A Different Angle (Luke 7:36-50)

Yesterday I posted a fairly egg-heady look at Luke 7:36-50. That is pretty easy for me to do – I’m basically an egg-heady kind of guy. But, today I want to look at the same passage through a different lens, a different angle. Today I want to look at the story through the eyes of the woman.

Have you ever wept uncontrollably? I don’t mean just the run of the mill sniffles that you get at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t even mean the tears that flow at a funeral for someone you really love. I mean the uncontrollable, rib-wracking, heart crushing weeping that makes breathing difficult if not impossible.

I think I have had that experience just once, and I’ll not bore you with the details here. Suffice it to say that once in a lifetime is enough. I cannot describe the pain, the uncertainty of if, not just when, it was going to stop.

The backstory of the woman in Luke 7 intrigues me. For what, exactly, was she grieving? What drove her to Jesus’s feet? How did she manage to get through the phalanx of (primarily male, I would assume) dinner guests to get so close to Jesus? Luke simply identifies her situation as being a “sinner,” but what did that entail? Was she a prostitute? If so, had she been forced into selling her body because of a financial ruin? Was she a widow with no other means of support? Was there some other sin that she was sold to that made her a pariah?

Interestingly enough, Luke – ever the historian and careful observer of human emotions, fails to tell us anything more. Simply that the woman came to Jesus with what we would assume to be a very expensive flask of ointment (Luke does not comment that detail, either.) So, her visit to Jesus was not “spur of the moment.” It was planned. And, at the moment she arrives and is able to gain admittance to Jesus, she begins to weep, and by Luke’s description, I would add the word “uncontrollably.”

It is one thing to weep to the point tears run down our face. It is something else entirely when tears are so profuse that they could actually wet the feet of someone reclining in front of us. This is no ordinary grief. This is profound, all-encompassing grief. To use a word common in our culture today, this was epic grieving.

Once again I ask – for what? What was it in her life that drove her to such sorrow? For how many mistakes and how many failures and how many sins was she repenting? How many years of wasted life was she recounting? What losses were in her life’s ledger?

We can look at this story through many lenses, from many angles. The gospel in this story is that Jesus does not focus on her past, does not force her to recount her failures. He recognizes her love and forgives her sins. How many times do we stare at the sin, and refuse the love?

We can learn many things from this anonymous woman. We can see the change of heart her plan to go to Jesus indicated. We can see the cost of true repentance in the selfless manner in which she used her “alabaster flask of ointment” to rub on Jesus’s feet. We can see the emotional cost of serving Jesus in the description of her tears wetting the feet of Jesus. And, lest we overlook the words of Jesus, we can see her unbridled love for Jesus that all of these actions indicate.

This story grips me, intrigues me, challenges me. How often I want to think that Christianity is simply and solely a rational venture. How often I fall back on my reason and my intellect to convince me that I am right. This story in Luke 7 is not about reason or rationality or intellect. It is all about love, and sorrow, and repentance, and selfless worship. It is a picture of the Christian walk that confounds me in many ways, because all too often I brace myself against this kind of emotion.

Egg-heady guys like me need to read this story, hear this story, meditate on this story, immerse ourselves in this story. Otherwise, I fear we will end up far more like Simon the Pharisee than we want to be.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

A Rather Depressing Reality

I had a rather depressing realization this past week as I was contemplating the message of Luke 7:36-50. It might take a little to unpack, but I’ll try to be brief.

For quite some time now I have been arguing – at least with myself – that the only way that our culture can be redeemed is if there is what will amount to a “third great awakening,” led by the Holy Spirit and resulting in a reversal of so many recent immoral developments in this culture. I am in the fold of Barton W. Stone who, in disagreement with Alexander Campbell,  believed we as human beings could never do anything to usher in the working of the Holy Spirit. So, it was not that I was advocating that we need to elect this person or pass that law (in fact, quite the opposite – I deplore the idea that we can pull ourselves up out of this moral morass by our own bootstraps). If you ever want to seem me grit my teeth, just suggest that one political party or one law (or even one hundred laws) will ever do anything to change the moral compass of our nation. What I have been advocating, very much in line with Stone, is that we must be receptive to the power of the Spirit, and pray for the supernatural working of the Spirit to regenerate and to recalibrate our national moral direction.

