Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

A COVID Year

March 17, 2021

One year ago I was driving out of Las Vegas. My buddy had just placed third in the world in his division after a multi-day battle. COVID panic was setting in and already the shelves in Las Vegas grocery stores were bare of many common toiletries, basic medical items, and of course toilet paper and paper towels. I bought the last multi-pack of tissue boxes they had. My wife was texting me from home telling me to keep my eyes open as the supplies were all gone there.

We loaded up in my SUV for the drive home. Not just my buddy and I who had driven out together but another teammate hitching a ride back, as well as our billiards league president and his wife, who didn’t want to risk another night in Vegas and maybe having their flight canceled the next day.

As we left the city limits at dusk there was a storm in the distance to the east over the mountains, with occasional flashes of lightning. A beautiful, complete double-rainbow amazed us all from the same direction. And the radio station dedicated to people on the highway towards and from Las Vegas had their classic rock lineup interrupted so the Governor of Nevada could announce Las Vegas was shutting down. Hotels and casinos would cease all operations in just a few short hours. Everything was to shut down by his order. COVID was upon us and we needed to bend the curve of new cases to ensure hospitals weren’t overwhelmed.

The drive home was pretty quiet. Inside the car we were all disappointed the world tournament was cancelled and none of us got to play in our team events. I suspect everyone was slightly in shock – Las Vegas could just shut down? Just like that? Outside the roads were quiet as well. We passed by deserted truck stops and hotels with empty parking lots.

A year later. My wife and I sit in a pub in St. Louis. Masks everywhere, even though regulations in the City have relaxed in the past week or so. Restaurants can seat people indoors if they maintain social distancing and limit the number of customers they allow in. Back home our county has dropped out of the most severe tier of COVID urgency. Things appear to be easing back towards normality but the news feed is full of warnings of a third wave of COVID likely as restrictions ease and a population exhausted by a year of isolation champs at the bit to get back out and be with each other again. Overseas Europe and Asia are reporting spikes in COVID numbers and renewed and more vigorous restrictions.

None of us thought we would be here a year ago. We hoped and prayed things would go back to normal in a few weeks. They haven’t. And if things keep on at the current rate, normality is a long way off. A new level of fear and paranoia grips people. The airports we flew in and out of barked at everyone to keep their masks on and stay six feet away from each other, but we were seated shoulder to shoulder on the airplanes (masked, of course). Now that the election is history all the news stations seem able to talk about is COVID. News reports are beginning to admit what was obvious all along but nobody wanted to say – the vaccines are an uncertain bulwark against the virus, and even if they function as well as intended, people are going to need to get used to annual booster shots, similar to flu shots. Frankly we’ll be lucky if we only need one booster a year. I’m guessing we’ll be told to get at least two.

The world has changed. Not for the better. You don’t hear much of the ridiculous blather that was pushed early on in COVID, about how we’re all in this together and we’re working together for the good of the people. We weren’t. We aren’t. We’re tired and exhausted. Some people are terrified still and others are throwing all caution to the wind. The toll this all has and continues to take will only unfold fully over the next decade of more, ensuring multiple generations of social scientists of all stripes have plenty to dissect and analyze and hypothesize about. And the list of core memory moments in my lifetime increases from Reagan being shot and the Challenger blowing up and 9/11 to include COVID and a year-plus of trying to be a source of assurance in the midst of chaos, of calling people back to the Word of God that transcends all things, and has itself sustained many, many generations through far worse disasters and atrocities than this.

We are still here. And those with the Word know where we’re headed. May we all have the strength and grace and peace of God to know He’ll bring us there in his timing and his way.

Ashes, Ashes…

February 17, 2021

Another Ash Wednesday, and Christians around the world will participate in an ancient rite linking us to our mortality and to the promise of God that in Christ, our death is not the end. Growing up in a particular culture and religious tradition I presume a certain uniformity to rites such as the Imposition of Ashes. But that would be mistaken. Things are done in different ways and different places, something that shouldn’t be surprising but a good reminder of our unity in the midst of variation.

Book Review: Live Not By Lies

February 2, 2021

Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents by Rod Dreher

I was looking forward to this book a great deal, remembering how I found Dreher’s earlier work, The Benedict Option thought provoking and important. Having finished his latest work I’m conflicted in my reactions.

First off, pay attention to the title. This book is primarily a political work. It has to do with resisting totalitarianism (soft totalitarianism, as Dreher describes what is gradually taking over in America and the West). This soft totalitarianism will likely (at least for the near future) rely on non-military, non-violent means to continue to shape public opinion and perspectives both through positive affirmation techniques as well as punitive efforts such as banning web sites, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds or Facebook accounts. Dreher sees in the history of Western Europe and Russia under both Stalinism and Naziism valuable lessons about how to endure this coming darkness in American culture. Granted, this darkness will hit the faithful Christian pastors, congregations, and families first and foremost, but it will affect all of American society and culture. Barring a miracle, Dreher doesn’t think this can be avoided, therefore we must learn and prepare now how to endure it and outlast it.

