Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Billiards & Theology

December 29, 2022

Truth be told, billiards is a hobby that for me, usually doesn’t involve a lot of thought. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a world champion after playing for 30+ years. More often (especially if playing alone) it clears my head and I don’t think about much of anything else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities for more useful intellectual and theological engagement with the game.

Earlier this week I headed out to one of my favorite locales with my colleague here in town, Matt. Although he readily admitted it had been a long time since he last played, he was eager to get out and I was happy to introduce him. As I was preparing to go I was WhatsApping with another long-time friend, peer, and colleague (in another country), JP. He was happy Matt and I were heading out and hoped it would be a good opportunity to build the relationship. But, he added, I should still show Matt no mercy when we played!

That got me thinking a bit.

In billiards (or any other competitive activity, I suspect), mercy is complicated. Mercy is, in fact, not always merciful. Showing mercy (deliberately missing shots or trying to otherwise throw the game so the other person feels more capable or hopeful) is actually unmerciful if the other person doesn’t have at least a nominal baseline ability to make a shot now and then. Showing mercy to someone with absolutely no skill at all only makes both people miserable by drawing out the game forever. Mercy is appropriate in a situation where there the other person has at least some ability, or some ability to improve on their current ability. Otherwise mercy becomes pointless and torturous to everyone involved.

So is all mercy like billiards mercy? Is God’s mercy like billiards mercy?

The Bible describes God as merciful (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 4:31, Nehemiah 9:17, Luke 6:36, etc.) and I believe this is true. In his mercy He extends forgiveness and grace through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of his divine Son, Jesus the Christ. This grace is necessary because of the sin that separates us from God’s perfect holiness, a condition creation has endured since the Fall of Genesis 3. And it is in mercy that God’s perfect timing continues to play out, allowing his broken creation to continue experiencing redemption person-by-person through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). There is a purpose to God’s timing and mercy. Otherwise continuing to experience the suffering of the world would be more than pointless, it would be cruel, even evil.

So what is it in us that makes God’s mercy merciful rather than simply torture?

The traditional – and wrong – answer is our good works in some way. Pelagius tried this route early on and it was roundly rejected by the Church and rightly so. If we contribute in any way to our own salvation, then the Son of God’s work on our behalf is only partial, imperfect. Passages like Romans 3 or 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are strong in making sure we don’t mistake our efforts for something worthy of or deserving of God’s grace. Pelagius meant well, I assume. That’s the mark of a compelling heresy – it’s not trying to be heretical, it’s just trying to make sense to us in some way.

And as such, others attempted to rehabilitate his ideas. And frankly a lot of preachers I’ve heard are effectively Pelagiasts in barely mentioning Jesus at all in their sermons, never mentioning our sin in any specific, overt way, and focusing exclusively on exhorting their hearers to good works. Good works are important to talk about, but without any context to them, hearers presume it is these that impress God or lead him to bestow his mercy on us.

So it can’t be our good works, whether we define this in the narrow sense Pelagius tried to, as in our reaching out for/acceptance of God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, or in the wider sense of impressing God with our good works. JP and I agreed on that so it’s clearly the right answer. But if so, what might there be about us that makes the mercy of God merciful?

I suggest going all the way back to the beginning, to the imago dei of Genesis 1:27. The quality that makes us redeemable, that makes mercy actually merciful rather than sadistic torture, is not something generated by us but gifted to us by our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Like everything else, it is received, not generated. Because God has created us in his image, we are redeemable. This is not something we can boast about, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4. It is something which God alone receives the glory for, and any boasting to be done should be done about him.

I’m still playing around with this theological noodling. Thoughts? Alternatives? Is the analogy flawed to begin with?

In any event, I didn’t show mercy, and we had a good time regardless. :-)

Lying and Hating

November 25, 2022

Living on the other side of the world I try to keep abreast of global news including back home in the US. Lately it seems most of the news stories revolve around Americans killing other Americans in America. Sometimes for reasons we know, other times not.

All of these are atrocities and tragedies. The Biblical rule against murder is not conditional. The Biblical command to love our neighbor as ourselves (and even to love our enemies) is not conditional either. Which means Christians should be praying for everyone. Certainly this should be a standard practice but certainly in times of crisis the need is more obvious. Those Christians who refuse to pray or pray selectively should go back to Scripture and remind themselves that our political or cultural identities do not define us and our duties to our Lord. Our Lord determines them and has made himself pretty clear. If society and culture has rejected the Biblical truths we confess, it does not free us of our Lord’s command to love and to pray.

That being said, there are more than a few disturbing aspects to the Colorado Springs shooting at a gay club.

It caught my attention that the initial information about the shooter indicated that, by all accounts, he likely shared some commonalities with more than a few of the attendees of the club. I was prepared for the barrage of anti-conservative critics pointing out the shooter’s fundamentalist Christian background. Instead, I read the shooter identified as non-binary and preferred non-gender-specific pronouns. Although I’m sure such indicators don’t preclude Christian (anymore) or conservative ideologies, in my experience that would not be the more likely reality.

