A Rather Depressing Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me (Or, That I Wish I Had Listened to When They Did)

I has occurred to me in the past few days that there are two things that are immutable – things that you cannot change. (1) is the past. (No need to thank me, brilliance is part of my job). (2) is a person who does not want to change.

I am slowly becoming aware of the reality that a person’s past is far more predictive of their present, and even future, than what I have been willing to admit. If we are all bent and broken people, it is because at some point in our past we have been bent or broken. It seems to me that we basically have two options open to us regarding those injuries. We can accept that bent and brokenness, we can “own” it, and then move forward to attempt to mend and heal those wounds; or we can deny it, repress it, or, barring any ability to shove it out of our psyche, we can blame others for it and attempt to live our lives free of any responsibility.

The past is done, over with. It is gone. It will never come back. Injuries are injuries, wounds are wounds, whether self-inflicted or others-inflicted. To deny them is really a symptom of insanity. But, on the other hand, to accept them, to “own” them, means that we have to consciously deal with pain – sometimes a great deal of pain. Sometimes it is just easier to “forget” or to repress those injuries. The problem is, our minds don’t ever really “forget.” And so a young wife explodes at her bewildered husband and begins divorce proceedings, not because of something that he is guilty of, but because some of his actions remind her of the manner in which her father treated her mother, and the pain is just too much to handle. Or, a young husband initiates a sexual affair with a co-worker, not because his wife is unaffectionate, but because he is desperately seeking the approval that he never received from his parents. Our past injuries really can and do cripple our present lives.

Unfortunately, in seeking to repress or deny those injuries all we do is to inflict further injury on others.

In regard to immutable truth #1 above, what I have learned is that to admit our past injuries, to recognize them for what they are, is neither to condemn the innocent nor to acquit the guilty. It is simply to say, “I am hurt. I am broken.” It is at that point that we can move on. I do not suggest this is easy, and certainly in many situations it will not be painless. But, I do suggest it is the most mature, and healthy, way to address our bent and brokenness.

In regard to immutable truth #2 above I am more at a loss, but never-the-less I think there are two healthy paths forward. The first is obviously the path of restoration, of redemption and renewal. This, just as obviously, involves the possibility that both parties are willing to come together and to work out all differences, either real or imagined. This, clearly, is the best option. But, sadly, in our fallen world it is not always possible.

In dealing with a person who has, by all indications, become unwilling or unable to change, I believe there are, once again, two paths open to us. The first is for us to apologize, sincerely and honestly, for any pain or injury that we may have caused. The apology may or may not be accepted. Most likely, it will not be, as it requires the other person to own and to work through their own pain. It will be easier for them to hold onto their grievance as a buffer to protect them from addressing their culpability, and perhaps even greater injustices in the past.

Second, and at great cost to ourselves, we will have to lay down the burden of carrying our grudges. I have written elsewhere about situations in which it is impossible to practice the true biblical forgiveness. (Seem my three part series beginning here –The Myth of Unconditional Forgiveness (1) [Uncertain Inferences Series]  To summarize in a sentence, if there is no repentance, if there is no request for forgiveness, there can be no genuine forgiveness, no restoration of a broken relationship. However, that does not excuse us from the possibility, and even at times the necessity, of laying down the crushing burden of resentment and anger. That is what Jesus called turning the other cheek, walking the second mile. It is what the apostle Paul called the willingness to be wronged, and not seek retaliation. And, it is brutally painful.

I am, by virtue of my humanity, a bent and broken person. I have likewise hurt others, many of whom I love and cherish very deeply. I have, in times past, been able to restore some of those broken relationships. With others, I have not been so fortunate. Many will never know how much I grieve those injuries and losses.

I would like to end this rather personal reflection with the words of one of my favorite poems. It is both beautiful and raw. It speaks to the very core of the questions I ask myself. It is, in a way, a beautiful prayer. I share it with you:

Who Am I?

Who am I? They often tell me
I step out of my cell
calm and cheerful and poised,
like a squire from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak with my guards
freely, friendly, and clear,
as though I were the one in charge.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear days of calamity
serenely, smiling and proud,
like one accustomed to victory.

Am I really what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird,
struggling for life breath, as if I were being strangled,
starving for colors, for flowers, for birdsong,
thirsting for kind words, human closeness,
shaking with rage at power lust and pettiest insult,
tossed about, waiting for great things to happen,
helplessly fearing for friends so far away,
too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work,
weary and ready to take my leave of it all?

