still be a Christian. But a person can’t read the Bible any other way and call it a Christian reading.

Reading the Bible as a Christian is challenging. That’s because Jesus didn’t offer his own interpretation of everything in the Old Testament. That’s a good thing, because if he had, the Sermon on the Mount would be 3000 chapters long instead of just three, and few enough people read it as it is. But he gave us enough examples to guide us in reading the Bible through his lens.

Let’s look at just one example.  

In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

The law stated the principle “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” three times: in Exodus 21:23-24, Leviticus 24:19-20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. It’s right there in the Bible, so, as Christians, we’re obligated to live by it, right?

Wrong.

As a matter of fact, Christians are obligated not to live by that principle that is stated three times in the Bible. We are obligated not to because Jesus points us to another, greater, more demanding way to live. We are not to seek “an eye for an eye”; we are rather to turn the other cheek. We are not to refuse to give up what someone wants to take from us; we are rather to share graciously, to the point of ridiculously.

Jesus has the authority to say, “You have heard it said … but I say to you” because he is the Son of God, the Savior, the living Word, and the Messiah. As followers of Jesus, we’re not bound by “you have heard it said”—even if we heard it said in the Bible. Because we are Christians, we’re bound by “but I say unto you.” Jesus is our ultimate authority, and Jesus tells us how to read the Bible. Since Jesus fulfills Scripture and thus is our ultimate authority in all things, the only way to take the authority of the Bible seriously is to read it in light of Jesus.

How does reading the Bible through the lens of Jesus change our understanding of it? Well, that’s the hard part. We have to find our way, bathing our reading in prayer, submitting to the guidance of the Spirit, and checking every possible interpretation and application against Jesus’ teachings and example.

But based on this one example in the Sermon on the Mount (and I encourage you to read Jesus’ other “You have heard it said … but I say to you” sayings in Matthew 5), it’s pretty clear that our motives and attitudes, especially the ways that we think and feel about other people, even (and maybe especially) those that we regard (or that regard us) as enemies, matter a whole lot.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Jesus really expects us to take all that love and grace stuff as seriously as he did …

Friday, August 19, 2016

Remember the Library

When I was a third grader at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia, I became interested in the Battle of the Alamo. I don’t remember why, but I did.

I thought about Googling it, but then I remembered that the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. So I asked my mother to take me to the Carnegie Library to get a book about it.

After checking to see if they had any new Hardy Boys mysteries, which they didn’t (they always had the same two that I’d already read and, no matter how much I begged, they never got any others), I looked around and found a book about the Alamo that looked interesting. It was a pretty hefty volume, but I managed to tote it to the desk and set it before the lady working there. I don’t know if she was a librarian, a volunteer, or Andrew Carnegie’s great-great-niece, but I remember what she said.

“You can’t read that. It’s too advanced for you.”

Then she walked off. A minute later, she returned with another book and handed it to me. “That’s more on your level,” she said. It wasn’t a pop-up book, but it might as well have been. Anybody who’d spent a year at Miss Sylvia’s Kindergarten (shout-out to my fellow alumni!) could have read that thing in twenty minutes while watching the Officer Don Show and playing “Operation” (although I admit to always having trouble removing the funny bone, even when giving it my full concentration).

I’d never been so insulted in all my eight years.

Amazingly, given that I was a remarkably meek and mild kid, I stood up for myself. “I don’t want that one. I want the other one,” I said. When the nice lady protested again, my mother said, “Let him get the one he wants.” They probably rolled their eyes at each other.

Sighing, the library lady picked the book up and stamped the due date in it so hard that I thought she might have left a dent in the desk. “It’s due in two weeks,” she announced, which translated meant, “I’ll see you when you come crawling back asking for the kiddie book I said you should get.”

I brought it back a week later. I’d finished it. I’d even understood it. I could have written an insightful book report on it.

As I remember it, I marched up to the desk, slammed the book down, and said to that library lady, “Boom!”

Actually, I probably just deposited it in the after-hours book return slot.

There are four morals to this story.

First, never tell a kid what she or he can’t do. You don’t know. Neither do they, until they try.

Second, let ‘em read. Books are a window to a wonderful world.

Third, support your local library. It’s an incredibly valuable resource.

Fourth, remember the Alamo! Otherwise, you might be doomed to repeat it ...

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

When I Don’t Feel Your Pain

Have you taken acetaminophen lately? It’s not surprising if you have, since 23% of Americans do so regularly. You may take it without realizing it, since it’s an ingredient in over 600 medicines.

I ask because I’m concerned about the seeming lack of empathy I perceive in many of us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share in someone else’s pain because you can imagine what their experience is like.

