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For years now, I have been criticizing the preaching of politics from the pulpit. Why? What's so wrong with talking about issues and can...

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Christian or "Christian"

Stoned Stephen Society posted an excellent article over at Banned by HWA. The post, along with some of the comments it provoked, underscores the propensity of many believers to characterize themselves as "TRUE" Christians and others as "False" Christians. It is also interesting to note that the means most often used to evaluate the genuineness of the person's Christianity is their adherence to a particular set of doctrines. In this instance, adherence to mainstream/traditional Christian teachings are regarded by Armstrongites as disqualifying. Likewise, many Traditional Christians regard all Armstrongites as having no part in their fellowship because of their adherence to the heretical teachings of Herbert Armstrong.

Scripture, however, informs us that the presence of God's Holy Spirit is the only sure hallmark of a TRUE Christian (see Romans 8:9). And what is the evidence that the Holy Spirit is present in someone? In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law." (see Galatians 5:22-23)

Now, I could be wrong, but it seems quite plausible (if not probable) to me that we might find this evidence to be lacking in many of the individuals within each group! Likewise, I have personally known folks in both groups who have clearly exhibited these "fruits." In other words, the thing that identifies whether or not a person is a Christian has very little to do with what one believes about the trinity or the timetable for the fulfillment of prophetic events! Oh sure, a person has to believe that Jesus is the Christ to be a Christian (see John 14:6, I John 5:1, etc.), but it appears the rest of this stuff is superfluous.

Hence, while we are busy excluding each other from membership in the body of Christ, it is comforting to understand that God knows those who belong to "Him." It is also comforting to me to contemplate the fact that this judgement is in the hands of One who is infinitely more merciful and magnanimous than we are. What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

A Mortal Contemplating Immortality

Sometimes, the hardest things to understand about God (and things spiritual) are best comprehended in the simplest things of this life that we live. My favorite author once wrote a poem that I believe captured human longing and wonder about this life, connecting to the life around us and what might come next. Also, my favorite poet once wrote a poem about connecting with those who came before us and those who will come after us. Just in case you've never read these before, I wanted to share them with you tonight.

I Sit and Think by J. R. R. Tolkien

I sit beside the fire and think

of all that I have seen,

of meadow-flowers and butterflies

in summers that have been;

Of yellow leaves and gossamer

in autumns that there were,

with morning mist and silver sun

and wind upon my hair.

I sit beside the fire and think

of how the world will be

when winter comes without a spring

that I shall never see.

For still there are so many things

that I have never seen:

in every wood in every spring

there is a different green.

I sit beside the fire and think

of people long ago,

and people who will see a world

that I shall never know.

But all the while I sit and think

of times there were before,

I listen for returning feet

and voices at the door.

The Tuft of Flowers

 by Robert Frost 

I went to turn the grass once after one

Who mowed it in the dew before the sun.

The dew was gone that made his blade so keen

Before I came to view the levelled scene.

I looked for him behind an isle of trees;

I listened for his whetstone on the breeze.

But he had gone his way, the grass all mown,

And I must be, as he had been,—alone,

‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

But as I said it, swift there passed me by

On noiseless wing a ’wildered butterfly,

Seeking with memories grown dim o’er night

Some resting flower of yesterday’s delight.

And once I marked his flight go round and round,

As where some flower lay withering on the ground.

And then he flew as far as eye could see,

And then on tremulous wing came back to me.

I thought of questions that have no reply,

And would have turned to toss the grass to dry;

But he turned first, and led my eye to look

At a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook,

A leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared

Beside a reedy brook the scythe had bared.

I left my place to know them by their name, 

Finding them butterfly weed when I came.

The mower in the dew had loved them thus,

By leaving them to flourish, not for us,

Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him.

But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.

The butterfly and I had lit upon,

Nevertheless, a message from the dawn,

That made me here the wakening birds around,

And hear his long scythe whispering to the ground,

And feel a spirit kindred to my own;

So that henceforth I worked no more alone;

But glad with him, I worked as with his aid,

And weary, sought at noon with him the shade;

And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech

With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach.

‘Men work together.’ I told him from the heart,

‘Whether they work together or apart.’

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Things That Matter To God

On any given day, it is a sad reality that much of humanity is preoccupied with where their next meal is going to come from and surviving another day. The world is currently focused on a pandemic. The United States is focused on a presidential election and who will replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. In short, we tend to focus on what is right before our eyes. In fact, when we think about anything other than the present, we are inclined to think about what we refer to as the future (which we tend to define as what's going to happen in the next ten to twenty years). And, on very rare occasions, we allow ourselves the luxury of reminiscing about the past (usually through the lens of sentimentality).

