Yesterday I closed my post with the words of Jesus in Mark 4:40, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (RSV) This morning, through no other intention other than following my daily Bible reading schedule, I read Daniel chapter 3. The chapter focuses on Daniel’s three friends, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the golden statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up. Anyone not bowing down to the statue would be thrown into a fiery furnace. Anyone who has attended a Vacation Bible School in their life knows that the three faithful Israelites refuse to obey, and they are called before Nebuchadnezzar to hear their sentence.
Regardless of how many times I have previously read this story, today I was struck by the forcefulness of their response. I repeat it here in its entirety:
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to give you an answer to this question. If the God we serve exists, then He can rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire, and He can rescue us from the power of you, the king. But even if he does not rescue us, we want you as king to know that we will not serve your gods or worship the gold statue you set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, HCSB)
Because there are three verses, it seems only poetic to make three observations about this text.
One, the three men don’t need to give a response to the king. Their lives have already told the king the answer to his question (read from the beginning of the chapter to get Nebuchadnezzar’s question). In today’s world we are all terrified that we will not have the right answer if someone asks us a tough question. This text lets me know that if it depends on my answer I have already lost the debate. If a non-Christian cannot see my faith, no amount of verbalizing my faith will accomplish anything. What an amazing thought. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Two, the three men begin with what might be considered an ominous statement, “If God exists…” But it is clear from the context that the if is merely rhetorical. They are proclaiming God’s existence by their lives and in their words. They know God exists, and that means two other iron clad truths – God can rescue them from the furnace and from the power of the earthly king. Do not be fooled here. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not quibbling about the existence of God. For them God was as real as was Nebuchadnezzar. It is just that they knew who the real King was, and who was the impostor. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
Three, and the most amazing statement, “But even if he does not rescue us…” I love the way the Holman Christian Standard Bible phrases this response. Few, if any, other translations put the word, even, in the sentence, but I think it needs to be there. The statement is emphatic. The three men are fully trusting in God’s power to deliver, but even if he does not they will still refuse to offer worship to a false god. “Why are you afraid, have you no faith?”
This story is just so terrifying for Christians today. We have become so used to bending over, to capitulating, to kissing the feet of false gods, to compromising with the enemy, that when we are confronted with genuine acts of faith we want to turn and run. We want to excuse ourselves. We want to minimize the story that is convicting us. We trivialize it. We turn it into a warm and fuzzy vacation Bible school story that we can quickly tell so that we can get to the punch and cookies.
Those who are opposed to God demand that we redefine the word “family” to mean any group of people that live under one roof, whether or not they are related by blood or marriage. Those who are opposed to God demand that we accept any form of sexual release whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, bi-gender sexuality or poly-amorous sexuality. Those who are opposed to God demand that we create and pledge allegiance to humanistic doctrines, whether they be political or religious, and if we do not bow the knee to them we are accused of both treason and atheism. Those who are opposed to God demand we put our faith and trust in guns and our military. Those who are opposed to God demand that we strip any mention of God out of our schools, marketplaces, and halls of justice. Those who are opposed to the one true God demand that we acknowledge every godless religion as being equal to all others, and especially equal to faith in that one true God.
And, like the pitiful, spineless little amoebas that we are, we follow along, weakly hoping that those big, mean, nasty bullies won’t dislike us, or if they do, they will not beat us up too bad.
To be perfectly blunt, and profoundly non politically correct, let me set the record straight:
“Family” means one daddy and one mommy living in a committed marriage and, if blessed to have children, raising them to understand right from wrong and male from female. The act of sexual intercourse is reserved for one male and one female who have committed themselves to each other in the sacred rite of marriage. There is one God to whom we pledge allegiance, and His constitution has no amendments and no flags. The kingdom of our God has no guns and no military. We are called to defeat spiritual enemies with spiritual truths. Those who follow God are not embarrassed to mention His name, regardless of the consequences. And, finally, the Godless religions of Confucius, Buddha, Mohammed, and dozens of others are mere phantoms – they are powerless and are meaningless.
I know any of those statements could get me in a lot of trouble in today’s world. Maybe not a fiery furnace, but certainly into the metaphorical “hot water.” But, I need to learn how to repeat the words of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (why do we not use their Hebrew, and thus people of faith, names?).
