I have a weird library collection. Mainly that is because I am weird, and weird is as weird does. I have some volumes written by some of the most conservative authors who have ever taken pen to paper. And I have a couple on the other end of the spectrum as well. The largest single collection in my library belongs to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, in my “devotional” section another name is very prominent – Thomas Merton.
For those of you who do not know me that may not be such a stretch at all – hardly considered weird. But theologically I come from a heritage that is anything other than Roman Catholic. I believe very strongly in believer’s baptism (famously nicknamed “credo-baptism” as opposed to “infant baptism”). I most certainly do not believe the scriptures teach the doctrine of transubstantiation. Nor do I believe that there is an unbroken line of apostolic authority from Peter down to the latest leader of the Roman Church known as the Pope. There are other differences between what I believe the scriptures teach and what the official stance of the Roman Church details.
And yet I find myself drawn to a spirituality that is exemplified by writers such as Henri Nouwen and, in this case, Thomas Merton. I have purchased and read several of Merton’s books, and the prevailing wisdom is that you really have not understood Merton until you have read his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. I had resisted for several years, because I really liked his devotional writings but was not sure about an autobiography. Finally, I decided to lay aside my misgivings and read the book.
Boy, am I glad that I did.
I would concur that reading The Seven Storey Mountain sets Merton’s other writings in context. You learn so much more about the man and the time period in which he underwent his amazing conversion. To understate the matter – Merton is an absolute wordsmith. He has the gift of writing that I wish I had, and that is an inspiration to me. Reading his autobiography you get an idea about how that craft was born into him, and how he honed it to its razor-sharp perfection.
Because this is an autobiography (at least through his entrance into the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani), it would not be of any special value here for me to critique each chapter or section. It is simply the story of Merton’s life. But my copy is full of beautiful expressions of Merton’s keen eye, his talented pen, and especially of his deeply observant eye of faith. The book is a moving account of a young man’s journey from secular emptiness to spiritual fulfillment. There were times I did not want to put the book down – and other times I did put it down just so I could process something that Merton communicated. If you like the story of spiritual journeys, and you do not already have this book, by all means this is a journey that you do not want to miss.
With all of those positives noted, I must add that I felt a palpable degree of sadness as I read about Merton’s conversion to certain aspects of the Roman Church that I simply do not understand. His devotion to Mary, for example, while admirable in one respect, is so far outside of my process of understanding that I just do not comprehend how someone born outside of the Roman Church can come to accept its implications. The adoration of Mary is a relatively young belief in the Roman Church, and receives no biblical support. I had a Roman priest explain the philosophy behind the adoration of Mary (at least from his point of view) and so I think I understand that, but I must insist that it is a tragedy when a person who professes a love for Jesus as the Son of God takes some aspect of Christ’s divinity and attaches it to his earthly mother. There are other aspects of Roman Catholicism that I disagree with on doctrinal grounds, but this is not a book arguing doctrine. This is a book documenting one man’s journey from unbelief to belief, and a special kind of belief at that.
About the only thing I found missing (and I bet I am about to REALLY expose my ignorance here) is why Merton spelled “Storey” with an “e.” I have a suspicion that if I had a better resume of literary understanding I would “get it.” But, I don’t, so I don’t. I am awaiting someone to let me in on the explanation, and then I will be that much more informed about the book and the life of Merton.
So, bottom line, do not read this book if all you are looking for is a way to argue against Roman Catholicism. Read this book if you are interested in Thomas Merton’s journey. Read the book if you have read some other of Merton’s writings, and you want to know more about the man. Read this book if you are interested in the process of contemplative faith. And, by the way, read this book if you are interested in really good writing, and if you want to increase your own skills at the craft of putting words on paper.
Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008) 234 pages including end notes.
I have not mastered the art of making proficient book reviews. If you have read any of my other reviews they are basically extended comments about why you should obtain the book for yourself. A proper book review includes summaries of the author(s) main arguments and an evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of the book. Like I said, I’ve never really been taught how to do that exceptionally well, and I’m lazy to boot. But, that having been said, I will try to evaluate this book a little more carefully.
How is that for brevity? I was guided in a study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Dr. Stassen as a part of my Doctor of Ministry work at Fuller Theological Seminary. I read and loved his Kingdom Ethics. I appreciated his Living the Sermon on the Mount although it was written on a much more popular level and I felt like he oriented the book a little too much toward the popular reader. I was excited to purchase this book, which Dr. Stassen edited, as a continuation of his discussion on the importance of “Just Peacemaking” in a world that has basically gone mad.
