Has the Greatest Commandment Become the Lost Commandment?

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday is from John 13:34-35 (New Revised Common Lectionary). Before Jesus utters these words, he demonstrates them by taking a towel and bowl of water then brushing their dirty, smelly feet.

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Later in the same gospel, John reports Jesus as saying, “12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

In addition to the mundane foot washing and the heroic self-sacrifice there is the parable of the Good Samaritan who saw a stranger in need and went out of his way (and gave out of his pocket) to meet that need.

The Good News that we, the church, are to share with the world is born of a verse that, if we give a moment’s reflection, is extraordinarily revolutionary. It is easier to believe in the Creator-God, because the heavens and the earth declare God’s glory. When we have such a visceral response to evils perpetrated around, it is easier to believe that there is a just God that will call those evils to account. But it is easy to gloss over John 3:16 as just a sign that is held up at sports events or child’s memory verse. But listen to what it says.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This love that shows up in the little things (like footwashing in the first century), helping the needy like the Samaritan, and loving our brothers and sisters in Christ, is modeled on how God loves everyone!!! everyone in the WHOLE WORLD!!!

In Matthew 23:23-25, Jesus chews out some religious leaders. Why? Because they got lost in the minutiae of the Law and neglected justice, mercy, and faith. Because they washed the outside of the cup and left the inside dirty. Because they “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel”.

This is such a great description of where many find themselves in the 21st century church. I would challenge you to ask your non-church-going friends to describe what they think of the church. What is her message? What is her character?

Chances are solid that if they do have something good to say it will be because they perceive some secular cause with which they themselves are aligned. What I venture to say is that we will not hear them say that when they think of the church, they think of how much we love one another or how much we love the world.

In the first century, the high priest was appointed by a Roman governor and the council was eager to appease their Roman overlords. Jesus was seen as a rock-the-boat figure and a threat to their position of privilege. Just as in the first century, today we have church leaders who are enamored with earthly political forces at odds with the church’s mission of love. They endorse mean-spirited and divisive politicians and engender mean-spirited attitudes toward those in need of the church’s love. We are witnessing the fulfillment of the words of the Apostle Paul. Paul said of some that falsely present themselves as apostles, “And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” 2 Corinthians 11:14.

When I hear people with esteemed names like Graham condemn Disney for working to protect vulnerable children from further isolation while at the same time extolling the virtues of politicians who promote hate, evade military service, undermine our system of government, and boast of molesting women it breaks my heart. When I see the church focused on attacking those who work for justice and mercy in order to curry favor with corrupt politicians it breaks my heart. We can battle Critical Race Theory (gnat) and swallow racism whole (camel). We can divide over theological minutiae but we can’t unite behind shouting the good news of God’s love for all from the house tops.

Instead of warring and creating division in our country and in our world, the church should be focused on sharing the good news that Jesus was God in the flesh come to live, die, be buried, resurrected and ascended to return to his place of glory in heaven. Why? Because God loves the world.

Instead of uttering words and taking actions that divide and destroy the church, we should be united in bringing the grace we have received in Christ to a world in need. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; give refuge to the stranger, the foreigner, and any in need of a safe place; create places of healing in Christ’s name; stand with the prophets and Christ himself in the cause of justice, equality, and the human dignity of all people. To be Christ’s disciples we must join him in acts of service and sacrifice to build community.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” Jesus.

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Did I Actually Exercise?

Today, I changed up my fitness routine. Normally on a good day, and only on a good day, I get up and stretch a few minutes with Classical Stretch: By Essentrics on PBS. Later, Joy and I usually go for nice walk. If it’s windy we walk to the north side of the island and watch boats go up and down the ICW. If it’s calm and on the warmer side, we walk up the beach, either toward our friends’ beach access or toward the town pier.

We won’t talk about what happens on not-a-good days (but thank God for Hallmark).

A couple of days ago, Apple announce the release of a new exercise program called Apple Fitness+. If you don’t have an Apple Watch 3 or newer just move along. There’s nothing to see here. After watching the CNET review on YouTube, I, an elderly man with a leg that’s been messed up since I was a younger man, decided I wanted to give it a try.