Who am I? This one or the other?
Am I this one today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? Before others a hypocrite
and in my own eyes a pitiful, whimpering weakling?
Or is what remains in me like a defeated army,
fleeing in disarray from victory already won?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest me; O God, I am thine!

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Who Am I, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English), vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), p. 459-460.

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8)

Last night in our Bible study we had a wonderful discussion of the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). To begin, there is the necessary discussion of whether the story actually belongs in the gospel of John. To be scientifically precise, I am not convinced it does. The oldest manuscript that contains the account dates to the fifth century (i.e. 400 years after Jesus lived), and subsequent manuscripts date much, much later. The story interrupts the flow from 7:52 to 8:12, but that in-and-of-itself does not mean much – the gospel writers are more than willing to demonstrate that there really was not a “normal” day of teaching for Jesus. But all of the technical “stuff” aside, the story of the woman caught in adultery has a power that makes it virtually impossible for modern translations to ignore – despite the evidence to the contrary. I know of no modern translation that removes the pericope from the text and either puts it in a footnote or eliminates it altogether. Sometimes tradition is just too powerful for even the hardiest of “change agents.”

In my mind the story generates more questions than it answers: if the woman was “caught” in adultery (as the text states), where is the guilty man? As our teacher pointed out, last time he checked, adultery required two participants. And, everyone’s favorite question, what did Jesus write in the dirt? There are as many answers to that question as there are people who make guesses, but my favorite response is connected to that very first question. Obviously no one knows what Jesus wrote, but my guess is that he pointed out the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees with a simple question, “Where is the man?” I also personally wonder how it came to  be the the woman was “caught” in the act. Was she set up? Was she followed? Was she known to be an adulteress, and so catching her was not that difficult?

Our teacher asked another question last night that I had never stopped to consider: why did the scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to Jesus in the first place? He had no legal authority, and his opinion would have been utterly meaningless to any tribunal that might have been convened to hear the woman’s case. In that respect, the question before Jesus was a blatant attempt to discredit him, and even worse, to provide a pretext to get him in trouble with the Sanhedrin. Questions, questions, questions.

I have two observations regarding the text, at least in connection to our study last night. The first is kind of technical. In our English translations (especially the ESV), Jesus’s response to the Pharisees appears to be one of qualified, and in the mind of most readers, unattainable, permission to stone the woman. Reading the text in the Greek I was struck by a different tone – Jesus is commanding the stoning to begin (the Greek verb is in the imperative mood), but the sentence must begin with the person(s) who were without sin from among the accusers. Those two emphases are often overlooked. One, Jesus agrees with the interpretation from the Law of Moses – such adulterers must be executed. There appears to be no question of guilt here. But – and this is a huge but – the sentence must be carried out by those who have no complicity in the situation. Here is a point that I think most interpreters either overlook, or willfully ignore. The entire scenario just reeks of injustice. The equally guilty male is nowhere to be seen. This is no trial, it equates to a lynching. The hypocrisy of the Pharisees is not just apparent, it is blatant.

I disagree with the interpretation that Jesus is requiring that in order for the sentence to be executed those who accused the woman must be sinless in every respect. That would be an impossible requirement. It is a common view, I grant, but one that is totally outside of any biblical justification. Those who were commanded to execute guilty criminals under the Law of Moses were not required to be perfectly sinless in every respect. However, they could not be complicit in the crime, and could certainly not be guilty of false accusations and of conducting a sham trial. In my understanding, Jesus is looking the scribes and Pharisees squarely in the eye and saying, “I see what is going on here, and you all are just as guilty as this woman – if not more so. So, go ahead, stone her – but let the innocent cast the first stone, if there is anyone here who is innocent in this matter.”

Second, what I see about this story is the incredible power of Jesus to completely change the dynamics of a situation, and to free a tortured person from their prison. As I mentioned above, there appears to be no question of guilt here. The woman was caught, apparently in the act of sexual adultery. Her sin was obvious. According to the strict interpretation of the law, she had no defense and her life was forfeit. Yet, in spite of that, Jesus completely re-wrote the script and condemned her accusers and set her free. He forgave her, with the emphatic caveat that she not continue in her life of sexual impurity. This is why, I think, that despite the textual evidence to the contrary, this story remains in our English translations. As one of my professors summarized, it may not be genuine John, but the story is clearly genuine Jesus.

