Review of Pete Enns’ new book How the Bible Actually Works

I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.

In his latest offering, Bible scholar Peter Enns argues that, despite what many Christians may have been taught to expect, the Bible is not a rule book that offers us clear guidance. Beginning with a pair of proverbs that flatly contradict each other, he shows that the Bible requires wisdom to discern how its message applies to any particular set of circumstances. It is an ancient, ambiguous, and diverse collection of writings that record the struggles of God’s people over time to understand God’s nature and purposes. Next, he demonstrates how the Law, while it sounds unequivocal and universally applicable, requires interpretation and always has. Moving on to the historical books, he points out that 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles provide diametrically opposed narratives of the reign of King Manasseh. Rather than conclude that this exposes the Bible as flawed and untrustworthy, he explains that the authors were consciously using the story to make different points. The specific circumstances surrounding each book’s writing affected what people needed to hear to answer the questions they were asking about God at the time. Furthermore, he asserts that the biblical authors do this openly, evidencing no concern that these adjustments are problematic in any way. He then carries this argument right on through the prophets, the Gospels, and the epistles to reveal that this is the way that God’s people, whether ancient Jews or early Christians, have always used their sacred texts. He proposes that this adaptability has been the key to keeping faith alive. The faithful “reimagining” of God recorded throughout the pages of the Bible is exactly what modern Christians can and must do to respond with wisdom to the questions that have meaning in today’s circumstances.

He makes his case rather convincingly, in my opinion, and in a characteristically humorous and at times snarky tone. He writes simply and with enough concrete examples to make his reasoning fairly easily accessible to the average reader. He also provides enough scholarly content in the footnotes and parenthetical asides to meet the requirements of those who need that to take him seriously. Readers whose cognitive dissonance puts them in the category Enns calls “frustrated Christians” may well feel relieved by understanding his views. For them, he may have salvaged a remnant of faith that allows them to hold on to the Bible as a meaningful and sacred text and a picture of God “as a good parent, full of grace, love and patience” (p. 17). As Enns puts it “wisdom heals us to see God as God is.” Others who see his line of reasoning as straying onto a “slippery slope” that leads to a complete collapse of belief in biblical authority will likely reject the book as dangerous and heretical teaching. I hope this review creates enough interest for people to read it and decide for themselves which they are.

#harperonepartner #wisebible #howthebibleactuallyworks

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A Meditation for Maundy Thursday: Betrayal

A Maundy Thursday Meditation on Matthew 26:20-25                 Image


Betrayal: it is easy for us to see the evil in what Judas did and to judge him. But each one of us must ask “Is it I, Lord?” We have no grounds to stand in judgment of Judas. “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.” Someone who has been close to Jesus, someone who walked with him daily, someone who has seen and heard and had opportunity truly to know the Son of God like few others have – someone like that could betray Jesus.

 Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

We may be like Peter and overestimate ourselves. That, too, is an easy mistake to make. When Peter heard Jesus say that all of them would fall away from him, he insisted emphatically that he was willing to die for Jesus, even if everyone else deserted him. “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you!” And all the others said the same.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

And Peter was not just saying empty words – when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter took out his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. That took courage and commitment. But we all know what happened later. Peter denied Jesus, not once, but three times.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

Maundy Thursday gets its name from the Latin word for command, because Jesus gave commandments to his disciples at the last Supper. He washed their feet and commanded them, and us, to serve each other and love each other. He commanded his disciples to remember him in the Lord’s Supper. In the context of that final meal, knowing that he would soon be going to the cross, he shared with his disciples the most important things that they would need to know: “I am going away, but I will not leave you orphans.…My Father and I will send you another counselor who will be with you forever, to guide you and comfort you…I have called you my friends…This is my commandment – Love each other as I have loved you…If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

He also taught them “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” The truth is, we can do nothing without Jesus. Nothing.

Peter was not able to be faithful to Jesus. We cannot keep his commandments. We need the counselor, the Holy Spirit whom Jesus promised to send, in order to obey his commandments, in order to love him, in order to love each other as he has loved us.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

We can not do anything – even choose to serve Jesus – without God’s help. On that night of their last meal together, Jesus taught the twelve “You did not choose me; I chose you.”

