Okay, I plead guilty. The above title is intentionally provocative. But if you stay with me, I think it is appropriate.
The lovely and always insightful Mrs. Smith and I were having a discussion this evening about several issues that are troubling us. In regard to the current state of things in the church, and with a passing reference to F. LaGard Smith’s book “Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony,” (no relation, by the way), my wife had this observation: “You know, in just about any morally conservative church, if a couple started sleeping together outside of marriage and they based their behavior on the fact that they had ‘prayed the lover’s prayer’ and had ‘accepted one another into each other’s hearts,’ the leadership would demand that they stop sleeping with each other or, at the very least, formally declare their relationship through a legal marriage ceremony. Yet, those same churches will accept anyone as a ‘Christian’ just because of some non-biblical prayer or an emotional declaration that has no biblical support.”
Sometimes I wonder who has the better theological mind.
The image was striking to me. We have congregation after congregation after congregation that accepts individuals who claim to have an intimate relationship with Jesus and yet will deny, sometimes adamantly, that a formal rite is necessary to formalize their relationship to Christ. Some will come to that sacred rite only after they have claimed their intimacy with Jesus. Either way the only way to describe their relationship is promiscuous. They are spiritual fornicators. To borrow an earthy but descriptive phrase, they want the milk but they do not want to pay for the cow.
Throughout the pages of the New Testament the sacred rite of baptism is described in many ways: a death, burial and resurrection, an adoption, a physical union. The image of a wedding ceremony is equally powerful. Especially in the current debate over homosexual marriage and the importance of marriage in general, it is insightful to cast the ceremony of baptism as a wedding.
Why is a wedding ceremony important if two young lovers have “prayed the lovers prayer” and “accepted one another into each other’s heart?” Because we know that the power of a ceremony has a binding effect. Yes, it can be broken. But from the very beginning couples have been performing, in whatever culture they live, the sacred rite of a wedding ceremony to make their marriage union both legal and morally acceptable.
Why should we treat our union with our Savior with any less respect and honor? Especially with two worn out phrases that traffic in far more emotion than they do biblical or theological support.
Come to think of it, baptism has far more textual support* than does the formal ceremony of a wedding. So, why is it that many “Christians” will get so upset if a young couple is having sex outside of a marriage contract, and yet will gleefully accept the so-called profession of a “sinner’s prayer” or “accepting Jesus into my heart?”
And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:21).
*Baptism is mentioned in virtually every book of the New Testament. If the word itself is not mentioned, then the rite is certainly referenced. For documentation, please consult G.R. Beasley-Murray’s book, Baptism in the New Testament.
Before I begin, this is the first of two posts along a very wide ranging subject.
The big societal news this week was the decision by the Boy Scouts of America to allow openly homosexual boys to join, or remain, in their scout troops. I have written several blog posts concerning the intersection of culture and religion (and the fog that modern Christians must fly through in order to make Christian decisions) and so this is not a topic that I energetically seek, but it is also not one that I shy away from. It is part and parcel of being a leader in a group that seeks to be a discipling group for Jesus Christ.
I have a couple of reactions about this decision, reactions that may be surprising to some. First, on one level the decision does not really surprise me, nor does it deeply bother me. The reason for this is quite simple and has nothing to do with why so many other people are upset about this decision. I just do not regard the Boy Scouts of America as being anything related to a Christian organization, and I am somewhat offended when defenders of the BSA push Christianity as the basis for keeping openly homosexual boys out of their group. The BSA is an organization that is antithetical to Christianity in many respects. It is a meritocracy where one earns respect and standing by accomplishing certain tasks and winning certain badges and honors. Disciples of Christ lead by serving others, and there is no such thing in the New Testament as “earning” merit badges or attaining higher levels of power through climbing the next highest step on the ladder of rank. I seriously doubt Jesus would bless the Boy Scouts.