Evidently, acetaminophen may be partly to blame for our failure to empathize.

The results of a recent study conducted at Ohio State University seem to indicate that acetaminophen may reduce our ability to feel empathy. Basically, the study seems to show that people who take the drug have a reduced capacity to relate to someone else’s pain. Previous studies have shown that our experience of our own pain and of someone else’s pain affects the same part of the brain. So, if acetaminophen reduces our brain’s perception of our own pain, it stands to reason that it would also reduce our perception of someone else’s pain.

Acetaminophen isn’t the only culprit, though. Other factors can reduce our capacity for empathy. I’d like to mention only one possibility from a very long list: our unwillingness even to acknowledge, much less imagine, someone else’s experience.

There are about 7.3 billion people in the world, a number that’s expected to hit nine billion by 2050. There are 162 nations on the planet. While no one can say for sure how many ethnic groups there are, a good estimate is fifteen to twenty thousand. There are around seven thousand languages spoken around the world. There are just too many people, too many cultures, too many religions, too many histories, and too many experiences for us to know about, much less comprehend, them all.

On top of that, we all have the same handicap: we can have only our experience, and so we tend to see things only from our perspective. That’s just the way it is. Problems develop, though, when we let ourselves think, talk, and act as if our experience is normative—that all other experiences can and should be judged by it.

Take me, for example. I’m male, white, heterosexual, married, middle class, American, Southern, Christian, and educated. Everybody, thank God, isn’t the same as me. I mean, every other person who shares all of those characteristics with me has different life experiences than I do. There are different kinds of Christians and different kinds of education, for example.

So it’s not particularly surprising that I can neither relate to nor understand the experiences of someone who is black or Asian or Latino or female or single or homosexual or transgender or Iranian or single or poor or rich or Northern or Muslim or uneducated. We’re just different. That’s just the way it is.

Again, the problem comes when we judge all other experiences by ours. The problem becomes serious when we refuse even to acknowledge the validity of someone else’s experience. How can we move toward empathizing with their pain if we can’t even let ourselves admit that their experiences are just as real and legitimate—that they are just as human—as ours are?

We could use a little more empathy in this old world.

I’m not saying that we should stop taking acetaminophen.

And I’m not saying that we should stop being who we are—as if that’s even possible.

What I am saying is that we can better empathize with each other when we’re willing to see the validity of each other’s experience.

You’re not me and I’m not you.

But we are us …

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Let's Educate the Crap Out of This

I was a member of the Lamar County (Georgia) High School class of 1976, the first class to graduate from the new high school.

Yep, I still call a school building constructed in the mid-1970s “the new high school.”

Well, take me to dinner and call me dated!

I didn’t actually attend the new high school, though. I entered Mercer University after my junior year. But I did come back to graduate as the Valedictorian of my class. I don’t know how they felt about it. I was afraid to ask.

I’m glad they tolerated me.

During the first few years of desegregation, which began in Lamar County with the 1970-71 school year (seventh grade for me), racial integration gave way to gender segregation. The stated reason for that was, as I recall, that there was no facility large enough to house a coed high school. Interestingly, though, they put boys and girls back together in the 1974-75 school year, which was the year before the new high school opened. All of a sudden, the Forsyth Road School (formerly Booker T. Washington School) was large enough to hold not only a coed high school, but the middle school grades as well.

One wonders if there was another agenda in keeping the girls and boys separate, doesn’t one?

I don’t remember when I first heard that plans were being made to build a new high school. I do remember that the vote on the bond referendum to fund its construction was controversial. I remember hoping and praying that it would pass, because I knew we needed a new facility.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was back then a member of the now defunct Lamar Civic League. One night he returned from a meeting visibly upset.

“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.

“Oh, somebody did a program about how we ought to oppose the school bond referendum. When he finished, I pointed out that I had a child in the school system and he didn’t, and that I resented his program. Nobody backed me up, so I told them they could have their club, and I walked out.”

“Champ, you didn’t.”

That little smile that indicated he knew that he might have done wrong, but was glad he’d done it anyway, crept onto his face.

“Yeah, I did.”

And he never went back.

My education, and the education of all the other children in Lamar County, was important to my father. Thankfully, it was important to lots of other people, too, and so the bond referendum passed.'

I also believe in education. I especially believe in public education. I believe that education is the best way out of the various messes our nation and our world find ourselves in.

To be more precise, I believe that we need broad, sweeping, excellent, amazing, world-encompassing education.

