The Consequences of Trivializing Sin

[Continuing my thoughts from yesterday, SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo]

I think, on a fundamental level, we just do not fully understand sin. As I pointed out yesterday, we may have a pretty good grasp of individual sins, as in moral deficiencies, but I am just not convinced that we really have a handle on SIN. This, I further believe, has at least two huge repercussions. The first is in relation to our understanding of the cross as made explicit through the act of baptism, and the second is our lack of understanding (or appreciating) the depth of the pervasiveness of sin as a systemic issue in our lives. I will have to save point two for a later post.

To set the background for my first point, let me use the only example I can speak confidently about – my own experience. During my early teen years I watched as all of my peers stepped forward and were baptized. I watched as they went into the water, and then came out of the water basically the same person. I never really noticed any changes, and in one or two cases, they actually became more accomplished sinners! I fought being baptized for this very reason – I just did not see much of a change in the lives of my friends. Then one day I too stepped forward and was baptized. I went into the water and came out of the water basically the same person. I felt a little different, at least at first, but as time wore on it was pretty obvious to me at least that there had not been much of a change in my life.

The problem was, at least as I can analyze it today some 40+ years after the event, that before I was baptized I considered myself a pretty good person. Oh, I was only too aware of my sins, but nobody is ever perfect, and since everyone around me considered that I was a pretty good person, I was only too willing to go along with the general consensus. Thus, when I was baptized I was vaguely aware that a legal transaction had taken place, that my sins were forgiven, that I was now a member of the church of Christ.

But, on an existential level, nothing had really changed. I came out just as self-centered, just as prone to anger, just as narcissistic, and just as capable of “playing the game” as I was was when I entered the baptistery. The only real difference, as far as I could tell, was that over the course of a couple of minutes I had now become an “insider” where before I was an “outsider,” and I was now “saved” where just a few minutes earlier I had been “lost.” I could now partake of the Lord’s Supper, and, as I am a male, I could lead in worship.

Outside of the generic Bible classes to which we were all being subjected, I had not been discipled. I was not at that time being discipled. In fact, no one ever took me and became my mentor, my teacher, my “discipler.”

This is just a guess, but I am thinking that my story could be repeated hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of times for young people in my generation, maybe even other generations.

If all baptism is supposed to do is to be a legal transaction, a “rite (and sometimes a right, something owed and expected) of passage” and a place marker that separates the insiders from the outsiders, the “saved” from the “lost,” then I think the main reason is because we have completely lost an appreciation of what sin really is. By extension, we have completely lost an appreciation of the meaning of the cross.

The “gospel plan of salvation” as it was presented to me illustrates my conclusion perfectly. We are taught, at least once upon a time in the Church of Christ kids were taught, to “hear, believe, repent, confess and be baptized.” That was it. That was the “gospel plan of salvation.” That was the Church of Christ equivalent to praying the sinners prayer or inviting Jesus into your heart. Notice nothing followed “be baptized.” It ended right there. Oh, in some presentations there is lip service given to “live a good life,” but really, what does that mean? For virtually every kid that ever grew up within the Churches of Christ, we WERE good kids before we were baptized (or so we thought, very, very few would have confessed to being “sons of disobedience”) and we continued to be basically good kids after we were baptized. Sin, if it was mentioned at all, was illustrated by dancing, smoking, doing drugs, having sex with our girlfriends (or boyfriends, if you were a girl), or maybe using “cuss” words or looking at magazines that were hidden behind brown wrappers at the convenience stores. That is, sin was simply a list of moral failures, a long list of things to avoid. I was never taught that SIN was a realm, a spiritual dimension of my life presided over by a malevolent “prince of the power of the air” as the apostle Paul describes him in Ephesians 2:1.

It is dreadfully difficult, if not impossible, to renounce something you never knew existed, or continued to exist, in your life.

Sadly, what I have described as my experience is the very same message I have been preaching for years. I can remember baptizing a number of young people, or at least having a part in bringing them to baptism, and then just dropping them. No discipling, no mentoring, no bringing them to an awareness of the seriousness of the concept of sin. They were “lost,” now they were “saved,” so move on to the next target. If no concept of sin, then no concept of grace, of forgiveness, of the cross.

God, save us from our arrogance!

