Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of the Blogroll: 2011

Here to ring out the old year and celebrate another year of excellence in Christian blogging. You all have my heartfelt appreciation as you keep on blogging. It takes a lot of dedication. While I may not comment often, please know that I'm reading along and am enriched by it. Thank you all for blogging! Here are some highlights of the year:

Once again thanks to everyone for blogging. A few of the folks on the blogroll have become mostly inactive; hope to see you all soon.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Debater's code of ethics

I have been thinking that Christians should adopt a higher standard of morals when it comes to debate.

Consider the typical debate. There are carelessly-researched items reported as facts, distortions in how information is presented, selective use of evidence. There are questionable techniques such as character attacks, or conveniently placed displays of anger or shock that may be used tactically. Regardless of how common these things are, should a Christian engage in them?

I think Christians would do well to develop a full-fledged ethics code covering conduct during a debate. It would make debates more productive. It would lead to deepening mutual respect among Christians rather than deepening divisions and hostilities. It would also - let's not forget the big picture - keep us from sinning quite so often. We do want to behave ethically, don't we?

Here is a first shot at a debater's code of ethics.

Debater's Code of Ethics

Preface: The goal of a debate is to firmly establish which position has the most merit. Any conduct that does not live up to Christlike standards weakens the position of Christianity, regardless of which side wins the particular debate in question.

  1. Nothing should be presented as fact unless the debater has personally checked the original source material and verified its accuracy.
  2. The debater should present facts accurately, without stretching or distorting the information.
  3. The debater should never present facts in a way different than how they appear to him, or deny the reality of his own hesitations in order make his position seem stronger than he himself feels it to be.
  4. The debater should honestly review all evidence and arguments, being more willing to change his views, acknowledge a mistake, or even lose a debate than to engage in dishonesty.
  5. The debater should not smear, mock, belittle, or otherwise disparage the character of his opponent, or engage in any form of character attack.
  6. The debater should be familiar with logical fallacies and should completely reject their use, regardless of any tactical advantage that might be gained by them.
  7. The debater should not engage in tactical displays of anger, outrage, shock, or sorrow, or make other theatrical displays intended to play the emotions of the onlookers or distract from the lack of an adequate response.
  8. The debater should assume the honesty, integrity, and good faith of the opponent.
  9. If the opponent makes a mistake of fact or logic, or engages in unethical debating tactics, these are to be answered with honesty and good faith, leaving a clear conscience.
  10. The debater should give a fair hearing to his opponent and should be willing to change his views, not allowing himself to become blinded by partisanship or ego, or prevented from taking the best course by fear of embarrassment.
  11. The debater should develop his skills and knowledge so that he can support his position solidly, state his position clearly, and defend his position honestly.
  12. The debater should always be civil and respectful: in victory, gracious and free of arrogance; in defeat, showing good sportsmanship and holding steadfastly to the truth.

What have I forgotten? Or what changes does that need?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas. Jesus is the reason that Christian homes and Christian hearts are marked by faith, hope, and love. God is good.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jesus, Name above all names: Series index

Here is the index for the series on Jesus, name above all names

And here is the companion post about how "Jesus, name above all names" is the theme of the evangelists and the epistles, and how our call to evangelize means witnessing to that truth:

Name above all names: The gospels, the epistles, and what it means to evangelize

One underlying message of the gospels and epistles of the New Testament is: Jesus is the name above all names. "Name above all names" is a familiar quote from one of Paul's letters:
So God also has highly exalted him, and given him a name that is above all names: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
That sums up one of the main points of the New Testament.

The four biographies of Jesus have nearly every event showing us a way in which Jesus is more excellent than anyone else who has ever walked this earth. The disciples recall their amazement and wondering, "Who is this?" The disciples recall the crowds listening to Jesus and being amazed at him, never having heard anything like it. His miracles are along the same lines. Of all the prophets of old, and all the teachers of religion, no one else healed such steady stream of people suffering from every kind of illness or disability. Never had anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. Each event shows a new facet of Jesus' uniqueness -- even the teachings. The Beatitudes, the sheep and the goats, the prodigal son, the Good Samaritan -- these are all one demonstration after another that there is no one like Christ, no one who has ever taught like this. Even the accounts of his death show the prophets' words fulfilled and his breathtaking kindness to his executioners. He did not merely teach forgiveness, but lived it. We probably could have understood if he had said forgiveness had met its limit when facing death by torture after being convicted on unjust charges. But he didn't abandon forgiveness even then; he was still the merciful one. The more we look at Jesus, the more we understand how unique he is. Jesus' resurrection is a seal to what we already knew: there hasn't been anybody like him.

The epistles focus on Jesus' excellence: Writing to Corinth, Paul explains how he is determined to know nothing else but Christ crucified as he preaches. The letter to the Hebrews spends chapter after chapter explaining how Jesus is greater than Moses, the new covenant greater than the old covenant, the new sacrifice greater than the old sacrifices, the new high priest greater than the old high priest. The letter started by explaining how Jesus is even above the angels. John's first letter puts things in very simple terms: He who has the Son of God has life, and he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.

The good news, then, is Christ.

There are many Christians who feel an obligation to evangelize -- or feel an obligation to justify why they do not evangelize. But what does an evangelist say? To take our thoughts from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: An evangelist explains how Jesus is the name above all names. An evangelist explains Jesus' excellence, his unsurpassed goodness, his unique authority to speak of the things of God -- and that he can save us from the futile, hopeless, dead-end lives that we have without him. We explain that Jesus can transform us into someone more like him. We explain the blessings that Jesus brings.

Evangelism is simply explaining how Jesus is the name above all names, and how every spiritual blessing is found in Christ. We Christians are faced with people who are tired of the cliches they have heard as evangelism, and tired of evangelism that is more about our scripted talking points than about Jesus. As Christians, here is the question to us as evangelists: Can we explain how Jesus is the name above all names?

Jesus rose from the dead

We can debate religion all day, and the debate may not clarify anything. But actions speak louder than words. Jesus' resurrection makes things plainer than a debate ever could. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we know that God exists, and that he acts in this world. In raising Jesus, he has singled him out for an honor that no "great teacher" before or since has ever had. Anyone looking for a sign from God about "Which great teacher do I follow?" already has a sign: Look for the one that God raised to life again. God has given faith to all people by raising Christ from the dead.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading Jesus' words is a religious experience

Jesus, more than anyone else in human history, speaks about the things of God with authority, knowledge, and credibility.

Jesus explained what the kingdom of heaven is like at length. He sure sounded like he knew what he was talking about. But that was not the only time when his knowledge was plain to see.

Anyone who speaks to a Jewish crowd, to people who are followers of Moses, and claims to surpass the Law of Moses -- he had better have something good to follow through on that claim. And Jesus did. They believed him and considered that there might be a more excellent way.

Anyone who speaks to people who hope for a resurrection -- or debate the reality of the resurrection -- and claims to know exactly how the Last Day will happen, had better have something good to say. Again, he did. He gave a detailed description of the Last Day that is at the same time believable, just, and desirable. Hearing his teaching doesn't inspire arguments about its justness; its justice is self-evident. What it inspires is awe. The people who first heard him noticed. They were amazed at his teachings, because he spoke as one having authority.

In the beatitudes, some of the blessings Jesus proclaimed were bold promises: the pure in heart shall see God; the meek shall inherit the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied; those who mourn will be comforted. Anyone who claims to know the heart of God, and to know what God will do in the future, better have something good. And Jesus did. The blessings meet and even exceed our sense of rightness, that this is how things should be. God's goodness surpasses our hopes, and restores our confidence enough to hope.