So, I signed up for the one month free trial. As I’ve already described, I do movement regularly, but not really anything that I would categorize as exercise. In fact, I don’t really remember the last time I closed the exercise ring on my watch.

But after watching the Absolute Beginners preview video, I gave the Absolute Beginner Strength with Kyle class a shot. I have to say I loved it. As a young man I was a gym rat and loved working out with my buddies. Kyle stood in the front and did a moderate version of each movement. Another trainer stood behind him and did an easier version. Still a third trainer stood behind him on the other side and did more advanced motions. The vibe was positive and upbeat. Maybe the novelty will wear off, but this first go round was fun. I got myself grinning as I exercised. When my back started to hurt, I switched to the easier version demonstrated in the rear. For exercises that didn’t hit my back wrong I just switched back to following Kyle directly.

Now, if I was still in my 30’s and could be lifting weights with the same group every morning, I think I would still prefer that. But for someone my age, during the pandemic, this looks like it might be a great value. I’ll know better by the end of the month.

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Dream Church – Dogs, Dancing and Daylight

I have a dream church. It wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. I have friends who love going to mega-churches with professional preaching, professional musicians, and professional productions of the service. It is a sort of Broadway production in their hometown, complete with “Broadway stars”. I’ve tried it and it’s great. Combined with small accountability groups, a church like that can even bear spiritual fruit. But that kind of church isn’t my dream church.

Although, I knew Rev. Gluck, aka “Joe”, most of my youth through young adult life, I missed the opportunity to attend his Forks-of-Cheat Baptist Church until near the end of Joe’s life. Yet, those few years left an indelible imprint on me. It was the closest I ever came to my dream church. We met in an historic church building that got its first indoor plumbing about the time I graduated from high school. Prior to that you trotted out of the building to go to the outhouse beside the grass parking area. The architecture was typical of the colonial period except that it was built of brick. The building was small but comely.

Photo by Sarah Steel

The church sits atop a hill and when you opened the doors you beheld a vista that stretched across the Cheat River valley to the Preston County ridge marking the beginning of the Appalachian Mountains. Whatever the merits of the Sunday school class and sermon we heard while inside with the doors closed, we were reminded that God was the Creator, the Source of nature’s beauty and agriculture’s bounty as we exited the doors.

And, yes, just as some are bedazzled by Broadway-style worship productions, I am bedazzled by the aesthetics of a little country church resting on the hilltop looking out over some of the most beautiful scenery on God’s green earth. So, yes, my dream church would be beautiful.

For your inspiration or just indulging my desire to think about them, allow me to share a few of the places of worship I have found to be inspiring. If I included all of the places I have worshipped that didn’t have a roof, I wouldn’t live long enough to finish telling the story, so I’ll limit myself to places of worship that have a roof.

I’ve already told you about Forks-of-Cheat. Second on my list, would be the little chapel at what is now Jacksons Mill in West Virginia. This little chapel has a phalanx of tall skinny windows running down each side of the sanctuary that can be cranked open to let in such a view of the nature outside as to make it feel almost like an outdoor service. There is even a little courtyard, bounded by a low stone wall, to one side of the chapel. What a great place for a church picnic, or pre-service coffee and donuts, or even a wedding reception.

There is a similar, if slightly larger, structure in Lahaina on Maui. The Holy Innocents Episcopal Church carries the windows which open to nature to an even higher level, which might be expected from a church located in an earthly paradise (with regard to weather).

Sandbridge Beach is very developed now and I suspect the old pavilion has been replaced by a strip mall or hotel. But there used to be a pavilion on the beach where local churches rotated providing vacationers with a place to worship God on the beach. Since it was only in service during tourist season, there was no need for walls at all.

I believe that God created beauty because God is beautiful. The church building, which should be beautiful, should also facilitate the appreciation of nature’s beauty just outside her doors to the degree the climate of the area will permit.

