One word

What one word do we find in almost every book of the Bible? – Love!

What do Jesus and Paul say is the most important thing? – Love!

Jesus said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” … “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. … And …. Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-40 – and see Mark 12:28-31)

Paul quoted four of the 10 Commandments, then said: “and whatever other command there may be, [all] are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:8-10)

The writer of the first letter of John said that “all who live in love live in God and God in them” and that “perfect love drives out all fear.” (See 1 John 4)

If we see all of Scripture through the lens of love, we will understand and interpret it from the heart of God, for God is love.

“Can It Be?”

Imagine who might have been at Bethlehem the night Jesus was born – people beyond the stories in Matthew and Luke. Each story re-imagines the Christmas story from the perspective of their own lives. You can find all four stories here. (By Jimmy Reader  © 2021)

I’ve seen too much in my life, but never anything like this. I’ve been a Roman soldier since I was a youth and have served Caesar all over the world. I’m not sure I believe in any god, but what is happening at this moment … well, if there is a god, this must be the work of that god.

It’s noon in this barren, rocky, sun-drenched land, but a darkness has covered us like a heavy, smothering blanket. Then the lightning blinds us, and the thunder makes us deaf for the moment. Only an occasional wail or moan interrupts the almost total silence among the crowds surrounding this hilltop.

I can remember only one other moment in my life when silence itself seemed overwhelming. How long has it been? 25 years? 30? Maybe 33 years ago now? The memory of that night crept into my dreams often for many years, but it has been a long time since I’ve thought of it.

I was just a young soldier then, taking orders from everyone, assigned to outposts and the edges of civilization – or so it seemed at the time. Now I give the orders to a hundred men who do whatever I tell them. That night I was on duty at a small village not far from here, but it seemed like the edge of nowhere to me. I had come recently from Rome where I grew up – the city that rules the world. And there I was on my first tour of duty, walking the edges of the village to be sure there would be no trouble.

Caesar had decided that everyone in the world had to be counted so we could be sure to demand enough taxes from people all over the world – even from this dreadful place they call Judea. And even this tiny place was now filled with people who had to return to the town their families were from for generations. Houses were turned into what they called “inns” and they were all full. People were being turned away. Some were sleeping in the streets. There was no more room. One of the other soldiers told me when I took over the watch that he had seen a young couple go into a stable to sleep – although he thought the woman seemed close to having a baby. A baby born in a stable? What kind of people are these Jews? He said there was something different about them, though. They seemed at peace even to be in this smelly, dark place by themselves when the time came.

I had been on watch for about four hours. It was dark. Silent. Too quiet. I didn’t hear animals or babies or anything moving. It was almost as if the world had stopped at that moment – as if something was happening right then that would change the world forever.

Where did that thought come from? I’m a soldier, not a philosopher or a dreamer. I deal in the hard facts of reality. I live a disciplined life, sometimes a ruthless life – making people do what the laws of our government demand and enforcing those laws whatever I think of them – arresting, beating, killing (if necessary) those who refuse to obey. That’s why I’m here today.

It was so long ago. I had almost forgotten about it. But today on this hilltop – some place they call Golgotha – it seems as if it was last night. This moment and that moment – are they somehow … what? … maybe linked together in some way – almost as if they are the beginning and the end of one life. And not just any normal human life. Almost … no, I don’t believe in that…. Almost as if this were a son of a god.

The memory of that night is coming back to me now. In the darkness, in the silence, I saw light shining on another hilltop – outside the village, probably where the shepherds were with the sheep all night. I could not see anything but the light, yet I thought I heard a sound as well. Music? Singing? How could that be? My mind was playing tricks on me. That happens sometimes on watch at night. Then the light was gone. Silence again. I waited, wishing my watch was over.

Not long before someone came to take my watch, just before dawn, I heard a noise. At first I thought it was some animal, then I knew it must be human. I drew my sword. There were so many rebels in the hills in those days. They hated the Romans. They hated me because I was a soldier. They didn’t care who I was, and I guess to be honest I didn’t care who they were. I had a job to do. … Sword drawn, I moved toward the noise, and then out of the darkness came a few shepherds. They were whispering among themselves, scared and happy at the same time. There seemed to be a glow to them as if something from beyond this world had touched them, and they were looking for something.

