June 6, 1944

There is a beautiful phrase in the book of Hebrews, tucked neatly in the author’s paean to those heroes of faith so vast that he could not name them. He wrote, as the section drew to its close, “. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

On this, the anniversary of the great allied invasion of Normandy, I cannot help but meditate on that phrase.

I think of the thousands of young lives lost that day – American, British, Canadian (and others) – on the sea and in the air. I think of their resolute composure. They were not fearless – but they overcame their fear with the realization that their mission, what they were tasked to do, was so much more honorable than the goal of their enemy that they set aside their fear in order to meet the challenge.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the commanders, those in the field and those well behind the lines. They knew the losses would be catastrophic. Maybe they were not fully aware of the carnage that would meet the Americans on Utah beach, but they knew General Rommel was in charge of the defenses. I cannot imagine the weight that rests upon the shoulders of a man who must send other men into the face of withering gun fire or anti-aircraft shells. I wonder about their conscience. They were tasked with a mission, and the mission would cost lives. Many lives. What goes through the mind of a man who looks into the eyes of young men who, within a few short hours, will offer the greatest sacrifice?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of the medics and the chaplains who tried to save the wounded and who gave comfort to the dying. What do you say to a young boy from Kansas who, up until a few days ago, had never seen an ocean and now, thousands of miles away from home, will never see another wheat field? How do you give spiritual comfort in a battlefield that resembles the mouth of hell?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I think of those who piloted the transport craft ferrying the soldiers to the beaches, and the airplane pilots who carried the paratroopers over the drop zones. Many of them would not survive either. The C-47 drop planes were supposed to bring their planes over the drop zones at 1,000 feet. For those who do not understand, in terms of firing anti-aircraft guns 1,000 feet is the equivalent of a knife fight. Yet, many would make the same trip, over water and through the air, ferrying soldiers, retrieving wounded, and dropping supplies.

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I question whether the United States could win another such war. I do not doubt our soldiers and sailors one little bit. I stand in awe of their willingness to serve, even if I deeply question the civilian commanders who blindly and stupidly send them into battle. But I simply do not believe in the moral fabric of our American culture anymore. We are a nation of narcissists and cowards. We hide behind our “rights” and our “freedoms” and we no longer have the strength as a people to shoulder our responsibilities. A pathetic little coward who cannot even stand on two feet during the playing of the national anthem is regarded as being “brave” and a “hero” by many. His disrespect for those who have served this country and have given him the freedom to spout his hatred is beyond repugnant – but such is the time in which we live.

Cowardice is called bravery, hatred is called love; respect is called bigotry.

When the United States collapses (when, not if), will we look back on those young men who gave their lives on June 6, 1944 as the high point of our civilization?

“. . . of whom the world was not worthy.”

I try to honor the sacrifice of those young men every day, by living according to the highest standards given to us in Scripture. I know I fail all too often – but their memory still haunts me.

May we all aspire to live lives worthy of their sacrifice. May their deaths not be in vain.

“Contextualizing,” “Syncretism,” and Whetting Jehoiakim’s Knife

A couple of posts back I opined that one of the church’s modern sins is the process by which the message of the cross is made culturally palatable through the process of “contextualization.” I was mildly chastised for making that suggestion, and for rebuttal purposes the passage in C0lossians 4:5-6 was referred to as evidence that I was wrong. I believe my challenger to be mistaken either about the point of my post, or the context of Col. 4:5-6 (and most likely both), but I suppose the question does give me the opportunity to explain more completely what I mean by “contextualization.” Here goes:

  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we blunt the force of passages relating to male and female, and especially those relating to the sins of homoeroticism, so that the LGBTQ promoters and defenders can feel affirmed and accepted in our churches.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we remove any mention of separate roles for male and female in our congregations, so that anyone and everyone can decide on their own what sex they prefer on any given day, and what role they decide they can perform within the Lord’s church.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we, especially within the Churches of Christ, should abandon centuries of understanding of what worship is, because the world does not understand what congregational, acapella worship is all about.
  • “Contextualization” is a code word meaning that we strip our meeting places and meeting times of any outward appearance of “religious” symbolism, and that we employ “praise bands,” “praise teams,” “liturgical dance teams” and any other number of entertainment features so that the world can see that the church is really no different than it is. This is the guiding “north star” concept for the Bill Hybels’ (Willow Creek) “Seeker Sensitive” pablum that I was forced to swill during my graduate studies.
  • “Contextualization” is simply a reincarnation of the millennial-years-old concept of syncretism: you take one main philosophy or teaching, and then add to and subtract from that root teaching until what you finally end up with does not resemble either the parent philosophy nor any of the other teachings that were pillaged. Aaron could have claimed contextualization when he created the golden calf in Exodus 32 – ostensibly the calf was made to represent Yahweh to the people, but Moses appropriately identified it as idolatry. Jeroboam could have claimed contextualization when he made the golden calves to worship at Dan and Bethel – both places were shrines to Yahweh, at least in the sense that the shrines were for the worship of the “gods who led you out of Egypt.” (1 Kings 12:25ff) Never-the-less, God called it idolatry. Jehoiakim could have claimed contextualization when he burned Jeremiah’s scroll – it simply had no meaning for his world-view. God proved Jehoiakim wrong.