My God can and will take care of me if and when the time comes for me to confront my enemies.
But, even if he does not, I will not bow the knee to a false god.
“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?”
(P.S. – I chose the picture of my toothy little friend above because, one day if the Good Lord allows me to, I really want to get face to face with one of these fellas. Just one way in which I can “jump the shark” in a literal way.)
I read just this morning, via an Associated Press story, that both the United States Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee have passed legislation that bars the military leadership in the Pentagon from closing any more military bases/installations (at least in the United States, I am not sure if that includes foreign bases or not.)
Sometimes I, ever the most loquacious one, am struck utterly and profoundly speechless.
Here we have the grand poobahs of boom-boom and bang-bang saying they don’t need all the guns, tanks, planes, ships and runways that we currently are paying to keep shooting and flying and swishing around in the oceans. So, the military brass says, “Hey congress, you guys are short on money, here is a win-win situation – you get to keep more money and we get to off-load some extraneous stuff we no longer need.”
And the Senate and House of Representative knuckle-heads join together in one unified chorus and yell back, “Put your proposal in the garbage disposal.”
All across America countless heads are bowing in thanks and countless “amens” are heard as people realize that their precious army, navy or marine base will stay open, at least for the next few years. And the reason why – well, its the economy, stupid.
You see, even though the country is experiencing billion dollar annual deficits and we are buried in trillions of dollars in debt, we cannot afford to give up our military. We need to create, maintain, and endlessly practice using the implements of death in order to live.
Sometimes hypocrisy is so blatant even the most hardened cynics cannot see it. Thankfully, since apparently cynicism is one of my specialties, I am immune to this particular form of blindness.
Just stop and think about it for a minute. Every Sunday, if not every single day, thousands, if not millions, of prayers are offered up in the name of the Prince of Peace begging the God of all reconciliation to please end all wars and “bring the boys home safely.” We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions about the use of our tax dollars. We pray for love and charity to overwhelm the powers of hate and evil.
And we scream like a bunch of scalded dogs when the military suggests that we no longer need the base down the street. (I was going to use more colorful language, but decided against it.)
Christian brothers and sisters – can we not stop and think about this for a moment? Of what earthly or heavenly good does it do to pray for peace, of what earthly or heavenly good does it do for us to pray that God end all wars if we proudly and stubbornly refuse to turn our swords into plows? And why, among all peoples, are disciples of Christ among the most vociferous defenders of our killing machines?
Can we not, just for a moment, stop and think about the mixed message we are sending?
In the name of everything that is high and holy – can we not see the blatant hypocrisy here? Christians should be the ones begging for guns and tanks and planes and ships to be mothballed. Turn them into museum pieces. Tell our children what it used to be like when men and women had to go to war and actually kill each other. Instead of this ridiculous love affair we have with our modern day “horse and chariot,” should we not be learning to lean upon the outstretched arm and mighty hand of God? (Consider the book of Isaiah if you need Biblical evidence.)
We just observed the 69th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of the beaches of Normandy. I do not think the men who died on those beaches, nor the men who survived, were fighting so that their children, their grand-children, and their great-grandchildren would be caught up in an endless cycle of war-truce-war. I believe they fought so that their descendants would never have to fight again. In my most benevolent spirit I believe every war veteran comes home saying the same thing, “May God grant us the wisdom to never go to war again.” Maybe I am wrong. Maybe scarred war veterans actually want their sons and daughters to experience the hell of seeing their buddies die in unfathomable ways.
But, dear Christian brothers and sisters, as long as disciples of Christ are the ones who are most loudly beating the war drums and demanding that the military spend money it does not have on products it no longer needs, there will be no peace. And at some point another generation of young men, and now women, will be sacrificed to the god Mars.
Are we not a smarter people than that? If not smarter, are we not more faithful?
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asked. “Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40)
In my last post I talked about the necessity of a pilot keeping a scan going of all of his/her instruments during flight in instrument meteorological conditions – otherwise known as weather that ducks refuse to fly in. That got me to thinking about another aspect of flying that I think can have a profound theological application.
Except, I just can’t think of one. Or, maybe I can, but not in the precise way I want to express it. So, here is my brilliant analogy, I will leave it to you to come up with an equally brilliant application.
