Saturday, October 27, 2012

The LORD be with you: Blessing, promise, and the Savior

The LORD be with you.
And also with you. 
These words are familiar to Christians who worship with the ancient liturgical words passed down through the ages and down to us today. But the history behind these words tells us something about God, and how the people thought of God, and how the early Christians saw Jesus.

The Torah tells of God himself traveling with the tribes of Israel as they came out of Egypt, as they went through the wilderness, as they came into the land where once Abraham had lived. The presence of God was part of their idea of blessing, and of revelation, and of who they were as a people. So it is not surprising that we see the presence of God adopted as a greeting:
And behold Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you." And they answered him, "The LORD bless you." (Ruth 2:4)
That idea -- the idea of God's being with his people -- was mentioned time and again over the history of ancient Israel. I have selected only a short list of examples, but these should give some idea:
Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The LORD is with you, while you are with him; and if you seek him, you will find him. But if you forsake him, he will forsake you. (2 Chronicles 15:2)

Who is there among you of all his people? May his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem ... (Ezra 1:3)
Seek good, and not evil, that you may live: and so the LORD, the God of hosts, shall be with you, as you have spoken. (Amos 5:14)
The Talmud says that this blessing -- the Lord being with his people -- became a standard part of the Jewish liturgy at the Temple in ancient times. That may be how the words passed on into the Christian liturgy.
At the conclusion of the Benedictions said in the Temple ... it was also laid down that greeting should be given in the Name, in the same way as it says, "And behold Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers, "The LORD be with you," and they answered him, "The LORD bless you." (Berachoth 54a, older Mishnah portion)
 It was early in the Christian church that this greeting was also adopted by Christians:
The Lord be with you all. (2 Thessalonians 3:16). 

But here, in the letter to the Thessalonians, it seems likely that the "Lord" Paul speaks of is Jesus; he has been referring to Jesus as Lord throughout the letter. This blessing is given in another form fairly often in the New Testament:
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. (Romans 16:20, Romans 16:24, I Corinthians 16:23*, Philippians 4:23, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:18, Revelation 22:21)
There are some variations of the words in other places, but this isn't intended to be a catalog. This is simply to show that, early in the Christian church, the Jewish greeting "The LORD be with you" was adapted to speak of Jesus as Lord. This blessing may have been an early part of Christian worship: in all of the verses but one referenced above, the blessing is directly followed by "Amen." (*I Corinthians 16:23 is the exception, where it is simply "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all" without the "Amen".) The general use of the same blessing followed by "Amen" so often, and from more than one author, suggests that the blessing was in common use.

So far we have looked at "The Lord be with you as a greeting and a blessing." Back in the days of the Israelite prophets, sometimes the prophets also record God speaking of himself in that way, with a promise to be with his people:
Be strong, all you people of the land, says the LORD, and work: for I am with you. (Haggai 2:4)
The Great Commission records Jesus speaking very similar words.
I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)
That is not a claim someone would make if he thought himself only a prophet, rabbi, or sage. It is not a claim his followers would have attributed to him, if they saw him as only a prophet, rabbi, or sage. He is recorded as speaking of himself in the same way that the LORD did. The statement assumes a certain eternity about Jesus, to make a promise of that nature. It speaks of the early church's confidence in Jesus' resurrection and continued existence, that they should take that promise to heart. And it is yet one more instance when the church showed a very high view of Jesus -- and attributed that view to Jesus' own words.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Words of encouragement: For those in prisons of their own making

In my search for healing words to keep ready for other people, for a first-aid kit for the soul, I didn't expect to look to Simon Cowell as a source. He has a reputation for being sharp-tongued. But he had some very encouraging words to speak to a man who was so obese that he was on disability, a man with a beautiful voice who was unable to get up from his wheelchair to sing simply because of his weight.

I think one of my own hardest struggles is to find the right words for the self-disabled, those whose prison is in their own mind, and of their own making -- those who keep themselves down. I have known any number of people who hold themselves hostages, whether from eating or alcohol or drugs, or the inability to handle money, or various other causes. How do you talk about that without triggering someone's defenses?

