Considering Technology

February 23, 2018

So I’m going to rant a little today.

And no, it isn’t going to be about guns– at least not in this post.

I’m going to rant about the internet. Well, not the internet, per se; but some of the effects of the internet, some of the unintended consequences we’re facing, that I’d guess most people don’t even think about.

First of all, let me say that even though I was born before personal computers became a ‘thing’, I was a pretty early adopter. In about 1981 at a family reunion I became aware of the very first Apple computers, the ones you had to program yourself. A family member had bought one, another family member was working on a degree in computer science– this was my first exposure to the world of computers. My sisters got an Atari for Christmas soon after that and in my college courses they were beginning to appear. Unfortunately I didn’t have a knack for writing code nor the patience to acquire the knack; but once PC’s came along, I was all in. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made it through seminary without a PC and today I have a laptop, a smartphone and a Kindle that I use all the time, all in different ways.

So when I started working at the library I was shocked to discover the number of people who don’t know how to use a personal computer. I was even more shocked when I discovered that many of those people are my age and younger, that it isn’t just elderly people who are computer illiterate (in fact, many people older than me do very well with computers. My parents are both internet savvy and my mom is even on Facebook.)

What’s even more shocking is the way our social structures have changed in response to internet use. You can’t apply for a job without going online. You can’t make an appointment to visit a friend in jail without going online. You can’t apply for social security benefits, unemployment benefits and many other public services without going online.

I know this because, as an Information Services Assistant at the library, it is a big part of my job to help people use our computers. And a big part of that job is helping people with those particular categories of computer use.

Now, you might think I’m making too big of a deal about this. After all, it’s easy, right? You just show someone how to log into the computer and they’re on their way, right?

If  only it were that easy.

First of all, to do anything on the internet you have to be able to read, and read pretty well. Then, you have to have an e-mail address. Yes, Gmail is free and easy to sign up for– that is, if you know what a username is and a password is and can create a username and password that you’ll remember. Because to apply for a job, or make an appointment to visit your friend in jail, or file unemployment or file for social security benefits on line– which you must do– you have to have an account.  An account requires an email address.

It’s the job thing that gets me. It’s no wonder people have trouble getting jobs.

A guy came in to my library yesterday and he said, “I’ve been hired at [local restaurant] and I need to fill in an application on line. But I don’t know anything about computers. They told me to come here and you’d help me.” Okay, that’s part of my job, and I’m more than happy to help.

But here’s the thing: many people who don’t know how to use computers lack that knowledge because they never had the privilege of learning how to use one. Perhaps they struggled in school and couldn’t get the hang of technology. I’ve noticed that many of the people who are computer illiterate have trouble reading. Perhaps their school didn’t have the funding to acquire computers, so they never really were exposed to them. And a lot of people who haven’t been exposed to technology are afraid of it.

But there comes the day that they are trying to get a job, maybe they got laid off from a job they’d had a long time, from back in the days when you could get a job by filling out a paper application; and as I said they don’t have a computer or an email address or a smart phone and they’ve been living their lives just fine without all that stuff. So they come to me, knowing nothing, needing to fill in this application right now, today!

If you have used computers all of your life you forget how complicated they seem when you first sit down at one.

The man I was helping yesterday was trying to get a job as a dishwasher– a dishwasher— and had been promised a job but had to fill out the online paperwork. And, God bless him, he had no idea. He had no email address or any idea of how to create one. He had no idea how to find the employer’s website, even though he had the address; he had no idea how to find the job application page, he had no idea how to go about this process that was far more complicated than it needed to be. He kept saying to me, “I have the job, I just need to do the application on line, they told me I have to do the application online and I can start work tomorrow.”

No shame in being a dishwasher. My kids have both worked as dishwashers. But it shows a lack of respect for a person’s humanity when a person applying to be a dishwasher must fill out an online application before they can begin working. It shows that the company’s convenience is more important than the human being they’re trying to hire.

This man needed someone to sit with him and walk him through this process and I could not do that. And I had other patrons come in and I tried to balance helping him and helping them but finally I think he got frustrated and left. I felt that I had failed him.

