Monday, July 31, 2006

OK, missed my train so...

Here is the example I heard some years back. It wasn't presented as an example, but as a true-life anecdote. When I heard it, I finally understood how this passage might work today.

There was a Christian couple -- let's call them Joe and Jane. They were engaged but not yet married, and attending different colleges. On one weekend, Joe would drive over to Jane's college and spend the night in his sleeping bag on the floor in her dorm room. On another weekend, Jane would do the driving/visiting.

This story was told to me without any raising of eyebrows -- or any other sign of doubt or disbelief -- so I have no reason to suspect that anything "happened" in their rooms.

But there is no way I would have considered an arrangement like this safe for myself. I mean, when Carol and I were engaged, we were very excitable. Could we have spent a night alone together in a room without succumbing to temptation? Maybe, but I wouldn't want to bet on it.

Anyway, back to Joe and Jane: I think their arrangements could have been a stumbling block to people. Because they would have provoked a bunch of tongue-clicking? Nope. I mean because someone else might follow their example ("Joe and Jane do it," they might think) but not be able to resist the temptation. Would they be destroyed by that? Well, they probably wouldn't be hit by a truck the next morning or spend eternity in hell, but yielding to a sexual temptation like that could have enduring effects.

And why sex in particular? Let's discuss that when we get to 1 Corinthians 6.

What does it mean, stumbling block?

Romans 14 begins with the exhortation to accept each other:
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
Romans 14.1-3
Paul goes on to give some other examples. Do you mow your lawn on Sunday, for example? One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (14.5)

There are Christians today who talk about keeping the Sabbath, as though the commandment were in force for us today. While agreeing enthusiastically that it is a great idea to take a "joy day" or a day off once a week, I am very unhappy about the insinuation that doing so is a biblical command in force for Christians today.
First of all, what is the Sabbath? Is it any day you feel like? Is it Sunday? In the book of Exodus we read of a man gathering wood on the Sabbath. If the Sabbath could be any day you like, that guy could have said, "Oh, I took my Sabbath yesterday."

No, the Sabbath would be a particular day of the week, and I have no reason to believe that the rabbis would have distorted that. That day would be the period from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday.

Of course, the other thing about the Sabbath is passages like this one that says we are free to consider any arbitrary day as being more or less sacred than any other -- so long as we don't impose that on anyone else. That's where I take issue with people who say the commandment is still in effect.
The other thing I wanted to mention about this chapter was this "stumbling block" thing.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Romans 14.13-19
This passage has been applied to drinking wine, but I have never understood how that is supposed to work.

But before that, I'll note that the point of this paragraph is that we should love one another (rather than passing judgment) and do the things that lead to peace and mutual edification. OK, so within that context, is this saying "If any members of a particular denomination would notice you drinking wine, smoking (anything), going to movies (etc.) and cluck their tongues, you shouldn't do any of those things"?

I don't think so! The passage says "If your brother is distressed," whereas some tongue-clickers seem positively thrilled at the chance to do what they do. And it says "Do not destroy your brother," and I don't see that having a glass of wine and going to the movies would destroy anyone.

That said, to minister to people of this particular tongue-clucking bent, I would probably choose to limit myself in the spirit of peace and mutual edification. Why give people things to talk about, is what I mean.

I did hear of an example with real destructive potential, but I've got to go to work now, so I'll have to tell you about it later.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Governments: established by God. Really?

In Romans chapter 13, Paul talks about governments. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Roman police practices: blame and arrest the victim, and flog him if you want to find out what's going on. Umm, and the victim in that case was Paul.

So what do you suppose Paul is going to say about governments here? Let's see:
The authorities that exist have been established by God ... rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good.
from Romans 13.1-4
So what's going on here? It's not quite obvious, is it?

But is it obvious what I'm going to say next? To figure what's going on at the beginning of chapter 13, let's look at the end of chapter 12. (I remember hearing Ray Stedman teaching on some passage of scripture, and he reminded us that the chapter and verse markings were all additions made by some scribe hundreds of years after the fact. He also commented that "somebody put a great big '2' in the middle of this paragraph" iirc.)

So, ignoring the great big '13' that somebody put here, the flow of thought seems to be:
  • Bless those who persecute you....
  • Live in harmony with one another
  • Don't be proud
  • Don't be conceited
  • Don't repay evil for evil
  • If it's possible, live at peace with everyone
  • Do not take revenge...
  • On the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him, etc.
  • Don't be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Everyone must submit to the authorities, which have been established by God
  • If you rebel against the authority, you rebel against God ...
(from Romans 12.14 - 13.2)

Twice he says to live in harmony (or "live at peace"). I believe therefore that these paragraphs about governments are part of the larger theme of living in harmony, doing what's right in others' eyes, blessing those who persecute you, etc. As such, he can say what the government is supposed to be doing (judging justly, commending those who do right, etc.)

Also, Paul may have seen the Roman system as mostly working for him. When he was about to get flogged by that commander in Acts 22, he was after all able to get the guy to listen. He also got his trial moved by appealing to Caesar. And if memory serves, he was exonerated at that time.

Finally, as far as what we're supposed to do or not do, consider that Paul is talking about rebelling:
The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted....
from Romans 13.1-2
so the main practical application is that we mustn't rebel against the authorities, but we should do what is right.

That seems to include paying taxes we don't agree with.

Well, as my friend Jim says, "that's why it's a command." What he means by that is that God wouldn't have to tell me to do something if it comes naturally to me anyway; a command is needed when it's something I wouldn't do on my own. And these things seem to be hard, too.

Nothing easy is worthwhile, is it?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

"The Lord can give you much more than that"

Amaziah king of Judah hired a bunch of mercenaries, spending 100 talents of silver. Now a talent is a lot of metal -- something between 75 and 100 pounds. So we're talking 4-5 tons of silver he paid to hire these soldiers. Anyway, a man of God comes to Amaziah and tells him not to use the mercenaries because
"...God will overthrow you before the enemy, for God has the power to help or to overthrow."

Amaziah asked the man of God, "But what about the hundred talents I paid for these Israelite troops?"

The man of God replied, "The Lord can give you much more than that."

2 Chronicles 25.8-9
So I don't want to talk about military strategy here, or about being unequally yoked, but what struck me here is the phrase I quoted in the title of today's entry.

So I know a guy who gives generously to several Christian ministries. One day, he got a letter thanking him for his generous support, and naming a figure: $200,000. That's how much he had given to just one of these ministries.

When I heard that, my first thought was, "Golly, he could have paid off his house already (or bought another one)!"

Anyway, that's what came to mind when I read "The Lord can give you much more...."

The situation isn't parallel because Amaziah was wasting his money, whereas my friend (who seems to have the gift of giving, by the way) was donating to the work of God. But what is true in both cases is that our God owns "the cattle on a thousand hills," and silver and gold and diamonds in a thousand mines. And he is able to give much more than we donate or spend or waste.

Not that it's a good idea to spend foolishly, but ... well, you know what I mean.

formerly posted on wrong blog site.

Friday, July 28, 2006

A frightening epitaph

What will they say about you and me after we're dead and gone? I hope it's not what the chronicler wrote about Jehoram king of Judah:
He passed away, to no one's regret....
2 Chronicles 21.20
What did he do that was so bad? I mean, they didn't even bury him in the tombs of the kings, even though he was one. Let's see...
  • killed all of his brothers (21.4)
  • married a daughter of Ahab and did evil in the eyes of the Lord (21.6)
  • built places for idol worship (21.11)
There was also war with Edom (21.8) and Libnah, the Philistines and certain Arabs (21.16) -- and people tend to blame the current administration (rightly in this case) for wars.