As I am learning in my studies in Ephesians (and, thereby retroactively to other of Paul’s letters), Paul did NOT have this misunderstanding of sin. For Paul the awesome reality of the seriousness of sin was as real as the nose on his face. Paul’s converts were dead in sin, until they died with Christ in the waters of baptism (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 6:1ff; 1 Cor. 15:1ff; Gal. 3:27-28). [Aside here – I just realized today the power, and really the beauty, of Paul’s usage of the words death and dying. We are all spiritually dead outside of Christ, until we die to ourselves and to the world, so that we might live in Him. Wow.] There are only two realms for Paul – we are either in the world, or we are in Christ. The one is under the power of the “prince of the power of the air,” the other is to be ruled by Christ and his Father. Although God is ruler over all, Paul was still aware that for those who so desired, Satan was very much a power and lord of their lives.

As I mentioned yesterday, if sin is only a catalog of sins, if sin is simply a matter of mastering a few moral deficiencies in our lives, then the cross is emptied of all of its power. It should be more than obvious that agnostics and atheists can live as moral, or sometimes even more moral, lives than some “born again” Christians. If morality and ethics are the only issue, the cross becomes literally and physically meaningless. And, if the cross is meaningless, then our baptism means that we only got wet.

I have so much more to say on this issue, but for the moment, I must pause. I hope that these meditations have been valuable to you. I hope that you are reading Ephesians along with me. I hope that either through my words or through your own study you can come to grasp what Paul is telling these Christians. Sin is nothing to trifle with. Sin is not just a violation of a little children’s song. A cosmic battle is taking place, and SIN is the realm into which this world has fallen. There is only one rescue from this realm, and that is the cross of the Messiah, the blood of Jesus.

If we cannot grasp that first reality, then the second is of no use whatsoever.

SIN – It’s Not Just a Little Boo-boo

It is amazing the extent to which we humans have gone to protect our self-esteem. Take, as just one example, the topic of sin. Sin is something other people do. Better yet, sin is something that people used to do, but now, thankfully, we have moved beyond such Victorian concepts. Regardless, no one wants to consider themselves a sinner. While others might be lazy, I am thoughtful. While others are angry or violent, I am justifiably responding to injustice. While others are narcissistic, rude, selfish, I am asserting my rights. As I said, it is remarkable how no one sins anymore.

This thought occurred to me as I have been working through the book of Ephesians. I have exhibited a certain degree of naïveté regarding the book of Ephesians – I have never really studied it in depth or, to the best of my knowledge, preached through it. Okay, let’s be a little more honest and say I have been ignorant about much of Ephesians. Doggone it, let’s call it what it is – I’ve been pretty stupid regarding many of the key issues regarding Ephesians. Ephesians has been for me what it is for many Christians – the go-to book if we want to emphasize grace, or the seven “ones,” or the spiritual gifts given to the church. Everything else is pretty much just background noise.

It took me three weeks to wrap my mind around how much importance the apostle Paul puts on the church in chapter one. And, I’m not really sure I did a very good job at that. Those who disparage church membership, or the importance of the church, are in for a real shock when they meet Paul – if they get a chance to, that is.

So, this week it was supposed to be chapter two. I’m all of three verses in, and already I am swimming in molasses.

I am, like I dare say virtually all of us, a child of my culture. I have been taught, and have basically worked with the idea, that sin is a matter of moral lapses – little boo-boos from which we are called to abstain. Sin is saying a naughty word, or violating that sacrosanct childhood song we were taught in Sunday school, “O be careful little eyes what you see…” As we age the examples of sin get bigger, such as having sex with someone who is not your spouse, or maybe shooting the person who slept with your spouse, but fundamentally sin is committing a moral no-no.

I don’t think that is exactly what Paul meant by sin, or at least what he meant by SIN. As the first three verses in Ephesians 2 makes clear, SIN is something much larger. Infinitely larger, in fact.

Notice Paul can use the word sins in the plural, but he moves immediately to the real issue – that of SIN. For Paul SIN is following the Ruling Power* of this world, the “prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” (Eph. 2:2, ESV) Paul confesses that we all “once lived” among this power, and gave into the passions of our flesh and desires of the body and mind. So, the specific, individual sins are present, but they do not constitute the totality of SIN.

Let me digress just a moment. In our technological, scientific worldview, evil spirits (or The Evil Spirit) no longer exists. If we have a flat tire, it is because we ran over a nail, not because the evil sprite of travel has turned against us. If we get cancer, there must be a medical explanation, not that we are being singled out by an evil, deceased ancestor as punishment for some unconfessed crime. We are thoroughly, completely, and irrevocably scientific in all we say and do.