He writes to and for Christians, without a doubt, but this is a political book. The darkness of totalitarianism he rightly warns about are certainly nothing new in world history or Christian history. Christians have endured, outlasted and at times thrived amidst cultures that were directly opposed to them. And, also very true, countless Christians have and continue to lose their livelihoods, their health, their freedom, and their lives in such contexts. This is no small matter. But we must be clear that Dreher’s primary concern is political rather than religious.

Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to supporting and illustrating Dreher’s assessment of our current situation in America and the rising tide of soft totalitarianism that will soon displace everything we’ve enjoyed in terms of freedoms and liberties. Much of this will be accomplished through socially active corporations and businesses rather than at the point of a government military bayonet. Americans already conditioned to value first and foremost personal achievement and comfort are increasingly unwilling and unable to endure even the thought of discomfort or adversity, and will willingly sacrifice more and more of their freedoms to ensure they maintain their comfort and are accepted as socially relevant and culturally admirable.

The next two thirds of the book cover the major points of Dreher’s outline for resistance – value the truth, cultivate cultural memory, create and maintain strong families, engage deeply in a faith, seek solidarity beyond faith boundaries, and embrace suffering as a necessary and sometimes valuable part of life. These are broad brushstrokes filled in not with specific how-tos but rather illustrative historical anecdotes gleaned firsthand from those who survived (or didn’t survive) the brutal repressions under Communist or Nazi governments.

The proof that this book is primarily political rather than religious struck me most fully on p.176 where, while emphasizing the importance of building and maintaining relationships and cooperative efforts with others who have not succumbed to the totalitarian state even if their beliefs differ markedly from your own, Dreher states “The Christian activist’s point: be kind to others, for you never know when you will need them, or they will need you.”

This might be a good activist motto, but it is patently unChristian and unBiblical. I’m not accusing Dreher of being either of those things, but it’s clear that his focus in this book is on resisting, enduring, surviving and ultimately triumphing over repressive political regimes that are hostile to Christians and others who do not accept their agendas. If I had thought more about the word Dissidents in the subtitle that might have surprised me less than it did.

My main disappointment in this book is that it is mainly ideological rather than practical. His many Eastern European and Russian anecdotes and interviews definitely support his major premises but do not provide anything close to a Manual. It is not a how to so much as you ought to do this. It is a manifesto rather than a manual, a call to awareness rather than instructive to those already seeing what Dreher sees or already convinced by his arguments.

This is not a bad book but it is mainly a political book. Christians should read this book as a means of recognizing just how bad things might get, whether by soft means or hard means. Prisons, torture, solitary confinement, economic marginalization and executions were all hard means by which Soviet and Nazi regimes attempted to force conformity to and acceptance of their ideologies and agendas. In the West it may never come to such harsh, crash measures when so many people are obsessed over their careers and maintaining a social media image dependent on continued purchases, extravagances, and travel. How many people in the US – Christians even – would be quick to accept whatever was told them in order to ensure their Twitter feed stayed up and their YouTube channel remained monetized and their Facebook account was never flagged as offensive or deleted as such. Additional pressures such as banks choosing not to do business with certain individuals or groups branded by the larger culture as offensive makes it even more complicated. In short order – and without the threat of violence or government interaction at any level someone could find their career ended and struggling to make ends meet. Does it sound far-fetched? Read the headlines more carefully. It’s already happening.

But there’s an element of truth in saying it has always happened. Or perhaps the roots just go back farther than we like to think. At one Dreher uses as support for his premise of the onslaught of soft totalitarianism a very practical litmus test – have you ever held your tongue and not said what you really thought because you were afraid of the consequences? It sounds like a water-proof demonstration of Dreher’s assertions. Surely most if not all of us at one point or another at some point in our lives has decided it was more prudent to remain silent.

Is this anything new? I’m reading To Kill a Mockingbird to and with my family. I read it as a high school freshman but don’t remember the book at all beyond the character names. It’s fascinating to read it essentially for the first time and appreciate how good the book is on a variety of levels. It’s not easy to read, as some of the explicit language that was commonplace at the time has been judged never appropriate by anyone other than African Americans themselves. We have to check to make sure the windows are closed and the doors are closed so neighbors don’t overhear something and misinterpret it.