But, as I said again, in reading Luke 7:36-50 I was struck by a sobering thought – not to limit the power of God to do anything beyond what we can even imagine – but there is the issue of whether the country is even capable of embracing a “third great awakening.” Both the first “Great Awakening” (early 1700’s) and the second “Great Awakening” (late 1700’s into the early 1800’s) had a common denominator – the awareness of the masses that they were sinful people and needed be saved. Granted, there were significant differences between the two – in the first awakening the focal point was the preaching of the great Calvinist preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. Salvation would be by the awesome hand of God, and there could be no reversal of that decree. But – the entire point of Edwards’ and Whitfield’s preaching was to draw men to God. One of the great ironies of Calvinist preaching is that there is nothing a man can do to save himself, and yet most of the greatest revivalist preachers have all been Calvinist in theology (think Billy Graham). In the second awakening, there was much less emphasis on God’s holy decree to salvation or damnation, but the emphasis on the Holy Spirit was profound. Stone himself was witness to the great revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, where hundreds, if not thousands, were so overcome by the Holy Spirit that there were widespread instances of shaking, barking, and other “Holy Spirit” manifestations. While it might not have been as overtly Calvinist as the first awakening, the second awakening was shot full of the power of God and the utter sinfulness of mankind.

So, what is it in my estimation that makes it impossible (or virtually impossible) for yet a “third Great Awakening”? Just that acceptance of the sinfulness of mankind.

You see, even as church attendance craters, and as more and more people (at least in the western world) describe themselves as “nones” (in relation to their chosen form of religious affiliation), it is fairly obvious that there is a great degree of spirituality, at least in the United States. We are a deeply religious people, just not a very Christian people. Just check out the books on spirituality and even alternate forms of religion (omitting Christianity, Judaism and Islam). So basically what that means is we want to believe in something beyond ourselves, but we really, really do not want to believe there is anything wrong with ourselves.

While there are vast differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, one similarity (however slight) is that humanity is basically sinful. In each of these world-wide faiths the only solution to that human sin problem is the power of God. The huge, undeniable, and overwhelming difference is that in Christianity the solution is the very human and the very divine God-man, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Both Judaism and Islam fail to provide either an adequate explanation or a solution to the problem of sin. However, it must be admitted that all three world religions admit, and even highlight, the utter sinfulness of mankind.

Postmodernism has eliminated the concept of sin from the modern consciousness. God has been functionally eliminated from the picture not because of the success of atheism, but simply because of the removal of the idea of sin. If there is no sin, then there really is no need for a god, except in the sense that maybe a god might be useful in the idea of an “otherness” that lifts our eyes out of the muck and mire of our daily existence. God becomes not a fellow struggler or a savior/redeemer, he is just a meme to instill optimism and good feelings. In a sense, postmodernism has done what thoroughly “modern” atheism could not – it has removed God on a foundational level, not by attacking God as much as just eliminating the idea of sin.

So, getting back to my realization. What is the entire point of Jesus’s conversation with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7? In this pericope, a woman has (somehow?) evaded the phalanx of socially elite meal guests and has started to weep over Jesus and to anoint his feet with expensive ointment. This action caused no small matter of consternation among the guests, even to the point that Jesus was rebuked, silently if not overtly, for not stopping the display and chastising the woman. In response, Jesus asks a poignant question – if there are two debtors who both receive complete forgiveness, one who owes a small amount and one who owes a great amount, which will be the most thankful? Duh. Obviously the one who had the greater forgiveness.

Jesus’s point is crystal clear. The Pharisee, and presumably the rest of his dinner guests, did not consider themselves to be sinners. If not sinners, then not in need of forgiveness. The woman DID consider herself to be a sinner, and so was searching for and receptive to that which could forgive her. She found her forgiveness in Jesus. The Pharisee and guests lost out, not because of their sinlessness, but because of their refusal to accept their sinfulness.

Now, I am not even going to suggest God cannot do something – Paul says that he can do far and above anything that we can even ask or imagine. But in my understanding, one thing God refuses to do is to force his creation to accept something it is unwilling to accept. This is why I think a “Third Great Awakening” is unlikely, if not outright impossible, at this particular period of history. We as Americans in the 21st century simply do not have the requisite understanding of sin to be able to recognize, nor to accept, the power of the Holy Spirit. The one ingredient that allowed the first and second great awakenings to reform the culture of those two time periods is utterly missing today.

Nobody sins today, and no-one is guilty of sin. We are all victims – if not overtly then simply by association. If I violate a rule, then the rule is racist, sexist, or some other “ist,” or I simply cannot be held accountable because of my upbringing or some accident of sociality that exempts me from any repercussions. The absolute worst sin anyone can commit today is to suggest that someone can be guilty of a sin.

But if there is no sin, there is no need for a savior. If there is no sickness, there is no need for any medicine. If there are no moral absolutes, there is no need for absolution.

I am just too much of a Barton W. “Stoner” to think that we as mere mortals can effect the kind of change that so many people are calling for. I am an apocalypticist by conversion, and am convinced that it will only be by the power of God through the acting of the Holy Spirit that anything resembling  a cultural change will occur. However, that being said, perhaps the one thing that God is waiting for before he sends his Spirit once again to draw men back to himself is this –

God is waiting for us to confess our sin and to express our desire for his Spirit to heal us.

