Archive for September, 2014

Interpretation

September 30, 2014

In recent days, there has been a spate of beheading-related news.  Of course there is the Oklahoma story of the recently-fired Muslim convert who beheaded a co-worker.  There is now news of another Oklahoma man arrested for threatening to behead someone (though it’s hard to tell from the story whether or not he was joking or not.  If such a thing is possible).  In Florida there are reports of two drunk men who started a bar fight and threatened to cut off someone’s head.  And in Australia a disgruntled driver claiming ISIS affiliation threatens to behead a policeman.

When do you recognize a pattern, and when is it coincidence?  Judging from Facebook, people are often inclined to assume a pattern.  Yet in at least three of the above situations, the actual threat is rather hard to determine.  Is the man arrested for claiming to want to behead someone in Oklahoma really an example of hugely inappropriate humor and the overreaction of his co-workers?  Are two drunk men reliable examples of a Muslim plot in America?  Is the Australian threat an example of someone hoping to scare someone?

ISIS is all the rage in news right now, and not without merit.  So it’s not surprising that people thinking none-too-clearly might choose such an affiliation in order to elicit a response, whether they have any link to ISIS or not.  The fact that most of them appear to be Muslim makes it trickier.  I would hope that Muslim congregations and leaders throughout the world are condemning the violence of ISIS as well as what may be individuals in the US and elsewhere who are willing to make statements about ISIS affiliation or threaten similar tactics.  If they are, I’m not seeing reports of it very often.

I also have to keep in mind that there are plenty of Christian crackpots out there that I would hope that other people realize are in no way representative of the Bible or the Christian faith.  I want to reasonably extend the same courtesy to other crackpots adhering to other faith systems.

Or is it simply a matter of faster, more comprehensive news coverage that is able to cobble together information about wildly disparate and unrelated events yet provide the impression of a pattern or a plot?  Do we blame the media or the Internet for inundating us with information because we keep clicking on the stories and generating trackable traffic patterns?

Jumping to conclusions is not a good thing.  I suspect that it is also another example of how the Eighth Commandment comes into play.

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The Eighth Commandment

September 29, 2014

Everyone loves a juicy topic of conversation.  Something that more than just whets the appetite, but really gets the juices flowing.  A steady stream of righteous indignation is always good, and more than a dribble of scandal.  But as I’ve written before, the Eighth Commandment requires us to put a stop to this to the best of our ability.  Temptations will come, but it is how we handle that temptation that determines whether sin gets a foot in the door or not.

Because we’re all human and therefore all sinful, we sometimes fail to observe this, and pastors are no exception.  But it’s still disappointing – especially when it’s done in a highly public way, and without any official material upon which to base conversation.  I’ve been disappointed that a colleague has seen fit to begin sharing on Facebook material from a private meeting that they weren’t even a part of.  Relying on conversations and second-hand notes, he’s getting people riled up. People like getting stirred up.  We hardly need more excuses for this.

If and when this material is available for public comment, I’ll throw in my two cents worth, so you know what I was annoyed about here :-)

Reading Ramblings – October 5, 2014

September 28, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #14 — Elijah & the Prophets of Baal: October 5, 2014

Texts: 1 Kings 18:20-40; Psalm 94; Matthew 25:31-46

Context: We’re slightly out of order this week, preaching in Elisha last week and Elijah this week when in reality Elijah preceded Elisha.  Ah well.  Mea culpa.  More pressing should be the prominent theme of judgment in this passage.   In a powerful showdown, the prophet of God defeats the prophets of the false god Baal, and the false prophets lose their lives.  What we believe has ramifications, as events in the Middle East these days and in North Africa should make abundantly clear.  Scripture is clear that there will be judgment, and we are tasked with the difficult work of praying for those who are lost in the falseness of other religions and the evil of destroying those who disagree, while acknowledging that those who are not brought to faith face very real judgment.  