You and I probably aren't killing our siblings. And most of us don't marry the daughter of the evil king of a neighboring country. But do we hang around people who lead us closer to God, or away from him? What do we talk about with our friends and colleagues? Do we identify with Christ, try to bless them and lead them toward Jesus? Or do we let them lead us away from Christ and toward useless pursuits?

And building shrines to false gods -- that's easier to do than it sounds. Shrines needn't be physical buildings, and worship needn't involve music or physically bowing down. What do my checkbook, my calendar, my closet, and my hard drive reflect about my priorities?

If we err in some of these things, it won't kill us or send us to hell, but some of these things are unhelpful; we may regret them later.

So what am I going to do today to promote peace with my siblings (or the lovely Carol's) and our neighbors? How can I bless and influence my friends and colleagues toward Jesus, rather than being led astray by them? What in my checkbook or calendar can or should be changed to better reflect the priorities I know I should have?

In other words, what am I going to do today to avoid Jehoram's end?

And in my heart of hearts, do I really believe it's worth all that?

"I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9.24)

posted 7/29

Thursday, July 27, 2006

No foul-up is final

Jeshophat king of Judah was Asa's son. I mentioned the other day that the chronicler never says "Asa resolved to inquire of the Lord." Well, that was Jehoshaphat who resolved to inquire of the Lord in 2 Chronicles chapter 20.

Here's something else that impresses me. Jehoshaphat allies himself with Ahab, the bad king of Israel, and almost gets killed in a battle over Ramoth Gilead. Look what happens when he gets rebuked by a prophet.
When Jehoshaphat king of Judah returned safely to his palace in Jerusalem, Jehu the seer, the son of Hanani, went out to meet him and said to the king, "Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, the wrath of the Lord is upon you. There is, however, some good in you, for you have rid the land of the Asherah poles and have set your heart on seeking God."

Jehoshaphat lived in Jerusalem, and he went out again among the people from Beersheba to the hill country of Ephraim and turned them back to the Lord, the God of their fathers.
2 Chronicles 19.1-4
He doesn't throw the prophet into prison or oppress anyone, but he turns his people back to the Lord.

Now this guy is a great example to follow. He resolves to inquire of the Lord. He leads his people in prayer and worship, and urges them to have faith in the Lord (2 Chronicles 20.18-20). And when he's rebuked by God through a prophet, Jehoshaphat takes it as the word of God, not as an insult from a mere man. He listened to God and kept on track, rather than going off the rails as his father did.

He finished well. May God help us to do so. And may we take the steps necessary to find out what God wants us to do and to become.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Confess and Believe

Here is a concise formulation of some good news.
But what does it say? "The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
Romans 10.8-10
The first thing that comes to me when I see this is, "What's the difference between being justified and being saved?"

With my degrees in math and engineering, here's what I think. I know just enough about these things to get myself into trouble, so please try not to laugh. Notice the symmetry in verses 9 and 10
if you confess with your mouth ...
and believe in your heart ...
you will be saved
For it is with your heart that you believe...
and it is with your mouth...
This symmetry isn't an accident. Paul, being a Jewish writer, uses this device (called chiasm or something like that) to let us know that the thing in the center is a key point -- just in case we didn't notice. Another implication is: this whole thing is a unit. That is, you don't create a Karnaugh map and try to fill it in like this:

not believe believe
not confess | not saved | saved maybe?? |
confess | saved maybe?? | saved for sure |

No, that's most certainly not what Paul has in mind.

Rather, he's saying that the process of being saved involves believing and confessing. How could you confess without believing? If you didn't believe, you wouldn't be confessing -- you'd be pretending or lying or something. And what is confession but an expression of what you actually believe?

True, the content is different -- you confess Jesus is Lord but what you believe is that God raised him from the dead. But it's mainly the words that differ. At the start of this letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that he was declared... to be the Son of God by his resurrection of the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1.4). These concepts, "raised from the dead" and "Lord" (and "Son of God) are inextricably bound together.

So what does Paul mean here by "saved"? I have an answer from Sunday School and church and books and sermons, but to see what the text says, I have to look at... well, at the text. I just started at this point and read backwards. Here's what I found.
  • attaining righteousness (9.30-10.2)
  • receiving mercy from God (9.23-24, 9.18)
  • being loved by God (9.13)
  • receiving the promise (9.8)
  • being chosen by God (8.33)
  • predestined to become like Jesus (8.29)
  • adopted as sons (male and female) and and heirs (8.15-17)
  • Spirit leads us (8.14)
  • Spirit lives in us and creates life in my spirit (8.11)
  • belong to Christ (8.9)
  • there is no condemnation (8.1)
There is lots more, including the free gift of God (that is, eternal life). I stopped going backwards when I got to the beginning of chapter 8.

I'd love to have "never struggle with sin" or "become perfect instantly" or "doubts vanish immediately" there, too, but I don't see 'em.

But I think this is still a pretty exciting list. Do you think so too? If it sounds interesting to you but you haven't "signed up" yet, why not do it now?

posted 7/27

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Finishing Poorly

In a recent sermon, we learned that over half of all Biblical "heroes" finished poorly. Asa king of Judah is in that majority.

The account of his 41-year reign in 2 Chronicles (about 3 times as long as the summary in 1 Kings 15.9-24) gives us some major events in Asa's spiritual journey.

He starts well: Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. (2 Chronicles 14.2). Judah is attacked by a vast army, and when he sees it,
Asa called to the Lord his God and said, "Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you."
2 Chronicles 14.11

The Lord provided a great victory, and sent a prophet to Asa with a word of encouragement. Asa held a celebration and led a revival in the 15th year (2 Chronicles 15.10) of his reign.

But some 20 years later, when Judah is besieged by Baasha king of (the 10 northern tribes of) Israel, he calls on Ben-Hadad king of the Arameans, rather than calling on the Lord. This time, when a prophet is sent to Asa, he has a word of rebuke rather than encouragement:
For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strenghtn those whose hearts are fully his. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war."
2 Chronicles 16.9
Asa throws the seer into prison for his trouble. Oh, and Asa brutally oppressed some of the people. (2 Chronicles 16.10)

What happened during those 20 years between the first prophetic word sent to Asa in his 15th year (your work will be rewarded - 2 Chronicles 15.7) and the second in his 36th year (You have done a foolish thing)? The text doesn't say explicitly, but I think I know the answer.

Software guys call it "bit rot" or maybe just "rot." Real engineers would probably call it "running open-loop." In any case, things change and errors accumulate. Here's an example. Suppose I write a program and get it to run on a bunch of operating systems -- Linux, FreeBSD, Windows, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX. Five years later, what's the chance it'll still run on all those operating systems? It's not real high, because all those operating systems change over time.

If I change the program's source code and don't test it against all those operating systems periodically, you can be pretty sure I'll break some sort of compatibility, so the chance of its working on those half-dozen operating systems drops down to just about nil.

Or, for a less technical example, suppose I take off from San Jose and point my airplane at New York. I can have a perfect plan, but if I don't check my position en route, what's the chance I'll actually get to New York? Just about zero!

In the same vein, what I think happened here is that Asa set his course but didn't check his directions -- he didn't check out his decisions. You notice that in 2 Chronicles 15.2 the prophet "went out to meet Asa" and in 2 Chronicles 16.7 the seer "came to Asa king of Judah." Never do we read that Asa "resolved to inquire of the Lord" for example (compare Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20.3).

Asa started well, ran open-loop, and finished poorly. How about you and me? Do we just decide and hope God blesses us? Or do we seek guidance from the Lord through prayer, solitude, the Scriptures, the counsel of wise friends? This doesn't mean praying about which socks to wear, or trying to get someone else to decide for me. But it does mean recognizing that I don't have a corner on insights from God.

May the Lord help us remember to seek him!

posted 7/27

Monday, July 24, 2006

More than Conquerors!