Stated another way – until we really admit we are sick, God is not going to send the medicine.

Well, so much for being brief. If you read the whole article, thank you very much!

Authenticity – A Lecture on Fearlessly Being Who You Are

It happened again.

Every so often I will dig out some old music and when I hear it I get the uncontrollable shakes to play my guitar(s) “just like _________ on the record.” Typically that is John Denver, but it could also be Noel “Paul” Stookey or some other musician. Sometimes I even think I can sing like Harold Reid (the bass singer for the Statler Brothers) or Charley Pride or the aforementioned John Denver or the aforementioned Noel Stookey. It drives me crazy. I pull out my guitar.

And it just does not work. It. Does. Not. Work.

It hit me this morning just why it does not work. There are a number of technical reasons, of which I will list a few. But there is a really bad reason why it does not work, and an even much worse, awful reason why it does not work. More on that in a moment.

Technically why is does not work is because no two people are ever exactly alike. Therefore, the desire to sing, or to play, “exactly” like someone else is just doomed from the get-go. There are just far too many variables to match in order to do anything “just like” someone else.

The bad reason why it is wrong to want to do something “just like” someone else is that it really diminishes who you are as an individual. It is basically saying, “I am personally no good (or at least far sub-average), but if I could just sing/play/do something ‘just like’ so-and-so, then I would be worthy.” I know that most of us would tend to play that down, but it is really true. We tend to think that aspiring to the heights that someone else has climbed is validation – and to a degree it might be. But, ultimately its is still just trying to be where someone else already is, to achieve what they have achieved. It is not about personal achievement or personal accomplishment. I know that is a very fine line, but if you stop and consider it for a moment you will see that imitation is not true accomplishment, in the sense of individuality.

But, really, what is for me the absolute worst reason why being “just like” someone never works is that it is a profound denigration of the other person’s giftedness. Let me explain with a couple of examples.

What would it say if I, below average to low average guitar player, could suddenly (or even eventually) play like John Denver? What is it, exactly, that draws me to his music? One, his guitar playing artistry is, quite honestly, beyond compare. Most of his playing is disarmingly simple, and can be duplicated readily enough (I even had the opening riff to “Rocky Mountain High” down for a brief period.) However, it is not just the technique that makes his playing unique. During most verses his playing is uncomplicated, but in-between verses or in bridges his playing can be extraordinarily complex. But, it is not just the guitar – it is also the lyrics. The guitar ascends with phrases that call us to ascend, and moderate when the lyrics get a little melancholy. His vocal range is unique as well, and the guitar accompaniment and the lyrics are designed to elevate that vocal range. But, it does not stop there – his ability to play an audience is just as critical as his ability to play an instrument or use his voice. Yet another piece, his band members loved playing with him because he allowed them to express their individuality. So, what makes me want to play like JD? The entire package, not just one tiny little piece. Denver himself put into words on a number of occasions what I am aiming for here – he never really took credit for writing his songs. The way he put it, he was just there when the song came floating by, and he was the lucky one who got to write it down, “I had nothing to do with it” he would say.

I can’t, and I don’t really want to after all, be “just like” John Denver, because when all is said and done that would be a blight on my memory of John Denver. It was the gift that John Denver received that made him who he was, and I never want to claim his gift. It was his, and only his.

As a student-in-training-to-be-a-preacher I always wanted to preach like Harvey Porter. I have said this on numerous occasions. From a preaching perspective, Harvey Porter was my idol. I wanted to think like Harvey, to have a command of Greek like Harvey, to be able to combine humor and emotion like Harvey, to be able to speak to thousands at lectureships and to write books and to visit the Holy Land and to be invited to be on university boards of trustees and to be recognized everywhere I went just like Harvey Porter. I think that is a quite common aspiration – young men shape and fashion their dreams to fit their personal hero, be it an athlete or a teacher or a preacher or a fireman or a policeman or a doctor or – the list goes on forever. But, once again, what would I have accomplished if I could have achieved everything I set out to do? I would not have been Harvey – there could never be another Harvey Porter. But, I would not have been myself, either. I would have been a cheap imitation of someone. I would have actually been denigrating, or insulting, Harvey’s true value. I can honor Harvey Porter more completely by being who I am, and in striving to follow the Lord of Harvey’s life.

You see, the real gift, the real blessing, of listening to John Denver or the Statler Brothers or Peter Paul and Mary or in sitting at the feet of Harvey Porter is not the inspiration to play just like John Denver or sing like Harold Reid or preach like Harvey Porter. The real gift is their inspiration to become what you are especially gifted to become. Don’t aspire to play just like your favorite musician, aspire to take what has inspired you through them and then make it your own. Sure, there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn the guitar, but the goal should be to let the guitar become the living, breathing instrument that it can be, not to force it into a box that says, “John Denver” or “Paul Stookey” or “Chet Atkins.” Learn to sing, but don’t limit your accomplishments to a list that is limited to Harold Reid or Charley Pride or C.W. McCall. Let your voice be your voice, and in so doing you will honor your favorite hero more than any other gift you can give.

