Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 334

The scriptures read are Micah 5, Psalm 121 and Matthew 27.

Micah 5. The famous passage quoted in Matthew's nativity story is found here. It's about how the shepherd/leader of God's people will come out of Bethlehem. He will be a universal peacemaker.

The remnant of God's people will be exceptional. And God will end all war by ending those things people fight with and about.

Psalm 121. From Westminster Abbey, a lovely rendition of this psalm.

Matthew 27. Why did Judas change his mind? Did he not expect Jesus to be arrested? Was Judas a Zealot trying to force Jesus to start the revolution? Did he think Jesus had sold out in some way? It's impossible to know.

It's likely this crowd, gathered so early on the day of Preparation, when most Jews would be standing in line at the temple to get their lambs slaughtered, was made up largely of the Sanhedrin and members of Caiaphas' household. The idea is to get Jesus crucified and buried before the Sabbath/Passover. After the Sabbath was over it would be a fait acompli.

Crucifixion was meant to be both painful and humiliating. It was meant to discourage anyone else from trying the same things the executed person was accused of.

The robbers were likely revolutionaries captured with Barabbas.

The jeers aimed at Jesus echo the tempter's words in Matt 4:3,7.

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the New Testament says the sour wine may not have been the painkiller that was offered to Jesus earlier but was given here to revive him and prolong his suffering.

Joseph of Arimathea must have had a lot of clout to get an audience with Pilate at such short notice and to get the body of Jesus, executed as a revolutionary, handed over to him, a non-relative. Most crucified criminals were put in a common grave, not a nice family tomb with a fine linen shroud.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 333

The scriptures read are Micah 4, Psalm 120 and Matthew 26.

Micah 4. The first 3 verses of this chapter are virtually the same as Isaiah 2:2-4. All the nations will stream to Zion to learn from God and peace will break out. God promises to heal and restore his people.

But first comes the exile. The people will come out of it stronger.

Psalm 120. Two very different versions of this psalm. First, in the original Hebrew here. Second, a chamber version in Latin here.

Matthew 26. The plot to kill Jesus is under way, hatched among the religious leaders, anxious to preserve the status quo and keep the Romans from destroying the nation (Cf John 11:48-49). The average Jew knows nothing of what is going on.

The woman who anoints Jesus is NOT Mary of Magdala. It looks more like it was Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and done in gratitude for Jesus raising her brother from the dead. (Cf. John 12:1-8).

30 pieces of silver is the price of a slave. Judas sells out Jesus at a discount! And to betray someone you just ate with was especially disgraceful.

Jesus radically reinterprets the elements of the Passover meal. Covenants are sealed with the blood of a sacrifice. Still Jews would be revolted by the idea of drinking blood and eating human flesh.

Passover must be eaten within Jerusalem and the participants must stay there that night so they don't return to Bethany. Gethsemane means "olive press" so there was probably one there in the garden.

Staying up late and talking about God's deliverance on Passover was typical.

Kissing then was like a handshake today. Again, this makes Judas' betrayal even more reprehensible.

Not only was losing an ear painful but the servant would not have been able to serve at the temple. Jesus' healing of him restored the servant not only physically but spiritually.(Cf. Luke 22:51)

The temple guards come to arrest a dangerous messianic revolutionary. Jesus' remarks on swords shoots that idea down.

Some say this trial never took place because it was illegal to meet at night and give a verdict without waiting a day. Like leaders never did anything illegal when they fear their destruction! Beside these are the rules the Pharisees came up with later. The priests are their rivals, the Sadducees, and only care about getting this dangerous radical out of the way. Then as now leaders do what they want and later come up with justifications or coverups. Like technically Jesus did not blaspheme but the high priest is being melodramatic to get the verdict he wants.

Peter is brave enough to walk onto the high priest's property but not brave enough to stand up for Jesus, who could have used a friendly witness.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Holiday comes from the words “holy” and “day.” But you would never know that from how we celebrate holidays in this country. Christmas is much more about presents and Santa than the birth of Jesus. Easter is much more about candy and eggs than the resurrection of Christ. And Thanksgiving is much more about food and football than gratitude to God. In each of these cases, part of the problem is that merchants have been very successful in promoting their contribution to the holiday, more so than churches have. To the average person a holiday means a day off from work or school and time to celebrate. The idea that worshiping God should have a major role in the observance of a holiday rarely occurs to most folks. It's odd given that, for instance, the word Christmas contains Christ. And the word Thanksgiving begs the question “To whom are we giving thanks?”

The cynic might say we should be thankful to the folks who grow and harvest our food. And that is true. But that is just near the end of the chain of events that brings us the things we should be thankful. We are omnivores, which means unlike Koalas or cows or vampire bats, we can survive on a great number of things. And our skill at cooking further extends the menu because there are a number of foods that have to be prepared before they are digestible. We would not have spread all over the world, living in every kind of environment, were our diet limited to one or two items. Who do we thank for that?

For that matter, our brains and social structures are such that we can create the farms, the harvesting machines, the transportation systems, and the chains of retail outlets that make food distribution as widespread as it is. Ants and bees might store food for large numbers but none distribute it over continents or overseas, or indeed, outside their colonies. We not only feed the world for money but we also create government programs, charities and non-profits to distribute food to the needy, because we do not believe in letting poor people starve, though that could save us money and resources. We are not only incredibly organized but altruistic, well outside the circles of our own families, nations, and races. Who do we thank for that?

Our planet is 93 million miles from our sun, which is far enough that it isn't too hot for life, like Venus with a mean surface temperature of 863 degrees Fahrenheit, but close enough that it isn't too cold for life, like Saturn with a surface temperature of 288 degrees Fahrenheit below 0. Our planet is tilted at 23 ½ degrees in relation to the sun which gives us seasons. Our seasons are stabilized—that is, kept from being too extreme, by the moon, the largest in relation to its planet in our solar system. The moon also blocks a lot of meteors that would otherwise hit earth. Who do we thank for that?

2/3 of the earth is covered with water. It traps heat and distributes it throughout the planet. Water is essential for life. No animal consists of less than 50% water. Water allows plants and animals to dissolve minerals and nutrients for energy. Plants also use energy from the sun and remove most of the carbon from the atmosphere and release a lot of the oxygen, making life possible for the rest of us. The composition of the atmosphere—78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen. 0.03% carbon dioxide—plus hydrogen from water are essential for the production of the carbohydrates, fats and proteins we need to eat. Who do we thank for that?

The fact that oxygen makes up 21% of our atmosphere is essential because if the percentage was lower, animals could not exist and if it were just 4% higher, most plants would go up in flames. For that matter the cosmological constant, the 4 fundamental interactions of the dimensionless physical constraints, the freezing temperature of water, and a number of other basic features of our universe seemed to be fine-tuned to allow the creation and maintenance of life. Who do we thank for that?

An atheist might say “no one.” We just happen to be in a universe that allows life. The fact that so many things had to come together just right for us to exist is just chance. I would say it's as if we won the lottery at every single point at which things have gone in a different way that would preclude life. It's been shown that this is so unlikely as to defy the laws of probability. So some cosmologists have postulated that there are multiple universes with different constants so our finding ourselves in the one so hospitable to us is like not as unlikely. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of these other universes, nor any method to test whether they in fact exist. Essentially, the best non-theistic explanation for why we find the universe fine-tuned for life is that it has to be for us to exist in it and observe it. Which isn't really an explanation. It tells us that a universe without life could not be observed. But it doesn't explain why an observable universe should exist at all. Why do we have brains capable of observing and analyzing things that are not strictly needed for our survival? Who do we thank for that?

Jesus of Nazareth lived and died 2000 years ago. He arose again and sent out emissaries to proclaim the good news of God's love, grace and forgiveness through faith in Christ. They wrote all they learned from and through him and made countless copies allowing us to compare and make sure we have the most accurate version of these inspired documents. He gives us his Holy Spirit so we can be healed of sin and spiritual sickness and to become more like Jesus everyday. Who do we thank for that?

We know the answer. It is God our Father, who created us and this universe and who is now in the process of recreating, of making all things new As he created the world through Christ, so now is he making the new creation through Christ. And if we let him, he will make us new creations, restoring us to his image, fit to live with him forever.