But even though perhaps I could have done more, it really isn’t me, or the library, who failed him and many others like him. It is a system that has a one-sized-fits-all way of doing things, making no allowances for those who can’t or don’t understand technology. It is a system in which the odds are stacked against you if you didn’t have the privilege of growing up around computers or being an early adopter when they came along. It’s a system in which human resources are limited in favor of technological resources.

Tech is great. I use it every day. I am lucky enough to be unafraid of technology, I am lucky enough to have the background that enables me to use my different tech items. But as we go ever forward into a more and more tech-dependent world, we must be intentional about not leaving people behind.

 

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A Day in the Life (Mark 1:29-39)

February 4, 2018

This lectionary year, as you probably know, we are going to be travelling through the book of Mark. Now because Lent and Easter is fairly early on the church calendar the journey won’t necessarily be in order all the way through because during that time we’ll be looking ahead to the end of the story—although as I see it it’s actually the end and the beginning at the same time. But that part of Mark is for another day, and today we’re still in the first chapter, still at the beginning of the story, watching and hearing as Jesus begins his ministry.
I really like the book of Mark, although all of the gospels have their own things to offer; but for me Mark has a real appeal because of its sense of urgency. Mark is the shortest of all of the gospels, and by all accounts was written first; Luke and Matthew drew from Mark for some of their content but Mark was first off the mark (so to speak.)  Mark doesn’t beat around the bush, does it? Not a lot of detail, not a lot of unnecessary fluff to fill it out, Mark basically hits the high points of the story of Jesus, and you’d better pay attention if you want to keep up! One of the most common words used in the book of Mark is “immediately”—Jesus and the disciples are always immediately doing something as if one event in the story leads to another with barely enough time for us to catch our breath. This gives the book a sense of urgency, as if it’s vitally important that the writer get these stories to us as quickly as possible so that we won’t miss anything.
And if the entire book of Mark is a quick retelling of the life of Jesus, the first chapter that we’ve been hearing about over the past few weeks is like a preview of what’s to come, almost like a movie trailer you might see that pulls you in and makes you want to see the whole movie. Just in the first chapter you see Jesus
…being baptized by John
…being tempted in the wilderness
…calling the first disciples
…teaching in the synagogue and healing a man with a demon
…going to Simon’s house and healing Simon’s mother in law from an illness
…healing after sundown on the Sabbath
…going off to pray and then going out to the rest of the villages
…healing a leper
Lots of action in this first chapter of Mark, isn’t it? Beginning with only a short bit about John the Baptist and his ministry, it’s clear that this book is all about Jesus; and through all of this Jesus is established in his ministry and begins to make a name for himself.
As I indicated before I read the scripture, the passage from Mark that we read last week and the one we read today take place on the same day. We see in these two segments a sort of “day in the life” of Jesus. His day begins in the synagogue: he is preaching, with authority, and then he heals a man with a demon. Immediately, the text says—in other words, as soon as they left the synagogue—they went to Simon’s house, possibly looking for something to eat. Only Simon’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever, so Jesus goes and heals her.
It’s important to note something here: since we found Jesus in the synagogue at the beginning of the day, we know it is the Sabbath when this series of events takes place. It is the Sabbath as he teaches, it is the Sabbath as he heals the man with the demon, it is the Sabbath when he heals Simon’s mother-in- law. Later that day, after sundown, many people come to him with their own demons and illness and afflictions and Jesus ends his day healing them. Late into the night he must have worked, because it says the whole city came to see him—even if it was a small village it would have been a lot of people to heal. The passage ends early the next morning when Jesus goes off by himself to pray; the disciples come looking for him wanting him to continue with the healing but Jesus tells them it’s time to move on to other villages; “this is why I came.” he says.
Mark immerses us in the life and ministry of Jesus from the very beginning, highlighting the kinds of things that become his signature activities, laying out for us in no uncertain terms the ways that Jesus’ ministry is a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Mark also wants us to understand the connection to the source of Jesus’ power: when Jesus goes off by himself to pray, it isn’t just that he needs to rest and recharge, but that he needs to reconnect with the One who makes all of his actions, all of his healings and exorcisms and miracles possible. Travis Franklin, on the website Ministry Matters, puts it like this:
While these passages don’t carry the drama of the feeding of the five thousand or Jesus walking on the water, they do share in a subtle way the connection between the works Jesus does and the source that empowers such work. This is an important connection for Mark, because he wants us to realize that the kingdom that Jesus has been sent to express is a direct revelation of God and God’s activity in a hurting and sinful world. In all of these ways Jesus embodies and proclaims the presence of the kingdom of God.
“This is why I came,” he said.
You see, the miracle stories by themselves aren’t important, and the stories of healing by Jesus of many people from their demons and illnesses by themselves aren’t important unless we make the connection to why Jesus does all of these things and how he is able to do all of these things. God wanted to make it plain to all humanity that God is present and active in the world, a world that God created to be good but that sin and evil were and are working hard to destroy.
Interesting are the responses in this first chapter of those who are the first witnesses to Jesus’s ministry. In the synagogue, the people are amazed at his preaching. The demon challenges Jesus—but responds to his authority. Simon’s mother gets up and serves Jesus. The people come out of the woodwork to be healed by him, desperate for what he has, desperate to be freed from whatever burden is breaking them.
There is power in the relationship between Jesus and God the Father; and Jesus is unrestrained in his demonstration of that power. The only place he is cautious at all is when the demons recognize him and he orders them to keep quiet; and this seems to be only to keep his true identity from getting out too quickly, so he can build the ministry God has in mind rather than the people making him into something else. But the power is there, the relationship is there; people eventually hear him talking about God as Father, they see him going off to pray and they begin to make the connection between these things and the power that Jesus so clearly has. The power that is necessary to recreate the kingdom that was so good in the beginning. The power that can make all people whole once again, restored in body, mind and spirit.
The power is there for us to and the agent of this power is the same. Jesus Christ is the one who brings that power among us, Jesus is the one who shows us how to access that power for our own healing and wholeness. Jesus Christ shows us the way, through the stories in Mark and the other gospels, shows us the way to be restored and to help restore the kingdom of God to the goodness God created it to have. There is power in our faith—the power of love, the power of compassion, the power of tenderness. Just ask anyone who has faced a serious crisis in their life, but was able to tap into the power of love that sustained them through it. Just ask anyone who has felt the healing power of a hug when they needed it, who has known that people were praying for them and has felt stronger and more able to cope because of it. A good portion of the power that Jesus accessed was God’s love for the humanity that God had created; and that’s a power that is available to us if we will just receive it. And, it is a power that we can easily share with others, if only we will.