This book simply disappointed on so many levels. I will attempt to share with you some of my frustrations.
The book begins with a 40 page introduction that needed an introduction. It was kind of like turning on the TV and hearing the announcement, “We now return to our regularly scheduled programing already in progress…” There are five names associated with the writing of the introduction, and it genuinely reads like the product of a committee. The first eight pages contain a rambling discussion of terrorism with no real context to frame the discussion. It is not until page nine that a coherent discussion of Just Peacemaking begins. The rest of the introduction is valuable, but perhaps overly lengthy. The purpose of an introduction is to introduce the subject. At 40 pages the introduction was a chapter in and of itself. As I said, the introduction needed an introduction.
The first chapter, “Support Non Violent Direct Action,” written by John Cartwright and Susan Thistlewaite, was, in this blogger’s estimation, simply dreadful. Not only dreadful, but profoundly contradictory. The authors state as the lead of the second paragraph, “Nonviolent direct action is a strategy that lances the festering boil of violence and produces healing without resort to war.” (p. 42) All well and good, if not a little flowery in the language. What “nonviolent” actions do the authors recommend? The first is boycotts, which they define as “…a concerted action designed to isolate an individual, group, or nation in order to express disapproval and to coerce change.” (p. 44) I nearly gagged on my coffee when I read that sentence. Let me get this straight – we are to lance the festering boil of violence by isolating and coercing people that we disagree with into behaving the way we want them to. It gets better. The lead of the next paragraph reads, “After 1880 the term soon came into common use, broadening to describe and include all forms of nonviolent intimidation.” So, now the priests of nonviolence have encouraged their followers to use isolation, coercion and intimidation to achieve their goals. I almost put the book down right then, but I soldiered on. (Pardon the pun).
The next nonviolent action the authors recommend is a strike. They suggest that, “Strikes have often met with considerable violence on the part of both business owners and government.” (p. 47) I suppose the authors have never heard of, nor read about, the horrific violence that strikers have used against business owners and non-workers alike. Oh well, if you are going to advocate coercion and intimidation, a little violence might not be too bad. Except that the whole point of the chapter was supposed to be “nonviolent” actions. This chapter was clearly the worst of the book, and if you can get past this entry, the rest of the book is not that bad.
The next chapter, “Take Independent Initiatives to Reduce Threat” by Glen Stassen is quite good. It is brief, to the point, and well written – all hallmarks of Dr. Stassen’s expertise. The third chapter, “Use Cooperative Conflict Resolution” is a little bit longer, but still valuable. I found the fourth chapter, “Acknowledge Responsibility for Conflict and Injustice and Seek Repentance and Forgiveness” written by Alan Geyer and Donald W. Shriver to be particularly valuable. Once again the chapter was direct, fairly brief, full of legitimate examples, and the concepts espoused fit directly into the title of the book, Just Peacemaking.
In the second (chapters 5 and 6) and third (chapters 7 – 10) sections of the book the second major flaw of the book was revealed. These chapters read like a manifesto produced by the Democratic party of the United States. The only American Presidents who received any positive mention were Democrats, and Jimmy Carter was clearly the favorite of all the authors. Ronald Reagan was vilified at every opportunity. Likewise, the Palestinians and their cause received all the positive comments, whereas the Israelis were never described as anything other than land hungry war mongers. I do not doubt but what the Palestinians have a legitimate complaint against the colonization of their land. But the one-sided nature of the treatment in this book made it sound like the suicide bombers and the indiscriminate missile firing of the Palestinian terrorists are somehow justified. The political stance of the authors was utterly transparent. And that was unfortunate in a book that was designed to be about Just Peacemaking. You cannot be a peacemaker if you are lobbing verbal hand grenades at your political opponents.
After finishing the book, especially the last sections, I could not help but think of the irony that the authors of the book really needed to read chapters 2-4 of the book and put those principles into practice in their own chapters. The authors of chapter one just need to re-write their chapter from scratch.
Okay, so I am not an accomplished book reviewer. I usually only review those books that I genuinely love and want others to read. I made an exception here, not that I do not want people to buy this book, but only that if you are interested in the title of the book that you purchase it carefully. If your politics are even moderately left-of-center you will probably love the book. The more left-of-center your politics the more you will like the book (if you can get past the theological arguments and the references to the Bible). But, if you are like me and have somewhat to moderate right-of-center politics and you are fairly conservative in your theology, this book is a frustrating read.