These things are real causes to give thanks. And yet we are rather churlish towards God. He gives us life, time, a beautiful and abundant world and we take these things for granted. Worse, we misuse, abuse and neglect his gifts. We use them to harm not heal. We ruin and destroy them. We ignore and neglect our stewardship of them.

And we are hurting ourselves. Psychologists have realized that a major component of happiness is gratitude. In an article in the Georgia Psychological Association, Dr. William Doverspike reviewed 3 recent studies. In one, participants were asked to think of someone who did something important and wonderful for them and who had not been properly thanked, write a letter expressing their gratitude and deliver it in person, spending time to discuss it. Compared with a control group, folks who wrote and delivered the gratitude letter expressed more happiness a month later.

In another study, people were asked to write down each night 3 things that went well that day. They were to do it for a week. At a 6 month follow up, they were still happier and less depressed than they had been at the beginning.

People who were asked to keep a weekly journal of what they were grateful for turned out to exercise more, report fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives overall, were more optimistic about the coming week and made progress towards personal goals. People who did a self-guided gratitude exercise daily reported being more alert, more enthusiastic, more determined, more attentive and more energetic.

Gratitude is a key component in mental health. So is showing our gratitude to God by helping others. Not only does volunteering help lower stress and depression in the volunteer, it results in greater physical health and longevity.

That makes sense because the Bible tells us this is why we were made. Genesis tells us we were created to be gardeners and stewards of God's creation. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” When we do what we were designed to do, we are healthier. And so is the rest of creation.

Throughout history, Christians have set up and continue to create and support schools, hospitals, food pantries, clothing banks, hospices, and more. They visit people in hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes. They provide places for homeless shelters, literacy programs, day care for children or the elderly, and support groups for those who are bereaved, divorced, addicted, unemployed, and suffer from illnesses both mental and physical. While others plan further ways to exploit, degrade and ruin the people and things God made, Christians are called to fix, heal and build up creation.

It is called stewardship. It is recognizing that, as David said in 1 Chronicles 29:14, “For all things come from you and of your own have we given you.” God created all things. All that we have is gift and grace. All of our skills and abilities come from God. All of our time is a gift from God. Every moment, even the bad ones, Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, is an opportunity. What we have and what we are is a gift from God; what we do with them is our gift to God.

This Thanksgiving, begin to count daily your blessings from God. Start a gratitude journal. Every night list 3 things you are thankful for. Look for opportunities to love and serve God in return with your time, your talents, and your treasure. Help and heal yourself by helping and healing others. Share, listen, teach, encourage, forgive, protect, strengthen, enjoy, accept, guide, befriend, pray for, comfort, learn, support, liberate and trust others in Jesus' name. They are all great ways to be grateful to our gracious God and Savior.   

The Bible Challenge: Day 332

The scriptures read are Micah 3, Psalm 119:145-176 and Matthew 25.

Micah 3. Micah accuses the leaders of Israel of devouring their people. When it's the leaders who cry for help, God will ignore them. Also criticized: cozy prophets and corrupt judges.

Psalm 119:145-176. If you are looking for a way to memorize scripture, any song will do, I suppose.

Matthew 25. After a day of dancing, the groom would come to get the bride by night. He would process the the whole town. The bridesmaids would meet him, escort him to the bride's home. Then everyone would escort them both to the groom's house. The bridesmaids should have anticipated that it would be a long night.

The parable of the talents in a nutshell: use it or lose it.

Look for Jesus in everyone you meet. Serve him through them. Notice that the big sin here is neglect of the poor, the powerless, the marginal people. God will judge you on how you treat these folks.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 331

The scriptures read are Micah 2, Psalm 119:113-144 and Matthew 24.

Micah 2. God denounces those who plan evil, taking the land of others and bullying their neighbors. And he is against preachers who tell people what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear, like how the people treat the defenseless and the children, subjecting them to violence and vice.

Yet God plans to lead a remnant back out of exile.

 Psalm 119:113-144. Here's a contemporary jazz version of this psalm.

Matthew 24. The disciples ask 2 questions: "When will these things (ie, the destruction of the temple) happen?" AND "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?" The trick is to figure out which verses refer to which question.

 First up, the events of the Jewish revolt that lead up to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. This part at least goes up till v. 27. The abomination of desolation could easily be the horrific state of the temple with lakes of blood from the slaughter by the Zealots and its burning by a Roman soldier. (Check out these passages from Josephus, an eyewitness, if you want more details.)

Secondly, Jesus' return will be obvious so don't listen to imposters. Keep alert but don't get too worked up trying to figure out when exactly it will take place. Even Jesus (at least at this point in his human life) doesn't know. So just make sure you're busy doing the work he gave you to do when he returns: ie, loving God and loving others and telling them the good news.

The Bible Challenge: Day 330

The scriptures read are Micah 1, Psalm 119:73-112 and Matthew 23.

Micah 1. Micah was a prophet at the same time as Isaiah, Hosea and Amos. He sees God descend and walk to Samaria, his anger and power shaking the mountains, flattening Samaria, capital of idolatrous Israel. Later Judah will go into exile. Micah employs puns based on the towns around Jerusalem, which is obvious in Peterson's The Message.

Psalm 119:73-112. I love well-done chanting, as you can hear here. If you want something more contemporary, try this.

Matthew 23. Jesus confronts the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and professional scribes for a whole chapter. They don't practice what they preach. They add to the law, making it impossible to obey it all. They love the attention they get. Jesus pronounces 7 "woes" on them, each a criticism.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 328

The scriptures read are Jonah 4, Psalm 119:33-72 and Matthew 22.

Jonah 4. This is the the point of the story of Jonah. God is more merciful than people. Especially than Jonah. Also it shows that God does change his mind (the word used for "relent" is the same word for "repent"). It's not that God changes his mind about what is evil or his goals, but he definitely changes his methods. If he can stop evil by getting people to repent rather than by punishing them, all the better. Notice that God sees the people of Nineveh as childlike, not knowing right and wrong. Because, unlike Israel, they don't have God's law? Also God is concerned over all the innocent animals that would be collateral damage.

Psalm 119:33-72. A folk song-ish version of this section of the psalm.

Matthew 22. It's not wise to turn down a king's invitation. Granted wedding banquets could last 7 days but these guys were wealthy and landed (verse 5) so they could take that time off. And killing a king's servants would be seen as as actions against the king himself and therefore treasonous. Jesus' audience would totally understand the king's actions. Notice that of those who do come, some are good and some are bad. And if you do go to a king's wedding for heaven's sake, dress up some. This could be a reference to Judas, who comes to Jesus but isn't in the right spirit for following him.

There were tax revolts and revolts against using Roman coins with the divine Roman emperor's profile. It was seen as idolatry. Why did they even have such a coin, especially in the temple? But they are trying to trap Jesus into either rejecting paying taxes, making him an enemy of Rome, or into accepting the idea of Roman taxes, which might cause many of his followers to see him as a sell out. Jesus neatly turns the tables on them. Also people have the image of God in them, so they belong to God.

Did the Sadducees get the scenario of the 7 brothers' widow from the book of Tobit? Anyway, Jesus' affirmation that God is the God of the living, shows that the dead are not dead to God.

The 2 great commandments are foundational for God's law. The 10 commandments can be divided into those referring to God and those concerning other people.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Apostle to the Skeptics

On Friday November 22, 1963, a great man died. 50 years later, he is still an inspirational figure. His words are still quoted; his writings still read; his principles are still relevant. That man...was C.S. Lewis. But because President Kennedy was assassinated the very same day, many people did not know of Lewis' death until later. And while people argue about whether Kennedy was a great president or not, few dispute Lewis' place as the foremost Christian apologist of the 20th century and one who has yet to be surpassed a half century later.

Clive Staples Lewis, understandably, hated his first name. At age 4, he declared his name “Jacksie” and refused to answer to any other. From then on, his friends and family called him Jack.

He was born in Northern Ireland. His grandfather was a very political Protestant preacher. His father was a wildly emotional man and a lawyer. His mother was the opposite, cool and rational. His childhood was a happy one, his closest friend his older brother Warren. Together the boys created an imaginary land of talking animals. Jack wrote its history and illustrated it. At age 8, Lewis' mother died of cancer and he was sent away to boarding school in England. In his teens he lost his childhood faith and became, as a schoolmate later wrote, “a riotously amusing atheist.” Lewis discovered Norse mythology and the pleasure of a sharp longing he called joy. He was mentored by his father's old tutor, a ruthlessly logical atheist named Kirkpatrick.