The Boy Scouts were started as, and continue to be, a junior para-military group, complete with various ranks; the doctrine that is drilled into the troop members has little to do with New Testament Christianity. Americans shudder when we read stories of the “Hitler Youth” and how the Nazis were able to indoctrinate an entire generation of young people with the National Socialist propaganda. Well, all you have to do is create a youth organization that promotes a certain belief system, fluff it up with all kinds of badges, medals, patches and awards, cover it with a veneer of religion, nationalism and patriotism, and voila, you can teach those young people anything you want them to believe. Now, membership in the BSA is voluntary whereas the Nazi Youth was mandatory, so the parallel is not exact, but the basic pattern is the same. The marriage of religion with the quasi-militarism of the BSA has always made me squeamish. I have always questioned its validity, and no one has ever been able to show me how joining the Scouts makes a boy a better Christian. A better soldier some day – possibly. A better Christian? I cannot see it.
Finally, and I admit this is a personal issue, but I have never been a witness to a very positive example of Boy Scouts. I grew up in northern New Mexico, and on more than one occasion while my family was up in the woods camping we would be witnesses to a troop of Scouts on a weekend camping trip. No sooner would they pile out of their pickups and vans than they would pull their BSA approved hatchets out of their back packs and start flailing away at any Aspen or pine tree that happened to be in their path. That, and other examples of hooliganism convinced me that I never wanted to be a part of the Scouts, and I have never had any experience that has convinced me that what I witnessed was out of the ordinary. Scouting leaders may claim that the Scouts produce fine upstanding citizens, but my guess is that Scouting had very, very little to do with the production of those citizens. Families and churches…absolutely. Boy Scouts – nah.
(Now, before some Scout decides to rip into me, I realize my experience may be in the minority – your mileage may vary.)
So, please, defenders of the BSA – do not use Christianity as a reason to be upset about this decision. You let that train leave the station a long time ago.
But, there is another aspect of the the decision to allow homosexual males into the BSA that does trouble me. Stay with me here, this will take some time to work through. The BSA has always said that it is a private organization, and as a private organization, it reserves the right to set membership standards they feel are necessary. The homosexual lobby/promoters have viewed the prohibition against admitting homosexual youth to be discrimination. Up to this point the BSA has been consistent in not allowing either youth or adults who profess a homosexual desire to be a part of their membership. As a result of this recent decision, young men who are sexually drawn to other young men must be allowed to be a part of a troop. Here is where things get tricky. The BSA still will not allow an openly homosexual adult to lead a troop. So, intentionally or not, the BSA has set up a dual standard. Young men may be openly homosexual and they are to be welcomed, but openly homosexual adults are not allowed. Therefore, as any freshly minted lawyer can easily point out, the BSA has rejected their earlier claim of a uniform moral standard. The upshot of this is that no judge in the United States is going to rule in favor of the BSA when the next lawsuit is brought against them for discriminating against adult homosexuals. The BSA just shot themselves in the foot with a shotgun, whether they intended to or not.
It is one thing to admit a young man who is struggling with his developing sexual urges. It is another thing entirely to allow an adult who is actively living a homosexual lifestyle to lead and mentor these confused young men. The militant homosexual lobby just won a huge victory, and it was accomplished with the compliance of the group that was supposedly opposed to the practice of homosexuality.
Now, this is what upsets me – what we have just witnessed is the forced capitulation of the majority of BSA members because of the vocal agitation of a few very powerful lobbyists. And my question is, where will it stop?
I am not at all convinced that the BSA should have a question on their application regarding the sexual tendencies of pre-adolescent males, period. But, that having been said, if you do not like the rules of one particular group then go start a group that befits your belief system. Membership in the BSA has always been optional. If a family does not like the prohibition against homosexual behavior (or inclination) then they are free to start an openly gay scouting group. The ability of the militant homosexual agenda to force compliance with their belief system upon private organizations is deeply troubling to me, as it should be to everyone.
I must end this post here, but this leads to my next question: at what point must the church disavow certain departures from its established doctrine as heresy, and what will happen to that church when it is challenged by the evolving norms of the society in which it finds itself?
