Archive for February, 2011

Do we only sin in our hearts?

February 28, 2011

In my sermon on the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” I focused on “adultery of the heart.” I said that I wanted to focus on this kind of adultery—the kind that Jimmy Carter famously confessed to in a 1976 Playboy interview—because this is the kind of adultery to which most of us fall victim most of the time. And we don’t even have to be married to commit this kind of adultery. In my view, this is in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ words about the commandment in the Sermon on the Mount.

But do you see a possible danger with focusing on sin in our hearts? It can start to seem as if sin is an intangible thing that only happens in our heart (or mind or soul). And before long, we imagine that what we do with our bodies doesn’t really matter to God.

Many of us Christians have internalized this false kind of “heart/body” dualism. Maybe this explains why we often take such a casual attitude toward sex. For example, we might think, “We can’t sin by merely having sex with someone to whom we’re not married. Whether it’s sin or not depends on the condition of our hearts.”

If so, we are deceiving ourselves. Jesus’ focus in the Sermon on the Mount on the state of our hearts should not be construed to mean that the external action doesn’t matter. Besides, how can we—self-justifying sinners that we are—begin to judge the purity or quality or motives of our hearts in the first place?

We can safely assume that if we’re justifying our actions in these terms, our heart is wrong, too.

Mutual admiration society

February 27, 2011

At the risk of blowing my own horn, I acknowledge with gratitude (and slight embarrassment) my blog’s inclusion on my friend Paul Wallace’s list of “Irresistably Brilliant Blogs.” Since I frequently steal ideas from his blog, I owe it to him to return the favor. His blog is one of only a few that I check nearly everyday. If you are interested in controversies related to the intersection of Christian faith and science—not to mention apophatic theology (whose definition I now remember without having to look up)—his blog is for you.

In case you’re worried that I, your humble blogger, will get a big head, you’ll appreciate this one-and-only comment in response to his “irresistably brilliant” list:

Apart from At the Feet of the Meister all of the blogs you mention are quite mediocre. They are all extensions of the now world dominant ideology/paradigm of scientism – even those that presume to be religious.

Abortion and “winking” at promiscuity

February 26, 2011

For my sermon series on the Ten Commandments, which resumes tomorrow with Number Seven, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” I’ve been reading a provocative book called The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life, by fellow United Methodists Hauerwas and Willimon. They make the following point, which is obviously true but not said often enough—especially to those of us who endorse our Book of Discipline‘s opposition to abortion as a means of birth control:

There is no way to separate our ethics of abortion from the way we live our lives sexually. We cannot give a wink about promiscuity and at the same time vigorously prohibit abortion. If abortion is wrong, and ought to be prohibited among Christians, that presupposes a community whereby we are given the resources not to commit the violence that abortion names.1

Our culture tells us that sex has no consequences; that we should have as much sex with whomever we want, whenever we want; and that if we don’t, something is wrong with us, and we’ll probably die. (Is that really much of an exaggeration?) Too often we Christians endorse this message through our own attitudes and actions. Unintended pregnancy is the most conspicuous reminder that we are lying to ourselves.

If we prohibit abortion as birth control (as I would argue that we should), let’s be clear that we are, in part, asking women to be sacrificial lambs in a sexually confused culture for which we are partially responsible.

1. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, The Truth About God: The Ten Commandments in Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 96.

Holy Land, Days 7 & 8: Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, Temple, and Garden Tomb

February 26, 2011

On Wednesday morning we visited the Mount of Olives, Bethphage, and the Garden of Gethsemane. All three places are east of Jerusalem. Bethany, which we visited on Tuesday, is in the West Bank, east of the Mount of Olives, just down the hill. Unfortunately, Bethany is on the other side of the new Jerusalem wall, so we can no longer walk directly from Bethany to Jerusalem, as Jesus often did. Rest assured, these places are very close to one another.

My first camel ride

On the Mount of Olives, we rode a camel and visited churches dedicated to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (which began at Bethphage), the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Ascension. I don’t understand that ancient Christian impulse to put a church on top of every significant site. I want to experience these places in a more unmediated way—more like the way Jesus’ disciples experienced them. Read the rest of this entry »

Last Holy Land post coming soon!

February 25, 2011

I’m home from the Holy Land. Well, not quite home… I’m currently typing this at a Dunkin’ Donuts while I wait for an appointment with my doctor. Yes, that’s right… I got the same bug that nearly everyone else in our group got. (Listen for the coughing during any quiet moment in the videos.) I’m feeling a bit better now, but I can’t afford to get sicker over the weekend. I work on Sundays!

Anyway, on Wednesday night I had to surrender to my body’s need for sleep rather than blog. Yesterday afternoon before we left, same thing. I have mostly finished the last video, however, and I will post “Holy Land, Days 7 & 8” in the next couple of days.

Thanks for all the kind and supportive words over the past week. I have thoroughly enjoyed taking you with me—at least in a virtual way—on this journey. God’s blessings.

Holy Land, Day 6: Old Jerusalem, including Pool of Bethzatha and events related to Christ’s passion

February 22, 2011

It was a heavy day. Watch the video and see for yourself. It doesn’t require much explanation. Today, our group mostly explored Old Jerusalem—the portion of the city inside the city walls, which mostly corresponds to the Bible’s boundaries.

We shared some very meaningful experiences: We visited the ruins of the Pool of Bethzatha, where Jesus healed a paralytic in John 5:1-18. As for authenticity, there is little doubt that this is the place described in John.