He fought in the First World War alongside a fellow Irishman named Paddy Moore. They made a vow that if either survived, he would take care of the other's family. Paddy was killed and Lewis was wounded in 3 places. Lewis' father did not visit him in the military hospital in England but Paddy's divorced mother did. When he returned to Oxford, Lewis fulfilled his vow, helping Mrs. Moore and her young daughter move near him. She lived with him and his brother until her final illness. He called her Mother.

Lewis became a lecturer and tutor in English and also taught philosophy at Magdalen College of Oxford University. Among his colleagues was J.R.R. Tolkien. It was through Tolkien and another colleague and friend Hugo Dyson, as well as through his explorations of philosophy, that Lewis eventually returned to Christianity. Lewis read the gospels in the original Greek and as a professor of literature and reader of the classics, he realized they were too artlessly and unimaginatively written to be myths. They struck him as reporting. In an all-night conversation with Tolkien and Dyson, Lewis became convinced that in Jesus, myth had become fact. A few days later, on September 22, 1931, Lewis came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God.

Lewis had wanted to be a poet but two books of his poetry, published under a pen name, did not generate much excitement. He went on to write both scholarly works on medieval literature and books defending Christianity as well as science fiction and fantasy novels based on Christian ideas. His breakthrough hit was the Screwtape Letters, a shrewd examination of the psychology and theology of temptation in the form of letters from a senior devil to his nephew, a junior tempter. Coming on the heels of this bestseller was Broadcast Talks, based on a series of BBC radio addresses on the basics of the faith. Today, combined with its sequels, Christian Behavior and Beyond Personality, it is better known as Mere Christianity.

Lewis' popularity is due to his ability to not only explain theological ideas in a witty and conversational prose that was also understandable to the average person but also his use of clear and incisive logic, taught to him, ironically enough, by his atheist tutor. One of his most famous arguments, borrowed from G.K. Chesterton, has been called the Trilemma: that in claiming to be God, Jesus forces us to decide if he was either a lunatic, a liar or the Lord. As Lewis put it, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

Lewis was equally good with giving the reasons behind Christian ethics and in helping the normal person understand the Trinity. In the Problem of Pain, Lewis deals with suffering. In Miracles, he explores the problems modern people have with acts of God that seem to defy scientific explanation. In The Four Loves, he takes advantage of the fact that the Greeks have separate words for various loves—erotic, familial, friendship and divine love—to explain the similarities and differences between the ways we love and are loved.

Due to the series of screen adaptions of his children's books, Lewis is primarily known to the general public as a storyteller. His works, both fiction and nonfiction, were originally read aloud to and critiqued by a group of writers who met in his college rooms and called themselves the Inklings. Here Lewis and friends heard each chapter of the Lord of the Rings, read by Tolkien. Here they also heard the supernatural thrillers of Charles Williams, such as War In Heaven, in which the Archdeacon of Fardles, a small English village, realizes that his church's communion chalice is in fact the Holy Grail and is caught up in a madcap chase to keep it out of the hands of satanists. Lewis also knew Dorothy L. Sayers, the lay theologian, dramatist, translator of Dante and writer of the much loved Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels.

So Lewis was in good company when he began to write his science fiction novels. In Out of the Silent Planet, a professor of philology named Ransom (based on Tolkien) is kidnapped and taken to Mars to help scientists communicate with the native life forms, including a being of light who is the archangel of that world. Lewis' vision of what an unfallen world could be like, with its 3 forms of sentient life and their different cultures, is eyeopening. He followed that up with Perelandra, where Ransom is brought to a hauntingly re-imagined Venus, with floating islands and tame dragons. Ransom must counter a demon-possessed acquaintance, who is trying to tempt the Eve of that world to disobey its one command and bring evil to that planet. In That Hideous Strength, Ransom enlists an awakened Merlin to save the earth from a thoroughly evil scientific group, the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E. The tone of this novel is satirical as Lewis shows the dangers of disregarding morality in pursuit of knowledge.

Lewis is best known of course for his delightful series of modern fairytales called the Chronicles of Narnia. They started, as much of his fiction did, as images in Lewis' dreams. In this case, Lewis saw a faun, that is, a mythological half-goat, half-man, standing in a snowy woods. Lewis created a story to explain the picture. He based his heroine, Lucy, on the daughter of a friend and the situation he and his brother, now retired from the military and living with him, had found themselves in during the Second World War. They had invited a group of children evacuated from London to stay with them. He even incorporated an old wardrobe his grandfather had built into the story.

In the first Chronicle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the 4 Pevensey children find, during games of Hide and Seek, that an old wardrobe opens onto another world, one where it is always winter but never Christmas. The animals can talk and a cruel witch rules over the country of Narnia. But the children's entry into the world fulfills a prophesy that tells of how the true king of Narnia, Aslan the lion, will return. The problem is that one of the children, driven by jealousy and tempted by enchanted Turkish taffy, goes over to the witch. How will their brother be saved and the tyranny of the witch be overthrown?

The answer comes in the person of Aslan. It turns out that according to the rules governing this world, all traitors belong to the witch. Aslan volunteers to take the place of the errant brother. The children do not know this but the sisters catch Aslan slipping out of the camp and accompany him to the way to the place where he will be sacrificed. Here Lewis' power as a storyteller excel. Aslan's Via Dolorosa is moving; his mocking and death are horrific though not graphic; and his resurrection is a real “jump up and cheer” moment. It becomes obvious for anyone paying the slightest attention that Aslan is Christ in this world. And we know this from Lewis. A mother wrote him that her little boy was distraught because he realized he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back that that was not possible. Aslan is Jesus. The boy just loved the lion body more than the human body and because God made little boys, he understands that.

The first book was followed by 6 others. As we read through them we see the creation of Narnia and its end, followed by an afterlife in a much more real Narnia. Through these books C.S. Lewis managed to do to many others what his favorite children's author, George McDonald, did to Lewis: he baptized their imaginations. Many authors of books for both adults and children testify to the way that the Narnia Chronicles changed their lives and inspired their own writings.

Mrs. Moore died in 1951, just as the Chronicles were being published. Lewis also wrote a memoir of his early life and conversion called Surprised by Joy. As evidence of God's love of wordplay (it's all throughout the Bible, if you read the original languages) a woman by the name of Joy Davidman Gresham made plans to meet her favorite author.

Joy was an American Jew, who was married to William Lindsey Gresham, a fellow writer, who had a book made into a film starring Tyrone Powers. Both Joy and William had been atheists and Communists. But when William had a nervous breakdown and disappeared, leaving Joy stranded at home with their 2 boys, she had, after trying and failing to locate him, an uncanny experience. As she described it, “All my defenses—the walls of arrogance and cocksureness and self-love behind which I had hid from God—went down momentarily. And God came in.” The presence of God in the room with her was palpable and she knew he loved her. When the vision ended, she was on her knees, praying.

William returned home, was moved by Joy's experience and they began to study theology. Through prayer, William was able to stop drinking for 3 years. While Joy became a committed Christian, William got involved with Dianetics, the precursor to Scientology, dabbled in Zen Buddhism, used tarot cards and the I Ching to make decisions, including financial ones. Worse, he remained a womanizer. Joy began writing to C.S. Lewis whose writings began influencing hers. Lewis wrote back to every person who wrote him but he and his brother especially like Joy's fierce intelligence. Finally she went to England to stay with a friend and meet Lewis. Jack and Joy became fast friends.

While she was in England, Joy received a letter from her husband asking for a divorce. He wanted to marry her married cousin, who had come to stay with her kids while she was away. She returned to the States to find him drinking again and eventually they divorced. She saved and returned to England with her sons. The Lewis brothers bonded with the boys over Christmas. Lewis gave the boys a typescript of his next Narnia book. Joy got a place in London and she and Jack visited each other occasionally for the next year and a half.

This being the 1950s the fact that Joy used to be a Communist was grounds to have her leave England. Lewis offered to marry her in a purely civil service so his citizenship would allow her to continue to live and work in England. It was not love, he said.