A new year is here!

January 8, 2018

Happy New Year everyone!

I’m just a little late with that greeting, I know; here it is January 8 and we’re well into the new year. (Though it may be awhile before we all remember to write 2018 instead of 2017!)

There are two times during the year that I feel that I have a fresh start: in the fall, at the time when I started a new school year for many years; and at the turn of the year, when the Christmas season is over and it feels like a blank slate, a new year full of possibilities and hope. Of course I know it won’t all be great– I have my ups and downs just like everyone else– but just the idea of a new year, a new beginning makes me hopeful for good times to come.

The beginning of the new year is an especially good time to examine our faith and our spiritual connections and rededicate ourselves to our faith. A new Bible study or a new spiritual practice can be helpful in getting us on track. I discovered Art Journaling last year and I hope to find ways to use it to enhance my spiritual life this year. New mission initiatives are also good ways to engage our faith; if you know me you might not be surprised to hear that I have a new idea for mission– watch this space for more information!

However you practice, whether you keep up with something you’re already doing or begin something new, I hope 2018 will be a year of spiritual vitality for you. And if you want to dialogue with me about this, please feel free to comment!

Peace,

Rev. Sharon

Abraham Study: Ishmael and Isaac

June 29, 2017

I am a couple of weeks behind with the Abraham Study, so let’s catch up. Two weeks ago the chapter was about Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. Last week the chapter was about Isaac, the son that Abraham had with Sarah, his wife.

As the story goes, God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah; but they are old and Sarah gets impatient. They have recently lived in Egypt and acquired an Egyptian woman to serve Sarah, and Sarah decides that it is through Hagar that the son will be born. She seems to imagine that Hagar will give birth and just turn the baby over to Sarah to raise. Abraham is uncertain but when Hagar goes to him he sleeps with her and becomes pregnant.