Perceptions and expectations are tricky things. But so is outright ignorance.

So while I pray for the owner of the club, his patrons, the victims, everyone associated directly and indirectly with the event and our country and society as a whole, his recent comments on the event are problematic. His interpretation is the shooting is simply the logical outcome of those who oppose normalizing alternative sexual or gender identities. Once again it’s the alternative lifestyles being victimized by the oppressive conservatives who refuse to promote their preferences.

But that isn’t the case in this situation. This seems more to be the case of one who might see himself – or be seen by his victims – as somewhat similar. More like one of their own. Which complicates attempts to cast it otherwise. Or at least should. Perhaps it’s just a way of interpreting life that is so ingrained with the owner it still gets voiced even when the facts don’t support it.

As always, I’m happy to retract any of my statements disproved by additional news sources or information I may not have seen.

The owner seems to at the very least not be aware of or understand the shooter.

Similar to the situation in this article, which is much larger and more problematic level.

Now, to be fair, I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything Boebert has said about the LGBTQ+ community or agenda. I know she’s mouthy and not exactly diplomatic, a trait shared by a disturbingly larger and larger percent of the population it seems and our leaders as well.

For clarification – religious or otherwise – disagreeing with someone yet still caring about them is not hypocritical. To disagree with someone does not necessitate (and should not necessitate) dehumanizing them or wishing evil upon them. This is a typical assertion of the LGBTQ+ community, insisting that anything other than full acceptance of and promotion of their radical redefinitions of humanity is hateful. Disagreement is not hatred. Failure to understand this is a failure to understand the fundamental rules of logic and disputation.

Again, perhaps Boebert has said things in the past that deserve the hypocritical charge. But if not, if she – like many, many, many Americans (far more than the left or the media would like to admit) – disagrees with attempts to redefine humanity, then it is not hypocritical (especially if they are Christian) to still pray for those they disagree with. It is, rather, commanded of them. Failure to understand this is a failure to understand even the basic elements of the religious convictions of roughly a third of the world’s population and the overwhelming majority religion in America.

I’ll put the best construction on things and assume the statements by the owner of the club and leaders of the LGBTQ+ movement are just ill-informed rather than lying about the facts at hand or about the fact that disagreeing is not hatred. Otherwise, the alternative seemingly insisted upon is that we always agree with anything anyone says about anything at any time for fear of creating hate of some sort that erupts into violence. By such logic LGBTQ+ advocates immediately null their own argument.

Violence is not the answer, and anyone on either side of this or any other argument that first resorts to it is wrong and should be condemned. In fact, it is facile attempts to invalidate opposition through words and reason and faith that can lead people to frustration and eventually violence. Let’s agree that there is a profound disagreement over the LGBTQ+ agenda and treat it as an actual intelligent disagreement that deserves to be vetted in the public square rather than immediately squashing and vilifying any dissent (on either side, by either side).

It won’t stop the killing, but it may slow it down some. Stopping it completely is going to take a long time and a much more difficult willingness to recognize we’ve been going down the wrong ideological rabbit hole for the last 70-some years. I don’t think that will happen in my lifetime but I pray it begins soon. It’s the only way these horrible killings (whether murder or suicide) will stop.

A Needed Gospel

October 2, 2022

I was having a theological discussion the other day with a friend regarding the challenge of sharing the Gospel in some cultures, particularly affluent ones. I pointed out that in such situations there might be no perceived need for the Gospel to address, and therefore people would be less open to the Gospel. He countered that we have to be careful about tailoring the Gospel to fit the perceived needs of recipients. This is a flaw in a great deal of global Christianity through the heretical prosperity gospel, which preaches that faith in God will naturally lead to tangible, economic benefits that will improve the lives of the faithful because God the Father’s intent is to lavish his good gifts upon us.

As I contemplated the discussion later, I kept coming back to this issue of need and the Gospel. It’s a historical reality that the Gospel often finds the most faithful and eager adherents among the most marginalized of society. Whether it was the lepers and the prostitutes blessed by Jesus directly, or the lower classes of Greek and Roman society who heard the disciples preach, or the poorer citizens of cultures around the world – such as the untouchable class in India’s Hindu caste system – people with very real and imminent needs often hear the Gospel more clearly and place their faith in it more readily.

After all, their other options might be few to none.

Add to this the Church’s historic (and present) practice of providing help and relief to the suffering both locally and globally, and it makes sense that people suffering through dire need who hear the Gospel and are assisted by those already professing it would be more open to making it their own faith. They’ve seen it in action.

It sounds good, but the flip side is just as slippery. Should a perceived need not be met by the Gospel or the Church, it might be equally easy for someone new in the faith or only shallowly familiar with it to despair and give up the Gospel in search of another, better option. Or the option of giving up entirely. My friend is right, relying on the ability to assist with a particular need in terms of tangible aid is a potentially dangerous confusion of the Gospel.