And the Lord said: Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote; therefore, behold, I will again do marvelous things with this people, wonderful and marvelous; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29:13-14, RSV)
I wish I had a dollar for every book and blog post that has been written describing the decline of the church of Jesus Christ today, or the prescription of the one single magic potion that would reverse this decline. Depending on the theological worldview of the author the church either has to become more modern or it has to go back to a pristine form of some past era. The worship needs to become more vibrant, relevant and “hip” or it needs to become more contemplative and dignified. The church needs to surrender the reigns of leadership to the younger people (whether in actual roles of leadership or at least in terms of the direction of the church) or it needs to “put the young ‘uns in their place” and reject any and every call for modernization. Just about everyone has a silver bullet or at least a silver plated bullet that will bring the church back from the brink of destruction to a full blossom of youth and vitality.
I am struck with the realization that most of these suggestions, while every one might be good intentioned and even healthy in some respect, can be described simply as window dressing. Hiring a younger minister, recruiting a praise time or removing the praise band altogether, removing the pews, creating a prayer labyrinth, lighting candles and incense – all of these external changes will amount to nothing if there is not a substantial change somewhere else. That change has got to be in the heart of the individual, and the collective heart of the congregation, or nothing anyone does is going to amount to anything at all.
I am also struck with the realization that the one voice that most people refuse to allow to be spoken in the church is the voice of the prophet. Hence, I turn to the prophets with increasing interest. I am convinced we cannot hear the voice of the Messiah correctly if we refuse to hear the voices of those who prepared for his arrival. I believe our focus on surface religion and our avoidance of the prophetic message are inextricably related. If we want to restore our church, we must learn to hear the prophets once again. No, that is not a “magic bullet.” But it is a necessary beginning.
Notice in the passage above – Isaiah did not say the people were not honoring God. Oh, they were honoring God all right – dressed in their finery and exuding all kinds of spirituality they worshipped with great pomp and circumstance. But, and this is a common theme throughout all the writing prophets, God would not be mocked with their false worship. He saw straight through their empty and vain ceremony. As Isaiah stated it, the process of worship that had devolved by the time of his writing was simply, “…a commandment of men learned by rote.” How many of our worship services can be described by that one dreadful line?
I have been involved in multiple ministry situations in a relatively broad sampling of congregations and there is one characteristic that defines virtually all of them. (Note: I have not been to every congregation, so if your congregation does not fit this description, simply move on). That characteristic is a lack of commitment. I am not accusing every member of every congregation – some members are amazingly committed. There is, however, a disturbing number of individuals who simply could not be any less interested in the mission of the church.
I have known members who would not miss a softball practice or game to save their life, but who cannot manage to get out of bed early enough on Sunday morning to attend a Bible study. I have known dear sweet little old widow ladies who would not miss their weekly card game if they had double pneumonia, but let them be afflicted with a case of the sniffles and they are nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. I know men who can quote the batting averages of the complete roster of their favorite baseball team who could not find a Scripture if they were handed a Bible with thumb indexes for each book. I have known church leaders who had a chest full of pins from their social club honoring their recruiting prowess who never, ever invited anyone to attend a worship service. I have known salesmen who would drop everything to make a sales call for their business but who were always “booked solid” when it came time to make an appointment to study the Bible with a friend or neighbor. I have known brilliant teachers who were always “too tired” to teach a class. I have known retirees who had plenty of time for the golf course, for the fishing stream, or for the lunch room at the senior center but somehow never had any time to volunteer for a congregational ministry.
Why is it that the auditorium will be full on Sunday morning, but on Monday or Tuesday night when the “rubber is meeting the road” there is only a handful of members show up? And why is it that even though they are so worn out, so tired, and so distracted, that they would not be any other place but the Bible study table, the prison visiting room, the nursing home, the soup kitchen? Is it not because deep inside their heart they have the love of their Lord burning brightly?
Somehow or another the softball diamond, the card table, the bowling alley, the social club, the Senior Center – all of these can make absolute demands of our time and we do not even flinch. But let the Lord’s servant speak the words “total commitment” and watch the fur fly.