A side character we’re introduced to in the book is a white man who lives with a black woman and has children with her. His preference to live in the black community is a source of consternation to the white people in town, but they dismiss it because they believe him to be an alcoholic. However we’re told as the book unwinds that he actually isn’t an alcoholic – doesn’t even really like the taste of alcohol. But he maintains the appearance of a drunk – reeling when he walks and never to be seen without a brown paper bag that he drinks out of. His explanation for cultivating such a bizarre persona is that it allows him to live life the way he prefers without the outright ostracism or even violence of the white townspeople who, were it not for his alleged alcoholism, could never permit him to carry on his life with a black woman. Because he doesn’t hold the same prejudices as his white neighbors, he finds it more convenient that they dismiss him as a drunk rather than attempt to reform his unorthodox opinions, or punish him for them.

In other words, it’s undoubtedly true that in all times and in all places people have had to hold their tongues or curate a particular public persona that may not fully reflect their private beliefs. That this is the case has not always been indicative of a totalitarian agenda or regime, a fact others have noted. One might easily argue from the Bible that Christians should at all times feel as though they have to be careful about what they say and do because the world and popular culture will naturally be antagonistic to the full weight of the Gospel.

Dreher maintains the suggestion first voiced by Neil Postman that while Americans were busy vaccinating themselves against the evil external threat of Communism as articulated by George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm, we have actually fallen prey to the dystopia described by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, a situation where people don’t need to be imprisoned or threatened to behave a certain way because they’ve been conditioned to think the desired behavior is the behavior best for them and everyone else. I think this is a fair assessment. I think that people who continue to voluntarily sacrifice their rights and privacy for an illusory safety and convenience will ultimately be rudely disappointed with their choices. How long it takes them to wake up and realize that – if ever they do – is hard to say.

Finishing this book makes me want to go back and reread The Benedict Option (and I will), as I feel it was more specific to Christians and the life of faith not as a means to a political end but in and of itself.

Christmas Revisited

January 19, 2021

Yes, I know. Wrong time of the year. Whatever. These days if you can find something beneficial and good, go with it even if it’s not seasonal.

This is a succinct article summarizing research into the holy sites in Israel – sites associated with the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God. Having been blessed to visit Israel in 2012, I’ve seen many of the sites listed in this article. And as someone with some historical knowledge, I viewed and experienced them from two perspectives. The first is as a pilgrim, someone following centuries of footsteps to places revered by followers of Jesus the Christ, trusting in their footprints to lead me to the right place and grateful for a bit of contextualization and familiarization with places formerly just words in a book and pictures on the Internet.

The other perspective was more as a historian who knows that sometimes things aren’t what they seem, even if they were well-intentioned. Knowing the turbulence of this particular area of the world in just the last 2000 years (or even 1400 years!), I had to realize there was a possibility the venerated sites our guides took us to were not, in fact, the actual place of Jesus’ birth or death or burial.

I reconciled these two perspectives with the knowledge that even if these sites weren’t the sites, there actually were (and therefore are) sites – perhaps ignored or forgotten or erased by the transient irritations of vying potentates. The incarnation of the Son of God in creation, including geography and time, means that Jesus was here. Actually and really and remarkably well-documented, historically. I could relax and enjoy the experience not as a skeptic but as someone of faith who recognizes it is just our human nature and attachment to physical things and places that make such pilgrimages necessary and useful. I could experience these places knowing that, even if they weren’t the places, they were close. In the ballpark, so to speak.

But I have to also admit, as the article noted above supports, that some of these traditional sites have been traditional for a long time. Prior to the 300’s AD and the sudden interest of a converted Roman emperor. As such, it is not unreasonable to presume that the location – if not necessarily the particular walls and accoutrements over and around it – is actually the right spot. While we can be suspect of sinful (even when well-intentioned) human nature looking to make a quick buck off of tourists, there are certain places that have been venerated for a long time. Not because the site itself is divine but because the act of veneration, of being in the same area where the Son of God walked or cried or bled is one particular aspect of a life of faith. Not a necessary one, but a special one. And it can – and should – be enjoyed as such for what it is.

Annunciation – the Sitcom

December 19, 2020

Perhaps interpreting Mary’s confusion in Luke 1:26-38 as an attempt to unravel a theological or existential riddle is a bit heavier and serious than intended. What if Mary is simply perplexed by the enthusiastic joy of Gabriel as messenger? And if this is the case, perhaps meditating on Fra Angelico’s depiction of the Annunciation is less helpful to a modern Christian who is far more at ease with the promptings and cues of another art form (?) – the sitcom. If so, perhaps the episode might look something like this:

Scene: God, sitting at a giant celestial desk. Feet up (in sandals). Smoking a cigar. Long white robe, radiant white lighting around him. A computer screen is on his desk. Across the desk from him sits an angel with an iPad and conversation is already ongoing as the opening credits and theme song (Amazing Grace being rapped to jazzy music). Music fades out and conversation picks up as God takes his feet off the desk and leans across earnestly to the angel.