Then one day she fell. Her hip was riddled with cancer. And Lewis realized he did love Joy. They were married at her hospital bed by a clergy friend, who also laid hands on Joy and prayed for her. Lewis said he was afraid he would be both groom and widower in the same day.

Joy recovered. They had a belated honeymoon and even traveled to Greece, a lifelong dream of Joy's. But 4 years later the cancer returned. Lewis did find himself a widower as well as stepfather to 2 boys. He had a crisis of faith. He later published his diary entries about it in A Grief Observed, one of the most profound books on mourning ever written. Ironically, because he wrote it under a pseudonym, friends gave him copies of the book to help him through his grief.

Joy's oldest son, David, decided to return to his Jewish roots. Lewis paid for him to study Judaism and be bar mitzahed and worked to get him kosher food. He eventually became a rabbi. The younger son, Douglas, is not only a Christian but co-produced the Narnia films.

Lewis himself died of renal failure 3 years later at 5:30 pm Greenwich time on a Friday in November. An hour later in Dallas, President John Kennedy was shot.

C.S. Lewis is not so much responsible for me being a Christian so much as he is for the way I see Christianity: as both a logically and psychologically sound way to approach the world. Through Aslan, who is described as good but not tame, he helped me see the difference between goodness and mere niceness. He taught me that truth is not merely the opposite of some error but often is found between two opposite errors. He taught me that evil has no independent existence but is the parody of goodness or spoiled goodness, an inferior knock-off that masquerades as goodness. He taught me that rather than asking if something is modern or old-fashioned, popular or unpopular, I should ask if something is true or false, right or wrong. He taught me to look past the facade and incidentals of things and look at the essentials, at what is at the heart of an idea or behavior or person. As Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

Everyone speaks of Lewis' effortless prose and clear reasoning but I think there is an additional quality that makes his work so loved and so necessary today. Unlike a lot of writers, Lewis was able to make goodness attractive. The reason you read his fiction is not just for the stories but because of the worlds and characters he created. You want to go to Perelandra and eat the bubble fruit and explore the floating islands. You want to enter Narnia and befriend its creatures. You want to meet Aslan and bury your face in his mane and be licked by his tongue and ride on his back. You totally understand the little boy who loved the lion body and you totally love Lewis for enabling us to see anew the person of Jesus, who is good but not tame, who is scary and lovable all at once.

As Lewis said, “The Value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Lewis was able to take the truths that we have heard and read over and over again since childhood until they seem boring and present them in vivid and stirring forms that awaken us to their beauty and timelessness. Again Lewis said, “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth but its condition.” And so his books, free of religious jargon, and infused with imagination, produced new parables illuminating life on earth and life eternal. 

Like Jesus, Lewis often turned our way of looking at things upside down to show us what we should have seen all along. Like death. At the end of the last Narnia book, we find that the characters have in fact died. But they notice that the old Narnia, now gone, was merely a shadow or copy of the new Narnia, the real more wonderful Narnia in which they found themselves. “The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more...It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed and, and then cried, 'I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this....Come further up, come further in!” Why we love this earth is that it sometimes looks like our real home, our true country, the new creation. It is this life that is the pale imitation of eternal life, this world that is a tattered, worn copy of the world to come. The longing we are feeling which this life cannot satisfy is the longing for God and his paradise. As Lewis concluded his Narnia series, “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”  

The Bible Challenge: Day 327

The scriptures read are Jonah 3, Psalm 119:1-32 and Matthew 21.

Jonah 3. This time Jonah obeys and goes to Nineveh. Nothing like 3 days in the belly of a fish to get one's attention.

Jonah preaches and--surprise!--the people of Nineveh, from the king on down, listen, repent and fast. Even the animals are to wear sackcloth! And God relents.

Psalm 119:1-32. A men's chorus from the Netherlands backed up by winds, strings and piano make this a lovely version even though I don't speak or read the language.

Matthew 21. Jesus comes on a donkey rather than a war horse or chariot. Another indication of what kind of Messiah Jesus is.

The Hosanna is from the psalm we read yesterday, 118:25-26. "Hosanna" means "O save!"

The whole incident with the moneychangers makes you wonder what Jesus would think of all the merchandising done in the name of Christianity. The moneychangers were in the Court of the Gentiles, the only part of the temple that gentiles could enter. The passage from Isaiah quoted by Jesus is in fact about gentiles also coming to the temple and it being a house of prayer for ALL people. Likewise the blind and lame were excluded from the inner precincts of the temple. Not, of course, once Jesus healed them. And by not seeking an alliance with those in charge of the temple but making friends among the weak, Jesus is showing what kind of Messiah he is and isn't.

In the parable of the 2 sons, Jesus again emphasized how important it is not just to say you obey God but to actually do it, even if you must repent first. Jesus couldn't have been more offensive than to say that such disreputable sinners as tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into heaven before the more visibly pious, because the former groups repented and the latter group doesn't think it needs to.

And the parable of the evil tenants is also pretty obviously aimed at the religious leaders. They are serving themselves, not God. Jesus is not making any friends among their ranks.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 326

The scriptures read are Jonah 2, Psalm 118 and Matthew 20.

Jonah 2. Jonah prays from the belly of the fish. His prayer resembles one of the psalms. Just as in them, Jonah is thankful before his ultimate deliverance. At least he is still alive, instead of drowned. And once he says he'll do what he promised to do (speak God's word, the whole raison d'etre of a prophet), God has the fish vomit him up on land. To the fish's relief as well as Jonah's, I'm sure.

Psalm 118. This English/Hebrew version is not purely based on this psalm but I like it a lot. I think you will, too. If you simply must hear the psalm alone, here is a stirring version sung in the 5 tone Orthodox style. I like it as well. I think you will, too.

Matthew 20. The parable of the unreasonably generous landowner. The problem here is not a matter of fairness. No one is underpaid; in fact, everyone is paid the same. But for some reason we feel that the guys who only worked a little should be paid a little. Or the whole scale should have been recalculated so the guys who worked more got paid more, though the wage they agreed to was the standard. God is more generous than we are. We need to be grateful for what he gives us, not grumbling about what he gives others.

Jesus is still preparing his disciples for his humiliation and death in Jerusalem.

James and John's mother is showing the kind of chutzpah only a mom can when looking out for her boys. She has no idea what she's asking. James is the first apostle martyred.

More of Jesus inverting the standards of the world. Jesus, the master, serves others, up to and including dying for them. His servants, the disciples, must emulate his example.

As bad as blindness is today, back then it would be even worse. There were no schools for the blind, no guide dogs, no ADA, no braille or books on tape. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem but still stops to heal two blind men.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 325

The scriptures read are Jonah 1, Psalm 117 and Matthew 19.

Jonah 1. This book works just like a parable because it has a moral. It is also a good story.

I am intrigued that Jonah thinks he can evade God by going to Tarshish.

Was Jonah being noble in offering to be thrown overboard? Or is this another sign of how badly he wanted to avoid God's orders?

Note that it is a big fish and not a whale that swallows Jonah.

Psalm 117. Infectious version of this psalm.

Matthew 19. Jesus is tougher on divorce than most churches.

Again we see that Jesus emphasizes the child-like trust that is required to being a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

The rich young man is being required, in his eyes at least, to cut off something precious to him, as Jesus said in the previous chapter. And the eye of a needle is just that, not some legendary door. Jesus is emphasizing the impossibility of saving ourselves, no matter how good we seem to be. We all need God's grace.

The Bible Challenge: Day 324

The scriptures read are Obadiah, Psalm 116 and Matthew 18.

Obadiah. We've heard before about the enmity of Israel (descended from Jacob) and Edom (descended from his brother Esau). Obadiah is prophesying against Edom for the culmination of that rivalry, some great injustice done to Judah when it was already down. This is probably the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.

In v. 15, Edom is told that what they did will be done to them. Or as people say today, karma. God's judgment is just.

Psalm 116. A heartfelt version of this psalm.

Matthew 18. Children may be loved but they are the most powerless members of society. Jesus is turning the earthly idea of greatness upside down.

The "little ones" in the rest of the passage are probably child-like believers, not necessarily actual children. Leading one astray is condemned by Jesus in the strongest possible terms. The millstone referred to is literally a "donkey's millstone."

We must be ruthless about the stuff that diverts us from following Jesus, even if it feels like it is a part of us.