Many people think that flying in a single engine airplane, especially a little airplane with a propeller in front, is the most dangerous thing a person can do, short of jumping out of that airplane with a parachute on. For them the sight of a single engine with a single propeller is just too much, or too little rather, and they refuse to climb in the plane. If they see a plane with two engines, even two reciprocating propeller engines, they figure, “well, if one of those propeller thingies quits turning, at least the other one will get me where I am going.” Well, yes, and no.
If you as speaking of jet engines on large, commercial aircraft, then yes. Rest assured, the FAA mandates that an airplane with two engines be capable of all phases of flight with just one engine operating. (Few jets are manufactured with three or more engines today). That means that even in the event of an engine failure during the take-off roll the plane can still take off, circle around and land with just one engine. Now, if one engine were to fail before a certain point the pilots would certainly abort the take-off. But, still, the plane is designed to fly on one engine.
But with reciprocating (gas-powered) engines the story is quite different. With a reciprocating engine the FAA only mandates that the multi-engine airplane be capable of flying in a “cruise” configuration in the event of an engine failure, and even then very few planes can maintain altitude unless they are very, very lightly loaded. There is a powerful and very little understood reason for this.
(BTW – I never was trained to fly turbo-prop aircraft – airplanes that have jet engines that turn propellers. I am not sure of the dynamics of those aircraft, except to know that they have certain safety features that make them easier to control in the event of an engine failure, but certainly not without the risks of having that inactive propeller out there.)
In a small gas-powered twin-engine aircraft, when both engines are operating at peak efficiency you might say the plane has 100% of its power and lift. Twin engine airplanes can, with few exceptions, fly higher and faster than single engine airplanes. They have the capacity to fly in more inclement weather. There are many advantages to having that second engine and propeller. But when an engine fails the plane loses far more than just 50% of its power. That is what most people think: 2 – 1 = 1, so therefore the plane should still be able to fly just fine, albeit maybe a little slower. Not so!
It is kind of complicated to explain here, but when a small twin-engine plane loses an engine the plane actually loses 80% of its capacity to fly. It loses 50% with the loss of the power of the engine. But it loses another 30% or more with the resulting changes that occur when that engine fails. If the plane is light, and other conditions are favorable, the plane can maintain altitude just fine. Load it up, fly it high, throw in some other nasty variables and the plane will come down – slowly perhaps, but it will not be able to stay in the air.
There is a saying among freight dogs (small twin-engine airplane pilots whose job it is to ferry freight all over the country) that the purpose of the good engine is to fly you to the scene of the crash. Freight dogs are good with gallows humor.
I flew some of the best maintained, most wonderfully designed and built twin-engine airplanes ever to grace an airport. I would strap one of those planes on any day and fly it in just about any weather that the southwest could dish out (I hated ice, but my trusty steed could still handle an amazing amount of the stuff). If a human could have a love affair with a piece of machinery, then I was in love with those planes. But I still was aware that if I loaded it to its capacity, in the event of an engine failure I was going to end up on the short end of the stick. It was a dangerous love affair, to be sure.
So, I know there is a theological application out there somewhere. maybe there are several applications out there. This is a wonderful parable. I just wish I could come up with a good theological punch line.
To all my twin-engine pilot friends out there – keep the shiny side up and both feet on the pedals. Practice those engine out procedures and single engine approaches. May the number of your successful landings always equal the number of your take-offs.
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.
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.
For preachers – no one ever conquered without rising to a challenge. Challenge your listeners, man, challenge!
For congregations – if your minister is telling you exactly what you want to hear and exactly what you have always heard, it is time to find another preacher. If you are not being challenged, you are not hearing the Word of God!
There is an old saying that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I’m not sure I understand the proverb exactly, but I’ve always understood it to mean something like, “the more you get to know someone who you really admire the more you find out that they are human too, and so sooner or later you end up thinking of them less than you originally thought of them.” I find this to be true in romance particularly. When you first meet a person who sparks a romantic thought in your mind that person can do no wrong. They are beautiful (or handsome), charming, witty, kind, generous – a virtual match made in heaven. But, the more you spend time with them the more you find that they are, well, human. That is why marriages built only on romance crash so spectacularly. Love, on the other hand, is able to overlook the wrinkles and the blemishes and the cantankerous personality traits. It takes some time and a lot of effort, but that is why marriages that last and flourish are built on love – with a heaping supply of romance thrown in for sure.