I will recommend you purchase the book with the above caveat in mind. If you are interested in the “new paradigm” of Just Peacemaking (a concept, by the way, that I approve of whole heartedly) then this is a good resource. The middle chapters are good, and the later chapters do have some good points. I simply wish the authors had checked their politics in the coat room when they entered the conversation hall. It would have made the book much more valuable, and also much more enjoyable to read.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11).
Being raised in the Church of Christ I grew accustomed to being among a people of “nots.” We did “not” do this, we did “not” do that. One of the defining pamphlets that seemingly was omnipresent as I was growing up was a little tract entitled, “Neither Catholic, Protestant or Jew.” That pretty much sums it up. I never knew what we were, but I could come pretty close to telling you what we were “not.”
Nothing in our pantheon of “nots” was more devoutly honored than the fact that we did “not” have to obey the fourth command of the 10 Commandments. I always thought this was somewhat strange - here God had made something pretty obvious, and yet we found a way to get around obeying it. There were many reasons given for the legitimacy of breaking one of God’s 10 Commandments, but growing up I kind of had a sneaking suspicion that most of our objection to commandment #4 was the fact that we identified ourselves significantly as “not” being Jewish. Therefore, to practice anything that smelled as if it might be connected to the Old Testament was strictly verboten. Why did we have to obey the other nine commands, you may ask? Well, because they were repeated in the New Testament, in one form or another; but luckily for us the fourth never was (specifically, anyway).
While I will never renounce my allegiance to Jesus, and I have no intention of making the Mosaic law code mandatory for entrance into the Kingdom of God, I do want to say that I am no longer comfortable with the way we have so blithely dismissed the fourth command. I have several reasons for this change of heart.
First, Jesus honored the true meaning of the sabbath command. He worshipped on the sabbath. At no point does he ever command, or even suggest, that the sabbath command could be negated. True, he healed on the sabbath. Reading the gospel of Luke it almost seems like he never healed except on the sabbath. But I believe the emphasis on the sabbath healings was to show that God really meant what he said – the sabbath was to be a day of deliverance and rest. Those who were suffering deserved to be set free from their ailments and diseases. Therefore, although a technical violation of the sabbath prohibition against work, it was a divinely sanctioned and approved technical violation, and Jesus soundly criticized the Pharisees and others because they could not see God’s hand in setting the oppressed free.
Second, the apostle Paul clearly honored the sabbath command. He sought out synagogues and other places of worship on the sabbath. Why? Well, for one reason I am sure he wanted to begin his ministry to his own people – the Jews. But I sincerely believe that he still worshipped God on the sabbath. That does not mean he did not worship on the first day of the week (we are clearly told he did – to remember the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection). But, we cannot overlook the significance Paul placed on the day of sabbath rest and worship. Not, that is, unless we want to be hypocritical about our emphasis on examples.
And, last but in no way to make the point insignificant, I believe there remains deep theological importance to the day of sabbath. For this point I want to quote Deuteronomy 5:12-15 in its entirety, even though I quoted the Exodus 20 passage above:
Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. (RSV)
You will notice, as you compare the two readings, that the Deuteronomy passage is almost verbatim a repeat of the Exodus passage, with a couple of minor variations in that more animals are listed. But there is one very important difference. In the Exodus passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the account of the creation and the LORD’s day of rest. In the Deuteronomy passage the reason given for the day of sabbath rest is the event of the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage. The command remains the same, but the theology has changed! It remains a day of rest, but the reason has been amplified. Now we have not only a day of rest from creation, but we also have a day of rest in remembrance of divine deliverance.
Now, I simply pose the question – Do we as Christians not have an even better reason to join with God and all his creation for a day of rest?
I find it significant, profoundly so, that God goes to so much trouble to delineate all the people and animals that were to benefit from this sabbath rest. Making arguments about whether a Christian should or should not observe the sabbath is to overlook one huge aspect of the command – God is vitally concerned about how one person treats another person – and even the animal kingdom. And when we use other people to further our own agendas with no regard for their well being we are violating a core aspect of God’s nature. God has put within us the need to have a complete day of rest. You might say it is in our DNA.
You might argue that for the majority of Americans Sunday is a day of rest. I beg to differ with you. When we go out to eat Sunday lunch we force someone to open their restaurant and someone else to cook and someone else to serve. When we go to the grocery store or the convenience store we force the owners to open and the workers to be there. When we play a round of golf or go to a movie or do any one of a dozen other activities we force people to be there and serve us. We may be resting, but they are not. We force them to work on the Christian day of rest. How is that for consistency?