This story convicts us on many different levels. How many times do we fall in with the Pharisees? We know the rules. We love the rules. We hate those who violate the rules, and we especially hate those who excuse those who violate the rules. We demand justice be done to those who violate the rules. We are good, Bible believing, rule following Christians. And then we read this story and all of our legalisms are blown up. Jesus sides with the accused, and we end up dropping our rocks and walking away chastised and embarrassed.

On the other hand, I think we all hope, to some degree or another, that Jesus will treat us like he treated the woman. We know we are guilty, we know we have no defense. We have been caught “red handed.” All we can do is hope that this teacher blesses us with those words, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”

What a story! And what better way to illustrate that we all ascend higher if we climb lower.

The Gospel of the Second Touch – Jesus in Mark 6:31 – 8:30

Over the past few weeks (and ultimately into January) I am preaching a series of lessons on the question, “Who is Jesus?” I am basically following the outline of the gospel of Mark presented by Richard Peace in his book, Conversion in the New Testament: Paul and the Twelve. Dr. Peace was one of my instructors in my Doctor of Ministry program, and is one of the very few individuals in a position of power/authority who ever genuinely complimented any of my work – so, that little bit of personal attachment must be taken into  consideration. The following is a synopsis of my sermon this past Sunday (11/25/18), and is based on the third of what Dr. Peace views as a major section of the gospel of Mark. However much I have gained from Dr. Peace, some of the following is my own observation/deductions, and so don’t blame Dr. Peace for any/all of the mistakes you may discover.

Dr. Peace points out that in the section 6:31-8:30 in Mark’s gospel there are two cycles of stories. This is an illustration of the beauty of Mark’s gospel, and, from my perspective, just another indication that the gospel writers were not the red-neck, hayseed, fishermen that so many preachers want to make them out to be. But I digress.

Both cycles of stories begin with a miraculous feeding of the multitudes (6:30-44 and 8:1-9); those accounts are followed up with a trip on the sea of Galilee, in which a discussion of the miraculous feedings reveals that the disciples do not understand what the miracle was meant to teach (6:45-52 and 8:13-21). Both cycles contain a record of a dispute with the Pharisees (7:1-23 and 8:10-12, which is slightly out of sequence). Significantly, in the first cycle there is another miracle healing that is not duplicated in the second cycle – a point that I suggested in my sermon that screams out for further investigation (7:24-30). Both cycles then end with another healing, the details of which are remarkable similar and, likewise, scream out for further study (7:31-37 and 8:22-26). This major section then concludes with Jesus querying the disciples about his identity, which is then climaxed by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah (8:29).

So often we are in such a hurry to get to Peter’s confession that we miss the beauty, and therefore the punch, of how Mark has constructed this section of his gospel. I know I have, and until I worked through this section more closely I simply missed what Mark was doing.

In the interest of time, let’s just look at the concluding miracle story in each cycle (equal time needs to be given to the opening miracle in each cycle, but I am not writing a book here). Note that in each of the healing stories Jesus is either in Gentile territory or a border city (yeah, I know that Bethsaida was in Jewish territory, but it bordered the Decapolis, and probably had a strong Gentile presence). Second, the men who would be healed are brought to Jesus by a group of people – a curious fact Mark seems to emphasize. Third, and this is truly something that Mark is intent on his readers seeing, Jesus takes the men away from the crowds. Fourth, Jesus heals both men with a physical touch – and in a manner that would offend most Jewish sensibilities (Matthew would NEVER describe a healing in such unhygienic fashion, and likewise would never suggest that Jesus would have to expend a second effort to heal someone!) Finally, Jesus commands both men not to speak, and in the second case, not even to re-enter his village.

Do you not think that Mark was trying to tell us something here?

Immediately following the second healing, Jesus pulls his disciples away from the curious crowds, elicits from them the profound truth that he is the Messiah, and then immediately and curiously commands that they withhold this information!

The point, convincingly made by Dr. Peace, is that the disciples can only see this truth incompletely, or in the language of the second healing, only in a blurry fashion. It is going to take a second touch by Jesus for their eyes to be fully open, and in the language of the first healing, for their tongues to be fully loosed. That second touch comes in the second half of the book, as Mark beautifully explains what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.