God: All right, I’ve got big news. It’s time!

Angel: What time?

God: The time!

Angel: The time?

God (nodding smugly): That’s right, the time. It’s time for the Incarnation. Time to fulfill that promise back to Eve so she quits nagging me. I think I’m allergic to those fig leaves she keeps waving around (laugh track).

Angel (visibly flustered and excited): You mean right now? Without warning? Without planning?! Ohmygosh, we have so much to do! So much to figure out!

God (leaning back again enjoying the angel’s agitation): Naw, it’s pretty simple. Me and the Holy Spirit have the basics worked out. But I figure we need to clue in the Mom, Mary of Nazareth.

Angel (tapping quickly at the iPad, then scrolling and looking increasingly perplexed): Her? Sir, but she’s nobody!

God (laughing): No she’s not! I made her! She’s Mary of Nazareth! (laugh track)

Angel: I mean, she’s really not anybody of any import. No last name, no real social standing, a few notable ancestors but otherwise, I mean, sir, surely you want someone who’s a bit more of an influencer? (laugh track)

God: Naw, this will be great! Really hit home with the poor and disenfranchised! You know me, I like to work from scratch, do the unexpected!

Angel: Yes, well, the duck-billed platypus certainly was unexpected, sir! (laugh track)

God (shaking his head angrily): That was a great idea! I can’t help it if you all insist on categorizing everything so narrowly! Sheesh, I might as well have just let things evolve out of goo like Satan wanted if I’d have known you were going to all be so uptight! (laugh track)

Angel (sighing and shaking his head with an eye roll): Yes sir, if you say so sir. Anyways. How are we going to clue this girl in?

God: Gotta be gentle. She’s young. Really young. Probably skittish. We need someone with a light touch.

Angel (continuing to peruse iPad): Hubert and the heavenly choir are suggesting an angelic flash mob and free-style annunciation, sir. (laugh track)

God (shaking head vigorously): No, I’ve got those guys in mind a little later on for some late night work with some shepherds out in some fields (laugh track). Who else have we got?

Angel: Pickings are slim, sir. Although Michael did win the celestial office pool on when you’d announce this was happening. He was within 10 months of today – definitely the closest of the angels. He’s going to be pretty happy about his winnings! (laugh track)

God (sputtering): Michael!? Are you nuts? In his armor and covered in demon blood or whatnot? (laugh track) I said a light touch! Somebody a bit more nuanced. Who else could we send?

Angel (setting aside iPad and shaking his head): That’s pretty much it, sir. Everyone else is already on other assignments.

God: What about Gabriel?

Angel (visibly shocked): Gabriel? Sir, you can’t be serious!

God: Why not? Gabriel’s a good guy. I’ve used him before, right?

Angel: Yes sir, and not with very good results. You asked him to explain and clarify some visions you gave to Daniel hundreds of years ago, sir.

God: Yes, that’s right! I remember now! See? I told you he had experience.

Angel: Sir, he gave some of the worst explanations ever. Worse than IKEA assembly instructions (laugh track).

God (looking concerned): Really? His explanations weren’t helpful?

Angel (rolling eyes): About as helpful as a child trying to explain a smart phone to their grandparents! (laugh track)

God (shuddering visibly): Oooh…that’s not good. Not good at all. Still. He’s been moping around for a few hundred years now. Maybe he needs a second chance. Grace and forgiveness and all that. (laugh track)

Angel: Sir I really don’t think that’s a good idea. This is a really important event – arguably the most important in creation history. We can’t risk him complicating things.

God: It’s a simple message. Nothing complicated. No visuals. Mary – congrats! – you’re having a baby! I’ve got full confidence in you! Even have the name picked out – Jesus – one of my favorites! Gonna be really successful. Piece of cake. Even Gabriel can’t screw it up! (laugh track)

Angel: What if she has questions?

God: Questions? What could she have questions about? It’s just a baby, after all! Go ahead and send Gabriel!

Angel (sighing heavily and tapping on iPad): Yes sir. He’s on his way.

* * * * * COMMERCIAL BREAK * * * * *

Fade in to new scene – humble 1st century mud and straw home in Nazareth, Galilee. Mary, a young girl of about 13 or 14 is seen in very poor clothing, sweeping the dirt with a straw broom. Natural lighting. Nobody else around. Suddenly, very bright light! Mary drops broom and holds her arms up to shade her eyes. Stumbles back and falls to the ground. Gabriel appears in the midst of the light, smiling broadly.

