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Karyn L. Wiseman, Ph.D.
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Dr. Karyn L. Wiseman is the Associate Professor of Homiletics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. She is an Elder in The United Methodist Church and has eighteen years of experience pastoring churches. Her degree is in Liturgical Studies, with major study in Preaching and the Emerging Church. She is especially interested in engaging the 21st century church for vital ministry, equipping established communities to take on new models for church, and employing postmodern ideas to reengage younger generations in preaching and worship. Dr. Wiseman has a book coming out in Fall of 2013 on preaching from Pilgrim Press.

Entries by Karyn L. Wiseman, Ph.D.

Finding Light in the Dark: Hope Inside Desperate Discourse (John 21: 1-19)

(0) Comments | Posted April 4, 2016 | 2:45 PM

All you have to do is turn on the news to hear desperation, fear, anger, and hatred. We find it in our politics and in our public discourse. We find it in our churches and in our homes. And it happens all the time. But it also happens in the private moments of individuals. Desperation can be found all around us.

Recently, a friend emailed me that their 23-year-old son had attempted suicide. The young man had been found fairly quickly, but due to the nature of his attempt and his severe depression, he is now in a psychiatric ward in a hospital. My friend asked, "How did it get so bad and I didn't know?" She is trying to process guilt and anxiety about what might have happened. Her son is getting the help he needs, but it's a long journey back to health and wholeness for the entire family.

I called my friend after receiving the email and we talked for over an hour. Basically their child was in the midst of a "dark night of the soul" from which he saw no escape. The young man's response to this place of darkness was to end his life. Thankfully, that is not how this particular situation ended. But it easily could have.

The phrase "dark night of the soul" comes from a poem written by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th century poet and mystic. In it he describes the journey of a soul and the unknowable nature of God as "the dark night of the soul." My friend's son could not find a way out. He told his Mom that God was absent from him. He felt desperate, lost, and afraid. He found out through the suicide attempt and his hospitalization that he had serious depression.

But for Saint John of the Cross - the dark night was not about God being absent. We often need to experience the dark night in order to truly see the light of the new day. The poem was about the joy we find in the journey to unite with God. It is about the fact that God is present all the time but we go through a time of purging and illumination to find that union. We may not feel it, but God is there. Always.

We have altered the meaning of this "dark night" from the original intent to suggest a period of failure or being in the midst of difficult circumstances. It has also been used to describe a spiritual crisis.

Have you ever had a "dark night of the soul?" Have you ever felt so low that you were not sure you could make it back up? Have you ever thought that you've hit rock bottom? Have you ever felt like your life choices left you hopeless?

Many of us have had these kinds of moments - maybe related to an addiction, relationships, the health of someone you care about, or your family's finances. Maybe your dark night was a lack of self-confidence or insecurity about your future. Or maybe your deep hole was when you tried something and failed miserably.

Whatever brought you to that dark moment - the question is "What brought you back?" If you are back, yet.

This passage is familiar to many. Jesus has come to the shoreline where the disciples have had a frustratingly bad night of fishing. And for fishermen, that's not good news. They weren't sure what was next for them so they returned to their original profession to support themselves. After spending an entire night out on the water with nothing to show for it had to have felt like failure.

They were experiencing a dark night - maybe not as dark as you've felt or as dark as my friend's son felt - but it was a dark night for them. Jesus was gone, they were alone, and they had failed to catch anything all night.

And along came a "stranger" who asks if they've caught anything. They respond, "No." Then he tells them to go back out and drop their nets on the right side of the boat. (Why the right side? That's not the direction most fishermen threw their nets - right over left is more natural so they typically threw the net to the left side of the boat.)

"Excuse me! Are you serious? We just tried all night and caught nothing. Nada. Who do you think you are?" This could have been their response, but they go back out. Desperation leads to strange behavior at times. And they cast their nets to the right side - the wrong side for most net casters.

When they take up their nets this time, the haul is immense. The nets are overflowing with fish. More fishermen have to head out to the boat to help them bring in the catch.

When they return to shore they figure out that the "stranger" is actually Jesus. They were in the midst of an unknowable moment. They could not "see" but they followed anyway. And in that journey of affirmation and acceptance, they met the Lord once again.

