Friday, June 30, 2006

"They worshiped the Lord, but..."

There's a long sermon in 2 Kings chapter 17, where Shalmaneser king of Assyria sacked Samaria and deported the people of Israel (the northern kingdom):

All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced. The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right.
2 Kings 17.7-9
In case there was any doubt, the preacher (he's not just a chronicler, in my view) really hammers on the point that the Lord hates idolatry.

The king of Assyria brought in people from Babylon (and other places) to replace the Israelites he had deported. But these people didn't worship the Lord, and some of them were killed by lions. One of the priests from Samaria was sent back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires. (2 Kings 17.27) But, the text tells us, they persisted in their own practices:
They worshiped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. To this day they persist in their former practices. They neither worship the Lord nor adhere to the decrees and ordinances, the laws and commands that the Lord gave the descendants of Jacob, whom he named Israel.
2 Kings 17.32-34
Several questions remain unanswered, but what I'm interested in today is this one: What might it mean for me, today, to say "I worship the Lord, but..."? in contrast to "I worship the Lord, no 'but' about it"?

Does it mean I have to be a pastor, a missionary, a priest? I don't think so. Even when the Israelites were obeying the Lord, most of them were not priests. Most of them couldn't be priests because most weren't from the tribe of Levi.

One thing it might mean, and I'm thinking this up as I type here on the train, is this: "Nowhere in my life is there an area of sin that I'm holding on to."

Not "nowhere am I struggling" but rather "nowhere have I given up the struggle and made peace with that sin."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Church-State Separation, part deux

A few days ago, I wrote about an incident where some religious leaders in Corinth tried to use the courts to persecute Paul and Silas. Their plan was foiled because the proconsul refused to hear their case.

In Ephesus, the civil government gets involved in a religious and socio-economic dispute. Let's hear the story from Demetrius the silversmith, who made shrines of Artemis and brought in a lot of businessmen for craftsmen in related trades:
"Men, you know we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that man-made gods are no gods at all."
Acts 19.25-26
Well, he certainly got that part of the message right. Man-made gods really are no gods at all. But the economic consequences of that -- if your job comes from making idols, you might not be too happy when people find out that your so-called gods are just so much wood and metal. They react accordingly.
When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" Soon the whole city was in an uproar.
Acts 19.28-29
There was great confusion. Listen to what happens next:
Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.
Acts 19.32
What a zoo! Then there was about two hours of shouting (in unison yet) "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!"

Here's when the civil authorities got involved.
The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: "Men of Ephesus, doesn't all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to be quiet and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples, nor blasphemed our goddess."
Acts 19.35-37
He tells them to be reasonable and to go home, or to go to court if they have a formal complaint. In other words, he's a wise public servant, who handles the crowd with skill.

Why does Luke tell us this? Why does he tell us about the proconsul in Corinth dismissing the religious leaders' complaints against Paul, and about the city clerk in Ephesus dismissing the craftsmen's complaints? I think Luke finds these events newsworthy because the civil authorities in Jerusalem crucified Christ. Luke wants us to understand that not all civil authorities are against Jesus or against the truth. He wants us to recognize that Jesus was never a victim of corrupt or cowardly civil authorities, but that he laid down his life freely, because his Father in Heaven rules over all the authorities on earth.

That's a perspective we need to keep in mind as we consider the events of the day.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A fool does not delight in understanding...

...but only in airing his own opinions. - Proverbs 18.2

Does that remind you of anyone? If you knew me some time back (please don't say it was two weeks ago!), I acted like that a lot of the time. Do you know what I mean? When someone's talking to me, I can listen to try to understand, or I can be trying to figure out how to answer -- or looking for the time to interrupt him (while not seeming to interrupt).

What's behind that? Why did I do that so much? Why do I still do it sometimes?

Here are a few thoughts on that.
  • I'm not sure of who I am, so I have to say something to find out
  • I think I already know what you're going to say
  • I think you need to know what I'm gonna say more than I need to know what you're saying
  • I'm not sure you see me, so I say something to make myself visible
  • I'm not sure I have any value, but by "contributing" something to the discussion I hope to ease the sense of nothingness
So how can I stay focused?

I think there's a choice I have to make whenever I encounter another person. Am I going to serve you? If yes, then I don't expect or want anything back from you.

Or... am I going to use you to meet my needs? If I get mad when you don't listen to me or when you ignore my advice... that might mean I was trying to use you to make me feel like I had something of value to give. Which in turn might mean that I wasn't really sure.

How do I find out whether I have something of value? Whether I am something (or someone) of value?

I guess I have to delight in understanding instead. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (from somewhere in Proverbs). And somewhere in the Psalms it says, "Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart".

Sounds like a plan.

posted 6/29

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Church-State Separation?

When Paul is in Corinth, "the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him into court" (Acts 18.12). They get thrown out by Gallio the proconsul "since it involves questions about words and names and your own law" (18.15); he doesn't care about such things.

The religious leaders in those days apparently liked to take their cases to the civil courts -- that's how they got Jesus killed.

So how important is it for the civil government to reflect God's views and values? Or, more to the point, mine?

As an American, I am very concerned about violent crime, abortion, neglect of the poor, sexual immorality, public education, homosexual marriages, and so on, because history has shown that these are leading indicators of societal health. And as a Christian I'm also concerned about most of these things. So I certainly pray for wise decisions to be made by government leaders, but so far it's not working very well.

It may be that the Lord is doing to the USA what he did to Israel:

"In those days the Lord began to reduce the size of Israel. Hazael overpowered the Israelites throughout their territory ...." (2 Kings 10.32)

If so, he may be doing it by allowing the unwise decisions our government has made over the past few years...? And what must we do? Pray, certainly, and work for justice.
(posted 6/28)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Noble-minded? They were smart, too!

The apostle Paul visits three places in Acts 17: Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens. In Thessalonica there was a riot; in Athens there was scoffing. But between those was Berea:

Now the Bereans were more noble-minded than the Thessalonians, for they received the word with great eagerness, searching the scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.

Acts 17.11

What does it mean, "noble-minded"? We could look at the text in the original language (Greek for the New Testament) and use a Greek-English dictionary to see. But according Dr. Sarah Sumner (author of the excellent Men and Women in the Church) it's a no-no to use a dictionary. OK, so we could use a concordance, a Bible cross-reference, to see how that same Greek word is used elsewhere in the Bible. Well, maybe we could, but for this passage we don't need to do that, because the context tells us what we need to know.

And whatever "noble-minded" means, I believe Luke is telling us that these were good guys. They are a good example to follow.

OK, here's the first clue: they were different from those in Thessalonica.

Why was there a riot in Thessalonica? Because the religious leaders felt threatened by the new movement's popularity. They were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. (Acts 17.5)

So that's one aspect of the Bereans' noble character: they were not slaves to politics or power or popularity.

Where the Thessalonians failed, I think, was in their unwillingness to admit they were wrong -- they misunderstood the Old Testament (they missed the point of salvation, for one thing). It was more important to the religious leaders in Thessalonica to hold on to power than to follow the truth. How about me? Am I willing to admit that I've been wrong about something, even if that would mean a loss of face, a loss of popularity or power?