But the reality remains that the Gospel does meet our needs. And it should be preached and taught as such. But this requires adequate teaching to counteract the default cultural teaching and assumptions about life and reality. It requires an active counterpoint to cultural mantras (at least in the West) of rugged individualism or the promises of science and technology to solve our problems. It requires a more fundamental awareness of the Big Picture. This can’t be stressed enough, particularly in cultures where there no longer is a Big Picture. Where there’s nothing but the abyss of meaninglessness that logically follows in a mechanistic universe formed by accident. When culture insists there is no meaning in anything or anyone, the Church must work harder to teach that there is meaning in everything and everyone.

The Gospel does meet our needs, but those needs are not always (or ultimately) a matter of food or clothing or money. The Gospel fulfills our deepest needs and longings, but in many places those needs or longings have been buried under nothingness. There is no explanation for the sense of guilt, or disappointment, or frustration. And there is no fundamental hope that things can, should, or will be radically different at some point in the future. There can only be the vague encouragements to pretend life has meaning and to soldier on through suffering.

Given the skyrocketing rates of violence in the West – both in suicide as well as in the wanton destruction of other lives – such encouragements are understandably less than convincing. Evolutionary theory and natural selection can’t address the fundamental issues we face as human beings – why am I here? why is there suffering? why should I endure suffering? why should I help others? why should I continue on day after day when I’m unhappy? will there ever be anything more or better than this?

But the Gospel can and does answer these questions. It provides the meta-answers that place the problems human face individually and corporately in perspective, providing ways and means of interpreting them, coping with them, and continuing on in the face of adversity. As such the Gospel not only meets our needs, it defines them for us. We might be happy enough to simply acknowledge unhappiness with our lives, dissatisfaction with our jobs, loneliness from a lack of meaningful connection to other people. But the Word of God lifts our eyes to the Big Picture. A Big Picture that accounts for why we deal with such things, how we can deal with them better, and provides the all-important basis for hope to endure – things will not always be this way. There is a better day coming – the Day of the Lord.

So I’d still argue that the Gospel does address our needs and it’s not wrong to talk about it in such terms, so long as we allow Scripture rather than our sinful and narrow-minded hearts to define what our needs are. My need is not more followers on my blog, or more money in the bank, or a better car or a prettier wife or better behaved children. My needs are at the core of my being and cannot be addressed by more zeros at the end of my bank balance.

Let the Gospel address the needs people have, because it has addressed – and defined – the needs of those who share it. Jesus is the answer not just to temporary happiness or satisfaction but to the deepest existential questions existence conjures. Including, sometimes, hunger and nakedness and oppression. And miracle of miracles, the Gospel draws us in to sometimes be direct or indirect contributors to meeting the needs of those around us, which we find usually results in our own needs being met at the same time.

When the Law Isn’t the Law

July 15, 2022

A few choice articles this morning when my brain is still fuzzy, highlighting the dilemma we create for ourselves when the law ceases to be the law. When the rules – even the ones we create for ourselves – are ignored in favor of other factors, chaos ensues. The alleged search for a better law, an amorphous law of equality or love or fairness or whatever term is seen as useful at the moment, a law that transcends the laws we actually *do* have in the end is never helpful. Only if the law can be redefined, recast, recodified into something that is actually better than what we’re trying to skirt around for various reasons can there be any hope of avoiding current and future chaos.

Of course, changing the law is complicated and difficult and time-consuming and expensive and all manner of other things. Oftentimes, there is no better consensus on what a new law should look like than there is on whether we ought to just follow the existing law. Public opinion can be vastly misrepresented by a remarkably small but vocal minority with the ear of the media and policy makers (or policy enforcers). And of course, some laws can’t simply be changed – and shouldn’t be. But more on that later.

The first example is this one, regarding legendary athlete Jim Thorpe. I’m no athlete and no historian of athletes but even I know the name, even if I didn’t know any other specifics. The upshot of the story is that Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 Olympic gold medals because he wasn’t technically an amateur – he had played for pay several years before the Olympics, which disqualified him from playing and therefore from winning. Based on the story, it appears that people were upset about this not because of the rules themselves, or whether or not Thorpe actually had violated them, but because he was a world-class athlete of great and deserved renown, and because he happened to be Native American.

I’m going based on what the story linked to above says. If the story is wrong then my facts are wrong and I apologize.

There wasn’t any indication that the rules have been changed (although with the US sending an Olympic basketball team comprised of professional NBA stars in the past, maybe it has?). There wasn’t even a complaint, per se, about the rules indicated. There was only the complaint that the rules were applied to Thorpe. I get the impression from the article that the rules are partially seen as ridiculous because of the small amount of money involved (although I presume it was a more reasonable wage in 1910 and we shouldn’t let our 2022 gauges skew things). And clearly there are other folks upset because they see a racial implication. But no indication is given in the article as to whether the rules have been unfairly applied to Thorpe, whether other minority athletes have been treated similarly, etc. The story states the decision to strip Thorpe of his medals was controversial but doesn’t indicate who else felt the decision was unfair, or why, other than Native American advocates.

Why does the IOC consider this an “exceptional and unique situation”? No clue from the article. So what I’m left with is because people complained on the basis of his ethnicity, the IOC bent the rules. Once in 1982, and now fully 40 years later because current sensibilities say it’s the right thing to do.