How dare you expect me to be totally committed to the church! You are not my master. I have more important things to do.
And so Bible studies go untaught, lonely people go unvisited, critical ministries wither and rot when the willing servants finally get burned out or die. And the members who only know the “fear of the Lord as a commandment learned by rote” wonder why their country is “going to the dogs,” wonder why no one seems to have any moral values anymore, wonder why no one is attending their church anymore, wonder why there is no teacher for their class, wonder why no one will ever come to visit them. And they dream up such wonderful ideas as adding PowerPoint projectors to their auditoriums and building a prayer labyrinth in the weed patch behind the building. And, if they are really radical, they might even recruit a praise team to make their vain worship more relevant.
Sometimes I really have to wonder – Is God through with us yet? When is he going to do something marvelous with this generation? And will we have the spiritual eyes and ears to become aware of it when it happens?
God, revive us again, and please give us eyes to see, and ears to hear when your Spirit starts working in our desperate world.
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.
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.
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.
That has to be the longest title to a blog that I have ever written. I hope the post is not correspondingly as long.
I was really not zoned into the “blogosphere” when Pope Benedict XVI was selected, so I really cannot say that I heard or read much about his selection. But I have been following the election of Pope Francis with some interest. I will have more to say about my thoughts about that in a moment.
I have to say I have truly been disheartened by some of my fellow non-Catholics in their response to this event. Honestly, brothers (and maybe a sister or two), if I was a Roman Catholic and I stumbled across some of your invective disguised as teaching I would not even pay you the common courtesy to give you the time of day if you were to ask. Talk about speaking misrepresentations of opinions in a tone of hatred. Some of the articles have even offended me, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I especially despise those brilliant thinkers who imagine themselves to be profound apologists and recommend to any Roman Catholic who happens to be reading (and there are precious few, I guarantee) that they read the Bible. That is so special. And inflammatory. And so grossly stereotyped. And just so patently wrong.
I spent a year serving in a hospice (an organization designed to ease the suffering of those who are dying). I was able to serve many individuals from an amazing number of spiritual and non-spiritual backgrounds. Being in New Mexico the largest number of patients I served were Roman Catholics. Most, (but certainly not all) were deeply committed, very devoted and had a profound love for the church. Now I realize that I was dealing mostly with the elderly, and that was a generation where members of all religious groups were very committed, devoted, and had a profound love for the church. But what I found among the Catholics that I did not expect was a deep love for and respect for the Bible. I had always been told that Catholics never read the Bible, or only were concerned about what their priest said about the Bible. What I discovered was almost diametrically opposite to that stereotype. When I would approach them and ask what I could do to help them, they always asked for prayer and the majority also asked that I read a passage of Scripture. Some had a favorite text, many just wanted me to read to them – from the Bible and not from a Catholic publication. So, as I hopefully served them, I also received an education, one that I treasure to this day.
The second education I received came in my Doctor of Ministry program. I had the privilege of studying under a Franciscan priest who really opened my eyes concerning the functioning of the Roman Catholic church. As he explained it, the Roman Catholic church is truly a “big tent” concept. There are many communities within the larger framework of the church, each with a special life of its own, and some even eyeing each other with a certain amount of suspicion and envy. That is the ugly side of the church. The good side of that openness is that you do not have some “one size fits all” mentality that afflicts many non-Catholic groups. For example: when I was growing up all I ever heard was that if you were a Christian you had to be an evangelist/preacher/teacher/baptizer. If you did not baptize as many people as you could you might still be allowed to go to heaven, but you would only be allowed in the steerage section – you would never be allowed up to first class. I can’t tell you how many sermons I heard that asked me the question, “will there be any stars in your crown” as if a person baptized under your tutelage would entitle you to another star. I will not go into great detail as to how I loathe that theology.