Another clue comes from the word "for" -- for they received the word with great eagerness ; that is, they wanted to learn. How interested am I in knowing God better? How much time do I spend listening to, reading, studying, meditating on the things of God -- versus listening to, reading, studying, meditating on popular media, the false promises of our culture, home improvement ideas, investment advice, crossword puzzles (ouch!), or film and rock stars?

So, I just thought of this: I recently discovered that both our Kobe (Japan) church, Kobe Bible Fellowship and our current church, Menlo Park Presbyterian, make sermons available for free download. Seeing as someone gave me an iPod a few months ago, I could easily put sermons on it, and listen and meditate on them during my train commute.

Something else the text tells us about the Bereans is that they searched the scriptures daily. Their understanding of the world was informed by the Scriptures.

This is harder than it sounds. We all have experiences that shape our understanding of the world. So when the Bible reveals God as a father, it's well nigh impossible not to be influenced by the relationship I had with my human, earthly father -- whether good or bad.

And when we read a passage, we cannot help but be influenced by the teaching we've heard about it. If the teaching is good, this is a good thing. But if the teaching misses the point -- the way the rabbis missed the salvation that comes through faith in Jesus -- then teaching can stand between us and the truth of God.

The Bereans had it figured out, or figured out well enough. That's why I think these folks were so smart. I wonder if they prayed this? Open my eyes that I may behold wonderful things out of thy law. (Psalm 119.18)

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What must I do to be saved?

I love that question.

Last night, I picked up Adventures in Missing the Point by Campolo and McLaren. They say that at the time of Jesus, the common understanding about salvation was political. Come to think of it, the disciples thought so, too, because after Jesus's resurrection...
...they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
Acts 1.6
For the nation of Israel, being saved meant "saved from oppressors" whether that would have meant the Romans, the Babylonians, whoever.

But the salvation Jesus came to bring was something else entirely, which is probably why people entirely missed it at the time.

Now in Acts chapter 16, we see Paul and Silas in jail:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped...

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved -- you and your household."

Acts 16.25-27, 29-31
Now the Jewish people missed the point of salvation. What is the chance that a jailer, who works for the Roman oppressors, will have any idea of salvation at all? Could he possibly be thinking about being saved from a meaningless life or eternal damnation? I don't think so.

Here's a guy who thought he was going to be executed so he thought he'd save the executioners the trouble by just killing himself. He's not talking about meaning in life or a relationship with God; he's talking about keeping his job and feeding his family. And his head.

But Paul and Silas address, well, they address his real need, rather than his felt need. Although the jailer missed the point, Paul and Silas didn't.

I want to be more like them. I want to address real needs, explain how they relate to the felt needs, and see people saved. Saved from hell, yes. But also saved "from the futile way of life inherited from your forefathers" (1 Peter 1.18)

What does it take to become like that? Let me know if you figure it out, but meanwhile I think I'm on the 50-year plan.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

You don't expect me to believe that, do you?

As I read this part of the Bible, it strikes me that the chronicler is showing us something very important, something I've not noticed before. We read in succession that Elisha provides money for a poor widow, then a son for a rich woman, twice (2 Kings 4). Then we see him save the company of the prophets from poisoning and cure leprosy for the commander of the Aramean army (chapter 5), recover a lost axhead, provide military secrets to the king of Israel, and disarm an enemy task force (chapter 6).

In other words, the Lord can provide the needs of any family, and they don't necessarily even need to ask, so he owns everything - not just money but also life. He is the master of health and medicine. He is the lord over the laws of nature, and the lord over information.

And now, Samaria is under siege.
There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey's head sold for 80 shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.
2 Kings 6.25
(According to Unger's Bible Dictionary, a cab is about two quarts, so about a pint of seed pods cost 5 shekels. Keep that price in mind.) That's the situation. And now
Elisha said, "Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Lord says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria."

The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, "Look, even if the Lord should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?"

2 Kings 7.1-2
(A seah is about 17 pints, so 17 pints of flour - not seed pods - for one shekel - an incredible price drop.)
In other words, this officer was saying, "You don't expect me to believe that, do you?"

He also seemed to think Elisha needed a lesson in macroeconomic theory.

Of course at this point you aren't surprised by what happens next: the Lord arranges an astonishing way to fulfill his word: "Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. So a seah of flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley sold for a shekel, as the Lord had said." (2 Kings 7.16)

So the Lord here proves himself the lord over macroeconomic theory as well. Not that he refutes those principles; he just bypasses them.

What would you and I like to see happen in the world today?

Here's one thing. Today in the state of California, public school teachers aren't paid the same. The ones who have the nicest facilities and kids with a lot of material advantages, in other words the ones with the easiest task, are paid the most. Teachers who have to work in poorer facilities with difficult kids and a shortage of supplies -- teachers with the toughest jobs -- are paid the least. There are political reasons why this is hard to change, but in Jesus's name, this system of public school finance is wrong.

This unequal, unfair system -- in many states, not just in California -- is offensive to the Lord, and he is stronger than the forces of selfishness, greed, and wickedness that keep it in place.

So I believe he can change it.
posted Sunday 2006-06-25

Friday, June 23, 2006

No thanks, I don't need anything

Elisha the prophet went to Shunem, where a rich but childless woman provides a room for him. She furnishes it with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp. He says to her, "You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?" (2 Kings 4.13)

How would you like that? Help out a traveling preacher, and he offers to talk to the President or the Governor for you -- what would you ask for if that happened to you?

The woman (we never learn her name) can't think of anything to ask for. I don't think it's only because she's rich. I think it's because she has learned not to expect too much in the way of things that would bring real joy to her. If you don't expect too much, you won't be disappointed.

So when Elisha says, "About this time next year you will hold a son in your arms," the woman objects. "No, my lord," she says. "Don't mislead your servant, O man of God!" (2 Kings 4.16).

Life has taught her to lower her expectations. Or maybe it was her genes. In any case she is completely unprepared for a big blessing. But God wants to give her one, anyway, because "the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her." (2 Kings 4.17)

What joy she must have felt! We don't have any details, because in the very next line he is walking and talking.
[H]e went out to his father, who was with the reapers. "My head! My head!" he said to his father.
2 Kings 4.18-19
He dies that same day, and the mother can't even tell anyone about it. But somehow she knows where to find Elisha. She leaves the boy on the bed in Elisha's room and goes to him.
When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet.... "Did I ask you for a son, my lord?" she said. "Didn't I tell you, 'Don't raise my hopes'?"
2 Kings 4.27-28
There, she was right all along. You get your hopes up, and maybe for a little while things are looking up. But life will always zap you in the end.

And yet, look at what happens next. Elisha returns with her. He prays to the Lord. Then a miracle happens. "The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes." (2 Kings 4.35)

This is yet another reason the Bible says there is no god like the Lord -- his astonishing generosity and goodness. In those days, it was assumed that the gods of a city (or nation) would help kings in battle, grant a bountiful harvest, this sort of thing. But a god who cares about a dead young boy and his mother, and wants to give her enough joy to burst her heart -- that's the character of the God we serve.

She was childless, I guess for some time. She was more or less resigned to that condition, and hope came suddenly. She didn't want to believe that she could have a child, and yet one came! Life was good for a few years, but then he died, her only child. She could have decided to settle into her old life of resignation, but she didn't! She seized the day, even in her bitter distress, and went to the man of God, maybe not even knowing why. Then the impossible happened and her son came back to life.

What a roller-coaster!