Jesus even chose Judas. John 6 says that Jesus chose Judas to be one of the 12, even though he knew from the beginning that Judas would betray him. He still chose Judas. He still chooses us.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.

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When we won’t talk about depression

Some good thoughts and links to further reading about depression from Murdenkim, blogger at Dappled Things

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The church isn’t a restaurant. It’s culinary school.

Love this! The Church is a culinary school where we can learn to feed others, not a restaurant that feeds us.

the gospel side

Restaurant.035Snark MeterrealMID.003

Last week’s “The church doesn’t exist to feed you” post pushed lots of people’s buttons…mainly because I put myself in the awkward position appearing to argue against the Bible. Let me morph the analogy a bit…

For most of my Christian life I disliked church. REALLY disliked it.

Not bored, as in “I would rather watch my team play.”  Not, “Oops I forgot to set my alarm.” But a tension in the neck that ruins Saturday date night when I realize that in the morning my wife expects me to get up and go to church sort of a dislike.

It wasn’t a God problem. At 18 I fell in love with Jesus. Soon after I developed a crush on the Bible. I love serving others. Most weeks I would rather do ministry than go on vacation. But church? Not so much.

I found church relentlessly reductionistic: four…

View original post 1,018 more words

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The Cross and Homosexuality

A friend and fellow pastor has critiqued my post Slavery’s Last Stand as follows:

Well written, heart felt, compassionate but your conclusions are your own, not the clear and consistent word of scripture. You build your argument through two stories that do not relate to the third. If you go to the first chapters of Genesis, slavery is clearly wrong because people are all created as beloved children of God never possessions. Also men and women were created to be co-rulers, caretakers of the earth and all its inhabitants. Women were designed to lead as much as men were designed to lead.

However, Genesis describes marriage as designed by God for one man and one woman. Every other sexual, romantic relationship, just like the subjection of women or the enslavement of a human being, is not God’s intention. It’s sin.

What I find missing from your argument is the cross. Jesus challenges us to pick up our cross and follow him. Our cross is designed to kill us, so the new creation created in the image of Christ, can be revealed. Self-fulfillment is the gospel of the enlightenment as well as the devil.


If the word of Scripture is as clear and consistent as he claims, how is it that devoted Christians who are committed to its authority still debate and have confusion about exactly what it means and how to live it out faithfully? There are numerous doctrinal issues that have not been resolved by centuries of debate. For example, it is possible to find biblical support for predestination as well as for free will. While my friend seems to think that the case supporting women in ministry is closed, I can assure him from my own experience that there are still many in the body of Christ who will vigorously debate him on biblical grounds. He says that my conclusions are my own as though that is not the case with his own conclusions. Each of us must reach our own understandings of the revelation of Scripture, and the tools we have for doing so are reason, experience, and community. This does not mean that there is no truth. It does mean that if we want to search for it, we must have the humility to listen to each other’s stories and convictions while holding lightly to our own conclusions. God gives the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good of the body (I Cor. 12:7). We need each other because each member of the body receives individually gifts that are necessary for the good of the entire body. They are not good in isolation, but in community. Their very effectiveness depends on being situated and used in community. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (I Cor. 12:21) We must be open to input from all the members of the body and listen especially to the experiences and conclusions of its members who are different from ourselves. Scripture does clearly say that the members of the body must accept each other and work cooperatively together.

Sadly, church history is filled with instances of exactly the opposite. Any textbook can supply numerous examples of Christians who saw themselves as following Christ while they killed people whose beliefs did not align with their own doctrine. Christians not only killed non-Christians, as in the Crusades. Believers in Christ also killed each other, as happened (for just one example) during the Anabaptist conflicts in sixteenth century Switzerland. Imagine the depth of Christ’s grief over one of his followers murdering another because they disagreed over infant versus adult baptism! Thank God we have at least learned to live with disagreement and tensions in the body of Christ without resorting to physical slaughter. Sadly, though, the emotional, psychological, and spiritual carnage continues in the body of Christ over homosexuality (and even yet results in bloodshed on occasion as some have been driven to suicide by rejection from their Christian families and communities).