At one time the word “contextualization” might have had a positive connotation, such as speaking to scientists in language scientists can understand, and to creative minds in ways that creative minds can understand. But at least for me, it no longer can have that meaning. At one time the word might have been used in the sense of Colossians 4:5-6 and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but no longer. Now the word is simply a subterfuge – it is used as an excuse to contradict, or to even excise completely, passages of Scripture that make certain elements of our culture feel uncomfortable. Don’t like passages condemning homosexuality? No problem, just make those passages refer to rape or, even more creatively, social injustice. Don’t like passages referring to the differences between male and female (and the fact that God created us to be one or the other, and that there are unmistakable anatomical and psychological differences)? No problem – just excise those passages as being written in a “pre-scientific” historical context. Don’t like those embarrassing stories in the Old Testament? No problem – simply “unhitch” your Christianity from the Old Testament. Don’t like the fact that our worship services have a specific reason for the “liturgy” that is associated with them? No problem – just remove the crosses and the emblems of the Lord’s Supper and add a bunch of rock music, dance teams, and smoke machines, and tell the world that the cross and the Lord’s Supper are really not that important after all.

You might surmise that I am just a little hot under the collar here, and I am. I do not appreciate seeing the church that Jesus died for being diluted into meaninglessness through a process that is being promoted as the best way to save it. The gospel of Jesus is not that everyone is okay, and that we just need to sing our worship songs set to deafening rock music. The gospel of Jesus is not that we can choose our sex – or our sexual partners – in any way that we see fit on any given day. The gospel of Jesus is not that we as humans can think our way out of the pit of hell that we have created for ourselves.

The gospel of Jesus is abhorrent to a culture that rejects the very idea of an all powerful, and all righteous, God. And no amount of “contextualization” is ever going to change that fact. But the gospel of Jesus is also a very beautiful thing to individuals in that culture who have come to accept that the feast the world has set before them is nothing but poison and death. The gospel of Jesus is life, and purity, and holiness – but it can only be preached as such if it is recognized that this world is a horribly bent and broken place.

May God save his church from its friends!

Living in a Negative Image World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never ┬áreprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

No King but Caesar

In my daily Bible reading today I came across this phrase (John 19:15). In their zeal to protect their position and have Jesus executed, the chief priests uttered one of the most, if not the most, blasphemous statements recorded in Scripture. I believe John wanted his readers to hear the irony. They were trying to force Pilate’s hand by making him choose between Jesus and Caesar. They wanted Pilate to know they stood firmly with Caesar, and if he chose Jesus, then he would be committing treason. And in so doing, they denied the God they claimed to worship.

As I read and and listen and ponder the discussions involving our national politics I fear the church is sinking to the level of the chief priests. Just consider – the Chief Priests were the visible connection between the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and later Moses and David and all the prophets toward God. They maintained the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly worship in the Temple. They were the mediators between the nation of Israel and God. And yet, when their position was challenged, when they feared losing their power, they did not defer to God for their protection, but to a Roman emperor. The death of the Son of God did not matter so long as they maintained their grip on power – and undoubtedly the physical benefits that were attached to their position.

And so today, when challenged by economic problems, or political problems, or ethical problems, the church is not responding with the message of the gospel – it is responding by clinging to the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or some undefinable right or freedom. When we do that we are simply and plainly repeating the cry of the Chief Priests. Jesus is on trial each and every time we are faced with a choice between the way of the cross or the way of the world, and by appealing to some form of human government or secular philosophy we betray our Lord and savior.

When Jesus confronted the disciples with a particularly hard teaching, whether it was stated or not, a question was attached – do you want to follow the world, or do you want to follow me? On one such occasion Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go -you have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:67) Even though his faith was imperfect, Peter got the point. Once you commit to following Jesus, everything else pales in significance.

When we confess that Jesus is the Lord of our life, when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died to set us free, we are making a profound political statement. That statement is somewhat hidden in our language, but in the first century the word Lord was attached to only one person – the Roman emperor. To call Jesus Lord was to make a politically subversive – read treasonous – statement. It could, and sometimes did, result in the death of the one making the statement. A person did not make that confession lightly. It had radical implications for the way one lived his or her subsequent life.

