Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 243

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 7-9, Psalm 49 and Hebrews 5.

Jeremiah 7. Jeremiah is ordered to stand at the Temple gate and buttonhole the people coming in. He is to tell then to change the way they live and not to listen to the lies they will hear in the Temple. Once again the sins are both against God and against one's neighbor. They think they are safe because of God's Temple. Ah, but there used to be a temple at Shiloh and it's gone now! Because his people don't listen, God will do the same for the Jerusalem temple.

BTW we get the verse about the temple being turned into a den of thieves that Jesus uses when he cleanses the temple.

God tells Jeremiah not to pray for his people. He won't listen anyway; they are so far gone.They are even burning their children alive to other gods, in the valley of Hinnom. In Jesus's day it will be the city dump where they burn the trash and will be called Gehenna, Jesus's preferred term for hell!

Jeremiah 8. The worst thing for a Middle Eastern person was to have your body left unburied. But that's what awaits the people. They sure haven't learned much about God after all this time. They act like nothing that's happening is that serious. Poor Jeremiah is heartsick over his broken people.

Jeremiah 9. After painting a picture of how two-faced and treacherous his people are, Jeremiah gives us this chilling image of a land empty of all life, an unnaturally quiet moonscape that is the aftermath of the coming judgment. Bodies everywhere. People brag of their smarts, their strength or their wealth when they ought to brag only if they know and understand God. He will do the right thing.

Psalm 49. The psalm in Hebrew but no on-screen translation this time. Just enjoy God's word in the original.

Hebrews 5. The author is developing his theme of Jesus as the superior high priest. He introduces the idea of the priestly order of Melchizedek. If you remember in Genesis 14, after Abram rescues his hapless nephew Lot from some outlaw kings, the king of Salem, Melchizedek, who is also a priest, brings out some bread and wine and blesses Abraham. Then he's gone as suddenly as he appears. So the author is using Melchizedek as an archetype for the superior high priest.

Jesus learned how to obey even when it meant suffering.

The writer stops to upbraid his audience for having to dumb everything down for them. They should be able to handle more advanced stuff by this time.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 242

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 4-6, Psalm 48 and Hebrews 4.

Jeremiah 4. Better repent and turn your life around, Jerusalem. Judgment is coming.

Jeremiah 5. Like Diogenes looking for an honest man, Jeremiah is searching for someone who knows better than to violate God's law. When he meets some hard hearted people, he thinks, "Well, they're poor; they don't know any better." Then he finds the well-to-do are no better.

More vineyard imagery. The growth he finds in Israel and Judah are not the vines God planted.

People think God is all words and no action. Boy, are they in for a surprise!

"Because you've served foreign gods in my land, you're going to find yourselves serving foreigners in their land." Poetic justice.

There are predators among God's people who exploit the poor and fatherless. Prophets and priests are lying. That's how bad things have gotten.

Jeremiah 6. Zion is like a beautiful meadow churned up into mud and stripped of vegetation to use for war. The city is full of violence and oppression. Greed is rampant. You can't even count on the prophets and priests to tell you how bad things are. They're just telling everyone that it will be all right when it patently won't. Everyone's beyond shame and blushing.

There is a way out but no one wants to go down that road. No one's listening to the sirens and hurricane warnings. There's a nation coming for you from the north and you're all heading into dead ends.

Psalm 48. Could not resist this upbeat multilingual reggae version with the trippy video, though it only covers the first two verses of the psalm.

Hebrews 4. Everyone needs a rest, a sabbath, a respite in Edenic paradise. Don't miss it like the Israelites did in the wilderness.

And don't think you can put anything past God. He and his word are sharper than you think.

We do have a holy but compassionate high priest in Jesus. He may not have sinned but he knows firsthand the temptations we face. We can always go to him for mercy and grace.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 241

The scriptures read are Jeremiah 1-3, Psalm 47 and Hebrews 3.

Jeremiah 1. Jeremiah was a good man living at a bad time: the twilight of Judah just prior to and during the Babylonian defeat and destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile of its people. Jeremiah's name could mean, "The Lord exalts" or it could mean "The Lord throws" because the prophet is thrown into the deep end of events. He is not always popular with the kings he served under and spent a lot of time in prison. Jeremiah is frank about his feelings, making him one of the most personally revealing of the prophets.

God commissions Jeremiah to be his prophet before he even drew a breath. God can use a mere boy to spread his message and he will protect him from harm. Good thing, too, because Jeremiah is going to make enemies in high places.

Jeremiah 2. God's people did stick with him through the early years but lately they've been trashing the land. They have gone after other gods, gods of the fertility and human sacrifice kind. They don't see their idolatry as adultery. So here comes judgment. God's people only turn to him when things get bad.

Jeremiah 3. God sees both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah as promiscuous sisters. Nevertheless, God in love pleads with Israel to repent, to turn her life around. We get quite a heartfelt scene of the prodigal nation returning to God.

Psalm 47. A very joyful gospel version of a very joyful psalm!

Hebrews 3. The writer is comparing Christ with Moses. Moses was a good servant but Christ built the house, which is all believers. He urges the listeners not to be spiritually deaf like the Israelites coming out of Egypt.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 240

The scriptures read are Isaiah 64-66, Psalm 46 and Hebrews 2.

Isaiah 64. Instead of speaking for God, the prophet is speaking to God. He is pleading for his people. He admits they are sinful but says, "God, you made us this way, like the potter does the clay. Your beautiful city is in ruins. Aren't you going to do something about it?"

Isaiah 65. God says, "I've been here all along. If you haven't found me, it's not because I moved away from you. I will rescue my people but for those who don't respond to me, who have chosen evil, it will not go well."

"I am creating new heavens and a new earth." Sound familiar? If not, read Revelation 21. And to wrap it up, we get the peaceable kingdom again where even predator and prey can live together.

Isaiah 66. One last mixture of judgment and hope. More talk of the new heavens and new earth. Ends on a sour note, so Jews traditionally repeat verse 23 to compensate.

Psalm 46. A lovely simple version of this psalm here.

Hebrews 2. God, who made us a little lower than the angels, sent Jesus, who is way above the angels, to experience death in our stead, to destroy death and disease and to free us from the power of fear.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 239

The scriptures read are Isaiah 61-63, Psalm 45 and Hebrews 1.

Isaiah 61. Starts out with the verses Jesus read in his home synagogue to inaugurate his ministry. In the original context, these verses are about the end of the Babylonian exile. God sends his people home to rebuild what was destroyed.

Isaiah 62. A rebuilt Jerusalem. God's love for his people compared to the love of a husband for his wife. People should prepare for the coming of their divine savior.

Isaiah 63. Crushing grapes becomes a rather grisly metaphor for God's anger. Can't be sure if the people he's mad at are his people or their oppressors. This is immediately contrasted with how good God has been to his people. Until they turned from him and grieved his Holy Spirit. Now it's like he has forgotten them. And the people actually talk as if God made them stray from him.

Psalm 45. An unusual setting that captures the whole of the piece, makes it rhyme and underscores the royal wedding aspect of this psalm. Very catchy after you get into it.

Hebrews 1. We've finished all of Paul (and finished 40 books so far). Hebrews used to be thought to be Paul's but is really a sermon aimed at showing how Jesus and his new covenant supersede the old covenant. Who wrote it is anyone's guess: Barnabas, Apollos and Priscilla are all candidates.

We begin with a pretty strong statement about how Christ participated in creation with his Father and how he is the exact image of the invisible God. Then the writer compares Christ to the angels and guess who comes out on top?    

Sunday, August 25, 2013


The scripture referred to is Isaiah 58.

If I look at your earlobe, I can predict if you will develop heart disease with fairly good accuracy. Why? Well, if you have a crease that runs from the bottom of your ear's opening to the lowest tip of your earlobe, you have a 68% or higher risk of cardiovascular disease. This has been confirmed by studies done in Sweden, Ireland, Canada and Turkey. And yet nobody knows why. Other signs of heart disease that you would never guess: a ring finger considerably shorter than the index finger, male pattern baldness, not having acne as a teen, and grey, brittle, dry earwax. Again they are not sure why these things should be predictive of heart disease. They just are.