Simon Cowell had these words to say to the man who was too obese to get up from his wheelchair and sing:
When I heard you sing, I had a vision in my mind of you standing, singing that song: healthy, happy. [Response: Nodding, smiling.]
And maybe you need some inspiration to help you that next stage because it's really in you to sort this out, you understand that? [Response: "Absolutely."]
And I don't think you deserve to be stuck in that chair, I really don't. [Response: Me neither.]
But it has to come from you. [Response: "Exactly."]
And I kind of feel that if we're going to go forward, then we have to make a sort of a deal with each other, that we're both going to work hard to sort this out, yeah? [Response: (Nodding) "Exactly."]
'Cause I'll back you if you back yourself. [Response: "I'll absolutely back myself."]
That was masterfully done. He began by communicating hope and a goal: standing, singing that song. He introduced the power that comes from taking responsibility: It's in you to sort this out. He did that without using any words that the man might not be ready to hear, any words that were likely to trigger a defensive response. He made sure the man was aware of his own role in the picture before continuing ("you understand that?"), but without expressing blame or frustration. He clearly communicated his compassion and caring: I don't think you deserve to be stuck in that situation. He stepped forward and committed his own willingness to be involved -- and clearly made it depend on whether the man was willing to take that same step and put in the same effort as those who would be helping him, to meet them in the middle. He made it clear that he was willing to commit and work hard, so long as the other fellow was also willing to commit and work hard.

It was really well-done. This could work as a general pattern for talking to people who are stuck in prisons of their own making, to show them hope and a way forward.

If you'd like to see it yourself, go here and start at about 5:35 in the video.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Romans 10: Jesus and Jehovah

"Jehovah" is a name that we use in English to represent the Divine Name by which God was made known in Israel, the one that the Jews left unspoken. Sometimes we bring the same Hebrew word into English as LORD in all caps to convey the Divine Name. ("Jehovah", it is said, was a mistaken way to bring that word into English -- based on Hebrew that was written so as to remind people not to pronounce the Divine Name. If that really is the case, then "Jehovah" is oddly appropriate in protecting that Name.)

Consider a few things that Paul said in Romans 10, then. He was writing in Greek, so it is not always clear when he meant the Divine Name.
If you confess with your lips, "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
Shortly after, Paul continues:
For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile -- the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:12-13)
Just from reading Paul, it's likely that he meant "Jesus" as the "Lord" he was referring to in both the passages quoted above. At the end of the second passage, Paul is quoting the prophet Joel. The writings of Joel are available in Hebrew, so we do know when Joel meant the Divine Name; Paul also would have known this. Based on the Hebrew, many Bibles render that passage of Joel in English like this:
Everyone who calls in the name of the LORD will be saved. (Joel 2:32)
Did Paul mean to parallel that passage from Joel, when he said:
If you confess with your lips, "Jesus is Lord" and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)
As the saying goes, "Read the whole thing" about what Paul said. In context, there are additional reasons to believe Paul is referring to Jesus in "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." Consider Paul's next point:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful on the mountain are the feet of him who brings good news." (Romans 10:14-15)

At the end of that passage, Paul is quoting the prophet Isaiah (52:7). Again, these words are available in the original Hebrew. I would like to point out two things about the passage Paul quotes from Isaiah. First: Paul is quoting a prophecy about announcing the return of the LORD to Jerusalem and how the whole world will see the salvation of God; that is appropriate to Paul's point about sending messengers out into the world so that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Second: That Isaiah passage is the immediate prelude to the passage of the suffering servant. That, again, is in line with Paul's point.

Paul carries much of his presentation to the Romans with quotes from the Old Testament. In some places, he is providing commentary on those passages for his readers, a Bible study as he goes along. (I could almost see it as Paul's Commentary on Isaiah and Joel in places.) While my thoughts on this are still forming, I will say: it is interesting to see how Paul sees the Scriptures that he grew up with, after learning about Jesus.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Great Commission: What Kind of Foundation?

Go therefore make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Jesus, Matthew 28:19-20)
Jesus' words sent his followers out into the wider world and began the worldwide outreach that is our mission as Christians. The great commission is vital to the foundation of the church. But vital in what way? We have been looking at "axioms" -- how we place something at the beginning of a logical system. Consider two different ways the Great Commission could be viewed as a foundation for the Christian movement:

Possibility #1: The Great Commission is the starting point for our actions as Christ's followers.
Possibility #2: The Great Commission is the whole purpose for our actions as Christ's followers.

Under the first possibility the Great Commission is where we begin, but it does not limit us. From that beginning, we branch out into other questions of theology that may occur to us, or seem important to us. We search out more mysteries. We have a healthy curiosity about God, and we do our best to read between the lines of Scripture to find answers to questions that were never directly asked or answered in those pages.