In the midst of a dark night, they receive instruction and take it. And in the presence of Jesus their circumstances are transformed. In the presence of the Lord, all things can become new.

The disciples come to shore and Jesus has made breakfast for them.

The final section (vv. 15-19) is also quite familiar to readers of this chapter of John. This is the moment Jesus asks Simon Peter three times if he loves him. And three times he challenges him to take care of his flock (whom Jesus calls sheep twice and lambs once). It is reminiscent of the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter after the crucifixion. But clearly Simon Peter, in his own "dark night of the soul" when he denied his Lord, has been forgiven. And he is being given new responsibilities by Jesus to tend to his followers.

Even when we fail. Even when we find ourselves in our own "dark night of the soul" - Jesus forgives and continues to call us to be part of his flock and to tend his sheep.

The women in the video attached to this post have found themselves in the depths of despair and have found hope in the Magdalene and Thistle Farms opportunities offered to them. In the middle of their "dark night of the soul," hope has come in the morning.

For the disciples - hope came in the morning, in the presence of Jesus, in following Jesus, and in being given the charge to keep on following.

Fortunately, my friend's son failed in his suicide attempt. But many in the midst of personal, psychological, and spiritual crises succeed in giving up and handing over their lives to despair and addiction.

Unfortunately, many have this same kind of despair right now. They feel lost, alone, neglected, and hopeless. They feel the sting of rejection and prejudice. They cannot see any light at all and have no desire to wait for the morning.

Here's where it is hard.

In the midst of the dark night - I still believe that God is there. It is often only after the darkness that we can distinguish the light of God in our midst.

When we think we are alone - God is there.

When the soul feels numb and nothing is going right, maybe tossing your net to the right side - the other side - is what you need to try.

When you can't see Jesus on the shoreline, remember that even his closest followers didn't recognize him in the beginning.

When you believe you have hit rock bottom or think you're on your way there, seek the help you need to get out of the darkness just as my friend's son is doing.

When you think you've denied Jesus too many times, remember that even Simon Peter got another chance to serve God.

When you can't do anything else but sit in despair, please know that you are not alone.

The "follow me" is not about simply walking the shoreline with Jesus - it is a long term commitment that is transformational. It is a life changing kind of following.

When in doubt - Jesus says, "Follow me."

The morning is coming and hope is there.

Bible Study Questions:

1. What does "dark night of the soul" mean to you and when have you experienced it?

2. What brought you back from the brink? A person, your faith, an intervention by others, or hitting rock bottom? How will you react the next time you experience this kind of darkness?

3. How can you "follow Jesus" to help those who have lost their way? How can you "follow Jesus" even when you feel doubts and fears yourself?

For Further Reading:

"Dark Night of the Soul," Saint John of the Cross

"Three Truths about the 'Dark Night of the Soul'" by Chuck DeGroat - Christianity Today.

The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connections Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth by Gerald G. May (Harper One, 2005)

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Black Friday: Can't Buy Love (Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36)

(20) Comments | Posted November 24, 2015 | 10:47 AM

Since 1924, the Friday after Thanksgiving has marked the start of the holiday shopping season. Now "Black Friday" is an American phenomenon where shoppers wait in line for hours, some for days, to get their hands on holiday gifts at bargain prices. Retailers lure shoppers with steep door-buster discounts, limited quantities, and by opening early and closing late.

BLACK FRIDAY SALES have been advertised for weeks now it seems. Doorstoppers, insane discounts, buy 1-get 1 free, and other mega sales are coming at us whether we want them to or not. Some stores are opening before the crack of dawn on Friday morning and others are not even closing from Thursday morning to Friday evening. The pressure to shop and spend is pretty intense. My social media feeds are equally filled with people excited about shopping and those who are pledging not to shop at any stores that have chosen to open on Thanksgiving Day. The debate is pretty intense at times. There are major opinions on both sides.

I have both shoppers and non-shoppers in my family. My mother and my brother-in-law are two of the shoppers. They love to shop and I mean that they LOVE to shop. They are professional level shoppers. They relish racking up major deals on Christmas gifts. So on more than one occasion I have watched them spend Thanksgiving evening planning their shopping run for Black Friday. They get out maps and sale flyers to plan their early morning excursion to make the most of the sales and the most of their time.