I have been especially mindful of this because as a minister Sunday was the hardest day of the week for me. It was my routine to teach a class and preach two sermons. Add to that the phone calls, the various “crises” that had to be dealt with on Sundays, the various committee meetings or other social events that are invariably planned for Sundays because “everybody is off on Sunday” and by the time I got home for the last time on Sunday night I was utterly fried. There is a very real reason so many children of ministers grow up hating the church. They see how abused their parents are every day of Christian rest. They see the hypocrisy.
So, yes. I am all for a day of sabbath rest, whether it is our Saturday or Sunday. A day of rest for me, my wife, my daughter, the person at the 7 to Eleven, the restaurant waitress and the hot-dog concessionaire at the ball park. A day of rest for everyone. Shut the whole stinking country down for at least 24 hours every week – lock, stock and barrel. It’s scriptural. It’s healthy.
We might even say it is a command of God.
You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. (Exodus 20:7 RSV)
This is commonly understood as the potty-mouth commandment, or rather, the anti-potty-mouth commandment. This commandment has been used for generations to keep pre-adolescent boys’ mouths somewhat antiseptic and to keep sailors at least partially on their best behavior whilst in the company of tender female ears.
Except that now the ladies can out curse even the most blue-tongued sailor, but I digress.
While it is quite appropriate to keep pre-teen boys, rough and tumble sailors and even prim and proper ladies from cussing a blue streak, I am convinced that this commandment does not specifically relate to cursing, except when the LORD’s name is specifically used in a curse or imprecation. We actually use the “potty mouth” interpretation as a dodge. As long as I do not say “God” in front of my “d” words or some other such expletive, I’m okay, so the logic goes.
And almost on a daily basis we take the name of the LORD in vain.
We use the LORD’s name in vain when we vacantly tell someone we will pray for them, knowing full well we have no intention of doing so. We take the name of the LORD in vain when we try until we are unable to lift our arms and then we say, “All we can do now is pray.” We take the name of the LORD in vain when we ask God to “forgive us of our many sins” and then partake of the Lord’s Supper in a vacant and meaningless manner. Oh, yes, we take the name of the LORD in vain often. Most often, ironically, in the comfort of our church pews.
But we also take the name of our LORD in vain when we ascribe actions to Him that are repugnant to His very nature. We say things like, “Well, it was just God’s will that those children were killed in Newtown.” God wants children to die in a terrorist attack? Your god maybe, but not my God.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Don’t be sad, it was God’s will that your little infant die of cancer.” Um excuse me, the line for those entering the smoking pit of hell forms over there on your left.
We take the name of the LORD in vain when we say, “Yes I know I’ve been married for 20 years to the same person, but God wants me to be happy and this person just doesn’t make me happy anymore.” Please, feel free to join the line on your left.
I am very concerned that we get perilously close to taking the name of the LORD in vain when we pray, “God, we want little Susie to get better, but we pray your will to be done, and if it is your will that little Susie die, please take her peacefully.” Just exactly what do we think the “will of the LORD” involves? To listen carefully to some of our prayers you would think that God’s will involves making children and old people die in some of the most dehumanizing and painful diseases imaginable.
LORD, please save us from our own religion.
The Israelites became so fearful about breaking this commandment that they ultimately refused to even pronounce His name, the four letters that we now refer to as the “Tetragrammaton.” In English those letters would be YHWH, but we do no know their exact pronunciation in Hebrew. We assume it would be something like “Yahweh,” which has come down to our English translations as “Jehovah,” but once again, that is just a conjecture.
But taking the LORD’s name in vain has nothing to do with mispronouncing His name. Taking the LORD’s name in vain means to misuse it, to use it cheaply, to use it for our own benefit, to use it as a shield when we put ourselves in a defenseless position. To take the LORD’s name in vain means to demean the highest and most Holy name that exists.
When Isaiah came into the presence of the Holy One, he could not find a hole big enough to climb into. We should be just as fearful when we invite the presence of the LORD by invoking His name. When we use the name of the LORD, we enter into his presence.
The Preacher had this divine advice, “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2 RSV)
Better yet, do not take the name of the LORD in vain. When you speak His name, remember – He hears every word you say. Make sure you mean your words, and especially make sure the words you speak in His name are in harmony with His perfect nature.
Our gender-neutral older sibling in the ethereal realm -
How, like, totally common is your personal identification.
May your egalitarian and democratic socio-political relationship utopia be realized;
May your totally non-authoritarian suggestions be accepted;
On this environmentally protected sphere as well as your inter-planetary dwelling.