Under the second possibility, all of the above is well and good but shouldn't be mistaken for what Jesus asked us to do. Under the second possibility, the Great Commission is the whole purpose of the church. If Christ said to teach everything he taught, then that is what we are to teach. If he said we are to obey everything he commanded, then that is what we are to do. If we are teaching something else or doing something else, it's not what he asked us to do. A teaching or belief or action cannot be required if nobody in the apostolic church showed it coming from Christ. Teaching other things may be interesting but it's not any essential part of Christianity.

Looking at the history of Jesus' followers, we can see that the Great Commission was definitely a starting point. It is not a controversial thing to call it a starting point. The question I mean to raise is this: when Jesus spoke those words, what was it that he meant to start? The commission calls us to be taught, and to do, and to teach everything that Jesus taught to those first disciples. Are we commanded -- or invited, or permitted -- to teach things besides that?

The issue is not necessarily simple. At what point does not knowing fully, not understanding fully, interfere with our ability to teach and to follow? At what point does seeking other answers distract us from what Jesus said?  And each person sees one topic as more vital than others. But the questions I mean to raise are these: At what point are we no longer teaching what Jesus actually taught us? At what point have we hijacked the church and used it as a license to teach our own theories? At what point does Jesus' commission no longer control what the church is doing?

When Martin Luther started the original Reformation, he had not meant to divide the church but to curb some abuses, and so he posted some debating points. His 95 Theses were largely about purgatory and indulgences. Those 95 Theses might have been summed up like this: "Where did you get a license to teach that?" The point here is not to pick on the church of Rome. Instead I'd invite us all to ask, for everything we teach: Is that something that Jesus taught?

As we head back to the anniversary of the Reformation, I think instead of 95 Theses, I'd invite people to consider one axiom: The church exists to fulfill Christ's commission.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What are your denomination's axioms?

When we look at the divisions in Christianity and what we can do to reach across them, I'd like to take a look at what each group may think cannot be yielded -- the axioms of the group, the beliefs that are key to each group's identity. The list here is meant as an example, something that I hope represents those groups accurately, but could definitely be expanded:

The Roman Catholic Church has infallibility in dogma through the successors of Peter, guided by the Spirit and Tradition.

The Bible contains all that we need to know in this world about God and matters of faith.

The Bible is inerrant. 

The way to understand God is by looking at Christ.

The most important thing to know about God is that He is Sovereign.
Nothing happens apart from God's sovereign decree.

The Holy Spirit still gives all kinds of gifts of the Spirit to believers.
(And, often) Those who have the Holy Spirit can speak in tongues.

For other groups, while I may have some idea what they teach, I'm not sure which beliefs are the essential axioms. For example:

The goal of religion is to attain perfection.
Perfection can be reached in this lifetime.
Does that reach the level of axiom for Methodists, or is something else the unique bedrock there? A thorough treatment of this would have each group speaking for itself.

Some items in the Nicene Creed read as though they were meant to be the axioms on which we base our further knowledge. Each group's systematic theology is profoundly influenced by its axioms -- in fact, each group's theology is built on its axioms and shaped by its axioms. After all, that is what axioms are for.

Some Christian groups oppose creeds on general principle, on the view that the Bible should speak for itself. The groups that oppose creeds tend to be the groups that have no systematic theology. Again, this is expected; you could hardly have a systematic theology without a set of axioms for starters. A group's systematic theology cannot go beyond its axioms.

Where does this leave us? I think we will need to find the core beliefs of each group, and take a closer look at those. For a discussion to make any progress, each group would have to put its most basic assumptions out on the table, not as the basis for further discussion, but for examination in order to vet those most basic assumptions.

To be continued. Next: some sample axioms, and where they would lead. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Why Is Greed Called "Idolatry"?

This is written in response to a post by Ryan Thomas Jones -- where I'm a little late to the conversation, but wanted to add some thoughts all the same. In the linked piece, Jones argues that greed can be called "idolatry" only because the target of greed -- money -- involves actual literal images, and those images are the essential part of idolatry. I respectfully disagree. I have split up the response into two points: my objection, and why it matters.

My Objection

Let's start first with the Ten Commandments, the parts about other gods:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
You shall not bow down to them, or serve them. (Exodus 20:3-5)
If we were to place something before God but make no image of it, it would still be idolatry in a real sense. "Having no other gods before God" is commanded here, just as plainly as not making such an image. Serving a god besides God is plainly called wrong, and I have no doubt this would hold true even without an image. For example, I have no doubt that this command would apply to pagans who served Bacchus or Aphrodite or other gods even if there were no images involved. So serving another god is itself considered wrong, whether or not there are images involved.