I wish I could have learned this lesson back when I was a teenager, or a young adult at the very least. Maybe I would not have listened even if someone had given me this article to read. I was (am still?) pretty hard headed. But, I think it is good I finally learned it anyway. I can listen to my records and cds of John Denver and Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Charley Pride and many, many others with less agitation now. Not complete contentment, because those “I want to play/sing just like _________” yearnings are still deep within me. But, I can admire and be amazed by their artistry with perhaps just a little less jealousy now. And, perhaps just a little more maturity that can say, “Wow, I sure am glad they used their own gifts, instead of trying to be just like someone I never heard of.”

Honor your heroes to be sure. Just be sure to do so by becoming the best you can be. You will ultimately achieve far more, and be blessed with a far greater peace.

 

A Little More Theological Doodling

Yesterday I did a little thinking out loud about the references in Leviticus 11-27 regarding the God’s call for his people to be holy. It seems to me to be pretty obvious that God expected his people, the nation of Israel, to be a peculiar, a holy people. I am also equally convinced that God fully expects his “New Testament” people to be equally holy, peculiar. But let me doodle just a little more.

If I may participate in a little speculation, it would not be far wrong to suggest that many people in today’s culture reject the claims of Christianity because, in their mind, so much of the Bible (even the New Testament) is focused on negativity – you can’t do this, you will go to hell if you do that. I would also suggest that most of the things that are prohibited are things that this culture really wants to participate in, such as having absolute autonomy over their sexual nature. Of course, there are a lot of other prohibitions in the Bible, but it seems like the only ones that really provoke people are the ones that regulate with whom and how one might exercise his or her sexual nature.

As I view this phenomenon, I would suggest that this reaction is not against the Bible, but rather a humanistic understanding of what an idol is.

You see, an idol has to be placated. You have to sacrifice to a god in order to implore him or her for a good result, or to alleviate one or more of his more obvious personal animosities. You could never really be on good terms with a god – you were always on the ragged edge of angering him or her, or at the very least, failing to perform some checklist with 100% accuracy. So, you sacrificed in the hopes that your actions and incantations were perfect so that your crops would produce, or that your cows would bear healthy young, or that the rains would come in season. If you messed up, you sacrificed to placate the god’s irascible anger.

Let us then return to Leviticus 11-27 and discover why God called his people to a living holiness –

For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy. (11:45)

Keep my statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you. (20:8)

But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. (20:24)

You shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. (20:26)

So you shall keep my commandments and do them: I am the LORD. And you shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified among the people of Israel. I am the LORD who sanctifies you, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD. (22:31-33)

And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that you should not be their slaves. And I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect. (26:12-13)

“I delivered you from slavery. I have sanctified you. I have separated you from the other peoples of the earth to be my special possession. I will walk among you (have a personal relationship with you). I have broken the bars of your slavery and have made you walk erect.”

Doesn’t sound like an angry, vicious, temperamental god to me. It sounds to me like a loving, benevolent God who acts in grace first and only demands obedience later. It sounds to me like a father who wants what is best for his children, but knowing that children will often act to their own harm, sets beneficial limits to their behavior to protect them. It sounds to me like the kind of God that most people would love to get to know, if they could push past their own understanding of slavish obedience to a malevolent, capricious god.

Now, if that is the picture that God gave us of himself in the Old Testament, under the Old Law, and limited by a national allegiance, how much more should we view God as a loving, gracious, benevolent father who, more than anything, desires a close personal relationship with his redeemed people  under the shadow of the cross?

The more I read the Old Testament, the more I am convinced that we have seriously misjudged its message and significance for Christians. I think it is no small wonder that perhaps one of the most understudied books in the New Testament is the book of Hebrews, the one book that quotes from the Old Testament most frequently. Yes, it teaches us the Old Law (the national law) has been superseded, but it does so in such a way as to magnify the message of grace and redemption as foreseen in the Old Law.

Hmm. Perhaps some more doodling in this subject would be appropriate.

Just Doodling With a Little Theology

Getting some early thoughts down for my sermon on Sunday. Here is an interesting little tidbit of trivia for you to amaze your friends and family – (by the way, all stats are purely hand generated, none of that fancy computer generated, highly accurate kind of statistic).

Between chapter 11 and 27 (the end) of Leviticus, the phrase “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God” or “you shall be holy because I am holy” is used at least 47 times. Forty-seven usages in 17 chapters, which is just shy of three times per chapter. But, if you dig a little deeper, you find that 15 of those 47 occurrences are in chapter 19 alone. That is 15 usages in 37 verses.