V. 10 is the origin of the idea of guardian angels.

Jesus gives great advice for dealing with problems in the church. Keep involvement to the smallest number of people possible; don't make it a matter for the whole church unless you can't solve it between yourself and the person who sinned against you (yes, sinned not just annoyed or rubbed you the wrong way.)

Jesus says a lot of good stuff here about forgiveness. The parable of the merciless servant echoes what Obadiah says in verse 15 above.

The Bible Challenge: Day 323

The scriptures read are Amos 9, Psalm 115 and Matthew 17.

Amos 9. God will sift his people as with a sieve, shaking out the sinners.

Notice God mentions his being involved in all nations, not just Israel.

The chapter ends with a picture of not just restoration but blessings flowing like waterfalls and rivers of wine!

Psalm 115. Another great piece of choral work by King's College Cambridge as they straightforwardly sing this psalm.

Matthew 17. Is Matthew consciously paralleling Exodus 24:16 in talking about the 6 days before the Transfiguration on the mountain? Jesus' radiance recalls Moses' in Ex. 34:29. Both Elijah and Moses met with God on Mt. Horeb. The cloud covering also has Old Testament parallels. And the divine voice echoes Deuteronomy 18:15. (Thanks to the IVP Bible Background Commentary for pointing these out.)

Jesus doesn't come down the mountain to find idolatry, as Moses did, but insufficient faith to cure an epileptic child.

Jesus' answer to this question of whether he pays the temple tax reveals 2 things: first, that he is claiming messianic status by pointing out that the sons of kings don't pay taxes and second, that Jesus is willing to pay a tax that he doesn't think he should.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 321

The scriptures read are Amos 8, Psalm 114 and Matthew 16.

Amos 8. As fruit ripens, so does sin. God is fed up with Israel and specifically its mistreatment of the poor. Right now people can't wait for holy days to be over so they can get back to the business of exploiting the needy. One day they will search high and low for God's word in vain.

Psalm 114. A powerful choral version of this psalm. If you have the time, here is Mendelssohn's version with Psalm 115 thrown in as a bonus.

Matthew 16. Jesus' opponents want a miraculous sign to validate him as a prophet. Jesus promises them the sign of Jonah, swallowed by a fish and regurgitated onto land 3 days later. This is an enigmatic reference to Jesus' upcoming death, entombment and resurrection.

The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees is their influence. One group was popular with the people, the other had political power: a deadly combination, especially as enemies of Jesus.

Peter's confession of Jesus being the Christ/Messiah is the turning point in Jesus' mission. The disciples have gotten that much out of what Jesus has been teaching them. But even Peter is thinking of the Christ in popular terms: a holy warrior-king who will rout the Romans and set up a physical Kingdom of God. So he is not prepared for the truth about the cross. But that is at the heart of Jesus' mission and those who follow him must be prepared to follow him even to death.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Don't Work, Don't Eat?

There is a classic Peanuts strip in which we find Snoopy sitting on the roof of his doghouse with a typewriter. But this time he is not writing another one of his stories that begins with “It was a dark and stormy night.” No, this time he is writing a theology book. And in the last panel we see its title: Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?

Unfortunately, there is no such book on Amazon. Nor one called Bible Verses People Keep Getting Wrong. I'm sure there are books in which that is the basic argument but no one has had the courage to use either of those titles. But there certainly are verses that people continually misquote as well as sayings people think are in the Bible but which aren't. And there are certain verses that people keep misinterpreting. And today we have one that comes up in conversations on the poor distressingly often.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:10 Paul says of a group of people “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” This is an oft quoted scripture that people bandy about whenever the subjects of the poor or the homeless come up. But as Dr. D. A. Carson quotes his minister father as saying, “A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.” In other words, if you take a Bible verse out of its context, you can use it to prove nearly anything. So to interpret a quotation from the Bible, or any quote from any work actually, you need to know the context. You have to know what the author was discussing, who his audience was and the main point he was actually making.

So what was Paul discussing with the church in Thessalonica? He is not making a statement about the poor in general. In Romans 12:13, 2 Corinthians 9:6-13, and 1 Timothy 5:3, Paul says that those who are genuinely needy should be helped. The Bible itself has over 300 passages that deal with our duty to help and to neither neglect nor exploit the poor.

It is equally obvious that Paul is not talking about those who can't work because of disease or disability. He is speaking of those who can work but won't. Who might they be? It's possible they were people who took Paul's teaching of Jesus' imminent return in his last letter to mean it was so near that they could knock off work and just wait. Or they could be people who were following the lifestyle of the Cynics. Now the Cynics were philosophers who believed in living a virtuous life and rejecting all money and possessions and living in accord with nature. This sounds very noble and the most famous Cynic was Diogenes, who adopted a simple lifestyle, went barefoot in winter and lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. Cynic means “dog-like” and they adopted the insult proudly, saying is was their duty to hound people about the errors of their ways.

Like most philosophies, it degenerated from its original ideals and gave birth to a bunch of so-called followers who begged throughout the Roman Empire. It could have been that some of these Cynics converted to Christianity but continued their lifestyle of begging rather than working. They thought they were living a pure and natural life. But they were apparently living off the generosity of other church members, who were trying to be charitable. So Paul was telling these people that if they were able-bodied and intentionally poor, they need to work to earn their bread. In other words, his admonition was aimed at a very specific group of people and lifting it out of context to apply to all folks who don't have jobs is to do violence to the context.

How prevalent is willful idleness among the poor? First of all there are 46.5 million Americans living in poverty, that is, single people who make $11,490 a year or less or a family of 4 making $23,550, which is less than $6000 per person. That's the official government poverty line derived from a methodology that hasn't changed in 40 years. Obviously such people are not merely poor; they are destitute. The poverty line is so low that even the government typically doubles it to determine who is actually poor. There is no way people making that little can afford a home.

It is not possible for people making the minimum wage, which gives you just $3590 a year more than the poverty line, to afford a home in any major city in America, with the possible exception of Omaha, Nebraska, the cheapest city in the U.S. Even so, unless you can afford to spend ½ of your income on rent, you're going to need a roommate or 2. That's what William Bonnie did. Right out of college he got a full-time job in Montana. Then one day he came home from his job to find all his possessions in a box in the garage because one of his roommates wrote rent checks that bounced. So he found himself employed but unable to afford a place to stay. Hotels cost 10 times what his rent was. Homeless shelters fill up early and he couldn't get off his job by 4:30 to get a place in line that would ensure he could get in. Because he had moved to the town for the job, he didn't have a lot of friends who would let him crash on the couch and use their showers. He found himself in the same situation as the 44% of homeless who have jobs. He ended up sleeping in his car—which made cooking and bathing difficult and required he drive out of the city at night to avoid being rousted or arrested and which cost him more gas money. And food stamps were only good on food you had to prepare. So he had to get a campstove and buy the fuel. (You can read his article on here.)

The fact is that the average age of a homeless person is 9 years old. That's because nearly half of all homeless people are women and children fleeing domestic violence. And many homeless children are runaways or throwaways. Children make up 20% of the homeless in this country.

22% of the homeless are veterans. Another 22% of single homeless persons suffer from severe and/or chronic mental illness. 1 in 4 are addicted. These 3 groups overlap a bit.

Only 6% of the homeless are voluntarily so, like the Cynics were. The children obviously aren't voluntarily homeless. The teenagers kicked out of their houses by their parents for being gay aren't. The women with children who made the difficult choice between being abused or being homeless aren't. Renters who were evicted because their landlords' properties were foreclosed on aren't. The folks who lost their jobs and then their homes in the Great Recession aren't. The 44% who work minimum wage jobs aren't. So Paul's admonition to the free riders rarely applies.

The sad fact is that you can do everything right and still lose your home. We do not live in a meritocracy. And God recognizes that. He said to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 15, “There should be no poor among you, for the Lord will surely bless you in the land he is giving you as an inheritance if you carefully obey him by keeping all these commandments I am giving you today.” Theoretically, the promised land should have had no poor. God gave them laws against charging interest on loans, on paying workmen promptly, on not taking the land of another Israelite, on not taking a person's cloak to secure a loan, on leaving the edges of fields unharvested for others to use, on collecting a special offering for widows and the fatherless and immigrants. But God knows they will not obey. So he says, “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them....There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, the needy and poor, in your land.”