Some reading this may think I am too swayed by emotion to appreciate the principles at stake here. I readily admit that my heart is one of the faculties at play in reaching my conclusions, but I have not left out my mind, my spirit, or my will. I have looked in a rational way at the evidence, both scientific and biblical, and I cannot resolve the conflict that way. I have prayed for wisdom and insight. I have listened to and walked with those who suffer because their lives don’t fit into the categories provided by the dominant evangelical Christian narrative. My heart, my head, and my spirit agree that I must choose how to respond. They tell me that the way of love chooses the humility of acknowledging that my conclusions may be wrong and of accepting others as I want to be accepted.

This way of living does not leave out the cross of Christ as my friend believes. It is not a triumphal denial of suffering as a necessary part of Christian experience; instead it embraces suffering and identifies with it. This is the essence of Christ’s love and sacrifice on our behalf. He willingly chose to lay down his sovereign status to take on flesh and become subject to human suffering. The one person who deserved no suffering chose it for all those who did. I am not taking the easy way out through a worldly “gospel of self-fulfillment.” It would be much easier to stick with a sense of certainty that what the Bible says is clear and plain and to reassure myself that I am on the right side of any conflict. I have many dear friends that I expect will disagree with these views, and I do not want to lose their approval and acceptance. It would be much more comfortable to hold myself aloof from the suffering of people I could categorize as “them” – different from myself, wrong, and condemned in their unfortunate experience (from which I am relieved to be exempt). But gay Christians are my brothers and sisters in Christ, people made in the image of God just as much as I am. Authentic, Christ-like love gives itself on behalf of others, supporting and encouraging them so that they might fulfill all their God-given potential. Is it not much better to accept them into Christian community, encourage them in their faith, and let Jesus speak to us all together? Surely what he has to say to us carries more weight than any argument we could possibly mount. My friend sees the suffering of death as the transforming process that reveals the new creation in each of us as the cross works redemptively to produce what God intends for us to become. I agree. It is a kind of death to self to swallow our pride and the comfort of moral and spiritual certainty in order to live in community with those whose stories are so different from our own and to give ourselves on behalf of others so that they may live and thrive. Yes, that’s it exactly.

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Today’s post is simultaneously appearing as a guest post on the blog of my friend Stephen at

Trigger warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual abuse, rape, and violence.

I read an article on CNN last year that has haunted me ever since. Entitled “Slavery’s Last Stronghold,” it described the brutal reality of slavery that still exists in the West African country of Mauritania. In 1981, Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery legally, but still it persisted there without any real opposition. In 2007 the government finally made it a crime to own another person, yet as of 2012, only one case had been successfully prosecuted. The United Nations estimates 10-20% of the population is enslaved. That’s 340,000 to 680,000 people. Slavery in Mauritania dates back 2,000 years to a time when Arab slave traders captured and enslaved darker-skinned people from sub-Saharan Africa. The country now has a strict caste system in which the descendants of slaves inherit enslavement as their proper place in the social order. Official governmental denial, religion, poverty, and illiteracy all reinforce slavery in Mauritania. Islamic clerics reportedly preach that slaves who submit to their masters earn a place in paradise. The unemployment rate is 30%, and half the population is illiterate. In some places there is so little food that children eat sand to try to fill their stomachs.

While these stark facts are dismal and shocking, what disturbed and horrified me most was the story of a slave woman named Moulkheir and her children, all conceived in rape by her master. Her life was a hellish existence of beatings, back-breaking labor, and powerlessness. To survive, she did what she had to and told herself that her master knew what was best for her, even if it meant she suffered. Most appallingly, when Moulkheir was offered a chance at freedom by some abolitionist rescuers, she declined because she did not know there was anything wrong with her situation. The caste system convinces slave and free alike that slaves deserve their lot in life.