Were the rules broken or not? What does this decision mean moving forward? What other people who were disqualified for breaking a rule or not meeting other criteria will feel emboldened to complain and lobby that if Thorpe is permitted this violation, they should be as well? Does ethnicity override other rules, and if so, how and when and to what extent? My questions would remain the same regardless of the date or whether ethnicity was a factor or not (these days it always is though, so…). And if ethnicity is the driving issue here, what does this decision teach people? That rules don’t apply as much as your ethnicity? Who defines ethnicity? Who determines whether someone is actually a minority or not, and based on what factors? What does this mean to those who aren’t minorities – by their or anyone else’s standards?

Again, I have nothing against Thorpe. He sounds like an amazing and gifted man and he, his family, and his people ought to be proud of that. All people ought to recognize and respect that. Such is sports and sportsmanship at it’s finest – based solely on ability and not on other issues. Decisions like this one ultimately undermine that level playing field. It fosters the creation of a subset of unwritten (at least as of yet) rules because the existing rules are deemed inadequate in some way.

The solution to this is to change or update the rules. Otherwise the rules eventually cease to be rules at all because they can be circumvented based on an ill-defined and always evolving and changing set of unspoken criteria.

Second example is the ever-evolving poster-child case for legalized, universal, on-demand, no-holds-barred abortion to not simply be allowed (as Roe v. Wade permitted) but codified national law and policy (as Roe v. Wade never was). President Biden (self-proclaimed faithful Roman Catholic despite his intense advocacy for legalizing abortion) trotted out the terrible situation of a 10-year old girl who had to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion after she was raped. Turns out the situation is a whole lot more complicated and even potentially more tragic than originally described, though not of course for the reasons Biden promoted.

The girl’s (alleged but unconfirmed) mother is claiming the girl is “fine” and that somehow the accused is not at fault, though why that is the case is not made clear in the article which instead bends over backwards to defend abortion providers.

First off, if a girl is pregnant and receiving an abortion at the age of 10 she is NOT fine. Period.

The mother is defending a person who admitted to raping the girl twice. Why is she defending him? Why is she quick to insist she is not the one who pressed charges? Is this not the right person? Then why did he confess? I’m sure all of these questions are bound up in the fact the accused’s address is listed as the same address as the mother and daughter.

Although some outlets are reporting the perpetrator is in the country illegally the Post story above and other outlets make no mention of the man’s citizenship status, and formal charges are related only to the alleged and confessed rape. Although citizenship status doesn’t alter the horrific nature of the crime, if we’re intent on knowing all the details about an alleged criminal this seems like a fairly major one to omit.

The person who conducted the abortion also happened to be the person who brought the case to media attention. Ironic, considering she appears to have made a rather major mistake in her report, indicating the perpetrator’s age was 17 rather than 27. In typical current fashion, when caught in an error, go on the offensive. Her lawyer is hinting at potential lawsuits against prominent officials based on the age discrepancy involved. Granted, the doctor could have been lied to. Full disclosure of her report has not apparently been made yet (though why I’m not sure. Why leak part of it but not all of it?).

In the middle of all this grandstanding remains a 10-year old girl who has suffered some horrible things. That ought to be the primary discussion point and focus.

Instead, it’s a matter of law. But it’s a matter of which laws we want to emphasize and which we don’t. Do we want to push for laws permitting abortion and ignore laws which deny it? Do we want to focus on laws about immigration or push those to the side? And deeper still, do we still wish to ignore laws regarding marriage and the nature of adult relationships, preferring to rely on copy-cat partnership laws or, worse yet, ignore all of that completely and pretend people can safely and morally cohabitate as though they were married and committed for life even though they may have no such intentions?

All very important discussions to be sure, but secondary to the trauma this girl is dealing with. What sorts of resources are being provided to her to deal with it, and by whom? Who is her community, as opposed to those who simply want to exploit her for their own benefit, furthering the damage already done by her rapist? Which laws are we going to enforce or ignore?

All of this has to do with human law. Human law that is obviously imperfect, though supporters of this law or that law will argue their position is infallible. But the very existence of opposition – fallible opposition – implies our positions may be incorrect in full or in part. We can’t even follow our own laws or agree that they’re correct.

No wonder people are scrambling to run away from the reality of a law we didn’t create and can’t change. A law woven into the natural order and human nature. A law that serves as a guide for our best behavior, that restrains our worst impulses, and ultimately demonstrates our fallibility and guilt. No wonder we strive so hard to ignore any such reality and instead pretend we can simply dictate morality by creating or abolishing our own laws. We are creatures of law and we crave the chains which imprison us, believing in our burden that we are at least better than the people around us. That our chains are less deserved than the chains of others, and in this we imagine a kind of freedom.