But, this is a blog on theology, not marriage, so where was I? Oh, yes. Poverty of spirit, that is the subject. My point with the above digression into familiarity is to suggest that the more familiar we are with a text the more we tend to overlook it, or minimize it, or to trivialize it. Now, it does not have to be this way, but I find in my own reading that I pay far more attention to an unfamiliar passage than I do a well-known one.
Which, in regard to the Sermon on the Mount, and especially the beatitudes, leads to a host of problems.
Take “poor in spirit” for example. Just what does that mean? When we read the beatitudes how much time do we spend meditating on that one simple little phrase? Jesus says that possession of the Kingdom of Heaven is granted (present tense) to those who have this quality, so it seems to me that we would do well to at least attempt to understand what he is talking about.
It might help us to ask what the reverse of this statement would be. For example, what would Jesus have meant if he had said, “Cursed are those who are rich in spirit.” How might we describe a person who is “rich in spirit?” We might use words like arrogant, boastful, proud, obnoxious: one who is full of spirit is one who cannot or will not accept the presence of someone else. Everything and every situation revolves around them.
But, I believe the phrase “poor in spirit” has even yet a deeper connotation. It is clear that the prophet Isaiah is important to Jesus, especially in the gospel of Matthew. So, when we turn to Isaiah we see a special relationship between God and the “poor.” (See Isa. 41:17, 18; 57:15; 66:1-2. I am indebted to John R.W. Stott’s fine work, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount for these insights). The opposite is illustrated by the Spirit’s letter to the church in Laodicea in Rev. 3:17. They thought they were rich, but they were anything but rich!
When a person is poor, and I don’t just mean “having less than our neighbor,” they have no means of protection, sustenance, self-preservation – nothing. Utter poverty carries with it the idea of utter dependency. Those who are economically poor must depend upon others for everything. When the concept of poverty is applied spiritually, the utter dependency must be the same. The one who is “poor in spirit” recognizes that they have nothing with which to prosper or even survive – they are utterly dependent upon the one who provides for all things, spiritual and physical. That is, they are utterly dependent upon God.
Folks, properly understood, this verse should be terrifying to a culture of do-it-yourselfers and rugged individualists. That’s why I believe most Americans treat this verse with a certain degree of contempt – subconsciously if not blatantly.
Here Jesus is drawing a pretty clear line in the sand. His teachings (we will discover as we follow the gospel story) are full of the “great reversal.” The first will be last, the rich will be poor, the blind see and those with sight are blind. This “great reversal” begins here in 5:3. It is not the rich who are blessed, it is the poor, and it is not physical attainments that mark the richness or the poverty, but the inward condition of the heart. [Significant aside here - some of the most arrogant people alive are also among the most physically poor. Absence of physical wealth does not automatically transfer to poverty of spirit. Likewise, some of the most wealthy individuals have learned this lesson and can be said to be utterly dependent upon God. This second group is perhaps smaller, because the presence of wealth tends to create attitudes of self-sufficiency, but the presence of wealth is not automatically a disqualifier for spiritual poverty.]
It is my opinion that Jesus chose this particular characteristic of discipleship for the first of his “beatitudes” not because it is the most important (although it might be), but rather because of the disorienting nature of the phrase. Yes, all of the other characteristics revolve around and are dependent upon this one. But, certainly from Matthew’s perspective, this one phrase sets the entire sermon and the entire ministry of Jesus in its proper perspective. In a word, this sermon is going to be different – it is going to be radical. Not only that, but the entire life and ministry of Jesus is going to be radical. The Kingdom of God is a new and radical environment, and those who would be a part of it must learn to see reality in a radical way. Perhaps the most radical of all the ideas of this Kingdom is the fact that possession of it depends upon one’s poverty.
You cannot hold the Kingdom in your heart if it is already full.
I feel like a bottle of ketchup, with those slow pouring blues,
But in the race to come up empty, Lord I just don’t want to lose.
So pick me up, take my cap off Lord, turn me upside down,
Take your hand and whack my backside Lord and pour me on the ground.
‘Cause I want to be full of your Spirit, I want to be useful and free,
But I can’t be full of the Spirit, ’til I’m empty of me.
