The Fractured State of America

Some rueful thoughts after several weeks of silence.

This is probably just an anecdotal observation, but to these eyes it seems that the “United” States of America are more fractured now than at any point in our history except immediately before, during, and after the War between the States. (Just an aside, but I was going to type “Civil” War, which is perhaps the most moronic of oxymorons. How can you have a “civil” war??) I do not foresee any states seceding from the union, but philosophically the landscape does appear to have a massive gulf that separates the “progressives” from the “conservatives.” Not only is that gulf wide and deep, but the voices which identify with each side appear to be more shrill and vitriolic with each passing day. Neither side can claim very much of a moral high ground – too much of their ground is being thrown at the other side in the form of mud.

I think of Mordecai’s message to young queen Esther, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” We cannot choose the epoch in which we were born, but we can certainly choose whether we are going to allow that epoch to rule our life, or whether we make every effort possible to influence the world around us.

One thing I feel very passionately about – disciples of the crucified Christ cannot afford to lower themselves to wallow in the muck and mire of the current political morass. Yes, we are to hold our convictions. Yes, we are to be “in the world.” But we cannot afford to be “of the world,” and we most certainly cannot afford to allow that world to be “in” us. Sometimes I wonder if God is not allowing this political firestorm to fester simply to test the hearts of those who claim to be his followers. The acid test would be for us to declare – by words or actions – whether we are more Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Libertarian or whether we are willing to be lifted up on the cross of Christ because we refuse to follow the ways of the world.

The apostles of Christ addressed virtually every issue that is causing so much hatred in the “cultural wars” of today – sexual perversion, marriage and divorce issues, just plain old progressivism vs. conservatism – you name it. But, and mark this, every discussion was framed by the question of obedience to Christ or the lord of the world. Obedience was commanded, not to some political party or philosophical orientation, but to the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself said it – you cannot serve God and the world at the same time. At some point you have to make your “pledge of allegiance” clear and loud.

As a preacher and amateur philosopher, I am tempted to passionately address each and every issue currently on the “critical” discussion list. Occasionally, I give in to that siren call. But increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that what is needed is not my opinion (which, despite my most fervent desire, does not matter much anyway), but my obedience to the call of Christ, “. . . he who would be my disciple must take up his cross, and follow me.” In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. Maybe not physical death (although, for Bonhoeffer, it did), but a death to this world, to worldly passions, to participation in a system that is spiritually corrupt, and corrupting, at its very core.

Maybe it’s just me, but I see the right moving further to the right, and the left moving further to the left. What I want to see, and what I think I should be able to see, is the disciple of Christ moving more to the foot of the cross. It is simply impossible to hate your enemy when you look into the eyes of the one who died for you – and for them too!

Yes, dear Christian, Jesus’s blood was shed for your sinful enemy every bit as much as for your (un)righteous self.

Let us remember that as we begin to climb Mt. Moral Superiority.

Let us ascend by climbing lower, and serving those with whom we disagree.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.

Book Review – Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us,  revised and expanded, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 332 pages.

It seems that there is a renewed interest in learning about and practicing “spiritual disciplines” today. That is a good thing – as a people we can never draw too close to God or have too strong of a spiritual appetite. How one goes about learning about the spiritual disciplines can possibly be problematic, however, and that is where a certain amount of discernment is critical in measuring this expanding field of Christian literature.

To be brief to the point of possible obscurity: spiritual disciplines are simply those practices which draw us closer to God. That’s it – there is no magic, no smoke and mirrors, no incantations or potions. Christians have been practicing these disciplines for millennia, most times probably not even thinking that what they were doing was a “spiritual discipline.” Practices such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, meditation – all of these (and many, many more) are all spiritual disciplines. This is not rocket science, and no special amount of knowledge is required.

However, as with any discipline (music, painting, playing a sport, etc) it is always beneficial to learn from others who have progressed further in that discipline than we have. So, purchasing and reading books about the spiritual disciplines is not a bad thing – with one very important caveat: in evaluating books on the spiritual disciplines, it is critical to keep in mind whether the goal is to draw closer to God, or to have a better feeling about the attempt to draw closer to God!

I will illustrate that last sentence with a quote from my father. When I was a little boy I read just about everything I could about fishing for trout – especially fly fishing. Somewhat amused by my earnest endeavor, my father (who was an artist in the skill of understatement) wryly said to me one time, “Paul, I don’t think I have ever seen one trout that has read that book on how to catch trout.” His point was that there are a staggering number of books written about how to catch fish – most of which are written to catch the eye of the fisherman and to create income for the author.

Which brings me to this book on the spiritual disciplines by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Actually, this edition is a revised and updated edition, and I had previously owned her first edition, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious how she could revise and expand it. To her credit the earlier work is largely unchanged, to her discredit she added some sections that, in my most humble opinion, have moved her book from “moving closer to God” to “feeling really good about acting super spiritual.”

Calhoun arranges her book (this one as well as the last) to follow the acronym W.O.R.S.H.I.P. That is she begins with a section on “Worship” proper, then moves on to “Open Myself to God,” “Relinquish the False Self,” “Share My Life With Others,” “Hear God’s Word,” “Incarnate the Love of Christ,” and finally “Pray.” Within each of these sections there are some instructions, observations, and practices that are real gems. And, within a number of the sections there are some practices that I believe are designed more to “catch the fisherman” than to catch the fish.

Whether she is self-conscious about the accusation of being “new agey” and that her practices might be considered more far-eastern than Christian, she repeats in a number of locations that what she is describing goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. This might be true – but just because a practice is old does not make it true or correct or a path to draw closer to God. Living in caves and sitting on poles are also ancient practices – but thankfully we have learned that sitting on poles was not necessarily a healthy practice for spiritual development. So, I genuinely question her emphasis on iconography for example, and her section of “labyrinth” prayer, which has the smell of manufacturing emotions rather than deepening the well of spirituality.