Yep, my family heads out in the pre-dawn morning on Black Friday to enjoy their immersion into the holiday shopping extravaganza. The crowds, the savings, and the joy of successful shopping make them happy.

But I have never ventured out with them. I don't want to step foot in a store on Black Friday because that kind of madness is not something that I want to be in the middle of. Just thinking about it gives me anxiety. I just don't understand it.

In my experience, people head out for these kinds of sales to buy electronics for their kids, sweaters and boots for their nieces and nephews, video games for their teens, and kitchen appliances for the chefs in their families. People head out for these kinds of sales to buy jewelry for that special someone in their lives, new computers for their families, and sports merchandise for the fans they know and love.

Many go to these sales to fill the emptiness of their lives with consumer merchandise, electronic gadgets, shiny jewelry, and other items. Many go to fill a void in their lives. Many go to fill up their loneliness, depression, and isolation.

As we enter into the season of busyness, family responsibilities, lots of eating, and rampant consumerism I am reminded that this really is supposed to be a season of anticipation and hope. Many of us have voids in our lives and I believe that filling them with "stuff" is simply not the answer. The voids we have in our lives cannot be filled up with gadgets and gizmos.

The readings for the first Sunday of Advent are about being watchful for the second coming of Jesus and avoiding the things in life that take our focus away from our faith. Advent is the beginning of the Christian year and brings our attention to the season of hope, peace, love, and joy.

If we could purchase these things most people probably would. If there were a store selling these items I'd be up before the crack of dawn to go buy them. I'd put up with the sales flyers in my mailbox and the incessant TV commercials if hope, peace, love, and joy were available for a rock bottom price. Actually I'd pay just about everything I have for a little bit of peace right now.

We live in a world that is being "consumed" not just by shopping and insane consumerism but by violence -- gun violence, terrorism, bombings, plane crashes, and more. We live in a world that is being consumed by anger, blame, and recriminations. We live in a world where refuges are seen as enemies and people are mistrusted because of their faith. We live in a world where Facebook and Twitter posts show a side of humanity that is far from the ideals of hope, peace, love, and joy. All of this is sometimes hard to understand.

Advent gives us a chance to pause and consider the real things that define us - not things we've bought on Black Friday or any other shopping day of the year. This season gives us a chance to reflect on our faith and how our lives can be filled in much more fruitful and faithful ways. But it is often just so full of busyness, anxiety, and preparing.

Advent is not about Christmas shopping or all about the baby Jesus in the manger. Advent is about waiting for the second coming. Advent is about preparing for Christmas in ways that align us with our spirits and our God. But we feel the stress. The text for today reminds us "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations" (Luke 21:25a). We feel it. We're living in the midst of that distress among the nations - in the world and in our own families and networks.

All of creation eagerly anticipates the saving work of Jesus the Christ and the second coming of his glory. The entire world sits by the windowsill hoping against hope that the new day will bring hope and salvation, not a time of terror or consumerist insanity.[1]

We live in an odd time. We live in a time of cynicism and doubt -- but the gospel and the season of Advent call us to expectation, anticipation and hope. The gospel and the season of Advent call us to hope, peace, love, and joy.

And folks, you can't buy that on Black Friday -- no matter how early you get up in the morning or how well you plan out your sales strategy.

Hope and peace in a time like this takes effort, conversations, affirmations of each other's worth, and being in community with all of God's creation.

Hope, peace, love, and joy might mean shopping for warm clothes to take to a homeless shelter this season. It might mean stocking a local food bank and serving meals. It might mean visiting children at a local hospital over the holidays. It might mean having conversations with persons of others faiths to learn about their holiday traditions. It might mean providing resources to a newly settled refugee family in our community. It might mean spending time with our families and friends doing the work of God in a hurting world instead of spending untold dollars on things we don't need.

Let's work on all of this during this season. Let's talk to one another. Let's refuse to buy into the consumer mentality. Let's spend our time and resources on each other in more faithful and spiritual ways.

Let's fully live into the Advent themes of hope, peace, love, and joy.

I'm in. How about you?

Bible Study Questions --

1. In what ways does your understanding of your faith and the rampant climate of consumerism clash? How does your faith inform your choices around this time of year?