Other weird symptoms I've encountered as a nurse: when you have gallbladder disease you often feel the pain in the area of your right shoulder blade. If it's pancreatitis, the pain is often felt in the left shoulder blade. Spoon shaped nails--concave enough to hold a little fluid--can indicate either iron deficiency anemia or hemochromatosis, which is retaining too much iron. If you suddenly start speaking with a foreign accent, it could be a sign of a stroke or head trauma. Furthermore, the specific country's accent you involuntarily adopt can indicate the region of the brain that is affected.

Connections are not always obvious. And it's true with spiritual things as well  We see over and over in prophets, like Isaiah, a linking of the defective worship of God and mistreating of the poor and defenseless. But why? How does the way you worship God affect the way you treat people?

Isaiah underlines this in his contrast of the two ways of fasting. The first is done according to all the rules. It is to all appearances a proper fast. And that's the problem. It is all about appearances. It is completely external. The inner person, the thing that is supposed to be affected by the fast, is left untouched. For instance, ever get cranky when you miss a meal? Well, apparently the fasts God is criticizing resulted in quarreling, strife and even fist fights. This doesn't sound like these fasts were done to set aside earthly things for a while and to self-sacrificially spend one's time and attention on God. These fasts were done pro forma. And apparently with an eye towards the clock and anticipating the end of the fast. God points out that they are only humbling themselves for a day. 

But what God wants is not so much for people to give up something for a limited time but to give up injustice forever. He doesn't so much want them to not eat food themselves but to share that food with the hungry. He doesn't so much want them to dress in sackcloth but to clothe the naked. He doesn't so much want them to make a show of being humble but to welcome into their houses the humble poor who have been cast out from their homes.

In other words, like Jesus in Luke 13:10-17, he wants them not to let the externals of religious observance get in the way of real human needs. Because to do so reveals a marred understanding of the relationship between God and humanity.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we are told that God made human beings in his image. So to mistreat a human being is to symbolically mistreat God. That's the reason murder is wrong, which God tells Noah in Genesis 9:6. In fact, God says previously, in Genesis 6:13, the whole reason for the flood is our violence towards one another. And Jesus tells us in Matthew 25:31-46 that the way we treat others is the way we are treating him. God takes what we do to our fellow human beings personally.

The way you see God affects the way you treat other people. If you see God as primarily concerned with rules above all, then you will not let human misery get in the way of obeying those all important rules. If you see God as the equivalent of the guy who redeems the tickets at Chucky Cheese, rewarding those who tally up  a lot of points with good stuff and giving crappy prizes to those who aren't big winners, then you have little to say to the poor except “Try harder.” If on the other hand you think God is a big softie who can't bring himself to really punish you, especially if you make a show of saying how sorry you are, you will be inclined to see how much you can get away with.

This is why the prophets spend so much time talking about what God is like and what he isn't like. He is just but merciful; he is forgiving but not excusing; he is loving but not lax. In fact, his justice flows from his love. If you love only one person or a few, then you easily can say to the the world, “I'm putting those I love first; I don't care what impact that has on the rest of you.” You see that in parents who shield their child when he does harm to others. 19 year old Alex Kelly fled the US after being charged with raping 2 teenage girls. Though they denied it, his parents supported him as he traveled throughout Europe for 7 years to escape extradition. The police couldn't prove that until they found a recent picture of him and his parents in Europe, showing they knew exactly where he was. He only returned when his parents faced obstruction of justice charges. No doubt his parents kept him from facing his crimes because they loved their son. They just didn't care about the victims. Or about justice.

If God loves everyone then he cannot let some of them take advantage of others or harm others with impunity. If you talk to someone whose parents never disciplined them, they will not, in my experience, tell you it was great that they could do whatever they wanted and not get in trouble. In fact, they will tell you that they felt neglected. They felt that they didn't matter enough, or that what happened to them didn't matter enough, for their parents to keep them in line. On the other hand, friends who grew up in very disciplined family, not an abusive one though, often say that, even if they did not like all the rules and structures and defined punishments when they were kids, they were glad later. They realized that their parents' discipline had eventually become their self-discipline and they found themselves to be doing a lot better than their peers.

So God's justice proceeds from his love, another unexpected connection. And from his love also comes his mercy. As I heard it once said, justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is not getting all that you deserve. Make note of that: mercy is not a part of justice. It's not something you can just expect as a matter of course. It is God not applying strict justice to you. And the only reason he is merciful is because he is Love.

God expects us, creatures made in his image, to be both just and merciful, like him. That's why he says we must remove the yoke of oppression from among us, the pointing of the finger in false accusations, the malicious talk and gossip. Those things are unjust. That's why he wants us to, literally, pour ourselves out to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. That's mercy. And we must never forget that these are people created in God's image, people for whom Christ died.

If we do these things our light will shine and we will be a light to the world, reflecting the glory of God. And as Isaiah says, “The Lord will guide you always...” Why? Because you will be doing his work with your hands. You will be restoring justice and mercy to his damaged creation. As it says in verse 12, “...You will be called the repairer of broken walls, the restorer of streets to dwell in.”

But there's more. Many people who work with the poor and hungry, the oppressed and neglected get burnt out. They pour themselves out and they don't get replenished. They lose their faith in people and often their faith in God. They need a break. They need a regular day to get refreshed and refilled. They need a sabbath.

Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans and not humans for the Sabbath. But oddly enough that means, as Isaiah says, to refrain “from pursuing your own interests on my holy day...” and “not going your own ways, serving your own interests or talking about yourself.” A lot of people today are taking a sabbath from their electronic devices, from the phones and screens that hold their eyes captive the rest of the week. What we need is a vacation from our own affairs and from ourselves really. We need to be taken out of ourselves, released from our cramped egos, roiling with desires and fears. We need to be directed away from ourselves and our workaday lives. We need to be directed to the source of all life and pleasure.

...then you will take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the world.” The image is that of a person on horseback cresting a mountain and taking in the scene laid before him. When we really honor the Sabbath, really walk away from the worries of the world and worship God, we will get a glimpse of the long view, the big picture, which we usually can't see as we wend our way through the ruts of our rat race.

And he promises that we will “feast on the inheritance of Jacob.” That inheritance in preserved in the scripture, which covers the covenants both old and new. When we hear God's written word and let ourselves be fed by his living Word with his Body and Blood, we will be renewed.

If you only see people as animals, as having nothing divine about them, it's easy to dismiss or ignore them, or even to get them out of the way if they are inconvenient. But if you see them as creatures bearing the image of God, you treat them differently. But if you don't connect with God frequently, the contents of that image will fade. So it has to be renewed weekly. For the way you see God will affect the way you see and treat other people.

Fortunately we have been given the exact image of God in human form in Jesus Christ. In him we see what God is like and what we, when restored by his Spirit, can be. We see how his justice and mercy come together in one person. And we see his grace, his gift which is not only getting more than we deserve, but getting goodness we can never possibly deserve. And when we experience that, we find the reserves to be gracious to others.

It's all connected. Everything in God's creation is connected. And they are connected through him. The connections may not be obvious. They may not even appear to be there. But they are. And it is our job to look for them, to draw attention to them and to clean them up and make them shine. For they not only hold everything together; they are conduits of his love and his grace. And so are we. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 237

The scriptures read are Isaiah 58-60, Psalm 44 and Philemon.

Isaiah 58. This is the text for tomorrow's sermon, so read that if you want my reaction to this chapter.

Isaiah 59. Quite a litany of wrongheadedness and wrongheartedness. A long list of indictments indeed. Who's going to clean it up? God will. He always does. And he puts on quite a different armor of God than Paul urges us to wear. And he makes a new covenant with the penitent, in which his Spirit and his word are passed down the generations forever.