As I study the apostle Paul, I am not at all sure that he would agree. SIN is not just violating a little children’s song. SIN is systemic, it is the presence of a malevolent being under whom we all live (or, for Christians, lived). SIN is following the prince of the power of the air. And, read in context of chapter one, a person is either IN CHRIST or IN SIN. There is no middle ground, no neutral field.

This is significant – critically so – for one very important reason. If sin is just a moral boo-boo, if it is just not averting our “little eyes” when they see something naughty, then sin is purely within our human power to overcome. We can rationally analyze it, make the necessary adjustments to avoid it, and then, with all of our mental and emotional powers fully under our control, eliminate it from our lives.

For Paul this is all just humanistic hogwash. SIN is way beyond anything you or I can control, or even more ridiculous, eliminate. SIN is a spiritual reality, controlled by a malevolent personification of the “Prince of the Power of the Air,” for which there is only one cure – the grace of the all powerful God (Eph. 2:5, 8). And, as Paul will later argue, it took Jesus dying on the cross to effect that cure. As Paul will go on to say, Christ has defeated these powers through his death on the cross, and chapter one has already made clear that the principalities that carry out the orders of the demonic Prince have been overcome and now lay at the feet of Christ, but they have not been eliminated! The powers have been defeated, but are still present!

If we dismiss this reality, if we read Paul with twenty-first century eyes (as I have tended to do) we reject a fundamental truth of Scripture – inspired by the Holy Spirit. In doing so we moralize sin and make it something we can control, even overcome. And, in so doing, we utterly and completely underestimate the power of SIN. (And, not to make this post too long, we thereby completely minimize the event of the cross. If all it takes to overcome sin is to “be careful little eyes what you see” then the death of Jesus was totally unnecessary, and an utter waste.)

We might be able to avert our eyes when we see something naughty. We might even be able to learn how to bite our tongue and not verbally abuse a front desk clerk who fully deserves every syllable of our attack (mea culpa, I was not, and don’t ask). Agnostics and atheists alike can be, and often are, more “moral” than the little widow ladies sitting on the “amen pew.” But we will never, no how, and no way, be able to overcome the power of SIN. The only way to walk in the realm where SIN has been defeated is to live in the realm IN CHRIST, and that is one of the main points of the letter to the Ephesians.

I think I have a lot more to learn about the world view of Paul, and that points to a lot more than just naïveté. That points to laziness, sloth, indolence. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

*As my study today revealed, the word translated “course” in Eph. 2:2 in the ESV (otherwise translated “age”) can have the meaning of “ruler” or “power.” In this sense it would be parallel to, and a synonym of, the word translated “power” in the phrase, “power of the air.” So, I have chosen to follow this line of thinking, in which Paul is simply being redundant for the sake of emphasis. Paul is saying that, prior to becoming a Christian, a person followed the Ruling Authority, or Ruling Power, of this world, and in a parallel idea, followed the Prince of the Power of the Air. This, I believe, more powerfully conveys Paul’s underlying message – we are hopeless against such power without the overwhelming power of the redeeming death of Jesus on the cross.

Embarrassed to be Christians?

Something occurred to me today at the intersection of my outside reading and my study of the first chapter of the book of Ephesians. It is not so much an answer, but more of a question. Could it be that one of the greatest existential questions (challenges) facing the church today is that we are, on a fundamental level, embarrassed to be Christians? That being a member of something called the church is humiliating? That we have to change who we are to be more like the world because we believe that the world is actually more valuable than our identity in Christ?

Just ponder with me for a moment. How do we show our pride in our sports teams? Do we slink into a game 10 minutes late, hoping to find a seat on the back row? Do we reach into our wallet and drag out some tattered bill or two to hand to the usher as he walks by and asks for the price of admission? Do we rush out of the game the moment that our team scores, grateful that the game is finally over and we can get back to “important” things?

Or . . .

Do we show up hours early, complete with grill and enough food to cook for our family and for any strangers who happen by? Do we show up decked out in our team’s colors, wearing a replica jersey of our favorite player? Do we buy our tickets weeks, if not months early, so that we can select the seats that provide the best view of the field? Do we enthusiastically purchase additional trinkets and baubles that proudly proclaim our affection for the team and its players?