Gabriel (in very thick, Texan accent): Well hooooooowwwwdeeeeee!! (laugh track – Mary looks perplexed but remains silent)

Gabriel: Well if you ain’t just the cutest little thing since I don’t know when! (Mary looks perplexed)

Gabriel (looking worried and hastily pulling out a crumpled paper and smoothing it out and reading it in extremely thick Texan accent): Oh, uh, hey! Um, Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Mary continues to look puzzled)

Gabriel (sighing in exasperation, rolling his eyes, wadding up the paper and tossing it over his shoulder): Oh please, give me a break! Honey, this is so exciting! I can’t believe I’m the one who gets to breatk the news to you, and they give me this “Greetings O favored one” schlock! Good grief girl, this is BIG! Exciting! Everything is going to change and you’re ground zero! This is bigger than the giraffe! Bigger than the whale! It doesn’t get any bigger or more exciting than this and I’m the one who gets to tell you! Look, you’re going to have a BABY! Not just any baby but a special baby. Not Joseph’s baby – trust me, I know you ain’t been misbehavin’ (laugh track) but this is God’s son!

Scene shift – back to heaven, God staring nervously at a monitor on his desk with the angel from before behind him looking over his shoulder.

God (annoyed, pushing the angel back): Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve got this guy named Luke…he’s going to smooth over the rough edges. Everything’s fine! (laugh track)

(Scene shift – back to the room with Mary and Gabriel, Gabriel just finishing up with “and of his kingdom there will be no end!” still in very heavy Texan accent)

Mary (visibly puzzled and perplexed): How will this be, since I am a virgin?

(Cue flashing red lights and alarm noises back in God’s office room. God and angel throwing papers in the air in visible panic. Cut back to Mary & Gabriel with Gabriel arlready talking, clearly making things up as he goes along)

Gabriel: – and a little seed is planted in the mommy’s tummy and it grows into a baby! (looks very satisfied. Mary slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand and shakes her head in frustration)

(scene shift back to heaven, God at desk with head in his hands. Angel on floor next to him in fetal position crying. Sound of Mary & Gabriel’s voices over the monitor: “That was the worst explanation “ever!” Gabriel: “Funny, Daniel told me the same thing.” [laugh track]. )

(scene shift back to Mary’s room. Gabriel sitting cross-legged on the floor, dejected, halo askew, Mary sitting on a chair nearby staring at him and listening)

Mary: I mean, that’s it? That’s the best you can do? Look this is all really confusing but it would be a little easier if I just had some idea how it’s all going to work!

Gabriel: Honey, I don’t even know how sex works (laugh track – Mary looks surprised and a little scornful). I just know that you’ve been picked for something really important. Probably the most important job since, well, since that whole incident back in the Garden of Eden – I told him that Tree of Knowledge was a bad idea. (laugh track, Mary shakes her head bemused but still listening)

I don’t know how God is going to work this, but your child, He’s something special. He’s the one God promised to Eve way back then. Her descendant that would stomp on the serpent’s head. That’s who you’re going to bring into the world. That’s who’s going to be growing inside you. Not Joseph’s kid, but God’s. Don’t worry, we’ll figure out how to let Joseph know what’s going on – probably with a different messenger after this fiasco, though. (laugh track, Mary looks questionably relieved).

This kid, he won’t just be special and important to you. He’ll be special and important to everyone. We’ve all (jerking thumb skywards, laugh track) we’ve all been waiting a long time for this. A long time for God to send his Son into creation. To undo the Fall. To kick Satan’s butt and end the power of sin and death in all of creation. It’s a really big deal, despite the fact that thosands of years from now people are going to compete to find the uglieset sweaters to wear to commemorate this event. I’ll never understand humans. (laugh track).

So, whaddya say, Mary? Are you on board with this? Are you ready to be a nearly not single-mother? I don’t have all the answers, but He does (jerking thumb upwards again, sympathetic audience noises). He’ll be there every step of the way with you, I promise. Whaddya say?

Mary (pausing dramatically, then smiling beatifically – cue light shining on her, faint glow of halo appearing over her head): Sure, why not. I mean, I’m nobody. I’m just a servant. If God wants to do it this way, who am I to say no?” (audience applause. Gabriel gets excitedly to his feet – makes victory pump, audience laughter)

Gabriel (looking upwards as spotlight appears on him): Ok Boss! Beam me up! (Gabriel covers his mouth as though he’s said something he shouldn’t, Mary scratches her head, puzzled, audience laugh track)

(light increases in frequency until whole screen is whited out, fade back in to God’s office in heaven, God and angel high-fiving each other behind God’s desk.

God: Make sure you’re taking good care of Luke – we’re going to need him to do some heavy-duty editing. But I’ve got a good feeling about this. A really good feeling!

Angel: Yes sir. You were right sir, Gabriel was the perfect choice.