1 Kings 18:20-40 — Elijah is not a popular man.  He is the last of the faithful prophets, those who truly spoke the Word of God to the people of God and their leaders.  The others had either been driven off or killed or converted to other religions of convenience.  Here Elijah demands a showdown, and faces off with 450 false prophets.  Elijah may feel he has nothing to lose, considering how out of favor he is with King Ahab.  Yet there is much at stake beyond Elijah’s own life.  There are the lives of the people of God who are torn between the false gods of the people around them and their own rulers, and the true Creator of heaven and earth.  And whether they realize it or not, at stake as well are the lives of the prophets of Baal who face off confidently against this lone voice.

God is not intimidated though, and He strengthens Elijah for the daunting task at hand.  In the end, the truth of God is contrasted with the complete humiliation of those who follow other gods.  The hearts of God’s people are undoubtedly strengthened, and the lives of the false prophets are ended violently.  These are the stakes of faith.  As our culture wants to decry and mock the fierce differences between religions, we must never forget that life and death are at stake, both here and now as well as eternally.   We should be in constant prayer that those who oppose God would be brought to faith, and therefore to life, even as we pray for the preservation of those already suffering and dying for His name.

Psalm 94  — Good will prevail.  Evil will fail.  We may at times be reticent to proclaim this boldly because most all of us know someone who has not come to trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord & Savior.  We are tempted to soft-peddle the judgment Scripture clearly points to, as though this might be a source of offense to those outside the faith.  Of course it will be a source of offense!  And certainly passages of judgment are not likely to help the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives.  Yet we must remember that sin is sin.  Evil is evil.  And the great victory of God in Jesus is victory over the results of sin—death—as well as the source—evil.  Such victory is not itself bad but rather good.  This should impel us to take seriously the people in our lives who are not in faith, and urge us to pray for them and actively seek the Holy Spirit’s help in knowing how best to share with them our hope in Jesus Christ.

Matthew 25:31-46— Are you a mighty person of faith?  Are you a fearless warrior against sin?  Have you championed the faith in groundbreaking ways?  Have you impacted the world the way that Billy Graham or C.S. Lewis have?

Most of us would be quick to say no, and rightly so.  As such we should take great comfort that in the final judgment picture that Jesus draws, what God notices are little things.  Little acts of mercy and kindness and love for neighbor, not miraculous and one-of-a-kind matters.

God notices these things because they can be indicators of a heart of faith inside.  It is not the actions themselves that have merited eternal life, but rather these actions are an outward manifestation of an inward faith.  For the person who professes to be Christian, we should expect to see some evidence in their love of their neighbor, regardless of how trivial the world might deem that evidence.  Likewise, a lack of such evidence is perhaps a dangerous indicator that faith is superficial or even false.

In both cases, the sheep and the goats are surprised by their assessment.  Those in faith because faith in Jesus Christ should lead us to the point where actions of love for others are second nature, something we hardly even notice.  For those outside of faith, the lack of such actions may well denote an unawareness of all that God has done for them in Jesus Christ.

But while God can discern the heart in part through our actions, we are not so blessed.  As such, it is impossible to say that the generous philanthropist must be Christian because they help the needy, or that the foul-mouthed person who never gives to the poor must not be a Christian.  Our vision is, at best, imperfect.  But our God’s vision is not.

As Christians we must not reach a place where we feel that there is no room for improvement, nothing more that can be expected of us, no more that God can ask of us.  There is no retirement from being a Christian, though how we are called to serve may change as we grow older.  Always we are to see in our neighbor a creation of God.  If they are a brother or sister in Christ, praise God and seek to be at peace with them!  If they are not a believer, then they rightly become the object of our prayers and intercessions and our earnest appeals to the Holy Spirit to show us how we might best be of help in leading that person to Christ.

Judgment is coming.  Everything is at stake.  If we suffer for His sake now we do so knowing that this suffering will have an end.  We pray for those who persecute us that they may come to a knowledge of the true God before it is too late, that they might enjoy eternal life in the presence of God.

More Science & Technology

September 27, 2014

Keeping up on the recent spate of curious science and technology-related news….

First it was the discovery that there may in fact be a lot of water deep inside the earth where we wouldn’t have suspected to find any.  It’s a discovery that Genesis at least hints at in the story of Noah, but which hasn’t really been taken very seriously in the past few hundred years.