If you are curious – buy Dr. Peace’s book. I do not accept all of Dr. Peace’s conclusions (especially that the gospel ends at 16:8, but he complimented my work, so I am going to promote his!), but Dr. Peace has opened the gospel of Mark up to me in a way that is deeply touching.

My point in my sermon was this – the gospel of Mark is in many ways the gospel of the second touch, of second chances. Mark illustrates how the disciples were repeatedly given the truth of who Jesus was, but it is not until the very end of Jesus’s life – and only from the Roman centurion – that we hear the confession that Jesus is the Son of God come from the lips of a mortal human being.

Reckon why that was?

Maybe, just maybe, because Mark wanted us to know that however obstinate and hard headed we might be, that Jesus is still calling us to him, still extending his hand out to us, still willing to heal us however uncouth that healing might be.

The gospel of second chances – the gospel of the second touch. I love that. I need to hear that. I need to preach that. I need to live that.

May we all learn to be willing to extend the second touch to those who are too confused, or are unable for whatever reason, to receive it the first time.

Dancing With Goat Heads

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I think, somewhere back there, I have shared just how much I despise the American justice system. This catches some people by surprise – they equate the American justice system with everything that is good and holy in the world – right up there with apply pie, mom, and baseball. For those who know me the best, it should not come as a surprise that I have a somewhat different take.

The American justice system is the goat head in the garden of life. It does what it was designed to do (cause incredible pain), it multiplies its pain prodigiously, and it puts out a cute little flower to hide its insidious little weapons.

Let me cut directly to my conclusion here: nothing short of the biblical concept of justice will ever count as “justice,” and the American system is designed to make that justice an impossibility.

Basic civics lesson here. The American justice system is built on the principle of adversarialism (I think I made up a word here). The point is we have a prosecution team (the State) and a defense team. The prosecution is intent on achieving a conviction, the defense is intent on avoiding that conviction. As we have seen in far, far too many cases throughout our entire history, the prosecution can and does act dishonestly, and the defense can and does act dishonestly. Innocent individuals are convicted, and guilty individuals are acquitted, and as far as the judicial system is concerned, nobody cares. If a jury reaches a decision, the “system” worked. There are certainly those outside of the court system who care deeply if a wrong verdict has been declared, but the number of innocent people in jails and prisons and the number of guilty perpetrators walking our streets is stark evidence of their relative inability to effect any significant changes.

The problem IS the system. And as long as the system keeps grinding out verdicts, nothing is going to change, and there will be precious little “justice” in our country.

Now, how would a biblical system of justice look different from our current system? For one thing, instead of focusing on “winning” or “losing” a case as the adversarial system demands, both the prosecution and the defense would be focused on arriving at the pure truth of the case. The idea that our adversarial system is designed to get at the truth is the greatest, and most damaging, lie of our justice system. Currently our prosecution teams do all they can to avoid certain truths from becoming evidence – and the defense teams are just as vigilant to avoid letting other truths from being known. Judges, the so-called arbiters of truth, routinely prohibit certain truths from being heard by the jury. If you ever participated on a jury and thought you were getting all the facts – whoo boy, were you ever lied to.

A system based on identifying the truth of a case has profound implications both for the innocent and the guilty. The innocent would have no fear of the judicial system (honestly – how many minorities think our current system is fair?). On the other hand, the guilty could be treated in a much different fashion. Have you ever stopped to notice how in the God’s perfect plan there are no prisons, no jails, for those guilty of crimes? Thieves were to repay what they stole, plus some “interest.” Those guilty of taking a life, albeit with no intention, were allowed to live in a modified “house arrest” (were able to live in a city of refuge). Those guilty of intentionally dishonoring human life (murderers, rapists, kidnappers) were simply executed.

Today our prison mentality has turned the judicial system into a growth industry. There really is no “justice” when a person is sent to prison. There is no restitution, there is no personal interaction between criminal and innocent victim. It is all sterile, and for all intents and purposes, invisible.

To me, no greater example of how this could change the life of an accused and the lives of the victims is the current case of the Dallas police officer facing charges in the death of a young man. In our current adversarial system, we (the public) will – without question – never be told the truth of what happened. The prosecution will tell “their” truth, and the defense will tell “their” truth – but the goal of each will be to “win” the trial. Regardless of the outcome, I will have very little confidence that justice will be served.