This is where Sarah’s plan goes awry. Hagar now has status over Sarah because of her pregnancy, and the story indicates that she taunts Sarah with it. So Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away. Again Abraham is uncertain but does as Sarah asks. Hagar is sent into the desert, where God tells her to return. She goes back and Ishmael is born. Thus, he is the first born son.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac, the second son, is born. Conflict arises once again between Sarah/ Isaac and Hagar/ Ishmael and Sarah once again demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham is uncertain once again, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

It’s interesting to note that here the Jewish scriptures, known by Jews and Christians, have one story, but there are other stories about what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Of course the Christian tradition has the story that Hagar and Ishmael are sent away into the desert, where they nearly die of thirst. But God hears their cries and gives them water and then promises that Ishmael will be father of a great nation.

The other story is quite different– Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and settles them there and even revisits them later. In this version there is a continuing relationship between Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael.

How does this story and our understanding of Ishmael as firstborn son inform our understanding of Abraham? To begin with, it seems likely that Abraham has some real affection for Ishmael because he is the first born son. At that time birth order was quite important, and the eldest was the heir of the father. The story implies that Abraham was born because Sarah went against God’s intent and that Isaac was intended as heir to God’s covenant with Abraham rather than Ishmael (the Jewish/ Christian traditional reading. One way or another Hagar and Ishmael are taken care of by God.

At this point I find Abraham to be a rather ambiguous character. On the one hand he seems to have this one-to-one relationship with God; on the other hand, when Sarah tells him to send Hagar away he does it. Regretfully, perhaps, but he does it. This seems to be at odds with his reputation as a man of great faith who took up stakes and moved his family at God’s behest.

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael in the Jewish/ Christian scriptures. At one point Joseph is given to “the Ishmaelites” by his brothers. Islamic tradition views Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Over time the Ishmaelites became associated with the term “Arab”.  In Islamic tradition Ishmael seems to be seen as the link to Abraham and, as first son, a reason that Islam should be considered the ‘true’ or ‘primary’ religion; he is at least a partial source of division particularly between Jews and Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.

For notes Bill Lindsay’s notes on the chapter about Isaac, click here.

 

Abraham– Week 4: Call

June 12, 2017

We continue our Abraham study with the chapter entitled “Call”, about the beginnings of Abraham’s call to follow God. Once again, there are notes from co-teacher Bill that can be accessed here. If you’re reading along or following this blog I encourage you to add your own comments, and if you haven’t started reading the book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler it is well worth the read. It is available on Amazon and possibly through your local library as well!

This chapter addresses the question of what it means to be called by God, particularly as it pertains to Abraham and particularly as understood by Christians, Muslims and Jews. We can also glean form this discussion what it means to be called on a more personal level; for, as Abraham is called, so are we called as his descendants.

The call of Abraham teaches us, according to Mr. Feiler, that God hears the cries of all of God’s people. God heard the cry of Abraham, who at an advanced age had no heir; God responds with a promise of not only more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but also land that will be his and theirs. In order to receive this promise Abraham must leave his homeland and go… somewhere. God isn’t clear in the beginning where Abraham will go, only that he needs to go. And Abraham, trusting God, goes.

This is something new; Abraham is breaking tradition with his father who is a maker of idols. For Abraham, God offers no physical manifestation; neither does Abraham seem to need it. We might wonder how to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes: is God the still, small voice in Abraham’s head? Is there an actual conversation? We have reported interchanges between God and Abraham, but is this a conversation as we humans understand conversation? And if not, what was it that convinced Abraham to go?

In Mr. Feiler’s book he describes the differences in emphasis between Christianity, Judaism and Islam regarding the understanding of Abraham’s call. For Jews, Abraham’s call began as a call to migration, a call that will lead him (and his descendants) to the promised land. Later the understanding becomes more spiritual in nature as the exile sends Jews on a different journey, a journey away from the land to a place where they are the other. Now the task, says Mr. Feiler, is to “go to yourself…find your roots.” For  Islam Abraham’s response to God, that he picked up and went to another land at God’s instruction, is the ultimate submission and obedience to God. For Christians the Abraham story represents a “hoping against hope” (as Paul puts it)– he didn’t disbelieve God’s promise even though he was of advanced age and “his body was as good as dead” (again, Paul). Feiler’s friend Father John says that “the lesson of Abraham is that you have to be willing to risk it all. You have to give up everything for God.”