Shackles that constrain the mind prove harder to break than those that bind a body. What finally got through to Moulkheir was the death of her infant daughter at the hands of the master. One day when she returned from working in his fields she found the baby, dead from exposure, her eyes covered in ants. The master had abandoned his own child in the desert sand to punish the mother for not working hard enough. In keeping with his culture that normalized slavery by dehumanizing slaves, he said the baby had “the soul of a dog” and denied Moulkheir time even to wash the corpse and give the infant a proper burial. This at last planted in Moulkheir the knowledge that she was not free. She could not take the action her heart deeply desired in one of the most basic and intimate concerns of her life.


The slave rescuers reported the abuse she was enduring to the government, which staged a cover-up. Her first master made a show of giving her six goats and a loincloth and sending her and her children to another man. The pretense was that she would be a paid employee, but this second man enslaved them again and was even more heartless and abusive than the first. He began raping and beating the oldest daughter when she was thirteen. A couple of years later, he impregnated the girl and then drove her around in the back of a pickup truck on rough roads until the baby inside her died from the beating, as he intended. This was the final horror that made Moulkheir resolve to pursue escape. This was what it took for Moulkheir to reject the idea that somehow even things the master did that hurt her were best and to realize that his actions were evil. Only then could she see what was missing in her life and assert her own will to pursue it. If the slave waits for the master to allow her freedom, she remains powerless and dependent. She is truly free only when she knows what she lacks and acts to claim it. Freedom, as it turns out, cannot be granted; it must be claimed.

Around the same time that I read this harrowing story, my friend Stephen was going through a nightmare struggle of his own. Stephen is a gay Christian and had come to the realization that his sexual orientation would not go away despite his desperate pleas to God and efforts to change it. He belonged to the Side B camp of belief about homosexuality, which teaches that homosexual orientation in itself is not sinful, but that acting on a same sex attraction is a sin. Accordingly, Stephen thought it would be a sin for him to act on his attraction to other men, but the prospect of a lifetime of celibacy was not something he could handle. The thought of living alone for the rest of his life in a culture and a church that did not truly understand what it was requiring of him and did not know how to support celibacy filled him with terror and despair. He did not sense a calling or an empowerment by God to live a celibate life; he felt it being cruelly imposed upon him. The burden was crushing him, yet he wrote that he had to “believe that by some miracle obeying God will hurt less than disobeying him.”

That’s when it hit me:

What Stephen was saying sounded horrifyingly similar to the

rationale Moulkheir had used to cope with her enslavement.

Suddenly I saw with great clarity that the only thing that makes radical trust and submission safe and life-giving instead of hellish and destructive is if the master himself is good. Everything hinges on the master’s character. If the master is good, loving, wise, and strong, then the fruit of obedience will also be good. All shall be well. On the other hand, if the master is violent, self-absorbed, cruel, and evil, then submission equals permanent condemnation to a hellish existence. The fruit is evil, and one cannot escape the torment without getting free of the bad master. This sort of existence was what Stephen felt himself facing. For years he suffered in a “deep, destructive agony” of self-hatred in which he abused his body through addiction and cutting. He fought the urge to end his life and feared that one day he would lose that battle. Finally, after years of painful questioning, study, and discussion, Stephen came to the conclusion that if he wanted to live he would have to stop denying this part of himself and instead accept it. The stark realities of his existence forced him to reexamine his Side B adherence and recognize that the results in his life were destructive. His self-rejection and self-hatred were a bad master. I am not saying here that God is not good; far from it. What I am saying is that if God is good, as I believe to be true, then the fruit of relationship with God will also be good. It may take a while for us to struggle through to bear that fruit, and it will not be without pain or effort, but its end will be life and not death. We will move towards health, integrity, and wholeness, not the sickness of despair, inauthenticity, and fragmentation.

