Archives For June 2017

I’m sharing below the content of an email I sent yesterday to the pastor of the church we often attend. This past Sunday he used the book of Jonah as the basis for a sermon urging us to move away from self-righteousness. It was a good sermon, but, as you’ll see below, I call attention to the fact that he omitted an important element of the story.

Looking back on what I wrote 24 hours later I recognize that I did get a bit preachy and ended up writing with more than a little ostentation. Nevertheless, I hope the pastor will look past those flaws and be open to the ideas I shared with him. I hope, too, he will reach out for further conversation.

I am also a realistic person. I realize that centuries of Christian theology and interpretation have a momentum all their own. I may have just taken the first steps towards being seen as a “special interest” Christian with his own personal agenda or even as a person who has left the tracks of orthodox Christian faith. We’ll see.

Dear Pastor M—:

Thanks for your sermon this past Sunday.

I appreciate how this series and the several before this have focused on practical topics in the Christian life. The church I was taken to as a child focused almost exclusively on abstract theological doctrines. Not surprisingly, if I’m not careful, I can easily fall back into associating church with esoteric matters and more than a little boredom. So I appreciate the fact that you and other speakers have been candidly tackling topics where the Christian faith intersects with life.

There are two other reasons I write.

The first is that I noticed in your sermon on self-righteousness that you omitted a small but significant dimension of Jonah’s interaction with God and Ninevah. Specifically, you omitted the animals of Ninevah.

When, to Jonah’s dismay, the king of Ninevah hears of Jonah’s judgment on the city and that at least some of the Ninevites were repenting, he uses his authority to make the repentance city-wide. His proclamation calls for the people and animals to neither eat nor drink. It also calls for the people and animals to be covered in sackcloth.

And in the final verses of the book, God speaks wisdom to Jonah who, as you suggested, is the iconic religious jerk. God leaves Jonah (and us) with a rhetorical question: shouldn’t God care about a city which has over 120,000 human residents and also many animals?

The fates of the people and animals of Ninevah are, in other words, intertwined, and God has compassion for them all.

Interestingly enough, in the many images you can find online of Jonah preaching to the Ninevites, it is hard to find any that also pay attention to the animals of Ninevah. This image by Caspar Luiken is an exception, although you have to look a bit carefully to find the livestock. Follow Jonah’s outstretched right hand. 

I wish you would have called out the animal elements of the story even briefly.

One of the greatest examples of Christian self-righteousness is our belief that because we have been given dominion over God’s earth that the living things around us are of negligible value and are here only for our pleasure and utility. This, in turn, has led us to rule like tyrants over the earth as a whole and over the patches of Creation that we each have impact on as individuals.

This is not the kind of ruling that God models for us nor that God expects of us. Good rulers care about the health and wellbeing of those they have responsibility for. Good shepherds are examples of what good ruling is all about. And, as Jesus noted, good shepherds are even willing to lay down their lives for their sheep.

That Christians have been some of the most self-righteous in justifying humanity’s violence against God’s earth has communicated something falsely repugnant about the Christian faith. Ironically, a good number of non-Christians I know have an intuitive sense that this is an amazing world and that how a person treats the world reflects the state of that person’s heart. Perhaps they are the modern Ninevites? Perhaps we are the modern Jonahs in this regard?

And here’s the second reason I write. I’d like to encourage our church to make a concerted effort to be more mindful of God’s earth in what is preached, what is taught, and what is lived out as one element of a whole Christian life. How about starting with a sermon series on that topic?

As you can probably tell, this topic is close to my heart. If I can be of any service in that regard, I’d be eager to help.

I’d be happy to share, for example, how many of the most pioneering and influential sustainable livestock grazers in our country today are Christian. This is a story worth telling. By living out their faith in how they farm, they are making the world better and also offering powerful testimony to what being a Christian is all about.

Thanks very much for your unique gifts as a pastor and teacher and your commitment throughout your life to the Church.

Sincerely,

Nathan Aaberg

 

For a long time I’ve been struck by the parallels between a whole grain of wheat and a whole Christian faith-life. Rather than wait until I had perfectly worked out the parallels (which might not ever happen), I’ve decided to share my imperfect thinking at this point.