Why the emphasis on the being of God?

Because, just interestingly enough, chapter 19 is the one chapter that focuses most completely on the holiness of God. And, Leviticus is the book that focuses on the holiness of God’s people vis-a-vis the being of God. If God is a holy God, then his people are to be a holy people.

And, I know this is tough stuff, but if you are going to be a holy people you have to be holy in everything that you do – which includes worship, but extends to how well you treat your servants and your livestock.

You even let your land rest for one year out of every seven.

Some people argue that we do not preach from the Old Testament because it no longer matters for believers after the cross. I’m not entirely convinced.

I think we do not preach from the Old Testament because we are too scared to think that God might actually expect us to obey him – to be holy – in everything that we do.

(Oh, by the way, that phrase is used in the New Testament too – 1 Peter 1:15, look it up.)

A Well Meaning Absurdity (Welcome to My World)

I have to get a few things out-front and up-top. I’m going to share a quote from a very well meaning gentleman. I have never met this individual, and I truly believe he intends only good, no harm. I have no animosity toward him, and absolutely no offense is intended toward his intentions. But the quote is so absurd, so ludicrous, so off-the-wall ridiculous that I almost lost my mouthful of coffee as I read it. It is just the final nail in the coffin of well-intentioned attitudes that are utterly bereft of any cognitive value. Okay, so I guess I’ve tipped my hand here, so here is the quote-

Being a preacher in a small church can be hard – very hard. Maybe 2-3 elders. Little if any staff – MAYBE a youth minister. So much of this preacher’s work is never seen by the majority of the church. Yet, so many of these people serve for years! May God bless them.

Did you catch it – “Small church” – yet there are two or three elders, a small staff and, catch this, possibly a youth minister on board! Yee haw – such a “small church” would be a huge growth spurt for me!

I hear this kind of rhetoric from a lot of people – mostly those east of the Mississippi, but quite often even from the gilded masses in Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Maybe “small” churches in those states have elders, a secretary or two, and a youth minister. However, from where I sit, the secretary, the youth minister, the education minister, the evangelism minister, the elder/shepherd/pastor, and even the janitor are often the same guy that teaches class every Sunday morning, preaches once or twice on Sunday and teaches a class on Wednesday night. Oh, yeah, there is also planning the VBS every summer, scheduling a guest speaker or two each year, providing 24/7 on call benevolence assistance, preaching for the occasional funeral and wedding, and being available for the local prayer breakfast and sports teams blessing.

I get the sentiment – let’s be thoughtful for the “little guy” who has to muddle through with such a small entourage to carry the train of his robe. But, it is exactly this kind of absurdity that drives me crazy. I have been in full time ministry over 25 years – in five congregations as “the” located preacher, and I have never served in that capacity with an eldership. I have served with two elderships – blessings to be sure – but one was as a youth minister and the other as a campus minister. I really loved having a secretarial team – but I had become so used to doing everything myself I really did not know how to effective use their expertise (and they were GREAT ministers in their own right – ministers as servants of the congregation).

What the above statement reveals to me are two things. First, as mentioned above, I think the intent is genuine and positive – the one who wrote the thought wanted to convey a need to consider those who work in smaller congregations. But, honestly, the quote reveals such a profound ignorance of what “smaller congregations” really means. Ministers who serve small congregations outside of the “Bible Belt” rarely serve with elders, have NO staff, and the only “youth minister” is someone who is willing to take the kids to McDonalds after church services. Where I serve now the nearest fellow full time minster is a 45 minute drive away. I’m lucky. In my last position the nearest fellow minister was over an hour’s drive away – over some nasty mountain passes that become treacherous during the winter.

So, please, do not hurl any invective against me for hating on the person who wrote the above quote. I get, and I appreciate, his concern. But – please do not take the quote with any degree of literalness. I would LOVE to have two or three elders to share my burdens, a staff to help with some of the mundane paperwork, and a youth minister to plan the VBS and bring me my morning coffee.

But, I have the blessing of serving a small congregation, and to be perfectly honest, with the exception of the elders, (which I would genuinely love to have!) I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Quiet Assurance

I’m using my “read through the Bible in a year” schedule to select passages on which to preach each Sunday. I’ve been trying to rotate between the three sections – Psalms, Old Testament, and New Testament. So far this year has been mostly bouncing between the Old and New Testament readings, but I have a bunch of passages to preach from the Psalms in the second half of the year (my reading schedule calls for a reading of the Psalms twice each year.) This Sunday, however, the Psalm reading won out.

I will be preaching specifically on Psalm 46. Notice how this Psalm ends –

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!
The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress (Ps. 46:10-11, ESV)

Have you ever noticed with what a quiet calm so many of the biblical writers faced their greatest fears and calamities? Now, to be sure there are many passages which speak of anxiety and concern. But, just off the top of my head these other passages came to mind as I was thinking about Psalm 46 –

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the LORD, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

Such faith, such calmness, such beautiful literature!