God tells us otherwise. We can’t ignore his Law but at our own peril, a peril very much on display in huge ways as our country convulses with the consequences of indoctrinating generations of people with the idea that there is no ultimate accountability but therefore no purpose, no meaning to our own lives or the lives of others. That we are essentially accidental cosmic burps so whether we commit atrocities or acts of mercy makes no meaningful difference. People wonder why shootings are happening so often and they blame guns, but guns have been around for a long time, and part of our national identity (for better or worse) since the beginning. Yet their use to slaughter neighbors and children and loved ones is skyrocketing. Take away meaning, purpose, any sort of objective moral code and you set people free for many awful things. And while some would argue this is a false control placed on us by a contrived set of beliefs resting on an illusory divinity, our reality shows we have no ability to create any sort of meaningful laws on our own. All we can do is mirror – closely or poorly – the Law of our Creator. Results will vary in direct proportion to how far we diverge from his revealed order.

When we are unable and unwilling to follow even the laws we create, how much worse will things be when we refuse to acknowledge the divine Law in which we live and breathe? We have only two options provided to us by the Creator and the embodiment of that Law. One is that we can rage against it, continue to be crushed by it, and die without hope in it. Or, we can recognize our guilt, seek mercy from God, and find – miraculously – that mercy has already been extended freely through his Son, Jesus the Christ, who fulfilled the requirements of the Law and then offered his own wrongful conviction and execution to pardon us.

When we find the latter, we begin to recognize that God’s law while not always what we’d like in any given moment is always best in that moment and in all the moments before and after. In that law we find true equality based on our created nature rather than our accomplishments or genetic blessings. In that law we continue to be guided, though through faith in Jesus Christ we no longer face the eternal consequences when we violate that law. We are freed to live our lives in that law not in fear but in joy and relief.

Or we can keep trying to redefine it and replace it. And the results will continue to be as abysmal as they are right now. Repentance is always possible but I believe gets more difficult the longer we remain in our rebellion. I pray that people’s hope and purpose and joy comes to lie not in what they’ve done or whether what they’ve done has been properly honored. I hope their hope and purpose and joy comes from knowing who created them and everyone around them, and who loves them unendingly and unceasingly and demonstrates this in his gift of a Law that cannot be changed or ignored, a call to obey that Law, and the promise that because of Jesus, our performance of that law will not be the basis of our eternal condition.

There is a law, greater and deeper and more eternal than the transitory laws of any human society. At best, human laws should model and support this deeper divine law. At worst, they contradict it directly and in so doing reap the obvious consequences, just as pretending fire wasn’t hot or oxygen isn’t necessary for breathing would lead to very dire consequences. Continue to pray that our nation – and all nations – recognize this deeper law and seek to protect it. And continue to pray that we as a community and nation would argue not about whether we should enforce or ignore a given law, but continue to require our lawmakers and representatives to wrestle with these difficult matters on our behalf. If a law needs to be modified, then do so. If a law needs to be repealed, do so. But always with an eye towards how well (though imperfectly) any such changes match the deeper law of our Creator.

Which Texts, Please?

June 27, 2022

I mean, how hard did you have to look to find a group like this to support your-predetermined conclusion that religious groups are in favor of abortion?

The group’s website is here, but although it claims to have started in the 70’s, the copyright information is only indicated as last year and there’s literally no information or activity on this site (at least without being a member). Not only that, there’s absolutely no indication of which sacred texts support the idea that a baby can be physical but not spiritual, or rather a clump of cells like a fingernail and then miraculously a human being with an immortal soul simply because of the birth process.

I’d love to know which texts they’re relying on. But really, for reporting purposes, we don’t need to actually substantiate anything. The average reader is neither literate enough nor has the attention span to process it, so we’ll just skip it.

Trust us. It’s true. Really.

Watching From Afar

June 26, 2022

I’ve been privileged now to have observed some pretty major events in recent American history while abroad. It’s a curious feeling, being physically so detached while glued to Internet news feeds. A few observations.

Of the multiple dozens of news feeds I scan daily, I have seen exactly zero headlines indicating there is a large percentage of US citizens who oppose abortion and are relieved this heinous practice is no longer federally protected. Not a single one. By just reading headlines you would be led to believe nobody in America was praying and hoping for this reversal, and that it’s a cruel and barbaric ruling imposed on a population overwhelmingly opposed to it. Although survey data is hard to analyze, what is clear is that the numbers fluctuate greatly depending on how terms are defined. Although there is a +- 10% at either end of the spectrum, who either support or oppose abortion under any circumstances, the vast majority of Americans fall somewhere in between. And somewhere in between is not what Roe v. Wade provided for.

The only headline I’ve seen all week indicating the presence of Americans who welcome the overturn of Roe v. Wade was from the British publication The Guardian.

Headlines almost universally refer to the repeal of Roe v. Wade in language that would lead the uneducated person to believe abortion is now illegal throughout our country, rather than the reality that it is no longer a federally mandated option. Abortion is not illegal in our country. It may be illegal in certain parts of the country, or may become illegal. But that’s a decision best left to more localized populations than dictated from the national level.