Then it was the possibility that the theoretical existence of black holes may be completely bogus, literally a mathematical impossibility.

Now, it seems that there is water on the earth that is older than the sun.  That may not sound like any big deal, except that Genesis 1 hints at this very thing, describing the creation of oceans (vs. 9-10) as preceding the formation of the stars and the sun and the moon (vs. 14-18).  Curiouser and curiouser, no?

Finally, in less stellar news, the Mrs. and I recently upgraded to smart phones.  iPhones, even.  Not new ones of course (well, they’re new, just not the new iPhone 6).  I’d really like to thank all the technophiles out there who slept in lines for days and spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get the top of the line, brand-spankin’ new iPhone 6, because that means the hopeless outdated and boring iPhones 4 & 5 are really, really, really cheap.  In some cases, even free.  I can’t bring myself to pay hundreds of dollars for a supercomputer phone.  For me, it’s all about the keyboard.

But one appealing aspect of the iPhone 6 is that it supports by default the encryption of user data at the device level.  E-mails, photos, and other personal data will be encrypted using a unique user-created code.  Which means that if (when) the government demands that Apple turn over customer data, what Apple will turn over will be encrypted gobbledy-gook, because not even Apple will be able to decrypt the data.

Of course the government is already crying about how this is unfair and ridiculous, about how the alleged goals of protecting citizens outweigh the individual’s right to complete secrecy.  But those arguments are a tad thin when we know for a fact that our government is collecting information on millions and millions and millions of citizens who are not criminals, are not suspected of being criminals, and are not part of any criminal investigation.

I applaud Apple for having the nerve (and technology) to give individual’s the right to expect their data will be kept private.

More Smarts

September 26, 2014

The smarter we get, the more we realize we don’t know.

This article makes me glad that I didn’t lose more sleep over the possibility of our world being sucked into a black hole.  The sleep I lost worrying about a Cold War nuclear holocaust was probably far more justified.

Forgivemess

September 25, 2014

I Facebook, which means I lurk.  Lurking is when you view and scan other people’s information but never really have much to say yourself.  In real life, this is called stalking and has some pretty fierce ramifications, legally.  Online, this is expected and exploited to make money.  Go figure.

Today I noticed that there was an alumni group for my high school.  Out of morbid curiosity, I lurked.  High school was by and large not an enjoyable time for me, so my feelings of nostalgia are quite limited and specific.  But it so happened yesterday that the first post was from a guy in my grade who was a jerk.

This particular jerk was part of a duo that tormented me through the latter part of grade school and with decreasing regularity into high school.  Bullying me was not particularly difficult as I had pretty much zero self-confidence and plenty of social quirks of my own to be exploited.  I lived in fear of these two for probably close to a decade.  They were far more bark than bite, but I was always terrified that there would be an eventual bite.  I can’t remember anything more than verbal intimidation and scare tactics, which are more than enough in most cases.

He posted a link to an Internet video that he was part of, and he talked about his childhood a little bit.  I never knew anything about this guy other than that he was a jerk.  Learning that he grew up on hard rock and metal music didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I never really had taken the time to consider him as a person with interests and hobbies and likes and dislikes.  He was just someone to be avoided.

Realizing that my thoughts about him relegated him to the category of jerk, I realized that perhaps forgiveness was an issue to be explored here.  Had I forgiven this jerk?  For contributing to a childhood of fear and inferiority, had I forgiven him?

Of course I have, I chuckled good-naturedly.  That was a long time ago.  Who knows what he was going through.  He probably wasn’t really a jerk, at all.  Or perhaps he was really going through some difficult stuff.  He looks like a decent enough guy now.  How silly it would be of me to harbor a grudge!  I’ve certainly forgiven you, jerk-face.

I was feeling pretty good for a few minutes, and then it struck me.  I hadn’t necessarily forgiven jerk-face, I had excused him.  I had rationalized his behavior decades ago, the few scant cumulative seconds or minutes that I could actually remember, or the emotional angst that still resonated dustily after so many years.  I had let him off the hook, offered reasons why he really wasn’t a jerk, why I might have mischaracterized him, crafted possibilities where I had misunderstood everything.  I had gone through a psychological process, but had I really forgiven him?