As Christians we ask ourselves “what is God calling me to do?” We beleive that all of God’s people have gifts and abilities that we are to use to fulfill God’s work in the world. Frederick Buechner describes the place God God’s us to as that place in which a person’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It may be that we are called, as Abraham was, to pick up stakes and move to a new land. It may be that we are called to a a new ministry in which we are the other, the outsider who must form relationships before we can accomplish any change in the world.

 

 

 

Abraham Study– week 3 “Birth”

June 8, 2017

I am behind a week in writing about our study Bruce Feiler’s book, “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” Sometimes life intervenes! So this is from Wednesday, May 31 and I’ll be writing about last night’s (June 7th) discussion later in the week. The lessons for May 31, June 7 and June 14 are led by Bill Lindsay, so I am including his notes in the writing for these weeks. Thanks Bill!

The chapter for May 31, called “Birth” is the first of two in a section that are about the historical Abraham and the question of whether or not he really existed, if it can be proven, and if it matters. To me, this is part of a larger question that encompasses the whole of scripture– what do we know, what can we prove, and does it matter? For Christians, answering this question runs the gamut from Biblical inerrancy– every jot and tittle is true and authentic in its authorship (God, through Moses and others) to the idea that the Bible is just a good book which, because it can’t be proven, carries truths but isn’t true, per se. 

To many people the question of the truth of scripture is very important. Some will read the Bible stories about Abraham and believe he was a real historical character. Some will see that there is no physical evidence and understand Abraham as a mythical or composite figure, borne out of centuries of oral tradition and helpful as a anchor for the faith, but not a real, historical figure. Either way, even though Abraham isn’t provable– as Avraham Biran says in Feiler’s book, All we know about Abraham is in the Bible …  In the ground , there’s nothing… But remember , archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible . I follow Albright , the founder of our field , in that the Bible as a book of divine inspiration needs no proof . At the same time , you can neither do archaeology in biblical lands nor study the Bible without being aware of the discoveries . 

The Bible is a book of stories, a mix of oral tradition and written history– though maybe not “history” as we in the 21st century think of it. When we read the Bible and study the ancestors of the faith, we do so from a place and time so far removed from its happenings that it can be hard to process it, it can be hard to know how it applies to our lives today–if it even does.

And yet there are truths there. Abraham is a figure of faith that we can look to in order to understand our own. In Christian and Hebrew texts we come upon Abraham as an adult, with little background information other than his father’s name and the fact that they all migrated from Ur to Haran over a number of years.

Muslim texts have more detail. Abraham’s father carves and sells idols, and people worship him. He is of the polytheistic age and forced Abraham, who even as a young boy didn’t believe in the power of idols, to sell them. Abraham is reported to have mocked his father for worshiping idols; he was threatened with stoning and was reportedly thrown into the fire for his alternate beliefs but was saved by God.

Abraham is the first monotheist– the first to insist that there is only one God. Abraham is also the first, if we believe the stories, to be martyred. There is no question why this man, this Abraham, became so important to three major religions of the world and remains the ancestor to us all. So the question becomes for each of our traditions, how can we each honor him without dishonoring the faith traditions of the others?

 

Abraham, Week 2: Home

May 26, 2017

Our discussion this week truly begins our study of the book, Abraham: A Story of Three Faiths. If you’re following along in the reading, the chapter we discussed on Wednesday, May 23 was called Home. In this chapter Mr. Feiler lays the groundwork for his investigation of Abraham, beginning with a visit to Jerusalem.
We began this week by reading Genesis 12:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version (NRSV))

The Call of Abram
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

For background I put together a set of images showing various maps of Abraham’s journey as well as some modern day pictures of Ur, Haran, Shechem, Bethel, Ai and the Negev– locations given in the scripture passage of where Abraham had traveled. At the end are a set of pictures of Jerusalem, and it is easy to see how close in proximity are landmarks of the three faiths. In one image is the Dome of the Rock, a building with a golden dome, which marks the spot that each faith sees as a touchstone– the place where Mohammad was taken into heaven by Allah, the place where Jesus preached, the place where Isaac was offered by Abraham as sacrifice.