Isaiah 60. All these phrases in Isaiah keep triggering arias and choruses from Handel's Messiah in my head.

A wonderful picture of Jerusalem's rebirth. Its exiles are coming back, its splendor is restored. Is this hyperbole? Or is Isaiah speaking of the eschatological New Jerusalem?

Psalm 44. A lovely instrumental version from the Genevan Psalter can be heard here. If you want words, however, here is an effective animated version.

Philemon. Onesimus turned up before in Paul's letter to the Colossian (4:9). He was working with Paul. Well, it turns out he was a runaway slave. Therefore Paul was legally obliged to return him to his master (under Roman law, that is; under Hebrew law, you could harbor an escaped slave.) And his master was Philemon, a wealthy Christian who let the local church meet in his house. Paul wants to keep Onesimus but he must return him. And it appears that the slave had taken some money from Philemon to finance his escape. Which means Philemon has every right to severely punish Onesimus. Also, Philemon is probably of higher social status than Paul. So this makes for a very carefully worded letter where Paul uses what spiritual leverage he has to get Onesimus, his spiritual son, freed.

Paul starts by mentioning how gladly he prays for Philemon. He acknowledges Philemon's love for God and for his fellow Christians. Paul says he could on his spiritual authority order Philemon to do what Paul wants but he'd rather make a personal request. Onesimus is close to Paul and useful to his work for God while Paul is in jail. (Paul is making a play on words: Onesimus means "useful.") Paul has sent Onesimus back despite his own feelings in the matter. He didn't want to do anything behind Philemon's back.

And while he left a slave, Onesimus returns as a brother in Christ. Paul is on tricky ground here, calling a slave and his master equals. But they are, in Christ. Paul's said that before, in Galatians 3:28.

Now Paul tells Philemon to welcome Onesimus as he would Paul. He making Onesimus his personal representative to be treated as he would Paul! (Onesimus carried this letter to his old master and was probably nervous as a cat while waiting for him to read it and react.) Paul includes a personal IOU for any cost Onesimus has caused Philemon.

Then Paul says, "And I won't remind me that you, as a Christian, owe me for bringing the gospel and thereby the offer of eternal life to you." (Hint, hint, hint!) He asks Philemon for a favor, adding that it would also be a favor to Christ.

Finally, he says he's confident that Philemon will do even more than Paul asks (ie, not just refrain from punishing him or lend him back but to free Onesimus so he can serve Christ as Paul's great helper.)

And that's how you get someone to do the right thing when the law is all on their side and only God's law is on yours. (And Philemon must have done freed Onesimus or why else would he let this personal letter go public?)

PS. Tradition has it that this was the same Onesimus who Ignatius of Antioch said became Bishop of Ephesus after Timothy. His feast day is February 15.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 236

The scriptures read are Isaiah 55-57, Psalm 43 and Titus 3.

Isaiah 55. Lots of well known verses in this chapter. A reminder to seek God now while he's near. A reminder that God doesn't think the way we do; his way of thinking is far above ours. More images of fertility and nature.

Isaiah 56. Here we get a breath of fresh air as God extends his blessings to all who follow and obey him, even foreigners and eunuchs, previously barred from being part of the worshiping assembly.

As for Israel's shepherds, they're useless. They are lazy, and therefore poor watchdogs, as well as hungry and concerned about themselves, not the sheep.

Isaiah 57. As a consequence, the good people are neglected. They are carried off by other nations; they die. God will grant them peace but...

God is angry with his people for shopping for other religions. The fertility cults who combine sacred sex and child sacrifice are singled out by him. His harsh language is do to the fact that, since God is like her husband, Israel, by being idolatrous, is being adulterous as well.

Yet God, who is high above us, deigns to dwell with the penitent and lowly. He will not stay angry but will give them peace peace and comfort.

But not to the wicked.

Psalm 43. Couldn't find a decent version of the whole psalm so here are two songs based on different verses. This is actually the last verse but it's so quiet and reflective I think you should listen to it first. Then listen to this, which is based on the 3 verses preceding it and is a bit more upbeat, if somewhat soft-rock.

Titus 3. Paul wraps up our second to last letter from him with a few brief exhortations. Christians should abide by the laws.

We were once unsaved sinners as well. We need to remember that the only reason we are not is God's initiative in Jesus.

Keep to the essentials and don't get lost in the weeds of Bible-nerd rage. Give quarrelsome people a couple of warnings and if they continue to disturb and divide, ask them to take a hike.

Don't neglect the needy.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 235

The scriptures read are Isaiah 52-54, Psalm 42 and Titus 2.

Isaiah 52-53. Good news! God is leading his people back to the promised land, out of exile.

At the end of chapter 52 and all throughout 53, we read the most famous of the servant songs, the one about the suffering servant. According to the Jewish Study Bible's notes, rabbis interpret this servant to be either the nation of Israel, or a pious minority within Israel, or Jeremiah. Some targum (paraphrases of scripture) and midrashim (rabbinic stories used to explain scripture) say the servant is the Messiah. It is impossible, however, for a Christian to read these without getting a chill since this seems to evoke so strongly Jesus' suffering and death. Imagine the reaction of the apostles and eyewitnesses of the crucifixion to this passage. Small wonder this passage is read in churches on Good Friday every year.

Isaiah 54. Images of fertility and God returning to claim Israel as his wife. God will never be angry with his people again.

Psalm 42. Another split decision. This is a heartfelt song based on just one section of the psalm. There are several videos of this version. Or for a much fuller treatment (if you have 25 minutes) here is Mendelssohn's gorgeous classical version of Psalm 42.

Titus 2. Paul gives Titus advice on how to treat people of all ages, genders and stations in life. The best way is to model good behavior. And don't let anyone diminish your authority.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

For Diane White

Read enough of the Bible and you notice how concerned God is with the care of and justice for all defenseless people, but especially aliens, widows and orphans. Orphans, usually called the fatherless, are mentioned more than 40 times in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament books of law and the prophets. In Psalm 68 God is called the “Father of the fatherless.” He certainly functioned as loving Heavenly Father to Diane and she in turn loved him back.

Diane Murphy was born at Pearl Harbor and her father Larry died in the Second World War. She and 2 of her siblings were taken in by the best friend of her father, Chief Petty Officer Frank Lanham and his wife Anna. They moved to Oakland, California where her foster father worked at the Naval Air Station at Alameda. As in Hawaii there was water, which was great because Diane loved to swim. She was so good she was actually scouted for the Olympics.

It was on the Almeda base that Diane Murphy met Arthur White. They were married in 1961 and their son Don was born exactly 9 months later. They moved to New Mexico where their daughter Laura was born in 1965. In 1966 Arthur's work took him to Australia, and Diane and the kids followed. Again there was water to swim in and Diane loved the country. When Arthur suffered a foot injury at work, Diane went to work picking tomatoes. She was always a hard worker.

But Diane didn't just work. Besides swimming, she loved to sing and dance. She was also a published poet and writer. She researched the events surrounding her father's death. At the time, the circumstances were a secret because he died at the Battle of Tassafaronga. He was one of the 125 men on the USS Pensacola who were killed when a Japanese torpedo set her oil tanks on fire, exploding her torpedoes, machine gun ammunition and the 8 inch projectiles of her number 3 turret. Diane also found out that her father was particularly beloved, because he was the ship's mailman, and knew everyone on the ship as well as many of the natives.

The Whites returned to New Mexico in 1971. Diane became a Nurse's Aide at Clovis High Plains Hospital. She studied and became a Licensed Practical Nurse, a profession she followed for more than 30 years. One day a patient was dying and Diane asked another nurse to cover her patients as she sat with the man in his final moments, holding his hand. Eventually that became a specialty of Diane's, sitting with the dying. This was long before the hospice movement became widespread. She even baptized a dying man named Diesel who asked her to. She knew that any Christian could baptize a dying person if they were willing. Another thing empowering her to do so was the fact that she was an associate of the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Boston.