We are truly living in unsettled times – our culture, our morality, our very democracy is being shaken to its roots. What can we do – to whom and to where do we turn?

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore. (Psalm 121)

I have to honestly admit a sense of fear about the future. I fear for my daughter, and for the generation her generation will raise. When our government tells us that men have to be allowed into women’s restrooms, when high school girls have to sue the state of Connecticut in order to be allowed to compete in track events without the presence of male competitors, when presidential candidates openly promote abortion until the very moment of birth – and when a presidential candidate shamelessly promotes his marriage to his “husband,” I have to ask, “Where will it stop?” And, how did we get to this point anyway?

I think I was born without an optimism bone, or muscle. I am Captain Pessimism. Maybe Admiral Pessimism might be more accurate. So, in days like today, in times like these, I really need to hear these passages from the Psalms and Habakkuk.

I think I’m going to be preaching to myself this Sunday. All others are welcome to eavesdrop, if you wish.

What Has Theology to do With Baseball; or Baseball With Theology?

Although I am starting with baseball, please read to the end if you are wondering about the theology part.

In a bizarre, other-worldly sequence of events, I find myself paying far more attention to the Houston Astros (*Asterisks*) cheating scandal than I ever pay to the regular season in baseball. I am what you might call a September-October kind of fan, perhaps a little more if my beloved Dodgers are playing for something serious in the fall. Otherwise, baseball is just white noise to me. This year is totally different. Due to this cheating scandal I am absorbed with trashcans, buzzers, tattoos, center-field cameras and the unbelievable numbers of ways in which you can apologize by blaming everyone around you and never, ever, really even coming close to an apology.

This scandal has riled my emotions for two primary reasons, and probably a whole host of secondary reasons. First, far more than cheating by pumping yourself full of steroids, this scheme by the Astros to steal games affects the integrity of the game itself. It is one thing to steal a home run record, it is something entirely different to literally change the outcome of an entire season. Let’s be honest – unless every ball park had the exact same dimensions, a home run record is quaint at best. To compare the cavernous  old Yankee Stadium with the tiny (relatively speaking) Fulton County Stadium where Hank Aaron played for so many years is just nuts. Also, the height of the pitching mounds changed through the years, the consistency of the baseballs has varied greatly, so, once again, let’s be honest. The only records that really mean something are those where players from different generations can compete on a level playing field, pardon the pun. (Stolen bases comes to mind – the distances between the base paths has never changed).

The second reason why this scandal has so infuriated me (and I mean heart palpitating, hands shaking, wanting to scream kind of infuriation) is that it significantly affected players’ careers and earning potential. I think of Yu Darvish. He was traded after the 2017 World Series and I was eternally grateful. I felt like he almost single handedly surrendered the 2017 World Series to the Astros. Well, now I have to wonder. And, the Chicago Cubs have publicly stated that with his performance in the ’17 series his market value dropped considerably. What could he have earned if he had been a part of the World Series Champion Los Angeles Dodgers? What about Clayton Kershaw, who dominated in the regular season, yet looked like a little leaguer pitching in Houston? What about the pitchers whose ERA ballooned because of the banging trashcans in Houston and were sent down to the minors never to be heard from again? Or who lost bargaining power because of a disastrous outing or two in Houston? What about Aaron Judge, who lost the MVP voting to Jose Altuve, one of the dirtiest of the Houston players? (More on Altuve later). This is what just really chaps my hide about this entire thing. The cheating scheme may not have physically injured someone, but in terms of career damage and financial damage, the results are despicable.

I could add the lack of a sincere apology – but that is to get ahead of myself.

The Astro organization has bent over backwards trying to contain the damage. The only problem is that every time someone from the organization opens their mouth, the damage gets worse. A number of weeks ago Jose Altuve and some other player were almost gleeful that the cheating scandal was behind them – and, they won the World Series so get over it. Then, the owner had to chime in. Yes, they broke the rules, but it never impacted the game. Wait, he never said it never impacted the game, except that he said that very thing not more than 40 seconds earlier. Well, it might have impacted the game, and it might not, you never know, and by the way, we won the World Series so get over it. The players chimed in – yeah, we’re sorry (not), but the cheating never changed the outcome of a game, and we won the World Series so get over it. The utter arrogance of the team is beyond belief.

Apologists have come out and tried to get certain players either completely or partially exonerated. “It was only a few players, “x” player only had “x %” of his pitches identified, blah, blah, blah.” The whole team is dirty. Correa is dirty. Altuve is especially dirty, whether he had a tattoo or not. Verlander is dirty, he of the “I hate cheating in any form or fashion” reputation. Bregman is dirty. The whole stinking team is dirty, and their attempts to wash their dirty laundry in public is repugnant, to be honest.