Sounds good, doesn't it? But take a look at the context:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Romans 8.35-37
There are at least two ways to interpret this passage:
  1. Maybe it's saying that because Christ loves us (or because we love him?) we won't ever face trouble, persecution, etc. (Yeah right).
  2. It could mean that when trouble, persecution, etc. come, they will not be able to change Christ's love toward us.
The structure of the sentence (it says, in all these things we are more than conquerors - in other words, in the midst of persecution, trouble, etc. we are more than conquerors), plus the book of Acts, shows #1 is impossible.

So if those things don't separate us from Jesus's love, how does that make us "more than conquerors"? I think Paul had a completely different view of life than most of us do. I can tell this because of what he wrote a few verses back:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8.28-29
When Paul says that God works for our good, he doesn't say anything about career or health or relationships. Nothing about safety or comfort either.
So we could be getting persecuted or killed, and still be "more than conquerors" if we are becoming more like Jesus in the midst of it. Imagine if you're about to be killed and yet you can pronounce a benediction on your persecutors/assassins/executioners. Wow, that would be power. That would be more than a conqueror.
Instead, Paul seems to think that my good means "being conformed to the likeness of his Son" -- that is to say, the best thing for me is in fact to become like Jesus. This is a view of life that I want to have -- to value everything in my life from that point of view.

Ah, but do I want it badly enough? Dear God, please help me to want what's good, rather than what's merely comfortable or comforting.

posted 7/27

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Do you have the Spirit?

I've misunderstood this reading in the past, so I thought I'd tell you about it. Here's the verse: And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (Romans 8.9).

So now, suppose someone becomes a Christian. She believes in Jesus Christ the son of God, so, as John 3.16 tells us, she will not perish, but will have eternal life. The question is: Does she need anything else? Does she need a second experience of some kind so that she can receive the Spirit? This verse says no; if she doesn't have the Spirit of Christ she doesn't belong to him, so the contrapositive must also be true: If she does belong to Christ, then she must also have the Spirit of Christ.

So where did I go wrong in my interpretation? The above is true as far as it goes, but where I went wrong was in ignoring some other verses (and some other verbs) relating to the Spirit. For example, Ephesians chapter 4 tells us not to quench the Spirit (or "do not put out the Spirit's fire" as the NIV puts it), and in chapter 5 we have a command to "be filled with the Spirit." So apparently it's possible to have the Spirit while putting out his fire, or without being filled with him.

But the verse above really does mean something; what is that?

As you know by now, my favorite trick is to look upward in the text. That is, to look around the text and see the context. "Context is king," as we heard at a conference in 1998.
The speaker was Dr. Egelkraut, a "retired" missionary from Germany. One day, in the morning message, he encouraged us to take naps. That evening, he asked for a show of hands. "Wasn't that good?" he asked. Of course we agreed it was. "Sleep is a good gift of God," he told us. "And if that good gift of God comes to you while I am speaking, then go ahead! Close your eyes and lean your head back. Nobody will know except me, and I will never tell anyone." What a great guy! He knew we had all heard more sermons than we could ever remember, and he had no illusions about the importance of what he was going to say. Whatever else he preached to us about, what I remember the most about him was his humility and his sense of humor.

He told us about the wife of one of his seminary students, who had come to him for some advice. She and her husband had been trying to have a baby, but something wasn't working. Dr. Egelkraut had heard about a clinic in town that specialized in this sort of thing, so he told her about the clinic and thought nothing more of it. Some months later, he was having lunch with some other seminary profs when this young wife came up to him. "Great news!" she said. "I'm pregnant! And it's all thanks to you!" This required some explanation....
Now where was I? Oh, right, the Spirit of Christ. The passage was talking about the promise that God will rescue us from "the body of this death" (7.24-25) and so, because of that rescue, there is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ" (8.1) because we have the Spirit in us so that we can live "according to the Spirit" (8.4,8.6) as the NASB puts it. Because if we are controlled by the flesh (the NIV says "sinful nature") it's impossible to please God (8.8) but because we belong to Christ, we have his Spirit and, this verse says, live according to the Spirit (the NIV says "controlled by the Spirit.")

Here are verses 8 and 9:

Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.
Romans 8.8-9
It's an assurance, in other words. A word of encouragement. You can live by the Spirit. Take a look at this piece of good news and tell me it's not exciting:
[I]f the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Romans 8.11
Power is available for you and me to walk with God. We can do it because his Spirit lives in us. Does it mean we'll never stumble? Uh, probably not. But it means we have power to get up and take another step forward. It means no failure is final. It means that we have an eternal home and acceptance with God, that we can have a meaningful life, a life that pleases God, no matter what the current circumstances look like.

And that sounds like good news to me.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A prophetic prayer

Here is a really interesting prayer by Solomon, spoken at the dedication of the temple
"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 a land far away or near; 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 captivity and say, 'We have sinned, we have done wrong and acted wickedly'; and if they turn back to you with all their heart and soul in the land of their captivity where they were taken, and pray toward the land you gave their fathers, toward the city you have chosen and toward the temple I have built for your Name; then from heaven, your dwelling place, hear their prayer and their pleas, and uphold their cause. And forgive your people, who have sinned against you.
2 Chronicles 6.36-39
I find this remarkable. Solomon foresaw the captivity that was hundreds of years in the future, and Daniel, reading this passage, prayed this prayer during the exile in Babylon (Daniel chapter 9).

So what does this mean for us today? I don't want to say that the Babylonian exile foreshadows some event for the United States, but let's consider this. The Israelites were led to the Promised Land; they sinned; they (2 tribes out of 12 anyway) went into exile in Babylon. The founders of our country were led (they would say) to North America, and then what? What sins did
the children of Israel commit that we haven't? Is there not a widening gap between rich and poor in our country? Have we not undertaken military adventures and killed thousands of innocent civilians? Do we not ignore the living God and pursue false gods (including, but not limited to, money, fame, and accomplishment)?

And what might that say about some future captivity for us?

Or, if we don't today consider the Promised Land to be a physical place, perhaps we could consider "captivity" as metaphor of a personal period of depression or futility, which I think we all get to sooner or later. And in that depressed, futile "place" we could consider that prayer of confession: "Lord, I have sinned, I have done wrong and acted wickedly," and we could turn back to God, not to dictate terms to him, but in true surrender.

Because whether physical or metaphysical, the "Promised Land" doesn't seem to be a long-term earthly condition; our plans doesn't always work out the way we would like. Some were stoned, some were sawed in two, some were killed by swords. (Hebrews 11.27)

But what we can be confident of is this: that God will accomplish his purpose. He will make us better people than we are today, if we are willing.

posted 2006-07-23, revised 2007-08-25 with suggestions from the lovely Carol

Friday, July 21, 2006

Killed by Christ??

What does it mean, to be killed by Christ? Isn't the New Testament all about being made alive by Christ? Well, mostly. But here is a passage where Paul draws an analogy to the marriage contract, which loses force when either party dies. We pick up the argument here:

So then, if she [a married woman] marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man. So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.
Romans 7.3-4
There it is - according to Paul, we have "died to the law." For some years I just sort of read this passage over without noticing the missing step in the analogy.

But then Juan Carlos Ortiz gave a message - probably at a conference though I don't remember for sure - that supplied it. Here it is. If a woman is married to a man, she can be released from him in two ways: He can die, or she can die. Paul isn't saying here that the law died; it says "you also died to the law...." Pastor Ortiz said that in effect "I was married to the law" before he met Christ. To be set free from that, he said, "He (Christ) killed me." Whoa, can that really be? Well, it does say "you also died ... that you might belong to another."

