Just Doodling With a Little Theology

Getting some early thoughts down for my sermon on Sunday. Here is an interesting little tidbit of trivia for you to amaze your friends and family – (by the way, all stats are purely hand generated, none of that fancy computer generated, highly accurate kind of statistic).

Between chapter 11 and 27 (the end) of Leviticus, the phrase “I am the LORD” or “I am the LORD your God” or “you shall be holy because I am holy” is used at least 47 times. Forty-seven usages in 17 chapters, which is just shy of three times per chapter. But, if you dig a little deeper, you find that 15 of those 47 occurrences are in chapter 19 alone. That is 15 usages in 37 verses.

Why the emphasis on the being of God?

Because, just interestingly enough, chapter 19 is the one chapter that focuses most completely on the holiness of God. And, Leviticus is the book that focuses on the holiness of God’s people vis-a-vis the being of God. If God is a holy God, then his people are to be a holy people.

And, I know this is tough stuff, but if you are going to be a holy people you have to be holy in everything that you do – which includes worship, but extends to how well you treat your servants and your livestock.

You even let your land rest for one year out of every seven.

Some people argue that we do not preach from the Old Testament because it no longer matters for believers after the cross. I’m not entirely convinced.

I think we do not preach from the Old Testament because we are too scared to think that God might actually expect us to obey him – to be holy – in everything that we do.

(Oh, by the way, that phrase is used in the New Testament too – 1 Peter 1:15, look it up.)

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)

Conservatives/”Evangelicals” are Really Beginning to Scare Me

You know, sometimes life hands you an absolute victory, something so easy and so perfect that it would be virtually impossible to mess up.

And, somehow, we manage to mess it up.

Thus I have been thinking about the decision the Mitt Romney made to vote for the the impeachment of Donald Trump, and the immediate (and continuing) vitriolic response to Romney’s decision. Romney has graciously and repeatedly explained his decision – he took an oath to defend the Constitution, and much further than many politicians, he believed his oath was first and most importantly made to God. Therefore, when he came to realize that Trump abused his power (which, I agree with 100 %), he knew he had to vote to convict. It was not a vote of convenience, it was not a vote to placate the maddening crowd. It was a vote of conscience.

Now, conservatives and “evangelicals” (whatever in the world that term means anymore) have been clamoring for years – decades – for more politicians who will uphold their oaths to defend the Constitution. They have been clamoring for years – decades – for men and women of conscience to stand up and be heard, even if (or especially if) that voice is contrary to the herd mentality. So, they get a senator who is willing to defend the Constitution and vote his conscience and what happens? These same conservatives and “evangelicals” are ready to lynch Romney from the nearest tree.

I don’t get it. Here is a perfect example of how conservatives are so perfectly different from liberals, at least in general (not one Democratic senator voted to impeach Clinton). Here was an opportunity to say, “See, the conservative approach (and the Republican party) is the place where people can hold conscientiously differing opinions, and we are all stronger for it.” But, no. Like a crazed group of cannibals, the extreme right (and maybe some of the mainstream right) is having a conniption fit and calling for the head of the one man they should be honoring. And, in so doing, they are demonstrating why I believe that currently neither party can lay claim to being safe or sane. The right wing of the country is seriously beginning to scare me, and that in and of itself terrifies me, because the left wing is so far from redemption that, should they gain power, I honestly do fear for a second “civil” war.

From gender bending issues to abortion to rabidly insane calls for the repeal of the 2nd amendment to the Constitution (and the flat out repudiation of the 1st amendment), the far left wing (is there a center-right wing of the Democratic party??) of this country is becoming seriously deranged. Now more than ever those who consider themselves conservatives, and especially those who consider themselves to be disciples of Christ, need to stand up and defend individuals who hold to their morals, even if (and perhaps especially if) those morals do not align 100% with a given political leader.

We need men and women of courage. We need men and women who will stand up to other elected officials and remind them that we are a country of laws, not of entitled men, and when laws are violated then there must be repercussions. We need men and women of courage who will take their oaths seriously, even if it means voting in a manner that jeopardizes their political future.

I disagree with Mitt Romney profoundly on a number of issues – theological and political. But, I am proud to defend his actions in regard to his keeping his oath, and his reasons for voting against “his” party and president. It may cost him some votes, it may cost him an election, it certainly has cost him within the right wing of the Republican party. Good on him, I say, because for once we see a politician act like a statesman, a leader, and not a sycophant.

I wish we had more like him in the senate and in the house of representatives.

So This is Where We Are Headed

Last night marked a new low in American politics, civics, and common decency. The President of the United States and the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States could not shake hands with each other.