Which brings me to my thoughts on Pope Francis. When I first heard his background and his chosen name I associated “Francis” with Francis Xavier, one of the men who established the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – of which Pope Francis is a member. But later I was to read that he chose the name Francis in honor of Francis of Assisi. Now, having been raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, I have a special interest in St. Francis of Assisi. (The entire name of Santa Fe in English would be “The city of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi.” I’m sure glad I don’t have to print that on all my legal paperwork!) So, to make things short and sweet, the Roman Catholic church has in Pope Francis a Jesuit (deeply committed to the imitation of Jesus, and generally considered to be the scholarly circle within the Roman Catholic church) and a devoted follower of St. Francis who was the founder of the Order of the Friars Minor – an order devoted to preaching and to the care of the poor and dispossessed.
We have, in other words, the blending of two of the most radically different, although not opposed, circles within Roman Catholicism. This I find to be utterly captivating. Such a blending of viewpoints would be virtually unheard of within the church in which I was raised. I love my heritage, but it did not take me long to realize that within the Churches of Christ you either agreed with me or you were going to hell. And that included every possible minuscule detail. If you used too many cups in the administration of the Lord’s Supper or if you raised your hands during a song – I’m sorry, that’s it. You’re done.
I find that same spirit of demonization and hatred all too common in blog posts regarding the selection of the Roman Pope. And so, as the title of this post argues, it is far better to have people think you are a fool than to write a blog post and to remove all doubt. If you are looking for a few “amens” from the choir section, then go right ahead and spew your venom. If you are looking to invite Roman Catholic readers to consider your thoughts – well, let’s just say they have more constructive blogs to read.
I should be able to leave this disclaimer unsaid, but I will state it just for the record. I am not a Roman Catholic. I do not agree with much of the officially sanctioned dogma of the church. I believe that I am to base my faith on the person of Jesus as revealed in the clear teachings of Scripture, and that the rules and doctrines of men only serve to cloud and pollute those teachings. And so, while I understand where a great many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic church arise, I reject them as being man-made and ultimately contrary to the New Testament. I must add – this applies to my own heritage, and so I must be ever vigilant to guard my own thoughts and ideas against man-made traditions, something that is difficult and painful at times to do.
I have said in other posts that I have been deeply touched by Roman Catholic writers and theologians. If I had been a member of the “unchurched” and I came across a book written by Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton I might have been convinced to become a member of the Roman Catholic church. I do not hold the gross excesses in the history of the church against modern Roman Catholics, any more that I wish to be blamed for the sins of the early settlers of the United States. I would like to judge a people, or a faith, based on their brightest lights, not their dimmest bulbs.
Which, by the way, is exactly why I do not want Roman Catholic readers to judge me by some of the hate filled, ignorant posts written by some of my non-Catholic counterparts.
(Oops – my first copy of this post identified the OFM as the Order of St. Friars Minor. My bad – that is the Order of the Friars Minor, the “Little Brothers” of St. Francis. I hope my slip is not showing too much.)
Hearing of a church (or part of a church) having worship in a bar is nothing particularly new – especially if you follow the writings of the Emergent Church. It has been the practice for some time for those who consider themselves to be a part of the “Emergent Conversation” to apply their “missional” theology and to establish worship communities in any number of venues – disco clubs, coffee houses, and yes, bars and pubs. Such endeavors are considered “edgy,” “missional” and “relevant” in our culture today. As I said, such endeavors have been in practice for quite some time now. What is new is for a fairly conservative church to do so. And so when a congregation of the Churches of Christ decided to establish a “Bar Church” and that decision was reported by the Christian Chronicle, quite a bit of fur flew. For some it was the first they had heard of such a thing. For others it was a “ho, hum” moment and they wondered why it took so long for a Church of Christ to do so publicly.
I responded to the article in the Christian Chronicle, but I felt that the issue demanded a more in-depth response than just a brief comment. So, for better or for worse, here is my understanding of the issues involved, and why I believe such an endeavor is wrong-headed even if it is right-hearted.
To begin with, I understand the thinking behind the “missional” movement, even if that term is so elastic as to be virtually worthless (and it is). I understand that for too many people the church has been an enclave of the pious and the self-righteous and they believe that the “established church” is either dead or dying, and something needs to be done about it. I get the heart. It is the head that I think is utterly wrong here, and when the head and the heart are going in two different direction the end result cannot be pretty.