That is simply my reaction, however, and in this field of Christian literature there is a broad, almost indescribably broad, measure of what is healthy and what is not. I tend to be very conservative, and so as I read this literature my mind goes to the question, “is this practice taught or illustrated in Scripture” far more than “does this practice make me feel good.”

I do not want to cast too negative a pall on the book – her section on “Relinquishing the Self” is very good – and there are far more good sections and practices than questionable ones all throughout the book. From my own perspective, the original Handbook was much better, but that opinion and a couple of dollars will buy you a cup of coffee just about anywhere you go.

Bottom line, one qualified thumb up – but let the reader beware. I don’t think God has read many books on how to draw close to him either. After all, he wrote the best one on the market.

“And You Will Know That I Am The LORD Your God”

I have stated verbally, and I think in this space too, how I believe I am experiencing some of the best Bible study this year that I have ever been able to accomplish. That is both reassuring (thankful I am not going backward) but also embarrassing. I feel like I should have been at this point many years ago, but I guess some skulls are just thicker than others. Anyway, what has helped me tremendously this year is that I am using fine line markers to highlight, and in some cases, make notes in my Bible. This has helped me see some powerful messages in books where previously I would just skim over or glide past certain words or phrases. I noticed one such phrase while recently reading through Ezekiel. When one phrase (or even word) keeps reappearing in a chapter or book, it is time to pull out the ol’ thinking cap and ask what the author was trying to communicate. So, I offer the following as both result of my reading and for your continued thoughts.

The phrase that caught my attention is, “And you will know that I am  the LORD your God” and numerous variations. Sometimes it is second person in speaking to the Israelites (“you”) and sometimes it is third person (“they”) in referring to the nations. At least once a specific nation is mentioned – Egypt!

So, here is what I discovered in my non-scientific, non-computerized, and non-original Hebrew language analysis: that phrase (or a variation) shows up 60 times in the book of Ezekiel. What makes this even more profound is that the phrase does not appear in 23 out of the 48 chapters – therefore, if my math is correct, Ezekiel uses the phrase 60 times in 25 chapters. In a couple of chapters (20 and 25, to be specific) the phrase is used 5 times!

There are a number of other phrases that convey basically the same thought, but in different expressions: “They shall be my people, and I will be their God,” “I am (or will be) your God,” “I the LORD sanctify them,” “I the LORD have poured out my wrath.”

So, I ponder – why this emphasis? Why is it so critical for Ezekiel to communicate that YHWH is God, and that the people will finally understand this? Did they not know that YHWH was God? Were they not good, devout, wholesome Jews?

In a word, no. God had to show Ezekiel this, and he did so in a dramatic fashion, taking Ezekiel in visions to the Temple in Jerusalem where Ezekiel saw how corrupt the worship of the priests had become. They had drawn images on the walls of the temple depicting foreign gods, and both the priests and the leading women of the nation were actively involved in idol worship. In a dramatic, and what had to be for the faithful a crushing scene, God is so fed up with the nation that he gets into his chariot and leaves the temple and the city in order to allow it to be destroyed by the Babylonians.

All well and good for those faithless Jews, you might say, those ignorant hooligans who had every blessing in the world yet turned their backs on God.

And I ask, the church in America is different how?

We all, liberal and conservative, wrap our interpretation of the Bible in the American flag, and use patriotism as the primary lens by which we invoke the Word of God. We all, liberal and conservative, refuse to consider or apply the teachings of Scripture that not only challenge, but destroy, our pet ideologies. We all, liberal and conservative alike, have removed God as the sole arbiter of our thoughts and intentions and words, and we have replaced him with pragmatics (what works) or cultural relativity (what is) or shallow emotionalism (what I feel) as the basis of our theology.

Consider this: notice how Republicans (in general) passionately argue that all pre-born life is sacred, that regardless of how a baby was conceived (even through rape or incest) or what might or might not be considered “defects,” that life is precious in the sight of God and must be protected. Democrats (again, generally) reject that thinking, and argue it is up to the whim of the mother to decide who is allowed, or is rejected, entrance at the border of life. In the issue of immigration the roles are reversed 180 degrees. Republicans (I repeat, generally) argue it is the right of a sovereign nation to decide (i.e., “freedom of choice”) who is admitted entrance, and careful examination must be made to decide if a life is “worthy” to be granted visitor or citizen status. Conversely, Democrats (same song 4th verse) argue that all life, regardless of whether we “want” the immigrant or whether he/she exhibits any “defects” should be granted admission.

And, both sides appeal to the Bible for support of their views.

Can there be any more stark of a contrast in how we allow politics and “patriotism” to color our interpretation of Scripture?

Dear Christians, brothers and sisters, can we not see here how critical it is for us to stand under Scripture, and to argue that all life is precious, created in the sight of God – and at the same time remember the repeated and emphatic commands of God to treat the alien, the fatherless, the poor, the destitute, with love and compassion? Why is it either/or? Why can we not, as those who are supposed to understand forgiveness and grace so much more than anyone else, extend that grace to all people – people who look like us and people who don’t look like us (or believe what we believe)?

I will admit to my own fears and shortcomings in this regard – I have to deal with my fallen humanity just as much as the next guy (or girl). But – Christians are called to a higher standard. We are not called to just aspire to the Constitution of the United States of America. We are called to aspire to the Being, the very nature, of God.

The very same God who sent Israel (and Judah) into Assyrian and Babylonian captivity because they forgot God.

God promised Ezekiel that following their punishment, both Israel and the nations would learn that He, the LORD, is God.

Will the church ever learn that?

No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.