Paul talks a lot about being dead to sin and alive to God, but before hearing that message, it had never occurred to me to think of it in terms of Christ killing me -- or maybe, killing that part of me that was ruled by sin.

The concept doesn't sound complicated, but I can't say that I have it fully integrated into my life, either.

Killed by Christ "that you might belong to another, to him who was raised by the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God" -- that the result of our lives might please our maker. Now that's good news.

posted 7/23

Thursday, July 20, 2006

But the free gift of God is eternal life!

Right at the end of Romans chapter six is this verse: For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I'd bet there are millions of references to "the wages of sin" out there on the web, and not nearly as many to "but the [free] gift of God is eternal life." Certainly I learned to recognize the phrase "the wages of sin" long before I knew what the rest of the verse said. I believe there's a conspiracy (I am serious here) to make God out to be an ogre. This conspiracy began in the Garden of Eden where the serpent asked Eve, "Did God say...?" And I think millions have bought into that conspiracy, which is why theology seems to be a dirty word these days.

But the more important question is this: What does it mean, this word "For" at the beginning of the verse? To find out, let's look at the preceding text. Paul says that before we came to know Christ, we were... hold on, I'll just put the whole paragraph here.
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 6.20-23

In other words, the "for" is there because he was just reiterating what came before, a contrast between two possible worlds. On one hand, there's a lifestyle of sin (slavery to sin, actually), free from the control of righteousness. Now remember that "righteousness" doesn't mean walking around in robes, etc. It just means "being who we're supposed to be." Meeting the spec, in other words. So slavery to sin, free from any guidelines, is a lifestyle leading to crash and burn.

In contrast to this idea of being sin's slave, free from righteousness, is the idea of being a slave of righteousness, free from sin (there doesn't seem to be any middle ground). But this isn't symmetrical. Slavery to sin involves a wage, a just payment, whereas eternal life is a free gift from God. This isn't some kind of contract like we see in many other religions, where you do something for the gods, and the gods do something for you. (In the New American Standard Bible, which is the version I memorized this verse in, it says, "but the free gift of God is....")

This is one of those foundational truths of the faith that, when I think about it, I still find astonishing. How could all this be?

The mercy and grace of God, to die for sinners (while we were still his enemies, insulting and spitting upon him) and give us the free gift of eternal life -- it's beyond human imagination. Which is a proof that this system must have come from God. No human could have come up with these ideas. More on that another time.

posted 7/23

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

good news from a psalm?

It was probably over 20 years ago that I memorized this
psalm in its entirety:
Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle?
Or who shall dwell in thy holy hill?
He that walketh uprightly and worketh righteousness
and speaketh the truth in his heart,
he that backbiteth not with his tongue
nor doeth evil to his neighbor
nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor,
in whose eyes a vile person is contemned
but he honoureth them that fear the Lord;
he that putteth not out his money to usury
nor taketh a reward against the innocent.
He that doeth these things shall not be moved.
Psalm 15
Probably I got a couple of words wrong here and there, but that's the idea.

So what is this psalm about? On one level, it's talking about the requirements for residence in the temple, to minister before the altar -- and in that sense it's not very useful today because the temple is no longer there. But it also gives a picture of some things that please the Lord. Let's have a look.
  • walk uprightly
    In the NIV it says "blameless," which does not mean "never ever stumbles"; it means, rather, that when he stumbles (sins, errs, whatever), he makes restitution where possible, he confesses, he repents. When he falls, in other words, he picks himself up rather than wallowing in it. He fears God and turns away from evil (like Job did).
  • speaks the truth in his heart
    He is not cagey, but that doesn't mean he must show wide-eyed naiveté either.
  • refrains from gossip and malice
    Malice isn't too hard, but gossip is tough.
  • despises the vile
    which doesn't mean that one has to plot mischief against an evil person, but rather that I don't admire them.
  • usury and bribes
    Basically there's a temptation to do evil (exploit the poor) to gain money

Is that a tough list? For me at least, it's harder than it looks. Sometimes it's tempting to admire the rich and famous, even if they got that way by exploiting others. Sometimes, when I hear something astonishing, I pass it on before I know what I'm doing. Sometimes I know what I'm doing and say it anyway - alas.

So what's the good news here?

Among the good things God can do, one great good thing is that he can change me, if I'm willing, to become more and more like the picture painted in this psalm. And isn't that good news? Amen!

posted 7/23

"Theology" is not a dirty word

I was caught unawares. "Joe decided to study theology of all things, and I didn't want anything to do with him after that" -- or something like that. What I maybe should have said was, "Why is it so bad to want to study about how much God loves us?" Because -- and it's going to sound trite, but here goes -- the depth of God's love really is astonishing. It's one of those things that surprises me whenever I think about it. And I don't think about it enough. Here's one passage that illustrates what I'm talking about:
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5.6-8
Now the first time I read that, I had no idea what he was talking about. What's the difference between "righteous" and "good" anyway?

Well, although it's been a quarter century or so since I studied this passage, the key distinction stuck with me. The word translated "righteous" just means "something is what it's supposed to be." In other words, it meets its spec. It meets the implied warranty of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose. A measuring cup that holds the amount indicated is fit for its purpose. It's a righteous cup.

In this context, somebody who doesn't rob banks or run stop signs is a righteous person.

The word translated "good" didn't stick with me, probably because nothing in its definition surprised me. But Mother Teresa was a good person. Someone like Norman Borlaug, who saved more human lives than anyone in history, might be a good person.

So, would you die to save Mother Teresa's life? Maybe, maybe not.

Would you die to save Bob, whose claim to fame is that he never robbed a bank and never ran a stop sign? Almost certainly not.

Would you die to save Dahmer, the cannibal serial killer?

What kind of love, how great a love, would it take to die for someone like that?

It's unimaginable. That's what Paul is talking about.

posted 7/20

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Now that's inclusive

It's a great comfort to me that the Bible does not describe an exclusive club, but an inclusive invitation to a life with God. Even when it appears to be exclusive, it's not really. A couple of weeks ago, the sermon about "Ruth the Moabitess" mentioned the place in Deuteronomy that says "No Ammonite or Moabite or any of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord, even down to the tenth generation" (Deuteronomy 23.3). But Ruth the Moabitess bore Obed, the grandfather of King David.

And so in today's reading from Romans chapter 4. Here's a surprise, which still surprises me when I see it.
However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.
Romans 4.5
I can hardly believe this even though I'm sure I've read it a hundred times. Who does God justify -- who does God make right (or "make righteous")? "...God who justifies the wicked..." - God takes the wicked and makes them right. It doesn't say "... God who justifies those who try hard" or "who justifies those who are half-way there" or "justifies the nice people." Not just the imperfect, the wicked. Yow!

Then there's the issue of race and religious practices:
Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham's offspring -- not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. As it is written: "I have made you a father of many nations."
Romans 4.16-17
(By the way, "nations" here means non-Jewish nations.)

So the Bible's invitation is
  • for all nations, not just for one race
  • for people who don't practice religious rituals, not just for those who go to church (etc)
  • for the wicked, not just for "good" people.
In fact, as Lewis says, a self-righteous non-smoking church-going prig may be much nearer hell than your garden-variety "sinner."

I have one more thing to say about this passage. Have you ever heard someone say that God was different in the Old Testament than in the New? One theory says that God was concerned about the Jews in the Old Testament, and he widened that in the New Testament. Not so: it was back in Genesis that God told Abraham he'd be the father of many nations. Way back then, he was thinking of people outside his "chosen" race.

People like me. I'll tell you what -- it makes me feel pretty special. I hope it makes you feel special too, whether you're a Gentile or not. (And if you're not, take a look at Romans 3 where Paul talks about the advantages you have.)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Department of Music

My list of exciting Bible passages doesn't include a lot from 1 Chronicles, but every once in a while something interesting appears there. Here's one from chapter 25:
David, together with the comanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres, and cymbals.
[list elided]

All these men were under the supervision of their fathers for the music of the temple of the Lord, with cymbals, lyres and harps, for the ministry of the house of God. Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman were under the supervision of the king.