Give us, like, everything we totally want, as well as the obvious things we need.
And forgive all those self-righteous bigots who are constantly making it sound like we need being forgiven.
Don’t let us get too close to the homophobes, male chauvinists and other haters;
And, for Thomas Jefferson’s sake, please keep us away from the Pope and anyone else who happens to care about his backward religion.
Nice chattin’ with ya – see ya later.
Today, command number 2:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything 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; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generations of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6 RSV)
As all the commands have a common thread they must all be read together. But command number two is inextricably linked to command number one, the command to have not other gods before, or beside, God. In my meditation on the first command I listed some, but by no means all, of the possible gods that we set up in opposition to the one, true God.
A graven image may or may not be synonymous with another god. That is to say, a graven image, or an idol, may actually be a false god, or it may be a false representation of the one true God. For continuity sake, in my last post I mentioned that some false gods are power, sex, glory, honor, entertainment, etc. I cannot remember if I mentioned ambition or not, but certainly ambition would be a false god. I believe each of these can be represented with a “graven image” or an idol that represents that god. On the other hand, we may have an image, an idol, that we believe represents the true God, but instead of worshipping the true God, we end up worshipping the idol, which then becomes a false god. In this regard I note that in Exodus 32 the name of the LORD was mentioned in regard to the golden calf that Aaron had created. Also, in 1 Kings 12 when Jeroboam set up the two golden calves in Dan and Bethel he said, “here is your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” connecting the two graven images to the one true God. Thus, creating a graven image certainly violates the second command, but also may violate the first command.
What are some of our graven images today?
A gun is an idol. It is an idol of the false god of power. It can also be an idol of the false god of safety and security. If I trust in the killing power of cold steel and lifeless wood, I am rejecting the power of the life-giving and life protecting God.
The flag can certainly be an idol. It is the image of political power, and also of an ideology. This is why I am growing very uncomfortable with the concept of pledging allegiance to the flag. In a very real sense I believe we are violating the second command, and possible the first as well, when we do so.
Methods of birth control can be considered idols. They are symbols of our unending fascination and slavery to our sexual natures. When anyone, male or female, loudly protests that “you cannot tell me what I can or cannot do with my body” you can be sure they are not very far away from idolatry.
Houses and cabins can be idols. We have an idol in the cool mountains to escape the summer heat. We have an idol in the warm south to escape the winter snow. We have an idol on wheels that we can drive or pull to escape the tedium of the work week. Some of us have all three, in addition to the mundane little mansion that we inhabit daily.
Health equipment are used as idols. They are images that we worship in order to create the perfectly sculpted and healthy body.
Vehicles are used as idols.
Anything that distracts us from our daily routine can be idols: music instruments, cameras, tools for hobbies, books, computers.
How do you know if any of these, or something else in your life, is an idol? Simply follow two well-traveled trails. The most obvious is the trail of money. How much money do you spend on a particular item? The larger the percentage of your annual income the greater the possibility that it is an idol. The second trail would be the trail of attention devoted to that object, especially measured by time devoted to spending with that object and the emotional attachment you have to that object.
Absolutely unwilling to part with your guns? Say hello to your idol. Salute the flag, pledge “allegiance” to the flag, and bow down before the flag as it passes by? Welcome your idol. Spend thousands of dollars annually and countless hours chasing a little white ball around a carefully manicured park? Meet your idol.
God said not to make any graven image, especially that of something involving a creature only he himself created. We have broken ourselves of worshipping calves and birds and cats and snakes. But mark these words well – our lives are full of idols.
The question is, when we stop and spend some time meditating and thinking about Exodus 20:4-6, will we rid ourselves of those idolatrous behaviors? Or will we make excuses for ourselves, and thus end up infuriating a God who very plainly tells us He will not stand for any created thing to replace Him as the center of our lives?
Dear God, as we contemplate the deeper meaning and application of this second command, please reveal to us our graven images. Purge our lives of our idolatrous thoughts. May we truly and wholly focus on you as our one and only true and living God.
Commandment number 1 – “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3, RSV)
Really, how simple can it get? There is one God. Worship Him. Burn, throw away, discard, dismember all the rest.
For the sake of the series, I shall separate the idea of having a false god with that of having a physical image of a false god (idolatry) which is the topic of the next command.
The command here is to have no other gods before the one, true God.
Nothing, either physical nor metaphysical, can be in the place of God. None, nada, zip, zero. No other gods means no other gods.
