We All Need New Reading Glasses


I don’t have a particularly good history concerning my eyesight.

I have always been terribly near-sighted. I started wearing glasses in third grade. It was a traumatic experience to walk into the classroom for the first time. I wouldn’t call it “bullying,” but I was called “four-eyes” more times than I cared to hear. It wasn’t helpful that my parents didn’t give me a style choice — I was stuck with black, horn-rimmed glasses all the way through high school graduation.

In college, I finally upgraded to contact lenses, which helped my dating life considerably.

When Lasik surgery came around, Leah jumped on the bandwagon, but I was hesitant. I simply didn’t like the idea of having my eyeballs sliced and diced. So I waited.

Then on a fateful trip to Vietnam in 2010, I found myself on a bus en route to the Mekong Delta. I closed my eyes momentarily and leaned against the window when we hit a huge pothole. My head slammed backward against the seat.

Later that night, I noticed that there appeared to be a growing black hole on the left side of my vision field. When I arrived back in Dallas a few days later, Leah drove me directly to an eye specialist who confirmed that my retina had been detached by the impact. I went immediately into surgery.

Though the reattachment was successful, I have never had perfect eyesight in the left eye since. I have lost quite a bit of my peripheral vision, and hard edges appear wavy, as if I have plastic wrap stretched over my eye.

And more recently, I’ve started to wear reading glasses on a regular basis, which I’m sure you have noticed.

So I understand that, in order to see things clearly, to view reality correctly, your eye must be clear and unhindered, free from distortion. Unfortunately, I will never be able to see things perfectly clearly — I will always see things through a retina that imperfectly stretches across my line of sight, and I increasingly see things through glasses, which are frequently smeared and dirty. At best, I am like the Apostle Paul, who said, “I see things now as through a glass darkly.”

That is also true about the way I read the Bible. I recognize that I do not read Scripture from a completely objective and value-free point of view. Nobody does. All of us come to the Bible and read it with our own wavy retinas, scratched glasses, and imperfect understandings.

This is not an excuse NOT to read it. No, even read poorly, the Bible is still an instrument God uses to touch hearts and move souls.

But this is the only way we can read the Bible. It’s impossible to read it any way except from the perspective of who you are, in the light of your own experience. There is no way to read anything at all without projecting something into the text. This is what we do when we read novels and poems and newspapers, and it's true when we read Scripture, too. It’s the way all people read.

However, this reality should make it clear that we ought to read the Bible from different perspectives as often as possible, to pick up reading glasses from other viewpoints. We should not rely only on our own understanding when it comes to Scripture but should try a variety of contexts, languages, and cultures.

For example, I’m a straight white male who studied the Bible in a Western, male-dominated institution. I ought to recognize that I have some blind spots when it comes to Scripture. What is it like to read the Bible as a woman, as a gay man, as a black woman, as a pygmy in the African rain forest? What do Palestinian Christians hear when they read about the Promised Land? What do Chinese Christians hear when they read Revelation?

As we begin the study of the Gospel of Matthew on Sunday, Sept. 9 in Sunday School, I am starting a twin class on Matthew on Wednesday nights called “Reading Matthew Through New Eyes.” Each week, I will lead the class in reading a passage from Matthew with the help of feminists, Latin American peasants, gay men, county inmates, and others. You’ll be surprised at how your eyes will be opened to new insights and revelations from Scripture.

However, that’s also the goal of the other Wednesday night classes. Mike Smith will be leading a study that uses visual imagery and symbolism to address theological and Biblical issues. Alison Garza is leading a class on Job: A Story of Unlikely Joy, by Lisa Harper, a female Bible teacher. The point is to try on some different perspectives on the Bible and on our faith.

Try putting on some different glasses to read Scripture this fall — what you see might change you!

Would Jesus Get a Flu Shot?


If every silly thing an evangelist said became news, we’d have 24/7 coverage of preachers, and the late night hosts would never run short of jokes.

Gloria Copeland is the latest preacher to have been caught in a ridiculous string of sayings. What made her claims newsworthy apparently is the fact that she and her husband, Kenneth, are part of the president’s evangelical advisory board. Here’s what she said in a Facebook video this past week:

We’ve got a duck season, a deer season, but we don’t have a flu season. And don’t receive it when somebody threatens you with, ‘Everybody’s getting the flu.’ We’ve already had our shot … Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. He redeemed us from the curse of flu. And we receive it and we take it, and we are healed by his stripes. Amen? You know the Bible says he himself bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases and by his stripes we were healed. When we were healed, we are healed, so get on the word, stay on the word …  Just keep saying that, ‘I’ll never have the flu. I’ll never have the flu.’ Put words -- inoculate yourself with the word of God.

Believe it or not, these comments don’t sound insane to me, like they might to you. Because I understand the underlying theology. I was raised in a church that shared the beliefs of Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. They aren’t typical “evangelicals,” though they share common political viewpoints.