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health – Harvard University

Consider these three features of a whole grain:

A whole grain of wheat is a complex, multifaceted thing with three different and indispensable elements – the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.

The Christian faith-life is also complex, multifaceted, and made up of different elements.

It is about a fervent trust in Jesus that opens us to the Holy Spirit and a relationship with God as we live out our lives. It is about loving God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength and all our mind. It is about gathering together with others to be part of the Church. It is built in large part on 66 books of the Bible and the diverse wisdom and insights they contain. It is a way of thinking and perceiving the world that is somehow consistent with books as diverse as Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ecclesiastes, John, Romans, and Revelation. It is submitting ourselves to God and living lives of creative action.

It is about God, people, and the rest of Creation.

The total package of a whole grain of wheat is incredibly good for us.

There are over 100 vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients as well as fiber in a whole grain of wheat. And this total package is quite good for us. Phytonutrients, which include antioxidants, are particularly unsung heroes. They are the suite of natural chemicals that plants make as a flexible defense system to fend off germs, fungi, bugs, and other threats. They help the human body as well, providing protection against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes. Interestingly, bran and germ typically represent only 15-17% of a grain’s total weight but hold 75% of all of a grain’s total phytonutrients. Bran and germ also hold 100% of a grain’s fiber, which is essential for good health.

The total package of the whole Christian faith-life is also incredibly life transforming and enriching: I hope you’ve had contact with Christians, in person or through books and movies, who were different people because of their faith that expressed itself naturally in the lives they led. William Wilberforce is a great example. As are Martin Luther King, Jr., Paul Brand, George Washington Carver, J.R.R. Tolkien, and many others.

The challenges involved in using the whole grain at a large scale and the sweetness of the endosperm have long tempted people to engineer simpler and more selective ways of using elements of the whole grain. 

The complexity of whole grain wheat make it hard to use in an automated, simplified way. As soon as the bran is broken, it releases fat which causes spoilage to happen quickly. It also takes considerable art to make a tasty bread out of whole wheat. What’s more, human cultures have tended to desire the pure whiteness of refined grains as well for aesthetic reasons.

So humanity has long tried to simplify the use of whole grains by using only one part – the endosperm. With the advent of the rolling mill, we had a way to do this more perfectly then ever before. The pinnacle of this development was white bread. It didn’t spoil and tasted light and sweet.

But the simplifcation deprived bread of the most important nutritional benefits (check out this useful graphic that shows what is lost). What’s more, foods using refined grains (with the bran and germ removed) tend to raise blood sugar levels far more quickly and at higher levels than whole grains. All kinds of health problems emerged as a result. Ironically, we now add nutrition back into bread that was lost in the milling process, but the net result is still not the same.

Too often we’ve reshaped the Christian faith into the religious equivalent of white bread.

We’ve refined out the complexity and mystery and life-changing purpose to which God calls us. The sweet kernel we’ve tended to hold onto is the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which promises us access to life after death. Salvation, when simplified, becomes the stamping of our after-life passport for guaranteed entry into the good country of heaven rather than the bad country of hell.

We remove mystery. Nor do we expect to have our lives nor the lives of our fellow believers to be transformed over time in this life. We don’t dive deep into the Bible and its wisdom and its challenges. We ignore God’s earth and make the faith just about people and God.

In the end, I wonder if a white bread faith may be what we think we want. Maybe we don’t want our lives transformed by being a disciple of Jesus if that will cause us discomfort or awaken us to how broken the world really is and the mending we are called to engage in. Maybe we don’t want to question the assumptions of the culture and economy around us.

And maybe this lack of wholeness, mystery, and challenge is what makes efforts to share God with others unsuccessful.

I started out writing this blog with a focus on how Christian faith and life has largely ignored Creation in its theology, church culture, and ethics. I believe this has dishonored God and harmed our neighbors.

I now see things even more more broadly.

The lack of attention to how we treat God’s earth is not a single thing that Christians  have somehow generally forgot about over the centuries. It is a symptom of a larger tendency to artifically simplify, sweeten, and hollow out what the Christian faith is all about.

God offers us a whole grain faith-life. Will we seek it out and live it?

 

Note: This Scientific American article about the problems with food labeled as containing whole wheat is a good read that will make you think about what exactly “whole wheat” claims mean in processed foods.