We worship a pantheon of gods today – each one a testament to the myriad ways in which we violate this command.
We worship power, sex, self-esteem, education, freedom, love, health and safety, entertainment, glory, and honor – and many others. Each has its own little menagerie of idols (graven images) but each is truly a false god.
We fear losing each of these things, but the reality is that it is only when we lose those things that we can receive the one true God. Blessed are those who have absolutely nothing, because they are the only ones who can see that they need God.
How many gods are in my life. Not idols – we will deal with those in due time. But how many gods are in my life. What do I worship? What do I fear losing? What demands my attention? What receives my money? Track those things back and you will find your god.
We violate any and all of the other commands because we don’t get this one right. If we truly understood and obeyed this one, the others would be unnecessary.
God, forgive us of the worship of our false gods. Help us identify them, give us the courage to destroy them. Teach us how to have one, true God.
Just sitting here ruminating on a subject that has been festering for a while. I really do not know who to address this to, so it will just be an open letter – directed at no one in particular and a lot of people in general.
To all those who are fed up with, cannot stand, and are otherwise angry at the church. I think I get your message. I want to say “I think” because to say “I fully understand” would be presumptuous. Because I have not met you personally, you may not fit every description that I mention in what follows. So, let me begin on a foundation of humility. I want to understand where you are coming from, and to a certain degree I think I get you. And, whether you believe me or not, in many areas I agree with you. But still, there is a yawning chasm between the two of us that bothers me…
The overwhelming majority of you are in your third decade of life. Some are much older, some are younger. That tells me that the majority of you simply have not had the opportunity to experience so much of life that longevity teaches. You may have traveled extensively, you may have lived with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. But, you are still young. Youth has its advantages, to be sure. But youth also has its severe limitations. There is a reason that God turned the leadership of the church over to a group of individuals we refer to as elders. Age does a lot of things to our bodies, but it is an incredible teacher for our hearts and minds. So, I am not necessarily criticizing you for your youth, but I am making a point. You have not seen a lot of things and experienced a lot of life simply because you are not old enough to have done so. Hang around a while – you will.
That leaves some of you who are my age and older who still angry at the church but for entirely different reasons. Maybe something I say will speak to you as well, but I fear the issues you have need another letter. Increased chronological age does not necessarily equate to increased maturity. An angry senior citizen is no improvement over an angry toddler.
I want to tell you that we – the older generation that you seem to be so bent on overcoming – have been where you have been and we have done what you are doing. With our grandfathers, or maybe for some of us our fathers, it was the “social gospel.” For many others of us it was that promising panacea called “youth ministry.” Then there was the “bus ministry.” Our pet phrase was “ministry with a social conscience.” Then we were saved by becoming “seeker sensitive.” We were given a healthy dose of “purpose driven.” Now we are told the only thing that can save us to to become “emergent” “incarnational” or “missional.” Next up – “discipling.” We have been transfixed with Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and now Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. It has become so confusing that we need a scorecard to keep up with all the slogans and phrases and personalities. It’s just that we – the old gray head set – need bifocals to read all the small print.
As a member of the “traditional, fundamentalist, backward, Luddite” generation that provides so much of the anger that you are venting, I would like to suggest that you take a moment to analyze why it is that we are so wary of your efforts. After reading volumes of your books, scanning your blogs and watching your You Tube videos, I would gently like to suggest that you criticize without offering the least indication you have attempted to understand what it is you are criticizing. You think that you are criticizing the “established, traditional, fundamentalist church” but who you are actually criticizing are people. Real people. People who have stood where you are standing and who have asked the same questions and who have been through a lot more fights and defeats than you have.
You come across as selfish, arrogant, narcissistic, and vain. The very traits, I would suggest, that you criticize us for being.
You preach a tolerance of ideas and practices and yet you ridicule and reject the values and beliefs of the generations who have gone before you.
And, I say again lest I be misunderstood, we can recognize these failings because we pioneered them. You are simply perfecting the faults we instilled within you. But I hasten to add – the fact you have perfected them is no honor.
If we are hesitant to accept your panacea for church renewal I suggest that it is because we are tired of the rhetoric – the empty promises and of dealing with the burned out remains of ours and previous failures. The generation that is older than I am had to deal with me – they heard the same empty promises and they dealt with the same blown-up congregations and they had to pull out the bandages and try to put broken people and lives back together. And my generation blithely walked away from all the carnage and smugly patted ourselves on the back for being such faithful and devoted disciples of the Prince of Peace. Until it happened to us. Now we see the same thing that our forefathers experienced and it gives us a lot of heartbreak. We cannot undo what we did, but we are not much interested in having the same thing happen to us.