Much is said about the changes conservatives are bringing to American policy, but all of the extremely liberal changes that have been wrought since Roe v. Wade are depicted as de facto rights that have always existed and should be above challenge, as opposed to legislation and judicial decisions which, per our Constitution, are always open to review or revision. As amazed as many news stories sound, it is not an alien thing for the Supreme Court to reverse a previous decision. It is rare that it reverses it’s own decisions, but this should be a good thing, assuring both sides that such instances represent some very lengthy deliberation and study of the Constitution and law rather than a simple response to popular pressure. For example, the original Roe v. Wade decision is about 36 pages long. Dobbs vs. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade this week, is 213 pages long. Clearly a lot of thought was given to this case.

I’ve seen stories citing cherry-picked, Western and European countries who are shell-shocked America could change it’s mind on this issue. This ignores the fact that abortion is limited in a large number of countries in the world. Again, since abortion has not been outlawed in the US, it would be more helpful if news reports compared apples to apples in their reporting.

There have also – predictably – been news stories featuring Christians lamenting this decision and asserting their support for abortion. Very little is mentioned – if at all – in such articles that probably the overwhelming majority of Christians worldwide understand abortion to be a violation of God’s Word in the Bible, and that certainly the largest Christian denomination on Earth – the Roman Catholic Church – has and does and (God-willing) will continue to oppose the practice steadfastly. I know there are Christians (some of them Catholic) who disagree with the Bible and their denominational stance, but it’s dishonest to ignore this difference of opinion simply to make it sound like all Christians everywhere support abortion (or should support it).

The (apparent) total lack of regard many lawmakers, celebrities, politicians, and other leaders in our culture have for the many, many people in America who believe abortion to be morally wrong, and who therefore believe it should not be a mandated right (paid for with tax dollars no less) or believe it should be illegal, is indicative of the growing polarization of our population and contributes directly to it. If you wish to disparage the logic or argumentation or conclusions of another citizen, all well and good. But if you simply want to insult and deride them and flip them off, you are not part of the solution to our polarization, you are part of the problem. This applies equally to people on both sides of any given issue. The unwillingness and inability to actually debate and simply scream and yell is a condemnation of our churches, our schools, and should be of utmost concern to our leaders. That they prefer to exploit it for their agendas is abysmal.

Much mockery has been made in recent years of those Americans who openly question the honesty and reliability of American media and news outlets. I suspect most of us are too jaded these days to implicitly trust much of any source (outside a sacred text). The incredibly disproportionate tone of the news media just this week alone ought to give pause for thought to whether or not the major American news outlets really are, as they claim, representing the news fairly and without bias. Not that this shouldn’t have been obvious for decades, but if anyone had any doubts about it, this week ought to make it clear.

Church Authority

May 10, 2022

An interesting – if too vague – article on the necessity of Church authority. By this, the author basically means every professing Christian ought to submit themselves to the authority of a church body – a local Christian congregation. Church membership as a whole continues to decline in the Western world, even as reported rates of theism in America remain very strong. Clearly there seems to be a trend where people believe they can believe in Jesus without being part of a Church. This article – rightly – questions this assertion and boldly questions such rationale.

I like his terminology – theological anarchist – for those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ but refuse to submit to the authority of the Church. The typical rationale – the risk of abuse of power within the Church – is not a valid rationale as the author rightly points out. Jesus established the Church not to be perfect but to be the place in this world where the faithful can be fed and nourished (albeit imperfectly) towards their eternal place in the perfect creation that is already inbreaking. Sometimes it is not possible to be connected to a community of believers because of intense risk and danger. However it’s interesting that it is in exactly such conditions the Church seems most resolute and permanent. Not as an institution but as the reality of Christians gathering together to sustain their souls by the promises of God conveyed in the reality of brothers and sisters willing to risk this short, frail, mortal coil to affirm the equal reality of what all believers are supposed to be anticipating. Japanese Christians had to hide for a time but did continue to meet. The same happened in China and the USSR and other places where Christianity and the Church were suppressed or outlawed.

What remains as a rationale for avoiding submission to Church authority is something else, something far more personal. The author’s language is very strong here, offensive even. But isn’t the refusal to submit to Church authority equally offensive? Isn’t the assertion that no congregation is good enough for me offensive, even if the person hasn’t thought about it like that before?

I think the article can be a bit misleading in the title. It led me to expect a discussion about the exercising of church discipline and authority over members as opposed to the need and mandate for submission to Church authority vis a vis membership or attendance or however you want to name serious commitment. Committing to a community of faith is often, tragically, only a commitment of convenience, lasting only as long as the individual happens to agree with what is said and done and asked of them, and terminated when it suits their personal preferences as opposed to for reasons of heresy or theological error.

Of course this is a dominant problem in America and the West where individualism is reaching absurdist heights, and the Church is not exempt from these problems. Good but competing models such as democracy are often absorbed into congregational polity. Sometimes they can be good. Sometimes they can be harmful. But most dangerous is when they are confused with the Church, with the Gospel, with God’s will and work in our lives and world which is only and ever in Christ and not in the well-intentioned creations of any other person or group.