I mean, think about it. Ignorance and misunderstanding lie beneath and behind most of the problems and tensions with which we deal in this nation and on this planet. We need to make sure that American young people learn all the science and math they possibly can so we’ll be able to keep moving forward technologically. We also need to make sure they learn all they can about history, literature, religion, and culture—those of America and those of other people and places, including non-Western societies.

The more we grow in our understanding of each other, the more likely we are to develop and maintain peaceful, helpful, and productive relationships. The more we know, the better off we’ll be.

That’s why we all need to champion education here at home and around the world.

I believe that we should do everything we can do to provide a college education to as many of our people as we possibly can. I furthermore believe that we should do everything we can to do expose our people to as many other cultures as we can, and that we should do everything we can to bring students from other nations to our country to learn about our cultures.

The more we know about each other, the more we’ll understand each other, and the more we understand each other, the less likely we are to want to kill each other.

Shoot, we might even find out we like each other.

In the film The Martian, when Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) realizes he’s been stranded on Mars, he says, “I’m gonna have to science the [crap] out of this.”

When I look at the nation and the world, I say, “We’re gonna have to educate the crap out of this.”

So let’s get to it …

Monday, July 11, 2016

Black Lives Matter: A Word to White Folks

A line in one of my favorite songs (“Hey Lover”) by one of my favorite bands (Dawes) says, “I may be white, but I don’t like my people much.”

I actually like most white people just fine. I’m sure they’re relieved to hear that.

But let’s face it, folks—we’re limited by our whiteness. And one of the ways we’re limited is in our inability to comprehend and appreciate blackness.

That’s why it may be entirely inappropriate for me to try to say anything about the Black Lives Matter movement. Todd Rundgren once observed that he might be the whitest singer in the world. Well, I may be the whitest writer in the world. So maybe I shouldn’t write about Black Lives Matter.

But I’m a white guy talking (in this instance) to white folks. So let’s take a chance.

On the one hand, black folks don’t need white folks to explain or defend them. They do that very well for themselves. On the other hand, it’s basic to Christian practice to care about, speak up for, and act on behalf of others. So, I hope that I’m speaking out of Christian love and not out of some less appropriate motives.

Some of my white Christian sisters and brothers mean well—they really do—when they respond to “Black Lives Matter” by insisting that “All Lives Matter.” They say—and they’re not wrong—that all human lives come from God, that God loves all people, and that every life matters. Yes, Jesus loves all the little children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white (and all of the variations and combinations thereof), they are precious in Jesus’ sight.

But there’s something that many of my white Christian brothers and sisters don’t understand. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged from a specific context: the recent spate of killings of black men by police officers. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” thus makes a specific assertion: something must be done to change the circumstances, mindsets, and structures that make it too likely—five times more likely than for a young white man—that a young black man will die a violent death at the hands of the police.

To say “Black Lives Matter” isn’t to claim that other lives don’t matter. As someone recently said, to say “Save the Rainforests” doesn’t imply “Screw All the Other Forests.” It’s just that the rainforests have specific and critical needs because they are, at this time, in specific and critical danger. So it is with young black men.

So for white folks to try to broaden the phrase to include “all lives”—again, well-intentioned as that effort may be—is to attempt to lessen the specific contextual meaning and importance of “Black Lives Matter.” It is to deny that African-Americans have a particular experience with institutional violence that is largely beyond white people’s comprehension.

Of all the things I worried about whenever my son left the house, his being killed, or even harassed, by the police was never—not once—one of them.

If you can say the same, then please join me in admitting that we can’t comprehend the experience that inspires the Black Lives Matter movement. Please also join me in acknowledging the experience that inspires the movement and in affirming the movement that the experience inspires.

It’s just something I thought I should say—one white guy to other white folks.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

"Targeted" in America

Some groups in America think they’re targets. They have reason to think that.

Young black males think they’re targets.

There are statistics to back up their thinking. The rate of young black men (age 16-34) killed by police officers in 2015 was more than five times that of white men in that age range. About 25% of blacks killed by police were unarmed, compared with 17% of whites. Economist Sendhil Mullainathan has made a good case that the higher rate at which blacks die at the hands of police is as much, or even more, about unjust economic policies and structures as about racism.

Police officers think they’re targets. As in the case of young black men, some statistics support their thinking. Twenty-six officers have been shot and killed so far in 2016, which is up from eighteen at the same time last year, a 44% increase. Someone has ambushed police officers eleven times this year, up from eight at this point in 2015. The recent sniper attack on Dallas police officers reminds us of the dangers law enforcement officials face.

I’m not a young black man. I’m not a police officer. I’m a white, middle class, Christian, heterosexual writer, editor, and preacher.

You’d think I’d be nobody’s target. That’s what I think.

