I May Disagree With the Decision, But I Must Defend the Right to Make It

I just read a horrifying story out of the state of Oregon. A judge has forced a 13 year old girl to undergo surgery for a rare form of liver cancer, over the objections of her mother and the 13 year-old herself. (Here is a link, as long as it is good. story here

I have no idea about the intention of the mother, or the accuracy of the story, or if the girl has been adequately informed of the options and possible outcomes. My issue in discussing this story is the terrifying reality that a state can step in between a parent and a child and compel the child to undergo something as traumatic as liver surgery against the wishes of the parent.

I would imagine that most of us are aware of the reality that a young girl can obtain an abortion without the informed consent of her parents, but this decision launches the debate into entirely new – and dangerous – territory.

There has been ample news coverage of late regarding the parental decision not to immunize their child(ren) against various diseases. In these cases I believe the state has a compelling interest to require those immunizations if the child is going to take advantage of such state funded institutions as schools, daycares, and some sporting events. In these situations I still side with the rights of the parents if they decide against immunization (although I think it is dangerous, and founded on bizarre conspiracy theories). But, the parents must also be held accountable and be told that if they refuse the immunizations, their child will not be allowed to participate in federal or state funded programs. I believe they must also be formally educated about the need for such immunizations, and the cost to the community as a whole if they refuse the immunity, and what can happen in cases of outbreaks of diseases that have almost been eradicated through such immunizations. There is a community component in these cases that is not present in the case of the solitary girl who has liver cancer.

However, taking a child away from the custody of a parent and forcing her to undergo radical surgery is just Orwellian in the extreme, and, if I understand the story correctly, nothing but pure evil. If this decision is allowed to stand, what will be the next step? Will a state decide it has the moral and legal right to remove children from a home and forced to undergo LGBTQ indoctrination if (and when) Christianity is effectively labeled a “disease?” You scoff. You label this a non-sensical “slippery slope” argument. I counter – since when has it been deemed appropriate or legal for the state to physically force a 13 year old child to undergo a radical, and potentially dangerous, surgery when the outcome has, by their own admission, at least a 30 percent chance of failure?

I have written repeatedly in this space about how we are no longer living in the same cultural context that described this nation even 30 years ago. Dear brothers and sisters – it appears that the time for disciples of Christ to stand up and resist these abhorrent decisions is coming far sooner than later. Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated the power of non-violent resistance – the power of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, of like-minded individuals who simply refuse to comply with unjust laws and lawmakers. Will we have to employ those methods in the effort to protect our constitutional right to the free exercise of our religious beliefs? And what should happen if that freedom is somehow abridged? Will we still have the courage of our convictions to stand and protect our children?

This case may be a tempest in a teapot – or it may be the canary in the coal mine that lets us know that the death of religious freedom is surely coming.

I may not agree with this mother’s decision, but for the sake of the freedom of every parent to raise their children as God has given them the authority to do so, I must defend her right to make it.

White Lies, Big Lies, and Extraordinarily Monstrous Lies

A new word has crept into my vocabulary, although not by my choice. That word is “gaslighting,” and I just noticed it reappearing in a number of different contexts. I had to keep looking it up – I would find out what it meant, then forget about it, and then it would show up again and I would have to go through and look it up again.

I would suggest you look up the word in a modern on-line dictionary  (or maybe two or three to make sure you get the full nuances), but in the “Freightdawg” version, gaslighting refers to someone who lies blatantly and unreservedly, then denies any form of deception, invokes every form of belittlement and stops at nothing to tear down the defenses of his or her victim, both mental and physical. Over time, the victim believes he or she is going crazy, and sinks deeper and deeper under the spell of the one who is doing the gaslighting.

I actually thought I was reading a definition of “politician,” but I digress.

The thought occurred to me this morning that millennial generation and the generation that will follow are, and will be, the most gaslighted generations ever to have lived. As a culture, we are simply losing the ability to identify white lies, big lies, and even the extraordinarily monstrous lies.

Major corporations lie without the smallest recrimination. How can you tell that a politician is lying? – when his or her lips move. I think most are aware of the egregious lies that are part and parcel of advertising, but how many of us are actually aware of the lies that are told via movies and television shows? Lies and lying are not just the rare foray into trickery and deception that once was recognized, but scorned, by earlier generations; now lies and lying actually comprise the majority of both our verbal and non-verbal communication.