Diane was a cradle Catholic. She would speak again and again of the tropical trees and the untropically habited nuns of Sacred Heart convent school in Pearl Harbor. She went to Holy Names and Holy Cross High School in Oakland. In Clovis she attended Our Lady of Guadalupe.

I came to know Diane when she came to live with her daughter Laura, a former coworker of mine. My wife Julie and I would visit when Laura was out of town. Julie would make great meals for her and at Diane's request, I would anoint her with oil and give her communion, though she knew I was an Episcopal and not a Roman Catholic priest. She knew we served the same Lord.

Diane was always happy. She was surrounded by animals, which she loved--cats and birds and hermit crabs. She could look out the large sliding glass doors at the water. She could watch TV and read her Bible and say her rosary. And she was with her daughter.

She made new friends here in the Keys. And though her memory was impaired by her disease, she remembered them, even those, like me, whom she only saw occasionally. Thus in her final illness and moments, she knew that she was surrounded by those who loved her.

And now we enter into the paradox of grieving as Christians. We miss Diane: her smile, her sweet disposition, her joy in being with people. And yet we know we should be happy for her. It is rather like having a loved one go on a long voyage. You are happy for them because they are off on an amazing journey and a much needed rest from the trials of this life. And yet, because you will not see them again for a long time, you are sad.

We do have memories and those are a comfort and an immortality of sorts. But they are tinged with the bittersweet knowledge that no new memories will be forthcoming. This chapter on our life with her is over. And so once again happiness and sadness are entwined. We mourn.

And that's OK. Our Lord Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus. And he knew that he was going to bring him back. But seeing his sisters Mary and Martha and all their friends crying, Jesus could not restrain himself. Perhaps he flashed back to the day Joseph, the man who raised him as a father, died. It's OK to weep and mourn because Jesus did. It's just that, as Paul said, we do not mourn like those who are without hope.

And that hope is no doubt what sustained Diane when she lost her dad. The fact that just because this chapter is over it doesn't mean that there won't be another. Every week in the creed we say we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Because that is God's basic modus operandi. He is the God of the living. He resurrected his Son. He will resurrect his wounded creation. And he will populate it with his people, in new and improved bodies, our same software, debugged, in new hardware, as John Polkinghorne put it.

Our hope in Christ is living with him forever in a new creation. Diane will love that. There will be singing. Diane will really love that. And it says in Revelation 21 that a river will run through the new Jerusalem. Diane will not only love that but knowing her, she'll be swimming in it, enjoying the new earth as she did this one. And when we get there, I bet her first words will be, “Come on in. The water's fine.”

The Bible Challenge: Day 234

The scriptures read are Isaiah 49-51, Psalm 41 and Titus 1.

Isaiah 49. God's servant, in his service since birth, will not only bring back God's scattered people but will act as a beacon to the world. And God will not neglect Zion either.

Isaiah 50. God didn't abandon his people; it was the other way around. But as usual with him, God hasn't washed his hands of them.

Isaiah 51. God will bring his deliverance and justice back to his people in Zion. This chapter harkens back to Adam and Eve, Abraham and Rahab "the chaos-dragon," as Peterson calls it.

Don't be afraid of anyone as ephemeral as other human being. God is on your side and he can handle anything.

So sleep off the awful night of judgment, shake off its hangover and be prepared for everlasting salvation.

Psalm 41. A Celtic-flavored take on this psalm.

Titus 1. Titus was left in Crete to appoint leaders in the churches Paul planted there. He gives him much the same qualifications as he did Timothy. He similarly warns him about religious charlatans who are in it for the money.

Paul quotes a popular depiction of Cretans, usually attributed to Epimenides, that is hardly complementary. But the island's name came to mean "to lie." Paul obviously doesn't feel that way about all Cretans, like his church members, but it sure describes those people peddling myths and disrupting the families of church members.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 233

The scriptures read are Isaiah 46-48, Psalm 40 and 2 Timothy 4.

Isaiah 46. We may not worship figurines but the problem with idols even today is they reduce God to something you can comprehend, carry around and put on a shelf. But God is not only bigger than we imagine but bigger than we can imagine. (Apologies to J. B. S. Haldane.) As it turns out, God is the one who is carrying us.

Isaiah 47. It's time to take Babylon, the First Lady among the nations, down several pegs. Even her magicians and astrologers don't have a spell to prevent this.

Isaiah 48. God talks frankly to his people, although they have a bad track record of listening to him. He could have washed his hands of them but he didn't because that's not who he is. He's always told them what was going to happen ahead of time. Now he's telling them to get out of Babylon. Cyrus is coming and God will redeem his people.

Psalm 40. This version does a good job of paraphrasing most of the psalm. However, half the versions labeled Psalm 40 are this catchy pop song loosely based on it. I can understand why. Enjoy. (And try to ignore the now ubiquitous misspelling of a common contraction.)

2 Timothy 4. Once more Paul tells Timothy to stand firm, no matter what others do. Paul is perhaps feeling alone right now. He's facing death and everybody is gone, except Luke. He asks Timothy to try to get to him before winter sets in and travel becomes harder and more dangerous. Bring his winter "coat." And his books! Love that.

He asks Timothy to bring Mark, who has evidently risen in Paul's esteem since the time he and Barnabas parted ways over the young man. And finally greetings to everyone on Timothy's end.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 232

The scriptures read are Isaiah 43-45, Psalm 39 and 2 Timothy 3.

Isaiah 43. God assures his people of his love. He has redeemed them and they will return from exile.

He is the only God. All the rest are knockoffs. But that didn't stop his people for taking him for granted.

Isaiah 44. God will pour water onto the parched desert and his Spirit onto his parched people.

Isaiah abandons the prose for a while to write a few satirical paragraphs about idolmakers. They cut down a tree and half of it goes for firewood to cook one's food and heat ones feet. The other half is used to make a wooden god. And nobody gets how stupid that is. They've got it wrong. God makes and shapes us, not vice versa. God is the one in control.

Isaiah 45. God chooses Cyrus the Persian to accomplish the changes he wants to see. God is really in charge. He created everything and is working behind the scenes to save his people.

Psalm 39. Nice acoustic version to be found here.

2 Timothy 3. Paul paints a vivid picture of society gone to hell. He warns Timothy of con men who prey on needy women in the name of religion.

Love verses 16 & 17 in Peterson's The Message: "Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another--showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God;s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us." Or as Shepherd Book says to River in Firefly, "You don't fix the Bible...You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you."

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Giving Away Your Faith

Wednesday I listened to a webinar on guns in church, dealing with liability and safety issues. I did this because Florida is one of the states that excludes churches from the list of places into which you are not authorized to carry a weapon. That is, unless we qualify under Florida statute 790.06, paragraph (12) (a) which exempts any “establishment licensed to dispense alcoholic beverages to be consumed on the premises.” But I doubt communion counts. Anyway, it turns out the big threat is from outsiders who simply come to shoot up the place. They are rarely members, rarely issue a prior threat and often commit suicide after their shooting spree. The good news is that since these shootings are rare and therefore unforeseeable, we are not liable for deaths and injuries coming out of such an incident! The bad news is there is no foolproof way to stop any determined individual from doing such a thing, especially if they plan to die anyway. The official advice is to draw up emergency operations plans beforehand and then, during an Active Shooter Incident, “respond immediately; run; hide; and 'fight,'” which is defined as adults considering disrupting or incapacitating the shooter with objects like a fire extinguisher or chair. We discussed the pros and cons of hiring off-duty cops, security guards or relying on the assorted competencies of armed church members. Cops are the best option because not only do they receive the best training for this, but also, once they respond to a crime, they are considered on-duty, and the church is not liable for what they do. Such is the world we live in.

As I said, these shootings, while not unknown, are rare. Richard Hammar, who gave the webinar, counted 15 church shootings in 11 years, which is not so alarming when you realize that there are nearly 400,000 congregations in the US. You are much more likely to be involved in an Active Shooter Incident in a workplace.