Do we buy over-priced tickets to see our favorite musician and then complain because he/she/they played all of their old songs? Do we gripe and complain that the concert was too long? Do we demand that the band or the musician play only our favorite pieces? Do we leave in a huff if, for some unknown reason, someone else’s favorite piece is played instead of ours?

Do we stop watering our lawns because they have to be mowed every week? Do we let our gardens go fallow because a few dandelions grow among the tomatoes or the carrots? Do we just let our roses die because there happens to be a few thorns on the limbs?

You see, just as much (or maybe more than) our issues with theology or doctrine, our issues with the church have to do more with our embarrassment to be associated with something that is imperfect, that has a few weeds, that just does not seem to be as important as the “rest” of our lives. We have no issue with spending exorbitant amounts of money to support our favorite sports teams, or musicians, or hunting or fishing, or any other hobby. But let a church leader ask for more money for a ministry of the church and you would think he was cutting off our big toe. We can show up hours early to stand in line for movie, but get to worship assembly on time? Ridiculous. We will primp for hours getting ready for an important meal, or date, or business meeting, and we show up to church assemblies looking like the rat that came crawling out of the sewer.

I think for a majority of us to a great extent, and for all of us for a lesser extent, we are just embarrassed to be a part of something called “the church.” We constantly try to remake our services to resemble popular entertainment, from music down to our clothing. We do not want to draw attention to the fact that we are called to be distinct. We do not even want to be distinct. We want to blend in, we want to look like and sound like and be like “normal” people. That way we will not risk being thought of as “nerdy” by all the “cool” people.

Just look at the way the church has so utterly and completely rolled over and allowed the “gender fluid” culture to redefine what it means to be a man or a woman (I know, such binary thinking is just so embarrassing!).

Now, compare the picture I have just drawn regarding the modern church to Ephesians 1. Notice the superlatives that Paul uses in describing the church. Notice how many times he refers to the saints, you know, the common ordinary Christians in Ephesus. Notice what God has given the church, which is the body of Christ. Superlative after superlative, gift after gift, blessing after blessing. Its almost like, if you can imagine it, Paul is actually proud of the relationship he and the Ephesian Christians share with each other in the church, which is to say, in Christ. He is certainly not embarrassed by it!!

Jesus warned the Laodicean Christians that, due to their lukewarm attitude, he was going to spew them out of his mouth. I just wonder, is being embarrassed to be a Christian any better than being lukewarm?

Sound Conservatism

Those who read my post yesterday, (Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran) who are otherwise unaware of who I am, may have come to the conclusion that I am some kind of flaming liberal. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. I may be a flaming dingbat, but I digress. My point yesterday was to illustrate how conservatism can be, and has been, coopted by ideologies that ultimately destroy healthy conservatism. There is a sound, healthy conservatism, and I believe the Bible teaches that conservatism.

After writing yesterday’s post, it might be surprising for me to say today that biblical conservatism contains aspects of each of those three distortions of conservatism I dismissed. While I firmly reject the conservatism of the political Sadducees, the legalistic Pharisees, and the escapist Qumran covenanters (perhaps the Essenes), I do believe that biblical conservatism holds the basic truths of those movements, but in a way that fundamentally rejects where each of them ends up.

In terms of the political Sadducees, there is a sense in which biblical conservatism seeks to maintain a healthy equilibrium, a measure of the status quo. Even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God’s chosen people can exist, and can even pray for the leaders, in any and every human culture. Daniel did not seek to overthrow Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah commanded the exiles to pray for their Babylonian captors. Both Paul and Peter encouraged Christians to pray for the leaders of a godless, pagan Roman empire. This is because, as I firmly believe, the Kingdom of God transcends human politics. The kingdom is dynamic, and will eventually work to overcome those pagan cultures, but it is not dynamitic – it is transformative but it is not revolutionary. Where the Sadduccean view of conservatism goes awry is that it seeks to maintain a certain political status quo for purely selfish and covetous reasons. It is all about power, and Christians today who are pressing for a political solution for moral issues have sold their soul to the devil when it comes to power. Power corrupts – and there is not a single elected official who does not have to deal with the issue of how to exercise his or her power. Human nature being what it is, and Sin being what it is, that power is virtually always turned inward, and the more power the more selfish and egotistical that power holder becomes.