The Copelands are part of the Word of Faith movement, born out of the ministry of E. W. Kenyon, and popularized by Kenneth Hagin, who built a church ministry and Bible college in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. The Christianity espoused by Hagin and his followers, including the Copelands, Creflo Dollar, and Charles Capps, to name a few, represents a subset of Pentecostalism, which incorporates elements of the “prosperity gospel,” along with an embrace of faith healing and positive thinking.

Word of Faith Christians believe that, besides the experience of salvation, in which a person repents of her sins, is forgiven, and is “born again,” there is a second experience available to us:“the baptism of the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues.” This occurs when the Spirit fills a person, and enables her to speak in other tongues, as happened in Acts 2. The technical term for these other tongues is “glossalia,” and is best described as an ecstatic babbling. Those who participate in such babbling believe they are speaking in a heavenly language, known only to God. At times, someone is given the ability to “interpret” this heavenly language, and so speak the message in English to those around.

Along with the tongues comes other benefits: people who are empowered by the Spirit are supposedly given the ability to gain wealth and prosper, as well as remain healthy throughout their lives.

Gloria quotes a passage from Isaiah 53 in her justification of believing that Christians don’t need to get the flu. The passage is known as one of the Suffering Servant songs, because it contains a lengthy description of a servant who suffers on behalf of Israel’s deliverance, and whom Christians believe is a prophecy of Jesus Christ.

The passage in question reads like this:

He was despised and avoided by others;     
    a man who suffered, who knew sickness well.
Like someone from whom people hid their faces,     
    he was despised, and we didn’t think about him.
It was certainly our sickness that he carried,
    and our sufferings that he bore,
    but we thought him afflicted,
    struck down by God and tormented.
He was pierced because of our rebellions
    and crushed because of our crimes.     
He bore the punishment that made us whole;
    by his wounds we are healed

(Isaiah 53:3-5, Common English Bible)

The last verse is the one which charismatics have seized upon. In other translations, the line reads, “By his stripes we are healed,” which they believe refer to the stripes on Jesus’ back after he was whipped. They take the word “healed” to be a literal reference to one’s health. Thus, if this is a prediction of what the Messiah is going to do in the future, then they reason that those wounds or stripes are meant for our healing in the here and now. All we need to do to be healed is to “name it and claim it.”

As soon as I left home, I left Word of Faith Christianity behind, believing it to be not only irrational, but dangerous and heretical. Their message goes over quite well in middle-class North America, but it falls like a thud in the Global South, in poor neighborhoods, and in war-torn countries.

Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to make us wealthy and healthy. He came with much deeper ambitions — to make us good.

We are, in fact, supposed to become like Jesus. Nowhere in Scripture is Jesus portrayed as particularly wealthy or healthy. in fact, I daresay that following in Jesus' footsteps guarantees quite the opposite.

I’ve met plenty of healthy and wealthy people who made me sick to my stomach, who were genuinely despicable people. But at the same time, I’ve known plenty of broke people who were sick in bed, but were filled with God’s shalom to the point that I wanted to be like them.

In the meantime, I’m headed to the pharmacy for my flu shot. Maybe you should, too.

The Longest Week

If you haven’t noticed, the Scriptures chosen for Lent’s sermons are all drawn from the last couple of days of Jesus’ life. On the first Sunday of Lent, I spoke about the Last Supper, and last Sunday, I preached on Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane as the disciples slumbered. This week, the Scripture covers the moment of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:39-46).

I think it’s important to spend as much time as possible on the passion (which means “suffering”) and crucifixion of Jesus, because the bulk of the gospels are consumed with these events. In fact, a New Testament scholar once described a gospel as a “passion narrative with an extended introduction.” 

The point is that the passion and crucifixion of Jesus deserve a good deal of our time and attention. Lent is the perfect time to do that. In fact, it was designed to force us into a time of reflection upon these events and determine what they mean to our faith.

It means a number of different things to me, but in this space I simply want to highlight the vital and significant fact that Jesus suffered.

If the incarnation is true, if Jesus really was God incarnate, then it is highly significant that he suffered. Traditional Christian orthodoxy holds that Jesus was “fully divine and fully human.” If this is correct, then it means that, whatever divine characteristics he might have had, he was also very much flesh and blood. He didn’t get a break from the pain, from the shame and embarrassment, from the horror of what unfolded around him. He didn’t know everything that was going to happen to him; the prayer in the garden reveals that he was afraid and anxious. 

The reason that this is important to me is because it means that Jesus and I are connected by human suffering. Neither of us are exempt from the world’s worst. I feel a sense of solidarity with Jesus in this matter. And not only me, but all of those who suffer, all of the world’s people who feel alone or hopeless or afraid.

Taking the doctrine of incarnation one step further, this means that God understands my suffering. When I experience fear, I can trust that God empathizes with that emotion. When I experience pain, I know that God has been in pain. 

And this means that the God we worship is not an impersonal, abstract, or vague notion. It means that God has entered the human situation and chosen to be on our side. God is with us, not against us.

Everybody hurts in a different way, but the story of Jesus’ passion ties all our suffering together. Lent teaches us that our suffering is not meaningless or vain, but that it will be turned into glorious victory on Easter Sunday.