Oh, and let’s not forget the two guys at the top who are the dirtiest – the owner of the Astros and the commissioner of major league baseball. The commissioner gave the owner a full pardon and whitewash, and the owner has hidden his guilt behind that pardon. Major league players are furious at the Astros, and what is really telling, they are furious at the commissioner because he did absolutely nothing to the players. He could have easily vacated the 2017 World Series title (a serious argument could be made that, even if the Astros did not cheat in the series, their very presence was obtained by fraudulent means, therefore nullifying the final results.) He could have banned the current team from participating in the 2020 postseason. He had a number of options and wiffed on all of them. The players are furious. The fans even more so. I can only imagine how those well behaved fans in the Bronx are going to gently and kindly welcome the *Asterisks* every time they visit New York.

Okay – enough of the scandal – gotta get my blood pressure down. What does all of this have to do with theology? I’m glad you asked.

Our God has so arranged our physical and emotional nature that the concept of fairness is a powerful inborn trait. Doubt me? Just hover near a group of toddlers playing around each other. It doesn’t take very long at all before one or more will scream loudly, “That’s not fair!” Where is this learned, where is this taught? I would argue it is buried deep within us, and whether we admit it or not, we hate it when we are aggrieved and we are mindful of when we are guilty and unpunished.

Balderdash and poppycock, you say? Not so fast, I retort. How many times have you done something wrong, only to have it swept under the rug and then you actually feel worse than if you had been held honestly and equitably accountable? When we do something wrong and are not held accountable two issues are communicated – one, that we ourselves are not important enough to be corrected so that our behavior can improve, and two, the issue at hand was obviously not important so whatever we did to violate the law or command should never have been in place to begin with. In other words, there is a double whammy – we are not valuable enough to be corrected and loved, and the violation was of such inconsequence that it meant nothing to begin with. When those issues are combined in a situation of significant enough size, the ultimate results can be debilitating.

As I said, I think this is something God put deep within each of us, whether we have ever put words to it or not.

This is where confession, repentance, punishment, and forgiveness are so critical – theological issues to be sure!! If there is no confession, no honest and complete grasping of a wrong committed, there can be no path forward. Repentance would be the promise of a lifestyle that denounces and rejects the violation under discussion. There must be some form of punishment and an equal level of forgiveness and restitution. “Justice” without mercy is cruel; “mercy” without justice creates anarchy. God demands both justice and mercy.

I think the two stories of Kings Saul and David are illustrative here (1 Samuel 15, 2 Samuel 11-12). Both violated God’s commandments. You could even argue that David’s sin was far worse than Saul’s. Both gave what appeared to be strikingly similar confessions. Yet, Saul was utterly rejected and eventually died with his sons on Mt. Gilboa, while David lived a long life, forgiven by God and blessed to see a child of an adulterous relationship anointed king. What was the difference?

While the text does not make this crystal clear, David’s confession and repentance must have been sincere, and Saul’s must have been spurious and contrived. In other words, Saul apologized because he was caught and had to in order that he could continue to be king (we won the World Series, so get over it), and David felt genuine sorrow and, at least in some measure, revealed a “new and contrite spirit.” Note that both kings were punished! There can be no forgiveness without adequate restitution. God did not sweep David’s sin away as if neither he nor the sin really mattered. David mattered to God, Uriah mattered to God, Bathsheba mattered to God, and for David to experience restoration he had to feel the whip of punishment, so to speak. The difference between the kings is that genuine David was restored, while fake Saul was rejected.

So, what can baseball fans learn from Saul and David? One, apologies have to be sincere and complete. I have yet to hear one Astros player apologize to any single team or player for cheating. They are mighty sorry they broke the rules, but, hey, they won the World Series so get over it. I want to hear apologies to the New York Yankees, the teams that came in behind the Astros when the playoffs rolled around, I want to hear an specific apology to Aaron Judge, I want to hear a specific apology to Yu Darvish and Clayton Kershaw and to every fan who mistakenly thought that the Astros won all those games with nothing but pure talent. Second, I want to see some legitimate punishment. I want the commissioner to publicly say that there is no way for certain to know that the 2017 World Series was won legitimately. It may have been – and the Astros may have legitimately won the right to compete in the Series. But we do not know that, and we cannot know that because the entire process has been called into question by the systemic cheating plan the Astros used. The 2017 World Series title needs to be vacated – not given to the Yankees or the Dodgers – just simply vacated and the reason why published loud and long. I want the Astros to be banned from the post season in 2020. I want them to play this season for nothing – because their cheating stole at least one season from some other teams and I want them to know what playing for futility feels like. And I want the commissioner to get to the bottom of the entirety of the cheating scandal, and if any other team was guilty then they have to be equally punished – and that includes my beloved Dodgers!! Believe me, as angry as I am now, if it is revealed that the Dodgers cheated as much or more than the Astros I will go positively apoplectic.