Today, when a person says they can be a Christian if their constitutional rights are protected, if certain laws are passed or are not passed, if a certain political party is in the seat of power, if the tax code is changed to their benefit, if they are allowed to write or say or protest, if they can benefit from the system of supply-side economics, or any one of a dozen other ifs, then what they are saying is that there is something that stands between them and Christ. They are saying they have no king but Caesar.

On the other hand, the apostles had no right to bear arms, they had no right to free speech, they had no right of a fair trial, they had no right of free assembly, they faced confiscatory tax laws, they faced summary execution on the accusation of treason, they enjoyed neither the protection nor the blessing of their national government. And they not only survived – they flourished. They had no Lord but Jesus Christ.

“We have no king but Caesar.” Those are chilling words. The cold harshness cuts like a knife. John intended it. He wanted his readers to hear that blasphemy.

Are we willing to hear it today?

Of God and Guns

Public disclaimer #1 – I do not generally like to write on specifically political issues. Sometimes I will, but to the best of my ability I try to restrict myself to the point where politics intersects with theology. This is a theological blog, not a political one. However, political discussions often do intersect with theology, and when and where that occurs I feel justified to offer my opinion.

Public disclaimer #2 – I own a number of firearms myself. I rarely shoot them anymore, first because of the price of ammunition, and second because I do not have a place where I feel comfortable shooting. I hate professional “shooting ranges,” and would much rather shoot at a knot on a log or a coffee can sitting on a rock. The one gun I loved the most was a muzzle-loading rifle, and it was just a kick in the pants to shoot. However, it was equally a pain in the pants to clean up afterward.

With those two disclaimers acknowledged, I offer the following:

In the immediate aftermath of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the national conversation turned to the debate over the right of citizens to own weapons such as was used in the shooting, and to a lesser degree, the kind of ammunition that was used in the shooting. The responses were so typical as to be caricatures – the far left pushing for the banning of all firearms, the far right suggesting that every person (or at least, school teachers) be required to carry weapons. There is an increasing middle ground – with variations of the two extreme positions being suggested.

While having my own opinion about gun ownership, I want to state unequivocally that neither extreme presents a realistic solution to the problem of gun violence in the United States. The call to ban all weapons is simply ludicrous – far too many people use guns for sport shooting or hunting. Our system of justice does not allow for the confiscation of anything that is both legal and harmless, without clear and convincing proof that such an object is inherently dangerous. The undeniable evidence is that a gun, in and of itself, is not a dangerous object. It clearly can be used, and is used, in dangerous ways, but a gun properly used is no more dangerous than a vehicle – or most medicines for that matter.

However, and here is where my theological brain kicks in, the extreme promoted by the National Rifle Association is just as erroneous as the extreme calling for the banning of all weapons. I offer three succinct reasons for this conclusion:

  1. The NRA and many adherents argue that gun ownership is necessary in order for citizens to protect themselves from the government. However, the 2nd Amendment was ratified when virtually every firearm (private or military) was of flint-lock construction. Each round had to be carefully loaded from the end of the muzzle, and the firing mechanism depended upon a hammer hitting a small piece of flint, which would then create a spark that was directed to a small pan of gunpowder, which would then ignite the powder that had been carefully loaded into the muzzle of the gun. Each “reload” took quite a bit of time, and if done too quickly, could result in some fairly significant damage if the powder was poured down a barrel that still had a smoldering spark. And – this is the kicker – for many years there was no “military grade” weapons. There was no “army.” The military was comprised of state militias, and each man brought his own rifle to fight with. Even as late as the Civil War, many soldiers used their own gun, not a government issued weapon (that did quickly change, however, during the course of the war). If the NRA wants to go up against today’s highly trained and expertly equipped army with a bunch of shotguns and deer rifles, be my guest. To equate today’s weapons to a 17th or 18th century muzzle-loader is simply to argue from false pretenses -and in my way of thinking that is to lie. If the NRA wants to defend firearm ownership based on 17th century technology and military practices – then fine, let them restrict gun ownership to flintlocks – and not even percussion cap muzzle-loaders.
  2. Conspicuously absent from most, if not all, arguments defending the unrestricted use of firearms, is Paul’s message to the Roman Christians in Romans 13. Let’s just be blunt here: there is no support for armed rebellion against the government in Romans 13. The American Revolution was, in terms of Paul’s teaching, completely unjustified. That really is a hard pill to swallow if you enjoy the fruit of the revolution as much as I do. But – the truth is sometimes hard medicine. The founding fathers had no scriptural right to take up arms against England – and in fact the Declaration of Independence makes no such claim. The call to become independence from the King of England is based entirely upon reasons founded in the Enlightenment, not the Bible.
  3. The most egregious claim made by the leader of the NRA is that the right to “bear arms” is a right granted, not by any human government, but by God himself. This is just so scandalously wrong – and profoundly heretical. Nowhere in God’s word is there any defense of gun ownership. It is plainly and unequivocally an act of government that grants its citizens the “right to bear arms.” Any who agree with the NRA in this regard have no knowledge of either the Bible nor the Constitution. It is a shameful thought to even consider.