The Church is not -as some insist – part of such a subset of human-created ideas and institutions. The Church is Christ’s command and creation (Matthew 16:18). It is not perfect, but it will be, just as every individual who is part of it is not perfect but by the grace of God in Jesus Christ one day will be. As surely as I am not perfect, no congregation is perfect. That does not excuse me from the necessity of being part of one. To profess an invisible Lord while refusing to submit to that Lord’s visible, though imperfect Church is problematic in the extreme.

As a note, the questions and answers with Biblical citations at the end are from the Westminster Larger Catechism, crafted for use by the Church of Scotland in 1647 and followed by many Presbyterian church bodies. I don’t agree with all of the statements printed at the end of this article (I’m not Presbyterian!), but the author feels they help support some of his assertions.

Hospitality, Meals & Scripture

May 9, 2022

I’ve had a long interest in the intersection of hospitality, meals and Scripture. The Bible frequently uses the language of food and feeding to teach spiritual truths, and hospitality is not only repeatedly described throughout the Bible (Genesis 18, as just a single example), it is also prescribed (Hebrews 13:2 as just a single example and related most likely to Genesis 18).

I finally verified something I suspected for years – I have access to a theological database called Atla (originally short for American Theological Libraray Association). So now I can start to research what others have said on this topic as I continue to draw my own conclusions from the Word.

The first article I read can’t be accessed without paying for it (unless you also have access to Atla). It’s by a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina by the name of David W. Priddy. The essay is entitled Eating with penitence: An essay on the local church eating responsibly (sic) and it was published in the Review & Expositor, a quarterly Baptist theological journal.

Priddy’s thesis deals with what the local church can do towards food reform and agricultural renewal. He posits three key issues. Firstly, a high regard for Word and Sacrament; secondly, examining the role of meals in Scripture (particularly the New Testament) and specifically in association with themes of judgement and a call to humility; and thirdly, the importance of continued remorse over sin (penitence).

Although at times abstruse, Priddy does a good job outlining these key issues, and I concur with most of the ideas he presents. Although we come from different denominational backgrounds I suspect we’d have a lot in common theologically, at least on this particular topic.

The only difficulty I had with the essay was his disdain for the history of some property owned by his congregation. His difficulty reflects modern notions of contemporary remorse (penitence) as well as potentially the appropriateness of some sort of compensation for past injustices (penance) although he stops short of such an assertion here. He relates how a 200-acre plot of land and large home was donated to his congregation well over 100 years ago (perhaps as long as 170 years ago). The problem isn’t the property per se, though Priddy has ideas about how it could be better put to use in food reform and agricultural renewal. The problem is the man who donated it to the church owned at least ten slaves and apparently sired children through at least one of them (and it’s implied that it was far more). The congregation’s fellowship hall is named after this man, something Priddy clearly finds offensive and problematic.

However in the little he says in the essay, it’s hard to know whether Priddy has investigated the donor’s penitence. The life of faith is indeed a constant one of confession and absolution, of contrition as well as accepting the gracious forgiveness of God, something Priddy highlights admirably in his brief discussion of historic liturgical formulations. Yet the presumed damning evidence of the congregation’s benefactor all those years ago leaves little room in Priddy’s words or spirit for the idea of forgiveness either sought or granted, the idea that the offending donor might have in fact been penitent, which may have spurred his donation of land to the church as an act of penance.

Priddy speaks a lot about penitence but very little about absolution and this is most clear in this real-world application. The Church must speak this loudly in the face of rising intolerance in cancel-culture. The irony is that culture has discarded Church, the Bible and God, and with it the only worldly assurance – and demand – for forgiveness and absolution. In lieu of this we are now daily on trial by a culture that rapidly evolves in it’s ideas about what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, and that views any past sins of either omission or commission as equally damnable and irredeemable. The psalmist might these days say If you, O Culture, should mark iniquities, O Culture, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3, modified). The answer is no one, and unfortunately Priddy conveys a similar unwillingness to accept the possibility of penitence or penance if the sin is great enough, and therefore denies effectively the possibility of forgiveness and grace – certainly in this world and if so, then perhaps in the creation to come.

Pastors and congregations do have an opportunity to encourage members to reflect more on the choices they make as consumers (in this case, specifically as consumers of food products). While I don’t have the basis Priddy apparently does to label the entire food industry as essentially evil, I recognize wholeheartedly there are some major problems that affect land and health. Congregations have the opportunity to read Scripture with an ear towards how these topics are discussed, avoiding the temptation to simply apply Biblically-specific verses and situations to modern-day issues, yet recognizing the Church is continually called to contrition and penitence as well as to joyfully proclaiming the forgiveness won for us in Christ. Failure to do either inevitably leads to darkness.

I’m excited by the prospect of continued research and academic engagement, and grateful my seminary provides this benefit to alum, particularly now that my work has taken me to places where obtaining physical books (including my own professional library in boxes in storage) is either impossible or unreasonably expensive!

