Monthly Archives: July 2011

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapter 12


Each of the chapters about what Christians actually believe focuses on Jesus–grace, priorities, teachings, salvation, etc. Monday we talked about who Jesus is, and today we have the related question of where Jesus asks us to put our attention. Recalling the affirmation “Jesus Christ is Lord” will help us as we seek to keep our priorities in line with following Christ…

Chapter 12: Jesus’ Priority

Many of us struggle with our priorities–where do our resources (attention, energy, time, money) go first, second, third, not at all…? It’s common, at least in the US, for us to claim some things as a priority with our words, but for our actions to demonstrate a different set of priorities. For instance, I don’t think I know anyone who would not list their family among their top priorities. But I also know a LOT of people who spend the majority of their time away from their families. Some will say that they’re away from their families in order to provide for them, and that may be–but the question of “provide what?” is an open one. This chapter has several stories of families that sought good and important jobs that would make a lot of money in order to provide a big house, a summer home, a cushy bank account….but at the expense of actually being together as a family. So what is that family’s priority–family, or money, or work, or a big house?

Most questions posed to Jesus were questions of priorities. They may not have been worded that way, but that’s what they are. When our priorities are out of order, we are engaging in idolatry–we are claiming that something other than following God’s will is most important in our lives. This is not an easy thing to talk about, but it’s a necessary topic, so here we go…

“What is most important?” asks the lawyer/religious leader/rich man/young ruler (depending on which gospel you’re reading). What do you have to do as a child of God, in order to live the life God wants for you? Jesus answer: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength…love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets, Jesus says.

So–our first priority is to love God with everything we are and everything we have–with our intellect, our bodies, our emotions, our spirits, our will, our lives. Our second priority is the flip side of the same coin–to love those made in the image of God (that would be everyone). How do we express those priorities?

I know I’m not the only one to have said this (in part because it was said to me at some point a long time ago, but I can’t remember by whom). What we SAY our priorities are almost doesn’t matter. Instead of talking about them, show me your calendar and your checkbook, and I’ll be able to see your priorities plain as day. Where do you spend your time? With whom do you spend your time? What do you spend that time doing? Where do your precious resources go?

Do we spend our time building relationships between us and God, between us and our neighbor (even when our neighbor is not the person next door in our fashionable neighborhood)? Do we spend our resources building up the kingdom of God? Or do our checkbooks and calendars reveal very different priorities?


with the word online Bible study: come on people now…


Romans 14.1-12

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written,
‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.’
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.


What do you hear in this text? What pops out at you? What questions do you have? Are there any words or phrases or ideas that spark your thoughts or imagination?

Paul is writing for a group of new Christians, some of whom think it’s extremely important to follow all the rules of the Torah in addition to following Christ…and others who think we ought to follow Christ first and let at least some of the rules go, particularly if following the rules would mean a breach of hospitality. So, for instance, the Torah forbids eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. In Rome, sometimes meat was sold/served without the buyer/eater knowing from whence it came–it may have come from one of many pagan temples, it may have been sacrificed to a family’s household gods, or it may have been slaughtered just for eating…there was no way to know. So some people, in order to avoid eating meat sacrificed to idols, decided not to eat any meat at all. Others simply accepted hospitality without worrying about that rule.

The key problem seems to have been that the church was divided over these things–over who could do what and when, who was in and who was out, who was wrong and who was right, etc. Paul asks them to consider instead the essentials–to have unity in diversity does not mean to abandon essentials (which, for Paul, means Christ who is Lord of the living and the dead, who fulfilled all laws and calls us to be the body of Christ together), but instead to come together as the body while leaving the non-essentials to be decided by those who are figuring out how to live their faith.

So–is accepting hospitality regardless of the provenance of the meat VS eating no meat at all for fear of transgressing a Torah rule an essential? Paul says no. Is one day of the week more holy than other days, the only day on which one should worship, etc? Paul again says no. Is honoring the Lord, giving thanks in all we do an essential? Paul says yes.

The PCUSA has sometimes struggled over similar language–we ask our leaders (elders, deacons, and ministers) to “affirm the essential tenets of the Reformed faith”–but there is no list of essential tenets of the Reformed faith. Some have tried to create such a list, while others have insisted that kind of list is unnecessarily divisive.

What do you think? What is an essential? What non-essentials can we accept in the midst of the diversity of the Body of Christ?

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapter 11


Well, friends, we have finally made it to the second half of the book–things Christians DO believe. Let’s get started!

Chapter 11: Who is Jesus?

The scene described from Talladega Nights is a classic, and one you hear referenced often…”dear eight pound six ounce newborn infant Jesus….” It makes me laugh every time, which is usually the intent.

So, who is Jesus? Do you pray to/through Jesus, and if so, what Jesus do you imagine when you’re talking to him? Is Jesus a great teacher? A magician? A wise man? A Prophet? God’s Anointed (“messiah” means anointed)? The warrior king messiah of Jewish tradition? The Son of God? Savior? Healer? A crazy man? something else?

The question of who Jesus is is indeed the central question of Christianity–only when we know Jesus can we follow him as disciples, right?

In the Inquirer’s Class we talk about the most basic Christian affirmation: Jesus Christ is Lord.