As I said above – I consider myself a responsible gun owner. I have hunted in the past (although comically unsuccessful), I have some guns that are deeply special to me, and given the right circumstances, I do love to shoot them. My plea is that those who share my convictions about the Bible and about responsible gun ownership will think long and hard and deep and careful about the defenses we present to justify our ownership and use of such guns. In my opinion, there simply is no justifiable reason to own a weapon whose designed purpose is to kill people, and to kill a large number of people quickly. Even if such a weapon is justifiably only used for sport (target) shooting, there is absolutely no reason for the availability of ammunition so powerful that it can penetrate a kevlar (bullet-proof) vest worn by law enforcement officers. To categorically defend the use of such guns and ammunition is to reject the sanctity of human life.

Dear Christians, we can do, we must do, so much better. There is room in this debate for the passionate defense of our cherished freedoms, but there is also room for the realization that far too many people are being murdered by people using weapons that have no other purpose than to destroy the life of God’s most special creation – another human being.

Esau and the Church

The character of Esau fits much of what we would consider the main figure in a Greek tragedy. He came into the world with every blessing, and through character flaws and chicanery by this brother, managed to lose virtually everything. I think there are some profound lessons to be learned about this minor/major character in the Old Testament story.

Esau comes on the scene along with his brother Jacob in Genesis 25. He is the older of the twins, and by that right should have been granted a double share of his father’s inheritance, as well as his father’s primary blessing. Through his brother’s deception (aided, interestingly, by his mother) he lost the second. Through his own lack of moral fortitude he lost the first. He gave away his birthright for a bowl of food – his appetite for the immediate caused him to lose sight of what was of far greater value in the future.

The author of the book of Hebrews refers to the entire church as the “church of the firstborn (ones).” (Hebrews 12:23). The word “firstborn” is plural – the author is not referring to Jesus as the Firstborn, he is referring to each and every member of the church (the ESV uses the word “assembly” here – a wonderful choice!) as being “firstborn.” We are all, in a metaphorical sense, Esaus. We have the right to receive our Father’s inheritance, and we have the right to receive our Father’s primary blessing. Hebrews 12:23 is a profound passage!

The question is, have we frittered that birthright away? Have we sold our eternal inheritance for a few fleeting days of “relevance” on this earth? Every day I am flooded with suggestions that the church needs to do this or buy that or change some other thing in order to attract the “nones” or the “millennials” or now the “generation Z” (or iGeneration). Esau thought that he absolutely had to eat or he would die. Never mind that he could have cooked his own meal (as he would do for Isaac some time later) or that he could have approached his mother, or that he could have punched his little brother in the nose and taken the bowl of stew. But, as the text clearly states, he “despised” his birthright, and sold it to Jacob for the most paltry of prices (Gen. 25:34)

There is no question but what the church is facing a crisis – has there been a time since Acts 2 when the church was not facing a crisis? The question is not if, but how; not a matter of deciding if we are in the valley of decision, but how we are to ascend out of it. We have two choices – we can sell our birthright and buy into what the world considers “relevant” (more technology, flashier graphics, hipper preachers, dashing programs). Or, we can look past the immediate (what the world considers “eat or die”) and view the situation from the end.

I’ve been studying the book of Revelation a lot lately. Within the book of Revelation there are many exhortations to be faithful, to overcome, to conquer, and even to repent of ungodly behavior. But I cannot find one single exhortation to be successful. In fact, in the book of Revelation, success in God’s eyes is very frequently described in terms of death. That which is success in the eyes of the world is failure in the kingdom of God.

If we as the firstborn ones are to claim our inheritance, if we are to receive our blessing, we are going to have to make a major change in tactics. We are going to have to forgo the bowl of worldly stew and keep our eyes focused on the Messianic banquet to which God has called his children.

The church of Esau may look attractive, but it has no future, or rather, its future is one of being cursed because of its failure to claim that which is its own. Let us strive to be the church, the assembly, of the firstborn ones – the children of promise who persevere and are faithful even to the point of death.