2. Where do you find peace and joy in the midst of the rushed and frantic holiday season?

3. How do you or might you utilize moments of opportunity, like Black Friday, to help others and not just address your own needs?

4. When you feel like there is a void in your life, what are ways you might fill up that void with healthy faithful, and life-giving elements?

For Further Reading --

· The Year Without a Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting by Scott Dannemiller (Westminster John Knox, 2015)

· Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, 2007)

· "Faith Reflections: Consumerism and Faith" by Julia Seymour found here

[1] Fred B. Craddock. Luke, from the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 247.

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The New Feminism: Redefining a Woman's Place (Mark 7:24-37)

(10) Comments | Posted September 1, 2015 | 12:44 PM

We asked people about gender equality in today's society.

Recently two African American women took to the stage during a Bernie Sanders' campaign event to protest for #BlackLivesMatter, a movement confronting issues related to racism and police violence in America. They were cheered by some and jeered by others. Their presence made the movement visible in ways that other events -- disturbingly -- had not. The national press covered the incident and many posts were made on a variety of social media platforms regarding the events of that day.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook that, "These women thought they could interrupt Bernie and not have repercussions. They need to learn their place." (Emphasis is mine but feels appropriate after talking to the original poster about the intent behind the post)

What? Are you kidding me? I was ticked.

Amazingly, though, my friend's Facebook feed began to blow up mostly with affirmations regarding his post. A few people did try to question his statement but were shouted down as soon as their posts went up. Many jumped in to affirm that these women -- and I assume, specifically, black women -- should not be taking the stage being rude to a politician. I asked, "What if they were men? Would that be better?"

Again, I was surprised that some people actually dared to state that men might have been seen differently. And that it was just "not classy for women to do what they did."

Isn't it 2015? Why would anyone assume that women needed to stay in their "place?" And why did they believe that speaking one's mind was not classy?

It is clear that there are many people in the USA, and also around the globe, who see women as inferior persons. They view women's voices as "less than" men's and they work to diminish the ability of women to speak both privately and publicly.

Throughout history -- both in the Bible and in other places -- women have been silenced or put "in their place." That is what this passage feels like. It feels like a woman is told to get back in her place.

This passage from Mark 7 always makes me say, "WOW! That Syrophoenician woman just called out Jesus when he tried to shut her down." I love that when Jesus appears to squash her voice and tries to silence her, she calls him out. She refuses to assume her "place" under the table eating scraps. And that is so bold and confident.

In the first century world, women had few rights and few opportunities to voice their opinions. In Jesus' world, she was the "other" -- a woman, a Syrophoenician, and someone likely not invited to the house where Jesus encountered her. She was a Greek-speaking foreigner in this scenario. She was challenging the social norms. Jesus' initial mission was to his own people, the Jews. And he lets her know that she is not a part of his intended audience.

Is she challenging him to expand his mission? Or is she simply trying to get her daughter healed?

It is after the resurrection that Jesus' mission to the Gentile community begins in earnest, but here in this passage Jesus is challenged on this assumption of being sent to the Jews first and foremost. And after he is challenged, he answers in a positive manner. He affirms the Syrophoenician woman and heals her daughter. Her faith got her what she wanted.

But it would not have happened had she not interrupted him in his attempt to find a quiet moment. It would not have occurred without her persistence. She probably knew "her place" since she was a first century woman in a culture where women had little to no voice or power. But she did not stay there. She acknowledged "her place" but she asked for mercy and had the faith that her request could/would be granted.

And her faith paid off. Her daughter was healed.

So what about these women who took to the stage for #BlackLivesMatter?

When the women took to the stage, they got into a heated verbal confrontation with one of Bernie Sanders' campaign staff persons for several minutes before Marissa Johnson was allowed to take the microphone to speak. But she was booed both before, during, and after her short speech.

Whether you agree with her tactics or not, she got her point across and people were challenged to confront their own perceptions of the movement and where they stood on the issue of race relations in America. Some heard the challenge and others simply saw a woman with no class who was rude. Many just saw what they wanted to see or were prone to see due to the privilege they experience in their lives.

#BlackLivesMatter is one of the biggest grassroots movements in recent history to address race and racism. It has caught fire on social media and is moving into the realm of public political discourse. And that's where it should be.