But the most beautiful thing about Forks-of-Cheat was not the colonial architecture or the heavenly view. The most beautiful thing about that church was the people of the church. We had Bea the eccentric artist, Helen the down-to-earth Sunday school teacher, the dairy farmer and his pharmacist son, the guy with a garden big enough to share its bounty with everybody, a car salesman, and so on. Being in the countryside, outside a college town with a medical center, meant we had professionals, union tradesman, farmers, artists, and every other variation of human nature one might imagine. And in this divisive, hate-filled era, I long for those days when such diverse people gathered together each Sunday to create a sanctuary where we could all come and find love, fellowship, and belonging.

As I mentioned, as you left the sanctuary the double doors would be swung open to the view. To the left of the doors there were hooks to hang your coats on the wall. To the right of the doors, there was a table. I’ll call it “the sharing table”. If a person had extra garden produce, they brought it to church and set it on the table. It was free for anyone to take. It was a different kind of communion table, a symbol of the family-ness of the fellowship. My dream church would be a sharing church-in touch with and addressing the needs of our community without condescension or fanfare. And there would most definitely be a sharing table.

A great example of sharing with the community is Scott’s Run Settlement House. Started by the women of the big Methodist church in downtown Morgantown, SRSH was established to provide resources to those in need in nearby Osage, WV. Their food pantry, baby pantry, periodic free medical clinics, after-school program (with free dance or music lessons and basketball), etc. made (and still make) a great difference in the lives of many people. When I was a youth, I dropped off supplies from my youth group to the food pantry. My contact was an elderly, retired black man who donated his time to teach kids to play the piano after school. That visit branded itself into my psyche as a model of what the church could and should be doing in the community. My dream church would definitely have a close partnership with a ministry like this one.

So far my dream church would be aesthetic, connected with the nature outside her walls, diverse and inclusive, and innately sharing.

That list sounds kind of esoteric to me. So, next let’s talk about dogs. There should be dogs in church. I know this raises issues both of hygiene and decorum but hear me out. A pet is a wonderful blessing and I don’t think we should be separated from them to “go to worship”. My ideal worship experience would be with my dog, if I still had one, snuggled up beside me.

But more than that, a dog’s unconditional affection can be therapeutic to people who suffer from anxiety or loneliness. I no longer have dogs, but I would love to have a chance to pet your dog when I go to church. There is a reason dogs are brought to visit in nursing homes. So, even if it is only on fifth Sundays of a month (4 times a year), I think there should be dogs in church.

Also, hugging. Not the ritualistic hugging and kissing prevalent in some cultures, but the “eyes light up when I see you and I just wanna hug you” kind of hugging. We don’t need to hug everybody, but no one should leave without at least the offer of a hug.

My friend Wally said, he was taught as a boy that the 11th commandment was not to run in the church. I remember a church lady scolding me for taking my two young children into the sanctuary of a church in San Angelo, TX while I was in the Army. She was quite angry as she informed me that “They should be in children’s church.” As a soldier who was training at all hours of the day and night, I wasn’t about to voluntarily separate from my kids during the little time we had together. I admit children’s immaturity can be a distraction to those without eyes to see in them what Jesus saw when he called them to himself. I would concede that there could be a crying room for those babies with better lungs than the preacher, but kids need to see their parents modeling the importance of fellowship, service, and worship. That is where the Great Commission begins. A bit of a tangent, but I also don’t think a mother should be expected to leave the sanctuary to nurse-unless the baby is a super-loud slurper.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, because I’ve told it before. I was speaking at a Sunday evening service at a little church in Ravenswood, WV. A toddler was playing with his toy cars on the floor under the pew in front of where his parents were seated. I asked a rhetorical question. Suddenly, his little head popped up and he shouted out the answer. We all laughed. No one, including his parents or myself, had any idea the boy was listening. But that is how kids are. No matter whether we think they are distracting or distracted, those little sponges are picking up the ideas and attitudes around them. They should be taught to behave, but that doesn’t mean sitting with their hands in their laps at attention in the pew. Coloring or playing quietly with dolls or cars is a good starting point.