One of the greatest weaknesses I see in the “Emergent” or the “Missional” church/movement/conversation is a blurring (or abject erasure) of the distinction between the holy and the profane. To set the table we must consider some of the foundational passages of the Israelite People of God:
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.’” (Lev. 19:1, NIV)
You must distinguish between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the decrees the LORD has given them through Moses. (Lev. 10:10 NIV)
Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. (Ezekiel 22:26 NIV)
I will make known my holy name among my people Israel. I will no longer let my holy name be profaned. (Ezekiel 39:7 NIV)
Those quotations should be sufficient, although they are hardly exhaustive. There is a difference between the holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean. Repeatedly and emphatically the Israelites were commanded to observe the difference, and to keep the two separate. It should come as no surprise, then, when Peter wrote in his letter to the disciples dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world:
But just as the one who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15)
Disciples have a hard time with holiness. For one thing, it is hard to maintain any kind of level of separation from the world today, let alone any kind of separation that would fit the description of “holiness.” Second, for generations now the big knock against Christianity has been that “you all are just a bunch of self-righteous, ‘holier than thou’ hypocrites.” So, in order to avoid being called “holier than thou” we run from anything that would separate us from the world.
Except, unless I misunderstand a major, repeated theme throughout Scripture, being separate and apart from the world is exactly what a disciple is called to be.
Returning to the issue of having a “church” or “worship” service in a place where intoxicating beverages are sold for the purpose of dulling senses, if not to the point of absolute drunkenness, then certainly as close to that line as possible. What is the purpose? This is the “heart” issue that I said I get. The intent is to reach people who would not ordinarily attend a “formal” worship service, especially among a group of people who use a special kind of language and dress and act in a way that is completely foreign to the way in which the “unchurched” person lives and speaks.
But what about the “head” issue? What is being communicated when we cease to make any distinction between the holy and the common, between the unclean and the clean?
I find it especially meaningful that in the Leviticus 10:10 passage I quoted above the immediate context relates to drinking intoxicating beverages when the priests were to enter into the Tent of Meeting to preside at worship. I also find it noteworthy that the apostle Paul in his letter extolling the perfection of the Church as the Bride of Christ uses the term “holy” as a bookend to both begin and end his thoughts (Ephesians 1:4, 5:27). Notice as well that in the Ezekiel 22:26 passage the removal of the distinction between the holy and the profane had a direct result of the profaning of the Sabbath. If you don’t know the difference between holy and profane, then you cannot separate yourself from the one in order to worship and praise the other.
Fellow disciples of Christ – we can have the best, the purest of intentions and still be woefully ignorant of both the error and the negative consequences of our actions. In Exodus 32, Aaron proclaimed a “festival to the LORD,” but the people were worshipping a golden calf and “afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (v.5-6) The apostle Paul had this to say about his fellow Jews:
Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge. Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from god and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. (Romans 10:1-3 NIV)
I am all in favor of reaching the multitudes of “unchurched” individuals, and I am fully in sympathy to those who see old and decaying churches as being utterly incapable of taking the initiative of reaching those individuals. But, honestly, moving worship to a bar? There can be no distinction between the “holy and the common, between the clean and the unclean” if the Holy Spirit is confused with 90 proof Tennessee sipping spirits.
As I stated in my comments regarding this right-hearted but wrong-headed endeavor: there are a lot of descriptions which might be used of such an effort. But “biblical, “missional,” “Christian,” or “holy” cannot be among those terms used.
May God give us a heart to reach the lost. But may he bless us with wisdom in our efforts so that the line between the holy and the profane, the clean and the unclean is never breached. God does read the heart. He knows our motivations. But the manner in which we exercise those intentions cannot be so profane that they ultimately defeat the intent of our heart. We must remain pure in motive and in practice!