As I watched Stephen undergoing this process, I was asking some difficult questions myself. I compared Stephen’s struggle with my own journey. I, too, had been told from an early age that a vital aspect of myself – one that I could not deny without doing violence to my wholeness as a person – was unacceptable. As a twelve-year-old girl I heard God’s call to be a minister. I had great clarity on what God wanted, but I became quite confused about how to obey the call when authority figures invalidated it. In their eyes, my experience was illegitimate because they knew with certainty that God would never call a female to be an ordained pastor. They cited Bible verses in an authoritative manner and insisted that their interpretation of them defined the only way of being submissive to God’s authority as expressed in God’s own word. Their certainty left me with no good options for understanding who I was and why I had this sense of calling. Was I crazy? Evil? Deceived? Rebellious? Why wouldn’t this calling go away? If they were right, and it could not possibly be from God, then what did my inability to escape it mean about me? At times, the very impossibility of repudiating my sense of call loomed large as its own indictment. If I insisted on holding to my conviction, I merely confirmed its illegitimacy in the eyes of those who had already rejected it.

I was in an impossible bind. I could not acquiesce to their requirements for submission to God’s will without disregarding what I knew God had communicated to me. Under the constraints of logic, I could not live in any manner consistent with my values and my sense of self at the same time. I spent years wrestling with this dilemma until I finally reached a way of understanding Scripture that validated my experience while still affirming the authority of God’s word in my life. What, after all, would have been the point of making promises to serve God if my internal sense of self and my call conflicted with what I believed God’s word to be saying? The path forward required that I give up the comfortable idea that there is a clear way to interpret Scripture that is at once both obvious and unambiguous to all. I had to accept that I could be wrong any time, trust that God would see my intention to be obedient, and count on God to guide me even when my execution was flawed. Breaking off the mental shackles that demanded perfection in my understanding and in performance set me free from a tyrannical standard that had kept me captive so I could not risk pursuing my God-given dreams.

If I claim my freedom to pursue wholeness through living consistently with my values even though I might be wrong, how can I deny this solution to someone else? To some people it may seem obvious that Scripture supports women in ministry but not committed homosexual relationships. To them I observe that at one time it seemed unquestionable to me that Scripture did not affirm either one, and I am now ordained. People quoted Bible verses as a defense of slavery. To those who prescribe “Love the sinner but hate the sin” I say that it was no more possible for me to love myself and hate my calling than it is to love Stephen and hate a basic part of his identity.

I must acknowledge that I do not have clear answers to everything I would like to be certain of, and yet, I must go on with the business of living. Apparently God means for me to make the best of my dreams, gifts, and relationships despite the lack of certainty and the inherent tensions it creates. Following any conviction that violates my integrity, creates self-hatred in myself or others, or excludes anyone from love and encouragement to live into the image of God in them does not bear good fruit. I do believe that truth exists and that I am capable of knowing it, but only to whatever extent the Holy Spirit reveals it to me. I can study, pray, and ask for wisdom, but I cannot demand and receive the absolute clarity I would prefer. I must live in humility and dependence on God, and I must love my neighbor as myself. When people press me to say whether I think homosexual behavior is a sin, I resist answering. I ask why they care what I think, because I could be wrong. I think it is far more faithful for me to admit that and encourage them to seek an answer for themselves with my acceptance and support of their process. I must suspend judgment in order to walk with them and listen to them. I believe that the world needs my love and listening far more than it needs my judgment.

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Touch Me

At least 25 years ago, I saw a short film of Mother Teresa caring for a little boy who was sick and emaciated, and the powerful image has stayed with me ever since. The thing that so arrested me was the way he responded to her touch. His body was contorted with suffering and wracked with chaotic movement that was painful to watch. She got very close to him, laying her hands gently on his head and face, caressing him and looking into his face intently. As she gently stroked him and spoke soothingly, he relaxed into a calm, peaceful attention, gazing back at her face. Watching the effect of their attunement on the storm that had been raging in him, I knew I was witnessing a holy thing. You can see a short video clip of her speaking about God’s love here and at the end of it catch a glimpse of what I think may be the video I originally saw. The video also makes it clear that Mother Teresa herself views such experiences as an encounter with the presence of Christ.