Regarding the legalistic Pharisees, the Bible clearly enjoins faithful obedience to the laws of the Kingdom of God. The New Testament nowhere repeals every injunction of the Torah (a point not often understood). Jesus himself, in that oft quoted passage (Matthew 23:23-24), clearly states that obedience of the letter of the Law is not to be ignored, but that what is more critical is that the “weightier” concepts (justice and mercy and faithfulness) to which the letter of the Law points is to be observed with greater diligence. To ignore what the Pharisees were trying to protect is to totally misunderstand their righteousness (see especially Matthew 5:20). Jesus never condemned the Pharisees because they were concerned with protecting the Law of Moses. Jesus condemned the Pharisees because they elevated a legalistic interpretation of the Law over the spiritual message that the Law was pointing to. Today’s Pharisees are not to be blamed because they are devout in wanting to follow God’s commands to the furthest extent that they can see them. Where today’s Pharisees share with their historic counterparts is in their devout, almost psychotic, elevation of their interpretation of some jot or tittle of Scripture and who completely miss the truth of that text. Just as one example, yesterday I mentioned an overly literalistic interpretation of the age of the earth. Now, no one knows how old the earth is, and I defy anyone, scientist or theologian, who can prove to me conclusively that he or she knows otherwise. It simply cannot be done – and do not even start with Archbishop Ussher’s chronology – I’ve seen it and while I appreciate its scope, I reject its basic premise. However, today’s Pharisees mandate that a believer holds to a very specific age of the earth, and anyone who disagrees with them is a heretic, certain to be excommunicated if not burned at the stake. It does not matter to them if there are other possible scenarios (and the entire thrust of Genesis 1-3 is utterly ignored). The only thing that matters to them is whether their interpretation is unquestionably accepted as absolute truth.

That leaves the Qumran covenanters, and once again, there is a level of legitimacy to their desire to separate themselves from the pagan society in which they found themselves. Jesus himself clearly taught that there are firm boundaries between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Paul taught that the call of Christ is a call to “come out” of the world and enter into a new realm – to become citizens of heaven. Peter addressed his Christian readers as exiles in this world. This is an aspect of the Kingdom of God that I find disturbingly missing from much of contemporary Christianity. Within the Churches of Christ we have deep roots in this line of spirituality, and the fact that we have virtually eliminated that strain of thought has weakened our message and out influence considerably. We (and I speak as the majority of Churches of Christ) are far too comfortable in this world, and we have welcomed far too much of the world into our congregations. However, taken to a radical extent, this desire to separate from the world leads to a spiritual pride, and even a physical separation, that is wholly unknown in the New Testament. Paul called on his readers to separate from the world, not at all meaning they were to leave their cities and move to the desert, but that they were to separate themselves from the behaviors and practices of those who were “outside” of the kingdom. It is possible, and even biblically commanded, that Christians are to be separate, to be God’s Holy people. But we can never allow that command to countermand the equally valid injunction that we are to salt and light in a bent and broken world.

So, while I firmly reject the political compromises of the Sadduceean conservatives, and the legalistic dogmatism of the Pharisaical conservatives, and the utopian escapism of the Qumran conservatives, I do equally affirm the reality of a sound, healthy, biblical conservatism. I believe that the church must profess the last, while rejecting the excesses and errors of the first three. There is, to use Aristotle’s term, a “golden mean” that allows a disciple of Christ to be thoroughly conservative, and yet at the same time be energetically concerned with the social issues of the day. It requires that we be thoroughly biblical – that we be Old Testament Christians as well and New Testament Christians. It means that we have to re-learn some texts that we have either forgotten or have ignored – mostly the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

But it can be done. And, when we dive deeply into those books we discover a wonderful new world – it is the world of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran

Reading Lesslie Newbigin’s appraisal of how history is interpreted in various religions got me to thinking. Newbigin’s point was that Christianity, as opposed to the religions of Hinduism or Buddhism, views history as a linear concept – there was a past, there is a present, there will be a future. The eastern religions tend to view history as cyclical, as repetitive. Humans are caught in a never-ending cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth. The only way out is to empty oneself so totally as to achieve “oneness” with the total, the complete, the one. For Christianity, history as we know it has a purpose, a goal, a telos. For the eastern religions, history is meaningless, there is no “point” to history.

Newbigin’s point is well taken, and as he spent many years in India, he should be well educated about the difference between Christianity and Hinduism. But reading his argument got me to thinking – how do you fit the despair of Ecclesiastes into the “history is linear with a goal at the end” viewpoint? Doesn’t the writer of Ecclesiastes stress “whatever has been will be, there is nothing new under the sun?” It is an interesting paradox.