Speaking of kids, our community has Friday night concerts in the park. As the adults sit in their lawn chairs, the kids tend to traipse up to the area in front of the stage and mix playing together with dancing to the music. I would love it if kids, maybe after the children’s story time, had a chance to dance to worship music in the area between the seats and the platform.

That brings me to the next facet of my dream church, dancing. I remember worshipping in Honolulu, and they had folks dancing the hula with the hymns. It just enriched the musical experience so much. Sure, hula is the most beautiful form of dance, but I would be happy with any kind of interpretive dance to go with the church music.

One Sunday, I filled in for the preacher at Reynoldsville Baptist church in WV. I don’t want to hurt their feelings, but I have never heard such horrible singing. Nor have I ever heard a congregation sing so loudly and with such gusto. I loved the crap out of it. In my dream church everyone, regardless of talent, makes “a joyful noise to the Lord” without self-consciousness.

Food. Beginning in the Old Testament all the way up through Jesus telling Peter to “Feed my sheep”, the Bible describes the way God provides for the people of God using food as an analogy. This analogy appears again and again and again. At First Baptist Church in Newport News, Virginia, every Wednesday night we had a “family night” dinner. There were long, long rows of table instead of small round tables where people could isolate themselves. Families were thrown together with other families and with singles. It was a warm time of intergenerational fellowship.

My dream church pastor, whether male, female, gay or straight, would teach us the Bible’s way of love. And, like dear Joe, their primary didactic method would be that they themselves would make each of us feel valued, loved, and welcome.

Lastly, there would be coffee and donuts served in the courtyard or foyer between Sunday School and Worship.

I’m not sure what my church would be named. Something that pointed to God’s character of love, comfort, and joy. “The Open Arms of Jesus Community Fellowship”? That’s kind of a mouthful. Any suggestions?

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HOW BIG IS GOD’S TENT?

I ran into another old man at Island Jo’s coffee shop. I liked his haircut and asked him about his barber. As in many small towns, this led to a rather extended conversation. He told me that he had been to church and that he liked this church because they preached against homosexuality. Mind you, this was my first conversation with this man and it was the only “virtue” of his church that came up. I had to wonder why this issue was so important to a man who was at the coffee shop with a woman I presumed to be his wife.

Maybe I’m being judgmental, but I wonder, did he want to identify sin with some behavior with which he didn’t struggle so that he could feel self-righteous compared to those “evil” people? It made me think of the Westboro Baptist doctrine of hating others so that we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves. Let’s face it, that doctrine isn’t unique to religious groups.

I mentioned in my last Beach Meditation that above all of the technical skills required to parse theology and hermeneutics, I believe there are two over-arching principles with which our conclusions must be consistent. God is love and the mark of being a follower of Jesus is love and that love is the kind of love that humbles itself to serve others so that they can bear fruit that will glorify God.

I know of too many LGBTQ who have been hurt by both hateful and well-meaning people like myself who claim to be Christians. I had a preacher once who said, “Don’t judge Jesus, by the people who claim to be his friends.”

I don’t think I’ve ever had a hateful attitude toward homosexuals, but I did understand the Bible to teach that homosexuality was a sin – not a 10 commandments level sin, but still a sin. But because I love the gay people I’ve known and I’ve always been open about what I believe, I’m sure I’ve come across in hurtful ways – especially given the overall tenor of the modern church as a context for my words.

But for years, I have been looking for some guidance on a biblical understanding of homosexuality. It was easy to find those who understood the Bible to teach that homosexuality was a sin. But despite my inquiries to various pastors whose churches I knew to be inclusive, I was unable to find anyone who would dig into the Bible and help me to understand how they came out on the inclusive end of the scale.

I follow a gay couple on YouTube. Chris and Clay are song and dance men and I’m a sucker for singing and dancing. Yesterday, I watched the video in which they shared their coming out story. Clay’s family had been supportive without making a big deal out of it. But Chris had grown up in the Bible belt and his family, while affirming their love for him and that nothing would change how they felt about him, his family believed that his lifestyle was sinful. He was so deeply hurt. I could feel my own eyes well up with tears as he shared his pain.