Now, this is where the concept of gaslighting comes in. It is one thing to lie, and then when caught, say, “Oops, you caught me – that was a lie, and now you know.” Gaslighters, on the other hand, go beyond simply lying, and accuse the innocent victim of being crazy for thinking that the lie is a lie. “How dare you think that I was lying when I said you could keep your doctor and your health insurance!” “What do you mean, to suggest that a person cannot choose their own gender?” “You must be crazy to think that our culture will survive past the next 12 years!”

The next step is to belittle the victim, to make the victim feel insecure and mentally unstable. So, Christianity becomes a disease for thinking that biology actually matters for something, that it is a matter of constitutional law that a person has the right to the free exercise of his or her religious beliefs, that raising a child belongs to the purview of the parents and not the state government. Slowly, but inexorably, the defenses of the victim(s) are chipped away until finally there is nothing left but to rely upon the supposed wisdom and benevolence of the gaslighting bully.

Precisely what is happening on a massive scale in our American culture.

What to do? I hate to sound like a “Chicken Little” here, but the time has come for all who are concerned to literally question everything. I know that sounds radical – and there must at some point be a place of a secure foundation – but I have come to the point that I just do not trust anyone anymore (a bit of hyperbole, to be sure, but close). I cannot trust the government or any elected officials, I  surely do not trust advertisers, I am far too familiar with academia to trust the “assured results of scholasticism.” To be honest, I’m even having a bit of a time trusting spiritual leaders who seem (at least to me) to be far more concerned with placating and pleasing our modern culture than in submitting to God.

I find solace in reading the Old Testament prophets. Repeatedly they warned the Israelites “Do not trust in the military, do not trust in silver or gold, do not trust in foreign alliances, do not even trust your own feelings or intellect. There is one and only one you can trust: trust God and serve him with all your heart, soul, and strength.”

I can trust God, and I can trust those who trust in God alone. Everything else is but a white lie, big lie, or extraordinarily monstrous lie.

Are You Hungry for Bible Study?

Yesterday I opined that far too often in Sunday school settings we settle for the simple, trivial answers to questions. Often that is exactly, and only, what the teacher is searching for. It is a process that has been ingrained in those of us who have been in church class settings for most of our lives. We learn it early in childhood, and the template never changes. Questions are meant to keep the class moving, and if anyone offers a deeper, or different, answer than that which is expected, the whole process bogs down and we actually have to think. I believe there are a number of reasons why we have fallen into this slovenly routine.

First, these surface level answers are a great equalizer. Everyone has heard that the Pharisees are the bad guys in the New Testament, and everyone (or most everyone) has access to Hebrews 11:1 as the answer to the definition of faith. If someone raises their hand and answers with the same answer that I was going to give, I can feel good about myself, and equally feel good about my neighbor.

These answers are also simple – in the sense that there is no complexity to them that requires further examination. Once we learn that the entire point to the parable of the “Good Samaritan” is that if we see someone beside the road that is beaten and half-dead we are supposed to put them on our donkey and carry them to the nearest inn, we have the text mastered and we can get ready for the worship service. The thing about the parables (or at least, many of them) is that they made the original audience furious with  Jesus. If we somehow do not get that edge as we read these stories, haven’t we totally missed the point? In other words, there is much about the Bible that is complex, and it is exactly in that complexity that we are to see ourselves and recognize our sinfulness. To turn every story into a third grade morality play is a horrible way to study the Bible!

I guess that gets me to my third point, and really my major point. We are just lazy students of the Bible. When, for example, was the last time you have really been challenged by a Bible class? If you are a teacher, when was the last time you really made your students uncomfortable? We want the easy, the simple, the milk. Teaching classes that challenge is hard work – it requires hours, not minutes, of preparation, and it requires a mind-set that not only allows for challenging discussion, but actually fosters it. It means actually having to tell a student that his or her response is wrong, or maybe not wrong but inadequate. That means risking upsetting a member, and we all know that is a sin that cannot be committed! Being a student in a class that provokes both thought and response is equally discomforting. It means my cherished answers might, in reality, be wrong. It means I might have to actually listen to my classmate as he or she shares a response that I have not considered before. It means that I might actually have to read ahead and come to class prepared to engage with the material (heaven forbid!!).