(just a little ditty from a song I learned ages ago as a teenager – I have no idea who to give credit to – but it is certainly not mine!)
Last year I shared with everyone what has become my favorite Bible reading schedule. The post received a fair amount of attention, and so, because this is the time of year in which people make their plans to read from the Bible every day, I thought I would repeat the basic plan, but perhaps shorter this time and maybe more to the point.
The plan calls for the reader to read through the Bible twice in a year. My own personal preference is to read from a formal translation once, and a dynamic translation the second time. This allows me to “hear” the text in slightly different ways. I have found this to be a most enjoyable manner in which to read the Bible.
A word of explanation and perhaps a bit of apologetic. There is a belief that one should only read very small sections of scripture, perhaps only a verse or a paragraph, per day. This verse or this story is then the source of quiet meditation and devotional thought – maybe as the topic for journaling. This is a wonderful way to absorb the message of the Bible. However, it has some serious drawbacks. By atomizing a verse or two per day the reader loses track of the grand narrative of the Bible. The Bible is, at its most basic level, a story. Now, I know there are many different forms of literature within the Bible, but they combine to create a tapestry of incredible complexity and diversity. A reader must never lose sight of this grand narrative. So, while I applaud this particular method of Bible reading, I would caution you not to make it your only method of Bible reading. In fact, if you so desired, you could follow the plan that I will describe and focus in on a single verse or short passage. Bible reading is not either/or. It should be both/and.
So, to follow the schedule I follow and read the Bible through twice in a give year, here is the basic outline:
- Read 5 chapters a day from Monday through Saturday from the Old Testament
- Read 2 chapters a day from Tuesday though Friday from the New Testament
- On Monday and Saturday read one chapter from the New Testament
- Each day read one Psalm
- When you arrive at Psalm 119, read two sections (16 verses) per day
This is the basic plan, and depending on the year, it takes a small amount of tweaking. I use an Excel spreadsheet and divide everything up so that I can follow it on a printed sheet of paper.
You will notice that there is nothing listed for Sundays. I use the “Daily Texts” published by the Moravian Brethren for the reading each Sunday. This reading consists of an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (or a section of a Psalm), a reading from a gospel and a reading from Acts or one of the Epistles.
That is my schedule – you can accept it, adjust it or just plain forget it. By halving it (2 1/2 chapters per day in the O.T., one chapter in the N.T.) you can adjust it to read the Bible through once in a year. Or, you can follow the Moravian Brethren’s reading schedule and read much smaller sections and read the Bible through once every three years. They do follow a sequential reading schedule, so the major flow of the text remains unbroken. That might be the perfect solution for those who would like to spend time in the text, but have limited time or limited attention spans.
The most important thing, to me anyway, is that we need to get back into the text. We need to become a people of the book once again. We cannot do that by saying, “yeah, I really need to read my Bible more often.” We can only do that by READING the Bible.
So, the best Bible reading schedule for you is the one you actually follow.
May God bless your time with his word in 2013!
Today is December 7, 2012, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. As I ponder this event I cannot help but consider the changes that have reshaped America in the past decade. Just for a moment, consider how America responded to the unprecedented attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and how America has responded to the equally unprecedented attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The two narratives could not be any more distinct.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor the President of the United States addressed the joint houses of Congress and requested a declaration of war. Following the attacks on New York and Washington the President of the United States promised retribution, but did not seek, nor did he receive, a declaration of war. In 1941 and following the people of the United States knew they would have to make personal sacrifices on many different levels before the war would end. In the years following 9/11 Americans have not only refused to sacrifice, we have complained bitterly about the expense of fighting our “enemy.” In 1941 we knew exactly who that enemy was. In 2001 and following we only have a vague idea of who the “enemy” is, and too frequently we have befriended our enemy and killed our friends. In the years following World War II America was still largely an agrarian culture, and the work ethic was what drove the exploding economic opportunities. After ridding the world of the threat of National Socialism (the Nazis and the Japanese Imperialists), it was generally assumed that nothing could stop someone who had a dream, a plan, and a bucket full of elbow grease and determination. In the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, those who survived the tragedy and the survivors of those who died lined up at the doors of the government demanding to be paid for their losses. Instead of “asking what they could do for their country” (in President Kennedy’s great phrase), they demanded that their country sacrifice for them. That, in one single vignette, illustrates the profound difference between 1945 and 2001. Our moral fiber has only disintegrated from that point.