What was really interesting was the motives of the shooters in the 15 religious congregation incidents studied. In a third of the cases, the motive was unknown. In another third, the motive was a family dispute, though the shooter, as I said, was rarely a member of the church. Only in the last third was the motive to commit a hate crime.

The good news is you are unlikely to die for God in your church. The question is: do you live for him outside the church?

Our passage from Hebrews 11 is a roll call of those who both lived and died for their faith in God. But they lived in times of persecution, under regimes that would literally torture you, flog you, imprison you, and kill you for standing up for your God. And there are still countries where Christians can be lynched, legally executed or imprisoned simply for proclaiming Jesus. Our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt, pastors of house churches in China, and many more in Africa, Asia and the Near East are still persecuted.

Despite what some fundamentalists say, we in the US are not persecuted. Unlike France, you can wear conspicuous religious jewelry or clothes in schools here. Unlike Germany, you cannot be convicted of defaming religious belief. Unlike Saudi Arabia, you can own a Bible and can't be arrested and publicly lashed for proclaiming your faith. Nor would you be executed for converting to Christianity. Now that's religious persecution.

Do we have opposition? Sure. Because we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we live in a marketplace of ideas, competing for people's attention and allegiance with other belief systems. And as in any marketplace, we also compete with inferior versions and knockoffs of what we offer. If one promoter of Christianity goes too far, we are often tarred with the same brush. It's all sharp elbows out there. But it's better than official, organized persecution. And it's better than if we lived in country with an official state church. Because then people tend to lump together church and state and rebel against both. Church attendance is low in countries with an official church. And if there was a state-sponsored church, which would it be: Roman Catholic? Seventh Day Adventist? Baptist? It was Baptists who convinced James Madison to draft a constitutional amendment separating church and state, to protect everyone's right to worship as they chose.

Oddly enough, the opposition we have is rarely about the essentials of the faith. There are atheists, of course, who oppose all religious doctrines but there are less than you think. Only 5% of Americans call themselves atheists. The majority of the 16% of Americans who claim no religion still believe in God. Less than one-third of these “nones” are true atheists. Any criticisms of specific doctrines are just part of their overall efforts to denigrate any belief in the divine.

Most opposition to Christianity in America is concentrated on a handful of hot button political/religious issues that are not central to the faith. I'm not saying they are unimportant but it would be sad if people never considered the question of who Jesus is and what he's done because they couldn't get past secondary issues like abortion and homosexuality. It is akin to not going to the cancer specialist you need because you didn't like the bumper stickers on the cars of some of his other patients.

If we are to bring the gospel to people, as we are commanded in the Great Commission, we need to be clear about what it is. And it is all about Jesus. The basics are found in our baptismal statement of faith, the Apostles' Creed. It began to surface around the mid to late 100s AD when it was called the Old Roman Creed. By 700 AD it had not only attained its present form but was accepted as part of the official liturgy of the Western Church. It is the most basic summary of the key doctrines of the faith and is at the center of most catechisms. The creed obviously evolved around the persons of the Trinity. But the largest section is about Jesus. So let's examine that part in detail.

Right after affirming belief in God the Father who created everything, the creed says, “I believe in Jesus Christ...” You know, of course, that Christ is not Jesus' last name but his title. It is the Greek form of Messiah, which in turn means the Anointed One. The 3 offices for which the Jews anointed people were those of prophet, of priest and of king. When we call Jesus the Christ, we mean he is to us all 3. He is our prophet, speaking the Word of the Lord to us. He is our priest, reconciling us with God through a sacrifice for our sins. He is our king, to whom we swear allegiance and whose word is law to us, his royal subjects.

We also acknowledge Jesus to be God's only Son. His relationship to God the Father is that close: that of a son, and an only son at that. When we are dealing with Christ, we are not dealing with God's underling but with God's only Son. He knows the mind of the Father and speaks for him and acts on his behalf.

He is our Lord. We are not just acknowledging that he is an important consideration in our decisions but that he has authority over our lives. He has the final say over how we think, speak and act.

He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” We have established that Jesus is divine; here we establish that he is human as well. The uniqueness of Jesus extends to the fact that he is both fully God and fully human. We have a God who knows from firsthand experience what our human lives are like. And if we want to understand what God who is a Spirit is like in terms we humans can understand, we can look at Jesus. He is God translated into a form we can grasp.

He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead.” No respectable historian thinks Jesus is fictional. He lived as a Galilean Jew in the early part of the first century AD. He was condemned to death by Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and an historical figure. Jesus was crucified, a death reserved for slaves and traitors. He not only lived a human life; he died a human death, albeit the cruelest one the authorities could manage. He was truly dead and laid in a tomb and the door shut on him. And if his story ended there, no one would likely have heard of this poor Jewish laborer who had achieved brief local popularity as preacher and healer.

And the most important thing about his dying is that he did it for us. There have been many martyrs in the world, people who died for their beliefs. But their deaths did not make the world a better place, but poorer for the lack of their presence. Socrates' death did not redeem anyone. Moses' death did not take away anyone else's sins. Buddha's death did not reconcile the world to God. No prophet's death destroyed death itself and grants eternal life today. Only Jesus' death is not a sad coda or postscript to a holy life. Only Jesus' death had a cosmic meaning and a universal effect on the destiny of people's souls. Jesus didn't just die; he died for us.

“On the third day he rose again.” This is the one thing that clearly makes Jesus different from all the other would be Messiahs and religious authorities. The rest stayed dead. Moses died. Gautama Buddha was cremated in the 5th century BC. You can visit the tomb of Muhammad in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Only Jesus rose from the dead. And that was what turned his group of followers from a discouraged band of fugitives into fearless ambassadors for him, willing to die to spread the good news about their crucified and risen Lord. Jesus' resurrection changed everything, from how they thought about his teachings to how they thought about his death to how they thought about him.

He ascended into heaven.” There is no shadowy Sheol for Jesus. He goes into the presence of Father and we who follow him do so as well. In fact we follow him through death into new resurrected life.

He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” There will still be justice done. Those who do evil will not get away with it, not even through dying. Those who do good will be rewarded, even if they do not receive it before dying. The present is a grace period in which everyone has a second chance and third chance and more in which to turn their lives around, in which to enter the kingdom of God and become part of the creation of a new world, not made just for them or their kind, not one that merely conforms to their tastes or agenda, but one created by God for all people who love him, the God of love, and who love one another as Jesus loves us.

There is one other essential point that the creed makes over and over which I have not yet mentioned. It is not enough to like Jesus or some of the things he said. It is not enough to approve of some of the things he did. It is not enough to believe that he exists. The verb used all the time in the creed is “believe.” (Which makes sense since it comes from the Latin credo, which means "I believe.") It doesn't mean I believe these things to be facts the way I believe that Jupiter has 67 moons. If it turns out that Jupiter has more or less than that, it will not affect my life. But in Christianity, when we say we believe in Jesus Christ, we mean we trust in him, rely on him, commit our lives to his truth. It means we are invested in him and in the worldview that centers on him. It means we believe that to truly call ourselves Christians we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him in a life of self-sacrificial love.

In one sense, the Christians who live under persecution are more fortunate than we are. They know know that to follow Jesus will cost them dearly; they know that they are making a life or death decision when they put their trust in him. They know that their faith is real. Over here, people can drift through their life, deluding themselves that they are Christians because they go to church or pray occasionally or are nice people. They may sleepwalk in a facile fantasy of faith their whole lives. They are like those extremely handsome men or very beautiful women who think they are good actors because people keep casting them in movies and TV shows. But in fact they don't have the acting chops of, say, Steve Buscemi or Kathy Bates, who have to use their considerable talent to get cast in good roles.

In the same way, we in the democratic West have privileges that make it easy to call ourselves Christians. No one will set fire to your car if you put a Jesus fish on it. No one will arrest you or your kids for wearing a cross. No mob will attack and burn down this church. Proclaiming yourself a Christian will get you at most a roll of the eyes from a person in the room or a flame attack online from an internet troll. Yet because of that, we are too timid to talk about Jesus. We are in no greater danger than that of social disapproval and yet we stay as quiet and low key as if our very lives were at risk.