A portico as described in John 5:2

In the spirit of healing, Bishop Watson led us in a healing service at the pool, anointing us with oil. The experience inspired me to think of ways I can use or adapt this healing service in my ministry. As Bishop Watson said, we’re not performing magic. We’re simply acknowledging the mystery that God can use us to help make people whole. The practice of anointing the sick is biblical, as James 5:13-18 attests.

Add to the list of things I need to buy while I’m here: anointing oil. Nearly every gift shop around here sells olive oil from the Holy Land.

Next, we went to a place called Antonia Fortress. This was the place where Roman soldiers prepared convicted criminals for crucifixion. Here’s something I’ve never heard before: The soldiers likely subjected Jesus to a sadistic game called “The Game of the Kings.” No one knows for sure what the rules are, but the “game board,” if you will, is etched into the tile floor. The game indicates using a crown of thorns.

There’s a strong possibility that the soldiers were playing this game in Mark 15:16-20. If so, then we likely saw the spot on which Jesus stood as the soldiers mocked, beat him, and crowned him with thorns.

The spot on which Jesus was likely beaten, mocked, and crowned by Roman soldiers

From the Antonia Fortress, we walked the Via Dolorosa and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Since the Via Dolorosa—the path that Jesus supposedly took to the cross—is highly disputed, and I don’t follow the stations of the cross anyway, this was less interesting religiously than culturally. We walked through crowded, narrow walkways surrounded by merchants selling and haggling various wares from every direction. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel, Day 5: Qumran, Masada, Jericho, and the Dead Sea

February 22, 2011

This morning I had to solve a luggage problem. One of my suitcase’s two main zippers came off its track. Because my fully packed suitcase is slightly over-capacity, it would be very difficult to close it without both zippers.

A helpful person with our tour company informed me that Omar, the shoeshiner who works in the lobby of our hotel, might be able to fix it. So far, all the people I’ve met in Israel whose occupations depend in part on making tips and haggling prices have been incredibly eager to please. Omar is no exception.

After fiddling with the zipper for a few minutes by hand—and making no more progress than I had made—he gave me his grim assessment: “I cannot fix it.” He explained that it might require having a new zipper sewn into the place where the existing zipper is. It’s a tailoring problem. “But not to worry. I know a guy.” “How much will that cost?” I asked. “I cannot say until he looks at it—40, 50… 100 shekels.” (The exchange rate is about 3.5 shekels for a dollar.)

Of course, all that’s negotiable. He took my suitcase, and I’ll get it back tomorrow. Or will I ever see it again? No, no… It will be fine. My man Omar is on the job!

Our first stop on Day 5 was Qumran. This is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves in the side of a mountain. The first stash of scrolls was accidentally found by a shepherd boy in the ’40s. According to an instructional video at the visitor’s center, the sect responsible for creating the scrolls, the Essenes, were very odd and very devoted to their apocalyptic interpretation of current events.

These are caves in the mountain from among which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

The Essenes eagerly anticipated the Messiah, but they believed that before he violently defeated the forces of evil in the world, he would be one of them. The Messiah would come from their community. They took an “if-you’re-not-with-us-you’re-against-us” attitude toward all outsiders, whom they called “children of darkness.” Read the rest of this entry »

Israel, Day 4: Roman ruins, shopping, and Bethlehem

February 20, 2011

Today we made our way from Galilee to Bethlehem. We began by stopping at two parks with Roman ruins. The first was a coliseum, where it is said that Romans fed Jews and Christians to wild animals. The second, called Bet She’an National Park, represented an entire city, whose impressive ruins dated from the Roman and Byzantine periods.

We especially enjoyed walking in the bathhouse area, which was a combination of a sauna, gym, massage parlor, lecture hall—and, oh yeah—toilet. The park designers had a sense of humor, as demonstrated by a series of signs describing the typical visit to a bath house, including this one.

This park also has biblical significance.

I love looking at Roman ruins in general, but this park was especially fun because you could climb all over them. As you can tell from the video, my friends and I treated it like jungle gym. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel, Day 3: Sea of Galilee, Tabgha, and Capernaum

February 19, 2011

Today we mostly toured in and around Capernaum, the town in which Jesus did most of his ministry. This town became Jesus’ home when he was an adult. The home of Peter’s mother-in-law was here.

Our day began with a boat trip on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is not actually a “sea”; it’s a big lake. It’s 8 miles wide and 13 miles long. Its maximum depth is about 150 feet. Now that I’ve ridden on the lake, I see that it’s big enough for menacing squalls to threaten the lives of fishermen. Read the rest of this entry »

Israel, Day 2: Caesarea, Megiddo, Nazareth, Cana of Galilee

February 18, 2011

We began today’s tour by driving to Caesarea. Herod the Great built this city as a tribute to Rome, which gave him his kingship over the region of Palestine. (This Caesarea should not be confused with Caesarea Philippi, the place near Christ’s transfiguration in the gospels.) It features prominently in two places in the Book of Acts. First, it is the site of the first Gentile conversion to Christianity (Acts 10), when a Gentile named Cornelius summons Peter to his home in Caesarea. He was lodging with “Simon the tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

It’s a gorgeous seaside, as I now know from personal experience.

The Mediterranean Sea at Caesarea. I could have stayed here all day!

As Peter preached to Cornelius—and his relatives and friends—the Holy Spirit came upon them, thus affirming that the gospel was, indeed, for the entire world.

Later in Acts, Paul is imprisoned by the Romans in Caesarea. It is here that he makes his dramatic defense of his ministry before the Roman governors Felix and Festus (Acts 24) and later before King Agrippa II (Acts 26). During one dramatic exchange, Agrippa asks, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” “Whether quickly or not,” Paul responds, “I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.” Read the rest of this entry »