Jerusalem is a good place to begin to understand what it means to be monotheistic; understanding monotheism can help us understand the roots of the difficulty of coexistence that the three faiths have.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines monotheism as belief in one personal and transcendent God. In simple terms, Muslims believe Allah is the one God; Christians believe God as expressed as Creator/Christ/Spirit is the one God; Jews believe that Yahweh is the one God. For each of these groups even acknowledging that the others have a god of their own is to acknowledge that there is more than one God. Thus, it becomes important to maintain an exclusivity or purity of belief in their particular deity. Over time each faith tradition has attempted to impose its own religious beliefs and practices on the others– which continues until today.

Below are some notes I pulled out of Mr. Feiler’s book, on which we centered our discussion:

Notes from Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (B. Feiler): Home
A piece of land emerged out of the water [of creation]. That land is the Rock, and the rock is here.
Adam was buried here, Solomon built here, Jesus prayed here. Muhammad ascended here.
Abraham came here to bury his son.
The Rock is considered the navel of the world
Stand here, you can see eternity. Stand here, you can touch the source.
o Stand here, you can smell burning flesh.
Any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that encompasses one will necessarily include at least one of the others.
Jewish boy, Joshua’s, comment (re: waiting for the messiah to come and make all things new, but unable to imagine it happening with Muslims present.)

Abraham
Shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
History’s first monotheist
Found in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Koran—which often disagree about Abraham’s history, even on basic matters
Even Abraham’s itinerary changed between generations and religions
]for we who study Abraham in this book, we are looking at] 3 religions, 4 millennia, one never-ending war.

Abraham’s offering of Isaac is a shared story, a shared touchstone for the three faiths.
Christianity—we read at Lent/ Easter– Isaac/ Jesus as ‘sacrifice’
Judaism—Rosh Hashannah
Islam—‘Id al-Adha—“the feast of the sacrifice” -climax of the pilgrimage
But can’t agree on what son was victim
Is that the model of holiness, the legacy of Abraham: to be prepared to kill for God?

Story from David Willna —the point of the story is that this degree of brotherly love is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.
“This (Jerusalem) is not only the spot where it is possible to connect with God, it’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another” (David Willna)
“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God. If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, then you’re not capable of having a relationship with God.” (David Willna)

As we begin this study we see that there is a connection between these three faiths through the ancestor Abraham, but that each wants to claim the God of Abraham as its own one true God. Is the connection enough to say that we share one God through Abraham?

Please leave any comments or discussions in the comment section below.
For next week we’ll read the next chapter, Birth, and begin to seek out the ancestor we call Abraham.

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

May 19, 2017

This month we’re beginning a new study of Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. In this book Mr. Feiler journeys around the Middle East, talking to believers of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam about the role that Abraham plays in their particular faith tradition. It is an interesting story and a very readable book, and if you can’t join us on Wednesdays at 5:30 for the discussion, I hope you’ll check in here and add your own comments!

I will be blogging each week about our discussion and I hope to hear from some of you as you follow along. If you are not a part of the COF family, you should know that we are a part of the Christian faith tradition. However, our purpose is to learn something about the heritage we have in common with Judaism and Islam, so hopefully we will have some discussion around those faith traditions as well.

We began this week with an overview of the book, a reading of the beginning of the Abraham story found in Genesis (11:26-12:9), and a discussion of what we know about Abraham as we begin. Abraham is first mentioned as Abram in Genesis 11:26: When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Before we get to this point we’ve had the creation story, Adam and Eve in and out of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Right after the Babel story there is a listing of descendants of Noah beginning with Shem, through about 8 generations until we get to Terah, the father of Abram. Besides Shem there is nothing noted about these generational ancestors; there is little know even of Terah except that he lived in Ur and at some point gathered his family and set out for Caanan. Along the way they came to a place called Haran and settled there. Terah’s son Haran had already died before they left Ur, but along with Terah came Abram and Sarai, his wife, as well as Lot, the son of Haran.