In my last post I made the following observation:
This past election was truly an eye opening experience for me. In this election cycle I tried to listen and read what the candidates and the pundits in the media were saying (and writing) from a theological vantage point. In other words, I was trying to hear what was being said within the broad structures of God’s Word and also within the structures of God’s actions in similar situations in times past. What I discovered was truly disconcerting. I am not one who buys into the “Chicken Little” theory of American politics (“the sky is falling, the sky is falling”) but I do sense that over the past 8 years America has past beyond a “tipping point” and I do not believe there is any return (short of a cataclysm). When the eventual results of this move will become obvious I have no way of knowing, but I do believe that day is inevitable.
I would like to expound on that just a moment.
In this past election the citizens of the United States had a stark choice to make. On one level there really was not that much of a difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But, on another level there was a profound difference. President Obama, for all of his oratorical skills and political acumen, knows absolutely nothing about fundamental economic principles. Despite my hesitations about Mitt Romney’s ethics, I at least knew that Romney understood how a company works, and how companies work together in an economic spider-web. Romney understood that in order for businesses to succeed the government was going to have to pull back – at least to some degree. In Obama’s world, the only reason businesses exist is to provide income for the government to increase it’s stranglehold on every facet of American life.
Americans voted overwhelmingly in favor of Obama’s socialist view of government, where the state is to be the overlord and dictator of all decisions involving a person’s life from the cradle to the grave. It wasn’t even really close. Instead of Kennedy’s vision of all Americans pulling on the same rope at the same time to keep the American dream moving forward, we now have each American pulling on a single strand of the rope in the hopes that the government will give him or her just one more perk, one more entitlement, one more “guaranteed freedom.” In a staggering reversal of fortune, we have turned our government “of the people, by the people, for the people” over to the National Socialists.
Think about how America has changed, and how quickly it has changed. My grandparents were among the first generation to enjoy the “fruit” of Social Security. By all accounts, Social Security will not exist by the time my daughter reaches the age of 65, and that is assuming America still stands as a republic in 2071. That is four generations, folks. Our current rate of expanding “entitlements” means that we as a culture will be financially and morally bankrupt in far less time. And, lest you think that I am crying “wolf” when there is no wolf, simply answer this question for me: when, in the long history of human existence, has a populace voluntarily chosen to relinquish privileges and status that a previous generation has enjoyed? Our baby-boomer generation is now entering their retirement years which is placing an increasing burden on those who are working. The number of those who are working is getting smaller. Every “social safety net” that has been voted into existence has only expanded – none have contracted. Every session of congress that net gets bigger and those “saved” by the net demand more and more from those who are providing the services.
At some point the balances tip past equality, and the burdens of the welfare state exceed the ability of the working class to support it. It is my contention that the first clear indication that America is moving headlong into collapse was the overwhelming support President Obama received for his vision of national socialism.
So, since this is a blog concerning all things theological and not necessarily political (although the two can never be separated), what is the disciple of Christ supposed to do?
First, a few things he or she should not do. One, running out and buying an arsenal of guns and a warehouse full of ammunition is not only foolhardy, it is positively unchristian. We will not overcome this evil at the point of a gun. If you trust in Smith and Wesson then it is blatantly obvious to me that you do not trust in Jesus the Messiah.
Next, circulating or signing a petition to secede from the Union is equally foolish. Political stunts such as that not only feed our opponents prejudices against us, they are further proof that we do not trust in the power of God, but that we are relying solely upon our own human wisdom and ideas. God repeatedly communicated to Isaiah that the Israelites were NOT to send to Egypt for military support. It was a good political strategy, and maybe at one point could have been considered a sound military strategy, but it was a pathetic spiritual response to their crisis. Which then leads me to my theological response to our current situation.
Disciples of Christ must return to their faith. I know that sounds like a stupid comment, but it is absolutely true and necessary. For far too long we have been concentrating on impossibly small and meaningless arguments while the soul of America has been radically transformed. God, Jesus, sacrifice, redemption, transformation and Holy living must once again become the focus of our message. If we are to leave a heritage to our children of a free and prosperous country, we are going to have to build a foundation one human soul at a time. We are going to have to preach a message of sin and grace, corruption and salvation and we are going to have to pray for the Holy Spirit to move in a profound and decisive manner once again. We are going to have to return to the fortitude that is illustrated by the disciples in the book of Acts if we hope to make a difference in this world. And that means we are going to have to say unpopular, unpatriotic, and politically incorrect things and risk the consequences.