So if we do not fear for our own lives, what about for the lives of others? The churches who do fearlessly spread the gospel tend to be those who believe that Jesus came to do more than make us happier. They believe he came to save us from sin, death and damnation. And don't we? Don't we believe that there is more wrong with the world than that people need to be made to feel better about themselves? Don't we believe that they need to be made into better people? The problems of the world are not merely that people need to be a little bit nicer. They need to be made just and caring and faithful and respectful and reverent and to care just as much about the freedom and rights of others as about their own. They need to be transformed. Until they are, they will cheat and kill and denigrate and be unfaithful to others and be greedy, selfish and arrogant. They will continue to make this life hell on earth and they will not be fit for or be able to fit into the kingdom of heaven. They will not be fit to be around a holy, just and loving God since they would be out of harmony with all he is and out of place in his realm. They would not be at peace--with themselves, with others or with God. If they are not, how can they possibly stand his presence, much less spend eternity in it?

You know what is more likely to kill the people in American church than guns? Heart disease. Cancer. Lung disease. Stroke. An accident. Alzheimer's. Diabetes. Kidney disease. Flu and pneumonia. Except for accidents, these things are quiet, slowly developing conditions. By the time they make their presence known, most of the damage will be done. But if you saw the symptoms and behaviors leading to these things in a loved one, you'd tell them. You'd recommend a doctor. Right?

And you know what will separate most people from God? It will not be murder or any of the louder and flashier sins. It will be self-righteousness. Deception of others and of oneself. Self-indulgence. Apathy. The erosion of faith. The loss of hope. The cooling off of love for God and for others. Like a vitamin deficiency weakens a body, leaving it vulnerable to disease, lack of a strong and growing relationship with Jesus will leave you susceptible to the things that kill your spirit. But why do we hesitate to tell others about Jesus, when we see that they are wasting away spiritually? Why do we fight so much more to prolong physical life and yet let spiritual life drain away?

All it takes is someone to tell them who Jesus is, what he has done for us and how we should respond. Would it kill you to share your faith? Because it might just save someone else.

The Bible Challenge: Day 230

The scriptures read are Isaiah 40-42, Psalm 38 and 2 Timothy 2.

Isaiah 40. God commands Isaiah to comfort his people. He has forgiven them.

Metaphors change from highways to grass to a herald shouting his news from the mountain.

God is vast. He doesn't need us but we need him. He knows everything about us. Which makes his goodness to us surprising. He energizes us when we need it the most.

Isaiah 41. God calls the shots. And he's not forgetting his people. He will do marvelous things for them. Unlike the false gods, the idols made by man who can't do anything...except topple over if not nailed down.

Isaiah 42. The first of the servant songs. Who is this servant of God? A person? The people? The Messiah? Whoever he is, bathed in God's Spirit, he will set things right.

Judgment is over and done. God is doing something new and unexpected. Time to sing him a new song. But you've got to pay attention.

Psalm 38. There is some low level background buzz to this but the guitar work, the words that grasp the essentials of the psalm and the simple presentation are effective. For something completely different, here, based on 2 verses of Psalm 38, is a symphony movement with choir by Stravinsky!

2 Timothy 2. Paul tells Timothy to stick to the essentials; don't get caught in the weeds, arguing over silly controversies. Do your best. Be patient, gentle, a good listener and you may even turn around those who were far astray.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 229

The scriptures read are Isaiah 37-39, Psalm 37:19-42 and 2 Timothy 1.

Isaiah 37-39. More incidents from Hezekiah's reign, recounted in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles. There are some differences. But, boy, can Hezekiah pray. His prayers are some of the best in the Bible.

Perhaps it was his awareness that he is living on borrowed time anyway that elicits his odd reaction to being told that his possessions and sons will be taken by the Babylonians.

Psalm 37:19-42. I couldn't find any versions that seriously tackled the second part of this psalm (and to which I would be willing to subject you.) This only has one verse from the second half of the psalm but it is very good and does the selected verses in English and then Hebrew to great effect. And though this doesn't venture beyond the first few verses of the psalm, it is hypnotic and heartfelt.

2 Timothy 1. Paul praises and encourages Timothy to continue as he has in the past. Even his family's past is that of faithful people, specifically women. Some others have abandoned Paul during his imprisonment. They may be ashamed of him. But there are always those who are faithful and who are not ashamed of Jesus either.  

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 228

The scriptures read are Isaiah 34-36, Psalm 37:1-18, and 1 Timothy 6.

Isaiah 34. God is angry with all the nations and their armies. He will wipe them all out. He singles out Edom as a special case. Describing the desolation to be wrought, Peterson renders the second half of verse 11: "God will reverse creation. Chaos! He will cancel fertility. Emptiness!" Good catch on that contrast. Which raises the question: is God clearing the way for a new act of creation?

Lilith is mentioned in v. 14! She is a female demon, who seduces and kills men, kinda like a succubus. In Jewish legend, she was Adam's first wife. Their parting was not amicable and she went on to give birth to demons. None of that is biblical but I am surprised to find the word mentioned here (and only here) albeit not as an individual but as a class of demons.

Isaiah 35. Talk about contrast! After all that death and destruction in chapter 34, we get all this imagery of life and restoration and healing and refreshment. And a holy highway for God's ransomed people leading straight home to Zion. New creation, all right!

Isaiah 36. An account of the events recorded in 2 Kings 18 and 2 Chronicles 32.

Psalm 37:1-18. This is a paraphrase from a Christian perspective and it really rocks! For a more literal and traditional take, here is some good old Anglican psalm chanting. Beautiful!

1 Timothy 6. This chapter is a rebuke to those who preach a prosperity gospel: pray to God, contribute to my ministry and God will make you rich. They "think that godliness is a means to financial gain." Here we have the famous but usually misquoted verse 10: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." It's greed and materialism, not money in and of itself, that are condemned and they don't lead to all evil but all kinds of evils. Paul says our wealth is contentment. If we have food and clothing, that's sufficient. It's not like we can take anything with us when we die.

Paul is also not fond of preachers who stir up controversy for no good reason.

No general greetings, just a lot of encouragement for Timothy and a reminder to seek the spiritual treasures God is so generous with.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 227

The scriptures read are Isaiah 31-33, Psalm 36 and 1 Timothy 5.

Isaiah 31. Merely relying on military might will not save Judah from the Assyrians. But God can.

Isaiah 32. God will bring a righteous king with exceptional leaders. "No more will fools become celebrities..." Hasten that day, Lord! More condemnation of those who don't help and/or exploit the poor, hungry and homeless.

Pampered rich women aren't spared, either. Their welfare will be undermined by a failed grape harvest.

But when the Spirit is poured out there will be a bumper crop of justice and peace.

Isaiah 33. People who destroy and betray are in deep trouble. But the solution is simple: "Live right, speak the truth, despise exploitation, refuse bribes, reject violence, avoid evil amusements. This is how you raise your standard of living! A safe and stable way to live. A nourishing, satisfying way to live."

When God is king in Jerusalem, corruption will disappear and "No one in Zion will say, 'I'm sick.' Best of all, they'll live guilt-free."

Psalm 36. The best version of this psalm covers just part of it but it's good.

1 Timothy 5. Treat everyone like family, especially your family! Those who neglect their family betray the faith.

Widows actually became a kind of religious order in the early church, helping people. You can see the roots of that here.

Leaders deserve their pay, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. And Paul gives Timothy practical advice on church discipline. Even in an English paraphrase, the language is more to the point. This is the equivalent of an interoffice email, not a letter to the whole church at large.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 226

The scriptures read are Isaiah 28-30, Psalm 35 and 1 Timothy 4.