Many people go to religion or spirituality looking for a religious experience; the surest way I know to have a religious experience is to read what Jesus said.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Jesus has the highest and most beautiful morality yet articulated by anyone

How long does an accomplishment stay in the world's memory as the best the world has ever seen? Most things that were done or said in the ancient past have been surpassed many times since then. As they say, even a midget who stands on the shoulders of giants may see farther than the giants. So even if a modern thinker is not as impressive as someone who came before, still the modern thinker has the advantage: we know already what the ancients discovered, and can start forward from where they finished.

Except that hasn't really happened with Jesus and his moral teachings. He still stands alone, with teachings that have not been surpassed. Many converts to Christianity mention the beauty and power of Jesus' teachings. And those who have tried to surpass him have not been equal to the task.

Jesus has the highest and most beautiful morality yet articulated on this earth. His words are memorable and vivid, simple and clear. They have a depth that has not yet been exhausted over the years. His teachings are pure in calling for what is good. His teachings are timeless, as powerful today as when they were first spoken. While focusing on love, the teachings are not sentimental, but instead require courage. One early Jewish follower called Jesus' priorities "a more excellent way".

For those who have not read his teachings this will seem like too much praise. Those who have loved his teachings will know that much more could be said.

And Jesus' teachings can redeem. Most moral leaders are only speaking to those who already wish to be good. Jesus' teachings were shown to reach the hearts of even traitors, thieves, and prostitutes, creating the desire to leave behind their wasted lives and turn around. Jesus' words give us the hope of redemption. His teachings restore our souls.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jesus' life is the world's most serious evidence of the supernatural

There are lots of people who say there is nothing beyond this physical, material world. If there is a supernatural, shouldn't there be some evidence for it?

In my lifetime sometimes I've heard stories of miraculous healings -- but nothing on the level that would be considered proof or demonstration of the supernatural. I hear rumors of things far away -- but for things where we can easily imagine a natural healing, or the witnesses are not brought forward, or the person healed isn't brought forward, or the original illness couldn't be established. Even going back into history, the evidence for miracles is generally weak -- with one notable exception.

There are a series of miracles attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, reported by his contemporaries in detail. Many of Jesus' miracles took place in crowds, where his followers may not have known the people who were healed. But there are others where the disciples passed down more information. Bartimaeus in Jericho was blind and had his sight restored. Lazarus in Bethany had died and was buried, and was raised from the dead. In Capernaum, the daughter of Jairus the synagogue ruler was raised from the dead. Peter's own mother-in-law was healed.

The early Christian church continued to look at these known miracles as showing Jesus' uniqueness. Quadratus, an early Christian, wrote:
Our Savior’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Savior was among us, but for a long time after his departure; in fact some of them survived right up to my own time. (The quote from Quadratus is preserved in Eusebius’ History 4.3).
That's the kind of thing that you look for in order to believe a miracle.

An interesting thing occurred when Jesus' enemies tried to discredit him: they did not try to deny that miracles had occurred. An ancient Jewish writing, the Talmud, speaks of Jesus as a sorcerer. They tried to claim that Jesus' miracles were acts of evil. It would have been much simpler for them to deny the miracles ever happened, if they could.

Even today, in cultures that are more open-minded about what is beyond this physical world, Christians can boldly point to miracles as a way to show that Jesus is unique. You can read the entire Koran without hearing of Mohammed healing anyone, or raising the dead. Likewise Confucius and Lao Tzu and even King Solomon are not exactly known for their miracles. As mentioned before, that's not to say anything against Confucius or King Solomon; just that "one greater than Solomon is here."

But for our culture, we might do better to explain it to a skeptic the other way around: Do you assume there is nothing beyond this world because you have not heard good evidence of a miracle? Jesus' life gives us the world's most serious evidence of miracles. There are details of the conversations that took place, records of the confrontations about whether certain miracles were actually "evil". These things really happened, according to more than just Jesus' followers; also according to those who thought Jesus was out of line to do some of these things. The records of Jesus' life have to be read with an open mind. It is begging the question to bring in pre-conceptions that there is nothing beyond this physical world, before seeing the best evidence for yourself.

But shouldn't our skeptic be able to see evidence of the supernatural in all kinds of places, not just in Jesus? Not necessarily; there is another possibility: that Jesus really is unique.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Jesus comes across as more fully human

Can you picture Mohammed providing wine for a wedding feast? No, neither can I. How many founders of world religions would pick up children and bless them, insisting that little children are worth his notice and his time? How many "great teachers" are remembered by their followers for how often they had dinner with friends, and were widely sought after not only for their wisdom but also for their companionship?

Jesus is the only person we reckon as a "great teacher" who makes a claim to be Son of God in a unique sense; so it may seem ironic that he comes across as the most fully human. Many religious people -- especially self-consciously religious people -- seem to have character distortions that make them come across as less fully human. The character distortions are not despite their religion -- it is specifically because of their type of religion that they become reclusive, or ascetic, or harsh, or judgmental, or aloof, or detached from those who love them, or consumed with abstractions, or cliquish, or controlling, or obsessive, or partisan, or cold, or continually concerned with particular religious observances. They may only be excessively bookish, to the extent that they neglect human fellowship. They may become meditative to the point where they not only lose the joy of life, but reject that joy as wrong. Their religiosity seems to take away from their humanity, not fulfill it. Jesus makes it plain that he wants his followers to have life, and have it to the full.

Jesus comes across as fully human: when we look at him, we notice what more we could be. Jesus' wisdom did not drive out his warmth, and came with a down-to-earth humility. His righteousness was the type that lifts up others rather than putting them down. He had a love for friends. We see him at a wedding feast celebrating with those who celebrate. In Jesus, we see what a human being can be. It is because of his deep humanity that so many people have longed to be transformed into his image and become more like him.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Jesus' morality has a focus: love

Some moral codes are sets of laws without a clear focus. Other moral codes have a focus like following the right path or becoming a noble person -- but the direction of the right path may not be well-defined; what makes someone a noble person may again lead to an unfocused list of principles and goals to attain.

With Jesus, the right path is defined in terms of love. Of all the commands his people already had in their moral code, he singled out these as the greatest: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. He also summed up: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," adding, "This is the law and the prophets" (the whole of the divine commands). As an early Jewish convert said, "Love does no harm to its neighbor, therefore love is the fulfillment of the law."

Basing morality on love makes a big difference in how morality is lived. Love cannot be cold or joyless. It forbids us from dehumanizing each other, even in the name of "the greater good" -- especially in the name of the greater good, if that greater good is love. It prevents viewing and treating people as enemies. It leads us towards companionship and fellowship. It causes us to know each other and build ties in common with each other. It is fulfilled in friendship and family, in hospitality and in knowing our neighbors. It is a living, growing source of goodwill.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Jesus keeps us honest about our religious pretensions, and about what God desires

When it comes to "morality" or "religion" or "spirituality", a lot of people assume that the goal is our own quest for excellence. Jesus challenges that self-centered type of religion by showing how that works out in daily life with the parable of the Good Samaritan: A traveler is attacked by thieves and left for dead by the side of the road. A priest passes by and ignores him. A Levite (another religious type) passes by and ignores him. A Samaritan sees him and has compassion. He bandages his wounds, takes him to safety, arranges for his care, pays his expenses.