The Speaker of the House ripped a copy of the State of the Union speech in half, in full view of the assembled Senators, Representatives, and members of the Supreme Court, along with other dignitaries.

The most dignified and significant offices of government of the United States are currently being held by the most petulant, childish, immature, and stupid individuals on the face of the earth. And, yes, I do mean “stupid” because their behavior goes way, way beyond ignorant. That was intentional and utterly bereft of any redeeming excuse or explanation.

But, mark my words, it will only get worse – the fetid swamp will only become more fetid and putrified.

Unless . . .

Unless someone, somehow, manages to learn the basic rule of civility and governance – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That means unless somehow, someone realizes that in order to save our republic they must cease to be partisan political hacks and become statesmen (and stateswomen, gender neutral).

Yes we can have differences of opinion. Yes we can have different visions of how we want the country to move forward. Yes, we can have honest and fervent debates about those opinions and visions. But, at the current rate of this infantile tit-for-tat, name calling and thuggishness, we as a republic are doomed.

Beam me up, Scottie. There is no intelligent life on this planet. Not in the leadership, anyway.

What Color is the Sky in Your World?

Sorry if you were expecting a great burst of optimistic sunshine today. I’m just not sure what is going on in the world today – you might say I am in the funkiest of funks. To wit:

  • A major league baseball team cheats to win at least one divisional and league championship, and perhaps a World Series, and the owner and players get off completely free. The management gets fired. Sooooo much justice there. (Pleeeeeze don’t argue that 4 draft picks and $5 million dollars are “punishment.” Baseball does not function like football or basketball regarding draft picks [most, if not all, draftees are years away from seeing a major league ball park, and very, very few end up playing an inning for the team that drafted them], and $5 million for a baseball owner is like you or me scrounging through the sofa looking for pocket change to go buy a cup of coffee.)
  • State legislatures across the country are brazenly attacking the Second Amendment right to self-protection by the ownership of firearms. These are not “common sense” approaches to gun violence, but are vaguely disguised attempts to restrict, or out-right ban, private use or even ownership of guns. I have written previously that I do not consider the U.S. Constitution to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, but seriously, if we can simply eliminate the second of our most cherished “Rights,” which will be the next to go? The first?
  • I’ll be honest here (although greatly in the minority, and probably greatly to be hated) but I am sick to my stomach with the adulation and hero worship afforded to the death of a basketball player. Kobe Bryant was a human being, a deeply flawed human being. If justice was served, he should have spent several years in prison for rape. Justice is rarely meted out against “heroes,” and Bryant has been dutifully beatified and enshrined among the pantheon of distorted American saints. It is amazing what absolution a little money and the right colored jersey can buy you.
  • In the fetid swamp that envelopes Washington D.C., a grotesque parody of epic proportions is on stage for all the world to see. A party that was absolutely aghast at the lurid behavior of a Democratic president now shrugs its shoulders at the lurid behavior of one of its own, as if to say, “nothing to see here, move on.” Meanwhile, the other party – which was totally oblivious to perjury and obstruction charges against one of their own – now sees the machinations of the Republican president as somehow equal to George Washington fighting for the British.
  • Every day a new story breaks about the “progress” of the current rage of gender dysphoria – be it homosexuality, gender “reassignment” or some such other nonsense. We are not just dealing here with the questioning of reality, but the very rejection of any semblance of reality.

Pardon my jaundice here, but has anything happened in 2020 that has been praiseworthy or admirable? It just seems like we have been given a re-run straight out of the 1970’s. Only worse.

I am working on teaching through the minor prophets on Sunday mornings, and I wonder – did Amos and Micah and Joel and Hosea and all the others see the same things in their decadent cultures? Many of the minor prophets were writing at the peak of Israelite (and south Judah) power. They were not just rejected because their message was counter-cultural (it was!), but also because it was considered ludicrous, insane even. How dare you challenge the status-quo, especially when the status-quo brought so much economic, political, and military power?

I have noted this elsewhere (and if you want a far more erudite exposition of that to which I am referring, see just about any offering by Os Guinness), but our culture cannot exist for long going the direction it is currently headed. Only two options exist, as far as I am concerned. One, there will be a huge, epic, tectonic, quantum change in our collective conscience and we will be spared from certain annihilation; or two, the American dream will collapse like a soggy house of cards, and sooner rather than later. The weight of the debris from the disintegration of any semblance of sustainable morality or ethic is simply too much for our tottering foundation to bear.