Scripture, however, reveals that God inhabits past, present and future. We are told that God does not view time in the same way that we do - that God is ETERNAL. In other words, God takes the long view. For God, the immediate is not as significant as it is for us. For God, the eighty to ninety years that represents a human lifespan is but a blink of the eye (or even less than that). The psalmist wrote: "For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night." (Psalm 90:4) In the New Testament, we read: "But, beloved, be not ignorant of this one thing, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." (II Peter 3:8) Talk about a difference in perspective!

Take just a moment to think about this. God has witnessed everything that has happened over the eons of time that have elapsed since the Big Bang. God has witnessed the formation of stars and planets over billions of years and has had a front row seat for the evolution of life on this planet over many millions of years! God has witnessed the birth and death of stars and has seen them sucked into black holes over expanses of time that are incomprehensible to us.

And yet, Jesus reportedly told his disciples that God is aware of the fact that a single sparrow has fallen to the earth! (Matthew 10:29). Scripture tells us that "Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints." (Psalm 116:15) In other words, this same God who inhabits eternity is also aware of the moment when one of his beloved creatures expires! Even so, we must also fit this understanding into our awareness of the fact that God has also witnessed the deaths of tens of thousands of people in a single battle and the extinction of entire species.

Hence, one is forced to wonder: How much do the things that are of great moment to us matter to God? Does God attach the same weight/importance/significance to events that we do? Are the fires in the Amazon rain forests and California of greater import to God than a vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court? Is the rate of the sun's consumption of its hydrogen fuel over billions of years of greater moment to God than those raging wildfires in California? In short, is it possible that the things which we have chosen to focus our attention, time and energy on may not be as important to God as they are to us? Is it possible that God has bigger fish to fry? Is it possible that a single birth or death may be more important than a lifetime of work/experiences? 


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Does God Prefer Men?

James Tabor's latest post Are Women Considered 'Property' in the Bible? references an earlier post by Dr. Christopher Rollston entitled The Marginalization of Women (A Biblical Value We Don't Like to Talk About). Both of these Biblical scholars make a compelling case that the majority of the writings in the Judeo-Christian canon are not kind to the female gender. In short, most of the scriptures dealing with women leave us with the distinct impression that God prefers men - that "He" doesn't like women very much!

"That's ridiculous!" my Fundamentalist friends will shout. "It isn't that God doesn't like women," they will insist. "It's just that God has assigned different roles to males and females," they will explain.

The evidence, however, is not on the side of my Fundamentalist friends. If we are willing to take an objective look at Scripture, there are some very problematic verses in this regard.

It is, for instance, hard to say that women were not regarded as the property of men when we consider the wording of one of the Ten Commandments. We read: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's." Exodus 20:17 The context makes plain that men aren't supposed to covet each other's possessions (which clearly includes "thy neighbor's wife").

Moreover, the second chapter of Genesis informs us that God created Adam, the man, first. In this account, Eve is an afterthought! We read: "And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof. And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." Genesis 2:18-23 In this account, the woman is clearly created FOR the man - as "an help meet for him."

The very next chapter of Genesis also makes plain that Eve was the source of human sin. We read: "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat." Genesis 3:6 In fact, for her role in the matter, we are informed that God told her "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." Genesis 3:16

And, just in case someone might read something else into this story, the New Testament makes plain just how bad the woman was. In Paul's first epistle to Timothy, we read: "For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression. Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety." I Timothy 2:13-15

We also must not forget what preceded these remarks about women. After instructing men to "pray every where," Paul wrote: "In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array; But (which becometh women professing godliness) with good works. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." I Timothy 2:9-12

In reviewing this evidence, Rollston concluded: "People today often wish to turn to sacred literature for timeless trues about social norms. This impulse is certainly understandable. But that impulse can be fraught with certain difficulties. After all, to embrace the dominant biblical view of women would be to embrace the marginalization of women. And sacralizing patriarchy is just wrong. Gender equality may not have been the norm two or three millennia ago, but it is essential.  So, the next time someone refers to 'biblical values,' it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value." Yeah, I can't think of many women today who would willingly embrace the role that a Fundamentalist/Literalist view of Scripture would demand. 