Reading Ramblings – March 13, 2022

March 11, 2022

Date: Second Sunday in Lent ~ March 13, 2022

Texts: Jeremiah 26:8-15; Psalm 4; Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

Context: As we give thanks for reconciliation to God the Father through faith wrought by God the Holy Spirit in the Son of God’s redemptive work, we must also recognize such reconciliation will put us at odds with the assumptions and practices of the world. Daring to take God at His Word will often produce mild or massive ripples which can upend plans, relationships, careers and lives. While this is not what we set out to accomplish we cannot predict how and where and when Satan may move against us through worldly philosophies, personages, and powers. This should not surprise us. We have been warned.

Jeremiah 26:8-15 – Jeremiah has the decidedly unpleasant duty of speaking truth to power – in this case power being not only the Judean monarchy but the hierarchy of the prophetic ministry, an institution intended to provide God’s Word and guidance to the king. The problem is they are not giving the king God’s Word, but rather providing words of their own. Words to comfort and assure and encourage. Jeremiah is placed by God the Holy Spirit in direct opposition to this, a position which elicits swift rebuke and the threat of execution. Jeremiah’s response to such threats is not to go back on the Word he proclaimed but rather to acknowledge both the truth of the words he has spoken as well as the power wielded by his adversaries to end his life. Death is better than unfaithfulness. The God who gives life is also capable of sustaining and protecting it but Jeremiah does not ground his steadfastness in any assurance he will be spared. They might kill him but it will not change the Word of God nor will it make his adversaries’ position with God any less dangerous. In fact it will place them under even more judgment! Jeremiah’s words are therefore not simply contentious but ultimately – as the Word of God – aimed at the conversion of the heart and repentance not simply a foreign policy change or a shift in domestic agendas.

Psalm 4 – Words perfectly appropriate to Jeremiah in his situation though penned long before he was born. How many of God’s faithful have taken refuge in this psalm, its words filling in for their gasps and cries and inarticulate pain? The speaker clearly recognizes the difference between the power of God and the transience of human power, even though human power can wreak incredible suffering within its allowed spans and spheres of influence. Does such suffering deny God’s existence? Hardly. Evil has been dealt with in the resurrection of the Son of God. Revealing the defeat of evil in tangible terms is at God’s discretion and timing. This is ultimately good, though we might wish his timing were closer to our own preferences. Yet we know that what God allows and the waiting He bids his faithful endure is ultimately to his glory and towards the salvation of as many as possible (2 Peter 3:9). We ourselves are undoubtedly beneficiaries of his gracious patience! This is to be our peace and solace in the midst of suffering rather than rejecting the reign and will of God to suit the passing whims of the world.

Philippians 3:17-4:1 – How much news have you watched in the last two weeks? How about the last two years? Where are your eyes, your ears, your thoughts, your fears? What are your hopes and aspirations for yourself and your loved ones? Safety? Security? Protection from the threats of the world – from pandemics and recessions and even nuclear war? Should our hopes and aspirations be limited to the perspectives of nightly newscasters and pundits and experts, whether in lab coats or three-piece suits? Or are we called to a greater hope? A hope that transcends the passing ups and downs of this world, even as we are caught up to some extent in those ups and downs? It isn’t that we don’t have better places to look and listen! How many have gone before us in our own lives? Faithful in the midst of wars, depressions and sickness? Do we prefer to look elsewhere to greater examples? More impressive? More impressive than what we are promised in and through and by Christ? More enduring? Think carefully about what and who you put into your ears and eyes.

Luke 13:31-35 – The last two years have been an incessant call to live in fear. To take the advice of this person or that agency. Good intentions have driven most of the world into a state of heightened fear and paranoia in the hopes that we might preserve our lives. It is not wrong to love our lives and seek to be wise in how we use them. After all, they aren’t ours – they are gifts of our Creator! Nor is it wrong to use the minds God has given us to understand his creation better and to wisely seek to utilize the blessings woven into it to heal and restore. But to live in fear day after day? As though the powers of this world microscopic or global have any real, lasting, permanent power? As though we are not heirs to an eternal kingdom? To eternal life – free from the ravages of either ‘blind’ circumstance or calculated cruelty? Lent calls us to remember that not even Satan and sin itself can keep us from who we are in Christ, and that while we must struggle against these very real and active enemies just as we struggle against the forces and powers of this world, the battle is already won. The victor declared. The enemy vanquished. We are privileged to live in this reality here and now, in the midst of a reality that transcends the reality those more powerful in the world would prefer us to think ourselves victims in.

Well You Can Just Rock Me to Sleep Tonight

March 4, 2022

And in case you’d like to stay awake a little longer tonight silently contemplating things you never thought about before as well, here’s this little article on whether or not Superman – were he real – should be baptized.

As the article indicates, the main factors the author uses to consider this are based in the theology of Thomas Aquinas, some 900 years later arguably still the Roman Catholic Church’s greatest theologian. I appreciate the attempt to provide a consistent, coherent answer to the question while addressing some very legitimate questions. The author isn’t the first to ponder this possibility, as I’ve noted before. I’d prefer to lose sleep if/when we actually discover alien life to which we might apply such questions as this (as opposed to microbes or other forms of life we deem baptism inappropriate for). But it’s nice to be reminded others are being more proactive in their theology.