Questions:

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about him?

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about the origins and tenets of these three faith traditions?

Our discussion:

Abram and others in this part of the OT* are given ages of hundreds of years. Is this true? Did people really live longer then, or did they reckon time differently?

  • They reckoned time differently– years were shorter
  • This comes out of oral tradition, and a difference of understanding of “age” than what we have today
  • The numbers given as final age were largely symbolic and depended on the status of the individual named.

What do we know about Abraham?

  • His original name was Abram and his wife’s original name was Sarai. At some point God changed their names.
  • Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac
  • He was given to lying; twice lied about Sarai being his sister instead of his wife.
  • Sarah his wife could not have children; thus his first son was Ishmael from Hagar. Ishmael and his descendants split off into a separate line of descendants.
  • Abram was rich.
  • Abram was nomadic.

What do we know about the origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (and about them in general?)

  • They are monotheistic religions
  • Christianity began when the apostles began to see themselves as separate from Judaism
  • Islam began when Mohammad had a vision which became the Quran (this is the faith tradition that we all know the least about.)
  • We discussed the idea that oral tradition played a large role in the beginnings of each faith tradition and that eventually things were written down. There are similarities in the stories found in each tradition– much of the wisdom that these three traditions are know for are found in other traditions around the world.
  • All three have a history of “winning” over the others, each tradition believes “we” will win the ultimate battle and become the one true religion (and each already has an element of believing themselves to be the one true religion.)

This study will take about 10 weeks. The book is divided into sections:

  • An introduction, called Home, in which we discover the Rock of Abraham, the beginnings and touchstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • God of Abraham, which will talk about the birth and call of Abram.
  • Children of Abraham, in which we learn about Ishmael and Isaac and how they factor into the development of the three faith traditions.
  • People of Abraham, with a chapter for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith tradition
  • Blood of Abraham, in which the legacy of Abraham is discovered.

Next week we’ll begin with Home and the questions that led Mr. Feiler to decide to take this journey of discovery of how Abraham fits into each of the three faith traditions.

So what do you think? If you’d like to read along and join the discussion, the book is available in paperback on Amazon or can be downloaded to Kindle. Please share your thoughts below; keep it clean and civil please, comments will be moderated.

*Some Christians call this part of our Bible “Hebrew Scriptures” but to me that isn’t entirely accurate either, so for the purposes of this study OT and NT will refer to the Christian Bible, the Torah will refer to scriptures of Judaism, and the Quran will refer to scriptures of Islam.

 

 

 

 

Religious or Political?

February 15, 2017

I am chagrined to realize I haven’t posted on this blog for quite awhile– since October, in fact. Between then and now quite a bit has happened– not only Advent and Christmas, but also the Presidential election and inauguration and the aftereffects of this transition.

I mostly avoid directly commenting about politics on this blog in the spirit of keeping religion and state seperate (though I have been accused of “spewing liberal lies” in my sermons– you can read them and judge for yourself here). However, I happened upon an article today about Charleston SC public schools which opened by pointing how difficult it is to completely separate politics from other aspects of our lives (in that case, public education.) The same thing is true, I think, about politics and religion; in fact it was theologian Karl Barth who was widely credited with saying preachers should write their sermons with the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

For tax purposes, preachers are forbidden from publicly and from the pulpit endorsing candidates for public office. I think this is a good rule and one that I follow. We aren’t forbidden as far as I know, however, from pointing out when the policies of our elected officials are dangerous or damaging to the country or its citizens. When that happens it becomes an issue of justice as much as politics, and justice issues are a preacher’s bread and butter (so to speak.) This is where Barth’s quote comes in.

You see, preaching about Biblical issues without talking about current events leads to sermons that are quite hollow. Yes, it is good for congregation members to hear that they are loved by God and live under grace and forgiveness; but there comes a moment when we have to ask what that means. Preaching salvation only seems dangerous to me because it can lead to a very self-satisfied, self-centered faith, a faith that in the comfort of our own safety forgets about the injustices all around us– injustices such as racial inequality, homelessness, and poverty. These are very kinds of things that the prophets speak against in the Old Testament and Jesus challenges in the New Testament.