In an open-ended search for truth and genuine biblical justice, both sides would sit facing each other, and the accused would be allowed to explain and defend him/herself. Critically, they would be allowed, and even encouraged, to confess their guilt. The victims (or their survivors in at the case of a death) could challenge the presentation of the accused’s story, and ask questions. They would be permitted, and even encouraged, to extend forgiveness and work with the guilty to arrive at an equitable restitution/punishment. The judge would preside to make sure everything was conducted in a civil manner as befits a civilized culture. And, mark this: there would be swift and severe repercussions for perjury! (Deuteronomy 19:16-21) Prosecutors would be severely punished for manufacturing incriminating evidence or concealing exculpatory evidence, defenders would be severely punished for manufacturing mitigating evidence or concealing evidence of wrongdoing. In sum: the purpose of the preceding would be to determine the truth of the situation, and if guilt is present, to determine the appropriate restitution and, if needed, punishment. The most important goal would be to maintain the cohesiveness of the community.

Without the quest for truth, any exercise in a judicial preceding is simply an exercise in futility. We as a people could do so much better – if we had the will to do so. I’m afraid that is the problem. We are all so wrapped up in vengeance and revenge and retribution that we cannot see that we are dancing barefoot in a field of goat heads.

One Second

It is terrifying how quickly our lives can change. No matter how much we plan, no matter how we protect ourselves, no matter how many layers of padding or insulation we wrap around ourselves, our entire life can be irreversibly changed in the time it takes to blink an eye.

In what can only be described as a horrific and unimaginable tragedy, a police officer shot a man in his own apartment. There is no “sense” to be made here – reason simply fails us. There are times in this world where all we can do is hang our heads and cry, “Oh God!” That is why we call them tragedies. Tragedies are unexplainable. They break our hearts and they devastate our lives, but trying to make “sense” out of them is hopeless.

And in that exact moment when disciples of Christ should be the most circumspect, the most hesitant to jump to conclusions, the most reticent to assign guilt or blame, we have “Christians” screaming for the blood of the officer. The hatred that has been expressed by those standing in or in front of churches is, quite frankly, repugnant. It seems, according to these “Christians,” that even the very lowest bar of justice – that of “innocent until proven guilty” is WAY too high for them to consider. The words of our Savior in the sermon on the mount about praying for one’s enemies, about walking the second mile, about loving as God loves – forget that. “I know I say I am a Christian, but that does not matter in this case. I can hate cops – its my right.”

I think I know why this case troubles me so deeply. A number of years ago I was involved in a car accident. I say, “involved,” but I should really say I caused it. I carelessly did not see a warning sign. No one was hurt, although to this day I don’t know why. One second earlier or later and there would have been serious injuries if not death. I was careless. I was negligent. I could have been criminally charged were it not for that blessed second of time.

I do not know what went through that officer’s mind as she entered that apartment, why she did not step back, why she drew her weapon, why she decided she had to shoot. None of us do – except that officer. Which makes it particularly important that we not assign motives to her actions without knowing more of the story.

It may very well turn out that she knew exactly what she was doing. She may have staged the whole event. She may indeed be guilty of a crime far worse than negligence. I am not omniscient, I do not know. None of us do. Right now I know she took the life of an innocent young man, my brother in  Christ. He was washed in the same blood that washed me, and it is that reality that pushes me to my knees when I think of the many times in my life when I have done things that have hurt other people – sometimes physically but much more often emotionally – and through that blood I am promised that I stand forgiven. Honestly, I don’t understand why.

One second. When I remember that accident I break out in a cold sweat. I think of the way I could have been treated. I think of the way I was treated. I had no excuses, I had no defense.

I just wonder – how many of the people who are screaming for the blood of this officer have been one second away from a similar tragedy – senseless, inexplicable, indefensible.

Almost 2,000 years ago a man stood in a Roman courtyard and received the whipping that I deserve. He died the death that was reserved for me. “By his wounds we are healed.”

I am terrified by the thought that only one blessed second separates me from the position this officer finds herself. If her story is true – if there is even the smallest possibility that she has faithfully and honestly reported her impressions and her actions to those investigating this case – at the very least she is guilty of negligence. In such a case there is no doubt in my mind but what she wants that one second back – would give anything to have that one second back. It won’t happen.

As I sit here hundreds of miles away from Dallas, I wonder: of all the thousands of “Christians” who are demanding that this officer be punished to the very extent (or even beyond) of what the law allows –

Is there one Christian, one disciple of Christ, who is willing to reach out to her?

One second. Dear God, I am so guilty.