Isaiah 28. The Lord is an oncoming storm and the people of the northern kingdom are as alert as a bunch of drunks. They are so addled they babble like babies. God slurs his speech and mumbles just so they'll understand. But it's not just Samaria, capitol of the north, that can expect judgment. Jerusalem is not off the hook, either.

God doesn't use "one size fits all" techniques. As a farmer does, he varies what he does according to his current task and, as a farmer sows and harvests different plants in different ways, God treats different people according to what is appropriate for them.

Isaiah 29. Ariel is a poetic name for Jerusalem. God will protect the city against its enemies. God's not happy with his people for offering him lip-service only but he will nevertheless root out those who cheat and oppress and heal the deaf and blind.

Isaiah 30. God is against Judah's diplomatic overtures to Egypt as an ally against Assyria. Isaiah foresees a time when God's people will turn from their idols to him and they will prosper. And God will take care of Assyria at the right time.

Psalm 35. Slim pickings when it comes to good songs/videos on this psalm. But here is a rendition that captures the spirit of the persecuted psalmist, asking for rescue from his enemies. BTW the song ends at 5:24 and then the singer gives a little sermonette.

1 Timothy 4. Paul encourages Timothy to stand fast against folks who discard or distort the faith, those who promote an asceticism that forbids marriage and certain foods and who foist a false mythology on others. And don't let anyone dismiss you because of your youth. Show them your spiritual maturity in your life and ministry.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 225

The scriptures read are Isaiah 25-27, Psalm 34 and 1 Timothy 3.

Isaiah 25. There is a celebration of how God takes care of the poor. And then a passage that will be echoed in Jesus' talk of the kingdom of God being like a wedding feast. Isaiah also envisions God ending death and wiping away every tear, a phrase that will reappear in the Book of Revelation.

Isaiah 26. Jerusalem as a refuge for the righteous. Images of birth and resurrection.

Isaiah 27. Another reference to Leviathan, a sea serpent that scripture alternately describes God as playing with, or as here, fighting. Again the dragon imagery will show up in Revelation. He may very well symbolize the primordial chaos that God subdued at the beginning of creation.

Then the poetry switches to singing about a vineyard. But this time instead of breaking down its walls and letting nature take it over, God tends it lovingly. He has no anger anymore. Animals will be welcome and refugees from Egypt. The vineyard is explicitly said to be his people.

Psalm 34. Several people in my family are hearing-impaired. So here is a video with sign language accompanying a soul/country version of the psalm. And as a bonus here is a gifted amateur who does a great job on his acoustic guitar version despite English evidently not being his first language.

1 Timothy 3. Here's the part I was talking about before we got into this book. Peterson uses the words "leader" and "servant" rather than "bishop" and "deacon" but that just underlines my point. There is no need to see these as positions that could only arise after a long time and an elaboration of hierarchy. Paul is simply giving the qualifications for those who lead and serve the church. And they are what we would want to see in any leader, neither egomaniacs nor drunks, neither newbies nor the power-hungry, neither violent and argumentative nor money-grubbers. Their personal lives shouldn't be chaotic messes. The qualifications for deacons are much the same. And that goes for the women in these positions as well (verse 11).

Paul then goes into a little hymn, perhaps one that was popular in the early church.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Faith is Not Optional

The most pernicious things ever done to the concept of faith have been done by playwrights and screenwriters. And it starts with that beloved children's classic “Peter Pan.” If you remember, it is established in the play that when a child ceases to believe in fairies, one of those magical creatures dies. And apparently it works both ways. When Tinkerbell drinks some poison meant for Peter, Pan breaks the 4th wall and asks the kids in the theater to clap if they believe in fairies. I clapped like crazy when I watched the televised play starring Mary Martin back in the 60s. And that's how the damage was done. The idea was implanted in millions of impressionable minds that (a) the existence of an object of faith was dependent on the faith of its supporters and (b) faith was believing in something that you knew really didn't exist.

Show Biz's other pernicious idea on this subject is that faith is an internal quality that does not need an object. To Hollywood, having faith is akin to having courage or integrity. Just have faith, a character is often told. I have never heard a character retort “In what?” But that's what any intelligent person would say. Faith is the same as trust and any trust you have has to be invested in a person or thing. But not everything will do as the object of faith. We all realize that it is unwise to go around trusting in everyone and everything. Con men live off of people who are way too trusting. You should only have faith in someone or something trustworthy.

Whenever a screenwriter wakes up to the fact that faith is a “transitive” thing and needs an object, they make that object oneself. “Have faith in yourself,” is the single most common life lesson taught by children's books, movies and TV shows. And while this might be a good thing to teach a specific child with no self-confidence, and while it might resonate greatly in the creative community where you need to trust your instincts to get your book published or script filmed or movie made, most of the problems in the world are not caused by people who don't believe in themselves. Most are caused by people with little or no self-doubt, despite red flags everywhere saying they should.

In its most innocuous form, this misplaced trust in oneself manifests itself in the people who go on American Idol with no talent and no clue that they have no talent. At its worst, you get a failed landscape painter and ex-corporal who turns a failed coup into a book deal and a political career that enables him to exterminate 6 million Jews, 7 million other undesirables and plunge the earth into World War 2. It would have been better had Hitler not believed in himself. “Believe in yourself and follow your dream” is great advice if you are Steven Spielberg or Thomas Edison but not if you are Ted Bundy or Pol Pot. Much better to believe in something objectively worth your faith.

All of this informs the way we modern folk read Hebrews 11:1, which in the NET Bible reads, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” The cynic sees this as wishful thinking and imagination. The skeptic takes it as an admission that we believe in things because we want to. But the writer of Hebrews is not defining faith, just describing it. Faith is trusting in someone or something. For the Christian, faith is trusting in God. We cannot see him but like the wind, we experience the effects of his actions. And our experience leads us to trust him more. Because we experience his love, we trust his promises found in the Bible and are confident that he will do what he says. And since what he promises are good things, they become our hopes, the same way that being promised a specific present for Christmas makes you not only hope for it but be sure that your mom or dad or grandparents will deliver.

All our relationships and joint endeavors are based on promises. Those promises are either explicit, as in marriage vows or in a building contract, or implicit, as on a date when the unspoken promise is that your date will be focused on treating you well, as opposed to, say, harming you. We trust people all the time to do their jobs to make sure our electricity is there, to make sure our cell phones work, to make sure police officers, firefighters, and EMTs are on duty when we need them. It is implied that when you buy something from a merchant that it works and is not stolen. These are not things you think about, unless these implied promises are broken. And in many cases the law does assume and enforce certain implied promises, through things like the lemon law.

It is an implied promise that the news you watch, hear or read is accurate. This last promise may not always be made in good faith. If you go to a website or cable news channel with a strongly partisan viewpoint, you should be aware that the news is likely to be spun in such a way to back up the opinions of the people presenting the news. Before I post things on the internet, I usually check them out first, by Googling the fact, or going to Snopes or Politifact to see if there are any problems with it. What I especially like about or is that they do the research and they get precise. What a politician said or what a Facebook post asserted may not be completely true or completely false. The source may have left out an inconvenient detail or statistic or nuance in order to make the assertion stronger than it has a right to be. Thus it may be only Mostly True or Half True or Mostly False. The stuff that's egregiously wrong gets from Politifact the rating Pants on Fire. I wish there was a similar website that corrects the frequent and erroneous assertions about religion that circulate as memes throughout the internet. A lot of people evidently still believe that Jesus never existed, or that everything from his birth to his resurrection were taken from older pagan gods or that the church caused the Dark Ages. There are websites that correct these (even going to Wikipedia would undo most of these assumptions) but they are not well known and they don't usually rate things, true, false or in-between. My point is that what you think you know is also a matter of trust. If you trust the wrong sources, you might be badly misinformed.