1 Chronicles 25.1,6-7
Now what, you may be thinking, does he think is so interesting about that?

You mean you don't see it?

Picture a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but besides the Army, Navy, Air Force, etc., there's also the Secretary of Music. Whoa. The king and the army commander picked these guys out to prophesy and to... play music? Wha...?

A couple of summers back, during the preparation for a Mienh Youth Camp, one of our speakers talked about spiritual forces. You know, the kind that most North Americans don't believe in. There are a lot of ways to fight these bad spiritual forces, but music -- songs of worship and praise -- constitute one very important means. This is something that King David had figured out (he did write a lot of songs) better than a lot of kings (presidents, chiefs, etc.) did. And certainly a lot better than most Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

And how about you and me? Praise is an important part of my prayer life, because if I don't remember that God is the creator and provider and protector, if I forget that he's all-powerful and all-knowing and filled with mercy and compassion, then I can really easily get into a downward spiral, especially if I look at the news.

But music -- that's not as big a part of my life with the Lord as perhaps it should be...

posted 7/18

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The wicked strut about on every side...

It was closer to 25 than 20 years ago when I moved in with a Navigator staff couple. (For those who don't know, the Navigators is a Christian organization, though you'd never guess it from the name. You might from the slogan though -- "to know Christ and make him known.") I learned a lot of things living with them, and today's reading, from Psalm 12, reminds me of one of them.

I don't remember what the question was, something about bringing the Bible into a conversation maybe, but I remember the gist of Jon's answer.
I'm not a big proponent of "The Bible says," but someone was talking to me about crime rates and corruption, and I said that was interesting because The Bible says
The wicked strut about on every side
when vileness is exalted among the sons of men
Psalm 12.8
I mentioned that the popular culture (including movie stars and popular magazines) seemed to glorify an irresponsible lifestyle, so we shouldn't be too surprised when crime and corruption increase too.
OK, I didn't get exactly what he said there, but I got the verse right. The point being that many people, Christian or not, can see that popular culture is corrupt (as Jim Wallis notes in God's Politics, you don't have to be either a left- or a right-winger to agree that parenting is a counter-cultural activity), and that the Bible comments that wickedness -- violence, exploitation, corruption -- will increase when a culture celebrates vileness -- drunkenness, adultery, perjury, gossip.

Today's culture rightly abhors the former, but it winks at -- heck, it celebrates -- the latter, and the Bible adds this to the discussion:

That won't work.

We want God (or our parents) to leave us alone one moment, and in the next moment to protect us. And we hate it that those desires aren't consistent.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Mercy, not revenge, is a key to awesome power

In his short story "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe paints a picture of icy revenge: Fortunato insults Montressor (the narrator), who seals him alive in a cellar wall. Montressor wants us to believe the homicide justified, and to admire his cleverness. He closes the story with the wish that Fortunato rest in peace.

Today's reading from the Proverbs stands in stark contrast:
A man's wisdom gives him patience;
it is to his glory to overlook an offense.
Proverbs 19.11
The Bible has a lot of passages like this, probably because we need a lot of reminders (OK, a lot of correction) on this point -- at least I do.

To me, it is often easier to just avoid someone, if I don't have to see him or her regularly, than to try to work things out. I can be polite to people I've felt hurt by, sometimes even pleasant; I can wish them well. But I don't necessarily want to be around them -- probably because, if I've felt betrayed by them in the past, and if I don't sense repentance, then I don't want to trust 'em any farther than I can throw 'em. Is that overlooking the offense? Only partly, I guess.

For example, there's someone who has bitten off my wife's head a few times. This doesn't happen very often, usually. But every several years, this person seems to just get a burr somewhere, and starts saying mean and hateful things to the lovely Carol. (Whether I'm there in person -- which I've tried not to be after I witnessed it once -- or I just hear about it afterwards, I get a big stomach-ache.) After a while it stops and there is a period of relative peace. My reaction is, "Why even talk to this person?" Which I don't.

But the lovely Carol insists on wanting reconciliation with this person. She can't insist on reconciliation itself (the other would have to cooperate), but she insists on wanting reconciliation. This is but one reason that one teen said, "Mom, you're awesome." She also called Carol "high-powered."

Right on both counts.

How did it ever happen that I ended up with this awesome, high-powered woman? I sure don't know. I suppose it'll be heaven where I learn the answer.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Does eternal life come from doing good?

Good evangelicals "know" that the answer to that question is "No." We are saved by grace alone by faith alone through Christ alone, right? Of course right!

But somebody had better tell the Apostle Paul about it, because he writes:
To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
Romans 2.7-11
So what's the deal? Both the Old Testament and the New Testament have words like that. How can we reconcile that with other passages, even other passages by Paul -- yes, even other passages in this same letter to the Romans, that talk about faith alone?

Well, as the great theologian Topol (playing Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof) said, "I'll tell you. I don't know."

The time-honored answer to this conundrum is, well, it's them as have faith, them's the ones as do good with perseverance. Yeah, that's a nice theory, but think Gandhi to see why I still say, "I don't know."

Some friends of a different faith asked me if there's a bigger reward for those who do good on this earth -- particularly for those who tell others about Jesus. I think they were trying to decide if I was telling them about Jesus in order to get a better reward in the bye and bye.

Was I using them, in other words.

Well, I hope not! I was talking to them about these issues because of my affection and concern for them. But since they asked, I had to tell them about this passage.

Here's something else, though. When I think about people who have never heard a credible testimony about Jesus, this passage gives me hope.

Because a few weeks ago, an international friend asked me about the eternal destiny of his countrymen, 98% of whom do not believe in Jesus. I gave him, not only the quote from Fiddler on the Roof, but also the last verse I quoted above: For God does not show favoritism. In another version, that verse is translated, For there is no partiality with God.

Because what we're asking when we ask about all those who haven't heard, or at least what I'm asking, is this: "Is God fair, really?" And although Paul's explanations of exactly what happens to whom don't seem
completely clear to me, Paul is crystal clear on the point that God is absolutely fair. The entire Bible is crystal clear on this point, now that I think of it.

And that's good news.

posted 7/15

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Freedom's just another word for "nothing left to lose"

So let me just start right off with this cheery verse from Romans chapter 1:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness
Romans 1.18
(By the way, this doesn't mean "men are evil but women are OK"; the word translated "men" includes both male and female.) Then he tells us why we're "without excuse," and finally he describes what "the wrath of God" means.

Are you ready?

He lets us do whatever we want. The phrase "God gave them over" appears three times, as God lets them be ruled by:
  • sexual impurity (1.24)
  • shameful lusts (1.26-27)
  • a depraved mind (1.28)
That's an interesting way of revealing wrath - by just letting them do what they want. The word "abandon" comes to mind here.

So one of my weaknesses is that I give up on people more quickly than I probably ought to. Not that it's a sure thing that someone will stop destroying himself if I badger him to death, but that I ought to try harder. I should believe, as Pastor Rob says, that I am God's special child, and that his purpose for me might be in this particular situation. Or as Pastor John (and the book of Esther) says, I might be here now "for such a time as this." It's easier to just sit back and let them go -- but probably not what God wants me to do.

Last night, I was telling my teen-agers about that phrase "God gave them over," when it suddenly struck me that in the proverbs, it says
Where this no revelation, the people cast off restraint
but he who keeps the law, blessed is he.
Proverbs 29.18
This verse is sometimes quoted (in management books) as "without a vision, the people perish" -- meaning that you have to set a direction, you have to cast a vision, otherwise the enterprise will go to pot.