To push that point just a little further – when was the last time you assigned an outside book, or were requested to buy an outside book, as the basis for a Bible class? Once upon a time that was the norm – now it is almost unheard of. I think I have a pretty good idea why we have stopped doing that. One, making someone buy a book is just so gauche – it might be expensive (and we can’t make the church actually pay for educational material) or it means that a student is actually engaged with the class subject; two, it might be written by someone “outside the faith” and we cannot under any circumstances be challenged by someone else’s thinking; or three, materials written by our “sound brothers” are just so insipid that there really is no point in buying the book, because they only reinforce the trivial answers that we were going to give anyway. Whatever the reason, I just see fewer and fewer outside reading materials being mandated as supplemental texts.

So much has been said and written about why churches are losing members. Entire forests of trees have been cut down to make paper that has been compiled into books with answers to that question. Could it be, is it even possible, that one very real reason so many younger people are leaving the church is that they come hungry for Bible study and leave even hungrier?

How many times will you go to a restaurant and, instead of the sumptuous entree that you ordered, receive a bowl of cold cereal “because it was easier for the cook to prepare.”

Yea, I thought so.

Teachers, either challenge your students to deeper Bible study, or let someone else teach. Church, demand your teacher give you more than these trivial platitudes. Let us get back to serious Bible study!

The Triviality of “Sunday School Answers”

Hope I don’t step on too many people’s feelings here, but something occurred to me this morning that kind of put a burr under my saddle. That burr is the triviality of most “Sunday School Answers.” What I mean by that is answers that have been rehearsed and refined through the ages to the point that they no longer mean anything, even if they once did. I would add here that the teacher is very likely expecting these canned answers, so he/she exclaims “That’s right” with every offering, and the wheels get so stuck in mediocrity that the bus never gets anywhere.

I have quite a few examples, unfortunately, but here are just the worst offenders:

“Who are the Pharisees?” Answer – those mean, bad, ugly, self-righteous, greedy, conniving miserable little creatures that were the chief instigators of Jesus’s crucifixion and were enemies of the early church. Except that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee who became God’s chosen  vessel to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. And except that it was a group of Pharisees who came and warned Jesus that Herod was out to kill him (Luke 13:31). And except that once we grasp who the Pharisees were and what their goal was, if we were alive in the first century we would have honored them and tried to emulate them. I have never heard a “Sunday School Answer” that says, “We are” because we love to hate the Pharisees, and truth be told, we are a LOT more like the Pharisees than we dare admit.

“What was a publican/tax collector?” Answer – Once again, those mean, nasty, ugly, greedy, conniving money grubbers who conspired with the Roman government and lined their pockets with ill-gotten booty. Except that, when Jesus went to eat with a publican/tax collector, there sure seemed to be a lot of people in the room. And, over in the corner, there were always a Pharisee or two. Hmm. Seems to me that if the publicans/tax collectors were so vile, so hated, so worthy of death, that there would have been precious few of them alive very long to line their pockets with any ill-gotten booty. Likewise, it seems to me that, just like IRS agents today, publicans and tax collectors in the first century would have been viewed negatively by some, positively by others, and simply tolerated by the overwhelming majority. Point of fact – Matthew/Levi had to have been part of a worshiping synagogue or he never could have accumulated the understanding of the Old Testament that he obviously did have as witnessed in the writing of his gospel. He was among the “upper crust” of society, as he had to have been well educated (could not have been an agent of the Roman government and been a grade-school drop out) and the Greek language of his gospel is beautiful. All the evidence we have from Matthew firmly rejects the “Sunday School Answer” that is so glibly given.