God would not have commanded us to help the poor if he judged most of them to be lazy folks who could pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they wanted. The overwhelming majority would not choose poverty or homelessness. The requirement that to eat you must work would only apply to those rare individuals who can work but choose not to, like those who did so for ideological reasons in Thessalonica.

William Bonnie, the writer who found himself homeless though employed, discovered that the common notion that drug abusers become homeless is wrong. It's backwards, or at least it was for him. Having no home, no friends, no family nearby, no TV, no internet (it didn't exist then), no life outside work, the long hours with nothing to do were driving him crazy. And he drifted into drug abuse, to fill the time and kill the pain. From my years as a psychiatric nurse and my time at the jail, I'm more and more convinced that substance abuse is usually a form of self-medication: for pain, for depression, for other mental illnesses, for loneliness and social awkwardness. The real question is not why an estimated half of the homeless abuse substances but why the other half don't? Especially when we know the vast majority hate being homeless and would change their situation if they could.

Actually, most do. 75% of the homeless are only that way for less than 2 months. Only 16% of those without a place to stay are chronically homeless. However, some of those who get off the streets are what are termed “the hidden homeless.” They crash on the couches of friends and family or, as Bonnie did, live in cars. So you don't see them sleeping in alleys, parks, or business doorways. They are somewhat better off than street people, although sleeping on the couches of friends can get old fast, for both host and guest. When I attended a presentation on human trafficking, I was shocked to find that such “couch surfing” can be an entry into prostitution. When you have worn out your welcome with close friends, you may find a friend of a friend who is only too willing to put you up for a while. Eventually he may ask a homeless girl to pay him back by “entertaining” some friends of his. Homeless runaways are a major target for pimps. After all, almost 39% of the homeless are under the age of 18.

And just because you are no longer homeless, that doesn't mean you are no longer poor. You might just have managed to get into some of this country's increasingly scarce affordable housing. And, of course, if you are poor, you are always at greater risk of becoming homeless.

It would be really easy to dismiss the problems of poverty and homelessness if it were all a matter of laziness. The Bible does not condone laziness. But as we've seen, most of it comes from other factors: criminally low-paying jobs, businesses which resort to layoffs to boost dividends, the dearth of community treatment centers for the mentally ill, our overwhelmed healthcare system for veterans, the high cost of even basic housing, the rise of single parent families, domestic abuse, child abuse, substance abuse, and other things, most beyond the control of the individuals affected.

The default setting for Christian ethics is loving others. Jesus told us that if we neglect to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the underdressed, welcome the stranger, visit those who are sick and in prison, where a lot of homeless people end up, we are neglecting him. And of course we need to do everything we can to try to eliminate the conditions that lead to homelessness. As it is, not every healthy person who wants a job can get one. Or get one that pays enough that one can afford housing.

This is not a “it would be nice if we could manage this” thought. Along with idolatry, the prophets again and again mention neglect and mistreatment of the poor as the main reasons why God judges nations. Amos tells the Israelites that their enjoyment of luxury while they “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth'' (Amos 2:7) was the reason they were going into exile (Amos 6:4,7). Isaiah warned Judah of the same thing. “Woe to those who enact unjust decrees and those who write oppressive decisions to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the needy, so that widows can be their prey and they can rob the fatherless. What will you do on the day of punishment, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your wealth?” (Isaiah 10:1-3)

Jeremiah chimes in with, “They have become rich and powerful. They have grown fat and sleek. Their evil deeds know no bounds; they do not promote the cause of the fatherless; they do not defend the rights of the needy. Should I not punish them for this? declares the Lord. Should I not avenge myself on a nation such as this?” (Jeremiah 5:27b-29)

Injustice, especially to those powerless to fight back, is the opposite of loving our neighbors. Oppression, exploitation, and neglect are also antithetical to loving others. Love is working for the well-being of those you love. That means helping out those who need help. It means changing your priorities. It means educating yourself on the causes and consequences of poverty and homelessness and working to alleviate those causes. It means not demonizing the many based on anecdotes or the bad behavior of a few. It means spreading the truth.

The first person to experience injustice, the Bible tells us, was Abel. And had not Abel's blood been crying out to him from the ground, God would have answered Cain's sarcastic “Am I my brother's keeper?” with “Yes. You are.” God created us to be stewards of his creation. We are also creatures. We are to care of one another. God never said, “Love only some people. Love only the worthy. Love only the lovable.” What if God did that? Loved only the worthy? Where would we be? Thank God he is gracious. He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemy.” Who does that leave out? Ask yourself, when Jesus encountered the poor, the hungry, the sick, what did he do? If you are a member of the Body of Christ, what would Jesus want you to do? Go, then, and do likewise.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 320

The scriptures read are Amos 7, Psalm 113 and Matthew 15.

Amos 7. Amos receives a vision of destruction: locusts poised to eat all the crops in Israel. Amos pleads with God and God relents. The same thing happens when Amos receives a vision of a firestorm. God relents. God does listen. He doesn't change his character or his aims but he may change the method he will use. A good lesson for us.

The priest of the shrine at Bethel confront Amos, who isn't even from Israel but Judah. Amos reveals he wasn't a prophet but a farmer and gardener. God called him to prophesy to Israel.

Psalm 113. The techno version of this psalm will get stuck in your head.

Matthew 15. Why did Jesus object to handwashing before meals? It wasn't done for physical but for ritual cleanliness. It isn't required by scripture and it was concerned with externals. The Pharisees are willing to come up with a work-around when it comes to the commandment to honor your parents. Declare the money you would have used to help your folks to be a gift dedicated to God (after you die) and you don't have to spend it on mom and dad. Plus it's not external filthiness that defiles people; it's their hearts. If they are full of bad intentions and schemes, then the state of their hands is the least of their worries.

Jesus challenges a Gentile mother to give him a good reason for him to take his mission outside of the Jewish people. She does.

Jesus feeds four thousand this time. As we will see the disciples still don't get it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 319

The scriptures read are Amos 6, Psalm 112 and Matthew 14.

Amos 6. God condemns the arrogance and self-indulgence of Israel. And they pick on the weak. Peterson's version is really good. Read it here.

Psalm 112. I passed up a crowd-pleaser contemporary Christian song based on the 1st verse of the psalm for this version by Vivaldi. You're welcome.

Matthew 14. Several major events take place in this chapter. Herod, one of Herod the Great's sons, one that he managed not to kill, is tetrarch of Galilee. He is also married to his brother's ex, which was forbidden by Jewish law. John the Baptist speaks up against this and is thrown in jail. Then executed. It sounds a bit like Herod feels guilty. He hears the stories of Jesus and thinks it is a resurrected John. (BTW, birthday celebrations were a pagan thing. Herod kept offending the sensibilities of his Jewish subjects.)

All 4 gospels tell of Jesus feeding the 5000. And since this number doesn't include women and children it could have been twice that many people. It would have been bigger than the population of a typical village in the area. This recalls what Elisha did in 2 Kings 4:42-44 but on a much grander scale.

Likewise, Jesus walking on water is mentioned in all 4 gospels. None of the Old Testament patriarchs or prophets did anything like this. They divided waters and walked on the dry land. Only God is mentioned moving over the face of the waters.  

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 318

The scriptures read are Amos 5, Psalm 111 and Matthew 13.

Amos 5. God pleads with Israel to seek him and live. Once again, he singles out the mistreatment of the poor as a reason to judge Israel. He hates their religious rites. He wants justice. If he has to be the one to bring it, it will not be pretty.

Psalm 111. I love the close harmony of the women singing this psalm.

Matthew 13. This should be called "The Parable of the Soils." They, not the sower or the seed, are the only things that vary and therefore account for the differences in the harvest. This says that as long as we are planting the seeds, we are not responsible for the response.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds says that God is merciful, which is why he won't weed his fields lest he uproot the good plants as well. He will wait until the end, when it is easy to distinguish between the 2 types of plants and separate them.

Then Jesus speaks of how its not the size of one's faith that is important. Then he talks of the hidden value of the kingdom, such that the wise man will trade everything for it.

Then we get the names of Jesus' brothers and the fact that he had sisters. Sadly, the familiarity of the townspeople bred contempt for Jesus.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 317

The scriptures read are Amos 4, Psalm 110 and Matthew 12.