And, finally, if the first two items can be achieved, then we need to move on and strive to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. If the apologies are sincere, and the punishment appropriate and measured, then restitution must be equally broad and complete. No bean balls, no spiking the second baseman, no throwing beer on the right fielder. Just play ball.

You see, theology matters, even in the grassy diamond of the baseball field. What does God require of sports teams? How about justice, mercy, and a humble presence before God? (Micah 6:8, Amos 5:24)

Conservatives/”Evangelicals” are Really Beginning to Scare Me

You know, sometimes life hands you an absolute victory, something so easy and so perfect that it would be virtually impossible to mess up.

And, somehow, we manage to mess it up.

Thus I have been thinking about the decision the Mitt Romney made to vote for the the impeachment of Donald Trump, and the immediate (and continuing) vitriolic response to Romney’s decision. Romney has graciously and repeatedly explained his decision – he took an oath to defend the Constitution, and much further than many politicians, he believed his oath was first and most importantly made to God. Therefore, when he came to realize that Trump abused his power (which, I agree with 100 %), he knew he had to vote to convict. It was not a vote of convenience, it was not a vote to placate the maddening crowd. It was a vote of conscience.

Now, conservatives and “evangelicals” (whatever in the world that term means anymore) have been clamoring for years – decades – for more politicians who will uphold their oaths to defend the Constitution. They have been clamoring for years – decades – for men and women of conscience to stand up and be heard, even if (or especially if) that voice is contrary to the herd mentality. So, they get a senator who is willing to defend the Constitution and vote his conscience and what happens? These same conservatives and “evangelicals” are ready to lynch Romney from the nearest tree.

I don’t get it. Here is a perfect example of how conservatives are so perfectly different from liberals, at least in general (not one Democratic senator voted to impeach Clinton). Here was an opportunity to say, “See, the conservative approach (and the Republican party) is the place where people can hold conscientiously differing opinions, and we are all stronger for it.” But, no. Like a crazed group of cannibals, the extreme right (and maybe some of the mainstream right) is having a conniption fit and calling for the head of the one man they should be honoring. And, in so doing, they are demonstrating why I believe that currently neither party can lay claim to being safe or sane. The right wing of the country is seriously beginning to scare me, and that in and of itself terrifies me, because the left wing is so far from redemption that, should they gain power, I honestly do fear for a second “civil” war.

From gender bending issues to abortion to rabidly insane calls for the repeal of the 2nd amendment to the Constitution (and the flat out repudiation of the 1st amendment), the far left wing (is there a center-right wing of the Democratic party??) of this country is becoming seriously deranged. Now more than ever those who consider themselves conservatives, and especially those who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ, need to stand up and defend individuals who hold to their morals, even if (and perhaps especially if) those morals do not align 100% with a given political leader.

We need men and women of courage. We need men and women who will stand up to other elected officials and remind them that we are a country of laws, not of entitled men, and when laws are violated then there must be repercussions. We need men and women of courage who will take their oaths seriously, even if it means voting in a manner that jeopardizes their political future.

I disagree with Mitt Romney profoundly on a number of issues – theological and political. But, I am proud to defend his actions in regard to his keeping his oath, and his reasons for voting against “his” party and president. It may cost him some votes, it may cost him an election, it certainly has cost him within the right wing of the Republican party. Good on him, I say, because for once we see a politician act like a statesman, a leader, and not a sycophant.

I wish we had more like him in the senate and in the house of representatives.

So This is Where We Are Headed

Last night marked a new low in American politics, civics, and common decency. The President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States could not shake hands with each other.

The Speaker of the House ripped a copy of the State of the Union speech in half, in full view of the assembled Senators, Representatives, and members of the Supreme Court, along with other dignitaries.

The most dignified and significant offices of government of the United States are currently being held by the most petulant, childish, immature, and stupid individuals on the face of the earth. And, yes, I do mean “stupid” because their behavior goes way, way beyond ignorant. That was intentional and utterly bereft of any redeeming excuse or explanation.

But, mark my words, it will only get worse – the fetid swamp will only become more fetid and putrified.

Unless . . .

Unless someone, somehow, manages to learn the basic rule of civility and governance – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means unless somehow, someone realizes that in order to save our republic they must cease to be partisan political hacks and become statesmen (and stateswomen, gender neutral).

Yes we can have differences of opinion. Yes we can have different visions of how we want the country to move forward. Yes, we can have honest and fervent debates about those opinions and visions. But, at the current rate of this infantile tit-for-tat, name calling and thuggishness, we as a republic are doomed.

Beam me up, Scottie. There is no intelligent life on this planet. Not in the leadership, anyway.