Monday, September 7, 2020

God Speaks To Us

Both theists and atheists have wondered: "Why doesn't God just blanket the earth with the sound of "His" voice and tell us exactly what "He" expects and wants?" And I have always wondered what they would do if "He" did! Would it make a real difference if "He" did? Would everyone adopt what "He" said without question? Would all of the arguments and questions immediately disappear? Would everyone stop fighting and taking advantage of each other? Would the world break out into peace and happiness?

I've asked before: Is that how communication works? How does God communicate with us? For the more skeptical, we may even ask: Has God communicated with us? And, if Jews and Christians are correct in their assertions that God has spoken to us through their Scriptures, then why is there so much confusion about what those Scriptures say? In short, doesn't the existence of so much spiritual confusion in the world argue against the probability that God has spoken to us through the Judeo-Christian Scriptures or any other writings or prophets who claim God as their source?

Herbert Armstrong argued that Satan has deceived the whole earth, and that only the few folks whom God has specially called and chosen can now understand the Scriptures. Time and circumstances, however, have not been kind to Mr. Armstrong's thesis. When we look at the utter disintegration of his church after his death, and the diverse and distinctively different directions which the former members of his Worldwide Church of God have traveled, we are faced with a confusion that is at least as pronounced as that which exists in the world at large!

In thinking about this topic, I ran across what I considered to be an enlightened view. The article, 8 Ways God Speaks to Us Today (see https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/spiritual-life/8-ways-god-speaks-to-us-today.html), by Rebecca Barlow Jordan which appears at crosswalk.com outlines a number of ways that the author suggests that God communicates with us today. Fundamentalists and the folks who idolize the Judeo-Christian Bible may not like the piece, but I found it to be instructive.

Of course, Jordan's first two "ways" that God speaks to us concern Scripture (the Bible in general and Christ's words in particular). More importantly, however, she does not end there. She goes on to mention that God speaks to us through nature/creation, other believers (and I would add non-believers to the mix), music, circumstances, the Holy Spirit and prayer. I believe Jordan makes a convincing case that the Bible is NOT the ONLY or FINAL authority in terms of God communicating with humans. For Jordan, myself and many other Christians, God's conversation with humanity did not take place over the span of a few hundred years and cease altogether almost two thousand years ago.

Nevertheless, my skeptical friends will point out that this does nothing to explain the rampant confusion which exists about what God has said or demonstrate conclusively that "He" has said anything at all. I believe these questions are best addressed by taking a closer look at the way communication itself works.

We know that there is potential for great misunderstanding and very different interpretations between the sender and the receiver in any communication between two entities. Most of us understand that there are a number of different barriers that are inherent/intrinsic to the process of communication. Moreover, when we think about these barriers in terms of the divide between human and Divine, they take on even more significance in any discussion about God attempting to speak to us. I'm thinking about the emotional differences, our radically different perspectives/viewpoints and the differences in our physical natures. And there are the barriers that exist simply because we are human and subject to tiredness, distractions, physical disabilities (relative to seeing, hearing, learning, etc.), prejudices and biases, and the fact that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures were originally composed in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Moreover, there are still other factors to consider - that much of the Bible began as verbal communication which was later committed to writing, and that written communication (by its very nature) precludes the availability of non-verbal cues to help the receiver better understand the message. Do we begin to see how these things impact how a message is received? Hence, even if there were no such thing as a Satan, we can see that the interpretation of the message received is inherently problematic.

We can also see that the existence of these barriers and filters effectively demonstrates that we cannot rule out the possibility that some Higher Power is (or has tried to) communicating with us. In other words, our distortion of the message cannot logically be employed to say that the message was never sent. Admittedly, it also does not establish that a message from a Higher Power has ever been sent - that is still a matter of faith and personal experience in the final analysis.

One final point about the written word is also in order before leaving this topic. While the existence of scholarly and scientific studies can (and should) be employed to greatly enhance our experience of the Bible, those disciplines should never be allowed to exercise a veto over our reception and interpretation of the message. I've heard people say that "you can't make it mean what it was never meant to mean." In other words, the author's original intent should not be allowed to restrict our interpretation of the message. Indeed, the possibility of a multiplicity of interpretations may have been part of the author's intent. I've been fortunate to hear something completely different than what I had intended in the feedback I've received after delivering some sermon or writing some piece - it can be a very enlightening and inspiring experience!