God: Of course I’m right! I’m God!

(laugh track, cue commercial break and roll credits)

Book Review: What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong?

November 23, 2020

What If Everything You Were Taught About the Ten Commandments Was Wrong? by Erick Tokajer

A parishioner gave this to me to read and I was immediately captivated by the title. Not that I really expected I was going to find out that 3500 years of understanding about the Ten Commandments was incorrect, but still. What a curious assertion, at the very least! The back cover info on the author only increased my curiosity. Tokajer is a rabbi in Florida and apparently a Messianic Jew – a Jew who believes Jesus is the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). I believe this strongly influences his hypothesis and goal. He interprets the Sinai event that start at Exodus 19 in terms of prophecy regarding The Messiah/Jesus. This seems to be his primary purpose, to show how Jesus is the prophesied fulfillment of all the Law and in particular the portion of the Law indicated as the Ten Commandments.

He begins be referencing what he calls Biblical Fables – false ideas or impressions people improperly credit Scripture with. Facts that aren’t actually in Scripture at all but have been repeated for so long many believers are convinced are in Scripture. This premises his basic assertion – the Ten Commandments as we have come to know them are wrong, and another Ten Commandments are actually the right ones. That’s a pretty strong assertion – here’s how he lays out his argument.

Chapter 1 – Tokajer claims the only reason Exodus 20 is associated with the Ten Commandments is because of the helpful headers most Bibles have, quickly summarizing what happens in the following section. These are different than the chapter and verse designations. These headers are not part of the Biblical text, but are added by publishers to make it easier to read through the text. He argues the actual text of Exodus 20 nowhere uses the Hebrew for ten commandments (or more accurately, ten words). This is the crux of his theory – the text doesn’t designate what we know of as the Ten Commandments (vs. 1-17) or otherwise set these instructions aside as special or unique in any way. Therefore, we have been incorrect in doing so.

It’s an interesting approach. True, Exodus 20 doesn’t – in the text itself – specify or designate or separate vs. 1-17 as the Ten Commandments linguistically. However the structure of Exodus 20 does. Verses 1-17 are the only words God the Father speaks directly to the people of Israel. At the end of this section the people freak out and ask God to just talk to Moses and have Moses tell them what was said because they can’t handle the power and majesty of the presence and voice of God the Father. The remainder of God’s instructions to his people are carried through Moses, not voiced directly from God to the people. This is a pretty interesting separation of vs. 1-17, the traditional Ten Commandments, without designating them as such textually.

Chapter 2 – Tokajer here deals with (somewhat) what I just pointed out above. Going back to chapter 19 (based on how Chapter 20 begins, with the English equivalent of then – meaning what follows is directly tied to or a continuation of what happened before. He notes how God is calling the people together to enter into a covenant with them, and that this process is interrupted by the people themselves because of their fear. God then continues through 31:18 sharing with Moses what to say to the people, and concludes at verse 18. Nowhere is there any textual indication of the Ten Commandments, but rather this forms the beginning of 613 commandments, roughly organized into commandments, judgments and ordinances (p.23). Tokajer doesn’t see the break at v.18 as significant to the uniqueness of vs. 1-17. Verses 1-17 are simply the beginning of a very long list, according to Tokajer.

Chapter 3 – The major point here is two different sets of covenant terms and tablets. In Exodus 24:1-4 Moses reads to the people of Israel what God has spoken to him and writes it all down. Then again it is read in 24:7. In both cases, the people of Israel unanimously agree to abide by the terms stipulated there.

However in 24:12 God invites Moses up to the mountain to give him additional information – tablets of stone written by the finger of God. These are referred to as the Tablet of Testimony as distinct from the Torah or the Book of the Covenant, which is what Moses read to the people in 24:1-4 and 24:7. Tokajer goes off course at the end of the chapter, linking to Revelation 13:8ff.

Chapter 4 – Tokajer now goes on to 34:1 and a discussion about the second set of tablets God provides to Moses after Moses smashes the first set in Exodus 32:19 during the Golden Calf incident. Tokajer rightly points out the grace of God in providing this second set. Unlike the first set, which God provided both the stone and the writing for, Moses will provide the stone for the second set and then God writes his words on them again – the same words that He inscribed the first/smashed stones with.

It is here, 34:14-28, Tokajer argues, that God lays out the terms of the covenant relationship – the real ten commandments as indicated in the text itself. In 34:1 God indicates that what is to follow is the same as what was said before, and in 34:28 God uses the term Ten Commandments/Words for the first and only time. In other words, everything from vs. 14-27 are the real Ten Commandments as indicated by God, rather than a Bible publisher trying to make the text easier for people to read.