Forgiveness is easy to fake.  Particularly with the passage of time and the absence of presence, we mistake the natural process of emotional relaxation with forgiveness.  We mistake forgetfulness for forgiveness.  We mistake rationalization for forgiveness.

I scanned his Facebook page again.  Look at that dopey chopper moustache.  Look at his smokin’-hot bimbo of a wife.  What if he’s actually a jerk?  What if he really was a jerk way back when?  What if he enjoyed humiliating me?  Enjoyed the look of terror in my eyes?  Enjoyed feeling strong and superior?  

What if he thinks back on the past and has a good laugh about it all still?

Then my duty and privilege as a Christian is still to forgive him.

Forgiveness is not rationalization.  Forgiveness is the deliberate, willfull, Holy Spirit-powered intentional releasing of our pain and anger and loss and all the other negativity built up in us around someone else’s words or actions or beings.  It is the insistence that we will not wish ill on that other person, regardless of whether they deserve it or not.  It is the refusal to allow hate to fester and infect us in other ways.  It is the commitment to only praying the best for that other person, to genuinely desire that person’s best in all ways, and most especially in respect to faith in Jesus Christ and eternal salvation.

It is not natural.  It is not easy.  It is not automatic.  It does not whitewash.  It does not gloss over.  It stares at real people and real events that were not right or hurtful or traumatic and does not flinch, does not look away.  It is more real than most of what we do on auto-pilot each day.  And it is commanded of us as followers of Christ.

Don’t assume forgiveness.  Practice it.

Wet Bar Wednesday – Regional Tastes

September 24, 2014

Most people are familiar with at least some of the major liquors – vodka, rum, tequila, gin, whiskey, etc.  These form the base of the vast majority of cocktails.  But there are a large number of other kinds of liquor out there.  Basically, whatever people have on hand, they figure out how to ferment into some sort of alcoholic beverage.  Some of these are fun to experiment with.  Some are not.

On the fun side, I recommend a liquor called rompope.  This drink is made in Mexico and several Latin American countries.  It’s usually a mixture of egg yolks, sugar, milk and rum, though different regional variations include other flavorings.  It’s a very deep yellow, custard-y color.  I like to drink it over ice.  It’s very rich, much like drinking an alcoholic custard or flan, and who can argue with that?

On the other end of the spectrum is slivovitz.  This is a distillation of plums, and is roughly the equivalent of drinking paint thinner.  I tried it for the first time several years ago and never touched the stuff again.  I recently tried it again and found it slightly more palatable.  This liquor comes from Central and Eastern Europe, and is not for the faint of heart.  Apparently the liquor is acceptable by some Jewish communities for use during Passover celebrations because it does not have grain in it.  It is usually flavored after distillation with other natural juices.

Part of the fun for me is discovering different regional distillations and tasting them.  It’s not always rewarding, but it’s always informative.  Have you run across any unusual spirits?

Persecution & Rebellion

September 24, 2014

This is a very good read.  Chad Bird has been popping up more and more in Facebook friends’ feeds, and for good reason.  He inspires a good deal of faithful thought and reflection.

The only thought I would add is that while this is valuable for the Christian, including those actively experiencing persecution, it is also a bit of an esoteric insight.  Those involved in persecution most likely will not view their actions in this light.  It may provide the suffering Christian an interesting tack or opportunity to evangelize their tormentors, but it will not stop their tormentors.  It will not make their suffering any less real and terrible.  It does not obligate other Christians any less to stand with their suffering brothers in prayer but also in giving to alleviate that suffering and utilizing all available legal means to end it.

It is one of those big picture insights that provide us with a certain level of clarity, but it is a level of clarity difficult to maintain in the midst of suffering.

Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.

Life & Death

September 22, 2014

I by and large enjoyed this thought-provoking essay by Ezekiel Emanuel.  While there are also folks who see ominous undercurrents in his philosophy and his involvement with crafting Obamacare, I think that Emanuel raises some interesting ideas.  Could this be a carefully crafted piece of spin to hide less appealing ramifications?  Certainly.  But I prefer to treat this essay in isolation, as it stands as a single work.