I’ve noticed, though, that some people who would describe themselves with the same terms I use to describe myself do think they’re targets.

Lots of people who fall into my general demographic think they’re the targets of society and culture. They think that the nation and the world are developing in ways that will lessen their heretofore privileged status.

They’re more or less correct about that, and they (we) might as well embrace the new situation and learn to thrive within it. In the long run, the country and the world will be better with its new situation. We can make that so by enthusiastically seeking and responsibly filling our place in the developing new order rather than kicking and screaming against the changes that are in the process of happening.

Some people who fall into my general categories also think they’re the targets of their government. I’ve heard several of them say that’s one of the main reasons they are adamant about the broadest possible interpretation of the second amendment: they need to be as fully armed as possible in case they need to defend themselves against their own government.

I’ll offer the passing observation that, if the government ever sends its planes, missiles, and drones against you, all the semi-automatic rifles in the world aren’t going to help you much.

It bothers me that folks worry that their own government really poses that kind of threat.

I’ve noticed that such thinking seems to have increased with the Obama presidency.

Maybe it was always there, and the various social media platforms have just brought it more out into the open. Still, I didn’t hear Americans talk about feeling threatened by their government before 2008.

Some people’s attitudes toward President Obama are fueled by racism, but I don’t think that’s the case with the people I’m talking about. Their fears are driven more by what they perceive to be his perspectives and policies, especially what they regard as his emphasis on “big government.” And they figure that, since one of the banners under which Secretary Clinton is running is “Secure President Obama’s Legacy,” they’re probably about to face four or eight years more of the same.

I think such fears are way out of line with reality. But okay. If that’s how you feel, then fine.

I will offer another passing observation: I didn’t worry that the government was likely to come after me when more right-wing, potentially despotic, ready and willing to limit civil liberties administrations were in place.

I guess I just have that kind of naïve trust in the American people and in the United States Constitution. As one who came of age in the 1970s, I figure that if we can survive Watergate, we can survive anything.

Here’s my point: thinking you’re a target makes you think and act like a target. And thinking and acting like a target makes you think and act defensively. And thinking and acting defensively makes it even more likely that something bad is going to happen.

So if you’re not really a target, it’s to your advantage—and to everyone else’s—for you not to think and act like you are.

Now, there are people among us who need to be on their guard. Others of us—well, maybe not so much.

Lots of things will help us find our way out of the situation we’re in.

One thing that will surely help is for those of us who are not at any great risk not to be unreasonably afraid.

Of course, having said all of this, I guess I’ll be looking over my shoulder now …

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The High Dive

During my boyhood, this time of year was all about going to the Barnesville (GA) swimming pool, which was located about where the Gordon Highlanders now play baseball. I’d join many others in purchasing an annual pass and using the laminating machine outside of Carter’s Drug Store to render it waterproof. I’d use it to gain admission to the pool every blessed day (except when I had a Little League game that night, because the coaches said that swimming tired you out too much).

I’d enjoy snow cones, frozen candy bars, and Cokes. I’d saunter up to the concession stand like it was a bar (I’d seen such things on television) and order a “Suicide”—a mixture of Coke, Sprite, Fanta Grape, and Fanta Orange.

It was my first mixed drink.

Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” and Rare Earth’s “Get Ready” repeatedly blared from the jukebox. Being an eleven almost twelve-year-old boy, I’d marvel at the high school and college girls. And they were marvelous.

It was 1970, so do the math—you know who you were …

I’d even spend a little time in the pool.

The Barnesville pool had two diving boards—the low dive and the high dive (the picture is the only one I've been able to find that shows the high dive). I eventually worked up the courage to jump—not dive, mind you, because I’d look silly diving while holding my nose—off the low board, but I never managed to take the death-defying plunge from the high dive. I thereby cost myself some fun and some memories.

Looking back, I wish I’d jumped off the high dive.

I’ve come to realize that, when it comes to swimming in the Christian pool, there are all kinds of people. Let’s splash some water around and see what I mean.

Do you practice “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”? Then you’re just sitting on the edge of the pool, maybe occasionally sticking your big toe in.

Do you refrain from striking back when someone harms or insults you? Then you’re becoming a pretty good swimmer.

Do you, in addition to refraining from striking back when people harm or insult you, also stand your ground in a way that forces them to come to terms with who they are and what they’re doing, even if it means taking more hurt onto yourself? Then you’re diving off the low dive.

Do you actually and legitimately love your enemies? Do you love them enough to give yourself up for them? Do you love them enough to pray for them in ways that put their real needs ahead of yours? Then you’re diving off the high dive. Congratulations!

I still wish I had the guts to do that …