But people wanted to put her in her "place." People wanted to shut her up. Whether it was because she was "interrupting" someone or that she was a woman or the fact that she was African American is an important question but it is unclear how we might ever know the truth in people's minds about the event. It's probably different for different people.

For my friend on Facebook, it felt to me like it was both gender and race that led him to make that post. In a private message it was made evident to me that the poster has an opinion about the "place" of women that I have serious disagreements with.

As a woman in ministry and as a woman in academia, my voice has been challenged and people have attempted to silence me, but I have tried to not be defined by their definition of "my place."

If you are a man, be an ally for the women in your life -- in your family, at your work place, in public and private, and in all the ways that you can.

If you are a woman, be bold and persistent. A famous quote that has been attributed to many different people, says this -- Well-behaved women seldom make history.

Be bold and be persistent. Be who you were made to be. Don't stay in your "place" defined by others. Find your own place and go make some history.

Bible Study Questions

1. If you are a woman, when have you been silenced? How did that feel? How did you respond? If you are a man, how have you silenced women in public or private places? How can you work to change that behavior?

2. When you hear someone attempt to diminish the voice of another how do you react? Do you respond differently if it is a man or a woman?

3. Women's voices need to be heard, not ignored or marginalized. How might you be an ally for women of all races and gender expressions in public and private spaces?

For Further Reading

The Social Justice Advocate's Handbook: A Guide to Gender by Sam Killermann

The New Feminist Agenda: Defining the Next Revolution for Women, Work, and Family

by Madeleine Kunin

"The Unspoken Rules That Silence Women In Leadership" by Kelly Azevedo for Forbes.

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Legislating Love in the 21st Century (Acts 8:26-40)

(1) Comments | Posted April 27, 2015 | 6:29 PM

Facts on marriage equality in the United States.

One of the hot button topics in America today is same-sex marriage. This issue has been in the news often due to same-sex marriage bans being struck down in state after state and on the minds of many after the controversial "religious freedom" law passed in Indiana (and similar ones already enacted in other states). And it has been in the hearts of many gay and lesbian couples faced with the possibility of being denied access to services because of who they are and who they love.

Imagine planning and preparing for your wedding for months, making decisions about guest lists, music, menus, seating charts, and attire. You go to the lone bakeshop in town to talk about your cake choices, only to be told that the baker is not willing to work with you because you are gay or a bi-racial couple or a couple from another faith tradition. Imagine the feelings of rejection, isolation, and denial that you would potentially feel, because the state allows this denial of services. This scenario is not hard to imagine, because it is legally allowed in many places throughout our country.

"Othering" happens all the time for many different reasons - not just sexuality, race, and gender.

About 10 years ago, my son and I were at a local park playing on the swings when a group of young boys started taunting a small child with a disfigured arm about 50 yards away from us. They were calling her ugly names and throwing small rocks and sticks in her direction. We had seen this little girl playing happily, running around, and laughing with delight. But now she looked terrified.

I heard the taunts and began moving that direction to intercede, but my son outran me. Only six years old at the time, he yelled at the boys, "Leave her alone. She's just like us." The boys saw and heard my son and likely saw an adult close on his heels. They abandoned their harassment and ran away.

The young girl, Mandy, was crying and scared. I wanted to thrash the boys for scaring and taunting her but my son knew better. He knew that what Mandy needed was compassion and acceptance. He touched her disfigured arm and said, "Wanna come play with me?" And off they ran - holding hands, giggling wildly, and laughing.

The young girl's mother showed up very quickly after the episode occurred and I relayed the story to her. She lowered her head and said, "This happens too dang often. How do I protect my child from people who fear her differences?" I did not have an answer then. And I don't have a perfect one now. It seems that some people just cannot help but "other" people different than themselves.

The past few months, not unlike a vast majority of human history, have been full of episodes of "othering" - LGBTQ folks, African Americans, people of other faiths, and too many groups and individuals to name. Throwing sticks and stones - figuratively or literally - at people because they are different seems to be commonplace. Taunting the "other" - with words, actions, or abuse - happens on an all too familiar basis.

The question continues to be, "How do we protect those we love from this "othering?"