I said that a day of judgment is coming – and I believe that. But I also believe in God’s grace and God’s forbearance. I believe that he can relent, or he can lessen the fall that justice demands. That is the story of God’s dealing with his faithful in the past. The question for disciples today is whether we believe in that grace, and if we are willing to humble ourselves to approach God to ask for that grace. That is the question the next decade will answer.
Sometimes we as teachers or preachers or even parents begin to doubt the effectiveness of our words. We teach or preach seemingly for hours and yet nothing happens. We are tempted to think that our efforts and our words are in vain. But I want you to stop and think – why are you a teacher or preacher? It is most likely because someone in your past encouraged you to become a teacher or a preacher through their words and their example. And, I’ll bet my dollar against your dime, they had periods of time in which they questioned the effectiveness of their teaching.
Once such teacher in my life was Mike Lewis. He taught the courses on preaching while I was in my undergraduate program at ACU. I remember a lot of things about the semester course I had with Dr. Lewis, but it was a series of chapel speeches that I remember the most. I cannot remember the year or the semester, but Dr. Lewis spoke during chapel for an entire week on Psalm 73. That series of lessons has always been special to me. I cannot read the psalm without thinking of Dr. Lewis and that series of lessons. Yes, our words can have a profound impact, even years after we speak them. Which, as an aside, is yet another reason why we should be so careful in how we use them.
Psalm 73 is a story of one man’s journey into and out of doubt. He begins with where he wants to be, moves through what reality seemingly teaches him, recognizes his own false conclusions in the matter, and following an epiphany in which everything suddenly becomes clear, moves through to proclaiming God’s glory. Thus he ends where he started, but at the end of the psalm the confession is real, whereas in the beginning there is just the slightest tinge of hesitancy (does “surely” end with an exclamation point or a question mark?).
What I find to be so powerful in the text is that the psalmist receives his epiphany while in the act of worship in the house of God. In the psalm up to this point all we have is the most bitter of questions and statements pointing to the futility of faith and a good many reasons why worship would be the last thing the psalmist would be doing. Yet, in v. 17 that is exactly where we find him, resolutely worshipping the God he doubts, doing the things that his neighbors would think he was a hypocrite for doing if they knew what he was thinking. The man in psalm 73 defeated his doubts by doing the very thing he doubted – by expressing his worship to God.
I have been through enough tough times to know that there is no “silver bullet” that slays every demon or destroys every doubt. But I cannot help but wonder if the reason so many people leave the church is because they quit practicing that which their faith calls them to practice. If you can only improve your golf game on the golf course, if you can only learn to be a surgeon in an anatomy lab, if you can only perfect your artistic skill by hours and hours of practicing on your instrument, doesn’t it make the slightest little bit of sense that the only place one can strengthen their faith in in a place of worship doing what centuries of faithful (and doubting) Christians have done? In other words, does it not make sense that practicing belief would serve to strengthen that belief?
I am not saying that “in church” is the only place one can come to faith, nor to strengthen it. But on the other hand the message of this text is that it was in the presence of God in the sanctuary that the psalmist received the answer to his doubts. There were many reasons for the psalmist not to be in the sanctuary. But he was there, and it was there he received his answer. If we believe that the Bible is God’s word spoken to man, then we need to give this passage serious consideration when it comes to answering one of the most basic questions of a disciple – what do I do if I start to have doubts about God? The man in psalm 73 suggests, rather gently by the way, that the one who feels such doubts should go to the sanctuary. Go worship. Enter into the presence of the eternal one. And let Him help you with those doubts.
For some reason the man in Psalm 73 speaks to me. Maybe it is because of life’s experiences, maybe because of the beautiful way in which the psalm is written, maybe it was Dr. Lewis’ passionate lessons from the text, maybe it was all these reasons plus some others. I have borrowed on Dr. Lewis’ talk many times in my ministry, and it is always with a prayer that what I have to say communicates to others what the psalm communicates to me.