First off, I’ll say that the fundamental flaw in Emanuel’s essay, from a Christian perspective, is that it is all me-centered.  What do I want?  What do I feel is adequate or healthy?  How do I wish to be remembered?  These are all questions that we entertain, no doubt, from time to time.  But allowing them to become the driving factor in making any sort of decision is dangerous, let alone decisions regarding health and life and death.  While Emanuel alludes to the search for greater meaning that he hopes to undertake in the coming years (based on his decision not to seek certain medical testing & treatment at a given age), it is clear in this particular essay that such questions have yet to affect his thought process.

For the Christian, life is a gift, from start to finish.  We do not summon our own existence and therefore our rights in determining the end of our life are curtailed as well.  So to arbitrarily (or with great calculation) indicate a particular point in life at which we prefer to die is somewhat strange.

But not entirely so.  The desire to live at all and any costs is equally problematic, and we have a system of healthcare that encourages this by redistributing the costs of such desires.  The Christian should not be afraid to die, nor should we actively seek to die.

Ideally, regardless of age, our responses to health-related issues should be driven not by fear, not by some sort of twisted desire for immortality, but rather in faithfulness.  How are my decisions in keeping with the idea that a loving God has created me, has died to redeem me from myself, and has promised me life beyond my imagination?  How might we make decisions if we treat death as what we claim it is – an enemy defeated in Christ.  We do not seek to yield to that enemy temporarily or any sooner than necessary, but we need not run in fear from it either.

This is undoubtedly a complicated process of prayer and consideration in God’s Word.  And I will quickly affirm that the Bible is not a secret code designed to unlock my decision about a specific healthcare choice.  But the Word of God can help remind me, set me in a proper context, to consider the choices that are placed before me (as opposed to hypothetical choices and what-if choices).

As such, there is no ideal age at which to die.  No age is sacred or otherwise exempt from the effects of sin and suffering in this world, which include sickness and disease.  Sometimes the shorter life lived in comparative freedom and joy is better than the life prolonged only through arduous treatments that render us nearly insensate.  We are not to seek death before it comes to us, nor are we compelled to hold death at bay at all costs.  It is a balancing act that will likely look different in each believer’s life, which makes policy dictates dangerous, at best.

I pray that Mr. Emanuel finds God in his remaining years, that he will engage in that active search and exploration as he has hinted he should.  I think he has a very good point that such explorations are blunted and muted in a culture oriented always towards youth and vitality, that never remind us that we will grow old or that sickness might arrive in the bloom of youth.

Reading Ramblings – September 28, 2014

September 21, 2014

Date:  Narrative Preaching #13—Naaman the Syrian: September 28, 2014

Texts: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; Mark 10:46-52

Context: Last week’s consideration of Job forced us to look at the fuller implications of the sovereignty of God.  However the God who may decree suffering is also the God who has promised the fullness of healing in the day of our Lord’s return.  Additionally, He continues to grant healing here and now.  Are we afraid to ask for healing?  Often we fear to ask because we fear that God will not receive our request, or will answer in the negative.  Through Jesus Christ we are invited to come before God honestly, seeking healing and not being afraid to name this as our request, even as we fully confess the sovereignty of God.

2 Kings 5:1-14 — A challenging story on many levels, despite how often it probably appears in Sunday School lessons.  Here an enemy of God’s people has the gall to seek healing from the people he attacks!  While the lesson of the slave girl who faithfully testifies to the power of God in Elisha, it remains challenging that someone who is an enemy to God’s people is shown favor.  He receives healing, when there were no doubt many suffering people of God who did not receive such healing.

It is hard for us to imagine that God might take mercy on an enemy of God’s people.  It might seem foolish or even scandalous that the slave girl could hope for her owner’s cure.  We presume that the enemies of God’s people deserve only punishment.  There will be a day and a time when that is true.  But until that day and time, we seek God’s work in the lives of our enemies.  We should pray that they are led from the error of their ways to receive the Truth by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We should rejoice when God works in their lives because they are creatures of God as well.