In our text from Acts, we read the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a man quite different from Philip racially as a black African and from what must have been a powerful position, given his status description and traveling situation. And depending on how the text is interpreted, he also may have been a sexual minority who was excluded from some parts of society.

Philip is there to spread the gospel story of Jesus. He is directed to do this work and comes upon someone who is "other" than himself, a eunuch, reading the scriptures as he traveled. This chance encounter provides a glimpse of what it means to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and be the church for all persons - despite their differences. The very text that the eunuch was reading provided an opportunity for Philip to tell him about Jesus.

For me, the most interesting part of the text is when the eunuch seeks guidance about being baptized (we are not told by Luke the status of the eunuch's faith) and he appears to expect rejection. In verse 37, the eunuch asks Philip what prevents him from being baptized? Had he been denied baptism before? Was he aware that his "othering" might exclude him from admittance and acceptance into the community of faith? Did his status as a "mutilated" person mean he was thought of as less than others? We're not sure.

Some commentators note the question might be alluding to a ritual questioning and answering nature of proselyte baptism, but the text is still open to interpretation. Baptism meant being included into the community and for someone who was "other," that cannot always be assumed.

Philip's response to the question about baptism, regardless of its intent or meaning, is not words, but action. He baptizes the eunuch. PERIOD. He welcomes him into the faith. And the eunuch rejoices at this act of grace. My son's response was to act - not think or question - to just go to Mandy and be her friend.

With states passing religious freedom laws, the Supreme Court set to hear more cases this month regarding same-sex marriage, and the polarization of our political and religious realms bringing people into conflict on a regular basis, reading a text about someone being brought into the faith who would likely be considered different is both helpful and insightful.

We live in a culture where people are often forced into "us" and "them" categories. We hear news pundits yell at each other about social issues on a daily basis. And we witness the "othering" of marginalized persons from churches to playgrounds to wedding cake shops and beyond.

Isn't it time we stop putting people into categories and denying their identity? Isn't it time for us, like Philip, to just act out of care for the common good? Isn't it time for us to stop "othering" and start accepting people for who they are?

Wouldn't our faith lives and our public lives look different if we did?

That's the kind of world I want to live in.

Bible Study Questions

1. Who are the "others" who you encounter as part of your daily life? How do you welcome them or not welcome them into your family, work, and faith communities?

2. What experiences have you had with "othering" in your own life? Have you been excluded for some reason from groups or organizations? How did it feel? If not, how have you excluded others?

3. What can you do to be an advocate for those who are labeled "others" around you? How can you be there for them like Philip was for the Ethiopian eunuch? What can you do to stop the taunts and conflict directed at them? How can you bring them into your community?

For Further Reading

Some history about religious freedom bills

Does the "fix" to Indiana's law actually stop discrimination from happening?

Upcoming cases before the Supreme Court of the US regarding Same-Sex Marriage

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Free Speech, Big Fish, and Calls From God (Jonah 3: 1-5, 10)

(0) Comments | Posted January 20, 2015 | 9:37 AM

Facts about free speech around the world.

The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was an act of absolute evil. The fact that people sitting down for a simple editorial meeting at their work site could be killed due to hate is disturbing beyond words. It is a tragedy for all involved -- for those killed, for the family and friends of those killed inside of the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, for the officer killed on the street outside, and for those involved in the hostage situations as the perpetrators were tracked down. It is also a tragedy for Muslims, Christians, Jews and others who often find themselves being impacted by radical fringe elements who often do not represent the basic tenants of their faith or beliefs.

It can be so hard to watch these violent terrorist events unfold around the world. And we often try to explain them way too quickly. In this instance, some immediately blamed all Muslims for the attacks. Others immediately chastised the editorial decisions of Charlie Hebdo and the cartoons this satirical magazine has published of the Prophet Mohammed. Still others protest that this is a "simple" free speech situation. They say that the cartoons posted by Charlie Hebdo were satire but harmless and that the attackers were trying to silence them.

But free speech is an interesting and complicated thing. The question is often about the limits of free speech.

One of my favorite movies of all time is called, The American President. In it, President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas), makes a statement about free speech and American democracy. He says,

America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight. It's gonna say "You want free speech? Let's see you acknowledge a man [sic] whose words make your blood boil, who's standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours."