The priest and the Levite are wrapped up in their own stories where they're the heroes, no doubt, more spiritual than other people, they may suppose. So they don't see that they’re half-villains in the story of the man they pass by without helping. The quest for personal excellence or religious status might be what stops them from being like the real hero of the piece: the Samaritan who set aside his own personal goals for the moment because he was moved by compassion for someone who needed help. The parable highlights the true nature of personal excellence and religious status.

And so, in his way, Jesus tells us that the story of following him may not be the story of our own quest for excellence, status, or achievement; it may be about how we fit into someone else’s story of their need for compassion and practical help.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Jesus' teachings are vivid and personal

Remember when Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son? How about the lost sheep, or the lost coin? How about the Good Samaritan? The Pharisee and the Publican? The sheep and the goats? The king and the wedding banquet? People who have heard Jesus' teachings tend to remember them.

Jesus' teachings are exceptionally vivid. Some of that is from the use of parables -- where morality is more than a set of laws or principles; it is the motive behind every good action. That desire for good, and the character who perseveres in good, is the cause of the good that comes to others in the parables.

Jesus' parables are more than simple figures of speech or comparisons; they are stories. We find ourselves caught up in the action; they light up our imagination. Somebody's life or happiness often hangs in the balance of whether another person is going to be good to them.

Jesus' approach is more realistic than discussing morality as some sort of abstract principle. In daily life, someone's happiness often depends on whether or not other people are going to be just or kind toward them. In Jesus' teachings, we see how much goodness matters to us and to those around us. We see its power to change everyday life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jesus knows what the Last Day will be like -- and what justice looks like

Jesus' teaching of the Last Judgment is something very nearly unforgettable.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’

The King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.’

Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’

Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly I tell you, because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The teaching is striking and memorable in several different ways. First, there is the clear, plain rightness of the actions called for. Rarely do you find a teaching that is so plainly and thoroughly good. Here is a teaching that can change the world -- and to the extent that people listen and follow, it does in fact change the world. These are the words that created Mother Theresa of Calcutta and brought thousands of people to help her. The same words have created followers for Jesus in every age.

Next is the profound fairness of the way the groups are separated. Earlier in his teachings Jesus had said, "With the measure you use, it will be measured to you," and "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." Each person is shown to choose how the Judge will treat him by how he treats others. Jesus' teaching silences the complaint “God is unfair”. Can a person complain it is unfair for the Lord to treat them in the same way they treat others? ("You can't treat me the way I treat everyone else! It's unfair!" -- That person has just testified against himself, that he treats others badly, treats them in a way he would not want to be treated.) There is an unanswerable justice to it all.

There is the tender kindness shown to "the least of these brothers of mine" -- to show that the Lord sees himself in each of them. There is no room for doubt about whether the judge of all the earth has compassion on everyone, even the least. The only topic on the table is whether we have the same compassion.

The focus of Jesus' teaching is not on the judge, but on justice, on compassion, on mercy, on the least of the brothers -- so it's easy to miss what is not the focus: Jesus portrays himself as the one judging the world. He doesn't make a big deal out of his status; that seems taken for granted and not his main point. But it might explain how he knows so clearly what the Last Day will be like.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Jesus knows what the kingdom of heaven is like

How many religious teachers are there? When we include those who are self-appointed, and those who are appointed by religious groups as their representatives, there must be a vast number. And out of all those, how many of them have any idea what the kingdom of heaven is like? There are a lot of people who like to talk, and a lot of people who like to teach, but very few of them leave the impression that they know anything at all about the kingdom of heaven.
"The kingdom of heaven is like ..."

Jesus taught about that time after time. I can find eight places in the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus started to teach by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like ...". He found one way after another to explain it to us. He focused his teaching efforts to make sure we could grasp it. Even if I haven't grasped everything he said, I've grasped this much: Jesus knows what the kingdom of heaven is like. He knew what he was talking about. He didn't come across as someone who guesses or speculates, either. He came across as someone who knew.

The kingdom of heaven is not just the hidden treasure of the parables. The kingdom of heaven is also the point of repentance:
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

The kingdom of heaven is worth changing our lives for. The kingdom of heaven is where we are called to belong. For Jesus, calling us to repent isn't about calling us to be respectable and responsible. Those are good, but Jesus us calls us to something better.

Next series: Name above all names

I don't know how many people actually follow the long slow arc of what topics are posted here; probably only me, I'd expect. In general, I've been working along on the Controversies series, where those posts take a good long awhile to develop. This fall, one or two posts each month have been background work for that series, where the next topic is controversies on the moral authority of the Bible. Some of the other, faster series have been offshoots or sub-topics there.

The next series that I start here has grown out of that -- but is probably more important than the Controversies series. So the next series here is "Jesus, Name above all names".

Why mention this? First, in case someone had been wondering about the Controversies series: yes, it's still coming along, with a pace that reflects that I'd rather do it right than quickly. Second, in case someone had noticed the faster-moving series here and how they tend to relate to my next topic in "Controversies" -- I wanted to make it clear that, to me, this next faster-moving series is the more important topic than the Controversies series.

I've gone ahead and scheduled the first post in that series to publish later today.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Youth worker succeeds beyond wildest dreams

Do we think of Christian calling too narrowly?

Back in 1891, a worker at the YMCA was given the job of developing an indoor sport that would use plenty of energy and prevent the students from becoming bad-tempered from inactivity during the long months of winter. In a modest way, it would improve the health and quality of life for those who participated. Isn't that a valid calling? The YMCA thought so. The assigned worker, James Naismith, thought so. Naismith had been an athlete in college and was gifted in sports. A valid calling is what makes the best use of our gifts and talents, isn't it?

Most charity groups run on a small budget, so that may have been why he chose the simple soccer ball and peach basket combination for his new indoor sport. The game quickly became very popular. The story has it that someone considered naming the game after its inventor, "Naismith ball", but Naismith wanted something to reflect the game itself: "basket ball".

Naismith probably could not have imagined the place basketball now has, not just in the U.S., but in the world. He lived to see his game included as an Olympic sport. I doubt, when he took his assignment to invent a new game, that he ever envisioned the wizardry of the Harlem Globetrotters or the artistry of Kobe Bryant, or the fact that every city park I have ever seen has basketball hoops.

A mission from God doesn't always mean preaching. If Naismith had tried to do that, he'd have missed his calling.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

One Greater than Solomon

The Queen of the South shall rise at the Judgment with this generation, and will condemn it. For she came from the furthest parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon. And see: one greater than Solomon is here. -- Jesus (Matthew 12:42, see also Luke 11:31)
It's amazing to me that sometimes we are embarrassed to acknowledge Jesus' greatness. American pop culture has spent generations now drilling it into our heads that Christians should be ashamed to think that Jesus is greater than any of the "other great teachers". We have been told time and again that it's nothing but bigotry and bias and narrow-mindedness to say that Jesus is greater than, say, Confucius. For the record, I find Confucius' teachings instructive. Many of them are insightful. But he doesn't hold a candle to Jesus. He isn't in the same league. And please don't imagine that my example is Confucius because of some thought that Confucius doesn't deserve his place among the great teachers; not at all, he has earned his place well. My example could just as easily have been Lao Tzu, or even someone considered great by people within the Christian tradition like Solomon.

Not many people could casually claim to be greater than Solomon and still come across as humble. (In the same conversation, Jesus also laid claim to being greater than Jonah, the prophet who called Nineveh to repent.) People came from distant lands and other cultures to seek the wisdom of Solomon. And one greater than Solomon is here.