These commandments are:

  • You shall have no other gods/idols
  • You must keep the Feast of Matzah (Passover)
  • You must redeem your firstborn sons
  • You must keep the Sabbath
  • You must observe the Feast off Sukkot and the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost)
  • You must assemble all the men before God three times a year
  • You must not offer the blood offering with yeast
  • You must not have leftovers from the Passover meal
  • You must honor God with your firstfruits
  • You must not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk

Just a little different than what we’re used to thinking of as the Ten Commandments!

Chapter 5 – Tokajer now goes into these Ten Commandments in a bit more depth, and particularly from the prophetic aspect. He sees each of the commandments as pointing towards the Messiah, and links each command to New Testament verses to create connections he feels validates his interpretation. While I question some of his exegesis, it’s a curious path to wander down.

The first command against other gods boils down to a marital fidelity command, in Tokajer’s interpretation. 34:14 says don’t worship other gods and 34:15ff specifies not entering into covenants with pagans. Tokajer asserts the type of covenant meant here is a marriage covenant, and this is important because the covenant God enters into with Israel at Sinai is a marriage covenant. Israel is already married to God, and therefore is not eligible for a marriage relationship with anyone else. He then connects Revelation 19:6-10 to this passage, with the marriage celebration of the Lamb foreshadowed in this command.

Tokajer doesn’t bother to substantiate his interpretation of the covenant language in Exodus 34 or Exodus 19-24 being marital in nature. Perhaps it is, but I haven’t seen other literature that would bear out this assertion and therefore hold it as suspect. He jumps through a lot of hoops in order to link this command prophetically to the Messiah, but this is hardly necessary as the very command against worshiping another God presumes God exists and is more than adequate to provide for his people, including providing salvation.

The second commandment also points forward to the Messiah, Tokajer argues, because Jesus was executed on the Passover Sabbath.

He links the third commandment to Jesus as the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While this is true, of course, it seems like a thin stretch.

The fourth commandment is linked to Hebrews 4:4-11.

For the fifth commandment he links the feast of Shavuot to Jeremiah 31:30-32 and Hebrews 8:8-10 that speak of a new covenant (the Feast of Shavuot [Pentecost] is celebrated as the day God gave the covenant to Israel). However he doesn’t at all attempt to find explanations for why the feast of Sukkot is also included in this command.

The sixth commandment he claims is linked directly to the pilgrimage requirements to appear in Jerusalem at the Temple for the three major festivals each year. Of course, there is no Temple and Jerusalem won’t be conquered and made into the capital of God’s people for another 500 years or so, but the fact this isn’t dealt with in the text doesn’t cause Tokajer nearly as much difficulty as the words the Ten Commandments not appearing in the text in Exodus 19-20.

For the seventh commandment Tokajer goes to 1 John 3:5 to show that yeast represents sin and therefore this commandment is a prophecy regarding the sinless nature of Jesus. It is true that Scripture sometimes refers to yeast or leaven as a metaphor for sin. But this ignores the reality that Jesus in Luke 13 and Matthew 13 uses leaven as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. So perhaps Tokajer is stretching here in his interpretation.

The eighth commandment has significance because it prophesies how Jesus’ body would be taken down before the end of Passover and the beginning of the Passover Sabbath.

The ninth commandment is symbolic of how Jesus is the greatest firstfruit of all.

The tenth commandment is a reinforcement of the first commandment, acccording to Tokajer, who asserts boiling a kid in it’s mothers milk was a pagan fertility ritual designed to help a young woman become pregnant. Again, I haven’t heard this before so I can’t verify whether it’s true.

Finally, Tokajer succinctly summarizes the purpose and point of his hypothesis at the end of the book (p.63): I believe that these Tablets of Testimony and the real Ten Commandments were not intended to be a list of things to do or not do. The Ten Commandments and the entire Torah was given to us for the purpose of leading us to Messiah Yeshua.

It’s an interesting theory. But what to make of it. I have two primary challenges to his hypothesis.

When Jesus encounters the rich young man who wants to know how he must earn salvation (Mark 10, Matthew 19), Jesus quotes the Law to him first, and it’s the Law as provided in Exodus 20. Jesus quotes nearly the entire second table of the Law – those laws pertaining to how we deal with one another (no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no false witness) as opposed to the first table of the Law which deals with our relationship to God (no other gods, don’t use the Lord’s name improperly, observe the Sabbath). No mention of firstfruits or pilgrimages or leaven or most of the other ten commandments as Tokajer defines them.

The fact that Jesus goes to Exodus 20 rather than Exodus 34 is a pretty major argument that we haven’t gotten the Ten Commandments wrong all these years.