If you are tempted to pshaw at me, just ask yourself – exactly when did it occur to you that protecting the perversity of transgender people to be the “Civil Rights Issue” of our generation (as identified by Bernie Sanders, or was it Joe Biden – I lose track)? I rest my case.

When I was a kid we would tease someone who made an outlandish statement by asking with mock seriousness, “What is the color of the sky in your world?” I am not sure what color the sky is in the world of many people.

As I look around me, I’m not even sure I know what color the sky is in my world. It used to be all colors of beautiful blue and gold and orange and red and amber and even black, depending on the time of day. Now . . . it is just all so . . . funky.

Just Wondering – A Relationship Question

Before I ask the question, I have to set the context. This question applies to total strangers, or perhaps distant interactions, not those we know intimately or those whose behavior patterns are well known, not only to us, but to virtually all who know them. Okay, now that is settled, let’s move on to the question –

Do people respond to us the way we have treated them, or do we treat people as we anticipate that they will respond to us, thereby encouraging them to respond as we have treated them? In other words, in our initial reactions to people, are our interactions the result of honest responses, or are they more the result of projected feelings (prejudices)?

If I see someone, and based solely on skin color, hair style, clothing style, tattoos, facial hair, or some other external identifier, decide that person is a threat to me, how will they respond? Do we not guarantee their response by our defensive behavior? Or, if we see someone whom we define as being attractive, intelligent, wealthy (or at least as wealthy as we are), do we not encourage a friendly response by our body language, our eye contact, and especially our language?

I’m going out on a limb here, but I feel that most of those who read this blog would agree that to judge someone solely by initial impressions is ethically wrong. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is perhaps simplistic, but it holds a great truth. We are not to judge a person’s character by mere transitory externals.

But, what changes when we treat someone we know with contempt, with loathing, with slander?

I have just recently become intensely aware of how vicious former friends and colleagues can become to one another. This is not a recent development – hear the words of the psalmist,

For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked with the throng. (Psalm 55:12-14)

The pain of which the psalmist wrote speaks deeply to me right now.

There is something profoundly offensive – sinful – when a person turns against a former friend, colleague, confidant. If we are to treat those with whom we have no prior interactions with respect and dignity, why is it suddenly acceptable to treat our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, with utter disregard? How can it be pleasing to God that we turn our backs and shun those with whom we have broken the bread and sipped the wine at the Lord’s table?

Did Jesus not say that the world would recognize his disciples by the way they love and respect one another?

I’m stepping on my own toes here, so please no one think I am setting myself on an ivory pedestal. If I am speaking biblically here, it is as a prophet, and to be perfectly honest, prophetic words are often as difficult to hear for the prophet as for the audience.

So, let us make a covenant with our God to never treat a brother or sister in Christ with less regard, with less respect, with less love and concern, than we would  treat a total stranger.

Let us ascend by climbing lower!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, What Can We Do?

Kind of been in a funk lately. Everywhere I turn all I see are opportunities for me to throw my hands up in despair and to ask, “What use is it? What can I do?” I look around and in every aspect of our lives we are confronted with a nauseating concoction of racial animosity, open hostility, sexual dysfunction, and a paralyzing narcissism that threatens to destroy our nation. I cite just one example, although many more could be given: as I survey the political landscape two things are beyond debate. One, the Republican party has no answer for Donald Trump. I was desperately hoping that someone with a modicum of composure and decency would step up and challenge him for the nomination for the 2020 presidential election. Nope – be it from a lack of courage or just political calculus, no one wants to challenge his Donaldness. Too bad. Our nation deserves better. But, second, the crop of Democratic challengers is simply beyond stupefying. They are so beholden to the abortion/LGBTQ/socialism cabal that there is not ten cents worth of difference between any of them. Seriously – is it even possible to be a Democratic leader and to think independently or with originality? From what I hear and read, I doubt it.

So, once again, I ask – what can I do? Is there not something that a mere mortal can do while swimming in this vacuum of moral and ethical standards?

On the one hand, I would say unequivocally, “NO.” Just to be realistic, there are some situations that are just too big and complex for individual humans to change. Serious, lasting, and meaningful change can only be effected by large groups of people who are united, not only in purpose, but in courage and resolve. I know there are many who see the same things I see, but are just not disturbed by them (or, certainly not to the degree with which I am disturbed). Others are far more disturbed than even I am, and propose solutions that not even I am willing to consider.