I think it is important for us, as Christians, to have read the other people who have a reputation as Great Teachers. Many Christians, I suppose, are comfortable to say they follow Jesus, not Solomon, because Jesus is greater than Solomon. We can say this not only because Jesus said so, but also because we have some writings attributed to Solomon. We know that between Jesus and Solomon, it is Jesus who speaks to us more clearly and beautifully, whose call to follow rings through us. Solomon's ways may be truly good and we still study his words, but Jesus' are even better. Solomon seeks wisdom; in Jesus we see that wisdom personified that Solomon was seeking. So Solomon is not someone we would ever put down; in some ways Solomon walks beside us as we follow Jesus.

In proclaiming Jesus to the people of our day, we have a lot of chances that we don't always recognize. Every time someone says, "All religions are the same", there is an opening in the conversation to say differently. ("Wow, I see a world of difference out there. There are so many different beliefs. The tricky part is picking the good from the bad.") Every time someone tries to shame us into silence about Jesus is actually a chance to point to Jesus' uniqueness. We should not criticize or put down anything that is good; Jesus didn't put down Moses or Jonah or Solomon. Still, someone greater is here. Part of our job is finding the words to explain that to the people of our day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

If I Corinthians 13 were written today

If I Corinthians 13 were written today, what would Paul have used as his examples? Just imagining:
If I study my Bible every day and have private devotions, but have not love, I am nothing. If I tithe to the church, and support good charities, but have not love, I gain nothing. If I pray day and night, and join the choir, and worship every time the church opens her doors, but have not love, it is nothing. If I teach Sunday school, and serve as a church officer, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful or proud. It is not rude or self-seeking or touchy [easily angered]. It keeps no record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things, perseveres through all things.

Love never fails. Where there are Bible studies or sermons, they will cease ... for now we know in part, but then we shall see face to face.

Three things remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.
Some of the details would change based on church membership. Some might have
  • If I abstain from drinking, smoking, and dancing, but have not love ...
  • If I fast twice a week, but have not love ...
  • If I pray the rosary but have not love ...
  • If I observe the Sabbath, but have not love ...
Every group has its thing. Why isn't the thing love?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Forgiveness and the art of forgetting

I recently read someone who was teaching that forgiveness doesn't really involve forgetting. They made a would-be clever argument about how God cannot possibly forget because he is omniscient, and if God forgives without forgetting, then forgetting is not part of forgiving.

There's a lot more to forgiveness than forgetting; the main thing is love. Still, it's wrong -- and spiritually unsafe -- to leave people with the impression that they can hold tight to the memory of wrong and call it forgiveness.

Does God really stop remembering our sins? Actually, yes, he does. It's not a problem with his omniscience, it's a deliberate decision to wash us clean. It's a decision not to recall a memory:
For I will forgive their iniquities,
And remember their sins no more. (Jeremiah 31:34)

Claiming that God must remember is not truly standing up for God's glory. When he stands up for his own name, he proclaims that he will not remember:
It is I, I who -- for My own sake --
Wipe your transgressions away
And remember your sins no more. (Isaiah 43:25)

Then what if we remember a sin of someone we have forgiven? We forgive again; we forget again. If the forgiveness is still firmly decided, then putting the memory out of mind will be easy.

Human memories are not like God's. They are like an old radio signal -- they fade with time and distance. If you do not boost the signal it will be lost, the further away you go. That's why we repeat things we want to remember, or look at them time after time to refresh our memories. Most memories fade with time. The memory of old wrongs could easily be forgotten, if only we would let them.

Our minds are like a sieve. We forget where we left our keys. We forget where we left our watch, or our phone. We forget what we had to eat just a day or two ago. Our minds have a natural tendency to forget. It takes a serious effort on our part to be able to recall all the wrong that someone did us awhile back. Don't we remember because we pay attention to those things, and keep close track of them?

If God -- God the omniscient, God the all-knowing, God the Almighty -- can manage to put away a memory and remember it no more, then how much more should we forgetful little creatures be able to put away a memory and remember it no more.

I have often -- too often -- watched my own mind call up old sins. A person who wronged me will cross my path again. And the old memories will rush into my thoughts. It takes effort to put these things out of mind. I admit that I resort to some silly tricks to chase out the memories. When there are images that I want to remove from my mind, sometimes I picture those images as printed on paper, and then imagine a paper shredder, and shred them. Sometimes when memory brings up images, I picture the memories falling into a video game, and I picture myself using the video controllers to blast the memories out of existence. Sometimes the memories are sounds and words; I picture them as a recording, and I picture myself hitting the "next track" button.

Are these amateurish ways to handle memories of someone's sin? Yes. But I'd rather have these silly tricks in my mind than the bad memories. Ideally, I should be able to replace these memories with other memories of the person being kind or friendly or trustworthy or helpful. One day I hope I can remember things that build love and compassion just as easily as I remember wrongs. Because we really are fighting an uphill battle against our memories of sin, until we learn to love the other person. Forgiveness hasn't reached its goal until there is reconciliation.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Monumental mistakes -- and corrections that open up a new world

"Then I shall sail for another great island which I strongly believe should be Japan, according to the signs made by the San Salvador Indians with me. They call that island Cuba ..." -- Christopher Columbus, log entry dated October 21, 1492
History has been full of mistaken ideas. People -- even those who made a careful study -- have taken wrong turns. And a wrong turn is not necessarily useless, if (sooner or later) someone realizes what we have actually found, rather than what we expected to find.

Columbus expected to find the westward passage to Japan and then to the realm of the Great Khan. He was on the right track, but he was only a fraction of the way there. He firmly expected to find one thing -- and that expectation was part of the reason he did not recognize that he had found something else entirely.

There is an intrepid crew of scholars who are firmly embarked on a mission to discover that Christianity is false. (It has to be; they are sure of it.) And so they seek out every alternative gospel they can find, and run its banner high, and claim that the early church was wrong to ignore these alternative writings.

And one "lost Scripture" after another shows that the alternative materials are of late date, or have edited out Jesus' Jewishness, or have removed Jesus from any recognizable historical context, or make no effort at recording the events of Jesus' life ... or all of the above.

I think that Biblical studies is on the edge of recognizing something monumental: that what they expected to find, and what they were so earnestly seeking (something to debunk Christianity) is not at all what they have found. I think that the discipline of Biblical studies, if they make a fair and objective assessment of the materials, will soon discover that the best sources on the life of Jesus are the earliest ones, the ones with a Jewish Jesus, the ones where Jesus lived in first-century Roman-occupied territory, the ones where he worshiped at the synagogues, the ones that are saturated with people and places that are recognizable context for his life. So far, no writing has come close to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John for material on the life of Jesus.

After a long journey, sometimes you end up back where you started. But that's not a waste of time; now you know so much more than you did before. If you keep a good map, you might even be less likely to get lost again.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A righteousness that surpasses

I say to you: Unless your righteousness surpasses the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. - Jesus (Matthew 5:20)
That must have been something to hear if you were a Pharisee, or a scribe. Those groups prided themselves on their righteousness. They were strict observers of the law. And there they were held up as examples -- of people who weren't good enough.

Jesus puts together an interesting teaching. First, he starts by lining up points in favor of the Law:
  • He hasn't come to abolish the Law or the Prophets
  • He has come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets
  • Not a pen stroke will disappear from the Law, not until heaven and earth disappear, until everything is accomplished
  • Those who break the law or teach others to do the same will be least in the kingdom of heaven
  • Those who keep the law and teach others to do the same will be great in the kingdom of heaven

So why is the very next thing out of his mouth that the scribes and Pharisees -- those who teach and keep the law most zealously -- need to be surpassed?