Recently, I saw another video with a moving depiction of the power of touch. The film’s subject is an innovative and caring high school teacher named Jeffrey Wright who teaches his students about love as well as the laws of physics. The short documentary, filmed by one of Wright’s former students, won a gold medal in a college film competition. Mr. Wright has a son, Adam, with Joubert syndrome, a developmental brain disorder that makes him unable to control his body. He flails and hits himself, so he must wear a crash helmet and be strapped into a wheelchair to protect him from severe self-injury. Part of the film shows the boy, calm and free of all the restraints, receiving a gentle massage from licensed massage therapist Tim Grady of The Gift of Touch in Louisville, KY.  Here again, the image of love expressed through the power of touch and nearness is quite moving. Grady’s website indicates that his massage practice focuses on the needs of those who are seriously ill, recovering from surgery, in hospice, their caregivers, and the grieving. He states “These special populations are unfortunately underserved and underappreciated, yet they are so deserving of the comfort and relief that massage can offer their tired and often beleaguered bodies…. The Gift of Touch will come to you, whether in your home, a hospital, a nursing home, assisted living facility, a rehab center, or a hospice facility. Massage therapy/comfort touch will bring peace to body, mind, and spirit.”

Perhaps one of the reasons images of caring touch are so moving to me is because they tap into deep feelings based on my own experience. As a patient in treatment at UNC’s Lineberger Cancer Center, I experienced a lot of touching that was painful or invasive, such as needle sticks for blood draws, IV’s, surgeries, and examinations. The day I started chemotherapy, my anxiety was at an all-time high. Everything felt out of control to me. I realized later that I was feeling overwhelming self-imposed pressure to accomplish everything I might possibly need to do for the next six months. Think of the way expectant mothers go into “nesting mode”  (except on steroids with a shot of rage) and you’ll approximate what it felt like to be me at that point. The nurse navigator wisely decided to send a chaplain in to talk with me. As a therapist I’m quite easily able to recognize the dynamics that were at play – when they are happening to someone else, of course – but it was quite a different thing when it was happening to me! I needed the chaplain to point out that feelings I had during any past experiences of having my body painfully touched or violated might readily be reignited as I anticipated what was about to happen to it in chemotherapy. Suddenly, as a rape survivor, my seeming over-reaction started to make a lot more sense. The physical presence of my husband and my best friend, who held my hand and gave me hugs, and the volunteer massage therapist who came to the chemotherapy unit and rubbed my feet and hands were a welcome and much-needed comfort.

Another time when having someone to hold my hand made all the difference to my well-being was when I was in a serious car accident. A plate glass delivery truck ran a stop sign and T-boned the used car my father had just given me as a college graduation and wedding gift. When I came to in the ambulance, two things were very important to me: to know the name of the attendant (which I still remember – Chris), and to have some reassuring physical contact. I asked him to hold my hand, which he did as the ambulance sped to the hospital. A broken rib had punctured a lung, and I was having trouble breathing. That calming connection with Chris helped me to relax and breathe. I can’t recall a single thing about what Chris looked like, but I have never forgotten that he held my hand when I needed it.

We don’t have to be sick, in hospice, or in an ambulance to need comforting contact. Life is hard, and the everyday wear and tear on our souls produces stress. Research has shown that we all benefit from touch. The pressure receptors in our skin that touch stimulates have a direct connection to the vagus nerve that slows down the heart and decreases blood pressure. Friendly or loving touch decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and triggers the release of oxytocin, known as the “bonding hormone” for its association with feelings of connection, intimacy, and trust. A person whose body is flooded with oxytocin is a person who feels relaxed, content, and at peace. American researcher Paul Zak believes that oxytocin is “the moral molecule” and has written a book by that title. He founded and named the science of “neuroeconomics” to study people’s moral choices and the brain and body chemistry that affects them. His early research showed that prosperous countries have a higher proportion of trustworthy people in their population. He theorized that since economic transactions are based on trust, a healthy business and social climate would exist where people had higher levels of oxytocin. He devised ingenious experiments to measure the generosity of people’s behavior in relation to their oxytocin levels. His work indicates that the experience of being trusted triggers a release of oxytocin, which in turn results in more generous, trustworthy behavior. Being treated well, as it turns out, also causes a release of oxytocin, completing a self-replicating circle of virtue. One might say he has found a biological basis for the Golden Rule (treat others as you would want to be treated) that provides insight into how traditional morality creates a peaceful, just, and prosperous society that benefits everyone.