As I stepped out of the shadows to confront them, they stopped. The leader smiled at me, a deep laughter coming up from inside him as if he had discovered the most important thing in life. And he moved toward me, held out his arms, slowly moved my sword toward the ground, and … hugged me! I was stunned. I couldn’t move. Even my family didn’t hug each other when I was growing up. Here is a stranger, a Jewish man, hugging a Roman soldier – and I just stood there. And then watched them move on.

They seemed to know what they were looking for – something, someone on the edge of the village. The glow of their joy – what a strange thing to say, but that’s the only way I could describe it – the glow of their joy drew me with them, leaving my post, just following them. They came to one of those stables. Maybe the one the other soldier had told me about? They disappeared inside, and yet it was not dark there. That glow, that light was inside.

To this day, I do not believe in any god. Ask anyone who knows me. And yet …. That night something drew me to the stable opening to see what was there. I stayed only a moment. The young couple was there – and a newborn baby – and the shepherds were kneeling and praying. Suddenly, I heard a noise behind me, and I realized soldiers were going to change the watch, and I knew I would be in trouble if I were not at my post. So I got up and ran back.

Life went on over the years. As a Roman soldier, I was assigned to other towns, other countries. I moved up in rank to Centurion. About two years ago, I was assigned again to Judea, based here in Jerusalem. I traveled through that village – Bethlehem, it was – and wondered whatever happened to that couple and that baby. Somehow I’ve always known he must have been special, chosen for something great. Recently, I’ve heard stories about large crowds gathering to hear a man speak – someone unknown to the authorities until he started attracting their attention with stories of miracles, even raising people from the dead. More than that, though, I’ve overheard talk among some of the Jewish authorities that this man – Jesus, they call him – has been stirring up people in Galilee and here in Judea against the authorities. We can’t allow that. Rome is in charge. I’m in charge of keeping order here.

That’s why I’m on this hilltop today. I hate this part of my job, but it’s what we do. If people are found guilty of crimes against the state, of challenging the authority of Rome, we crucify them. There are only three men today, but the one in the middle is different. He’s the one they call Jesus. I’ve heard stories about him, and one has troubled me – a story that he was born in a stable in Bethlehem and something about shepherds seeing angels at night. It can’t be! Can it? Can it be him?  This man would be about the right age. And while my men were putting him on the cross, I overheard someone nearby speak quietly to a woman standing there and saying something about her son. Could that be his mother, that young woman in the stable? … What have we done? What have I done?

Just at that moment – in the darkness, out of the silence – Jesus shouted out, “It is finished!” The earth we stood on shook violently. The rocks around us broke open. Some of the tombs down the hill from where I stood opened up, and people – the dead – began to walk away alive again!

In that moment, I knew! There is a God. That birth and this death – the beginning and end of one human life meant to change the world. And for the first time in my life, I shouted out words I had never thought I would speak: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

A New Christmas Story

Imagine who might have been at Bethlehem the night Jesus was born – people beyond the stories in Matthew and Luke. Each story re-imagines the Christmas story from the perspective of their own lives. You can find all four stories here. (By Jimmy Reader  © 2021)

I REMEMBER

            I remember. I’ve never felt so alive, as I walk out of that cave, out of the darkness. Now I can see his face. I see a tear dampening his cheek. And I remember. It seems so long ago now.

            I was ten years old, the son of an innkeeper in Bethlehem. My mother was distantly related to Joseph, and a cousin had brought them there that night to the inn. There was no room, but Momma could not turn them away. She sent me to the stable to prepare a place for the birth, and I put new straw in a sheep’s crib and prepared a warm place for Mary. Then I sat there – in the corner of another cave, a place for the animals to stay warm.

            My mother was attending the birth of a boy. I heard Joseph call his name, “Jesus.” Joseph sat in front of me; but he was unaware of me. I sat in the shadows, looking out toward the only light in the cave.