Psalm 30  — The psalmist begins in praise of what God has done for him.  Remembering that the psalms are designed to be sung/recited communally, the exact circumstances of deliverance are somewhat vague and even varied, ranging from rescue from enemies to healing from sickness or disease.  The result is that God should be praised—while we can and will and do suffer, this is not our permanent lot or fate.  Verses 6-7 are a reminder that we do not stand or fall on our own, but in conjunction with God’s will.  Verses 8-10 are a frank pleading with God for restoration here and now.  How will the singer praise God in death?  How will he be a witness to God’s goodness if he is removed from life?  The psalm concludes with praise—praise in advance of God’s response to the plea of vs. 8-10.  In all things God is to be praised, and his goodness attested.

Mark 10:46-52— Uncharacteristically, Mark provides us with the name of this beggar as well as the name of his father.  Many scholars presume that this is because either Bartimaeus or his father Timaeus or both were well known in the Christian community as Mark is composing his Gospel.  Regardless, Bartimaeus clearly has heard of Jesus and what He has done for other people.  When he hears from the passing crowd that Jesus is here, he begins calling out to Jesus.

His address is curious—he is the only one in Mark’s Gospel to address Jesus with this title.  Scholars debate how likely it would be that Jesus’ Davidic lineage would be known, though it seems sure enough through other literary sources and archaeology that the house of David still existed, though in a much lowlier estate than in centuries past.  There is nothing to say that those who had investigated the background of Jesus even during his lifetime had noted his lineage and that this was accessible information.

It may be that this particular form of address is what gets Jesus’ attention.  Bartimaeus is ignored and then told to shut up by the disciples and/or the crowd (for other instances of Jesus’ disciples wrongly excluding people, see Mark 9:38-41 and 10:13-16), but Jesus eventually hears his constant crying out and instructs that he be brought to him.  Suddenly the crowd and disciples are more solicitous, encouraging and calming Bartimaeus as they guide him towards Jesus.

Jesus’ question is straightforward.  Up till now, Bartimaeus has pleaded for mercy, a rather general request although given his condition it is not hard to imagine what shape Bartimaeus might like that mercy to take.  Still, Jesus asks Bartimaeus to state what it is that he hopes Jesus will do for him.  Bartimaeus’ response is just as straightforward.  There is no beating about the bush.  There is no false piety.   There is no sudden shame at the desire of his heart, there is no embarrassment.  He wants his sight back.  He says so plainly.

Jesus sends Bartimaeus on his way with his sight.  His faith is credited with this, but we should be cautious about what we infer from this.  Did Bartimaeus believe that Jesus was the Son of God?  Did he believe him to be the promised Messiah, based on his Davidic lineage?  All we know for certain is that Bartimaeus refused to be quieted or pushed aside by those who deemed him too inconsequential for Jesus to respond to.  His insistence might denote a faith that Jesus could and would indeed care about him enough to hear him.  It might further indicate a faith that the same Jesus who had healed so many others—including restoring sight to the blind—might restore his own.  Were the rumors false?  Had people lied about what Jesus had done?  What profit or purpose might there be in that?  Bartimaeus seemed willing to trust what He had heard about Jesus enough to bring his petition before him.

Bartimaeus’ response is also noted.  First, he did indeed receive his sight.  Secondly, he joined in the crowd following Jesus to Jerusalem.  Those blind eyes would witness marvelous and terrible things very shortly!  Bartimaeus would be able to give eyewitness testimony to the welcome Jesus received as He rode into Jerusalem.  Bartimaeus would be able to see the fear and anger and confusion in the crowd as they called out for Jesus to be crucified.  It is likely that Bartimaeus even watched Jesus lifted on the cross, perhaps stood there for hours watching him die.  We can only wonder if those eyes also saw the resurrected Jesus, or his amazing ascension into heaven.

We are sometimes convinced that to ask God something specific is a sign of weak faith, that such a request is a demonstration of selfishness and lack of spiritual maturity.  This is nonsense.  We are to state our requests as plainly as Bartimaeus, and with full confidence that God is capable of doing anything, even what we ask.  But we also remain in humble obedience to God, trusting that whether the God who is able is also the God who chooses to act in the way we would like him to or not, God is still good, and worthy of praise.