The Lord gave her a gift that she didn't even want at first, but now she has experienced life at its fullest. Not all happy -- she had a huge disappointment -- but she's seen two miracles. Life for her is an adventure again.

And how about for me? What do I want from God today? Dare I hope?

If not, why not?

posted June 25, 2006

Thursday, June 22, 2006

trouble with a capital T: what it means and doesn't

In Iconium, Paul and Barnabus speak in the synagogue and tell the people about Jesus. Some believe, but some get mad and plot to kill them. So they go to another city...

In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk
Acts 14.8-10
Would you be excited about that? I sure would! But trouble comes all too soon: When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" (Acts 14.11)

The people want to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabus, who they call Zeus and Hermes. Talk about trouble! They try to explain that this was done by the power of God's son Jesus, but some people still want to sacrifice to them.

And another kind of trouble comes right after that.
Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.
Acts 14.19
Does that remind you of another polarized crowd? Remember when Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem, and the people welcomed him... and a few days later were calling out, "Crucify him!"? I wonder if the Scriptures are telling us something to think about when trouble comes.

Now I have never had people throw stones at me until I seemed dead, but we have had some experiences where we feel some kind of oppression soon after a significant ministry experience. In fact, after helping out at a Christian camp for troubled youth, we were advised to pray for spiritual protection, because whenever we do something to promote the Kingdom of God, the forces of darkness have a kind of immune response.

Sometimes there's just a depressing feeling, sometimes an astonishing set of family problems suddenly crops up. Sometimes things just go wrong -- car problems, pet problems, problems with appliances. Can I say definitively that these things happen more frequently after a ministry experience? Have I established this scientifically? Nope.

But what the scriptures seem to tell us is this: If you encounter trouble, it doesn't mean you're doing the wrong thing. One obvious example of this is Jesus, who did his Father's will, and then died a horrible death on the cross. Come to think of it, there's a verse about that somewhere. OK, here it is:
In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted...
2 Timothy 3.12
More about that another time.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And he had a stubborn son

Ahaziah king of Israel (not to be confused with a king of Judah by the same name) injured himself in a fall.
So he sent messengers, saying to them, "Go consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury."

But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?' Therefore this is what the Lord says: 'You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!'" So Elijah went.

from 2 Kings 1
Whenever I read this passage, I keep hoping that the king will say, "D'oh! Let me inquire of a prophet of the Lord instead!" But the words don't change; no matter how many times I read it, Ahaziah always does the same thing: he sends a captain with 50 men to arrest Elijah. When they are all killed, he sends another captain with another 50. And another.

Why does he do that? I'm sure he didn't wake up that morning and say to himself, "Today I've decided to deny reality, pursue false gods, and ignore good advice." Rather, like his father, he surrounded himself with the wrong advisers, then he believed them.

Anyway, look at this third captain. Rather than telling Elijah, "the king says, 'Come down!'" the third captain begs him to spare his life. The lovely Carol remarked on how wise this captain was. He couldn't just refuse the king's order, but he wasn't insane either. (I heard somewhere that insanity consists in doing the same thing and expecting different results.) So he took a wiser approach than the previous captains. This approach actually worked; Elijah went with him.

Effectively, the king told this 3rd captain: "Yeah, two captains and 100 soldiers have all died trying to arrest this guy, but I want you to take another 50 and do what they couldn't."

Sometimes engineers are told by their bosses to do the "impossible": "Two teams have tried and failed to produce this project; now you get to try." What do you do if you're the engineer? Maybe you could go to a startup or something, but you may have some really good reasons why not. Maybe thousands of reasons -- or if you're really hot or really lucky, hundreds of thousands of reasons. So you need a wiser approach. Exactly what that would be for you, I won't venture to say, but this captain found a creative way to do what he was told and yet stay alive. (I have to wonder about the 2nd captain, though.)

Anyway, Elijah goes with this 3rd captain, and delivers his message in person. Somehow I get the picture that Ahaziah could have, even at this point, repented -- like his father did:
When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son."
1 Kings 21.27-29
But Ahaziah didn't, and more's the pity.

The fact that we end up with two stories of stubbornness, one pretty much right after the other, suggests to me that this may be an important theme: not just stubbornness, but a stubborn insistence on pursuing false gods.

Do you or I do that? Of course we don't "worship false gods," but speaking for myself, I've done things I think will make me feel good about myself -- which may be the moral equivalent in the modern-day industrial-prosperity-based society we live in. Not that there's anything wrong with wanting to do a good job, to do something that feels good to accomplish -- but we get in trouble by pursuing that instead of pursuing God.

revised 6/25

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

You're so stubborn, Ahab

Five-year-old "Abby" was talking to her brother, "Bob": "Stubborn. Bob, you're so stubborn." It sounded more like "thtubbun" because she had a bit of a lisp.

"Abby, do you know what 'stubborn' means?"

"Nope!" came the reply. Then she turned her attention back to Bob: "Thtubbun, Bob, thtubbun. You're tho thtubbun."

Ahab didn't know the meaning of the word "stubborn," either -- like a fish that doesn't know the meaning of "wet." He wanted to take Ramoth Gilead back from the Arameans. Jehoshaphat king of Judah was visiting him at the time, and said he would help out:
Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, "I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses." But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, "First seek the counsel of the Lord."
2 Kings 22.4-5
Ahab had a lot of bogus prophets, who were all predicting victory.
But Jehoshaphat asked, "Is there not a prophet of the Lord here whom we can inquire of?
2 Kings 22.7
Ahab replied that there was one, Micaiah, "but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad."

Isn't that crazy? Ahab never asks, "Golly, why is it that this guy always has bad things to say about me? Am I maybe doing something wrong??" He also doesn't remember the things Elijah told him, doesn't remember Elijah's confrontation with the prophets of Baal. This guy redefines the word "stubborn."

The puzzling thing is that even after they get the prophecy from Micaiah, Jehoshaphat goes along with this absurd plan. He wears his royal robes into battle, but Ahab goes into battle incognito. Why did he agree to this? I don't think I'll ever know.

In the end, though, Ahab dies in battle because someone "drew his bow at random" and hit Ahab between the sections of his armor. He died that day, and dogs licked up his blood, as predicted earlier.

So, is there an area in my life where I'm being stubborn? What should I do about it?

Monday, June 19, 2006

Figured it out... well, not really

Earlier this morning, I asked, What good does it do to bring about destruction in the days of Ahab's son? Ahab won't learn anything from that -- he'll be dead at the time!

I talked about this with my younger teen in the car. She said, "Looks like Ahab already learned, since he repented." Good point. "Why do it at all?" she continued. Another good point.

Here is what I think. God knew in advance that Ahab's son was going to do a lot of Bad Stuff. So maybe that's why.

I think I'll find out tomorrow.

Mercy on Ahab. in ten minutes...

I have ten minutes before it's time to get in the car and go to work, so this is going to be short.

Ahab, the nasty king of Israel, wanted to buy a vineyard from Naboth. Naboth wouldn't sell it to him, so Ahab went home and sulked. Jezebel, the wicked queen, asked him what he was sulking about. "Mama will fix it," she effectively said, and she had Naboth killed. Then Ahab went down to take possession of the vineyard.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth's vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, 'This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?' Then say to him, 'This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth's blood, dogs will lick up your blood--yes, yours!' "
2 Kings 21.17-19
When Ahab heard the rebuke from the
Lord, he humbled himself. Now here's the part I don't quite get:
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: "Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son."
2 Kings 21.28-29
What good does it do to bring about destruction in the days of Ahab's son? Ahab won't learn anything from that -- he'll be dead at the time!