            I could tell how tired Joseph was. He seemed a bit afraid, perhaps for Mary and the baby. Mary was strong. I could tell that even in the moment of the birth. She was so young, so vibrant. Not pretty really, not like other women who the men watched. But she was handsome and striking, someone you would always remember.

            She didn’t cry out as so many women do when giving birth. And when the baby was born, she immediately held him. I saw her face – so beautiful in the way she looked at him, with so much joy and love. Yet it was as if she knew something sad about him. Strange. How could she know what would happen? And why would she be sad?

            My mother soon left to do other things. We had a full house that night, with all the visitors in town for the Roman census. That was why Joseph and Mary had come on this journey just at this time. When my mother was gone, Joseph went over and touched the baby boy and kissed Mary on her forehead and sat down beside them. He was so tired. He quickly went to sleep, now that he knew they were both safe.

            I heard Mary call the baby’s name now. Jesus. So soft, so joyful, yet with that tinge of sadness. And she kissed him so tenderly. Pulled the cloths tightly around him, and shivered. I ran into the house to get a blanket for Mary and brought it and put it on her shoulders. I think that was the first time she noticed me. And the smile she gave me warmed me deep into my soul.

            I could tell she was tired, too. But the baby seemed wide awake, as if he was watching everything, wanting to see it all. I asked her if I could hold Jesus so she could sleep, and she gave him to me. He was warm, as if some light within him was giving off heat. As I looked into his eyes, it seemed that he was old, ancient really, and full of wisdom and knowledge. He looked into my eyes and knew who I was. This newborn infant knew me. How could that be? He smiled. I know he did. He even laughed. No. Babies don’t do that, but he did.

            I talked to him. I told him “my brother died last year when he was tending sheep who were attacked by wolves. My mother still cries at night because she misses him so much. I have a younger sister, Martha, and my mother is having another child soon. I think they’re going to call her Mary, if she’s a girl. Martha is already old enough to help around the house. She’s good at that and seems to enjoy it.

            “My father works hard and doesn’t say much. I know he loves me, but it’s hard for him to show it. And he gets angry easily. He wasn’t that way so much until after my brother died. I never see him cry, but I hear him yell and curse when he’s angry. And Momma is sad most of the time. I haven’t seen her happy in a very long time – not until she saw you, Jesus.

“I wish I could do something for you, give something to you. But we don’t have anything. In another year I’ll probably be out taking care of the sheep on the hillsides. But I want more than that. I have a cousin in Bethany, near Jerusalem, who is a businessman. Some day maybe I can live with him and learn the business. And maybe you could come and visit me. — What’s that? Why am I crying? A tear has fallen on you, dampening my cheek. So strange.

“I guess all I can give you right now is this –  to talk to you like this and hold you and be with you. And laugh with you. You are laughing, aren’t you? And cry with you, but why would I do that? Maybe some day you’ll become a teacher, and I can come listen to you. Maybe you can come to my home and we can talk together. Some day maybe you’ll cry for me. My name is Lazarus. But you’ll probably never know me.”

I remember it all now. It was so long ago, yet it seems like yesterday. (No, yesterday was something else. What happened yesterday? )  But I remember that long ago night – before the dawn broke, shepherds came in from the fields with stories of angels and their songs of peace and of glory to God and of a message about Christ the King. I could not believe it. The Messiah. As a Jewish boy of 10 years, I knew all the stories of the Messiah to come. That would explain so much, but it seemed too good to be true. I dared not believe it.

But there were other things. I heard about wise men coming later on. Then the family disappeared shortly before that terrible time when Herod had the baby boys killed. Then I heard that the family had gone home to Nazareth. And the cousin who brought them to our home that night later told us stories that had circulated in the family about a strange birth to other cousins too old to have a child. But they had a son, named John, who disappeared from home as a teenager and was reportedly living in the desert.

Well, of course, that was John, the one who baptized Jesus. These past three years have been a wonderful time. I have gone out to hear Jesus as often as possible. It has been good to have him in our home at times. I remember Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him with the rest of us, and Martha acted like she was so busy. She loved Jesus and couldn’t admit it. I knew, we all knew. I think she was the last to know.