Because of this reliance on other authorities, even science is a matter of faith. That is, unless they are willing to redo all previous experiments in their field or re-examine all the collected evidence, scientists who are building on the work of others are trusting that their predecessors got it right. They must have faith in the methodology, accuracy and honesty of those who went before them. And scientists being human, that is not always a good assumption to make. Just the other day, I was reading a blog by a neuroscientist who felt that the folks who made a landmark study some time ago retract it because of the mounting evidence that they were wrong. It wasn't their honesty that was in doubt but the thoroughness of their methodology. But it calls into question all subsequent research along those lines and the writer felt that a public repudiation of the earlier study by its authors was called for. Scientists being human, I wouldn't hold my breath till that took place.

Everyday in almost everything we do, we are dependent on others and must trust what they do. I got a nasty registry problem on my computer and the tech support guy said that I should stay off of You Tube. I was surprised because everyone uses that site. Precisely, he said, and anyone can upload any video with God knows what kind of viruses attached. Even legitimate websites can unknowingly harbor viruses. That's sobering. Right now on my blog, in lieu of re-commenting on the Psalms, which we are going through for the second time in the Bible Challenge, I have been seeking out and linking to various sung and musical versions of each psalm. The place I find most of them is You Tube. I just make sure I run my virus and registry cleanup software often.

So the question is not “Should I have faith?” because having to trust people and things is unavoidable. Rather the question we must ask is “who or what should I trust?” As Christians, we trust God. A lot of people have trouble with that and on various grounds.

Some people have trouble putting their faith in God because they had a bad experience with a church or with a specific person at a church. The problem with this is that they are confusing God with human beings, albeit humans who supposedly work for or represent God. It would be akin to giving up on medicine because you had a bad time with your doctor's receptionist or nurse. Most of us would ignore them or talk to them about how they made us feel or talk to the doctor about them. In a worse case scenario, you could switch doctors. In the same way, there are so many churches and clergy out there that you can find one that is sensitive to your needs. The idea of dropping God just because you don't like one church or one person is like giving up driving a car because of a bad experience at the DMV.

That said, it behooves us as Christians to remember that we represent Jesus to others. He told us not to judge other lest we be judged. He told us to forgive folks seventy times seven. He told us to leave our gift at the altar and first get reconciled to our brother or sister if we have an unresolved problem with them. It may not be rational but people can reject Christ because you, a follower, act in a less than Christlike manner toward them.

Some people don't trust in God because they have read a lot of biased and erroneous things about religion in general or Christianity in particular. If you can articulate your politics you can articulate your faith. I usually would not defend religion as a whole but defend my personal relationship with God. But make sure you really listen and understand just what the person's reason is for rejecting God. If it is a matter of erroneous facts or logic, be prepared to respectfully but firmly deal with that. There are tons of books on Christian apologetics that will help you deal with 99% of the questions people have. And if they bring up something you had not heard or considered before, admit that you don't know absolutely everything but tell them you will research it and get back to them. Just admitting that you don't have everything nailed down might impress them with your intellectual honesty and openness.

When I listen to people speak of their doubts, I often find an emotional reason behind it. They may say that they have a problem with the reliability of the Bible but you catch that their real problem is that they had a pastor or a parent who used the Bible to intellectually bludgeon them into doing things they didn't want to or to keep them from doing things they wanted to. Perhaps someone used the Bible wrongly to justify their personal opinions or behavior. When someone comes out of a rigid fundamentalist environment, they often discover that not everything they were told about the Bible or their faith was so. If their faith was like a chain, with each belief a link, then smashing just one link breaks the whole chain and their entire faith is shattered. We need to be sympathetic and gentle with such people, pointing out that what is really essential to our faith is Jesus: who he is, what he did and does for us and what our response should be. It is all about putting our trust in him and not in everything anyone ever said about him. Keep the discussion on Jesus and you won't have to deal with a lot of the red herrings skeptics can bring up.

Still, our information about Jesus comes from the Bible. Get to know it well so you can help people who have genuine questions and doubts. On my iPhone I have the Logos Bible app which gives me access to a lot of good Bibles, Bible dictionaries and reference works. One is Hard Sayings of the Bible which deals with the passages most people have questions about. The app is free and I highly recommend it.

Just as important as the contents of our faith is our experience of it. Most people are not shopping for a new intellectual system so much as someone or something to rely on in the everyday struggles of life. You as a Christian can't help them if your faith in God is mostly lodged in the logic centers of your brain and not displayed by how you approach people and life. When people turn to Jesus it is for strength and comfort and guidance usually. When they come to you to learn about Jesus because you are his follower, do you have examples of times when Jesus supplied you with those things or something else you needed? If so, that's what people want to hear. They want to know that they can trust Jesus to help them as he helped you.

Criminals detect BS a mile away. So I have to be honest when I minister to the inmates at the jail. When they realize that my faith in God is genuine, then they are encouraged to trust him. And I am, in turn, encouraged by their faith and oddly enough, by my own recalling of times when God helped me and those around me. We tend to let such things fade in our memories. It is important to remember the many times when God spoke to us, comforted us, guided us, provided for us and protected us. Not only will that kindle the faith of others, it will rekindle our faith as well.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see.” But once we have seen God deliver on what we hoped for in the past, it makes faith in him and his goodness easier. And once we see someone acting on faith, we can in a sense see what is otherwise invisible. Jesus makes the unseen God visible. Our trusting him in our daily life makes faith visible to seekers and skeptics.

Faith is not optional. We all have to trust people and things and the implied promises that underlie all human relationships and interactions. And we have to trust physics and the nature of creation. And because creation is way more trustworthy than people, some folks think that trustworthiness is wholly transferable to science. But science is, once again, a human endeavor and subject to our limits and foibles. It is our attempt to describe reality but is not the same as reality. It is as trustworthy and as untrustworthy as the human beings who do the science. As is religion, I might add. It is our attempt to describe the spiritual world. But just as we should not confuse science with reality, we should not confuse religion with God. It is God who gives reality its reliability. So what we ultimately need to do is form a relationship with him. A relationship based, as all relationships should be, on trust.

You can't trust every plane to take off safely but you can trust gravity to always keep you from flying off this spinning planet into space. And you can trust the God who created gravity and planets and space and the laws that govern them. You can trust him to guide you where he wants you to go and to provide for your needs along the way and to bring you safely home to him. 

The Bible Challenge: Day 223

The scriptures read are Isaiah 22-24, Psalm 33 and 1 Timothy 2.

Isaiah 22. The Assyrians are coming and everybody's having a big party. Here you find the famous saying "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die." Isaiah can't stand to see, even in a vision, folks about to die.

Hezekiah's water tunnel is mentioned. Also the royal steward, whom God wants sacked and replaced (according to 2 Kings 18, this was done.) They have discovered a fancy 8th century tomb for someone with that title.

Isaiah 23. The thriving seaport of Tarshish will experience judgment. Tyre and Sidon, too.

Isaiah 24. The earth will be devastated. There will be no escape.

Psalm 33. This song is based on the last part of the psalm but soars. And this is, I presume, a liturgical setting of the psalm for the Greek Orthodox church.  

1 Timothy 2. Paul emphasizes the importance of praying for everyone, including for the government. He follows this with the statement that God wants everyone to be saved. Jesus is the one mediator between humanity and God, by virtue of his giving of his life for all.

Verses 11 and 12 sound surprising coming from the guy who says elsewhere "there is no male and female for you are one in Christ." All I can offer is the very different translation made by respected conservative scholar N. T. Wright who renders these verses thus: "They [women] must be allowed to study undisturbed, in full submission to God. I'm not saying that women should teach men, or try to dictate to them; rather that they should be left undisturbed." He says he has good scholarship behind this translation. He reminds us that Ephesus has a cult of Artemis with an all female priesthood. Paul is trying to avoid having the church look like that but is asserting the right of women to study the scriptures, something radical for a sect coming out of Judaism. So, while avoiding the appearance that women are taking over the church, they should nevertheless be allowed to study and to do so undisturbed.

And the bit about childbirth? Wright says Paul is trying to dispel the idea of it as a curse but that God will protect the women as they go through the process. And N. T. Wright is an immeasurably better Bible scholar than I ever will be.