First, Jesus: he was a historical person, a 1st century Palestinian Jewish peasant who lived in a small village in a land occupied by the Roman Empire (not a citizen of Rome, though). He grew up in a family that included Mary (mom), Joseph (human dad), and brothers and sisters. He walked around, taught, had followers and friends, and was executed by the Roman empire.

Second, Christ: Christ is the Greek word for “anointed”–so Christ and Messiah mean the same thing. They are titles given to those chosen and anointed by God for a task. There are a number of people anointed in the Old Testament–kings, especially. Sometimes prophets. To say that Jesus is God’s anointed is a way of saying that he is chosen, appointed, and equipped by God for something. We often use “Christ” as shorthand for saying that Jesus is the incarnation of God–God-with-us (Immanuel)–that he’s doing God’s work because he IS God.

Third, Lord: The designation “Lord” was only for people with land and wealth and power. Often the word was used only to refer to either God or Caesar…and in the Roman Empire of this period, Caesar WAS God. To call someone else Lord is treason, because it implies that Caesar is NOT Lord. This is still true in our lives today–to call Jesus Lord means that other people or things are NOT Lord. It’s a guard against idolatry, in many ways. Lots of things rule in our lives, are lords to us–whether those things are people, relationships, ideals, money, possessions, or anything else you can imagine. Jesus Christ is Lord, not Caesar, not anything else. period.

So…who is Jesus Christ to YOU? The question Jesus asks the disciples is one for us as well. Is he friend? Companion? Challenger? Teacher? Savior? Lord?

We’ll be talking about what “salvation” means in a few sessions…

online book group: What’s the Least I Can Believe, chapters 8, 9, 10


Again, these chapters seem interrelated, so we’ll address them together. Next week we’ll head into the second half of the book, the section in which the author lays out what Christians do believe. So this is our last day in myths about Christianity!

Chapter 8: Everything in the Bible should be taken literally.

Chapter 9: God loves straight people but not gay people.

Chapter 10: It’s ok for Christians to be judgmental and obnoxious.

I think you can see why I feel these chapters are related. heehee!

So: are we supposed to take the Bible literally? Thielen points out that biblical literalism is a 19th century response to the rise of modern science, and that it has not been the position of the church for most of history. That’s true–for most of history the Bible has been interpreted as metaphor and allegory. Then again, for most of history there was not anywhere near the level of scientific understanding we have now, so interpreting the Bible more literally was also easier…but in any case, the short answer is “no”–because the Bible is a collection of stories about the relationship between God, God’s Creation, and God’s People. When we tell family stories, things can be told from different perspectives or with different details emphasized, yet we simply laugh about how differently we see things in our family. The same is true of scripture–it’s a collection of family stories told from different perspectives, by different people, from different places and times, but about the same thing: the relationship between God, God’s Creation, and God’s People.

Is the Bible divinely dictated, inspired, or a completely human document? As Reformed Christians, we affirm that the Bible is inspired–it is God-breathed, as 2 Timothy says–but not dictated. The Spirit of God was moving through the communities and people who produced the text, and is still moving through the word today, pointing us to where our attention should be: on God.

Interestingly, I had a conversation about this topic with the Rabbi from the McHenry County Jewish Congregation, and she said this is not really a debate in the Jewish community. She says that it doesn’t matter who wrote the Bible (but, for the record, it was people), because they are sacred stories that have been guiding their life with God for thousands of years, and that’s enough authority.

The question of chapter 9 is directly related to chapter 8 in many ways. Those who say that to be homosexual is a sin are also often those who take the Bible completely literally and claim it is inerrant and infallible in all things. In the Presbyterian Church, those people have managed to frame the discussion around inclusion or noninclusion as being about biblical authority, claiming that those who disagree with them don’t take Scripture seriously. As we have seen, it is possible to take Scripture very seriously and yet understand that it comes to us from a time and place very different from our own–so how is the Spirit moving through the word to speak to the church today?

The Bible is silent on the issue of committed same-gender loving relationships. In fact, the Bible is very nearly silent on the issue of committed monogamous loving relationships, period! The standard relationship in ancient times was the arranged marriage–the daughter was transferred as property from one house to another, often for economic or political reasons. There was often more than one wife in a household, again for economic or political reasons.

In Leviticus, which is the book often turned to for “proof” that God hates gay people, there is one verse that prohibits using someone of the same gender to fulfill your own lust. There are surrounding verses about not using people of different gender to satisfy your lust. And there are surrounding verses that say you cannot wear clothes of mixed fibers, that you must not round off your haircut or beard, that you must stand when in the presence of someone older than you, that you can’t sow two kinds of seed in your field, that you can’t eat shellfish, and that you must treat the foreigner among you as one of your own family.

Meanwhile, Jesus had nothing to say about people in same gender committed loving relationships. He had lots to say about commitment, and relationships, and love, and where our focus should be. And he had lots to say about how people are created in the image of God. And he had lots to say about not turning PEOPLE into objects or issues.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God. period. (1 John 4)

And again, chapter 10….the short answer is: NO. it’s not ok for us to be judgmental or obnoxious! Matthew 7 pretty clearly states that it’s not our job to judge. And pretty much every parable and every healing story and every encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees you can find in any gospel account is about not making judgment based on appearances. Our task as people of God is to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We can’t love our neighbor if we’re busy judging them.

So–what did you think of the first half of this book? What questions remain for you? What do you hope is addressed in the second half?