Which leads me to, “Describe the first disciples, especially the apostles.” Answer – Well, they were poor, uneducated, ordinary working caterpillars that Jesus rounded up, poured a ton of the Holy Spirit into, and suddenly became brilliant, theological butterflies. Um, if you read the gospel accounts of the calling of the apostles, and add to that what Peter said after Jesus’s crucifixion, the real picture is nothing of that sort. Reading carefully, it appears that Peter, Andrew, James and John had a thriving fishing business going, perhaps in conjunction with James and John’s father, or perhaps under him. Peter’s speeches in the book of Acts, as well as his letters and the writings of John, indicate that while neither might have been professionally trained rabbi or scribe, they were well beyond being simply literate, common yokels. Once again, the Greek of Peter and of John, while not having the flowery effect of the book of Hebrews, or as being as tightly constructed as the gospel of Matthew, are beautiful examples of written Greek. The final rejection of the “uneducated, common man” misnomer of the early apostles (taken and misapplied  from Acts 4:13) is the staggering beauty and complexity of the book of Revelation. NO! God chose “common men” to be sure – they were not the Plato’s and Aristotle’s of the world, but they were not ignorant. I fear this answer has more to do with our aversion to theological education today, and with the (overused to the point of illegitimacy) dictum that you do not have to be educated to understand the Bible. That statement is true to an extent – you do not have to have a secondary degree in theology to read and understand the Bible. But just a cursory glance at some of the so-called “spirit led” utterances of modern preachers and the writings of the hundreds of “churches” in the world confirms that just because a person can read the Bible does NOT mean that he or she can correctly understand it.

“What is faith?” Answer – Hebrews 11:1, either quoted verbatim or paraphrased. The point is that faith is almost exclusively viewed as a mental, a rational, concept. Except that the entire chapter of Hebrews 11 stresses the behavior of those who are praised as having faith. It is a chapter of action, of specific and vibrant action verbs. Nowhere is it intimated or specifically stated that “By faith, ‘X’ sat in a pew on the Sabbath and checked of his/her weekly attendance requirement.” And except that the book of James fervently challenges that “rational only” view of faith. Yes, faith has a rational, mental component. But, if you stop there (at verse 1 and don’t read the rest of Hebrews 11, or the book of James) you end up with an ghastly anemic view of faith. Hebrews 11:1 is the “Sunday School Answer” that most teachers are looking for, and that is just very sad to me. It’s like saying a banana split is made with ice cream, and omitting the important details of the bananas, the various flavored syrups, the fruit of one’s choosing, the whipped cream, and the cherry on top.

Okay, maybe I’ve got that burr from under my saddle. I hope that if you are a teacher of a Sunday school class, and you ask one of these questions (or dozens more like them), you do not let your students get away with these pat, and all too often, trite answers. The questions only have validity if the teacher presses beyond the safe and sanitary answers that we have created, and have passed on from one generation to the next. The Pharisees suspiciously look to me like an awful lot of elders and the “little old lady” pew in many of our churches. The tax collectors kept the engine of the Roman government moving forward – and paid for roads to be built, navies to sail, and peace to be kept. A theological education is not a wicked choice of a career, and we desperately need more honest and faithful theologians in our schools and in our churches. And, lastly, faith is just so, so much more than suffering through a sermon one hour out of a seven day week.

Let us ascend by climbing lower – and deeper! – into God’s word of truth.

Questions (?)

My last post introduced a question about a text in the gospel of Mark (no, not 16:9-20, but that’s a good one too). It is a question for which I have no solid, concrete, irrefutable answer. Many people don’t like that. Their entire faith is built on the existence of solid, concrete, irrefutable answers to every question. In fact, they don’t even like the existence of questions, period. For them, the Christian life is one big, solid, irrefutable truth.

Does your preacher/pastor/priest allow you to ask questions? Are questions allowed in your Bible classes? I don’t mean the childish or self-promoting questions that are intended to trip up the teacher or to promote the superior intellect of the questioner. While we are at it, I do think there are stupid questions – only because the intent is deceptive and mean-spirited. I do not believe any question that has as its focus the desire to learn should be considered “stupid.”

Returning to the topic at hand – what is the official, or even maybe more important the unofficial, policy regarding questions where you worship? Without knowing anything at all about your church, I can fairly confidently make one declaration – if your preacher/pastor/priest or church leadership does not allow, and even encourage, honest, seeking questions then you are a part of a sick church.