That's probably true, but the verse is talking about a vision from God -- not just some vision that a manager might cast to inspire the troops. And "perish" actually means to run wild. They do what they want, not what they should.

So where am I going with this? The wrath of God comes, not in pronouncing judgment, but by withholding guidance. And what feels good to us (freedom) may be our undoing.

(posted 7/14)

What kind of gift is this, anyway?

Some years ago, a mentor and friend used a couple of verses from Romans 1 as a Bible study exercise. I don't remember the exact interpretation or what all the principles are, but when I came across the passage in today's reading I remember struggling to understand it:
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong -- that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.
Romans 1.11-12
Now usually when the phrase "spiritual gift" comes up in the church, people are talking about teaching or giving or healing. Or tongues (my least favorite). But what's going on in this passage?

OK, so I guess I do remember one of the principles of Bible study from that exercise, which was to test possible interpretations against the text. For example, if we think the passage means:
While you and I are mutually encouraged by each other's faith, the appropriate gift will become evident. Then I'll put my hands on your shoulders and pray for you and thus impart the gift to you.
then we'd better see if the words could be interpreted that way. If the words can be interpreted that way, it doesn't mean we're right, but if they cannot be interpreted that way, our interpretation is definitely wrong.

Well, after a quick look back, I'm pretty sure that interpretation is wrong. It's wrong because "that is, that" doesn't mean "during the process in which" (or "after..." or "as a result of..." or "facilitated by...").

What's far more likely is that the text means what it says, in other words, that "impart some spiritual gift" here equals "mutually encouraged by each other's faith". What does that mean to you or me? I think it means that wherever you go, if your faith encourages others and their faith encourages you, you are giving them a gift that strengthens them. It's a gift that's spiritual, thus a spiritual gift, though not a Spiritual Gift in the way some people use the term.

I mean, you and I aren't the apostle Paul, but, you are sent to whoever you're sent to, which I suppose makes you an apostle. And me too. Yow!

I was just listening to a sermon by our Kobe pastor Rob Flaherty. It's the sermon from this past Sunday, July 9th, where he talked about the anointing of the Spirit. One thing we must do to experience the Holy Spirit's power working in us, he said, is to believe that God wants to use me, that God can use me, to bring blessing into whatever situation I'm in. Which I think goes nicely with today's reading.

So, my fellowship can be a gift. And yours can be a gift to me, too.

Does that make you feel powerful and important? It should. In a good way, I mean.

posted 7/13

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Disguised blessing

What a grouch! Rather than calling my parents or their landlady, this neighbor called the cops because my mom's car was a little too close to his driveway. The cops ticketed her car and called the tow truck.

The landlady saw the tow truck and called my mom. It's an uphill jog from my parent's apartment to the street, so Mom was a little out of breath when she talked with the tow-truck driver. "Wait! I'll move it!" she said.

"Once it's hooked up, I need $50."

Mom ran downhill to their apartment, got the money, ran back uphill, paid the driver, moved her car (about 18 inches??) and returned to the apartment. Whew!

But there was a little ache in her upper back -- not her chest. It went away after a minute and a glass of cold water. A week later, at a regular checkup, she mentioned this to her internist, who ordered a stress echo test. They didn't like that. One thing followed another, and pretty soon she's having quadruple-bypass surgery.

We understand from the cardiologist that if they just waited, there would likely be a massive heart attack at some point in the future, and most likely would not have been able to save her. So we are all very glad right now that this neighbor was such a grouch.

Oh, and Mom is recovering nicely. Praise God for grouchy neighbors and for alert and skillful doctors!

Cruel theology and What planet are you from?

When misfortune strikes, why is our first impulse to blame (or arrest?) the victim? It's there in Job (perhaps the oldest book in the Bible) and it's in Acts chapter 28:
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, "This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live." But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.
Acts 28.1-5
So what's that about? Here's my take. When I see someone in a tough situation, one of the things I feel is fear. Not fear as in "contagious" but fear as in "that could have been me." If I've been listening well to God, I will also feel compassion and act upon it. But there's a part of me (would "reptilian brain" be apt here?) that wants to believe that this or that disaster can't happen to me.

Like when I hear about someone getting mugged at 4am while walking down a dark alley, there's a part of me that (perhaps rationally) says, "I'm glad I stay out of dark alleys at 4am". Or when I hear about New Orleans and the disastrous flooding there, a part of me says, "It's dumb to live in a place subject to natural disasters." (Do I mean like earthquakes? D'oh!)

Yeah, it's good to be prudent but it's just dumb to think I can avoid every unpleasant thing. Sometimes an illness strikes suddenly - I know two couples where a partner was suddenly lost to a brain tumor. I knew another young woman who collapsed suddenly one day and was gone just like that. These things happened with no warning signs.

And it's... well, it's cruel to explain all misfortune in terms of the victim's character. It's also just plain wrong (think Job and Paul).

I'd love to give you a 3-point plan to avoid this -- in fact I think I'll make one up right now.
  1. Admit that life is really not under my control -- that I'm ultimately helpless
  2. Confess that I have a tendency to blame the victim, like these Maltese islanders did.
  3. Trust my future to God in two ways:
    • Believe he will take care of me until it's my time
    • Believe he can help me to think correctly, and to cause my compassion to overcome my fear.
Oh, and here is another angle to this whole "blame the victim" mentality. When something good happens, people sometimes appear to be taking credit for it. I told a friend about finding a job at NetApp and particularly about my sense that God blessed me, he thought I was saying "God blessed me because I'm so good or because I did X" whereas my feeling was more "Lots of good people are struggling to find something, God blessed me inexplicably, and that confuses me." Eventually I succeeded in conveying this, and he felt better about being my friend.

But apparently I experienced only a mild case of "when cultures collide". Look at what the Maltese islanders do next:
The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead, but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
Acts 28.6
Now there's a misunderstanding! I guess the message here is that people sometimes think so differently that you'd think they came from different planets. Or different universes!

Is that why we have to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves?

Monday, July 10, 2006

"Men, you should have taken my advice..."

In yesterday's reading, the apostle Paul gave some navigational advice. Unlike the time Jesus told his disciples "Let us go to the other side," Paul's advice was not to go anywhere, lest cargo and lives be lost. Also unlike Jesus, Paul was ignored from the start (instead of in the middle). Perhaps you remember the story from Mark 4: Jesus says, "Let's go to the other side," and then he takes a nap. The disciples start rowing or sailing or whatever, and a storm hits the boat, which fills with water. They wake Jesus up, saying "Rabbi, don't you care that we're about to die?"

They had forgotten, at this point, the words of Jesus. He didn't say "Let's go half-way across the lake and all drown." He said "Let's go to the other side."

Anyway, at least these guys listened to Jesus in the beginning. Anyway, in the present passage (from Acts 27) we see an "I told you so" from nearly 2,000 years ago:
After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said, "Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.' So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me.
Acts 27.21-25
This guy is really something. In the midst of disaster, he gives them what the lovely Carol and I are calling a pre-evangelistic message. That is, he doesn't say "Repent and believe in the gospel", but he introduces the God whose I am and whom I serve.

This is the kind of thing I want to do more of. When something happens -- or even when nothing happens -- I want to exude the aroma of Christ. Of course in my character but also in my words. Not too little and not too much (as a former manager used to say, "the Goldilocks theory").

Oh, and why does Paul say, "Men, you should have..."? I didn't mention this in yesterday's essay, but Luke tells us that ...the majority decided that we should sail on... (Acts 27.12) In other words, it wasn't just the centurion deciding for the rest of them, but the majority.