So many memories. What is that I remember now? What is it? Yesterday? A day or two before? What? The pain. The weakness. The darkness. Now I remember. I was dying, waiting for Jesus to come. And he has come. He is here, outside the cave, calling my name, “Lazarus!” As I once spoke his name as a newborn, now he speaks my name. Now I see him. I see the tear on his cheek, just like mine that night in the cave in Bethlehem. I wondered then why I would cry as I held him.

Now I know. Now Jesus is crying for me. I was dead. I am alive again! Now he holds me. Again he looks into my eyes and he knows me. He was old, ancient, and full of wisdom and knowledge, for he was and is the Christ. And he is my friend. He loves me.

I will no longer sit in the shadows, as I once did, looking out

at others. I will stand in the light of the life Jesus has given me. And I will tell my story. I will tell all that I remember – the stories of that first night and of all the nights he stayed with us in our home and of this night as well. It is growing dark now, as the day gives way to night. But that night in Bethlehem was filled with love and this night will be too. And we will talk again, as we once did. Only tonight, Jesus will speak, and I will listen. And laugh. And cry. And remember!

In this world

Jesus said the kingdom was not of this world, and the Church decided he meant it was other-worldly, that salvation was about a life beyond this world.

Jesus’ words, however, focused on this world. The kingdom of God (by whatever name we call it) has its origin in God, not in this world, but it is very much about life in this world. Jesus taught us how to live – to be fully alive – in this world.

Biblical words and images of “salvation” are about this world – freedom, healing, justice, compassion, and life. Wherever we experience these things, we experience salvation. Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done on earth.” How do we live here and now, in this place, in this day? That is the question of salvation.

No Longer Christian?

After 50 years in pastoral ministry (now retired), I find myself wondering where I belong. I hear daily stories of what “evangelicals” say and do, and I want nothing to do with most of it. I think Jesus wants nothing to do with it.

I’m reading a book by Sarah Augustine, called “The Land Is Not Empty,” about how Europeans, often under the authority of the Christian Church, stole this land from indigenous people and sought to destroy them. The stories the people tell to this day bring me to my knees in lament and repentance for what people who look like me have done.

I continue to listen to stories and learn how white people, thinking Christian scriptures authorized it, enslaved and lynched and denied the humanity of Black people. And in the last few years, I have seen how people continue to do it.

The Church as an institution, a tradition, a religion, a culture, a power in this world has been responsible for so much evil. Confession, lament, repentance must come if there is hope for its future. Christians – evangelicals – traditional Catholics – not all, but so many – refuse to acknowledge what “we” have done.

I follow Jesus. I choose to love God and others. But do I want to be “a Christian”? Some days, I don’t know.

This world IS my home

Through the centuries, the Christian Church taught people to focus on a life to come after this “earthly” life ends. In many circles, about the only thing that mattered was whether people would go to heaven when they die. Everything else was not important.

Jesus, however, taught us how to live in this world. The good news was that the kingdom of God had come here – was now a present reality in our midst. Whenever Jesus used language about what happens beyond this world, he was making a point about how to live here and now in the kingdom of God.

From beginning to end, Jewish and Christian scriptures reveals a good creation and God’s desire for a world of peace and freedom, justice and health, and love for God and one another. God works in and through us to live so that world may become a reality.

Creating Community

My heart’s desire is for community which is committed to love, freedom, healing, justice, and life. As a Christian, I believe these five aspects of community are the same as “salvation” in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. I also believe that all faith traditions honor these essential realities of community – indeed that people who claim no faith tradition honor these reali

My hope is that people will learn together from each other, encourage one another, and empower each other to a life in all its fullness.

Shalom and Jesus

The community of God is open to people of all faiths and no faith. Use the language of your tradition as you talk about things. As a Christian, I “see” life from a perspective rooted in this faith, and I understand this faith at its best when it comes from Jesus’ life and words.

Shalom is much more than peace. It is being fully alive and “whole.” When Jesus speaks of “salvation” and “the kingdom,” he includes freedom, healing, justice, and love in a life that is now. What I write fcomes out of that understanding.