I am blessed, richly blessed, to have been able to ask questions in my youth and young adulthood. Like most twenty-somethings, at the ripe old age of, say, 22, I was pretty confident I knew all there was to know, or at least all that was needed to know. That came to a pretty emphatic end. Then, I entered a second phase of my education – my masters degrees – in which I came to realize that maybe I did not even know the right questions to ask. Flash forward some 20+ years and in my doctoral studies I came to yet a third realization about questions: sometimes the question is far more valuable than any answer that is purported to solve it.

Pause for a moment and consider Jesus’s parables. How many of the parables are really open ended questions? Oh, we try to tidy them up and make them self-contained little stories complete with moral and application. I think this just illustrates our ambivalence, or actual irritation with questions. “Just get to the point and move on, preacher!” “Don’t leave the sermon hanging on a question, give me something I can apply in my life!” As a good friend once pointed out in a class on the parables, we want to sanitize the parables and derive and answer that implicates the Pharisees or the Sadducees so that we do not have to deal with the messy, and very problematic, possibility that Jesus is telling the parable to implicate OUR behavior.

I cannot help but believe that one reason so many young people are leaving the church (well, young and middle aged and old) is because the decades that we have spent denying or limiting the honest and seeking question have finally come home to roost. Yes, I am well aware of the research into why people are abandoning the church, and I think each of them has validity. But, thinking back to my teen years, I really do not remember a time in which my Sunday school teacher welcomed us asking questions. My parents allowed me to question, to be sure, and I think maybe that is just one of the reasons why I am so confident in my faith today. I do not believe because I have all the answers, I believe in spite of my questions and my inability to answer them, because I believe there is a God in whom I can trust.

In re-reading this post something occurred to me – I have been “trained” in two different evangelistic methods, and both of them emphatically reject the value of the student asking any questions. The “evangelist” is to deflect every question, to refuse to answer any curiosity the student may have, and is taught to stay “on subject” throughout the entire lesson. Wow. How  completely un-Christ like. What these methods teach, unconsciously for sure, is that the teacher has all the answers, all the truth, and that questions are not and will not be allowed in this church. Just believe what I am telling you and keep your questions locked away.

How utterly pathetic. Not every question has equal value, to be sure. Some questions are “red herrings” meant to deflect attention from a particularly troublesome aspect of the lesson. I get that. But to reject every question? To suggest that no question is worthy of discussion? To imply that the teacher turn a deaf ear to the honest and searching aspect of a seemingly benign question – these are just repugnant concepts to me. Thank goodness Jesus was never trained in these evangelistic methods.

I hope that if you are in a situation where you cannot honestly and faithfully ask a question, that you will be able to find a place where that is allowed. Just remember, Jesus never rejected an honest question – in fact he almost went out of his way to create them. Do not ever settle for a spiritual home in which questions are forbidden.

Ahimelech, Abiathar, and the Historical Preciseness of Scripture

Don’t ask me how I got here – it is a LONG story.

Anyway, the question of the identity of the priest who gave David the bread of the presence came into my mind. For review, read 1 Samuel 22:6-23. There the priest to whom David sought provisions was identified as Ahimelech, son of Ahitub. The story creates at least one significant question of its own, as David was not supposed to eat of the bread period (he was clearly not a Levite), but Ahimelech seemed to be okay with letting David have the old bread to eat, so long as David’s men were ceremonially clean.

Now, the question arises in Mark 2:23-28 where Jesus uses this story as a defense for his disciples plucking a few heads of grain to nibble on one Sabbath day. In the gospel, Jesus clearly identifies the priest (actually refers to him as the “high” priest) as Abiathar, who is named as Ahimelech’s son in the story in Samuel. This conundrum has created no small amount of discussion and debate, and I would caution anyone who claims to know the solution to be very wary – no one except Jesus himself knows why he gave a different name to the priest than the Samuel story.

I, of course, have a truly brilliant and astoundingly simple answer to the question. I don’t know. Now, that is not to say that I don’t have a theory, an educated guess, but my answer and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at your nearest foofy coffee house.

I did not begin this post to solve the problem. I have another fish to fry.