Here again I'll mention that "inerrancy" can distract us from understanding Scripture. Because if the ancient Law of Moses is "inerrant" and what Jesus says is also "inerrant" then aren't they on the same level? And nothing can surpass anything, if "inerrancy" is the highest you can go, and everything in Scripture is at that level. Again we see "inerrancy" fall short of describing what we see in Scripture.

Jesus follows his statements on the greatness of the law with statements on how the law can be surpassed -- or truly fulfilled. His words, repeated time and again throughout his teaching, make a recognizable refrain: "You have heard that it was said (or, it has been said) ... but I say" (Matthew 5:21-22, 5:27-28, 5:31-32, 5:33-34, 5:38-39, 5:43-44). It's easy to see why he started by saying -- several different ways -- that he had not come to abolish the law; otherwise, his statements could easily have been taken as an attack on it. He calls for a pure heart, for surpassing goodness in the face of evil, for surpassing service in the face of our obligations. In the grand finale of those teachings, we see just how far Jesus' teachings of righteousness surpass the Law of Moses, and the Scribes, and the Pharisees:
I tell you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on the evil and the good, and brings the rain on the just and the unjust. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Don't even tax collectors [traitors and thieves] do that? If you greet only your brothers, what is the excellence of that? Don't even pagans [idol worshipers] do that? Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

The goodness that Jesus calls for is something he says we already do some people. What we lack is to do the same for our enemies. What we lack is mercy; we would rather judge. Ultimately, we lack love.

Now it's natural for us to try to turn everything into a set of rules -- a system where we win. But that's not how love works. It's not possible to love someone so that they can be a step on the ladder to getting something else -- whatever that is, it doesn't deserve to be called "love".

That's one way the righteousness of the law is good, but can be surpassed. How many times in the gospel do we see people use the law to tattle on someone, or as an excuse to put them down and look good in comparison? Remember the times Jesus healed someone on the Sabbath, and one person or another got all indignant about working on a day of rest? As if God would allow a miracle if he objected to it. Someone who looks at a miracle and calls it a sin, that has to set a new record in missing the point. And the same kind of mistake happened when Jesus reached out to obvious sinners. The lost is found, the wayward son comes home, there is rejoicing in heaven, God's love overflows in generosity and mercy -- and someone is there to use the law as a scorecard to try to put an obstacle in the way of love. Jesus calls for a righteousness that surpasses that.

Keeping the law is not necessarily petty. It takes determination and dedication. The Pharisees had the dedication, the determination, and the zeal. In their determination to be faultless, they risked becoming heartless. But even if they succeeded in keeping the laws faultlessly, Jesus would still have called them to a righteousness that surpasses that: The kind that turns the other cheek, and goes the extra mile, and loves even the enemy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gospel of Philip: Geography and Places

Disclaimer: The quotes of the Gospel of Philip do not imply any approval of the material's accuracy or helpfulness. The quotes are shown so that readers can judge for themselves about the quality of the material.

The Gospel of Philip presents an interesting puzzle when it comes to geography and place names. What if the author mentions a place name -- something that the readers know is a place name -- but the author speaks of it as something else:
The apostles who were before us had these names for him: "Jesus, the Nazorean, Messiah", that is, "Jesus, the Nazorean, the Christ". The last name is "Christ", the first is "Jesus", that in the middle is "the Nazarene". "Messiah" has two meanings, both "the Christ" and "the measured". "Jesus" in Hebrew is "the redemption". "Nazara" is "the Truth". "The Nazarene" then, is "the Truth". "Christ" [...] has been measured. "The Nazarene" and "Jesus" are they who have been measured. (from the Gospel of Philip)
Nazareth, where Jesus lived in his early years, was a small town. It had no great reputation. From what we see here, it's possible that the author of the Gospel of Philip did not realize that "Nazarene" meant someone from a place called Nazareth.

Or again, what if the author mentions a specific place -- like the Temple in Jerusalem -- but speaks of it as several separate buildings:
There were three buildings specifically for sacrifice in Jerusalem. The one facing the west was called "The Holy". Another, facing south, was called "The Holy of the Holy". The third, facing east, was called "The Holy of the Holies", the place where only the high priest enters. Baptism is "the Holy" building. Redemption is the "Holy of the Holy". "The Holy of the Holies" is the bridal chamber.
The reader may well think that the Gospel of Philip's author had no direct knowledge of the place.

So with those introductory cautions, here are the places mentioned in the Gospel of Philip -- regardless of whether I'm convinced that the author of that gospel was aware that they were places or had correct knowledge about them:
  • Paradise (as a place where Adam was, not merely in a symbolic sense)
  • person referred to as Nazarene / Nazorean
  • person referred to as Magdalene
  • dye works / workshop of Levi
  • people referred to as Roman
  • people referred to as Greek
  • Jerusalem
  • three buildings for sacrifice: Holy, Holy of Holy, Holy of Holies
  • Jordan

Like most of the "alternative gospels", the Gospel of Philip makes no attempt to present a biography of Jesus. Unlike some other Gnostic gospels, the Gospel of Philip does not completely skip geography and the physical world, though location does play a relatively small part. The lack of knowledge of the Second Temple shows us that the author of the Gospel of Philip was probably not a Jew of the Second Temple era, and was probably not getting his information from anyone who was a Jew of the Second Temple era. We may also gather that the author was unfamiliar with Nazareth, or with the history of anyone who had lived in Nazareth.

Follow the link for an English translation of the Gospel of Philip.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sayings Gospel of Thomas: Geography and Places

The Gospel of Thomas, an early collection of Jesus' sayings, is more focused on Jesus than the alternative gospels we have recently looked at (Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth). Most of the sayings found in the Gospel of Thomas are recognizable from the canonical gospels. I think the most unfortunate thing about this sayings collection is that it does not make any effort to record the settings in which the sayings originally occurred. Without context, the point of a saying is not always clear. And because there is no context -- mostly a series of quotes attributed to Jesus -- there are relatively few references to places or geography. But here, there are at least some.

Here are the references to identifiable places in the Gospel of Thomas:
  • Samaria
  • Judea
That's a short list. Both entries on the list come from a single saying; it can be seen here as saying #60 in this translation. Both "Samaria" and "Judea" refer to areas or regions. Here we do not see references to specific cities, villages, towns, peoples' homes, or other specific buildings the way we see in the canonical gospels.

There are a few places where the sayings hinted at their original settings:
  • "Your brothers and your mother are standing outside." (#99)
  • "No prophet is accepted in his (own) village." (#31)
Like so many of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, modern students of the New Testament will recognize these sayings of Jesus from the Biblical gospels. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is not completely cut off from the physical and historical world -- but that is not the main interest of whoever collected the sayings. The main interest is the sayings of Jesus. Whatever Jesus' historical setting was, it does not seem to be of any direct interest to the person who collected the sayings.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gnostic Gospel of Mary: Geography and Places

We're going to continue our look at some of the alternative gospels; we will next take a look at the Gospel of Mary. Here is the list of all the earthly, physical, geographical places listed in the Gospel of Mary:
  • (None)

Again: None. There are no earthly, physical, geographical places mentioned in the Gospel of Mary.

With the Gospel of Mary, we only have a fragment of the original: there are pages missing. It is possible that a copy of the full text will be found at some point, possible that the missing pages may be found one day. If we had the full text, it's possible that it might contain references to actual places. As for the text we have, the text which the scholars have studied and commented on, there are no references to actual geographical places.