But, beyond those basic realities, there is a greater reason why I tend to be more reserved in looking at global (or, at the very least, national) problems: I have what can be described as an “apocalyptic” outlook, and I believe that God remains in control of this world, and that if there is to be any kind of meaningful and lasting change, it will only come about by the working of His Spirit and under His control. Stated another way, God gives humans whatever kind of world they ask for, and right now we are receiving exactly what we have wanted for the past 75 years, if not longer. We have demanded a country that is focused entirely on the individual, so God has said, “Okay, you’re not going to like it, and it is not going to end pretty, but here ya go!” I believe that if we humbly and sincerely asked for a country that truly reflected God’s kingdom ethics, he would give it to us in such volume we could not measure it.

So, in that regard, certain passages from Scripture come to mind:

Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! (Psalm 46:10)

Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s . . . You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf . . . Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. (2 Chronicles 20:15, 17)

Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus. (Revelation 14:12; see also 1:9; 2:2, 3, 19; 3:10; 13:10)

On the other hand, there is not only something that I can do, there is something that I have to do. I have to get, or keep, my own house in order. It does absolutely no good to preach to the world about its failures if the church of which I am a part promotes the same sinful behaviors in which the world indulges.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll preach it straight and plain: the church needs to be restored and purified if we even have the slightest inclination to reach out to a bent and broken world.

We bemoan the sexual depravity of our western culture, and yet we allow – if not actively protect – divorces and illicit affairs within our congregations. We protect sexual abusers and predators under the guise that they are respected members of the community and even elders/deacons/Bible teachers of the church. We prohibit the man who does not have a tie or sport coat from leading worship in a public capacity, yet we turn a blind eye and glorify the man who beats his wife or physically abuses his children. And we think that God does not see?

We preach against the greed of the pagan world, and yet we violate the clear teaching of James 2:1-17 on a weekly basis. Elders and deacons are chosen, not on the basis of their spiritual maturity and godly natures, but on the basis of their success in business and their social club memberships. We cannot stock a decent food pantry or maintain a decent benevolent fund, yet we drive to our multi-million dollar church buildings in the most opulent vehicles that we can drive (note, not necessarily afford, but that we can drive).

We hire our preachers not based on their ability to challenge and confront us, but on their ability to soothe our itchy ears. Where is the voice of the prophet among Churches of Christ today? Where is the voice of John the Baptist saying, “Who told you to come to church, you bunch of snakes?” Where is the voice of Amos crying out, “Listen to me, you filthy rich heifers, you fat and lazy bums!” We have the best educated, most theologically astute core of preachers that we have ever had, and, at least from what I can see and hear from national publications, we are probably more biblically illiterate today than we have ever been in our entire history. Our preachers and elders “lead” by holding a finger up to discover which way the wind of culture is blowing so they can jump out in front of us lemmings.

Read the second and third chapters of the book of Revelation again. Underline every time the Spirit of Christ tells a congregation to repent. Underline the references to sexual impurity. Underline the references to greed and idolatry. Stop and ask yourself, “What is John’s message to these churches – are they not God’s people, are they not the saved, are they not the ransomed?” But, then read the last two chapters of the same book. Notice who John says will be excluded from the new heaven and new earth. He is not writing to pagans. He is writing to members of seven congregations of the Lord’s church in Asia. Christians. Just like you and me. Just like our congregations. And he is telling them they stand under judgment for their immoral behavior.

In a very real sense, it bothers me that I am more upset, and more indignant, with the behavior of a world that does not know any better than I am with people who – at least on the surface – should know better and act better. It is really sad that there are people whom we would consider “lost” who behave more in line with God’s kingdom than many who wear the name “Christian.”

I cannot change the world. I cannot overcome forces that the apostle Paul clearly identifies as “demonic” and supernatural. But I can, I must, make sure that those who bear the name of Christ are walking “worthy” of the calling they have received. (Ephesians 4:1; 4:17, 22, 24; 5:1, 9)

Lord, restore your church again!!

The Consequences of Trivializing Sin (2)

As I mentioned in my last post, there are at least two major consequences to our minimizing or trivializing sin (The Consequences of Trivializing Sin). In this post I want to deal with consequence number two – the fact that we have lost, or fail to recognize, the pervasive “systemic” nature of sin. I will attempt to illustrate my conclusion with an example I think few would disagree with – and one that I’m sure will ruffle more than a few feathers.