Take, for example, this week’s lectionary passage from Leviticus, a book not only of the Old Testament but part of the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture.) Leviticus 19:9-10 says 9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. In these verses God speaks directly to the problems of hunger and poverty by instructing the people to leave grain and grapes on the edges of the field and on the ground so that the needy can come behind them and gather what they need to eat. It is a way of making sure that they are provided for– a method not too different than our SNAP program here in the United States. SNAP is the program that used to be known as “food stamps”– an allowance for the poor and needy that can be used for food and necessities. SNAP is paid for by our taxes, and I’m glad to offer this support because I have no farmland for the poor to use for gleaning as most of us do not; in this way the poor can “glean” from my tax dollars.

Another example of resistance to injustice is found in the Beatitudes of Jesus, where we read “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit. In Jesus’ world it isn’t the powerful who will receive blessings but the powerless– and if that’s not a political statement, I don’t know what is! In the kingdom of God injustice will be ended, and the poor, the meek, the hungry, all of those who face oppression and injustice today will be satisfied. The single mom who has to choose between paying the rent and feeding her child will be lifted up out of her suffering; the homeless man will have a safe, warm and dry place to live.

As a preacher of the word of God I cannot ignore these teachings; neither can I not pass them on to my congregation. God loves us, yes! But as the people of God we have a responsibility to care for the ones in our midst who cannot care for themselves. Is that Biblical? Yes. But it’s also political.

 

 

 

 

 

When Did Civility, Tolerance and Respect Become Bad?

October 19, 2016

This morning a Facebook post from a good friend caught my attention. It was a series of pictures of her oldest, who runs cross-country track events and recently won a race. What I appreciated was the message that went along with the pictures: “This kid keeps winning his cross-country races but what makes me prouder is that he waits and congratulates each person across the finish line.”

In a country obsessed with winning and being the best this image stands out to me. In a country embroiled in a very ugly and contentious presidential race, this practice of congratulating others for making it across the finish line stands out to me. In a time when it is acceptable and even applauded to call our opponents names like “loser” and “deplorables” this stands out to me.

Perhaps other elections have been this ugly and stooped so low. I don’t remember any in my lifetime in which the rancor has been so public (however, I know from history that there have been plenty of ugly races.) But the glee with which the civility of our public discourse has been eroded is disturbing, and we should all be embarrassed by the tenor and tone of debate that has occurred.

I won’t rehash what has been said. That isn’t my purpose here. But I am concerned for what happens after the election is over. Will we all be able to move on with our lives? Will we ever be able to recover from the lines that have been crossed and the particular brand hostility and viciousness that have polluted this election cycle?

Some of us are hurt and angry, afraid that we are being left behind. Some of us are hurt and angry that the American Dream that they have been promised seems to have disappeared. Fear and anger go hand in hand, and if not addressed can be deadly.

In his daily devotions last week, Father Richard Rohr calls us to picture ourselves before the crucified Jesus, and recognize that he became all of the things that we fear: nakedness, exposure, vulnerability and failure.  All of that anger we feel because we are afraid is exposed in Jesus on the cross. All of the disappointment we feel because we feel left behind is exposed in Jesus on the cross.  Like a great wound, when anger, disappointment and fear are exposed they can be dealt with and allowed to heal. We find that we no longer need to lash out in anger and we no longer need to fear the other, the future, our finitude because it no longer controls us.

To return to my thoughts about this election season and the damage it is doing to us individually and as a nation, a line in a Washington Post article caught my attention today as well: There are certain qualities of heart and mind that allow for self-government — civility, tolerance and mutual respect. I am afraid that we are losing these qualities because instead of being encouraged to heal ourselves of our anger and fear we are being encouraged to wallow in it and to lash out– which may satisfy for awhile but in the long term will only do more damage to ourselves and our country as a whole.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak out against injustice. Injustice must never be tolerated. But if we lose our ability to speak the truth in love, with respect, with tolerance and with civility we risk losing the very basis of our society. And that, my friends, would be a terrible blow not only for us but for the whole world.