Some call this the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, but that's really more than we know from reading it. It does mention a Mary, but she is not called Magdalene here. There were several women named Mary in the Biblical gospels. When people call this the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, they are relying on the earlier Biblical gospels as references to help them identify the people who are not fully identified here. And, as mentioned another time when we looked at alternative gospels, the Gospel of Mary does have an additional problem in claiming to be first-hand material on Jesus: the name "Jesus" does not appear in the text that we have.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Gnostic Gospel of Truth: Geography and Places

Here the point of this series will become plainer. After looking at the four canonical gospels, we will next take a look at the Gospel of Truth, one of the alternative gospels that is mentioned now and then. Here is the list of all the earthly, physical, geographical places listed in the Gospel of Truth:
  • (None)
That's right: None. There are no earthly, physical, geographical places mentioned in the Gospel of Truth. There is no baptism in the Jordan or anywhere else, no journey to Jerusalem or anywhere else, no Sermon on the Mount or anywhere else, no trial before Pilate or anywhere else. It doesn't record earthly events, and takes little interest in this world. If you'd like to see a copy of the Gospel of Truth, you can take a look at it and see for yourself.

The Gospel of Truth has its value -- as a record of what early Gnostic Christians made of Jesus. You can read the Gospel of Truth and see what the early Gnostic Christians considered to be important. You can see how, in their own way, some schools of Greek philosophers longed for beauty, truth, perfection, and fullness -- even joy -- and found these in Christ. It's a testimony to how Christ fulfilled more hopes than those of the ancient Jews who wrote the New Testament.

What you will not find in the Gospel of Truth is anything like historical information on Jesus. No places are named, and no events are recorded -- though it does assume the reader is familiar with some of Jesus' life and teachings from other sources. The text is mainly a commentary on theology and philosophy, and how true knowledge of God through Christ changes our views of that. If you are looking for historical information on Jesus, you will not find it there.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gospel of John: Geography and Places

Here are places you can find referenced in the Gospel of John, as usual in roughly the order in which they are first named:
  • Jerusalem
  • Bethabara
  • Jordan
  • Galilee
  • Bethsaida
  • Nazareth
  • Israel
  • Cana
  • Capernaum
  • Aenon
  • Salim
  • Samaria
  • Sychar
  • the parcel of ground that Jacob gave Joseph
  • Jacob's well
  • Judea
  • Bethesda
  • sea of Galilee (sea of Tiberias)
  • Tiberias
  • Bethlehem
  • Mount of Olives
  • Pool of Siloam
  • Bethany
  • home of Mary, Martha, Lazarus
  • Cedron (brook)
  • judgment hall
  • Gabbatha
  • Golgotha
  • sepulcher

The Gospel of John was, in a sense, an early "alternative" gospel. That is, there are events and places recorded in it that are more than we knew from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We see some familiar events in familiar places, compared to the earlier gospels. But we also see events that took places at Cana, at Aenon, and in Sychar at Jacob's well. The author(s) expand on our previous knowledge -- but the new information is still grounded in the geography of that immediate area of the world. We still find the new events located in identifiable places that were recognizable to the people of that day.

My thanks for bearing with me this long; in the next post the point will become plain.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Gospel of Luke: Geography and Places

I promise that it is not my plan to simply try the patience of any readers (or, for material like this, skimmers). But please bear with me while I finish up the canonical gospels here, before I get to the ultimate point.

Here are places you can find referenced in the Gospel of Luke, once again in roughly the order in which they are first named:
  • Judea
  • Temple
  • At the Temple: the right side of altar of incense
  • Galilee
  • Nazareth
  • hill country
  • Israel
  • Syria
  • Bethlehem
  • Jerusalem
  • Iturea
  • Trachonitis
  • Abilene
  • Jordan
  • Capernaum
  • Sarepta (Zarephath)
  • Sidon
  • Simon's house (4:38)
  • lake of Gennesaret
  • Levi's house (5:29)
  • Tyre
  • Nain
  • house of Simon the Pharisee (7:36-40)
  • person referred to as Magdalene
  • Gadarenes
  • Sodom (historical reference)
  • Chorazin
  • Bethsaida
  • Jericho
  • person referred to as Samaritan
  • home of Martha (Luke 10:38)
  • people referred to as Ninevites (historical reference)
  • Nineveh
  • Siloam (in reference to a tower)
  • Bethphage
  • Bethany
  • house with an upper room
  • Mount of Olives
  • high priest's house
  • person referred to as Cyrenian
  • person referred to as "of Arimathea"
  • sepulcher
  • Emmaus

In Luke's gospel, again we see the author paying attention to the details of where events had taken place. Often we see actions that took place in private -- in the homes of people we know such as Simon Peter, Levi, Martha, or Simon the Pharisee. Sometimes we see a home whose owner is not introduced, such as the home in Jerusalem with an upper room where they ate the Passover.

Luke's gospel, like those of Matthew and Mark, has events that can be placed on a map. Often there is enough information so that someone from that time could have located the house or building -- or even the room within the building -- where something was said or done. In the Gospel of Luke, again we see Jesus spending his time in known places that were identified for the first readers of the gospel.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gospel of Mark: Geography and Places

I realize that catalogs of names are not on everybody's list of interests. And the point of all this (yes, there is a point) won't become plain for a few more posts. But for the moment, here are places you can find referenced in the Gospel of Mark, again in roughly the order in which they are first named:
  • land of Judea
  • river Jordan
  • Nazareth of Galilee
  • Galilee
  • sea of Galilee
  • Capernaum
  • Jerusalem
  • house of Simon and Andrew
  • Idumea
  • Tyre
  • Sidon
  • (country of the) Gadarenes
  • Sodom
  • Gomorrah
  • Bethsaida
  • Gennesaret
  • person known as Greek
  • Syrophoenicia (person described as Syrophoenician)
  • Decapolis
  • Dalmanutha
  • Caesarea Philippi
  • Bethphage
  • Bethany
  • mount of Olives
  • temple
  • treasury, while at the temple
  • house of Simon the leper
  • Gethemane
  • high priest's "palace"
  • person known as Cyrenian
  • Golgotha
  • person known as "of Arimathaea"
  • person known as "Magdalene"
  • sepulcher

Here we see knowledge of Judea in general, Jerusalem in particular, and the Temple area and the holy precincts in some detail. The author also mentions several bodies of water. Some of the locations are very specific: we see "the house of Simon and Andrew" in Mark 1:29.

When it comes to Mark and geography, there is some difference in manuscripts. From what I've been able to gather, there is one family of manuscripts that says (Mark 7:31) that a journey was taken "from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon" to the Sea of Galilee (which makes sense, geographically) while another manuscript family says "from the borders of Tyre through Sidon" to the Sea of Galilee (which has been questioned, to say the least). I won't belabor the point here; those who have a particular interest in that controversy can feel free to pursue it. For the current topic, it is enough to mention: given that there are different families of ancient manuscripts, of course the one that makes sense is going to be assumed to be closer to the events in question, and the one that makes less sense is going to be assumed to be further from the events in question. That's fairly standard procedure, when there is a difference in quality, to stick with the better one.

One other point deserves mention: in the holy precincts of Jerusalem, Mark's Gospel contains detail down to mentioning events at the treasury at the Temple, as related about a widow's offering, recorded in Mark but not in Matthew. This might suggest an author who was familiar with the Temple area in some detail.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Gospel of Matthew: Geography and places

One interesting thing you can discover, studying the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and the non-canonical gospels is the very different way in which they handle places. That is to say, Where did the events take place?