The first is the way in which sexual sin has truly become systemic in our culture today. Back in the late 1950’s and 1960’s when the “sexual revolution” began to bloom in full flower, the church responded as it is wont to do, by focusing on the “moralities” of the revolution. Thus, instead of recognizing that what was taking place was a total reorientation of our sexual nature, the church focused on the length of a woman’s skirt, whether “mixed bathing” was a sin (um, that has to rate up close to the top for incorrect nomenclature. I don’t think ANYONE was arguing for mixed bathing, but swimming together was surely a hot topic), and the “sin” of dancing (the old “vertical expression of a horizontal desire”). As the revolution deepened, more strenuous objections came against pornography and guiltless cohabitation, but once again, the push back was focused on individual “acts” of sexual immorality, not the larger issue of our sexual natures being “re-imagined.” Fast forward to 2019, and now the sexual content of that harbinger of decadence, Playboy magazine, seems tame in comparison to the repugnant demonstrations of homosexuality routinely presented in “Gay Pride” parades. But, while the content has certainly become more decadent, the underlying rebellion against God’s plan for male and female sexuality has not changed. The church did not recognize it back in the ’50’s and ’60’s, but we what we are seeing today is nothing more than the ’50’s rebellion writ large.

The second area that I wanted to highlight is the area of economics. I have read, and have even heard it taught, that free-market capitalism is “God’s perfect form of an economy.” Such promoters point to the fact that in the Old Testament land ownership was described positively, and that hard work and thrift are praised both in the Old and New Testaments. I’m not sure how many of these free-market capitalists would appreciate going back to a divinely appointed monarchy, but I digress. The idea is that because God allowed, or even blessed, land ownership and hard work and thriftiness, he somehow instituted free-market capitalism as his favored economic platform.

Two comments scream out for attention. One is that in the Old Testament, no Israelite ever owned the land! It was God’s land, “leased” or “lent” to the individual farmer for a period of time. Every fifty years all “ownership” of the land reverted back to the original “owner,” but even that was provisional. All the crops, all the livestock that grazed on the crops, all the proceeds of the land or livestock belonged to God. God allowed the “land owner” or livestock manager to keep between 75 percent and 90 percent of his work, but the implication was clear – everything was God’s and did not “belong” to the man who worked the fields or kept the livestock.

Second, a system of free-market capitalism without extraordinary moral safeguards becomes a demonic system of the powerful abusing and repressing the weak. Slavery is perfectly acceptable in a pure free-market capitalism. Charging “whatever the market will bear” is perfectly acceptable, and even demanded, in a pure free-market capitalistic economy. Usury is basically mandated in a pure free-market capitalistic society. And, as our American history has proven, it is exactly that pure, undiluted free-market mindset that has been rejected in favor of a much more egalitarian capitalism, where laws and opposing forces (such as labor unions) provide a check on unbridled greed. In other words, without a strong moral framework, a pure free-market capitalism is simply impossible to maintain without utterly destroying the weakest and poorest citizens in a commonwealth.

Simply put, SIN runs rampant in a free-market capitalism, and it must be restrained by moral safeguards – such as those instituted by God in Leviticus 19 (and other texts) and as have been initiated in our own culture. It is unbiblical, and highly dubious, to argue that free-market capitalism is God’s chosen economic platform. Leaving the corners of your field unharvested, leaving grapes on the vine, ceasing all labor every seventh day (thus allowing your beasts and your workers rest), letting your land lie fallow every seventh and fiftieth year, freeing your slaves every seven years, refusing to charge interest and remitting debts every 50 years – NONE of these practices are a part of a capitalistic economy, and yet they form the bedrock morality of the Israelite economy. Let us be done with the myth that our form of capitalism is somehow favored by God!

The point that I wanted to drive home here with these two examples (and more could be given) is that SIN is not just the isolated instance of two men or two women choosing to have sex with each other, or charging usurious interest rates. SIN is a demonic force – personalized by the apostle Paul as “the prince of the power of the air” in Ephesians 2. SIN pervades every aspect of our life – there is no component untouched. If we as Christians cherry-pick what we think are the worst of the worst (typically sexual in nature and behaviors the furthest away from our lifestyle) and label them as sins while blithely turning a blind eye to the aspects of SIN that are in our favor (or worse, that we actively support), then our opponents are right to accuse us of hypocrisy.

It is past time for Christians to return to a biblical understanding of SIN. While there certainly is nothing wrong with cataloging individual sins, (and Paul certainly does that!), we need to regain that understanding of SIN that underlies all of the various biblical catalogs of sin – SIN is deeply embedded in our nature, it is not without reason that the Psalmist can say, “I was conceived in sin.” (And, lest you worry, I am NOT promoting the idea of original sin!!) I am simply saying that the psalmist had a much more “biblical” view of sin than we do, and we have his words to help us understand the idea of sin!

Not to muddy the waters even more at this point, but we really do need to return to the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians, and forget the blather of Sigmund Freud!

[Authors note: some rather egregious spelling mistakes have been corrected. Sorry for the poor proof-reading!]

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.