Compassion and Homosexuality

In 2004 I wrote Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church. I might edit the language some. For instance, I wouldn’t today use what now feels like an outdated and inappropriate term such as “homosexuality.” On pp. 82-87, you will find the following section I wrote:

God’s call to compassion moves me in directions I would not have gone in the past. As a leader in the “older son” community, I confidently taught an interpretation of the scriptures which said that sexual intimacy between persons of the same gender was sinful and unacceptable. I voted for years against every effort to say otherwise. After my “new birth” experience, as I began to grow in the ways of compassion, as I began to listen to the stories of people who are gay and lesbian, the Spirit moved my heart and mind to walk a different path on this journey.

I heard people say consistently that just as I had known from childhood that I was attracted to persons of the opposite gender, they had known they were attracted to persons of the same gender. They had the same desires and feelings I had, but in a different way. My memories of being attracted to a girl go all the way back to first grade, to a little girl who rode the same school bus. In the third grade, I had my first real “love” who I walked with after school. I remember girlfriends in sixth grade, in ninth grade, and on through high school and into college. I even remember some of their names. Other people saw all those relationships as cute when I was younger and acceptable as I grew older.

What must it be like for people whose attraction from those early years is for someone of the same gender if almost no one thinks it’s cute or acceptable? Many of them had learned, as I had, from church and culture that same-gender sexual intimacy (commonly called homosexuality) is sinful. They struggled against their feelings and desires. They felt them as normal for them but were constantly told they were abnormal, even sinful. Many tried to change who they were. They dated and even married in heterosexual relationships and found themselves in despair, for they knew it felt wrong for them.

I wish Jesus had said something about homosexuality, but he did not. In all the Bible, there are only a handful of references. I returned to the scriptures and read books on all sides of the question of whether such relationships are right or wrong. And I have come to an understanding of scripture that God desires love and faithfulness to the other person in a relationship, but that the Bible is silent on whether people of faith can live in a lifelong relationship with a person of the same gender.

The creation stories, in Genesis 1-2, focus on the creation of a man and a woman, made in God’s image and given responsibility for the rest of creation. The necessity of two people being able to “increase in number and fill the earth” requires them to be male and female. Jesus understood this story [see Matthew 19:1-9 and Mark 10:1-12] to mean that God intended two people to continue in a faithful relationship throughout their life together. Jesus was responding to a question, asked out of the hardness of some men’s hearts, about whether men should be allowed to divorce their wives for just any reason. These texts do not speak about homosexuality but about the importance of a mutual and faithful commitment to the other person, just as God is faithful to us.

The story of Sodom [Genesis 19] is often used to condemn homosexuality because the men of the city wanted to have sex with these two angels who looked like men. But sexual orientation is not the issue. Rather the story at that point is about violence and rape, perhaps even about the ancient tradition of hospitality. Then and now, heterosexual men commonly use homosexual rape as a tool for achieving power and dominance over strangers, in war and in prison, for instance. Lot even offered his daughters to the men, believing he could appease their violent lust for power, but the angels prevented that. There is nothing in the story remotely similar to committed gay and lesbian relationships.

Ezekiel 16:49 offers another view that the sin of Sodom was that the people were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned and they did not help the poor and needy. Those are sins prevalent in a heterosexual society and have nothing to do with sexual orientation. Prohibitions against homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20 are surrounded by prohibitions against a number of things which are usually accepted today, such as creating hybrid plants, wearing clothing with multiple fabrics, eating steaks cooked “rare,” trimming our hair and beards, and getting tattoos. This “holiness code,” as it is commonly called, also permits some things which are normally condemned today, such as polygamy and slavery. If the scriptures allow us to understand any of these laws to be no longer applicable – such as polygamy and slavery laws – are we not free to reconsider all of them in the same way?