I'll introduce this question first by going over the canonical gospels, starting in this post with Matthew's Gospel. Here are some geographical places mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, roughly in the order in which they are first mentioned:
  • Babylon
  • Bethlehem
  • Judea
  • Jerusalem
  • Judah
  • Israel
  • Egypt
  • Ramah
  • Galilee
  • Nazareth
  • Jordan
  • Capernaum
  • Zebulum
  • Naphtali
  • Syria
  • Decapolis
  • Peter's house
  • Gergesenes
  • (awareness of nearby land of the Samaritans)
  • Sodom
  • Gomorrah
  • Chorazin
  • Bethsaida
  • Tyre
  • Sidon
  • Gennesaret
  • Canaan
  • Magdala
  • Caesarea Philippi
  • Jericho
  • Bethphage
  • Mount of Olives
  • Zion
  • Bethany
  • Simon the leper's house
  • Gethsemane
  • high priest's "palace"
  • the temple
  • potter's field
  • awareness of: Cyrene
  • Golgotha
  • Jesus' tomb

The places range from nations and regions to fields and houses. Jesus' movements and the disciples' movements can be plotted on a map. If you wanted to place the events on a map, sometimes you would need a wide-angle view of the map, and sometimes you'd need nearly a street view of the cities and towns at that point in history.

The point, for the moment, is this: the Gospel of Matthew is a very down-to-earth book. The events described are very much rooted in first-century Judea and the surrounding areas.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Praying when afraid

Many people seem to have a sense of a big problem looming. With that in mind ...

Great is your faithfulness, Lord,
And great is your kindness to your people.
Heaven and earth may pass away,
But your word remains forever.

When earthly kingdoms fail,
Your kingdom remains.
When treasures on earth are lost,
When thieves break in and steal
Or moths and rust destroy,
Treasures in heaven remain.

Your blessing rests on the poor
Your favor on those who revere you
And comfort is promised to those who mourn.
Great is your faithfulness, Lord,
And great is your kindness to your people.

Related posts:

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Worship - expanding our horizons

A good few years ago, it was a Jewish fellow who first explained to me that the word we see translated as "worship" is usually a word that means to bow or prostrate. It's the posture of a servant, acknowledging the greatness of the one to whom we bow. It offers submission. Sometimes also the word for "service" (the work of a servant) is translated as "worship". Literal bowing and physical prostration is still a part of worship for many people in the world.

When God forbade idolatry, he forbade service to an idol, or bowing to an idol (Exodus 20:5, 23:24). He did not, then, command bowing to himself. He did command service (Exodus 23:25). But what kind of service does he command?

As a side note on "bowing" or "worship", when we keep the commandments we bow to God in a spiritual sense. When we tell the truth even when a lie would benefit us, we bow to God. When we notice our neighbor's spouse and make up our minds to look the other way, we bow to God. When we decline to discuss another person behind their backs, we bow to God. The kind of "worship" that God requests of us is that we love our neighbors as ourselves.

I think the best way to make my point about what God asks is this: In the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), the Jews studied carefully and counted each distinct commandment. There are different versions of the list; one can be found here for reference. This list finds 613 distinct commandments, which is a number you will hear often for lists of this type. The list is organized into topics by what the law is most directly about. Here is a summary of how many commands were counted under each topic:
God: 10
Torah: 6
Signs and symbols of the covenant: 5
Prayer and blessings: 4
Love and brotherhood: 14
The poor and unfortunate: 13
Treatment of Gentiles: 6
Marriage, divorce, and family: 23
Forbidden sexual relations: 25
Times and seasons: 36
Dietary laws: 27
Business practices: 14
Employees, servants, and slaves: 19
Vows, oaths, and swearing: 7
Sabbatical and Jubilee Years: 17
The court and judicial procedures: 36
Injuries and damages: 4
Property and property rights: 11
Criminal laws: 7
Punishment and restitution: 24
Prophecy: 3
Idolatry, idolaters, idolatrous practices: 46
Agriculture and animal husbandry: 7
Clothing: 3
The firstborn: 4
Priests and Levites: 30
Offerings, tithes, and taxes: 24
The Temple, the sanctuary, and sacred objects: 33
Sacrifices and offerings: 102
Ritual purity and impurity: 16
Lepers and leprosy: 4
The king: 7
Nazarites: 10
Wars: 16

A few different sections could apply to worship in the way we normally think of it -- though when you look at the individual commands, you are likely to find a command like "Don't offer an animal with a blemish."

But here's the thing: while not every section applies to "worship" as we narrowly define it, every section applies to service. Fair business practices fall under "service to God"; fair treatment of employees likewise. Farming practices fall under "service to God". So does family. So does having a just court system. When we treat our co-workers well, we bow to God just as surely as someone on a prayer mat.

The laws of the Torah are not binding on Christians in the sense that we are not under the Old Covenant from Sinai, but under the New Covenant. Still, we see the writers of the New Testament talking about treatment of family and treatment of servants right along with generosity towards the poor and traditional "worship", all as part of the same topic of how we live as God's people.

When we think of religion in terms of singing hymns and praying and reading Scriptures one day a week, many of us sense that this is completely inadequate. But often, the answer given is to sing hymns and pray and read Scriptures two days a week, or seven days a week. And a great many Christians do read Scriptures and pray seven days a week. While I would not want to discourage anybody from singing, praying, studying, meditating, or any of the good and healthy things we do, it still remains to be said: that is a small part of what God asks of us. That kind of worship is only one topic among many in how we live our Christian lives. No matter how well we fulfill that one thing, it will always leave us with a sense of things undone because it still remains one topic among many that God asks of us.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

What kind of worship pleases God -- or displeases him?

Worshiping God is a natural thing; cultures all over the world, and across all times in history, have developed ways to worship. But does God appreciate all the things that we think of as worship?

Here are some worship practices that the Bible speaks against:

(Against) Assuming that God calls for sacrifice out of his own need
If I were hungry, I would not tell you. For the whole world is mine, and all the fullness thereof. (Psalm 50:12)

(Against) Claiming protection under his covenant while despising his instruction
Who are you to recite my laws and mouth the terms of my covenant, seeing that you spurn my discipline and brush my words aside? (Psalm 50:16, JPS)

(Against) Doing good things in order to get favorable publicity
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, to be honored by men. ... But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (from Matthew 6:2-4)

Note - but still for doing the good things.

(Against) Worship done for appearance or human praise
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have already received their reward. (Matthew 6:5)

(Against) Thinking words alone are useful worship, or traditions of men are useful worship
This people draws near me with their mouth and honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. (Matthew 15:8-9)

And again, things that the Bible commands or encourages:

(For) Remembering the good that God has done
And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD your God brought you out o there through a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deuteronomy 5:15)

(For) Justice and compassion
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?

Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own relatives? (Isaiah 58:5-7)

(For) Repentance
I say to you that there shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous who had no need of repentance. (Luke 15:7)

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17)

(For) Prayer that trusts in God's love
When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. ... Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This, then, is how you should pray:
Our Father ...
(Matthew 6:6,8-9)

(For) Worship in spirit and in truth
The hour is coming, and has now come, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeks such to worship him. (John 4:23)

(For) Turning to God for help, and honoring him for the good he has done
Call upon me in time of trouble and I will rescue you, and you shall honor me. (Psalm 50:15)

A prophet's summary of what God requires
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8, translation mostly following JPS)

What about our usual ways of worship? What about prayer and praise? What about songs and sermons? What about Bible studies?