My second objection is a linguistic/textual one, since this is the basis for Tokajer rejecting the traditional Ten Commandments. In Deuteronomy 10:3-5 Moses is reminding the Israelites about what happened back in Exodus 19-34. And in v.4 Moses describes the contents on the tablets as the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of assembly. And as Tokajer correctly noted, the words God spoke to the general assembly – as opposed to directly to Moses – were the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20:1-17, not the ten commandments of Exodus 34. So if the tablets contained the words God had spoken to all the people, and those were the Ten Commandments, then Exodus 20:1-17 is not just the traditional source for that material, it’s the correct source.

His premise is interesting but has very little support in my opinion, either textually or, more importantly, in Scripture as a whole.

Book Review – Cannery Row

November 16, 2020

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Reading a great writer, reading for fun, is one of the best joys in life. Relatively inexpensively you can travel across geography and culture and time itself. I’ve loved Steinbeck since I encountered him in junior high and high school, but never read this particular work. Cannery Row is an enjoyable character study of a community and some of it’s specific inhabitants. Centered around a cluster of unlikely characters united by a place and one another, this reads like a series of very short stories and sketches. Having lived in California for the last 13 years it is fun to not only try to picture Cannery Row as Steinbeck knew it, but to hear other familiar place names.

This isn’t a great book in terms of some gradiose theme, but rather, as Steinbeck aptly does, a celebration of smaller stories and the people who never make the history books, but without whom the history books would have nothing to say.

Updates to Roman Catholic Doctrine

October 21, 2020

News outlets made some brief mention of a new papal encyclical released earlier this month, but largely it was ignored. Curious, seeing Pope Francis takes this opportunity to potentially end the Roman Catholic Church’s tolerance of both capital punishment and war. A good article summarizing this can be found here.

Based on Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church has long recognized the legitimacy of both capital punishment and “just” war, even as it often encouraged world powers and leaders to carefully consider the application of both these tragic tactics. But now, Pope Francis may just have effectively overturned 2000 years of Roman Catholic understanding in a single letter. It all hinges, I suppose, on how authoritative a papal encyclical is. As near as I can tell, the answer is it depends.

Within the Church, encyclicals were historically letters from a bishop (not just the Pope) to other church leaders, either in a limited or specific area or on a larger, church-wide scale. But there is obviously some confusion or at least a lack of consistency in defining what an encyclical means today, as my Roman Catholic go-to site demonstrates. An encyclical has a particular style and form to it, particularly in both how it begins and ends. But not all encyclicals follow this form.

Popes have various distinct ways of communicating their thoughts on subjects of interest. Papal bulls and briefs are two common options, though Popes also speak through speeches as well as more specific writings. This all is interesting enough, but then we have Pope Pius XII’s statement in his encyclical Humani Generis in 1950 (section 3) basically saying once a Pope has communicated his thoughts on a controversy, the controversy is essentially ended. In other words, when a Pope speaks in an encyclical, his statements can be binding on the Church.

I’ll be reading and commenting on Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical shortly. For now, I’m just amazed at how many different forms of communication a Pope might employ, and how those various forms are known more by their physical characteristics as opposed to their level of officialness. To my mind, it would seem to make sense that if a Pope wished to issue a binding decision for the entire Church for all time on a subject, it would take one form. An opinion that was considered guiding but not necessarily mandatory would take another, etc. Maybe that’s actually the case and my Protestant ignorance and Internet research simply hasn’t made that clear to me yet, in which case I’d VERY much appreciate some pointers from some of my Roman Catholic readers on how to better understand this issue!

In the meantime, it’s fascinating to think that war and capital punishment might just have been officially condemned by the Church, despite the fact God commands in Scripture the exact opposite in various places, notably Genesis 9:6 on the issue of capital punishment along with Exodus 31:15. I can see how an argument might be made that war is one of the things Scripture describes but does not prescribe, and sections (like most of the book of Joshua) describing war commanded by God are exceptions and special circumstances rather than an acknowledgement that war is something we are free to instigate on our own as a last resort. Saints Augustine and Aquinas – some pretty heavy hitters in Roman Catholic theological tradition – both specifically write to the contrary on the topic of war, but I suppose since they weren’t Popes, their opinions or interpretations can be superceded.

Painfully Helpful?

October 5, 2020

For those who have a hard time thinking the Genesis account of creation and humanity being descended from one single set of parents could be true, I think this is an interesting and relevant article. Being neither a geneticist or a genealogist, it’s possible I’m not understanding it correctly. But the main gist is we’re more closely interconnected than we (and evolutionary theory) tend to think we are.

Though scientists are quick to discount that a single couple – married to each other, actually – could be the source of all our genetic linkages, if I’m understanding this correctly there’s not a scientific reason we couldn’t be, other than that it would too closely sound like Genesis and we can’t have that.

Curious and open to better explanations or applications of this article if you’ve got them!