Believe me, many of us are looking for something better! We have not lost the idealism of our youth, but the scars and the broken bones have taught us to be a little careful about how we go about instigating change. We may need bifocals to read our old leather-bound Bibles, but we can see through the dim lights of your “new” worship. We may need hearing aids, but we hear nothing of substance in your theologically vapid praise bands. And we can smell a rat through the fog of your incense.
So, please – if you are asking us to give you the courtesy of listening to the next one greatest discovery that will save the church from every evil that befalls it, give us the courtesy of realizing we have heard this song before. We sang it too. We even added a few verses and an endless repeating chorus. Realize that we are not your enemy until you back us into a corner and give us no other option but to either leave or fight back. Yes, there are individuals who are my age and older who have demonized every word you say and every idea you put forward. I do not like them any more than you do. I reject their rhetoric and their hateful attitudes. Every mansion has a few cobwebs in the corners.
I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Lord and His church. I appreciate that you are not only willing, but also very capable of the skill of analysis and problem solving. I would suggest that one skill you are lacking significantly is the skill of the appreciation of history – your history, and your immediate history to be exact. I would also like to suggest that unless you seek to remedy this gap in your resume you will find yourself in an interesting situation in about 20 years or so – give or take a few.
You will be exactly where I am, peering through your new pair of bi-focals, writing an open letter to your children and grandchildren who have discovered the next latest and greatest saving prescription for the church they have discovered is old and stale and irrelevant.
The very church you are in the process of creating.
An old guy who is willing to listen, but justifiably cautious about swallowing every idea just because it is new.
I’m not exactly sure why, but I was inspired this morning with the thought that I have not really worked through the 10 Commandments in any kind of meditative or contemplative manner. I think that I have taught and /or preached through them, but I wanted to take another look at these great words. I hope my thoughts will be beneficial, but as with everything else in this blog, I am speaking primarily to me.
A word about my outline. I plan on taking one “command” per post, and then at the very end I plan on adding an essay about why I believe the 10 Commandments have been neglected in many circles of Christianity (especially so in the Churches of Christ) and what can be done to overcome that omission.
So, here is installment one.
And God spoke these words, saying, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (Exodus 20:1-2 RSV)
Most people think that the ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:3. That is our first mistake.
The ten commandments begin with Exodus 20:1. God is speaking to His people. He identifies Himself. But he does not identify Himself with any esoteric, profound ontological or theological definitions. God identifies Himself simply and profoundly by reference to His action. “I am your God. You know me because I am the One who just delivered you out of your miserable slavery. I am the LORD. I am the I AM. You’ve seen my mighty arm, now listen to what is in my heart.”
When we begin our study of this text in Exodus 20:3 we miss this monumental opening. We miss the main point. It would be like showing up at a wedding after the couple has departed for their honeymoon. Sure, there may be some cake left, and maybe a mint or two – but is that the point of going to a wedding?
We must see that the “10 Commandments” are built exclusively and entirely upon grace. “I am the LORD.” It is the greatest statement of grace in the Bible, repeated hundreds of times. Perhaps we are more comfortable with the “I am the good shepherd” of John’s gospel, but the meaning is the same. God is saying, “Don’t worry. I have your back. In fact, I have your front too. Just look at what I just did for you. Which would you prefer – slavery or freedom?” And that is the entire meaning of v. 2. God double identifies the place where the Israelites just were. “Out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
Remember Egypt – the cruel taskmasters, the hours and hours of back breaking labor only to be beaten and humiliated? Bone crushing servitude with nothing to show for it? Do you remember that? Look at your hands, look at your feet, look at the backs of your neighbors – remember Egypt.
The ten commandments are all about grace. And if we miss that point we might as well not even try to study the actual commands. If we miss the grace concerning the deliverance from slavery all we do is return to the land of Egypt. Exodus 20:3-17 simply becomes another house of bondage if we miss v. 1-2. We become slaves to a legal code, a merciless task master that seeks only to impose it’s power over us. It beats us, brutalizes us, dehumanizes us. Built on the foundation of v. 1-2, however, and the commands become avenues of God’s grace.
It is interesting that in the original Hebrew text, the description for what follows are the “10 Words.” Not commandments, even though they may take the imperative form. No, this section of the inspired text is referred to as the “10 Words.” I believe that in the overall theology of the Bible this point is profound. In the beginning God spoke simple words and the world was created. In the book of Isaiah we read that “my words will not return to me empty.” In the prologue of the gospel of John we read that, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And the decalogue, the great charter of the Israelite nation, is referred to by these Israelites as the “10 Words.”