The Bible says good things about prayer and praise as we've seen above. It contains an entire book of songs -- along with urging for us to sing new songs, which is warrant enough for us to sing and keep singing. And the Bible commands us to learn and to teach what God has said.

Worship, as we think of it, is a good thing. The problem discussed before was when people accuse that God *needs* it to assure his insecurity -- that he wants it in the way that a vain or needy woman wants flattery -- as if the immortal one would seek the praise of mortals, or the holy one would seek the praise of sinners. The problem discussed in the next post is when we limit our religious life to this type of worship that we generally think of, in songs and Bible studies and the like.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Interest in worship

My previous post on worship was written in response to watching an episode of The Simpsons. That post was mainly geared toward answering a popular piece of anti-Christian propaganda that had been promoted on the show. But worship does deserve treatment in its own right, not just in responding to caricatures from the critics. So I'm planning two follow-ups at this point:
  • How holy living fits into the picture of worship
  • Worship and religion called for in the Bible
It just leaves such an incomplete picture, to talk about a skeptical argument and leave it there.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Use of talents

Lord, thank you for (name). Thank you for the talents and gifts you have given him. May he recognize them and build them. May he know the satisfaction of dedication, of mastering a skill, and the satisfaction of excellence. As you saw in the beginning that what you had made was good, may he also know the delight of recognizing that what he has accomplished is good. May his work serve you and bless others. May he remember humility, and give you the glory. May he love and follow you all his days.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Does God want our worship?

In the often anti-Christian show The Simpsons, there is an episode in which Homer Simpson is tricked into becoming a missionary (Episode "Missionary: Impossible" from Season 11.) The illiterate primitive people at the mission know more about religion than Homer does, in some ways. The show's writers have someone ask Homer a question that many Christians have heard from skeptics, and instead of having Homer give a Christian reply, they have Homer give the standard mockers' reply, with a little Hollywood flair added:
Native: "If the Lord is all-powerful, why does he care whether we worship him or not?"

Homer: "It's because God is powerful, but also insecure. Like Barbra Streisand before James Brolin."

If you were to search the commands in the books of Moses, you would not find a command where God asks for flattery. In the commands of the books of Moses, God shows remarkably little interest in receiving praise. In the Ten Commandments, the well-known command forbidding idol-worship is not, after all, followed by a command insisting on praising God. The Sabbath command does not contain a command to conduct worship services; it contains a command to rest from work. The kind of "worship" which God asks of his people as they live their daily lives is to be ethical: to be morally good. He requires of his people that they live good lives: not lying, not stealing, not murdering, not taking each others' wives and husbands. He asks his people to be holy as God himself is holy. He asks us to follow him in his ways.

The Simpsons doesn't exist to be fair; they exist to entertain. But if they had given a decent answer, it might have gone something like this:
Native: "If the Lord is all-powerful, why does he care whether we worship him or not?"

Could have said: "He cares whether we live good lives. It wouldn't be such a bad idea if we cared about our lives as much as He does."

And even that is before we begin to understand what a blessing it is to know God, and to be his people.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Is "inerrancy" a high view of Scripture?

The problem with "inerrancy" is that it leaves you nowhere to go. If the Old Testament is inerrant and if inerrancy is enough, then why do we need the New Testament? Either the New Testament is superfluous -- or inerrancy is not enough. And if inerrancy is not enough for the Old Testament to be sufficient, why should inerrancy be enough for the New Testament? Either way, if "inerrancy" is the goal, there's a problem for the New Testament. When we talk about "inerrancy", we define the good in terms of avoiding error -- and once error has been avoided, what else do you need?

There is a hazard in debating secondary issues: we can mistake them for primary ones. If the Bible did not reveal God to us, it would not be enough, even if the whole world agreed it was error-free. If the Bible does reveal God to us, then it is nothing but shenanigans to avoid hearing it on the pretext that there may be mistakes in the lengths of the reigns in the kings' lists or a pro-Israeli bias in the point of view of some ancient battles.

The question of inerrancy loses sight of knowing God. The glory of the Bible is not "inerrancy" -- it is the face of God, looking on us with favor and giving us peace. In pursuing inerrancy, there is one thing we lack: following Jesus.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Apocryphal gospels as "fan fiction"

I enjoy fan fiction -- you know, those fan-written stories for things that ended too soon. I've read fan fiction for book series like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, and for the occasional TV show too.

What is the appeal of fan fiction? In a word: More. You get to the end of something good, and you want more. Seven Harry Potter books seems like a lot -- unless you really came to enjoy the characters. And then you didn't want it to end.

Most Fan fiction has fairly predictable subject matter. Here are some common things that happen in fan fiction:
  • Events may be told from a different character's point of view.
  • A different person may be the central character, or a minor character may become a major character.
  • They may narrate events that were not described in the original work. Sometimes there are entirely new scenes, but more often they provide "deleted scene" information or untold back story to the original work.
  • They may try a slightly different personality for a character, and see what kind of impact that would have on events. What if Bella Swan (Twilight) hadn't been so insecure and needy? What if Edward hadn't been such a gentleman? What if Dumbledore (Harry Potter) had actually been evil?
  • Often they explore different relationships. For example, what if Hermione Granger had become interested in someone besides Ron Weasley? Or what if a character without a romantic history, such as Neville Longbottom, had been given that chance?
There are other types of material for fan fiction, but these are among the most common.

What does it have to do with the apocryphal gospels?

As best I can tell, the right literary category for many of the apocryphal gospels is "fan fiction". Fan fiction has some rules: the main characters are taken from another work or group of works. You can tell the characters are borrowed because they're not really introduced; they're assumed to be known to the reader already.

Many of us have, at some point in our lives, experienced a sense of disappointment that we cannot read a whole world filled with books about what people remembered of Jesus, as the fourth gospel suggests could have been done. What we want, in a word, is more. As far as the usual types of fan fiction, we see them represented among the apocryphal gospels:
  • Events are told from another point-of-view, such as one of the Mary's.
  • "Missing scenes" gospels create tales of Jesus' childhood, or of Mary and Joseph's back story.
  • Minor characters come to the foreground in the Gospel of Judas or of Mary.
  • Alternative relationships develop, such as between Jesus and Mary.

Not all of the apocryphal gospels are fan fiction; some are sayings collections, or meditations on theology. But for some of them, it looks like they were written from a simple desire to have more material on Jesus.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Technology: Innovation Wishlist 2011

It has been awhile since I've posted a wishlist for new inventions. So here's a short list of technological advances that I would welcome. I've been sick lately (just a cold), so a lot of these are health-related:
  • A little ear-scope with a micro-camera where you could put the scope in your ear and get an image on-screen on your computer, see what you're dealing with there.
  • A little microscope with a computer hook-up where you could put in a drop of blood, have it analyze all the images that it finds at the cellular level, match it with images of known germs in a database, and tell you what exactly you've got -- a real diagnosis instead of a best-guess from the symptoms.
  • Ok, I really want a home-computer compatible little medical diagnostic lab. Then you could get decent recommendations for treatment from a home computer for non-serious things. Who wants to be around a lot of other sick people in a medical office when your computer can make house calls?
  • Moving away from the medical end, how about a forensic application: give the computer a DNA sample from a suspect or unidentified person, have it create an image of the person's face. Maybe it could also give probable ranges for height and weight.
Dreaming ...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Lord, have mercy.

2996 crosses

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