Which, after a long and convoluted conversation in my mind (which will not be recounted here), got me to thinking about the difference between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and the Qumran covenanters, sometimes referred to, although not perfectly identified with, the Essenes. Each of these three groups are, in their own peculiar way, a manifestation of what we would refer to as “Conservatism.” That is, unless I am just horribly mistaken. This leads to some interesting connections to today (ergo, my lead-in with the “history as linear vs. cyclical” conundrum.)

The Sadducees were conservative in that they were entirely comfortable with the status quo, and did not want anything to disrupt their grip on the religion and piety of the people. As stewards of the temple cultus, the Sadducees had carved out a level of peace with the Roman invaders, and while they might protest the Roman occupation on a surface level, they knew that the Pax Romana also guaranteed their place as power holders in the Jewish culture. Thus Caiaphas’s view that it was far better for one man to die than for the people (i.e., Sadducees) to lose their place.

The Pharisees made their conservatism manifest in a much different form. If the Sadducees were concerned about the status quo of the present, the Pharisees were concerned about preserving a view of the past. Theirs was a legalistic conservatism, built upon a strict interpretation of the Torah. They were the stewards of the synagogues, and as such, did not necessarily conflict with the Sadducees as much as just come from a different foundation. The issue with the Pharisees was not a political alliance with Rome, but a spiritual purity that really had no specific relation to politics. In other words, they were not so much concerned with their political relationship with Rome, as they were their obedience to a literal and historic interpretation of the Torah. As long as Rome recognized their independence, they had no quarrels with the empire, and probably were quite pleased to live under the protection of the Pax Romana.

The Qumran covenanters (whether they were Essenes or not), were conservatives of yet a third stripe. They represented the escapist, the monastics, the “hunker and bunker” mentality of conservatism. They were so convinced they were the “righteous remnant” (a view probably shared by both the Sadducees and the Pharisees!) that they felt they had to leave the corrupt world and escape to a safe place where only the most pure could dwell. They lived in as much isolation as they could achieve, and we know about them only through their writings, which although are numerous, are equally shady,  difficult to decipher, and open to a multitude of interpretations. They utterly rejected the self-seeking conservatism of the Sadducees, and they were equally dismissive of the antiquated conservatism of the Pharisees. They viewed both as cultural traitors and their faith as compromised. The only response was total, complete, and uncompromising withdrawal from both of these “secular” forms of the faith.

So, is history cyclical? Now, I am not a Hindu or Buddhist, but there is something about these three groups that is alarmingly contemporary. Which, I believe, confirms the truth and wisdom of the Preacher of Ecclesiastes. History is linear – there is a point, there is a goal, there is a telos. But, equally, there is nothing new under the sun. Life is not cyclical in that we are in an endless loop of birth, life, death and rebirth, but humanity is remarkably dull and unimaginative when it comes to issues of ultimate importance.

Take modern conservatism, for example.

There are voices in the church that are clearly Sadduceean. They just want to “get along.” They do not want to ruffle any feathers, because they have made their peace with the political powers. They fear that if there is any turmoil they will “lose their place.” So desperate are these people that even when culture shifts in totally bizarre and unimaginable ways (witness the increasing militancy of the gender-fluid protagonists), they willingly go along with these cultural shifts so that they will not be stripped of their political, and outwardly religious, authority. Scripture is constantly being reinterpreted so that whatever “is” is blessed by God, and no one, especially of the Sadduceean mentality, is capable of challenging the cult of progress.

The ancient Pharisees have their modern counter-parts too. Chained to interpretations of Scripture that have not changed in decades (if not centuries) these folks are not so concerned with political power as they are religious power. Every jot and tittle is counted and measured, and if any word or deed conflicts with tried and true understandings, the new teaching is immediately labeled a heresy and the guilty is expunged. The specific topic of the modern-day Pharisee might vary, but the biggest issues today seem to be the only acceptable translation of Scripture, the literal (and specific) age of the earth, and how the worship service of the church is to be conducted. Related issues such as church architecture and proper decorum are never very far under the surface. Mint and dill and cumin are carefully counted and God’s tithe is duly given, but justice and mercy and righteousness are largely ignored.