In conclusion, whatever way God may choose to speak to us, we have an awesome responsibility to try our best to receive and interpret that message in a way that is constructive and beneficial to ourselves and others. And we cannot blame God for the miscues, errors and inconsistencies that are inherent to human communication. For better or worse, the Sender is only half of the equation - the Receiver will always have his/her role to play in any communication between two entities (Divine or human).  

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

When does life begin?

Humans have struggled with the answer to that question for many years. For Christians, the question has taken on even more urgency since the United States Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion. That the answer to this question has profound implications for morality and spirituality is disputed by almost no one.

In attempting to answer this question, it is interesting to note that most Christians are very selective in their use of the available evidence to arrive at an answer. Moreover, for many of them, the answer has to be definitive and dogmatic - in other words, there is no room for nuance or ambiguity.

From the scientific perspective, we now understand that the male and female gametes are living cells that unite to form a living zygote. We now understand that all of the information needed to generate a complete human being are contained in that zygote. Hence, we can certainly understand why some would arrive at the not so unreasonable conclusion that life begins at conception. Of course, from the scientific perspective, we must also deal with the fact that this life is completely dependent on the body of the woman who is hosting it. Indeed, for much of its existence during gestation, this life would not be able to exist on its own. And, finally, as I have mentioned before on this blog, science informs us that these lives are quite regularly terminated and expelled from the body of its host as part of the natural course of human reproduction (what is commonly referred to as a spontaneous abortion).

Of course, none of this knowledge was available to the authors of the Bible. Yes, God certainly knew all of it; but the men and women who wrote the book were completely ignorant of the science of human reproduction. This is an important fact to acknowledge in looking to the Bible for an answer to our question.

Unfortunately, many Christians have also tended to look for the answer to this question in the pages of the Bible with a pronounced confirmation bias. In other words, they are looking for information that supports the answer that they have already arrived at on their own. Without their even being conscious of them, old notions about human sexuality, birth control and paternalism color their thinking. And the question is further complicated by the notion that they have derived many of these underlying beliefs from the pages of that same book, the Bible!

Nevertheless, if we narrow our focus to simply answering our question from the Bible, we will be forced to conclude that there is room for a number of different answers to that question. Yes, most of us are very familiar by now with the favorite verses of "Pro-life" Christians; but are you familiar with any of the verses which contradict their understanding?

A favorite scripture of anti-abortion Christians is found in the Psalms: "I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou [art] my God from my mother's belly." (Psalm 22:10) Most of us have read that passage in Jeremiah: "Then the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." (Jeremiah 1:4-5) And this passage in Isaiah: "Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name." (Isaiah 49:1) Likewise, most of us are familiar with the story in the Gospel of Luke about Elisabeth's baby leaping in her womb when she was greeted by Mary. ( Luke 1:41)

But what about the many passages which state that life is defined by breathing? In Genesis 2:7, we read: "And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." And Scripture makes clear that this didn't just apply to the first human whom God created. In the Genesis account of the flood, we see just how important this concept of the "breath of life" is to God's definition of a living thing. We read: "And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die." (Genesis 6:17) "And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life." (Genesis 7:15) "All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died." (Genesis 7:22) And, finally, we have these words from the book of Job: "The Spirit of God hath made me, and the breath of the Almighty hath given me life." (Job 33:4)

There are also a couple of other scriptures that are subject to various interpretations. In the Pentateuch, we have the hypothetical incidence of two men who accidentally hurt a pregnant woman while fighting. (Exodus 21:22-23) Some folks have suggested that this verse indicates that an unborn child is not given the same value as one who has been born, while others see this as proof that the unborn was just as valuable to God. Likewise, the genealogical accounts in the Pentateuch seem to imply that being born is a prerequisite to being considered a person - someone who is worthy of a name. (see Genesis 4:18,26; Genesis 21:3; Genesis 29:34; Genesis 30:20; etc.) Finally, we have an instance in the book of Ecclesiastes where it is recorded that a man who has experienced a meaningless life would have been better off to have been a stillborn! (Ecclesiastes 6:3-5)

In closing, my objective was not to change anyone's mind about their stance on abortion. Indeed, my own position remains that life begins at conception. It is, however, my hope that this mini Bible study on the topic will serve to make us all more tolerant of our brothers and sisters in Christ who do not share our views on this topic. For those who look to Scripture for doctrine and moral certainty, we must be willing to admit that it is possible to reach a conclusion other than the one espoused by "Pro-life" Christians. As the Apostle Paul once wrote: "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." (Romans 14:5)