Next, Paul on the subject of greed:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
And Christ on the same subject:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

Mr Jones argues that the real reason greed is called idolatry is because money has images on it:
Show me the tribute money. And they brought him a coin. And he said to them, "Whose is this image and superscription?" And they said to him, "Caesar's." (Matthew 22:19-21)
I have to say plainly that I disagree with the reasoning that "greed" is called "idolatry" merely because the coins had images. Greed is not called idolatry only when it applies to something with an image on it. Greed might desire gems that have no image on them, or on gold that has not been minted into coins but is only a bar of precious metal. Paul said nothing to show that greed is only "idolatry" when it applies to things that are marked with an image. If we were to look back to the Ten Commandments for reasons that Paul might call something idolatry, I can see several reasons:
  • Having another god before God;
  • Having idolatrous images; 
  • Serving another god.
When Jesus commented on how "You cannot serve both God and mammon", he did not mention images; he mentioned service, and he mentioned devotion and which master is first in someone's love and devotion.

From there, it seems a safe conclusion -- the intended conclusion -- that greed is idolatry even if it attaches to things like jewelry that have no image on them.

That means "idolatry" is a legitimate concern for other things which take our devotion away from God, where we serve something else before God.

Why It Matters

Mr Jones described some preaching he has heard:
Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.
There's an implication that the "idolatry" accusation is being used by the preacher as theatrics, to produce a show -- and that an essential part is the "lots of tears" -- that is, inducing guilt. A commenter to the original post says as much:
The sins that get re-categorized as idolatry are bad enough by themselves, and people are often stuck dealing with them. Adding the idolatry tag is an attempt to ratchet up the guilt ...
I have seen and heard my fair share of bad preaching over the years. I have no doubt that some preachers would use the accusation of "idolatry" to "ratchet up the guilt" as the commenter says, or "produce a big altar call with lots of tears". It is a manipulative thing, and it is right to object to the manipulation. Under the circumstances, another sad thing is that the "altar call" may sometimes be theatrics, not mercy. (My denomination doesn't do altar calls; this cuts down on the theatrics, though without necessarily improving the preaching.) If an altar call makes us rededicate our lives to God, there is a risk that we have rededicated ourselves to works-righteousness.

The reason I bothered writing this post is that I think there's a far better way to react to guilt than by trying to soften the accusation against us. It is better to turn to Christ -- and, sadly, here I'll have to make clear: not in the manipulated "don't you feel even guiltier now" kind of way that Mr Jones was so right to object to. There is a certain kind of preacher who may believe that guilt-tripping repentant sinners is a holy thing and part of his calling; there is something fundamentally sick about that. Should a preacher never try to create guilt? Let's say that if someone has no conscience it is the preacher's job to help revive it, and if someone has no sense of what is good and holy, then it is the preacher's job to build that up. Most people can tell the contrast by themselves, from there. (It is one of the most effective ways of discrediting the church, making a culture where nothing is holy, and then persuading the church to try to fit into that culture. Peoples' consciences will die for lack of hope that there is a better way.)

But for those who are already aware of their sin, it is not the preacher's job to increase their misery in their guilt. It is the preacher's job to show how faithful Christ is in forgiving us, how steady his promises are, how unwavering his faithfulness is. Even when our devotion to Christ may have slipped when we were tempted, it is the preacher's job to remind us that Christ's devotion to us did not slip. It is the preacher's job to explain why we can hope in Christ, and how trustworthy that hope will prove, and how love casts out fear. It is the preacher's job to hold up all of Christ's acts of mercy and forgiveness, and his promise of the Last Day.

That is, I think, the right response to finding out that some things we do can, in fact, be compared to idolatry.

Friday, October 05, 2012

A mother's prayer for teenagers: May his light shine

Lord, thank you for (name). Thank you for the kindness he has shown to his friends, and for his willingness to walk in the right path even when it is not the easy road. Let his light so shine where he is, that they may see his good works and glorify you.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

A mother's prayer for teenagers: Deliver them from evil

Lord, thank you for (names). Deliver them from evil: from those who would harm them or kill them, from those who would trick them or use them. Deliver them from those who would lead them into temptation. May they love you and follow you all their days. May they find you to be their refuge and strength, and may they be safe in your arms.