Finally, the Qumran covenanters have their fair share of modern followers, too. These folks are, just like the Sadducees and Pharisees, devoutly conservative. So conservative, in fact, that they cannot stay in to day’s raucous society. They leave, even if only mentally while they physically stay put. They build their little enclaves of spiritual purity, and the cost to join them is high, if it is attainable at all. These enclaves usually die out after a few generations (as did the Qumran covenanters) because that level of perfection cannot be maintained by many or for long. However, another enclave will usually spring up to take their place, and this, the most rabid form of conservatism, will never truly fade away.

Looking at today’s religious conservatives I really commiserate with the author of Ecclesiastes. There really is nothing new under the sun, even while history moves inexorably toward it’s final end. This is why I think the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus for sure, would be so disappointed with today’s church.

We are not called to be Sadducees and form alliances with our pagan and paganizing culture. We are not called to be Pharisees and look back to some gilded age (which never existed in reality, anyway) and try to live up to a legalistic interpretation of the Bible that “neither we nor our fathers” were able to attain (to borrow a quote the apostle Peter). And, we have certainly not been called to become modern day Qumran covenanters, abandoning our role as being salt and light to a bent and broken world.

We are neither Sadducee, Pharisee, nor Qumran. We are the church, the assembly, the people of God, the body of Christ. Let us ascend to that reality!

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

[Note: this post was written almost a year ago, June 21, 2018. Once again I am reading through Ezekiel and noted how many times this key phrase was repeated. I thought to myself, “I need to write a post on this.” Sigh. I already have written it. So – although I might change a few things here or there, I simply decided to re-post this. When will we (the church) learn that God will, eventually, prove that He alone is God? The world has an excuse – it is an unredeemed world. We, the church, have no excuse. God, save us from our ignorance and our rebellion!]

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?

The Commencement Speech No One Will Ever Hear

Ah, the end of May and the beginning of June. Time for graduations far and near. And so, completely unrequested and with the full knowledge that it will never be given verbatim, here is the commencement speech I believe is truly the only one that is worth hearing. The intended audience is, obviously, a group of men just commencing their journey as ministers of the gospel.

Friends, graduates, fellow academicians, lend me your ears. I come not to praise you, but to bury you. For only if you have been buried can you send forth new life – and it is to a new life that we send you today. Prepare, then, to have a little dirt thrown your way.

First, I congratulate you. This is indeed a momentous occasion for you. You have, to use Paul’s epic words, “fought with the beasts” and you have emerged victorious. Not everyone can do what you have just done. Not many would want to, mind you, but whether they did or not, they could not finish what you have finished. By your presence here you have demonstrated that you have mastered the art of translating Greek and Hebrew sentences, that you can differentiate between exegesis and hermeneutics, and that you can hold your own in written debate with the likes of N.T. Wright. Your guides, your shepherds, your academic guardians have all attested to your intellectual fitness to hold the degrees which will be conferred to you. Your parents, your siblings, and perhaps your spouses all hold you in the highest esteem. Today is truly a great day.

Get over it.

I’m serious. Enjoy the day to its fullest. Bask in the limelight while it is still shining brightly. Dine sumptuously. Drink deeply of all the huzzahs and congratulations. But, this is just the beginning. If you stopped growing following the great celebration of the day of your birth, you would not be here today. Today is the beginning, not the end. That’s why we call it a “commencement.” But there is another, darker reason why I counsel you to “get over it.” You will learn of this reality all too soon.

I know each of you is committed to a life of ministry – whether in a congregational ministry or perhaps in an academic post or a missionary field. You have no thoughts of failure, or of abandoning your quest. Sadly, the statistics of life-long ministry do not support your optimism. Amid the unbridled euphoria and the sweet fragrance of success that floods the room today, let me caution you about what your future holds. It will not be pretty.

Let me use, as a parable, my life first as a flight student and then as a flight instructor to illustrate my words of warning. As a flight student the second greatest day that you experience is the day you solo – the day that you control the airplane as sole occupant. The feeling is simply beyond description. You know you are up to the task, and your flight instructor has endorsed you to do just that – fly the plane by yourself. But you know, in the back of your mind, that you are still flying on the legal basis of your flight instructor. You can take off and land by yourself, but you are not a pilot. You still have much to learn, much to observe. The talent is there, but it is raw, unrefined. For better or worse, and mostly for the better, your instructor is there to teach, to discipline, to correct, and to protect you throughout the various phases of instruction you have yet to complete.