Yet, can you really blame them? Everybody likes to see the job finished. So let's just do it, then we can go home with our pockets full, right? And who is this guy telling us not to go, some experienced navigator? Ummm, no, he's a prisoner with experience in two foreign religions.

And God had mercy on them: as the ship broke apart, some swam and some clung to planks or pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety. (Acts 27.44)

Which shows us again that we have a merciful God. And that's a good word too.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Despite the power of the tongue...

... it doesn't always work. Once, the apostle Paul gave navigational advice and was not heeded:
Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous.... So Paul warned them, "Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also." but the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.

...Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the "northeaster," swept down from the island. ...

We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.

Acts 27.9-11,14,18-20
I guess Luke gives us these details so we'll see how the Lord is willing to guide if we will but listen.

I'm certainly not enough of an expert to know whether the pilot and the owner of the ship were being reasonable and were just caught by a freak storm -- oh, but wait, this hurricane-force wind has a name, the "northeaster," so maybe it wasn't a freak storm -- or were just trying to make a few more bucks from all these passengers. Paul's opinion wasn't popular, but that didn't make it wrong.

A few years ago, there was some discussion in the Congress about forces needed in Iraq. Now I don't know if General Shinseki (USA Ret.) is a Christian or not, but he also had some advice which wasn't heeded. He
told them we'd need several hundred thousand troops on the ground to keep the peace in postwar Iraq. This was an unpopular opinion, but that didn't make it wrong.

Powerful people making bad decisions -- it has ever been thus.
So what do we do? Who was it that said
You can do more than pray after you pray, but until you pray, the most important thing you can do is to pray
? I'm sure I don't have the quote right, but you get the idea.

You and I need to pray for the leaders in our cities, our states, our country... in our world. We need to do whatever else we need to do, too, but we definitely need to pray.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The power of words; finding and living with a spouse

Today's reading is from the book of the Proverbs.

Death and life are in the power of the tongue
And those who love it will eat its fruit.
He who finds a wife finds a good thing
And receives favor from the Lord
Proverbs 18.21-22
I'm not sure if the author had something in mind in putting these two together, but this juxtaposition seems just too juicy to be an accident.

So, the first one talks about the astonishing power of words. The Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth by speaking. We humans, made in the image of God, have power in our mouths to kill and to give life. But what does it mean, "those who love it will eat its fruit"? Here's my take.

Here, "it" means the power of the tongue. The "fruit" are the results -- the power of death and life. If I love to build others up with my words, I will reap the consequences of that. If I love to tear others down with my words, I'll get those results too.

Which I take to be both a promise and a warning.

And finding a wife -- now there's a result of the power of words. This point was a major assumption of E.B. White's memorable The Trumpet of the Swan. Louis the swan was mute, and his father, the old cob, was worried about him: How could Louis find a wife, he wondered, without the power of words to woo her?

And it doesn't stop with finding a wife; when husband and wife live together, the fruit of the power of words... comes all the time, as the lovely Carol shows in this entry in her blog

And that brings something concrete to the abstract concept...

Update 7/9:
Just before 18.21 comes this:
From the fruit of his mouth a man's stomach is filled;
with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied.
Proverbs 18.20
which drives home the power of words. Our words can bring us sustenance or starvation... and then the next verse talks about death and life itself in the power of the tongue.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The Prayer of Solomon (NOT a famous book by Wilkinson)

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain."

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request.

1 Chronicles 4.9-10
A few years ago, I was sure I was the last person in America to hear about Bruce Wilkinson's book which expanded on the above verses. A guy sitting next to me on an airplane, someone I had never met, had a copy of the book. Someone at church gave me a copy. I can't say I was very impressed.

Take a look at this guy's prayer: "Give me more land, and I don't like getting hurt." Heck, even I could pray that. Al Capone could have prayed that! Well, that's an exaggeration; Al didn't ask God for more territory; he just took it.

But my point here is that this prayer isn't all that great an example. (I wonder what his brothers were like?) It's not, to my mind, a very impressive prayer.

Yet here's something to be impressed about: God granted his request!

God doesn't require us to be totally altruistic, or to have perfectly clean motives. He works with us where we are, at whatever stage of immaturity he finds us.

Some decades ago, someone told me that God is often pleased with us but never satisfied. He was pleased with Jabez, but not satisfied. He granted Jabez's request -- I suppose because Jabez had faith; Jabez believed that God was, and is, a rewarder of those who seek him.

And in that he's a great example. So I thank God that my mother made it through her heart surgery just fine, and ask him to please let her live quite a few more years. He is the only one who makes us dwell in safety.

UPDATE 7/9: I forgot to make the contents match the title....

Solomon had a dream. The Lord appeared to him and told him to ask for whatever he wanted. Solomon asked for wisdom, and this pleased the Lord. Now somebody told me once that what Solomon should have asked for was a heart that was fully dedicated to the Lord, like that of his father.

Looking at Solomon's life (he also finished poorly) from 3000 years later, we can see that this -- a heart fully dedicated to the Lord -- would have saved him from finishing poorly. And yet the Lord was pleased with his request for wisdom. He was pleased, but not satisfied.

posted 7/8

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Peace and Safety

What keeps you awake at night? If the lovely Carol is not in bed with me - if she's traveling or something - that will do it. For some reason I just have a really hard time sleeping when she's not around. Yesterday my mom went in for unexpectedly urgent (not to say "emergency") heart surgery. Though I know the verse that says "Don't be anxious about anything" -- well, that's easier said than followed.

But this verse from yesterday's reading came to mind:

I will lie down and sleep in peace
for you alone, O Lord,
make me dwell in safety.
(Psalm 4.8)

Now here's an important thing for me to remember.

It's not anyone's health, the construction of the house or office building, the retirement funds -- that's not what gives security and a good night's sleep; whatever safety we have is only from the Lord.

(for July 6; posted 7/8)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The first CYA memo (that I heard of)

So some religious leaders had it in for Paul and started a, well, you can read about it:
The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut. While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd. When the rioters saw the commander and his soldiers, they stopped beating Paul. The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.
Acts 21.30-33
Well, that's great. Forget "blame the victim"; this guy went straight to "arrest the victim"! And don't forget the chains.

Not only that -- when the crowd reacts to Paul's speech, the commander ordered Paul to be taken into the barracks. He directed that he be flogged and questioned in order to find out why the people were shouting at him like this. (Acts 22.24)

This is some policeman -- arrest the victim, put him in chains, and then flog him.
As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, "Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?"

When the centurion heard this, he went to the commander and reported it. "What are you going to do?" he asked. "This man is a Roman citizen."
The commander himself was alarmed when he realized that he had put Paul, a Roman citizen, in chains.

Acts 22.25-26,29

OK, so that's what happened. Later, a plot was uncovered to kill Paul. The commander heard about it and ...
wrote a letter as follows:
Claudius Lysias, To His Excellency, Governor Felix:
This man was seized by the Jews and they were about to kill him, but I came with my troops and rescued him, for I had learned that he is a Roman citizen.
Acts 23.25-27
So what do you think of this memo? Is it self-serving? Hypocritical?

Some months back, our pastor mentioned in a sermon the "fallacy of attribution" or something like this. When I see you speeding, I assume it's because you're a reckless driver and a poor planner. But when I drive a little over the speed limit, I like to think it's because somebody else stuck all this junk into my schedule and made me rush!

So allowing for this fallacy, I guess I ought to say that well, in the same position I might write something similar.

What this reminds me of is... rfc 793 !! It's the TCP specification. For those who don't know what TCP is, it's a protocol -- a set of rules by which computers transmit data to each other. There's a famous principle in there, a principle that's full of grace. What it says is:
2.10.  Robustness Principle

TCP implementations will follow a general principle of robustness: be
conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from

To translate that into human terms, "be liberal in what you accept from others" becomes "be generous (merciful, gracious) in the motives you impute to others." It's an antidote for the fallacy of attribution.