To maximize oxytocin, which has a short half life of just three minutes, Dr. Zak recommends a minimum of eight hugs a day, a quota that I imagine would be difficult for many people to reach. At least one person in San Francisco works as a “cuddle therapist” offering comforting touch “in a safe, non-sexual environment.” Is cuddle therapy an idea whose time has come? Based on my observations, a lot of people do need and long for more touch than they get. Some people bemoan the influence of the internet on relationships, blaming the common sense of social disconnection on our ubiquitous electronic devices. Interestingly enough, some of Dr. Zak’s research has shown that like physical, face to face interaction, virtual social interaction on Facebook and Twitter also creates a rise in oxytocin. This provides, as a reporter for The Guardian observed, “a powerful retort to the argument that social media is killing real human interaction: in hormonal terms, it appears, the body processes it as an entirely real kind of interaction.”  Either way, on the internet or in person where physical contact is possible, it’s important for our health and relaxation to reach out and connect with someone. This promotes well-being not just for individuals, but also for society as a whole.

The Judeo-Christian Scriptures say that the first thing God called “not good” was for Adam to be alone (Genesis 2:18). To remedy this bad situation, God created a partner for Adam. She was also created in God’s image, like Adam, and designed to correspond to him in a way that no other creature God had made was capable of doing. Pets are wonderful, and cuddling with a cat or dog does cause a release in oxytocin, but nothing can compare to interaction with another human being. The Hebrew words used to describe what Eve was to Adam are usually translated as “helper” giving some the impression that she is not his equal. However, that misses the beauty of the image the words are meant to convey. The words are “ezer kenegdo” which means “corresponding strong help.” The word ezer is most often used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to God as a strong rescuer. Eve was created to be Adam’s strong helper to rescue him from the plight of aloneness! From our earliest origins as human beings, we have needed each other. Adam knew it in his bones, and our bodies know it, too.

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The Peace of Peaces

In my last post I asked where to look for peace. This question was also a topic in the comments on an article about Syria I posted this week on my Facebook page. Writer Max Fisher of the Washington Post gives helpful background to the civil war and the factions that are in conflict there. He also acknowledges that there is no obvious solution to the war and no clear strategy that the United States might reliably pursue to create a successful intervention. Most of those who made comments on my page admitted to a basic pessimism about the whole situation, and one even declared that while peace is a lovely ideal, the thought that human activity will ever bring it about is “simply delusional.” Is he right?

ImageBoth the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures proclaim God as the source of peace. The letter to the Galatians lists peace as a “fruit of the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:22) The prophet Isaiah said “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.” (Isaiah 26:3)  “Perfect peace” in this passage is actually a translation of “shalom shalom.” The doubled word is a biblical way of expressing that something is ultimate and cannot be surpassed. For example, the description of Jesus in Revelation 19:16 as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” indicates that there is no higher authority in heaven or earth. Shalom shalom is the “peace of peaces,” or (as a Southern preacher might say) “the peace to end all peaces.” Clearly one can make a biblically supported claim that our ultimate source and hope of peace comes from God.