When I figure it out, I'll let you know.

"You look funny to him, too, Son..."

It wasn't precisely the golden rule, but I learned it from my dad. I might have been 4 or 8 years old, somewhere in that range, and I saw an earthworm or caterpillar or something. You can guess what I said, based on the title above: "What a funny-looking worm (caterpillar, etc.)!"

That's the first lesson that I can remember on empathy.

Here's another valuable lesson from my dad: "The people that made this thing weren't magicians. They made it; we can take it apart (and maybe fix it)." A variant on this concept, which I've heard elsewhere, is "This didn't grow from a seed."

Something related Dad used to say was, "It's cheaper to fix it than to buy a new one."

Since those days, though, manufacturers have conspired against this ethic. They build something, and rather than putting it in a box, they pot it in plastic. "Try taking that apart," they seemed to be saying. Gaaa. Even when they don't do that, sometimes a required part has a higher retail price than a brand-new item. It costs somebody, probably an overworked underpaid sweatshop worker, more to make the new _______ than it would cost for the part, but from my wallet's point of view....

Markets, and marketing have managed to contradict some things my dad told me about machines and devices. But what he taught me about people and relationships endures.

Once he told us about two colleagues. One of them had bought something -- a bell, maybe a bell for a burglar alarm or something like this. My dad's other colleague ridiculed the purchase, saying he had paid way too much -- "You wuz robbed!" -- that sort of thing. Dad was annoyed with this second colleague. What's the point in making the first one feel bad, was his comment.

What's the point indeed. I should keep this idea in mind more often.

Another time he told me about someone who wanted him to fix his TV set. Take it to a shop, my dad said. "I can't -- I think it's hot!" the fellow told him. This was the wrong thing to say to my dad. He was disgusted. "This guy makes $35,000 a year! He can afford a TV set! Why did he support the TV thief?" That was a lot of money in those days.

Dad had no patience for mean people or criminals, or people who support them financially.

There's a lot more he taught me, but I'll close today's essay with this important lesson, which has served me well, particularly since I am the only human male in our household:

"Always put the seat back down."

Happy Fathers' Day, Dad!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

No good deed...

What do Peter and Elijah have in common? That their good deeds were immediately attacked! Elijah definitely had a harder time of it, though.
Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them."
1 Kings 19.1-2

The apostles and the brothers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."

Acts 11.1-3
The big difference, of course, was that Elijah was literally under threat of death by an enemy, whereas Peter just got a bunch of flak.

They responded in completely different ways, too. Elijah surprised me; I would have thought he'd say something like "Shock and awe weren't enough? I laugh at your threat! Bring it on!" Instead he flees in despair. The contest with the prophets of Baal apparently took a lot out of him -- a phyrric victory of sorts. The Lord tells him to eat, drink, and sleep... then after some dialogue tells him to go back the way he came to the desert of Damascus and
  1. "when you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also..."
  2. "anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and..."
  3. anoint Elisha son of Shaphat to succeed him as prophet
(1 Kings 19.15-16)

I never noticed this before, but Elijah does only #3; it turns out that #1 and #2 aren't done until 2 Kings chapters 8-9. I guess he was really depressed by that whole prophets-of-Baal thing.

One lesson for me in all this is that everyone's human -- even guys that we might think of as mighty men of God. Your Billy Grahams and Bill Hybelses and John Ortbergs and John Pipers and Joseph Ratzingers -- as well as the less famous but no less important teachers and prophets and prayer warriors (yes, even prayer warriors) and deacons and elders and pastors -- are all human, they all need support and prayer, and all have their dark nights.

Peter had a different experience. In one sense, Elijah got from Jezebel what he might have expected given that she was a, well, to steal a line from Sandra Tsing Loh, "rhymes with rich," and was evil and idolatrous besides. Peter, though, got criticized by people on the same team for doing what they all wanted done -- i.e., spreading the gospel of the kingdom "to the remotest part of the earth" (Acts 1.8) and making disciples "of all nations" (Matthew 28.19). "Nations" here would have been understood to mean "non-Jews" by the way.

The good thing in Peter's experience is that once he explained what happened in his vision (here's the 3rd time we read about it) and at the home of Cornelius...

...they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then,God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."
Acts 11.18
The lesson I get from this is the importance of face-to-face communication, particularly when things are changing in the church.

I mentioned the other day that emails aren't necessarily satanic but that there are lots of opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication. I think this is something I have to keep in mind at work, but especially at church and when working on mission-related stuff. Why especially then? Because we have an enemy who likes to deceive and confuse us, to sow discord among the brethren, that's why. And also because so much of what we do is about the communication. At the office, I can say, "My code is at /u/collin/p4/msub - please have a look" or "Does this data set look like what you were thinking of?" -- not so at church.

We live in the world, and though we try not to be of the world, it's hard -- it's well nigh impossible to keep the culture (the system of this world's kingdom) from affecting our thought patterns as we try to do the Lord's work. So we want to do the Lord's work and we want to be good stewards of the resources the Lord gives us... of which time is the scarcest! So we take short cuts. We use email and text messages, and this is not necessarily all that bad! But when we reduce face-to-face communications and try to make up the difference with short emails, we may run into difficulties. The ensuing repair work (read "damage control" if you like) can end up being more costly than the time we thought we were saving.

Why do we do it then? Because of the pressure we feel to do more, launch more things, keep more balls in the air. Where does this pressure come from? For me, it comes from the fear that when I'm gone, I won't have accomplished anything for the kingdom of God. Gaaaa! We've taken the fears of the world and adapted them into our church context! Balderdash and baloney in the highest!

And yet... do you suppose that even Really Spiritual people might be driven by some of the same pressures and fears that I feel? May it not be so! But they are human, they need prayer and support, they have their dark nights... so maybe some of them are driven like this? Yow!

The lovely Carol has a mobile, which now hangs from the ceiling in our bedroom. There is driftwood. There are shells. And there is a sign which reads, "By the God's grace I am doing enough."

A good word for me, and a needed one. For you too? And maybe even for some Really Spiritual people like pastors and missionaries?

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Destructive Confrontation

About 15 years ago, one of my managers showed us the "East Coast to West Coast Executive's Translation Guide," which included such gems as "Action item for Joe by 2/21" translated to "Joe's looking at that." Another item was "Punch his lights out" translated to "constructive confrontation". Was that in bad taste? Sorry about that. Anyway, that gives a flavor of what's about to happen in today's reading.

Ahab was this nasty king of Israel. By the way, in this section of the history, "Israel" (sometimes "Ephraim") generally refers to the ten northern tribes; the historian usually says "Judah" to mean the two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin). Anyway, Ahab (Did Melville name the captain in Moby Dick because of Ahab's character, or for some other reason?) was nasty. He "did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.... he also married Jezebel... and began to serve Baal and worship him." (1 Kings 16.30) Basically, no rain falls in the land of Israel for a few years. Then the prophet Elijah meets Ahab:
Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?"