Those following this series of posts (“A Radical Sermon”) are familiar with the outline proposed by Dr. Glen Stassen. Those just joining in or dropping by need to take a little time and review the preceding material. That way I don’t have to keep repeating myself by repeating myself.
The “traditional teaching” of this section is found in v. 33 – do not break your promises, but keep your oaths to the Lord. To this teaching Jesus adds a somewhat lengthy series of descending practices, or in Dr. Stassen’s term, the “vicious cycle” that occurs when we do not keep our word. Notice that none of these oaths that are discussed in the “vicious cycle” have anything to do with making promises to God. Rather, they all have some aspect of God as a “witness” in an oath made to another human being. Because the name of God was considered too holy to even pronounce, various substitutes were considered appropriate to use, some with greater significance and some with lesser significance. So, instead of swearing by the name of God, one might swear by “heaven” as it was God’s realm, or by earth, or by Jerusalem, or even by one’s own head. Each “oath” required and guaranteed less assurance, thus making the oath even more and more questionable. Jesus’ point here is so simple – if a person cannot trust your word, no amount of piling on oaths will make it any more trustworthy. And, in the “vicious cycle” as discussed by Dr. Stassen, once you break an oath, it takes more and more and more to “re-establish” or “rehabilitate” your credibility. However, the more you have to resort to flowery oaths, the less credibility you have. The reader can truly see the “vicious cycle” in this passage.
The “transforming initiative” occurs in v.37. Just tell the truth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no. There is no need for additional words. If you are trustworthy, those who hear you do not need the additional verbiage. If you are not trustworthy, all your extra words will be so much wasted breath. Your oaths won’t matter.
This section really does not need any further explication (and in Dr. Stassen’s article in JBL this section receives a brief treatment) but one issue does arise and since I have quite a bit of space left, I thought I would at least mention it.
Many people refer to this passage as a prohibition against taking any kind of legal oath. While it would be nice if such statements were not necessary, I do not believe that this section proscribes any state mandated oath of honesty. If it did, we would all be in a heap of big trouble. Just consider how many “oaths” are mandated today – the oath of a political office, the oath of jurors to uphold the law, the oath of peace officers to accurately enforce the law, the (written) oath we make to a lender for a loan or especially for a mortgage. In fact, if a person was to interpret this passage literally and not take any oath of any kind, either written or verbal, I simply do not see how this person could function in our society. Is this what Jesus is really saying?
No, at least not unless you want to place Jesus as one who violated his own law! In Matthew 26:63 the older translations read that the high priest (Caiaphas, if one goes back to v.57) says to Jesus, “I adjure you by the living God.” (RSV) The newer translations help us out a little by placing the term in a more colloquial term, “By the living God I place you under oath…” (HCSB). The point is identical – the high priest places Jesus under a legal oath. He was required to answer, and he did. Unless you want to do some real fancy theological footwork, you either have Jesus breaking his own rule, or you have a situation where Jesus is forbidding frivolous promises and oaths, but not restricting legal “promises” or “assurances” that we will tell the truth or pay our bills.
Our legal courts have made a concession of sorts for those who dislike the term “swear” as in “swear and oath.” In the jury pools that I have been a part of, the “oath” we had to repeat was one of “promising” to judge fairly and by the limits of the law. The “swear” word was removed, but the effect was the same. If we violated our “oath” we could be held accountable by the very law we were promising to uphold.
This is really very simple. Tell the truth. The more tap-dancing you need to do to “prove” that you are telling the truth just demonstrates to people that you cannot be trusted. When you say “yes” mean it, and when you say “no” mean it. Anything else is of the evil one.
By the way – the picture in the right hand corner is there because Uncle Jed had one of the best lines I have ever heard about telling the truth. In one episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” Uncle Jed was called on to testify at a trial of some kind. He was “sworn in” by placing his hand on the Bible and made to swear that he would tell the truth. When asked if he would tell the truth, Uncle Jed said, “I make it a habit to always tell the truth, but now that I’ve put my hand on the good book, I’ll try double hard to tell the truth.”
Y’all come back, y’hear!