In the description of the video, Chris shared an article that at last gave me a jumping off point for re-examining the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality. The author, Ed Oxford, believes that what the Bible teaches is a prohibition against the ancient practice of pederasty in which adolescent boys were given to men in high position – sometimes even by the boy’s parents.

The OT commands against male with male relations may well have referred to this pederasty or pedophilia. The word translated ‘male’ in the two key verses of Leviticus, 18:22 and 20:30, could refer to a male of any age but typical usage referred to boys of an age to be circumcised and one-year-old male livestock to be used in sacrifices, young males.

There is some ambiguity here since the meaning seems to be dependent on the context. Leviticus 12:2 clearly implies that ‘zakar’ refers to a male baby. Whereas in Genesis 1:27 and in the pairing of animals for the ark, ‘zakar’ seems to refer merely to gender.

In the case of Leviticus 18, it isn’t clear whether it is saying a man shouldn’t have sex with a man as though their partner were a woman or whether it is saying a man shouldn’t have sex with a boy as though their partner were a woman, which would refer to the common practice of pederasty in that day.

Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13       ־ – זָכָ ר zkr male

His research showed that translations from the Hebrew in this passage and the Greek in the New Testament took it as a prohibition on pedophilia until the RSV translated 1 Corinthians 6:9 as ‘homosexual’ in 1948, the year my parents graduated from high school. The first German translation to go this way was in 1983, the year my stepson was born. The earlier KJV went with the delicate but vague translation which went with ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’.

The New International Version translation of 1Corinthians 6:9 reads “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men.”

Paul appears to have used ‘arsenokoitai’ only twice, here in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. The roots of the word come from ‘arseno’-‘man’ and ‘koitai’-‘bed’ (a word from which we get the English word ‘coitus’). The footnote in the NIV says that the two words used in the Greek, ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’ are referring to an effeminate male using another male as a “man bed”. It might be worth noting that in the other uses in the New Testament, ‘malaka’ is used to describe clothing as soft or fine.

An issue I have with the NIV translation is that the Greek says ‘oute malakoi oute arsenokai’, literally ‘not soft ones, not man-beds’. At first, it seems that ‘soft ones’ and ‘man-beds’ are separate items on the list of badly behaving people (together with the sexually immoral, idolaters, and adulterers). This suggests that Paul is not condemning one partner and viewing the other as a victim.

Yet, this understanding didn’t evolve in modern Bible translations until the mid-twentieth century.

 The two words ‘arseno’ and ‘koitai’ are, according to Kevin DeYoung, the same Greek words used individually (as opposed to Paul combining them into one word) in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18 and 20. The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Old Testament used at the time that Paul wrote his part of the New Testament.

For centuries ‘arsenokoitai’ was translated into various languages to mean ‘boy abusers’. The heavy tie to the ambiguous language of Leviticus likewise renders Paul’s usage to be ambiguous.

Given Jesus’ protective nature with respect to children (millstone anyone?) I have no doubt that ‘boy molesters’ are a no-go in the kingdom of God.

Romans 1:24-27 Does appear to be talking about queer sex but in the context of idol worship in the Isis temple.

Paul appears to have accepted that some of the revolutionary things that he taught, like “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28), would not be fully realized until we get to heaven.

It certainly isn’t clear to me what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. That word doesn’t exist in the original languages of the Bible. Behaviors that some equate with homosexuality are described but in terms that in their cultural context could be referring to instances of male-on-male rape, pedophilia, and the worship of idols.

I will continue to pray for and work toward a better, more clear understanding of biblical teaching on sexuality and sexual abuse.

If you have sincere questions about or insights into the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek texts, please share them in the comments. But be warned, those who approach this discussion with a hateful attitude will be blocked and their comments deleted. Before you show us what you know (or think you know), show us how much you love the people engaging in this discussion. If you can’t “speak the truth in love”, keep it to yourself.

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The Root of the Fruit

Jesus tells a parable that reveals the key for figuring out the source of a leader’s authority and that by which we ourselves are motivated.

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