"I have not made trouble for Israel," Elijah replied. "But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."

from 1 Kings 18.16-19
One destructive confrontation coming up. Ahab assembles the people and these prophets. Elijah confronts the people: "How long will you waver...? If the
Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." The people just stood there looking at each other. (18.21)

I think we need something like this today. We need it in our world, we need it in our country, and we need it in our churches. And, yes, I need it in my life. What are we really after? Today I have to confess that a big part of my thinking is what Morley (in The Man in the Mirror) calls "the smooth, wrinkle-free life". Is that my god, my idol?

In our churches, do we want the Kingdom of God to grow in strength and depth and breadth? Or do we want to protect our turf, smooth over conflicts, advance our pet programs and projects? And in our nation... well, what can I say? Do we want to protect the weak, the last, the least, and the lost, or do we want to kill off people who are too old, too young, too inconvenient, too sick? Do we think it's OK to concentrate wealth more and more in the hands of the powerful few, while many of our own citizens struggle with illiteracy and poverty?

In Elijah's time, the answer was a clear-cut confrontation. It makes me think of some of Clancy's novels, where solutions are relatively simple -- find the bad guys and kill them. And on the way, convince the wavering to make the right choice.

So, as the title hints, Elijah had a destructive confrontation with the evil prophets. Their god didn't do anything, but the
Lord answers Elijah's prayer spectacularly, the people all say, "The Lord, He is God!" and Elijah has them kill all the false prophets.

But as we'll see tomorrow, things don't all work out to the good. Even in those days, solutions were not all that simple.

Friday, June 16, 2006


"He who covers over a transgression seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates intimate friends."
Proverbs 17.9

This is one of the verses I memorized maybe 25 years ago from the Navigators' Topical Memory System. It has been a good help to me when I'm tempted to mention something that I shouldn't.

I was listening to the radio when I heard J Vernon McGee talking about some terrible sin that was damaging the church. What was it, I wondered? Greed? Lust? Was it Satan's sin, pride?

No -- it was gossip he was talking about!

I don't have to tell you how or why broken confidences destroy relationships. But I did read something about gossip that helps explain why it's so attractive -- both interesting to hear and tempting to pass along.

The context, and I wish I could remember exactly where I read this, was that of adolescent girls. The point was that among teen-aged girls, information is a kind of social currency. If I want to show you that we're friends, I'll share some information with you. And if you want to show me, you'll tell me something as well. Hearing something makes us feel like part of the "in" group.

Now how is this different from Corporate America?

I think gossip can be tempting because by spreading it, I can show that I have more clout than you do. I am a source of information that you didn't know. If I do this enough, then I may object to your proposal based on "information that I, ahem, just can't share with you at this time."

Knowledge is power, and it can be shared (or displayed) in a spirit of generosity and inclusion, or with an aim to exercise power and lord it over someone. Gossip, like any other knowledge or information, can be used this way.

The trouble with gossip, though, is that whether or not it gets distorted, relationships can be damaged or destroyed.

How much better the information, the knowledge of the Kingdom of God! Take a look at this, which Jesus tells his disciples:

"For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."
Luke 10.25

So maybe the thing for me to remember is that when I want to share something, it should be something beneficial for them, something that will bring glory to God, instead of something that makes me look smarter or more spiritual or more "in the loop."


Thursday, June 15, 2006

And the point of the passage is...

Cornelius, a centurion in the "Italian regiment," has a vision that we read about in Acts 10. He sees an angel, who tells him to send for Simon called Peter, who is staying in a certain house by the sea in a certain town. Just before Cornelius's messengers arrive, Peter has a vision, which repeats for a total of 3 times, telling him basically that the gospel is for everyone, not just for Jews. This is quite a vision, too:
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, "Get up, Peter. Kill and eat."

"Surely not, Lord!" Peter replied. "I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

The voice spoke to him a second time, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean."

Acts 10.11-15
By the way, in case it wasn't obvious, Jewish people weren't allowed to eat reptiles. And they couldn't eat all kinds of birds of the air -- only some birds of the air. Ditto the four-footed creatures.

(A side note: we see this story itself three times -- once here, again when Peter tells Cornelius and his household about it, and the third time when he tells the church in Jerusalem about it.)

Then, you know, Peter goes to Cornelius's house and tells the people gathered there about Jesus and forgiveness of sins available to them.

The very first time I went to a Christian conference, the speaker
, Leroy Eims, read from this passage, noting that this was the first time Peter was speaking to a Gentile audience, and that Peter said about Jesus that "he is Lord of all" (Acts 10.36, KJV). Leroy told us that Peter was very fond of saying that Jesus is Lord -- in his first sermon to a Jewish audience in Acts 2, Peter says, "God made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (2.36). He then asked, "Why does Peter say that? What does he mean?" and took us through Mark 4 and 5, where Peter saw Jesus exercise power over the wind and the waves, over the demons (in the land of the Gadarenes), over disease (the woman who suffered from bleeding) and death itself (the daughter of Jairus). I sometimes wish I could see things like that in the Scriptures -- connecting the revelation of Jesus's power in various arenas to what Peter says in his sermons.

And today, I think that wish, that unspoken prayer if you like, may have been answered. I think that Luke, the author of Acts, is telling us something about God by showing us all these contrasts. An Ethiopian seeker, lacking knowledge of the Old Testament, heard about the Lord through Philip. Saul, a persecutor of the church who knew everything there was to know about the Old Testament, got the message direct from Jesus himself. Aeneas, a bedridden man (we know nothing about his faith or devotion to the Lord) is healed instantly, as is Dorcas, a devout woman who was actually dead. Today we see visions coming both to a Gentile worshiper of God who lacks knowledge, and also to Peter, who has knowledge but who (before the vision) was unwilling to talk to Gentiles.

I think Luke wants us to know that the Lord can heal anyone, that he can speak to anyone for any purpose, directly or through human agents, that he can heal anyone regardless of race or devotion or condition; they can be paralyzed for eight years; they can even be dead.

And what does that mean for me today? One thing it means is that whatever the problem - lack of knowledge, lack of willingness, sickness, death, whatever - God is bigger than that.

But what would I say to the brother I met at the men's retreat, whose son has been suffering for decades from various physical and mental ailments? I don't know.

But the Lord knows. And he cares. Beyond that I dare not say.

posted 6/16

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Two miracles

Acts 9 tells uf two miracles God performed through Pete: Aeneas, who had been bedridden eight years, was healed; Tabitha (Dorcas), who had died, was brought back to life. All kinds of questions come to my mind as I read about these miracles.

For example, why don't we see more of this today? Who is involved in this sort of thing?

One fact stands out in these stories -- that people believe in the Lord as a result.
Immediately Aeneas got up. All those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him and turned to the Lord
Acts 9.34-35

Turning toward the dead woman, he said, "Tabitha, get up." She opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.... This became known all over Joppa, and many people believed in the Lord

Acts 9.40-42
Of course that's not the only reason the Lord might heal someone, but it's a reason.

So, back to my earlier questions of why we don't see more of this today. Well, one thing to notice is that Luke reports on these two incidents - one in Lydda and one in Joppa - as though they were unusual. These were not everyday occurrences in those days. In a given city you might hear about one.

In our church, I know of one. I know of one in another church too. Not a dead person coming back to life, but in our church there was a man who used canes and braces and had a lot of difficulty walking. A couple of years ago I noticed he was walking easily, without any braces or canes. I later found out from him that someone prayed for him, and that he recovered pretty much instantly.