Chances are you all have experienced something similar to “going solo” while in school. Perhaps you have worked as an intern with a congregation. Perhaps you have even initiated a new ministry, or have taken an existing ministry to a higher level of effectiveness. The euphoria of such endeavors is intoxicating, indeed. But you know, just as the fledgling flight student, that you are still operating on the license of an instructor. You still have the grace, and the forgiveness, of being “just a student.” Those words can be grating, but they are also powerful deterrents against unfair and undeserved attacks. So you serve, as we have all served, under the protecting label of “capable, but not yet quite mature.” The label is at the same time irritating and assuring. You’re getting there, but if the air gets a little turbulent, there is always a more seasoned hand to take the controls.

Some time later comes the one single greatest day in the process of your flight instruction – the day you take your final flight examination. After you land and shut the airplane down, the FAA flight examiner leans over, shakes your hand, and says, “Congratulations, you are a private pilot.” Now you no longer have to ask permission to fly. Now you are truly the master of your own ship. Now you can utter those immortal words, “the sky is the limit.” Oh, the joy!

Except, now the responsibility is ALL YOURS. Now you no longer have the comfort of blaming your instructor. Now when the FAA comes calling, you can not look over your shoulder for your big brother. The world gets a lot smaller, even when it just seemed to open up beyond every horizon. When you fly on your own certificate, you suddenly seem to take all the little decisions a whole lot more seriously. What about the weather? How much weight do I have on the plane? How much fuel do I really need? Have I really gone over my flight plan as seriously as I need to? One bad decision and the FAA can take that little piece of paper away and you have to start all over. Or, worse, lives and property can be at stake.

Today, you have earned your wings. Today we shake your hand and say, “Congratulations, you are now a fully capable, qualified, and endorsed proclaimer of theology and comforter of souls.” Today is what you have been looking forward to for years. It’s done. You’ve finished the race that you started some time ago – and all the plaudits are deeply deserved.

But, little birdie, today we also kick you out of the nest. You’ve got your feathers and your certificates, now get out and fly. And, just to be sure, the air is not going to always be smooth, nor the landings soft. It’s called life. Get over it.

The reality is that many of you – perhaps as many as half or more of you – will not complete a career in ministry, either congregational or academic. You will venture out into congregations comprised of members who think it great sport to destroy the lives of ministers. They have no self-respect of their own, and they gladly share that lack of respect with anyone who dares to claim any authority. Because we send you out to speak with the authority of the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, that means they will have no respect for you. Because you will be called upon to challenge their mistaken beliefs and discipline them for their ungodly behavior, they will despise and abhor your work. All the while they will play the martyr and manipulate the situations to make it appear that you are the bully, you are the heavy. They will spare no effort to gather followers to their cause, and your job and your ministry mean nothing to them so long as they win the day and the argument.

You think I am kidding – but this is no laughing matter. Many churches (and university administrations) exist for no other purpose than to destroy the lives and futures of those who dare to challenge their power structures. For some of you the destruction will be complete. I say it now without any hesitation, there are some of you here listening to my words today that will not only leave the ministry, but you will leave the faith. Paul essentially said the same thing to the Ephesian elders, so I am sharing this will pretty good company. Ministry is not for everyone, and for some the pain of rejection is so intense, and so debilitating, that there simply is no rehabilitation. My heart breaks for you.

There are a number of you, who, after being so treated, will decide to leave the ministry for a season – but time and circumstances will so converge as to provide you with a second chance at ministry. So, you will discover that after a decade or so, that the fire is still burning, the hope has not been extinguished. You will return, your feathers clipped, your wings a little ruffled, but never-the-less, alive and kicking. Jeremiah preached for years with no tangible results. We can expect no better – unless you believe you can preach more faithfully and more effectively than Jeremiah. But, Jeremiah kept preaching. I pray for those of you who fit this pattern. Life will not be easy, but I pray that at the end it will be fruitful.

And, to be honest, some of you will skip through life unmolested by the demons your classmates will face. You will be given cars and golf club memberships and have your vacations to the Caribbean fully funded by a rich member of the congregation. Just when that happens, please do not come back to the next reunion and brag about it to the other poor schmucks who go from month to month, and sometimes from Sunday to Sunday, wondering if they will have a job on Monday.

Congratulations, graduates. Today is your day. Enjoy it, because tomorrow belongs to the evil one, and he will not rest until he has tested all of you, and has devoured as many as he can. You wanted this, you’ve worked tirelessly for it – now the challenge is yours. You didn’t study all those hours and spend all that money to earn a certificate so you could sit on a bench and look to the clouds.

It’s time to fly.