I like that. The 10 Words of Grace. That just sound so much more inviting, so much more welcome, so much more, well, God-like than the “10 Commandments.”
Mind you – these are still commands, they remain strictures about how a child of God is to think, act and believe. But they are primarily words of grace. And that makes them foundational for any understanding of the work of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the very personification of Grace.
May we hear these words always new, always fresh. Amen.
One thing I want everyone to know about this post – I am attacking myself, not others (at least explicitly). When I refer to others it is to illustrate my failings, not to heap scorn upon derision. This is a confession, not a broadside.
I have been struggling mightily with something over the past few weeks, months, and maybe even years. It has finally bubbled up to the point that I either have to deal with it or it will destroy me. Possibly it has already overcome me, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t know for quite a while.
But, political correctness is killing me. I don’t mean the kind of sloppy journalism or political hatchet jobs that continually assail me. I am talking about my own political correctness and how I seem utterly unable to confront or defeat it. For those of you who follow this blog regularly you might be surprised at that admission. There are times in my writings in which I become (or surrender to) my acerbic self. But, interestingly, that is part of the problem. This is my own little space of the cyber world in which everyone is invited but no one is forced to enter, or stay. If someone does not like what I write they ignore me. Thousands upon thousands assiduously do so on a regular basis. Knowing that, I steam and vent about subjects that are important to me, but obviously not too significant for others.
No, my issue with my own political correctness has to do with those with whom I am forced to deal on a regular, or at least semi-regular basis. I fit the description that was leveled against the apostle Paul (although, to be fair, I believe he disavowed such an attack) that his letters were “weighty and powerful, but his physical appearance is weak, and his public speaking is despicable.” (2 Cor. 10:10) I have visions of being a Great White Shark, and ultimately all I manage to portray is a spineless little jellyfish.
There are times in this world in which a person must stand up – speak up and say what needs to be said. Of course, it should go without saying that such statements need to be made in the spirit of love and correction, not hate and malediction. But still, you cannot read the gospels without seeing a Jesus that was both loving and welcoming as well as direct and, to put it mildly, politically incorrect.
And so I struggle with the balance – and all too often I find myself swallowing my words, backing off of a confrontation that I think needs to be made, weakly surrendering to the pressure of the moment or of the possible consequences should my objection be objected to. I defer – and end up kicking myself for it. Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Jeremiah, Amos, Peter, Paul, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – all had the spine to stand up and confront not only the minions of politics but also the minions of religion and all either paid a huge price or at least had the threat of paying a huge personal price.
I’m tired of my own cowardice, but I’m not sure how to overcome it without being churlish and vindictive.
I’ve just had it to my eyebrows with the skinny jeans, t-shirt and goatee wearing crowd lecturing me about how to fix the church when they have already written the church off as being unimportant. I’m sick to my stomach of authors criticizing spiritual leaders who have been loving and serving the church longer than these twenty-somethings have been alive. I recoil when I hear some academically trained yet theologically ignorant sycophant use some word like “missional” or “incarnational” as if by wielding such verbal weaponry they can slay their Quixotic opponent.
I stand mute when I hear a racist or homosexual loathing comment made in a Bible class, and I offer no word of censure when the same racist or homophobe stands a few minutes later to implore God’s blessings over the table of His Son’s memorial feast. I do not confront the obvious and blatant misrepresentation of Scripture that is done in manifest adoration of “the ancient paths.” When someone who leaves his Bible on the church pew so he won’t forget it next Sunday upbraids me because my hours of preparation and reading the accumulated wisdom of centuries of scholarship do not match his preconceived ideas, I say nothing. It might cause a scene. And causing a scene is the last thing a politically correct minister wants to do.
I swallow hard, and walk away. I do so because I think that it is better to maintain peace than to cause a disturbance. The times that I have tried to stand up have not ended well. My blood does flow hot, and all too often I let passion get the best of me. But the opposite has been that I say nothing. “Keep your mouth shut and be politically correct.”
I wish, just once, I could justifiably kick over a few money-changing tables and toss some thieving scoundrels out on their ears.
Sometimes being politically incorrect is exactly what God expects. His house is no less a place of prayer and of healing for the nations today than it was in the last week of Jesus’ life.
Maybe someday I will find the balance between personal disgust and zeal for God’s house. Maybe someday before I die I will manage to find my teeth.
I can always hope.