In both these cases, faith was strengthened for some number of people. These were widely publicized, so I'm going to go out on a limb and say faith was strengthened for a lot of people. And I wonder if part of the reason these things don't happen a lot more today in these United States is our culture of disbelief. Again, strengthened faith isn't necessarily the only reason God might heal someone miraculously, but in a place where that's not going to happen, there's one reason less for God to do it.

What does that mean for any particular case? I sure don't know, but it looks, anecdotally, like you're statistically more likely for a miracle in a community where faith would be awakened or strengthened by a miracle.
posted 6/16

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

what's in it for me?

Two big points struck me from the past two days' readings. Yesterday we saw how the Lord can send his people out to preach the good news. In yesterday's reading, the Lord got the gospel to an Ethiopian official by sending Philip to the lonely desert road the Ethiopian's chariot was on.

Today we read how the Lord spoke to Saul the terrorist without needing to send anyone at all. Here again, someone is traveling on a lonely desert road. The Ethiopian official was reading from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet after worshiping in Jerusalem; Saul was out to arrest more believers after persecuting them in Jerusalem. The Ethiopian got Philip to preach to him; Saul got the Lord himself:

[S]uddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."

from Acts 9.3-6
Here is what I learn from this:
  • God can reach anyone anywhere with the good news.
  • God can use his people to transmit the gospel;
    he can also tell people directly
  • God can reach people regardless of whether they have worshipful or murderous intentions
As I read the passage this time around, I wondered why it was that Saul was so excited about persecuting the church. What, I wondered, was he afraid of? Or if not afraid, then why? Jesus asks him that same question, but Saul never answers it. Instead, he asks a question back: "Who are you?"

A friend was telling me this morning about a conversation with someone who was considering Jesus. "If I go your way (that is, if I believe in Jesus), what do I get? What's in it for me?"

You may have noticed that Saul didn't ask that question. Neither did the Ethiopian official. The question, "what's in it for me?" just might indicate a complete lack of interest. If so, what indicates sincere interest, real interest? It might be something like this:
  • How can I get closer to God?
  • What does God want me to do with my life?
  • How can I serve God more fully?
Or if not those, at least
something like
  • Why can't I find satisfaction in life?
  • Where does true joy come from?
  • How can I tell if my life is going in a good direction?
  • Why do I have such a hard time trying to be a good person?
And how about you and me? What questions are we asking today? I hope I'm asking more "Who are you, Lord?" than "What's in it for me?"

posted 6/15

Monday, June 12, 2006

Why was this good news?

So in Acts chapter 8, we read about a persecution of the church. The believers are scattered far and wide. Now Philip gets instructions from an angel. Very specific instructions:
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (Acts 8.26)
That must have been exciting. I get the feeling Philip was getting used to this sort of direction by now. He sees a chariot and the Spirit tells him to "go to that chariot and stay near it." Yow!

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked.

"How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

Acts 8.30-31
How exciting is that? Well, it sure would be exciting to me. This kind of thing doesn't happen to me very often. Anyway, Philip explains it to the guy, who then asks to be baptized. As soon as they're done with that...
When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Acts 8.39-40
I wonder if Philip got used to traveling like that....

But now here is my question. The Ethiopian official had been in Jerusalem, and apparently had not heard much about Jesus. He didn't understand the passage in Isaiah's scroll as being a picture of Jesus. Why, then, was it good news when Philip told him about Jesus? What was he looking for, that he would be glad to hear about Jesus?

Here is what I think. This fellow was looking for God. Now for the past 50 years or so, evangelicals have talked about the Good News as being about heaven. However long you live, you'll be dead a lot longer, and where you go after you die... well, that's what we talk about.

But there's not a lot of indication here that Philip talked about that. I'm going to guess here that when "Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus," (8.35), what Philip talked about was about the kingdom of God. Because the Ethiopian official was already looking for God, trying to understand him, the fact that God had come to earth in the flesh, lived among us, and paid the penalty for our sins so that nothing would separate us from God any more... well now that would be good news to him.

Is it good news to you and to me? Are we seeking him today? When I remember that Jesus came, and why Jesus came, should that not bring a note of gladness to my day? May this good news be good news for me. And for you too.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Solomon the Prophet

Listen to this astonishing insight from Solomon the king of Israel:

When they sin against you - for there is no one who does not sin - and you become angry with them and give them over to the enemy, who takes them captive to his own land...; and if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their conquerors... and if they turn back to you with all their heart... and pray to you toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their plea, and uphold their cause.
1 Kings 8.46-49

Imagine this, if you will. Solomon is at least 11 years into his reign; Israel's star is rising, if you will, in the region. The temple is a glorious thing, and the presence of the Lord filled the temple (8.10-12). Who would have imagined at this time that the nation would sin and be taken off into exile?

Solomon did! He foresaw the possibility -- the likelihood -- that the Israelites would provoke the Lord to such anger that he would allow them to be carried away. Yes, it was a day of celebration, but it was a day for sober reflection as well.

Solomon also foresaw the possibility that his people might repent while in exile, and asked for the Lord's favor in case that should happen. He doesn't ask specifically for the Lord to bring them back to the land of Israel if they repent, but he alludes to it by talking about how the Lord rescued them from slavery in Egypt -- over 400 years before his birth!

Solomon was remarkable in his day: his knowledge and wisdom won him great fame. But beyond that, he had in mind, as did many men in those days, a sense of what God had done in the past. In thinking about the future, he remembers what the Israelites had done in the past (the book of Judges provides sordid details) and also what God had done in the past (Exodus, not to mention Judges, shows the Lord's great mercy).

That's a good thing for me to remember, when I'm thinking about the future, whether I'm celebrating or feeling anxious. Or both.

posted a day late...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Is E-mail Satanic?

No, of course it's not. But the dropped messages and the miscommunications that sometimes happen seem to be not of this earth.

A few years ago, I worked on revisions to a handbook for camp counselors. Two men, older than I, were the "owners" of the document, so I sent my revisions to them, and they OK'd them. At least I thought they did. After some time, hardcopy of the document arrived at my house. Not a single one of my changes was in it! I emailed these two about it to ask if there was some mistake, and got no reply. Was I steamed! They were stonewalling me!

Except that they weren't. My message simply didn't get to one of them. What actually happened was this: he had mistakenly printed the old (unmodified) version and sent me that. My email reply somehow was lost in transit; he never got it. The other man (who did get my email) forwarded it to him, and eventually we sorted it out.

I believe that Satan is alive and well and somehow manages to make e-mail messages disappear. Exactly how is a topic for another time.

He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty

My wife asked me the other day about dreams I had when I was younger. Believe it or not, in nearly 20 years of marriage we haven't talked about this. Anyway, back in the early '70s, I wanted to build a car -- not just any car, but a good car, made in the USA. Growing up, our family only had Volkswagens, because my dad was fed up with the poor quality and fuel economy of cars built in the US. I never did that, but DeLorean did. I never developed a hybrid grain, like Nobel winner Norman Borlaug did (and probably saved more lives than any other living human being).

But here is something that we can do... or at least try to:
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty
And he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city.
Proverbs 16.32
This says that greatness is within the reach of every child of God. We don't have to build a car (or a car company) and we certainly don't have to end up like DeLorean did.