While this event happened in France, American and democratic issues related to free speech have permeated the debate in the media and in the wider community.

Sometimes what we say is important, powerful, and impactful. Sometimes what we say is controversial, satirical, and insulting to many. So what then are the limits of free speech?

In a recent Huffington Post survey, 63% of Americans shared that they support protecting free speech over defending religions from being satirized. Speaking freely is of great import in democracies - and around the world. Sadly, journalists and others suffer for their words on a regular basis. Many have been jailed, tortured, and even killed for speaking the truth they feel called to speak. But we are called to speak anyway.

In the Old Testament text this week, Jonah was called by God to speak prophetically in a dangerous place. Jonah's story is quite familiar to many. He was called by God to deliver a message of redemption to the people of the Assyrian city of Nineveh, but he refused God's command. The rest of the story tells us about his journey fleeing this call, a Big Fish swallowing him up, and his subsequent encounters with the community after seeing the light to answer his call while in the belly of the fish. Well, that's the story I heard growing up. It really was not until an Old Testament seminary course that I learned the "real story."

This particular text, Jonah 3: 1-5, 10, is the second call of Jonah by God to deliver a word to the people. The first time he refused, fled, and got swallowed by a fish. Now he is back on dry land after his water adventure. In this text, he answers the call and agrees to go where he is being sent without debate or intervention by a big fish. Despite the risk in speaking truth to an unruly and unfaithful bunch, God sends Jonah to speak anyway.

In verse 2, Jonah is promised that he will receive the words from God that he needs to speak. But he is being asked to speak to his nation's enemies. Why would God send him to save them? Why would God want to deliver them from sinfulness? Why them? Why him?

He was not part of their community but he spoke because God called him to. He was finally answering a long-standing tradition of God asking persons to speak prophetically in moments of need. But it was risky. He was not Assyrian. He was not from Nineveh. But he spoke anyway because God called him to speak.

I am not Charlie Hebdo. Even though there is a hashtag going around social media sites - "Je Suis Charlie" (I am Charlie), I know that I am not Charlie. I do not think that I would ever intentionally make fun of a faith tradition or belief system, except maybe my own. But, dangit, I will defend their right to do so. President Shepherd in The American President said it so well. As a believer in free speech and democracy, I have to acknowledge the person whose words make my blood boil if I really do believe in their right to say it. But I don't have to agree with them.

The Ninevites probably did not want to hear anything from a foreigner. They probably did not want someone from outside of their community to come in and call them on their lives. They did not want their actions called into question. According to ancient studies, the Assyrians were brutal and violent. Despite this, God sends them a word of redemption and grace through Jonah. That is how God chooses to counter their torturous behavior. That is how God chooses to respond. God chooses to respond with grace and mercy. And that is hard.

How do we respond to this act of violence and other violent acts around us? With grace and mercy? So far many certainly have responded with mercy and grace. But others are responding with vile assumptions and hateful rhetoric toward Muslims and about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and their creators.

We don't have to agree with their posts or their beliefs. They do, however, have the right to have them. None, though, have the right to attack others for those beliefs with violence or hatred.

I think this is a unique opportunity. We have a chance to do better. We have a chance to call others on their hateful speech and behavior, but figuring out what is evil and what is hate speech is a distinction that I am not qualified to determine.

But showing mercy, I can do that. Maybe, just maybe, that's just what we all need right about now.

Bible Study Questions

1. Is it ever ok to satirize religious leaders? Is that free speech or hate speech? What are the "lines in the sand" for you on the subject?

2. In the passage, Jonah is given a second chance from God to answer the call and go to Nineveh. Have you experienced a "do-over" from God? What did you do with that second chance? What does it mean when we don't get that second chance?

3. When have you experienced grace and mercy? What did it feel like to receive that when you least expect it? How can you express that for others in your everyday lives?

For Further Reading

1. Why the Charlie Hebdo attack goes far beyond religion and free speech

2. Even Americans Who Don't Favor Mocking Religion Support The Right To Do It

3. Nigel Warburton. Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2009).

4. The American President

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ON Scripture - The Bible is made possible by generous grants from the Lilly Endowment and the Henry Luce Foundation


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