This question (among others) points to a critical issue in reading and interpreting Scripture. There are two equally wrong approaches to facing questions like these. One is to throw up our hands, declare that the Bible is full of contradictions and errors and that we cannot possibly believe any part of it. The other error is to stick our head in the sand and deny the contradiction, or, as a variant, pull out a can of grease and a crow bar and try to manipulate our supposedly more correct and efficient answer to the problem(s). The critical error for both of these responses is that for centuries these discrepancies simply were not interpretive issues for Christians. They were noted and sometimes discussed, to be sure, but they were not viewed with the sinister dread that we have attached to them. And I want to make clear – the manner in which some Christians attempt to make these discrepancies disappear is proof that they are terrified of their existence. Fear is a lousy motivator for textual study!

Those who believe in God’s inspiration of Scripture simply cannot pretend these discrepancies do not exist (1 Chronicles 21:1 and 2 Samuel 24:1 is just another example – was it Satan or the LORD that incited David to count the people?) But we do not have permission to force twenty-first century scientific preciseness on the Scriptures either. Many of the so-called “solutions” I have read concerning these conundrums do far greater damage to the theory of inspiration and the integrity of the Bible than the discrepancies themselves!

I, for one, do not want to minimize, nor do I want to over-stress, these problems. I am not going to throw the Bible away due to their presence, and I am not going to force my altogether human hubris onto the text and say what the Holy Spirit “must” have intended, but somehow was just too clumsy to say.

Reading Scripture is an exercise in humility. We place ourselves under the text, not over it. We face problems squarely head-on, and use the intellect that God gave us to provide answers where possible. We go as far as the text leads us, and honestly and humbly suggest that anything further is our own conjecture and is open to correction or rejection.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and I am convinced that far too many defenders of the Bible have lost that fundamental truth.

A Solid Hit and a Whiff

As I used this space to address President Trump yesterday, I feel it is only appropriate that I return today and give him the credit he deserves for his comments regarding the shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton OH.

First, I appreciate his denunciation of racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. I felt like those were strong statements, and much needed. He also earned my applause by calling for stricter laws regarding the sale of certain weapons (although, background checks are notoriously weak in preventing the kind of attacks we saw over the weekend). He also called for the passage of so-called “red flag” laws, which I also support, that allows for family members to notify law enforcement officers of erratic and potentially dangerous behavior, and if found to be credible, allows those officers to remove firearms from someone. Here in Colorado the state government has passed those laws, and completely inexplicably to me, all the rural law enforcement agencies immediately rebelled and said they would not comply. Holy insurrection, Batman! Here is a tool to keep a lunatic from possessing enough firepower to kill dozens, if not hundreds, of people, and the law enforcement agencies say they will not enforce it? Talk about nuts. But I digress.

Where I feel President Trump failed, and failed miserably, is to acknowledge that his words have fostered a great deal of racist behavior, bigotry, and, yes, actions of white supremacy. I did not expect a confession, though. Trump does not apologize, it is not in his personality, and certainly not in his vocabulary. So, I give him respect for his denunciations, and credit him with a total whiff in regard to taking any kind of personal responsibility.

Before I hit “publish,” I must also comment on the utter hypocrisy of the left regarding these shootings. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the shooter in Dayton was a radical leftist, and had strong leanings toward leftist anarchists rather than the alt-right, looney-toon white supremacists that attracted the shooter in El Paso. So, where is the outrage from the Democratic contestants for the White House? Where are the calls for the radical left to be shunned and censored? You won’t hear that kind of language from the Democrats, because those radical leftists are the very base of the party of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and a whole host of others. Former President Barack Obama came out with a blistering attack on those who promote fear and hatred, and not once did he acknowledge that these extreme leftists depend on stoking fear and hatred of those with conservative, mostly Christian values. If I gave President Trump one thumb up and one thumb down, I have to give former President Obama two thumbs down. Not only did he not acknowledge the militancy of the far left, but along with President Trump, he utterly refused to confess his own responsibility in fostering a climate of racism and bigotry in this country.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we must rise above this political morass. We must demonstrate the self-sacrifice and “love of one’s enemies” demonstrated by our Lord. We can not accomplish this by promoting, or even countenancing the kind of hatred that is being spewed by both the far left and far right in this debate. There is only one way for Christians to respond –

We ascend by climbing lower.