I like to think that the commander wasn't that bad of a guy. He did rescue Paul from the mob, and he did save his life -- even sending him away when he heard about the assassins. There was a misunderstanding about the matter of citizenship, and maybe he'll have some suggestions for the next revision of the garrison commander's field manual.

And if I can be generous like that with the commander, how about with my wife and children, or the friend who forgot about our lunch appointment yesterday? Haven't I done similar things in the past? Well, I won't say here, but I hope the Lord helps me to be merciful and gracious to others, as I'd like them to be toward me.

posted 7/6

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

A Declaration of Independence that Didn't Work

Every year at this time we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, when the American colonies severed their ties with England. The Empire struck back but was defeated, and the United States of America was born.

In today's reading, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon invaded the land of Judah. This happened during the reigns of Jehoiakim, Jehoiakin, and Zedekiah, because they declared their independence -- well, two of them did. The text tells us,
Surely these things happened to Judah according to the Lord's command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood.
2 Kings 24.3-4
So what can we learn from these kings? The lesson I take from them is this: Sometimes a 1776-style declaration of independence is not such a good idea. Especially when the
Lord already said that "I will wipe our Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and hand them over to their enemies. They will be looted and plundered by all their foes" (2 Kings 21.13-14)

Sometimes we run into obstacles that God wants us to overcome, and other times the obstacles are a sign that we should turn around and go back. "The prudent see trouble coming and take cover; the simple keep going and suffer for it," as it says in the Proverbs.

Zedekiah had plenty of notice that he was going the wrong way.
As we will see later when we read Jeremiah, Zedekiah had specific real-time guidance from a prophet of the Lord, but he refused to believe it, and continued to pursue his disastrous rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. The consequences were awful, too; the last thing he saw on earth was his sons being killed in front of him. (2 Kings 25.6-7)

For most of us, the consequences aren't as obviously dire as they were for Zedekiah, but it's still worth our while to ask the Lord what kind of obstacle it is that's in front of us.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Seasonal fruit

Blessed is the man that does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
Nor stand in the way of sinners
Nor sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord
And in his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by streams of water
Which yields its fruit in season
And whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

That's the first 3 verses of Psalm 1, probably in some mixture of versions. As many others have pointed out, there is a condition here and a promise too. Today I'll look at the promise.

What does it mean to be like the tree described here?
  • Planted by streams of water
    I take this to mean that nourishment is always available. Spiritual nourishment maybe? If I meditate upon the law (I'd expand that today to include the entire Bible) that's providing food for my spirit
  • Yields its fruit ...
    Fruitful, in other words, not fruitless. My life will mean something; it will have some weight, some results
  • season
    A real tree spends one season in fruit production; the other three are spent in recovery and (mostly invisible) preparation. And there are seasons in my life, usually lasting longer than a few months. Not all of them have evident fruit.
  • And whose leaf does not wither
    In other words, arranging my life so I get nourishment from the Bible regularly -- reading, hearing sermons, listening in prayer -- then I won't run out of spiritual food. This doesn't mean I'll never become depressed or encounter long apparent dry spells, though.
This psalm has been a great comfort to me over the years, I think because I don't have to feel responsible for my spiritual growth -- just for my feeding. God does the rest.

(posted 7/4)

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Finishing poorly

There's a part in O Sacred Head, Now Wounded that always makes me think:
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.
What does it make me think? I guess it makes me wonder what it would mean to die rather than to stop loving God.

It also makes me think about Hezekiah king of Judah. He was a good guy, but today's passage makes me think he finished poorly. Here's the story:
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover."

Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord: "Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully...." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

2 Kings 20.1-3
It's interesting that the Lord changes his mind and adds fifteen years to Hezekiah's life. Not only that, but he provided a little miracle to show what was going to happen.

So it's all good, and Hezekiah lives happily ever after, right? Sorry to say, nope. After he recovers, he has some visitors.
Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, "What did those men say, and where did they come from?"

"From a distant land," Hezekiah replied. "They came from Babylon."

The prophet asked, "What did they see in your palace?"

"They saw everything in my palace", Hezekiah said. "There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them."

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, "Hear the word of the Lord: The time will surely come when everything in your palace ... will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood, that it will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon."

2 Kings 20.14-18

Ouch! But how does Hezekiah react? "The word of the Lord you have spoken is good," Hezekiah replied. For he thought, "Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?" (2 Kings 20.19)

Hezekiah doesn't mind that the Babylonians will empty out his palace and castrate some of his descendants -- an astonishing thing. Speaking of descendants, Hezekiah has a son during this 15-year stretch of borrowed time. How did he turn out? Take a look at the first two verses of chapter 22:
Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem fifty-five years. His mother's name was Hephzibah. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, following the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites
I think that's about the longest reign of any human king in Israel. And it was a rotten reign, too. Manasseh re-established idol worship in Israel, and sacrificed his own son in the fire.

We're never told what would have happened if Hezekiah had died from his illness -- if the Lord had not extended his life. But I have to think the kingdom of Israel would probably have been better off had Hezekiah not outlived his love of truth and justice -- his love for the Lord.

What happened? What caused Hezekiah's downhill slide?

I'm going to guess that he did not get up one morning and say, "Well, that's enough of following the Lord; I think I'll turn into an apathetic old coot and sire a son to undo my entire career."

It seems more likely to me that he started believing his own press releases. Maybe he started thinking that his wisdom, rather than the power of the Lord, saved Israel from the Assyrians. Maybe he meditated on his architectural accomplishments rather than on the Lord's care for him and for the nation. And though it is written,
Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him. He held fast to the Lord and did not cease to follow him"
2 Kings 18.5-6
... yet somehow he finished poorly.

And how about you and me? Do I sometimes forget that everything I have is a gift from God? Do I sometimes think it's my own wisdom or power that has brought good things into my life?

To tell the truth, sometimes I do. I hate to admit it, but sometimes I think to myself, "they're lucky to have me as an employee"... things like this. Which is poison, really. Pride goes before destruction....

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Mean people stink

At least that's what the bumper sticker says. Actually it says something a little different, but you get the idea.

Sennacherib king of Assyria sent mean people to taunt Hezekiah king of Judah, and also the people of Jerusalem.

The field commander said to them, "Tell Hezekiah:
This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says:
... blah blah blah...
Furthermore, have I come to attack and destroy this place without word from the Lord? The Lord himself told me to march against this country and destroy it.
Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joab said to the field commander, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don't speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall."

But the commander replied, "Was it only to your master and you that my master sent me to say these things, and not to the men sitting on the wall -- who, like you, will have to eat their own filth and drink their own urine?"

Then the commander stood and called out in Hebrew, "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! This is what the king says: Do not let Hezekiah deceive you. He cannot deliver you from my hand.
... blah blah blah...
Has the god of any nation ever delivered his land from the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena and Ivvah? Have they rescued Samaria from my hand?"

2 Kings 18.19, 25-29, 33-35
This guy is not very nice. He is arrogant. He is crude. He's mean.

He's also totally wrong, both in claiming that "The Lord himself told" him to destroy Jerusalem, which is patently false, and in comparing the Lord to those false gods.

I've read this passage many times before, but sometimes I've thought, "Boy, is he ever in for a shock!" or things like that... basically focusing on what a big mistake this clown was making. He takes the name of the Lord in vain. He makes an insulting comparison. And he attacks a nation that the Lord will defend supernaturally.

But the thing I noticed this time around is that the guy also has a character defect: he's mean.

Do I sometimes face the temptation to act (or to be) mean? How well do I resist it? What do I need to resist it better? James's words come to mind: "Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you."

posted 7/2