Amos 4. The pampered of Israel do the poor wrong. Then things go bad for them. They notice the misfortunes in their lives but don't turn to God.

Psalm 110. This marvelous Orthodox chant version of this psalm has an almost otherworldly feel.

Matthew 12. Though Jewish law allowed the poor to eat as they walked through a field, the Pharisees are upset because this is the Sabbath and what the disciples are doing falls into one of the 39 categories of work forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus cites the time their beloved David committed a worse religious violation to feed his hungry troops. The priests work on the Sabbath and Jesus is greater than they. Plus even the scriptures say that mercy trumps sacrifices.

Healing on the Sabbath is not work; it is rescuing a human being in much the same way one would rescue livestock regardless of the day. Some Pharisees forbade praying for the sick on the Sabbath! Some Essenes wouldn't even rescue trapped animals on the Sabbath. But the majority of Jews would agree with Jesus.

Notice that the blasphemy condemned is attributing a good deed done by the Spirit to an evil spirit. It has nothing to do with cursing the Holy Spirit or anything like that. When one is so messed up that he can't tell good acts from evil ones, he is beyond saving.

Jesus redefines what constitutes being a family. This would have been scandalous in his day.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 316

The scriptures read are Amos 3, Psalm 109 and Matthew 11.

Amos 3. The difference between real prophets and fake ones comes out: if a disaster is a judgment from God, he announces it beforehand. He give his people a chance to repent and avert it first. So armchair prophets, who sit around after the fact, declaring a recent calamity is God's punishment, are not true prophets. I'm looking at you, televangelists!

Psalm 109. Vivaldi's version of this psalm. Nuff said?

Matthew 11. It surprises us that John the Baptizer has doubts about Jesus, his own cousin. But the Bible shows us all to be human. John is in jail and rather than leading an armed rebellion against the occupying Romans, Jesus is speaking about good news, healing folks, breaking religious taboos, etc. John is wondering whether Jesus is the "right kind" of Messiah, the new David, a holy warrior-king. Jesus doesn't fit the popular conception of Messiah, so John, who was very Old Testament in style, is confused over what Jesus is doing.

Jesus, on the other hand, compliments John. He is greater than any prophet. Yet he says that John the least in God's kingdom.

We conclude with a statement (v. 27) that sounds more like John's gospel than Matthew's.

The Journey

The journey is a story motif going back as far as we have narrative writings. Gilgamesh journeys into the afterlife. Odysseus travels back home from the Trojan war. The knights of the Round Table set off on a quest for the Holy Grail. Frodo takes the ring to Mordor and returns to the shire. Dorothy goes off to see the wizard so she find her way home.

It is also a motif in many stories of the Bible. Abram heeds God's call and leaves his home to go to the land of Canaan. Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Jordan River, the boundary of the promised land. Jesus spreads the good news all over Galilee and then sets his face toward Jerusalem and the cross.

Joseph Campbell saw these all as examples of the archetypal hero's quest. The hero answers the call to adventure, leaves home, receives supernatural aid, crosses a threshold into an otherworldly realm or even the underworld, faces challenges and temptations, spiritually and possibly physically undergoes death and rebirth, is transformed, achieves a great victory, and returns home triumphantly, with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow human beings.

I was thinking about these themes and tropes as my wife and I traveled to our hometown for family and business and back these last 2 weeks. We too faced challenges and temptations along the way, like the challenge of navigating Miami's highway system. We received nearly supernatural aid in the form of the Waze app on our phones, which plots trips, warns you of hazards, obstacles and traffic and tells you out loud where to turn. Our phones' weather app also warned us of the rain and frigid temperatures we would encounter up north. The temptation was to not venture out, rather than, say, walk to church in 40 degree weather.

There wasn't much of a mythic nature to our journey, though I did return with a boon of sorts. After being installed as Episcopal Dean of the Florida Keys, I represent the Keys and voice the local churches' concerns to the Diocese. I also relay the decisions and policies of the Executive Board and the Bishop to the clergy and parishes of the Keys.

Jesus' life and journey was obviously an influence on Campbell's formulation of the hero's journey or monomyth as he called it. Jesus' life definitely fits the basic structure of Campbell's paradigm. He is called by the Spirit of God to preach the gospel. He met with challenges and temptations. He actually died and was resurrected. And he returned with the power to grant boons to all who come to him, especially the ultimate boon, eternal life. (By the way, the Greek word for gospel is in fact a term for the announcement of a great victory as well as the reward given for good news.)

The Christian life is often spoken of as a journey or pilgrimage. We are called by God to the high adventure of following Jesus. It may or may not mean we have to leave our home but we do have to leave our comfort zone. Following Jesus means leaving behind the comforting illusion of always being right. Jesus challenges our assumptions about the world, our values and ourselves. He challenges the notion that we are in charge of our lives. He challenges the idea that we own anything or that our time is ours to use as we will. The call to follow Jesus is a call to leave behind comfortable conceits and to rough it spiritually, discovering our strengths and weaknesses and the resources that are ours in Christ.

The Christian does receive supernatural aid on his journey, to face the challenges and temptations along the way, in the form of God's Holy Spirit. He guides us, equips us, empowers us, and encourages us. He reminds us of Jesus' teachings, which come in handy when we reach a fork in our path and have to decide which road to take, the broad and well-traveled one or the narrow and difficult one that takes us where we should go. The Spirit is also the presence of God in our lives, providing his companionship on our way.

The Christian undergoes death and rebirth when he or she commits to follow Jesus and receives the sacrament of baptism, in which the believer dies to self and sin and rises to new life in Christ. In Christ we become a new creation; our past is dead and gone. Everything has become new. We are transformed so that one day we will be like him, the image of the God of love, marred by sin in us, seen in Jesus, will be restored completely.

The Christian experiences a great victory, though it is not his doing. We benefit from Jesus' victory over sin and death, over decay and destruction, over pain and suffering. Because of his resurrection we do not have to fear any of these things. They are temporary in the most fundamental sense: they are part of the temporal world. They are limited to time and when time is swallowed up into eternity, they will be no more. In the meantime, we regard them as we would a splinter or gnats; unpleasant but not something we will have to suffer forever. And with the fear of these things gone, we can do great things for God through the triumph of his son. Fear of death can no longer rob us of our enjoyment of life, nor of our momentum to spread the gospel and speak out prophetically for justice and work for peace. As Paul says in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” Fear can render us powerless to act; it can make us too timid to show our love; it can make us lose control of ourselves. But Jesus has overcome all the things of this world that could possibly cause us to fear. Enduring any of them, even death, is a small price to pay for an eternity enjoying his love. As it says in 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Jesus is perfect love incarnate. If we trust him and let him in he casts out our fear. So we can do anything for him. After all, people will do almost anything for imperfect love.

Case in point: 30 years of nursing will ruin your back but I know what did mine in for good. I caught a stroke patient when he was falling—2 years in a row. It was while I was in the process of studying for ordination. I took it as a sign that I was making the right career change. While I have returned to nursing from time to time, I cannot even pull an 80 pound woman up in bed without feeling it. I feel it when the weather is changing. I feel it whenever I sit too long. But I would not trade it for the feeling I would carry with me had he hit the ground. I took care of him for 4 years. He was the first person I ever baptized—before I was ordained. I was given permission to do so by my bishop because of his anticipated death after the immanent death of his caretaker: his wife who had, unbeknownst to me, neglected the recurrence of her breast cancer to take care of him and keep a man expected not to make it 6 weeks alive for 6 more years. She did it for love. And after the resurrection, we three will meet and hug and I will talk with him for the first time (I couldn't understand a word he said when he was my patient) and we will laugh over those 2 incidents, all 3 of us free of the injuries and diseases that afflicted us in this temporal world.

A Christian returns from his spiritual death and resurrection bringing boons to his fellow human beings. The chief is the gospel. Remember how it meant not just good news but also the reward given for good news. As Paul said about the gospel in Romans 1:18: “ is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes...” That is the reward for receiving the good news. It is knowledge that saves—if you act on it. If you trust God. And that's all. Simply trust in him, in what he has done for us in Christ, and his grace will do the rest. It's all in the gospel. It is the original viral campaign. It is, as C. S, Lewis put, the good virus. Once you let it in, it changes your life. It saves us from the true disease, sin, the self-destructive thoughts, words and actions that poison our lives. It heals. It restores. It erases fears. It frees us to be what God created us to be.