But is that the whole story? The thing that troubles me about this assertion that nothing we do can bring about peace is that I think it lets us off the hook far too readily. If it’s truly hopeless, then where do we get the motivation even to try? Why not just give up, pack it in, and hunker down as we await the inevitable explosion of tensions into hate and violence? Perhaps my friend is quite correct about the hopelessness of human efforts to produce peace, but what I’m thinking of is a divine-human cooperation in which God works through human beings to make peace. Christian ethicist Glen Stassen, Executive Director of the Just Peacemaking Initiative, has made some worthwhile observations about pursuing a “constructive alternative” by working through international negotiations to get the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria destroyed or at least reduced. I think this kind of creative thinking will serve us well in efforts to act as God’s instruments of peace. Of course, we need always to pray for guidance before we act, and we ought to be praying for those in governmental authority who will need to make difficult decisions. Pope Francis has called all people of faith to a day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria on Saturday, September 7th. Other Christian leaders have joined him in calling for prayer on Saturday, making this an ecumenical effort. Prayer and constructive thinking is our part of the work — being “steadfast of mind” (referenced in Isaiah 25:3) — so that God’s part — the creation and keeping of “shalom shalom” — has a chance to happen..

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Spreading Shalom

A lot of people already know that the Hebrew word shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means peace. Fewer are aware that the concept of peace in the biblical sense entails much more than the English word peace does. English speakers usually think of peace as the absence of conflict or disturbance. In the Hebrew scriptures, shalom encompasses a lot more. Shalom means the kind of peace that gives rise to wholeness, justice, forgiveness, fulfillment, prosperity, and delight, not just for one person, but for all. It’s the kind of peace eighteenth century Quaker artist Edward Hicks portrayed in numerous paintings depicting the Peaceable Kingdom. Each one illustrates passages from the Hebrew prophets in which predators and their prey live safely together. (Isaiah 11:6, 65:25). Hicks’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, like the biblical one, extended to include its effects on the social realities of his time. In addition to lions and lambs lying down together, his paintings include images of Native Americans and American settlers signing peace treaties.

Biblical shalom is a community affair in which the integrity and well-being of individuals creates a healthy community, which in turn supports the happiness, fulfillment and delight of the people and creatures who live in it. When shalom covers us all, things are the way we instinctively know they ought to be: all people receive appropriate respect and acceptance, all have the freedom and support necessary to use their gifts, meeting their own needs and contributing to the needs of others. Relationships are healthy, life-giving, and filled with love, including how we treat the rest of creation. This utopian dream is just that – a dream and not the reality we experience, yet something within us yearns for and recognizes it as a profoundly good and right pursuit.

Psalm 34:14 instructs “seek peace, and pursue it.” Jeremiah’s prophetic word urged the Jews exiled in Babylon to seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where they were, for “in its welfare you will have welfare.” If we are supposed to pursue shalom, where does it come from, and how does it spread? The answer to this question matters to me, especially since my life and the lives of people dear to me are so far from being one big shalom-fest. Despite my idealistic hopes to see God’s “kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven,” I see very clearly that things aren’t all they ought to be. We are subject to death, illness, pain, anxiety and other types of emotional and psychological suffering. We are not all we’re meant to be, either, with our prejudices, greed, fears, violence, and injustices that harm each other and the earth. I have been to Africa to talk about gender justice with people who still practice female genital mutilation even though it is now illegal. I have survived rape and cancer. As a counselor and ordained pastor I have listened to many people’s experiences of spiritual and sexual abuse, domestic violence, and oppression due to gender, social or economic status, religion, ethnicity or sexual orientation. I have had the privilege of walking closely with some of them through their suffering and their recovery. I say all this to show that I get it – I am not naïve, insensitive, or unrealistic – and yet still I yearn for shalom personally and in the world.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Shalom Center, says “Every night, Jews pray to YHWH, the Holy Interbreathing of all life: ‘Spread over us the sukkah of shalom.’” The sukkah is a vulnerable hut, open to the wind and the rain. For one week every fall, the Jews celebrate Sukkot, the Festival of Huts or Booths, by living in these simple and humble shelters. Rabbi Waskow says that only in remembering our mutual weakness and vulnerability will we come to know the ways that make peace among us. Researcher Dr. Brené Brown’s work on the importance of vulnerability for our mental and emotional health echoes the same idea.

I’m interested in creativity, healing, spirituality, and justice. I want to explore these ideas with others and intend for this blog to offer a simple shelter where we can talk about them under the sukkah of shalom.

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