But to be slow to anger -- to be patient, to rule my spirit -- these are things I can get help from the Lord on. And at the end of our lives, who is it that hears "Well done, good and faithful servant"? Is it the rich, the gifted, the mighty? No, it's those who believe that God rewards those who seek him diligently.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Who actually does it?

"Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" - Psalm 127.1

Now there's an interesting concept! If I build something, who is it that actually builds it? Is it the Lord? Or is it me? If I write a computer program or a paper, coordinate activities between groups, diagnose some problem, who actually does it -- is it me, or is it the Lord?

This passage suggests that the answer is, well, both:
But Shammah took his stand in the middle of the field. He defended it and struck the Philistines down, and the Lord brought about a great victory.
2 Samuel 23.12
So that's all very interesting (or not), but what does that mean in the life of a 21st century A.D. software guy? Take a look at the next verse:
In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat--for he grants sleep to those he loves.
Psalm 127.2
Another translation says he gives to those he loves even when they sleep -- like when Adam took a nap, and then God brought Eve to him. So, being practical. What comes to mind is the story of two men, which I think I read in The Man in the Mirror. One was an insurance guy, who decided at some point to be satisfied with whatever he could earn within some limit -- some number of hours per week or day, and to trust God that this would be enough. The rest of his time went to being a husband and father and church member and citizen. Because he determined to be content with what he had, he was, well, content with what he had.

Another fellow operated a shop. He tended to be "hungry" and insecure about the future. Never sure there would be enough, he didn't hire enough help and worked too long himself. Unfortunately for him, his attitude was obvious to his customers, few of whom returned.

I'm not saying that slacking off is the way to contentment, but I think the psalmist is telling us that pursuing wealth doesn't always work in the way we might like. I'm also not saying that every single week, a Silicon Valley engineer or manager can just punch out after exactly 40 or 50 hours (or whatever his/her limit is). But I think the psalmist is telling us this:

Whatever "
rise early and stay up late, toiling" means to you or me, it might not be the right thing for us or for our families. And if I'm anxious and not trusting the Lord to provide, then I probably need to straighten that out first.

(started to write this yesterday, posted today)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Complaints! and another observation

So I was reading something this morning that gave me another observation about Acts 1.8. "You will be my witnesses," the verse says. Here's the observation: the word translated "witnesses" is μαρτυρεσ or "martures". Or, more familiarly, "martyrs." "You will be my martyrs, in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the remotest part of the earth."

What does that mean, to be his martyrs? Ah, that's an interpretation.

Zooming ahead, I think we're about to read about the first complaints in the church, and the first committee -- well, the first deacons, anyway.
[T]he Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them...."
from Acts 6.1-3
Lots and lots of observations could be made from this passage. One that comes right out is that the Twelve did not say "Brothers, choose men experienced in restaurant management," or "Choose experts in logistics and fulfillment" or "Choose executive directors." They said to choose men "full of the Spirit and wisdom."

Now I'm going to switch to interpretation, and maybe make a foray into application.

What does it mean that they stressed spiritual qualifications and didn't mention management skills, logistical expertise, restaurant experience? Why were they talking about wisdom when they should have been talking about food?

Here is what I think. It was not only about serving food. (Seven guys was probably too few anyway for all the widows.) It was about learning and growth and discipleship. Because, when you look at what Jesus did with his disciples, what was it? He gave them very specific tasks to do. Go into town, find a man with a water jar, untie a donkey, give this food to the people sitting on the grass, etc. (I heard this 10-15 years ago maybe, from some famous preacher. Juan Carlos Ortiz I think it was.)

And so with the waiters. And with you and me too? Sometimes the Christian life is just doing practical things to serve people. And when we do it in Christ's name it becomes a sacrament. And in those things we learn, we grow, we follow the Master.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

a troubling incident: ananias and sapphira

Here is a troubling story from the days of the early church. Some people were selling their extra stuff (even plots of land) and donating the proceeds to the church in Jerusalem. One couple sold a piece of land and donated part of what they got, but represented it as the full price they got for their land.

Apparently they were doing this for appearance's sake - to look good. Peter rebukes the husband, and what happens next is shocking:
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened.
Acts 5.5
Now that's severe. Oh, the same thing happens to Ananias's wife. I find it hard to understand.

Peter says that by representing some of the money as though it were the full price, they were lying to God rather than to men. That is an astonishing concept -- that by doing something to make myself look good, I'm actually lying to God. Yow!

You know, as I read the passage, I find myself protesting Peter's judgment. Have you seen the movie Yentl? In it, a girl's father teaches her reading and scriptures but closes the curtains. She asks him, "Can't God see what you're doing, with or without the curtains?" He replies, "I'm OK with God seeing this; what I'm worried about is the neighbors."

In that context, I want to tell Peter, "Ananias and Sapphira know that God knows; what they're thinking about is the neighbors!" But looking at it again, I can see Peter knows they think it's about the neighbors; yet he corrects that impression by saying it's not just the neighbors; it's really God they're lying to.

So let's suppose Peter is speaking for God here, as I think he is. What does it mean?

Here is one half-baked interpretation. Say I'm trying to impress some people. Why am I trying to do that? Probably it's because I hope they'll make me feel good about myself. Like I'm an admirable and a good person. Like I'm really alive or something. When I'm doing that, I'm treating them as my gods. When Peter says they were lying to God, could it mean that in lying to their false gods (i.e., the neighbors), they were actually lying to the true God?

A frightening thought. So how about when I do things that make me look good to others, to give them an impression of me that's better than I really am? (Or if somebody has such an impression, to let them continue in that misapprehension, as in this case where
[X] has remained silent on at least two occasions when he has been publicly but erroneously referred to as "Dr. [X]"
Apparently that wasn't the only problem this guy had, but I don't want to have it at all.

May the Lord help us all to be people of integrity, trusting his "well done, good and faithful servant" to be enough.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

More political incorrectness!

Jesus stated an inconvenient truth, which is not very popular in postmodern America: that he's the only way to God. But it doesn't stop with him. Peter and John were jailed overnight for "teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead." (Acts 4.2). Now I may have said a few politically incorrect things, but I never got thrown into jail for them. The next morning, the "Powers-That-appear-to-Be" question them. Here is part of Peter's reply:
And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
from Acts 4.12
Talk about inconvenient! That is really uncomfortable, if you care what other people think.

So I noticed something here. Peter and John saw someone and helped him out, then they explain to the amazed crowd what just happened. That's why they got thrown in jail. The speech above is in response to a question asked by the "rulers, elders and teachers of the law". (You can tell these guys haven't been to law school, because they ask a question when they have no idea what the answer will be.) Basically Peter and John do what they do, and then they answer questions.

I don't do stuff like that. I mean, I don't heal lame or blind people. Then I don't get asked a lot of questions. I don't get thrown in jail, then asked more questions.

I think I am missing something about the Christian life. When I figure it out, I'll let you know.

Monday, June 05, 2006

sacrifice and sacrifice

A plague has come upon the land of Israel because of something King David did. A prophet tells him to make a burnt offering at a certain place. The landowner says he wants to give the land (and oxen for the burnt offering) to the king, but David insists on paying for it, saying
I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing
from 2 Samuel 24.24
Some years ago, I read this, probably out of context, and I misinterpreted it. I thought it was telling me to give up something when giving something to God. In other words, to give sacrificially.