What is the end of the journey for the Christian? What is his or her destination? As in the hero's journey, it is to go home again. It is to return to paradise. It is to return to God. This is our goal. The end of our journey is the new creation, the new Jerusalem, the kingdom of God. We turn to him and he turns the hell on earth we've made out of this world into heaven on earth.

The journey is open to all who respond to the call to the adventure of following Jesus. But how will they hear the call unless we tell them the gospel? The call to adventure usually comes from someone other than the hero. Gandalf brings news of the ring to Frodo. Glinda tells Dorothy about the wizard. R2-D2 brings Luke Skywalker Leia's message. My mother gave me C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. If we don't tell them about Jesus, who he is, what he has done for us, what he expects in return, how will they know? What are we afraid of? If Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, why do we not share it? The worst outcome is that someone is not interested. But the best outcome is that we have a new companion on our journey, a new follower of Jesus, another person at the table when we feast at the wedding supper of the Lamb in the kingdom of our heavenly Father.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 314

The scriptures read are Amos 2, Psalm 108 and Matthew 10.

Amos 2. The judgments continue, climaxing with God's condemnation of his own people. And again it is their mistreatment and exploitation of the poor as well as their idolatry.

Psalm 108. Here is Leonard Bernstein's exciting version of this psalm in his Chichester Psalms.

Matthew 10. Rules for disciples and apostles.

The Bible Challenge: Day 313

(I apologize for falling behind. I have been traveling and busy to boot. We now resume our regular postings.)

The scriptures read are Amos 1, Psalm 107 and Matthew 9.

Amos 1. Amos pronounced God's judgement on the lands who did awful stuff to his people.

Psalm 107. This new jazz version of this psalm is fantastic.

Matthew 9. Technically, Jesus is not blaspheming; ie, using God's name wrongly. But by forgiving sins, he seemed to be arrogating to himself authority that belongs to God alone.

As a tax collector Matthew could set his own fees and add them to the taxes people paid. He is giving up a lot to follow Jesus.

Jesus sees himself as a doctor and sinners as sick people, needing a cure, not further condemnation.

The woman with the bleeding would have been considered from unclean and was anyone touching her. Touching a corpse would also render a person unclean. Jesus is breaking a lot of rules in order to help others.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 312

The scriptures read are Joel 3, Psalm 106 and Matthew 8.

Joel 3. The Day of the Lord, Judgment Day, elaborated on. It will go bad for the wicked but God's people will be vindicated.

Psalm 106. This is not a song but an audio-visual interpretation of this psalm. If you really want to hear a musical version, here is a jazzy version of this psalm.

Matthew 8. Jesus heals a leper, a person with a skin disease who would have been an outcast. Jesus not only restores him to health but to his family and friends.

A Gentile soldier understands the healing power of Jesus' authority better than his own people.

If any wish to follow Jesus they must give up comfort and put him ahead of other priorities.

Jesus calms the storm on the sea and brings peace to a man fighting his many demons.

The Bible Challenge: Day 311

The scriptures read are Joel 1-2, Psalm 105 and Matthew 7.

Joel 1. A devastating plague of locusts has hit the crops of Judea. According to The New Bible Commentary, a swarm can contain billions of locusts and they can eat in one day the crops that would otherwise feed 40,000 people for a year. Such destruction has affected everyone, bringing Judea society to a halt. Joel sees this as the Day of the Lord. It is one of the curses for disobedience the people were warned of by Moses (Deuteronomy 28:38).

Joel 2. The prophet compares the locusts to an army.

But if God's people will turn to him he will rescue them. He will restore the land.

And he will one day pour out his Spirit upon all of his people--male and female, young and old, slave and free.

Psalm 105. This choir sings the 450 year old Genevan Psalter version of this psalm.

Matthew 7. God will judge us with the same criteria that we judge others. We should look to our own faults before trying to correct other people's flaws.

We need only ask God for what we need and he will provide it.

The Golden Rule is nearly universal, though often stated negatively, not positively as Jesus does.

One can tell who is really from God by the spiritual fruit they produce (Cf. Galatians 5:22, 23). Anyone can say he is a Christian. Real Christians obey what Jesus says.  It's also the wise thing to do.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 310

The scriptures read are Hosea 13-14, Psalm 104 and Matthew 6.

Hosea 13. The consequences of forsaking God for idols which demand child sacrifice is horrifying: the destruction of children by war and violence.

Hosea 14. It's never too late to repent.

Psalm 104. Very authentic sounding Jewish take on this psalm.

Matthew 6. Charitable acts, prayer and fasting should not be done for any audience other than God.

The best way to see that God's name is hallowed is to live in accordance with his commandments. We dishonor his name when we live in such a way that non-Christians call us on our hypocrisy.

The same word in Aramaic could mean "debts" as well as "sins." When we sin, we are not giving him what we owe him, namely our obedience. But we must forgive others if we expect God to forgive us.

We may use money in the service of God but we must not serve money or any other material thing. In fact, we should serve God and let the money aspect take care of itself, rather than pursue wealth.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 309

The scriptures read are Hosea 11-12, Psalm 103 and Matthew 5.

Hosea 11. In this chapter, the analogy is that Israel is God's son. There is the usual charge of idolatry and violence. But God cannot give up on his people or destroy them, because he is God and not human.

Hosea 12. An interesting reinterpretation of the story of Jacob, questioning when he wrestled with God and prevailed and drawing attention to his deceit. The prophets are held up as better examples to follow.

Psalm 103. I love this quiet approach to this joyful psalm.

Matthew 5. Jesus teaching from the mountain recalls Moses bringing the law down from the mountain.

Earthly kingdoms are brought about by force and conquest. But Jesus is promising his kingdom not to the rich who finance such campaigns but to the poor in spirit, not to those who kill but those who mourn, not to the aggressive but to the meek, not to those who feel might makes right but to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, not to the ruthless but to the merciful, not to those who fight dirty but to the pure in heart, not to the warmongers but to the peacemakers, not to those who suppress dissent but to those who are persecuted. He turns the world's values on their heads.

He compares his followers to salt which preserves rather than causes things to rot, to lights and cities on hills, which are highly visible beacons of light and centers of civilization.

The seeds of murder, adultery, dishonesty and violence begin in the heart and must be dealt with before they blossom into sinful acts. Perfection is loving even your enemies.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 307

The scriptures read are Hosea 9-10, Psalm 102 and Matthew 4.

Hosea 9-10. How Israel has done wrong and how things will go wrong for it as a consequence.

Psalm 102. Though in English, this version of the psalm is chanted in the style of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Matthew 4. Just as Moses fasted for 40 days in the wilderness so does Jesus, whom Matthew portrays as the new Moses. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and was tested; Jesus is tested for 40 days.

Under Moses, the people received manna, "bread from heaven." Jesus' temptation is to provide bread for himself miraculously. Jesus is meant to fast at this time, though and to live on God's words.

Satan quotes scripture out of context, making a promise to protect him, into a dare, an invitation to test God. Jesus doesn't do signs for the sake of sensation.

Satan offers Jesus power in return for worship. Jesus refuses power at such a high price.

After his temptations, Jesus starts his ministry, using the same cry as John the Baptist had, and healing a lot of people.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 306

The scriptures read are Hosea 7-8, Psalm 101 and Matthew 3.

Hosea 7, 8. Israel ignores God and continues on its self-destructive way.

Psalm 101. Finding a musical version of this psalm was complicated by the fact that there is a group called Psalm 101.  But here is a good contemporary version of  the first 3 verses of this psalm.

Matthew 3. Notice that John's announcement in verse 2 is virtually the same as Jesus' in 4:17 and that given to his disciples to preach in 10:7. The Kingdom of Heaven is the same as the Kingdom of God; Matthew, evidently writing to Jewish Christians, uses this circumlocution so as not to mention the name of God.

John is, you will note, dressed like Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Hid diet is that of the extreme poor. His baptizing Jews as if they were Gentile converts should be shocking but indicates how far from God his people had strayed. Naturally John would object to Jesus being baptized, but Jesus must to do everything we should do since he is taking our place.