Romans 1:26-27 is the only text to include women in the discussion of same sex relations. The question for us is whether what Paul describes is in any way the same thing as a committed, monogamous relationship between two persons of the same sex. What Paul talks about is how people have refused to glorify God, their Creator, and to be grateful to God, and to worship God. Rather they turned to idols, to “gods” of their own making. In that day people commonly visited temples dedicated to the worship of various gods, and that “worship” often included sexual relations with temple prostitutes, both men and women. In the context of this chapter, many people agree that the sexual relations described here were in the context of idolatrous worship and are not descriptive of committed same-gender relationships.

In the New Testament [1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10], two Greek words at the heart of the current debate probably refer to men who regularly engaged in sex with young boys for their own pleasure. That is pedophilia or pederasty, not just homosexuality, certainly not what gay and lesbian Christians experience. Both verses are in the context of describing how some people continue to abuse other people, to refuse to worship God, to be unfaithful to people and to God, to treat other people and themselves without respect or honor. Gay and lesbian Christians would as quickly condemn such behavior as anyone else.

Given this too brief discussion of these scripture texts, is a person’s sexual orientation even a matter of concern to us in the church? Our concern is to be people who worship God, who are faithful to God and to people, who do not abuse but rather respect and honor other people and themselves. Our concern is to encourage faithful, committed relationships of love and grace and faith. If gay and lesbian persons live such lives, the scriptures seem silent on the question of their sexual orientation.

Compassion and Abortion

In the context of Texas’ new abortion law, here is something I wrote in 2004 … “I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us.”

Compassion calls us to be life-giving in all we do. And I struggle with that. I am pro-life because God is God of the living. God created all life, and we are responsible for encouraging and preserving life. Human beings do not come to life just at the moment of birth. Abortion – even natural abortion like an early miscarriage – always means a human being, even in the form of a fetus, has died.

Life-giving responses to pregnancy would never make abortion a first choice; indeed, it would always be a final choice. It certainly is for the forming infant. Yet life-giving responses to difficult or unwanted pregnancies may demand choices which fall between the first and the final choices available to us. The life of the mother, both as a physical necessity and as a matter of living responsibly and with dignity, may elicit a compassionate choice for her which would end the pregnancy.

I know that many pro-life advocates reject abortion under any conditions. Some demand that it be called murder. I also know that Jesus never spoke about abortion. So we don’t know what he would say. I also know the Bible does not talk about medically-induced abortions. So we have no direct word from scripture about the matter. Compassion for the woman and for the unborn child might well lead us to decisions which a rigid pro-life position does not allow.

Respect for the woman demands that we at least consider the circumstances of the pregnancy, the irresponsibility and perhaps abuse of the man involved, the potential consequences of giving birth, and similar factors. Compassion for the unborn child might mean considering what kind of life that child would have and sometimes suggest that ending the pregnancy is more compassionate, more life-giving, than giving birth.

Compassion often leads to difficult choices. The poverty, abuse, and violence of our world make it impossible at times to choose what normally would be best or right. I am pro-choice as well as pro-life because I know that the “best” or “right” choice is not always open to us. It is not always a possibility. Sometimes life has become so complex and difficult that we must make choices we don’t want to make.

I am also pro-choice because the choice is not mine to make. I am not that woman, and I cannot judge her heart. Many Christians who call themselves pro-life also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq where over 1,200 Americans – not to mention perhaps 100,000 Iraqis, including unborn children – have died as I write this. Can such an invasion ever be the “best” or “right” choice? Even for people who supported the military action, surely it was not the first choice. If they believed there had been some other way, would they have thought the U.S. should have invaded? I hope that most pro-life Christians would give a negative answer.

Pro-life principles, to be consistent, must respect the lives of all people. How can we support a ban on abortions and support an all-out military invasion of another country, knowing that it must result in destruction and death for many people? How can we support a ban on abortions and support the dissemination of automatic weapons and the state-sponsored killing of other human beings in prison? Compassion is pro-life. But pro-life is something more than a narrow opposition to abortion. Compassion is life-giving, desiring life for all human beings. It makes us willing to do whatever we can to save lives and to make those lives we save as safe and strong and stable as possible.

pp. 79-82 – “Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church.” https://jimmylreader.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/moral-values1.pdf