I still think that's a good idea, but when I look at the passage again, I see it doesn't say that at all. It's actually a description of David's insistence that Araunah sell him the threshing-floor and the oxen, instead of giving him that stuff. Now since David was the king of Israel, the price of this piece of land, and of the oxen, wasn't something that would break the bank. It wasn't like David was giving up his dreams in order to make this burnt offering.

Anyway, a few years ago I got a letter from a mission agency, saying I had contributed thus and such a number of dollars to them over the years. I was shocked, and for a moment imagined what I could have done with that money instead (like pay off the mortgage on my house). But then I thought, how many people, when they're dying, say, "Gave too much away to missions; shoulda paid off the house" versus how many say, "Laying up treasure on earth was a fool's game; shoulda given more to the work of the Kingdom of God." Well, that gives you a pretty big clue about what my spiritual gift is.

Note to mission agencies: this is not an invitation to send more appeal letters. We already have plenty.

And yet, as I wrote the other day, there's a part of me that's really not all that interested in giving up stuff. By most measures, we've got plenty of money. But by other measures, i.e., by comparison with people that have more toys and/or live in houses nicer than ours, we don't have that much.

Isn't that silly? It makes me feel again like a friend of the world.
What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Paul the Apostle


Sunday, June 04, 2006

Communism! but not godless communism

All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.
from Acts 2.44-47
Does that sound interesting to you? I find it both attractive and scary myself. On one hand, nobody wins the rat race. Many of us work at jobs we don't care for to get money to buy things we don't need to impress people we don't even particularly like, and what's the use of that? Especially if the "things we don't need" include a gas-guzzling motor vehicle, in which case we get to destroy the environment, deplete the oil supply, pay an arm and a leg, and look like a fool all at once.

On the other hand, would you enter a commune like the one described in Acts 2... if those others included all the members of your church? Would they enter one that included you?

Why or why not? Let me put that on hold for a minute and make a couple of observations.

It's interesting to note here that it says "they gave to anyone" -- it doesn't say "to anyone who didn't lose his house at the blackjack table." It doesn't say specifically what they gave, although I suppose that after a couple of times, drunkards were given food rather than cash.

It also says "all the believers", which I think is really interesting. It doesn't say "all the really committed believers" or "all the active church members"; it says "all the believers."

So apparently something very unusual happened there in Jerusalem shortly after the day of Pentecost.

Back to the thought-experiment -- and a True Confession

So would you sign up for a commune that included all the members -- no, make that all the believers -- in your church?

I'm not going to answer it right here (but I will if you will)... but I will make an observation -- this time about my life, rather than about the text.

I don't really feel like I fit in at my church. People find us strange. One fellow told me, a couple years after getting to know me, that I first struck him as an odd duck, and I think lots of other people look at us that way too. Our lifestyle is different, our politics are different, our priorities are different.

Actually I think I fit in better at work than I do at church, on the average. I mean, the people we feel closest to are people we know from church. But walking into a room of random people from church, vs random people from the office, I'd tend to feel more comfortable in the latter case.

Is this a sign that I am a friend of the world (and thus an enemy of God)? But it's not just me; the lovely Carol sometimes feels this way.

Or does it mean that I have higher (less realistic) expectations of the relationships with people from church?

Or something else?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Hundreds of observations

I heard this story some years ago, 3rd or 4th hand. At a certain theological seminary in Dallas, students are asked to write down 25 observations about a particular verse. An observation answers the question "What does it say?" -- in distinction to an interpretation, which answers "What does it mean?" or application, which answers "What does it mean to my life?"

The next week's assignment is to write down 25 more observations.

And the next week's assignment is (you guessed it) write down 25 more.

This prof has been giving this assignment every year for a long time, like over 20 years. He still gets a new one now and then. (This is, as I said, something I heard a long time ago. The professor might be retired by now.)
So when they got together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth"

Acts 1.6-8
The section highlighted in yellow is the passage upon which those thousands of observations have been written. What kinds of observations might be made? Well, I never went to seminary (I went to engineering school), but I'll try a few.

  1. The verse is in contrast to something he just told them -- i.e., immediately before, he said "you don't get to know this -- BUT you will get something else"
  2. They will receive power
  3. He does not tell them the power is about restoring the kingdom to Israel
  4. He's making a promise about the future
  5. They apparently have not had the Holy Spirit come upon them (whatever that means) yet.
  6. He's promising that the Holy Spirit will come upon them in the future.
  7. When the Holy Spirit comes, that's when they will receive power
  8. They will be Jesus's witnesses. (What does that mean? Oops, that's interpretation.)
  9. They will be Jesus's witnesses in Jerusalem.
  10. They will be Jesus's witnesses right where they are.
  11. "and in all Judea and Samaria" -- They will be Jesus's witnesses throughout the country
  12. They will be Jesus's witnesses all over the world
  13. The sequence was: witnesses in Jerusalem. Then in Judea and Samaria. Then the ends of the earth.
  14. Jesus gives a promise and a sort of prediction; it is not worded as a command.

OK, I ran out of gas there. I'm not actually sure that all of those are really observations; it's hard not to interpret. But what is a witness? I guess it's someone who sees something and reports it.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Return of the King; mourning and celebration

So David's son Absalom led a failed revolt, and David is now returning to the land of Judah. I wrote the other day about Ziba's transparent deceit. Here David is returning to the land of Judah.
Mephibosheth, Saul's grandon, also went down to meet the king. He had not taken care of his feetor trimmed his moustache or washed his clothes from the day the king left until the day he returned safely....
2 Samuel 19.24
When I read this, I wonder what would ever motivate me to mourn that way.

Mephibosheth tells David "Ziba ... has slandered your servant to my lord the king," and David says that Ziba and Mephibosheth should divide the land. And what does Mephibosheth say?
Mephibosheth said to the king, "Let him take everything, now that my lord the king has arrived home safely."
2 Samuel 19.24
Allowing for a moment that these people speak differently from the way that we do, I wonder what would ever motivate me to rejoice like that, without regard for my rights or my inheritance (or lack thereof). I would be thinking, "It's great that the right guy is back to run things, but since I'm likely to outlive him, it sure would be nice to have something in the bank."

Some years ago, one of my girls asked me why people today don't think so much about the spiritual world, and speculated maybe it was because of all our technology. I think she was on to something there. So much of life is apparently under our control that we like to preserve that illusion. Particularly we 21st century Americans, the most individualistic (not to say "selfish") people in the history of the world.

Can the Bible still speak to this generation? Does Jesus still have something to say to us? I think yes. Although we are more individual than tribal, the fact that God cares for each individual - for you and me in particular, besides all of his creation - is still important and powerful.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

a bad rap for "doubting" thomas

so here's the passage where Thomas gets his bad rap:
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!"

But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

John 20.24-25
Now does that seem all that unreasonable to you? It seems completely reasonable to me! There's another gospel account where the women tell the disciples something, and nobody believes them. Later on we'll read about Rhoda, who told everybody that Peter was knocking at the door; nobody believes her, either.

As I wrote earlier, I think Thomas is a great guy; he'd rather die with Jesus than live without him. And now he gets some amazing news. Dare he believe it?

The next week, though, Jesus appears to him saying "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe" (John 20.27). And Thomas does!

Thomas knew what evidence he needed. When he had the evidence, he believed. I think he's a great example.